Backyard Brief: What’s New?

This spring I’ve added a new bird feeder to the party, and there are some new arrivals not before seen, plus others not seen in a while. Some migratory, some residential. Most of the birds that visit seem to prefer the finch seed mix to the black oil sunflower seed, but they are two different brands, so I suppose quality could be a factor. I’ll have to mix the two in both feeders to spread the sights and delights. Happy Earth Day.

New this year
  • song sparrow – Smaller than the house sparrow, with a narrower beak, buff and brown streaking with a black chest spot and eye line stripes, he makes beautiful music all day. The song sparrow perches in our weeping cherry tree beneath the bedroom window, in the tops of the trees (hazelnut?) lining the street sidewalk, in the evergreen of the neighbor’s yard behind us, and hops in the grass below our large backyard feeder. I think there may be more than one. He just seems to be everywhere these days, and it’s a welcome addition.
  • brown-headed cowbird – brief glimpses in the vicinity, seen and heard (loud, bright, high-pitched chip) 4/21/17 on our gazebo structure. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to the camera in time. Shy fella.
New this season
  • chipping sparrow – Two males! Also petite like the song sparrow, with a ruddy skull cap and grayish cheeks with an eye stripe, he can easily hide even in the freshly mowed grass. I might have seen females without realizing they weren’t female house finches or house sparrows. Those all tend to blur together. Although I did see a male chipping sparrow last June, the one I thought I saw in May 2016 turned out to be a female red-winged blackbird. These guys appeared 4/21/17.
  • red-winged blackbird – Usually a transient visitor, this time with female in tow; several males spotted, three at once on one occasion this week.
Other less regular visitors seen lately
  • downy woodpecker – Sometimes upside down as necessary, feeding on the suet. Female downy confirmed and pictured below. The other possibility was female hairy (longer beak, larger bird, no black bars on outer tail feathers). 3/31/17
  • common grackle – He keeps trying to alight on the squirrel-buster feeder without success. I haven’t captured his image yet, though. 4/21/17
  • European starling – Usually in flocks, they tend to prefer the suet as well.
IMG_0487_starling-triptych

starling triptych

American goldfinches are in the process of molting for their brighter seasonal black and yellow. The rosy house finches and house sparrows are as ruthless competitors as ever, northern cardinals have come around now and then in mated pairs, and the docile mourning doves have made themselves at home in the bed below our pagoda dogwood. The American robins continue to dominate, as expected.

Wildlife TV Programs This Week

One of my favorite ways to view wildlife is through TV programs on my favorite nature channel NatGeoWild (DirecTV 283). There is always something delightfully soothing, fascinating, mysterious, invigorating, or surprising to see–and always much to learn.

In the USA, two special options rendering reality in two very different styles will be broadcast this weekend. They are The Zoo on Animal Planet (channel 282) and Wild Scotland on NatGeoWild (channel 283).

The new episode of The Zoo (link to live streaming of season 1 episodes), a show I have yet to sample about adventures at the Bronx Zoo, is on next Saturday, April 1, at 10pm Eastern and features a desert fox, or fennec, named Charlie. I LOVE fennecs. The tall, pointy ears, the dark eyes, the foxiness, the elegance–truly entertaining canids.

Of course, I love Scotland, too, and until now have not seen a show advertised on NatGeoWild (channel 283) that focuses on Scotland’s natural treasures: Wild Scotland will air starting at 8pm Eastern next Sunday, April 2, in a series of 1-hour-long premiers, each focusing on a different season’s challenges and species in the Scottish wilds. Plus, it’s narrated by Ewan McGregor (at least the UK version is, which seems to focus on the Hebrides)–can’t wait!

Episodes for this series, part of a regular program known as Destination Wild in the U.S., start with “Spring Awakening” at 8pm (Eastern), about this unpredictable season’s effects on life in the Highlands. This new episode is followed by two others at 9pm and 10pm, “Mid Summer’s Night Dream,” and “Into the Woods” (I found no direct links for profiles on these episodes).

Earlier that day are additional, re-run episodes of Destination Wild, including Wild France. I added that to my DVR, also, just for good measure. Wild Alaska was one of the earliest in that line that I recall seeing years ago.

If you missed Big Cat Week on NatGeoWild this year, you missed some great shows set in North and South America including the Amazon jungle and Andes mountains. The majority of shows presented a diverse array of African savannahs, river deltas, deserts, and swamps. I DVR’d most of the shows and watched them later at my leisure. My preferences were the mountain lion, leopard, and cheetah episodes, as well as those involving, you guessed it, African wild dogs, aka African painted dogs.

Incidentally, although big cats are endangered in many places, the social life of lions leaves something to be desired with the males’ lack of protective instinct for younger sibling cubs and the infanticide of marauding adult male lions. Dogs, otters, and even bizarre hyenas are less dysfunctional. For a primer on how great African wild dogs are, see the footnote. *

Sometimes it’s a refreshing change of pace to watch individual animals tough it out–leopards, cheetahs, mountain lions, jaguars, even honey badgers. However, Shark Week (NatGeo) is a ways off, not till late summer, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (previously on USA but this year on FS1) airs each year on Valentine’s Day, and Puppy Bowl on Animal Planet (channel 282) broadcasts as an alternative to the NFL Super Bowl (also early February for you non-sporting breeds). Those ships have sailed.

Generally, Animal Planet focuses more on adventure that may or may not involve animals, with programs such as North Woods Law, Pitbulls & Parolees, Tanked, and Treehouse Masters. I’m less of a fan overall of Animal Planet because I would rather see actual animals, not just people acting like them. There’s no substitute for the real thing.

These are not the only channels for observing wildlife on television, just the most obvious, most reliable, and most popular. Every once in a while, there is a special presentation, a Disney movie, films like March of the Penguins, and others on various channels from movie channels to science to family. Of course, now YouTube and other online venues offer even more opportunities to view animal and wilderness videos of all kinds. Our options continue to expand with streaming media and the mobility of videos being shared across social networks.

But if you’re more of a traditionalist as I tend to be, and you prefer good, old-fashioned TV for most of your visual home entertainment, check out this week’s offerings on NatGeoWild and Animal Planet throughout the week. I like The Incredible Dr. Pol, American Beaver, Otter Town, and anything to do with wild canids like foxes, wolves, jackals, coyotes, and dogs (including Dog Whisperer Cesar Milan shows). Tune in especially on Saturday for The Zoo at 10pm Eastern and for Wild Scotland starting at 8pm Eastern on Sunday. Enjoy!

Wild Scotland Reference

By the way, as I am in the process of presenting my multi-part series on Outlander-oriented tourism in Scotland–having visited the country last year but sadly seen little wildlife during that trip–I’m including below a few resources to learn more about exploring wild Scotland in person. 

For general tour guide sources about wild Scotland, I recommend:

Scotland the Best: Peter Irvine chooses his top 50 Scottish places to eat, stay and play – Daily Record – THE latest edition (book) of Scottish travel bible Scotland the best is out and here, author Peter Irvine selects his top 50 places to eat, stay and play.

Rough Guides – The Rough Guide to Scotland – The new, full-colour Rough Guide to Scotland is the definitive travel guide to this gem of a country. In-depth coverage of its burgeoning food scene, artistic innovations and awe-inspiring wild places

Walk Wild Scotland (walkwild.org) – Wilderness. Adventure. Culture. Relaxation.

Regional Guides and Guides by Type of Place or Activity

To begin to drill down into specifics, a helpful starting point for exploration is the Scottish Natural Heritage nature reserves and parks page. It provides different category links for types of sites and where to find them, including national, regional, and local nature reserves, national, regional, and country parks, national nature reserves and those managed by SNH, as well as other sites.

The following are some select resources I happened to come across while trip planning. This is in no way an exhaustive list; some vast territories are not covered.

In the South

WWT Caerlaverock – Wildfowl & Wetlands Centre near Caerlaverock Castle, managed by Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (wwt.org.uk)

Adjacent to WWT Caerlaverock is the Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve managed by Scottish Natural Heritage (snh.gov.uk) – “an internationally important coastal site on the North Solway Coast.” It is a birding hotspot (winter) and habitat for natterjack toads (summer) in the shallow pools on the northern edge of the reserve. “Winter attracts staggering numbers of wildfowl and waders. Oystercatcher, pintail and curlew feed on the mudflats and roost on the merse (local name for saltmarsh).”

St. Abb’s Head National Nature Reserve, Eyemouth, Scottish Borders (a National Trust Scotland site) – “A nature reserve and seabird colony on a dramatic cliff-top known for dolphin and puffin sightings.” – Google maps

Central Scotland & southern Highlands

In Fife, just north of Edinburgh, across the Firth of Forth: Welcome to Fife Coast & Countryside Trust and Local Nature Reserves.

Rannoch & Tummel (rannochandtummel.co.uk) – In the Big Trees Country of Perthshire: Loch Rannoch, Schiehallion munro, Dunalastair Estate, Blackwood of Rannoch (Scots Pine, remnants of the Great Forest of Caledonia), Kinloch Rannoch (village), Tummel Bridge and Loch Tummel, Rannoch Moor, Rannoch Station, churches, and more

Argyll & the Isles

Scottish Beaver Trials in Knapdale Forest – “Spot the signs of beaver activity in one of the most stunning parts of Scotland.” For information on the project, see the Scottish Natural Heritage page about it.

Argyll & the Isles (exploreargyll.co.uk) Wildlife and nature reserves page – a brief overview followed by three pages of specific results on wildlife and nature tourism in Argyll & the Isles, including Bute Forest, Islay Sea Adventures, Mull Eagle Watch, and Staffa National Nature Reserve.

Cairngorms National Park

Cairngorms National Park (visitcairngorms.com – official) – Activity search results for “Wildlife Watching” include well-established wildlife tours such as

UK Wildlife Safaris: Cairngorms Highland Wilderness–diverse, elaborate over 7 days, the tour offers sightings of red deer, wild goat, golden eagle, common seal, red squirrel, otter, pine marten, badger, and Capercaillie via treks to the Speyside Wildlife Hide, the Moray Firth, and through Caledonian pine forest–

and Rothiemurchus Safaris and Tours (Aviemore): osprey, badgers, red squirrels, red deer, pine martens. See Rothiemurchus.net for the full range of outdoor activities available, which include wildlife watching and photography, self-guided walks, pony treks, fishing, white water rafting, gorge swimming, hiking, kayaking, biking with bike hire, clay target shooting, quad bike treks, mountain climbing, archery, and special activities for kids.

For more Highland wildlife and bird watching safaris, go to VisitScotland.

Farther North and West

Scotland’s National Nature Reserves (nnr-scotland.org.uk) – Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve (lower northwest coast vicinity, Highland): On the hill you may see red deer, pine marten, mountain hares, foxes, voles and stoats.

Garbh Eilean Wildlife Hide (managed by Forestry Commission of Scotland) along Loch Sunart between Acharacle and Strontian, West Highland – otters, pine martens, a heronry, and, rarely, golden eagles and white-tailed eagles

Islands

Arguably the best place to see puffins is Handa Island. The Islands are generally best for waterfowl sightings year round.

Eilean Ban: The Brightwater Centre (eileanban.org), The Pier, Kyleakin, Isle of Skye island wildlife: “On the island you may see Voles, Pine Marten, Rock and Meadow Pipits, while in the water around, Shags and Cormorants are regularly seen feeding, and Eider Ducks have appeared in large numbers. Porpoises and both Harbour and Grey Seals are visitors, not to mention the resident Otters!

Don’t forget to learn about wildlife and nature in the Outer Hebrides, Orkney, and Shetland!

If you decide to hold off till the weekend, Wild Scotland is sure to be another great way to start exploring the Scottish wilderness. Watch it this Sunday, April 2, at 8pm Eastern on NatGeoWild.

The Zoo‘s latest episode called “Birds and the Bees” features the fennec fox, bee-eater birds, and a leopard; it airs Saturday, April 1, on Animal Planet at 10pm Eastern.


Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with any of these companies and make this recommendation from personal interest alone.

  • African wild dogs are the most efficient predators in Africa, with a percentage of hunts resulting in kills more than 90% of the time, and arguably the most humane. Rather than slowly suffocating or bleeding their prey, like big cats often do, African wild dogs immediately go for the belly, which induces the numbing effects of shock and results in a quick death. Again, dogs are better than cats–it’s just a fact. But they’re all endangered, and each ecosystem survives in a delicate balance. For a snapshot of other wild animals I enjoy, see Five-Phrase Friday (23): Cool Creatures.

Backyard Brief: Sparrow Sparring

Fierce  feathered  flying  feeding  frenzy

Backyard Bloodshed

cutting flowers in sun
a pinched caterwauling
behind
no sign of a child
peek around the dogwood
glimpse a grey cat passing
in its mouth
a small eastern cottontail
now silent limp
dangles by the neck
the cat walks
body beneath
to the evergreen shade
rips at its prize
I am near
trying to see
cat disappears
I go around
fence's other side
wide-eyed rabbit
sees me
begins to move
from side lying
to upright
and staggering
comes toward me
toward the fence
pokes nose through slats
where a sale flyer rests
it retracts
stops in the sun
I back away
look over the fence
see the bright red
hanging out
along its side
toward the back
muscle bone or organ
I don't know
second wound behind
it stays put
I curse the cat
not finishing off
am I to blame?
not my place
not my yard
no one home
and no gun
only hammer shovel spade
and would not reach
I walk away
the robins hop
the sun shines
the flowers beam
I go inside
write this

Backyard Brief, July 2016

Without any encouragement besides the lush flower beds planted, and perhaps the weather, unusual creatures have come around recently. First, a tree frog on our siding above one of the ferns. Then, a HUGE moth in the middle of a spectacular thunderstorm, perched on our front door frame near the doorbell button.

We don’t live near many trees, and shade is scarce. Our neighborhood is young, and most of the trees are ornamental on individual properties. Across the street, behind the new house just built, where new neighbors just moved in, there are woods, albeit hacked away to make room for more clear land in their backyard.

We planted a serviceberry tree in the spring in honor of our beloved dog Elyse, buried near it in the backyard, and for our love of birds, and we have a pagoda dogwood on the other side of the backyard. Our weeping cherry rounds out the sum total of trees on our actual property. The devil strip on the other side of the front sidewalk by the street, of course, bears a line of chestnut or hazelnut (?) trees throughout much of the neighborhood.

So what on earth a tree frog was doing clinging to the side of the house at dusk last week I’m not sure. A cute little bugger, though.

DSCN1835

without flash, flashlight aided

DSCN1836

with flash and flashlight

The moth startled me by its presence, for I almost mistook it for a flying mammal, i.e., a bat. And certainly, I was unsure at first as to whether or not it was a moth. I called my husband to bear witness. The lightning warranted our seeking views of its performance, so I had moved from the back of the house to the front to look out the windows beside the front door.

The moth had very large black eyes and that alien-looking head shape to make it seem other-worldly. I wonder if it had been blown off course by the approaching storm, or due to its size, thought nothing of simply attaching itself to a wall to wait out the wind, lightning and thunder.

It stayed there through many flashes of my camera until finally its wings began to throttle and eventually carry it up the side of the house and away into the night. The picture below provides a nice sense of scale with the window frame and the doorbell fixture behind the alien creature.

DSCN1845

Today, I was delighted to see a behavior among the sparrows I had not observed before. A female was taking pellets of seed from the newly replenished bird feeder and shooting it down for mouth-to-mouth feeding, first with one and, then, two of her brood. Normally, I can’t tell the difference between regular adult female sparrows and juveniles, but the size difference became apparent once I realized what she was doing.

The youth were still quite demanding, despite having learned to fly and acquired a full set of normal-looking plumage, especially the first, fluttering its wings against the grass and chirping incessantly for more grub. It could anticipate when Mama was about to descend and deliver, which triggered its opening and holding open its little beak while it continued to beat its wings to the ground.

The second juvenile was more industrious, seeking dropped seed on its own in the grass directly under the feeder. After a few more feedings for both, however, the mother flew off toward the front of the house, and her two young ones immediately followed. Other sparrows had arrived and were splitting their attentions between feeder perch and earth.

Yesterday, there was a ruckus as a dark brown, fluffy cat high-tailed it through the backyard of the neighbor directly behind us, pursued closely by the two nuisance chihuahuas from two doors down. They all disappeared behind the front of that neighbor’s house, and I smiled briefly as I continued dead-heading my flowers.

Then I thought, again, how ridiculous it is that the dog owners never use a leash, don’t have a fence, and don’t ever tie up the dogs in the yard. The pair had assaulted my dog on a walk last year, and I’ve seen them do it again at least twice with other people’s dogs since then.

Not so much biting, but barking and terrorizing. The larger dogs (most would be), taken aback, try to get away from the onslaught, and the ill-mannered dogs’ owners run after them as if they’re surprised each time by their quickness and propensity for trouble.

I only hope that when we get another dog, they’ll either have better control of those two or . . . the problem will somehow be . . . removed. In jest, in jest, but see my five ways to skin a cat; our fantasy could easily apply to the big trouble in tiny packaging.

Still, the majority of the vast number of dogs in the neighborhood are well behaved and well controlled, and so we must count ourselves lucky.

Five-Phrase Friday (39): Cicada Culture

Five fun facts about cicadas, our 17-year visitors. Content borrowed from Cicada Mania.

  1. Five eyes: “two large, obvious, compound [red] eyes and three ocelli. . . . [black] jewel-like eyes” between the large ones. Ocelli is Latin for “little eyes.”
  2. Mistaken attraction: “Cicadas think the sounds made by power tools and lawn maintenance equipment are made by cicadas. They get confused and will land on the people using the equipment! Pro-tip: cut your lawn in the early morning or near dusk when the cicadas are less active.”
  3. Five tasty ways to eat cicadas: cicada kabobs, lemon cicada, cicada salad, cicada and potatoes, cicada burger
  4. “Honey dew” or “cicada rain”: Yes, that’s cicada pee, from drinking tree fluids.
  5. Cicada math: “Scientist speculate that one reason why these cicadas emerge in 17 or 13 year cycles is because those are prime numbers. The fact that 13 & 17 are relatively large prime numbers makes it difficult for predators to synchronize with them,” evolutionarily speaking. A calculated game of survival.

To learn more–the other 12 (17 total) fun facts featured, plus other resources–visit Cicada Mania.

Psst . . . locusts are not cicadas, and cicadas are not locusts. They even look very different. Locusts are similar in appearance to grasshoppers. To me, cicadas look more like overgrown flies. . . . Sorry.

cicada83

Cicada – Image credit: Cicada Invasion via duckduckgo.com

 

Backyard Brief, June 2016

Spotted so far this month at our house:

  • chipmunk – 1
  • squirrel – 1
  • blue jay – 2
  • grackle – 2
  • red-winged blackbird – 4
  • rabbit – 1
  • goldfinch – 2
  • house finch – 4
  • house sparrow –  lots
  • toad – 2
  • cardinal – 4
  • chipping sparrow – 1
  • starling – lots
  • robin – lots
  • mourning dove – 4-6
  • honey bees, bumblebees, carpenter bees, yellow jackets, mud wasps, flies, pavement ants, spiders (various), mosquitoes, moths (various), butterflies (various) – several
  • house cat – 1
  • Cooper’s hawk – 1
  • flowers – oodles
  • weeds – too many

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