Almanack Contributor Tom Kalinowski

Tom Kalinowski

Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Adirondack Birding: Feeding Hummingbirds

Having a hummingbird feeder near your home and being able to regularly monitor the activity around this colorful structure can provide some insight into the summer life of this tiny, iridescent bird.

When the hummingbird returns in the spring, this petite creature tends to seek out the same general region that served as its home the previous summer. Older adults are known to claim the same surroundings which they used the past year as their breeding territory.

Since these birds are already familiar with the area and know the location of various sources of food, it is soon after their arrival that they appear outside a window to take advantage of the artificial nectar placed there. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Adirondack Insects: The Spittlebug

After several days without a significant rain, an observant gardener pulling up clumps of weeds, or a perceptive hiker traveling through a pine forest or a meadow near a stand of conifers may notice a glob of saliva-like fluid attached to a wildflower stalk or the stem of a piece of grass.

Occasionally referred to by some people as snake spit, or frog spit, this common frothy deposit of whitish, watery liquid is neither associated with a snake or frog, nor is it produced by the salivary glands of any creature. The spit-like fluid seen on various plants during the early days of summer in the Adirondacks is a form of protective enclosure that surrounds a small insect known as the spittlebug. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Great Blue Heron

For those people familiar with nature, the uniquely-shaped silhouette of a large bird in flight with a set of thin legs jutting well beyond its tail, and a neck that coils back into a compressed “S” creates an unmistakable image.

Additionally, the slow and methodical manner in which this lanky giant beats its sizeable wings helps make the great blue heron one of the easiest birds to recognize as it flies, even from a distance of well over a half mile.

The great blue heron is a wading bird and uses its stilt-like legs to stand and walk through aquatic areas, some of which may be covered with up to a foot of water. It is in places like these that this predator waits quietly for small fish, frogs, salamanders, and other similar size animals to stray within striking distance. Once a victim is spotted close by, the heron draws its head back, simultaneously stepping forward while thrusting its long and pointed bill directly at the target. Rather than spear its prey, the great blue heron attempts to grab hold of the potential meal and swallow it quickly before it can wriggle free.

From late spring through mid August the amount of time an adult heron spends hunting increases significantly. Not only must the adult heron satisfy its own appetite, but toward the end of May, when the 3 or 4 eggs in its nest hatch, the bird must also meet the demands of the young for a steady diet of animal protein.

For the first several weeks after the eggs hatch, one of the parents remains either in the nest or very close to it in order to protect the babies from being attacked by a forest predator, like a raccoon, or eagle. The other parent travels to a favored feeding site, such as a section of marsh, the edge of a slow moving river, or the weedy shoreline of a lake or pond. There it tries to kill enough creatures to fill its crop for transport back to its nest. Once there, the parent regurgitates chunks of the previously swallowed material into the open mouth of its babies. The constant demand for food by the developing nestlings causes the great blue heron to hunt for prey even during the night, especially when a full moon provides adequate illumination for it to see.

After the first month, the young herons become large enough to prevent a parent from spending more than a few minutes in the nest. At this stage in their development, the nestlings require so much food that both parents are forced to hunt for the majority of the day leaving their babies unattended. As the nestlings get older the parents no longer feed them from their mouth, but rather drop the catch off into the nest and let the young birds fight over it.

Because there is safety in numbers, a pair of great blue heron makes its nest close to the nest of other great blue herons. A colony, also known as a heronry, may contain from a dozen nests to over a hundred. The number is highly dependent on the suitability of hunting areas in the surrounding region. For example, a heronry near Lake Champlain is able to support many more pairs of herons than ones located in sections of the Park where favorable aquatic areas are scattered over much greater distances.

In order to minimize the chance of predation from climbing creatures, the great blue heron prefers to construct it stick platform as high as possible in the tallest deciduous trees at the site in which a heronry becomes established. Since a heron nest is around three feet in diameter, the mass of sticks used in its construction can become quite substantial, and the supporting limbs beneath it must be large enough to hold the weight. Additionally, the nest must be tightly woven into the framework of the twigs from the supporting limbs to prevent this structure from being torn loose during periods of high wind, such as those that accompany strong thunderstorms. In most instances, a pair of herons will refurbish the nest that they occupied the previous year if it was able to withstand the fierce gales that battered it during the preceding winter season.

It takes the nestlings almost two full months before they fledge, and even then these young birds depend on their parents for frequent meals until they can get the knack of hunting for themselves.

