Archive for the ‘birds’ Category

Cleaning Out Bluebird Boxes

March 16, 2012

We’ve had a spate of early warm weather around here and though it wasn’t even St. Patrick’s Day the 60 degree temperatures had everyone in a springtime frame of mind.  All the same, it was late for cleaning them out.  So it seemed high time to get out there and get the job done, since Eastern Bluebirds have had breeding on their mind well before now.  It was so beautiful, I wasn’t sure my words could do it justice, so I decided to bring you along with me on my walk.  I hope you enjoy it.  To know more about both Bluebirds and Pussy Willows mentioned in the little film, there are earlier posts on the blog with more detail.

 

See you on the trails,

Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

Advertisements

They’re Ba-ack!

March 8, 2012

I would never let my husband buy a house without me.  I want to do my own picking, choosing and criticizing of wallpaper.  But it happens that people get sudden transfers and must jet off to find a new family homestead in 48 hours. Whoever stays home to pack the boxes has to rely on their partner to make a good pick.

Lady Red-Winged Blackbirds wouldn’t mind at all. Around this time of year, male Red-Wings are returning north in droves, along with other Icterids -a fancy word for blackbirds and their kin. Grackles, cowbirds, Rusty Blackbirds and others form large, loose flocks and begin making their way to summer breeding grounds. Males arrive two to three weeks in advance of the females, scouting out the best nesting sites. Here at Hill-Stead I start looking for them during the latter part of February. The population at our pond increases through the month of March as new waves of migrants work their way up north.  The minute I hear that first telltale Red-Wing call, I know that spring has really started. It’s a change-of-season bellweather, often before any meteorological warmth of significance has occurred. With Red-Winged Blackbirds in place, it isn’t long before Tree Swallows arrive and Wood Frogs begin calling. The wind may still blow chill, but the sun is a stronger one by the time the blackbirds come and with my outside work I begin a tan on my face and the backs of my hands. Glove-wearing is definitely over for now.

These Red-Wing fellows are handsome husbands, recognized by their shiny black feathers and the tri-colored epaulettes or “badges” on their wings. Of course, this is where their name comes from. The badges are an important key to the house hunting. The whole reason the birds are back early is to settle into an advantageous nesting territory, the better to snag a “trophy” wife. For the female bird will be looking for the chap who can optimize her breeding opportunities-the best nesting area and “go-getter”-type spouse will equal her greatest chance of having a large number of living offspring. Trophy wife, trophy husband, trophy real estate. It’s like the Farmington Valley in miniature.

The male Red-Wing uses his badges to remarkable purpose. They are red, yellow and white and the bird can flash them at will, showing the whole thing, or just a bit. In fact, he can hide them, too, in a kind of stealth move. Not unexpectedly, males use a big flash of the whole thing at birds trying to enter a territory they’ve claimed for their own. They are essentially saying, “No chance, buddy.” Having good badges indicates how far up on the social scale you are. Birds that are trying to get a territory of their own may hide their badges completely and enter an already claimed area to see how well the resident bird is apt to defend his spot. Really macho blackbirds even defend against the badgeless, just in case. Inexperienced or just plain foolish males may fail to defend, to their sorrow. Enterprising and stealthy badge hiders may sometimes manage to prise away a good territory. He who hesitates is lost!

Before long the tops of trees near our pond will fairly bristle with Red-Wings singing out and flashing their badges. There are, in my opinion, few things prettier than a flashing Red-Wing Blackbird at the top of a tree on a sunny day. It’s even better if he’s singing out his bold cry, “Conkareeeee!” Somehow these birds command attention in a unique way, and their looks and ways bring life into sharp focus. They remind me to live in the moment, leave the past winter to itself and breathe in the warming spring breezes.

