Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Woodcock Nest Finale

Monday afternoon, during my daily visit to check on the Woodcock eggs, I discovered the nest site in a state of disarray.  It wasn’t torn apart, but the nest location was distinctly more visible than before.  I hurried forward to see if the change was due to a visiting predator, or a successful hatching.

It was a hatching, although not one that was completely successful.  Two of the original four eggs remained intact.  The other two looked to have released live chicks into the world.  Unfortunately, the young birds were long gone by the time I arrived on the scene.

The empty shells show all of the signs of a successful hatching.  The chicks peck in a circular pattern around the large end of the egg.  The series of cracks allows the end of the shell to lift off like a lid.  Occasionally, the chick’s toenails will make puncture marks in the small end of the egg as it pushes itself out of the shell.

During the time these eggs were incubating, there have been several thunderstorms and two flooding rains, and temperatures have ranged from 25oF to 82oF.  During the time this clutch was being laid there was a storm that produced 2.2 inches of rain and flash flooding.  The location of this nest in the low area next to the creek could easily have been flooded.  It’s possible that the two unhatched eggs were killed during that event.  Woodcocks only produce one brood per year, so I hope the two hatchlings are lucky enough to survive to adulthood.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Woodcock Eggs

I’ve been making daily checks on the nesting Woodcock I posted about last week.  I don’t get close.  There are two large cedars about 35 feet from the nest that make a good hide.  A gap between the two trees is just wide enough for me to use my camera to zoom in on the nest and check the bird.  She has been facing a different direction on each visit, but she sticks tight to the nest.

Wednesday afternoon I saw this.  No woodcock in sight.

I moved in on the position and spotted four eggs.  The uncovered eggs are much easier to see than the sitting bird.

These birds don’t really make much of a nest.  Some of the material at hand seems to be rearranged a bit to make a depression deep enough to keep the eggs clustered together. 

The eggs were still slightly warm to the touch, so I was fairly confident that the Woodcock hadn’t been gone long from the nest and was probably close by hunting for worms.  The nearby area along the small tributary displays many holes left by feeding Woodcock.  I didn’t want to disrupt her return to the nest, so I left the area as soon as I captured a couple of images.

She was comfortably back on the nest the next day.  I’ll keep checking in hopes of viewing the newly hatched chicks.  The female leads the chicks off as soon they have all hatched and dried.  I’ll have to be extremely lucky to show up at just the right time for a sighting.  At least I should be able to find some broken egg shells.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Mid-Season Potato Dandelions

The container grown Potato Dandelions, Krigia dandelion, are growing so rapidly that their image changes daily.  As long as I employ methods to exclude predators from the container, the plants flourish.  The abundance of leaves provides energy for the production of flowers and underground tubers.  A single plant may produce a dozen or more tubers during the spring growing season.  At this rate of reproduction, it doesn’t take long to build up a large population.

I thought this would be a good time to check on the progress of Potato Dandelion plants growing from tubers planted last fall into this ridgetop site.  This most closely matches the site of the original Blue Jay Barrens population of the rare Potato Dandelion.

A combination of wind and rainfall runoff patterns create patches of bare ground in this area.  Plants growing in these bare spots receive enough sunlight to stimulate production of flowers.

Some of the plants are looking quite healthy.  All of this growth has arisen from a single bean sized tuber.

Other plants have suffered damage from foraging Wild Turkeys.  Turkeys also create patches of bare ground, but at a cost to the plants.

I originally planted some tubers at the base of this cedar.  Turkeys chose this location as a place to take dust baths, and created two large wallows.  What once looked similar to the area in the right foreground, is now devoid of plants.

Potato Dandelions at the original site struggle to put their leaves up through the leaf litter.

The extra effort necessary to push leaves up through the leaf litter is enough to cause these plants to fail to flower.  I will occasionally clear the fallen leaves from a small area and allow the plants to produce flowers.  It’s nice to see the plants bloom, but since the flowers don’t seem to produce any viable seed, the activity give little benefit to the population as a whole.  The non-flowering plants still produce many new tubers, so the population continues to expand.

There may be other populations of the plant at Blue Jay Barrens, but there is only a narrow window in the spring when the plants are easy to see and finding them is complicated by the presence of the White Trout Lily, Erythronium albidum.

White Trout Lily is probably the most abundant woodland spring flower growing in the uplands at Blue Jay Barrens.  The shape and color pattern of the young Trout Lily leaf is remarkably similar to that of the Potato Dandelion.  That’s the Trout Lily on the right.  With hundreds of Trout Lily leaves in view at any one time, it’s easy to see how a random Potato Dandelion leaf could escape notice.

As long as my container grown plants continue to produce plenty of tubers, I will transplant the excess into suitable locations.  It doesn’t look like I’m in danger of having a shortage.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Black Racers

Yesterday afternoon, I was lucky enough to discover three Black Racer snakes basking in a bit of late day sunshine.  All were nice mature specimens between three and four feet long.

I was starting down the south side of a hill when I encountered the first snake.  I had just been thinking that the snakes should be active when I caught sight of this one in the grass.

This individual had its head pointed towards me when I saw it, so I assume it saw me first.  That seems typical of my normal snake encounters.  They always appear to be staring at me at the moment I become aware of their presence.  This individual appeared to be quite healthy, but was still wearing some mud that probably came from its hibernation site.  After admiring the snake for a short while, I backed away and began circling around.  I didn’t want to interrupt the sunbath.

About 10 feet away, I found a second snake.  This one was a little larger than the first and was in a thicker area of Indian Grass.

Like the first snake, this one had seen me coming.  I once again backed off and chose another path around the snakes.

About 15 feet farther off, I scared a third snake from the tall grass.  The Indian Grass here was too thick for me to see the ground or resting snakes, but the sound of the snake was easy to track through the dry grass stalks.  Fortunately, the snake headed out of the field and into a tangle of small trees.  This specimen was the largest of the three.

No dried mud on this snake.  The scales are nice and clean, but not as shiny black as snake number two.
The side view of the head is one of my favorite snake poses.  The eye peering through the vegetation reminds me of the Velociraptor preparing to attack in the Jurassic Park movie.  I also enjoy seeing my reflection in the snake’s eye.  That dark spot to left center in the eye is me taking this photo.  You can’t really see it in the reflection, but finding three snakes within a few minutes always makes me smile.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

April Winter Annuals

My artificial barrens in a pot continues to evolve.  Originally planted in the container were Draba cuneifolia, Draba reptans, and Leavenworthia unifloraDraba reptans persists in small numbers and is hardly noticeable.  Draba cuneifolia and Leavenworthia uniflora aggressively compete for dominance of the container.  Since its creation, no two seasons in this container have been the same.

In 2013, Leavenworthia uniflora dominated the container.  Last year there was a fairly even mix of Draba cuneifolia and Leavenworthia.  This year the Draba cuneifolia is definitely in control.  Draba flower stalks form a miniature forest.

A loose cluster of flowers forms atop the stalk.  These plants are just beginning to bloom.  The flower spike will continue to enlarge and the immature buds seen in the center of the cluster will be brought into position to open.

A number of these small bees were busy visiting the Draba flowers.

Wild Draba cuneifolia plants are also doing well this year.

It’s unusual for the plants on the barrens to grow this large.  I’m certain that their growth patterns are influenced by weather conditions, but I don’t know if it was spending several weeks buried by snow or the excessive rainfall during the last six weeks or some other factor that is responsible for the impressive growth this year.

Draba reptans is also performing above expectations this year.  This plant toppled over, but that won’t stop it from producing a good crop of seeds.  Total height, or length, of this plant is not much over an inch, so it didn’t have far to topple.

Draba reptans is similar in appearance, but smaller than Draba cuneifolia.  One characteristic that separates the two is the hairiness of the flower stalk.  The stalk on reptans is practically hairless, while the cuneifolia stalk has a fuzzy hairiness along its entire length.

Drabas and Leavenworthias are blooming side-by-side in the container barrens.  Draba cuneifiolia has a shallow indentation at the end of each of the four petals.  Leavenworthia petals are all well rounded.  A couple of non-native Draba verna have also managed to invade the container.  Seen in the lower right of the photo, Draba verna petals are split almost in two, so the flower appears to have eight petals instead of four.

This year’s Leavenworthia plants are quite tiny and have only a single flower stalk.  I’m afraid they couldn’t compete with the rapid early growth of the Drabas.

Contrary to what I’ve noticed in past years, the Leavenworthia growing on the barrens are much more robust than those in the container.

Most of the barrens grown specimens are producing multiple flower stalks.  The seed produced from these should be a definite boost to future generations.

The Draba cuneifolia in the container are going to make a tremendous amount of seed.  I’ll collect as much as I can and scatter it out on the same barrens from which I originally gathered the seed for this container collection.  If my original removal of seed from the barrens resulted in a diminished population of Draba, I’m sure my replacement of seed has more than made up for the loss.

The container plants are producing so much seed that I’m now finding Draba cuneifolia growing in the cracks of the concrete apron outside my barn door.  I love it when a rare plant begins to behave like a weed.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Nesting Woodcock

Every Spring, the fields of Blue Jay Barrens fill with male Woodcocks.  Their calls and display flights are a regular feature for several weeks.  I imagine there are just as many female Woodcocks around, but they are encountered with much less frequency.  I discovered this female while I was walking through a field on Saturday morning.  My boot was only two feet from the end of her bill when she caught my eye.

Since the females alone incubate the eggs, finding a woodcock on the nest is the only way I’m sure the bird is female.  These ground nesting birds depend upon camouflage to avoid the eye of a predator and will sit motionless on the nest while an intruder paces around nearby.  After finding myself so close to the nest, I backed off a ways before taking any pictures.  I’ve read that a nesting woodcock will sometimes allow a person to stroke its back without fleeing the nest.  There are also accounts of Woodcock abandoning their nests after being disturbed.  I probably cause enough unintentional disturbance to local wildlife.  I would like to have seen her eggs, but I wouldn’t deliberately flush her because of that. 

Nesting Woodcocks are nearly impossible to see from a distance.  In the above photo, the female Woodcock is centered in the frame, just to the left of the small tree. 

She is even hard to find in a close up shot, if you don’t know where to look.  

Zoom in even more and put her in the center of the photo, and then she’s easy to find.

I checked on her again Sunday and found that she had turned to face away from the little tree.  Incubation takes about three weeks, so these eggs should hatch before the end of the month.  Click HERE to see photos of a recently hatched Woodcock chick that I found a couple of years ago.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Rain and Flooding

Blue Jay Barrens is about as wet as it can get.  A long sequence of storms moving through during the past week has dropped nearly six inches of rain over the area.  Storm clouds moved through once or twice every day.

The soil, already fully hydrated by over six inches of rain in March, quickly became saturated and the output of each storm had nowhere to go but to run overland to the creek.  A storm yesterday afternoon produced 0.8 inches of rain in 15 minutes.  The result was a flash flood, the third this week.

Water from the township road carried red clay particles to the pond.  It looks like a bowl full of mud, but the water clarity is not as bad as it appears.

A closer examination shows the water to still be fairly clear.  The clay tint makes the dark Wood Frog tadpoles easy to see. 

The tadpoles have just recently taken on the traditional tadpole shape and become free swimming.  If these rains persist, there will be no problem of the pond drying up before the tadpoles transform into little hoppers.

The diversions around the vegetable garden have been working overtime this spring.  The garden sits in a level area that was formed by eroded soil being trapped by an elevated roadway.  Without the diversions, water would inundate the garden after every rain.

After each storm, I check to see that the female Carolina Wolf Spider is alive and well.  So far, she seems to have been unaffected by even the heaviest of rains.

Small upland waterways swell to wide streams as the water quickly rushes downhill.  After each rain event, I try to get down to the creek to see how the increased water flow moves through the channel.

The quickest way to the creek is over the hill.  Even in the driest, most well drained locations, water still stands on the surface.

Five minutes after the rain has stopped, concentrated water flow is still pouring from small woodland watersheds along the creek. 

Water running from these woodland areas is generally clear, but it carries a heavy load of leaves.  The result is a mosaic of bare ground and thick piles of leaves.  This will influence the pattern of plant growth through the rest of the year.

I’m always relieved when I see the bridges still intact.  All but one of the bridges have been replaced to an elevation above the record flood level.  If we do get a flood capable of tearing out this bridge, I hope I’m here to see it, because it will be a truly rare and terrifying event.

Calm and scenic features, such as a small waterfall, are covered over by the flood.  It’s always a surprise when the water drops and the creek resumes its earlier appearance. 

Water pools in the flood plains as it waits for a chance to seep into the ground.  This soil is very well drained and normally allows rapid water infiltration.  Its appearance now makes you think of vernal pools and amphibian breeding, but given a day without more rain, it will pass all of this water into the creek.

This is the last bridge needing to be repaired and elevated.  It has been moved and battered by flood water many times over the years.

Downstream of the bridge is the area blocked by a log jam a couple of years ago.  Since the removal of the jam, water now flows freely through the channel.

Since I wait for the lightning to clear the area before venturing out after a storm, I usually miss seeing the water at its highest level.  At the peak of the flood, water left the creek channel and moved overland.  This area was scoured clean when the water was suddenly blocked by the formation of a log jam and forced out here.  It’s likely that a new channel will be formed here someday.  I could have left the log jam in place and let the new channel form, but this little area has a nice collection of woodland flowers that I would like to enjoy for a while longer.

The third of three large bridges is now well above flood level.  This bridge was repaired using sections of decking from two older bridges.  I think this one is elevated and anchored well enough to withstand any flood.

I find still photos of rapidly moving water to be lacking in impact, so I have included a short video that captures the movement and sound of the angry creek.  It is also available for viewing on YouTube by clicking HERE.