Saturday, June 20, 2015

Monarchs rule

Common Milkweed
When we acquired our property 10 years ago, we were surprised by the absence of the common milkweed plant. As its 'common' name implies, it's, well...common in our part of the world. So in our effort to help restore our property to its most natural state, we scattered some milkweed seeds into some of our most disturbed areas - including around the oil well and in the eventual wildflower meadow - hoping that it would find our conditions suitable.  Happily, the common milkweed, along with it's sister, the swamp milkweed, has made our home its home. 
Swamp Milkweed
A tall and sturdy plant with thick leaves and pretty pink flowers, the milkweed is the primary food source of the beautiful Monarch butterfly.  The plant is toxic to animals, including deer and groundhogs (who devastate just about every other plant on our property) as well as birds.  And while the birds don't naturally eat plants, they do enjoy caterpillars and butterflies, so ingesting the poison of the milkweed makes Monarchs toxic to its predators.  On the underside of a milkweed leaf is the only place a Monarch will lay her eggs, so where the milkweed thrives the Monarch thrives.  

An individual Monarch assumes four distinct identities over the course of about 30 days. The egg is where it all begins for our Monarch (I shall call him Henry).  Henry is laid as a single egg on the underside of one of our abundant milkweed leaves by his adult female mother, and will hatch in approximately four days.  It is believed that an adult female, like Henry's mom, will lay between 100 and 300 eggs over her short life span.  

Monarch caterpillar (larval stage)
The next phase for Henry is the larval stage in which he identifies as a caterpillar.  At this point in his life, Henry becomes a voracious eater with an insatiable appetite (I am reminded of my 17-year old nephew). As a caterpillar, Henry will undergo five growth spurts, as he munches milkweed leaves, outgrows his skin, and then molts into an ever larger caterpillar.

Monarch chrysalis (pupal stage)
Henry's vacated home
After about two weeks of munching and molting, it's time for Henry to become his next self.  So with his rearmost feet, he hangs himself upside down from the underside of one of his delicious milkweed leaves, and cocoons himself up into a beautiful green pocket, called a chrysalis.  This chrysalis will be his home for another week or so, within which he will undergo the most amazing of all his transformations.

As an adult male, Henry identifies as a butterfly.  There will be no more growing or morphing for Henry now.  Alas, he has entered his twilight years. In this last stage of his life, Henry is on the prowl for many mates (he is Henry the Monarch, after all).  Unless he is from the generation of Monarchs who will migrate to Mexico, he will spend this last phase of his interesting life - which will last about a week - impregnating females and dining on nectar to sustain his virility. 

Learn more about the complex generational aspects of Monarch butterflies, and their migration to Mexico here

Monday, June 8, 2015

Is this where the ducklings go?

In the last week, we’ve had two wildlife sightings at the pond that remind us of the tough road ahead for our Wood Duck ducklings.   

First, we came across this old gal below.  She's a Common Snapping Turtle about a foot in diameter.  She was excavating a hole in the top of our dam to bury her eggs.  This is our first sighting of a 'snapper' at our pond, but since they are pretty elusive, our assumption is that she’s been here for a while (snapping turtles live into their 70s and beyond, grow throughout their lives, and given her size, it's entirely possible that she and I are the same age!).  We just happened to catch her out in the open for her egg-laying event, where she emerges from the muck only long enough to dig the hole and deposit about 30 eggs.  They are strong ambush predators that can take just about anything they can grab.  And their necks are long (it is completely retracted in this photo) and flexible enough to reach around and bite you if you pick them up by the sides of their shells. 

Then, today, we got a glimpse of one of the larger denizens of the pond.  We rarely see the large-mouth bass in the pond and never see the biggest ones.  But the one in this picture was showing off today.  For scale, the smaller fish in the shot are bluegill.  They get up to a foot long but I estimate that the ones in the photo are 6-8 inches long.  There are two bass on the right side and the largest looks to be about 4x bigger than the bluegills on the left, which puts the bass in the 25-30 inch range!

Large-mouth bass will eat just about anything they can swallow and at that size, a duckling could be a snack.  And of course, this probably isn’t the biggest one in the pond.  As Obi Wan reminded us, there’s always a bigger fish.

It’s hard to know if either of these predators have actually taken any of our newest ducklings, but I suppose they would if circumstances were right.  It’s a dangerous world out there!  If it’s any consolation, though, it’s tough going for everyone.  The next day, we went to check on the nest where the snapper had laid her eggs and they had all been dug up.  It's likely that a raccoon or mink smelled them and ate her entire brood.  And of course, snapping turtles do prey on small fish like baby bass.

It’s the circle of life in Appalachia!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Life springs eternal

Amphibian pool one year later
Drainage.  It's something I never gave much thought to until I became the caretaker of a hardwood rainforest and Ohio River Basin watershed.

Water is in abundance here.  It falls from the sky in liquid and frozen form in large quantities throughout the year (we get about 40 inches per year, which is on par with Washington state), and it consistently or spontaneously bubbles up from the ground in various spots on virtually every acre of our property.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with all this water.  On one hand, its a blessing to have this vital natural resource at our beck and call.  Our drinking water comes from a very reliable spring about 100 feet downhill from our house.  Springs around the property create gorgeous babbling brooks and waterfalls, and springs feed 2 creeks that keep our pond full year round.

On the other hand, all the water coursing its way throughout our property means that our landscape and ecosystems are constantly in flux.  A new spring creates a new brook that washes out a part of our driveway.  Or a tree branch falls into a creek so the water redirects itself into a meadow which now becomes a marsh. Or a torrential rain soaks the ground so much so that a 50-year-old White Pine just floats out of the ground by its roots.  Our water's very mission is to ultimately make its way to the Gulf of Mexico...and to take tiny bits of our land and redeposit it in various other places along its journey.

Northern Green Frog egg mass
So in our effort to put some of our land back where we like it, we rented an excavator, dug out a perpetually soggy area, and built a retention pond. Our primary goal was to construct what's known as a silt area that would capture much of the Spring runoff and slow it down before all the water and silt that comes along with it can wash into the main pond. But an added (and more rewarding) benefit to all this digging was to also create a separate little pool that might serve as a spawning area for frogs or salamanders.  Not more than a week later, we had this! 

Northern Green Frog

And a month later, we had this!

So when I get to grumbling about the muddy bogs on the trails or having to dig out one of our many diversion ditches, I remind myself that all this water literally gives life to thousands of wild species, to one domesticated one (Roscoe), and to two lowly humans who, without this abundance of water, would be living a very boring existence in the suburbs. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Death on the driveway

Our driveway is a narrow, rustic path that leads to some unseen destination deep in the forest.  I have driven or walked this half mile stretch of wildlife highway at least once a day, nearly every day, for the past 10 years, and I know every bend, dip, protrusion and rut like the back of my hand. So when something unusual appears on or around it, I take notice.  

Interestingly, I've found that our driveway tends to be the scene of many a deadly incident. I always come upon the aftermath (never the incident taking place in real time), so as a wannabe Quincy (am I revealing my age?) and puzzle aficionado, I love collecting clues, doing some research and sorting out how each victim must have met his or her demise.

Allow me to share a smattering of my driveway mysteries.  Please feel free to help me fill in the gaps to round out the stories of the victims' lives.
Here is evidence of what I believe to be a hawk catching a vole that had come above ground for a snack on a rare warm winter day.  I can't tell what species of hawk it is (heck, it could even have been an owl).  The long, straight track would have been made by the vole.  The feathery spread would indicate wings of a pretty large raptor.  And the large round depression at the top right of the photo is where the vole's foraging (and life's) journey came to an end.

One summer day while heading to the mailbox, I walked up on this raptor sitting in the driveway.  He appeared stunned, and made no attempt to move as I approached.  Hoping he would recover on his own, I took a more circuitous route to the mailbox.  The next day, I found him in the woods, about 5 feet away from this original spot, where he had succumbed to his mysterious ailment.  I never determined what species of raptor he was, or what he might have died from.  I left him where he lay, in that final resting place, as a way to honor his life. 

Then there was this poor creature.  While on a run, I spied this mole, who appeared to have two tumors growing out of its forehead.  Pondering whether moles could acquire (and die from) cancer, I naturally turned to Google for the answer.  Unfortunately I couldn't come up with the right search terms that would give me the info I was looking for.  I did, however, learn a lot about melanomas and the importance of wearing sunscreen.

