Seasons at Frying Pan – Winter

Winter. A time of bone-chilling cold, desolation and gloom.

But winter is also a great time for the nature-minded: as the deciduous trees shed their leaves, the forest canopy opens up, and more is revealed. For me, the first thing that winter brings to mind is that this is a great time to see woodpeckers.

In our part of the country, most woodpeckers are with us the year round (except for the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, which is a migrant from northern forests in winter). But during other times of the year, they are usually concealed by the thick foliage as they usually probe the main trunks or high branches. The open woods of winter means they are much easier to spot. Furthermore, in other seasons, the woods are usually filled all kinds of sounds: bird songs, insect chirping and leave rustling. In winter, most songbirds have departed and insects have hunkered down or perished, and there is less sound-muffling foliage, the drumming and hammering of industrious woodpeckers carry far and wide. From the small and friendly Downy Woodpecker to the bold and raucous Pileated Woodpecker, one can count on seeing a few on most days. Of the seven woodpecker species found in our area, six can be regularly observed in the park (with the exception of the Red-headed Woodpecker).

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Winter migrants arrive in the park in hordes. Of these, two are the most common: the White-throated Sparrow and the Dark-eyed Junco. To me, their arrival marks the definitive turning of the season. But these birds follow very different migration paths: White-throated Sparrows breed in the forests of northern United States and Canada and follow a north-south route, whereas Dark-eyed Juncos are mostly a “vertical migrants” in that they travel from their summer grounds at higher elevations to the coastal plains (with some lateral movements, of course).

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

The quintessential winter bird, though, is probably the namesake Winter Wren. They are not numerous, and are not easy to see as they usually forage in the understory or wood piles. That is, until they burst out their songs, then you will definitely notice — they trill a cascade of rapid chatters and squeaks, like flickering flames in the chilly air, while bobbing and pumping their stubby tail at the same time. More than anything, they restore my faith in the resilience of life in the long, cold months.

winter_wren3_m

Other migrants are more erratic. Purple Finches, for example, may not be seen in the area for several winters. But then in what’s called an “irruption year” (usually due to exceptionally harsh winter and/or shortage of food in their northern grounds), flocks of them will descend in the park. They seem to be especially fond of the seeds of the Chinese elms. The winter of 2018-2019 was a good irruption season, and because of their irregular visitation, I was most thrilled to see them. Other winter migrants can sometimes be seen in the park too, such as Long-tailed Ducks, Ring-necked Ducks or even Buffleheads (a diving sea duck), but the ponds in the park are too shallow to keep them for long.

Purple Finch

Purple Finch

Winter is also an even greater time to see raptors, because not only will you see the magnificent birds, you will — if you are lucky — witness drama. After the harvest, the open fields afford little cover for the rodents, and this creates opportunities for winged hunters. Among these, Red-shouldered Hawks are residents in the park. They are familiar with the terrain and know how to utilize farm machines as lookout perches. Their bulkier cousin, Red-tailed Hawks, also frequent the park. Both Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks belong to the genus buteo and mainly hunt small mammals and reptiles. The productive hunting grounds at Frying Pan Farm Park are a magnet to them.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk, along with its smaller cousin Sharp-shinned Hawk, belongs to the genus accipiter. These agile birds with short wings and long tails mainly prey on smaller birds. They like to hang out around the animal pens and barns where House Sparrows and Domestic Pigeons are abound, waiting for a chance for a lethal strike.

Copper's Hawk

Copper’s Hawk

The wintering sparrows, juncos and finches as well as resident birds also attract falcons, the supreme aerial predators, to the park. Of these, the Merlin is strictly a winter visitor, whereas the Peregrine Falcon, the fastest bird on earth, may be the ones that nest in nearby Reston. After they snatch a victim, they like to devour it on the bare branches of tall dead trees. So if you want to see one, that is where you should look. One time I even saw a gliding Peregrine Falcon with a Mourning Dove in its talons. To some, these scenes may look gruesome, but nature is red in tooth and claw sometimes: after all, the predators have to eat to survive too.

Merlin eating what appears to be a House Sparrow

Merlin eating what appears to be a House Sparrow

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon with a Mourning Dove in its talons

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon eating an American Robin

One other winter visitor that also follows an erratic irruption pattern that I really want to see in the park, but have not so far, is the Snowy Owl. One has been spotted in nearby Dulles Airport in recent years, and you would think that the open fields and abundant prey at Frying Pan would attract them to at least make a brief sojourn. What a thrill it would be to see one here! Maybe someday.

Speaking of owls: the resident Barred Owls roost here in the winter — that is, they sleep overnight in some fixed places. There are a few reliable spots in the park where Barred Owls roost (if you know where to look). By January, they start to pair and find tree cavities to nest. If I find a nesting cavity, I will make a mental note to check their progress in the coming months, hoping to see the fuzzy owlets emerging in the spring.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

A few times in the winter a snowstorm hits. Then the park is transformed into a totally different world: one could be forgiven to think that he’s been transported to the Arctic tundra. Snowstorms put wildlife through extra hardship. When the sun comes out again, they seem to redouble their effort to forage, and they seem to be cheerier than usual, perhaps to celebrate their survival after the blizzard. They are also easier to see in the white background, which is why I like to watch birds after a storm.

Snow field

Snowfield

American Robin in the snow

American Robin in the snow

The snowfields also reveal activities of wildlife — you may see tracks of foxes or rodents, or the imprints of a hunting raptor. You may even see a Red Fox bounding away in the snow. It is no longer easy to tell which ones are the old wily ones and which are this year’s young, as they too have matured and ready to raise their own family. By mid winter Red Foxes start to mate, at night you may hear their somewhat blood-curdling shrieks when they call to their mates. If the park staff leaves some room for them, we may see newborn kits in the spring, and the cycle of life will be renewed again.

Red Fox in the snow

Red Fox in the snow

Note:

This is the end of a 4-part series, the other parts are: Spring, Summer and Autumn.

In order to keep this essay more readable, I chose to only include a small set of pictures — it would be too overwhelming and distracting to include hundreds of pictures. I also used low-resolution pictures to keep it concise. If you want to see more pictures I have taken in and around the park, you may visit the dedicated section on my website. It will be continually updated to include my latest pictures.

You may also want to join two Facebook groups that may interest you: Nature Lovers of Virginia for nature-related photos and discussions, and World Bound Travel for broader, including travel-oriented, topics.

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Seasons at Frying Pan – Autumn

Autumn is the time of harvest and colorful foliage. Of the former, Frying Pan Farm Park has aplenty — it is a farm after all. Dumped in the compost piles are discarded corn cobs, some still with kernels embedded, which attract opportunist wildlife. As to the latter, the autumn colors are more muted compared with those in the mountains west — the composition of trees here (a lot of conifers, almost no maples) does not lend to much brilliance. Furthermore, the ash trees are ravaged by the invasive and destructive Emerald Ash Borer and many have sadly succumbed. Rather depressingly, the woods are generally not in very good health.

But here and there you may still see a splash of colors, especially from vines such as Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy. Yes, Poison Ivy, the much-maligned and feared plant, causing rashes and blisters to many who touch it. But it is a native plant and provide food to many wildlife.

Virginia Creeper

Virginia Creeper

Just like in spring, migratory birds move through the park. But unlike in spring, now the birds are less conspicuous — songbirds seldom sing during their fall migration, as they no longer need to attract mates and compete with rivals. They only have one goal in mind: to reach their wintering grounds. They are also more skulking in the fall, sticking with low shrubs and bushes to search for much-needed food to fuel their long journey. Most neotropical migrants, especially warblers, also put on their plainer fall plumage, making one species look similar to another. So it takes more patience — and luck — to spot them. “Fall warblers” has long been the bane of birders, but isn’t it also a great opportunity to learn about the subtle differences among these lovely birds?

Nashville Warbler

Nashville Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Of the migrating warblers, one species — the Palm Warbler — seems the most numerous and lingers longer than most other species (except for the Yellow-rumped). Maybe this is because they have a relatively short migration (they winter in the Gulf Coast and Caribbeans), so they can afford to linger. These are restless, and what appears to the human eye nervous birds: they like to bob and wag their tail when foraging in the open pasture or searching the crannies of fence rows for morsels of food.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

Another warbler, the Yellow-rumped also arrives in autumn in small flocks. They too are in a more muted plumage, but their namesake yellow rump patch and flanks are still visible. Unlike other warblers, this one will actually winter in our area. I always think of warblers as birds of the warmer months and longer days; how wonderful is it then that the Yellow-rumped Warbler keeps a ray of sunshine for us in the dark winter!

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Kinglets — Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned — also arrive at the onset of winter. These cute little birds are one of the smallest songbirds, each weighing just a few grams, even lighter than some hummingbirds. But gram-for-gram, they are one of the most active birds I have seen besides perhaps the hummingbirds: they dart among branches like little fairy nymphs, or flutter like butterflies, now here, now there, and occasionally flashing their brilliant crown. Autumn may be the precursor of winter’s desolation, but these spirited birds always cheer me up.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Shorebirds also stop by the park on their way south. Among these, the Solitary Sandpiper in particular always lights up my day and gives me a sense of wonder. Unlike many other shorebird species which migrate in huge flocks, they usually travel in small groups or alone. They are long-distance migrants, wintering in Central and South America, even as far south as the Pampas in Argentina. In migration they seek out mudflats and wetlands to refuel. Imagine all the shimmering lakes and waterways they will see during their long flight! I feel privileged that they choose the few small puddles at Frying Pan Farm Park as a stop-over.

Solitary Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper

Autumn is also a good time to appreciate our resident birds. They join in harvesting autumn’s bounty too. We may take their presence for granted, but they are no less beautiful than the migrants. In fact, other birds come and go, but these are our constant companions, and I always feel grateful that they are always around.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

American Robin

American Robin

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

For me, autumn’s true glory is, more than the foliage, the butterflies. In weedy fields, these colorful insects are busy drinking up nectar from various flowers, or performing their mating dance in the air. Of these, Common Buckeye, several kinds of fritillary and sulphur butterflies are the most showy, while the smaller skippers are must less conspicuous. For most of them, this is truly a dying glory — most adult butterflies only live a few weeks. During this time they must find mate and procreate, leaving their eggs or larvae to endure the harsh winter.

Common Buckeye

Common Buckeye

Variegated Fritillary

Variegated Fritillary

Orange Sulphur

Orange Sulphur

Common Checkered-skipper

Common Checkered-skipper

Some butterflies also migrate. Of these, the Monarch is the most legendary: they embark on a multi-generational journey from North America to their wintering grounds in the cloud forest of central Mexico. If you look carefully, you can trace their flight path in the autumn sky in a general south-by-southwest direction. Monarchs concentrate in their body toxins from milkweeds which they feed on during their larval stage, making them unpalatable and toxic to predators. The Viceroy butterfly looks strikingly similar to the Monarch (the dark band across its hind wings is a give-away). It used to be thought that the Viceroy mimics the Monarch to borrow its warning signals. It is now believed that, since the Viceroy is also unpalatable and toxic, these two species share similar colors and patterns to reinforce the warning signals in a phenomenon known as Müllerian_mimicry.

Monarch

Monarch

Viceroy

Viceroy

Mammals also fatten themselves up in anticipation of the lean months ahead. Eastern Gray Squirrels munching on or burying acorns or nuts is a familiar sight in and around the park.

Gray Squirrel

Eastern Gray Squirrel

Oh, and the Red Fox. Always canny and opportunistic, they also enjoy autumn’s plenty — be it a discarded corn cob, or an incautious rodent — even if they have to do so in the shadow of humanity.

Red Fox

Red Fox

Autumn’s glory begins to fade as the days shorten and temperature steadily drops. What will the harsh winter bring? Stay tuned for the next episode!

Note:

In order to keep this essay more readable, I chose to only include a small set of pictures — it would be too overwhelming and distracting to include hundreds of pictures. I also used low-resolution pictures to keep it concise. If you want to see more pictures I have taken in and around the park, you may visit the dedicated section on my website. It will be continually updated to include my latest pictures.

You may also want to join two Facebook groups that may interest you: Nature Lovers of Virginia for nature-related photos and discussions, and World Bound Travel for broader, including travel-oriented, topics.

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Seasons at Frying Pan – Summer

Summer is “the year at high tide”. Or so says Henry Beston in his nature classic The Outmost House. But to the casual eye, it may appear to be uneventful or even stagnant (the oppressive heat certainly makes one feel so sometimes).

But nature is busy at work. Most obvious is the wild flowers brought forth by the abundant sunshine. The pale blue Chicory is a common sight, but did you know that its roots can be used as a coffee substitute? Sunflowers, daisies and milkweeds of several kinds also put out showy flowers under the glaring sun.

Chicory flower

Chicory flower

Gloriosa Daisy

Gloriosa Daisy

Gloriosa Daisy

Gloriosa Daisy

The nectar-rich flowers attract pollinators such as butterflies, bees and even hummingbirds. One of the most conspicuous — and most beautiful — is the Tiger Swallowtail.

Tiger Swallowtail

Tiger Swallowtail

Red Admiral

Red Admiral

Dragonflies and damselflies are also abound. Of dragonflies, Common Green Darner, Blue Dasher and Common Whitetail are the most common and numerous, but if you are careful and have a discerning eye, you may find some rarities. Dragonflies are supreme fliers and ferocious hunters, preying on other insects, but they can also be caught by birds and become food themselves.

Common Green Darner

Common Green Darner

Blue Dasher

Blue Dasher

Damselflies usually stay closer to streams. They look more slender and delicate than their dragonfly cousins, and their wings are folded back when at rest. Don’t let their dainty appearance fool you though — like dragonflies, they are also carnivorous insects with an insatiable appetite.

Ebony Jewelwing

Ebony Jewelwing

Violet Dancer

Violet Dancer

The loudest insects in summer are undoubtedly cicadas. Two species may be commonly found: the Dog-day Cicada has dark eyes and green markings on the wings. They seem to sing the loudest in the hottest days (“dog days”) of summer, hence their name.

Dog-day Cicada

Dog-day Cicada

The Periodical Cicada, with their distinctive red eyes, has a life cycle of 13 or 17 years (most commonly 17 years). Thus, in some years you may find none of them, while in their years of emergence they seem to be everywhere. Different broods emerge in different years. 2020 and 2021 will be a peak years in our area for them.

Periodical Cicadas

Periodical Cicadas

If you are lucky, you may witness one of the highest dramas in the insect world: this is when a Cicada Killer Wasp hunts a cicada. The female of this wasp species catches a cicadas, injects them with venom to paralyze them. She then drags her victims to the  nesting burrow and deposits her eggs in them. The paralyzed cicada will serve as food for her offspring. Cruel? Maybe so, but nature is sometimes red in tooth and claw.

Cicada Killer Wasp with her prey

Cicada Killer Wasp with prey

Birds appear less numerous and quieter in summer for several reasons: first, a lot of migratory birds have moved on to their breeding grounds farther north. Secondly, the resident breeding birds (including migratory birds that settle down here) have by now finished their courtship rituals and are busy feeding their young. Furthermore, the thick foliage conceal bird activities. But birds are around. Occasionally you may catch glimpse of an adult bird carrying a beakful of food, usually a caterpillar or a flying insect, preoccupied with their all-important parental duty.

Red-eyed Vireo

Red-eyed Vireo

Or you may find fledglings (newly fledged chicks) around their nest or in the field. Tree Swallows and Eastern Bluebirds both like to nest in the nest boxes, and their young may be ready to explore the whole new world outside. But always remember to not get too close to the nest boxes, as nesting birds are very territorial and may attack you. Furthermore, distressed parent birds may abandon their nest, thus starving their young.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow fledgling outside the nest box

Some insect-eating birds, such as swallows and flycatchers, may catch flying insects in the open field. Their chicks may perch on fence rails nearby to wait for their parents to feed them. This is an entertaining summer activity to watch, but, as always, be sure to keep a respectful distance from them so as not to stress them.

Newly fledged Barn Swallow chick on a fence

Newly fledged Barn Swallow chick on a fence

Newly fledged Eastern Kingbird chick on a fence

Newly fledged Eastern Kingbird chick on a fence

Red-shouldered Hawks are the most common raptors in the park. Several pairs nest in and around the park. They start mating and building their nest in early spring. The open fields and wetlands provide them with abundant food — rodents, lizards, frogs, etc., and their chicks grow up fast. By mid summer the chicks are ready to test their wings and leave the nest.

Red-shouldered Hawk fedgling in nest

Red-shouldered Hawk fledgling in nest

After they grow up a little more, young birds will forage on their own and explore the wide world. They can sometimes make a mess of themselves though!

A Gray Catbird fledgling

A Gray Catbird fledgling

A young Northern Mockingbird mulberry juice stained face

A young Northern Mockingbird mulberry juice stained face

A young Eastern Bluebird taking a bath

A young Eastern Bluebird taking a bath

The plentiful vegetation in summer is like a big salad buffet for herbivores. Groundhogs gorge themselves with the succulent leaves. These large rodents are known to dwell in their underground burrows (and whose emergence in late winter is fabled in folklore). So imagine my surprise when one day I came across a Groundhog on the nature trail, who, upon seeing me, swiftly climbed into a tree, fully 10 feet from the ground! I don’t know who startled whom more during this encounter.

Groundhog

Groundhog

The Red Fox kits are also growing rapidly. You may find them staring at you from a distance, torn between curiosity and the instinct to flee. They are still smaller than their parents, but they have already lost their “puppy cuteness” and start to look like adults. In fact, they will likely leave their parents and strike out on their own before the year’s end.

Young Red Fox

Young Red Fox

So summer’s stillness belies its multitudes of activities, and summer’s abundance portends autumn’s harvest. Toward the end of summer, migrating birds start to show up already on their journey south. Stay tuned for the next episode!

Note:

In order to keep this essay more readable, I chose to only include a small set of pictures — it would be too overwhelming and distracting to include hundreds of pictures. I also used low-resolution pictures to keep it concise. If you want to see more pictures I have taken in and around the park, you may visit the dedicated section on my website. It will be continually updated to include my latest pictures.

You may also want to join two Facebook groups that may interest you: Nature Lovers of Virginia for nature-related photos and discussions, and World Bound Travel for broader, including travel-oriented, topics.

Posted in Birds, Nature, Photography, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Seasons at Frying Pan – Spring

Frying Pan Farm Park is a county park in Fairfax, Virginia. It is not a nature reserve. In fact, the park authority’s priority is “recreation”. It has a visitor center, a model farm and equestrian facilities; in summer and fall, it hosts the 4H festival, concerts and carnivals. But it is what remains from a not-so-distant past after most of the lands in Greater Washington D.C. area have been subdivided and developed (it used to be all farmlands around here, as the subdivision names indicate: Middleton Farm, Bradley Farm, Franklin Farm, etc.) And it is near my home. So over the years I have taken numerous walks in the park.

It is no wilderness then. But nature is resilient, and one might say, opportunistic. It extends its tentacles to all fields and crannies wherever there is a chance. And nature is what delights me. In this and subsequent essays, I will try to narrate the changes that take place in nature on this small piece of land.

Spring

Spring is my favorite season. It is a time of regeneration and renewal.

Actually the signs of spring start from late winter, when Skunk Cabbages started to grow in marshy areas. These plants with huge leaves can even generate their own heat to melt snow around them in order to sprout.

Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage

But the spectacle of spring is the migration of birds. One of the earliest migrant is the Eastern Phoebe. These congenial birds sometimes return from their wintering grounds in southern U.S. as early as in February, when snowstorms can still hit. They are a type of flycatcher hawking for insects from their perch. No doubt they are also hardy birds to be able to endure the cold weather. To me the Eastern Phoebe is the harbinger of spring: their return signals the end of winter.

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

When the weather warms a little more, Tree Swallows also return. They have taken a liking of some of the bluebird nesting boxes in the park and have taken residence. But as is the case in D.C. suburbs, competition for prime real estate is stiff, as the nonnative House Sparrows also vie for these boxes. Fortunately volunteers sometimes will take out the nesting materials of House Sparrows to allow native birds to take a foothold. Tree Swallows are pretty birds, adult males have a metallic blue back, long black wings and snow-white underside whereas females are a little duller in appearance. They are supremely agile, catching insects on the wing for food. They can be ferocious too when it comes to defending their nests — if you get too close, they will dive-bomb you. It’s best to avoid the aerial assault and leave them in peace.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

Trees start to bloom too. My favorite, and one of the earliest blooming trees, is the Eastern Redbud. Their pink or magenta flowers are like a colorful haze that brightens the spring woods, when most of the trees are still bare. Crabapple and Flowering Dogwood (Virginia’s state flower) also put out beautiful flowers, as do some woodland herbaceous plants.

Eastern Redbud

Eastern Redbud

Crabapple

Crabapple

Flowering Dogwood

Flowering Dogwood

The warming weather also brings snakes out of their winter slumber. Most of the snakes found in the park are harmless, some, such as the Garter Snake, are actually very handsome. The Northern Watersnake is a large snake, it can sometimes be found sunning on stream banks, but it is nonvenomous and nonaggressive. Some people are irrationally afraid of snakes, but snakes play an important role in nature. The best we can do for them is to leave them alone.

Garter Snake

Garter Snake

Northern Watersnake

Northern Watersnake

But the real glory of spring is the migration of neotropical migratory birds. These birds winter in Central or South America, and every spring they make their long journey north. Some will nest in the park, but most just pass through to their breeding grounds farther north. Some of them may stop at the park for a few days to refuel, and when they do, it is a great show. Among these, New World wood-warblers are the most colorful and musical. These little sprites flit through the branches and search for little morsels of food, trilling their sweet and confusing array of songs all the while.

American Redstart

American Redstart

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Ovenbird

Ovenbird

Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler

Other neotropical migrants pass through the park too, some are just as dazzling as the warblers, if not more.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Large birds, such as herons, egrets, plovers and sandpipers, also migrate through the park. Herons and egrets like the wetlands and ponds to hunt for fish, whereas the Killdeer, a plover, likes to forage for grubs and worms in newly plowed fields, which Frying Pan Farm Park certainly has plenty of.

Green Heron

Green Heron

Great Egret

Great Egret

Killdeer

Killdeer

On a good spring day, it is not unreasonable to expect to see several scores of migratory birds, including more than a doze warblers, plus many resident birds such as Northern Cardinals, Northern Mockingbirds, American Robins, etc. But I am usually too distracted by all that is going on to compile a list.

One bird in particular really fills me with awe and wonder — this is the Bobolink. This bird winters in southern South America and breeds in New England and Canada. It is one of the longest-migrating songbirds in the world. It can fly 12,500 miles (20,000 kilometers) in its journey. To think that, during their epic journeys and among all the places across the continents they will see, they choose to stop at the tiny Frying Pan Farm Park gives me chills. Their appearance is very unique too, especially the males with their cream-yellow nape, white-speckled back and jet-black underpart, it looks as if they were wearing a tuxedo upside-down (hence the nickname “upside-down bird”). The male birds’ songs are gurgling and buzzy, almost electronic (some say they are like the squeaky notes of R2D2 in Star Wars). They like the open, weedy fields and pick out grass seeds for food. They don’t linger for long though, as they still have a long way to go to reach their destination; after a few days and they are all gone.

Bobolink (male)

Bobolink (male)

Bobolink (male)

Bobolink (male)

Bobolink (female)

Bobolink (female)

By spring, some early-nesting birds have already reared their young. Among these, the Barred Owl especially stands out. Their fuzzy chicks — owlets — will start “branching out” (climbing out of their nest, usually a tree cavity, and onto branches) before they are fully fledged. If you are lucky, and know where to look, you may see a whole owl family in the woods.

Barred Owl owlet

Barred Owl owlet

Barred Owl owlet

Barred Owl owlet

Birds are not the only wild animals that raise their family in the park. There are a few Red Fox families that also live here. Starting late winter, they begin “denning” (living in dens to give birth to and raise their young). In early spring, the young foxes (kits) will start venturing outside the den. There used to be a place in the park with a mount and ta tangle of vegetation where the Red Foxes like to den (where I took the pictures below). Unfortunately, the park staff started cleaning the site up and destroyed the habitat. Red Foxes are resourceful and opportunistic, they still live and even thrive in and around the park. One can only hope that the park staff will be less heavy-handed and leave some space for wildlife.

Red Fox

Red Fox

Red Fox kit

Red Fox kit

Red Fox kits

Red Fox kits

As weather gets warmer and warmer, animals and plants continue to flourish. By the end of spring, most migratory birds have moved on and reached their breeding grounds. Those that remain stay active throughout spring and into summer. Stayed tuned for the next episode!

Note:

In order to keep this essay more readable, I chose to only include a small set of pictures — it would be too overwhelming and distracting to include hundreds of pictures. I also used low-resolution pictures to keep it concise. If you want to see more pictures I have taken in and around the park, you may visit the dedicated section on my website. It will be continually updated to include my latest pictures.

You may also want to join two Facebook groups that may interest you: Nature Lovers of Virginia for nature-related photos and discussions, and World Bound Travel for broader, including travel-oriented, topics.

 

Posted in Birds, Nature, Photography, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The destructive nature

Nature giveth, nature taketh away.

Nature is an awesome force of creation, but it can also be an awesome force of destruction, this we all know.

But it’s one thing to understand the principles in the abstract, it’s quite another to witness it firsthand. And recently I witnessed just this.

There was a sycamore tree in the woods near my house. It had a cavity which was used by a family of Barred Owls last year. They successfully raised their brood of owlets. I loosely followed the progress of their nesting and the fledging of their young, and the following pictures capture this process:

barred_owl20

Barred Owl owlet

barred_owl23.jpg

Barred Owl owlet

barred_owls4.jpg

Barred Owl parent and young

Therefore, when I saw a nesting owl in the same cavity this winter, I was excited: it was sitting awkwardly, but perhaps we shouldn’t judge avian comfort by human standards (it seemed to be sitting with its head toward the back of the cavity, but turned its head around 180 degrees, which owls are known to do with ease), surely another successful nesting season is at hand?

barred_owl4.jpg

Barred Owl sitting in tree cavity

barred_owl5

Barred Owl sitting in tree cavity

A few days later, a strong windstorm swept through the area. Once the wind died down, I went to the woods to check on the owl on one morning. I saw the owl perched on a branch outside the nest. This was not too unusual, it might have hunted during the night and was just taking a break before it returned to the nest.

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Barred Owl

But then I could not find the cavity. I thought I got disoriented, but I walked around and looked more closely and suddenly, I realized that the sycamore tree where the cavity was had fallen down!

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Fallen sycamore

Walking closer, I located the cavity. Tragically, all that was left was a few fragments of eggshells — likely the eggs broke when the tree fell, then some critter (a fox or a racoon) ate them.

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Tree cavity

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Broken eggshells

Alas, such is nature! Nature may be cruel sometimes, but it is also impartial and unsentimental.

It is still early in the nesting season. I hope the owl(s) will find another suitable nesting cavity and try again soon. I certainly will go back to the woods to check from time to time.

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Going nuts (or acorns)

Huntley Meadows is a wetland reserve in Northern Virginia. I sometimes visit it, but probably not as often as I would have liked.

Today after running some errands, I stopped by. The late afternoon sunlight was brilliant and warm. Although it is not known as a prime spot for fall foliage viewing, there were splashes of autumn colors here and there.

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A lone Great Egret was foraging in the shallow waters. At times, it seemed to have twisted itself into a pretzel.

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But what’s more interesting is a group (family) of Red-headed Woodpeckers that were noisily busying themselves from tree to tree. I stopped to look at them for a while, then I realized that they were burying acorns into the crevices in dead tree trunks.

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Woodpeckers burying acorns is nothing new, Red-headed Woodpeckers are quite well known for doing this. In the west, another species is so well known for this behavior that it earned the name Acorn Woodpecker. The do so to store food for later use, especially in the harsh winter.

As if I needed any reminder, a winter denizen from the north (for our area), the Brown Creeper, crept up to announce the impending winter.

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As if to reconfirm it, a Blue-headed Vireo popped up to make a cameo. This songbird spends its winter in southern U.S. and Central America. It must be on its way south.

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So it is the change of season, birds are going and coming — with some going nuts (or acorns). Isn’t it the best of times?

(Reminder: to see more of my images, and images by other people with similar interest, you can join the Facebook group NatureLoversOfVirginia)

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Random thoughts on banding and attaching devices to animals, and a proposal

I have been thinking about banding and attaching devices (such as radio transmitters) to animals for some time.

On one hand, I totally understand the reasoning behind these practices: individual animals are difficult to distinguish, banding allows scientists to tell them apart and track their movements (especially during migration). Radio transmitters will allow them to collect live data. These are important ways to understand the behavior and movement of animals, and if used properly, they will aid in conservation efforts too.

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A banded American Goldfinch, Maryland, US, summer, 2014

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A banded Crested Goshawk, Tokyo, Japan, November 2016

I understand all of that.

However, too often, these devices seem to be intrusive and cumbersome. Google “Bald Eagle with radio transmitter”  or “meerkat with radio collar” and you will see. Some of these are rather painful to see; it is highly doubtful that these devices will not impede these animal’s movements. Even with banding, it is not difficult to imagine that when animals move from place to place, especially in tangled vegetation, etc., or struggle with predator/prey, they may cause abrasion which will lead to infection, etc.

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Moose with radio collar, Grand Teton National Park, July, 2004

Moreover, catching the animals and attaching these devices may cause psychic damage to them, some of which may be lasting.

The late renowned ornithologist Alexander Skutch, who mostly conducted his research , in his book “A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm” (after observing the lasting psychic damage suffered by birds in traumatic shocks), said (pp 193-194):

These experiences have made me speculate about the effects of trapping and banding upon free birds. To be caught, especially to become badly entangled in a mist net, as frequently happens, and then seized and manipulated by human hands, can be … terrifying .. (some) may suffer an enduring trauma.

For his part, in his decades of research, Skutch relied mostly on careful and painstaking observation at a distance with minimal disturbances and harm to his subjects (sometimes he would sit in a blind for many hours everyday for the entire breeding season).

Most scientists downplay the intrusiveness of such devices, saying that the animals “won’t even feel them”. Really? Look at the google images, look at the radio transmitters on the flying birds, or the radio collars on the meerkat, which proportionally looks like a a propane tank on a person’s back, all the time and everywhere.

Also, I think too many scientists are too quick to dismiss the psychic effects these activities have on the animals. To them, “science” trumps everything. Too often they snobbishly dismiss such concerns as “sentimental”, “soft”, or even more ridiculously “political correctness” (there is no politics in this discussion). To them, the end — be it scientific understanding or conservation — justifies the means. To a certain extent, I understand and even agree with this — to save the entire species or an ecosystem (the “great good”, some harms to a few individual animals may be inevitable or even necessary. But science does not give one the license to do whatever to these animals they study. Furthermore, philosophically, if a scientist does not have any concern whatsoever about welfare of the animals they study, or even protect, how do we trust that they will truly have the “great good” in their mind?

Gandhi had propounded “science without humanity” as one of the seven social sins. It rings truer and truer with every passing day.

Upon reflection, I have a mild proposal:

Whoever installs these devices on the animals should install one on themselves too. They should wear permanent metal ankle or wrist bands, or attach a radio transmitter (a dummy one will do) to their back. They should wear such devices all the time and everywhere — when they eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, take a shower, etc.

This is not just an emotional plea, but a logically sound proposal. The devices are either comfortable, non-instrusive, or uncomfortable and intrusive. This proposal covers all grounds; either:

A) The devices are truly very comfortable and they really don’t feel anything at all, in this case then the person who installs them on animals should have no problem wearing one as well; or:

B) The device are so uncomfortable the person who installs them can’t even contemplate wearing one; then in this case why should they put one on other animals?

Morally, it also seems just fair. At the least, it may propel these scientists to invent truly non-intrusive means for studying these animals.

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A 2-bird day

I am a little late kicking off the New Year this year — unlike last year, when I got a new bird (a Cape May Warbler) on New Year’s Day, this year I did not go “serious” birding until today, the 3rd.

But this year I got 2, instead of 1, new bird on this day!

The first one is A Vermilion Flycatcher. This is a “mega bird” for the State of Maryland (meaning it is very rare). It is, in fact, a sub-tropical bird, usually found in southwest U.S., Mexico, and Central and South Americas. But one — a female — has been spotted in the Eastern Shore of Maryland recently. The recent warm spell in this part of the country probably contributed to its lingering. Today I finally made the trip to see this bird. Thanks to some helpful birders, I quickly located the bird. Though it was perched far, I was able to snap some pictures.

Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatcher

Since I was already on this side of the Chesapeake Bay, I decided to take a detour to go to Conowingo Dam. This dam sits on the Susquehanna River above the beginning of the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace. It is know for the congregation of Bald Eagles in winter (for easy picking of fish below the dam), but the reason I went was because another rare bird, an Iceland Gull, has been reported there.

Again, thanks to a helpful birder, I quickly located the gull. This is an immature gull, pale brown in color, and far in the middle of the river below the base of the dam. To be honest, if not for the more experienced birder, I would have a very, very hard time spotting it. I was able to take a few pictures, though because of the distance, they are far short of spectacular.

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull

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Iceland Gull

Both the flycatcher and gull are new birds for me, not a bad way to start a New Year!

Just then the icing on the cake arrived — a Bald Eagle flew by, majestic in the late afternoon sun. I snapped away and some of these pictures a little less short of spectacular.

 

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

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Bald Eagle

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Bald Eagle

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Bald Eagle

If you wish to see more of my nature pictures, and pictures of many other nature lovers, you are welcome to join the Facebook group Nature Lovers of Virginia.

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Merlin

I knew it, I knew it, I knew it!

I knew the Merlin would come. Well, actually I have to admit momentarily I had some doubts, but as the light faded and I already put my camera into my car, I turned around for a last look at the tall cedar tree at Manassas National Battlefield Park, I saw the bird perched there — the same place where I saw it 10 months ago!

The Merlin is a migratory bird. It is a falcon and a beautiful bird. In my neck of the woods (northern Virginia), it is supposed to only appear during migration season (as you can see its range map here). But not all birds conform to the same rules. I think that this particular bird overwinter here. Actually I am not even sure if it is the same bird (without banding, individual birds are nearly impossible to distinguish from each other). But I have a hunch that this is the same bird indeed (though without proof).

I first saw the bird on February 23, 2014. Then a year later, on February 14, 2015, I saw and photographed it again. Today (December 16, 2015), I went to the same place again (I don’t go there nearly as much as I would have liked), thinking — even believing, even convinced that — I would see it there.

I arrived around 4:15pm or so. The light was already fading on this shortened late-autumn day. I walked about, looking at the usual places. But I did not find it for half an hour or so. As the sun started to set and the light started to fade, I started back to my car, thinking “maybe not today, but I will check back again next time”. Then it happened — I turned around and saw it on the exact same branch where I saw it three seasons ago.

Merlin (taken on 12/16/2015)

Merlin (taken on 12/16/2015)

The following are two pictures I took earlier:

Merlin (taken on 2/14/2015)

Merlin (taken on 2/14/2015)

Merlin (taken on 2/28/2014)

Merlin (taken on 2/28/2014)

As I said — it is a beautiful bird!

To see more of my nature pictures, you are welcome to join the Facebook group Nature Lovers of Virginia.

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A trip that should not have happened

In August I spent a week in Seattle. Working. This was during the most glorious days in Seattle — sunny with temperatures between 60 and 80 (Fahrenheit), all was nice.

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Starbucks

But this was in fact too nice. On a whim I decided to take a day off and go to North Cascades National Park. The weekend before I already went to Mount Rainier National Park, so this one would nicely round up all the national parks in the Pacific Northwest for me. So off I went!

But as I got closer to the Cascades, it got very smoky. I heard on the radio that there were many wildfires. I hesitated … I had gone that far and did not want to turn back, but clearly, I would not see much. At 10:30 I entered the park and there was fire on the slope right across the visitor center. I went into the visitor center and talked to the rangers. I asked them if there was road closure (there was none). I knew they would not give any guarantee. I studied the trail maps again and told them that I would just go see some waterfalls then turn back. They said it was a “good call”. So thus I left the visitor center with this plan. I stopped across from the road again and took some pictures of the fire (this would be the “Goodell Fire”.

Wildfire

Wildfire

I stopped at a few places. At Diablo Lake, it was very windy and the lake is covered in smoke. I could see a snow-capped peak just barely through the smoke. I could not see that water at all. At that point I almost decided to turn back. But then I chatted with a couple who came the other way and they told me that “over the divide” it was completely clear at Washington Pass, which was 40 minutes from where we were. So I decided to check it out.

Indeed, as I continued to drive the sky became more and more clear. At Washington Pass there was almost no trace of smoke, except a little haziness in the distant air. I walked to the overlook, the view was panoramic and truly breathtaking. Although there was no glacier-covered peaks here, the jagged mountains are imposing and spectacular. There were even a few groups  having picnic there. At that point all seemed very peaceful.

North Cascades (view from Washington Pass)

North Cascades (view from Washington Pass)

North Cascades

North Cascades (view from Washington Pass)

This was around noon, and my planned had changed. I knew there was still the danger of fire, but the clear sky and the other tourists gave me some sense of hope and assurance. I decided to have lunch and take a short hike before I left. At Rainy Lake I ate my lunch at a picnic table, then took the 1-mile hike (on paved trail) to the lake. This Varied Thrush was a nice encounter on this short trail; it would be a new bird for me.

Varied Thrush

Varied Thrush

Before long I reached the lake. This is a small glacier cirque lake. The setting was picturesque and the lake was serene … that is, if you can ignore the little chipmunk, apparently unafraid of people.

Rainy Lake

Rainy Lake

Chipmunk

Chipmunk

Then a lady came by and we chatted. She said she’s from Olympia. She said the fire was getting big over there, and I said I better get going in case the road was closed. But she said “so far so good” and was not concerned. She went for a swim in the lake.

I hurried back to my car, this was just after 3PM. I had planned to return my car before 7PM in Seattle and there was almost enough time. Ominously, a helicopter flew overhead toward west, the way I would go. The scenery from this road toward the west is spectacular, with a sheer wall of mountain in the front. I stopped on the road shoulder to take some pictures, now I could see that there were more smokes in the sky. Then as I continued, a couple in a white truck waved “turn around” signal to me and I stopped to talk to them. The road was closed, they told me. They are very friendly. I asked for directions to get back to Seattle. At this point, I knew I was in for a long trip back.

North Cascades

North Cascades

So I took Highway 20 East, through the towns of Winthrop and Twisp. There were many police cars and EMS vehicles, but no traffic jam. It turned out both towns were being evacuated. In some parts I could smell the burning from inside my car, and sometimes the sun was eerily orange. On the radio they said that 3 firefighters died near Twisp, in all likelihood, they were in the EMS vehicles that I drove by.

Eventually, between detours and road blocks (just my luck that they were blasting on Interstate 90 on that day and closed the road for an hour), I spent 7 hours on the road. It was nearly 10 PM when I got back to Seattle. I later found out, North Cascades National Park was closed for nearly 2 weeks after my trip.

Was this worth it? I spent most of the day driving. The precious moments were at Washington Pass and the hike to Rainy Lake, though even that was rushed. Had I known this was what I would have gotten myself into, I probably would have chosen a different destination – the Puget Sound, or Mt. Rainier again, or maybe even Olympic, the amount of time wasted just does not justify it.

But after it already happened, I am glad I was there. Incidentally, this was national park #30 for me (the 30th national park I have visited in the United States), and I rounded up all the national parks in the Pacific Northwest.

So all this, for a trip that should not have happened.

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