Wild Turkeys Foraging in Snow

Late winter is a time when the terms “wildlife carrying capacity” and “limiting environmental factors” are defined and illustrated. It is a time when populations of resident wildlife species, those that remain active through winter, reach an annual low.This is especially true in the North where accumulating snow cover limits mobility and access to dwindling food supplies.

Flocks of wild turkeys, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, are sometimes seen foraging in open areas adjacent to evergreen cover at this time of year. Cultivated farm fields, southern exposures and spring-fed wetlands are favorite habitats. I’ve had an opportunity to observe a small flock of turkeys, a “bachelor” group of toms or gobblers, for several weeks and will share some highlights.

These birds move into the stubble of a harvested corn field every afternoon, when  bright sunlight warms and softens crusted snow. Turkeys will feed on the persistent fruit of small trees and shrubs but they’re big, bulky birds and not built for that. They prefer to scratch and dig for food on the ground. In this case, the food of choice is waste grain.

Repeated scratching and digging exposes bare ground and small feeding sites. Occasionally, activity at a feeding site draws the attention of a nearby bird and he’ll run over to get in on the action. At this point the feeding behavior appears to be cooperative, with little aggression or fighting.

It won’t be long before these gobblers disperse to stake out breeding territories and locate hens. But, for now, the priority is winter survival.

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

 

A Wildlife Smorgasbord, Served Cold

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe”   – John Muir

Squirrels, both red and gray, are frequent visitors to our bird feeders. But, they must do more than eat: avoid being eaten! A Red Fox has also been cruising the neighborhood, and small mammals are a dietary staple.

Morning doves, as many as two dozen, flutter in to feed several times a day. But, they too have natural enemies. Cooper’s hawks learn to hunt bird feeders (their fly-through restaurant), and doves are a favorite target.

Coyotes prey on deer, especially young, old and unhealthy ones. However, the greatest threat to deer in winter is a population that exceeds the carrying capacity of the habitat. Over time, excessive browsing by hungry deer destroys the forest understory, which has an adverse, domino effect on plant and animal diversity.

The dense vegetation in this scene is misleading. It obviously provides bedding cover, but is virtually devoid of palatable food.

Pileated woodpeckers are thriving in our woodlands, especially where tree mortality from ash decline, beech bark disease and other pests is high. Large dead and dying trees provide habitat for woodpeckers to drill for food and create nest cavities. Later, the excavations become critical nesting habitat for dozens of bird and mammal species – including the Tufted Titmouse.

When winters are severe, with heavy snow cover, a “winter thaw” can be the difference between life and death for wildlife. Turkeys are one species that benefit greatly from a warm spell in mid winter because they mainly forage on the ground.

In winter, blackbirds form large flocks that waste little time finding concentrated food sources. Barn yards and farm fields are favorite dining locations.

Photos by NB Hunter (Jan. – Feb., 2019). © All rights reserved.

Lasting Images of March 2018

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Wood Ducks 6March2018

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Wild Turkey gobbler searching for waste grain 7March2018

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Mature Bald Eagle feeding on a road-killed deer 8March2018

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Desperate wild turkeys searching for seeds in old burdock 8March2018

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Young deer, now relying on fat reserves for survival 11March2018

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Foraging muskrat, seemingly oblivious to the snow and cold 17March2018

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Evidence of the spring thaw at Chittenango Falls State Park 31March2018

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A Rough-legged Hawk hunting over melting snow in the fields

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Turkeys in Flight

After monitoring and photographing two flocks of wild turkeys for a week or so, I was able to tell their story in my last post. I was satisfied and was ready to move on. The only images that I lacked were birds in flight, but I dismissed the idea. Turkeys are more apt to walk or run than fly (unless harassed), and it’s unethical to disturb wildlife during the stressful winter season.

Then, yesterday morning happened. I decided to take the back roads into town, mainly to see how wild turkeys were responding to a 19 degree (F) day with 20 mph winds blasting powdery snow across open fields. I didn’t expect to see anything, but instinctively grabbed the camera and adjusted the settings for speed and snow. The definition of insanity?

I found a couple of birds in the corn stubble on high ground, moving toward the lee side of a hill. I didn’t realize what was happening until I pulled over and shut the truck off to get a better look. A flock had left the roost and walked into dense vegetation in a gully near the road. They were now flying across the road, a few at a time, a hundred feet in front of me.

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The last bird to cross afforded me an opportunity to capture the complete process of a big, heavy bird, flying at perhaps 30 or 40 mph, coming in for a “soft” landing. Enjoy!

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And that’s how it’s done! Questions???

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.