Monday, February 18, 2019

A sheltering ash tree

By Beth Sullivan
There is a really big, old Ash tree at the edge of the woods in our yard. Ever since we can remember, it has had crevices and holes at several places up the trunk that seemed to house lots of things, from nuthatches to flying squirrels. Most often though, it was home to the far more common eastern gray squirrel.
For years these creatures enchanted my children and tormented my dogs with their antics. They could usually out run a dog while on the ground and always escaped when they reached a tree anywhere near the woodland edge. From there they could easily travel long distances , from limb to limb, tree to tree, back to safety, without ever touching the ground again, and disappear into one of their holes. Often though, they would sit, safely out of reach, waving their tails and chattering, truly baiting the poor dogs below.
This was a mother out to eat; she had five little ones to feed.
The split in her ear allowed us to identify her for several seasons.



At home anywhere

Our gray squirrels are truly adaptable. They are creatures of the forest, yet, they are perfectly at home in urban parks and back yards. Their favored foods are various nuts and therefore are most often found in woodlands with many oaks, hickories, and beech trees. Our small woodlot has numerous oaks, and we have always enjoyed looking for places the squirrels have been picnicking. They will find a flat rock, stump, or some other elevated platform where they will enjoy their acorns or hickory nuts. A sure sign of a squirrel is a pile of nutshells left behind. The acorns often look like they have been peeled in strips, which is how they get into them. They are famous for their ability to stash their resources for the leaner times of winter.
Gray squirrels do not truly hibernate, but they may simply hide out during a long cold or stormy spell. Then they emerge to dig through snow to find their hidden cache. In the spring and fall, it is fun to look on the forest floor under pine trees for small nest-like creations among the pine needles. These are not nests, but places where a squirrel has dug under the needles, looking for a buried acorn. I like to think of them scratching their heads, wondering “is this the place?” “ Nope”. And then moving on to another spot. During the winter they usually den up in the hollows of big tress, like my Ash. But the winter is also time to spot their summer nests called dreys, which look like messy accumulations of leaves and twigs. These are far from fragile; they are actually very tightly woven and lined on the inside with all sorts of material, even man-made, to create a soft and waterproof lining.
Last year, very early in the spring, the family in the Ash tree produced five babies. They were likely born early March, or even late February, and emerged in April, fully furred and ready to roam. Their sibling antics were just such a joy to watch. Sometimes it was laughable, to watch one misjudge a leap and land awkwardly, or even fall, only to look around, shake itself off, and run up again. They aren’t quite as enjoyable when they all begin to run back and forth over my roof, from front yard feeders to back yard feeders, sounding like a herd of horses and again, tormenting the dogs by posing in the windows.
As messy as it looks, a squirrel's drey is actually tightly woven and secure.

Squirrels will leave acorn remains in piles, Many of the m look like they have been peeled.

While searching for their hidden stashes, squirrels dig scrapes that look like little nests in  pine needles.

A flash of red

We occasionally get a cute red squirrel to join the fun. They don’t often get along with their bigger, gray cousins, and usually it is the scrappy red ones that do the chasing. While there are certainly similarities, there are some interesting differences. The red squirrels prefer evergreens for their nests and will often use old woodpecker holes for their winter sites. They also will live in underground burrows in rocky areas, near stone walls, and will often stash their food deeper underground. They prefer smaller nuts, seeds, and pine nuts, ripping apart the cones easily.
As winter winds down, the squirrels will be more active, and they will be searching for their last stashes of food and visiting the feeders. The females are likely already pregnant.
My big Ash tree houses a family again. But sadly, its days are numbered. The invasive pest, the emerald Ash borer, is in our area. Some of this tree’s lower limbs are dying. It is less vigorous. I hope its hollow trunk will remain as a shelter for many more years.
Red squirrels will come out to bird feeders, and often chase away their bigger cousins.

When part of the big ash tree came down, its hollow core was revealed. A home in the shape of a heart.


Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Barred Owls Have Everybody Talking

By Beth Sullivan
Those of us who are linked in to all the nature sites on social media have been reading a lot about barred owls lately. If you are a nature watcher of any kind, it is very likely you have spotted one in the last couple of months. The news has been filled with reports of this most wonderful owl. Reports have been coming in of sightings and encounters in all sorts of places.
Most of the time, barred owls like to hide in evergreens. Photograph by Hank Golet.

Diurnal owl makes a showing

While very widespread in distribution, normally they are somewhat secretive and like most owls, are more active at night. Barred owls are the most likely to make an appearance during daylight hours or be spied in a somewhat more open location. I admit, they are my favorite. I think it’s because of their dark eyes which are situated in the front of their face, not off sides like other birds, and they appear calmer and more human, unlike the great horned owls and others, with their other-worldly yellow eyes. I walk in several areas where I keep my eyes open because I know they are residents. They usually like to sit deep in the shadows of a big evergreen to stay out of the way of the noisy and disruptive crows. On a recent, finally sunny warm day, I came upon “my” owl sitting out on a limb, exposed and seeming to be enjoying the sun as much as we were.
At this time of year they can be heard calling to one another. Actually they call almost any time of year. When I find my spot to sit, I can often hear several of them calling back and forth to one another. They often respond to a good imitation too. When my daughter was young, she and a barred owl engaged in a conversation during which the owl flew out of the woods to the yard edge to investigate more closely.
So why are there seemingly so many of them right now? I am not sure there is any one answer but I have read many good theories. One is that there is a lack of food in some more northern areas, pushing them south to find the small mammals they usually rely on. Another thought is that there is an abundance of food locally, and the birds are just happy to be out hunting over open fields taking their mice and voles more easily than in the forest. One beautiful bird was photographed by several people as it spent the day at Knox Preserve. The fields were newly mowed, providing less cover for small mammals. The owl moved from trees, to poles, to empty birdhouses, just watching and waiting. I have found mice nesting in those empty birdhouses during the winter; maybe it was waiting for a quick snack.
One other theory, that I find interesting, is based on the fact that it is now early mating season. The young from last year may have spent these many months still in the company of their parents, possibly still getting assistance and lessons. But now the parents have other things on their minds, and it is time for tough love. The kids are out on their own. They are a bit unrefined and not very discreet in their hunting techniques yet. Maybe that’s why one chose to sit on a “No Parking” sign in the Stonington Borough. Another, or maybe the same, was reported in the only tree on Dodge Paddock. A wonderful sight for many, but also probably an easy place to find meadow creatures in the newly cut field area.
Great horned owls and most other owls have quite startling yellow eyes.

They are very vocal and appear to enjoy themselves. Photograph by Dennis Main.

This one chose to sit in full view of homes and a busy trail. Photograph by Rick Newton.

This owl at Knox Preserve was apparently waiting for a snack. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Hike, and drive with your eyes open

Sadly though, their inexperience and hunger drive them to a bit of recklessness or carelessness, and as they hunt along open roadsides, they swoop low and too often end up casualties of collisions with cars. It is quite startling to find an owl on eye level with you, especially when you are behind the wheel.
So as you hike these next weeks, listen for the crows signaling they may have found one sleeping somewhere. Look up, especially into evergreens, and you may see one, or maybe even parked on a sign where you least expect it.
Whatever reason is behind their increased numbers, I am enchanted whenever I encounter one.
You can read more about this year's owl boom here
Glastonbury police rescued this one after a collision with a car. Glastonbury police photo. 

Many barred owls are unable to be released after injury. This pair was lucky enough to be able to have a family in captivity. Photograph by Ben Turner.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Some Vagabond Birds

By Beth Sullivan
We started off this winter, in late fall actually, with one good snowstorm and a lot of good birds. We all hoped this was going to be a big year for northern species. Every once in a while, due to challenging conditions in the northern regions, birds will move south in irregular patterns. These are called irruptions. Some are more noticeable, and stunning, than others. A few years ago we were seeing beautiful snowy owls in local areas, in farm fields and coastal areas, sandy beaches, and parking lots. That was a great winter! It was attributed to a lower than normal supply of the small mammals that the owls normally find on their home turf.

A diet of seeds

Other birds rely on seeds from various sources. If a particular seed source becomes scarce, they will move as well. Some rely on seeds from evergreen conifers, others from trees such as birch and alder. This season started off spectacularly. One day in early November, we were totally stunned by a flock of evening grosbeaks at our feeder. They flew in with a very distinctive chatter and landed on the ground beneath our tube feeder and fought for spots on the perch of our hopper style feeder. I think I have only seen these birds at our home once before in all the 30+ years we have lived here. They may have been here, but we wouldn’t know, mostly because they have the terrible habit of dropping in, demolishing all the seeds present at the moment, then swirling away, never to come back. We just happened to be at the window at the right time to see about 15 of these gorgeous birds. Their color is so smooth; females are subtle and lovely, and the males are outstanding in their yellow and black. Their beaks are huge, bigger than our local cardinals’, perfectly adapted to cracking open hard shelled seeds. They stayed long enough to entertain us, let me get some good photos, then got spooked and flew off, never to return that day, or since, that we have seen.
We kept our eyes open after that. My favorite birding is often done at my kitchen window. I can pretend I am getting work done, do dinner, clean up , whatever, and keep my eyes on the feeders and trees right in front of me. I am always rewarded.
Snowy owls are not common this year. This one was at Sachuest NWF. Photograph by Susan Dewire Chester.

The male grosbeak is impressive in his coloration and the size of his beak.

Sparrows all around

Not too much later in November and into December, we welcomed several fox sparrows to our feeders. These birds are noticeably bigger than their more common counterparts. Yet they mix in with all the white-throated sparrows and song sparrows. Their behavior is just the same: hop and scratch, then scurry to the bushes. But their color is warmer, rusty reddish brown. These birds, as with other sparrows, are not quite as flighty. They are apt to stick around for a longer time if they know there is food. And they don’t travel in flocks like the grosbeaks. These birds stayed with us for several weeks, and I enjoyed their antics on the ground under the window every day. Then they were gone. Wherever they go, farther south maybe, they often return on their way home. Keep an eye out in March.
Our other welcome visitors also showed up in flocks, but not necessarily of their own kind. This year the pine siskins arrived in December, but when they arrived they came with a big flock of American goldfinches. We have goldfinches living here year round, but the larger, mixed flocks from up north, often roam around with the locals. When the larger flocks show up, look carefully, because one or two may stand out as different. Sometimes the siskins themselves will come in larger numbers in flocks of their own. The siskins are similar in size, small, delicate, but are streaked brown and may show a delicate wash of yellow on their sides. Their beaks are thinner than the goldfinches’. They behave the same; you can tell they are related. These flocks may stay in an area for a day, maybe two, but then they are off and moving elsewhere.
I haven’t seen any other northern superstars. But yesterday at the suet feeder, in the deepest cold of the winter, several beautiful bluebirds arrived. A promise of spring, I’d like to believe. And certainly just as welcome and appreciated as any transient visitor.
The pine siskin is delicate and very streaked.
Our goldfinches share their flocks and feeders with the pine siskins.

The fox sparrow is more robust in color and size than most sparrows. They don't stay all winter.



The white throated sparrows are winter residents, here from October to May.

When the bluebirds arrived it was a glimpse of spring.


Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.