Woodpecker Alarm Clock

Most people have alarm clocks.

We have Woodpeckers.

And they are pretty good at making sure no one really sleeps in over the weekend.

Last year, the two breeding Red-Bellied Woodpeckers (a misleading name, since only the tops or backs of their heads are actually red – but “Red-Headed Woodpecker” was already taken) had both a male chick and a female chick.  Normally, the woodpeckers arrive in spring and depart somewhere by the end of summer.  But the young male decided to take up residence, and has remained ever since.

His parents are back, along with their daughter from last year.

The reason I know these are the returning parents is because of behavior they learned a couple or three years ago and have repeated with each arrival – banging on the gutter like a jackhammer.

I think the origin of this is because usually prior to opening our French-window back door to put food out for wildlife, I usually tap several times on the glass so I don’t startle anyone out there.  The female woodpecker (Woodina) began doing the “rap-on-the-gutter” first.  I remember hearing a loud and rapid hammering outside and couldn’t figure out what it was until I looked up and saw, basically, this (click picture for larger view):








I tossed a peanut up to her (because woodpeckers also love roasted, unsalted peanuts as a treat).  She proceeded to teach the male woodpecker (Woody) and her daughter Baby Woodina.

All of them have a different style.  Woodina is the most assertive.  She will do a rapid and continuous hammering, wait about 5-10 seconds, and then repeat it, and so on for a few cycles.  She’ll wait on the gutter for me to toss her a peanut.  She’ll also let me toss one in the air and she will soar after it and catch it mid-air – which is quite an impressive trick.

Baby Woodina does just two rather subdued taps and also waits there.  Woody will tap, and immediately fly up into the tree because he’s shy.  Baby Woody prefers to issue a call when he’s in the tree rather than tapping (see this site and click on the “Kwirr” call to hear what it sounds like).  I toss his peanuts onto the patio and he swoops down to get them (click picture for larger view):








Along with the woodpeckers, we have a bevy of other birds.  Here’s a Blue Jay who is a very sedate fellow (or gal).  Normally Blue Jays are fairly raucous and aggressive.  This one has a very mild temperament – not shy – but simply very laid-back.  If you’re curious what’s on the end of his beak, it’s a Golden Rain Tree Beetle (click picture for larger view):








We’re also seeing a lot of Morning Glories this year, due to timely and generous rainfall.  The Morning Glory has always been my favorite flower, for the record  (click picture for larger view):








Besides Woodpeckers and Blue Jays, as I’ve mentioned before, Squirrels love roasted, unsalted peanuts.  This squirrel has a slightly-askew right rear paw – but it hasn’t ever stopped her from climbing and jumping (a missed jump is the likely cause of the problem).   I usually call her Left-Paw Squirrel – because when I ask if she wants a peanut, she raises her left forepaw and waves at me.  It’s always the left forepaw, and none of the other squirrels ever do this.  They just stare at me blankly or sit up, looking around  (click picture for larger view):

Sunflowers and Baby Birds

Our backyard is a little different every time spring comes around.

Since our yard is a gathering place for many birds, we often see a variety of plants arise each year to mix it up with the more sedate Saint Augustine grass.

This year, we have a total of thirteen Sunflowers rising up in our yard.  I’m hoping enough will bloom at the same time to make quite a colorful picture.  At the present, several have begun to bud and one turned its bud sideways a couple days ago and opened its bloom today (click for larger picture):







Along with the floral gifts the birds have generously graced our yard with, we also have what looks like another yellow squash plant coming up again (no picture yet, as it’s just a few leaves).

And the doves have already begun building their flimsy nests that barely last long enough for a fledgling to leave – which they sometimes end up doing early when the nest doesn’t quite make it (click for larger picture):







But that’s what windowsills are for.

Because while some pigs build houses of straw or sticks, Practical Pig prefers brick.  And so do baby birds whose nest of sticks and twigs has disintegrated.

Hopefully, Mama Dove will teach her young one caution.  Since the Cooper’s Hawk is ever vigilant and always watching for unwary White Winged Doves (click for larger picture):








Wildflowers where you least expect

Our back yard is only about 600 square feet.

Yet since we put out seeds and other things to attract birds (as well as the myriad squirrels and other critters) we often see a surprisingly wide variety of wildflowers and other plants when spring arrives.

Some of these flowers appear at a glance as weeds – and maybe they are in a yard dedicated to the lush green of St. Augustine grass.

Still, we like to see the variety – unexpected and always different each year.

Here are some we identified over the last couple years:


































































Rabbit’s Tobacco – stains a bunny’s buck teeth.






There’s also always at least one you can’t quite figure out what it is.






This Sunflower rose to the height of the fence (7 feet).  We had two others, but the squirrels got rambunctious chasing one another and knocked them over.





I’ve always liked False Dayflowers, which have a gorgeous blue color.






And Morning Glories are one of my all-time favorite flowers.  We have them growing in several places but this group have tended to grow the best, owing to a good mix of sun and shade.





A lonely Yellow Squash plant (I believe this one is a male) took up residence and stayed for several months, blooming over and over.  Absent cross-pollination with a female, there wasn’t anything we could do for the little guy other than enjoy the blossoms and run the lawnmower carefully around him all through the summer and into the fall.



We often don’t really notice the little bits of color that are so small they’re almost lost within the whole of the fabric of our lawns.

It’s kind of like writing, which is really about about finding nuances to bring a description to life.  A writer doesn’t have to paint all the details of a picture – because a picture will always be drawn by a reader’s imagination.  All the reader needs are a few cues, a few little brushstrokes done in the right way that they can recognize.

Annual Arrivals

Cedar Waxwings are a very sociable bird, preferring large groups as they partake of various berries.  They’re fairly widespread although they follow migration patterns with winter and berry supplies.

We have one tree (and I have no idea what kind it is, to be truthful) that produces a fair amount of purple berries.  This is a picture I managed to capture of one cedar waxwing at work.

They’re a beautiful bird, with a crest resembling a cardinal’s and bright coloration.

They’re a little difficult to photograph because they’re in almost constant motion.  But since they tend to form such large groups, sometimes the easiest thing is to point the camera at a likely bunch of berries and simply wait for one to stop long enough to get a photo.

Around this time as well, many birds will begin to think about raising young.  While most of them will wait until the weather warms a little more, the Eastern Screech Owl prefers laying eggs in the cold weather and having its young emerge when spring is beginning to signal its arrival.

A neighbor has had a nesting box for screech owls for a few years and just put up a new one, so I’m hoping they will nest once more.  They hadn’t the past couple years, as far as I could tell, although there was a period of three years in a row when they were very successful.  One year resulted in four owlets (although one died during a heavy thunderstorm after already leaving the nest).

Eastern Screech Owls are fairly accustomed to humans and unless approached too closely may simply watch as long as they feel they’re beyond reach.

These youngsters (there were often three but this picture only caught two together one early evening) would allow me to come close enough to photograph them.  Sometimes their mother would be close by as well.  Note the slight “horns” (raised feathers) which they use to make themselves appear larger.  When they rise tall on their feet and puff up their feathers, they are in more of a warning mode of alarm.

This is a very young owlet that has just learned to fly.  One evening I opened my front door and this one flew down to the porch to check me out.  It remained there for several minutes, long enough to have my wife bring the camera and take a few pictures.  Its mother was in a tree nearby, calling to the baby to return, which it eventually did.

A screech owl’s call can best be described ( at least by me) as similar to a horse whinny, but more eerie and higher like a whistle.  Mated pairs will usually roost separately from one another during the day, and then call to one another as dusk falls.  So when you hear one calling at dusk, it may be trying to call its mate to meet up prior to hunting.

