Saturday, March 28, 2015

Surprise Snow

Here's an unexpected sight from our yard this morning. What the heck is this?? (I exclaim along with the crocuses that have been blooming happily in their bed for the past week or so.)

Actually, the crocuses are probably unfazed, hardy garden plants that they are. I'm the one who can't fathom the appearance of two inches of SNOW after I was so sure spring was firmly here.

When the snow started falling yesterday, the bird activity in our yard (especially around the feeders) kicked into high gear. I actually saw our first Eastern Phoebe of the year come barreling through at one point, looking very out of place in the snow. Phoebe, I'm super happy that you're here, but you picked the wrong day to come back!

The American Goldfinches are patchily morphing into their summer breeding costumes now:

So... spring! But... snow?

The Dark-eyed Juncos looked right at home in the snow of course; this one even had a perfect tiny snowflake decorating its face:

This male House Finch was looking particularly resplendent amid the falling snow:

And some female Northern Cardinals were a lovely sight on the still-bare trees:

I don't think I've ever noticed such bold eyebrows on a female cardinal before; what a handsome lady:

Another female cardinal struck a somewhat sleeker pose on a neighboring branch:

As I'm posting this at the end of the day, most of the snow has already melted, and we're supposed to be back up to temperatures in the 40s and 50s for the next several days. I'll take this as just a small and unexpected reminder of winter as we head onward into spring!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Very Early Spring at Sheldon Marsh

On Tuesday afternoon, I drove out to Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve to see what this place is like in the very earliest stages of spring. This was only my third time visiting this preserve since moving to Ohio in August, but I feel like I'm getting a pretty good feel for the place across the changing seasons. As with my previous visits (in the fall and winter, respectively), there were lots of things to see!

I'll just dive in with what I consider the most exciting sight of the trip. Turtles! Yes, it really must be spring if there are turtles out and about. And even cooler, these are Blanding's Turtles (I saw two individuals; the second is just outside of the next picture), a species listed as threatened in Ohio and considered endangered by the IUCN because of their declining populations. I've never encountered this creature before, and I love that bright yellow chin:

These turtles were quite large, maybe around a foot long including their heads. Apparently Blanding's Turtles are super long-lived (70 years and up in the wild) and they don't reach maturity until 12-20 years old, which probably isn't helping their population problems. (The much more common Painted Turtles, by contrast, are ready to reproduce after 2-16 years.) I've also read that predation of eggs and hatchlings is a big problem for these guys. Perhaps the two turtles I saw will make some eggs, and maybe those eggs won't get eaten.... I don't want these sun-chinned creatures to go away!

Waterfowl migration is in full swing, and there were plenty of birds swimming around in the ice-free marsh. A variety of ducks were dabbling in the back of the marsh, but I was pretty well entranced by a small group of American Coot -- relatives of rails -- foraging near the path:

Coot! So cute, with that little tail and head:

These birds mainly eat aquatic vegetation, and they must've been finding some good meals in this shallow water. Mmm, greenery:

Coots have so many weird features, like that red knob on the top of their beak that looks so much like a third eye to me in the above picture. And their feet are these big lobed things, all the better for paddling in water and walking on mud:

The lobes fold up (again, weird), but the foot remains large:

These really are quite handsome birds, and I'm glad I got to hang out with them for a bit:

A pair of Wood Ducks foraged close to the path as well, giving me just the briefest of glimpses of their amazing costumes through the reeds. It's kind of interesting to see just parts of these ducks at a time, little details picked out from the whole. Like the male's fantastic green-purple-pink ponytail:

And his fancy painted beak and speckled chestnut breast:

I'm astonished by the colors peeking through on the female's wings:

And an entire pool of the same swirling iridescence -- what incredible color! -- on top of the male:

Yes, these are some pretty amazing birds, in part and in whole!

I was glad to see a pair of Killdeer patrolling the marsh, making me think of the Connecticut shore (where I would be just starting to monitor for Piping Plovers and other shorebirds if I lived there now; sigh):

Several pairs of Canada Geese made a dramatic (and loud) presence. I hope the Muskrats don't mind that one of their many mounds seems to be under consideration as a potential nest site:

The Muskrats seem to be thriving in this marsh. I didn't see any signs of the American Mink I spotted here on my last visit, but there were definitely Muskrats splashing in and out of the water (trailing their weird snake-like tails behind them):

This male Red-winged Blackbird chirped at me from within the reeds next to the path, his shoulder patches demurely covered:

A Red-tailed Hawk landed on a pole and surveyed the marsh, totally confident and comfortable even with people walking by right below:

After a few minutes it took off again:

And headed down the path right toward me (passing over my head close enough that I could hear the small sounds it made with every wingbeat):

Ah, so many cool creatures in this place!

Speaking of close encounters, I'm sure that people hand-feed the squirrels in this preserve (I had a couple more Fox Squirrels walk right up to me) and I suspect that they feed the birds as well. This Black-capped Chickadee flew over and nearly landed on me when I stopped at its patch of the marsh, and then it perched nearby to look me over. Well, if this creature's going to offer me an adorable chickadee photo op, I'm certainly not going to pass it up!

This Eastern Chipmunk also seemed ridiculously confident, peeking out of its hole right on the edge of the path:

Do you have something in your cheek pouches, little chipmunk, or are they always that pudgy?

Another chipmunk across the way must have been working on a nest, with all those leaves in her mouth; she dove into a nearby hole right after I took this picture:

Wow, I really did see a lot of things! And all while getting to be out in the bright sunlight, which did a good deal to make the cold day feel warmer, and made for a lovely misty marsh:

Friday, March 20, 2015

Velcro Squirrel

It took about seven months, but a clever Fox Squirrel has finally figured out how to get to the seeds in one of our window feeders. We call her "Tufty" because of the strange tuft of fur on her left ear. She's taken to climbing up the screen door near the feeder:

(Yes, I'm watching you!)

From there, if she holds onto the screen with her hind feet, she can just barely reach out and latch her front feet onto the feeder:

Fox Squirrels are pretty darn big, and she's already knocked this feeder onto the ground many times. If she can't get enough mouthfuls of seeds with the stretch-and-velcro method, she'll unstick her hind feet and try to climb up into the feeder. Sometimes this actually works, and she just barely fits herself in there to chow down:

Mmm, seeds!

Other times the feeder is too unstable to hold her weight, and she ends up swinging to the side with seeds spilling out onto her head:


We're happy to clean up after her, inventive creature that she is. At least it's just the one squirrel at just the one feeder! (So far.)

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Big Melt

Yes!! With several days of amazing, sunny, above-freezing weather (even highs around 50 recently, and today: rain), I think we've finally broken out of winter's ice-shell here in northeastern Ohio. This might even be the most dramatic thaw I've ever experienced. We've gone directly from two feet of packed snow and ice to muddy ground and running water in about a week. The stream behind our house is raging and brown. Most of the fields around here are basically pools. It's an incredible and sudden change, and I love it!

Two days ago and again yesterday afternoon, I took time to just wander around our yard and soak in the sun (and try not to soak my shoes too much in the process). It's amazing seeing American Tree Sparrows foraging on the bare ground:

What is that, grass?? Wow!

All of a sudden, a whole new cast of characters has shown up. Four big Turkey Vultures -- a species basically absent from northern Ohio in the winter -- passed low over our house this morning. And I was happy to see an Eastern Bluebird visiting our yard yesterday afternoon:

While I was wandering around during the past two afternoons, birds were almost constantly moving overhead. Killdeer -- another very recent arrival -- barreled past while calling loudly:

Several Mallards were moving around as well:

Flocks of blackbirds -- mostly Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds, as far as I could tell -- peppered the sky:

There are so many creatures shifting and moving right now, and this is only the beginning! (I'm eagerly awaiting the return of the Eastern Phoebes, who should be here any day now. And not long after that, there will be frogs, and wildflowers, and all sorts of green and singing things....) Hooray for spring, all the more welcome after what feels like the longest winter ever!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Two Daytime Mammals

I've been out of town for the past several days, and Paul took over the wildlife observation around the house while I was gone. He did some great documentary work with his iPhone, recording two interesting mammals that wandered into the yard outside his office window! (All pictures and videos in this post are courtesy of Paul.)

This Virginia Opossum showed up yesterday afternoon, just a few hours before I got home; so I didn't get to see the creature itself, although I did see the tracks it left as it traversed all areas of the yard (presumably looking for food):

It looks like those short legs aren't a lot of help when walking through the melting snow (IT'S HAPPENING!):

I'm sad that I missed the opossum's visit; I love its cute little face, and I don't know when I'll next see one out in the daytime.

I'm not upset, however, that I was away when this other mammal stopped by on Wednesday. This is the first Raccoon we've seen here, but it was not exactly a happy sighting:

This guy was exhibiting some very odd behavior, beyond just an apparent search for food that probably also brought the opossum out in the daytime. I suppose it's possible that this wandering and scrabbling behavior at our porch door (with Paul moving around right on the other side of the glass) could come from a familiarity with people and houses; who knows, maybe someone in the neighborhood feeds this creature. But after reading a bit about signs of disease in Raccoons, I think it's likely that this guy was sick. This video is kind of sad to watch, but here you go:

(Don't mind the dropped sunflower seeds all over the ground. Now that the snow's melting (!!!) we'll sweep those away soon.)

The Humane Society (more info here) lists some behaviors to watch out for in Raccoons, because these things could mean the animal's sick (possibly even with rabies):
    • Staggering gait
    • An animal seemingly oblivious to noise or nearby movement
    • Erratic wandering
    • Discharge from eyes or mouth
    • Wet and matted hair on face
    • Repeated high-pitch vocalization
    • Self-mutilation
The first three things seem to apply to this creature. Thank goodness it wasn't exhibiting the last two behaviors, because that would have been terrifying.

Now that we know these things, we'll keep an eye out for this Raccoon; if it returns and still seems sick (especially if it's showing additional signs of illness), we'll call animal control. I'm hoping that either (1) it was just hungry and has since found some food, or (2) it was sick and has since died so it's no longer in distress and/or a danger to other animals or people. Don't worry, we'll be careful.

It's too bad nature can't always be happy. Here's hoping these two wandering mammals have found whatever they needed.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Frozen Lake Erie

I think (I hope) spring might actually be on its way. I've heard titmice and cardinals beginning to test out their spring songs on recent sunny (but still below-freezing) days, and the weather report is predicting near-50-degree temperatures next week. (So exciting!)

But this post is not about spring's much anticipated arrival. Oh no. This post is about one of the most severe things I've seen during the past two severely cold months.

Last Monday (February 23), I stopped briefly at Miller Road Park in Avon Lake to see Lake Erie, which was at this point basically a never-ending landscape of ice and snow:

Lake Erie always astonishes me whenever I see it, but this is something else.

Actually, almost all of the lake that I could see was frozen. A power plant next to the park pumps warm water into the lake, which keeps this small section of the lake from freezing over. And that's the other reason I stopped at this spot, because without other open water in the area, this place was absolutely packed with thousands of ducks:

I mean, I still can't really fathom this. I did a conservative count from the pictures I took, and I came up with an estimated 1,000 Red-breasted Mergansers and 3,000 Common Mergansers, which were the most numerous birds there. What?? The highest number of Common Mergansers I'd seen in one place before this was somewhere around 30, and I thought that was a lot. Most of the birds in the above picture are Common Mergansers. Here's another view of that massive group:

I mean, what is this? That's way too many Common Mergansers, mostly tuxedo-ed males:

These birds made quite a sight in flight as well:

The other side of the open water was also packed with ducks, and about 100 Great Black-backed Gulls (again, another bird I've only seen in small numbers before) lined the edge of the ice:

Dense groups of Red-breasted Mergansers looked a bit like big fuzzy caterpillars with all those wild hairdoes:

Sleek Common Mergansers and frizzy Red-breasted Mergansers, with Great Black-backed Gulls looking on:

Other birds were less numerous, but still very cool to see. About 100 Canada Geese congregated in one corner of the pool:

Groups of Redheads and Canvasbacks (the brighter white birds with funny sloping beaks) looked stunning in the setting sun:

And several male Common Goldeneyes were looking extra fancy with their stark black and white costumes and white face patches:

I think the huge numbers of Common Mergansers were my favorite part of the scene, though. When else am I going to get to see a parade of these gorgeous birds?

My fingers were numb after about 10 minutes of standing in this awesome place. I wish I could have stayed longer, but yeah, it was really cold. I feel like I've now seen how extreme winter in northern Ohio can be, and it was incredible and intense. And now it's time for spring.