Wild Ideas: Life on the deck

Three bald-faced hornets reach detente over a meal of hummingbird nectar. Photo by Pam Owen.

When you live in a rural county in Virginia, you don’t have to go far to see wildlife. The numerous critters on my back deck and within view in the forest beyond have offered me endless hours of wildlife viewing this year.

When I moved to the house on Aaron Mountain in February, I could see the Blue Ridge and outlying mountains from the deck in the back through the then-leafless acres of forest stretching out below. Birds were the most prevalent wildlife within sight, and I could watch their activities all the way up to the canopy of the forest as it receded down the mountain.

I put out a couple of bird feeders, and the usual overwintering native birds showed up — goldfinches in their dull winter plumage, chickadees, titmice, cardinals, downy woodpeckers and nuthatches. Up in the trees I could see a variety of other birds, mostly in the woodpecker family — hairy woodpeckers, sapsuckers, northern flickers and the large, raucous pileated woodpecker.

I was slow to start my usual routine of bringing the feeders in at night to avoid ursine visitors. Living in Rappahannock County, which has the highest concentration of black bears in Virginia, it was no surprise that one showed up one night in early spring. I became more careful about removing the feeder each night after that.

As spring arrived in earnest, the mating songs of bird, frogs and spring crickets filled the air. Insects started to appear on warmer days, and woodpeckers spent less time at the feeder. The male goldfinches changed to their bright-yellow breeding plumage, although they wouldn’t be ready to breed until late summer — later than other songbirds.

The days got warmer, and tiger swallowtail and spring azure butterflies started drifting through the trees. I regularly woke up to the slow, flutelike song of the wood thrush, one of my favorites.

In April, when I saw my first ruby-throated hummingbird, I put out a nectar feeder. First one hummer showed up, then another, until two pairs were visiting regularly. By early summer their young joined them and territorial battles that had mostly been between the males increased.

A bald-faced hornet — with a black body and fierce white, warlike mask — joined the fray, launching itself like a missile at any hummer approaching the feeder. I put a saucer of nectar out for the hornet, which helped with the immediate situation but signaled the start of a long, but not lethal, war between and among species, including huge, yellow-and-black European hornets, assorted other wasps and bee, and large black ants.

When two male hummers clashed a couple of feet from my face, sending one sprawling to the deck as I was meditating over my morning coffee, I decided I’d had enough. I moved the food to the other end of the deck, letting the various species duke it out down there.

As the summer progressed, I often was thrilled to hear the evening song of a whip-poor-will — sometimes echoed by another further away. The same sound frequently woke me up in the middle of the night when all else was still. It took me back to my childhood, when that sound was common even in the Northern Virginia suburbs where I grew up. By the middle of summer, the whip-poor-will and wood thrush were singing less regularly and finally stopped.

As the weather grew hotter, I took down the seed feeders, knowing that plenty of other food was now available. The hum of cicadas took over the nightly chorus. The occasional luna moth, huge and elegant in it spectacular green attire, visited the deck, as did a massive female Hercules beetle, (Virginia’s largest), in drabber olive-green accented with black spots.

Day and night an array of arachnids hunted the myriad insects on the deck. Spindly legged harvestmen, an arachnid cousin of spiders that is commonly called “daddy longlegs,” were everywhere. A large fishing spider with a leg span of almost three inches worked the area under the eaves. In the middle of summer she had a bunch of tiny, ghostlike babies and then, to my dismay, died.

As autumn came and the days shortened and cooled, the hummingbirds started heading south for the winter, the last leaving in early October. The hornets disappeared, although on warm days many thin-wasted paper and mud wasps still drifted gracefully on the deck, intermingling with smaller bees and wasps. Marmorated stink bugs, a foreign invader that had briefly swarmed in before the last cold snap, also vanished — not to be missed.

Wild turkeys move noisily through the forest more regularly now, enjoying this year’s abundant crop of acorns and nuts. The squirrels are also burying these seeds or storing them in high tree crannies.

The fall crickets have been in full chorus, about the only sound at night now. With killing frosts on the way, the insects will soon go quiet. The only wild sounds at night will be the occasional blood-curdling cry of a predator making a kill, or a lone owl or fox calling for a mate.

While I’ll soon be able to see the mountains again through the trees, I’ll long to hear that full chorus of a summer night again.

© 2010 Pam Owen. All rights reserved.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 338 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”