Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Our Wetland

The back boundary of our 1.7 acre property is in the midst of a forested wetland. Actually our backyard is a bit of a wet meadow that just gets more soggy as you walk back to the woods. Beyond our boundary the woods continue for another 30 feet or so until they meet dogwoods, blueberries, and alders growing along the shore of "our wetland."

Until a few years ago it seemed like we had this wetland to ourselves. We have near neighbors on either side, but no one else seems to venture back to the wetland. To our dismay a subdivision was built on the other side of the wetland a few years ago, a subdivision that is now called "Fox Hollow." You can't even make this stuff up.

The homeowner's association owns the wetland, although I am not sure the people living there know that. I tried to get my land conservation colleagues interested in conserving "Fox Hollow" before it was sold, but it didn't quite fit into anyone's plan at the time. Our subdivision was built in the speculative days of the 1980s and we've learned what that means over the years -- too close to wetlands, poor drainage, poor construction.

Yet, we've seen so much wildlife living here, and try to manage are proximity to the wetland with care. Blanding's, spotted, and painted turtles wander into our yard looking for nest sites, in the gardens or compost piles. Soon the spring peepers will be deafening. Barred owls call occasionally outside our window. The pileated woodpecker pair visits the tall, dead and dying pines. This week we find beaver chews left at the wetland edge.

"Our" beaver, with their lodge in the middle of the wetland, that we can visit in winter. Hoar frost visible in a few places, so we know they are alive and breathing.

Along with the beaver sign, the ducks are migrating through, stopping for a rest and to find their mates. Several pairs of hooded mergansers and a like number of ring-necked ducks are paddling around back there. The male hooded mergs with their dramatic black and white fan-shaped "hoods" up. A more regal duck you will not find than the ring-neck with its angular, iridescent dark head, golden eyes, a white ring near the black tip of a bluish bill (the chestnut-colored neck ring is much less visible), and its bold black and white body. They are elegant as they swim.

I walk back to the wetland at mid-day to watch the ducks, look for fresh beaver sign, and watch the wetland change with the seasons. It is quiet then. A peaceful time.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Subnivean Voles

Yesterday we saw the biggest meadow vole ever in our yard. It scurried from the region of our bird feeder, along our house foundation, then behind boards under the deck. Voles are busy throughout the year, and unlike moles and shrews are commonly seen above ground. During winter they are active in the subnivean zone -- the space in and under the snow. After snow melt in spring (right about now) their network of tunnels are clearly visible.

The meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) is mainly vegetation, favoring grasses, bulbs, tubers, and other plants. Like miniature lawnmowers they clip the vegetation to maintain their tunnels. In winter, moving about in their subnivean tunnels, they sometimes chew the the bark of trees; voles especially like fruit trees. Shrews and moles are insectivores, feeding on grubs and other insects, helping gardeners along the way. Voles are often looked upon more unfavorable since they are rodents and like to eat plants. Yet voles are the primary food for hawks, owls, foxes, and coyotes. When you see a fox pounce in a field or a red-tailed hawk swoop down from a tree, they are most likely catching an unwary vole.

Female voles are territorial and fierce in the defense of their nest. Voles will breed year-round, even in winter if the snow pack is deep. A few winters ago we were playing in the nearby Mitchell field up on Bald Hill Road with our dogs Fargo and Aria. Fargo was fond of pouncing on the ground -whether he actually heard or saw something we were never sure. One morning a small, brown, furry animal popped out of the snow, stood on its hind legs, bared its teeth, and disappeared just as suddenly (think Ewoks in the Return of the Jedi). We were all a bit stunned at this tiny vole defending its spot in the field from a 90-pound yellow lab.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Where the Woodcock Probe

If you walk along a streambank, or pond edge, or any wetland around here you will see the speckled alder (Alnus incana or rugosa). This multi-stemmed shrub is easy to spot this time of year with its "speckles" (white lenticels on the stem - tiny openings that allow gas exchange), buds, cones, and catkins. The coarse, toothed leaves will not emerge and close in the alder thicket for another month or more.

Alders are monoecious, that is the male and female flowers ("catkins") are distinct from each other, but occur on the same plant. The catkins form in the fall, then overwinter, ready to open or flower in spring (any day now).

I took these photos yesterday near our home.

The male catkin is slender, cylindrical, hanging in clusters of 3 to 5 from short leafless branches.

The female catkin is conelike, droops slightly, usually in clusters of threes.

The fruits look like tiny cones. They cast their seeds in the fall; the dried cones remain until spring.

Woodcock seem to be everywhere this year and they are quite fond of "alder swales." Their peenting and twittering is often heard in an opening that is close to the alder thickets. Woodcock probe the moist soils beneath alders for their favorite food -- earthworms, which make up 50 to 90% of their diet. Young alder provide the best cover and safe probing sites for woodcock.

As alder ages, approaching 20 to 30 years, the stems become thick and the clump leans over, opening the "canopy" to more sunlight. This creates less cover for the woodcock and the earthworms move deeper as the soil is warmed by the sun. Older alder swales can be cut back to the ground to allow a new generation of growth; over time it will provide good habitat again. It is best to cut only a portion at a time and in winter when the ground is frozen.

Beaver clip alder stems for use in their dams and lodges. Goldfinches, pine siskins, and redpolls glean seeds from the mature fruits (cones), and grouse like the buds and catkins. Look for the alder and woodcock also are probably close at hand.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Snoods and Caruncles

The male turkey is gobbling from the hardwoods on Bald Hill. We hear him at dawn. A year ago our neighborhood was flush with turkeys. One early winter morning 40 turkeys landed in our yard and casually walked down the road. This winter turkeys were absent. We've not seen a single one since last summer. The gobbler on the hill is the first of the year.

