Thursday, May 31, 2012

Field of Cranes

Driving in to work this morning I passed a field full of sandhill cranes.  At 50 mph with traffic whizzing by in both directions, it was not the place to stop and fully take in the scene.  So, I was thrilled when I got onto a back road closer to work to find a family group of cranes not too far off the road in another field.  I whipped out my camera and took some photos, because this was my first baby crane ever! 


Juvenile cranes are called "colts."  Is it because they have long, gangly legs?  That's the only similarity I can come up with.

So, it is the time of the year when the adult cranes take the kids out foraging, showing them the ropes in the fields.  They are all a lovely rusty brown, having coated their feathers with the mineral-rich mud found in the pounds and lakes around here.  Come late summer and fall they will all be mostly grey, the need for color no longer important.  Camouflage or courtship?  Maybe a bit of both?  No time to look it up right now - swamped with work.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

WNS Update from BCI - the news isn't good

Dear BCI Members and Friends, We’re sad to report that White-nose Syndrome, the devastating disease that has killed millions of North American bats, has been confirmed in the federally endangered gray bat – a species that figured prominently in the birth of Bat Conservation International 30 years ago. Biologists in Hawkins and Montgomery counties in Tennessee recently discovered several gray bats (also known as gray myotis) with the white fungus that causes WNS on their muzzles, wings and tail membranes. The fungus – but not the disease – was first reported on gray bats in 2010. Today, the disease itself was confirmed by laboratory tests. No WNS mortality was found, however. Biologists have no clear explanation for that, but they are holding their collective breath to see what develops. This news is especially heart-wrenching for us at BCI, since we’ve been working to recover this species for so many years, and we were on the very verge of succeeding until the advent of White-nose Syndrome in 2006. “We have been able to keep people out of gray bat roosts, but we have not been able to keep this disease at bay.” Gray bats are at extreme risk, since about 95 percent of the species entire population hibernates in just nine caves each winter. WNS has caused mortality rates approaching 100 percent at some hibernation sites of other bat species. Such losses at even a single gray bat hibernation cave could decimate the species. The story of the gray bat is in many ways the story of Bat Conservation International. BCI Founder Merlin Tuttle, began studying the species as a high school student in Tennessee in 1959. He was instrumental in having the species listed as endangered in 1979 and led BCI’s continuing effort to bring the gray bat back from the brink of extinction – primarily by protecting its hibernation caves from human disturances. And our efforts paid off. Before WNS, gray bats were doing so well they were considered for removal from the endangered list. Read more about Merlin’s fight for the gray bat. Now the fate of the gray bat is once again uncertain. WNS is yet another threat to the species, which is already so vulnerable. But there is hope. With your support, we will continue to fight for our bats. Warm Regards, Dave Waldien, Ph.D. Dave Waldien Interim Executive Director

Friday, May 25, 2012

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Goatsucker Grand Slam

Out in the rural area where I live, not far from a state game management area and lots of farm fields (abandoned and in use), we are so very lucky to have whip-poor-wills and, even luckier to have a chuck-will's-widow!

I first heard whip-poor-wills about 20 years ago down in the NJ Pine Barrens while leading a canoe trip down the Batsto or Mullica River (we did both...I just don't recall which one we were on this particular time).  We were camping (along with about 100 Boy Scouts) and the whip-poor-wills decided to call...all...night...long.  The novelty didn't last as long.

About five years ago a friend and I went out on a whip-poor-will survey in the Adirondacks north of Lake George - we didn't hear a one, although we got to explore some back roads where we heard pine sawyers (insects) "sawing" away VERY loudly in the woods.

Fast forward to life here in Michigan.  Because I live in a rural area, with plenty of farm land and shrubby areas, whip-poor-wills should be plentiful.  I was out walking the dog down toward the state land early last week when we heard our first w-p-w of the season calling.  Hooray!  Fortunately my house is far enough away that I can't hear them (all...night...long).

For seasoned birders, however, the w-p-w isn't as big a deal as the chuck-will's-widow.  Another member of the goatsucker or nightjar family, it is a lot less common, being historically a bird of the south.  In the 1970s and '80s it suddenly expanded its range northward into MI, WI, the Northeast and parts of southern Canada (Ontario).  It first appeared in MI in 1963 over in Kalamazoo County (west of where I live) and wasn't seen (or heard) again until 1972.  It's easy to see why local birders get worked up about it.

Last year the local birders were all excited about the presence of a c-w-w in my area, but the night some birders and I went out to listen for it, it was either absent or keeping its gaping mouth shut.  This year it has returned though, and Monday night the dog and I sallied forth (we drove over after our evening stroll) to see if we could hear it.

I wasn't convinced I would be able to distinguish one poor-will from another vocally, but my colleague from work gave me a good tip:  the "chuck" part of its call is very quiet and it's possible I might not hear it, but the "will's-widow" will be very loud.  I parked the car, let the dog out, and listened.  All I could hear was tree frogs, and they were bellowing forth with determination.  I was sure the trip would be in vain, when suddenly, from behind us, there it was:  "will's-widow!"  I turned eastward and cupped my hands behind my ears, greatly improving my auditory capabilities.  Lo!  and behold!  I could suddenly hear the quiet "chuck" before each loud "will's-widow!" - a new bird to add to my life list.

Last night it was after 9 PM before I got around to walking the dog.  We headed down the road, the evening rush hour traffic having finally (mostly) passed.  At half a mile we turned back for home, and as we reached the open fields, something flew by.  This was new!  The flight pattern was very much like that of a bat - zipping and darting about as if in pursuit of insects.  The wings were ridiculously long and narrow for the size body it was carrying - about the size of a robin.  Its flight was silent.  It skimmed up the trunks of trees and darted from the branches back out over the fields.  It cruised up the road, over our heads, and again back over the fields.  At one point I thought I saw a white patch on the wing about where the wrist would be.  Could this be a whip-poor-will in flight?  HM...I just didn't know.

I called my birdy co-worker, but his phone was off (as it should be after 9 PM), so I was left without an answer until this afternoon, when I decided to take a moment to look up the flight of the whip-poor-will on-line, and just when I thought this must be it, I discovered a THIRD member of the nightjar family:  the common nighthawk!  These birds are readily identified by the white patch on the wings - a dead give-away.  They also have ridiculously long and narrow wings (which give them such agile flight).  Another life bird for me!  I owe someone an ice cream (maybe the dog, although they were probably life birds for him, too).  The common nighthawk is, as its name suggests, a common bird across much of the US and Canada and is noted for its courtship display, which is rather reminiscent of that of the woodcock. pays to break up one's routine.  If Toby and I had gone for our walk at the "regular" time, I never would've seen this bird.  Nor would I have gotten a Goatsucker Grand Slam all within a single week's time!

Life is good.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Gifts Under Logs

Every Tuesday afternoon during the school year, you can probably find me at the local middle school leading a group of kids in a nature program of some sort.

Last week I decided we were going to make a nature movie, and today we started filming.  It's an adventure, at times quite amusing.

One boy broke apart a log and two or three of the other kids were quite excited about their finds...until the first boy discovered the ants crawling on him.  He ran off trying to wipe ants (real and imaginary) off himself.

But what had captured the attention of most of us was this thing:

They all thought it was slimy, but in fact it was quite hard.  It looked vaguely familiar, so when I got back to work I looked it up in my Tracks and Signs of Insects book - it's a mantis egg case.  Based on the size (a bit over an inch long) and shape, I'm thinking it's the European mantis, Mantis religiosa.  It hadn't been parasitized yet, so I am sorely tempted to go back and collect it and hatch those babies out here.

The last time I saw a mantis egg case was in the early '90s when I was working in NJ.  I didn't know what it was, so I brought it in and placed it in a container next to my desk.  That was in the winter, and I promptly forgot about it until spring when one morning I came into my office and the window screen next to my desk was was crawling with hundreds of itty bitty praying mantises.  I'd like to see that again - with a camera ready!