Loon Family Time

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Summer is loon time in the Adirondacks. These signature diving birds of clear northern lakes return to us in spring, having spent the winter dining on East Coast seafood. When the ice goes out, the loons come in. In short order they're hooting and yodeling and renewing bonds with old mates or forging new ones with paramours.

I vowed to get to know loons better this year, and to expand my archive of photos of them. Approaching near-tame birds on a lake where they're accustomed to seeing people and boats, I managed to win their trust and spend several happy hours among them. My loon companions were a family of three: a male, a female, and a chick not many days out of the egg. 

Interactions within the loom family seemed tender. The parents interacted gently, with one sometimes feeding the other. Males and females are all but identical, with the males being slightly larger. The chick, not much bigger than a tennis ball and similarly fuzzy, seemed to enjoy snuggling up to each parent equally.

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Fatigue seemed to come over the baby loon now and again. Sensitive to the situation, one of the parents (it seemed each time to be the smaller female) would edge up to the little one, lift a wing, and invite it to crawl up and underneath. Sometimes the chick would stay there, out of sight. Other times it would wriggle on top and either take a rumble seat in the back or smuggle up to the big bird's neck.

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Loons feed on aquatic life: fish, crustaceans such as crayfish, insects, and more. I watched the parent loons feed each other and feed (or attempt to feed) their chick small slender fish, crayfish, and water striders they plucked from the surface of the cove.

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While watching parent loons tend a chick or two is a thrill, a great part of the appeal of loons is their almost-too-good-to-be-true beauty. I've admired loons on Adirondack lakes for forty years. Still, each time I get a good look at one I'm astounded anew by its handsome shape, the intricacy of the black-and-white checking (the black turning to metallic green or purple in the right light), and the blazing red eyes. On top of all that, loons speak expressively. There can be few experiences more thrilling than standing on the shore of a wild northern lake at night and hearing the haunting wail of a loon rising and falling from a point unknown, somewhere far out in the darkness.

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Marsh Mellow

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My morning routine in recent weeks had consisted of hauling myself out of bed, pouring cups of coffee for the two senior members of the household, and helping get the kids ready for school. That, and listening to the news on the radio. 

With all that goes on to upset a lover of peace and nature these days, I counted myself lucky when a mother hooded merganser turned up near our house in a small pond, surrounded by marsh. She had a contingent of hatchlings keeping close to her, and if Mama Merganser had her way, you could tell nothing could keep them apart. This sweet scene, on offer every morning, offered an irresistible alternative to the news. So I began launching my days out in the marsh.

The following images were all captured there. In the gathering of them, I found my spirits rising, my blood pressure subsiding, and a welcome serenity---I began to think of it as marsh mellow---seeping into my soul. I should add that serenity was only achieved with the help of lemon eucalyptus insect repellent, and lots of it.

 A mother wood duck and ducklings, much more secretive than the mergansers.

A mother wood duck and ducklings, much more secretive than the mergansers.

 A beautiful sedge in bloom. Can any  Carex  expert out there help me with identification?

A beautiful sedge in bloom. Can any Carex expert out there help me with identification?

 A fiddlehead of royal fern, unfolding at the edge of marsh and pond.

A fiddlehead of royal fern, unfolding at the edge of marsh and pond.

 A mother tree swallow, guarding her brood in a nest in a tree hollow. The trunk stands beside the marsh. 

A mother tree swallow, guarding her brood in a nest in a tree hollow. The trunk stands beside the marsh. 

 A prowler! Early one morning, I surprised this eastern chipmunk, six feet up in the expired red maple in which tree swallows were nesting. Chipmunks are nest predators. Happily for the birds, the chipmunk fled, and the swallows remain on duty.   

A prowler! Early one morning, I surprised this eastern chipmunk, six feet up in the expired red maple in which tree swallows were nesting. Chipmunks are nest predators. Happily for the birds, the chipmunk fled, and the swallows remain on duty.

 

 A few days after Father's Day, Papa Tree Swallow arrives at the nest with a mouth crammed full of mayflies.

A few days after Father's Day, Papa Tree Swallow arrives at the nest with a mouth crammed full of mayflies.

 As I was photographing the hooded merganser family, a head popped up like a Jack-in-the-box. A whitetail doe was studying me. 

As I was photographing the hooded merganser family, a head popped up like a Jack-in-the-box. A whitetail doe was studying me. 

 The doe crept closer and closer, curious and apparently puzzled about my identity. Then, I suspect, she caught my scent. No, not my scent---the scent of my insect repellent. With a snort and a few bounds, she was gone.

The doe crept closer and closer, curious and apparently puzzled about my identity. Then, I suspect, she caught my scent. No, not my scent---the scent of my insect repellent. With a snort and a few bounds, she was gone.

 Yellow water-lilies in bloom, their stems rising out of the pond's mucky bottom.

Yellow water-lilies in bloom, their stems rising out of the pond's mucky bottom.

 Cedar waxwings kept busy in and around nearby shrubs and trees, snatching insects from the air before shooting off to gather wild strawberries for dessert. 

Cedar waxwings kept busy in and around nearby shrubs and trees, snatching insects from the air before shooting off to gather wild strawberries for dessert. 

 A wild blue flag, an iris, blooming at the edge of the marsh.

A wild blue flag, an iris, blooming at the edge of the marsh.

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Mama Hooded Merganser and her brood providing another morning of psychotherapy.

Spring "Ephemerals" Leave Lasting Impressions

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The wildflowers of our brief, blink-or-you-miss-it Adirondack spring have to work fast. They need energy to open blossoms made and tucked in cold storage the preceding year, and they need to produce nectar, pollen, and ovaries ready for seed-making. It's a race to get leaves up, flowers out, and pollen delivered before deep shade comes over the forest and slows things down. Because our spring flowers appear so briefly, they're sometimes called "ephemerals." You won't forget them. Here are images of ephemerals I photographed in our neck of the woods this spring. Can you identify the ones in the image above? You'll find a different photo of the same plant identified below. 

  Bloodroot,  Sanguinaria canadensis

Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis

  Red trillium,    Trillium erectum ,  also known as "stinking Benjamin" and "wet dog"

Red trillium, Trillium erectum, also known as "stinking Benjamin" and "wet dog"

  Foam-flower,  Tiarella cordifolia

Foam-flower, Tiarella cordifolia

  Carolina spring beauty,  Claytonia caroliniana

Carolina spring beauty, Claytonia caroliniana

  Painted trillium,  Trillium undulatum

Painted trillium, Trillium undulatum

  Dutchman's breeches,  Dicentra cucullaria  

Dutchman's breeches, Dicentra cucullaria 

  Clintonia,  Clintonia borealis  , also known as bluebead lily (formerly in the lily family)

Clintonia, Clintonia borealis, also known as bluebead lily (formerly in the lily family)

  Starflower,  Trientalis borealis

Starflower, Trientalis borealis

  Canada mayflower,  Maianthemum canadense  , also known as "wild lily-of-the-valley"

Canada mayflower, Maianthemum canadense, also known as "wild lily-of-the-valley"

  Wild sarsaparilla,  Aralia nudicaulis

Wild sarsaparilla, Aralia nudicaulis

  Jack-in-the-pulpit,  Arisaema triphyllum

Jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum

  Pink lady-slipper,  Cypripedium acaule  , also known as moccasin-flower

Pink lady-slipper, Cypripedium acaule, also known as moccasin-flower

Red Maples Female, and Red Maples Male

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When Adirondack red maples burst into blossom in springtime (our deciduous trees are really just giant-sized wildflowers) not all the blossoms are identical. Some red maples have flowers that look like those above, photographed near our mailbox. These are female flowers. In time, assuming they're pollinated, they'll ripen and produce winged seeds. The particular tree that bears these flowers is a female tree. It has no male flowers with pollen-producing stamens but bears female blossoms only. These are ruby red. Each flower has a pair of sticky, fuzzy styles adapted for catching pollen. Wind and insects both play roles in moving red maple pollen from the male flowers to the female.

See a second image of female red maple flowers immediately below. Gorgeous, aren't they?

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Let's not forget about the male flowers, shown in the two photos below. From a distance, these appear not ruby red like the female blossoms, but orange. This is because they have conspicuous yellow flower parts in addition to red anthers and bud scales. The combination of yellow and red creates the visual impression of orange. 

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The number of stamens in a single red maple flower varies. Commonly it's eight, but it can be more or less. The stamens have red or yellow filaments topped with anthers. When fully developed, the anthers are red on one side and yellow on the other. The yellow is pollen.

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The reproductive lives of red maples are complicated. While the majority of trees in a given area usually bear male and female flowers on separate plants, there may also be bisexual (the botanical term is monoecious) individuals bearing blossoms of both genders. We have such a red maple outside our kitchen door. The tree is largely female, yet one branch bears male flowers. When hiking in spring, I tend to find bisexual red maples particularly in rocky exposed areas, where the plants grow under stress. And to make matters even less clear, certain flowers on a red maple tree may bear both female and male parts.

Maybe there's evolutionary method to the red maple's reproductive madness. Diverse ways of making seeds likely help the tree adapt to a wide range of environments. You'll find red maples growing from the steamy alligator and cottonmouth-haunted swamps of the Florida Everglades to Newfoundland and the chilly interior of Quebec. In the Adirondack Mountains, red maples grow just about everywhere except on high summits. You'll find them at home in waterlogged swamps, on dry, windswept ridges, and on a variety of slopes and flats. Red maples please the eye in spring when in bloom, and they're stunning all over again in autumn. In September, the leaves turn the same deep, brilliant red as the female flowers of springtime.

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Costa Rica And Home Again

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The Adirondack winter ran long this year. As cabin fever set in, we put our goats, ducks, and guinea pigs in the hands of friends and neighbors and set off on a twelve-day adventure in Costa Rica. For the first five days, we chased birds, mammals, lizards, crocodiles and whatever else we could find in the distinguished company of Swarovski Optik's Clay Taylor and Alex Villegas. Alex's wife and five year old daughter were with us, too, as well as a fabulous bus driver named Marco Morales, who proved himself immensely knowledgeable about birds and one of the best fauna spotters of us all. One of our favorite birds during this phase of the trip was the red-headed barbet, shown above, and the fiery-billed aracari, a kind of toucan, shown immediately below, poking its formidable and colorful beak out of a nest hole.

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Other exciting finds during this first part of our Costa Rican adventure included (in the order they appear below) the long-tailed silky flycatcher, the giant parrot known as the scarlet macaw, and the green-and-black poison dart frog.

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After our memorable stops at Villa Lapas, on the Pacific Coast near Tarcoles, and Savegre Mountain Lodge, high in nearby mountains, we bade goodbye to our Swarovski friends and found adventures on our own. First stop, reached by a memorable and sometimes teeth-rattling half day ride into the mountains north of San Jose, was the Reserva Monteverde. There we had our best looks of the trip at the most celebrated bird of Central America: the resplendent quetzal. Here are three photos. The first two show a male. The third shows a female quetzal, less extravagantly plumed than the male but quite handsome in her own right.

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Our last major stop in Costa Rica was Rancho Naturalista, a small, beautiful, and welcoming eco-lodge in the hills near Turrialba. It was a fine place to conclude a trip memorable from the first day to the last. We ate delicious food, slept soundly each of our three nights, and with binoculars and cameras hunted for wildlife from first light to sunset. Accompanying us on several of our walks was Harry Barnard, a young, companionable, and erudite guide from England who spends part of each year at Rancho Naturalista. He was fabulous. So were the things he showed us. Examples below: blue-gray tanager; crowned woodnymph (a kind of hummingbird); a lineated woodpecker, in the genus Dryocoups, making it a cousin of our pileated woodpecker; and a green basilisk (the must stunning lizard of a trip that brought us sightings of many).

 

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I'll end this quick tour of our Costa Rica adventures with two final images from each of our four fabulous stops: Villa Lapas; Savegre Mountain Lodge; Monteverde, and Rancho Naturalista. Viva Costa Rica!

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It's Snow Flea Time Again!

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When the epic Adirondack Mountain winter reaches its zenith in early February, it's time to be on the lookout for snow fleas. These tiny creatures are wingless and unlike real fleas, they don't bite. Snow fleas are a kind of springtail. The spring-loaded tail which gives the springtail its name is called a furcula. It flicks out from beneath the creature when it feels threatened, and boing! Instant relocation. 

Snowfleas and their fellow springtails were long considered insects, but recently scientists decided they belong in another group. They are arthropods, as all insects and spiders are, and they are hexapods, like all insects, but instead of being considered insects they are now dubbed entognathans. Unlike insects, springtails have internal mouthparts. Mostly, they live in the soil and function as decomposers.

Why do snow fleas emerge on the surface of the snow, sometimes in concentrations that look like coal dust and turn white powder black? That's the million dollar question. Scientists aren't certain. What do you think? They might emerge to breed, but we don't find them breeding. They might emerge to feast, but there's little or no evidence of them eating. One idea is that by midwinter, there numbers have grown so high in the soil that they have nowhere to go but spill out onto the surface. 

I love seeing snow fleas. They tend to turn up on mild, cheerful days in mid to late winter and suggest that cold weather, as much as we enjoy it in the Adirondacks, won't last forever. Spring is coming!

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Otters And The Adirondack Winter

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Winter changes life for all of us in the Adirondacks, requiring adjustments. For river otters, which inhabit our lakes, rivers, and creeks and occasionally set off overland to reach the otter's equivalent of greener pastures, the adjustments demanded are more dramatic than for most of the rest of us.

There's the obvious conundrum. How do you dive for fish, and then come up for air, in a body of water that's covered with ice, ice that may be a foot or more thick? There's no easy solution. Otters could be forgiven for avoiding the challenge altogether and hibernating, but that's not what they do.

Along the Saranac River, we occasionally spy an otter in winter, earning its living through breaks in the ice. Because the current flows robustly in places, the ice stays thin or doesn't fully form at all. Otters find these gaps and weak spots in the lids winter places on waterways and nose their way in. They plunge in the cold water, grab a meal (it might be a fish, a crayfish, a hibernating frog, or something else), and paddle back to the opening. Mind you, to an otter, which wears a luxuriant and well-oiled fur coat, the water probably doesn't feel all that cold. Water beneath ice remains at 39.5 Fahrenheit throughout the winter. That's water's maximum density. Any water that cools beyond 39.5 diminishes in density, floats to the top, and becomes ice. Even if the air temperature is 30 below zero, the water remains at 39.5 above. Balmy! Well, everything's relative.

Otters that plan ahead may also maintain holes in ponds or lakes with thick, iron-hard ice cover. As the ice thickens in early winter, they use an entry hole again and again. Repeated use keeps the hole clear or almost clear---thin enough, if the otter is lucky, to maintain a place for diving and breathing. Otters swim like fish, but they don't have gills.

The photo above was taken one morning when I was whisking my daughter, Tasman, off to a dentist's appointment. As we passed by a pond that could be seen through the trees, I glimpsed an otter popping out of a hole, right in the middle. This was too good an opportunity to pass up. And because we were running ahead of schedule, we didn't need to pass it up. I swung the car over to the shoulder. Tasman and I popped out. We waited for the otter to go under. As soon as it did, we clambered down a slope onto the ice. The otter popped out of the hole again. We stood like statues. When the otter took its next plunge, we made our move. 

Again, we stood completely still. The otter popped out like a jack-in-the-box. It had a fish in its mouth. As it ate, we watched from just a few feet away, trying not to twitch or giggle. It was gorgeous, its wet suit of chocolate brown fur glittering with beads of water.

Suddenly, at just the moment I took the photo, the otter, perhaps detecting our scent, turned toward us and lifted its nose. Then, in an instant, it was gone, shooting headfirst into the dark water. We waited. It never came back. The otter had another way out.  

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Ermine Is Not Cockney For Herman

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The ermine, or short-tailed weasel, is not a creature seen very often. The first one I ever glimpsed at our place in the Adirondacks invited itself for lunch. One memorable afternoon, I was assembling a sardine sandwich when a brown, furry, cylindrical shape about the size of one of my socks flung itself over the threshold and raced around the baseboards. Eventually the thing lurched to a stop.

One end rose up from the floor and looked up at me with small, curious eyes. A weasel! That was all I could be sure of at first. Then I remembered to make a quick comparison of tail length to body length. The tail was half as long as the body, maybe shorter. An ermine! The long-tailed weasel has a longer tail, and it's a more robust animal overall. This creature was about as thick around as a bratwurst and not much different in shape. Both ermines and long-tailed weasels turn white in winter.

Since that day, we've had many ermine sightings. Most occur on or near a platform where, about once a week, we put out a lightly picked chicken carcass. Songbirds peck at the chicken, and we attract the occasional owl. But the most entertaining diners of all are the ermines.

They race up the pole, executive a gymnastic maneuver to reach the carcass sitting on a platform about the surface area of a large book, and chomp. Apparently ermines like to eat in private, beyond the prying eyes of other ermines, other would-be carcass eaters, and predators. Invariably, the ermine yanks and yanks some more and tries to make off with the chicken. Frustrated, the little weasel will hang off the edge of the platform and swing like a pendulum. It doesn't work because owls have taught us to chain carcasses down.

Occasionally on nature walks we see wild weasels racing along, lithe, graceful, determined. Each one is a treat!

Who Cooks For You?

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It's late fall. The leaves are down. Daylight savings are spent. Nights are long and getting longer, and often, from out of their black depths, I hear voices.

Voices? Read on.

Yesterday, for example, with our first serious snow in the forecast, I decided to end my work day by rolling around on the cold ground, wrestling summer tires and rims off our Toyota Prius and replacing them with winter rims and snow tires. I started the job in golden afternoon light. I finished it in darkness, cradling a flashlight under an arm or between my knees as I cranked down on the final lug nuts. A few minutes before wrapping up the job, I was reminded I was not alone.

From the woods behind the house came a voice. It was loud and clear. Its cadence seemed to say, "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?"

A barred owl was talking to me, or if not to me, then to another barred owl. 

There's irony in a barred owl asking about cooking. You won't ever catch a barred owl in a restaurant or at a weenie roast. They eat their food raw. Nor are they likely to eat a weenie, even though in the depths of an Adirondack winter, with deep snow burying the ground and mice hard to come by, they sometimes come to pick at chicken carcasses we put out on a bird feeding platform. Mainly barred owls pounce and prey on things that are alive and moving: mice, voles, shrews, birds, whatever they can sink their talons into. 

The barred owl pictured here is one I photographed using an infra-red beam to trip two flashes. My shutter was wide open. It was pitch black out, so no significant amount of light got in. I baited the owl in to the camera with a mouse in a small wire cage. The owl would grant me one photograph per night. After that, it would refuse to chase a caged mouse until the following night. Over two weeks, I shot one bad photo of the owl after another. I always got only a partial owl in the frame. Finally, I perched the mouse in its little cage right on top of the camera. That did the trick. 

Fabulous fall fruits

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Through the Adirondack summer, flowering trees and shrubs busy themselves producing what we may call seeds, nuts, or berries but which in the eyes of botanists are all "fruits." Flowering plants also take advantage of sunshine, warm temperatures, carbon dioxide, soil nutrients, and rain to manufacture the leaves and flowers that will open for business the following spring. It's a busy time for green things. Judging by this year's bumper crop of fruits, it was a very good year.

The shrub known as cranberry viburnum, or highbush cranberry, produced huge numbers of lucious fruit (seen in the photo above) in our part of the Adirondacks this year. Most of us don't eat these fruits because, while not known to be poisonous, they're wickedly tart. But one thing they are, without question, is gorgeous. The reds of the ripe berries, which occur in dangling clusters, are brilliant and can spotted at a great distance. This no doubt helps birds find them. Later, the hard indigestible seeds, one per berry (technically they're drupes), are distributed in droppings far and wide. It's a great relationship. The plants provide the birds with carbohydrate-rich food, and the birds supply seed distribution services and fertilizer.

One fruit that is poisonous, yet so beautiful we can easily forgive its toxicity, is the winterberry. This is the life's work of the most common species of native holly growing in the northern Adirondacks and much of the East. The fruits are not only poisonous to people but birds don't like eating them, either, or at least not until weeks or months have passed. Hence "winterberry"---a fruit that you may still find in the woods in winter, when all or nearly all the other fruits of autumn are plucked and gone.

I have never seen as many winterberries as I have this season. It's a treat to stroll in, or near, damp places where the holly thrives and see the daubs of scarlet it leaves on the landscape.

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