Four Birds

Last fall we stopped buying bird seed when we took down the bird houses, and for the same reason. Just as the houses were no longer housing birds, the seed was no longer feeding birds.

Rats Sept 21

Rat May 17

I haven’t seen rats in the yard this winter, but I also haven’t seen many birds. Hopefully our winter flocks are finding plenty of alternate food sources.

Warbler Feb 3

Yesterday I watched through the kitchen window for nearly an hour and saw a total of four birds. The little yellow-rumped warbler in the above photo was foraging for insects along the fence, while a robin and a mockingbird basked in the pear tree, sleepily soaking up sunshine.

Robin Feb 3

Mockingbird Feb 3

The most interesting activity took place in the wax myrtles, where a young yellow-bellied sapsucker was tending its sap wells.

Woodpecker Feb 3

(I decided this was a juvenile sapsucker after consulting Cornell’s All About Birds website. Please comment if you can confirm or correct my identification!)

Woodpecker Feb 3

I couldn’t help wondering about the origin of the sapsucker’s behavior, which strikes me as fairly advanced problem solving. This young bird likely learned to make sap wells by observing its parents, but how did its earliest ancestors learn their craft? Did the behavior surface gradually, a slow convergence of experience and appetite? Or was the shift a more sudden spark? Is there a sap well gene?

Woodpecker Feb 3

Some part of me wants to argue against a purely genetic origin for the sapsucker’s wells. My objections are all based on wistful incredulity, on a deep-seated longing for connection beyond mere knowledge. My objections are, in other words, illogical. But they are also persistent. No matter how many books I read, no matter how much science I embrace, some part of me still wants life to mean more.

Ice at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Back Bay Jan 26

During a lull between snowstorms, we took a walk at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Back Bay Jan 26

Back Bay Jan 26

The beach was clear, but large sections of the bay were frozen, as were all of the ponds. Winter normally brings a few frosty nights to our area, but prolonged bouts of sub-freezing temperatures are rare.

Back Bay Jan 26

Back Bay Jan 26

Back Bay Jan 26

Back Bay Jan 26

Most of the over-wintering birds had deserted the refuge, and the few that remained seemed confused.

Ducks Jan 26

Mallards were out, walking on the ice. Something about the way they moved — one careful step at a time, watching their feet, pausing here and there to probe the ice — reminded me of television detectives inspecting a crime scene.

Other flocks had given up and opted to sleep until the ice thawed.

Ducks Jan 26

With the refuge so quiet and still, every sound and movement drew my attention. On a normal day I would have missed the mockingbird on the parking lot fence and the small heron huddled near the road.

Mockingbird Jan 26

Heron Jan 26

I doubt I would have missed the deer, though. Three of them edged nervously out of cover near the Visitor’s Station, crossed an open patch of lawn, and disappeared down one of the trails.

Deer Jan 26

I wondered if the lingering snow had forced the deer to change their grazing pattern. Or maybe they wander through every day? Maybe snow, even rare twice-in-a-month snow, doesn’t affect deer the way it affects me. Maybe they don’t spend hours admiring the fresh fall, then more hours fretting over the slippery deck, half-frozen pipes, and cancelled appointments. Maybe they simply carry on, day after day, searching for nothing more complicated than grasses to eat, water to drink, and a warm, dry place to sleep.

More Snow on the Way

Cardinal Jan 22

Last week a snowstorm clipped our area as it funneled down from the north. This week a snowstorm is barreling up from the south.

Snow Jan 22

Snow Jan 22

Snow Jan 22

After complaining my way through two mild winters, I’m trying to focus on the happier aspects of a “normal” winter. Fresh snow is pretty, hard freezes mean fewer insect pests in the summer, and icy walks renew my gratitude for warm blankets and hot water.

Snow Jan 22

Snow Jan 23

Snow Jan 22

Song Sparrow Jan 23

Song Sparrow Jan 23

Red Winged Blackbird Jan 23

Sparrow Jan 23

Birds Jan 23

Squirrel Jan 23

What do you love best about winter?

Snow Jan 22

Carolina Wrens

Carolina Wren Jan 16

Carolina Wrens are rare visitors in the yard, so I was excited to see a pair of them last week.

Carolina Wren Jan 15

With vivid eyebrows and down-curved bills, these little wrens always look a bit grumpy to me. They are active foragers, and the pair in our yard spent hours sifting through the iris beds in search of insects. They tossed leaves and other wintry debris out of the beds as they hunted, and I couldn’t help imagining a dialogue of fussy disapproval.

Carolina Wren Jan 15

“Just look at these irises! Have you ever seen such?”

Carolina Wren Jan 15

“Never! They’re buried in leaves!”

Carolina Wren Jan 14

I was tempted, watching the wrens, to pull on my gloves and give the iris beds a thorough cleaning. But winter is far from over, and the irises need their blanket of leaves. Especially on nights like tonight, when wind-driven snow is swirling through the yard…

Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge

Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge is located off the southern tip of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The island is closed to visitors during the summer, but guided tours are offered on Saturday mornings during the winter months.

Walking 13

I have passed over Fisherman Island many times, by way of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, but never found time to schedule a tour. Until last Saturday. Which turned out to be a very foggy Saturday.

Walking 12

I have to confess, I still didn’t schedule the tour. One of my dear friends made an appointment for our writing group to visit the island. Add in three tour guides, and the eight of us made enough noise to send most of the wildlife into cover.

Walking 1

But wildlife isn’t all the island has to offer. Its landscape is wind sculpted and salt stressed, trapped between the ever-restless currents of the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay.

Walking 6

Walking 10

For me, the Prickly Ash trees (also known as toothache trees or Hercules’ clubs) captured much of the island’s strange, raw beauty.

Toothache Tree

Toothache Tree

The Bay-side beach is one of the anchor points for the Bridge-Tunnel. It’s a wide, windy expanse of sand, littered with shells and other offerings from the waves. The tide line is marked by driftwood and heaps of debris.

Beach

Shells

Shells

Shells

Shells

Shells

Jellyfish

Beach

Shells

Crab

A short distance from the beach, the tour guides keep a collection of the island’s rarer finds. Our group added a sea turtle rib to the collection.

Shells

Shells

Bones

Bones

The island hasn’t always been a Wildlife Refuge. For that matter, the island hasn’t always been. According to a handout we received before beginning our tour, the island was first mentioned on navigation charts in 1815. It was only a sandbar at the time. By 1852 it had grown to 25 acres.

In 1886 a quarantine station was built on the island, consisting of seven buildings. During World War I the island became a military installation, and again during World War II. There hasn’t been a military presence on the island since 1969, but evidence of its past importance remains. The whale and sea turtle bones shown above rest on a concrete road. Dunes and rises morph into bunker entrances. Remnants of towers watch over cordgrass marshes, and greenbrier twines through rusty girders.

Abandoned

Abandoned

Abandoned

Abandoned

Our guides told us that Fisherman Island is continuing to grow. What started in 1852 as 25 acres now measures 1850 acres, though they are acres on the move. The entire island is shifting westward. Its drift is slow by my clock, but barrier islands keep a different clock.

Beach

Which might explain why our few hours on the island felt so wonderfully suspended from the world’s usual pace.