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Monday, January 30, 2012

Distinguish an Eagle in Flight

This weekend, I was walking with a friend down the road, when I happened to turn around in time to watch a mature bald eagle fly behind us. I pointed the bird out to my friend, who said that she feels that she probably sees more eagles flying around than she actually recognizes. It is easy to tell what you are looking at when you see the striking white head and tail against the dark body, but there are other tell-tale signs that make it easy to identify an eagle in flight even when they are high enough that you are not able to distinguish markings.  Follow these few simple ID tips and the next time you see large birds gliding high in the sky, take a second look.  They may just be turkey or black vultures, but there may be an eagle in their midst. 

The picture to the left of the text are head on shots of the birds.  Red-tailed Hawks (top left) hold their wings fairly level, although not as flat and heavy as the Bald Eagle (center left). Northern Harriers are buoyant in flight and hold their wings in a V (bottom left). The other distinguishing flight pattern of the harrier is when it hunts, it will quickly change altitudes almost in a yo-yo fashion. The Turkey Vulture (top right) also flies with its wings in a V, teetering uncertainly with changes in the wind, typically the TV's wobble as they fly. The similar Black Vulture (bottom right) has a level flight profile.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The first bloom is closer than you think

 As February rapidly approaches, take a close look at what may be starting to pop up in the wet areas near you though I know everything is wet at the moment.  Symplocarpus foetidus or Skunk Cabbage will start to emerge from the ground as a curious brown pod that you may think belongs in a science fiction movie or a spathe.  As the spathe matures, it reveals a spadix which has small yellow flowers.  Eventually the large (almost 2' long) leaves unfurl from the pod. This can become a nesting site of the common yellow throat.  The leaves release a skunk like odor upon being crushed giving them their unattractive name.  The smell attracts insects to the plant, and this is how they are pollinated.  

         Wood ducks and bobwhites will eat the seed of the plant but the leaves are poisonous to all mammals (including us).  Because this plant is such an early riser so to speak, it is able to generate heat from the spathe which allows it to create holes in layers of snow.

         If we actually get snow sometime in the next month, make sure to take a good look in a wet area to see if you can find places where the skunk cabbage has melted away the snow.   It may be smelly, but has developed very interesting adaptations to survive those February and March snowstorms. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Checking out Flocks of Geese

I always check and double check waterfowl especially large flocks of geese because you never know when you are going to find a "diamond in the rough".  While driving by a pond this weekend, I enacted my typical stop and back-up on a fairly quite country road because I saw a flash of white that caught my eye.   I promise, I try to limit my speed changes to times when there are no other cars around me! As a side note, it is always important to be respectful of private property as a birder.  Never access property that the owner hasn't given you permission to access.

At any rate, after finding my binoculars and taking a closer look, I noticed a oddly marked goose hanging out with a flock of Canada geese.  I believe that it is merely an oddly colored domestic goose, but it sure looked strange with its friends.   You never know what you may find in a flock of geese, and rumor has it a brant has been hanging out in Chester County...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Keeping your feet warm in the winter...

My thermometer said a brisk 15 Degree F morning when I prepared to leave my house this morning.  I took this into consideration as I dressed for the day, I put on a thin layer of socks and then a thick pair of wool socks.  I longingly eyed my battery powered foot warmers, but I thought they might be a moot point for only a couple of hours outside in the cold.  My friend and I rode by a pond with about ten mallards floating around, and she made the comment that their feet must be cold. Sure the down feathers work for the body, but what about those spindly legs?  No, battery powered foot warmers for ducks!  I spared her the lecture about the very interesting adaptations that birds have for surviving the cold weather, but I figured I would share it with you, since I'm sure inquiring minds wanted to know. 

The secret to ducks keeping their legs from freezing in the winter months is in the blood flow system.  They have a countercurrent exchange system in their veins and arteries.   Typicallyvenous blood transports cold blood back into the body from the feet--that cold blood would certainly cool down the body temperature and create hypothermia.  The warm arterial blood rushes from the heart.  Animals that are adapted to cold weather have their veins and arteries very close together.  The cold blood that comes from the feet towards the body, passes by the artery and picks up the heat from the arteries.  This effectively warms the blood heading back into the body, and cools the arterial blood so that it does not have that much heat to loose when it arrives at the foot.  This system keeps the blood in the foot cold at all times, and yet allows blood flow to keep the feet from freezing.     

This female common merganser is quite comfy on these cold days! On a side note, as more and more lakes start to freeze, keep your eyes out for these very cool ducks.  They tend to start hanging out in our neighboring waterways this time of the year.  The Brandywine Creek is always a good place to spot one or two.

Since I do not have such a spectacular adaptation, I'll stick with the battery powered foot warmers! You should try them if you are a inherently cold person, they do amazing things for you. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Gardening for Birds in the Winter

When we moved into our house, one of the first things I did was attack the yew bushes that were the only plant in our flower gardens.  I ended up leaving one yew bush for privacy until I could find a great evergreen native plant that will offer the same privacy around our porch as the yew bush.  As I'm searching for a plant large enough to do it's job, I spend many a day giving the yew bush the hairy eyeball.  

This weekend however, I found new respect for the yew bush I so desperately want to remove.   Many of the sparrows that visit my feeder would quickly dash into the yew for cover whenever they felt pressure from nearby, which happens quite often with the flyovers from the "sharpies".  (see earlier post about id tips between Sharp Shinned Hawks and Coopers)

This brings me to my real message today which is not a rant on why yew bushes irritate me, but gardening for birds in the winter.  A few good tips to keep in mind:  
  • Fruit eating birds LOVE BERRIES.  These plants gave us vibrant color in the fall, and now those brilliant berries are still persisting:  
    • Ilex verticillata (Winterberry), Sambucus canadensis (Elderberry),  Aronia arbutifolia (Red Chokeberry) and Vaccinium corymbosum (Blueberry)
    • **As a side note, my landscaper friend complains that verticillata and arbutifolia are too "messy" but I say birds love them so plant accordingly!!
  •  Cover is always important for birds in the winter.  Bird feeders tend to be great targets for our raptors, so we have to at least give the little guys a fighting chance. Tall native grasses make for great cover: Andropogon gerardii (Big bluestem), Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem) and Bouteloua curtipendula (Side oats grama).  As I found out, any shrub will do, but the grasses will also give the birds some extra food if snow hits (if it ever does!)
    • North Creek Nurseries is coming out with a new very upright little blue that will be great for your garden.
  •  An unfrozen source of fresh water is essential for any bird.  Usually most of the natural sources of water will freeze during the winter months, so birds are searching for anything.  Heated bird baths or a moving water feature that does not freeze are a great asset to your yard.

I think you'll notice that I tend to drone on about the same plants.  It just so happens that for birds and color, these are all great plants!! As "food for thought" if you pardon the pun, research has shown that chickadees only get 25% of their food intake from bird feeders in the winter, that means they are out foraging in the wild for the other 75%.  I would guarantee that they are not the only bird out there using this approach, so this is all the more reason for continuing to plant native!


Monday, January 9, 2012

Snowy Owls in PA?

In case you are not in tune with the birding hotlines, it seems as though we have had an invasion of Snowy Owls in PA. There have been five reported sightings of Snowy Owls in the area.  These magnificent white birds are a treat to see, and while I have thus far been skunked, I am certainly on the lookout. 

I have stopped and viewed numerous white plastic bags in trees on my recent weekend road trip to the western part of the state.  Sadly, no owls, only someone's litter masquerading as an owl.  This does not stop me from getting out of my car on the edge of the turnpike and rooting around for my binoculars.  I would not recommend trying this at home, or with a passenger (they tend to complain)!  The cars zipping by at 85mph are fairly unsure of the crazy person with the binoculars on the side of the road but a snowy owl sighting would be worth it to me.  
Snowy owls typically live in the extreme northern regions of the arctic tundra.  They are diurnal owls (they are active during the day as well as at night) so you can spot them throughout the day.  They are the heaviest of our North American owls, and while most tend to stay in the arctic in their breeding grounds some will migrate south during the winter months.  These fierce predators will even successfully protect their nests from wolves.  An adult owl can eat three to five lemmings each day.   They will spend most of their time silently perched and looking for prey, which combined with their white feathers makes them fairly easy to spot.  

Keep your eyes peeled for a flash of white and then check and double check to see if it is a bird or just another piece of litter!   If it is a bird, I hope you have TLC's office on speed dial because I would like to know immediately.  Happy birding, and do not laugh the next time you see some strange person pulled off of a major road with binoculars, chances are high an exciting (or imaginary) bird is within viewing distance. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

Cold weather is no excuse for not tackling your invasive plants.

The plant that we will discuss today needs little introduction.  I am sure that at some point everyone has encountered Rosa multiflora (or multiflora rose).  In fact, I bet that everyone has lost a little blood from walking through the woods and running into the plant.   Multiflora is an invasive plant that was planted as a barrier and natural curb before the invasive tendencies were realized.  Before we discuss control of the plant, I must tell you about the benefits of the plant.  I am certainly not encouraging that you plant multi-flora around your yard, but if it currently exists you can rest knowing that it is not completely disastrous. 

The green plant interspersed with the multiflora
in this photo is Greenbrier (smilax rotundifolia)
 which is a native plant! Note the nest in the branches. 
 Multi-flora will provide cover for birds and small mammals in the winter months.  It will also protect some plants and small seedlings from deer browse.    Like us, deer are not very interested in battling with the thorns so they will not browse those small oak seedlings or native orchids that just might be growing under your multi-flora rose cover.  This is important to note as you tackle control of the species. 

Identification:  As with any species, it is very important to know what plant you are looking at before you enact any type of control efforts.  Some of the following tips will not be useful in the months that the plant does not have identifiable vegetation or fruiting bodies, however, it will give you a general overview of the plant.
  • Leaves: Leaves are pinnately compound, divided into 7-9 leaflets, and have fine serration around the edge.
  • Fruit: Red rose hips mature in September-October
  • Thorns: Sharp hooked thorns with smaller thorns that continue along stem into leaf.  This is the main ID tip between multi-flora and your native pasture rose.  The native rose has straight thorns and has nothing where the stem connects into the leaves.  This is the best ID tip for the winter months.
Mechanical Control: If you are opposed to using chemicals, you can dig out the roots of the multiflora, or pull it out with a tractor anytime that the ground is cooperative.  You can also mow multiflora in late spring to early summer.  This will not eradicate the plant, but it will offer better control.   The biggest drawback to using either mechanical method is the amount of disturbance you will create.  I would recommend mowing for a meadow situation, but not for a woodland situation.  I feel that the digging really disturbs the soil and habitat of all of the surrounding plants and this will remove any protective qualities that the rose would have otherwise offered.   One other very interesting mechanical method that I have used with success are goats.  Multiflora rose happens to be the favorite food of many goats.  If the area of concern is large enough, you may be able to fence goats in with the rose.  It is important to know that goats will eat anything so this method is most useful in an area that has very little "good" vegetation.  I call these areas "no man's land".  There may be a farmer in your area who will rent their goats to you for a fee.  They typically provide the fencing, access to water, and shelter for the goats.    This can be a great option for someone with limited time who is looking to make a difference.  If you proceed with this method, it is important to realize that you will need to do follow-up in the area once the goats are removed.  They do a great job of making the area accessible, but you will need an action plan for after the goats leave.

Chemical Control:   At this time of the year, the most effective way to control multiflora is to cut the stumps close to the ground and then paint the cut stump with a non-diluted glyphosate product (Roundup is the common trade name).    This method can be used year-round with similar results, all of the other mentioned methods are restricted to a specific time.  In late winter and very early spring, multiflora will be among the first plants to leaf out.  You can spray the plant with a solution of glyphosate and water to maximize control at this time.  It is important to note that any glyphosate based herbicide is NOT SELECTIVE and will kill anything that is green that it touches.  Invasive plants are among the first to leaf out with the exception of Skunk Cabbage, and perhaps some of the very early spring ephemerals.  Pay close attention to what you are spraying so you do not have any collateral damage, however, this method will achieve control of multi-flora.   

Best of luck with your control!

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