Friday, May 29, 2009

Snakes in a Woodshed!

Two weeks ago we received a call from a family near Mt.Kisco about two snakes, one large and one small, in their woodshed. Their initial identification led them to believe the snakes were Copperheads. The family kept the shed closed and stayed clear of the area as a precaution.

We were able to stop at the family's home two days later to have a look around and see if maybe the two snakes were still around. We were certain we would not find any snakes since it had been two days since they were spotted. We were also convinced we wouldn't find any Copperheads since they are quite rare in our area, and the surrounding habitat is not typical of that preferred by Copperheads.

The family showed us to the woodshed and cautiously backed away. We were "armed" with leather gloves, a snake hook, and my camera. The gloves and hook were a precaution for dealing with a larger species of snake like a Northern Watersnake or Black Rat Snake. These two species are non-venomous but can be quite difficult to handle when cornered or confronted in a confined space.

Upon opening the doors to the shed we looked and initially saw nothing. With a second glance, a serpentine shape was observed at the top of a stack of kindling wood. The photo below is what we saw. Do you know what it is?
It's an Eastern Milk Snake. They can be easily identified by the light gray body decorated with irregular red blotches outlined with black. The snake's small head, fitting neatly in line with it's slim body, is typical of the numerous non-venomous species of snake in our area.

Milk Snakes feed primarily on mice and other small rodents, and sometimes consume smaller snakes. Their occurrence in rodent-infested barns led to the misconception that they would steal milk from a farmer's cows. Milk Snakes are generally secretive and usually move around at night and spend the day hiding beneath objects like logs, large rocks or old boards. In this case, the woodshed was this snake's preferred place to spend the day.
In the photo above, you can see how slender and delicate this species looks in the hand. Milk Snakes are essentially harmless to humans and pets, and their dietary preferences make them quite an asset for anyone's property. At the family's request, we gladly removed the snake and released it at the sanctuary. The other snake, presumably also a Milk Snake, was not found during our visit.
We were very greatful to be asked to help this family. They exercised equal amounts of caution and respect for an animal they had never encountered before. It was a great opportunity for us to share what we know about this beautiful creature and do a good deed for the family and the snake.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Banding a Raptor

Cooper's Hawk (male) - banded May 18, 2009

This season's bird banding sessions have been productive and entertaining for a great number of elementary students. Preparing for this program requires 2 hours of netting/trapping birds prior to the student's arrival. It's the best way to ensure that our visitors will see at least a few different species of birds upon their arrival.

During this prep time we often experience some of the most memorable encounters with species not usually encountered at our banding station. Three years ago, we netted a Mourning Warbler just moments before a nursery school group was about to arrive. Two years ago, Steve netted a Great-crested Flycatcher, and a year ago we had a near-miss with a Northern Flicker who managed to weasel its way out of the net before we could get a hold of it. This year's most memorable behind-the-scenes moment occurred last week with the capture of an unsuspecting Cooper's Hawk.

A few minutes after 8am, Steve and I were approaching the banding station to remove a few birds from the mist net. We noticed a Mourning Dove hanging lazily in the net. They usually free themselves from the net since they're a bit larger and bulkier than the small species. That morning was no different, but the dove's quick escape from the net was initiated by a suprise attack from a Cooper's Hawk. The hawk divebombed from the opposite side of the net, so the dove escaped. The hawk did not.

Cooper's Hawks attack unsuspecting prey with blinding speed and a fierce set of talons directed forward the bird's body. The talons simultaneouly secure and subdue the prey. When this hawk attempted to grab the dove, his talons and legs became quickly tangled in the net. Since we were on the scene when this all happened, we were able to safely immobilize the hawk and remove it from the net. This was done with our and the hawk's well-being in mind. (Take a look at the talons pictured below)

Adult male Cooper's Hawk: note horizontal barring on chest and red-colored iris of eye

Talons: Razor-sharp and capable of subduing prey and piercing Steve's glove and flesh

Sexing (if possible) and ageing the bird are two critical pieces of information needed before banding a bird. Most species of song birds are sexed reliably in the spring due to color variation or presence of a brood patch (bare skin on the female's belly) or cloacal protuberance (fairly obvious male feature). Hawks are sexed based on size since females are larger than males. Simple measurements were done to determine this Cooper's to be a male. Its plummage pattern and iris color identified it as an adult.

