Opossum Hole Happenings

The opossum hasn’t changed since the days when European explorers captured it and proudly sent it to their kings. We’ve just lost a bit of our wonder.

~T. Edward Nickens

NOTE: I think this has now been corrected to show thumbnails (I hope)

I admit to always having had a soft spot for these unusual mammals, North America’s only marsupial. I, as probably many of you, have encountered them in trash cans, had one in the crawl space of a house, and, unfortunately, one beneath the car I was driving when a wayward opossum ran (who knew they could move fast) out in front of me one night.

But I owe my newfound fascination to the work of our friend, Jerry, who has had trail cameras out on a opossum den for quite some time and has documented the goings on in his Possum Hole Chronicles Facebook posts and in a wonderful YouTube program that was originally presented as a Lunchtime Discovery Series talk with the NC Office of Environmental Education.

Because of Jerry, I now have three trail cameras and have been putting them out on our property since the start of this year. I move them around quite a bit and have been pleased with the variety of creatures they have recorded. A little over a month ago, I put one on a large fallen double-trunk tree that crosses our little creek. The usual Raccoons showed up and one Virginia Opossum, although they all took the trunk without the camera for their path. On my next memory card exchange, I moved the camera to the other trunk and faintly recorded something exciting off in the distance one night – the opossum gathering leaves. I figured this meant a den nearby, so I placed all three cameras around the root ball of the tree which had a couple of holes at its base.

That was the start of my version of a ‘possum’s life – Opossum Hole Happenings (I like Jerry’s title better). So, below is a series of short video clips of what has been happening in the vicinity of this one opossum hole in Chatham County for the past two months.

The fallen tree is a superhighway in this part of our woods. Most nights, the ‘possum does this – comes out of the hole on the left of the tree in the root ball, crawls up and walks across the log for a night of foraging.
This was an unusually late return to the hole since it was after daybreak. Most returns are while it is still dark.
I have lots of footage of at least two different Raccoons traversing the tree.
One night, a Coyote sneaked by the tree, obviously on the prowl.
I had not recorded the Red Fox in quite some time, but it spent a few minutes one night checking out the ‘possum log.
Three deer lounge around the ‘possum tree – I wonder if they are aware of the sleeping opossum nearby…
An opossum rubbing a stick near the den entrance. I assume it is scent marking by rubbing secretions from glands in the head and neck region. If so, this is probably a male. I think I have recorded at least two different opossums at the hole based on slight differences in tail shape.
One thing I was hoping to capture – the opossum carrying leaves into its burrow in its tail. Jerry had filmed them collecting leaves with the front paws, transferring the leaves under the body to the hind feet, which then gather them into a ball in the curved tail for carrying.

There have been many other critters around the ‘possum hole over these past few weeks. I have only one camera on the hole now (the view is that of the first few video clips in this blog). The most common day-time visitor are Gray Squirrels, followed by White-tailed Deer, Eastern Chipmunks, and various birds (especially the feathered equivalent of chipmunks, Carolina Wrens). At night, Raccoons, lots of deer, mice, moths, and a stray cat. I’ll leave this camera up for the next few months and will share anything new and interesting that happens at the ‘possum hole. Thanks, Jerry, for the inspiration.

Blending In

I’ve always preferred moths to butterflies. They aren’t flashy or cocky; they mind their own business and just try to blend in with their surroundings and live their lives.

~Kayla Krantz

Went for a walk in the woods yesterday and as I approached one of our woodland benches, my eye caught something on the large Tulip Poplar trunk next to it….do you see it?

The large Tulip Poplar on one of our trails below the house is hosting something special (click photos to enlarge)
A closer look….now you see it

It is one of my favorite moths, a Tulip-tree Beauty, Epimecis hortaria. It is very common here and a frequent visitor to our windows at night.

Tulip-tree Beauty Moth

Their gray-brown colors, wavy lines, and scalloped wing edges help them blend in perfectly with tree bark, which is where they usually can be found resting during the day. They also have a very flat profile which helps camouflage them. Caterpillars feed on the leaves of several tree species in our woods like Tulip Poplar, Pawpaw, and Sassafras.

Completing the Circle

I’ve always loved butterflies, because they remind us that it’s never too late to transform ourselves.

~Drew Barrymore

Last year I finally had success in photographing a chrysalis of a beautiful spring-time butterfly, the Falcate Orange-tip. I collected four eggs and their host plants and brought them inside to rear because I had no success in locating their thorn-mimic pupa in the wild. I have kept them on the screen porch all year so they would be exposed to cold temperatures and humidity. I saw my first Falcate Orange-tip flying in the yard on Tuesday of this week, so I figured it was time to start observing my pupae. Sure enough, two emerged yesterday and one early this morning. I photographed the freshly emerged adult (a female) right before releasing her.

Below is the entire sequence from an egg from last March, to larva, to chrysalis, to the adult from this morning. The circle is complete…a sure sign of Spring.

Falcate Orange-tip butterflies with male in courtship flight (click photos to enlarge)
Egg (orange-colored structure) on host plant
Late instar larva of Falcate Orange-tip
Prepupa
The thorn-mimic chrysalis on a twig
Just emerged Falcate Orange-tip female on twig above spent chrysalis
She is hardening her wings by pumping fluid from her abdomen through the wing veins
A closer view of the head of a Falcate Orange-tip

Return to Merchants Millpond

Paradise is just a paddle away.

~Author unknown

When I worked as a District Naturalist for the state park system oh-so-many years ago, one of my favorite parks was Merchants Millpond State Park in northeastern North Carolina. It is a true natural gem of our state and remains one of my favorite spots to spend some time in the solitude of a beautiful swamp. The millpond was created in 1811 by damming Bennetts Creek to construct a grist mill, sawmill, and other commercial enterprises that gave rise to the name Merchants Millpond. Today, the park encompasses over 3200 acres of cypress-tupelo swamp and beech-mixed hardwood uplands. Melissa has a workshop on the millpond in a few weeks, so she wanted to do a scouting trip and introduce some of her co-leaders to the place. She decided to take a day off for exploring before her staff arrived, so we packed up the truck and threw our kayaks on top for a mid-week adventure in this perfect springtime weather.

Truck camping with some new accessories on top (click photos to enlarge)

I contacted our friends, Floyd and Signa, that live just outside the park, to see if they wanted to paddle with us on Wednesday. They are some of the best naturalists I know and certainly know the millpond better than anyone (Floyd was a ranger there for many years). They offered to take us up Lassiter Swamp to “the big trees”, a scattered group of Bald Cypress trees that are hundreds of years old and tower above the rest of the swamp forest – heck yeah!

The dominant trees on the millpond – Bald Cypress (left) and Tupelo Gum (right)

The 760-acre millpond is dominated by two tree species – Bald Cypress and Tupelo Gum. Stumps of ancient cypress cut in the 1800’s form islands of vegetation with Swamp Rose, Wax Myrtle and a host of other plant species. Spanish Moss is draped off most of the tree branches and Yellow Cow Lily (Spatterdock) is just starting to poke its leaves out of the water surface.

Spanish Moss adorns many of the trees on the millpond

Paddle to the far end and you enter an entirely different world – Lassiter Swamp. The channel narrows and winds through a maze of gnarled Tupelo Gum that have been transformed into gargoyle-like shapes by Mistletoe (a semi-parasitic plant that causes the gum trees to create odd growths as they forms “scar tissue” in reaction to the Mistletoe’s intrusion). So many trees have been disfigured by the Mistletoe that the entrance to the swamp is known as “the enchanted forest” by locals.

Paddling up Lassiter Swamp with our friends
The Tupelo Gum take on new forms under the influence of Mistletoe

I have always loved Lassiter Swamp for its solitude and abundance of wildlife. And this trip provided both. As we paddled around one bend, Melissa said, There’s a Raccoon in that tree. I looked, but didn’t see it at first. It was curled up inside a giant gnarl on a gum tree. We were all impressed she spotted it.

The Raccoon tree
A closer look reveals the sleepy Raccoon
Swamp cuteness

After a few hours of paddling, we started seeing some of the really big Bald Cypress scattered about the upper end of Lassiter Swamp. One of the big ones I remembered climbing inside years ago (9 people could stand inside the hollow base of the giant) had fallen victim to Hurricane Isabelle and lay covered in moss along the creek bank. But the matriarch of the swamp is still standing. This cypress was aged by the team that designated those well-known cypress along the Black River as the oldest known trees in the Eastern United States (one has been dated to be at least 2,624 years old). This tree is much larger than those on the Black River due to the nutrient-rich waters of this swamp and is estimated to be at least 1000 years old. It is humbling to stand next to one of these giants.

Standing next to an ancient sentinel of the swamp
This Bald Cypress is estimated to be over 1000 years old
Golden light in the swamp

As we paddled back to the launch area, Melissa spotted a large Alligator basking in the late day sun. Floyd told us about the first confirmed Alligator sighting on the millpond back in 1996. Rumors of gators in the park had been around a couple of years, but, in 1996, a fisherman told Floyd he had seen one. In fact, he had caught it while fishing and had it in his boat (he didn’t know what to do with it and had brought it to shore hoping a ranger could help). After unhooking the ~3-foot gator, keeping it in an unused dog pen with a kiddie pool, and contacting wildlife officials, the decision was made to release it back into the millpond. There are now a few Alligators that call the millpond home, including one larger than the ~7-footer we observed.

Alligator sunning on the bank

A highlight of the trip was one that did not occur on the millpond but on the uplands. Our friends shared the location of an Eastern Screech Owl roosting in a hollow tree, something I have been hoping to find for several years now (I have seen them, but only when I didn’t have a camera in hand). The owl did not disappoint. It is a gray phase (they can also be reddish in color) and has a perfect perch in the hollow of a tree. We checked the tree each time we drove in and out of the campground and it has a habit of disappearing down into the hollow and then reappearing so you never know when it will be visible. What a treat!

The screech owl tree
A closer view of a sleepy Eastern Screech Owl

Another wonderful wildlife encounter was the Bald Eagle nest in a tall pine out on the millpond. The eagle is easily seen with binoculars and must be sitting on eggs still as she didn’t move much on either day we paddled.

The nest tree
Bald Eagle on nest (heavy crop of telephoto image)

On my last trip by the nest tree, the male eagle flew in and perched nearby, giving me the side eye from behind a tree trunk. I paddled on not wanting to disturb them.

The male flew in and perched nearby as I was paddling back out of the millpond
Turtles were basking on almost every log on Thursday (note the very long front claws on the male turtle on the left – used during courtship to stroke the necks of females)

Thursday was even warmer and turtles were everywhere on the millpond. Pickerel Frogs and the occasional Southern Leopard Frog were calling as I paddled solo up the pond to spend the day in the swamp (Melissa was with her co-workers planning the workshop). There is something magical about being in a swamp by yourself. The quiet, the sense of isolation, and yet a feeling of being wrapped in the arms of a living forest. You tend to become a part of the swamp and more in tune to your surroundings.

A large Beaver lodge in Lassiter Swamp

I passed the Raccoon tree and found it empty, but there were plenty of birds and signs of animals (otter scat, beaver lodges and cut trees, raccoon tracks in the mud) as I paddled. Finally, I saw a swirl in the water along one side of the creek and then some movement – otter! I stopped paddling and slowly drifted with camera in hand as the four River Otter realized there was something in their creek and swam out to get a better view. They bobbed up and down, snuffing and snorting as they tried to figure me out. I never got all four in the same field of view at once, but it was great spending a few minutes with these aquatic acrobats. They finally had enough of me and headed upstream.

Two River Otter swimming across the creek
Three of the four otter pause to check me out

Two gorgeous male Wood Ducks graced me with their presence as I sat on a beech slope adjacent to the creek eating my lunch. Of course, the camera was in the kayak and as soon as I slowly tried to reach for it, one of the ducks spotted me and the game was over, off they went. On the way out, I paddled along the edge of Lassiter Swamp seeing plenty of Beaver sign and scaring up flocks of Wood Ducks and Ring-necked Ducks, along with a bunch of noisy pairs of Canada Geese.

A Spatterdock root jam swept by the wind into a cove in the upper end of the millpond

My last wildlife highlight of the day was an Anhinga, a symbol of swamps and black waters in the south. I now see them much more frequently than when I first started paddling the swamps of the Coastal Plain some 40 years ago, but it is always a treat.

An Anhinga flies overhead displaying its distinctive silhouette

Merchants Millpond remains one of my favorites places to spend time on the water. It has a rich history, amazing wildlife, beautiful scenery, great facilities and staff, and can provide you with a sense of being one with a wild place like few other places so close to home. And seeing our friends and knowing all they know and do for the park, it reminds me how much I truly appreciate people like Floyd and Signa that have given (and continue to give) so much to help conserve and make one special wild place available to plants, wildlife, and people. That is one of the things that makes North Carolina State Parks so special, the dedicated people that love and protect them.

The sunset on our first day’s paddle

Refuges as refuge

For every day of loneliness we endure, we’ll spend a day in communion with the life around us until the loneliness passes away.

~Richard Louv

If you have read previous posts on this blog, you know that we are lucky to live in a beautiful wooded setting with abundant wildlife from insects to birds. But one of the things I have missed the most during this pandemic has been spending time with other wildlife, things we typically don’t see here at home. Yesterday, Melissa had to work (in one of her first in-person workshops in quite some time) so I decided to hit the road and visit some of my favorite spots – the wildlife refuges of Eastern North Carolina.

First stop, Pocosin Lakes (aka Pungo). I was surprised to see a few Snow Geese still around along with the usual late Tundra Swans. Several ducks (mainly Northern Shovelers) and four Bald Eagles were a good way to start. All were a bit too far off for photos, so I just watched though binoculars. Some roads are still closed due to the very wet weather and there were already 3 carloads of people at “Bear Road”, so I headed over to Lake Mattamuskeet to try my luck there.

I saw a post last week on Facebook about a Great Horned Owl nest out on the lake, and from the photo, I knew exactly which tree it was in – a small Bald Cypress out on the lake that had an old Osprey nest in it. Great Horned Owls don’t build their own nest, but often use broken snags or nests of other large birds. I had to look from the top of the car in order to get a clear view over the tall Phragmites that lines the lake, but you can clearly see the owls in the nest with binoculars or a spotting scope. My 500mm telephoto (plus 1.4x teleconverter) brings it all in a bit closer, but due to the great distance over water, there is a bit of atmospheric interference, which makes a sharp photo difficult. I saw two young plus an adult at one point but have heard there may be three young in the nest.

Great Horned Owls have taken over an old Osprey nest on Lake Mattamuseet (click photos to enlarge)
An adult owl plus two (I think) young can be seen in this photo

Since many of the waterfowl have headed north, I was hoping to see some other critters as I started down Wildlife Drive. A small, dark rabbit greeted me near the entrance and seemed unconcerned as I slowly pulled over across the road. My first thought was this was a Marsh Rabbit, Sylvilagus palustris. One of three species of rabbits found in NC (Eastern Cottontail and Appalachian Cottontail being the others), Marsh Rabbits are usually found in coastal regions near marshes and swamps. They tend to be slightly darker brown in color, have shorter ears, smaller eyes, and, most distinctly, lack the fluffy white underside to the tail that gives the more common and widespread cottontail its name (their tails are brownish underneath). Unfortunately, this little guy never showed me that part of its anatomy, but I’m still pretty sure its a Marsh Rabbit.

A rabbit out in the open along Wildlife Drive
The rabbit with a mouthful

I enjoyed watching it for several minutes and managed a quick video clip of its constant munching.

This is me with a plate of cookies or chips

I always enjoy the short hike along the New Holland Trail with its beautiful cypress swamp setting. The water levels are very high everywhere in our state right now and, for the first time I can remember, the walk to get to the boardwalk was slightly underwater. But that made for beautiful reflections in the swamp.

The boardwalk on the New Holland Trail at Mattamuskeet NWR
Red Maple flowers signaling the arrival of spring
Playing with post=processing settings on a phone photo of the cypress reflections along the boardwalk

The far end of Wildlife Drive was closed due to high water and the back side of the loop around the impoundment had the most water I have ever seen. That meant fewer wading birds although I did spy a couple of egrets squabbling over feeding territory.

