Saturday, June 29, 2013

May 2013: Trill Tree Frog, sometimes gray

I once got a photo of gray tree frog that lived up to that name: gray frog on a tree.

But I usually see them on leaves quite green.

I began to think they were actually Gray’s tree frogs, named for Asa Gray, the great 19th century botanist. Perhaps the little frogs kept sticking to him when he reached out to pick the fruits of his research.

Idle thought except I wish that those who named frogs were not, like the botanists, so prone to name the frogs for their color. Clearly, in the spring at least, frogs prefer to be heard and not seen, and if all frogs were named for their song then at least we would all have a head start when we get down to discussing what frogs sound like. Of course there is the spring peeper, and maybe you could give the frog namers come credit for the western chorus frog, which I have heard often but never seen, but I don’t exactly know what a “western chorus” is.

Instead of gray tree frog, how about trill tree frog. Here are their first choruses on our land this spring. Starting to pick up as the peepers wind down:

By May 18 that had the stage all to themselves, which in the video below appears completely black until I had the wit to raise the camcorder up to the moon.

This year as I listened to spring peepers, I fancied that each was trying to avoid catching the same beat "Peepers and Snowfleas". I think gray tree frogs try to pick up on a neighboring trill which makes for a lag which in turn gives rise to short waves of sound.

I was going to try to get to the bottom of that when we were hit with a cold spell and none of the frogs sang. When they started singing again, it seemed a question of the frogs getting back in shape. When some of my trill tree frogs got going, they were joined by a lone peeper. The tree frogs almost sound conversational and the peeper like a child trying to attract attention, of another peeper.

The tree frogs keep trilling into the summer but not in great bunches so I'll have to wait until next summer to better figure out their techniques and style.

Back to naming frogs for their singing. Actually the toads in our area, I believe they are called American toads, sing the best chorus in terms of human music making. If we had to do Beethoven's 9th Symphony, his "Choral Symphony", and we had to use an animal chorus, I would use toads in the spring. Hear what I mean:

There were a few leopard frogs there too adding some bass. Leslie and I make a pilgrimage to a bay off Quarry Point of Picton Island every May to hear the toads. Sweet music and conveniently sung in the middle of the day so we usually make a lunch of it. So I give you the "Beethoven toad."

Friday, June 28, 2013

May 2013: Flowers and Plants

I add plants only so I can begin my essay on spring flowers with a photo of a bullfrog.

Now that organism is planted. Bullfrogs crawled out of South Bay at the end of April and, still bronzed from the bay bottom mud where they wintered, they warm up and slowly hop up to the ponds. When stunned and sun starved like that, you can admire bullfrogs just like you do the spring flowers. And like the stunned frog, spring flowers are close to the ground. I pride myself on not picking them thinking they are too beautiful and delicate to be picked (perhaps losing my frog analogy here)

And they are too low to the ground -- like a frog. Of course the spring beauties pictured above come out in April as do trout lilies and hepatica. But this cold April all the flowers seemed tardy. In 2010 the trilliums were out in bunches by the 19th.

This was the state of the trilliums this year on April 25.

At that time the trout lily was grounded beauty of the moment.

Trillium was out the first week of May

And some blooms were fading to pink in the third week of May.

So I think we had a short season for trilliums. I usually get obsessive about special clumps in hidden grottos that try to throw huge white blossoms at you. Look at what I could stand and admire on April 29, 2010:

As individually beautiful as trillium are, they are most striking en masse and best seen just as it gets dark almost bleaching the usually somber hills.

But this year, I must confess, their marching over hill and dale was not quite as dramatic. Take a look at this charge of white in 2007.

But this relative mild year for flowers had some surprises for me. One of the games I play in May is try to frame photos with as many different blooms as possible, and for doing that, this May was the best ever.

Now that's an underwhelming photo unless you have gazed on flowers like this for 19 years and never seen a red trillium and a white trillium flanking a sessile bellwort. Ironically, several days of dry weather made combinations blooms more striking. For example the first violets had trillium for neighbors.

Seeing the blue violets immediately prompts me to search for some blue hepatica before that early flower completely disappears.

I caught those beauties on May 5. Strange how easy it is to adjust to the fading of such delicate blooms. One April I fancied I could sit and see the first hepatica bloom (white) unfurl. It might be more to the point to sit and watch the last hepatica bloom fade soaking in its delicate beauty. But by that time I am anxious to see the yellow and white violets. The latter were out by the 19th.

At the end of May, my conceit about not picking spring flowers because I can't bend down that low ends. The bushes begin blooming, principally clusters of white flowers. Not far from the white violets, I saw a blooming elderberry bush.

Usually at this time of year Leslie does all the planting, but to make it harder to see the animals in the Deep Pond from the road, I searched for small white pines that I could transplant. I first made the stupid assumption that pines up on rocky knolls would be easiest to transplant not knowing how pine roots can get a strangle hold on rocks, but my snooping around one wooded knoll did afford me a view of this delicate bush's blooms, which I have yet to identify.

I found plenty of small pines easy to dig out in our very wet central valley. It crossed my mind that I should do some serious botanizing. One year I did find a small orchid on our land. But I checked my files and found that I had found that in September during an early hunt for blue gentian. All to say, in spring let the flowers come to you, and the seeds. Maples seemed, as they always do, out of control in their seed making.

Since we spent so many days on our land soaking in the bird songs and frog choruses, I didn't make my usual tour of Wellesley Island to see how many flowers that I see on our land can also be seen there. However on one boat trip we saw one of the glories of the island that are not so well presented on our land, the shad bush blossoms.

Now that's an underwhelming photo unless you have gazed on flowers like this for 19 years and never seen a red trillium and a white trillium flanking a sessile bellwort. Ironically, several days of dry weather made combinations blooms more striking. For example the first violets had trillium for neighbors.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

May 2013: Bird Songs are IT!

In the winter I can lie in bed and imagine the chorus of frogs, that globe of pulsing sound, but not the songs of birds. I can imagine the bright colors of the rose breasted grosbeak, but not the lilting reiterations of its song

I can imagine the darting red of the scarlet tanager, but not the slurring syncopating song

and the oriole, all orange in my mind's eye, but the fluting song is mute in my winter ear.

Even though I practice Mozart, Chopin and Bach on the piano one hour every day, I can't grasp bird songs in the darkness of winter. Their notes have to be wrapped in spring leaves. I can't alienate the song from the concert hall. Blame the wood thrush.

The thrush song blows my ears and mind. If I drink too much wine in the evening, I think the trees are singing. I took the photos of the other birds in May. I took the photo of the wood thrush in October, as it fattened up for its long trip to Central America. I never see the wood thrush in May even though it sings every evening and every dawn and on many days, especially the cloudy ones. I never see it in May because it's wrapped in leaves when it sings. I see wood thrushes on the ground in late April. The leaves aren't out enough for it to sing.

I shouldn't be using the impersonal pronoun "it." The male birds do almost all the singing in the spring. Bird songs claim territory and invite sex. In the spring that's what birds are all about. In March and April plenty of birds make that sex and aggression apparent, especially what I call the power pole birds. The red wing blackbirds' kereeing and flash of red epaulets are one of the excitements of the spring. The male comes weeks early and energizes any dead stalk in the marsh into a power pole.

Then the ospreys come and extend that metaphor to the extreme. After they hover in the air above the river, screeching and pairing up, they build their nests on power poles along the river and a half mile inland. It seems the more wide open the pole the better. Here is one of this year's nests in Thousand Island Park.

Can't see an osprey? Just you wait. They are all over the place, especially on poles.

Nothing is more he and she than the birds. I assume that the birds that arrive in May exhibit the same passions and aggression as the ospreys, and blackbirds not to mention the geese who sometimes fight all night on the river until they settle into pairs. But the song birds are wrapped in leaves. It is just harder to see, and thus: THE LEAVES OF MAY BLUR BOUNDARIES THAT ENGENDER SONGS. That's what I wrote down in the middle of the month. Small birds that can't be seen must be heard. And the melody of the songs of some small birds seems to move constantly through the trees.

With humans the whole carnal-val began when the fig leaves dropped. Not so with the song birds. I know they are there in the trees, the he and she birds, but in the spring as the songs hop and fly throughout the leaves, it's IT to me, entrancing, but ironically forgotten in the winter. Look at that wood thrush's breast. Some kind of musical notation!

Around our little house in the woods, a typical evening in early May begins with wood thrushes singing, then some tree frogs start up, snipe ululate, Spring peepers and gray tree frogs resume their chorus, a whip-poor-will methodically beats time at all points of the compass. That's It. The video clip below is underwhelming, no wall of sound, no dancing in the swamp, but it's all I need. I am at one with... IT.

I wish I was exaggerating. After all I grew up with a sitcom in one ear and a pop song in the other. My ears only slowly lost the beat of modern American life. In the 1970's and 80's my wife and I annually visited my parents in Thousand Island Park for 2 or 3 weeks in the spring. After dinner they would repair to the TV and we would cross the golf course across the street and go up into the woods to a ridge overlooking acres of trees. I never thought of taking a photo of that valley in the spring. Here's what it looks like in the fall.

We would listen to the thrushes, on the edge of a boulder seat as the eery songs of the hermit thrushes began to top those of the wood thrushes and veerys. On our walks home in the dark we would hear the whip-poor-will singing at each stop on its way to the insect rich trees overlooking the golf course. We often heard two whip-poor-wills. We decided it would be nice to spend every spring night listening to thrushes and whip-poor-wills.

Before he died my father gave me the house and in 1994 we moved permanently to the island. Then the demands of keeping a child entertained seemed to peak just when the birds were singing. Walking to the ridge after dinner was not one of his favorite things to do. (A few weeks ago we at least went up to the ridge over looking the golf course to count the bats coming out of the woods and hear the whip-poor-will. We got a rare glimpse of the fluttering flight of the whip-poor-will, very brief in the dark video below.)

Of course once we moved to the island and our son was in school, the first week in May was devoted to hiking in the woods and, forget about the wood thrush, we began hearing rose breasted grosbeaks. How to distinguish its song from yellow warblers and robins? It dances several fluting notes longer. One afternoon I was able to get some video showing a grosbeak singing. Another grosbeak was singing in the distance which is probably what made the grosbeak near me so insistent.

A towhee was nearby and as insistent as the grosbeak.

However, one melodious problem of listening to bird songs at our house on Wellesley Island is that robins are everywhere. Only the orioles could top their notes. So to hear the sounds of other, rarer birds, and to get some relief during the tourist season on the river, we bought 52 acres of land, mostly wooded, 4 miles south of the river. In 2006 we found a spot surrounded by ironwoods under huge red oaks and didn’t have to cut down any trees to make room for our 28 x 16 foot one room house.

On May 18, 2006, as we were digging post holes, we heard a rose breasted grosbeak singing high in the towering oak, a good omen. But living with the birds doesn't guarantee seeing them, only hearing them. And this May we had our annual see the grosbeak challenge as he hopped from branch to branch in the tall red oak. I saw one hop; the rest was lost in song.

Of course, birds had been making themselves known around our house in the woods before May. The chickadee and song sparrow, both winter here, and give you a taste for sweet songs from small birds (I refer to the former's "feee-beeeee" song.)

There are two springs, March 21 and when the leaves in the trees make the birds sing. As we learned spending evenings in the woods on the island, the wood thrush song is the nonpareil. Living in the woods, we soon discovered that the thrushes sing in the day, especially in early May. When we first spent May nights at our land in 2007, we still had to hike a bit into the woods to hear their song, but since we don't cut much vegetation on our land, as opposed to all our neighbors, each year they seem to be more comfortable moving closer to our house. Since we have owned the land, the woods have been undisturbed for 15 years which probably hasn't happened since about 1830.

While other birds do give the impression that they are singing to claim territory and attract a mate, wood thrushes sound like they are making wishes and if they keep repeating them with clever variations and sing them with a coy sweetness then they will all come true. As for territorial claims, their good natured song seems to preclude any disputes.

My wife Leslie generally likes to stay in our house after dinner and listen to the wood thrush there. I'll catch his song at the first light of dawn. So I sit by a pond 200 yards away waiting for muskrats and listen to a wood thrush in the trees behind me, which despite repeated attempts I never saw. For most of May he kept up the same pace of song as at the beginning of the video clip below, but by May 28, well, let's hope his wishes had come true and he had happily mellowed.

The most intriguing thing to me about thrush song is that the thrush seems to throw the sounds several feet across the tree. I suppose that arises from the sharp variation from clear tones to a buzz. My camcorder can't pick up that motion. The thrushes and other birds also sing at dawn and we lay in bed three hours every May morning half sleeping and half listening to thrushes. One morning I swear I heard the clear tones of the thrush on one side of the house and the concluding buzz on the other. Then I went back to sleep. I was wide awake in the evening when I was sure I heard the thrush song start on one side of the dirt road and end in a tree on the other side. Of course, I can't see the thrush and can't see if it just flew across the road.

In the same area of scrubby woods, I saw an oriole, and twice saw a scarlet tanager. The tanager sings like it has some doubt that it has to sing at all. Which makes sense, just see how striking it looks.

Scarlet tanagers like deep woods and that we are seeing more around our house is another testament to how the woods have grown. A closer study of bird territories is an enjoyment for another May but we might be making some sense of it. Our land forms a triangle with woods extending beyond the hypotenuse and the other two sides with our woods facing open fields. The grosbeaks seem to gravitate toward the bushes closer to the fields. I think we have four nesting pairs. Vireos are spread throughout the woods. The wood thrushes tend toward the high or well leaved trees near fields. For five years the first tanagers we saw were deep in the woods. But now they have moved out to include our house and ponds in their territory.

Last May a tanager was almost too easy to spot since it perched on the tallest pine overlooking a field and sang.

This May the tanagers had a nest where our land meets a strip of woods heading down to a huge wetland. The nest was over a dirt road. The male tanager seemed confused as he policed what must have seemed like very low ground. He was down in catbird and towhee country. One morning I saw him in the trees not singing but seeming to listen to the phoebes and redstarts sing.

In 2012 leaves came out a few weeks earlier than this year. The 2012 tanager was showing his colors after successful nesting, I hope.

By moving into the woods we found that we escaped what we consider one of the major drawbacks of bird watching. What is the point of traveling all over the world for a fleeting glimpse of a rare bird when you can live with the birds. True, keeping tabs of the grosbeaks, tanagers and thrushes was not easy, but at our land we discovered the vireo, a small bird that is everywhere in the woods, even back on the island, but if you don't live a few feet from its nest, they are easy to miss.

Their song is pleasant, melodic snatch, not quite long enough to grab your attention every time a vireo sings, but to compensate for its brevity the song is repeated throughout the day beginning in May and, if all goes well, into July. Then when it stops singing, you might get a good look at one.

I got that photo in late August when it was fattening up for migrating to points south. I do see it in May, but it keeps jumping from branch to branch nabbing bugs and singing after every bite. I could take long videos of its singing as I try to follow it with my camcorder, but meanwhile Leslie is rattling pans or doing other chores. Hard for close neighbors to get that degree of separation that makes for definitive sound tracks.

Late in the month, in another part of the woods, I saw a song sparrow perch on a log of an empty beaver lodge to spruce its wings after a bath. All the while a vireo up in a nearby tree sang as it picked off bugs to eat.

Song sparrows have a brilliant burst of song, and can ring out through a swamp in March when snow is on the ground and bring me to warm attention. But in May song sparrows seem to sing a modest song and don't even try to keep up with the likes of the vireo.

One small bird that is all over our land in May challenges my assumption that the making and taking in a bird song is a shared joy. Scientists who analyzed bird song with sophisticated equipment can show how much of the song our ears of incapable of hearing. And it is possible that our brains shape what we can hear into a more accessible and hence more pleasant experience. Birds might here more stress and strain as they react to every note and inflection. We might miss the half of it. Some smaller birds remind me that all song is not mellowed by the fresh green leaves. One evening I sat by our small Salamander Pond and a redstart seemed to demonstrate to me that, dammit, it wants to be seen and heard.

Let me close with my favorite. Eventually the wood thrush wants to be seen. By late June when it is time to impress young wood thrushes with their melodic fate, the adults plant themselves out on a dead limb and give their most virtuoso performances. The bird in the video below keeps looking to the right which is where I would hear the final notes of its song. Like I said, the thrush warps my brain. The video ends focused back on the leaves still hopping with songs. A veery was buzzing in there and so was the tale end of the thrush song.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

May 2013: A Good Evening at the East Trail Pond

It's been almost two months since I stopped keeping a daily journal and switched to monthly reports on what I saw and think I've learned. That won't work for May 15. As I walked up the ridge north of the East Trail Pond a little before dinner time, I got a hint that I was in for a treat.

The beavers have been gnawing on that red oak since mid-winter and still climb high up the ridge to gnaw it some more. As always I tried to move down the slope of the ridge to my usual viewing area as quietly as possible. Before I sat down I saw two beavers swimming to the west end of the pond to my right. I thought that would make it easier to keep track of the beavers if I saw some in other parts of the pond. But no sooner did I sit down than a beaver swam right below me and, as usual, slapped its tail.

It lurked below the winterberries, just leafing out, and just to my left, so I could still count beavers. Then the other beaver swam below me. I guess to see what all the slapping was about. So much for easily counting the beavers. The beavers seemed to have a discussion about my presence, a beaver style discussion. As the second beaver swam under me, the beaver that slapped its tail swam away from me out into the middle of the pond and slapped its tail again. But the beaver swimming below me, which looked like the larger beaver, didn't swim away from me, and the smaller beaver did a U-turn and swam back under the winterberries below me.