They’ll eat a variety of small prey – including moths and other large insects, geckos are a favorite treat, small goldfish from outdoor ponds, anoles and other small lizards, small birds if possible, and an occasional small garden snake.

Blue jays and similar birds in the corvidiae family (ravens and crows) will mob screech owls if they discover where one is roosting during the day.  Corvids recognize predatory birds like owls and hawks and will relentlessly harass them.

There is a gentleman who has maintained a nesting box with cameras for many years now and provides considerable insights into the raising of owlets by their parents.  It’s a very good site and I hope he does it again this year – assuming he has the time, the equipment can be kept in working order, and the owls cooperate.

Owlets are precocious and leave a nest quite early, before being capable of actual flight.  During this time, they rely on their formidable climbing skills – using their already powerful beaks and claws to climb to safety where they experiment with short glides from one limb to another.  Their parents maintain a watchful vigil over the youngsters during this critical time.  For a few months after learning to fly, the youngsters will remain close to at least one parent (usually the mother) to learn foraging and hunting skills.

Eastern Screech Owls readily adapt to urban environments and the unfortunate downside of this is that some of their losses are due to collisions with cars.  Screech owls tend to hunt beneath the canopy, soaring down in a long glide and occasionally this happens low across a street.

If a young owlet is ever encountered, its parents are probably close by, watching.  Unless it  appears to be injured or in danger for some reason (such as far from any tree with potential predators such as cats around), it should be left alone.  They’re very adept climbers and will get back into any nearby tree fairly quickly.  Try to approach a young owlet may trigger a protective response from one or both parents.  And handling a young owlet is something best done with heavy gloves, since their claws and beaks can cause damage to any exposed skin.

Rachel Raccoon

We’ve had a periodic visitor who has been coming by more often lately.  She – I’m only making an assumption, although Baldy Possum was indisputable a male – has had the moniker “Rachel Raccoon” since we first saw her and her sibling (who we nicknamed Raquel) last spring.

Raccoon siblings will often remain close and forage together even after reaching early adulthood, although eventually they tend to separate and forge their own lives.  Raquel was the more openly curious of the two, while Rachel was the more shy one.

I don’t have pictures of them, as unlike the possums, they have only come by late at night. And while possums don’t even appear to notice the shine of a flashlight, raccoons are very sensitive toward anything that might signal they’ve been noticed, and will slip away fairly quickly.

Urban raccoons have a tendency to be more potentially destructive to dwellings than possums, due to their formidable problem-solving skills, persistence, and teeth and manipulative paws.  Raccoon Willie shows one example (caution: some of the language is profane).

On the other hand, raccoons tend to have a greater tendency to be seen as “cute” than possums – particularly younger raccoons (kits).  Raccoons exhibit playfulness and inherent curiosity that makes them do unusual things.  Here’s one stealing a small rug through a dog-door.

There was a recent show on PBS on urban raccoons that noted how they had been imported into Japan and Germany due to their cuteness, which unfortunately didn’t last.  Japan’s passion for baby raccoon pets was apparently sparked by a popular animated show featuring a raccoon named Rascal.  Since kits become full-grown raccoons, and cute young male kits become more aggressive boar raccoons, many were released and have subsequently been very adaptable – apparently sowing destruction on centuries-old temples in which they have chosen to take up residence (after making various entry places and doing other modifications).  They’ve done similar such home-remodeling in Germany – with Europe’s most dense population of the non-native raccoon – up to 400 per square mile – in the city of Kassel.

Raccoons have different eating habits than possums in an urban environment.  Possums are foragers and even with a plentiful plate of food available they will usually only sample some, wander off for a few hours and return for a little more, and so on throughout the night.  A raccoon will gorge itself whenever food is available, until either it can’t eat any more or the food is all gone (usually the latter).

I’ve enjoyed having the possums come by the backyard – although it’s been over a month since I’ve seen one now, after having almost nightly visits by up to three possums.  Possums will spend a lot of time around a yard chasing cockroaches and eating slugs and  grubs and other insects.  Raccoons are roaming opportunists.  The raccoons kept grabbing the edges of one or the other of the two birdbaths and flipping them over – even after I put a ground-level birdbath down in case they were looking for water.  No, they suspected the water just above their heads must be somehow more interesting than the one at their feet.  I had to put steel rebar supports around the birdbaths to halt the tipping.  As heavy as a birdbath can be, the raccoons were also risking injury for their curiosity, and despite their intelligence and memory capabilities, they probably managed to do it four or five times altogether for whatever reason they had.

While possums are timid creatures – their open mouth hiss is their hope to make something scared of them so they can slip away – raccoons can be very good fighters and can certainly take on a dog, even a larger one, if cornered.  That isn’t to say that a dog might not still win such a fight, but the raccoon will try to wrap around the dog’s head with claws and teeth sunk in to discourage it.  Raccoons are also one the creatures that have a higher potential as a rabies vector species – while possums are considered to be almost immune to the virus.

Still, raccoons are fascinating animals for the way they adapt around humans, and seem able like dogs and a few other creatures to be aware of how humans may react to them.  So it’s easy to find videos of raccoons begging for food from humans – a behavior you wouldn’t see many other wild animals adopt so easily.  From what I understand about various mammals being “tamed” – skunks may actually be one of the ones that may take on expectations of what humans usually have, while most others – including raccoons, possums, ringtails (cacomistles), etc. will always exhibit a greater tendency toward their wild nature.

An annual arrival

Woodpeckers begin to make their appearance this time of year, already preparing to raise young who will emerge with the spring.

We see red-bellied woodpeckers in our area.  They don’t actually have red bellies.  The males have red heads while the females have a red cape across the back of their neck.  But “red-headed” woodpecker was a name that was probably already taken.

A few years ago, Woody (the male) began to pay attention to the fact that I tap a few times on the glass of the back door prior to opening it and tossing out a few peanuts for whatever critters have congregated.

I soon began to hear a rapid and loud thumping outside.  After hearing it on a few occasions, I happened to look up and noticed Woody clinging to the gutter on the edge of the house where it extends past the back door.  So I opened the door and tossed a peanut to him.

Woody taught his wife, Woodina, and they taught Baby Woodina and others of the next couple generations.

Last year, baby Woody remained behind after the parents eventually moved on to wherever it is they usually go by late summer.  He’s remained through the winter, full-grown now with a brilliant red head.  And also very feisty – unlike his more shy father, he’s very willing to snatch a peanut out from under the very beak of a larger blue jay as the latter is about to pick one up.

However, baby Woody has chosen through all this to “call” when he gets a peanut hankering sort of feeling.  Wodpeckers don’t have a particularly beautiful songbird kind of song, but it’s very distinctive.

This morning, just after I closed the door after tossing out a handful of peanuts, I heard a rapid staccato on the gutter and looked out.  Woodina has returned (or maybe a grown daughter).  So up went a peanut and off she flew with her prize.  A little while later, she repeated it again and was satisfied with a second welcome-back treat.

I’m hoping her mate will also make an appearance and they’ll raise out young once again.

The Squirrel Whisperer

My wife calls me the Squirrel Whisperer.

To be truthful, squirrels are relatively uncomplicated, and quite satisfied with simple needs.  Paramount among those needs is the quest for food.

We put food out for the squirrels and birds – birdseed, sunflower seeds, wildlife mixes that include corn…and peanuts.  Squirrels especially love peanuts, and would eat them to the exclusion of all else, given the chance.  But anything in exclusion of all else isn’t a good thing.

A note on peanuts:  They are not nuts but are members of the bean family.  Only Roasted Unsalted peanuts should be given.  Salted and/or Raw peanuts can be harmful, according to various sources.

We normally see the most squirrels in late spring through the summer, after the babies are born and have come out of their nests.  A typical number to visit the backyard can be a dozen to twenty.  Normally, when pecans appear around September, the squirrels scatter to forage among all the trees and we only see half a dozen or so for many months.

Squirrels can easily become acclimated to people – as seen on many university campuses.  Fox squirrels, which are reddish colored especially on their bellies, are pretty common on some campuses and are fairly sedate by squirrel standards.  We have almost entirely Eastern Gray squirrels.  Eastern Grays tend to be very energetic, and in many areas have put population pressure on Fox squirrels as they’ve grown into new territory.  They were introduced to Great Britain and have become an issue because they compete against native species of squirrels.

Squirrels do exhibit unique personalities, although absent physical markings that can separate one from another, they’re difficult to tell apart until one exhibits a distinguishing behavior.  One of the ones currently visiting our backyard will “wave” (always with her left forepaw) when I ask if she’d like a peanut.  She’s responding to my voice, of course, and not the words, although she’s learned that a tossed peanut will soon follow.  Another one has managed to learn to quickly shove two peanuts sideways into her mouth.  She’s the only one I’ve seen do this.  The others haven’t even tried, or seem to even notice.

We don’t bother with birdfeeders, since squirrels can overcome pretty much any obstruction between them and food.  Their brains are wired heavily toward spacial awareness, and they are problem-solvers who use their acrobatic skills, balance, and determination.  There are a number of videos on YouTube where someone has created a squirrel obstacle course, showing squirrels mastering all number of ways to reach a feeder.

They’re entertaining to watch, and although they’re more solitary than social, litter-mates will sometimes play with one another into young adulthood.  And as long as food is plentiful and available, they’ll more or less share – interrupted by occasional, brief squabbles.


Cooper’s Hawk

Hawks and other raptors – especially screech owls – are adaptable to an urban environment, as long as a food source is available.

A Cooper’s Hawk is just a bit smaller than the Red-Tailed and like the Western Screech Owl is more of a canopy-and-ambush bird of prey.

There is a local one which frequents our neighborhood, tending to move around whenever it attracts mobs of blue jays that harass it long enough to be a bother.

They have a preference for White-winged Doves, although they will take any unwary bird.  I haven’t seen one attack a squirrel, which is fortunate, since the squirrels aren’t sure what to make of the “big bird.”  I’ve watched the Eastern Gray Squirrels stare puzzled at the hawk while it’s sat within a few feet away on the fence, a tree limb, or the birdbath.  They’ll approach it, trying to figure it out, while it seems to ignore them.

The Cooper’s Hawk is readily identifiable for the wide black-and-gray bands on its tail.  Hawks can be difficult to identify when a good image isn’t available, and because hawks also exhibit a range of slight feature changes between sub-adults and adults, plus a few other variations.

Christmas Lasagna and Possums

We began a tradition about a decade ago of making lasagna for Christmas.  It originated when we couldn’t decide what to have – turkey was out, being so soon after Thanksgiving, and roast or ham didn’t seem inspiring.  We settled on lasagna.  And given the number of people who were showing up, we made a Lasagna-zilla of a lasagna.  It weighed in at over 30 pounds, with four layers of sausage/beef sauce mixture, portabella mushrooms, ricotta and spinach, and multiple cheeses.

The one we did this year wasn’t quite so large, scaled back to meet the number of guests. But we also have occasional wildlife appear in our backyard that are partial to things like lasagna.  For all of 2011, we had one particular possum (Didelphis virginiana) who I nicknamed “Baldy” – since the first time I saw him he was completely hairless.  Hairless creatures appear now and then – raccoons, foxes, coyotes, possums, and so on – there doesn’t seem to be a definitive cause as many of these animals appear quite healthy and are not suffering from a condition such as mange.  It seems to be sometimes a case of an  allergic reaction to something environmental.

Baldy was quite healthy when I saw him a year ago in January 2011 – other than being hairless.  He made periodic nighttime visits over the coming months.  I would sometimes hear him tucking into various things I put out for him, and noticed his hair gradually coming back in.

Possums are not generally considered aesthetic creatures of beauty, although nature made them to be very good at what they do.  They are North America’s only marsupial, carrying their young in their pouch beginning when these babies are perhaps as big as a shelled almond.  They have four opposable thumbs, and are accomplished climbers, using their tail for additional leverage and balance.

They’re also very timid animals.  Despite having the most teeth of any North American mammal, they are not aggressive.  The hissing they make when they feel cornered is a reflex show, just as their tendency to “play possum” in the hopes that a predator will leave them alone.  There is a world of difference between a raccoon and a possum, as far as aggressiveness and willingness and ability to fight.  Possums rarely (if ever) carry rabies, since their body temperature is not a suitable environment for the virus. And they’re highly resistant to disease.

What possums do very well is quietly go about cleaning up things no one really wants around.  The reason few people encounter dead birds, squirrels, and other such wildlife – despite heavy populations of these creatures – is often because possums have been disposing of these overnight.  They are grazing omnivores and will eat a wide variety of things they sniff out and come across.  They love eating cockroaches and slugs, and for that reason are beneficial to many people with yards and gardens.  They typically consume a number of insects each night, along with whatever else they find.  Many cities and municipalities address possums among the urban or suburban wildlife one might encounter, and encourage homeowners to see possums as a beneficial creature for the community.

But yes, they are not pretty.  Beauty of design doesn’t necessarily translate to beauty of form.

Possums do not live long – they’re one of the few creatures that don’t benefit from captivity in increasing their longevity.  Their lifespan usually is only 2-4 years.  Younger ones die from a variety of mostly human-related causes when in an urban or suburban environment – struck by vehicles, poisoned (ingesting rat poison or more commonly a poisoned rat), shot at, attacked by dogs, and so on.  If they pass the 2 or even 3-year mark, a possum tends to enter senescence (old age) which sets on rapidly.  Heidi, the famous cross-eyed possum adopted by the Leipzig Zoo in Germany died at age 3.5 years:


I have not seen Baldy Possum since January 3, and feel he may have passed on.  I know he was a full adult when I first saw him a year ago – at least a year old and probably closer to two at the time. He was struck by a car in the late spring, causing him to limp afterwards.  I’d considered catching him and taking him to the local wildlife center, but with his age he would almost certainly have been a candidate to be put down.  Instead, he enjoyed (in the way possums can) visiting our backyard and sampling whatever delicacies we set out for him.  Possums  are not like cats, and cannot eat a strictly meat or strictly anything diet.  Their diets are designed around eating a wide variety of things, including fruits and vegetables.  So mostly he got those things, but he always appreciated special treats.  He had a particular fondness for leftover sweet potato fries, and also peanut butter.  And after Christmas when the weather got colder, he made a few daytime appearances and ate lasagna with enthusiasm.

But I noticed he was really showing his age at last.  He was developing a cataract in one eye, although his vision appeared to be fine in the other as he moved with confidence.  His sense of smell was amazing – he could be around the side of the house and smell the lasagna I just quietly set out, turning his nose up and changing course to circle back to the backyard.  His appetite and vigor were still present, but he was nevertheless showing some frailty I recognized (having been involved with others who rehab wildlife).  He led a quiet and unassuming life, and we sometimes watched him chase down cockroaches on the patio or root around for slugs and other insects.

Possums tend to pass away as quietly and usually as alone as they mostly live.  I once found one old male who’d been a frequent backyard visitor, where he had curled up to rest in the neighbor’s garden – and never woke up.  I don’t know what happened to Baldy.  But I hope if he passed, it was peaceful.

Here he is eating his Christmas lasagna December 26, 2011: