Backyard Critters and Habitat

What does a nature photographer do when cold and snowy Winter returns in late April??? Act like a kid and play hide and seek with the resident Chipmunk. Loose stone walls are the stage, fortresses with cavernous hangouts and escape routes as well as superior vantage points for threat assessment!

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Fish Hawk in Evening Light

One evening last week two local fishermen were successful, one because it caught a filling meal, the other because he could share in the experience through observation.

Ospreys are large, streamlined raptors, incredibly well designed for finding and capturing live fish near the surface of lakes, ponds and other surface waters. They circle, hover and dive, feet first, to capture their prey, then retreat to a suitable perch to dine.

Long, curved, needle-sharp talons and small, spine-like projections on the bottom of the feet provide a secure grip on slimy, slippery captures. When I first arrived on the scene, the tail of the fish was still flopping around but neither the position of the bird – or the fish in its grip – changed during a half hour of feeding.

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Feeding was slow and methodical, with frequent breaks for swallowing, scanning for threats and feather fluffing. The entire fish was consumed, one small bite at a time, head to tail.

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At one point, a solitary crow made a quiet, feeble attempt to investigate and harass  the Osprey. Seemed like a death wish to me, but the encounter was brief and uneventful.

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A few minutes after devouring the fish, the Osprey took flight, banking up and away from the bright evening sun. The scene was reminiscent of my first sighting of a Snowy Owl in flight: stunning, disproportionately large wings filling the sky and leaving me spellbound.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Tree Swallows

Countless species of woody plants, native and exotic, invade abandoned farmland after a few short years. Dogwoods, viburnums, honeysuckles, buckthorn, multiflora rose and white ash are prominent colonizers in this area. In order to sustain a variety of wildlife species on these sites, some sort of habitat management is inevitable. The maintenance of large herbaceous openings with an annual mowing (brush-hogging) that subordinates and/or eliminates woody vegetation is one example. With the addition of nest boxes, such habitats will attract and support tree swallows, blue birds, house wrens and other cavity nesting birds.

The first migratory bird species to arrive and claim nest boxes at my location is the tree swallow (in more suitable habitat it might be the bluebird). I watch several pairs of tree swallows every spring as they feed on the wing, court, fight, build nests, defend nests and raise young. Every year I think I have enough swallow pics and will leave the camera at home while I’m working in the field. And every year I take more pictures! Love these graceful little bug-eating machines!!!

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Wetland Birdlife: Resting, Diving, Hunting and Fishing

Officially, we’re more than 3 weeks into Spring, but this past weekend was really the seasonal turning point. Cold rain, residual surface ice and flooding prevailed, but have since yielded to very warm, sunny days and an early floral bloom in the lawn.

Wetland habitats were alive with ducks, geese, herons and birds of prey, presenting one last chance for observations and photos under winter conditions.

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Hooded Merganser; Chenango Canal

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Bufflehead; Leland Pond

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Common Mergansers; Chenango Canal

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Ring-necked Duck, hen; Woodman Pond

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Ring-necked Ducks; Woodman Pond

In my peripheral vision there appeared to be several darkish clumps of cattails about 50 meters into the marsh. I drove a short distance, then pulled over. Something wasn’t quite right. The dark clumps of cattails were tipped in white…herons! There were 6 in an area no more than 20 meters across. All but one took flight seconds before I was in a position to photograph.

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The river was at flood level, turbulent and muddy; in my mind, unfishable The Osprey seemed to agree. It was hunting/fishing over a flooded tributary and floodplain nearby.

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Osprey; Chenango River floodplain

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved..

Mammal Mysteries

I spotted this Gray Squirrel scampering along the edge of a swamp, a considerable distance from the nearest corn field (and no standing corn that I’m aware of). When I stopped the truck, it ran up into a large Black Willow tree and “hid” on top of a limb, still clutching its prized possession. After 5 months of wildlife foraging, I believe it would take me forever to find an ear of corn in a farm field. Was this a secret stash, buried last fall? or was it simply concealed under the deep, persistent snow cover?

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I have a welded wire fence around my tree seedling nursery. The openings are 2 inches wide x 4 inches high. This morning, I discovered this plump, mature Cottontail inside, then watched her pop through one of the openings after I harassed her with a photo shoot. How did she do that?

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Glacial Soils and Waterfowl

In this region of glacial soils, melting snow and rain give rise to temporary, but important, wetland habitat for waterfowl: flooded depressions in farm fields. These ephemeral surface waters form in low places over poorly drained, fine-textured glacial deposits and attract many species of migrating waterfowl, sometimes in large numbers.

In these photos from April 7 the accumulation of surface water over a poorly drained, Fredon Silt Loam soil of glacial origin provides migrating ducks, geese and shorebirds critical habitat for resting and refueling (harvested corn fields are a major attraction for geese, with or without surface water).

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Mixed flock of waterfowl feeding and resting on seasonal ponds in a corn field; mostly Canada and Snow Geese

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Source: “Soil Survey of Madison County, New York” USDA, Soil Conservation Service, in Cooperation with Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Wetland Wildlife in Early Spring

The source of a nearby reservoir and pond is a wetland complex with a mix of wooded swamps, cattail marshes and surface waters. After three months of hunkering down in cold and snow,

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it’s exhilarating to see the biological diversity of these precious habitats come alive!

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Common Merganser, drake, just after a foraging dive; a hen was nearby

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Great Blue Heron landing near the edge of a cattail marsh

Cattail marshes, as pictured above, are the preferred habitat of muskrats: they provide food, retreat cover and home-building supplies. Muskrat populations have crashed in recent years, due in part to the replacement of native cattails by an aggressive, invasive perennial plant – Common Reed (Phragmites). Needless to say, I was pleased to see two of these small furbearers on my wetland excursion.

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Great Blue Heron, navigating to another section of the wetland. Rain and melt-water have made good perches and wading sites hard to find.

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.