Posts Tagged Red-Shouldered Hawk

Late Winter Pluses and Minuses

Witchhazel 'Amethyst'

Witchhazel ‘Amethyst’

It’s been too long since I posted here. My apologies. Late winter in my corner of North Carolina has been a mostly soggy mess. And as I type this, yet more rain is pouring down upon my mushy landscape. I have been posting small items regularly on the Piedmont Gardener Facebook page; if you use that social media tool, you may want to check out the photos and announcements of relevant events that I post there.

They're baaack!

They’re back!

As I’ve noted on the PG Facebook page, beavers have once again moved into the wetland adjacent to my creek. They have built a dam downstream and off my property, which has raised the water level in the creek so that every rain event involving more than a half-inch is causing the creek to overflow in numerous places along my property, even cutting channels into what has been a stable, flat floodplain for over 25 years. It’s a real mess, and we’re not sure what, if anything, we can do about it.

Trunk of a Leyland Cypress

Trunk of a Leyland Cypress

The beavers are actively foraging all up and down the creek. In addition to harvesting a few saplings, they even “tasted” two of the Leyland Cypresses still standing beside the creek. To discourage them from returning, I sprayed the entire lower trunks of all the Leylands with a deer repellant spray in the hopes that it would make them taste bad enough for the beavers to ignore. So far <knock wood>, it’s working, but all this rain probably means I need to reapply the repellant.

pileated holes

The work of Pileated Woodpeckers.

But not all my landscape surprises are less than wonderful. Case in point: a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers appear to have chosen a sycamore just across the creek to raise this year’s brood. Until the forest leafs out, I can see this spot from my living room window and back deck. That’s a good thing, because when I try to walk near this tree, the woodpeckers make it clear that I am not the least bit welcome.

Red-shouldered hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

Another pair of late-winter nesters has settled in, as usual, in the wetland forest — Red-shouldered Hawks. They often lurk in the trees near our backyard bird feeders, but I haven’t seen them catch any songbirds. Frogs,  salamanders, and earthworms, on the other hand, seem to be dietary staples. Wonder Spouse took that spectacular hawk photo two days ago when it decided to hunt from a tree in our backyard. He actually took the shot from inside our house. He is a wizard with his camera — and his post-processing software.

Salad season can't come soon enough!

Salad season can’t come soon enough!

When we’ve gotten a few back-to-back days of sunshine, we’ve been hard at work preparing the vegetable garden for another season. All my seeds have arrived, and last Wednesday (2-16), I sowed my first batch of greens in my germination chamber. The ones in the above photo germinated in two days! I’ll enumerate the spring garden veggie varieties I’m trying in a new post soon. All the lettuces germinated instantly, along with baby kale and radicchio. The spinaches and parsley are only just now showing signs of germinating, which is entirely normal. When they are all well up and moved out of the germination chamber, I’ll sow another batch of spring veggies.

Onion starts -- planted!

Onion starts — planted!

The two varieties of onion plants I ordered arrived mid-week, and I managed to get them all planted in their garden bed yesterday. I know they don’t look like much now, but if the voles will leave them alone, we have big hopes for these.

onions close

It’s always amazing how these stubby little onion starts that arrive with shriveled roots plump up in just a few weeks. I was delighted to get them planted the same week they arrived. Usually I’m not this organized and they wait a week or more. I’m hoping my efficiency will pay off in bigger bulbs. Stay tuned.

Cold-singed Magnolia stellata 'Royal Star'

Cold-singed Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’

We’ve had a few bouts of deep cold and some ice — mostly freezing rain — which damaged my Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’ flowers. They opened too early, thanks to the absurdly warm December we had here. Fortunately, not all the buds opened before the cold, so I’m able to enjoy a round of new blooms during our current milder spell of weather.

In addition to the witch hazel ‘Amethyst’ blooming well in the first photo of this post, my Cornus mas ‘Spring Glow’ trees are bursting with bright golden flowers. I’m hoping they will cross-pollinate each other this year and produce some of the red berries that give them their common name: Cornelian Cherry. I was thus heartened to see a pollinator on these flowers yesterday.

Of course, spring bulbs are well up. My crocuses were eaten by deer before I remembered to spray them with repellent. Snow drops and myriad daffodils are all loaded with buds and will soon be glowing in the landscape as it wakens from its winter slumber. Meanwhile, the lushest, greenest parts of my yard are the lichens, soft and fluffy from abundant rains.

Soon spring leaves will match the greens of the lichens.

Soon spring leaves will match the greens of the lichens.

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It’s all about temperature

If the soil temperature is too cold, forget about it.

If the soil temperature is too cold, forget about it.

Some decades back, I remember an experienced gardener telling me that it’s time to plant corn when emerging oak leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears.  Being of a more scientific bent, I did a bit of research and discovered that corn likes a minimum soil temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I’ve since found that corn germinates better for me when the soil is closer to 60 degrees.

But there’s truth to that old gardener’s advice. Over the years, I have observed that my soil temperatures reach 55-60 degrees just about the time the leaves of my tall oaks reach the size of squirrels’ ears. It varies a bit, depending on which species of oak and whether the oak is growing anywhere near the garden plot, but, in truth, oak leaf size and soil temperatures do seem to reliably correlate, proving once again that a gardener always fares better when she pays attention to the environmental cues surrounding her.

Especially in late winter/early spring (I can’t tell them apart this year), soil temperatures are critical to the success of my spring vegetable garden. Spring vegetables have a lot going against them in my region most years. Winters are often very wet, making for soils too wet to work. Or, like this year, repeated blasts of icy precipitation keep the soil not only too wet, but also too cold for planting. The sun is supposed to return with warmer temperatures just in time for tomorrow’s vernal equinox, and I know I speak for all frustrated southeastern gardeners when I say, Hallelujah!

But that’s the other tricky part of southeastern springs. Most years, they don’t last very long, instead morphing into summer by late April. Spring vegetables dislike summer heat as much as they are averse to freezing rain. It’s a flat-out gamble whether I reap much edible at all most years. But to be without the crisp freshness of just-picked greens or carrots, or the earthy sweetness of a red beet or onion — that’s too cruel a fate for my winter-worn green-craving palate to contemplate. And so I gamble/plant.

My lettuce and spinach seedlings in the greenhouse were mostly large enough for transplanting a week ago, but another round of freezing rain forced yet another delay. I am determined to plant them out in the next few days. I’ll pray that the row cover I enclose the transplants in will protect them from any last-minute jokes from wintry weather. Here’s what they looked like last Friday:

Eager greens ready for transplanting.

Eager greens ready for transplanting.

The local agricultural college near me publishes all kinds of useful information about gardening, including this handy chart of vegetable varieties and the minimum soil temperatures required for germination. From it, I see that lettuce and spinach seeds need 45 degrees. If you look at the top photo in this post, you’ll see that the soil temperature in my future lettuce bed was hovering at around 50 degrees last Friday. The ice storm of yesterday may have dropped it a bit, but for transplants, I’m not worried. In a couple of weeks, I’ll direct-sow additional seeds into this bed for what I hope will be a more prolonged harvest — if summer temperatures delay their arrival long enough.

This year, I’m growing a few varieties that I’ve had success with before, and a few new ones. I’m always looking for more heat-resistant varieties of greens. Here’s what I’m trying this year, all from Johnny’s Selected Seeds:

  • Red Cross — A heat-tolerant butter head lettuce that produced spectacularly for me last year. It was also delicious and really handled the heat well. As the name hints, its leaves are a beautiful red, which I love.
  • Buttercrunch — Really tasty and sweet, and reasonably slow to bolt. Leaves have enough body to work well as lettuce wraps, but are tender and sweet enough to eat by themselves. Yes, I’ve grown it before.
  • Annapolis — This is new for me this year. I couldn’t resist the description of what is supposed to be their darkest red romaine lettuce. Who doesn’t love romaine lettuce?
  • Coastal Star — Another romaine, one I’ve grown several times now because it is reliable and wonderful. Sweet, dark green leaves that stand up to warming springs better than I could have ever hoped.  I love this lettuce!
  • Corvair — Spinach comes in two forms. Some are smooth-leaved, and Corvair is one of those. This is a new variety for me. It is purported to be a slow-bolter and resistant to mildews. Less wrinkled spinach leaves means less washing required, so I’m giving this one a try.
  • Tyee — This is a savoy spinach — the wrinkled-leaf kind. I’ve grown it for years because it is tasty and vigorous. Its rapid leaf production compensates for its tendency to bolt when temperatures begin to warm.
  • Arugula — The standard salad arugula. I’ve grown all sorts of mesclun greens in past years, including this arugula. They all bolt at the first hint of 80 degrees. Despite my fondness for these tangy greens in my spring salads, I confined myself to just this type this year. I’ve composted way too many bolted mesclun greens in past seasons. This year, the arugula will have to suffice to provide that contrasting zing to the sweetness of the lettuces and spinaches in my salads.

