Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Skunk fun!

Here is a picture of my new little backyard buddy.

About a month ago I started putting some sunflower seeds on the ground under the bird feeders for the ground feeding birds. The doves and dark-eyed juncos in particular like to scavenge on the ground for seeds even though the platform feeders were full. Every once in a while, late at night, I would turn on the backyard spotlights to see if any thing exciting was going on in the yard. I started seeing a skunk on a regular basis under the birdfeeders eating the seeds that I had left for the birds. Actually, it was 3 different skunks. I only ever saw 2 at one time but I could tell that there were 3 different skunks by their markings. This one has lots of white on its head and some narrow stripes down its sides. Another one had very large wide white stripes down both sides and the third one was almost entirely black with just a little line of white on it forehead.

I couldn't get a picture because I only saw them long after dark and they usually didn't hang around too long after I turned the lights on. However, this little guy started coming under my neighbor's bird feeders while it was still light outside. He (or she) was limping badly with some injury to his left leg, possibly both left legs. I figured that he risked coming out early in order to get some easy pickings. With his injury it probably made it harder to get food. And he did get lucky...he found a dead bird in the ground under the feeder and sat there and ate the whole thing.

I slowly walked across the yard until I was about 20-30 feet away and I just sat down and snapped pictures. Most of the time Mr. Skunk just continued to eat but every once in a while he looked up at me. He knew that I was there but he must have felt that I was not a threat. I felt perfectly safe because skunks only have a 10-15 foot spray range and also because they don't like to use up any valuable chemicals unless they really need them for defense. As many times as I have seen skunks in the yard (probably 10 times in the last month) I have never smelled one once in that time. Besides, if they are going to spray they usually give you a warning by stamping their feet and then balancing on their front feet, and they finally turning their business end in your direction. Now if you would run up and surprise a skunk you wouldn't get the benefit of all the nice warnings.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Chickadee in the house

Well, I didn't get any bluebirds nesting in one of the bluebird boxes in my yard for the first nesting this year. The bluebirds spent a lot of time checking out the available apartments, but choose one in my next door neighbor's yard instead. That box is also one that I built and it has been very productive in terms of bluebirds for my neighbor. I have had bluebirds in my yard every year, but not for both nestings. Hopefully, I will get them for the 2nd nesting again this year.

However, all is not lost because we do have an occupant...a cute little Carolina Chickadee. This is the common chickadee of Tennessee. Northerners are familiar with the black-capped chickadee. These birds are nearly identical except for their song, but the black-capped cousin lives only in the higher altitudes of the Smokies in Tennessee.

I had noticed the Carolina chickadee checking out the nest box for a couple of days and then I saw her flying back and forth with nesting material. Their nests are mostly moss and the inner cup of the nest uses a lot of animal fur. The chickadee nest fills up about half of the box and the nest cup is deep. There is no mistaking a chickadee nest for a bluebird nest, although a tufted titmouse nest is very similar to a chickadee nest and the eggs are very similar too. Here is a good website to help you identify the nests of various birds.

There are 6 eggs in the nest and they are really very small...smaller than bluebird eggs. You can click on the picture for a bigger view. The female and the male both will sit on the nest for 11-12 days until the babies hatch. I have checked the box twice since the eggs were laid and both times one tap on the side of the box and the adult zooms out of the box. Bluebirds will often stay sitting on the nest even as you open the side and look in and stay there after you close the box and move away. However, I have read that chickadees are one wild bird that will easily tame and come to your hand for seeds. I will have to see if Nancy wants to work on that since she had the patience to entice a hummingbird to sit on her thumb and sip sugar water from her hand.

So even though we don't have any bluebirds at least we have a chickadee in the house.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


The post below discusses night sounds and mentions the whinny of a screech owl. Well, yesterday my friends Tom and Chris called to say they had a Eastern Screech Owl sitting in their hemlock tree in their yard and wondered if I wanted a picture.

The hemlock wasn't too big, maybe about 20 feet tall and the owl was about 2/3 of the way up just resting for the day. I was able to get about 15 feet from the base of the tree and get a pretty good shot without disturbing Mr. (or Mrs.) owl.

Screech owls are the smallest common owl that we have around here. There are two color phases, grey (seen here) and red. It is the same species, the only difference is the color.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Night Sounds

It is spring in Tennessee and that means that nature is waking up. But waking up doesn’t necessarily mean sleeping at night. Many nocturnal animals are beginning to announce their presence with their voice. Mostly males are singing their hearts out to beg for a pretty girl to look their way.

For many animals, sound is how they locate each other, especially nocturnal animals. Humans, being diurnal, rely more on sight and therefore most of us aren’t as good as animals at hearing and identifying sounds. Night sounds, especially, can be strange, and even scary to humans. Here is a primer on a few night sounds and information on how to identify even more.

Owls are easy…they sound like…well, an owl…don’t they? Great-horned owls have a nice low hoo-hoo-hoo like you expect an owl to sound. But screech owls have a couple of calls and neither is what you would expect. Their common “whinny” sounds pretty much like a horse whinny. The barred owl’s “who cooks for you” call is loud and will have you sitting straight up in a tent in the middle of the night.

Everyone has heard coyotes on western movies. We have them right around here and if you have your windows open at night you might hear them. I hear them regularly around my house at night. Red and gray foxes sometimes bark like a yappy little dog, just not as long or constant as a yappy little dog.

But the biggest sound at night this time of year is the call of the frogs and toads. Especially if you live near a wet area you are probably already hearing the tiny little spring peepers and tree frogs. We also have lots of toads around here and they make some pretty unique sounds in the dark of the night. I think some of them sound like running your fingers across the teeth of a comb.

Crickets and Katydids will soon be calling at night. There is an old southern theory that you can tell the temperature by counting the chirps of a cricket. I have looked up the formula and it gets you in the neighborhood of the right temperature…but really, you can guess just as close.

Most birds go to bed at night, but soon you will be hearing whip-poor-wills singing from dust to dawn. A few years ago my wife and I decided it would be fun to sleep out on the deck and listen to the night sounds. A whip-poor-will on a nearby tree did it’s best to keep us awake all night long. I don’t think the crazy bird even stopped to take a breath. Mockingbirds will also sing in the middle of the night, but mockingbirds aren’t stuck on one tune like whip-poor-wills. Mockingbirds can sing just about any and every song. This is a true story…At the tennis center where we used to live a mockingbird lived nearby. There was a deck by court 1 where we used to sit after playing to sip a coke and discuss the match. The local mockingbird learned to mimic the sound of a cell phone so well that when he did his cell phone ringing impersonation 4 people on the deck would reach for their phones.

To learn to identify night sounds you can just search on Google for “owl sounds” or “insect sounds” or whatever, and listen to sounds on your computer. For example, just Google “frogs of Tennessee” and one of the first sites to pop up is the TWRA (Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency) web site with the actual sounds. Also, there are a number of excellent books available on Amazon with included CDs. It is fun to know what you are hearing….especially when it is dark, and scary, and there are things out there…