Tag Archives: New Jersey suburbs

Giant Hornets are Bark Strippers

The giant hornet on a lilac bush

A giant hornet on a lilac bush

The bark was stripped away by a giant hornet

This bark was stripped away by a giant hornet

This is not a giant hornet's nest

This is a bald-faced hornet’s nest, not a giant hornet’s nest

Our lilac bush has pieces of its bark being stripped away by large flying insects called giant hornets (Vespa crabro). In late summer/early autumn giant hornets are regular visitors to our backyard. They are yellowish-brown, about an inch in length and seem to have a special fondness for our lilac bush.

Giant hornets put the bark they strip to good use; they use it for constructing their nests. As evidenced by all the activity on our lilac bush, we must have a hornet nest nearby. Although we haven’t been able to find the nest, we’ve watched the hornets make repeated visits back and forth from our bush to wherever it is located.

A giant hornet’s nest doesn’t look like the large oblong-type you see hanging from tree branches. Those nests are primarily made by bald-faced hornets. Giant hornets tend to build their homes in crevices, making the nest harder for humans to locate.

Recently, there has been a lot of coverage in the news about a different kind of hornet. The Asian giant hornet has been wreaking havoc, swarming and stinging people in China. Fortunately, the hornets in our backyard are considered the European type and are not as volatile. They don’t normally bother humans unless you mess with their nest.

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Signs of Spring

Trying to get the female cardinal to take notice

It’s spring, time to get the female cardinal to take notice

The male cardinal fanning his tail feathers

First a little singing, then fanning the tail feathers

The attentive female cardinal

The attentive female cardinal takes it all in

There are a few scattered piles of unmelted snow in the dark corners of my backyard, but some telltale signs of spring have come. The daffodils started poking out of the ground and, a few days ago, the spring peepers began calling from the boggy area down the road. I thought the birds would still be waiting for warmer weather, but the cardinals have already abandoned all thoughts of winter and progressed straight into the spring mating season.

I heard the male cardinal tweeting repeatedly the other day, so much so that I stopped what I was doing to look outside. From the top of a small tree, the male cardinal was loudly carrying on. The reason for all the ruckus? A female cardinal was perched nearby in an adjacent tree. After he finished his serenade, he flew over closer to the female and began chipping and strutting about, fanning his tail feathers and putting on quite a show. She played cool though, sitting very still and seemingly not giving him a glance. Today, I noticed the cardinal pair checking out the site of last year’s nest, so I suppose his display won her over. Spring is here!

Linking to “Signs of Spring” at the Outdoor Blogger Network.

The Stealth Move

This backyard hawk caused a downy woodpecker to make some stealthy moves

This backyard hawk caused a downy woodpecker to make some stealthy moves

The woodpecker flattened itself against the tree branch

The woodpecker flattened itself against the tree branch

What a trick! Hiding behind the branch out of the hawk's sight

What a trick! Hiding behind the branch out of the hawk’s sight

Every once in a while a hawk visits our backyard; today it came twice and caused one of our backyard birds to resort to a stealthy move for its survival.

The first raptor visit was early this morning when I was in the kitchen. Through the window, I saw the hawk perch low in the walnut tree next to our bird feeders. I wanted to take a photo through the sliding glass door, but the hawk flew off just as I returned from down the hall with my camera. Later this afternoon, I was outside in the backyard, with my camera, when the hawk returned a second time.

Normally, when a hawk is nearby, the backyard birds flee into the hidden areas of the bushes or pine trees and there is silence. All chirping ceases. This afternoon, the hawk appeared so suddenly it seemed to take the birds by surprise. They weren’t able to resort to their normal safety routines.

The female cardinal didn’t flee and hide. Instead, it stayed completely frozen in place on a tree branch, not moving whatsoever. The tufted titmouse was a little bit braver. It made a short, sudden warning call and then immediately dropped into the pine branches out of sight. The mourning doves stayed still in the same position they had been sitting in previously. The downy woodpecker, however, was the stealthy one. First, he froze on the tree branch. He didn’t move his head to the right or to the left, but you could tell he was aware of the danger. Then, he pressed his body down as close as possible to the branch. His final move was to swiftly rotate around to the underside of the tree branch to get out of the hawk’s direct line of sight. The woodpecker stayed completely still in that position, keeping the branch between himself and the hawk, until the hawk finally flew away. Once the danger was gone, the woodpecker moved back around to the top of the branch and started to eat some suet. The other birds also resumed their activities like nothing had happened.

