Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Where do the Swans Go?

Did you ever wonder where all the swans go in the winter when all the ponds ice over?They find open water on our rivers that remain open because there is so much salt water at the beginning of the estuary. As you know, salt water can freeze but it takes much longer. This picture, taken by and sent in to me by Linda Robbins of Falmouth, was taken at the Moonakis River in Falmouth this weekend. (Thanks, Linda!)

Swans eat vegetable matter, not fish, by the way, which is why they are often bottoms up, feeding on water plants on the bottom of shallow lakes and ponds. Usually swans are not overly friendly to other birds, including other swans in their territories but at this time of year survival seems to win out over territorial rights. You will even find mallards and Canada geese among them, something you will never see in the spring or summer.

There are several other areas on the Cape where you can find hundreds of swans in winter, most notably Swan River in South Yarmouth. Bet you can guess how it got that name....

Monday, January 25, 2010


Here on the Cape our warmer waters, especially warmer ocean waters, attract a lot of ducks from farther north that need open water to feed in every winter. Many of our ponds, lakes and bays are home to flocks of these charming and spunky little ducks each winter and are among many people's favorites. Buffleheads are the smallest diving duck in North America and nest in freshwater areas and neighboring forests in Canada.One fun fact about these little birds is that they nest almost exclusively in holes made by flickers. They have also been known to use the holes made by pileated woodpeckers but prefer those made by flickers. They will also nest in nest boxes, not unlike our own little wood ducks.Mostly monogamous, buffleheads travel in mixed flocks. The male wears the sporty black and white while the female is a duller gray and black. There is one female in the photo above. These diving ducks seem to pop up and down in the water. While underwater they are seeking mollusks and crustaceans. In fresh water they also eat underwater insects.

Friday, January 22, 2010

"Someone's been sleeping in my bed," said the little owl...

Earlier this week a reader of my Weekly Nature Watch column (Enterprise newspapers) called to tell me they had a screech owl sitting on a branch in their yard. They had previously had screech owls in a nesting box they had built but the day before they called me a squirrel had moved into the box. It was rainy, windy and cold the day I went over and sure enough, there was the little screech owl sitting on the branch, watching the box.....Every now and then the squirrel peeked out of the box but mostly it stayed inside and let the owl stare and stare and get wet and cold.....Screech owls are pretty common on the Cape and they are fairly easy to lure to nest boxes. Owl nest boxes have a 3" hole which unfortunately is plenty big for squirrels, too. You can see that this box has even had the hole edges chewed on, most likely by squirrels, which enlarges the hole. It is not uncommon for screech owls and squirrels to go back and forth winning the box back and then losing it again. Home owners that prefer the owls are encouraged to clean the squirrel nest materials out of the box daily so the owl can return. The squirrels may still win, however.
These homeowners were adding several other nest boxes this week so it will be interesting to see what happens next. Screech owls are using boxes or holes in trees to roost right now. They don't nest until February or March. You may be hearing great horned owls right now because they are getting ready to nest and all that hooting is helping them find a mate. Screech owls don't hoot, by the way. They either let loose with a blood curdling screech or make a sound that is sort of like the whinnying of a horse.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

What to do.....

when you find an injured bird. First, if you are a child, find an adult and do not touch the bird. If you are an adult you need to assess the situation. Is the bird dangerous or in a dangerous situation? If you are not experienced in dealing with sick or injured wildlife please call the nearest agency that works with injured wildlife in your area. We are fortunate here on the Cape to have two excellent places, the Cape Wildlife Center in Cummaquid and Wild Care on the lower Cape (which may not be open this winter.) Do not call your local Audubon or other nature center as they are not equipped to deal with injured animals. They will refer you to the above named places.If you are experienced enough to feel comfortable picking up an injured bird use gloves or a soft towel to gently pick it up. This little downy woodpecker was found by my neighbor. She had apparently collided with the window and spent much of the day under the window on the ground, according to my neighbor. The bird could not fly and was getting weaker and weaker. By the time I arrived it was almost dead. I put it in a soft towel and brought it indoors. Once inside I warmed it up by holding it close to my chest and after about 20 minutes I heard it peep and it started to wiggle. I gave it a bit of water off the end of a towel which it drank greedily.
After another 20 minutes or so I mixed a little peanut butter and suet and put it on the back of a spoon and the little bird pecked away at it, eating a fair amount.
I took it back outside as it seemed to be pretty perky but it couldn't fly. I put it up on a branch but it just sat there. Night was falling and it was quite cold outside. I am not a trained bird rehabilitator and I knew if the bird was going to survive the night I needed to take it to the wildlife hospital. The people there are wonderful and they are going to call me later today to tell me how she is doing...by the time they got her she was pretty perky but hopefully they can either set a broken wing or figure out what else was going on there. I will keep you up to date as I learn more.

Follow up. Unfortunately the story has a sad end and the little bird didn't make it. A necropsy showed she had severe brain trauma and bleeding and at least she died safe and warm and cared for and not alone in the dark and cold....

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Just Ducky....

Earlier this week we went out on a rainy, gusty day. The tide was high in the marshes and the birds were hanging pretty close to shore.Here you can see a group of ducks and gulls just hanging out, staying out of the blowing rain as much as they can....Hunkered down, these three red breasted mergansers sort of tell the story of the day....


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Brrrr or is that Burr?

When I was a kid the family dog was always coming home loaded with burrs in the fall and winter. Dogs ran loose in the neighborhoods back then and added their own part to moving the native plants around. I remember having to comb and brush and gently pull those burrs out of my dog's fur and the other day while out walking my latest generation of dog we encountered some burrs which got me thinking about them again.
Burrs are technically seed heads with little bristles or hooks. They are known as "hitchhikers" because they attach to fur, clothing, etc. and get carried to a new location where hopefully they will be dropped or rubbed off, starting a new planting in a new location. Many different plants have these burrs but the most common in our area are teasel, which is a taller plant and shown in the bottom picture (It is the one with the cone like seed heads. The other plant with the basket shaped seed head is Queen Anne's Lace) and these shown in the snowy photographs which are the seeds of American Burdock, a plant also known for its medicinal and edible qualities.
A fun fact about burrs is that velcro was developed by observing the way the hooks of burrs stuck to other materials.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Robins, Robins, Everywhere!

Have you been noticing a lot of robins around even though it is absolutely freezing and there is snow on the ground? Every winter for the last 20 or so years we have been seeing more and more robins from farther north coming down our way as the winter closes in. Robins will eat berries when worms aren't available and we have lots of berries here on the Cape, especially cedar berries.A few years ago the Christmas Bird Count listed thousands and thousands of robins in one location. Last year it was close to 100,000 birds. At dusk they fly in from all over. Some flocks are small, some are large and all are heading for the large stands of cedar where they will roost overnight.As the robins move in they settle into the trees around the edges of the woodland, even as hundreds more are flying overhead. I wish I could show you this. I took a video but it just looks like hundreds of black specks flying across the screen.
This is one of the groups. There are lots of predators, such as Cooper's hawks, around to take advantage of all this. We saw several hawks on the hunt and some of the people I was with say they have seen a merlin here as well.

As the sun began to set in earnest more and more birds arrived. Those little black specks in the sky are all robins flying in.....really an awesome sight.

If you want to see the robins flying in to roost you need to be there about half an hour before sunset. They are in West Barnstable in the area around the West Barnstable Post Office, the railroad tracks, etc. You can also go around sun rise to see them as they leave for the day. We saw a large group settling in today in Hyannis where there is a lot of holly and cedar trees so you may see them just about anywhere during the day. These robins will hang around as long as there is food. They may travel a bit farther south in search of food but many will stay until late February or early March when they will return north. Our own spring robins, which are smaller, will return as these are leaving.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Treasures in the Snow

It is so unusual for us to have snow on the ground for this long but I have to admit I'm totally enjoying the opportunity to go walk and explore in it. These photos are from the Murkwood Conservation Area in E. Sandwich. It's a tiny area of old farmland overtaken by a young woodland that includes black locust and American Holly among the usual red cedar, pitch pine and white and black oaks that populate the area. The area juts into the marsh bordering Scorton Creek. There are lots of migratory birds there in season and it is not unusual to see or find signs of other native wildlife such as deer, fox and coyotes.Lots of beetle trails and insect holes in this fallen log.
There were lots of rabbit tracks around this pile of wood which is not surprising since it makes a perfect hiding spot.Pippsissewa leaves peeking out of the snow.....
And my favorite....a baby pine tree in a single whorl.....
No matter where you walk at this time of year there are lovely treasures to behold....

Monday, January 11, 2010

Where do worm, caterpillar, beetle and butterfly go for winter?

I love starting out my week with curious 4 year olds! We talked about where the insects and worms go for winter today in an area pre-school. I used layers of felt to show snow, sand and layers of dirt to show where some of these creatures may hibernate.A felt log with lots of loose nooks and crannies helped show how some insects and spiders hide behind the bark and was lots of fun for the kids to find the hiding insects and eggs like the chickadees and woodpeckers do.We sang some silly songs together, too, about where beetles spend the winter and where the butterflies go. We even had different verses for the different butterflies, like the mourning cloak that hibernates behind the bark and the monarch, which migrates.

The kids loved it and I had a blast. The insects, worms, etc. were plastic for this lesson since the real ones are otherwise engaged....

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Tracking birds and bunnies

One of the fun things about taking a walk in the snow is following the trails of the animals and birds that passed through before you. Kids love tracks because they often tell a story that is easy for them to follow. These tracks are from a rabbit.These little bird prints are from the snow buntings....
More snow bunting tracks. Notice the little drag behind the prints.
These prints are larger and heavier and belong to crows....
And these prints show webbed feet. Not ducks, though....gulls!
More gull prints....
You can probably guess that these prints were found at the beach. No matter what time of year it is, the beach is always a great place to look for tracks, especially if you go early in the morning before people tracks cover up the animal ones.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Snow Buntings!

Every fall I watch the dunes while on one of my favorite beach walks for one of my favorite winter birds. Snow buntings arrive some time around the end of October each year and can be found at many Cape beaches that have protected dunes. They fly in from the arctic, where they breed each summer and when they first arrive you might be lucky enough to see a few still in their full breeding regalia. They are a lovely, elegant little bird with beautiful markings. Even in the winter I think they are quite lovely to behold.I think many people mistake them for sparrows, for they gather in small flocks, twitter as they are feeding and spend much of their time feeding on seeds on the ground.They are very well camouflaged and many folks probably walk right by them without a thought. I just get a kick out of them. They are quick and spunky and I love to watch them rise up and chase a crow or a hawk in a big cloud of wings and feathers. When they land they land with a bit of a chattering ruckus as if to say, can you believe the nerve of that guy?On this sunny afternoon I didn't want to get too close and disturb their feeding and I knew they had a good eye on me. My camera has a decent zoom which is how I got these pictures but they don't really show how beautiful these little birds are.
I snapped this quickly as they rose up to chase a crow and you can see how their wings simply shine in the afternoon sun. If you're near some dunes on a Cape beach walk, keep your eyes and ears open for signs of snow buntings. These birds winter at Kalmus Beach in Hyannis but other flocks are noted throughout the Cape all winter long.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Snowy Beach

A late afternoon walk on the beach after a snowfall is always beautiful....especially if it is a calm, sunny afternoon.....The gulls were standing byShelves of salty snow hung over sand washed by the highest of moon tides receding....Pale sky, yellow grasses, snowy dunes....Sun and shadow danced across the top of the dunes....
The sun began to slide down the sky into the sea, lengthening all the shadows as we left for home...

(Photos are from this afternoon on Kalmus Beach in Hyannis)