Up until about a year ago I never expected to see a bald eagle on the farm. Due to excessive hunting by humans and the insecticide DDT, bald eagles were considered endangered or threatened for much of my childhood. Combined with the fact that they are sea eagles and principally eat fish, it was absurd to think I would ever see one in this part of Virginia. Yet here they are. Incredibly, it might even be a breeding pair that’s been visiting the farm over the past several days.
Their resurgence is the result of an amazing conservation effort. In the 1950s there were only 412 known nesting pairs. With the banning of DDT and severe restrictions on hunting, the birds are no longer listed as endangered or even threatened. Their increased numbers means that they are starting to re-occupy territory in parts of the United States where they have not been seen in living memory. Extremely cagey and hyper-alert, I have yet to get close enough for a decent photo of these amazing birds of prey. Even so, it is always inspiring to see this massive eagle – their average wing span can be 7-1/2 feet wide – take flight and soar over the family farm.
Found commonly over much of the east coast and as far west as Texas, the pickerel frog lives happily in Virginia’s Piedmont. While it looks similar to the leopard frog, the pickerel’s distinctive rectangular spots are an easy way to tell the two species apart. As you would expect of any frog, the pickerel is often found near streams and ponds. The lack of webbing between its toes also suggests that it spends more time on land than other frogs.
Amazingly, the pickerel frog is the only poisonous frog native to North America. Similar to eastern American toads, the toxin it secretes through its skin is only mildly irritating to humans if rubbed in the eyes or mucus membranes. However, its poison is more potent to smaller animals and even deadly to amphibians.
Doves. Pigeons. Flying rats. Birds from the Columba family are called by many names. Rock Doves are one of the most common birds in the world. While they are now found in almost every major city worldwide, their native habitat is Europe, North Africa, and South Asia. On the farm they typically roost under the hay hood of the barn and scavenge seeds in the surrounding fields.
Rock doves are known for being monogamous with both parents caring for clutches of one to two eggs. Amazingly, both parents also produce “crop milk” to nourish the squabs through their first week of life. Unique to doves, flamingos, and some penguins, crop milk is a dense mixture of fat and protein produced by the crop lining. The cheese-like secretion also contains antioxidants, bacteria, and immune-enhancing compounds.
Young squab is a also delicacy. While now they can be found in grocery stores, in 18th and early-19th Virginia wealthy landowners occasionally built elaborate dovecotes to attract breeding doves. These buildings – with their warm and cozy nesting boxes – allowed the gentry to easily harvest the young birds just days before they took their first flight.
One of the most common dragonflies in the United States, widow skimmers can be seen throughout North America. While they are often found near still bodies of water, this skimmer was instead photographed in the vegetable garden hunting asparagus beetle larvae. I hope it did not flyaway hungry.
The widow skimmer in the photo is a juvenile. As it grows to adulthood, its body will turn powdery blue. Widow skimmers are also easy to identify as they are the only species of skimmers with broad stripes on both the fore- and hindwings. Adult male skimmers can also be quickly identified by bands of white on their wings.
A bain of tomato growers, tobacco hornworms can defolate young tomato plants with alarming speed. They can grow to over three-inches long and feed primarily on tomato or tobacco plants. If a hornworm is lucky enough to survive pupatation, its adult form is a large moth with yellow-orange spots on its abdomen and a four-inch wing span.
These impressively large and fleshy caterpillars are very similar to tomato hornworms. The color of the “horn” on their tail is perhaps the easiest way to tell the difference. A tomato hornworm will have a blue horn while the tobacco hornworm’s tail is red. Another easily identifiable difference are the extra black edges lining the stripes found on a tobacco hornworm’s back.
These worms must have been endemic when tobacco ruled the Piedmont’s agricultural landscape in the 18th and early-19th centuries. However, today they are not a major nuisance to the farm’s very limited number of tomato plants. Tilling in the spring usually breaks up their pupae and, if that doesn’t work, they can be easily plucked. More interesting are the parasitic wasps that use hornworms to complete their lifecycle. Unlike some parasitic wasps who paralyze their victims before dragging them back to an underground burrow, wasps who host on hornworms lay their eggs directly on their prey. After the eggs hatch the wasp larvae feed relentlessly on the slowly dying caterpillar until they are ready to take their adult form. Brutal but effective.
Often seen sitting on fences and branches near fields and lawns, the Eastern Bluebird is a farm favorite. Brightly colored males and elegant greyish females are quick to take advantage of nesting boxes mounted to abandoned fence posts and trees. It is the male who first finds a nesting site. While he works to attract a discerning female to the nest with his striking orange chest plumage and symbolic offerings of twigs and leaves, he must also aggressively protect it from other birds. If he manages to charm a mate with his display, the female will then complete the nest and lay two to seven pale blue eggs. The eggs – 20% of which may have been fertilized by alternative male partners – will hatch 11-19 days later. Their bond often lasts several seasons and commonly produces more than one brood a year. Hatchlings from spring broods leave their parents in mid-summer; broods raised later in the year may travel with their parents throughout the winter.
Typically feeding on insects during the spring and summer, the Eastern Bluebird is a savvy hunter who pounces on unsuspecting prey from above. Their remarkably keen eyesight – they are capable of seeing their quarry from 60 feet away – helps them to track down the beetles, caterpillars, spiders, and grasshoppers they prefer. Bluebirds relay on berries and other fruits during the colder months when insects are not as prevalent.
With an estimated global population of 22 million, bluebirds are thankfully very common. However, even with their large numbers and low conservation threat, their cheerful demeanor and insectivorous diet makes installing nesting boxes well worth the effort.