Category Archives: Nature

Strictly for the birds

Well, not really... But I have a job ahead of me taming this camera/lens OR I need to get a new one that's up to what I want to do with it. Out of 70 pics, this is the only one I kept because it's not a blurry mess.

Jay with a peanut
Lightly edited Jay and his peanut. I absolutely love the blue stripes on their wings.

I know bird photography is hard, but even then the sensor isn't up to it with the shutter speed and aperture on this thing. Cameras have evolved since *checks* 2007/8 when this camera came out, and the buyer at the time did not have bird photography in mind in the first place.

Things I can try before chucking it all out and saving up for a new one:

  • use a tripod (need to find the right screw to attach camera to tripod)
  • clean the windows (they're not that dirty, honestly)
  • not take pics through the kitchen window (the birds won't dare to come close enough for the 150mm zoom I have)
  • trying out different settings

That last one would require me to go through the manual, and we all know how we feel about that, don't we? 😅

Have you succeeded in taking pics of the birds visiting your garden, and can you share them? Drop a link in the comments! I'd love to check out your pictures!

Two sunflowers close up

Backyard Wildlife College closes its doors!

But Collegium “Vanachter in den Hof” receives a boost with additional human caretaker!

The wildflower strip at Backyard Wildlife College; our bees and other creepy crawlies enjoyed this a lot.

On June 30 Backyard Wildlife College in Allentown, PA, closed its doors forever — we’re unsure if any new tenants at the human dwelling have moved in and kept up with the wildlife improvements, or if the wildflower strip (aka the salad and protein bar) disappeared when management prepared the property for a new caretaker human. In any case, some of the infrastructure went to neighbouring backyards. You can now find Café Colibri at the human dwelling to the left, and the heated birdbath, squirrel picnic table, and feeding tube right next door to the original location. You don’t have to travel far, and we carefully checked that the humans are wildlife-friendly.

The human caretaker has permanently relocated to Belgium, and has taken up the position of assistant caretaker at Collegium Vanachter in den hof (VIDH) in Flanders, with a side-gig as Orchid Whisperer (more about this in a separate post).

Some portraits from the star performers in summer 2023 at Collegium Vanachter in den hof.

We look forward to learning how European wildlife delights the humans near their dwellings in the Old World. We already received reports of sightings of Erik Brown (Squirrel), and of Freddy Fox barking deep into the night. Owl hoot-offs are a nightly occurrence. Over the summer the mosquito aerial combat team prevented most outdoor human activity and we are curious to hear how both parties will negotiate a truce next summer.

At the moment, the caretakers are spoiling the Feathered Division rotten with this fab new addition to the infrastructure, and bespoke mixes of fat, insects, and nuts and seeds. They are setting themselves up for a real challenging Big Garden Birdwatch (Flemish edition) to count all the feathered visitors in late January.

Bird tube feeder mounted on a tray, and covered with a big L-shaped roof, sits on a small round table on a patio. Four birds are on the structure.
New infrastructure at Collegium VIDH is a hit with the Feathered faculty, staff and students!

PSA: For continuity we will continue using the category BackyardWildlifeCollege for all garden-related wildlife adventures even after this relocation.

Crickets 🦗

I know it's been awfully quiet on the blog but could Backyard Wildlife College PLEASE STOP SENDING literal crickets into my flat on a near-daily basis? Thank you!

Also, if you could not send singing crickets that chirp in the middle of the night, that would be grand.

I'd like to use the Westmalle beer glass for its intended purpose, not as a rescue dome for crickets and their massive antennae (not fully visible on this image). Maybe when I get a chance to finally have that beer, it will indicate I have time, and inspiration to write something here. I've been busy with work, putting a tenure file together, and just hiding from the world for a bit. No need to send in the crickets!

Mrs. Cricket waiting to be released outside. You can tell it's a Mrs. because of the ovipositor, the long end that sticks out at the back.

Press release: Dining Facilities reopen at Backyard Wildlife College

Backyard Wildlife College catering and housing services is pleased to announce we have the green light from the state Game Commission to reopen our all our dining and bathing facilities for feathered creatures! On Friday, August 13, restrictions on bird feeders and bird baths were lifted in Pennsylvania, where our small but cute campus is located.

We are excited to bring all feathered creatures our usual weekend spread of Supreme seeds, in the tube feeder by the backdoor and at the window feeders, as of this morning.

male House Finch and female American Goldfinch at a tube feeder
Mr. House Finch and Lady Goldfinch at the feeder, in the Birds' before Times (April 2021), sharing sunflower hearts and saffron seeds.

We are trying out a new location for the bird bath, closer to the human property but more sheltered from view than the parking lot. We know they will visit when the humans are not present. It will also prepare them for the winter set-up, when the heating goes on and the bath needs to be near an electric outlet.

We congratulate all birds on successfully navigating through these difficult weeks, a big feather in their cap! In early July, health and safety concerns for feathered faculty and students at the college forced our hand, with compulsory social distancing measures leading to the closure of the dining and bathing facilities for all feathered friends in multiple states. Although the exact cause of the mystery disease has not yet been identified, the R-number has decreased sufficiently, and it appears that feeders and baths play no role in transmission. We are grateful to all affected birds for their patience and cooperation during this unprecedented health emergency. We remain, of course, saddened by the loss of so many birds, and hope that scientists may soon find an answer to the questions that remain.

We also note that the press release from the Game Commission points to the good work done by the local communities of humans in responding to emergency and health situations among wildlife, and we couldn’t agree more. From contributing to pollinator pathways and providing service stops for migrating hummingbirds, to being peanut purveyors for squirrels and now responding to the mystery disease, many humans help the wildlife in their immediate environment. Now make sure to tell the humans to get their feeders and birdbath up and running again, because the birds are back!

For the eagle-eyed among you (though no eagles attend our college at the moment), we reassure you we are observing the recommended hygiene rules and cleaning tips for our facilities.

Stay alert, save lives:

All feathered creatures should remain on guard for the feral cat prowling the campus grounds, because it is a known bird hunter. Our groundskeeper/campus safety officer tries to keep it off campus, but unfortunately the open nature of our grounds makes that very difficult. Please use your alert calls to attract attention; campus safety will respond if on the premises. (Look, it’s a one-human part-time job, we do the best we can with the funds we have!)

Back from my jollies

I'm back from my little trip! Did you miss me? Of course you did!

It was a three night camping trip at Gifford Woods State Park in Vermont, followed by a visit to a friend in Brattleboro, where I was kindly allowed to stay the night, and then another visit to a friend in Hartford, CT, where I also spent the night.

Conditions were not optimal for the fair-weather campers among us. Fortunately, I am not one of them. But I do know my limits! The first night, a few hours after pitching my tent, darkness was approaching, and so was a massive storm. I tucked everything away inside my spiffy new tent (it comes with a rainfly, still under 1kg!) or in the car and zipped myself up for the night. But within minutes, the lightning was so close and continuous I wondered if I had mistakenly checked into a nightclub instead of a camping ground. I decided that I was pitched uncomfortably close to a tall tree and it would be far safer to be inside the car than inside the tent for the duration of this thunderstorm. Just twenty minutes later I could return to my tent, which had survived its first big storm without problem. Little did I know more trials were to follow...

After an uneventful night, accompanied by the endless pitter-patter of raindrops falling on the tent canvas, an early morning beckoned. I had a little stove and gas cannister, and a bialetti, so nothing stood between me and a cup of coffee!

cartoon image of a coffee mug. Text says: Instant human: just add coffee

Except I accidentally bought coffee beans instead of ground coffee when I shopped for camping groceries earlier in the weekend 🤦🏼‍♀️ Tea it was, until I I got into nearby Killington's little supermarket for some much needed ground-up black gold.

That afternoon, I went for a "walk by car" in the wider area, because the heavens opened up again, and tested my tent's waterproof claims once again. The tent is fab.

The inside of a tent, with rain drops on the outside of a translucent cover, and a small maple leaf stuck on the outside of the tent
A very familiar view before the end of my camping trip: the inside of the tent, the outside speckled with little raindrops

When I got back, I built a comfortable little nest and dove into my stack of books. I hoped that the rain would dispel the smoke from the Canadian wildfires that caused air pollution and covered the green hills with a greyish haze, but every day it came back.

On Wednesday, no rain! I tried to go for a short hike in the woods a bit further from the campsite. Map, compass, everything to navigate. The only thing I did not have was phone reception (generally not a problem). About a mile into the path, something brown and furry, but lower than an average coffee table, turned around on the path in front of me and ran off. I couldn't quite see what it was, but we had been told there are bears in the state park and the State Forest it's attached to. Was this a (black) bear cub? Highly unlikely, especially at that size for the time of year. But then I am not familiar with bears, I only caught a glimpse of the furry thing, and IF (admittedly a big if) it was a cub, a mama bear would be around.

A landscape, depicting a river with rocks and boulders, surrounded on both banks by lush green trees
Bear-free picture, but not entirely bear-free woods.

However unlikely that scenario was, I'd rather not run into that while out on my own without connectivity to the rest of humanity, so I turned back, and explored the area around the camping site instead. I was told by people who know what they're doing Vermont-wise that this was the right decision.

Because of the rain, Vermont is not only the Green Mountain State, but also full of mushrooms:

(If anybody can help to identify these various fungi/mushroom things, please drop a note in the comments! Click on the pictures to see the larger view.)

There was also a pond nearby for fishing. Looks like it would be great for downhill waterskiing if only they'd allow it:

Panorama stretch picture of a body of water, but with a mistake in the rendering, so the water flows uphill
Oops. Something went wrong with the Panorama function on my phone!

Overall, despite the rain and the near encounter of the furry kind, I had a great time. I do enjoy being out in the quiet of the woods, even when the weather isn't that great (minus thunder and lightning). So I already booked another weekend away here in PA, to make sure I get my dose of vitamin O(utdoor), and to make sure the tent feels loved. How are you recharging your batteries?

Landscape of green meadows framed by trees, in the distance green wooded hills. In the center a horse is grazing.
Green "mountains" of Vermont
Big wooden barn, against a dramatic sky
Barn on a farm on a small road off VT-100

Not much to report, so let’s look at the garden!

For those of you worrying about my family when you saw the news of the floods in Belgium and Germany, they're in a different part of the country. It's been wet everywhere, but no flooding for them, thankfully. The images I've seen from the affected areas have left me speechless.

It's been one of those weeks with ups and downs for me (fortunately mainly ups), but none of it is suitable for publication on the blog – maybe you'll get to hear some of it later. That means I haven't got much to write about, so here are a few flowers from my wildflower strip:

Pink poppy with multiple layers of petals
Pink poppy
close-up of the flowers of Evening Primrose, a yellow flower with four petals.
Common Evening Primrose, beloved by the bumble bees and occasionally visited by Hummie
Safflower (yellow and orange "thistles"), poppy, cornflower, and ? a Black-eyed Susan that's been nibbled on? or is it a transmogrified coneflower? with some others I don't know the names for!

They are teeming with insect life; when I watered them a few hours later than usual the other day (I prefer early mornings), clouds of small flying creepy crawlies lifted off, annoyed by the unexpected shower. It sure is a nice micro-habitat!

What's growing in your garden?

Have a great week! I hope to have something more substantial to share next week.

News update: Backyard Wildlife College Responds to Mysterious Bird Disease

(Backyard Wildlife College, Allentown PA, est. 2017)

“More than just fluffy bunnies”

Male Gold Finch at a bird feeder, looking over his shoulder
Rocco the Gold Finch in happier times at his local: the tube feeder was the hub of social life for the Feathered Creatures Division.

A mysterious and fatal bird disease is spreading among song birds in the eastern US, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission has recommended all feathered creatures observe social distancing and extra hygiene measures.

Backyard Wildlife College in response ceased dining operations for our feathered faculty, staff and students at all feeders, with exception of Cafe Colibri. (Only Mrs. Ruby-Throated uses this facility and so far, no reports have shown her species to be affected.)

At this moment, there are no known cases or fatalities on Backyard Wildlife College’s grounds of this mysterious disease, but we are treating this situation with the utmost seriousness. Birds afflicted by this disease often have “eye swelling and crusty discharge”; other symptoms can include breathing trouble, blood from the mouth, and weakness and neurological issues. Most birds sadly die. Please report any cases (dead or alive) on this form from UPenn, as the human scientists are trying to get to the root of this.

The groundskeeper has immediately taken the following actions: the window feeders and the squirrel-proof tube by the backdoor of the human dwelling have been taken down and washed in a 10% bleach solution (as recommended). The bird bath has been removed, and similarly sanitized before storage. The Organic Protein Bar on the west side of the human dwelling, also known as the expanded wildflower strip, remains open for foraging to all creatures. No agreement has been reached with the Creepy Crawly Division now housed there, but they have been made aware of the situation and reminded of their position in the feeding chain. Our groundskeeper follows the situation carefully and will reopen the dining facilities as soon as the situation is deemed safe again.

Grass remains available at will for rabbits and groundhog, and peanuts can be requested by squirrels.

