Saturday, February 28, 2015

Eastern Towhee

Eastern towhee giving me the red eye.
Last week we had a new arrival on the deck below our bird feeders.  As the prolonged cold preserved the snow covering the ground, an eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) gave up on the shrub land along the creek and grudgingly visited civilization.  They are omnivorous, seeking out insects as well as seeds and small fruits and drupes in season, a diet hidden in the snow.

"... and don't forget to floss."
Unlike the adage about children, this towhee is commonly heard but not seen.  A denizen of low-lying shrubs and disturbed areas, it digs quietly in the leaf litter, usually keeping below 3 feet.  Moving quickly, the best view is usually a quick flash of orange. 

On the other hand they are quite talkative and you are more likely to hear one before you can find it in the bush.  Their call is one that even I can remember, the famous "Drink-your-tea" heard here.  Flitting around in the brush, they communicate with a shorter nasal "shewink" call.

Managing a woodland or tree farm for wildlife requires promoting diverse habitat.  An example of the effect land management can have on a species is in this Wikipedia quote.  "In a southern Missouri oak-hickory forest, eastern towhees were not present before clear cutting or in the nearby uncut forest after cutting, but occurred at a mean density of 9.3 birds/24 acres in a 3-year-old clearcut."  This doesn't mean we should clearcut, but it is important to maintain disturbed areas and edges for some species to thrive.

"It won't show in the snow."
Birders frequently have a mental library of bird songs, allowing them to identify a bird by sound alone.  This talent has so far escaped me, but then my wife says I don't listen to her either.  Birders frequently describe calls and songs in memorable phrases such as the "Drink-your-tea" above.  These are called "mnemonics" and a long listing of these are found at  A good example is the familiar call of the northern cardinal, described as "What-cheer, what-cheer, what-cheer."

There are extensive studies on every aspect of the eastern towhee's life, many of which are summarized in this long entry in Wikipedia.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Hanging Tree

Three years ago, while riding down a trail in the woods, we found a freak of nature.  There was a 40 foot tree trunk with its base suspended two feet off the ground.

Sometime before then the dead tree broke off from the base, up hill and on the right, (see above) and the upper branches wedged into the top of a nearby tree.  It must have spent several minutes swinging wildly as a natural pendulum before it came to rest.

Hanging by branches

This unique example of randomness in the woodland has remained ever since, usually still, but slowly swinging in the occasional gust of wind.  You can see it move in this video.

I have no idea how long it will "hang in there" but I don't want to be around when it finally lets go.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Barn Owlets

Barn Owl - Photographs by Karsen Bell
We have an 100 year old barn at Bull Mills which is longing for a barn owl.  We put up an barn owl nest box some years back, but discovered that "build it and they will come" doesn't always work.

While at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center recently, I met Karsen Bell, a 15 year old naturalist who shared his fantastic barn owl pictures with me.  I asked him to share his discovery with you in his own words.
Owlet in the barn nest - Karsen Bell
"In the late summer of 2014, while I was at my grandparents, I went into a barn that had been damaged by fire.  I heard noises and went to investigate with my flashlight.  I came upon a Barn Owl with four owlets. I had my camera with me since I never know when I’ll have an opportunity to take a picture. I gently approached the owlets, and began taking pictures."

Owlet posing for a closeup -  Karsen Bell
They found the nest when Karsen and his father went inside the barn and started cleaning out debris. The two adults flew silently out of the barn, leaving the owlets in the box for their photo op above.  The nest was in a barn loft. A fire had made a hole in the roof that the owls used to fly into and out of the loft. After the adult owls flew out, he took the owlet picture above, and they left to avoid disturbing them.

One of the adults flew into the trees at the edge of the field as the other landed on the ground. A mockingbird was bothering the owl on the ground and distracting it, which is why Karsen was able to get so close. Both owls made hissing sounds and then the owl on the ground flew into the trees.

Barn owl on the ground - "Where is that %^$ mockingbird? - Karsen Bell describes barn owls in these words:
"Ghostly pale and strictly nocturnal, Barn Owls are silent predators of the night world. Lanky, with a whitish face, chest, and belly, and buffy upperparts, this owl roosts in hidden, quiet places during the day. By night, they hunt on buoyant wingbeats in open fields and meadows. You can find them by listening for their eerie, raspy calls, quite unlike the hoots of other owls. Despite a worldwide distribution, Barn Owls are declining in parts of their range due to habitat loss."
The momma or the papa? - Karsen Bell
Barn owls are one of the most widely spread bird species, ranging throughout much of the Americas as well as portions of Europe, Australia and Southern Africa.  They are found in large open areas where they can hunt at night for small rodents.  Their populations are declining in the northern states, partially due to loss of nesting sites such as old farm buildings and hollow trees as well as urbanization taking over open fields.  If you have access to habitat and a suitable structure, consider putting up a barn owl nest box using these MDC instructions.

Barn Owl populations in the US -
PBS just released Nature's Owl Power, a one hour look at the amazing owls, staring Luna and Lily, a pair of barn owls that are followed from birth.  The 58 minute video is available online at this PBS link.  If you haven't got that much time, a little of their story is here, however you have to watch the whole video to understand the whole story of Owl Power.

Thanks to Karsen and his aunt for sending the pictures and story.  I hope to have more from him in the future.  If you know a young Missouri naturalist with a story to tell, send it to me.  They are our future.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Shed Hunting

Atypical near-record rack.  MDC
Want to go deer hunting but can't pull the trigger on Bambi?  The "other deer season" is still open - shed hunting.  We gave some tips on shed hunting techniques in last month's blog, but that led me into more antler questions.

Why antlers?  Producing them is very expensive in terms of energy.  Antlers are bony growths protruding from the skull as extensions.  The cells producing antlers are the fastest growing tissues known, exceeding cancer cells in replication.  The growth of moose antlers occurs over 150 days and may exceed 80 pounds, an average growth rate of 1/2 pound a day!

Although we think of them as offensive and defensive weapons of bucks during the rut, their more important role may be in advertising.  The velvet covering the new antler growth each year has the highest concentration of scent glands, their oily secretions which are then deposited on saplings as the deer rub off the bark.  Even with the velvet gone, secretions from glands under the eyes are rubbed onto trees and spread with the antlers.

Why shed them?  One theory is to replace antlers which might otherwise be damaged or broken, while another is to keep in proportion to the deer's growth.  A third theory is to impress the ladies, and advertise the buck's health as a mate.  Older, sick or malnourished bucks produce smaller antlers, a sign of truth in advertising.

An interesting study of Alaskan moose antlers* "sheds" light on the last theory.  I will quote Mark Elbroch in his book Animal Skulls.
"A moose with a smaller rack would never challenge one with larger antlers.  One researcher, Anthony Bubenik, put this to the test with Alaskan moose.  After constructing incredibly large antlers for himself, he joined the courting arena.  The males quickly backed off, and Bubenik was unexpectedly confronted with numerous receptive females."
Missouri Monarch found in 1981.
At times, unusual antler configurations occur, a feature prized by shed hunters.  These include extra tines, downward pointing antlers and marked asymmetry.  Although the effect of these abnormalities on the lady deer is unknown, they are extra bragging points for the shed hunter.

The best example of atypical racks is the "Missouri Monarch"which holds the Boone and Crockett world-record for nontypical racks.  It was a 333 7/8-inch 44-pointer that was found dead in St. Louis County in 1981.  The story of that find, now valued at one million dollars, is reported here. Incidentally, the mount is displayed in the Missouri Department of Conservation headquarters in Jefferson City.

No permit is required to possess shed antlers. If antlers were not shed and are still attached to the animal’s skull, the shed hunter must get authorization from MDC to legally possess the deer skull rack. This allows for keeping the skull rack but not reselling it, or any other commercial use.

Another way to hunt for sheds is with a shed hunting dog.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Hairy or Downy?

Downy Woodpecker, note dark spots on white outer tail feathers - Joe Motto
After many years watching red bellied and downy woodpeckers compete at our suet feeder I finally spotted a new bird.  For me, this is a big hairy deal, a hairy woodpecker!  I wasn't able to get a good picture in the overcast winter day, but it  returned a few days later to pose for me, along with a female companion.

Downy on a goldenrod gall - Warren Uxley
Downy woodpeckers are a daily occurrence at Bull Mills and are five times as abundant as hairy woodpeckers in the Ozarks.  Small and perky, in winter they specialize in the suet feeder unlike the red-bellied woodpeckers that fly between the suet, sunflower feeder and the neighboring trees, pounding the seeds against the limbs or feeding their young in season.  They are compact with a blocky head and stout shoulders.  They tend to flit around on the trunk, more active than other woodpeckers.  They are light and agile enough to hang on a  goldenrod stem while feeding on the tasty grub inside its tough gall.

Hairy Woodpecker - Joe Motto
Hairy woodpeckers look a lot like a downy at first glance, however they are noticeably larger,  9.5 inches long compared with the 6.5 inch downy.  Its bill is considerably longer, equal to the width of their head, while downy's have a shorter pointed beak than other woodpeckers, resembling a thorn on a vine.  Their outer tail feathers are pure white rather than spotted like their downy cousins.  Finally, the rad patch on the nape of the neck of males is divided by a black line while it is solid on the downy.

Male hairy woodpecker- divided red patch
Hairy woodpecker female

Altered bluebird box with snake guard
Barb found woodpecker damage on two of our bluebird boxes. Since this is a little early for bluebird nesting we didn't mind, but objected to their alterations.  Our boxes have wire snake guards around the opening that didn't apparently suit these woodpeckers.  They pecked a hole in the side of each and use it as their front door.  It is amazing to me that they could make a hole through 3/4" wood with those tiny beaks, but then they carve out full cavities in dead trees for nests so this was just a minor renovation.  When she opened the box to inspect, she flushed a downy.

Female downy at the front door giving me the stink eye
Downy woodpeckers sometimes use their winter roosting cavities for later nesting so we will be watching these two boxes carefully.  As bluebirds build their nests and have hatch their young several weeks earlier than the woodpeckers*, the downy may find a "no vacancy" sign on the box come spring.

Missouri Breeding Bird Atlas, Brad Jacobs and James D. Wilson.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Witch Hazel 2015

Ozark Witch Hazel- Hamamelis vernalis
Cruising around the valley yesterday, we stopped to appreciate the flowering Ozark witch hazel in full bloom.  The upper blossoms were just past prime while the lower branches held freshly emerged petals.  The grove is densely clustered and its fragrance filled the air.

I read Peter Longley's entry in the Springfield Botanical Garden News, and decided to share it in its complete form with his permission.
"The genus name, Hamamelis, literally means “together with fruit” referring to the simultaneous occurrence of the flowers with the maturing fruit from the previous year, in very early spring or latter winter. The seed capsule splits explosively at maturity, ejecting the seeds with great force to a distance of up to 35 feet. This is why, sometimes, witch hazels are called ‘snapping hazels.’ Although we think of the witch hazel as a winter plant, it is found all down the eastern half of North America, from Canada to Florida, so it is not winter’s cold that governs its cheerful winter blooms, but a seasonal phenomenon.

The witch is not related to the flying broomstick, and nor is the hazel related to the popular nut. Witch comes from the Middle English wiche, in turn from the old English wice, meaning pliant or bendable. Hazelnut twigs are also pliant and were commonly used in England as divining rods to find sources of water. There was a certain mystique and magic to a divining rod that some associate with those who possess magical powers, and it is more likely that the witch on the broomstick, got her name from the water diviner and those mysterious pliable hazel twigs. American colonists on finding that the Hamamelis twigs had the same pliable use for water divining along the Eastern seaboard of the Americas, called the Hamamelis twigs ‘Witch Hazel.’ It was also learned that the Hamamelis was used by Native Americans for many medicinal purposes, which is why to this day we associate Witch Hazel distilled from the leaves and bark of the Hamamelis virginiana, which actually blooms in the fall, as an astringent and healing balm."
Witch hazel is still used as a herbal medicine, mainly externally on rashes, sores, bruises, and swelling. For the rest of us, the blossoms are a sign that spring will soon heal the natural bruises of winter.

* From the Springfield Botanical Garden News. If you would like to be added to the list for direct distribution of this blog to your e-mail inbox send a note to Peter Longley,

Friday, February 6, 2015

February Phenology

Cedar waxwing - MDC
 Phenology - the scientific study of periodic biological phenomena

Although January marks the start of a new year, February is when new life begins to pick up.  The MDC Calendar reminds us of all the excitement in the valley.  Cedar waxwings are stripping away the last of the cedar berries as we write.

Coyote- MDC Noppadol Paothong
Coyotes begin their breeding season later this month, although they have been practicing their mating calls for several weeks above Bull Creek.  I love the sound which carries throughout the valley, and they aren't particularly discerning about their competition.  Even my pitiful call, given at full volume will start a chorus of competitors, although they may just be telling me that "this is what a real coyote sounds like."

Romance is in the air for lots of mammals.  Woodchucks, mink, squirrels, rabbits and opossum are all mating.  Squashed skunks are especially noticeable later in the month, found dead on the roads, either crossing in search of love or suicidal from a failed romance.

Late in the month, spotted salamanders will be headed to breeding ponds, looking for love.  The rapid temperature swings from the low teens to 70 degrees must be confusing for them, but they have been doing it for thousands of years and we had their eggs in all 9 ponds last year, so I am sure they will figure it out.
Upland chorus frog - MDC

The salamander may well be serenaded by the romantic song of upland chorus frogs, a sound that has been compared  to a fingernail scraped along a comb.  These hardy souls are the first frogs to start singing and reproducing in Missouri.

Woodcock - MDC - Click to enlarge
American woodcocks begin their courtship around this time.  For once here is a bird that even I can identify by its unique bill.  They are earthworm specialists, stomping their feet to stir up the worms and penetrating the soil with their long beaks.  Pity the poor bird working the frozen soil now.

Woodcocks on the ground will make a buzzing insect-like call, referred to as a "peent," seen here in this Youtube video.  Their camouflage blends in with the ground so your best chances to hear and see them is at dawn or dusk as with a dramatic flourish the males show off for females by giving loud, nasal peent calls and performing dazzling aerial displays.  This and other cool facts are described on
"He gives buzzy peent calls from a display area on the ground, then flies upward in a wide spiral. As he gets higher, his wings start to twitter. At a height of 200–350 feet the twittering becomes intermittent, and the bird starts to descend. He zigzags down, chirping as he goes, then lands silently (near a female, if she is present). Once on the ground, he resumes peenting and the display starts over again."
If you like to get out in nature with a purpose, there is an opportunity for citizen science starting now.  Participating in a study of the spring migration of the American woodcock simply involves going out at specified times morning or evening a few times and recording any sightings.  We reviewed our last year's survey here.  If this sounds like something you would like to try, go to this link for details and forms.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Flocking Robins

Flocking Robins - Kirk M. Rogers
When we first moved into Bull Creek in late winter 19 years ago we were amazed to see flocks of 20-30 robins in the field.  This is now an annual occurance as they flock together all over our valley grassland.  Unlike the starlings which cluster in our Springfield yard, the robins are widely spaced over a large field, each intent on its own territory.  When they decide to move to a nighttime roost, they depart in scattered waves, filling the air for several minutes, still separated a respectful distance from their companions.  They seem to seek the safety of numbers while remaining independent.

Robin flock on the ground - Denaple
Robins are relatively independent during the summer but form flocks in the winter.  Yesterday I counted 200+ spread over a six acre field.   They paid little attention to me until I finally drove through, then flew in groups headed to a field across the creek.  This is their valley and I am the intruder.  So how do you count that many robins, you may ask.  There is an old naturalist trick - using binoculars, count their legs and then divide by two.

European robin - Wikipedia
The American robin is actually a thrush, named a robin by early settlers for a perceived resemblance to an unrelated flycatcher, the orange-breasted European robin.  This is probably better than its scientific name, turdus migratorius, (turdus is a Latin word for thrush).

Watch a robin in your yard for a minute and you will probably see it grab an insect or extract a worm.  In the winter when insects are scarce, the Canadian robins migrate south to the Midwest, driven primarily by the need for food resources.  Now they show their frugivore tendencies, eating all available berries.  They look for soft mast and find plenty hanging on into the winter.  Some berries like our deciduous holly are bitter in the fall but "ripen" during the winter, providing food at a time when other resources are gone.  

An overgrown cedar glade behind our house provides cover and lots of cedar "berries," actually miniature cones but all the same to a hungry robin.  I suspect this is a major factor in the large flocks that we see.  But we don't have any bragging rights with only 200 birds.
"The largest flock during the GBBC was reported from Mark Youngdahl Urban Conservation Area in St. Joseph, Missouri. Observers there estimated there were 5 million Red-winged Blackbirds along with a flock of 1.5 million American Robins." Great Backyard Bird Count

Inebriated robin-
Climate change is affecting their migration as robins only fly as far south as necessary to find food.  Gradual warming may be also affecting the plant species available with time.  Expanding suburbs with ornamental planting may be another factor.  Another possible effect of the warming trend is drunken birds which may show up on Youtube.  Frugivores like cedar waxwings and robins may consume fruit that has fermented.  Longer autumns and increased freeze/thaw cycles contribute to increased fermentation so if warming continues, there may be more robin party time in the future.

Geoff LeBaron of the National Audubon Society has been in charge of Christmas bird counts since 1987. He maintains one of the largest databases in ornithology.
"Historically most of the robins wintered pretty much in the deep south/southeastern U.S. Over the last 40 to 50 years they've increased significantly, especially in the northern and eastern part of their range.  You're likely to see three or four times more robins when you're out on a Christmas bird count now than you were in 1965."
There is a lot more on robin migration and winter habits at this link.