Monday, March 27, 2017

Birding, here and there

By Beth Sullivan
We were lucky enough to escape the day before “the Blizzard” to fly to warmer, greener places. I only felt a little guilty leaving while I knew people here would be dealing with lots of snow and cold and wind, but just a little.
We were in Puerto Rico. We had the opportunity to stay on the north coast, but far enough east to be away from the hub of the cities. We had decided to spend as much time relaxing as possible, but that included birding and nature study which for me is most relaxing. We are at the vernal equinox, when the length of days and nights are equal, with days getting longer, and this spurs many changes in nature. Everywhere.
It was easy to be distracted by the beautiful scenery. 

I think I have been watching birds forever, beginning with my little yellow parakeet I had as a baby. But I became a birder as my own kids got older and we had the time to take vacations with them and really began to study birds in their native habitats. Binoculars, bird books, and now Apps are essentials on any trip. A camera is great but a birder knows that certain birds never sit still long enough to be seen clearly, never mind photographed.

Habitat is key

One of the first lessons a birder learns is about habitat and distribution: certain types of birds like certain habitats. Anywhere. And certain birds are not found in certain places, ever. So a warbler is going to enjoy trees and brush, sparrows often like to find seeds on the ground, ducks and herons and egrets like water, and shorebirds like seashores. It may be a bit of generalization and is never set in stone, but it helps. Looking at the range maps helps you narrow it down too. A bird you are investigating may never be found in your present area, but another similar bird may be abundant. It becomes easier to narrow down the choices.
Royal Turns act just like our local Turns.

Along the coast it was hard to focus on the birds because the water and scenery were so beautiful. We watched terns diving for small bait fish, and while they were bigger Royal Terns, they looked and acted just like the terns (Common, Least and Roseate) that we have here. Along the coast in Luquillo and Fajardo there were also Magnificent Frigate birds and Brown Pelicans. Those were easy to identify. In Puerto Rico, osprey are considered endangered. I expected to see a number of winter visitors, but we only saw two. They do not spend much time there, but their behavior is unmistakable. I wished them safe journeys northward as they should be arriving here soon.
Magnificent Frigatebird

Hiking into the rain forest of El Yunque was definitely the highlight. We spent hours over several days exploring side trails, dense rain forest, open areas, and water falls. Interestingly many of the best birds were actually closer to places where there were openings for parking or picnicking. Just like here, birds of certain types will find different niches and like edges that are sunny to find flowers for nectar and insects and seeds. It may also be that it is a lot easier to see a bird in an opening as opposed to way up high overhead where you just know he is singing, but cannot be seen for all the dense greenery. The leaves are so large they could hide an Eagle.
The rain forest canopy is a distinct world and the vegetation hides countless birds.

One bird we enjoyed early in our hike challenged our identification skills. When we first spied it, it definitely acted like a Robin. After watching it for a bit, we turned to the books. By knowing where to look-Thrush family with Robins-we could narrow it down. While we noted its red legs, its beak was most outstandingly red, and there was no mistaking it as a Red Legged Thrush.
The Red-legged Thrush acts just like our Robin.

There were Flycatchers all over. They were easy to sort into a family group, but like Flycatchers here, many were impossible to identify without hearing their song. We were able to identify several.

In the Mangrove swamp

A little yellow bird zipped in front of us. I thought it reminded me of our Yellow Warbler at home, and sure enough, the book shows range and habitat of the Yellow Warbler and describes it as being a common resident of Mangrove swamps. That was easy.
Doves act like doves in all places. We just had to sort out the species.
This Zanaida Dove mimics our Mourning Dove.

Deep in the forest we could hear a repetitive song. We knew it was close by, but we couldn’t find the singer. Finally it moved. The silhouette seemed familiar, good size, longish beak, speckled chest, but very strange light eyes. ID : Pearly Eyed Thrasher looking and acting much like our Brown Thrasher.
Pearly-eyed Thrasher.

There were so many more, some very unique to Puerto Rico.
All these birds were beginning their breeding season, singing with the sun, posturing for mates, collecting material for nests. Some things don’t change no matter where you are looking for birds.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Where did the Fox go?

Beth Sullivan has been away, so we're re-posting an older entry that seems fitting for our very cold spring weather.  Beth returns next week.

By Beth Sullivan
We all have been through some pretty brutally cold weather recently and some pretty erratic temperature swings. Can you imagine what a toll it takes on our resident wildlife?
Take a winter or cold spring walk and, if you are really lucky, find a child to take with you. Think like an animal in winter.
Any nature preserve or bit of woodland or backyard will work, but try Paffard Woods off North Main Street in Stonington.
We tend to think of mammals in winter as hibernators, but in reality most of them are not. Locally the Woodchuck or Groundhog is our deepest sleeper. In the late fall they fatten up and retreat into deep burrows, far below the cold surface. Their metabolism slows, and they will not emerge until February or March. Woodchucks can be found in woodlands, but more usually along farm fields and open lands, their burrows marked by mounds of earth.

Red Fox
Most of our other resident mammals are only semi-hibernators. They may be inactive for long periods of extreme cold and bad weather, but will rouse themselves and move about during the winter months.
The Red Fox will adopt a Woodchuck burrow in a more open area and preferably near water. They pair up in winter and dig or expand a den as part of the bonding process. You may come upon a woodchuck hole with what appears to be a lot of new gravel at the entrance. At this time of year, Woodchucks are sleeping. It is the Red Fox doing the digging. You can often sniff out a fox den too; they have an odor similar to skunk which lingers near their abode. They hunt mice and small rodents and have an uncanny ability to find them deep beneath snow. Have that child you are with look for mice tunnels, look for foot prints in the snow, and look for holes that look active and smell skunky. That’s where the Fox goes!
In the woods, look up and down for holes: holes up in trees, at the base of trees, in crevices, under rocks and by stone walls. Little ones and big ones. Just imagine what might be in them.
Large hollows in trees are good for many mammals.
The Gray Fox is our true native fox, and they tend to like the rocky woods. Look for holes at the bases of the ledges and between boulders. With the brook nearby, that would be a perfect place for a den.
The Gray Fox likes a rocky den.
Opossums and Skunks are usually considered nocturnal, but during the winter they make use of the warmth of daytime to forage. They will hole up in a tree cavity or hollow log, often in family groups. It’s warmer that way.

Gray Squirrel.
Holes at the base of trees often lead to tunnels higher up in the core of the tree. Hollowed out by ants, smaller creatures, like Chipmunks, will stash their nuts and seeds and remain sheltered inside. Squirrels will make use of holes, but also make big fluffy, leafy nests high in the branches and may rotate their lodgings as the mood strikes them.
A Squirrel's leafy nest.

Chipmunks will nest in stone walls.
Hickory nut shells at the base of this tree hint that someone is inside.
Raccoons will be active irregularly during the winter. When it is truly cold and stormy, they will seek refuge usually high in a tree, a hollow or snag. You might even find a raccoon peering out at you from a high safe place as you take a winter walk, but you have to be looking!
Small holes for squirrels and even some birds are found high up in trees.
Get that child to stop and look, all around. Find the holes high up and low down. Look in the ledges, wall, trees and stumps. Think like an animal and see where he or she might choose to spend a cold winter day.

Photographs by Rick Newton and Beth Sullivan.

Monday, March 13, 2017

What is She thinking?

By Beth Sullivan
Mother Nature must have an amazing sense of humor. At least I’d like to think it is humor and not some angry punishment for our human transgressions against her.
As I sit here and try to think of an upcoming trip to a warmer place, I am looking at a lovely, but at this point unwelcome landscape of beautiful, fluffy white snow. You cannot deny the beauty of a snow fall that sticks just enough to cover branches, to transform the woodlands. It is not yet cold enough to be uncomfortable for the clean-up nor are the winds howling(yet), so it really isn’t a bad storm. The kids were happy. My dogs are happy.
A few weeks ago we got hopeful.

Early Spring

But about 3 weeks ago, on one of those unusual, warm, February days, I was walking through Pequotsepos Preserve, and stopped not believing my ears, when I heard a PEEP of a solitary Spring Peeper in the woods. I was near a vernal pool off the trail; part of it was still ice covered. But the sunnier south facing shore was totally thawed. As I poked into the leaves at water’s edge with a stick, just messing around, as I have done all my life, I disturbed a small, larval salamander. At this time of year it is the Marbled Salamander whose larvae inhabit the shallow vernal pools At only about an inch long with no markings on their black skin, they are identifiable by their feather-like gills.
The larvae of Marbled Salamanders exhibit feathery gills. Photograph by Bruce Fellman.

Then two weeks ago, while driving on a rainy, warm night after an unusually warm couple of days, we noticed Spotted Salamanders and more Peepers. They were making their way across the wet roads from their woodland hibernating areas to the newly filled and thawed wetlands on the other side of the road. For me, the first spring emergence and crossing by the salamanders is a date to be celebrated. But this early event was a little worrisome.
Some Spotted Salamanders already made the trek to breeding pools.

Yesterday, a friend was walking at the Henne Preserve. Those of us who consider ourselves Naturalists are a bit obsessed about getting out and looking for those first signs of spring, especially in the face of the impending return of winter . Some of us even seek out very specific places where we have come to count on a particular species making a first appearance. At Henne, he was serenaded by a chorus of Wood Frogs, quacking happily in the pond near the entrance to the trail. He also looked for and discovered the first Mourning Cloak Butterfly in a spot we have come to know must have a special winter hiding place for them. These butterflies actually hibernate in cracks or crevasses to emerge when the temperature moderates and the sap rises in the trees. I am sure it is tucked back in today-and will be for a while.
Many of us look for Mourning Cloaks in the same places every year. Photograph by Bruce Fellman

Wood Frogs have the ability to survive freezing temperatures due to changes in their cellular fluids. Photograph by Bruce Fellman.

Back to Winter

So, spring has tried to make an appearance. More than once. Those creatures out prematurely have wonderful adaptations for being able to re-enter a hibernating state, dig into mud, or literally adjust their body chemistry so they can freeze without rupturing their living cells. Amphibian eggs will survive in the vernal pools. Those early risers will survive to rise again.
Some flowers were just making it through the last snow.

We may think Mother Nature has gone whacky, but she has given her creatures amazing adaptations to survive her whims.
We don fleece or fly south, even now.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, March 6, 2017


By Beth Sullivan
During late winter, things can get pretty dull and depressing. We all look for a spark of color in our landscape.
Lucky for some of us that the spark we see is the most beautiful blue. During the winter, our local Bluebirds do not migrate, at least not far. Mostly they roam in loose flocks through woodland areas to look for berries remaining, even dried, on shrubs and trees. I see them in places where there are the blue fruits on the evergreen Cedar trees in and around some of our preserves. Fennerswood, Knox Preserve, Preston Nature Preserve, and Knox Family Farm are just a few with the essential field habitat adjacent to cedar groves.
This male Bluebird clings as easily as a Woodpecker to the suet cage.

This  female waits patiently nearby while her mate takes his turn at the suet cage.

During February I think Bluebirds tend to become more desperate and begin to seek out bird-feeding stations and will join the suet lovers. This is my favorite time because it brings them close to my house, right in front of my kitchen window, where I can watch them cling to the suet as if they were woodpeckers. They can become pretty territorial too! I have seen them flaring tempers at Downy Woodpeckers and Nuthatches. But I have also watched some tender sharing moments as a Bluebird couple deliberately and politely, take turns on a suet block while the mate sits on a nearby branch or porch rail waiting.
Tempers flare when they have to share.

Spring house hunting

By late February or early March they have begun moving back to the fields and start searching out nest boxes. If you are a Bluebird landlord, you know it is time to clean the houses, remove old nests if you left them from last year, and get rid of mouse nests and debris that has accumulated. A clean house harbors fewer overwintering pests and parasites.
Cleaning out old nests insures fewer parasites for the new occupants. Photograph by Ethan Frohnapfel. 

Check to make sure your predator guards are intact and that your latches function so you can get in during the season to check on things. Unfortunately the “things” that need to be checked on are invasive House Sparrows. There are very few creatures that I really dislike, and I have tried to give credit for House Sparrow’s adaptability. But for several years running I have witnessed their cold blooded murders of nesting Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, destroying eggs, killing young and adults alike. Once I found an entire, new, Sparrow nest built on top of the bodies of the Tree Swallows that nested there first.
A House Sparrow built its nest on top of the Tree Swallow it killed to take the nest box.

That meant war. They are not protected by the laws that protect our native songbirds, and even the DEEP and USFWS encourage removal by whatever means possible. I will remove nest material, remove or addle eggs, and beyond that you don’t want to know.

Making Bluebird-specific nest boxes

But there are some new and ingenious methods to be found on line, to fix your houses to thwart Sparrows that do not deter Bluebirds or Swallows.
Now is the time that the Bluebird pairs check out available real estate. Photograph by Rick Newton.

One of our volunteers has made skylights in the top of the bird houses and created a plexiglass roof cover . Apparently the Bluebirds like the extra light and the sparrows do not. We have one as a trial at Knox Preserve.
A skylight is welcomed by Bluebirds but unattractive to House Sparrows. Photograph by Ethan Frohnapfel.   

Another volunteer steward has outfitted the boxes there with a special design using fishing line. The line really bothers the sparrows and prevents them from perching, but the bluebirds have no problem with it. Follow this link for more information. 
For more information, here is a link to the DEEP Bluebird Fact sheet
The DEEP would like all Bluebird landlords to report their successes, and failures-those are important too. Follow this link to fill out their survey.  
Together we can find the best methods to support these most beautiful of our birds-our spark of blue at the end of winter. Welcome to spring nesters.
Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.