The bluebirds are at it again!

The same pair of Eastern bluebirds that already successfully fledged two broods from the nest box on our porch are going for another try, building their third nest in the porch rafters. The female makes dozens of trips each day, bringing leaves and pine needles, while the male keeps guard over the female and the nest building.

Yesterday I watched a house wren checking out the bluebirds’ latest nest. House wrens are known for destroying the nests of other birds to eliminate the competition for food. Sure enough, while watering the flowers this morning, I saw a pile of pine needles littering the ground below the nest. Undeterred, the female is rebuilding and if the house-wrecking wren doesn’t return, the nest will be completed soon and she will lay eggs.

The male Eastern bluebird keeps an eye out for enemies while the female completes the nest.

Amazingly, Eastern bluebirds can have up to four broods (also called clutches) per year. There are many factors that influence the number of broods each year, including the availability of a mate, location, food supply, diet, health, age, and experience.

Both birds bring food to the nestlings and as the chicks grow older, the more trips required each day to keep them fed. By the time the nestlings are ready to fledge, both parents are busy all day long fetching the high-protein insects that make up their diet. It’s a very demanding and exhausting job!

Sharing the wineberries

With all the rain last spring, wineberry vines grew unchecked in a couple of our garden beds because we didn’t tend them. This year, the vines produced a LOT of berries, so we got the idea to “cultivate” them for even better production next year. We cover them at night to keep the deer from eating them and pick the ripe ones about every three days. We eat what we want and freeze the rest.

Wineberries, also known as wine raspberries, are a delicious and slightly sour red raspberry. They originated from Asia, but are now firmly established in the eastern U.S. We have several patches in the field that get plenty of sun where both wineberries and wild blackberries grow. We used to fight the rabbits, birds, and deer for the ripe wineberries, which we prefer over the blackberries, but now there’s plenty for all!

Deer and rabbit explosion

The severity of our winters has a direct impact on the wildlife population. Last year’s mild winter meant that insects, nuts, berries and other food sources for wildlife were abundant. As a result of the mild temps and the rich food supply, the deer and rabbit numbers on the farm have exploded. Every morning and evening we see lots of rabbits, young and old, grazing in the yard and along the edges of the lane. The deer browse the fields (checking on the ripeness of the blackberries and wineberries, no doubt) before bedding down for the night in the tall grass.

We don’t hunt so regular visitors like this young white-tailed deer are brave enough to come to the salt block behind the house, usually in the cool of the evening. She had a fawn with her, but it remained well hidden in the underbrush.

The dogs love the excitement and it makes for a lively time when they catch the scent of anything furry. The three of them race around the porch barking (except for Noah, who is mute) like we’re under siege from Bigfoot and a few of his relatives. You would think they would get used to the deer visiting, but no, it’s fresh and exciting every time. It’s gonna be a long summer.

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!