Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Beaver's Winter Forecast?

Blueberry heaps another Willow Sapling on top of the winter food cache
How much stock should we put into the beavers’ weather prognostications? Experience tells me not too much, but still it makes me wonder. This year our beavers started assembling their winter food supply –or food cache, at least one month earlier than usual. Does this mean that we will be in for a harsh winter? They seem to be banking on it.
The  food cache looks like a partially submerged brush pile 
Beavers don’t hibernate; they remain active all through the winter months, though you may not see them around their habitat very often. When their ponds become covered with ice, the beavers become largely confined to their lodge and to the water beneath the ice. At this point they must survive entirely by drawing on their underwater food cache.
One of the kits tows a branch over to the cache
Normally, the cache is stored in deep water so the beavers can access it even if the pond’s ice covering becomes thick. Still, the branches can become frozen together and may need to be chewed apart. Once they have a freed a branch, a beaver will typically bring it back inside the lodge where the rest of the family is waiting to get their share of bark.
A kit unsuccessfully tries to free a large branch from the pile
Food caches are usually located close to the lodge, but this year the beavers didn’t abide by that rule, and located it in another part of the pond. They also made a smaller secondary cache that is located even further away and in more shallow water. The 2 beavers most responsible for assembling this food cache are the 2-year old, Blueberry and the 1-year old, Badger. The fact that they located the cache in a place that may become difficult to access makes me wonder if those 2 are quite ready for prime time. But this is the first time that either of them has been left to do this important job by themselves.

A Green Heron stands on the food cache 
For this early point in the fall, the food cache has gotten quite sizable. Blueberry, in particular has been busy up in the willow grove, cutting trees and dragging them back to Secret Pond. I saw him yesterday as he dealt with quite a large pussy willow sapling. He’d pull it overland for about 15 feet and then stop to rest, adjust his hold, and then pull it for another 15 feet. It’s a lot of work for a relatively little guy to do –considering that he’s probably only 45 pounds or so.

Blueberry drags in another willow sapling

Last winter, May Apple, the young beavers’ father, was primarily responsible for assembling the food cache and he made one of considerable size. As it turned out, last winter was especially mild, and the main pond was only intermittently iced over. This meant that the beavers were never ice bound for long and could usually forage for food on shore when they needed to. Despite the fact that it wasn’t the beaver’s only food source, last year’s food cache was depleted by the beginning of March; and so it seems that the lesson learned by this new generation of beavers is to create a bigger cache.

Now looking rather plump, one of the new kits has a carrot break
A questionable  attempt at giving a beaver rabbit ears

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Recent Migrant Songbirds

The Black & White Warbler migrates through the area
Migrant songbirds have been passing through the nature preserve for over a month now. These birds, for the most part, fly at night. so don’t expect to see them flying over in flocks like Red-winged Blackbirds and Canada Geese do. From our perspective, they just appear in our bushes and trees in the morning as if they came in with the dew.
A Swainson's Thrush spends the day in our forest
It is possible to detect their evening transit; if you listen to the night sky at this time of year you may hear their subtle short whistles or “seep” and “sip” notes. These would be the contact notes that the fellow travelers give to each other as they fly in the darkness. Actually, as I’m writing this in the early morning hours, I just heard a soft short whistle call that may be the contact note of a nocturnal migrant –a Swainson’s Thrush.
Lately, the most common migrant warbler has been the Magnolia Warbler
At the preserve, we’ve been averaging about a dozen migrant species per day. Yesterday, in the mix was a Lincoln’s Sparrow and a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. Both species nest in similar habitats –the former, almost exclusively in boreal bogs. The Yellow-bellied Flycatcher has been known to breed in wetland areas south of the Adirondacks, but they really prefer the northern bogs as well.
One of our most beautiful migrant sparrows - The Lincoln's Sparrow

And no, the Lincoln’s Sparrow was not named after the Great Emancipator. Actually John James Audubon originally dubbed the new bird “Bob’s Finch” after one of his young assistants –Bob Lincoln. Subsequently, the bird was given the more formal sounding title.
A Blue-headed Vireo perches on an open branch
A Blue-headed Vireo showed up for the first time this season. This bird didn't necessarily travel that far yet, since the species breeds in forested State land just to the north of us. Like the warblers, the vireos are small birds that feed on insects, but they have heavier bills that allow them to tackle larger prey. They are also generally slower moving in the tree tops. In other words, they’re not quite as hyperactive as the warblers are, so even a novice birder might stand a chance to get a good look at one before it flits off into another tree.
The Black-throated Green Warbler -- whose name is nearly a complete description
This year most common migrant warbler species for us has been the Magnolia Warbler with the American Redstart probably the second most common. I suspect that will change as the Myrtle Warblers (also called the Yellow-rumped Warbler) start to move through. While at most we might see only 5 or 6 Magnolia Warblers at a time, the Myrtles may be seen by the dozens.
Yet another warbler - the American Redstart . This is a juvenile male
The Myrtle Warbler is one of the only warbler species that I've ever known to try to spend the winter in Central New York. Winter foods for them include Poison Ivy berries. In years when there is an especially good crop of these berries, we can usually count on seeing a few overwintering Myrtle Warblers.

Each year several Philadelphia Vireos pass through during fall migration

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Monarch Butterflies Galore & Other Recent Butterflies

There have been good numbers of Monarch Butterflies coming through the nature preserve over the past week. The majority are pouring out of Canada and passing through our region on route to Mexico. The timing is no accident, since just about all of our open meadows are at peak bloom for Goldenrod and many asters. These flowers are attracting the Monarchs like magnets.Walking through one of these fields the other day, I had Monarchs flying up in front of me with practically every other step. Some were cooperative enough for me to get some pictures of them.
A male Monarch feeds on Green-headed Coneflower

Monarch on New England Aster
Below one of the beaver dams, there is a large clump Purple-stemmed Aster in full bloom. These asters were covered with over a dozen butterflies –mostly Monarchs.

Several Monarchs on Purple-stemmed Asters
A Pair of Viceroy Butterflies mating
Currently, Viceroy Butterflies are quite common in the Pussy Willow grove above the beaver ponds. The main foodplants for the Viceroy are plants in the willow family, so it makes complete sense that they’d be found there. For the most part the Viceroys are found mingling at the nectar plants with their larger lookalikes –the Monarchs.
A male Eastern-tailed Blue Butterfly perches on a Raspberry leaf
Flying low to the ground and looking more like innocuous tiny moths, are the Eastern-tailed Blue butterflies. If you follow one to its landing perch, you have a good chance of seeing it open its wings. If it’s a male, you’d get to see vivid iridescent blue topwings. Female Eastern-tailed Blue Butterflies have much darker –almost black topwings.

The Least Skipper is our smallest butterfly
The Least Skipper has also been seen around the preserve lately. This is another tiny and easy to miss butterfly that flies very close to the ground. It’s often hard to distinguish from the astoundingly common European Skipper. Both have orange topwings with brown or black on the wing margins. The underwings have no pattern and just appear dull orange. In our area, the Least Skipper is more likely to be seen in this late part of the summer, while the European Skipper is at its most Abundant in late spring and early summer.
The Red Admiral feeds on nectar from a Goldenrod flower
Other butterflies that have been making an appearance at the nature preserve include the Red Admiral. This dark butterfly with bold red “admiral” stripes is the species that became so incredibly common in the spring. That unprecedented migration helped to introduce the Admiral to many who hadn’t seen it before. This time of year, they are not nearly that abundant, but a few, likely descendants from the big spring flight, are around to take advantage of plentiful late summer flowers.
The Questionmark Butterfly - note the silvered question-mark spot in the center of the underwing
Giant Swallowtail
A few Giant Swallowtail Butterflies are still being seen in the area. In a previous blog post, I wrote about the Giant Swallowtail caterpillars that were found eating the leaves of our potted grapefruit tree. The caterpillars grew quite large and then disappeared. We weren’t sure if they left of their own volition or if a Blue Jay decided to turn them into king-sized snacks. Hopefully, they just sauntered off to become chrysalises. If they managed that, we may be seeing them again as adult butterflies sometime before the summer’s end. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Beaver Update and the Utica Peregrines

A Beaver kit performs the carrot anticipation twist

All seems to be well with our beaver colony. They still live and work at Secret Pond, which is the most secluded pond on the property. More than 2 months after the major dam collapse and the disappearance of half the original colony, the surviving family members are performing all essential tasks and in the best traditions of their kind, they are adapting their environment to fit their needs.
Julia, the colony's matriarch, feeds on some tasty Aspen leaves
The season's 4 new kits are plumping up fast and have easily doubled their size from a few months back. They still engage in playful shoving matches with each other, but now they also are seen exploring on their own and even traveling into the furthest reaches of the colony's domain. A few days ago one of the kits followed its mother about 100 yards overland into a meadow to collect some Quaking Aspen boughs.
2 beaver kits enjoying a friendly shoving match

Occasionally, one of them actually wins one of these bouts -- it's usually the plumpest one
One kit has been observed doing some fairly competent dam building –or more precisely, dam fortifying. This little guy was seen making trip after trip to the dam with armfuls of mud –all  freshly dredged from the pond bottom. Diligent work on the part of this kit and probably at least one of the adults has brought the 3rd Pond's water levels high enough to make that pond's lodge more usable.
A kit swims up to its giant 2-year old brother, Blueberry

The rising water levels at the 3rd pond have submerged some grasses and have afforded beavers with the ability to graze in safety. As one kit continued to work on the dam, another one took the opportunity to help itself to grass and other drowned plants.
A kit munches on grass that it freshly harvested from the bottom of the pond
One of the kits works on the dam at 3rd pond

The new lodge at Secret Pond is made from a dislodged section of the original 3rd pond dam. The beavers have added material to the exterior, while hollowing out the interior. The size of the inner chamber must be fairly large, for I watched Blueberry (the 2-year old) drag a substantial piece of Aspen trunk into it through one of the structure’s underwater entrances. It’s incredible to think that there would still be room for any beavers with that log in there.
Blue Vervain blooms all around the meadow that was once the beaver's largest pond
A new pair of Peregrine Falcons (on the ledge below the 2 windows) perch on Hotel Utica
It appears that we still have Peregrine Falcons in Downtown Utica. On Saturday, I visited the area with local wildlife photographer, Dave Cesari. After an hour of scanning and seeing nothing in the way of raptors, we finally saw a pair of adult Peregrines perched next to each other on Hotel Utica. Neither of these birds had been photographed before and its thought that they arrived here during the summer to claim the territory. Back in the spring we had a procession of up to 5 different Peregrines in the downtown area –all but one male were immature birds and none of them were able to lay claim to the territory.
The male Peregrine Falcon - picture by D Cesari
It remains to be seen if this new pair is merely transient, or if they will become permanent year-round residents. Of course, this has renewed our hopes of having a nesting pair in the city once again. We shall see.
The female Peregrine Falcon - picture by D Cesari