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Phoebes Grown Up and Ready for Round Two

August 4th, 2010 by Paul Hutchinson

At the end of April I posted about the Phoebe nest on my porch. I got a better look at the clutch of eggs and noticed that one of the five had dark spots. Over the next two weeks the dark spots increased so I figured one egg was bad. On May 11th I spotted the first hatchling and by the 15th there were four hatchlings in the nest (my guess was right, one bad egg).

Originally I had just lashed a cheap magnifying hand mirror from a dollar store to my monopod so I could look in the nest without getting to close. This arrangement was a bit tricky to use because the loose lashings made it difficult to get the mirror into position between the nest and the porch roof.  To give me a better tool for checking the nest I drilled a 1/4 inch hole in the plastic surround of the mirror and used a nut to attach it firmly to the monopod’s head. My monopod is a very sturdy 1970’s vintage, ball & socket head unit, with four telescoping sections. With the easy mirror install/removal using a 1/4-20 nut and 5 foot reach I now have a nice portable tool for inspecting bird nests in the field as well as at home.

By May 25th the chicks were regularly popping their heads up and the porch ceiling is very close to the nest so, I stopped using the mirror to examine them as I didn’t want to accidentally touch them with the mirror. I tried to get a good head count when they where awake and peering out of the nest but I never saw more than three chicks. I kept my fingers crossed that I was just unlucky to not see all four but as time went on it became clear that one of the four chicks hadn’t survived the ten days since I’d last observed them with the mirror. I really shouldn’t have been surprised since the last time Phoebes nested here in 2008, only three chicks survived to fledge in the first brood. The following picture shows two of the three chicks.

IMGP7870s

At the other end of my house my brother had found the remains of an American Robin egg (Turdus migratorius) when he was visiting on May 22nd. The Robins nest is on a small ledge at the eaves of the log cabin about 14 feet above the ground and right where the overhead power wires come to the building. Between the height and the proximity of the wires I didn’t dare try to get a look in the nest with my mirror on a metal pole. I would look from the ground every time I passed by but couldn’t tell how the Robin’s brood was doing. Momma Robin is very skittish, she takes flight when ever anyone passes by the nest so I tried to avoid the area as much as possible. Finally on the 25th when I passed by the nest I saw these two chicks in the nest.

IMGP7877s

The next day I noticed that the side of the Robin’s nest was broken open with two chicks in the nest and one chick on the ground underneath a nearby azalea bush. Watching from a distance during the day I saw the chick wander into the woods near that end of the house. The next afternoon when I checked the other two chicks had left the nest and the adult Robins where busily catching food on the lawn and bringing it into the woods for the chicks.

On Thursday that week I got this good photo of two of the Phoebe chicks who looked ready to fledge.

IMGP7906s

The next evening Friday May 28th when I got home from work all three chicks were up and looking ready to go. I grabbed my camera to get the shot below, I guess they were really ready to fledge because as soon as the flash went off all three flew away from the nest and out into the woods.

IMGP7910s

Over the next two weeks I saw Momma Phoebe fixing up the nest and by June 11th she was back incubating her next clutch. Not wanting to disturb her I again waited for a time when she was off feeding and finally on the 14th I saw five eggs in her new clutch. This time all five eggs looked normal so I had high hopes for a bigger brood this time.

On Saturday June 26th I counted three for certain and likely four Phoebe hatchlings so I was hoping that I’d have a repeat of 2008 when four chicks fledged from the second brood. Sadly this was not to be the case, between July 4th and 9th we had an unusual early heat wave. While the daily highs were not that much higher than a small heat wave we’d had in May, you can see in this graph that the average temperature was far higher.

AvgTempAprilToJuly

On July 7th we found one dead Phoebe chick on the porch below the nest. The Adults were still making regular trips to the nest but by the 9th they stopped coming to the nest. Sadly it seems the heat wave killed all four chicks. With the position of the nest so close to the porch ceiling there is not much airflow around it leaving the poor chicks in very hot stagnant air. Next year if the Phoebes come back and we get an early heat wave I think I’ll try to get a fan out on the porch to see if I can give them a better chance at survival.

While it was sad to witness the deaths of our cute little Phoebe friends I was consoled by the fact that the Robins had already successfully raised two broods and Momma Robin was already incubating her third brood.

This past Sunday afternoon there was an unexpected knock on the door. When I answered it a woman was there holding a Robin chick in her hand. She was driving by and saw the chick by the side of the road with both parents watching after it trying to keep it off the road. I showed her the Robin nest on the side of our house and had her set the chick down on the grass next to the azalea bush below the nest. I figured it was very likely that chick had come from our nest and that the adults would come take care of the chick.

