Tag Archives: spring

Early Spring Migrants

Signs of spring are beginning to show in the great northeast. The days are getting longer, skunk cabbage is beginning to erupt from the cold ground and birds that have been afar for the winter months are beginning to return to New York State. One may think “What birds? The birds have been here all winter.” True, not all of our native bird species in New York migrate south for the winter months. Birds such as chickadees, northern cardinals, and red tailed hawks tough out the winter, anticipating the spring breeding season (see prior blog post on overwintering birds).  But far more birds winter in South America, Central America, and the southern USA and make the long journey back to NY in the spring. It is an exhausting flight; the birds must make short stops to fuel up on available food and take a quick rest, then up to the sky to continue their journey. Upon arrival at their breeding/nesting grounds, whether in New York State or farther north, there is little time for rest or replenishment of their lost fat reserves from the long journey. The birds must stake out nesting territory, defend it, find a mate and start building the nest that they will care for, around the clock, in the weeks to come.

Keep your ears and eyes out for the early returning migrants, the birds that are first to arrive in the months of March and April. Before describing some of the species one may encounter while bird watching, lets discover the difference between bird calls and songs, primarily applying to passerines or “song birds”. A call is a brief simple sound like a chip note, peep, or chatter. A song is a longer sound segment, usually with distinctive melody such as a series of notes strung together. Calls can be heard all winter from our resident bird population, but in spring the songs begin. Songs are typically related to courtship and establishing territory. Bird sounds (song, hoot, chatter…etc.) are also very useful in assisting bird watchers with identification, as bird vocals are distinct to individual species.

Additional tips that help with bird identification are size, coloration or plumage, and habitat use. Pick a bird you are familiar with, say the American Crow, and think about the size of the bird you are trying to identify. Having an idea of what size the bird is can help you narrow down what the species is from one that may look similar but is larger or smaller than the bird you are trying to identify. Plumage (feather pattern) is very important when identifying birds and can also be very frustrating! However, the more you bird watch, the better you will get at noticing the differences between species.  Habitat type can also help narrow down what species a bird is. For example, if you are observing a bird in a wetland and you think you know what the bird is, but you’re bird guide says that bird is primarily found in dry open fields – you will have to continue looking. All of these factors combined; sound, size, plumage, and habitat use are useful tools in assisting the observer with identifying a bird.

Early Returning Migrants: Meet the Birds!

Passerines or Song Birds

Red-winged Blackbird

These birds often travel in large flocks and can be found nesting in wet marshy or shrubby habitat. A medium sized bird; the male has a distinctive red patch on the upper wing. The female looks very different in color, being a light brownish hue with darker streaking.

Length: 8.75 inches      Wing Span: 13 inches     Weight: 52 grams

Listen to a red-winged blackbird sing –

Martin St-Michel, XC137984. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/137984.

House Wren

The House Wren is smaller in size than the Red-winged Black Bird, weighing about 41 grams less. Both female and male House Wrens have similar plumage (meaning they look the same). Wrens in general are noted for the characteristic pose seen in the picture, with their tail feathers and head up in the air. The House Wren nests in dense brushy habitat, usually within woods. They will also take to bird boxes.

House_Wren_-_Colombia_S4E0879_(16980757130)
House Wren, By Francesco Veronesi from Italy (House Wren – Colombia_S4E0879) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Length: 4.75 inches      Wing Span: 6 inches    Weight: 11 grams

Listen to the song of a male house wren: 

Antonio Xeira, XC305012. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/305012

Common Yellowthroat

The Common Yellowthroat is a warbler and one of the first warblers to arrive in New York. The Common Yellowthroat is a small bird, similar in size to the House Wren. The male has a distinctive black mask, outlined in white – which the female lacks. Warblers in general are very colorful and eye catching. The Common Yellowthroat nests in wet marshy and brushy habitats.

Length: 5 inches      Wing Span: 6.75 inches     Weight: 10 grams

Listen to a male common yelllowthroat sing: 

Jorge de Leon Cardozo and Susan Hochgraf, XC181589. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/181589

Plovers

Killdeer

The Killdeer is an interesting bird, in that it has the unique behavior of displaying a broken-wing act to draw predators away from their nest. So if you see the act, consider yourself lucky, but do not approach! Killdeer are in the plover family, which primarily are a shore bird. However, the Killdeer can be found nesting on open ground in many habitat types, such as agricultural fields, parking lots, and sandy/bare ground areas. Their vocals sound similar to “Killdeer” and they have two distinctive black rings on their chest. Killdeer are larger than the song birds previously discussed, but smaller then a crow.

Length: 10.5 inches     Wing Span: 24 inches    Weight: 95 grams

Listen to a killdeer call: 

James Bradley, XC302258. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/302258.

Herons

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Herons have long legs for wading in water and can be over three feet tall! These birds have a diet composed of fish, frogs, and invertebrates (organisms lacking a spine, such as bugs and insects). Therefore they rely on open water to forage and find food and can be found anywhere from marshy wetlands, rivers, lakes and flooded areas to the shores of the ocean. Look for Herons as the waterbodies began to thaw in spring. These birds nest in rookeries with dozens of nests built of large sticks in a single tree or group of trees, usually within a wetland.

Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron, OPRHP

Length: 46 inches     Wing Span: 72 inches    Weight: 2,400 grams/ 5.3 pounds

Listen to a great blue heron call: 

Ian Cruickshank, XC210126. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/210126.

Raptors

Osprey

Ospreys are a large raptor – meaning they are carnivores. Primarily eating fish, they hover high in the air over water and then dive, talons first, at their prey. They can be found along the shores of river, lakes, and the sea and build huge nests compiled of sticks. The nests can be built on the crotch of a tree, utility poles, or platforms specifically installed for osprey nesting. Typically these birds mate for life, meaning once a pair bond is formed; it lasts until one of the birds dies. Ospreys will return to the same nesting site year after year, adding more to their nest as they see fit. Look for these birds as the water bodies begin to thaw, and their characteristic hovering behavior.

Jason Kazuta hancockwildife.org
Osprey, Jason Kazuta, http://www.hancockwildlife.org/forum/viewtopic.php?showtopic=756&page=55

Length: 23 inches     Wing Span: 63 inches    Weight: 1,600 grams/ 3.5 pounds

Listen to an osprey call: 

Paul Marvin, XC145834. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/145834

Now that you have learned about some of the early returning migrants, grab a good bird field guide, a pair of binoculars and a birding buddy and head to your local State or Town Park! Remember that these birds are under physical stress from their long migration, so avoid flushing or pushing them with your presence (don’t chase them). View with binoculars from a comfortable distance and maybe you will observe courtship behavior or the gathering of nesting material.

*Bird length, wingspan , weight and habitat preference obtained from The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America by David Sibley.

Post by Lilly Schelling, OPRHP, Wildlife Specialist

Saratoga Spring

No, I didn’t forget an s.  After months of cold, brown surroundings, the spring season is beginning to breathe new life into our little town.  I’m not talking sundresses and flip-flops just yet.  No, the subtle signs of spring are what you and your kids are after.  Tiny harbingers that chip away at the dirty parking lot snow and melt your wintery heart drip by drip.  This time of year, if you’re watching closely, they seem to appear daily.  There are many family-friendly places for you to visit and experience early spring in the capital region, and we can tell you where to start!

Have you ever driven past a pond on a warm evening in April or May?  The next time you do, roll your windows down.  The chilly breeze will carry a chorus of peepers into your car and surround you with spring.  The tiny animal that makes this huge noise is called a Spring Peeper.  It is a frog the size of a postage stamp!  In Saratoga Spa State Park, the sound of peepers is the first true sign that spring is around the corner.  For a special glimpse of this frog, join Spa Park’s FrogWatch.  On the last Thursday evening of April, a Park Naturalist will guide visitors through a special wetland where they get a chance to hear and see the little frog with a huge voice!

A spring peeper at Wellesley Island State Park. Photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.
A spring peeper at Wellesley Island State Park. Photo by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

Another of Saratoga’s spring sounds comes from a sharply dressed male bird called the Red Wing Blackbird.  These birds fly south to escape the snow and ice, but they are one of the first to arrive back from their winter vacation.  Smaller than a crow but just as loud, the blackbirds congregate in tall grasses and proclaim their territory with a raucous “okalacheeee!”.  To hear them yourself, visit Moreau Lake State Park on a sunny day and bring your binoculars to see their wings flash red!

redwingedbb
Photo courtesty of Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/texaseagle/14121019609.

After all of this peeping and proclaiming, perhaps your family would enjoy a quiet walk to enjoy a silent sign of spring.  Visit Saratoga Spa State Park’s Hemlock Trail for a short, flat walk to see the first spring plant, the Skunk Cabbage.  This magenta and green flower unfurls from the swampy sections of Saratoga.  It gets its name from the acrid odor it releases when it is crushed.  Later in the spring, the strange looking flower will be replaced by large, showy green leaves.  To see and smell this plant for yourself, go to the Hemlock Trail entrance on Crescent Avenue in Saratoga Springs.  You’ll find the plants about half way around the mile-long loop.

We hope you enjoy your outings in our state parks, and everywhere spring is sprouting.  Each day of this special season provides a new opportunity for you and your family to explore the outside world!

For more information regarding outings at Saratoga Spa State Park, please call the Environmental Educator at (518) 584-2000 Ext. 116.

Check out these additional spring-themed events that are happening across the state:

Vernal Pool Exploration for Families @ Minnewaska State Park Preserve, April 25

Family Adventure: Night of the Frogs @ Connetquot River State Park Preserve, May 30

Family Fun: Tadpole Expedition @ Caleb Smith State Park Preserve, May 31

Pre-registration is required for most programs.

Post by Alli Schweizer, Saratoga Spa State Park.

 

 

 

 

Happy 1st Birthday, Blog!

It is NatureTimes’ first birthday and it is spring! So get outside and celebrate, the snow will soon be melted and signs of life are appearing all around. Dust off your nature guides and your binoculars, get on your boots, and get out to a park near you. Last year, we posted some images of wildflowers that are the first to appear. Check that out – see how many you remember (hover over the photo to see the name). Here are some other flora and fauna to look for in the coming month.

To date, the Nature Times blog has 97 followers and 15,102 page visits. Thank you for keeping up with us, and be sure to tell your friends and family!

Post by Julie Lundgren, NYNHP.

 

 

 

 

Wondrous Woodcocks

Roosting Woodcock
American Woodcock. NYSparks.com.

 

They are inconspicuous and well camouflaged for living on the forest floor, old fields, or wet spring meadows. Their eyes are nearly on the back of their heads, giving them the ability to see not only what is in front of them but what is behind them. Their bills look too long for their body; but this elongated bill helps them eat their weight in earthworms and other small invertebrates like spiders, beetles, and ants each day. And, in spring, males do an incredible “sky dance” at dusk and dawn, a mating display that is a highlight to any evening walk in springtime.

Who are they? They are American woodcock (woodcock), also known as the timberdoodle and Labrador twister. Woodcocks are mourning dove sized birds.  They have short necks and tails and large heads and beaks. They are one of the few shore birds that have adapted to living in the forest.

For many people, the mating “dance” of the male woodcock is a sure sign that spring has arrived. The courtship ritual starts at dusk with the male sitting on the ground in an opening in the forest or in a small field. He repeatedly utters a distinctive peent call. Next he takes off from the ground flying in a slow upward spiral. As the wind moves through the wings, a whistling sound can be heard as the bird rises. When he reaches 200-350 feet above the ground, the wing sounds become irregular and then cease as he starts a zig-zag descent. He also chirps as he goes down. He then lands silently next to a female woodcock, if she is present, and resumes peenting. The display starts again and will continue well into dark. He resumes the “dance” near dawn and will continue it until sunrise. Listen for them in the evening in wet meadows or fields in March or April, even before the snow has melted.  (Click here to listen to a woodcock.)

Woodcock dance
Diagram by Nate Kishbaugh.

 

After mating, a female woodcocks lays her eggs in shallow depressions on the ground. She usually lays four eggs that take about 21 days to incubate. Once they are hatched out, the young chicks follow their mother, learning what to eat. They grow quickly on their earthworm and insect diet. By the time they are a month old, they are nearly the same size as their mothers.

In mid-fall woodcocks migrate from New York to the southeastern coast. They return to New York once the ground has thawed.

Woodcock nesting
Female Woodcock on a nest. NYSparks.com.

 

Post by Susan Carver, OPRHP.

Join us for a “Woodcock Walk” at:

Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center, Jones Beach State Park, Wantagh, Adult Ed-ventures, Friday, April 10, 7-8:30 pm, $4/person

Sources:

American woodcock, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/american_woodcock/id

American woodcock, New York State Department of Conservation, http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/45448.html

 

 

 

 

Harbinger of Spring: Skunk Cabbage

Walking in the woods this spring, especially in wet areas, you may notice these popping up through the snow. On closer inspection you will notice that it is, in fact, a plant! What you are seeing is the large spathe of the Skunk Cabbage plant. This plant has a very interesting flower structure and strategy for pollination.

Let’s learn about the flower structure first: The large fleshy hood is called the spathe; which encloses and protects the club-like spadix. The spadix is the surrounded by tiny flowers.

spadix
Diagram by Lilly Schelling.

Skunk Cabbage is one of the first wildflowers that emerge in spring. This is possible because the plant produces heat, thereby melting the snow around it. The coloration of the spathe varies from greenish to purple, often accompanied by spots or stripes. Two color variations are depicted below:

lilly photo
Photo by Lilly Schelling.
kelly photo
Photo by Kelly Starkweather.

Notice how the plant on the right resembles the look of raw meat, and if you smelled it you would notice a rather pungent skunky odor; hence the name Skunk Cabbage! These characteristics attract flies which pollinate these plants. You can experience the intense smell by scratching the leaf next time you see this plant in the woods.

Skunk Cabbage can be found in many of our state parks in swamp or wetland habitat. Though the plant has the “Cabbage” in name, it is not edible. The leaves contain calcium oxalate crystals that cause a painful burning sensation in the mouth when consumed. Even boiling the leaves does not rid them of all the irritating crystals.

Post by Lilly Schelling, OPRHP.