Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Late summer puffballs

Today has been a typical wet, dreary November day. Well, except that the temperatures seem a little above average. Regardless, I am mourning the loss of summer, and have been for a number of weeks. Now would be a good time to go back and reminisce a little. Take a look at some of the cool stuff I found out and about during those verdant, warm, long days.

I would forgive you if you didn't identify this correctly. It's the kind of thing you might not necessarily investigate at close range. Wait, who am I kidding? If you're reading this blog, you probably like getting up close to things in nature! But I would understand if you thought maybe this was a zoomed-in photo of the hide of a giraffe.

I would also understand if you thought this was a close-up of a print of some turkish art. I am reminded of both of these things when I look at these photos.

It is, however, neither of these things. It's a lovely (gigantic!) puffball mushroom. My shoe next to it gives you some idea as to the scale. If there are any mycologists or mycophiles out in the audience who can pin this down to a species, I'd love to hear from you!

Puffball crater

They seemed especially abundant this year, mostly occurring in groupings of 2 or 3 (sometimes more). From afar they all look the same, but up close, you can see how unique each one is.

This grouping caught my fancy. Almost like a family posing for their portrait. I love how there's a line in the middle 'shroom that seems to carry right into the pattern of bottom one.

Ahhh, mushrooms in a field of green with a backdrop of green leaves. I think maybe I can still smell the summer air if I try hard enough...

Friday, November 18, 2011

Interesting feeder observations

During the Project FeederWatch season I keep a closer eye on what's going on at my feeders, for obvious reasons. When FeederWatch is not in session (i.e. spring, summer and some of fall), however, I don't always pay a lot of attention to the feeders, usually due to a combination of being busy with other outdoor stuff and lack of bird activity at the seed buffet.

A few weeks before this year's FeederWatch season began I did notice a few interesting feeding behaviors.

Interesting behavior #1 - Carolina Chickadees eating thistle seed.

Thistle is widely know as the caviar equivalent for finches of all types. I have never seen thistle listed as a seed that chickadees will go for. If you look at the various charts that show what birds will eat what kind of food at your feeders, you will usually see two listings: one for what is "preferred" and one for what is "readily eaten" (read: tolerated). Thistle doesn't show up as either of those choices for chickadees. And yet, my chickadees really got into it during a period where I wasn't offering sunflower or safflower seeds.

Chickadee-dee-dee clinging on the thistle feeder, and also sharing the feeder with an American Goldfinch.

Once I started offering black-oil sunflower and safflower seed again, I thought for sure they would ditch the thistle, but they proved that theory wrong. They will, of course, partake of sunflower, safflower and suet, but they still also come to the thistle. Anyone else out there ever see their chickadees eat thistle? I know the Juncos will eat it, but only on the ground. A friend once told me that Mourning Doves would routinely eat thistle at his feeders (he had a thistle feeder with perches on it; otherwise, I wouldn't have believed him because there's no way a Mourning Dove could cling to a feeder like the one I have pictured here.)

This proves to me that it's not just one rogue individual who developed a taste for the thistle; at LEAST two of them are fond of it. And look how those toes are clinging to the mesh-like material of the feeder!

Interesting behavior #2 - Northern Cardinals eating suet... from the suet cages.

This one surprised me even more than the chickadees eating thistle seed! Why? Because, typically, cardinals are not birds that cling to things well. Other birds are much more suited to this (especially woodpeckers and nuthatches, but also chickadees, wrens, titmice and finches) simply because of the way their bodies are built and adaptations they have developed over time. How often do you see a cardinal clinging to the side of a tree? Never! Perched on a branch or on the ground is most common, or on a flat feeder like a platform or other type of feeder where they have room to stand. I have seen them attempt (and sometimes succeed) to perch on tube feeders that have those small, 4-inch long perches, but even that is often a tremendous struggle because it's hard for them to keep their balance. So hanging onto a suet cage was beyond my comprehension. (Please excuse the graininess of the following photos - the light was low, so camera settings where cranked up to compensate, making for less than perfect images.)

Cardinal on top of the suet cage? Okay, I can deal with that. I have watched them bend over and peck suet from the top of the cake when it's still new and tall enough to come up to the top of the cage.

Wow, far out! Not only is she exhibiting excellent clinging skills, but great maneuverability as well. Notice how she's making her way down closer to that tiny sliver of suet cake at the bottom of the cage.

As with the chickadees turning to thistle, the cardinals were turning to suet because there was no sunflower or safflower seed available. They continue to repeat this when the seed runs out, but UNLIKE the chickadees, they abandon the suet as soon as seed becomes available again. So the suet is an item of last resort for the cardinals, whereas the thistle got incorporated into the daily diet for the chickadees.

We don't normally see suet "marketed" toward cardinals because most suet is sold in cakes or plugs and offered in feeders that aren't cardinal-friendly. I learned last winter, however, that cardinals DO LIKE suet if it's offered in a way that they can get to it easily. When I make my homemade bird dough, I crumble it into different-sized chunks and scatter it along the deck railing, and also put it in a small dish. They really took to that last year. Knowing this, it makes me wonder if the cardinals that I'm seeing on the suet cages this year are the same cardinals that ate my bird dough last winter, and somehow recognize the suet cakes as something similar, and "oh, hey, this stuff might be good, too, and I'll try my darndest to get to it!"

Suet score!

I would love to hear your stories of odd or interesting feeder behaviors! Feel free to share in the comments.

Monday, November 14, 2011

May the counting begin!

Project FeederWatch got underway this past weekend. This will be my 7th season counting for this citizen science project run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and I can't wait to see what kind of new and interesting things I'll see at my feeders this winter, whether it be a new species, a record-breaking flock of Grackles, or a never before seen behavior or interaction among the birds.

Already I have some interesting data to look at from my first counting session. Looks like things are getting off to a start that is practically identical to last season. The exact same species showed up, with only the tiniest variation in the numbers of each. How about that?

species wknd of 11.13.10 wknd of 11.12.11
Mourning Dove 13 13
Red-bellied Woodpecker 1 1
Downy Woodpecker 2 2
Hairy Woodpecker 1 2
Carolina Chickadee 4 5
Tufted Titmouse 3 2
White-breasted Nuthatch 3 4
Northern Cardinal 2 2
American Goldfinch 9 10
Total individuals 38 41

Looking back on past seasons' data, I should expect to see some Juncos next weekend. I have seen a few in town already, but none yet in our own yard.

I can tell that my fascination with goldfinches and their striking plumage is going to continue.

Here we got a nice look at their white patches above the tail, not feathers you see terribly often

And the nuthatches will continue with their bold antics, running each other off from the feeders. I hope to catch some good shots of them with their various displays of aggression, but they are fast and hard to keep up with the camera. Unless they're eating, that is.

One new bird that I hope to draw in this year is the Brown Creeper. They are definitely in our woods, but they're not exactly a bird that takes to traditional bird feeders. I'm going to try some homemade "bark butter" to see if that will bring them in.

And, it will be time to start making homemade bird dough soon, once the temps actually decide to get cold (as I write this at 8:30 in the evening, it's still 69 degrees outside... I'm not complaining, but it is a bit odd for mid-November!). Will my Pileated Woodpecker come back again this year for a sample of that tasty treat? I surely hope so!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Chickadee love

I've been going through some photos in preparation for an upcoming post, and just couldn't wait any longer to share these 2 photos of a Carolina Chickadee at our feeders. It's a gorgeous, tough little bird, and I can't quite get over how handsome it is. While they won't eat from my hand (yet!), our chickadees are pretty fearless when I'm outside, and I was only about 3 feet away while taking these pictures.

More to come!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A special owl on a special day

Remember a few posts back when I showed you a cute, tiny owl? I said I could have taken it home in my pocket, and estimated that it was smaller in size than my head.

A captive Northern Saw-whet Owl who is part of the educational display for the Back to the Wild wildlife rehabilitation center.

This past Friday, I finally got a chance to meet one of these little cuties up close. But let's back up a little bit.

I had never even heard of Saw-whet Owls until last spring. It was at the ODNR's annual Wildlife Diversity conference that I heard a presentation about Saw-whet Owls given by Kelly Williams-Sieg, an Ohio University grad student and licensed bird bander. The presentation detailed her work with Project Owlnet and how she's been banding and researching Saw-whets (and other birds) since 2004 at Earl H. Barnhart Buzzards Roost Nature Preserve in Chillicothe, Ohio. As her presentation wrapped up, I jotted down some notes and thought, "Wow, wouldn't it be cool to attend one of these banding sessions?" I left it at that, thinking it a purely whimsical notion at the time. Fast forward 6 months or so to an event at Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area, where Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalists met for a weekend of pure nature bliss, full of learning about and looking at birds, butterflies, flowers and beetles. It was here that I met Bob Scott Placer, a licensed bird bander, who also happens to live practically down the street from me. Bob has been helping Kelly band owls at Buzzards Roost from day one. After some discussions with Bob, I went out to Buzzards Roost once last year to check out the banding operation, but we struck out. It was early December, and they hadn't seen any Saw-whets for a week or so. Bob advised that we come in early November the next year for better luck.

And so we did just that. There was no pressure to see an owl or anything. It just so happened to be my birthday on the day that I chose for our owling adventure.

A group of folks from the Scioto Valley Bird and Nature Club was already there by the time we arrived around 8:15 pm. Kelly, Bob and Lisa, our banders for the evening, made several checks of the mist nets between 8:30 and 10:15, each time coming up empty-handed. By 10:30 all the bird club folks had headed home, so Dave and I were the only onlookers left. Around 10:45 the nets were checked, and still there was nothing. Bob said that during previous banding sessions so far this season the owls had been showing up pretty late, so we all hung in there for one more net check at 11:15. Lo and behold, Kelly checked a net and said she had an owl. I let out a small squeal of delight and rushed down to see for myself. Kelly deftly but gently untangled the owl from the net. It clacked its beak several times, a sound of warning. We heard plenty more of that as our time with the owl went on.

Kelly Williams-Sieg and Bob Scott Placier prepare to collect data from a Northern Saw-whet Owl.

Once the owl was freed from the mist netting, we brought it inside to band it and collect various data, such as wing and tail length, weight, and amount of fat observed.

Kelly blows the owl's feathers out of the way so she can look for fat deposits under its skin. This bird showed no fat deposits, which is typical of a bird that is in the middle of migration. Kelly also showed me how she feels along either side of the breast bone for fat, and let me feel for myself.

Kelly demonstrates how a Saw-whet bite doesn't hurt. That hooked beak looks intimidating, but that's mainly a tool for ripping the flesh of its prey. The real danger on this little predator is its talons, which Kelly experienced first-hand several times over the course of several minutes.

Normally docile and seemingly tame in the hand, this Saw-whet was an exception to the rule. She was feisty right from the start, complete with lots of bill snapping and much kicking and grabbing with those talons. Here Lisa gives the owl a momentary distraction of a pencil to hang on to while Kelly tries to reposition her for more data collection.

Taking the tail measurement. I think the owl has a most displeased expression here.

For those of you wondering how you weigh an owl (or any other small bird), this is how it's done. They go head-first into some kind of tube, which keeps them from wiggling around too much. This Saw-whet weighed in at 98.2 grams, which Kelly said was on the high side for this species. The weight, combined with tail and wing measurements suggests that this owl is a female (typically, female owls are larger than the males).

A black light is used to help age the bird. There is a certain pigment in the owls flight feathers that show up in varying degrees of pink, depending on its age. This photo doesn't do the test justice because the whole bird shows up as pink, which is not what we really saw. Based on the amount of pink we saw, and how bright the pink was, Kelly determined that this owl was born this year. That's called a hatch-year bird. So we had ourselves a fiesty, hatch-year female.

Now that we've got her vitals, let enjoy her cuteness, shall we?

Rock, paper, scissors, owl! Just kidding. Kelly's showing me how to hold my fingers as I prepare to get the best birthday present a birder could ask for...

... A loving gaze from a teeny, tiny owl. Say it with me everyone: Awwwwwwwwww.

Despite all the attitude and the feistyness, this little ball of fluff could not resist the power of a good head rub. I have read about this phenomenon from others, and she did indeed just keep pushing her head back farther and farther as I ran my finger down her head and back. She did show some signs of resistance though, as she simultaneously pushed into the head rub while snapping her bill half-heartedly. The theory behind what seems to be the owl's enjoyment of this action is that it reminds them of mutual grooming and preening that they do in the wild (especially mother with owlet).

One last pose with "my" owl before we took her outside to be released.

It took a few minutes for us to walk down to the spot where we released her, which gave her eyes time to adjust to the dark enough so that she could see to fly off to a nearby perch. Kelly placed her on my arm, and I had a feeling it wouldn't take her too long to fly off, given all the attitude she had given us while in our care. Sure enough, she took off within 5 seconds, wooshing over my head into a tree just behind me. Luckily I was able to turn around fast enough to see her outstretched wings back-lit against a sky brightened by a waning moon just before she landed.

All in all, I'd say that experience was a pretty cool birthday present. Thank you Kelly, Bob and Lisa. And thank you, little owl. I was very honored to meet you.

But wait, don't go away yet! Please be sure to check out THIS ARTICLE from the October 2008 issue of Ohio Magazine that goes into a little more detail about the Saw-whet banding project. And to see the banding process in action, watch THIS VIDEO by ODNR's Division of Wildlife.