Posts Tagged ‘postaday 2011’

The Mountain Cottontail

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Friday, December 30th, 2011

Mountain Cottontail by Lisa Densmore

Location: Red Lodge, Montana

Whenever my sweetheart slams on the brakes, I instinctively reach for my camera. A large animal or raptor deserving of a photo is often the reason for the sudden stop. The other day, as we drove through our neighborhood toward our house, my seatbelt suddenly tightened across my chest, but I couldn’t see any big beasts.

“Over by the red osier,” he said, pointing to a small clump of leafless reddish twigs that sprouted in a haphazard clump from the snow.

I peered intently at the clump catching a slight movement its base. A cute little mountain cottontail (Sylvilagus nuttallii) crouched quietly, twitching its nose now and again as it peered cautiously in my direction. Sometimes called “Nuttall’s cottontail”, mountain cottontails have rounded, black-tipped ears with fur inside, and tweedy brown fur. The underside of their tail is white. Mountain cottontails also have a distinctive light brown patch on the back of the head and neck, which, along with their smaller size, is a good way to tell them apart from snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus).

Mountain cottontails are a Rocky Mountain rabbit. Their range begins at the foothills on the eastern side of the Rockies and extends west to the eastern side of Sierra Nevadas. They mainly eat grasses which is probably why I often spot them munching contently near my house. I live near a golf course that used to be ranchland. There are still fields around the houses and fairways. The landscaping shrubs give these little bunnies cover from predators and provide another food source when the snow buries the grass. Cottontails spend over 50% of their waking hours eating!

Click. Click. This mountain cottontail was the perfect photo model, still as stone, though I’m sure he was hoping if he didn’t move we would miss him. Perhaps we would have if he were perched on a pile of sticks or beside a large rock, but not against the white snow. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t turn white like his jack rabbit cousin.

The Cold Light of Dawn

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Thursday, December 29th, 2011

There are few things that lure me from the warmth of home to view the sunrise outdoors at this time of year. I might greet the dawn after arising early for a late-season deer hunt. To be among the first in the lift line at the local ski area, the wheels on my car need to be turning about the time the tired sun heaves itself above the eastern horizon. It’s not that I don’t relish the dawn. Sunrise, here in the mountains of Montana in winter, is just too cold.

But paradoxically, the coldest mornings seem to spawn the most beautiful daybreaks. The eastern sky lightens from inky black to a dull gray, and then brightens into bashful hues of amber and coral. Faraway mountaintops, mantled in a colorless blanket of white, appear pink and lovely in the first rays of dawn, seemingly closer and warmer in the clarion cold.

I’m sure there’s an explanation for all this, a scientific statement that empirically elucidates the processes by which my watering eyes perceive such beauty in the cold light of dawn. But my heart is warmed more thoroughly by the thought that perhaps, just perhaps, there was something deliberately woven into the fabric of cosmos that inspires the human eye to find much loveliness in the world’s harshest environments.

Chickadee Energetics

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Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

Black-capped Chickadee with Seed

Black-capped Chickadees weigh less than a half-ounce or about the same as two nickels in the palm of your hand. As early winter temperatures bounce up and down here in New England as fast as the chickadees at my feeders, it got me wondering how these tiny birds can survive a cold winter night.

Each night they are confronted with the very high energetic demands of staying alive. If they don’t have adequate energy stores to burn, they may not see the light of day. To compensate for the long and cold nights during winter, chickadees increase proteins associated with intracellular lipid transport. Each evening when they go to roost, they have enough fat stores to supply just a bit more energy than they will need overnight.

More fat to burn isn’t the only answer. Chickadees also have metabolic tricks to save valuable energy. Their daytime body temperature is generally cooking at about 108 F. But on a cold winter night they can crank it down by 18 to 22 degrees into a hypothermic state. One study showed that when a chickadee was exposed to 32 F nighttime temperatures, they could reduce their hourly metabolic expenditure by 23 percent.

Each evening as the sun is dropping below the hills and the chickadees are flitting back and forth to my feeders, I know it’s a metabolic race for them to survive another night in the north woods. And for me, I’ll rely on stored energy from the sun and toss another log into the stove.

Resolution

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Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

The way I see it, I started 2011 off a bit unfocused. The blurry sonogram image of my unborn son promised an exciting future with fatherhood mere weeks away. I certainly knew that the year would be unlike any I had enjoyed before, but my vision of what to expect was still a bit cloudy. Twelve months later I find myself scrolling through over 10,000 pictures from 2011 (I have a hard time deleting even the blurry pictures of my boy). The photos are all well organized with the nature stuff all mixed with the family stuff, just as it should be. Despite my fear that the early stages of fatherhood might impinge on my time outdoors, I look back now was resolute glee at the incredible adventures our family embarked upon even with an infant.

