Signs of Winter 10: A Winter Walk at Kooser State Park (and House Cat Day results!)

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Kooser State Park is a small, roadside park up near Hidden Valley in the Laurel Highlands. A couple of Saturdays ago (before last weekend’s big snow) Deborah and I met Rob and Michele for an afternoon winter walk. The day was not too amenable for an outing: it was cold (about 25 degrees), and windy, and various forms of precipitation (from straight rain to sleet to fluffy snow) were coming down, but, we decided to reward ourselves with a late lunch at the nearby Laurel Mountain Inn after the hike, so everyone was in favor of the outing!

We turned off of Route 31 and found ourselves on an ice-crusted park road. We parked near the firewood shelter (for campers and cabin dwellers) and walked down to the lake.

Kooser Lake is a four acre body of water that was created when a dam was constructed back in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). In fact, the entire park bears the unmistakable look of a CCC construction project! The stone and brick buildings and walls, the natural timbers and frames, and the brown tones of the signs all are hallmarks of the work of this historical group.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Many of Pennsylvania’s parks bear the imprint of the CCC. From 1933 to 1942 almost two hundred thousand men worked on CCC projects and lived in CC camps throughout Pennsylvania. The camps, run by the army, fed and housed the men who were for the most part unemployed due to the economic ravages of the Great Depression. Local carpenters, brick layers and stone masons led (and taught) the work crews while they toiled on construction projects that would, over time, benefit millions of people by making the forests and parks of Pennsylvania accessible and usable for recreation. Pennsylvania had the second greatest number of CCC camps in the country (only California had more) in large part due to the active planning and forethought of the then Pennsylvania governor, Gifford Pinchot.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

We stood in the blowing sleet next to the lake. The “No Swimming” sign seemed an unnecessary admonition, but during the summer the water would look very inviting. There have been problems with this small lake, though. In 2011 swimming was banned because of high E. coli levels in the water. I assume that septic systems were upgraded to correct the sewage pollution. In 2012, though, swimming was once again banned because of algae blooms in the lake and high levels of sediment that had accumulated on the lake’s (and swimming area’s) bottom. It is not clear from the various web sites that describe this park whether or not this latest swimming ban was lifted in subsequent seasons. One site talks about swimming and has an undated photo of happy people at a (warm and sunny!) beach, but many don’t mention the swimming potential of the lake at all. Small, artificial lakes require a high level of costly maintenance to keep water quality levels healthy. During times of state budget problems this lake might not have had a very high priority.

We curved around and walked up from the lake and headed down the narrow path past the empty camp sites and partially occupied rustic cabins. The cabins, also built by the CCC, are available for rent throughout the year. Several of them had curls of wood smoke rising out of their chimneys. They are heated by wood stoves but have some modern amenities, too: kitchens, indoor bathrooms, mattresses and beds. The showers, though, are in a separate building located in the middle of the cabin area. That would be a cold walk on a day like this! The thought of a warm fire, though, was very pleasing!

The trail surface was glazed with a bumpy layer of ice. Deborah’s coat was also accumulating a layer of ice (good insulation!). My stocking cap was soaked from the falling snow melting from the warmth coming off of my head. We were moving along the trail a moderate (2 mph?) pace but were still going faster than most of the cross country skiers who were struggling on the irregular, icy surfaces. Our walking had built up a good deal of metabolic energy and I even had to take off my gloves so that I could vent off some excess heat.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

We reached the end of the park’s camping area and turned back to follow a trail that shadowed the Kooser Run stream. There was a sign that indicated that Kooser Run was a “trout enhancement area” stream. We knew that the stream is stocked with trout each year, and that it was regularly referred to as a “quality trout stream,” but we weren’t sure what other enhancements might be. We did see some stream modifications (stone partitions and timbered water flow channels that apparently made deeper pools of slower flowing water, but we did not know enough trout biology to understand the complete plan. Anyone who is a trout fisherman out there ….. send on your ideas!

My sense of direction was greatly impaired due to the quality of the ongoing conversations and to the murkiness of the day (no perception of sun direction at all!). So it was with some surprise that we were suddenly back at the car! We had been walking for about an hour and a half, and probably covered 2 or 3 miles. The cross country skiers had all packed up and gone home (or wherever it is skiers go!). As for us, we brushed off the snow and ice, climbed into the car, and headed to the Laurel Mountain Inn for a sandwich and a beverage and a chance to dry off before heading home.

Ah, winter!

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

And now, the result of the Fourth Annual House Cat Day Experiment!

Our cat, Mazie, walked around in the front yard for 5  or 10 minutes on the late afternoon of February 2. She sniffed the soil (and the single crocus that was up and braving the “epiterranean” world. She may have also watched one of the tiny, black, wolf spiders (Pardosa species) that are just starting to be active in the warming soil. She lingered outside and seemed to enjoy herself very much.

Similar results were reported from Albuquerque! Marian’s cat, Mora,

Photo by M. Hamilton

Photo by M. Hamilton

responded to an open window with a joyful leap out into the surrounding bushes!

Both results clearly indicate an early spring!

Ah, Science! Thanks for telling us what we want to hear!

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Signs of Winter 9: House Cat Day #4!

Taz and Friend Photo by D. Sillman

Taz and Friend
Photo by D. Sillman

Three years ago in my January 21, 2013 blog (very optimistically entitled “Signs of Spring 3”) I wrote about Groundhog Day and suggested that we change this early February day-of-prediction to focus not on an animal that is sound asleep in his grass-lined burrow, but rather on an animal with whom we could more naturally base an ecologically or culturally significant day of hope for the coming spring.

