midwinter visitors

14 01 2009

somethingdifferentLook carefully at this group of mallards and you’ll see that, in fact, they’re not all mallards. It’s like that old Sesame Street skit, “One of these things is not like the other things, one of these things just doesn’t belong…

The last couple of days have been good for our less common Sapsucker Woods birds: the day before this wildfowl visitor showed up (any guesses as to its identity?) we had several great looks at a northern shrike terrorizing the north side of the pond.  I even overheard someone this morning saying that they had watched a shrike impale and dismantle a mouse just a hundred feet off of Sapsucker Woods Rd. Looking at the Sapsucker Woods eBird data from the last 100 years, it shows that shrikes are fairly common during the fall and winter, but the odd duck out is a fairly rare occurrence.  

noshpondNow, you might be thinking that a duck and a hook-billed songbird aren’t all that exciting; but add in a sprinkling of dozens of pine siskins, a healthy dose of american tree sparrows, and a light dash of white-throated sparrows, and you’ve got quite a diversity of birds to watch.  Not to mention the red-tailed hawk that skimmed by right outside the windows of the lunchroom.  And the furtive brown beady-eyed mink that I saw in the gloaming last night.  Plus a group of rosy-breasted robins in the late dusk sunlight, high in the trees.

So keep an eye on those windows! Despite the single-digit highs of the next few days, there’s no telling what else the woods will reveal…

Advertisements




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.





Predation underfoot

13 06 2008

While pulling garlic mustard in Sapsucker Woods the other day, I was suddenly aware of a keening wail coming from nearby.  It was the sort of sound that makes a person feel a bit uncomfortable, so I stopped for a moment to see if I could figure out what it was…

*

Six birds (2 robins, 3 RW blackbirds, and a goldfinch) perched in a small oak about 20m away, looking agitated and peering down at the ground, but not the source of the sound…Now my curiosity was really piqued, so I maneuvered for a better vantage point and was greeted by an uncommonly viewed scene of predation: a long-tailed weasel  was firmly attached to the back of a  cottontail rabbit(!), biting repeatedly at the base of the rabbit’s neck.  The rabbit was the source of the wail, and as I watched the keening soon stopped and the weasel was left with his lunch.  

This weasel was likely a male (males are larger than females and tend to go after larger prey, like rabbits), and was hunting right around the time that weasels have young.  Distinguishing long-tailed weasels from short-tailed weasels can be difficult, as the male short-tails overlap in size with the female long-tails, but given the prey choice of this weasel I am fairly confident that it was a long-tailed weasel.  

*

This joins several other predation events I feel lucky to have witnessed here in Sapsucker Woods–several others involved frogs or turtles being carried off by crows (in one instance a chipmunk ate a green frog!), Cooper’s Hawks and Red-tails feeding on birds or small mammals, and the ubiquitous fish/frog foraging of the great blue herons and belted kingfishers.  But this was my first mammal-on-mammal predation in Sapsucker Woods (not counting the trespassing deer-hunters this past winter), and it was pretty spectacular!  Any predation happening in your backyards?





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…





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!





Slaty shades of grey

7 02 2008
stewie

Birding for gulls around Sapsucker Woods is generally slim pickings; the most common gull to be found (flying over, of course, always flying over) is everyone’s favorite parking lot resident, the Ring-billed Gull. In general, I don’t spend a lot of time trying to identify difficult gulls because it’s such a confusing mess of plumages: first-year, second-cycle, subspecies, hybrids, 2-yr, 3-yr…When I add up all the potential combinations and laminate them onto a bird that is basically white, grey and black, I become relatively confused. Hence my penchant for reporting Ring-billed Gulls on my clandestine visits to Taco Bell, a Great Black-backed Gull here and there, maybe a Herring Gull if I get a good look. But I never thought I’d find myself squinting through the gloaming for a gull.

slatybmc
(BMC on the lookout for gulls)

But that’s exactly where I found myself last Sunday before the Super Bowl. A rarity, the Slaty-backed Gull, had been sighted a mere handful of miles from the Lab. As a siberian breeder. it isn’t seen round these parts very often, and when I was invited along to go search for it among the thousand odd gulls that clamored along the ice edges in Stewart Park, I was hesitant but respectfully interested. (At this point I should mention that I probably am one of the least “twitchy” birdwatchers at the Lab of O, but after a long grey day spent holed up out of the weather, I needed air, and a foray to look for gulls seemed like an appropriate way to spend such a dreary day.)

slatyimpress

(the larger, darker mantled bird in the upper right is the Slaty-backed Gull; shot through my scope. Note the pinkish legs)

Arriving at the shore of Cayuga Lake, we spotted fellow basin birders with scopes unfurled and converged on a spot near the Swan Pen to scan for gulls. In the end, the quarry we sought made an appearance, allowing for a great deal of observation and study. Seven gull species were seen that day (Slaty-backed, Iceland (Kumlien’s), Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, Glaucous, Ring-billed, and Herring), and it was the perfect prelude to watching the Giants win later that evening (go Giants!).

Meanwhile, across the state at Niagara Falls another rarity had been sighted, this one even rarer: the fabled Ross’s Gull. According to Nick over at Biological Ramblings, a weekend field trip to Niagara Falls for a group from the Cornell area exposed the ever-present risk of twitching: sometimes the bird just doesn’t show.





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.

RSHA-BLJA

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…