Eastern meadowlarks used to be common birds in local hayfields. Now they’re on a growing list of field-nesting birds—bobwhite quail, vesper sparrow, American kestrel, and red-winged blackbird—whose numbers have seriously dropped. Now you can drive though the countryside and never see any of them.
Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown.
Wood thrush song sounds like cathedral organ music to me. Muted by distance, it’s even sweeter. It invokes childhood evenings in June seated on a porch step, enchanted by an unknown birdsong coming from the neighbor’s woods.
For over 20 years, my wife and I have wanted purple martins to nest where we lived. We bought books about attracting martins. I set up a wooden, three-story purple martin house with the proper measurements and studied the best places to attract the birds. I made white-painted gourd houses, hung them from a telescoping pole the proper height above the ground, and installed a baffle to deter climbing raccoons and other predators.
I recently toured the grounds of the National Fish Heath Laboratory, a beautiful facility in Leetown (WV). There are numerous freshwater ponds, a natural wetland, and a woodland trail. The Fish Health Lab belongs to the U.S. Geological Survey. Grounds are closed to the public except by appointment, and visitors must be accompanied by a member of USGS staff. My host was staff member Heather Walsh. I came to familiarize myself with the place so I could help lead a winter bird walk there later this month with the Potomac Valley Audubon Society (PVAS). Heather has been leading nature activities with various organizations for the past year—part of an educational outreach program to the public.
As the sun broke through the rain clouds recently, a Carolina wren sat on the arm of a wooden yard chair next to our big forsythia bush, singing for all he was worth. His wet and molting feathers looked bedraggled, but the sun was shining, his mate was perched nearby, and all was right in his world. I love wrens. They go cheerily about their business hunting spiders in shadowy places, tails cocked upwards, wings quivering, and eyes aglitter. Hereabouts, we have the house wren, the Carolina wren, and the winter wren. Two others, the marsh wren and the sedge wren, are less often seen.
The big tulip tree in the front yard has beautiful bark. Like most mature trees, its bark has deep furrows or cracks, but is smooth in between. The fractures in the corky bark surface interconnect like chains in a wonderful pattern. On the widest part of the trunk, next to the ground, lichens and mosses […]
In the dark hours of morning, the first snow fell, unannounced and unpredicted. Barely a dusting, it whitened the ground and stuck in the crevices of tree trunks.
I had seen zebra swallowtails before and had long admired them. Smaller than the big yellow tiger swallowtail, the zebra has sharply triangular forewings, dramatic tail streamers, and a bold, racy pattern of black and white. The white seen up close is actually very pale green. Two crimson and two blue spots adorn the hind wings just ahead of the streamers, and two crimson stripes run along the underside of the hind wings. All these longitudinal stripes enhance their streamlined look. Their beauty is unsurpassed. When half a dozen zebra swallowtails land close together in the wet mud near our mailbox, it looks like a butterfly bouquet.
The fence builders said they saw a small spotted fawn there as they worked. After we moved into the house in August, we saw it feeding and playing there every day. Other deer jumped the fence, grazed, or bedded down beside it for a while, and then jumped out. But the fawn stayed. Summer progressed. She grew bigger, lost her spots, but stayed on. We knew she was female because she squatted to pee. While we saw her daily, she never seemed bothered by us as we went about our business. Even our dogs seemed to ignore her.