Unsung heroes in the fight against Lyme Disease

My first up-close encounter with a possum was one evening years ago when I went into the feed room to get feed for our horses. I was used to seeing these hairy, grayish animals flattened on the road, their lives abruptly and unceremoniously ended while out on a nightly prowl, but I was not expecting to see this 18-inch-long freeloader wedged under the feed bin. A closer look prompted a couple of low hisses from the hapless creature, but it didn’t move—it was probably as surprised to see me as I was to see it! I had unknowingly put out the welcome mat for this visitor when I forgot to close the feed room door that morning. I got my feed and left the door open, hoping it would take its leave the same way.

Photo: Google images

The oft-maligned opossum is actually a fascinating creature that suffers from an image problem. Frequently perceived as a dim-witted, rat-like scavenger whose most impressive trick is mimicking roadkill, this creature has one spectacular virtue that just might transform the aversion of some for this odd, waddling mammal into at least tolerance.

Turns out possums are the unsung heroes in the fight against Lyme Disease. Large numbers of the ticks that carry the Lyme disease bacteria are found on mice, shrews, squirrels, and chipmunks, but not so with the opossum. Researchers at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY found out why. Several opossums were placed in cages and covered with ticks. The researchers waited for the biting ticks to jump off and counted how many escaped the mammal’s voracious appetite. The opossums ended up grooming off and eating over 95 percent of the ticks that landed on them. Experts estimate that a single possum can eat as many as 5,000 ticks in one season!

Typically, possums go about their business so quietly that you won’t even know they’re around. What should you do if you do happen to encounter a opossum? Absolutely nothing! Possums seldom stay in one place for more than a few nights, so fears of them “moving in” are unfounded. Just watch from a distance and enjoy one of nature’s most unusual and beneficial wildlife species.

Update: The Little Guy Fledged!

Well, it happened. I was watering the flowers on the front porch when a bird zoomed out of the phoebe nest and flew into a nearby tree. At first I thought it was the mother phoebe, but when I checked the nest, it was empty! The young phoebe had fledged! I watched him fly from one branch to another, which told me he had no injuries. Mama phoebe was close by, so she will show him the ropes. I didn’t expect it to happen so soon, but I’m happy that the little guy was able to leave the nest and start life on his own. 

Can You ID These Two Birds?

Sometimes, particularly in late spring and early summer, when juvenile birds haven’t yet grown in their adult plumage, it’s tough to identify them. Other times, a new bird shows up that you haven’t seen before and it doesn’t look like anything in the bird field guides. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?

I came across this bird on the side of the gravel road we live on. It’s not a great picture and he’s well camouflaged, so you have to look closely. I thought it might be an Ovenbird, but no. The bird that I think it is is sparrow-sized and likes areas with rushing streams and clear brooks, while its northern counterpart prefers swamps and bogs.

This one really threw me. I became very excited when I first saw it – a new bird to add to my list of birds seen on our farm (65 and counting). I felt sure that the reddish-brown on the bird’s breast would give it away, but no such luck. I was beginning to get frustrated when I figured it out. We have a lot of them on our farm; this one is a juvenile.

Can you identify one or both of these birds?

Update: A Lucky Survivor!

This morning I thought both baby birds had succumbed to the attack of the black snake last night. The smaller of the two was cold to the touch and obviously dead; the larger one, though still warm to the touch, was unresponsive and I presumed, dying.

You can imagine my surprise when a couple hours later I heard a little chirp. At first I thought I was hearing the birds outside, but when I checked, one of the babies was moving. I could see his eyes were open and as I approached, his beak opened wide – he was hungry!

I couldn’t put the nest back on the ledge for fear the baby would fall out, so I placed it and the little bird in a hanging pot of petunias close to the site of the original nest and waited to see what happened. The distraught parents had been hanging around all morning, not knowing what to do. When the baby heard them calling, he began cheeping and no sooner had I walked away than they flew over. They were both very animated, obviously glad to see that one of their chicks had survived.

Here’s a picture of the little guy in the nest this evening. He’s alert and eating.

Baby phoebe in nest

I hope he makes it. Only time will tell if he suffered any internal injuries.

The Birds Outside My Window

During the bird nesting season, our porch rafters are quite a popular place. Last spring, I wrote about the Eastern Phoebes that raised five offspring on our front porch (http://woodandfield.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/safe-haven/).

Phoebes three days before leaving the nest

Phoebes three days before leaving the nest

This spring, the pair returned to build their nest of mud, lichens, and moss on the same ledge where they successfully raised their offspring last year. Likewise, a pair of Eastern Bluebirds returned to raise another generation in a birdhouse on the front porch. Adding to the menagerie, House Wrens are nesting on the back porch. I find it amazing that some birds choose to raise their young so close to all our comings and goings, not to mention the noise from the lawn mower and weed whacker, and dogs racing around barking at the deer, fox, and other critters that occasionally wander through.

Male Eastern Bluebird watching over the nest

Male Eastern Bluebird watching over the nest

The list of nest predators is a long one: hawks, owls, crows, blue jays, weasels, fox, squirrels, snakes, and cats. In the wild, the odds are stacked against the young nestlings. So, weighing the scales, it would seem the lesser of the two evils to endure the closeness of humans. In any event, it ended well for all the little ones last year. All of the offspring survived to leave the nest and start out life on their own.

But, alas, the nestlings can’t be protected from every predator. Last night while we were watching TV, we heard a loud “thump” out on the porch. When we investigated, we saw that a black snake had knocked down the phoebe nest and was in the process of eating one of the babies(!) My husband relocated the snake to the woods while I inspected the nest, which was, amazingly, still largely in tact. Two babies were under the nest and were still alive, so I scooped up the nest and babies and took them into the house for the night.

By this morning, the babies had died, probably from internal injuries suffered from the fall. I know it’s a part of Nature, but loss of any life makes me sad. I take hope in knowing that in this season of renewal, perhaps the phoebes will try again. I miss the pair’s constant “phoebe, phoebe” back-and-forth calling as they busily went about their parenting responsibilities.

When I bought my farm, I did not know what a bargain I had in the bluebirds, daffodils and thrushes; as little did I know what sublime mornings and sunsets I was buying. Ralph Waldo Emerson

Rainbows: A Rare Natural Phenomenon

Rainbows, appearing during rainfall or right after the rain stops, are a beautiful though fairly rare optical and meteorological phenomena. The multicolored arc is caused by reflection of light in water droplets in the Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in a spectrum of light appearing in the sky. Rainbows caused by sunlight always appear in the section of sky directly opposite the sun.

I captured this rainbow in the Eastern sky looking toward the Short Hill Mountains just as the rain was ending and the sun broke through the clouds.

Rainbow

A rainbow does not exist in a particular location in the sky or at a specific distance, but comes from any water droplets viewed from a certain angle relative to the sun’s rays. The rainbow’s apparent position depends on the observer’s location and the position of the sun. All raindrops refract and reflect the sunlight in the same way, but only the light from some raindrops reaches the observer’s eye. This light is what constitutes the rainbow for that observer.

A rainbow spans a continuous spectrum of colors. Any distinct bands perceived are an artifact of human color vision, and no banding of any type is seen in a black-and-white photo of a rainbow, only a smooth gradation of intensity to a maximum, then fading towards the other side. For colors seen by the human eye, the most commonly cited and remembered sequence is Newton’s seven-fold red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. (source: Wikipedia)

Rainbows form a complete circle, but we only see the top part of the rainbow because the Earth’s horizon blocks our view of the lower arc. To see a full circle rainbow, one would have to be able to look down on it with the sun behind you, which is only possible from an aircraft (or skydiving as in the photo below).

Circular rainbow_wikipedia

A circular rainbow observed by a skydiver over Rochelle, Illinois (Wikipedia)

Amazing things happen in Nature, but all too often we take them for granted. If we take the time to look just a little deeper, we will discover fascinating things and events unfolding around us every day.

