Winter Journal - 2014
A last minute decision to start off the year with an early morning visit to the Upton State Forest on New Year’s Day turned into visits throughout January and February, the dead of winter. Despite the cold, there were many natural observations encountered on almost every trip. Here are some of my highlights.
January 1, 2014
As dawn approached, my wife, Cathy and I heard juncos and one or two robins calling. I didn’t expect to hear the robins, but knew that some do overwinter. After a few minutes, we noticed that robins were flying overhead above tree level in small groups. Within 15 minutes, we had counted 2500 robins! The robins were flying in a southwest direction over Southboro Road. The roosting site was in the direction of Mammouth Trail. I would guess that they were leaving the roost in all directions suggesting a much higher number. There were smaller numbers of other birds mixed in that appeared to be blackbirds and starlings.
[The robins were leaving their overnight roosting sites and disbursing to other areas that offer available food. Their behavior is very different in winter compared to summer. In summer, they are commonly seen hopping across your lawn, stopping, peering down at the ground with one eye, pulling worms from the soil, and also nesting in your front-yard tree. In winter, they are much less visible. They hang out in orchards or over-grown farms, and swamps where food such as American holly (winterberry), bittersweet, and fruiting ornamentals is available. National Audubon keeps over 100 years of data from Christmas Bird Counts (counts are done within 2 weeks of Christmas) across North America.
Their data indicates that robins were uncommon (1 observed per hour) in the winter in Massachusetts until the 1990’s, with counts now totaling 10-30 per hour. Why are they occurring more often? Is it climate change? Or perhaps, available winter food sources due to ornamental plantings?
January 11, 2014
A Raven flew directly overhead, only fifty feet above me. It made its “rauukkk” call a few times as it flew. It seemingly pirouetted on one wing and dropped down into the upper branches of a large oak tree. It had noticed a leaf and stick nest, maybe gray squirrel. I watched as the raven quietly studied the nest and then it started meticulously pulling the nest apart. A few sticks and leaves were being removed and they slowly trickled down to the forest floor, one stick and leaf at a time. After less than a minute, another raven, not within sight, called and the marauder responded. Within a few seconds, it abandoned its quarry and flew off to join its mate.
[I read on the Mass Wildlife’s website that gray squirrels can breed twice a year, between Jan and Feb, and then during May through July. So maybe this was an active nest, but maybe the offspring were just too young to make much detected movement or noise, so the Raven gave up quickly.]
January 18, 2014
Walking along Southboro Rd at 7AM, I heard some splashing in the water where a road culvert connects the northern and southern swamp. I thought it might be a mallard taking advantage of the only open water. I walked up quietly to determine what it was and was surprised to find that it was a mink swimming downstream. I saw its deep rich brown/black sleek body swim effortlessly downstream and disappear into the cat tails. After a few seconds, I decided to squeak through pursed lips. I was quietly excited to see the mink respond by sticking just its head between the cattails and look directly at me. After only a few seconds, it disappeared without a sound.
Later, I came upon some snowflakes, seemingly floating in mid-air in a vertical line. After further study, I realized that these small snowflakes (maybe 5-10) got caught on a spider web or caterpillar silken thread. I wondered about what made the thread, and when. In the past, Cathy has pointed out small spiders walking atop the snow in the winter. So, there are spiders about at this time of year.
January 25, 2014
Walking along CCC Way, I noticed a lone eastern bluebird perched ten feet up in the branches of a small dead tree over the vernal pool near the parking lot. I had heard one earlier calling a soft whistled “tru-ly”. I then noticed that there were at least four. I suspect maybe two pairs, but couldn’t tell because of their movements. I noted that one dropped down to a small trickle of open water drinking. It was 9degF this morning, so it had to be water breaking out from the ground. Others appeared to be feeding on the fruits of either Burning Bush (euonomis spp) or Multi-flora rose, both non-native invasives. I watched as they stretched to get the fruits, or with some effort, flutter in place to get a small hanging fruit. I caught a glimpse of one of the males – a beautiful blue, with contrasting white and brown. They flew off quietly into the thicker woods.
February 17, 2014
Otter, Pileated Woodpecker site, Mouse?, Coyote? Tracks
A few days earlier, a snowstorm dumped 11” of snow on this area. The main trails were well packed from a weekend of snowmobilers. Today, however, there were none around. I walked down to Bridge Rd, strapped on snowshoes, and walked around the eastern edge of a beaver impoundment created in the last five years. The water behind the impoundment is probably not much deeper than two feet. There was very little bird life noted here today, but I noted tracks of 3 different mammals: At two locations, I noticed there was a small set of paired tracks bounding about 6” and showing a tail dragging in the snow. It was going straight between trees. It exited from the leeward side of the tree where the snow didn’t accumulate as much. Looking at various on-line sources, I learned that this is a mouse track. Meadow Voles will tunnel under the snow and if they surface, their track pattern shows an alternating pattern, typically without a tail dragging.
Another larger set of tracks were straight and purposeful with little wandering, maybe a coyote. When I arrived at the beaver dam, there was a good flow of water leaving the dam in one spot. I noticed scat from what I believe was a River Otter that had both entered and exited the water at the outfall of the dam. It had slid around on the snow for a few feet from where the water was open. I estimate the slide width to be about 6-8” using my showshoe as a guide. There appeared to be brownish black scat containing silvery fish scales in the snow.
Along the trail heading back, I noted a Pileated Woodpecker hole in a small (8 inch dia) oak tree. There was a dead carpenter ant at the edge of the hole – one of its quarries. I’m guessing it came out after the woodpecker left.
[I have been exploring this region with the intent of documenting the wildlife that use this beaver created wetland. Beavers are a keystone species that create wetlands that are utilized by many other animals. I realize beavers can be considered a nuisance when dealing with wells, septic, road flooding, and tree plantings. My hope is that the DCR considers the good that the beavers do when making decisions in regards to forestry and also cultural sites such as the CCC reservoir and Dean Pond dam.]
February 23, 2014
Birds singing and drumming
It seems that all of the birds were singing today – a change from the past weeks. Chickadees were singing their “fee-bee” song, cardinals, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatches were all singing and downy woodpeckers were drumming. Finally, winter’s back has been broken!
Birds sighted during these Field Trips:
Woodpeckers: Red-bellied, Downy, Hairy, Mourning Dove, Cooper’s Hawk, Am Crow, Com Raven, Cedar Waxwing, E Bluebird, Am Robin, Eur Starling, Wht Br Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, Winter Wren, B C Chickadee, T Titmouse, G C Kinglet, Am Goldfinch, Song Sparrow,D E Junco, N Cardinal, R W Blackbird, B H Cowbird. What no Blue Jays?
Birds sighted during these Winter Field Trips:
Cooper’s Hawk, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, American Crow, Common Raven, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Winter Wren, Carolina Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, European Starling, Cedar Waxwing, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, American Goldfinch
What no Blue Jays? They are known to migrate to mid-Atlantic states when their food source is lacking, but I probably just missed them.