Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Chickadee Gate Revisited

This is the gate where Black-capped Chickadees and other birds assemble
With the recent heavy snow fall, the bird feeding stations at the nature preserve have been astoundingly busy. Snow cover usually has this effect, but the general lack of food in the wild this year has made the birds much more desperate than usual. Also, the light icing that fell subsequently, has made what little food there is difficult to get at. This period of hardship has made me and my bags of bird seed very popular with the 1,000s of winter resident seed eaters.
An American Tree Sparrow usually prefers to get its seed on the ground
Many of these birds follow me around and/or monitor my progress as I move from place to place around the preserve. Many just wait for me to arrive at their prospective winter territories. It doesn’t matter what time I arrive, I always get the distinct impression that the birds think that I’m later than I should be.
A Black-capped Chickadee gets its turn on top of one of the posts
At the Chickadee Gate, at least 50 birds await my arrival each morning. In fact as soon as they see me coming up the trail –even when I’m still quite far off, they start checking the tops of the gate’s wooden posts and the hanging tube feeder to see if any seed has magically appeared there yet.  They don’t seem to understand that I have to actually get there first, before the food becomes available.
A Downy Woodpecker stores a seed in the crevice of a Buckthorn Tree
Once the seed is in place, there will be a long procession of birds landing on the fence posts and then flying off with individual sunflower seeds. For the most part, it’s just one bird at a time. When 2 birds arrive at the same time, a squabble is likely to occur. If they are both Chickadees, then the one at the top of the pecking order will usually be differed to. But if the birds that arrive simultaneously are of different species, then most often, the one with the largest bill, or the biggest attitude will get first dibs.
One of many Cardinals that visit the gate area
At some point a Cardinal will rather timidly make its way onto one of the fence posts. But once there, it will remain in place and effectively hold the territory from other birds –all the while eating at its leisure. Cardinals are unexpectedly quarrelsome birds. They squabble with each other regularly even while keeping close company in their winter foraging flocks.
The unmistakable male Red-bellied Woodpecker takes his turn
On top of the fence post the Cardinal is soon displaced by a male Red-bellied Woodpecker. The woodpecker is most fond of the peanuts contained in the seed mix. When he gets one, he either eats it right away, or flies off with it. After a few moments I might hear him pounding it into a nook in one of the nearby dead trees. If he doesn’t forget where he cached it, and if it doesn't get pilfered by another bird, he’ll be able to come back for it later, when the feeders are empty.
The male White-breasted Nuthatch will take one seed and then leave
Like the Cardinal, the Red-bellied Woodpecker is also a bit of a feeder hog. Instead of taking a single seed and leaving, he might just decide to hold the territory and continue feeding for a while. Few birds would hazard that sword-like bill of his, and he’s certainly not bothered by the queue of small birds waiting in the bush. He is only spurred to move on by the arrival of the Blue Jays. The jays blast into the feeding area with a roar, or more accurately, with a shriek. Often their shrill call is a fairly convincing impersonation of a hawk. This nearly always causes the gathered songbirds to scatter, or to at least cede the feeders to the brash newcomers.
The Crows perch high in the Cottonwood tree and wait for me to leave
A Blue Jay lands on the fence post and begins sifting the seed mix for her favorites. None of the peanuts or sunflower hearts will be eaten here though; instead, the choice morsels will be stored in the bird’s crop –or throat pouch. Once her crop is filled, the jay will go off to somewhere more secluded to feed or to cache the food.
Ice covered branches in the reforestation fields
The last comers to the feeder are the Crows. They patiently wait their turn in the branches of the large Cottonwood Tree above the gate. No little birds –not even the jays could dissuade the crows from doing whatever they want at the feeders. No, it’s me that is keeping them away –though not actively. However, as soon as I vacate the area, the crows descent and there they will remain until every last perceptible seed is gone.
Slightly iced and frosted leaves of a Swamp White Oak
The icing on the trees at Spring Farm is really beautiful, especially now that there is light snow covering on top of it.

Spring Farm's 3 windmills surrounded by iced trees

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Civilization Silence

In our modern world, absolute human silence is among the rarest of commodities. For thousands of centuries our nature preserve– or more precisely, what would become our nature preserve, was devoid of all noise pollution caused by the machinery of civilization.  There was of course still sound; yes, trees falling in the forest would've been heard by a multitude of non-human ears. There were sounds created by water (including glaciers), wind, thunder, wild animals and other natural phenomenon. But incessant noise from vehicles, airplanes, motorized equipment and firearms was not an issue until the relatively recent past. 
The Northern Cardinal is commonly encountered in our winter woods
We've become habituated to many of these sounds, so much so, that most of the time, we don’t even notice them, even as they are churning away all around us. People usually look surprised when I tell them that there are airplanes flying overhead nearly all of the time. I only know this because I sometimes try to record bird songs, and it’s rare that I’m able to record an entire 2 minutes without a jet plane interjecting an unhelpful sustained note. Motor Vehicles are the most pervasive noise makers, and even on Sunday, traffic sounds are always with us. Even at the nature preserve where it’s possible to get more than 2 hundred acres back into the wilderness, noise from loud trucks can still penetrate. In fact there is no wilderness area that I know of in Central New York where it’s possible to get to a true state of civilization silence.
White-tailed Deer
There is no time of day, or day of the week, that is completely free of noise, but the very early morning is distinctly better than other times of the day. Early Sunday morning is perhaps the best – for the obvious reason that most people have that day off. Holidays that fall on Sundays are even better – particularly when that holiday is Christmas (only because this is the holiday that the most people tend to have off.) A Sunday Christmas morning – shortly after dawn, may in fact be the quietest (post sunrise) time of the entire year. So last year, on Christmas morning, I took full advantage of the quiet and toured the Sanctuary to hear what the typically drowned out set was doing.
One of our friendly Black-capped Chickadees takes a seed from my hand
The silence was absolutely golden, and was initially broken only by my own footfalls on the frozen ground. Soon it was also broken by the animals that I was most interested in hearing. The honking of migratory Canada Geese as they traversed the sky was, for a short time, the most prominent sound. More subtle was the distinctive hissing sound that each goose’s wings made as they cut through the cold air. A couple of Gray Squirrels issued harsh, creaking alarm calls from the top of a dead Elm Tree – perhaps betraying the presence of an unseen predatory hawk. A flock of over-wintering Robins conversed with each other in muffled tones as they fed on wild grapes.  A few were issuing volleys of sharp alarm calls, which sounded like “tut-tut-tut”, but some also sang short musical phrases that were reminiscent of their springtime caroling.
With temperatures near the freezing point, several species of spider remained active

In the forest, mixed flocks of winter resident songbirds like Chickadees, Titmice and Nuthatches were all giving their own respective call notes as they forged among frosted branches. A crisp flapping sound issued as each bird moved from perch to perch. On top of it all, the Golden-crowned Kinglet emitted high-pitched, “pssssst” calls, as if they were keen to divulge some secret to their feathered fellow travelers.

As I proceeded up the trail, one of the streams began to be heard. The water introduced a constant rushing sound, which became more articulate as I got closer to it; I could hear the water describing its rocky course –trickling over rough stones in the shallows and pouring between boulders.  A female deer with her 2 offspring from the previous spring galloped by me – I noted the sound of their hoofs rhythmically beating the frozen path, and then when they diverted into the brush –the sound of one after the other thrashing through tightly knit branches. Dozens of Crows were heard “cawing” in different sectors around the preserve’s woodlands. A particularly shrill group of them were likely harassing some kind of predator –most likely a Red-tailed Hawk or a Great Horned Owl, but it could have been a coyote.
The Stone fly is one of very few species of insects active in winter

Most of these creatures, including the subtle kinglets, would've been heard on any other day. But when the competition from human noise is removed, the animals and their environment could at last comprise the entire orchestra. On a normal morning, this fine orchestra must compete with a brash garage band made up of snow blowers, chainsaws and the like.
The beaver pond is iced over except for the area right before the dam
Of course, even the Christmas silence ends too quickly, as town residents begin their days traveling and the motor noises steadily increase. Even Spring Farm contributes to the noise since barn animals require care no matter what calendar day it is, and that care necessitates the use of a tractor.
The female Northern Cardinal
Each Christmas – believe it or not, some of our rural neighbors receive firearms for Christmas presents and they are anxious to go outside to try them out. Apparently, for them, nothing connotes the sentiments of peace on Earth and goodwill towards men more than a few rounds squeezed off into the winter wonderland.

So the next Sunday/Christmas convergence won’t happen until 2016; and when it does hopefully, some of you will know how to celebrate it – take an early morning walk into the wilderness and let your ears feast on the sounds of nature.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Muskrat Moochers

At Secret Pond, the beaver colony has stored an impressive pile of branches to serve as their winter food supply. This food cache would also appear to be sustaining a large family of muskrats. Though I’m sure that it doesn't constitute their entire diet, just about every time I visit the pond, I see one or several muskrats making away with some of the beavers choice cuttings.  Muskrats are far smaller than beavers –they only weigh 1 to 4 pounds on average, while beavers range from 25 to 65 lbs. Still, when you have at least 8 muskrats, consistently helping themselves to a single food cache, it makes a difference.  To compensate for this, the beavers have to do extra work, which means more trips over land to find more trees to cut and bring back.
A young muskrat helps itself to the beaver's stored branches
In most areas where muskrats live, there tends to be lots of aquatic vegetation for them to eat. The species is very closely associated with cattails, which they utilize both as food and as a primary building material for their lodges. However, in upland areas like ours, where cattails are scarce, muskrats have to rely on different foods like tree bark –and this puts them into direct competition with beavers.
Muskrats propel themselves largely with their whip-like flat-sided tail
The muskrat's back feet are only partially webbed 
The reaction of the beavers to the muskrats is interesting. They rarely lash out at them or try to chase out of their territory. The closest they come to this is when a muskrat is literally trying to steal something right from a beaver’s mouth. When that happens, the beaver will give a nasal whine and maybe execute a downward slap with its front feet. The quick and maneuverable little muskrats can easily avoid being scolded –and often enough, they are able to make off with a bit of stolen food.
One youngster grooms its sibling's back
Lately, when I bring apples down to the pond for the beavers, I can be sure that the muskrats will get most of them. It’s obvious to me that the muskrat’s sense of smell –at least when it comes to detecting apples, seems to be much keener than that of the beavers. Muskrats can zero-in on an apple piece in seconds, while in comparison, the beavers fumble around almost blindly –often missing a chunk floating right next to them in the water. Muskrats move in quickly, and they regularly out-maneuver the beavers in getting to the fruit.  Also, the muskrats anticipate my trips to the pond, and all 6 young ones will often swarm around in the water in front of me, waiting for me to throw something in. The beavers on the other hand, may or may not show up at all. They love apples, but they live by their own schedules, which are generally unpredictable and not so much influenced by the promise of snacks.
The kits start to gather on shore
In cattail marshes, muskrat houses are easy to see. They are 2 to 4 foot high mounds of mud and reeds, which rise from the marsh beds. However, in our area, where there are few cattails to work with, the muskrats inhabit beaver lodges. They don’t live inside the main chamber where the beavers are; instead, they have their own little apartments, usually located off of one of the lodge’s auxiliary entrances. I've seen muskrats bring bedding materials –mostly grasses and sedges into these apartments. And I've seen their young kits huddled in the entrance way, waiting anxiously for their parents to return with food.
"Patches" a white-sided muskrat, adds sticks to the beaver lodge "apartment" 
Some literature states that muskrats will not build lodges with sticks the way that beavers do, but I remember watching one particular muskrat do something similar. This individual –named Patches, was seen adding sticks and mud onto the roof over the part of the beaver lodge that she was living in. You’d think that this would be a job for the landlord to do, but I guess that the muskrats don’t really pay rent –do they.

I often talk about how the beavers are habitat creators and how their work creating ponds benefits so many other animals –from Kingfishers and mink to Wood Ducks and turtles. Still, I don’t think that any creature benefits from the beaver’s good work quite as much as the muskrats. They get a pond, regular food deliveries and a home. Now that’s a pretty sweet deal for the muskrats.
Muskrat kits wait at the lodge entrance for their mother to return with food

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Golden-crowned Kinglet in Winter - also the Night-time Roosts of Some Winter Residents

The tiny Golden-crowned Kinglet - one of our winter resident birds

Currently at the nature preserve, we are down to just the winter hearty birds. These are the species that are best adapted to survive our potentially harsh winter weather. One look at a Black-capped Chickadee or a Golden-crowned Kinglet and you wouldn’t think that they were tough enough to handle winter, but in fact, they’re about as tough as birds can be. They can put up with extremely low temperatures as well as months of sleet, snow and driving winds.
The Black-capped Chickadee is an extermely hearty bird
The body temperature maintained by these tiny songbirds is actually warmer than our own. They have a high metabolism and require a great amount of calories in order to maintain that heat and their active lifestyles. Also, their insulating feathers are amazingly efficient at retaining body heat.
The White-breasted Nuthatch, like the chickadee, eats seeds as well as insect prey
A Golden-crowned Kinglet, which is barely larger than a hummingbird and weighs about as much as 2 pennies, must eat around 3 times their own body weight each wintery day. This means constantly foraging for dormant insects –primarily, tiny inch-worms. Their bills are like small tweezers which are designed to pick up creatures that are almost too small for us to see.
The kinglet is a strict carnivore and must constantly forage for insects
The chickadees are probably the easiest birds to find in the winter woods; they are boisterous and noisy. They hang out in family groups of 5 to 10 –sometimes more. Often they travel around with an entourage of other bird species. Fellow travelers will often include titmice, woodpeckers, nuthatches, creepers and the Golden-crowned Kinglet.
The well camouflaged  Brown Creeper is another seldom seen winter resident
Usually keeping in mid-tree levels, the kinglets are not as gregarious as the chickadees, and so they are often missed by casual observers. The tiny kinglets nervously flit from branch to branch –seldom stopping for more than a second –and rarely ever perching during the day. They emit very high trilled notes which are often given in 3s. These whisper-like calls make it sound like they are about to impart some secret –“pssst ….pssst ….pssst” (The secret is that the kinglets are nearby.) These fairly distinctive notes and can only be mistaken for the single high note of the Brown Creeper, which is often a fellow forager in the chickadee’s mixed flock.
When excited, the Golden-crowned Kinglet will flash his bright orange crown feathers
Perhaps at night these birds take refuge from the cold in tree cavities. I’m not sure if anyone knows this for sure. I have seen some winter resident birds taking refuge from the cold in woodpecker holes and bird houses, but not the kinglet. Recently, a Downy Woodpecker has been using one of our Bluebird Boxes as his nighttime roost.  The bird house is located pretty close to one of our feeding stations –so breakfast is close at hand for that little guy.
A Downy Woodpecker peaks out of her winter roosting box
I suspect that most of these winter birds will spend the night perched on a secluded branch somewhere where they are partially protected from the elements. If they did all spend the night in tree cavities, I would think that we’d see them flying out of these places in the early morning hours more than we actually do.
Cedar Waxwings are also winter residents 
I remember one night, coming upon a small group of Cedar Waxings perched on the branch of a maple tree. All were apparently fast asleep. I marked the spot and returned to watch them as dawn approached. Sure enough at the very first break of light, the birds woke up and flew away into the dark morning.
Every winter some Robins will remain at the nature preserve - they feed on berries and crab apples
Some literature sites that birds, even of different species, will sometimes share night-time roosting holes, where they presumably benefit from each other’s body heat. Perhaps they even share sentinel duties. As I shared in my last post, tree cavities and bird houses are not always safe from predators. One recent inspection of a bird house indicated that a roosting Bluebird was nabbed from the house and consumed right there on the roof. All that was left were some blue feathers. The culprit was probably an ermine that had been recently seen hunting nearby.  

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Crazy Mink Antics at the Nature Preserve

Last January a female mink at one of the beaver ponds put on a pretty interesting show. She seemed to be staking a territorial claim on the pond and its ice fishing rights. It's quite possibly that she was also calling dibs on an uninhabited beaver lodge (well, it was uninhabited by beavers). I had been observing this particular mink for several weeks –as her visits to Sarah's Pond seemed to coincide with my own. Usually, she'd be busy fishing; diving down into a gap in the ice next to one of the flooded out buckthorn trees. Her method was to  stand on a broken off snag while staring intently at the hole in the ice. Without warning she'd plunge into the dark icy water. A minute later she would emerge from the same hole or from one nearby, shake herself off and the return to watching the water. Perhaps one out of every 4 times, she would come back up with a minnow.

The mink will continue to fish through the winter as long as there is a hole in the ice
None of that is particularly novel behavior. What was novel was her means of patrolling her claim. She would run around the perimeter of the pond again and again, diverting course to chase off any intruders. The poor muskrats seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I watched her pursed one over ice and then through the water. She wasn't trying to actually catch it; her effort was more to scare off what she perceived as competition. Sure enough after a few days of this stepped-up patrolling, the muskrats moved to another pond, and all of their fishing rights were inherited by the mink.
Dashing over the ice on the beaver pond
A few weeks ago, I watched a different mink engaging in the same behavior –dashing repeatedly around an ice covered pond and harassing muskrats. A few times while running her circuit she encountered me. Each time, she stopped dead in her tracks, peered at me with intense beady eyes and then dashed off again -resuming her circuit.
The Mink runs on the ice pursuing a swimming muskrat 
This mink didn't continue to lay claim to the pond and by the next day all the muskrats were back to their normal business. I think what discouraged the mink most was the fact that the beavers are so active in the same pond, and though they present no competition for fish (beavers are strict vegetarians), their high activity level and multiple work projects make them too much of a disturbance factor in the habitat. It would be a bit like living right next door to an guy with an excavating business, and a penchant for transforming his own yard.
Trying hard to get at the mouse nest inside the bird house
Yes, mink will climb trees. I've seen them do it. Many think that any weasel seen up a tree would more likely be a Pine Marten (a much rarer species), but mink are quite adept at getting around in the branches of a tree. In trees they seek out nests of mice, and chipmunks. Bird nests are also sought. Just this week I watched a mink climb up a pole that a bluebird box was mounted on, he wasn't after a bluebird though; this time of year, it's the White footed Mouse builds nests in many of these boxes.
The nest of a White-footed Mouse
The mink unsuccessfully tried to fit into the entrance hole. He then climbed all around the box looking for another way in. It looked like he had a piece of mouse bedding in his mouth at one point, but it may just have been his white chin patch that I was seeing.
Mink are excellent swimmers
Male mink are larger than females. They also hold a much larger territory –even over 1,000 acres. Their territories always sure to include an ample amount of streams and wetlands.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Outrageous Cruelty to Coyotes for No Reason at All

One of our beautiful coyotes, photographed during the summer
In New York State, hunters are allowed to kill Coyotes –day or night; there are no “bag limits”, which means that someone can kill as many as they want. The season goes from October 1st to March 31st. No pelt seal is required, nor are hunters obligated to submit any information to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Now that’s freedom for you.
The most typical view of a coyote -- running away at top speed

There’s absolutely no good reason for anyone to be shooting coyotes in our area, but many deer hunters do it routinely. They also seem to show great pride in ridding our communities of the non-existent menace that the wild dogs pose. Their stated justifications for coyote extermination are unscientific and often burgeon on the ridiculous. They paint a picture of coyotes menacing people, killing domestic dogs and even stealing cats from people’s back porches (The hunters’ sudden concern for the welfare of our domestic cats is enough to bring me to tears.) Of course, there’s practically zero evidence backing up these claims in the entire Northeast, let alone in our own region of New York State; still, the coyote killers always act as if they are doing the community some great favor.
Another brief look at a coyote, before he turns and runs away
Some deer hunters will occasionally tell the truth and say that they kill coyotes because they don’t want them to kill any of their deer, and in this one case, I think they actually believe what they are saying. In some regions, like the Adirondacks, coyotes are known to regularly take deer, while in other regions, including our own, they have very different food preferences. In fact they mostly concentrate on easier and more plentiful prey like rabbits and other small mammals. They also eat a fair bit of fruit and other vegetable material, which would be all too obvious if these “outdoorsmen” would take a few minutes to study the animals that they are persecuting.
A very rare sight -- a coyote kit, seen here crossing a log over a creek
Ironically, even our coyotes feed on deer this time of year, and that's because the hunters leave gut piles all over the place from their own deer kills. The hunters are in effect, baiting the woods with the equivalent of hundreds of cans of dog food, only to kill the dogs when they come to partake. Baiting deer is illegal –baiting coyotes, not so much.
A mother Coyote with her kits
In reality, Coyotes are very shy animals. In 20 years of spending the majority of my time outdoors, I've never seen or heard of any instances of them menacing anyone. When a coyote sees a person, they invariably turn around and run away at top speed –and obviously, they have good reason to behave that way.

We are currently in the midst of the rifle season for deer, and so we are being treated to a glut of camouflage clad hunters swarming all over our neighbor’s lands, trying their best to kill something or other. Each year I patrol our well-posted nature preserve to make sure no one is turning our land into the killing fields –and believe me, they would if someone wasn't watching them. A few days ago, as I was going through one of our gates, I heard a loud rifle shot from the land just beyond the property border. I then heard a terrible agonizing scream –which lasted for about a minute. I thought for a moment that some hunter had shot himself, but then I realized that it was a coyote that was the source of the cry. Evidently, the coyote had wandered too close to a tree stand were some brave sniper was perched. Judging by some subsequent barking sounds I heard, the coyote wasn't alone, but had a companion –probably a relative that was with him at the time of the atrocious act. Some low barks of sympathy from a friend were probably the last thing the unfortunate wild dog heard.

A nervous mother bounces up and down in a the field to try to see an intruder over the tall grass
Well at least some dude who was out to shoot something this morning wasn't disappointed. Bear in mind the coyote’s body will just be left where it fell. No one wants it.
One of the most popular arguments in favor of deer hunting is the idea that the population of nuisance deer are kept low, but then if they all believe that coyotes are thinning the deer herd already, then aren't they undermining their own justification? In areas where deer are regularly taken by coyotes, farmers and land owners should be made aware that when they allow deer hunters to shoot coyotes on their land, they are in effect cancelling out all of the deer population control implemented by those coyotes. In other words, those hunter guys aren't doing you any favors, Farmer John.
Even in areas where coyotes take deer, the chances of them taking down an adult buck are slim to nil
I've been lucky enough to hear the way some hunters talk about coyotes when they think that no one is listening. I heard one guy last week referring to a coyote that he shot at and missed, as a "Mother F##ker". Realize, this is coming from an expert hunter that typically wounds about 6 deer for every one he kills each year. These are the types of heroes that our New York State Department of Environmental Conservation entrusts to provide wildlife population control services in our great State.
Once our region had a much greater diversity of mammalian predators; we had Black Bear, Gray Wolves, Cougar, Wolverine and more. In the colonial period, all of them were exterminated based on fairy-tail ideas of the threats they posed to people. Well those fantasies were wild exaggerations then and they are especially not true now in regards to coyotes, so please tell your New York State legislators that our coyotes should be allowed to live in peace, and to rescind the DEC's outrageous extermination policy.