Soon the males will display to gather a harem of hen turkeys. He will spread his tail feathers, drop his wings, puff up, and strut. Pairs of males often strut together.

Photo below by Maslowski courtesy of the National Wildlife Turkey Federation.

The mature "tom" sports a patriotic red, white, and blue head. And he's got a snood and caruncles! Check out this photo of a tom, taken by John Hafner, courtesy of the the National Wild Turkey Federation.

The headgear of mature male turkeys are described as "skin elaborations" or "fleshy protuberances." The snood is the fleshy thing on top of the beak. The caruncles are the naked growths on the side and front of the neck (those "gorgeous" red things), and then there is the dewlap, another fleshy growth that hangs from the chin. Apparently humans can also get caruncles - yikes!

Males have "beards" that hang from their chest; about 5% of females also have beards, although usually a bit more petite. Jakes, the one year old males, will only watch their male elders display, not decorated enough in their first year to mate.

Ben Franklin was distraught when he heard that the bald eagle was chosen as the national symbol. He considered the eagle to be a bird of "bad moral character," that steals its food from the "fish hawk" (osprey) and is a "a coward that robs the poor"! He considered the turkey to be a "much more respectable bird" worthy of national stature and recognition. He thought it only a minor discretion that the turkey was "a little vain and silly." He thought the turkey courageous, defending its "farmyard" from intruders. I read somewhere that Ben invented bifocals. Perhaps he could not see the snoods and fleshy growths. The majestic bald eagle remains the symbol of the nation (let's ignore that it steals food from others - too close to our current state of affairs) and the turkey can gobble all it wants.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Woolly Bear

Yesterday I saw my first moth or butterfly (adult or larva) of the year. Yes, spring is very slow to arrive here; much of our yard is still covered in snow, some areas with several feet (sigh). But the woolly bear of yesterday brightened my spirits. He (or she) is such a welcome sight.

The woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella), also called the black-ended bear, is a common sight in the fall before first frost, but seen less often in spring. This lepidopteran bear overwintered somewhere in our yard, under leaves, bark, or logs. Now it is looking for a bit more to eat, before finding a spot to pupate and over time, hidden from view inside a fuzzy cocoon, transform into an adult Isabella tiger moth. The adult is a somewhat nondescript cream-colored moth, considerably less well known than its bear-like form, in part because moths are mostly active at night.

No one knows why the woolly bear crosses the road (which it is often seen doing in the fall). They are not particular about what they eat, consuming grasses, dandelions, lettuce, nettles, leaves of shrubs and trees. Probably they are dispersing to find a good overwintering site. The woolly bear curls into a ball as it overwinters and if it is picked up or disturbed plays dead, but quickly unfurling when left alone again.

The legend of the woolly bear is that the width of its center reddish-brown band, sandwiched between the two black ends, is a predictor of winter's severity. A narrow band forecasts a severe winter. All bunk of course, but still makes you look at the fuzzy little bear with a keen eye. In truth, at each molt, a portion of the caterpillar's black setae (the stiff bristles or hairs) are replaced by red-brown ones, so the middle band is widest in the last "instar" (or molt).

The folklore of the woolly bear as a predictor of winter's severity continues with festivals in parts of the country celebrating its forecasting prowess. How wonderful that people are enthused about a small woolly caterpillar. For me, seeing the woolly bear I know that spring is nigh, and that calls for a celebration.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

An Artist's Eye

I am not an artist, unfortunately. A few years ago (maybe 10) I registered for a 6 week nature drawing continuing education class. I am fairly sure the course description said beginners welcome. Within 5 minutes of the first class I realized that the instructor meant beginning nature artists welcome, not novice artists. I was at the stick figure stage, still perfecting my people so you could tell the difference between a boy and a girl. So, when the instructor produced various shells and asked us to begin drawing one and further asked us to work on our shading, I panicked. Looking around, everyone was busy drawing beautiful little shells. I drew a stick shell and never went back.

Since then I have tried some simple sketches of a sensitive fern fruiting stalk and a winterberry branch (you see, I am branching out from human stick figures to sticks of vegetation!). Maybe they will see the light of day in this blog someday. For now I admire the artist's eye, and their ability to capture mood, movement, posture, colors, and other minute details. I was thinking about why it is so enjoyable to view a sketch or painting of a bird or scene, even more than seeing the same in a photo.

Artists are patient, becoming familiar with their subject, and projecting their own impressions on to the canvas. With a camera, one is often more focused on the camera and taking the photograph than really observing the object of the picture. Photos are wonderful, especially with the advent of digital images, we can share our experiences easily. Drawings, water colors, sketches, however, pull you in, urging you to pause longer to study the artwork, and think about both the image and the artist.

Given my artist envy, I have found a few artist blogs that I enjoy following. Drawing the Motmot caught my eye, especially with its name -- I like motmots and can only offer a photo of the rufous motmot taken by a colleague in Panama, while I am holding the bird; what a beautiful bird. I learned from Drawing the Motmot that to draw a bird start with an egg -- "An egg with a round head and a couple of legs sticking out at the bottom. If you're frozen in fear of drawing, get the hand loosened up with some nice, easy ovals." Maybe I will break free of my fear and try adding eggs to my stick legs, the latter I can do.

Ken Januski draws and paints in Philadelphia. His drawings of a redstart are lovely. I have a fondness for this bird, having studied them at Hubbard Brook in New Hampshire. We followed males in the forest, mapping their territories and recording nest locations. The song of the redstart can be confusing, but the flashes of orange and black are unmistakeable. Ken's drawings take me back to those days of tracking the redstart, even sensing the clouds of mosquitoes buzzing around while craning my neck to the treetops.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Following yesterday's post on coyotes and wolves, it seems like a good day to share a few recent (from past week) photos of Aria, our gentle, 11 1/2 year old pure German shepherd (although wolf blood is surely not far back in her lineage).

Here she is doing her three favorite things......

Standing on large boulders and rock outcrops.

Retrieving (but not returning) sticks from the water
(It has been a long winter and she is smiling now that the waters have opened up).


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Coyote in Wolf's Clothing

Coyotes are thought to be recent arrivals in New England, first noted in New Hampshire in 1944. By the 1980s, this canid had spread throughout the state. Wolves were here first, but were eliminated ("extirpated") from the region by the late 1800s, a result of unregulated hunting, habitat loss, and decline in prey (moose, deer, beaver, caribou). Coyotes expanded eastward from the midwest, taking advantage of the demise of the wolf in the region. The relationship between coyotes and wolves in northern New England, New York, and Canada to the north is a complicated and evolving story, ecologically and politically.

New England coyotes are big, nearly twice the size of the western coyote, although they are the same species. Analysis of DNA shows no coyote/dog crosses in the northeast, a cross known as a "coydog." However, our northeastern coyotes (Canis latrans) have a mix of wolf blood, and resemble the endangered gray wolf (Canis lupus). As we all know from watching the Yellowstone wolves on television, wolves are highly social pack animals. Eastern coyotes mostly hang together as pairs or alone, but also show some pack behavior. Some argue that the coyote-wolf cross that we likely have here deserves designation as a separate species -- the Eastern wolf (Canis lycaon). This is not yet accepted among wildlife professionals.

January to March is breeding season for coyotes. The male and female help raise the 4 to 8 pups, that are born in May. Coyotes are quite vocal, yip-howling when pack members reunite. The breeding behavior of coyotes is the main reason that coyote-dog crosses are unlikely. Although it is biologically possible for them to mate, a domestic dog will not stay with a female to help care for the pups. Without this parental care, the pups will die. This doesn't mean that coyotes and dogs aren't interested in each other and wouldn't play together if given the chance.

Our friend and neighbor Phil took these pictures a week ago as he and his wife Sharon watched a coyote approach their 16-month old golden retriever Sammie.

Phil relates that Sammie and the coyote ran back and forth along the back of the mowed lawn (the edge of the invisible dog fence) for about 10 minutes. Then the coyote decided to head back to the wooded wetland. Sammie "jumped" the fence, apparently her collar was too loose. She seemed to like her new friend. Sammie returned home. And the coyotes regularly wander through her yard, mostly at night and when Sammie is inside.

Eastern coyotes, like their western brethren, are generalists. That is they are adaptable and eat a variety of foods - mice, squirrels, woodchucks, house cats, fawns, insects, fruits, frogs, garbage. Mostly small stuff. Wolves, of course, eat large animals, depending on the pack to help bring down their prey. This indicates that the two species in the northeast, although related by blood, still occupy separate niches.

The political complications arise from differences in the abundance of the two species. Coyotes are common and in this region most states allow open, year-round hunting, even night hunting in some places. Wolves are on the federal endangered species list and are managed according to distinct populations. The Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountain populations were, just in the last month, proposed for removal from the endangered species list, given the success of reintroduction efforts. In Wyoming and the rest of the lower 48 states, the gray wolf remains on the endangered species list.

The nearest breeding population of wolves to New England is thought to be north of the St. Lawrence River in Ontario and Quebec. During the past 10 years, several wolves (perhaps more) have been killed in Maine, Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts. They were killed because they were thought to be coyotes, and taking a coyote is legal. Killing a wolf is a violation of the Endangered Species Act. Similarities between the Eastern coyote and the wolf makes distinction in the field difficult. The wolves killed were only identified through DNA analysis, and there still is uncertainty about the source of these wolves. Are they traveling across the St. Lawrence in winter on the rare occasions when it is frozen? Are wolves starting to disperse back into historic wolf range? Should northeastern wolves be considered a distinct population? How do we protect the wolf while allowing open season on the coyote? Should coyotes continue to be killed at current levels, since it does not affect population size (coyotes respond by having more pups)?

Someday, sooner than later, we may have a wolf pack roaming the region, just like in Yellowstone. Politics aside, how cool is that! In the meantime, enjoy the yip-howls of the coyotes and maybe keep your small pets within sight.

Monday, March 23, 2009

March Madness

March Madness is at full throttle so it seems like a good time to write about cardinals. Here's the connection. This may take a little while, stick with me if you can.

Back in 1895, the Iowa State University football team traveled to Northwestern University, blowing out that team 36-0. Having attended ISU for graduate school, I can attest to the fact that such an outcome must have been a shocker. The next day the Chicago Tribune headlined the Northwestern defeat as "Struck by a cyclone." That year apparently, many cyclones (as tornadoes were known then) roared through the region. A team name was born -- the Iowa State Cyclones.

However, it wasn't until 1954 that Cy the Mascot was born (stick with me-a cardinal connection is coming). You see, Cy is a cyclone, but he is actually a cardinal, or maybe the other way around. The school colors are (cardinal) red and gold, just like the bird (sort of). Since a cyclone is hard to depict in a costume -- the mascot would trip all over himself trying to lead the fight song -- someone suggested that Cy be a "cardinal-like bird."

In the mid-1980s, during my tenure at Iowa State, the Cyclones had a pretty good basketball team. We piled into the packed Hilton Coliseum to cheer along with Cy and thousands of fans as our team beat the University of Iowa. Those were heady days. I met Srini and our team made it to the Sweet Sixteen.

Now to the real redbird. The male cardinal is singing in the morning - what cheer cheer cheer cheer cheer. He is spectacular in his brilliant red suit, black face, strong, thick bill, and dramatic crest. A pair visits the feeder only sporadically. Mostly I hear their loud chips in thickets and underbrush. I am facinated by the female. She also has a crest, thick, red bill, and black face. Her wings, tail, and crest are tinged with red. It is her body color that I think makes her a bit stunning. Field guides are all over the place in describing her body color -- buffy olive, fawn, yellow-brown, grayish-tan. I think she is red and gold, just like Cy. And female cardinals also sing, although more softly.

The male cardinal is fiercely territorial, fighting his own reflection in a window if need be. Maybe that explains why fans, in a CBS poll, voted Cy as the "Most dominant college mascot on earth." Here's to Cy, ISU, and the redbird, what cheer cheer cheer cheer cheer.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Genetic Tendencies

I am certain that birding is a learned behavior. My father, teachers, and friends taught me to identify birds and enjoy their splashes of color and hear their calls and songs. Birds are beautiful (mostly) and are quite visible (mostly). So, it is easy to see why millions of people take up birding.

A love of small mammals, I am just as certain is an inherited trait. Not nearly as many people take up small mammal watching. I am thinking that my mother and father must each have the recessive gene for keenness for small mammals, and as one of four siblings I got the trait. The DNA for small mammal-love expresses itself in several ways in my family.

My parents met and married when they both worked at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. My Dad was a mammalogist, and yes he worked on small mammals. As I remember the story being told by Gram...When my grandmother learned that her daughter was marrying a doctor she was excited; but this was tempered when Gram learned that she was marrying a "mouse doctor." "Are you sure?," said Gram's brother Bob. It all worked out well and Gram loved Dad and maybe even liked mice and chipmunks.

We grew up in an old house, and old houses have holes that allow mice, flying squirrels, and sometimes bigger things to wander in. I don't recall any screams when these small creatures were encountered in our house. Mostly we set traps and moved them outdoors. But if you know about small mammals, you know they will travel far to get back to a cozy home so we probably moved the same ones, multiple times. We kept one visitor for a while, a flying squirrel that crawled into our pockets to sleep.

I went off to College to study wildlife biology. My summer jobs during college all related to birds -- shorebirds in downeast Maine, songbirds in central New Hampshire, birds in northern Maine. Eventually I landed at Iowa State University for graduate school. And darned if my study animals were not small mammals living in tallgrass prairie in southwestern Minnesota. I don't recall thinking along the way that I wanted to go to Iowa and Minnesota to study small mammals. Yet, it happened. It is in my blood.

If you've read some of my blog posts to date, you'll notice that small mammals seep into the conversation fairly often. And I just learned that Mom's favorite mammal is the shrew. Wow. How many people can say that about their mother. The small mammal force is strong within us.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Shrew's Tale

The most common mammal in New England yards, is a stocky, little creature that most people never see -- the short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda). This large (relative to other shrews), satiny-gray shrew rules the underground. They tunnel through leaf litter and moist soil day and night, year-round, on the hunt for earthworms, millipedes, insects, snails, and even prey larger than themselves such as mice, small birds, snakes. Blarina eats about anything that moves and material that doesn't, including plant parts, berries, nuts, fungi.

Some shrews have one thing in common with the platypus, they have venomous saliva; the shrew excretes it from a duct at the base of the lower incisors. The teeth are pigmented a deep red-brown color, although I am not sure what purpose that serves, but it makes it easy to identify it as a shrew.

The short-tail also echolocates (like whales and bats) -- emitting a series of ultrasonic clicks as it moves through tunnels, sensing and distinguishing objects. It is known to subdue its prey, storing it alive, to eat later. Ouch. This shrew also gives off a musky odor from scent glands on its sides and belly when it gets excited or stressed. Predators find it distasteful. Perhaps that is why I occasionally find dead short-tailed shrews, perfectly intact. I can image a fox pouncing on a short-tailed shrew, what looks like a tasty morsel, and then spitting it out in disgust.

Although active day and night, the short-tailed shrew spends a great deal of time resting in between short bursts (4-5 minutes) of activity. The females will be nesting soon. When born, the young shrews are the size of a honeybee! Within 25 days they are nearly full grown and able to leave the nest and live on their own. By three months of age they can breed.

Shrews have pointy noses, tiny eyes, and ears hidden by fur. Features that help distinguish them from the other small mammals in our yard -- moles, voles, and mice. Yesterday, as spring dawned, a short-tailed shrew poked his head out a hole near the base of the bird feeder. A chipmunk sat nearby, unfazed, stuffing his cheek pouches with sunflower seeds. The shrew's pink nose twitching, with a dense set of whiskers, sensing the air. He darted in and out of his hole, preferring to stay mostly in his fossorial haunts, where he controls the tunnels. He is considered solitary and unfriendly (I guess so with those teeth, venom, and musky odor). There is no taming of this shrew.

I like the thought that there are many short-tailed shrews busy foraging beneath our yard, helping to control insects and other animals that might otherwise pester our vegetable and perennial gardens. Carry on furry friend, but I'll keep my distance.

Friday, March 20, 2009

New Roots

First day of spring and a perfect time to visit my nearby farmer friends at New Roots Farm.

What better way to welcome this change of season....

then to step into their greenhouse and feel the warmth that is already nurturing small tomato seedlings,

and see the crocus blooming, warmed by the spring sun (our crocus are still under snowbanks, and we live only a mile away).

And to visit the garlic field, some that I helped plant last October, to see the new shoots poking through. This is a pretty sight. We are running dangerously low on our supply from last year's harvest. We'll run out before the 2009 garlic harvest, but the garlic scapes may help us make it through the shortage, and Farmer Renee pulled out a secret stash from last year. Thank you!
And I visited the hens, that are now providing the farm (and us) a regular supply of fresh eggs. Oh so special.

The New Roots Farm hens have been, well, cooped up for the winter, and they are ready to hit the fields that until now were covered in snow. I think they'll be out scratching around the barnyard this weekend.

During the past two growing seasons, Renee and Jeff have given me the chance to help out on the farm in exchange for the most wonderful food. What a pleasure to help them on their farm -- planting, weeding, watering, harvesting -- and then come home with a weekly bounty of healthy, fresh, organic produce all summer long. Priceless.

Here are a few photos of past bounties brought home from New Roots. I am longing for this freshness - it's been a long winter of food from storage and the store. This year I'll be helping Renee plant seeds in the greenhouse - I can't wait to dig in the dirt!

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Woodcock are back! Now that is twittering that I can believe in. Rather than the tweets, twitters, and twitterings, which I am supposed to try. Apologies to my friend who suggested that I twitter. So far it is not my thing. Although, I heard that even Dan Schorr of NPR is trying it. And jurors are twittering during trials. ummmm.... Rather than get in a twit about it all, I am heading outside (it is the crepuscular time of day of course), sans cellphone, to listen to the original source of twittering -- displaying male woodcock, harbinger of spring.

Photo above of woodcock is from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Woodcock are the oddest of birds. They are a shorebird, related to sandpipers, curlews, snipes, dowitchers, phalaropes, yet they live in the upland, in woods and field edges. Their nickname "timberdoodle" explains their habitat preferences and their unique and extraordinary mating display.

Starting in mid-March (right on time), woodcock return to their breeding grounds, searching out open fields, bordered by moist thickets (such as alder), and young forest. They need all of these habitats for "singing," roosting, feeding, and nesting. For nearly an hour at dawn and again at dusk, the males perform their mating dance. An elaborate performance that begins with a series of nasal peents as the male struts around in a circle on the ground. Then in a flash he takes off, twittering (a sound made by airflow vibrating the stiff outer three primary feathers) as he flies nearly straight up, as high as 300 feet. Then he starts chirping and begins a spiraling, zig-zagging dive back down to the ground. He begins again, repeating this dozens of times. Peenting 5, 10, 20, 30 times before taking flight again. One assumes that several females are hanging around to see which male in the neighorhood has the best peents, twitters, chirps, and dives.

Photo of woodcock wing is from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Along with the special wing feathers and "sky dance," woodcock are just a funny looking bird. Their plump, mango-shaped, nearly neckless body is adorned with short legs set back on the body, so they walk like they have a big pot belly. Their large, dark eyes are set high on their head--better to see predators all around while they are probing in moist soil. Not to be outdone the bill comes with many features -- it is long (2-3 inches) for probing in soft sand and mud for earthworms and other invertebrates, and it is flexible (prehensile) with nerve endings at the tip for locating and grasping prey. Finally, the body is well camouflaged with buff, brown, and cinnamon colored-feathers and a black, barred head, looking a lot like fallen leaves and branches.

If you want to catch the morning show, get up early and venture out about 6 am (a cup of coffee helps), when it is still dark, and settle down next to a clearing. Sitting quietly you will surely start to hear "peent...peent..." or you might hear the twittering (leave the other twittering for later) of its wings. If you are not a morning person, you can catch the evening show. Check your neighborhood fields starting around sunset. Peak singing times are between 22 and 58 minutes after sunset (yes, lots of people have studied woodcock and know these things).

On a daytime, woodland walk that takes you near moist thickets of alder, willow, dogwoods, or other hardwoods, you might flush a bird hiding in the leaves beside the trail. It could just be the timbertoodle, taking flight. After you pass, it will settle back down, resting until the next sky dance performance. Book your show now.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ancient Cedars

In the rugged, high mountain region of southeastern British Columbia, along its border with Alberta, lies one of the rarest rainforests in the world. Living in this Inland Rainforest Region is an amazing array of wildlife -- grizzly bears that can be seen feeding on wild sea-run chinook salmon, endangered mountain caribou, wolverine, lynx, cougar, and gray wolf. Below magnificient mountains, in the moist and wet regions of the broad valleys, live old growth cedar-hemlock forests. In places the western red cedar are hundreds of years old, some are 2,000 years old. The oldest of these trees sprouted in the year 0009! These ancient cedar groves are also rich in lichens (at least 283 species in one area alone) and other plants.

This photo of "The Ancient Wall" by Paul Morgan, provided courtesy of the Save-the-Cedar League (STCL), offers a partial glimpse of the sheer size and awe of the ancient red cedars.

Robson Valley lies in the northern most part of the inland rainforest, harboring the headwaters of the Fraser River, the longest in British Columbia. It flows through Robson Valley, meandering 855 miles to the Pacific Ocean at Vancouver. Chinook salmon migrate up this river to spawn in the tributaries of this vast watershed.

Over 330 mammal and bird species are known to occur in Robson Valley. Rising above the valley, the vegetation changes to Englemann spruce-subalpine fir forests and meadows then to alpine at the highest elevations.

I learned about this area from my parents. Rick, a former student of my father's is the Executive Director of the Save-the-Cedar-League, based in Crescent Spur, BC. My father serves on the Board and we are in the midst of transferring his tenure on the Board to me. I have not had the opportunity yet to visit this magnificent area. Until then I am happy to share the richness of the area through pictures and words from afar.

The remaining intact inland rainforests are scattered among logged areas, some are just fragments, some are on conserved lands (within provincial parks and wilderness areas), but others remain vulnerable to continued logging and development. The red cedars are turned into fence rails and posts, cedar roof shingles, and patio decks. Scientists, native people, and conservation groups are using maps to identify additional areas that should be protected -- areas of old growth cedar and corridors of biodiversity that would maintain linkages between the existing conserved lands network. Something that is critical for the endangered mountain caribou. STCL and the Valhalla Wilderness Society, among others, are making incremental progress to protect the most important areas.

Much of the existing protected lands are weighted toward high elevation areas that are difficult to log. That is a familiar pattern. Here in New England, as states have identified and mapped areas of greatest biodiversity, the richest diversity often occurs in mid and low-elevations and valley bottoms, the places that have received the least protection and that are in the path of the greatest development pressure.

There are places in North America that should and can be logged (according to sustainable forest management practices) to provide wood products that we all use. And there are places that should not be logged. The ancient and old growth cedar-hemlock forests and surrounding landscapes in British Columbia is a place that should receive a gentle touch, with limited or no logging. These biological legacies are worth keeping.

Rick writes this week from Crescent Spur that a lynx was trying to get squirrels and birds at their birdfeeder, waiting patiently for 20 minutes, but the squirrels didn't cooperate (see photo above). Last week a cougar climbed the tree next to their chicken coop while his wife Julie was putting the chickens in to roost. The next morning they saw that 5 wolves had trampled the place during the night.

Save-the-Cedar League educates the public about Robson Valley's natural treasures through field trips, lectures, workshops, printed materials, and ecotours. Here's your chance to watch grizzly bears catching wild salmon and walk among thousand year old cedars. I will some day.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

My Crepuscular Life

My favorite times of the day are dawn and dusk, the twilight hours. I have this in common with skunks, rabbits, moose, deer, some fish, woodcock, mosquitoes, dogs, cats. We are all crepuscular--animals that are most active in the morning just before sunrise and in the half-light of evening, just after sunset. Some crepuscular animals, usually not me, are also active on moonlit nights.

Most primates, gray and red squirrels, and chipmunks are diurnal, active during the day. Bats, owls, most desert rodents, and flying squirrels are nocturnal. Bobcats often hunt by day in winter and in summer switch to crepuscular and nighttime activity.

Getting up at the crack of dawn has always been easy for me. As far back as I can remember I have been fond of twilight--the in between times. Growing up we always had a few animals-pigs, cows, sheep, geese, chickens, a rabbit. Farm animals like their food and water early and the roosters crowed before dawn. The school bus came at morning twilight. By college I had taken up wildlife biology as a career and birding as a hobby, which requires a love of early mornings to reach the study site before the dawn chorus begins. You have to be good at stumbling around in the dark. Now we have these wonderful lightweight head lamps for walking our dogs before sunrise.

Many years ago I was working on a bird study in central Panama. We were mistnetting birds in the forest understory - the nets were unfurled each morning in darkness. The first task of the day was to stay calm as the large cockroaches scurried from under the box of cereal. Out in the tropical bush we carried a flashlight as we walked the mistnet route, partly to see where we were going, but chiefly to avoid stepping on a fer-de-lance, one of those species that cause swift pain, swelling, and death if untreated. We were afraid initially, then got carefree and lazy leaving the flashlight in our pocket, as we could feel our way along the paths after a few months. Just about then our research leader snagged a fer-de-lance with a snake stick. We walked more gingerly with flashlights on for the rest of our crepuscular walks.

Our neighborhood is surpisingly crepuscular. Many have dogs that require an early morning outing. Others are forced into predawn commutes to far off jobs. Except for the sounds of commuters shuffling off to jobs, our early morning walks are quiet, free of the sounds of lawnmowers, leafblowers, and chainsaws. These days we are starting to hear woodcock twittering, an early spring dawn chorus, and crows assembling.

My internal clock follows the rhythm of sunrise and sunset. It has been a good crepuscular life so far.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Pairing up around Great Bay

New Hampshire officially has 18 miles of coastline. A short stretch compared to other states along the Eastern seaboard. We have a secret stash, however -- the Great Bay Estuary. Starting at the coastal boundary between Maine and New Hampshire, tidal waters flow 15 miles twice a day up the Piscataqua River, into Little Bay, through the Furber Strait, and into Great Bay proper. This adds 130 miles or more of tidally-influenced coastline. The Bay is known for its eelgrass beds, mudflats, saltmarsh, rocky intertidal habitats and is home to oysters, clams, striped bass, herring, smelt, and a healthy wintering population of bald eagles. In spring and fall, the bay is a resting place for migrating ducks and geese.

My friend Karin and I met up for a birding trip around the western side of the Bay, in search of some of these migrants. The sky was clear blue and the temperature would reach the mid-50s by early afternoon. We were perhaps a week or so early though, as the diversity of waterfowl was low. This gave us a chance to fully view, appreciate, and focus on the birds that were present.

We met at the Great Bay Discovery Center in Stratham, NH. On arrival I spent a few minutes watching a pair of house finches a top a tall spruce tree (planted in the parking lot). The male, with a splash of raspberry around his head and breast, was singing his slightly scratchy and more strident song, compared to the more musical purple finch (New Hampshire's state bird). The house finch is not a native Granite Stater, its arrival helped by a release of birds in New York in the 1940s.

Many other birds were already paired up. Dozens of pairs of Canada geese were floating just off-shore. Each pair swimming side-by-side and separated from other pairs by a good distance. Farther out a pair of common mergansers were casually preening, the male's dark green head contrasting with a mostly white body. Their plumage looked fresh even from afar.

From Newmarket to Durham, a winding road follows the Bay and offers a few vantage points of the water and a chance to see some landbirds. At one stop we watched and listened to two pairs of Eastern bluebirds. One pair, the male in particular, was visiting and hanging around the cavities in this old apple tree. The very blue back of the male bluebird and his rusty orange breast stood out amidst the still brown branches of the apple tree. The female flitted from tree to grass and back to tree. We soaked up the sun and watched the splashes of blue among the apple trees and listened to the soft musical chur-lee of the male.

We finished off the birding tour watching 500 or more Canada geese feeding among corn stubble on University of New Hampshire lands. At one time the University floated the idea of converting these fields to soccer fields, but there was such an uproar, including from the birding community, that the idea was dropped (one hopes for good). These slightly wet fields attract pintails, shovelors, snow geese, snipe, and other spring migrants. Some neighboring fields also grow the best sweet corn around.

Back home as I was preparing to write this, I noticed a pair of mourning doves pecking at sunflower seeds below the feeders outside my window. The two looked distinctly different. One was uniformly brown; the other, slightly larger, showed a head, neck, and throat of pastels - a pinkish wash on the breast and a pale blue wash across its head, neck, and back. His puffed up neck practically sparkled with a sheen of pink and blue pastels. Both birds sported black spots on the side of the head and a thin band of light blue skin circled the eyes. This pair foraged close together, standing on their short pink legs. They flew off briefly and when they returned, the smaller, browner female's wing and tail feathers were a bit disheveled. This pair will be looking for a nest site soon.

"Love is in the air, Everywhere I look around, Love is in the air, Every sight and every sound."
(John Paul Young, 1978)

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Perhaps we will take credit for teaching Bella to pick up litter,

but we certainly will not take credit for teaching her to drink Budweiser!

Litter is one of our pet peeves (actually Bella is quite fond of litter). We see a lot of it as we take our daily walk in the morning with the dogs. Anecdotal evidence suggests that beer cans and bottles (especially Budweiser, lite and regular), McDonald's wrappers, and Dunkin' Donuts waste papers dominant the roadside trash. This stuff is bad in any form, but when it turns into litter it is even more annoying.

We continue to wonder who it is that tosses their trash out a car window. Given the other dastardly things that some people do, I suppose littering is the least of our problems. Yet, it seems another symptom of a segment of society with little care for their surroundings.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Spring's Creep

Hello Houston, we have...bare patches! Last year's wintergreen and fallen leaves are looking beautiful as they emerge from the snow pack.

Spring has had some delays and setbacks this year - snowstorms, arctic wind, ice. The snowshoe hare still needs its snowshoes to get around. I needed snowshoes (which I did not have) as I stepped off the path and sunk into deep snow trying to photograph the hare tracks.

I can still follow the wanderings of raccoons in the snow.

And the stream is still trying to shed layers of ice.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bats with White Noses

What a difference a day makes. No, spring is not here, yet. We just traded yesterday's fog, rain, and calm for today's cold, sun, and wind. A brisk north wind.

This continuing wintry weather has me thinking about bats. And it is a worrying story here in the Northeast. Bats are waking up in winter and dying. Two winters ago, biologists discovered that bats in four hibernacula (caves and mines where bats hibernate in winter) in New York had a white powder on their noses and some bats were flying around and dying. As true hibernators, bats should never be flying around inside or outside a cave in winter.

This photo, from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department website by Nancy Heaslip, New York Department of Environmental Conservation, shows bats with white noses.

Last winter, the same phenomenon was found in New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut hibernacula. This winter, hibernacula in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and West Virginia were found to have bats with white noses. This map from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website shows the geographic distribution of the syndrome.

And that is what it is called -- white nose syndrome. The scary part is that no one yet knows what is going on, except that hundreds of thousands of bats have died so far. In some cases, 90-100% of the bats in a given hibernaculum are dying.

Dozens of labs are researching the bats and the white material. No viruses, bacteria, or other pathogens have been detected, but the white stuff is identified as a cold-loving fungus. It starts on the nose and spreads to the rest of the bat's body. It is not clear if the fungus wakes up the bats -- maybe they get itchy -- which causes them to lose a lot of weight, in part because they start shivering, then they start flying around in search of insects. And there is no food in winter, so they continue to lose weight. Many dead and dying bats are found outside of caves lying about on the snow.

Most of the affected bats in New Hampshire are little brown bats, but other hibernators including Eastern pipistrelle, Northern long-eared bat, and small-footed bat are also affected. In other states, the Endangered Indiana bat is also showing the syndrome.

Bats are extraordinarily important, eating tons of insects each night. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its state partners are asking cavers to avoid any caves with hibernating bats. Anyone going into such caves needs to follow careful decontamination procedures as it is still unknown if bats, people, or both, or some other source is spreading the syndrome from site to site. If you find a dead or dying bat with white material, do not handle the bat - call your state wildlife agency. If bats are roosting in your barn or shed try to leave them alone. These roosts may be critical to the future survival of bats in our region.

For much more information on the white nose syndrome in bats visit the The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region website.

I think many of us will be anxiously watching for little brown bats flying around our yards and neighborhoods this summer, a sign that some bats are surviving the syndrome, at least so far.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Spring Thaw?

I suppose spring is on its way, but it sure is taking its time. This was one of those messy, icy-rainy starts to the day. By mid-day fog had settled in. The sun is absent, hiding somewhere about thick gray clouds. These shots from yesterday - the sun rising over a snowy woods in our backyard and the stream flowing through a nearby wetland trying to break through of its blanket of ice -- makes me wonder if we are back in February. How many weeks of winter did Puxatawny Phil predict?

This is when it is nice to visit someone in the blog network, such as Nature Remains. In her neck of the woods in southwest Ohio, the spotted salamanders are on the move. A hopeful sign for us in snowbound country that spring is marching north. Or by armchair join Julie Zickefoose, a regular contributor to NPR, artist, and top blogger, on her travels to Guyana where she saw a harpy eagle nest, and also discussed who is the real Woody Woodpecker. I seemed to be fond of cold country though as I often visit these blogs, sand creek almanac in northern Minnesota, and Prairie Ice for fabulous pictures and stories of penguins in the Antarctic.

The Weather Underground is showing full, bright suns for the next four days. Bring it on!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


I caught a whiff of skunk yesterday morning when I let Bella out the front door for her morning rituals. I glanced quickly about to be sure no black and white tails were about, although now that we've sprung forward it is dark again in the morning so it was hard to see. Bella is the curious sort, so if the skunk was about she would have greeted it and I would be searching for tomato juice to clean her coat.

Perhaps the skunk knew that 6 inches of heavy snow was on its way and was only out on a quick hunting foray. Or maybe it was on a mile or more trek in search of a mate. Breeding season is well underway. Or maybe with dawn approaching it went back into a burrow.

Skunks, ours being the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), get a bad rap. Some deserved I suppose. Mephitis means a stench or foul smell. Apparently the person who named the skunk thought it was so foul that it just repeated mephitis for the species name. Yet the skunk's odor is what makes this member of the weasel family so unique and one of the most recognized animals, probably as well known as Coke or Nike.

You have to admire the skunk, with its glossy black coat and dramatic white strips down the back and bushy tail that alert predators that it can deliver some nasty spray if it doesn't back off and its ability to live about anywhere and eat most anything. The skunk is sure of itself, waddling about flat-footed like a bear, on its short stubby legs, minding its own business in search of grubs, insects, bees, grasshoppers, berries, catfood, garbage, roadkill. The latter gets it into trouble; unfortunately spraying a car doesn't work the same as spraying a coyote or other curiuous creature. When it gets too cold the skunk finds a vacant burrow and sleeps until temperatures improve, maybe after a few months.

The striped skunk has adapted well to humans, thriving in suburbia. They like the culverts, wood piles, buildings, and other hideouts that we provide and they forage among the garbage bags, compost piles, and pet food left outside at night. Skunks have long, thin front nails, used for digging up insects and bees, leaving behind shallow, cone-shaped holes, often in lawns. Some folks go about spraying pesticides to rid their lawn of the grubs so the skunks don't come. I prefer to let the skunks eat the grubs. A skunk's first instinct is to shuffle away when disturbed so there is little danger of getting sprayed if one is alert to these beautiful animals.

A few winters ago I took this photo of skunk tracks in our driveway.

Later that spring we emailed a few photos of completed woodworking projects to our woodworking instructor (Al lives nearby on Bald Hill Road and runs the Homestead Woodworking School; his family has owned their land since the King's grant). Al's email reply said, "Srini, you should buy Ellen some shoes." Now what the heck was he talking about. I looked up the email that we sent and sure enough we had inadvertently attached the skunk track photo with the photos of a cherry sideboard. For more of Al's Yankee humor consider taking a woodworking class from him, he's fabulous. But be aware of the photos that you send him!

Monday, March 9, 2009


Ken in Philadelphia posted a nice comment here yesterday. He found the blog because spicebush is one of his favorite woodland shrubs. This prompted me to write about why the name - Spicebush Log. I learned to identify and smell Northern spicebush (Lindera benzoin) from my father, as spicebush is also one of his favorites and it grows in the understory of our family land in western Massachusetts. I grew up there, playing in the woods, fields, swamps, and hills, and return there regularly to visit my parents and wander the same lands.

Spicebush grows in the understory in the moist woods behind the saltbox, built in the 1700s. As the land drops away to the north, our winding woodland path leads through a forest of red and sugar maples. Our path was chosen, in part, to take us by a few of the native spicebush, that grow to about 8 to 10 feet tall, their graceful, slender branches arch over the trail. A few branches are low enough that as we pass by we pick and crush a few leaves, absorbing the spicy fragrance that gives the plant its name.

The small, yellow flowers will appear soon, before the leaves emerge. Some call it the "forsythia of the wilds." As spring gets underway, the skunk cabbage will poke through in the stream and the cinnamon, interrupted and sensitive ferns will send forth their fiddleheads. By mid-summer when the spicebush is clothed in its dark green leaves gracing the midstory of our woodland, the forest floor will be blanketed in tall ferns, and the ovenbird and red-eyed vireo will sing overhead.The Spicebush Log, also a reference to the life within a fallen log, chronicles the daily sightings, seasonal changes, and other happenings in places that I live and visit.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Nature's Art

I attended an art show today on this clear spring morning. It was put on by a white pine, in our small patch of woods, just off to the side of the narrow walking trail that takes us to a wetland. The morning sun cast natural light on this exhibit of a pine, a decaying remnant of its former self, yet still full of color, life, and stories.

(See the full art show of this one white pine in the slide show at right, above)

As I walked around the tree I imagined the forces that chiseled and sculpted this tree during its growing life and now through its decaying years. The sun, wind, rain, ice, bark and wood boring beetles, woodpeckers, and fungi, among others.

I thought about all the woodland animals that have passed by this tree, perched on its branches when it still stood tall and green, cached food in its loose bark, nested in its cavities, hid and hunted around its trunk. This tree, full of life when alive, and now in death returning nutrients to the forest floor, and still home to moss, salamanders, beetles, sow bugs, and centipedes.

It will take many more visits, sitting on a fallen log, to study each sculpture and painting in this natural gallery of art - a Bryce Canyon in miniature with its mini canyons, windows, hoodoos, and weathered images.

First Walks of 2024

We rise early, well before sunrise. It helps to go to bed early. Fortunately the New Year's Eve celebratory fireworks in the neighborhoo...