About Jo Ann Abell

My husband and I moved to our small farm in southwest Virginia in 2011. We decided to let the fields grow up to create a more diverse habitat for the wildlife that was already living here before we came along. We share our land with three dogs, four hens, and a couple hundred thousand honey bees, and try to live in peace with wildlife as much as we can.

Remembering the monarch butterfly and northern bobwhite

I got to thinking today about how common monarch butterflies were in my neighborhood when I was growing up (many years ago!) in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. Back then, monarchs were as common as tiger swallowtails are today. I would sneak up on these orange and black beauties and gently catch their wings between my thumb and forefinger, and keep them just long enough to admire their exquisite markings and study their body parts before letting them go.

Today, monarch numbers are declining rapidly, largely due to loss of habitat (as our country grows in population) and use of pesticides for agriculture and our zeal to keep our lawns weed-free. When we moved to southwestern Virginia in 2011, I watched dozens flying south in September on their way to their wintering ground in Mexico. Every year since then, I have seen fewer and fewer monarchs. Last year, I saw only three monarchs on the farm all summer and the fall migration was barely noticeable.

Monarch on purple ironweed

Same with the northern bobwhite. There was an abandoned orchard next to our old subdivision that had become overgrown with tall grass and wildflowers where we regularly heard their whistled bob-white calls. They foraged in groups and we would see them scurrying between cover or bursting into flight if they happened to see us. Like the monarchs, bobwhites have been in sharp decline throughout the past half-century due to habitat loss and changes in agriculture. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, bobwhites have declined 85% between 1966 and 2014.

Male northern bobwhite

Bill and I made the decision when we moved to our farm to create more habitat for wildlife. We only mow around the house, and in six years, the fields that were once cow pasture have grown up into shrubs and young trees, creating a diversity of habitat and more cover and food for wildlife.

I guess our 20 acres is a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed to help these declining species. We’re doing what we can, but what I wouldn’t give to see monarchs on the wildflowers or hear the cheery song of the bobwhites once again.

Five-lined skinks

Anytime I am weeding, cultivating, or mulching I frequently come across a five-lined skink, a common lizard in our area. They are also called blue-tailed skinks for the bright blue tail sported by juveniles (shown below). As they grow and age, the pattern becomes less conspicuous; the stripes darken, the body lightens, and the tail turns gray. This skink grows to anywhere from 5 to 8-1/2 inches in length.

Active foragers that feed on crickets, flies, grasshoppers, grubs, beetles, snails, ants and spiders, skinks keep garden pests under control and help to maintain a healthy ecological balance. We frequently find them in our compost pile where they are welcome to anything they can find to eat — a fair exchange for all the garden pests they consume.

Skinks prefer moist, partially-wooded habitat that provides ample cover, as well as open areas to bask in the sun. The female lays eggs between the middle of May and July in a small cavity in leaf litter or beneath a rotting log, stump, board, loose bark, rock, or in an abandoned rodent burrow.

A fascinating fact about skinks (and some other lizards) is their ability to evade predators including snakes, crows, hawks, shrews, moles, opossums, skunks, raccoons and domestic cats by losing all or a portion of their tail when grabbed. Skinks are usually able to escape their predators that are distracted as the wriggling tail continues to twitch.

Offering a diversity of habitat enables us to attract many different kinds of wildlife, and skinks are always welcome!

Tiny things

Some of the most fascinating things in nature are so tiny they could easily be overlooked.

Take pavement ants, for instance. The common name comes from the fact that colonies of pavement ants usually make their homes in the cracks of pavement. Here on the farm, these ants nest in the soil where they dig down and push out the dirt, producing small mounts on the surface characterized by a “dirt crater” at the opening.

The fascinating thing is that these ants can tell when a big storm is coming. To keep the rain runoff from flooding their nests, they build up the walls much higher than normal. I had read this a while back, and checked the mounds after almost a week of rain where we got a whopping total of 6-1/2 inches(!!) Sure enough, all of the ant mounds were built higher.

A 2010 article in the Journal of Neurophysiology reports an almost unbelievable sensitivity in ant antennae that allows them to sense minute changes in temperature and humidity at 0.2 second time intervals. This would certainly assist the ants in detecting looming weather fronts. Humans can ‘smell’ rain, and we can detect gross temperature changes that almost always accompany rain, but to be able to detect humidity and micro-scale temperature changes would give the ants a real advantage in forecasting.

As a naturalist, I need to always remember to slow down so as not to miss the tiny miracles!

Another brood of phoebes leaves the nest

For the fourth year in a row, a pair of Eastern Phoebes nested on our porch and successfully fledged their young. I took this picture of the four nestlings yesterday (only three are visible in this picture), thinking it would be a couple more days before the big event, but they were all gone by the time we got up this morning.

In Virginia, phoebes generally raise two broods per season. Unlike most birds, they frequently return to nest where they were successful in raising their young the previous year.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “the Eastern Phoebe is a loner, rarely coming in contact with other phoebes.” They go on to say even members of a mated pair do not spend much time together; they may roost together early in pair formation, but even during egg laying the female frequently chases the male away from her.” In the case of our pair, however, I did see the male hanging around a lot during the day guarding the nest, and several times bringing food to the nestlings.

It is interesting to me that the phoebes, like bluebirds, wrens, and swallows, seem to give up their fear of humans and nest close to people for the few weeks it takes to raise their young. I see it as a sort of insurance policy to protect their nest. I remember reading somewhere that about a third of all eggs in the wild get eaten by nest robbers before they hatch. So the phoebes are very smart to nest on our porch, where the only predators are black snakes, and the dogs do a pretty good job of keeping them away!



Bluebirds fledged!

I wasn’t feeling well yesterday and spent the afternoon in bed. Looking out the bedroom window, I had a close up view of the bluebird nest box on the porch. For the last couple of weeks the parents had been taking turns all day long bringing moths and other insects to feed their young, but as I watched this day, the activity had stopped.

The parents were intentionally not feeding them so they would be hungry enough to come out of the box. Today was the day they would leave the nest! From a nearby tree, the female kept repeating her call, telling her babies to come out and she would feed them. The male kept flying past the nest box, encouraging them to come out.

As I watched, I saw two nestlings slowly make their way to the edge of the box and stare out at the world around them. It must have been quite scary, but their mother kept calling to encourage them. It appeared at one point as if they were jostling each other, each trying to get the other one to make the first move!

Then suddenly, one of the nestlings flew out of the box and floated gently to the ground below. Seconds later, the other one flew out of the box and landed nearby. Immediately, they began plaintively calling to their parents, begging for food. Mama bluebird flew to them and encouraged them to fly into the woods with her where she would feed them and they would be safe.

I felt so fortunate to watch the young birds summon the courage to leave the nest and venture out into the world, and I was happy for the parents who had done such a great job raising them.


The honey bees are all over the black locust blooms

Years ago, we decided to let our farm fields grow up to create more habitat diversity for wildlife. This process, called succession, is the natural replacement of plant or animal species in an area over time. In the last six years, our fields have been transformed from overgrown pastureland by the growth of shrubs and young trees, dominated by autumn olive, red cedar, tulip poplar, and black locust.

Black locust is native to the Southern Appalachians, and grows best in bright sunlight and prefers dry limestone soil. It spreads (prodigiously) by underground shoots or suckers, which contribute to its weedy character. The flowers, which open in May (in southwest Virginia) for only 7 to 10 days, appear as large, intensely fragrant white clusters. The locust blossoms are at their peak right now, pulling in the honey bees that return time and time again throughout the day to capitalize on this abundant food source.

Black locust trees in bloom next to our bee hives

Our honey bees are taking full advantage of this window of opportunity. The abundance of black locust makes it a major source of nectar for our bees, producing a light-colored honey with a floral, fruity, delicate flavor. Black locust-sourced honey remains liquid and does not crystallize easily due to its high fructose content.

We’re about to finish up the last jar of last year’s honey. Can’t wait until Bill harvests this spring’s honey!

Fox are nothing if not persistent

A red fox has been hanging around the farm since mid-March, which is a long time for a predator that tends to stay on the move, usually roaming a home territory of two to three square miles. It’s been our experience that a fox will stay for a few days, then move on. I suspect the reason she’s still here is that she has young stashed in a den somewhere, which means she has six to eight extra mouths to feed.

Red fox are very common in North America. There are 47 different sub-species of red fox globally, and their color can vary widely, but no matter the color, members of this species always have the signature white tip on their tail. The one we’re seeing now has a lot more gray than the one pictured below (courtesy of the Fish and Wildlife Service). Their bushy tail helps with balance and keeping them warm.


Photo courtesy Ronald Laubenstein, U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

I got a good look at our visitor one day while watching her play with a vole or a mouse in our orchard. She’s a beautiful, healthy-looking specimen. I took a shot at her with a pistol, aiming over her head, to scare her off, but it didn’t scare her enough to keep her away. She is still coming back throughout the day, desperately hoping that the chickens have somehow escaped from their run and she can choose the fattest one to take home to her kits!

She will eventually exhaust the food supply here, and her offspring will be old enough to move on. When that day comes, we can let the chickens out again to free range — at least until the next predator comes along!