A Great Egret flies to chase off another in its territory

It was still fairly early when I finished my lunch, so I decided to head over to the last refuge for the day, Alligator River NWR. As soon as I drove in off Hwy 264, I spotted an otter in a roadside canal. I stopped to watch and it disappeared into the high water in the trees off the canal. It was the first of five River Otter I spotted in my couple of hours on the refuge. I ended up spending some time with one otter as it swam down a long canal. I would drive ahead and park on the opposite side of the road, then get out and use the vehicle as a blind and a support for my camera and snap a few photos as the otter swam by. Once it was down the canal a bit, I got back in and drove another hundred yards or so beyond the otter to watch it pass again. At one spot, there was an opportunity to get closer due to some trees and brush on my side of the canal. I sat and waited for quite some time and suddenly the otter was alongside me. I managed a couple of quick shots as it passed and then it slowed and turned to look back at me. I imagine the otter might not have been thinking the peaceful thoughts I was having, but it quickly continued on its way.

I spent some time with this River Otter traveling a canal at Alligator River NWR
My favorite photo of a day filled with much needed wildlife encounters

The opening quote above is from a wonderful book (Our Wild Calling) by Richard Louv on the value of human – wildlife interactions. It is the last line in part of a closing paragraph on something he says we should try to adopt in our relations with animal life – what he calls the reciprocity principle. Th other parts of that principle are equally worthy of our attention:

For every moment of healing that humans receive from another creature, humans will provide an equal moment of healing for that animal and its kin. For every acre of wild habitat we take, we will preserve or create at least another acre for wildness. For every dollar we spend on classroom technology, we will spend at least another dollar creating chances for children to connect deeply with another animal plant, or person.

Our wildlife refuges go a long way toward meeting the goals of that principle. And I have been lucky to have a small chunk of woodlands to care-take and to have spent a career trying to provide outdoor experiences for a wide range of people. Now I guess I need to figure out how to repay that otter…

Changes

Science has never drummed up quite as effective a tranquilizing agent as a sunny spring day. 

~W. Earl Hall

It’s coming. We can see it and hear it in our woods. The big change is near – the approach of spring in the Piedmont! The first warm days last weekend ushered in a host of other firsts – our first butterfly of the season (a Question Mark), the first Spring Peepers calling, the first sightings of the numerous Green Frogs in our disheveled water gardens, and so much more. This morning I see the long-range forecast calls for a string of sunny days ahead, something that seems like another first for this year, so I anticipate a lot of other noticeable changes in the coming days. Here are a few of the highlights of our woods wanderings last weekend. As in many of our recent walks, all photos were taken with my phone. At the bottom is a list of bird species we saw or heard on Sunday, a very good day for bird activity, especially raptors and woodpeckers.

Melissa spotted this (we think it is a Mud Salamander, Pseudotriton montanus) in our little creek over the weekend, a first sighting for this species on our property. Unfortunately, this is our only pic, as one misstep (mine) caused a flood of muddy water to cascade over it and by the time it cleared, this beauty had vanished. (click photos to enlarge)
The first spider webs of the season magically appeared on Sunday morning as the fog made their presence known throughout our woods – this one a tiny orb web
A Bowl and Doily Spider web in the fog
A sheet web on the forest floor
American Beech leaves continue to hang on and provide a canvas for the fog droplets
A view of our south slope woodlands across the creek and up the hill from the house (this area is much more open than the woods near our house, which is on the hill you see in the background)
Our latest bench on the south slope (one of 4 currently in our patch of woods)
One of the first plants to begin leaf out – Painted Buckeye (Aesculus sylvatica)
Our first snake of the year, a Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi). These small, harmless snakes are common in the leaf litter in our woods and feed primarily on earthworms, slugs, and other small invertebrates.

Birds from our Sunday explorations in our woods:

Turkey Vulture, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Barred Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Eastern Phoebe, American Crow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Winter Wren, Carolina Wren, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Cardinal, and the still usual suspects at our feeders – Evening Grosbeak, Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, American Goldfinch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Pine Warbler, White-breasted Nuthatch, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Dark-eyed Junco

Living in the Wet Woods

Nana always said the rain was nature’s way of adding sparkle to the outdoors.

~Mehmet Murat Ildan

Surely the woods are sparkling now after what seems like weeks of rain. We actually have had some occasional nice weather, but the past few days have been soakers. Our clay soils have added some slickness to our woods walking and the usually intermittent stream below the house has been running at full capacity for several weeks now. Yesterday, there were two small waterfalls providing a wonderful soundscape for a walk in the woods. I have left the “real” camera at home this week and used my iPhone for recording what I see (plus a couple of trail camera images at the end of the post).

The unnamed creek below our house (maybe we will call it Buckeye Bottoms for all the Painted Buckeye that thrive in the creek bottom?) (click photos to enlarge)

Perhaps the raindrops do provide a certain sparkle to the woods when you stop and look closely.

Raindrops on a skeletonized leaf

Rainy days definitely hep me walk more slowly and take notice of (and appreciate) details of our woods.

American Beech leaf still hanging on. This is a characteristic of this wonderful tree (especially the younger ones) – it hangs onto its leaves longer than any other species in our woods and provides a golden brown patchwork to the forest in winter
Beech trees also provide a beautiful canvas for crustose lichens
A single Heartleaf Ginger leaf in a mossy embrace at the base of a tree trunk
A fallen branch reveals the patterned underside of a fungus

I have a dilemma with the trail cameras out now. I love checking them to see what surprises they unveil, but I hesitate to walk our woods too much for fear of disturbing the wildlife I am trying to record. But, the woods provide such a peaceful and fulfilling setting that I’m sure we will find a balance. I set one camera on still photos mode for the first time this week just to see how those images compare to the video. I put it on a small tree facing uphill on our south-facing slope where the deer have obviously been digging through the leaves for acorns (and maybe hickory nuts). Below is one of a series of images the camera provided. There were six deer in this herd and four of them were bucks with 6 or more points!

The trail camera on our south-facing slope captured a herd of deer foraging for acorns

This week I started placing one trail camera on a specific spot of interest in the woods rather than along a main game trail or the creek. I’m hoping to learn how some various small woodland features are utilized. On one walk, we discovered a stump hole that had a smaller well worn hole in it. The camera shows a mouse running in and out after dark. This mouse seems to have a longer tail than most of the other mice I have seen, so I am not sure what species this is. If anyone has ideas, please drop me a note.

A mystery mouse caught by a trail camera as it runs in and out of a stump hole near the house

While we enjoy walking in our rainy woods, I am looking forward to that thing called sunshine returning this weekend. I believe the woods will start to explode with signs of spring over the next week. Stay tuned…

A Week in Winter

If one could take the cover off the ground in the fields and woods in winter, or have some magic ointment put upon his eyes that would enable him to see through opaque substances, how many curious and interesting forms of life he would behold in the ground beneath his feet as he took his winter walk.

~John Burroughs

I spent a lot of time outside this past week enjoying our woods. The trail cameras definitely help me spend more time exploring, walking slowly, or simply sitting and watching as I try to find new places for them or go every couple of days to open the surprise gift that is the record caught on the memory card. The week started sunny and mild (you remember that thing called sunshine, right?) and ended wet and cold. On those bright cloudless days, I spent some time observing the grosbeak frenzy at the feeders and tried to capture some more moments of birds in flight. I came close to getting the shot I had hoped for, the dueling grosbeaks in mid-air, but focus was a tad off. Here is a sampling…

A pair of male Evening Grosbeaks discussing who should or should not be on the feeder (click photos to enlarge)
A male Evening Grosbeak approaching the feeder in great light.

Melissa participated in a museum live event yesterday with cameras on the bird feeders to make observations for the Great Backyard Bird Count. I spent some time watching the behaviors and tried to estimate the time it takes for a grosbeak to eat one seed. After many trials, it averaged between 4 and 5 seconds for an Evening Grosbeak to pick up, open, swallow the kernel, and discard the shell of a single sunflower seed. No wonder our bird seed budget has tripled since they showed up.

Waiting for an opening, this male Purple Finch bides his time on a nearby branch
A Pine Siskin heading for the seed while the grosbeaks are gone

Throughout the week, we have spent time walking the winter woods, appreciating their quiet and beauty.

We have been spending more time on our sunny south-facing slope after creating another sit spot next to a huge oak tree
Dried stalks of Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) at the base of one of our large American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) trees. This parasitic plant obtains its nutrients from the roots of the beech tree. It flowers in late summer, but the dried stalks usually remain throughout the winter.
The outdoor dining area for a Gray Squirrel that was feasting on hickory nuts
This avian crime scene was on a bent over tree trunk parallel to the ground. It looks like the work of an Accipiter (Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk) that had caught a Downy Woodpecker. A Cooper’s Hawk has been frequenting the yard the past few weeks, hunting the many birds that have been crowding the feeders.
Another Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone hepatica) about to bloom along the creek
A beautiful fungus (I believe it is a False Turkey Tail) on a fallen tree branch
A textured land snail creeping along a rock
There are four Raccoons living in this huge Tulip Poplar just outside our deer fence. Three seem to use the dinner-plate-sized hole just below the fork, while one squeezes into the top of a long narrow slit in the trunk below. This is from one of our trail cameras pointed skyward.

With the apparent onset of the monsoon season these past few days, it seems a perfect time to go out and search for lovelorn amphibians. Our friend, Alvin, called us Thursday night to remind us it was an ideal situation for the salamander run. Spotted salamanders breed on cold, rainy nights from January through early March. They migrate from their upland underground hideouts to vernal pools (that are fish-less) to breed. See a previous post for more on this fascinating behavior. We bundled up and headed out, and immediately found a group of swirling salamanders in one of our small pools out front. They are hard to see in the vegetation in this pool so we wanted to check some other likely places. We drove a couple of miles to a spot where they traditionally cross the road (or at east try to) to reach a nice vernal pool. We found some egg masses and one salamander near the pool but no large gathering. We did manage to help several across the road and saw a few that did not get any relief from oncoming traffic. I texted a neighbor to see if we could check his pool and when he welcomed us over, we stopped and walked up toward this created wetland. As we got close, we started seeing salamanders marching with us toward the water.

A large Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) crawling toward a breeding site

There were dozens of writhing salamanders in the water in what is known as a breeding congress. We were mesmerized by all the action. I was able to count 37 at one point but I’m sure there were many more out of sight in the fallen leaves and aquatic vegetation. Wow!

I’ll leave you with this short clip of action in the pool as an amphibian reminder that, in spite of it all, life goes on and we should enjoy what time we have on this magical planet. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Air Traffic Uncontrolled

A song is like a picture of a bird in flight; the bird was moving before the picture was taken, and no doubt continued after.

~Pete Seeger

The Evening Grosbeaks continue to delight us by devouring sunflower seeds every morning in a feeding frenzy of yellow, black and white. My high count was one day this week when I managed to see 26 of them (mostly males) flitting between the two feeders. Things can get crazy when they all show up at once and jostle for position at the hanging sunflower tray outside our window.

This hectic scene is repeated several times each morning

I have many photos of them at the feeder and sitting in nearby branches waiting their turn. But, how many images of a bird on a stick (even a beautiful bird like an Evening Grosbeak) does one really need?

Male Evening Grosbeak perched near feeder (click photos to enlarge)

After watching them one morning, I decided to try to capture them in flight as they came into the feeder or hovered near it trying to find a space. At first, I was hand holding the camera (and 300 mm telephoto) trying to anticipate their movements. That resulted in a lot of photos like the two below…

Out of focus grosbeak headed to feeder
Many images had only part of a bird

I then figured out it might be easier to pre-focus on an area and snap the shutter when I thought the bird might cross through the field of view.

Male Evening Grosbeak with landing gear down

I didn’t like having the feeder in the photo, so I pointed the camera to the right of the feeder and hoped I could catch them coming in. I soon discovered having the camera on a tripod and just watching the birds (without looking through the viewfinder) was the easiest way to get some pics. I just pressed the shutter whenever any bird was flying (of course, this also left me with a lot of blank images to delete). Below is a selection of incoming grosbeaks…

Incoming male Evening Grosbeak
Male with wings spread
Female grosbeak zooming in
Female grosbeak making a sharp turn
This is one of my favorites, the bullet bird giving me a glance as it zooms by
Male grosbeak getting ready to land
The feeder is shaded by the roof’s shadow at about 11 a.m and this image was taken in full shade, but I like the total spread of the wing

So, I now have a bunch of images of birds in flight near the feeder. What’s next? Well, if they are still here the next sunny morning we have, I want to capture the full version of the pic below. Every once in a while, the birds take their feeder squabbles to the air and really go at it with beaks and feet locking as the fly in a tangle of brilliant feathers. I’ll let you know if I am successful.

Male grosbeaks squabbling over position at the feeder (oh, for a camera pointed just a little higher)

Wildlife Neighbors

There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.

~Linda Hogan

I recently bought another trail camera and have been putting them out in our woods the past few weeks trying to document who shares our 14 acres. I look for game trails and natural junctures (like our creek bed), placing the cameras on trees for a couple of days, and then retrieving the images. It is always a thrill to see what triggered the cameras and when. I’m also starting to look for places where there has been obvious recent activity, like the pileated log from my last post. Of course, the photographer in me wishes the images were a higher quality, but the naturalist in me is delighted with what the cameras are recording when the woods are on their own.

By far, the greatest number of captures have been of Eastern Gray Squirrels. Our woods seem extra full of them this year, perhaps due to the extraordinary mast year we have had that produced an abundance of acorns and hickory nuts. There have been many trips that did not record any animal as there is a delay between when teh camera senses movement and when it starts recording. The mouse on the pileated log from the last post is a prime example. During the day, a quick moving squirrel or a bird flying in front of the camera can leave me with nothing but guesses as to what set it off.

Below are some of my favorite captures from the last four weeks of trail cameras (best if viewed full screen) with notes on each…

One of the mystery visitors (what do you think it is?)
I think one of these guys is the culprit from that first clip (I have recorded 4 raccoons at one time on the trail cam, possibly siblings?), Notice the interaction of the two in the background
The second most recorded animal has been White-tailed Deer, with as many as 5 in the field of view at once
I have seen this buck on a couple of cameras, both day and night
This buck is an 8-pointer, but has 5 points on one side and 3 on the other. I have seen this one and the one above bedded down near our fence during daylight recently
This was the first time a coyote was caught on camera. He looks up toward the house before running, so I assume I made some noise like splitting wood or chainsawing a log. The cameras have caught one coyote on several other occasions this past week at night and once have recorded two. We hear them on occasion but I have only seen one on our property with my own eyes..
This is the wildlife neighbor I have enjoyed seeing the most. It has been caught 3 times now on camera. Before this, we had only ever seen tracks in the snow. The black legs (especially front legs) and lack of a black tail tip is characteristic of a Red Fox (Gray Foxes have black tail tips). This one seems to lack the usual white tail tip of Red Foxes (or it is very faint).

I usually take my camera with me when I go check the trail cameras, but earlier this week I was in a hurry and just wanted to make a quick trip. As I headed down slope, I noticed something through the gray tree trunks. I pulled up my binoculars…it was the Red Fox staring at me. It looked at me for a few seconds and then trotted off down toward the creek. Suddenly, three deer, apparently startled by the fox, came running up toward me. It was a doe and two beautiful bucks (the 6 and 8-pointers shown above). They stopped, looked at me, and may have realized I was without camera, so they gave me a nice pose. I decided to wait another day to retrieve the trail cam footage. I hope the other wildlife neighbors will reveal themselves “in person” some day. In the meantime, I’ll let the trail cams tell me who is out there.

Here is a complete list of species recorded this month:

Eastern Gray Squirrel, Eastern Chipmunk, mouse (species unknown), Dark-eyed Junco; American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-tailed Deer, Raccoon, Virginia Opossum, Red Fox, Coyote, unidentified moths