See you on the trails,

Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

If You Plant It, They Will Come

March 27, 2011

Some of my friends are on a “cleanse”. You need the book  to participate- $9.16 on Amazon.com.  You give up “obstacles to digestion” which apparently include eggs, nuts, dairy, tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, peppers, meat, soy, cheese, wheat, and coffee.  Since this doesn’t leave a lot you can actually eat, there is a line of shakes and supplements, $425 for the most popular package.  Evidently people are contaminated with poisons from  a diet which presumably includes tomatoes and peppers (see above list for other possibilities), and it is recommended that the cleanse continue for at least a month.  If you have had the habit of eating any “allergen, mucous-forming or inflammatory” foods (see above), then you need to take and stay on a pre-cleanse program for a time before you can get into the actual cleansing. The more poisonous your previous diet, the longer the pre-cleanse.  Then comes the gastrointestinal scrubbing during which you will need to take pills with names like Clear, Equilibrium, Pass, Ease and so on. The image I got when I heard about these wasn’t good at all, especially “pass” and “ease”.

When you complete the tour of duty, you will feel energy and clarity, and be at least $434.16 lighter.  Starvation for the privileged.  But if you want to be on the cutting edge of weight loss fashion, look no further.  The book alone is a runaway bestseller.

I am polite about all this.  But I shudder at the frivolity while people the world over could eat for months on $425 and feel overfed.  Being riven with hunger is torture. Real starvation means the Cheezits aren’t six feet away in the cabinet if you tire of it.  The price of such hunger far exceeds $425. It is known, tragically, by millions.

On another plane, but no less pitiable is the deprivation known this winter by animals and birds throughout our area.  As the snow melted here at Hill-Stead I sadly found quite a number of bird and animal corpses.  In a harsh winter, hunger is a ruthless creditor.

This year birds gobbled up late summer berries like wild grape, pokeweed, poison ivy and blueberries before the fall was even over, so they had to start in on winter berries early.  Winter berries include cedar, sumac and winterberry.  They were in turn eaten up early. Starvation set in and with no other crop to draw from, many birds switched to eating alien and ornamental plants like multiflora rose and bittersweet. Without these foods as sustenance, I would  have found quite a few more corpses during my springtime wanderings. This got me thinking.  Because the birds had to switch over to eating invasive plants , it may mean that invasives will spread more than usual when spring warms up and the seeds dispersed by the birds begin to grow.

I began to consider the further effect of an increase in alien plants. I’ll use Hill-Stead’s experience with a butterfly, the Baltimore Checkerspot, as the perfect example. This insect has a favorite food.  And like a picky child, if the favorite food is unavailable it simply won’t eat.  But the bug has more gumption than most children, and it dies out in places where its’ preferred plant has died out.  No plant, no bug.  In this way, once common insects become more local then gradually go extinct.  Hill-Stead used to be a last gasp location for the Baltimore Checkerspot since we had quite a bit of turtlehead, the favorite plant. But the meadow began to be mowed in wider and wider margins, and the turtlehead went.  It was long before my time and anyone else here now. But the butterfly census folks still shake their heads, and so do I.  The Baltimore Checkerspot is not unique in its stubbornness. Every single insect is the same.

But here’s the thing: 96% of terrestrial birds (as opposed to sea-going birds, for example) feed their babies on insects and spiders. What determines how many and what kind of insects are around?  Plants! So, if we keep creating scenarios where invasives multiply, we will continue on a crash course with insect extinction and by extension bird extinction and by further extension, well, you get the idea.

Eastern Redbud (native)

Now it probably isn’t anyone’s specific fault that we had a bad winter and the birds had

Serviceberry (native)

to resort to eating multiflora rose hips.  But it is our fault if we fail to increase our use of native species when we plant around our homes, parks and ornamental gardens.  In this way, the birds and insects and everything that depends on them will have a leg up by having the proper food to eat. More native plants, more insects, more birds. More, please.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

Hope is the Thing With Feathers

May 12, 2010

There are so many things that need saving it can really be demoralizing. Whales, wolves, panthers, funny little owls, hundreds of songbirds, frogs. The list is endless. All you have to do is say the word “rainforest” and you summon up images of destruction. It’s why I don’t believe in teaching elementary kids about the rainforest at all. Let them enjoy the pleasure of nature and develop a love for it, before you discourage them with tales of extinction and despair. That people think the only interesting nature exists thousands of miles away, really only demonstrates the need for education about local natural history. There is a fascinating backstory everywhere you look, no matter where you look.

The American Kestrel is a bird in need of intervention. It depends on areas of grassland, and so is getting squeezed out of survival by the minute. Instead of farms with fields, we now have either forests or building sites, so things are tough for grassland birds like grasshopper sparrows, woodcock, upland sandpipers, meadowlarks, kestrels and others.

The American Kestrel is a tiny falcon that resembles its larger cousin the Peregrine, only with a swankier color scheme. It has blue, cream, black and rusty shades of feathers, along with stripes beneath the eyes that cut down on the glare during high-speed chases after fleeing prey. All the better to see you with, my dear. The female of the species is color-wise a little more subdued, the better to remain camouflaged as she sits on a nest.

Perched on a fence, nest box or other spot overlooking the meadow, a kestrel darts off to snatch prey out of the air. In that way, it resembles a flycatcher. But it has the ability to hover in the air scanning the area and adjusting its trajectory before diving out of the glare like a Kamikaze pilot. The hovering would make you think of a hummingbird. Because the kestrel is diminutive in comparison to just about every other bird of prey, from far off it isn’t too hard to believe you are looking at a hummer, but only for a moment. Kestrels are about the size of a robin, and the hovering behavior is a great skill. Some people still refer to the kestrel as a “sparrow hawk” (I can’t help thinking of Foghorn Leghorn and his precocious sidekick here), from its ability to take down smaller birds.

Kestrels are faithful, both to a mate, and to a nesting place. Research on one pair showed that they returned to the same nesting spot for six years. It is a remarkable statistic, given that the bird has a mortality rate of nearly 50%. Kestrels themselves are frequently the prey of larger birds, and their own reproduction depends on the availability of cavities within which to make a nest.

They are well adapted to nest boxes, and this is where Hill-Stead and Art Gingert come in. Art is on a mission to save the American Kestrel. With a keen admiration for the little bird, a wide experience as a naturalist and a steady arm with a hammer, drill and ladder, Art is scouring the state for locations that might tempt the kestrel to nest in one of his specially-designed boxes. They are fashioned out of quality wood, and follow a design he has developed based on his long experience.

Art and I put a box up the other day in one of our meadows. One of Hill-Stead’s many claims to fame is the three full-sized elms that have managed to survive the ravages of Dutch Elm disease. One of them, and by far the prettiest in my opinion, sits out in one of our hay meadows. No other tree is near it and the eye is drawn automatically to its graceful form. A Kestrel would probably see it as easily as we do. At least, that is what we hope. Art carefully hung the box, even using a level to make sure the look of it was pleasing. Now all we have to do is attract the birds. It’s a gamble to be sure. There aren’t even that many Kestrels left, comparatively speaking, and it may be vain of us to imagine that one or two will happen along and notice our box.

But there is much to be said for preserving local treasures. Just ask some of those men and animals that used to live in the rainforest.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Stranger in a Strange Land

January 25, 2010

When in memory you visit that foreign land that is youth, what do you remember?  “Youth is wasted on the young” they say, and in some respects it’s true.  Kids principally have vigor and innocence on their side. But those who think that childhood and the place between that and adulthood is easy or in some way better than what follows have only forgotten the difficulties of youth.  Every era has its highs and lows.  Experience can kick you in the pants just about any time in this life.  The trick is solving the problem presented.

Never mind thinking that because we’re a “higher order” that  people corner the market on experiential woe and attendant life lessons.  The school of hard knocks admits anyone with a heartbeat.   Animals, birds, invertebrates and arguably plants all suffer the consequences of their errors.  And boy, when you are young it is so easy to walk into the closet thinking it’s the front door!

Due to that unfortunate tendency on the part of young things everywhere, Farmington is experiencing an uptick in visitation.  Heaven knows we’re used to the tourist trade.  What with a house full of rare paintings and antiques, plus a one-of-a kind exhibit of Gee’s Bend quilts here at the museum, and loads of other notable happenings in this historic town in the vibrant Farmington Valley, we get visitors all time.  But not like this one.  A stranger is among us, and he very likely spends a good part of his day trying to figure out how he got here and what to do next.  I refer to a Harlequin Duck who has plopped down in the Farmington River by the Grist Mill just down the hill from Hill-Stead.  He has caused traffic jams to break out in the usually peaceful Riverside Cemetery, from where you can often get a pretty good look at him.  Cars from all over are just pouring in every day, spewing out people with big binoculars, scopes and cameras, just for this little duck who probably weighs little more than a pound. Everyone agrees that his coloration suggests he is a first-year male, so this is his first stab at following a grown up routine.

What’s the fuss?  This fellow isn’t even as big as a mallard, and since he’s a “diving duck”, rather than the hiney -in- the- air kind, you could easily miss him as he swims underwater to feed.  First and foremost, this chap just doesn’t belong here.  He’s a sea-going type, rarely seen inland and not even especially common at the beach where he does belong. Preferring turbulent waters, and cold ones at that, Harlequins nest in the very far north.  There is a larger population in the west than here so even if you see them in the waters off Rhode Island (and people do it seems every winter), it is a bit of a thrill.  But the real draw, aside from rarity?  Well, the bird is drop-dead gorgeous.  If George Clooney were a duck and you compared him to a Harlequin, George would come out looking like Rumplestilskin.  

Have you ever felt you were just in the wrong place but you weren’t sure how you got there or how to leave?  If you are a man, this has surely happened to you while on a car trip. Our little chap may have fallen in with the wrong duck group and migrated just a little bit outside the proper range.  Right now, he is sharing the river with some scaup, ring-necked ducks, wood ducks, black ducks, some mergansers (both hooded and common) and about three thousand rude, honking Canada geese. (See “Goosey, Goosey Gander, Whither Shall I Wander” for more on Canada geese).  Every day, birders flock to our little town to get a look at him.  We don’t know how long he’ll stay.  Surely he’ll get the urge to get himself back with his clan. It isn’t long before he’s due way up in Canada so he can meet a nice girl and settle down.  If he gets there too late, he may not find a mate, or he’ll have to settle for one with “such a pretty face” that no one else wanted to dance with.  As winter melt and spring rains come, our river will rise, and the choppy riffles the Harelquin likes to bounce around in will smooth out. If the biological imperative doesn’t get his attention, maybe the water conditions will.  But he isn’t going sit around looking silly (but beautiful) for long.  After all, the lesson isn’t complete unless you find a way to solve the problem.  Those adept at solving problems will rise to the top, accumulating life’s lessons and ruefully recalling detours to places like Farmington.

See You on the Trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

When Heaven and Nature Sing

December 23, 2009

It is said that animals can speak on Christmas Eve, a power bestowed for just one night marking the miracle of Christ’s birth.    I feel as though animals communicate with me in their own silent way and frankly I think that no less a miracle. There are commonplace marvels you need to look for. I believe wholeheartedly in the miraculous nature of everyday things.

Natural metaphors have been used for centuries to inform the Christmas story, possibly because the enormity of the subject matter begs to be interpreted in universal yet simple terms. The most obvious natural element of course, is the presence of the brightly shining star over Bethlehem.

The manifestation of the star may be legend, or possibly is made up by Matthew in the New Testament.  However, some astronomers have hypothesized that the phenomenon was in fact a celestial event called a conjunction of planets.  Though rare (once every 800 or 900 years) there were three such conjunctions in 7 B.C.E. when Saturn and Jupiter appeared very closely together in the night sky.  The first time would have been in May of that year, theoretically when the three kings started their journey. Another such conjunction happened in late September, which would have coincided with the visit to King Herod.  The conjunction of planets then moved to the south (nearer Bethlehem) and was joined in orbit by Mars in December.  The bare bones of the Nativity story are supported at least by the stars.

The holly and the ivy are not just a Christmas song.  The lovely old carol refers to the holly as wearing “the crown”.  The prickly leaves of the holly represent the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at the crucifixion, the red berries are meant to be drops of blood.  Ivy must cling to something in order to grow, as we must to faith in God.  Dozens of other plants play a role in holiday folk tradition.  Pointsettias, Christmas cactus, mistletoe, Christmas fern and many others figure prominently in popular tradition.

Trees stand out in the panoply of Christmas stories.  Naturally, there is the Christmas tree, an evergreen whose perpetual living color symbolizes eternal life, which is perhaps today one of the most universal signs of the season.

The Yule log, the trunk of an entire tree, was meant to burn from end to end over the twelve days of Christmas. The log was placed with one end in the fireplace and the other sticking out into the room and was fed into the fireplace as needed.  Trees play such a big role in the holiday, and neither are birds left out. Cardinals and robins have long been associated with Christmas and the story of the robin’s role is particularly sweet.  It tells how the bird stayed near Jesus as he slept in the manger, keeping him warm by beating his wings beside a small fire and singeing his breast by proximity to the flame.

Stories with centuries behind them are rooted in something powerful.  They are an attempt to explain that which cannot be explained.  They go where current science (or any science at all) can take us.   It is no surprise that holidays like Hannukah and Christmas occur so closely together and are animated by our necessity for warmth and light.  These are the longest, darkest days of the year.  The best way to withstand them is to gather together in demonstrations of faith and celebrations of light. The winter solstice (the darkest day, literally, with the fewest hours of daylight) occurred this year on December 21, just four days before Christmas and less than a week from the final night of Hanukkah.  It’s all downhill from here, each new day lengthening with ever greater radiance. Sustain yourself and those you love with incandescence of whatever form you find illuminating.

Warm Wishes from us here at Hill-Stead.

See you on the trails in 2010,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Winter Over

December 18, 2009

If I were a bird, I’d surely be the migrating kind.  Even with central heating and nice sweaters, I freeze from December to March.  As a mammal, I ought to be able to up my body temperature running around the living room a few times, but winter is as much a state of mind as a condition to be endured.

Captain Lawrence “Otis” Oates, a member of the Scott expedition to Antarctica, knowing that all was lost, told his comrades, “I am just going outside and am likely to be some time.”  Leaving the tent, he disappeared into the swirling snow. He never returned. His good manners and sang froid are an inspiration, his heroism breathtaking.  I am ashamed to confess that had I been a member of the expedition, I’d have wired home for a rescue when the first iceberg appeared on the horizon.

Certain birds like gulls and waterfowl have a nifty way of keeping their legs warm when standing on ice or swimming in frigid water. They have a kind of “heat exchanger” where warm blood from the body of the bird flows down an artery toward the feet.  As it travels, its warmth “leaks” over from the artery into the veins carrying the cold blood up from the feet towards the body.  The exchange is effectuated through blood vessels and muscles that divert the blood into the exchanger.  Nature’s simple, elegant solutions to climate are a miracle.  In a season that celebrates miracles, it’s nice to think about.

There is a charmingly homespun way to express the habit of birds staying on their breeding grounds all year, even during the coldest months.  They are said to “over winter”. There are a number of birds who remain in our area throughout the year and these can be seen fairly easily at Hill-Stead. Cardinals, bluejays, song sparrows, mourning doves, woodpeckers of all kinds, chickadees, tufted titmouse are plentiful.  The “common” finches-house and goldfinch, are around, too. The goldfinches trade in their bright feathers for drab ones, the better for camouflage in the leafless winter landscape. You have to work a little harder for other birds that may be here in winter, like hermit thrush,purple finch, cedar waxwings,rusty blackbirds, owls, and in open water, bald eagles.  But they are here and all can be found on the estate, with the exception of the eagle, which is sometimes down on the Farmington River when the water isn’t frozen.

We get so excited when spring comes!  People exclaim, “I saw a robin today!”, or, “The bluebirds are back!”  Truth be told, these birds over winter, too.  But there is a trick to it.  “Our” robins migrate just a bit south of here, say, to Washington, D.C.,  where the winter is a shade milder than in Southern New England. The robins found in Maine during the breeding season come down here to Connecticut for their winter vacation.  Weather dictates how far the birds need to go to enjoy more temperate conditions. But the movement is a matter of a few hundred miles, not at all the same as migration of a warbler for example, who will fly thousands of miles south from New England to spend the winter in the warmth of the Caribbean.

Now that’s my kind of bird.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Be It Ever So Humble

December 9, 2009

Colors and Texture of the Paper Wasp Nest

It is always instructive to go without.  Restrict fats, salt, sugar and you learn how food really tastes.  Eat lobster without drawn butter and find lobster unadorned is sublime!  Before, all was butter.  Now, lobster has something new.  It’s called flavor.

Similarly in late fall, when it first seems that nature is null without its greenery,  we can adjust to the absence of leaves and see what has happened all around, disguised under a mantle of foliage.  There has been, literally, a beehive of activity going on under our noses! I like to pride myself, a little, on my small ability to “bird by ear”.  That is to say I sometimes can identify birds by their songs.  I pick up some regulars that way, and maybe narrow down others to an identifiable point.  Another good test is looking at nests built in trees and shrubs.  I like this method very much, because I don’t have to do it on the fly.  It is a lot easier when the subject isn’t moving.

It’s lovely to have the leisure really to look carefully at something.  I don’t always, I confess, know what I am looking at.  But armed with a good field guide and unlimited time, I can usually arrive at an educated guess. So I like nests.  You can see so many in December’s empty branches, I often feel ashamed that I didn’t realize so many different birds were around.

Oriole Nest

The easiest to spot seem to be oriole’s nests.  Swinging above, they look to me like ladies’ purses of yesteryear, not really big enough to hold much but inexplicably capacious nonetheless.  If you are lucky enough to notice one during breeding season, and you settle down for a nice look-see, you might get a view of an oriole parent returning to the nest to feed babies.  These parents are clever. They set down in a nearby tree, hopping closer by degrees until they all at once pop into the pendulous nest which barely seems big enough to hold one bird, let alone a clutch of straining babies and an adult! Built of spiders’ webs, lichen and seemingly a lot of good luck, the nest bulges under the strain but holds up manfully time after time.

And it isn’t only birds. Hornets are busy all spring and summer, creating huge elliptical nests that look like they are made from grey paper. We call the bugs paper wasps, hornets and other names. Made from tree pulp and a sort of spit, the nest  seems like real paper – after all paper is water and pulp. But what these insects do with it is nothing short of a miracle, perhaps more of a miracle than the things people sometimes do with paper.   

The hornet queen snuggles down for the winter somewhere dry like a wall or under some moss.  When spring arrives, she searches out a good place for a nest. Hollow trees and high branches are favored locations.  She creates a sturdy link t0 hold the nest to the branch or cavity.  Then she builds “cells”-tiny little chambers, in a row and lays eggs in them.  The first comb will have between five and ten cells.  A little less than a week later, the babies hatch and the queen feeds them constantly so they will grow quickly, turning first into little cocoons, then into grown hornets.  These new “workers” are all female, and they snap into action instantly building new combs and attaching them to the original.  Over the course of the summer the nest grows fatter with exponentially developing new cells and hornets until summer’s apex of warmth and light, when production begins to fall off. The elliptical shape forms as each new row of cells made is just a little smaller than the one before.

Egg-Filled Cells

I suppose the reason I like looking at nests is that they are homes.  Who doesn’t enjoy a surreptitious look around someone’s house, picking up snatches of information about their habits and tastes?  It may be,  and I think it is, one of the reasons people find Hill-Stead so fascinating.  A  favorite childhood pastime for me involved walking my dog after dark, looking into the homes of people with their lights on so I could imagine I lived there and what that might be like.  I checked out decor, and if I could see people, watched to see if they looked happy or not.

In adulthood, I seem to have transferred this little diversion toward natural history.  But the feeling is the same, the subjects no less interesting, and one no less intricate than the other, just different.  Nature’s role is less tortured than that of man.  Insects, animals, birds’ nests, are simply what they were meant to be. Only humans thrash around questioning our roles in the universe. It may be that too many analytical skills are a disadvantage.  When you’ve flailed about too much it’s good, if you can, to go home.   Be it woven nest, split-level house, or moss-covered hidey-hole, we all need to get out of the elements from time to time and rest.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

The Sufficiency of Small Things

November 19, 2009

When do you say, “I’ve seen it all!” or, “I’ve had enough!”? Sometimes when my husband starts talking about travel involving airplanes, I say, “I’ve seen enough!” My tolerance for airports, airlines and other air travelers has diminished as I age.

Oddly, though I’m on the trails at Hill-Stead so often, I have never felt that I’ve seen enough of them. Something always happens to pique my interest or even make me laugh. I suppose it’s just as well our trails are quiet. The sight of me walking along alone and laughing my head off might worry people. The other day I was hiking along, thinking how much fun it was looking at woodpeckers. They are amusing birds, and easy to see in any season save  high summer, which they spend skulking around so that they don’t draw attention to their babies. It must be a real strain on them, since they are utter rabble rousers the rest of the year.

Many woodpeckers look alike, so it can be hard to tell them apart. Their names seem deliberately confusing, as though the nomenclature police don’t really want people to know which one is which. The “Red-Headed Woodpecker” for example, is infrequently seen in Connecticut and it does have a very red head. But the “Red-Bellied Woodpecker”, seen commonly here, also wears a sort of red skullcap. Since people see the red-bellied often, and the red head is so prominent, most people in these parts think it is the Red-Headed Woodpecker. They have no idea that the bird also sports a pretty red mark on its’ belly, which in reality accounts for the name.

A list of woodpeckers that can be seen in Connecticut is found in stores selling birding supplies and books. You can also print one from the Connecticut Ornithological Association website. There aren’t a lot of woodpeckers on it, and one that is listed is extirpated from the state. The Red-Headed Woodpecker is listed, but is rarely seen. That leaves six woodpeckers that anyone here might reasonably expect to see. These are: Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, Red-Bellied Woodpecker and Pileated Woodpecker.

Most of us can identify a Downy.  They aren’t scarce, and they are the spitting image of the Hairy Woodpecker, which is harder to find than the Downy. Both have black and white “ladder” patterns on the back, and males have a distinctive red dot on the back of the head. But the Downy has a beak that is about the same length as the width of its’ head. The Hairy’s beak is far longer than that, and the bird is really much bigger overall than the Downy.

The Flicker is a charming woodie with a little chevron at the top of the chest, and a funny red Simon Legree mustache. They love to forage for ants and are known for feeding on the ground. With a brown/beige color scheme they camouflage well, and they also feed in trees.

The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker has the habit of drilling horizontal lines of “wells” in order to sip the sap that oozes out. They re-drill the wells to keep them flowing, also eating bugs drawn there by the sweet sap  – a miracle of one-stop shopping. Woodpeckers have long tongues that roll up like fire hoses and are attached at the back of the head so they can stretch a long way into a hole or crevice.  It is shaped like a bottle brush the better to dig the food out. Scientists (and helmet companies) are studying woodpecker skulls to figure out how they handle all that pecking without sustaining brain damage. They are models of good design.

The enormous Pileated Woodpecker was the prototype for Woody Woodpecker. It has the same hammer-shaped head and crazy laugh like the cartoon bird. Pileated’s are cousin to the “Lord God Bird”, or Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. A couple of years back someone in an Arkansas swamp thought they saw an Ivory-Billed. Before that, people thought the bird was extinct, and only old folks ever remembered seeing them. By the 1940’s the bird was already rare, and when the war came and forests were logged, no one saw it any more, until the guy in the swamp. Ivory-Billed’s were known as the “Lord God” bird because people who saw the huge things would utter “Lord God!” in amazement.

The Pileated was and is found in those same swamps. The cousins are very alike. After the “Lord God” bird was supposedly rediscovered, avian search parties rushed to see if they could suss out another, but in the end it seems to have been a Pileated after all. Should you see a Pilated yourself, feel free to yell “Lord God” if you want. They are themselves an impressive bird even if they aren’t rare or the subject of million-dollar search parties and best-selling books.

So it happened that recently I was watching and listening to woodpeckers at Hill-Stead. The ever-present Downy and Red-Bellied woodies popped up and down tree trunks like mechanical birds. Pretty soon a Hairy Woodpecker made his presence known with a demanding call note and a Flicker sang out his wild call. Four different woodpeckers in less than ten minutes is pretty good. Next, I noticed a Sapsucker furtively drilling a well high up in a Hemlock. So I had five out of the six! I never figured on getting the Pileated, and I wasn’t seriously looking. Yet suddenly there it was, crazy laugh and all. What’s more, I was able to follow his flight through the trees and watch him hop into his roost. All six woodpeckers at the same time! It made me get a feel for when to say “I’ve had enough” and “I’ve seen enough”, with respect to woodpeckers anyway. Although I have seen them all, I can assure you, I haven’t seen enough!

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Goosey, Goosey Gander, Wither Shall I Wander?

October 14, 2009

Hill-Stead Pond

I have nothing against our maple-leaf-loving neighbors to the north, but I wish they’d take their geese back.   Or maybe a way could be found to discourage the goose diaspora to the United States.  The thing is, the geese keep stopping and staying here, eventually joining golf clubs and messing up everyone’s tee times.  Literally.  Ever try to play through a flock of Canada Geese?  Forget the plaid slacks-a hazmat suit would be more like it.  The course will be covered in goose guano if the flock has been there for more than fifteen minutes.  Slip in it and I’ll wager you’ll be happy to cede the game to go home and shower.

Maybe your ball lands somewhere near the flock, or heaven forbid, IN it.  The geese will  run you off the course, hissing and flapping their wings.  Don’t let them catch you, because a good peck from one of those bills really hurts.  After all, when they aren’t playing golf males use the beak to fight with other males for the favor of a lady goose, and to otherwise defend the nest or family. Geese are regularly preyed upon by skunks, coyotes, ravens, crows and domestic dogs, so that beak is powerful.  One thing you can say about a gander -they’re good family men.  Canada Geese are extremely social (with each other) and form strong family bonds. The gander will go to great lengths to keep the brood safe. And female geese are pretty fierce, too.

The Canada Goose is considered migratory, and it largely remains so.  Still, in ever-increasing numbers this handsome bird is finding conditions in the U.S. to its liking and putting down roots. Flocks frequently take over golf courses, suburban lawns and other grassy areas near water. Soon the water is fouled by fecal matter produced due to their rapacious appetite for vegetation. An individual goose can make about a pound of “fertilizer” a day.   In a way, Canada Geese are a little like flying cows.

Why do the geese stay?  In some cases, it’s simple.  People feed them.  Also, golf courses, school campuses and similar spots are, from a goose point of view, perfect places to raise a family.  There is plenty to eat and perfect nesting conditions.  The ideal location has water with unobstructed views all around, the better to see predators sneaking up.  Reservoirs and golf course water hazards are made-to-order.   Once a goose couple have tried a spot and liked it, they’ll bring family and friends back in exponentially increasing numbers year after year.  Before too long, the chromosome that determines migratory behavior can even change, so that the goose doesn’t get the signal to move on and the bird becomes a year-round resident. 

Because Canada Geese make such messy, upsetting neighbors, many methods are used to scare them away.  In rural areas, where geese can make short work of grain fields, air cannons scare them off.  Some golf clubs use dogs for hire that run around putting the geese up in the air.  There are coyote decoys which work as long as someone moves them around.  If left in one place, the birds quickly figure out the ruse.  Some communities even have “egg addling”.  This is shaking the eggs so that they become scrambled egg in situ.  Bitter chemicals are sometimes sprayed on vegetation so the birds will go find less pungent chow.  The danger is that the chemical effects other than bitterness are not yet known.  Of course, many states allow for a limited season of hunting, and it must be said that Canada Geese have fed people in the northern hemisphere for hundreds of years.

Goose migration is a leisurely affair, with many stops to eat and rest so they arrive at their wintering grounds in good shape.  Families travel together, most often as part of groups that form the familiar “v”  as they fly.  The “v” helps birds take advantage of the slipstream from the bird in front, minimizing drag and enabling the group as a whole to fly for longer.  Geese mate for life, though if a mate should die, the remaining goose “remarries”.  Goslings that survive their first year often return with their parents to nest alongside them. This is one way flocks get big so quickly. Geese can live a long time-in captivity up to forty years. Wild geese don’t have that kind of longevity, but they can last longer than many smaller birds. So flocks that get big tend to stay that way.

We remain happily gooseless here at Hill-Stead.  Our pond is surrounded by vegetation-anathema to cautious geese.  Certainly some stop off for a quick feed, but none have tried to linger.  Just as well.  It’s a long drive to Canada, and I’d hate to think what they’d do to my car on the way.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist