Wild Ideas: Young critters everywhere

Eastern Painted Turtle hatchling, about the size of a half dollar.
Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Eastern Painted Turtle hatchling, about the size of a half dollar.

The lower ponds are now coming alive with frog calls, and Spring Peepers are in fuller chorus at the one up the mountain. While apparently no frog eggs have survived predation by the game fish in the lower ponds, the upper pond, which is devoid of fish, is now black with squiggling tadpoles. And those aren’t the only evidence of wildlife reproduction being well underway.

My landlords found an Eastern Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta picta) hatchling about the size of a half-dollar down by one of the lower ponds. Concerned about the baby’s low odds of surviving the oversized gamefish in the ponds down there, my landlords wondered if releasing it in the upper one would be safer. However, I’m always loathe to introduce a new species somewhere, not knowing the impact on ecology at that site. And conditions up there might also be hazardous to the turtle, so instead I released him this morning in the lower pond that seems to have the fewest and smallest fish and the most cover, hoping that would increase the little guy’s chances of survival. Survival will still be tricky, with birds and other predators also working the pond, but a few seconds after I put him into the pond, he went to the top to grab some air, then quickly disappeared in deeper water.

On the way back to the far pond, I checked a Praying Mantis nest in a locust sapling. That should be hatching out soon, considering how warm the spring has been and how far ahead the breeding is for many species of wildlife.

My landlords had tipped me to a nest that a pair of wrens had made in a helmet in the shed down by the ponds, so I stopped there next to see if these were House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) or, more likely, Carolina Wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus). Surprising one of the parents when I opened the door, I noted the blaze of white above its eye, confirming that it was a Carolina Wren. These fierce, loud little birds have been creeping north for years, taking over the territory of our somewhat smaller native House Wrens.

The jaunty little Carolina Wren can be distinguished easily from Virginia’s native House Wren by the white line over the eye and its larger size.
Manjith Kainickara via Wikimedia Commons
The jaunty little Carolina Wren can be distinguished easily from Virginia’s native House Wren by the white line over the eye and its larger size.

The babies look like they’ll be ready to take off in a few weeks. For such small birds, wrens make huge nests, totally enclosed except for an entrance hole on the side. They’ll nest just about anywhere low but seem to take advantage of the relative safety and often good shelter offered by human structures. These ended up nesting in a discarded bike helmet, but they’ll also take over boots, flower pots, baskets and just about anything else that can accommodate their oversized nests. I had once left one of those cardboard compartmentalized shoe storage boxes in a shed, and it became a wren hotel.

Phoebes, like wrens, also have found safety and good shelter nesting close to humans, usually under eaves of buildings. This morning I finally tracked down the nest of the pair that have been hanging around up here at the house – on top of a light under the eaves of the garage roof. Phoebes are prolific, raise two or three broods a year. This first bunch of fledglings looked ahead of the wrens and likely to leave the nest soon. With Phoebes, one minute all the babies are there and the next, they’ve all flown away.

I’ve seen the adult Phoebes often this spring, usually on the phone cable running to the roof of my house. I enjoy their jaunty, trademark tail-bobbing, and acrobatic displays when they go after insects in midair. I’m not so fond of hearing them incessantly calling their name every dawn, but at least I don’t need an alarm clock.

I’ve been trying to observe what’s going on with the pair of Eastern Bluebirds in the nesting box in my yard. Just as I think they’ve been eaten or have abandoned the nest, one pops out of the box and takes off in search of food. They seem to still be in brooding mode, since I haven’t seen any food in her bill for babies when she comes back to the box. The male does bring food on his more frequent forays, but that could be for the female, which does all the brooding. I’m tempted to open the side of the box, which my landlord outfitted with a hinge, to see if the eggs have indeed hatched out, but the birds got a late start with their breeding after a bear destroyed the other box on the property, so I’m a bit reluctant to disturb them at this point. Like Phoebes and wrens, bluebirds are tolerant of humans, which makes monitoring their nesting boxes easier, as volunteers with bluebird societies are encouraged to do.

While at the lower ponds, I had heard the deep call of an American Bullfrog, the first I’ve heard so far this season. When I went back to do my Frogwatch monitoring tonight, I heard it again, indicating the bullfrog mating season is starting. Several Green Frogs also joined in with their banjolike plunking, adding to the Pickerel Frogs and Spring Peepers that have been calling down there for weeks. One lone Gray Treefrog has also been calling in the forest above the house. I had to be careful going back up the drive to the house, since American Toads were here and there on the driveway, enjoying the light rain. They should be adding their trilling to the mating-call orchestra soon.

WI-120505-YoungCritters.docx                5/6/2012 7:57:00 PM

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 340 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.”