Friday, January 29, 2010

Photo Puzzle: Day 5

Ok, here's your last chance to guess (or guess correctly) before we reveal the entire photo.

Today's image is way too easy. 

Wiry, gray hair + round, pink nose + small, rounded ears + long, naked tail = ?

Of course, its a Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana)

This is North America's only marsupial (or pouched) mammal.  They are nocturnal by habit and are omnivorous eaters.  The long, hairless tail is prehensiled and capable of grasping tree branches for safety as it climbs trees.  The inner most digit on each of the back feet is opposable and functions much like our thumb, which is another adaptation for climbing.  To play "possum" is to pretend to be dead.  This behavioral trait is employed by opossums as a means of escaping harm by potential predators or curious dogs.  Opossums often fall prey to cars due to they're relatively slow, awkward running style and poor reaction to bright car headlights.

This photo is of an opossum I discovered on the front porch of the Naturalist's cottage here at the sanctuary.  I'm not sure why he climbed up onto the arm of the chair and onto my butterfly net, but he seemed bashful and ashamed for doing so as I took his picture that evening.  After a few minutes of portrait time, I went back inside to allow it to go on its way.  I've seen an opossum, presumably the same one, on a handful of occasions around the house since the evening of our photo shoot.  Hopefully this one will stay out of the road and escape the disasterous fate of the opossums and skunks that have visited me in the past.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Photo Puzzle: Day 4

Next to last day of our inaugural photo puzzle.  We've removed two more squares from the image today.  Maybe today's reveal will confirm your suspicions about who the mystery subject might be.

Leave your answer in the Comment section below.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Photo Puzzle: Day 3

It's Day 3 of the photo puzzle.  Few details have been revealed thus far, but today's image might be a big clue.  Look closely at the image below.

Leave your answer in the Comment section below.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Photo Puzzle: Day 2

Here is a little more of our mystery subject. 

Have a good guess?  Leave your answer in the Comment section below.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Monday, January 25, 2010

Photo Puzzle: Day 1

This is a new type of photo quiz that works kind of like a jigsaw puzzle.  Every day this week I'll post the same picture with a little more of the subject revealed.  If you know who or what is in the picture, leave your answer in the comments section below.  On the day of the final reveal (Friday), I'll explain a little about our subject and how I got the photo.

Reveal #1:

- Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Track Quiz Answers

#1.  How many White-tailed Deer made these tracks?

Answer:  Two deer made these parallel sets of tracks.  They most likely weren't walking side-by-side, but instead one was following behind the other.  They obviously were headed in the same direction, however.

#2. What semi-arboreal mammal left these tracks in the snow?

Answer:  Virginia Opossum.  These climbing critters have more than just a prehensiled tail to aid their climbing skills.  The opposable "thumbs" on the inside of each of the back feet (circled) also help opossums grasp branches as they climb trees, vines, and shrubs while foraging for fruit and other elevated foods.

#3.  Who is the late night scavenger leaving tracks in my lawn?

Answer:  Raccoon.  The front and back feet are different sizes with the front ones leaving the smaller tracks in the photo.  Notice the long toes present on those front feet (circled).  These dexterous digits are the raccoon's most prized asset and effective tool for foraging for prey along ponds, streamsides, and in your garbage cans.

#4.  Who hopped through the snow?

Answer:  Grey Squirrel.  Each track is comprised of an impression of each of the squirrel's four feet as it hopped from point A to point B.  The large impressions of each track are from the back feet; small impressions from the front feet.  Follow the direction of the back feet's impressions to find out which way the squirrel was headed.

The snow is all gone for now, but you can continue to look for animal tracks in mud and soft soil until the snow returns.  Enjoy our early spring-like weather break while it lasts.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Friday, January 15, 2010

Animal Tracks...A Quiz

Winter hikes and backyard explorations offer unique opportunities to discover the movements and activities of various wildlife.  Like the words of a story, the tracks and traces left in winter's snow tell a tale of an animal's recent history through the very place where you stand.  Learning to identify common tracks will enhance your next winter walk.

2, 4, and 5
Many animal's tracks can be identified by the number of toes present on their feet.  In the southern tier of NY, we have one very common two-toed mammal, the White-tailed Deer.  Their tracks (right) are easily identifiable and recognized by most everyone. 

Dog and cat tracks, be they wild or domestic varieties, are characterized by 4 toes.  The presence (dog) or absence (cat) of toenails registered in the track can be helpful in generally differentiating between the two groups. 

Finally, a number of mammals have feet with 5 toes, and this is where identification begins to get difficult.  A little knowledge of common local mammal species is always helpful when trying to determine a possible match to an unknown track.  Often times the location/habitat of the tracks and where they came from/lead to are helpful clues to who may have left them behind.  Also, small details to pay attention to or look for might include:
  • the length of the toes
  • the overall shape of the foot
  • the size of the track
  • drag marks from the animal's tail or belly
  • the pattern of the tracks indicating an animal's pattern of movement (walking vs. hopping).
The Quiz
Below are a series of photos taken in mid-December on the lawn in front of the Naturalist's Cottage.  Do you know who registered each of the tracks?  Click on the images for full screen views.  Leave your answers in the Comments section at the bottom of the post.

#1. You should recognize the tracks in the photo below.  The question many of this animal made the tracks?  1 or 2?

#2.  The first one may have been too easy, so try this one.  Both the front foot (upper print) and back foot  (lower print) are registered very close together in this photo. This semi-arboreal mammal needs that oddly shaped toe to get a grip.

#3.  Five long toes are easy to recognize in this picture.  Both front and back feet are pictured below.  This animal is a late evening visitor under my bird feeders and compost pile.  Don't think too hard about this one.

#4.  A common animal, but a very tricky track for most people to recognize.  We often overlook the details of animals common to our neighborhoods and parks.  Do you know who hopped through the snow?

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Winter Bird Feeding...Making it count

The feeders are up, you're keeping them full, and dozens of birds are flocking to feed in your yard.  The sight of all those birds comprising various species is wonderful entertainment.  Friends and family may be impressed by your living wild bird show when they come to visit.  Your life list and yard list will grow by leaps and bounds and be a source of pride to share with your birdfeeding buddies.  But is it enough?  Is there anything you could do to make bird feeding scientifically relevant?  Yes!

Make bird feeding count.  Take the chance to make every chickadee, titmouse, and sparrow matter.  Life lists and yard lists are of great personal benefit, but they're also of importance for conservation of species and habitat in your area.  Individual observations are crucial additions to the data needed to monitor species population numbers, species distributions, and migration patterns for many of our most common bird species.  Scientists, researchers, and conservationists would never have the ability to track most species without the contributions of private citizens like you and I.

So where do you share your observations?  There are a number of citizen science projects available to willing participants.  Some are short, seasonal projects while others are long-term, on-going projects.  Some require higher levels of commitment than others.  Most are free and a few charge nominal fees for participation and continued execution of the project.  Here are three of my favorites:

Project FeederWatch
This is a winter-long survey of birds that visit bird feeders at backyards, nature centers, and other locations all across the continent.  Every other week, participants count the birds they see at their feeders from November to early April and send their data to Project FeederWatch.  The data is used by scientists to track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.  The project is operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada.  This is my third year as a FeederWatcher, and we count for Project FeederWatch every other weekend in the museum.

Great Backyard Bird Count
From the GBBC website: "The Great Backyard Bird Count is an annual four-day event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of where the birds are across the continent and in Hawaii. Anyone can participate, from beginning bird watchers to experts. It takes as little as 15 minutes on one day, or you can count for as long as you like each day of the event."  This year's event takes place from February 12-15, 2010.  This will be my fourth year as a participant of this great event.  Watch the sanctuary program calendar for programs associated with this year's Great Backyard Bird Count.

From the eBird website: "A real-time, online checklist program, eBird has revolutionized the way that the birding community reports and accesses information about birds. Launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, eBird provides rich data sources for basic information on bird abundance and distribution at a variety of spatial and temporal scales."

"The observations of each participant join those of others in an international network of eBird users. eBird then shares these observations with a global community of educators, land managers, ornithologists, and conservation biologists. In time these data will become the foundation for a better understanding of bird distribution across the western hemisphere and beyond."

My favorite parts of this program are its free, your lists are stored in your online account, and you can explore bird sightings for birds, locations, and geographic regions all over the continent.  Sightings can be submitted anytime from anywhere you saw birds.
Click the buttons on the right side of the blog to reach any of the above project websites.  For more citizen science projects, please visit these websites:
Please make it count.  Every bird matters!

Happy bird feeding,

Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Friday, January 1, 2010

Winter Bird Feeding...Avoiding Problems

Bird feeding is a decidedly easy hobby, but it's not free of potential pitfalls or problems.  Below are a couple of the more common problems new bird feeding hobbyists may encounter and some simple remedies for fixing or avoiding these situations.  Feel free to share your solutions to these and other situations in the comment section below.

Creating a mess
Its true.  Birds are not neat or clean eaters.  One of the inevitable situations many bird feeding stations develop is the "mess" the birds make under or around the bird feeders.  Most of the mess consists of seed shells, spilled seed and some bird droppings.  Depending on the location of your bird feeders, this mess may be tolerable and managed with little effort.

If the aforementioned mess is present in any quantity on your deck or patio, it may be a bit of an issue.  Frequent cleaning of these areas is necessary to improve appearance and stop the mess from coming indoors on your or your pet's feet.  A simple solution is to place feeders in the lawn or a flower or garden bed where the appearance of shelled seeds and bird droppings is unlikely to be noticed.  These areas will still need to be periodically "cleaned", but it requires far less attention and effort to do so as a simple raking or mowing under the feeders is usually enough to disburse any accumulation of waste material under the feeders.  If snow is present throughout the winter, shoveling clean snow on top of the waste material is quick fix for covering up the mess until a thorough cleaning can be accomplished.

If there is an abundance of spilled seed under the feeder, be sure that you are filling your feeders with the appropriate seed.  Remember...hanging or elevated feeders work best with one seed type, usually black-oil sunflower.  Seed mixes in these feeders often result in an extraordinary mess from the birds sifting through the seed mix to get to their favorite seed type.  Some seeds, like thistle, need specially-designed feeders to disburse the seed properly without a mess.

One more simple solution is to purchase feeders with seed trays (see photo above right) to catch some of the mess or set up a separate seed catcher under the feeders to keep the mess under the feeders contained.  These items need to be cleaned frequently due to the concentrated accumulation of material which may contribute to fungal growth or disease transmission.

Avoid Disease Transmission
Any area frequented by a high volume of organisms is a potential breeding ground for disease.  We know the importance of sanitation in restaurants and our own kitchens, but these same principles are rarely applied to the buffet line we offer to the birds in our yards.  Very simply, clean feeders and food will prevent birds from becoming ill.  Here are couple things to remember:
  • Never offer moldy or rancid food at your feeding station
  • Keep feeding stations clear of excessive waste material
  • Spread feeders out to avoid concentrated accumulations of waste and reduce stress from competition among individual birds
  • Clean feeders periodically with a 10% bleach solution and allow to air dry completely before refilling

Goldfinch exhibiting symptoms of Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis

If the above recommendations are performed, your birds will feed with very little chance of contracting illness from your station or one another.  There are circumstances in which diseased birds do find your station and present a hazard to the other visitors regardless of your cleaning habits.  One of the most common instances of disease during winter feeding is Mycoplasmal conjunctivitisRead a previous post about conjunctivitis here.  If birds with symptoms appear at your feeders, take the feeders down, clean them, and don't start feeding until all birds have disbursed from your feeding station.

Bird feeders are largely intended for songbirds, but they eventually become visited by a predator or two looking to make a meal from your seed-loving visitors.  Hawks and cats are two of the mostly likely culprits for upsetting a happy feeding station.  Continued and repeated visits by predators, perceived or otherwise, will cause birds to stop visiting. 

Keep cats indoors and encourage neighbors to do the same.  Reduce hiding places where cats can ambush feeding stations.  House cats and feral cats kill more birds than any other predator.  This needless threat is easily avoidable with due diligence on all of our part.

Hawks are a natural part of the landscape and they will inevitably make a visit to your feeding station to make a suprise attack.  For some folks, this will happen once or twice a year, and its quite thrilling and interesting to observe.  For others, it can become a consistent problem if the hawk is repeatedly successful at grabbing a meal.  Reduce songbird mortality by predation by placing feeders within 10-20 feet of cover.  Your birds will have an opportunity to get away, and the hawk will become less likely to make an easy meal every time they visit your yard.

Cooper's Hawk sitting on my birdfeeding station

For more information and solutions to common birdfeeding problems, check out the following resources:
Happy bird feeding!

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist