In Search of Spring

Although our winter here in the Blue Ridge has actually been pretty mild, I find myself longing to see green fields and hillsides once again. With only a few weeks of winter remaining, I set out to look for signs that winter is loosening its grip on the land and giving way to the season of renewal. My last walk was several days ago and I was amazed at how much the landscape had changed.

The growing moss pays no heed to the frigid temps of the water

The growing moss pays no heed to the frigid temps of South Buffalo Creek

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Another type of moss growing up through the leaves

Immature cones forming on terminal ends of Virginia Pine

Immature cones forming on Virginia Pine

Still another kind of moss

Still another kind of moss

The birds are also giving clues that spring is on its way. The Eastern Phoebes can be heard issuing their phoebe, phoebe calls as they check out our porch rafters for the choicest nest sites. I’m also seeing the Eastern Bluebirds once again that had retreated to lower elevations to escape the worst of winter, and a Northern Mockingbird pair is busy chasing intruders out of their favorite tangle of vines.

Although the nights are cold, it’s the breeding season for many animals. Last night, my husband and I were awakened by the shrill cries of a fox in the front yard. The cries, a little higher-pitched than a coyote, went on for about a minute. My first thought was of the chickens, but I knew they were safely locked up in the coop. Possibly, the fox was calling to attract a mate. 

The lengthening of the days is obvious to our hens, who have started laying again, so it’s just a matter of time until winter blows its last gasp. I just need to be patient.

There is a way that Nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story. — Linda Hogan

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The more we learn about crows, the smarter they get!

A  few years back, I wrote an article for Washingtonian magazine about wildlife to be found in urban areas, even a large metropolis like Washington, DC. In it, I made a casual reference to the “smart crow” scavenging for food in a McDonald’s parking lot. I couldn’t believe it when the editor omitted the word “smart” in the published article – maybe he thought readers would get confused, thinking I meant smart like Albert Einstein!  I guess I shouldn’t have assumed that everyone had heard of the intelligence of the corvid family, which includes crows, ravens, rooks, jays, jackdaws, and magpies.

Always watching and learning, crows are very resourceful. They can mimic calls of other birds, make tools, play tricks on each other, recognize and communicate danger to flock mates, and talk to each other in a dialect all their own. Their personality and ingenuity make them a fascinating group to watch. In all animal groups, brain size increases with body weight. The corvid’s brain is larger than other birds relative to its size – more in line with primates – when graphed against its body mass. This undoubtedly figures into what many researchers consider the bird’s intelligence in getting along in the world.

Most of the year, crows travel in tightly-knit family groups where they work cooperatively to find and exploit food sources. Photo by Lisa Rest at musicbirdblog.com.

Most of the year, crows travel in tightly-knit family groups where they work cooperatively to find and exploit food resources. Photo by Lisa Rest at musicbirdblog.com

Generally too cautious to come to feeders, crows will often congregate in large numbers to glean farm fields, but they have also developed some pretty unique ways to get food. My husband and I took a picnic lunch up to the Blue Ridge Parkway one day and while we were eating, we watched two crows dropping walnuts onto the hard road surface to crack them open. Then they would fly down to inspect the shells and clean out the nut meats. I’ve heard that crows will also place hard-to-crack nuts on roads in front of passing vehicles and then retrieve the crushed pieces. Maybe someone else has witnessed this, but I haven’t.

Some crows are known to be tool users in their natural environment. The New Caledonian Crow has been intensively studied recently because of its unique ability to manufacture and use its own tools in the day-to-day search for food. These tools include breaking off twigs and using torn leaves with barbed edges as hook-tools to dislodge insects from holes and crevices.

Crow using a stick as a tool. Photo by sciencemag.com

Crow using a stick as a tool. Photo by sciencemag.com

Scientists from New Zealand’s University of Auckland wanted to find out if New Caledonian Crows could spontaneously make tools from materials not previously encountered in order to get food. Placed in a situation where the bird can reach but not obtain a morsel of food using a straight piece of wire, it will bend one end of the wire into a hook. It then uses the hooked end to reach and obtain the food. The researchers believe that there is cultural evolution going on with the New Caledonian crows; that is, they invent new tools, modify existing tools, and pass these innovations to other individuals in their group.

As a young girl, I watched and listened to the crows communicating with each other. I decided the “crow call” was the perfect way to secretly communicate with one of my tomboy friends. While playing in the abandoned orchard behind our neighborhood, the “caw-caw” let us “talk” in a language no one else could decipher. I felt very clever using our secret crow calls. We were, after all, being sly and trickster-ish, mimicking what we understood to be a very intelligent bird.

If only we’d known back then what would come to light about crow intelligence years later, we’d have reveled in our secret crow calls even more. There’s a lot more going on in the corvid brain than we ever could have imagined.

“The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” ~ Albert Einstein

Morning walk and signs of spring

Even though it looked like a storm was brewing in the distance, Bill and I took advantage of the warmer temps to go for a morning walk.

view of Short Hills

View of our neighbor’s barn further down the valley with the Short Hills in the distance

clouds over mountains

Clouds hanging over Garden Mountain

Walking along the edge of the woods, I was able to get this photo of a male cardinal that watched us curiously from a distance. The beauty of these exquisite birds is even more evident when seen in stark contrast against the bare limbs of the trees on a gray day like today.

Male northern cardinal

With the lengthening days, subtle changes are taking place everywhere. Wearying of winter, I was looking for signs that spring is on its way. The first thing I noticed was the swelling buds on the trees. As the days become warmer, the trees take up water in order to swell the buds and get the leaf-making process underway for the new growing season. The swelling is caused by the pressure of the sap pushing its way to the limb’s extremities.

buds on tree limbs

The buds on the tulip poplars are swelling, and I also noticed that the seed cones have opened and dropped most of their seeds. The viable ones will germinate once the ground warms up enough.

Tulip flowers

On the way back, I saw one of my favorite birds, a White-breasted Nuthatch. This dapper guy didn’t mind pausing his search for insects long enough to pose while I snapped a picture. Despite its wide distribution throughout North America, little is known about the specie’s breeding biology, in part, because they prefer to breed in natural holes in large, old trees, so their nests are often difficult to examine.

white-breasted nuthatch

I came back from the walk feeling encouraged about the signs of spring. All in all, it hasn’t been a bad winter; still, I long for the sounds of birds singing in the morning, the warmth of the sun, and all the wondrous activity of the season of renewal.

“Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart.”
Victor Hugo

The bullies at the feeder will soon be singing a different tune!

This morning I watched a Black-capped Chickadee displace another chickadee at the feeder. Only after the dominant chickadee had gotten its seed and left could the other bird get its turn to eat. Such scenes of dominance and subordination, called the “pecking order,” play out a hundred times each day as the birds jockey for position at the feeders or vie for choice food plots.

Chickadees at the feeder

The dominant birds get to eat first while others wait their turn.

In the dominance hierarchy, each bird in the flock is ranked. The ranking is determined by degree of aggressiveness, so all the birds in the flock are subordinate to the most aggressive bird, while the lowest ranking member is subordinate to all the other members, with the rest falling somewhere in between. Typically, males dominate females and adults dominate juveniles. This ranking comes into play during feeding, mate selection, and claiming a territory, and actually reduces conflict because each bird knows its “place” within the flock. In winter, this means that precious energy is not wasted in fighting.

This chickadee pair is foraging together but the male will dominate at the feeder. Google images.

This chickadee pair is foraging together, but the male dominates her at the feeder. Google Images.

But sometime in early April, the scales will begin to tip in the female’s favor. As hormones kick in and mate selection begins, the rules of the winter flock will no longer apply. Males will pursue and try to impress the females. During courtship, chickadees and many other birds engage in what’s called mate feeding. The male will fly to the female with an insect or seed and the female, crouched with quivering wings like a baby bird, will accept the offering. This act is the equivalent of a “promise” by the male to feed and care for her while she is on the nest caring for their young.

Even the dusting of snow on the ground from last night does not alter the fact that the sun rises a few minutes earlier each day and sets a few minutes later. The lengthening days signal that spring is on its way and in just a few weeks mating season will begin. The male may rule the roost in the winter flock, but come spring, even the pushiest male will be singing a different tune! The female chickadee so rudely ousted by the male at the feeder need only be patient; her day will come.

