Friday, May 16, 2014

Eastern Garter Snake takes on American Toad

Today's class of second graders was sweeping for insects in the field when they came upon this Eastern Garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) attempting to feed on an American Toad (Bufo a. americanus).  They were spell bound, watching as the snake maneuvered from side to side trying to swallow its large prey.  

We watched the toad puffing its body, making it more difficult for the snake to engulf it. White bufotoxin oozed from the toad's glands.  All the while, the snake held on, adjusting its jaw and turning sideways, barely making any progress as it tried to inch its way up the toad's body.

We watched for almost 10 minutes before leaving for the wetland to find newly hatched toad tadpoles. The question on everyone's mind, "Who will win?" was never answered. An hour later when we came back to the field, there was no sign of either the snake or the toad.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Dekay's Brownsnake

I love accidentally coming upon an animal or plant that I've never seen before.  Yesterday, I discovered this tiny Dekay's brownsnake (Storeria dekayi) on a dusty hiking trail between a beaver pond and a swampy area while taking a group of first graders to pond for invertebrates.  This snake is known for being diurnal during the spring and fall and nocturnal during the hotter summer months. Despite being pretty common, their night-time behavior keeps them from being seen often. They don't mind built-up areas and hide under boards, logs and leaf litter near water.

Such a small snake (8-14") primarily eats small prey, of course, like worms, slugs and soft insects.

March through May is mating time for brownsnakes.  Three-inch babies will be born in late summer.  Dekay's will often hibernate with members of their own species as well as garter and red-bellied snakes. Brownsnakes have keeled or ridged scales.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Palm Warbler

Interested in bird watching?  Try a garden cemetery.  Our nearby cemetery contains two ponds with abundant fish and invertebrates, trees and shrubs, so it's a haven for birds, especially migrating warblers. Today's find: beautiful palm warblers (Setophaga palmarum).

Palm Warbler - a ground feeder

This stunning little bird with its bright yellow and olive body and rusty cap has just spent the winter in the southern United States, probably in Florida.  It's on its way to Canada where it will spend the summer breeding. By October, palm warblers are headed south for the winter.

There is also another subspecies of palm warbler, the Western Palm Warbler which is a duller brown color with white underparts.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Eastern Phoebes and Brown-headed Cowbirds

The Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe)  have returned from their winter grounds to breed.  They are one of my favorite birds to watch as they perch then perform aerial maneuvers to catch insects on the wing. They seem to prefer the trees and shrubs that abut the wooded area and stream behind our home.  Sometimes they will use the kids' pitchback as a resting spot, wagging their tails up and down before swooping off.

Eastern phoebe

Eastern phoebe

Eastern phoebe

These monogamous little fly-catchers build their nests of mud and dried plant materials often on ledges with overhead cover.  Last spring I came upon this phoebe nest while walking on a trail.  It was built on the roots of a tree which had been toppled after a storm.

The black arrow is pointing at the phoebe's nest

Close up of the phoebe's nest made of mud, dried grasses, pine needles and moss

I've noticed quite a few brown-headed cowbirds ( Molothrus ater ) around also.  These brood parasites often choose phoebe nests as the location for their eggs.

Male brown-headed cowbird

Drab gray female brown-headed cowbird on left; male brown-headed cowbird on right

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Vernal Pool Time

It was a long wait, but finally there has been activity at nearby vernal pools. Wood frogs  (Lithobates sylvaticus) were busy "quacking" and mating. Freeze-tolerant wood frogs have been overwintering beneath the leaf litter.  Watch this amazing video of  Wood frogs reviving in spring.

Wood frogs in amplexus

Wood frog

We saw only male spotted salamanders.  Females hadn't arrived yet.

Male spotted salamander swimming away.  Males have a noticeably swollen vent (cloaca).

Spotted salamander under water

Spotted salamander in leaf litter

Spotted salamander headed to the vernal pool

Spring peepers were chorusing loudly in a pond across the street from the vernal pool.  Four years ago, there were spring peepers at the vernal pool, but we no longer find them there.
Can you spot the spring peeper in the reeds? See a close-up shot below.

Male spring peeper calling

Click below to hear my recording of the spring peepers. Happy Spring!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Hooded Mergansers

Two hooded mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) enjoyed a late afternoon swim and a bit of fishing at the cemetery pond today.  Females can be easily distinguished from males -- females are a warm orange brown with dark eyes while adult males in mating plumage are a striking black and white above and brown below. Adult males have yellow eyes.  At first, I thought these two were females, but after looking at these photos enlarged, their eyes seem too light colored.  I believe these are actually two immature males.

There's plenty to eat here, especially goldfish which gather in large numbers around the pond's many ledges.

Another frequent visitor is this great blue heron. Later, another heron arrived and awkwardly perched in a tree next to the pond but never joined in the fishing.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Eastern Comma Butterfly

Today I had an encounter with another overwintering butterfly -- the Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma). After several cool days, this Eastern Comma is taking advantage of today's sunny 58 degree weather and warming itself on my back deck.  Like the Mourning Cloak, this butterfly will hide from the harsh winter elements under tree bark or in various cavities.  At the first hint of spring warmth, it will emerge to bask in the sunshine and lay its first brood.  These butterflies are quite feisty and are known to fly at other butterflies and insects that invade their territory.   Host plants for their caterpillars include nettles, American elm, and hops.