27 February 2011

Looking for a Good Home

Last weekend while taking a break from the Great Backyard Bird Count, I was in our living room when I heard the familiar low warbling song of an Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis). Soon enough, a male was perched on a wire outside our window. The best that I could tell, he was scolding (and a few times attacking) his reflection in our window, thinking that it was another male Eastern Bluebird on his territory.

You may recall my post from last year about Eastern Bluebirds showing up on our platform feeder and near our windows. I can't help but to wonder if this may be one of the same birds.

A few minutes later, a female Eastern Bluebird showed up as well, and it appeared that the two were paired up and ready to find a home for the spring. I quickly went outside and cleaned out our bluebird boxes, just in case.

I haven't seen this pair since last weekend, so they've either left or taken up residence in one of our boxes. I'm hoping for the latter.

25 February 2011

2010-2011 Winter Feeder Count Results

As we have during the past few years, Lindsay and I participated in the Indiana Audubon Society Winter Bird Feeder Count again this year. For information on this count or to see our results from last year, see our post from about a year ago on the 2009-2010 count results.

The number of species observed during the count period this season was pretty similar to what we saw last season; we had 15 species in November, 19 species in December, 16 species in January, and 18 species in February, for a total of 22 species during the count (our complete species list from the 2010-2011 count is shown at the end of this post).

Species observed most frequently (those present during all four count periods) in 2010-2011 were Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura), Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens), Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus), Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea), Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus), American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), and House Sparrow (Passer domesticus). Species observed in greatest abundance (with the greatest number observed at one time in parentheses) were American Goldfinch (55 in February), Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus) (33 in November), House Sparrow (30 in December), American Tree Sparrow (23 in February), and Mourning Dove (18 in November).

The range in temperature during the 2010-2011 count was pretty comparable to that in 2009-2010, as we saw a minimum of -9 degrees Fahrenheit and a maximum of 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

2010-2011 Winter Bird Feeder Count Species List
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)
Blue Jay
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
American Tree Sparrow
Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)
White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leocophrys)
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

18 February 2011

How Do They Do It?

The shores of Lake Michigan... certainly not the rich, fertile soils that characterize much of the rest of the cornbelt. In fact, this is one of the harshest and most inhospitable habitats in the Midwest. The coarse-textured sand does not hold much moisture, the sun beats down relentlessly and reflects off of the quartz-based substrate, and winds whip wildly off of the big pond. Yet, somehow, a specific suite of vascular plants are able to thrive in this desert-like community.

The dominant plant in the photograph above is Marram Grass (Ammophila breviligulata), a colonizing species that is thought by many to be almost entirely responsible for the presence of vegetation just off the coasts of the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. Marram Grass is at its best in dry, windy areas with shifting sands. As it becomes established, its root system stabilizes the sand and its leaves and stems capture moving sand, eventually leading to the formation of foredunes. Marram Grass has adapted to be able to tolerate the dry, windy conditions common where it grows by developing long, narrow leaves that are often rolled or folded to keep the stomata cool and shaded.

Another of those hardy colonizers is Seaside Spurge (Chamaesyce polygonifolia), shown above. This prostrate-growing, sand-loving species is regularly buried by blowing sand, yet it is able to persist in small patches scattered along the beach. To tolerate the windy conditions present along the lake, Seaside Spurge has adapted to grow only a few centimeters tall, keeping the plant from drying out by keeping it mostly out of the elements. It also has somewhat fleshy leaves with milky sap to help keep the plant from drying out.

Farther from the lake but in equally dessicated situations grows one of our most interesting milkweeds, Clasping Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis). Although it often grows in areas with a higher density of vegetation, as seen in the photograph above, it can persist in the driest and finest of sands, and it often grows in disturbed areas. The leaves of this species are often somewhat appressed to the stem, exposing less surface are to the rays of the sun. Like Seaside Spurge, Clasping Milkweed has somewhat fleshy leaves and a milky sap to help resist dessication.

One of the characteristic plants of sand blowouts within the dunes is Beach Heather (Hudsonia tomentosa). Like the other species featured in this post, Beach Heather is able to withstand the arid, brutal environment in which it grows through a series of morphological adaptations: it is a low-growing, mat forming plant; the leaves are small and scale-like to reduce its surface area exposed to the sun and to reduce the amount of water that is loses through evapotranspiration; and as sand is blown over the plant and covers lower parts of the plant, Beach Heather is able to produce roots from the lower stem nodes so that it continually "moves" to ground level.

Finally, the poster child for the deserts of the Great Lakes, Eastern Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa). This cactus has many of the same adaptations as the plants above (low-growing, fleshy, etc.) that allow it to survive in the harshest of conditions.

12 February 2011

History Repeats Itself

Scott: "Wasn't it two years ago at Notre Dame that we saw a Merlin?"
Lindsay: "Yeah... I was at work, so I didn't get to see it."
Scott: "It was just as we pulled into the parking lot."

(Pulling into parking lot...)
Scott: "The Merlin was on that small tree."

(Passing the small tree...)
Scott: "Look! There's the Merlin!"

When Lindsay and I headed to University of Notre Dame this morning to join South Bend-Elkhart Audubon Society on a field trip to look at waterfowl, seeing a Merlin (Falco columbarius) never even crossed my mind. I was pretty sure that the one we saw in the parking lot off of Dorr Road (Scott: "You make a better Dorr than a Road!) two years ago was a freak occurrence. I guess not. Now, I wonder if this bird winters here every year. What a great first bird for a field trip!

In the photograph below, note two of the identifying characteristics on this otherwise somewhat nondescript raptor: the weak mustache and the white eyebrow.

But we weren't done. Brian Miller and I later joked that had the weather been like it was the past couple of days, we would probably have been the only two to show up for the field trip, and we probably would have left after seeing the Merlin. The mid-30 degree Farenheit temperatures on this sunny February day were perfect for a two-hour walk around St. Joseph's Lake.

Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos, in the background of the photograph above) were by far the most abundant species on the lake, but one of our highlight birds was the migrant in the foreground above, Redhead (Aythya americana). Interestingly, female Redheads lay their eggs in the nests of other Redheads or other ducks, supposedly often in the nests of the somewhat similar looking and related Canvasbacks (Aythya valisineria).

The number of Common Mergansers (Mergus merganser, in the photograph above) on the lake was quite impressive. I counted 81, but I am sure that I missed some. We often see Common Mergansers on St. Joseph's Lake in the winter, but not in these numbers. When Brian, Lindsay, and I did the Indiana Mid-winter Waterfowl Count at Notre Dame earlier this year, we didn't see any Common Mergansers.

One of the most handsome ducks, in my opinion, is the Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus, above). It must be the afro, as Lindsay calls it. This species is somewhat of a staple at St. Joseph's Lake.

The most common gull that we saw on the lake today was Herring Gull (Larus argentatus, or L. smithsonianus, if you choose to split the European Herring Gull from the American Herring Gull). The immature Herring Gull in the photograph above has the characteristic pink legs and thick bill. Adult Herring Gulls have a white body with a gray back and wings, black and white wingtips, and a yellow bill with a red spot on the lower mandible.

We only saw one Mute Swan (Cygnus olor, above) on the lake. Visiting St. Joseph's Lake, you can usually count on seeing at least one of this attractive Eurasian species.

Our complete list of species observed during the field trip follows:

Canada Goose
Mute Swan
Domestic Duck
American Black Duck
Lesser Scaup
Common Goldeneye
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Pied-billed Grebe
Horned Grebe
Great Blue Heron
Cooper's Hawk
American Coot
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Song Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch

05 February 2011

A Welcomed Visitor

In the days leading up to and following the (in my opinion much overhyped) recent "Snowmageddon," we noticed an increase in the number of birds at our feeders, and in the amount of bird food that was consumed.

In the photograph above, House Finches (Carpodacus mexicanus), American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), a Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), and an American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea) enjoy a meal on our platform feeder.

Above, House Finches and an American Goldfinch are joined by a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor).

Like Tufted Titmice, the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) shown above doesn't stick around on the feeder for long. It grabs some food and quickly flies off to cache a morsel in the bark of a nearby tree for a later snack.

Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), like the one on the platform above, have been especially plentiful as of late, with our high count being around 15 individuals. But who is that on the suet feeder?

The snow and cold weather seemed to have brought a female Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) to our feeders. Our suet feeders are frequented by Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens), Hairy Woodpeckers (Picoides villosus), and Red-bellied Woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) in the winter, but we rarely see Northern Flickers eating at our feeders. When we do encounter this species in our yard, it is often on the ground or at the base of a tree feeding on ants (their primary food source) or beetles. The subspecies that we see in the eastern United States is called the Yellow-shafted Flicker (C. auratus auratus); Red-shafted Flickers (C. auratus cafer) reside in the western United States. The common names of these subspecies come from the color under the tail, on the underwings, and on the shafts of the primary feathers. You can easily see the characteristic yellow or red, as well as the characteristic white rump, when the bird is in flight. At one time, Yellow-shafted Flickers and Red-shafted Flickers were considered two distinct species. However, hybrids which look intermediate between the two are common where the ranges overlap, and thus the two have been taxonomically lumped into one species with two subspecies.

For more information on Northern Flickers, including some amazing information on their tongues (that's right, their tongues), be sure to check out this post by Janet Creamer and this post by Jim McCormac.

02 February 2011

The Booty and the Blizzard!

Many of you are probably on the computer right now as a means to rest your aching backs and re-warm those fingers and toes after hours of shoveling out from yesterday's blizzard. After 3 hours of shoveling (yes shoveling, because even the tractor with the plow couldn't get through the snow drifts.) Scott and I returned to the following scene.

Those Australian's sure do know how to party. At least someone is enjoying the winter weather!

01 February 2011

Plants in Song

If you've got a few minutes, turn up the volume on your computer and visit these links that lead to songs about plants.

This one is about invasive plant species, and all of the images were submitted by school kids...

Here is a very creative song that was posted on the blog No seeds, no fruits, no flowers: no problem. Adventures in fern biology. This song was created by college students for extra credit... http://noseeds.blogspot.com/2011/01/fern-rap.html

Finally, a classic by the band Genesis, about the nasty invasive species Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum)...