Monday, February 28, 2011

The Redpoll Riot - Bathrobe Birding

"They're everywhere! They're everywhere, north, east, south and west!"
Common redpolls, clockwise from left female, female, male and bottom is male again. First year male birds look very similar to females and can be hard to distinguish.
     Redpolls like birch trees. When they hit the feeders en masse it feels like an invasion!

(Remember that you can double click on these images to see them larger)

     These adorable, scrappy little birds are Common redpolls. Redpolls are a woodland bird of the northern tier of the United States, breeding in the taiga. They only come this far south in the winter. As a rule, less than 2 % of all the redpolls reported to Cornell Lab of Ornithology are reported this far south. I get a few every year, but this year I've been invaded by a spectacular riot of redpolls. Maine birders have been reporting unprecedented numbers.
     This has been an irruptive year, that is the birds are busting south from their normal northerly range in search of food. The irruptions are a cyclic phenomenon. Redpolls eat tiny seeds. They have pouches in their throats that allow them to gather lots of food quickly, and then take off to a safe place with it. They eat mostly seeds of catkin bearing trees like birches and spruce seeds. When there is a crop failure of these seeds, the birds have to look elsewhere. At about latitude 44, our coastal Maine homestead is rich in high latitude spruce and birch trees .
     Redpolls forage in flocks sometimes numbering in the hundreds. The flock that has been hanging around here for the past two weeks is about fifty strong. Constantly on the move, they descend from the sky in rolling waves. They are busy, finchy and acrobatic birds that are well adapted to feeding at the very tips of small branches, hanging upside-down, and using their feet to hold food. They also forage on the ground, especially in winter. I see them suddenly and then, just as suddenly, they are gone. Like a lot of finches, they have an undulating flight pattern. Slightly bigger than an American goldfinch, they could easily be mistaken for them in the sky. Though they seem so finch like, the redpolls closest bird relatives are the crossbills, another bird of the northern forests given to irruptions. Like the crossbills, I can usually hear the redpolls even before I see them. They are quite vocal, constantly making contact calls within the flock. The call is a dry reeling song like goldfinches with a rolling burr at the end. 
     Sometimes redpolls are in mixed flocks of goldfinches, winter sparrows, juncos and other small winter birds. Rare visitors to southern Maine are Hoary redpolls, though they have been reported near here this year, too. I have yet to see one, but I scour these flocks looking at every bird in the hopes of finding one. You'll be the first to know when I do!
     Depending on who you talk to, there are either one, two or six species of redpolls. This is because birders like to argue. Actually, it's because there are so many variations that without DNA samples, redpolls are hard to nail down. One of the species lives in Finland, so if I tell you I've seen one here, you'd better check my pulse and cut off my bar tab. The other two that are known to occur here are Common and Hoary. Hoarys are a little bigger with a smaller bill. They have a frosted look, thus the name "hoary," which is not a misspelling of slutty behavioral traits. I know what you were thinking! It can be tricky telling the difference between Commons and Hoarys because there are lots of variations. To anyone's knowledge, the two don't interbreed which would make them Common Hoars. Redpolls are named for the red knot on their heads. Males have pink or cherry red breasts depending on how old they are. Females just have the knot, or 'poll' on their heads. Red Poll cattle are named for the same thing, the red knot on their heads, but they don't fly. If they start falling out of trees like the redpolls have been, my advice is "don't look up and keep your mouth shut."
These are Red Polls, not redpolls. Though they can be tipped, let's hope they never fly.

Thanks to, wikipedia and the following for some of the information:

Sibley, David A 2000, The Sibley Guide To Birds. Knopf: New York (2000) p 532

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Gray Fox At Greyledge - Bathrobe Beasting

Gray Fox at Greyledge, Phippsburg

This is a Red fox also from Phippsburg. You can see its black stockings, absence of gray fur, and longer nose and ears that differentiate it from a Gray fox.
      This is the time of year when we are all really sick of snow, cold and ice, but it seems to keep coming. "Enough already" can be heard from every quarter. We still have two feet of hard snow pack on the ground. However, the days are getting longer and the sun is warmer. Everyday, my husband announces the minutes of daylight we've gained, an important detail when living in the eastern most United States where winter daylight is at a premium. All this being said, I can assure you that spring is closer than it feels.
      Even on days that the temperature is in the single digits, it's not as shocking when I step outside to take photographs in my bathrobe. Up against our house or sidled up to my car, which I use as a blind if trying to photograph critters, it feels less mean. The two lunatic Song sparrows that have stayed all winter are now singing their spring tunes.
   Our dog definitely has spring fever. He has been rousting us out of bed between three and five in the morning. He yips, bellows and yodels until we have no choice but to let him out, fearing that maybe, just maybe, he's fussing about some other need. Once out, he doesn't tend to any business besides racing around the yard, nose hard to ground and singularly spring crazed.
     Another early sign of spring is the calls of breeding foxes. They have a hard, sharp yap that cuts through the deep spruce woods at night. Our dog has been announcing this in the wee hours. A few nights ago, at the dog's insistence husband got out of bed then turned on the exterior lights to see what was going on. My husband has a thing about motion acitivated perimeter lights on our house. He loves to have the place fully illuminated. He's not paranoid about robbery or anything; he just loves lights. Like giving our property the name of "Greyledge," to him the lights give our little dump a satisfying palatial feel. Our house is festooned with banks of lights to rival a night football game, and he keeps adding more! He and I are usually esthetically simpatico, except about the lights. "For God's sake! This place is lit up like a penitentiary yard!" I crab. The only time I am okay with the glaring lights, is when there actually is something in the yard.
     The criminal in the yard of "The Big House" recently was a gray fox, at least that's what my husband said it was. I didn't see it because I was in bed wishing the lights would go out and the dog would shut up. My sleepy brain thought he said "gay" fox which lead to all sorts of bizarre dreams. My husband is not a wildlife guy and I've never seen a Gray fox here, so when I woke up, I figured it was a small 'g' gray fox that was yapping and snuffling bird seed out of the snow. Over the next few days, I saw tracks around the house and other spots where some fox had been grubbing seed out of the deep freeze. Foxes start breeding between the end of January and the end of March. At this time of year, to hear them mate calling in the night is common.
     Recently, at two in the afternoon, my neighbor called. "Quick! There's a fox coming up the road to your house!" I would not have looked a wildlife gift horse in the mouth and asked what kind of fox it was, even if the question had occurred to me. I'm immensely grateful for the scouts I have out there who alert me in a timely way! Out the door I ran, still in my bathrobe, natch. Actually, I snuck out the door, so as not to frighten off whatever was coming.
     I crept around the back of my car, being very careful not to make a sound and praying for my dog to keep his big mouth shut. I heard the fox call twice, closer each time. The fox's second yap was so close and loud that I thought, "I hope it's not rabid, because it's going to jump into my lap." I really hate it when foxes jump into my lap when I'm wearing my good bathrobe! I saw the fox just as it came around the stone sign at the end of our drive that says "Greyledge." Through the camera's viewfinder, I saw immediately that it was a gorgeous, Gray fox, no lights required.
     Grey foxes are not common in Maine. Their range is throughout the southern half of North America and some parts of southern Canada to northern Venezuela and Columbia. To photograph one that hasn't been lured by calling (I swear, I didn't) or by trapping is unusual. They aren't seen as often as Red foxes because they are more reclusive and nocturnal in their habits. Gray foxes tend to be active from the late evening until dawn. There is evidence that they are on the increase in southern and western Maine, though. The Department of Fish and Wildlife pelt tagging records from 1998-2004 more than doubled for Gray foxes. Gray foxes were once the most common fox in the east. Human advancement allowed the Red fox to become more dominant, though Gray foxes remain dominant in the Pacific states.
      Grey foxes and the closely related Californian  Island foxes , an endangered species, are the only two living members the Urocyon genus, the most primitive of the living dogs, or canids. Remarkable among other types of dogs, the Gray fox is one of only two dogs that climb trees (the Asian Raccoon dog is the other)!
     A close cousin, Red foxes are slightly larger than Grays which run a pound lighter than Reds in the range of 7-13 pounds. Gray foxes look bigger though, because they are stockier. An excellent climber, its body proportions make sense. Its relatively short legs lower its center of gravity, and its forelegs have greater rotational ability than that of any other member of the dog family. It can reach around tree trunks or limbs while the long, curved claws of its hind feet enable it to grasp and push. They readily climb trees and jump from branch to branch while hunting arboreal food sources or escaping predators. The Gray fox descends by jumping or descending down the tree trunk backwards as cats do.
     Red foxes and Gray foxes have similar vocalizations; the Red fox barks more, but the Gray fox barks louder. They both have a sharp, slightly rasping voice that my husband, "The King Of Light," thinks sounds like a seagull. Obviously, the Gray fox has a grizzled, gray peltage. A quick way to tell the difference between the two in the field is the stockings. Red foxes have pronounced black stockings which Gray foxes do not. Millenniums ago they gave that up after they kept destroying their stockings on tree bark.
     In addition to its mostly gray fur, the Gray fox has a black stripe down its back from the neck to tail-tip, which is dark unlike the white tip of the Red fox's tail. Its feet are rust colored whereas those of the Red fox are black. The cheeks, throat, inner ears and most of the underside are white. Gray foxes have a shorter, rounder snout that looks more cat-like than the Red fox. Though the two species have overlapping ranges, they do not interbreed.
     A possible explanation for the apparent increase in Gray fox populations is regrowth of forests. This fox  is more a denizen of woodland and swamp, while the Red fox is more at home in open fields and edges. Gray foxes eat more eggs and birds than Reds do, but their highly developed tree climbing skills probably have more to do with escaping predators like domestic dogs and coyotes.
   More omnivorous than other foxes, the Gray fox eats carrion, insects, birds, turtles and their eggs, and invertebrates. They eat more vegetable material than other foxes which includes fruits, berries, and nuts. They do eat cats, though rabbits and rodents are their favorites. Our Black spruce woods host thundering herds of Red squirrels and chipmunks which may account for why this Gray fox is in our yard. Though the Eastern Cottontail is the Gray foxes preferred food, the rabbit's scarcity in Maine may not support an increase in Gray fox numbers here. Foxes travel the same hunting routes, so it's likely that this fox will be back.
    Another reason this Gray fox may like it here is that there are lots of den sites. Unlike Red foxes which dig dens into the ground, Gray foxes den in dense brush, cavities in stumps and trees, rock crevices or under out-buildings such as barns and sheds. We have big, piles of fallen spruce which have succumbed to wind and age, lots of rocky ledges and certainly some attractive out buildings. However, Gray foxes have not urbanized like Red foxes.
     The gestation for foxes is about 50 days. The half dozen or so kits that will be born start playing outside the den a week later. They'll be out hunting on their own in another four months, so I'll be looking for more Grays around September. If they make it through the next winter, they'll start breeding their first spring.
     Gray foxes aren't rare in the United States in general, but for some reason they have been intensively persecuted. Healthy foxes pose no danger to humans, but there is a perception of danger (see this link for a recent newspaper article about a woman bitten by a fox in Maine: Gray foxes are especially susceptible to mange and distemper and can carry rabies. Between 1979 and 1980 at least 370,000  foxes were killed in the United States, many on the pretext that they constituted a threat to farm animals. In Virginia, removal of Gray foxes from a turkey farm was followed by an explosion of weasels (now there's a visual!) resulting in more turkeys lost than ever before! After the Gray foxes were reintroduced, the weasel numbers dropped.
     Unlike other foxes, Gray foxes are not a valuable fur bearer. They have thin, coarse fur, unlike that of the more desirable Red fox which has a silky, dense coat. Nonetheless, during the six-years between 1998 and 2004 when the pelt tag numbers for Gray foxes doubled in Maine, the pelt price rose from an average price of $7-$14 per pelt to $10-$14. Considering the skill and time required to trap a fox, process the catch, then get the pelt to a fur dealer, it appears that either the trapper receives a very low wage, the gray fox pelt has very little value, or both. Even with the substantial increase in the average price offered for a Gray fox pelt, we in Maine lose ecologically on every pelt tagged. In neighboring Quebec, The Gray fox is listed as a threatened species, so to kill a Gray fox is illegal. We ought to consider taking the lead of our neighbors to the north and ban Gray fox killing in Maine.     
     Before caller Id, when telemarketers called, my husband always answered  the phone with a cheerful "Greyledge!" Telemarketers would usually hang up, thinking they had connected with a business. But sometimes, they would continue,. "May I speak with the decision maker in the household?" My husband loved to mess with them and this inquiry left them wide open. "He's my gay lover and he's in Europe for six months, " he'd say. They always hung up, but we could just image them thinking "Damn, I should have known!. He said gay - ledge!" Call it "Gray" or "gay," killing Gray foxes should be a hate crime.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"Little Boxes On The Hillside" A Not So Wordless Wednesday

     Some of you may recognize this set of buildings. Or, perhaps you have driven by without noticing. Does anyone know where this is? Place your guess in the comments and I'll tell you. The winner will get the pleasure of more of these kinds of "out of the box" posts from me! Lucky you!
     I was intrigued by the colors and the irony; the little boxes, though each with it's own color, they all look just the same. I don't mean simply the obviousness of the architecture, either. They each clearly bear the hand of the same person in the chosen palette of colors, as well. "Little boxes on the hillside, and they're all made out of ticky tacky........."
     Malvina Reynolds was the folk singer who wrote this tune in 1962. Malvina and her husband Bud were on their way from their home in Berkeley, through San Francisco and down the peninsula to La Honda. She was on her way to a singing engagement at a meeting of the Friends’ Committee on Legislation (not the PTA, as Pete Seeger says in the documentary about Reynolds, “Love It Like a Fool”). As she drove through Daly City, she said “Bud, take the wheel. I feel a song coming on.”
     I remember singing this as a kid. My sisters and I sang this ditty in the car when we would see houses that fit the bill. My beatnik parents had taught us to spot the bourgeois and mundane, things to avoid in life, and when we did, to sing this song. Wedged together in the back seat, we would sing our heads off which delighted our parents. Malvina would have been proud of all of us.
     The lyrics are below and a video of Malvina singing Little Boxes, in case you don't remember the words or the tune. This is sure to infect you with an earworm for the day as my little gift to you. The term "ticky- tacky" is now included in the Oxford English Dictionary, and credited to Malvina.

Little Boxes
Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes made of ticky tacky,

Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes all the same.

There's a green one and a pink one

And a blue one and a yellow one,

And they're all made out of ticky tacky

And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses

All went to the university,

Where they were put in boxes

And they came out all the same,

And there's doctors and lawyers,

And business executives,

And they're all made out of ticky tacky

And they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf course

And drink their martinis dry,

And they all have pretty children

And the children go to school,

And the children go to summer camp

And then to the university,

Where they are put in boxes

And they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business

And marry and raise a family

In boxes made of ticky tacky

And they all look just the same.

There's a green one and a pink one

And a blue one and a yellow one,

And they're all made out of ticky tacky

And they all look just the same.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Scenic Sunday

"Waiting On The Tide"

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"Bad, Bad Butchies!" Juvenile Bald Eagles Mixing It Up

     Yesterday, I took these photos of these juvenile, Bald eagles - the Butchie Boys beating each other up in the air. They've been around here quite a bit lately. I have seen them engage this way several times. I'm hoping that eventually, they'll mix it up close enough for me to get better shots than this. But, in the mean time, these will have to do. When I've seen them in mid-air haggling, there hasn't been any food involved. Young eagles practice for later food fights and courtships with these talon to talon displays. Whatever their purpose, it's impressive to see. I'm sure I heard one of them scream at the other, "get on your own side of the sky or I'm tellin' Mom!"
     My husband and I both come from families of five children. When I asked him if he had lots of fights with his brothers he said he didn't remember fighting with them much at all. An exception was a big brawl in which a brother fell onto an antique table of their mother's, smashing it. With their sister, they joined forces to repair the table, as best as a bunch of kids could, before their parents got home. That was before the advent of synthetic glues. The glue was a block of some kind of animal product that required heating on the stove top to liquefy it. Heat changed the glue from a peanut brittle, without the peanuts substance to the consistency of honey. It had to be applied quickly before it cooled and hardened again. Though it stunk up the entire house and the kids' repair job lacked finesse, their parents never said a word. Like my husband and his siblings, I don't remember fighting with my sisters much, either. We were also often in collusion with one another.
     When my sisters and I came home from school, we were frequently alone until one of our parents came home from work. The idea of "latchkey kids" hadn't been invented, yet. A certain amount of responsibility and self reliance was expected of us. We made snacks and occupied ourselves until someone showed up. But, sometimes we got into trouble.
     My mother had a canary named Freep. My father had swapped one of his Siberian husky puppies for the bird. Otherwise, it was an extravagance that we could not have afforded. It's a wonder that the bird survived too, because we lived in drafty, poorly heated houses. Canaries are known to drop dead in those conditions.
     Freep was a touch of refinement and class in my mother's otherwise grim life; she loved that bird, too. The onomatopoeic Freep returned my mother's love with ardent song. He was especially inspired by the radio. When the Herman's Hermits sang, so did Freep. He was guaranteed to throw his head back and belt it out to "Henry The Eighth" and "Mrs. Brown, You've Got A Lovely Daughter." Though he was a tough, little bird, Freep had his flaws. For one thing, he was an uninteresting, olive green color, not the classic, lemony yellow most associated with canaries. That's probably why my father, not known for his good trades, was able to acquire the bird. Freep also liked to get out of his cage.
     One afternoon, my sister and I arrived home from school and made up some chocolate milk. We rarely had milk in our house and less so, chocolate. Hooking that treat already put us on thin ice, so we did our best to hide all the evidence of our crime. To hurry up with it, we gulped the chocolate milk. Sharing back and forth the one straw we could find, somehow, my sister sucked chocolate milk up her nose. She choked and chocolate milk spewed from her nose. Her bug-eye gasping got us both laughing so hard we fell onto the floor together, knocking over one of the glasses of milk in the process. Our roaring hilarity startled Freep, who busted open his cage door then flew to safety atop a curtain rod. We suddenly sobered up.
     We tried over and over to capture the bird. Each time we got close to him he'd fly off to another perch. We were getting really desperate, knowing our parents would come home at any minute, there was still chocolate milk all over the place and precious Freep remained on the loose. Trying to get up high enough, we tipped over some furniture too, adding to the mayhem. Then, I had an idea.
     I had read in school that birds could be caught by sprinkling salt on their tails. Salt shaker in hand, I chased the bird all around the house. I got close a couple of times, but not close enough. It seemed like it was working, because the bird was slowing down, but I still couldn't catch him. My sister figured that if salt worked, then pepper would, too. Repeatedly, she ran after the bird from one direction while I went from another, both of us shaking salt and pepper at him as fast as we could. I slipped on chocolate milk on one of my attacks and fell, taking a lamp with me. Then, I almost got him! He turned and pecked at me, startling me into retreat. Now, he had done it! No more Mister Nice Guy! I put down the salt shaker and got a mitten to protect my hand. Freep was now freaked and tired. Gauntletted with salt shaker weapon in hand, he was no longer any match for me. Climbing onto the back of the sofa I reached tippy toed for him with my mittened hand and voila! I got him. Or so I thought. Freep took off leaving me with a mitten full of tail feathers. "Uh oh," I mumbled.
    There was nothing to do but try to clean up, though it was impossible to get every speck of pepper from every crack and surface. Chocolate milk makes a very good adhesive once dried. "You just had to get pepper didn't you! If we'd stuck to salt this wouldn't be so bad," I complained to my sister. She rebutted with the lamp, which had separated from its shade and was still rolling on the floor. We realized that we were pretty even in the fault and blame columns, so put our combined efforts into damage control. While busy with that, unobserved by us the bald butted Freep snuck back into his cage.
     When my parents got home, my sister and I were angelically engrossed in our homework studies. Neither of them said a word about the aftermath of the obvious, major fracas and it was days before Freep would sing, either.
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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Birds, Beasts & Bon Bons - Bald Eagle, Buffleheads & Harbor Seal

Juvenile Bald eagle, one of last summer's "Butchie Boys"
Buffleheads panicking across water
Harbor Seal on the rocks
     Yesterday, the sun was shatteringly brilliant on the water of Totman Cove. The wind was tearing through the trees and across the water. It was breathtakingly cold at about zero degrees Fahrenheit with the wind chill factor. In spite of this, the birds were busy. A flock of more than fifty Buffleheads were joined by a few Common goldeneyes, dozens of White-winged scoters, loons, mergansers and American Black ducks. An undulating phalanx of eighty mallards flew south above the cove.
     In the middle of the melee of birds, a juvenile Bald eagle got everyone's attention, including mine. It was one of The Butchie Boys of last summer trying out his hunting skills. The Buffleheads and goldeneyes scurried on the water, rose and settled repeatedly. Though there were dozens of them, they dove simultaneously disappearing in a rush. Herring gulls in kettles of hundreds wheeled and rolled through the skies. The Black ducks huddled together, flapping and quaking like fools.
     The Butchie Boy loped across the sky, skirting the tree line. The birds were nervous and when he dove for them, they panicked lifting off the water in a flurry of wings and salt spray. The young eagle must be hungry by now. It's late in the winter and months into slim  prey pickings. Ice has narrowed his hunting grounds forcing him to open water. Though there are hundreds of waterfowl, he's an unseasoned hunter. Even an experienced eagle gets less than twenty percent of the birds he intends to dine on.  If he hadn't been so self absorbed, he could have asked me for a handout. I would have thrown him a hot dog from the freezer, or perhaps one of the dehydrated, lost HotPockets hidden in the back.
     Though the wind was bitter, I stepped out the door to photograph some of the action. Naturally, I was wearing my bathrobe. This is where a  writer given to overwriting would say that the folds of the robe licked up around her legs, further exposing her. She'd say "frigid air bit into her tender flesh."  But, I have way too much self control for that.
     A great fear, a terror even, that writers have is "writer's block." We all worry that there won't be anything new to write about. We obsess that the muse has left us to tickle the creative fancy of some one other than ourselves. We fear we'll be orphaned by our own brains. This crosses my mind sometimes, too. But, the rational part of my brain, the stern governess that supervises the fickle filly of my creativity, says "Be quite. Be patient. Something will come along." If I wheedle and whine, the governess admonishes, "Don't be a hog!" The governess knows I'm a little piggy, too.
     Once, decades ago, someone gave to me as a joke a two pound box of cheap, assorted chocolates. The box was adorned with red writing and a cheesy, gold sash printed diagonally across the cover. It was the size of a suitcase. My friends taunted me, "You're not really going to eat that crap, are you?" "Gross!" I hadn't intended to eat them, but once they started giving me grief, I defended the box of chocolates as vigorously as I defend my decrepit bathrobe today. "Yes! Yes I am going to eat them, every one of them!" I declared.
      As a matter of principle, I refused to share any of my chocolate booty with my critical, jeering friends. I carried it around everywhere I went for over a week, guarding it so they couldn't purloin the sweets. I took it to bed with me. When I bathed, I took the box into the bathroom. Secretly, I punched a hole into the bottom of every one of the bon bons to see what was inside. I nibbled the corners off before eating any to make sure that I didn't get a mouthful of the DREADED JELLY. If the DREADED JELLY was detected, I put the bon bon back in the box. A few, weak sneak attacks were launched by my friends who over powered me, wresting the box from my grip. I fought them, regaining control of the box, though they did manage to get a few, which they threw into the trees, laughing wildly as they did. After weeks of this, I finally was too weakened to continue to defend the bon bon box. In a final attack, like a pride of lions that have finally worn down a tender antelope, they tore the box from me and threw it into a nearby river. I grieved. But, I took solace in knowing that most of what was left inside was only DREADED JELLIES, not anything of real value to me. I had secretly already eaten every oozing, carmel, chocolate, nutmeat filled delicacy. Writer's block is like a box of cheap chocolates; the writer always worries that the next idea will be a DREADED JELLY and that someone else will get all the good ones.
     Bathrobe Birding gives me nearly endless things to write about and photograph. Additionally, there are the blooms, bees, beasts and their kin. As I was photographing the eagle and ducks, this Harbor seal slopped itself up onto the rocks. Out of water they are as graceless as writers without the words. We frequently have seals in the cove, but they never leave the safety of the sea for the rocks. I don't know what possessed it. Its appearance, to over work a metaphor, was an unexpected, surprise bon bon in the box. It's reassuring that if the Bathrobe Birding fails, I can move on to Bathrobe Beasting - a whole new box of chocolates.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


    Maine is the first place in the United States to see the morning sun. In the winter here in the "far east," the sunrise can be especially intense. Sometimes, as in this photo, the sun shines straight upward through the clouds making a tube. It looks like a pathway to another planet or a conduit to a spaceship. I'm not much of an early morning person, but birds and sunrises can get me out of bed. I took this photograph from my deck having leaped naked from bed; it was 2 degrees farhenheit. "Beam me up, Scotty! There's no intelligent life down here."

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"Which Of These Things Is Not Like The Others? Which Of These Things Isn't The Same?" Waxwings, Crossbills & Siskins

Bohemian waxwings gorging on crab apples
Cedar and Bohemian waxwings. Can you pick out which are which?
The Cedar waxwings in this photo are numbered so you can find them amongst the Bohemian waxwings. Cedars are slightly smaller. If you look under their tails, they are white. Bohemians have reddish coverts and less white around the face than Cedars.

In this collage, there are 105 birds.  Nine of them are Cedar waxwings. Double click on the collage to make it bigger, then see if you can pick out the nine birds that are different. The photo is repeated with numbers by the Cedar waxwings.

The photo on the right is of a Cedar waxwing. The image clearly shows the 'wax' tips of the primary feathers.
White-winged crossbills bickering with a Pine siskin over feeder rights, or maybe they are going to get it on!

     When I was a kid, I loved Highlights Magazine. The 'picture in a picture' puzzles fascinated me. I felt like they were made especially for me to figure out. How fast could I find a key hidden amongst a tree full of toucans or a shoe in the shapes of a leopard's spots? First published in 1946, the magazine is still going strong today. I read my first Highlights Magazine in Boston in 1964.
      I was a sickly child, so spent a lot of time in waiting rooms of doctors' offices. The year that I was nine, I was hospitalized several times with protracted fevers that medicine could neither remedy nor explain. For months, my temperature sky-rocketed then plummeted over and over again inexplicably. By the time I learned "Fever Of Unknown Origin," I had lost enough time from school that my academic progress was cause for concern.
     Monstrous ear aches kept me awake, moaning and rocking myself back and forth, alone in a quiet house where everyone else was sleeping. After a while, I quit crying because it just made my head hurt more. I stared into space waiting for the sun to come up, for sleep, for whatever until it was gone. Between bouts, I was weak and tired. My exhausted parents were frightened, the doctors worried. When the earaches stopped, the fevers continued.
     The first time I was hospitalized was in the middle of the night. I was in an isolation ward with babies in steel cribs with cages over the tops so they couldn't get out. Some of the babies could stand up. They'd hold onto the bars and jounce up and down, screaming until they were too exhausted to keep it up. They'd collapse in a heap of soggy diapers and sleep for a while, only to start up again the second they woke. No one came.
   The doctors wanted my blood when the fevers were in full swing. In the middle of the night, they'd wake me up to draw my blood. Dr. Lacey wore a white coat and had warm hands. "Count backwards from one hundred, Robin. Can you do that for me? Just start counting," he'd say. I watched the blood from the needle in my arm meander along a little tube into a vial, then another vile, and then a third. "ninety-eight, ninety-seven, ninety-six...." I whispered under my breath. This would go on for a week, then I'd go home. Before I was strong enough to go back to school, the fevers would start again, and back to the hospital I would go. I was always the same, though each time, the screaming babies were different.
     Eventually, I was sent to Peter Brent Brigham Hospital in Boston for two weeks. My family couldn't stay with me, so I was there alone. Tests were done, things that hurt and things a little girl shouldn't have to know about. I knew not to complain, not to cry, to be brave. I walked the halls of the old hospital staring up at the tallest ceilings I had ever seen. An occupational therapist was called to stave off my boredom. She taught me to hammer sheet copper. I hammered three daffodils nodding in the sun.
    For no good reason, the fevers stopped and stopped for good. In the mean time, I had read loads of Highlights Magazines. I particularly liked the puzzles where the reader had to pick out the one thing in the picture that was different from all the rest. I  became lightening fast at it, a skill that would serve me well as a birder in later years. I learned about big cats in Africa, penguins at the Arctic circle, Right whales in the sea,  and more. Those were the formative days of my eventual obsession with the natural world.
     All sentient creatures have the ability to discriminate. Our survival depends on being able to tell what plants are food or poison, if something is too hot to handle or a crevice too wide to jump. We get it right enough that we don't walk off cliffs or eat deadly mushrooms too often. Animals also use these skills for finding mates. In the case of waxwings, the red, 'wax' tips on the primary feathers are believed to signal the age of a bird. Younger birds that haven't had as much experience mating, nest building, laying eggs and rearing young have fewer wax tips than older, more street smart birds. Waxwings side hop when courting, suggesting that it's all the better to see the wax tips with. This seems simple enough, but mate picking is knotty business.
    We humans have more gaps in our understanding about what makes birds choose one another than we have solid science. To our eyes, the waxwings in the group photos above look so much alike, that unless we are looking for a difference, they all look the same. Though I have searched extensively, I have not found one single reference to reports of hybridization of Bohemian and Cedar waxwings. Logically, we would say that the birds can pick out subtle differences. But this is where it gets tricky: in spite of their powers of discrimination, there are birds that crossbreed readily. Mallards and American black ducks, Common and Barrow's goldeneyes,  and mergansers are some that do. It's not common, but it's not rare, either. In the 1980's there was a chick documented that was progeny of a Pine siskin and a Red crossbill, two birds of different species which look distinctly different by anyone's standards. The DNA of the chick was traced by ornithologists verifying its parentage [1]. Who'd a thunk it? This is one more reason to practice the adage of birders to "look at every bird." You might be the first to see the picture in the picture, the one that's not like the others. Keep reading your Highlights Magazines cover to cover.
 1. Tudge, C.  "Keeping Track: The Absolute Need To Classify," The Bird (2008), New York: Crown Publishers (2008), p77

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Pop Quiz! White-Winged Crossbills, Accipiter Hawks & Northern Hawk Owl

A crookedness of White-winged crossbills, males and females, Phippsburg, Maine

Sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks, both accipiters, clock-wise from bottom left: Cooper's, Sharp-shinned (perched), Cooper's (perched), Cooper's (flight), bottom right - Sharp-shinned (take-off)

"You got a problem with this?"
Northern-hawk owl, perched, flight and eating White-winged crossbills in  Bristol, Maine
White-winged crossbill feathers, probably female, aftermath of Sharp-shinned hawk attack. Note that at the mid right of the image above the blood mark is a crossbill bill.

     I love pop quizzes, but most of the people I know hate them. I think that's because people don't like being put on the spot. They like lots of advance time to study and prepare answers so they don't look stupid. Me? I'm quite willing to look stupid without any advance notice required. The images above are of Sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks, a Northern Hawk owl and White-winged crossbills, pre and post mortem. Do you know what they all have in common? And don't say "Ya, the one on the bottom is dead." That would be just stupid. The hawks and the hawk owl are three species of predatory birds that eat other birds. They all eat White-winged crossbills when they can find them. The Northern hawk owl isn't a hawk at all, though it does behave like a hawk. And, the owl and the White-winged crossbills have more in common than the hawks or the owl. Don't you wish you had studied for this exam?
     White-winged crossbills and the Northern Hawk owl are boreal irruptives in the southern part of Maine.  Neither bird is migratory, but they both occasionally fly south of their usual range when competition for food is too high. In 2007, a White-winged crossbill was found dead in a parking lot in Florida. No one knows for sure how it got there, but it's safe to say it didn't fly. One theory is that it had been hit by a recreational vehicle then rode to Florida stuck in the vehicle's grill. It just fell off in the parking lot on arrival.
     Food supply of the White-winged crossbills and Northern Hawk owls can drop if there is a 'crop' failure or reduction in prey population. Crossbills eat seeds. Their bills are highly adapted for prying seeds from the cones of conifers of the northern forests. The bill holds the cone or seed hull open while the tongue plucks the meat out. I once knew a heavy smoker who could flip a lit cigarette butt around with his tongue so that the lit end was inside his mouth. He would close his lips and blow the smoke out of his nose. Because I knew the guy personally, I thought it was a cool trick. Remember the legendary woman who could tie a Maraschino cherry stem into a knot with her tongue. There's always some guy who says he knew her in high school. White-winged Crossbills with lower mandibles crossing to the right are three times more common than those with lower mandibles crossing to the left, like people that are left handed.
     The birds in these photos were enjoying black oil sunflower seeds in my feeders ans spillage on the ground. Individual White-winged Crossbills can eat up to 3,000 conifer seeds each day. Crossbills breed opportunistically throughout the year whenever food is sufficient for the female to form eggs and raise young. The species has been recorded breeding in all 12 months. A group of crossbills are collectively known as a "wrap" or a "crookedness" of crossbills.
     Northern Hawk owls, also called simply "Hawk owls," are unique among owls. They have long tails and pointed wings and their flight is like accipiter hawks. In addition, they tend to bob their tails when perched and are adept at hovering like kestrels. Their long tail distinguishes them from all other owls. This owl is about the size of a crow.
    Hawk owls eat rodents, mostly voles and in the winter, other birds. They will occasionally take a frog or even fish! Diurnal hunters, Hawk owls like the hawks they are named for, sit on perches and swoop to the ground for prey. They hunt mostly by sight and can see prey up to half a mile distant. Like a true owl, they also can hear rodents under as much as a foot of snow.
     The Hawk owl in the images above was dining on a female White-winged crossbill.  Both of these species were irruptives in Maine in the winter of 2009. This year, there are plenty of White-winged crossbills here, but so far, no one has reported a Hawk owl this winter. Maybe if they knew the crossbill delicacies were here they'd come around. In 2009, it was reported that several times, people who saw the owl took fat, Petco rats for the Hawk owl's pleasure. The owl swooped from its tree perch and snatched up the bewildered, rotund rats before you could say "White-winged crossbill!" Though the owl clearly found the domestic rats tasty, it was regarded as an outrage in the birding community to feed the starving bird that was far, far from home. Perhaps the crossbill that wound up in Florida perished in pursuit of an Early Bird Special after it wasn't allowed into a restaurant.
     Sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks are accipiter hawks built for speed, because like the Hawk owl, they hunt other birds in flight. Nailing a rodent to the ground requires speed and power, but not flight maneuverability. Both species of accipiter hawks are winter regulars in Maine. When there is thick snow cover, they stalk feeder birds, as easy pickings as a senior citizen's buffet or a Petco rat. Pass the tartar sauce and the Pepcid, please.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Feathered Friday

It's snowing again all over our world.

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Woodchuck or Groundhog? Whistlepig or Landbeaver?

Yellow crocuses in the snow
Marmota monax, one of  a group of large, ground squirrels

     When my children were young, they rode a bus to school. My son, as the oldest, was the first to venture up the long driveway to wait alone for the yellow bus. He seemed so small and vulnerable; it was excruciating for me to send him off. I knew though, that for him to learn self sufficiency and confidence, I had to let him go. I did ask if he wanted me to wait with him, hoping he would say yes. "No, Mom. None of the other kids' moms wait with them." I didn't think he was so sure, but I let him go. Secretly every morning, I watched from the house as he toddled up the drive and until he was safely on the school bus.
     Eventually, I became more relaxed with his separation from me and growing independence. I stopped waiting to see him climb the steps into the bus. I made myself busy in the kitchen until in the back of my mind I registered the rumble of the bus engine leaving with him safely inside. But one morning, though he went to wait at the head of the drive, my son didn't get on the bus. Instead, he came flying back to the house, running as fast as his kindergarten legs would carry him. Wide-eyed and pale as a sheet, he burst into the kitchen. "Mom! Mom! Help! " He was scared to death. "There's a rat, a huge rat up there staring right at me!" I calmed him down. My own fear abated because a rat was ridiculous. "Oh, honey, there can't be a rat. Do you want me to go back up with you?" This time, he said yes.
     When we walked back up the driveway together, I could feel his heart still pounding through his fat, little hand. He said nothing, though I was babbling away trying to dispel his anxiety and my own. I hate rats. I have major rat issues, in fact. Long ago, I saw a movie where a cage of rats was held to a man's face to get him to reveal State secrets. The image has stayed with me for decades. That's all it would take to make me spill everything anyone wanted to know. Nonetheless, I was sure there couldn't be a rat. "But Mom," he said, "It was looking right at me and wouldn't leave."
     And sure enough, there it was! Under an enormous White pine tree, where the giant roots dove into the ground, was a colossal woodchuck, sitting still as if frozen. It glared at us. Because the drive rose up a knoll at the end, the woodchuck was at eye level. I told my son that the daunting thirty pound rodent was a woodchuck and it wouldn't hurt him. "It's an herbivore," I explained. I told him that the woodchuck wasn't staring at him, but rather was afraid of him.
     Coyotes, bobcats, owls, eagles and farmers are among the predators of woodchucks. They freeze in place when they sense a predator so as to evade attack. A nearly motionless "Whistle-pig" alert to danger, will stand erect on its hind feet then whistle when alarmed to warn other groundhogs. Outside their burrow, individuals are alert when not actively feeding. Also called "Land-beavers," groundhogs may squeal when fighting, seriously injured, or caught by an enemy. They also make a low bark and a sound produced by grinding their teeth.
     Believing woodchucks to cause major damage to agricultural crops, farmers shoot them and gas their burrows. Woodchucks dig enormous burrows where they sleep and raise their young. They dig a second burrow for winter hibernation moving an average 700 pounds of earth in the process. A burrow may run five feet deep under the ground and has four to five entrances for escape from predators. The burrows can be dangerous and destructive when farm equipment falls into them or they are dug under foundations.
     Despite their heavy-bodied appearance, groundhogs are good swimmers and excellent tree climbers when escaping predators or when they want to survey their surroundings. But, they would rather retreat to their burrows when threatened; if the burrow is invaded, the groundhog tenaciously defends itself with its two big incisors and front claws. Groundhogs fight with each other to establish territory dominance and can be very aggressive.
     The lowly woodchuck is used in cancer research, too. When infected with Woodchuck Hepatitis B virus they are at 100% risk for developing liver cancer, making them a good model for testing Hepatitis B and liver cancer therapies in humans. In Ohio, the digging of woodchucks has exposed archaeological artifacts at the otherwise un-excavated Ufferman Site.
     "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?" None. The burrowing rodent, a member of the marmot family, doesn't eat wood. It's short, curved legs and claws are made for digging, not throwing or chucking. The name "woodchuck" comes from the Algonquin "wuchak." Though the 3,000 year old Native American language is dying out for not being spoken anymore, we still use Algonquin words for many of our flora and fauna. When you say woodchuck, chipmunk, caribou, hickory, squash, hominy, moose, opossum, and raccoon, you keep Algonquin alive.
     The name "groundhog" goes back at least as far as 1742. It may have been a translation from the Dutch aardvarken, meaning "earth pig," or it may simply have been inspired by the observation that this pudgy rodent burrows in the ground. No matter what you call him, the woodchuck is the only rodent with its own day - "Groundhog Day" on February second. On coming out of his burrow, if the woodchuck sees his shadow, he retreats back to the burrow where he stays for six more weeks until he thinks the weather will turn fair. If he doesn't see his shadow, he stays out of his hole expecting that momentarily, it will be spring.
     This February 2nd, the woodchuck did not see his shadow, because the sun isn't shining anywhere in the United States. We've been enduring one of the harshest winters on record. The Whistlepig popped from his hole into the face of a history making snow storm. Though his alleged prediction is that we'll only suffer a few more weeks of winter, that doesn't seem likely when looking out the window. To believe that one day soon the sun will shine and the flowers will bloom is a leap of great faith, like crocuses through the snow or putting a little boy on a bus.

Thanks to the following for some of the information: