Friday’s Wildlife Writing Prompt

Subject: Chipmunks!

So, I have this little chipmunk, who scampers over to eat the seed under my feeders, fills his little cheeks, then scampers back again.

Shouldn’t he be a character in a picture book? Or a comic book? Or a story? Want to give it a try?

Before writing, I like to do a little research. Let’s learn a little bit about chipmunks:

  • They’re the size of a teacup
  • They live 2 to 3 years in the wild
  • They’re really a tiny squirrel!
  • Their scientific name is Tamias . .. . heeeeey! My nickname name is Tami! Cool!
  • They are sooooo cute, artists love to draw them and make movies about them, they’ve starred in several shows! Ever heard of Alvin and the Chipmunks?
  • Chipmunks aren’t picky eaters! They eat seeds, fruit, nuts, berries and will stuff their find in their cheek pouches, then scamper back to their burrow or nest to save it. They’ll need this cache of food to get them through the winter.
  • They also eat plants, insects, worms, and bird eggs!
  • They make a birdlike chirp, and repeat it, when they sense danger.
  • Predators to a chipmunk are foxes, weasels, coyotes and even snakes.
  • A pair can have up to 8 young in the spring. Sometimes they raise two families between Spring and Fall.
  • You don’t see much of them in the winter here in Maine. They hibernate but don’t sleep the whole time. They wake up every few days, feed on their stored food, and go to the bathroom. If it’s a warmer day, you might see them under your feeder, filling their cheeks.

So now that you have the facts, here’s some photo inspiration for your story or illustration.

What did you name your chipmunk? Where does he live? What’d he say? I’d love to see what you’ve written or drawn!

Can’t get enough of these little guys? National Geographic has a cool video! Behavioral ecologist Charlene Couchoux is trying to learn more about these cute little guys, by capturing their sounds with supersonic microphones.

Happy writing, everyone!

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Black-capped Chickadee

Fun Facts About This Adorable Little Bird

Black-capped Chickadees are the state bird for Maine and Massachusetts, but they can be found all over the United States.

They get their name from their black cap, and their call.

Chickadee-dee-dee-dee!

Chickadees may be small, but mighty! They have 15 different calls. The one everyone knows best, is chickadee-dee-dee. Did you know, the more dees you hear, the more dangerous the threat?

So, let’s say you’re out filling your bird feeder. If the bird knows you, it will only it will only give one dee at the end, “Chickadee-dee!” But if a hawk swoops nearby, “Chicka-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee!” That means, “danger, danger!”, and many other birds will hear that call and duck for cover.

I once counted eight dees when I suddenly walked out my backdoor and startled them.

Take out dinner!

A group of chickadees is known as a banditry of chickadees. Bandit – get it? Maybe because of their black mask?

Females build the nest and lay up to 13 eggs! The male brings her food as she keeps the eggs warm. I’ve always wanted to photograph a chickadee family! Perhaps one day.

Chickadees are a common bird at bird feeders and they seem to come and go all day long. But don’t think they’re lazy. Oh no! They are very, very smart! Sometimes they take a seed, and eat it right there and then at the feeder.

See how it holds the seed in its feet?

Sometimes the seed is taken deep in a thicket or bush so they are hidden from predators while eating.

And sometimes a seed is chosen . . .

And hidden for later!

Can you see the seed in the V of the branch. It blends right in!

Chickadees hide hundreds of seeds! Not only that, they can remember where they all are, finding them a month later! I’ve seen this right outside my window over and over and over again.

Watch again . . .

First the chickadee carefully chooses a seed. Sometimes picking up two or three before settling on ‘the one’.

This one looks just right!

I’ve watched the chickadees put a seed in a crook of a branch or a hole . . .

they’ll push it, pick it up and drop it, and if it just doesn’t seem to “fit”, they grab it and go somewhere else. That’s what the chickadee above did. Here’s the final resting spot for this seed.

When its food source becomes low, that seed will be there.