Cooper's Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks are common in our area throughout the spring, summer and fall. They hunt small prey, usually small mammals and birds, in the forest canopy and understory. They will make an appearance at a bird feeder from time to time as well, but they're not looking to enjoy seeds...just seed eaters. Due to their smaller size and habitat preference, they are encountered far less often than the larger Red-tailed Hawks, also common in our area.

The picture below shows some of the field marks used to identify this Cooper's Hawk from the similar-looking Sharp-shinned Hawk. Note the large head of this Cooper's compared to the shrunken-headed appearance typical of a Sharpie. Also the tail feathers of the Cooper's appear much more rounded on this bird in contrast to the flattened ends of the Sharpie's tail feathers. Relative size is also an important cue as well: Cooper's are crow-sized birds and Sharpies are Blue Jay-sized birds.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Monday, May 18, 2009

Busy, busy, busy

Sorry about the lengthy delay since our last post. Things have been very busy at the sanctuary. The museum and trails have been seeing a lot of traffic from a number of elementary schools from Byram Hills, Bedford, and Katonah-Lewisboro school districts. We have a number of student visits planned throughout the rest of May and the first few weeks of June, so we will continue to be very busy for the next few weeks.

In our brief periods of downtime and scheduled days off, we've managed to enjoy all that spring has to offer. We have a number of things to share with you in the coming days when we find some more time to tend to the blog. You can look forward to more migrant bird pictures and updates, snake wrangling, and an extraordinary bird banding session.

In the meantime, can you identify the three birds pictured below? Click on the photos for an enlarged view. All three have been seen on the sanctuary in the last few days. Leave your guesses in the comments section, and I'll post the answers Wednesday evening.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Monday, May 4, 2009

More Birds and Blooms

It has been raining and raining and raining some more over the past three days. Everyone knows that rain is important, but so is a little bit of sunshine. Well, it looks like one more solid day of rain before we get a chance to see the sun breaking through the sky, so I thought I would share some more pictures I took before the rain came.

There has been an abundance of activity in the forest, and the number of bird species moving through the property slowly continues to climb. This past weekend's Breakfast with the Birds Walk tallied 36 different species of birds. Notable observations included sightings of Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Black-throated Blue Warbler. The Phoebes in the boathouse at Bechtel Lake have finished constructing their nest and have begun laying eggs. If visiting the area around the lake and boathouse, keep an eye out for the bird pictured below. Watch closely and you may see the pair keeping a watchfull eye over their nesting location. Please be considerate and do your best not to purposely disturb them or their nest.
Eastern Phoebe

A few more wildflowers have been seen blooming out on the property. In addition to the very noticeable dogwood trees, there are smaller blooming beauties like the Dwarf Ginseng. You have to look closely along the trails to see these tiny flowers blooming. They grow only a few inches above the leaf litter. I saw this one almost by accident.
Dwarf Ginseng
Another plant popping up all over the place, especially in areas with moist soils, is Jack-in-the-pulpit. It's characteristic three leaves look a bit like poison ivy to the untrained eye. Look closely and you'll see this wildflower has a weak stem as opposed to the woody stem of poison ivy. Many of the plants will also have the unusual-looking flower that lends the plant it's name. Gently turn the "cap" of the pulpit over to view the extraordinary color hidden underneath.


One more flowering suprise found during the past week was this yellow violet. We see endless specimens of the purple-colored violets, but the yellow variety is less commonly encountered. The one below was photographed out on the Fox Run trail. Take the Fox Run trail from Veery trail and head up the hill. You'll be treated to flowering Dogwood trees after crossing the stone wall. Make your way over the three fallen logs and follow the trail through the small ravine. This is where you'll find a number of Jack-in-the-pulpit, Red Trillium, and the yellow violets. There are a number of other plants in the area that will bloom later in the spring and early summer as well.
Yellow Violet
As soon as the rainy weather breaks you should visit us, walk the trails, and enjoy all that there is to see during this rapidly changing time of year.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist