Saturday, May 23, 2015


We continue to get regular visits from White-Tailed Deer to the feed block and salt lick in the backyard.  I liked this pairing from early May when this odd couple of a raccoon and a deer shared a late night snack of corn, grain, and molasses.

This photo from a couple weeks ago shows the antler growth of one of the bucks.  I am looking forward to seeing the progression of this process of antler development.

This is a photo of the same male deer in profile a few minutes later.

A few nights later this trio visited the food block.  The White-Tailed Deer in the center appears to be a pregnant doe.  I will be hoping to see a fawn or two later in the summer.  On her right is a young buck.  I consulted a friend from the lab who is a fellow naturalist as well as a deer enthusiast.  He told me this may be the doe's young one from last year.  He says that she will probably drive him off before she delivers her fawn(s). I read that does generally drop their fawns in May or June, so this could be soon.  The buck on the left appears to be an older deer, but my friend says, perhaps no older than three years old.

A couple days later the pregnant doe is back to feed. She is looking fairly plump. I've got fresh batteries in the camera.  I need to put out another food block as this one is going fast.

Monday, May 18, 2015


This has been a busy week in the nest boxes at home and at the lab.  A total of 12 young Eastern Bluebirds successfully flew out of their dark and protective nest boxes into a big bright new world.  Here is the recap.


I checked on the nest in Lab Box #1 twice this week and found either the mother on the nest or one of the adults calling from the tall Loblolly pines nearby.  I am hoping to find hatchlings when I monitor the nest box on Monday (May 18th).


Lab Box #2 had an eventful day on May 12th.  When I removed the plastic nesting cup from the box about 10 a.m. to check the 19 day old nestlings (16 to 21 days is typical age for fledging), one of the three young birds looked up at me and immediately flew strongly straight out from the nest and curved slightly to the left down the hill about 200 feet before landing in a 20 foot maple tree, one of a few young trees that line the drive leading to the lab parking lots.  Within just a few seconds one of its nest mates took off and followed almost an identical flight path. Not long later I could hear the parent birds calling to these first two fliers. The third young bluebird spent a minute or two tucking its head into the bottom of the nest in an effort to hide.  Here you can see the last nestling peeking at me with one of the two eggs from the clutch that did not hatch.  I placed the nesting cup back in the box and checked the box again that evening to find that the third young bluebird had fledged as well. These were my first three fledgling birds of 2015.  I removed the old nesting cup, washed out the inside of the nest box itself, and placed a fresh nesting cup inside in the event this bluebird pair decides to nest again this summer.  Later in the afternoon I opened the unhatched eggs and found nothing but yolk in one egg and just the tiniest amount of tissue in the other.  


The Carolina Chickadees in Lab Box #4 have developed their characteristic black cap.  The five of them seem to be keeping the same arrangement in the nest as they did last week, looking a bit like wedges of pie.  Notice the feathers expanding from their feather sheaths on the nestling nearest my fingers.  They look rather like makeup brushes that I've seen in my wife's makeup kit.  This visit was on May 13th.


The Carolina Chickadees in Lab Box #6 are just a day older than the chickadees in Lab Box #4.  You can see that their wing feathers have emerged even further from their feather sheaths.  This nest of five chickadees seem to arrange themselves in more of a disorganized pile than the orderly circle that their colleagues on the other side of the lab have chosen.


The most recent nest at the lab also belongs to a pair of Carolina Chickadees and is located in Lab Box #7. On May 13th there were still five eggs being incubated.  This box is at the end of a section of parking lot near the lab and may offer a chance for me to share a view of the little chickadees to a few lab mates late next week.


I checked on the Eastern Bluebirds in Home Box #1 on the morning of May 12th before heading to work.  All five young 18 day old birds looked healthy and fully feathered.  That evening, I put several live mealworms in the driveway and sat in my car hoping to get a few photos of parent birds taking food to their young charges. After sitting for a while and not seeing any activity, I got out of the car and checked the nest box.  It was EMPTY!!!  So these were bluebirds 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 to fledge on this day!


In Home Box #2 the little 15 day old Brown-Headed Nuthatches are fully feathered on May 12th.  The characteristic white patch on the nape of their necks is quite evident.

I lifted one of the young nuthatches out of the nest for a closeup photo. It promptly made a deposit!  Its dagger-like beak will be put to good use in just a week or two as these tiny birds are fond of fishing out insects from behind bark as well as splitting open sunflower and safflower seeds.  I read somewhere recently that some nuthatches have been seen using a piece of bark to wedge behind the bark of trees to expose deeper insect hiding places.


On May 13th the elevated Home Box #5 still holds six little Tufted Titmice.  They are feathering out nicely and I've enjoyed watching from the window as both parent birds busily carry food to their young.


I checked in on Home Box #6 on daily from May 13th (photo) through May 15th. The father bird nearly brushed my shoulder on one dive bombing run.  Early in the morning of May 15th these four nestlings became Bluebirds 9, 10, 11, and 12 to fledge from the nest boxes I've been monitoring.


In the late afternoon of May 12th as I began to ready the Moth Pit for luring in various nighttime visitors in the next week or so, I stumbled upon a mass of wheat straw, grasses, small twigs and thin pieces of plant roots in the bottom of a nearly empty light blue Rubbermaid trash can.  Upon closer inspection, I found four whitish eggs speckled with tiny flecks of reddish brown.  This is the nest of a Carolina Wren, but was it active?  I waited until after 9 p.m. and slipped out to take a peek.  I could no longer see the eggs, but could barely make out the beak of the mother wren.  The wrens are such a resourceful bunch!  The next evening there was a fifth egg and the mother bird seems to have set about incubating.

Saturday, May 16, 2015


Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

Last Saturday I spent a sometime watching birds from our bird room and the deck. Our first visitor was this male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird.  Like all hummingbirds he was quite busy.  So far this is the best photo I've been able to get.  His gorget appears black in this photo because the sun's rays were obscured by the mature White Oak trees on the south side of the deck.

Eastern Bluebird

This male Eastern Bluebird was checking the terracotta saucer for live mealworms. His four young nestlings are just five days from fledging and he is as active as his mate in feeding them.

Back inside the bird room, I left the windows open again with a plastic tub of live mealworms on the table nearest one of the windows.  It wasn't long before the female of this pair showed up. She gave me a cautionary glance as I sat quietly with the camera on the other side of the room.  

She gave a few quick wing beats to balance herself as she picked out the one she wanted.  I just love the soft beauty of these female Bluebirds.

She secured the mealworm before flying back out of the window to the nest box that holds her four nestlings.

Carolina Wren

One of the bravest birds is the Carolina Wren.  For such a small bird they have a huge voice.  They creep and skulk around, often close to the ground before darting inside.   The wren's tail is characteristically held in a jaunty position and is rusty brown and marked with dark brown bars.  Their throats and bellies are buff in color and they have pink feet.

Two other characteristics of Carolina Wrens are the long white stripe over the eye and the longish, slightly downward curving beak.  I have been wondering where this bird might have nested.  The pair usually exits the window and then dives down under the deck to some remote location.  I had been looking around to see if I could find their nest, but was very surprised this week when I found a Carolina Wren nest in the bottom of a large Rubbermaid trashcan in the corner of the Moth Pit.  I could see four eggs in the nest around 6 pm that evening.  I returned after dark and peeked over the edge of the trashcan to see just the beak of the mother bird protruding form the nest's opening.  Two mornings later when she was away from the nest, I counted five eggs.  I have a new nest to monitor!

Carolina Chickadee

At least one Carolina Chickadee visited the indoor mealworm feeder.  These little birds are also brave around humans.  They have a soft gray back, a whitish belly and cheeks, and a black cap and throat patch.  We had a nest of chickadees in the yard last year, but this chickadee seems to fly into a neighbor's yard with its mealworms.  At the lab there are currently three active chickadee nests.

In this photo you can see how small the chickadee is using the mealworm for comparison.  They are probably two-thirds the size of the bluebirds.

Tufted Titmouse

The final visitor for the morning was this Tufted Titmouse.  This relative of the little chickadees has a soft gray back and head with a crest  that it sometimes lays close to its head.  Its undersides are whitish with a touch of orange under its wings.  

 Last May we had a nest of titmice that failed about a week after the babies hatched. Something apparently happened to the mother bird.  This year there is a nest of six babies that are now well feathered.  I watched today as both parent birds made frequent trips to the nest with food.


Spring is in the air with bluebirds, chickadees, and nuthatches incubating their first nests of the season.  But for me, nature's bounty extends beyond the birds to six-legged creatures.  

(Cicindela sexguttata)

On April 20th I came across this fabulous metallic green Six-Spotted Tiger Beetle ambling over and around some dead vegetation that was strewn across large granite stones at the mouth of a retention pond that captures storm water run-off from the lab's large parking area.  Each shell-like outer wing often has three (but as many as five) white spots for a total of six (but as many as ten). This insect mostly ran along the rocks but occasionally took short low flights from spot to spot.  These guys are voracious hunters of other insects and have a magnificent set of jaws.

A couple weeks later I found another Six-spotted Tiger Beetle on a cloudier day, so its appearance is not quite as iridescent as the previous one.  This individual has an additional small pair of white spots toward the middle of it back.

(Tipulidae/Tipula spp)

A few days earlier I found this pair of crane flies affixed to a second floor window along the connector between the two wings of the lab.  The mated female will lay her eggs in wet soil nearby or perhaps in water.  The larval crane flies often feed on decaying plant material, but the adults do not eat and live just long enough to mate and lay eggs. Crane flies are called by many other names like; mosquito eater (skeeter eater) or mosquito hawk (they do not eat mosquitoes), giant mosquito (they are not related to mosquitoes), gallinipper (though this name actually refers to a species of mosquito), and in Europe they are called "daddy long-legs" (the name we use for the spider-like harvest-men).  I read on that there are more than 1500 species of crane fly in North America.  I have no clue what species this is!

One feature that all Crane Fly species share with flies, gnats and mosquitoes is a pair of "halteres" that are located behind the fore-wings.  I read that these structures are a modified set of hind wings that act as a sort of gyroscope and aid in the crane fly's balance as it flies along with its long dangly legs hanging from its light weight body.  In this enlargement of the upper crane fly you can see the spherical "knobs" of the halteres just behind the third pair of legs.  

I learned from further reading that the development of halteres in flies, gnats,and mosquitoes, is controlled by a specific gene (the Ubx gene).  If this gene in these insects is "turned off" in an experimental laboratory setting, the young fly (or gnat or mosquito) will grow a fully developed second pair of wings instead of halteres.  This is an example of how one mutation in one specific gene can make a significant change in the anatomy of a species. 

This is another species of crane fly that I found in March. The halteres are the "straight pin" shaped structures between the second and third pairs of legs.  

(Erythemis simplicicolis)

As I was checking the nest boxes at the lab one day in early May I noticed this green dragonfly hovering about.  It would land on vegetation and then move away from me as I got closer.  Since I did not have my long lens with me, this is the best photo I could capture.  It is a bit fuzzy from serious cropping.  From studying this appears to be an Eastern Pondhawk.  It is either a female or more likely a young male based on the pair of white claspers at the tip of the tail.  I read that as a male pondhawk ages, he develops a waxy covering on the abdomen and eventually the thorax which causes his coloration to become a powdery blue.  This species of dragonflies is an aggressive hunter of other insects, not only as an aquatic larva at the bottom of ponds, but also as an adult that zooms around over ponds and habitat nearby. They are not harmful to humans.

(Pyromorpha dimidiata)

Wednesday morning May 13th I went to check on the Bluebirds nesting in our backyard.  On the side of the nest box I found this pair of orange and black moths.  It first I thought they might be beetles, but they had feathered antennae.  I have recently join the "Moths of the Eastern United States" Facebook group, so I posted my first moth ID check.  From looking at I had guessed that these might be Black and Yellow Lichen Moths (Lycomorpha pholus).  Within a few minutes I had a response that gently suggested that these were Orange-Patched Smoky Moths.  A quick visit to confirmed this identification.  I read more about this moth today and discovered two items of interest.  The larvae of this moth are leaf skeletonizers.  The caterpillars eat the material between the leaf veins which leaves a skeleton of the original leaf.  Instead of feeding on live leaves like many skeletonizers, this species appears to feed mostly on leaf litter, especially oak.  The other interesting point is that the adult insect is a color mimic of a toxic orange and black beetle.  In fact, this moth is also thought to be toxic as well, actually manufacturing its own cyanide compound to ward off creatures that would attempt to dine on it.

(Chrysopilus thoracicus)

Later the same day as I returned to the lab's back door I came upon this beautiful fly on the concrete patio.  After consulting, I learned that this is a Golden-Backed Snipe Fly.  I was able to identify this as a female fly from her thicker abdomen and the fact that her eyes do not touch each other as do the eyes of male flies.  This fly is thought to be predatory on other insects.  Though there are similar species that live in the western states of the US that bite humans, this species apparently does not.

Sunday, May 10, 2015


I made the rounds to the active nests on Friday afternoon. Here is what was going on.


In Lab Box #1 the Brown-headed Nuthatches have a total of six eggs that are white with reddish brown splotches especially concentrated around the large end of the egg. They should be hatching in around a week.


In Lab Box #2 the three Eastern Bluebird nestlings are fully feathered and getting big.  They should be fledging in the next two or three days.  The plastic nesting cup has a lot of what appears to be fecal debris around the edges.  I have not seen this before.


In Lab Box #4 there appears to be a chickadee pie, divided into 5 wedges!  These little Carolina Chickadees have about ten days to go before leaving the nest.


In Lab Box #5 I found the five eggs still unhatched eight days past the usual incubation period.  I had noticed some change in the coloration of the eggs a few days ago that was similar to a nest last year where the parent birds seemed to have disappeared during incubation.  On advice from a bird researcher at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, I removed the nest, cleaned out the nest box, and replaced the old plastic nesting cup with a new one on the chance that the bluebird pair will begin a new nest.  At the museum staff's request, I delivered the nest cup with the nest and four of the eggs to the lab facilities at Prairie Ridge EcoStation for potential examination by a new researcher who specializes in bird eggs.

I took one of the eggs to my lab for a close up photo.  You can see the demarcation line that corresponds to the air cell at the large end of the egg.  The area of the shell over the air cell is more like the original shell color.  The rest of the egg is a shade or two darker.  I opened the egg from the large end and could see a network of blood vessels just beneath the membrane.  When I further opened the shell I found a lifeless embryo that was developed enough to identify its eyes, beak, and very tiny legs and wings.   It is hard to know what caused the end of the development of these eggs, although we did have temperatures in the upper thirties at least twice during the first week after incubation would have commenced.


In Lab Box #6 the Carolina Chickadee young are thriving. Two of the five immediately popped their beaks open hoping for insect meal.  The fledge date for this clutch is in about a week.  You can see the eyes beginning to open on these little birds.


In Lab Box #7 our unknown bird (chickadee or titmouse, I think) has five eggs. Perhaps in ten days these eggs will have hatched and I'll see the parent birds flying to and from the box with food items.


On Thursday I found a black jumping spider on a wall in the hallway that separates our Cytology Prep Lab from the Chief Medical Examiner's Toxicology Lab.  I scooped the spider up in a plastic lab bottle with lid and released it today while I was out checking nest boxes.  I placed it on a facility structure about 4 feet off the ground.  It immediately leaped to the ground, but I was able to get a few blurry pictures plus this decent one.  At home Friday evening, I zoomed in on this photo to admire the typical "sports car-like headlights" that all jumping spiders have for eyes.  But I was astonished by the metallic green jaws (chelicerae) between its pedipalps.  The pedipalps appear to be slightly "clubbed" at the ends.  If so, this would be a male spider.  I am seeking conformation on the gender.  But I did learn through that this is a Bold Jumping Spider (AKA Daring Jumping Spider) with the scientific name Phidippus audax.  The big forward facing eyes are instrumental in their hunt for insect prey and also in the dances that this group of spiders employ in seeking a partner.  These spiders are not prone to biting humans and should be a source of interest not fear.  A new acquaintance on Facebook who is a retired park ranger wrote me that placing a mirror in front of a male jumping spider can produce an entertaining show.  The male jumping spider often puts on a display in an effort to scare away what he thinks is another spider of his species.


In Home Box #1 there are five well feathered Eastern Bluebird nestlings.  You can see a little bit of blue in the wing feathers of the bird on the left (could be a male). They should be ready to fly by midweek.


In Home Box #2, the Brown-headed Nuthatch babies are getting their "shark-tooth" shaped beaks!  If you look closely, you can count all six nestlings.  It will probably be near the middle of the month before these birds take flight


In Home Box #5 the Tufted Titmouse nestlings are definitely hungry.  Here you can see five of the six mouths wide open.

When I opened the box, one of the nestlings was away from the other five in this very spacious nest box that was intended for Great Crested Flycatchers.  Before I moved the little titmouse back closer to its siblings, I just had to hold its warm little body in my hand for a few seconds.  It had no problem begging for food from this big old fuzzy fellow.  Sorry, I've got no mealworms on me at the moment!

Saturday morning I put out some mealworms in the terracotta saucer on the deck railing.  The Tufted Titmice were the first to arrive!


In Home Box #6 the four Eastern Bluebird nestlings have plenty of feathers  They are just a a few days behind the nestlings in Home Box #1.  These babies seem have experienced parents.  They both dive bomb me whenever I check the nest. Neither of them are reluctant to grab mealworms from a clay saucer on the deck rail even when I'm nearby.

I hope to have more pictures next weekend!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015


On Sunday May 4th I drove over to the lab to check the eight nest boxes there. Here's what I found.


The Brown-headed Nuthatches in Lab Box #1 have filled out their nesting to a total of six eggs.  I look forward to seeing this bunch hatch.  It is in a location where I can invite a few folks to see the little ones when they hatch.


The early nest of Eastern Bluebirds in Lab Box #2 holds three young birds that are about 10 days old.  Two of the eggs in this nest did not hatch. You can see slivers of those eggs at 12 o'clock and 4 o'clock. The nestlings' wings are covered with feather sheaths that are showing little puffs of feather at their tips.  This stage always reminds me of paint brushes.


The mother Carolina Chickadee in Lab Box #4 stuck tight to her nest on May 3rd as I peeped in.   I closed the box promptly to give her the privacy she deserves

A day later on May 4th I checked again and found that five of the six babies had hatched.  I will go back in a few days to see if the sixth egg was viable.  Four of the five popped open their little beaks when I did a little "pishing".


The Eastern Bluebird eggs in Lab Box #5 still have not hatched.  I am concerned that this nest has failed for some unknown reason.  I plan to contact a friend at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences about how to proceed.  Most likely, I will remove the entire nest and replace it with a new nesting container in the hopes that this pair will try again.  I may open one of the eggs to see if there is any evidence that the eggs were ever fertile.


The Carolina Chickadees in Lab Box #6 near the loading dock hatched on May 3rd. All five babies are active and responded to my "pishing".  I like the green fibrous stuff that a parent bird added to the nest cup.


Much to my surprise Lab Box #7, which has been empty for the past two seasons, suddenly has a complete nest in it. The nest cup was covered over, but I gently laid the camouflage back and was able to observe two speckled eggs.

I'm not sure yet what is nesting here, but I'd guess another chickadee nest or perhaps a Tufted Titmouse.  I'll keep an eye out as this is an easy box to check on my way home in the afternoons.