Sunday, April 23, 2017

Nature Note #197: Hiatus


That's all this is. Not an end, but a pause.

I've decided to take a break from writing here. Not all together, but just here. I will pick this back up at some point and for now, this blog will be quiet. I will be taking some time to figure out what I want out of my life and for right now, I need fewer distractions.

I'm trying to pare down a few things right now and for now, this blog meets that description.

I'll return at some point. I hope to see you in the woods, the fields, and all manner of habitats in between.

For now, happy trails y'all.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Nature Note #196: To the Land of the Longleaf Pine

Snow, thick and sticky, like icing sugar is tumbling from the sky, while reports of thundersnow and blizzard conditions blast through the airwaves and cover the internet in posts about snarled travel and snow days. As I watch the "snowscreen" (it's like a smokescreen, but whiter) outside, my mind imagines what the next few months will bring in terms of adventure and excitement. Soon I won't simply be a northeastern naturalist. In a few more days, I will journey south of the Mason-Dixon to work in North Carolina for the coming spring. On Sunday, I'll be among the longleafs and dogwoods, looking for new places to explore while happily avoiding the snow and ice up north.

North Carolina is home to five species that I've wanted to see for a while now, but never had the opportunity up north. Some of these species can be found in the northeast, but are localized and rare and sometimes are in restricted areas that make it difficult to engage with them properly. Others find our climate too cold and snowy to live here and so going south is the best chance to see them.

As a writer, birds are my most frequent subject at hand, but this year I'm going to try to focus my attention onto nature as a whole, focusing more on the forest, than the trees. Despite this, I'm also especially eager to see a few regionally specific birds. To be honest, I have a list of twenty birds that I want to add to my life list, but I know better than to spring a lengthy list on you! 

While I'm down there, I also want to try to go herping. For those not familiar with the term, "herping" isn't a colloquialism for hiccuping and burping at the same time. Instead it refers to the search for and occasional collecting of amphibians and reptiles. It is possible to see a decent crop of reptiles and amphibians in the northeast, but the warm climate of the Carolinas offers a greater chance to find and photograph some choice species. For the purposes of this post, I will focus on three birds and two reptiles that have captured my interest and I think would make for interesting finds to report back on.

King Rail. Photo by Jim Rathert/MO Conservation*
The first animal I want to see is the king rail (Rallus elegans), the largest rail species in North America with the clapper rail (R. crepitans) coming in at a close second. A shy bird, it stalks the cattails with the dexterity of an acrobat and the secrecy of a double agent. Despite their private tendencies, they will occasionally reveal themselves for long enough to show off their rich caramel hues and striped flanks.

A freshwater marsh specialist, these birds feed on invertebrates, fish, frogs, and crayfish by probing in the mud with their long bills. Getting to see such a private marsh bird for even a second would be such a treat and would be on par with seeing other retiring marsh birds like the American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) or swamp sparrow (Melospiza georgiana).

The second and third animals on my list are noticeably scalier and cold-blooded. I only recently learned that there are alligators living in North Carolina and according to Davidson College's herpetology website, they can be found along that state's southeast coast in rivers, canals, ponds, lakes, and tidal estuaries. More specifically, they can be found right where I'll be staying. To a normal person, this might fill you with dread or even mild excitement at the prospect of sharing a waterway with a toothy, scaly carnivore. For me, I share that feeling, but couch it with the knowledge that I have the common sense to give an animal with a bite force of over 2000 psi plenty of space and respect.

American Alligator. Photo retrieved from Wikipedia*
While I've only ever seen these impressive reptiles in Florida, it will be exciting to have a chance to spot one once again. Some people would want to stay away from reptiles entirely. I, however, am not "some people". The more chances I get to see some amazing wildlife in person, the better. With that in mind, the third animal I would want to see out in the Carolinian wilderness are snakes. Not just a single species, but any species of snake. While the northeast has their fair share, what I really would like to see is a venomous species of snake. This might seem alarming for some people to hear (sorry mum...), however I feel that in order to practice respect for the natural world, you should want to seek out the scary animals as well as the cute and fuzzy ones.

Northern Watersnake. Photo by Matthew M. Hayes*
I'm the guy you see on the side of the road rescuing turtles and frogs from being crushed by lumbering cars or chasing cats away from the bird feeder so that the juncos and doves have a peaceful place to eat. I want to help out as much as possible and having the opportunity to share a space with an often misunderstood animal like a snake is always a treat.

It should also go without saying that, as a naturalist, I take steps to ensure that I'm not bothering wildlife too much. This is true whether I'm watching them, photographing them, or when necessary, helping them out of a sticky situation.

The last two species I will focus on are forest birds. As the title suggests, North Carolina's state tree is the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) and is a key part of the landscape serving as a shelter and food plant for these last two birds. Both are tree dwellers with gripping toes and pointed beaks for extracting insects from tree bark. Only one of them goes further by repeatedly hammering its head into the bark and chiseling into the rotten heartwood of a dying tree. The bird in question is a rare species of woodpecker only found in the southeastern U.S.

No, it isn't the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis)! No one has reliably seen one in North America for over 80 years and it's silly to think that we'll find one now!

I'm talking about the other one whose name is fun to say; the red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis). So few birds on our continent have such vivid names,that when you hear it for the first time, you really take the time to sound it out just to make sure you heard it correctly. These birds are listed under the Endangered Species Act and are considered to be near threatened by the IUCN with their primary threat being habitat loss and degradation. While their numbers have recovered due to intensive conservation efforts, their reliance on a decreasing acreage of longleaf pine forest and need for trees with heartwood rot for nesting have made it harder for them to recover completely.

Female downy woodpecker. Personal photo.
These little woodpeckers are similar looking to our ubiquitous downy woodpecker (P. pubescens). However, they differ on two major field marks. Downies have a large white patch on their backs, while red-cockaded have black and white bars. Their cheeks differ as well, with downies having a bold black line running below their eye, while red-cockaded have bold white cheeks. It should be said that despite their vivid name, the red cockade for which the male bird is named is so infinitesimal that like the plain belly of the red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) or the almost nonexistent ringneck of the ring-necked duck (Aythya collaris), it is a misnomer, a quirky and ultimately useless field mark.

Red-cockaded woodpecker male and female. Painting by Earl Lincoln Poole*
The last species I want to see is from one of my favorite songbird families, the nuthatches. I wrote late last year about the nuthatches I saw at Beaver Lake Nature Center in Baldwinsville, NY and delighted in their "devil-down-head" antics as they clambered headfirst down tree trunks and along tree branches. The southeast is home to one such species, the brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla). Another lover of the longleaf pine, it uses its needle-like beak to pry insects, grubs, and seeds away from the bark of trees. Little birds like nuthatches are a delight to watch whether on their own or in a mixed feeding flock. Hopefully I will get to see some along with the red-cockaded woodpeckers as I take a walk through the pine forests of my new home.

Brown-headed nuthatch. Photo by Snowmanradio*
Having the chance to explore this new place has me both excited and a little daunted. So many questions swirl through my head as I prepared my things for my trip south.

Where is the highest vantage point?

How can I engage my audience in the most meaningful and eye-catching way?

What is the terminal velocity of an unladen swallow?

All jokes aside, only time will tell and I am determined to make the most of what is sure to be an amazing and life changing experience. I can't wait to get there!

*All photos are from Wikipedia unless marked otherwise.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Nature Note #195: Snow Birds

My "naturadar" was going off again today. Anyone is who in awe of the natural world possesses some form of this mechanism. Some people are only just discovering theirs, while others always seem distracted by the petals on a flower or the smell of the ocean in the wind. Mine is constantly on, scanning for signs of life in and around the house. While sitting in my parent's kitchen, I glanced out of the glass door leading out to the deck. Flecks of snow drifted quietly from the skies above while caramel oak leaves littered the ground, occasionally dancing to the wind before settling back down. The cloudy skies above almost disguised the flakes as they left their skyward home and descended haphazardly to the earth below. Further along the decks railing stood our well worn bird feeder swaying gently on its hook.

Our bird feeder is a large tube feeder with a metal top and bottom, plastic tubing, and stiff metal perches. The top bore the scars of squirrels trying to chew through the metal lid. The bottom was missing some of its metal perches. Some were missing due to pilfering by squirrels, while others were likely misplaced when it had been returned to some dingy part of the garage for the summer.

As if on cue, a small flock of birds appeared below the feeder, scouring the dropped sunflower seeds for unopened morsels that clumsier birds had spilled while poking about for the next seed. Graphite above with small, dark eyes, a white belly, and neat white edges to their tails, they were easy to identify. The juncos had arrived.

Lone snow bird. Photo by me.
Despite their monochrome appearance, juncos are actually members of the New World sparrow family. While they lack the rich browns and tans seen on those species, they still share their small, conical bills, chunky bodies, and bright singing voices. If you get the chance to visit the mountain forests of the New Hampshire or Pennsylvania during the summer, you will be serenaded by a short sweet trill drifting from the treetops.

They fed quietly together, flicking their tails as they pecked at the ground, radiating out from the feeder. They were looking, pecking, and then looking some more. While we are privy to a variety of small birds that visit our feeders, these dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) or snow birds are one of southern New England's migratory backyard birds. They, along with American tree sparrows (Spizelloides arborea), pine siskins (Spinus pinus), and in some places, evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) only visit us during the winter before returning to Canada and the northern forested areas of the United States.

As the flurries fell from the sky, more birds visited the feeder. I love watching juncos work below a feeder as much as I love watching chickadees, jays, and cardinals visiting the feeder itself. Each bird has a different way that it finds food providing the viewer with an insight into feeding behaviors and preferences of their resident flock.

Some, like chickadees and jays, are hoarders. They are just as happy to dine politely (which is a bit of a stretch for the jays) at the feeder as they are dashing between the feeder and their hidden pantries nearby. Chickadees and their cousins, the titmice, will hide their seeds in the crevices of tree bark and branches. This is so that they can be prepared if they are unable to find any food later on in the winter. Jays, on the other hand, are more mischievous in their tactics. Not only do they hide nuts and seeds away from the bird tables in their own hiding places, they will steal from other jays and even squirrels in order to get their fill!

Cardinals and sparrows can be found on both twig and limb, but will also feed on the ground with the juncos. Using their conical bills, they carefully remove the husk of large seeds to gain access to the "meat" inside. They are so adept at doing so, that in the blink of an eye, the husks drop out of view and in time for the bird to grab another seed to begin the process all over again.

So, the next time you are refilling the bird feeder, keep an eye out for those snow birds. They'll be gone before you know it, winging their way home. I will be following their lead very soon, I hope.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Nature Note #194: Nemesis Birds

For my last memory of 2016, I want to talk about nemesis birds. But, just what is a nemesis bird? Let's start with simple definition:
Nemesis bird(Nem-i-sus burd)
A bird that time and time again successfully evades discovery or notice due to their cryptic nature and infrequent appearances to an area that drives a birder to near madness in order to discover it.
I have had a few nemesis birds in the past including canvasback (Aythya valisineria), brown creeper (Certhia americana), and northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis). They had all the hallmarks of hard to find birds that suddenly appear for a few to see and then disappear, leaving other observers in the lurch. While all three species featured prominently on my year list for 2016, two species stood out as perfect examples of nemesis birds.

Owls make for great nemesis birds as their preference for nocturnal living and cryptic plumage allow them to hide away when most birders are tramping through both forest and fields. While hearing their hoots and screams certainly allows them to be countable on one's list, seeing an owl is a whole other experience. Having the opportunity to spot a wild owl is one of nature's great gifts and the two that I spotted last year were wonderful to receive.

The first was a single long-eared owl (Asio otus) that had been reported at Beaver Lake Nature Center in Baldwinsville, NY. As with most rare birds that show up at a particular location, when word gets out that they have been spotted, birders both casual and obsessive will flock (pun fully intended) to find them. However, when an owl is found, a little more care is required after they have been discovered.

Photo by me
Sure, you could say that you found an owl roost at such n' such state forest and that if you wanted the word to get out that they were there, you could post about it online. This is, after all, how I found out about the owl in the first place. The problem becomes when people begin to disturb the birds when all they want to do is rest and hide away for the day. Long-ears are the quintessential "night owl" and are active when most regular joes like me have long since gone to bed. Using their sensitive ears and night vision, they seek out rodents and other small animals in open fields and meadows. After spending a night hunting for food, the last thing they want to experience is someone approaching their tree when they're trying to rest.
I decided to go and check anyway as the location they had been found in was located along a boardwalk which would prevent someone from wandering off the main trail. As with other raptors such as hawks, usually what happens is that you get spotted before you have a chance to see them. While this might seem to be to their advantage, the last thing a bird of prey wants to do is be seen by other animals.

Chickadees, titmice, crows and jays relish the opportunity to catch a hawk or owl that happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and let them know how they feel. Like an unpopular politician showing up to the wrong diner on a Sunday morning, these birds often several times smaller than the predator hurl insults at the offending target and occasionally come to blows by striking at or around the head of their would-be hunter. This was the case when I found the long-ear. For the life of me, I wouldn't have been able to spot this log with wings unless a blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) had decided to bombard the poor thing on its pine bough.

I couldn't believe it. A rush of excitement ran over me as I gazed at this bird. An astonished yellow-eyed gaze met mine as the form of the long-eared owl came into focus. Though they are superficially similar to a great horned owl (Bubo scandiacus), they are lankier, have narrower faces, and possess vertical stripes on their bellies. I had to document my finding and so out came my Canon.

Soon I was snapping photos like a paparazzo having spotted Mrs. Clinton wandering the woods of upstate New York. After snapping what seemed like the twentieth photo, I stopped. I became aware of my own hypocrisy and stepped back. I was disturbing this owl with my presence. In a few hours, it needed to be well rested in order to hunt and survive out here in the woods. I glanced back once more, meeting my gaze with the owl's. It's yellow eyes stared back. Smiling, I thanked it for being so patient and walked away.

Later this year, I got a chance to spot an owl with my girlfriend, Alison when we visited the Biggest Week in American Birding in Oak Harbor, OH. The few days we spent there were some of the most productive for birding imaginable. Every day brought new surprises and several life birds including two new warblers, a roosting eastern whip-poor-will (Antrostomus vociferus), and a wayward female Wilson's phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor). While waiting around at the lodge one evening to talk with Kenn Kaufman and Greg Miller (some of birding's biggest superstars), we were tipped off to a photogenic eastern screech-owl (Megascops asio) that had been seen nearby in a nest box on a tree.

Photo by me
After a short walk, we arrived at the spot and sure enough, the owl was there. It was a red morph bird, relatively uncommon in the east where grey morphs tended to rule the roost. Nonetheless, this little bird sat out on the edge of its box, watching the world go by.

Even though we got lucky with these birds and had access to knowledgeable people, hopefully we will be able to find some birds on our own this year. Several snowies have been puttering about as usual and they might be the first ones for the year or we might hear the distant hoot of a horned owl.

We can only hope and keep our eyes and ears open.

"Hoo" knows what we might find?

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Nature Note #193: Being Present

Imagine standing in a white pine forest while warm rays from the sun flow over your arms, neck, and face. The trees sway gently in the wind as you close your eyes, your outer layers wrapped in a pleasant heat. The air is thick with moisture as plants breathe silently around you. In the higher branches, a sound grows loudly, radiating over the entire canopy, as if ringing out of the sun itself. Another voice cries out and then another and another, until a roaring chorus blooms over the treetops. And just as quickly as it grew, like a wave retreating from shore, it pales and fades back into the branches.

White pines in Lincoln, MA
The summer months allow us to experience long sunny days, that power rushing thunderstorms, cooling our neighbourhoods for a brief respite from the heat and humidity. Outdoor recreation spikes with people from all walks of life wanting to escape their homes for a date with the sun. All the while, they are serenaded by secretive musicians in the trees as they weave their high-pitched whines and chatters through the air.

These musicians are cicadas; distant clear-winged relatives of aphids, spittlebugs, and other "true bugs". Like muskrats, there are certain animals I have a deep affinity and appreciation for. They complement a deeper part of myself and fuel a desire to still my actions and thoughts and to simply be present. By being present in the moment, you sense more; observer and observed share a mutual experience that can never be duplicated again. 

When I started writing on Blogger, I had two separate blogs: the "nature exploration" blog called OUT!! and this blog when it was titled under a different name (On the Wing). The latter initially focused more on my birding exploits in and around the Metrowest area of Massachusetts, as well as on the rather ambitious Babe Ruth of Ornithology project I started in late 2012. Even after I had started, I immediately assumed that I simply couldn't come up with ideas fast enough to fill two weekly blogs. I had graduated from college about two months earlier, left a job in Connecticut that just wasn't for me and headed home to work at camp once more. Despite my pleasure at having something to write about, I still felt lost. Fresh out of college and I immediately felt like a fish out of water. 

It wasn't until I had a chance to visit Great Meadows NWR in Concord, MA that I had a chance to commune with a fellow earthling. Nestled betwixt the cattail stalks on the shore of the main pool sat a small, fuzzy creature with small dark eyes, prominent whiskers, and a long, rat-like tail. It was a muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus). I watched as it quietly chewed on a small leaf, nary caring whether I was a threat or not. Perhaps it was used to people and had gotten tired of leaping into the water every time these tall, lumbering creatures came wandering past. It was while I was watching this calm little creature that I felt it. The moment was here.

It was slow and gentle. Time slowed as I watched the muskrat finish its meal and start to wash up. It rubbed its paws over its face and neck before rubbing its belly and finally down its nose and whiskers. I watched and was present. A small eternity seemed to pass until my fellow earthly inhabitant, satisfied with its meal, promptly plonked into the water and swam off.

"Hello brother muskrat. How are you today?"
I think about this moment every once in a while, usually when I'm alone walking a trail or birding on a new refuge and I've tried to stay vigilant for when it might happen next. Moments like these can be fleeting. Whether it be a dramatic struggle between sworn enemies or the orchestral might of wild voices, being present allows one the opportunity to experience these events firsthand and on your own terms. 

Mindfulness allows us to keep a door open to the chance that we might be privy to a scene in Nature's ongoing theatre. As the new year grows and another summer blooms, I will be sure practice this whenever possible. 

Who knows, when brother muskrat will appear once again? Perhaps to share a warm day under a chorus of serenading cicadas in the waning days of July.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Nature Note #192: Snacking and Entering

Grey squirrel, but not T.S.
We share our homes and neighbourhoods with a plethora of wildlife. Deer frolic through our yards, while chickadees and titmice visit our feeders in search of a quick snack. Ants and spiders crawl under the walls of our homes, occasionally appearing to quickly dash between the cabinets in search of food. Even our pets aren't immune. Leave any of their food alone outdoors and you're sure to be visited by opossums, skunks, and woodchucks, all looking to gain access to an easy meal.

While these creatures often appear in the yard, they seem to keep their distance. That is unless you've been feeding them in which case you should definitely stop. Seriously, the last thing you need is a mass of animals expecting food from you every time you appear at the door. At best, it's mildly annoying to be pestered by a deer who wants some more of those apple slices that it usually gets when you leave your house. At worst, you might be creating a ground zero for a wildlife epidemic both in terms of spreading disease and overcrowding in a single area.

This can certainly become a problem with animals like deer, pigeons, and cockroaches, but one creature in particular is especially skilled at outwitting humans into getting what they want. I am, of course, talking about squirrels. Specifically, grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis). Everyone has their own story about how one of these busy tailed rodents weaseled (or perhaps rodented?) their way into our homes and hearths for warmth, food, or even out of curiosity. It would seem that the squirrels that live in the roof of our Marcellus apartment were in it for all three especially for one squirrel in particular.

Trash Squirrel (T.S. for short) came into my life unexpectedly after I rescued it from the dumpster out back of the apartment. It was duskier than the others, wilier and possessive of a spirit of determined curiosity that always seemed to get it into trouble. One summer afternoon, my girlfriend and I came home to find a partially chewed apple on our windowsill. After initially blaming one another for leaving the unfinished fruit, we puzzled over who or even what could have left it there. A few hours later after running some errands, we had our answer.

Scrabbling on the inside of our closed window was a dusky, dirty squirrel with an apparent air of desperate curiosity as to why it could no longer access its juicy prize. After a few seconds, it hit us that the frugivorous mammal had nibbled a hole in our screen to access the apple. What was more shocking was where the apple must have come from into order for it to have gotten it. The only apples available were the ones on our kitchen table on the other side of the wall or in my girlfriend's lunch bag; an impressive feat for a hungry squirrel. Our landlord was equally perplexed as he'd never encountered such an ambitious and risk-taking squirrel either.

T.S. hung around for part of the summer, needing to be rescued from the dumpster twice more, before disappearing sometime in the fall. Perhaps the risk-taking had gotten too out of hand, or maybe the acorns falling from the nearby oaks were a worthy distraction and easier to harvest than an apple on the other side of the glass. Either way, we gained an appreciation for the cleverness of our squirrely neighbours and in turn, learned to lock our windows whenever we go out. Hopefully the next tenants won't have to worry too much about our little friend pestering them this coming spring. I would urge them however, to be vigilant as we don't yet know if it has passed on its apple-thieving ways to any of its neighbours. Only time will tell.

Nature Note #191: Nature Moment of the Year 2016 Intro

As John Lennon once sang; "Another year over and a new one has just begun...", with 31 birds already on my year list, I've begun 2017 in earnest. The goal remains the same; attempting to reach 200 species of birds by December 31st, 2017, along with reading 100 books and walking 300 miles. Call it the 1-2-3 resolution if you will.

Last year, I managed to get 199 species on my year list, just one shy of my goal and just over twenty species more than 2015. So many species graced my presence in 2016 that it's hard to narrow it down to just one.

So instead, I will be nominating three for the past year. I have done multiple birds of the year before, but I wanted to diversify in regards to the topic. Since this blog started, I've always tried to try to write on other subjects so that it wasn't solely a birding blog. It is a little hard for me to do so as my muse when it comes to nature observation has and will always be birds. While I only started keeping a list within the past decade, they have always fascinated me and being able to share the world with them is a blessing.

That being said, I've decided to give voice to a few other experiences that have been just as rich this year. One of them is birding related, but the other two touch upon the experiences I had with other wildlife as well. The next three posts (#192, 193, and 194) will be dedicated to those topics.

I hope you are able to read them all and hope you enjoy what you learn.