Wild Ideas: From embryos to young, spring marches on

Cold spring or not, the reproduction cycle continues up here on the mountain. All three bird nests near the house – eastern phoebe, northern cardinal and Carolina wren – are now full of hatchlings. Other than the phoebe nest, however, it was hard to determine if all the eggs successfully hatched.

Northern cardinal babies that hatched out this past week. Photo by Pam Owen.
Northern cardinal babies that hatched out this past week. Photo by Pam Owen.

The cardinal nest is above my head in a bush covered with a tangle of honeysuckle, so I have to use my old digital range-finder camera to hold over the nest, trying to frame the shot in the monitor while also carefully moving leaves out of the way. The shots I took showed at least three hatchlings, the same as the number of eggs I had photographed earlier. However, birds often lay their eggs over the course of several days, so another egg or two could have been added after I took the first photo.

I’ll likely not revisit the cardinal nest, since there’s only one way to get to it easily through the tangle back there and taking the same path can alert predators to the nest’s location. However, the ground near the nest is also one of my dog’s favorite spots for burying bones, so I just have to hope any predators aim for those and not the birds.

Carolina wrens tend to build narrow, deep nests, often with canopies over the entrance, so seeing into my wren’s nest is also difficult and taking photos is pretty much impossible without disturbing the nest. Using a flashlight, I could barely make out the five eggs in the one in my pansy pot. Over the weekend, the clutch hatched out, but it was impossible to tell if all five babies had made it in that narrow, crowded nest.

The birds weren’t the only young that suddenly showed up on the scene. The weekend before, I was doing a bit of yard work with my landlords. My landlady pulled up some garden sheeting for keeping weeds down in the old vegetable garden, which is now a combination of wild native plants, a tree nursery and some invasives that keep trying to take over. Underneath the sheeting was an adult and two young snakes – all small, slender and brown, with the adult measuring about 11 inches, and the young around half that.

What appears to be an older northern red salamander, judging by how its spots have merged, found under a trashcan. This species likes damp, dark places to in which to hide and hunt. Photo by Pam Owen.
What appears to be an older northern red salamander, judging by how its spots have merged, found under a trashcan. This species likes damp, dark places to in which to hide and hunt. Photo by Pam Owen.

At first, from the wormlike appearance, I thought they were worm snakes, but they didn’t have that species’ pink belly, with the coloring extending halfway up the snake’s sides. Instead the bellies were almost white, so I identified them as earth snakes, a similar species.

I picked up the squirmy little things, which, characteristic of their species, curled themselves around my fingers, and quickly transported them to my little herb garden, knowing the vegetable garden was likely to get too hot for them once the ambient temperature finally, inevitably rises as spring progresses. When released into the herb garden, the snakes quickly darted under the rocks that ring it.

Earth snakes, like worm snakes, eat worms and other invertebrates and prefer dark, damp places under rocks, logs and rotted vegetation. I’m not sure the herb garden will be damp and dark enough for these guys once the temperature goes up, but I’m thinking of adding a rotting log or two to encourage them to stay. If not, they have a whole forest a few feet away that’s loaded with good habitat.

Last weekend was rainy, but the cool weather seemed to have inspired our local cottontail family to be out most of the day. I first spotted a large adult, which I figured might be the doe (female) from last year. She kept eating broadleaf plants on the lawn, near the forest edge, occasionally ducking back into the tangle there, likely where her nest is.

I then saw another cottontail appear, smaller than the first; the two seemed friendly. Since cottontails can have up to four litters here, and they start breeding in late winter, I concluded that the smaller rabbit, although it was almost adult size, was likely the larger one’s offspring from her first litter this year.

Newly hatched out phoebe babies. Photo by Pam Owen.
Newly hatched out phoebe babies. Photo by Pam Owen.

Another small rabbit suddenly showed up, triggering what looked like a pogo contest, with the cottontails springing around in all directions briefly until the mom settled down to eating. The youngsters still occasionally restarted the play, eating in between, then ducking back into where the larger rabbit kept going. My landlady has also spotted three young groundhogs hanging around with the large female down in her yard – also probably the larger groundhog’s young from this year, since they were hanging out with her.

Other wildlife sightings in the last week included a rather rotund salamander – tentatively identified as an older northern red salamander – that was under my trashcan. I also found a huge wolf spider (about three inches across, from toe to toe) in my kitchen sink one morning. I put it in my herb garden, too.

All in all, it’s been a great week out among the wild things.

More ‘Wild Ideas’ online

I decided to do some spring cleaning – not in my house, which is hopeless, but on my blog, “Wild Ideas in the Blue Ridge” (wildideasintheblueridge.blogspot.com). I hadn’t posted anything in a year, but it now has a new addition – a nature journal with short reports and photos of nature’s progress. My brief inaugural post for this year has a slide show of some of the critters mentioned in this column and some other signs of spring.

I’ve also restarted the Rappahannock Biodiversity Google group for anyone interested in sharing their observations, thoughts, questions or other information about nature in Rappahannock County and the surrounding region. Anyone interested in joining this email group should send a request to wilder.ideas@gmail.com.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 310 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.”