Thursday, February 25, 2016

Beneath the Ledge


Back in mid-December I set a camera trap beneath a rock overhang hoping it would capture photos of something interesting – coyote, bobcat, fisher, Allegheny woodrat, or ... 

The overhang is at the edge of a flat wooded plateau that contains an extensive area of forest with a sparse scattering of small old fields. Just downslope from the overhang the ground falls away rapidly for hundreds of feet to a large stream.


This is the view from the camera’s location; just the way I found the site –



The first check of the camera was a bit disappointing with photos of white-footed mice –



And raccoons –




And one photo of a coyote taken when rapidly changing temperatures had thoroughly fogged the lens glass –



The second check of the camera’s memory card was more rewarding with photographs of a raccoon –



And porcupine –



And my wish was fulfilled by several pretty good photographs of a bobcat taken on the first day the ground was snow covered this winter–




The next check of the camera also revealed photographs of raccoons and the tail end of a gray fox –



And, after another snowfall, a bobcat –



Since the location shows promise, the camera will stay there for a while, perhaps throughout the summer.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Canada Yew


In a narrow, cool, damp valley in the Big Woods grow a few scattered plants of Canada yew (Taxus Canadensis). The plants are there because the species requires the cool moist shady habitat provided by the valley’s stream and forest dominated by eastern hemlock and black and yellow birch. The valley’s steep hillsides are a jumble of large rocks and scattered boulders –



The rocks are as important (possibly more so) as the habitat since white-tailed deer find Canada yew extremely palatable and, where they can access the plants, browse it into oblivion. In this valley, deer are kept away from the yew by the treacherous footing among the rocks. In other places Canada yew grows on high ledges bordering streams – again where it’s inaccessible to deer. 



Canada yew is a spreading shrub, here never getting more than four feet tall. The wide-spreading branches frequently take root where they come in contact with the soil and may provide the primary means by which the plants reproduce. The plant does produce seed; a single seed contained within a fleshy red “berry” more properly called an aril which is readily eaten by numerous species of birds.



Many of the few people who see Canada yew assume that the short plants are young or stunted hemlocks which they superficially resemble. But, eastern hemlock needles have two narrow pale lines on the underside while Canada yew needles are a uniform green on both surfaces –

            Canada Yew                 Underside of  Needles                Eastern Hemlock

The new twigs of Canada yew are also stout and green, not thin and tan as are hemlock twigs –

         Canada Yew                             Twigs                             Eastern Hemlock


Finding Canada yew is a rare treat for those of us who live where deer populations have been high for many years. 
In Northcentral Pennsylvania the plants share their habitat with fishers, Blackburnian and black-throated green warblers, and barred owls – all species worth knowing.



Thursday, February 11, 2016

Feeder Birds



A light snow fell almost all day, but it didn’t amount to much. In between doing other things I occasionally stepped outside with camera in hand to photograph some of the birds at or around the feeders. Like many people we feed birds in the winter, not to help them get through the lean months – they can get along quite nicely without us – but because we like to see them.

As usual, the black-capped chickadees, the “little boys of the woods” as they are sometimes called, were virtually fearless. They let me get within three or four feet before they flew and, if the feeders hadn’t been almost full, would probably have eaten from my hand –

They were joined by their close relatives the tufted titmice which are far less numerous and far more wary –

These birds feed throughout the woods in aggregations called feeding cohorts that also include white-breasted nuthatches (the upside-down bird) –

Nuthatches habit of traveling head down along large branches and tree trunks opens up feeding opportunities that other birds miss. They also jamb nuts and large seeds in grooves in the bark and hack them open with repeated blows from their beak.

Those cohorts usually include downy woodpeckers which also eat sunflower seeds from the feeders –

They wedge the seeds in bark fissures and pound them open with their beaks.

Other birds also visited the feeders: goldfinch in their drab winter garb –

And the downy woodpecker’s larger cousin the hairy woodpecker –

A special treat was the red-bellied woodpecker with its brilliant red nape –
The largest birds that came this day were the blue jays that swooped in and scattered all the other birds –

Dark-eyed juncos –
And mourning doves came to glean fallen seeds and other scraps from the ground beneath the feeders –

Missing this relatively warm and snowless winter were the northern birds that have graced the yard in such numbers in years when seed crops have failed in the far north. The common redpolls –
And pine siskins –

But always present are the squirrels that also enjoy the sunflower seeds –
On another day, beside the common visitors, we’ll see other species perhaps even some of those northern birds that have been conspicuous by their absence this winter.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Dead Deer



Wandering around in the Big Woods one morning I came upon the carcass of what had been a very nice white-tailed buck with eight points on his antlers. There wasn’t much left of him, just bones with some muscle and tendons attached, a few of the abdominal organs, his head (which was almost intact) and lower legs. It wasn’t an attractive sight, but was full of opportunities nonetheless.


After finding the deer’s remains, I looked through last year’s collection of photos from a camera trap that hadn’t been very far from where the buck spent his final moments. There was a photo taken in mid-September 2015 of a buck that was most likely the same animal –
The buck had probably been shot, and not retrieved, during deer season which ended about six weeks before I found his remains. During that time he had fed scavengers, from bacteria to much larger creatures, perhaps even a black bear.


While regretting that I hadn’t found the buck earlier, this was too good an opportunity to let pass. So it didn’t take long to return with a camera trap and set it overlooking the carcass –


In the first few days four crows repeatedly visited to feast on the remains; they were so active that the camera captured over 300 photographs of them in three days –
They were occasionally replaced by a red-tailed hawk that came to pick at the carcass



After a light snow and just before dusk a coyote also visited, but apparently found the pickings rather slim as it hasn’t returned –


The next day a doe stopped and smelled the remains; she may be carrying fawns sired by the now dead buck -

On following days other species also came to nibble on the remaining tissue and bones, an opossum came on several days –



And a porcupine –


The smallest species that the camera could detect was the white-footed mouse that often ran over the carcass and was hard to see in the photos –



A raccoon also came several times -
On one visit the raccoon spent quite a while feeding on the dead deer -
Each day the camera captured over 100 photographs of the four crows and it appeared that only four crows were feeding there – were they the same four? Then one day there were five crows –



The camera trap will stay there for a while to see what else visits the carcass. Had I found it earlier the camera would probably have yielded more photos of the coyote, and maybe photos of a raven, fisher, black bear or bobcat and, if I had been really lucky, maybe a golden eagle. Oh well, life is full of “what ifs”.