Sunday, May 31, 2020

May 31, 2020: The Sounds of Summer

But first this: 

Yes, the song birds are now nesting.  I found this small ground nest only because the inhabitant fluttered away as I walked past the nest which was located right beside the trail, perfectly hidden under a branch of a low-bush blueberry; I really had to look to find it.  They look like Robin eggs, but I think more likely this is a nest of either a hermit thrush or a veery.  I frequently hear the thrush in this vicinity so the odds suggest that's what it is.  Maybe I'll learn more as time goes on.

I didn't see the goslings this week, but Mrs. Mallard did come by with her ten chicks in tow.

The waterfowl nest long before the songbirds.

Before I get to the sounds of the week I really must mention the sights because the spring wildflower season is peaking now.  My personal favorite, the painted trillium, has been blooming for over a week but can still be found throughout the Lakes Region.
Painted Trillium

Just popping out this week is a flower everyone loves to see, the pink lady's slipper.  The photo of this beautiful patch was sent to me by Marge Thorpe.
Pink Lady's Slipper, photo by Marge Thorpe.

A smaller, more delicate flower now blooming isn't quite as prominent, but it's worth taking the effort to look at the fine detail in its delicate star-like bloom.  
Easter Starflower

The blossoms on the hobblebush are gone now - leaving behind tiny specks that will grow into fruit this summer - but here's one picture from their peak of beauty.
Hobblebush Viburnum

I've been watching this particular plant as it evolves and will continue to watch as its fruit grows, turns red, and eventually black when fully ripe.

Now to the sounds.  All the animals are loving this warm weather as much as we are and they're singing their praises out loud and clear.  The combination of birds, frogs and toads blend together to create symphonic entertainment each morning and evening.  Add the occasional crash of a beaver tail into the water for some percussion and it's a full Wagner opera.  

Having such a long stretch of warm weather this early in the year means sleeping with the windows open when so many animals are still at a high level of spring activity.  Some of the sounds to be woken up by include turkeys gobbling, owls hooting, tree frogs trilling, large animals crashing through the woods (bears?) and of course, the beaver alert.  I remember sitting in the Marion's cabin 35 years ago when were considering purchasing our land on Lake Wicwas and Mrs. Marion warned us that it was a very noisy neighborhood.  Confused, we asked her what she meant, and she said "The birds!  They wake you every morning!"  That has always stuck with me, especially considering the Marions lived in downtown Boston!

A loud member of  nature's orchestra, sitting in the percussion section, is the woodpecker.  Though they do chirp now and then in the choir, their drumming is most distinctive and great fun to hear.  One morning there were two yellow-bellied sapsuckers out drumming in a round.  One would drum first, then the second would answer.  I couldn't find the musicians, but I sure heard them.

This behavior is used to define their territory.  I learned from UNH biologist Matt Tarr that spring bird singing is primarily to define territory - two male birds of the same species will wake up in the morning and immediately start singing to say "I'm still here".  As long as each bird stays on its side of the agreed-to dividing line everything is fine.  But cross that line, and trouble ensues.  Since woodpeckers don't have a song to sing - only their short calls - they find a resonant object on which to drum to make their presence known, usually a dead tree or branch, and the louder and greater its resonance, the larger a territory the sound can cover.  

Regarding sights under water, the crystal clear lake water is about to change.
Pollen covers the surface of Lake Wicwas

All that pollen in the air has now found its way to the ground.  Add to that the multitude of microscopic life that will start to grow in the lakes, as well as some churning up by animals and humans, and the visibility will be much reduced from its early spring clarity.  But all the trees aren't quite done:  the white pine is just starting to release its dose.  Pines produce the thick green pollen that is so visible on surfaces, but thankfully, due to the large size of the pollen particles it isn't an allergy nuisance for most people.

With all the pollen out of the atmosphere there were some spectacular summer days on the lakes this week.

Now that's something to sing about!

Sunday, May 24, 2020

May 24, 2020: Hello Summer!