I went through the cases for using robins, or bumblebees, or scarlet tanagers as our symbolic animal to celebrate the anticipation of the coming spring, but settled on what was, to me anyway, the most logical species among us. That species, of course, is the house cat (Felis catus).

Cats are the most popular house pet in the United States (the Humane Society estimates that there 74 to 86 million house cats in the U.S. (as compared to “only” 70 to 78 million dogs). House cats, usually, share the warm, dry living spaces of a house with humans (of course, they usually keep the really nice spots all to themselves!), and cats especially share with humans a hardwired, probably DNA-based fondness for sunshine, warm temperatures, and fun, fluttery organisms like birds (their “bird-agenda,” though, is often quite different from ours!).

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

So, three years ago on February 2, I took one of my house cats, Mazie, out into the snow-covered front yard (I tried to take both of my cats, but Taz sensed that something was up and disappeared into one of her magical hiding places somewhere in the house). I put Mazie down in the yard (on a nice dry towel!), and left the front porch door open. If Mazie ran for the porch, then we would have six more weeks of winter. If Mazie stayed on her towel or started walking around in the yard thus avoiding a dash back into the house, then spring was just around the corner.

I was amazed how fast she ran back into the house! But, that year the weather suddenly turned warm by late February. March temperatures set record breaking highs (I even remember a day when it nearly got up to ninety degrees!). Maybe our predictive model was not articulated correctly.

The next two years I followed the same experimental procedure, and Mazie, as I reported on this blog, responded with equal speed and agility and got back into the house even before Deborah could take the lens cap off of her camera. Both years, though, winter hung on grimly well into March. Mazie’s predictions, then, fit the observed phenomenon. The model has re-set itself?

We’ll find out on Tuesday, February 2! Mazie returns to the front yard for her fourth experimental trial. Deborah will have her camera all ready before the test begins! I am sure that Mazie will do her best for us all!

Photo by M. Hamilton

Photo by M. Hamilton

By the way, my daughter who lives in Albuquerque also put her cats (Binx and Mora) out on House Cat Day last year. They lolled around in the warm New Mexico sunshine and only did come back into the house because they got hungry. Spring was already starting down there, I think!

Send on your own experiences and observations!

Happy Winter! (but it’s almost time to start thinking about Spring!)

(House Cat Day 2016 is dedicated to Taz and Binx. They were wonderful cats and will be greatly missed forever!)

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Signs of Winter 8: A Walk at Harrison Hills Park

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

It was a cold, clear, sunny afternoon at the end of the first week of January. Deborah and I had the day to ourselves and decided to go for a short walk up at Harrison Hills Park. We had heard that a beaver had been spotted in the park’s big pond and wanted to see if we could get some pictures.

We got to the parking area about 1 pm and headed off down the pond trail. There was a dusting of snow lingering in the shady places along the trail and under it the ground was frozen solid. In places where the sun (which was brilliantly glaring in a bright blue sky!) hit the trail, though, the snow and soil had melted into a slippery layer of mud. It was about 34 degrees air temperature but the sun felt warm on our faces.

We walked through the black cherry dominated woods and eased past the spot where bluebells will be blooming gloriously in the early spring. We walked past the small meadow where one of our bluebird boxes was set (a box that did not have any nests or fledges last year but seemed so perfectly placed for bluebirds that we left it in place for next spring and summer. Maybe the bluebirds will come to their senses and use it this coming season!). There were woodpeckers (mostly downies) pounding on the trees along the trail and a hint of larger noises (pileated woodpeckers?) further in the distance.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

As we headed down the west facing slope to the pond, there was a constant rustling in the thick shrubs of the surrounding understory. The glare of the sun made it difficult to see colors, but the sizes of the birds shuttling from branch to branch around us made us think of robins. Finally we heard familiar robin chortles and calls and got some back-sightings of their red breasts and black bodies. The woods were full of robins!

We soon realized why the flock was here. Most of the understory was made up of berry bearing shrubs and vines. Barberry and spice bush and honeysuckle were interlaced with bittersweet vines and they all were covered with mostly red (but also clusters of black) fruit. Further, this hillside was a great solar collector especially in the afternoon as the weak winter sun dropped into the western sky. We could feel the air temperature go up several degrees as we walked along. Added to the food and warmth there was also a dense stand of spruce trees at the top of the hill that would provide sheltered night roosts for the birds. There must have been hundreds of robins twirling about in the dense shrub layer.

We always think of robins as migratory “signs of spring,” but they will stay in Western Pennsylvania through the winter if there is sufficient food. Holly thickets are great places to find overwintering robins, as are some city neighborhoods and also sheltered berry thickets like this. It is interesting that most of the plants making this habitat so ideal for the robins are exotic invasive species. Oriental bittersweet, Japanese barberry and Tartarian honeysuckle are the major berry producers here. Each has merited a “noxious weed” designation and has caused extensive native species declines, but here, collectively, they are making life so much easier for the robins!

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

We got down to the pond and walked as quietly as we could in hopes of seeing the beaver. The small island in the middle of the pond had a pile of freshly cut sticks stacked up on it. The pond water had thin skim of ice on it and, as the sun began to ease down below the forested rise to the west, a shadow slowly crawled across it. You could feel the air temperature falling as the sun drew down. It was going to be another very cold night!

The beaver did not pop up out of his den. We did not get a picture of him. Clusters

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

of alders next to the pond’s edges, though, had been gnawed through and it was obvious that the sticks piled up on the island were mostly from these freshly cut trees. Most of the gathered sticks were about two inches in diameter and about four or five feet long. They would not only provide some shelter for the beaver but also food, as the inner bark of alder is a rich carbohydrate source (and a favorite food for beavers). We didn’t see any foot prints in the soft mud around the pond but did see piles of gnaw-chips.

Beavers instinctively build dams from the small trees and branches that they cut with their powerful front incisors and carry and float and then mud-cement into place along small streams. These dams create protective ponds within which they can build their lodges. This beaver, though, sidestepped all of that instinctive building behavior by selecting an already constructed pond. Lodge construction, though, which will be the eventual outcome of all of those piled up sticks (if the county doesn’t come and trap out the beaver!), seems to be a learned behavior. Lodges set in the middle of a protective pond may have a variety of geometries and styles, but all have a number of underwater entrances and exits and at least two inner chambers (one for drying off after returning from a swim, and the other for sleeping and rearing their young). It will be interesting to see (again, if the county doesn’t intercede) what school of architecture this beaver ascribes to!

Beavers are obligatorily vegetarians. They preferentially eat water plants when they are available but survive on the inner bark of a variety of trees especially through the winter. They cache large quantities of sticks and branches under their lodges for winter consumption when conditions do not allow them to forage freely about.

We stayed around the pond for about an hour. The beaver never showed himself, but the evidence of his activity was everywhere. There was very little alder still standing around the pond. He would have to shift over to some other type of wood if he wanted to continue to add to his lodge or needed to accumulate more food. Poplars and aspens are other highly preferred food trees, but these are not abundant around the pond. Beavers also eat maples (especially red maple), birches, cottonwoods, willows and even pines. I am sure that he would find sufficient forage within a short waddle of the protective pond.

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Signs of Winter 7: Looking Out the Window

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

I finally did rake up my leaves this fall. Instead of bagging or burning them, though, I worked them into piles along the natural topographic lines of the yard. So, under the north line of crabapple trees, under the bisecting line of spruces and young oaks, under a central island of spruces and red maples, and under the eastern line of arbor vitae the mixed leaves are piled up a foot or so high. They seem to be staying put even when the wind is blowing (my neighbors will glad to hear that!). I also filled up my compost bin with fresh leaves and mixed in the last of the fall compost from my tumbler barrel. I even threw in some earthworms that had come up onto my driveway on one warm, wet November night. I am sure that that compost will be ready for next year’s garden!

The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology recommended not raking at all, and I tried that last year but the moldering leaf cover made the first few spring lawn mowing events a bit too aggravating to my allergies. Watching my leaf piles, though, makes me realize that the Cornell people are right about the quality of leaf dominated soil ecosystems. Right now six male cardinals and three female cardinals, two blue jays, two Carolina wrens, five dark eyed juncos, and a white-throated sparrow are all tearing into the leaf pile under the spruce tree just outside my window. The leaves are flying and often the birds get buried in the mix, but then they gab something that is too small for me to identify at this distance and gobble it down. Then they go back to digging around.

The leaves make a natural overwintering habitat for dozens and dozens of species of invertebrates. Insect larvae and pupae, torpid and hibernating insect adults and earthworms are all tucked into the insulating spaces of the leaf piles. Further, small frogs (like the gray tree frogs that sang all summer) might be down in the leaves frozen and inactive just waiting for the spring thaw or some hungry blue jay or crow to dig them out and swallow them whole. I speculated last year that the increasing number of tree frogs around my field might just be due to the leaf habitats I have been allowing to build up out in my woodlot. Maybe I will get even more with these new leaf piles that are closer to the house.

When I take Izzy out for her late night walk, I try to stay away from the line of arbor vitae and hemlocks. If I get too close to them the birds that are night-roosting in the dense branches start to fuss and sometimes even fly out into the cold, dark night. In the early morning, after Izzy’s pre-breakfast walk, I fill up the sunflower seed feeders as early as possible so that these chickadees and titmice and song sparrows and white-throated sparrows roosting in the arbor vitae can all fuel up and get ready for the next cold night.

Photo by D. Daniels, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by D. Daniels, Wikimedia Commons

We have a pair of golden crowned kinglets that have also set up their night roosts in our arbor vitae. They land on the thistle feeders during the day, but I can’t say for sure if they are just pausing there or actually eating seed. You would expect the kinglets to forage for insects and other soft bodied invertebrates, but in the winter other sources of energy might be taken. The kinglets are birds of the northern coniferous forests. They just come to us for a few months each year because of our “mild” winters (and, maybe our thistle feeders?).

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

One of my 60 year old blue spruces broke in the wind storm that roared through in the last week of December. It broke right above my bat house and, fortunately, fell out into the field well away from the house. One of the young scarlet oaks close by is bent a bit by some of the spruce branches. This spruce is one of the last of the original trees planted when this house was built. Most of them went down nine years ago in a colossal June thunderstorm. The tree guy is coming this week to clear it out (and has promised to salvage my bat house!). He and I looked

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

at the huge Norway spruce at the front of my yard that is leaning threateningly toward the front of my house. I would hate to have to take that tree down. It shields the house and our deck from both the sun and all of our neighbors, but I think that I would hate even more to have it fall on the house.

The tiny dustings of snow we have received are lingering in the shade of the remaining spruce trees and on the north facing slopes of the yard and field. Weather predictions taking El Nino into account indicate that we will have very little snow here in the northeast this winter. We’ll see. Over Christmas, my daughter reminded me of Chris Farley’s portrayal of El Nino in a 1997 Saturday Night Live skit. He was a big, bullying, blustering wrestler pushing all of the other storm systems around (until the unexpected happened and he was pinned by a little, skinny storm). Weather is mostly determined by the unexpected.

