Burroughs Backyard

Backyard biology from a field ecologist's perspective

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Lost in translation: food

Heading to Asia, I knew that food would be an adventure.  In fact, the countries I’m visiting are renowned for their cuisine.  Think about sushi and ramen, Peking duck and Sichuan spices.  Bento, hotpot, mochi, matcha, and sake.  I also knew, not speaking or reading Chinese or Japanese, that what I ordered or put in my mouth might not always be vegetarian.  I was ok with that thought; I don’t want to unnecessarily miss out on cultural experiences, and also don’t want to be rude by turning away what’s in front of me.  Though my preferences are vegetarian, I assumed that I’d occasionally end up with fish, chicken, or beef on my plate, and that I would eat it with as much gusto as possible.  I’ll admit that it’s ended up a little more adventuresome than I anticipated.

My first day on this side of the world, during my long layover in Taiwan, I made it north of central Taipei to Beitou (I’d meant to get to Kangamingshan National Park for the day, but had bus confusion that delayed me too long…that’s another story).  Finally stopping to eat after wandering along a gorgeous river park for a while, a very kind man took my order for “one noodle”.  Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that dishes probably contain meat unless specified otherwise, so a gorgeous bath of brothy noodles came out topped with several chunks of carrot and several slices of beef.  The noodles were delicious, and the beef was tender and, well, it would have been delicious, I’m sure, if I liked beef.  I ate it anyway and went on my way.  An hour or so later as I boarded the subway that would take me back to the airport, I felt self-conscious as I tried to scratch an unwieldy number of bug bites that I’d acquired on my walk.  I didn’t want the people on the subway or plane to think I had bedbugs or fleas!  …And then realized that I wasn’t dealing with bug bites, but that I was breaking out in hives.  Oh, man!  Benadryl didn’t immediately solve the problem, but by the time I’d gotten on the plane my itching was gone.

This reaction was interesting to me: I hadn’t expected it, since periodically over the past year I’ve had meals containing venison.  If I’m not allergic to one red meat, I shouldn’t be allergic to another, right?  But something tripped my body off.  Probably a combination of the new food, perhaps its origin, combined with my lack of sleep, etc etc.  So I decided to be more careful about trying to keep meat out my diet for now.

Which (more or less, as long as we don’t count small bits of fish in some sushi) worked until 3 days later, on my day visiting Himeji Castle.  What an amazing site (and sight) to see!  I’d never been to a castle before, and this one epitomized defense tactics.  Layers of thick stone walls, topped with plaster walls with myriad holes for guns and arrows.  A keep in the middle with hallways and rooms lined copiously with weapons holders, and windows with trapdoors at the bottom to throw rocks onto attackers below.  It was like an over-fortified Lego castle come true!  I’m still not sure where everyday life was carried out, but was immensely impressed with the ability of the ruler to hole up! Himeji-jo

Anyway, having gotten carried away touring Himeji, I found myself wandering back to the train station around dinner time, not having had any lunch.  Not wanting to spend long, though (I didn’t want to get to Kyoto *too* late!), I looked around the arcade to find some food.  Everyone was eating these, and there was a picture I could point to without needing to know any food names in Japanese, so it seemed like a good option:

Fried octopus 1

The cooks were pouring batter into little trays that looked a bit like muffin tins and frying them.  I like fried food!  But when I was served, here’s who was hiding inside:

Fried octopus 2

Oh, man!  The taste wasn’t so bad, but the gooiness of the inner batter put me off a bit.  Oh, well.  You live, you learn!  It ends up these are a regional specialty, so I can say I enhanced my cultural understanding.

The next day was one of my intense sightseeing days in Kyoto.  I was visiting temples and shrines, and had a serious hankering to make it to another part of town to walk through a bamboo grove and garden before things closed at 5.

Arashiyama bamboo forest

Not wanting to spend the time for proper lunch, I ducked into a convenience store.  They’re everywhere here, and have a pretty wide selection of food, often including bento, packaged hot dogs, and boiled eggs.  This looked promising:

Surprise rice ball

Sushi-wrapped rice with egg and beans in the middle.  Yum.

Only they weren’t beans.  Maybe you guessed that by now.  They were bits of pork.  Luckily not too much; I didn’t break out, just had a minor stomachache for a bit as I rushed on to the Arashiyama bamboo grove.

But I’ve gotten better with this game.  I’ve learned to ask “Ego wakari maska? (Do you speak English?)” when there’s no menu with English subtitles, and try to ascertain whether something contains meat (“beef? Chicken?) or whether the picture was descriptive enough (“vegetable?” “cheesu?”)

Here are a few successes:

Mochi bites

I don’t know what these are called, but they’re gelatinous rice balls, sweetened, with different flavors.  The brown one has red bean paste on it; the green ones have matcha (green tea powder) mixed in.

Wild Vegetable Ramen

This was linner on a day that I did pause my touring to eat, and it was absolutely great.  Ramen with “wild vegetable.”  I couldn’t identify any of them but a small piece of fern, but it tasted delicious.  That pinkish blob on the right?  I think it was made of rice; regardless, it wasn’t made of meat!


When I felt myself coming down with the cold my friend’s toddler had shared, I thought some high-vitamin juice was in order.  Move over, V8 – this juice has not only 30 vegetables, but 3 fruits and also one other thing that I have no idea what the picture represents but it must be good.  Especially when paired with crispy snack things.

train food

Convenience-store food success!  These yummy rice balls indeed had egg and seaweed inside; no meat!  And the snacky things were rice chips with barbecue flavoring.  Also no meat!

Here’s to food!

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Time Travel: beginning my Asia adventure

Dear friends and followers,
I am traveling in Asia for 6 weeks, hopping from Japan (2 weeks), to China (2 more weeks) to Malaysia (2 final weeks). What a wonderful and amazing opportunity! With my present adventure, this blog will turn, at least for the time being, into a travel blog. Of course, I’m obsessed with natural history and many of my reflections will still center around my natural observations. Some portions, though, will have to do simply with culture, travel, and new experiences.

To begin, a reflection on time and space written while on a plane en route from New York City to Taipei, Taiwan:

Time travel makes me sleepy. “Today” as a 24-hour period becomes somewhat meaningless, and the amorphousness of dates sets in. I move one direction as the sun moves the other, and it leaves my clock confused. To me, “today” began when I woke up at 8:00am this morning (EST) in Hurley, NY. I went hiking in the Gunks to the Mohonk sky tower. I packed and swept my room and threw flowers into the river. I said goodbye and got on a bus, which took me to the subway, which took me to JFK. Now, almost 15 hours later, I’m about to touch down in Taipei. I departed New York City at 1:30am on Sunday, May 3. I will touch down at around 5:00am on Monday, May 4. I’ll spend about 12 hours here, then fly to Hiroshima; I will arrive around 8pm on May 4.

Because our plane is flying the opposite direction of the sun, and because of the route we’ve taken, we’ve been in some version of night for approximately the entire 15 hours in the air. Until I saw the in-flight map display, it hadn’t occurred to me that we might not fly over an ocean but instead follow coastlines up and over the top of the Earth. From New York, we flew northwest across the northern coast of Canada, then Alaska, then, crowning the Arctic Circle, continued in a straight line southwest along the coast of Russia and China. (Of course, when I saw the lifejacket demonstration as part of the safety presentation upon takeoff, all I could think was “if we land in any water around here, hypothermia will obviate any worries of drowning”). The geographical progression of the plane, coupled with the difference in time between my personal progression and the Earth’s days and nights, makes my brain spin a little bit. We just changed cardinal directions by going in a straight line (well, an arc). We just passed through an entire day by staying in night.

But for me, “today” will not end when we touch down. I want to take advantage of my time in Taipei; who knows whether or when I might make it back to this country? And the timing coincides with leading a normal day; I will be on land from approximately 5:30am to 5pm. Later, after flying to Hiroshima, I will take the bus to my friend’s apartment in Kure and arrive around 10:40pm. I suspect that’s when my continuous “day” will end. It seems like one single entity because it is unbroken by a true “going to bed’ experience, yet it will have encompassed something like 48 or 49 hours.

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Deer Checking


Warning: though the content here is cool, some may consider the pictures below to be rather gruesome. In fact, they are pretty gross. But biology can often be pretty gross, right? Especially when you’re talking about dead things. 

Now, on with the show.


What am I doing in this picture?
looking a dead deer in the mouth
 If you guessed “looking in the mouth of a dead deer”, you’re right.

More specifically, I’m examining its teeth to determine how old it is (was).
This buck? Three and a half.

Deer aging can be a bit gory, and before doing this last year I’d never handled so many dead vertebrates before. I’d never even considered the procedure of butchering anything, since I grew up in a family of non-hunters and became a vegetarian early in college. But here are some reasons I examine the mouths of dead deer with gusto:

1) The aging itself is interesting and sometimes challenging
All the deer we age come in half-years, since they’re born in the spring and we’re looking at their teeth in the fall. Based on the replacement of teeth (they lose their baby teeth and replace them with adult teeth during the first year-and-a-half of their life) and the wear of their adult teeth, we can make a pretty good guess towards their age. As a deer gets older, the hard outer enamel of its molars wears away to expose the softer, brown dentine in the middle. Observing how much dentine is visible in which teeth, you can determine, relatively well, how old they are.  Sort of like looking a gift horse in the mouth.  Only with deer.

The first time I was looking at our practice teeth (a collection of bleached jawbones with agreed-upon ages), I was a bit baffled by the tooth structure. The molar of a deer is much more complicated, in terms of surface area, than the molar of a human. There are multiple portions, which I at first had trouble distinguishing from separate teeth. And on each portion of the tooth, there is a lingual cusp (on the tongue side) and a buccal cusp (on the cheek side). Each of these 4 cusps on a tooth might wear in different ways, exposing dentine at different ages.  Unless you can tell which tooth a cusp belongs to, it’s not going to tell you a whole lot about the age of the deer.  (Aside: have you ever seen an elephant’s molar?  Talk about different structure! It makes deer molars look WAY simple!)

In our region, most deer that get brought in are between 1.5 and 3.5 years old. Because of hunting pressure, the bucks (males) rarely make it past that age. It’s more common for the does (females) to live a bit longer, and I’ve seen a few 6.5-year olds while aging this year. At that point, their teeth are worn down close to the gum line, and it’s hard for me to imagine them getting a whole lot older without starving.

Why is deer aging challenging? For one thing, the teeth can wear differently based on diet. Telling 2.5 from 3.5 can be tough if the enamel wear is in-between the idealized amounts you would expect for those ages. For another, the molars and premolars are in the very back of the deer’s mouth. For many deer, we can cut their cheek to make the teeth easier to see. On trophy bucks that hunters want mounted, however, it’s more of a challenge to peer down their mouth with a flashlight and hope there’s not blood covering the teeth we need to see.  Gory?  Sometimes.  Interesting?  Yes.

Here are a few images of teeth, to show some of the differences.

yearling 1 DSCN1583 DSCN1576
This deer was 1 year, 6 months old. Its second premolar is a baby tooth with 3 cusps. In this picture, it’s getting pushed out by the adult premolar emerging underneath. This deer was 1 year, 7 months old. All 3 premolars are adult premolars, but you can see that the 2nd and 3rd premolars are very fresh and new. The last molar in the back of the jaw, the 3rd molar, hasn’t come all the way in yet. This deer, an adult, was 3.5 years old. All the teeth are adult teeth, and the wear on the 1st molar has a diagnostic amount of dentine showing between the white enamel.

2) It’s part of my job
The DEC tries to age a large proportion of the deer taken by hunters to understand the population structure in different parts of the state. In addition, comparing the age of a buck to his antler beam diameter (how thick it is at the base) can give you information on the health of the herd. In general, the message from all the deer in the mid-Hudson Valley is that the population is HUGE, the population structure is biased towards young deer, and they’re  eating VERY WELL.  As well as looking at teeth, we collect the heads from some of the deer so they can get tested for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), an emerging disease of cervids (deer and other similar hoofed animals). Aside from being fatal for deer, at this point nobody knows the long-term health implications for humans, or even whether it’s transmissible to humans. There is no CWD in New York, though in the past few years it has shown up in more states, including NJ.

3) I enjoy eating venison
Wait, didn’t you mention that you’re vegetarian a few paragraphs back???
Yes, for the most part. I’m vegetarian for ecological reasons: it takes a lot more resources to make animal calories than plant calories. The ratio is approximately 10:1, so that it takes approximately ten times more land, water, petroleum, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, emissions, shipping, packaging, etc., etc., etc. (did I mention water and petroleum?) for a human to eat animal calories instead of vegetable calories.  Luckily, it doesn’t take a whole lot of fertilizer or pesticides or petroleum to grow a deer (at least not a wild deer…incidentally, it’s illegal to sell wild venison in New York, so any venison you see on a restaurant menu here is farm-raised which seems…. silly… to me.)

The punchline is that, in New York and many other parts of their range, the deer population is large enough that they’re actually damaging the ecosystem – they’re overeating. Or rather, enough of them are eating that in many areas, forest regeneration has more or less come to a standstill. They eat the tree seedlings and saplings before they grow into mature trees, and many forest understories look park-like because the next generation of trees doesn’t exist.  They’ve all been eaten and converted into deer.  There are some cool scientific studies on this, which I think are better saved for a later post.  Anyway, deer are retarding forest regeneration, and also don’t take extra inputs of resources to produce. Because of all this, I don’t have a problem eating deer.

4) I enjoy learning new things
Not much more to say about that, except that looking at dead deer teeth was definitely new for me last year.

Final thoughts:
There’s a song we sing at the farm, written by our farm manager, that’s about making sure you don’t get Lyme disease from ticks. Part of the refrain is “quick, quick! Pick off the tick!” We sing a lot at the farm, and it’s easy for song lyrics to come to mind when they remind me of something.  When my coworker and I were checking a fresh deer and I looked down at my sleeve to see a deer tick crawling over it, I instinctively said “quick, quick! Pick off the tick!” My gloves were a little bunchy around the fingers, so I pulled my hand temporarily away until I could remedy that and grab the nasty little arthropod. But my coworker looked at the tick, looked at me, grabbed the tick and flung if off. It wasn’t until 20 minutes later, as we were walking back to the car, that it occurred to me to explain: “I’m sorry! Before when I said ‘quick, quick! Pick off the tick!’ I wasn’t trying to give directions; it was just the line to a song!” She started laughing: she hadn’t thought I was that scared of ticks.

Deer tick, deer tick, get off of me
I don’t want no Lyme disease!
Take away your spirochetes
Deer tick, deer tick, get off of me!
(song by Creek Iverson)

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Circumneutral bog lakes

Circumneutral bog lake”. The first time I used that expression in my current position at the DEC, a few people started chuckling. It ends up that hearing someone use that expression stamps them as somebody trained in habitat classifications by Hudsonia, a non-profit that does ecological studies and mapping efforts in the Hudson Valley. My coworkers don’t chuckle because it’s a bad thing, it’s just indicative of your ecological history in the same way that talking about a “pahty” might mark you as a Bostonian. In fact, if you do a google search for “circumneutral bog lake,” the first page of results are all Hudsonia-related – either part of their website or that of a town that’s had habitat mapping completed by Hudsonia.

So, what is a circumneutral bog lake? Here’s the definition from Hudsonia’s fact sheet:

A circumneutral bog lake is a spring-fed, calcareous water body that commonly supports vegetation of both acidic bogs and calcareous marshes. The lake is underlain by deep organic sediments; floating mats of vegetation and drifting peat rafts are often present. This is a rare habitat type in the region, known to support many rare species.

The upshot is that it’s a really, really biologically cool place to be.

I had the unintentional opportunity to go swimming in a circumneutral bog lake last week, and it took a humorously long time to end the experience. “How does one unintentionally go swimming in a circumneutral bog lake?” one might ask. Well, there was a kayak involved. (“Ahhh, that makes it much clearer!”)

Here’s the longer version of what happened:

Circumneutral bog lakes tend to support floating vegetation mats and water lilies, and these, in turn, tend to support breeding populations of Northern Cricket Frogs (Acris crepitans). While common in the southern portions of their range, cricket frogs are endangered in NY state: historically they had limited populations because NY represents the northern extreme of their range, but they’ve also undergone drastic population reductions and local extirpations in the past few decades.

I’ve been doing a lot of work with northern cricket frogs, trying to learn about their movements between habitats at different parts of the year (I’ll write more about that process in another post). This means that during their breeding season, which lasts from late May until mid-July, I’ve been doing some capture surveys in their breeding habitat. And the one that we’ve been targeting is both amazing and intense.

To access it, we launch kayaks into a small body of water with thick water lilies (after hiking/dragging/carrying the kayaks through a willing someone’s backyard and their hilly woods), and paddle about 20 meters to where it’s too thick to go any further. At that point we climb out of our kayaks in waders, carefully using submerged portions of those floating vegetation mats to stabilize ourselves and keep from swamping our waders. We drag our kayaks through a narrow channel that weaves between floating tussocks of sedge, flowers, small shrubs, and poison sumac, sometimes up to our knees (and trying to climb over higher muddy spots) and sometimes within a few inches of where our chest waders top out. Eventually we get to a point where we can again carefully get back into the kayaks (still in waders, mind) and paddle in some open water amid floating mud patches and lots and lots of lily pads.

It’s awesome. The first time I visited this circumneutral bog lake, I couldn’t get over the beauty of it. There are rare bog plants, including carnivorous sundews, bladderworts, and pitcher plants. There are grass pink orchids, marsh cinquefoil, and bog rosemary. I believe I saw isoetes, an aquatic fern relative, for the first time. Then there’s the larger-scale beauty of the sunset over mountains in the distance, with tussock grasses and cattails rising above the water lilies that surround you.

marsh cinquefoil

marsh cinquefoil



bog rosemary

bog rosemary

grass pink orchid

grass pink orchid







As you can imagine, though, the entire process is a little cumbersome, especially since it happens around dusk (and we navigate back out by headlamp). But that process, in itself, is not how I ended up swimming in a circumneutral bog lake. Though awkward and with the potential for getting wet and exhausted, the navigation isn’t treacherous at all (don’t worry, relatives!), and we always have companions and wear PFDs.


waiting for dark

Once dusk sets, the cricket frogs get much less skittish as the males call in their gick-gick-gick cricket-froggish way and the females hop among the lily pads and over the floating mud mats. It gets to the point that you can slowly glide up next to one in your kayak and snag it with your hand. Sometimes they even hop onto your boat.

 male callingboat frog






It was in my overeagerness to capture a frog that I made my error. Leaning too far to get one that had hopped 3 lily pads away, water started to flow into the kayak. I slipped myself out, remembering from my canoe days that it’s easier to re-enter a boat with very little water in the bottom than one with a lot of water. Unfortunately, I forgot I was wearing waders. They filled; I tried to get back into the boat without accounting for the complete heavy-awkwardness that filled waders impart, and managed to completely swamp the kayak. After struggling awkwardly for a little while (filled waders make kicking your feet to move forward pretty much useless), I managed to use my kayak paddle to gondola my way over to the surrounding vegetation, pushing against the mucky bottom that was too deep for my feet, and dragging my swamped kayak along with me.

At this point, remember that the surrounding vegetation is composed of those wonderful, gorgeous, healthy-habitat floating vegetation mats. Whoops. I eventually made my way out of my waders, which made it possible to get up onto one of the mats….but they’re not buoyant enough, or large enough, to empty a full-of-water kayak. Ugh. By this point my companions had my gear safely (waterlogged-ly) distributed to their kayaks. After some unsuccessful attempts to get the kayak high enough on the vegetation mats to empty it, we found a nearby beaver lodge that we could use as high ground. Thank you, wetland engineers!

I spent the rest of the night in the boat without waders, until I eventually put them back on for the pull-the-kayak-through-the-veg part of our journey (to protect me from the substrate). It was good except for one LARGE leech that I found crawling across my pants leg – eeewww! That elicited the most girly shriek I think I’ve ever uttered.

Luckily, my coworkers were good sports through all of this. I felt like a numbskull, but was also glad it was me, since I’ve had enough small craft experience that it doesn’t worry me too much to be out of and alongside my boat. It just presents problem-solving opportunities! And, the chance to learn that it’s a good idea to put a belt or rope around the middle of your waders – then they don’t swamp and even act as a flotation device!

And the chance to appreciate circumneutral bog lakes in a whole new way! 


carnivorous sundews

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Tardy Spring – a finished season in haiku

With busy changes in life and increasing field work, I’ve been remiss in recounting the movement of the seasons as they happen. March was a month of transition: in like a lion, sitting like a coyote, then out like a lamb. Much of it was cold and snow-covered, but a rather abrupt weather transition in the last weeks led to all sorts of spring delights. Then came April, and then May, and now June and July….and still I hadn’t written about those early-spring wonders! Shame on me!

It was special to be outdoors so much, because each day brought a little bit more of the spring with it. While I can’t completely capture that here, I’ll attempt to impart the wonder of the transitions with (loosely structured) haiku.

Snow-covered starting
Month of transition, surprise
Abrupt warm ending

Blanket of snowfall
Skunk cabbage flowers emerge
Burning tidy round holes

Vernal pools melt first
Vocal chorus of wood frogs
For a few short days

Freezing nights abate
Peepers emerge, salamanders
Crossing icy roadways

Widow’s cloak butterfly
Floating across still-brown land
What will you eat?

First snake of the spring
Young garter black and yellow
Basking in the sun

Hepatica blooming
White flowers against brown leaves
The rest of spring waits

Slowly awakening
Every day a new emergence
Still cold at night

Lowland buds swelling
Not ready to open yet
Early birds return

Warblers start singing
Black-and-white, yellow-rumped; myrtle
Catching fresh insects

Wearing a bug-net
The biologist finds frogs
Hopping in the swamp

Season progresses
Changes from one day to next
My swamp blooms yellow

The old farmhouse waits
As seasons waft around it
Magnolia-scented breeze

One week is early
Forsythia in full bloom
The next week is late

Maple leaves explode
Overnight it seems. Says Frost:
“Nature’s first green is gold”

Turtles out basking
Black lumps on logs dot the banks
Is it warm enough?

Field preparations
Dressing for the day before
Fickle temperatures

Snake surveys resume
Reasonable camping weather
What fun to be outside!

A herp survey finds
9 reptile-amphibian species
It’s almost summer!

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The loveliest time of day; or, in search of short-eared owls

Yesterday evening was perfect. With the Wallkill River a hundred feet to my back and the black-dirt farms in front of me, I watched twilight time descend on the grasslands. There was no spectacular sunset, but the peace of a late-winter evening was overpowering. Tinges of oranges and yellows and pinks highlighted the hills to the north and to my back, made moody and calm with the blue and gray tones that permeated the view.

During the winter, we conduct surveys for short-eared owls (Asio flammeus) in grasslands where they roost during the day and forage at night. Not a year-round resident of New York, the owls migrate south to our region for the winter before heading back to Canada to breed in the warmer months. Short-eared owls, though their range spans much of the globe, are declining in some areas and are listed as endangered in New York. We conduct surveys in grassland areas they might utilize, trying to determine which fields they use for roosting and for hunting, and the ranges over which they move and forage during the season.

Last night, about 40 minutes before sunset, my coworker dropped me off at one of the Wallkill River Wildlife Refuge parking areas. Her survey was to be conducted at the refuge’s main viewing platform; I was hiking in along the river a little way to see whether a different vantage point would yield more information on where the owls are active. I found my station looking out over an expanse of fields, covered in crusted snow, with a few solitary trees along an edge and forested hills in the background. I could just make out the platform’s parking area through my binoculars, and the road rising above the fields that acted as a point of reference in my panoramic view. The portion of the Wallkill that I paralleled during my walk in had been frozen over, but just behind me it made a sharp bend, with a few rocks and riffles that kept the water open.

As twilight progressed, it was the best thing in the world to be stationed there, watching it. In the early evening, the view was calm. Several red-tailed hawks were perched in trees at the edge of my field of view, and there was little motion. A rough-legged hawk flew across and landed in a tree. A red fox appeared in the distance and sniffed the air one way and another before disappearing over a rise. A small flock of Canada geese flew overhead, close enough for me to hear not only their honking and the softer whistling sound they make, but also the buzzing sound of the wind snapping against their wing feathers (you can just hear it if you listen carefully to the “flight calls” recording on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s page). As sunset neared, increasing numbers of geese in flocks of 2 to 30 started congregating in the air behind me, banking sharply to land just out of sight where the river bends and the water was open. Hundreds of them must have landed there within the twenty minutes preceding sunset. In the distance a few owls started calling: the “hoo-hoo…hoo…hoo” of a great horned owl and the “who-cooks-for-you” of a barred owl.

Then, 8 minutes after sunset, the short-eared owls appeared. I did not see them rise from their roost, but suddenly there were several high in the air, difficult to see against the background hills, and two more flying low over the fields. Two minutes later, three were circling high before flying elsewhere to forage. They disappeared as quickly as they appeared; I felt like if I’d blinked, I would have missed it. What a treat to see them!

Short-eared owls, when they fly, look a bit like moths to me – something about the way they flap their wings and the proportion of their large rounded wings to their smaller heads – I’m not sure what it is, but I mean it in a good way. Some nights I’ve seen 6 or 8 at a time flying low over a grassland or swooping down and back up again, banking sharply downward or towards one another, making their scratchy calls as they fly (listen to “bark calls in flight” but imagine lots of them talking to each other at the same time). It’s special and fun to be able to observe them, especially since they seem to playful in their antics.

Other nights, not only do we observe them, but we attempt to trap them. The objective is to attach a radio transmitter: a small, lightweight device with an antenna that we glue to a tail feather, which emits a very specific radio frequency. Once an owl has a transmitter, we can go out on subsequent days with an antennae attached to a radio receiver and search for that specific frequency. Taking the direction in which the frequency is strongest from several different points lets us triangulate the owl’s location to learn which areas it is using for roosting or foraging. It gives us information on the movements of an individual owl – for instance, whether it returns to the same roosting and hunting areas each day or moves around – that we can’t get by doing our evening count surveys. (More information on this project is described in this story, though we now use a different type of transmitter.)

A month or so ago, I got to participate in a successful owl trapping effort! Just as it was getting too dark to accurately monitor the trap through binoculars, an owl landed on the starling bait, we pulled the release cord, and caught the first owl of the season! And – experience of experiences – I got to hold the owl as we took measurements and attached a transmitter! Two things surprised me: first, the owl was much smaller than I’d imagined. Seeing short-eared owls flying, swooping and turning, I’d thought they would be, well, larger than the football-sized bird in my hands. Second, the owl was calm through the entire experience. Once out of the net, it didn’t struggle in my hands. My coworkers tell me this is normal for short-eared owls (though every once in a while you might get a “sassy” one), but I had expected a bit more restlessness, or a swipe or two at my hands with a beak or talon.
SEOW hold2
We weren’t able to track that owl for long – she lost (or pulled out) the tail feather that the transmitter was on after a few days, but we captured another owl not long after that. We tracked it to a number of roosting locations until the recent two-foot snowstorm, after which we haven’t found it. One hypothesis is that it moved closer to the coast, where the weather is milder and there’s less snow over the grounds. But we don’t really know. We’ll just need to keep conducting surveys and see where the owls come and go over the season!

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Signs of Spring – February Edition

Even before the last snowstorm, which dumped about two feet of snow on the Hudson Valley, there were signs of spring showing through the cold. Now, after a weekend of 50 degree weather and some blue skies, they feel even more evident as I’m out in the swamps and woods.

What I noticed first was the changing color of willow branches. The long, drooping branches of willow trees turned yellow, making the trees into masses of gold against the dull browns and grays in the background. The branches of willow shrubs in the swamps turned a reddish-brown, or a yellowish-brown, or a greenish-yellow, adding vibrancy to the dead-looking stems of winterberry holly and spicebush.

Soon after, the branches of other shrubs become more vibrant: fire engine red for the red osier dogwood; dark crimson in new rose shoots; a cheerful yellowish-red on the tips of highbush blueberry.

Then buds started to seem bigger and more evident, after their shrunken winter states.

And, this week, I noticed birdsong. Bevies of robins traveling together; chickadees swarming around me and scolding; winter wrens singing in the distance, or flushing from the shrubs to tell me what-to. Many of these birds have occupied the area all winter, and some I’ve heard throughout, but it seems like a new pitch and vibrancy has taken over their songs and calls. More warmth, more activity, and more song. At one point last week I paused for a minute – it’s difficult to hear anything above the crunch of snowshoes on crusty ice and the swishing inherent in wearing unergonomic coveralls – and I noticed a flock of geese calling from a few hundred meters away. It seemed different than when I’d heard them over the winter – more excited and vibrant – but then maybe it just reflected my own feelings on walking around in the sunshine with colorful branches surrounding me. This type of day makes me want to sing – and I do! Nobody else can hear me over the sounds of their own snowshoes, anyway!

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Trekking through rabbitat

Rabbitat is difficult to navigate in the best of times, but deep snow can make it even trickier.

Last week when my boot stuck in the mud, I accidentally kept walking, pulling my foot from the shoe and placing my double-socked-but-bootless toes into the snow before realizing what was wrong. Relatively speaking, it wasn’t too bad — I removed my foot quickly enough that most of it stayed dry — but I was glad I was on my way back to the truck. I’ve done the same thing in wetlands during the warm season – accidentally extricating my foot from my boot and sometimes getting a goopy sock as payment if I don’t react quickly enough. An interesting twist is when I’ve been wearing waders – instead of the foot coming all the way out it just makes me trip… I think it’s best if one doesn’t take oneself too seriously while wearing waders.

I hadn’t been expecting mud last week, because we were walking through approximately a foot of snow. We started the day with snowshoes, but after visiting our first site, decided they weren’t quite worth the effort. We were working with a thin crust of ice over the snow, which meant our snowshoes broke through the crust and got partially caught on it each time we brought our feet back up. It was difficult trekking, and also noisy – the sound of metal snowshoes scraping on ice diminished the peaceful quality of a snowy wood. Luckily there was no liquid under the snow – the other time I wore snowshoes for rabbit tracking this year, I periodically broke through the ice into the (very shallow) water underneath. This would be of little consequence except that it got the snowshoes wet, which then made snow clump to them. It was like instantly strapping a 5-pound bag of flour to each foot. In general, though, snowshoes make walking in rabbitat difficult since there are so many shrubs to navigate through, under, and around.

I feel fully confident in my ability to keep safe while trekking in the field, but it can be physically challenging! Once while speaking with a landowner on the phone, asking permission to do a rabbit survey on her land, she was rather concerned that we keep ourselves safe. I explained that we’re covered by a liability waiver, but she wanted to stress some of the hardships we might come across while walking through the woods and wetland.

“What about all those thorny bushes? It’s rather hard to walk through there – you know what they say about rabbits in brier patches.”
“Yes, you’re right, it is very difficult. But don’t worry, we wear thick coveralls that protect us from the thorns.”
“But what about all the wetland? It can get quite wet in there, you know. The mud can get you up to your knees!”
“Yes, that can be difficult. We make sure we’re careful when we’re walking in the wet areas. And that’s why it’s easier to come in the winter – a lot of it’s frozen.”

I almost wanted to say “Don’t worry – we’re professionals!” but then I realized it just means we take it with a grain of salt when we trip over our own feet in the snow or get tangled in the multiflora rose.

Aside from the difficulty of moving, there’s a lot of beauty in the winter wetlands. I cannot get over the intricacy and delicacy of the many types of ice I encounter:

snowy woods edge of stream ice flow
  • There’s solid ice where wet areas are shallow. Sometimes, based on the way that it freezes, there’s a thin layer of ice detached from and above the solid ice. It’s like the sugar crust on a crème brulee – in fact it looks and feels quite similar. Stepping on the top layer shatters it like shards of glass onto the solid ice beneath.  It make me feel destructive, but in the same excited way as when I pop bubble wrap.
  • In the moving streams, the water can freeze into three-dimensional ripples, preserving an echo of the movement and looking like meringue.
  • Sometimes I’ll find small snow “crevasses” where a gap in the snow was preserved under a rock, only a few inches in diameter. They can be ringed with ice crystals, from moisture freezing into tiny flakes from the outside in.  I wonder whether it’s an exit hole for a small animal burrow (a mouse?) and whether it’s moisture from their breath causing the crystals — I don’t know.
  • Similarly, I sometimes find what I think of as “ice lichens” where small crystals freeze up from the ground into 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional replicas of leafy lichens and mosses.  A tiny forest of ice crystals.

And, of course, I’m enamored each day with the beauty of an entire forest of sparkling white. Sometimes it’s so beautiful that I can’t resist making a snow angel. Which has nothing to do with being tired from trekking through the snow.


Rabbit tracking

When I woke up to snow yesterday morning, I was thrilled.  Part of my excitement was because I genuinely like snow – it lends a wintertime beauty to the landscape, a quiet to the woods, and the potential for skiing and snowballs.  But it was also because I’m part of a team working on New England cottontail research, and we need snow in the field to make our sampling worthwhile.  I dearly hope the snow sticks around through next week!

Why does rabbit research require snow?  Our work involves surveying thick, shrubby wetlands for rabbit pellets and collecting those pellets to be sent off for DNA analysis.  A day or two after snow, rabbits have had a chance to hop around, leave tracks, and lead us to pellets.  Furthermore, with snow on the ground acting as natural refrigeration, we know that the DNA within the pellets has been preserved, whereas it might have degraded under warmer conditions.  Finding brown pellets on brown leaf litter and mud is a lot more difficult than finding it on a bed of white snow.  And determining rabbit species identity from degraded DNA is hit-or-miss.

Believe it or not, there are two species of cottontail hopping around the eastern Hudson Valley, though most people wouldn’t know it – they’re all-but-indistinguishable by sight (which is why we do DNA analysis).  The New England Cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) is New England’s only native cottontail rabbit.  But it’s not the one we generally see – that’s the Eastern Cottontail, native to much of the eastern United States but not present in New England until introduced there in the late 1800s.  Since then, the Eastern Cottontail has expended its range while the New England Cottontail’s populations have plummeted.  Part is from competition – the Eastern Cottontail is less timid than the New England Cottontail so will venture into fields, yards, and other less-shrubby habitat to feed.  This makes it more of a habitat generalist – a species that can live in a variety of habitats (and potentially in close proximity to humans).  This gives it a numerical advantage.  The other part is loss of habitat – New England Cottontails only live in thick, shrubby habitats (“thickets”), where they feel protected from hawks, coyotes, and other woodland predators.  These habitats are becoming rarer in the region.  Thickets form when a disturbed area (disturbed by fire, windblow, agricultural clearing, or any other reason) is regenerating from a field to a forest.  Naturally (in an ecological time scale), these habitats persist for 20 years or so until trees mature and limit the number of shrubs that can live in the understory.  New disturbances are what maintain the overall abundance of these habitats in the wild.  But humans prefer things to be a bit more static – fields are often maintained as fields and forests are often maintained as forests – so there are fewer thickets available than there used to be.

Thus, despite their reputation of “breeding like rabbits,” New England Cottontails are under consideration for listing as an endangered species.

As wildlife technicians in the Department of Environmental Conservation, the monitoring of rare and endangered species in New York State falls under our charge.  The federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) regulates the listing and taking of endangered animals, but state DECs (or equivalents) are major players in making endangered species monitoring happen.  We participate in both national and regional monitoring efforts – some more hands-on than others – and help obtain information on the locations, populations, and statuses of these species.  We also perform work to help the USFWS determine whether certain species warrant the special protection afforded by threatened or endangered status – without baseline monitoring of numbers, it’s hard to know whether a species is increasing, decreasing, or remaining the same over its range.  In addition, species that are “state endangered” – that is, rare enough to be endangered and protected in NY state but with a large enough population across the US to remain off the list of federally endangered animals – fall under the care of the DEC.

A decision on whether to list the The New England Cottontail as endangered will be made by early 2015.  In the meantime, we’re combing shrubby habitats for rabbit pellets to determine how many seemingly-appropriate habitats are actually utilized by these rare rabbits.  We focus on state-regulated wetlands, because they already have a level of protection that many habitats in the state lack.  Native wetland shrubs such as red osier dogwood, grey dogwood, nannyberry, swamp azalea, and highbush blueberry (to name a few) can make the thick, shrubby understory that lets New England Cottontails feel protected.  Wetlands also host a number of non-native shrubs – multiflora rose, privet, barberry, and Japanese honeysuckle, to name a few – that give bunnies a similar cozy feeling.  It seems a bit ironic that non-native shrubs might help create the habitat qualities needed to maintain a rare species.  In addition, powerline right-of-ways and native laurel patches might provide appropriate habitat.

On-the-ground, it’s never much fun to crawl through “rabbitat.”  If you remember from your childhood fables, rabbits do well in “br’ier patches” that other critters have trouble navigating through.  Such as humans.  Luckily I get to wear insulated coveralls – they keep me warm and make most of me impermeable to roses, blackberries, and barberry.  Despite the thorns, when one of us comes across a pile of “golden pellets” there’s jubilation.

More information:
USFWS pages on New England Cottontails: http://www.fws.gov/northeast/indepth/rabbit/index.html
FAQs: http://www.fws.gov/northeast/indepth/rabbit/pdf/NE_Cottontail_FAQs.pdf