Sunday, December 29, 2013

Some Winter Wildlife from the Nature Preserve

This buck was photographed the day after the last deer hunting season ended
I don't have time to write a proper blog this week, but I still wanted to share some photos of winter wildlife at the nature preserve. 

A Carolina Wren perches in a bush near the bird feeders.

A Great Blue Heron tries to eke out a living at the mostly frozen beaver ponds
There are actually 2 Raccoons sleeping in this tree cavity
Golden-crowned Kinglets are commonly encountered this winter
This Red-breasted Nuthatch greets me at the entrance to the preserve each day
One of the yearling beavers leans onto the ice in order to break it
A Pileated Woodpecker feasts on a carpenter ant colony in the heart of a dead tree
A Downy Woodpecker looks out from the tree cavity where it will spend the night
Female Cardinal 
Gray Squirrel
Eastern Cottontail Rabbit
Muskrats in conference 
One of many White-throated Sparrows that are spending the winter with us
Tippy the Beaver
The beavers cut themselves a Christmas Tree this year. They almost never cut down evergreens
Brown-headed Cowbirds are not unusual winter visitors
Blue Jays are very common this winter

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Deer Hunting Season Ends and Leaves us With Many Carcasses

After nearly 80 days, the last of the deer hunting seasons comes to an end this week – at least in our region. Even though hunting is not allowed at the nature preserve, every year we have the misfortune of getting a number of wounded deer onto the property. Astoundingly, most of these are not tracked by the hunters that shot them. Instead they are left to die of their wounds. Sometimes it takes hours - sometimes days or even weeks. One buck that was shot with an arrow took about 6 days to die. The day after it was shot (it was shot just after dark!) I was able to track it for about a mile, but I couldn't find it. Finally I did come upon it lying dead in one of our creeks.
In fall most bucks walk around oblivious to all but the scent trail of a doe
A doe lays down for the night - often they get covered with sonw
I don’t think that inflicting an agonizing death on these animals is the aim of most deer hunters, but too often it is the result. Many hunters seem to lack both the ability to hit their target in the right place and the ethical sense to realize that merely wounding an animal is an unacceptable outcome.
A buck approaches his fallen comrade

A Red tailed Hawk often claims the carcass for most of the day
The only silver lining to these sad cases is that the animals that die will never go to waste. Legions of scavengers will use them to sustain themselves through the most difficult time of the year. Interestingly, it’s not just the usual suspects – the coyotes, foxes and Red-tailed Hawks, which visit deer carcasses. Even songbirds occasionally come for a small share. Most surprisingly of all, I've seen mice including the tiny Northern Jumping Mouse coming to feed on a carcass. 
The male of a pair of Coyotes that visited this carcass
The female Coyote 
Regulars to one deer carcass included a pair of Coyotes and a pair of Gray Foxes. The foxes would usually visit in the evening while the coyotes would wait until the early morning hours. Red-tailed Hawks seemed to be the most common day time scavengers. Unlike the others, the hawks will often remain at the site for many consecutive hours – fending off crows and anything else that may have a taste for carrion.
The Gray foxes were the most common nighttime visitors to the carcass

Just lately there’s been a new deer carcass right beyond our border at the top of a wooded hill. There scores of crows have been assembling every morning and late last week a group of 8 Ravens joined them. While a large flock of crows doesn't normally tolerate a single raven in their midst – especially when there’s food around, apparently when there are as many as 8 to contend with the crows reluctantly take the path of peaceful coexistence.  
The Fisher's large feet , no doubt help them to run on top of the snow
The Fisher visits the site in the early morning hours
Yesterday at that same carcass site there was an adult Bald Eagle. When I came through she took off from her perch in a large tree and started to fly toward the south. Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles are known to visit deer carcasses – particularly when they are in open areas. When most of the region’s bodies of water are frozen over and fishing becomes less of an option, the Bald Eagle sees no shame in acting like a vulture.

An adult Bald Eagle was seen perching in the trees above another deer carcass
Other than the occasional set of tracks, we had been seeing little action from of our resident Fishers since the spring. That seems to have changed just lately and now I’m starting to find Fisher tracks all around the preserve and in just about every type of habitat. They don’t seem to be making a habit of visiting the deer carcasses – at least the ones that I've been keeping track of, but I expect they will at some point. Probably once their rodent prey becomes harder to come by.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Annual Christmas Bird Count

The Barred Owl can be found throughout the winter
Of all the possible times of year to choose from, why conduct a bird census in December? That’s the most common question people ask when they hear about the Christmas Bird Count. In December, and in wintertime in general, there are the fewest number of bird species to be found in the Northeast. Yet, this is when approximately 30 Mohawk Valley residents brave the cold to participate in the National Audubon Society's Annual Chistmas Bird Count. Once all of our individual field sheets are tallied, we can expect to confirm between 50 and 60 bird species in the greater Utica area. That's not bad considering that any one of us during the course of a normal winter day might expect to find no more than 10 species in our own yards.
The female Northern Cardinal  - a bird for all seasons
Most Northern Flickers head south, but a few will remain each winter 
The Christmas Bird Count is the longest running bird census in North American. It began in the year 1900 and was conceived by ornithologist Frank Chapman as a protest against the once popular Christmas wildlife shoot (called a Side Hunt) that used to take place annually on Christmas Day. The object of Side Hunts was for teams of hunters to go out in the field and shoot as many birds and small animals as they could find. Each animal was assigned a certain number of points and the team with the most points at the end of the day was declared the winner. Unfortunately, birds and other animals were the guaranteed losers in these events. It’s important to understand that this was happening at a time before strong Federal laws protected our native birds. Such an event would be illegal if it were to be held today.
The most numerous bird found on last year’s count was the Snow Goose
Blue Jays are one of the staple birds our local count
Before the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty act went into effect in 1918, many North American bird species appeared to be headed toward extinction. Some, like the Passenger Pigeon and the Carolina Parakeet, had already gone extinct.  Side hunts were by no means the main cause of the declines; a whole range of pressures from market hunting to habitat loss to egg and specimen collecting all took their toll. One of the greatest single threats came from the Plume Trade. Between 1880 and 1920, decorating women’s fancy hats with elegant bird feathers was a fashion imperative that frequently drove Plume hunters to decimate entire nesting colonies of Egrets, Terns and other species in search of beautiful feathers.
The Sharp-shinned Hawk preys on winter songbirds
In the beginning, very few people participated in the Christmas Bird Count and in only a few places, mostly in the Northeastern US. Over the course of many decades its popularity grew exponentially.  Today, tens of thousands of birdwatchers participate in 2,300 counts that take place all over North America. The census data that is collected is useful because it gives scientists a snapshot of where birds are at a specific time of year. By comparing results across multiple years, they can draw conclusions about how species and specific populations are changing over time. 
The Tree Sparrow is our quintessential winter sparrow

Where there is open water you may find Hooded Mergansers
The protocol for counting birds is the same whether you are in Alaska or in Mexico; participants are tasked with counting every bird they see on a single pre-determined date. Most counts take place from dawn to dusk but nighttime birding, in the form of “owling”, is also encouraged. All bird counters must stay within a designated count circle that is 15 miles in diameter. For the Clinton/Utica Bird Count, the center of our circle is roughly where Jay-K Lumber is located on Seneca Turnpike in New Hartford. Our circle contains a diverse range of habitats, everything from forestland to agricultural fields and from marshes to city streets. Each distinct habitat type has the potential to harbor different kinds of birds.
If there is open water, some Wood Ducks may be found
Over the 40 years that the Clinton/Utica Christmas Bird Count has been taking place, we have seen some significant changes in the bird life of the Mohawk Valley. Probably the most notable change has been the number of waterfowl that are now regularly found lingering here into mid-December. That trend began in the 1990s and has become more dramatic as the years have progressed. A species like the Snow Goose that was never encountered in our count circle until the year 2000 was the most numerous bird species tallied in our most recent count. Last year, close to 70,000 of them were seen in area cornfields and flying overhead. Warmer temperatures in December are enabling these geese to migrate later in the season than before. Canada Geese and a variety of ducks are now expected to be found since open water and snow-free farm fields often remain available through at least mid-December.
The House Finch was once one of our most common winter birds
Local Christmas Bird Count data tracks significant changes in the populations of some our common backyard songbirds. For example, the House Finch never occurred in Central New York until the 1970’s after which their numbers gradually increased and finally hit a peak in the early ‘90s. Following that, their numbers crashed. The drop in population was the result of a form of conjunctivitis (an eye disease) that proved deadly to the birds. The disease spread like wildfire in this highly social species that commonly feeds together in flocks. After the 1990’s, modest numbers of House Finches continued to be tallied on our bird counts but their numbers never again reached their former highs. To this day, the disease remains a limiting factor in their population. 
Once rare, the Red-bellied Woodpecker is now quite common
Once common, now the Red-headed Woodpecker is rarely seen locally
The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a species that was never found in our count circle until 1980, when a single bird was located.  In contrast, we regularly see as many as 30 of them now, which makes them as common as any other of the regularly occurring winter woodpeckers. This change can be explained by the regrowth of forests in our region.   The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a forest nesting species that benefits greatly when agricultural fields give way to woodlands. The increasing popularity of maintaining well stocked bird feeders has also benefited the Red-bellied Woodpecker, since they are quick to utilize those resources.
The fortunes of the Red-headed Woodpecker are quite different than those of its Red-bellied cousin. Once, the Red-heads were a common species in the Mohawk Valley, but by the time the Clinton/Utica Christmas Bird Count got started in 1974, the species was already on its way out. Still, individuals and small groups continued to be found within our count circle until 1990. The reasons for the Red-headed Woodpecker’s decline are not fully understood, but it is thought that the same alteration in the region’s habitat that benefited the Red-bellied Woodpecker was a disadvantage to the Red-head, which requires more open land in order to thrive.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Last Minute Migration Push and Winter Resident Red-tails

On Saturday morning the temperature was close to zero degrees F 
"Cold enough for you?" I think that I may have to brain the next person who says that to me. And I may just club them with the frozen mallet that once was my hand. Yes indeed, it has been cold enough for me, but not cold enough for the thermometer, which I think still had a couple of available numbers below this morning's reading. It finally seems to have been cold enough for some of our semi-winter hearty birds as well. Over the last few days I've noticed plenty of them winging south - or south-ish anyhow. Now before I get pulled over by the accuracy police, what I just said is somewhat misleading since it's not directly the cold temperatures that are prompting the birds to leave, it is rather what the temperatures do to their habitats. The Geese are leaving because the large cornfields where they feed have been covered with snow; at the same time the region’s open water - where the birds gather and feed, is freezing over.  This would likely happen soon anyway, but this year it was an abrupt and early changeover - at least when compared to the recent 10 year average.
Massive flocks of Canada Geese moving south 
Last year the Snow Geese didn't move until mid-December
Yesterday at the nature preserve a Great Blue Heron was seen at the border of our largest field. He didn't seem a bit happy and was definitely out of his element. He was standing on the snowy ground alongside an access road - perhaps hoping to catch a mouse crossing the road. Not typical prey for the heron, but they can resort to it. Since the ponds are frozen there's little chance of him catching any fish around here. When I came by him he flew only 20 yards away and set down again on the ground – this time along the forest border. His flight was somewhat weak and I had the impression that this bird may have a more serious problem, but when I came by a little later on he had gone. Hopefully he will persevere.
A few Great Blue Heron will remain here as long as there is open water
A Belted Kingfisher will also stay if there are ice-free places to fish
In the last week or so, there has been a lot of talk about Snowy Owls showing up in Central New York. Just lately there have been as many as 4 at the airport in Syracuse, which strangely enough is a traditional wintering home for the species. I don't think they are there to catch a flight - well not one in an airplane anyhow. The owls go there for the vast wide open spaces which no doubt seem a bit like home to these Arctic birds.  We have yet to find one around the nature preserve, but we also don't have the ideal habitat to attract them - even if we do have a booming small rodent population that could sustain them.
Red-tailed Hawks are most plentiful this winter
Crows keep close track of all movements made by the Red-tailed Hawks
One thing we do have lately are 4 or 5 Red-tailed Hawks on the property. Usually you can find these guys perched on high snags along field borders, but I have one pair that is consistently staying in the woods. The same pair has been specializing in hunting the inner woodlands for a few years now. The Red-tailed Hawk is not ideally proportioned to hunt in a forest environment, but apparently this pair can pull it off. Raptors like the Sharp-shinned and the Cooper’s Hawks that have smaller wingspreads and longer tails are much better suited to maneuver through a maze of branches while managing the quick bursts of speed necessary to secure prey (most often songbirds). Well however they manage it, the forest Red-tails are here and they seem to be surviving. Perhaps they are supplementing their diet with meat from deer carcasses. This time of year is deer hunting season and with that always comes number of deer that are wounded but then are never recovered by the hunter. After these deer die from their wounds they are found by scavengers of all types - including many part time carrion eaters like the Red-tailed Hawks.
A Red-tailed Hawk keeps its sharp eyes fixed on the ground below for stirring prey
No not a Snowy Owl - this is an albino Red-tailed Hawk that hung around a few years ago
A Red-tailed Hawk lays claim to part of an animal carcass by draping its wings over it
Last week I was alerted to a case where an immature female Ruby-throated Hummingbird was still visiting a nectar feeder in the Syracuse area. I had some fellow birders check it out to confirm the species. Why this little hummer decided not to migrate to the tropics along with all the other members of her kind is a mystery. She seemed to be healthy, but was beginning to have a hard time coping with the cold - not to mention the difficulty the home owner had keeping her nectar feeder from freezing. It was getting to the point where the little hummer was landing on the woman's had and trying to come into her porch. When a significant winter storm was forecast for last weekend, the decision was made to capture the bird and allow it to overwinter in a wildlife rehabilitator’s aviary. So right before the storm and without a hitch, the hummer was captured and transferred to the rehabilitators facility.