Over the next half hour I observed the adults going to the nest but I never saw them on the ground by the rescued chick. So I had my sister watch for the parents while I went to the shed to get a ladder. When I got back with the ladder my sister told me the parents hadn’t come to the chick on the ground. So I set up the ladder, picked up the chick and carried him back up to the nest. As soon as I set it down by its two siblings it jumped right back off and down to the ground. Clearly the chick did not want to be near that nest.

We noticed that the chick seemed to be exhausted so my sister set a pan of water out in case he would drink. The little guy didn’t move so she took a little piece of bread, dipped it in the water and offered it to the chick. As soon as the chick sensed the wet bread it opened wide and my sister dropped the bread in his mouth. She soaked another small piece and as soon as her hand moved near the chick it opened wide, that chick was no fool it caught on quick that her hand meant wet food. She gave it another piece or two and then we left the area in the hope that the adults would come take care of it.

There was a good possibility that this chick was not from our nest so we decided we’d check every 30 minutes to see if the chick was OK. The next time I went to check the chick was gone, searching around the yard I spotted it sitting atop a small rock on the edge of the woods half way from the nest to the street. I watched it from a distance for a while until finally one of the adults came over to the rock and fed the chick. I checked again about a half hour later and saw the other adult come feed it some more. This was a relief because while I’m certain there are many other Robin nests in our area I didn’t know exactly were they are located so I wouldn’t know were else to put the little guy.

The next morning I went to check up on him and I couldn’t spot him anywhere in the yard. So I sat on the edge of the porch for a while and listened, sure enough I heard the chicks up in the nest calling for food and I heard what must be the the rescued chick calling from the woods near the nest. Today I looked at the nest with binoculars to see if the siblings had left the nest. It appears they have both left and are probably with the other chick hanging out in the woods being looked after by their parents and learning how to fly and find food for themselves.

A nice happy ending but today I did a little reading up on American Robins and found that the future isn’t so bright for these individuals. Only one in four Robins who hatch will survive past November and for adults the average life span is a short two years. Considering these members of the thrush family hunt on the ground and are large enough to be easily seem from a distance it shouldn’t be surprising that they die young from predators. With the young ones spending so much time on and near the ground before they can competently fly it makes sense that the chicks would have a high mortality rate. I guess that explains why the adults are so wary and why they have three broods per season, more than most of our other local bird species.

Posted in Nature | Comments Off

Phoebes are back!

April 28th, 2010 by Paul Hutchinson

Two years ago a pair of Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) successfully raised two broods on my porch. Three juveniles from the first brood fledged in May (only two show in the picture), and four fledged in July.

Click for the photo album page

Click for the photo album page

Last year momma Phoebe started re-building the nest but then just stopped and I never saw more than one Phoebe around the yard again that summer. I suspect one of the pair died and the other bird didn’t find a new mate in time for breeding. (Note: I only know it was momma building because all the references I found state that only momma builds the nest)

This month a Phoebe tried to get the nest going again, she made a huge mess along the whole porch trying to get mud to stick for a stable base. The ledge the nest clings to and the fledglings are sitting on in the photos above, is just shy of two inches deep so it isn’t easy to get the nest started. The moss and pine needles would stick to the mud at first but then fall off as she tried to enlarge it.

With the big mess she was making I decided I needed to either block her from the whole length of the porch or give her a helping hand. I decided to help her out by adding a 1x1x6 inch wood block enlarging the ledge. The block was added on the 19th and two days later she had her nest finished and ready to go. Oh and the porch is staying clean now, any mess should be confined to the far end away from the stairs and door.

Momma Phoebe in her nest

I kept trying to see if she had laid eggs by using a mirror attached to a pole, but every time I went to look she was in the nest. Not wanting to disturb her I didn’t scare her away but I kept checking on her a few times every day.

Momma Phoebe in her nest

Finally today on my way back inside from a trip to the store momma was not on the nest. Although I didn’t see her, I bet she was taking a break from incubation to catch some yummy flying bugs. Quickly grabbing my mirror to check, I found she’s laid 5 eggs! Looks like I’m in for a fun spring and summer watching these great little birds raise a couple families.

General information on the Eastern Phoebe

Interesting journal articles I found at The Searchable Ornithological Research Archive

Posted in Nature | Comments Off

Thank You Army Corp of Engineers

March 30th, 2010 by Paul Hutchinson

If you’ve been following the news from New England you are aware that a major flood event is in progress. This morning the NECN weatherman Matt Noyes said that this was the worst flooding we’ve had since the floods of August 1955. This got me thinking about the West Hill Dam in Uxbridge and how we southern New Englanders should all thank the Army Corps of Engineers. They built the dam specifically to prevent the devastation and loss of life that happened in 1955. Looking at the records since then I feel that this dam has been a resounding success. Since its completion in 1961 the floods on the Blackstone have been controlled to less than 16 feet at Woonsocket as opposed to the nearly 22 foot record from 1955. Predictions from the NWS are for 18 feet in Woonsocket for this current flood, well below the extremely dangerous 22 feet that caused so much loss of life. UPDATE 3/30 22:30 Forecast has been lowered to 14 feet @ Woonsocket

The main reason we are so much safer now is the Army CoE’s excellent design and operation of the West Hill Dam. As you can see in this graph, yesterday afternoon they closed the gates of the dam stopping the entire West River from adding to the Blackstone’s flood level.

USGS2010-03-30

This activation of the dam is going to change the look of the dam area from what we usually see in this Google Maps satellite view.


View Larger Map

To what is in this photo from the West Hill Dam web site.

WestHillDamPhoto

More information:

USGS WaterWatch — Maps and graphs of current water resources conditions

Worcester Telegram & Gazette’s Weather notebook – Rivers rise as rain falls

Posted in Blackstone Valley, Boston, History, Nature, Safety | Comments Off

Hummingbirds on PBS’s Nature

January 12th, 2010 by Paul Hutchinson

Last night I watched this weeks episode of Nature on PBS, Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air, and I loved it. I’ve come to expect superb documentaries from Nature and this episode did not disappoint. Check your local listings for air times, if you miss it on your local PBS station the full episode is available for viewing on line.

Posted in Nature, Science, Television | Comments Off

Site Updates

December 21st, 2009 by Paul Hutchinson

I’ve posted some major updates to the Blackstone River section of my web site. On the Google Earth page I’ve updated the National Park Service tours file and added a file with the 1913 map of the Hopedale Parklands as an overlay in GE. The visitor tips page has a new section covering the few minor natural hazards in the valley (insects, plants, animals).

I wrote an extensive article on the George Washington Presidential Trail which runs through the center of the valley. The article describes the trail and also tries to sort the legends into facts and myths based on historical and geographic research.

The tours file mentioned above was updated based on completing seven of the walking tours this year. The seven tours I took were Arnold Mills, Blackstone Canal, Grafton, Hopedale, Mendon, Upton and Whitinsville. The tours page has been updated with links to the photos I took on these tours. I’ve completed writing reviews for the Mendon and Hopedale tours. In addition to reviewing the tours I also used my history and geography geek skills to research and correct misleading and questionable information from the tours. While taking these tours I shot some new good photos of plants and animals I encountered, they are in the plants and animal sections of my web photo album.

Posted in Blackstone Valley, Cartography, History, Nature | Comments Off

Favorite Photos 6

December 18th, 2009 by Paul Hutchinson

One Saturday this summer I caught this Bumble Bee coming in for a six point landing on the white rose bush in my front yard. The white rose with darker foliage and porch behind made a perfect backdrop to highlight this little guy.

Photo’s details are on its album page.

See more Bumble Bee photos on the Bumble Bee pages of my photo albums.

Posted in Favorite Photos, Nature, Photography | Comments Off

Favorite Photos 2

November 19th, 2009 by Paul Hutchinson

Looking out the window one day I expected to see a leprechaun or fairy sitting under this perfectly shaped mushroom.

Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria var. formosa) photo details on its album page.

See more mushrooms on the fungi pages of my photo albums.

Posted in Favorite Photos, Nature, Photography | Comments Off

Favorite Photos 1

November 18th, 2009 by Paul Hutchinson

I’m going to start posting selections of favorites from my online photo albums.

First up we have a visitor to the back screen door from the summer of 08.

A Marbled Orbweaver Spider (Araneus marmoreus) photo details are on the album page.

More spider photos are on this page of my insect album.

Posted in Favorite Photos, Nature, Photography | Comments Off

A Profusion of Pipes, Cluster of Corpses, Gathering of Ghosts

November 17th, 2009 by Paul Hutchinson

Indian Pipes, Corpse Plants or Ghost Plants that is, on August third my sister was looking out the kitchen window to the woods bordering the back yard and called me to check out an unusual sight. (Click images for larger versions)

Wow! Over 400 Indian Pipes, (Monotropa uniflora) were growing in a 2 square meter area. I’ve seen this plant hundreds of times out in the woods but never more than a dozen or two in one place. With such an unusual natural event I had to take a whole bunch of photos.

Nearby the Indian Pipes, I spotted this nicely posed mushroom. My best guess at an identification is a Common Funnel Cap (Clitocybe gibba).

Normally I try to avoid disturbing native plants growing wild but, since my sister had never seen an Indian Pipe before and there where so many on our land, I picked one for her. After she’d examined it I put it in the fridge so that once I was done with work for the day I could take some macro and micro photographs.

Whenever I’ve seen Indian Pipes it has been in forest areas so I was very surprised to see two clumps of Indian Pipes growing on the grassy bank of a drainage ditch in front of my employers factory a few days later.

There are more photographs in my online photo album.

I had never seen these odd flowers growing through grass before, this had to be an extraordinary year for Indian Pipes. Witnessing this population explosion of a normally rare flower I wondered why it had happened. Being a native plant I figured the most likely cause was an increase in their food supply. Since we had experienced above average rainfall and below average temperatures in June and July I thought that was a probable cause.

Pondering my hypothesis, it didn’t hold water given my knowledge of this plants nature. Forty years ago I was taught that these flowering plants with no chlorophyll couldn’t use the sun like green plants so they fed on decaying leaf litter. To speed the rate of decay you want to increase both moisture and temperature so, while the extra rain would help the lower temperatures wouldn’t.

This led me to start searching for more information on this flower, my first stop for information on flowers of southern New England is usually the Connecticut Botanical Society. As usual I found a good summary page there with the scientific name to help me find further sources and the following description.

Indian pipe, like its relative pinesap, has no chlorophyll, so it cannot obtain energy from sunlight. Instead, it gets nutrients from organic matter in the soil.

This confirmed what I had learned decades ago so I was still puzzled why there was a population explosion. Researching further (see resources list at the end of the article for links) I found out that I and the CBS website had obsolete information. Scientists have shown that Indian Pipe does not get its nourishment from decaying material, it’s a parasitic plant! Monotropa uniflora is a parasite of fungi that are mycorrhizal symbionts of trees so, increasing rate of decay in the leaf litter wouldn’t likely be a factor at all. The unusual weather in June and July likely caused the fungi and its associated tree(s) to generate a larger than normal food supply giving this parasitic flower an advantage.

Reading through all the information I’d found led me to another mystery. Some of the sources imply or outright state that the tree involved in the relationship is a always conifer. The Indian Pipes in my yard where near pine trees and my memory is that whenever I’d seen them other places in the past there were conifers nearby. However, most of my nature explorations have been in southern New England and almost everywhere is mixed deciduous and conifer forest. So having conifers nearby is really just a default condition and not necessarily linked to the Indian Pipes.

Thinking back on the flowers I found near the drainage ditch, they were on the other side of the drainage ditch from the conifers in the area. Since the ditch is four feet wide and four feet deep it seemed unlikely that the fungus was going down over four feet through the sand and gravel base of the ditch to reach pine trees. There is only one tree on the flowers side of the ditch, a sapling oak tree a few feet away from the flowers. So I hit the resources again for more in depth reading and found that the conifer association is not stated as a requirement in the more thorough references. I suspect the little clusters by the drainage ditch are parasites of a fungus attached to that little oak tree.

With all the references I’ve studied I learned something that leads to another puzzle. The mushroom I saw around the Pipes in the back yard is very likely to be from the fungus it is parasitizing. Also a number of studies have shown that Monotropa uniflora associates with quite a few different fungi but they are all of the family Russulaceae. My mushroom identification was in the Tricholomataceae family which doesn’t fit with the literature I’ve read.

To solve the puzzle I came up with a list of possible solutions:

  1. I misidentified the mushroom.
  2. The mushroom is not from the fungi associated with the flowers.
  3. The literature is incomplete, Monotropa uniflora can associate with fungi of the Tricholomataceae family.

Applying the basics of Occam’s razor, solution 3 drops off first, multiple studies have shown Indian Pipes only associated with family Russulaceae. This leaves one and two to consider, given that I saw no other mushrooms in that area this summer that leaves number one as the most plausible solution. Big surprise, Not! Even experts have a hard time identifying mushrooms which is why I would never trust my identification and eat a mushroom I found and identified.

Monotropa uniflora Resources:

Wikipedia

USDA PLANTS Profile

Tom Volk’s Fungus of the Month for October 2002

Botanical Society of America Parasitic Plants Online

Native Plant Information Network @ the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Posted in Nature, Photography, Science | Comments Off

Coyote on my street

July 29th, 2008 by Paul Hutchinson

This evening at 5:15 about a tenth of a mile from my house a coyote crossed the road right in front of my car. The coyote stopped in the woods after crossing so I stopped my car to look at him, it stared right at me for a few seconds then proceeded on deeper into the woods. Of course I didn’t have a camera with me because I was just making a quick run for some groceries. :-( This was only the second coyote I’ve seen in my nearly 50 years of life, the first was a couple years ago on Route 44 in Chepachet RI. These guys and the local population of fishers here near the MA, RI and CT borders are the reason we make sure Bootsie is inside well before sunset. I saw my first fisher last fall as it ran across the road in front of me at dusk about a half mile from my house.

Here’s a good coyote picture looking very much like the one I saw, the photo is by marya (emdot) from San Luis Obispo, USA. This photo is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License click the picture for details of the licensing from WikiPedia.

Here’s a picture of a fisher by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee.

Posted in Nature | Comments Off

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