Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Heavy Snow - Round One

The first half of winter 2015 was rather unremarkable at Blue Jay Barrens.  We had some cold weather and a few light snowfalls, but overall it seemed that we were headed for a nice winter.  That seemed only fair since I didn’t feel fully recovered from the trials of the previous winter’s persistent cold and snow.  Then really cold weather arrived and I began to wonder what that would do to exposed plants.  When a light snow was forecast for Presidents Day, I felt that a couple of inches of snow cover over the plants would be a good thing.  I hadn’t counted on three storms in a row leaving us with over a foot of snow.  I guess that snow was valuable as an insulating blanket against the several mornings of below zero temperatures that followed.  Three mornings were in the minus teens and the coldest morning temperature bottomed out at -23oF.

A bit of freezing rain managed to put a nice crust atop the snow layer.  Sunny days caused a bit of snow melt, but the wet surface froze even more solid each night.  The resulting crust was strong enough to allow medium sized mammals to walk across the snow without breaking through.  These conditions make it tough for most birds to forage for seed on the ground.

Fortunately, most of the snow fell as dry powder and did not stick to plant stalks.  Seed heads remained well above the snow line.  Stout stalks like those of the Orange Coneflower were common across the prairies, but I wondered if they still contained any seed.

I checked a few seed heads and found some seed in each one.  I also found seed on stalks of Monarda, Goldenrod and various grasses.  The curious thing was the absence of any evidence that the birds were utilizing this food source.  If birds had been feeding on these seed heads, debris from the disturbed head would litter the snow. 

Dried Sumac fruit hung in full clusters, untouched by any feathered foragers.

Snow beneath the Sumacs didn’t show any signs of debris falling from above.

The Sumac fruit itself looked just as did three months ago.  I guess the birds weren’t being as stressed by the weather as I had imagined.

Some birds are not stopped by a little bit of crusted snow.  Wild Turkeys can claw through the snow and forage in the leaf litter below. 

Exposed areas like this also provide feeding opportunities for small bird and mammal species.

Cedar branches managed to catch and hold a significant amount of the snowfall.  The dark cedar needles allowed sunlight to warm the branches and melt the snow.  Sunlight angling in from the south was then able to melt the shallow layer of snow beneath the tree.  These grass islands beneath the cedars provide additional snowfree areas in which the birds can forage.

This is where the snow halted my cedar maintenance activities a couple of weeks ago.  I’m hoping the snow disappears within the next couple weeks so I can get in here and complete work in this field.  I hate to leave things half done.

The foot bridge is looking like railroad tracks.  The bridge supports held the cold and slowed snow melt on the deck above.  The center of the bridge was exposed to air from beneath and experienced accelerated melting as a result of circulation of sun warmed air along with heat rising from the creek water.

Deer took advantage of every patch of open creek water.  Deer consistently broke through the snow crust and provided about the only tracks to be found in the woods.

Several inches of snow still cover the barrens.  I keep wondering how the Leavenworthias and Drabas are doing beneath this winter cover.

The Indian Grass has managed to stay upright through every storm.  This is the grass species that is most likely to hold up under adverse weather conditions.  Many bird species spend the cold nights tucked down into the tall grass.

The golden colored grass absorbs heat from the sun and melts the snow around its base.  The tall grass patches are the first to become snow free.

Most of the snow has disappeared from the standing Indian Grass on the left side of the trail.  To the right, in the mowed field, six inches of snow still covers the ground.

A warm rain brings up clouds of water vapor from the remaining snow.  March 3 saw 50oF temperatures and heavy rain moving through in advance of a major winter storm due in tomorrow night.  Snow totals tomorrow are predicted to reach 10+ inches followed by another dip into the subzero temperatures before conditions become more seasonal next week.  Winter weather often has a significant impact on plant growth the following summer, so I keep records of winter conditions just in case I’m looking for an explanation of strange plant behavior later on.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Cardinals - The Evening Birds

The composition of species at the bird feeder progressively changes through the course of a day.  I think of Blue Jays as the morning birds, because they make their most concentrated visits shortly after sunrise.  At the other end of the day are the Cardinals, the last birds to leave the feeders in the evening gloaming.  With an intensified twilight appearance at the feeders, Cardinals are definitely the evening birds.

The Cardinals are as difficult to count as the Blue Jays.  There is a constant coming and going from the seed scattered beneath the Apple tree.

The tree itself is packed with resting Cardinals.  The blue of the morning Blue Jays is now replaced with the red of the evening Cardinals.

Cardinals usually fill the feeder to capacity.  A Tree Sparrow, trying hard to maintain its place at the feeder, is about to be displaced by a Cardinal.

Fallen sunflower seed in the vicinity of the feeder is quickly cleaned up by the Cardinals.  Rarely do they forage alone.

A mob typifies their more normal foraging behavior.  Many of these birds, in the company of their parents, made their first journey to the feeder this past summer.  Each year, I find a few Cardinal nests tucked away among thick cedar branches.

The glare of the setting sun sometimes makes it difficult to view the birds, but it also makes the Cardinals shine that much brighter.  I haven’t seen many unusual birds at the feeder this year, but the residents have been here in strong numbers.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Blue Jays

I think a Blue Jay may have been the first bird to visit my bird feeder when I moved to this property 30 years ago.  It was certainly the most commonly encountered species during that first summer.  I could not step out of the house or walk anywhere on the property without seeing or hearing Blue Jays.  It’s not hard to understand why I chose to name my property Blue Jay Barrens.

Since that first day, the number of Blue Jays at Blue Jay Barrens has grown.  It’s now rare to encounter a lone bird.  If a Blue Jay scolds me as I wander around the property, there are always several more ready to back him up.

The perch on the feeder is not nearly wide enough to accommodate the daily throng of Blue Jays that come in to feed.  Many of these are from this summer’s crop of youngsters.  A swarm of young birds join the flock each summer, but I have yet to find a Blue Jay nest.

Tree roots exposed by the digging actions of deer and turkey act as perches on which the Blue Jays can open their sunflower seeds.  After eating their fill, the birds usually take a few seeds off to cache for later.  I’ll find many of these caches in early summer when clumps of sunflower seedlings sprout from all sorts of unlikely places.

Counting the total number of Blue Jays visiting the feeder is just about an impossible task.  Those on the ground are constantly leaving to perch in the trees while others come in to take their place.

There are a couple of doves in the tree, but the majority of perching birds are Blue Jays.  This photo shows about a third of the tree area and the rest of the tree is just as crowded.  Add to that the Blue Jays in two other nearby trees, those spread over a considerable ground area, those perched out of view on the house gutter and those in the trees lining the field behind that house.  Now put them all in constant motion and you get an idea of how frustrating an attempt at counting can be.

I’ve added three Blue Jay videos to my YouTube channel.  Click on the links to view.

Video 1 – A short clip showing a very active concentration of feeding Blue Jays.  There is some camera shaking from my trying to untangle my sweatshirt sleeve caught in the gear that raises the camera on the tripod.  To view click HERE.

Video 2 – A two minute clip highlighting the comings and goings from a concentrated Blue Jay group.  I particularly like the Blue Jay that refuses to share the water.  To view click HERE.


Video 3 – A two minute clip showing the feeder, water and surrounding ground area.  A great coming and going of birds, with Blue Jays playing a major role.  To view click HERE.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Cedar Maintenance Delayed

Seven inches of snow has temporarily halted Cedar Maintenance activities at Blue Jay Barrens.  I, along with a large selection of birds, am busying myself with activities near the house.

Two days before the storm, I was confident of finishing my planned maintenance work right on schedule.  The weather forecast on this day was calling for scattered snow showers as the next storm passed well to our south, so I didn’t expect any snow delays.  By the next day, it was obvious that the storm was tracking farther north than anticipated and we were in its path.  If the snow cover persists into March, as it is expected to do, the rest of my cedar maintenance will most likely be postponed until next year.  Fortunately, I completed work on this two acre field before everything was buried. 

This field is primarily a steep, rocky, south facing slope that presents the most torturous growing conditions of any barren on the property.  Misshapen forms and odd growth habits characterize the trees trying to survive in this environment.  Many individuals could not survive and are now represented by nothing more than weathered skeletons.

I’ve done quite a bit of clearing in this field, but there are still a considerable number of cedars left standing. 

Despite some patches of thickly growing cedars, enough sunlight filters through the thin branches to maintain a grass cover beneath the trees. 

Even in areas of maximum sunlight and gentler slopes, the grass remains short and sparse.  There is maximum opportunity here for some of the more drought tolerant wildflowers to flourish.

Growing conditions change drastically as you ascend the hill.  At the lowest level, to the left in the photo, is a gently sloping area where the eroded soil from the hillside forms a moderately deep foundation for tree roots.  Tall, thick trunked cedars crowd that area and block all sunlight.  A rapid change ensues as the slope increases.

At mid-slope, the incidence of dead trees increases and growth rates decrease considerably.  These cedars began growing decades before the lower slopes were retired from growing crops such as corn and sorghum.  That makes these trees at least twice as old as the much larger trees growing in the deeper soil.

At the upper end of the field, the slope continues on into the woods.  The land here was so steep and rocky that it could not be used for crop production.

The upper slopes of the field have some of the harshest growing conditions.  The soil is a shallow layer over limestone bedrock.  Evidence of this bedrock is present in the form of sand, gravel and rock fragments scattered on the surface.  This is the domain of the Leavenworthias and Drabas, along with a few other hardy barrens species.

Very few cedars managed to survive long enough in these gravelly conditions to attain any great size.  Those that did, have created shade islands in which a scattering of trees and shrubs have managed to survive.  Many of those don’t survive long and leave the cedars with a collection of dead trunks beneath their branches.

If it weren’t for a few seasonal seeps that provide water to isolated spots on the slope, there would be no deciduous trees here.  In these damp spots, Sycamores and Tuliptrees take root and prosper for a few years.  Eventually, the tree’s root system is collecting every drop of available moisture.  At that point the tree is vulnerable to any decrease in the water supply and perishes during a year of drought.  Dead stumps are monuments to their endeavors.

This three foot high Flowering Dogwood has persisted for over 30 years.  The top branches continually die and the tree regrows from points lower on the trunk.

The base of the trunk has the appearance of a mature dogwood.  This natural bonsai must have found the perfect source of water to support a little tree.  I remember leaving this little tree when I did my initial clearing of this field about 20 years ago.  At the time, it didn’t seem like a threat and I’ve always been cautious about removing something until I’m sure that’s the best thing to do.  I’m glad this guy was spared.

Harsh conditions also make bonsais out of the small cedars.  The branches of these little trees are constantly dying and being replaced by younger shoots emerging near the base.  The result is an old tree that only reaches a few inches in height.

Small cedars were sparsely scattered across the field.  They were most concentrated in the area of the old slip on the lower slope adjacent to a small tributary to the main creek.

The line of wet weather seeps that encouraged the soil slip, keep this area wet longer into the summer and provide a better growing environment for the young cedars.  Each clump of grass harbors its own tiny forest of cedar seedlings.

Overall, the field yielded less than a full bushel of cedar cuttings.  It has been over ten years since maintenance was done on this field.  Apparently, cedar colonization here is a slow process, so a repeat of this maintenance procedure shouldn’t be necessary for at least another decade.  Fortunately, I have plenty of other work to keep me busy in the interim.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Wild Turkey Fight

It’s the middle of February and the male Wild Turkeys at Blue Jay Barrens are already displaying enhanced coloration as they prepare for the annual breeding season.  The male Wild Turkeys visited the feeder on Sunday afternoon.  Even though the day was sunny, the temperature was only 14oF.  This was not what I would consider spring-like weather, but one of the turkeys must have had spring in its heart as it attempted to do a little displaying on the feeding grounds.

Just like the stereotypic bar fight on TV, the showing off by one male instilled a spark of rivalry in another.  It began with some posturing and pushing on the part of the two Tom turkeys.

Then it erupted into full blown battle for dominance in the local flock.  In keeping with the pattern of a TV bar fight, a bystander seems oblivious to the brewing conflict.

Several techniques were used in the early stages of the fight.  Strong wing claps and hatchet kicks with the spurs topped the list.  Within minutes though, the pair locked bills and began pushing with their breasts.  This push type combat lasted for over 30 minutes.

One bird seems to swallow the top bill of the other, while its opponent appears to have engulfed the lower bill and part of the throat of the first.  It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish two different heads in the strange embrace.

There must be tremendous stress on the neck.  At times, one combatant’s head can be pushed down to meet its back.

There was an occasional break in the action lasting no more than a few seconds.  The two fighters always quickly regained their bill-to-bill grip and continued the struggle.  Over the course of the battle, the pair completely circled the house.

As quickly as it began, the action ended.

The bird in the foreground was the apparent victor.

The struggle seems to have sapped the strength of both combatants.

The defeated bird positioned itself in front of the victor.

Then it presented itself as subservient to the dominant flock member.

Surrender accepted, the pair headed back to the feeder.  I prepared a video of a portion of the fight that can be seen on YouTube by clicking on this LINK.