Saturday, June 22, 2013

Paddling an actual Great Lake

Rough outline of trip (~75 miles total)
What: I cut my teeth lake paddling on Lake Champlain, but by Great Lake standards it just ain't the same as real lake paddling (Lake Champlain has been recognized as a Great Lake by Bill Clinton and later "unrecognized" by Leahy and congress). I went to college in Chicago, but never got to explore it by boat. With my time off I wanted to return to the Windy City and find some of the hidden wildlife popping up along the water's edge.

I drove in to Chicago Monday afternoon. Shortly after arriving I went for a jog with a couple of other reluctantly declared "former" runners, definitely not yet ready to call ourselves joggers. We ran along Lake Michigan's shore and the lake looked angry. It was one of the few times I've ever turned down a post-run swim. The wind was strong and out of the north. The length of the lake runs a little over 300 miles from north to south and, at the southern edge, a long northerly wind can build up powerful and dangerous swells, certainly nothing I'd want to paddle in. I decided to play it by ear on Wednesday - if the wind and water had calmed significantly I would give it a try, otherwise I'd look to paddle elsewhere.

The weather played in my favor and had died down significantly and the wind switched directions and was coming out of the east. The swells continuously shrank and by dusk were a pleasant roll. My primary concern was the daunting conditions around Navy Pier. The tourist boats throw up large wake and threatened to capsize my boat or flat out run me off. I hugged the break wall, where I got to hang out with impossible willows growing out of rock, nesting red-winged blackbirds, and acrobatic barn swallows.

My first stop after leaving 57th St beach was at Montrose Beach on the north shore. I ate a late lunch and rested for a couple of hours (about 15 miles of lake paddling is exhausting). I had some really wonderful conversations with curious folks; a handmade boat is a great conversation starter. People were both surprised at the length of my trip and that I was actually paddling in the lake. On my whole trip I didn't see anyone else paddling a boat they owned (I saw a few folks near the few 1/2 hour rental spots).

The evening section of my first day's paddle was surreal. Dusk swept across the sky in dramatic fashion. To the north a deep purple settled over the distant suburbs, while downtown shifted to a glowing orange from the sodium vapor lights. The waxing moon rose as the sun sank and I had the great fortune of seeing the gulls making their daily migration to roosting spots. As I followed their flight over my shoulder I heard thunder, which turned out to be a fireworks display downtown. Perhaps the ubiquity of gulls renders us blind to these amazing birds, but nobody seems to know or at least write about this daily phenomenon. I enjoyed watching the gulls, both ring-billed and herring, in their elegance diving for fish or hawking insects over the water. Poet and storyteller Martin Prechtel says that each species has its own eloquence that manifests at different times of year. Watching the gulls reminded me of that elegance that seemed so far from the domesticating scavenging I'm more familiar seeing. The hundreds (maybe thousands) of gulls seemed to be heading off in two directions, one to the south (possibly the break wall off the shore from downtown) and one to the east (possibly the water cribs in the lake). Their flight was quiet and mirrored the stillness of the lake. I was transfixed.

I continued on to Evanston and camped out at Northwestern's campus. Sometime in the middle of the night I awoke surrounded by a family of 6 raccoons. They scared what I think was a chipmunk right into me. I threw some sticks at them in my stupor and fell asleep too tired to secure up my food bag. I got lucky and woke to find all of my stuff still in place.

With a sunburn heating my skin and a sore left elbow I ate breakfast, packed up, and heading north on the lake to Lloyd Park beach in Winnetka. I took my time consolidating my gear as I knew the 2 mile portage in the heat of the day to the North Branch of the Chicago River was going to be a long one. The North Branch, in short, is majestic. It is a true refuge for wildlife and wildness in a city that can seem relentlessly urban. Amongst the chorus of catbirds, indigo buntings, and awkward grunts of great blue herons, I felt an older wildness welling up inside me. The chorus of sirens, cars, and trains faded into the background and became part of the noise of the woods. I felt my rhythms slowing. I relished my encounters stalking the young of raccoons out foraging or being graced with the presence of a young buck watching me intently from the banks.

While it feels old, I know it's young. This wildness is enclosed by a relatively immature forest akin to Vermont's riparian corridors and floodplains (e.g. boxelder, silver maples, cottonwoods, black willow). The river bends and winds in what feels like a natural meander. Walking a short distance from the banks in parts reveals old meander scars and tiny oxbow "lakes", though much of the even wilder stretches are heavily channelized and reinforced with rip rap, and I know that the story of how the river got its shape is a long and complicated one, the intersection of glacial geology, massive industrialization at its zenith, and human health concerns.

Because Chicago gets its drinking water from the lake, the Chicago River, which in its native form drained into the river, carried all of our urban effluent into our drinking water supply. In reaction to outbreaks of disease, namely cholear, in 1885, Chicago undertook a massive effort to reverse the flow of the river through a series of locks and dams. The city was then able to send its waste water to the Mississippi River rather than the lake; it's always worse downstream. There are a few tiny dams and a couple larger ones on the North Branch that, along with sections that were reinforced and deepened, increase flow of this section to more efficiently move water out of Chicago. These dams were a minor annoyance on the paddle as though only a foot or so drop required me to get all my stuff out and "portage" across the gap.

Next to the gulls, my favorite part was dusk on the second night. Around the time I reached Addison the green herons and great blue herons started packing it in for the night and heading to bed as the black-crowned night herons came out in droves. There were dozens of them, their eloquence on display. They're as graceful as great blue herons in all the ways GBHs are, and graceful in all the ways they are not. I loved the few encounters I had where they flew right over my boat as if to say hello.I couldn't help but be concerned for all these birds (great blue herons average life expectancy in the wild is about 15 years) eating fish out of these polluted waters.

The sun set lazily and, wearing just shorts, the warm wind was my blanket. My arms and body totally fatigued from the 30 miles of paddling and the 2 mile portage, I dreamily paddled from Belmont to downtown. I felt alone - though not lonely - like a voyeur looking in on a city's dirty secrets. Signs lined the river warning me not to let my skin come in contact with it, the Morton salt plant had left a crystalline patina on the surface of the water, and a weird foam oozed in great swirling patterns somewhere else along the way. Perhaps fear is why people only enjoy the water from the comfort of a brief stop on an overpass. Condos line the water's edge, the windows open to the river, giving glimpses at private worlds, someone on an exercise bike, quite conversations on balconies, the Miami Heat winning the championships. And while so much of me intellectually understood the gravity of the waterway's impaired health, I couldn't help but feel past this and see this totally wild, totally beautiful ecosystem thriving in this big forgotten expanse cutting through the heart of the city

I finished my paddle at Navy Pier sometime around 1am, greeted by the US Coast Guard trolling around asking where my life jacket was. I backtracked a bit and found a boat landing where tour boats park along the channelized edges (the concrete banks are about 10' high in places). I pulled my canoe up next to me as a visual block and camped out for the night, the lights from Navy Pier casting shadows across the water. I felt so safe down in my tiny hideaway. After all, I'd been almost completely undetected for about 30 miles and people rarely deviate from the beaten path so I felt confident I wouldn't be detected. Plus, I planned on getting up with the sun.

Sunset greeted me in full splendor. I ate a hasty breakfast and then portaged my boat 3/4 of a mile south to the Chicago Yacht Club (the lake is blocked by a dam, again to control flow of the Chicago River so it doesn't drain directly into the lake). It was actually frustrated trying to find a publicly accessible boat launch here. All the retention walls are super high and the closest beach was a mile north and out of the way.

The last 7 miles or so of my trip were easily the longest. The warming weather must have come in on a warm front from the south. The winds were stiff and the lake had become choppy. I was totally drained and had to continuously paddle to avoid getting blown backwards. I chose the less wise path of cutting the tangent from Shedd Aquarium rather than hugging the coast to save on distance and risk capsizing. It worked out, but had I tipped I would have been in big trouble. Progress was slow and the winds continuously strengthened to maybe 20 mile an hour perfect headwinds. I pulled into shore exactly where I had started about 48 hours earlier, having traveled a little over 70 miles by water and 4 miles by land. I was totally spent, sunburned, and in a complete state of bliss.

Birding wasn't my primary focus so I probably missed quite a few, but I did keep an informal bird list while out on the trip. With the canopy fully closed now it's hard to identify most species visually so I wish I were a better birder by ear. With the exception of a couple, all of the birds below were identified visually.

Bird List:
  1. black-crowned night heron
  2. green heron
  3. great blue heron
  4. turkey vulture
  5. ring-billed gull
  6. herring gull
  7. common tern
  8. Caspian tern
  9. chimney swift
  10. barn swallow
  11. cliff swallow
  12. tree swallow
  13. eastern wood pewee
  14. eastern phoebe
  15. mute swan
  16. Canada goose
  17. mallard
  18. wood ducks galore!! So many fledglings everywhere
  19. pigeon
  20. mourning dove
  21. American crow
  22. blue jay
  23. northern cardinal
  24. downy woodpecker
  25. hairy woodpecker
  26. yellow-shafted flicker
  27. red-bellied woodpecker
  28. European starling
  29. common grackle
  30. red-winged blackbird
  31. catbird
  32. American robin
  33. house sparrow
  34. house finch
  35. killdeer
  36. belted kingfisher
  37. indigo bunting
  38. eastern kingbird
  39. great-crested flycatcher
  40. song sparrow
  41. Cooper's hawk
  42. red-tailed hawk 
  43. red-breasted nuthatch
  44. blue-gray gnatcatcher
  45. cedar waxwing
  46. Baltimore oriole

Monday, May 20, 2013

Crow's Path and brief break

Beaven celebrating spring with a melodica
What: This week is super hectic for me, and then I'm leading an 8-day trip based on the adventures of John Muir (we're hiking to the highest point in Vermont, then paddling the Winooski River to the lowest elevation). As the semester ends and I wrap up other programs, I'll be taking a little bit of a break from posting.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Poison ivy, yet again

What: The above is an amalgamation of 23 photos I took of poison ivy leaves last fall (the three leaves are actually leaflets and collectively form a single leaf). I then put the transparency of each image at 1/23 to get the final result. I got the idea from visual artist Jason Salavon.

Last year in my post I wrote about eating the young leaflets as they got bigger and bigger. This April I got a little rash on my wrist (same spot as 2 years ago) and so I decided to try the treatment again. I started as the leaves were first bursting open 2 weeks ago. Each day for a week I ate a tiny leaflet (progressively bigger, starting with a piece about half the size of my pinky nail). I then moved to about once every other day. Plants are less potent when they're young (why you harvest medicinals later on in their life cycles when they can put more energy into their chemical defenses). So as I developed a defense to the urutiol by ingesting the plant, the dosage was getting more and more concentrated as the leaves get older. It's probably too late to start this year if you're interested in this treatment, but maybe next year. And some people have much much worse reactions than I do so I would strongly suggest doing lots of your own research on folk remedies and this type of tolerance-development before trying on your own. You run a risk of having a severe systemic reaction.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Commas and cloaks

Adult Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma)
What: It's been a busy couple of weeks wrapping up my semester at CCV and starting to wrap up at Crow's Path for the Spring. Today I did find a cormorant skull, that I'll post photos of in a few days. In the meantime, enjoy these photos of an eastern comma and a mourning cloak. They're among our first butterflies to emerge in the spring. Now with the prolonged warm weather and appearance of more and more flowers (how about all that celandine along the bike path, marigold along mucky drainages, and gorgeous and subtle green flowers of striped maple?) there are many more adult butterflies and moths appearing.

Overwintered adult mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)
Ecological notes: While out in Centennial Woods a couple of weeks ago I was watching a couple dozen or so mourning cloaks flitting around. Occasionally they'd come into another's territory and they'd spiral whimsically up into the sky together. It was elegant and graceful and then the awkward comma would get all huffy and jump into the mix. At first it seemed confused, like it didn't know that the mourning cloaks weren't possible mates. But then it seemed more like it was getting angry that the mourning cloaks were in its breeding area and was just trying to chase them away. The tiny drama was endearing in that condescending, anthropomorphic kind of way.

Both species breed in the spring, and this is the only time of year this territorial behavior is observed. Apparently my theory of defending breeding areas has largely been dispelled in recent years according to a local entomologist, but it seemed the easiest and most obvious explanation. More appealing than, "the commas get confused and can't tell the mourning cloaks from a female comma").

Where: Centennial Woods

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Bud scales & the most adorable leaf ever

What: The forest is mostly green now that all the buds have opened or are opening. While out in Centennial Woods the other day I was collecting leaves of all different sizes from Norway maple (Acer platanoides). Like other maples, the scales on Norway maple buds open and form these elongate leaves that subtend the normal leaves (seen as the plus sign in the photo below). Buds are made out of modified leaves and these are deciduous once the normal leaves (there's probably a technical name for these) are more fully developed.

Something must have gotten messed up somewhere along the way on one of the branches I was looking at. It appeared that the bud scale decided that it was going to get back to its roots and form a leaf. In the photo above, the mini leaf was actually attached to the tip of the bud scale leaf.

Monday, May 6, 2013


Cut stem of bloodroot oozing red sap
What: With all the bloodroot coming up in our woods, I got curious what other poppies we have here in Vermont. And it doesn't look like much. Magee and Ahles's Flora of the Northeast, which is a complete record of all vascular plants in NE and NY, lists 6 genera and 9 species. Only two of these are found in Vermont, bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and celandine poppy (Chelidonium majus). I posted about bloodroot last week. Celandine is an extremely abundant plant, at least in Burlington, growing in sandier, but moist waste places. It has beautiful yellow flowers and super furry stems/undersides of leaves. I've used the sap as a dye and got a yellowish-orange color.

Bloodroot rhizome cut in half to show showing "blood" beading up on surface
Ecological notes: I was mostly curious because things in the poppy family exude a milky sap that has a yellow/orange/red hue to it. The sap of poppies (family Papaveraceae) contains isoquinoline alkaloids, which are narcotics. These compounds are largely toxic to animals and have a fowl smell. Morphine comes from opium poppy (Papaver somnifera). I'm not sure exactly why the sap is pigmented, but it may serve as a visual warning to would-be-predators not to eat the plant, as any broken part of the plant will readily ooze the brightly colored sap.

Celandine leaf stem broken to show yellow sap

Friday, May 3, 2013

The three hares - May 1

What: The month of green! I had meant to get this up a couple of days ago, but didn't have a chance. The snow has melted and our woods and lawns now have a greenish tint to them! So exciting. The powerlines still seem a bit drab, but there's lots of fiddleheads from cinnamon, interrupted, and sensitive fern coming up in the area and the sumac buds are bursting (they're the straight sticks in the foreground). Phragmites (the light brown reeds along the brook) shoots are erupting.

Phenology notes from previous month:
  • Osprey nesting
  • Woodcocks "peent"ing
  • Spring ephemerals coming up (e.g. bloodroot, hepatica, spring beauty)
  • Grass greening
  • First dandelions coming up
  • Spring migrants arrive in droves, big flush still to come
  • Colder species of amphibians singing in full force (toads, treefrogs, bullfrogs still to make their full debut)
  • First leaves appearing in understory
  • Maples starting to leaf out
  • Sapsuckers returning, as second flush of sap starts flow (as non-maple species start to get sap flowing)
  • Woodchucks are out and about
  • First warm nights
  • First 70 degree weather
  • Fireflies out and about, not mating yet
  • Shorts and t-shirts abound!
  • Snow and ice has all melted
  • Dawn chorus is louder and louder (starting around 5am with robins then chickadees then cardinals then song sparrows, at least near my house).

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Spring ephemeral a day - Hepatica

Shelburne Bay

What: The most fascinating thing for me about hepatica is that as it comes up some of the leaves don't quite make it above the leaf-litter, or make it just part way. Where the leaves are exposed to the sun they are a dark purple, while the shaded parts are a bright green.

Another common adaptation of spring ephemerals is fuzziness (lots of species of ferns have some similar adaptation covering their fiddleheads). The fuzz is analogous to the loft of a down jacket. It creates a buffering layer around the plant. I'm convinced that this layer - ecologically called a boundary layer - is one of the most significant factors that plants and animals have adaptations for. We experience a boundary layer in cold water. If we stand in calm cold water we feel it get warmer and warmer the longer we stand there. Our body heat radiates out and warms the water, effectively increasing our boundary layer. The boundary layer can dwindle if we start walking or if the water is moving (e.g. wind action or water flow in a river). Wearing a wetsuit creates a thin boundary layer between the suit and our bodies that helps warm us.

Regardless of how strong the wind or current is, we always have at least a thin layer of no friction around us. It's why even on the highway, that layer of dust stays pressed against the hood of our car. It's also why at the top of Camel's Hump, all the plants hug close to the rocks to shelter from the wind. It's also why the reproductive part of the moss up there sticks up above the moss, to get out of the boundary layer and let the wind drag the spores away.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Spring ephemeral a day - Bloodroot

What: Look for bloodroot in hardwood forests enriched by calcium-rich bedrock. The flowers are variable, but generally have 8 petals, and can have up to 20 or so, though I usually see them in the 8-10 range.

The leaves come up first, cupped around a flower bud.l The flower opens first as the leaf begins to unfurl. I got to the spot around 3pm, but got distracted by a pair of deer. I followed the deer for a few hours and when I got back I noticed that many of the flowers that had previously been opened began to close up. 

Turns out bloodroot flowers are indeed nyctinasitc (flowers that open during the day and close at night; from nycto: nigth + nastic: non-directional response to external stimulus). My initial suspicion for why plants do this is that they might be selectively pollinated by a specific diurnal pollinator (but the flowers don't appear very specialized for this) or that it could protect the flower's reproductive parts from the cold night temperatures of the early spring woods. I found another proposed theory that points to weather as well, but a different threat. With temperatures so high during the day and cold at night, the temperature swing means lots of dew in the morning. If the stamens - where all that pollen is - get wet from the dew, then pollen the pollen won't transfer as well to insects.

Seedlings sprouting up. These first year plants won't develop flowers.
Where: Centennial Woods, as far as I know there is only one place in Centennial Woods with a bedrock exposure (down the slope on the southeast corner of the hospital commuter parking lot at the end of Carrigan Dr). The bedrock is Winooski Dolostone (dolostone is also called magnesian limestone), which has a higher concentration of calcium. So in that little plot there's an excessive amount of bloodroot, which is found nowhere else in those woods.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Silver maple - an update on the twig

What: A short interruption (tomorrow as well for first of the month) on the spring ephemerals to bring you an update on the silver maple bud I've been watching. The leaves on the twig have started to burst open! Also, the flowers have largely been pollinated and are starting the short journey to ripening (they look like purplish mini maple seeds). For more information, see my two previous posts on the silver maple twig.

April 3 post: click here
March 29 post: click here

Monday, April 29, 2013

Spring ephemeral a day - Early meadow rue

What: Last Wednesday, Leah, Sophie, Brooke and I took an early morning trip out to Red Rocks. The sunrise was gentle and elegant over Shelburne Bay. It was serene watching the ring-billed gulls cut lines across the water. We watched a few lines of cormorants heading north. Beneath our feet, we enjoyed the first of the spring ephemerals shivering their way up in the leaf litter. I was particularly captivated by the beauty of the early meadow rue (Thalictrum dioicum) unfurling into itself.

Ecological notes: Early meadow rue is superficially similar to blue cohosh (Thalictroides caulophyllum, thalictroides = thalictrum: thaliktron, Greek name for plant similar to meadow rue + -oides: resembling, looks like, so blue cohosh is the plant that looks like the plant that looks like an unknown plant that Dioscorides described in Greece). Blue cohosh looks like a beefed up, simplified meadow rue (I'll post about blue cohosh soon). Besides the shapes of the two plants being similar, the most notable similarity is their color. Each emergent plant has a deep purple tint to it. As the plant unfurls, it loses this coloration. My guess would be that, as a tree's leaf has yellows and oranges and other fall colors throughout the growing season, they don't show these colors during the growing season as the density of green chlorophyll increases and overshadows other colors in the leaf.

Where: Red Rocks, growing along the cliffs under scattered white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) and common red cedar (Juniperus virginiana).

Other notes: When I was first learning plants, I didn't know about Newcomb's wildflower guide and was more or less on my own. So I just made up names for them. This was the only plant I remember. I called it bear paw because the leaves reminder me of happy little bear feet dancing across the forest floor.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Yellow bellied sapsucker

Male yellow-bellied sapsucker (females lack the red "beard")

What: One of my students found a yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) that had died near her house (no sign of predation, perhaps flew into a window). The next day we got to watch a sapsucker drilling holes in a bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) and licking out the sap. I propped open the bird's mouth with an elderberry twig to show the bristles that line the tongue. Birds can't "suck" like we can from a straw, so having the hairs allows the woodpecker to lick up much more sap than a smooth tongue would be able to. The hairs work via capillary action, which is the ability of water and other liquids to overcome the force of gravity via intermolecular attractive forces to solids. This can be seen readily by holding the tip of a napkin in water and watching the water travel up the napkin. So all that surface area acts as a magnet of sorts and the little birdie can lap up even more liquid.

Ecological notes: Sapsuckers make distinctive horizontal rows of sapwells. It's interesting to note that we had tapped a bitternut hickory and hadn't gotten any flow. The sapsucker showed up just as the sap started dripping into our buckets. While the sapsuckers miss the better flow of maples, they have been recorded utilizing over a thousand different species, so there's plenty for them to go after.

I was also impressed by the incredible sharpness of the claws. I could easily perch the bird on my finger from just one of its claws. It's feet kept getting caught on everything because they were so sharp. Must be an adaptation for gripping a tree as the bird fiercely bangs its head against it while making its sapwells.

Where: Rock Point, Burlington

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Millipede graveyard

What: At Crow's Path a couple of weeks ago, Lauren and one of the kids discovered a cemetery of millipede exoskeletons. The big question was whether or not they were sheds or if all of the animals had died. There wasn't any sign of cracking along the back (as in the cicada molt below), so my suspicion is that there was a big flush of them and they died. Polydesmida millipedes typically have very small home ranges and so are locally concentrated, which may explain why we found sooo many in one small outcropping (

The top image shows gives a clear view of the full body of the millipede. There are 20 countable body segments. This is apparently diagnostic for members of the Polydesmida family, which all have between 18 and 22 segments. Because the colors had all been bleached away by time, it would be hard to identify down to species. The family gets its common name, flat-backed millipedes, from the lateral blade-like ridges, called paranota, poking out from the sides (apparent in photo at bottom of posting).

Differences between millipedes and centipedes: The image below shows a single body segmented with two pairs of legs. Millipedes have 2 pairs of legs per segments (centipedes have 1), short legs that don't extend much beyond their body (centipedes have long legs), they don't bite (they're scavengers, centipedes, which are predators, do bite), and millipedes are slow (centipedes, again are hunters and are very quick).

Where: On the moss-covered rocks at Rock Point

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Witch hazel seeds

What: Once I found out that witch hazel (Hammemelis virginiana) has projectile seeds I got really excited about seeing that process. I've been watching witch hazel all winter, and just last week I noticed that all of the capsules at Rock Point had finally split open, scattering seeds all about!

Ecological notes: Apparently the capsules can take up to 2 years to develop. Warmth triggers the capsules to pop open (they make a loud popping noise). So I suppose you should be careful about taking unopened seed pods inside. These guys opened when the weather was in the mid-50s. I included a couple of photos from previous falls, the first with the beautiful stringy yellow flowers, the second with developing capsules. 
Witch hazel flowers (photo taken at end of September)

Developing seed capsules (also taken in the fall)
Where: Rock Point

Other notes: The name witch hazel derives from the Old English wiche (probably akin to wicker), which means pliable. Hazel is adopted from the common name for European species in the genus Corya (like our native beaked hazelnut, Corylus cornuta).

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Owl feathers

What: I found these owl feathers strung up in a yellow birch sapling at Rock Point. The feathers had been plucked from the body of the bird (there was still some flesh attached to some of the cluster of feathers indicating it hadn't just molted the feathers). Here's my process of elimination for identifying them to species:

Detail showing "fuzz" on the feathers
  • Owls have fuzzy feathers along with a leading edge of "prongs" that make it look like a comb. These together channel air over the feather (black box of physics for me) that allow the bird to fly in utter silence. Raptors (Falconiformes) have this as well, but not nearly as well developed as in owls (Strigidae). 
  • In Chittenden County, there are records of 10 owl species, according to Six of these species are extremely rare (barn, snowy, hawk, great gray, long-eared, and short-eared owls). This leaves me with four probable species: eastern screech, great horned, barred, and saw-whet owls.
  • Using the book Bird Feathers and the online Feather Atlas I was able to narrow it down to further. The largest feather is a flight feathers (one of the secondaries on the wing). Flight feathers are asymetrical, have a bend when looked at both in profile and head on, and the tail edge of the feather curls up slightly.
  • The white bands on barred owl flight feathers cut straight across the feather. These were just white blotches on the trailing end of the feather.
    • Barred owls also have 2 distinct colors of brown. 
  • Screech owls also have 2 distinct colors of brown on their primaries. I've also seen these before and they tend to have an orangey/reddish hue to them. 
    • The white on each feather makes a clear triangular shape
  • Given size (about 3.5" long), color (one solid color of brown), and pattern of white dots, it seems like Northern saw-whet is the best match.
We have a pair of barred owls that we see and hear frequently around Crow's Path. My guess is that the saw-whet was eaten by the barred owl, which are apparently common predators of saw-whets. I looked around briefly for pellets but didn't find any. Pretty neat stuff!

Where: Rock Point in Burlington

Other notes: Great resources are the online Feather Atlas and the book Bird feathers by S David Scott and Casey McFarland

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Bird a day - Blue jay

What: There's a family of 5 or so that moves through this area making a total ruckus. I keep getting my hopes up, thinking that all their alarms are directed at a predator (I've seen a Cooper's hawk nearby on quite a few occasions in the last couple weeks). But every time it's the same: nothing.

Here I couldn't figure out what the bird was doing until I looked at the picture later. Initially it looked like it was peeling bark off the tree and eating it. Turns out it had found a peanut too big to swallow whole and it was tearing it into manageable sizes to swallow. It was gripping it with its feet and ripping up with its head. Pretty neat to see it solve the problem of size.

Where: Silver maple in my yard

Other notes: Tis the season for wildflowers. Skunk cabbage, hepatica, coltsfoot, and squill are all up. Wood frogs eggs are starting to fill the ponds, spring peepers are singing at Shelburne Pond, and buds are starting to bust!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Bird a day - White-breasted nuthatch

What: Perhaps one of my favorite birds. I think I like them so much because of their adorable little tushies, that little red ring around their cloacas is adorable. The photo below is classic nuthatch posture when it feels slightly nervous or when it's looking for greener pastures. They're one of the few birds that can move downwards along a tree's trunk. In the photo above I happened to catch it mid-hop!

Ecological notes: I watched the nuthatches "drumming" on the trees - they seemed to be prying bark off to get at little insects underneath. I watched them on super cold days doing this and wondered how much of their behavior is based on blind luck. Since insects wouldn't be moving around (temperatures where subfreezing) then they couldn't hear them. They'd have to smell them (most birds can't smell), see them (they were peeling the bark off to get underneath where the bugs were), see sign of their presence (like entry holes, feeding sign etc, indicating the birds are awesome trackers), or rely on dumb luck that peeling off enough bark will ultimately yield enough calories to stay warm.

Where: Silver maple in my yard

Friday, April 12, 2013

Bird a Day - Hairy Woodpecker

What: These are a couple of shots of the female hairy woodpecker. For notes on the difference between this little gal and the very very similar looking downy woodpecker, see yesterday's posting. In short (or long), the hairy woodpecker's bill is considerable bigger relative to body size.

Where: The silver maple in my side yard

Other notes: I remember reading Sam Thayer saying that he only wrote about wild edibles that he had tried himself. I really like that perspective, and I was reflecting on what I've included in this blog. A lot of it has been citations of the work of others, stuff that I hadn't observed in person. I think reading this has pushed a lot of my thinking, but it also has substituted for actual experience. While observing the hairy woodpecker feeding on the maple, I realized how little of substance I had to say about this creature and felt bad. I suppose that's my challenge over the coming weeks, to better know the hairy woodpeckers that are my neighbors.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Bird a Day - Downy Woodpecker

What: Female downy woodpecker above. Male shown below, note the visible red blotch on his nape. Sex is pretty easy to determine for most of our woodpeckers. General rule: If it has red on its head it's a male, if not it's female. Beware, as this doesn't always work (as with pileated woodpeckers - both have red on their head).

Hairy woodpeckers (coming tomorrow) can be really difficult to tell the apart from downys. A hairy woodpecker is beefed up downy woodpecker (hairys are about the size of robins, downys are just slightly bigger than titmice). My old roommate, and fantastic naturalist, Emily Stone, used the following mnemonic:

    "What bill??" - downy woodpecker
    "What a bill!!" - hairy woodpecker

Note that the downy has a thin narrow bill shorter than the bird's head is; hairys have thick chunky bills longer than the diameter of the bird's head.

Where: Silver maple in my backyard

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bird a Day - Cardinal

What: We've had cardinals successfully - and unsuccessfully - fledge young in our backyard. This male has been courting a couple of females, so hopefully this will be a "successful" year. Females have the same body shape, but are a waxy yellowish color with dustings of red on the sides. Their songs (and both males and females sing) are simple, but variable. They have that same sweetness to them that the titmouse has, but cardinals tend to sound more like a toy laser gun. Birdie Birdie Birdie Pew Pew Pew Pew.

Where: The silver maple!

Other notes: Their nests, which certainly aren't the tidiest of affairs, are often placed in super shrubby thickets where they have access to lots of cover (which is partly why they like honeysuckle so much). They always use strips of grapevine bark in the outer layers of their nests. Not sure why, perhaps to help conceal their nests from predators. In Medicine Quest Mark Plotkin describes eagles that select medicinal twigs to line their nests with (supported by research from Ohio Wesleyan). I looked up medicinal uses of grapevine bark and couldn't find any references, maybe the cardinals know something we don't?

Birds can't produce red pigment on their own, so in order to display a red plumage a cardinal needs to ingest foods with red in them. The pink of a flamingo is variable with the the amount of brine shrimp and blue-green algae in their diet; the more algae relative to crustaceans, the deeper the pink color. Both of these food sources contain carotenoids, and a redder coat may advertise to potential mates a healthier individual.

Male cardinals need to ingest foods with red pigments to get that brilliant color of theirs. Similarly, the better they are at procuring food the redder they'll be. Cardinals molt in the fall and so their spring coloration is due to what their diet consists of in the fall when they're replacing their feathers. All those fall berries (dogwood, barberry, grape, honeysuckle, etc.) provide the pigmentation the males need to say, "Yup, I'm fit and healthy and don't have a darn bit of trouble feeding myself." Males will also feed females as part of their courtship, as if to say, "And I can feed you to."

Other questions that come up for me:
  • Why risk being red when you can just sing? 
  • If you're already red to advertise your fitness, then why also sing? 
  • If they have similar diets, how do females avoid turning red?
  • Given their different colors, what's the difference in predation rates on males vs females?
As I was writing this I thought of an obvious possible explanation for why red is a common pigment among cardinals (and related species in the finch family Fringillidae and grosbeaks, which includes Emberizidae). Members of these two families, as evidenced by their bills, are granivores/frugivores (seed and fruit eaters). Plants advertise when their fruits are ready (which coincides with when the plant is done growing the seed and everything it will need to germinate and begin a new life) by changing colors. Most start green and turn a red, purple, or other color to signify to animals that they can eat the fruits now. The pigments used to signal this are, you guessed it, carotenoids.  Plants readily produce carotenoids to a) protect exposed surfaces from the sun, b) aid in photosynthesis, and c) advertising when fruits are edible. So the birds rely on the plants to tell them when to eat them and the pigments that tell them that to give them their coloration!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Bird a Day - House Finch

What: There's been a house finch singing around my property the past couple of weeks. Here's a shot of the male mid-song. The females have the same patterns on their bodies, but as with other finches (Fringillidae family) and grosbeaks (Emberizidae family), they are a drab brown.

Ecological notes: House finches are more recent "introductions" to the eastern US. According to Cornell's Lab of Ornithology's website, All About Birds, the story goes that they were being sold illegally in pet shops in NYC (can't sell migratory song birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918). Fearing prosecution, shop holders released their charges into the wilds of Long Island. They quickly spread out of the city and now cover much of the US (map). In the east, house finches stick more to urban and suburban areas, and in these places have begun replacing the native purple finch, which bears a similar red to the house finch.

Where: My backyard

Monday, April 8, 2013

Bird a day - Titmouse

What: The silver maple has provided me endless entertainment these past couple weeks. We've got a local flock that will swoop through and feed on it for about a half hour before moving on. My room's on the third floor, so I'm more or less "in" the canopy of the tree. While working the other day I snapped some photos of them li'l birdies and will post one species a day this week. The photo I didn't get in time was of a pileated woodpecker! It didn't stay long, which I hope indicates that the tree is in relatively good health.

Bird notes: The little guy above is a male tufted titmouse. They're similar in a lot of ways to black-capped chickadees, but their alarm calls are a much raspier: phweeet phweeet phweeet! and their songs a very sweet "Peter Peter Peter" akin to a cardinal (so much so it has caused much confusion for me). They've got an adorable little crest, slaty blue back, orange sides, and a white belly. There's a pair in this flock.

Where: My backyard