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Creature Feature

Don’t let your ear fool you

      Several North American birds imitate sounds that they hear around them. These mimics usually copy other birds, like the blue jay that commonly makes the call of a red-tailed hawk. As I follow birdcalls to take a photograph, I have to admit that I have been fooled more than once by a well-tuned blue jay. 
These little birds are high-performance machines
      Hummingbirds are here, and by mid-May the migration should be complete. Arriving before many high-nectar flowers are blooming, they eat lots of small flying insects. They also will drink the tree sap from the holes made by sapsuckers.
Named for their nesting habits, if they haven’t got an old tree, a ­nesting box will do
      Now is the time to start looking in trees for ducks. In early spring, wood ducks seek nesting spots. Unlike most other ducks, they look for tree cavities to lay a dozen or so eggs. It is fun to find a duck perched in a tree, as they look so out of place.         In the early 1900s, wood ducks were in a decline. They were heavily hunted, and logging of hardwood along waterways reduced nesting areas. In 1912, built nesting boxes were introduced, with an immediate increase in successful nesting.

Plant milkweed to support this ­butterfly’s long migration

      The monarch butterfly is an amazing creature. Its annual lifecycle stretches from Mexico to Canada and back and spans four generations.

Each bird’s return to Chesapeake Country is an odyssey

       The osprey is a unique bird, no exaggeration. The fish hawk has a unique taxonomy, a genus of its own.        Part of what makes them unique is their fishing style. Osprey can hover in place without a wind, go into a dive headfirst and — right before impact — put their talons down to lock them into a fish.        Osprey flourish on all warm continents, and in the northeastern U.S. they have developed a unique life cycle. 

Feeding nightly in a creek near you

      The river otter is common throughout the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay as well as throughout North America. Fairly large mammals of the weasel family, these otters can weigh up to 30 pounds and stretch to four feet long.  They feed in and around fresh and brackish water eating fish, crayfish, frogs, insects, turtles, snakes and small mammals and birds. Locally, in spring they follow river herring and perch after chasing down catfish and pickerel all winter. Because they travel and feed at night, they can be hard to follow.
Downy woodpeckers’ handiwork provides nesting cavities for themselves and other birds, but don’t let your house become their home 
       Would you believe that during its spring breeding season, the innocuous-looking, six-inch downy woodpecker can be a home wrecker, targeting our houses?
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.