Muskrats on Ice, 2020

Central New York is blessed with abundant wetland habitats, many of them readily accessible by secondary roads and walking trails. In Winter, when above -average temperatures prevail, muskrats can often be seen foraging and moving about in ice-free water. They use open water to access feeding and resting platforms on adjacent ice after diving for plant food. In marsh habitats, cattail stalks and roots are preferred foods.

 

Recently, I watched a pair of muskrats harvest cattail stalks and cache them on a feeding platform positioned on ice and partially submerged, woody debris. They alternately fed, groomed and rested at the site for several days.

The open water and visible muskrat activity disappeared at this wetland with the arrival of freezing temperatures and 20 inches of snow. I was forced to complete my story at another wetland, one where spring-fed water kept the ice at bay.

This solitary muskrat foraged aggressively for at least half an hour, repeatedly submersing it’s head in the shallow pool of swamp water to remove subsurface plant material. It would surface with a mouthful, eat, then go down again for more.

In about a month, males will be chasing females and pairs will be defending their breeding territories: muskrat breeding season! I’m hoping for a follow-up story.

Photos by NB Hunter (January and February, 2020). All rights reserved.

Capturing Mid Summer Memories

Mid summer is a season of extremes, where observations and activities bridge the seasons. One minute I’m in the moment, enjoying the comforting stillness and beauty of cultivated fields of hay and grain. On another day,  I’m watching young animals mature before my eyes or thinking of winter and tossing more seasoned firewood into the pole shed.

The “neighborhood red fox” that I first photographed in late winter snow is now a parent and at least two pups are following in their parents footsteps. We see one or two foxes several times a week, hunting, loafing, eating bird seed or scavenging in the compost pile. They’re crepuscular, so the light is usually poor when they appear. Movement is fast, silent and effortless as they drift through, like a wisp of smoke. There’s at least one adult and two pups in the mix.

Observing whitetails foraging and romping around in cultivated fields in summer and early fall is a treat that rivals the satisfaction of a pail of fresh-picked berries. Antler development in mature bucks gets everyone’s attention, but scenes of fawns in a meadow in late afternoon light is magical.

The wild apple trees are heavy with fruit this year, and deer have taken notice. They’re  already responding, searching for early drops – the hard, green things that only a wild animal can enjoy.

I’m never far from wetlands and open water when out and about with the camera, so a summer story would be incomplete without a foraging heron or, unusual for this area, a wandering egret going “all in” for a frog!.

Happy summer from Central New York!

Photos by NB Hunter (July, 2019). © All rights reserved.

The Shorebird Everyone Sees (or Hears!)

It seems everyone knows about killdeer. They’re a shorebird that can be seen without going to the shore! Killdeer are common and widespread, adapted to a variety of human habitats, and noisy! They frequent wet places – mudflats, puddles, flooded fields and shorelines. But, unlike other shorebirds, they are very much at home “wading” in the short grass of grazed pastures, athletic fields, golf courses and similar terrestrial habitats.

A friend called in mid May to tell me about killdeer nesting on his farm. He had discovered one  family of newly hatched chicks near a muddy farm lane and pasture. A second nest site, with an adult still on the nest, was found in the corn stubble of a nearby field.

When we visited the site where the brood of four chicks was last seen, the empty nest was the first point of interest. Nothing more than a slight depression lined with a bit of dried plant residue, it had served its purpose and was already disappearing into the landscape.

Killdeer nest #1, immediately after hatching (May 17, 2019)

The behavior of the parents – noisy and feigning injury – told us the day-old chicks were close, hiding in the grass and weeds. One parent fluttered in the opposite direction, exhibiting the classic “broken-wing” display in order to divert our attention and draw us away from her helpless chicks. She was very convincing and we played along to avoid unnecessary disturbance. I photographed her as we left.

At the second nest site in the field of corn stubble, the adult was sitting on eggs that we assumed were near the end of their 25-day incubation period. Turns out, there were four eggs and they would hatch before our next visit.

Killdeer nest #2 (May 17, 2019)

Five days later, it was time to cultivate the corn field. Fortunately, the chicks had hatched and were mobile, able to scurry around and avoid a photographer as well as tractors. The downy little golf balls with disproportionately long legs and big feet were captivating to say the least.

Killdeer chick, 4-5 days old (1 of 2 images; May 22, 2019)

I was relieved to see the entire family a few days later, foraging in a secure micro-habitat at the edge of the cultivated field. Large puddles and a strip of dense grass and weeds was now home for the brood of four chicks.

Although the fluffy little chicks lacked the wings, tail and double neck band of their parents, their posture and foraging behavior mimicked that of adults.

The parents were never too far away and always on guard, even when grooming! I sometimes lost sight of them, but the arrival of a threat brought an immediate aerial attack. I saw this first hand when a grackle flew in to forage near the chicks. It was attacked and driven away before it s feet touched the ground.

Photos by NB Hunter. © All rights reserved.

 

Cattle Egrets

Despite the erratic weather and cold, wet Spring, April has been full of surprises and opportunities for unusual photographs. A family of red foxes, snow-covered wildflowers and a rare sighting of an egret were among the highlights. This post is about the egret, a new addition to my life list of birds.

Cattle egrets have been in the U.S. for about 70 years and are most common in the Southeast in field-wetland habitats. However, their range is expanding and sightings of birds father north and inland are occurring more often. Prior to my encounter with this solitary bird, my knowledge of cattle egrets was limited to nature shows featuring birds foraging on and around large mammals in their native Africa!

Cattle Egret in breeding plumage

I wasn’t surprised to be ignored by the cattle in the muddy barnyard near the road, but the egret’s tolerance of my parked vehicle and clicking shutter at close range was enlightening. He was far more interested in maneuvering a step ahead of a curious cow and occasionally stopping to forage on its head!

I think it’s safe to assume that this beef cow had never seen a Cattle Egret before, and I was amazed at the cow’s seemingly innate tolerance and understanding of this symbiotic relationship.

Many thanks to the farmer who alerted me to the presence of a white bird “harassing” his cows! Farmer, cows and photographer all had a unique, cooperative experience.

Photos by NB Hunter (April 20, 2019). © All rights reserved.

 

The Amazing Wood Frog

In early April the skim of ice on a shallow, ephemeral pool finally melted. The next day, an inviting afternoon sun led me back to the pool, camera in hand. This is a ritual of Spring that’s been repeated since I created the micro-habitat in a wetland 30 years ago. Less than 15 feet across and about a foot deep, the “pothole” is a breeding habitat for dozens of wood frogs. A subsurface layer of clay retains water in Spring and early Summer – in most years, sufficient time for the metamorphosis of tadpoles to frogs.

Built for the cold, the Wood Frog (Lithobates (Rana) sylvatica) ranges far north into Canada and Alaska – farther north than any other reptile or amphibian. Their adaptation to the severe cold and erratic Spring weather of northern climes is unique. They’re freeze tolerant and breed explosively in a narrow window of opportunity. This story – starting with the appearance of more than 30 active frogs and ending with masses of eggs (and no frogs) – occurred in about three days.

The majority of the frogs were males, distinguished by their dark, mottled brown coloration and size (smaller than females; about two inches long).

The small size of the vernal pool and a predominantly male population led to frenzied chasing and breeding activity. At times, the water boiled with chaotic activity as a large number of males chased and converged on a female.

Occasionally, the female, larger and more colorful than the males, could be seen at the center of the fray.

A breeding male grabs the female, hooks his thumbs around her (amplexus) and holds on until eggs are deposited.

Soon, surprisingly large masses of eggs appear. Mission accomplished!

Most offspring that survive a year – relatively few – will return to this natal pool to breed. I’ll be ready, with a slightly larger and enhanced wetland stage for their performance.

Wood frogs are fairly common in forested wetland habitats, but we must be mindful of their complex habitat needs and practice wetland conservation on a broad, landscape level. The conservation of small, temporary wetlands and vernal pools is critical. They aren’t protected and often fall victim to leveling and grading, heavy equipment operation, development and other destructive practices. Additionally, wood frogs are woodland creatures that rely on a variety of habitats (more so than most frogs). They wander far and wide in moist woodland habitats adjacent to their natal pools and also hibernate on land – under leaf litter, rotting logs, rocks, etc. Forest management practices should take this into account.

Photos by NB Hunter (April, 2019). © All rights reserved.

 

 

A Winter Wonderland in January, 2019

Snowstorms, wind and bitter cold can greatly reduce wildlife sightings in our winter landscapes. Wildlife numbers reach an annual low, most surface waters freeze, and  animals conserve energy by moving less and living in sheltered habitats. Adding to the difficulty of wildlife viewing in winter is the ethical constraint that demands minimum disturbance of animals that are trying to survive four or five months of resource scarcity.

Sometimes I respond to the challenges of winter by photographing wildlife around backyard feeders, then shifting my focus to landscapes when out and about. Such was the case most of this month.

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Wave ice on a partially frozen pond

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The peace, quiet and virgin landscape that follow a heavy snow create the illusion of  the isolation and solitude associated with a wildland journey

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With the right perspective, blue skies dress up surface waters, adding color to otherwise monochromatic scenes

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Over time, spring water seeping and freezing over a limestone rock face takes on a life of its own

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A favorite cattail marsh, the tussocks accented with a blanket of deep, fluffy snow

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A small, nondescript creek morphs into a thing of beauty when buried in snow

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The visual effects of subzero temperatures and morning sun on local waters

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Dense vegetation along a fence row, performing double duty: wildlife habitat and wind reduction; these are drifts on the lee side (1 of 2 images)

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Powdery snow, blown and drifted across corn stubble on the lee side of a brushy fence row

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The sentinel: An old, battered sugar maple tree that refuses to concede to wind, snow, ice, salt and grazing cattle. She still sparkles in a coating of frost.

Photos by NB Hunter (January, 2019). © All rights reserved.

 

 

Holiday Greetings from Central New York

Wetland in late evening; 2Nov2018

A mink, busy hunting frogs in a nearby stream and caching them in a den under tree roots; 2Nov2018

Winter arrives early, triggering a frantic search for recently buried red oak acorns; 15Nov2018

A wintry scene on the river; 23Nov2018

Shallow ponds are freezing quickly, leaving little open water for foraging muskrats; 28Nov2018

The main whitetail rut is winding down, but not over;  he’s tending an estrous doe; 29Nov2018

Eagles weathering the storm, with a watchful eye on ice-free surface water; 7Dec2018

After the storm: a red-bellied woodpecker probes dead wood high in the crown of a declining sugar maple; 9Dec2018

Photos by NB Hunter. © All rights reserved.

Whitetails in Early Summer

Recreational interest in deer increases dramatically in early summer. This is especially true in farm country where visibility is good and deer are constantly on the move in response to the growth and management of crops. Patient viewers are often rewarded with sightings of nursing fawns (about a month old now) and bucks in velvet.

Following up on a report of fawn triplets and a mature buck on a local dairy farm, I set out to investigate fields of waist-high corn and uncut hay.

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Damselfly on the tall grass of an uncut hay field

Deer were moving into the fields almost immediately after a tractor and loaded hay wagon left for the day. They grow accustomed to big, noisy farm machinery and know precisely where the most nutritious and palatable crops are located on any given day. The adaptability of whitetails never ceases to amaze me.

This buck, approaching the fields from thick bedding cover, detected me before I was set up and bolted for his swampy retreat cover. He is a large, mature deer and I heard the pounding of his hooves on hard ground before I saw him.

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Photos by NB Hunter (June, 2018). © All rights reserved.

The Wonderful Month of June

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A favorite freestone stream in the mountains, alive with aquatic insects and foraging trout

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A massive White Pine with centuries of stories locked within

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Tiger Swallowtails “mud-puddling” to ingest nutrients and improve reproductive success

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A chatty House Wren, rewarding me for the nest box I hung on a garden post

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Taking a grooming timeout while guarding the nearby nest and solitary eaglet.

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Ruby-throated Hummingbird incubating 1-3 eggs; they’ll hatch in about 2 weeks

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An egg-laying Snapper; she dug her nest in roadside gravel near her swampy habitat 

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A month-old whitetail fawn learning about mobility

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Wild mustard colonizing a fallow field on a dairy farm

Photos by NB Hunter (June, 2018). © All rights reserved.

Searching for Spring in 2018

Despite the cold, late spring, I started searching for wild flowers in late April.  The search is a rite of spring, even if there’s snow in the air and it makes no sense whatsoever.

The flower buds of willow shrubs were on hold (April 27),

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As were the new shoots of False Hellebore after a freezing rain (April 29).

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Desperate for color in a wintry April landscape, I detoured to the edge of a wetland and discovered a reliable indicator of the advancing season: Skunk Cabbage (April 29).

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Finally, the weather took a serious turn for the better. The season of renewal erupted, with April events spilling over into early May. Migrating birds, black flies, wildflowers, baby animals, mud…..Spring!

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Bloodroot

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A Rails-to-Trails recreation path, with willow shrubs in bloom (May 5)

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The early blooms of willow shrubs (May 3), a lifeline for hungry bees

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Marsh Marigold (May 5)

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A tumbling brook, swollen by melting snow and frequent rain (May 5)

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White Trillium (May 5)

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Red Trillium (May 5)

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.