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Posts Tagged ‘Chuck-wills-widow’

Last month, I worried about the late arrival of the Chuck-wills-widow. Now they’re back, having trickled in. I heard one in the distant forest one night, none the following night, another the third night. Then a few more. A month later, they’re filling the nights with sound. They start calling at dusk and are most vocal in the early night hours, but I hear them in the middle of the night and early mornings before dawn.

They must have sensed my concern over their absence. As though to reassure me they’ve come home, a pair has taken to serenade me every evening in my yard. One perches in a tree north of the house and another in the south. They call back and forth, as if in conversation, and don’t seem to mind when I go out on the porch to listen, but if I venture any closer, they fly away.

Lately, the nights have been mild enough to sleep with a bedroom window open, the better to hear birds and peepers and other inhabitants of the night. At dawn, every bird in the neighborhood begins to sing. Who needs a clock radio when such music invites you into the day?

After it grows light, the concert is over and they go about their business. Still, the day is not silent. Wild Turkeys gobble. Cardinals, Wrens, and fowl I can’t identify keep the music going. I’m no bird watcher. In the woods, you can’t see the birds for the trees, but you can hear them.

Lately, I’ve heard a familiar “Cheeri-up? Cheerio!” The Robins migrated north months ago, but they passed through, leaving their songs. Our Mockingbirds mimic the Robin (as I wrote in Robin Song), but they prefer open spaces and my yard is mostly wooded, so I suspect it’s a Brown Thrasher, a close relative of the Mockingbird who prefers woods and thickets, like where I live. Here is a link to Brown Thrasher songs, but none of these recordings includes an imitation of a Robin song:

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Brown_Thrasher/sounds

The Brown Thrasher’s repertoire is almost as varied as it’s cousin the Mockingbird’s.

Birds are not the only creatures making their presence known. The Carpenter Bees have invaded my potting shed. They came out in early March, then in the middle of the month we had a few 25 degree nights and they disappeared. (Maybe they went to Florida for the rest of the winter.) Now they’re back. They make nests in unpainted wood, like my potting shed.

When I approach, something like an oversized bumblebee flies at me, buzzing like he means business. This is a male trying to threaten me, but I know he has no stinger and can do no more than be annoying. His mate, who does have a stinger, is too busy to bother me, preparing a home for her babies. But even the females seldom sting. I hear them buzz their way into 2x4s, leaving a pile of sawdust behind.

This Carpenter Bee is all buzz. He can bite, but he can’t sting.

Once I sawed into a piece of scrap lumber which, unknown to me, contained a Carpenter Bee nest. Suddenly, a bee flew out. I don’t know who was more alarmed, me or the bee. The poor thing took off, never to be seen in the environs again. These Carpenter Bees are pesky, but as long as they don’t drill holes in my house, I leave them alone. Like most bees, they are important pollinators and this kind can pollinate flowers that are too difficult for others, including Honeybees, to service.

There are thousands of species of bees. I’ve become interested in native bees. Honeybees aren’t native. They’re immigrants from Europe. Many of our native bees resemble Honeybees and Bumblebees and others look like wasps or flies. Most don’t sting or make honey. Bumblebees make honey, but only in modest quantities, unlike Honeybees. While I love honey, the Honeybee is overrated as a pollinator. There are many flowers, including important food crops, that Honeybees lack the proper equipment to pollinate, but there is a native bee that has been designed just for that flower.

One of Carpenter Bees’ nature enemies is woodpeckers. Although I haven’t noticed any reduction in the number of bees, Pileated Woodpeckers have taken up residence at my place. They probably like it here because I leave dead trees standing, as long as they’re not close enough to fall on my house. I hear woodpeckers drumming on trees and occasionally their large wings flapping through the woods. Here is a recording of a Pileated Woodpecker:

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Pileated_Woodpecker/sounds

Today I saw one on the pine tree just outside my living room window. He gave me time to get my camera, but when I stepped near the window to snap a picture, he took off with loud flapping wings.

These are big woodpeckers.

