October Days

Monarch butterfly caterpillars are still chowing down on my backyard milkweed; one more generation of monarchs will soon be heading southwest to Mexico. I hope they fly fast and the cold doesn’t catch them.

The cold is coming, though, whether we want it or not. Many of our summer-time birds (e.g., warblers, flycatchers) have already departed for warmer climes where insects flourish year-round. Nuts and seeds are plentiful here now, and our stalwart resident birds (e.g., chickadees, titmice, cardinals, woodpeckers) are eating as heartily as the migrants do. They’re all preparing for winter.

Winter is my least-favorite season, and fall is its harbinger. I try to adjust my attitude by focusing on birds that shorter days bring south from their northern nesting areas. When will the first dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows scuffle through autumn leaves under our shrubs? When will the first red-breasted nuthatch appear on the suet feeder, joining its white-breasted cousins that stay here all year? And where are the kinglets? They’ve all been reported in our area, but I haven’t seen them yet.

Meanwhile, hawks are sailing down fall-hued mountain ridges. Flocks of grackles jostle and clamor in the woods, flocks of robins and waxwings work on late berries, flocks of starlings fling themselves across the sky. These blue-and-gold days of October are like the wings of some exotic butterfly that flits past, urging the always-changing beauty of every season in nature.

Mid-Summer Report

Saturday morning, with the temperature on its way to sweltering, I headed for the shady Henson Trail. At the big pond, bullfrogs barely bothered to produce a bark or two. Common whitetail dragonflies zipped and zoomed above the water and invading grass. The trees rang with cicada song, the sound of summer.Bluet damselfly

No snakes were visible on the creek banks near the bridge. No snapping turtle lurked in the deep pool downstream. The creek flowed in slow silence, awaiting the crash of the next thunderstorm. Damselflies darted and hovered; one landed on the railing near me. Damselflies fold their wings together at rest, unlike dragonflies. This was one of the delicate little bluets; I can’t tell you the species.

Many local nesting birds are done for the year or are feeding their second brood of babies. American goldOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfinches, though, are just getting started. They wait for thistles to bloom, because they use the thistledown to provide soft linings for their nests. So the goldfinches were quite busy, calling and singing in the open woods near the creek. If you listen to the rhythm of their call notes, they seem to say “Potato chip!” during their scalloped flight. (At our house, goldfinches are also harvesting catnip seeds and soon will be feasting on the seeds of their look-alike flower, black-eyed Susans.)

Alerted by a fellow walker to “two Bambis,” I scanned the meadow and found two spotted fawns lying in the grass near the bluebird box. They were so cute I paused to watch them.


Like a lot of people, I carry two simultaneous and opposing views about white-tailed deer. As individual animals, they’re beautiful, graceful, and a treat to see. As a species, there are way too many for the land’s carrying capacity—and that’s our fault.

So much in the relationship between people and nature is complex, conflicted, and difficult. I’m grateful to simply enjoy a morning’s walk in our small and semi-wild park.



Flycatcher Friends

June is drawing to a close. Our hawks have fledged, but for most smaller birds, nesting season will go on for another few weeks. Example: In the woods near Bel Pre School, I found an active nest last week. An Acadian Flycatcher was flitting from branch to branch of a young beech tree, making the soft call that they usually do near the nest. This call sounds like phew! phew! rather than their usual explosive Pizza!

Acadian nest 2016I searched for and found the nest in that young beech. The nest was disguised as a blob of wind-blown detritus caught on a twiggy fork about ten feet off the ground. Old brown oak bloom dangled from the blob. This is typical of Acadian nests—they’ll often have a long piece of dried grass or flower parts hanging below the supporting twigs. Perhaps that misleads nest predators like jays and crows into thinking this is only a piece of trash caught in the tree.

Acadian Flycatchers (Empidonax virescens) are small greenish birds with a pale eye ring and two pale wing bars. They like woods near water; our park fills the bill! No youngsters were visible in the nest’s shallow basket. Not wanting to spook the parent bird, I left the area but marked the spot. Yesterday I checked it again. An adult Acadian hung around and looked a bit anxious about my presence, but no heads popped up from the nest upon hearing the sweet phew call. Looks like the youngsters haven’t hatched yet.


A few years ago, I lucked into finding an Acadian nest visible from the Henson Trail boardwalk. When I found it, the female was still incubating the eggs, a job that’s boring but restful, I suppose.


When the babies hatched, I managed to get a few pictures of parents bringing food. As the babies got larger, the nest seemed as crowded as Metro at rush hour.


After a couple of weeks in the nest, the youngsters started “branching.” They were well on their way to getting ready for that long migration to the tropics in the fall.

May all this year’s flycatcher nests be as successful as that one was. Flycatchers, which eat mostly insects and other arthropods, are more than welcome. I hope this year they’ll be especially fond of mosquitoes.

Red-shouldered Hawks Leave the Nest!

Last weekend when I went to look at the Red-shouldered Hawks’ nest near Bel Pre Elementary School, I saw only one youngster standing in the nest. IMG_1365The second one could have been hunkered down, or dead, or (nicest answer) fledged already. The young hawk I saw then was almost ready to fledge. It looked strong and fully decked out in juvenile plumage.IMG_1366



I apologize for the quality of the photos, as my camera was at full zoom and I had to crop a bit. But as you can see, the young hawk’s chest feathers feature dark streaks on a creamy background. In fact, they’re pretty streaky everywhere. Adult Red-shouldereds have the shoulder patch that gives them their common name, plus a finely barred and streaked reddish chest.


This weekend, the nest was empty, but there was lots of hawk activity . I never saw more than a hurtling body, but the birds were calling almost constantly. My guess is that the young hawks are branching–flying from branch to branch as they learn to navigate that slippery element we call air. Big birds like hawks and owls need a lot of food to keep them flying, so their parents will still be feeding these inexperienced hunters long after they’ve flown the nest. Keep watching the skies—there could be a hawk in your backyard soon! Here’s a young one that graced our yard a few years ago.


Breeding Birds

If you have a House Wren or Gray Catbird singing in your yard, or hear a Wood Thrush caroling while you walk the Henson Trail, it’s a good bet there’s a nest nearby! First Fotos and Early Birds 042Avian migrants have passed through Montgomery County, so the birds who wake us up with their sunrise songs are species that breed here. This is the season of the Breeding Bird Survey. The BBS is a roadside bird count, an annual trek with stops every half-mile (totaling 50 stops) to listen, look, and note all birds seen and heard in exactly three minutes.

I participated in the survey as a volunteer counter for 20 years. Every spring, I spent a June morning recording birds at all my stops. My route, which crossed Montgomery County from east to west, was one of the original ones laid out in Maryland by the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in 1966. Scientists analyze the collected data to establish trends in bird status and develop conservation priorities.

Many changes were obvious over the years. The major one was development, of course. I grumbled, “I used to get Eastern Meadowlarks and Field Sparrows at this stop and now the fields hold town houses.” Traffic got worse, its noise masking birdsong. Lou, who was driving for me, now was tasked by the scientists to count all the vehicles that passed us.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe good news, though, is that people are noticing. More of us participate in citizen science with bird, butterfly, and amphibian counts, or monitor water quality, and we set aside land to be protected habitat. Even small neighborhood parks are benefiting. Long may American Goldfinches harvest seeds in our back yard and Wood Thrushes sing beside the Henson Trail!

Red Fox


This morning while we were eating breakfast, a squirrel came racing across our patio. In hot pursuit was a handsome red fox. The squirrel was there to harvest seeds dropped from our bird-feeders; the fox was there to seize his own breakfast opportunity. He might have been hunting for himself or he might have a mate and pups nearby.


Red Fox sketch by Diane Ford

The squirrel fled across the yard with the fox close behind. The chase ended at the foot of our big red maple. Stymied, the fox trotted back across our patio. He looked very healthy: his reddish fur was thick and glossy, his black legs were trim and springy, and his fluffy white-tipped tail was a thing of beauty floating behind him.

At the edge of the lawn, he lifted his leg on a clump of daffodils, rounded the blackberry bushes (no doubt planning to return when they hold ripe berries), and vanished into our small patch of woods. I hope this beautiful animal found some mice or voles or even a bunny for breakfast. If only there were such a thing as Purina Fox Chow!



These are updates I’ve posted to our neighborhood list-serve.

March 28, 2016

Again this year, red-shouldered hawks (Buteo linneatus) are nesting in a tall beech tree near Bel Pre Elementary School. If you stand on the old bridge over Bel Pre Creek and look up the macadam path toward the school, you’re also looking toward the nest. You may hear the clear whistled calls of the parent birds.

This wooded streamside supplies what red-shouldered hawks need for shelter and food. Tall deciduous trees, an open understory, frogs, toads, crayfish, voles, small snakes, large insects; it’s all good!

On Sunday, while I was watching the hawk nest, I heard a barred owl (Strix varia) call once.  These two apex predators hunt the same habitat—the hawk by day, the owl by night. We are fortunate to have this small bit of semi-natural woodland nearby.

April 16, 2016

Our red-shouldered hawks are on faithful duty at their nest near Bel Pre Elementary School. The nest is high in a beech tree so it’s hard to see the brooding bird unless she moves, but sometimes striped tail feathers stick out over the edge of the twiggy nest. Occasionally, downy feathers from the nest lining wave from outer twigs like tiny white flags.

The female hawk does most of the incubation. The smaller male brings food to her, and sometimes takes a turn sitting on the eggs while the female hunts. Whenever I witness that “changing of the guard,” I think how joyfully she must exchange her patient position for the glory of free flight.

Incubation takes about a month, so I’m estimating the eggs should hatch by the end of April. The female will tend the nestlings and the male will doubtless continue to be a good provider. I once saw a hawk plunge talons-down into the wetland pond near Rippling Brook, probably going for a frog. We’ll hope our male red-shouldered hawk can find plenty of frogs, mice, and even cicadas to feed his family this spring and summer.

Why Do We Do This?


Why do we write? Why do some of us have this urge, this need to find the right words to write on that blank page?

Possible answers: To try to make sense of what we’re experiencing. To help focus ourselves. To encourage others see/experience things they might not have before. To enhance living.Terry 1

These thoughts arise because I’m reading When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams, noted environmentalist, writer, and teacher. It’s a prose poem of a book by the author of the splendid Refuge, both of which are so personal that in my mind she’s a friend. This copy is from the library, but I’m going to have to buy my own.

When Terry’s mother was dying at 54, she told her daughter she would leave her all her journals, but not to look at them until after she died. When Terry could bear to take one of the bound journals from the long row on the shelf, she found it was blank. “My mother left me her journals, and all her journals were blank,” she writes. It was like a second death. When she herself turned 54, Terry wrote this book, subtitled “Fifty-four Variations on Voice,” to explore the messages contained in those blank journals.

Trying to understand, she thinks through her mother’s life, her own life, and the power of the word—its presence or absence. And she says, “To be read. To be heard. … To write requires an ego, a belief that what you say matters. Writing also requires an aching curiosity leading you to discover, uncover, what is gnawing at your bones. Words have a weight to them. How you choose to present them and to whom is a matter of style and choice. Yet the emptiness of my mother’s journals carries the weight of a question, many questions.Terry 2

I am only on page 72 of 208 pages in Terry’s book. Will she decide the empty journals say silently that we waste time by writing instead of living? Was her mother asking why anyone would go bacOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAk to look at written words later instead of staying in the moment?

I think Terry, a scholar in environmental humanities at the University of Utah, will say NO.  And I find that Terry’s clear clean writing makes me want to look more closely, be more thoughtful, study forever. Her writing makes me want to write.


Hawks on the Hill


The bad news? I didn’t have my camera. The good news? I didn’t have my camera. The occasion: red-shouldered hawks copulating!

Alerted by their squeaky sharp calls, I searched and found the pair well up in a maple tree on the hill above Bel Pre Creek. As I focused my binos, the birds finished, and the male dropped down to perch beside the female. I’m happy to say he didn’t roll over and go to sleep, but rubbed his head in seeming affection along her cheek and neck. That attended to, he began to do serious preening. She flew to another tree and perched there for maybe five minutes, while he worked through all his tail feathers. (Apparently when he gets that hot and bothered, it takes a while to tidy up.)

hawk habitat

Hawk Habitat–woods and creek

When she flew again, this time toward the creek, I lost her. I went back to watching her mate preen. Suddenly she came winging through the trees, crossing in front of me. She carried a stick in her beak. She flew directly to the biggest beech tree at the left edge of the macadam path up to the school, paused a minute, and then flew away, beak empty.

I scanned the tree and found a cluster of sticks held in a crotch against the beech’s trunk, about 40 feet up. I was exultant. Now I know where this year’s nest is!

Why was it good that I didn’t have my camera? Because if it had been in my hands when the female flew away, I’d probably have stopped observing; I’d have stared down at the camera display, seeking the best photos of the pair and the preening male. Thus, I would have missed seeing the female streaking across my upper field of view carrying her stick to the nest.

Note to self: don’t stop looking!