Little Sal

This past May, I took in a tiny nestling woodpecker that fell from his nest at the top of a dead tree at the nature preserve where my office is located. 

I tried several tree services to see if they could renest the baby. One sympathetic, brave tree climber even tried to help, but the snag was too unstable for him to safely reach the nest cavity.


While I’ve assisted with the care of hundreds of baby birds during my years volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center (AWARE), and have raised numerous baby squirrels from infancy to release, this was my first time raising a baby bird on my own. 

For exactly six weeks, I had the privilege to care for this tiny miracle, witnessing his transformation from a helpless, constantly-chirping clump of pin-feathers to a fully-feathered, fast-flying wild bird. Being a bird-mom wasn’t so different from mothering my own infants. The baby needed to be kept warm, fed, clean, and dry. In this case, nighttime feedings weren’t required, but for the first few weeks, I offered a specially prepared formula, warmed, by syringe every 15-30 minutes for 14 hours a day. And, of course, what goes in…

Needless to say, juggling full-time work and a baby woodpecker didn’t leave me with spare time for writing (I regret neglecting my blog and you faithful friends who read it), but I did post regular updates on Facebook and Instagram. What follows is a photo and video essay, comprised of my social media posts during this amazing journey.


May 17 — This little nestling fell from a tree cavity and was found on the ground this afternoon by @adambetuel at the nature preserve where we work. We weren’t able to get her back in the nest, so I’m doing my best as foster mom for now. Hoping a tree service will help me get her back in the nest since the parents are still tending other babies. Can you guess what species it is? Lots of good clues… #wildliferehab #babybird #justanotherdayattheoffice #feedme #crazyanimallady


All day long this one chitters! Looks like she’ll be staying with me a bit longer. A tree climber attempted to renest today, but the snag was just too unstable for him to get as high as he needed to be. We’ve made it 48 hours! She’s working hard growing, and I’m working hard keeping her fed! #feedingtimeagain #babyseason #nestling


Here is something pretty cool to see! (Yes, the baby is quiet which is remarkable in itself.) Woodpeckers have long tongues used for spearing and raking insects from crevices. Their tongues are so long that they they wrap around the skull. If you watch closely when the baby flicks her tongue, you can see it moving over the top of her head. Another day of feeding every 30 minutes begins! #babybird #wildliferehab 


Learning how to be a woodpecker…pecking and probing. So many new feathers, and this afternoon I heard my first “peek!” #proudmamamoment #wildliferehab  #birdspam #sorrycanthelpit


He sleeps… #heartmelts #abirdinthehand 


Growing feathers… #littlemiracles #artinnature 


When the baby comes back after being with a friend for a few days and isn’t a baby anymore…! We’re calling him Sal.   #imabigkidnow


Nest? Who needs a nest?! #proudmomma


Spending time on the porch to get used to the sounds and sensations. I wish he had a sibling to bond with, but for now, I’m all he’s got. #snowwhitesgotnothingonme​


When you’ve been playing hard and can’t keep your eyes open anymore… #tuckeredout #sosleepy #isnthethecutest


Lots of exploring and new experiences today. This guy’s been ready to leave the nest from the start, apparently. I think those black bars on his tail feathers mean he’s actually a Downy Woodpecker, though I would’ve sworn he came from a Hairy’s nest. (Both are nesting in the area where he was found). Whatever this little bird is, he’s sure got a lot of spunk!  #whatsthisbird #ohthecuteness

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​And just like that…solid food!  #imabigkidnow #birdwatching #fledgling


He knows his mama! Just flew right to me from the top of his cage! #lapbird #theskysthelimit


Working for the birds… #birdsmatter​​​

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​​​This guy is fully flighted now! He thinks he’s quite done with his mesh cage (and people!), but he’s stuck with me a bit longer while we work on self-feeding. Made progress today! #theygrowupsofast


Twelve days… #theygrowupsofast​​​

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Two weeks ago this little miracle fell into my life (and hijacked my FB and Instagram). He’s weaning now (as you can see in these pics and the video I just posted), so our days together are numbered. He’s given me a such a precious gift. #gonnamissthatkid  


Learning to eat from a mealworm feeder… ’cause you know, someone might put one out for him when he’s released.  #woodpeckerlife


This little troublemaker is gaining independence and knows good and well where to find his grub, but mom’s shoulder is a sure bet, too. Gonna miss him this week while traveling for work, but he’s with a great bird-sitter who has promised to send updates. #gotmealworms #birdmom   


I saw lots of gorgeous birds in the mountains this week, but this is the one that has my heart. Thanks to my friends Joy and Ken for taking such good care of Sal while I was traveling. #littlesal  #theygrowupsofast #birdwatching

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​​Today we tried blueberries! #ithinkhelikesit    

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Bath time!! #rubadubdub #birdwatching #littlesal #wildliferehab #woodpecker

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What’s that thing you’re always holding up in my face, mom? #woodpeckerselfies #trouble #curiousbird


I have an aviary, at least a temporary one! A fellow rehabber donated it to me, my amazing husband drove 50 miles with me to pick it up and promptly put it together on our lower deck, and I installed the screen. Sal moved in two days ago and is happy being outside and unconfined all the time. When he’s ready (not flying at me for food when I visit), i’ll open the door for him to explore the big wide world. He can return to his safe retreat until he’s ready to be on his own. I decided that even if I could find a release cage for him with another rehabber, Sal and I are in this together till the end. #wildliferehab #gamechanger 


Someone missed me while I was out of town for my teacher workshop this week. (Or is it the other way around?) #birdmom

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Learning to eat peanuts and showing off his neat trick of holding his food on his belly while he pecks at it. Thanks, @juliezickefoose, for the suggestion! #wildliferehab  #goodeats


A little piece of my heart right here… Friends ask about Sal’s name. When he was found, near a Hairy Woodpecker nest, I mistook him for a Hairy nestling, and not yet knowing his gender, embraced the suggestion by @katy_manley to name him (when “Hairy” met) “Sally.” Later, discovering “she” was a “he”–and a Downy Woodpecker–I changed his name to Salvador, meaning “savior”–“Sal” for short. So, may I present Salvador Downy! #littlesal  #whatsinaname​


Soaking it all in… Little Sal’s release day is impending! #birdmom #bathtime  #woodpeckerlife


Sal is pretty charming after his bath as well, even if he looks rather silly. Feather care is important! #washandgo 


Little Sal is free! I released him this morning with a small group of friends. After he left the cage, he checked around the outside of it for 2 minutes, made several jubilant flights around the yard, then disappeared for two hours until returning for a mealworm snack. He has explored all corners of the yard, and we’ve been calling to each other throughout the afternoon. Friends ask if I’m sad, but I couldn’t be more excited to see him enjoying his freedom.  #freeatlast #salvadordowny #thisaintmyfirstrodeo


June 29 — First night in the books! Sal flew off to sleep among some pines last night after I topped him off with some mealworms. I was glad he stopped by again for breakfast! #thefreelife  #birdwatching


Sal continues to grace our lives with his presence. If you’re curious, you can see more of his adventures on my Facebook and Instagram feeds.

Oh, and then there were these bluebirds…

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The Coolest Birds on Earth

As Atlanta wakes to its first winter storm and I watch my backyard birds gathering at the feeder, I find myself reflecting on the ways that wildlife survives winter’s cold, harsh weather. Although I grew up in New Jersey and spent four years in college in Vermont (where winter temperatures often stayed in the single digits for several days straight), I’m now more acclimated to Georgia’s climate and inclined to put on a sweater when the temperature drops below 70 degrees. Some birds, however, feel right at home in the cold. In fact, roughly 200 species flock to arctic regions to breed and raise their young in the land of the midnight sun. Last July, a family trip to Iceland gave me a chance to witness some of these birds nesting and raising young in one of the coldest, harshest biomes on the planet, where even a summer day can feel wintery to a girl accustomed to Georgia’s climate. Average daily temperatures during our visit were in the 40s fahrenheit (colder with windchill), and we saw more clouds and drizzle than sunshine. Regardless of the weather, Iceland was one of the most amazing places I have ever visited. Our week-long adventure circling the country on the 830-mile Ring Road took us by vast lava fields, active volcanoes, massive glaciers, roaring waterfalls, and snow-capped mountains towering above slaty seas.

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Welcome to Iceland! 

The second largest North Atlantic Island (39,769 square miles), just south of the Arctic Circle, Iceland is one of the most volcanically active places on the planet, and glaciers cover 11 percent of the country. Frozen rocky subsoil combined with gusting winds prevent trees from taking root, and most of the interior of the country is tundra, a treeless polar dessert that supports only scattered low plant life like lichens, mosses, and sedges. In fact, the landscape is so barren and uninhabitable that the first American lunar astronauts were sent there for pre-mission training. Somehow, however, the birds carve out a living here, even in the most remote places on the island.

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The first bird we saw when leaving the airport was the Redwing , which we dubbed the Icelandic Robin. We saw them all over the island. 

One of the most common birds we encountered was the White Wagtail, easily recognized by its distinctive black and white plumage and characteristic habit of constantly bobbing its tail. Often seen running about in parking lots, parks, and other open areas in pursuit of insects, this is one of the most common birds of open terrain in Europe and Asia. The first wagtail we saw, true to form, was running in the gravel parking lot of our hostel catching moths. Like most birds in Iceland, for whom nesting in trees simply isn’t an option, wagtails nest in low crevices among rocks or cliffs and will readily nest in the niche of a building. Foraging on the ground and sometimes in shallow water, they eat mostly insects, as well as other small invertebrates. Watching an adult trying to satisfy the appetites of three hungry fledglings was a memorable birding moment of the trip. Iceland’s White Wagtails find the winters a bit too cold, however, and migrate to Western Africa in winter.

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This White Wagtail seemed to be finding food just fine in a gravel parking lot. 

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No rest for a parent with hungry babies!

The Artic Tern is, perhaps, the ultimate snowbird, spending summers in the arctic raising their young then migrating to Antarctica during the arctic winter. No other animal has a longer migration than the Arctic Tern, which makes a 22,000+ mile round trip journey between poles each year, spending the majority of its lifetime in the air. In Iceland, these birds are sometimes considered a nuisance, as they can be aggressive to humans coming near their nests. We saw them all over the country, inside national parks and alongside highway rest stops, and I can attest that they will dive-bomb you if you wander too close to a nesting area. (I crouched near a utility pole at a gas station to get my shot of a fluffy baby tern, which may be the cutest bird I’ve ever seen.) You can’t blame the terns for this defensive behavior when Glaucous Gulls and Parasitic Jaegers, both readily seen in coastal areas, pose a constant threat to their eggs and young. It’s remarkable to me that, in spite of their incredible pole to pole journeys, most Arctic Terns return to the area where they were hatched, often to the same colony.

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Dive-bombing adult terns keep predators (and photographers) from getting too close.

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Oh the cuteness!

Although they are common along the coastline in Iceland, especially in the summer, Common Eiders were the bird sighting that most surprised me when we first spotted them. We had just stopped for some hiking and birding at Jokulsarlon, a glacial lagoon that is one of the most spectacular, but barren landscapes I’ve ever seen. As luck would have it, the winds began to kick up and a cold drizzle started to fall as we set out. Undeterred, we were rewarded with two life birds almost immediately along the banks of the lagoon, Snow Buntings and Barnacle Geese, but after just 10 or 15 minutes of walking in the cold wind on exposed rock, we were ready to head back to the car. Every other sign of life had disappeared, hunkering down under what little cover could be found. Then we spotted some movement on the water. A couple of families of Common Eiders were diving and swimming among the icebergs, feeding on mussels and other hard-shelled crustaceans along the shoreline as if it were a lovely summer day, which I suppose to them, it was. Eiders, as you probably know, are the source of eider down, which is gathered by trained harvesters without harming or disturbing the birds. Those feathers have got to be warm to allow this bird to spend so much time in such icy waters! These hardy ducks winter largely in their breeding range, with only the most northerly populations wandering south.

