March 19-25, 2019 (Week 12 of 52): Spring Has Taken a Noticeable Leap Forward Over the Past Week

 

The relatively warm weather that the Buffalo-Niagara Region experienced last week triggered some plant and considerable animal activity that has extended into this first week of spring. Tree sap began to flow, as evidenced by maple syrup production at sugaring operations in our Region. Pussy willow and red and silver maple flower buds are swollen, ready to burst into flower over the next week or two. Skunk cabbage plants have started to flower in forested wetlands.

Early-spawning species of fish such as northern pike have started to move toward and concentrate in prospective spawning sites. Burbot, a large elongated fish in the cod family, has already spawned. Moderate temperatures combined with light rainfall and snow melt prompted initial nocturnal movements of frogs and mole salamanders (i.e., spotted, blue-spotted, and Jefferson salamanders) toward vernal pools and other pond/wetland breeding sites. Significant numbers of frogs and salamanders will enter those pools once the Region receives moderate or heavy rainfall.

Large flocks of Canada geese and tundra swans have been migrating through and congregating in the Region, and pairs of geese are returning to previously used nesting sites. Puddle ducks such as the northern pintail, wood duck, and American wigeon have also arrived in open water areas in large numbers.

Spring flights of hawks, bald eagles, and turkey vultures have been observed along the Lake Erie and Lake Ontario shorelines over the past week. Great horned owls have been on-nest for a few weeks or more. Other raptors, including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and red-tailed hawks have recently laid eggs or started preparing nests.

A few early migrant shorebirds and songbirds (e.g., killdeer, American robin, red-winged blackbird, common grackle) have arrived in the region. Songbirds have initiated their pre-nuptial molt (most evident in male American goldfinches visiting feeders), and several year-round resident species have been singing and establishing territories since early to mid-February.

A few eastern chipmunks have emerged from their winter dens to feed and breed. Most large mammals bred during the fall or winter, so we can expect to see fawns, pups, and kits over the next few to several weeks.

Below are highlights of what you can expect to find outdoors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region this week. Those in bold/italics are new or substantially revised highlights to watch for this week. Check out the list of 300 publicly accessible sites at https://bnnatureblog.com/nature-sites/site-lists/alphabetical-list/ to find areas to explore in your neighborhood and throughout the Buffalo-Niagara Region.

Average Sunrise/Sunset (Day Length):          7:14 AM/7:31 PM DST (12 Hours, 17 Minutes)

3 Hours, 16 minutes longer than at winter solstice

Typical Weather:     Normal High Temperature: 44.2° F Normal Low Temperature: 27.8° F

Cumulative Growing Degree Days thru March 20:  4

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

  • While the west end of Lake Ontario is mostly ice-free, the east end of Lake Erie will remain mostly ice-covered this week.
  • The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo was 32°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) rose slightly to 37°F as of March 21.
  • Inland ponds are mostly ice-free and most wetlands and vernal pools are ice-free or have limited ice cover. Wetland water levels are at seasonal highs.
  • Streams will remain mostly ice-free with moderate flow this week.

Fungi:

  • With the onset of winter, most fungal fruiting bodies (e.g., mushrooms, bracket fungi) were extinguished. The fungal “roots” (mycelium network) survive the winter and produce new fruiting bodies during the appropriate season next year. Interestingly, fruiting bodies of some species of fungi (e.g., oyster mushrooms) remain viable during the winter and may disseminate spores during warm periods or in early spring.

Ferns and Grasses/Sedges/Rushes:

  • Freezing temperatures during late autumn killed remnant grass, sedge, and rush stems. The roots of these perennial plants will survive and sprout soon.

Wildflowers:

  • Wildflower stems died back following late fall freezing temperatures. Roots and rhizomes of perennial wildflowers will survive and sprout soon. Seeds of annual wildflowers will do the same.
  • Skunk cabbage will begin to flower in some forested wetlands with peak blooming period over the next week or two.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • Sugar maple sap will continue to flow this week (and be harvested within some sugar bushes). Sap flow is especially strong during days with temperatures above freezing following nights with sub-freezing temperatures
  • Sap flow is occurring in other tree and shrub species, too, as visualized by brighter yellow branches of crack and other willows and redder branches of red osier and silky dogwoods.
  • Red and silver maple flower buds will continue to swell but will not flower substantially this week.
  • Pussy willow flower buds are swollen but will not burst this week.
  • If you are impatient to see flowering trees and shrubs, try “forcing” branches to bloom by placing 12 to 18-inch cuttings (make sure each has flower buds) in a vase of water indoors. Flowers will appear after several days. Recommended species include red maple, silver maple, pussy willow, spicebush, shadbush, and hawthorn. The following non-native species may also be “forced”: forsythia, lilac, apple, and cherry.

Insects & Other Invertebrates:

  • Freezing temperatures during late autumn killed most adult insects and other invertebrates that did not migrate or enter hibernation. The vast majority of insect species in our Region over-winter as eggs or larvae/nymphs/pupae, although some species over-winter as adults.
  • A surprising diversity and abundance of vernal pool invertebrates will spring to life as pools warm: fingernail clams, amphipods, isopods, fairy shrimp, caddis fly larvae, dragonfly nymphs, giant water bugs, an assortment of aquatic beetles, etc.
  • Early spring species of caddis flies, stoneflies, and midges will continue to be active when air temperatures are about 40°F and warmer.
  • Wooly bear caterpillars that overwintered beneath leaf litter are starting to become active. After a brief feeding period, each will spin a cocoon of their orange and black hairs and develop into an Isabella tiger moth.
  • A few mourning cloak and eastern comma butterflies (which overwintered as adults) may become active during relatively warm days this week.

Fish:

  • Most species of fish will remain relatively sedentary as water temperatures in most lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams hover at or just above freezing.
  • Burbot (AKA freshwater cod) spawn throughout February and early March in the Great Lakes, forming writhing balls of a dozen or more intertwined fish.
  • Northern pike will begin to concentrate near tributary streams, ditches, and shoreline wetlands in preparation for spawning, which will start when water temperature exceeds about 40°F.
  • White suckers will start to move into Great Lakes tributary streams, preparing to migrate upstream to spawning grounds.
  • Steelhead that migrated from Lakes Erie and Ontario into tributary streams (including Niagara River) last fall are joined by fresh steelhead starting to enter tributaries in preparation for spring spawning (when water temperature approaches 42°F). Steelhead are an anadromous form of rainbow trout that spawn in streams but live most of their lives in Lakes Erie and Ontario. All forms of rainbow trout are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
  • Some brown trout that spawned in Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River in autumn remain in those areas through winter. Brown trout were introduced into our Region from Europe.
  • The DEC will stock local streams with hatchery-raised brown, brook, and rainbow trout in preparation for the opening of trout season on April 1.

Amphibians & Reptiles:

  • Most species of amphibians and reptiles currently remain in hibernation (technically considered brumation).
  • Early breeding frog species such as the wood frog, western chorus frog, and spring peeper may begin to vocalize from wetland breeding pools. Significant numbers will start once the Region receives moderate or heavy rainfall.
  • Some spotted, blue-spotted, and Jefferson’s salamanders will make their annual migration to vernal pool breeding sites this week (especially males). Significant numbers of males and females will enter the pools once the Region receives moderate or heavy rainfall.

Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:

  • Thousands of diving ducks will remain in their wintering areas, primarily open water areas of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario. The most abundant species include common merganser, red-breasted merganser, common goldeneye, bufflehead, canvasback, scaup, and long-tailed duck. Many will be performing courtship displays and vocalizations.
  • Watch for red-throated loons, red-necked grebes, and white-winged scoters in open water areas of the Great Lakes.
  • Horned grebes will continue to use open water areas as stop-over feeding areas along their migration route north.
  • Large flocks of Canada geese, snow geese, and tundra swans will stop-over in the region on their migration northward. The highest concentrations are typically found at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge and adjoining Tonawanda and Oak Orchard Wildlife Management Areas.
  • Larger numbers of “puddle ducks” such as the northern pintail, American wigeon, mallard, American black, gadwall, redhead, ring-necked duck, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, ruddy duck, wood duck, and hooded merganser will stop-over in the region as they migrate north, or return to local breeding areas such as Iroquois NWR.
  • Watch for pied-billed grebes and American coots starting to arrive in the Region.
  • Pairs of Canada geese will continue to return to previously used nesting sites.
  • Great blue herons are already nesting on Motor Island in the Niagara River whereas they are just returning to inland nesting areas (rookeries).
  • Some winter gulls, such as the glaucous, Iceland, and great black-backed gull may remain in the region over the coming week or two.
  • A few early migrant shorebirds (e.g., killdeer, American woodcock, Wilson’s snipe) will continue to trickle into the region. Male woodcock and snipe will begin performing their elaborate aerial displays designed to attract mates. Woodcock perform mostly near dawn and dusk whereas snipe display mostly during daylight hours.
  • To stay abreast of bird sightings in the region, consult eBird, Genesee Birds, and Dial-a-Bird (see the “Resources” tab on this web page for more details).

Birds of Prey:

  • Some winter resident raptors (e.g., snowy owl, short-eared owl, rough-legged hawk, northern harrier) will continue to linger in the region, especially in areas with extensive open grassland habitat.
  • Spring flights of hawks, bald eagles, and turkey vultures that started last week will continue this week, following the Lake Erie and Lake Ontario shores as they migrate north.
  • Northbound long-eared owls and northern saw-whet owls will continue to arrive in the region, most notably near the southern shores of Lake Erie and (especially) Lake Ontario.
  • Year-round resident raptors such as the great horned owl, barred owl, eastern screech owl, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and red-tailed hawk are paired up and many are already on-nest. Some great horned owl nests may have young chicks already.

Upland Game Birds:

  • Wild turkeys will continue to travel and feed in flocks at this time.
  • Male ring-necked pheasants that have become naturalized in the region will continue their rooster-like crowing to establish territories and attract mates.

Songbirds:

  • Typical winter songbirds such as the dark-eyed junco and American tree sparrowsback, scaup, common goldeneye, common merganser, long-tailed duck plus less common species such as the pine siskin will continue to visit local bird feeders.
  • Bird feeders will also be active with year-round resident birds such as mourning dove, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, blue jay, northern cardinal, house finch, and American goldfinch.
  • Watch for early migrant feeder birds such as red-winged blackbird, common grackle, brown-headed cowbird, song sparrow, and purple finch.
  • If you don’t have a feeder of your own, consider visiting a local nature education center (see the last column of the site lists under the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page).
  • A few wintering and migrant snow buntings, horned larks, and Lapland longspurs may still be found in open farmland, although most that wintered in our region have migrated north already.
  • Local horned larks are establishing territories and some may be incubating eggs already.
  • Several species of songbirds have been singing and establishing territories since mid-February and will continue to do so over the coming week. Included are mourning dove, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, Carolina wren, blue jay, northern cardinal, and house finch. Also included are downy, hairy, red-bellied, and pileated woodpeckers that use drumming as well as vocalizations.
  • A few early migrant songbirds (e.g., belted kingfisher, northern flicker, tree swallow, eastern bluebird, American robin, eastern meadowlark, red-winged blackbird, common grackle, brown-headed cowbird, song sparrow, and purple finch) will continue to trickle into the region.

Mammals:

  • Resident species of cave bats (big brown, little brown, and eastern pipistrelle [tri-colored] bats), woodchucks, and meadow & woodland jumping mice continue to hibernate. These species are true hibernators.
  • Striped skunks emerged from winter torpor a few weeks ago and will remain mostly active in the coming week. This is their breeding season.
  • Virginia opossum and raccoon, which became significantly more active the past few weeks, will continue to be active (other than during extremely cold periods).
  • Tiny newborn opossums suckle from the safety and warmth of their mother’s pouch. A single litter often consists of over a dozen young.
  • Some eastern chipmunks have emerged from winter torpor will be actively feeding and breeding this week.
  • Muskrat love is in the air. Male muskrats actively seek females at this time and are therefore exposed to greater risks of predation and road kill.
  • Watch for elaborate courtship displays by eastern cottontail pairs, including “boxing matches” and high-jumping antics.
  • Most large mammals bred during the fall or winter, so we can expect to see fawns, pups, and kits over the next few to several weeks.
  • White-tailed deer continue to travel in herds. Finding food will continue to be difficult until the growing season begins.

Be sure to find an opportunity to get outside this week to discover signs of spring.

