Tuesday, October 31, 2006 #151 To the ancients, the Celts and the Druids, Halloween marked the end of the good times and the beginning of the dark and cold and foreboding season. It was a time marked by bonfires of sacrifice and fear of the next several months. Nowadays we take our children out and in exchange for dressing them up and scaring them, we give them candy. Those steps between lit pumpkins and Halloween joke witches are a challenge of excitement for the youngest and a gauntlet with a sugar reward at the end for the older. As we transition in to November we are seeing colder, shorter days. The leaves have turned and all but the oaks have now fallen. The birds and butterflies of summer are now gone and the black scoters and loons of our winter have arrived. Is it spooky; is it the beginning of the lean times? No, not really. This is now a great time for naturalists to see the forest with the disguise of leaves, it is a time to see the creatures of the north bob in our cold coastal waters and it is another chance to see mother nature in charge. Winter will certainly be different but it is also new, invigorating, and exciting. Those of you that are still here in Massachusetts, and not in Florida, know all this and likely have your hot chocolate, snow shovel, and long underwear at the ready. Monday, October 30, 2006 #150 As October draws to a close there is one flower left for us to ogle and marvel at. A flower in late October you say – how could that be? Well I don’t know why the Witch Hazel has adopted this rather odd sense of timing but it seems to work. The yellowish flowers are out right now. The thin crinkled petals stand out like bright spiders on this small, many-stemmed understory tree. The Witch Hazel is a tree of our woodlands and is not uncommon. As a matter of fact the smallish, maybe the size of your arm, stems spread out from a central cluster and then the branches turn parallel to the ground, and lay flat; offering as broad a layer of leaves to the filtered sun of the woodland floor as possible. The tree rarely grows over fifteen feet tall, but because of its leaning growth pattern each stem can be twenty-five to thirty feet long. The yellowish petals will attract insects to the flowers, which when pollinated, will create a light brown egg-shaped seed capsule that will eventually burst – sending small seeds as far as twenty feet away from the mother-tree. Friday, October 27, 2006 #149 The trees have long known that winter was coming. It was almost a month ago that the first red Maples, also called Swamp Maple, began to turn from green to red; and now they have lost their hold, and have fallen to the ground. The Ash and Sugar Maples have been turning yellow and providing us with one of the polychrome moments of our year. This transition is required of the deciduous tree because they invest so heavily in moist green leaves, rather than wax-covered needles, like the more sensible evergreens. The pines, hemlocks, and spruces keep their needles, and their photosynthetic activities, through the year. If the deciduous trees tried to keep those broad, floppy, water-filled leaves alive year-round they would freeze in the winter causing the tree irreparable damage. It is safer to grow fast and with vigor under an umbrella of leaves during the warmer, sunnier months, with their long days and then just bag it in the fall. Then they pretty much hibernate all winter. In the tropics there are many broad-leafed plants that remain green all year, but even there seasonal changes, especially in dry seasons, will cause the leafy trees to shed their leaves – this is done to avoid loss of water and damage to the leaves; but it is a response similar to that made by trees in preparation for winter. Thursday, October 26, 2006 #148 If you go for a walk along the shore you will no longer be seeing the Monarch butterflies – they are long gone, or should be; but you might see a small tail-wagging bird with a yellow belly. This bird is active in the short weeds and shrubs of the dunes and old fields. It is called the Palm Warbler and can always be told by the yellow under the ever-wagging tail. This bird can be traced to its home, in a general sense, quite easily. There are two populations of Palm Warblers; those from the west and those from the east. That fact alone doesn’t do much as the western ones don’t wear cowboy hats or even spurs; but they are so different from the eastern ones that you can separate them quite easily. The eastern ones are very yellow underneath on the chest and belly where the western ones are a dusky color with only the faintest tinges of yellow. The dividing line for the two populations runs from Hudson Bay to the Great Lakes. It will be the low-to-the-ground motion that firsts attracts you, then the tail-wagging, then the yellow under the tail and finally you notice the yellow belly and you know you have an eastern Palm Warbler. This bird may have nested in the bogs of the Canadian Maritimes or in Maine. Wednesday, October 25, 2006 #147 One of the highlights of low tide around here is the opportunity to gather shellfish. In most cases people get a license from the town that they are going to dig in, and a bucket and a short stumpy rake and then they work very hard in usually cold water to gather enough steamers to make the evening very enjoyable. The populations of clams are monitored and the digging season given just enough duration to insure that the crop is ongoing. There is a size minimum – oh yes that is one more thing you need; a ring to test the length of the clams. If it won’t go through the ring one way or another then it is long enough to keep. Most people like their clams to be on the smaller side. These clams live in the wet sand; much of their habitat is exposed at low tide. There are clams further in toward shore but these are usually not a sweet as those that stay wet longest. While you are in the wet mud and sand of that low tide strip, you might find a quahog or two as they tend to stay under the water even at low tide. As the fall proceeds to envelope us, the water in the bays and river edges gets cooler and cooler and fewer of the clammers will be in shorts or barefoot. This gets to be a boots and gloves job for many by the end of October. Tuesday, October 24, 2006 #146 The Duxbury Beach Reservation is just starting a three year project to look into the Nature of the Beach. As many of you know there is a little bird that nests on our beaches in small but highly regulated numbers. The Piping Plover is but one bird that uses our beaches, but they are here because of the rather rare coastal habitat the habitat. The Duxbury Beach Technical Committee is wondering what else might be of interest on the beach. Could there be some other creature, or plant, that creates enough interest to warrant managing the beach with it in mind? There are shellfish, insects, crustaceans and other arthropods as well as birds’ mammals and an array of specially adapted plants. Over the next three years there will be an assessment of the plants and animals and to some extent the geology of the beach. This is an opportunity for all of you to join a citizen science project. If you walk the beach or fish along its shoreline or go birding there or simply sunbathe and are occasionally struck by something you see – you can contribute to this project. The more eyes we have watching the more wonders we will discover. Stay tuned as this project develops – soon there will be an email address allowing you to report you sightings. Monday, October 23, 2006 #145 The flocks of small birds that you occasionally see alongside the road are often gatherings of Chipping Sparrows. They gather together to gather the windblown seeds of the crabgrass. These are smallish sparrows with soft markings. In the fall they form flocks and are quite common. The flocks are discreet however and a birder might see 60 in a day but they will be all in one flock and only in that one location. The adults can be told by the grayish neck and nape and the reddish cap. The youngsters can best be identified because they are the really non-descript birds in with the adults. These flocks will occasionally happen by a feeder but typically they are birds of the weedy roadsides. The rarer Clay-colored Sparrow will often join these flocks of ChippingSparrows. This western visitor has a paler and tanner overall look to it. In every flock of chipping sparrows there is a bird that makes you look twice. The only other birds in tight flocks at this time of year are the brown-headed cowbirds. The birds are almost all black and also feed on weed seeds, but do so with the tail cocked up and their head down. Friday, October 20, 2006 #144 I think the birders will tell you that overall the migration has been slow this fall. There are fewer sparrows and buntings in passage than most years. It seems that the lingering orioles and hummingbirds are non-existent. Thos birds that are around; chipping, song, and swamp sparrows are in pretty good numbers but there are few vesper, clay-colored, or lark sparrows. It is these rarer birds that make the game most interesting and the lack of them makes it rather depressing. However some birds are here in large numbers – pretty much as usual. The rather non- descript Yellow-rumped Warbler can be found in the Pine Barrens by the dozens. Some days at Scusset Beach there have been hundreds. The Yellow-rump is a rather spectacular breeding bird: yellow and black and white arranged in a striking patter, but now they are grayer and the yellow is only on the rump. This is a common and abundant bird of the fall around here. It can be seen most anywhere, but it is very common in the shrubby growth along the shore. They eat a lot of poison ivy berries and appear none the worse for it. Some will stay on into the Christmas Count season but most will gradually filter southward well before the end of December Thursday, October 19, 2006 #143 The suet is pure hard white fat. It is sold in most supermarkets and is usually available in the winter. The suet can be enclosed in a cage-like feeder and hung where woodpeckers and others can get at it - and hopefully where raccoons won’t notice it. The suet will bring another group of birds very close to you. The woodpeckers are as tame as a chickadees, perhaps more so. The local woodpeckers are usually black and white. The smaller version is called downy and the larger is called hairy. We also have the, poorly-named, red-bellied woodpecker which has a zebra-striped back. Suet will attract these birds. I have also had gray catbirds, chickadees, nuthatches, and pine warblers regularly at the suet. In the spring and summer the suet will feed Baltimore orioles as well. Suet will also attract oddballs as well. It is a calorie rich fat and once I found a turkey vulture attempting to get at a suet feeder. I have also seen kinglets and several warbler species at it in the winter. Wednesday October 18, 2006 #142 The thistle feeder has very limited access. The thistle seeds are tiny and the birds that eat them are small with small pointed beaks. Hence the holes from which the seed can be extracted are also small. This makes the thistle feeder useless for any seed but thistle. But that is a good thing. Thistle is eaten by house finches and American goldfinches. In the dead of winter you might have common redpolls and pines siskins as well. As a matter of fact you won’t get these birds without thistle seed. A feeder dedicated to thistle will probably be busy all winter. Our American goldfinches will see to that. In the winter the goldfinches are greenish, both male and female. But as the weather changes in March the males start to bloom into their yellow breeding colors – and it will happen right there at your feeders. In the winter, with a backdrop of snow and ice and steaming breath, (ugh that is an image that can wait a while) the goldfinches and their cousins will hang around the feeders providing you with another reason not to got outside – I don’t want to scare the birds is always a pretty good reason to avoid shoveling. But please do go out to fill the feeders. Tuesday, October 17, 2006 #141 People like sunflower seed because it draws in a wide array of perky or attractive birds. The bright and heart-warming cardinal makes appearances early in the morning and again in the evening at the sunflower feeders. In the winter cardinals can bring a ray of sunshine and color to your feeder throughout the day. Sunflowers seeds also bring in the rather tame black-capped chickadees and the tufted titmouse, the chickadees closely related cousin. Sunflower will also feed common grackles, but the flocks of grackles are usually features of September and early October and don’t bother too many people after Columbus Day. The cute little nuthatches; both white-breasted and red- breasted come to the sunflower and their antics are always a treat to watch. What with the nuthatches often arriving upside down and the chickadees and titmouses flitting in and put and the resplendent cardinal adding color and character there is little wonder why the sunflower feeder is often the first one filled. Monday, October 16, 2006 #140 The most widely used bird feed is the sunflower seed. There are several types of sunflowers; as farmers just love to arrange genes instantly evolving new plants as they develop more productive strains of plants. The striped sunflower or Russian sunflower is large and tasty – for both birds and ball players. Before going further I need to tell you that many of your birds are wasteful and casual when handling your seeds. The cute little sunflower-eating black-capped chickadee really doesn’t have a seed crushing bill. As a matter of fact chickadees will peck a seed opening a small portion of the shell and then eat what sunflower seed it can reach easily and then lets the rest fall to the ground. With this in mind I use black oil seed as they are smaller and the waste seems less to me. I’d rather they dropped a small seed than a larger one. Also there is purported to be more meaty seed per pound in black oil seed that in striped. And lastly, the farmers are producing black oils seed sunflowers at a much higher rate now than they are the striped varieties. Friday, October 13, 2006 #139 The birder preparation continues. Once you have the right feeders and the locations to hang them and the place to store the seed it is time to think about the seed. The common options are mixed seed combinations, striped and black oil sunflower, Niger or thistle, and beef suet. Mixed seeds are the most difficult to figure and are often used wrong. Mixed seed is to be cast upon the ground. It is for juncos and sparrows, and blackbirds and doves. The supermarkets sell mixed seed as do grain stores and the big box stores. Mixed seed can be, and perhaps should be, as simple as cracked corn and white millet. As a matter of fact I buy those two and mix them together. The red millets, sorghum, sand, and other fillers added to bagged mixed seed is of little value to birds. Mixed seed should be spread by the cupful on the ground in a rather open area. If it gets eaten in a day or two then you put out the correct amount. If not – wait and then put out less the next time. Flocks of birds will come and go and the quantity of mixed seed needed will vary. If you have the space and desire a mixture of white millet and cracked corn is all you need. Thursday, October 12, 2006 #138 It is time for the good old bird feeding reminder. It is getting to be time to get the feeders out and filled. The fall is actually a time where seeds are abundant and most birds, and other wildlife, can find plenty of natural food. Instead of starting the bird-feeding in October perhaps it is better to start in November and then continue into April and even into May when there is a very limited amount of food available. Typically we start to feed too early and we also stop too early. Be all that as it may – here is the bird feeding scoop. If you have feeders that are stored or forlornly hanging empty outside bring them in and clean them. Once a year cleaning is better than nonce a year. Two or three times a year is even better. This is also the time to assess your feeders: Do you have a suet feeder, a sunflower feeder, and a thistle feeder? Can they be hung in places where squirrels can’t reach them but you can? If not this is the best time of year to install hangers, or pulleys, or poles. Do you have a safe and clean area, or pail, to store the bags of bird seed? Now is the time to get things organized and ready. Wednesday October 11, 2006 #137 In the spring flocks of black-capped chickadees break into pairs and establish and defend breeding territories. At the end of the breeding season, last month and this month, the young disperse and try to join other groups. They usually start near the bottom of the pecking order unless they happen to have a dominant male or female as a friend – that helps in chickadees as well as in humans. Interestingly, prior to severe winters researchers have found that fewer young birds join groups, but prior to mild winters most youngsters join groups. Perhaps this how the Farmer’s Almanac predicts the winter weather. It was also discovered that chickadees know where they rank within their group and often try to associate with higher ranking birds to gain status and move up in the ranking. It was also observed that less dominant females, which were by fate and fact, attached to less dominant males, would solicit mating from the more dominant males of the group in an attempt, seemingly, to acquire better genes for her offspring. Females paired with top-ranked males rarely solicited mating from other males. This is another example of what biologists are now calling female-selection. In many species of animals the females seem to drive the development and behavior of males – but I think most ladies all ready know that. Tuesday, October 10, 2006 #136 The work that Susan Smith has done with our state bird – why isn’t it or Commonwealth bird? – the black-capped chickadee is actually quite interesting and helps to point up how little we really know about what is right here in our own back yard. It also helps put into perspective how little we must know about things much less familiar to us. Each fall Smith bands as many chickadees as she can in her study area. There are usually seventy to one hundred birds that are marked with distinct combinations of color bands. Several of her discoveries are now basic to many bird-group studies. She found that in the winter male chickadees are generally more dominant that the females. But in the nesting season the females are generally more dominant. Though there is a linear order – where the dominant bird can chase all others from the feeder and the second bird can chase all but the dominant one and so on – there are also dominant females and dominant males within sexually specific groups. Sex and rank can change during any season but almost always changes as breeding season commences. Monday, October 9, 2006 #135 The birds are looking toward the feeders a bit more these days. There is some movement of what we see as non-migratory species. The American robins are moving toward the coast as are the great blue herons. Life is a bit more moderate in the salt marshes and the hollies. The American goldfinches are also moving around. These thistle-eating mites are sometimes at the feeder in very large numbers, up to thirty, and then they are gone for several days. I can never be sure that ones that reappear after these lapses are the same ones that were here before. I have to think that many of them move on, or move over, and they are replaced by others which have moved in. Without banding them and following the birds it is impossible to get a handle on this. This is also the case with black-capped chickadees and blue jays and others that sometimes are seen in migrational movements, but always seem to be around. One of the few such studies was written by Susan Smith of Mount Holyoke College and was done with her neighborhood flock of black-capped chickadees. Lest you think this somewhat dismissive; Professor Susan Smith is as well known as Jane Goodall – it is just the chimpanzees make for better press releases Friday, October 6, 2006 #134 There is another group of flowers out there now – the asters. These star-like flowers are quite visible now. They are the rather lush blue or purple flowers that grow in small clusters in fields or along roadsides. The most obvious and common of these is the aptly named New England Aster. The plant grows up to five feet tall and has many spikes reach off the main stems. Each of these spikes has many flowers clustered at the end of each branch; each flower with many rays or thin petals circling the central disc. The center of the flowers is usually yellow – but at least yellowish. Asters are not easy to identify. The White Wood Aster may be our most common wildflower but is usually represented by a single leaf blade with the flower appearing only for a short time. But all aster flowers are round and have large numbers of small thin petals arrayed around the yellow center. Again, I recommend Newcomb’s Wildflower book and its section on asters to help with the identification of these often-look-alike species. Thursday, October 5, 2006 #133 One of the tricks that goldenrods utilize to get themselves spread around the countryside is glue. They have large pollen grain with a sticky covering. This helps get them attached to the insects that arrive on the yellow flowers. The insects are looking for food which the flowers provide. But in exchange the plants want a little something also. It wants the insects to pollinate and spread their seeds. The insects don’t fully understand this so the plants glue the large grains to the insects so that they are taken away from the immediate area. Many plants are less studied in spreading their seed. They cast their fate to the winds hoping for a successful landing somewhere where opportunity exists. These wind blown plants are the ones that send pollen into the air and irritate nasal membranes. Thus the oft-maligned goldenrod with its large and sticky pollen does not float around bothering you – it is the ubiquitous but much less visible ragweed that handles that slimy chore. Wednesday, October 4, 2006 #132 The fall blooming of goldenrods is just what the doctor ordered for many fall insects. Bees and wasps are busy at the flowers gathering that last dollop of nectar and pollen. The monarch butterflies, as mentioned yesterday, seem to depend on the flowers as well. This is a time of year where the many species of goldenrod can be compared. There are at least fifteen goldenrod species in our area – though four or five will predominate in any local site. A field in the southeastern part of the US might have thirty species. The goldenrod plants get a bad rap for being a bothersome plant to those sensitive to plant dust. It is actually the ragweed plants that fill the air with a moderately irritating pollen, but the goldenrods that are most visible and get most of the blame. The ragweed plants will develop large seeds and provide huge amounts of food for wildlife where the goldenrods will provide nectar but almost nothing in the way of seeds. The best wildflower book for identify goldenrods is the Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide which has a section just on goldenrods. Tuesday, October 3, 2006 #131 One of the fall highlights is the passage of the monarch butterflies. The last week of September and the first couple weeks in October can be rich with these original ultra-light aircrafts. Remember, these monarchs that are flying south are the third or fourth or maybe even fifth generation away from those that started north last March. These tiny guys have never been anywhere before except in farmer Joneses field. They will follow the coast for much of their trip. It is a chicken-and-egg thing as to whether the blooming goldenrods afforded the monarchs the food and opportunity to make this journey or the monarchs induced the spread of goldenrods to help them as they traveled. Whatever the case, the monarchs seem to be strongly associated with our seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens). It is quite usual to see the monarchs flying low along the sandy edges looking for and using the yellow flowers of the seaside goldenrod as a nectar source as they travel southward. Most of our beaches will have this goldenrod and the monarchs as well, other the next couple weeks Monday, October 2, 2006 #130 The air is changing again. It is getting to fall for sure now. Those cool air masses that reach down to us from Canada are cooler and cooler each time. The mornings are clear and chilly and it is a great time to go for early morning walks. The cool crisp air wakes you up, the walking gets your blood flowing, and the return home makes that sixty-four degree house you left from, now feels warm and cozy when compared to the outdoors. These morning walks will have audio provided by American crows, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, blue jays and the ever-bubbling Carolina wren. The wrens call in a duet. Rare is the Carolina wren that is not with its mate. The crows and jays are pretty easy to tell by voice and the woodpeckers are also. The red-bellied have a loud burbling call and the downy makes a series of sharp pic-pic like noises. Right now the leaves are still on the trees and these morning birds might be difficult to see, but the leaf colors are changing and soon enough we will be able see into the trees. Yes fall is arriving and the air is invigorating –but stay tuned there is much more to the autumnal season.