Monday, April 21, 2014

Spring Mimic of Havenwoods State Forest

On this Saturday before Easter; the weather finally lent itself to my first decent birding opportunity.  I could have gone to Lake Park to attend the first warbler walk of the new season, but instead I chose one of my favorite avian haunts; Havenwoods State Forest.  I arrived at around 9:00 AM and parked in the lot.  There were two other vehicles there, but no humans in sight as I strapped on all my gear.  Sure a person can go bird watching with little to no "gear," however I am not that person...I love gear.  Two binoculars (one for close viewing and another for long viewing, my camo fanny pack that has my guides in it, my snazzy patch-ensembled birding vest, and my always reliable Fuji Finepix digital camera.)  I always wear a brimmed hat (most often a ball cap) and my trusty hiking boots for the oft-muddy conditions.

Almost as soon as I walked away from the WPT, I heard several Black-capped chickadees singing their spring "hey-sweetie" song.  That is a sound that I dearly love to hear each year.  The next birds I saw were a pair of FOYs (first of year) Brown-headed cowbird males.  Their bubbly "tinkling" vocalizations are another welcome sound.  I began walking north around the community garden (like I always do) when I "thought" I heard the faint double sounds of a Brown thrasher. Having seen them at Havenwoods in the past; I decided to walk in that direction to see if I could see one.  With the deciduous trees completely leafless; it's always a tremendous opportunity to be able to see an elusive thrasher.

While I walked along, I heard and saw numerous other species.  It appeared as though the Red-winged blackbird male's long wait for female company had finally born fruit as I saw several near their male suitors. Still; they looked as though they were acting aloof and coy by sitting off to one side in the branches, enjoying the attention being payed to them.  One bonafide "pair" did seem to have come a mutual agreement and hopped from branch to branch together as I watched.  That's when I heard the thrasher very clearly.  It must have situated itself in a tree it fancied and decided to begin its song, or should I say "songs."  Brown thrashers are a larger bird (11-1/2" long) and belong to the same family as mockingbirds, but unlike the mockingbird sing their songs in stanzas of two.  Thrashers have been known to have over 1,100 songs in their repertoire.  The oldest known Brown thrasher was nearly 12 years old when it died.  These birds are so darned amazing to listen to that one can stand for many minutes, completely enthralled at their incredible ability.

Another interesting thing happened when I spotted a "snake board" lying on the grass.  I carefully lifted it to see if there may be a snake lying just underneath and to my surprise; I discovered three woolly bear caterpillars that must have overwintered there.  A pair of opportunistic Tree swallows decided to perform an early-bird check-in at one of the bluebird houses next to the large pond.  I figured it wouldn't be long until someone connected with monitoring the trail evicted them unceremoniously.  A Belted kingfisher clattered by and a trio of Rough-winged swallows skimmed the water's surface looking for an early hatch of flying insects.

A took a walk to the far north of the forest along the train tracks and discovered the remains of a white tail or two.  I surmised that the animal must have been struck by the train and summarily dismembered and eaten by Havenwoods many coyotes.  I also wandered into what looked like an illegal pot growing operation that was now abandoned.  The ancient infrastructure of a bisecting train trestle quietly rusted overhead as I inspected the colorful graffiti below on the concrete abutments.  My eyes were also drawn to a curious sight in the surrounding trees. This was something that might have escaped the casual onlooker's notice, however these objects were not merely hanging from branches; two rubber automobile tires were suspended some twenty feet above the ground as if they had been "ringed" over small emerging saplings in the distant past.

These two trees are tired

Oh Deer!

Woolly Bear all curled up in a ball for warmth

This guy's nobody's sucker...just a bit sappy

I finished my two and a half hour walk totaling thirty species.  I was completely impressed and satisfied with the variety I had encountered, this early in the spring:

American crow
American goldfinch
American robin
Belted kingfisher
Black-capped chickadee
Blue jay
Blue-gray gnatcatcher
Brown creeper
Brown thrasher
Brown-headed cowbird
Common grackle
Downy woodpecker
European starling
Golden-crowned kinglet
Hairy woodpecker
House finch
House sparrow
Northern cardinal
Northern flicker
Red-bellied woodpecker
Red-tailed hawk
Red-winged blackbird
Ring-billed gull
Rough-winged swallow
Ruby-crowned kinglet
Sandhill crane
Song sparrow
Tree swallow
Yellow-bellied sapsucker
Yellow-rumped warbler

Monday, April 14, 2014

Don’t forget to look down.

It’s early in the spring and the warblers have yet to pass through, however that does not mean there’s nothing to see…you just have to look a bit harder.  If you do; you’ll be treated to a handful of bird species that are specially equipped to handle this time of year and the challenging conditions it offers to animals.  These intrepid forest floor foragers include the American robin, Common grackle, Song sparrow, Fox sparrow, Red-bellied woodpecker, and European starling.

These hardy birds are among the first to “arrive” each spring, to the upper Midwest region.  Male American
robins show up within a few days of each other in their annual quest to reclaim (or claim if it’s their first time) a small patch of territory in which to find a mate, build a nest, and raise each of up to three broods.  They are particularly adept at “hopping” stealthily under the tangle of brush and fallen trees in order to “flip” (with their beaks) last year’s fallen leaves in search of something to eat buried underneath.  Robins have been said to “mate for life” although it’s not entirely clear if that’s the case.  Females will be arriving soon and they also are territorial by nature.  It may just be that the same two pair meets again for another family brood due to the proximity of their two chosen (and defended) areas.

Invertebrates are also the spring favorites of the opportunistic Common grackle until they can get the “other” 25 percent of their diet; other animals.  This of course means waiting until more species arrive and begin laying eggs and having babies.  I have seen firsthand when a hungry grackle carries off a young fledgling Northern cardinal.  Fox and Song sparrows employ a different methodology of finding food in the detritus of the woods; bi pedal scratching.  This amounts to the same motion used when straightening the doormat with both feet (using no hands); a kind of backward scootching motion.  This clears the leaf litter and exposes the underneath with the beak in perfect position to stab suddenly downward and snatch whatever was just uncovered.

European starlings are scavenging feeders who also like to take advantage of other’s hard work.  They can
be first heard (then seen) harassing the Red-bellied woodpeckers (red-headed – no red on their bellies) as they are hollowing out their nest cavities for the season’s clutch of eggs.  The RBWs are very cautious and will quickly fly away from their chosen tree when they sense that the starlings are watching.  They will abandon their labor-intensive excavations for long periods of time until they are certain that the interlopers have moved on; sometimes for good if need be.

Weather at this time of year in Milwaukee can be very unpredictable.  Just when you think the groundhog finally got it right; snow reappears.  This makes it challenging and dangerous for the early birds who decide to move in and begin their annual familial preparations.  However, do not fret too much; these animals are specially equipped and nature-ready to survive, even though it may look bleak for them.  Simply enjoy their antics, techniques and strategies as you marvel at what God has created.