Here’s something few people know. While birds eat seeds, they must have protein from insects in order to reproduce. Folks will put out all kinds of bird feeders to attract birds, then spray every bug they see. Pesticides are unhealthy for birds (and people) as well as insects. Learn to live with a few bugs in the yard. Let the birds eat them. Nature is not always convenient.

Earlier this spring, a house wren took up residence on my front porch and raised a brood. Every time I stepped onto the porch, she startled me—I swear they can fly faster than a speeding bullet! They nest in hanging plants, under eaves, and in my shed. One spring a wren nested on a window sill when I left an awning window open during a warm spell. When cool weather returned, I had to leave the window open so as not to disturb her nest. Fortunately, these birds don’t take long to raise a family. One morning, I heard the most joyous singing. The wren perched on the edge of her nest announcing motherhood. In no time at all, the babies grew up and flew away so I could close the window again.

House Wren singing.

As I said, nature is not always convenient, but it’s always wondrous.

https://marieqrogers.com/2015/02/28/robin-song/

https://marieqrogers.com/2017/03/31/finally-the-whippoorwill/

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I had almost given up. I wasn’t worried that spring would never come, but that something had happened to the whippoorwills. Had they forsaken this troubled planet?

They’re not really whippoorwills, and they don’t even make the whip-poor-will sound, but that’s what we call them here in rural Florida. If I told a neighbor I heard a Chuck-wills-widow call last night, I’d get a blank stare that would last into next week. If I say I heard a whippoorwill, I’d have full understanding.

You can’t describe their call as a song. It sounds almost like they’re spitting out, “Chuck! Will’s widow,” or something like that. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings described it as, “Chip hell out of the red oak.” You can find a recording here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Chuck-wills-widow/id. On summer nights, I can hear several in the woods around me, calling ceaselessly through the night, the same call over and over. Sometimes one comes close to the house, but if I go outside to try to locate it—immediate silence.

Chuck-wills-widow. (Photo courtesy of Dick Daniels)

I’ve never seen one clearly enough to recognize it. They are active mostly at night and are so well camouflaged they blend in with dead leaves and tree bark during the day. Sometimes, driving down the road at night, a bird will suddenly shoot up from the roadway and fly off. That’s a Chuck-wills-widow that has been picking up grit from the road. I suppose they sometimes get hit by cars. I read that their numbers are declining—the usual story— pesticides and loss of habitat. They must be too shy to stick around when their forests are taken over by housing developments. They don’t build nests, but lay eggs on the ground, which puts them at risk despite their camouflage. They’re vulnerable to pesticides because their diet is mostly insects, although they’ve been known to eat small birds and even bats.

I hear them only from March through July. They winter in the Caribbean and Central America, but I don’t know what they do in late summer and fall.

I wasn’t too surprised they were late this spring. We had another weird winter. Winters in Florida are typically weird, but these last two were worse. Not hard winters, but warm for the most part, and late. My dog fennel, loyal predictor of the first frost, has been dead wrong two years in a row. No frost in November, as predicted. Not until after Christmas.

Last spring I still had nearly a full cord of firewood left over. I usually stock up before my firewood man goes away for hunting season, but I didn’t run low until after the first frost. When I called him, he delivered right away and said I was lucky to catch him before he took one last trip to his hunt camp. After the second frost, it appeared my supply would last me again into the next fall.

Our tomato plants

A few weeks before Spring Break, I had the school kids start tomato plants and told them that after the break we should be past the threat of frost and could set the plants out in their gardens. Boy was I wrong! After the children returned to school, we were hit with the coldest spell of the winter. I woke to a half inch of ice in the bird bath.

(I can hear you northerners saying, “Now really, just get over it!” I know. You’re digging out from under three feet of snow. Spend a few winters here and see how soft you get!)

So, we held back on planting our spring gardens. Everyone I talked to said they hadn’t heard a whippoorwill yet, either. The next part of the conversation goes something like, “My mama/granny/grandpa always said we can have frost up ‘til Easter.” This year, Easter comes in the middle of April! Can Spring really be so late? The whippoorwills have never been this late. What’s wrong?

On mild nights, I slept with a window open, hoping to hear one call. If the night was too cool, I’d step out on the porch every few hours to listen. March melted away, but no whippoorwill.

Finally, on March 30th, I heard the call! Far away, faint, and short lived, one called. My world was set right again. I heard the promise of Spring, and it was music to my ears.

 

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Spring caught me by surprise again. It does this every year. Winter in Florida is predictably unpredictable. It can be 80 degrees in the morning and plunge into the 20’s by midnight. Although the blooming of the Dog Fennel last fall predicted frost before Thanksgiving (and Dog Fennel’s predictions are more accurate than the almanac), Jack didn’t show his hoary head until January. Fruit trees that know no better began to bloom and set fruit. Then Winter skated in. Not a hard winter, as winters go, but enough frosts and freezes to nip those sassy buds and precocious peaches. Plants that know better, Yellow Jasmine and Wild Azaleas, knew to wait.

A thousand miles to the north, Punxsutawney Phil, that famous groundhog, predicted an early spring. I had my hopes, but didn’t bank on it. My misgivings were correct. I won’t be surprised if they fire that groundhog and replace him with another who can predict more accurately. But maybe it’s not his fault. Remember, my Dog Fennel was wrong, too.

Fortunately, we didn’t suffer the backlash of winter that hit our northern neighbors. No blizzards, but we did get a little snow, a few flurries that only the more adventurous caught before they melted to nothing. I missed the snowfall because it’s warmer in the woods where I live. If a few flakes drifted as far as the tree canopy, they never hit the ground.

Plants that hadn’t been fooled by our fickle weather stayed huddled in winter dormancy. When I gave my talk on Wild Eating to a neighboring garden club, the only thing I could find to eat was a pine tree. The usual weeds prudently remained in hibernation. At least we were able to enjoy a delicious pine needle tea.

Among leafless gray trunks of the woods and swamps, the Red Maples ignored warm days, cold nights, and the predictions of other species and blazed deep scarlet at their usual time. They’ve lived in Florida long enough not to be influenced by the uncertainties of what we call winter. You see, in Florida, seasons are backwards. Here, maple trees turn colorful in spring, not so much in fall. Soon their little helicopter seeds rained down into yard and flower pot alike and I have little maple trees coming up everywhere.

Then came March. Warm days of sunshine and short sleeved shirts, pollen from oaks and pines coating everything yellow, sending sensitive people to the doctor. I entered my best houseplants in the county fair. When I brought them home afterward, they begged to be left outdoors. They love the heat and humidity of summer. It reminds them of their jungle origins. In summer, they thrive on fresh rainwater and ask for no fertilizer. But they complain about the cool dry air of the winter house and need much coaxing to keep up appearances until fair time. It was the Ides of March. Was winter over? Against my better judgement, I left my tropical babies outside. Guess what—another cold front, nights in the 30’s. I brought the most vulnerable into the house and left the more hardy out. They weren’t happy, but they survived.

When I heard the first Whippoorwill, I knew spring had finally arrived. These aren’t really whippoorwills but that’s what we call them. They are actually Chuck-wills-widow, a cousin of the whippoorwill. Their song is not musical (Marjorie Rawlings described it as, “Chip hell out of the red oak”) but it’s unique and most welcome in March.

I love the light the sun sends in late winter—bright, unencumbered by foliage and haze, intense, almost silvery. It surrounds everything, leaving no shadows. Maybe that’s the cue. Buds began to plump. My Wild Azaleas bloomed, filling the woods with their sweet bouquet.

Then literally overnight, everything burst with color. A few trees tentatively put out green leaves. When no harm came to the early bloomers, other trees followed suit. Wildflowers have began to blossom. Yellow Primrose now decorates the dirt road from evening till noon. Phlox carpets the sunny roadsides and Lyre Leaf sage has turned the shady areas blue.  Before I knew what happened, my sunny yard transformed into a shady forest. Birds of more species than I can describe wake me with their morning songs.

I don’t know why Spring surprises me with its arrival. It happens this way every year. One day the oaks are bare, the next they are attired in spring green. Soon, the green will darken, the shade in my yard deepen, and heat and humidity will come home to stay. My tropical house plants will flourish, as will mosquitoes, and my human neighbors will wilt and hibernate in their air conditioning.

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