There are many creatures that prey on the bounty of animal life that exists in and around wetlands; however, few of these stand out against the background as does the great blue heron here in the Adirondacks.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Tom Kalinowski has written several books on nature in the Adirondacks.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Adirondack Reptiles: Garter Snakes

When weeding in the garden, collecting firewood around a lean-to, or stepping over rocks along a river, it is not uncommon to encounter a garter snake as summer weather become the norm in the Adirondacks.

In northern New York there are two species of garter snakes, the eastern or common garter snake, and the ribbon snake. Both are approximately a foot and a half to two feet in length and have the same prominent yellow strip running down the entire length of their back from the base of their head. Both snakes also have an additional yellowish strip extending along their sides, the edges of which may not be as sharply defined as the one on their back. Both species can also vary in color, and some individuals also possess a more checkered or mosaic pattern to their coloration. Additionally, the brightness of their colors may depend on whether an individual will soon be shedding its outer covering of scales or has recently acquired a new layer of this transparent coating.

Like other snakes, the garter snake must shed its protective outer layer of scales in order for its body to expand in size. Just prior to shedding, the scales become translucent, which makes their color duller. In the days immediately after the new layer of scales has formed, the snake appears to be brighter in color.

While there are subtle differences between these two species in physical structure and in certain markings, the similarities between them are far more numerous. This creates a challenge in making a positive identification, especially as one quickly slithers into a crack between two rocks, into a dense pile of brush or under pieces of debris on the forest floor.
Both the eastern garter snake and the ribbon snake prefer to reside near a body of water. However, the eastern garter snake is more likely to be encountered away from such wetland settings, as it is better able to survive in dry places than the ribbon snake.

It is the ability of the garter snake to function in a cold climate that allows this reptile to flourish within the Adirondacks. While the garter snake prefers its surroundings to range between 80 and 90 degrees during the day when it is active, it can continue to be active for a considerable period even when the ground and air remain in the low 50’s. Should the air drop into the low 40’s, or upper 30’s, the garter snake attempts to locate a spot where the temperature of the ground is significantly higher. Places in which the sun is or was beating down on the ground to create a thermal oasis, or where a mound of rotting organic material is generating some warmth of its own are likely to attract a garter snake until the weather warms again.

Like other reptiles, the garter snake has difficulty digesting the food that is in its system when its body cools below a certain level. In order for it to derive the nourishment from the items that it has consumed, its body must be at a temperature of about fifty degrees. While this may not seem to be too cool, it is lower than what most snakes are able to tolerate during the summer season.

Along with its cold-hardiness, the ability of the garter snake to grab a multitude of small creatures that happen to stray in front of it, and pull them down into its throat also contributes to this snake’s ecological success in the Adirondacks. The garter snake is known to strike at and then swallow animals ranging in size from earthworms and small salamanders to medium size toads, young mice and voles, and the eggs of birds that make their nests on the ground.

While many people are repulsed by the sight of a snake, especially if it happens to be close to their feet, these reptiles play an important role in our environment. Garter snakes are one of the few predators of toads in our region, and they help to limit the population of numerous other small creatures. Garter snakes, in turn, are preyed upon by various animals, such as hawks, raccoons and fox. Garter snakes pose no threat to humans and should always be left alone, unless you are one of those very few individuals that wishes to pick one up an examine it to see if you can determine if it is an eastern garter, or ribbon snake.

Tom Kalinowski has written several books on nature in the Adirondacks.

Photo: Common garter snake, courtesy Wikipedia.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Nesting Black-Capped Chickadee

June is the peak of the nesting season in the Adirondacks, and among the many birds currently involved in the process of producing offspring is the black-capped chickadee. Known to everyone that maintains a feeder in winter, this friendly and perky songster enters into its breeding season in mid spring as nesting territories gradually become established, and the winter flock dissolves. As a general rule, the dominant male and female in the flock pair up and lay claim to the most favorable area within the immediate surroundings.

These birds tend to be the oldest members of the flock and likely paired with each other during the previous year. The next ranking male and female in the flock’s well established hierarchy are also likely to form a mating bond and take control of much of the remaining area used by the flock for their winter territory. Any remaining pairs of birds that have survived the winter may either attempt to establish a breeding territory in whatever unoccupied parcels of forest remain in the immediate vicinity, or they may relocate to other areas that were avoided in winter because of limited food resources in these places.

