Monday, March 23, 2009

Once More Into the Fray

Alrighty, then, blogfans - I'm back for another long posting - two weeks worth of info!

9 March
I had three starlings at my suet feeder this morning. Starlings really are rather attractive birds, what with their bright yellow beaks (which are actually dark until spring, when they turn yellow – is it dietary?) and their glossy black feathers with the pale spots. The “spots” are actually the tips of their feathers, and as the season wears on, the spots wear off. But in the spring the feathers are still relatively new and haven’t had a lot of wear and tear yet. Pity they are non-native invasives. For those who haven’t heard the story, starlings were brought over to the US (Central Park in NYC, to be exact) in 1890 by Eugene Scheifflen and friends (the American Acclimatization Society), who thought it would be nice for all the birds of Shakespeare’s plays to be in the Park. One hundred birds were set loose. By 1920 they had taken over the East Coast, 1940 the Great Plains, and by 1950 the pesky buggers could be found in California and Alaska. The big problem with starlings was/is that they compete with our native cavity nesters, like bluebirds and flickers. This competition was part of the reason that bluebird populations declined so drastically (also responsible was the loss of natural cavities as people began removing dead trees (snags) that were perfect nest sites for bluebirds).

I also checked my observation notes when I got to work today and found that the redwings are not a month early – they are, indeed, right on time. It was the winter wren who was singing a month earlier than I’ve heard it before. Haven’t heard it since – perhaps it was a fluke.

13 March
It’s Friday the 13th (insert suspenseful music here).

Despite that, it has dawned a beautiful day here, although chilly. We had a low of -3*F overnight, and it was 1.3*F when I got to work. Brrr. But the sun is of that quality that reminds me of springtime and daffodils. No sane daffodil will have its head poking up from the ground today, but perhaps we’ll see them in a month or so. The winds have finally died down – they were so fierce the last couple of days that I almost expected to see livestock blowing by. We will have to do trail patrol today and look for downed trees that need cutting. We had one storm a couple years ago that yielded 40 trees down on one trail alone!!!

Watched a crow mobbing a raven this morning. It was hot on the larger bird’s tail, and when it swooped to “attack,” the raven flipped over and struck upwards with its feet, rather like the courtship flights of hawks and eagles. Two other crows lagged behind (must’ve been supervising).

All the corvids seem to be in good voice these days: crows, ravens, blue jays. The jays seem to be making up for lost time: a couple years ago you couldn’t see or hear a jay to save your life. I suspect West Nile Virus had taken its toll (corvids were especially hit). But they seem to have rebounded. This morning the dawn chorus was heavily laden with the raucous calls of easily a dozen jays. Evening grosbeaks dominated the din, with the crows and ravens providing a descant on the side. The redwings were keeping things to themselves.

14 March
“Chipmunk!” I screamed to an empty office as I gazed out the window, staring at the small striped squirrel. “It’s the first chipmunk of the season!”

Since I had no audience to appreciate my find, I went into the lobby to record my observation on the wildlife sightings board. I shared the information with a mother and child sitting on our sofa. “We saw one the other day,” the woman told me blandly. I thought to myself “Well, you probably live down state,” but I smiled and told her “This is the first one we’ve had here, and it’s early for them.”

Returning to the office, I pulled up my phenology chart (a computer record I keep of each year’s firsts, and some lasts), recorded my find, and noticed that this is the earliest chipmunk recording I have – earliest by two weeks. Hm.

I grabbed the camera and went outside, but of course the chipmunk did not reappear. Still, I did get some nice shots of red squirrels, chickadees, and even of pine siskins drinking water as it melted and dripped from the roof.

16 March
This evening as Toby and I made our ritual stroll down to the river, we saw our first Newcomb robin! It was sitting on a snowbank, ignoring the world. I was able to walk within about six feet of it before it flew away!

And then, a little further down the road, a raptor flew through the trees. The wings (pointy and swept backwards) suggested falcon, which here would mean merlin, but it was too big (about the size of a broadwing), and it’s still a bit too early for merlins. The belly was bright white. And those are the only traits I noticed: wings, size, and belly color.

19 March – Holy Holes, Batman!
Our last tracking class for school groups was today. We are down to about 15” of snow, thanks to the rain and balmy weather of the last week or so. What snow that remains is icy hard in the morning, rotting and soft by afternoon. Needless to say, there weren’t a lot of recognizable tracks out there. So, we looked at a variety of other animal signs that the talented tracker can use to learn about the wildlife in his/her area.

For example:

Rows of horizontal holes in trees are a sure indication that yellow-bellied sapsuckers are around.

The enormous gaping holes left by pileated woodpeckers are hard to miss.

And then there was this strange set of holes: vertical up the side of a birch. At first I thought birds were responsible for these holes, but then I saw this:

…what looked like a “plug” at the opening. Maybe the hole was chewed by some insect’s larvae, each chewing its way to the surface then plugging the opening to wait for pupation to complete. Those that had no “plugs” had perhaps been eaten by industrious birds. Or maybe they were made by something like mason bees, who lay their eggs deep in long holes and seal up the entry to protect the egg and, later, the larva. But when I got inside and looked at the photos up close I started to think that the “plugs” looked rather fungus-like. Hm. If anyone else has a suggestion on identifying what is happening here, please let me know.

Our final “unknown” and interesting find was what looked like a series of papery petals lying on the snow. When I picked them up, I found a seed inside one or two. I brought them inside to see if I could figure out what they were, and as a last resort I would plant the seed and see what grew (presuming that the seeds were viable…if some critter had rejected these seeds, then perhaps they weren’t). But I was saved the trouble: I showed it to our handyman (used to work as a forester) and he immediately identified it as American hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana). I know the tree by its bark, but I’ve never seen its fruits (they really do look like hops, which I grow at home). Very cool indeed!

21 March
Happy Spring! Okay, I know that “officially” that was yesterday, but I always think of the turn of the seasonal wheel as being on the 21st of each associated month. It’s one of my quirks.

And celebrating Spring, I discovered this morning, my tulips (and maybe daffodils) are up about 3-4” this morning along the house. I also found, as I walked across the frozen snow to refill some bird feeders (it’s best to do that in the morning before the snow becomes treacherous in the heat of the afternoon), that my giant pussy willow (the variety is called “giant”, it’s not a reference to its size, which is under three feet tall) has fuzzy catkins already out on the branches the deer didn’t nail. That took me a bit by surprise! My black pussy willow is still under snow.

Tuesday I had to be up in Ray Brook (that’s between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid) for a meeting, and on the drive up I saw Canada geese in Tupper Lake (on the Raquette River) and in Saranac Lake (on Lake Flower). I have yet to see or hear a flock winging by overhead. There were also some smaller water fowl in Tupper, but they were too far away to identify – may have been mallards, although I’ve heard of two sightings of hooded mergansers in Newcomb already, so maybe that’s what those were, too. I’ve also heard a rumor of a woodcock sighting in Newcomb! I haven’t seen or heard any yet, but you never know. We still have 14-15” at our snow stick, so any early arrivals are probably doubting their judgment.

WNS Update
I recently received the latest issue of BATS, the magazine put out by Bat Conservation International (BCI). It had an article about White-nose Syndrome in which BCI founder Merlin Tuttle was quoted as saying, in response to WNS having been discovered in caves in West Virginia, “America’s most important remaining hibernacula for endangered Indiana myotis…and gray myotis…could be threatened within two years or less. Failure to find a solution could prove devastating.”

The article further cites Al Hicks, the DEC biologist who is heading up the investigation here in NY, as saying that “transmission tests” are being conducted to determine if the fungus is the disease-causing agent. In order to conduct these tests, the testing facility (USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin) has to be able to reproduce the conditions that exist in the caves. This could be a challenge.

The article confirms WNS in hibernacula in NJ, but also says that “no bat kills were confirmed in Pennsylvania, but the state Game commission notes that biologists…found bats with fungus-covered faces. …When they netted bats at the site last summer, they found no obvious problems, although some bats had white spots on their wings.” These white spots are suspected as early signs of WNS. As of mid-December, the bats hibernating in the mine that they were studying seemed fine, but by 20 Dec. some bats were showing evidence of the fungus and were demonstrating the behaviors now associated with it, such as moving closer to the cave entrance. By 5 Jan. almost half of the bat population in the cave had moved near the entrance – not a good sign.

Tom Kunz, “one of the top WNS researchers” says that caves and mines are being sampled all over to determine if there are any locations that have the fungus without the symptoms of WNS also being present. The thought here is that if the fungus is everywhere, but WNS isn’t, then the fungus isn’t what is spreading the disease.

BCI has a fund going to support WNS research. So far they have donated about $65,000 for WNS research, but this fund could soon dry up. If you would like to help, you can check out their donation site at .

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