Monday, July 30, 2012

Some Songbirds Go Quiet for the Season & The Waxwing’s Nest

Female Cardinal working to feed her new fledglings
A cardinal fledgling hides in the foliage of a Box Elder Tree
I, like many bird enthusiasts, rely heavily on bird song to tell me what species are flitting around in the branches above me. So every year around the start of August, I always feel like I'm going deaf, as fewer and fewer birds sing. Sadly, in mid summer as the breeding season comes to a close, most species put a halt to their music making. After all, the birds produce songs to attract mates and to establish territories and as those needs fall away, they no longer have to expend energy on singing.
A male American Goldfinch sings from a high perch
An American Goldfinch nest placed 4 feet high in an Aspen sapling

This is not to say that birds become entirely mute. Contact calls, warning calls and (in the case of fledglings) begging calls are all still to be heard. Unfortunately, discerning the difference between the begging call of certain species can be problematic at best. Am I hearing begging calls of Yellow Warbler or Chestnut-sided Warbler fledglings? To answer the question I’d need to resort to the old-fashioned method of actually trying to see the bird(s).

An American Robin raises her second brood for the season
Some birds continue to sing through the second half of the summer. For the most part, these would be the late season breeders and those species that produce multiple broods. This group includes such familiar yard birds as Cardinals, Robins, Goldfinches, Song Sparrows and Common Yellowthroats. Others birds which may or may not be still breeding as late as August, may still sing at dusk. In fact, the other night, over a dozen Wood Thrushes were singing in the old woods in the early evening –I suspect that some portion of these birds were still nesting.
A Wood Thrush sings in the old woods
As the summer comes to a close, prolific songsters like the Song Sparrow and the Common Yellowthroat often continue to sing; but sometimes they’ll produce only garbled versions of their normal songs. When the breeding season ends, and as the supply of hormones in the male birds system start to peter out, the birds’ songs can lose their vitality as well as their tone.  The change is extreme enough to render these birds’ familiar songs as unrecognizable. It’s quite interesting to me how normally disparate songs like that of the Song Sparrow and Yellowthroat can begin to sound so similar minus a few hormones.
The male Common Yellowthroat continues to sing in the second part of the summer
Just lately, American Goldfinches have been singing quite beautifully in and around the woodlands and brushy meadows. For most of them the breeding season is just getting underway. This is the case with the Cedar Waxwings as well, but their gently trilled songs are very subtle and have little in common with the exuberant breeding songs of many of the other songbirds. The most exuberant sound I heard from a waxwing happened when a Blue Jay came too close to their nest. In this instance a version of the waxwing’s normally subdued trill was given in short bursts and at full intensity. –Better look out Blue Jay!
A Cedar Waxwing perches over one of the beaver ponds
The Cedar Waxwing nest containing 3 new eggs
I stopped in front of a young White Pine in one of our reforestation fields today and inadvertently frightened a waxwing off of its nest. She departed rapidly with a quick trilled note. While she was off the nest, I got to peak inside the nest and saw 3 eggs. They were pale blue and had a spattering of dark blotches. The nest itself was built of dry pine needles and twigs, and the inside was lined with fine rootlets and possibly some grass. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Beaver Kits Climbing Trees and Bluebirds Acting Like Kestrels

2 beaver kits grooming
All of the beavers that were with us after the June dam collapse remain with us today and they continue to work on their dams as well as the lodge at Secret Pond. The 4 new kits are now seen daily and their interactions with each other and the 3 adults continue to be of interest.
Julia and all 4 of this year's kits feeding on Aspen leaves
A survey of potential beaver habitat located up to 1.5 miles downstream from Secret Pond has revealed no sign of beaver activity, and casts some doubt on the possibility that the colony’s 4 missing adult beavers managed to survive and have made their home somewhere else. Still, it’s important to remember that beavers can travel a significant distance overland, and it’s conceivable that some or all of the missing individuals have come upon a spring-fed wetland or even part of a tributary unconnected to their original stream.
For the first time in years, Julia drags a tree back to the pond

With the apparent loss of May Apple, the colony's patriarch and main provider, the job of food collecting has passed to his 2-year old son, Blueberry, and also to Julia, the colony's matriarch. They don't exactly have the job down yet, but they've been steadily improving.

Beavers venture up on the land
At first Blueberry kept coming back with boughs of Tartarian Honeysuckle –a ubiquitous alien bush that beavers generally regard as inedible. Bringing willow or poplar would've been considered to be more helpful, but Blueberry has a “thing” about willow. About a year ago he mounted a one beaver protest against this particular menu item by taking May Apple's newly collected Pussy Willow boughs and unceremoniously pitching them over the dam. Now, necessity is making Blueberry overcome his finicky ways, and most recently he has been observed retrieving willow saplings and even eating them.

Sarah's Pond continues its transformation into a grassy meadow
It had been a while since Julia has had to venture into the sapling grove –probably at least 2 years, but the other day I happened to see her accompanying Blueberry as he traveled away from the ponds and up to a place where some Aspen Trees still grow. Their aim was to gnaw down a choice specimen and then haul as much as they could overland and at least one hundred yards back to Secret Pond.
The top of the old dam sprouts many flowers - Blue Vervain, Joe-Pye-Weed and Boneset
Meanwhile, the antics of the young kits back at Secret pond include shoving matches, walking and riding on top of older siblings and their mother, and most surprisingly, tree climbing. Beavers are not generally known for their tree climbing ability, but if a tree trunk is properly aligned, they might just attempt to scramble up. And this is exactly what one of the kits did. Since the tree turned out to be a Black Willow, their were plenty of small branches sprouting from the trunk, and so the kit's initiative was rewarded with a snack.
A beaver kit stands on a tree trunk and reaches out for some willow leaves
On land beavers are fairly awkward appearing animals, but in the tree, the little kit looked surprisingly at home. He stood up on a wide branch to reach some leaves –and this made him look ever so slightly like a Koala Bear. When he was finished, he turned around and quite confidently walked back down the branch and plunged back into the pond.
A beaver kit having a slice of apple

During the first half of the summer, dry conditions and high temperatures around the nature preserve have attracted more animals than normal down to the beaver ponds as they sought relief. Songbirds were coming to bathe and even deer came to wade in the water and feed on submerged plants.
A large part of Morton's Pond is now covered with mounds of tall grass
A few sandpiper types have shown up at the remains of the main pond. The Solitary Sandpiper comes daily to probe the mud alongside the deep stream channels. Robins, Goldfinch and Bluebirds also frequent the mud flats as they transform into a meadow. Definitely, the Robins and had an easier time pulling worms out of the mud than they did probing the baked ground of the upland fields. 
A juvenile Eastern Bluebird looks for insect prey to pounce on
A small flock of juvenile Bluebirds were more interested in working the parched and grassless parts of the old pond bed. Here, without obstruction, they could easily see their insect prey moving. Much like a Kestrel, the bluebirds frequently dive down on their prey from a high perch.
Square-stemmed Monkey Flower grows in the beaver meadows
The Goldfinches seem to be most interested in pulling up strands of algae along the water’s edge. In this activity the goldfinch is alone, for no other bird species seems interested in extracting food from this slimy material.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Incredible Edible Milkweed

Monarch Butterfly feeds on nectar from Common Milkweed flowers
Milkweed plants are some of the most important wild plants that grow in the environment –this is according to the plants’ biggest fans --the insects themselves.
Hickory Hairstreak Butterfly on Common Milkweed
There are several species of milkweed that grow in different habitat niches around our nature preserve; by far the most common is “Common” Milkweed. This variety grows in fields and pastures, and even has a tendency to sprout up in any piece of disturbed open ground. Common Milkweed is also the most utilized by insects, both as a nectar source and as a food plant.
The Eight-Spotted Forester Moth on Milkweed flowers

Common Milkweed often grows in colonies or clumps –connected by underground roots called rhizomes.

Swamp Milkweed is the second most common Milkweed species at our preserve. It is much more selective in its habitat, and grows primarily in wetland situations. It usually grows taller than Common Milkweed and its redder flowers are often located on the very top of the plant.
Swamp Milkweed has much  pinker blooms
The stouter Butterflyweed has lush orange blossoms and is currently the rarest milkweed species at our preserve. I had originally introduced it as a meadow plant but never managed to get it established in the heavy clay soil of our fields. Whorled Milkweed is another native variety that I tried to introduce a decade ago but with little success.

The number of pollinators that visit Common Milkweed for nectar is huge. In fact, a great way to find a diverse collection of insects (mostly bees, wasps, beetles, moths and flies) in a given area is to stake out a patch of Milkweed. The sticky flowers sometimes trap pollinators –most often by the leg. Still, most do manage to tug themselves out.
Acadian Hairstreak Butterfly on Butterflyweed

The Monarch Butterfly has lent milkweed a certain amount of fame as that enigmatic butterfly’s main food plant, but there are also other insects which almost exclusively eat that plants leaves.

A very young Monarch caterpillar feeds on a milkweed leaf

Early stage (or instar) of the Milkweed Tussock Moth feeding on Milkweed
One of the insects that make a living off of milkweed leaves, is the Milkweed Tussock Moth. Unlike the Monarch's eggs, which are laid individually by the female butterfly, the tussock moth lays a great quantity of eggs upon its host plant. Upon hatching, the tiny moth larvae feed together on the milkweed  –skeletinizing the plants leaves.

An older Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillar - note the tufts of hair
At first the Milkweed Tussock Moth’s  caterpillars are light in color, and resemble the larvae of sawflies, which also typically feed in large groups. After molting, the new skin of the tussock moth is covered with relatively long black, white and orange tufts of hair. These hairs are an irritant to the digestive tracts of birds and thereby they lend protection from the insect’s main group of would-be predators.

2 Milkweed Beetles mating on a milkweed leaf
Red Milkweed Beetles are fairly large red beetles with prominent black spots and very long curved, black antennae. In fact they are one of the species known as long horn beetles. These fairly comical looking creatures are never found far from the milkweed leaves that they consume. As is the case with the Monarch, It is thought that the toxins in the milkweed plant make these beetles less palatable to predators.

The long curved antennae  of the Milkweed Beetle
Interestingly, Monarch caterpillars have long black, curved antennae-like projections coming off of their backs –right behind their heads. These false antennae jerk around as the caterpillar feeds. This movement contributes to an illusion and helps the caterpillar stay alive by deceiving predators into thinking that there is a more formidable long-horned beetle feeding behind the leaf and not a defenseless butterfly larva.
The long false antennae of the Monarch caterpillar
The Milkweed bug walking on an Indian Hemp plant
The Milkweed Bug is another insect species that lives primarily on the juices of Milkweed. Sometimes I find large groups of these little guys in places other than on Milkweed plants. In an earlier stage of their life cycle, before undergoing metamorphosis, their appearance is quite different. But in all stages, the Milkweed Bug always show a considerable amount of red on their bodies, and this is thought to advertise how distasteful they are to predators.
An early instar (or nymph) of the Milkweed Bug
Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle
The Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle is also found on Common Milkweed. This is yet another red beetle that feeds primarily on milkweed foliage. It is said that before they begin feeding on a leaf, they cut the leaf's primary veins in order to prevent an abundance of toxic sap to accumulate.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Recent Flowers, Butterflies and 2 Sphinx Moths

The Common Buckeye Butterfly is not so "common" in Central New York

It’s been a very dry summer so far. In fact, like much of the country, here in Upstate New York we’ve been experiencing a moderate drought. Still, life at the nature preserve goes on and the season's procession of blooming wildflowers and their visiting insect pollinators continues.
The Wildflower meadow is dominated by Gray-headed Coneflower
As our wildflower meadow’s spiderwort plants finally run out of blossoms, the ground becomes dominated by Gray-headed Coneflower and Bergamot. This Coneflower’s blooms are pale yellow and the plants themselves are quite tall with thin foliage that no doubt helps them to be drought resistant. Indeed, they show little sings of stress as thousands of them wave to and fro in the hot breeze.

The Northern Broken-Dash Skipper feeds on Bergamot

Only about half as tall as the coneflowers, the Bergamot is a real insect magnet. If you scan any grouping of these pale blue flowers you’re likely to see a variety of butterflies and bees working diligently on them. The tubular flowers of Bergamot are especially compelling to any creature with a long proboscis.
Clouded Sulfur Butterfly on Oxeye
The small skipper butterflies are more common this year than they have been for the last 5. The Bergamot seems to really bring them out at this time in the summer. Several varieties of tiny dark skipper like the Dun Skipper, the Northern Broken-Dash and the Little Glassywing seem to be the most common. 2 days ago, a Common Checkered Skipper was seen for the first time in several years. Aptly named, this species shows bold white checkered markings that make it easy to identify.

Hummingbird Sphinx Moth hovers over Begamot as it feeds
Some moths are also visiting the flowers, including the Hummingbird Sphinx Moth (also called the Hummingbird Clearwing). This moth’s behavior closely resembles that of a hummingbird; its rapidly moving wings and its ability to precisely control its flight –to hover and fly backward, invites the comparison. This unusual moth is only one member in the family of Sphinx Moths. The others share similar feeding behavior, but unlike the day-active Hummingbird Moth, these related species only become active after the sun sets.
The Pandorus Sphinx Moth at rest on the garage floor
The amount of eyeshine alone tells of this moth's noctural habits
I had a recent encounter with a Pandorus Sphinx Moth. One evening last week, one flew into our garage when I was coming back from walking our dog. The moth was confused by the inside light and it flew rapidly around the ceiling, noisily bumping against it. Its body was impressively large –about the size of an actual hummingbird. I turned off the inside light and I spent some time trying to get the disoriented creature back outside, but it seemed intent on continuing its battle with the ceiling.

At one point I shined a flashlight on it and was amazed by the amount of reflection that came back from its eyes. Obviously, this is a moth that is well geared for low light conditions. Eventually, the moth did settle down on the floor and I was able to capture it and release it outside –seemingly undamaged by the ordeal.

Eastern-tailed Blue Buttefly
Compass Plant are the tallest both above and below the ground

The incredibly tall Compass Plants have started to bloom along the meadow’s edge. This perennial sunflower has finely cut leaves that are a little fern-like. It’s likely that this adaptation helps the plant from losing moisture. Also, the leaves have a rough texture which aid in the retention of water. The roots of the Compass Plant grow astoundingly deep  –likely yet another adaptation to dry conditions. You would expect no less from a plant that evolved in a prairie environment. The Compass Plant flower is like a smaller version of a typical annual sunflower bloom, but usually with lighter yellow petals.
Royal Catchfly

Royal Catchfly has also begun to bloom on the other side of the meadow  –where the meadow meets Wick’s Pond. From a distance its brilliant red flower could be mistaken for Cardinal Flower, but it’s no relation. However, the Cardinal Flower’s relative, Blue Lobelia, is growing nearby at the shore of the pond, but it’s nowhere close to blooming at this point in the summer.
A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird visits Culver's Root growing in the meadow

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The “Tropical” Birds of Our Local Forest

The male Scarlet Tanager perches below the forest canopy 
Many of the birds nesting at our nature preserve only reside with us from 3 to 4 months out of the year. The rest of their lives are spent in the tropical regions of Central and South America. While they are here with us, in a way, they bring the tropics to us in the form of their colorful plumage and exotic songs. Though many of these “neotropical” songbirds breed in a variety habitat types, the forest, or forest edges are the most common places to find them.
The male Rose-breasted Grosbeak sings from a treetop on the forest edge

At the nature preserve, our older forest is the most likely place to see or hear these birds. The most well-known tropical looking birds –the Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Baltimore Oriole are somewhat easier to see at this point in the season, as most are involved in feeding their young, which are now out of the nest. As you get close to them, they give sharp alarm calls, and fortunately for the observer, defensive parents will sometimes come in close to scold intruders.
The male Baltimore Oriole perches on a Red Oak in one of the reforestation fields

A male Hooded Warbler protecting his nest area
The Hooded Warbler nests in the brushy understory of our open-canopy  forest. The male of the species truly does look like a refugee from the tropics with his bright yellow body and black hood, which is interrupted by a bold yellow eye mask. His song is a strongly whistled short phrase that sounds to some like: “ta-weet…ta-weet…ta-weety-o”. This song varies little with different individuals, but the Hooded Warbler also sings an alternate song which is not as well recognized and is harder to translate into words.
The female Hooded Warbler with an insect to bring back to the nest

The Hooded Warbler most often breeds in small colonies where there is a substantial amount of suitable habitat. We are fortunate to have one such colony at our nature preserve.

The male Hooded returns to the nest where hungry chicks await
After the young leave the nest, only one infertile egg remains

As a nest site, the female chose a short Beech sapling that was shrouded by blackberry brambles. Only by getting very low to the ground, was I able to peer between the leaves and see what she was up to. That’s where I saw her weaving together relatively wide strips of bark and long pieces of grass. It really more resembled the nest of a Red-winged Blackbird than any creation by a member of the warbler clan. When finished, the sturdy looking nest looked like it would stand up well to any boisterous brood, and as things turned out, it did.

The male Mourning Warbler on the breeding grounds
Another, mostly tropical species, the Mourning Warbler, has almost exactly the same habitat requirements as the Hooded Warbler –nesting in the understory of open-canopy forests. This is another Yellow bird, but this one has a complete black hood over its head with no yellow eye mask. In male birds, the hood is darkest at the point where it meets the bird’s breast.

A female Mourning Warbler fluffs up her feathers and takes a sun bath
The species is shy and retiring –that is unless you get close to their active nest (most always hidden away in a low bramble), at that point both parents come out to scold you with harsh “witch…witch..witch” calls. It’s almost as if they are trying to accuse someone of practicing the dark arts.

The not very tropical looking Ovenbird
The song of the Mourning Warbler is a rapidly given phrase. It’s a series of 3 or 4 tight, almost gurgled trills, which are terminated by a low note. The male Mourning Warbler can sometimes be heard to give a rather extraordinary “flight song”. As is implied, the flight-song is given on the wing as the bird ascends over his breeding grounds. This song is very seldom heard –and there seems to be very little mention of it in the bird literature.  It sounds like a haphazard jumble of notes with the Mourning Warbler’s typical song incorporated into the middle of it. It can be compared to the evening flight song given by the Ovenbird (another warbler of the forest) and that given by the Common Yellowthroat. The latter species’ flight song is the most familiar to birders, since it is given at all times of the day in forest clearings and brushy meadows.
The male Common Yellowthroat or "Bandit Bird"