Sunday, May 26, 2013

Amphibians, Foxes, Butterflies and a Very Strange Gall - Also Some of the Latest Blooms

A happy American Toad joins the singing chorus at his favorite pond
The extended period of dry weather looked to be bad news for some of the preserve’s amphibians – particularly the ones that rely on our vernal pond. That small woodland pond had shrunk to about the size of a puddle and the Wood Frog tadpoles were crowded together in a last ditch effort to survive. These little guys had just barely begun developing back legs and were clearly not capable of surviving outside of water. One more day of hot dry weather would've sealed their fate, but the rains came just in the nick of time and most of them were saved. As of yesterday this pond was filled to the brim again.
Mating can be a pretty  raucous affair with Toads

American Toad tadpoles gather in the shallows
The American Toads are partial to breeding in another pond – fortunately one which isn't so reliant on rainfall for maintaining its levels. Last year an early spring warm spell effectively scuttles the toads' breeding season. I recall that the toads had begun converging at the pond a full month earlier than usual, but then more seasonable (cold) temperatures returned and that abruptly halted their breeding activities. Consequently few eggs hatched and toad tadpoles were scarce  By contrast this year a quick survey of the pond's shallows revealed thousands of tiny toad tadpoles swimming in the shallows. They appear to be more than making up for last years losses.
Red-spotted Salamander or "Red Eft" moves slowly through the forest
Lately the Efts are very common in the old woods
Red-spotted salamanders were also in the same pond where presumably they too are spawning. More notable has been the number of them encountered in the woods. Clearly they've been taking advantage of the recent rains to disperse into their woodland habitat. Of all the salamanders, the Red-spotted or Red Efts are by far the most commonly encountered in our region. Unfortunately they have a tendency of lingering on the foot paths and they are not good about getting out of the way of foot traffic. Lately when I take those paths I need to really concentrate on the ground before me – to avoid stepping on them.
The Salamander returns to the pond to spawn - they look quite different at this stage
The male Red-spotted Salamander grasps the female to make sure that she doesn't  mate with another
Butterflies have been showing up in various different habitats. The other day, Hobomock Skipper and Juveniles Duskywing where seen in one of the meadows for the first time this year. Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars were also found in our iris meadow. All of the checkerspot larva were feeding on the young turtlehead plants that grow among the irises. Like many butterflies, the Checkerspots over-winter in their larval form. They wake up in the spring, just in time for their main food-plant to appear.
The Hobomok Skipper is usually the first skipper butterfly to emerge in the spring
Baltimore Checkerspot Butterfly caterpillar
The adult Baltimore Checkerspot Butterfly
Other butterfly newcomers have been the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Pearl Crescent and Questionmark. For the Tiger Swallowtail the nature preserve has become a much more welcoming place since we've included that species’ main food-plants in our reforestation fields. Of course, Tulip Trees and Black Cherry Trees have other reasons for being in those fields, but the fact that their leaves can be utilized these magnificent insects is a great bonus.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly
Pearl Crescent - another recent butterfly
At both the preserve’s bird feeders and at our house's feeders we've had female Gray Foxes coming around every day to partake of corn and peanuts. Due to the frequency of her visits, we think its likely that our yard fox has a den nearby. It has been fascinating to watch her interactions with the other wildlife in the yard. Hen Turkeys, which also likely have their own nests hidden in the nearby woods, often walk by the fox while she’s feeding. Obviously these birds don’t consider the Gray Fox to be such a great threat, but that will change once the turkeys have clutches of chicks to watch over.
A Gray Fox stands in our large bird-feeder at the nature preserve
Lately this is typical scene in our backyard - turkey and fox coexisting
Galls of various shapes and sizes have been showing up on a variety of different plants and trees around the preserve. Many of them show up on oak tree leaves and are caused by insects – primarily wasps. However, the strange orange galls that I found the other day were on Red Cedar trees and they are caused by a fungus. During its different generations, Fungal Apple Rust alternately infects Red Cedar and apple trees. The bright orange galls that develop on the cedars have spore baring tentacles, which make it resemble some exotic sea creature. The spores produced in the tentacles will next infect apple trees.

Fungal Apple Rust looks like a sea creature when its on Red Cedar

The procession of blooming plants continues at the nature preserve. Here's a sample of what we've been seeing:

Woodland Geranium 
Yellow Ladyslipper
Blue-eyed Grass - a member of the iris family
Dwarf Delphinium
May Apple
Apple Blossom
Hawthorn Blossom

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Woodcock, Teal, Turtles and Other Recent Sightings

The American Woodcock calls on the ground before his aerial flight display
 The American Woodcocks began courtship display flights in late March and they have continued right up until this week. Over the last decade the breeding grounds at the nature preserve have expanded for this species as fields have grown in and become brushy meadow and young forest habitat. The beavers have done their part to keep the Woodcocks' favorite field at a stage where it remains viable breeding habitat; as they continue to harvest  larger pioneer saplings, they keep much of the field in a perpetual brushy state, which the woodcocks can utilize.
As he calls on the ground, the Woodcock turns in a circle in order to address the entire meadow
The "chunky" American Woodcock is probably our most bizarre looking shorebird
At dusk the Woodcocks begin to assemble on their staging grounds. Loud nasal "peent" calls begin to emanate from the meadow - and that's usually the first indication that the birds are there, that is unless you're lucky enough to see them fly in. The calls from a single individual vary in volume; this is because the male is turning to face different directions as he calls. After a while, as he continues to turn in place, he begins to flash his tail feathers - revealing white under-tail spots that are normally invisible on the resting bird. When it's dark enough the male launches from the ground, quickly gains altitude and begins to describe a wide circle over the meadow. In the quickly fading light, it is usually possible to pick out his silhouette against the sky. His relatively slow fluttering flight reminds me of a fat bat, or even a huge moth. Often enough, you won't be able to see him - you'll only hear the twittering sound that is produced by his outer primary wing feathers as moving air makes them vibrate.
Pictured against a darkening sky, the Woodcock may fly as high as 300 yards
At the crescendo of his flight display the male woodcock begins banking from side to side, and this creates a weaving or zig-zagging flight pattern. At this point he begins to descend and the twittering wing sound is augmented by some repetitive piping vocalizations. The flight display ends with the bird’s rapid descent to the ground and then, almost immediately, he resumes giving nasal “peent” calls. With any luck, a female woodcock had been observing this spectacle and was duly impressed.
Sitting on her nest at the base of an Aspen tree, the female woodcock relies on her camouflage 
Large eyes  placed high on her head allow the woodcock to see directly behind her
Apparently at least one female was captivated by the male's performance, because a week ago I found a female woodcock sitting on a nest in a nearby meadow. The woodcock’s excellent camouflage makes them just about impossible to pick out against the surrounding vegetation. The birds’ relatively large eggs are brownish and heavily blotched with dark spots so they too blend in with their surroundings, which is an important safeguard for whenever the female has to leave the nest in order to feed.
A Pair of Blue-winged Teal - the male shows a crescent moon on the side of his face

At one of our beaver ponds it looked for a little while like pair of Blue-winged Teal were going to nest. They spent over a week at the location and courtship and mating behavior was witnessed. The Blue-winged Teal is a very small duck – about half the size of a Mallard. They do nest in the region but they are by no means common here. The shoulder portion of the leading edge of their wings are light blue and that gives the species its common name. The Blue-winged Teal is sometimes a long distance migrant, wintering as far south as South America.
This Painted Turtle laid her eggs in a chicken coop!
2 painted Turtles bask in the morning sun
Lately turtles have been very much in evidence at the nature preserve. In a few cases, some female Painted Turtles have been traveling far away from their wetland habitat in order to find suitable places to lay their eggs. However, sometimes these turtles find the most inappropriate places to lay. At her own home, one of Spring Farm CARES’ employees found a Painted Turtle in the midst of laying its eggs in a hole that it excavated inside of a chicken coop. It’s likely that the resident chicken will be surprised when baby turtles start to emerge from the ground. The mother turtle was brought to the preserve for release. She joins a healthy population of Paints and other turtles at our turtle/frog pond.
Red Baneberry
Woodland Wildflowers continue to bloom around the nature preserve, though the ongoing dry weather and near constant browsing by deer have presented a great challenge to most of them.
Rue Anemone
Long-spurred Violet
Canada Violet
Marsh Marigold
False Bishop's Cap

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Blueberry Beaver Will be Greatly Missed

Blueberry 2010 - 2013
Our Beaver Colony lost one of its members this week. Blueberry was born in late summer of 2010, the first offspring of our resident pair at the time, Julia and May Apple. It was an unusual time of year for a beaver to be born, since most beavers have their kits in the early spring. The fact that he was an only kit was not particularly unusual since this was the first time that his parents had reproduced.
Blueberry in 2011
Blueberry (left) with his father , May Apple (right) enjoying some apples in 2011
Blueberry wasn't an only beaver for long, and in the spring of 2011 his parents supplied him with 4 new siblings, which he seemed more than happy to help care for. One of the kits would incessantly badger him for apple pieces or any other tasty morsel its older brother might be enjoying. That particular kit was dubbed “Badger Beaver” and later became Blueberry’s closest friend in the colony. Blueberry and Badger, along with their father, May Apple (the master builder) did the lion’s share of the maintenance on all of the colony’s dams and lodges.
Blueberry having some poplar twigs
Blueberry (left) with Badger (right) in the summer of 2011
In the spring of 2012, when the main pond’s water level had been substantially increased, emergency work was needed on the lodge and the 3 worker beavers toiled around the clock until the job was done. They piled up branch after branch on top of the lodge – greatly increasing its height, while simultaneously, from the inside, chewed out a new ceiling. They also raised the level of the living chamber’s floor. Interestingly, Julia and her latest batch of kits were inside the lodge during the entire reconstruction process.
May Apple dragging a branch onto the lodge in 2012
Blueberry coming down after working on the roof of the lodge
Blueberry was a very friendly beaver and I had many encounters with him during his too short life. He would often come up onto shore right near me and collect grass or groom himself. Sometimes he would causally pass by me on a foot trail – headed out into the sapling grove to do some logging for dinner.
Blueberry collecting grass probably to use as bedding inside the lodge
Blueberry loved apples
The most famous anecdote about Blueberry had to do with a one beaver protest that he staged against his father’s selection of the family's “groceries”. He was about a year old at this time and May Apple was still providing him with most of his food. Pussy Willow is the most common beaver food plant at the nature preserve and so that's what May Apple usually came back with. The trouble was that Blueberry was tired of willow and what he really wanted his father to bring back was Quaking Aspen. So to protest, he began taking the freshly cut willow saplings – one by one, and pushing them over the dam. Hilariously, after he finished shoving the last nemesis branch over and out of the pond, May Apple returned with a king-sized willow sapling. Why don’t you just help yourself, Blueberry? There’s plenty more where that came from.
By 2012, Blueberry got over his dislike of willow and collected loads of it for the winter food supply
After the big dam collapse in June of 2012, and May Apple and 3 of badger’s brood mates disappeared – and were presumably killed, it was Blueberry and Badger that managed to pull things together and recreate a new place for the remainder of the colony to live. Blueberry was instrumental in fixing the dam at Secret Pond and creating a new lodge there. Now in the role of main provider for his mother and for 4 brand new kits, Blueberry got over his hang up with willow in a big hurry.
Badger and Blueberry take a short break from emergency dam building at Secret Pond
Blueberry works on the dam at Secret Pond
Last fall, the bulk of the food collecting for the winter food cache was done by Blueberry, but Julia and Badger also helped out. Their search for food led them further away from the home ponds than our colony had ever gone before. They found a remote grove of aspen and exploited the trees will skill and efficiency. The food cache, which was primarily assembled by Blueberry, grew as large as any that his father or grandfather had created before him.
A Quaking Aspen cut down by Blueberry
Blueberry drags the Aspen tree back to the pond
Blueberry seems to have died from injuries sustained from being caught in a leghold trap. Most likely this happened while he was looking for new territory somewhere off of the preserve’s boundaries. It is surmised that he either had freed himself from the trap or was released by the trapper. Beaver trapping season ended in our region on April 7, and so any beaver caught after that date would be mandated released or dispatched. Since leghold traps are not typically the trap of choice employed for trapping beaver, it’s likely that beaver was not the target animal in this case.
Blueberry with one of the new kits in 2011
Blueberry evidently took a long time to die. He managed to get himself back to his home pond where he died from a massive infection in his crushed right leg.
Blueberry with a new kit from 2012
Trapping is still a thriving “sport” in New York State – promoted and “managed” by the NYS DEC. Traps are set in wild areas throughout the State where they indiscriminately kill and maim many thousands of wild animals every year. Rarely encountered animals like Pine Marten, Otter, Fisher and Bobcat are included on the list of animals that can be legally trapped in New York. Gray Fox, Red, Fox, Coyote, Ermine, Mink, Opossum, Raccoon, Muskrat and Beaver are among the typical animals targeted by this barbaric practice. In the case of most of these animals, there are no bag limits imposed on trappers – so come on kids, trap as many as you want. And yes,the State does actively encourage kids to get involved.
Blueberry with a new kit from 2012
Remember never to purchase real fur! And tell your State elected officials that trapping in all of its forms should be banned permanently.
Goodbye Blueberry