Redbud Critters

A breath of fresh air after a long winter…

~Michael Dirr

That quote is in reference to one of my favorite native trees, the Eastern Redbud, Cercis canadensis. And right now, they are at their peak in our woods, casting sprays of pink blossoms in the understory.

redbud trees

Redbud trees from our back deck (click photo to enlarge)

We have quite a few of these dazzling springtime trees around our house, but relatively few (and certainly no young trees) outside the deer fence as the deer have browsed the young ones for years, leaving only older trees along the roads and scattered elsewhere in the woods. With so much more time at home now, I have been watching all the comings and goings in the trees near our deck. Unfortunately, I did not get out the camera (was busy doing some much needed yard and garden work) on the few recent sunny days when the trees were abuzz with all sorts of bees, flies, and a few early butterflies. It really made me appreciate how important these abundant flowers are as an early nectar source for many of our pollinators.

pine warbler in redbud 1

Male Pine Warbler adorning a flowering branch with some bright colors of his own.

junco in redbud

Dark-eyed Juncos are still abundant but will soon migrate to their nesting grounds farther north and to higher elevations.

Several redbud branches are close to the suet cage mounted on my deck and serve as a staging ground for birds approaching the feeder. One day last week, I sat on the deck and watched the parade of species as they waited their turn. Most managed to land behind a tangle of branches without a clear chance for a photo, but a couple of notable species shared something I did not know about birds and this tree…

junco eating redbud 1

Dark-eyed Junco nibbling on a redbud blossom.

I watched as a few juncos and a male and female cardinal nibbled on many of the flowers. A few times, it almost looked as if the birds were just squeezing the flower, but I also saw them pull off a flower and eat it a few times in the hour or so that I watched.

cardinal eating redbud flower

Female cardinal puling at a flower.

cardinal eating redbud flower close up

She chewed the blossom and then dropped part of it.

Many of you may know (or may have seen Melissa’s FB post about it) that redbud flowers are actually quite tasty as a treat alone or as part of a salad (or other types of foods). So it should come as no surprise that other critters may find them suitable as a food source. I have often wondered about the use of the incredibly abundant seed pods by birds and other wildlife, but have never seen anything actually eating the seeds.

salad

Our yard salad prepared with chickweed, redbud blossoms, and dandelion parts (photo by Melissa Dowland).

After watching the birds squeeze some of the flowers, I tried a couple to see if there was abundant nectar, but could not really tell anything definitive, other than the flower itself is tasty. The other thing I noticed when I looked closely was how the tiny irregular flowers look a lot like excited, big-nosed dogs with large ears. Maybe its just the self-isolation talking….

redbud dogs

 

 

Oh Yeah, It Must Be Spring

The incredible but annually commonplace change that is life eternally renewed has begun to stir.

~Hal Borland

My last post dealt with the rapid changes in weather from the first spring wildflowers in our yard to the switch to bitter cold and time for chopping more firewood. The vagaries of “spring” weather really hit home when I went to visit my mother over the weekend and it snowed two inches overnight. Back at home earlier this week, I looked out the window and saw butterflies! I actually saw my first butterfly of the season last week, but didn’t manage to get out to get a photo before it disappeared. Tuesday, it was the same species, and not just one, but two, American Snout butterflies, flitting about the yard interacting, resting, and nectaring at one of the few flowers to be found, the diminutive yellow blossoms of Northern Spicebush.

American snout butterfly on spicebush

American Snout butterfly, Libytheana carinenta (click photos to enlarge)

This is one of my favorite, and certainly one of the more bizarre, local butterflies. I don’t remember seeing them before as my first butterfly of the season, and here were two chasing each other around. After a brief bout, they separated with one going to spicebush flowers, the other settling on a post in the garden. I grabbed the camera and went out to try to document the event, but, at first, they were having none of it and were difficult to approach. That surprised me a bit as I have described this species to folks as “the friendliest butterfly” around. They have a habit of landing on people to imbibe our salty sweat and being somewhat fearless in doing so. I have had this happen several times in places where they congregate at puddles or other moist soil sites to gather minerals.

Snout

The common name comes from the enlarged labial palps, which give the appearance of a long snout.

I finally positioned myself and stood still, waiting for one to return to the tiny yellow flowers. That paid off and I was rewarded with several minutes of close observation. When I did a little research on my “nosy” neighbors, I was surprised to learn that this species overwinters as an adult, and thus is often one of the earliest butterflies seen. The large palps (part of the mouthparts of all butterflies, but greatly elongated on this species) that give the American Snout its name are believed to provide some additional camouflage for this unusual creature. This species often rests on a twig, head upward, snout and antennae touching the twig. Look at that first picture again and imagine it is not on the flower but on the twig. The brown coloration of the underwings resembles a dried leaf. When the snout and antennae rest on the twig, they resemble a leaf petiole, so when this guy stops and rests on a twig, it virtually disappears as dead background vegetation!

American snout butterfly on spicebush wings spread

The squared off shape of the edge of the forewing is also characteristic of this species.

American Snout caterpillars feed exclusively on species of Celtis (Hackberry and Sugarberry in our area) and are more common in hardwood forests, especially near bottomlands. In the southwest, they occasionally undergo massive unexplained irruptions that can darken the sky and have been estimated to number in the millions. I was thankful to have just these two to brighten my day.

Syrphid fly on spicebush

A Calligrapher Fly, Toxomerus sp.

While waiting for the snouts to land near me, I started noticing some other early spring visitors to the spicebush. A few syrphid flies were buzzing around and collecting nectar or pollen. I got a close look at one and believe it is a member of the genus Toxomerus. The genus name comes from the Greek, taxon, bow, and meron, thigh, and refers to the bow-shaped leg segment (femur) which can be seen in this photo. The other characteristic of this group is the V-shaped notch along the trailing edge of the eye (again, visible in this picture). These flies are wasp/yellow jacket mimics, but are harmless.

Lady beetle on spicebush

An Asian Lady Beetle (ladybug), Harmonia axyridis. I didn’t notice the small spider nearby until I looked at the image on my laptop.

Asian Lady Beetles (also commonly called Multicolored Asian Lady Beetles) are a highly variable (in color and pattern) species originally from eastern Asia. One key to identification is that they generally have a white pronotum (the shield behind the head) with what looks like an M or W showing. They have been intentionally released in various states since the early 1900’s as a biological control of aphids, but it wasn’t untilĀ  the 1980’s that the species really took off nationwide. They are considered a pest by many for their habit of overwintering inside dwellings and their impact, through predation, on many of our native ladybug species.

Sprig azure on spicebush

A dainty Summer (?) Azure, Celastrina neglecta

My second butterfly species of the season caught my eye as a tiny light blue speck flitting across the yard and then landing on a dead leaf on the ground. I assumed it was a Spring Azure, but was unable to approach close enough for a photo. Once again, I stood next to the blooming spicebush, and my quarry finally landed close enough for a portrait. When I went online to confirm its ID, I was reminded by several sources that the azures are a complex group of species that can be very difficult to sort out. My favorite source of information on butterflies in our state, the Butterflies of North Carolina, states that Summer Azures are more abundant and fly just as early as Spring Azures. The Summer Azure is considered the palest in color (both above and below) and in comparing images online, it seems like this one more closely matches the Summer Azure photos I saw. Of course, if any readers have an opinion, I’d love to hear it. This may be the best thing about retirement, the ability to take the time to observe and learn something new about the many incredible natural moments that happen right outside my door.

Wasn’t it Just Spring?

If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.

~Anne Bradstreet

The past couple of days have been warm and spring-like with highs around 60. Yesterday morning dawned with a gray coating of fog across our woods, coating everything in tiny jeweled droplets that highlighted the onset of early spring wildflowers. Today changed all that with high temperatures more than 20 degrees colder and a brisk wind. Even though I love the cold weather (and it is much better for tasks like chainsawing and splitting firewood which I did today), the taste of spring was appreciated. Here are a few photos of what was out yesterday and a hint at what is coming…

spider web in fog

The first spider web of the season on the arm of a twig (click photos to enlarge)

wild columbine flower bud

Wild columbine flower bud covered in “fog dew”

wild columbine leaves after foggy morning

A black and white of fog dew on wild columbine leaves.

spicebush blooms

The tiny spicebush flowers have opened.

bloodroot buds

Buried in snow last week, this bloodroot flower bud is now reaching high.

windflower

Windflower, one of my favorite spring ephemerals.

spring beauty

Spring beauties have been blooming for several days now, but are mainly closed today in the cold.

giant chicweed flower

The first giant chickweed flower of the season.

giant chickweed flower close up

When I looked at the image on the computer, I noticed a couple of insects I had missed while taking the photo.

Trout lily flower buds

Trout lily flower buds on our north-facing slope are a bit behind those in some other woodlands in the area.

yellow jessamine flower

A yellow jessamine flower. This is the first year (after climbing a dead snag a few years ago) that this vine has flowered.

 

Snow at Last

Oh winter! One never, never loses the surprise and wonder of new fallen snow…

~Emily Carr

And surprise it was….they predicted it, and it actually snowed! That has been an unusual happening in these parts for over 450 days (I believe I heard the last measurable snow fall in central North Carolina was about 469 days ago). It started about 3 p.m. Thursday and lasted well into the night. The other surprise was how it affected the trees – it was a wet heavy snow with temperatures dropping rapidly, so ice built up on delicate tree limbs. By Friday morning, it looked as though all our small trees were bowing to the snow gods.

Driveway after snow

The view of the lower driveway with trees bending across the road (click photos to enlarge)

tree with crusted snow

Brilliant white branches against a bright blue sky.

Snapped branch fro redbud tree

The redbud trees took a hit with several having split trunks or falling over due to the weight of the snow.

With such cold temperatures (in the 20’s) and a crust of frozen snow on most surfaces, the birds were busy at the feeders out back. I sat for a couple of hours watching their comings and goings before I just got too cold and had to retreat.

Carolina chickdee

Carolina chickadee with a freshly hulled sunflower seed between its feet.

The most abundant birds I saw around the feeding station were pine warblers. They are the most common warbler we see in this area in winter (most warblers migrate out of our area to warmer climates). They can be found at both seed feeders (another unusual trait for a warbler) and suet (the latter is the preferred feeder here). They tended to come into the feeders in groups (typical behavior of winter feeding flocks) and exhibited quite a bit of aggressive interactions at times. I never managed to grab an image as a pair engaged in their brief battles where they fly up against one another, lock beaks, and spiral downward before releasing and chasing one another. I guess it is always good to have higher goals in life…

pine warbler on branch

One of several pine warblers that stayed busy at the suet feeder. This one is waiting its turn as a more aggressive one is feeding.

male pine warbler

A brightly colored male pine warbler looking his best in the snow.

pine warbler

I appreciated the opportunity to take in the subtle differences in color of the pine warblers.

downy woodpecker

This downy woodpecker is a bit aggravated that the pine warblers are hogging the feeder.

ruby-crowned kinglet  with wing outstrecthed

The most difficult subject to photograph – a constantly moving ruby-crowned kinglet.

ruby-crowned kinglet showing crown

Though I saw it many times, I never captured the full extent of his ruby crown when he was agitated because he just would not sit still long enough.

ruby-crowned kinglet

Still one of my favorite winter birds in spite of (or maybe because of) his high speed antics.

The snow is stubbornly clinging here on our north-facing slope, but temperatures are supposed to rise to 50 degrees later today, so I imagine it will all be a memory by tomorrow. Snow in the Piedmont is an excellent metaphor for life – enjoy it while you can.

This Bud’s For You

There is April, in the swelling bud. There is Spring. There are the deep wonders of this season, not in the flower, but in the flower’s beginnings….the bud itself is the major miracle.

