Sunday, January 22, 2023

January 22, 2023: Artificially Intelligent Nuthatches

​We've had an unusually high number of white-breasted nuthatches at our feeders this year so I thought I'd doing a little looking into the subject of nuthatches.
Yes, birds have tongues.

The White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) is a small, acrobatic bird that is found throughout much of the eastern and central United States. This species is a year-round resident of deciduous and mixed woodlands, and is commonly found in residential areas and parks. 

One of the most distinctive features of the White-breasted Nuthatch is its ability to walk down trees headfirst. This behavior is made possible by its sharp claws and strong toes, which allow it to cling to the rough bark of trees. The bird uses this ability to forage for food, probing crevices in the bark for insects and seeds.

White-breasted Nuthatches are also known for their vocalizations, which consist of a variety of calls and songs. The most common call is a nasal "yank" or "yank-yank" sound, which is often heard in the woods. The bird also has a loud, ringing "whinny" call that is used to defend its territory.

In terms of diet, White-breasted Nuthatches are opportunistic feeders, consuming a variety of insects and seeds. In the summer, they primarily feed on insects such as beetles, caterpillars, and ants, while in the winter, they shift to a diet of seeds and nuts. They also hoard food, caching it in crevices and other hidden places for later use.

White-breasted Nuthatches are also known to be cooperative breeders, with the breeding pair being helped by one or more helpers in raising their young. The breeding pair excavates a hole in a tree, usually in a dead tree or a dead branch of a live tree. The female lays an average of six eggs and both parents incubate them for about two weeks. The young are then cared for by both parents and helpers, if any, and fledge in about three weeks.

In conclusion, the White-breasted Nuthatch is a fascinating and familiar bird that is well adapted to its forested habitat. Its acrobatic ability to walk down trees and its vocalizations, along with its opportunistic feeding habits and cooperative breeding behavior, make it a unique and interesting species to study and observe.

Did that sound a little stilted?  Have you heard of ChatGPT?  ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence software program that's been in the news a lot lately and has been predicted by some to replace lots of people's jobs in the future, so I thought I'd give it a test.  The above description of white-breasted nuthatches is word-for-word what ChatGPT gave me when I asked it to "write a scientific article about the white-breasted nuthatch".  It isn't bad, but it is somewhat, shall I say, artificial, so I think my job is safe for a bit longer.  But I can envision a day where a web-connected trail camera sends photos to an image-recognition system connected to an artificial intelligence engine that will document what's happening around Lake Wicwas with no human intervention.  Then I can just stay home all day like the human blobs in the movie WALL-E.
This isn't going to happen as long as I have a say in it.

My own research revealed that the migratory behavior of white-breasted nuthatches is still being studied.  It had been believed they were not migratory and stayed in their territory year round, but recent studies have found they may in fact have some migratory behavior, possible being an irruptive species like their red-breasted cousin, meaning they move in mass migrations in years of low food supply in their home range.  Because white-breasted nuthatches are such common and widespread birds this is hard to determine without banding specific birds and tracking them, something that a group of ornithologists is starting to do.  So maybe this is an irruptive year with low food supply in Canada bringing more white-breasted nuthatches to central New Hampshire, but regardless, I'll enjoy watching them on the feeder, even if they do shovel seeds onto the ground as they dig through the feeders looking for the largest, choicest seeds.
Nuthatches excavate in the feeder to find the perfect seed.

This is a female.

Another thing I learned is how to differentiate male and female nuthatches.  The female has a slightly gray cap on its head as seen above, while the male's cap is black, matching the shade of its nape just behind the cap.  The distinction is slight, but noticable.

Although the larger lakes are still ice-free, Wicwas has between seven and ten inches of good ice on it.  There are people out fishing, and the first bob house has appeared.
That sky looks like snow is coming.

I saw this on Thursday after a cold night had frozen the surface up nicely, allowing a skating excursion around the entire lake, just before more snow fell.  Then on Friday we received a nice snowstorm, one without any rain involved, and the world was freshened up with a beautiful blanket of white - easy to shovel and great to ski on.
Turtle Island on Friday morning.

As the storm wound down the heavens started sending these perfect snowflakes down to earth.

It's the kind of snow you'd see in a Hollywood movie on Christmas Eve and call it fake.

But it was real.

