A Summer Resident – in Winter?!

A bright sky and blanket of snow lured me out for a walk this afternoon. Abundant animal tracks and traces didn’t lead me to animals, but all was not lost. I found the persistent fruit of Japanese Barberry and, more importantly, had an unusual bird sighting – a Catbird!


Japanese Barberry, an exotic shrub that has escaped from cultivation and is considered to be invasive in some regions

Catbirds (the Gray Catbird, Dumetella carolinensis) are very common summer residents, nesting, feeding and singing in the thickets and brushy habitats typical of abandoned farmland, fencerows and ecotones. In winter, there are resident birds along the coast, but most migrate to the southern U.S. and Central America. When I returned from my winter walk, there was a Catbird in the Star Magnolia tree in the yard, a few feet from a bird feeder. It appeared to be healthy, but a bit confused. Catbirds are secretive by nature, but this individual was uncharacteristically tolerant of my presence, allowing me to savor the moment. Until today, I had never seen a Catbird in Central New York this late in the year!


Gray Catbird 29Nov2013

Insects and the soft mast of woody plants (fruits like the barberry in the first image) are staples in the Catbird diet. There is a good crop of persistent fruit on several species of shrubs this year, so perhaps this bird has decided to hunker down in the thickets, rely on those foods and brave the elements. Some Robins do this, so why not a Catbird?!

Photos by NB Hunter. ©  All Rights Reserved.

Nature’s Camouflage

The Arctic weather of the last 24 hours is a complete flip-flop from the mild, snow-free conditions of last week. A couple of days ago I took a short mid-day walk on a misty, overcast day. The conditions were favorable for a deer sighting, so I had my camera tucked under my blaze orange/camouflage coat, the orange for safety during the deer hunting season.

A small flash of white, in sharp contrast to the snow-less terrain, soon caught my eye. A small animal was moving quickly, zig-zagging along a brushy, abandoned fence line at the edge of a Hemlock woodlot. It had to be a weasel, and the fearless, curious, nature of these small predators meant I might have a chance for a photo. I started a parallel stalk, keeping 20 to 30 feet between us. An observer  would have probably laughed uncontrollably at the scene, as I had to navigate through the understory; move quickly, but quietly, and only when it was behind a tree or log; adjust camera settings on the run to account for the rapid movements of both of us in terrible light; avoid loud cursing when time and time again it moved just as I steadied the camera for a shot; and so on. 🙂


There are three species of weasels in New York State, two that turn white in winter – except for a black-tipped tail: the Ermine (Mustela erminea) and the Long-tailed or New York Weasel. (Mustela frenata). They can be very difficult to tell apart – a small, female Long-tailed Weasel and a large, male Ermine are similar. In this case, the photos indicate that this was a Long-tailed Weasel.



The seasonal color change is a biannual molt, triggered mainly by photoperiod but also influenced by weather conditions. The change from gray-brown to white reportedly occurs in late October and early November. These photos of an incomplete molt were taken on November 22, suggesting that above-average temperatures and the absence of snow might have slowed down the transformation.




PS: this wasn’t my first experience with weasels – see an earlier post for another weasel story: “Weasels in Our Midst” 3/4/13

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Our National Emblem

Thirty five years ago photographs of Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) would have made front-page-headlines. It was then that this magnificent bird of prey, our national emblem and a symbolic, spiritual bird to Native Americans, had to be protected by the Endangered Species Act. Pesticides were a major culprit, accumulating to toxic levels in the food chain and causing reproductive failures in predatory species. Since then, the Bald Eagle has made a remarkable come-back throughout North America and was removed from the Endangered Species list in 2007.

In the late 19th century many reservoirs were built in central New York to provide water for an extensive canal system and today, much of the land adjacent to them is a mosaic of farms and woodlands. This is good eagle habitat and eagle sightings are not at all unusual now, especially when a carcass shows up in an open field not far from a reservoir. Although fish are a dietary staple, Bald Eagles are opportunistic feeders and will spend several days competing with crows, vultures and other scavengers for the meat on a deer carcass.


Mature Bald Eagle feeding on a deer carcass in mid-November

Earlier in the week, a friend called to tell me about a great photo op near home – a Bald Eagle (sometimes a pair) feeding on a deer carcass. I was fortunate enough to find one bird at the site on two different days. This post, including the photo above and the gallery that follows, features some highlights from that experience.

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

The First Snow

The first significant snowfall of the season is always exciting. It’s usually just a few inches, and gone within a few days, but it offers a fresh, new landscape that is rich in subject matter. Unlike mid-winter when landscapes tend to be monochromatic and lack visual variety, a snow-covered landscape in the fall provides a backdrop for colorful plants and all sorts of wildlife activity.

Although I’m currently preoccupied with following the White-tail rut, I couldn’t resist taking my camera for a walk on November 8, in the midst of our first snowfall of the season.


Wild Apple tree with persistent fruit


White-tailed Deer: A mature doe and her two fawns (1 of 2 images)



I featured Winterberry (Ilex verticillata ) in a recent post, but something was missing – winter!


Winterberry Holly


Winterberry Holly

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Rattling support for the eastern massasauga

State Wildlife Research News

From the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Conserving the Nature of the Northeast blog:

eastern massasaugasThree years of research, more than $60,000 in funding, and continual habitat manipulation is the secret to resurrecting a degraded swamp in New York into basking habitat for one of the state’s slithering residents.

The eastern massasauga rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus) is listed as endangered by the state of New York and is a candidate for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. In the meantime, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues working to recover the species.

The massasauga lives in wet areas made of peat layers from years of decomposing plants. The layers hold water like a sponge, with new plants growing on each layer. Just two swamps in the Empire State support the species, but one has been so severely degraded that few massasaugas can actually survive there.

Keep reading…


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Quaking Aspen

In their “Textbook of Dendrology”, Harden, Leopold and White state: “Quaking aspen is the most widely distributed native tree species of North America and one of the most  variable. Massive and very old clones (reaching ages of 1 million years) exist,….”. My interest and fascination with this remarkable species is based on its many attributes, including: pulpwood for paper manufacturing, wildlife habitat, an ecological role as a “pioneer” species on open and disturbed land, and autumn beauty. I’ve observed elk, deer and beaver browsing on aspen; Ruffed Grouse eating the flower buds in late winter; and numerous cavity-nesting birds using dead and declining trees. I stand in awe of the brilliant yellow-gold foliage against a bluebird sky on a crisp, fall morning.

The aspens signal the end of the fall foliage season, peaking in color in Central New York a few days either side of Halloween. Here, snow as well as wind and rain, influence the intensity and duration of the show. I think most would agree that the best images of aspen in autumn are taken in the Rocky Mountain region, where the combination of large, mature stands; brilliant colors and spectacular mountain scenery is breathtaking. I can’t begin to duplicate that. In fact, I struggle to capture the full beauty of natural stands in the East that are readily accessible to me! Still a work in progress, this post features images taken recently.





Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) is also called Trembling Aspen. The leaves have flattened stalks or petioles, causing them to “quake” or “tremble” in a breeze – as these were doing when the photo was taken:


A small clone of Quaking Aspen in early morning:


Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Wetland Shrubs – Winterberry

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a fairly dense, upright shrub with a spreading crown. Best known for its natural occurrence in wetland habitats in eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada, it also performs very well as a landscape ornamental. This is one of my favorite shrubs, mostly because the bright red-orange fruit persists well into the winter. Like Cardinals, the fruit contrasts beautifully with snow and the vivid green of the conifers with which it is often associated. In addition to its aesthetic value, the fruit is eaten by nearly 50 species of birds, and some small mammals too.


Winterberry fruit in winter

Winterberry produced a heavy crop of bright red-orange fruit this year and with most of the foliage of deciduous plants gone, it is visible from a considerable distance.


One of several large clumps of Winterberry in a poorly drained, wetland habitat.

Winterberry, a deciduous holly, is dioecious, i.e. plants are either male or female. At least one male must be in close proximity to females in order for successful pollination and fruit production to occur. For the most part, male plants go unnoticed in the landscape and can be somewhat difficult to identify in winter.

Apparently, this was a good year for pollination because most of the wild plants (females of course) are loaded with fruit!





Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.