Monday, May 23, 2011

Gray Frog Hiding Under the Propane Tank Dome

Gray Tree Frog   Hyla versicolor

I rarely check my propane tank.

I suppose I should keep an eye on the gauge, but I am a "keep fill" customer of Schaul's Gas and I've gotten accustomed to their automatic deliveries.  One less thing to think about - until the bill comes.

But I am in the process of moving west - to the Red River Valley of the North and today's the day I decided to check out what I have to do to shut off the utilities.  The friendly woman at Schaul's gave me a formula for determining the value of the gas in my tank:  % of a full tank x 5 x price of gas at my last delivery.

I went out to look at the gauge under the little mint-colored dome.  That's when I noticed a rusty handful of steel wool.  Maybe the delivery guy put it there to keep creatures from hiding under the dome?

The Surprise under the Dome

The steel wool didn't do the job.  Maybe it was the rust, or the recent wind, or maybe it's all about the frog - the pudgy, little, well-camouflaged, gray frog hunkered down behind the fill-gauge.   What a nice surprise!

I could not resist the temptation to pick it up.  It rewarded me by urinating on my hand - a defense mechanism.  I couldn't believe how much urine that little frog released.

Gray Tree Frog Urinating on my Hand

I also was amazed by the "feel" of its feet, clinging to my hand.  I snapped a few photos, checked the gauge and headed back into the house to find its name:  Gray Tree Frog.

These frogs have a special mucus they secrete from their toes that helps them cling to tree bark and smooth surfaces - like the propane tank.   They are larger and have more toad-like (as in bumpy) skin than their "look-alike" cousins - the Cope's Gray Tree Frog and they have a very different song.  Both have a bright yellow patches on the insides of their hind legs.  And both can change color (like a chameleon - but the frogs need a little more time to make it happen) from green to gray.

What was she doing there?  Hunting for insects.  And by the size of her - looks like she's been doing well.  

Gray Tree Frog Camouflaged on my Propane Tank

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks Eating Flowers

Rose-breasted Grosbeak on a Chilly Spring Morning

I've seen lots of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in my yard this spring - jostling with the orioles at the grape jelly feeders, learning from woodpeckers how to access peanut butter suet at the wire cages and intimidating the American Goldfinches at the sunflower tubes.  But I've never seen them eating gooseberry flowers - until this morning.

It was relatively chilly when I drove down Rustic Road 107 near Meridean.  Not much bird activity - but lots of mosquitoes.  I stopped the Prius when I noticed some shaking going on in the gooseberry shrubs.  At first I thought it might be a skulking Catbird going after insects.  But no, it was a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and he wasn't going after any bugs.  He was tearing the flowers off and gluttonously eating them!

Friday, May 6, 2011


Bobolink in Durand, Wisconsin

After spending the past couple of days looking at migrants on the Buffalo River in Alma, I decided to check out the Lower Chippewa River bottoms this morning.  I stopped along County Road M several times - teased by Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting from the road to the brush and into the grass.  

I wasn't a mile from State Road 85 when I heard what I thought was the sound of the avian version of a calliope.

But it couldn't be Bobolinks.  Not here in Durand.

I've only seen them twice:  years ago in a farm field along the Delaware River in northern New Jersey, and more recently at Crex Meadows in northwestern Wisconsin.  Both times I made a special trip just to see these rare grassland blackbirds.

I've driven County M for years and I've never seen or heard Bobolinks there.

No, it couldn't have been Bobolinks.  But what was that sound?

I slowly eased my stealth Prius back on to County Road M - and scanned the unremarkable, as yet un-plowed, farm field.  Then I heard it again.  I pulled off the road on to the shoulder and again looked for the sound.  There they were:  three Bobolinks!


Tom and I sat and watched the trio for almost an hour.  They flew laps around the field, stopping to forage in the growing hay.  Then they were up again, flying in a circle, landing atop the shrubs along the side of County Road M, looking at us.



According to the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative, Bobolink populations in the Badger State are declining at a precipitous rate - approximately 2% a year since the mid-1960s.  Why?  Loss of prairie habitat, modern agricultural practices (mowing alfalfa and hay fields during the breeding season), and, on their wintering grounds in the grasslands of South America (where they're considered agricultural pests) they're shot or sold as cage birds. 

It was great to see and hear them, but I hope these three don't stay in this field.   They're likely to do better in the prairies along the Lower Chippewa.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Groundhog Up In a Tree

Marmota monax up a tree
It was 37ยบ F this morning, but the weather forecasters promised we'd get our first day in the mid-60s (about average for this time of year).  I left the house at 7am, hoping to see some warblers on Rustic Road 107.

Despite the early cold temps, we spotted a Red-eyed Vireo and Blue-headed Vireo sitting high up in the trees along the road, soaking up the early morning sun.    Insects started to fly around 10am - and so did the warblers:  several hundred Yellow-rumps hawking insects, a dozen Palms bobbing to and from the road and water, and Black-and-Whites spiraling up and down tree trunks.

Recent Prairie Burn at Tyrone

Near the pine stands on the Tyrone Property (the largest privately owned property along the Lower Chippewa River) we noticed a recent prairie burn.  As we cut back to look for birds along the pine stand, I noticed an odd "lump" in one of the naked deciduous trees at the edge of the burn.

The "Lump" in the Tree

It looked like an animal.  I stopped the car and focused my binoculars.  It was a groundhog!   But what was it doing in the tree?  I walked over, stood under the tree and asked him.

Groundhog up a Tree

The groundhog wasn't talking.

He looked down at me, then out at the burned prairie.  I snapped a few photos and left him alone.

I stopped back to check on him about an hour later.  I was relieved that he was "gone."  But I was still curious.  It was so strange to see a groundhog in a tree.

When I got home, I hit the books and discovered that groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, are quite the climbers.  Why do they climb?  To get away from predators, to forage or to get a bird's-eye view of their neighborhood (in this case, perhaps to survey the prairie burn).

I'm glad I resisted the temptation to help the chubby rodent get down from the tree.  They can bite.

And how did they get the nickname "woodchuck?"  It has nothing to do with "wood" or "chucking."

It comes from the Algonquians:  "wuchak."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Warblers in the Cold, Again

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Another day of unseasonably cold, wet weather in west-central Wisconsin.  Temps in the mid-30s, with snow and wind.   Welcome to May, 2011.

I drove up through the Lower Chippewa River bottoms to see how the Yellow-rumped Warblers and other spring migrants were doing.

Yellow-rumped Warbler on the Shoulder of SR 25

Flocks of warblers concentrated together and behaved like sparrows.  They hugged the roadsides and flit around in prairie grasses and the still un-planted farm fields.

A Hovering Yellow-rumped Warbler

They were all over the vernal ponds, hovering like petrels, literally walking on the surface of the water.

Palm Warbler Hunting Insects Along the Lower Chippewa

The Yellow-rumps were not alone.  Our first-of-the-year Palm Warblers hung out with them, bobbing their tails as they foraged along the edges of the roads and water.

Spotted Sandpiper along the Lower Chippewa

A Spotted Sandpiper flew in, perched on a limb over the river near Meridean, bobbed its tail for a minute or two - and flew off.

I used to think the biggest challenge these early birds faced - when they're caught up in unseasonable weather - was finding food.  After driving around on paved roads for most of the day, I discovered how vulnerable they are when they forage on the ground near roads.

Yellow-rumped Warbler Roadkill

On the way home, I spotted dozens of little piles of yellow, white and gray feathers on the road.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Lettered Sphinx Moth on the Window Screen

Lettered Sphinx Moth

I stopped by the Maxville Alternative School today to set up a date to take the students out to monitor bluebird boxes.

On the way back to my car,  Gwen Prom and I spotted this odd moth hanging on to the window screen near the light over the front door.  Its pumped-up shoulders reminded me of a scaled-down, brown-striped version of a TRANSFORMER (from the movie).

Lettered Sphinx Moth

Viewed from the side, the moth displays its abdomen arched over its back (scorpion-like).  I knew it was a moth, but what kind?  Other than "knowing" the big flashy species, my moth identification skills are woefully lacking.  So, with Gwen's help, I took three photos.

Lettered Sphinx Moth (with Gwen's Finger)

I emailed them to Marcie O'Connor, a local moth expert who lives on the other side of the coulees in southeastern Buffalo County.  She recognized our moth right away:  Lettered Sphinx

Armed with the name, I looked it up and found that while they are thought to be common, there are no photo records of this insect on for Wisconsin.

Lettered Sphinx, found in eastern North America, are one of the earliest to be out flying (and hanging on to window screens) in the spring.  Their green caterpillars feed on the leaves of grape and virginia creeper vines.

Mrs. Sweeney Points to the Lettered Sphinx

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck in Wisconsin

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck - Chippewa Falls, WI

I normally don't "chase" rare birds.  In fact, I've only done it twice.  The first time was back in 2002, when I saw a report of a summer Snowy Owl near the Menards Corporate HQ in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Summer Snowy Owl © Mary Kay Rubey

It was only 50 miles from where I live, and I needed an excuse for a shopping trip to the nearby "big city" of Eau Claire.  I didn't know what to expect - but I didn't think I'd see a Snowy Owl.

But there it was... right where the report said it would be.

Summer Snowy Owl ©Mary Kay Rubey

A Snowy Owl in the summer is an extremely rare sight in Wisconsin.  But a Black-belled Whistling-Duck in Chippewa Falls?  Extremely rare too - only six records of this tropical bird in the Badger State.   Normally highly gregarious, this lone duck is approximately 1,500 miles from the northern-most limit of its normal range

US Geological Survey - Breeding Bird Survey data                 

I didn't think about making a special trip to Chippewa Falls to see a duck, but my Prius was due for an oil change - and Markquart Toyota just opened a new location - in Chippewa Falls.  

I went back to my email in-box to check the Wisconsin Birds listserv reports for an address and got the GPS coordinates (44.9187N, 91.5097W).  Wouldn't you know, that's less than 10 miles from Markquart Toyota.

Despite the weather (pouring rain and gray skies), I decided to look for a duck that - according to the USGS website - prefers tropical lagoons, marshes and streams with partially tree-covered margins; often near agricultural land. 

I was amazed to find the little wooded pond on County Road F.  It's on the east side of County F adjacent to the Wheaton Gas Metering Station.

The Pond - Looking north from the Gas Meter Station
Wheaton Gas Meter Station (on the east side of County K)

I scoured the little wooded pond.  No Whistling-Duck.  My husband, Tom, focused his binoculars on the flooded farm field on the west side of the road, across from the wooded pond.  "I see it, over there" he said, pointing to a tiny dot on a tiny peninsula in the flooded field.

I pointed my binoculars in the direction he was pointing, and then I spotted it.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

We watched the duck as the rain pelted my car.  It looked up a couple of times.  I shot a few photos from the car window.  

Yep.  It's a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, feeding in a flooded farm field in Wisconsin in April.

A Hognose Snake by the Side of the Road

Broad-winged Hawk Kettling Over Maxville

Spring visited the Lower Chippewa River Valley today.  Not a cloud in the sky.  Temps in the 60s.   I hopped in the Prius and headed out to see who's out - before spring goes into hiding again tomorrow.

And what a day it was!

Barn Swallows on Kings Highway.  Hawks kettling over the coulees - with surprisingly good looks at Broad-wings.   The midge emergence is over.  Only a few Yellow-rumps flitting around in the trees, hawking insects in the popping buds.  The first warbler wave has moved on.

Butterflies were out and flitting on Rustic Road 107.  Very flighty - difficult to get close enough for an identification.  Nearly impossible to get a good photo.

"Spring" Spring Azure
Mustard White
Gray Comma

I pulled over to take a photo of an orange butterfly and as I walked in front of my Prius, I discovered this big brown snake sunning itself in the grass.

Hognose Snake

I didn't recognize it right away, so I carefully moved in closer to take some photos.  As I did, the snake made like a cobra!  I kid you not.  Right in front of me.  Out came the cowl, then an audible "hissss" as the snake lifted its head off the ground and flicked its tongue out.

Eastern Hognose Snake
Eastern Hognose Snake
Eastern Hognose Snake
Eastern Hognose Snake
Eastern Hognose Snake

Eastern Hognose Snake

Eastern Hognose Snake

There shouldn't be any cobras in Wisconsin, and this snake had round eyes.   I knew it wasn't venomous.   But what is it?  

The "frightening" display and a stubby snout are all the clues I needed.  It's an Eastern Hognose also known as a "puff adder."   If the cobra routine doesn't scare you off, the Hognose might try its "roll over and play dead" routine.  This one didn't - it was all huff and puff.  

And then it took off and disappeared in the prairie grasses.  


Sunday, April 24, 2011

How Do Early Warblers Survive A Cold Spell?

Yellow-rumped Warbler

After a week of unseasonably cold, wet weather, I headed down to the river to see how the warblers were doing.  I was amazed to see swarms of Yellow-rumped Warblers in downtown Durand, along RR 107 to Meridean and along the Buffalo River in Alma.

They were on the ground, on the water, in the shrubs, low on tree trunks in the flooded riverways, in the tree tops, at my suet feeders and back at home - on my windowsill. 

They were eating suet and hulled sunflower chips at my feeders, dead insects on my storm window frame, poison ivy berries along the roadsides - and emerging insects along the edges of the river.  Versatile eaters!

I spent an hour or so watching them eat insects along Rustic Road 107.  At first, I couldn't tell what they were eating.  The mosquito-sized little black flies were so small I could barely see them.   They swarmed my windshield, and after I powered down the window - they were all over me too. 

Fortunately they weren't the biting kind, but other than that, I didn't have a clue as to their identity.  So I took this photo.

Warbler food on my knuckle

When I got home, I went to thinking it would be awhile before anyone would get back to me with an identification.  Wrong.  I clicked "uplink" at 5:35pm and three minutes later, the identity was in an email in my inbox:   Male midge, likely tribe Tanytarsini.

According to the University of Minnesota Chironomidae Research Group,  there are over 1,000 species of non-biting midges - and over 300 species in Minnesota.  Plenty of insect protein for migrating Yellow-rumped Warblers.