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.