~Hal Borland, Sundial of the Seasons

One of my favorite plants to watch this time of year is the Painted Buckeye, Aesculus sylvatica. It is a common shrub in our woods, and one of the few things the deer don’t seem to bother. It is also our first shrub to leaf out in Spring. We walked the property this weekend, looking for signs of Spring and possible nest cavity trees. Along the way, I stopped to admire and document the various stages of buckeye buds. There is so much life and hope contained in a single bud. I think Spring is finally here…

Painted buckeye bud unopened

Painted buckeye bud, swollen, but unopened (click photos to enlarge)

Painted buckeye bud just opening

A bud that has split open

painted-buckeye-bud-with-flower-stalk.jpg

The twisted emerging leaves surround a developing flower stalk

Painted buckeye bud after opening

Bud scales peeling back and textured leaves emerging

painted-buckeye-bud-opening-wider.jpg

Leaves beginning to unfurl

Painted buckeye with flower stalk

A flower cluster with a swirl of leaves around it

Painted buckeye leaves showing

The palmate leaves eventually spread out and continue to enlarge

 

Pretty in Pink

In nature, light creates the color. In the picture, color creates the light.

~Hans Hofmann

This past weekend was beautiful…cold, but beautiful. I had planned a trip south for some bird photography, but came down with a lousy cold, so I decided to stay home. At least I could gaze out the windows at the awakening landscape. Spring is pouring over the woods here in central North Carolina and everywhere I look there are changes.

Redbud in bloom

Redbud in bloom (click photos to enlarge)

One of the most noticeable this past week is the reddish-pink blush of the Redbud trees in bloom in the understory. The warm days late last week seemed to have encouraged the flowers and I couldn’t help but notice the buzzing of so many bees and other insects visiting these early blooming trees when I went out on the deck a few days ago.

Carpenter Bee on Redbud

Carpenter Bee on Redbud

Redbud flowers are amongst the earliest abundant sources of nectar and pollen in these woods and are therefore a critically important part of the landscape. But, with temperatures dropping into the mid-20’s over the weekend, the insects were silenced. They were replaced by a variety of birds visiting the branches of this tree as they waited their turn at one of the feeders hanging off the deck. After watching all this activity, I couldn’t help but do what any nature nerd with a camera so often does – I grabbed the telephoto lens and sat at the screen door to the deck under my Kwik-camo blind to try to get some portraits of the birds amongst the flowers (isn’t that what most of you do when nursing a spring-time cold?). So, over a period of two days, I sat out for a total of a couple of hours, watching the parade of birds. It dawned on me that I was witnessing a transition of seasons – the juxtaposition of several of our winter bird species with the arrival of our woodland spring. In a week or two, over half of the bird species I saw this weekend will be gone, migrating north, some as far as the boreal forests of Canada, to begin their breeding season. But for now, they all looked pretty in pink, surrounded buy a sure-fire indicator of change in their winter home, the blooming of the Redbud trees. Here are a few of their portraits…

American Goldfinch male early spring color

American Goldfinch male early spring color (resident species)

Carolina Chickadee in Redbud

Carolina Chickadee landing on a twig (resident species, and already starting to nest in nest boxes in the yard)

Pine Siskin in Redbud

Pine Siskin (migrant, soon to head north)

Pine warbler female in Redbud

Pine warbler female (resident species)

Pine Warbler male in Redbud

Pine Warbler male (resident species)

Purple Finch female in redbud

Purple Finch female (migrant, soon to head north)

Purple Finch male in redbud

Purple Finch male (migrant, coon to head north)

Tufted Titmouse in Redbud

Tufted Titmouse (resident species)

Yellow-rumped Warbler male in Redbud

Yellow-rumped Warbler male (migrant, soon to head north)

As so often happens when sitting quietly in a blind, I saw many things happen that I did not capture with the camera. The highlight occurred while I was pulling off the camouflage drape to head in for the afternoon – a Cooper’s Hawk flashed onto the scene, scattering all the other birds. I froze, waiting to see what it might do. It eyed me suspiciously and then flew into another Redbud tree that I could see through the screens of the porch. After a minute or two of surveying the now-empty landscape, the hawk swooped off through the trees. A remarkable scene, even if it isn’t recorded on anything but my brain.