Saturday, April 28, 2012

Pileated Woodpecker at Work & at Home

In recent decades, our largest Woodpecker, the crow sized Pileated Woodpecker, has been an increasingly common sight in our region and at the Nature Preserve. Wherever there is forested landscape containing at least some proportion of mature trees, this species should be there. As is the case with many birds, you usually hear them before you see them, whether it’s their loud drumming or their sharp staccato calls.
A Pileated male visits a well exploited tree
When they excavate a tree containing a colony of carpenter ants, that too can be very loud; the sound could be mistaken for someone building a house in the woods. Dead trees and dead parts of live trees are most often selected for demolition by these woodpeckers, since dead wood is generally used by their insect prey. If you’ve ever seen the Pileated hammering away at a tree, you would’ve seen large wood chips flying off in all directions as they are chiseled off by the most powerful chisel wielded by any North American wild animal. Other than humans, only beavers can make such a large impact on a tree.
Female Pileated comes back to the nest with a beak full of larvea 
I’ve found several active nests of this species over the past few years. Like many other bird species, the Pileated do not always appreciate people taking an interest in their dwellings. I found that out for myself when I tried to take some video of a nest; the parents got quite perturbed and wouldn’t approach the nest tree while I was there. A note to bird lovers: please do not linger at an active nest site (of any bird) for more than a few minutes, especially if the parents are keeping their distance from the nest, scolding you or giving alarm calls. The last thing that we want to do is stop parent birds from feeding their young. I did manage to get video footage of the nest, but I did it remotely, by leaving my camera on and pointed at the nest hole while I stood far back.
A nestling loudly begs to be fed
Pileated Woodpeckers behave at the nest in a manner quite similar to other woodpeckers. The young nestlings inside the tree beg almost incessantly. By doing this they are encouraging their parents to continue to feed them. One could assume that these calls also bring in predators, although few would likely want to tangle with an adult Pileated’s formidable bill. Inside the tree cavity the nestlings vie for the top position at the rim of hole, since a chick perched there would be first in line for incoming food brought by the parents. There’s usually just room for one in this top position and so squabbles between siblings often take place. Bear in mind, a nestling with a prime rim-side seat would likely be standing on top of his brothers and sisters -but they too should get their turn up top.
The wary male guards the nest area
The parent Pileated, again, like other woodpeckers, usually regurgitates food directly down their youngster’s throat, so part of a young woodpecker’s job description is to be a sword swallower.
When the Pileated is done with its nest hole, the abandoned tree cavity makes an excellent home for other wildlife. Famously, Wood Ducks rely on this large woodpecker to provide them with nest holes. Screech Owls, Saw Whet Owls and many small mammals also could consider the Pileated Woodpecker to be their own private contractor. They work cheap too.
The Pileated became quite rare in Central New York after the land was deforested in the 1800s. It wasn’t until maturing forest cover returned to the landscape that this woodpecker’s population was able to recover.
Marsh Marigold blooms in the wetlands
Toadshade Trillium continues to bloom in the woods
White Trillium thrives in a protected woodland garden

Woodland wildflowers continue to bloom at the Preserve. White Trillium, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Goldenseal and Woodland Phlox were all found in recent days. Marsh Marigold is blooming in the wetlands.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Peregrine Falcons

Maya, one of Utica's Peregrines stretches her wings on the Gold Dome Bank building in 2009

Maya and Tor on their nest tray in 2009
For several years, I’ve been keeping track of the Peregrine Falcons that live in Utica. For about a decade individual Peregrines were being seen in the downtown Utica area, but it wasn’t until 2008 that a resident pair was finally confirmed. That couple, named Maya and Tor, nested on a prominent covered ledge on Utica’s historic Gold Dome Bank building. These Peregrines were unusual in many regards: first of all, the nest site that they chose was only 4 stories high, which was fully 10 stories lower than the lowest nesting Peregrine in all of New York State. Also unusual was the fact that they nested so late in the season. In ’08 an egg didn’t appear on the nest ledge until June 4th. Of course, by June most other urban nesting Peregrines in the State had already, or were close to fledging their young. At that time we thought the late egg date was a fluke, but in ’09, they did the very same thing –and produced an egg in the first week of June. In both years, they produced only single eggs. This again, was atypical for the species. Still another quirky thing about this pair is that they seemed to be incapable of hatching their eggs. Incubation didn’t seem to be the problem. Both birds shared that duty, and the nest watchers concurred that the egg was well looked after. The ’08 egg was retrieved following the nesting season and though it was never analyzed for embryo development, the shell was intact and obviously didn’t accidentally crack during incubation.
The Peregrine egg retrieved from the nest ledge
All quirks aside, it was an amazing experience to have such an interesting and enigmatic species darting around the downtown area –and treating it like their canyon. The fact that their nest ledge was so low, allowed many people to get very close looks at these normally hard to see raptors.
Tor, the male Peregrine in 2009
There was no nesting attempt made in 2010. Tor, the male Peregrine, presumably died after hitting a window on a building across the street from the Gold Dome Bank (an all too common fate for raptors and for millions of songbirds annually.)  All we know for sure is that Tor was never seen again following that incident. Maya never found a new mate to replace him. It was difficult to believe that she didn’t have the opportunity to meet new males as they migrated or just wandered through the area. It’s probably that she just couldn’t find one that she thought was suitable. So 2010 and 2011 went by with Maya holding the downtown territory, but not breeding.
On this past Sunday, I went downtown with local wildlife photographer, Dave Cesari , and we confirmed the presence of a pair of Peregrine Falcons in the downtown area. These were 2 unknown birds, which begged the question, where is Maya and why did she let these foreigners into her territory? Did she vacate the territory willingly or was she driven out? Hopefully, she didn’t meet with an accident. There also remains the possibility that she will return to reclaim her territory.
The new male Peregrine -2012  photo by Cesari
The new female - 2012 photo by Cesari
On Sunday, the new birds were seen flying around the 3 highest buildings in that  small downtown area. They perched on high window ledges of the State Office Building and on the Hotel Utica. It remains to be seen if this new pair will remain in the area to breed. Though the new male is a full adult, the female is a juvenile and juvenile females don’t often succeed in their first nesting attempts. Also, there is a severe shortage of suitable nest sites in Utica. Peregrine prefer covered ledges located high up on tall buildings. The 3 tallest building in Utica lack these types of ledges. And building owners have been resisting the idea of installing nest boxes on their structures. Because it is so low, the Gold Dome Bank site that Maya and Tor used will probably not be considered by these new Peregrines.
Adult Red-tailed Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk nest
Back at the Nature Preserve, other raptors are busy with nest duties. A pair of Red-tailed Hawks made their nest just beyond the border of our large woods. I had no idea the nest was there until the female Red-tail flew off the nest to scream at me. These hawks have been patrolling the surrounding woods all winter and I wondered if they would stay to nest. It’s somewhat unusual to have Red-tailed Hawks so committed to a forested habitat. Though it’s not atypical for them to nest in the forest, most Red-tails find their prey in more open areas. It seems that the female is still incubating eggs at this point. If all goes well, there should be young in the nest in several weeks.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Knee Deep in Red Admirals and the "Savage" Mourning Cloak Butterflies

Red Admiral

An astounding number of Red Admiral Butterflies continue filter up from the south where they overwinter. Right now they are the most common butterfly to be found at the Nature Preserve –and just about anywhere else for that matter. With the species’ host plants (plants in the nettle family) just barely emerging from the ground, it seems like they may in in fact be all dressed up with nowhere to go.  I suspect that this phenomenon is yet another of this year’s many examples of nature being “out of sync”. However, I think that it is safe to assume that the mild winter has led to a much greater survival rate in Butterflies. Unlike the Admiral, many butterflies spend their winter with us in some form or other –as adults, chrysalises or caterpillars. In a normal winter many more of them would have perished.  Of course, not just butterflies survived the winter, but many other kinds of insects as well –including many species that are butterfly predators. Most of the butterflies’ insect predators attack them while they are still in the caterpillar stage. Ichneumons are a large family of parasitic wasps that lay their eggs inside the bodies of living caterpillars. So instead of the caterpillar developing into a butterfly, their flesh is commandeered to feed a wasp larva growing inside them. So the abundance of butterflies in this pre-season period may be followed by a dearth of butterflies later on. I sincerely hope this isn’t the case.

Mourning Cloak Butterfly
Just lately, Mourning Cloak butterflies have been pretty common in the forest. They are a very regal looking species with iridescent dark brown upper wings. The wings have a golden trimmed border and a row of blue spots. The closed wings are the color of charcoal and appear rough textured, which makes the species a convincing dead-leaf mimic.
Jagged edged wings help the Cloak to resemble a leaf
One doesn’t usually associate butterflies with aggressive behavior, but our Mourning Cloak Butterflies could be considered good candidates for counseling. The male Cloak will claim a piece of territory and any other male that passes through will be attacked and perused. The 2 brawling butterflies often ascend straight up into the tree tops before breaking apart. The stranger goes on his way and the defender comes back to perch in some prominent position where he will be ready to quickly spot the next intruder or potential mate.  Neither combatant usually sustains much damage from these encounters; butterflies after all, are not exactly armed to the teeth. Honestly, what can they do ...put their proboscis in someone’s eye? Occasionally, a particularly macho Mourning Cloak will try to chase me out of his territory, which is always entertaining. Sometimes, just to make him feel good, I’ll run off yelling “Help!”
Mourning Cloak caterpillar all decked out with spikes and red spots
As caterpillars, Mourning Cloaks literally look like they are dressed to kill. They have bright red spots along their backs, and red pro-legs on their underside. Bright colors like these often indicate toxicity to their potential predators. If that’s not enough, these caterpillars also have rows of long intimidating spikes running all along their backs and sides. All in all, they don’t look very appetizing –and that’s the whole idea.

Mourning Cloak feeding on willow leaves
What’s most interesting about this is that the male Mourning Cloak so often chooses territories that are far from the where the species main food plants grow. In the case of the Cloak, their food plants are for the most part trees in the willow family, which are not typically found in inner forest situations. But indeed, that’s where the Cloaks look for mates and seek shelter from the elements.
Sunning himself on a rock to warm up
The lifestyle of the Mourning Cloak seems to work well for the species. The fact that their population remains relatively stable from year to year is no mean feat in the world of butterflies. They are also the longest lived of our butterflies –sometimes surviving for an entire year. This of course, includes the winter months in which they are alive but dormant.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Hermit Thrush and Ruby-crowned Kinglet Arrive at the Preserve

The Hermit Thrush
The back view of the Hermit
The Hermit Thrush returned to the Nature Preserve this week. This thrush is arguably one of the finest singers of all the songbirds. At this time of year, the Hermit’s flute-like song begins emanating from the  wooded gorges. An individual typically sings 3 or 4 musical phrases –each in a different key. Each phrase starts with a single sustained note and ends with an ethereal flourish –of a kind that no instrument would be able to emulate. A thrush's ability to simultaneously sing more than one note at a time allows an individual to, in effect, harmonize with himself. One of the warning calls of the Hermit is a single elongated note, which sounds like “Waaay” or “Reee”. In areas where the bird only migrates through, this call is most often the only sound that you’re likely to hear from them.

This Thrush dips its tail up and down when alarmed
Typically, in our region, the Hermit Thrush prefers to nest in cooler, hemlock dominated, mixed upland forest. Even though we’ve always had a fair amount of that habitat type, the species only began breeding at our preserve within the past several years. Competition with other thrush species could be responsible for keeping the Hermits out for so long. It may be that as some of the other resident thrushes decrease in population in the Northeastern U.S. (primarily due to winter habitat loss, migration accidents, forest fragmentation and destruction of breeding habitat), the Hermit may expand into newly vacated areas and fill some empty niches.
Of the region’s forest nesting thrushes, the Hermit is always the first to return from the south. Unlike the Wood Thrush, Veery, Swainson’s Thrush and Gray Cheeked Thrush, the Hermit will sometimes spend the winter with us. Occasionally we will come across  one during our Annual Christmas Bird Count. The other woodland thrush species reliably remain in the tropical regions of Central and South America for the duration of the winter months.Click here to see our Nature Sanctuary's video of the Hermit Thrush
A migrant Ruby-crowned Kinglet
The tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet has also returned to the area this week. Now they’ve joined up with their kinsmen –the Golden-crowned Kinglet, and together they’ve been circulating through the forests and wooded margins. For a little guy, the Ruby-crowned has a loud and boisterous song –and one that seems to easily punch through the other songs in the spring chorus. The kinglets are tiny olive colored birds –smaller than chickadees. The Ruby-crowned has a distinct light eye ring and wing-bars.They also have a red or “ruby” cap. The male erects this ruby cap when trying to attract mates and intimidate other males. When he does this it looks like he’s sporting a gleaming red Mohawk.

Note the red or "ruby" patch on the back of the head

In 2010, the Northeast experienced a remarkable influx of Red Admiral Butterflies. That phenomenon seems to be repeating itself this year.

A Red Admiral on some Apple Blossoms
On Monday, when the mercury reached into the 80’s, scores of these red striped anglewing butterflies seemed to come out of nowhere and started moving through many regions of State including our Preserve. At rest, and with their wings closed, these butterflies are reasonably good dead leaf mimics. With their wings open, they reveal bold red “admiral” stripes on a dark background. White spots decorate the apex of their wings. Today started with a cool morning and I found dozens of these admirals sunning themselves on the forest floor. Definitely, they were warm enough for quick bursts of flight –as I found out when trying to take some pictures of them.

Rue Anemone is a rare woodland  flower in our region
Squirrel Corn is related to the Bleeding Heart
Woodland Wildflowers continue to bloom at the Preserve. This week some old favorites were located including Squirrel Corn, Long-spurred Violet and Dwarf Ginseng. The forest trees are quickly leafing out now, and most of these spring ephemerals that have yet to bloom will be doing so in an increasing amount of shade. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Glorious Silkmoths, Sapsucker Returns and Long Lasting Flowers

An adult male Cecropia Moth emerges early

Twin Promethea Moth cocoons on a Cherry sapling
Over the years we’ve had several of the large North American silkmoths show up at Spring Farm and around the Nature Preserve. Most recently we’ve been coming across a few of the cocoons of these enigmatic species. On one Black Cherry sapling, 4 cocoons of the Promethea Moth were located. While still in its caterpillar stage, the Promethea Moth folds over a cherry leaf and spins silk around it, until both the caterpillar and the leaf is completely shrouded in silk. Before the cocoon is made, the leaf’s attachment to its branch is strengthened by reinforcing strands of silk. This precaution is necessary if the cocoon is to remain attached to the tree through the fall and winter months. During the first prolonged warm spell –probably in mid to late spring, the adult Promethea Moth will emerge from its cocoon and begin its search for a mate.
The incredible Cecropia Moth
The Cecropia's "bag" cocoon
Note the huge antennae on this male Polyphemus Moth

A week ago, a neighbor (and co-worker) had an adult Cecropia Moth fly into her house. Evidently the moth had emerged from its cocoon far too early in the season; this was due to a few unseasonably warm weeks in March. The moth was released the following afternoon during the warmest part of the day. Still, it was pretty cool outside, so he needed to bring his body temperature up. He did this by quivering his wings. After about 10 minutes he was warm enough to fly, and he very competently fluttered off into the woods. He landed on a high branch –but remained there for only a few minutes before coming back our way and making a farewell pass right over our heads. The Cecropia is a really big moth –as big as our largest butterflies. The male has large feathered antennae that they use to locate females; he can detect a female’s pheromones from up to a mile away. Mating will pretty much be his only goal, since these moths have no mouth parts and do not feed.
The Male Luna Moth
The Cecropia Moth’s cocoon looks a bit like a little tan bag hanging –typically, from a low branch of a deciduous tree or shrub. Inside the silken bag is the pupa which will transform into the adult Moth. Recently, I found 2 of these cocoon “bags” in one of our meadows.

A male Sapsucker checking his line of sap holes

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker returned from the south early last week, and now the old woods resound with this woodpecker’s characteristic drumming. Their drumming pattern is uneven and it sounds a bit like the bird is communicating in Morse Code. This species is among the very few wild animals that leave evidence of its work which can be visible more than a century later. The sap holes that they drill through the bark of trees eventually heal over, but they remain as visible scars on the tree, and the pattern of scars tells us who was doing the drilling. Several years ago, one of our mature Hemlock Trees was utterly exploded by a lighting strike. This was an unusual event to be sure. When I was examining the remains of the tree I found a line of dark spots located deep in the tree’s heartwood. These dark spots were a record of some Sapsucker’s exploits dating back more than 100 years.

Dutchman's Breeches blooms in the old woods
The Sapsucker is also in the business of creating feeding stations for insects. The sap holes provide an easy source of sap for butterflies, beetles and other insects. These holes are particularly popular early in the season before there are many available sources of flower nectar. And early emerging butterflies like the Anglewing species are often seen partaking. Perhaps this service is not so inadvertent, for when the Sapsucker returns to her “sap-line” for a drink, she’s often inclined to eat a few of the insects that were lured in.
Flower and foliage of Perfoliate Bellwort
An interesting effect of the return of seasonable (colder) temperatures has been the preservation of some of our early blooming woodland wildflowers. Several of the flowers, which in a more normal year would’ve lost their petals in just a few days, instead retained their bloom for several weeks. Twinleaf is actually still blooming in some places around the Preserve. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bluebirds Begin Their Nest and the Visiting Fox Sparrow

A pair of Bluebirds has begun using a nestbox in our largest field. For the last 2 days the female of the pair has been bringing nest material into the box. The male doesn't assist her in her efforts, but he remains nearby and sometimes acts like a one bird pep rally –perching on top of the box, calling and fluttering his wings.
The female Bluebird at the nestbox entrance
The female takes fairly frequent breaks from her task of collecting tufts of dry grass in order to hunt for food. Although the prey couldn’t be more different, the hunting technique used by Bluebirds is rather like that employed by some raptors; they perch on a small sapling or on a thick plant stem and watch the meadow below them for beetles or grubs. When they spot something moving, they fly down to snatch it up, much like a raptor would do with a mouse.
The male Bluebird surveys the meadow from the top of a fence post
The male divides his time between coaxing the female to work (although she doesn’t seem to need it), hunting for food and singing territorial proclamations from various perches. The Bluebird's song is a soft sweet warble, and one that is synonymous with a spring meadow.
Occasionally the male will be seen giving a tribute to the female. I remember once seeing a pair of Bluebirds on top of their nest box: the male had caught a large Junebug and was set on giving it to his mate, but he couldn’t quite get himself to part with it. He’d begin to pass it from his beak to hers, but as soon as she bit into it, he start to pull it away. What began as a nuptial gifting session turned into a domestic tugging match. I imagined him saying something like: “Sweetie, just let me take back this one Junebug, and I’ll get you something else –something just as nice!”
Th at Junebug tribute was finally handed over to the female
There is a pair of Tree Swallows claiming the box right next to the Bluebirds’ house.  In these early days of neighbor to neighbor relations, things are a bit tense, and there have been some territorial squabbles –mostly over who is doing what in whose yard. The Tree Swallows have a great predator alert system –one that I should think the Bluebirds can only benefit from. Whenever a hawk (usually a Red-tailed Hawk or a Northern Harrier) shows up anywhere over the field, all of the area’s swallows start twittering and mobbing the intruder—escorting the hawk out of the vicinity if possible. Sometimes several dozen swallows take part in this type of operation. The swallows’ relatively small size and their swift, erratic motions in the air make it look like the hawk is flying through a swarm of unusually large mosquitoes.
Watching for insect prey
At the wooded margins of the large field, I hear the somber and notably slurred notes of a Fox Sparrow. No, this guy is not drunk on fermented berries or anything like that. His whistled song just makes him sound like he’s a bit tipsy. This beautiful reddish brown migrant sparrow is more typically seen around bird feeders in the early spring, but not this year. Instead, the Fox Sparrows seem to prefer to kick up their own meals out of the leaf litter. The temperatures have been on the cold side lately, but the ground has been snow-free, so finding food in the wild has been pretty easy for these guys.
The visiting Fox Sparrow
From a distance the Fox Sparrow’s ruddy colored back and tail, and his relative large size may lead you to think that he’s some kind of thrush. His heavily spotted breast is somewhat thrush-like as well. However, his short conical bill makes clear his family lineage resides with the finches. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Accipiter Hawks

Sharp-shinned Hawk adult  perches in the snow on top of her prey 

At the Nature Preserve, I’ve been seeing more accipiter hawks as they migrate up from the south. Some of these hawks always stay with us during the winter; many of them adopt bird feeding stations as their hunting grounds. The more commonly encountered accipiter species are the Sharp-shinned Hawk and the Cooper’s Hawk. Both look nearly identical and they overlap in size. In fact the male Cooper’s Hawk is around the same size as the female Sharp-shinned (with hawks, the females are always larger than the males.)Though the generally larger Cooper’s Hawk sometimes takes small rodents, both hawks are primarily dedicated to hunting birds. In some circles, these hawks are considered to be backyard pariahs, since they prey on Mourning Doves and other popular songbirds. But these raptors are merely taking advantage of the concentration of bird life that is created by our artificial feeding stations. As our bird feeders draw songbirds out of the surrounding habitats, we give the accipiters obvious places to practice their trade. It has been shown that these hawks will develop a route consisting of many yards and birds feeding stations that they visit in a circuit.
Adult Cooper's Hawk - note his tail's  rounded edges 
More than a decade ago, I monitored some nests of Sharp-shinned Hawks. These stick structures were placed tightly against the trunks of Hemlock trees  –about 20 feet off the ground. The female did all of the work incubating the eggs and feeding the hatchlings. The male does provide the food (including a colorful array of songbirds), but will not directly bring the food to the nest. Instead, he drops it off at a prescribed location near the nest tree –this place is sometimes referred to as the "chopping block". It's thought that this arrangement stems from the relatively small male’s inherent fear of the female. He, after all, doesn't want to be mistaken for her next meal. The drop-off takes place with some haste, as the male anticipates his mate’s swift approach.
The Sharp-shinned has a straight or notched tail tip

A Juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk
There may be 4 or 5 youngsters in the nest and when they leave or fledge, both parents will continue to provide them with food. Out of the nest, the young are pretty entertaining to watch as they play and chase each other through the woods –swooping between branches and otherwise practicing their much-vaunted accipiter maneuverability. The young unleash long siren like cries that are distinctly different than the staccato calls of the adults (the adult calls are commonly mimicked by Blue Jays).

Adult female Sharp-shinned Hawk
Breast feathers of an immature Sharp-shinned
Talons of a Sharp-shinned Hawk
It takes a couple of years for the Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks to attain full adult plumage. 1st year birds has white mottling on their brown backs; they have a light colored stomach and chest which show prominent brown spots or barring. Their long tails are also brown and have several broad dark bands. The adults birds are quite beautiful; they have dark gray backs and gray tails that contain wide black bands. Their breasts feathers are light and show considerable orange barring. In all plumages these accipiter hawks have fluffy white feathers underneath  the base of their tails. Adult Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks have red eyes.

A visiting juvenile Northern Goshawk
The Northern Goshawk is the largest of our accipiter species and for us the one that is seen with the least frequency. I have experience with their nests as well –and it’s not the kind of experience that I’m likely to forget. Goshawks are very protective of their nest areas (they typically nest in larger forests with many conifers), and they won’t hesitate to chase off any intruder. I was rather vigorously repulsed when I got too close to one nest. The female especially came after me. While giving very loud “Kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk” calls, she swooped down on me and hit me on the back with her clenched talons. She did this multiple times until I had retreated far enough back to suit her. The male also joined in but did not make contact with my person. The next time I visited the nest area, I was really given the bum’s rush; I was escorted about a half mile down the road before they veered off and returned to their young.