Robins and the Endless Winter

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I’m seeing flocks of migrating robins in thickets and sheltered creek drainages. They’re back, but food is scarce in our snowy, semi-frozen landscape. The persistent fruit of staghorn sumac is a staple this time of year, for many species of birds. It is an emergency ration that helps keep them alive when winter refuses to let go.

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Photos by NB Hunter (4/5/2018). © All Rights Reserved.

 

October Memories

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Wisps of clouds and soft colors defined a warm and peaceful sunrise

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Natural rhythms were interrupted by unusually warm, dry and erratic weather patterns

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Early leaf drop and muted colors in woodlands shifted attention to the landscape underfoot

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The Harvest Moon reminded all of the landscape overhead

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Harvested fields were crowded with hungry geese

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Gulls as well as geese foraged in dense, low fog on cold mornings

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Searches for fall landscapes led to familiar haunts, like the old mill pond

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Driven more by photoperiod than the tricky warm weather, a mature male beaver prepared for winter by harvesting an aspen tree and stashing branches at the family lodge

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Staghorn Sumac was on fire!

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A large ash tree, dead for many years, returned to life. An impressive mass of “Chicken-of-the woods” fungus fruited on the base of the snag and lit up a drab woodland scene.

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October reflections

Photos by NB Hunter (October 2017). © All Rights Reserved.

 

Wildlife and the Winter Sun

We have less sun than Portland and more snow than Buffalo. So, when a nice January day arrives, I work it. The golden hours at either end of the day are certainly magical, but the winter sun is low in the southern sky throughout the day, and the 9 AM – 3 PM brightness allows me to operate within the sweet spots of my camera and lens when photographing wildlife. The Black-capped Chickadees are fond of the mid-day sun as well!

Black-capped Chickadee feeding on Staghorn Sumac fruit; 23Jan2015

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Native Shrubs for Wildlife

Staghorn Sumac is a native, thicket-forming shrub that can reach the size of a small tree. The fruit is very persistent, providing a source of food for birds throughout the winter. It is more an emergency than a staple food item, habitat that sustains some species in late winter when natural food sources have been depleted or are still buried in snow. I have, for example, observed small flocks of hungry (starving) wild turkeys and flocks of returning robins feeding on sumac fruit in late February and early March.

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Black-capped Chickadee foraging on a Staghorn Sumac fruit cluster

Photo by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Nesting Catbirds

It’s common to hear the mews and endless melodies of a catbird at close range, but much more difficult to actually get a good look at one. The Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) inhabits thickets of dense shrubs and small trees, where it feeds, nests and hops about in the shadows. My typical sighting is a “glimpse”, usually with the sun in my face!

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Gray Catbird delivering an insect to its nestlings

In late June I noticed a pair of birds spending a lot of time in a small thicket, feeding on ripening fruit and insects.

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Gray Catbird feeding on partially ripened Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) fruit in late June

I observed the thicket briefly for several mornings in early July and learned of a nest at about eye level in a dense, spiny barberry (Berberis vulgaris) shrub. A steady diet of bugs of all sizes and shapes was delivered by both parents throughout the day. Nearby, a Staghorn Sumac provided a temporary landing point before the birds sneaked into the thorny barberry to feed their young.

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The catbirds also used the sumac as a perch for grooming and resting in the heat of the day.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Leaves and Landscapes

Recent wind, rain and falling temperatures have added a sense of urgency to my fall photography. The oaks and aspens are approaching peak foliage color, but many deciduous trees and shrubs now have a late fall, November look, i.e. bare or mostly so.

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Eastern Chipmunk caching food in its den under a pile of rotting firewood in a woodlot

I’ve created this gallery of images, past and present, in an attempt to capture and share the splendor of autumn in the Northeast.

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Fencerows and Edges in Autumn

Forest edges, roadsides, swamp borders and fencerows are all ecotones, places where different communities come together. Ecotones may be large or small, with transitional areas that are gradual and extensive or abrupt and barely noticeable.

The transitional area between communities is often relatively rich and varied due to the presence of organisms that prefer edge habitats as well as cohorts from “each side of the fence”. This natural phenomenon, called “edge effect”, enhances visual resources as well as biodiversity. The variety of trees and shrubs and the good lighting associated with ecotones can result in several layers of colorful foliage capable of transforming a drab landscape scene into wall-hanger.

The rural countryside of central New York is a superb example of the nature and value of localized ecotones. The goal of this post was to capture ecotones in rural landscapes, beginning first with panoramic views, then zooming in to view foreground details. All of these images were taken in central New York within the last few days.

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Dairy farm

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Dairy farm and the headwaters of the Chenango River

 

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A large, fencerow habitat adjacent to cultivated fields

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A closer view of the fencerow in the previous image; the colorful, 5-10 foot tall shrub layer is Staghorn Sumac, a native, thicket-forming species.

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The colorful, feathery leaves of Staghorn Sumac; see my “March Robins” post from March, 2013 for the fruit and wildlife value of this shrub.

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The fall foliage and male flower buds of American Hazelnut, a native shrub

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The ripened fruit of American Hazelnut, encased in bracts that look like dried leaves (the squirrels still find the nuts!)

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Single fruit of American Hazelnut

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Witch Hazel, a native shrub, has the unusual habit of flowering in the fall (the yellow, strap-like petals); see a recent post by “Naturally Curious with Mary Holland” for more photos and a detailed explanation

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The harvested field next to the featured fencerow came alive in the 70-degree sun. At least three species of butterflies – Cabbage Whites, Sulphurs and Variegated Fritillaries – were nectaring on the flowers of residual weeds and legumes.

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

March Robins

Is there anyone in North America who is not familiar with the American Robin? This member of the thrush family is one of our most common birds, rivaling the European Starling and Red-winged Blackbird in abundance. Depending on the season, it can be seen throughout the continental U.S. and in Canada and Alaska. So, why bother to photograph and post a species so familiar to so many?

The sight of a robin methodically working across a summer lawn, hopping, stopping and cocking its head before spearing a worm was, for the longest time, the extent of my knowledge of the diet and feeding habits of robins. A rural, outdoor lifestyle in the snow belt changed that. I discovered that some robins don’t migrate in winter. Those that do migrate arrive, like the Red-winged Blackbirds, as “harbingers of spring”, perhaps weeks before ground feeding becomes an option. This is a case of the early bird not getting the worm, not under several inches of snow in frozen ground. So, what do large numbers of robins feed on in the off-season?

In March, flocks of migrating robins are seen in brushy fields, forest edges, backyards – places where the fruit of shrubs and small trees has persisted through the winter. This might include native vines and shrubs like wild grapes  and the sumacs, or cultivated trees like certain cultivars of flowering crabapple.

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American Robin feeding on the persistent fruit of a native shrub, Staghorn Sumac,
in March

A close friend and former colleague has thickets of Staghorn Sumac growing behind his house and barn, just beyond the managed portion of the property. Dozens of robins, as well as starlings and other species, descend on these large, wild shrubs every March and devour the persistent fruits in a few days time.

I spent a couple of hours watching this spectacle, learning and laughing as I tried to capture the acrobatic feeding behavior of 15 to 20 American Robins and European Starlings. The March Robins photo gallery tells the story of that experience.

All photos by NB Hunter