Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dang Cats

In 2013 the camera traps at the edge of the woods behind the house caught several different house cats – some only once, others quite regularly. We don’t have a cat, nor do any of our immediate neighbors and none of the cats wore a collar; so where did these cats come from?                                                 
The University of Illinois, in 2011, reported on a two-year study of free roaming house cats that yielded surprising results. Radio collars were placed on 42 adult cats, both feral (un-owned) and pet cats that were allowed out to roam. One of the feral cats had a home range of over 1,350 acres. The pet cats were relative homebodies with an average home range of about five acres.
Now I’m a fan of predators – coyotes, bobcats, foxes, weasels, shrews, hawks and owls are much more interesting to me than their prey. But, I’m no fan of free roaming house cats! Most of those cats are, to some degree, fed by people, either their owners or kind-hearted souls who put out food for the feral cats in their neighborhoods. Those well fed cats continue to kill, not to eat but to fulfill their predatory instinct.

Some may argue that house cats merely take the place of wild predators in developed areas. But the population density of house cats, feral and roaming pets combined, is typically far higher than the populations of the wild predators they’ve supposedly replaced.

According to ScienceNews (February 2013), a team of biologists associated with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute estimates that cats kill between 1.3 billion and 4 billion birds and between 6.3 billion and 22.3 billion small mammals each year in the United States. That’s billion – with a “B”. The bird kill is estimated to be about 15% of all the birds in the U.S.

Birds and small mammals have high mortality rates for a wide variety of reasons, from predation to disease to vehicles and pesticides. But the additional mortality due to house cats almost certainly pushes some species of wildlife over the brink in certain landscapes.

Unfortunately, many cat lovers don’t realize or won’t acknowledge the havoc that house cats cause to populations of native wildlife – or maybe they just don’t care.

Signs of Spring

February 17 – It was 9° at the house this morning, but the sky was a brilliant blue without a cloud. On the telephone cable along the road a male cardinal was singing away. This wasn’t the short weak song we typically hear on pleasant winter days – it was a full-throated territorial song typical of spring.
Cardinals are year-round residents and maintain their territories (although not too vigorously) throughout the winter. Earlier in the winter three different pairs of cardinals visited our feeders, but since the days of cold and snow have arrived there’s been but one pair here. Did the other birds succumb to the weather or did the dominant pair drive them away?

Further down the road a small flock of robins fed on the shriveled fruits of an ornamental crabapple.
Most years a few robins winter in the lowlands and wetlands near the river. But, these birds weren’t near the river and it appeared that all were males. Perhaps they were birds that have been wintering in the area. Or, perhaps in spite of the snow and cold the most adventurous male robins are heading north already. That would give them a chance to claim the best territories, but also put them at risk of perishing in a late winter storm – some years these early birds would win, some years they’d lose.

February 18 – A male house finch in the apple tree displayed his bright breeding color and was accompanied by a female, the only house finch to be seen near the house this day.

For a few years many of the house finch we saw had conjunctivitis that affected their eyes to the point that they couldn’t see well if at all – it’s doubtful if any of those birds survived. But for the past two years we’ve not seen a house finch with conjunctivitis. Presumably the birds that were very susceptible to the disease were eliminated from the population and birds that had some resistance remained to produce subsequent generations. Survival of the fittest on display.

February 20 – The flock of robins appeared at the house today, picking the fruits from an ornamental holly at the corner of the house. 

Some of them perched in a small white pine, seeming to bask in the sunlight. They’re making the rounds of the neighborhood, feeding on any remaining fruit they can find. The temperature was well over 40° F this afternoon melting several inches of snow; but there’s still well over 15 inches of snow on the ground. Will the snow melt before the fruit is gone? 

February 21 – Down along the river, in addition to the cold rain typical of early spring, there were even more signs of spring: An immature Coopers hawk sat on a limb, looking rather bedraggled in the rain. I’d prefer a lower temperature and falling snow to rain at 36°, would the bird?

In the river there were some early migrants: a lone horned grebe –
And several pairs of hooded mergansers –

The flower buds on the silver maples are swelling, ready to burst into bloom. They're the first trees to flower in the northeast, and do so long before their leaf buds open.

The signs of spring will be appearing more rapidly now, and even though we may well have more snow and low temperatures, the lengthening days are triggering changes in plants and animals that prepare them for the arrival of another season.

36 Hours

This week a span of 36 hours gave us a good taste of winter.

Two days ago it was  -4˚ F in the morning, clear with only a few clouds in a brilliant blue sky, just a very slight breeze and 8-10 inches of snow on the ground – a great day for a walk along the river, where the slack-water sections were frozen bank to bank with only a few small areas of open water. But the riffles were unfrozen as were portions of the river just below those sections of fast-flowing water. It’s still winter but faint stirrings of spring are becoming apparent. 

In one section of open water there was a small raft of diving ducks, migrants in all probability since they seldom winter here:

Lesser scaup – perky buffleheads, my wife’s favorites –
And a few male canvasbacks showing the brilliant white backs from which their name is derived –
They may be rushing the season to be this far north and on an inland river, but here they were.

An unusual visitor to the river was a male white-winged scoter clearly showing the white feathers that gave the species its name. This bird was so far out in the river that even a 1,200-millimeter lens didn’t yield a crisp photo. Scoters occasionally show up on our larger lakes, but are seldom seen on this section of the river –

Overlooking all the waterfowl was an adult bald eagle in riverside tree.

So far this has almost been an old-fashioned winter; cold enough, but with much less snow than we used to get in the olden days – that is, until yesterday morning. Woke up to temperatures in the low 20s and falling snow that continued until after sunset. By the time it stopped we had 7 ½ inches of new snow at the house and a total of about 17 inches on the ground. South and east of us more snow fell and some folks were having real problems. While I happen to like cold weather and snow, many people dread winter and avoid leaving the comforts of a heated house, car, office or store. That’s too bad since they’re missing out on the pleasures of a beautiful time of year.

As snow continued to fall late yesterday afternoon the conifers were covered with the new snow –
And in a brushy area where some buckthorn fruit still hung from the twigs a few bluebirds could be seen -
In 36 hours northcentral Pennsylvania had seen two faces of winter, each different and each beautiful. Now winter is gradually drawing to a close; more waterfowl will be heading north and the bluebirds will be looking for a suitable cavity in which to nest.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

It Was a Good Day to Ski

Yes indeed, it was a good day to ski.
In recent years there really hasn’t been adequate snow in the Big Woods to make it worthwhile to even put skis on. Last winter my one excursion there was greeted by less than four inches of snow on the ground, with rocks and sticks exposed. With our warming climate conditions like that will certainly become more common.
This winter has been a bit of an anomaly in the recent warming trend, with low temperatures keeping what snow has fallen on the ground instead of quickly melting as the snow has done in recent winters. Although plenty of folks complain about winter weather, those of us who like to cross-country ski find joy in chilly days and fallen snow.

So with 10-12 inches of snow on the ground, crystal clear sky, and a temperature of 6° F at the house, I got out the skis and headed for the woods. It was early and no one else was there, but someone apparently had skied yesterday, or perhaps even by moonlight, and broken trail on the old road. Whoever it was has my gratitude since in places a bit of a crust was on the snow and the broken trail made the skiing easy.

There were a few tracks to be seen - of deer and gray squirrels as well as the track of one coyote crossing the old road. It’s always interesting to see tracks and try to discern what and when.
The snow was just about perfect for skiing and the forest of mixed hardwoods and conifers with its blanket of white was peaceful and beautiful.

At a fork in the old road the ski tracks I’d been following diverged from the route I’d planned so it was time to break trail back to the car.

A great way to spend a morning!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Wounded Buck and Fox Fight

With a forecast of "heavy" snow and the possibility that my low-mounted camera traps behind the house might be covered with snow, I downloaded the photographs from them late yesterday. The homebrewed cameras had a lot of photographs and the commercial camera had finally captured a video of the wounded buck --
A few days after the video was taken, the commercial camera had been relocated to a spot that the deer seemed to walk past quite often in hope of getting a better video of the buck -- that didn't happen.

But in a fitting tribute to Ah Wang's old adage "Never underestimate luck" both a homebrewed still camera and the commercial infra-red camera captured a fight between two gray foxes.
Gray fox are breeding now, perhaps it can be inferred that the cameras captured a female and two rival males. It's pretty obvious that one fox didn't want to be directly involved in the fight and quickly disappeared.

Combat appears to have begun before either camera turned on and apparently continued after the animals moved out of the cameras' fields of view -- seven minutes and nine seconds later. Midway through the video it's apparent that both animals were tired, but then vigorous fighting resumed.

The "heavy" snow never materialized, we got 6 1/2 inches before it stopped snowing this morning.