Jun 17, 2012

The First Weeks of Life for Eastern Phoebe Babies

This slideshow is of the first weeks of the life of a brood of Eastern Phoebes. The location is above a kitchen-fan outtake at my house in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The babies fledged a day after the last photo was taken. They went suddenly and silently. While I don't see them, or the dad, anywhere, they are supposed to hang around the parents for the next three weeks, with the dad taking on most of the feeding chores while the mom starts a new brood, likely within a couple of days. I removed the old nest to avoid infestation by mites, so first she'll have to build a new one, or choose one she already built. Phoebe females often start more than one nest before choosing which one they will use for a particular brood. They may reuse the same nest for the next brood or move to or build another one.

Apr 4, 2012

Spring Peeper Breeding Frenzy

NOTE: After much more research on amphibian egg masses, I've revised this column to correct some information.

A tiny Spring Peeper in hand.
Photo by Fungus Guy, licensed under the 

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.   
Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) have been chorusing heartily up the mountain from my house. A week ago, at dusk, I walked up to see how they were doing. The sound grew louder as I approached a concrete tank below the pond, and a small frog jumped into the shallow water in the tank as I got to the rim, but I couldn't ID it.

I worked my way to the pond a few more yards up. It's always a bit of a scramble getting up the small earthen dam that holds the spring-fed water in and, with every step, the din grew. Not only were there obviously a lot of Peepers up there, but the pond is in a small bowl near the summit, so the sound reverberated off the rocky mountain behind it until it was almost deafening.

I'd brought my digital recorder and recorded the trip up as well as the sound at the top. Guess I wanted to hear myself huffing and puffing in the journey, but I also wanted to demonstrate the difference in the sound volume as I approached the pond.

When I finally reached the edge of the pond, I sat down to catch my breath and to enjoy the full chorusing of these tiny herps (one inch, max—about the size of a paper clip). I don't think I've ever heard frogs calling that loud, so it wasn't exactly a peaceful communion with nature. It was more one of those times that shrinks us into what we really are—merely another species on the planet, and a new kid on the block at that. These Peepers—or more accurately their ancestors—had been chorusing in the Appalachians many millennia before we first appeared on the scene. In the middle of the din, I felt dwarfed by that history, by the power of nature exhibited in such a little creature.
Amphibian egg masses in a pond in the 
Blue Ridge Mountains.  
Photos by Pam Owen.

An amphibian egg mass in a concrete tank 
near the upper pond.
Photos by Pam Owen.

Checking back a week later, I found the shallow pond (3 to 4 feet at its deepest) was full of egg masses. It was easy to see them through the clear, bluish water, even to the bottom in the center. However, getting to them because of the steep sides  is tricky,as is going all the way around the time. I also once again bemoaned the fact that I have an ancient digital camera and no polarization filter, so taking photos of the egg masses was tricky, with unsatisfactory results, which I've included here nevertheless.

I couldn't count all the clusters but roughly estimated at least three dozen. Not sure yet what species of herp these masses belong to, especially since they're cloudy. My first thought that they were Peeper eggs was way off base. Further research revealed that Peepers only lay a few eggs at a time, under leaves and debris. So who do these eggs belong to? Could be Red-spotted Newts, I haven't seen any in the ponds or nearby tanks, both of which have egg masses, but which my landlords spotted yesterday. I haven't heard other frogs calling up there, but I haven't been checking until recently. The one thing I am learning is how tricky it is to ID amphibian eggs.

An egg mass near they edge of the pond.  
Photos by Pam Owen.
To hear my slog up the mountain and the Peepers chorusing at the pond up there, click here. The sound file lasts 7.5 minutes, so you can move the audio-control slider ahead to get to the full chorusing and skip my noisy march up the mountain.

I'm monitoring the ponds at the bottom of the mountain, and the Peepers are just starting to get into full chorus down there, joining the Pickerels that have been calling for couple of weeks. To hear calling down at the lower ponds, click here.

Mar 28, 2012

"Wild Ideas" in the Rappahannock News

Pickerel Frogs are now breeding in the Virginia Piedmont.
Photo by Brian Gratwicke, licensed under the
The Rappahannock News, which publishes my "Wild Ideas" column in its print edition, will now be publishing the column online most weeks, even if there isn't space in the print edition. The paper has had a page dedicated to the column, where you can find current and older columns. Last week's, about my reentry into Frogwatch USA monitoring and the progress of amphibian breeding down at the ponds at the base of the mountain where I live, is available exclusively in the online edition.

Pickeral Frogslots of themare calling down at the ponds at this point, although I managed to climb up to the pond further up the mountain one evening and was almost deafened by the Spring Peepers' chorusing up there. More about that, with a recording included, later this week.

Red-spotted Newts have also been exhibiting breeding behavior down at the lower ponds, but so far only one egg mass looked like theirs. Then again, some of the egg masses, likely the Pickerels', that were there one day disappeared the next. With lots of predators in and around the pond, that's not a huge surprise. For more about the Pickerels and frog monitoring, check out my column in last week's Rappahannock News online edition.

Mar 20, 2012

Happy Freaking Vernal Equinox, and Welcome Herps!

It's fully spring now here already in the lower elevations of the Blue Ridge, two weeks ahead of schedule generally in the county. Here on the morningside of a steep mountain, we tend to run behind, so I guess it all evens out to being mostly ontrack with what would be a "normal" spring if we weren't in the shadow of a mountain.

Bloodroot led the way to the bloom season here up here, with Eastern Redbud and other early bloomers soon following suit when this current spell of above-average temps (in the 70s) hit last week. It keeps threatening (promising?) to rain, but so far no go. Maybe today... The clouds are piling up, and thunderstorms are predicted.

A mass of amphibian eggs—probably of a
Pickerel Frog, from the shape and color,
and the fact that those are the only frogs
calling down at the ponds right now.
Coming back from the post office with the dog in tow, I stopped at the ponds at the base of the mountain to see how things were coming along down there on this day of the vernal equinox. I've been a huge fan of herps (reptiles and amphibians) since I was a kid, and spring meant the frogs were calling, blobs of jellylike eggs filled ditches and pools, and the hunt was on.

I'd seen Red-spotted Newts in amplexus (sort of an amphibian mating hug that can go on a long time, with or without any actual egg fertilization) a week ago down in the lower pond. Today I saw several kinds of egg masses in the upper pond and in a nearby drainage ditch, where the spring that normally fed the pond, through a series of pipes, had been diverted through a hole in the pipe up the hill, so the water was still, cloudy, and bacteria filled.

Not sure which amphibians are involved. The masses I saw in the pond looked like Wood Frogs', but I hadn't heard any this year and they will not lay their eggs in any body of water that has fish - and this pond is well stocked with good-sized bass and Bream.

A Pickerel Frog, common to Virginia and
 one of my favorites. They're starting to
breed here in the Blue Ridge, a bit ahead of
schedule because of the mild winter and
current unseasonably warm temperature.

Photo by Sam Hopewell, licensed under the
GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.   
Although the eggs didn't look like those of a Pickerel Frog (Lithobates palustris), at first inspection, I did hear one Pickerel calling and figured I'd check it out later. One of my favorite frogs because of their wonderful markings, Pickerels spend most of their lives on land at the edge of ponds or pools, jumping in to avoid predators and to breed.

My landlord said he'd seen a large green frog in the stagnant ditch across the drive, but when we went over to see it, it went underwater before I could ID it. When I moved in last June, all I heard were Green Frogs, but they start later and have a long breeding season. The American Bullfrog, which is what my landlord thought he saw, judging by the frog's size and color, doesn't breed until much later, but that doesn't mean there aren't any in the pool. There were masses of eggs in there, looking very funky from the heavy load of bacteria in the still water. It was hard to tell which herp they came out of.

Taking a walk around the pond, I saw some turtles sunning themselves on logs in both—probably Eastern Painted Turtles, but I couldn't get close enough to be sure. I'll have to start taking my binoculars with me.

All this herp activity convinced me that I should sign up again for FrogWatch USA, a national monitoring program now managed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. I got a slow start doing this this year because I just hadn't heard any frogs on the property yet and was busy with other things. However, I've heard Spring Peepers way off in the distance since this later warm spell.

When I got back to the house, I registered for FrogWatch. It's a great monitoring program for us lazy folks. You just listen for who's calling for three minutes twice a week (if possible, although you can set your own schedule) throughout the breeding season and record the amount of calls in general terms and the species producing them. With only a few species here in the county, it's about as easy as wildlife monitoring gets, and should be even easier here, considering there's already a nice, comfortable chair down by the pond. I'm thinking frog monitoring would go well with a nice cold beer or glass of sauvignon blanc.

I waited until a half hour after dusk to go do my first monitoring. Ironically, Spring Peepers were finally calling on the property...up in the pond near the top of the mountain, above my house. I heard them down at the base, too, but not near the ponds there, except for one lonely voice. What were calling were Pickerels—and plenty of them, so I duly noted them after listening for the required 3-minute period. The temperature was in the upper 60s, and slight breeze was blowing—a fine night all the way around, although clouds had been building and we're supposed to have thunderstorms eventually. We need the rain, but I doubt we'll get much, if any.

As I started to drive back up the mountain, a good-sized American Toad crossed the driveway, so I stopped the car and got out to see him. I should be hearing their trilling soon. My landlord told me that there used to be practically an infestation of these guys, so he hauled a bunch off to other places. I can't imagine having too many toads, although I did have a bumper crop of toadlets at another place I lived in the county, down near a river. The little guys were everywhere. It wasn't a problem, considering what good insect control they offer, just tricky to avoid squashing them any time I was out in the yard.

Mar 3, 2012

Spring Marches On

Spring Peeper, one of the earliest and smallest 
frogs to breed in Virginia. 
Photo from US Geological Service.
I finally heard the Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) calling, although not on the property where I live. Reports had come to me from several people in my county and to the south that the chorusing had started, but I hadn't heard the chorusing anywhere in my hollow here in Rappahannock County.

When it got up to 70 degrees a few days ago, I joined a friend at a local cafe for coffee. On the way home through my hollow, I drove really slowly with my windows down and radio off. Sure enough, I heard a full chorus about a mile into the hollow, where there's a pretty extensive wetland, so I wasn't surprised but was a little relieved. It had been so quiet at my place, except for the increasing birdsong as migrants came back to claim their territory and the overwintering birds were joining in.

It seems strange that, although we have plenty of what appear to be potential breeding spots on the property where I live, no peepers are in evidence. It may be that it's just still too cold. The sun goes down quickly on this "morning side" of the mountain this time of year. We also haven't had much rain or snow, so the small wetland isn't brimming with vernal pools. I hadn't heard any Wood Frogs, which will only breed in vernal pools (a hint of fish, and the females are outta there), anywhere in the county but again had gotten a few reports. I had heard reports of them calling in February, and likely their breeding season is over by now.

Last June, when I moved in, and throughout the rest of the breeding season, I only heard and saw Northern Green Frogs down at the pond. The Northern Green Frog, Lithobates clamitans melanota, is a subspecies of Green Frog and also listed as Rana clamitans melanota in the evolving frog taxonomy, It is the most abundant frog species in Virginia and is common throughout much of northeastern North America. Further south is its cousin, the Southern Green Frog (a.k.a Bronze Frog), Rana clamitans clamitans. Green Frogs are not picky about where they breed, which is probably why they are so common.
Female Northern Green Frog. 
Photo by Matt Reinbold, licensed under the Creative Commons
I'll be listening more closely down around the ponds this year and am even thinking of participating in the FrogWatch USA monitoring program again, now that I'm on property that does have frog habitat. The last house was on a dry ridge, so I could only hear most species from a distance. FrogWatch, now managed by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, is an easy citizen-science program in which to participate. Here in Virginia, we only have to learn a few calls, and sound files of those are available from Virginia Herpetological Society and other places.

On the way home from running errands today, I stopped at the pond as I usually do when my dog is onboard. With temperatures hovering in the low 50s and an intermittent breeze, insects were not as prevalent as during the warmer temps of just a few days ago. No sign of amphibian eggs anywhere in or the ponds or few shallow vernal pools.

A bunch of Red-spotted Newts were hanging around in the sunnier shallows of the ponds, looking a bit flirty, and a few minnows swam by, but that was about all the action down there. It's supposed to be even cooler tomorrow but steadily warming in the week ahead, so maybe my herps will get more cranked up. I'd love to hear frogs romancing but am unlikely to hear their calls filling the air until the Green Frogs start their thunking, banjolike mating calls later in the spring.

In the meantime, maples have joined cedars and junipers in spreading pollen, putting a damper on my enjoyment of spring. However, with or without allergies, warming weather always cheers me, and I look forward to more pleasant rambles around the mountain as spring progresses. 

Feb 22, 2012

Signs of Spring

Red-spotted Newts return to the water as 
adults to breed.
Photo by Pam Owen.

After days of working on client projects and, even more exhausting, marketing my own writing, I decided I needed a break today. Although I couldn't tell it from inside my tight and at this point rather stuffy little house, the temperature had climbed into the low 60s. My dog and I had been suffering from cabin fever, and I was curious about whether signs of spring were popping up outside, so I roused myself out of my lethargy, grabbed the hiking pole, called the dog, and walked down to the ponds.

Although I'd been down there just a few days ago, a close examination now revealed harbingers of spring that I hadn't noticed before. Spring was obviously underway alreadynot surprising considering how warm the winter has been generally.

At the upper pond, while my dog sampled some delicacies left by passing wildlife, I examined the water for any signs of amphibian life. Although on warm days for the last couple of weeks, I'd seen some Water Striders that had been roused from their winter slumbers, that and a few small flying insects had been all I'd seen that maybe winter was on its way out.

The Red-spotted Newt lives
part of its life on land. Its bright
red coloring at this stage led to
its being 
known as a Red Eft.

Photo by Pam Owen.
Now, walking slowly around the pond, I noticed a flurry of activityRed-spotted Newts (Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens) were starting off their spring breeding, although there was no sign yet of the jellylike clusters of eggs (resembling frog eggs) they'll soon produce.

This species has long been a favorite herp of mine, because of its interesting life cycles"one of the most complex and variable life cycles of any North American salamander," as the Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries' Fish and Wildlife Information Service website puts it. That's because it has three life stages after hatching, rather than the usual two of most salamanders. It starts as a tadpole (aquatic larva), as most salamanders and frogs do, then emerges to live on land in upland forests. In this terrestrial stage, it takes on a bright red hue and is known as a Red Eft. The interesting part is that the salamander then returns to the water as an adult to mate and reproduce.

Two Water Striders appear to be mating while 
a Red-spotted Newt, a predator, lurks below.
I took this photo last August.

Photo by Pam Owen.

Continuing my walk past the lower pond, which also had a lot of newt activity near the edge, I decided to explore the wetland beyond to see if Skunk Cabbage was finally coming up. I hadn't ventured over there since I moved onto the property last June, since I didn't realize the wetland was part of the property until I asked my landlords. I was glad to finally check out the boggy area, although it's drier than it should be this time of year. With little snow and not much rain either this winter, everything was drier down there than it should have been.

Nevertheless, I found plenty of Skunk Cabbage already starting to bloom, which comes before the leaves appear.

First blooms of Skunk Cabbage (top and middle) on Feb. 23. By later March, the leaves should create a green carpet (bottom, from last year in a different location).
Photos by Pam Owen.
Coming back up the mountain, I found a black, woolly caterpillar in the yard (below). Looks like it belongs in the tiger-moth (Arctiidaefamily, as the Woolly Bear (Isabella Tiger Moth) does, but without the orange banding that every school kid in Virginia would recognize. In fact, other than barely discernible lightening at the tips of the longer set of bristles, this guy is totally black. Looks like I need to whip on my deerstalker hat, for the game is afoot. First stop: BugGuide. I've already posted the photos there to see if I can get some help from fellow creepy-crawly lovers. Look for more on this in future posts.

Black, woolly  caterpillar, likely in the tiger moth family, like the Woolly Bear  caterpillar (Isabella Tiger Moth).
Photos by Pam Owen.

Feb 16, 2012

Beep and Whir: The American Woodcock Looks for Romance

Illustration of an American Woodcock
(Scolopax minor)

A few days ago, I had just finished my latest "Wild Ideas" newspaper column, about animals that breed in winter, in which I'd mentioned the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). As if on cue, that evening I heard its characteristic slow courtship beeps outside my window, at the forest's edge.

This species arrives here in the Blue Ridge to start courting as soon as the ground thaws enough that they can find their favorite food, earthworms. While this can be as early as January, they more typically show up in late February.

Belonging to the taxonomic order of
shorebirds, S. minor evolved to live in upland forests and is the only woodcock native to North America. It ranges from Tex as east to Florida and north to southern Canada. Overwintering to the east of the Appalachians and south of Pennsylvania, it migrates west and north to breed.

While the American Woodcock spends most of its life in young upland forest and brushy woods near rivers and streams, it prefers brushy clearings and meadow bogs scattered with woody plants one ot two feet high for breeding. Up around my house, it's mostly lawn and forest, with only a shallow edge, so I figured this guy was just checking out the neighborhood and would move on.

This evening when I was walking the dog, I heard beeping down by the pond, a much more promising habitat for Woodcock romance. It's not exactly a meadow down there, but there are some scrubby areas that are broader than further up the mountain, and it's wet, with streams and ponds.

In the dying light, I tried to remain quiet and make out the bizarre courtship display that should follow, but the bird must have figured out my dog and I were there, because he went silent. I'd just gotten home, it was time for my dog's dinner, and we still had to walk back up the mountain to the house, so I decided to try again some other night when I didn't have Mai Coh in tow.

Woodcocks are famous for their courtship displays. Along with beeping, the males “spiral up high on twittering wings with melodius chirping and then circle back sharply to the ground to resume their unique peenting display,” as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “Birds of North America” website describes it.

Henry Marion Hall, in his 1946 book Woodcock Ways, describes the male’s descent a bit more poetically: “Descending, at first gradually but then plunging dizzily, the little musician eventually flickers into the brush….” The downward vertical spiral reminds me of a helicopter landing. Courtship displays also include bobbing, fanning the tail, raising the wings, and fluttering the wings in a short flight with legs dangling.

Trying to discern all this in the growing dark is frustrating at best. The bird’s brown, black, and gray feathers, which makes it virtually impossible distinguish from its surroundings, doesn't help. Every time I try to see the show, I yearn for infrared binoculars.

Living on the border of Shenandoah National Park, I discovered long ago that a great place
to try to view this show is Big Meadows, a huge, boggy meadow that is a prime Woodcock mating area. Mostly, this has involved waiting patiently in what always seems to be a damp, chilly evening.

While the displays have been carefully studied, they are not well understood. What is understood is that, after mating, the female is on her own in raising her young.

The coloring of the American Woodcock provides good camouflage for both adult(above) and juvenile (below)(Top photo by guizmo_68; bottom photo by Jacob Enos. Both licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

File:American woodcock chick.jpg 
Woodcocks feed in damp, muddy areas mostly on invertebrates, particularly earthworms, and on some vegetation, particularly seeds. On summer and winter evenings, they can flock together on their feeding grounds. With so little open area other than lawn on this property, it's unlikely I'll see flocks, but it would be nice to make out, in the dim light, at least one Woodcock giving it a try.

The Cornell Lab of Ornith
ology’s “All about Birds” website has recordings of the vocalizations of the American Woodcock, along with descriptions of its courtship behavior. Henry Marion Hall’s Woodcock Ways and the third volume of the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior also detail the Woodcock’s courtship display and other behavior.

Feb 14, 2012

The Romance of Cloudspotting

Clouds are Nature's poetry spoken in a whisper in the rarefied air between crest and crag….Nothing in nature rivals their variety and drama; nothing matches their sublime, ephemeral beauty. 
—Gavin Pretor-Pinney,
The Cloudspotter’s Guide 

Cumulus clouds hang low over the Blue Ridge Mountains
on a fall day in 
Rappahannock County, Virginia
Mare’s tail, mammatus, thundercloud—evocative names for clouds, actors playing out a drama over our heads we often ignore while going about our lives down here on earth.

As defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a cloud is “a visible mass of particles of condensed vapor (as water or ice) suspended in the atmosphere of a planet…or moon.” Clouds can inspire a range of emotions, from peace, awe, excitement, and pleasure to fear and sadness. A deep blue sky is beautiful, but the contrast of a fluffy white cloud moving across it makes it exponentially more so.

In a moment of leisure, we might ponder whether a cloud looks like a bunny or George Washington. When a summer thunderstorm or winter blizzard is heading our way, we peruse the sky more anxiously, wondering what hardship its clouds may portend.

Enormously attracted to the endless variety and beauty of clouds, I spent many a summer afternoon outside as a kid lying on my back to watch the show above, trying to determine who the lead characters were and the story they were trying to tell. As a teen, I once emerged from an arroyo on a horseback ride with an uncle in Utah to see narrow white funnel clouds eerily reaching down from a bright blue sky. It took a minute to realize they were tornadoes, which did millions of dollars of damage to Salt Lake City. Camping in Kansas as an adult, I took the clue from an ominous welling up of black clouds, throwing my gear into my car and leaving a campground just ahead of a tornado. 

While living on the Northern Plains, I thrilled to the enormous canvas of sky on which clouds played out their lives, often serving as a dark backdrop for complete rainbows formed by light gloriously refracted by water molecules. In the Pacific Northwest, I lived under the pall of dark, wet, brooding skies that contributed to the lush green landscape but also to the high incidence of depression in local residents.

I’m hardly alone in my love of clouds. Thinking they were not adequately recognized for their important role in the water cycle on which all life depends, British author Gavin Pretor-Pinney formed The Cloud Appreciation Society. The society’s website includes a magnificent photo gallery of clouds.

Although a proud, badge-carrying member of the society, I’m still struggling with the nuances of the taxonomic system for classifying clouds, which is modeled on the one for living things, with species grouped into genera. In 2006, Pretor-Pinney wrote The Cloudspotter’s Guide as “a celebration of the carefree, aimless and endlessly life-affirming pastime of cloudspotting.” I’ve found the book not only really useful in sorting out clouds but also an enjoyable, quirky read.

To me, cumulus is the loveliest and most peaceful genus. These are the fluffy clouds we most associate with warm days. However, they can grow into more ominous cumulonimbus, or thunderclouds, that can release pounding downpours accompanied by lightning and thunder. As the rain passes, the sky breaks into stratocumulus clouds, which “gather into snow-covered mountains and melt into winding rivers of blue,” in the words of Pretor-Pinney. Altocumulus clouds appear clumped in layers that form between the ground and the top of the troposphere.

Stratus is the flat gray sheet of cloud that may produce light rain. Nimbostratus, darker than stratus but slower moving than cumulonimbus, releases steady rain over many hours.

Wispy cirrus clouds fly high over the Rappahannock
Farmer’s Co-op (now CFC Farm & Home) on a winter day
Cirrus clouds are the highest. Made of ice crystals, they are wispy, feathery creatures we see most often on winter days. Cirrocumulus, another high-flying cloud that typically appears en masse, is so tiny that it can be hard to separate out individuals. These clouds sometimes look like “no more than ripples in a high, smooth layer,” as Pretor-Pinney puts it.   
Each genera is further organized into several species and varieties. Cirrus uncinus (meaning "curly hooks" in Latin) is one of my favorites species. This  comma-shaped cirrus cloud has wisps flying out below a thicker top and is commonly known as “mare’s tail.”

If you’re a serious cloudspotter, you can attempt to sort out clouds’ taxonomy—or you can just enjoy them. And you needn’t leave the house to do either.

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, about connecting children with nature, also wrote an article on the same theme, “Cloudspotting, Wildcrafting, and Wildwatching,” for the Barnes & Noble website. In the article, he tells of meeting a boy who loved nature but suffered from a condition that “caused him to be overwhelmed when he went outside” and therefore spent most of his life in his room.

Louv later stumbled onto The Cloudspotter’s Guide in an airport shop and sent it to the boy, who was a friend of his son. “He might not be able to step outside the front door comfortably,” Louv wrote, “but he and his family could still exercise his curiosity about nature—they could still see the sky from his bedroom window.” 

Pretor-Pinney, in his manifesto for The Cloud Appreciation Society, encourages us to “Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and live life with your head in the clouds.”

[First published in January 2012 as a "Wild Ideas" column in subscribing Virginia newspapers.]

Jan 18, 2012

Where Is Sherlock Holmes When You Need Him?

The natural world is wonderfully, albeit also frustratingly, complex. Sometimes I think it would be great to just know everything there is to know about the relationships among species, not that that's ever likely to happen. Mostly, I find nature's mysteries challenging. Trying to figure them out is more fun than playing the word games I was addicted to as a child.

With no degree in ecology, biology, or any of the sciences that might help, but with some college courses in these subjects, a spotty body of knowledge gained from a life-long interest in nature, and 40+ hours of training as a Virginia master naturalist, tackling even species identification can be difficult for me. Animals, not so much, but sorting out plant species can be beyond challenging. I feel a huge victory if I can sort out one sunflower or tree from another. Get down into the weeds, literally, to try to ID forbs, sedges, grasses, mosses, and other plant divisions with myriad species and subtle distinctions, and I often have to tap more knowledgeable sources.

What's left of a dead tree, or snag, has apparently
provided a banquet for predators seeking the insects
within, but which predators? 

Photo by Pam Owen
Species identification is only one of the mysteries naturalists, professional or citizen scientists, face in learning about nature. Often in my ramblings through nature, I really wished I had the genius, phenomenal memory, scope of knowledge, and deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes—one of my all-time favorite literary characters—to sort out nature's intriguing puzzles. Take two I stumbled onto during walks in the woods in the past week: a shredded snag (right) and a pile of feathers (below). Who was responsible?

The snag (another name for a dead tree) was on the northeast face of the mountain behind my house, a few feet from the boundary of Shenandoah National Park. I put my limited knowledge of nature and power of deductions to bear in trying to figure out how the damage had occurred.

The snag was only about 5 feet high and showed no claw marks above the shredded area, which ended about 4 feet up, so a bear was probably not involved in what was undoubtedly a search for insects in the dead wood. Even in January, Black Bears don't truly hibernate and den up for long except during long spells of severe cold (less and less common here) or if they're female and pregnant. 

No scat or tracks were apparent around the base, so while this doesn't rule out small mammals, such as raccoons and opossums, joining in the feast, I deduced that woodpeckers were probably the excavators. With round holes, Pileateds were probably not involved, so that meant one or more of the smaller native species had done all the shredding.

A pile of feathers mark the demise of a bird, but which species? 
Photo by Pam Owen
Woodpeckers were featured in the other mystery, the pile if feathers my dog found on the Thornton River Trail, also in the park but at the other end of my hollow. While my elderly dog is half deaf and blind these days, her nose still works pretty well, and she about dragged me off the trail (dogs must be leashed in the park) following the scent of something. Carrion is the most likely thing to attract her interest, so I assumed something had met its doom just off the trail. Following the dog, I found a pile of feathers. The feathers' markings looked like those of a woodpecker, but what species? 

A pile of feathers and the head are all that are left of a
Red-bellied Woodpecker  on the forest floor along the
Thornton River Trail, in Shenandoah National Park. 

Photo by Pam Owen
I photographed the feathers and started back toward the trail, figuring I'd check my bird field guides when I got back, when the dog pulled once more. This time she led me to conclusive evidence—the head of a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). The mystery of the victim's identity was now solved, but what had eaten it? 

Woodpeckers are tree-hugging cavity dwellers and are rarely, if ever, on the ground. With their short legs, they're adapted to navigating tree trunks high in the forest, not hopping around on the earth below. So, unless this woodpecker died naturally and just fell to the ground, it likely was picked off from one of the trees above the kill site.

An live, intact Red-bellied Woodpecker 
Photo by Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us) 
Most mammals would just eat the whole bird, head and all, and there was a considerable bird excrement around the kill site, which indicated that the predator was likely a large bird—a raptor. Woodpeckers are diurnal and usually spend the night in a tree cavity, so likely the predator was also diurnal (not an owl). So, which of the raptors who hunts during the day was the likely predator?

At that point, I could really only guess. The Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) is forest dwelling and, having rebounded from the raptor die-off in the 1960s due to pesticides, is pretty common up here in the Blue Ridge now. The noisiest raptor in the area, I used to hear a pair of them loudly and persistently calling every day at my last house, on a lower but also forested ridge. While globally considered common (of "least concern," according to IUCN), they are considered less common in Virginia but "apparently secure," according to the NatureServe database that tracks the status of species.

A Red-shouldered Hawk Photo by Jo Anna Barber, licensed under the Creative
Commons Attribution–Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Red-shouldereds are big (17–24 inches) and also eat birds, along with pretty much anything else they can catch, including small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and crayfish, according to Cornell Lab's AllAboutBirds website. The website points out another "cool fact": "By the time they are five days old, nestling Red-shouldered Hawks can shoot their feces over the edge of their nest. Bird poop on the ground is a sign of an active nest." While this doesn't mean the copious poop I found around the kill site belongs to this species, I agree that it is indeed a cool fact.

So, two mysteries whittled down, but far from solved, in my mind. However, tackling nature's puzzles is one of the best games around, and every time I take one on, I get closer to understanding the web of life and my place in it.