The winterberries had leafed out just enough to make peek-a-boo a trial, so I checked on the Blanding's turtles. The lowering sun was still warming several that were still up on little islands of mud.

I cannot identify the sex of Blanding's just looking down on them, but these two looked like a couple to me. The painted turtle was keeping a respectful distance. And as I looked around through binoculars, I saw another couple,

with another painted turtle at a respectful distance. Then way over near the beaver lodge, I saw another pair, not so chummy as the others.

But when I checked that pair 10 minutes later, things seemed to be clicking with them.

Was love in the air? Then the beaver that slapped its tail decided to tolerate my presence and it swam out between me and the nearest pair of Blanding's turtles,

and started nibbling some grass stalks sticking up out of the water. Blanding's turtles generally keep their heads high. The proximity of the beaver did not seem to give them pause, though generally very little gives them pause.

One of the pleasures of watching beavers is seeing the ripples they make in the water. The beaver nibbling spare grass stalks started swimming right under me and may have been eating pollen as it bobbed its mouth up and down.

Then I heard something climb out of the water well to my left and I saw a large beaver climbing up on the north shore. It started grooming then paused, turned and went to the trunk of the huge maple that the beavers have been gnawing on since winter. It got a bit of bark to eat and then went closer to the shore and resumed its grooming.

Then looking over at the dam, some 50 yards away, I saw a third or fourth beaver up on the dam grooming itself.

I couldn't be sure what happened to the first two beavers I saw. When I finally got a bead on them, I lost track of the beavers on the dam and on the north shore. Anyway, I saw a beaver stretching up for a bite from a fallen trunk on the south shore

and another beaver grooming on a mud island in the middle of the pond not occupied by beavers,

but I really couldn't be sure they were the first two beavers I saw.

Then it finally became crystal clear that there were four beavers out in the pond. I looked over at the north shore and saw two beavers grooming each other.

Then out on a mudflat in the pond, first one beaver and then another climbed out of the water to groom, but they stayed several feet apart and showed no inclination to groom each other.

I was not the only one noticing the intimate pairing of beavers on the the north shore of the pond. As you can see in the video clip above, twice noisy wood ducks swam by causing one beaver to look into the pond, looking a bit like it was caught red handed.

From my previous observations here I noticed that beavers butt into the ducks' romancing. Back on May 6, I saw a pair of wood ducks land in the pond and begin the rather long and slow dance that begins their courting. A beaver cruising in the middle of the pond made a point of swimming over close to the ducks, effectively shooing them away.

On pleasant May evenings at a beaver pond, I can think of nothing better to do than over interpret what I see, and, of course, adding a bit of romance. I hope that I did not see the matriarch and patriarch grooming each other. Indeed I think the smaller beaver made skittish by the noisy ducks is a yearling or two year old a bit nervous and overwhelmed by the patriarch grooming it. The matriarch should be in the lodge. This year's kits are either here or about to be born. But then again at one point in their grooming it looked like the smaller beaver was sucking on the larger. Beaver nipples are high on the chest. So maybe the matriarch was taking a rare break from her kit duties and a yearling stole some of mother's milk!

The two smaller beavers who groomed several feet away from each other were yearlings of the same sex. I think I've noticed competitive behavior between them before, though how could grooming be competitive. Meanwhile, I had an immediate check on my romanticizing at least as far as the paired up Blanding's turtles were concerned.

On the mud island right below me, a third turtle tried to climb up which didn't seem to elicit any reaction. The video clip below has been severely edited to show what reactions there were over the 40 minutes I watched them.

As the sun went down the turtles had nothing to bask in and to my chagrin, the turtles slipped back into the pond water one by one. That third turtle that tried to butt in on one pair, tried again, and then slipped off alone. It was time for me to join my pair, then home making dinner. I sneaked away so as not to disturb the grooming beavers, lone turtle still out, and laughing ducks.

It was a good evening for watching animals. Even the animals were watching animals. Before I checked the East Trail Pond, I sat at Audubon Pond and as I took video of a tern diving for fish in the pond I noticed a pair of deer pausing from their foraging to look up and watch, and a pair of geese on the other shore look up and watch, though two of their goslings were too busy wrestling to notice any diving tern.

That reminds me that there was another watcher at the East Trail Pond, the goose sitting on eggs on the lodge in the middle of the pond. She's been there for a few weeks.

I have no idea what she was thinking.