The life of the wood, meadow, and lake go on without us. Flowers bloom, set seed and die back; squirrels hide nuts in the fall and scold all year long; bobcats track the snowy lake in winter; deer browse the willow shoots in spring. Humans are but intruders who have presumed the right to be observers, and who, out of observation, find understanding.
I am familiar with the behavior of male White-tailed deer (bucks) during the breeding season (the rut) – they don’t eat much, they are challenging (often with antler to antler struggles) other bucks in the area for dominance and the opportunity to mate with the females that come into estrus, they chase females, and they tend to lose much of their wariness. All this generally occurs in the Fall, usually peaking in early November in our woods. There is a phenomenon called the second rut that can happen when some females that did not mate successfully come into estrus 30 days or so after the first rut is complete, usually in January.
But my trail cameras picked up a spate of antler testing behavior running through the month of February. I’m not sure what is happening, but maybe it is just “boys being boys”. They have formed some bachelor groups that hang out together through much of the day and night and it seems that after dark they like to test their strength by pushing and shoving a bit. The more evenly matched they are, the better the show, but I do admire one buck that just has nubs for antlers that tries to enter the fray to show his toughness.
I have not seen any of this activity during daylight hours (though the cameras do pick up buck hanging out together) and there seems to be a preference for performing these feats of buck showmanship at the cameras located on the creek. Here are some highlights of bucks doing their thing (volume up)…
The cameras picked up this behavior on several nights, with these bouts often lasting many minutes. There was lots of maneuvering, some pawing of the ground, and plenty of head fakes and false starts to go along with the energetic pushing and clacking of antlers. There is so much happening in our woods after dark. As of this week, the largest bucks are still holding onto their complete antler set, but it won’t be for long. Now, if only I can find some antler sheds.
White-tailed deer were observed throughout 1,711 hours on the Welder Wildlife Refuge, Texas. Only 11 events considered to be forms of play were witnessed, seven by fawns and four by adults. It is concluded that white-tailed deer are not typically playful animals.
~Edwin D. Michael, 1968 publication
I did some research online after looking at some recent trail camera footage to try to explain what I was seeing. The quote above is the abstract from a paper published in 1968 in The American Midland Naturalist. Maybe Texas deer are more serious than ours, or maybe the deer you about to see has been eating some funny mushrooms…you be the judge (turn volume up and view full screen).
I first thought that the pool of water was the big attraction since most of the creek is very shallow and narrow. But a few days later when the creek bed dried up again, the buck was back (I think it is the same deer anyway). Note the attention paid to the overhanging American Holly branch from time to time (you can also see this to a lesser degree in the other videos). My next post will have some more clues to this mystery.
Maybe deer are more playful than we think, but only act up when we aren’t around. The lesson here may be to live life to the fullest and splash in every puddle, and keep on playing even when things dry up.
I know he’d be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly.
A couple of weeks ago I made a trip over to the B. Everett Jordan Dam about 25 minutes from our house. I had seen a lot of images recently on social media of the Bald Eagles that tend to congregate there every winter and thought it was worth a visit. From what I have heard, you generally can observe at least a few eagles, but photography opportunities can be quite variable depending on the number of eagles present and how far down the waterway below the dam they are hanging out and fishing. My plan was to go fairly early, stay a couple of hours, and then head home before lunch to attend to the many chores that awaited.
When I arrived, there were already a handful of photographers strung out along the bank and a couple of fishermen. A tree near the office was decorated with numerous vultures of both local species.
When I arrived at about 8:30 a.m., there were probably 50+ vultures hanging out in trees near the dam, awaiting the warmth of the sun to create some thermals so they could become airborne (click photos to enlarge)
Looking downstream, I could see (and hear) a large number of Bald Eagles roosting in trees on both sides of the tailrace. I counted over 40, many more than were there last year when I visited.
Several trees downstream had multiple eagles perched in them
What really thrilled me were the sounds – so many eagles calling! Here is a short clip of a pair with others calling nearby (turn volume up).
It wasn’t long before eagles starting flying up and down the tailrace, and the morning light was spectacular.
The intensity in an eagle’s eye says it all
There was a mix of juvenile and adult eagles, along with lots of flying Turkey and Black Vultures, the latter species sometimes making you look twice at it to make sure it wasn’t an eagle (similar flat-wing profile at a distance).
Juvenile Bald Eagle showing its darkish head and splotchy underside. Adult plumage (white head and tail) usually occurs by year 5 of a Bald Eagle’s life. A one-year old eagle has a dark head and beak. Two- and three-old eagles are a little tougher to distinguish and can overlap in their plumage patterns. I think this might be a 2-year old bird – a lot of white on its belly, very splotchy underside of wings, and some feathers sticking out of line in the trailing edge of its wings resulting from a combination of older feathers and new shorter wing feathers. However, the little lighter coloration on top of its head shows how variable these plumage patterns can be at this age.
I am guessing this is probably a 2- or 3-year old eagle since it is has some yellow on the beak and some white patches on the underside. Notice here that the trailing edge of the wings is fairly uniform, unlike the previous photo.
Most likely a 4-year old Bald Eagle – mainly white head but with dark splotches, still a trace of dark on the tail feather tips, much more yellow on the beak, and less white on the underwings
During lulls in the eagle action, there were plenty of other birds to observe and photograph. Vultures, of course, and a bunch of Great Blue Herons along the banks and in nearby trees.
A Great Blue Heron provides a nice photo target as it flies by
I was impressed that the herons here have added a new tactic in their fishing repertoire. In addition to the usual stalk and strike, I saw them frequently fly out and snag a fish off the water surface, sometimes landing out in the deep water and then seemingly struggling a bit as they took off with their prize.
A Great Blue Heron flies out and grabs a fish that has passed through the dam
The other fisher-birds on the scene were several Double-crested Cormorants. Though often diving to catch a fish, they were also taking advantage of injured fish that passed through the dam that could be seen floating at the surface. A patrolling cormorant would spot one and rush over and grab it, often with several other cormorants ready to do the same if the first one missed.
A Double-crested Cormorant grabs a fish
If it can, the cormorant will manipulate the fish and gulp it down headfirst, with a visible downward-moving swelling in its neck as the meal is swallowed
On many occasions, however, the fish is just too big to swallow. Crappie (the dominant species I saw floating by) are fairly deep-bodied so it can be tough for a cormorant to get the whole fish down.
A cormorant has grabbed a crappie, but is struggling to swallow it as another cormorant lurks nearby
Oh so close…
I saw this many times, the bird tries to swallow a fish and finally has to drop it
If the cormorants don’t swallow the fish right away, the eagles perched nearby or soaring overhead take notice.
This adult Bald Eagle does a quick turn and heads toward a group of cormorants trying to secure a fish meal.
As the eagle closes in, the cormorants scatter with water drops flying through the air. The eagle flies just above the surface, talons lowered and ready to grab the cormorant’s would-be dinner.
Eagles are excellent fishermen and can grab a fish in full flight mode (which I found very challenging to capture).
I kept missing the shot of the moment an eagle grabs the fish but managed a few just after the capture. Often they were pretty far away so these pictures are heavily cropped (taken with my 500mm and a 1.4x teleconverter)
I moved around during the day and found my best shots were when I was down by the water surface
The moment right before an eagle’s talons hit the prey. Look at that concentration!
The eagle’s rarely missed, but when they did, I often saw the fish go flying through the air
A Bald Eagle is well-adapted to grab slippery prey like fish – the talons are strongly curved and the bottom of their feet have rough projections that help hold the prey firmly
After securing its catch, the eagle turns and quickly flies up to a tree branch to eat its meal
Bald Eagles can see 4 to 5 times better than a human. That somewhat angry look is due to a bone (the supraorbital ridge) that juts out over the eye. It probably helps shield their eyes from sunlight. Here you can see the transparent nictitating membrane which sweeps across the eye from the side and helps protect the eyes
What started out as a planned two hour photo trip to see eagles turned into an all day event that had me twisting and turning at times to try to catch the action as eagles flew by and swooped down to snag a fish. It was a thrilling day of observing some of the large concentration of Bald Eagles that call Jordan Lake their winter home. I made another trip a week later with friends, but there were far fewer birds below the dam. The water depth in the tailrace was much higher as more water was being released through the dam, so maybe that had something to do with it or maybe it is the approaching warm weather. As spring arrives, the eagle numbers dwindle, but there will still be quite a few that nest in the area, so get out around the lake and see if you can observe some of these majestic birds in action. And when the Ospreys return next month, watch for eagles trying to steal fish from their raptor cousins, always an aerial display worth seeing. Just remember to not pressure these birds (or any wildlife) so much as to cause them to get stressed and move on.
A majestic adult Bald Eagle in beautiful late afternoon light at Jordan Lake
Forests will always hold your secrets, for that’s what forests are for.
We’ve been gone for a couple of weeks (more on that adventure in the next post) and the trail cameras were busy keeping up with the goings-on back home while we were away. Lots of the same sort of behaviors we have seen before, but some heavy rains filled our ephemeral stream and that area became more attractive to many of our woodland neighbors. Here are a few highlights from the last couple of weeks that we would have not known about save for the eyes of the trail cameras.
Be as useful as a tree! Give life to others; be shelter to everyone; grant fruits to all! Be good like a tree!
~Mehmet Murat Ildan
Just beyond our deer fence is a huge old Tulip Poplar with a split at the base forming a hollow that stretches up 20 feet or so. This is the second largest tree on our property behind a giant old White Oak on the south slope across the creek bed. The Tulip Poplar is on our north slope where that species is the dominant tree. In spring, the large fragrant flowers provide an important nectar source for many types of pollinators. In autumn, the seeds are eaten by numerous bird species, especially the Purple Finches that fly south most winters from their boreal forest summer range. And the leaves are the primary food source for caterpillars of our most abundant butterfly, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (along with many other species like the magnificent Tuliptree Silk Moth). But this particular tree is important in another way – the hollows provide shelter and a forest touchstone for a variety of critters.
A giant Tulip Poplar on our property is home to a number of our wildlife neighbors (click photos to enlarge)
A large split at the base provides access to hollow spaces within this tree. But the Raccoons that use itr as a den tree climb higher and squeeze through a relatively small hole about 30 feet up the trunk
Unlike Raccoons at some of my favorite wildlife refuges, I rarely see ours sleeping out on limbs of this tree during the daytime. The one exception was many years ago when I spotted a young Raccoon out on one of the large outstretched arms of this forest giant.
-A young Raccoon that was sleeping out on a limb one day several years ago checks me out when I went out into the yard for a photograph. When I went back inside, it curled back up and went back to sleep.
Most of my knowledge of the importance of this tree to the woodland wildlife comes from a trail camera that has been watching it off and on for a couple of years. The tree has been home to a variety of wildlife including multiple generations of Raccoons, Eastern Gray Squirrels, and Southern Flying Squirrels. And, perhaps because of the comings and going of its permanent residents, it is also visited by many other forest dwellers. The camera has recorded several species stopping by in hopes of a meal, a sniff to see who has been there recently, or perhaps just to pay respect to this towering monarch of the woods. Visitors have included White-tailed Deer, a Gray Fox, many Virginia Opossums, a Cooper’s Hawk, and, unfortunately, my neighbor’s outdoor cats. The Ground Hog that wandered through our property for several days last year also sought shelter in its hollow base between raids on our garden while we were out of town.
Currently, there is a family of four Raccoons, a bunch of squirrels, and at least one Southern Flying Squirrel that call that tree home. Here are a few highlights of recent trail camera captures.
— The Raccoons usually use the leaning cedar snag as a ladder to their den, but occasionally climb the tree trunk. This was one night recently when it briefly snowed. Note the third raccoon appearing in the lower left at the end of the clip.
Large trees that have broken limbs, knot holes, large cracks or hollow trunks are incredibly important to a forest and its creatures. They provide food, shelter, and a place to rear young and can be a focal point of any woodland tract. I hope this one continues to be the preeminent poplar in our woods for many years to come.
Always walk through life as if you have something new to learn and you will.
The first days of the new year have brought a few more surprises and lessons from the trail cameras scattered in our woods. Several cameras have remained in one spot for many months because they tend to record lots of activity due to their location along a game trail or creek bed. But, based on some things I have seen over time, I decided to re-position a couple of them and, in one case, slightly alter the landscape around it. Here are some highlights from the first few days (and nights) of 2023…
Departure of a year welcomes so many new memories.
Our woods offer a lot of things to us – a quiet soundscape, a canopy of huge trees that help cool our landscape in summer, majestic gray forms that stretch to the winter sky, and a source of nourishment and shelter for the countless wild neighbors that share our land. I try to observe as much as I can in my wanderings in the yard and on our forest paths, but I am not out there all the time. When I am not present, I have other eyes to record the comings and goings of the wildlife. In the final two weeks of last year, the trail cameras recorded the usual activities of the herd of deer (still munching on the abundant acorns), the scampering of squirrels, the nightly forays of the Raccoon family, and even some neighbors enjoying the woods. But there were also some nice surprises. Here are a couple of new memories from the final days and nights of 2022…
It’s not just moths that I have been seeing out in the yard after dark. The new flash system has been out on a few nights with me as I wander the premises (carefully in case there are any Copperheads out and about) looking for what’s happening on the night shift. Here are some of the highlights of the late night crowd.
There are moths outside, ready to die for a light they crave but which is denied to them, … Sometimes, in the midst of all I have been given, I watch the moths in us all. Everybody has a light which they think they cannot live without.
A bit of a deep starting quote perhaps, but, with all that is happening right now in our world, I realize even more now that, for both Melissa and I, nature is the light that we cannot live without. So, we did find the time and energy to have a few friends over this past weekend for our annual moth night. This week is National Moth Week, where thousands of people around the world are out looking at our nocturnal neighbors. It is a simple thing that anyone can do, and it opens up a new world of biodiversity and beauty right in your own backyard.
Moths are insects, related to butterflies, but they differ from their better-known cousins in many respects. Most moths fly at night (we do have some common day-flying moths in our area, like the Hummingbird Clearwing). Moth antennae are either tapered or feathered in shape whereas butterflies have knobs or hooks at the tips of theirs. And many moths have a “hairy” looking body, whereas a butterfly’s body tends to be leaner and smoother.
In North Carolina, 177 species of butterflies have been recorded. Compare that to the 2962 species (and counting) of moths we have. Though they can often be challenging to identify to species, there are now several great resources for moth enthusiasts. Some of my favorites include: Peterson Feld Guide to Moths of Southeastern North America; BugGuide (https://bugguide.net); North Carolina Biodiversity Project (https://nc-biodiversity.com/); and two free apps – Leps by Fieldguide and Seek by iNaturalist. And, don’t forget, you can still enjoy the beauty and wonder of these members of the neighborhood night shift even if you can’t find them in a field guide.
We have a couple of inexpensive black lights that project light in the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum. We set them outside, next to a suspended white sheet, one on the front porch, one on the back deck. then we go out periodically to see what has been attracted to the light. This set-up brings in many species of moths as well as other night-flying insects. Many species tend to come in and just sit on the sheet, making them easy to observe. A few tend to fly in and bounce around, never settling for very long as you desperately try to get a photo for identification.
Here is a sampling of our tally for the night. Most are fairly small (except where noted) and photos are taken with a 100mm macro lens. I have done my best to identify using the two apps I mentioned, plus corroborating with various field guides. As always, if you see an error, please let me know in the comments.
A nice sampling of the nocturnal critters in our back (and front) yard and an enjoyable evening spent oohing and aahing with friends. I highly recommend it.
There is an unreasonable joy to be had from the observation of small birds going about their bright, oblivious business.
I was out pulling some weeds in our yard jungle one day this week when I suddenly realized there was a high-pitched peeping sound coming from the stand of Common Milkweed a few feet away. It didn’t sound like any insect or frog I recognized, so I eased around the milkweed stems and was surprised to see what I assume was a young Ruby-throated Hummingbird perched on a plant support. It was incessantly squeaking (or peeping, not sure which best describes the noise it was making). I stepped a little closer, wondering if the bird was okay, and it just turned its head, looked at me, and continued squeaking. So, I went inside, grabbed my camera and phone, and came back out. Yup, still squeaking.
I took a few pictures with my DSLR and a macro lens and then decided to do a quick iPhone video to share.
A few seconds after I finished the video clip, the bird lifted off and flew to a nearby tree branch, at least confirming that it could fly. I went about my yard work and encountered this little hummingbird a few more times, usually down low near or, on one occasion, sitting on one of the hummingbird feeders. It was perched a bit awkwardly, up on top of the feeding port instead of on the foothold in front of the hole. I watched it feed for a minute or more (a long time for a hummingbird to feed). I was standing only a couple of feet away and I guess I was too close for the other hummingbirds to swoop in and chase the little guy off. I’m not sure if this was a young fledgling bird begging for food or what it was doing sitting there squeaking so much. We have four feeders out and a bunch of summer blooms right now and the yard has at least 6 or 7 hummingbirds that are constantly doing battle for supremacy at the feeders. I wonder if this little guy has just been intimidated to the point that it is difficult for it to feed. If anyone has any experience with this type of behavior in hummingbirds or any other thoughts, please post them in the comments.