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

Suburban Safari*

I can’t believe it has been more than six months since I wrote my last blog post.  It hasn’t been for lack of inspiration. Aside from the demands of careers and raising two middle-schoolers, my husband and I have been busy settling into our new home on 1.6 acres after the long process of zoning, designing, and building (and keeping our old house in pristine condition until it sold). Our “subdivision” (four lots, two currently undeveloped) also has shared access to a one acre lake and adjoins a large wooded park of more than 100 acres. I am in wildlife heaven. Although minutes away from conveniences, when I pull into our driveway at the very end of our street, I feel like I’ve entered a small patch of wilderness.

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The view from the lake looking toward our house

The backyard is a small “meadow” of untamed grasses and wildflowers that run down to a brushy area along a small stream, and towering trees surround the property. I have enjoyed watching all of the different plants and trees come into bloom and trying to learn what they are. We have lots of beautiful and beneficial native plants, which I’ve written about previously, although we also have invasive English ivy and Japanese honeysuckle, unfortunately. (I’m considering renting goats to tackle this problem). We’ve added our own mark to the landscape by planting blueberry bushes and fruit trees, including a native persimmon tree, which I’ve heard is a favorite with wildlife. The edges between the yard and wooded areas are lined with wild blackberry bushes, their blooms the promise of summer cobblers if the birds are gracious enough to share. The first shrubs I bought and planted were three native red buckeyes, which I’d learned are an important early food source for migrating hummingbirds. I had to laugh at myself when they bloomed a few weeks later—along with the dozens of other red buckeyes in the woods around the house. (If you want some, I can hook you up!)

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Wild blackberries are abundant in the yard. Hopefully the birds will share.

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One of the native red buckeyes I planted (then discovered we have them everywhere!) This is an important early food source for hummingbirds on their northern migration.

Wildlife viewing is a daily pursuit in our new home. A pair of Red-tailed Hawks live nearby, and two Barred Owls call almost nightly. Four white-tailed does regularly pass through the yard, occasionally accompanied by a buck. Recently, we saw two gray foxes gamboling about in the backyard early one morning, though our occasional sightings are typically of a single individual, usually after dark. We’ve heard them rustling in the brushy area on the side of the house during the day a few times lately; the alarm calls of the chipmunks and squirrels give them away. Are they hunting during daylight hours because they have young mouths to feed? In addition to the foxes who share our home, we frequently find coyote tracks near the stream, as well as the tracks of opossums and raccoons.

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Coyote track

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Raccoon tracks

The yard is bustling with bird activity, offering boundless opportunities for new discoveries—-my yard list is already up to 66 species! The thickets attract towhees, thrashers, wrens, and cardinals, while the tall, grassy areas attract sparrows, finches, and doves. Dead trees provide a bed-and-breakfast for woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees, as well as snags for flycatchers to sally out to snatch insects in midair. Having the lake nearby means we never know when we might see our local Great Blue Heron fly through the backyard or hear the rattling call of kingfishers. Spring migration brought some delightful and unexpected surprises like Indigo Buntings, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, and a few species of neo-tropical warblers.

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Female Rose-breasted Grosbeak. In sexually dimorphic species, the female is more camouflaged in order to blend in with her nest.

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Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak–the brighter the better as far as the ladies are concerned.

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Male Indigo Bunting passing through on migration. This species will nest in the mountains of North Georgia and all the way up to southern Canada.

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Northern Flicker, a local resident. This bird has gorgeous yellow feathers underneath its wings. Unlike other woodpeckers, it often feeds on the ground.

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I wonder if this is the Song Sparrow that serenades me every morning. His morning song is different from the one he sings later in the day.

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Hairy Woodpecker on a tree snag. Dead trees are actually “trees of life”–they provide food, shelter, and nesting places for birds.

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House Finch, another local resident. House Finches are not native to the Eastern United States. Captive birds were released on Long Island in the 1940’s by pet shop owners selling them as “Hollywood Finches” who wanted to avoid being persecuted under the Migratory Bird Species Act, which prevents citizens from keeping any native bird in captivity without a USFWS permit. The birds flourished and spread and are now naturalized in most of the United States.

Clearly I have plenty of inspiration for writing, yet what little free time I can carve out of my day is often spent just sitting outside on the porch quietly watching and listening to my surroundings.  Who wouldn’t rather be outside enjoying nature than sitting at a computer writing about it anyway?!  I feel gratitude daily for the opportunity to live in a place where I feel rooted in nature while staying connected to family and friends in our suburban community. I am thankful, too, that I can share this small patch of wildlife-friendly habitat with my wild neighbors. Creating such patches, even on a small scale, is one of the most important and empowering conservation actions that individuals can make, and collectively our actions can provide tremendous benefits for wildlife and the environment. You can even have your yard certified as a Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary, a designation I plan to pursue (once the goats take care of that invasive honeysuckle!).

I look forward to having lots more “wild” stories to tell. We’ve had some real excitement here this month watching the pair of Eastern Bluebirds that nested in our birdhouse, so stay tuned for an upcoming post documenting their story. You won’t believe what mama bluebird brought to the nest for her babies one afternoon! Thank you for sticking around, and look out for my next post soon.

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I’ve been watching this male Eastern Bluebird and his mate closely as they tend to their young. Stay tuned for a post about them soon!

*Note: Suburban Safari was actually the first idea I had for the title of my blog, but when I did a search for the name, I discovered that it was already the title of a book, which I proceeded to check out of the library and enjoyed reading very much. A review on Amazon says this about the book: “The suburban lawn sprouts a crop of contradictory myths. To some, it’s a green oasis; to others, it’s eco-purgatory. Science writer Hannah Holmes spent a year appraising the lawn through the eyes of the squirrels, crows, worms, and spiders who think of her backyard as their own. Suburban Safari is a fascinating and often hilarious record of her discoveries: that many animals adore the suburban environment, including bears and cougars venturing in from the woods; how plants, in their struggle for dominance, communicate with their own kind and battle other species; and that ways already exist for us to grow healthier, livelier lawns.”