THROUGH THE WOODS: The Mystery Duck

White-winged scoter. Photo contributed

IN JULY I GOT A PHONE CALL from a perplexed Hillsdale farmer. This is a multigenerational family farm with people who understand local wildlife, so I was surprised when I heard they had a duck on a farm pond they couldn’t identify. I asked for a description and ran through all the usual suspects, and it wasn’t.

I love these calls and get the location and promise to respect their privacy. They did not want people to arrive and tramp all over their property, which I understand. There is a liability, possible livestock that would be disturbed, and litter, to mention a few items. Birders are respectful, but wildlife photographers are notoriously not, and they are always watching the internet for unusual finds. It is a business and money for them, and the sought-after subject can be harassed and harmed too.

I drove over to the about-half-acre farm pond and parked to observe for a few hours. I saw about 10 Canada geese and then spotted the dark-colored duck near them. I immediately knew what it was, an adult male White-winged scoter. I was flabbergasted because this duck should have been up in the arctic for the nesting season. I took numerous photos to document it, knowing I would be questioned by other excellent birders who would find this report hard to believe. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: The Hummers are still at war!

Male ruby-throated hummingbird. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

In May, two male ruby-throated hummingbirds in my yard fought over the sugar water feeder. The females do not have the red throat and are mostly green with a white belly and some gray areas. This probably helps them remain hidden in the nest and they are less conspicuous. The male’s red throat may be part of the attraction for females during the mating season. In all the years I have been birding I have only found one hummingbird nest near a woodland pond. It was in a small birch tree about 12 feet off the ground and so tiny. Just a grayish cup was attached to a small limb and the female was snuggled down on her eggs. That was a thrill, and I regret that I did not have a camera with me. I have watched at home to see where they fly off to but never have found a nest again. I think they veer off in another direction when you can no longer see them.

They are very smart for their size. If you watch them over a week or two, you can tell there are subtle differences between each bird. These poor little things were quite thin compared to when they left last fall, so I was happy they were spending a lot of time eating in between chasing each other around the yard. If I sat out on the porch they would zip by so fast you could feel the tickle of the air from those whirring wings. Hummers are my “yard pets.” They are constantly at the flower beds and are constantly working them, flying to a flower and hovering to get the nectar and moving to the next. I sometimes talk to them and they seem to know we are all friends. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Green heron

The green heron. Nancy Jane Kern

OUR LARGEST AND MOST EASILY OBSERVED HERON is the great blue heron, while the much smaller green heron, although abundant, can be difficult to find. Green herons are shy birds that like thick vegetation and the quiet shallow water of marshes, farm ponds, and river edges. Birds are easier to find if they move about. Green herons like to remain motionless and walking to another spot is quite slow and deliberate. They often fly home to roost for the night and may be seen at places like Stockport Creek at dusk. Look for a crow-sized bird with slow wing beats, crooked neck and trailing legs.

If you walk around a reedy pond you may startle one into flight. They have a loud and unmusical, raspy “skeow” call, which can be startling. Another characteristic is discharging a long stream of white excrement after taking flight. Both of these behaviors could certainly put off a predator. If you get an opportunity to watch this bird fish, they like to perch on a fallen tree limb or rock close to the surface of the water. They eat most small pond life, particularly small fish and tadpoles, and will very quickly extend their long neck and grab one. Occasionally they might spear a larger fish, but in general, they just extend their long neck and grab with their large, thick bill.

The most interesting thing about this bird is that it may use bait to catch fish. They will find insects like mayflies, dragonflies, and grasshoppers (bread if available), drop one in the water, and catch the fish that come to eat it. There is a great video of this titled “Green Heron Fishing with Bread” on YouTube, and the heron gets a nice meal. It shows that birds can be smarter than we think. Since they have been around longer than man, maybe we actually learned to bait fish from them. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Our beautiful monarch butterflies

Monarch butterfly. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

IT WAS WONDERFUL YESTERDAY to finally see a monarch butterfly fluttering around in my yard. Each season has something to look forward to and I find this butterfly always makes me happy.

Milkweed, or Asclepias, is a genus of herbaceous plants that contains over 140 species. Their blossoms are one of the sweetest flowers and insects are attracted to their abundant nectar. There is quite a variety of insects, from beetles to bees to butterflies, that sip the nectar and sap, and munch on the nutritious leaves. Milkweeds are important to us too. Some types have edible leaves that can be cooked and used as greens. Milkweeds, particularly the species called butterfly weed, are used in gardens for their beautiful orange blossoms, sweet smell, and their ability to attract butterflies. Some species of milkweed may contain toxins, so it is good to identify the variety before handling or eating them.

In fall the milkweed plants form pods of seeds that dry, and open, and the seed, via its attached silky parachute, is carried off in the breeze. The silk has been used for insulation and filler for pillows. The milky sap contains latex in an amount too low to be a good source. Probably the most important value of milkweed is being the host plant for the monarch butterfly. This butterfly lays its eggs on milkweed and the resulting larvae eat the leaves. It finishes the pupa stage on the plant and emerges as an adult. No milkweed means no monarchs. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Snakes are our friends

Milk snake. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

THE POOR SNAKE has had bad press ever since the Serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They are fascinating to some and terrifying to others. One of our aunts was an avid gardener and was in the terrified group. We kids would laugh at her arms flapping, screaming fits every time she encountered one, and guessed that the snake was far more terrified than she.

The worst part was she insisted that my uncle kill every snake she found. Uncle was inclined to remove such creatures to safer parts of the farm. He certainly never told her he saved them. She could not be convinced that snakes were good for her garden and that they ate a good number of pests that ruined her favorite veggies. At age 10 a pet garter snake (encouraged by my mother) taught me that snakes are not “slimy” and usually don’t bite unless provoked.

Aloysius lived in a small, shaded cold frame with nice plants and water and was regularly taken out and allowed to lie in the sun or ride atop the head. He seemed to like to nestle down in hair and was quite well behaved. We were surprised to learn that garter snakes give birth to live young. Our rocky farm was a good place for them and we let Aloysius go in late summer so he could get ready for winter hibernation, probably in a rocky den with others of his species. He was arbitrarily called male because we didn’t know how to tell the sex. Read more…