The Coyotes Were Back Last Night!

Our Eastern Coyote friends haven’t been around for most of the winter, but we heard their yips yesterday evening just after the sun went down. Their typical pattern is to stay a few days, dine on rabbits, mice, and whatever else they can find, and move on. They usually return a few weeks later.

Last March we had a female den up somewhere on our neighbor’s property. I saw her in the same field every day, hunting for mice in the clumps of dried grass. Must have been lucrative because she was there every morning like clockwork.

Image

I snapped this picture last year of a female looking for mice to take back to her pups.

I’m curious to see if she will use the same den again this year. If she does, maybe I can get just a little closer. I was probably 100 yards away when I took the pictures last year and was amazed that the pictures turned out as good as they did.

We expanded our chicken run last fall in case the coyotes came around and we needed to keep the chickens up. We added plastic around two sides to keep out the wind and snow. They didn’t stay in there much, but it sure came in handy when we got a super cold spell in January and the big snow a week or so ago.
chicken coop

Our chickens are terrified of snow. Maybe because they didn’t have a chance to get used to it before we got hit with over two feet in a 24-hour period!

Today, it was 65 degrees and all the snow is gone. It sure felt good – to dogs, chickens, and humans alike. Spring is less than a month away!

Advertisements

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

Hey, I thought the snowbirds were ground feeders!

The Dark-eyed Juncos (also known as “snowbirds”) that show up as winter sets in throughout most of the eastern United States are known for being primarily ground feeders. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, when foraging, Dark-eyed Juncos hop (rather than walk) on the ground, pecking or scratching at the leaf litter, or flit very low in underbrush gleaning food from twigs and leaves. Typically, they are seen in small flocks underneath bird feeders eating the seeds that fall.

Juncos aren’t particularly adept at clinging to vertical surfaces, so it took me by surprise when I looked out the window and saw two juncos stuck to the side of a tree intent on getting to the suet feeder.

IMG_2022

Hey, you sure about this ?

I’ve seen juncos getting suet when the feeder was hung close to a branch they could perch on, but I’ve never seen them clinging to a tree trunk. I guess when it’s cold and the birds are hungry enough, the proverbial rules go out the window and good old ingenuity kicks in.

I feel like I'm gonna fall...

I feel like I’m gonna fall….

Just hang on like this!

After a few moments of clumsily moving around the trunk, their persistence paid off and they were able to get some suet before a brassy blue jay chased them off.

Birds and other wild creatures have strong survival instincts and those instincts often push them to adapt to changing conditions, as in this case, to deviate from their normal foraging techniques to take advantage of a food source. That’s what “survival of the fittest” is all about.

First snow

A couple of days ago, we had our first snow of the season. The precipitation started as an icy mix, but quickly changed over to snow. Activity at the bird feeders had been high all morning so I knew the storm was coming. Birds have a special middle-ear receptor called the Vitali organ, which can sense even small changes in barometric pressure. By the time snow began falling, dozens of birds had converged on the feeders.

Dozens of birds
female cardinal

A Yellow-bellied sapsucker, a bird I saw quite a bit last year, but not so far this year, showed up at the suet feeder – I guess his natural food sources had been adequate until now, but the snowstorm had pushed him to come to the feeder.
Yellow-bellied sapsucker

The feeding continued heavily throughout the day as multitudes of birds jockeyed for position at the feeders or waited below to gobble up whatever fell to the ground. It was fascinating to watch the pecking order in action as bigger birds dominated smaller birds, males dominated females, and females dominated younger birds.

Still, it was clear that two Northern blue jays were at the top of the pecking order, at least for the time being. They chased off other birds and grabbed chunks of suet and sunflower seeds, eating them on a nearby branch or flying off to cache them.
Northern blue jay

Cardinals are often the last birds I hear at dusk after the other birds have gone up to roost, their lonely chip calls piercing the quiet of the evening. By now, the other birds were gone, but this solitary male stayed until darkness forced him to leave.
Northern cardinal

Moments later, all the birds were gone. Not a sound could be heard and the only movement was the softly falling snow.
IMG_1971

Each moment of the year has its own beauty, a picture which was never before and shall never be seen again.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Winter as seen through the eyes of my fellow bloggers

Sometimes winter can seem gray and dreary, but as the old saying goes, beauty really is in the eyes of the beholder. There is subtle beauty to be seen even in the starkness of winter if we take the time to look closely at the landscape around us. We see it in the splash of red of the cardinal, the sparkle and shimmer of frost on a withered leaf, the play on the light of frost and sunlight, or the exquisite design of a single snowflake.