The result is fantastic color wheel of fruits, bibs, berries, diapers, birds, strollers, sunrises, flowers, teething rings and butterflies. Here’s to 2012. More adventure awaits!

A) Dad and Theo enjoy the Caloosahatchee Creeks Preserve, North Fort Myers, FL.
B) Wedelia (Sphagneticola trilobata) over Cabbage Palm (Sabal palmetto) frond
C) Theo reaches for a Hibiscus
D) Theo the fearless with a fake Southern Florida Green Swamp Snake
E) An abandoned alligator farm in the Everglades
F) Reflections on the sawgrass prairie
G) A call for quiet at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, FL
H) Late afternoon light on Slash Pine (Pinus elliottii) and Saw Palmettos (Serenoa repens)
I) Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) draped Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) in Clermont, FL
J) Waving goodbye to 2011 over a Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia sp.) choked canal at the CREW Land Trust’s Bird Rookery Trail in Naples, FL

Wonders of the Water

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Friday, December 23rd, 2011
Kayak and Common Yellowthroat

Josh in a kayak and a Common Yellowthroat

There are many methods of photographing nature but one of my favorites is shooting from a kayak. A great rule to live by in Nature Photography is “Where there’s water, there’s life” so it always amazes me how many photographers refuse to take their gear around water. The consensus seems to be fear and we all have an investment in our gear but avoiding amazing locations out of fear can rob us of capturing great moments in nature.

When photographing on the water, stability is everything. Whether shooting with a super telephoto lens or a smaller point and shoot package, there are safe ways of taking on this method. I personally have some rules to live by with this type of shooting: the first is to plan for problems (even though they rarely happen). I always have a large dry-bag with me I can throw my gear in if the winds pick up or I find myself in a nervous situation.

A small towel is also handy to cover gear when paddling. This protects electronics from paddle splash and hot sun damage. I prefer not to shoot with my long lens if floating a river I’ve never been on. In this situation, I pack a lightweight camera body and a 70-200mm lens, which makes for maneuverability and quick shots when necessary.

When shopping for kayaks there are touring models and sit-on-top models, but my preferred platform is a recreational kayak. These kayaks typically have a wider stance in the water and the cockpit is more open for maneuvering gear around. While these boats are slower in the water I find them to be super stabile. When photographing, stay low in the seat and keep the camera as low as possible. This not only helps keep your center of gravity lower for stability but when photographing ducks or anything on the water, a low point of view will enhance your imagery.

If you’re new to kayaking, spend time on the water without a camera just paddling and get accustomed to the different feeling of kayaking. Go out on a hot summer day in a swim suit and force your kayak to capsize so you understand the limits of how far you can take the boat before the worst happens.

Remember that cameras are most definitely replaceable. One way to get around the fear of all the money invested is to talk with your Insurance Agent about a separate Insurance Policy to cover your camera gear (i.e. Personal Articles Policy). This is an amazing piece of mind when on the water and is surprisingly inexpensive. It’s worth every penny to me (even though I’ve never had a claim involving water).

Shooting on the water can be very gratifying but it can also be frustrating. Practice is everything and it’s very important to know the limits of your gear. For those who don’t have long lenses, don’t forget why we started photographing nature; amazing natural connections. Just because our camera gear can’t reach an opportunity doesn’t mean we can’t sit back and simply enjoy them.

Canvasback Duck

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Thursday, December 22nd, 2011
Canvasback

Canvasduck

Location: Bronx, New York

Late last fall, I took my son to the Bronx Zoo. While wandering the paths through the Zoo’s many outdoor exhibits, we passed a large pond filled with waterfowl. Most of the ducks were not zoo ducks, but wild, migrating down the Atlantic flyway as the water to the north froze up. It’s common for migrating ducks to rest and refuel in urban lakes which become a birdwatcher’s bonanza this time of the year. I found my favorite duck among the many species paddling in this particular pond, the canvasback duck (Aythya valisineria).

Ever since I started duck-watching, 25 years ago, canvasbacks have held a special place in my camera’s lens. I find the drakes strikingly handsome with their distinctive red neck and head, black breast and bill and white vermiculated back that looks like loosely woven canvas. Its Latin name, “valisineria”, is also the Latin name for wild celery, whose buds and rhizomes are among the canvasback’s favorite foods.

The largest of North America’s diving ducks, up to 22 inches long and weighing up to 3.5 pounds, canvasbacks were a rare sight in the early 1980s when I saw my first live one, a lone male on the Connecticut River in New Hampshire. They breed in subarctic river deltas and in established prairie potholes where cattails, bulrushes and other emergent vegetation hide their nests. As the amount of prairie pothole habitat declined, so did the canvasback duck. Decreasing levels of aquatic vegetation in the Chesapeake Bay where half the population of canvasbacks historically wintered exacerbated the problem.

Today, canvasback populations have stabilized, in part because these divers have adapted to a diet of clams and other invertebrates when their favored underwater flora is unavailable, and in part because of conservation efforts in their prairie pothole breeding grounds. While spotting a canvasback duck where I roam is still a rare treat, I’m optimistic that I’ll more chances in the future.

The Sounds of Snow

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Wednesday, December 21st, 2011
Dog Tracks

Dog Tracks by David Tyler

We often associate snow with silence, except when there’s a fierce snowstorm or blizzard. Then the wind seems to fill our heads with noise, a ferocious kind of white noise.
Gently falling snow can dampen the soundscape. That’s because a fresh layer of snow can absorb sound. Air gets trapped between the grounded snowflakes and minimizes vibrations. It’s the same principal as holes in ceiling tiles. Tiny holes in the snow mean sound waves get impeded, and the world seems a softer, quieter place.

When snow settles or melts and refreezes, the world suddenly gets noisy again. The holes between flakes disappear, and sound waves accelerate. That’s why sound carries so well in winter. You can hear a wolf howl or a dog barking from what seems like miles away.

Walking through the snow in Winnipeg is much noisier than walking was in my hometown of Rochester, NY. It makes a creaking sound – like the rail of a rocking chair on a loose floorboard. Rrrrutch. Rrrrutch.

Rochester has very temperate winters. Snow quickly turns to slush. You get a squishy sound. Snow above the temperature of 15 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 10 Celsius) will not squeak. The pressure of your boots partially melts the snow underneath it; you’re essentially walking on a thin layer of water.

In Winnipeg where it’s usually colder than minus 10 Celsius for much of the winter (November 1st to April 1st), the pressure of your boots and body weight crushes the ice crystals and makes a distinctive, rrrutching sound.

When Foley artists add the sounds of footsteps in the snow during the editing of a Winnipeg movie, they usually bring along an unopened box of baking soda. Press your thumb hard into the side of the baking soda box, and you get the sound of a footstep through the snow in Winnipeg. Try it!

Ghosts from the Arctic

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Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

Snowy Owl

Like ghosts from the Arctic, snowy owls have descended from the far north this winter. They’re showing up in fields, along highways and even in a few backyards. These migrations southward from the arctic tundra are a birdwatcher’s dream. And like dreams themselves, they are neither predictable nor fully understood.

The classic theory held by ornithologists to explain the irregular migrations of snowy owls to this region has always centered on lemmings, a favorite food of the owls. These small rodents undergo population booms and busts. About every four years lemmings become incredibly abundant. Many scientists believed that after the lemming populations eventually crashed, snowy owls would head southward in search of food. Intensive research now shows this may not be the case.

Norm Smith, director of Massachusetts Audubon’s Blue Hills Trailside Museum, has been monitoring snowy owls for more than 25 years at Boston Logan Airport. The broad stretches of land around airport runways tend to look like tundra and become a winter Mecca for wayward owls. But Smith and others have discovered a twist to the old migration theory. We actually see the most snowy owls in the New England during lemming population boom in the arctic, not after the lemming population has plunged.

It takes lots of meat to raise a snowy owlet. Researchers have estimated that a pair of snowy owls and a brood of nine owlets eat 1,900 to 2,600 lemmings during the breeding season from May to September. That’s about 325 pounds of rodent meat. Lots of lemmings allow for lots of owls, and when younger owls start outgrowing their natal territory, the adults chase them away. They have to find somewhere else to dine, which often means flying southward.

Smith and other ornithologists can count the number of young owls each winter. That’s because young snowy owls have plumage that is slightly different than their parents. Young females have extensive dark lines throughout their feathers giving them a black and white zebra pattern. While young males have a pure white bib under their chin and the back of their head is entirely white.

With small transmitters secured on the backs of owls, ornithologists have been able to witness some amazing flights by these owls. The transmitters periodically send a location signal to a satellite, which sends back information telling hat allows telling the birds’ exact locations. Smith has discovered that snowy owls that winter in Massachusetts spend summers in northern Quebec and Baffin Island, sometimes above the Arctic Circle. Some take a northwest route through New Hampshire and Vermont on their spring trip back to the tundra.

Take the year-old female that left coastal Massachusetts on April 1, 2005. She arrived east of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire on the April 5, and after crossing the Connecticut River, was in northwest Vermont by the April 8. On May 22 her signal came from the center of Hudson Bay. After perhaps hunting on the ice flows in the bay, she made landfall five days later on the bay’s north shore.

Snowy owls are capable of taking even larger birds. Smith reports he once witnessed a snowy owl take flight from a lamppost near the airport and accelerate toward a great blue heron that had just lumbered into flight along the shoreline. Much to Smith’s surprise, the owl punched the bird to the ground to make for one very big meal.

Humans have admired snowy owls for centuries. Their images have been found in ancient cave paintings in Europe. And this year, whether gracefully sitting in a harvested cornfield in Brattleboro, Vermont or a along the runway of Boston Logan Airport, surprised birders always stare at them in awe. Whether their dinning on Vermont meadow voles or arctic lemmings, this magnificent bird reminds us that these seemingly far off landscapes are bound together through the quiet flights of the Snowy Owl on their search for food.

Sappy Holidays – The Brazilian Pepper

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Monday, December 19th, 2011

As a child growing up in South Florida I had the good fortune of living on a 10-acre rural sanctuary for primates, operated by my parents. The property was covered with native Slash Pines (Pinus elliotti), Sabal Palms (Sabal palmetto) and Live Oaks (Quercus virginiana), but was persistently threatened by the noxious weed of a tree known as Brazilian Pepper (Schinus terebinthifolis). As a human primate, I had far more freedoms than the other inhabitants and like a modern day Jungle Boy I would often take to the trees and explore. There were times when the property had become so overgrown with what some call “Florida Holly” that I could ascend into the canopy of the pepper trees and climb from tree to tree for several hundred feet.

The problem for a kid is you end up with ripped up jeans and sticky sap all over you, as well as the possibility of a poison ivy-like rash. The problem for the ecosystem is the highly invasive tree has spread throughout South Florida, establishing dense monocultures where little else grows.

Brazilian Pepper was introduced to Florida sometime in the mid-1800s as an ornamental. It grows natively in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. In Florida it flowers from September through November and by December has fire engine red berries that express a festive spirit around the holiday season, when Florida’s native hollies had already lost their rosy red fruit. Certainly the intent upon introduction was not malicious, but 160 years later the tree is so pervasive we could easily deck the halls with boughs of pepper if only it were legal to transport it.

Fortunately the tree is not cold tolerant. Unfortunately it produces an abundance of berries that are perfect holiday snacks for birds and mammals. They digest them and poop them elsewhere with homemade fertilizer.

Every year at this time, the sight of the bright evergreen leaves and candy cane red pepper berries brings me back to my days on the sanctuary, either climbing in the trees or hacking them down with machete or chainsaw.

I learned long ago that wherever I am for the holidays, I am perfectly content to celebrate it by enjoying it with native style and tradition. This year I’ll be enjoying the sun, the sand and berryless hollies. Happy Holidays.

Witches brooms

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Thursday, December 15th, 2011
Northern Hackberry

Northern Hackberry

Halloween has passed, but with the last of the leaves now fallen from the trees, witches brooms are visible everywhere.

Witches brooms, botanically speaking, are deformities in woody plants which cause an abnormally high number of shoots to sprout from one location. These dense tangles of stems and twigs look like a bird or squirrel nest, or, if one has sufficient imagination the end of a broom.

Witches brooms have multiple causes, none that involve sorcery. Viruses, fungi, and insects, either through their own damage or via introducing micro-organisms are all frequent culprits. Brooms may occur nearly anywhere on a tree, and a single tree might have one broom or many. Witches brooms afflict dozens of plant species, but here in the Midwest I most often see witches brooms on hackberry trees (Celtis occidentalis) and honeysuckle shrubs (Lonicera spp.).

Witches brooms are so common on hackberry that I have had people tell me they’ve thought the weird twig clumps were a normal characteristic of the tree. Despite this ubiquity, the precise cause on this species is not known. Examination of hackberry brooms reveals that most of the time a particular tiny mite and/or a specific powdery mildew fungus are present. Even hackberry trees with multiple brooms remain healthy, so no harm done.

On the other hand, the cause of brooms on honeysuckle shrubs is known: a non-native aphid, Hyadaphis tataricae. Honeysuckle brooms typically occur at the tips of branches, and if the infestation is bad enough, there is the potential to slowly kill the shrub. Since most shrub honeysuckles in North America are also non-native and often invasive, this might not be considered a bad thing. However, many invasive, non-native honeysuckles are resistant to the aphid, and the aphid could attack native honeysuckles. Witches brooms won’t solve our honeysuckle infestations. We may need a little eye of newt for that.