There are three gray squirrels racing up and down my spruce tree. They seem more interested in each other than in looking around for any buried chestnuts or cached corn or peanuts that they have “liberated” from my bird feeders (I find corn stuffed into all sorts of crevices around the yard!). Possibly this is a sign of early winter mating. I speculate that two of these squirrels are competing males and one is a desirable female. These squirrels have a reliable enough food source to support two litters (early spring and mid-summer) a year. I may have to start putting out more peanuts!

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Signs of Winter 6: Birds in Urban Ecosystems

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

I have talked about biodiversity before. In fact, a couple of years ago I included a biodiversity quiz in one of my weekly blogs. For the past twenty years Deborah and I have been studying and describing the biodiversity of Western Pennsylvania especially as it relates to human uses of our area’s ecosystems. The Nature Trail at Penn State New Kensington (and its on-line counterpart, The Virtual Nature Trail), our 2010 Baker Trail hike, and our more recent wildflower and bluebird studies in Harrison Hills Park all have a common biodiversity theme.

Why is biodiversity important? What is its purpose, what is its “use?” There are many answers to that question. Diverse ecosystems tolerate disturbance and stress better than simple ecosystems. An ecosystem with a rich biodiversity will house the vital pollinating species that we need not only for our wildflowers but also for our food crops. A diverse ecosystem will recycle nutrients, generate oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide, and clean up our water and air. A diverse ecosystem is full of species that have unique genes and proteins that may be the tools that we need for our ultimate survival on this rapidly changing planet.

Most of all, though, a diverse ecosystem fills us with joy and awe and connects us to the continuity of life and living on Earth.

The meaning of “biodiversity” can be expressed in many ways, but I especially like this very broad definition: “the variety of life in a habitat, ecosystem, or the world.”

Photo (London) by Kloniwotski, Flickr

Photo (London) by Kloniwotski, Flickr

More than half of the Earth’s 7.3 billion people live in cities or towns. These urban and suburban ecosystems seem the antitheses of biodiversity. The great structural and energetic and goal-directional similarities of a city anywhere in the world would seem to drive these ecosystems to the lowest common denominator of plant and animal species diversity. One standard hypothesis often applied to urban ecosystems looks at the similarities of their physical habitats and uses and infers that they must favor a limited set of species that are hardy and extremely generalized in their food and habitat preferences. Cities, according to this hypothesis, should all have very similar biotic communities. This idea, though, was not supported by recently collected data.

Looking at the plants and bird species of 110 cities around the world a study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B in February of 2014 emphasized that each urban area retained a unique set of endemic (“native”) plant and bird species. These species combined with a number of shared, “urban-tolerant” species generated unique biodiversity profiles for each urban area. Cities, of course, had fewer plant and animal species than surrounding “natural” areas, but cities were shown to support nearly 20% of the world’s bird species and 5% of the world’s plant species. Urban areas were far from the “biological deserts” that they have often been hypothesized to be.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Birds in urban ecosystems have always been important to me. When I was in second grade I was given a Golden Guide to the Birds (and I still have it!). I frequently sat out in the backyard of my suburban community in northern Ohio with a folding pair of opera glasses (my “binoculars”) and tried to identify every bird that I saw. It was far too easy: pigeons, house sparrows, starlings, and blue jays with an occasional robin to liven up the mix. The bird I really wanted to see was a scarlet tanager (red was at that time my favorite color), but I had to wait almost 30 years before I finally saw one out on the Penn State New Kensington Nature Trail!

When we moved to Houston (more suburbs!) the species changed a bit: blue jays (aren’t they everywhere?), grackles, and purple martins were very common. I am sure that there were pigeons and house sparrows, too, but my mind was on cars, girls, music and basketball for quite a few years and I didn’t really get back to birds until I took an ornithology class in my junior year at Texas Tech.

Bahia Blanca (Photo by K. Langlors, Wikimedia Commons)

Bahia Blanca (Photo by K. Langlors, Wikimedia Commons)

Martina Carrete, an ecologist at the Pablo de Olavide University in Seville, Spain, studies the behavioral and physiological characteristics of bird species that colonize urban habitats. In 2011 she published a paper describing the flight initiation distances (FID) of various bird species that lived both in the Argentinian coastal city of Bahia Blanca and also in the surrounding rural areas. The FID of a bird is basically measured by seeing how closely you can approach an individual before it flies away. Dr. Carrete and her team found that the average FID’s of populations of rural bird species were not reliable predictors as to whether that species would also be found in the city. What was a very strong predictor, though, was the variance in a species’ average FID values. In other words, if a species had some individuals with very low FID values (i.e. showed less fear of approaching humans) regardless of the population’s overall, average FID, those individuals would be likely to be able to survive in a human crowded, urban environment. If a species, though, did not have a sufficiently broad range of FID values that included some human-tolerant individuals, that species would not be able to colonize densely crowded human environments. Carret found that about half of the bird species in the area around Bahia Blanca had broad enough ranges of FID values to colonize urban habitats.

Further, Dr. Carrete’s team found that an individual bird’s FID remained the same throughout its life. Birds that were afraid of humans (i.e. that had high FID values) stayed afraid of humans, and birds not afraid of humans remained that way. These observations suggest a possible hardwired, genetic predisposition of some individuals in a population to urban existence.

Photo by A. Vernon. Wikimedia Commons

Photo by A. Vernon. Wikimedia Commons

A more recent paper by Dr. Carrete looked into the levels of stress hormones in burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) in and around Bahia Blanca. Burrowing owls are found in both rural and urban habitats, and their personal records of stress hormone levels are easily determined from discarded (or directly harvested) feathers. After measuring their stress hormone levels, the birds were then observed for several years in order to determine their individual survival rates. The results of this study were quite interesting: rural and urban burrowing owls had the same average levels of stress hormones, and birds with intermediate stress hormone levels were more likely to survive in the urban environment. This second finding suggested that high levels of stress hormones could be physiologically harmful to an individual and that low levels of stress hormones might make the bird less reactive to potential environmental dangers and thus lead to its early demise in complex urban ecosystems.

A second study on these burrowing owls looked at blood levels of stress hormones during capture and over the minutes and hours after capture. Carret’s team found that urban burrowing owls spiked stress hormones upon capture but very quickly returned to normal stress hormone levels. Rural burrowing owls, though, spiked stress hormone upon capture and maintained high levels for a much longer time. These data also suggest a physiological (genetic) foundation for urban dwelling individuals.

So birds that we see in the city may be individuals particularly adapted to the stresses of an urban ecosystem. Reduced fear of humans (people are, after all. the common factor in all cities) and the ability to react to and recover from stresses appropriately allow these individuals to utilize (and enrich!) this rapidly growing section of our biosphere.

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Signs of Winter 5: Winter Walking and Hiking

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

The winter is a time when many of us stop going outside to walk and hike. Much of this behavior is habit, I think. It is more than possible to layer up with comfortable, warm clothing and pull on suitable boots so that we can go out on even the coldest days of winter in order to get in some very nice miles along our favorite trails and paths. You want to watch for ice patches and avoid slips and falls, of course. Some of the trails near rivers and creeks get thick coatings of ice that can persist until March! You need to find trails that stay clear or ones that are simply snow covered. A good winter hiking stick with an ice-tip on it is a great tool for a winter walk, too! Wool socks are also a good idea, and you want to be sure that your hands and face are well covered so that there are no problems with frostbite.

There are many advantages to winter hiking: the lack of crowds, the lack of ticks and biting flies, and the incredible quiet and peacefulness of the winter woods! Deborah and I have done a number of “snow hikes” with Rob and Michele and have written about them on this blog. Take a look at the Wolf Rocks hike (November 14, 2014) or the Spruce Flats Bogs hike (November 21, 2014) or the Hemlocks and Snow Fleas hike (February 2, 2014) for a feel of some really nice winter hikes in the woods.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

A hike in the winter just like a hike in the summer is great therapy for your body and for your mind. Back in June 2013 I wrote two essays in which I explored a wide array of health impacts that walking and hiking can generate. Some highlights from those posts include: hiking is a good way to burn off calories, a very small percentage of Americans get any exercise at all and they/we are suffering for this (obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis), stress can be reduced by even moderate exercise, and maybe even susceptibility to Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias can be reduced via regular exercise.

It turns out, though, that where you walk might also be important in maximizing the benefits of walking. In a study published earlier this summer in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Gregory Bratman added a very interesting dimension to the hiking/walking equation. Bratman studied the impact of walking on the tendency of a person to brood (i.e. to display “morbid rumination”). Specifically, he gave his subjects a questionnaire designed to measure their tendency to brood and also measured blood flow to the part of the brain associated with this obsessive behavior (the subgenual prefrontal cortex). Then he divided his study subjects into two groups with slightly different activities: one group walked for ninety minutes along a busy highway while a second group walked ninety minutes in a wooded, park-like section of the Stanford University campus. The group that walked along the busy highway had no changes in their tendency-to-brood survey or in their brain blood flow patterns. The group that walked in the quiet, leafy campus, though, had small but significant decreases in both their brooding indices and the blood flow to their subgenual prefrontal cortices!

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

A walk in the woods, then, might be able to eliminate (or at least muffle) some of our distracting, obsessive brain activity!

Another study by Hideaki Soya (which will be published next month in “NeuroImage”) tested the brain patterns of sixty Japanese men between the ages of 64 and 75 while they solved color and color name recognition tests. These tests demand high levels of attention to detail and require the employment of significant decision making skills. The part of the brain involved in these activities is primarily the prefrontal cortex of the cerebrum. The relative aerobic fitness of the individuals tested had a huge impact on their specific brain activity patterns during this test. Individuals with poor aerobic fitness used their prefrontal cortices on both the right and left sides of their brains while solving their color questions. Individuals with high aerobic fitness, however, tended to use only their left prefrontal cortex while solving their problems. This second response is a more rapid and more efficient brain pattern that is characteristic of brain activities in much younger individuals. The test subjects needed to use more brain power and more time to make their decisions about the colors and color names they observed if they were not aerobically fit.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

So what do these two studies add to our understanding of ourselves? Point #1: Our brain works more rapidly and more efficiently if the body that sustains it is in good aerobic shape. Physical fitness has links to mental fitness and acuity. Point #2: There is something about being in Nature that reduces our obsessions with ourselves and our existence. Being in Nature helps us put ourselves into perspective, helps us to see our place in the world, helps us to look up from the nonsense that we can become obsessed with and see much more real things.

So, get out and walk in the woods. Enjoy Nature in the winter like we do in the summer. You can warm up your feet later. Hey, take some chocolate with you for the hike! I remember reading a research paper once about the psychotropic impacts of chocolate on the brain! Do it all! You owe it to yourself!

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Signs of Winter 4: The Downy Woodpecker

(The following is an excerpt from a species page that will soon be published out on the Virtual Nature Trail. Information for this page was gathered in part by Ms. Brittany Hydock for her Spring 2015 Honors Biology 22o class at Penn State New Kensington).

Photo by K.C.Agar, Flickr

Photo by K.C.Agar, Flickr

The downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) is a small (five to six inches long) woodpecker that is quite common not only in Western Pennsylvania but also across the continental United Sates and up into Canada and Alaska. Its distinctive black and white, checkered plumage and white breast match the coloring of the larger, slightly less common, hairy woodpecker (which is about one third again larger than the downy). Male downy woodpeckers have a prominent red patch on the backs of their heads but are, in size and other coloring, identical to the females. These active birds are found in a wide variety of forested habitats. They prefer to live in deciduous forests and especially like to feed on and nest in elms and birches that have been weakened by fungal diseases or age. Dead trees and trees with physical deformities (bent trunks, knobby growths, or patterns of holes) are preferentially visited by foraging downy woodpeckers.

Downy woodpeckers primarily eat insects but also consume seeds and a wide variety of berries.  Downy woodpeckers are frequent visitors at backyard bird feeders and are especially fond of black oil sunflower seeds. They also avidly feed on poison ivy berries and are one of the avian agents responsible for this noxious plant’s extensive occurrence and rapid rates of spread. Preferential feeding on softened trees saves the downy woodpecker a great deal of energy when it drills into the bark and heart wood searching for insects. Chemical cues from the afflicted tree along with visual recognition of scars, holes, missing bark and odd trunk curvatures attract these woodpeckers to these more easily excavated (and often more insect rich!) trees.

Photo by D. Brezinski, USFWS (Public Domain)

Photo by D. Brezinski, USFWS (Public Domain)

In the summer many of the insects taken by the downy woodpecker are on the surface of the tree bark, and the foraging downy simply utilizes its long, sticky tongue to snatch up these freely roving insects. Little hammering and drilling for food, then, is required. In cooler weather, or when insects are not abundant on the surface of the trees, a downy will typically work its way up a tree by a combination of short jumps and fluttering flights going first to any visual, surface deformities on the bark. The downy will peck at the bark in an attempt to stimulate any subsurface insects to begin to move about. The downy then use its excellent sense of hearing to locate these moving insects and rapidly drill a circular hole in the bark in order to capture them.

Female downy woodpeckers tend to forage on the lower, larger branches and trunks of trees while the males tend to forage higher in the canopy on the smaller branches and more slender sections of the trunk. These foraging preferences very effectively separate the feeding habitats of two genders and both broadens their individual feeding habitats and reduces potential intraspecific competition for food.

In the winter downy woodpeckers join with a variety of small song birds to form mixed flocks. Species included in these flocks include chickadees, titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, kinglets, and brown creepers. These flocks may seem at first glance to be detrimental to the survival of these birds (all food sources found by members of the flock are shared among all of the individuals) but the increased percentage of food sources found and the increased protection against and awareness of predators makes these associations energetically quite beneficial to all individuals. Interestingly, female downy woodpeckers continue to be members of somewhat smaller mixed flocks throughout the year. Males, though, only participate in these flocks in the winter.

Photo by D. Scranton, Flickr

Photo by D. Scranton, Flickr

The breeding season begins in March with the onset of male to male conflicts and male to female bonding. The male to male conflicts are typically quite ritualized with a stylized bill-waving and head movement “dance.” Once the males and females pair up they engage in a drumming display that expresses many aspects of their developing relationship. Drumming is used to call a distant mate, to locate and display possible nest sites, to defend territory, to strengthen the pair bond, and to indicate willingness to copulate.

Both the male and the female downy woodpeckers search for the most optimal nest site. Trees that are old or even dead, or which have extensive fungal infections are most ideal. Trees that already have holes are also preferentially selected. The small size of the downy woodpecker enables them to utilize relatively small limbs for the nest cavity. The cavity itself can be quite small (as small, in fact as twelve square centimeters). The small size of these nesting cavities reduces the possibility of another, larger bird attempting to take over the site. Tops of trees and bases of trees are both potential sites of increased predator risks, so the downy woodpeckers typically nest in the middle levels of their selected trees.

If the woodpeckers are excavating a new nesting hole the process may take up to three weeks of exhaustive work. The end nesting cavity is typically an inch to an inch and half in diameter and six to twelve inches deep. The floor of the nesting cavity is then lined with wood chips and is ready for the eggs.

The female lays three to eight, white eggs in the nest. The eggs are one inch long and a half an inch wide. The eggs are incubated for twelve days. The nestlings are fed regurgitated materials by both parents for four or five days and then begin to consume entire insects that the parents bring to the nest. Nestlings grow and develop for eighteen to twenty-one days and then, as the nest cavity gets more and more crowded, begin to emerge out onto their nesting tree. Short, practice fledgling flights take them around their nesting tree. During this period they always return to their nest cavity. They then begin to follow their parents on their foraging flights and eventually will break away from parental influence and become independent. Downy woodpeckers have one clutch per breeding season.

The life span of a downy woodpecker is quite short in the wild. They live on average for four or five years, but half of the birds will die before they are two years old. Their small size makes them vulnerable to predators (like the sharp-shinned hawk or the red-tailed hawk). Nest predators (like the black rat snake) also take a significant percentage of nestlings.

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Signs of Winter 3: Winter Birds

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

There are three crows out back chasing a fourth crow that was lucky enough to have found an old hamburger bun in someone’s garbage. Crow #4 has the bun in his beak and is swooping around the bare branches of the red maples trying to find a quiet spot where he can tear the bun up and eat it. The other three crows have different ideas and are trying to harass Crow #4 so that he drops his prize. Then #1 or #2 or #3 will become the target of harassment. Somebody is going to get some tasty stale bread for breakfast, but it is not clear after fifteen minutes of watching exactly whom that will be!

Crows form small foraging groups in the winter and, probably, fuss greatly over any large food find. They are sure are wasting a lot of energy, though. Good thing they are stuffed full of the peanuts and shelled corn from my bird feeders!

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Even though it’s early December, there are still robins digging around in the yard. They are particularly interested in the leaf piles I have raked up (yes, I finally got around to doing that job!). The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology just published an article recommending that you do not rake up your yard leaves! The leaf cover is the home for so many insects and edible invertebrates that removing them functionally makes your yard into a food desert for many species of birds! Leave the leaves where they fall: less work for you and more “green” impacts on your yard ecosystem ! Sounds like a great idea. I just watched a robin scuff away a cloud of dry leaves and grab onto a long, pale earthworm that had been hiding beneath them. Great breakfast!

The juncos (those wonderful “snow birds” that have been steadily increasing in numbers over the past few weeks) are bustling around on the leaf pile edges along with the white throated sparrows and cardinals. I can’t tell from this distance what food they are finding, but they all seem intent on their search processes. The two Carolina wrens that rule my yard (or think they do, anyway) are darting between various tree perches and the wood pile. They refuel at the feeders along with all of those ground gleaners, so their search for “natural” food doesn’t seem too frantic.

Photo by A. Wolf, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by A. Wolf, Wikimedia Commons

The chickadees, titmice and downy woodpeckers have joined together to make a large, complex flock. At first glance this flocking behavior would seem to be disadvantageous to all of the species and to all of the individuals concerned. Food is in short supply in the winter even with the extra rations at the bird feeders, so how could the clustering of many individuals that all eat approximately the same natural prey items (primarily insect larvae) do anything but decrease the survival of respective species? The answer involves the facilitation of food finding and the reduction in the average individual’s energy devoted to searching for food. In the large mixed flock there is a very high probability that some flock member will find a food source (a cache of larvae under some tree bark for example). The exploitation food sources by the entire flock with the subsequent high probability that another individual will find another food cache “smooths out” the expected boom and bust food cycle of the winter system, thus increasing the survival of a higher percentage of individuals in the mixed flock. Further, from the perspective of the downy woodpecker, flocking with the very alert and excitable chickadees and titmice also increases their awareness of incoming predators and thus adds to their chances of winter survival. Crows could learn a lot about cooperation from these smaller birds!

Another interesting behavior that was described by Aldo Leopold (author of the “Sand County Almanac”) is the positive response of chickadees to loud, explosive noises (like shot gun blasts or tree limb breaks). The chickadees swarm toward the sound very energetically (and in a mixed flock carry along the titmice and downy woodpeckers with them). The breaking of a tree limb or the falling of a tree opens up woody encasements that may be densely inhabited by ants, ant larvae and/or other insect larvae. Drawn to the loud noises, the birds can rapidly exploit a suddenly available food source.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Speaking of predators, not only has the great horned owl been lurking about but the sharp-shinned hawks (a male and a female) have also been regularly swooping across the feeder area of the front yard. There have been several piles of bloody feathers (mourning doves and cardinals, primarily) around the edge of the field, too. As I have written before, the predators keep the prey populations alert and active. Also, every species needs to eat to survive!

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

There are still bluebirds around, too. A small percentage of the spring and summer bluebirds stay around all winter. They shift the focus of their omnivorous diet away from insects over to fruit and survive by feeding on the dried wild grapes on the vines high up in the forest canopy, holly berries, crabapples, and even the fruit of poison ivy. We will be watching the bluebirds of Harrison Hills Park this winter to try to get an idea of what percentage of the local population avoids the energy stresses of migration and what proportions of males and females stick around. Last month we watched three male bluebirds actively checking out a bluebird house we had just put up in the park. They probably winter nest in groups. We’ll try to measure the sizes and gender proportions of these communal clusters!

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

The kings of winter survival, though, have to be the blue jays. They feed all day at my bird feeders taking the peanuts early in the morning, shelled corn as long as it lasts, and then black oil sunflower seeds all the rest of the day. They are out in sub-zero weather, rain storms, sleet storms and snow storms. I have watched them stare down gray squirrels and even deer in order to keep possession of a full feeder! They usually come to the feeders singularly or in groups of two or three, but they are there from early dawn until just after sunset. Only the crows are able to regularly chase them off!

Ah, winter!

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Signs of Winter 2: Preparation

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

It’s a Sunday afternoon in early November, and I am sitting at one of my favorite spots in all of Western Pennsylvania (my writing desk) looking out a large picture window into my back yard. The sky is blue and cloudless, and the trees to the north and west of the yard (red maples, crabapples, and black locusts) are bare branched and sharply silhouetted against the bright sky. They are the picture of the coming winter!
The trees on the east side of the yard (arbor vitae and hemlocks) are a deep (and very welcoming) green. In between these tree-lined edges are two tall, spreading blue spruces and four, spindly scarlet oaks that are still holding onto most of their orange-brown leaves. The ground is covered with shifting layers of red maple leaves. I plan to rake them into over-wintering piles one of these afternoons before they get too wet and heavy to move around.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Two juncos newly arrived from their northern summer forests are picking at seeds on the concrete surface of the old basketball court. One of this year’s fawns in her gray-brown, unspotted winter coat is curled up for an afternoon nap under the low branches of the blue spruce. Bright red cardinals flit in and out of the branches of the arbor vitae. Three gray squirrels plow through the leaves and chase each other up and down the tree trunks.
The western side of the yard was once a wall of about a dozen blue spruces. They had been planted (too close together!) when the house was built back in the late 1940’s and had grown into an interwoven mass of branches and trunks. In 2006 a violent thunderstorm knocked down eight of them and opened the way for the growth of the oaks that were lurking in the shade under the spruces.

Several of the oaks (scarlet, northern red, and white) are now over 25 feet tall. A few have even started to make acorns! They surround the remaining spruces and are growing taller each year. In a few years they will shade the spruces out, and I will have to call the tree guy again. He bought a new truck after my 2006 clean up, and he’s probably ready to trade it in for a newer model!

Winter feels far away, but it could arrive any day now. If some lake water-filled clouds get blown in by a strong cold front a snow storm could hit us almost without warning. A month ago Deborah and I were up in western New York for the weekend and had to drive home through an unexpected lake effect storm. The trees and weeds along the roadside were frosted with ice, and streamers of snow pelted our car and blew across the road. One morning we will wake up and snow will cover up all of the leaves in the yard. Part of me hopes that it happens soon (no raking!), while another part hopes that it holds off until after our final exams.

We have had three or four hard freezes, and Deborah’s tree-like zinnias after blooming for three months have finally succumbed to the season. She let the house finches and the goldfinches feed on their seed heads for a few days and then harvested a bowlful of her own for next year’s flower garden.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

I have plugged in the heater unit in my birdbath so that everyone will have water even on the very cold mornings. The deer and the gray squirrels drink out of it, too, so I have had to weigh down its base so that it doesn’t get knocked over every night. Picking everything up once a week seems reasonable but having to do it every morning gets tedious. I have taken in the garden hose and so have to carry a gallon water jug out each morning to fill the baths when I load up the feeders. The crows and the blue jays are always waiting for me. They usually swoop in for the peanuts I throw under the sunflower feeders even before I get back onto the front porch. One blue jay (I am sure that it’s the same one each morning) “pings” at me in his peanut excitement the whole time I am out filling the feeders. It’s nice to be appreciated!

I have moved my bicycle from its summer spot next to the car and put it much further back into the garage. I put my snow blower out into the bike’s place and should check its oil and fuel levels one of these days. I have also put the snow shovel and what was left of last year’s rock salt up onto the porch. I should get some more rock salt before everyone starts trying to buy some.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

At one end of my garden the chestnuts from the cold stratified seeds that overwintered in the vegetable bin of my refrigerator have grown into more-than-a-foot tall seedlings with fine sets of full sized, tooth-edged leaves that are for the most part still green. I am sure that the deer will notice them one of these evenings and gobble them down stems and all, so I have put a wire fence around them. Next spring I will find a more permanent place to plant each of them. It will be nice to have a few more chestnut trees around the yard.

Some nights there is a cold, wet smell of winter in the air. Maybe I should get new tires for my car? Winter is coming!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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Signs of Winter 1: Tiger in a Tree

(Here is a posting from five years ago. I heard a Great Horned Owl the other evening and remembered this encounter. It seems like a good way to start our search for winter! Enjoy!)

Photo by D. Daniels, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by D. Daniels, Wikimedia Commons

This morning I looked out my back window at the lingering, unexpected snow and saw a large shape up in the upper branches of one of my tall, black locust trees. It looked like a medium sized dog stuck high off of the ground! With binoculars I quickly saw the sharply hooked beak and the two “ear” tufts on the top of her head. It was a Great Horned Owl, also called the “Tiger Owl,” uncharacteristically out during daylight.

I call her “she” because of her size. Females are larger than males, and this owl was huge. Almost two feet tall and extremely square (and, when she did fly, her wing span was close to five feet).

I watched her for about fifteen minutes. She turned her head from side to side (owls have excellent, binocular vision but are not able to move their eyes about in the eye sockets) as she scanned the yards below for mice, voles, squirrels, or anything else that might be moving around on top of the snow. Great Horned Owls also have incredible hearing and can easily pick up rustlings in the dry leaves or tiny, rodent footfalls on or even under crusted snow. Once prey is spotted (and they are not picky about the types or sizes of prey species. They will take almost anything from tiny birds to skunks to even small cats and dogs) they swoop down and use their powerful talons to kill the animal (they exert four or five times the force in their talons than the grip of a large human!). Great Horned Owls have also been known to hop along on the ground scaring up and grabbing small rodents. Small prey is swallowed whole, and bones and fur are later regurgitated in a pellet.

We are approaching the start of the mating season for Great Horned Owls. They begin calling to their mates as early as late October and are one of the earliest mating avian species in North America. Mating typically occurs in January or February with the owlets hatching in the late winter or early spring. Nesting sites are whatever is available: old crow or hawk nests, squirrel nests or tree holes, caves, or even human-made shelters.

Photo by G. Hume, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by G. Hume, Wikimedia Commons

As I watched the owl a small flock of cardinals flittered in and around the locust branches above and below her. The cardinals (a mix of males and females) were very agitated and were undoubtedly making quite a large fuss. Mobbing is a very effective strategy for small birds in dealing with large, avian predators. The noise around the owl (or hawk) removes any chance of a sudden grab or surprise attack and will, eventually, drive the predator away.

And, after a few minutes of cardinal swarming, the owl opened up her incredible wings and soared off to the east and out of sight. The cardinals then perched up in the locust tree (in and around the exact spot where the owl had been settled) for the next half hour. Victory!

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