Looking forward to hearing from my fellow Quincy wannabes.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Another Wood Duck family is born

It has been a long while since I've updated you on the goings-on here in our little slice of paradise. Rest assured its not because there haven't been plenty of fabulous wildlife dramas playing out each and every day.  I'm pleased to announce that on May 8, 2014, another Wood Duck family made its way into the world.

Click here to see the video from inside the nest box, and here to see the video from the outside of the box.

Spoiler Alert:  This delightfully happy story has a bittersweet ending.  Unfortunately, one of the ducklings hatched almost a day later than the rest and was too weak to make it out of the box with his brethren.

Photo credit:  The photo isn't mine.  It's courtesy of

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Date night

Last night we spent the evening down by the pond, enjoying the campfire, eating chili, and taking in the pre-summer scenery.  A chili dinner down at Camp Firefly is our version of going out for an expensive meal and a play.  And though you don't know for sure who the characters are going to be or what the story line is about, you know that something interesting and surprising will happen nonetheless.

Last night's story began with a 'possum stopping by, oblivious to our presence (as they so often seem to be), scouring the forest floor for tasty bugs.  He (or's impossible to get a look under the hood of a 'possum) appeared stage left, spent about an hour making his way up the creek bed, and exited stage right toward the big rocks up the hill.

Act II was a musical number - a medley performed by a trio of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Eastern Wood Peewees and Wood Thrushes.  And even though their songs were in a foreign language, it was clear they were singing about protecting territories and attracting mates.

Then, the story line reached its climax when Wood Duck mom, Lady, silently emerged from the brush along the pond shore, with approximately 6 of her brood in tow, to paddle around for only a few minutes before just as silently moving back into the safety of their den.  This was particularly thrilling because the last time we had seen Lady and her 13 kids was when they swam out of the camera shot on May 10th.  Earlier that day, we had just decided that all the ducklings - like their gosling brethren before them - must have fallen prey to the many predators that roam our woods.

The play concluded at dusk, when the bats arrived to perform their nightly aerobatics, and the 'possum reappeared, making his way stage right to left, bringing our story line full circle.   

Monday, May 13, 2013

Hello world

Our Wood Duck babies began hatching on May 9, 2013 at 8:00 in the morning.

By noon, a total of 13 fluffy ducklings had been born.

That evening, Lady left the nest box around 5pm for her usual dinner, leaving the clan alone for the first time.  She returned about an hour later where she and her baker's dozen spent a safe and cozy night together.

As youngsters, they are well developed.  Unlike many other newborn fowl, Wood Duck babies look very much like their adult counterparts.

On May 10th, around 10am, Lady left the nest to call to her kids from the water below.  Here is video of the babies climbing the ladder, where one by one they leapt from the opening to join Mom in their new watery world.

It will be several weeks before the ducklings will be capable of flying, so until then they will have to stay near the water, which is their safest place of refuge.  But it is now May 13th and we haven't seen Lady or her brood since they merrily paddled out of the video shot on the 10th.  I am choosing to believe that the whole family is hiding safely in the brush that overhangs the pond shore and that at least some of the 13 youngsters have managed to evade our marauding raccoons. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

First paddle

Five geese babies were born on April 21st around 5pm.  Here is a glimpse of their first paddle the next morning.  

Friday, April 12, 2013

All is calm

On April 7th (the day after the interloper incident), Lady began staying on the nest 24/7.  The Wood Duck incubation period is around 28 to 34 days, so we should see babies in early May.  Since then, things have been pretty boring in there...just much nest-fluffing and snoozing.  We are still seeing the male coming around in the mornings and evenings, swimming around and eating along the pond shore. And no other Wood Ducks have appeared since the 6th, which seems like good news. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A new development

