Swallows in the Sun

The opportunity to observe the natural behavior of wild animals, unaltered by your presence, is one of the more delightful and rewarding experiences that a nature lover can have. I recently had such an experience with a pair of Tree Swallows.

The morning was unseasonably cold, just above freezing, with sun and a clear, blue sky. The swallows were perched on a young tree in a meadow, warming and preening in the sun. They’re insect-eaters that feed like bats, on the wing, so one could also assume that they were killing time, waiting for the bugs to warm up and become active.

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This post is in loving memory of my parents and all of the special people that I’ve known who would have enjoyed my blog and most definitely “liked” this post. They would have smiled with a look of deep satisfaction too, knowing that they had helped clear the trail that made this possible.

All photos by NB Hunter

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Surprise Encounter

Just beyond the south end of the Morrisville State College campus lies the college aquaculture facility, a small stream and a short nature trail. It’s close to home and a place I visit often to walk, observe and photograph. This site rarely disappoints, but yesterday was uneventful – until I happened to catch a glimpse of two birds moving quickly across the blue sky. They were too high and far away for details, but it appeared to be a Common Crow harassing a large bird of prey. As luck would have it, the raptor circled in my direction and I was able to capture the moment before they circled up and away.

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The bird in question was an Osprey. The crook in the wings during flight and black patches at the bend in the wings (“wrists”) were diagnostic. Ospreys are fish-eating birds and it’s quite possible that this bird was investigating the outdoor ponds at the fish hatchery.

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All photos by NB Hunter

Habitat Management for Songbirds

The management of habitat for non-game wildlife like songbirds can be very rewarding. My management practices are guided by some basic principles that help keep me pointed in the right direction: copy nature, enhance biodiversity, and plan for sustainable, cost-effective activities.

One such plan involves a few acres where I’m attempting to arrest and reverse the natural succession of pasture to fallow field to forest.  The site was last grazed about 25 years ago and is now a mixture of herbaceous vegetation, woody shrubs and young trees. My management goals are to 1-arrest succession on the majority of the fallow field, keeping it in the brushy, shrub stage; 2-reverse succession on small areas within the shrub habitat, creating herbaceous, meadow-like openings; and 3-control invasive plant species. Habitat boundaries are irregular and lack clear definition to simulate nature. Mechanical control is favored over other methods. Songbird nest boxes were installed on posts in the herbaceous openings (six in all).

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Brush-hogging to create an herbaceous opening; nest box on left

These types of habitats are preferred by dozens of wildlife species, from butterflies to deer, and have provided me with countless hours of recreation, nature study and photographic opportunities.

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Part of a family group of White-tailed Deer using an herbaceous opening soon after it was created

This post features a group of birds with broad appeal and interest that are benefiting from my management plan: cavity-nesting songbirds that use artificial nest boxes. The most common nest box in the landscape, one designed for the Eastern Bluebird, was my pattern of choice. I was hoping for bluebirds but was also aware of the multi-use value of nest boxes, especially where natural cavities in trees are limiting. In open habitats, nest boxes are commonly occupied by House Wrens and Tree Swallows, and on rare occasions the Great Crested Flycatcher.

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House Wren

House Wrens can be a bit of a nuisance, stuffing every nest box in sight with twigs, floor to ceiling, to discourage the competition (my father once counted over 700 twigs in a dummy nest – a considerable amount of work – for both parties!)

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House Wren

Tree Swallows in early April, resting, preening, and scouting nest boxes (5)

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Great Crested Flycatchers first claimed a meadow nest box three years ago. I knew that they were cavity nesters, but had never seen them occupy a nest box. The entrance hole to this box had been enlarged slightly by a Red Squirrel, perhaps making it more suitable for the flycatchers.

Great Crested Flycatchers, nest building (4)

 

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All of the featured species consume large quantities of insects throughout the spring and summer months, contributing to ecosystem stability and biodiversity.

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Great Crested Flycatcher with food for its young

Eastern Bluebirds prefer open habitats with low, herbaceous plant cover, such as pastures and large lawns. Without periodic maintenance, fallow fields eventually lose these characteristics and the bluebirds inhabitants as well

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One of a winter (January) flock of 8 – 10 bluebirds, an unusual sighting.

A pair of Eastern Bluebirds that claimed a nest box on one of the recently cleared openings; resting, feeding, nest building, and guarding the nest box.

 

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Eastern Bluebird, male

 

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Eastern Bluebird, male

 

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Eastern Bluebird, female

 

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Eastern Bluebird, female, nest building

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Eastern Bluebird, male, guarding the nest box as Tree Swallows swarmed in to investigate.

I’m obviously an advocate of artificial nest boxes for wildlife, particularly when a need is identified. However, I also feel that natural tree cavities should be the highest priority. I  locate and protect den trees when working in the woods and sometimes create potential den or nest trees if natural cavities are lacking. 

All photos by NB Hunter

Turkey Vultures

I saw my first Turkey Vultures over four decades ago while traveling to an isolated mountain stream to camp and fly fish with my father and his friend. It was my first attempt at fly fishing and to be honest, the vulture sighting was more memorable than the handful of trout and hundreds of stream-side branches that I managed to catch in seven days of commando-style fishing. The birds were soaring and gliding effortlessly just above my head and the prominent rock outcroppings that had been exposed in the construction of the highway right-of-way. I’ve been fascinated by vultures ever since. I appreciate their ecological role as scavengers and admire their ability to rapidly cover great distances at any elevation with barely a wing beat. Some of their appeal also relates to the frequency and closeness that such a large bird can be seen. When walking, I find myself looking down more than up and am always caught off guard by the large, moving shadow of a vulture gliding and teetering along, just above the treetops.

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The wings, up to six feet across, are angled upward in flight

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Sunlight reveals the two-toned color of the undersides of the flight feathers

Turkey Vultures are scavengers that rely on carrion as their primary food source. Their slow flight at low elevations, featherless head and highly developed sense of smell (not typical of other birds) are adaptations for this ecological role.  In central New York, road-killed deer are a major part of their diet but dead raccoons, opossums, groundhogs, cottontails and even skunks are eaten if accessible. I have watched a small flock of six to eight Turkey Vultures feeding on a dead deer no more than 30 feet from the edge of a secondary road, tolerating traffic for an opportunity to feed.

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This bird moved several feet away from the road-killed deer it was feeding on when I approached

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Vultures move awkwardly on the ground and have some difficulty getting air-borne

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A clear view of the bare, red head during take-off

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Turkey Vulture feeding on a road-killed skunk

Several years ago I discovered a curious behavior of vultures while camping in the forested mountains of north-central Pennsylvania. I took a camera walk soon after the sun made its way clear of a high mountain ridge and discovered several birds perched in a large, dead tree adjacent to a swampy beaver meadow. They were perfectly still, with their wings spread. Apparently this perching behavior serves to warm, dry, or cool, depending on the circumstances. It may even help reduce the bacteria associated with feeding on nasty things. The weather at that time was oppressively hot and humid, so I guessed that there was no need to warm up.

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A perched bird about to take off

Fortunately, Turkey Vultures are a federally protected species and have been increasing in abundance in North America over the past 30 years or so. It is important that we understand and appreciate their role in removing animal carcasses and helping to bring the food chain full cycle.

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All photos by NB Hunter

Ring-necked Ducks in Early Spring

Ring-necked Ducks are common in late winter and during migration. I often see them in small flocks on wooded lakes and reservoirs, resting or diving for submerged plant and animal life. Unlike most other diving ducks, small, shallow ponds and wetlands are also suitable habitat. Yesterday I watched two pairs loafing and feeding on a farm pond that was less than 150 feet across.

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The male is not particularly colorful. However, the smooth, glossy appearance, sharp lines, and contrasting black, white and pale gray plumage are quite appealing and very useful for field identification.

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All photos by NB Hunter

The Common Merganser

Several years ago, while fly fishing for wild brook and brown trout on a small mountain stream, I had my first close encounter with Common Mergansers. I was fishing a large flat pool, using my best Great Blue Heron imitation to advance as close as possible to rising trout. It was late evening, nearly dark, with fog rolling in over the water. I noticed something fairly large and white near an upstream bank, and assumed that some sort of debris had lodged against the exposed tree roots. That thought satisfied my curiosity, until the large white object began moving – across rather than downstream. I had no idea what this creature was until it hopped up onto a rock and started to preen. I soon learned that a pair of Common Mergansers had drifted downstream, probably headed for the quiet water and tree-lined banks of my pool to roost for the night.

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A pair of Common Mergansers (1 of 2)

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Since that first encounter I have spent a lot of time observing surface waters and their wildlife inhabitants. Common Mergansers are indeed common, much more so than I realized. Wooded streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes all seem to provide suitable habitat.

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Common Mergansers (left and third from left) on a stream in late winter

These large-bodied diving ducks are beautiful and fascinating birds. My first close encounter with the camera was even more thrilling than the previous experience. I set up in a riverbank blind in late winter, in an area where photos of bald eagles, coyotes, mergansers and other wildlife were all possible. Eventually, I saw a pair of ducks in the distance, working upstream in my direction.  I waited, motionless, with camera ready. They were perhaps a hundred feet downstream when I heard their approach, the sound of ducks diving for fish. There was a sheet of ice, thin and about 4 feet wide, along the shoreline directly in front of me. Before I realized what was happening, a large light-colored, torpedo-like form appeared under the ice. Moving quickly, it soon surfaced in the open water in mid-stream. Of course it was one of the mergansers, and he had caught me completely off guard. I was so mesmerized by the action that the camera around my neck never entered my mind – until he plopped to the surface. Then I got some lovely shots, photos that will never let me forget this memorable experience.

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Common Merganser, male (1 of 2)

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Common Merganser, female (1 of 2)

 

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The following photos were taken in late summer, while I was house-sitting for friends who have a small, spring-fed pond. I was sitting on the bank, using a shrub to break up my outline, watching a hen merganser dive, spear and gulp a bull frog near the far bank. As luck would have it, a Snapping Turtle, and then the hen merganser, chose a dead tree in the middle of the pond to rest in the sun.

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Merganser hen and Snapping Turtle (1 of 3)

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Increasing numbers of Common Mergansers and the expansion of their breeding range in the Northeast have led to concerns over the impact of these diving, fish-eating ducks on trout and other game fish. Research that monitors birds with tags and radio-transmitters should help us learn more about this thriving waterfowl species and how to manage it effectively.

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Common Merganser, female

All photos by NB Hunter

Bird Sightings in Early April

April roared in with lake-effect snow, wind and bone-chilling temperatures. I couldn’t help but wonder, and worry, about the fate of migrating birds like the Woodcock that I accidentally flushed during the storm. Two days of stormy weather finally gave way  to sun, blue skies and temperatures above freezing. This post documents random bird sightings during that three-day period of weather extremes.

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A pair of Mallards feeding during a lake-effect snowstorm (1 of 2)

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A Cooper’s Hawk with its prey, one of a flock of 20–30 “blackbirds” that were visiting a bird-feeding site during the lake-effect snow storm.

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Common Redpoll near a feeder

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Mourning Doves at a feeding site

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One of a pair of Canada Geese staking claim to a nesting territory

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A pair of Hooded Mergansers at rest near the bank of a small, historic canal waterway

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Turkey Vulture searching the fields and roadsides for carrion.

All photos by NB Hunter