Thursday, November 08, 2012

Beginning to Feel Like Winter

It is beginning to feel like winter at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest!  The nights have become cold and the days crisp.  The trees have responded with various shades of red, orange, yellow and brown.  Along the boardwalk, most of the trees have lost their leaves during one of the breezy days in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  Although this time of year finds fewer birds in the swamp and reptiles tend to remain hidden, the lack of leaves allows one to actually see the swamp both in depth from the boardwalk and from ground to the crown of the old-growth bald cypress trees.

White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are avoiding nearby hunters and are frequently seen as they vacate their resting spots in the dwarf palmetto covered high spots in the swamp.

White-tailed Deer - Mark Musselman
White-tailed Deer - Mark Musselman
This morning, we arrived to find a pair of 8-point bucks in the parking area.  Although not combative at the time, rutting season is not the time for virile males to mingle politely.  Later in the morning, we flushed one of the bucks from a bedding site between the driveways.  Ten minutes later, we did it again.  Instead of returning to the building, we waited behind a parked vehicle to see if the buck would return again to the same spot.  In less than two minutes, the buck moved right back and bedded down.  After retrieving a camera, we returned for a shot, but got only close enough to see the buck leave out the opposite side of the thick vegetation.  This time, however, a doe followed the buck.  No wonder he kept going back!

Dead White-tailed Deer - Mark Musselman
For whatever reason, one deer will not be making it through the winter.  Last week, we saw vultures at the upper end of Goodson Lake and detected the faint odor of death.  We could not see what the birds had found, but they appeared to be unable to open the meal.  Vulture bills work well at pulling flesh from a carcass, but they are not suitable for tearing through a tough hide.  Yesterday, we hopped off the boardwalk to identify the animals attracting the vultures' attention.  Unable to find an opening beyond the eye sockests and the anus, the vultures, Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) and Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), appear to be waiting for the deer to pop.  Based on yesterday's odor, it should not be long.

Turkey Vulture - Mark Musselman
Black Vulture - Mark Musselman
Other birds spotted along the boardwalk include year-round residents, winter residents, and a what-the-heck-are-you-doing-here? Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus).  Like the cuckoo, most of the birds did not present us with photographic opportunities, so you will need to click on their names to link to images.  We saw the Yellow-billed Cuckoo fly from a high perch and would have dismissed it as an optical illusion, if we had not had the chance to watch it for five minutes when it landed high in a bald cypress.  Looking over its shoulder, the yellow bill, clean white underparts, bright rufous primaries and long tail were all evident and unmistakably cuckoo.

A winter resident that is seldom seen due to its fantastic camouflage is the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor), which we flushed near #112.  Had it not exploded into flight, we would never had known it had arrived.  Although eBird continues to question the presence and number of Winter Wrens (Troglodytes hiemalis) we see along the boardwalk, the old-growth swamp appears to be desirable for this energetic bird that never appears to break an elevation of two feet above the ground.  Look for it flying full speed into hollow logs or knees.

Hermit Thrushes (Catharus guttatus), Ruby-crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula), Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius) round out the list of frequently seen winter residents.  Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers drill shallow holes in something of a line and eat the sap that oozes from the wells or insects attracted to the same sap.  Near #104, we observed a pair of males engaged in noisy aerial combat.  Based on the determination of one male pursuing the other, it appears one was defending his territory and hard work of well drilling from an interloper.

Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) and Belted Kingfishers (Ceryle alcyon) continue to enjoy the dam work done by the beavers.  Whereas most of the swamp is dry, having missed any contributions from Hurricane Sandy, the water remains knee-deep on the upstream side of the dam.  Perfect for paddling around and calling or diving for fish.

Yesterday, we encountered nine Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) moving north along the edge of the swamp by #115 with only their colorful heads peeking above the dwarf palmettos.  With leaves off of most of the trees, Barred Owls (Strix varia), especially at the #7 rest stop, appear to prefer resting in evergreen trees.  Out in the swamp, it is the oaks that are "evergreen," which is a technicality as they do drop their leaves, just not all at once.  Therefore, if you visit during the winter, look up at #7 and you will likely see an owl or two looking back.

Barred Owls - Mark Musselman
Finally, the edge of the swamp near #152 and the vulture convention, a large hawk wheeled in to check out the action.  Sounding like the whap-whap-whap of an approaching helicopter, a pair of Black Vultures launched from their roost high in a bald cypress as a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) landed.  The lighting was horrible and the landing brief, so the pictures below are not high quality.  Even so, the youngster is an impressive bird!

Red-tailed Hawk - Mark Musselman

Red-tailed Hawk - Mark Musselman

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