Bursting with New Life: An Update from the Mountain

Last month I wrote about the nesting activity of the phoebes and the wrens around our house. Since then there has been a virtual explosion of bird nurseries, so I thought it appropriate to provide an update on some of the bird and animal happenings during the interim.

After the phoebes’ first brood had flown the nest, the adults did take a brief break. Both the adults and the young phoebes stayed around our area, but they didn’t come back to the nest at all. The adults finally did start working on the nest some more, so we thought they were probably preparing for a second brood. They seemed to be doing some cleaning and repair work and even built up one side of the nest a bit higher. Occasionally one of the birds would sit in the nest for a while. However, after a few days they stopped hanging around the nest. We still see them nearby, but they have apparently decided that raising one family was enough for this year.

Meanwhile on the other side of the house the wrens have been busy for weeks, working and singing. At first we couldn’t tell for sure what they were doing since it appeared that they might have been working on nests in the hidden spaces at both ends of the deck roof. Plus they were making frequent trips into a nearby brush pile; could they possibly have been building a third nest?

We finally decided the wrens must have settled on one of the nest sites, because we observed them going in and out of that one quite a bit. After a couple of weeks we saw them carrying food into the nest area, a sure sign that eggs had hatched.Then a week or so ago we saw a couple of young wrens coming out of the nest area, being fed by the adults, and then hanging around begging to be fed more. The strange thing is that we have continued to see the adults carrying food into the nest site; obviously there are still baby wrens in the nest. Had there been two broods in quick succession? We don’t know. We can hear little cheeps now coming from the nest when the adults bring food, so I guess before long some more young ones will be emerging. We should have a sizable colony of wrens for the rest of the summer. That’s just fine, since you can’t ever have too many wrens with that lovely song of theirs.

On the side of the house opposite from all of the wren activity we had placed a hanging basket of fuchsias about five feet from the phoebe nest. After being away from home for several days the plants were quite dry. When Carole took the basket down for watering, she discovered a neat little nest had been inserted into the center of the fuchsias. In the center of the nest was a single egg. Apparently, while we had been away, a pair of birds had decided that was the perfect spot for their new home. We hadn’t seen any activity around the nest site, but I was really surprised when I got up on a step stool a day or two later to water the flowers and was greeted by an equally startled mother junco. In the nest by then were two small eggs, followed on subsequent days by a third and a fourth egg.

The next several weeks were exciting for both people and birds. We couldn’t avoid disturbing the juncos at least occasionally since the nest was located just about three feet from the door we had to use anytime we were going to town, but we used the door onto the deck whenever possible. The male junco sat in the witch hazel plant a few feet from the nest to raise an alarm anytime we came near the door or were outside in sight of the nest. If we came too close, both juncos scolded us with their constant chit, chit, chit sounds. When we looked out the screen door to check on the birds, one of the juncos would fly frantically from the nest to the door to the porch railing to the tree and back to the nest. One day as I was making more noise than usual at the sink while washing dishes (the kitchen window is only about ten feet from the nest’s location), the male junco came and sat on the window sill and fussed at me. And then suddenly one day they were gone. The nest was empty. The whole family had slipped away quietly without even letting us know.

The phoebes, the wrens, and the juncos are the birds we have been able to observe most closely during these past few weeks, but we know they are just a small part of all that’s happening. We also have seen catbirds carrying food into an area near the garden where we feel sure they have nested before and into spots closer to the house. Cedar waxwings are not common around our house except when migrating, but I did see a pair gathering nesting materials from a tree by our deck. A turkey and several very small chicks (poults) strolled down our drive and into the meadow a few days ago. A female cardinal perched in the front yard recently holding a very long stem of grass before flying off into the woods, presumably for some nest-building activities of her own. Every drive into town reveals many groups of recently-hatched birds of every variety, testing their wings and exploring their new world. If all the nesting we’ve seen is indicative of what’s going on with the rest of our mountainside bird population, we should have plenty of new residents around us by the end of the summer.

After our visit from the bear earlier this spring, we decided we should not be putting out bird feeders or otherwise feeding all the creatures who share this place with us. That was a difficult decision since we’ve been providing food for many of them for a long time. Over the years we’ve provided black-oil sunflower seed and/or corn, intended primarily for the birds, but also consumed in varying degrees (and frequently in very large amounts) by red and gray squirrels, rabbits, deer, possums, skunks, and especially raccoons. We do very much enjoy having them close around so we can observe their activities. But we also realize it’s not good for them to become overly dependent on having people supply food for them; they need to be able to forage for themselves within their natural environment.

But about a month ago one rather skinny raccoon (we believe she’s a young mother) started coming around each afternoon, seemingly thinking she might find some food on our deck. We believe she was probably one of the baby raccoons who had been brought to our deck in previous years to learn about one of the good local food sources. Seeing how thin she was and recognizing that she was probably providing sustenance to several little mouths back home, we thought she needed to be an exception to our no-food rule. We did a little research, got some nutritious dog food suggested by several sources, and began putting some out for her on a random basis to supplement her natural food gathering activities. She generally comes up to the house in mid to late afternoon. If we haven’t put any food out yet, she retreats to a nearby spot and waits for us to put something in a pan on the deck or in the yard. When she has finished eating, she usually comes up on our deck and looks in at us through the glass doors, seemingly wondering whether there might be more. Then she heads off on her own to search elsewhere.

Last week Mama Raccoon honored us by bringing her three babies to visit with us. They are still extremely skittish, spending most of their brief excursion hiding among the ferns, chirring to each other or to Mama, and running out quickly to grab a few morsels of food. Thus they have continued a long tradition of young mother raccoons introducing their young ones to our place here on the mountain and showing off the next generation to the folks who now live here. It’s a tradition we’re delighted to share with all these very special neighbors of ours.

Here are a few pictures of our newest visitors.

Mama raccoon and her three babies

Mama and two babies eating, one going to hide

Two baby raccoons exploring the deck

So adorable!

Look Who Came for a Visit

We don’t frequently have guests visiting at our homeplace for meals. Our children and their families live a few hours drive away, so their visits happen only a few times each year. Other relatives and friends are scattered far and wide around the country and find their way to our mountainside home rarely to share a meal. However, we do have lots of friends and neighbors who stop by daily for a visit and a snack as I’ve written before.

Yesterday we had a new visitor, though some of our guest’s family members have come to share our food on other occasions. When we looked up from our computers, where Carole was working on writing her book and I was busy drawing plans for a home addition, we saw this youngster standing at one of our bird feeders enjoying a snack. She/he may have been here the night before; one of our feeders had tumbled to the ground overnight, but we thought that the weight of a fat raccoon might have caused the worn support wire to finally break.

Looks like this could be a snack

This young bear examined the almost empty feeder for a while and then decided the seed I had spread on the ground was much more accessible. Settling down into a comfortable position in the grass, the bear proceeded to eat as much sunflower seed as it could find. Meanwhile, I had grabbed the camera and Carole and I moved out onto the deck for a clearer view of our visitor.

The feeders are thirty to forty feet from the deck.

The bear was only about thirty to forty feet away from our position but it was undisturbed by our presence. From time to time it looked around to glance at us, but quickly turned back to the snack at hand—or rather at paw. What a beautiful, gentle animal, its thick fur lustrous in the bright sunlight. We would watch it for as long as it would choose to stay with us.

It’s nice and peaceful here.

Occasionally it rose and moved to a different spot to find more seed, moving slowly on its big, padded paws. When the bear had finished eating all the seed there was, it turned toward us, moved a couple of steps closer, and studied us for a few moments. Perhaps it was wondering if the two beings eyeing it from the deck had provided it with this afternoon snack. Then our visitor headed up the hillside and off into the woods, moving quickly, but loping as if in slow motion—an incredibly graceful movement for such a large animal.

Are you the folks who put out this food?

Thanks! I’ll come again some other time.

The bear probably came back again during the night, though we were not aware of its presence. This morning we found that the metal bird feeder pole from the previous day was now bent at a forty-five-degree angle. And the larger feeder which normally hangs about three feet in front of our living room window and at least six feet above the ground was lying amidst the periwinkle vines. The feeder and the lightweight chain holding it had been pulled down, the metal mesh was crumpled and showed two holes about three-eighths of an inch in diameter—perhaps tooth marks. It surely would have been interesting to have witnessed that episode.

We don’t make an effort to feed the black bears or to attract them close around the house. We realize it it is much better for their well-being and for their safety to stay mostly in the woods and not venture too close to their human neighbors. But we do delight in observing them and all the other creatures around us whenever we can. Many years ago we twice got to see a bear enjoying the contents of our bird feeders while lying among the flowers in our front yard in the middle of the night, only about fifteen feet from the house; we watched excitedly from an upstairs window. And there was the time a bear and I surprised each other when I turned to see it on our deck about ten feet away on the other side of the sliding glass doors of our living room; we both quickly moved to different locations.

Some people have wondered whether we are afraid of the bears and whether we should be doing something (I’m not sure what) to keep them off “our property”. But the bears aren’t bothering us and we have no intention of bothering them. We each go our own way and do our own things, respecting each other’s presence, but not attempting to fraternize too closely. Regarding the question of “property”, it seems that we humans are the intruders here. The ancestors of these bears and all the other creatures of this place were here long, long before we showed up and, unless we and others really mess things up, hopefully they will continue to be here long after we are gone. In the meantime we’ll enjoy seeing each other from time to time and we’re happy to provide a snack or a meal during a visit.

Here are a few more photos from yesterday’s visit:

I know you’re watching me.

You might prefer this profile for a photo.

I think I hear something in the woods.

Maybe it’s time to leave now.

They May Be Small, But They Can Be Fierce

We have four varieties of squirrels living around us: flying squirrels, fox squirrels, gray squirrels, and red squirrels. The first two types have been seen by us only rarely. The flying squirrel has visited only once on a night a couple of years ago; it moved so fast snatching food on our deck that we barely saw it then. The impressive fox squirrels (about twice the size of gray squirrels) live primarily in the piedmont and coastal regions of North Carolina, but a small, growing population lives in the three county area which includes our homeplace. Still, we’ve only seen this rare creature twice and never before two years ago. Our most common encounters are with the familiar gray squirrels and the perhaps less-well-known little red squirrels, both of which are frequent daily visitors.

All of the squirrels are amazing to watch. I admire their agility and daring in moving from tree to tree, finding a path through the maze of interconnecting branches, sometimes leaping great distances or dropping from one tree to another. They climb the posts and beams on the deck, clamber down wires and chains to reach hanging feeders, and then hang upside down by the toes of their back feet while helping themselves to the seed or suet that was mostly intended for the birds. I can’t help but marvel at the intelligence and determination they apply to their pursuit of food, as anyone who has birdfeeders knows very well.

I enjoy observing all our wildlife neighbors, but I’m especially fond of the little red squirrels. It’s difficult to imagine an animal cuter than these characters. And the poses they strike appear so friendly, tiny paws clutched in front of their chests and big, dark eyes seeming to beg, “Can I please have some more sunflower seed now?” Who could resist such a plea?

Who wouldn’t be charmed by this cutie?

The little red squirrels (notice that I usually add the adjective little; it just seems a natural part of their name) don’t appear particularly disturbed by my presence when I am near them on the deck. As long as they can continue eating, I can go about my activities; they are not bothered by me and I’m not bothered by them. They will actually come up to the food bowls while I am still adding sunflower seed or corn. Occasionally when I have been attempting to shoo one off a suet feeder so the birds can get something to eat, I’ve had to poke the little squirrel with my finger to get it to yield its place.

Other animals and birds aren’t tolerated as well by the little red squirrels, at least when it comes to food. We usually have at least two containers (bowls, trays, and pans all work) with sunflower seed or cracked corn available on the deck. Many times we see a squirrel enjoying its meal while sitting in one of the two food containers. Several feet away is the second bowl with plenty of food available for another squirrel to come and dine. Yet, if another red or gray squirrel approaches, it is likely to be charged by the fierce little red squirrel who was on the deck first. Back and forth they go, first contending over possession of one bowl and then the other. If the intruder is another red squirrel, it is likely to be persistent enough and fierce enough to eventually win a grudging truce that allows each squirrel to eat from its own container. However, if a gray squirrel is involved, it’s much more likely to give up and go elsewhere looking for food, even though it is twice the size of the little red squirrel.

The standoff

Recently we’ve observed several encounters with crows competing with the red squirrels for their share of the food. Crows also like sunflower seed and corn (and just about anything else that might be available) and are frequent visitors on our deck. Crows are surprisingly large birds. They also are very wise, very observant, and very cautious. But when they see a good serving of food waiting to be taken, they are willing to risk a confrontation. The bravest crow will land on the far end of the deck, usually backed by several of its companions. Gradually and cautiously the crow will begin edging its way toward the food, its zigzag path allowing it to check that we are not coming out onto the deck to interfere. It also keeps its eyes on the little red squirrel sitting in the food bowl, assessing the potential threat from the much smaller creature. A few steps closer, a few steps back, approaching first from one direction and then another, the crow moves toward the food. But eventually the squirrel makes its charge and the crow jumps away. The red squirrel is such a tiny little thing, but fierceness is not necessarily determined by size. No doubt the crow will eventually get some of the available seed, but only after the little red squirrel has its fill. What fun it is to watch their dance around the food bowl. 

Sorry, but the little one ate it all this time.

A House Open to the World

The kitchen window makes a perfect frame for this winter scene.

When we go into town or travel to cities around the country, we are struck by how different our daily environment is. The close proximity of other people and houses and streets necessitates different living conditions for city dwellers and even those living in closer rural communities. Obviously different people like different things. Many people would not care to live at the end of the road here on our mountainside, but this is just what we were looking for. I can understand the many reasons why people choose to live in cities, but I’m always glad when we get back here to our homeplace. One of the main reasons is that I love the openness of our house compared to the much more closed nature of many houses and other buildings, shut off from natural world, isolated from the occupants’ surroundings.

Our house has lots of windows. With the exception of cold wintry days or blowing rainstorms the windows are usually open. We have shades on most of our windows, but they are hardly ever pulled down. Living where we do at the end of our driveway at the end of our road, we have no reason to block the outside world. We can only see one other house from our location and we can barely see that when the trees are leafed out. We have no traffic passing by; the rare vehicle that appears is either for a delivery or someone who has taken a wrong turn.

The openness of the windows allows us better to see and experience the natural world in which we live. We are open to the sounds and scents that surround us. We hear the winds blowing over the ridges and through the trees. Dogs and coyotes bark and howl in the distance, cows moo in the pastures, and owls call in the night. The birds, squirrels, raccoons, and other animals come onto our deck or pass through the yard. The deer and turkeys move through the edge of the woods or walk down our drive. The clouds move across the sky and their shadows play across the mountains. We are aware of these things because our windows are uncovered. We delight in these experiences. They bring joy to our daily lives. We are so glad to be here.

Here are a few views from within our home.

Rhododendron in full bloom viewed through our living room window

Some visitors watching another visitor and vice versa.

It’s best to stay indoors to look out at this picnic table on our deck.

Rabbit and chipmunk enjoying lunch on the deck.

Eastern phoebe babies viewed through our porch door. Adult phoebes have used this nest for several years.

We look out at the snow because we can’t open the door.

Even our dear cat enjoys observing the outside world through the door.

One of our skunk friends. Some visitors are best viewed from inside the house.

We look out the window while this deer looks in.

Beautiful and Cold New Year’s Day

Mountain to our east in hoar frost and snow

Our first day of 2018 dawned beautiful and very cold. The fine snow that started in the afternoon yesterday continued through the night, giving us a bit more than an inch by morning. The snow is very light and powdery because of the extremely dry air and bitter cold, -1 at its lowest overnight. 

We had to get out for a bit to walk through the quiet beauty and take a few photos. We already have so many we’ve taken on snowy days over the years but can never resist taking a few more. Seems that having the camera in hand focuses my attention on the beautiful sights to be seen all around us. The snow also accentuates the shapes and forms of the mountains and trees. The fluffy snow sits in puffs atop the pine and spruce needles, occasionally coming off in a cloud of snow dust when a sudden gust shakes the branches. Rhododendron leaves are curled tight against the cold. Even though we see these places every day, each new day is unique and every view is rewarding.

Tracks in the snow reveal that our rabbit friends have been out and about, going up and down our road, sometimes individually and sometimes in pairs. A neighbor cat who frequently comes to check us out has also left the prints of its slow, methodical walk. Someone else has been running along the road, larger than a cat but smaller than most dogs – perhaps a fox. I would love to be able to see all the coming and going during the nights.

The birds are staying close around the suet feeders today; cold weather brings them out in profusion. They all appear about twice their normal sizes, feathers fluffed up to provide extra insulation against the cold. Melting snow drips from a corner of the roof  and is forming a large icicle on one of the feeders, making the diners dodge the possible cold shower. 

Returning to the welcoming warmth of our house in winter is always a delight. We can sit and watch our little friends and still enjoy the views of the snow-covered landscape. What a great way to start this new year. I hope your New Year’s Day and all your coming days will be great also. May you enjoy them all!

Puffs of snow on pine needles

Fraser Fir with snow sitting atop hoar frost

Icy suet feeder

Visits from Our Closest Friends and Neighbors

Living here at the end of the road, we can’t see any other houses, except one a few hundred feet away which is only visible in winter when the trees are totally bare. That house is occupied during its owners’ occasional visits, but most of the time we’re the only people around. If a vehicle is coming down our road, either family members are coming for an expected visit, a package is being delivered, or someone is very lost. But we do have plenty of friends and neighbors who come for visits every day.

The first visitors of the morning are the juncos, chickadees, tufted titmice, and nuthatches. No doubt they are close by each night for they are here almost immediately when I replenish their supply of cracked corn first thing each day. Who can tell how many there are; it’s impossible to count them with all the coming and going.

Downy woodpeckers and the larger hairy woodpeckers are soon attracted by the activity and come to join in breakfast at the suet feeder. The red-bellied woodpeckers do not appear quite as early nor do they show up every day (perhaps they have other stops on their rounds to add more variety to their diet), but they are reliable enough that we know there are two pairs.

Usually by now there will be at least one grey squirrel, if not all eight of the nearby clan. Frequently the lovable and less skittish little red squirrels will beat them to the food. The few fox squirrels we’ve seen in the past year have made it to our driveway a time or two, but haven’t come up yet to see what’s available to eat. We look forward to getting a closer view of those rare creatures; most live nearer the coast with smaller populations here and in a couple of adjacent counties.

Bluejays swoop in usually by mid-morning, one whole family of six and sometimes their relatives. They can be a greedy and fussy crowd, trying to dominate the available food. The squirrels are pretty good at holding their places though and the smaller birds are fast enough to dart in to grab a bit and fly off to a quieter spot to eat.

The bluejays stir up enough commotion to capture the attention of our wonderful crows if these smartest of birds haven’t spotted the spread earlier while flying over or surveying the scene from one of their nearby perches in the treetops. We love to hear their varied calls announcing to the family that it’s time to dine. At least one crow always sits apart to watch for danger while the others strut around or hop over each other to get to what is perceived as a better spot to get at the food.

Each group takes its turn at the table, some staying all day, others coming and going as their appetites dictate. In the past year 2 to 24 doves have joined in the gathering, though they are much more gentle and definitely less pushy than many of the others. They tend to wait until things clear out a bit and then cautiously come to pick through the remnants for their part of the feast.

Depending on the time of year, the year-round crowd is joined on the deck by Carolina wrens, warblers of various sorts, eastern phoebes, goldfinches, purple finches, evening grosbeaks, rose-breasted grosbeaks, catbirds, thrushes, towhees, song sparrows, cowbirds, starlings, indigo buntings, grackles, and hummingbirds. We’ve even had hawks sit on the corner of the deck or in a tree a few feet away to see if a squirrel was foolish enough to venture out at the same time, but they have always flown away after a few minutes when no one showed up.

In winter the birds have always been our main feeding population. The healthy chipmunk tribe we have around in all other seasons is no doubt snuggled away in their numerous underground burrows, enjoying the sunflower seeds and corn they hauled away in preparation for the cold weather. When they were out gathering, there were usually three or four at once at the food bowls stuffing their cheeks to maximum capacity, then running off to sequester their supplies in their winter homes. They are also thoughtful enough to plant some of the seeds (especially sunflowers) in lots of spots in our garden for us to enjoy the beautiful golden blooms in the summer and fall and for the birds to have some extra sunflower seed heads as well.

Raccoon families have joined us on our deck since we first built it many years ago, usually coming after dark, though one young raccoon mama and her kids started coming as early as 1:00 pm this past year to avoid the rush and the bigger, grumpier older raccoons. They would even dine on one end of the deck while we sat fifteen feet away on the other end and enjoyed watching their antics. Over the years we’ve had as many as thirteen eating at once. Younger generations appear to come back in subsequent years, bringing along their kids to a favorite place to eat out.

Possums also come to visit with their unexpectedly charming pink ear tips, noses, and tiny little feet and toes. They enjoy most foods that they find waiting for them, but are especially fond of leftover baked sweet potatoes and baked butternut squash or pumpkin with remnants of butter and brown sugar.

This past summer at least three different adult skunks also started checking us out. Each had different coloration and markings: one black with a few white markings vertical on its sides, one white with black stripe down its back, and one black with a white stripe down each side of its back. One of these was kind enough to grace us with bringing her two babies for visits. All were some of the most beautiful animals you could imagine.

We see plenty of rabbits around, but only one ventures onto the deck from time to time to get a little snack. Less frequently seen, but ever present and often heard moving through the meadow and woods are wild turkeys; if we are very fortunate, we get to see two or three adults leading up to a dozen young ones on a foraging expedition. As might be expected, there are also lots of deer hereabouts, but they are so stealthy and so well camouflaged that we don’t catch sight of them very often. However, a few years ago during a particularly difficult winter when lots of lingering snow made it hard for the deer to find food, we saw nine searching to the east of the house and nine more on the west side of the house. We put corn out overnight and the next day at least eight came again, ate the corn, then lay down in the sun and rested for several hours about fifty to seventy-five feet from the house, a treat for them and us. And while we have made no effort to feed the black bears, on at least two occasions we had a bear enjoying the contents of a bird feeder in the front yard about fifteen feet from the house. Then there was the time a bear was on the deck while I was in the living room about ten feet away separated only by the sliding glass doors; needless to say the bear and I were both startled.

So while we may not have many people coming by the house daily or stopping in for a visit, we have lots of company. We could enjoy watching them for hours and do whenever other things don’t keep us from doing so. We absolutely love being able to share this place with our delightful friends and neighbors. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Hopefully they wouldn’t either.