Jan 29, 2011

World's Rarest Bird Pictures

I'm not sure "rarest" is the right word, but these photos are definitely worth checking out.

Jan 28, 2011

California Town Considers Broadcasting Bird Sounds on Public Streets to Add Ambiance

I love Two-Fisted Birdwatcher. This particular post brings to mind standup comic Brian Regan's bit about the irate birder who called up NBC Sports when he heard, in the background of a golf tournament, the call of a bird that distinctly was not indigenous to where the tournament was being played. 

While Regan apparently thought this guy was whack job, or at least a total nature nerd, I totally get the birder's point. I can be enjoying an otherwise well-written TV show when a bogus comment or storyline about nature suddenly brings a halt to my willing suspension of disbelief. I mean, how hard is it to Google the local conservation (or game, wildlife, or natural-resources) department of any state and find out what wildlife actually live in the location where the story is set? 

Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)
Photo by Petra Karstedt  
TV producers seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on police procedure, getting at least some of it accurate, but nature invariably takes an accuracy hit in most TV shows and many movies. Regan didn't bother to do any research either, coming up with totally bogus bird names and calls for his bit, but that's easier to forgive with a comic. Of course, the bit would have rung more true—especially for those of us who are not nature impaired—if he'd used the name of a real species.

Back to the town in California considering adding bird noises to its streets' ambiance: Citizens could soon think they're surrounded by Northern Cardinals, a species whose range has yet to reach that far west. Or they could be regaled with the song of the nightingale, a species not found in North America. Speaking of nature impaired.... Does it matter that they would be barraged by misinformation at a time when nature deficit disorder is one of the reasons we're heading for ecosystem collapse? Guess not, considering how misinformed most of our citizenry are about nature.

Still, the parallel to 1984, or at least an elevator or dentist's office, is scary enough. Personally, I prefer actual sounds, no matter what they are, in the background when I walk down a street, not some Orwellian idea of what should make me happy. What really makes me happy is not living anywhere near this town. What makes me really happy is living in Rappahannock County, where I only have to open a window to hear all the bird sounds I want.
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Jan 27, 2011

Deer Foraging in the New Snow

Sunrise out back after yesterday's snowfall
Just had a herd of nine deer foraging in the forest behind the house. I rarely see them this time of day, so I'm sure it's the 5.5" of snow we got yesterday that has brought them here. I welcome them back there, since it's a mature deciduous forest and pretty much all the browse that's low enough is nonnative invasives—honeysuckle, multiflora rose, with a bit of native greenbriar and young pines. The pines don't have much of a chance because of the mature hickory, oak, locust, and tulip trees back there that crowd out the light during the growing season, so the deer are welcome to whatever they find.

It's interesting that, with a huge mast crop of acorns and hickory nuts just a few inches below their feet, they still are looking for browse.

There's one mature buck with a good rack, two younger bucks with little racks, a mature doe, and what looks like this year's crop of fawns to round out the herd. After munching on some honeysuckle and greenbriar, they've wandered on down to a pine forest, where they're more likely to find chow.

Wish my old digital camera was up to the task of documenting the passage of the deer. I'm really looking forward to investing in something better next month, so I can add more photos to this blog and my column.

It's been a cold winter, but not a particularly snowy one, and the snow we got last night is slowing melting in today's sun. More snow is on the way tomorrow and Saturday, but not much accumulation is expected.

I'm working on my next "Wild Ideas" column, on wood frogs. Most years, by this time we're hearing their mating call by now, during a brief warm spell when, within a few days they frantically produce the next generation in ponds and vernal pools that are often still partly covered with ice.

This year, it's been silent here in the Blue Ridge. Too cold. I'm missing the chinooks of January that gave a brief respite from the longer, colder winter in the Northern Plains. Spring can't come soon enough here in Virginia this year.

Jan 25, 2011

Things that Go Screech in the Night

Melancholy were the sounds on a winter's night. 
—Virginia Woolf (Jacob's Room)

I’m really not a winter person. As the days get shorter, the nights longer, and the temperature drops, all I want to do is hibernate. I like to be lulled to sleep by a full chorus of cicadas, crickets, tree frogs, and the occasional whip-poor-will, so I find the winter nocturnal silence, with the occasional burst of bizarre and even blood-curdling noises, to be a lot less restful than the sounds of a summer’s night.

As a sight-oriented human, I find it’s harder to describe the sounds of animals than their appearance, but I’ll give it a try with the help of some good references. The first sound that woke me up since the summer chorus went silent was a Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), making what is often referred to as “strange” sounds. While this native of Virginia may bark when threatened, its vocalizations can run the gamut of something out of Jurassic Park to a hawk’s scream or a hoarse cough—sometimes a medley of all these.

The sometimes strange vocalizations of the
nonnative Red Fox (
Vulpes vulpes) can be
heard all over Virginia, particularly at night.

Photo by John Sarvis/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), which is not native to Virginia but is now threatening to crowd out its gray cousin, also has a hawklike scream and doglike bark, adding yips and some more exotic sounds—chattering monkeys, gobbling turkeys and a haunting, loonlike cry come to mind.
If you hear a “bark” that is breathier and more consistent in pitch than a fox, it’s probably a White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus).

The vocalizations of the native Bobcat (Lynx rufus) and nonnative Coyote (Canis latrans) can add other dimensions to a winter’s night, none of them likely to lull you to sleep. The Bobcat’s range from piglike grunts to the yowl of a cat on steroids, to a scream similar to its larger cousins, the cougar and lion. The Coyote’s vocalizations are similar to that of a small dog yipping, barking and howling, with some sounds closer to those of a wolf. While I used to hear choruses of coyotes outside my door in the Northern Plains, I’ve yet to hear that here in the East.

The sound of the Eastern Screech
(Megascops asio) can be more
like a
 pony's whinny than a screech.

Photo by Wolfgang Wander
Then there are the owls, the earliest of the bird species to mate in Virginia. The small Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio), a woodland species common in Virginia and abundant here in Rappahannock County, makes less of a screech than a ponylike whinny that descends in pitch. Its repertoire also includes cooing similar to that of a Rock Dove (pigeon).

At the other end of the owl spectrum in the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), the largest native owl in the Americas. At home in diverse habitats and also known as the Tiger Owl, its “HOO...HOO…HOO” is what most of us think of as the owl sound.

The emphatic hoots of the native
Barred Owl (
Strix varia) can be
heard in woodlands throughout
Virginia on winter nights.

Photo by BoxknightJace at en.wikipedia
The Barred Owl (Strix varia), popularly known as the “hoot owl,” has a call similar but “more emphatic” than the Great Horned Owl, and is likely to close with an “aw,” according to Peterson Field Guides: Eastern Birds. Another woodland owl, it can also make doglike barks.

The Barn Owl (Tyto alba) has what the Peterson guide characterizes as “a shrill rasping hiss or snore.” It also can make a chirping sound somewhat like a loud cricket. As its name implies, this bird is fond of roosting in barns or similar rural structures, since it prefers hunting in open country—farmland or grassland—along the edges of woods.

The Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus), the tiniest (2.6 to 3.5 ounces) and most elusive of owls in Virginia, is also the only one that migrates—leaving for more southern climes by early December and showing back up in February. As an article in West Virginia Wildlife Magazine aptly put it, its call is “an incessant, monotonous TOOT…TOOT…TOOT…TOOT…TOOT…TOOT…TOOT...much like the back-up alarm on a garbage truck!” This woodland owl’s migration flyway goes through the Shenandoah Valley, and it occurs elsewhere in Virginia, too.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re hearing the “normal” call of a nocturnal predator or the last scream of its prey. The Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) is not prone to vocalizing but ill squeal or shriek, especially in distress, and is a favorite prey of several nocturnal predators.

Since hearing these sounds is the best way to learn to recognize them, I often head online to find recorded versions. While there are myriad CDs and special audio devices that provide bird vocalizations, recordings of other animals are not as plentiful. The best site I’ve found is Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library (macaulaylibrary.org), which also has video.

Animal-vocalization expert Lang Elliott has several wonderful nature-sound books that come with CDs, including A Guide to Night Sounds: The Nighttime Sounds of 60 Mammals, Birds, Amphibians, and Insects. His websites, Music of Nature (www.musicofnature.org) and Nature Sounds (www.naturesound.com), also have these sounds, plus videos.

As thrilling as the animal cries on a winter night can be, I yearn for the return of the soothing hum of cicadas in the long, steamy nights of summer.

[From my"Wild Ideas" syndicated newspaper column, December 2010]

Jan 19, 2011

Enjoy Webcam of Allen's Hummingbird on Nest

Photo of Allen's Humming bird feeding her chick.
From Phoebe Allens website

This is a great webcam-view of a female Allen's Hummingbird (Selaphorus sasin) on her nest in California. Looks like she has one only one chick. The Allen's has extended its range from the West Coast into Virginia in the last few decades and are sometimes confused with the most common eastern species, the Ruby-throated (Archiochus colubris) and another West Coast species that has also expanded into Virginia, the Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), which is more common than the Allen's here. Both the Rufous and the Allen's will overwinter here when food is available. The fact that people are increasingly feeding hummingbirds is the reason why these western species are successfully expanding their range all along the East Coast, and even to some areas in between. See my post on the Rufous for more info on that species and its successful expansion of its range.

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Jan 16, 2011

Good Birding Blog

Here's another blog for nature lovers. The blogger does a nice job of blending humor with nature anecdotes. Well worth a visit.

Jan 13, 2011

Virginia's Quail Recovery Initiative

Good video about trying to increase quail populations in Virginia, and restore them in some areas where they've disappeared. Heavy on the hunting aspects, but you have to consider the source. The shots of quail taking advantage of reestablished habitat are the best.

Jan 4, 2011

Green Treasure on the Winter Forest Floor

[From my "Wild Ideas" syndicated newspaper column, 11/26/10]

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)
growing along 
the Rappahannock River
Photo by Pam Owen
As the leaves have fallen off, the green wall of oak–hickory forest behind my house has given way to glimpses of mountains and valleys to the south and west. With the lush green of summer and the brilliant fall colors now a memory, any spot of green left tends to beckon me when I walk back there.

The slope is dry, and the soil poor. Other than a few spunky baby pines waiting for the deciduous trees around them to keel over and let in more light, there is little relief from the sea of browns and grays of this bare oak–hickory forest this time of year. Most water drains off so fast that moisture is retained only in few spots where underlying rock has tumbled or worn in such a way as to slow the downhill progress of water and organic detritus, creating pockets of richer, moister soil than on the rest of the slope.

In one of those spots, an understory evergreen common to the region—Polystichum acrostichoides, known commonly as the Christmas fern—has sprouted here and there. According to some sources, its name came from the early colonists’ using it as a Christmas decoration.

Also known as the dagger fern because of the knife-like shape of its sturdy pinna (the leafy parts) and hilt on the stem end, this is no delicate plant. If it were, it wouldn’t stay green through winter.

The Christmas fern is “one of the most characteristic and abundant herbs of mesic [moderately moist] mixed hardwood forests,” according to the Va. Dept. of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). While it prefers rich, moist soil and shade, it is less picky than other ferns and is quite tolerant of direct sunlight. It will even grow on dry slopes if its roots are kept moist. These characteristics, and the fact that is not invasive, make it a popular landscaping plant. As the Virginia Native Plant Society notes, the Christmas fern also “serves as a wonderful host for butterfly larvae.”

In walking recently on a friend’s property along the Rappahannock River, where the soil is much richer and wetter than in my woods, I enjoyed the lush abundance of Christmas ferns there. With the recent cold snap, some of these had hunkered down, appearing more prostrate than their usual perky selves but still showing remarkable resilience compared with the mostly brown understory around them. Despite its daggerlike pinna, it leant a soft, lush look to the landscape.

Although I’ve never thought of using this fern as a holiday decoration, I do have fond memories of going out with my brother into the “wilderness” near our house in the Town of Fairfax when I was six or seven to collect other greenery for that purpose. This included “crow’s foot” (Lycopodium digitatum), a vining, ground-hugging evergreen whose foliage resembles the foot of a crow, although with more and softer digits. It’s also known as fan clubmoss, ground cedar or running cedar. I loved that plant and its association with Christmas, looking for it in vain on my hikes around Virginia in later years.

Crow’s foot (Lycopodium digitatum) growing with
wintergreen (Chimaphila maculate, center).
The vertical 
spikes at left are the strobili of the
crow’s foot, which 
carry the plant’s spores.
Touching the strobili will 
release a cloud
 of the spores.
 Photo by Pam Owen 
As kids, we considered all land not turned into subdivision as ours to roam and plunder, not thinking that anyone would care. As an adult I realize that, not only were we trespassing and stealing, we were also loving nature to death by bringing it home—from animals to plants to stones. Even then, collectors had admired crow’s foot and other clubmosses almost to extinction—to the point where they had to be protected by law.

Clubmosses, plants in the genus Lycopodium (Greek for “wolf’s foot”) are delicate-looking, low-growing evergreens that carpet forests, especially those with rich soil. They are considered fern “allies” in that they share a sexual reproductive strategy that involves shedding spores to initiate metagenesis—alternating generations that have different growth phases that are actually two distinct organisms. Fortunately, because of conservation efforts, many plants in the Lycopodium genus are now rebounding, and I’ve had the joy of seeing crow’s foot, along with two cousins, Lycopodium clavatum (princess pine) and Lycopodium obscurum (ground pine), growing in Rappahannock County since I moved here eleven years ago.

No Lycopodium is currently on DCR’s lists of vascular plants of concern. However, some similar-looking plants that are also called clubmosses but that have been reclassified as belonging to other genera are on those lists. In general, if you are interested in collecting a wild plant on your property, it’s a good idea to find out whether it’s protected before you whip out your shears or trowel. Contact DCR if you’re not sure, but it’s always best to stick to plants that are abundant if you do want to use some for holiday decorations.

If you really want to do our native plants a favor, whack away at oriental bittersweet (not the native). It has lovely berries; just don’t put them back out where they can take root.