Last minute need to get in the winter mood? This Saturday Jackie Ryan and I are facilitating this short retreat to help you warm up, open up and slow down to the speed of winter. Check out the link and pas the word.
Snow is on the ground here in Connecticut and the animals are leaving their stories plain for us to see if we know how to read the language of tracks. I will be leading this class with Two Coyotes Wilderness School. Come learn to read Nature’s newspaper.
Digging through some old photos I came across this story I would like to share with you. In preparation for a staff training I was running for Two Coyote Wilderness School a few years ago, I checked on one of my favorite trees in the forest we where occupying for the class. It is an American Chestnut (Castanea dentata), and this little area has been home to the some of the largest American Chestnuts I know of (a mere 5 or 6 inches in diameter). My grandfather had pointed one out to me 20 years ago and ever since they have grown, gotten sick and died of the chestnut blight in this tiny spot. There are many little saplings in the nearby area, though this little patch seems to contain the most successful.
On this day I discovered I was not the only creature in the neighborhood who was interested in this tree. As can be seen in the photo above something had damaged the tree while it still had leaves (leaves that die early cling to the be branch unlike naturally cast off leaves which, at least for most species, fall off on their own).
There are only three animals I know of that would do this kind of damage to a tree (this assumes it was not weather related which was clearly not the case). One are people and I ruled that out pretty quickly. Another are porcupines who often devastate trees, cutting their branches and eating the bark. The branches were not cut and no bark was nibbled. This left bears.
Here in New England we have only black bears. They are known to climb trees and break limbs to get at whatever food the tree provides, often sitting in the tree for some time.
All this is pretty obvious to a seasoned tracker. What was not so obvious to me is what the bear was actually eating. I have been led to believe that even a fruiting chestnut does not bare viable nuts. I have found the spiky husks many times and sometime unopened ones. Those I have opened contained a withered “nut” that had no real substance to it, certainly nothing to eat worth the trouble. I have never found a healthy looking nut inside the husk.
Below is a photo of bear scat I found very close to the tree. It seems to contain remains of nut meat. This area has a great deal of chestnut oak (Quercus montana) acorns (so named for the resemblance of the leaves to an actual chestnut tree though it is indeed and oak), which could account for the nutty scat. And yet still what was the bear eating from the tree? Fully matured yet infertile nuts? There were signs of nuts on the branches the bear broke off. Or was it growing buds? The tips of most of the branches where intact.
I resist the urge to make the assumption that it was indeed the nuts being consumed until I have proven to myself that they can have nutritional value. I am sure someone has the answer already and I am all ears.
I love these experiences that let me feel both competent and unsure, never running out of things to learn.
I have encountered more active birds nests and seen more eggs and babies this year than in the rest of my life combined. Learning to notice bird language and behavior as a way to go deeper in connecting with the natural world has never been more important to me. It took years to get to the understanding I have now and the time seems to be coming to fruition this spring.
Here is a run down of most of what I observed.
This robin’s nest was in the garage on a shelf as it was the spot we keep them next to the wiper fluid and duct tape. The mother would stay on the nest if we walked through even though we would be about a foot away from her. If I hesitated even a little on my way by she would fly off. We watched the babies grow from one egg to three and then to fledglings. I did not notice them leave the nest, they were just gone one day. There was no sign of predation so I assume they are full grown now, probably still pestering their parents for food.
While on the deck I heard some intense little chipping sounds from the boxwood nearby. Sure enough inside was this tiny nest of chipping sparrows. They nest somewhere in the back yard every year, this was their most well hidden spot I have found so far. If not for the begging of the chicks I never would have discovered it.
Many of the nests I found were in the back yard. Because of this my daughter Gabby was able to check on some of them regularly like this bluebird nest in the bird house we put up a couple years ago. Pictured above is our last sighting, they looked almost ready to hop out for a few days on the ground before being able to fly. Their parents will still feed them for some time after they are full grown.
I also came across some non-bird baby animals too. Above are baby bunnies also in the back yard. Gabby and I were outside picking the wild asters in the lawn when I spotted a cottontail hopping into the un-weeded corner of my fathers garden. My gut told me there might be a bunny nest in there so I approached shortly after. Unfortunately I spooked the rabbit out of the garden. She had been right in the spot I was looking and I did not see her until she moved, her camouflage was so good. She had been feeding her babies in their nest. Cottontails dig a shallow depression for their young. The nest is also covered using fur the mother pulls from her own belly and other material, concealing the babies inside. This was done so well that when I returned the next day to show my father I had trouble finding the nest even though I knew right where it was. In fact my father had seen a red fox walk right by within a foot or two just a few days before with no sign of noticing anything.
The grey fur covering is just visible in the image above. This was after I reveled it slightly for the photo.
The unfortunate little creature above is an example of how tough life can be for young wildlife. This is a very young bat, likely a big brown bat, lying among the guano under a well used roost at White Memorial Conservation Center. It is so young in fact that its umbilical cord can be seen still attached and fresh. Many, in fact most, young wild animals don’t make it past their first year, often succumbing when quite young to disease, starvation and predation. I wonder if the mother of this bat did not come back to the roost, having met her own end, or if something else happened to this little one.
Back to birds. Killdeer belong to a longlegged group of birds called plovers. Most plovers are shorebirds and killdeer are often found at the shore and in wetlands though they nest in open country like fields and large gardens. This one was in a rarely used little beach adjacent to a small pond dozens of miles from the ocean. I only knew to look for it because of the behavior of the mother caused by my presence.
When killdeer and other birds (I have witnessed a similar behavior with a chipping sparrow in person) feel their nest is threatened they will act “injured” and lead the predator away from the nest. The killdeer might be the best known for this since their nests are on the ground and their display is rather dramatic (the chipping sparrow I saw did a less elaborate version). Hopping about while dragging a wing or both and flaring its tail, this killdeer appeared to be an injured and easy meal for a passing predator. I did follow her to get some images and once far enough away she returned to her normal fast run and left me behind. Here is some video of this encounter.
My favorite find of the summer, a chickadee nest in a rotten log. Chickadees are cavity nesters who, not possessing a woodpecker’s strong beak still excavate their own cavities. They find decaying wood and dig out a space for themselves. In this case in an old stump. Another chickadee nest I once spotted was high in a dead birch branch. This time I was able to get right up close and even see the mother sitting on her eggs. As you can see the bottom was well lined with soft fibers for the eggs. Not all cavity nesters make such a plush lining for their babies.
Spots on eggs are created as the egg is laid by glands in the mother’s birth canal. Most bird species that keep their eggs well hidden in a cavity or nest box have plain looking eggs, not needing camouflage. You can see the very effective camouflage on the Killdeers eggs in their ground nest above. The chickadee eggs though are spotted despite being in a hole in a log. I do not know what is going on here, I only found the nest because I witnessed the parent birds going in and out of the cavity and once I looked inside the spotting was not nearly enough to fool me or any egg robber worth the label. Maybe there is a yet to be understood benefit from such markings. They are rather beautiful and that alone feels beneficial to me.
I have never had the good fortune and honor of observing a chickadee nest up close before today. Chickadees are cavity nesters and therefor much more difficult to locate and observe. I have discovered a nest cavity in the past high tree branch. The nest pictured below was in a rotten tree stump only a couple feet from the ground. I watched a chickadee fly into a little hole in the stump a couple times as I was gathered nearby with some friends. I finally approached it and captured the image below of one of the parents sitting on the nest.
Later I observed one parent feeding the other just outside the nest. When both parents were away I went back an took and photo of the eggs. What wonderful luck to get this close to a nest that was visible from the entrance with no twists or turns to block my view.
Thank you chickadees.
Kestrels are little falcons that hunt insects and other small animals. I carved this Kestrel from Eastern Red Cedar. The wood was easy to carve though splintery. I ended up sanding this (and need to do a little more sanding in some tight spots) to get a good finished surface.
Big changes for me, back in Connecticut to stay and a refocusing my career. To facilitate my art and craft I have created a Patreon page to gather support in the old style of Patron and Artist. Follow this link to find out more Forest Wolf.
I am also combining my natural history and wilderness skills endeavors onto this blog and my other Forest Wolf platforms. The fate of Three Red Trees remains to be seen, certainly a new name or absorption into Forest Wolf altogether. I will still do the work of Nature Connection, how can I not, and the Cattail Gathering will continue.
Stay tuned here for images of my work and wildlife and animal tracks.
Thank you all for your support.
Wolves are a common symbol of wilderness and wildness. I made this mask many years ago from black walnut after first working out the form in clay. Even in the clay there was something so alive about it it freighted my brothers cat.