by Allan Stein and Michael Collins
One couldn’t really ask for better weather for the February 20th 2017 Nature NL snowshoe trip – not too cold or windy, with sun and blue skies and, of course, plenty of snow! The snow not only covered the ground and the tree limbs, but also coated the tree trunks creating quite a winter wonderland. Even though the snow was very deep we decided not to use snowshoes as on the main trails snowmobiles had packed the snow down enough to walk on just in boots.
The area was dense woodland mostly covered with conifers and an occasional dogberry. As one might have expected snowshoe hare tracks were abundant, many smaller than might be expected. Allan pointed out that hares give birth to young around this time of year hence the many smaller sets of hare prints.
Besides buds snipped off by hares close to snow level, there were also a number of smaller deciduous shrubs where the bark had been scraped off by hares near the base. On several occasions we heard the sounds of a moose ahead of us although we didn’t actually see the animal. There was, however, plenty of evidence of moose feeding as many of the dogberry buds had been snapped off by moose.
In one area we came across a set of dog-like tracks which did not show the aimless wandering of a dog and which were too small for a fox. We concluded that the tracks were those of a coyote. Towards the end of the trip the sun came out from behind the clouds creating a real life Christmas scene with the snow decorating the conifer branches. In places the sunlight shone through icicles hanging from the trees giving the appearance of multicoloured Christmas tree decorations!
All in all a very enjoyable stroll through the woods among wonderful natural scenery!
As with most good deeds, feeding birds in the winter is done primarily for the benefit of the feeder, not the eater. We place feeders near our window, to enjoy the comings and goings of various small birds all day long. But the standard feeder has some problems.
Houses are surrounded by cleared areas, where a concentration of small birds attracts the attention of hawks, who are faster and manoeuver better than small birds away from protective shelter. Thus, to satisfy our desire to observe them, we expose them to additional risk, and some are sacrificed for our pleasure. You may argue that hawks are also birds, and surely also deserve to be fed at bird feeders. Indeed. Certainly, nobody can deny the thrill of watching them swoop, rush, twist and turn. But just like the small birds, once they learn of a constant food source, they return with regularity. Small birds learn to stay away. There is no fun in watching an empty feeder all day.
Blue jays also thwart our desire to see a variety of small birds: although jays do not chase or threaten smaller birds, when they fly in, small birds flee, presumably wary of anything the size of a sharp-shinned hawk. Usually they can tell the difference, and do not disappear altogether, but only fly as far as the nearest tree. Still, they desert the feeder as long as the jays are there. And jays have a nasty habit of spilling a feederful of seeds onto the ground in less than an hour to select a few morsels to their liking.
Squirrels are equally prone to driving off small birds. Some have devilry in them, and delight in chasing off every bird in sight, just for the sheer pleasure. Our red squirrel is considerably smaller than the gray of the mainland, so that most “squirrel-proof” feeders, created for mainland squirrels, pose no obstacle to ours. Ditto, as you will learn, for transformer guards. Live-trapping them and taking them to distant forests is futile. Immediately other squirrels fill the vacuum—the woods have no shortage.
After considerable thought about small birds, hawks, jays and squirrels, we came up with a plan. To keep hawks away, surround the feeder area with an 8 × 8 foot trellis on two sides, one against the house, making a semi-enclosed feeder space in front of the dining room window (Fig. 1). Little birds could fly in through the trellis, larger ones from the open end or above. We expected hawks to stay outside the enclosure, unable to fly through the trellis and unwilling to enter a dead-end. For jays and squirrels, do not fight them. Instead, provide plenty of food that they prefer above other offerings, on the periphery of the feeding area. Avoid mixed seeds, but use many feeders, with different feed in each. Provide enough room and board for all, with something for every taste.
We built the trellis and put up big feeders with platforms along the deck railing, filled them with peanuts, dry dog food and big sunflower seeds for squirrels and blue jays, smaller sunflower seeds for chickadees, smaller seeds for other birds. Above this we suspended hanging feeders of Nijer seeds, suet, and other seeds (Fig. 1).
The result was birds right outside our window on three levels: a high level of hanging feeders, a middle table-height level of big feeders, and a lower deck level for ground feeders (Fig. 2). There was also a fourth layer, visible from a basement workroom, of birds on the snow under the deck, eating the gleanings from this bountiful table. The season is over, and here we report the outcomes of this experiment.
Small birds. They came from first light until just after dusk. There was a colourful diversity of regulars: red polls, siskins, goldfinches, chickadees, blue jays, nuthatches, woodpeckers, juncos, and a couple over-wintering white-throated sparrows and one song sparrow. How like humans they all behaved! With a hundred times more food than they could eat, they all spent more time and energy chasing each other off the food and otherwise engaging in threatening and hostile behaviour, than peacefully chowing down all day long.
Chickadees and juncos came immediately, the latter almost overrunning the place at one stage. Then came goldfinches, then siskins and in February, redpolls, both common and hoary. This was a bumper year for redpolls (Fig. 3). Each successive wave mixed with the incumbents for a while, but eventually almost replaced them. Chickadees continued flitting in and out, nuthatches and woodpeckers came to the suet, and groundfeeders like juncos always found a place, but otherwise it was wall-to-wall goldfinch, siskin and redpoll, in that order. Often flocks waited their turn in the surrounding trees (Fig. 4). At the height of flock density, there were over 200 birds in the feeder area at a time, at peak times double that number. When they all took flight in response to a real or imagined threat, the rush of fluttering wings was heard throughout the house.
