Saturday, March 24, 2012

Snow Geese, Ducks, Early Flowers and Butterflies

Snow Geese make their final approach

Flocks of migrating Snow Geese flew over the preserve early last week. It was an impressive spectacle to behold, especially so far away from any sizable body of water. At least 5,000 were estimated to fly over at one point. I watched a few of the flocks landing in a nearby cornfield. From a distance they looked like large white balloons descending to the ground in formation. The conversion of most of the agricultural fields in our area to corn production has been a boom to a few species –like these geese, while it has also resulted in a loss of habitat for many breeding grassland species.

A male Northern Shoveler 
A few of the local wetlands have been playing host to an abundance of migrant ducks. The Northern Shoveler was seen on Tuesday –the male Shoveler is extremely brightly colored and shows almost equal parts iridescent green, white and orange. The bill of this species is noticeably longer than that of other ducks, and it has a flattened, comb-like end. This very specialized bill enables this duck to strain small plants and animals from the surface of the water.

A male Northern Pintail
The Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal were all lightly represented in the mix as were Wood Duck and Hooded Merganser. Only one pair of Black Duck were seen. The Black Duck was once the most common breeding duck in the region, but during the 20th Century they were displaced by the Mallard. The 2 species are closely related, they perform nearly identical courtship displays and they sometimes interbreed –thereby creating hybrids.

Sharp-lobed Hepatica
The most common duck seen lately (besides the Mallard) was the Ring-necked Duck. This species is a diving duck that feeds primarily on aquatic creatures. There were many little rafts of them  –some sleeping with their bills tucked into the feathers on their backs –others busily diving under the water to chase down meals. Some courtship behavior was seen –mostly head nodding that is not species specific.

Bloodroot blooms for a very short time
The Scarlet Elf-Cup can collect water 
Red Maple Blossoms are very small but worth a look
This shockingly early spring has awakened many wildflowers that in a normal year would not be seen for several more weeks. Our Bloodroot plants have already reached the peak of their bloom and some have even begun to shed their petals.

Blue Cohosh is pushing up in many places in the old woods; its tiny brown to purple flowers with yellow centers are easy to overlook –but are worth the effort if you chance upon them. The aptly named Scarlet Elf Cup is also common in the old woods. This small cup-like fungus is low in the leaf litter, but its bright red color really makes it stand out among the dead leaves and ever-expanding colony of wild leeks.

Compton's Tortoiseshell 

The earliest butterflies are out. These species of Anglewing Butterflies spent the winter (what there was of it) in tree crevices and other similar shelters. Mostly what I’m seeing so far are the Mourning Cloak and the Eastern Comma. We had a glut of the latter species last year and after such a mild winter, many of them have survived to flutter once more. I expect to see a Compton’s Tortoiseshell by the end of the week. They too are Anglewing butterflies which can overwinter as adults.

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