We realize this is a big blow to the community, as our dining facilities were the hub of the local social wildlife, where House and Gold Finches, Chickadees, Juncos, Sparrows, Cardinals, Mourning Doves, Robins, and the odd Grackle, Catbird, and Cowbird and many more congregated. We hope together (though not physically together) we can stop the spread of this pernicious disease.

However, we have only in the past 16 months seen how a deadly virus ravaged through the human community, and we must try to learn some lessons from that event. We hope that by acting before it’s too late, using a data-driven approach, and erring on the side of caution, we can soon resume our previous convivial chats over sunflower hearts in safety.

Whatever you do as a feathered creature, don’t make our editor create the bird-version of this meme. Remember, we’re better than humans. And usually cuter too.

three cats look out of window, first cat says: "so if everyone isolates and keeps clean and follows instructions everything will be ok?" Wise-looking cat in the middle says "Yes, the future of the planet depends on the intelligence of the human race" Small tuxedo cat on the right with worried expression thinks "We're fucked"
Our groundskeeper was rather fond of this meme...

Be safe, be well, keep your distance. (And if you're human: get vaccinated when you can & wash your hands!)

Backyard Wildlife College Newsletter 3/4:1 (2020-2021)*

“More than just fluffy bunnies”

(Backyard Wildlife College, Allentown PA, est. 2017)

* If you think this is a weird way of dealing with volume/year, wait till you see European sinology journals. Just sayin’.

Greetings, friends and sympathizers of the coolest little unofficial nature corner on the interwebs! It’s been a while, but we won’t even apologize for the silence last year in publishing our newsletter. This is what happens when a pandemic knocks sixteen months out of the collective memory of the the human world (including for our editor and groundskeeper).

Feathered and Furry Division infrastructure improvements:

Jumping right in with the state of affairs in summer 2021, we are pleased to announce massive improvements in our infrastructure since we last wrote, and in particular dining facilities, courtesy of some investment accounts coming to fruition, and one donation from admirers of the college. Thank you, Mr. & Dr. A!

squirrel-sized picnic bench with a jar of peanuts on top, placed indoor on a brown carpet.
Handcrafted and donated by Mr. A & Dr. A.

The squirrels have enjoyed the extra winter provisions, and went straight into training for the Tokyo Olympics.

They are very disappointed to hear they were not allowed to compete in the gymnastics because it’s for humans only. Nonsense, as you can tell from the following photo: our athletes are extremely talented and dedicated, even combining mealtimes with training sessions!

Squirrel hangs upside down from a metal ring shaped like a spiral, which contains peanuts. The squirrel is eating a peanut. There is snow on the ground, but the sun shines.
Training continues during mealtimes.

The heated birdbath was a hit with small furry and feathered creatures alike during the snowy month of February. Said one faculty member of the feathered division: “Yes, there was snow, but really: my stomach isn’t a micro-wave! This water at drinking temperature is much, much better.” The groundskeeper decided to keep the birdbath in summer at ground level, to provide access for the smaller furry creatures, who make great use of the extra hydration station. Two nearby birdbaths at height continue to provide comfortable bathing facilities for the feathered faculty during the summer months.

Heated bird bath: yes, it works!

Creepy Crawly Division infrastructure improvements:

We have expanded our wildflower strip at the back of the human dwelling from 2020, and this season it includes a few feet along the side of the dwelling. As some of you may know, we have a public-private partnership (PPP) with a mowing crew for the lawn, and we do not have the power to change this. After an unfortunate weed-wacker incident, which set back the start of the growing season by a few weeks, our groundskeeper has successfully clarified the boundaries with the crew, and the wildflowers are bursting into bloom! We are very excited to welcome our usual array of bumblebees, honeybees, various solo bees, hover-flies and many, many small but fine Creepy Crawly faculty and students to explore the area with abandon.

Special Summer Guest!

No summer newsletter would be complete without an update of our special summer guest: Mrs. Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Hummie for the friends), our annual visitor who teaches the Colibri Course.

And why would she go elsewhere? We have everything a hummingbird could desire: world-class nectar, made from the purest sugar and distilled water in perfect proportions, served in glass feeders, replaced at regular intervals and now also kept ant-free; and clothes line to perch on for preening sessions, or when taking a break from hunting flies over the compost bin. As Hummie put in her review: “Four stars, would recommend to a friend if I weren’t so territorial.”

The only thing we’d like to add but don’t know how, is teeny-tiny humming-bird-sized towels for when the rain pours down. But she knows where to take shelter:

Somebody give Hummie a towel! If you look very carefully, you can occasionally see her long tongue in this video.

