24 December 2010

A Real Snowbird

Here in northern Indiana, some of our birds are summer residents, others pass through during migration, and yet others are here only during the coldest time of the year. I like to refer to the latter group as "snowbirds." One of our more abundant snowbirds, pictured below, is just over six inches long and can be identified by its gray face, rusty cap and eyeline, dark "stickpin" on the chest, and distinct white wingbars. This is an American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea), a real harbinger of winter in these parts.

One could only expect that a bird referred to as a "tree sparrow" would nest and/or forage in forested areas. You may be surprised, then, to learn that American Tree Sparrows nest on the ground, forage on the ground, and breed at an elevation above which trees are even able to grow. How, then, did this species get its name? As the story goes, early North American settlers were reminded of the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) when they initially saw our "tree" sparrows, and thus dubbed them American Tree Sparrows without understanding the behavior and habits of the species.

It's no secret that American Tree Sparrows like it cold. They breed and spend the summer only in the extreme northern parts of North America, where the temperature never gets above 50 degrees Farenheit. While in the harsh environment of the arctic tundra, American Tree Sparrows feed almost exclusively on insects; in the winter, however, their diet is comprised of seeds, especially those of Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima) and Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis).

This winter, be sure to listen for the beautiful, high-pitched, tinkling "tweedle-eet, tweedle-eet" coming from old-field habitats, and watch for the characteristic ground-scratching underneath your feeders, and you are sure to see one of our hardiest winter residents, the American Tree Sparrow.

17 December 2010

Oh Christmas Tree...

Every year (well at least for the last 11 years we've been together) it has been tradition that Scott and I venture out into the cold in pursuit of the perfect Christmas tree. We love the look and smell of real trees and also enjoy the thrill of the hunt.

We skim through each and every row checking the tree for the perfect height, making sure there are no bare spots, seeing if it has sturdy branches, and don't forget it has to have a nice top in order to place the star.

Scott is obviously still working on perfecting his tree selecting skills. Although his choice does have some "Charlie Brown" Christmas value, there is no way it could fully display the 31 years of ornaments I have acquired. It has always been O'Connor tradition that you get a Christmas ornament each year (many years I have received more than 1). I have oranaments that include everything from Baby's First Christmas, the Campbell's Soup Collection, Valpo University collectors from my years in college, Grandma and Aunt Ruth's homemade specials, to the Irish Santa that takes center stage.

Ahhh, that one is more like it.
(I'm referring to the tree, not the view.)

Complete with lights, ornaments, and the star.

A very Merry Christmas and a safe and Happy New Year from our home to yours!

10 December 2010

Mimicking Moths

We have definitely moved into the slow time of the year. It is dark when I drive to work in the morning, and once I get home from work I barely have time to get Bootypants through our trails before they are too dark to see. As a result, I have only taken photos on three days in November and three days in December. Because of this, I was clicking through photos from earlier in the year and came across this one that I thought was worthy of a post...

These are sphinx moths in the genus Hemaris. The best that this botanist can tell, these are Snowberry Clearwing Moths (Hemaris diffinis). I took this photograph in Lake County, Indiana on August 7, 2010. Snowberry Clearwing Moths, which are found throughout almost all of North America, are said to mimic bumblebees, and it is pretty easy to see why someone unfamiliar with these lepidopterans might get confused.

In looking through my old photos, I found the two below of moths in the genus Hemaris.

I feel pretty good about calling the moth in the photograph above another Snowberry Clearwing Moth. This individual seems to fit the description well, with black legs and a very clean margin between the thicker black portion and the clear portion of the forewings. I took this photograph back in May of 2005 in St. Joseph County, Indana.

Here is another old photograph, taken in July of 2006 in St. Joseph County, Indiana. From the descriptions I have seen, I would call this a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe). This species has lighter-colored legs and a thicker, more ragged-edged reddish-brown forewing margin. As the name implies, Hummingbird Clearwing Moths are often mistaken for hummingbirds, as they hover over flowers while probing for nectar. They are found in North America but seem to be absent from the southwestern part of the continent.

03 December 2010

A Serious Swoop of Sandhill Cranes

It's never easy to get up early on a Saturday morning (and by early I mean at 4:30 AM), but when there is good reason, I am all for it. Last weekend, Brian Miller, Lynn Vernon, and I joined Kip Miller and several other members of the Berrien Birding Club on a trip that started out with us meeting at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area at 7:15 AM. Our purpose? To see a swoop of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis), of course!

We certainly weren't the only lunatics with the idea of braving one of the first really cold mornings of the season. Birdwatchers, photographers, and nature lovers alike flock to J-P annually to witness this event, and sometimes I can't help but wonder if the cranes are there to watch the people.

Just like every other November, the Sandhill Cranes did not disappoint. Each fall (and to a lesser extent in the spring), thousands of Greater Sandhill Cranes flock to the area surrounding Jasper-Pulaski during their migration from Canada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and northern Indiana nesting grounds to their warmer wintering grounds in southern Georgia and Florida. During their stopover, they spend their days feeding mostly on grains and insects in agricultural fields, and their nights roosting in marshes, but the real spectacle is to see them congregate and socialize in Goose Pasture. When we were at J-P, their numbers totaled approximately 13,000. As of November 30, 2010, just two days later, almost 17,000 Sandhill Cranes were tallied. The highest number of Sandhill Cranes ever seen at J-P was in 1991, when 32,000 individuals were estimated.

Lindsay and I have visited J-P several times over the past ten years to see this event, but this trip was different. All of the other times we had made the hour drive to see the cranes, we had done so in the evening, just before sunset. Kip organized this trip for the opportunity to see the enormous, hungry flocks leaving for a day's worth of feeding.

It was definitely worth getting up early, making the long drive, and standing out in the cold!

As the cranes lifted off, their gutteral, rolling, trumpeting chorus blocked out nearly all other sound. As they made clumsy landing approaches with necks, wings, and legs extended, they reminded me of parachutist dropping to the ground.

It is difficult to get an idea of scale in these photographs, but if you've never seen a Sandhill Crane before, these are big birds. They stand approximately four feet tall and have a wingspan of six to seven feet.

As many times as I have been to Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, I never tire of going back to see the cranes. If you are within a couple of hours of northwest Indiana and you have never been to J-P to see the Sandhill Cranes during migration, I recommend that you make the trip.