Monday, July 20, 2020

Some things don't change

By Beth Sullivan
Having been the grandmother to the Purple Martins at Knox preserve for about seven years, I really look forward to every season and have come to know the stages of development that take place inside the secrecy of the nests. The miracle is just too wonderful not to share.
The scouts stayed with their parents, properly distanced and masked. Photograph by Rick Newton.

A little different this year

This year, with all the Covid concerns, just two of us have been monitoring the nests, and we haven’t been able to share the experience with anyone else. But last Sunday, everything aligned just perfectly, and I was able to introduce a new generation of Cub Scouts to the newest generation of Purple Martins on the Knox Preserve. Pack 37 of Stonington, under the leadership of Matt Ferrier, has helped out Avalonia on several occasions. With extra muscle from parents, they planted seedling trees on the Woodlot Sanctuary and have helped restore walls, make brush piles and clean up in Hoffman Preserve. It was time for their reward. With only a short notice to determine the weather would be ok, and several families would be available, we set a time to meet.
Five Scouts, each with a parent or two, and even a grandmother, arrived right on time. They spread out , properly distanced, and I was able to give them the first guidelines: listen, stay distanced, and always keep your mask on as there would be times when I would be close to them. We walked out the path to the colony site, and the martins could be seen soaring against the perfectly blue sky. We could watch them capture butterflies and dragonflies and return to their nests to feed their young. I had monitored them closely enough to know the age and stage of development of the nestlings in each gourd, so after watching me crank the winch to lower the set up, the boys could barely contain their curiosity. One by one, with their own parent, they carefully climbed the step ladder to be at the perfect height to peek into the first nest. Last time I checked, there were still eggs; this time there were three eggs, and one tiny pink nestling, just hatched. One of the scouts actually found the eggshell on the ground. Everyone, parents included, took a turn. Just amazing.
The first peek inside a nest. Photograph by Sandy Alexander

The first nest was amazing. They got to see a brand new hatchling.

Behind the mask they were grinning ear to ear.  Photograph by Rick Newton.

By comparing the live bird with the chart we could determine its age.

A hands-on experience

Then we moved to the next nest. Here the birds were about 9 days old. Using the growth chart provided by the Purple Martin Conservation Association, we were able to compare the live bird with the photos and look at feather development on its wings and tail to determine its age. Then, several of the scouts got to hold this bird. Ever so gently they cupped the creature inside their hands. They could feel the warmth, touch the stiff pin feathers and even see the holes in the head that are the ears. Over their masks, their eyes just popped with wonder. During the next half hour or so, others had a chance to hold different birds, use the chart to compare, ask questions and beg for more turns. They were hooked. As Scouts, they were ready and willing to help, so as we finished the first set of gourds, they stepped up to help me crank up the winch to raise the set high on the pole.
There were even more birds of various stages in the second set. More opportunities to peek inside. And when we found a wonderful nest of 4 newborns on the upper level, their parents helped lift them up to look. When the nest was jostled, the birds would raise their heads and open their really huge mouths, hoping for a morsel. Even with such large mouths, we were all wondering how a parent could deliver the biggest dragonfly we had ever seen, into one comparatively small mouth.
After they helped me crank up the last set, we all sanitized our hands, and they had a Scout mini-meeting in the field, still well distanced from each other. Before they left the field, each turned to witness that the parent birds returned very quickly, not at all disturbed by our activities, to feed their hungry young ones.
With a few adjustments, this event went on as it might have at any other time. The sun was shining, it wasn't  too hot, and the sky was a beautiful blue. The birds and insects carried on as normal. It is so reassuring to know that some things do not change.
The Scouts listened well to instructions and held the birds very gently. Photograph by Rick Newton.

We wondered how the little birds could eat a dragonfly this size, even without its head. Photograph by Sandy Alexander.

The parent birds waited patiently with their beaks full. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Nature's Hiding Places

One of the mixed blessings of all these wind storms we have had since last Fall, is the abundance of fallen limbs and trees. Deep in the woodlands, these branches, some still with leaves, would be left to decay naturally. Those closest to the ground will be affected by ground moisture and start to rot first. A log on the ground provides shelter for numerous life forms, from worms and slugs, insects, spiders, centipedes, millipedes…and on up to salamanders, small mammals like mice and shrews and voles, and even snakes. The tangle of branches that remain suspended above the ground will decay more slowly. They provide shelter and cover for some of the same creatures, but also larger mammals, including rabbits and squirrels and also birds. Think of a small mammal or bird being pursued by a hawk. The tangle of branches protects the smaller creatures while thwarting the predator. 
Over time, the leaves, small branches and pieces of wood continue to decay. Beetles move in, termites and ants take up residence in the rotting wood. Worms do their part in composting and recycling. Nutrients return to the forest floor and nourish remaining plants. 
Where tree limbs came down on the trails on Avalonia Preserves, it was a big effort to remove them and open the trails and make them safe. In many cases we were able to make well-constructed brush piles. Instead of loosely arrayed branches just left on the side of the trail, a beneficial brush pile is denser, more solidly piled. Heavier pieces are left closer to the ground to provide support and structure as well as good sized gaps close to the ground. Mid-sized branches are criss -crossed on top next and the whole pile is covered with smaller pieces, especially evergreen boughs, to fill in the gaps. Think of the pile covered deep in snow in the dead of winter. The smaller spaces within are protected from biting winds and even retain some warmth from the ground in the face of sub-freezing temperatures. Small mammals can stash food: nuts, seeds, grasses, eliminating the need to venture out. Birds also will find protection within. Sparrows and wrens in particular make use of man-made piles. 
As you walk on one of our Preserves, look for man-made brush piles. Paffard Woods has several. There are piles from Red Oaks and some from White Pine that were toppled by Storm Sandy. The Knox Preserve has a large dense pile of cedar boughs as well as many smaller woody piles along the field edges. If there is snow on the ground, look for tracks around the piles. Observe from a distance to see what activity occurs at the piles. Nature does a good job of protecting small creatures, but Volunteers can enhance the effort with great success. 
Written by Beth Sullivan

Monday, July 6, 2020

The Next Generations

By Beth Sullivan
With this extra time on our hands, I sure hope everyone is paying attention to what’s happening outside the windows, in the yards, in the woods. The season has changed from spring to summer and this is truly the time of new life. Plants, of course, burst into view during spring months, but the birds and mammals have taken a bit longer to get settled and start their families. Now it seems, everywhere we turn, there are youngsters out and about testing their wings, or legs, and bringing a smile to all who witness this wonderful stage of life. The next generation has arrived.
I seem to spend a lot of time at my kitchen sink, so I am glad for the distraction of the dogwood tree and its birdfeeders. We have left our suet up this year, longer than usual, because of the parade of young birds taking turns trying to figure it out. The young downy woodpeckers mastered it quickly, but they have little tolerance for siblings or other uninvited guests. The catbird parents have been carrying suet back to their nestlings, and now they too are attempting to get to at it themselves. They are less graceful than the woodpeckers. These birds are fully feathered and pretty independent now, but it has taken a while. Most birds are pretty helpless, and featherless, for a couple of weeks before they venture out on their own. They sit tight in the nest while their parents deliver the food. In the case of Purple Martins and other Swallows, the adult birds can be observed swooping over open meadows capturing food on the wing. It has been a banner year so far, for dragonflies. Great for the birds, not so good for the dragonflies.
Shore birds and waterfowl, on the other hand, are pretty much ready to run, or swim, the day they hatch. Most nest on the ground and are very vulnerable to predation or injury. They will not be able to fly for a while so they rely on other means of protecting themselves. The most important thing is their coloration, excellent camouflage in their habitat. The little shorebirds have legs that are like those of a kid with a growth spurt: long and gangly with big feet.
The water birds don’t look quite so awkward and are capable of darting quickly toward water and swimming to keep up with the rest. If you are lucky enough to be able to observe one of these species, be patient; watch for a while and you will be entertained by some truly funny antics as the birds learn how to search for food and try to preen.
A wide open beak at the door greets the adult tree swallows. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Day old purple martin hatchlings are totally helpless 

Those long legs really work! Photograph by Rick Newton.

These ducklings can swim and search for food within a day or two of hatching.

Young American Oystercatchers blend into their surroundings for protection. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Young mammals are even more fun

At the same kitchen window I have watched young squirrels do very awkward things as they try and figure out the best way into a squirrel-proof feeder. After a few embarrassing falls, the little ones just pop up from the bushes where they fell, look around as if to see if anyone witnessed their mistakes, and then try it again. They seem to be quite agile as soon as they emerge from the nest. Raccoons are the most inquisitive. Being able to witness the sibling relationships in a family of young raccoons makes it easier to see how they can figure out how to get into a locked, secured, tied-down metal can of birdseed. They plot together. Some of the most endearing youngsters I have seen are the young foxes. This year a number of people have reported dens very close to their homes. How lucky! It is thought that the adults choose to live closer to humans to protect themselves from the larger coyotes that would be dangerous to their young. They really are like a cross between a puppy and a kitten, in their appearance and their antics. Litters of animals have the benefit of learning by playing with one another, like kids in school.
Deer usually have a single fawn, or occasionally twins. Shortly after birth they are able to walk awkwardly and are very obedient when advised by the doe to stay put and bed down in the grass while she goes off to feed. It seems that only when mom is around, and deems it safe, that they will cavort and run.
A raccoon family can get into a lot of mischief. 

Fox kits offer the best entertainment.  Photograph by S. Sorensen

Summer is a good time to be a child

It is time to explore, to grow, and to learn. It is time to get legs underneath and wings strengthened to fly. Human children need their parents longer and learn life lessons over many years. Take this summer time, with your child or any child in your circle, and get out to teach them the wonders that we can experience now. Make this time count. Stretch their minds and their hearts with love and learning of nature. Take a lot of photos of the small things they see, so they can remember the stories and experiences this winter when we may be closed back in. Gather treasures in a special box to help them remember being young in the summer. It is good for the adult soul, too.
Take time this summer to explore and teach the young ones in your life.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.