With the approach of the nesting season, chickadees begin to incorporate much greater quantities of animal matter into their diet. Even though there may still be seeds available at feeders, these birds start to concentrate more of their time searching for small bugs which are rich in both protein and fats. Egg development within the female requires high amounts of these two nutrients, especially protein. And while the males do not need the same high levels of protein as the females, they still gather these nitrogen enriched morsels of invertebrate matter and offer them to their mate to help her with her intake of vital nutrients.

After each pair has settled on a particular parcel of forest, they then begin to search for a nest site. Like the woodpeckers, the chickadee constructs its nest in a wooden cavity. Typically, a dead, partially rotted poplar or white birch stub that is roughly 4 inches in diameter is favored. The soft, almost spongy interior of these standing columns allows the chickadee to chip away and pull out fragments of wood from the inside of the very upper section of the stub. The male and female both work intermittently during the day for nearly a week until they have completed a nearly 8 inch deep chamber that will serve to shelter their eggs, and then their nestlings. Because such trees are never very high, chickadee cavities tend to be within 15 feet of the ground, with some being built at eye level.

In places where a dead and partially rotted stub can not be found, or in spots where the potential nest sites are deemed unacceptable because of some threat, like the close presence of a red squirrel nest, the chickadee resorts to placing its nest in a cavity that already exists. Sometimes a pair of chickadees may settle into a chamber excavated by a woodpecker. The pair is also known to use a nest box when a rotted stub can not be found. Since chickadees strongly prefer to take up residence in a cavity that they excavate themselves, some people attempt to attract these birds to a nest box by packing it with small wood chips, like those produced by a sharp chain saw.

After the chamber is completed, the cavity is then lined with a layer of soft material, like hair, downy feathers or strands of moss. The female then begins the process of laying eggs, and like most other birds, she deposits a single egg in the nest each morning until the clutch is completed.

Then follows the process of incubation which lasts nearly two weeks. Next is the very challenging chore of trying to keep the nestlings well fed. Like a female that is developing eggs, the nestlings require a diet composed of spiders, insects, millipedes and other bugs.
During the summer, people are encouraged to take down their feeders, or stop placing seeds out in them. Maintaining a feed in summer serves to attract raccoons, bears and other unwanted wildlife visitors. While it may seem cruel to completely cut the birds off from their regular source of food, these creatures no longer rely on such items for their nourishment. This is the time when bugs become the food of choice for most birds during their nesting season here in the Adirondacks.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Wildlife: Red Foxes Are Denning

As leaves erupt from their buds on hardwood trees, which cloak the Adirondack terrain again in green, red fox pups venture from their dens and begin to experience our vast, lush spring landscape.

In this northern climate, the red fox breeds during the very end of January through the first few weeks of February. As a result, the females give birth to their annual litter toward the very end of March, or during early April.

In the weeks prior to giving birth, each pair of red fox establishes a den that serves to shelter their pups from the bouts of inclement weather that often occurs in spring. A den also protects these helpless infants from being attacked and killed by other predatory creatures, such as coyotes, bears and various birds of prey. » Continue Reading.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Adirondack Wildlife: The Hardy Bumble Bee

Shortly before apple blossoms open and honeysuckle flowers emerge from their buds, queen bumble bees awaken from their winter dormancy and begin the chore of establishing the small colony over which they will reign throughout the coming growing season.

In autumn, as asters begin to fade, the queen bumble bee abandons her colony and prepares for the coming winter. After mating with one or several male bees, she then begins to work her way through the layer of dead, leafy matter covering the ground and down into the soil. Like most other bugs, the queen lapses into a period of deep dormancy that often lasts seven months in this northern climate. Both the worker and male bumble bees in the colony eventually perish as the cold becomes more intense and sources of nectar completely disappear.

As the ground thaws in mid April and her surroundings warm, the queen makes her way to the surface and starts to search for a site in which to locate her nest. In the Adirondacks, the bumble bee often places her colony in or near the ground. A small hole that leads underground, such as the entrance to a vacant chipmunk burrow or the opening to an abandoned vole tunnel is occasionally selected for the nest’s location. A tiny grotto among a pile of rocks or a hollow log lying on the forest floor is another site that the queen may use to house her colony.
After creating several waxy containers to hold her initial few eggs, the queen then begins the month long process of caring for her developing offspring. Since only the queen is present at this initial stage of the colony’s development, only a handful of eggs are produced in mid spring.

As early blooming plants open their flowers at the end of April or the first week or two of May, it is common for the queen bumble bee to regularly visit any plants that is yielding pollen and nectar. Unlike the honey bee which visits only a single type of flower each day when it becomes active in collecting floral material, the bumble bee is far less selective. This hefty, yellow and black insect is known to stop at a variety of sources of nectar and pollen during its daily search for nourishment, especially when flowers are still few and far between.

The bumble bee is well adapted for a life in our cold climate, and is not as adversely impacted by the unseasonably cool weather that may settle over the Park in May as are other species of bees and wasps. The larger size of this flying insect, along with its rounded body shape helps create a body mass to surface area ratio that limits heat loss better than any other social or stinging insect. The especially dense layer of “hair-like” bristles that cover the bumble bee’s body functions like a coat of fur to help retain heat. Additionally, when exposed to the cold, the bumble bee is reported to be able to vibrate certain muscles within its body much as a person shivers in order to elevate its internal temperature. Finally, when collecting food, the bumble bee never wastes energy in attempting to attack a larger intruder, like a human that may have wandered too close to the tree or shrub in which it is foraging.
The bumble bee is the most docile stinging insect in the North Country and uses its primary defensive weapon only when something actually grabs it, or disturbs its nest. While the bumble bee occasionally flies close to people in order to investigate colorful articles of clothing they may be wearing, it inevitably realizes it cannot collect food from that object, and always leaves without incident.

Killing a bumble bee, especially at this time of the year, when its colony is just starting to function, is never an environmentally good action. Because of the very limited presence of the honey bee in the Adirondacks, the bumble bee assumes the role of a primary pollinator of many flowering plants across the region. (However, I never have a problem destroying a wasp, especially a bald-faced hornet, as I am convinced that they are insect vermin, but the bumble is NOT!) If the insect you see flying around is large, rounded and fuzzy, it is a bumble bee, which should always be left alone as it is an important component of the environment here in the Adirondacks.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Tom Kalinowski has written several books on nature in the Adirondacks.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Adirondack Wildlife: Basking Painted Turtles

In any shallow, muddy-bottom body of water in spring, when the sun is shinning or a southerly breeze has elevated the temperature into the 50’s or 60’s, the painted turtle may be seen lounging peacefully, often in the company of others of its species.

As with all reptiles, turtles are cold-blooded. This means they are unable to generate any internal heat of their own. In order to elevate their body temperature to a level that is more favorable for carrying out numerous physiological processes, these slow moving creatures must first pull their body from the still frigid waters that engulf them, and then attempt to absorb as much solar radiation, or thermal energy from the air as possible. In this way the painted turtle can effectively restart its system after lying totally dormant over the long winter season here in the Adirondacks.

Like several other cold-blooded organisms, the painted turtle passes the winter embedded in the layer of dark, muddy silt and organic debris that forms the bottom of most quiet Adirondack waterways. Even though this shelled vertebrate has lungs rather than gills, it can remain submerged for prolonged periods without breathing when the water is close to freezing. As is the case with other reptiles, the painted turtle becomes increasingly more lethargic as the environment surrounding it cools in autumn, thereby decreasing its need for oxygen. As the temperature drops to within a degree or two of freezing, the painted turtle lapses into a state of complete dormancy which further reduces it need for this essential elemental gas.
The very limited amount of oxygen needed to sustain life comes from this turtle’s ability to absorb this dissolved gas from water that is repeatedly drawn into a special sac near its tail and into its throat.

As the sun’s rays become more intense in mid to late April, and begin to penetrate the bottom muck, the painted turtle’s internal temperature starts to rise. The dark color of this turtle’s back shell allows it to effectively absorb the sun’s infra-red rays, even when it is below the surface. Exposure to solar radiation can boost a turtle’s core temperature by several degrees above that of the water which surrounds it. This helps provide it with the energy needed to resurrect itself from the bottom muck and become somewhat active again.
When conditions above the surface become favorable, the painted turtle swims to an object that it can climb onto in order to lift itself completely from the frigid water. Logs that are floating on the surface, a small island of peat, or a deteriorating muskrat house are all common places that the painted turtle visits to bask in the sun. Since these spots are separated from the shore, the turtle is less likely to come under attack from a shoreline predator.

Since this creature’s metabolic state is still drastically depressed by the cool surroundings, the life processes within this normally sluggish critter are not yet fully functional. Even acquiring nourishment becomes a challenge, as the turtle’s digestive system is unable to effectively process any of the various items consumed by this omnivore when it is immersed in the water. By basking in the sun, the painted turtle is able to elevate its core temperature to a level that allows for a more effective break down of the food ingested when it forages along the bottom.

Along with promoting digestion, the temporary warming of the turtle’s body helps facilitate the process of egg formation within mature females. In the Adirondacks, it is usually toward the end of May when the females leave their watery home and venture onto dry land to lay their eggs. As with all reptiles, the painted turtle must leave the safety of the water and seek out an appropriate spot on land in which to deposit her eggs.

Painted turtles regularly emerge from the water during the spring whenever the air temperature is warmer than the water, or when the sun is beating down on a particular spot in their home. For this creature, it is more than just a pleasant way to relax, but a method allowing for the digestion of their food, and the development of their eggs.

Tom Kalinowski has written several books on nature in the Adirondacks.


Monday, May 2, 2011

When Ice Goes Out The Loons Arrive

It is always difficult to predict when the ice will go out on a given body of water in the Adirondacks, however, it is easy to say when that waterway will be occupied by a loon, as this symbol of the northern wilderness always seems to arrive within hours of the ice disappearing.

The urge to return to its breeding territory is especially strong in male loons. Because of a recent population increase in this species, there can be intense competition for the remote sections of the large lakes and back country ponds that are highly attractive to this bird with the haunting voice. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Adirondack Amphibians: The Wood Frog in Spring

The awakening of the many forms of life that passed the winter in a deeply dormant state begins with the melting of the snow, the retreating of the ice sheet covering our waterways, and the thawing of the soil. Because of fundamental physiological differences among the species and the various preferences that each creature has for a wintering site, some animals are quicker to respond to the onset of favorable spring conditions than others.

In the forested regions of the North Country, the wood frog is among the first to return to an active state and announce with a distinct chorus of voices that spring has come to the Adirondacks.

Unlike other frogs in the Adirondacks, the wood frog does not spend the winter embedded in the muck that covers numerous bodies of water. Rather, this amphibian burrows deep into the leaf litter that covers the forest floor to protect itself from the frigid conditions of this long season. Also, unlike many other cold-blooded vertebrates, the wood frog fails to get below the frost line.

This small, forest dwelling frog with the black mask across its face is among the very few forms of vertebrate life that can experience freezing without perishing. The body of this frog has adapted by producing several substances that allow for a lowering of the freezing point of the water molecules within its body.

Additionally, even if the actions of these compounds fail to prevent ice crystals from forming, the wood frog will not die. With the formation of ice in its body, the wood frog’s heart stops beating, its blood no longer circulates throughout its systems, and oxygen fails to be delivered to its cells. In this type of cryogenic state, the wood frog can remain alive throughout the winter and awaken once its body warms to a temperature that is above freezing.

As soon as the upper layer of soil thaws, releasing the wood frog from its icy tomb, it spends a few days acclimating to an active state before heading to the small, vernal pool of water that serves as its breeding ground. Upon arriving at such a seasonal body of water, the males begin to announce their presence by emitting a clacking noise that is described by some as several ducks that are not quite “on-key”.

Within a span of a few days, such small bodies of water may contain dozens of wood frogs. While these amphibians can be heard anytime of the day, late afternoon is when more voices are added to the chorus, and by evening on those occasions when the temperature is well above the freezing point, every male is contributing to the unique noise that can carry for nearly a hundred yards. Additionally, the intensity of this sound increases during times of warmer weather. Sunny days which can elevate the temperature of these small, seasonal pools can also make the wood frog more active and vocal.

While some amphibians, like the spring peeper, persist in announcing its presence for well over a month, the wood frog seldom remains in its breeding surroundings longer than a week to ten days. Shortly after the last females have had their egg masses fertilized, these temporary occupants abandon the pools and begin their travel to their summer ranges. Wood frogs are reported to migrate up to a half mile to reach a favorable spot on the forest floor in which to spend the summer.

Spring is a season of sound in the Adirondacks. While birds have the most musically complex songs, and the most melodious calls, the voices of several amphibians add to the diversity of this springtime, vocal ritual. It is impossible to state which amphibian produces the most appealing mating call; however, it is certain that the love serenade of the wood frog is the first to grace the air and signal that the spring peepers will soon be calling here in the Adirondacks.

Tom Kalinowski has written several books on Adirondack nature and is a regular contributor on natural history here at the Adirondack Almanack.


Monday, April 11, 2011

Wildlife: The Woodcock’s Spring Serenade

Patches of snow that remain in open areas and along forest edges, and the reluctance of the soil to completely thaw have impacted the seasonal routines of numerous forms of wildlife, including the woodcock. Yet, despite the adversities created by the weather, most woodcock are already engaged in breeding, as can be easily noted by visiting certain settings after the sun has set.

The woodcock is a plump, mottled tannish-brown bird that is seldom seen during the day because of its extremely effective protective coloration, and its preference for remaining inactive when the sun is above the horizon. It is during the fading twilight of evening, and as the sky begins to brighten before dawn that this odd-looking bird ventures from a sheltered spot on the forest floor and begins to forage.

With its long, hook-tipped bill, the woodcock is ideally adapted for extracting earthworms from the soil. By inserting this lengthy beak into the dirt, the woodcock is capable of sensing any nearby worms, or other soil invertebrates. The high concentration of nerve cells that exist within its bill are attuned to the minute vibrations generated by worms as they ever so gradually move through the soil. Once it detects and locates an invertebrate, the woodcock quickly attempts to insert its bill directly over the potential meal, grab hold of it, and then pull it from its earthen surroundings.

Because the ground is still partially frozen, or covered with patches of snow in many of the deciduous and mixed forest edges preferred by the woodcock, this bird temporarily concentrates its evenings and early mornings in places in which the soil has thawed and worms have become active. Open, south facing hillsides and wetlands where the sun and high water events have caused the snow to melt are places sought out by the woodcock in early spring. Alder thickets are particularly attractive to this bird as they provide a dense layer of ground cover as well as a wealth of soil invertebrates during the spring. Even in summer, when hot and dry weather forces worms and many soil bugs in open and dry sites deep into the soil below the reach of this bird, alder areas provide conditions favorable to a foraging woodcock.

Although the woodcock’s coloration and markings perfectly match that of a deciduous forest floor or the ground in an alder thicket, the males come into an open, grassy setting before they eat in order to announce their presence. The loud, sharp, nasal-sounding note bleated by the male is a far cry from the melodious tunes produced by many of our feathered songsters, yet this call serves a similar purpose. After repeating this short squawk for several minutes, the woodcock then takes to the air to perform an aerial display that is also part of its mating ritual.

The tips of the woodcock’s primary flight feathers produce a distinct whistling-twitter sound when air quickly flows past them. This is why a woodcock makes a similar twitter noise when it’s flushed from a daytime resting spot.

The aerial display of the woodcock is difficult to follow in the dwindling twilight, especially on overcast nights. When the sky is clear, however, and a full moon has ascended above the horizon, it is possible to watch this bird circle the forest clearing that it has claimed, and perform a series of dives that bring it back to its singing perch on the ground.
Taking an evening walk to a forest clearing near an alder thicket or to a stand of young hardwoods after the daytime breeze has subsided, and the first stars of the night (which are usually not stars, but planets) are just becoming visible, often results in noting a woodcock’s presence.

A fair number of these occurrences, however, center on hearing the characteristic sounds made by this plump, short-legged bird, rather than actually seeing it. It is the distinct vocalization made by the woodcock as it stands in the open, yet shrouded by darkness, that alerts other woodcocks in the area, and the humans attuned to the sounds of nature, that the process of creating another generation of woodcocks is already underway.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Adirondack Birds: Nesting Time for Canada Geese

The persistent northerly wind that has kept spring at bay this year has also impacted the migration schedule of numerous birds. However, the urge to return to the breeding grounds is extremely strong, and there are always hardy individuals that travel northwards during those brief periods when the headwind dies and the air becomes calm.

Among these impatient migrants are pairs of Canada Geese that have overwintered in the windswept corn fields of southern New York, and across the Pennsylvania and New Jersey countryside where they have found an adequate source of food.

Historically absent from most waterways in the Park prior to the mid 1800’s, the Canada goose has become an abundant species of waterfowl in many sections of the Adirondacks populated by humans. When accompanied by its brood of young, a pair of adults avoids the heavily forested shorelines that characterize most bodies of water throughout this section of northern New York. It is large, open fields, especially those in which the grass is periodically mowed that attract this hefty herbivore. Golf course fairways near a pond or river, large athletic fields adjacent to a marsh or stream, and community parks and sprawling lawns that border a lake are all ideal settings for the Canada goose.

The abundance of grasses, leafy weeds, grains and select soil bugs that serve as food to these honking giants attracts them to such open places. Additionally, this long necked bird is better able to scan the immediate surroundings which provide it with the opportunity to detect a predator when one is still a long distance away.
Even though many of shorelines in the Adirondacks are still covered with snow, and ice continues to exist well out from the water’s edge, pairs of Canada geese may be seen is spots of open water as they begin to return to the region. Upon their arrival, the pair seeks out a secluded location in which to make a nest. A remote section of a marsh along a stream that has caused the ice to disappear for the season is frequently selected. An open, sun-baked patch of low shrubs and collapsed sedges near the edge of a river is another type of setting that might be chosen for a nest, as is the roof of an abandoned muskrat house that sits back from the shore in a snow free spot.

While these sites lack the grasses and other herbaceous plants that typify a well maintain lawn, such marshy communities still contain an assortment of non-woody vegetation useful to this grazer. Because the growing season has not yet started, the older adults that take up residence in such locations for the month long period of building a nest, laying eggs, and incubating them depend on their experience at locating various seeds and other wetland edibles to keep them sufficiently nourished.

Once their eggs hatch, the parents begin the process of relocating the family to a setting in which grasses are starting to grow.

As southerly winds eventually usher in more spring-like weather, flocks of Canada geese can be heard and seen flying overhead in their characteristic “V” shaped formation. These are the birds that are headed much further north than the upper portion of New York State. The Canada geese that have established breeding populations in many sections of the Park over the past several decades have mostly returned from their wintering areas despite the icy conditions that remain along our waterways. While a few pairs may occasionally be seen on scattered patches of open water that currently exist on some of our lakes and ponds, many pairs of Canada geese have already retreated into the semi-open thickets in marshes and other wetlands that they have selected to serve as their home for the next month or so.

The creation of open spaces along lake shores and river edges that are carpeted with lush, green lawns has been an alteration of the Adirondack environment much to the liking of property owners and community residents alike. For the Canada geese it is also a most welcome change to the shoreline, as it provides this large species of waterfowl with the opportunity to raise the young birds that will begin appearing by early to mid May.

Photo: Canada Geese in flight. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Banner Winter for Adirondack Mice

The deep snow pack that formed this winter and its persistence in remaining has created hardships for many forms of wildlife, yet a few creatures have benefited from this substantial crystalline covering, especially the mice.

Life for a small, ground dwelling rodent in winter is a challenge that many individuals fail to survive. Not only must a mouse find enough to eat in order to maintain an internal temperature near 100 degrees, but it must also avoid the many predators that target this round-eared critter. After most other small creatures, like the chipmunk, wood frog, jumping mice, salamanders and snakes have entered their dormant stage in autumn, only a few ground dwelling forms of prey remain active for our carnivores to hunt. This substantially increases the pressure on these familiar small rodents.

In their attempt to avoid being seen by a fox, coyote, bobcat, fisher, hawk, owl or other meat eater, those mice that have not taken up residence indoors tend to confine their travels as much as possible to places under the snow’s surface. Limiting their foraging activities as much as possible to the crevices and hollows under fallen logs, around large rocks and stumps, and beneath other objects on the forest floor helps to conceal these critters from the view of the larger animals that are always on the prowl for prey.

While the keen senses of hearing and smell of most predators, especially the fox and coyote enable these highly perceptive animals to detect the movements of a mouse under the snow, their ability to capture one depends on the depth of the snow, as well as surface conditions. Rapidly and accurately digging through more than a foot of powder becomes a major challenge for any quadruped. The noise generated in flinging aside the snow instantly alerts the quarry to an attack, and causes this potential meal to quickly retreat from that spot. Unless a predator attacks with lightning speed, it will never be successful in apprehending a roving mouse beneath the snow pack.

A crust on the surface presents an even more formidable barrier to snagging a mouse as it moves in the shallow spaces that exist between the forest floor and the snow that covers the ground. A dense crust which forms after a late winter thaw is especially beneficial, as it can act like a coat of armor over the domain of a mouse.

Hawks and owls are particularly adversely impacted by the presence of a substantial layer of snow throughout the winter. These hunters rely entirely on snatching creatures that are traveling on top of the snow, or are moving just below the surface. While their razor sharp talons are effective weapons in quickly killing prey, they are useless in digging through the snow to search for an animal that has recently burrowed down into the powder to escape an attack.

Aside from offering protection from its numerous natural enemies, snow also provides mice with protection against bitter cold temperatures. Snow is an excellent insulator, and a layer of fluffy powder effectively traps the heat contained within the soil, making a far more favorable microclimate beneath this seasonal blanket than the air above.

It is difficult to say when the snow will eventually disappear for the season. For outdoor enthusiasts that enjoy bare ground and for the region’s numerous predators, it can’t come soon enough. But for the mice, a snow pack that lingers well into April is ideal, for this is when the intensity of the sun’s rays begins to thaw the soil and awakens most dormant critters. As these creatures begin to repopulate the forest floor, in an often still lethargic state, the appetite of the predator community begins to become satisfied, and hunting pressure eases on the mice.

