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Rare Sightings of Wildlife Just Outside My Door

A skink! Bats! A snake! Tree frog! Last week was chockful of wildlife I’ve never seen “just outside my door” before.

I live in a suburban development, designed to be manicured and precise, structured by HOA rules. It was built in the ‘80s and even for a town home, I have a nice little yard, there’s open space, and the builder included a variety of trees. But 25 years later, the homes and associated plantings are getting older; some of us (including myself) have more “natural areas” in our yard (aka unkempt gardens); and some homes are in disarray or empty. We now have much more vegetation and natural spots in our little community. And it’s bringing more wildlife!

A skink!

I had never even seen a skink at any time until a few years ago. One day this week, I was sitting by at my front window and something caught my eye. It was crawling on the narrow concrete slab that serves as a porch. I watched it for awhile; went out to get a pic; but like other wildlife that dash off as soon as you reach for your camera, it skiddled away. I think it was this species:


Photo of Adult Common Five-lined Skink courtesy of Matt Sell / Maryland Department of Natural Resources website


Arriving home at dusk one evening, my next-door neighbor came out to warn me there were bats flying around. I said “Oh good!!” He said, “No oh good” and then he told me how bats get into your hair and one was aiming for him and he had to duck and swat the bat away. I explained to him all that is not true and that the bat was going for a mosquito and why bats are good to have around. He looked completely non-convinced and nowhere as excited as I was to have bats flying around our neighborhood. (I need to work on my “Bats are good!” elevator speech.) This is how my neighbor looked when describing the bats:


I did not see any bats that night. But next morning, sitting on my back deck before sunrise, I was lucky to get three sightings.

A snake!

While washing dishes in my kitchen, I heard a child outdoors shout “There’s a snake!” The mom asked where, and the child shouted it was along the edge of a fence (my fence of course). I didn’t get out there fast enough to see it myself. But there have been several postings on my community’s Facebook page of a wild snake making its rounds. No idea yet of what species it is; folks are either disgusted that a snake is in our neighborhood yet others, like me, are excited. I’m guessing it’s a common black ratsnake, like this:


Photo of Adult Eastern Ratsnake courtesy of John White / Maryland Department of Natural Resources website

A Tree Frog!

Oh, how I love frogs! I’ve heard some calls every so often at my house. And one year, I raised a few tadpoles. But that’s the extent of frogs at my house. But the other morning, I started to take out the recycling, and this little guy was on the lid of the recycling bin.

tree-frog_my-recyling-binI watched him for awhile, and checked on him throughout the morning, and then he hopped away.

A great week for “rare” wildlife just outside my door!

Counting Birds for Science in February

pic for GBBC

Mid-Atlantic February weather underscores why an annual citizen science bird count is named “Backyard”. This year was typical: a raw, blustery week-end with temperatures in the teens and wind chill hovering near zero. No one wants to stay outside for very long while standing in place observing birds. The wind bites at your face and the chill makes it way through your clothes – no matter how carefully you’ve dressed. Your fingertips hurt if you remove your gloves to take photos or adjust your binoculars. It’s certainly not conditions that encourage regular folks to take up the hobby and count birds outdoors.

On the other hand, watching birds from the warmth of our home, from windows and doors, or stepping out in our backyard for the suggested 15 minutes is do-able! It’s fun to take a few minutes carefully noticing who is visiting your little spot of nature, and more so if you have bird feeders and baths. Besides contributing data to research, one feels a bit inspired that Spring is on its way.

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is sponsored by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society to understand how bird populations are shifting. Worldwide, over 150,000 checklists were submitted this year.

I’ve participated in the project for several years. This year I watched birds from a new “backyard” – a native garden at a site where I work. I don’t know how the data compares to previous years at the same place. But I saw cardinals, nuthatches, titmouse, chickadees, downy woodpeckers, blue jays, and several unidentifiable-to-me sparrows.

These are all typical birds for February in my area, but it was nice to confirm they are still around!

Did you participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count?

Urban Light Pollution Can’t Stop View of 5 Planets At Once!

You can [theoretically] see five planets at once in the pre-dawn sky, now through February 20. It’s the first time since 2005, so it’s an exceptional event worth attempting to see.


photo from

I had my doubts that I’d actually experience the sight. Living in the congested mid-Atlantic region, along the East Coast, means we don’t have much of a dark sky. Light pollution tempers the darkness, resulting in a typically medium-gray night sky with domes of brighter, lighter gray along the horizon. I can usually see the Big Dipper, sometimes the belt of Orion in season, and the North Star, but only a handful of other stars – no more than say 30. A bright moon reflecting off our recent snowfall, and the sky is even less dark.

But this morning, standing just outside my front door, with a cloudless sky – all five planets (Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars) – were clearly visible! They were strung out like charms on a bracelet, along the elliptic curve. There they were! I was so delighted I wanted to shout out to my neighbors. (But didn’t, see it was only a little past 5am on a Sunday morning.) It was definitely a fun way to start the day. On the next clear night, I’ll grab my binoculars too and see what kind of closer view I can get.

