Thursday, August 19, 2010

Wild birdseed

Deer-tongue grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum).

"Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds?" - H.D. Thoreau

Today I found a flock of 25 bobolinks gorging on seeds in a patch of grass (below). It reminded me that wild seed bonanzas can rival birdfeeders in quality and quantity. The bobolinks, plus about 10 savannah sparrows, were confined to a patch of one particular type of grass, a native species named deer-tongue (Dichanthelium clandestinum). It is recognized by its fat leaves, hairy stem, and seeds hidden within a tube at the top of the plant (hence the "clandestine" species name, I guess). The birds were flying from plant to plant, voraciously picking the seeds out of the tops. It reminded me of another natural spectacle: the multi-species bird parties that occur in a fruiting red mulberry tree in June. Always more satisfying to watch (for me) than a bird feeder for some reason.

Bobolinks at the "feeder."

Later in the day, I came across two more bird parties. One, again, in a patch of deer-tongue, and another in a patch of different native plant: lamb's quarters (Chenopodium album). The lamb's quarter party was less diverse - consisting only of savannah sparrows - but it was just as hopping.

Lamb's quarter (Chenopodium album).

The savannahs were obviously quite happy gorging themselves on the seeds, which are quite a bit smaller than deer-tongue's, and in fact look like tiny black specks.

The small but tasty seeds of lamb's quarters.

They are apparently humans too. Wild food guru Euell Gibbons recommends grinding them into a hearty flour. (As a side note, I happen to know that the leaves are also much relished by real lambs.) Mixed in with the lamb's quarters was another native (though often disparaged) birdseed-bearing plant: ragweed. The birds will have to wait a while for this one, however. Right now it is still in the pollen-spewing (sneeze-inducing) flower stage.

Monday, August 16, 2010


I'm in western Massachusetts for the week. Tonight a cloud of 15-20 nighthawks swooped over the urban rush-hour mayhem of Route 33 in Chicopee. There were so many, they looked like swallows at first glance. Migrating already? Or maybe just congregating into post-breeding feeding frenzies.

Nighthawks that nest in the sandy grasslands near Lakehurst, NJ usually finish up by mid-July. For the next few weeks after that, the parents and children spend their mornings flying around he fields in flocks similar to this one, especially on overcast days. So...maybe this is just a nearby roof-top colony (it's an industrial area) in post-breeding flock mode. But, then again, there are many miles of swooping to do between here and South America, and relatively little time to get there (say by mid-October). Best to get an early start.

The dots are nighthawks.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Good Time Park

Went exploring in the wetlands of Good Time Park yesterday. It is an abandoned horse-racing track from the early 1900's in Goshen, NY. Not sure who owns it now, but it is colored green (like public land) on Google Maps. There is a fence around it, and there are no trails or signs.

A heron was standing in the pond north of the old track. Near him was something I have never seen before. There and in other random spots around the pond, huge fish (~ 2 feet long) were swirling around each other and breaching the surface. I'm guessing they were carp based on the big scales on their backs. They gave the impression of large reptilian pond monsters. The heron was ignoring them, though they were right near its legs.

There were other monstrous creatures in the pond. Huge mussel and snail shells were scattered around the banks. The snail in the picture is ~3 inches tall.

In the swampy center of the "triangle," a deer and her fawn stood in the water eating marsh plants...moose-like. The water was completely covered with duck-weed. Large patches of a leg-lacerating, serrated grass grow here that make travel in shorts and sandals inadvisable (whoops). I later learned that it has the sinister name of "cutgrass." Kingbirds, house wrens, song sparrows, swamp sparrows, starlings, mallards, robins, and cedar waxwings live here.

A tree in the center of the marsh supported a small great blue herons rookery (four nests), apparently done for the season.

Ruby Meadowhawk dragonfly.

Found an old relic of the old horse-racing facilities. I'm guessing this was the box they did the announcing from. It wasn't fast horse racing, but the slow kind called "trotting." (The horse equivalent of speed-walking.) A famous race called the Hambletonian was hosted here in the 1930's.

Monkeyflower (Mimulus sp.).

I (hesitantly) walked right by a very recent-looking hobo shelter built right along the old track. He had some disheveled tarps, a cooler, some blankets, and even a clothes-line. Lots of trash strewn around as usual. I thought I caught a glimpse of legs and sneakers, but I didn't want to look too closely. I wonder where his home range is?

My favorite bird of the day was the humble swamp sparrow. This one had a crossed bill tip.