Earlier this week, my onion plants arrived. The Yellow Granex plants will get tucked in at the same time I transplant the greens. Again, I would have popped them in before now, but all was ice again just yesterday.

According to that chart link above, carrots only need 40 degrees to germinate, while beets need 50 degrees. I’ve found that when I plant carrots when my soil is 40 degrees, they sit and wait until the soil is warm enough for the beets to germinate. I’ll use my handy dandy soil thermometer to check their future beds this weekend. If I’m at 50 degrees or better, I’ll try to get those seeds in the ground too. This year, I’m trying:

  • Romance — This is a new carrot variety for me, advertised as delicious, high-yielding, and uniform. I couldn’t resist.
  • Nelson — This consistently sweet early carrot (Romance should mature later) is a reliable old friend in my garden.
  • Red Ace — I’ve tried other beet varieties, but this is the one we love. Always productive, magnificently sweet and tender. We love these beets!

That’s it for the spring garden. If I see any healthy broccoli plants at the local agricultural supply store, I may grab a few, per Wonder Spouse’s request. I rarely have great success with spring broccoli — that summer heat problem again. But it will be easy to add a few beneath the tented lettuce bed, where cabbage moths can’t reach them to deposit eggs.

I’ve also given up on spring peas. They are so very heat sensitive, and our winters are so up and down that I rarely get a crop worth my effort. If we have a craving for spring peas, we can always grab a few at the local farmers’ market.

The greenhouse is getting full of seedlings. All my tomatoes and peppers are well up, but still small, of course.

Tomato seedlings and friends

Tomato seedlings and friends

I’ll tell you about them another time. I’ve got lots of flower seedlings growing too. Some kinds take almost two months to reach transplanting size, so I must start them early.

flower transplants

Wonder Spouse will be creating his potato bags this weekend. He would have planted them sooner, but that pesky ice slowed him too.

Every year, my blog view count increases as people search on things like, “When can I plant spring vegetables?” You will find charts of average last frost and freeze dates, but I consider those rough ballpark estimates. Every yard is different, thanks to variations in microclimate. The best way to know when to plant your spring vegetables is to pay attention to what your garden area looks like during late frosts. Is it snowy white? Then you’re in a cold spot. Err on the later side of the planting range.

To be much more confident, invest in a soil thermometer and use it. They are not expensive. Mine even comes with its own little case with a clip for attaching it securely to a pocket.

If the soil is too cold, forget about it.

Every gardener needs one of these.

I know that the wildlife in my yard is even more ready for spring than I am. Two days ago, as a cold rain began morphing into freezing rain, a frustrated Red-shouldered hawk actually parked itself on top of my bird feeder for about ten minutes. It looked so hungry and frustrated that if I had had something to feed it, I would have tried.

Hold on, Hawk. Spring arrives tomorrow!

Hold on, Hawk. Spring arrives tomorrow!

We’ll make it, friends. Spring is tantalizingly close now!

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While they sleep …

Swelling flower bud of Magnolia 'Elizabeth'

Swelling flower bud of Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’

Just before dawn this morning, thick frost glimmered in the fading light of a full moon. As the sun topped the nearby ridge, surfaces sparkled — walks, benches, lawn, even the trees. The thermometer on my cold hill bottomed out at 26 degrees Fahrenheit before the strengthening Spring sun began its work — Winter cold. Too cold.

The Spring Peepers, which have lustily chorused off and on since late December, have been utterly silent for four days. The American Toads, which had added their exquisite soprano trilling descant to the thrumming of the Peepers two weeks ago, have also gone quiet. The Green Anoles, which sunned themselves on our gutters on warm days all winter, have not ventured from their sleeping chambers in a week. To be sure, our weather has not been fit for cold-blooded amphibians and reptiles.

The plants in my yard agree. Half-open flower buds have opened no further. Some have browned from freeze damage. Others seem suspended in time, waiting for temperatures that match the astronomical calendar, knowing the equinox was last week, wondering like me, I imagine, why March turned so cruel in its waning days.

But while the plants and cold-blooded animals sleep, the warm-blooded ones are scrounging for food. A herd of five pregnant does devours every blade of green from our floodplain at dusk, when they emerge from their hiding places on the other side of the creek. Dark shadows in darkening light, they drift around the trees, more ghosts than flesh in the dimness.

The birds, on the other hand, have refused to concede to Spring’s reluctant arrival. Growing flocks of American Robins patrol the landscape, plucking fat earthworms from rain-moistened soil, muttering in delight at each new-found morsel.

The Red-shouldered Hawks circle the floodplain, then dive at crowded bird feeders in the hopes of pinning a slow-moving Mourning Dove or a greedy Red-winged Blackbird that lingers too long for one more bite. When the birds elude their grasp, they settle for patrolling the ground, pulling back fallen leaves with sharp yellow talons to reveal earthworms, which they greedily devour. When they’ve had their fill, they fly off with more; hungry nestlings must be fed, even while their favorite cold-blooded prey sleep securely in their winter hide-outs.

Nestlings must eat regardless of weather.

Nestlings must eat regardless of weather.

Flocks of Purple Finches grow daily. I think groups migrating from further south have heard about the snows in their summer homes up north. They linger at my feeders — free food — all you can eat! A pair of Carolina Wrens busily inspect flower pots, deck underpinnings, and an open garage for potential nesting sites. Wood Ducks paddle up and down the creek, preferring water warmer than the air.

A Great Blue Heron stalks from sand bar to sand bar. Rising into the air on massive wings, its majestic flight starkly contrasts with its harsh squawk of frustration at finding nothing tasty.

Alert for anything that moves, the hungry Great Blue Heron remains statue still.

Alert for anything that moves, the hungry Great Blue Heron remains statue still.

Suet feeders are perpetually busy from dawn to full darkness. Woodpeckers and nuthatches are feeding nestlings, and insects are difficult to find in the frigid air. They are joined by increasing numbers of warblers, which must be arriving for spring nesting season. Like the woodpeckers, suet is their fall-back food until the insects finally emerge.

This morning as I filled the feeders, I heard the characteristic melodic gurgling call of Brown-headed Cowbirds. They usually arrive a few days after the warblers, lingering at my feeders until they pair off, and egg-heavy females deposit their eggs in the nests of unwary warblers.

Warm-blooded life does not seem to have the luxury of waiting for Spring to assert itself. Somehow it must carry on despite the dearth of natural food and warming nights. I keep my feeders filled and birdhouses clean, in the hopes that this eases their struggle a bit — for my local population anyway.

The weather forecasters predict that our perseverance will be rewarded. Warmer days are promised soon. I think perhaps they might be right. I spotted a bright yellow Eastern Tiger Swallowtail this afternoon struggling to make headway against a gusty northwest wind.

Any minute now, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will be arriving for their spring nesting season. I’d best dust off their feeders ASAP, because their usual early food sources — blooms of Red Buckeye and Eastern Columbine — remain tightly closed against the unseasonable chill.

Not even a flower bud is yet in evidence on the native Coral Honeysuckle beloved by the hummingbirds.

Not even a flower bud is yet in evidence on the native Coral Honeysuckle beloved by the hummingbirds.

Like the warm-blooded life surrounding me, my garden and I must persevere. Lettuce transplants huddle beneath garden fabric in the vegetable garden. I’ve been afraid to check on them, fearing that lifting the fabric might chill them more. And the tomato and pepper seeds I sowed a week ago have mostly germinated in the greenhouse. I’ve raised the thermostat to reduce the chances of cold air being fanned onto new-born seedlings.

Gardening is always an act of faith. This season, however, is requiring a bit more of it than usual. Believe, my friends. Soon we’ll be up to our knees in tall grass, mosquitoes, and summer squash.

But don’t blink. I have a feeling we’re mostly skipping Spring this year.

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Game on!

Daffodil ‘Ice Follies’ laughs at the threat of snow

Tomorrow, the weather seers are forecasting cold rain for my region, a rain that may end tomorrow night as a light dusting of snow. If it occurs, that will be the first, and I suspect, last frozen precipitation of the season.

I’m much more interested in the rain forecast. Earlier in the week, the weather gurus were promising me 1.5 to 2.0 inches of rain. Today they have backed off to a measly half inch. We’re in moderate drought here, and as buds swell and early flowers bloom, the tiny bit of soil moisture we have will be rapidly consumed by thirsty just-wakening plants.

This morning just after dawn when Wonder Spouse went out to fetch the morning paper, he called me outside so that I could hear voices we haven’t heard in our yard in fifteen years. The haunting pipe-organ-deep calls of two Great-Horned Owls echoed across the floodplain as they called back and forth to each other. My bird books tell me they probably nested a month ago. Perhaps they were searching for one last tasty rodent to feed nestlings before they all settled in for their daily snooze.

We are delighted these nighttime hunters are back. Don’t get me wrong, we love the Barred Owls that have shared our landscape with us from our first year here. Their calls are lovely as they echo through naked trees, but to my ear, the calls of Barred Owls are much livelier — friendlier, if you will — than those of their Great-Horned cousins. Both sets of dawn-calling voices are welcome in my landscape as the sun begins to color the eastern horizon. The more rodent-eaters in my landscape, the better, I say.

All the birds have been lively during our continuing Winter That Isn’t. We suspect the eggs in the Red-Shouldered Hawks’ nest must have hatched, because all we have to do is step into that side of the yard to provoke both hawks into warning calls: “No trespassing here; babies on board!”

Finally, salamander egg masses are clearly visible in the little shallow pond on our floodplain. You can see the swelling eggs embedded in the gelatinous mass that Wonder Spouse photographed yesterday:

Salamander egg mass

I’m a little worried about the impending salamander larvae. Today I noticed at least one enormous bullfrog tadpole loitering in the shallows of the pond. They are notorious gobblers of anything that moves. Wonder Spouse and I are considering investing in a net so that we can remove these unwelcome additions to our salamander haven.

When I’m not watching the animals, I’ve been working on spring vegetables. On Valentine’s Day, I spent the afternoon transplanting the lettuces, spinaches, and swiss chard that I started a few weeks ago. This is what they look like now:

Spring veggie transplants adjusting nicely

Also on that day, I loaded up the germination chamber with newly sowed seeds of three pepper varieties and one tomato variety — Super Marzano. Peppers are notoriously slow to germinate, usually taking at least a full week even with bottom heat in my cozy germination chamber. I had room for one tomato variety. I picked Super Marzano because the package says they require 90 days from planting to picking. That’s about 20 or so days longer than most of the other varieties I’m planning to grow, so I figured they could use a head start. Today, 8 of the 12 seeds I sowed have germinated. Some are taller than others, but you can see at least parts of 8 seedlings as they push their way toward the light.

Tomatoes emerge while peppers take their time

Also on Valentine’s Day, my onion plants arrived in the mail — one bunch of Yellow Granax Onions. They are kin to the sweet Vidalia onions of Georgia fame. They did very well for us last year, so we figured we’d try them again. Of course, they arrived after I’d finished gardening for the day, and their bed wasn’t ready yet anyway. Fortunately, these dormant little plants can wait up to a week to be planted, so I tucked them into a dark, cool spot in the garage and promised them I’d get to them soon.

Last Thursday, I sowed Sugar Sprint Snap Peas into the bed I’d prepared for them the weekend before. This is two full weeks earlier than I’ve ever planted peas before, but I’ve also never seen a “winter” like this one before. The soil was barely moist and merely cool, not cold. It took four gallons of water from the watering can to moisten the soil sufficiently after the peas were tucked in. I am hopeful they’ll be eagerly sprouting next week when our absurdly mild February weather returns.

This afternoon, I planted the onions. It always amazes me how many tiny plants are in one bundle. I devoted one entire bed to them — 127 of them to be exact. Here they are after I watered them in:

127 newly planted onions

They don’t look like much now, but in a week or two, they’ll be greening up and thickening. Right now the roots are rehydrating; tomorrow’s chilly rain shouldn’t hurt them at all. Even a little ice shouldn’t bother them at this stage. The challenge with onions is water; they need an inch a week. I’m definitely gambling on the weather with these veggies.

Of course, I had more onion plants than bed, so I tucked in the remaining plants (47 of them) on the outer edges of the pea bed. I’ve done this before with good results. Here’s how they looked after getting watered in:

Pea bed with newly planted onions

As soon as the peppers and Super Marzano tomatoes finish germinating, I’ll be moving them onto a greenhouse bench so that I can sow more tomato varieties. Meanwhile, I’ve got to prepare the other beds in the spring garden quadrant of my garden, so that I can sow carrots, beets, and many more lettuces and spinaches. Plus I’ll be transplanting the starts growing in the greenhouse. I’m aiming for the end of the month to have the spring garden completely planted. That will be two to three weeks earlier than I’ve ever done this in all my 40+ years of gardening in the Piedmont.

Will I regret my rush to take advantage of what seems to be a record early spring? Maybe, maybe not. But for good or ill, the game is on!

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Love’s Labors Lost … and Won

The price of excess enthusiasm

On this day that has come to serve as an acknowledgement of love, I thought I’d share a few pictures that illustrate how the amorous intentions of flora and fauna in my Piedmont, NC yard are faring this year. You may recall the precocious flowers of my Royal Star Magnolia that I documented here.

As you can see from the photo at the top of this entry, the groundhogs got their revenge yesterday just before sunrise, when the temperature on my hill registered 15.7 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s plenty cold enough to zap delicate white petals floating twenty feet in the air. I count that as a love labor lost; those flowers won’t be getting pollinated. However, fat fuzz-covered buds still abound on this tree, so perhaps love — in the form of new blooms — will win, as warm air returns to my area today.

The blooms of plants close to the ground, such as daffodils and crocuses, were unimpressed by Nature’s latest little cold joke. My Lenten Roses, though completely neglected by me so far this year, are cranking out flowers in profusion:

Hellebore love laughs at cold weather

The Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Aurora’ that I planted last November is showing off just a few lovely orange-and-yellow strappy petals. I can testify that they are as deliciously fragrant as advertised, and quite impervious to cold snaps.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Aurora’

Many of the birds that live in and around my yard are talking about love these days. The Barred Owls proclaimed their territory and ardor a month ago. I suspect they are nesting now, because I don’t hear them much these days; birds tend to be much quieter when they are nesting.

Likewise, two weeks ago, a female Wood Duck paddling on the creek adjacent to my yard was shrieking in annoyance every time I accidentally got too close. Now she has gone silent. Did our absurd winter warmth coax her into early nesting?

Also two weeks ago, I watched a pair of Red-Shouldered Hawks build a nest in a tall pine near the end of my floodplain. Two years ago, a pair successfully raised four chicks to adulthood, nesting in a Sweet Gum that we could see from our window. Wonder Spouse took some excellent photos of this family, including this shot of Mother Hawk with her brood:

Mother Hawk and brood

Last year, a pair of hawks refurbished the same nest, but we are fairly certain they did not succeed in bringing new life into adulthood. We watched the pair take turns sitting on eggs for about three weeks, then all activity stopped — love’s labors lost.

This year, we are hoping that the pair nesting in the pine will have better luck. I’ve read that Red-Shouldered Hawks mate for life, but they don’t live long, averaging only a little over two years most of the time. I don’t know if we’ve been watching the same hawks every year, or if perhaps the hawks on the pine nest are new to our yard. They may be offspring of the successful nest of 2010, because I watched the female borrow sticks from the old Sweet Gum nest, relocating them to the Loblolly Pine nest. Would offspring be more likely to notice and use their birth nest than an unrelated hawk? I don’t know.

Shortly after nest-building in the pine stopped, I tiptoed down there and tried to photograph the nest. It’s about 35 feet up, securely lodged between sturdy branches, with plenty of needle-covered branches above it to shelter the nest from weather and sun. It’s not a great shot, but this is the best I could do:

New Red-Shouldered Hawk nest

Woodpecker drumming started up a few weeks ago too, and I’ve spotted several newly excavated holes near the tops of dead trees on the other side of my creek. At least one hole is the rectangular shape characteristic of Pileated Woodpeckers, which we hear and see regularly. The woodpeckers and nuthatches have been devouring huge quantities of suet from our feeders lately. If they aren’t yet actively nesting, I’m thinking they are just about to.

The male goldfinches have not yet started to brighten their plumage to summer sunshine standards, and mixed winter flocks of chickadees, titmice, and warblers still actively forage in our yard. We’re in moderate drought here, so the bird baths that I keep stocked with clean, fresh water are very popular.

A Tufted Titmouse stops by its favorite watering hole

At least once a day, a pair of Eastern Bluebirds that has been noisily inspecting nest box options for several weeks stop by to bathe, splashing out two-thirds of the water in the process. The pair that nests in the Purple Martin house every year always raises two broods — love’s labors won twiceover!

If a love lesson can be drawn from observing the plants and animals in my Piedmont yard, I’d say it is that persistence pays. Love is hard work, but successful labors of love yield lasting beauty in the comfort of family. That’s a Valentine’s Day sentiment I think we can all endorse. Happy Valentine’s Day, Wonder Spouse — and to everyone else out there laboring for love.

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Frog Legs for Lunch

Perhaps the slightly wetter weather made the frogs more active. Or perhaps the Red-Shouldered Hawks had tired of their earthworm menu. Whatever the reason, I managed to catch a few somewhat fuzzy shots (sorry about the quality) of one of the hawks eating lunch in a large black oak in my backyard. Here it is meditating on its meal:

Red-Shouldered Hawk pausing between bites

And here is the moment I figured out what it was eating:

Red-Shouldered Hawk with a mouthful of frog

Yup, that’s a frog leg dangling out of the left side of its beak. From the size of the leg, I’m guessing dinner was a Southern Leopard Frog. Many dwell along the creek and in the adjacent wetlands, and their voices joined the Spring Peeper chorus more than a week ago.

A few moments after I took the second shot, the hawk flew up to the nest and shared the rest of the frog with its mate. I believe humans consider the back frog legs to be the tasty part of the amphibian. Perhaps the frog hunter saved the best bits for its mate confined to the nest.

Such dances between Life and Death are common on my five-acre patch of piedmont. In this case, I figure tadpoles will always outnumber hawk nestlings, and so I am content.

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The R Word

Can I believe it? Is it really possible that my floodplain might look more like this 36 hours from now — minus all the summer vegetation, of course?

September 2008 Flood

I’m afraid to even write it, much less say it out loud. Last weekend’s promised inch-plus of precipitation never manifested at my house. The total in our gauge? A pitiful 0.39 of an inch. Enough to dampen the ground and make the birds chirpy. Not enough for mud puddles, creek-fortifying, or vegetable watering.

Today those untrustworthy meteorologists are chattering excitedly about an impending significant precipitation event. Some counties near me have even been placed  under precautionary flood watches (so they’re the ones who’ve been hogging all the water!). The radar is full of massive green blobs that are purportedly heading my way. I am struggling to believe they will reach my thirsty yard.

Of course, if my creek overflows, that will present its own set of challenges. I worry about the Wood Duck couple that I saw quietly paddling up and down the creek this morning. Have they built their nest high enough off the ground to protect eggs/nestlings from disaster? It’s probably better that I don’t know the location of their nest.

And a prolonged driving hard r— (no, I’m not going to type the word — don’t want to scare it away) will be hard on Mrs. Red-Shouldered Hawk and her young brood. I’m fairly certain that, two days ago, the eggs began to hatch. Suddenly both parents were flying back and forth to the nest excitedly. I can’t even step out onto my back deck now — much less walk on the floodplain — without both parents complaining loudly and constantly about my unwelcome proximity to their nest.

I watched Mr. Hawk acting more like a chicken than a hawk yesterday afternoon. I’ve observed Red-Shouldered Hawks hunting for earthworms many times on my floodplain. The moist soil keeps the worms close to the surface, and they are abundant in the loose sand-silt enriched by debris from occasional floods. Usually, the worm hunters are recently fledged birds.

But yesterday, it was the parent bird. He settled near Brush Pile Mountain, where much organic debris provides excellent worm habitat. He made little jumps, talons extended, then pulled back his feet to scrape the soil. As fast as he scraped, he’d tilt his head to one side, looking for freshly exposed earthworms. When he found one, he immediately carried it to the nest.

My theory — I’m not a bird expert, I’m just going by my observations — is that regurgitated earthworms make excellent first meals for freshly hatched hawklings. They’re high in protein, and lack bones, fur, or feathers, which are probably harder for parents to process into something good for their young ones.  The parents gradually introduce larger prey to their brood as they mature.

Maybe the reason I always see newly fledged hawks hunting worms on the floodplain (they always hang together at that stage) is because that’s the first food they remember. And, of course, a worm is much easier to catch than a field mouse or frog running for its life.

For the hawk parents, the up side of a big precipitation event will be all the earthworms that flee to the surface to avoid drowning. All in all, a big precipitation event in my drought-stressed yard would definitely have more positive effects than negative ones.

But I’m not counting my chickens — or earthworms — this time. I’ve been disappointed by fickle clouds too often of late.

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