Bathing Beauties

Splish, splash, I was takin’ a bath…

~Bobby Darin and Murray Kaufman

I’ve settled into a routine now of sitting in the chair where I can see the waterfall every morning with my coffee, again at lunch, and often late in the day while working on the computer. The birds seem most active early and late, often before there is much light at all. But video is more forgiving than still photos on my camera so I have started taking short clips of the varied bird life that comes to partake of the moving water for either a drink or a bath. The most frequent visitors are a couple of male Scarlet Tanagers and some (one?) male Black-throated Blue Warblers. Below is a series of (some might say provocative) video clips of who has been caught bathing in our pool. Videos are best viewed full screen.

–Black-throated Blue Warblers have been regular visitors to the waterfall lately

— One or more female Black-throated Blues finally have started coming to bathe and drink

— These male Scarlet Tanagers have been my favorites and they are daily visitors (usually multiple times a day)

–This interaction caught us by surprise

Melissa was next to the camera and started filming for that last clip when a male Scarlet Tanager landed and started splashing. What happened next was a wonderful surprise for both of us. A male Baltimore Oriole landed and essentially chased off the smaller tanager. We have been hearing these migratory birds for a week or more singing in the trees, but had not spotted one. In fact, this sighting is only the second Baltimore Oriole observed since I began keeping records many years ago.

Besides the birds shown and mentioned in the last post, we have had a few more visitors to the pool including a female Scarlet Tanager, a male American Redstart, a Red-eyed Vireo, and a gorgeous Red-shouldered Hawk that dropped by in search of a frog meal no doubt. The hawk, vireo, and the Wood Thrushes are the only birds I have not managed to get even a pic of as yet.

Female Scarlet Tanager eyeing the water (click photos to enlarge)
American Redstart male

The female Scarlet Tanager made a very brief visit late one evening so I managed only a single shot that was somewhat sharp. The male American Redstart came in and flitted back and forth, flashing his tail as they usually do. He flew through the spray of the waterfall a couple of times and then took off without settling in for a bath, so no video, just a couple of hurried photos. Can’t wait to see what else visits in the coming weeks.

Walking on Water

Walking on water is better than drowning.

~ Matshona Dhliwayo

A couple of days after we rehabbed our salamander pools, I saw a Water Strider skating across the surface of one. How did it find this new water so quickly? Striders are true bugs (Hemiptera), have wings, and can disperse by flying. Research suggests that aquatic insects are attracted to reflective surfaces (I have seen dragonflies trying to lay eggs on shiny car surfaces). One scientist that noticed how fast Water Striders colonize new bodies of water quipped “the air must be crowded with cruising Water Striders looking for a pond”. However it happens, I’m glad it did, as I enjoy watching these insects and their herky-jerky movements and the dimpled shadows they create on the water.

Water Strider on the surface of one of our pools (click photos to enlarge)

Water Striders (aka water skimmers, pond skaters, Jesus bugs) achieve their seemingly divine mobility through a combination of factors – the surface tension of water and the striders’ long legs that help distribute their weight over a larger area. Plus, those legs have retractable claws that occur before the tip of the leg (so they don’t puncture the surface tension). And the legs and body are covered by hundreds of tiny hairs per square mm, making the entire insect hydrophobic. If they are submerged by a wave or rain, they tend to pop back up to the surface because of air trapped in grooves in these hairs.

Look closely at the legs – the first pair is short and used for capturing and holding prey; the second pair are the paddles for locomotion; the last pair help spread the insects’ weight over a large surface area and act as rudders
As members of the family of True Bugs, Water Striders have a needle-like piercing, sucking mouthpart (seen here tucked up under the head)

Water Striders are fierce predators (but harmless to us) and detect their prey through ripples on the water surface. They rapidly (some estimates say they can move at speeds of a hundred body lengths per second) skate over and grab their prey, often an insect that has fallen into the water and is struggling at the surface. They then pierce it with their beak, inject enzymes which dissolve the insides of their prey, and then suck out its body fluids.

A Water Strider feeding on its prey
Carrying a prey item (perhaps a Springtail?)

While leaning on the rock walls of the pools with my camera and telephoto lens, I saw some interactions between some striders. Some seemed aggressive with one strider chasing the other off. Then there were the obvious mating behaviors, where the smaller male would mount a female and remain coupled for a long time.

Mating pair of Water Striders
But there may be a difference of opinion on this mating thing…

A few times I saw the mating pair flip over and that leaves me thinking the female is not always amenable to the male’s intentions. Here’s a quick clip in slow motion showing one such flip.

— A mating pair flips over – perhaps an attempt by the female to throw off the male

Almost ever time I visited the ponds in the past few weeks, I could find mating pairs. I found some images of their eggs online and started looking for them. Females go under water to lay eggs on solid surfaces like vegetation or rocks. The eggs hatch in about 12 days. So far, no luck in finding any, but I did see what I believe are newly hatched nymphs this week.

A Water Strider nymph

Water Strider youngsters resemble the adults (but much smaller) and lack wings (having only tiny developing wing pads). They molt several times before becoming an adult in a couple of months. These insects also apparently have something called wing polymorphism. They may or may not develop wings, and those that do, can have varying sized wings according to the stability of their watery habitat. If the habitat is small and likely to dry up, it is advantageous to have long wings for dispersal. Short or no wings are better in stable habitats like large lakes and rivers and mean less weight and reduced energy costs for movement.

Water Strider and reflection

The next time you are hanging out at a creek, lake, or small woodland pool, take a few minutes to look for leg dimples on the water and try to appreciate the amazing adaptations and behaviors of these bugs that can truly walk on water.

Clean It Out and They Will Come

When your environment is clean you feel happy motivated and healthy.

~Lailah Gifty Akita


I mentioned in an earlier post that we finally got around to cleaning out our two water gardens (aka salamander pools) in November. One had sprung a leak mid-way up its height a couple of years ago. It still held enough water for some critters but was choked with duckweed. The other sprung a leak this fall and drained, leaving a mud flat and lots of aquatic vegetation and their tangled root mats. These liners have been in for over 20 years (they are typically rated for 10) so I consider us lucky. We have a fairly narrow window for pond repairs as I want it to be late enough that cold weather has set in and numbed any Copperheads that might be hanging out in the rock walls, but before the Spotted Salamander breeding season, which can start as early as late December some years. I checked prices locally and online and purchased the liners at a place in Raleigh (prices have increased in 20 years!). I won’t bore you with the details, but I was pleased it only took us about a day each to totally re-do each pond, including cleaning out all the muck, putting in the new liner, and rebuilding and stabilizing their rock walls.

Lots of moving of rocks and debris to expose the old pond liner in the waterfall pool (click photos to enlarge)

–Removing the muck from the pools was the final step – we tried to rescue any amphibians and aquatic insects during the process

Laying out the new liners and then trimming to fit

After getting the liners in place, the difficult part is rebuilding a sturdy rock wall around each pond. Years ago, I purchased some flat rocks and then filled in with the irregular shaped stones that are so abundant on the property.

The first pool to be completed
The second pool has a small waterfall

The waterfall pool is great because we can hear the moving water from our screen porch so I like to think I am somewhere in the mountains when I hear it. The real advantage is as a possible additional attractant for birds (they love the sound of moving water), especially the neo-tropical migrants that move through our woods, so we will see what this season brings.

Our first good salamander rainfall didn’t occur until mid-February. We had a small run of salamanders and we ended up with about ten egg masses. About a month later we had a couple more nights of perfect weather for salamanders, and the bottoms of both pools were covered with spermatophores, followed a couple of nights later by lots of egg masses.

A Spotted Salamander egg mass as seen from below. The waterfall pool started off with very clear water which made observations and photography much easier (underwater photo taken with Olympus Tough camera)
Egg masses at different stages of development in the waterfall pool (underwater photo taken with Olympus Tough camera)
White embryos, as seen in the center egg mass, indicate the eggs are not viable. Studies have shown that egg mortality can be caused by a number of factors (including freezing) and may reach 20% to 40% of the total eggs laid in some years. Note that the gel of the egg mass itself can range from white-ish opaque to clear. That is the result of specific proteins in the gel. The significance and function of the opaque versus clear egg masses is unknown.
Egg masses are usually attached to twigs or underwater vegetation. I placed several tree branches in each pool for the females to utilize as attachment points for their eggs.
The egg masses grow in size over the first few days due to absorption of water
We ended up with about 100 egg masses in the two pools by mid-March!

I’ve been keeping tabs on the development of the eggs in the two pools over the last few weeks. Most have turned greenish in color due to the presence of an algae that is specific to Spotted Salamander egg masses. The algae probably gain nutrients like nitrogen from the waste products of the developing larvae and the larvae probably get oxygen from the photosynthesizing algae. Egg hatch time is temperature dependent and usually takes 4 to 6 weeks.

An egg mass a few weeks after being laid. Note the green color (due to symbiotic algae) and the progress in the development of the larvae.

The gel matrix holding the egg mass together starts to break down close to the time of hatching. I went out last week and lifted some of the twigs holding the egg masses and the jelly blobs started to fall apart. I gently placed one in a clear container and went inside to get my phone to photograph it. By the time I returned, there was a lot of activity in the container. Here is a quick video clip…

–the final stage of an egg mass – Spotted Salamander larvae breaking free of the gel matrix.

If you pause the video and look closely, you can see the tiny straight appendages dangling down near the head that serve as balancers for the newly hatched larva (there are also branched external gills at the head). After a couple of days, the balancers are reabsorbed when the larva is stronger and can swim and maintain an upright position in the water column.

I dipped in the pool yesterday and found one larva that has grown considerably and is now an active swimmer. Here’s hoping that many of them survive and transform into terrestrial juveniles in a couple of months. I look forward to their return on some cold and rainy nights in the years to come.

Woods Watching

I’m always astonished by a forest. It makes me realise that the fantasy of nature is much larger than my own fantasy. I still have things to learn.

~ Gunter Grass

Things have slowed a bit on the trail cameras out back, but we still get some nice surprises from time to time. Here are a few of them from the past couple of weeks.

In all my years here, I have only seen one Wild Turkey in the neighborhood, and that was years ago, walking down our gravel road. But, in the last year, the trail cameras have captured three, two of them in the past two weeks.

Late note – after writing this, Melissa saw a turkey out back late yesterday afternoon, just beyond our deer fence!

Wild Turkey strolling through our woods

— A different Wild Turkey wanders through the same spot a week later

I moved a trail camera to an area with a log on the ground that had a few interesting looking holes along it that might be some sort of burrow entrance. I left it there over a week and never saw anything going in or out of the holes. But, it was a regular squirrel highway, and one day, this hawk dropped in, perhaps thinking it might partake of a rodent snack, but no such luck.

— An adult Red-tailed Hawk surveying the scene

After a few weeks absence, the Coyotes have made a reappearance on three cameras. Here are two clips. Pause this first clip and look at the Coyote – either a big meal or perhaps soon-to-be pups in that belly?

— A quick day-time glimpse of a Coyote – note the full belly

And this guy looks a bit smaller, maybe a youngster from last year?

— A smaller Coyote on the Opossum log

Looking forward to what other hidden gems the cameras show us in our woods.

Camera Captures

These woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.

~Robert Frost

The trail cameras continue to capture moments in the lives of our woodland neighbors. Here are a some clips from the past couple of months to highlight some of the mysteries of the forest after dark.

Most of the coyote video captures are similar to this in terms of behavior – very focused, trotting through the woods (unless they see the IR camera, and then they tend to flee). Their purposefulness made me think of the Frost poem above. This is the first time on our property that three coyotes have been recorded in one clip.
Another first for the trail cameras – Gray Foxes. Last year we had several weeks of captures of a Red Fox, but this is the first time Gray Foxes have been seen.
An Eastern Screech Owl landed on a slight mound on the forest floor containing numerous mouse runways and holes. The owl is just inside the field of view on the lower left. Did it catch a mouse?
The owl flies to a nearby sapling. I can’t see any prey…
Two nights later the owl lands on the camera. Was it attracted by the IR lights?
A few weeks later, the owl is back and presumably lands on the branch with the camera. This must be a good hunting spot.

— A beautiful Gray Fox stops by the Raccoon den tree one night to check it out

— It has been a while since we saw a Bobcat on our cameras. This one looks smaller than previous individuals. Hoping it can heel whatever is causing the limp.

Some Days You Get Lucky

I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.

~Thomas Jefferson

Today was one of those days. Coming back home after a doctor’s appointment, a motion caught my eye while driving past a small roadside vernal pool. I slowed and saw it was a Barred Owl that had landed on a snag in the pool. I figured it might have babies in a nest nearby and was looking for a meal of crayfish or salamanders (this pool and another one nearby are breeding pools for Marbled and Spotted Salamanders). I had no camera with me so I drove the remaining few miles back home. I decided there was a chance it might hang around and hunt, so I grabbed a camera and headed back up the road. No cars were behind me, so as I approached the pool, I slowed down and looked for the owl. It was not on the prominent snag perch where I had seen it…bummer. But, then I saw it even closer to the road on a tree branch. I stopped, and stuck the camera out the window and fired off 3 shots. Another car then zoomed by in the other direction and the owl flew off. Luck was with me today.

A cooperative Barred Owl stayed put long enough for a few photos (click photo to enlarge)

Ironically, while waiting at the doctor’s office, I read an email from a teacher that had been on a workshop with Melissa and I years ago,. She encountered two Barred Owls yesterday on a trail and had sent us a note because she knew we would appreciate it. She even thanked us for teaching her about owls and what to look for. A double bonus day indeed.

Still Hanging On

Your growing antlers, Bambi continued, are proof of your intimate place in the forest, For of all the things that live and grow only the trees and the deer shed their foliage each year and replace it more strongly, more magnificently, in the Spring. Each year the trees grow larger and put on more leaves. And so you too increase In size and wear a larger, stronger crown.

~Felix Salten

After placing a new trail camera down along the wet weather creek, I was rewarded with a very nice clip of a beautiful White-tailed deer buck. This is from February 18, about the time most deer in our area are dropping their antlers for the season. As I mentioned in a recent post about Moose in Yellowstone, antler drop is an annual event for male members of the deer family, caused by changing day-length and lowered testosterone levels after the mating season.

–A nice buck poses for the new trail camera (best if viewed full screen)

A week ago, I had a very short clip that showed this buck still sports his nice set of antlers. It is getting a bit late for them to still be carrying their antlers, so I would love to have him drop one or both somewhere on our property. I have only found one antler shed here in all the years of roaming these woods. Rodents make short work of shed antlers for their calcium content.

The same day the large buck above was caught on camera, a smaller buck who had dropped its antlers was filmed. Note the roundish scar between the ey and ear – the pedicle. Soon, new antler growth will begin at this site for next mating season’s crowns.

— This buck has already dropped its antlers. You can see the pedicle as a scar-like mark between the ear and eye on each side of its head

It Really Snowed (and we missed it)!

While I relish our warm months, winter forms our character and brings out our best.