Whether it was the snow, or the breast of a bird, white was the color of the week, and none of it was artificial.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

January 15, 2023: Otters on the Bay

People have been reporting sightings of river otters in Meredith Bay the past few days and when I stopped at the town docks yesterday to check on the status of the ice in the bay, there they were - three of them!

Three river otters right at the end of Meredith Bay.

They're called River Otters, but they can be found on rivers, lakes, and ponds that have good water quality throughout the lakes region.  
Taken from the Meredith town docks with Pleasant Street in the background,
I only had my phone with me so these are the best pictures I was able to take.  I watched them for quite a while as they played in the water and on the ice - such incredibly playful and fun-loving animals.  I took some video of them on the ice:

They look like three brothers happily carousing together in frigid water - I think I'll name them Mackinnley, Hayden, and Callum.  I wish I could frolic endlessly like that in 32 degree water!  

We've had several small snowfalls recently which provided enough snow to do a bit of animal tracking and on one trip I observed several sets of tracks including a nice set of bobcat prints in the snow.

The small spacing of ~6" tells me this cat was walking slowly.
The round shape, lack of toenail imprints, and the boomerang-shape ridge between heel and toes are distinguishing features of bobcat print.

Right along this same trail I came across this pile of scat which has the size, shape, segmentation, and content of a bobcat:

Note the fur in this scat.

At least these tracks were far from our birdfeeders.

On the avian side, I saw my first tufted titmouse on the feeders on January 10th, and on the 14th the red-bellied woodpecker made another appearance.

This suet feeder is just barely long enough for a woodpecker of its size to feed.  Woodpeckers use their tail as a third point of support as they climb on trees and use their beak to go after food.  Here you can see the red-bellied has bent its tail 90 degrees to press it against the bottom of the feeder as a brace.  
The tail feathers are pressed against the bottom of the feeder; the wings feathers extend down below.

If it were much longer it wouldn't be able to feed there.  Bird feed manufacturers make large suet feeders like this one available from Wild Birds Unlimited to accomodate even the largest woodpeckers we have, the pileated, which is not able to partake in typical feeding stations:
A feeder with a long extension on which a pileated woodpecker can press its tail for a third point of support.

Mounting a feeder on a tree trunk will also work.

I'll end with two more sets of tracks on Lake Wicwas, which is frozen.  I took this picture just because it was pretty but after the fact I wished I paid more attention to the tracks.  My best guess is another bobcat based on the round prints and the offset tracks.  A coyote or fox would leave prints in a straight line.  Had I noted the dimensions I would be able to make a better identification.

Sadly, the ice on Meredith Bay is a long ways from being ready for February's events on the bay, but the otters sure are enjoying the current status.

The state of ice on Meredith Bay as of yesterday.

Correction:  In last weeks journal entry I misidentified a woodpecker.  A knowledgeable viewer noted that the length of the beak and the lack of black spots on the outer tail feathers indicate it was a hairy woodpecker, not a downy.  Thank you for that helpful identification information!

Sunday, January 8, 2023

January 8, 2023: Arbutus Hill Pond Beavers

In early December I noted a lot of beaver activity at Arbutus Hill Pond in the Eames Conservation Area (accessed via the Hamlin/Eames trailhead) so this week I took a walk back up to explore further now that the pond is frozen.  I found that the main beaver lodge has been well maintained, and a second lodge has been added to neighborhood.  

Two active beaver lodges at Arbutus Hill Pond.

This might explain all the activity this fall:  They needed building materials as well as food to sustain an expanding, multi-generational family network.  Larger branches from the trees they felled were used for lodge construction while the smaller branches and twigs were taken for winter food.  Beavers don't typically eat hemlock trees, but they are smart enough to know if they cut them down it will leave space and light for their preferred species to grow.  One homeowner even got into the holiday spirit and used hemlock to erect a Christmas tree on their lodge.

As the population grows beavers need a larger pond to support them and they've been busy on this aspect as well.  The beaver dam on the west side of the pond has been elevated to enlarge the pond, which also required lengthening it so the water wouldn't spill around the ends of the dam.  

Looking south along the dam.

The same point looking north.  The water level below the dam is perhaps three feet lower.
With no snow on the ground when I was there I could easily see the entire dam which I estimate to be 250' in length.

The pink line is the dam, the blue line is the extent of the wetland.  The white line is the hiking trail.  

I think there may be a second dam at the west point of the wetland - something to look for on a future visit.  Winter does make exploring wetlands much easier, though one must be careful of thin spots where there's moving water and beaver paths, especially with all the recent warm weather.  If you would like to visit you can find a trail map at the kiosk or on the Meredith Conservation Commission website.

In mid December we decided it was safe to put the bird feeders out for the winter and it was interesting to watch how long it took different birds to find it.  Within minutes a blue jay was on the feeder, but that was all on the first day.  Surprisingly it took until the second day for the chickadees to show up.  

Our first chickadee on the feeder.

By day three there were a bunch of chickadees, and on day four too many to count, as well as five gray squirrels.  On day seven a red-bellied woodpecker appeared.  It only spent a few seconds on the feeder before it flew off to explore every tree trunk in the yard looking for fresher food.  It's such a pretty bird I hope it returns often.  That same day the first white-breasted nuthatch made its appearance.  Since then there have been many nuthatches, following their usual routine of shoveling seeds out onto the ground until they can get to a great big juicy seed or nut.  Two days later we saw the first downy woodpecker, followed shortly by it's larger relative, the hairy woodpecker.

A hairy woodpecker selects a choice seed.

And it looks like it's going to be a big year for gray squirrels.  One day there were 14 of them in the yard, mostly staying on their own designated feeders and taking advantage of the nuthatches discarded seeds. 

With the low production of acorns this year I expect a lot of squirrels will be looking for handouts.  Maybe the bobcat will switch from venison to squirrel.  He may get a bird or two as well, but they are pretty good escape artists.

We received a couple of inches of snow on Friday, and fresh snow on a heavy overcast day always brings great contrasting scenes.

It even made me notice these tiny self-heal plants, standing in stark contrast against the white snow. 

Dried self-heal blossoms (Prunella vulgaris) poking up above the thin snow cover.
I've walked by these a dozen times in the past few months and never noticed them.  Their dried flowers remind me of hop cones - the kind used in making beer.

At least with Friday's snow the remnants of the deer are covered up - and it looks like winter again.

I hope this finally means a change to a winter weather pattern!

Sunday, January 1, 2023

January 1, 2023: Trauma on the Lake

Happy New Year!  

The end of 2022 gave us some of the best skating we've had on the lake in a couple of years, but it also gave me perhaps the most difficult window into the harshness of nature that I've ever seen.  Thankfully it's not loon-related, and I'll make it clear when this entry is going to the grim side of nature, but first, let's start with the good news:  There is an upside to rain in December.

Perfect ice for skating.

That warm, windy, wet day last Friday set the lake up for some great skating after it froze.

Areas that didn't melt out on Friday had six inches of ice by Christmas Day, making it safe to skate in those parts of the lake.  By December 28th the open water had refrozen four to six inches thick (in some places), allowing more of the lake to be used, but we still stayed off areas less than five inches thick.

The line between new and old ice.  The black ice was up to six inches thick.

With warm weather returning I'm staying off the ice again, but if it gets cold there will be more great skating.

As I mentioned last week, roaming predators such as fox, mink, and bobcat take advantage of the ice as it gives them easy access between different parts of their territory, and this year it helped our local bobcat enjoy a Christmas feast.  But there are other animals for which the ice is not welcome, and this is where things get messy.  If you don't want to hear a story about how dispassionate wild animals can be, you should stop reading at this point.  I'll report the story first and save the photos until the end in case you'd like to read about what transpired without seeing it.

As daylight came on Christmas morning something slowly became visible far out on the ice - it looked like a large branch blown onto the ice.  But as the day brightened it became evident there was a deer on the ice.  I've seen this several times before, both on Lake Wicwas and Lake Winnisquam; it's a regular occurrence as predators know if they can drive a deer onto the ice it becomes easy prey - skinny hooves on slippery ice are no match for a clawed coyote or bobcat.  We wondered what had killed it, but then shortly a bobcat walked out onto the ice and sat down and watched.  Was that the predator?  Events over the coming hours revealed that it was, and this was one big cat, almost certainly a male.  Male bobcats can reach 50 pounds while females are 10 to 15 pounds lighter.  After a few minutes of observing whether any other animals were in the area, the bobcat walked out towards the deer.  Here is where it gets really ugly.  The deer was still alive.  We thought it had moved earlier, but now it clearly lifted its head and watched the bobcat as it approached.  

With the intent of understanding the facts of nature, I'll report as objectively as possible, but know that what happened next is quite disturbing.  After determining there were no threats in the area, the cat walked up to the deer and resumed feasting on the rump of the deer, while the poor victim, lacking a couple of legs, watched helplessly while its body was devoured.  This scene repeated itself several times over the course of the day.  I was amazed at the strength and resiliency of the deer - how could it survive such great injury and loss of blood for such a long period of time?

At one point a coyote came out of the woods and onto the ice - a beautiful animal with a glistening coat and bright white chest and forelegs - but it stood just a few yards onto the ice and watched.  I guess it decided it didn't want to tangle with that large a feline, and turned back and didn't return - at least in daylight hours.  As darkness fell the deer was still alive.

I think the bobcat must have guarded its kill all night because the next morning the deer, now lifeless, was still largely intact which wouldn't have been the case if coyotes got to it.  The eagles, however, did make an appearance that day; at one point there were four bald eagles on the ice and in the trees watching and waiting for their turn.

Timing is everything, and it just so happened that Santa brought me a new trail camera for Christmas, so without really learning much about it, I set it out on the second night.   The camera has an infrared feature that allows it to take pictures in the dark without ambient light, and I got several pictures that first night, one of which showed there were two bobcats feeding over night. I had to place it far away as the deer was on ice that I wasn't willing to go on, so it was too far away to be triggered except when one bobcat came close to the camera, so I didn't get all the action.  The night pictures aren't too graphic so I'll show that now.

Two bobcats were present.

Knowing that bobcats are solitary except during mating season in the spring, I asked Patrick Tate - the NH Fish and Game biologist who spoke about bobcats at the Lake Wicwas annual meeting in August - if the male was allowing a female to share in the food.  His reply was "maybe".  He said males have slightly overlapping territory, and this male may be tolerating another male on the edge of his territory.  Considering the deer is on water, it's kind of in no-mans-land, so it could be either another male. 

That evening the camera recorded several videos which I spliced together; they aren't too gory, but they aren't for the queasy either.  You'll see that the cat was quite curious about the camera and several times came right up to examine it.

In the morning the camera captured a few more videos:

Those pictures makes me think news of the kill got to the coyotes and they came in force over night.  The bobcats had been eating carefully, but over the second night the carcass had been decimated.  Perhaps a pack of coyotes came and drove the bobcats away.  

The third night the ice was safe enough to move the camera closer, and now it captured quite a few videos.  The bobcat came back several times over the course of the night and it's possible that at other times it was just out of view of the camera, guarding its kill.  At one point the cat went on high alert when a single coyote approached.  The bobcat stood its ground; the lone coyote was not willing to tangle with the cat and it went quickly on its way.  The camera caught much more of the action that night, including that interaction:

As I learn how to use this new camera I hope to gain more insight into what transpires around the lake when no one is watching.

By Saturday the animals had pulled the carcass apart, and though larger animals will come by and drag off a bone to chew on, it's pretty much up to the birds now to pick the carcass clean.  

I know this is a long post, and it was as difficult to write as it was to observe.  But I find the stories that nature provides to be captivating and the insight into nature too fascinating not to share.  It's remarkable what transpires right beside us, to learn all this takes place right beside our houses and roads - did you notice the headlights of cars driving along Meredith Center Road in the nighttime videos?  

Once again nature shows us just how harsh it can be, but that is the way of the wild.  That one deer fed a dozen or more animals for a week, even longer for the birds:  crows, ravens, vultures, hawks and eagles.  The circle of life goes on.  Let's just hope our loons did in fact fly off safely before the ice filled in the lake.  It will be a long winter waiting to see if all four of our banded loons return next spring when the ice retreats.  The beauty of  a frozen lake depends on one's perspective.

At this point I'll post the pictures.  Proceed according to your own level of sensitivity and curiosity.

We woke to this scene on Christmas morning.

And then the bobcat appeared, answering many questions.

This shows just how big that bobcat is.

Warning:  I found these next two pictures the most disturbing.

How can this be?

Day two  These next two pictures were taken from afar.
Immature bald eagle.
And a mature one.

Day three:
After the second night there was not much left - I'm guessing a pack of coyotes came.  Yes, it's a big cat.

On alert as a coyote approaches.
Coyote arrives
And is shown who's boss.

By Saturday (day 7) the animals had pulled the carcass apart and though larger animals will come by and drag off a bone to chew on, it's pretty up to the birds now to pick the bones clean.  

It was a hard week.  Again, the beauty of  a frozen lake depends on one's perspective.