Phoebes at home

[This is the first of probably three posts on a family of phoebes who have moved into our household.]

The Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) is a flycatcher, in the family Tyrannidae


Every year she builds an exquisite nest above our front door.

Phoebe nest

The base is mud, from the small pond by our driveway, which she uses to build a foundation on the top of the light above the door. Then she adds moss, then some sort of soft grass as a lining . Each year she uses the previous year’s nest as a base, and adds to it, building a multi-year skyscraper. Then it topples off, and she starts again. Obviously, the builders are from many generations of mother birds, but somehow the family tradition is kept alive. through the 38 years we have lived here, and who knows how long before that (the house is 210 years old). .

This year, as of May 23,  she has 5 eggs.

Phibere eggs, May 23

Every time we come in and out of the door she flies off, but she always comes back..

On June 5, instead of being snuggled inside the nest she was sitting on the edge:


I hoped that meant the eggs had hatched. We got out the ladder and peeked, and sure enough, tiny chicks.


From when I first saw the eggs, this is 13 days, and incubation is given as 16 days in the books. From now, it is supposedly another 16 days till they fledge, so I will watch them carefully and report back. I will check once a week only, so as not to disturb them, though they seem unbothered by our presence, and the mother returned to feed them a few minutes after we put the ladder away.

Watch this space.

PS: I am not sure why this unassuming bird is called Phoebe. Phoebe is the Latinized form of the Greek name Φοίβη (Phoibe), which meant “bright, pure”.  In Greek mythology Phoibe was a Titan associated with the moon and it was also one of the names of her granddaughter, the moon goddess Artemis.

PPS My friend Sue has rightly reminded me that it is of course named after its call: 

Solomon and the Queen

Solomon’s Seal is a very beautiful plant. One species grows wild around here, but the photos are of the ones in my garden, which have been there since before we owned the house, which means at least 40 years, perhaps much longer.

Solomon's Seal and quen bumblebee

It was in full flower two weeks ago, and I noticed that it was heavily populated with bumblebees.

Solomon's Seal and quen bumblebee

After doing a bit of light reading, I realized that these are queen bumblebees, which rather astonishingly winter over here under the ground. When they emerge in the spring  they are peckish, so a sizable plant like this is a great source of nectar and pollen.

But the flowers, each one a tiny bell, are closed, and to the bee has to force them open. Not all bees have the strength for this.

Solomon's Seal and quen bumblebee

What is more, the pollen is deep in the bell, so once the bee has got its head inside the flower, see below, it vibrates its wings at just the right frequency to dislodge the pollen, and down it showers.

Solomon's Seal and quen bumblebee

They stash some in their pollen baskets,


and some sticks to their fuzzy coat and gets carried along to fertilise the next flower they land on.

The queen then builds a nest in the ground, creates tiny waxy cups, fills each one with nectar and pollen, and lays her egg on top. Soon the next generation of worker bees will emerge. Quite a trick.

PS This plant is Polygonatum multiflorum , or  Great Solomon’s Seal.  It grows wild in Europe and Asia, and the Victorians cultivated it and brought it to the USA.

PPS: Buzz pollination is explained rather well here: “Approximately 8 % of flowering plants (∼20,000 species) have poricidal anthers, which release pollen only through small pores .. These anthers release pollen when they are vibrated by bees performing buzz pollination, or sonication … —a behavior in which bees grasp the anthers with their mandibles (usually) and vibrate their bodies by activating their flight muscles while decoupling the wings…. This transfers the vibration to the flowers, and pollen pours out of the anthers onto the bees’ bodies, where it can be groomed and brought to the nest to provision the larvae.” (Excerpted from Switzer and Combes 2016. )





The Secretive Salamander

[Apologies for the poor quality photos, but I thought it was interesting enough to post anyway.]

On our doorstep at 10pm on May 11, in the pitch-dark, was a Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma maculatum. They are quite large, maybe 7 inches long, and this one may have been en route to lay eggs in our small pond.

Spotted Salamander

I brought it inside to photograph, but it didn’t like the light, so I cut the photoshoot short, took it back out, and replaced it on the earth next to where we found it. In the morning it was gone, hopefully heading off for a tryst in my pond…

But then I went to a nearby vernal pool, and found some eggs,

Spotted Salamander EWggs

which I carefully replaced in the pond to create lots of new black and yellow monsters. This was early May; by August they look like this, recognizably a salamander, but still with external gills. That’s what three months of development can do:


(The photo above was taken three years ago.)

And early one hot summer morning a couple of years ago a miniature one had found refuge in a cooler full of ice left out after a party:

Spotted salamander, Ambystola maculatum

Their population is stable, and they can live for 10 years. They live under rocks and logs, emerging only at night, returning to the pond in spring to mate and lay their eggs. This secretive life style makes them hard to see. Many years ago we found one in our dark cool basement, where it seemed to have spent the winter. Indeed, the one we saw on our doorstep may have just emerged from the basement, which is built of hand-hewn granite blocks from 1810 when the house was built, and is full of damp crevices through which a salamander could wriggle.

P.S. For a long time I thought salamanders were what Americans called newts. `It turns out however that salamanders are the larger family, which includes newts as a sub-group. Newts are semi-aquatic even as adults, with webbed feet. True salamanders are terrestrial except when mating, and have feet adapted for digging.


Seeing double and eating flowers

Thirty-six hours after I saw “my” bear, as the evening fell, there crossing our meadow were TWO bears.


I think they were a mother and a yearling. My camera battery went flat, so my photos were all fuzzy, but at least I can prove my sighting! The cubs stay with their mothers for up to two years. And at this time of year fresh grass and flowers (especially dandelions) are a crucial part of their diet. “In spring, bears feed on willow catkins, grasses, dandelions, clover, and aspen leaves. Leaves and flowers are preferred when they are highest in protein content (shortly after leaf burst or flowering), before the cell walls build up lignin and cellulose and become more difficult to digest.” from

North American Black Bear

To counter-balance the enormity of a duo of black bears, here is another favorite food flower for a much smaller creature.

The Fringed Polygala is a woodland plant, and has the charming vernacular name Gaywings.

Fringes polygala

This enticing 3/4″ long flower seems to be a favorite of the Eastern Swallowtail butterfly. This one ignored starflowers and mayflowers and Canada dogwood (bunchberries), and flitted from polygala to polygala,

Eastern Swallowtail on Fringes Polygala

inserting its curved tongue with precision into the heart of the tiny flower.

Eastern Swallowtail on Fringes Polygala

and sometimes almost getting its head in too:

Eastern Swallowtail on Fringes Polygala

Seductive things, flowers.

Bearly awake

At 7.15am today I wandered into the kitchen for my first double espresso, glanced out of the window, and saw this:


Not much to add really.  You are supposed to bring bird feeders in during the summer, for exactly this reason, and mine is coming in now!

But I did get some great photos:


See how delicately he/she uses his huge paws:


I hope I will never get closer to a bear than this.

PS I should add that this is an American Black Bear, Ursus americanus, and an adult male can weigh up to 250Kg. They are shy, and I have only ever seen them before from a car, disappearing into the woods. But when they emerge from hibernation in the spring they are very hungry. Up the road from me, one tried to break into a car that had a sack of birdseed on the back seat. Probably the same bear.

PPS A neighbor, Jo Radner, wrote this marvelous poem after a somewhat similar encounter. I have her permission to share it with you, but for some reason I can’t persuade it to single-space, so it looks longer than it is!

 Morning Blessings 2


Se’u marom eyneychem u’ru mi vara eyleh?

Lift up your eyes and see – who created all this?


Se’u marom eyneychem u’ru. . .


Before I open my eyes I know

the woods are full of life.

Shrill squirrels

sardonic jays

a honking goose flies up the lake

crows are discussing something nearby

and that woodpecker, nature’s jackhammer,

must have bored clear through that tree by now.


It’s when I open my eyes that I see

the quiet ones, the waiting ones –

the little birds,




titmice –

and I know it’s time for the new morning ritual:

put out the bird feeder.


It’s a new ritual

because of the bear.


She came late Sunday night

darker than the dark

a massive black shape

even under the deck light

a fluid, moving . . . nothing.

Feeling ridiculous, I stood

barefoot at the screen door.

“Shoo!” “Go away!”

“That’s bird food!”

She forgave my insolence,

strolled over,

raised her huge head

and studied me.

I noticed that her chin was brown,

not black;

her dark eyes glinted under the light;

her teeth (was she smiling?) were white.

I mended my manners.

“Good evening,” I said.

She stood tall,

pivoted with astounding poise,

embraced the bird feeder,

glanced back at me once,

gracefully stepped off the deck

and rode the feeder to the ground

as its iron hanger curved into a new arc.


I have not seen her since.

But each night,

as I bring the tooth-dented feeder indoors,

I scan the dark for her darkness,

and apologize.


. . . mi vara eyleh?






Ducks on honeymoon

I promised to show you some of the waterfowl that stay and breed, including Wood Ducks and mergansers,

The most dramatic are the Wood Ducks. They are very shy, but this pair flew in over my head without noticing me, and settled down.

Wood ducks

The males in breeding plumage are extremely handsome, bedecked in an almost military outfit:

Wood ducks

The females are much more discreet:

Wood ducks

I don’t think they are breeding on my pond this year, but last year they did.

We have Canada Geese (yes, you probably hate them but this is their home territory, and I find them rather impressive.) About 8 of them arrived, paired off, then fought for territory,

Canada Goose

As far as I can tell only one pair has stayed put. This pair have chosen an old beaver lodge to raise their young.

Canada Goose

Feeding on the roots of water plants while they wait for everything to green up again.

Canada goose

Finally, ten ducklings, now confirmed by Cornell’s eBird moderators as a female Hooded Merganser and her ducklings, with a Black Duck behind them.

