Photoperiod and Signs of Spring

Spring: the first 20 days!

Gray skies, cold rain, snow and flooding have slowed down the arrival of spring but photoperiod will rule the day. Increasing day length is a powerful force that insures the necessary progression of life stages, regardless of the weather.

Many aquatic species, including this Great Blue Heron, arrived to find traditional wetland habitats still covered in ice (23March2017).

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Snow geese were reported throughout Central New York during the last week of March. They were refueling on waste grain in corn fields and spread manure before continuing their journey to summer range in the Arctic (27-28March2017).

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Wild turkeys were foraging on waste grain too, but increasing daylight was also triggering the mating urge in males; many were observed in full display posture, strutting for uninterested hens (1April2017).

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Breeding populations of ring-necked pheasants no longer occur in this region, but some are occasionally released into the wild for recreational purposes. This cock pheasant is crowing and flapping his wings in an attempt to attract a hen (6April2017).

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Red-winged blackbirds arrived several weeks ago and are defending their breeding territories aggressively, despite the elements (7April2017).

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A sure sign of Spring is the transformation of male goldfinches as they molt into their bright breeding plumage (7April2017).

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Groundhogs emerged from hibernation in March to find a snow-covered landscape. In the days ahead they faced yet another hardship – the flooding of burrows in marginal habitats. This one seems to have weathered the storms well…but is grazing in the middle of a hay field, a long way from the nearest burrow. Can it outrun an eagle, fox or coyote? Survival is still questionable (8April2017).

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Photos by NB Hunter, March 23 – April 8, 2017. ©All Rights Reserved.

Summer Scenes in Farm Country

Most of my travels take me through rural areas where dairy farms still dominate the landscape. These are priceless visual and ecological resources that attract and support diverse wildlife populations as well as livestock.

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Pigeons and crows are permanent residents, usually seen foraging on waste grain in harvested fields or in spread manure.

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Once or twice a week I sit in the evening near a field of corn, oats or hay to observe wildlife. Most evenings there is a predictable sequence of visitors, starting with groundhogs, does and fawns.

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Small flocks of geese glide into cut hay fields throughout the evening.

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Bucks, especially the seasoned veterans, arrive as the sun leaves the fields and camera gear is nothing more than extra weight.

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The last light of the evening, in the clouds. Somewhere below the cloud, in an open field on the highest hilltop, was the dark silhouette of a huge buck. It was his time.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

 

 

Mammal Encounters

Surprise encounters with the wonderful world of mammals must be shared, even if there is no particular theme to tie it all together!

Serious birders know that a slice of orange attracts orioles to backyard feeders. My orioles are still singing and foraging in the tree tops!

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Cottontail at rest in the protective cover of a fencerow thicket

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This groundhog was caught off guard and didn’t have a clear path to its den. It hid under a log, then came out to see if I was still a threat. Had I been a fox or coyote, it would have been dinner.

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The gestation period for White-tailed Deer is about 200 days. This doe will soon be giving birth to a fawn or two. The lush herbaceous vegetation of stream bottoms is preferred habitat for fawning.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Woodchucks

The ubiquitous Woodchuck or Groundhog (Marmota monax) is a common component of summer landscapes. Woodchucks often emerge from hibernation when there is still snow on the ground, then spend most of the growing season foraging in fields, along forest edges…and in gardens, preparing for another winter underground.

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On rare occasions, woodchucks are apt to remind us that they belong to the squirrel family, and have respectable climbing skills. I have seen them perched atop fence posts and watched them scurry up a small tree when surprised, too far away from their burrow to run for it. This recent sighting, a Woodchuck on the limb of a large Black Willow tree, seven feet in the air, was  quite a surprise to both of us. Had I been stealthier and able to observe undetected, I might have been able to determine if it was browsing willow leaves, exploring or just enjoying its domain from the sunny overlook!

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Rushing Spring

One of the more common rodents in North America is the Groundhog (Marmota monax; also called Woodchuck, Whistle-pig). True hibernators, they eat continuously in the warm season to maximize fat reserves before going into their underground burrows. The hibernation period is 5 or 6 months, October to March.

I often see Groundhog tracks in the snow in March, but this year I’ve already had several early sightings of animals out and about, wandering across open  fields in the snow. They must be hungry, because I see little survival value in a large brown rodent, a favorite food of coyotes and foxes, wandering around in the middle of a snow-covered field with no escape holes.

This animal actually stopped in the middle of a field and tried to dig through the snow and frozen ground to open a burrow. It then continued wandering, this time in the general direction of some farm structures.

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Groundhogs will eat the bark of woody plants at this time of year, but they’re much too early for the fresh greens that they’re seeking. Under these conditions, some will probably crawl back into a burrow, accepting the fact that the life of a vegetarian living off the land can be pretty challenging in the snow belt!

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.