Can you believe that just two weeks ago I was posting about snow?  Well this week summer hit New Hampshire and the mercury here in Meredith broke 90 degrees and that was all it took for the trees to blast out their leaves, and along with them, their pollen.
New maple leaves with "noses" getting ready to helicopter away to find a place to grow.

I always wonder why the largest plants - say the mighty oak - have such tiny flowers while a small plant like a trillium has blooms so much larger.  I figure it's because a trillium has only flower, so it better be a good one, while the oak has so many it's sure to get plenty of pollen distributed, to which my itchy eyes and runny nose can attest.
That's a lot of pollen in all those flowers.

I had a couple of peaceful paddles around Lake Wicwas this week, including a trip to Turtle Island to check on the re-vegetation project there to address the erosion of the thin soil on the island.  We are making progress, though the snapping turtles are doing their best to thwart the effort.
Excavated snapping turtle nests.
Leathery turtle shell fragments.

On my way to Turtle Island I heard the unmistakable thwack of a pileated woodpecker hacking away at a tree.  It was so loud it sounded like someone was cutting down a tree with a hatchet, which made it easy to locate the lumberjack.  It was working on a medium size tree not far from the shoreline and it gave me a good show as I paddled by.
A Pileated Woodpecker doing its own excavating.

A couple of other birds I found on my travel (in addition to the loons, of which we still have just the one pair) include a turkey vulture soaring over head and a Veery (May 25th correction) collecting food at the water's edge.
Turkey Vulture

Hermit Thrush  May 25 Correction: I now think this is a Veery

Yes, I saw geese too, and they have goslings already.  I'll keep an out for the little guys - they are so cute when they are small, yellow, and fuzzy.

There are also pretty trees to note on your travels around the lake; the downy service berry seemed quite prolific in their blossoms this year.
Serviceberry or shadbush

And then there is this interesting plant on Bryant Island, which to the best of my ability to identify is a staghorn sumac.
Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)

If that's what this is, I think these are the fruits which grew last year;  they're called drupes and contain the fruit covered with fine hairs.  The fruit matures in autumn and remains attached through the winter.  Staghorn sumac gets its name from the velvet covering on the twigs which makes it look like deer antlers, though it didn't fool the resident spider.  [Ref:  Eastern Forests, Ann Sutton and Myron Sutton, 1985, Alfred A, Knopf]  According to that reference, the Indians made a "lemonadelike drink from the crushed fruit of this and related species."

The early summer weather makes it easy for people to forget that winter was here just two weeks ago.  I took a hike up in the white mountains this week where there is still up to four feet of snow at the higher elevations.
The Crawford Path between Mt. Eisenshower and Mt. Pierce in the Presidential Range

Packing spikes and snowshoes for a hike in 80 degree weather seems crazy, but there were people up there that were unprepared for what they encountered.

You know you're in a pretty special place when you can go snowshoeing at 80 degrees.
The summit of Mt. Washington seen through the spruce trees at about 4200'.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

May 17, 2020: Fresh Fish for Dinner

There is so much going on around the lakes these days, with wildflowers blooming, birds arriving, animals nesting, that I was already struggling with what to eliminate to keep this week's journal entry from being too long, and then something exceptional came along that trumped all.  One evening, right at dinner time, Linda saw a large raptor fly by with a good size fish dangling from its talons.  Then, lucky for us, it decided to savor its dinner just about a hundred yards away and though it was partially blocked by trees branches it was clear enough for us to see that it was an osprey, and for us to watch what unfolded.  I should warn you, this might get a little graphic.

Somehow the bird managed to land on a branch with one foot without dropping the flailing fish - which was very much alive - from the other foot .

It held on to the tree with one leg and onto the fish with the other.

It looked like it caught a horned pout (aka catfish, officially the brown bullhead), but I'd be happy to have any fishermen out there weigh in on the identification.
Looks like a Bullhead to me.

If it is a catfish, that's interesting, as catfish prowl around on the bottom of the lake - not where I'd expect an osprey to be fishing.

When the fish gave a violent thrash it would throw the osprey off balance and it would have to use its wings to keep its perch on the branch.  This went on for a while, and at one point the bird seemed to yell at the fish, "Give up, your fate is sealed!"
"It's over!"

Eventually the fish lost enough strength that the osprey was ready to partake in its catch.  (This is where it gets bloody.)  The osprey started at the head, perhaps even avoiding the skin, and reached inside the fish's mouth to extract choicest cuts of meat.
The first tasty bite.

It would rip out a chunk of flesh and then lift its head up to swallow it down.
A piece of fish being chewed.

Every now and then it would look over at me to make sure I wasn't an eagle that was going to swoop in and steal its hard-earned dinner.

We watched for while, but eventually the osprey flew off with most of the fish still intact.  This was most likely a male, as females do most of the incubating while the males provide food for the nest.  Mom - and any chicks if they have hatched yet - will be happy to have fresh fish delivered right to their home for dinner.

OK, even with lots of other action taking place right now, it all pales in comparison to that, but here's a quick run down of what else is happening around the lakes right now.

Downy Serviceberry and Leather Leaf are blooming.
Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata) grows right at the waters edge.

Downy Serviceberry (Amelanchier), also called Shadbush, are blooming all around the Lakes Region,
some growing as tall as 30'.

Their blossoms will produce edible fruit.

So are many azaleas.

The beech have followed the maples in pushing out new leaves.
Early beech leaves.

Last week's pond lilies have already pushed buds up above the surface of the lake.
Yellow Pond Lily.

Ferns are sprouting, and Jack has woken up.
Linda got some of these at Moulton Farm this week - they're delicious with butter and garlic!

Jack (in-the-Pulpit) is just getting started.

I also saw my first butterfly, first dragon fly, and heard my first leopard frog and spring peeper this week.  I'm seeing deer tracks regularly on my morning walks, including this set along the edge of the road.
Deer tracks near Chemung State Forest.

The warblers are arriving in mass now, which means one thing is certain: black flies.
Is seeing and hearing these pretty birds worth suffering with black flies?


Those swarming, biting insects may drive us crazy, but they're a critical food source for all our beautiful song birds.  And the fish rely on them too, especially their larvae.  Which means, in turn, our fat and happy osprey does as well.
Off in search of his next meal.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

May 10, 2020: The Ear of a Fox

Old man winter is having a hard time letting go this year.
Saturday, May 9th

I've heard of April Showers, but Snow on Mayflowers?
Snow on the mayflowers (trailing arbutus).

Yes, we had a bit of snow yesterday, and some cool weather all week.  There haven't been a lot of birds singing their spring songs on those cold mornings, but I did hear one bird that was appropriate for the weather:  a winter wren.  These are easy to hear as they have a loud, bright song for such a tiny bird, but they are much harder to see since they spend their time down on the forest floor poking around in the leaf litter.  The guide books will tell you they like to hop along fallen trees looking for insects, and that's just where I was able to spot one, right as it was belting out its effervescent song on this early, cold, dark morning.
A winter wren sings its outsize song.

Well, that's New England weather, and being New England, of course there were beautiful days this week too.  On one of the nice days I learned yet again that you don't have to travel off the beaten path to find interesting nature sights.  During a run along Chemung Road on one nice day I looked down and saw these emerging lily pads in Lake Wicwas right beside the road.
New lily pads under the water.

We've all seen lily pads many times in the summer and they are always green, packed with chlorophyll from photosynthesis.  But these new leaves are just forming and were still a couple of inches below the surface of the lake.  Like the leaves of the red maple tree, lily pads must have red pigment in them that's only visible before (and after) photosynthesis dominates the color palate.  It's the same reason leaves turn color in the fall as photosynthesis ceases.  Very soon these lily pads will rise to float on the surface of the water where they will become green with chlorophyll as they turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into energy for the plant.  It's nature's little power plant.

Now to the fox.  Our local fox has been relegated to walking on land since the ice left the lake, and on another early morning I found it on the hunt for breakfast.  It was so intent on tracking down its meal that it didn't notice me and I got to watch it for a couple of minutes - it was on the track of a small rodent.

I have seen chipmunks in the the pile of rocks it was studying so that may have been the source of its attention, but there are likely mice in there too.  Even though fox have good noses, they hunt by sense of sound.  Scent can linger for a long time, so if they went searching after every scent they came across they'd have a low success rate.  But if they hear something, they know their meal is present right now.  This fox stood silently listening.  It cocked its head one way and the other to best hear the rodent.

Then it would tip its ears forward, or rotate them to the side, all in an attempt to geo-locate the exact spot.

Now if it were winter, once pinpointed under the snow, the fox would jump up in the air and pounce down upon it, catching it under the snow with its paws.  But in this case, it either lost the track, or decided the rampart was too much to breach, and it went on its way to search for a more accessible meal.

Hopefully I won't be seeing fox tracks in the snow for many months now - we just need old man winter will let up a bit and let mom enjoy some nice spring weather.
Primrose, courtesy of Linda.

Happy Mother's Day to all, wherever you are and whatever weather your day brings you!

A virtual hug for mom.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

May 3, 2020: More Warblers Arrive

Way back on March 15th I saw - actually heard - the first summer warbler back to New Hampshire, a yellow-rumped warbler, up north in Lincoln.  Now, almost two months later, many other birds that have a longer migration route are starting to arrive.  With the assistance of the Merlin Bird App, I was able to identify two new ones for me:  the Pine Warbler and the Palm Warbler.

A palm warbler on its way north

The palm warbler won't be here for long - the maps indicate that its breeding range is beyond even the northern tip of New Hampshire.  I was fortunate enough just to catch one as it stopped to enjoy some time in the Lakes Region. 

The pine warbler on the other hand will spend the summer here.  Because it lives its life high up in the branches of white pine trees I wasn't able to see one other than some faint silhouettes dancing around against the bright sky.  But there were many and they were singing constantly, so with the sound recordings on the Merlin app I was able to identify them.  (The Cornell Ornithology Lab Merlin App can be downloaded on your smart phone so you can take it with you in the field.  It has an identification feature where you answer three simple questions, and then it gives you a list of possible birds based on your location.)

Other summer birds are returning as well;  I saw an osprey and two great blue herons on a paddle around Lake Wicwas. 
The osprey have returned

I took advantage of the high spring water and lack of lily pads to paddle up to the beaver dam that holds back Blake Brook where it enters Lake Wicwas.

The beaver dam holding back Blake Brook

There was visible current flowing through the dam and a delightful trickling sound that the beavers will soon put and end to.  You can see more of the dam and hear the water in this short video I took while I was there.  You'll see one spot in particular where water was breaking through the dam.  The beavers won't let that go on for long!

On this same trip I finally got positive confirmation that last year's male loon has returned. 
The male loon was banded last July - it has a white band with a black dot.

I didn't get to see the female's bands, but Tom Crane has confirmed the banded female is here as well, so our resident pair has definitely returned.  Both loons gave me a nice long show as they were doing their mid-morning preening and on one good belly roll I got a chance to observe the results of their work.

Look at how the water balls up on their feathers.  During preening they take oil from a gland near their tail and spread it onto their feathers to repel water and keep them dry and warm - it's like waxing your car!  They clearly weren't bothered by me using a telephoto lens from a long distance away.

A few more members have joined the spring wildflower guild, including the trailing arbutus (sometimes called mayflower). 
Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens)

I always request not picking wildflowers, but once in your life, when you find a large healthy patch of arbutus, you should take one of these tiny flowers and roll it between your finger to experience the beautiful sweet perfume it uses to lure in the pollinators - it's a delight to all the senses.

This time of year, to close out each spring day, the beavers come out just at sunset to inspect their domain and collect building materials to repair those holes in their dams.
The lake yields to a beaver as it makes its evening rounds.

Their work day is just beginning.