In addition to the seeds from our feeders, chickadees also eat seeds from plants . . .

as well as berries, suet and peanut butter. Sometimes, I put a tablespoon of peanut butter in an orange peel and leave it out for them with some seed.

Chickadees are also great insect exterminators. They eat slugs, centipeeds, spiders, insect eggs, lice and many more!

I found this really cool video that explains eight of the chickadees calls. You can hear them and see them up close!

Go outside today, listen carefully. Can you hear them? Which calls did you hear? How many dees did you get from the chickadee?

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Hiking Adventure

Roberts Farm Preserve

64 Robert’s Rd, Norway, Maine

Oh, how I love a good hike! Any time of the year, really! Being outside, in the quiet, deeply breathing in the fresh air, feeling the sun on my face . . . there’s nothing quite like it. Especially after being cooped up inside.

I decided to try a local trail to hike, Robert’s Farm Trail. I’d never been, but it was recommended by a friend and I’d heard great things about it.

I started out by reading the map. Oh, so many choices!

I decided to follow Stephens Trail. It didn’t take long before I encountered interesting sights along the way.

https://youtu.be/_XvVCTcpTmA

It sure felt good to hear the sound of a running brook again.

Because there was new snow on the ground from the night before, I easily discovered many animal tracks along the way!

Turkey Tracks!
Squirrel tracks
Deer Tracks
Hmmmmm . . .

I thought the above tracks might be fox. but they also look a little like a small dog. (That’s my boot print, no other human footprints were in the area) Using the charts below, tell me in the comments, what do YOU think? Hint: Look closely at the pads of the fox, versus the dog.

The signs at Roberts Farm also told you if they were difficult or easy, which is good to know before you begin, or if you’ve reached a crossroads. I continued on Stephens Trail, looking for a challenge.

There were lots of interesting sights along the way; this smiley face on a tree, a geocache mailbox (I won’t tell you exactly where that was, you’ll have to find it yourself!) and bridges with brooks running below them.

What I liked most about Roberts Farm trails, is that there were so many, you can take a different trail every time you go, which makes each hike unique, interesting and fun!

Have you been on a hike lately? If so, have you seen any of the animals below? I’d love to hear about it! Use the comment section below.

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Fox Kit Research

Right around this time of year, fox kits are being born in dens all over New England. Back in 2014, I accidentally stumbled on a fox den while snowshoeing through the woods behind my home, and was lucky enough to watch (from a distance) over several years as a fox family raised litters of kits.

The den opening on a banking in the woods in early spring

In my experience, foxes choose a den that’s protected and where the winter snow around the opening melts early.

Kits are born blind and helpless, so the female fox, or vixen, will stay inside with her kits for about two weeks to keep them warm and safe. The male fox, or dog, will bring food to her. Listen as he arrives with something at the opening and “talks to her”.

Foxes will also den under porches or buildings

The fox kits come out of the den when they’re about a month old. The picture below is the youngest fox kit I’ve ever photographed. I’m thinking it might even have been its very first time out of the den.

Adult fox have several dens marked for use each season. If they feel their kits are in danger, they’ll move them overnight to another den. Predators to young kits include coyotes, eagles and humans.

Foxes hear and see very, very well. I worried every time I visited, that they’d think I meant to harm the kits and move the family. I didn’t want this to happen! Not only does it stress out the foxes, but I’d miss them terribly. So I made sure to watch the family from far away, hiding behind bushes, staying quiet, and not bringing people with me. Remember, my camera lens works like a telescope. I only visited once every two weeks, but when I did, they seemed to be watching me! If I was going to write about their behavior, I needed to know how they acted when a human wasn’t in the area.

So I set up a trail camera to video tape them.

Notice how the kits act a little like cats and dogs, the way they pounce and stalk each other. They’re playing, but even at about a month old, they’re also practicing their hunting skills.

Did you also notice how their fur hasn’t turned red yet? That’s because they need to blend in with their April and early May surroundings, which is last year’s leaf litter. You can tell they’re red fox kits by the white tip of their tail.