Karst Landforms and Sinking Creeks

Every time I drive South Buffalo Road near my home, I pass by a completely dry creek bed. The width and depth of the creek bed is evidence that a fairly big creek once ran through here. The deep channel, cut by hundreds of thousands of gallons of water passing through each day, eroded the soil and exposed the rocks left behind.
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Along this same road I also noticed several large, circular depressions, which I learned are sinkholes. The sinkhole pictured below is only about 12 feet deep, but since I became aware that our area is filled with sinkholes, I have seen some much deeper. Sometimes their true depth is not known because the “bottom” is obscured by vines and tree limbs.

sink hole2

This sinkhole, in  the middle of a grassy field, was formed a long time ago because the trees grew out of the hole once the area could no longer be mowed.

I did some research and found out that sink holes and “disappearing creeks” have a connection. The Ridge and Valley Province of the Blue Ridge where we live has a type of topography known as “karst.” Karst terrain is characterized by springs, caves, sinkholes, disappearing streams, and a unique hydrogeology that results in highly productive aquifers.

Karst terrain is largely supported by rocks such as limestone or dolomite that are highly porous and broken down by water. As water from streams or rainfall dissolves the bedrock, fractures occur. Over time, these fractures are enlarged and an underground drainage system begins to develop, allowing more and more water to pass through the system. Eventually, large hollow areas can be carved out underground and these unstable areas become vulnerable to earthquakes, construction, groundwater pumping, hurricanes, or other forces, which can cause cave-ins, or sink holes.

How a karst sinkhole is formed. Illustration by Denise Dahn (www.dahndesign.com/denises-blog/) for an interpretive sign at the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

How a karst sinkhole is formed. Illustration by Denise Dahn (www.dahndesign.com/denises-blog/) for an interpretive sign at the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

This sinkhole in Frederick, MD opened up in 2003. Many sinkholes occur along highways where rainwater runoff is concentrated into storm drains and ditches increasing the rate of sinkhole development (note the sewer drain pipe beneath roadway). Photo by U.S. Geological Survey.

This sinkhole in Frederick, MD opened up in 2003. Many sinkholes occur along highways where rainwater runoff is concentrated into storm drains and ditches increasing the rate of sinkhole development (note the sewer drain pipe beneath roadway). Photo by U.S. Geological Survey.

Streams that begin as runoff from mountain slopes often disappear into the subsurface when the water comes into contact with karst bedrock. These disappearing streams are called “sinking streams.” The water flows underground, emerging as a spring somewhere along the valley floor, sometimes miles away from where it plunged underground.

How water flows through karst bedrock. Illustration by Denise Dahn (www.dahndesign.com/denises-blog/).

How water flows through karst bedrock. Illustration by Denise Dahn (www.dahndesign.com/denises-blog/).

What all this means is that the creek I saw didn’t dry up – it’s what’s called a “sinking stream.” At some point along its course, the creek dropped through a fissure in the underlying rock and now flows underground. Because much of a karst watershed can be hidden underground, it’s hard to track exactly where water comes from and where it goes. I’m fascinated by the karst topography of the Blue Ridge, which means another post on this subject sometime in the future.

Spring is popping out all over

With so much rain, everything is growing at an incredible rate and new wildflowers are popping up every day. Just yesterday, I noticed Ox-Eye Daisies in the fields and Fire Pinks and Goatsbeard along the roadsides. Fleabane, a member of the aster family that tends to grow prodigiously in Virginia, is probably the most common wildflower in bloom now.

Ox-Eye Daisy

Ox-Eye Daisy

Fire Pink

Fire Pink

Goatsbeard (Yellow Salsify)

Goatsbeard (Yellow Salsify)

We’re really trying to get our garden and orchard going this year, sometimes working in the mud because of all the rain. I’ve been busy adding perennials to the rock garden I started last year and found this little salamander hiding under one of the plants. I tried to identify him, but there are just too many salamanders in Virginia. Does anyone have any idea what species this guy might belong to?
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We also have what I believe to be a Little Brown Bat roosting in our porch rafters. I was surprised to learn that while most bats hibernate in large colonies during the winter, they may remain solitary the rest of the year, roosting in trees as well as man-made structures. I hope this one gobbles up lots of insects!
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Each year, the same birds (or their offspring) return to raise another generation and there are nests everywhere. Bluebirds and phoebes have nests in the porch rafters and are busy making dozens of food runs everyday. Crazy wrens will nest anywhere: a pair is raising its young in the log splitter! My next post will probably be an update on the nesting birds.

Spring Jewel: The Eastern Redbud

Spring has officially arrived in central Virginia! Our native Eastern Redbud trees (Cercis Canadensis) have awakened from their winter slumber and are in full bloom. Redbuds reach their flowering peak when most shade trees are just beginning to leaf-out, so this time of year their brilliant sprays of pink jump out at you along the highways and back roads. The flowers almost glow against the lime green shade of new deciduous leaves and the dark green tones of neighboring evergreens.

Redbud trees peeking out from the woods

Redbud trees peeking out from the woods

The Eastern Redbud is native to the Blue Ridge and much of the Eastern U.S. Growing in moist, well-drained soils, frequently along woodland edges, they can reach 20 to 30 feet and six to 10 inches in diameter. In early spring, before the leaves form, bright pink to purple flowers, one-half inch long, appear in clusters along the twigs and small branches.

Eastern Redbud
A couple of weeks later, tiny leaves appear at the tips of the branches, signaling the end of the flower show. The dark green leaves are large and heart-shaped. Once the tree has leafed-out and the flowers have faded, large brown seed pods, two to four inches in length, will form. The seeds inside, which are brown and about a quarter of an inch long, will be mature before the end of summer and can be planted in the fall. Any seed with a hard outer coating like the redbud will need to be scarified (sanded or nicked) so water will reach the seed to cause germination.

Due to their manageable size, redbuds are a popular landscaping tree. As a member of the legume family, redbud roots are able to convert nitrogen from the air into a form plants can use, so this tree can grow in poor soil and can actually improve the soil in which it grows.

I was amazed when I looked at the date of the first picture in this post. It was taken on March 24, 2012, a full three weeks earlier than the second picture taken on April 15, 2013! I knew winter was slow to arrive in Virginia – this confirms just how slow.

What Spring Hath Wrought

After an amazingly long winter, spring has finally arrived in central Virginia, with temps soaring into the 80s. My daughter was down from Maryland with my grandson and the first thing we did was go for a walk around the farm. I hadn’t been out for a couple of days and wanted to see what changes the welcome warmer weather had brought.

One of my favorite trees is Eastern Redbud, a native perennial, and I was happy to see this young one by the road blooming. The buds for which the tree gets it name are a deep pink. The lighter pink blooms appear in early spring before other trees have leafed out, allowing them to steal the show. After flowering, reddish-purple, pea-shaped seedpods form. The seedpods will provide food for doves, grouse, wild turkey, quail, and other birds.

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The banks along the gravel road we live on are covered with another early bloomer, blood root. Sometimes called bloodwort, the flower gets its name from its root sap that bears a remarkable resemblance to blood. Bloodroot prefers to grow in shady, wooded areas where there is little activity.

bloodroot

An Eastern phoebe kept turning up during our walk. This phoebe and his mate have already built their nest, a cup of mud and moss, in the rafters of our front porch. A pair successfully fledged offspring in the rafters last year, so I suspect it’s the same pair. I can’t tell if this is the male or the female because both of the sexes look alike.

Eastern Phoebe

Last fall, we planted a willow tree in a wet area in the front meadow. We had an extremely wet fall and winter, and even though willows love it wet, we feared the tree might not make it. After checking it every day for weeks looking for signs of life, it had sprouted leaves literally overnight.

Willow tree

Walking home, we spotted an area filled with tiny, delicate blue flowers. I haven’t seen this particular wildflower before and I’m hoping someone can identify it.

Little blue flower

I hope it’s not going to be one of those years where we go from winter right into hot weather. I love the transitions into the seasons. Typically, this time of year, the evenings are cool and I like to sit outside and listen to the Spring Peepers calling out from the wetland. To me, hearing them sing their froggy mating song is the sound of spring.

When the groundhog casts his shadow
And the small birds sing
And the pussy willows happen
And the sun shines warm
And when the peepers peep
Then it is Spring
~ Margaret Wise Brown