Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Turkeys

Now I know what you're thinking - roasted turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce. But no! I'm talkin' real turkeys!

It seems that yesterday several turkeys came to the VIC and had a party in the parking lot! Not only that, but they wandered down the walkway to the main building and checked out the snow-covered gardens.

Mr. Mike says the tracks weren't here yesterday at 9am, but when he returned at noon, they were. It must've been a late-morning party.

I love turkey tracks. They are so easy to identify (what else around here has avian feet that big?) and since I grew up with turkeys a rarity, it never ceases to amaze me when I see tracks...and it's even more exciting when the birds are present (even if these days they are almost as common as fleas on a dog).

When I worked at the Utica Zoo, we had a flock of wild turkeys that often wandered the grounds early in the morning when we first opened. If you don't believe that birds are the living descendants of dinosaurs, you obviously haven't watched a flock of turkeys in the early morning light! Maybe it's due to images from "Jurassic Park," but turkeys running across the ground look so much like dinosaurs that one almost feels like time has turned back. And for someone who loved dinosaurs as a kid (me), this is a real treat.

We are down to about 17" of snow now, thanks to the rain Christmas Eve (it was like a bloomin' typhoon out there). But it's not too crusty, surprisingly. Animals were on the move last night (making up for lost time), so there should be some good tracking out in the woods today. I encourage you all to take advantage of the nice weather today and go outside to see who was out and about in the last 24 hours.

The turkeys were back this afternoon snarfing up seeds cast to the ground by eager birds at our feeders. I shot this photo from the office window, but when I snuck out on the back deck for a better shot, they took off.

Turkeys have a very strong "flight" sense when it comes to any perceived threat - they aren't about to hang around to find out if the danger is real or not. First one, then five, then the whole group started to shuffle off into the woods, and then with a whoosh! they took to the air. Flying turkeys are pretty impressive. Unfortunately, the trees were in the way of getting any shots worthwhile.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays

Wishing you all a pleasant and safe holiday - whichever holiday you choose to celebrate.

Me, well, I'm a Solstice Baby, so that is a special day in my heart. Still, Christmas is a family time - tree and turkey, gifts and music.

This year, however, my Christmas will be spent doing laundry and dishes...and opening the one gift I have waiting for me at home. Hopefully, though, the weather will be good enough next week that I can head to the ol' homestead and enjoy a more typical holiday with my folks.

Best Wishes to All.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Whooo Loves Ya, Baby

I was sitting here chatting with my boss and just casually glanced out the window, and there was a barred owl, sitting on a branch, soaking up the sun, and squinting at the ground below.

The other birds, namely blue jays, nuthatches and chickadees, continued eating at the feeders without a second glance at the owl. Not even the red squirrels seemed to care. Hmm.

After the owl flew off, we started noting all the other birds hanging around: male evening grosbeak, female hairy woodpecker, pine siskins, goldfinches, and the regular blue jays, red- and white-breasted nuthatches, and black-capped chickadees.

Now, if only the cardinal would appear (we did see it yesterday in the middle of the snowstorm).

Perfect Conditions!

We are now looking at about 18" of snow on the ground, the top 14 of which are very fluffy. And to top it off, the sun is out today, so it's a perfect day for snowshoeing and skiing!

More snow is on its way looks like today is the day to be out and about.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Another New Header Photo

I just got back from putting up winter trail use signs on the Sucker Brook and Sage Trails, and simply had to use one of today's photos for a new header. This is of three glacial erratics that are along the Sage Trail. I call them the Three Sisters.

What a great day to be out, especially if one is a tracker! And for once I think squirrels were not the most numerous tracks out there. Believe it or not, otter tracks reigned supreme! Three otters travelled up the Little Sucker Brook to the old beaver pond, and at least one otter decided to make use of a good portion of the Sage Trail - slides and tracks ran right down the middle of the trail.

Small mammals (deer mouse and shrew) were also out and about. Twice I came across mouse tracks that went on and on, from tree to tree to log, to shrub...must've been out foraging, and lucked out that owls and foxes were hunting elsewhere!

I found one set of marten tracks:

The only tracks I didn't capture on "film" were the fox, which galloped around the back deck into the woods. Hunting birds? Squirrels? Mice?

And of course no trip on the trails would be complete without a few scenic shots, so here they are:

Murder Moste Fowle

Nothing like a little murder to get one's day started!

It was a gloriously clear and sunny morning, blue sky above, new snow below. The temperature was somewhere subzero (-5 at work). Toby and I took a leisurely stroll around the horn, making it longer by taking in both ends of our street. We noted that the deer were out en force over night (could the enormous full moon have been an influence?), but so far it appears they haven't made a foray over my fence. When we reached the water tower, I was shocked to see six snow buntings on the utility line overhead. Usually these little birds are seen at a distance, foraging on the ground or in the road, or flying up from said ground or road. But here they were perched on the line, all at the end that was in the sun. It was nice to get a close look at them. Then they flew off and joined a large flock of goldfinches that were zooming about a large balsam fir - shelter at the nearest bird feeding station.

BUT! The excitement came when I got home.

I had just finished fixing breakfast and had carried it into the living room to wolf down before heading to work. The cat was sitting where I had planned to sit, so I made for the piano stool, figuring I could watch for any birds at the feeders. As I sat down, I saw maybe five or six snow buntings on the ground. They were picking at the seeds I had scattered there yesterday. A blue jay flew in and checked out the peanut situation, which was lacking since I haven't refilled it in a couple days. I set down my plate and looked at the buntings through the binocs, just to confirm that's what they were (the sun was directly behind them, and the window is a bit less than perfectly transparent). I then set down the binocs and picked up the plate. I didn't even get one bite of food when the snow buntings flew off - all but one. The jay was still looking over the food situation.

"Hm," thought I.

Just then, another bird showed up on the scene - right next to the bunting. Then right on the bunting. It happened so fast! I'm sitting there thinking all at once "plate" "camera" "binocs" - not knowing which to handle first. I found a place to set the plate and grabbed the binocs again. Focusing on the action, I see the raptor holding the bunting down (I'm leaning towards it being a sharp-shin hawk; it wasn't much bigger than the bunting and it was all brown and white streaks, and it's a bit late in the season for the merlins to still be around). The bunting was now on its right side, belly facing the window. The hawk took a couple jabs at the bunting's neck. The bunting's feet bicycled in the air a couple times. And then the hawk grabbed its breakfast and flew off into the sun.

While the "struggle" was going on, the blue jay watched silently from the crabapple tree next to the feeders (so much for jays giving the alert). And then, shockingly, it flew out of the tree directly at the hawk, strafed it, and flew off.

I abandoned my breakfast and dashed out the door to see if there were any discernible signs of a struggle in the snow. There was no blood, and there were no feathers. The only thing I could find was a small depression in the snow amidst the snow bunting tracks and sunflower seed husks.

Wow! What a great start to the day! Well, not so much so for the snow bunting, but for the curious naturalist it was quite exciting.

And now I will be arming myself with the camera, donning snowshoes for the first time this season (we have about 9" of snow), and will hit the trails. Who knows what cool things I will find. Afterall, it was a full moon last night - maybe something dramatic happened here as well.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Birds! Birds! Birds!

Yesterday the airwaves were full of rumor of a storm that was going to nail New York. The reports I heard had warnings out for Hamilton, Herkimer, and Warren Counties, which leaves out us here in Newcomb (Essex Co.). So we entered the night a bit trepidatious (even braving the storm to attend the school holiday concert).

This morning I woke to the radio saying eastern NY was hit with snow and ice - some places up to half an inch of ice! And Newcomb Central School was on a two-hour delay (Newcomb is rarly delayed and almost never closed). I was afraid to get up and look at the driveway.

On my way to the kitchen I looked out the living room window and saw goldfinches galore! My little crabapple tree had birds on every branch and twig, and each feeder had at least six birds on it: the suet block, the peanuts, the nyjer, the sunflower seed tube, the sunflower seed platform feeder. Must've been easily a hundred birds, including the batch that flew in while I watched. So I grabbed my pitchers, filled 'em with seeds and peanuts, and tossed the food out on the ground around the base of the feeders. Of course Toby charged out with me, chasing the birds away.
It took about two hours for the goldfinches to gather up their courage and return.

As I drove in to work, I almost drove into a flock of crossbills on the road. There were 30-40 of them in a group in my lane. A beep of the horn meant nothing to them - apparently they wanted that salt and sand more than they cared about their safety. Luckily for them there was no traffic in the other lane, so I swerved around them. Not too many drivers would afford them that courtesy.

And the feeders at work are swamped - even saw a white-breasted nuthatch (usually we get the reds). I think we will all be looking throughout the day to see if the cardinal returns.

And for those of you wanting to get into your winter sports, we now have over 8" of snow, so our trails are now open for snowshoeing and skiing.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Whole Lotta Ottas

On my way to work this morning I stopped by The Spring to fill up my water jugs, and there on the ice of the pond were several sets of otter tracks:

I drove to the office, grabbed the camera, and came back to the pond to get photos and see if I could figure out what was going on. All told, there were four sets of tracks.

One was off by itself, moving towards the road where I was standing.

The other three were a jumble. It could be one otter travelling back and forth, or it could be multiple otters. The tracks were not defined well enough for me to tell from the road which way they went, and the ice was way too thin for me to venture out to get a closer look.

Looking up the trail they/it made, there were areas where the snow was all wiped away; it's possible the animal(s) rolled. This suggests to me that either multiple animals were frisking about, or perhaps they/it rolled to remove water from fur.

I'd give my eye teeth to have a wetland like this in my back yard. What a great place for a Sit Spot!!! (Or, as we called them many years ago at the nature center where my career as a naturalist began: Seton Spots, after the famous naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton.)

Other notes from this morning: Toby and I encountered a flock of maybe a dozen snow buntings pecking up salt and sand at the village's salt shed. At work we had a brown-headed cowbird at the feeders! And yesterday afternoon we had a male cardinal at the feeders! The current regulars are pine siskins, goldfinches, blue jays, black-capped chickadees, and red-breasted nuthatches.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Wintery Header Photo

The current header photo (winter scene with gazebo) was taken here at the Newcomb VIC (State Route 28N - just west of the village of Newcomb, about half a mile past Aunt Polly's B&B). The Gazebo is right near the main building here - if you are facing our front door, it will be to your left (the head of the Rich Lake Trail). It doesn't look like this now - all that heavy snow has melted away, but there's no saying that it won't look like this again later this winter!

Kamana and Advanced Bird Language

This last summer I signed up for an independent studies program with the Wilderness Awareness School called "Kamana I - Path of the Naturalist." It was a very, very basic (introductory) course for folks who want to be naturalists. For me, it wasn't much use, but for someone who is new to nature studies, it would be good. None-the-less, this fall I signed up for "Kamana II," which builds on the skills and knowledge learned in the first program.

The key for success in the Kamana programs (there are four levels) is what they call the "Sit Spot" or "Secret Spot". This is a place that you find near your home that you visit every day for 45 minutes to an hour, absorbing (and later recording) what is going on. This involves watching, listening, smelling, tasting, studying, etc. Ideally, your spot has woods, a meadow and water. For most folks, though, it is the back yard, and if you are lucky, you have woods, a meadow and water in your back yard. Over the course of a year (or more) your observations include bird and mammal behavior, plant and tree ID, location of water sources, knowledge of all trails, dens and nests, etc. It is a really great activity and one that everyone (especially children) should do.

Well, last week I ordered the CD set "Advanced Bird Language," which I hoped would be useful in improving my tracking skills and general outdoor awareness. I listened to most of it yesterday, and I can report with confidence that it is probably the best thing I have gotten out of the Kamana program to date. The instructor (Jon Young, who is also the founder of the Wilderness Awareness School) is very enthusiastic about his topic and his enthusiasm is contagious.

So, what is this "bird language?" It's not about learning bird calls and songs (well, that's a small part of it), but rather it is about what the actions of the birds tell us is happening in the landscape around us. It's stuff that on one level we are aware of, but in truth we really don't know it because we don't pay attention to it. For example, when we go into the woods, we hear the birds call and we watch them fly. And we say "oh, there's a black-throated green," or "Ah! Common yellow-throat," and we move on. What we don't say is "why did those birds fly up so high?" or "why is the forest so silent?" By learning the behaviors of these birds, we can tell that a cat is coming through the yard and will appear "there" in 30 seconds, or that a sharp-shin hawk is about to cruise through the canopy. By learning what the birds are telling us, and how to move among them without sending out alarms, we may one day see the bear or the bobcat that is living secretly in the woods a hundred feet from the house! It's pretty neat, and if you are a naturalist (new or seasoned), you''ll want to get these CDs. Put 'em on your Christmas list!

For more information, check out .

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Celestial Triad

Did you see the heavenly convergence that occurred Monday night? I had heard on NCPR that it was coming up, but had forgotten the date. None-the-less, Toby and I were out early for our walk Monday night (5:30ish) and there it was: Jupiter, Venus and the crescent moon, forming a perfect triangle in the southern sky! All three were extremely bright. I expected the moon to move through the stars as the night progressed, but they all seemed to move together, for later that night I was in town and they were all still together in their same tidy triangle. Very impressive to see.

This photo was taken by Randy Bell, SSG, US Army in Bagdad, Iraq. It's a bit different from what I saw. In our sky here in Newcomb, the moon was in the upper left corner, Venus the upper right, and Jupiter was the point at the bottom center. If only I had my own digital camera!!!