Wednesday, June 16, 2021

A Morning in the Big Woods

On a beautiful morning in early June (clear as a bell, blue sky with a few fleecy white clouds, a gentle breeze) I headed for the Big Woods to change the batteries and memory cards in a couple of camera traps. Not far along the old road on which I was walking a cottontail rabbit crouched in the grass –

At the same time, in the distance a white-tailed deer browsed on a shrub’s fresh green leaves and began to walk away as I got closer. It turned out to be a young buck –

After walking a couple of hundred yards along the old road something off to the side caught my eye. That something was another white-tail buck, this one with large wide-spreading antlers –

Not far beyond it was time to leave the old road and head into the woods. Recent rains had brought forth a number of fungi fruiting bodies –

Jelly-leaf Fungus

Conifer Polypore

Beefsteak Polypore

Walking on, something jumped next to my boot. At first I saw nothing, but a closer look revealed a small wood frog well camouflaged among the fallen leaves. Can you find it?

There it is –

And up close –

At this time of year the haircap mosses are getting ready to release their spores –

There aren't many openings in the Big Woods, but there are a few. On the far side of one the larger of those old fields stood a white-tail doe with her fawn, the first fawn I’d actually seen this year. The doe was the piebald female that my camera traps have captured many time over the last several years. Because of the distance it's a really poor photo but ... –

Arriving at the camera trap, it was easy to see that the camera trap showed signs of a “bear attack”. Black bears are exceptionally curious and intelligent; in the Big Woods it’s seldom that a bear passes a camera trap without messing with it. However, in other areas that never happens – which has led me to believe that it may be a learned behavior, passed from a female to her offspring –

Learned or not, my camera traps are often askew and when the memory cards’ contents are reviewed there are images of a bear or bears.

As noon approached it was time to head home for lunch and then to mow the grass – I’d rather shovel snow than mow grass, but that’s another story.

While I was mowing a strange “thing” flew past. A closer look revealed the thing was a mating pair of bee-like robber flies, a species that closely resembles a bumblebee but cannot sting –

Quite a morning with the afternoon bonus of the robber flies.


Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Slim Pickings

When, in January, Bill told us about a dead deer he’d found in their woods I just couldn’t resist putting a camera trap on a tree near the body. The deer was a doe that had made a mistake crossing the road nearby and been struck by a vehicle. The injury hadn’t been immediately fatal and she had gotten into the woods and part way up a short steep hill before she died.

Although the deer’s carcass had been opened before the camera trap went up, not much had been eaten and most of the internal organs and all of the muscle tissue remained. Activity at the deer’s carcass was featured in two posts: here and here.

By the time the last video in the second post was taken there wasn’t much left of the carcass. But just because there wasn’t much left on which to feast, the visitors didn’t stop coming – some to eat and some just by chance –

The many, many videos of gray squirrels have been omitted from this video. My apologies to anyone who would like to view 50-100 videos of squirrels maybe some other time.

The eastern coyote pair probably has a den nearby and pups to feed so the bones and whatever edibles are on them may now be at the den – wherever that may be. It’s worth finding, but the pups might well be moved as soon as the adults realized someone had been nearby.

Now only a mass of hair and the lower part of a foreleg remain to indicate that a white-tailed deer died on this hillside.

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The Railroad That Never Ran

Pretend it’s 1906 and you live in rural Bradford County in northern Pennsylvania. Chances are that you’re a member of a family that lives on a farm and has to transport the products of the farm to the nearest town by wagon – even in town you’re a long way from the larger markets that offer better prices.

You’ve heard rumors about a railroad being built along Towanda Creek in the valley where you live and now comes news that the railroad will actually be built, connecting you to Pittsburgh, PA, Binghamton, NY and other large cities. That railroad will be the Pittsburgh, Binghamton and Eastern Railroad whose primary purpose will be the transportation of coal from mines in Tioga, Indiana and Clearfield counties – but it will certainly also convey your crops to the cities and bring you higher prices.

In February 1906 there was an advertisement seeking 100,000 ties of oak and chestnut. Rights-of-way were being acquired and work was to begin on March 1. Engines were ordered and bridges were to be built. Work actually began near Powell, PA in April 1906 with over 50 men on the job. In early-May, 60 more workers (reportedly Polish immigrants) were hired to do pick-and-shovel grading.

During the summer of 1906 there were said to be ten steam drills at work at a rock cut east of Franklindale, PA –

 From Tri-Counties Genealogy & History

A newspaper article in the Williamsport Gazette & Bulletin in September, 1906 stated that 1,000 men were grading and building bridges including bridges crossing Schrader and Towanda creeks. 

Grading was done near Canton, PA and a camp for Italian laborers was built; there were predictions that trains would be running early in the winter. Six more locomotives were ordered and the payroll reportedly included 700 names.

And then on December 14, 1906 came an announcement that all work was to be halted and all foreign workers would be laid-off. A month later new officers took over the railroad and a bit of work continued, but two of the railroad’s rented engines were sent to a railroad in New England after the rent hadn't been paid. More stock in the railroad was issued as were more bonds.

Additional work was done in the spring of 1907 and the big rock cut was completed –

 From Tri-Counties Genealogy & History

Bonds were being sold as 1907 came to a close, supposedly to continue work in the spring of 1908. By August of 1908 all work had ended and in September the railroad was declared bankrupt and placed into receivership. The railroad's remaining locomotives were sold to a railroad in Maine. That was the end of the Pittsburgh, Binghamton and Eastern Railroad, the railroad that never ran.

Over a hundred years later Pennsylvania Route 414, a road I’ve driven frequently, passes through the rock cut on the old railroad grade –

Portions of  the old railroad grade are visible on Google Earth

And in the forests and fields along Towanda Creek the grade can still be seen and followed, something else I’ve often done –

Was the Pittsburgh, Binghamton and Eastern Railroad a failure of good intentions or a scam designed to swindle investors? Perhaps no one knows or will ever know, but I’m inclined to believe the latter.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Smartest Bird

Although there may be other contenders in various parts of the world, in North America there is no more intelligent bird than the common raven. While in recent decades they’ve been increasingly seen in more settled areas, these large relatives of the ubiquitous, and smaller, common crow are mainly found in places where humans are few (in my opinion a sure sign of their intelligence).

Ravens range from above the tree line in the Arctic south through the boreal forest and in the eastern mountains to northern Georgia, they’re found widely in the west south into Mexico. While ravens seem to prefer to nest on rock ledges, they’ll also nest in tall trees, especially conifers, when ledges aren’t readily available.

Those naturalist’s who live within the raven’s range have almost certainly seen and been entertained by the raven’s aerial antics. Often, especially on a windy day, I’ve watched a pair of ravens do barrel-rolls and loop-the-loops while also, and repeatedly, climbing high into the sky before going into steep dives. At the same time their vocal repertoire of croaks, knocks and squawks (33 different calls have been described) sound from on high – sometimes from so high above that the birds are beyond sight.

Last winter a turkey carcass was placed in front of one of my camera traps. Intermittently over the course of several days ravens visited to feed on the remains. On several occasions snowfalls completely covered the carcass but a pair of ravens knew where it was and repeatedly came to dig through the snow to find delectable morsels.

Ravens are known for hiding pieces of food for future use, an activity to be seen in the video. If they think another bird has seen them hide the food, they’ll move the piece to another location. They will also follow predators and hunters waiting for the scraps from a kill. During the winter in northcentral Pennsylvania ravens will frequently fly along highways below tree-top level searching for road-killed animals on which to dine – presumably they do that in other areas as well.

Ravens are fascinating birds and well worth knowing. Two of the best references on ravens are Bernd Heinrich’s Mind of the Raven and Ravens in Winter.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Some Days Are Diamonds

Some Days Are Diamonds (Some Days Are Stone) is the title of a song recorded by John Denver in 1981. That sentiment is certainly accurate and a dark gray day in early May was one of those diamond days.

Inside a deer resistant fence on the hill above the house are a few white trillium – descendants of several that, almost 60 years ago, I’d planted at my parents' house, then moved here after our house was built 50 years ago. The plants have to be protected from the white-tailed deer that have eliminated the species elsewhere in our part of the world.

After taking a few photos of the trillium I was heading back to the house when a male ruby-throated hummingbird landed in a small dead tree. He stayed in the tree and preened, made a few short flights and returned, presenting opportunities for a number of photos. The dull gray light toned down the often brilliant ruby-red of the feathers on his throat –

A bit later I headed for the Big Woods in search of migrating warblers. Although there was an abundance of ruby-crowned kinglets, there were no warblers to be seen and only one to be heard, an ovenbird singing it’s “Teacher, teacher, teacher” in the distance.

In the afternoon I headed for the beaver pond to change the memory card in the trail camera; nearby a pinkster azalea was in bloom –

Having taken that photo, I turned around and immediately saw an eastern coyote trotting past about 50 feet away – apparently it hadn't seen or smelled my camouflage-clad figure. A few squeaks through pursed lips caught the animal’s attention and turned it my way. Just time for a few photos before it turned again and trotted off through the forest –

Later when processing the photos it became obvious that the coyote had porcupine quills in its muzzle and near its right eye. Eastern coyotes are tough animals, as are most wild creatures, this one will almost certainly survive its encounter with the quill-pig.

Thus endeth a diamond day.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Deer Dinner Continues

In early January our friend Bill told of a dead deer he’d found in their woods. Apparently the doe had been struck by a vehicle on the nearby road and managed to get across a small stream and into the woods before she expired.

Great opportunity for a camera trap, too good to pass up. By the time the camera trap went up on a nearby tree, the carcass had already been opened by a scavenger, but not much had been eaten. The dead deer and those that came to dine were featured in this post.

Diners continued to come for a venison dinner as snow came and went and the season progressed. As the deer’s flesh was devoured and the last of the snow melted there was less to eat and we see some visitors just passing on by –

This time the white-footed mouse didn’t dine on the deer, it gathered hair to insulate its nest. Thus in another way the dead deer is being recycled into the world in which it lived.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Woodies at the Beaver Pond

Wood ducks, especially the males, are arguably the most beautiful ducks native to North America. They frequent wooded swamps and beaver ponds and traditionally nested in cavities in trees near water. As the old growth forests were cut across the U.S. and Canada, suitable nest sites disappeared; at the same time unregulated, or barely regulated, hunting reduced the wood ducks’ population.

With tighter regulation of hunting seasons and a proliferation of nest boxes erected by state and federal agencies, private organizations and individuals the wood duck population has rebounded.

A camera trap on the shore of a beaver pond has captured many species of wildlife, but this spring there have been more videos of wood ducks than any other species. Hopefully you’ll enjoy these videos of our most colorful duck –

There were many, many more videos of wood ducks on the memory card and a few more videos of the black ducks. Black ducks along with wood ducks were the primary nesting ducks in beaver ponds in the northeast, but they are now a species of concern due to hybridization with pen-raised mallards.

Just in case you missed the muskrat, at 2:45 of the video it’s in the far distant background.

The last bird in the video is a second-year bald eagle and one of the most pleasing catches I’ve had on a camera trap.

Beavers are one of the few species of wildlife that deliberately create and alter their own habitat. The ponds that beavers build create an oasis for other wildlife from invertebrates to black bears.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Morning at the Pond

There are worse ways for a naturalist to spend a morning than to sit at the edge of a pond, camera in hand and the rising sun at your back.

And so, on a pleasant spring morning with camera pack on my back and a small folding chair I headed for a beaver pond to sit for an hour or so to see what there was to see. On the way to the pond I passed a willow shrub that was in bloom; and the spicebush was blooming in a patch of damp forest  –

Soon after I settled in on the edge of the pond amid a few small trees, a male wood duck flew in and landed on the pond’s far side –

He then disappeared into the cattails, never to be seen again.

Soon after a great blue heron flew in and landed in a dead tree about 100 feet away. There was time for a handful of photos before it left in the direction of a marsh a half mile away –

All was quiet for a while and then, in the far, far distance there was a black spot circling in the air. One of my camera’s powerful telephoto lens revealed it was an immature bald eagle. It’s not a good photograph because the bird was a long, long way away –

Soon afterward another fish-eating raptor appeared – this time it was right over the beaver pond and spent a few minutes overhead as it looked for fish beneath the surface. Not a bald eagle, this was a migrating osprey on its way north –

After a not finding a fish, the osprey moved on and there wasn’t any activity at the pond for quite some time. Eventually a pair of hooded mergansers that had been on a nearby pond flew in to land nearby –

And climbed up on water-soaked log

Also on a fallen log in the pond was a painted turtle basking in the sun

Like the heron and osprey, the mergansers left after a short time –

Meanwhile, the tree swallows that nest in woodpecker cavities in the pond’s snags had recently returned from South America and were exploring some of those dead trees –

The last bird of the morning was a red-tailed hawk soaring over the pond –

Heading home I passed the blooming willow, it was warm enough that honey bees were busy gathering pollen –

Time spent by a beaver pond is time well spent.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

In the Spring ...

In the spring a young wood frog’s thoughts turn to … (do frogs have thoughts or only instincts?). In the spring wood frogs emerge from their winter quarters in the leaf litter on the forest floor where they often freeze solid, their cells kept from damage by glucose that fills each cell in the fall and acts as an anti-freeze. For a more complete explanation see this site

But now it’s spring and the wood frogs have emerged to head for their breeding pools. Wood frogs breed early in the spring, often before the pools are completely ice-free. Those pools can be roadside ditches, pools formed from snowmelt or after heavy rains or the classic vernal pool. Irrespective of how the pools are formed, wood frogs seldom successfully breed in water that contains fish, for fish readily devour the products of the frogs’ mating.

Male wood frogs normally arrive at the breeding pools before the females and begin calling. The frogs’ calls sound remarkably similar to the quacking of a duck –

When the females arrive and enter the pool they are grasped by the males (a position called amplexus). Other males are often grasped since an amorous male will latch on to any nearby frog. Fertilization is external as the females release hundreds of eggs and the males release sperm.

A single female is sometimes seized by several males, which occasionally results in the female’s death –

The fertilized eggs form a gelatinous mass, which often adheres to adjacent egg masses –

Depending on temperature, the embryos develop rapidly and in a few days their heads, bodies and tails are easily distinguished –

Shortly afterwards the eggs hatch and the tadpoles swim forth to feed on algae and other vegetation –

The tadpoles will die if the pool dries before they mature and transform into frogs. Depending on temperature and the availability of food the tadpoles develop rapidly and in about 60 days metamorphose into small frogs –

The tiny froglets disperse into the surrounding woodland to feed on invertebrates until the fall when they take shelter below ground for the winter.

Wood frogs’ breeding season is short, lasting only a few days in early spring. The day after the video in this post was taken there was not a frog to be seen in the pool, the frogs had returned to the forest to spend the warm weather there. But there were many eggs in various stages of development in the pool. A few days later there were thousands of small tadpoles in the pool. Only a few of those tadpoles will live long enough to transform into frogs and fewer still will survive to return to breed next year.