Posts Tagged ‘spring’

Throwback Thursday: Baby Bison

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Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

Throwback Thursday: Baby Bison by Jack Ballard

American Bison

American Bison by Jim Peaco

For North American hoofed mammals, the month spanning a couple of weeks on either side of Memorial Day is the height of the birthing season. Most elk calves, deer fawns, and bighorn sheep lambs are born during this time. Moose and pronghorn also birth their young after spring is well underway. However, there is one hoofed mammal of the American West that births its babies sooner. American Bison (bison bison) may begin calving as early as April, sometimes dropping their young to an earth that is still covered in snow.

While some young ungulates such as pronghorn and mountain goats appear much like miniature adults, baby bison look quite different than their parents. Their coat is reddish brown or golden, much lighter than the dark brown and nearly black hair found on adult bison. Baby bison lack the curving horns found on adults of both sexes, although a close inspection of a newborn bison’s head by an expert can reveal the tiny buds from which its horns will grow.

Healthy, adult bison are essentially immune from predation. However, wolves and grizzly bears will readily attempt to catch newborn bison. If a bison herd stands its ground against a potential predation attempt by wolves, the young are normally safe. If the herd panics and young bison are separated from the adults, they are much more easily taken by wolves.

Impressive and powerful, it’s not likely that anyone would describe an adult bison as “cute.” But for the first couple months of life, their babies certainly fit the definition, perhaps an odd descriptor for little ones that may one day weigh a ton.

Spring Wildflowers

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Monday, May 6th, 2013

Spring Wildflowers

What I’m looking forward to this spring…

On my two acre wooded lot in Woodstock, Vermont, the spring time treats me to three of my favorite wildflowers – Purple Trillium, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and Wild Columbine.  The Wild Columbine is distinct from the Red Columbine of the west and prefers rocky, wooded, or open slopes and parts of my woods is perfect habitat.  Jack-in-the Pulpit prefers damp woods and grows in two spots.  Purple Trillium has a special place in my heart.  My dad transplanted several plants from the Adirondack Mountains in our backyard and they bloomed every spring for as long as my parents lived in the house (over 50 years) and I imagine that they are still blooming 20 years later in memory of my parents and brother.  I also love the regional names we have for this flower in the northeast, Wakerobin and Stinking-Benjamin.  I wonder who Benjamin was and why he was honored, having his name associated with this lovely wildflower. (Or was it his smell.)

Purple Trillium

Purple Trillium © Charlie Rattigan

Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Jack-in-the-Pulpit © Charlie Rattigan

Wild Columbine

Wild Columbine © Charlie Rattigan

Getting Ready for Spring: Horned Larks

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Monday, March 18th, 2013

Horned Lark adult male, Eastern © Arthur Morris/VIREO

Horned Lark adult male, Eastern © Arthur Morris/VIREO

Getting Ready for Spring: Horned Larks by Gene Walz

A winter tradition here in Manitoba that I missed this year usually involves jumping in the car on a clear, snow-free day in early February (on or near an accompanying friend’s birthday) and heading out to find Horned Larks. I spent this winter in a warmer, mostly snow-free zone. So the larks weren’t the first returning birds of the year for me. Bald Eagles beat them.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark adult male, Northern © Glenn Bartley/VIREO

I’ve never considered Horned Larks the true harbingers of spring. They don’t qualify because every year I hear reports of Horned Larks that over-winter here. And the migrating larks usually come back to Manitoba far ahead of the official arrival of spring on March 21, and well before the snow melts (the actual arrival of spring sometime in April). But I like to celebrate their hardy appearance.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark adult male, Interior West © Rob Curtis/VIREO

Any bird that sticks around from November to March or comes back here in the dead of winter has got to be special, deserves a salute, a toot of the horn, especially a bird so delicate.

Twenty-one subspecies of the Horned Lark can be found in North America (another 19 around the world). Subspecies associated with Manitoba, the Canadian Prairies, and the Great Plains include Eremophila.aalpestris enthymia, E.a. leucolaema, and E.a. praticola.

Dusty brownish-grey above and white below, they are best distinguished by the black, yellow and white markings on their heads and necks (black “horns” aren’t often visible) and their white outer tail-feathers.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark adult male, Interior West © Greg Lasley/VIREO

They prefer open areas with short, sparse vegetation — croplands, fencerows, road rights-of-way, pastures, and recently cut hayfields. The gravel mile-roads in farm country southwest of Winnipeg are the best place to find them.  They flit along the road edges, folding their wings after each beat and never flying very high or far from the car.

Because they are grassland birds, their numbers are diminishing. I’d hate to see them disappear completely. They cheer me up considerably in February when I usually need it most.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark adult, Pacific © Alan David Walther/VIREO

Waves of Bird Songs

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Thursday, June 21st, 2012

Naturalist Kent McFarland

Waves of Bird Songs: by Kent McFarland

Wood Thrush, adult © Brian E. Small/VIREO

Each year as the tilted earth travels around the sun, migratory birds wintering in the tropics are waiting. As the northern hemisphere passes from a cold winter tilted away from the sun into the longer and warmer days of spring, they get antsy. After a quiet winter, a Wood Thrush sings at dawn in the rainforest of Belize. Earth’s orbit brings changes. One early spring evening, they all lift off and fly northward. Millions upon millions of songbirds stream northward like a river of feathers each night.

Song Sparrow, adult, Eastern © Rob Curtis/VIREO

The lengthening days of spring sparks the rush of hormones. Higher and higher levels of testosterone and melatonin are produced in males. The high vocal center of the brain actually increases in volume. They begin to sing more and more as they arrive on the northern breeding grounds. By late spring with the length of daylight in the north near its maximum so are the testosterone levels of a male Song Sparrow. He’s feisty and he sings almost constantly on his territory. Other Song Sparrows beware; this is his patch of land.

Winter Wren, adult © Brian E. Small/VIREO

Hermit Thrush, adult male, Eastern © Garth McElroy/VIREO

Its June and around the temperate world songbirds are excited. The breeding season has begun. As sunrise and sunset circle the temperate zone each day, a wave of bird song travels with it. As twilight barely glimmers in the east each morning songbirds are proclaiming their presence. Imagine silently traveling in a hot air balloon at 700 to 900 miles per hour westward with the rising sun just above the temperate forests and grasslands. For 24 hours you’d hear nothing but the joyous songs of spring chorusing around the globe one mile after another, repeating itself day after day the entire breeding season. From a Winter Wren in Maine to a Hermit Thrush in Vermont, onto a Wood Thrush in Ohio, Kirtland’s Warbler in Michigan, Savannah Sparrows in North Dakota, Townsend’s Solitaire in Idaho, an American Dipper singing over the roar of a river in Washington. Just a few you’d hear as you glide with the sun across North America. Millions of songbirds on continents to the west await the rising sun. Wave after wave of songbird chorus travels around the globe.

Kirtland’s Warbler, adult male © Ron Austing/VIREO

Savannah Sparrow, adult (typical form, coloration variable from gray to red) © Claude Nadeau/VIREO

The chorus is music to our ears. For many of us in the north, we have had months of near bird silence. Our world is a cold and quiet one for much of the year. I once heard an ornithologist from the tropics exclaim that those of us in the temperate zone are such keen birders because each year we understand what it would be like to lose most of our birds only to be renewed each spring. Bird song is present year-round in the tropics. The strong sense of wonder of a morning bird chorus perhaps comes from not having it for most of the year. It’s the same excitement we get when we see the first fresh spring wildflower or the sudden appearance of green trees. It’s auditory wonder, scientific wonder, and spiritual wonder. It’s an annual miracle.

Townsend’s Warbler, adult © Glenn Bartley/VIREO

American Dipper, adult © Glenn Bartley/VIREO

Pasque Flower

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Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012
Wildflowers

American Pasque by Lisa Densmore

Location: Red Lodge, MT

I declare it officially spring. Of course the calendar declared the start of spring at the March equinox, but for me, it happened two days ago. While taking an early evening walk around my neighborhood, I decided to cross a dry irrigation creek split in two by a 4-foot high narrow grassy ridge. Based on its flat, well-trodden crest, the local White-tailed Deer have used it as a walkway into a clump of tall shrubs about 50 feet away. Luckily, they haven’t strayed close to the edges. Just at the point where the ridge-top goes from flat to vertical, I spied a clump of lilac-colored Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla hirsutissima or Pulsatilla patens), then another and another. What a delight!

Wildflowers

Pasque by Lisa Desnmore

This is my first spring in Montana. I had never seen a pasque flower, which is so named because it blooms around Passover and Easter. It’s also called a May Day flower for the same reason. It reminds me of an oversized version of the purple crocuses that poked their heads above the ground in my New Hampshire garden as the last crystals of snow melted into the earth, but they aren’t related. Pasque flowers are wild tundra anenomes, that blooms throughout the northwest and Alaska. It is the state flower of South Dakota. Though more than one flower stem can emerge from its woody taproot, it propagates by seed. If you look below this lavender beauty’s showy 3-inch flower, you can see its silky hairs along its short stem, which helps insulate it from the inevitable early spring cold snap.

wildflowers

American Pasque by Lisa Densmore

Pasque flowers were used by the early Blackfoot Indians to induce abortions and childbirth. Today, it is a homeopathic treatment for cataracts, but this is in the category of “don’t try this at home”. Excessive ingestion of this toxic plant can lead to heart failure. I would rather have my heart beat pick up a little whenever I see this ground hugging flower, not only for its colorful display, but also because it signals warmer weather and a greener landscape close at hand.

wildflowers

Pasque by Lisa Desnmore

Curious, Crazy Crossbills

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Friday, April 27th, 2012

Red Crossbills by Jack Ballard

They’ve shown up in my life at odd places and times. They’ve visited my feeder when I lived in the pine-covered hills near Billings, Montana. I’ve watched them sipping droplets of melting snow from a vertical snow bank in the parking lot of Harriman State Park in Idaho. They are colorful birds and very strange.

For starters, Red Crossbills (loxia curvirostra) have a crazy bill just as their name implies. The mandibles cross over one another, giving the beak the appearance of a twist-tie tacked onto the face of a bird. Ornithologists point out that the bizarre beak of the crossbill is quite useful, aiding them in their quest for the nuts of evergreens, their primary food source.

Breeding among crossbills doesn’t follow the usual pattern of springtime mating. Rather, the birds mate when they discover a robust source of mature cones in evergreen trees. Crossbills may breed almost any time of the year, except when periods of daylight drop below 12 hours in the fall. Given an adequate cone crop, breeding may resume as early as January, or about the time days lengthen to more than 10 hours.

Eight different sub-species or “races” of crossbills have been identified north of the Mexico border, distinct populations differentiated by various flight calls. Birds from separate flight call races do not normally breed with each other, maintaining a high degree of genetic isolation between the various flight call sub-sets. Male crossbills have reddish plumage while females sport more yellowish or olive tones. Sightings of these curious birds are as transient as the cone crops they follow, making it ever a treat to set eyes on a crossbill.

Catkins on Aspens

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Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Catkins on a Quaking Aspen by Lisa Densmore

Location: Red Lodge, MT

I always smile at the thought of catkins, one of the sure signs of spring. These delicate two-inch fingers hang from every branch of the Quaking Aspens by my deck, but they don’t last long. I noticed the whitish bits of fluff on Monday. By Friday, the few that remained clung to sporadic twigs like dry, shriveled worms.

A catkin, also called an ament, is actually a skinny, gracefully drooping flower cluster with either very tiny or no visible petals. Its name comes from the Dutch word, katteken, which means kitten’s tail. They look like the tail of a miniature kitty and often feel as soft.

Many trees and shrubs bear catkins in the spring, including birch, alder, willow and hickory, though not all catkins arch downward. In some plants, only the male flowers cluster in catkins (the drooping kind). Others have female catkins, which are usually smaller, rounder, upright and turn into nuts later in the year. In yet others, such as Quaking Aspens, both male and female flowers are in catkins.

Aspen trees are “dioecious”, which means each tree is either male or female, unlike most trees, which are “monoecious” (both sexes occur on the same tree). Both male and female aspens produce catkins in early spring before leafing out. Pollinated female catkins release microscopic hairy seeds in early summer weighing about 1/10,000th gram. If the wind doesn’t quickly deposit the seed on a moist spot with favorable soil and weather conditions – pretty low odds in the Rocky Mountains – it won’t germinate. That’s okay. Aspens propagate mainly by growing new shoots off their root systems.

Do you know other species that proliferate in multiple ways?

Too Warm, Too Soon

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Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Brown Trout by Jack Ballard

By now the record-breaking warm temperatures of March is old news. By March 22 over 6,000 record highs were toppled across the United States for the month, 710 falling in a single day. Here in the northern Rockies we didn’t see quite as dramatically hot temperatures as in the Midwest or the East. Nonetheless, daytime high temperatures ranged from 10 to 20 degrees higher than average for March.

Golfers, anglers, joggers and tennis players are loving it. Evidently migrating birds are too. By early March I’d spotted my first bluebirds and meadowlarks. Red-winged Blackbirds came even earlier.

Red-winged Blackbird, adult male© Greg Lasley/VIREO

Those birds, like humans, may be living with a false sense of security. A quick look at record low temperatures for my home town of Red Lodge, Montana, reveals it can still plunge below zero (F) well into April. Such a devastating cold snap could have dire consequences for small songbirds and the budding trees whose sap is already running freely.

But thus far, the most troubling aspect of the unseasonably warm temperatures involves the snowpack. With nights barely reaching freezing or not creating frost at all, the snow banks around town have all but disappeared. The mountain snowpack is diminishing as well, something that generally doesn’t occur for another couple of months. If the snow goes early, mid to late summer may see little water in the creeks and rivers. The rainbow, brook, brown and cutthroat trout of Montana’s rivers are particularly vulnerable to low water. Less water in the streambed means what’s left is warmer. In years of low flow, the water can become so warm as to become lethal to trout.

In reality, it’s too early to worry. April and May can bring substantial snow to the high country. Everything might turn out fine, but I’m guessing the trout have their fins crossed.

Recalling a Curlew

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Friday, April 29th, 2011


Among the small delights of spring are all the firsts, the initial sightings of various migratory birds: first robin, first red-winged blackbird, first meadowlark. Driving home a few evenings ago, I spotted another first — my first long-billed curlew of the season.

Curlews aren’t uncommon to the foothills of south-central Montana, but they’re not one of the regular residents, either. I’m always delighted to spy a curlew. Every sighting of one of these winsome wanderers of the grasslands triggers a singular memory.

It was a warm evening in late June. I rode in the back of the pickup with a mongrel dog and my younger sister. The shadows were long on a gently waving sea of emerald grasses. Black angus cows grazed placidly in the pasture. At the wheel of the pickup my dad steered slowly through the herd, assessing the animals’ health, but mostly, I think, enjoying one of those serene, soulful moments that made the long hours and short wages of ranch life worthwhile.

Suddenly, two birds erupted from the grass in front of the bumper. “Curlee, curlew” came their calls from beaks the length of which I’d never seen on any feathered creature. The pair flew eastward for a short distance, then banked and came swooping back over the pickup so close it seemed I might reach up and pluck one from the sky.

The memory of those buff, mottled forms is still as sharp and salient as it was on that magical evening nearly four decades ago. It’s shaping up to be a good summer. I’ve already spied a curlew.

Handsome and Hairy Harbingers

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Wednesday, April 20th, 2011


We all have our waymarks that guide us through the seasons. For me, one sure sign that winter is fading is the appearance of Bombylius bee flies in sunny woodland patches. I’m not the only one: early western entomologist Frank Cole described them as the “hairy and handsome harbingers of spring.”

The Bombylius I watch for is Bombylius major, the Greater Bee Fly. They look like little plush toys, with a long, thin, proboscis. They are common across North America and also occur in Eurasia. Their early spring activity is timed to coincide with that of solitary bees, such as those in the genus Andrena. As adults, Bombylius feed on nectar by hovering over early spring flowers. But their larvae are parasites in the nests of solitary bees, feeding on the food stores and larvae of the hosts.

Thus, one sees adults Bombylius prospecting for the burrows of solitary bees before the holes are sealed up. I’ve watched them searching for burrows, investigating what I presume must be likely-looking (from a bee fly’s point of view) holes, the forceful breeze from their wings tossing and scattering grains of soil as if a tiny tornado was attacking a square-inch patch of ground. It would seem most straightforward if Ms. Bombylius just went directly into the nest burrow, but I suppose that the hosts have all sorts of defenses against such an intrusion. Instead, the female Bombylius hovers over the hole and flicks her eggs inside. Females of many bee fly species pack sand grains into a special abdominal chamber so that they stick to her eggs. Presumably this gives them heft or prevents dessication.

Other bee flies in the Bombyliidae family occur throughout the spring and summer. Many are parasites on bees like Bombylius major, others target grasshoppers, tiger beetles, moths, or other insects. Some bee flies are very convincing bee mimics and all, to me, are fascinating!