10 March 2015

"Feeder" Birds

What defines a "feeder" bird, really?  To me, a "feeder" bird is a bird that comes to food that you've put out for the purpose of attracting birds.  A few years ago, we were able to log Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) as feeder birds on our property because we put corn out along our driveway and they showed up to feed on it.
In this sense, our friends Eric and Dawn Scarborough recently had some pretty interesting "feeder" birds at their property in Starke County, Indiana.  Knowing that raptors often feed on animal carcasses, they put a raccoon carcass in an agricultural field and set up a trail camera to capture the results.  Here are some of their photos of one of the two Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and two Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) that feasted on the remains.

05 March 2015

Sedges on TV

Scott was recently featured on an episode of Outdoor Elements, a television program on the local PBS station, discussing one of his favorite topics, sedges.  To see the episode, titled "Grow for It!," which also features Todd Gillian discussing vines and vine control and Marie Laudeman discussing lichens, click here.

03 March 2015

For a New Plant, I Would Crawl to the Edge of the Earth

When most of my friends and family hear that I've gone botanizing for the day, they probably have images of me strolling lazily along a trail through a dry area devoid of poison ivy, plants with thorns and prickles, mosquitoes, yellow jackets, and venomous snakes on a comfortable spring day.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, that couldn't be farther from the truth.  My travels take me to the edges of the Earth, almost literally in some cases.
Scott defies death to photograph a plant. Photo by Erin Victory.
Such was the case on 11 July 2014. While in Keweenaw County, Michigan, Brad Slaughter, Erin Victory, and I were joined by Janet Marr on a trip to Brockway Mountain.  As you can see in the photographs, Brockway Mountain, which reaches 1,320 feet above sea level, drops steeply to mature forest.  Very steeply.  Steeply enough that to see one little plant we crawled on the volcanic rock to the furthest extent that we could go and still feel like we had the toes of our boots firmly planted in a secure crevice. 

Long way down. Photo by Erin Victory.
To add to the danger (and it truly was danger, especially looking back and remembering how I felt at a couple of moments while laying on my belly holding onto the edge of the Earth), it was raining, making everything, especially the creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) on which we were laying, very slick.  The wind... my gosh... the wind.  "Relentless" is the only way to describe it.  One wrong move, and it really would have been over.  This was the same day that LeBron James announced he was returning to Cleveland to bring the Cavaliers and the city that I grew up 30 minutes from a much needed and long awaited championship.  I made a comment to Brad at one point that this was how it was going to end for me... that I would never see a Cleveland major sports championship, and this silly plant would be the reason why.

Brad and Erin get in on the game.
Luckily, I'm here today to write about our trip. And this is what it's like when I go out botanizing.  Okay, this was probably one of my most dangerous outings ever, but it's never all butterflies and flowers.

So what plant could possibly lure us into this dangerous predicament?

Erin livin' life on the edge.
You can see the object of our obsession in the middle of the photograph below.  It's the slightly yellowish green, diminutive plant with tiny white flowers.  Still not sure what it is?  It's one of the rarest species in Michigan, found only on the conglomerate cliff of Brockway Mountain, and this was the only individual we saw.  We were lucky to have Janet with us to show us the location, or we easily could have overlooked it.

We did it all for this plant.
We were there to see Keweenaw rock-rose (Chamaerhodos erecta ssp. nuttallii), a state endangered and critically imperiled member of the family Rosaceae that is considered a western disjunct species (a species geographically separated from its wider distribution area in the western United States). Sadly, this gem is surrounded by invasive species including spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe ssp. micranthos) and honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.), so even if trampling and rock climbing don't do it in, its days of occurrence in Michigan may be numbered. Unfortunately, the relentless wind that I mentioned previously prevented perfectly focused photos, even on this low-growing plant.

Keweenaw Rock Rose
Once we crawled back up to safety, we were shown how to correctly approach this cliff-dwelling species by legendary Michigan botanist Tony Reznicek, who essentially took a few rapid steps, leapt, and landed on his belly, clutching the cliff inches from the edge. He shot a couple of quick photos, hopped back up, and walked to where we were standing awestruck, still covering our eyes due to Tony's incredibly dangerous yet confident feet. Regardless, you won't see me doing this anytime soon.  I'll continue to crawl.

01 March 2015

2014-2015 Winter Bird Feeder Count Results

As we have during the past six seasons, Lindsay and I participated in the Indiana Audubon Society Winter Bird Feeder Count this winter.  During this citizen science project, the greatest number of each bird species observed at feeders in your yard on the 20th to 25th of November, December, January, and February are tallied.  For our results from past Winter Bird Feeder Counts, see our posts here (2013-2014)here (2012-2013), here (2011-2012), here (2010-2011), and here (2009-2010).

The area below our feeding stations saw activity from several ground-feeding species such as Mourning Dove and Northern Cardinal
Because of my job change last March, I now work from my home office during the winter, allowing me a better opportunity to count our feeder birds.  Even with this advantage, the trend of decreasing number of individuals that I mentioned last year seems to be continuing, but this observed result may have something to do with an extraordinary number of individuals observed during the 2008-2009 count, the first year we participated in the Winter Bird Feeder Count.  We will continue to track this metric, and as we obtain more data we may see the number of individuals observed annually level out to some extent.

A male Hairy Woodpecker visited our suet feeders in December, January, and February.
In terms of number of species observed at our feeding stations during the count, we had our second best count ever in 2014-2015, tallying 24 species (27 species in 2008-2009 is our high count; 21 species in 2009-2010, 2011-2012, and 2013-2014 are our low counts).  This number is greater than our seven-year average of 22.7 species.  We observed 18 species in November 2014, 17 species in December 2014, 18 species in January 2015, and 20 species in February 2015.  Our seven-year monthly averages stand at 16.3 in November, 17.5 in December, 17.2 in January, and 19.5 in February.

American Goldfinch reached a peak of 15 individuals in November and was represented during all four count periods.
The list of species observed during our 2014-2015 Winter Bird Feeder Count is found at the end of this post.  Species not observed during this count that we have seen on at least one other count include Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), American Robin (Turdus migratorius), Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis), Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus), Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater), and Common Redpoll (Carduelis flammea); I saw Northern Flicker behind our house the day after the February count period, and I heard American Robin on our property (not at feeders) during the Great Backyard Bird Count February 13-16, 2015.  This was not an irruption year for Common Redpolls, so it is not surprising that we did not have them at our feeders.  The cold weather through February has also probably resulted in fewer blackbirds in northern Indiana this winter. 

2014-2015 saw large numbers of Northern Cardinals visiting our feeders, especially in January and February.
We've now tallied 34 species using our feeders (or hawks showing an interest in feeder birds) during the seven seasons that we've participated in this count.  Species observed at our feeders for the first time during the Winter Bird Feeder Count in 2014-2015 include Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus), Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla), and White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis).

Two of our first time Winter Bird Feeder Count visitors were observed at the same time in February 2015 - Field Sparrow (back) and White-throated Sparrow (front).
Temperatures during the 2014-2015 Winter Bird Feeder Count on our property were mostly within the range of previous years with the exception of February, which reached a record low temperature of -10 degrees Fahrenheit.  Snow cover overall was fairly average.  The low temperature during our 2014-2015 count was -10 degrees Fahrenheit in February and the high temperature reached 52 degrees Fahrenheit in November.  The deepest snow cover during the count was observed in February (6 inches).

Blue Jays seem to be making a comeback after their decline several years ago as a result of West Nile Virus.
Species observed most frequently (those present during all four count periods) in 2014-2015 were Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens), Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea), Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia), Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus), American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), and House Sparrow (Passer domesticus).

We tallied 11 Dark-eyed Juncos at our feeders during both the December and January count periods.
Species observed in greatest abundance during a single month of the count (with the greatest number observed at one time in parentheses) were House Sparrow (45 in January, 20 in February, and 12 in November), American Tree Sparrow (24 in February and 11 in January), Northern Cardinal (18 in February and 17 in January), American Goldfinch (15 in November), House Finch (13 in January), Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus, 13 in December), and Dark-eyed Junco (11 in December and February).

A flock of 13 Pine Siskins showed up at our feeders just in time to be counted during the December count period.
The most abundant species based on average over the four months of the count were House Sparrow (21.0), Northern Cardinal (11.5), and American Tree Sparrow (10.5). 

American Tree Sparrows and Northern Cardinals are common winter residents.
White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) made a bit of a rebound at our feeding stations in 2014-2015.  From 2008-2009 to 2012-2013, this species declined in number of individuals at our feeders from an average of 3.0 to an average of 0.25.  In 2014-2015, we found an average of 2.0 White-crowned Sparrows at our feeding stations during the count period.

White-crowned Sparrows may be making a comeback at our feeders, but we did not see any during the February count period.
We logged average high counts for six species in 2014-2015: Sharp-shinned Hawk (0.25), Blue Jay (5.75), Song Sparrow (1.00), Northern Cardinal (11.50), House Finch (7.75), and House Sparrow (21.00).  Hopefully these high counts are not indicative of a trend of increasing non-native species at our feeders.  We'll have to keep an eye on this during future counts.

The non-native House Finch may be increasing at our feeders.
2014-2015 Winter Bird Feeder Count Species List
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)
Blue Jay
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
American Tree Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow