Sunday, May 19, 2019

May 19, 2019: The Beginning of a New Loon?

At least one pair of loons has returned to Lake Wicwas, and fellow nature observer Tom Crane had a once-in-a-lifetime loon experience.  As is so often the case, it was a matter of curiosity rather than purposely looking for something.  Tom had grabbed his field scope to identify something that was flashing near a marsh on the lake - it turned out to be just a rock hit by the sun and waves.  But then he noticed a pair of loons in the area.  Tom tells the rest of the story:

"I happened to notice the Loons swimming close to the edge of the marsh, and thought that unusual, so I turned the scope on them and watched as they kept looking around the edge of the marsh.  I soon found out why.  The female climbed up on a hummock by the edge of the marsh. The male climbed up behind her soon after, and they proceeded to mate!  The male slumped down on her for a few seconds when they were finished, and then climbed slowly back into the water.  The female lay there for a couple of minutes, and then climbed back into the water.  She caught up to the male who stayed nearby, and they swam very close together for quite awhile after.  It was very interesting to watch, and only by luck I saw it."

This observation was relayed to John Cooley at the Loon Preservation Committee who provided some additional information on the fertilization of loon eggs.  He said there can be a period of two weeks (or even longer) when loons will copulate repeatedly before the female puts down the eggs.   His understanding is that the eggs descend and are laid in the nest within one to three days after fertilization, but it’s a process - the egg and shell have to finish forming and hardening as the egg descends.  He's not sure just how long the period is between copulation and when the eggs descend, but he does know of cases where the loons are seen copulating occasionally and climbing on and off the nest for at least 2 weeks before eggs are laid.  It is also unknown whether both eggs (loons almost have two eggs) are fertilized with a single copulation, but considering that the two eggs are predictably laid within a day of each other, he guesses that is likely the case.

 So perhaps Tom witnessed the dawn of the next generation of Wicwas loons!

I did get my first look at the happy couple, assuming this is the same pair.  I haven't heard about a second pair on the lake yet.

The Canada geese are on their nests already.  I saw a funny little stick protruding from a hummock in the lake, and as I came nearer, it disappeared.  It took a close look with a long lens to see that mother goose was laying low on her nest with head down in the branches, waiting for me to pass by.
Look at all that soft fluffy down ready to keep new chicks safe and warm

The water in the lakes is so beautiful and clear this early in the season - before the pollen and then algae and other debris arrive - that you can see far down to the bottom.  Here it was really quite shallow, but I could see the genesis of this year's aquatic plant life down on the bottom.
Lily pads emerging from the bottom of the lake
One can also see fish nests, especially bass and sunfish as they start to breed.  Bass get very aggressive and easy to catch as they will attack most anything, and since the females are full of eggs, the catch-and-release season for bass in New Hampshire is now in place.  It starts on May 15 and runs through June 15. All largemouth and smallmouth bass must be released during this season to protect spawning fish.  Also, only artificial lures and flies may be used - no live bait is allowed during this time.

Back on land, the cool weather has put a damper on the spring wildflowers as well as all the tree growth.  The oaks usually have large blossoms on them by now, but this year they barely have leaves started, and the Trailing arbutus (or mayflower) are still in bloom in late May.
Trailing arbutus
The weather is sustaining a long flowering season for trees and shrubs though, including forsythia and shadbush.
Shadbush (Downy serviceberry) in bloom on Smith Island

Here is one new item I will keep an eye on this spring:
It's a crows nest - I've never seen one before.  It's hidden well, tucked in against the trunk of a white pine and well below the top of the tree to provide good cover from above.  In prior years I've heard crows yelling at me in this area so I figured a nest must be near by, but this spring a couple of noisy crows led me right to it.  I doubt I'll see the beginning of any baby crows way up there, but I'll be on the watch for nest-predating hawks and the dramatic defense of the offspring by the owners.

Is it any wonder the animals think of love in such a beautiful spot?

A scene that surely encourages romance

Sunday, May 12, 2019

May 12, 2019: Happy Mother's Day!

Did you get your fiddleheads yet?
Fiddleheads push up through warming soil

The ferns have been pushing up through the spring earth, and though I don't harvest them myself, Picnic Rock Farm has had them and they've been awfully good.  And fiddleheads are highly nutritious, packed with vitamins, anti-oxidants, iron, manganese, and copper.  It's a short season, so if you want some you need to act quickly.

The fern above is a cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea - how appropriate for it to have "mom" in its name), which is not the preferred fern to eat;  that would be the ostrich fern (Matteuceuia struthiopteris) which has much less husk that needs to be removed.

Another plant growing rapidly is the aspen which has the largest leaves right now, and based on the abundant flowers is probably a major source of pollen at this point.
Aspen burst out leaves and flowers early in the season

Other trees have only buds or small leaves, which provides an opportunity to see birds flitting around in their branches, eagerly devouring the early insects after their long flights from distant wintering grounds.
Only buds and blossoms on this tree
A yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) hunts amid bare branches over the lake

Another nature-watcher had a visit from one of our most vibrant song birds, the scarlet tanager.
Scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea)     Photo by Anne Crane.

This beautiful bird probably just returned from its flight across the Gulf of Mexico, having spent its winter down in south America.  Ann noted it's the first time she's seen a scarlet tanager at the lake.  Thanks for sharing!

If you pass by the dam at the outlet of Lake Wicwas you are likely to see a Canada goose on patrol.
The gander patrols its nesting grounds

I'm pretty sure there's a nest there along the shoreline based on the way it stood its ground (water?) as I paddled by, protecting the female which would be on the nest incubating eggs.

It was nice to get out on the water again for my first excursion of the year.

Though sometimes you don't even have to leave your house, as nature comes to you.
A lone turkey struts down the road
Linda watched this young deer right through the window.

One or two more warm days and the landscape in the Lakes Region will transform quickly from bare branches to the lime-green of early summer.  Only a short window remains to get out and enjoy the world before the onslaught of biting insects arrives.

To all the mothers out there, I hope you have a special day!

Sunday, May 5, 2019

April 5, 2019: More Friends Return

More of our friends are returning home from their winter haunts, some that came by car or plane, and some that flew back on their own wings.
A Great Blue Heron on the wing
Many others joined the herons, buffleheads, and osprey back in New Hampshire this week including Wood Ducks and Ring-necked ducks.
A pair of Ring-necked ducks at a rest stop in New Hampshire

Mr. Ring-necked.  The neck ring is rarely seen, but the white beak line is distinguishing.
Mrs. Ring-necked also has a white beak line, though it's more subtle.
Ring-neckeds don't breed in New Hampshire, but "of all the diving duck species, the Ring-necked Duck is most likely to drop into small ponds during migration."  [REF:  Cornell Lab of Ornithology]

The handsome wood ducks do nest here, and they made their first appearance of the year as well.
Mr. and Mrs. Woody

As you can tell, it was a good week for ducks - lots of mist and rain.  But at least it was calm.  One morning a few ducks heard me and decided it was time to move on, and all I saw were the markings they left on the runway after takeoff.

Earlier in the week in a rare dry moment I did catch a pair of ducks in flight.

The coloring of the two birds makes me think this was another pair of ring-necked ducks.

And although there were loon reports even before ice out, I had my first sighting this week, but no pictures yet.  Based on the behavior of the loon I saw, I'm thinking this is the rogue loon that has spent the last few summers all alone in Marion Cove.  We are all anxious to see if we'll have two pairs of nesting loons return for a second time this year.

I'll give you early notice of an event the Meredith Conservation Commission is hosting in a few weeks.  On June 1st at 7:00am there will be a guided bird walk on the recently protected Page Pond property along Barnard Ridge Road in Meredith.  The walk will be led by Matthew Tarr, Wildlife Specialist for the UNH Cooperative Extension.  Of course there are no guarantees, but I have observed a wide range of birds in the diverse environment of wetlands, fields and forests on the property, and with Matt's expert guidance, I expect we'll see plenty.  You can find more information on the Conservation Commission website.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

April 28, 2019: Ice Out (on April 23rd)

We arrived home yesterday from our trip south to find Lake Wicwas had transformed from a block of ice to sparkling water, a most welcome sight!
The first waves in four months

Ice out was declared on April 23rd, though there was no report from Marion Cove which is often the last cove to be free of ice, so it could have actually been a day or so later, but with no report from there, April 23rd is the official date.  On the prior day, another observer saw the first loons on the lake.  It's not known yet if they are the local residents or just passing through, but loon calls have been frequent since then.  And within 24 hours of our return a host of spring activity proved life has returned to the lakes.  First was a pair of beavers on their daily reconnaissance of the lake.
Back on the prowl

And these busy rodents are already chewing their way through the shoreline forests.
A fresh beaver cut 40 yards from the lake

The beaver were soon joined by a pair of buffleheads diving in the cove and the sound of osprey off in the distance.  Then this morning the osprey made an appearance, loudly announcing their arrival with their distinctive cheep-cheep calls.
The osprey have returned from their own trip south to Central or South America

There was a pair soaring overhead, circling around and occasionally landing in a tree. 

This is not the behavior I typically see for osprey which are usually watching for fish from a branch hanging over the lake, or flying with a mission on a straight line from one point to another.  This could be an existing pair getting reacquainted, or possible a new pair checking each other out.  According to Stokes [Stokes, Donald and Lillinan, 1989, A Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol III:  164-172] pairs do not winter together, but both return to their prior nesting site with the male usually arriving first.  Upon return a mating pair may circle in the area of the nesting site before exhibiting other courtship behavior including the dramatic "Sky-Dance" where a bird flies up several hundred feet, sometimes with food or nest material in its talons, before diving down and swooping up to repeat the exercise.  I'm not expecting there is a nest site near by, as I have never seen osprey nesting in the area;  maybe this is a pair establishing their relationship.

There are also a few signs of spring appearing in the plant universe.  The leaf buds on the black cherry are pushing out tiny leaves, as are red maples in the warmer locations, mostly near water.
Black cherry showing signs of life
Red maple blossoms
 Soon the tree tops will be filled with the colors of the spring foliage season.

It encourages me mightily that within 24 hours of returning I saw such variety of life simply by observing what's around me.  We are so fortunate in New Hampshire to have many people that are committed to keeping a bit of our planet a suitable home for the life that was here long before we arrived.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

April 21, 2019: Happy Lowcountry Easter!

We were away this past week enjoying some warm southern hospitality in South Carolina, so I don't have much to report about the status of life in New Hampshire this week, but the ice is starting to break up on Lake Wicwas, and the latest prediction from Emerson Aviation is for ice-out on Winnipesaukee within the next few days.  When we left New Hampshire it was snowing,
but when we arrived in South Carolina, it was a completely different world.
No ice, green grass
Ducklings and goslings had already hatched out.
It's amazing what a difference 800 miles can make.

I always try to visit habitats in climates that are completely different from New England, and a great contrast is the swampland of the Lowcountry.
Knees of cypress trees grow upwards from their roots in the swamp;  their purpose is still unknown

It is so flat here that you can walk for five miles and not gain six feet of elevation.  Tens of thousands of square miles of South Carolina swamps were converted to rice fields in the 1700s and 1800s but as that crop ended in the early 20th century the rice fields were either developed or left to return to natural vegetation - very similar to New Hampshire's sheep pastures that have returned to forest.
Irrigation canals built to flood and drain the rice fields can still be found.
The raised dike on the left separates salt water marsh from the impounded rice fields
 It's hard to imagine when touring the cities and suburbs around Charleston or any other Lowcountry city that the land was previously wild swamp with towering cedar and tupelo trees.

Because this land was forested these trees are less than 150 years old, so not nearly as large as the  virgin bottomland forest found at Congaree National Park.

We saw quite a few local birds, some that we don't have in in New England, some that we do.
The wood stork probes deep in the muck with its long, sensitive beak for fish and other wetland animals
Red-bellied Woodpecker next to the opening to its nest
Tricolored heron, a bit smaller than the Great Blue
Those birds were all in the swamps at the Caw Caw Interpretive Center in Ravenel, South Carolina, but this next one is an ocean bird.
Brown Pelican at Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant, SC

We were also treated to an unexpected sight - we got to see a green anole change its color.  We first saw it climbing on the trunk of a tree, wearing its bright green jacket in honor of the Masters golf tournament.

But when it scooted down to the ground and onto the dead leaves it almost immediately changed its color to a dark brown.

I was amazed at how quickly it could completely transform itself, and I assumed it changed color to blend in.  But a little reading revealed that these reptiles do not change color to blend in to their surroundings as commonly believed (which makes sense since on the brown tree trunk it was bright green.)  Scientists are not sure, but current research suggests they change their color based on stress, mood, or for social reasons - e.g. aggression and territory defense.  Did I stress this little guy out by taking its picture without asking permission?

On a different note, the post a few weeks back about a spalted hemlock tree brought to light another wood working artisan with a connection to Lake Wicwas.  A member of one of our Wicwas families collects spalted wood (as well as other types of wood) and turns them into beautiful works of art.  He sent a few pictures of his creations, including this bowl made from spalted maple.

If the tree I found near Lake Wicwas has any useful properties I will be sure to get a section of it to him as well.  Thank you for sharing!

I wonder if there is any spalted wood down in the Lowcountry.
A raised path carves through the Lowcountry forest