As the kits get older, their reddish coloring will easily tell us they’re Red Foxes.

Foxes hunt for rodents, rabbits, birds and other small animals. But they will also eat fish, vegetables, fruit, frogs and even . . . . worms!

Can you see the caterpillar on the bottom right of the photo?
He ate it!

I learned so much while I was studying this fox family! Much of what I learned ended up in the pages of of Mystery of the Missing Fox. Next time I talk about foxes, I’ll tell you the story of when I found my very first fox kit and how that inspired a whole scene in the book.

Have you ever seen a fox? Tell me about it in the comments below. I love fox stories!

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Backyard Bird Watching

Setting up a backyard bird watching station can be a lot of fun and very rewarding! It’s easy to do, too! Now is a very good time to start, as birds who flew south for the winter, are about to return.

Blue jays surround a mourning dove at my platform feeder.

Food and water are two of the must-haves to attract birds to your backyard. When people think of bird food, they think of bags of seed. This can be found at your local hardware or feed store. Try to find a mix that appeals to many types of birds. Seeds on the ground will attract mourning doves, turkeys, juncos and more. Other birds like to take their seeds from a higher perch, so I try to put seeds both high and low.

A pine warbler takes seeds from a table

If you don’t have a bird feeder to hang, you can put some seeds out on the edge of a picnic table. Or try one of these do-it-yourself bird feeder projects from the Audubon.

A blue jay leaves a platform feeder in a hurry!
A tufted titmouse grabs a seed from the top of a snow pile.
A white-breasted nuthatch waits for its turn at the feeder.

Not able to get out and buy some birdseed? Or perhaps you’d like to put out a variety of food to attract more birds? Try these every day food items from your kitchen. Just be sure to check the food daily, and if it starts to go bad, remove it as it could make the birds sick.

Many birds are attracted to raisins, including bluebirds, cardinals, orioles and cedar waxwings. Soak the raisins in warm water first to soften them up.

Bluebirds like raisins, softened in warm water.
Cedar Waxwings look like they are wearing a mask!

Here in Maine, I put out oranges in May to attract Baltimore Orioles, one of my favorite birds. Many of my friends put out a quarter cup of grape jelly for their orioles. You can use a tiny dish or an empty orange peel.

Male oriole – orioles are very skittish and usually only feed when I’m inside the house
Female Baltimore Oriole

Last year, I was quite surprised when a new-to-me bird suddenly appeared at my orange feeding station! A black-rumped warbler! Such a funny name for a serious looking bird. I really enjoyed watching them.

Have a banana? Peel it, cut it the long way and put just a half of a half out on a raised feeding spot to start. Cardinals, Catbirds and Scarlet Tanagers like banana in their diet.

Catbird at the birdbath
Scarlet Tanagers usually sing from the treetops, but this one came to my
backyard for a bit of banana

You can also attract birds with fresh water. Birds use water to drink, stay cool, and to groom themselves.

This robin was really enjoying its bath!

Bird baths can be easily made from a shallow pan about 2 inches deep, like an old cake pan (don’t take Mom’s new one!) or a trash can lid. Flower pot trays, the kind that sit under a pot to collect the water, are also a great choice. The important thing is, you’ll need to clean it very well. Place your bath on a level surface. Be sure to change the water every other day. Clean water keeps the birds from getting sick. Put a few pebbles in the bottom of your bath, so the birds can judge how deep it is.

A robin bathing in just a couple inches of water.
Chickadees stop for a drink quite often

Once you’ve set up your feeder and bird bath, it could take a week or two before the birds find you. Have patience. Refill your water, and spread some seeds on the ground where they can see them from a distance. Trust me, they’ll come.

When your birds start to arrive, sit quietly, and watch their behavior. Birds who gather grasses, are probably nest building!

American Robins will nest in the eaves of porches and over window sills.

Do you have a dog or cat? When you brush them, save the hair from the brush and tuck it into a bush or branches of a tree. Birds will use it to line their nests.

Male Cardinals who want to attract a female cardinal, will feed them.

Parents will bring their chicks to your feeder to teach them how to find food. Or they might bring them to your bird bath to teach them how to groom themselves.

A hairy woodpecker feeding a young one

And the birds you see gathering insects in your backyard, might just be taking them back to their little ones in their nest.

A flycatcher with a meal fit for a king!
A flycatcher feeding a dragonfly to its chick. Where will it put it all?

Being patient, and watching from a distance will help you to see more birds and their behavior.

Downy Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker

And don’t be surprised if you have non-bird visitors! They help to clean up the seed that’s fallen to the ground.

Get creative! Are you into photography? Find new ways to put out your seed for interesting photos.

Here are a couple field guides to help you identify the birds coming and going in your backyard. Remember, males and females may look different, like with the cardinal picture above. And young birds will look different still. When you see them, quickly note the colors, where you saw it (on the ground, in a feeder) and what size it is.

The Audubon Guide to North American Birds

All About Birds, Cornell Lab

Keep a birding journal! New birds come and go at my feeder all the time. I’ve even had owl and hawks hang out every now and again. Keep a daily log of what you’ve seen and the time of day they appeared. Some things to look for, when do birds appear at your feeder? Chickadees come and go at mine all the time, but cardinals only eat from my feeder early, early morning and during the last light of the day.

Here’s a game to play while watching the birds come and go! Birdwatch Bingo! Try playing with a friend, each of your watching your own backyard habitats. Or play as a family – whoever spots the bird first, gets to mark it on their board.

Thank you Lacey Hebert Todd, for this awesome Birdwatch Bingo Sheet!

Happy bird watching! I’d love to hear the birds your seeing in your backyard, as all our migrating feathered friends begin to return. Drop me a note or a picture about one!

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Mystery on Pine Lake

The Inspiration Behind The Story

Believe it or not, Cooper and Packrat’s first adventure started as a picture book! I knew I wanted to find an interesting way to talk about loons, how they re-nest if the first nest fails, and I wanted to weave in camping or campgrounds in some way. When I shared my first draft with my writing group, they said, think bigger.

Nesting Loon

So I wrote an early chapter book and added some mystery, and a couple more characters. And when I shared that draft, my author friends said again, “Think bigger.” They believed the story needed to be longer to get in all the story I wanted to tell.

I thought and thought and thought. I wasn’t sure how to do it, or what they meant. So I reached out to one of them. She said, “Think Hoot.” A book with a wildlife environmental theme. (An awesome novel by Carl Hiaasen by the way. )

I gasped. Write a novel? A whole novel?

I knew I’d need a lot more words. Scenes. Characters. A plot with rising action that made the problem get worse and worse and worse until the main character wouldn’t know if he could save those loons or not!

So I went out to do some research. My way.

When I research, I bring a pen and a notebook. But that’s not all! I also grab my camera. In the photo above, you’ll notice how long the lens is. I can see wildlife from very far away, like binoculars! This way, I’m not scaring the animals off. I can sit quietly, observe and document with the click of the shutter.

Loon turning its olive colored eggs
I watched the loons switch places on the nest
I saw a “pip” for the first time – a sign the chick is hatching
I even saw one day old chicks!

The more I watched the loons, the more I reeeeeeally paid attention to the sights and sounds of the campground we owned, too. I talked a lot to my own kids about living and working in one. I talked to my little campers about the things they liked most about going camping.

Trailer campsites
Tenting campsites
The crackle and glow of a campfire
Our campground office and store

Suddenly, it all came together! I had a problem, a plot, characters! All that first-hand, have-to-see-it-myself research paid off! It took me another year to write a first, sloppy-copy, very messy, first draft. But I’d done it!

Next came the rewriting. There were nine revisions in all, for Mystery on Pine Lake. I had friends read it every time I thought I was done, and they gave me feedback. Islandport Press, and my editor Melissa Kim, also gave tons of feedback. Carl DiRocco illustrated the cover and the inside. And here, dear reader, is a small sample of all that work . . . .

Join me in reading the very first chapter of Mystery on Pine Lake. I self-recorded this video in February 2019 for a school I was about to visit. I re-edited this week, to offer it to all of you. Before reading, I set the stage with a loon call. At the end, I tell you a little more about the inspiration behind the story.

Thank you all for listening! Enjoy!

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Barred Owls

There are 11 species of owls in Maine. Some make Maine their year round, some stay only for a season. I’ve seen three species while wandering lakes and trails, and even in my own backyard. They are the Barred Owl, the Snowy Owl and Great Horned Owls.

You can read about all the species by clicking here.

Today I want to talk about Barred Owls. These are the owls who call hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo-hoohoo-hoo-a-aw – and it sounds to us kind of like “Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks for-you-aaaaaall”. I mostly hear them at night, but during this time of the year, I begin to hear them in the daytime, too.

Our Maine Barred Owls build nests and lay their eggs in April, which is coming up very soon! Here is a Barred Owl bird cam in Zionsville, Indiana which you can watch right now! Three eggs have been laid! You can come back to the camera at any time to see how they are doing. With any luck, we’ll see owlets in a few weeks.

The Barred Owl above is using a nesting box, 30 feet in the air. There are cameras inside the box, and there are videos on the site of the adult leaving the box as well. Sometimes Barred Owls they take over old nests of other birds and squirrels, or they’ll nest in a hole in a tree.

Usually, when I have a Barred Owl sighting, it’s come to my backyard to stalk my bird feeders.

And when I say, “to stalk my bird feeder”, I mean it! Once, it sat right on top of it!

Barred Owls will eat small rodents like mice, chipmunks and squirrels, which is part of the reason they stalk my feeder. The small rodents come to eat seeds off the ground. But I won’t kid you, the owl is also here in hopes of stealing a small bird unlucky enough to cross its path.

Luckily, on this particular visit, all the other animals were smart enough to stay away. Maybe they heard the chickadees warning call:

chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee!

It wasn’t long before the Barred Owl moved on.

Sometimes, the Barred Owl keeps to the shadows of my backyard. They blend in so well with the woods. Their feathers camouflage it perfectly. Once, I only knew it was sitting on a branch nearby, because I heard the blue jays hollering and dive bombing its location.

Barred Owls will sit quietly and wait for their prey to pass by them.

I have two videos to share with you . . . the picture is a bit shaky, but it’s really, really hard to hold an extra long camera lens up over your head.

Have you seen any owls lately? Do you have a favorite kind of owl? What about them makes them your favorite?

Write me a note below! I’d love to hear your owl sighting story.

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Hummingbird Tracking

The hummingbirds are coming, the hummingbirds are coming!

Have you ever seen a Ruby-throated hummingbird? I’m fascinated by them, and I’ve spent hours in my Maine garden photographing them.

Watch until the end, where a second hummingbird appears in the distance.
This video has been slowed

Hovering silently, they glide up and down, left to right, like a helicopter. Their wings beat 53 times in a single second. Having great color vision, they search for red and orange flowers and will feed from 1000 to 2000 a day! They need to eat every 10 to 15 minutes! To help with this, I put out feeders each year with a specially homemade sugar water, like the feeder you see in the video above. I have to clean it and refill it every three days, but it’s worth it to be able to watch them coming and going.

They also eat insects, sometimes stealing them from spider’s webs.

Their nest is the size of a thimble, their eggs the size of jellybeans.

In the fall, they fly from New England to Central America or Mexico. Here at my house in Maine, I usually see them come back around May 1st or so. Sometimes, that’s before our bushes and flowers have bloomed, so I always try to find some hearty potted, flowering plants for them to feed on. And of course, I put out one of my hummingbird feeders.

Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird

I’m so looking forward to their arrival this year. And I was curious, since it’s such a mild winter, feeling like an early Spring, would they arrive sooner?

Here’s one way we can find out! Welcome to the 2020 Hummingbird Migration Tracker! Today, March 17th, the Ruby-throated hummingbirds have been sighted in Virginia. They are on their way!

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Wildlife While Kayaking

Whenever I kayak, I always hope I’ll see wildlife, but honestly just being on the water is enough for me. It’s so calming to float along, watching the shoreline and the clouds overhead.

Then there are the days where I’m paddling along, taking in all the sights, when I suddenly see something swimming in the water or walking across the shoreline. When that happens, I drop the paddle across my lap and lift the camera to my eye.

Oh my goodness! It’s a beaver!

I’ve seen beavers swimming, and heard them slap their tails, warning me away. But I’d never seen one out of the water with my own eyes. Normally they are nocturnal, doing their business at night. When I’ve come across beavers in the daytime, they’re shy, ducking under the water. I read that they can swim under water for up to 15 minutes! When they swim, their nose and ears shut to keep the water out.

This one though, gave me a quick look and kept on feeding.

Perhaps it was more relaxed because I came along just after sunrise. Or it had become used to people on our quiet lake. Or maybe, I was far enough away that it wasn’t worried. (I was using my 600mm lens to follow it.) Whatever the reason, I was able to watch it forage for twenty minutes. What fun!

The beaver slipped into the water to swim along the shoreline and I focused my camera on him, expecting to get the big tail slap warning.

Instead, it crawled out onto the banking, showing off its tail, and munching on shoreline foliage.

Eventually, it slipped back into the water to keep nibbling on the breakfast it had collected.

I had to look it up, and I found that beavers eat leaves, roots and bark from aspens, willows, maples and poplar trees. They also eat aquatic plants. 

I hope I come across him again some day. My experience documenting his diet habits, was fun!

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Juvenile Bald Eagles

Every now and then, I think back to our 27 year stay on Lower Range Pond in Poland, and of the eagles that were so easy for me to photograph due to their nesting right off our point.

Bald Eagle with newborn eaglet, May 2013

Alas, they haven’t nested the last two summers, so even when I do go back to visit, they aren’t as easy to find. I loved seeing those parents soar in with a meal for their chicks, or hear their calls. I miss documenting them, as they raised their young.

This last week, I’d waffled on whether or not to pull my kayak from our new lake to go over to Range Pond for a day. But Monday was so pretty right here, I decided not to roam. Paddling the perimeter, I captured photos of Red-winged Blackbirds calling –

Red-winged Blackbird

and Kingbirds swooping over the water for insects.

Kingbirds

I even saw a snapping turtle scurrying back into the water after laying its eggs. Returning to my own dock, I felt satisfied with my finds. I’m not sure what made me look up, but there overhead was this juvenile eaglet perched in the shadows of a pine.

Notice how it doesn’t have all white plumage on it’s head. I believe this puts it at 2 to 3 years old. Eagles don’t get their distinctive white head until they reach breeding age, between 3 and 4 years old.

I only managed a few quick, shaky photos before it flew across the lake. Still, what a find!

Tuesday morning dawned with the lake looking like glass, and it called to me again. This time, I was only minutes into my paddle when I saw the juvenile eagle fly from one tree to another on the other side of the lake.

Slowly, I paddled closer, and closer still, until my 500mm lens, zoomed out as far as it would go, could focus on it. I marveled at having seen this eagle two days in a row.

A crow called out as it flew over my kayak to land in the tree above the juvenile. It called several more times, almost like it was marking the eagle’s location. Other crows responded from all directions on the lake.

Suddenly, the juvenile eagle dropped from the shadows to take flight . . .

I snapped away, not having time to perfect my settings, hoping for the best.

Look at that wingspan!

It wasn’t until I’d gotten home and began editing both sets of photos that I realized these were two different juveniles! The first had a mostly white head. This one hasn’t gotten any of its white feathers yet, putting it at year old, maybe two.

Two paddles, two eagles, one lake Heaven!

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