Common mergansers with ducklings

I am actually very worried about them because we have had no rain, and they have chosen an old beaver pond whose dam is no longer being maintained. It is drying out fast, and I don’t know how they will manage. Perhaps she will have to move them, like the  mother in Make Way for Ducklings, a Boston children’s classic by Robert McCloskey.



PS An earlier version of this post expressed bewilderment at the identity of the ducklings, now thankfully sorted out for me by the Cornell experts!

Frog Blog 11: Dry land!

The very first froglet climbed out of the water and onto a rock this afternoon!

Here he is, the first to make it to frog-hood!


He/she still has a tail, although it is much shorter than it was, as you can see by comparing his tail to the one of the tadpole on the left, who hasn’t developed quite as fast and still has a much longer tail.


But he is ready to go, at the grand old age of 39 days. The cells of his tail will now gently die and be used to build new and different cells, until the tail is all gone. This clever trick is called apoptosis, a very good word to impress your friends with.

If he still seems happy, I will keep him for a few more days as his tail shrinks, take one more photo for you, and then put him back in his original pond.

But if he seems eager to explore a larger world right away, I may let him go right away, and he will be fine. And in that case this will be the last Frog Blog. I hope you have enjoyed them.

“The scattered violets lie..”

The spring comes late here, and the earliest wildflowers are deep in the woods, where the trees are not yet in leaf, and there is still plenty of light. Spring is also short, so these early flowers are often on tiny plants, since the spring growing period doesn’t allow much time for anything to grow tall before it flowers.

I like the violets and pansies, all members of the Viola family. Here are a few for you to enjoy.

A Northern White Violet, Viola pallens:


A Round-leaved Violet, Viola rotundifolia:

Round-leaved Violet

A Common Blue Violet, Viola papilionacea:

Common Blue Violet

The last one for today is not a viola, but it is very tiny, and very deep in the woods! It is called Goldthread, Coptis groenlandica, and has a single 1/2″ flower, which is exquisite:


The white “petals” are actually sepals, and the real flower is the central portion. The true petals are the golden yellow club shapes, each with a cup-shaped tip that holds nectar.

My title is from the poem March Violet by John Clare. Violets here in Maine are not till late April or early May.

Where last years leaves & weeds decay
March violets are in blow
I’d rake the rubbish all away
& give them room to grow

Near neighbour to the Arum proud
Where dew drops fall & sleep
As purple as a fallen cloud
March violets bloom & creep

Scenting the gales of early morn
They smell before they’re seen
Peeping beneath the old white thorn
That shows its tender green

The lambs will nible by their bloom
& eat them day by day
Till briars forbid his steps to come
& Then he skips away

Mid nettle stalks that wither there
& on the greensward lie
All bleaching in the thin march air
The scattered violets lie

I know the place it is a place
In spring where nettles come
There milk white violets show their face
& blue ones earlier bloom


Frog Blog 10: Fully armed!

The tadpoles are almost frogs… they have got arms as well as legs! Hooray! Look at this splendid fellow, 37 days after hatching:


He is still breathing through gillls, but not for much longer, so I have made sure there is an accessible  rock for them all to climb onto. And soon his tail will begin to shrink. And my work will be done.

Meanwhile, back at the pond, I found a splendid caddisfly who had made a long thin case, from which he emerged looking very fierce with his yellow and black striped head:


He walked around, hunting for something, dragging his long thin house with him:


I am enjoying all these underwater creatures, who seem so determined and oblivious to us big people on dry ground above them. I don’t think they even know we are there, nor care.



Timberdoodle in road

Saturday May 9th started with snow, only an inch but cold and windy, so not at all appealing for a walk. It was Cornell’s Big Bird Day, so I felt I was supposed to go birding, but I wimped out and stayed inside till midday, when it cleared up. Then I drove to a nearby hill for a hike, and on the way back, crossing the road, a woodcock:

American Woodcock, possibly demale guarding nest?

I had never seen an American Woodcock,  Scolopax minor, so I was hugely excited. I stopped (of course), and got out my camera. Instead of scuttling off into the woods it stopped, and slowly hunkered down:

American Woodcock, possibly demale guarding nest?

And there it stayed. I crept slowly closer, it didn’t budge, and I got this photo:


American Woodcock, possibly demale guarding nest?

It did not seem to be injured when it was walking, and my guess is she had a nest nearby, and this was her attempt to hide in plain sight, sadly not very effective on tarmac.  I left her in peace, and drove on.

I have since been reading up on woodcocks. They do indeed sometime react to threats near their nests by freezing low on the ground. They have the wonderful local name of Timberdoodles, which is what I will now always call them. Their eyes are on the sides of their heads, so they have 360 degree vision, and the tips of their bills are flexible, to help them dig for earthworms, their main diet. Look closely below:

American Woodcock, possibly demale guarding nest?

The males have a famously flamboyant mating ritual, called “roding”, in which they fly at dusk saying “Peent”. I couldn’t find any good videos of this, let me know if you find one and I’ll add a link.

I am sad to say that their close relative the Eurasian Woodcock is traditionally a British upper-class delicacy. Lord Grantham and his family would have enjoyed roasted woodcocks like these.