The Phoebes and the Wrens

We had an exciting day here on our mountainside a few days ago. After being with us for more than two weeks, the children have finally decided it’s time they ventured out on their own. No, I’m not writing about our own children; they made that big move many years ago. Now it’s the eastern phoebe young who have rapidly outgrown their nest, covered their fragile little bodies with feathers, exercised and strengthened their wings, and made that first (surely somewhat scary) leap into the air, thankfully coming down to a safe landing on the porch rail about ten feet away. What excitement that must have been for those little ones.

Adult phoebes first built a nest on the crossbeam close under the roof of our small entry porch five years ago. Their chosen spot is only about five feet from a good viewing place just inside our glass storm door. We happily spent many minutes each day watching their progress as they built their nest. For anyone who doesn’t already know, nest building is a time-consuming, complicated, and messy process made more difficult by the fact that the only tools involved are beaks and tiny feet. The nest was anchored to the beam with bits of mud, hard to come by during stretches of several days without rain. The bulk of the nest was an incredible mixture of small twigs, bits of dried grass, soft mosses and lichens, and other materials that caught the eye of the female nest builder. It’s not a straightforward process either. Decisions have to be made about where each piece goes. We’ve watched as the phoebe brought tiny strands of grass, studied the partially-built nest, apparently decided those particular materials were not suitable for the next spot in the project, tossed them aside, and flew off to find something better. The rejected debris scattered over the corner of the porch were clear evidence of the search for just the perfect materials. Some days we could tell the nest walls were a bit higher; the next day part of the wall had been removed as a new plan was developed.

Eventually the nest was completed to everyone’s satisfaction and the female settled in for her extended sitting spell. We’ve read that the incubation period for phoebe eggs is about sixteen days, but it seemed additional time might be needed for getting comfortable with the nest and actually producing the eggs. We all had a long wait ahead of us. Although we tried not to disturb the birds any more than absolutely necessary, we found it hard to resist taking a peek whenever we passed near our viewing spot during the day. Mama phoebe would greet our approach with any icy stare.

Mama phoebe’s icy stare

Whenever we had to exit the house by way of the entry porch door, the phoebe would fly ten or fifteen feet to one of several nearby azaleas or a witch hazel tree, where she watched closely until we had moved the appropriate safe distance away from the nest area. During the entire incubation period the male phoebe could usually be seen sitting on one of several perches from which he guarded the area, leaving only occasionally to get food for his mate or himself. When the female left the nest to take a break, he continued duty at his watch post. Watch and wait, watch and wait.

Adult eastern phoebe, always on alert

Each year the basic process has been the same for the birds and for us. This year was slightly different because a lot more nest building was needed. The original nest deteriorated a bit during the seasons it was unoccupied so each year has required repairs or remodeling. After some storms this past year the old nest was pretty much gone, so the new builders had to start from scratch after removing the debris remaining from the old nest. This beam on our porch must be a good site for a nest since this is now the fifth year it has been used. It’s well sheltered from the weather and fairly inaccessible to any intruders who might attempt to disturb the nest. We have no way to know if the same pair has returned each year to their original nesting spot or if the current phoebes are the great-great grandchildren of the original pair coming back to the old homeplace. It’s exciting to see the phoebes when they arrive after being absent for most of the year and it’s fascinating to observe the adults repeat the now-familiar patterns.

We had to be away this year for a few days at the time when we expected the hatching might occur. We were concerned when we came home and did not immediately see the female phoebe sitting on the nest. Surely the young ones had not already hatched and moved away. But we soon saw the adults busy at their new activities, constantly going back and forth finding food and bringing it back to the hungry babies. Such a demanding time for both of the adults. At first we knew the young ones were in the nest because we could see the adults carrying food, looking down into the nest, and then poking something downward before flying off again on the next mission. Eventually we saw little beaks lifting above the edge of the nest and, a few days later, two small heads rising into view. Phoebes commonly have up to four young at a time, but we were only aware of seeing two this time.

An earlier year. See the little beak on the left.

It’s amazing how quickly the babies grow. We read that the young typically remain in the nest about sixteen days after hatching, but within a few days the two were looking almost as large as the adults and their bodies were beginning to extend past the boundaries of the nest.

Two almost grown babies in an earlier year.

Then came the magical moment. I happened to be walking toward the door when I luckily saw a little one flutter—not fly, but flutter—from the nest to the porch rail. I had never seen a young bird make its first flight. It was almost as great as seeing one’s child or grandchild take those first baby steps. The young phoebe seemed as surprised as a child does when stepping out unassisted for the first time. It sat motionless on the rail for perhaps twenty minutes, glancing around as if wondering, “What do I do next?”

I’m out of the nest. Now what do I do?

When we passed by after those twenty minutes, the young phoebe was no longer on the rail, the nest was empty, and the new family was off somewhere with the adults apparently helping their young ones adapt to their new life out of the nest. We haven’t seen the babies since they left, but we did spot at least one of the adults. Hopefully they are taking a bit of a rest break before doing it all over again with a new brood, as is their custom each season. Wow! What a tough way to spend the summer.

As the phoebes have been finishing this round of their family life, there has been some activity on the deck on the other side of our house. For several years Carolina wrens have found a couple of cozy little spots for their own nesting activity. Their chosen locations are also under the protective roof in little pockets only about an inch and a half wide between two of the structural boards. A similar niche is located at each end of the deck roof and each has been used at one time or another over the years. Our first indication that something was happening this year was the discovery of twigs, grasses, and mosses scattered over the deck under the potential nest site. Someone had been clearing out the old nesting materials in preparation for something new. We soon spotted the male wren hanging around the deck, flying up to the nest area, and going down into it with bits of material. When not busy dealing with the nest, this tiny little fellow sits of the branches of the mountain ash tree adjacent to the deck. There he sings his lovely song for all he’s worth, apparently letting his mate or potential mate know that he’s working on a new home. And we do hear songs coming back from nearby as they “talk” about the possibilities. We read that the male wren starts the nest and then the female does the finishing work on the new home; seems like a good way to share in the process. One of the male’s chief activities now appears to be keeping unwanted visitors at a distance; we’ve already seen him very effectively chasing squirrels away from the deck in spite of their great difference in size. The wrens are still early in their building process, but we’re pleased to have another opportunity to share in their adventure as we watch through our living room door.

The wren was even singing for us just now as I was writing these words. What a joy to share this place here on the mountainside with such wonderful neighbors.

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.

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.