Marsh life as summer nears

As summer nears, this magnificent marsh in Maryland’s Coastal Plain teems with wildlife. Take a look.

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron

GBHE preen

Great Blue Heron preens in the morning sunshine

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron apre preen

Osprey nest young BM

An Osprey nest in the distance. I count two chicks.

Tree swallow at cavity

A Tree Swallow watches its nest

Common Whitetail dragonfly

Dragonflies were everywhere. This Common Whitetail lingers while on patrol for a mate.

Bullfrog BM

The air was filled with the buzzing sounds of American Bullfrogs


A muskrat quietly feeds along the marsh edge


Water-shield, a native aquatic plant, in flower


Yellow-crowned Night-Heron nest in progress

Yellow Crowned Night Heron nestlings

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron nestlings with adult

A Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (Nyctanassa violacea) pair chose an unlikely spot for a nest — in a sycamore high over a residential street near my house where Maryland’s Piedmont meets the Coastal Plain. The pair has tended the nest for several weeks and now two nestlings are visible, stretching their legs and necks.

Yellow Crowned Night Heron nest2

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron nestlings stretch their legs

Yellow-crowned Night-Herons breed across the southeastern United States and Mississippi Valley, along marshes, wetlands, rivers and lakes, close to their favored diet of crustaceans. Maryland is the northern edge of the breeding map. They are less likely than Great Blue, Black-crowned and other waders to breed in large colonies.

According to Cornell’s Birds of North America website, nestlings can stand and begin to exercise their wings between four and five weeks old. Soon, these chicks will make short hops from the nest to neighboring branches or to the ground, returning to the nest to be fed and to roost. By week six, the young can make short flights, and by weeks seven to eleven, they are capable of sustained flight.

Yellow-crowned Night-Herons are not strangers to our neighborhood. I’ve seen them occasionally in yards feeding on worms and insects, especially after heavy rains. Last year, I saw juveniles that likely fledged from a nearby nest.

Yellow crowned night heron
Adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron feeding after a heavy rain in June 2013

By late summer, juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Herons will be feeding independently, while continuing to roost with groups.

ycn heron juv dam bent 2
Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron feeding at a nearby dam in 2012

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron nests may be used many years in a row. One wonders if the heavy winds that felled a number of large trees this spring took a reliable nesting site.




Birds across the pond… and their US counterparts

During a recent visit to Scotland, I had the chance to snap photos of a few easily recognized birds and now, back home, there’s time to compare to familiar birds in Maryland.

The sweet European Robin (Erithacus rubecula), the national bird of the UK, is cheery and friendly like the American Robin (Turdus migratorius), but smaller. Long thought like its North American counterpart to be a member of the Thrush family, it was recently reclassified as an Old World Flycatcher.


European Robin, Pitlochry, Scotland


American Robin, Maryland Piedmont

I wish we had heard more of the song of this Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos); its song has been compared to poetry. The American Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) has a melodic song too. Hear a Wood Thrush singing in the Maryland Piedmont here.

Song thrush

Song Thrush, Pitlochry, Scotland

Wood thrush

Wood Thrush, Maryland Piedmont

In the UK, it’s simply called a Swallow (Hirundo rustica). In North America, we call this species a Barn Swallow, distinguishing it from several other native Swallows (Bank, Cave, Cliff and Tree Swallows) by its nesting choice. This one appeared to have a nest in an ancient castle ruin.

Urquhart swallow better

Swallow along Loch Ness

Barn swallow pair AI

Barn Swallows, Assateague Island National Seashore

Herons gonna fish, wherever they are. One or more Grey Herons (Ardea cinerea) ignored the many passersby and intently fished along the popular Ness Walk greenway in Inverness. The Grey Heron is similar to, but somewhat smaller, than the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) found throughout most of North America.

River Ness Grey Heron fishing

Grey Heron along River Ness, Inverness

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Great Blue Heron, Key West, FL

It was especially fun to spot Magpies (Pica hudsonia) in hedgerows and around town. This is the same species as the Black-billed Magpie found in the US and Canadian Rockies and points west. A corvoid, like the Blue Jays, American and Fish Crows, and the occasional Common Ravens found in Maryland, the Magpie is flashy and intelligent.

Magpie2 Hollyrood

Magpie, Edinburgh, Scotland


American Crow, Maryland Piedmont

A modern version of a traditional UK nursery rhyme about the magpie goes like this:

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird,
You must not miss.



Spring in the air and at your feet

The last day of March was mild and sunny. Hikers on the trails were buoyant, grateful for a break from weeks of snow, ice, cold and wind in Maryland’s Piedmont.

I was grateful for favorite signs of spring — an Eastern Bluebird pair and the first wildflowers in bloom.

EABL M LR DP perch

Eastern Bluebird male. The bluebird pair perched in a familiar location — a tree favored for hunting insects and keeping an eye on nestbox monitors. 

Springbeauty Claytonia viginica

Springbeauty (Claytonia virginica), this low-grower is one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom in Maryland’s Piedmont. 



2017 by the numbers

Many happy and, I hope, productive hours as a citizen scientist and naturalist in 2017. My year by the numbers:

1 photo selected for Maryland Department of Natural Resources 2018 calendar

EABL 5 eggs 4B crop

This photo of Eastern Bluebird eggs in characteristic straw nest appears in DNR calendar

1 Endangered S2 wildflower documented

Thread Leaf False Foxglove Agalinis setacea Johnston

Thread Leaf False Foxglove (Agalinis setacea) is endangered in MD by serpentine habitat loss

5 Black Swallowtail butterflies raised from eggs and caterpillars found on fennel grown for their benefit in home pollinator garden

Bl Sw chrysalis transp

Black Swallowtail chrysalis nearing eclosure

18 Monarch butterflies raised from eggs and caterpillars found on milkweed grown in home pollinator garden. View more here.

Monarch watermelon

Monarchs don’t need to eat for 24 hours after eclosure. This one was offered watermelon fast food when cool and rainy weather delayed release.

38 Tree Swallows fledged from nestboxes monitored at two local parks

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Tree Swallow hen warms still featherless chicks

44 Eastern Bluebirds fledged from nestboxes monitored at two local parks. View more here.

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This Eastern Bluebird and its mate had three successful nests in 2017.

Think globally. Act locally.

Here’s to 2018! Happy New Year!


Note:  All photos were taken in the normal course of wildlife monitoring and care, without flash.




Winter wren

winter wren npsp

Winter Wren

A year ago, I’d never heard of a Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis). A young girl — a birding prodigy — told me then that when you see one “you just know.” A couple weeks ago, I heard its loud song in the brush along a frozen marsh before I spotted it. She was right. When I saw it, I just knew.

More compact and with a narrower beak than more familiar House Wrens and Carolina Wrens, Winter Wrens winter here in Maryland and in a broad swath from Iowa to Florida, returning to Canada and the northernmost US mid-section each summer to breed. A long migration for a little bundle of energy.



Not much was stirring in daylight along the frozen marsh



Monarch miracle


Monarch butterfly

Think about it. The Monarch butterflies that are arriving now by the millions in the mountains of Mexico were born on the underside of a milkweed leaf in North America. If all went well, some of those leaves and butterflies were in my backyard in the Maryland Piedmont.

Monarch adults — butterflies on the wing — can feed on any nectar, but Monarch caterpillars can only feed on milkweed. I offer both milkweed and a succession of nectar plants in my yard.

It’s estimated that only one in ten Monarch eggs successfully reaches adult butterfly stage. To improve those odds, I reared Monarch eggs and caterpillars that I found in my yard, protecting and feeding them in airy enclosures. Eighteen out of 22 Monarch eggs and caterpillars made it to adulthood and flew away. (I tip my hat to Monarch champions who raise hundreds each year from eggs and caterpillars found in fields and roadsides.)

Here are a few scenes from this summer’s Monarch adventure:  egg, five caterpillar stages of growth, chrysalis stage, and adult butterfly.

Monarch female ovipositing

This Monarch is laying eggs. I followed her path, collected and successfully reared six of her eggs.

Monarch egg

Monarch eggs, laid one per leaf, are hard to find and harder to photograph. Eggs hatch after three to five days.

Monarch hatched instar mag

Incredibly tiny, just-hatched Monarch caterpillar. Called a 1st instar, it will eat its shell.

1st instar Monarch caterpillars

1st instar Monarch caterpillars eat a tiny pattern in milkweed leaves.

Mon 2nd instar 0803

Monarch caterpillars shed their skins with each new instar. These are 2nd instar.

Mon 3rd instar 0805

Still small, but growing. Their antennae are longer at this stage.

Monarch cats 4th 0812

Larger and eating lots of fresh milkweed every day. Their antennae extend beyond their heads at this stage.

Monarch cats 4th instar 0811

Growing and eating, Monarchs remain in caterpillar stage about two weeks.

Monarch five cats writing

At 5th and last instar, caterpillars are plump and their antennae are more than 1/4 the length of their bodies. Soon they will form a chrysalis.

When ready to pupate, a Monarch caterpillar climbs to a high spot, fixes itself to a surface with silk, and drops to a “J” before shedding its skin one more time to form a chrysalis.

Mon chrys

It takes a Monarch caterpillar about two weeks to transform to an adult butterfly. Wings become visible in the chrysalis as the time to emerge approaches.


The chrysalis is transparent right before the butterfly ecloses, i.e., emerges.


Butterflies need a couple hours for their wings to harden and strengthen for flight.

Monarch #14 Fem

Monarch female gathering strength in an enclosure

Monarch watermelon

Monarchs don’t need to eat for 24 hours after eclosure. This one was offered watermelon fast food when cool and rainy weather delayed release.


Two Monarchs, tagged for tracking as part of Monarch Watch, ready for take-off


Monarchs that emerge in late August to October are the “super generation” that migrates to overwinter in Mexico. They will resume their journey in the spring, beginning a new generation in the southern US. That generation will bear another generation, with several successive and shorter-lived generations continuing north until the next “super generation.” 

You can help Monarchs! Plant milkweed for caterpillars and flowers that are good sources of nectar for butterflies. Monarchs especially need gardeners to grow flowers that bloom in late summer and autumn, when many gardens have passed peak, to fuel their journey to Mexico.  Think asters, zinnias, cosmos, lantana, Montauk daisies. Find Monarch Watch’s plant list here. You’ll be rewarded with butterflies.


Ladies present! Painted Lady butterflies

Painted Lady zinnia mkj

Painted Lady butterfly

Butterfly fanciers have been positively giddy about the abundance of Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) this year. If you have admired a garden patch of zinnias or cosmos or driven through the countryside this fall, odds are you’ve seen this butterfly. These photos are from Maryland’s Piedmont.

Painted Lady BF dorsal mkj

Painted Lady butterfly dorsal view

Painted Ladies breed throughout the US and most of Canada, then travel south to overwinter in the southern states’ warmer climate. A few weeks ago, a 70-mile wide mass of migrating Painted Ladies was picked up on National Weather Service radar over Colorado. See the radar image here. That’s a lot of butterflies.

Painted Ladies are one of the most common butterflies in the world, found on all continents except Antarctica and Australia. Just as they migrate in North America, Painted Ladies also stage annual mass migrations from Europe to North Africa.

Another familiar Lady is the American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis). The difference is in the eyes.

American Lady ventral mkj

American Lady has two prominent eyespots on its hindwings

Painted Lady BF zinnia leaves mkj

Painted Lady hindwing has a row of four smaller eyespots

You can help migrating butterflies by planting late-season nectar sources like asters, zinnias, cosmos, goldenrod and mistflower. Learn more here.


Eclipse Mallard

Monday’s coast-to-coast solar eclipse reminds me of another eclipse from this year. This “eclipse” Mallard.

Eclipse mallard drake NPSP

Eclipse Mallard drake (June 2017)

An “eclipse” duck is a drake that has molted from its breeding plumage. The bright head pictured here suggests this one’s molt is incomplete. A partial eclipse, one might say. This drake will eventually have muted colors, more like a Mallard hen, and will lose its ability to fly until new flight feathers grow in.

Mallard hen marsh colors

Mallard hen (June 2017)

All birds molt to replace worn feathers. Juvenile birds molt as they attain adult feathering. The casual backyard birder notices seasonal molts, for instance, when that male cardinal at the feeder isn’t quite as brilliant a red in late summer and its crest is looking kind of shabby. For species with distinctive breeding plumage, the transitions are particularly conspicuous.

So add eclipse plumage to the list of variations that confound birders.

MALL M eclipse call

Mallard drake showing off its plumage (June 2017)


Time to meet the world, little bluebird

EABL coax touch down mkj

Eastern Bluebird coaxing nestling to fledge

Monday was fledge day for a nest of Eastern Bluebirds. I watched this mother bluebird swoop and sing to entice the last nestling out of the nestbox, while the father tended the three that had already fledged.

She chattered, sang and flew back and forth within view of the nestbox’s entry hole. Her efforts were successful and the straggler left the nest while I monitored the rest of the trail.

EABL coax 2A voc 2 mkj

Eastern Bluebird calling to remaining chick in nestbox

It’s a real treat to witness bluebird parents’ song and dance on fledge day. Tree swallows too, who are joined by other fledglings and extended family in soaring around the nest.

For the bluebird parents, it’s the beginning of a next phase of feeding and protecting the young birds, a process that began when the straw nest was built and eggs laid in late June. The chicks hatched a little over two weeks later and fledged at 17 days old.

From another nest, here’s a look at Eastern Bluebird nestlings fully feathered and ready to fledge.

EABL 3ff 9205C crop mkj

Fully feathered Eastern Bluebirds ready to fledge (from a different nestbox)


Note:  All in-box photos are taken in the course of normal nestbox monitoring without the use of flash. External photos are taken at respectful and safe distances.





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