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Link to Brown Creeper’s Song

My apologies if the previous link didn’t work. This one should! http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/brown_creeper/id 4-11-14 brown creeper2  025


Spring Runoff

4-4-14 spring runoff 004With snow rapidly melting, spring runoff is very apparent everywhere you look. Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey studied the timing and volume of river flows for 27 rivers in New England several years ago. Although this year may be the exception, they found that in the last 30 years the peak flow date has advanced by one to two weeks. Snowmelt runoff has the most effect on spring rivers flows, and these peak flow dates correlate with the change in last-frost dates, lilac bloom dates, lake ice-out dates and spring air temperatures, indicating that these New England spring geophysical and biological changes all were caused by a common mechanism — temperature increases.

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Cedar Waxwings Turn to Highbush Cranberry As a Last Resort

3-28-14 cedar waxwing 159The primary food of Cedar Waxwings is fleshy fruits that have a high sugar content. Because these birds rely on ripening fruit to feed their nestlings, they are among the latest birds to nest in the Northeast. During the winter they tend to be nomadic, wandering from one sugary fruit supply to another. In the past, juniper berries have dominated their winter diet, but waxwings are increasingly turning to ornamentals such as non-native honeysuckle. (Occasionally waxwings with orange, not yellow, terminal tail bands are seen; this change in color has been attributed to their change in diet.) The fruit of Highbush Cranberry, being consumed in this photograph, is quite acidic and has a low sugar content. It is eaten by most songbirds, including Cedar Waxwings, only towards the end of winter, when sweeter fruit is in short supply.

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Cavities Provide Shelter for Birds in Winter

3-27-14  pileated hole with bird droppings 045Birds often seek protected places to roost or sleep at night, especially in the winter. Dense vegetation found in thickets or the interior branches of evergreens serve as a windbreak and conceal the birds from predators. A few species of songbirds – the ones that nest in tree cavities or bird houses – will also roost in cavities in the winter. Research has shown that these shelters, through reduction of wind speed, can increase the temperature by 40°F. Energy savings in one study ranged from 25% – 38% for birds roosting in cavities and resulted in an increased fasting endurance of six to seven hours in winter. Sometimes more than a dozen birds will pile into a single box or cavity to conserve heat. This may well have been the case in this pileated woodpecker cavity, given the amount of bird droppings found in it, or perhaps one lone chickadee took up residence night after night. (Judging from the droppings usually found in such cavities, mice use them for shelter even more than birds.)

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Many Beavers Still Locked Under Ice

3-20-14 beaver on ice IMG_3980Although there have been sightings of beavers this spring, precious few beaver ponds have openings or ice thin enough for beavers to break through in order to procure fresh food. This photograph was taken one year ago, and one can only hope, for the beavers’ sake as well as our own, that temperatures rise soon. The winter supply of food beavers store under the ice in the fall may well be as low as many people’s wood piles are this spring, in which case, many beavers’ lives depend on the ice thinning soon.

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Opossums Scrounging

3-19-14 opossum2  021Within the last century the Virginia Opossum has extended its range northeastward and now occurs sporadically throughout most of New England. Its adaptability to a great variety of habitats and its omnivorous diet (is there anything an opossum won’t eat?) have enabled this marsupial to live in much colder climates than it initially inhabited. As long as food can be found,the opossum’s greatest challenge is dealing with New England’s cold winters. Lacking much hair, the ears and tail of an opossum often suffer from frostbite, turning black at the edges (ears) and tip (tail). Look for signs of this nocturnal scavenger under bird feeders – in the winter it can even be seen foraging in the daylight, as the opossum in this photograph was earlier this week. (Thanks to Dotty Cummings for photo op.)

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Usnea Photo Mis-identified

email-possible Usnea 036Thanks to the readers of my blog, more knowledgeable than I, who made me aware that the photograph of the lichen in today’s post is of a lichen in the genus Ramalina. While Usnea does bear a resemblance to Ramalina, Usnea’s rounded branches are more thread-like than the flattened branches of Ramalina. Thanks to Tom Stearns, Peggy Willey and Jean Bergstrom for their sharp eyes. (Photo: Usnea (circled in red) is surrounded by Ramalina.


Usnea – Old Man’s Beard

3-18-14 lichen 014This lichen, and other members of the Usnea genus, can often be found growing on the branches of less than healthy trees in the Northeast. The algal component of these algae/fungi phenomena takes advantage of the lack of leaves on dying trees by using the available sunlight to photosynthesize. Usnea, also known as Old Man’s Beard, grows in little hair-like tufts and has a diagnostic pale yellow, elastic central cord. In addition to being an indicator of air pollution (its size is greatly decreased if there is pollution), Usnea has been used by herbalists as an immune system tonic for hundreds of years.

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How Are Red-winged Blackbirds Surviving?

3-17-14 red-winged blackbird2 IMG_2063The first reports of Red-winged Blackbird sightings are coming in, and with two feet of snow in some places, frigid temperatures, and very few insects in flight, one can’t help but wonder how they are surviving. A number of factors allow Red-wings to sustain themselves in these conditions, including the fact that their foraging is not restricted to one habitat – they look for food in marshes, pastures, overgrown fields, shores of lakes and ponds and windblown, exposed corn fields and crop lands. Secondly, they look for food in and on a variety of substrates, including but not limited to tree trunks and vegetation, which are accessible even with snow on the ground. Thirdly, they are very adept at gaping – forcing their bill open against the resistance of bark, etc. in order to reach into the crooks and crannies where insects are overwintering. And lastly, their diet fluctuates with the food that is available. During the breeding season, the majority of a Red-winged Blackbird’s diet is insects, and during fall, winter and early spring, Red-wings are primarily plant eaters – weed seeds, tree seeds and in agricultural areas, grains. In many ways, Red-winged blackbirds are more successfully adapted than humans are to this interminable winter!

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Red Foxes and a Minuscule Mite

red fox IMG_4446A recent glimpse of a Red Fox whose tail was hairless except for a pompom-like tuft of fur at the very tip reminded me of the devastating effect a very small creature can have on an animal many times its size. A tiny, eyeless mite (Sarcoptes scabei) is responsible for the loss of fur associated with sarcoptic mange, the scourge of Red Foxes. After mating on a fox (often near the tail end), the male mite dies and the female burrows into the fox’s skin, laying eggs as she goes. After the eggs hatch, the larvae move to a new patch of skin, burrow in and eventually emerge as adult mites, ready to mate and continue the cycle. To add insult to injury, Red Foxes have an intense immune response to the mites’ excrement and the resulting inflammation is extremely itchy. Biting and scratching exacerbate the situation, causing new skin tears where bacteria can enter. Eventually, most foxes die of exhaustion, starvation and/or infection.

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Sumac Sustains Songbirds

3-6-14 bluebirds on sumac 033By this time of the year fruit-eating birds have, for the most part, devoured the choicest fruits available in winter. What remains are the fruits-of-last-resort. While Staghorn Sumac fruits may not be a preferred food, they are an important source of winter sustenance for many species of birds, including bluebirds (pictured), cardinals, chickadees, jays, robins, waxwings, crows, mockingbirds and starlings. Some of the best late-winter birding occurs near stands of this shrubby relative of poison ivy. Can you find the four Eastern Bluebirds feeding on sumac in the photo?

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A New Book for Budding Naturalists

COVER-BeaversBusyIs there a youngster in your life who might love his or her own book about beavers? My third children’s nature book, The Beavers’ Busy Year, has just been released. Having been an ardent admirer of this rodent for many, many years, it is gratifying to have had a chance to instill a love for beavers in youngsters age 3-8 with this non-fiction book. The adaptations of beavers’ noses, eyes, ears, fur, feet and tails are highlighted in the text and photographs take the reader through the seasons of the year from a beaver’s perspective. Activities at the end of the book engage children in matching photographs of various beaver signs such as tracks, scent mounds and incisor marks with written descriptions. There are also activity/informational sections on beaver tails, beavers as engineers and creators of habitat for other wildlife, and dam building. It should be available at your local bookstore, but if not, I’d greatly appreciate your letting them know about it. Thank you!


Snow Buntings Headed Back to the Arctic

2-27-14 snow buntings2 091Whirling flocks of Snow Buntings have been observed more frequently lately, perhaps because male buntings have begun their migration back to their nesting grounds on the tundra. They are the first migrants to arrive in the Arctic in the spring (in early April), when it can be -20°F. Females arrive four to six weeks later, when days are warming and snow is beginning to melt. It is thought that the males’ early return is related to the fact that, unlike most Arctic songbirds, buntings nest in rock cavities, for which there is great competition. Deep inside narrow cracks, nesting buntings can largely avoid nest predation, but their eggs are susceptible to freezing and require longer incubation than eggs laid in the open. As a result, females remain on the nest throughout much of the incubation period and are fed by the males. This arrangement shortens incubation time and provides the eggs with constant protection from freezing temperatures. (Thanks to Liz and Clemens Steinrisser for photo op.)

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Winter Fireflies Emerging

2-24-14  winter firefly 316After pupating in a rotting log, adult Winter Fireflies emerge in late summer and are often seen on the trunks of trees. When the temperature starts to drop, they crawl under tree bark for the winter. They stay there until late winter/early spring when they reappear. Considered a pest by some sugar makers, they’ve been said to “circle around sap flows on maples like cattle around a trough.” Although the adults do not possess the bioluminescence of the firefly species we see in the summer, the larval and pupal stages of Winter Fireflies do produce their own light.

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Ruffed Grouse Snow Cave

2-18-14 grouse hole 023When snow depth is over 10” Ruffed Grouse are known to dive into it and often burrow a short distance in order to seek refuge from the wind and the cold as well as from predators, a behavior known as “snow roosting.” Because the grouse flies into the snow leaving no tracks and little scent, predators have difficulty detecting them. The major risk is freezing rain which can form a crust on top of the snow, trapping the grouse. The Ruffed Grouse’s behavior allows it to conserve a great deal of energy, as the temperature inside this roost rarely falls beneath 20°F. This conservation of energy translates into less time spent up in trees eating buds, exposed to hawks and other predators. When morning comes, the grouse usually bursts out of the snow, leaving a hole and wing marks, or, as in this case, shuffles its way to the surface of the snow before taking off. The presence of scat indicates that the left-hand cavity in this photograph is where the bird bedded down and its exit was made to the right. (Thanks to Edith Hoose for photo op.)

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White-tailed Deer Scavengers

deer carcass2  028According to NPR, each year Americans waste 33 million tons of food (and much of this ends up in landfills where it produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas). This situation is totally alien to that of other animals in the natural world, which seem to find a use for any and every organic particle. Great crested flycatchers incorporate shed snake skins into their nests, beavers build dams and lodges with branches they have eaten the bark off of, ermine line their nests with the fur and feathers of prey — the list goes on and on. When it comes to food, there is equally little waste. The carcasses of animals do not linger long, as almost every atom of their bodies is recycled. Fishers, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, opossums, bald eagles, hawks, woodpeckers, ravens, crows and many other animals make short work of a dead deer in winter. Come spring, if there’s anything left, the final clean-up crew consists of legions of turkey vultures, beetles, flies and bacteria, among others. How unfortunate we’ve strayed so far from a process that’s worked for so many for so long.

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Barred Owl Story in the Snow

2-17-14  barred owl prints 013These beautiful impressions in the snow tell the story of a Barred Owl diving feet first after prey, most likely a vole or mouse. The fact that there are no rodent tracks on the surface of the snow tells you that the mouse or vole was well hidden in its tunnel under the snow at the time. Apparently the owl’s talons did not reach their target (at least, no blood or rodent remnants), and the owl continued to plow through the snow in repeated attempts to capture its prey before taking flight.

The presence of facial discs (feathers in the shape of a funnel around each eye that direct sound waves towards the owl’s ear) plus the differing size and asymmetrical placement of an owl’s ear openings allow the owl to discern the direction a sound is coming from, how far away it is and its height relative to the owl – even in the dark or under the snow! The exceptional hearing ability of owls, particularly those in the genus Strix (which includes Barred and Great Gray Owls), enables them to plunge into the snow and often successfully capture prey, sight unseen. (Species of owl was determined by wing length. Thanks to Rob Anderegg and Jennifer Grant for photo op.)

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Mystery Photo

2-11-14 mystery photo2  124This two-foot-wide trail of tracks through the woods was made by one animal. All guesses welcome as “comments” below. Tomorrow’s post will reveal all.

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Fisher Slide

2-5-14 fisher slide2  082Otters aren’t the only members of the Weasel family to engage in sliding on snow and ice – fishers and mink do, as well. The fisher that made these tracks had travelled down the frozen surface of a stream for at least half a mile before deciding to flop down on its belly and slide about 15 feet or so before resuming its loping gait.

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Snowy Owl Invasion

2-4-14 lemmings-at-nest4In a typical winter, sightings of snowy owls are a regular occurrence in the Northeast, but this winter, as most New Englanders are aware of, we’re experiencing a banner irruption year, with individuals appearing in greater numbers from the north than they have in decades. In the past, hunger and lack of prey in the Arctic have been the accepted explanation for this influx of northern predators, but this year that theory has been put to a test, as 2013-14 visitors are arriving in excellent condition. Last summer the lemming population (snowy owls’ food of choice, with one owl eating up to 1,600 lemmings in a year), as well as other prey species, exploded in northern Quebec. It’s thought that snowy owls amass to nest in areas where prey is abundant, and it appears that this is exactly what happened in Quebec. The rodent explosion resulted in exceptionally large broods (up to 12 chicks per pair of owls). In part due to competition with older owls, this large first-year population of owls moved south this winter, and we are the beneficiaries. To see the movement of this year’s irruption, go to http://www.projectsnowstorm.org, where this photograph of a 70 lemmings/8 voles-lined snowy owl nest by Christine Blais-Soucy originally appeared.

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Frost Formations

1-28-14  frost crystals 058When frozen water vapor is deposited in the form of crystals, we call it frost. Many windows have been etched upon by “fern frost” or “ice flowers” recently, due to the cold temperatures we’ve been experiencing. When moist, heated indoor heat hits cold window glass, water vapor condenses on the glass, forming intricate patterns. The intricacy is affected by the surface of the glass, as dust and scratches affect the shape of the crystals.

Equally beautiful frost structures are created outdoors and are referred to as hoar frost. White ice crystals are deposited on exposed surfaces such as ice that are colder than the surrounding air. Often this type of surface hoar frost resembles tiny ferns that vary in size, depending upon the amount of time they’ve been forming and the amount of water vapor in the air.

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Fisher Sign

1-22-14 fisher bed and scat 074You can spend days following the tracks of a fisher – this tireless member of the weasel family travels up to ten miles a day during the winter, foraging for food and stopping to bed down periodically. One of the more common signs of fisher, other than tracks, is their resting spots. Fishers are active day and night, but even they have to stop now and then to rest, often at the base of a tree. More often than not they defecate before departing. If you look closely you’ll see the fisher’s scat – guide books often state that the scat of fishers is dark and twisted. While this is sometimes so, their scat can also be somewhat mustard-color and not be at all twisted, as in this photograph.

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Otter Holes

1-20-14 otter hole IMG_5577River otters are one of the most aquatic members of the weasel family. They can swim up to six or seven miles per hour on the surface of the water as well as underneath it, and can remain submerged for up to two minutes. Otters spend a great deal of time fishing under the ice, and obtain oxygen from open holes such as the one pictured (as well as from air bubbles under the ice). As their tracks indicate, otters come up onto the ice to eat their prey, be it fish or crayfish, their two favorite winter meals.

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“Waiting” – a poem written by a longtime NC blog follower

1-17-14  barred owl poem IMG_3212A barred owl hunches in the snowbound oak
listening for prey. Hidden beneath,
a heedless mouse skitters its maze of tunnels,
audible under the heavy cloak
but out of reach. Hunger is immaterial
to the outcome when the snow’s this deep.
Impossible, the leap, the plunge, the thrust,
the clench of talons, their single-minded burial
in flesh. There’s nothing but the falling dusk,
and night ahead, hours more of hunger,
daybreak, sleep, another famished night.
At the last there’s nothing but the husk
desire left behind. The owl must eat
or starve, float silent as a snowflake
over fields or save its strength in vigil.
Oh life, your soft feathers fray, your wingbeats
weaken. Hoard your warmth. The dark art
of dwindling is the birthright of the heart.

Kathie Fiveash


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