Sunday, April 28, 2013

Scavengers Alter Behavior for Spring & Latest Blooms at the Preserve

A Coyote visits a deer carcass that was pulled from a pond
A few weeks ago a dead deer was pulled out of our one of the beaver ponds. The animal had died earlier in the winter and remained frozen in the pond for possibly over a month. Once it was dragged onto shore, resident and migratory scavengers were finally able to get to it.
This particular Coyote acted with confidence around the site
Monitoring the scene with the trail camera allowed us to witness some interesting behavior of the different animals attracted to the site. During the winter, a similar deer carcass was nearly entirely consumed in one 24 hour period, but this carcass lasted much longer. The major difference this time is that the breeding season for many animals is underway. With crows now nesting and acting territorial, the pair that claimed the territory around the first beaver pond successfully kept all other crows away from the feast. A similar dynamic set up with the other resident carnivores.

A single family of crows kept away all others of their kind
Turkey Vultures were the most common day-time carrion feeders at the site
The vultures stretch out their wings to dry them in the morning sun
Turkey Vultures are still migrating through and many of them have been stopping to take a meal. The flocks and family groups have their own pecking order. When a group comes in to feed, certain individuals were kept away from the carcass until the dominant birds have their fill. Still, the enforcement wasn't extreme and no scuffles broke out within any of the flocks.

A Gray Fox claims the site by night - when there are no coyotes around
The Gray Fox pair was seen often, but they rarely fed
Territoriality during the breeding season limited the number of coyotes and foxes that came to the carcass. A single pair of Gray Foxes were seen frequently around the site, though it seemed that they rarely fed on the deer. In fact, more often they came only to mark the territory around the site. Whenever the Gray Foxes showed up on the video footage, they moved around with confidence – acting pretty much like they owned the place.

A Red Fox came by only infrequently - and remained hyper alert 
The Red Fox's dark legs help to distinguish it from the similar sized Gray Fox
By contrast, a Red Fox that showed up one evening looked anything but confident. Likely this was an individual without a territory of its own – or perhaps it was well beyond the bounds of its own territory. It checked out the site – noted the “sign posts” that were left by the Gray Foxes and then departed without even sampling the deer.

A thin and somewhat skittish female Coyote was a  frequent visitor 
She was constantly looking around and would run off at every noise
After dark, one of the most frequent visitors to the site was a lone female coyote. This straggly looking individual fed ravenously – and she looked like she needed to. She was obviously not at home in the territory – she was quite skittish – constantly looking around and running off at the slightest sound. Her thin tail was almost always held down, which is a sign of submission. She definitely acted like she was stealing every bite. Most likely she is a youngster experiencing her first spring without a sibling or parent for support.

In contrast, this female Coyote was very at home at the site
She would usually feed in the early morning hours and even remain after first light
The only other coyote that came to the carcass was a very confident adult female. Her beautiful coat had a golden sheen to it. Her bushy tail was usually kept out-stretched and she seemed to have very little to worry about when she fed. Sometimes she would still be feeding after the sun came up, which is another indication of her great confidence. This was undoubtedly her territory and perhaps, quite soon now she will have her kits in a den in the nearby woods.
(difficult to make out) A Bobcat walks away from the deer carcass
Early in the evening one night, a solitary Bobcat walked through the site. Unfortunately, the video camera didn't trigger until the cat had walked past the dead deer, but the short “bob” tail and the cat-like gate made the identification certain. Bobcats are very uncommon in our region and this was actually the first time one had been confirmed at the nature preserve. Its presence here is yet another indication of a growing predator population, which in turn is a sign of a healthy population of prey species.

"Spring Beauty" continue to bloom in the old woods
This week new forest blooms included Twinleaf, Hepatica, Blue Cohosh, Red Trillium and Trout Lily.
Bloodroot is completely open now
More Bloodroot - the blossom rising from its cupped leaf
Blue Cohosh has very small blossoms
The first Red Trillium begins to open in the old woods
Trout Lily start to bloom in a big way

Sharp-lobed Hepatica -  with both old leaves (red) and new
Hepatica comes into its own

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Drumming Woodpeckers, The Red bellied Snake & Recent Wildflowers

A male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker drills a line of holes into a maple tree
Our old woods were very quiet for most of the winter. Mixed foraging flocks of chickadees, nuthatches, kinglets and creepers were mostly absent and few other birds seemed able to eke out a living there. Woodpeckers were present, but even they were not frequently encountered. 
The Northern Flicker recently returned to the nature preserve
Unlike most other birds, the way woodpeckers look for food is quite audible. Everything from light tapping to incredibly loud banging results from the woodpecker’s search for insects. A Pileated Woodpecker chiseling apart a dead tree - trying to get at the heart of an ant colony, or excavating a nest cavity, can be one of the loudest bird-generated sounds in the forest. To me, a Pileated at work sounds like a rogue carpenter haphazardly pounding nails into forest trees. What the hell is that guy doing in there?
The loudest bird in the forest is the Pileated Woodpecker
A Pileasted tore into the heartwood of this tree to get at a colony of Carpenter Ants
4 of the 6 species of woodpecker that reside at our nature preserve are non-migratory, and so they remain with us all year long. The other 2 species – the Flicker and the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, arrive here in April from their southern wintering grounds. By the time they do arrive, many of the other woodpeckers have already begun drumming. The drumming pattern for most of our woodpecker species is similar and they are hard to distinguish from each other in the field. Most produce a rapid and even-paced volley of knocks. Once again the Pileated Woodpecker stands out. It too produces a rapid drumming, but the end of its drumming phrase tapers off to lighter, more rapid strikes.
A Sapsucker arrives at its nest hole in a White Ash Tree
Woodpeckers use drumming like other bird species use song. They drum in order to announce their territorial claims. To best do this they will seek out a tree that resonates well so that they can broadcast their proclamations as far as possible. Sometimes they’ll choose something other than trees - like a barn or a metal roof. I recall once being startled by what sounded like a machine-gun going off in the woods near me. It turned out to be a sapsucker pounding on a metal posted sign on the tree right next me. The Sapsucker’s drumming is the most distinctive of all of our woodpeckers. The bird's uneven drumming phrase has been likened to the sound of someone banging out Morse Code.
The Red-headed Woodpecker, once common in Central New York, now are quite rare
 As I was in Downtown Utica the other day, looking for Peregrine Falcons, I came upon a dead male Sapsucker. An urban center seemed an unlikely place to find a denizen of the forest, but during migration, birds will often fly through some unlikely terrains. This unfortunate individual apparently struck a building and was killed. I suspect that this happened during the day, when the bird mistook the reflection of the sky in a window as a place that could be flown through. Bird deaths caused by impacts against buildings and other tall structures are one of the leading causes of bird mortality. In the US, millions of birds – primarily nocturnal migrant songbirds, die each year from such impacts.
The Red-bellied Snake is a small and innocuous nature preserve denizen 
Yesterday I came upon a Red-bellied Snake basking in the afternoon sun. This species is the second most common snake at our nature preserve, but it is still encountered only infrequently. This small brown-backed snake has a very red underside, which is not very evident unless the reptile is turned over. They are not venomous and their small mouths and teeth pose little threat to anything but earthworms, snails and insects, which are their primary prey.
Their heads are relatively small and so are their teeth
The snakes' red underside is often hidden from view
In habits and diet, the Red-bellied Snake is much like a salamander
The Red-bellied Snake is very salamander-like in its habits. I most often find them lurking in dam mossy soil beneath logs or rocks. They are always a great pleasure to find given their vivid color and mild nature. April and May seems to be the time when I come across them most, but I think that that may be more because of my behavior than theirs, since I do most of my planting and woodland garden work at this time.

A turn towards mild weather has brought out the earliest woodland wildflowers.

The first wildflower to bloom this season was the Skunk Cabbage
Colt's Foot was the 2nd wildflower to bloom
Spring Beauty are beginning to carpet the forest floor in some places
Not a flower, but providing  color on the forest floor is Scarlet Elf-cup

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Utica Peregrine Falcon Update

This dark immature Peregrine was perched on the Hotel Utica - photo by D Cesari

The new nest box is located 15 stories high on the Adirondack Bank Building  - photo by D Cesari
I spent time in the Downtown Utica area on Saturday trying to determine if any falcon activity was taking place. Wildlife photographer, David Cesari was with me. We spent about an hour and a half checking the traditional falcon roosting sites and saw nothing until we were nearly ready to leave, and then we located an immature Peregrine perched on a ledge on the Hotel Utica building. This was a very dark and distinctive individual with a brown back and heavily streaked underparts. The bird was apparently a male and we were certain that we hadn't seen this bird before. While we were watching it, a 2nd Peregrine flew over us heading north, but we didn't get a good enough look to determine if it was a known individual. It could very well have been the same juvenile male falcon the was seen and photographed the previous Saturday.
Another immature male Peregrine was seen the Saturday before - photo by D Cesari
I regret to say that it looks very much like we no longer have a pair of adult Peregrines in the downtown area. It's fairly certain that a territorial pair would not allow these interlopers to hang out on "their" buildings. Even though some sort of vocal commotion was reported at the new nest box this week (which may or may not have been attributable to falcons), I think the chances of a breeding attempt in Utica in 2013 is becoming less likely. It's already getting late in the season for a pair to get started - which may seem strange to some of us that recall our original pair (Maya and Tor) beginning their nest as late as the first week of June.
Tor and Maya at the nest tray on the Gold Dome Bank in 2009
So things are looking much as they did last year at this time, after Maya vacated the territory and thus allowed Downtown to host a procession transient Peregrines - mostly immature birds. Maybe also like last year, before the end of the season, a new pair will take possession of the territory. Of course all of this means that we will have to wait until the spring of 2014 before there will be any possibility of a nesting attempt. Still these things are worth waiting - and waiting for. 

Tor in 2009
Maya in 2009

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Turkey Vulture Love

Good morning Turkey Vultures (looks like one is still asleep)
For about 3 years I've been watching a pair of Turkey Vultures that seem to have adopted a collapsed barn as a breeding site. I haven't seen the nest itself, but the birds' presence there for 3 consecutive breeding seasons suggests that there likely is one. I thought about getting permission to access the site in order to confirm the nest, but the truth is that I'd rather not be vomited on, for that's what vultures sometimes resort to when intruders get too close to their nests. Given the species disgusting diet, I think that my hesitance is warranted.
A Turkey Vulture perches over one of the beaver ponds
When I was still in high school, circa 1980, I began noticing Turkey Vultures making inroads into our region. Back then we had few large raptors, so any bird with a 6-foot wingspan was bound to make a big impression. By the 90's the species had become fairly common sight - at least during migration. After 2000, the species  was present in our region throughout the breeding season, which meant that they were very likely nesting nearby. Although, such a strong flier could be expected to search for food great distances away from the nest site.
In flight, Turkey Vultures look like they have small heads and long tails
The flight feathers are lighter and give the wings a two-toned effect
Though they look quite beautiful when soaring overhead, the Turkey Vulture is unlikely to win any avian beauty contests. Their red, featherless heads make them look quite homely, but this adaptation fits their lifestyle well. Vultures sometimes submerge their heads into the carcasses that they feed on; obviously, any head feathers would tend to get covered in gore and they’d be difficult to clean.
Road-killed animals provide vultures with much of their food 
A keen sense of smell sets the Turkey Vulture apart from other North American birds
The way the Turkey Vulture flies is quite distinctive. They don’t hold their wings out straight like most other hawks and eagles; instead their wings are kept slightly elevated into a shallow “V” shape. They also tend to rock or teeter from side to side as the soar. From the underside, the soaring Turkey Vulture looks black, but its long primary feathers have a lighter and more silvery cast to them.
Turkey Vultures can be seen circling in the sky & ascending on thermal air currents
so far this spring over 10,000 Turkey Vultures have migrated past the Derby Hill Hawk Watch  in Oswego.  On one single day last week, over 3,000 flew over on particularly favorable winds.
The Turkey Vulture's hooked bill is an efficient instrument for butchering 
Turkey Vulture nest sites are mostly found on hard to access cliffs, but they will occasionally accept nesting situations in trees, tree stumps, collapsed buildings, barns and other places. The main criterion for the site is that it be hard to reach by predators. They don’t normally build a conventional nest, but instead lay their eggs on the bare ground or on a rock surface with sometimes some wood chips or other gathered debris as the only insulation. Turkey Vultures usually lay 2 eggs, which both parents take turns incubating for around 40 days. The parents feed the young with regurgitated food. The young birds leave the nest after 65 to 88 days.
A Kingbird (much smaller) harasses a Vulture that came too near its nest
No doubt the reason that vultures moved into this region has to do with the increasing availability of carrion (dead animals). The region's large population of White-tailed Deer insures a pretty reliable food supply for scavengers like the vultures and coyotes. Though the majority of the calories consumed by Turkey Vultures comes from dead animal matter, they have been documented as occasionally eating insects, grapes and some other plant materials. 
Good Night, Vultures
The 2 love birds were at their favorite farm again this morning - perched very close together on a corner of the roof and busily preening themselves. I stopped to take a few pictures of them, but few of the shots turned out very well since invariably, either one or the other would have their heads down when I snapped the shutter. Apparently, they just weren't in the mood for a family portrait. I understand that Turkey Vultures will perform a courtship dance that involves several hopping around in a circle with wings partially held out. It is my hope to someday witness that spectacle.