One of Nature’s Mysteries to Solve

Hey there!

Our mystery today comes to us from regular reader, Connie. Thanks, Connie!

Mystery #179

Yes, it’s those little blobs, about the size of a small acorn.

I’ll check back later for your guesses, but if you’d like a hint, scroll down:

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Hint: Connie found these on her pontoon boat.

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One brave reader guessed that these particles were the stuffing from the boat. No, but that was our first guess, too! No mice or insects were burrowing inside. This was deposited on the boat and appears nearly every morning, Connie tells us.

And every morning someone visits the boat.

Great Blue Heron on Lake Audubon Paul Hartke 2016

If the light is a bit too dim for you, here’s another photo.

Great Blue Heron on Lake Audubon

That’s a Great Blue Heron. A very old one, we believe, because his beard–the feathers trailing from his neck–is full. Now we squirrels had heard of owls regurgitating pellets of fur and bones after they eat, but not herons, so we did a bit of research. Turns out herons do as well, and it’s called “casting.”

fish bones in a Great Blue Heron casting

fish bones in a Great Blue Heron casting

If you look closely, this deposit, or regurgitation, contains small fish bones and scales!

Herons also have a throat pouch. When they have young in the nest, they swallow a fish or two and carry them back to the nest and regurgitate them for the young birds. Young birds might do the same if a predator attacks their nest to frighten it away.

Want to learn more about Great Blue Herons? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a camera on a heron nest and answers many questions about these birds on their Bird Cam FAQ website.

Pokeweed, leave it or weed it?

American Pokeweed

The berries of American Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, are poisonous. And oh-so tempting to you humans, especially when they are in full ripeness –and at their most toxic!–this time of year.

Pokeweed in late summer

The plant is big and weedy and produces many berries. No wonder it can take over a farmer’s field!

Yet there are birds who will eat them with no harmful effects, like the Northern Cardinal, Northern Mockingbird, Gray catbird and Brown Thrasher.

 

One of Nature’s Mysteries to Solve

Hey there,

Nutmeg advised you human readers to leave your flower seedbeds for the birds, but here’s a plant you should clean up.

mystery #164

Know what it is and why?

Make your guesses and I’ll return later with the answers.

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Hmm, here’s a vine you humans ought to become more familiar with–because it’s terribly invasive! You’ll want to get rid of Mile-a-Minute Weed the second you see it.

Mile-a-Minute Weed

The triangular leaves and barbed stems are a great way to identify it, even if you don’t notice that the vine is growing 6 inches a day. Yes, it can take over quickly, and we squirrels beg you to keep this from happening! We like our native foods better, though some deer, chipmunks, mice and birds will eat them. Of course, that’s another way the Mile-a-Minute Weed is spreading.

Did you notice some of the leaves have holes in them? That’s because some great humans have released a weevil that eats Mile-a-Minute Weed leaves, then lays its eggs in the stems. The larvae eat the plant from the inside. Read more about Mile-a-Minute Weed and this weevil on this New York Invasive Species Information bulletin.

When you run across a bit of danger…

There’s nothing like leaping branch to branch through in a tree. Sometimes Hickory and I feel we’re flying like the birds, we move so fast.

Then you come upon something that really makes you think I need to watch where I’m going!

Paper Wasps building a nest

Yep, paper wasps. Building a new nest. Luckily, we had swerved to avoid the wild rose tangle they were in and missed leaping into them. Also luckily, this was a tiny piece of new nest, with not many wasps around. This late in the summer, that means a nest broke in a storm.

“Or did the hive split and these ones are establishing with a new queen?” Hickory  asks with a twitch of his tail.

Well, we didn’t stick around to learn the answer.

Bluebird Nestbox Invaded

Well, this is a hard story to tell, folks. Our reader friend, Nancy, wrote that the Eastern Bluebirds in her yard had laid a second set of eggs.

Eastern Bluebird female

Eastern Bluebird hatchlings 1-2 days old

They hatched, but twelve days later the parent birds were forced to abandon the nestlings.

Note: Nancy began documenting this local bluebird nesting and shared it with The Squirrel Nutwork in April. Search ‘bluebird’ if you wish to see the older posts!

First, we are pleased to say the fledglings from the first nesting  had continued to stay with the parent bluebirds, and were helping to feed the second set of hatchlings.

Eastern Bluebird with juvenile

Eastern Bluebird juveniles

Nancy reported it was wonderful to see all three return.

Eastern Bluebirds juveniles

Then one evening a raccoon tried to get into the nest box…

Raccoon stalking bluebird nest box

…including climbing the nearby fence. Lucky for the bluebirds, he got stuck and gave up.

Raccoon on a fence

But the next day, a House Sparrow was spotted entering the nest box. You readers may remember that the House Sparrow entered the nest box after the first set of fledglings left.

House Sparrow invading bluebird nest

These aggressive–and non-native!–birds must have been harassing the bluebirds all along. Despite the help from another male bluebird and the three juveniles, the female was looking thin and worn out the day the raccoon appeared.

Eastern Bluebird female thin and worn

All of the bluebirds disappeared, leaving the 12 day old nestlings.

Eastern Bluebird hatchlings 12 days old_1

Nancy and her family tried to feed them.

Feeding bluebird hatchlings

Mealworms, egg whites and soaked dog food were recommended by the Wildlife Rescue League–but with work, these humans couldn’t feed the same amount of food that six birds could, and the nestlings didn’t make it. Nancy and her family were quite upset when they wrote us.

As soon as the nest box was empty, a House Wren tried to use it, and in fact, was rather insistent!

Carolina Wren trying to use bluebird nest box_1

The solution has been to leave it open to discourage the other birds.

Bluebird nest box open

Unfortunately, this nature story isn’t unusual. Even with this much help from humans, wildlife have a tough time of it. The competition for food and nesting sites is fierce. The more docile songbirds like the Eastern Bluebirds can’t compete with critters who are more aggressive.

Nancy wrote us that even with the loss of the second hatchlings, the positive part of having the nest box in their yard was the success of the parent birds raising the first three chicks through to being able to fend for themselves. They will go on to raise families of their own next year.

A Bluebird Update

Our reader friend Nancy has sent us an update on the Eastern Bluebirds making their home in her suburban Virginia yard.

Eastern Bluebirds

The parent birds have been dutifully hunting insects. But while they were away one afternoon, a Gray Catbird took to hanging out on the nest box…

Gray Catbird

…prompting our concerned human friend to have a look inside.

hatchling Eastern Bluebirds in nest box

The hatchlings were all accounted for. Thank you, Nancy, for the pictorial update!

X is for X-tra special bird on Thirsty Thursday

Ol’ Wally here knows you humans will be thrilled to hear that we squirrels periodically see this frightening bird. Right here in Reston.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagles hold some sort of celebrity status with you humans, and though we know they are probably hunting fish in the golf course ponds–not squirrels in the woodlands–seeing the shadow of this big bird of prey is downright unnerving. Lucky for us, they like bigger streams and lakes, ones farther from us. The older birds, the ones who appear to be bald because their head feathers are white, have laid claim to territory along our area’s best waterways, like the Potomac River.

Still, for our readers, we will feature them. After all, X is a mighty hard letter to come up with something for in nature…especially related to water…unless you consider xylem, the passages in trees that transport water from the roots to the leaves…but Nutmeg hasn’t figured out how to photograph that.