hydrangea zoom

A blizzard comes and goes

The juncos came around last week. Snow birds. What followed was a blizzard and the biggest snow the Maryland Piedmont has seen.

NOCA M snow

Northern Cardinal shelters in the storm

When the storm was at its fiercest, birds flocked to feeders and seed heads and to the shelter of evergreen shrubs. Robins, Cardinals, Downy woodpeckers, Carolina chickadees, Carolina wrens, White-throated sparrows and Blue Jays joined the juncos in braving the storm. Squirrels too. And fox tracks in the snow.

Red-bellied woodpeckers, titmice, kinglets and nuthatches reappeared after the snow.


Gray squirrel creates its own shelter

It snowed for 30 hours and left behind almost 30 inches of snow and four foot drifts.

Nature prevailed.

hydrangea in snow

Native hydrangea

blizz holly crop

Brilliant blue sky behind the storm

NOCA F fence

Lady cardinal considers her options

Junco postbliz

Dark-eyed Junco basks in post-blizzard sunshine




Spotted wintergreen foliage and seedcase

Winter subtleties

After weeks of unseasonably warm and rainy weather and just hours before the Piedmont’s first snow of the season, a walk in the woods revealed subtle charms.

spotted wintergreen OR

Spotted wintergreen foliage and seedcases

lichen sea-storm1

Sea-storm lichen

mtn laurel stump

Mountain laurel takes root

goldenrod in seed

Goldenrod in seed

skunk cabbage dessic

Skunk cabbage that blossomed too soon

beech leaves

Beech leaves hold tight


leaf lace stream1

Leaf lace

leaf lace stream1

Traces of leaves, caught in time, turned to lace. They look like American Beech, which typically drop their leaves in early spring.

leaf lace rock

In Eastern deciduous forests, like this one in Maryland’s Piedmont, leaves make up 40% of the biomass. Fallen leaves are a critical part of the cycling of nutrients that feed the web of life.

Word-of-the-day, saprophytes are fungi and other organisms that feed on and convert dead organic matter, like dead leaves, to feed the teeming life of the forest floor. Without them, tree roots couldn’t absorb nutrients, couldn’t produce leaves.


RHWO adult side

Flying checkerboard


On the day after Thanksgiving I was treated to a life-bird, a Red-headed Woodpecker. I don’t maintain a birding life list, but I am aware when I recognize a bird for the first time. And this beauty was a first.

RHWO adult back

Male and female adult Red-headed Woodpeckers share the same vibrant, full red head with black-and-white “flying checkerboard” pattern. The adult I saw stayed high, feeding in trees in a Maryland marsh.

A juvenile was nearby and, obligingly, fed on tree levels closer to the trail. Juveniles attain their red heads after their winter molt.

redheaded woodpecker juvenile

Juvenile Red-headed Woodpecker

On a second visit today, the juvenile’s red feathering was visible.

RHWO juv Dec a

Red feathers emerging along juvenile’s throat

RHWO juv Dec back

And red on the juvenile’s nape.

Red-headed Woodpeckers are considered “near threatened.” So it is particularly encouraging to learn of an uptick of sightings in the region this fall.

“Red” and “woodpecker” seem to go together in the eastern US, as a few previously published photos illustrate.

pileated woodpecker

Male and female Pileated Woodpeckers have unmistakable red crowns and crests

Red bellied woodpecker male

The male Red-bellied Woodpecker has an impressive red cap to go with that bit of red on the belly

Understandably, Red-bellied Woodpeckers are often misidentified as Red-headed Woodpeckers.

downy M

A male Downy Woodpecker shows off its red cap

Our local Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Hairy Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers show red as well. Unlike songbirds, woodpeckers lack a song to woo their mates, so a flash of color has its rewards.

A freshly emerged male Monarch butterfly.

Monarch reflections

This week Monarch butterflies started arriving in their winter grounds, the Mexican state of Michoacán. Preliminary reports are hopeful for greater numbers than last year’s low.

Here are highlights from the lifecycle of one Monarch that I hope is among those wintering at la Reserva de la Biosfera Mariposa Monarca. It was one of several Monarch caterpillars on the Pink Milkweed and Butterflyweed in my native plant garden. It is the only one that I brought in as an early instar caterpillar simply to observe. Overall, it’s healthier for Monarchs to remain outside in a native plant habitat.

Monarchs speed through their metamorphosis compared to butterflies that don’t migrate. Depending on weather and other factors, a Monarch is a caterpillar for about two weeks, shedding its skin five times during that period, then remaining as a chrysalis for another two weeks.

MCat6 4th instar

September 4: Still small, this caterpillar had already molted two or three times to reach this size.


Mon Cat 6 5th instar

September 10:  It’s more than doubled in size in six days and almost at the stage to form its chrysalis.


Mon Cat6 ChrysWings

September 26: Wing color within the chrysalis is now visible. Any day now!

Mon cat 6 wing color

September 27: The chrysalis appears clear and the wing color is vibrant. Any hour now.

Monarch Cat6 eclosed

September 27: Monarch butterfly newly eclosed.

Monarch cat6 wingspread M crop

A freshly emerged male Monarch butterfly testing its wings.

The Mid-Atlantic’s late summer/early fall generation of Monarchs is the generation that migrates to Mexico to overwinter and then to breed in spring in the southern US. They are the longest-lived generation. Their offspring will make their way farther north, where there will be several generations during the summer breeding season, with the last making the long, amazing migration to Mexico.

Do yourself a favor. Plant milkweed and watch the show.


Look, but don’t touch!

Even in the vast and varied world of insects, the Assassin Wheel Bug (Arilus cristatus) is a standout. Described at once as robotic and prehistoric, its looks are definitely distinctive.

Assassin wheel bug goldenrod

Assassin Wheel Bug clings to underside of goldenrod

In a bug-eat-bug world, the family of Assassin Bugs get their name from their ability to grab then immobilize, actually liquefy, prey by injecting enzymes. For humans, the bite of the Assassin Wheel Bug is said to hurt many times worse than a hornet sting and the pain linger for days or weeks. That’s a lot of hurt from a bug just over an inch long.

The Assassin Wheel Bug is fairly common in the Eastern US and is a beneficial part of the native plant garden food web. So when I found this specimen in late October on goldenrod in my garden, I photographed it, but let it be.

In June, I discovered this nymph Assassin Wheel Bug on my gear while I monitored nest boxes in a meadow. Even at the nymph stage, its long, piercing mouthpart is evident.

Assassin Wheel Bug nymph

Assassin Wheel Bug nymph

Look, appreciate, but don’t touch!

Hummingbird adventures

A few days ago as dusk approached I discovered a large moth — no, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird — trapped on our sunporch. No time for a photo shoot, just a quick snap with my ever-present camera while I considered what to do and confirmed what I was seeing.

Hummingbird on wrong side of the window

Hummingbird on wrong side of the window

First, remove the cat, who fortunately was snoozing. Next, hang the nectar feeder in the open doorway, hoping to entice the hummingbird to freedom. No luck. It stayed high and on the far side of the room, repeatedly buzzing against the highest panes of glass, occasionally perching on a rail or on the ceiling fan.

Hummingbirds migrate thousands of miles, but still they seem like such tiny, fragile things. I was afraid to try to trap it.

Next, a cornhusk broom held high to block its view encouraged it to the other side of the room. Progress, but it was still flying at windows too high to find the doorway.

Then the unexpected happened. The hummingbird landed on the upright broom! I carried broom and bird outside, and away it flew.

Another hummingbird was flying high nearby and would have been within view from inside.

A happy ending.

Hummingbirds are feeding heavily this week on liatris and other flowers and at nectar feeders as they prepare for their fall migration. The flowers and feeders are well away from the sunporch, so the visit remains a mystery.

Here’s a juvenile male Ruby-throated Hummingbird fueling up for his first migration south. I wonder if he was the visitor.

RTHU feeder sip RTHU feeder RTHU takeoff

ETST top crop

Hillside meadow

I enjoyed a couple hours on a beautiful August day exploring a sunny, breezy hillside meadow and native plant garden at The Howard County Conservancy in central Maryland.

Here are some sights, in no particular order. As always, click on a photo for a larger view.

Pearl crescent

Pearl crescent butterfly





Bluebird feeding young

Bluebird feeding young

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Joe Pye Weed

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Joe Pye Weed

Monarch caterpillar

Monarch caterpillar

In the garden

In the garden

Known to millions as Miss Jean from Hodgepodge Lodge

Known to millions as Miss Jean of Hodgepodge Lodge

Pickerel-weed and other water-loving plants in the garden

Pickerel-weed and other water-loving plants in the garden

AI dangling seed

Assateague marshside

Assateague Island National Seashore is prized for its herd of wild ponies and its wide, beautiful, undeveloped Atlantic beach. Take a short walk across this barrier island to find treasures along the coastal bay side.

On a windy morning, only a Great Egret was seen in the marsh. And, overhead, a pair of ospreys calling to their young for a fishing excursion. No photo; just a memory.

Great Egret foraging in the grasses

Great Egret forages in the grasses

There was more to see on a calm morning. A Little Blue Heron hunted in the marshy shallows, quietly, furtively, then racing to another spot.

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron …

Taking a closer look

… takes a closer look

Other avian, reptile and insect beauties.

Diamondback Terrapin swimming in the coastal bay

Diamondback Terrapin swims in the coastal bay

Laughing Gull appreciating the calm

Laughing Gull reflects the calm

Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly

Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly female shows off her bold stripes

Sitting across the causeway on the coastal bay shoreline, the visitor center’s native plant flower beds also support local wildlife. In my opinion, all public buildings should adopt a native plant first policy.

Zabulon Skipper butterfly on Buttonbush

Zabulon Skipper butterfly on Buttonbush

Monarch on Ironweed

Monarch on Ironweed, Assateague Island National Seashore Visitor Center

A little birdie told me

CACH kitchen c2015

This Carolina Chickadee perched right outside my kitchen window between visits to a feeder filled with safflower seed. Chickadees, cardinals, bluejay, tufted titmice, house finches, mourning dove, downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers and even a catbird have been visiting the feeder, freshly filled now that many birds need extra energy during molting season.

My bird-friendly yard provides shelter, water, native plants bearing berries and seed, and loads of insects and larva for birds to feed their nestlings. The rewards are many, but a close-up visit like this one is a rare treat.


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