Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The Box on the Snag

At the top of the cutbank behind the house stands a small American chestnut snag that I’d brought home from the Big Woods many, many years ago. As I would do with a wooden post, the snag was set in a hole about two feet deep; it stands roughly five feet tall. In the post was a cavity, a hole about eight inches deep with an entrance on the side of the post. The hope was that some of the birds in our area that are dependent on cavities for nest sites would use the hole in the post.

Use of the snag has been sporadic. During the first few years it was unused; then, each spring, as they often do, male house wrens began filling the cavity with twigs. Sometimes a pair of wrens would nest in the snag and raise a brood of young wrens –

During the winter some of the cavity-nesting birds, like this black-capped chickadee, would roost in the snag during the night –

Once a pair of tufted titmice nested in the snag. After the female had a clutch of four eggs a house wren punctured all the eggs and the titmice deserted the nest. House wrens often destroy the nests of other birds or may even kill the nestlings.

The snag had originated as a tree that was killed by the chestnut blight about 60 years before I’d brought it home. After another 20 years in the yard the buried portion decayed to the point where the snag fell over – the fall broke open the back of the cavity and snapped off part of the snag’s top.

Following that, I drove a metal fence post into the ground and used lag screws to hold the snag to the post; then a wooden nest box was fastened to the snag. Surprisingly the box, in the 20 years it’s been on the snag, has apparently been more attractive to birds than the original cavity.

House wrens stuff the box with twigs, just as they did the cavity in the sang – but the box is much easier to clean out.

And every few years the wrens raise a brood in the box –

Titmice and chickadees roost in the box on winter nights –

Black-capped chickadees often inspect the box as a possible nest site, but must find it unworthy because they’ve never nested there –

Other than house wrens, the nest box appears to be of most interest to eastern bluebirds. Beginning in 2015 eastern bluebirds have shown up at the box each spring; the male perches atop the snag and sings to declare his possession –

Shortly afterwards females also arrive and inspect the box –

But they too have apparently found it unworthy as a place to raise their young. What’s the problem? Is the box too large, too small, the wrong shape? To my eyes this box isn’t different than others of the same size and design that I’ve put in other places and where bluebirds have raised young. Do the surroundings have too many trees, too much mowed lawn, too many other birds, too many feral cats or don’t they like the neighbors? If only I could ask the birds.

This spring after the bluebirds appeared, the female began building a nest in the box on March 31 –

She worked on the nest steadily for several days following which the birds’ visits were few and far between.

Then on April 12 a pair of house sparrows appeared and began examining the box. Within minutes the bluebirds attacked the house sparrows. The female bluebird entered the box, came out immediately with the female house sparrow in a whirlwind of wings and feathers and both birds fell to the ground as the bluebird gave the house sparrow a thorough drubbing. My camera was in a distant room (*&%$#@*+@%) so there are no photos of the battle.

After the house sparrows fled, both bluebirds repeatedly displayed with widespread wings and much vocalization and fluttering –

By then the nest was completed but there were no eggs.
There were still no eggs on April 30 and the bluebirds had vanished, so it appears the bluebirds have moved on once again – oh well, maybe next year.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Wandering for Wildflowers

It’s later in the spring but wildflowers have still been in bloom and I just can’t pass up an opportunity to look at them and take some photographs. This time it’s not to the Big Woods I went, but to other woodland near and far. Near because some wildflowers bloom later than those in the earlier post. Far because some of these species don’t grow nearby, or at least I’ve not found them here.

There’s a long woodland road that H and I drive in spring to enjoy its abundance of spring wildflowers. So one day in May we hopped in the car and slowly drove down the road, sampling the beautiful flowers that bloom in northeastern North America as spring progresses.

We found several painted trillium, many people think it's the most beautiful of all species of trillium

Much, much more common is the purple trillium, but only a tiny fraction are its yellow variety, which we were fortunate to find


Never have we seen such an abundance of squirrel-corn –













 A few spring-beauties still bloomed –

Another white flower blooming by the side of the road was the white variety of sharp-lobed hepatica –

Still another white flower came into view
when we saw several large patches of wood anemone –

Don’t like white flowers, how about the yellow of large-flowered bellwort –

Or perhaps the magenta of fringed polygala, also sometimes called little gay-wings or the little airplane –

We also found large patches of wild geranium in bloom –

And several violets: long spurred –

And northern white –

Hidden among last fall’s fallen leaves were the flowers of wild ginger, although the leaves were quite obvious

Everywhere we looked there was an abundance of foamflower in bloom –











On one of which was a tiny, tiny fly



The most exciting flower of the day was one I'd never found before, rose twisted-stalk




There were still other flowers, as well as flowering shrubs, more than there’s room for in this post. Soon the trees’ leaves will be fully developed and the spring wildflowers will be done until next year, and then we’ll be back.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Snags and Swallows

Beaver ponds are superb places to see and photograph wildlife, the ponds and the large rodents that build them have a soft place in this naturalist’s heart. I have a few favorite ponds that I visit regularly and each of them has provided rewards larger than their relatively small size.

One of the finest stands of red oak I’ve ever seen occupied a few acres surrounding a couple of spring seeps – until the tornado of May 1985 blew through and knocked down or broke off most of the trees. The spring seeps had drained through a culvert under a little-used road; shortly after the tornado struck beavers moved in and blocked the culvert in what became a ready-made dam. Over the years the culvert was replaced, and the beavers have come and gone several times, but the new culvert was higher than the old one and the pond has remained.

The few trees that survived the tornado were drowned in the pond, now after 38 years only a few snags and a handful of old stumps remain. Those snags are an important resource for the wildlife that uses the pond. Woodpeckers have excavated holes in which to nest, and there are decayed knotholes that serve the same function.

In spring tree swallows adopt the snags as places to rest between feeding forays over the pond and they nest in cavities in the snags.

Male tree swallows arrive before the females, find suitable habitat and nest cavities and defend them from other males –


At about the same time, a pair of Canada geese arrived at the pond –

And male red-winged blackbirds began to stake out territories in the narrow band of cattails along one side of the pond. They often call and display from the snags or stumps –

As I sat beside the pond a male pileated woodpecker landed on a snag and proceeded to explore the long-dead tree in search of a meal –


What a treasure these beaver ponds are: for wildlife and naturalists.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Early Spring at the Bear Wallow

If you’ve visited In Forest and Field over the past several years you’ve probably seen still photos and videos from the seasonal pool that I call the bear wallow. This pool began as a pingo scar after the last glaciation ended in northcentral Pennsylvania. This earlier post gives an explanation of pingos and the scars they leave.

Here we see the wildlife that used the bear wallow in March and April of this year. No black bears as yet, but the pool was heavily used by wood ducks and the bobcat that was hoping to have a dinner of duck. Speaking of getting a meal at the pool, a red-shouldered hawk made repeated visits to hunt wood frogs during the frogs’ breeding season –

Although the bear wallow isn’t as attractive to wildlife as a beaver pond, it still attracts a good variety of critters.