For some time, friends have been suggesting I start a blog, and I have finally got around to trying. I live in two wild and beautiful places: Western Maine , USA, and the Cotswolds, England. I also travel to far-flung much wilder places.
I take photos with my trusted Panasonic Lumix, sometimes beautiful photos, more often photos that tell a story.
The blog will be erratic, depending on what catches my eye.
For my first post, from Maine, here are the tree swallows that nested in our old purple martin house and raised four young. They fledged two weeks ago.
A few years ago we bought the abandoned house and barn next door. Our old neighbors had a lovely garden, now completely overgrown. In the middle of the field is a clump of peonies, now in bloom, so off I went, with the dog , to cut some for the house.
I bent down, secateurs in hand, and froze:
Right in the middle of the clump was a tiny exquisite fawn:
Our only species of deer here is the White-tailed Deer, and they are giving birth right now. A new-born fawn is around 8lbs, and can’t really stand at first. So the mother takes it to a sheltered spot called a “form”, and leaves it there while she goes off to forage, returning several times a day to feed it. For the first few weeks it stays quite motionless if a threat approaches, and this one didn’t move a muscle as it looked straight at me:
The small dark marks between its eyes and its ears tell me it is a male: those are the spots where the antlers will emerge when it gets older.
My dog, a beagle with a nose like a missile homing device for squirrels, never noticed this fawn (I dragged her away rather fast, of course). There are two reasons for this. First, the young fawn’s scent glands are not yet producing much scent. And secondly, the mother licks it clean after birth to remove any smells that might attract predators, like me and my beagle.
Does often have twins or even triplets. and they then stash them in different places, presumably to decrease the odds of a single predator killing all of them. So this one may have had siblings nearby, but I didn’t go hunting for them.
One was enough to delight me beyond all measure.
by Edna St Vincent Millay (1956)
There it was I saw what I shall never forget And never retrieve. Monstrous and beautiful to human eyes, hard to believe, He lay, yet there he lay, Asleep on the moss, his head on his polished cleft small ebony hoves, The child of the doe, the dappled child of the deer.
Surely his mother had never said, “Lie here
Till I return,” so spotty and plain to see On the green moss lay he. His eyes had opened; he considered me.
I would have given more than I care to say To thrifty ears, might I have had him for my friend One moment only of that forest day:
Might I have had the acceptance, not the love
Of those clear eyes; Might I have been for him in the bough above Or the root beneath his forest bed, A part of the forest, seen without surprise.
Was it alarm, or was it the wind of my fear lest he depart That jerked him to his jointy knees, And sent him crashing off, leaping and stumbling On his new legs, between the stems of the white trees.
A pond is home to many creatures who live in it, on it, or around it. But sometimes, no matter where you live, you really want a better view. In my pond there is a biggish flat rock, completely surrounded by water. It is a long way from shore, but it is always worth a look through my binoculars. In the last ten days I have seen five different visitors using it to rest on, sunbathe on, seek refuge on, or hunt from. Here they are. Not the world’s best photos, because of the distance, but I hope you enjoy them anyway.
The first thing I saw was a big snapping turtle. It swam past me the other day:
and a day or two later there it was on The Rock:
This one obviously hasn’t read the books claiming that they mostly sun themselves by floating around in the water. And I have seen it there on three different occasions now.
Next, I saw a Canada Goose. There were seven or eight on my pond in early spring, now down to two or three, and no goslings.
The one on the pinnacle of The Rock was apparently sleeping on one leg. Why do birds do that, I wonder?
(This really is the same rock, just taken from a slightly different vantage point on the opposite shore.)
I have a Hooded Merganser:
with eight ducklings on the pond:
and one day there they were, all up there on The Rock.
This was a bit worrying, since I now knew that the Snapping Turtle liked The Rock, and snapping turtles love a tasty duckling for dinner. Indeed, the next hooded merganser I saw had only four ducklings. Was it the same one, with only half her family left, or a different one? I may never know.
