Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Earth Day Every Day

Palm Warbler

Earth Day was just a few weeks ago, and Westmoreland staff were requested to conduct quite a few programs with the Earth Day theme.  Most of these programs revolved around recycling or endangered species.  Let’s face it, while all of us are required to recycle these days, how many of us actually recycle everything we can?  With the new additions to what is recyclable in New York going into effect on June 1st, recycling is easier than ever.  It is one of the most important things we can do and one that is easy for kids to do, too. 
When it comes to endangered species however we don’t really have a high profile one in our immediate area.  Students hear all about elephants, whales and rhinos, but know little about the plight of  New York's Bog Turtles, Piping Plovers and the Karner Blue Butterfly.  All endangered species in New York are federally protected, but most don’t have the “wow” factor needed for the majority of people to turn them into poster animals for the cause.  A sad fact, but a fact nonetheless. 
So, I started to think about what I can do different this year to really make a positive impact.   All the dazzling migratory birds stopping at Westmoreland also made me think of where a lot of them were coming from.  The Yucatan Peninsula and other Central American spots where I don’t think they are required to recycle!  The easiest way to help these birds and other non-migratory birds is to buy shade grown coffee. 
Intern Candace Nicoletti about to release a Blue-winged Warbler

Coffee is actually a shade growing plant.  For farmers, the problem with  shade grown coffee plants is that is grows slower and therefore does not turn as quick a profit.  Coffee plants grown in the sun grow faster and yield a quicker profit, but it has some serious drawbacks.  It depletes the soil of nutrients very quickly and requires major pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.  The worst problem with sun grown coffee is you have to cut down the forest habitat.   A forest habitat that, once gone, is almost impossible to regain. The result is there are 94-97% fewer birds in sun grown plantations!   Oh, did I forget to mention that sun grown coffee doesn’t taste as good as shade grown?
Nashville Warbler

Shade grown coffee does cost more than sun grown, but of course that is because it takes longer to grow.  In the long run, shade grown is cheaper because you don’t have to cut down more forest and spend more on pesticides and herbicides.  As usual, the problem comes down to quick profit vs. long term sustainable profit. 
So to celebrate Earth Day every day, and invest in the survival of these really spectacular birds breeding and passing through Westmoreland, I am going to have another cup of shade grown coffee.  Who knew saving the earth could taste so good?

Monday, May 23, 2011

River Otter at Westmoreland's Bechtel Lake

River Otter

On the morning of April 22, I was out on the trails enjoying an early morning bird walk.  The cold overnight temperatures lingered well into the morning hours despite the sunshine, and, as a result, the bird activity was a little stale.  After reaching the north end of Bechtel Lake, the bird activity was still non-existent, but there was soon to be a surprise.

While standing near the beginning of the Wood Thrush trail, the sound of rustling leaves caught my attention.  Expecting to see a squirrel, or possibly a chipmunk, emerging from the tangle of fallen timber, I hesitated to grab my binoculars.  Out from under the fallen tree emerged an otter!

The North American river otter (Lontra canadensis) is a small-medium sized mammal belonging to the weasel family.  Similar in shape and proportion to the domesticated ferret, the otter is adept at moving across land and through water, though its short, slick fur, long, rudder-like tail, and webbed feet make it a more effective and efficient hunter in the water.

The otter I observed spent some time exploring the rock walls, the holes and cavities around the base of a few trees, and the shallow water along the shoreline before making a foray into the cool water of Bechtel Lake.  After losing sight of the otter for a few minutes, it was spotted again at the opposite end of the lake near the dam.  From the elevated vantage point of the Easy Loop trail, the otter was observed diving and surfacing like a snorkeling diver trying to get a better look at a reef.

Eventually, the otter made a mad dash toward the shore and ejected a large sunfish from its mouth.  Quickly securing the sunfish with its front feet, the otter proceeded to consume its freshly caught breakfast.  Starting at the tail, the otter used its well defined canine teeth and molars to chew through the fish’s scales, flesh, and bones.  Within 6 minutes, the entire catch was chewed and swallowed with nothing more than a few scales left behind.  Almost immediately after the final gulp, the otter returned to the water and quickly vanished.  See the series of photos below.

Though long suspected to reside on the sanctuary property, it has been quite a while since the last time the staff or a visitor made a substantiated report or documented evidence of an otter at the sanctuary.  Westmoreland’s director, Steve Ricker, believes that it has been nearly 12-15 years since the last time he saw an otter at Bechtel Lake.  Let’s hope it’s not that long before the next time!

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Beginning to chow down on breakfast

Getting a good grip

Chewing the tail off

Rearranging the sunny in its mouth

Using the strong molars to chew on the fish

Using the molars on the other side now

Nearly finished, but there's a bit more chewing needed to swallow the head

One final bit of chewing before the last bit goes down the hatch

Turning back into the water

Guess they don't have to wait 15 minutes after eating before  returning to the water?

A final glimpse before it disappeared back into the water