Saturday, December 29, 2012

Turkey Tracks

Last night's light snowfall was just enough to record the animals passing through the neighborhood long after everyone had gone to bed.  This morning I came across turkey   (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) tracks which are always in the same part of the street, just beyond the forest trail that runs behind neighborhood homes.  Turkey tracks are a special favorite of the kids.  They remind us of dinosaur tracks.  In this photo you can see tiny tracks from another bird crossing over the top of the turkey track.

We hardly ever see turkeys in our current neighborhood during the day.  The one time I did, a group of 3-4 flew through our back yard (quite a spectacle), landing next door.  They were there to feed on the seeds under the bird feeders.


When we lived further south, turkeys were commonplace during the daytime.  One summer a female visited our yard with 13 little ones in tow.  Another time, we arrived home to find a tom, tail spread out, accompanied by three hens on our front lawn.  Toms can weigh as much as 24 pounds while hens top out around 12 pounds.

At this time of year, turkeys are scratching around looking for acorns, nuts and berries. Mating begins around March and the poults hatch in June.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Fossiling Trip - Purse State Park, Maryland

We headed south to Washington, DC for April vacation and after exhausting ourselves touring museums for three days, we decided to enjoy some outdoor time fossil hunting.  Our first stop was Purse State Park along the Potomac River in Maryland.   We had the shoreline to ourselves.  Even though it was cool and rainy, we were rewarded with a great many fossilized shark teeth and ray dental plates.

It's a short stroll through the woods down to the shore

The shoreline at Purse State Park

Shark teeth and ray dental plates

Sand tiger shark teeth (Carcharias hopei) and (Striatolamia striata
Internal mold of a turritella snail (Turritella sp.)

Eagle ray dental plates (Myliobatis sp.)
These fossils hail from the Paleocene epoch, 66.5 to 55.8 million years ago.  Learn more about this epoch and its fascinating fauna at the Smithsonian website:

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Backyard birding

This week I was lucky to catch a glimpse of two species of birds that I don't see too often.  During breakfast just a couple of days ago, a couple of large brown objects swooped by the sliding glass doors, over the deck landing in the neighboring yard.  Three wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) had come for an easy meal under the bird feeder before heading off into the woods. The tom was enormous.

This morning's newest visitors were Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus), pecking through the lawn for insects, probably ants.  We sometimes find their beautiful yellow shafted feathers in the yard.

One of my favorites is the perky little American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis).  This male arrived with his mate to enjoy some thistle. His patchy spots are telltale signs that he's still molting.

Unlike most birds in this area, American Goldfinches won't nest until July when the supply of food in the form of thistle and milkweed seeds is most abundant.
After a mild winter, the cardinals are already staking out their territories.  The males can frequently be seen chasing each other furiously through the trees. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Vernal pool activity

It's that time of year again when salamanders and wood frogs head to vernal pools and spring peepers fill the air with their chorusing.  We had no luck finding migrating spotted salamanders at night, but did find quite a few under logs during the day.

These three were all tucked away under the same log.  Just a few feet away, there were plenty of eggs in the pool.

There were also some spermatophores scattered on the leaves underwater.

 Large fairy shrimp swam about, although not as many as there were a couple of weeks ago.

Other finds included two water scorpions...

dragonfly larva...

and lots of leeches and green frog tadpoles.


Three days ago, we had our first fisher (Martes pennanti) sighting.  There were several times we'd seen tracks, but not the actual animal.  We were on our way home from hiking/checking out vernal pool activity around 4:45 pm when we drove past a woman on the side of the road.  She was staring at something way up in the tall pines abutting the cemetery.  I craned my neck from inside the passenger side to see if I could spot what she was looking at.  Probably a hawk, I thought until I saw the long black tail hanging down.  We pulled over and got out to watch a beautiful fisher climbing to the top of a pine.  The woman said she had stopped only when she had heard screeching and screaming.  She believes she saw the fisher raiding a squirrel nest.

We stood and watched for about 15 minutes, but it just stayed up on a limb, hidden behind clumps of pine needles.  I pointed my camera in the direction of the dark clump, hoping that I'd get a couple of decent shots.  It was so far up, I'm happy I got anything at all.  Looks like maybe it was settling down for a nap after eating.

Just hanging out sleeping off dinner...

Tracks from January in the mud and...
in the snow...

Monday, January 16, 2012

New Jersey Fossil Hunting

While visiting relatives in New York over the summer, my family and I took a day trip to Monmouth County, New Jersey to search for fossils.  We prepared ahead of time by making two sift trays and bringing hand trowels.  Strolling through the streams was the perfect activity for such a hot summer day.  It was a little hard on the back, but the rewards were worth it.  The majority of fossils collected are from the Cretaceous Mount Laurel formation and are more than 75 million years old.

This is the top portion of Exogyra, an oyster that formed vast beds across the shallow sea floors.  This is a very common fossil found in this area.  Below is the bottom portion of the shell.  Exogyra are also known as "devil's toenails."

These next fossils are guards of Belemnitella americana, an ancient squid-like creature from the Belemnoid family that went extinct during the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous.  The animal reached lengths of up to 18 inches.  The guards, which were found in the end portion of the animal, are sometimes callled "devil's fingers" or "thunderbolts." 

We found several belemnite guards massed together in the soft muddy sides on either side of the stream. It is thought that many belemnites died en masse from mud slides or just after breeding.

This next item is a trace fossil, a portion of fossilized burrow belonging to a type of ghost shrimp (Protocallinassa mortoni). Holding this fossil sideways, one can see the hole excavated by the shrimp millions of years ago.

By far the most excitement was derived from the discovery of sharks' teeth.  This display shows the 
variety of teeth found mainly on gravel bars.  Most are easy to spot because of their polished look.  Identifying whose mouth they came from was a bit tricky.  The first tooth on the left is from a goblin shark.  Tooth #2 is probably from a porbeagle shark.  Teeth #3 and #9 (last) are perhaps from a hybodont shark (best guess from looking at NJ fossil photos). Tooth #4 from left appears to be from a crow shark.  Teeth #5, #6 and perhaps #7 possibly came from a sand tiger shark.  The prize tooth find was #8 (2nd from last), which measures 3/4" across and 1" from root to tip.  The jury is still out on that one.  We think it's from a sand tiger shark.  If you know, please comment below. 

No trip to the woods would be complete without scat.  Our hunt uncovered a nice shark coprolite.

We also discovered a bunch of "small stuff" including a snail shell, a fish vertebrae, smaller burrows and bits of coral and shells.

Not really positive what this is. Coral? Burrows?  Concretion?

Lastly, the mystery bone fragment.  If anyone knows what type of bone this is, please let me know.  Here are some different views:

A big thank you to my son for assisting me with this blog entry.

Warm Winter

We're having a pretty snowless winter with temperature above normal.  After a recent warm rainy day, someone told me they found a spotted salamander wandering through their yard headed toward the vernal pool. 

Some sightings from a recent hike:

Mallards enjoying a warm misty morning

A beaver lodge with freshly added sticks
A beaver food cache just outside the lodge
A beaver scent mound

Evidence of white-tailed deer

This deer track should be in snow!