Tuesday, May 2, 2017

BABY BIRDS HATCHING, AN AMOROUS PORCUPINE, AN ORANGE SQUIRREL AND MAMMA HAWK




BLUEBIRDS HATCHING

On Friday (4/28) I returned to my old home in Big Valley.  I stayed in Bob's House. This visit was a somber occasion to celebrate the life of one of my relatives who had recently passed away, after reaching 100 years of age. 


After the Saturday funeral I visited with Amish friends. They have a beautiful home with a Purple Martin house  and a least one Bluebird nest box. While we were sitting on their porch, four adult martins buzzed the house and seemed to be checking it out by landing and looking in the holes. Jonas said "Today was the first time we have seen so many of them". He and his wife Sara have retired from farming and enjoy their place and the many birds that visit. Sara has been known to use a 22 rifle to shoot starlings that bother the martins. The nest box had a Bluebird nest with one egg in it.

One of the reasons I go to Big Valley is to see how the local populations of Tree Swallows and Bluebirds are doing.  I have been putting up boxes for a long time and I try to check them when I am able. This time (4/28---5/1) I found at least 10 pair of Bluebirds, 4 pair of Tree Swallows and one box being used by a House Wren. Bluebirds start nesting in early April, while Tree Swallows start about May first. At least 2 sites had newly hatched baby Bluebirds and 2 sites had Tree Swallow eggs. The subsequent cold, wet weather since my visit may have been bad news for the newly hatched chicks.  They rarely survive such conditions.



TREE SWALLOW NEST WITH 5 EGGS

At about 2:30 am Sunday (4/30) morning my brother Bob was awakened by a loud sound coming from outside the house.  He described the sound as a "very loud guttural scream" followed by "soft cooing".  The call continued for some time, so he found a light and proceeded to go outside in his night clothes to see what was making these very unusual  sounds. He was able  to determine that the sound was coming from up in a tree, so he shined the light to the spot and there was a porcupine sitting on a branch. Suddenly, he heard a rustling in the leaves nearby and discovered another porcupine. Once it saw Bob, it quickly turned away and left. A great image---a grown man in his underwear in the middle of the night staring down an amorous porcupine. Much to my dismay, they did not return Sunday night for a repeat performance.

On a previous visit (4/13) I discovered a large nest in a tree near Bob's house. I could not really see much with binoculars, but with my spotting scope I was able to identify a female Red-Tailed Hawk sitting on eggs.  She would sit still for long periods of time and then suddenly stand up, shake herself and then settle down on the eggs once more. 
RED-TAILED HAWK STANDING ON EDGE OF NEST

Sunday (4/30) morning I set up my scope  to view the nest and she was still there sitting on the eggs.  New leaves  partially obstructed my view, but I could clearly see her head, wings, and red tail. During this time she did not move. Later in the day, I returned to look at the nest and just a few minutes later she flew from the nest. Wow, now what? About 10 minutes later she returned, sat on the edge of the nest, looked down and seemed to be pondering what she saw.  She leaned into the nest and dipped her head as if in a feeding action several times.  A short time later she left.  

Monday (5/1) I checked back and she was again sitting on the nest in her incubation position. Question? It was obvious that at least one chick had hatched, but her continued sitting on the nest would suggest that there must be eggs still in the nest. Eggs are usually laid at two day intervals, so they often do not hatch at exactly the same time.  As I was watching the nest I wondered where the male was and then I heard KREEEEEEEEE. I looked in the directions of the call and sure enough there he was in a tree about 300 yards from the nest. As I watched he flew out of sight.


FOX SQUIRREL


As I was eating breakfast Monday morning, Bob remarked "There is a Fox Squirrel chewing on the wood of my shed".
I had not seen one of these orange-gray squirrels in years, so I rushed to the window to get a good view.  This fellow, for what ever reason, came right up to the house, climbed up a small maple tree and from about 15 feet away looked at me through the kitchen window. This larger relative of the Gray Squirrel is an absolutely beautiful animal and to see it so close was a real thrill.

Needless to say, my recent visit to Big Valley was really interesting.

   









Tuesday, September 6, 2016

MY SPECTACULAR BIG VALLEY VISIT

MY SPECTACULAR  BIG VALLEY VISIT




I grew up on a dairy farm in Big Valley in South-central Pennsylvania. This place sometimes goes by its Indian name of Kishacoquillas Valley. It is a V-shaped  limestone  valley with sandstone mountains on either side forming the sides of the V.  It is about 5 miles wide at the northeast near Reedsville,  Pa  and about a mile wide  as it trends to the southwest at Airy Dale. It was settled In the late 18th century by Mennonite, Amish and Scottish (sometimes referred  to as Scots-Irish) farmers. The descendants of these ethnic groups still live in the valley today.  It is one of the most productive agricultural areas in Pennsylvania and is surpassed only by Lancaster County in the southeastern part of the state.

My name is Richard Metz Brown so I am a hybrid of the German Metz Lutherans and Scottish Brown Presbyterians.  The Browns moved to the Valley in 1790 and settled on a property at the very SW end, near the point sometimes called tight-end. Today Brown descendants own and farm 6 adjoining properties that extend along the base  of Jack's Mountain and follow a stream called Sadler's Creek. The Metz's arrived in the early 1800s and settled on lands further "down" the valley.

I decided to go to the Valley over  the Labor day weekend for two reasons, One was the Headings Family Reunion  and the other was Penn State football.  Both were on Saturday.


I arrived in the Valley late Friday afternoon, stopped at the County Line Store for a "footlong" hoagie and some moon pies; and as is my habit I checked bluebird boxes.  I have put  up about 25 or so bluebird/tree swallow boxes over the years and I try to keep tabs on them when I visit. This time of year it mostly involves removing old nests and assessing what may have happened over the summer.  There are often good clues left behind by the occupants that can tell if the nesting failed or was successful. The first boxes I checked are on light poles roughly 350 feet apart and after I finished near the creek, I stopped to do some bird watching.   A pair of Bluebirds flew up from the pasture fence, an Eastern Phoebe sat on the fence in front of me scanning for flying insects and I counted 13 Mourning Doves sitting in a nearby dead tree. As I was leaving  the area I stopped and visited with John and Dan Brown.  John, his brother Dan and John's sons  run a big dairy operation  and do the  work on the Brown Farms.  In the evening I visited with Scott and Emily Brown in their new home on the "Home Farm".


HOME FARM WITH NEW HOUSE FALL 2015


The house I grew up in has been removed and replaced with a new structure. Later I retired to "Bob's House". My brother Bob built his house all by himself and it has no heat, no electricity and no running water.  It has ramp and is just one story, so it is perfect for a handicapped person like me. It has a bathroom, toilet, and septic system so I don't have to use the outhouse.  Since there is no insulation, it does get a bit chilly when it gets cold outside.

Saturday morning I ate breakfast (it's always cold)  and started my day.  I checked bluebird boxes  and then went to Mark's Place.  Mark Brown and his wife Phyllis own the original homestead settled  by John Brown and his family in 1790.  He is currently remodeling the old house to bring it up to modern standards.  We believe the house and barn were built in the early 1800's.  He had an Amish boy named Elmer helping him.  Elmer is just about at the end of his formal education and now is preparing to work toward a trade of some kind.

I checked the boxes in Mark's yard and moved to a third box on a pasture fence and was very surprised to find a pair of Bluebirds feeding chicks.  The four youngsters in the box were fully feathered and had their eyes wide open.


BLUEBIRD CHICKS


 This is highly unusual for Bluebirds to nest so late, but not unprecedented.  This is probably the third nesting for this pair.  We had a very cold, wet late April into May just as the Bluebirds were nesting and earlier in the summer I discovered several failed nests with dead chicks.  The weather is a major factor in young bird survival.

At noon I attended  the Headings Family Reunion, ate a wonderful meal and had a nice visit with many relatives.  Shortly after 2 pm, I headed to State College and the Penn State football game. I had recently bought a handicap ticket for the game and was planning on using my wheelchair. When I arrived I was directed to an ADA parking lot where they lifted me into a shuttle and I was taken to the stadium. A young attendant  led me to my seat location in the north end-zone and just as I was rolling down the ramp toward my seat I saw the kick-off.  WOW, I made it.  It was an interesting, exciting but not as efficient a win for PSU as I would have like to have seen.  I stayed until the end and watched the Blue Band post-game show. I was in the end-zone at field level and one of the perks at that spot is that the Lionnettes, a PSU dance troupe of about 30 coeds, performed there for about a half hour.  Neat. I rode the shuttle back to my car, returned to Big Valley and Bob's House for the night.

Sunday I decided to birdwatch.  What a day!  As I drove out the driveway I noticed some birds sitting in the large field below me. They were sitting in a low spot where they were not clearly visible, so I decided to  motor in that direction and when I was hundred feet or so away, the flock took off.  I counted at least 15 Turkey Vultures, a  Black Vulture and a Raven flying up.  Off to the side there was a flock of 11 Wild Turkeys walking through a field eating insects.  When I reached the spot, I discovered why the birds were there---two dead possums. The field had been mowed a couple of days earlier and the animals had been killed by the mower. As I continued there were 3 deer grazing in the same field. That was interesting.

I again visited John Brown's farm and stopped to birdwatch. I was almost immediately treated with  a beautiful Red -Tailed Hawk swooping over the lush green meadow in front of me and landing on a post in my full view.
MALE BLUEBIRD


FEMALE BLUEBIRD WITH FOOD

 After checking another bird box, I headed to Mark's place to see if I could get some Bluebird photos.  I parked about 25 feet from the box and waited.  The adults feed about every 15 minutes or so, but they are reluctant to go to the box when an unusual object or person is nearby---so it took awhile.  I did get some pictures.  As I was sitting on my tailgate a young groundhog came running down the road toward me, so I started taking its  picture,  it just kept coming until at a distance of  about 10 feet from me, we made eye contact.  He turned and quickly ran into the vegetation.
GROUND HOG

On my way back to Bob's house for lunch I drove through the field with the dead possums.  I could see there was at least one bird at he spot and when I drew near I could see it was a mature Bald Eagle with the typical white head and tail---what a spectacular sight!  The possum were mostly gone.

In the afternoon I stopped to see Neil and Luann Renna. I was interested in information about the old barn on their property.  It turns out it was built in 1836 and has a very large cave-like room lined with stone under the barn bridge.  Later I visited with Jonas and Sara Detweiler Zook. Sara was a classmate of mine at the local one-room schoolhouse back in the 1940's.  I spent the evening visiting with T.  Ray and June Metz and then back to Bob's House.

Monday Labor Day---Another birdwatching day.  This time of year I look to dead trees for  good views of birds and as I was going down the driveway  I scanned some dead snags. Down at the bottom  of one of the trees I spied a Great Horned Owl looking right at me with his tufts clearly showing. It was sitting on a horizontal branch about 10 feet off the ground---an unusual sight in broad daylight.

I drove to the home farm and set up for bird watching in the meadow near the creek where I had  a good view of a number of dead trees.  I sat there for about 3 hours.  I have good binoculars and a spotting scope, so I have the equipment I need to get good views of wildlife.  The species I observed at this spot included the Mocking Bird,  Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Kestrel, Bluebird,  Goldfinch, Grackle and Crows. However the most spectacular was the large hawk-like bird sitting in the top of a dead tree about 1000 feet away.  It was streamlined with a black back, light chest and a black head with large white patch right behind the eye.  I couldn't believe what my eyes and bird book were telling me---it was a Peregrine Falcon.  I watched it for quite a while.  It sat there bobbing its head up and down as if looking for prey and then it flew down out of sight  Later it returned and I had a second look. As I was leaving I ran into Dan Brown and he said that it (the Peregrine) sits on their tallest silo and won't let the pigeons out of the opening.  In Big Valley there are hundreds of farms and probably thousands of pigeons---a happy hunting ground for a Peregrine Falcon.
BIG VALLEY AT THE 3 MILE OR SO WIDTH WITH JACK'S MT 

I headed "down the Valley" toward home, stopped to see a relative about family history and enjoyed the beautiful scenery on this glorious day. The weather for the four days has been wonderful with warm sunny days and cool nights--could not ask for more.

I ate supper with Naomi Hartzler in Belleville who just turned ninety in August.  She took care of our family 70 years ago when my mother was sick and she has been part of us ever since.

It was truly a spectacular visit for me in every way.














Monday, June 27, 2016

THE RED BIRD

A red bird has been attacking the mirror on my car for months.  He stands and gazes into the mirror and sees only himself.  This guy pecks at his picture in a frantic attempt to convince his other self how great he is and all the while pooping all over my car.  No matter how frantically he kisses the mirror his image keeps coming back and just will not leave.

His love for himself knows no bounds as he continues to visit the mirror for hours on end.  And when he is not kissing himself on the glass he is off on a nearby structure singing his praises at the top of his lungs telling the world what a wonderful red bird he is.

Will all this self adulation convince the powers that be to elect Red Bird KING?

ZIKA REVISITED

During the past year there have been numerous news  reports about the spread of the Zika virus through South America, Central America, the Caribbean and Puerto Rico  . This disease is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito  Over the last year scientists have observed a strong correlation between this disease and a spike in children born with a birth defect called microcephaly.  Brazil has been particularly hard hit, but the disease is spreading fast and has reached much of the warmer parts of the Americas.  These mosquitos can breed in a tiny amount of standing water and the slums of Brazil and other countries are the perfect locations for this epidemic.  Many of these "shanty towns " do not have sewer systems or  good sources of clean drinking water.  Rain that falls, collects in  puddles and abandoned trash like plastic cups.  The mosquitos have a perfect habitat for their life-cycle that only takes a few days. In the United States cases of Zika have been reported in many areas of the country,  so far all have resulted from  travel to Brazil or other areas where the disease is prevalent.

Why should we care?  Recent evidence suggests that the babies carried by pregnant women  are at extreme risk of acquiring the virus.  This pathogen apparently has the effect of creating the retardation/birth defect we call Microcephaly where the head and the brain are much smaller than normal.  Many babies have been born in Brazil and other parts of the Americas with this condition.

There is NO quick fix.  No cure or treatment. No vaccine. There is not even a reliable test for this disease. It may take years to bring this pathogen under control. At this point experts indicate that controlling the mosquito is the best way forward.  However, recent information indicates that the virus can not only pass from mother to child but also between sexual partners as well which is a first for a mosquito borne disease.  Adult who become infected with Zeka can come down with the neurological condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome This means this disease can spread without mosquitos, which makes it a threat to the human population world wide.

The  prospect of millions of babies being born with microcephaly or other birth defects as a result of a Zika infection, has sent shock waves throughout the medical community.,  Our government has requested 1.9 Billion dollars to deal with  this disease and women who are pregnant are being cautioned not to visit areas in the "Zika Zone".

It is still too early to predict what will happen, but the potential economic ramifications  of this disease could be devastating.  Any person going to see the Olympics in Brazil  in the Summer of 2016, will have to factor into their thinking  that there is a real possibility of contracting Zika.  Are people willing to take the risk of getting sick and potentially destroying an unborn child? Already the Brazilian government has panicked and is using its military to spray insecticides and do other things to try to get rid of the mosquitos---these efforts may ultimately  do more harm than good.  The economy of Brazil is already in trouble  and this epidemic is not going to help.

On a human level this is a tragedy   A Time magazine photo of a young Brazilian couple with their microcephaly child, was  heart wrenching.  As this disease continues to spread, millions of couples across the planet will make the difficult choice of postponing  having a child or accept the risk of  bringing a child into this world who faces an early death or at best a life full of problems.

The recent Zeka funding bill passed by the House of Representatives is a disgrace.  It is wholly inadequate in the face of this terrible threat.  The radicals who run the House are going to live to regret their stupid behavior.  Many of these members of Congress represent areas in the south where the disease will hit first because they have the most mosquitos and  it has the potential to do the most damage. When young mothers begin having retarded children because of their incompetence their lack of foresight will come back to haunt them.






Wednesday, June 15, 2016

FEATHERED DINOSAURS ARE LIVING IN YOUR YARD


FEATHERED DINOSAURS ARE LIVING IN YOUR YARD


Every Spring we are serenaded by mourning doves, cardinals, robins, mockingbirds, wrens  and other song birds as they prepare for the spring mating season.  Humans get an emotional boost when birds begin singing in the early Spring  because they know the weather will get warmer; and the vegetation will start to grow and everything will begin to green-up.

Recent fossil discoveries in China have found that not all of the dinosaurs died out in the big meteor strike about 65 million years ago.  Modern birds are descended from a flying feathered dinosaur that some how survived the disaster. Why did they survive when so many other species became extinct within a very short time?  Being small, mobile and warm blooded probably helped.

Bird song is interpreted by us as a pleasant experience, but for birds it is part of a threat display that is anything but pleasant.  If you translated a robin's song into English you probably could not print it or say it on TV. The male robin who arrives on site first uses his beautiful song to create a "wall" between himself and other male robins in the area.  Unlike humans who create actual walls, fences and hedges to separate themselves from their neighbors, the robin's wall is invisible. If you doubt this just watch the birds for awhile as they chase each other back and forth  until they agree on the boundary. Once the territory boundaries  are  defined the female robin will join her mate and they will get down to business.

In most bird species the female builds a nest while  the male stands guard. Each kind of bird has its own technique in nest building. The behavior is instinctive, meaning the steps followed are programed into the bird's tiny brain. The choice of  location, materials used and the procedures followed are all set in this animal's DNA. As remarkable as it may seem robins, cardinals and Baltimore orioles will make a nest exactly like the one they were born in, even without ever having seen one. The oriole weaves a bag-like nest that hangs from a branch that must weather rain, heat and wind as it holds mother and young for more than a month. And she does this with a beak and two feet. I challenge any human who has seen such a nest to create one with just your fingers---you can not do it.

Once the chicks hatch, typically both parents carry food to the nest.  Why do they go to all this work to care for their offspring? Love? To make sure their children grow up to be good productive citizens in bird society?  Not really. If you look in a nest you will see baby birds open their mouths in anticipation of food. A scientist once placed  a test-tube painted with the same color as the birds mouth in a nest.  The result---the parents filled the test-tube with worms. When the baby opens its brightly colored mouth this is a signal "Mom,  go get food".  If it is cold, wet or the babies do not feel well they will not open their beaks and the parents stop bringing food---result is death to the young.  This Spring was cold and wet; and when I monitored some bluebird boxes, I discovered several young bluebirds dead in the boxes. Absent a signal, their parents had simply stopped feeding them.

The flying dinosaurs  living in our landscapes are beautiful, fascinating creatures that have managed to survive for millions of years.  They certainly brighten our lives with their songs, their wide variety of colors and their fascinating behavior.  If you do not have these creatures visiting your yard on a regular basis, adding native shrubs and trees  to the landscape will provide the habitat they look for each Spring as they prepare to keep their species going.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

GREEN CONCRETE AND WALLPAPER PLANTS

   

GREEN CONCRETE AND WALLPAPER PLANTS

As the human population skyrockets and human civilization creeps over planet Earth we are seeing the natural environment we have  inherited, being destroyed.  If you look at our cities from the air  they resemble large tumors as they grow out from a central core, consuming everything they encounter. Native landscapes are eaten up and replaced with buildings, green concrete and wallpaper plants. 


We are surrounded by green concrete. It is found in our parks, playgrounds, in people's yards; around schools, corporate headquarters and college campuses throughout America. It encircles our homes in small towns, rural areas and the big cities. We pay to have it "installed"; spend MILLIONS of dollars for toys to keep it in its place; and use MILLIONS of gallons of oil and natural gas products to maintain it. We Americans raise more than 40 million acres of the stuff every year. It is the biggest crop in the country.

Wallpaper plants include mostly alien, exotic vegetation imported from Asia, Europe, Africa or South America.  The nursery industry prefers these plants because they are easy to maintain and provide much of their income. Since wallpaper plants are not native to North America they often do not do well and require frequent replacement.

The pastoral landscape Americans seem to love is an alien, sterile place. Have you ever tried eating the grass in your yard? Right , it tastes awful. Guess what, nothing eats it, unless you import sheep or cows. Oh, I take that back---Canada Geese love it and you can find lots of poop as evidence. The only thing more sterile than the American lawn is bare concrete or blacktop. 

Maintaining this foreign landscape damages the environment and is dangerous to the health of our children and ourselves. If a weed or bug appears we spray it. We add fertilizer to make it greener. We water it when it gets dry in summer  and complain when we have to mow it.  The fertilizers and sprays pollute our waterways; the fumes from the mowers create air pollution; the fuels and chemicals used for maintenance are mostly derived from fossil fuels; the noise is annoying and damaging to our hearing; watering lawns is a waste of precious water; turf absorbs very little runoff from rain storms; and worst of all, almost nothing can use it as a home.

If you insist on a green lawn, why not just "plant" green astro-turf?---it stays green, needs no water or fertilizer and you never have to mow it. Just look at the money you will save.

However if you want to improve your environment, then I suggest you look at your landscape and eliminate some of your lawn and wallpaper plants. Replace them with native wildflowers, grasses, trees and shrubs. The changes will amaze you. Butterflies, bees, birds, mammals and other creatures will be attracted to your territory because they prefer natives.  To start, educate yourself and  visit your local store that carries landscaping materials.  Also there are many native plant sales this time of year. The Manada Conservancy and the Brandywine Conservancy provide native plants to the public.

Join the native plant movement. The planet will thank you.



Wednesday, March 23, 2016

SNOW GEESE AND TUNDRA SWANS AT MIDDLE CREEK



SNOW GEESE AND TUNDRA SWANS AT MIDDLE CREEK



This year the Snow Geese began to show up at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area toward the end of February. They reached their peak number of 65,000 about the first of March. The 30 inch snowfall we had the last week of January kept the birds away until most of the snow melted.  They spend most of the winter in the wetlands of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia and do not visit Middle Creek until the fields are free of snow and they have an area for feeding.  They are attracted to this place by the 400 acre lake and the thousands of acres of farm fields in the surrounding areas.  Snow Geese travel in large flocks of several thousand, eat waste grain and  graze on the fresh green shoots of plants found in fields in early Spring. 



During the day they range over Lancaster, Berks, Dauphin and Lebanon Counties in search of suitable feeding sites, but usually return to the lake at night.  


The dark colored bird in the center of this photo is called a "Blue Goose" and is a dark gray variety of an adult Snow Goose. Most of the birds are white with black wingtips.


On March first I was watching this flock and they suddenly all took off in a cloud of moving white heading for the lake to roost for the night.



By the end of March the Snows are usually gone, heading to northern Canada and their summer nesting grounds.

The Tundra Swans travel and roost in small family flocks of a 100 or so and also are attracted to the area because of the open countryside. This year about 2000 swans were observed at Middle Creek.  They are all white with black bills, are larger that Snow Geese; and tend to scatter over the entire lake as they roost while the Snow Geese usually roost in larger more compact groups.


The swans have a flute-like call and listening to them sitting on the lake can be quite pleasant until the Snow Geese show up.  
The Snows have a loud raucous call that they use all the time, even at night as they jockey for space on the lake.

By the middle of March the Tundra Swans have moved on west to Montana and from there they head north to Alaska's north slope.
The tundra areas above the Arctic Circle  in northern Alaska are the nesting grounds for these beautiful swans.



Several years ago some of us had an opportunity to assist with a research project studying the swans.  The birds were attracted to an area with corn and a cannon net was fired to trap them. We were able to hold the birds while biologists examined them and took blood samples. Unlike most wild animals the swans were very calm, did not try to bite us or struggle to get away. They looked at us as if to say "Who the heck are you?".  The feathers on their neck and breast felt like silk and it was really cool to hold such a beautiful animal. Several of the female swans were fitted with devices that emitted signals giving scientists information about their migration route to Alaska.

Each year thousands of people visit Middle Creek to observe the huge flocks of geese, swans, ducks and other waterfowl that use this site as a stop on their migration route north. The best time of day to see Snow Geese is early in the morning at dawn or in the late afternoon into the evening  A lady I spoke with during my March 1st visit had discovered the place on the internet and had traveled all the way from Boston to see the birds. The best time of year to see the Snow Geese and Tundra Swans is from February first until March 15th, depending on the weather.  Once the  tour road through the property is opened on March first, visitors have more opportunities to see large flocks of Snow Geese and other wildlife. 

The Pennsylvania Game Commission owns Middle Creek and they provide up-to-date information about the area on their website at www.pgc.state.pa.us.   The Visitor Center opens February first each year and is available to visitors Tuesday through Saturday 8 to 4, Sunday 12 to 5 and closed on Mondays. The phone is 
(717) 733 -1512.

NOTE: There is a pair of Bald Eagles currently nesting along the lake at Middle Creek. At least one egg has hatched and the adults have been observed feeding young in the nest.