Hawks. Yes, they came—a sharp shinned hawk and, first time this year, a goshawk. As predicted, they did not fly into the dead end space, but tried to catch a bird on the fly to or from the feeder station. Birds inside the enclosure often did not see the hawk watching or flying by, and so did not all flee (which would have made them easy prey). For the first few weeks a hawk was seen almost daily, the visits tapering off to no more than one or two a month. Unwilling to enter the enclosed space, it seems hawks gave up trying to capture single birds on the wing. Probably they found easier prey at more open feeders.
Blue jays. Given ample food of their choice, they no longer spilled whole feederloads to the ground to find the seeds to their liking, but went directly to feeders with their preferred food. They had a great system: swallow as many dog food kiblets in a row as possible (the observed record was nine), then fly away with a last beakful. The littler birds still took wing on the arrival of jays, but quickly returned, each comfortable to eat in his corner.
Squirrels. Squirrels also chose the feeders with dog food or big sunflower seeds, and ate frenziedly in a dark corner of the feeder-shelf, usually leaving other feeders to the birds. But, of course, they were still squirrels, so often they spent valuable eating time aggressively chasing every single bird away from the eating area first, then settling in for a long feed. But the birds waited and watched in the nearby trees, returning as soon as the squirrel had settled in. Still, there is a problem with making food available to squirrels: squirrel density increases markedly. True to their nature, they tried to cache some away for leaner times. Some used the small gap in the transformer on the hydro pole—another squirrel-proof device, we were told—as a storage place. Death to squirrel came by electrocution. The first time meant several hours of no heat, no electricity, until we finally figured out what was wrong and the Hydro team answered our summons and reinstated the power. When, three days later, another tried to roast a peanut in the same transformer and suffered the same fate, we removed the peanuts. After the peanuts were removed, squirrel electrocution frequency decreased, but over the season a total of four squirrels shuffled off that mortal coil. Final for the squirrel, costly for Newfoundland Power, and bad for the homeowner: potential frozen pipes and so forth, should there be nobody at home for a few days.
Peanuts. Do not offer them, definitely not in unlimited quantities. Jays and squirrels prefer peanuts over all other food, and stay at the feeders all day long, keeping small birds at a distance. Both “waste” much by hiding them in the snow. And, as we saw, peanuts markedly increase squirrel electrocution.
Summary. The system works well for a wooded area on the Island, providing hours of viewing enjoyment. It may present problems in regions with skunks and raccoons, and may not work in urban areas, where rats are a problem. Where we live, the system is easy to maintain. The big bins provide a buffer for the times we are away, when the smaller feeders go unfilled. Hawks do not bother the birds, yet need not go totally hungry—they just have to work harder to catch prey. Squirrels and jays are not significant deterrents for scores of smaller birds, and the occasional stoat provides an added thrill (Fig. 5). Squirrel electrocution remains a problem. Constructing a squirrel-proof feeder seems unrealistic, and a better transformer guard, specifically designed for our red squirrels, seems like a more likely solution.
We can supply plans for this system in return for a small flask of Cognac, even workmen to custom-build feeders to suit your deck. Work and workmen will cost a few more flasks. Quite a few. Think drums, not flasks.
– Andrus & Maria Voitk
by Laura King
Nature NL was lucky to have three bright and motivated graduate students from Memorial University speak with us last week. Being able to hear about cutting edge research straight from those in the lab and the field was wonderful. Connecting those interested in nature with Memorial researchers at is one of our interests at Nature NL and this well-attended evening certainly accomplished that.
This year’s theme was Air, Land, & Sea. Leanne Guzzwell, MSc candidate in the laboratory of Dr. Bill Montevecchi started us off with Air by speaking about nest abandonment in Northern Gannets. This occurs when adult birds permanently leave their nests and usually results in the deaths of chicks and juveniles. She discussed various factors that have been proposed for why this occurs, such as warmer temperatures and precipitation, and her research to link abondonment with some of these environmental factors.
Next up, for Land, Quinn Webber, a PhD candidate in Eric Vander Wal’s group, spoke about spatial ecology of the caribou herd on Fogo Island. He showed how tracking collars can be used to determine which individual animals associate with others, and what implications these types of social behaviour may have for parasite transmission.
Justine Ammendolia, of Annie Mercier’s lab, took us under the Sea and showed off her technologically advanced research to assess whether marine invertebrates such as sea stars and sea cucumbers can adapt to the enormous amount of pressure found at depth. Turns out some adapt better than others, which has implications for what may happen as climate change shifts distribution patterns of some of these fascinating animals.
It was fantastic to hear about these diverse projects and the lab and field challenges these young researchers face. We look forward to hearing more about your findings and seeing you advance further in your scientific careers!
Megan Boucher & Laura King
It was a cold day at Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John’s with low numbers of gulls however we had a great turnout of 35 people! We were able to see the usual winter gulls including Iceland, Great Black-backed, Herring, Glaucous, and the Ring-billed Gull. We also sighted the Lesser Black-backed Gull at Virginia River outflow area of Quidi Vidi.
The Pied-billed Grebe, Red-winged Blackbird, female Ring-necked Duck, and the American Coot were nice additions to the day.
Thanks for all who participated today. Here is the Ebird list of the 25 different species of birds sighted today during the workshop:
If any participants would like to be added to the Ebird list, please send your Ebird username or email associated with your Ebird account to Megan Boucher, who can be contacted via the Nature NL contact info or the Facebook event page. See you next year!