For all of my “Nature Just Outside My Door” astronomical information, I rely heavily on EarthSky dot Org. They publish a daily newsletter of happenings and their website has clear explanations and graphics of what to look for and where. The organizations’ content has greatly enhanced my appreciation and knowledge of the sky just outside my door.

If you want to know more about the five planets being visible at one time, start on this page.

Try it! Get up early and take a look – were you able to see all five planets?

Succumbing to Hibernation

snowfallA blizzard hit our region this week-end, giving us over 30” of snow. It’s now four days after the storm, but plows have not touched the streets in our neighborhood. And so we have shoveled. And shoveled. And shoveled – enough to make access for emergency vehicles and those folks who really needed to get to work.

Many of us, including myself, could work from home. The storm was predicted well in advance; we had plenty of time to stock up and plan to be homebound for a few days. This is my sixth day of not going anywhere, except outdoors to shovel.

Surprisingly, I’m relishing this respite from busyness. It’s as if Mother Nature is sending a signal: Slow down! Rest up for the activities of summer when the days are long again! ’Nest’ at home with family!

Instead of struggling to get out and get on with my normal running around, I’m surrendering to these obstacles and staying put.

I found that I don’t need to head to the store for entertainment. I don’t have ‘cabin fever’. I’m enjoying working through the odds and ends in my freezer and pantry. I’ve had time to plan summer trip ideas rather than keeping up with the hustle and bustle of trying to get somewhere else.

I like hibernation.


Junco tracks on my front porch:junco tracks

Back to Blogging!

I’m back to blogging! Like other writers, life happens and our focus and energy shift to what we “need” to do and the activities we “want” to do get moved to the shadows of our daily life. I will continue to write about the Nature Just Outside My Door as I remain amazed by the amount of nature I can observe just from the little deck of my suburban townhome. And I still appreciate a certain level of wildness in the 40-acre local park where I walk several times a week. That park feels as much as a backyard to me as my own home.

But I also want to increase my naturalist knowledge. So I’m challenging myself to ID one thing a day. I’m on Twitter, and I’ll mark those tweets with the hashtag of #OneIDaDay.

Also, I love phenology and tracking the seasonal changes of favorite plants and birds. I want to get a bit more formal with recording observations, so a taste of that will end up in my blog too. My current attraction is paying attention to when the local osprey leave for the winter. They are still here.

In your time with nature, do you ever set specific learning goals for yourself or challenges? I’d love to hear about it!

Elusive Timberdoodles (Woodcocks) in Sub/urbia

1st of 2 woodcock adventures!

A nasal “peeent” is what we’re hoping to hear. A group of at-least-middle-aged adults are standing at the back of the county library parking lot. On a Sunday evening. At dusk. Staring away from the library building, but towards an empty field and a storm water management area.

library parking lot

started here

There are about 10 of us. A few are quiet, in concentration, focused on listening for that sound. Others, myself included, chatter with new acquaintances, giggling a little over the unlikely scenario we chose for the end of the week-end.

An email sent to members of the local bird club was the catalyst for our gathering. Someone thought they had heard a woodcock in this spot. Is any one interested in finding out? and several of us joined in.

The most common adjective I’ve heard for woodcocks is “elusive”: fleeting, evasive, temporary. Woodcocks are in my county only at a certain time of year (for mating), and only briefly. They need a particular habitat. And they’re generally only heard as dusk turns into night. So that pretty much crosses them off the list of birds I’m likely to see.

They’re on my list of “celebrity” birds because of their elusiveness and mating ritual – it is distinctive and elaborate. It begins with their nasally peenting call. The bird, on the ground, will turn in a circle while calling. Often it can sound like several birds, or you’re not sure which direction it’s coming from. The bird may peent a few times, or dozens of times. When it’s ready, it zooms up into the sky. Apparently, it circles and circles before zooming back down. He ends his flight often in the exact spot he took off from.

Learning woodcocks may be nearby, in an easily accessible location, was an opportunity not to turn up. So we stood there. And as the sky darkened we practically cheered when we distinctly heard the first “peent”. The bird was in a row of brush edging the field, a boundary for the manicured lawns of the houses nearby. A few more calls, and then the bird took off into the sky, and returned several seconds later, zooming right back to the spot he left. This went on sporadically for about 15 minutes and then the show was over. For several of us, it was our first woodcock observance. For the others, it was another page in the cycle of spring.

A Winter’s Evening Campfire

In honor of our latest snowfall, a post about a program I hosted a few weeks ago:


A December evening in the forest. It’s cold. And dark. But a blanket of snow covers the woodland landscape, creating magic. An almost-full moon pours bright light onto us. And flames from a campfire crackle, coals deep-red with heat, ready for the group to gather ‘round. The scene is idyllic and iconic. Yet real. Read more