Sunday, March 27, 2011

Roadside slip

Remember those frog eggs from my last post? Well, the whole reason I even came upon those little treasures was because I had a destination in mind just a little farther down the road. As I mentioned in the frog egg post, we had had a lot of very heavy rain recently, and there was an event down the road that was a direct consequence of such heavy rains. Part of the hillside had slipped out into the road. I had noticed it on my way home the previous evening, but it was getting dark and I didn't really have time right then to investigate. I just knew there was dirt out in the road where it shouldn't be. So this is what I found the next day:

The view looking northeast. The water in the foreground is some minor flooding, presumably a by-product of the slip. There's a ditch that normally runs alongside the road to the left, and that ditch has been blocked by this clump of hillside that's suddenly in the road.

Here's the view from the opposite direction. It's far enough into the road that 2 cars can no longer pass at this point in the road, but it had not reached the center line - not yet, anyway. You'll notice a downed tree on the right side of the photo. If you look closely, you'll see that it became completely uprooted. Dave got home before I did the previous day, and that tree was blocking the road at that time (he had to drive around it).

It was difficult for me to give a good depiction of the scale of things here, but I would estimate that the slip originated 20 feet back into the hillside, and the width of the slip at it's widest point is probably also about 20 feet. That sounds like a lot of earth to be crumbling out into the road, but it's probably only the top 6 inches or so of soil that actually did the slipping (again, this is all pure estimation on my part). The tree that fell across the road was, as best as I could tell, rooted right at the edge of the slipped soil. I was amazed at the number of small trees within the area of the slipped soil that seemed to remain intact and unaffected by this movement of earth. The trees on the hillside just behind the slip zone were not in such good shape, though.

See all the trees leaning to the right? Those are all trees who had their root systems compromised, and probably even pulled away in some cases. This presented another potential hazard in addition to what was already hazardous out in the road.

Another view of the leaning trees.

These photos were all taken on a Saturday afternoon. Saturday evening we drove by and we noticed that the slip had crept out even more into the road. By the time we left for work on Monday, the entire inside lane was blocked, with earth clear out to the center line. Monday and Tuesday saw the arrival of township work crews to clean up the problem. I can only imagine the chainsawing and dozing that took place to make the road safely passable again. This is what things looked like one week after I took the first pictures:

The slip took place up the road and on the left. At a quick glance, you'd never know anything happened here.

But it wouldn't take you long to see the big cut into the hillside (this is taken from the opposite direction as the previous picture).

The clean-up crew basically just moved the dirt from one side of the road to the other. This pile of dirt is taller than me, probably coming in at close to 6.5 feet high.

That space was clear the previous week, which allowed me to really stand back from the slip to get wide-angle shots of what had happened, but wide-angle shots were no longer a possibility with the small mountain that had recently been dumped there.

I'm not sure how well this picture translates, but if you can see the patch of bare soil in roughly the center of the picture, that's the back "wall" of the slip. Trust me when I say that that's going pretty far back into the hillside.

Natural forces like gravity and water are still having their way with this chunk of hill. For example, I could see where water was still actively carving the soil along this edge.

Things are still in flux and probably a little precarious, and may remain that way for a number of weeks. While they trimmed down to stumps most of the trees that were leaning and in danger of falling out into the road, I wouldn't be surprised to find one or two of those stumps tumbling out into the road. The nice crisp edges that they carved into the hillside are already starting to curl over, and the whole thing continues to slump. I wonder if they will come back at some point and shore the whole thing up with some riprap or something (such as they did with a much smaller slip that occurred on our road a few years ago). Perhaps they're waiting for it to stabilize a bit more before they do such a thing, or perhaps they'll just let it be. Only time will tell.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Roadside vernal puddle

The last two Saturdays have been absolutely gorgeous in terms of weather, with sunny skies and temperatures reaching to almost 70 degrees. Such conditions brought me to my first true outdoor wanderings of the year, the kind where I just walk around seeing what I can see. I did have a destination in mind, but I knew I would get caught up in various things along the way, so I grabbed my binoculars and camera and went exploring! I never know what I'm going to happen upon when I go on walkabout in the neighborhood, and this journey was no exception.

I had already spooked off a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks and was looking for signs of botanical life (having already found flowering Coltsfoot and newly sprouting leaves of wild daylillies and daffodils that had somehow escaped from someone's yard) when a sporadic croaking sound caught my attention and drew me forward. While my frog identification skills are lacking, I felt confident that what I was hearing was one or several Wood Frogs. Soon I happened upon this:

Not much to look at, right? Just a flooded ditch, right? No friends, I'm here to tell you it's much more elegant than that.

Closer inspection brought much joy to my heart. Big balls of gelatinous goo with little black dots in the middle could only mean one thing.

Frog eggs!

And not just any frog eggs, but the very first frog eggs I've ever laid my own eyes upon. What an exciting find. I was so excited that I texted Dave a short message to the effect of "OMG, just found frog eggs!"

I would like to think that I would have seen these on my own anyway, but the telltale singing of the frogs nearby was really what led me to these eggs. Are they Wood Frog eggs? Probably, but I can't be sure.

As excited as I was about my discovery, I soon began to fret for these fragile creatures. Recent heavy rains had created this "pool," but I worry if this ditch will stay wet enough long enough to sustain them for as long as they need the water. Also, the setting is not exactly ideal. If even a fraction of the eggs survive to actually grow to adulthood, how many of them will end up hopping across the road and getting hit? This past Saturday I found 3 smooshed frogs along the road. I know it's all part of the life cycle, but it's still just a little bit bothersome.

I will be keeping an eye on this precious roadside puddle, checking the progress of the little ones. All the photos above were taken just over a week ago. When I went back this past Saturday to visit, the little black dots had turned into something a little more recognizable as a tadpole. If I go back in another week, I imagine things will look very different, with most of the eggs gone and tadpoles swimming around.

Tadpoles developing

Developing tadpoles with new egg spawn to the right.

Thank you to the singing frogs who alerted me to this. I drive past this spot every day, and I never would have known these eggs were here if I hadn't taken the time to explore this stretch of road. I urge you all to get out there and do the same - you never know WHAT you'll find!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The early nesters are home

There are a number of early signs of spring around these parts, a few of which include the return of some of the earliest migrant birds, like Woodcocks, Killdeer, and the dearest to my heart, the Eastern Phoebe. In the past, March 15th, give or take a day in either direction, has been the traditional arrival date of "our" Phoebes. This year, they arrived on March 4th. It took them about a week to settle on where they would nest, which turned out to be the same place they always nest - on the side of our house, just under one of the eaves. PhoebeCam 2011 is rolling, ready to capture the nesting event that is now underway. This year we are able to capture sound for the first time, and this is also the first time that we've been able to catch them building a nest from scratch (they recycled a previous nest the past 2 years). Here are some videos of the beginning stages. I'll keep you posted as things progress.

This Eastern Phoebe thinks she's found the perfect spot for a piece of moss. Or maybe not.

Both the male and female Eastern Phoebe make an appearance here. They exchange pleasantries.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Waiting for the all-clear

I was watching the birds at the feeders this afternoon, and they were going about their own business of eating and chatting when all of the sudden everyone got the heck out of Dodge. Soon thereafter a hawk swooped through (Cooper's or Sharp-shinned, not sure which - it flew through much too quickly and didn't perch long enough for me to get binoculars on it). Unfortunately, one little bird got left behind when the others took off.

White-breasted Nuthatch, hoping he hasn't been made

The hawk was far gone when I looked over and noticed this fellow dangling upside down on a branch. I guess he thought he had better odds of not becoming a hawk snack by freezing in place in this odd position rather than fleeing.

He stayed like this for maybe 30 seconds, craning his head to get a better view of the situation. I'm certainly used to seeing Nuthatches creeping head-first down trees, but seeing him suspended in this position from a branch for an extended period of time was quite odd.

I don't know if the hawk caught a meal during it's fly-by or not, but I can say that this Nuthatch lived to see another day. It's always good to report a happy ending.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Watery world

When I make a blog post, it has to fill one of two purposes for me: it either has to be educational, or creative. When I'm lucky, it's both. Once in a while I struggle to make it either! When I take pictures, I try to sometimes try to compose a narrative to go with it. And sometimes, there just aren't adequate words to improve upon what the images say for themselves. I took some photos a few weeks ago after we had had some heavy rains. The local creek was running hard, and the color of the water was dreamy, and the mud told stories, and I felt like I was in another world. That's about all I can say.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

American Goldfinch plumage

Starting this morning and going well into the afternoon, the American Goldfinches at my feeders were extremely vocal. I would go so far as to call them raucous, an adjective normally reserved for the Blue Jay. I thought they sounded noisy from inside the house, but once I got outside, it was almost deafening. This is no exaggeration! It was similar to being near a pond full of spring peepers turned up to 11, but not quite as high-pitched. I'm not sure what had them going, but their loud vocalizations inspired me to post some pictures that I haven't gotten around to sharing.

I've been watching the goldfinches at my feeders this season with great interest. They are always one of the most dominant species at the feeder in terms of overall numbers, so I guess it shouldn't be too surprising that I've observed some interesting-looking birds as they come in to dine.

We'll start off looking at some "normal" goldfinches. Here we have 4 very piggy finches stuffing themselves on black-oil sunflower seeds. Unlike Titmice or Chickadees, for example, who have to hold seeds between their toes while they peck them open with their beaks, goldfinches are able to work the seeds open right in their mouth. This means they can just sit on the feeders and go from one seed to the next, while the Titmouse or Chickadee has to pick a single seed and then go fly off to find a suitable perch for holding the seed and pecking it open. Go back and get another seed, fly off to suitable perch, peck open - repeat over and over. What I'm getting at with this is that the goldfinches can be very dominating at the feeders because they don't have to give up their seat at the table every time they go for a new seed. Therefore, the tube feeders tend to be full of only goldfinches a lot of the time.

Anyway, back to the plumage. Like I said, these are "normal"-looking birds in their non-breeding plumage. I'm still working on getting males and females differentiated, which is a little tricky during the winter. I'm pretty sure there's at least one male in the photo above(top right), and I'm basing that on the presence of the yellow "shoulder patch." The others I'm not entirely sure about.

I do feel pretty confident that this is a female, though. The girls, unfortunately, are drab year-round. They molt into slightly perkier feathers for breeding season, but not much. Even the black and white in their wings is kind of dingy-looking, another hint at the sex of the bird.

Here's another female. Drab, perhaps, but still pretty darn cute.

In this aerial ballet I think I see all boys. You'll notice the bird at top center has some black markings on his forehead - a definite field marking of a male. Also, I see more yellow "shoulder patches" on the other two.

This bird really caught me off-guard. First, it's definitely a male - bright yellow all over, and look how crisp the black and white coloring is in the wings and tail. Also, there's the full black cap of a male. There is one problem though: this is bordering on breeding plumage, and this photo was taken on December 4th. What the...????? This is a real head-scratcher for me. Why isn't he in more drab non-breeding plumage? Did he not molt completely in the fall? Is his internal clock off? And why is his beak still dark (it would normally be almost orange during breeding season) - why doesn't it match with what his feathers are showing me?

Here's another series of photos of a similar situation, taken on February 13th. Is it the same bird? What are the chances that there's more than one male in almost full-on breeding plumage hanging around? I saw a similar bird at the feeders today (March 6th). I would have to think it's the same bird on all 3 occasions.

Now we start getting into some of the odd plumage variations I have seen this season. I know that American Goldfinches can look quite patchy and odd when they are going through a molt, but I don't have any reason to believe that any of the remaining photos in this post illustrate molting, simply based on the time of year and the isolation of the patterning. The bird above has an odd white patterning on its head, and also has a pink beak (beak should be dark this time of year).

Here's some more strange patterning on the head, but I see a dark beak, so it can't be the same bird as "pink beak" (both photos were taken on the same day).

Here's my final example of funky plumage patterning on the head - the beak is a mix of pink and dark and there's certainly something odd about the coloring on the head.

The first thing that came to mind when I saw these birds were some terms that I have read over the years: leucistic and piebald. I almost hesitate to mention the terms, though, simply because my understanding of them is very poor, and it would seem that there's not much good information about the terms online, either. All I know is that these are terms used to describe genetic abnormalities that affect pigmentation in animals (not limited just to birds). Cornell has a page that tries to explain some of the terms, but I came away from it still quite confused. The correct use of these terms is even a subject of great contention to some (see a vet's take on it here). If there's anyone out there who can explain all of this to me in plain English, I would love to be enlightened!

I bring all of this up to illustrate that all is not so cut and dry in the world of birding (as if you thought it was!), and also to show that there are always interesting and anomalous things to be on the lookout for, even at our backyard feeders.

Luckily, goldfinches are pretty docile birds in the hand, allowing for good looks at their feathers up close, thus leading to a better understanding of their age and gender. But that's a story for another post...

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Chipmunk fun

I put safflower seed out in one of my feeders so that the squirrels will leave at least one feeder alone - squirrels don't like safflower seed for some reason. The chipmunks, however, are quite fond of it, and are not shy about camping in the feeder until they can't fill their little cheek pouches any fuller.

Proof that chipmunks can't read.

Chippy having a staring contest with Dave.

Happy Meteorological Spring, everyone!