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…





Red-tail waiting for a blue supper

12 04 2008

 

 

I was leaving the far parking lot when I caught a glimpse of this optimistic predator…perhaps he was thinking that if he just waited long enough, a swallow or bluebird might confuse him for part of the nest box and make a tasty nest inside his belly!

More likely, I suppose, was his scoping out of the grassy scrub below for something mammalian and tasty, but one never knows the thoughts that take flight in the sun-addled brains of a red-tailed hawk.

 





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

gooses

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.

sswpond





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.





Time travel, sapsucker-style

4 02 2008
oblikk

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.





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…