Chuck Rosenburg

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February 19-25, 2019 (Week 8 of 52): Early Signs of Spring are Evident Even as Winter Persists

 

Winter conditions still dominate the Buffalo-Niagara Region. However, even with vernal equinox nearly a month away, early signs of spring are already evident. The best indicators of the advancing spring are provided by birds and mammals. Some great horned owls are already incubating eggs and most others will be on-nest by early March. Other raptors, including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and red-tailed hawks have started to prepare nests and most will lay eggs by mid-March. Barred owls and eastern screech owls are increasingly vocal at this time and will soon start to establish nesting territories.

Flocks of male red-winged blackbirds are just beginning to reach our Region. These northbound migrants are returning to summer breeding areas where they will rapidly establish nesting territories. Their arrival suggests that other early migrant species such as killdeer, American robin, eastern bluebird, eastern meadowlark, common grackle, and brown-headed cowbird will soon follow. In response to longer daylength and its effects on bird hormones, several species of songbirds are now singing occasionally. Thus, the 2019 songbird breeding season has begun (albeit the very early stages). Early singing species include mourning dove, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, Carolina wren, blue jay, American crow, northern cardinal, and house finch. Also included are downy, hairy, red-bellied, and pileated woodpeckers that use song as well as drumming as an advertising display. Typical winter-resident songbirds such as the dark-eyed junco and American tree sparrow will remain in our Region several more weeks but have also started singing, well before migrating north to their nesting grounds.

Early signs of spring are also offered by wild mammals in the Buffalo-Niagara Region. Gray squirrel activity has been heightened recently by the onset of their breeding season. A few eastern chipmunks have emerged from winter dens and are actively feeding and breeding. Coyotes, red fox, and gray fox are noticeably more active as they have begun courtship and mating. The mating seasons for Virginia opossum, raccoon, striped skunk, and mink start in early February and extend into March. Sadly, roadkill is often the best evidence of increased activity by these species.

Below are highlights of what you can expect to find outdoors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region this week. Those in bold/italics are new or substantially revised highlights to watch for this week. Check out the list of 300 publicly accessible sites at https://bnnatureblog.com/nature-sites/site-lists/alphabetical-list/ to find areas to explore in your neighborhood and throughout the Buffalo-Niagara Region.

Average Sunrise/Sunset (Day Length):

  • 7:03 AM/5:55 PM EST (10 Hours, 52 Minutes)
  • 1 Hour, 51 minutes of daylight longer than at Winter Solstice

Typical Weather:

  • Normal High Temperature: 34.7° F  Normal Low Temperature: 20.1° F

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

  • The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo remained at 32°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) remained at 35°F as of February 25, 2019.
  • Lake Erie is now mostly ice-covered while Lake Ontario is mostly ice-free, other than shore ice.
  • Inland ponds, wetlands, and vernal pools are mostly ice-covered.
  • Many streams are now partly or mostly ice-free following the recent warmup.

Fungi:

  • With the onset of winter, most fungal fruiting bodies (e.g., mushrooms, bracket fungi) have been extinguished. The fungal “roots” (mycelium network) will survive the winter and produce new fruiting bodies during the appropriate season next year. Interestingly, fruiting bodies of some species of fungi (e.g., oyster mushrooms) remain viable during the winter and may disseminate spores during warm periods or in early spring.

Ferns and Grasses/Sedges/Rushes:

  • Freezing temperatures during late autumn killed remnant grass, sedge, and rush stems. The roots of these perennial plants will survive and sprout next spring.

Wildflowers:

  • Wildflower stems died back following late fall freezing temperatures. Roots and rhizomes of perennial wildflowers will survive and sprout next spring. Seeds of annual wildflowers will do the same.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • Some American beech trees will hold their dead leaves over most of the winter.
  • A few native shrubs and vines continue to provide fruit (soft mast) that is an important winter food source for a variety of birds and mammals: cranberry viburnum, staghorn sumac, and swamp rose.
  • In addition, one non-native species, multiflora rose, provides fruit consumed by wildlife.

Insects & Other Invertebrates:

  • Freezing temperatures during late autumn killed most adult insects and other invertebrates that have not migrated or entered hibernation. The vast majority of insect species in our Region over-winter as eggs or larvae/nymphs/pupae, although some species over-winter as adults.
  • On warm and sunny days in late winter, watch for “snow fleas” (springtails), especially at the bases of tree trunks in streamside areas. They emerge in large numbers and may appear like a sprinkling of pepper on the surface of snow. They apparently do not feed or mate but instead seem to wander somewhat aimlessly before returning below the surface at night.
  • Also watch for small winter stoneflies, winter craneflies, winter scorpion flies, and winter gnats.

Fish:

  • Burbot (AKA freshwater cod) spawn throughout February and early March in the Great Lakes, forming writhing balls of a dozen or more intertwined fish.
  • During brief warm periods throughout winter, fresh steelhead from Lakes Erie and Ontario migrate into tributary streams (including Niagara River) in preparation for spring spawning. Steelhead are an anadromous form of rainbow trout that spawn in streams but live most of their lives in Lakes Erie and Ontario. All forms of rainbow trout are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
  • Some brown trout that spawned in Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River in autumn remain in those areas through winter. Brown trout were introduced into our Region from Europe.

Amphibians & Reptiles:

  • With the onset of winter weather, essentially all amphibians and reptiles are now hibernating (technically considered brumation).

Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:

  • The annual buildup of “sea ducks” and similar waterbirds that over-winter in the Great Lakes and Niagara River is near its peak with impressive numbers of greater scaup, lesser scaup, canvasback, redhead, common goldeneye, bufflehead, white-winged scoter, surf scoter, black scoter, long-tailed duck, common merganser, and red-breasted merganser.
  • Watch for winter resident tundra swans congregating in open waters along the upper Niagara River (especially off Beaver Island, Buckhorn, and Niagara Falls State Parks).
  • This continues to be a good time to look for purple sandpipers feeding in rocky habitats above Niagara Falls.

Birds of Prey:

  • Bald eagles can still be found along the upper and lower Niagara River where good numbers are over-wintering.
  • Bald eagles typically begin performing aerial courtship displays at about this time. Some of the breeding pairs in our Region will start nesting over the next week or two, and many will be on-nest by mid-March.
  • Some red-tailed hawks are now paired up and have initiated nest building. Many will be incubating eggs by mid-March.
  • Winter resident raptors will continue to occur in the region, especially in areas with extensive open grassland habitat, including northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, snowy owls, short-eared owls, and long-eared owls.
  • Snowy owls are frequently found along Great Lakes shorelines, such as the Buffalo waterfront, where they feed on ducks and other waterbirds.
  • Some great horned owls are already on-nest, incubating eggs, and most others will be nesting by early March. Horned owls do not build their own nests but instead usurp existing red-tailed hawk nests and tree cavities.
  • Barred owls and eastern screech owls will be increasingly vocal this week and over the next several weeks as they establish nesting territories.

Upland Game Birds:

  • Watch for wild turkey flocks in farm fields, along forest edges, and near bird feeders.

Songbirds:

  • Watch bird feeders for the following songbird species that are part of this year’s “winter finch” irruption: purple finch, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill, common redpoll, hoary redpoll, pine siskin, evening grosbeak, and red-breasted nuthatch. Nyjer (AKA thistle) and black oil sunflower are the best seeds for attracting these species.
  • Bird feeders are also excellent locations to watch for arrivals of more typical migrant and over-wintering feeder birds such as dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, and American tree sparrow.   Place seed such as white millet in ground feeders or directly on the ground to attract many of these migrants.
  • Bird feeders will continue to be active with year-round resident birds such as mourning dove, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, blue jay, northern cardinal, house finch, and American goldfinch.
  • Good tips for feeding birds are available from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, online at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/notes/BirdNote01_WinterFeeding.pdf
  • If you don’t have a feeder of your own, consider visiting a local nature center (see the 2nd to last column in the tables of nature viewing sites found under the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page).
  • The northern shrike, a predatory passerine that breeds in Canada and Alaska, will continue to occur in the Region. Watch for them on prominent perches overlooking open and brushy habitats.
  • Small to medium sized flocks of American robins and family groups of eastern bluebirds may be encountered in our Region at this time. Most are birds that over-wintered here since northbound migrant flocks are still mostly to our south at this time.
  • Flocks of male red-winged blackbirds are just starting to reach our Region. Some of these northbound migrants are returning to summer breeding sites in our Region where they will rapidly establish nesting territories.
  • Small flocks of horned larks and Lapland longspurs and large flocks of snow buntings can be found in open farmland and other tundra-like habitats by snow buntings.
  • Several species of songbirds are now singing occasionally, initiating the 2019 songbird breeding season (albeit the very early stages). These species include mourning dove, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, Carolina wren, blue jay, American crow, northern cardinal, dark-eyed junco, and house finch. Also included are downy, hairy, red-bellied, and pileated woodpeckers that use drumming as well as vocalizations.
  • To stay abreast of bird sightings in the region, consult eBird, Genesee Birds, and Dial-a-Bird (see the “Resources” tab on this web page for more details).