Living with Nature in the Blue Ridge: 1st Anniversary

It’s hard to believe a whole year has gone by since I started “Wood and Field,” and what an incredible year it’s been! Thanks to the miracle that is the Internet, I’ve made many blogging friends who have shared what’s happening in their woods and fields – as far away as Finland! I remember how excited I was to get my first follower (okay, it was my husband, but you have to start somewhere, right?). Then I got more followers and the comments started to come in, and from then on, I was hooked!

I thought a lot about what I’ve learned over the past year. The first thing that came to mind is that storms in the mountains can come on fast and furious as temperatures fluctuate. I once exclaimed to my husband in exasperation after several weeks of high winds, an ice storm, a tornado, and torrential downpours that transformed the front field into a river and swept away parts of our gravel lane, “How come we don’t ever get any regular weather?”) What I’ve learned is that when you live in the mountains, changes in the weather can be sudden and severe.

a wild South Buffalo Creek during a big storm

a wild South Buffalo Creek during a big storm

The harsh turns in the weather have made me admire the resilience of wildlife all the more. The plants and animals that call the hills and valleys of the Blue Ridge home have evolved to cope with whatever nature throws at them. The lesson for me? I have to adapt, as well. I need to be more like the animals that carry out their routine despite adversity and remember that, eventually, normalcy will return. Of course, we might need to bring in a backhoe when that happens.

I’ve learned to watch the bird activity at the feeders for signs of significant changes in the weather. A special middle-ear receptor called the Vitali organ, can sense changes in barometric pressure. When I see the birds jockeying for position at the feeders and more gathered on the ground and in the trees, I know it’s time to get out the batteries and candles because Mother Nature is on a tear again!

Dozens of birds

Fueling up for a long winter’s night.

Another lesson I’ve learned is that although we share our space with coyotes, bears, and bobcats, we can co-exist in peace. I have to admit the first time I heard the high-pitched “yipping” of coyotes in the woods, a chill went up my spine, mostly because I didn’t know what to expect. We hear them from time to time early in the morning or at dusk, but they cover a wide territory and eventually move on. We seem to have reached an agreement that they leave us alone and we leave them alone.

Coyotes move in and out of our area, but haven't caused any problems. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife

Coyotes move in and out of our area, but haven’t caused any problems. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife

Finally, it’s been six years since we stopped mowing the fields and the regeneration is incredible. What used to be a hay field is now full of native grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and tree saplings. We saw an American Kestrel for the first time this year on the farm, a species that is on the decline in Virginia. The kestrel and other birds of prey benefit directly from the overgrown fields that provide habitat for mice, voles, and other small animals.

I am looking forward to sharing many more vignettes of what’s happening in the natural world as I begin my second year of “Living with Nature in the Blue Ridge.”

Deer tracks

All last summer and fall, we saw a lot of deer on the farm. One doe and her two fawns showed up almost every day. They would bed down in the tall grass at night, forage in the woods and farm fields during the day, and return at dusk. We did have a scare when a family of coyotes came through the area, but our three deer friends were okay (read about it here).

Young deer

doe at salt block
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two fawns

I haven’t seen any deer on the farm since hunting season ended. I’ve seen scat and signs of deer browsing, but nothing that would tell about their numbers. Deer hunting is a big part of the rural culture in Rockbridge County and I saw lots of hunters during deer season. I was a little worried that many of the deer would not be back this year.

We’re always on the lookout for animal tracks on our walks – that would give us an indication of how many deer were around – but the ground has been too hard. Then two nights ago, we got a ton of rain followed by an extraordinarily warm day – perfect conditions to check for deer tracks, and I set out to have a look. The first muddy spot I came to had several prints and as I walked, I was amazed at how many deer tracks I saw. They were literally everywhere!

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Deer tracks

Many of the tracks were found along the same paths we take on our walks around the farm. Seems that the wildlife uses our footpaths, too!
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I came back feeling really good about all the evidence of deer activity. I know that deer numbers have to be controlled because of vehicle collisions and the ecological impact of too many deer, but we love having them around. My husband and I decided when we bought the farm that our homestead would be a place that would welcome wildlife.

Looks like my wish to have the deer back this year has been granted.

“Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson