Mid-Winter’s Offerings

Prior to the on-set of colder weather, and because my new office space allows such extravagance, I set up a pond water aquarium to help me keep company with my microscopic friends. This has proven to be a welcome distraction on a snowy day, to visit my pond zoo and observe the protists, or the protoctista kingdom, which includes photosynthetic algae and a variety of protozoa more formally known as heterotrophs. Among the more familiar of these are amoebas and ciliates.

Last Thursday, the 13th of January, I discovered a damselfly perched on my windowsill, completely surprising both itself and me. This premature molt was no doubt the result of the relative warmth of my office pond, triggering what would be a typically normal response. But for a day, I had this delicate creature to observe intimately and capture its newness under the microscope. With the aid of Kaufman’s Field Guide to the Insects of North America, I was able to identify this critter as the Eastern Forktail damselfly (http://www.cirrusimage.com/damselfly_Eastern_Forktail.htm), common in eastern Canada and north-eastern US. This species has a ‘long flight season, from spring to fall’, which suggests a certain degree of hardiness.
Interestingly, the male forktails have a unique structure at the tip of their abdomens, which as well are typically quite colorful. It appears from the link photos above that this forked tail serves an important function in the reproductive embrace.

While pondering this new addition to my yard list, I heard a sudden and great commotion just outside my office. From where I sat, looking out my window all I could see were fluttering shadows. I immediately grabbed my camera and snuck out onto the deck. There in the tops of two white oaks, were seven black vultures in quite a fussy assemblage. Two of them appeared to be either fighting or courting…sometimes it is difficult to discern the difference. With grand displays of head bobbing and wing flapping they were so engrossed in their own affairs that they had yet to notice me. I thus took advantage of the moment and fairly good light to capture a few of their poses. But by far the most interesting aspect of this observable moment was their other-worldly vocalizations. I can best describe these as a combination of loud hissing and grunting, almost a mechanical or metallic squawk, uttered in a punctuated rhythmic cadence. Even when they did finally see me, they seemed relatively unimpressed. After a few more minutes, some of them grew uneasy and began to leave one by one, still not acting with any sense of urgency. Eventually the last one departed, giving a goodbye tail wave.

We have two vulture species in our region, the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) and the black vulture (Coragyps atratus). Since most vultures are seen in flight while catching thermals, distinguishing between the two is at first a little tricky. The turkey vulture is slightly larger, has a longer tail, a red skinned head (in adults), and tilts from side to side in flight. The black vulture’s head is black, tail is shorter, and has conspicuous white in the wing tips. Turkeys are more solitary in nature, while the black is a highly communal bird, sometimes roosting in great numbers. Often both species will be found sharing the same thermal, providing a great opportunity for comparisons. As well, both are carrion specialists, with the black using its advantage of superior eyesight and the turkey its sense of smell.

Stepping out onto my deck does not compete for a good walk in the woods…so Saturday found my friend, Mica Paluzzi and me on a hike in our favorite local birding spot: Alleghany Access of the NC New River State Park. The road leading to the park was not plowed, so our walk was pleasantly lengthened. It became immediately apparent because of the snow cover that we were the first people to have been there in some time. Our intended goal was to find as many birds as possible, with a wish list that included hawks especially. We had sunshine, Fahrenheit temperatures in the upper 30s, just a slight breeze, and the whole park to ourselves…but things were pretty quiet.

The drama unfolding beneath our feet was, however, another story. One of great animation and excitement, endless descriptions molded in the snow, tales of life and death, all printed out for our curiosity and entertainment. Besides the thousands of deer tracks, solitary and grouped, raccoons, rabbits and possibly one good track of a coyote, what impressed us most were the quantity and quality of raptor kill sites. Looking like famous fossilized bird imprints, the spread of wing and tail feathers describing the pounce and lift were so numerous we named one trail ‘death row’. We could read the scene…here come little mouse prints…bang…no return mouse prints. After sharing some pictures of these events with our bird club raptor expert, Jim Keighton noted that at least one was an owl kill, evidenced by the zygodactyl toe prints, or two toes in front, two in back forming roughly a letter K or X.
As the morning warmed, so did a few birds. In one especially sunny grassy slope we scared up a minimum of 100 field sparrows. Notably absent were white-breasted nuthatch, red-bellied woodpecker, cardinal, Canada goose, red-tailed hawk, and any kind of finch. Following is our list:

22 Species Reported:
American Kestrel (1)
Belted Kingfisher (1)
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (2)
Downy Woodpecker (1)
Northern Flicker (1)
Pileated Woodpecker (1)
Eastern Phoebe (1)
Golden-crowned Kinglet (2)
Winter Wren (1)
Eastern Bluebird (13)
American Robin (1)
Carolina Chickadee (3)
Tufted Titmouse (2)
Blue Jay (2)
American Crow (15)
Common Raven (1)
Yellow-rumped Warbler (5)
Eastern Towhee (3)
Chipping Sparrow (1)
Field Sparrow (100+)
Song Sparrow (11)
Dark-eyed Junco (6)

This sightings record was recorded at: www.aviatlas.com

On my way home I saw two red-tailed hawks and one accipter…the birds we had been looking for in the park. What we did see was evidence of our ‘missing hawks’ who were probably watching us the entire time.