Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ancient Trees and Unusual Rough Wave Cloud Formations

Our oldest tree - an Eastern Hemlock "The Owl Tree"
There are few ancient trees to be found in the wilderness areas of Central New York. We only have a handful of them at the nature preserve. All of them are located along what were once property borders, and that's the reason why they were spared the axe. Some of these trees where co-owned by neighbors and were even used as make-shift fenceposts; a few still have some strands of rusty wire hanging out of them. If ever someone was desirous of cutting one down –the lack of certainty over which property the tree was going fall on, usually kept saw from ever meeting the wood. So this is how a few representatives of the old forest managed survived to the present day.

curvaceous craggy fissures characterize this trees bark
The preserve’s oldest living resident is an Eastern Hemlock which we call the Owl Tree. It’s gnarly, weather-scarred and it looks every bit of its estimated 300 years. From its vantage point on the side of a gorge, this tree was a silent witness to the clearing of the virgin forest, which began here in the late 1780s. That was when the land was abruptly converted from virtually all forest to virtually all open fields. The Owl Tree suddenly found itself nearly alone –and one of the few places a wandering (and likely bewildered) owl could have perched. In the previous century, this hemlock got to witness the slow return of some forest, as pastureland was allowed to grow in and hedgerows widened. This hemlock was likely responsible for reseeded the gorge and repopulated the area with its own progeny.

This Beech Tree is approximately 200 years old
Along a different old property border, several 200 year old American Beech Trees also have used their seeds and spreading root sprouts to help repopulate their section of the forest. Beech Bark Disease is in the process of killing many of our resident beech trees, but a few like these giants, are still hanging on. They have the disease, but it has not completely corrupted their bark yet.
The "King Maple" with its residence fit a raccoon family

Our oldest Sugar Maple, referred to as the King Maple, is estimated to be over 200 years old. The massive low branches on its trunk indicate that it has been bordering an open field from an early point in its life. So in other words, the forest had already been cleared at the time that this tree was just starting out. Originally growing in a thin hedgerow, its lower limbs readily found a supply of light for its leaves, and they were never naturally pruned by close competition with neighboring trees. If it had grown under normal forest conditions, its trunk would've reached 50 feet or more before branching out. This tree, like many Maple trees of its age, has developed large cavities in its trunk. They are caused by the tree’s heart-wood rotting away. Likely, over the decades, thousands of animals have sought refuge in such an expansive cavity.
Bob Williams stands next to an ancient maple near Paris NY
The fact that they could be utilized for maple syrup production was added incentive to spare some of these border and near-border maple trees. A few miles south of our Preserve, I recently visited a group of ancient Sugar Maples that were truly remarkable specimens. All were similar to our King Maple, but some had even greater trunk diameters.The circumference of the largest tree is 12 feet, 4 inches.
Undulatum Asperatus over Spring Farm
The phenomenon lasted for several hours
The other day, it looked a bit like someone had turned the world upside down. A fascinating cloud formation that resembled large ocean waves had developed over our region. At Spring Farm and around the area people were busy taking pictures of it. The cloud formation is called Undulatum (waves) Asperatus (roughed), and they are most often a consequence of cold air meeting warm air, or dry air meeting moist air. They are occasionally seen following a thunderstorm. Some have referred to these clouds as a sign of a coming apocalypse, so you had best all be on the lookout for that.

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.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Bluebirds, Mice and Wood Ducks

Male Bluebird waits for his nest box to be cleaned

Around the Nature Preserve the Bluebirds have been singing and even checking out some of their nest boxes. I just finished cleaning out around 100 boxes –and, apparently, not a moment too soon. While I worked, a Bluebird pair was on the other side of the field monitoring my progress and eagerly waiting for me to finish and leave, so they could resume their house shopping.  I’m always hopeful that we’ll have many pairs of Bluebirds taking advantage of the boxes, but it’s never the case. At best only 3 or 4 pairs will ultimately take up residence.  Part of the reason for the low number is the changing landscape at the Preserve. As the trees in our reforestation fields mature, the habitat in these former agricultural fields becomes less viable for Bluebirds and Tree Swallows. As the young trees grow, the habitat becomes more suited to the needs of House Wren and even to Chickadees and Titmice.
The early bird gets the best house (male and female Bluebirds)

The Bluebird male will enter a prospective nest box home, and if it seems to pass muster with him, he will perch on top of it and try to coax his mate over with a song. The female then comes to inspect the inside of the box. If she shares the male’s opinion, and finds it suitable, she may begin collecting material and start constructing the nest. She will do this on her own and with no help from the male.

Fear not! This mouse will not be evicted

While I was cleaning out the boxes, I came upon many mouse nests. Several of them were still active and so I had to leave them in place. There’s nothing quite like opening a box and having a worried mouse family staring me in the face. I felt the need to assure them that I wasn’t there to foreclose! The materials used to create the mouse nests varied greatly. Some were white and soft as silk –made up of finely cut milkweed parachutes.
Tree Swallow nest lavishly decorated with turkey feathers
Milkweed silk used for a mouse nest
It’s fascinating to find several nests in one box. It’s a little like excavating an ancient city with distinct layers –one on top of the other –each representing a successive era of habitation. Of course with the nest box, all of the different strata were laid down in a single year. One box had a bed of moss on the lowest level –brought in by a chickadee as the original occupant. On top of that was a Tree Swallows distinctive design: a grassy cup nest decorated with various bird feathers. On top of that was a haphazard assemblage of twigs –the work of a male House Wren. This wren nest is what is known as a “dummy nest” –never used, but one of several created by an individual male. At least a dozen small white Cocoons from moths are attached to the twigs in the wren nest. The very top and most recent layer was the nest of a White-footed Mouse.
Male Wood Duck checking the trees for suitable nest holes
Also cavity nesting ducks - the Hooded Merganser (female and male)
Several pairs of Wood Duck have been visiting the beaver ponds lately. Males and females have been checking out our Wood Duck nest boxes as well as many of the larger woodpecker holes around the beaver ponds. It's a strange thing to see a duck way up in a tree, but if you do see one, and you're in the Northeast, it's most probably a Wood Duck. Sometimes the male will find a tree cavity that looks promising, and, much like the Bluebird, he'll call his mate over to see it. His call is a thin high pitched whistle and perhaps is a bit undignified for such a majestic looking bird. Other times it's the female that takes the initiative and she comes up with the most promising nest site. Either way, it will be her job to lay the eggs, incubate them and then, if all works out, raise the ducklings. After mating, the male abdicates all domestic duties. He may just be too pretty to work. I’m afraid that that makes him a bit of a dead-beat dad, but he’s by no way alone in the world of ducks.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Tell Tale Tracks

The 5-toed  footprints of a rarely seen fisher - a large weasel
The thermometer was making us all experience whiplash this week. In just 2 days the temperature went from the mid-teens to a high of 60 degrees. Now the last of our snow is quickly melting away, and with the snow cover goes much of my ability to see into the secret lives of animals.
Activities of wildlife are faithfully recorded in the snow, and each set of their footprints can tell us a great deal of information about their behavior on the land. Many of the creatures that share the environment with us are only rarely seen –many are nocturnal and are rarely seen even by the most patient observers. Typically, the only ways that we know certain creatures are in the area is either by seeing them dead along the road or by seeing their tracks in the snow.
Highly recognizable track of an Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

Tracks tell tales. Last week I was out just before dawn, and there was a light snow cover from the night before. Intersecting the trail ahead of me was a narrow path plowed by a White-footed Mouse. I followed the path for just a short distance, to a point where it abruptly ended. At just that spot, there was a deeper depression in the snow. Radiating out from that place were clear impressions of a single pair of bird wings; each wing print showed impressions of feathers fanning out on the snow. Evidently, during the early morning hours, sometime after the snow fell, a small owl –likely a Screech Owl, dove down from its perch on a dead branch above the trail and nabbed the unwary mouse as it trotted along.
Coyote tracks lead a straight course through the forest

It’s often difficult to tell which species of the canine family left a particular set of tracks –that is when you just consider each individual foot print; but when you consider the behavior of the animal as laid out by a progression of tracks on the land, you may be able to determine the likely identity of the species. Larger canine tracks could have come from a domestic dog or they could be from a coyote. If the tracks are very "businesslike" –meaning that the tracks suggest a serious purpose in the animal’s actions, then they are probably from a coyote. Coyote tracks, for the most part, go straight from one area to another and they don’t often show signs of frivolousness. Domestic dog tracks more often indicate a playfulness of spirit that you rarely see in the world of adult wildlife. A dog might zig-zag along a trail, gallop off in one direction, only to backtrack and then go off in a completely different direction.

The Gray Fox's path leads across the top of a log
Much smaller canine tracks are left by the Gray Fox and Red Fox. These animals show similar serious intent as the coyote, but may show more versatility in their explorations. They may be more apt to cross logs, go under low brambles or even scale trees.
Raccoon prints cross a narrow bridge over a creek
Raccoon tracks are most often found near water. The front feet of the Raccoon resemble small human hands –with five long fingers. For that reason, they and are very easily distinguished from the footprints of most other wildlife. Muddy foot prints on the snow right alongside a creek are often made by raccoons. That’s not to say that you don’t ever find their prints in the woods or in other habitats. After a night of working the creek, the raccoon will make its way back through the woods to a tree cavity –to sleep it off. If you follow the tracks, you will most often see them end at the base of a tree.

Beaver footprints waddle away from the creek 
Size difference between the beavers back foot print (left) and their front foot print (right)
An individual animal is fully capable of leaving different kinds of tracks –that is without changing footwear. What varies is their gate: they walk, they run, or they may gallop. Following a track for a distance you may see that the animal deploys all of these gates at different times. Some creatures –like most of the weasels, typically gallop from place to place, and in doing so they leave distinctive sets of prints.

Size comparison between my hand and a print of a beaver's hind foot
Beaver prints are one of my favorites to come across and are rarer than you might think. Even though beavers remain active through the winter months, they don’t often leave their ponds. The food cache that they accumulated during the previous fall allows them to sustain themselves without having to venture out onto the land. The most striking things about the tracks of the beaver are how large their hind footprint is (up to 7 inches long). The size difference between their hand-like front feet and their paddle-like back feet is remarkable. Looking at a set of tracks of a beaver easily congers up the sight of one of them waddling up the trail.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Chickadee Gate

Cardinal, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and American Goldfinch
visit the gate feeder later in the spring
Some years ago I came up with a method of luring migrating warblers to a place where they can be readily seen and perhaps even photographed. Warblers are not seed eating birds, but many members of the mixed foraging flocks that they travel with are, so by introducing a minor feeding station into just the right spot, I hoped to attract the chickadee led flocks to a place where they could be observed. In the area that I chose, the forest corridor narrows like the thin part of an hourglass. This was important because these flocks, which prefer to stay in woods, would naturally be funneled through here. A feeder would encourage Chickadees to come in close and hopefully, when they did, they’d bring their interesting fellow travelers with them. I decided to use hulled sunflower seed in order to really get the Chickadees’ attention. Just a handful of seed left on 3 fence posts was enough to get the ball rolling. I would replenish the supply whenever I went through that area. It didn't take long for word to get out. It never does in the Black-capped Chickadee community. This precocious species is always the first one to discover a new food supply. 

A migrant Bay-breasted Warbler comes by the feeder area
Shaking hands with a Chickadee
This was envisioned as a late summer to mid-fall activity –for that's when the most migrants band together into foraging flocks. The method worked reasonably well: Chickadees and their seed eating allies quickly made a habit of coming to the fencepost feeders. And sure enough, they brought with them an impressive and ever-changing cast of migrant warblers and vireos. Undoubtedly, I will talk about the diversity of migrant songbirds that came to the Chickadee Gate in a future blog post; my focus now will be on the unintended consequence of this endeavor.

Brown Thrasher comes for a peanut
The main unintended consequence was that I instantly became immensely popular with dozens of resident Chickadees. To them I was the ice cream man –but without the annoying music.  They would see me coming from hundreds of yards away –each member of the group calling frantically and coaxing me along to the feeder area. They escorted me for such a long distance that I began providing the impatient fellows with snacks along the way. I’d put some seed on tree stumps and on fence posts along the trail side. Before I knew it, they were landing in my hands, on my hat, on my shoulder and even on my camera. It was ridiculous. What began as a fall activity, expanded into a winter activity –was held over as a spring activity and, why not, it was extended into the summer. It was now an institution and they wouldn’t let me stop doing it. I had to carry their seed with me at all times or else they would be extremely disappointed –and we couldn’t have that!

The advantages of having a long tongue
I did make a few adaptations to this institution. No longer would I encourage the birds to land on me. I had to. It had gotten so that a few of them would make a mad dash for my head as soon as they saw me. This didn’t faze me, but I could easily imagine someone else swatting at the unexpected bird-shaped projectile. So instead of feeding them everywhere, I scaled it back to just 4 places including the original fence posts. That particular place has been dubbed the "Chickadee Gate", since the fence posts hold in place a metal gate.
It’s now been at least 6 years, and I visit the gate at least twice a day. These days I always find a gaggle of winter residents waiting to meet me there. It’s still mostly Chickadees, but it’s also Cardinals, Tree Sparrows, Juncos, White-breasted Nuthatches, Red-bellied Woodpeckers and many others.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Nests of Winter

A well preserved nest of a Red-eyed Vireo. This nest is attached to its branch by the rim
It may be counterintuitive, but winter is the easiest time of year to find bird nests; and yes, this is obviously long after the builders are gone and the nests have become inactive. It’s only when the leaves are off the trees, that these nests, which are normally camouflaged or concealed by foliage, become visible to us. Of course, this is true only for nests that are placed well above the ground. Those on or near the ground may be covered with snow, or remain concealed by vegetation.
Song Sparrow nest hidden in a Hemlock & protected by a tree fence 
I admit to some frustration as these nests are revealed and I see how close they were to the areas that I frequented during the breeding season. Apparently,  I walked right by some of these nests without realizing they were there. A winter walk with me is likely to be peppered with statements like: “So that’s where that tanager nest was! … Dam it! Why didn’t I notice that last summer?” On one occasion during the summer, I remember sitting on a bench, working on a report and being scolded by a pair of Song Sparrows. Evidently, they were protecting a nest, but I had no clue where it was. Only now, more than 6 months later, did I discover its location; I found their long abandoned nest –tucked inside the base of a wire tree protector –not 10 feet away from my bench.
A very well preserved (if short necked) Baltimore Oriole nest
Many birds have distinct building styles –they use different building materials; they build at different elevations or attach their creations in ways indicative of their species.  As the winter progresses, these nests disintegrate and thus the identity of the builder becomes harder and harder to determine. However, some, like the woven nest of the Baltimore Oriole, remain quite recognizable even as spring comes closer and a new breeding season looms. The Baltimore Oriole’s nest usually looks a little like a baseball hanging inside of a gray stocking. The rim of the “stocking” is attached to an isolated bough of a tall shade tree. The carefully woven structure and its overall elasticity enabled the nest to stand up pretty well to the elements. Of course, these nests will not be used a second time –at least not by the birds. Most birds do not reuse their nests, not even within the same season, let alone after an entire year has gone by. Some birds like the Eastern Phoebe, will build a new nest on top of the remains of last year’s nest. Other birds –including cavity nesters like Tree Swallows, may, after deconstructing an old nest , create a new one in the same cavity, utilizing some of the salvaged materials. Some Raptors will reuse nests, or will refurbish their old ones, thus saving time and energy.
Ruins of a Catbird nest, capped and now inhabited by a mouse 

Many nests of the Gray Catbird become visible in winter but by then they are usually just barely recognizable; they certainly don’t hold up as well as the Oriole nests. As they are subjected to the elements, they begin to resemble a heap of twigs, haphazardly piled into a bush. But the relatively large size and composition of the nest ruins, together with its low height, tell us who the likely builder was.
A Catbird nest filled to the brim with mouse provisions

I’ve found many instances of bird nests being reused by Field Mice –sometimes as a winter home and sometimes as a storehouse for berries and seeds. A lid made from leaves and cottony plant fibers secured to the top of an old nest is a sure sign that a mouse has taken possession of it. 

A Field Mouse is the winter tenant of this Bluebird Box
A surprisingly large portion of our bluebird boxes become filled with mouse nests over the winter. This month as I begin cleaning the boxes before the upcoming breeding season, I will have to carefully probe dozens of mouse nests in order to determine if they are still active. I never evict an active mouse nest; instead, I wait until they are finished raising their families and then remove the nest and ready it for the birds.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Beaver Dam in Late Winter

March 1, 2012

The fact that a beaver pond is hosting an active beaver colony is no secret.  All it takes is a look at the dam and you’d see an accumulation of freshly peeled sticks. With a large beaver colony, there will be a lot of these. They give the dam a mottled appearance –with blond sticks on top of dark brown mud. Though placement of the sticks looks arbitrary, most of the branches have been set in just the right spot –according to some beaver’s discerning eye. In other times of year, you probably wouldn’t see such a large number of the peeled sticks, but in winter, the beavers are more confined; they eat most of their food in the home pond where their winter food supply is stored, and so the wood left over from their meals builds up and is dealt with on location. Luckily for them the byproduct from their meals turns out to be one of their main construction materials –talk about efficient recycling!
The dam itself is an amazing structure and no 2 beaver dams are exactly alike. Longer dams run a serpentine course, bending into and away from the pond’s center at irregular intervals. Beavers don’t usually do straight lines –even though one might think that it would save them a lot of work and materials if they did. But, by bending a dam in toward the pond –especially in a place that carries a strong current, they are able to alleviate some of the stress on the dam created by the water pressure.

The dam at our main beaver pond is up to 6 feet high at its tallest point and at its widest point –beneath the water, it’s probably greater than 12 feet wide. The dam is primarily made of mud and woody branches, but there is also a considerable amount of stone contained in its interior. These stones are usually the size of small field stones or smaller, and they are most obvious on the very top of the dam where they share space with the peeled branches. It’s tempting to think the beavers are concentrating on aesthetics here, with their use of “facing stones” neatly laid into the dark mud and interspersed among the straw colored sticks. Certainly it isn’t obvious how these particular stones and sticks serve any practical function. Just maybe this is the beavers’ way of decorating their front porch.

Over the years, I’ve found some curious items on top of the dam –things that maybe the beavers thought were worthy of display. One was an antique beer can that they likely dredged up from the bottom of the pond. I doubt that the beavers drank the contents –it wasn’t their brand for one thing. Old shards of stoneware pottery have also shown up on the dam; the shards probably eroded out of the stream bank at the site of some forgotten farm dump (A surprisingly large number of dumping sites can be found around old farms). These dredged up artifacts were apparently deemed worthy of special attention by the beavers –enough so to be carefully placed on top of the dam –as opposed to being unceremoniously shoved into the mass of the dam’s structure and plastered over with mud.
Beaver dams are incredibly leaky structures, so they require frequent maintenance by beavers or else the water level of the ponds will drop. Come spring, additional material will be added to the dam and mud will be plastered over the top, so what is now on the top of the dam is destined to become part of its interior.