We hope you enjoyed this update, and aim to bring you more news soon of our summer residents here at Backyard Wildlife College!

Don't forget to subscribe to get email alerts for new posts (incl. of all the things are human groundskeeper gets up to), and share in the comments how your Backyard Wildlife College is doing!

Ant Moat: Activated

Last year I got an extra feeder for Hummie the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. I hoped to attract more of these flying miracles, but it turns out I am blessed with just the one, who became a fast friend during the summer of 2020, when I tried to keep my distance from humans. (She's back this summer. More in future posts.)

A female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird perches on the feeder, against a blue sky. Sunlight filters through the tips of her folded wings, and through the glass of the feeder.
Hummie resting at the feeder, summer 2020.

But not only Hummie likes my high quality nectar: the local ants and the odd wasp are also big fans of it. What can I say? Only the finest ingredients for my special summer guest! 4 parts distilled water to 1 part superfine crystalized white sugar, and making sure the feeder nor the sauce pan I use have any trace of soap on them make for highly desirable nectar.

The ants have no sense of self-preservation, and intoxicated by the sugar they’d climb inside the feeder, and died a sugary death. I can only hope that they were high and happy as they transpired. Not only is it sad for the ants, but it’s also a problem for the hummingbird: the dead ants carry fungi on them, which then breed in the nectar because it hangs in the sun, and it’s not sugary enough to be a preservative. If you don’t clean the feeder quickly enough, the hummingbirds can catch diseases and die.1 <-- New! "Footnotes", click to reveal!

I tried very briefly with a strip of tape, sticky side out, around the posts that the ants use to climb to the feeders. That would work: they were smart enough not to tread on it. But Hummie is about as tall as the strip of tape (2 inches) and I was worried she might accidentally get stuck. I quickly removed the tape.

Fortunately there is an “ant moat” built into the feeder, that with a little bit of attention from me will stop them from getting to the port holes. The basic idea is that the ants march along the hook down to center at the top of the feeder, but then encounter the water that surrounds the hook. They can’t make it to the rim, and because they don’t swim they have to turn back. 

Last year, the location of my feeders meant the ants could by-pass the moat, and once one found the way in, they all followed suit.

close-up of a hummingbird feeder hanging on a hook, but with part of the feeder touching on an ornament that allows the ants to bypass the hook from which the feeder hangs
The ant by-pass for the hummingbird feeder (red arrow)

This year, I’ve been a bit more organized and have activated the ant-moats. All it took was a piece of string, and tying a knot or two. I’m no sailor so my knots leave a bit to be desired, but as long as I keep the water levels topped up at the crown of the feeder, ants will be saved from drowning, the feeder will be cleaner for longer, and Hummie will enjoy ant-free nectar. I imagine the ants stomping their little feet in frustration as they march back to the ant colony, possibly throwing in a choice swear word here or there now they’re deprived of an easy source of food.

Now I just have to add “monitor the moats” to my daily morning routine.

More news from the adventures at Backyard Wildlife College coming soon!

  1. You need to clean feeders regularly anyway: hummingbirds also introduce micro-organisms in the feeders, but dead ants make it go off faster. And it’s not appetizing to look at.

Urgent message to all members of Backyard Wildlife College!

BWC Campus Safety urges all members of the college to stay well away from the human dwelling #1. In particular members of InInEx (Intrepid Indoor Explorer Club) should evacuate immediately and cancel all plans for new indoor expeditions. (Please note, InInEx is not endorsed by the College because it would hike up our health and life insurance group rates beyond belief, but we still care about your safety.)

All signs of activity point to a late but viciously deep spring clean happening this weekend. Based on previous years' patterns, we thought we had escaped lightly from this year's Great Indoor Destruction season, but based on ongoing observations, it appears to have been simply delayed for no apparent reason. (We do not think there is any connection with the Great Sickness, but our scientists are still working on understanding what it does to humans in-home behaviour. Apparently it's complicated.)

We are also still working through the latest intelligence to set up the habitual summer time-share we have with the human in #1, but there is currently no evidence we'll get the place to ourselves anytime soon: no suitcases have been brought out of storage, and there are periodic mumblings about delayed visa paperwork. We will keep you up to date.

Until then, please practice caution when approaching #1 dwelling, and stay away from The Thing!!

Hoover/vacuum cleaner, Dyson ball - bottom part with carpet-brush.
The Thing, cause of many an arachnid's untimely end, and feared by all Creepy Crawlies.