I’ve always loved butterflies, because they remind us that it’s never too late to transform ourselves.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
For every day of loneliness we endure, we’ll spend a day in communion with the life around us until the loneliness passes away.
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.
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.
I enjoyed watching it for several minutes and managed a quick video clip of its constant munching.
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 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.
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.
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…
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.
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
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).
Perhaps the raindrops do provide a certain sparkle to the woods when you stop and look closely.
Rainy days definitely hep me walk more slowly and take notice of (and appreciate) details of our woods.
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!
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.
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…
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.
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…
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.
Throughout the week, we have spent time walking the winter woods, appreciating their quiet and beauty.
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.
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!
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.
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…
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
The bird already possessed a common name; and it is a pity that Latham did not know it. In its native land it was, and still is, commonly called, the log-cock…and because of its cackling cry, “wood-hen,” “laughing woodpecker,”…
~in Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds, Arthur Cleveland Bent, 1939
My father called them wood hens and taught me to pay attention to their distinctive call when we were out deer hunting. When they called, it usually meant something was moving in the woods nearby, maybe a deer. Their most accepted common name is Pileated Woodpecker, and I have enjoyed seeing and hearing them ever since those days as a kid prowling the woods. We are lucky to have several that make our slice of forest heaven their homeand we see them frequently, often very close to the house. The scientific name, Dryocopus pileatus, means tree cleaver with a crest, a great summary of its distinctive looks and habits. They are creatures of the forest, and prefer tracts of large trees, for both nesting cavities and foraging.
They are our largest woodpecker, from 16-19 inches in length (about the size of a crow). The Birds of the World Online compendium describes them as a keystone species as they play a crucial role in many forest ecosystems in North America by excavating large nesting, roosting and foraging cavities that are subsequently used by a diverse array of birds and mammals—for shelter and nesting. They typically excavate nest holes near the tops of large standing dead trees which are later used by a variety of other woodland creatures like Wood Ducks, Southern Flying Squirrels, and Eastern Screech Owls. Their large size and stout, chisel-like bills enable them to break open tree trunks and fallen logs in search of their favorite prey, large ants (like Carpenter Ants) and beetle grubs. This incessant chipping away at forest pillars undoubtedly helps speed the process of decomposition and forest recycling of nutrients and provides access for a variety of other woodland creatures that might feed on invertebrates associated with decaying trees and logs. I have watched deer, robins, and squirrels scratch in the wood chips and poke into holes created by these woodpeckers as they search for a tasty morsel.
As we walk our woods, we find plenty of evidence of their presence even when we don’t see or hear them. We have many large dead trees and a substantial crop of fallen logs that provide feeding sites for our woodpeckers. I have recently found numerous big branches, stumps, and logs that look like someone took a hatchet to them and splintered them into hundreds of pieces with some of the wood chips measuring 4 and 5 inches in length.
When I got my second trail camera (we have two Browning Strike Force PRO XD trail cameras), I was eager to set it up on a large log down slope from our house that had recent woodpecker activity. I left the camera up two days, attached to a tree about 6 feet from the log. When I retrieved it, I could tell the woodpecker had been there as there were new chips scattered along the length of the log. The camera captured over two hours of feeding activity by a male Pileated Woodpecker along with day-time visits by a few other species (American Robin, Dark-eyed Junco, and Gray Squirrel). I have included two clips that highlight some of the more interesting behaviors (view full screen with sound up)…
At night, the log continued to draw the attention of forest neighbors including a Red Fox, White-tailed deer, Raccoon, and a very energetic mouse.
The first few clips after dark showed nothing, but the next in the series revealed a very fast mouse was the culprit. In some clips it was triggering the camera but disappearing before it was recorded. And all this is happening on just one log in the forest. I can’t wait to see what else the cameras reveal.
Go to the winter woods: listen there, look, watch, and “the dead months” will give you a subtler secret than any you have yet found in the forest.
Our two trail cameras have given me a new excuse to walk in our woods every couple of days (to retrieve images) and it has reminded me how lucky we are to live where we do. We have a little over 14 acres of hardwoods on fairly rugged terrain. There is a simple wooden bench (two boards) set on stones down slope from the house and it provides a nice view of the creek bottom and opposing south-facing slope in winter.
Yesterday, I wandered down to reset the cameras and took some pics with my phone of the winter woods. I like the expanded views in winter, the crisp air, the sounds of mixed flocks of birds moving through the trees, and the subtle signs of life that appear when you stop to look closely.
The creek bottom extends along the back side of a number of large wooded lots in two neighborhoods and offers an oasis for birds and other wildlife. It also provides a reprieve from many of the human noises we can hear from the ridge top (distant sounds of traffic on Hwy 64, neighbors out in their yards, etc.). For that reason, I decided to haul a cedar log from our yard down to the creek and create another sit spot. Again, nothing fancy, but rather something from the land that blends. This tree trunk had once stood along what I assume was a property line on our ridge and had barbed wire nailed to it (you can see the grooves in it from the years of wire being attached). It now sits on some of the countless irregular-shaped rocks scattered about the tract and is placed up against a beech tree facing the creek. I like to imagine we will spend many hours here contemplating the beauty that surrounds us.
Sitting there, I started noticing things all around me that spoke of the quiet beauty of winter…
When I returned to the house, I looked in some mushroom field guides, and reminded myself of the awe I feel for those that can easily identify our varied fungi. I plugged a couple of them into iNaturalist and labeled the photos as it suggested. If anyone has other ideas, please let me know.
Before I left, I noticed a group of tiny dancers, some sort of fly, probably involved in a mating flight, bobbing up and down in a small animated troupe highlighted by the sun. It reminded me that even in winter, life is striving to continue, to take advantage of any opportunity of warmth, of sunlight, of the future. Here’s a quick phone clip…
After spending time with the flies (it’s not often I get to say that), I walked along the creek, noticing the tracks of deer and raccoon, the diggings of squirrels, and then was startled to see a true sign of spring – the first wildflower of the season – a Round-lobed Hepatica, Hepatica americana.
All the field guides talk about it blooming from February-March in the Piedmont, but here it is showing its striking purple colors in January. I had seen a friend’s social media post recently of one blooming elsewhere nearby…indeed, climate change in my lifetime. But, troubling as it may be, it is amazing what finding a hint of a season to come does to your mind. I think it is universal among observers of nature as this quote from 19th century naturalist and writer, John Burroughs, so eloquently states…
Nothing is fairer, if as fair, as the first flower, the hepatica. I find I have never admired this little firstling half enough. When at the maturity of its charms, it is certainly the gem of the woods. What an individuality it has! No two clusters alike; all shades and sizes. A solitary blue-purple one fully expanded and rising over the brown leaves or the green moss, its cluster of minute anthers showing like a group of pale stars on its little firmament, is enough to arrest and hold the dullest eye.
The hepatica reminded me we had found some other early signs of spring a few days ago – the first Spotted Salamander egg masses of the season in our small pools and an adult salamander waiting her turn for the next rainy night hiding under a rotting log just outside our deer fence. So, in spite of the abundance of winter birds at our feeders (the grosbeaks, siskins, and finches are still abundant), the march of time carries us toward the green and warmth of the next chapter in our wooded landscape’s story. I’m hoping to read many more pages as this year passes.
It has been a great year for those birds from up north (a so-called bird irruption). This occurs periodically when cone crops fail across vast stretches of Canadian boreal forests. Other factors can contribute, and different species may react differently, but those that migrate far from their normal range are usually just looking for food resources. It looked like it could be a good irruption year when we saw a Red-breasted Nuthatch early last fall. Then Pine Siskins started arriving along with Purple Finches (both of the latter species were absent here in our woods last year). And then I started hearing reports of Pine Grosbeaks in New Jersey and Evening Grosbeaks moving south. Evening Grosbeaks are sort of the holy grail of irruptive species (well, the Snowy Owl seen this winter on the OBX is probably a bigger thrill, but I have not seen Evening Grosbeaks in the Piedmont since 1998!).
To stoke the anticipation, friends in northeastern NC reported Evening Grosbeaks at their feeder back in November and I saw reports in Chapel Hill and other nearby locations in December. Why aren’t they here? I whined. Then a couple of weeks ago, a friend texted me he was just down the road watching them at a neighbor’s feeders and asked if I had seen them (NO!!!). After a couple of days they were seen at a closer neighbor’s house. I waited…
Then, this weekend, Melissa saw one at the feeder out back, but it spooked before I got there (but that counts, right?). Finally, on Monday, I saw them (and the wait was, indeed, worth it).
These grosbeaks are hard to miss when they finally make an appearance. First, they are rather chunky, boldly patterned birds.
Females (and immature males) are mostly gray with bold black and white wings and a wash of yellow on their necks.
Males are even harder to miss – black and yellow with a very bold white wing patch and a bright yellow forehead and eye stripe.
And that bill…
A reminder that the name “grosbeak” comes from the French “gros bec”, which means large beak. That huge, conical beak is useful for crushing seeds (and no doubt inflicting a painful bite on bird banders). It turns out that the several types of grosbeak found in the U.S., though similar in their beak adornments, are not all related. Pine and Evening Grosbeaks are members of the finch family, Fringillidae, which also includes Pine Siskins, crossbills, and goldfinches. Rose-breasted and Blue Grosbeaks belong to the family Cardinalidae that includes Northern Cardinals, Indigo Buntings, and tanagers.
But, as I said earlier, of all the NC grosbeaks, the Evening Grosbeak is the toughest to regularly find in our state. Historically, Evening Grosbeaks were birds of the north and west, hardly ever seen in the eastern half of the U.S. much before the late 1800’s. Then, for reasons not totally understood (but probably related to Spruce Budworm outbreaks in eastern Canada and increased planting of Boxelder, another valuable food source), the breeding range expanded eastward. The number of wintering birds in the northeast peaked between 1940s and mid-1980s but has declined dramatically since then. And in NC, the Birds of North Carolina, Their Distribution and Abundance web site states that their status in the Piedmont is “erratic winter visitor; strongly declining.”
But this year, they are back, and in good numbers. I counted a maximum of 25 between our two feeding stations yesterday (and I am guessing I missed several as they are so active). They have been coming mainly in the morning, an ironic schedule given their name. In fact, In his Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds, Arthur C. Bent made this observation – Ordinarily the species is not crepuscular, and in fact it might better be called “morning grosbeak,” for it is most active early in the day.
Each morning this week, they are going through a lot of sunflower seed and making it tougher for the usual group of Purple Finches to crowd in on the platform feeders. Most of the other bird species are either hitting the tube feeders or the suet when the black and yellow throng arrives, as the grosbeaks tend to be somewhat pugnacious at feeding time. Again, looking back to Bent’s Life Histories, he commented: Although evening grosbeaks are ordinarily gregarious and sociable, feeding harmoniously when scattered openly on the ground, their behavior is quite different when crowded on the feeding trays. There they are often selfish, hostile, and belligerent, pushing their way in, sparring with open beaks, and threatening to attack or drive out a new arrival. They are bosses of the tray and are intolerant of other species, driving away even the starlings; only the blue jay seems able to cope with them. Even the females of their own species are not immune to attack by the males. But, so eager are they for their food, that the tray remains crowded full of birds as long as there is standing room.