Sunday, January 27, 2013

Moon Creatures and Interesting Stream Ice

A yearling White-tailed Deer walks by the camera in the early morning hours

Recently, I've set up a trail camera to try to capture video of wildlife carousing around the nature preserve at night. I guess that most people refer to them as game cameras, since they are most usually employed by hunters monitoring an area for prospective game. I however, am using the same instrument for non-exploitative purposes (Yeah!) The first problem that I ran into had to do with the camera placement. Should I put it along a trail, or near a particularly promising den site? Should I have it placed high and pointing downward on the action or do I try to mount the thing at a much lower level, where it would be at eye level with a fox. In the end, I opted to alternately try all different angles and locations.

Gray Fox checks out the entrance to a burrow
Nighttime picture quality is pretty poor. Infrared shots as a rule look stark and unnatural. In fact the pictures are reminiscent of those taken on the surface of the moon by Apollo astronauts. Also, snow is heavily reflective, so any shots with snow are subject to appearing extremely washed out. As one could imagine, this presents a bit of a problem for winter photography! Another problem is that all animals’ eyes glow like crazy, and that makes them look even more like unearthly beings.  
The Fox  goes only  part way down the hole
After the fox leaves, a rabbit shows up and disappears down the hole
By far the most common animal in my night videos are White-tailed Deer. These were mostly adult females with their yearling fawns in tow, but also a few bucks did make cameo appearances. So far, I've captured no real amazing footage, but a few of my favorite moments involve the subject interacting with the camera. In one such clip, a young doe comes in from behind the camera gives it a going over with her nose; this creates some sizable camera tremors. She finishes up by putting her eye right up to the camera shutter for an extreme close-up.

An overly curious doe puts her eye right up to the camera!
One evening, I set the camera up in front of a Woodchuck hole. Though woodchucks are not active in winter, other animals often use the entrance ways of their burrows as their own make-shift shelters. There were some signs of recent excavations at this hole, so I thought that it was a promising place for nighttime action. The first night, a Gray Fox walked up to the hole, sniffed around it, but didn't attempt to enter. About an hour later the same fox returned and rechecked the hole; this time she even entered it, but then quickly backed out and departed. A short time later, an Eastern Cottontail Rabbit came into view. It hopped up to the entrance and disappeared down into the hole. The next night no rabbit or fox was captured. However, a deer approached the hole and seemed to be enthralled with the bare earth below the excavation.

The deer's turn to check out the Woodchuck/Rabbit hole

Rabbits get ready to face-off  (apparently, this too is on the lunar surface)
In the next set-up location, 2 rabbits were caught interacting in front of the camera. Most of us think of rabbits as the most peaceful creatures, but on occasion, they will let each other have it. On that night, a rabbit approached another one that was sitting in the middle of the trail. They touched noses and sat face to face for a few moments, and then the one that was approached suddenly lashed out and punched the other guy. Who expected that?

At first light, the crows begin to gather in front of the camera
It has been amazingly cold this week at the nature preserve. A few mornings, the temperatures have been well below zero, and they varied little during the course of the day. Extreme cold has an interesting effect on the streams –during the process of freezing, the water in the stream expands greatly in the creek bed, creating in places something resembling a miniature glacier. Moving water remains at the bottom of the channel, passing through, in some places, intricate labyrinths of ice. On our largest creek, the water level dropped considerably after the initial deep freeze, and this created a double layer of ice, with more than a foot of clearance between the layers. This ice tunnel will act as a passage way for small animals like mink, which can now traverse part of their territory without being seen.

The receded water-level leaves a large gap between the water and the surface ice
The stream becomes a show case of interesting ice sculptures

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Redpolls and their Allies

Common Redpolls don’t show up every winter, but in the years when they do come, they can come in big numbers - frequently in flocks of over 100. The Common Redpoll is a small finch, and is about the same size as our American Goldfinch. In fact, they produce some similar call notes and display some similar behavior as that familiar species.
Only the adult male Redpoll has a rosy chest
When they first arrive in this area, I don't usually find them at bird feeders right away. Instead, I find them in the birch trees. The seeds of the Birch are a staple food of the Redpolls, and these birds seek them out throughout their expansive range. For a few weeks in early winter, whenever I would find birch catkins scattered beneath a tree, it was a safe bet that a flock of Redpolls had been actively foraging.
Redpolls of both sexes have the distinctive  red cap and the small black chin patch
Redpolls are able to store seeds in a throat pouch. This is a useful adaptation for a species that sometimes must travel long distances between food sources. When they do find bird feeders, their seed of preference is usually thistle or nyjer seed, but they also readily feed on sunflower seeds. For us, it’s most often in the second half of the winter that the Redpolls begin coalescing around the bird feeders. When they do, they can become very reliable patrons – visiting daily and necessitating frequent refilling of the feeders. 
A newly arrived flock of Common Redpolls feeds on  the seeds of a Gray Birch
Redpolls often allow a close approach and so it is easy to get a really good look at them even without binoculars. This is true of a number of bird species from the far north, including some of the owls, ptarmigan and some of the other finches. It’s thought that these species’ general lack of experience with humans is responsible for their boldness.
The Common Redpoll is a bird of the Arctic. There they spend the summer breeding season on the tundra and into the boreal forest. They typically build their well-insulated nests in shrubs or low conifers. They will only come south of the Canadian border when their natural food supplies are lacking. This is when they are forced to push into or “irrupt” into other regions.
The adult male Hoary Redpoll shows a considerable amount of white plumage
The Hoary Redpoll 's back has a frosty appearance 
In years when the influx of Common Redpolls is especially large, we sometimes get another species of Redpoll mixed in among the crowd. The Hoary Redpoll looks like a whiter version of the Common Redpoll. They have noticeable less streaking on their flanks and none under their tails. They also have stouter bills, which tends to be much easier to discern when the Hoary is seen perched right next to a Common Redpoll, and it’s possible to make a direct comparison.
The Pine Siskin appears heavily streaked, and has a longer bill that other small finches

Note the yellow tail feathers on this siskin
The Pine Siskin is another heavily streaked small finch whose visits from are unpredictable. Individual siskins show varying amounts of yellow on their wings and tail. The species also has a much longer bill than either the Goldfinch or the Redpoll, and that feature can help you pick them out in a mixed flock of winter finches. Unlike the Redpolls, the breeding range for the siskin extends well into the US, particularly in higher elevations where there is boreal forest. Also, unlike the Redpolls, we've had siskins visit our feeders in all seasons of the year, though rarely in successive years.
A group of Evening Grosbeaks (and one House Sparrow) perch in one of the nature preserve's sumac trees 
Other winter finches came through the region this winter, but few stayed long. Throughout our Central New York State region, the amount of food in the wild is low this year, and for the most part, the larger finches like Evening Grosbeak, Pine Grosbeak and the 2 species of crossbill have been forced to try their luck  in other regions.
A male Pine Grosbeak feeds heartily on Crab Apples

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Beavers Under the Ice

Secret Pond is mostly iced over
For the last several weeks our beavers have been living in their lodge and for the most part, remaining under the pond's ice cover. I cut a hole in the ice near the shore and there I've been leaving some assorted branches and apple pieces. Lately, a few of the beavers, including Julia, the adult female, have been seen coming up through the hole. Most of the others have not been seen, which is probably a good sign and an indication that the beavers winter food reserves remain in good shape.
Julia emerges to take an apple piece
The beavers have not been venturing out over the deep snow, which is understandable. Even though they have large feet, which seem like great natural snowshoes, the beavers' bulk makes them especially awkward when traveling in snow. However, when necessary they will brave it and venture out to cut and retrieve trees.
A beaver wrangles a large branch into the pond
One day last week, a gap in the ice opened up on the other side of the pond –right over the original stream channel. I didn't notice any activity around it, until I heard a branch splash into the water. Evidently, one of the older beavers had climbed up a large willow bough and gnawed a smaller branch off of it. Later I saw him towing his prize toward the dam. Upon reaching it,  he dove under the ice and presumably went into the lodge.
Julia busts a large chuck of ice down into the water
In the last few days we've been experiencing a thaw, and the beavers have taken this opportunity to clear the pond of much of its ice. They do this by widening the holes that have developed around the dams and stream channels –including the hole that I chiseled out. They break the ice in a variety of ways, but the most common method is to climb up onto it and use their weight to bust it down into the water. This method is the easiest and the most effective. Occasionally, a beaver will begin a new hole in the ice by using its head to smash up through it from beneath. From my perspective on shore, all-of-a-sudden, a beaver head just pops up through the ice –surprise!
The muskrat isn't able to break up ice like the beavers
The muskrats stay active all winter and have been doing their part to help draw down the beavers’ food reserves. The muskrat kits that were born in the fall, are beginning to resemble their parents now –so much so that I have trouble telling them apart. In a previous bog entry I wrote about how muskrats benefit from the work of beavers. Indeed, everything from food to housing is provided by their beneficent larger cousins. The muskrats also benefit from the ice removal services that the beavers provide. Definitely the muskrats are ill-equipped to perform this task for themselves.

The beaver confronts a Great Blue Heron in its "front yard"
2 weeks ago we had a Great Blue Heron around the pond system. Almost every year, there’s one of these guys that tries to over-winter in the area. They need to fish to survive, and as long as they can find some open water somewhere, they can sometimes manage to eke out a living. A few years ago, one Great Blue would ply his trade right in one of the beavers’ ice holes. This lead to some interesting interactions. The beavers weren't exactly afraid of the heron, but they did negotiate around him with some caution. I imagine the equivalent would be for one of us to confront a Pterodactyl.
The mink also takes advantage of the beavers' ice holes

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Resident Pheasants and Grouse

The adult male Ring-necked Pheasant
We have one or 2 male Ring-necked Pheasants attempting to spend the winter at the nature preserve this year. I’m not sure where they came from. Most likely they were raised locally by someone and then released along the roadside. The State of New York sponsors these raise and release programs in order to keep the countryside stocked with this "game species".
The adult female Ring-necked Pheasant
The beautiful Ring-necked Pheasant is not native to the Americas. It is in fact one of several very closely related Asian species, which often interbreed. They were introduced into many different countries around the world in order to give sportsmen reliable targets to blast away at. In New York State the Pheasant was introduced over 120 years ago. At that time virtually all of the native game species had been extirpated, or have had their populations drastically reduced.

The obvious wide white neck ring distinguishes this species from other common pheasants
In our region, surviving and reproducing in the wild has never been a sure thing for the Pheasant, but in recent years, conditions on the ground have presented the bird with even more of a challenge.  Probably the species’ main limiting factor derives from a change in farming practices. As row crops and monocultures replace more traditional grain production, and with so much former agricultural land reverting back into woodlands, the pheasant faces a more difficult task in finding suitable breeding habitat.
One of the released young males is molting into adult plumage
The pheasant fared much better in the Central New York of a half-century ago, when open fields were plentiful and brushy field margins provided plenty of good cover. Of course, making it through the winter is always a challenge, especially when deep show prevails and inhibits the bird’s ability to find food.
All 10 pheasants were brought in their own boxes. We let the birds decide when to go
A few years ago, at the nature preserve, we allowed some folks to release pheasants that they had raised that season. It was a group of about 10 male and female birds. They were definitely old enough to be released; in fact it was about a month after the normally suggested release time for the species. The hope was that they would remain in the vicinity of the preserve’s wildflower meadow and reforestation fields. There are several well stocked feeding stations nearby, so we thought there’d be some incentive for the birds to stay, but only a week after the release, only one could be found in the area.
Newly released Pheasants looking rather exotic perched in the branches above us
Several years ago we had a male Ring-necked Pheasant that would stand on top of one of the preserve’s benches to give its crowing call. It was a fairly ridiculous sight and it made a good addition to my collection of animals unexpectedly found on benches. My best catch in that series was probably a Spotted Sandpiper that once inexplicably walked up and down on the very same bench.

This male is using a bench to make his territory proclamations
Several years ago, a pair of Ring-necked Pheasants chose this field as their domain

When startled, the Ring-necked Pheasant will rapidly launch itself through the bushes with a quick volley of percussive wing-beats. Often they’ll give their characteristic call just before they take off.

The Ruffed Grouse is our very own native wild chicken

Ruffed Grouse are the closest thing we have on the property to a native wild chicken. About the same size as a small chicken, the grouse is most often found around the boundary areas between woodlands and meadow habitat. The species’ camouflage is excellent, especially in late fall or early spring, when the bird’s mottled white and brown plumage best matches its surroundings. Just before winter sets in, the Ruffed Grouse develops a fringe of small lobes on its toes. These lobes are called pectinations and they help distribute the bird’s weight – allowing it to walk on top of the snow. After winter the pectinations will be shed.

The fringe that runs along the outside of the grouse's toes are called pectinations

This particular grouse was nicknamed "Super Chicken" for his over-the-top dedication to protecting his territory

The grouse will take advantage of the deep snow to keep warm in the winter. Before nightfall the bird may dive into or burrow down into the snow, where it will remain at least until morning.
The mottled  plumage of the Ruffed Grouse allows it to blend in with  its surroundings
"Super Chicken" hops up onto the ATV to check for license and registration
The Ruffed Grouse remains a game species despite a precipitous population decline over the last 20 plus years. One would hope that this fact would make an impact on those State agencies that impose outdated “management” plans on this species throughout its eastern range. It seems to me that their numbers might recover quicker if the birds cease being targets for hunters.