Category Archives: Nests

Nested sets

Sandy Gilliam brought by this nest of a colony of bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata). The nest was attached to the wall of his barn.

bald faced hornet nest

Bald-faced hornets are well-known for the vigorous defense of their nests, a strategy that often follows the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive strike. Unlike honeybees, the female wasps can sting repeatedly without harm to themselves.

But this nest had no angry occupants. It was abandoned last year when the winter set in. This is part of the normal life cycle of the species: a solitary female starts a nest in the spring, builds a large colony through the summer, then the whole colony dies except for young queens who overwinter alone.

A glance at the nest’s entrance (located at the bottom tip of nest) shows that this is a special nest. Straw and feathers protrude. We can peek into the opening and see a tunnel of dry stems.

bald faced hornet nest inside from bottom

The nest was built against a wall, so it has no backing. Now that the nest is down we can easily see inside: another nest! House sparrows had climbed into the old insect nest, added some bedding of their own, then set up shop to breed.

bald faced hornet nest inside

This was a stroke of avian genius. No chipmunk or squirrel would be stupid enough to try to raid this nest. (In the tropics, some birds take this further, protecting themselves from raiding monkeys by nesting next to active wasp nests.) The nest also comes with its own insulation system. The hornets build multiple layers of cellulose around the core of their nest, allowing them to stay warm through the night and thereby start work earlier than most insects (see The Thermal Warriors by Bernd Heinrich for more on the the various ways that insects manipulate their thermal environments). The incubating mother bird no doubt benefited from the extra warmth.

bald faced hornet nest wall

The nest retained its old comb, revealing the hornets’ kinship with bees. Here are the hexagonal arrays again, but this time built from chewed wood, not wax.

bald faced hornet nest comb

bald faced hornet nest comb close

Entomological enthusiasts should note that although we call these insects “hornets,” they are more accurately called “wasps” or “yellowjacket wasps.” True hornets belong to the genus Vespa and have bulkier heads and abdomens than the more slender “yellowjacket” species (Dolichovespula and Vespula).

I’ll close with my thanks to Sandy for bringing this remarkable nest-in-a-nest to my attention.

Revival (no tent please)

Air from the Gulf of Mexico has come for a visit, bringing warmth, rain, and ever-changing clouds. I took this shot yesterday morning before walking into Shakerag Hollow.

As wet air hits the slopes, it gets pushed up and cooled, making low-hanging clouds that rise and fall slowly, dipping us into and out of the fog.

Mosses and lichens love this weather. No tree canopy interferes with their feeding (there is now more light on the ground than in mid-summer) and the gentle rains moisten, plump, and revive them.

They seem ignited, hungry for light. I could dive into their green: alive!

In the heavy rain, I briefly took shelter under a rock overhang.

Another species had done the same last summer. This is the old nest of a phoebe, tucked into the back wall. It is lined with dried moss, perhaps plucked from the same clumps of moss that I had been admiring in the forest.

I enjoy a brief soaking in warm rain (is this January?), but Junebug says that the raindrops hurt her eyeballs…


Solstice Quiz

The theological overlay has changed over the years, but the underlying principle is the same: Sun = Life. So, on this most life-affirming day of the year, Happy Solstice to you (11:30pm CST is the hour, for those who like some precision).

In celebration, let’s have a quiz. These photos are all from along the Elk River, taken earlier this week.

Who made these tracks in the sand (each print would nestle easily in the palm of your hand)?

The same animal, showing back and front feet:

How about this one (a bigger track, about human hand-print sized, or a little smaller)? Normally, this creature has a fourth toe, pointing backward, but this time the mystery track-maker must have been walking daintily.

Now, look up. Whose nest is this?

Answers: here, here, and here.

I’ll close this ramble with a shot of the dawn mist on the Elk. Around my feet was strewn the plastic detritus of Homo sapiens (fishing tackle, TVs, bags of household junk, oil cans — all the usual suspects, minus needles this time), but the place was still beautiful.

Snapping turtle eyes

This is the month for egg-laying turtles. A common snapping turtle was trying to dig herself a nest at the side of Lake Cheston yesterday.

Nest-digging snapping turtle

Snapping turtles usually scurry away at the first sign of an approaching human. But this one stayed still as I passed, giving me a look at her remarkable eyes.

Striped iris of a female snapping turtle

Egg-laying box turtle

Junebug (dog, not beetle) and I walked to Piney Point early this morning and found a box turtle laying eggs in the sand on the side of the trail.

Turtle, viewed from turtle-height. Note the brown eye (females are brown-eyed, males are red-eyed.)

She has dug a shallow pit in the dry, sandy soil. No eggs were visible yet. If this clutch is successful, the young will hatch out in two to three months.

Trail to Piney Point, Sewanee, TN

Looking across Shakerag Hollow from Piney Point

Ripening wild blueberries growing in cracks in the sandstone at Piney Point

White-eyed vireo nest

Sarah spotted this nest in the low shrubs near Lake Cheston. The bird has woven a pendulous nest using the V of two twigs as the supporting rim. This is a classic vireo design. Most other songbird species build their nests on top of twigs, not hanging below.

Hanging nest -- the whole thing is a little smaller than a fist.

Sure enough, the mother turns out to be a white-eyed vireo.

White-eyed vireo on her nest. She has a yellow eyebrow stripe and a white iris.