~Thomas H. Allen

While we were away in mid-late January we got our biggest snow of the past couple of years (a whopping 3+ inches I believe). We were bummed to miss it (even though we were off on an adventure to our favorite winter wonderland – more on that in the next post). Snow in our woods is special to us and we relish any chance to get out in it and walk the transformed forest. Luckily, our trail cameras captured some of the beauty and activity in our absence. Here are a few highlights…

— A beautiful capture of some of our resident deer in fresh snow

— A large buck that I haven’t seen yet this year made a couple of appearances after the snow

— A coyote shows the typical “I’m in a hurry to get somewhere” travel mode

— Looks like there are more deer out there than I knew about (how many do you see?)

Looking forward to being here in the next “big” snow!

Oh Deer

Everything pales in comparison to deer.

~Bill Vaughan

After the ubiquitous squirrels, deer have been the mainstay of the triggers on our three trail cameras. It was a busy fall with deer frequently visiting the vicinity of some oak trees as they searched for scarce acorns. Here are a few other clips showing some behaviors that occur when we are not out in the woods watching them.

— Nothing like a good stretch after spending two hours lounging in a comfy bed of ferns.

— This was back in November, at the tail end of the rut. This buck came through the morning after the deer had been bedded down and he sniffed that spot to check on what was happening in his woods.

— A buck chasing a doe during the rut

— A buck trailing a doe

— During the rut, young bucks do some practice sparring. These two bucks were seen together frequently and seemed to want to test each other every time (remind you of any people in your life?)

— The just can’t help it, here they go again

— And again…by the way, I got another video clip of these guys doing this again this week!

— But these are the guys that probably get the girls

— What’s this?

The cameras reveal differences between individuals and also similarities between all creatures. Knowing more about the lives of our woodland neighbors helps me appreciate them even more.

Nutcracker

Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! You plant it in the ground and it explodes into an oak.

~George Bernard Shaw

The trail cameras have been busy these past few months with lots of images of squirrels (too many), raccoons, opossums, two coyotes (finally, I was beginning to wonder what happened), a few raptors, loads of deer, some neighbor kids, and, unfortunately, too many outdoor cats. I tend to leave the cameras in one location for some time to try to get a feel for the wildlife activity in that particular area. I moved one camera slightly back in October to get a better angle on what seemed to be a lot of foraging around a large Northern Red Oak down-slope from the house. This has been an off year for acorns in our woods with almost no White Oak acorns produced. White Oak acorns mature in summer and drop in the fall (one year). The red oak group of acorns take 2 years to drop, but some are produced every spring, so, even in a bad acorn production year, there are some red oak acorns still on the tree. So, in our woods this year, the critters that rely on acorns for a portion of their autumn diet have been concentrating on the red oaks.

The deer have been particularly busy at the large red oaks as there isn’t a lot of understory that they haven’t already over-browsed. The one camera placed near the large Northern Red Oak has had a lot of clips taken of the animals scavenging the acorns that have dropped. Interestingly, very few squirrels have been seen eating the acorns on the ground, probably because they tend to do a lot of their foraging in the tree tops. Here is a selection of the goings on at the old oak tree this season…

A group of deer foraging under the large Northern Red Oak on our property

Sometimes they don’t play nice while searching for acorns.

A doe strikes at another deer to drive her away from what might be a good spot for acorns

Sometimes there are other woodland critters getting in on the bounty under the oak tree…

A Southern Flying Squirrel scurries around the oak trunk
A deer wanders over to check out what the raccoon may have found (raccoons were common at night in the area around the tree)
A rabbit was a frequent visitor under the tree

What I enjoyed the most was watching deer crack the acorns – the way their jaws move, the sounds (sound up for these video clips).

A doe chews loudly on an acorn
Crunchy breakfast

The action under this tree was pretty constant, day and night, for a few weeks, lasting through about the third week of November when most of the acorn drop ceased. Now, an occasional visit by a deer is captured on that camera, but they typically are seen sniffing the leaves a bit before moving on. Winter has set in and times will be tougher for some of our woodland neighbors until the spring green starts to appear.