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Eiders on ice

No summer trip to Iceland would be complete without seeing Atlantic Puffins. I planned a full day of our itinerary to enjoy these charismatic little birds. You can imagine my disappointment, then, when we arrived at the ferry terminal for our puffin excursion to learn that rough seas had cancelled the trip for the day. Although most of the world’s puffins are found in Iceland, where 60 percent of the population breeds, there are limited places to view them, and the only other colony in striking distance would take us 100 miles out of our way, much of it on a dirt road, on a day that we already had to drive 180 miles on winding mountainous roads to get to our next stop. Do you think we skipped the puffins? Of course not. When we arrived at the puffin colony in the Eastfjords, the wind was gusting and a cold mist was falling (surprise, surprise!), making the temperature seem much colder than the actual temperature of 45 degrees, but as soon as we climbed a few dozen stairs, we were looking out across a large colony of puffins standing guard at their burrows like soldiers and flying back and forth from their burrows out to sea to catch fish for their young. We were amused to watch a pair just 25 or 30 feet from us scuffling on the side of a cliff until one was knocked over the side and out of view. These amazing birds can dive for up to a minute and to depths of up to 200 feet, and the average catch is about 10 fish per trip. You have to give them credit for nesting in such harsh, remote places then spending the winter out at sea in the North Atlantic. I could have stayed and watched them for hours, but we had a long drive ahead and had to limit our time. In spite of the cold and wind, my husband and two teenaged children also counted the visit as one of the highlights of the trip, which made it that much sweeter for me.

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Silly and elegant at the same time!

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Puffin with feathers to line its nest

As we were leaving the puffin colony, my husband spotted a low bird flush from a rock along the side of the road—a Gyrfalcon. The largest falcon in the world, this year-round Icelandic resident nests on rocky cliffs in the open tundra where they frequently begin breeding and laying eggs while the temperature is still below zero degrees Fahrenheit. They also use these rocky ledges to scan for their primary prey, the Rock Ptarmigan (another year-round resident that eluded us). Fast and well-camouflaged against the cliffs, we had only a fleeting glimpse before it disappeared among the rocks.

During the course of the week, I added 36 life birds to my list, each one made memorable by the dramatic, beautiful, and harsh landscape around us. At one remote pull-off on our route, surrounded by black, basaltic rocks as far as the eye could see with only the sparsest covering of vegetation, I was astounded to hear a bird calling—a Common Ringed Plover. The birds that raise their young on the tundra have some incredible adaptations that allow them to live on a precarious edge in an often punishing environment. If you’ve never considered Iceland as a birding destination, add it to your bucket list. Just don’t forget your down coat!

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Common Ringed Plover among the lava fields

Christmas Bird Count Coyote

While looking for birds during the Audubon Christmas Bird Count on a cold, early-January day, my team of birders had the unexpected and delightful surprise to witness a beautiful coyote taking in some sunshine. Although I regularly come in close contact with coyotes at AWARE (and wrote about helping to raise and release coyotes in Back to the Wild), seeing a healthy one in the wild, even at a distance, was thrilling. I’m reassured to know enough wildness still exists where I live for these amazing animals to survive, yet I worry for their safety, too. Unfortunately, coyote sightings still make most people uneasy, and they continue to be persecuted on a national level.  How has the dog achieved the status of “Man’s Best Friend,” while its wild cousins, especially the coyote, continue to be feared and persecuted?

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Without our binoculars, I don’t think we would have ever spotted this coyote.

In order to understand why coyotes are so misunderstood, a few historical facts are worth mentioning. In the early history of wildlife management, as our nation expanded westward, Americans generally agreed that predators such as wolves, coyotes, and panthers should be killed indiscriminately. In 1909, under pressure from livestock owners, Congress began funding a large-scale predator control program aimed at large carnivores from eagles to bears. Both the Red Wolf and the Gray Wolf were completely wiped out in the United States in the ensuing decades and have only recently been reintroduced to the American landscape. Sadly, this predator control program persists even today with the government killing approximately 100,000 carnivores each year–using methods that include trapping, aerial gunning, poisoning, and killing young in their dens–and spending an estimated $100 million of our annual federal budget, with very little regulation, to do it. Coyotes are targeted in particular. Statistics provided by the United States Department of Agriculture indicate that more than 75,000 coyotes were killed in 2013 (The Toll Taken by Wildlife Services). Although most livestock losses come from weather, disease, illness, and birthing problems, coyotes continue to be persecuted, in spite of the vital role they play in maintaining healthy ecosystems. These federally-funded predator control activities, driven by narrow agricultural interests, kill untold numbers of non-target animals and ignore the public need for a healthy environment, fiscal responsibility, and safe public lands.

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Coyotes play an integral role in healthy ecosytems and pose little threat to humans, livestock, or pets when a few precautions are taken.

Little suggests these control measures are working anyway. In spite of persecution from humans, coyotes not only have failed to decline in numbers, but have expanded their range in all directions, flourishing in a wide range of habitats from the Canadian tundra to metropolitan cities. In fact, scientists and wildlife officials estimate coyote numbers to be at an all-time high, and studies show that efforts to reduce the population usually end up increasing it instead. In short, the resilient and resourceful coyote is an amazing evolutionary success. Many factors have contributed to this success. Until recent decades, coyotes lived only in western North America, often in harsh, dry climates with scorching days and freezing nights that enabled them to adapt to a wide variety of conditions. The eradication of wolves boosted coyote populations, both by eliminating their biggest predator and by making more prey available to them. Humans further contributed to the coyote’s expanding range by clearing forests and creating fragmented habitats ideal for small mammals, the coyote’s favorite prey. And, interestingly enough, many wildlife biologists argue that the overkill of the species has served only to transform the coyote into a more adaptable, intelligent, and indestructible animal since the individuals that escape the guns, traps, and poisons are those that possess the keenest survival instincts. Studies also show that efforts to control coyote populations actually cause a population increase within a short time. In a stable family group (a breeding pair and one or two offspring, known as a “pack”), only the alpha male and female reproduce, keeping the population in check. When individuals are killed and more resources become available, females tend to have larger litters with higher survival rates. If an alpha female is killed, other females in the area will seize the opportunity to have litters of their own. In any case, the population ultimately increases quickly. The coyote’s generalized diet gives it an additional evolutionary edge. Though excellent hunters, coyotes are also opportunistic, dining on carrion, insects, nuts, fruits, grasses, and other vegetation, in addition to small prey. In spite of our best efforts to defeat it, the coyote has adapted and persevered. Like the well-known Wile E. Coyote of cartoons, the coyote just keeps bouncing back.

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Intelligent, adaptable, and family-oriented, coyotes have outwitted attempts to eradicate them. And how can you resist this face?!

As a top predator, coyotes play an integral role in the environment, helping to maintain healthy ecosystems and species diversity. Recent studies show coyotes may even be a benefit to declining bird populations by controlling mesopredators like raccoons that prey on bird eggs and young.  (For a cool video about the importance of top predators, check out this amazing video: How Wolves Change Rivers.) Although they are moving into our neighborhoods, their presence needn’t alarm us when we take a few precautions. Instinctively fearful of people, these animals go out of their way to avoid humans. (I tell people all the time I’d rather wrangle a coyote than handle a chipmunk). When people feed them, intentionally or unintentionally (by leaving pet food or garbage outside overnight, for example), coyotes may become less wary of our presence, which can lead to occasional sightings, but rarely more than that. Most of the time, coyotes go about their coyote business–living in small, close-knit family groups that hunt and play together, care for each other, and protect their territory from intruding coyotes and other predators. Having a healthy family group in your area is an asset, as coyotes help to control pest populations and maintain the balance of wildlife, including their own species. With minor adjustments we can learn to appreciate and coexist with these intelligent, adaptable canines. For me, seeing one during that chilly Christmas Bird Count was the best sighting of the day.

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Coyotes typically avoid humans. This one looked at me for a minute, then trotted off.

DID YOU KNOW…?   In Georgia and many other states, coyotes receive very few protections. They may be hunted or trapped at any time of year and their pelts commercially sold. By law, coyotes trapped as “nuisances” may not be relocated. Trapped animals are either euthanized or sold to licensed hunting facilities where they are put in penned enclosures and hunted with dogs. Trapping is not a humane solution. Please find ways to coexist. 

EDUCATED COEXISTENCE from Project Coyote
Urban landscapes offer an abundance of food, water, and shelter for coyotes. Take the following steps to prevent coyotes from being attracted to your home:
*Wildlife-proof garbage in sturdy containers with tight fitting lids.
*Don’t leave pet food outside.
*Take out trash the morning pick up is scheduled.
*Keep compost in secure containers.
*Keep fallen fruit off the ground. Coyotes eat fruit.
*Keep birdseed off the ground; seeds attract rodents which then attract coyotes. Remove
feeders if coyotes are seen in your yard.
*Keep barbecue grills clean.
*Eliminate accessible water sources.
*Clear away brush and dense weeds near buildings.
*Close off crawl spaces under decks and around buildings where coyotes may den.
*If you frequently see a coyote in your yard, make loud noises with pots, pans, or air horns, and haze the coyote with a water hose.
*Share this list with your neighbors; coexistence is a neighborhood effort.

 

For a Flitting Moment

In my last post, I shared photos and facts about the gulf fritillary butterfly, dozens of which were laying eggs on the passionflower vines along the edge of my yard at the time. Having gone out to photograph the butterflies (who weren’t cooperating) one afternoon, I stumbled upon several of the fritillary larvae–bright orange and black caterpillars–that sparked my curiosity. I checked on the passionflower patch regularly over the next few weeks, keeping a close eye out for any chrysalises (chrysalides). I decided to bring a couple of caterpillars inside to observe and put them in a terrarium with lots of passionflower leaves, which is the only food they eat. Watching the life cycle unfold was fascinating, but the life of butterfly (if it even becomes a butterfly) is certainly fleeting and full of peril.

One of the caterpillars in our terrarium formed its chrysalis while we were out of town for a couple of days. I was disappointed I’d missed seeing it happen but excited that I might get to see a butterfly emerge for the first time ever.

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Gulf fritillary chrysalis from our terrarium.  You can see the shed exoskeleton of the caterpillar on the stem.

I found only one chrysalis in the yard, and I checked on it daily. (I suspect most of the other caterpillars, if they survived predation, crawled off to the denser thickets nearby to pupate, while this lonely individual struck out for the middle of the yard.)  When the chrysalis began to turn orange after about a week, I hoped it meant that a butterfly was soon to emerge.

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In this photo, the caterpillar has gone into the “J” position, indicating its readiness to pupate. You can see the patch of silk to which it has attached its tail end. The white patches beneath the head, in the curve of the “J,” are the emerging wing buds.

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The chrysalis had such incredible detail.

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I hoped the bright color meant a butterfly was soon to emerge.

Meanwhile, the time approached when the butterfly should emerge from the chrysalis we had inside, and nothing seemed to be happening. I feared that our caterpillar had not survived. But, in case it should emerge, I placed the stem with the chysalis in a shot glass and placed it on the fireplace mantle on our screened porch. When the other caterpillar in our terrarium crawled off the passionflower (indicating its readiness to pupate), I carried it outside and placed it among some foliage near the house, hoping we’d have better luck there. That same afternoon, it went into its “J” position and its wing buds began to emerge (like the caterpillar pictured above). The next time I checked on the caterpillar, just a little while later, I brushed a marmolated stink bug (an invasive insect) off the stem next to it. I didn’t realize it right away, but I think the stink bug had dispatched the caterpillar; by the end of the afternoon the caterpillar had shriveled up and turned black. My efforts to raise a butterfly were not to be successful, it seemed.

I continued to check on the chrysalis in the backyard daily. When I found it covered with several ants one afternoon, I was disappointed. I gently flicked the stem to try to stop the flow of approaching ants, but instead the chrysalis flew into the tall grass and was lost. I suspect the butterfly was already doomed, but I felt terrible nonetheless. Now I was batting zero for three.

Except… remember that shot glass on the mantle? I came home from work one afternoon to a most spectacular surprise!

Since it had been more than two weeks (I’d read the chrysalis stage lasts 11-14 days), I was totally surprised to see that a butterfly had emerged. Although I’d missed its emergence, it was magical to see it completely new–its wings still too wet to flutter.

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This photo shows three stages of the butterfly’s life cycle–the exoskeleton of the caterpillar is still attached to the base of the chrysalis from which the butterly hangs.

I took the fritillary outside (shot glass and all) to take some photos and considered leaving it on the deck to take off when it was ready. I then reconsidered, remembering that it would be vulnerable while waiting for its wings to dry, so I brought it back into the screened porch and kept an eye out for signs it was ready to fly away. When it started to stretch its wings, I carried it back outside. I put a few drops of hummingbird nectar in my hand as an offering, but it wasn’t interested and fluttered to the ground.

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My “shot” of a fritillary–haha!

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Nature has the prettiest embroidery!

I lifted the butterfly up on my finger where it rested for just a moment before taking off, flying high and fast. As I turned to watch it, I caught a glimpse of blue out of the corner of my eye and knew what was coming before it happened…

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Ready to take off!

A bluebird flew straight for the fritillary and snatched it in midair, flying up to a limb in a nearby tree to enjoy her prize. I was stunned! The poor butterfly–taken out on its inaugural flight. (Although I was really bummed about the butterfly, I do love my bluebirds. I still see the whole family I posted about this summer, and knowing the female’s hunting skills, I’ll bet it was she that nabbed the fritillary. Check out Empty Nest Syndrome to see her eating a lizard!)

A few fritillaries are still flitting around the backyard, stragglers making their way to their wintering grounds in Florida and other places along the gulf. Given the dangers they face–both natural as well as man-made threats–I have a new appreciation for the ones who make it there.

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A few fritillaries are still lingering in the yard in October. The lucky ones will make it to Florida and other places along the Gulf Coast to spend the winter.

Empty Nest Syndrome

For the last handful of years, my family has had the good fortune to have a pair of Eastern Bluebirds grace the nest box in our tiny suburban backyard. When we set up a box this spring in our new backyard (a suburban oasis I wrote about here), I feared we might not see any action this year because several dead trees on our property provide natural cavities. Typically, we see males start to check out the box for a period of days beginning in February, perching on top, fluttering their wings, and flying in and out carrying nesting material. Once a female is sufficiently impressed, she takes over all of the nest construction and egg incubation, and the male delivers food to her while she is on the nest. I only saw a bird fly into the house once or twice after we set it up, and never with nesting material, so when I peeked in the box in mid-April, I was surprised to discover not only a nest, but five gorgeous blue eggs.

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Eastern Bluebirds generally lay four to six eggs which are incubated for about two weeks.

Every few days, I checked on the nest to monitor the progress of the clutch. Aside from my personal interest in the nest’s success, I had registered to monitor the nest with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Neighborhood Nestwatch program, a citizen science program that provides scientists with hard-to-get data about the survival rate of backyard birds. Nestwatch scientists also visited my home recently to band some of my backyard birds so that I can monitor them and record sightings into their database. Participating in such programs is a great way to spark curiosity and excitement for birds in kids and adults alike, as well as a way to contribute valuable data that scientists can use to guide conservation measures. If you have an accessible, active nest in your yard, I encourage you to register with Nestwatch and record your observations, but do make sure to read the important nest monitoring guidelines first so that you don’t hinder the success of the nesting efforts.

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Scientists from the Smithsonian’s Nestwatch program visited our home in April to catch and band birds for us to monitor. The program provides valuable data for scientists about backyard bird populations.

Bluebird babies take about two weeks to hatch and just another two weeks to fledge. As with all babies, they grow up way too fast—in just a blink of their sleep-deprived parents’ eyes. Every three days or so, I’d watch for the parents to fly off, then take a quick peek in the nest and snap a photo.

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Newly hatched–5/3/15

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Five or six days old–5/8/14

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Getting bigger everyday–5/11/15

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“Excuse me, could you move over a bit. It’s getting crowded in here!”–5/14/15

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Last photo before they fledged. So shy!–5/16/15

Watching the adults bring food back to the nest was fascinating. Each afternoon after work, I sat on our front steps to enjoy the show from a distance. Mama bluebird brought back much larger prey items than Dad did, and she was also more reluctant to enter the nest box while I was watching than he was. I watched her bring various large flying insects or earthworms back to the nest on several occasions, but I rarely saw her go in. I’d take my eyes off the box for just a moment only to turn back and see her flying off out of sight. One afternoon she even brought a lizard back to the nest!

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Daddy Bluebird was an attentive father. He brought smaller food items to the nest, but seemed to make more frequent visits.

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The female pounded and pounded this hapless lizard on the top of the nest box! I didn’t notice until I cropped my photo that the lizard appears to have already dropped its tail—so much for that defense mechanism. I’m not sure, but I think she gave up and flew off with it rather than feed it to her young. It would have been quite a mouthful!

As the chicks neared two weeks of age, I frequently saw them poke their heads up to look out of the box.  I knew their time to fledge was approaching and hoped it wouldn’t occur the day I would be out of town for a work event. In spite of careful observation in past years, I’ve never seen the babies leave the nest, and I was hoping this year I might get lucky. When I checked the box first thing in the morning after my work trip, I was crushed to discover that the nest was empty. Not only had I missed their departure, they had chosen the first cool, stormy day in almost three weeks to do so. I looked high and low in all the surrounding areas. In my experience, baby birds typically hang around low to the ground for a day or two, or at least up in the trees in the area near the nest, but these baby bluebirds were nowhere to be found. I listened for their begging calls and could detect nothing, and I saw no sign of the parents. I worried that a snake had taken the whole clutch before they even left the nest (which is exactly the reason why birds leave the nest as soon as they are able, often when they haven’t mastered flying yet).  I worried that a predator had gotten them after they left the nest.  I worried that they had gotten wet or gotten lost and succumbed to chill. Feeling disheartened, I headed to work.

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The babies are almost ready to explore the world. Their heads popped up each time their parents visited. 5/15/15

When I returned home that afternoon, I immediately set myself on the front steps with my binoculars. After several minutes I saw the male fly in and grab an insect from the ground and fly off into some distant trees. Several minutes later I saw the female do the same, but I couldn’t make out where they had gone. Surely the babies weren’t that far away? Were the adults just returning to business as normal? The sinking feeling returned. Determined to know more, I watched several more minutes until the male returned to the yard again. This time as he flew off, I changed my vantage point and watched as carefully as I could with my naked eye as he landed at the top of a tremendously tall tree. I could just make out the fluttering of wings and distant begging calls. The babies were safe—and apparently very well equipped to get off the ground!  Phew!  As much as I had hoped they would hang around a little longer, I was relieved and happy to see them safe and sound—the best cure for empty nest syndrome. If I’m lucky, the parents may return to raise one more clutch before the summer is over!

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Empty Nester–Daddy Bluebird poses for the camera.

Note about bluebird conservation:

I’ve commented in the past that I must have walked through the first four decades of my life with blinders on not to have noticed the beauty and diversity of bird life around me, but I think that even had I been paying more attention growing up, I wouldn’t have been likely to see an Eastern Bluebird in my backyard. Eastern Bluebird populations steeply declined in the early part of the 20th century as habitat loss and competition from introduced species such as European Starlings and House Sparrows made nesting holes increasingly difficult for bluebirds to claim. Fortunately today, in spite of the tremendous pressures facing birds, the Eastern Bluebird seems to be doing just fine. The establishment of bluebird trails and other nest box campaigns beginning in the late 1960s helped Eastern Bluebird populations rebound by almost two percent per year between 1966 and 2010.* The success of these efforts is an important reminder that when we work collectively to make small conservation actions, we can effect significant change. So, leave those dead trees standing (60 species in N. America are cavity nesters!), or put up a nest box or two (make sure it is designed to keep out the larger non-native and more aggressive starlings). I’m doing my part!  *www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Bluebird/lifehistory