Sunday, February 23, 2014

Wildlife Coping with a Harsh Winter

American Crows gather at an open stream to bathe
It may indeed be the dead of winter, but these American Crows are quick to take advantage of open water for the purpose of bathing. Usually they need it. Perhaps they are trying to rid themselves of parasites or traces of a rank roadkill meal, but I suspect that the main purpose is to get some of the "white wash" off of their plumage. At this time of year crows spend their nights in large communal roosts; those whose perches are located beneath others are subject to an intermittent rain of crow droppings. No need to worry though - it all washes off.
Crows gather at the site of a deer carcass - there's little left of it now
Our crows continue to visit the scant remains of a White-tailed Deer that was originally shot during the early part of the archery season - way back in October. Just one of 5 victims that was never recovered by the hunter that wounded it. But this single animal has managed to provide some sustenance for scores of other animals in what's turning out to be a long hard winter. 
Crows flying in and landing around the scant remains
Always wary, crows are quick to depart whenever one of them senses danger
An adult Red-tailed Hawk comes in to try and get a beak full of the shrinking carcass
Wildlife usually lives close to edge of existence. This is most true in winter. A raptor like the Red-tailed Hawk can have a particularly difficult time finding food during prolonged periods of deep snow. Mice and other small rodents develop networks of tunnels under the snow and their activities become difficult to detect even for these expert predators. This is a much bigger problem for immature raptors since they are inexperienced hunters. Many hawks will resort to staking out roadsides where they can try their luck waiting for a rodent to cross the road and become a visible target. Their wait might also be rewarded with some animal being transformed into roadkill.
At night, a single Coyote continues to visit the site, but now there's little left
The Coyote excavates around the site - trying to find some overlooked morsels
Deep snow presents a challenge to larger/heavier animals like coyotes and deer. Just the effort it takes to travel consumes much precious energy - and food becomes progressively harder to find as long as the deep snow persists. Deer eventually trodden down a network of paths. These serpentine trails traverse a range of different habitat types and they can be utilized by other animals besides the deer. Following one can give you a good idea of how the deer make their living at this time of year. They definitely have it better than the most of the carnivores, since deer can browse on the buds of saplings - a commodity that is almost always in their reach.
A  deer walks through moderately deep snow with little trouble

A thick winter coat enables deer to put up with extremely cold temperatures

harbingers of spring - The furry buds of Pussy Willow blooms have started showing
Under the ice for a long time now - this 2-year old beavers has never seen a winter like this one
Beavers appreciate a care package of apples and poplar branches
A male Cardinal with a broken bill picks out a shelled peanut
Bird Feeders assist wild birds though lean times. The food that we put out daily on some fence posts is very popular with winter songbirds like the Northern Cardinal. One particular male that has been showing up lately has a broken bill. It's not all that noticeable without a close look, but the tip of his upper mandible is missing. There's also a chunk missing from the left side of the same mandible. This was most likely the result of a collision with something - possibly a tree. Since the top of the upper mandible overhangs the lower mandible, it tends to take the brunt of any impact. Fortunately this bird still seems able to feed, although I suspect that breaking harder seed shells must be more of a chore than it used to be. The bill has obviously healed and is not a fresh wound, but it will never grow back or become good as new. We can only hope that he will continue to be able to feed himself. Certainly the shelled seeds from the feeders are easy for him to deal with. I think that he has a fair chance at long-term survival.
The Cardinal with the broken bill holds a shelled sunflower seed
A Pair of Hairy Woodpeckers at the Bird Feeder area

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Close Encounters of the Owl Kind

This past week I was called in to take an injured Great Horned Owl to a Wildlife Rehabilitator. I wasn't sure what to expect when I arrived on the scene. Sick or injured wildlife are not always easy to help. Birds in particular may be just well enough to be able to stay out of reach. That was not the case with this owl. Other than hissing at me, he protested little about being scooped up and placed in a box. Still, his head was up and he was alert and the whole time his intense yellow eyes were fixed on me. 
Right before being captured, he looked a bit sleepy
In the car I immediately noticed the unmistakable acrid sent of skunk emanating from the bird. Great Horned Owls are one of few raptors that regularly feed on skunks and they often smell like it. At the rehabilitator’s facility, the owl checked out fine. No bones seemed to be broken nor were there any other obvious injuries or indications of disease. Just recently disease has been a problem in the region and birds of prey are proving to be particularly susceptible to West Nile Virus. In recent years the region’s Wildlife Rehabilitators have been getting in an increasing number of raptors infected with WNV. Red-tailed Hawks, Barred Owls and Great Horned Owls seem to be the harder hit species. Fortunately this male Great Horned Owl showed no symptoms of West Nile.
Perhaps an unexpected passenger for the pet taxi
It was thought that the most likely cause of the bird’s problem was a concussion brought on by impacting against something – possible a tree, house or vehicle. In other words, he may have just knocked himself silly. Impacting against structures – most often man-made structures are a very common cause of death and injury in birds. It’s estimated that millions of songbirds are killed annually in impacts. Most of the fatalities involve nocturnal migrants that smash into tall buildings and other structures that impede their migratory flight paths. The toll of songbirds and raptors that impact against picture windows is not inconsequential either.
After he was released he flew into the woods and plunked down into the snow

At the rehabilitator’s facility the Great Horned Owl was put into a large outdoor recovery cage where its behavior could be observed. He was soon able to fly up onto a high perch in the cage and after 2 days it was clear that nothing seemed to be seriously amiss with him. He showed little interested in food, but since his weight was good, that was not a great concern. The decision was made to release the owl in the same place where he came from. If this were another time of year, perhaps he would have been held onto longer for the purpose of observation. However, since winter is the start of the breeding season for Great Horned Owls, it's very possible that this male bird may just have a family depending on him to provide food.
To look as large and as threatening as possible, the owl arched his wings over his back

The Owl was wide-eyed and hissing during the ride over to the release site. I had him in a cat carrier and I had to keep reminding myself that this wasn't actually a cat in the seat next to me. Truthfully, even with all of the fuss, he was a bit better behaved than the last cat that I transported.
In full threat display mode, he rocked from side to side while bobbing his head
Upon release, he flew very low, but competently into the forest and landed about one hundred feet away in the snow. He immediately turned around to face my direction – it was as if he expected me to come after him. At this point he adopted a threatening posture; he arched his wings over his back in such a manner that made him look 3 times his actual size. And then without taking his eyes off of me, and with his head bent forward, he began rocking side-to-side while rhythmically bobbing his head. This was a mighty impressive display. I suppose that if I were a fox or a coyote, I would've probably run the hell out of there.
Displaying for my benefit, he hardly noticed the small birds that were scolding him
Small songbirds that had been visiting a nearby bird feeder were beginning to notice the predator that I just set free and they weren't happy about it. They began giving high pitched alarm calls and coming in close to investigate. Mobbing behavior is quick to kick in with songbirds and within a few minutes there were about a dozen of them in the branches right above the owl, giving scolding calls and flitting about nervously. They only relented when it looked like I was doing their job and sufficiently worrying the owl.

Hopefully this owl is ready for prime time. I was a little concerned by the fact that he remained on the ground even when I approached, but then again this type of behavior isn't that unusual for traumatized birds. With luck he will soon normalize and go back to his regular routine.  
Snowy Owls are still the story of this winter - This one was found just 2 miles south of the Preserve
The Snowy Owl's camouflage works well in snow covered fields 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Don't tell the Cardinals that it's Too Cold to Sing

A few mornings ago the temperature was below zero again; the landscape was covered by a blanket of fresh snow – but somehow a few Northern Cardinals got the idea that it was time to begin singing their spring songs. Perching on high branches of isolated meadow trees, the red birds let loose their familiar and sweetly whistled songs. Fear not, they will not begin nesting anytime soon. It will be months before any breeding gets underway. 
Somewhat usual among songbirds - female Cardinals also sing songs
The Cardinal is a finch species and therefore a relative of the White-throated Sparrow
Just lately the males have been becoming increasingly territorial. At the nature preserve’s feeding stations, male Cardinals have been spending more time and effort chasing each other around than feeding. One particular male cardinal has resumed his perennial battle with his own reflection in the windows and side-view mirrors of my car. He’s been fighting this very same devilishly handsome enemy for 2 years now. He also dances around on the car’s hood – scratching the paint with his claws. Good thing that I’m not a fastidious car owner. The truth is – just being able to witness his antics are worth any scratches.
Taking a break from dueling with the nemesis bird that lives inside the mirror
Now for a little tap dance on the hood
Hey there he is inside the barn too!
Most of us take the presence of our Nation’s reddest bird for granted now, but the species was not always present in Central New York. A Century ago there were no Cardinals anywhere near us. It was only the southernmost New York counties that could boast of having any at all. When songbirds obtained legal protection by the passing of the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918), gunners finally began refraining from shooting them off of their perches – and the species began to expand throughout the state. By the 1960s they were in the process of establishing themselves in the Mohawk Valley. Now, a half century later, they are just about everywhere in the State except for the higher elevations of the Adirondack Mountains and the Tug Hill Plateau where the forests are too dense and the winter snows are too deep.
Cardinals posses powerful seed cracking bills
Bird feeders helped facilitate the range expansion of the Cardinal
An individual Cardinal may sing a variety of songs
The expansion of the Cardinal was facilitated by the patchwork of meadows, woodlots and suburban yards that characterize human dominated landscapes. Though this type of fragmented habitat works against most other songbirds, for Cardinals, it’s just about perfect. The growing pastime of bird feeding and the plethora of feeding stations that arose especially in the last 50 years have further enabled the expansion of Cardinal populations. 
The male Cardinal feeds his mate as part of their courtship ritual
A cardinal nest with newly hatched young
A young fledgling Cardinal - fresh out of the nest 
Cardinals are non-migratory; in other words, they pretty much stay on the same habitat year-round. Their large seed-cracking bills are strong enough to break seeds and nuts that other less endowed species can’t deal with. In wintertime Cardinals usually move together in flocks of up to 20 birds. They travel among habitats rich in wild berries and seeds. Almost invariably there will be a few well-stocked bird feeders included in their daily circuit. Interestingly, Cardinals are often the first birds to arrive at a bird feeder in the morning – sometimes coming right before dawn. They are also very often the last visitors for the day  leaving just after dusk. 
By the end of the summer the young Cardinal's bill will begin to turn orange
Cardinals may continue to be fed by their parents for a month after fledging
An immature male molts into adult plumage
Cardinal song is famously quite varied. One individual may sing several distinct variations of song. Regional dialects also exist – so in one part of the country, a Cardinal’s primary song may be quite different that in another region. Female Cardinals also sing songs, which is somewhat unusual in the world of songbirds. Cardinals also have other distinctive vocalizations including warning calls and contact calls. The male will give a hearty trill during courtship. Also during courtship the male will make food offerings to his mate. And then, in a manner that mimics the behavior of begging nestlings, the female may quiver her wings when accepting the gift. This “prenuptial” feeding likely helps to prove that the male can be a good provider for a new clutch on the way.
Perhaps one of the world's most photogenic birds
Cardinals are not particularly shy birds - there's no trick in getting close to them

Skulking through the rose brambles and Honeysuckle boughs
The female Cardinal's plumage is more subtle, but just as beautiful

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Punxsutawney Beaver & Other Signs of Spring?

Do I have this right? If a beaver emerges from the ice on February 2nd and doesn't see its shadow then we're in line for an early spring - right? Well, it's doubtful that a beaver is ever going to see its shadow. The fact is that they don't have especially good vision.  Besides, unlike Groundhogs (AKA woodchucks), beavers remain active all winter long although you may never see them. They stay in their lodge for the most part and draw on the underwater food cache that they built up in the fall.
Tippy, now nearly 2 years old, finally comes out to say hello
I went for quite a few weeks without seeing any beavers at the nature preserve. The beaver ponds have remained frozen tight and the ice has been far too thick for beavers to break through it. I've been cutting a hole in the ice for them to give them treats, but they haven't been taking anything until after dark - that is until this week. For the last few afternoons I've begun seeing some familiar beaver faces again.
Apples are a much appreciated treat
Julia, the colony's matriarch, makes a brief appearance 
Plenty of apples and a few Quaking Aspen boughs are well worth coming out for
Several Muskrats are overwintering in the pond - they also love apples
The beaver pond and dam have been consistently covered by snow and ice
The top of food cache protrudes out of the snow - the snow-covered lodge is right behind it
Wing impressions from a crow that landed on the snow covered pond
One wing's impression on the snow
A female Belted Kingfisher appeared at the pond yesterday - not good fishing yet I'm afraid
Several Bluebirds have been visiting the pond area - attracted by the many tree cavities
This Downy Woodpecker spends every night in a tree cavity over the pond
Today I found these 2 very recently shed deer antlers beneath an apple tree
Many different animals will gnaw on the antlers for calcium