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• Sunday, January 06th, 2013

Christmas came early this year to the Newitt household. I have been enjoying the visitors to my bird feeders since mid October, but while my husband and I were having coffee on the screened porch one late fall morning, we were treated to a gift from the north. No not Santa, yet. While watching the goldfinches gorge themselves on the sunflower seeds, a Red-breasted Nuthatch flew in and grabbed a seed, then flew off. We followed his comings and goings for several minutes. Each time he’d fly in, grab a seed, then fly off to a nearby perch. Quite a treat for the bird and us.
The next day, as we watched several American Goldfinches feeding, we noticed two other birds on the ground that were much larger than the finches. After closer inspection and a retrieval of the binoculars, we realized they were Evening Grosbeaks. Then the grosbeaks were joined by about 30 Pine Siskins. Wow, what a show. It was quite a party!
It seems last summers drought caused a massive failure for the pine cone production. This failure forced some northern birds to migrate further south. It is a rare treat for us “southerners” since these birds aren’t seen here every year; only when conditions merit them to move south.
Pine Siskins look very much like the winter plumage goldfinches, but they have heavy streaking on their breast. Red-breasted nuthatches are small inquisitive birds with black and white stripes on their head and a reddish hue on their, you guessed it, breast. The evening grosbeaks haven’t been seen in Bucks County in 10 years, and though it wasn’t confirmed by an expert, my husband and I feel confident that’s what they were. They have been recorded close by, so it isn’t just grandstanding. Keep an eye out!

• Monday, October 08th, 2012

Early fall nights can be quite noisy, with the last of the katydids and crickets singing to each other before the weather turns cool. I love to drift off to sleep to these monotone conversations. The other night though, I was awakened by a God awful sound that roused me from slumber as a mother would leap out of bed when her child calls out in pain. In those first disorienting seconds, when your mind races to identify the sound, determining if it is a dream or real, if it is in the house or out, and whether you need to call the police or just look outside, I sat up in bed, heart racing, breathing hard and feeling the sweat roll down my back. What the heck is that?????

This sound, not quite a yelp, not a scream and not a cry, but a combination of all three was coming from right under my bedroom window. It is a terrible sound of a baby being strangled, (or so I’d imagine that sound to be). It is a gut wrenching, maternal nightmare of a cry.

In those few seconds from sleep to wakefulness, I run through the rollerdex of my brain, (yes, I am that old!), ticking off the possible nocturnal auditory insults that it could be. Dismissing each as they come to mind: owl, no, bat, no, raccoon, no, opossum, no. Fox, yes. Somewhere from the back corners of my sleepy mind, I remember hearing this dreadful sound. It was a red fox.

Mind you, this all is taking place in about 5 seconds as I listen to what sounds like cries of pain. A red fox had parked itself under our front bedroom window, barking and yelping at what I can only guess was our neighbors cat. I’m not sure if this was a standoff, if the fox was warning or he was just happy to be out and about, but this little critter was vocal in his intent, even if I didn’t know what his intentions were.

Red foxes are found throughout the northern hemisphere and have adapted well to human encroachment. Despite their name, red foxes come in a variety of colors from black, to gray to albino white, in addition to the most common orange-red. Though considered nocturnal, red foxes may be seen during the day, especially when the vixen is with pups and more food is required. Outdoor house cats are not much smaller than red foxes, but can become prey for a hungry vixen; yet another good reason to keep your cats indoors where they belong.

Red foxes vocalize for a number of reasons. Males and females call to each other during courtship or vixens will call to her kits (pups). Males call to establish territory and they call when there is a threat. It may take you a few sleepy seconds to run through your rollerdex if it wakes you from slumber, but once you hear the guttural cries, you’ll never forget the sound.

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• Friday, May 11th, 2012

Last summer, some neighborhood kids brought me a shoebox. The youngest of them, about 4 years old said it was a monster. Now I was really intrigued. Let me just say, I love that the neighborhood kids think of me when they find sometime fantastic in their yard. Not only does that mean they are out exploring, but they know enough to carefully package their find and bring it to me who will share their enthusiasm and interest.

Carefully, I lifted the lid to discover a marvelous creature. A caterpillar as long as my hand and two fingers wide. This lovely specimen had horns, projections and bumps all over it. It did indeed look like a monster from another world. In fact, it was a hickory horned devil, or Royal walnut moth caterpillar.

Hickory horn devil caterpillars are harmless formidable looking creatures that grow to be 6” long. They eat the leaves of hickory and walnut trees as well as a few others.
After a few weeks of eating and growing, they bury themselves into the ground and pupate. Their coccoon looks like a thick oval bullet. It is there that they will stay, resting, growing and hoping not to be found for two years. A gorgeous moth with orange and yellow stripes will emerge the second year.
Like most of the large silkworm moths, adult royal walnut moths don’t feed. After emerging, they set out to find a mate. The females will lay a massive amount of eggs hoping some will hatch and feed on the leaves of hickory or walnut. They grow, shed and grow all summer until they are big enough to pupate. Hopefully, some neighborhood kids will find one again and think of me to share in the joy of nature.

• Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Our beloved bats are under attack and if we don’t do something about it soon, many of them will disappear. White Nose Syndrome (WNS) is a fungus that affects hibernating bats. First discovered in New York state in the winter of 2006/2007, WNS has already killed over a million bats along the east coast of the United States and parts of Canada. By the 2010 hibernating season, the fungus had been reported in 16 states and four Canadian Provinces and it is spreading rapidly.
Named for the white fungus that grows on the muzzle and other parts of hibernating bats, WNS has a 90%-100% mortality in affected hibernacula (bat hibernating sites). Once the spores are in a hibernacula, the fungus quickly spreads from bat to bat, killing the entire colony. The fungus mysteriously causes the bats to wake and move either to the entrance or even outside into below freezing temperatures. Because hibernating bats have just enough fat reserves to make it through the winter, the bats often starve having used all their stored energy just to wake up.
More than half of the 45 species of North American bats are hibernating bats. This includes the six native to the mid-Atlantic (see previous post titled “Let’s Hear it for the Bats”). Many scientists believe the fungus may be spread in part by humans investigating caves either casually or for sport.
So what does this all mean? Little brown bats are our most common bat in the mid-Atlantic region and they can eat 500-1000 mosquitoes per hour. If they have five, one hour feeding sessions per night, that is up to 5000 mosquitoes per bat. Let’s say there are 10 little brown bats in your yard. Now, imagine a warm July evening. You and your family are enjoying an outdoor picnic. Without little brown bats controlling the mosquito population, there could be as many as 50,000 more biting pests than there are today. I think I’ll buy stock in Caladryl.

• Wednesday, September 07th, 2011

Bats are some of the most feared and misunderstood animals in the world. Through the centuries, they’ve been equated with witchcraft, evil, blood-thirsty monsters, and vampires, but bats are harmless victims of a bad rap. Thank you, Bram Stoker. Even the feared vampire bats, which hail from Central and South America, aren’t the blood thirsty demons they are made out to be. Well, they are blood thirsty, but they don’t attack and suck human blood.

Bats from around the world eat a variety of things from fish to nectar to frogs to fruit to blood. All of the bat species we have here in the mid-Atlantic region are insect eaters though.

Insectivorous bats use echolocation to zero in on their prey. By sending out high frequency sound waves that bounce off the insect, the bat is able to hone in on its exact location. They catch prey using their wings or the membrane between the feet. The insects are sort of “scooped” into the mouth.

Here in Pennsylvania, we have six year round resident species and three that migrate.

Year round bat species which include: little brown, big brown, tricolored (formally eastern pipistrelle), northern long ear, small-footed, and Indiana bats, are active in warm months, but seek shelter to hibernate through the winter. Migratory bats include hoary, red and silver-haired bats.

The only flying mammal, these acrobatic fliers can catch and eat over 500 insects per hour and often have several feeding sessions through the night. A large percentage of their diet include moths, grain flies and mosquitoes. Without bats, the mosquito population would explode spreading disease and driving picnics indoors. That’s much scarier than Dracula ever was.