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Another Box Turtle Morning

Thursday, April 27, 2023


Do you remember a post called Box Turtle Morning? 
It was from July 6, 2022. Which, as I think about it, was very late for a box turtle in southeast Ohio to be laying eggs. 

If you haven't read it, or don't remember it, you might want to click above. The post will open in a new window. You won't lose your place here. To summarize: That morning, I found not one, but two freshly completed box turtle nests on my meadow paths, and I spent the morning making sure they were protected from predators, using wire baskets, stakes, and heavy rocks. 

In late October 2022, I was shocked to find one of the nests had hatched out. That’s the normal 3-4 month incubation period, but October had turned nasty. It was cold and rainy, but danged if at least three little turtlets hadn't dug their way out, leaving a neat exit hole. The mesh on the wire basket was large enough to allow them to escape, by design, and escape they did. Dang it! I shone my flashlight down into the nest chamber and saw the shell of a tiny turtlet. I gingerly touched his foot with my finger, and he pulled that foot in. OMG he was alive! 

Because it was so very cold and wet, and I knew that some hatchlings overwinter in the nest, I fetched a flimsy dead leaf and covered the exit hole his siblings had used to leave the nest. Then I piled loose earth over the dead leaf (I didn't want to bury him alive!) That way, he'd have a nice empty nest chamber to rattle around in, and he could dig his way out when he was good and ready. I had a hunch he'd decided to overwinter in there. Smart turtle. I wondered where his siblings had gone. The meadow is so huge, and they are so very tiny.  

To make sure I’d see him when he finally dug out, I placed a finer gauge mesh basket over the nest, that would contain him until I could get there to see him. I wanted confirmation that he’d made it through the winter. 

All winter long, I checked that nest every time I walked out, to make sure he hadn't dug out. All spring long, I've checked it every day (that I was home). I also have weeded it three times to keep the earth atop the nest loose and unobstructed. I’ve done the same for the second nest I found that July morning. The grass would have grown over them completely had I not done that. I've also watered the nests many times during dry, hot weeks in summer. I suspect many turtle eggs simply dessicate away and fail to hatch in very hot dry summers.

This morning, April 26, I checked the nest again, and I saw something different. I'd been gone overnight, and missed one nest check. Isn’t that how it always goes?

This photo is out of focus, but do you see what I see?

There was a new exit hole! And at the top, a tiny grayish disc...

Look at that! There are no tailings (piles of dirt) because the hole has been dug out from beneath. The sides are so finely scraped and scratched by tiny toenails. It's exactly big enough to admit one baby turtle, and no more. That, my friends, is a perfect hatchling exit hole. 

and THERE he WAS.

Had I not put the finer gauge copper basket over the nest, he'd have been long gone by the time I found the exit hole. He was trapped in the copper basket, just as I'd hoped. 

First look: He's got a little mossflower behind his ear.  I cannot believe my eyes. He's going to be a bright one--look at those orange arms!

It's SO cold this morning--mid 30's! And yet he's out, and responsive. Turtles will always amaze and surprise me, at every turn. 

I am wary of warming him up too quickly so I keep my hand and him out of my warm pocket. 

I carry him home and set him up in an escape-proof container outside, in the rapidly warming sun, on my chipmunk-proof growing table. Then I go back to investigate the nest, and make sure there are no more turtlets in there. Science Chimps gotta know everything there is to know. 

I find only the empty shells of a successfully hatched box turtle nest. How satisfying!!

He's such a muddy little thing! Only his moist eyes are clean. 

So I wash him off and scrub him with a Q-tip until I can see his true colors. 

Ach he's so tiny, so vulnerable. But he's strong. I don't know his sex for sure, but the bright orange forelegs are making me lean male.

I leave him basking and go back to double-protect the second nest, which did not hatch out in October. I weed it carefully, loosen the soil surface, and place the fine copper baby cage over the nest. (This is the first, hatched out nest with the exit hole).

This way, if the second nest’s occupants dig out this spring, I will be able to see and care for the babies--they won't walk off through the large white mesh the way this hatchling's siblings did last fall. 

Stake and huge cement block in place. Nothing's going to excavate this nest but the Science Chimp. It has been protected with the white cage all winter; I've just added the baby cage to it to contain any hatchlings.

Back home, the turtlet makes round after round of its enclosure, trying to get out. Such strength and energy he has! I try feeding him tiny white tender mealworms, and he walks right over them. 

I've promised this turtle if he won't eat for me that I will release him, and I think he knows that. 

By about 1 pm, he had dug himself back into the soft mud and gone to sleep. What a big day for a very small turtle! 

And for his protector. Tomorrow, I'll try him on some cat food treat, smeared on a tiny baby mealworm, in hopes that the fishy smell will stimulate his urge to bite. If I can't get him to eat, off he goes to the woods to rumble around and find his own meals.

Turtles know best what they need. 
Science Chimps just try to help them along their way. 

The Fifth of April

Thursday, April 6, 2023


On April 5, it seemed like everything happened at once. I credit Curtis for getting me out every single day, rain or shine, for a walkaround. I suit up and out we go. The day dawned so mild that for the first time since...I don't know when... I danced out in a tank top and cropped pants. Oh, the feel of the warm breeze on bare skin, lifting my arm hairs at long last. I love that feeling.

The first azure bluets have opened! Who can blame them, on a 68 degree morning?

Here come the dogwoods! So early, early in the spring. 
My dad used to say that a warm wind will whip the flowers and leaves out. And so it does.

I saw a female bluebird slip out of the house by my mailbox. As far as I know, this is the first nest on
my trail. I'm so glad to keep finding empty boxes in early April. With the way springs go around here, the longer they wait, the better! My enthusiasm for bluebirds is heavily tempered by worry for them when the weather turns nasty. The early nests are likely to be snowed upon, and then comes the worry and work of feeding babies through snowstorms. Please, please, please not this year. I've got so much travel coming, and a magazine to edit, and six bats to condition for release, and it all has to happen in April and May. 

Out in the orchard, a blue-gray gnatcatcher whined, but I couldn't find it against the white-gray sky. Same for the liquid twitter of the first tree swallow. Oh my gosh, how those quiet songs electrify me! Spring is here, it's here, ready or not.

I did find the first yellow-rumped warbler of the year, though, and was very surprised to see it was a female. Usually, male warblers come through first. 

When you click on the photo you can see that she's catching and eating little bees who are visiting the elm flowers. There is a whole world of small bees I know nothing about, but I have friends who know. This one's for you, Laura H!

I was amazed to see the first clouded sulfur butterfly of the spring fluttering erratically over the dead grasstops, and elated to find a Henry's elfin feeding at spicebush in the orchard. You have to look for this tiny brown butterfly early, early in the spring. Its caterpillar eats redbud (obligingly blooming as the butterflies emerge)

it flies in March and early April; it's cute as a button and I've been looking for them and usually finding them in my orchard for 30 years now. I like the silken spider line in this shot. 

Henry's elfin  Callophrys henricii on spicebush

Since I've had to keep mealworms to feed my bat clients over the winter, I've discovered the perfect mouse trap. Mice love to eat mealworms, and with a stack of unused critter keepers, I'd inadvertently made a ramp up to top of my joint compound bucket full of mealworms. Mouse climbs ramp, sees feast, jumps in, can't jump back out. It started with one...

and then came a mama mouse with four babies (how did this happen?? Were they hanging off her teats when she jumped down into the bucket?? Or did each one climb up behind her, see her, and jump in to join the others?) I need a trailcam in my basement. 

All told, I've now caught ten mice (two mamas with broods) in this gentle trap. I am SO glad to get them out of my basement!

I release them in a place where they can have shelter but won't annoy anyone, with a pile of seed to feed from until they find their way.

With the latest white-footed mouse family as impetus, I decided to make a trek up to an old farmstead I used to visit with Chet. I knew the trees and shrubs would be in full bloom around the swiftly decaying house, my favorite combo of weathered wood and colored petals. 

It did not disappoint.

I'd heard toads trilling in the puddles at home, and here in a road puddle was the coiled evidence of their work in the night. 

I must revisit and see if these peaches are any good! The tree is enormous.

It hurts to see the lath fall and expose the old house's bones. One by one the buildings I love have fallen or been torn down, so I photograph them while I can.

Beautiful spirea, weathered lath.

The first tiger of the year in a riot of peach blossoms. I'd see one back at home too, flirting with daffodils...there's not a lilac flower (their usual first food) to be found this early. 

Birdseye speedwell has such a sweet true blue, the first of early spring.

I turned for home, hearing the first yellow-throated warbler of the spring singing his sweet descending  notes from the tall pines along the farm road. 

There was a pair of courting falcate orangetip butterflies at my last daffodils!
Click on the photo, please, to see the orange tips of the male fluttering above the female, who has her abdomen sticking straight up--a butterfly's way of saying "I have a headache."

A chipping sparrow sorted through seed hulls beneath the feeder. They've arrived and are singing, adding their somewhat tuneless trill to the mix of nearly identical trills in my yard.

The pine warbler pair is still around; the male expertly extricating bits of peanut

and gagging them down before my delighted eyes.

He sings constantly, his trill softer and more melodious than the more percussive chipping sparrow's...
and more constant in pulse than the looser trills of dark-eyed juncos. It's a lot to sort out for the ear birder!

All this warbler action and the 85 degree temperature on this fifth of April finally moved me to get the WarblerFall going! I've never put it out this early, but like Steven Tyler, I don't want to miss a thing!

I made a presoak bucket of cold water, another big bucket of hot soapy water and a rinse bucket as well, and I commenced scrubbing clean all the flat rocks that had been lying unused all winter. Finally I was ready to construct the WarblerFall.

I plugged it in, got the water music just right and popped into the studio to watch and shoot through the window. First clients were a cardinal and a house finch!

The Carolina chickadee slaked its thirst

and finches gold and house descended again and again. 

A house sparrow took a drink, and then two male brown-headed cowbirds took the first baths,

Maybe you don't like cowbirds. But remember: These are native birds with a very, very interesting life history. And LOOK at them!

 and within minutes, six species of birds had joyfully broken the champagne bottle on the prow of my 2023 WarblerFall. It was so clear to me that they all remembered the setup from last season, and were delighted to welcome it back.

And so was I. I cranked open the studio window so I could hear the sound of fluttering wings and water droplets flying, and together the birds and I welcomed spring with water music. 
I washed the heated pet dish and put it aside, knowing I'll have to watch night temperatures for at least the next month. But it's worth it to see this cavalcade of happy drinkers and bathers again. What a treat, what a delight--the gift that gives and gives.

If you've been meaning to order your WarblerFall plans, don't let me stop you! :) 

THANK YOU for your continuing support!


Fun With Pine Warblers

Sunday, April 2, 2023


One of my gray birches has decided to leaf out on April 2. You go, little tree. The rest are still in tight winter bud. 

This female cardinal looks fine in new leaves.

 I cannot tell you what a thrill it is for me to hear a pine warbler singing incessantly just outside my studio window. I've lived here outside Whipple in the southeast corner of Ohio since November 1992 and I have had pine warblers breed occasionally in the tall Virginia pines that line my oilwell access road.  In the early 2000's I saw a female take the fuzz off a spent dandelion and take it off to line her nest.  And they bred there in 2022.

But this year, I have a male who has claimed the feeders as his, and he commutes several hundred yards out to sing on his territory in the row of pines in between picking at the peanuts at my feeder. I know this is a reasonably common feeder bird in the Deep South and Southeast, but it is a Big Freakin' Deal for me to have a PIWA making hisself at home and helping himself to the food. 

Along with the white-breasted nuthatches, he's a peanut fan. He's like Texas toilet paper too...he don't take s---t off nobody. Not afraid of the hairy woodpecker. He just stays put and picks away.

It's too durn cold to set up my WarblerFall yet. It's still freezing many nights. So he comes down to the ugly blue heated dog dish and drinks there. Charmed, I'm sure! I can't wait to see him bathe in the WarblerFall! 

I've been thoroughly enjoying him for about three weeks, as he arrived March 8. I had begun to wonder when a female might appear. And on April 1, there she was, hopping about on the ground near the feeders, picking up who knows what.

You'd hardly know she was a warbler; you'd hardly know she was there. Not a speck of color on her anywhere; she was like the male in grayscale.

She had found a piece of peanut and was gagging it down when the male dropped down, apparently too close for comfort. I was thrilled to get them both in the frame. 

She, on the other hand, took violent exception to the male's intrusion, and leapt on him, pecking at his eyes! 

I had never seen anything quite like it. I guess she's not ready to play nice and be his mate. If this is pair bonding, um, no thanks. 

Over and over they rolled, she pressing the attack; he just trying to defend himself. At least that's how it looked to me. I did not see him peck back; he mostly dodged her blows.

I got concerned for him. 

When they finally broke free of each other, she arrowed after him and chased him to a nearby birch.

Only a minute or so later, he was singing from a feeder hook, unperturbed and apparently not dissuaded.

Phew!! Mr. PIWA, you have a tiger by the tail. Good luck with her.

I've started feeding small amounts of Zick Dough on these cold raw March and April days, to help early migrants as well as residents. The birds sure do appreciate it. 

Today, April 2, I was thrilled to bits to see the female pine warbler partaking of the high-energy food! 

She may have seen the pair of Carolina wrens eating it...she's a quick study. I have yet to see the male warbler take any, surprisingly, though he hovers around the suet feeder and picks up millet from the ground.

Carolina wrens love Zick Dough.

So do white-breasted nuthatches.

I'm delighted to have something nutritious to offer these beautiful pine warblers on raw spring days. 

Let's face it, I'm a freak for warblers.  Always have loved these delicate, long-distance travelers and their beautiful colors and songs.

Peanuts. If they're good enough for nuthatches, they're good enough for me!

Eat up, Mean Mrs. Mustard. And be nicer to your mate. You've got eggs to make. Soon I'll put out crushed eggshells for you. I want to hear and host pine warblers every spring!

And I can't wait to see them use the WarblerFall!

15 September 2022...Mean Mrs. Mustard, that kinda looks like you!

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