Friday, April 30, 2010

Warblers Have Arrived

I was beginning to wonder - where are all the spring migrants?  There've been reports to the east and to the west of us - warblers, shorebirds and other neotropical songbirds.

We spotted our first Brown Thrasher, Green Herons, Barn and Bank Swallows on Wednesday.  We had several close encounters with woodpeckers - sapsuckers, pileateds, red-bellieds and flickers.   The juncos left 2 weeks ago and we've seen dozens of Vesper Sparrows, one Eastern Meadowlark and several White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows

Thursday we went out to photograph wildflowers and trees - and despite the gray skies, I expected to see our first warblers of 2010.

We took a spin through the coulees focusing on wildflowers and ferns.  A front was moving through, making it too windy for insects and birds and too windy to photograph wildflowers.

So we headed down to Silver Birch Lake County Park to look at a tree that I've been unable to identify.  That's where it happened.  Right in the parking lot.  An invasion of warblers.

Too high up to see in the bad light.  But their bobbing tails gave them away - Palm Warblers!  I wanted to get a photo, but it wasn't going to happen there.  So we headed over to Round Hill.  No birds there.

However, just before the intersection of Silver Birch and Round Hill Roads, we spotted a Hackberry tree full of little birds, bobbing their tails and flitting after insects.   A dozen or more Palm Warblers, close enough to the ground to watch and photograph.

On the way back home, we took a detour onto Kings Highway - to look for Ruffed Grouse.  We didn't see any grouse, but I heard the familiar dreet, dreet of the Eastern Towhee.   I stopped and looked.  There it was.  Another first for 2010.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Spring Wildflowers!

The roads through the coulees of west central Wisconsin are irresistible in early spring when the wildflowers are starting to bloom.  Here's what we've been seeing:

birds foot violet

wild lupine

wild geranium

round lobed hepatica

smooth yellow violet

hoary puccoon


 wild plum

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tent Caterpillars = Bird Food

Tent Caterpillars.  They seem to be everywhere these days, and that's got people talking.   I was talking with a friend about bluebirds yesterday, and she asked me - what can you do about those tent caterpillars?

I wasn't sure what she meant, so I asked.

The answer:  they're killing my trees.

It may look like they're killing your trees, but, really, they're not.

They eat leaves and it can look bad for the tree, but the leaves will, and do, grow back.  Watch and you'll see.  And if you leave them alone, the birds will eat them.  Tent caterpillars are bird food.  Why would you want to kill then when birds do it for free?

Are you sure?

Yes.  I Googled "tent caterpillars" back in March when I first noticed this egg mass on a cherry tree along the Chippewa River State Trail.

tent caterpillar egg mass

I discovered that these social caterpillars, while they may be "annoying" and "unsightly," are an important  food source for more than 60 species of birds, mammals (bears, mice and skunks) and frogs.

The bird predator list includes bluebirds, mockingbirds, orioles, chickadees, Blue Jays, warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, flycatchers and waxwings.

While cherry trees are the preferred hosts, tent caterpillars will feed on apples, peach, plum, birch, ash, willows, oaks and poplars.  The defoliated trees will grow new leaves in a just a few weeks.

Tent caterpillars overwinter as eggs and hatch out when the wild cherry buds start to swell open (this year in Wisconsin, it was early March).  I didn't witness the hatching, but entomologists say it takes a day or two.  Then the insects head to a crotch in the tree and spin their silken web - their first "tent." 
As they get bigger, they move to a larger fork in the tree and spin another, larger tent.  You can spot them in the tent when it rains, and during the heat of the day.  They leave the tent to feed on leaves at dawn, dusk and into the night.

It takes about 6 weeks before the caterpillars pupate.  Look for the white cocoons on the tree and in the vicinity of the tree.  The moths emerge in about 14 days.  They mate at night and the female lays her eggs in a day or two.  The male may live a week or so, but the females die after laying eggs.

Tent caterpillars are a spring phenomenon.  What you see in the late summer and early fall are "Fall Webworms," Hyphantria cuneaLike Tent Caterpillars, these animals appear during migration, providing food for birds.  They do not "kill" trees, they're more of an aesthetic "issue."

There's really no need to add poisons to your yard.  Lure birds to your yard with a water feature - and they'll do the job for you!

Friday, April 23, 2010

How Do You Like Your 2010 Prius Now?

I've been spending a lot of time in my Prius lately.

And since the much-publicized "fix," I have no complaints about the brakes, or the ride.  And it's all that I hoped for as a stealth vehicle for watching wildlife.

It's a great mobile "bird blind."  With the exception of raptors and wild turkeys, most animals just don't seem to recognize my black car as any kind of a threat.

  Red Fox

13 Lined Ground Squirrel


Vesper Sparrow

A great vehicle for creeping up on roadside wildlife!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers

After we checked the bluebird boxes in Maxville (9 eggs so far), we took the "scenic" route through the coulees along Kings Highway heading towards Durand.   At the little creek - about a mile from Stai Coulee Road - I spotted a woodpecker flying across the road.  I stopped, pulled out my binoculars and scanned the trees.  There it was - a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

I pulled out my iPod and thumbed my way through the playlists and clicked.  In seconds, I had the drum and call of this bird playing though the speakers of my Prius.  I watched as the bird alerted to the sounds coming from my car.  The bird looked, flew right at us and landed in a cedar to the right of us, then he flew over to the traffic sign by the creek.  He landed on the signpost, looked around and drummed on the metal sign.

He was joined almost immediately by a female.  We sat quietly and watched the two of them interact.

We first spotted Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers two weeks ago, over by the rifle range near Silver Birch County Park.  The only woodpecker in eastern North America that's completely migratory (some travel as far south as Panama), they have been spotted wintering in the Lower Chippewa River valley.  They're migrating through Wisconsin now - and we've been seeing them virtually everywhere.
According to scientists at the Boreal Songbird Initiative, more than 50% of the total population of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers breed in the Boreal Ecoregion of Canada and Alaska.   Throughout their breeding range, they choose early successional trees  - the aspens, birch and maples - for nesting.

                                                          Yellow-bellied Sapsucker breeding range

Studies indicate a positive population trend for this species in Wisconsin - primarily in the north woods and along river valleys.   

How can they survive on a diet of watery sap?
The sap these birds are after is different from the sap "from the tree's "xylem") we tap and boil to make maple syrup.  These avian sap-tappers go after the difficult-to-access and more nutritious sugar-laden sap in the thin wall of the tree's "phloem." 

Which trees are favored? 
Not just sugar maples and birches.  I was surprised to find a study that reported the familiar rows of sap wells in nearly a 1,000 woody plant species.  (I always wondered why I keep seeing the distinctive rows of sapsucker holes on trees other than maples).

These birds defend their sap wells from other sapsuckers - and the other animals attracted to them, including other woodpeckers, warblers, hummingbirds, bats, squirrels and porcupines!

Sapsucker's diet however, is not comprised solely of sap.  They also eat arthropods - ants, caterpillars and bees.

You can attract Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers to your yard by putting out grape jelly and suet feeders.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bull Snakes on the Road!

Blue skies, 65ºF.  Very nice weather.  Tom and I took a Sunday afternoon drive on RR107 to Meridean. 

The woods were full of Dutchman's Breeches, Spring Beauties and Bloodroot.

I stopped when we heard the drumming then calls of a Pileated Woodpecker.  Time to pull out the iPod.  I found the call and played it.   He was there in seconds.  Way before I was ready with my camera.  He looked at me as I fumbled with my camera, and flew off.

As we headed up to the prairie and pine grove where we'd seen the Bull Snake last fall, I wondered when and if we'd see one again.

Then - right in front of us was a huge snake - at least 6-feet long.  Sure enough, it was a Bull Snake.  This one was not as docile as the one we spotted in almost the same location last September.

It didn't let me get very close before it slithered across the road and disappeared into the pine forest.

Just down the road I noticed what looked like a bag or rope along side the road.  It was another snake.  This one was dead.  Curious, I got out of the car to get a closer look.  I thought maybe it got hit by a car.

The snake's neck was crushed and there was a hole straight through the head just below the jaw.

Bull Snakes, the longest heavy bodied snakes in Wisconsin, feed on rodents - and they're not venomous.  There's no reason to kill them.

Their skin pattern changes along the length of their bodies - so they look like they were put together by an assembly-line that hadn't been given clear instructions:

Down the road, I stopped to try to photograph that day-flying moth again, but it saw me coming.   As I got back to my car, I noticed an odd shaped stick in the road.  I walked over and looked.  

It was a tiny Northern Red-bellied Snake.  They eat earthworms, beetle larvae and slugs. Like Garter Snakes, they give birth to live young.  

These snakes are known for their habit of sunning themselves on rural roads.   This one had been crushed by a car.   Zoom, Zoom.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Day Flying "Mini Moth" - Grapevine Epimenis

I took a walk along a deer path this afternoon, dodging ticks to get yet another photograph of the Spring Beauty wildflowers carpeting the forest floor.

Grapevine Epimenis (Psychomorpha epimenis)

On my way back to the road, I spotted a tiny black butterfly with big spots - white on the forewing and red on the hindwing.

I spotted one yesterday too, but it was so very windy and the butterfly was so very tiny, I couldn't get a photo.  And now there it was, sitting on the road by my car door.  There I was, camera in hand. 

I snapped one photo and the flutterby, fluttered off.  Amazing how fast they can go.

I pulled out my field guide to butterflies.  This conspicuous creature wasn't in the book.   You'd think I would have thought - well, if it's not in the butterfly book, maybe it's a moth.  It never crossed my mind.

Stumped, I sent the image to - and I uplinked it to  Turns out it was a moth not a butterfly.  It was so small, I couldn't see the antennae, or I'd have looked at the moth book.

Armed with a name, I discovered on that this woodland day-flier is often mistaken for a butterfly.  The adult Grapevine Epimenis moth feeds on the nectar of plums and cherries.  From late April to June, the orange-headed black and white caterpillar feeds from a rolled up leaf "tents" on summer, fox, riverbank and frost grape vines.

Grapevine Epimenis (Psychomorpha epimenis)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Turtles Hatching at Weaver Dunes

I woke up this morning with the urge to get a serious dose of prairie.  I hadn't been over to Weaver Dunes in a couple of years - and it was time to fill my Prius with Minnesota gasoline (15¢ per gallon cheaper than the price in Durand).

So ...  Tom and I headed over to Kwik Trip then took the scenic route south through the Dunes.

We saw some great birds - a female Northern Harrier, Eastern Meadowlarks, Killdeer, Horned Larks, Vesper Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Eastern Bluebirds, Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, Sandhill Cranes, Wood Ducks, Great Blue Heron, Eastern Phoebes, American Kestrel, Northern Flicker, Tree Swallows, Field Sparrows, Great Egret, Wild Turkey, Ring-necked Pheasant and 2 Ospreys!

And we had big fun with the Prius and my iPod (using BirdJam to confirm the identity of the sparrows).  I played the calls through the Prius speakers.  It was amazing to see a female Vesper Sparrow doing her "come hither" breeding behavior - quivering on the road in front of the Prius.  And when I played the Horned Lark song, a gang of them in the attack mode, literally surrounded the car.

But it was the turtles that made the trip unforgettable - and we didn't see any until the ride back home. 

It was 2:30pm and 75º when I saw the first - a brown lump on the center yellow "no passing" line.  Turtle rescue time!  I pulled the Prius off the road and looked both ways before I hopped out.   Luckily, for the turtle, there was no traffic.

I picked it up and took a couple of photos.  A Wood Turtle.  I waited for it to pull out and show it's limbs, but no dice.  Then I did what you're supposed to do:  I put it on the side of the road - in the direction it was headed.

I hopped back in the Prius - feeling good that I could do something for this creature, but also disheartened, knowing the turtle-vehicle collision season is about to begin.

Then I saw this sign:

I had to stop, turn around and take a photo - how ironic, I thought.  It wasn't until I got out of the car that I realized how ironic it actually was.

As I got out of the car to take the photo, I noticed this little lump of a turtle crossing the road.  It was the first of a dozen Western Painted Turtles I saw on the road on my way home.  I couldn't help myself:  I had to stop for each and every one.  Turtle road fatalities are an issue everywhere.  Take a look at this link.

How small were they?

The size of a quarter!

Why were so many of these little reptiles crossing the road today?
It must have been a hatching.

But wait, don't turtle eggs hatch in the summer?
Painted turtles lay their eggs in late spring and early summer.  The eggs incubate for about 70-days and hatch in early fall. However, instead of digging out of the nest, the hatchlings remain hidden underground - in the natal chamber - over their first winter, living off the remains of a large internalized yolk sac.  They emerge in the spring - today at Weaver Dunes.

The little ones were heading towards the marshes.  Amazing!

There was however, one very large Western Painted Turtle sitting in the road too - heading in the opposite direction - towards the mighty Mississippi.

Big or small, I don't know how they survive any vehicles coming at them at 55mph.

But I did my best to save a handful of them.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Northern Flickers are Back

I've spent most of the week monitoring bluebird boxes and driving my Prius down through the river bottoms over by Meridean.
                                                                                       female Northern Flicker

Flickers arrived Tuesday - and they've been very vocal - with their "wicka-wicka-wicka" and "klear" calls.  They're all over the lawns in the Durand area, hanging out with the robins.  At first I thought they were robins.  But when they flew off, I recognized my error - their white rumps are very conspicuous when they take off.

What are they doing on the ground?

Eating ants.   And that is probably one of the reasons flicker numbers are declining in Wisconsin.  Lawn chemicals and pesticides - our quest for weed- and insect-free lawns.   The irony of it all - birds eat lawn pests for free.

In addition to "green" lawns, we want our yards and parks - tidy.

When a tree dies, we tear it down and haul it away.    These snags provide food and nesting sites for woodpeckers and other cavity-nesting birds.

If that weren't enough, cavity-nesting birds suffer the success of progeny of the 100 European Starlings brought to Central Park back in 1890 in a misguided effort by Eugene Schieffelin to establish Shakespeare's birds in New York City.  

Other birds spotted this week:  Tree Swallows, Vesper Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Blue-winged Teal, Buffleheads, Hooded Mergansers, Great Blue Herons, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (doing a great spiral chase up an aspen over by Silver Birch Lake county park), Pileated Woodpeckers, Brown-headed Cowbirds and Eastern Phoebes.  Dark-eyed Juncos are still around.

And tomorrow is April 15th:  pay your taxes and put out your hummingbird feeders!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Wildflowers in Bloom Today




Dutchman's Breeches


Early Buttercup


Spring Beauty

Friday, April 9, 2010

Mosquito Larvae

Wood Frog Eggs and Mosquito Larvae

I headed over to the Chippewa River State Trail this afternoon, to take another look at the Wood Frog eggs I discovered12 days ago.   The eggs have not hatched yet, but something else had - and there seemed to be millions of them wiggling in the water.  Mosquito larvae!

The water in the ditch was alive with the tiny insects.  Watching them, I found myself thinking about the animals famous for their relationship with mosquitoes:  Gambusia affinis (a tiny freshwater fish celebrated for eating mosquito larvae), carp, minnows, killifish  and dragonflies (adults and larvae).

No other animals make a dent in mosquito populations.  Not bats, not Purple Martins, not frogs and toads, and not "mosquito hawks" (Crane Flies).  In fact, according to the American Mosquito Control Association, "there is no documented study to show that bats, purple martins, or other predators consume enough adult mosquitoes to be effective control agents."

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Snow and Box Elder Buds

I was on the phone this morning, listening,  talking and looking out my kitchen window at the goldfinches at my feeder.  I couldn't believe my eyes:  it looked like snow.  It couldn't be cold enough, could it?

I convinced myself that what looked like snow had to be soot from my neighbors trash "burn can."  It wasn't until I checked the weather report that I discovered the truth:  yah, it was cold enough and that was snow. 

Despite the temperature, I went down to the Chippewa River State Trail to walk a mile or so and photograph tree buds.
Acer negundo male flowers

Acer negundo female flowers (and emerging leaves)

female flowers

Box Elder male flowers have been in bloom for several days.  Today was the first time I spotted the green female flowers and leaves.  Box Elders are "dioecious" (die - eee - shus) - each tree is either male or female.  The male trees produce only male flowers and female trees produce only female flowers.

I'll be looking for the new fruits (samaras) over the next couple of weeks.  The female trees have been dropping their old dry fruits over the past couple of months - but many are still hanging on - another example of marcescence.