They weren’t the only ducks that liked The Rock. This delicate wood duck with six ducklings (three hiding behind her) had been frequenting one end of the pond.
And with all six ducklings she climbed up on The Rock to enjoy the view:
For all these ducks and their families, the appeal of The Rock is twofold. Firstly, it is land, so water predators like otters or mink can’t reach them. But it is also an accessible piece of dry land. Most of the shoreline is overgrown with reeds, bushes, and a wide variety of undergrowth, so getting out of the water isn’t easy. The Rock is different. Secondly and most importantly, it is an island, so they are also safe from land predators like foxes and coyotes.
The final occupant (so far) is a Great Blue Heron. A single one is hanging around this summer.
Here he is in the distance on The Rock:
For him, it is a an excellent perch from which to hunt. Most of the time he was looking fixedly down at the water waiting for a passing fish:
Beaver lodges can also be used as perches, but more often by birds or mammals. They present too much of an obstacle course for animals with short legs that can’t fly, like turtles or ducklings. Maybe I’ll talk about them another time. For now The Rock reigns supreme.
When I was growing up in southern England, there were sparrows everywhere, and we took them for granted. Children fed them breadcrumbs as they hung around the tables in outdoor cafes. They looked like these Cotswold ones, and when I grew up I eventually learnt their proper name was the House Sparrow, Passer domesticus:
The UK has a second species, the Tree Sparrow, Passer montanus, but until quite recently I never knew that worldwide there were many many species of sparrows. In fact around here in Maine there are twelve fairly common ones, and four more that are seen occasionally. To me they were just what birders call LBJ’s, or Little Brown Jobs. Who cares? Well, we all should. Because in England they have declined precipitously since my childhood, with house sparrows down 71% and tree sparrows down a horrifying 93% from 1970 to 2008, and that’s what can happen if no-one pays attention.
To encourage those of you reading this in the US to look more closely, here are the seven species I have photographed here in Maine. The larger number of species here relates partly to the greater land area, and partly to how birds are classified as, for example, sparrows vs finches. You will see from their Latin names that they are unrelated to the Old World sparrows, and indeed they are not all related to each other! Don’t worry if you find it hard to tell them apart, so do I, and if I’ve got any of them wrong, do let me know.
I’ll start with the American Tree sparrow, Spizelloides arborea, which stays here most of the year, even February:
The Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia, is here from early spring to late fall, and it breeds here. It is quite a large sparrow with a black spot in the middle of its breast:
A more familiar pose in this shot:
And it has a healthy appetite, even tackling sizable dragonflies (unfortunately, since they keep down the mosquito population):
I particularly like the Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina, with its orangey-brown head. It is a summer resident.
The White-Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrysleucophrys, just migrates through. The first shot is an adult, heading north in the spring, and the second shot is a juvenile on its way south in the fall.
The Swamp Sparrow, Melospiza georgiana, isn’t seen so often because it lives, surprise surprise, in swamps, but here is a rather scruffy one:
My second-to-last is probably my favorite, the White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis, with its white throat (obviously) and bright yellow by its eyes (Birders have a name for this patch of feathers, the “lores”). It breeds here in Maine, and some even winter over.
My seventh (and last) is sort of cheating: it turns out that the European House Sparrow emigrated to the US 150 years before me, in the mid-1800s, when one Nicholas Pike released 16 sparrows in Brooklyn, and here it is in Maine:
I hope you never look at sparrows as just LBJ’s again.
PS The species I still haven’t seen are the Field, Fox, Savannah, Lincoln’s, and Vesper sparrows.
*My title comes from Hamlet “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow”. Shakespeare uses this to suggest that we must resign ourselves to death as being all part of God’s plan, but as far as the sparrows go, I say let’s fight for their survival. This means preserving their habitat and protecting their migration paths.
I was with fellow docents for the Greater Lovell Land Trust, plus four remarkable children, looking for dragonflies hatching. Two people had seen two water snakes earlier in the week, and to our delight, one emerged from the pond:
This is a Northern Water Snake, Nerodia sipedon, not poisonous, but quite bad-tempered, and a distinct deterrent to what is now (in the UK) called “wild swimming”. This was about 2 feet long, but they can grow to 5 feet. It meandered around, and disappeared. But not long after, it reappeared alongside a much larger one, and they headed for the hills:
The bigger one is the female. They didn’t go far, and curled up in a very cosy embrace:
We watched as they bundled up together, impossible to disentangle one from tother:
The two snakes encircled each other, looking unnervingly like a solitary two-headed snake:
At intervals the smaller male endearingly rested his smaller head on the female’s larger one:
All of this is part of the foreplay, really; the male rests his cheek on the female and rubs her gently. Eventually, he aligns his body with hers, and tries to get the crucial parts into alignment.
From time to time they convulsed, briefly, and this video makes it pretty clear what was afoot; we were nothing but voyeurs:
Then they moved off, now twisted into a braided skein:
As they moved, the smaller male lay almost motionless balanced on the back of the powerful female:
How do the mechanics work? Snakes have openings under their bodies near (but not at) the tail, called cloaca. The mechanics of mating involve lining these up so that the make can insert one of his two hemipenes to deposit his sperm, and then seal it in with a copulatory plug (which also keeps any other males out).
Since the action all happens underneath, closeups are heard to get. Here I think they are just disconnecting; the female’s tail is on top, and the male’s body is belly-up.
I’ll end with one more video:
We left them alone. In 3-5 months she will give birth to as many as 36 live babies, each about a foot long..
PS For 2000 years, intertwined snakes have been a symbol of faithful love. This bracelet is from the 1st century AD, from Roman Egypt:
Prince Albert gave Victoria a snake engagement ring , here is the inscription on the inside:
Some of this jewelry does not appeal to my 21st century taste, but this 19th century enamel and diamond bracelet is on my wish list, though occasions to wear it would be rare:
We associate red leaves with the fall, but every photograph in this post was taken this spring. These plants don’t stay red, they turn green, but why do they start off this way?
No-one knows, but a recent suggestion is that the “juvenile reddening”makes the tender young leaves less discernible to some insects that might devour them, and the associated chemicals make them unpalatable.* Below is a hawthorn:
And a beech:
All sorts of plants start like this. Here is a Wild Sarsaparilla:
And here is a fern:
The phenomenon is found not only in many trees, like this maple:
but also in many tiny plants, like this miniscule fern:
And then the red leaves turn green, and the flowers appear. Hard to believe this Striped Maple is the same plant as the one in the very first photo:
*A little more science. The chemical that makes the leaves red (in fall or spring) is called Anthocyanin, and the tree uses energy to produce it, so it must serve some beneficial purpose. It seems to be more common in young trees than in mature ones, and in poor soils. It may protect somewhat against drought, and late frosts. One theory was that it acted as a sunscreen, but recent work has debunked that idea, leaving the insect-deterrent effect as the leading contender for now.
“Compared with red phenotypes, green phenotypes suffered greater herbivore damage, as judged by the number of leaves attacked and the area lost to herbivory. .. The decreased reflectance in the green spectral band and the concomitant leveling of reflectance throughout the 400-570 nm spectral range may either make red leaves less discernible to some insect herbivores or make insect herbivores more discernible to predators, or both. Moreover, excessive herbivory may be additionally discouraged by the high phenolic concentrations in red leaves.”
I watched a pair of Hooded Mergansers, Lophodytes cucullatus, the other day, grooming as they swam, and I could swear they were matching their moves to their mate. Look at this.
First, the happy couple:
They began with under the wing
Then behind the ear
Now the armpit (do ducks have armpits?):
A slight failure of coordination here (five point deduction):
The male did the occasional show-off solo, watched admiringly by his consort:
And then they each lay on their sides in the water and tended to their bellies:
(This last manoeuvre was simultaneous, but they had drifted a little apart so I couldn’t get them in the same shot.)
And they looked deep into each other’s eyes.
I have tried to discover if this was chance, or whether coordinated grooming is part of their pair bonding ritual, but to no avail.
But I like to think of it as akin to standing in the bathroom with your loved one, blowdrying your hair together, and reaffirming your vows. Though no matter how hard you try, a stiff breeze can play havoc with that hairdo.
Snapping turtles, Chelydra serpentina, are ugly brutes, and not to be messed with. I’ve never had good enough photos before to do a post about them, but now I have. One was crossing the road near my house this morning, and two nice people had stopped to help it cross, and prevent any cars from running it over. When it made it into the woods, I got my camera.
It was raining, so the shell looks shiny black, but when it is dry it is a dark brown, and this one was about 14 inches long. It has a long tail (above), and thick strong legs with huge claws (below):
and its body sort of oozes out from under the shell:
Unlike other turtles they can’t fully retract their heads and legs into their shell, so they display what Wikipedia calls “a combative disposition” when they feel threatened. They have been known to bite through a broomstick.
When the head is fully out, it is quite long, with a charmingly retroussé nose:
You can see if you look carefully that its upper lip has a sharp central beak , and it has little round nostrils:
They have remarkable eyes, with a sort of tortoiseshell iris, which seems appropriate.
They live in ponds, lakes and streams, and they can give a very nasty bite, so little children are warned not to dangle their toes in the water, just in case. They eat pretty much anything, about 1/3 plants and the rest fish, frogs, carrion, insects, crayfish, ducklings, you name it, including possibly children’s toes.
Like all turtles they sunbathe, to bring their body temperature up high enough for their metabolism to work properly. But they mainly sunbathe on the water’s surface, and quickly dive back down deep if they hear someone coming, so this is a rare look at one out of the water, not a great photo, but you can see the huge claws
Females do not breed for 15-20 years. They come up on land and find a nice sandy place to dig a suitable hole and lay 20-40 eggs, starting in April through to June, which may have been why this one was in the woods. I took this photo down in Massachusetts a few years ago; she has buried her eggs and is heading off, never to see her offspring again:
80% will be eaten by predators, such as raccoons and foxes, but for the lucky few, in the fall, after three to six months, the babies hatch:
Hard to believe that if this tiny creature lives for 100 years it can grow to 60 pounds (though most are between 10 and 35 pounds).
The other morning, I had tied my long-suffering dog to a tree and crept quietly to the shoreline, stopping behind some small trees. Nothing. Then in the distance I saw a V-shaped wake: coming straight at me, so fast it created a bow wave all its own, was my beaver.
It curved gently to the left, slowed, and headed straight for the shoreline, without noticing me.
I realized it was going to get out of the water, and I switched to movie mode. To my delight, I realized I was watching it making a scent mound. Beavers scrape up leaves, grass, any vegetation either from the bottom of the pond, or on the shoreline (as here). Then they deposit castoreum scent from their castor sacs, and also secretions from their anal glands. This marks their territory, and tells other beavers if they are family, near neighbors, or unknown. Watch what this beaver does; it is very quick, and you may need to watch it twice. (There is also an elegant dive at the end.):
Beaver are vulnerable out of the water, which is why they don’t waste any time. Notice that the beaver first makes the mound, then lowers its bottom onto it. Dogs, on the other hand, first defecate, then cover it with soil.
And here is the grassy heap he/she leaves behind (both sexes do this, but males do it more!). The water is at top right, and the mound of dead grass is right by the water’s edge. I bent down and tried to smell the castoreum (after all, I’ll never get a fresher chance than this) , but no dice.
Then he (or she) returned to the water:
In the afternoon, I was back, palely loitering behind a scruffy tree, when a huge shape swooped down and across the pond. Bald eagle. It went up into a tall pine, and I think it had something it was eating, hard to tell from so far away. But then, to my delight, it flew down and landed on a perch thoughtfully provided by the morning’s chief actor, the beaver, or one of its relatives..
