Wintering waterfowl

Winter waterfowl on Choptank

Winter waterfowl on the Choptank

There’s a spot on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that birders and photographers know where wintering waterfowl (with a little help from their friends) are easy to see.

I’m totally smitten with American Wigeons, which I’d never seen before.

American Wigeon pair

American Wigeon pair

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The Wigeon male gives a soft, whistling call year-round.

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American Wigeon female

It’s been years since I’ve seen Canvasbacks.



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Canvasback male

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The Canvasback female looks like an antique decoy

I mistook a Redhead for a male Canvasback. See the difference in this photo.

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The Redhead has a black-tipped blue bill, while the Canvasback in the foreground has a uniformly dark and narrower bill.

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Lesser Scaups are busy diving ducks, powered by strong, back-set legs.

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Lesser Scaup male

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Lesser Scaup female

In in the distance, Surf Scoters swam back and forth in their distinctive line.

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Surf Scoters

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Can you ID these ducks?

Late season meadow


Asters, like this New England aster, are important late-season nectar sources for pollinators

Autumn chill fills the air. While only a few late-season meadow flowers remain to provide nectar for pollinators, the meadow will continue to offer habitat for bees, birds and butterflies through the winter.  These scenes are from the 86-acre Meadow Garden at Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, PA.


Common Buckeye butterfly feeds during its migration south


A Painted Lady rests in the sunshine during its migration south


Some Eastern Comma butterflies migrate south; others find shelter to overwinter in a tree cavity or under vegetation. Overly tidy lawns and gardens destroy winter habitat.


The offspring of this tattered Pearl Crescent will overwinter in caterpillar stage, snug in the meadow.


Jens Jensen (1860-1951) pioneered the use and appreciation of native plants in landscape design in parks and gardens


A weed by any other name…



Before its migration south, American Lady butterfly feeds on White Snakeroot

You’ve seen this plant. It’s not a weed! White Snakeroot is a native plant that grows wild east of the Rockies in the US and Canada. It is in bloom now in Maryland’s Piedmont and is highly beneficial to pollinators and especially to migrating butterflies that critically need late-season nectar sources to fuel their journeys.


Lift off!

It’s found in backyards, road sides, alleyways, city and countryside, in sun and partial shade, in wet and dry conditions. So, everywhere there isn’t aggressive weed control.

If you are like me until a few years ago, you might have pulled it from your garden when it sprouted in the early summer. My advice to you — leave a patch for wildlife and you will be rewarded like this.


Common Buckeye fuels up


Red Admiral is another migrating butterfly


This Pearl Crescent’s offspring will overwinter in caterpillar stage in leaf litter

A Monarch caterpillar selected White Snakeroot to form its chrysalis. There will be plenty of nectar available when the butterfly emerges.

Bees and wasps too numerous to identify feed on and around White Snakeroot. Here’s one tiny wasp.


Ichneumon wasp patrols the snakeroot

And a variety of moths depend on White Snakeroot.


Ailanthus Webworm Moth


Yellow-collared Scape Moth

A word to the wise:  White Snakeroot is an aggressive self-seeder.


White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

The moral:  Some plants that grow naturally in our yards might be highly beneficial wildflowers, part of a long-established web of life. A weed is in the eye of the beholder.

Monarch moment


Monarch deposits an egg on underside of milkweed leaf

Although worn and tattered, this Monarch female spent more than an hour laying eggs on the Swamp Milkweed in my garden. One egg at a time; one leaf at a time. Her offspring will fly to a mountain range in Mexico, spend the winter, and return north in the spring to produce another generation of Monarchs. She is contributing to the Monarch Super Generation.

In contrast, the spring and early summer Monarch generations have much shorter lifespans. While gracing our gardens, fields and shorelines, they bridge the remarkable Monarch annual cycle.


Monarch paused to nectar on lantana before heading to the milkweed patch to lay eggs.

Click here to view a past post about the Monarch miracle.

From tiny caterpillars

In a few weeks, these tiny caterpillars will be magnificent Monarch butterflies. But first they must eat milkweed, shed their skin several times and grow.

The five stages of Monarch caterpillar growth are called instars. The two in the top photo are third instar. The one in the bottom photo is first instar, a couple days since it hatched on a milkweed leaf.

They are fueling up for their transformation from caterpillar to pupa to butterfly.

Nests of distinction

With a little experience, it’s easy at a glance to tell who is using a “bluebird” nestbox here in Maryland.  Eastern Bluebirds build tight, neat nests of straw. Tree Swallows cover their grass nests with feathers — from a couple to a heap. Carolina Chickadees create deep cushions of moss. House Wrens fill boxes almost to the top with dry sticks dotted with spider cocoons.

Even among these marvels, sometimes a nest — or two — stands out. Here, a Tree Swallow pair formed a cup of feathers.

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Tree Swallow eggs cradled in a cup of feathers

In the next photo, it’s not the nest; it’s the contents. This Eastern Bluebird laid white instead of blue eggs. The best estimate is that less than 5% of bluebird eggs are white. The lack of pigment coating the shell won’t affect the health or color of the bluebird chicks.

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Rare white Eastern Bluebird eggs

White eggs test this monitor’s ID confidence. This is when taking time over several visits to watch the boxes from a distance helps. Bluebirds were observed building this late-season nest (even though the nest isn’t as tightly woven as typical bluebird nests). The female continues to tend the clutch. The eggs are larger and rounder than Tree Swallow eggs, so Tree Swallow egg-dumping is ruled out — at least for now.

Shadow fishing

What is this Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor) doing as it raises its wings and dances in circles in the coastal bay marsh on Assateague Island? It’s called shadow fishing or canopy fishing and apparently it’s a behavior that’s not well understood.

Tricolored Heron shadow hunt AINS

Tricolored Heron shadow fishing

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Tricolored Heron making a splash

Some speculate that by casting a shadow with its wings a Tricolored Heron can improve its view of underwater prey. Others suggest that the shadow lures out tasty fish, amphibians and crustaceans that equate a shadow with cover. Shadow feeding is just one of several foraging behaviors employed by Tricolored Herons. They also stalk and wait; lope and chase; lunge; scrape the bottom; even grasp a small fish out of the air. All in all, they are an entertaining wader to watch.

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Watching and waiting

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Maryland is at the northern edge of the Tricolored Heron’s range, so it is a treat to see this handsome bird in action.

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Tricolored Heron in coastal bay wetland of Assateague Island National Seashore




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

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Great Blue Heron preens in the morning sunshine

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Great Blue Heron apre preen

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

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A Tree Swallow watches its nest

Common Whitetail dragonfly

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Swallow along Loch Ness

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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.

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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.

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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.



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