Monday, March 1, 2010

2009 Bear Hunting Harvest Largest in NY History

Bear harvest numbers in 2009 were the second-highest ever recorded in New York State, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) announced today. Last fall’s harvest was only exceeded by 2003’s record total.

Statewide, hunters took 1,487 black bears in 2009 – a 15 percent increase from the 1,295 taken in 2008. The 2009 increase is principally due to a strong surge in bear harvest in the Adirondack region, where the 814 bears taken in 2009 was a 40 percent increase over 2008. In 2003, 1,864 bears were harvested statewide. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, February 27, 2010

Adirondack Winter: Musings on Snow

By the time you read this post, you may be getting sick of snow. We shouldn’t really complain too much, though, for up until this week, we have had very little snowfall in 2010. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I had to shovel my driveway before this week. February has been downright dry and snowless, so the windfall of white stuff this week has brought should be a welcome sight, even if we don’t appreciate it until summer, when hot dry days take their toll on available surface and ground water. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Adirondack Amphibians: The American Toad

Every fall when I lead groups of students through the woods on a biodiversity investigation, we always have to be careful not to step on toads. It’s a challenge, for once we are off the trails, the forest floor is one big closet, full of hiding places that small animals, like toads, can use, and which we, with our clumsy feet and our eyes towering four to six feet above the ground, never see. More than once we have stumbled upon wee tiny toads and great giant monster toads. Size not withstanding, they are all one species: the American toad (Bufo americanus).

Throughout history, toads have gotten a bad rap. For some reason, reptiles and amphibians in general have been relegated to the realm of “evil” animals. European sensibilities, especially during the Middle Ages, are largely responsible for this. Fortunately, some cultures, primarily Asian, took a more enlightened view of frogs and toads. Still, what we need to remember is that concepts like “good” and “evil” are strictly human. Animals are neither good nor evil, for that implies intent. No, animals are just animals, going about their daily lives doing what they must in order to survive.

That said, the toad has some pretty nifty ways of taking care of itself. Contrary to popular belief, one cannot get warts from a toad. Sure, they are covered with warts, but these aren’t the same as the warts people get. Human warts are caused by a virus. The “warts” on a toad are actually poison and mucus glands, the former containing a milky substance that is chock full of chemicals that can irritate the mucus membranes of other animals. This is a great defensive mechanism. The two biggest poison glands are on the back of the toad right behind its head, the exact location where a predator (say a coyote) might chomp down in an attempt to grab a potential food item. The predator’s teeth puncture these glands and the animal gets a mouthful of poison. The poison will likely make the animal sick, and could potentially kill it. Hopefully the toad lives to see another day.

Here’s another defensive mechanism of the toad: bloat. Let’s say you are a toad and you are hunkered down in your daytime den – a nice cool, damp hole in the ground. A nosy predator comes along and grabs hold of your head and tries to pull you out of your home. What do you do? You gulp down a lot of air and swell up – hopefully increasing your girth enough that the predator cannot pull you out. Or maybe a snake caught you unaware from behind. There you are, your backside partway down the snake’s gullet, so you puff up, hopefully making yourself too big to swallow. This is a great strategy…unless the snake is a hognose, which has teeth in the back of its mouth that are just perfect for puncturing inflated toads, in which case there’s not much you can do.

Toads are pretty ubiquitous – you can find them just about anywhere: in the woods, in your back yard, along a stream. They aren’t too fussy about habitat as long as there is a semi-permanent body of water in which they can lay eggs, and some dense patches of vegetation for shelter and hunting. This is one reason why toads readily adapt to living in our gardens. All they need is a shady toad abode (could be an overturned pot) and they will happily patrol your garden for pesky pests like slugs.

When spring arrives, the air soon fills with toad song. The sound is often mistaken for an insect by those who are not nature savvy. It’s a trilling sort of sound, which can last sometimes 30 seconds or more. I read that you can imitate this sound if you whistle and hum at the same time. I tried it last night and I think it is safe to say I won’t be calling in any toads any time soon. Anyway, when you hear the toads trilling, it is time to stake out your neighborhood pond and see if you can see any action. Males, recognized by their smaller size and dark throats, will group together, trilling their hearts out, waiting for a receptive female to come along. When she does, the males all jockey for position, the hopefuls trying to latch on to her back and become fathers.

The female lays her eggs in double strings of sticky gel. These strands are often loosely wound around submerged aquatic vegetation. They won’t be there long, for most will hatch within a week. This is an uncertain time for toads, for life in a pond is rife with danger. The pond could dry up. Raccoons and herons are constantly looking for meals. Cannibalism lurks around every corner. What is a tadpole to do?

Fortunately, toadlets have a couple fallback positions. First, they, like their parents, have chemicals in their skin that make them less appetizing to predators. And second, they can recognize their siblings. This is pretty amazing when you consider just how many siblings they might have. A single female toad produces on average 4,000 to 12,000 eggs. Even if only a quarter of the eggs hatch, that is several hundred siblings. Knowing your siblings can save your neck, because if you hang out with your family, your back is guarded and you only have to watch out for cannibals coming at you from one side.

With all the dangers a toad faces, it’s not surprising to learn that most live only a year or two. Some robust toads might make it to ten years, and one toad lived a long life of 36 years in captivity. Even with poison glands providing protection, it’s a rough world out there. And since toads provide a great service to us by consuming pestiferous insects and slugs, I figure it’s the very least we can do to watch our steps when stomping through the woods.


Monday, February 22, 2010

Adirondack Brook Trout: Our Vanishing Heritage

Nobody knows how many varieties of brook trout once lived in the Adirondacks. Probably dozens. Trout colonized the Adirondacks after the last ice age, when melting glaciers created watery pathways into the highlands. After water levels receded, trout populations were isolated from each other, and so they evolved separately, developing slightly different traits.

Sadly, only seven strains of heritage trout remain in the Adirondacks. The rest were done in by habitat destruction (often from logging), overfishing, acid rain, and/or shortsighted stocking policies.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is taking steps to protect only three of the seven heritage strains—by breeding and releasing fingerlings. The other four populations are so small that the department won’t risk removing fish from the wild for breeding. One DEC scientist says three of these populations are on the verge of extinction.

Think of it: a trout that has been around these parts for thousands of years—and is found nowhere else in the world—may soon be gone forever.

Perhaps you’re betting this won’t happen in your lifetime. Wrong. It already has. The Stink Lake strain in the West Canada Lake Wilderness apparently vanished just a few years ago, thanks to acid rain. And the Tamarack Pond strain in the Five Ponds Wilderness was lost in the 1990s. That pond became so acidified the trout couldn’t spawn. Because of the lack of competition, however, the adult trout grew fat. After word got out about the big brookies, anglers fished out the pond before DEC could act.

And then there’s the yahoo who released bass into Little Tupper Lake after the state bought it in 1998, thereby jeopardizing the heritage trout it had harbored for centuries. Fortunately, Little Tupper trout breed elsewhere, and so the population is not at risk, at least not now.

All of the above comes from an article by George Earl in the latest issue of the Adirondack Explorer, titled “Tragedy of the Trout.” Click here to read the full story.

Photo by George Earl: Angler with a Little Tupper trout.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Wild Center’s Winter Wild Days: Wind Power, Animal Tracking

The Wild Center’s Winter Wildays continues on Saturday, February 27th, 2010. With activities from now until the end of March there is a schedule guaranteed to keep everyone in the family entertained, enlightened and warm during these long winter months.

On Saturday February 27th, at 1:00 pm, join Ken Visser, as he provides an introduction to small wind turbine technology and takes a closer look at the fundamentals of wind, current technology and ongoing research in ‘Windpower in the Adirondacks’.

The aerodynamic design of a wind turbine is a complex process involving the balance of numerous parameters, but the fundamental objective of a wind turbine design is to maximize energy produced while minimizing the capital and operating costs. How to balance these objectives and produce a viable design has led to many “marketing ploys” that the consumer needs to be aware of.

Three areas of interest will be presented: 1) fundamentals of wind energy including power and energy in the wind, factors affecting turbine performance and behavior, and various turbine concepts, 2) current technologies for the consumer, such as what is available and what to look out for and be aware of; costs; and expectations, and 3) wind research at Clarkson University on new concepts for the future.

On Sunday, February 28th, Family Art and Nature day begins at 1pm. Bring the entire family and explore this week’s theme, ‘Become a Track Detective’. Come prepared to go outside and use your detective skills to track down some of our critter friends. Once you’ve learned the ropes we’ll head inside to create our own track stamps and then create your own track story. Snowshoes provided.

As always, there are hikes on free snowshoes, animal encounters, movies and food. Winter Wildays are free for members or with paid admission.

For additional information on The Wild Center, visit www.wildcenter.org or call (518) 359-7800.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ruffed Grouse – Wild Chicken of the Adirondacks

This winter has been a good one for grouse. At least in the tracking sense it has been a good one for grouse. Almost every day I have found fresh grouse tracks in the woods, along the roads, down driveways. I’ve even flushed a couple of the birds, their thunderous take-offs turning a few more hairs white, but mostly it’s their tracks I’ve seen.

The ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) is one of two grouse species that call the Adirondacks home. The second is the spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis), which is an uncommon boreal species found in only a very few pockets within the Park. Therefore, I will stick to the ruffed grouse in this piece since that is the one most readers are likely to encounter. » Continue Reading.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Phil Brown: My Big Cat Sighting

I saw it on Route 28 just west of McKeever. It was definitely feline. You could tell by the way it crouched next to the guardrail, looking like it wanted to spring across the road. And it was big.

“A cougar!” I shouted.

By the time my passenger looked, the cat had retreated to the other side of the guardrail and was ambling away from the road.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) says wild cougars (also known as mountain lions, panthers, and pumas) have not lived in the Adirondacks since the nineteenth century. The agency concedes that cougars are spotted on occasion, but it insists that they are released pets. Last week, DEC denounced as a hoax a rumor that a cougar had been struck and killed by a vehicle in Black Brook. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Nut Trees: Hazelnuts in the Adirondacks

Several years ago, I received three little hazelnut trees from the Arbor Day Foundation. I don’t recall actually ordering them, but there they were in the mail one day. I planted them and waited to see the results. A couple years later, three more hazelnuts showed up in my mailbox. Those, too, went into the ground. Over the years they’ve moved about the yard (not under their own steam), finally coming to rest along the southwestern boundary. Every summer and fall I look at the four remaining shrubs and ask “where are the nuts?” No answer has been forthcoming.

So recently I went on-line to see if I could find out any further information about hazelnuts. Where are they native? What do the flowers look like? How do they pollinate and produce nuts? The Arbor Day Foundation was a good source of info, and it should be, considering it has been in the hazelnut business for several years, trying to produce a hybrid hazelnut that will thrive throughout the United States, whereas the native species were historically only found in the northeastern US and southeastern Canada, and into the prairies. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mating Birds: Love Adirondack Style

Well, I don’t know if we can call it “love”. Maybe a more scientific term is called for. How about “potential mate selection”? No, it just doesn’t quite have that Valentine’s Day ring to it. However we say it though, mate selection has begun in the wild woodlands of the Adirondacks.

One day last week, as I skied through the wonderful trails of the Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive Center.

I stopped to watch the acrobatic high-jinks of some black-capped chickadees. Off in the distance came a loud, monotone drumming on a tree down the hill. As I heard it I knew that spring was not too far away.

What I heard was the drumming “call notes” of a male hairy woodpecker calling for a mate. He will rapidly drum with his bill on a branch, preferably hollow since he wants that sound to carry a great distance through the winter woods. By the way, he’ll also drum on your metal gutters, down spout, or nearby telephone pole! Hard to imagine a bird going through such self abuse while winter still holds firm in the North Country.

But as they say, the early bird catches the worm; in this case he attracts a female, courts her, and then sometime around March or early April they begin nesting, and about 30 days later they’ll have a growing family in that hollowed-out nest hole.

I’ll bet you have observed this courting of hairy and downy woodpeckers on your walks though the late winter woods. You’ll first hear the loud “chink” call notes of the male and then you’ll see the two birds chase one another around the trunk of the tree. Often she’ll fly away, but hot on her tail is the male. He’s not letting this one go. So chances are if you see two woodpeckers playing a game of tag this month or next, it’s a courting pair.

Are other birds gearing up for the mating season now? You bet your sweet-smelling-red-roses they are! Peregrine falcons will soon be returning to the Adirondacks from their wintering grounds along the coastal US, Mexico, or Central America, in search of a good cliff-dwelling-casa. We often get falcons back on North Country nesting territories in late February or early March.

Hear any owls hooting in the woods? That’s most likely a male defending his chosen territory and also trying to attract a female. Being year-round residents, barred, great horned, and saw-whet owls will begin nesting in early March. I recall seeing a great horned owl on a nest with almost a foot of snow balanced along the rim of the nest on St Patrick’s Day. And in mid April I’ve observed large great horned owl chicks sitting on a nest.

Bald Eagles will soon be courting, and what a treat that is to watch. Look for two adult bald eagles flying high above in unison, like two joined figure skaters in the air. If you’re really lucky you’ll get to see them performing a talon-locking maneuver that defies death. They will begin cleaning out the nest and re-attaching branches to spruce the place up. It’s not unusual for a pair to be sitting on eggs in a raging, late winter snowstorm.

Just like the eagles, falcons, and owls, a male red-tailed hawk will begin his pre- spring courting in the skies above our neighborhoods. Listen for the high-pitched screech he gives in flight as he searches for a mate.

In February and March there’s a whole text book list of things that are going on in the bird world, and I’ll soon be writing about them. Hormones are coursing through bodies; ovaries are growing; testes are enlarging (oops, sorry, thought this was the adult version-too graphic?). Anyways, all this is happening in our winter visiting birds and also in the birds that will soon be winging their way northward from tropical climates to find love in our Adirondack woods.

Photo: Male hairy woodpecker by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Reports of Dead Mountain Lion are a Hoax

We received a unusual media announcement from NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) spokesperson David Winchell yesterday pointing out that a heavily circulated photograph of a dead mountain lion in the back of a pick-up (left) is in fact a hoax. The e-mails typically claim local forest rangers have seized the animal in order to bolster arguments that there are no breeding populations of mountain lions (also known as panthers, pumas, catamounts, or cougars). The most recent message (and this has circulated a number of times on internet message boards) claims the cougar was recently hit by a vehicle near Black Brook in Clinton County. The message also claims that New York Forest Rangers responded to the incident.

“This photo and messages first appeared in Western New York in December 2009 claiming that the mountain lion had been killed in Erie County,” Winchell told the Almanack. “Since then, the false reports have moved across the State claiming the dead mountain lion was found in various locales and now has arrived in Northern New York.” » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Adirondack Naturalist’s Backyard

Over the years, I’ve slowly been converting my backyard into a little oasis for wildlife. This may seem like a rather odd thing to do in the middle of the Adirondack Park, where wilderness areas surround us on all sides. After all, it’s not like the wildlife is hurting for natural foods in our area. My goal, however, has been to change my yard from a barren wasteland (a carpet of perfectly weed-free grass) into a diverse habitat composed of native vegetation.

First I added some free-form gardens, floating in the middle of the yard. Admittedly, these gardens are not hosting many native plants, but I do try to avoid those species that are aggressive invaders. The primary goal of these gardens was to provide some color and relief to an otherwise blah yard, but I also wanted to provide nectaring areas for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, and winter seed sources for chickadees and finches. One of our native plants fills this bill very well: bee balm.

Then I started to remove the invasives that dotted the property, like honeysuckle. All around the yard I have replaced these aliens with a variety of native shrubs: nannyberry, native hawthorn, pin cherries, sumac, dogwood. These plants, after they out-grow their twiggy sapling stage, will create a hedge full of shelter and food for birds and insects. I’m hoping their growth is rapid, for the yard looks empty without the honeysuckle border, and I’ve lost some significant shade.

And then there are the birdfeeders. Some naturalists prefer to go the route of providing strictly native food sources and forego artificial food stations. This is very noble and I salute it. However, in my yard it will be a while before the native vegetation starts producing. The crabapples were a hit for a while, but now they are slowly rotting away on the tree. And besides, I like watching birds as they visit my feeders, so I join the millions of other Americans who put out food for our feathered friends.

It is so easy to get sucked into the latest and greatest at the birdfeeding store: feeder pole “systems” that you can build upwards and outwards to accommodate a glorious variety of feeders; bird baths (regular for summer, heated for winter); squirrel deterrents (baffles of all shapes and sizes; feeders that fling squirrels into the air or bounce them up and down at the end of a bungee); misters (for those birds that prefer a shower over a bath); suet; peanuts; mealworms; mixed seed; gourmet seed…the list goes on and on.

But my favorite part of the wildlife-friendly backyard, however, are the homemade bits, like the feeder pictured at the top. This was a gift I received this winter, and it is one of the coolest things. The woman who made it apparently was looking for something to do with her juice bottle caps. She cut a triangle from a piece of scrap wood, nailed the caps to it, on both sides, added a few small dowels for perches and a larger dowel at the bottom for a “trunk,” painted the whole thing and put a string at the top. Voila! A nifty homemade feeder! With a little ingenuity, not do we have a cool suet-type feeder, but we’ve also managed to keep some stuff out of the landfill; you can’t get much more wildlife-friendly than that.

About the only thing my yard is missing is a water source, a pond or stream that would attract frogs, dragonflies, and assorted other water-loving creatures. The ideal aqueous feature would have a shallow bit where birds could bathe without worrying about drowning, and a deep area where tadpoles could shelter in the winter. It would have cattails, duckweed, pickerel weed, native floating heart. It wouldn’t have to be large, but it should circulate, getting a constant source of oxygen and keeping the mosquitoes to a minimum. A little waterfall would be nice.

Of course, when you strive to attract wildlife, you must accept it when wildlife avails itself of your offerings, and this includes deer. I must confess that deer are not ranked high on my list of backyard desirables. I have a five-foot fence surrounding my yard, which is there to keep the dog in, but it also serves to keep the deer out, most of the time. It won’t do much if a deer is determined, though. Or a bear. The downside of this fence, however, is that I don’t get foxes, coyotes, or snowshoe hares. Weasels can get through, but they usually don’t visit.

Wildlife friendly yards don’t have to be a drain on the wallet. The biggest key is to stick to native vegetation. Remove invasives and non-natives. Provide diversity in species and structure. Have food, shelter and water readily available. Most of your investment is likely to be in sweat and elbow grease. In the end you will have a little piece of paradise that you and your wild friends can all enjoy.


Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Great Backyard Bird Count – Coming Soon to a Feeder Near You

One of the great family-friendly activities of the winter will soon be upon us: the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), which this year runs from Friday, 12 February, to Monday, 15 February. The brain child of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this four-day long bird watching event is one of the easiest citizen science projects out there. Anyone, regardless of age or birding ability, can participate.

Citizen science programs have a long history at the Lab of Ornithology. Back in the mid-‘90s, I signed on to do my part for their wood thrush and golden-winged warbler projects. Those projects were quite involved, requiring participants to get aerial photographs of their research areas, determine acreage of irregularly shaped plots, measure the distance to the nearest water and roads…and this was all before setting out to look for signs of the actual birds.

The GBBC, on the other hand, is very easy and user-friendly. All you have to do is look for birds in your backyard. You can do this for as little as fifteen minutes, or for as long as your interest holds. You can do it for one day of the weekend, or record observations for all four days. You can watch for birds at each of your bird feeding stations (do you have more than one?), or you can choose to observe the visitors to just one tree or shrub. As for me, I will probably spend some time watching each of my stations (I have two, with a total of about twelve feeders), as well as the feeders at work.

Maybe you are unsure about participating because you don’t know a black-capped chickadee from a black-backed woodpecker. Not to worry. You can go on-line to www.birsource.org/gbbc/ and check out their simple bird ID pages. You can also print out a checklist for the most common birds in your region, which will help narrow down your options. For example, it is highly unlikely that a flock of northern parulas will be buzzing through any Adirondack backyard in February, so you won’t have to worry about telling one warbler from another.

One of the important aspects of your observations is recording the numbers of each species you see. This can be tricky, so the Lab has put together a really simple rule to help you out. Let’s say you decide to record the birds you see between 10:00 and 10:30 AM. You see two goldfinches at 10:01. At 10:15 you see twelve. At 10:17 there are 32. By 10:30 they have all flown away. How many goldfinches do you record? Thirty-two. In other words, to eliminate the possibility of counting the same bird(s) more than once, you only report the greatest number you saw at any one time.

Counting large numbers of birds can be a bit of a challenge. Some birders are very good at estimating how many are in a flock; others are not. I read an article once that said that it is easy for humans to eyeball numbers in pairs, threes, and fours. Fives get a bit harder, and anything above five is nearly impossible. So, if you can fix in your mind what five birds look like, then you can guesstimate how many of those fives you see in the flock as it shuffles and flits about. Good luck.

You will want to keep track of your sightings on a piece of paper, and when you are ready, simply go to your computer and pull up the GBBC website (see link above). Open the tab labeled “Submit Your Checklist” and follow the easy directions for reporting your observations. Afterwards, you can “Explore the Results” to see what birds other people found. Are you wondering where all the pine siskins are this year? Here’s a good way to find out. The genuinely curious can check out the results from past years as well.

The website is chock full of all sorts of interesting bird information. There is a whole series of activities just for kids, and there’s even a page dedicated to educators. For those who enjoy looking at really great bird photographs, there’s a gallery of photos taken by past GBBC participants. My favorite is a really funny photo of a very soggy orange-crowned warbler caught in the act of taking a bath.

This year marks the thirteenth anniversary of the GBBC. If you haven’t participated in the past, I hope you will take up the challenge and participate this year. Not only is it a great way to spend time with your family and feathered friends, but it also helps provide a snapshot of where the birds are across North America, a practice that has turned up some interesting trends in population shifts and declines.

And if being a good Samaritan isn’t enough of an incentive to get you to participate, check out the list of prizes the Lab is giving away. There are plush birds that chirp when you squeeze them, assorted feeders (you can never have too many), a bird camera (takes photos for you while you stay toasty warm inside), field guides, and much, much more. So, dust off your field guide, set a comfortable chair by the window, have your beverage-of-choice close at hand, and get ready to count.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Adirondack Predators: Owls in Winter

Every winter we have a barred owl that takes up watch just off the back deck here at the VIC, and we remember every visit it makes. Sometimes he (she?) is here off and on for a couple weeks, and sometimes it’s only a quick visit of a day or two. However long, or brief, its stay, it is always a welcome sight.

Barred owls (Strix varia) are fairly common around these parts. With their pale plumage, rounded heads, and big brown eyes, they seem to us mere humans to be a softer, gentler owl than their fiercer-looking cousins the great-horned owls (Bubo virginianus). Like all owls, they have nearly silent flight, thanks to the special fringed edges on their flight feathers and the extra fluffy body feathers that help muffle sound. This stealth coating, so to speak, comes in very handy when you are hunting for nocturnal prey, for food that is out at night tends to have good hearing.

Which brings up a good question. If owls are nocturnal (with some exceptions, like the snowy owl), then why is this particular bird visiting our bird feeders during the day? A couple potential answers come to mind. First, it is not uncommon to see owls active during the day, especially when that day is overcast (like much of this winter has been). A cloudy, gloomy day may seem like nothing more than an extended twilight to a hungry owl.

Second, we have made our bird feeding area a great hunting place for predators interested in small birds and small mammals. One glance at the ground in the winter brings this clearly into focus: fox, squirrel, mouse, and bird tracks are everywhere! Every winter we chuck a conifer tree over the railing to provide shelter for small birds and mammals. Mice and squirrels are particularly appreciative of this gesture, which in turn brings in the predators. When I lead tracking workshops, I can just about guarantee “fresh” fox tracks beelining from the woods towards the feeders.

I’ve watched barred owls hunting during the day along roadsides in winter. One particular time I was cruising into Minerva when a barred owl perched on a speed limit sign caught my attention. I hit the breaks, turned the car around, and parked, watching and waiting along with the bird. Although it was fully aware of my presence, its attention was focused on the snowbank beneath the sign.

After about ten minutes or so, the owl flung itself from the sign and landed with a face- and foot-plant in the snow, its outstretched wings caught on top of the snow above its head. It hopped a bit, shuffled its feet, then struggled to lift off…empty footed. There must’ve been some small rodent beneath the snow that the owl, with its hypersensitive hearing, could detect, but either the bird’s aim was off or the rodent was too fast, for it got away. Many folks don’t realize that predators tend to miss their prey more often than not. It’s a tough thing being a predator, a life full of peril (what if the prey fights back?) and potential starvation (food gets away from you, the snow is too deep for you to hunt successfully, etc.).

This is why I don’t mind too terribly much when a raptor snags a bird at my feeding stations, which invariably happens at least once every winter (and if I’m lucky I get to see it). After all, they are birds, too, and they also need to feed. If they are smart enough to realize that bird feeders are essentially convenience stores, then more power to them. Same goes for foxes and weasels. I’m an equal opportunity feeder.

This is a great time of year to go on an owl prowl, for owl mating season is upon us. Great-horned owls will soon wind down their mating, while barred owls will soon be starting. Now is the time to go out at night to listen for owl calls. The barred owl has the soft “who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-allllll” pattern, while the great-horned is the typical eight-hooter: “hoo-hoohoo-hoo-hoo-hoo” (okay, that was only six, but they can do up to eight or so at a time).

If you are really lucky, you might hear the truck-backing-up “toot-toot-toot-toot” of the northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus). About three years ago we had a couple saw-whets (tiny little owls) hanging out near the golf course and every night for a week or two I would hear them tooting away when I took the dog for his evening stroll. Haven’t heard one since.

If you want to find winter owls, your best bet is to go out at night and listen for their calls. But, if standing out in the cold on a clear winter night isn’t your thing, then put on some snowshoes and go for a walk in the woods on an overcast day. You want to look up in trees, where fairly good-sized branches attach to the trunk. It is here that owls will sit during the day, with their feathers fluffed up and their eyes (did you know they have feathers on their eyelids?) shut. They blend in perfectly with their trees of choice, often looking like just another bump on a limb. They can be difficult to spot.

If you want more of a sure thing, you can keep an eye on the bird hotlines for announcements of recent owl sightings: short-earred owls at the Saratoga Battlefield; snowy owls at Fort Edwards, northern hawk-owls at Bloomingdale bog, great greys in Watertown. Unusual birds get groupies, and all you need to do to find these itinerant birds is find the people with the binoculars and big camera lenses. A group of birdie nerds is a whole lot easier to spot in a snowy field than a single snowy owl, and the chances are that they will be more than happy to help you find the bird they’ve all flocked to see themselves. Birders are like that – they think everyone is a potential bird nut like themselves and they are eager to recruit.

So, find yourself a birding group and keep your eyes (and ears) peeled for the owls of winter. They are out there, and if you want to see them, you have to get out there, too.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Adirondack Almanack Welcomes Zoologist Larry Master

Please join me in welcoming zoologist Larry Master to Adirondack Almanack. Larry, who lives in Lake Placid, has been photographing wildlife and natural history subjects for more than 50 years. After receiving a PhD at the University of Michigan, Larry spent 20 years with The Nature Conservancy and 6 years with NatureServe, most of that time as the organization’s Chief Zoologist. Larry oversaw the development of TNC’s and NatureServe’s central zoological databases, and also served on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board. He currently serves on boards of NatureServe, The Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack Chapter, Northern New York Audubon, the Adirondack Council, and the Adirondack Explorer, as well as on the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Adirondack Advisory Group and in an advisory role to the Biodiversity Research Institute.

Larry will be writing about wildlife every other Thursday at noon, opposite our birding expert Brian McAllister. The addition of Larry rounds out the Almanack‘s natural-history coverage, which includes regular field reports by Ellen Rathbone.


Monday, February 1, 2010

Adirondack History at the NYS Ornithological Association

With a hat tip to the outstanding birding blog The Zen Birdfeeder we point readers to an interesting new online database of 57 years of the New York State Ornithological Association’s (NYSOA) quarterly journal The Kingbird. 229 issues of the journal are currently online, along with 4 ten-year indices; four new issues will be added each year. The journal includes commentary of historic bird lists, natural history field observation reports, an archive of NYSOA development and history, and a lot more.

Here are a few gems I found in the collection – warning – these are all pdfs!

Merriam’s Adirondack List

Stanley Lincoln’s History of the Federation of New York State Bird Clubs

John M.C. Peterson’s Report of the Great 1995 Blowdown from the Bouquet Valley

The Common Loon in New York State



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