Monday, November 29, 2010

Why did the bear climb the tree?

Bear claw marks up a tulip tree. The other side of the tree had identical marks.

I took a walk down by the Musconetcong River yesterday (near Point Mountain). Two tall trees on a bluff over the river had bear claw marks all the way up the trunk. On both trees - a tulip poplar and a black walnut - there were two lines of claw marks, one on each side of the trunk. They were both about 15-20 inches in diameter. As I gazed up at the marks, which went up as high as I could see, I thought: why did it bother going all the way up there? I suppose bears may eat black walnuts, since I've seen their poop full of crushed hickory nuts (see previous post). But the tracks were recent, and walnuts have already fallen off. And tulip tree seeds have almost no meat on them. We were way off trail, so maybe a hunter or a gunshot scared it up there
- gun season just started recently. Or maybe it just wanted to have a look around.

Close up of the claw marks on the tulip tree.

Point Mountain, Hunterdon County, NJ.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Bear poop

There is something exhilarating about finding fresh bear poop. Or fresh tracks, for that matter. Last December in Stokes State Forest (northern NJ) I came across this pile, composed entirely of crushed up hickory nuts.

If you have ever tried to crack a hickory nut with your teeth, it's not easy! It looks like s/he chewed them up as we would a handful of pumpkin seeds. Here are some bear molars (from Washington State) to give you a visual on that:

Bears aren't "supposed" to be out in December, but this one was. So was another one that left tracks in the new fallen snow the next day (below). Maybe they were up because of the hickory nuts (it was a good year for them). Or maybe s/he was hungry and deranged. Gulp.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Notable hermits: Hanshan

The first in an occasional series highlighting notable nature hermits...

From Wikipedia: "Hanshan is said to have lived in a cave named 'Hanyan' (寒岩, Cold Cliff), a day's travel from the founding home of the Tiantai Buddhist sect, Guoqing Temple; itself located within the Taishan Mountain range on China's southeast coast."

Cold mountain. Hanshan's cave is in the lower right.

Hanshan lived in the 9th century (the 800's) and wandered around on Cold Mountain appreciating nature and writing poems about it. He had two friends (Fenggan and Shide, also poets) who lived in the temple, a day's walk away. The beat poet Gary Snyder was a fan and translator of Hanshan's poems.

Here is his Poem # 126:
The layered bloom of hills and streams
Kingfisher shades beneath rose-colored clouds
mountain mists soak my cotton bandanna,
dew penetrates my palm-bark coat.
On my feet are traveling shoes,
my hand holds an old vine staff.
Again I gaze beyond the dusty world-
what more could I want in that land of dreams?
He wrote about 600 poems up on Cold Mountain. His cave looked like this:

The view from the inside of Hanshan's cave.

Here is poem # 26:
Since I came to Cold Mountain
how many thousand years have passed?
Accepting my fate I fled to the woods,
to dwell and gaze in freedom.
No one visits the cliffs
forever hidden by clouds.
Soft grass serves as a mattress,
my quilt is the dark blue sky.
A boulder makes a fine pillow;
Heaven and Earth can crumble and change.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

They grow up fast

Once upon a time, I was an Acadian flycatcher nest-finder.

A few nests (out of around 150) were really low and easy to photograph. These were fun to follow, and made you realize how amazingly fast birds grow up: from egg to fully feathered fledgling in about 14 days. (This is actually nothing compared with grasshopper sparrows and their grass-dwelling ilk, which fledge in only 8-9 days!)

Here is one Acadian flycatcher nest I documented (almost) daily...

Day 0 - Hatch day. Tiny, fuzzy, and blind.

Day 0 - Later in the day. Last egg hatched, but looks a little runty.

Day 1 - Skin has gotten a little less orange and more pink. Little Runty's fuzz has dried, but he is still noticeably smaller.

Day 2 - Tiny pin feather pins visible beneath skin on back and head. Little Runty is not looking too good.

Day 3 - Pin feathers have broken the skin. Little Runty looks larger, but is dead or nearing death.

Day 4 - Pin feathers nicely developed. Little Runty seems to have died (he's visible underneath bottom nestling).

Day 5 - Feather plumes beginning to emerge from pin feather sheaths. Little Runty appears to be gone - removed by parents?

Day 6 - Feathers covering up much of the skin between feather tracts.

Day 7 - Looking rather furry. Just a little skin visible.
Day 8 - No skin visible. All feathered, but still a little pin-feathery looking. And more golden colored than gray (due to feather tips).

Day 10 - Fully feathered, gray plumage with cream-colored wing bars. Alert and getting wary of visitors. Only 4 days left until fledging, and 2 days before they can jump ship if disturbed. Sadly these guys were eaten by predators later this day or overnight.

Day 11 - Here is another nest with 3 nestlings, 11 days old. Getting pretty crowded! Only three more days left like this.

I don't have any photos of older nests because they get pretty skittish after 10 days. But here are some of adults to complete the cycle:

Monday, November 1, 2010

The gleaners

A swarm of thousands of blackbirds take over the sky and woods surrounding a cornfield in Warren County, NJ.

"The Gleaners" (1857) by Jean-François Millet. Peasant women pick up the left-overs of the wheat harvest. Note the flock of black birds in the background.

The combines have finally come through to harvest the cornfields, and now a plague of blackbirds has descended upon us. Thousands of blackbirds! Grackles, red-wings, cowbirds, and starlings.

They blacken the corn stubble with their bodies. They fill up the tree branches. They swarm and stream overhead. The air, fields and woods are a squeaking, creaking, chattering cacophony. It is quite exciting, really.

Why these four different species feel so comfortable associating together is a puzzle to me. On the ground, they form a pretty even mixture, all climbing over one another for kernels without segregation. And in the air, too, they fly up as a single terrifying superorganism when a red-tailed hawk makes a dive, or the neighborhood feral cat gets too close. A pretty effective strategy, I guess. But I wonder what a red-winged blackbird thinks of the grackle he's rubbing wings with. Not to mention the starlings, who aren't even related, and have only known these new world blackbirds for a mere fraction of a millennium.

Cowbirds, grackles, and red-wings jostle for position in the old sunflower field.

The flocks aren't singular, but are more like a huge patchwork multiflock. A thousand birds will be in the cornfield, another thousand in the trees, a few hundred down drinking in the creek, and hundreds more streaming in from parts unknown. Each contributes his own chatter and squeak to keep up the ambient din, the creaking soundscape. The patches are glued together by constant streams of individuals moving between them. These are the birds who have had enough of one activity, and are now inclined to partake in another. (Enough corn, time to bathe.)

Taking in the spectacle as a whole, it isn't too difficult to imagine the passenger pigeon hordes that must have descended on these same fields only a few hundred years ago.

The aftermath.

P.S. my wife just pointed out to me that all (or almost all) of the red-wings and cowbirds are males! Where are all the females?

P.S.S. see related post on snow geese.