Thursday, May 25, 2017

Bluebird and Swallow eggs

Yesterday (24 May), we stopped after work to check on the nesting boxes at the Ziibiwing Center.  Out of seven boxes, we found five active nests - one Eastern Bluebird (Sialis sialis) nest and four Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) nests.  The remaining two boxes showed evidence of House Sparrows and were cleaned out.

Here are photos of four of the active nests; the fifth nest had a swallow in the box and we didn't open it.

First up is the Bluebird nest.  This box was also used by a pair of Bluebirds in 2016 - last year they successfully raised five young.  The colder weather this spring has delayed nesting for many birds.  At this point last year, the Bluebird chicks were a week old.  As of yesterday they were still eggs.

Eastern Bluebird eggs (photo by Shara LeValley)

Next is a picture of a Tree Swallow nest.  You'll notice the difference in nests right away.  Bluebirds construct their nests of fine grasses.  So do Tree Swallows, but then they line their nests with feathers.
This nest got a late start - the bird have only laid one egg so far.

Tree Swallow nest and egg (photo by Shara LeValley)

The final two active nest both contained six Tree Swallow eggs.

Tree Swallow eggs (photo by Shara LeValley)

Another Tree Swallow nest (photo by Shara LeValley)

We'll check on the boxes again next week - hopefully there will be baby birds to show.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Where have all the blog posts gone?

The past two weeks have been some of my busiest weeks of the year.  I had two major events that I was responsible for organizing, the International Migratory Bird Day Celebration at the Ziibiwing Center on Saturday May 13th and our annual Environmental Education Day on Friday May 19th.  Planning for each of these event begins about a year in advance, but the two weeks immediately prior to both events are hectic with last minute details such as confirming presenters and ordering and organizing supplies, not to mention the actual day of the event.  As a result I have had very little time to think about writing new blog posts.  Things are slowly starting to return to normal.

Meanwhile, nature continues with its usual springtime activities.  Flowers continue to bloom.  Trees are mostly leafed out.  A robin built its usual nest on our house, laid eggs, the eggs hatched, and the babies fledged.  And lets not forget that the bluebirds and tree swallows are nesting in natural cavities and man-made nesting boxes.

During the Bird Celebration at the Ziibiwing Center, Shara was able to sneak off for about a half hour to watch the birds at the nesting boxes.  Here are a few of her photographs...

Hey, you kids, get off my lawn!  (Photo by Shara LeValley)

What is that?  (Photo by Shara LeValley)

I've got my eye on you!  (Photo by Shara LeValley)

Oh, you're still here!  Run along, you!  (Photo by Shara LeValley)

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Trail camera turkeys (28 April - 05 May 2017)

Last week I switched out the memory cards of my trail cameras.  It was no surprise that the most common species photographed was the White-tailed Deer.  The cameras also captured images of Fox Squirrel, Grey Squirrel, Red Fox, Virginia Opossum, and Northern Raccoon.  One series of three nighttime images seems to show a large American Mink.

Other than the White-tailed Deer, the species that showed on the cameras most frequently during this time period was the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo).  The cameras captured images of soliary birds and bird traveling in pairs or flocks.  Many of the birds were females (hens), with a few young males (jakes), and mature males (toms) thrown in for good measure.

My favorite set of images shows a tom in full strut (its mating display).  When strutting, tomes fan up their tail feathers extend their wings so the tips hit the ground, puff up it feathers to look bigger, and more.  The turkey in the pictures below was too far away from the camera to trigger it on its own so it only showed up when something else tripped the motion sensor.  The interesting thing to me is the time stamp on the bottom right of the photos.  In the first image it reads 17:32 (or 5:32PM).  The last image reads 19:12 (7:12PM).  The tom appears to have remained strutting for more than 90 minutes.  This may not have been continuous; there is a large time gap between some of the photos (not all of which are shown below).  Even if it was not continuous, the tom barely moved from the place where it first appeared during this entire time.


The tom finally stopped strutting after a deer walked through the flock.  Disrupted by this interruption the flock finally wandered away from the area.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Aquatic Ecology with Shepherd Elementary students

Last week I spent two days at the Little Salt River with students from Shepherd Elementary students. 

Why were we at the river? 

The students were collecting and identifying aquatic macroinvertebrates. 

Shepherd 5th graders use a dip net to sample aquatic macroinvertebrates from the Little Salt River

What exactly is an aquatic macroinvertebrate? 

Let's break that into parts.  Aquatic means that a plant or animal lives in or around water.  It comes from the Latin word aqua which means "water".  The word invertebrate comes from the Latin root word vertebra which means "joint" - normally refering to the joints of the spine.  Invertebrate means that an animal lacks a spine.  The prefix macro- means large or large scale.  It comes from the Greek word makros meaning "large or long".  Therefore, a macroinvertebrate is a large animal that lacks a spine - large in the sense that it is big enough to see without magnification.  Add it all together and an aquatic macroinvertebrate is an animal that lives in water, lacks a spine, and is large enough to see with the naked eye.

This crayfish is an aquatic macroinvertebrate.

So is this gilled snail.

Why were students trying to collect aquatic macroinvertebrates?

Many aquatic macroinvertebrate species have varying tolerances for water pollution.  The absence of certain species may indicate low water quality.  The presence of a wide range of species usually indicates higher water quality.

Students complete a biological monitoring sheet to determine water quality

Overall the students found a wide variety of aquatic macroinvertebrates including mayfly larvae, caddisfly larvae, gilled and pouch snails, damselfly larvae, dragonfly larvae, scuds or amphipods, crayfish, freshwater clams and mussels, leaches, and midge larvae.  Vertebrate lifeforms collected included fish and tadpoles.  The wide variety (and number) of animals collected indicated that at this site, the Little Salt River has excellent water quality.

Here are a few more photos of the students sampling...

Thursday, May 11, 2017

In a knot...

Yesterday, as I was collecting some pond water at Chipp-A-Waters Park, I noticed four different Northern Water Snakes (Nerodia sipedon) around the margins of the ponds.  I have found snakes around this pond before; the pond is full of things they like to eat such as frogs, tadpoles, fish, leaches, etc..  So it was no surprise to find one near this pond.  It was unusual to find more than one at a time.

It's confusing, but you can count four snakes in this picture - the female is the biggest and the other three are males

Why were all of these snakes congregated in one place?

The answer to that question soon became obvious.

One of the snakes that I saw was significantly larger than the other three snakes.  Not only that, but the three smaller snakes were vigorously pursuing the largest snake.  Eventually all four snakes clustered together in a loose ball on some cattail stalks a dozen feet from the edge of the pond.

The period April to June is mating season for Northern Water Snakes.  The largest snake was a female.  The smaller snakes were males, competing for the opportunity to mate.  Eventually one (or more) of the males successfully mated with the female.

Female (center) and largest male (right) Northern Water Snake - he was the apparent winner of the mating competition.

I don't expect to find a bunch of snake eggs any time soon.  Northern Water Snakes give birth to live babies (7 to 9 inches long) during late summer.  Once the babies are born they are completely on their own.

One thing that I noticed about these snakes was the color variation.  All Northern Water Snakes have a pattern of dark striped with a (usually) lighter background of brown or grey.  As they age, their colors typically darken so there is little difference between the stripes and the background color.  On of the three male snakes was noticeably lighter than his co-suitors.  His stripes were an almost olive green against a tan background.  You can this in the two pictures below.

A lighter color morph Northern Water Snake

In this photo you can really see the color variation in the species - fours snakes, four different colors

It's nice to have the opportunity to see and interact with this species.  I didn't see my first Northern Water Snake in the wild in Mt. Pleasant until 2013, despite having worked in Mt. Pleasant Parks for nearly a decade.  Now I see them on a somewhat regular basis, especially at Chipp-A-Waters Park.

Just for fun...  A group of snakes can be known as a"knot".  I can see why!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Frost damage on Skunk Cabbage plants

 This picture shows how Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) plants should look right now.

The next picture shows how they actually looked yesterday morning.

Several nights of heavy frost have badly damaged the leaves of the plants.  Hopefully they can recover.

It amazing to me that the plant's flowers can melt snow due to the metabolic heat that they generate,

but the leaves can be damaged by a few hours of freezing temperatures.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Harassing a hawk

Red-tail Hawk sits peacefully in tree...

Hawk attracts the attention of small birds (such as this Common Grackle)... 

Small birds begin to raise a ruckus and harass the hawk, thus attracting the attention of more small birds (and crows)...

Hawk decides it has had enough and flies away...

Crows (and smaller birds) dive bomb the hawk until it leaves the neighborhood...