Sunday, March 30, 2014

Iridescent Wild Turkeys

The Wild Turkeys have been tromping through the woods and fields and even coming up to the bird feeders in recent days. Usually when I see them the sky is overcast and so I don't get the benefit of their full iridescent splendor, but yesterday the sun came out and really lit up the birds. These fantastic creatures rarely get the credit they deserve for being one of our most ornate and colorful native species. 
Now for a change,  just feast your eyes on Turkey
Coming up the snowy  path - a very colorful guy indeed
The remarkable iridescent body feathers of the male Wild Turkey
The rainbow of colors that we see when the sun hits the birds are caused by light refracting off of the feathers. This iridescence has nothing to do with the actual pigment of the feathers and so if you find a turkey feather on the ground, you're not likely to see much color. That is not to say that Turkey feathers are devoid of pigment - most are a handsome shade of brown.
The hen turkey is also quite colorful in the sun
This week the males were not yet in full display mode - they'd only puff up for a brief moment
There we go - but it didn't last long
Much of the color disappeared whenever the sun retreated behind a cloud, 
The Turkey's wing and tail feathers are not iridescent, but they are not dull either; they are boldly striped. The tail feathers are ruddy-brown with thin black bars. The primary wing feathers are dark brown and barred with white, while the secondary wing feathers are also barred, but they are more ruddy-brown like the tail. Taken together these contrasting patterns are quite dramatic and when the male bird ruffles up his gleaming body feathers - the whole effect is quite breathtaking. I didn't even touch on the male's blue face or his red crown and neck, but that what pictures are for.

Male and female Wild Turkeys standing together
Is someone taking your picture?
Run away!
Of course the Turkeys weren't the only iridescent birds around, the blackbirds have been back for over a week, and of the species that frequent our area the Common Grackle is the shiniest.
An adult male Common Grackle comes in for a landing on the roof of a bird feeder
Another spectacular iridescent native bird - note the white eye
In early spring the Grackles travel in mixed flocks with Red-winged Blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds
These early spring flocks are overwhelmingly comprised of male birds

Grackles will dominate our bird feeders - but only for a short time - soon enough they'll be off to the breeding grounds

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Window on Scavenger Diversity at the Preserve

Early last week I found a dead White-tailed Deer in our woods. Judging by the remains it had apparently died from an obstructed intestine. I would imagine that some people coming upon this scene would've blamed coyotes for taking down this deer, but the evidence doesn't support that conclusion. In fact a fresh covering of snow at the scene faithfully recorded of all the events that took place during the night. According to footprints and other animal sign, the deer was not brought down violently. Coyote prints as well as the prints of a half dozen other species of scavengers indicate that they all came upon the deer after it had died. For several years now I've been looking for a conclusive case of coyotes killing a deer - and so far I have yet to find one.
Coyotes show little interest in the carcass at this point - leaving it to others
A Red Fox visited the site - once during the day and once at night
An adult Red-tailed Hawk flies in for its morning feed
Our resident pair of Red-tailed Hawks are only rarely are seen feeding together 
More typically, as one Red-tail arrives, its mate flies off
The female gets a bit possessive about her share and spreads her wings over it
Raptors drape their wings over their food when they are not in a sharing mood
Best not to mess with this raptor - at least not before breakfast
Besides the crows the most common day-time visitors to the carcass were a pair of Red-tailed Hawks. This is a breeding pair that I know fairly well and they have nested in the woods for several years now. The trail camera captured them making frequent visits over the course of the week. Most often they would chase off the crows, but occasionally they would tolerate a few feeding on the opposite side of the carcass. A lone Common Raven visited several times and was sometimes seen feeding right next to one of the Red-tails. This was the very first time I have managed to photograph a Raven feeding on anything at the nature preserve.
Crows scatter at the slightest provocation
The first crow flies in to feed while a deer apprehensively observes
A Raven, emboldened by its large size, approaches the carcass while the hawk is feeding
Raven and Red-tailed Hawk feed together with no apparent conflict
Our first Turkey Vulture of the season arrives and locates a meal with no trouble
Turkey Vultures just started returning to the region this past week and one immediately honed in on the deer carcass. Birds generally have a poor sense of smell, but the Turkey Vulture is one notable exception to that rule. It is believed that they rely mainly on scent to locate their gruesome meals. 
The Red-tail flies off just as a raccoon comes onto the scene
The raccoon made a few visits during the day and then returned often throughout the night
A Raccoon made a number of visits to the carcass. On one of my visits to check the camera, the raccoon held her ground. She was well hidden (at least she thought she was) inside the rib cage of the deer. As I re-positioned the camera on the opposite side of the carcass, I could just see the raccoon's eyes peering out between some ribs.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Black-capped Chickadees at Home and at Hand

A video of the flurry of chickadees that meet me at the gate

Particularly during the winter months I can count on Black-capped Chickadees periodically confronting me on the foot trails. They are not at all  shy about asking for sunflower seeds. They used to take them right from my hand - or even from the brim of my hat, but not so much anymore. I knew that they would always be safe when they unexpectedly made a beeline for my head, but what if they did that to other people that weren't expecting such a friendly onslaught? A surprised person might just swat them as if they were black and white killer bees or something.  So I weened them from landing on my person, but the flock still gets very excited when they see me. Its not unusual for me to have a flock of 2 dozen of them waiting for me at "the Chickadee Gate". At the gate there are 3 posts to put seed onto. There is also a tube-type feeder for those that go in for that sort of thing.
The Chickadees would land on my hand whether or not I had seed in it
Some specialized in taking 2 hulled sunflower seeds at a time
This guy was more of a peanut man
Yes, I used to hide seeds in that old hat
Chickadees can excavate their own nest holes
Both the male and female work to remove wood chips - a beak full at a time

They will also nest in boxes - usually if they are located close to some woods
The Chickadee nest is a large mass of mostly moss and animal hair
Chickadee hatchlings have one of the softest and best insulated of bird nests
Chickadees parents remove all fecal material (fecal sacks) from the nest
Parents feed their young a high protein diet of insects
Fully feathered Chickadee nestlings are ready to leave  the nest after 12 days
Adult-sized Chickadee fledglings continue to be fed by their parents for about 3 weeks

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Barking Up the Right Tree

In most cases, trees can be identified by their bark alone. Local legend and world famous botanist, Asa Gray (1810-1888) began his long career as a plant taxonomist by learning to identify trees this way. The different textures, colors and patterns are in most cases quite distinctive. The bark of a tree almost always changes as a tree matures, so learning to recognize the bark of a single species can be more involved than one might think.
The bark of a mature American Basswood shows long, dark vertical fishers 
American Basswood
The bark of the Black Cherry is dark and fractured into relatively even-sized chips
Eastern Hophornbeam bark peels off in thin vertical strips
The bark of a healthy American Beech tree is smooth and gray
Yellow Birch bark peels horizontally and may appear  quite golden 
Bitternut Hickory has a network of fine shallow fissures - note the intersecting line of sapsucker holes
Hickories usually have very straight trunks
A mature Big Tooth Aspen's bark has fissures that are wide and deep
Big Tooth Aspen bark has the look of a distant mountain range
River Birch bark can be extremely peeled and is often copper-colored 
A young White Birch has very white bark, which peels into long rolls
The bark of Wild Grape Vines peel vertically and can look very shaggy
This Grape Vine managed to tie itself into a knot
The bark of a medium age Quaking Aspen is smooth and light with a greenish tint
Quaking Aspen is the beaver's favorite food
The bark of a mature Sugar Maple can be quite variable 
A Sugar Maple trunk covered with moss
Northern Striped Maple (Moosewood) bark is green and has thin wavy stripes
Fairly wide ridges - some running diagonally, characterize the bark of Butternut
Pin Cherry has dark bark with irregular darker horizontal lines
European Buckthorn bark is dark and usually peels horizontally into rolls