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In search of the Phantom of the North

The Great Gray Owl is North America’s largest owl by height and wingspan. They are rarely seen, hence the name “Phantom”. They live in the boreal forests of North America, Scandinavia, and Northern Russia. Although rare in the Adirondacks, one was spotted in Keene. So one cold March afternoon we went searching for it.

We drove about two hours to the location of the last sighting. Luck was with us. Fortunately the Great Gray hunts in open areas at the forest’s edge and we arrived just in time to see it perched a quarter of a mile away in a small tree watching for voles and field mice in the snow.

We got our spotting scope and camera set up and managed to get a few pictures before it abruptly flew away. The Grey Owl’s camouflage pattern of light and dark grey blends perfectly with tree bark making it virtually invisible. We felt lucky to have been able to catch a brief glimpse of this magnificent owl before it disappeared into the frozen north woods

Wild Turkeys

Wild Turkeys have made a spectacular comeback in the Adirondack Mountains. When I moved here in the mid-1970s Wild Turkeys had been hunted out of existence. Now we often see them trooping through our yard in the summer followed by a brood of fuzzy young ones.

This winter a small flock of about six has discovered our bird feeders. They peck and scratch in the snow looking for dropped seeds. One enterprising male was even spotted standing on a snow bank, stretching up to pick seeds out of my “Squirrel-Proof” chickadee feeder. On cold days we toss an extra cup of seed and corn on the ground for them. They’ve learned to come running when they hear the door open.

Turkeys prefer to walk or run, but when threatened they can fly. The great whoosh of feathers when they take off is enough startle any would-by predators.

They are ground feeders, eating seeds, nuts, tender evergreen buds, and the occasional snail, salamander, or insect. They roost in trees at night, but nest on the ground with the females providing all the care for the young.

Although they look dark brown in the forest, when the sun hits them they blaze with metallic bronzes, greens, and gold. I’ve made Turkeys before and it’s a challenge to carve their fanned tails and extended wings. It’s especially tricky to capture the iridescence of their feathers. I’ve found brushing bronzing powders over the final nearly dry paint works the best. In the meantime, they put on a pretty good show during the long winter.

Snow Buntings

This week we saw a Snow Bunting as we drove through the beautiful Keene Valley in the Eastern Adirondacks. Like the Ross’s Gull, the Snow Bunting breeds in the high arctic where it nests in rock crevices lined with fur and feathers for warmth.

They winter as far south as the northern US, and are most often seen on grassy roadsides eating seeds and small insects. This is of a carving I did of a Snow Bunting in its subtle winter plumage. I don’t have a good photo of a Snow Bunting because we usually see them flying away as we drive. Snow Buntings in flight looks dazzlingly white earning them the nickname of Snowflakes.

Their breeding plumage is completely black and white. Surprisingly they don’t molt to make the change from winter to breeding plumage. As spring approaches they rub the tips of their feathers on the snow wearing away the brown surface color to reveal the pure black and white beneath.

It’s always a treat to see this little visitor from the far north.

Ross’s Gull Sighting 1-28-17


Ross’s Gull Sighting 1-28-17

On Saturday, January 28, Joan Collins, an Adirondack bird guide, invited us to look for the rarest bird in North American, the Ross’s Gull. This diminutive gull, not much larger than a Robin, breeds in Siberia, and is a rare visitor to Arctic Canada. One had been sighted along the Raquette River in Tupper Lake. Word went out on the Internet and avid birders dropped everything to race to the remote central Adirondacks.

We searched for a couple hours without success then decided to enjoy some of the other birds in the area such as the Barred Owl and the Gray Jay. As we drove south along the river a woman in our group caught a brief glimpse of a white bird landing on the ice next to a stretch of open water. There it was! a small pale gull, 200 yards away.

Soon over a hundred people arrived armed with huge telephoto lenses and spotting scopes. Many had traveled here from as far away as Georgia with the hope of sighting this bird. Two State Troopers showed up to see what the trouble was, and were astonished to find a bird was causing the traffic jam. After hearing Joan’s explanation they stopped trying to break up the group, and helped organize our cars on the shoulder of the road. It was my first experience with the world of extreme birders. Even though I was delighted to see such a rare bird I have to confess walking quietly in the woods is more my style.

Thank you to Joan for an exciting day of birding and to Scott Stoner Naturelogues for sharing a photo my small lens couldn’t capture.

(Photo Credit: Scott Stoner Naturelogues)

Happy Groundhog Day!

It’s February 2, 2017 or Groundhog Day. In the Adirondacks if you have half your firewood pile left on Groundhog Day you’re going to make it through the winter. Do you know how hard it is to have half your firewood left on February 2 when you’ve been burning it since October?

Luckily it’s been a fairly mild winter and we’re in good shape this year.

Groundhogs, or woodchucks as they’re known here, are fairly rare in the deep woods. But one year we had a handsome fellow set up housekeeping in our yard. He stayed all summer, and then disappeared in the fall. He especially loved eating the tender clover that grows in our lawn. We don’t use any pesticides or herbicides, and the deer, snowshoe hares and voles are welcome to eat as much as they want..

Before he left I made a carving of him and wanted to share it with you. Have a Happy Groundhog Day!

Gopher Tortoise

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Birds are not the only wildlife on Sanibel. This gopher tortoise lives in the dunes, a wild tangle of sea grapes, century plants, and cordgrass between the grounds and the beach. On nice afternoons it ventures onto the lawn to eat tender new shoots. They can move with surprising speed when necessary.

Cars are one of their few enemies. The speed limit on Sanibel is 30-35, and signs warn motorists to stop for crossing tortoises. We’ve also seen raccoons, marsh rabbits, and once or twice a skinny, island bobcat. I’ve never carved a tortoise, but I think this year I’ll give one a try.

The Birds of Sanibel

Least Tern with Laughing Gull for scale

Least Tern with Laughing Gull for scale

The mangrove swamps and mud flats are not the only locations for birding on Sanibel. The beach is also a good place to spot birds like the Least Tern. This tiny tern is smaller than a robin, but dives fearlessly into the waves to feed on small fish. They are considered threatened in Florida because development on the beach has reduced their nesting habitat. Fortunately there are a few places, like Sanibel and some areas on Fort Myers Beach where their nest sites are protected.

So far in addition to the Least Terns and Yellow-Crowned Night Herons we’ve seen: White Ibis, Snowy Plover, Laughing Gull, Black-bellied Plover, Osprey, Sandwich Tern, Royal Tern, Great Blue Heron, Brown Pelican, White Pelican, Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, Willet, Eurasian Collared Dove, English Sparrow, Great Egret, Mottled Duck, Tricolored Heron, Swallow-tailed Kite, Common Ground Dove, Double-crested Cormorant, Pied-billed Grebe, Fish Crow, Reddish Egret, Mockingbird, Dunlin, Anhinga, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Palm Warbler, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Mourning Dove, Boat-tailed Grackle, Snowy Egret, Killdeer, and Magnificent Frigate Birds. Still looking for Roseate Spoonbills and Little Blue Herons, and hoping to find time to carve some of them.

Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge

DSCN0385Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island off the Gulf Coast of Florida is one of the best places to see shy birds up close. This Yellow-Crowned Night Heron was hunting crabs in the tangle of mangrove roots along Wildlife Drive when we visited at low tide.

The Night Herons are more nocturnal than most herons, but won’t pass up a tasty crab even in broad daylight if they are hungry. They roost in small groups in the Refuge. We’ve seen their nests, and the eggs are the most unbelievable sky blue. The baby herons are noisy and rowdy, always begging their hard-working parents for more food.

Black-Crowned Night Herons also live in the Refuge, and I hope to get a good photo of one while we’re down here. I’ll let you know if I do.

Russian Folk Toys

DSCN0378A favorite of children around the world, these Russian toys were first made over 300 years ago in the small village of “Bogorodskoye”. They are still handcarved using traditional tools from Linden wood, also called Basswood. They seem to come to life when you swing them in a circular motion.

I have been collecting them for years, and this one is a gift from a friend. It’s inspired by the Aesop Fable where a fox tricks a crow carrying a piece of cheese. The fox asks to hear the crow’s beautiful voice. When it opens its beak to sing, it drops the cheese and the happy fox trots off; the moral being, “don’t trust flatterers.”

The Woodcocks Have Arrived!

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I just saw the first Woodcock of the spring on the path to my woodshed. Also known as “Timber Doodles” they usually come north a little earlier. I think the late spring delayed them a week or two this year. They’ve always been one of my favorite birds, and this photo is one my early bird carvings. Their eyes are positioned high on their head so they can see above the ground cover which makes them look both goofy and serious at the same time. The long beak is used to dig out earthworms, their favorite food.

If you’re lucky, sometimes you can see their spring courtship display. It begins after sunset, when it’s just dark enough to see the first stars. The males come out of the woods into a grassy area and begin making a nasal “beeping” sound at regular intervals. After a few minutes of this they take off in a high spiraling flight. Their wings make a loud twittering sound as they circle in the twilight sky. Then they land with a audible “thud” in the same spot where they started, and begin beeping again.

Meanwhile the female is watching from the grass and hopefully will be enchanted by his display. Apparently it works, once or twice we’ve seen Woodcock chicks in the yard late in the spring. Like the adults they are nearly invisible on the forest floor.

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