Sunday, October 28, 2012

Fall Turn Over & Beech Trees on Display

A doe casually looks behind her to see the dude with the camera
The end of October usual marks a major turning point in the activities of wildlife and plants. Most obviously, by now the majority of our deciduous trees have lost their leaves and have entered into their winter dormancy. Wildlife is also on the move –many are migrating and the year-round residents like beavers are busy storing food. White tailed Deer are wandering through the area, seeking out the places with good food reserves where they can spend the winter months. This is also the mating season for deer, and bucks will often travel long distances in search of a mate.

A small hemlock gets rubbed

At the preserve, I often hear the bucks rubbing their antlers on the trunks of small trees –scraping away the bark and gouging the wood in the process. Years later these deer "rubs" will become scars on the sides of trees –serving as evidence that once a buck performed his fertility ritual there.

A flock of Canada Geese fly in "V" formation over the nature preserve

The migrant birds are still on the move and their sounds usually capture our attention. This morning, about a dozen flocks of Canada Geese flew over. Most are not officially migrating yet. In fact they will remain as local birds for the time being. They will commute back and forth between the wetlands and agricultural fields until the area’s water freezes over and the fields get covered with deep snow. At that point, when feeding becomes difficult, the geese will decide to resume their migration --most will go east to the Atlantic coast.
One of many Robins that will spend the fall and maybe even the winter with us
Flocks of Robins and Bluebirds were in the air this morning. The Robins were also being seen in berry laden bushes and on the ground on grassy trails. Blackbirds are also passing over. Most are Red-winged Blackbirds, but a few of the flocks contain a number of other species, like the far less common Rusty Blackbirds.
The Myrtle Warbler is one of the last warbler species to come through the preserve
We still have not yet quite exhausted the supply of migrant warblers, although we are getting close. Only one species, the Myrtle Warbler, continues to be seen, but only in small numbers. Sparrow and finch numbers remain high. A couple of days ago more than a dozen Fox Sparrows were in and around the hedgerows. A few of them even sang, perhaps consciously making me out to be a liar for what I said about them in my last post. I said that they rarely sang during fall migration. I take it back!
Beech Trees create a final burst of color in the fall woods
In the old woods at the nature preserve, the American Beech Trees are putting on a rare show. The Beech Trees are among the last forest trees to lose their leaves and they are not usually known for their grand fall colors, but this year they seem to be outdoing themselves. Their color is ranging from yellow-green to bright copper. Some are a very pale tan and a few are still showing some green.
A close up view of some Beech Tree leaves
This tree's bark is obviously currupted by Beech Bark Disease (BBD)
These days our Beech Trees are not the healthiest trees in the forest. Most of them have Beech Bark Disease, which is characterized by pock-marked and sometimes heavily cracked bark. The normal bark of the Beech appears very smooth. The disease is initiated when the exotic Wooly Beech Scale insect feeds on the bark and creates in-roads for a fungus. The fungus first kills the bark and eventually the whole tree dies.The loss of the Beech Tree in our environment would be a serious blow to wildlife since every few years they provide a bumper crop of Beech nuts, which wildlife depend on.

The Flowers of Witch Hazel bloom in the fall even as its leaves turn brown

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Hermit Thrushes on the Move & More Fall Colors

The Fall Domain of the Hermit Thrush
Lately in our woods, small groups of migrant Hermit Thrushes have been showing up. Sometimes they are seen in conjunction with larger flocks of Robins, but more often they are on their own. The Hermits are rather plain looking birds –with grayish brown backs and light colored breasts that are heavily spotted with dark brown. Their tails are somewhat ruddier in color than their backs, and from a distance this helps to distinguish this thrush from several similar species. But typically, in Upstate New York, any brown thrush seen this late in the season will be a Hermit Thrush. 
One of a half-dozen Hermit Thrushes seen in the woods yesterday

The Hermit Thrush can also be distinguished from other thrushes by its habit of tail dipping. This is when the bird, in a perched position, slowly lifts and then drops its tail –a bit like a teeter-totter. This action is usually only performed when the bird is alarmed
The Hermit's tail is redder than its back
Our woodland thrushes are considered by many to be among the most accomplished singers in the songbird community, and the Hermit Thrush is the favorite of most. Unfortunately, like most birds, they don’t tend to sing this late in the year. In fall the only sounds you will hear from them will be a small repertoire of alarm calls and contact notes. One of the most recognizable of these call notes is a long and rather reedy whistled note that sounds a bit like the birds are saying “way”.
The Hermit Thrush has a heavily spotted breast
When feeding, the Hermit behaves very much as other thrushes do. They may be seen eating fruit off of trees and vines, but more often they will be seen on the forest floor hunting for worms and insects. Their hunting technique is very similar to that used by their cousin, and fellow thrush, the Robin; the Hermit will run in a short spurt on the forest floor, abruptly stop, jerk its head from side to side and then plunge its beak to the ground to snap up a meal. At this time of year when the forest floor is covered with leaves, the thrushes can be seen turning over leaves to search for creatures that may be scurrying beneath.
The Hermit Thrush hunts for insects on the forest floor
The flock of Hermits that I found today didn’t exactly seem to be living together in peace and harmony. Indeed, there was a lot of rivaly on display. Likely, these are birds that have just recently joined up together for the purpose of migration, and they are still establishing some kind of pecking order.To see a video made of Spring Farm's very own Hermit Thrushes click on this link: Hermit Thrush Video
The Oak trees in our reforestation fields are very colorful right now
Though many of our deciduous trees have now lost most of their leaves, there is still a lot of color in the forests and reforestation fields. Some of our Oak trees are really looking nice now, as they turn various shades of brown, red and orange. Most of the young Tulip Trees are bright yellow and some of the smaller bushes and shrubs like Silky Dogwood have gone shades of burgundy and deep purple.
Some colorful foliage on a Red Oak
Our young Tulip Trees have turned very bright yellow this year
Silky Dogwood at the edge of a small wetland
A Virginia Creeper vine grows up the trunk of a Sugar Maple in the old woods

Sunday, October 14, 2012

An Excellent Sparrow Migration

A Juvenile White-crowned Sparrow
The latest group of migrant birds to populate the nature preserve has been the sparrows. Over 200 sparrows representing a half dozen species are congregating in and around bird feeding stations, brushy areas and especially, around the beaver meadow.

Formerly, a beaver pond -- now a meadow rich in migrant sparrows
A Swamp Sparrow in relatively dull fall plumage
Feeding primarily on the seeds of field wildflowers, the sparrows travel mostly around edges of the meadow, usually never straying far from brushy cover. If a hawk or another predator is seen by any member of the flock, an alarm call will send all diving for safety.
White-throated Sparrows are our most common fall migrant sparrow
Lately, our most common sparrows are the White-throated Sparrow and the Song Sparrow; we probably have over 80 of the former species and over 50 of the latter. Neither of these species are particularly shy, and if you casually scan over a flock, these are the ones that you’re most likely to notice.
Our most common summer resident sparrow is the Song Sparrow
Currently the 3rd most common sparrow on the property is the White-crowned Sparrow. Unlike the other 2 mentioned, the White-crowned doesn’t nest in the region, but only passes through here when migrating between its Canadian breeding grounds and its wintering grounds in the southern US. Their black and white striped crown makes them resemble the White-throated Sparrow, but the White-crowned Sparrow shows more gray on the back and sides of the neck. Also, its beak is orange. Juvenile White-crowns, which often outnumber the adults, have brown stripes on their heads instead of the black and white.
Adult White-crowned Sparrow eating hulled sunflower seeds

Lincoln’s Sparrow has been more common this year than any year that I can remember. I’ve now seen them down at the beaver meadow for at least 10 consecutive days. Occasionally, they keep company with Swamp Sparrows and some of the other species I’ve already mentioned. Lincoln’s Sparrow is much shier than your average sparrow, and often they have to be coaxed out of their hiding place with “spishing” sounds. If you ever see anyone with a pair of binoculars, pursing their lips and making weird airy sounds to a bush, then you may have just found someone that is keen on seeing a Lincoln’s Sparrow –or they might be legitimately crazy.
Lincoln's Sparrow is usually one of our least common migrant sparrows

The Fox Sparrow is easily our largest sparrow
The most recent new arrival is the Fox Sparrow. This sparrow’s general appearance is similar to a Song Sparrow, but they are more ruddy-colored and a size larger. Their size is comparable to a Hermit Thrush. The Fox Sparrow never show up in large numbers –usually no more than a handful of birds are seen at any one time. When they first come through in early spring, they are frequently singing, and so they are easier to find in the brush. In fall however, they make little noise apart from an infrequently given alarm call that is fairly distinctive.
Pine Siskins are small finches that often can be found with flocks of Goldfinches
Purple Finches have been quite common this season
Technically, all of the sparrows are  finches, which is pretty logical if you take the time to examine their bills. The bills of all finches are generally short, conical and perfect for seed cracking. At this time of the year, the sparrows might be joined by several other finches including American Goldfinch, Purple Finch and Pine Siskin. Still more finches by other names include the Cardinal and the Eastern Towhee, both which can currently be seen in the same habitat with our migrant sparrows. 

A female Eastern Towhee 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Smooth Sumac and White Ash Blazing With Color

This picture from our nature preserve shows a variety of tree species, but Sugar Maple is by far the most dominant 
The trees decided to defy the predictions that this was going to be a lack-luster fall for foliage in the Northeast. In fact, some species are really outdoing themselves around our nature preserve. 2 impressive examples are Smooth Sumac and White Ash. The sumac has always been a fall favorite of mine. A single leaflet can vignette from yellow to green to red, thus bestowing one compound leaf with virtually all the colors of a peak fall foliage display.

Smooth Sumac Trees growing in a tight group along our road frontage 
The sumac is a low tree that grows in clumps -most often along the edge of the forest, so its bright colors take their place right in the front row of trees where they are the most visible. The sumac's low height often sets it against the dark trunks of larger trees, thus insuring a great amount of contrast. In a way, the sumac looks like it could be acting as kindling for the forest, setting the other trees' foliage ablaze from beneath. At the sumac's level there is little colorful competition except for yellow leaves of Bittersweet vines,Wild Grape and maybe some burgundy colored viburnums.
2  positively glowing leaflets from a single compound leaf. Note the vignetting on each 
The fruit of the Smooth Sumac is brick red, horn-like structure. They grow singly only at apex of each branch and they tend to accentuate the exotic look of these small trees. These fruits are used as emergency food for wildlife -usually resorted to in winter only when no other food is available. I've even seen insect-eaters like Kingbirds feeding on it during late spring snow storms when no insects are flying.
Smooth Sumac laden with its red fruit
The White Ash is one of the unsung heroes of the fall foliage display. The leaves of these medium to large trees turn a wide variety of colors. Like the sumac, this tree has compound leaves and the individual leaflets tend to vignette from one color to another -though not as drastically as the sumac. The most common colors of the Ash Trees range from deep gold to bright burgundy to dark Purple, but other colors can also become quite common in a given year. Some may turn a distinct shade of peach.
Most  of our White Ash Trees turn gold with copper highlights
There's a world of gold shinning in those Ash leaves

White Ash again, looking red from a distance but more wine-colored when seen up-close against the blue sky
The White Ash is in the maple family and granted, that's a hard family to compete with when it comes to fall colors. But in my opinion, the Ash manages quite well even when compared to their flamboyant cousins, the Red maple and the Sugar Maple. White Ash trees make up about 10% of the trees in the forests of Upstate New York, and a truly colorful fall depends on their participation.

This Ash tree appears mostly orange from a distance, but a close-up view reveals many other hues
We may not always have the Ash Trees with us. There is an exotic insect that's been destroying stands of Ash in the mid-west and it has been steadily making inroads in the Northeast. The insect is called the Emerald Green Borer, and on its own it has moving only about 5 miles a year, but traffic in firewood and other raw timber products is enabling the insect to spread much quicker into regions where it was never found before.

Green, to burgundy and finally to a deep brown at the very top of this Ash

This is about as red as a White Ash tree can get

This White Ash turned a shade of deep purple