Master Naturalist Program – Northern Panhandle Chapter

Master Naturalist Program

Area nature lovers, 16 years of age and older, can now be trained and certified as Master Naturalists. The new program was developed by the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, and the Good Zoo at Oglebay has been chosen as a training site. The cooperative program, led by the WV Division of Natural Resources with assistance from Davis and Elkins College, Canaan Valley Institute and the WV Cooperative Extension Service, has selected the Good Zoo at Oglebay as a training site. Good Zoo educators will be teaching the classes, along with the Schrader Environmental Education Center staff, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resource’s biologists, and university experts.

Website: https://www.oglebay.com/activities/good-zoo/master-naturalist/

Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania

Blue-eyed Mary (c) Bill Beatty

The Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania (BSWP) is one of
the oldest botanical organizations in the country. Since 1886, our members have met, botanized, and served as a resource of knowledge on the flowers of Pennsylvania.

Our group is a mixture of both professional and amateur botanists. BSWP meets monthly, September through June, and features excellent speakers. Field trips are frequent.

Website: http://www.botsocwpa.org/

Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Botanical-Society-of-Western-Pennsylvania/1563403187282044

Three Rivers Birding Club of Southwestern Pennsylvania

Virginia Rail (c) Bill Beatty

The Three Rivers Birding Club was formed in July of 2001. Today, there are over 220 members who appreciate birds and the natural world of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Our members are diverse: we have naturalists, teachers, plumbers, electricians,  chemists, laborers, students, retirees, doctors and others.

First and foremost, we have many outings to locations in Western Pennsylvania and beyond. We meet 6 times a year to see slide shows and hold workshops mainly about birds, bringing in the most outstanding speakers we can find.

And we socialize with each other a lot, at meetings and outings, because we are birders who like the company of other birders.

Website: http://www.3rbc.org/index.html

Face Book page: https://www.facebook.com/ThreeRiversBirdingClub?fref=ts

Mountaineer Audubon

Acadian Flycatcher at nest (c) Bill Beatty

Mountaineer Audubon is a local chapter of the National Audubon Society.  Our region encompasses Harrison, Marion, Monongalia, Preston, and Taylor Counties in North Central West Virginia and the southern portions of Greene and Fayette Counties in Pennsylvania. The Mountaineer Audubon chapter was founded in the early 1970s.

Our Mission:
To promote the enjoyment, conservation and understanding of birds, other wildlife, and their habitats through birding, education, and outreach.

Website: http://mountaineeraudubon.org/

Face book: https://www.facebook.com/mountaineeraudubon?fref=ts

Ralph K Bell Bird Club

Ralph Bell banding at the AFMO (c) Bill Beatty

The bird banding station on Dolly Sods is officially known as the Allegheny Front Migration Observatory (AFMO).  On October 10, 2004, Ralph banded the 200,000th bird, a male black-throated blue warbler.  Ralph founded the AFMO in 1958 and over 250,000 birds have been banded there.

The Ralph Bell Birding Extravaganza (c) Bill Beatty

The Ralph K. Bell Bird Club is located in Greene County, PA, southwest of Pittsburgh.

Contact rkbbirdclub@yahoo.com for additional information.

Westmoreland Bird and Nature Club

Gray Catbird feeding baby and Red Spruce seedling (c) Bill Beatty

The Westmoreland Bird & Nature Club (formerly Westmoreland County Bird Club) was formed on Feb 26, 1981 to promote interest in birds and conservation and to provide field trips in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.  Thirty or more field trips are scheduled every year and these are not entirely limited to birds. When the birds do not cooperate we concentrate on botany, herps (reptiles & amphibians) and insects.

Website: http://westmorelandbirdandnatureclub.weebly.com/#about

Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1535503720023324/

The Brooks Bird Club

The Headquarters is in Wheeling, WV with other chapters in different parts of WV.

bbc_logo2

The Brooks Bird Club, Inc. is an independent, educational, non-profit organization which promotes the study and enjoyment of birds and other elements of the natural world.  Its purpose is to inform members and the public of environmental issues, to encourage intelligent use of our natural resources and preservation of our natural heritage.  The club undertakes studies which have scientific value, including population and breeding bird surveys.

Website: http://www.brooksbirdclub.org/

Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/BBCWV/

Summer Wildflowers of the Dolly Sods Wilderness

When each of our grandkids reaches eight years old, Jan and I take them on an eight-day camping trip to the Dolly Sods Wilderness.  This was Brady’s year.

Jan and Brady at the beginning of the Allegheny Front Vista Trail. (c) Bill Beatty

On one all-day hike with Jan and Brady I found a wildflower I wanted to photograph.  After we were done hiking I decided to go back to the flower and shoot some pictures.   Brady wanted to go with me so we hiked there together.  It takes me a long time to set up photos…determining the lens, photo angles, lighting and camera settings.  Brady’s questions while he watched patiently showed the beginning of an interest in photography and wildflowers.  Following are a few of the wildflowers we found and I photographed.  It was great fun.

                   

(left) Dewdrops/False Violet (c) Bill Beatty …Northland Loop Trail and (right) Indian Pipes (c) Bill Beatty …High Mountain Meadow Trail.  We spotted Indian Pipes in many places on many trails.

                         

Turk’s Cap Lily (c) Bill Beatty …along the Dolly Sods road…Forest Service Road 75

                     

Common Milkweed (c) Bill Beatty …along the Dolly Sods road in many places.  As soon as the flowers opened, the bees arrived.  Some flower heads were bent over by the weight of the bees.  There were lots of different butterflies around the Milkweed, including our FOY Monarch.

            

(left) Oceanorus (c) Bill Beatty … was abundant in several places and (right) Narrow-leaved Gentian (c) Bill Beatty …both at Alder Run Bog

                            

(left) Thimble Weed (c) Bill Beatty …and (right) Fireweed (c) Bill Beatty …along the Dolly Sods road…Forest Service Road 75

                      

(left) Wood Lily (c) Bill Beatty …Bear Rocks and (right) Small Green Wood Orchid (c) Bill Beatty …(found in several places)…South Prong Trail

         

(left) I was surprised to find Wild Bleeding Heart (c) Bill Beatty …still in bloom along the Big Oaks Trail.  (right) Bee Balm (c) Bill Beatty …Dolly Sods Picnic Ground.

         

One day we went off the Dolly Sods plateau and hiked the Blackwater River Trail in Canaan Valley State Park.  (left) Blue Vervain (c) Bill Beatty …and (right) Swamp Milkweed (c) Bill Beatty.

We hear a lot about “Spring Wildflowers”….on Dolly Sods.  This July every trail was profuse with colorful, delightful Summer wildflowers.

Not GOLDFINCHY . . . . . . by Jan Runyan

“That bird doesn’t really look goldfinchy,” said a perplexed Bill.   “But I can’t tell what it is.” Bill had been keeping watch on the mist net near the back feeders as we swam and splashed in the pool with family members. Normally we just band birds in winter, so this was a trial to see what, if anything, we could discover by summer banding. It had been a good way to learn the looks of young birds and to get some practice at skulling—looking at the development of the skull bone as a way to identify hatch-year birds. Cardinals, Song Sparrows, Titmice, occasional Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, lots of House Finches (banded and transported as part of our homing research), and Goldfinches had graced our nets and each one but the “hummers” left with a tiny numbered band on one leg.

All birders know the feeling of being able to identify some bird, not by seeing all the specific field marks, but by more of a gestalt–it just looks like that kind of bird. And more often than not, if we chase the bird to get a good look, we find we are right. Male American Goldfinches in their brilliant gold and black breeding plumage are some of the most beautiful and easily identifiable birds.

American Goldfinch in mist net

American Goldfinch in mist net (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

But this bird in the net, while it was a dazzling yellow and about the right size, just did not look “goldfinchy” to Bill. He left the pool-yard, dripping, to retrieve our puzzle.

“So what is it?” I asked when he had the bird in hand. “I don’t know!” This was not the answer I expected. Bill doesn’t know what it is??? I made a towel-wrapped dash through the house to get Peterson’s Warblers and Sibley’s. We had to ID the bird correctly before Bill could band it.

We turned page after warbler page in Sibley’s looking for a warbler-sized bird with plain yellow on the belly from beak to the tip of the tail and a darker “greenish” color on top from the bill to the tip of the tail.

Yellow underside, greenish top

Yellow underside, greenish top (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

 

 

The flight feathers of the wings and the tail feathers had multiple colors: pale black, yellow and “greenish”.

 

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Wing and tail colors (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

It was strikingly colorful and plain at the same time.   Looking back and forth between several possibilities, we finally made a preliminary identification as a female Yellow Warbler although we could not see even faint rusty streaks on the breast.

Plain yellow breast (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Then I remembered—under-tail coverts! Looking at the color of feathers that cover the base of the tail on the underside of a bird and looking at the color, pattern and shape of tail feathers is one way to differentiate warbler species. And the Peterson Warblers guide has two pages showing all of the possibilities.

Undertail coverts and tail (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

 

 

Scanning the 52 tail and covert feather options, it was clear that our preliminary identification was, indeed, correct. There wasn’t anything else with undertail coverts that looked like the bird in Bill’s hand.

 

 

 

Yellow Warbler female (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

So we formally said “Hello” to our female Yellow Warbler—the first Yellow Warbler ever banded on our property, in fact, the first Yellow Warbler Bill or I had ever held or banded.

She got her tiny band, posed for some photos and soon was on her way. And as she departed, she left us a little something which, thankfully, landed just outside the edge of the pool.

The Field Trip that….SUCKED!

Jan and I had just returned from leading an all day Master Naturalist Conference trip to Big Run Bog in Tucker County.  25 intrepid people had accompanied us to explore this botanical treasure trove.  From the front porch of the Graceland Inn on the Davis and Elkins College campus a woman called my name, “BILL, BILL!” she yelled.  “I just wanted to tell you…your field trip sucked!”  Two women standing nearby looked at her in shock.  I think they were even more surprised to hear me laugh and respond with, “It sure did!”

For all but two people in the group this was their first trip to the bog and so most weren’t sure what it would be like.  In the tour description I had mentioned to expect getting their feet wet and to wear “proper footgear”.  That phrase brought a whole variety of “shoes” from sandals to water shoes to hiking boots.  Some people wore calf-high or knee-high rubber “muck” boots that easily slip on and off…a good choice for normal muddy conditions.

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Entering Big Run Bog a.k.a. Olsen Bog (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

And so it began.  People not used to choosing the bog vegetation best suited to support them often found that they had misjudged the firmness of “terra firma”.  And the longer a person stood in one spot, the more often a foot would end up slipping through the sphagnum moss mat down into the mud.  Many times someone would find their foot stuck in the muck.  Pushing with the above-ground boot for leverage often ended up pushing that foot deep into the muck, too, and then both feet were stuck.  With footgear tightly tied or strapped on, it was easier to get unstuck by working the foot and lifting with the whole leg slowly.  The people wearing slip-on boots had it much harder, however.  Understandably, they did not want to just lift their foot, leaving the boot still firmly trapped in the mud.  But keeping the boot on while doing all the other movements needed to extricate the booted foot was nearly impossible.  After trying numerous ways, sometimes almost to the point of exhaustion, and often with the help of one or two other people, the foot or feet were freed at last.  Finally, we decided the easiest way to free trapped “muck boot” people was simply to have them slide their foot out of the boot and then let someone else pull the boot from the muck.  As the helper pulled firmly on a boot, it slid from the bog with a long slurping, sucking sound.  Hence, “Your field trip SUCKED!”  Yes, it did…..frequently!

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(Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

   Left — Discussing the bog and the strange, unusual plant communities.                               Right — Cinnamon Ferns (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) (c) Bill Beatty

          PF04013 16-16                                    PM02004 1-12

Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia purpurea) (c) Bill Beatty …were everywhere and some of the leaves had many floating insects.

           

Insectivorous Round-leaved Sundews (Drosera rotundifolia) (c) Bill Beatty …numbered in the thousands and were sometimes found dining on trapped insects.

                               

Many of the Beard-flower Orchids (Pogonia ophioglossoides) (c) Bill Beatty …were in full bloom.

      IMG_6049    floating pondweed (Potamogeton epihydrus)

At the beaver dam parts of the pond (c) Jan Runyan … were full of flowering Floating Pondweed (Potamogeton epihydrus) (c) Bill Beatty.

After lunch I took our explorers (in smaller groups) into a part of the bog where few people have ever been.  Here is where some of the rarest plants in West Virginia can be seen and photographed.

              IMG_6058                    IMG_6064

I knelt in the bog as a border not to cross because there were so many rare plants (c) Jan Runyan.  Just beyond me were several large patches of Buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata).  Then I pointed out several Golden Club (Orontium aquaticum) plants in flower (c) Bill Beatty .

                                                  

Dozens of Grass Pink Orchids (Calopogon pulchellus) (c) Bill Beatty …were mixed in with the Buckbean, Golden Club and Kidneyleaf Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia asarifolia).

                                                  

Along the wooded edges of the bog were Small Green Wood Orchids (Platanthera clavellata) (c) Bill Beatty …and on the trail to the road were small stands of American Yew (Taxus canadensis) (c) Bill Beatty.

All that evening and the next day people came to Jan and me to tell us how much fun they had at the bog and how seeing all the rare plants was such a delight.  The challenges of the stuck feet soon became a fun memory to laugh about…as we did the rest of the weekend.

Banding a Dinosaur

“If I tell you to…run as fast as you can out to the net and hold the net around the bird until I get there!!  Well, first I’d better give you some background:  On May 5 we decided to end our “winter” mist net bird banding season.  The next morning we left for the WV Wildflower Pilgrimage at Blackwater Falls State Park, followed immediately by a birding trip to Magee Marsh along Lake Erie near Oak Harbor, OH and then on to the Ralph Bell Birding Extravaganza near Waynesburg, PA.  Between Pilgrimage and Magee Marsh, I banded five baby Eastern Bluebirds from one of the nest boxes on our property.  After these trips Jan and I had two and a half weeks off before our next major trip.  While we gardened and did other outdoor jobs, we watched about a dozen House Finches visit the last sunflower seeds remaining in some of our feeders.  For the past five years we have been studying the House Finches’ homing skills by banding and relocating birds to different locations and distances from our home.  I decided to put up a mist net to catch as many of the House Finches as I could.  Ten were trapped, banded and added to the study.  The next day I left the net up thinking, “I’ll be working nearby and can check the net regularly.  By day’s end the seeds will be eaten and, who knows, perhaps we’ll catch something interesting.”  With most of the House Finches gone, it was a slow banding day.  But just after lunch I looked out back towards the net and said to Jan, “If I tell you to…run as fast as you can out to the net and hold the net around the bird until I get there!!”  Out the back door I ran screaming like a banshee toward the bird on the other side of the fence.  The Pileated Woodpecker feeding on a nearby stump flew right into the net and was caught.

Pileated Woodpecker on the stump between the house and a mist net. (c) Jan Runyan

SIDEBAR:  The reason Jan had to run to the net was because she was dressed and ready to go; I, on the other hand, was in my underwear and bare feet.  Taking a bird like this out of a mist net can take a while and cause quite a commotion.  Even though our neighbors aren’t all that close, in the past a screaming woodpecker has brought a neighbor to the net to see what we were doing.  Net-tending in my skivvies probably wouldn’t make for good neighbor relations.  

Jan was fast and was able to gather the net around the large bird until I could arrive (dressed) and help extricate him.

(c) Jan Runyan

Bill with Pileated Woodpecker

That Velociraptor look (c) Bill Beatty

Jan’s feathered dinosaur (c) Bill Beatty

This was only the second Pileated Woodpecker I have ever banded and it was Jan’s first.  It took both of us to control the bird for the banding process and photos afterwards.  As we marveled at the bird Jan said, “Doesn’t it just remind you of a tiny dinosaur?”  The Pileated has a remarkably long neck compared to all our other woodpeckers.  The regal head and crest, constantly moving lengthy neck, long-clawed legs and piercing stare reminded me of a miniature, colorful Velociraptor of Jurassic Park fame.  Unlike the first one I had caught and banded which produced a constant series of sharp calls and screams, this bird was very quiet.  The ear protectors I had brought as I hurried to the net were soon removed.  Jan and I were in awe of this creature; studying every detail and taking many photos.  The only photo I didn’t take was a shot of its extended tongue.  Because of the Pileated’s persistently moving, long, powerful neck and head I thought it might injure the bird if I attempted to pull the tongue out to full length.

The Pileated’s long, stiff tail feathers (c) Bill Beatty

The Pileated’s long, sharp claws (c) Bill Beatty

Photos accomplished, it was time to release the “tiny dinosaur”.  Jan coached me on how to use the video feature of her camera to record the occasion, then she opened her hands. Our new friend flew high on the trunk of the nearest Black Locust tree.  The last we saw him, he was hopping his way around to the back side of the trunk.

Later that day, from the mature woodlands behind our house, we could hear the familiar “jungle” bird call of the male Pileated we banded.  Click for the call…

http://www.audubon.org/sites/default/files/PILWOO_2.shortcalls_GAle_1.mp3?uuid=55637eac9a144

Wildflower Appreciation

During the spring I often teach wildflower classes or lead field trips to some of West Virginia’s most remarkable spring wildflower locations; often in the mountainous counties.  My students are captivated by the trilliums, bluebells, wild geraniums, bloodroot, buttercups, fire pinks and other obvious dashes of bright color wowing us from the sea of green foliage.  After exhausting the identification and appreciation of these larger wildflowers I often take out my hand lens, find a previously unnoticed plant and show everyone its tiny, seemingly invisible flower.  It’s an entirely new world!  All photos (c) Bill Beatty

                             bishop's cap/miterwort (Mitella diphylla)                   bishop's cap/miterwort (Mitella diphylla)

                             Bishop’s Cap..normal view          Bishop’s Cap through a hand lens

 

deptforb pink (Dianthus armeria)              deptford pink (Dianthus armeria)

         Deptford Pink…normal view                       Deptford Pink…through a hand lens

These tiny flowers present a different perspective to looking at wildflowers.  They are the ones often trampled on the way to see the larger, more visible color creations.

            hiking boot trampling pale corydalis (Corydalis flavula) flower                       false mermaid weed flower (Floerkea proserpinacoides) and In God

Hiking boot and Yellow Corydalis                      False Mermaidweed and penny

 

Even at home, growing as weeds in our gardens, these tiny wildflowers make an appearance only to be pulled and composted for future use as nutrients and soil conditioners.  Even though their beauty is apparent to those familiar with using a hand lens, when they grow unwanted as weeds in a flower or vegetable garden, they can still be removed, but with a much greater appreciation.

ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea)                                       ground-ivy mint (Glechoma hederacea)

Ground Ivy…normal view                              Ground Ivy through a hand lens

 

purple dead-nettle/purple henbit (Lamium purpureum)                                    purple dead-nettle or purple henbit (Lamium purpureum) mint

Dead Horse Nettle…normal view                  Dead Horse Nettle through a hand lens

Welcome Home My Little Chickadee — by Jan

People often ask us how many years songbirds can live. Sometimes it is hard to know for sure…is the Northern Cardinal you see at your feeder this year the exact same bird as the one you saw last year? Unless there is something distinctive about the look or actions of the bird, it’s hard to tell. The bird banding we do on our property is beginning to give us some data about this question, however. Shortly after noon today Bill arrived in the sunporch with a bird in hand and he (Bill) was grinning from ear to ear. “You know what’s special about this Black-capped Chickadee?” he asked me. Although I thought most of the Black-caps had already traveled to their more northern breeding grounds, I could not spot anything out of the ordinary about this little guy. So I admitted I had no clue.

Bill grins at an old friend

Bill grins at an old friend (c) Jan Runyan

Bill announced, “We banded him on the very first day we ever banded here—December 10, 2010!” So that little bird is at least 5 years old…more if he was born before 2010! Although our place will not be his (or her?) summer home, it felt great to know that he had survived so long and that our feeders were part of his migration path…again. UPDATE:  Shortly after 3 on the same day, Bill again arrived in the sunporch with the same grin and a different bird. He was holding a Tufted Titmouse, all pecks and bites and tough-guy yelling (the bird, not Bill). We had also banded him on the first day we ever banded here, Dec. 10, 2010. This male is the first bird listed on the page of size 1B bands, so he might even have been the very first bird ever banded here! He is at least 5 years old, if not more. Titmice don’t migrate so he is one that we have been hearing year-round. And judging by the number of other Titmice we hear nearby, he is doing quite well at finding mates and providing new generations.

Jan with a Tufted Titmouse who shares their yard (c) Bill Beatty

American Goldfinch Heaven

We are in the midst of American Goldfinch heaven.

American Goldfinch in Redbud tree (c) Bill Beatty

Every year at this time we are quite busy banding the spring migrants that come through.  Jan and I often refer to our property as “Goldfinch Ridge”.  For about two weeks the goldfinches are by far the most common birds in our mist nets.

Jan removing an American Goldfinch from a mist net. (c) Bill Beatty

However we are delighted at the surprise birds we also catch like yesterday’s (April 25) Ruby-crowned Kinglets , the first we have caught since moving here in 2010.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (c) Bill Beatty

Since bird banding is weather dependent, when we have high winds and/or rainy days we can’t put out the nets and the birds at our feeders don’t get banded.  So far this spring the weather has cooperated.  Last Thursday, April 23, we trapped and banded 121 new birds.  Ninety-three were American Goldfinches.  As of today we have banded 344 goldfinches.  Our spring banding operations will end soon as we will be traveling to idyllic scenic areas in WV to lead bird walks and wilderness hikes, teach about wildflowers and speak at nature-related events.  As I write this Jan is playing in the gardens planting future meals in the raised beds and sunflowers (future meals for birds) in various places on the property…and keeping a watchful eye on the two mist nets set up to catch the birds migrating through toward their northern breeding grounds.

Ladybug Hibernation…a fortunate discovery

Jan and I spent the weekend at the “Wild Edibles Festival” in Hillsboro, WV.  We saw many wonderful plants and saw and heard a multitude of birds. However, the most exciting discovery was a colony of native Spotted Ladybugs (Coleomegilla maculate).  In recent years the introduced Asian Ladybug (Harmonia axyridis) has displaced many of our native species making this find especially significant.  Jan shot the video below.  Hundreds of Spotted Ladybugs were flying from their hidden underground hibernation chamber to unknown locations to begin feeding on aphids and other insect pests.  This was a rare find and everyone was taking photos and videos.

Contemplating Mortality

I went on a hike through the West Liberty University woodlands.  It’s a great place for anyone who wants to gather their thoughts without people distractions so I knew I would be alone.  As I hiked I began counting bird songs.  There were many familiar voices and one new for me, at least for this year: a Louisiana waterthrush.

Louisiana Waterthrush (c) Bill Beatty

My physical work, while I counted bird songs, was to cut a new trail for two classes I’ll be teaching in the near future:  a spring nature hike with my college students and a wildflowers and weeds class for the Master Naturalist series.  As I progressed, an eastern garter snake caught my eye and refused to move far enough to avoid an imminent collision with my weed cutter.  I caught the snake and gently tossed it a short safe distance away.  Old friends greeted me as I continued: Virginia Spring Beauties, Bloodroot, Sharp-leaved Hepatica and others.

Virginia Spring Beauty (c) Bill Beatty

After my work was finished I sat on a fallen oak branch overlooking a stream.  In a quiet pool there were water striders gliding and chasing across the surface guarding unmarked territories.

common water strider (Gerris remgis)

Common Water Strider (c) Bill Beatty

A thought suddenly caught me off guard and I was unexpectedly face-to-face with my mortality.  The same giant, gnarled, dead, dry branch I sat on was the very same branch I had sat under 40+ years earlier.  Then the tree had been very much alive and massive.  Today the tree exists as fodder for bacteria, fungi and many kinds of invertebrates…and as a comfortable seat for a tired explorer.  I sat back watching clouds, avoiding intellectual distractions and thinking things from my heart.

That Bird Vanished!…a shrew-d sighting — by Jan

That bird vanished! I was sitting in my favorite place at the bird-feeder window. My eyes were drawn by the movement of the dark gray back of a junco under the hopper feeder near the house. Before my eyes could focus on the familiar shape, it was GONE! It didn’t fly away suddenly. Not caught by a diving hawk. Not even time for my eye to blink. Just VANISHED – like magic! Couldn’t have been a junco! I was starting to tell Bill about the bird that wasn’t there when I glimpsed it again a foot to the right in the grass. Again, before I could focus and analyze the shape – it wasn’t there!

Searching around I noticed a slight wiggle of the matted grass just to the right. Then a half-seen dark gray shape, not quite perceived before it vanished. More shaking of the tangled grass. Maybe a form. Movement closer to the house. More shaking. Another grass patch trembled even nearer. Then nothing. My eyes quickly scanned the nearby lawn, back and forth, feeder to house, hoping my peripheral vision could catch more action telling me where it had gone. But nothing. It was gone.

With Bill’s help, I put together the clues and then smiled knowing I had been lucky enough to see (sort of) a rare sight: the seed-gathering of a Northern Short-tailed Shrew.

Three things make this sighting especially notable. First, these shrews are primarily carnivorous, so seeing them gathering seeds is uncommon. Then, they commonly forage for a few hours after sunset or on a cloudy day. So spotting my feeder shrew just after noon on a sunny day was remarkable. Finally, actually seeing a shrew at all is extremely rare since most of their food (insects, earthworms, voles, snails, other shrews, salamanders and mice) can be obtained underground or at least under the cover of vegetation. They work hard to remain hidden and to avoid becoming food themselves.

I smiled and wished him (or her) well, knowing that just as it gathers seeds from our feeders, some of our birds gather shrews…hawks are part of the food pyramid of Nature, too.

Shorttail Shrew

Short-tailed Shrew (Blarina brevicauda) (c) Bill Beatty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

View the comments to see another great shrew story by Gwen.

Return of the “Gold”finches….almost — by Jan

American Goldfinch males are starting to look at bit like clowns!

Splotches of black feathers on the head…a bright yellow feather here and there among the tan.   Did they lose at paintball?

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Am Goldfinch male showing spring molt (c) Jan Runyan

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Am Goldfinch male showing spring molt (c) Jan Runyan

 

AMGO female winter

Am Goldfinch female (c) Jan Runyan

After last summer’s breeding, all Goldfinches gradually lost and replaced all their feathers. The new male feathers were not the bright “gold” of breeding season, but a more “understated” look similar to females– “basic plumage” in human words.

AMGO head with pin feathers circled

American Goldfinch showing new pin feathers (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Now, in response to complex hormonal changes triggered by seasonal changes, one-by-one the body feathers (not tail or flight feathers) are being replaced. So going through these gradual changes, the males have some pretty strange looks before all of their breeding “gold” returns. (See photo with tiny “pin feathers” just beginning to grow.)

In the past 3 days we have banded 40+ Goldfinches…none in their full breeding plumage. It won’t be too long, though, until our Goldfinches are back in all their gilded glory.  This is just the beginning!

Am Goldfinch in breeding plumage

Am Goldfinch in breeding plumage (c) Bill Beatty

Three American Goldfinches

3 Am Goldfinches in breeding plumage (c) Bill Beatty

If you want to see month by month pictures of the male Goldfinch’s year, check out:

http://www.sibleyguides.com/2012/05/the-annual-plumage-cycle-of-a-male-american-goldfinch/