Beaver mounds are excellent vantage points, and this eagle settled down for a few minutes, still very far away, but in full view. It stretched and organized its wings:
then took a patrician pose, gazing out over the pond:
After a while something caught its eye. It took off:
and rocketed back low across the pond, as if locked onto a target:
I realized it was aiming for two terrified ducks, which rose in a panic (the goose in the background didn’t budge.)
The ducks had good reason to be scared. Bald eagles will stoop onto waterfowl, though their success rate is apparently low, so this rather feeble attempt may be typical! It never did dive on them, just flew away, taking its magic with it.
Talk about airmiles. The Red Knot, Calidris canutus rufa , a sandpiper, enjoys the reputation of undertaking one of the longest migrations in the natural world, a round-trip as long as 19,000 miles. They breed in the high Arctic, but they over-winter all along the coasts of the Americas, as far south as Patagonia. This map shows their range in the Americas:
They weight in at under 5oz, yet they can fly 5000 miles without touching the ground.
In South Carolina, there is a population that over-winters there, but it is also a stop-over point for birds who have come from much further south and are on their way to their Arctic honeymoon hotels. The numbers are huge:
These are on a low-lying unoccupied sandbar island, now protected from humans during migration and nesting season, called Deveaux Bank. All the photos are taken from a boat offshore, which was bobbing around, so they are a little quavery! It is serenely beautiful:
What, for the Red Knots, makes it “vaut le détour”, as the Guide Michelin would say, is the presence of vast numbers of prehistoric horseshoe crabs mating and laying small green eggs.
The eggs are a rich and very digestible food source to support these birds on their long migration, but the horseshoe crabs were over-fished, both because they make good bait for fishermen, and because scientists use their blue blood (yes, really, see below for more*) to test for bacterial contamination. Probably as a result, Red Knot numbers dropped sharply in the 2000’s, and in 2014 this subspecies was listed as threatened by the US Endangered Species Act.
Once they reach breeding season, their plumage acquires a reddish color, as you can see in the image below from the All About Birds website:
but at the moment they are grayish buff. In flight, the birds have a white line running the length of their wings , like the center bird in the photo below (The larger reddish bird with a long bill is a Marbled Godwit. )
Deveaux Bank is crammed with birds, including a colony of Brown Pelicans
On our return boat journey to Wadmalaw Island, we saw a Long-billed Curlew, apparently the first seen around here in some time, with an oystercatcher curled up beneath his feet:
A magical day off the shore of this ever-changing sandbank island.
P.S. I am very grateful to Dana Beach, who took me to Deveaux, and who was instrumental through the Coastal Conservation League in getting it protected in 2015. Here is some more information:
The Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus, also known as a logcock, has a splendid Latin name, about which more later. To start, let’s find one.
In the woods, the first thing you notice is a pile of wood chips,
and when you look up, you see a strange rectangular hole, which looks as though it was made by a human with a fretsaw.
Then you might hear hammering, and there he is.
They are the largest woodpecker in North America, 16-19inches in length. You can tell this one is a male by his full red cap that extends all the way to his beak, and by his red ‘moustache’ (which is actually alongside his bill not above it), and he has a fine powerful bill:
He uses that bill to bash away noisily, which is usually how you find them. .
This one is excavating for food, and he has now found something and is probing deep in his hole, with his crest raised and his eyes half closed in ecstasy:
Look closely at the shape of that red crest and cap. Now stay with me here: look carefully at the seal of the US Senate, below, and the red shape in the top center.
Does it remind you of anything? Despite appearances, the US Senate did not put a woodpecker on their seal. Instead, for quite different reasons, both refer to the felt cap worn by freed slaves in late Republican Rome, or pileus in Latin. Here Odysseus is wearing a white one:
But by the Renaissance it is usually red, and signified eastern origins, here on the Kings from the East,
Then it was adopted by the French revolutionaries, who referred to it as the Bonnet Rouge, or the Phrygian cap.
The Senate chose it as a symbol of liberty, and the ornithologists chose it simply for the physical resemblance between the pileus and the woodpecker’s cap, and named this bird Dryocopus pileatus.
PS John J Audobon’s 1838 text on this bird is well worth reading: