Saga of the Green Herons

— by Jan Runyan

We have wonderful neighbors.  They watch out for us in many ways.  Just a couple of weeks ago, Joanie called to let us know that her daughter, Nicole, who lives nearby, had discovered some big birds building a nest in a tree at the back of her yard.  They weren’t sure, but had an idea what kind of birds they were.  If we were interested we could go see them any time.  So we grabbed binoculars, a scope and our cameras.   

The Photographer (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Standing in the hot sun on Nicole’s deck, we watched one bird bring in sticks from time to time and give them to the bird who stayed by the developing nest.  The “home-body” added the sticks to what looked, to us, like just a loose pile on a tree branch. 

Green Herons building a nest (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Our friends’ search in bird books was accurate…here, high in a tree, on some of the highest land in Brooke County, not near any water or wetlands, were Green Herons making a place to raise a family.

We guessed that it was the female who stayed at the nest while the male flew off and then returned with a stick. 

photo (c) Jan Runyan

He would land nearby in the tree and walk the branches to the nest.  There he gave the stick to the female.  She would place the stick in a specific location and then fuss with it while her mate watched. 

photo (c) Jan Runyan

When they both seemed satisfied, he would walk away and then fly off in search of another stick. 

While the male was gone, the female rested by the growing nest or fussed with some of the nest sticks, improving the construction.

photo (c) Jan Runyan

This continued the whole time we were there. 

photo (c) Jan Runyan

By the time we left, the nest still looked to us like just a random pile of twigs, but the birds appeared to be satisfied with what they were doing. 

photo (c) Jan Runyan

Days later, we got a report that a bird was sitting on the nest.  Later we were told that Nicole had seen five heads peeking out of the nest.  One of the heads seemed to be much younger than the others. 

Then, after a windy storm, we got a report that the nest had fallen to a much lower place in some large bushes, but the five babies were still in the disheveled, broken nest.   

We went to Nicole’s to see the broken nest with nestlings.  From the deck, we looked about eye level at the top of a bush in the back of the yard.  A small pile of sticks was all that was left of the nest. 

Remains of fallen nest in the top of a bush (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

After many minutes of watching with binoculars, we decided that there were no nestlings in it.  We searched the bush and the ground around it for signs of movement.  Nothing.  We were discouraged, but kept looking.  Finally, we saw movement high in the branches of the trees, much higher than the broken nest.   Looking carefully, we finally identified the movement as the fuzzy butts of Green Heron nestlings. 

Yellow legs of Green Herons among tree branches (photo (c) Jan Runyan)
Downy rear-ends and partially grown feathers on the wings (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

On their wings, a few adult feathers were starting to show, but they still had a lot of down. 

Green Heron newly off the nest (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Luckily, Bill discovered that we could get a better view from down below in the yard – wonderfully shaded from the heat of the sun.  I set up the tripod for my camera.   

photo (c) Jan Runyan

The young herons were well camouflaged, but occasional movement helped us see where they were. 

photo (c) Jan Runyan
photo (c) Jan Runyan

Soon we saw two adult Green Herons fly in, but they stayed on the far side of the tree, nowhere near the two fuzzy butts we were watching.  After a few minutes they left without coming anywhere near our two babies.  It was puzzling that “our” babies hadn’t been fed.  Nicole had said that the adults were feeding the nestlings about every 45 minutes, so we were determined to wait and see them again.   

We watched the young birds as they stretched, preened and mostly rested. 

video (c) Jan Runyan

From time to time they would move to a slightly different place and I would have to move the camera to keep them in sight. 

video (c) Jan Runyan

Usually they were close to each other, but sometimes they moved apart.   

video (c) Jan Runyan

It was funny to watch their long yellow toes which support them so well in the muddy water’s edge now wrapped almost all the way around a branch and flexing to help them keep their balance.  

photo (c) Jan Runyan

It seemed that, on those smaller branches, babies that size would slip and fall hopelessly to the ground where some predator would find them. 

video (c) Jan Runyan

Amazingly, they were able to perch on and traverse the branches, although clumsily, without too much difficulty. 

video (c) Jan Runyan

Occasionally the pair would touch each other’s bill, almost as if they were trying to get food as they would from an adult.  

video (c) Jan Runyan

When they preened, sometimes I could see small pieces of feather sheath falling as a bird bit the sheath to free the newly forming feathers. 

video (c) Jan Runyan

45 minutes…  From time to time I would get a new angle and more photos or some videos, but no adult Green Herons with food for the young.

photo (c) Jan Runyan

1 hour…  Bill and I began occasional stretching (birders yoga) similar to the birds we were watching. 

video (c) Jan Runyan

1 ½ hours…  We met a neighbor who also likes to watch birds. 

photo (c) Jan Runyan

When another neighbor came by with a loud lawnmower, the birds paid attention for a while, but then one yawned. As he yawned, I learned more about how adult birds can give their babies the food they’re carrying. (Watch carefully at the 17 second mark.)

video (c) Jan Runyan

Finally, when we had been watching for about 2 hours since the adults had last come in, Bill spotted an adult Green Heron fly in – and then another.

Adult Green Heron (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

 The demeanor of the young ones changed dramatically.  They started almost running up and down the branches, flapping their wings and opening their mouths. 

video (c) Jan Runyan

We couldn’t hear much, but it was clear that they were actively begging for food.   

video (c) Jan Runyan

Twice we saw a rusty-colored adult come to our side of the tree and feed the young we had been watching.  The feeding was rapid and somewhat violent. It almost looked as if the adult and young were fighting.

video (c) Jan Runyan
video (c) Jan Runyan

Even after the adults left, the young herons were agitated and begged for a while.  Then they calmed down and went back to resting. 

video (c) Jan Runyan

After things calmed down, we decided not to wait for the next feeding session – standing for three hours of heron watching was enough in one day for us.  It was then that we glimpsed two more Green Heron young way in the back of the tree.   One of those was noticeably smaller than the other.  We figured that those 2 (or maybe 3 were back there since there had originally been 5 nestlings) had been fed earlier, the first time the adults had come in on the far side of the tree.  That was why we had not seen any adults near “our” two birds then. 

photo (c) Jan Runyan

It was great to verify that at least 4 herons, including the youngest baby, had survived the fall from the original branch and were growing stronger as they exercised, rested and were fed.  

photo (c) Jan Runyan

We are so grateful to have neighbors who made the effort to share with us the wonders of new bird life!  

photo (c) Jan Runyan

Bill’s Spruce Adventure — by Jan Runyan

We loved the Blue Spruce by the pool yard. It sheltered a picnic table and a bench swing. For years it sheltered the grill. It was a stopping spot for birds going to the backyard feeders. It was the closest shade on the back of the house. 60-70 feet tall, it was the gateway to the net-yard and the back meadow.

But in recent years it had started looking worse and worse. More branches fell during storms. The branches that were left had fewer and fewer needles as the patio and pool had more and more. The color of the tree seemed paler and less green. Finally we noticed that it was developing a definite lean — toward the house, the pool and the new pool fence Bill had just put in. We had to admit that it was time to think about what to do.

Late June brought the perfect weather — cool mornings and no winds. And, of course, this year we were home with plenty of time to work on things.

Bill dug through his boxes and found the tree climbing equipment he had used decades ago when one of his side jobs had been as a high-tree man for a tree company. The harnesses and climbers looked as good as they had when he had put them away all those years ago. That meant we could at least attempt the job ourselves.

My 14-year-old electric chainsaw had seen a lot of use as old trees on our property had fallen in storms. Decades ago, Bill had always used gas-powered chainsaws, but recently he had learned to appreciate the toughness and ease of use of my little electric. So with the electric in hand, he climbed the extension ladder to cut out all the branches he could reach.

photo (c) Bill Beatty

One of my jobs was as a safety spotter, wearing a hard-hat, with cell phone handy in my pocket.

photo (c) Bill Beatty

Another job was to pull downed limbs away from the base of the tree when Bill told me it was safe to do so.

photo (c) Bill Beatty

Bill says he thought he was giving me an easy job, until he saw the divots left in the ground by the weight of the falling limbs and looked at the size of the branches.

photo (c) Bill Beatty

After the first day on the ladder, Bill spent the early afternoon cutting up all of the branches and transporting the pieces to wherever we needed them around the property: a deer fence behind the owl net area, brush piles for small animals and birds, and LOTS of firewood.

On the second day, things got serious! Out came the climbing equipment, each piece being checked and rechecked for usability and safety.

Tree climbing spikes (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Then, with harnesses and straps and spikes for climbing, and with a chainsaw hanging from his belt, Bill discovered that he did remember how to climb a tree!

video (c) Jan Runyan

Up he went. Down came the branches. And when he rested, I pulled more and more limbs away.

photo (c) Jan Runyan

When the branches were easy for Bill to reach, lots of them piled up quickly below the tree. The branches were like huge “pick-up-sticks” and I had to decide which one to pull out next. But I knew I had to do it since Bill couldn’t get down if the limbs were piled around the trunk.

And then it happened! The trusty old electric saw finally broke in a way that made it impossible to tighten the chain. It was done! After much discussion and online research, the next morning I drove to Steubenville and bought a new 14″ electric chainsaw. We were back in business.

Bill has a close encounter with a hummingbird as he climbs. (video (c) Jan Runyan)

Down came more branches. As Bill got higher and the trunk got smaller, the strap that held him close to the tree was too long to work well, so he had to switch to a shorter strap. On his way down, he had to reverse that process.

Changing tree belts (photo (c) Jan Runyan)
Changing tree belts (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

The tree started looking more and more like a lollipop tree in a child’s drawing.

photo (c) Jan Runyan

Bill tried to stay up in the tree as long as he could since climbing up and down was hard, especially from the pressure of the climbing spikes on his legs. Bill discovered that he liked the new electric chainsaw even more than the old one — and that’s saying a lot!

photo (c) Jan Runyan

On the last day, Bill finally made it to the place where the trunk split into 2 trunks — about 3/4 of the way up. That made it impossible for him to climb higher safely. Knowing what was coming, before climbing up that day he had positioned the truck in the meadow on the side of the tree opposite the pool yard. When he climbed that day, he took with him one end of a long, heavy caving rope. He cut off the last of the branches he could reach. Now came the trickiest part!

Bill tied off the rope as high as he could reach on the top of the tree. Then I took up the slack and tied the other end to the hitch of the truck.

photo (c) Jan Runyan

He wanted me to be ready to move forward and “pull” when he said to. That’s when I discovered that it’s impossible to watch or hear what’s happening up in the tree when I’m in the truck with the motor on, facing downhill in the opposite direction. The best I could do was to hop quickly in and out of the truck.

Bill had me put a little tension on the rope and he began to cut out a notch facing 90 degrees away from the pool yard and about 45 degrees away from the truck’s location. He cut a big notch which landed with a resounding “thud”!

Cutting the notch (photo (c) Jan Runyan)
The notch is done (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Now the part that most worries tree men. The notch was just right. There was tension on the top. He knew just where to cut opposite the notch. Still, the unexpected can happen with big trees.

Bill told me to put a little more tension on the rope. I shifted the truck into gear, but it wouldn’t move! No, the brake wasn’t on. Park … back to Drive. I could hear the gears were working, but it wouldn’t move! Bill was yelling for more tension. Then I had an idea. The truck had gotten pretty close to the compost bins, so I had turned the steering wheel. Looking at the wheels, I could tell that they were turned too severely to be able to move. Quickly I straightened the wheels a bit, started moving slightly, and then turned them back a bit so I wouldn’t hit the compost bins as I crept forward a foot more . Whew! Now all was ready.

View from standing by the driver’s door of the truck (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Bill began cutting opposite the notch as I watched. Soon he yelled, “PULL!” I hopped back into the truck and crept forward as I heard the unmistakable sound of big wood breaking and the “WHOOMP!” of a heavy landing. Jumping out of the truck, I found the tree-top lying just where Bill had hoped to put it and my tree guy strapped to the top of a tall, empty snag, grinning from ear to ear.

photo (c) Jan Runyan

With the branches gone, the trunk would not be prone to being pushed over by the wind, so we had already decided to leave the 40-foot snag for the various woodpeckers, nuthatches and other birds who might enjoy it. Bill climbed down from the tree for the last time.

Coming down the last time (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

A few days later we saw a White-breasted Nuthatch coming down the trunk, too. He even came down head-first, with no climbing equipment … he made it look so easy!

photo (c) Bill Beatty
photo (c) Jan Runyan

Oriole Fallout — in Rhyme (by Jan Runyan)

Normally at this time of year we would be traveling much of the time, both teaching and chasing birds.  In May our time at home is short and usually includes doing laundry, mowing, repacking and doing as much garden work as we can squeeze in.  This year, because we kept our “social distance” at home, we got to experience an amazing avian event.

Last winter was warm, but spring was late and, not long after it started, we had a several-day cold snap with nighttime temperatures in the mid-20s.  A flight of Baltimore Orioles had migrated north to the Upper Ohio River Valley before the Arctic blast brought this unusual cold and caused the birds’ insect food to be extremely limited.  They found the hummingbird feeders which I had recently put out, but as more orioles arrived we knew we needed to help these warm-weather friends more. 

They immediately found a dish of jam I put out … and very soon it was empty.   I searched our unused bird feeders in the garage for ideas to help me make more feeders and I added 5 new, unusual ones out back and out the bird window along with more nectar feeders.  They finished 3 big jars of jelly and jam. A few birds even made use of the bark butter and suet feeders.

As the weather warmed a bit, we opened our bird banding nets.  We had seen as many as 10 orioles at one time, but banded 16 birds, so we probably had between 20 and 30 birds making use of our feeders. Although there are still a few Baltimore Orioles around now, most of them have moved on since the weather has warmed. We had a wonderfully fun week with lots of time to watch and photograph these usually rare visitors to Goldfinch Ridge.

 This blog is heavy on videos because we wanted to share the bustle and antics of the orioles.  The videos may take a little while to load the first time, but then they should go smoothly.  The white pieces flying by are not Spring cherry blossom petals, but snowflakes. 

If you watch carefully, you may catch an occasional glimpse of our Eastern Bluebirds going in and out of their box on the Black Locust tree and even eating from the bark butter log.  Other kinds of birds join the feast or fly through, too.  And you might even hear the clicking of the shutter of Bill’s camera, too, as we shared space at our bird window.

Why poetry?  It just seemed right!

*********

Oriole Fallout — in Rhyme May, 2020

Baltimore Or-i-oles
Freezing their toes-i-oles.

Baltimore Oriole on a snowy stump (photo (c) Bill Beatty)


Returning from the climes
Of palm trees and limes.

(photo (c) Jan Runyan)


Knew they had a date
To come north and mate.

(photos (c) Bill Beatty)


The Orioles were bold
But then it turned COLD

Baltimore Orioles in snow with frozen birdbath (video (c) Jan Runyan) 


They followed their leaders
to the hummingbird feeders.

(photo (c) Jan Runyan)


One nectar feeder wasn’t enough,
They needed more stuff.

(video (c) Jan Runyan) 


We put out jams and jellies
To fill up their bellies.

(photo (c) Bill Beatty)
Tray with jelly — full, but soon empty (photo (c) Jan Runyan)
Jam seed in the bill (photo (c) Jan Runyan)


Feeders of every kind

(photo (c) Jan Runyan)
(photo (c) Bill Beatty)
(video (c) Jan Runyan)

The Orioles were quick to find. 

(photo (c) Bill Beatty )
(photo (c) Bill Beatty)
(video (c) Jan Runyan) 


The temperatures were chilling
But the people were willing.

(photo (c) Jan Runyan)
(photo (c) Bill Beatty)


No feeder ran low –
The birds put on a show.

(video (c) Jan Runyan)
(video (c) Jan Runyan)


All the week long
We helped them along. 

(video (c) Jan Runyan)
(video (c) Jan Runyan)


It was quite a sight!
Dreams of Orioles tonight!

(photo (c) Jan Runyan)
(photo (c) Bill Beatty)

“Pickin’ up pawpaws, put ‘em in my pocket….” by Jan Runyan

“Pickin’ up pawpaws, put ‘em in my pocket; Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch.” Somehow this snippet of tune has survived in my brain through the decades since I was a child.  The rest of the song is gone, but the vision of picking up pawpaws (obviously desirable), to carry home from some exotic outdoor location called a pawpaw patch caught my imagination. 

Were pawpaws cultivated (like a pumpkin “patch”) or a wild find, perhaps deep in the woods?  I never even questioned what a pawpaw looked like.  But the phrase from the song evoked visions of carefree summer days on a farm or in the wild outdoors joyously picking up pawpaws.

Over the past couple of years I have learned more facts and had more experiences with pawpaws, but that information has only served to solidify my pawpaw pleasure.

Pawpaws are fruits.  They grow on trees which usually grow in groves of several to many individuals. 

Grove of pawpaw trees, (c) Bill Beatty

Most pawpaws in the forest are sapling-size, rather than looking like big trees.  Deer usually avoid pawpaws, preferring other bushes and young trees, which gives pawpaws a double advantage:  they aren’t browsed, but other competitors are removed by the deer.

The trees in one patch are often genetically identical and connected underground by roots (and thus, in biological terms, are a single plant).  Creating fruit in a grove that’s actually all one tree can be a problem because the pawpaw is self-incompatible, so pollen produced on a plant cannot pollinate flowers on that same plant.  

Pawpaw flowers, (c) Bill Beatty

To produce fruit, a pawpaw flower must get pollen from flowers on a different tree, which usually means it’s in a different patch.  The job of pollination is usually done by flies and beetles.

A cluster of young pawpaw tree fruit, (c) Bill Beatty

Once pollinated, the fruits grow singly or in small clusters.  As a fruit grows it starts to look like a small green potato. 

Pawpaw fruits, (c) Bill Beatty

Rather than being a summer delicacy, as I had imagined from the song, the fruits ripen around the end of summer / beginning of fall (end of September into October in northern WV).  When ripe, the fruits fall to the ground with the least shaking of the tree.  

Pawpaws, also known as West Virginia bananas, are true delicacies…in both flavor and in the sense of delicate.  People say the flavor reminds them of bananas with hints of mango, vanilla, and citrus.  You would be hard-pressed to find them for sale in your local supermarket since their shelf-life is measured in terms of hours to a couple days, not weeks as with most supermarket produce.

This year Bill had been keeping his eye on a couple of pawpaw patches he knows about.  In one, which he actually planted decades ago, there were lots of unripe fruits hanging on the trees about the second week of September.  Yummm!  Visions of future pawpaw ice cream and pawpaw cakes and muffins danced in our heads. 

Then we went to WV’s Dolly Sods Wilderness area to volunteer at the Allegheny Front Migration Observatory bird banding station for 2 weeks.  Soon after we got back (early October), Bill loaded the long apple picker into the van to go harvest some pawpaws.  (The other way to harvest is to shake the tree and let the soft, ripe pawpaws smash to the ground—not as clean or appetizing.)  Visions of pawpaw cookies danced in my head. 

He returned looking disappointed.  Searching all the trees, which had been full of fruits, he now only found 4 pawpaws:  1 small, 2 medium, 1 large.  Only 4!  The sweet scent of ripening fruit must have brought all of the nearby climbers…raccoons, opossums, etc…to a sweet feast. 

Speaking of sweet – pawpaws are amazingly sweet.  Bill says he can’t eat more than one or two spoonfuls of straight ripe pawpaw or he goes into “sweet overload”.  But that quality makes them perfect for flavoring ice cream, breads, cakes, cookies, smoothies and other sweet foods. 

A few years ago at a wild foods festival we attended, someone had made several containers of pawpaw ice cream – much more than the people there ate.  But the kitchen needed those containers back.  So, the call went out to help finish off the pawpaw ice cream or they would have to throw it out.  I had one more dish, but Bill and several other men valiantly worked to be sure the delicious treat would not be trashed.  I watched, wishing I had more room in my stomach, as they finished off one of the best ice creams I had ever eaten. 

Sweet things are not usually thought of as nutritious these days, but when you are talking pawpaws, here is what the Ohio Pawpaw Growers Association says about their favorite fruit:

 ”Pawpaw is higher in Niacin and Calcium than apples, oranges, and bananas. Pawpaws have 3 times as much Vitamin C as apples, 2 times as much as bananas and 1/3 as much as oranges.  Pawpaws have as much potassium as bananas, and more than apples and oranges. Pawpaw is the ONLY fruit with ALL essential amino acids. In addition, it is loaded with antioxidants.”  (http://www.shagbarkfarmohio.com/pdfs/Pawpaw.pdf)

I decided to make the best of 4 pawpaws.  Still working hard to put away things from our trip, I wanted to save the pulp for a time when I could make something special and had the time to appreciate it.  Freezing is a perfect preparation for pawpaw pulp. 

First, I made a slice as deep in as I could go, all the way around, from stem to end and back to stem.  The seeds kept me from slicing all the way through.  This reminded me of slicing around the seed in an avocado.  I kept up the avocado action by twisting apart the two sides of the pawpaw.  With the fruit open, I could see that there were a number of large seeds in the center, not just one as with an avocado.  The bigger the fruit, the more seeds – that means more pulp, but more work to get it. 

Cutting around and removing a pawpaw seed, (c) Bill Beatty

With a sharp knife I found that I could scrape around part of a seed and pretty soon it was easy to pick out a clean seed.  When the seeds were all out, I used a grapefruit spoon (with serrations along the front edge) to scrape out spoonfuls of lovely smelling pulp.  It was hard to resist taking more than a tiny taste, but I wanted enough to be able to make things later.  Every little bit I could scrape out with the spoon or the knife went into a bowl.  It took a while to finish this labor-intensive work.

Now for saving it.  Most of the recipes I saw called for ½ to 1 cup of pawpaw pulp.    (See Bill’s Wild Plant Cookbook at https://wvbirder.wordpress.com/2016/09/30/wild-plant-cookbook/)   So I decided to make ½ cup portions in “snack” size zip bags.  Good thing I hadn’t eaten much!  I just managed to get 3 of the ½ cup portions and one ¼ cup serving.

Pawpaw pulp ready to package and freeze. On the left are the pawpaw seeds from the 4 fruits. (c) Jan Runyan

I had read that pawpaw pulp will oxidize and darken after contact with the air.  To avoid that, I mixed a little “Fruit Fresh” with water and put a half teaspoon of that in each bag after I had pushed out most of the air. 

Vacuum-packed pawpaw pulp, ready to be frozen, (c) Jan Runyan

The final step was to vacuum seal the little bags of early fall sweetness.  Now I have some time to consider: cake?, cookies?, ice cream?, or maybe a pawpaw cream pie?

Bill made sure I knew to save the seeds. 

Pawpaw seeds, (c) Jan Runyan

I think he has in mind starting another pawpaw patch — this one closer to home. Maybe in another decade we can “pick up pawpaws, put ’em in our pockets…way down yonder in OUR pawpaw patch”.

Shirley Temple Wildflowers…..by Jan Runyan

For the “Greatest Generation”, my parents’ young years, Shirley Temple was a mega-star. Between 1935 and 1938, from ages 7 to 10, she was Hollywood’s #1 box office star, but by age 22 she had retired completely from making films. She started acting at age 3 and by age 5 she had flowered into a major actress, singer and dancer.   She could do it all and, by the standards of the time, she was a natural.

This early flower who blossomed at such a young age came to mind yesterday as Bill and I walked through woods and meadows. We saw many very early flowering plants already strutting their stuff in the cool spring breezes.

All around the yard the small, leafy rosettes of Pennsylvania Bitter Cress have already sent up tiny flower stalks. The four-petaled white flowers are often overlooked since they are so miniscule. Because of their plain design, they will never be stars in the flower world, but it’s worth kneeling to see these little gems against their backdrop of tiny leaflets (which are a great addition to a spring salad).

Pennsylvania bittercress (Cardamine pensylvanica)

Pennsylvania Bittercress (c) Bill Beatty

Pennsylvania bittercress (Cardamine pensylvanica)

Pennsylvania Bittercress flower stalk (c) Bill Beatty

In a large “empty” flower planter, Bill spotted Purple Henbit just beginning it’s display.  Ringing the stem is a circle of flowers — the first layer of flower rings which will build above each other like a flower apartment building. These showy flowers that no one ever sees rival orchids in their intricacy and beauty. The tiny tubes open upward into nodding hoods and lips in a variety of white to purple colors with deep magenta decorations splattered here and there. It takes magnification and, perhaps, muddy knees to get close enough to see the delicate loveliness of this undiscovered talent.

purple dead-nettle/purple henbit (Lamium purpureum)

Purple Henbit (c) Bill Beatty

purple dead-nettle or purple henbit (Lamium purpureum) mint

Purple Henbit flowers (c) Bill Beatty

Down the hill, we knew the Skunk Cabbage was blooming on its wetland stage where, this time of year, it is the only actor. Although swampy areas may not be ideal for a spring walk, it’s worth donning high boots to examine this unique character. Next to the unrolling large leaves is the green and purple, pear-shaped piece with a top that gently curves over and around. This is what many people think of as the Skunk Cabbage flower. Actually called a spathe, it almost completely surrounds the thick round spadix on which bloom a number of very tiny flowers of the same off-white, gray-beige color. Like a play way off-Broadway, Skunk Cabbage flowers are not the easiest things to see, but are definitely worth the trip.

skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foeridus)

Skunk Cabbage (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Of course dandelions can bloom in any month of the year…but be careful–what you see may not actually be a dandelion. This is the Coltsfoot time of year! It flowers so early along the road and driveway edges that the plant hasn’t even put out leaves yet. The large, hoof-shaped leaves will come later, but now the thick gray-green stems, rippled with stem leaves, reach up. The flower reminds me of a child’s drawing of a sun: dozens of long, thin, bright yellow petals seem to burst out from the center crowd of round stamens which look like the bubbly surface of the sun. Next time you think it’s just another smooth-stalked dandelion early in the spring, take a minute to look closer–you just may have a miniature sun on a leafy stem.

Coltsfoot and dandelion

Coltsfoot on top, Dandelion on bottom (c) Bill Beatty

Coltsfoot trio

Coltsfoot flowers (c) Bill Beatty

At first Sharp-lobed Hepatica flowers huddle in the woods with a bell-like shape, protected from the brisk spring winds by 3 green bracts. Soon this early-bloomer opens to show 6 or more long, rounded sepals (“petals” to most of us) of white to deep purple. Above the “petals” and a yellow pistil, the tall stamens look like a ring of bursting white fireworks celebrating the premier of the flower.

sharplobe hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba)

Sharp-lobed Hepatica (c) Bill Beatty

Also in the woods, the young Bloodroot flowers seem similarly protected from harsh spring weather by the large leaf wrapping almost totally around the bud. Eventually the stem grows beyond the leaf and the flower with a multitude of white petals and a sunny crown of bright yellow stamens stands proudly on the stage of early spring.

bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Bloodroot (c) Bill Beatty

The first daring daffodil, while not a wildflower in this area, has already braved the cool weather to dance in the wind. It stands tall, looking as if it were singing in the sunshine spotlight.

IMG_9867 LR

The first Daffodil, photo by Jan

Other plants are also starting their careers early, hoping a prompt start gives them an advantage. In open places in the woods, the ground is carpeted with bright fresh green Common Chickweed. As I found out two years ago in the garden, left unchecked, Common Chickweed will take over everything, doing a solo and keeping other plant actors out of the cast.

common chickweed (Stellaria media)

Common Chickweed (c) Bill Beatty

Tiny, exquisite flowers on our Red Maple are so early that they go almost unnoticed compared to super-stars like dogwood, apple and magnolia. When the tree just seems to have a reddish blush, I grab for a lower branch to examine it more closely. The multitude of long stamens beyond very tiny petals gives the flowers a fuzzy look. Most people have played with the winged samaras (“helicopters”, “whirlybirds”) that are the maple seeds, but few have seen where they originated.

red maple tree (Acer rubrum) flowers

Red Maple tree flowers (c) Bill Beatty

Also mostly unnoticed are the delicate flowers of the American Elm, now nearly past their season. Hanging down from the branches are the thin, long, green stems which end in petite flowers of white to pink. Spraying down from each flower are the white stems and large dark ends of the stamens reminding me of a two-layer firework display at the opening celebration for a new movie.

American elm tree (Ulmus americana) flowers

American Elm flowers (c) Bill Beatty

Like Shirley Temple, these flowers bloom early in the season, early in their young lives.

So many plants are growing, greening, and blossoming right now. Their visual chorus tells us that spring is here! But it’s like a tiny local theater production–beautiful and classy, but seen by almost no one.

Don’t miss out on Nature’s early spring pageant. The actors are dancing and showing off spectacularly right now, but soon they’ll be gone. Grab a coat, hat, gloves and hand lens.   See the Shirley Temple wildflowers!

Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here….Pine Siskins………by Jan Runyan

Raft of Ducks

Band of Jays

Vein, Treasury or Charm of Goldfinches (truly)

Exaltation of Larks

Murmuration of Starlings

Parliament of Owls (political commentary?)

Congress of Ravens (more political commentary?)

Siege of Herons

Ballet of Swans

Banditry of Chickadees

Herd of Wrens (really?)

Descent of Woodpeckers

Slurp of Sapsuckers

Asylum of Loons (yes, really)

Many kinds of birds have a special word to designate their flock, often a word that is appropriate in a subtle (or not so subtle) way. But for the species of bird Bill and I almost always see in flocks, there appears to be no group name. That’s a shame because on our property Pine Siskins are the ultimate flocking birds. There is never just one. If we think we only see one it’s just because we haven’t checked the bushes or trees nearby.

Bander holding Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus) (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Siskins have been especially prevalent this late fall and early winter. We hear their rising “eeeeeeep” and chatters in the tops of the spruces along the driveway. We see the flock occupying every small perch in the top of the Black Locust. We futilely try to count the number of tiny black dots as they zip across the open sky. The count sometimes reaches two or three dozen before they are out of sight.

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Pine Siskin’s yellow wing patch (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

 

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Pine Siskin’s yellow tail flash (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

But we see the flocking compulsion most when we have the bird banding nets open. Just as they do everything else, Pine Siskins feed together. At times they almost cover our sunflower feeders. And they don’t seem to be net wary at all. So as the flock flies in to feed, many bounce off the nets and a few get caught. After a few moments in a tree or bush, the rest of the flock returns.

 

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Pine Siskin in net (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Some of the birds eat, but others just perch near their netted brothers and sisters. “I’m here for you,” the free birds seem to say. Some balance on the top string of the net. Others alight on the strings which run the length of the net forming the pockets. A few even grab hold of the netting near a captured friend and just hang there. Sometimes the net sitters will fly over to feed and then return again to sit watch near their buddies.

As the free Pine Siskins remain near the flock members who can’t fly away, it is inevitable that little by little more of the birds hit the net and fall into the pockets. So we also rarely band just one siskin. Sometimes the nets have more than a dozen at one time.

Pine Siskins in mist net (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

If you are a Pine Siskin, it’s a group thing. Fly together, perch together, eat together, watch over each other, get banded together! Like the three Musketeers, it’s one for all and all for one!

So for loyalty above and beyond just the usual hanging out near each other, I think Pine Siskins deserve to have a special name for their flocks. I have searched the thesaurus extensively to find the word that truly conveys the level of closeness and concern evidenced by these birds. A word that goes beyond “acquaintance”, “familiarity” or “relationship”.  I would like to make two suggestions for consideration by those who are fascinated with birds and who would like to see Pine Siskins get their own appropriate group name:

a Friendship of Pine Siskins                             an Alliance of Pine Siskins

What do you think?

 

 

A Bluebird Brings Happiness…..by Jan

This morning as we were banding, Bill showed me just the head of a bird he was about to band and asked, “What is it?”

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(Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

This is one of the tests a “sub” bander gets from time to time. I could tell it was in the Thrush family, but I had to admit in the dim light of the garage I couldn’t tell which one. Then he revealed the tail. The bold sapphire color made it clear he was holding an Eastern Bluebird.

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(Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

“Male or female?” was his next query. I smiled because that’s not hard to determine.

Then he showed me the back. Yes, the tail and rump were in-your-face azure like a male, but the back and wings….so much brown, so dull like a female.

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(Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

He definitely had me scratching my head over this ID. I felt pretty uneducated until Bill finally said, “I don’t know which it is, either!”

We dove into the bird banders’ guides. The differences they wrote about sounded pretty clear for older birds—maybe this could be a young one? The key seemed to be working pretty well until we came to these two entries for young birds:

“5A Wings, tail, head and back bright blue or, in winter, tinged with brown…..Male*.”

“5B Wings, tail, head and back bright blue, or, in winter, tinged brown…..Female*.”

Yes, the difference is just the word “with” and a comma.

The asterisks took us to a note below: “Some birds may be difficult to sex and should be sexed U if plumage characters are doubtful.”

Eastern Bluebird

Side-by-side seems pretty obvious, but a female by herself can sometimes be confusing.  (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

I had to smile. We know so much information about birds. Sometimes the color of one tiny feather or subtle wear of feathers can speak volumes about a bird’s age. Sometimes the difference between deep black and brownish-black or between white and buffy-white tells the gender.

But yet there is still so much we don’t know. I am truly glad to live in a world where we don’t have all the answers and where there are still things to be searched for, studied and just plain wondered about. There is also happiness in not knowing…just enjoying the mystery.


 

Post Script: We finally labeled the bird as unknown sex, unknown age, which later caused the software which receives our bird banding data to say the electronic equivalent of, “What?! I don’t think so! Do you want to rethink this entry?”

 

 

Not GOLDFINCHY . . . . . . by Jan Runyan

“That bird doesn’t really look goldfinchy,” said a perplexed Bill.   “But I can’t tell what it is.” Bill had been keeping watch on the mist net near the back feeders as we swam and splashed in the pool with family members. Normally we just band birds in winter, so this was a trial to see what, if anything, we could discover by summer banding. It had been a good way to learn the looks of young birds and to get some practice at skulling—looking at the development of the skull bone as a way to identify hatch-year birds. Cardinals, Song Sparrows, Titmice, occasional Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, lots of House Finches (banded and transported as part of our homing research), and Goldfinches had graced our nets and each one but the “hummers” left with a tiny numbered band on one leg.

All birders know the feeling of being able to identify some bird, not by seeing all the specific field marks, but by more of a gestalt–it just looks like that kind of bird. And more often than not, if we chase the bird to get a good look, we find we are right. Male American Goldfinches in their brilliant gold and black breeding plumage are some of the most beautiful and easily identifiable birds.

American Goldfinch in mist net

American Goldfinch in mist net (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

But this bird in the net, while it was a dazzling yellow and about the right size, just did not look “goldfinchy” to Bill. He left the pool-yard, dripping, to retrieve our puzzle.

“So what is it?” I asked when he had the bird in hand. “I don’t know!” This was not the answer I expected. Bill doesn’t know what it is??? I made a towel-wrapped dash through the house to get Peterson’s Warblers and Sibley’s. We had to ID the bird correctly before Bill could band it.

We turned page after warbler page in Sibley’s looking for a warbler-sized bird with plain yellow on the belly from beak to the tip of the tail and a darker “greenish” color on top from the bill to the tip of the tail.

Yellow underside, greenish top

Yellow underside, greenish top (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

 

 

The flight feathers of the wings and the tail feathers had multiple colors: pale black, yellow and “greenish”.

 

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Wing and tail colors (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

It was strikingly colorful and plain at the same time.   Looking back and forth between several possibilities, we finally made a preliminary identification as a female Yellow Warbler although we could not see even faint rusty streaks on the breast.

Plain yellow breast (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Then I remembered—under-tail coverts! Looking at the color of feathers that cover the base of the tail on the underside of a bird and looking at the color, pattern and shape of tail feathers is one way to differentiate warbler species. And the Peterson Warblers guide has two pages showing all of the possibilities.

Undertail coverts and tail (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

 

 

Scanning the 52 tail and covert feather options, it was clear that our preliminary identification was, indeed, correct. There wasn’t anything else with undertail coverts that looked like the bird in Bill’s hand.

 

 

 

Yellow Warbler female (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

So we formally said “Hello” to our female Yellow Warbler—the first Yellow Warbler ever banded on our property, in fact, the first Yellow Warbler Bill or I had ever held or banded.

She got her tiny band, posed for some photos and soon was on her way. And as she departed, she left us a little something which, thankfully, landed just outside the edge of the pool.

Welcome Home My Little Chickadee — by Jan

People often ask us how many years songbirds can live. Sometimes it is hard to know for sure…is the Northern Cardinal you see at your feeder this year the exact same bird as the one you saw last year? Unless there is something distinctive about the look or actions of the bird, it’s hard to tell. The bird banding we do on our property is beginning to give us some data about this question, however. Shortly after noon today Bill arrived in the sunporch with a bird in hand and he (Bill) was grinning from ear to ear. “You know what’s special about this Black-capped Chickadee?” he asked me. Although I thought most of the Black-caps had already traveled to their more northern breeding grounds, I could not spot anything out of the ordinary about this little guy. So I admitted I had no clue.

Bill grins at an old friend

Bill grins at an old friend (c) Jan Runyan

Bill announced, “We banded him on the very first day we ever banded here—December 10, 2010!” So that little bird is at least 5 years old…more if he was born before 2010! Although our place will not be his (or her?) summer home, it felt great to know that he had survived so long and that our feeders were part of his migration path…again. UPDATE:  Shortly after 3 on the same day, Bill again arrived in the sunporch with the same grin and a different bird. He was holding a Tufted Titmouse, all pecks and bites and tough-guy yelling (the bird, not Bill). We had also banded him on the first day we ever banded here, Dec. 10, 2010. This male is the first bird listed on the page of size 1B bands, so he might even have been the very first bird ever banded here! He is at least 5 years old, if not more. Titmice don’t migrate so he is one that we have been hearing year-round. And judging by the number of other Titmice we hear nearby, he is doing quite well at finding mates and providing new generations.

Jan with a Tufted Titmouse who shares their yard (c) Bill Beatty

That Bird Vanished!…a shrew-d sighting — by Jan

That bird vanished! I was sitting in my favorite place at the bird-feeder window. My eyes were drawn by the movement of the dark gray back of a junco under the hopper feeder near the house. Before my eyes could focus on the familiar shape, it was GONE! It didn’t fly away suddenly. Not caught by a diving hawk. Not even time for my eye to blink. Just VANISHED – like magic! Couldn’t have been a junco! I was starting to tell Bill about the bird that wasn’t there when I glimpsed it again a foot to the right in the grass. Again, before I could focus and analyze the shape – it wasn’t there!

Searching around I noticed a slight wiggle of the matted grass just to the right. Then a half-seen dark gray shape, not quite perceived before it vanished. More shaking of the tangled grass. Maybe a form. Movement closer to the house. More shaking. Another grass patch trembled even nearer. Then nothing. My eyes quickly scanned the nearby lawn, back and forth, feeder to house, hoping my peripheral vision could catch more action telling me where it had gone. But nothing. It was gone.

With Bill’s help, I put together the clues and then smiled knowing I had been lucky enough to see (sort of) a rare sight: the seed-gathering of a Northern Short-tailed Shrew.

Three things make this sighting especially notable. First, these shrews are primarily carnivorous, so seeing them gathering seeds is uncommon. Then, they commonly forage for a few hours after sunset or on a cloudy day. So spotting my feeder shrew just after noon on a sunny day was remarkable. Finally, actually seeing a shrew at all is extremely rare since most of their food (insects, earthworms, voles, snails, other shrews, salamanders and mice) can be obtained underground or at least under the cover of vegetation. They work hard to remain hidden and to avoid becoming food themselves.

I smiled and wished him (or her) well, knowing that just as it gathers seeds from our feeders, some of our birds gather shrews…hawks are part of the food pyramid of Nature, too.

Shorttail Shrew

Short-tailed Shrew (Blarina brevicauda) (c) Bill Beatty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

View the comments to see another great shrew story by Gwen.

Return of the “Gold”finches….almost — by Jan

American Goldfinch males are starting to look at bit like clowns!

Splotches of black feathers on the head…a bright yellow feather here and there among the tan.   Did they lose at paintball?

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Am Goldfinch male showing spring molt (c) Jan Runyan

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Am Goldfinch male showing spring molt (c) Jan Runyan

 

AMGO female winter

Am Goldfinch female (c) Jan Runyan

After last summer’s breeding, all Goldfinches gradually lost and replaced all their feathers. The new male feathers were not the bright “gold” of breeding season, but a more “understated” look similar to females– “basic plumage” in human words.

AMGO head with pin feathers circled

American Goldfinch showing new pin feathers (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Now, in response to complex hormonal changes triggered by seasonal changes, one-by-one the body feathers (not tail or flight feathers) are being replaced. So going through these gradual changes, the males have some pretty strange looks before all of their breeding “gold” returns. (See photo with tiny “pin feathers” just beginning to grow.)

In the past 3 days we have banded 40+ Goldfinches…none in their full breeding plumage. It won’t be too long, though, until our Goldfinches are back in all their gilded glory.  This is just the beginning!

Am Goldfinch in breeding plumage

Am Goldfinch in breeding plumage (c) Bill Beatty

Three American Goldfinches

3 Am Goldfinches in breeding plumage (c) Bill Beatty

If you want to see month by month pictures of the male Goldfinch’s year, check out:

http://www.sibleyguides.com/2012/05/the-annual-plumage-cycle-of-a-male-american-goldfinch/