Sycamore Grove Farm, Madison County
Our farm attracts several members of the swallow family – barn swallows, purple martins and tree swallows. They are most active early in the morning and at dusk – or when my husband stirs up the bugs as he mows. The most dramatic of the three is the tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)--both for its iridescent blue green back and brilliant white chest as well of the size of the flocks that arrive in mid-summer as they congregate for the fall migration.
At this time of year, I easily see 50-75 swallows sitting on the electric lines that cross our field and line the driveway of our neighboring farm. These are the early migrators. The most I have counted this year is 250 – and when I recorded on eBird, I was “asking” to explain this high number. Last year the highest count I recorded was 500 swallows. It was later in the summer and closer to the time the majority of swallows had begun their migration
Tree swallows can be found along coastal beaches, freshwater ponds and lakes and agricultural fields. They are voracious insect eaters and can be seen displaying their aerialist skills when a storm is brewing and the wind brings insects up above the ground. They eat all kinds of flying insects, as well as spiders and mollusks. The size of their prey ranges from smaller than a grain of sand to up to 2” long. They chase prey with acrobatic twists and turns, which is how they got the nickname “aerialist in tuxedo.”
Virginia is in the southernmost area where tree swallows breed. Large numbers migrate deep into the northern part of Canada to breed. Tree swallows are cavity nesters, as we discovered when they commandeered one of our bluebird houses last year. And their nest was exquisitely lined with white feathers. They are known for traveling great distances to find dropped feathers to line their nests. They have also been observed playing with dropped feathers, chasing after them before taking them into the nest box. Nest predators are the same ones that frequently raid cavity nests: snakes, raccoons, bears, feral cats and the like. While they are not considered endangered, their populations have declined slowly over the last 50 years due to the disappearance of natural cavities. They have also shown a sensitive response to climate change. The average life of a tree swallow is 2.7 years. They have a low first-year survival rate – 79 percent do not survive that first year. The oldest tree swallow recorded was twelve years old.
If the increasing numbers of tree swallows on our farm is any indication, their southern migration is starting. So keep an eye out for these delightful acrobats in the air!
On June 10th, Old Rag Master Naturalists, including Judy and Alan Edmunds, along with members of Trout Unlimited, Friends of the Rappahannock and other volunteers worked with Shenandoah National Park's (SNP) Supervisory Fish Biologist, Evan Childress to collect the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of brook trout.
The purpose of this project was to gain a comprehensive understanding of brook trout population in the Shenandoah. This was done by collecting water samples from over 80 streams in the SNP. The process of collecting the samples was an all-day project!
Volunteers first picked up sample kits at one of the two testing stations in the SNP. Along with their kit, volunteers were given a site number, a data sheet to fill out and directions to the site. Some of the sites were a long hike into the park and took some tricky trekking to get to the exact spot on the stream that was listed on the site sheet! Once the longitude and latitude were confirmed and verified, following the collection protocol, the volunteers collected 2 liters of water from the site and filled out the data sheet. After hiking back to the car, the water was put on ice in coolers to keep the DNA from degrading on the drive back to the testing stations.
When volunteers returned the samples and data sheets, the park staff used special equipment to filter each sample of water. Each individual filter was then put in a vial to be sent to a lab that will use polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to amplify the DNA signal. This will enable them to detect any trout DNA present in the sample.
The results of the eDNA project will be long lasting. The information that was gathered will allow park biologists to not only understand the health of the streams and the distribution of brook trout in the park, but will also help park biologists make informed decisions about future conservation initiatives. Evan’s plan is to make an interactive map where people can see the results from the places we sampled and to give a virtual presentation talking about what we learned from the project.
The eDNA project will be wrapping up this fall, but Evan is already looking to get additional grants to drive more projects that will support healthy streams in the Shenandoah.
Stay tuned for more opportunities to help Evan in the future!