Some of the most visually stunning photographs of winter scenes I’ve ever seen appeared over the past few weeks in the posts of fellow bloggers – and that’s what inspired me to do this post! I obtained permission from four nature photographers in my little corner of the blogosphere to use their exceptional portraits of winter to showcase the season’s beauty. I hope you enjoy them and they inspire you to get outside and see more of what nature has to offer.

Snö på torkade blommor stor

“The never ending snow”
Take a walk on the wild side

Comforting

“Comfort and Joy”
Life in the Bogs

Frosty tree

“Frosty Tree”
Still Life and Silence

SerenityOfNature
“Serenity of Nature”
Photo Nature Blog

Snowy tree trunks
“The never ending snow”
Take a walk on the wild side

Mr. Cardinal watches as the snow starts to fall.
“Beautiful blizzard”
Continue reading

Complex calls of the chickadees and titmice

Many birds fly south in winter to escape the cold and scarcity of food, but Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice, members of the family Paridae, are year-round residents. In Virginia, after the breeding season ends, chickadees and titmice form loose winter foraging flocks with other species that often include White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, and Brown Creepers. The “follower” species travel with the chickadees and titmice because these two “leader” species are excellent food-finders and alert sentinels that help to create a safer feeding environment for the flock.

Downy Woodpeckers and Black-capped Chickadees often show up at the feeder together

Downy Woodpeckers (left) and other species that forage with Black-capped Chickadees (right) rely on the chickadee’s ability to find food and spot predators.

These parids share a unique call system to communicate with flockmates — a nasal, mechanical chick-a-dee call. According to an article in American Scientist (Sept-Oct 2012), the chick-a-dee call is one of the most complex signaling systems documented in non-human animal species. The calls are used to communicate information on identity and recognition of other flocks, the finding of food, contact with flock members, and predator alarms. Amazingly, subtle variations of the call even communicate information about the size and risk of potential predators. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the more “dee” notes in a chickadee-dee-dee call, the higher the threat level. The call also serves as a rallying call to summon others to mob and harass the predator.

IMG_1930

Tufted titmice (left) use a variation of the chickadee call, a scratchy “tsee-day-day-day”.

The parids are intelligent, adaptive, resourceful, and curious. They are often the first birds at the feeder in the morning and are entertaining to watch as they interact with other birds. Especially in the drab days of winter, the cheery chickadee-dee-dee call is music to our ears.

Morning winter walk

Bill and I went for a walk around the farm a little earlier than usual this morning because the wind is supposed to pick up later today. We could feel heat from the sun on our backs and it felt good.

As soon as we got out a bit into the front field, I turned around and snapped a picture of the snow on top of the mountains behind the house. We didn’t get more than a dusting in the valley. The higher altitudes got more snow because of the colder temps.
Snow on the mountains

The pine trees in the front field that just a few months ago were nearly hidden by the tall grass are now very visible.

Young pine trees

There are a lot of hunters in our area, but we still have plenty of deer as evidenced by all the fresh tracks.
Deer tracks

Most of the Eastern hemlocks in our woods are dead or dying. They are under attack from the woolly adelgid, an aphid-like insect introduced into this country from East Asia that feeds on the sap of the hemlocks. The insect has infested hemlocks on the Blue Ridge Parkway for about 10 years and in Shenandoah National Park since the late 1980s. In these areas as many as 80 percent of the hemlocks have died due to infestation.

Here’s a hemlock on our property (in the very center of the picture) that is just starting to show the effects of infestation. Trees generally die within four to 10 years after infestation.
Infested eastern hemlock

Wingstem covered the fields with their yellow blossoms from late summer well into the fall. Now the dried stalks, reaching six feet into the air, are all that remain.

Wingstem stalks
Time to head back where cutting and splitting firewood is on the agenda and, of course, football playoffs. Callie was not excited about going home because she hadn’t finished checking out all the field mouse and vole hiding places. As usual, she brought up the rear as we headed home.

Callie coming home

An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.
~ Henry David Thoreau