So far, this has been a near perfect snow season for our mouse community, and undoubtedly, there are now plenty of mice to begin their extensive breeding season. With their normally high rate of reproduction, it can be expected that there will be an over abundance of these small, ubiquitous rodents by the time mid autumn arrives, and countless individuals will be looking for a warm home in which to spend next winter.

Tom Kalinowski’s videos can be seen at


Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Return of the Red-Winged Blackbird

A warm southerly breeze in mid-March brings with it loose, granular conditions on the ski slopes, a layer of mud on dirt roads, and the return of the Adirondacks first seasonal avian residents and among these are the male red-winged blackbirds.

This jet black bird with the red and yellow patch on its upper wing, known as an epaulet, is quick to return to its breeding grounds when air currents become favorable for migration. Despite the presence of snow on the ground, ice on many of our waterways, and periodic outbreaks of bitter cold, these birds exhibit an eagerness to get back to their breeding areas.

Immediately upon their arrival, the males begin to lay claim to favored sections of marsh and the weedy shorelines of rivers, ponds, and lakes, especially those that are covered by cattails. It is in such areas of tall aquatic grasses, shrubs, sedges and weeds that the females will be looking to establish a nesting territory when they arrive during the first few weeks of April.

Unlike many birds, the red-winged blackbird does not form a pair bond with a single individual, rather the male services the reproductive needs of all of the females that happen to set up a nesting territory within the boundaries of their section of real estate. It is not uncommon for a prime chunk of marsh, held by a single male, to encompass up to three female nesting territories.

Those individuals that arrive first tend to gain control of the best parcels of marsh. These are the older and more experienced males that average from 3 to 6 years of age. They have learned what areas are likely to attract the strongest and hardiest females, as well as what settings are most likely to allow for a successful nesting season. In this way, these males can best ensure that their genetic information will be passed on to future generations of red-wings.

Once a male selects a territory, he will defend it by loudly announcing his presence with a distinct vocalization. The phrase, “O-Ka-TEE” is often used to describe this call. Additionally, the male opens its wings slightly to expose its epaulets. This visual cue is given to alert other nearby males that he is dead serious about defending his area. It is akin to a human brandishing some type of weapon while standing on his front porch when confronting an unwelcome visitor. Finally, the male is quick to attack any other male that fails to heed the warnings.

Over a several day period, regular skirmishes with neighboring males over the exact boundaries ensue until ownership claims become established. Because most wetlands are still covered in snow and ice, these birds are forced to find food outside their breeding territories. It is not uncommon in mid to late March to note small flocks of male red-wings in poplar trees that border open, south-facing hillsides where foraging conditions are better. Also, when the wind comes up from the north, preventing other migrants from arriving and creating bitter cold conditions, the males congregate in more sheltered locations rather than guard a breeding territory that is currently devoid of any rivals.

Yet, as soon as the weather turns more spring like, these birds quickly return to their patch of marsh to immediately challenge any intruder that has just arrived from the south. Since the first birds back have had a chance to recover from their bout of long distance flight, they are generally at an advantage when they confront recent arrivals that are more physically drained.

During years when frequent spells of unseasonably cold and snowy weather hinder this birds ability to forage, these early migrants may experience significant nutritional stress. This is why birds are careful not to return too early in March.

It is impossible to predict the type of spring we will experience based on sightings and signs in nature. The arrival of numerous flocks of red-winged blackbirds earlier than normal is only a reflection of a period of favorable migration conditions as St. Patrick’s Day approaches. The awakening urge that males are experiencing is strong, and the battles that become a part of this process have now begun in the marshes of the Adirondacks.

Photo Courtesy Wikipedia.


Monday, March 14, 2011

The Gray Squirrel in the Adirondacks

Anyone living in a town or hamlet in the Adirondacks knows that the gray squirrel is a common member of the wildlife community within the Park. This bushy-tailed rodent ranks among the most frequently seen creatures, especially if a few individuals in the neighborhood are maintaining bird feeders. Yet, as common as this skilled aerialist may appear, the gray squirrel is not as widely distributed throughout the Park as it would seem.

The gray squirrel is a creature that is heavily dependent on acorns for its staple source of food. It is in mature stands of oaks that the population of this species reaches its natural peak. In areas where oaks occur only sporadically, the gray squirrel has a far more challenging time surviving. » Continue Reading.


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