Wildlife Around the Yard

Chipping Sparrow (Juvenile)

Chipping Sparrow (Juvenile)

I live in a townhouse in suburbia, so my backyard is quite small. The front yard is even smaller since our driveway takes up half of the property, but I do have a large shrubby tree right outside my front window that attracts some interesting birds every once in a while (I have not gotten around to identifying said tree, though I’m sure many of my naturalist friends would know what it was if I sent them some photos and asked; it’s sort of fun leaving it as a mystery). The most recent addition to my “front tree” list – which includes Wilson’s, Yellow, and Yellow-rumped Warblers and a female Purple Finch – was a Red-eyed Vireo singing in the foliage last May. Lately, a pair of cardinals have taken to roosting in the tree at night. I’ve seen evidence of this in the form of bird droppings on the car every morning, and know it’s the cardinals because I hear their metallic chip notes outside my computer room window just after sunset and before sunrise most days.

Still, I don’t see a huge variety of wildlife, especially on a day-to-day basis. Chipmunks and Eastern Gray Squirrels are the only mammals I see regularly, followed by sporadic appearances by the local Eastern Cottontail rabbits. Cabbage White butterflies are the most frequent butterflies that visit the flowers in my backyard; the other species on my yard list are one- or two-time occurrences. Whenever something new or unusual shows up, I like to document it and take photos, if possible.

While I continually hope for a new bird at my feeder or butterfly feeding on my flowers, they are so few and far between that each new visitor comes as a surprise. I definitely wasn’t expecting the visitor that appeared in my front tree last Monday. While I was eating breakfast at my computer before leaving for work, I looked out and noticed that the squirrel’s nest in the tree just outside my window looked distinctly flattened. I thought that was kind of strange, but wasn’t unduly concerned as the squirrels haven’t used it since late winter/early spring. A few minutes later I noticed the tree shaking as though a sudden wind had come up. None of the other trees were moving, so I peered out to see what the source of the commotion was. To my great surprise I saw a large raccoon climbing the tree! It climbed up on top of the squirrel’s nest, made itself comfortable, and settled in for a nap.

Raccoon Napping

Raccoon Napping

Raccoon are mostly nocturnal, and sleep in trees or in dens during the day. I have never seen a raccoon napping in a tree before, so it was awesome to have one napping in my own front yard! I grabbed my camera and took some photos through the glass.

Raccoon Napping

Raccoon Napping

Raccoons don’t often visit my yard (to my knowledge) and when they do, I only know from the evidence they leave behind. On more than a few occasions when I’ve checked my backyard first thing in the morning for birds, I’ve found my bird feeder on the ground, completely empty and broken beyond hope. However, it’s been a while (at least a year) since the last time this has happened. I’ve seen raccoon tracks in new snow crossing the driveway, though no sign of the raccoon of itself. They are nocturnal creatures – and I’m most definitely not – so our paths rarely cross. Until last week. He was still in the tree when I left for work 20 minutes later, his tail visible from below. He wasn’t there when I returned home later that evening.

Raccoon

I got another surprise visitor yesterday. I was enjoying some time in the yard when I spotted a tiny blue butterfly dancing around the yellow flowers of the Birdsfoot-Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) growing in my lawn. (Author’s note – far from being a lush, pristine monoculture of velvety green grass that makes our neighbours weep with envy, we celebrate biodiversity by allowing numerous species of weeds to take root in our yard. And by “allow” I mean “repeatedly fail to eradicate”, which I am sure makes our neighbours wish we could go back to the days when we first moved in and dandelions were the only problem). The only blue gossamer-winged butterfly I’ve seen in my yard is the Spring Azure. It was far too late for any Spring Azures to be flying, and getting toward the end of the season of their look-alike sister species, the Summer Azure, so I took a closer look – and spotted a tiny orange patch on the hindwings and two tiny tails. It was an Eastern Tailed Blue, a new butterfly for my yard list.

Eastern Tailed Blue

Eastern Tailed Blue

I am not sure where it came from, as I can’t recall seeing any of these butterflies anywhere close to home. Still, it was a thrilling butterfly to see in my yard, especially since it has only become common in Ottawa in the past 20 years or so. Eastern Tailed Blues have at least three generations per season and are more abundant in the late summer when they sometimes fly into October. They are found in almost any open habitat with flowers, such as meadows, forest clearings, roadsides, disturbed areas, and weedy vacant lots. Look for them close to the ground – this butterfly tends to fly through weedy grasses and vegetation rather than above it, and prefers the nectar of open or short-tubed flowers which grow close to the ground. I tend to see them in disturbed areas with lots of “weedy” wildflowers, such as at Hurdman Park and the empty lot at Bill Mason Center. Caterpillars feed on a variety of plants in the pea family including White Clover, Red Clover, Cow Vetch, Alfalfa and Wild Pea.

Finally, I received yet another surprise today when I looked out the window and counted nine Chipping Sparrows at the feeder and on the fence – definitely the highest number I’ve seen to date. It appears the local birds have fledged their second brood, as I saw three adults, three heavily streaked juveniles, and three lightly streaked, brown-capped birds which I presume are the birds from the first brood. The offspring from the first brood now have faint streaking on their breasts and a relatively clean face and noticeable eyeline; in contrast, the second brood offspring look like brown streaky birds with little resemblance to their parents. In fact, if Chipping Sparrows weren’t the only small sparrows to visit my yard, and if I hadn’t seen the adults stuffing seeds into their mouths, I might not have been able to identify which type of sparrow I was watching.

Chipping Sparrow (Juvenile)

Chipping Sparrow (Juvenile)

Summer is one of the best times for wildlife-watching in my small yard because I get a wonderful variety of mammals, birds and insects. It’s not often I see a new species in my yard, and when I do, they often only appear once, but I get enough interesting new visitors to make me wonder what will show up next.

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