Posts Tagged ‘Birding’

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.


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.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Winter Raptor Festival This Weekend

A Winter Raptor Fest will be held on March 12-13 in Fort Edward, Washington County, NY. Participants will see hawks, owls and falcons on display and during a flight show and learn about the short-eared owl, American kestrel, and other captivating birds of prey. Experts who work to protect and conserve our wildlife will be on-hand to answer questions including NYS Department of Environmental Conservation biologists who will discuss tracking raptor movements with use of satellite, and wildlife rehabilitators.

Additional activities will include a snowshoe race, a horse-drawn sleigh ride, and a snow sculpture competition. This two-day event will be held at the Little Theatre on the Farm in Washington County Grasslands Important Bird Area, a place that is critical to the survival of many raptors. Get more details on this event by visiting www.winterraptorfest.com.

Photo: Eastern Screech Owl, courtesy Clifford Oliver.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Adirondack Birds: The Crow

To the people that study birds, the crow is something of an enigma. While it is often regularly seen in the Adirondacks, its wary temperament makes close-up observations a challenge. Additionally, each crow’s individual pattern of behavior may be either slightly, or vastly different from that of the other members of its flock. This creates difficulty in developing general statements regarding the crow, such as what do crows do during the winter. In some ways, the crow is a bird that is more like a human than any other feathered creature.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Busy Presidents Week at the Wild Center

The Wild Center’s Wild Winter Weekends continue with activities from now until the end of March. On Friday, February 18th join NASA scientist Peter Wasilewski at 1pm for The Color of Ice. “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water….” (Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey).

Water ice is one of the most widespread, intriguing, and familiar compounds on the planet, in the solar system, and beyond. On Earth it falls as snow, forms lacy deposits on winter windows, creates skating surfaces on lakes, gracefully drapes rock cliffs, packs thickly on the polar oceans, and lays even thicker on the ice caps blanketing Greenland and Antarctica. Peter will speak on the history of winter as seen through ice cores and snowflakes. Peter is a research scientist for NASA on changes in the onset and duration of winter over time. His presentation is filled with exceptional images of snowflakes and ice cores close up. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Phil Brown: The Ethics of Feeding Wild Birds

A few years ago I saw my first gray jay—one of the Adirondack Park’s boreal birds. I had read that the gray jay, a member of the crow family, is known for its boldness in stealing scraps of food from humans. Hence, it has been nicknamed “camp robber.”

I saw the jay in the dead of winter on my way to Mount Marcy. I had skied up the Van Hoevenberg Trail as far as the junction with the Hopkins Trail, about 1.2 miles from the summit. There, in the shelter of the spruce and fir trees, I stopped for lunch—a peanut-butter sandwich with raisins.

As I ate, I noticed the gray jay on a branch about fifteen feet away, eyeing my sandwich. When I held out a crumb in my palm, the bird flew down and grabbed the offering. It then returned to its perch and continued looking at me, cockeyed. So I offered another crumb and another one after that. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Pheasant Release Program Applications Due

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has announced the opening of the application period for its cooperative Day-Old Pheasant Chick Program. This program enhances pheasant hunting opportunities through a partnership with DEC, sportsmen and sportswomen, 4-H youth, and landowners who are interested in rearing and releasing pheasants. Applications must be filed with a DEC regional wildlife manager by March 15, 2011.

Pheasants are a popular game bird since first successfully introduced to New York State in 1892 on Gardiner’s Island. A later release in 1903 on the Wadsworth estate, near Geneseo, truly established this Asian immigrant and helped popularize pheasant hunting in New York. Populations peaked in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the “heyday” of the ringneck pheasant. Today, wild pheasants are difficult to find. Most wild pheasants are found in the Lake Plains of western New York. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Wild Center Raptor Program This Weekend

The Wild Center’s Wild Winter Weekends continue with activities from now until the end of March. On Sunday, February 6th Family Art and Nature day begins at 1pm. with this week’s theme, Outrageous Raptors. Visitors will experience live Adirondack Raptors, including a Red-tailed Hawk, an American Kestrel and Adirondack owls. There are also hikes on free snowshoes, animal encounters, feature films and food. Wild Winter Weekends are free for members or with paid admission.

The Wild Center is open throughout the winter on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm and during the entire week of President’s Day. For additional information on The Wild Center, visit www.wildcenter.org or call (518) 359-7800.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sandhill Cranes: An Adirondack Rarity

Every so often a flutter of activity is spawned in the northern extremes of the Adirondack Park (Clinton County) when a few sandhill cranes put in an appearance in a farmer’s field or nearby wetland. Sandhills are not common birds in the eastern US, and most of the Adirondacks is a bit too mountainous for their tastes. So it’s to the lowlands and the agricultural belts around the Park’s perimeter that these birds head if they come here at all.

This last weekend I was in Michigan, where I got to witness the migrating sandhill cranes as they flew in to their evening roost at the Haenhle Audubon Sanctuary. A lone whooping crane, a highly endangered species, joined them in some late afternoon snacking in the marsh, much to the great delight of the dozens of spectators who stood on the chilly hillside to witness the spectacle.

Now, to be honest, I never really gave cranes much thought. To me they were simply another “foreign” bird that I was unlikely to see (I’m not the kind of birder who will travel to the ends of the earth to add a particular bird to a lifetime checklist). There were a couple white-naped cranes at the zoo where I used to work, and I knew that of the fifteen crane species worldwide, ten are listed as threatened, critically rare, or vulnerable throughout their ranges, but that was about it.

The tall, long-necked, wading wetland birds with which I am most familiar are great blue herons, which to the untrained eye look a lot like cranes. Both are tall, long-necked, and wade about it wetlands. But the heron, despite outward appearances, is not a crane. And neither are the various egrets that sometimes turn up in ponds and wetlands within the Blue Line.

If one wants to get into specifics, one can start with the fact that herons are in the family Ardeidae (which includes the egrets and bitterns), and cranes are in the Rallidae family. When a heron flies, it tucks its neck back into its body; a crane flies with its neck stretched way out in front, much like a Canada goose. Herons flap their wings with slow up and down movements, while cranes flap slowly downwards, but have a more rapid up-stroke.

I saw my first pair of wild cranes Saturday morning. I was driving northward into southern Michigan when a pair of long birds flew across the road and out over a farmer’s field. I did a double take – those weren’t herons! The wings were all wrong, and the outline didn’t seem right. They had to be cranes, I thought. A short while later, another pair flew by. There was no doubt left in my mind – these were cranes.

The third pair I heard long before I saw them. I was walking along a trail at a nature sanctuary when through the woods I heard this strange croaking call. It was a sound I’d never heard before, and I thought to myself “those can only be cranes” (had I been back here in the Adirondacks, I might’ve written it off as a raven experimenting with its vocal cords). I walked a little faster, heading toward the field I could see up ahead, hoping I just might see the birds out foraging. No luck – they were on the wing and a few seconds later I watched as they passed above the trees in front of me.

I was thrilled, but at the same time disappointed that I hadn’t gotten a closer look.

When I mentioned the cranes an hour later to the gentleman who was manning the gift shop, he told me of the nearby Audubon sanctuary where hundreds of sandhills were coming in to roost every evening. Why, they had over 2000 the other night! I pulled out my road map and with much pointing and the drawing of lines, we had worked out the directions to get me there.

When my interview concluded later that afternoon, my new friends all encouraged me to head to the sanctuary. Grab a bite to eat, go to the refuge and sit back to enjoy the show – that was their advice.

So, I stopped for a quick dinner, then, braving the road construction and some confusing detours, I wound my way toward Haenhle. When I got there, the parking lot was nearly full. I found a spot, changed into my Bean boots, and, laden with camera and binocs, headed into the fields.

It was early evening, the sun only just headed toward the horizon, and already the birds were arriving in pairs and small groups. Some flew in fairly low (we could see their toes), while others were high enough to be merely silhouettes. We could hear them coming long before they arrived – their harsh calls can carry up to a mile in good weather.

They glided in, losing altitude as they neared the marsh. They then spilled the wind from their wings, and put down their landing gear – those long, gangly legs that trail out behind when the birds are in flight. With some back winging, they gently settled in to the shallow water to preen and feed.

As each group arrived, the hushed crowd of human spectators would gasp and murmur at the sight. Spotting scopes caught individual birds as they hopped and fluttered among the grasses and their peers. A lined formed to view the whooping crane, which was lurking behind some shrubbery, barely visible.

Now I knew why the Adirondack birding community gets all excited when a report comes in across the wires that a group of sandhills has been spotted in Farmer John’s field up in Rouses Point. To catch a glimpse of these ancient birds (a fossilized sandhill crane bone was found in Nebraska that was dated at over nine-million years old, making these birds among the oldest lineages on Earth) is to witness a bit of pre-history that still walks among us.


Monday, October 18, 2010

When Raptors Attack: Some North Country Stories

Unusual stories often catch my eye while researching topics of interest. A recent example drew me in—the long-ago story of a California baby left lying in the grass while, nearby, the mother performed gardening or other chores. An eagle swooped in and snatched up the baby, leading to a battle royale between the family and the eagle. There were several stories of that type, and it didn’t always end well for the baby.

I involuntarily maintain a healthy skepticism, but have to be careful about letting it completely take over. A little digging turned up a few interesting North Country tales of a similar bent. Some contain embellishments common to the writing style of the day, and others strain credulity, but several of them are likely based on real confrontations.

After all, odd things do happen. While sitting in my high school classroom many decades ago, right in the middle of Champlain village, I saw a hawk (a red-tail was my guess) plummet to the earth at great velocity, disappearing into the brush. My assumption was that the bird died on impact, but perhaps a minute or so later, it once more became airborne, a cat dangling from its talons as it flew in clear view past the large windows. If there hadn’t been other witnesses, I’m not sure anyone would have believed me.

Four of my own Adirondack experiences with large birds stand out in memory. While bushwhacking atop one of the inner ridges of Silver Lake Mountain (near Hawkeye), I was once dive-bombed by ravens for a half hour as I lay in the brush, amazed at how loud and relentless they were, and how close they came to me.

While canoeing in the middle of Franklin Falls Pond, I was similarly harassed by two bald eagles that repeatedly swooped overhead. A little scary, yes, but absolutely thrilling. Another time, an angry nesting goose disapproved of a canoe innocently passing by 100 feet away.

The fourth incident took place on a calm section of the Saranac River. It’s hard to believe that an eagle could be somewhat distracted, but that’s the only explanation I have for what occurred. Where the waterway was about thirty feet wide, the eagle flew several feet above the stream, coming directly towards the canoe. I expected it to turn away, but it seemed to be looking from side to side, unaware that I was directly in its path.

Within no more than twenty feet, it suddenly became aware of my presence and pulled up sharply, the “whooshing” sound from its wings loud in my ears. It was a large bird, but from such close range, it naturally appeared enormous. The entire incident lasted only about 20 or 30 seconds, but it will stay with me forever.

Taking all of that into consideration, I reviewed some interesting regional confrontations between humans and birds (veracity unverified).

In 1888, at Brier Hill (St. Lawrence County), a bald eagle was said to have attacked seven-year-old George Richards (he was actually ten). George used a stick to defend himself until older brother Berton, 20, drove the eagle off. Bert later baited a steel trap with newborn calves that had died. He succeeded in capturing the bird, which was held by the Richards family for display.

In 1893, a Bellmont (Franklin County) farmhand working for Frank Winkley was on horseback, rounding up the cows, when he was attacked by two eagles. He was knocked to the ground, where the birds continued the assault. The farm dog came to his aid, and he eventually managed to club one of the birds and capture it. According to the report, the golden eagle’s wingspan was seven feet. It was kept in Winkley’s barn as a curiosity.

Predatory raids on farm fowl were once common. A dramatic case was reported in Chaumont (northwest of Watertown) in 1903 on the farm of Charles Graham. A hen hawk (any hawk that preys on poultry) grabbed a large Plymouth Rock hen, but about 20 feet above the ground, the hen broke free and landed at Graham’s feet. The hawk followed, knocking the farmer down, gashing his face and neck and pecking at his eyes. Graham stood to defend himself, but the bird continued the attack. Finally, the farmer grabbed a shovel, and the hawk departed.

Also in 1903, John Sullivan of Jay (Essex County) was set upon by an eagle, finally driving it off after suffering lacerations to his face. In 1904 came a report from the Bowditch cottage on Upper Chateaugay Lake (Clinton County), where caretaker Frank Nicholson battled two eagles that attempted to make off with some chickens. One of the birds managed to sink its talons into Nicholson’s leg, but he eventually succeeded in “dispatching them.”

In 1905, near McKenzie Pond just east of Saranac Lake, Frank Perks and George Walton were walking in the woods when Perks struck a tree trunk with an axe he was carrying. Suddenly, “an immense eagle flew down from the tree and attacked Perks savagely.” With the help of Walton, Perks suffered no more than a torn hat before the eagle was driven off.

In 1909, a Pitcairn (St. Lawrence County, near Harrisville) farmer, Josiah Almtree, offered a dramatic tale of battling a powerful eagle that had lately been harassing his sheep. The victim this time was Almtree’s daughter, who was carried off but then dropped “unhurt on the roof of a little building near the barn.” Almtree managed a shot at the bird, which escaped. Of course, “unhurt” wasn’t possible, but I’ll beg the Fox News defense here … “We report, you decide.”

Most such stories are quite old, but a more recent one (though still over 50 years past) occurred in Ausable Forks in 1957. Young Jimmie Camire, while playing with friends, was attacked by a hawk. The bird grabbed his shoulder, but he broke free. Under renewed attack, Jimmie’s shouts brought his brother, Butch, and Jeff Hewston, to the rescue. They had been cutting small trees nearby, and used an axe to kill the hawk, which they said had a wingspan of 43 inches.

Not all regional fowl attacks came from above. In 1908, Gouverneur’s Louis Boulet, Sr., owned a particularly raucous Rhode Island Red, a breed that can be incredibly aggressive. (They’ve been known to kill snakes, cats, foxes, and small dogs.) The big rooster’s frequent attacks made it clear the farmer was not welcome in his own hen house. Egged on by frequent muggings and occasional blood loss, Boulet decided this chicken’s goose was cooked.

Healthy skepticism can be valuable, but before deciding how feasible some of those old stories might be, check out some “eagle attack” videos on YouTube. Be forewarned: several are graphic. Some are simply amazing, demonstrating the willingness of large birds to mix it up with creatures of all sizes, even striking a black bear in a tree.

Photo Top: An attack by a “domesticated” eagle.

Photo Middle: The Bald Eagle’s formidable beak.

Photo Bottom: Eagle talons.

Lawrence Gooley has authored eight books and several articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004 and have recently begun to expand their services and publishing work. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Saturday, October 9, 2010

Flights of Fancy: Featuring Feathers

Consider the bird, in all its glorious forms: from the minute hummingbird to the land-bound ostrich; from the brilliantly-colored parrot, to the monochromatic crow; from the predatory raptor to the fruit-eating waxwing. For 135 million years they have walked and flown about the planet. A pretty good-sized portion of the human population has taken to birds like a fish to water, and it is easy to see why – their colors and ability to fly have captured our imaginations.

When you page through almost any field guide to birds, you find that it is arranged in a particular order: from the most ancient species (loons, waterfowl) to the most modern/advanced (the finches). The ancestors of loons and geese paddled around the same waters as many of the last dinosaurs. When the reign of the dinosaurs came to its firey end, many of the birds of that time perished as well, but not the loons and geese, ducks and other shorebirds. These animals lived on and are still with us today. Perhaps this is one reason why we find the call of the loon so haunting. One can almost imagine it calling out through the mists of a tropical world where giant reptiles still roamed.

Feathers seem to be the big thing that sets birds apart from the rest of life on this planet, not flight. After all, birds are not the only things that fly; so do insects. At one point in time, there were reptiles that also flew. Today, some lizards and snakes still take to the air, but they no longer can fly, they merely glide. Still, it is more than you or I can do without the aid of mechanical devices, so we will grant them this point.

It is currently believed that feathers initially evolved not for flight, but as a means of keeping warm. To this day, there are few natural fibers that insulate quite as well as feathers. Birds have six basic types of feathers: flight feathers, contour feathers, filoplumes, semiplumes, bristle feathers, and down. Of course, there is also a substance known as powder down, but it isn’t really a feather, so for now we will ignore it.

Flight feathers are, as you might have guessed, the long, sturdy feathers that make up the working part of the wing. They are asymmetrical: the leading edge, or anterior vane, is narrower than the trailing edge, or posterior vane. Between the two vanes runs the rachis, or shaft, of the feather. These are the real workhorses of the feathers, and they are incredibly stiff because they take quite a beating (no pun intended). When Thomas Jefferson sought a feather for a quill with which to write the Declaration of Independence, it is a flight feather that he used.

Contour feathers are the ones that give the bird’s body its basic shape. Most of the feathers that you see when you are looking at a bird are contour feathers. Like flight feathers (which technically are also contour feathers), they have a pretty rigid shaft, but unlike flight feathers, they are symmetrical. The tip of each contour feather is neat and tidy, but the bottom half is fluffy. This part is closest to the body, where it works to keep the bird warm. Contour feathers are attached to the bird in a way similar to shingles on a roof – each overlapping its predecessor, creating a interlocking, aerodynamic form.

Semiplumes are my favorites. These are the feathers that are made up of long, fluffy strands. Unlike the feathers mentioned above, semiplumes are wild, they don’t lie all neat and tidy. If you were to take a flight or contour feather and rough it up a bit, you would find that you could straighten it easily enough by running y our fingers up the barbs (the individual strands that make up each vane). They “zip” together with little trouble, thanks to the hooks that line their edges. Semiplumes don’t have these hooks, so their “strands” stick out all over the place. Their purpose? Insulation. You’ll find the semiplumes located just beneath the contour feathers.

As you can see, layering is what it is all about. Birds knew this long before we humans picked up on it. Layering, as we all know today, is the best way to keep warm when the weather turns cold, and down is the way to go. Down feathers are naught but tufts of fluff. They trap the most amount of air, creating the best insulating layer. These are the feathers that lie closest to the body, trapping the body’s heat where it can do the most good. Similar to the semiplume, down is wild and untamed in its appearance. Unlike the other feathers, it has no (or nearly no) shaft – it is, as I said, naught but fluff.

Probably of the coolest of the feathers, however, are the fliloplumes. These feathers look like a wand with a bit of fluff stuck to the tip. Filoplumes are located just below, and sometimes sticking out from, the contour feathers. It is believed that they fulfill the same function as whiskers do on a cat: they detect movement and vibrations. It is possible that these feathers help the bird know when it is time to groom – the bird can feel when things are out of place. Another thought is that they might help the bird gauge its speed when in flight.

Bristle feathers are just the opposite of filoplumes in appearance: a bit of fluff near the base and a stiff, tapered shaft at the tip. You will only find bristle feathers on the heads and necks of birds. On some birds they protect they eyes (eyelashes?), and on others they form an insect-catching mesh around the mouth. They are quite prominent around the mouths of whippoorwills, nighthawks and flycatchers.

When it comes to birds, feathers are but the tip of the iceberg of what makes them fascinating. I recently added a new book to my collection of field guides (pretty soon I’ll have to hire a Sherpa just to carry my field guides into the field with me). It is a guide to the feathers of many North American birds. I don’t know about you, but I often find feathers when I go out for a walk in the woods, or even a paddle on the water. Some feathers are pretty easy to identify, but others can sure be a puzzle. With the help of this book I hope to be able to add one more proverbial feather to my naturalist’s cap.


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: An Adirondack Mob Scene

It was another grey and nearly drippy day as I headed out the door this morning with the dog in tow (some mornings he isn’t any more eager to go out than I). It had rained overnight, so everything was damp, but at the moment the air was still and relatively dry.

Up ahead I watched a largish raptor swoop up and land on a street light. I pondered the species for a moment, taking note of size and coloration as best I could with the animal backlit against the morning sky. It was about then that I noticed that the background chatter of morning birds was getting progressively louder.

Caw! Caw! Caw!

Crows. Lots of crows. Crows upon crows. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, October 3, 2010

DEC Asks Hunters to Help Monitor Small Game Species

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is encouraging hunters to participate in two surveys for popular game species during this fall’s hunting seasons. The DEC’s Citizen Science Programs provide wildlife managers with important data, particularly as the state’s forests mature, and we lose the early successional habitats many species depend upon. Tracking grouse and cottontail populations will helps wildlife professionals understand how New York’s changing landscape affects these and other species.

New England Cottontail Survey:

The New England cottontail is the only native cottontail rabbit east of the Hudson River in New York. However, its range has been greatly reduced due to habitat loss and competition with the more abundant Eastern cottontail.

New England cottontails look nearly identical to Eastern cottontails and are only reliably identified by genetic testing of tissue, by fecal samples, or by examining morphological skull characteristics.

DEC is requesting that rabbit hunters in Wildlife Management Units in Rensselaer, Columbia, Dutchess, Putnam, and Westchester counties contact the department to learn how they can submit the heads of rabbits they harvest (a map of the survey area can be seen at http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/67017.html). The skulls will be used for identification to assist the department in determining the distribution of the New England Cottontail.

Hunters interested in participating or looking for more information, can contact DEC by calling (518) 402-8870 or by e-mailing fwwildlf@gw.dec.state.ny.us (please type “NE Cottontail” in the subject line). Participating hunters will receive instructions and a postage-paid envelope they can use to submit heads from harvested rabbits. Results of these efforts will be available after the close of the hunting season.

Cooperator Ruffed Grouse Hunting Log:

The ruffed grouse is one of New York’s most popular native game birds. Annually, around 75,000 grouse hunters harvest 150,000 grouse. The ruffed grouse is a forest species that is widely distributed across New York State. While some grouse are found in more mature forests, the greatest population densities are in younger forests. These preferred habitats are declining as most of New York State’s forests grow older, resulting in a decline in grouse numbers since the 1960s.

This survey asks hunters to record their daily grouse hunting activities on a “Cooperator Ruffed Grouse Hunting Log.” The hunting log requests information such as the number of hours hunted, number of grouse flushed, and the number of birds killed. Starting this fall, hunters are also asked to record the number of woodcock they flush while afield. Grouse and woodcock share many of the same habitats, so the information will help monitor populations of both of these great game birds as habitats change both locally and on a landscape scale.

Hunters interested in participating can download a Ruffed Grouse Hunting Log from the DEC website at http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/9351.html to record their observations. Detailed instructions can be found with the form. Survey forms can also be obtained by calling (518) 402-8886 or by e-mailing fwwildlf@gw.dec.state.ny.us (please type “Grouse Log” in the subject line).

All outdoor enthusiasts should consider purchasing a Habitat/Access Stamp, an optional stamp that helps support the DEC’s efforts to conserve habitat and increase public access for fish and wildlife-related recreation. The new 2010-2011 stamp features a drawing of a pair of Common Loons. Buying a $5 stamp is a way to help conserve New York’s fabulous wildlife heritage. More information about purchasing a Habitat Stamp is available at http://www.dec.ny.gov/permits/329.html.


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Adirondack Crows, Ravens, and Jays

While most people like birds, some are totally ga-ga over them, while others downright fear them. When it comes to the corvids, though – birds informally known as members of the “crow family” – it seems it’s an either/or situation: either people hate them because they are “cruel,” “mean,” “vicious” birds, or they are intrigued by them because they are “clever,” “intelligent,” and “ingenious.” Somewhere in the mix, the truth lies.

Here in the Adirondacks we are lucky to have four species of corvids: ravens, crows, blue jays and gray jays. A fifth species, the fish crow, is listed as “rare” in the Lake Champlain Basin, so we can consider it an Adirondack possibility, but one exhibiting low probability. A more southern species, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the fish crow became a more frequent visitor to our region, along with vultures and cardinals, as our climate continues to change. » Continue Reading.