Sycamore Grove Farm, Madison County
We infrequently see bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) fly over our farm, which is such a treat. I occasionally pick up their calls on the Merlin bird ID app, as well. There are woods on the north side of our farm where, according to several long-time residents, eagles have nested on a regular basis, though we have never found a nest ourselves. The ones flying over our farm are probably heading for the Rapidan River, which is about one mile “as the bird flies” from our farm. We have seen eagles along the Rapidan looking for their favorite food: fish. Since the favorite food is fish, you will often see them near lakes, rivers and ponds. They will also go after other birds’ catch. In addition to fish, they eat waterfowl, turtles, rabbits, snakes and other small animals, as well as carrion.
Eagles were once listed as an endangered species in the United States. Pesticide use and hunting played havoc with their ability to raise their young. The pesticide, DDT, interfered with their ability to produce strong eggshells – resulting in thin shells that often broke during incubation or failed to hatch. The lead in ammunition is still often ingested by eagles when they eat a deer carcass--shot by a hunter who either couldn’t reach the dead deer or only retrieved the head as a “souvenir"-- which can lead to lead poisoning in the birds.
Bald eagles nest and live all year within Virginia. The Chesapeake Bay has the densest breeding population of bald eagles in the continental United States – only Alaska has more than we do. William & Mary’s The Center for Conservation Biology has been counting raptors for 30 years. They estimate that our bald eagle population is somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 birds.
Want to see bald eagles in Virginia? Here is a link to the six most likely state parks to spot bald eagles and some of the special events these parks offer related to eagles. In our area, you will frequently see eagles flying over and around the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The bald eagle has been our national emblem since 1782. It has been revered by native peoples for far longer than that. Historians tell us that Benjamin Franklin was “rooting” for the American turkey to be our national emblem, not the bald eagle. Franklin was very disparaging in his correspondence, describing the bald eagle as “a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his living honestly [referring to the bird’s habit of stealing fish from other birds]…Besides he is a rank Coward”, referencing Franklin’s observation that a little bird could attack the eagle in defense of its nest and the eagle would leave. But the Second Continental Congress selected the bald eagle as the U.S. National Symbol on June 20, 1782.
Immature eagles have a long “adolescence,” spending their first four years of life exploring different territories. Their wingspan of up to 7-1/2 feet at maturity allows them to fly hundreds of miles each day. Young birds born and tagged in Florida were found as far north as Michigan and birds from California have traveled to Alaska before settling down.
Eagles have a much longer life span than many birds. Their life span in the wild ranges from 20-30 years. The oldest recorded bird in the wild was at least 38 years old. And they can be fascinating to watch. Bald eagles have been observed “playing” with objects such as plastic bottles and in one instance a witness recorded six bald eagles passing sticks to each other in midair.
So here’s hoping we all see a few bald eagles this year!
Sycamore Grove Farm, Madison County
Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) come to our sugar water feeders every year in Madison County. This year, we started to plant native flowers in one of our raised beds, including one of their favorites: bee balm (Monarda didyma). The sugar water feeders are within ten feet of these flowers. Our hummers regularly fly back and forth between the feeders and the flowers, almost like their “all you can eat” food bar. Hummers have outstanding spatial memory and can remember feeder locations years later. They are able to keep track of bloom peaks and remember which flowers they have visited. Scientists attribute these skills to the large portion of a hummingbird’s brain that is occupied by the hippocampus, an area dedicated to learning and spatial memory.
Worldwide, there are over 360 species of hummingbirds and they are found only in the Americas. They can be found in a wide variety of habitats from desert scrubland to above tree line at 10,000 feet in the Andes. Unfortunately like many birds, habitat loss is threatening many species. The U.S has only 15 species; the Ruby-throated is the only hummer found east of the Great Plains. Ecuador has the largest number of species of hummers of any country: 130.
The average life span of a hummingbird ranges from 3-5 years. The oldest know Ruby-throated “hummer” was a banded female that was captured (then re-released) in West Virginia in 2014 – it was least nine years and two months old.
Here are some remarkable statistics on these tiny birds, whose amazing acrobatic flying skills are a big part of their attraction:
Here are some birding tips on how to attract hummers to your yard:
For more information and a list of top native hummingbird plants check out this website from the American Bird Conservancy.
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