Last night was business as usual for our Wood Duck mother-to-be.  She arrived on the nest just before 8pm where she remained all night long.  Every 30 minutes or so throughout the night she rotated her big pile of eggs while pulling a significant amount of down from underneath her feathers that made things all fluffy and warm in there.  She left the nest this morning around 6:45am, but not before covering everything up in all that beautiful down.
Shortly afterward, we noticed a new, second pair of Wood Ducks paddling around the pond.  Then, at 7:30am, one female entered the box.  The behavior of this female was not like that of the one we're used to seeing, so I suspect this female was an interloper.  Upon entering the nest box, this one stood up and wiggled her feet down into the nest (feeling around for eggs, I think; or worse, maybe damaging some of them?), and there was a good amount of wing-flapping during the short one minute that she was in there.
This foreign female rejoined the other three, and for the next hour we watched one pair of Wood Ducks calmly follow the other pair around the pond. (By the way, all the while our pair of Canada Geese remained unfazed by this Duck Drama unfolding before them.)  At 8:23, nearly an hour after the interloper appeared in the nest box, a female returned to the nest.  It seemed she was putting things back in order, poking her bill way down deep into the nest and carefully getting everything properly covered.

As you know from my blog posts in previous years, we're not certain whether any of our Wood Duck broods have ever come to fruition because we've never actually seen any ducklings.  We know that eggs always get laid because when we clean out the box after the breeding season, we typically find 3 or 4 broken eggshells among several whole abandoned ones.  We also know that every year, multiple Wood Duck pairs arrive around the same time and they all get very interested in this one nest box.  So a couple of years ago, we put up a second nest box, about 100 yards away in the woods, along the pondshore so it's not too far from the water.  But oddly, no ducks ever take up residence in that box, even though it is identical to the one in the water.  So I wonder if we are encouraging some sort of unnatural nesting behavior with the manmade nest boxes...especially since we have several natural and ideal cavities in our many snags around our property.  I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A closer look at our Wood Ducks

One of the many signs that warmer, sunnier weather is imminent is when the birds start singing and the Wood Ducks arrive at our pond.  As in years past, they arrived on schedule, in mid-March.  But unlike previous years, we can finally see what goes on inside that nest box.  Here is a rundown of the daily routine:
  • For the past couple of weeks, the two have been arriving at the pond each morning around 6am.
  • While the male paddles around the pond, she lays an egg (or two?) inside the nest box.  
  • Then she rotates the newest eggs in amongst the eggs she laid in previous days.  
  • Once she has everything arranged to her liking, she buries the whole bunch in the wood chips.
  • She leaves the box, and joins her hubby where they both dine on bugs and such around the pond shore.  
  • Around 7am, they both fly off into the sunrise, not to be seen again until the following morning.  
But now we have a new routine.  Last night, April 3rd, was the first time she stayed in the box overnight.  When she got ready to leave this morning, we got a good look at her clutch.  We estimate 10 to 12 eggs.

Here she is burying them. 

And here's what the nest looked like as she left for the day at 6:37 (the camera clock hasn't been adjusted for daylight savings time yet).

You (or a predator) would never even know there's anything of interest in there!  Here's hoping for a successful outcome this year.

Monday, April 1, 2013're on candid camera!

Thanks to our great friend, Lawrence Wire, we now have 24/7 infrared video cameras that capture some of the clandestine wildlife happenings around the property.  We have one of our cameras trained on a pair of Canada Geese that arrived in early March.  From our high-tech spying, we have learned that Canada Geese build large mound-nests of sticks on the ground, and they prefer nesting locations that allow for only one or two points of entry.  They lay about 3 eggs per brood.  This pair started incubating around March 24th.  The mated pair stays awake throughout the night - probably the most dangerous half of the day, especially when nesting in the woods rather than in a suburban parking lot - and they do most of their snoozing during the day.  Throughout the night, one of them (I assume the female) remains on the nest, while the other (the male) stays nearby in the cattails.  He guards the water side entrance to the nest, while she faces the land side entrance.  When feeling threatened, the female stands up and spreads her enormous wings while the male, never far away, comes to her side to help address the threat.  Stay tuned for more exciting wildlife behavior as it occurs.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Predator vs. Predator vs. Predator

Roscoe is definitely an indoor-outdoor cat.

Best as I can tell he spent the first year of his life on his own, fending for himself.  But I often wonder what trials and tribulations he encountered during that first year.  Did he have a mother who taught him how to hunt and dismember his prey, or did that come to him by instinct?  Did he have run-ins with other feral cats, or the neighbor's dogs, or racoons, or foxes, or coyotes?  And if so, how did he learn to defend himself? 

Since coming to live with us, he has grown accustomed to regular meals, a roof over his head, climate controlled surroundings, and soft, cushy blankets to nap on.  But that doesn't mean he's lost his wild side.  It's obvious that he enjoys - even requires - regular forays into the out-of-doors.  So I let him go outside, during the day, for a few hours about 3 days a week to do what cats were meant to do.  He stays within shouting distance, always returns home when I call, is always content from eating mice, and is always unscathed.

Autumn is here and there's a chill in the air, but today was a gorgeous, sunny day...perfect for hunting voles in the leaf litter.  After a few hours of romping through the woods around the house, I brought Roscoe back inside for the rest of the day. 

Not 15 minutes after I retrieved our little hunter, I saw a magnificent coyote trotting up our driveway and past the house.  No doubt he, too, was enjoying a sunny day of vole-hunting in the leaf litter.  It was thrilling to get such a good look at this stunner.  We know we have coyotes in our woods because we occasionally hear them yip-howling at night; but we rarely get to see them, and never in broad daylight...until today.

Thanks to humans, cats (felis catus) and coyotes (canis latrans) are the apex predators in our part of the world.  So that got me to thinking:  what would Roscoe and Coyote make of each other?  Coyotes are known to hunt cats and small dogs in urban areas, but we have other abundant and easy alternatives in our rural setting, so perhaps Coyote is inclined to leave Roscoe be.  While Roscoe may be able to evade or defend himself against one coyote, what about two coyotes hunting as a pair?  Have Roscoe and Coyote encountered each other in our woods in the past?  Heck, are they indifferent 'friends'?

Having had the rare opportunity to get hands-on with some live coyotes in my past, I have a special fondness for this particular predator.  I love that this coyote (and probably his buddies) call our woods his home.  And I'm also quite fond of Roscoe.  So I am faced with a dilemma.  Do I continue to let Roscoe roam outside so that he can express his true cat-self?  Or do I sequester him inside for the rest of his life where he will be safer but perhaps not happier?  What I guess I am really wrestling with is what role should I (the ultimate apex predator) play in this wildlife drama?  

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

How to plant a wildflower meadow

Four whole years ago, I decided we would transform about an acre's worth of downed trees into a native wildflower meadow.  My vision was to create a little ecosystem that would be respite for bees, butterflies, birds, deer and humans...a place where my compatriots and I would go to appreciate Nature's daily (and nightly) comings and goings. 

The process of turning an ugly, snarled landscape into a sea of colorful flora required some heavy equipment, several very good friends, some expensive native seed, and much patience.  It turns out there's only so much a bunch of well-meaning humans can do to restore the land to its natural state. You have to just let Nature do what she does best...and let her do it on her own timetable. 

We finished clearing in the Summer of 2007 and had to wait until that winter to scatter our native seed mix on the snow.  That following Spring, only a few annuals came up, mostly Indian Blanket and Cornflower with a lot of dirt in between. Where was the glorious Foxglove and Coneflower and Milkweed I was promised?  That Fall, the Indian Blanket and Cornflower promptly died back and I was certain I'd been sold a bad batch of seed. 

Then in the Spring of 2009, up came patches of Black-eyed Susan and Partridge Pea, still with lots of dirt in between.  We refer to that as our "yellow year".  And of course, it all died back in the Fall, and again I was certain I'd been sold a bad batch of seed.

Then it was Spring of 2010, and we got grass.  Lots and lots of grass.  We refer to that as our (you guessed it) "grass year".  We were certain that the grasses had run amok!  They must have out-competed all those beautiful flowers that were promised but never meant to be.  That Fall we mowed it all down, convinced like never before that I'd been sold a bad batch of seed.

And now its 2011 and my technicolor vision is finally coming to fruition.  Butterflies, birds and humans alike are delighted by the Coneflower, Brown-eyed Susan, Bee Balm, False Sunflower, Foxglove, Rattlesnake Master, and Milkweed.  And at last, four long years later, we get to refer to this as our "wildflower year".