Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Love Birds are Back! OK, OK, so they're Turkey Vultures! Also, Mergansers may have Designs on the Beaver Pond

For several years, a pair of Turkey Vultures have likely been breeding at a neighboring farm
I always know that spring has truly arrived when I see that the resident pair of Turkey Vultures have returned to the neighbor's farm yard. I believe that they nest somewhere in the nearby collapsed barn. Turkey Vultures do accept a wide range of nesting situations - including cliffs, hollow trees, barns and other abandoned buildings.  There's another pair in a nearby town which set up housekeeping in the chimney of an abandoned house. It was kind of a spooky old house as it was - and now it has vultures!
The Common Merganser male at our Beaver Pond
Common Mergansers are not unusual sights in our area. We see them mostly on larger creeks, rivers and lakes. They will over-winter in the region as long as they have some ice-free water - and they usually do. Even as cold as this past winter was, mergansers were able to eke out a living on the Mohawk River and the West Canada Creek. These skilled divers rely on habitats rich in fish which is their primary food. The mergansers are unusual in the fact that their bill's have serrated edges. These act as teeth and enable the duck to get a tight grip on its prey. A pair have spent the last 5 days at our main beaver pond. The female has been seen looking at some of the duck boxes at that pond, so maybe she is intending to nest. Honestly, I'm not sure that we have enough fish in that pond to support one merganser, let alone a whole family, but they probably know what they're doing. I see them diving and coming up with minnows, but these are big ducks and they can eat a lot of fish! We'll see if they stay.
Our pair of Common Mergansers - the female has a reddish head with a fringed crest 
Face down, the female scouts for fish

She sees something and down she goes!
The male Canada Goose - "Felix" gets bossy with the female merganser
The female goose - "Greta" is sitting on her nest on a nearby island
At the beaver pond, our resident pair of Canada Geese haven't been overjoyed about the presence of the mergansers, but they're also never pleased to see the beavers. Lately the male goose - "Felix", has been rather halfheartedly chasing the ducks, but he soon gives up and no one seems to take his bossiness too seriously, including the beavers that simply dive to get out of his way.
Felix doesn't even give the beavers a pass - and they made the pond!
Near nightfall, Greta comes off of the nest for a snack and a quick bath
Mergansers likes to loaf right behind the island where the goose nest is
Meanwhile, the male Wood Duck waits beneath a nest box - hoping his mate will emerge
If the female does decide to nest here, the male will leave at the onset of incubation
Felix drives off a female Mallard this time - she's nesting here also
Lots of action for a relatively small pond

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Spring is Off and Running - Migrants are Coming Through and Some Nesting has Begun

An Osprey flies overhead - many nest in the region now
Mid-April is a very active time in the natural world. Migratory birds are is in a hurry to get to their territories and begin the serious business of breeding. Raptors have been passing through the region in good numbers. Most have not been given a warm welcome by our resident Red-tailed Hawks which have already been on their breeding territory for several weeks.
A male American Kestrel perches over the beaver pond and watches for prey
The American Kestrel is a pigeon-sized falcon that primarily can be found in open farmland setting - although they are not nearly as common as they once were. The species still breeds in the area, but I've never managed to get a pair interested in using one of our nest boxes - until now? For the last 3 days a pair has been showing some interest in some tree cavities and wood duck boxes around our beaver pond, but it's unlikely that they will actually stay to breed despite the available supply of prey. It was amazing how upset these small predators made some of the other wildlife at the pond. Unsurprisingly the geese didn't notice them, but some of the small ducks did. A Belted Kingfisher was probably the most upset. She blasted through giving her staccato call at full volume. At one point she darted right in front of one of the small predators and pretty much told it to go find its own pond. The Kestrels were occasionally diving down to the water, which I thought was unusual. They may have been catching insects. I have seen them in fields picking off grasshoppers before.
The male American Kestrel is our most colorful raptor
For the last 2 weeks Turkey Vultures have been seen daily
A male Wood Duck swims by the small island that a Canada Goose is nesting on
As she settles in to incubate eggs, the goose blends well into the surroundings
This female Mallard found an excellent place to make a nest
Small ducks like these migrant Green-winged Teal have also been visiting the pond 
Migrant Ring-necked Ducks gather in deeper water
And they're off!
This week the Wild Turkeys have been performing courtship rituals in the fields 
Male Northern Flickers twitch their tails from side to side as they compete for territory 
Migrant Fox Sparrows have been singing in the hedgerows all week
White-throated Sparrows spent the winter here, but will soon depart for their breeding grounds

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Wood Ducks and Bluebirds Go House Shopping

The male American Wood Duck is one of our most splendid native birds
Over the last 2 weeks, American Wood Ducks and Eastern Bluebirds have been out house shopping. The Wood Ducks have been frequenting the beaver pond and for the most part ignoring our nest boxes in favor of tree cavities made by woodpeckers.
The female American Wood Duck is also quite splendid
Wood Ducks began visiting the pond as soon as the ice disappeared
Courtship behavior in ducks is always entertaining to observe. Both male and female Wood Ducks jerk their heads up and down. They will also bow their necks and heads low to the water and paddle rapidly in front of each other. There are bound to be lots of splashy chases; most often this involves males chasing away rival suitors. No one gets chased very far though - only a yard or so away.
A male caught in mid-head bob
A female Mallard (obviously larger) swims between the Wood Duck pair
The female Wood Duck checks out one of the old boxes
The male waits below 
She was in there for about 5 minutes making a thorough assessment
What's the verdict on the house?
A century ago we came dangerously close to allowing Wood Ducks to go extinct. Wood Ducks had been getting pressure from all sides. Not only were they being mercilessly shot out of the sky, but their water habitat itself was disappearing. Wetlands were being drained for agricultural purposes as well as for developments and for mosquito control. The duck's plight was further exacerbated by the loss of beavers, which had already been trapped out of the Northeast. This meant that beaver ponds which had traditionally provided the Wood Duck with habitat throughout the species' vast overlapping ranges, would no longer be available to breed in. Another major problem came in the form of a lack of suitable nest cavities. Just as the Wood Ducks depended on the presence of beavers, they also required the presence of large diameter trees and specifically for Pileated Woodpeckers to excavate holes in them. When the Northeast was stripped of much its forest, the Pileated Woodpecker's range decreased dramatically and the species became rare and localized. In the early 1900s, laws were passed which strictly limited the killing of Wood Ducks (one of the first laws of its kind) and the population began to slowly recover. Meanwhile, the return forest habitat paved the way for the return of the Pileated Woodpecker and a successful beaver reintroduction program also led to happier days for the American Wood Duck.
The nest holes made by Pileated Woodpeckers are often reused by Wood Ducks
The return of the beaver to the Northeast did much to bolster Wood Duck numbers
Wood Ducks most often fly up from the pond when people arrive
Last week I was cleaning out our Bluebird boxes - at least the ones that weren't still actively being used by mice. Fortunately most of the mice had already raised their broods and the boxes could be made ready for the next tenants.
This mouse is probably old enough to leave, but we'll give him a few more weeks
A pair of young White-footed Mice still in their bird house - not to be evicted
The male Eastern Bluebird samples the view from one of our boxes 
Before the Tree Swallows and House Wrens return there are many boxes to choose from
The female Bluebird has a look inside - no mice in this one

Last week the first Tree Swallows returned and immediately began claiming boxes

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Utica Peregrines are Set to Nest

The new pair of Peregrine Falcon in Downtown Utica are poised to breed in the nest box that we installed one year ago on the 15th floor of the Adirondack Bank building. The falcon pair, recently named Astrid and Ares, have been observed making frequent visits to the nest box and even making "nest scrapes" into the gravel which lines the bottom of the box. Lately "Ares" has been preforming dramatic flight displays and mating has been observed several times in recent days. 
Looking up at the nest box on The Adirondack Bank in Downtown Utica

A favorite perch site - Grace Church - located across the street from the bank
Ares perches on the church steeple 
Astrid - barely visible on above windows on the State Office Building a few blocks away
The first video images began streaming from the newly installed camera
Last week we managed to get the falcon box's new network camera working. The camera was installed right inside the box and so now we can get a good look at what happens in there. So far the camera's live stream is available only on the network inside the bank building, but before too long we hope to make it generally available on a dedicated website.
This is how to make a nest scrape - lean forward and kick backward
Bowing down to your returning mate is an essential  part of the greeting ritual
They will even touch beaks during their greeting
They just did kind of a "do-si-do" - this is falcon Square Dancing
The favored nest scrape seems to be near the far corner of the box
Then again the scrape nearer to the camera hasn't been ruled out
Back to the box with an unidentifiable bird - lately they catch at least 3 birds a day
This is the first time that Peregrine Falcons have attempted to nest in Utica since 2009, when the old pair, Maya & Tor held the territory. That original pair nested for 2 consecutive years on M&T Bank's Gold Dome building on a 4th story ledge. This was the lowest nest of Peregrine Falcon on a building in New York State. With both nesting attempts only one egg was laid and despite what seemed to be adequate incubation and care no hatchling ever emerged. Tor was killed after striking a window in 2010. Maya continued to hold the territory until the spring of 2012. She never accepted another mate even though several prospective suitors did come through the area.
Maya & Tor on their nest tray on the Gold Dome Bank circa 2009