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.


Recently spotted in Sapsucker Woods

10 04 2008

Don’t just take my word for it, spring is beginning to, well, spring into action, and the skunk cabbage are coming up in droves, especially along the Woodleton Boardwalk on the east side of the road.  Skunk cabbage have an amazing ability: they can actually generate heat to melt its way through frozen ground, paving the way to an early arrival on the scene.  And we’re not talking about a few degrees here or there; in some cases, they have been recorded warming up to 35 degrees celsius above the ambient air temperature!  And there are very few plants out there that employ thermogenesis in their arsenal of adaptations.  So next time you see the lowly skunker poking up from a hummock, give it its due: you’re looking at one hot plant!

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.


Time travel, sapsucker-style

4 02 2008

Carpe diem!

Seize the day!

Live in the now!

These exhortations can be heard from time to time, trying to convince someone to pay more attention to what’s happening in the present. Funny thing is, sometimes it takes a look at the past to put the present in context. I am asked many questions about the history of Sapsucker Woods, and I have been perusing the back catalog of old newsletters to Lab of Ornithology members, trying to piece together some of the manmade influences that had helped to shape its current habitat. In doing so I stumbled upon a rich trove of aerial imagery that goes back over 70 years, and decided to do a retrospective photo history of Sapsucker Woods.

Most people who visit the Lab assume that the pond has always been there, and that this small chunk of woodlands has been protected forever.  The truth, however, is much more interesting.  So, if you’re interested in taking a trip on the wayback machine, or perhaps getting a little help from a cardboard box (a la Calvin & Hobbes), click on the Sapsucker Woods Aerial Photos tab below the header and enjoy.

Red-tailed Marauder

28 01 2008

This winter has seen the persistent presence of a single banded Red-tailed Hawk in Sapsucker Woods. Whether she’s harassing the red-shouldered hawk or being harassed by a murder of crows, her burnt-red tail never fails to bring color to a drab Ithaca day.Nor terror to an suspecting prey item. Recently we were watching while she stooped on an unsuspecting short-tailed shrew; the result? Three quick bites, and a little blood on the talons. Sort of a tapas dish for the Buteo crew. Other days the results are more gruesome:


Talon marks in the snow and a half-meter of rabbit intestine spooled out amid the footprints of mice and squirrels. Just another reminder that life’s violent ends can, in the case of a bunny, sometimes be tasty; also, that a clean blanket of snow is perfect for getting a surreptitious look at the eating habits of animals…

Despite my earlier posts lambasting Rhamnus in all its glory, the birds seem to find it an acceptable substitute for a native berry bush. The cold and snow makes their preference visible in the form of a shotgun blast of purple pellets, the cast-off bits from consuming the small purple berries that festoon the branches of buckthorn all along the trails on the north side of Sapsucker Woods.


Even more fun is stumbling upon the chipped up remains from the ardent attention of a woodpecker. It’s almost as though I have encountered the workshop of a small elf, chiseling away at the trees for some arcane purpose.



(winter)berries’ bounty

10 11 2007

The canopy continues to thin here in Sapsucker Woods, leaving the trails adrift in reds and oranges. Oaks and beeches are some of the last holdouts, their leaves providing much of the color in the all-too-soon-to-come winter landscape. However, these leafy slowpokes aren’t the only thing brightening up the grays of late fall; among the most spectacular is an oft-overlooked native shrub that becomes even more beautiful as it drops its leaves. The culprit? Winterberry.


(a thick crop of winterberries)

For most of the year, Common Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a nondescript shrub with deep green glossy leaves, but come Fall it sprouts linear clusters of intense red berries that become more prominent as this deciduous holly drops its leaves. It can be found from Nova Scotia to Florida, and west to Missouri, excelling in areas of poor drainage. Around Sapsucker Woods, this is the only native deciduous holly we have, but there is another red-berried plant that it is sometimes confused with: Honeysuckle.


(winterberry on left, honeysuckle on right)

Honeysuckle is one of the most invasive shrubs in the area, forming dense thickets of yellowish-gray striated bark along woodland edges. The superficial similarity to winterberry lies in its possession of juicy-looking red berries, and its shrubby nature. You can find honeysuckle just about anywhere you want to look in Sapsucker Woods; much of the understory on the north side of the pond is composed of either honeysuckle or buckthorn (both invasive berry producers), and both were likely brought to Sapsucker Woods by the very creatures we spend so much time studying, namely fruit-eating birds (though each is likely also a favored treat for another woodland nuisance, the white-tailed deer). Honeysuckles also have the ability to spread vegetatively and some research has suggested that they can poison the chances of other plants through allelopathic interactions.


(light-green patch of honeysuckle)

The thing that all three of these berry producers have in common is the production each year of a heavy crop of berries that are characterized by being “low in nutritional content“. Roughly translated, these berries are the equivalent of a can of coke, offering nothing more than a rush of soluble carbohydrates, and this results in them being eaten later in the season as birds (especially migrating birds) target fat-rich foods. While it might not seem intuitive, berries can also be high in fats, and a selection of other berries in the landscape (dogwoods, sassafras, poison ivy) are relatively high in lipids (fats), and offer something closer to a bag of chips to the migrating masses, and most of these berries are gone by the end of Fall.

Given these intrinsic differences in the “value” of a given berry, it’s fun to think about how a fruit eater might choose to exploit these resources, and it is thought that birds try and eat a mix of sugars, proteins, and lipids for nutritional balance. However, by midwinter, all that might be left for a hungry resident is the equivalent of a can of coke…

Fall Riots

24 10 2007


(The view across Sapsucker Woods pond…)

A riot of color currently awaits visitors to Sapsucker Woods. This week has seen temperatures in the 70s (!) and crystal blue skies (though right now we are suffering through an inch-and-a-half of rain [rainyith]). This change in the scenery is quite possibly one of the most beautiful times of year to visit the Lab. Though migratory birdlife is winding down, the more subtle attraction of sparrows and finches abounds, and this year in particular finds us inundated with purple finches and siskins (an uncommon visitor to SSW!) among the more common winter denizens of the woods. So, if you’ve been wanting to see a pine siskin, right now the Lab feeders are the place to be…(thanks to Ryan for the SSW-specific pix of birds)


(The view from Adelson Library, looking over the Treman Bird-feeding Garden)

Speaking of the Lab feeders, recent visitors to the Visitors’ Center will likely have noticed that there is a renovation underway in the Treman Bird Feeding Garden. Initially, the bird-feeding garden was one of the last items implemented after the construction of the new building, and was slightly overlooked in the process. Recently, a donor has emerged that pledged funds to take the garden to the next level, and by mid-November the garden will serve as a new living “interactive display” illustrating the most important tenets of landscaping for birds (referred to as “birdscaping“). Cayuga Landscape has undertaken the renovation with input from landscape architect Marv Adleman (the designer of the original bird-feeding garden in the old Stuart Observatory), myself, and others on staff (including noted Audubon birdscaping author Stephen Kress).

By next Spring the garden itself will be a riot of color, with trees and perennials blooming in beautiful colors, and the birds hopefully responding to a rich new environment full of native plants chosen for their enrichment…As the garden shapes up I will post more about its progress. If you want to watch the renovation in realtime, check out the view from our feedercam (also slated to be upgraded in the next few weeks!)