Bird Babies and Other Young Creatures

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.

     baby robins

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.

 

killdeer eggs

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.

 

 

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Chickadee Nest

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.

Chickadee in 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.

Chickadee eggs in Nest

Thank you chickadees.

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Algonquin Provincial Park Tracking Trip

Deneen and I have just returned from White Pine Program’s Algonquin Park Wildlife Tracking Expedition.  It was a trip of a lifetime.  We went with the intention to track the wolves of the park who have their own interesting story which I will get to in future posts.  This post will be an overview of the trip, what it was like to be there in the deep snow and extreme cold, with really great people, tracking amazing Northwoods animals.

So here goes.

Deneen and Andy in our cold weather attire

Canadians use Celsius and Kilometers.  Compared to miles and Fahrenheit the numbers always seem big.  The speed limit was 100 and it was about 20 below when we took this picture.  Thats -4 F.  Add wind chill and some days were -20 F or colder.  The lowest it got at night was something like -30 to -40 F. 40 is where Celsius and Fahrenheit meet, its also where your nose hairs freeze into prison bars.

Alexis with bear sign

Alexis Burnett from Earth Tracks in Ontario was one of our instructors. He and Dan Gardoqui from White Pine Programs lead the trip along with Caren Vigneault also from White Pine who kept us wonderfully fed. It takes a lot of good food to keep warm in those temperatures.

bear bite marks

We experienced lots of cool tracks and sign of the Algonquin Park wildlife.  The above two photos show Black Bear bite marks on a telephone pole, excuse me, hydro pole.

sitzmark

I had never seen as much flying squirrel activity as we did just in the first day.  This is an older set of tracks of a flying squirrel landing and hopping away back to the trees.  There are two species known in the park Northern Flying Squirrel and Southern Flying Squirrel, both of which remain active all winter long, living in communal dens in hollow trees and eating seeds, nuts and any insects they might find.

Raven track

Raven track.  We saw a few over the week flying about.

Bear scratching on tree

More bear sign. This time claw marks on this fir tree. Deneen is demonstrating the technique. She is standing on at least two feet of snow so the bear must have reached much higher than she easily could.

Fisher tracks

The group as a whole (we often split up for the day) saw tracks of all six of the Park’s mustilids; Fisher (seen above in a walking pattern), River Otter (below coming out from a whole in the ice, rolling around and moving away), Pine Marten, American Mink, Long-tailed Weasel and Short-tailed Weasel (also know as Ermine when wearing their winter white).

otter tracks and sign

I was often surprised by the familiar species we encountered, only a few were really foreign to me. Below is a hole excavated by the very familiar Pileated Woodpecker.

Pileated Woodpecker sign

Moose rub

Above Deneen stands next to a moose rub that nearly destroyed this little tree.  Again remember that she is standing on two or three feet of snow that was not there when the moose did the job.  Deneen didn’t demonstrate this one, maybe next time.

Raven tracks

More Raven tracks.  They can be distinguished from crow tracks by the thick hallux or back facing toe which is very wide and robust near the center of the foot which also shows clearly.  In crows the center shows weakly and the hallux is thin.

Black-backed Woodpecker sign, bark sloughing

This is a good one for bird nerds, Black-backed Woodpecker sign.  They pry off bark to get at the insects underneath.

Lunck time campfire

Most days we had a fire for lunch time.  This particular day it was more welcomed than usual.

Out on the lake

On the second to last full day the tradition on this trip is to snowshoe out to an old ranger cabin near Chit Lake about 4 k from the Research Station where we where staying. The first part of the hike was over a frozen lake. One of the park staff later told us the ice was not very thick this year, only 16 inches compared to the usual up to 3 feet.

Deneen and I at the Chit lake rangers cabin

Deneen and I at the old rangers cabin.  In the early days of the park there was a lot of poaching and the rangers patrolled in teams of two, often with dogsled, from one cabin to another looking for poachers and shooting wolves.  More on the Park’s relationship with wolves in a future post, you will see it changed dramatically.

Some clear track lessons from Dan

Dan gave us a lesson on small mammal front tracks on the floor of the cabin.  V = vole, S = shrew, and M = mouse.

Back on the ice on Sasajewan Lake

Back on the lake as some snow fell.

Chickadee eating from our hands

There are places in the Park where people have been feeding the birds for a long time. The Chickadees, Red-bellied Nuthatches and Grey Jays will eat out of your hand in these spots. This alone was worth the trip.

Chickadee on my head

Some of the white in my beard is ice (some of it).

Chickadees on Deneen's head

Chickadee

Whiskey Jake

Grey Jays, also known as Camp Robbers and Whiskey Jacks (above and below) are studied here, in what might be the longest ongoing wildlife study in the world, by Dan Strickland whom we met briefly. His license plate says “Grey Jay”. Top notch wildlife biology goes on in the Park.

Grey Jay in my hand

Below are Grey Jay tracks. Somewhat similar to our Blue Jay only quieter with a pretty little song.

Grey Jay tracks

The tracks we encountered the most were those of the Pine Marten (aka American Marten). They were all over the bush (a Canadian term for the forest) and around our cabins.

Our cabin in Algonquin Park

This was our little cabin. As the only couple on the trip we got one all to ourselves. And below are Marten tracks we found on the front porch one morning.

Marten tracks on our porch

evening activities

In the evening we all did research, pouring over the books, learning everything we could about they day’s observations. Lots of silliness and laughing, bad jokes guitar and banjo playing and good food may have been involved as well.

Moose track

The two biggest stories of the week involved these tracks above and below. In following posts I will share these stories, and what I have learned since then about these animals.

Wolf tracks!

If you like my stories please reblog, share or invite me to guest blog on your site.

Tracks and Scat. Up to my elbows in it and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Quabin Reservoir

A few friends, Deneen and I had a great day out in the woods and by the water recently.  It was cold, clear and the snow was pretty good for tracking, revealing some obvious stories and some quite challenging mysteries to us.

Grouse tracks in snow

I’ll start with the more obvious stories.  In several spots we saw Ruffed Grouse tracks,

Black-cappedChickadee Tracks

Black-capped Chickadee,

Coyote Tracks

big Eastern Coyote tracks,

Otter Tracks

and a lot of otter tracks and sign (tracks above, slide below with their proud discoverer).  More on the otters later.

Otter slide

Indian pipe skeletons

These Indian Pipe Skeletons (Monotropa uniflora or similar) when shook, dropped this very fine material (magnified below).  We never did figure out if the longer fibers are the seed or the larger black object is.  Only a few of those fell out and many of the fibers creating a fine dust in the hand.

Indian pipe seed

Ice on the water, hoarfrost

By the water we admired the ice and open water on the northern edge, warmed by the southern sun.  Sitting in the sun ourselves we snacked on the wild cranberries freed from the snow by this amazing micro-climate.  They had a very very strong flavor that puckered my mouth. Great thing to find in a frozen place.

Wild cranberry

Otter haul out and scatt

Back to the otters sign.  It was in abundance, tracks and scat in many places, particularly where there was open water, even just a little along the edge like the photo above.

Otter Tracks

The image above shows a nice example of the roundness of the toe pads.

Otter scat

The most intriguing mystery came in the contents of the otter scats.  One of which, pictured above contained these globs pictured magnified below (sorry no scale).  They were frozen so we could not determine their consistency.  Otter do secrete a yellowish white mucus-like substance for scent marking which could be what this is.  I have seen that before and it was not so chunky as this.

Otter scat contents

Otter scat

 

Crayfish scat contents

Even weirder, though with some help we were able to determine what the are, were these hard, somewhat hemispherical objects found in a different Otter scat.  There were several of them, some different sizes and we spent quite a while trying to figure it out, trading hypotheses from fish eyes, to a strangely adapted fish scale or seed shell and many other ideas.  It was fun and challenging and one of my favorite aspects of tracking.

Crayfish Gastrolith

Above and below are both sides of same object.

Crayfish Gastrolith

Turns out they are gastroliths, a deposit of calcium carbonate in crayfish that they build up in order to get a jump on growing a new exoskeleton once they molt.  Another tracker Connor O’Malley let us in on this secret.  Apparently they are common in Otter scat though I had not noticed them before.

Grey Fox Tracks

And a final tracking blessing, Grey Fox tracks; a rare treat.  Some of the group had never seen Grey Fox tracks before.  They only showed up in one spot where the snow was just right.  Round, symmetrical, small metatarsal and metacarpal pads (heel) and no nails showing, it ghosted in and out like they so often do.  I have had the great honor of spending a little time with a juvenile and it was friendly and gentle, always moving, darting about curiously.

Grey Fox Tracks

Our day was filled with other experiences too.  We listened to our echos on the lake, slid on the ice, rested in the sun, watched birds and talked to ravens.  On the way home we stopped to eat in the city, had to walk through a mall.  It was intense, nothing subtle, no delicate mystery, just bustle and noise.  At the restaurant the food was great the the company better.

Still, the best part of the day was standing huddled over a pile of shit wondering what was inside.