Creature Feature

Erect a nesting box for bluebirds
      The eastern bluebird is a symbol of both happiness and a healthy environment. The birds live at the edge of meadows, hunting in the grasses for insects. But they are easily affected by pesticides. So seeing the brilliant flash of blue fly by is a happy sign of a healthy field.      Bluebirds nest in tree cavities like abandoned woodpecker holes. They also easily adapt to living in a bluebird nesting box, and they do not seem to mind living close to people.

Is it a bird — or a squeaky dog toy?

      A brown-headed nuthatch is a small bird whose cute little squeaky voice sounds exactly like a dog toy. Really. These nuthatches form small flocks in the pine forests along the East Coast from Florida to Delaware. I had my first encounter with the little birds while following the Hummock Trail at Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center. A flock of them surrounded me. It was spring, and they were loudly making romantic displays. I stood very still trying to take a photo of one when another one landed next to my ear and started squeaking.

A Bay Weekly conversation with writer, birder and ­educator Katie Fallon

       Ewww, vultures! How can you stand them?       Katie Fallon, who finds lots to love about those bare-headed carrion-eaters that so many find fearsome and disgusting, has heard it all before. Fallon is a vulture advocate and in the business of changing minds. So she hopes her March 21 audience at Quiet Waters Park will leave with a new appreciation for the birds and the role these fabulous flyers play in our ecosystem.

Annual waterfowl survey counts one million birds 

       Ducks, geese and swans spending time along Maryland’s coasts and shorelines are caught in a migratory traffic jam. Each winter, aerial survey teams of biologists from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service make visual estimates of these waterfowl. This year they counted about 1,023,300 waterfowl, well above the 812,600 birds observed during 2017 and higher than the five-year average of 851,980.

Pond-dwellers sing day and night

       February and March bring in the early sounds of spring. With each brief warm period, a chorus of frogs will declare it is time for the winter world to wake up. One of those little hibernating amphibians is the cricket frog.

No longer pegged as feral, these wild cats serve a purpose

       Don’t disrespect community cats. “Many of these community cats are just out there surviving, and in a lot of cases, they are fulfilling an unseen need,” says Kathy Evans of Rude Ranch Animal Rescue.         You’re not seeing the need, she says, because the cats are keeping pest populations of mice, rats and voles under control, thereby decreasing the spread of diseases.

This bird is not a duck

      For birders, each season brings a different group. In the winter, ice and snow will force the hardiest birds south, making January and February the best months to see rare waterfowl.      Take this red-necked grebe, for example. In the summer, they nest around the small lakes of Canada. When the Great Lakes freeze over, an occasional bird will sneak down to the Chesapeake. 

This time of year, a bird can’t be too particular

        I had followed the young hawk as it hunted along the Wildlife Drive at Blackwater Wildlife Refuge. It would sit on a low branch and look intently into the grasses below, then suddenly drop down. On this drop, it came back to the perch with a shrew.

This time of year, a bird eats what it can get

      Great blue herons in the Chesapeake Bay area do not migrate in the winter. They struggle to find food when the waters freeze. They will look to areas of flowing water and sometimes stake out grassy fields to catch mice and small birds.        Herons from the snowier north usually migrate to warmer climates.       This Chesapeake heron has caught a hogchoker.

Most Baltimore orioles head south … Not this one

     This Baltimore oriole failed to migrate. Orioles usually fly down to Central and South America and winter in the warmth. Occasionally a bird will stay behind and tough it out in the cold. I think this is the second year for this bird to winter-over; one of its stops is my backyard in Riva.