A Backyard Chipmunk Surprise

Look who popped up unexpectedly this morning

Surprise. It’s a chipmunk.

My eyes were not deceiving me; there really was a chipmunk in our backyard this morning. While this discovery is probably not an oddity to most of you, it is to me! I have never, ever, in my whole lifetime, seen a chipmunk in my backyard or anywhere near my community.

Ever since I was a little girl, I have had a fascination with chipmunks. I always thought chipmunks were the cutest things. I would sit in my bedroom at my white, child-size desk and draw pictures of two animals: owls and chipmunks. Unless you count the time I had my photo taken with Chip and Dale at Disney World, there were only a few opportunities for me to see chipmunks in person: on camping trips, hiking in the woods, or when visiting someone who lived in a wooded area.

Fast forward to this morning — I glanced out my back window and, voilà, a chipmunk. If my husband had been home, I would have thought it was a prank; I could imagine him laughing as he secretly placed a plastic chipmunk where he knew I would see it. (The joking is a family thing; my son likes to trick me by pointing upward and yelling out “snowy owl, snowy owl.”)

Only time will tell if today’s striped surprise will be a one-time visitor, like the white parakeet who visited our backyard. Maybe a chipmunk family will permanently locate here. Regardless, I was delighted by this morning’s backyard chipmunk surprise.

The Lazy Squirrel

This squirrel likes to get comfortable and hang out in the tree branches.

Why bother storing the nut for the future when you can have immediate squirrel gratification?

Just hanging out.

I’ve always thought that squirrels were industrious animals. They seem active most of the time as they scamper around searching for food.  I’ve seen them running along telephone wires like a gymnast on a balance beam, or scouting out the yard for secret locations to bury a cache. When acorns appear on the oak tree, the squirrels are ready, running up and down the tree trunk to carry away their treasures for a future meal. When the bird feeder is filled, they become contortionists in an effort to reach the seeds. The time has come, however, for the stereotype of the active, industrious squirrel to be broken. I have finally met a lazy squirrel!

Our backyard squirrel likes to sit in the tree and watch the world go by. A branch shaped like a “V” becomes his lawn chair. Instead of carrying food away to store in a cache, he eats it right away. No planning for the future, just immediate gratification. He doesn’t eat quickly either; he takes his time, savoring the flavor. You have to wonder if this squirrel will change his behavior once cooler weather approaches in the fall. For now, this un-stereotypical squirrel likes to sit, eat, and be lazy.

Mockingbird Sings

We have a Northern Mockingbird who frequents the wire outside our house near the willow tree. This bird is very noisy, especially in the morning, but it doesn’t make me angry. Its repertoire of trills, tweets and chirps always makes me laugh; what an incredible range of sounds from one bird. Mockingbirds are appropriately named. If you didn’t know any better you’d think you had a half-dozen different types of birds in your backyard. This mockingbird can even imitate a bluejay (listen at :019 in the video).

Bird’s Nests in Unique Locations

A bird made a nest at the bottom of this artificial Christmas wreath

Some traditional locations for a bird nest

I’ve always admired the resourcefulness of birds when it comes to building their nests. They flit around searching for nest-building materials just like people who scour yard sales looking for the perfect treasure. Leaves, sticks, grasses, as well as manmade castaways such as plastic bags, string, and bits of fabric are some of the chosen materials. Back in the “old” days, sometimes you’d see strands of tape from an audio cassette hanging out from a woven nest.

Not only do birds have to concern themselves with construction, but site selection is critical. Just as a home buyer looks for location, location, location, so to must a bird decide where to nest. You expect to see bird’s nests in trees, bushes, eaves, and bird houses, but some birds seem overly imaginative. Here are a few of the more unique and interesting locations where I’ve seen a bird’s nest:

  • Several times I’ve noticed birds nesting inside the horizontal pole that suspends a traffic light or road sign over a highway. The birds fly in and out of the pole through a small hole that was probably pre-drilled for mounting purposes but never used. It can’t be very quiet in there, but it must detract predators.
  • During a storm a few years ago, the plastic end cap blew off our portable basketball net. This created an opening at the top of the vertical pole. A tufted titmouse family decided to build a nest inside. We never knew their secret spot until the babies got hungry and the chirping began in earnest. We were forced to curtail our hoops playing for a few weeks.
  • One spring, a robin nested inside a potted plant hanging from our awning. Unfortunately, the bird family was disturbed every time we went in or out of the front door. The location of the nest did give us a great view of the eggs and babies though.
  • More scholarly birds prefer the comfort of the alphabet as a nest site. I’ve seen nests tucked away inside the open crooks of three dimensional letters that are part of an outdoor sign, like the inside of the letter “O” in the word “STORE” mounted to the front of a building.
  • Last week, I saw an active bird’s nest at the bottom of an artificial, oversized Christmas wreath that had never been taken down from the side of an apartment building after the holiday season. The birds wove their nest right into the plastic branches.

There seems to be an endless variety of places birds build their nests. I’d love to hear about the unique locations where you’ve spotted a bird’s nest. Please leave a reply below.

Turtles in the Sun

The sunny, spring weather has brought the turtles out from their winter hiding places. I was inspired to go looking for some this morning after seeing lots and lots of turtle photographs published by a fellow blogger. I waited until the sun seemed worthy of turtle-warming rays, then went to a county park to scout for turtles.
Turtle on log
I found some eastern painted turtles soaking up the sun on a partially submerged tree trunk near the edge of the pond. I planned to get closer to them, but they immediately splooshed into the water before I could even try to approach. They took turns popping their heads up from the water in various locations as they checked to see if the coast was clear. Finally, the boldest turtle swam over to the tree trunk, climbed up, stretched out his head, and returned to his sunning.
Eastern box turtle on log
There were at least three or four other turtles who continued their surveillance from the water, with their periscope-like heads randomly popping up to survey the log.
Swimming turtle
Eventually, another turtle decided it was safe and began slowly approaching the log. He cautiously climbed up the side and then froze for a few moments.
Turtle on log
After a period of looking around, he finally relaxed his position and lowered his body down onto the log. Then the turtle extended his head into just the right angle for soaking in the maximum amount of sun.

Man-Made Objects Masquerading As Trees and Flowers

You can't miss this "tree" that towers above all the other trees.

It looks fake!

Have you ever seen a super-sized tree of unnatural height that looks completely out of place? It towers high above all the other trees near it. Although it’s trying to fit in, it sticks out like a sore thumb and calls attention to itself. You won’t find this tree in a field guide. I’m referring to cell phone towers that are masquerading as trees.

The first time I saw one of these tree towers, I was dumbfounded. The shape was unnatural and completely disproportionate. The branches were awkwardly positioned. These “trees” are reminiscent of a worn-out, artificial Christmas decoration that should be kept unopened in the corner of someone’s attic. I admire the attempt to blend in a man-made object with the natural surroundings, but I think these pseudo-trees don’t look very real. Who knows though? Maybe the birds like the extra-high vantage point.

A flowering utility box.

Nice pattern, but very distracting.

Decorated utility boxes are another man-made object demanding our attention. They don’t blend in with the natural environment because they are painted with loud, brightly-colored flowers or other abstract art. When I’m negotiating a busy intersection, I find it unnerving to see a large, psychedelic-colored ‘tissue box’ out of the corner of my eye. Your brain is forced to try to decipher the meaning of the artwork, instead of observing the traffic signal and watching out for pedestrians. Although they can be pretty, these elaborately painted utility boxes distract me and scream for my attention in Technicolor. If kept their normal shade of silver-gray, they wouldn’t really be noticeable. To be fair, the use of bright colors is probably a deterrent to graffiti and the boxes do give local artists a canvas for expression.

So, what do you think about cell phone towers masquerading as “trees” and larger than life “flowers” on utility boxes? Do these decorated man-made objects do a good job blending into the environment or do they look fake and unnatural to you?

Signs of Spring

Rabbit in backyard

This rabbit was a recent visitor to our backyard.

Pair of mallards

A mallard couple stopped by for a quick swim.

Growing daffodils

The daffodils will soon be ready to bloom.

Blooming crocus

The crocus has already started blooming.

Signs of spring are bursting forth here in New Jersey. The daffodils are poking through the soil, the crocuses have begun to flower and some of the backyard visitors I haven’t seen all winter are venturing out.

This past week, a brown rabbit has been hanging around our house. He seems too tame for survival in the suburbs. I hope he quickly learns some street-smarts. Fortunately, our backyard offers hiding places for bunnies needing a hurried retreat.

A pair of mallards recently landed in our pond. They enjoyed a quick swim and then returned to their springtime task of scouting out a proper egg-laying site. I wonder if they will ultimately choose an unusual location, like the ducks who nested in a Home Depot garden department. The blackbirds also have nest-building in mind; I spotted one dangling a long piece of dried grass/straw from its beak.

Insects are starting to fly around too. A tiny winged creature was sitting on my mailbox. My husband was surprised to see a butterfly. The ants and the bees will most likely be the next to make their spring entrance.

For some reason, spring can make me feel melancholy. I suppose it’s because change is in the air and sometimes change can be difficult to cope with (or is it the onslaught of allergy symptoms?). The joyous nature of spring, however, is undeniable. It’s a time of new beginnings, fresh starts and second chances. Gardens are prepared. Newborn animals take first steps. Plants that were shriveled and frost-bitten become green and vibrant again. All of what spring represents seems to culminate in the celebration of Easter.

Now that the daffodils and crocuses are appearing, along with the wildlife who’ve been in hiding all winter, I look forward to observing more signs of spring — blooming yellow forsythias, tiny buds on branches, chirping baby birds and more.

Our New Neighbors: Vultures!

Turkey vultures

Turkey vulture perched on railroad tracks

Vulture stretching wings

There were more than 15 vultures perched in and circling around this tree

Recently I wrote a post called, “Are You Seeing More Turkey Vultures Than You Used To?” Without a doubt, I can now answer affirmatively – YES. Perhaps it’s because my awareness of vultures has increased. Or, maybe it’s because I’ve been intentionally looking for them. Whatever the reason, I see vultures not just occasionally, but almost every day. It’s not only when I’m out and about; quite often they are circling over my house. In fact, they seem to have developed a habit of circling over my home and neighborhood on a regular basis.

If I was the type of person who put faith in omens and bad luck charms, I’d be worried the vultures were warning me and my neighbors of impending danger. The big screen often portrays vultures as harbingers of doom, circling over weakened prey, waiting for the opportunity to feast. The truth is, vultures do not circle dying animals (see article: Vultures!). Their keen sense of smell leads them to carrion (see article: Nature’s Focus: The Turkey Vulture). Not all movies depict vultures in a bad way though. In the animated film, “The Jungle Book,” vultures were characterized as friendly fellows (see clip). Whatever the opinion, the “clean up” work of vultures is valuable because it can help prevent the spread of disease.

A few days ago, as I was heading back from the grocery store, I spotted three turkey vultures sitting on the railroad tracks in my neighborhood. I quickly drove the rest of the way home, unloaded the groceries, grabbed my camera and headed back to the tracks. The vultures didn’t pay attention to me as I snapped a few photos of them. They contentedly perched on the metal rails and, every once in a while, stretched out their wings. The turkey vultures seemed quite comfortable in their role as the newest residents of my neighborhood. Comments?

A One-Hour Backyard Bird Haven and an Unusual Visitor

backyard parakeetbackyard parakeetbackyard parakeetMy backyard seemed to transform into a bird haven this morning; it also attracted an unusual avian visitor. The cold weather must have stirred up their desire for feeding, because within a one-hour period, I was able to witness a wonderful variety of birds. One type of bird would put in an initial appearance, make a curtain call or two, and then exit the backyard stage for the next bird act.

I’m pretty sure it started with the red house finches and a few goldfinches who have lost their summer yellow. Then, along came the juncos, tufted titmouse, and sparrows. Next, it was the nuthatch and the noisy wren. The woodpeckers took over to start the second half-hour of my impromptu bird haven. The male and female downy, the flicker, and the red-bellied woodpecker all made a visit. The starlings flocked in and shooed everyone else away, only to be replaced by the blue jays and mourning doves. There were crows flying by and one lone turkey vulture circling off to the left. This sounds great for birders, but it’s a problem for me. It’s distracting! Hey birds, I have work to do. Stop your trilling calls and your swooping fly-bys and let me focus on the projects at hand. Instead of kick-starting my day, I’m standing shoeless in my socks on the frosty back porch, with no coat, taking photographs.

Just when I thought I could get back inside to my work and the warmth, an unusual visitor made an appearance. I spotted a flash of white near a small group of finches toward the top of the neighbor’s tree. I thought maybe it was the nuthatch again so I walked closer. Unbelievingly, the white bird looked like a parakeet! Now I had a serious distraction — was there really a white parakeet flying around outside of my house? I took a few quick photographs before it flew off with the finches. Most of the birds who visited during my one-hour bird haven were frequent visitors. I never expected to see anything unusual. Do you think the white bird was a parakeet? We welcome your comments.