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.


Slaty shades of grey

7 02 2008

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.

(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.)


(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

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.


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…

A Treasure Trove of Fibers

30 01 2008


The Lab of Ornithology is playing host for the next two months to a stunning display of avian quiltwork by local artists Alice Gant and Elsie Dentes entitled, “Oh Joy! Oh Raptor!” Forget any preconceptions you have of quiltwork being confined to repetitious geometric patterns: these quilts exhale life from their fibers, and the fine detail work (in combination with the fabric swatches themselves) project a rich, three-dimensional world more suited to a wall than a bedspread. If you’re in the area, it’s worth a stop by…The official opening is tomorrow (Thursday 31 January) from 5:30-7:00, and the exhibition will be on display until 2 April. Hope to see you there!

(image above: “Loon Family”, by Elsie Dentes)

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…