Category Archives: Backyard

Praying Mantis | Babies Hatch

A spirea bush in front of the house had two praying mantis egg cases attached to twigs. We first noticed them last fall. Each warm day this spring we checked to see if the young were hatching. It finally happened. They were about 1 cm (<1/2 in) long. They sat for a while to dry and firm up their exoskeleton.

Soon after that they scurried along the twigs and leaves for cover. This one stopped long enough to look back at us before it disappeared. More about the mantis in an earlier post when one of last year’s brood looked into our front window.

Birdsong

by Melanie and Jim

We’re fortunate to have an extensive paved trail system in our area. The trails connect with broad sidewalks in many places, giving both safe recreation and transportation space for walkers, runners, and bikers.

This morning we went for a walk in our neighborhood, looping away from our house to the west, then northward around a pond, and back in on a deer trail behind the house. The birds make a joyful noise this time of year, attracting mates and defending nests. Redwinged blackbirds trill, wrens chatter, and the red-bellied woodpecker repeats its hoarse, cough-like call.  We hear birds we can’t see, and even the birds we see, we can’t always identify.

Today’s first notable bird-spotting was a male Eastern Bluebird. They like areas that are mostly open. It was perched on a small tree, but it flew away before Jim could capture it with the camera. Beyond that, above the tall trees, floated a red-tailed hawk.

Jim especially hoped to photograph a meadowlark today. We often see them in the grassy areas, but they don’t stay still very long for photos. Instead we saw a speckled bird (little brown jobbie?) a bit smaller than a robin. Any ideas for identifying this one?

On the way back toward the house in an area more thickly wooded, we both heard a mystery-bird. High in the trees, we couldn’t see it. We kept moving toward the sound until we found the correct tree. The song tripped my memory and I said, “It’s an oriole.” Why I was so certain, I don’t know, as we don’t enjoy orioles around here much. But that gave us a color to look for. The bright orange of these birds would make it easier to spot. Finally Jim saw it and was able to get a couple of good photos. Handsome fellow, isn’t it?

I remember long ago hearing a radio talk show. The hosts were visiting with a caller who talked about birding outings, and how they sometimes would have blind people join their group. The radio hosts were surprised that blind people could identify birds. In fact, often the call is the easiest way to “spot” them.

One last note, if you aren’t aware of the great website All About Birds, you should take a look. It’s like having the best bird book ever, including audio recordings to boot.

Backyard | Raccoon Vandals

We have a bird feeder hanging in the back several feet from any trees. It weighs several pounds due to batteries and a motor that spins the perch if squirrels get on it. It is hung from a rope about 3 meters above the ground by a sturdy carabiner clip.

This morning the feeder was lying on the ground. This is the second time it has happened. The only way to unhook it is to grip the spring clip on the carabiner and lift the feeder support wire out of it. You need hands with a strong grip to do that. We suspect raccoons are the culprit.

… And An Old Friend

by Melanie and Jim

One morning in February we had an unexpected visitor. A great horned owl perched behind our house, fending off harassing crows with its dignified, quiet pose. Though we’ve lived in this house for almost 15 years, we’d never known a great horned to stop here before.

As excited as we were, we also were a bit concerned. I’d read that great horned owls and barred owls don’t share habitat. If the great horned was here, did that mean we’d no longer welcome our old friends, the barred owls? There was no need for concern. The next day, the great horned owl was nowhere to be seen. Within a couple of days, we heard barred owls in the woods again.

On March 2 I opened the garage door to ready trash for pickup. As I did so, I heard a barred owl. It was close and sounded like it was across the street. I stepped out into the cool morning air, sky brightening but still dark before sunrise. The owl loudly called again as I searched for it, and I realized it was behind the house rather than in front. The echo had fooled me. I hurried to the side yard in time to see one land in the neighbor’s tree.

I ran in to tell Jim, and he was able to see it, too, through the window. Well, no need to worry about the great horned owls chasing the barreds out of the neighborhood. We had one a few feet from our house.

The bigger treat came later that day, as the sun was low in the sky. A bird called again, just behind the house. “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?” came the characteristic hoot. (Listen to the recordings at All About Birds. Check the “Various hoots” first.)

We looked in the direction of the call. There on a branch, about 30 feet from the house, was this beautiful bird.

Barred Owl. Iowa, March 2, 2017. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

Jim also got a few seconds of video.

Since then we’ve heard these wonderful birds nearby several times. We’re fortunate to share our yard and close green space with them, and with the occasional unexpected visitor.

An Unusual Visitor

by Melanie and Jim

This morning as we readied for an errand, we heard a great commotion rise up behind the house. Crows, screaming bloody murder, shrieked in alarm. I thought there were several, maybe dozens of them, the cries were so loud. But when Jim looked, he saw only two. Two angry crows, screaming at something between and below them.

There are a number of cats that roam the neighborhood. Sometimes we hear squirrels or blue jays yelling at a wandering cat, but usually not crows. Even if there were a cat, the crows were high enough in the tree that a cat wouldn’t threaten them. It seemed unlikely that a cat was the cause. Still they continued cawing and screeching.

A tree blocked our view, so we moved to another window. Jim thought he saw another bird on a branch below them. Cooper’s Hawks occasionally visit our yard. They eat small birds and mammals. Once we watched as a Cooper’s dropped onto a squirrel, latched its talons tightly in, and flew away with it. With that risk, the little birds go silent and scarce when a hawk is around.

Binoculars showed the cause for alarm more clearly. It wasn’t just “another bird.” It was an owl. Since we moved to this house 15 years ago, we’ve been visited by barred owls. They aren’t as frequent as they used to be, but we still open the door to the screened porch in almost any weather to hear them calling to each other.

A shift to yet another window gave an even better view.

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This owl had ear tufts. It was no barred owl. It was a great horned owl! We’ve never heard nor seen one around here before! I’ve read that barred and great horned owls don’t share habitat, and that the horned owls get first dibs. I don’t know what this means for our barred owl friends, or if we’ll get to enjoy their occasional visits again.

Jim was able to get a few pictures of this beautiful bird. Though they are unfocused, you can clearly see the large ear tufts and hooked beak.

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He took this photo from below. It shows the feathering better.

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As I write this several hours later, the owl is still perched in the same place. The crows gave up pestering and screaming long ago, though they’ve made a few more half-hearted attempts to intimidate.