February’s bird walk was quite a challenge with deep snow covering the golf course. Breaking trail with snowshoes required a lot of work. After one hole, we were warmed up to coat unzipping level. But the day was perfect for birding – no wind and bright grey sky which allows one to see finer detail at a distance. First bird of the day was the pileated woodpecker, discovered by hearing its loud pecking sound. Nearly the size of a crow, this is the largest woodpecker in our area. They have a long neck, a conspicuous triangular crest (entirely red in males), and a long chisel-like bill. They are famous for creating rectangular shaped holes that are be so broad and deep, they can cause a small tree to break in half. Clues to their work are large chips of wood on the ground. Their favorite food is carpenter ants but they are willing to consume numerous other woodboring insects, plus wild fruits and berries. They have long, barbed tongues which they use to extract their prey from deep within the wood. Like today, one generally hears them first; hammering loudly and then you may catch their undulating flight pattern with strong rapid wing strokes alternating with brief periods of wings folded at their sides. They are very important to the forest ecosystem. As primary nest builders, their numerous excavations provide living quarters or shelter for many other cavity loving animals, like wood ducks, bluebirds, mice & flying squirrels. We also managed to spot two small buteos – soaring hawks. They may have been red-shouldereds but red-tails nest in that area too. The distance made positive identification impossible which is a frustrating part of birding. So without a doubt, the bird of the day was the magnificent pileated woodpecker. It was worth all the energy to see it.
Monday, February 2, 2015
Groundhog Day has its roots deep in the past when nature’s cycles dominated one’s life. It falls between the winter solstice and the spring equinox when in the far Northern Hemisphere winter is at its deepest. At this point it was important to determine if there was enough food and hay to last till spring and what adjustments must be made. Traditions developed to hone in on the date, have evolved over the eons. Some say the early Christians took the Gaelic festival of Imbolc and converted it to Candlemas. For centuries this was the day that the clergy blessed candles and distributed them to the people. Thus reassuring their followers that the light will continue to grow and the dark of winter was behind them. Regardless of whose traditions one quotes, this day revolves around the sun. How a groundhog got involved seems to go back to German folklore where the prognostics were a badger or bear or a hedgehog. It peeps out of its winter quarters and if the day is sunny, goes back to sleep for another 6 weeks. If the day is cloudy, it stays out to enjoy the mild weather. German settlers brought this tradition to American, specifically Pennsylvania. There groundhogs were in abundance and thus took center stage. It is said the first recorded celebration took place in Morgantown, PA in 1841. Now the largest celebration is held in Punxsutawney, PA where large crowds have gathered since 1886 to hear Phil’s predictions. However, in CT we have our own prognosticating rodent, Chuckles VIII. Unlike Phil who claims to be 125 years old and drinks a magic elixir to maintain his youth, Chuckles comes from a long line of diviners. According to his handlers at the Lutz Museum, Chuckles takes a more scientific approach by “consulting with meteorologists, examining radar data, and reading the Farmer’s Almanac.” Chuckle’s conclusion: 2015 will have 6 more weeks of winter.
Wednesday, January 28, 2015
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
It was a brisk but sunny morning near Lake Windwing, but birds are not "bird brained" at all. If you want to find them, look for warm, sunny spots sheltered from the wind. We had luck on the far, sunlit side of the lake where there was quite a flurry of activity near the water's edge. It was surprising to learn that some birds, like bluebirds, change their diet from insects to fruits and seeds during the winter months. But others, like goldfinches, can remain year-round because their diet is all seeds. Berries such as winterberry, juniper, & holly are an important food source. As are the highly invasive oriental bittersweet’s orange berries. Noah observed that during his youth, he never saw robins in the winter but looked for their red breasted appearance and "cheer-up cheerily" call to herald in the springtime. Possibly climate change, population pressures and habitat factors account for the observation that robins and other birds that used to migrate south are staying through the New England winter. We saw cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice and dark eyed juncos which Noah called the "usual suspects". Also, we observed a white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, and a female red-bellied woodpecker climbing up a trunk. Noah instructed us in a few basic good birding tips: 1) Don’t point your finger at the birds as this seems to scare them away (although talking does not seem to bother them). 2) Don't use your bird apps to play recorded bird calls, especially during nesting season, as this possibly effects the establishment of territories. 3) Don't let everybody "pish" (a sound that mimics the warning cry of certain species) in order to flush birds them out. Instead, if this appears necessary, designate one person to do it. The morning ended with the sight of 4-5 crows chasing a red tailed hawk with raucous cries and dive bombing the poor fellow until he moved on. This is called mobbing. The walk proved that there are plenty of birds to spot in the winter months, all you have to do is bundle up and know where to look. Photo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White-throated_sparrow)
Monday, January 12, 2015
Over the next two weeks, the Lovejoy Comet (C/2014 Q2) is making an appearance in our early-evening skies. If you are fortunate to have a dark sky and good vision, it is dimly visible to the naked eye. Otherwise we strongly recommend using binoculars or low-power, wide field telescope. It is a long-period comet with an orbit of about 11,500 years. So if you happen to miss it, it will return in about 8,000 years. Like most comets, it has a greenish head. This is the result of diatomic carbon molecules (C2) fluorescing in ultraviolet sunlight while it travels through the near-vacuum of space. The tail, which always points away from the sun, is tinted blue from the fluorescing of carbon monoxide ions (CO+). Its overall whitish appearance is from dust reflecting the sunlight. It is 44 million miles away and traveling 3° overhead a night which is fast enough so that it may move during a viewing session. It will be nearest to the sun on January 30th, a mere 120 million miles away. The comet is named after its discoverer, Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy. He discovered it on August 17, 2014. It is the 5th comet he has discovered from his Brisbane, Queensland home. There are numerous web-sites providing information on how to locate the Lovejoy comet. You can find them by typing “Lovejoy Comet 2014” in your search engine. Photo by Paul Stewart, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C/2014_Q2_%28Lovejoy%29