Lost in the fog…

8 11 2008

foggybottomSapsucker Woods has always been a place where clouds and moisture get the chance to interact with terra firma.  It sits over 700 feet above lakeside Ithaca, and cold rain and wind on the lakeshore can often lead to whiteout conditions and snow accumulation here at the Lab.  As far back as 1950, studies indicated that humidity is typically higher and temperatures are usually lower here than in Ithaca (up to 10% in Owen’s 1950 thesis).  

This last Thursday was a perfect example of humidity interacting with temperatures to create our own foggy fantasyland.  Each day, I drive across two creek watersheds on the way to work.  On this day, the first of the watersheds was draped in a high fog, the second filled with brilliant sun.  My arrival at the Lab was greeted with high clouds and scattered patches of blue sky.  Within two hours, the temperature had decreased a few degrees, and an intense fog rolled in (shutting down the airport as well!) The picture above was taken midmorning, and it remained that way for several hours, giving a surreal sense of wandering through an out-of-focus dreamscape…

By midafternoon the skies had cleared, the temperature had risen a few degrees and planes were buzzing around the skies, making me wonder if it had all just been a dream.  Then, looking at the pile of work still remaining to be done on my desk, I hoped that I was still dreaming.


New imagery for Sapsucker Woods

20 10 2008

If you’re anything like me, you’re constantly on the lookout for cool maps and high-resolution aerial imagery.  I’m happy to say that, after 2 long years of waiting, Google Maps has finally updated Tompkins County with new full-color imagery from summer 2006!  I love being able to zoom-in to my heart’s content until I can practically see the chickadees in the Treman Bird Feeding Garden…

Feel free to take ‘er for a whirl and see what you can see 🙂

We hope to have a number of overlays for use in Google Earth up by Spring, so stay tuned for more!

Of geese and chickadees…

21 05 2008

A pulse of life is rippling through Sapsucker Woods. Amid the screeching blackbirds and honking geese it is now possible to discern the melodious tones of a host of wood warblers, buzzy phoebes, even monotonous vireos. All this noise is presaging one thing: it’s time to breed! And there’s already evidence that breeding is occurring across a wide range of birds right under our noses: at one end of the spectrum, the rotund massiveness that is the Canada Goose, and at the other end, our petite Black-capped Chickadee

There aren’t many similarities that come to mind when comparing Black-capped Chickadees and Canada Geese. One can weigh in excess of 5000g (or 11 lbs!), the other tops out at ~12g (the weight of two quarters in your hand!). Geese migrate long distances in family groups, chickadees stick it out for the winter across most of their range. And despite both of these species being grossly different, they actually share a number of fine details that allow them to succeed as early-season nesters:

  • Both begin nesting in the early spring: Geese are able to breed through the cooler spring temperatures thanks to their massive bodies, which generate sufficient heat to keep themselves and their eggs warm. Chickadees use a different tactic, utilizing the wooden insulation of a tree cavity to avoid the elements.


  • Both leave the nest at around 28-30 days…but baby geese and baby chickadees are worlds apart!  Goslings are precocial: when they hatch out, within 24 hours they are motoring around on their own, foraging for themselves, but still needing mom or dad to thermoregulate.  Chickadees, on the other hand, are altricial: their first days are spent blind and helpless, hatching out of their eggs in ~14 days.  When they leave the nest (at around 30 days) they are able to fly, are fully feathered, and able to (somewhat) fend for themselves (click here for neat video from a chickadee nest, thanks to Project NestWatch). Young Canada Geese take another 6-10 weeks before finding themselves aloft…


  • Both are fiercely territorial! The sweet clear “fee-bee” whistle of the chickadee begins in early Spring as the dominant males begin to jockey for the best woodland locations and nest cavities.  Geese act similarly, waiting for the water to open then engaging in protracted battles that often result in a loss of feathers for the losers and ceremonial posturing for the winners.  This territoriality is important in securing the resources that are needed for a successful nesting attempt.

Leave me a note in the comments if you come up with other natural history similarities among these two modestly plumaged birds…

The many faces of Sapsucker Woods’ pond…

30 03 2008


As Spring nears and the sunlight increases, let us not forget the beauty of the last few months. Currently Sapsucker Woods pond is crisscrossed with the paths of geese fighting and celebrating their triumphs, a morass of rotten ice and brown murk. Soon the honking of the geese will give way to the spring peepers, the trilling sparrows, and those beautiful gems of the North American landscape, the warblers.

But-as everything gets richer and messier, I find it oddly calming to think of the pond in midwinter. Its solid surface a shining blue, the snow in regularly spaced spindrifts that suggest art, and the frenzied sounds of the chickadees…For all its length and stubborn darkness, winter in Sapsucker Woods is a great time for contemplation and reflection, and for all the hubbub that awaits us in the coming Spring, there is small piece of me that will yearn for the simplicity of winter.


Mobbing of a relaxed sort

1 02 2008

Sunny, clear winter mornings are certainly not the norm around these parts (my thoughts on the subject here), and every golden ray is a moment worth savoring. One common sight around the pond on such mornings is a bright shining spot in the trees ringing the pond. Upon closer inspection, the upright stance of a red-shouldered hawk basking in the warmth of the sun makes itself clear, and for some reason it always makes me feel warm too.


On this day, a blue jay that had actively been mobbing the RSHA took a break from antagonism and joined the hawk around the figurative campfire…

First Frost Fright

31 10 2007


Two days ago saw our first real frost, as grass blades bent heavy to the ground and the sun’s path became illuminated in shades of green. My last post spoke of warmer weather, and in consulting my records I found that we are nearly 2 weeks later than last year’s first frost. There’s something about the clarity of the air in these brisk Fall mornings that makes the day seem almost limitless, and as I traipsed around the parking lot area, I was regaled with frosty seed heads, curling oak leaves, and the incessant chatter of chickadees in the distance.

Not surprisingly, the cooler temperatures and clear skies brought out hungry critters from the forest, and the day got off to an exciting start watching an adult sharp-shinned hawk taking swipes at the goldfinches near the feeders.


(Female Sharp-shinned hawk perched above the N side feeders)


Her knowledge of the feeders either marks her as a very savvy late migrant, or one of our resident sharpies that patrol the feeders throughout the winter. Though sharpies breed around central NY, only their larger congener the Cooper’s Hawk is confirmed to be breeding in Sapsucker Woods (try and tell that to the frightened songbirds!), usually on the west side of the sanctuary.

As for the fright part, I’ve included a picture montage from our recent halloween celebration here at work, complete with pirates, scary people, and some just plain ugliness! Enjoy the holiday 🙂


Triumphgeshrei smackdown

11 04 2007


I have often found sublime pleasure in watching the most common birds to be found; it is through the actions of these typically drab natives that I have seen the majority of interesting behavioral tidbits. But without getting into the relative merits of chickadees versus nuthatches at the bird feeder, I would like to turn my focus to a ubiquitous bird that is usually overlooked, sometimes despised, and often actively persecuted: the Canada Goose.

Nothing says Spring like geese charging from one end of a pond to another, hell-bent on goosing another goose that happened to stray a bit too near. The air, cacophonous with honks, is alive despite the freezing temperatures that have returned to Ithaca, and the only birds that are still acting like it’s Spring are the geese. The best part of observing these battles is that there is a clear outcome at the end of a chase: one pair wins, and an interloper loses. In fact, the winning pair often gloats following a successful defense, performing what is scientifically referred to as a “Triumphgeshrei” or Triumph Ceremony (named by uber-behaviorist Konrad Lorenz). In this display, the victorious geese wave their necks and honk loudly at one another. It’s sort of like Hulk Hogan climbing up onto the ropes and beckoning to the crowds for cheers by ostentatiously cupping his hand to his ear. This display is also used as a greeting following a long separation (e.g. sleeping or foraging separately).

The Birds of North America, a reference resource for the species of birds that live in North America, describe Canada Geese as ruling by “tyranny“, which I find especially endearing. To watch a goose purposefully approach another goose from tens of meters away, its head flipping from side-to-side, flashing those white patches, is to know the singular fury of a goose. And there’s rarely something more entertaining (and indicative of Spring’s presence) than the appearance of pairs of belligerent geese on ponds that once held flocks of tens to hundreds…I guess we’ll have to chalk it up to the hormones.

CAGO pair