Sunday, April 26, 2015

Spring is Right on Time - According to Forest Indicators

The Myrtle Warbler was the first of the warbler clan to arrive
I've been hearing lots of people complain about the slow approach of spring this year, but for the natural world, a labored onset of warm conditions is not a bad thing. In fact this is more or less how it's supposed to be. Extended periods of warm weather at this stage (or before) can cause much more damage than cold or even snowfall. Migrating birds coming up from the south should be in sync with the emergence of foliage-eating insects. These (primarily) moth larvae appear with the unfurling foliage in the forest. When warm weather comes too early,  leaves and insects emerge too early and long-distance migrant birds miss out on important food resources. The trees also lose out on the insect control that transient songbirds provide.
Fox Sparrows are more apt to be found at the forest edges or at bird feeder
A recently returned Field Sparrow sings at the field edge
Tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglets are virtually everywhere right now
Pine Siskins were common at the bird feeder for one day only
In the forest, relatively cold weather has delayed the blooming of some spring ephemeral wildflowers. Some others have had there bloom times extended. Bloodroot flowers, which sometimes only keep their petals for a few days, have been in bloom now for over a week.
Not surprisingly, Skunk Cabbage was the first of the wildflowers to bloom
Coltsfoot blooms on the north shore of one of the ponds
Sharp-lobed Hepatica was the first woodland flower to bloom
Foliage of Wild Leeks push their way out of the forest leaf litter
Blue Cohosh is very prolific in the older woods

Bloodroot - another early blooming species
Like the other hardy spring ephemerals, Bloodroot can tolerate freezes and even some snow cover
Spring Beauties are the most common blooming plant in the woods right now

Round-leaved Yellow Violet is the first of many violet species to bloom in the forest
So far flowers have emerged on only a few tree species - this is the American Elm
Last week we saw the first butterflies emerge on the property. As expected they were both anglewings - hardy species that overwinter as adults. The Mourning Cloak and the Eastern Comma were found in various places in the forest. The first snakes of the season were also encountered last week. I was not the only one to notice them. At the beaver pond, in the span of 2 days, I saw both a mink and an American Kestrel making off with Eastern Garter Snakes.
The Mourning Cloak Butterfly is usually one of the first butterflies to emerge in the spring
An Eastern Garter Snake - sunning itself on the side of a foot trail
An American Kestrel flying off with a freshly caught snake

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Nest Box Archaeology and the Last of the Winter Tracks

A Flamboyantly decorated Tree Swallow nest removed from the box
As the snow finally recedes, it's time to clean out the bluebird boxes at the nature preserve. It probably sounds like a chore, especially when you consider that we have over 100 of them. Actually it's quite interesting, since we finally  get to get a  look at the construction techniques employed by our cavity nesting birds. Some Tree Swallows are particularly talented; they finish off their nest by lavishly decorating them with bird feathers. Feathers from grouse, turkeys and waterfowl are brought together and carefully positioned around the nest rim. Most nests aren't quite that flamboyant, but the designs are still worth checking out. Often multiple nests will be inside the same box - built one on-top of the other. This indicates a succession of house owners. Most often a Tree Swallow or Bluebird nest will be the original construction. On top of that will be the nest of a House Wren or a House Sparrow. The very top layer is often created by a White-footed Mouse, which claims the box for the winter season. Sometimes the mouse will borrow material from the lower nests, but more often they bring in a variety of new materials - mostly soft plant fibers or animal hair.
This is a nest of a House Wren, which still contains an unhatched egg from last season
A Tree Swallow nest with a mouse nest on top - the mouse brought in leaves and milkweed  silk
Tree Swallow nest below with a well insulated mouse nest on top
An apparent never-used House Wren nest with a mouse nest capping it off
Mouse nest made partly of animal hair on top a probable Bluebird nest
Material removed from a mouse nest - all finely cut milkweed silk
Tree Swallow nest with feather decorations
Two levels of Bluebird nests in this box
A male Bluebird waits patiently for the boxes to be cleaned
One thing that I will miss about winter is the ability to easily see what land dwelling wildlife is up to. Their tracks in the snow tell so much about their behavior and now minus that written intelligence, their lives become covert again. Last Monday the forest was covered with fresh tracks - very likely for the last time this spring.

Raccoon prints going one way and then the other
Wild Turkey tracks are unmistakable
The lone Turkey traverses the deep woods
Coyote tracks are subsequently crossed by the prints of a Gray Squirrel
Fisher tracks criss-cross over 50 acres of woods