A Late Winter Moon

This gorgeous full moon appeared above the horizon to the East about 6:30 this evening.

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Winter Perks: Color and Contrast at the Feeders

Maintaining bird feeders in winter not only attracts a variety of wildlife, but adds some lively color and contrast to the monochromatic landscape of an overcast winter day.

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Part of a flock of about 30 mourning doves

The quintessential bird for winter color and contrast has to be the cardinal. A brilliant red male with a backdrop of evergreens and snow is an unforgettable scene.  We’ve had 6-8 at the feeders this winter, more than in previous winters. I like to think that my conservation plan for the property has something to do with that. The plan targets habitat and wildlife diversity, and includes the development and maintenance of brushy habitats preferred by cardinals. Unfortunately one cardinal, perched in a large Norway Spruce near the feeders, recently fell victim to a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

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Northern Cardinal, female

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Northern Cardinal, male

Noisy, raucous and bossy around a feeder, jays can nevertheless be counted upon to add a little excitement as well as color to the scene.

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Blue Jay

I don’t mind that a flock of evening grosbeaks seems to consume its weight in sunflower seeds in a brief visit to my feeders because they’re so colorful and uncommon. Prior to this winter, my last backyard sighting was roughly 15 years ago!

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Evening Grosbeaks, male in foreground

I never tire of watching the upside-down maneuvering of nuthatches. The Red-breasted nuthatch was in the mix last year, but no sightings of it to date for the winter of 2012/2013.

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White-breasted Nuthatch

Many people, myself included, think of the Black-capped Chickadee as THE winter bird. A constant presence in the woods as well as the backyard, they’re adorable, tame little creatures that never fail to brighten a day, even during the worst of winter storms.

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Black-capped Chickadee

The ubiquitous starling, commonly seen in large flocks feeding in open areas and around active farms, isn’t a regular visitor to the feeders. This solitary bird has been feeding on grain and suet, then retreating to the shelter of an old, dilapidated martin house (a compartmentalized nesting structure that has long been occupied by several starlings during the nesting season). Often referred to as “blackbirds”, close inspection suggests otherwise!

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European Starling

Unfortunately, these lovely little songbirds are infrequent visitors and usually offer just a glimpse, darting in for a single seed, then away to a distant perch just as quickly.

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Tufted Titmouse

Farmland in central New York, abandoned as well as active, provides considerable food for wildlife in winter. Corn residue in harvested fields, seeds in spread manure and the persistent fruits of shrubs found in open areas, along the edges of woodlots and in fence rows, attract and support a variety of wildlife. Deer, turkeys, crows, cardinals and many other species depend on these habitats. Attempts to add this popular, exotic game bird to the list usually fail, particularly at the higher elevations where deep snow and predation exact a heavy toll on the species. Despite the unsound biology of “stocking”, the release of pen-raised pheasants into the wild persists. Occasionally, a bird or two lives long enough to discover supplemental feed, prolonging life and providing a spectacular display of colorful plumage.

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Ring-necked Pheasant, male

All photos by NB Hunter

 

Frosty Fruit

My interest in detailed landscapes and foreground objects was influenced by my work. Teaching the identification of woody plants – trees, shrubs and vines – requires it. Close examination of leaves, twigs, buds, flowers, fruit and bark is a critical step in the deductive process of identifying plants in the field. Now hiking with a camera rather than students, that interest persists.

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Sugar maple leaf in early December

With the exception of the rose fruit (late October snowstorm), these photos were taken in December and January.

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Teasel

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Common Buckthorn, native of Europe and Asia, naturalized in eastern U.S.

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Highbush Cranberry, also American Cranberrybush Viburnum

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Larch cones

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Multiflora Rose, Asia, invasive

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Wild apple

All photos by NB Hunter, 2010 – 2012

Bird Feeder Predators: Cooper’s Hawk

If you are committed to feeding birds and observing the wildlife activity around feeders, sooner or later you’ll see predation of one sort or another. Aside from domestic cats, which I believe are the number one backyard predator, two species likely to appear are the sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks.

On several occasions I’ve seen sharp-shinned hawks attack my feeders and disappear so quickly that I was left wondering “what just happened”?  Identification was based on the size and speed of the grayish blur, not detailed field marks.  Like other bird hawks (accipiters), this species is well equipped for preying on small birds. Roughly jay-sized, with a long tail, it maneuvers well while flying at a high speed. On one occasion, a gold finch perched above my thistle seed feeder disappeared instantly in the grasp of a sharpie, as though hit by a bullet.

I hate to admit it, but there often seems to be a bit of luck associated with my more interesting and unusual photos. Such was the case with an experience with a Cooper’s hawk during a cold, snowy spell at the end of December, 2012. My two backyard feeding stations were bustling with bird activity, at least 50 birds and a half dozen species in all. I had the kitchen window cracked open a few inches to photograph redpolls when luck intervened. Something happened lightning fast: right before my eyes, everything disappeared  – birds, squirrels – everything. Well, almost everything. Across the yard, in a cedar snag  installed as a perch beside a feeding site, sat a crow-sized hawk. It moved once, to a better perch, sat motionless for a few seconds, and then flew. After reviewing the photos, I was able to determine exactly where it was perched, and the distance from head to tail: 16-17 inches. A small male Cooper’s hawk and large female sharp-shinned hawk can confuse even an experienced birder. In this case, the measured length and vertical streaking on the breast indicate that it was a juvenile Cooper’s hawk (the juvenile status might be the reason it came up empty handed!).

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Juvenile Cooper’s hawk arriving at a backyard bird feeding site

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Juvenile Cooper’s hawk perching near a backyard bird feeding site

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Juvenile Cooper’s hawk

All photos by NB Hunter, 2012

Ice and Open Water

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A muskrat on ice, eating and grooming after foraging in the shallow, open water below

A couple of windy days with temperatures near zero have me thinking about the weeks ahead. The days are noticeably longer and the sun higher in the sky, meaning the open, ice-free zones on local lakes, ponds and streams will be expanding and full of life. Many of these special places are very accessible, near walking trails and secondary roads, providing great opportunities to observe and photograph the retreat of winter.

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Geese battling for rights to open water; a small flock of new arrivals was charged and driven back to the water’s edge

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A pair of mallards

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Mute swan at rest on ice

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One of my favorite places to be in at this time of year is a ground blind just beyond the bank of a stream bordering a managed wetland. On this occasion, the water was free of ice, except for a narrow strip along shore, the sky was bright, and the place was alive with geese overhead and ducks on the water. Recent sightings of bald eagles added to my excitement and anticipation. Eventually, I spotted two mergansers, diving and feeding along, advancing upstream in my direction. I was preparing for a photo of them on the open water when, suddenly and unexpectedly, a submarine-like form appeared under the ice in front of me. Mesmerized, I just stared into the water, forgetting about the camera in front of my nose, as one of the mergansers fed along under the ice, then burst to the surface right in front of me! I failed to get that perfect action shot, the one I really wanted, but this photo keeps the memory alive!

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Common merganser

All photos by NB Hunter, 2012

White-tailed Deer and Turkeys Feeding in Deep Snow

The central New York winters of 2007 and 2008 provided many opportunities to observe and photograph wildlife behavior in deep snow. I had my first digital camera, a Nikon Cool Pix 5700, and deer and turkeys were plentiful near home. I managed to get a few photos, but not enough. I didn’t feel a sense of urgency then, because frequent snow storms and persistent snow cover of a foot or more were common. That hasn’t been the case in recent years.  I had to tap into those archived point-and-shoot photos to complete this story!

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Heavy snow in late winter can be very stressful on deer and turkeys, especially when it follows long periods of continuous snow cover. When this occurs, the search for food may override other survival instincts such as the avoidance of humans. In the snow belt, most of the available, naturally-occurring food supply is severely depleted by February. This is particularly true of woody browse for deer within five or six feet of the ground and persistent seeds and fruits for turkeys. Adding to the dilemma is the fact that fat reserves are depleted too, metabolism is increasing with the longer days, and many adult white-tail does are nourishing fetuses.

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Wild turkeys feeding on the fruit of multiflora rose (an exotic, invasive species) in mid-December; for the most part, this food source will be gone within a few weeks

I’ve been pruning several dozen wild apple trees on my property, because they’re badly in need of crown cleaning and structural pruning, but also to feed deer and rabbits. Of the hundreds of branches and twigs on the ground, virtually all have been browsed by deer  and roughly 20% have been browsed and stripped of their bark by cottontails. In some cases, deer have re-browsed the apple twigs well beyond the slender, nutritious twig ends. The rabbits will continue to feed on the twigs and bark for the remainder of the winter.

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Apple twigs after repeated browsing by deer in late winter; apple twigs are a preferred winter food, but most nutritional value is in the small twig end and buds

The remaining photos were taken in late February (23 and 24), 2007, soon after a 20 inch snowfall. Mindful of the need to avoid disturbing deer and turkeys at this time of year and adding to their stress, I stayed in my vehicle. I was over 120 feet away, partially concealed by the local community church and a nearby storage building. Wild animals tend to be tolerant of vehicles and I tried to use that to my advantage.

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The creation of a crater-like hole and feeding site:
an adult doe pawing at deep, soft snow to expose food at ground level

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A dominant doe asserting herself at a hard-earned, crowded feeding site

The following day, a small flock of turkeys joined the deer, searching the small patches of bare ground at the base of the crater-like holes dug out by the deer. It seems that the energy expended by deer to excavate these holes would far outweigh the food value at the bottom. The only apparent advantage to this behavior that I see is the exposure of the dark plants and soil to solar radiation, which would accelerate melting and increase the availability of food.

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A deer and turkey feeding site after a couple of days of digging by deer
and some melting from solar radiation

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Turkeys feeding and walking on top of the snow as they approach
the crater-like feeding sites in the deep snow

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A deer and turkeys working the same feeding holes,
seemingly oblivious to one another

Squirrels Hang Gliding in the Dark???

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Few people are familiar with flying squirrels. In fact, many have never even seen one because they’re nocturnal. Those that have were likely introduced by accident: someone may have disturbed a snag or den tree in daylight and several smallish, bug-eyed creatures bailed out, glided to the nearest tree and scurried to the top to escape danger. I fell into that category, until a late evening call from a friend several years ago. It was summer, and he said “get over here, I just put some feed out and there’s something I want you to see; and bring your camera”.

For well over an hour I stood next to the mature oak and hemlock trees in his back yard, staring at the feeding platforms attached to two of the trees. I watched in amazement as flying squirrels glided in from the darkness and from tree to tree, fed, scurried into and out of feeders and bolted up, down and around tree trunks. Movements were lightning-quick. When squirrels were not in a stationary position, I rarely photographed what I saw. An attempt at a photo of one could result in an actual image of 4. A group shot often ended up with an image of an empty feeder or various blurred body parts on the edge of the frame! Normal behavior for them I suppose, but my thought was that of complete chaos! As it got darker, the number of squirrels, like the mosquitoes, increased. I remember 10 or 12, but  counting was a bit of a challenge. It was an enlightening experience to say the least. I’ve made dozens of trips since then, never tiring of the show or the opportunity to learn something about these fascinating creatures of the night. Oh, and I learned a thing or two about photographing critters in the dark too!

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If bird feeders are maintained regularly on a property in close proximity to forestland with mature trees, there’s a chance that flying squirrels will eventually be discovered gliding into the feeders just after sunset. Large trees are essential habitat, providing launching and landing sites, cavities in tree trunks and large limbs for den sites, and an abundance of fruit for food. Aided by furred membranes between the legs, a flattened tail and large eyes, flying squirrels can glide 40 or 50 feet with ease, much greater distances under certain conditions.

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Everybody loves sunflower seeds but in the wild, flying squirrels are opportunistic feeders, eating just about anything, including nuts, fruit, fungi, insects, mice and carrion.

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When not out and about at night, flying squirrels live in tree hollows or cavities, often using woodpecker holes. They’ll build several nests, scattered over an acre or so, which provide shelter as well as a place to raise their young. They’re gregarious and, incredibly, there may be as many as 40 or 50 in a large cavity den.

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All photos by NB Hunter