Chickadee success

In the four years I’ve been helping to manage the park’s nestbox trails and 50+ nestboxes, we haven’t had a successful Carolina Chickadee nest — until now. Tree Swallows, Eastern Bluebirds and House Wrens are our most common nestbox users. The few nesting attempts by Carolina Chickadees in recent years have been thwarted at the nest-building stage, usually by House Wren takeovers.

This year we replaced a long-forgotten nestbox off a wooded edge of the nature center’s parking lot. Its last known occupant was a flying squirrel.

Remember me?

Remember me?

In late April, the nestbox contained the distinctive sign of a Chickadee nest — a base made of moss.

April 26: Deep base of moss

April 26: Deep base of moss

The most common Chickadee in Maryland’s Piedmont is the Carolina Chickadee. I admit to difficulty distinguishing a Carolina Chickadee from a Black-capped Chickadee. The two are known to hybridize in the region, so I guess the difference isn’t too clear or too important to them either.

The nest continued to progress with the addition of soft material to form a cup.

May 1: Soft nesting material added

May 1: Soft nesting material added

This is when things have fallen apart with recent Chickadee attempts, so when four eggs appeared we were thrilled. And took steps to protect the nest by adding a wren guard — a simple sheet of plastic parallel to the front of the box — to hide the opening from avian predators. With eggs in the nest, the Chickadee adults were committed to the nest but we watched to confirm that they would maneuver around the guard. On the third try, the female did just that and returned to the nest.

May 8: Four Carolina Chickadee eggs

May 8: Four Carolina Chickadee eggs

After the normal 11-14 days of incubation, all four eggs hatched and nestling growth proceeded.

May 20: Four one-to-two day old Carolina Chickadee hatchlings

May 20: Four one-to-two day old Carolina Chickadee hatchlings

May 24: Five day old Carolina Chickadees with feather tracks emerging

May 24: Five day old Carolina Chickadees with feather tracks emerging

May 29: Ten day old Chickadees, almost fully feathered, but no black caps yet

May 29: Ten day old Chickadees, almost fully feathered, but no black caps yet

The wren guard was removed a few days before the projected fledge date so fledgling exit wouldn’t be impeded. Nesting extended longer than the typical 13 to 17 days, likely due to heavy rains and unseasonable cold. Lots of watching and waiting. The Chickadee parents fed the young at regular intervals and fussed noisily at the nestbox monitor and oblivious park visitors. There were no signs of the parents coaxing the young to fledge, so all appeared normal. No photos of nestlings from the final checks; just quick peeks to prevent early fledging.

This is what a successful Carolina Chickadee nest looks like.

June 6: Carolina Chickadee nest within hours of four fledglings leaving nest

June 6: Carolina Chickadee nest within hours of four fledglings leaving nest

June 6: Side view of the depth of the moss base

June 6: Side view of the depth of the nest’s moss base

Happy day!

As always, photos were taken in the course of normal nestbox monitoring without flash.

To learn about nestbox design from an expert, visit this site’s Nestbox Blueprint page.

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Catbird went a courtin’ (and Starling did too)

I heard a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) singing even more vehemently than usual. Atop a neighbor’s shed, a male was singing, displaying and dancing to attract the eye of a nearby female. Imagine a fluffy hokey pokey — dipping and turning itself about.

Gray Catbird in courtship dance

Gray Catbird in courtship dance

Catbird M3

Catbird M4

It looks like we may see a nest!

Gray Catbird pair

Gray Catbird pair

These charming native birds are always welcome at Elev. 401. According to Cornell’s Ornithology Lab, Catbirds are “often frugivorous,” a technical way of saying they eat fruit along with all manner of insects. There’s dogwood, winterberry, blueberries, elderberries, sweetbay and blackhaw viburnum growing for them here.

Meanwhile, in a sycamore across the road, a European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) has been flapping its wings and calling to attract a potential mate to a nesting cavity it has claimed. So far, no takers.

European Starling

European Starling

EUST syc2

Starlings are a non-native species, brought to North America (some say specifically to Central Park) in the late 19th century so that the birds of Shakespeare’s works could be enjoyed on this continent. Yes, really. A misguided deed. Starlings are now invasive, one of our most numerous birds and a common predator of other cavity-nesting birds. Bluebird and even Wood Duck nestboxes are designed with Starling deterrence in mind. Still, Starlings are clever, entertaining and beautiful — getting by on looks and personality as they out-compete native birds for food and habitat.

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Wildflowers and more wildflowers

An abundance of spring wildflowers is the reward for extended cool, wet weather. On the last two Sundays I saw one new-to-me plant and more plentiful familiar wildflowers along trails that I’ve regularly hiked for several years.

Travel along a Maryland Piedmont trail — and click on each photo for a closer look.

I found a colony of dainty Bellwort Perfoliate (Uvularia perfoliata) along a ridge trail. While I recognized it as part of the Lily family, Bellworts were unfamiliar to me. This is one of three Bellworts found in Maryland, with the largest found only in the mountains.

Bellwort Perfoliate

Common blue violets are everywhere along the trails and also a carpet of tiny White Sweet Violets (Viola blanca), less than two-thirds the size of a common violet.

Sweet White Violet

Sweet White Violet

In a dry meadow clearing, Wood Sorrel (Oxalis violacea) is emerging from beneath last year’s grasses and stubble. Notice the shamrock-shaped leaves.

Violet Wood Sorrel

Violet Wood Sorrel

Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) lines the wooded trails.

Rue Anemone

Rue Anemone

The Trillium and Trout Lily can be found in the stream valley, if your timing is good. Ephemerals, they bloom and disappear without a trace until the next year. The Trout Lilies (Erythonium americanum) appeared for just a week.

Trout Lily

Trout Lily

Trillium grandiflorum hardly needs a common name. As showy as it is, most hikers never notice it growing near the stream bank unless pointed out.

Trillium grandiflorum

Trillium grandiflorum

My favorite Trillium is the Yellow Trillium (Trillium luteum). It deserves two photos.

Yellow Trillium

Yellow Trillium

Yellow Trillium detail

Yellow Trillium detail

Last year I recall seeing one Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius) plant. This year it is plentiful near the stream. Dwarf Ginseng does not share the medicinal properties that have led to the over-harvesting and threatened status of American Ginseng.

Dwarf Ginseng

Dwarf Ginseng

I was thrilled to see a proliferation of my favorite native azalea — Pinxterbloom — growing in an area that was clear-cut and replanted some years ago as a result of the gypsy moth invasion. Pinxterbloom (Rhododendron periclymenoides) is as pretty as its common name is charming.

Pinxterbloom Azalea

Pinxterbloom Azalea

A couple very good spring walks in the woods.

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Spring beauty

The woods are yielding the first flowers of spring. These wildflowers bloom fleetingly, before the trees leaf out, while the sunshine can still reach the forest floor.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria Canadensis) is becoming more plentiful. I’ve seen patches along several Piedmont trails.

Bloodroot

Bloodroot

bloodroot stand

The blooms of Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria ), tinted green when they first emerged, have brightened to a crisp white.

Dutchman's breeches

Dutchman’s breeches

This delicate flower is a Toothwort, most likely a Cutleaf Toothwort (Dentaria laciniata), native to both Maryland’s Piedmont and Coastal Plain.

Toothwort

Toothwort

And, at last, Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica).

Spring Beauty

Spring Beauty

Mayapple, Showy orchis and Trillium have broken ground (see Mayapple foliage to the left of the Spring Beauty) and will be flowering soon!

A word about invasive plants:  While searching out and photographing these native wildflowers, on this visit I made it a point to pull at least one invasive plant for each photo taken. I pulled a lot of garlic mustard! (As a trained Weed Warrior, I’m authorized to remove it from park land.) Garlic mustard not only crowds out wildflowers but also releases a chemical that interferes with the all-important fungus that trees and plants use to process nutrients through their roots. If you find garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) in your yard, pull it to help contain its spread.

Invasive garlic mustard

Invasive garlic mustard

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Early spring blossoms

With spring running late this year, the first woodland wildflowers are a welcome sight. Here are two that are hard to spot.

The elegant Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is named for the red juice in its roots. The plant has been used in traditional medicine for hundreds of years.

Bloodroot

Bloodroot

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is a relative of bleeding heart.

Dutchman's breeches

Dutchman’s breeches

Trees are starting to flower too. The buds of native flowering dogwood trees (Cornus florida) are beginning to open.

Flowering dogwood

Flowering dogwood

The Maple tree’s blossom is easily overlooked but has a delicate beauty.

Maple tree floret

Maple florets

Spring has sprung!

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Sights of spring

Signs of spring are appearing every day in the Piedmont.

Tree swallows have returned to nest in the meadow after wintering in Florida and points south.

Tree swallows eyeing nestboxes

Tree swallows eyeing nestboxes

Rabbits are nibbling fresh growth.

Eastern cottontail holding very still

Eastern cottontail holding very still

The tiny Northern Brownsnake has reclaimed its favorite spot in the garden since emerging from hibernation.

Northern brownsnake warms itself in the sunshine

Northern brownsnake warms itself in the sunshine

The earliest native bloom in the Piedmont — skunk cabbage, a relative of Jack-in-the-pulpit — delights naturalists (and few others).

Skunk cabbage in flower

Skunk cabbage in flower

The first violets are unfolding.

Common violet

Common violet

The bees are back!

Honeybee on crocus

Honeybee on crocus

Goldfinch males molt to regain their vibrant breeding plumage.

American goldfinch

American goldfinch

And Robins are everywhere.

American robin

American robin

Happy spring!

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Sounds of spring

It’s a late spring in Maryland’s Piedmont. But it’s beginning to sound like spring.

Nothing much to see in this post, just to hear. Sound quality is uneven, so you’ll need to adjust your volume. Each link will take you to a separate YouTube page.
TIP: Close the YouTube link immediately after each clip or you’ll hear a noisy YouTube video.

On a sunny mid-March morning, this woodpecker — I think a Downy, too far away to be sure — drummed high on a maple tree. Woodpeckers drum to establish territory and impress prospective mates. In contrast, songbirds sing. Click here to listen (11 seconds).

Visit the little wetland at Oregon Ridge Park for the next three sounds of spring.

Click here to listen to Red-winged Blackbirds, which have returned to the marshy area to breed (13 seconds).

Wood Frogs made their presence known on one of our rare warm late-March afternoons. Click here to listen (32 seconds). No surprise that many park visitors think they are hearing ducks.

Finally, on a cold, windy afternoon, a few hardy Spring Peepers sang their song. Not a chorus, but it’s a start. Click here to listen (37 seconds).

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Assateague last day of winter

March 19 was cold and windy on Assateague Island. Songbirds, shorebirds, wading birds and raptors were largely out of sight, lying low before Spring arrived the next day with a hard, slushy rain. But there is always something to see.

Horned Grebe in winter plumage

Horned Grebe in winter plumage

Two Horned Grebes in their winter plumage fed on the bayside. They are diving ducks and strong underwater swimmers. It’s hard to catch a photo because you never know where they will pop up after a long dive. I hope their feeding is successful because they will soon be migrating to their breeding grounds in central and northwest Canada and Alaska.

Great Blue Heron tracks

Great Blue Heron tracks

There were signs that a Great Blue Heron had been foraging in the flats since the last high tide. Those are some big feet!

Assateague pony band

Assateague pony band

The wild ponies were abundant on the beachside and bayside. With very few people in the park, the ponies meandered easily across the road. This year’s harsh weather was rough on the ponies, with reportedly three in their 20s succumbing to old age this winter. Good long lives for wild ponies.

And a sign of spring! This male Osprey has claimed a perennial nesting spot since returning from its wintering ground, probably in Venezuela. The females arrive a little later, so he’s waiting for his mate to make the journey back to Assateague.

Osprey claiming nesting spot

Osprey claiming nesting spot

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Tough as a titmouse

Look up at an abandoned wasp nest and you might spy a Tufted Titmouse feasting.

Tufted titmouse with a morsel plucked from old wasp nest

Tufted titmouse with a morsel plucked from old wasp nest

During the summer, titmice eat a variety of adult and larval insects, including wasps and stinkbugs (yay!). Insects are still in short supply in a cold March. Since only the female wasps that are queens-to-be survive the winter, I’m unsure what this titmouse found in last year’s wasp nest. And my camera wasn’t sharp enough to capture a close-up of the bird’s meal, but it looks like desiccated wasp. (Double click on photos to enlarge.) Perhaps some other insects had adopted the nest.

TUTI wasp5

Here’s what first caught my eye. Spot the titmouse foraging at the base of the wasp nest.

TUTI foraging on wasp nest

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Great Backyard Bird Count

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

This weekend marked the annual Great Backyard Bird Count (http://gbbc.birdcount.org/), when birders from around the globe report their observations to a data base compiled by Cornell University. With squirrels laying low during the current deep freeze, birds made the most of the high-energy suet and seeds at Elev. 401’s backyard feeders.

A pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Note the male’s showy red cap and the female’s subtler crown.

Male Red-bellied Woodpecker

Male Red-bellied Woodpecker

Female Red-bellied Woodpecker

Female Red-bellied Woodpecker

A pair of Downy Woodpeckers too. Elev. 401 needs a woodpecker nest box.

Female Downy Woodpecker

Female Downy Woodpecker

Male Downy Woodpecker

Male Downy Woodpecker

Chickadees and many other birds must crack open seed against a branch. Watch them at a feeder: pluck, fly to a nearby branch, crack, eat, repeat.

Chickadee

Chickadee

In contrast, cardinals crack open seeds with perfectly adapted beaks.

Northern Cardinal opens sunflower seeds

Northern Cardinal shows how to open sunflower seed…

...and safflower seed

…and safflower seed

Other familiar birds.

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

White-breasted Nuthatch in familiar pose

White-breasted Nuthatch

Junco -- possibly slate morph

Dark-eyed Junco — possibly slate-colored group — announces snow’s in the forecast

And a mystery guest. The markings and coloring suggest American Goldfinch in winter plumage, but the beak is too long and narrow for a finch. It’s a very small bird. Can anyone ID this visitor?

Update: It’s a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Tiny and fast-moving. Either a female or a male characteristically hiding its red crown. Always fun to spot a new bird.

Mystery bird

Mystery solved! Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Mystery bird needs ID

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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