Mammals:

  • Resident species of cave bats (big brown, little brown, and eastern pipistrelle [tri-colored] bats), woodchucks, and meadow & woodland jumping mice continue to hibernate. These species are true hibernators.
  • False hibernators such as the raccoon and striped skunk are mostly dormant, other than occasional feeding and breeding forays during relatively warm weather. In contrast, Virginia opossums stay active all winter other than brief denning during particularly cold weather.
  • Most eastern chipmunks remain in a state of torpor. In this condition, which is not a true form of hibernation, chipmunks sleep but arouse frequently to feed on hoarded food. They may forage aboveground during mild weather.
  • Gray squirrels and southern flying squirrels continue to actively forage for cached acorns and other available food, other than during extremely cold periods. Similarly, red squirrels feed from middens of pine and spruce cones.
  • Watch for increased activity by gray squirrels. They mate in February and early March.
  • Watch bird feeders after dark for nocturnal visits by southern flying squirrels.
  • A few eastern chipmunks have emerged from winter torpor and are actively feeding and looking for mates.
  • Some white-footed mice and deer mice spend the winter in nests they built in woodpecker holes, bird houses, and squirrel leaf-nests. Some rehab old bird nests by adding a roof and insulation.
  • Beavers continue to feed on cut branches they cached in shallow water near their lodges during the fall, and muskrats do the same with herbaceous vegetation cached near their lodges.
  • The mating season for beavers is January and February.
  • The mating seasons for Virginia opossum, raccoon, and mink start in early February and extend into March. Sadly, roadkill is often the best evidence of this increased activity.
  • Skunks are noticeably active in mid to late February as their breeding season begins. Watch for tracks of wandering males searching for females. Or just take a sniff outdoors first thing in the morning.
  • Watch for increased activity by coyotes, red fox, and gray fox as they are now courting and mating.
  • Ermine (AKA short-tailed weasel) have molted from brown to white pelage for winter months.
  • Black bears, an uncommon species in the Buffalo-Niagara Region but increasingly common to our south, are in carnivorous lethargy. In this state, which is not a true form of hibernation, a bear’s heart rate is significantly lowered but body temperature falls only about 10°F (substantially smaller drop than for true hibernators).
  • Black bear cubs are typically born in January or early February while sows are in a state of carnivorous lethargy.
  • White-tailed deer continue to travel in herds. Finding food will continue to be difficult until the growing season begins.

Be sure to find an opportunity to get outside this week to discover signs of the season.

Chuck Rosenburg

February 5-11, 2019 (Week 6 of 52): Cold-Blooded Critters Just Chill for Winter

More than 150 cold-blooded vertebrates are native to the Buffalo-Niagara Region including fish, amphibians, and reptiles. These poikilotherms cannot regulate their body temperatures metabolically like mammals and birds. Instead, their temperatures are controlled by the surrounding environment and therefore drop as air and water temperatures drop in autumn. Most respond to the advancing cold by retreating to protected areas, where their body temperatures can stay above freezing, and then going dormant for the winter. Unlike mammals, this state of dormancy is triggered by cold, not hormones. Most herps (amphibians and reptiles) enter dormancy by late October or early November in our Region, while most fish do so a little later in autumn. However, it is noteworthy that some aquatic species stay active in the Great Lakes, Niagara River, tributary streams, ponds, and deep wetlands where water temperatures remain just above freezing for most of the winter.

Winter-active fish include yellow perch, walleye, northern pike, pickerel, bluegill, pumpkinseed, black crappie, lake trout, rainbow trout/steelhead, and brown trout. These fish continue to move and feed, albeit slowly in comparison to summer activity levels. They often stay close to the bottom where water temperatures are slightly warmer than at the surface, where ice may form. These fish feed most actively early and late in winter. Therefore, ice-fishing for them is often best shortly after ice forms and again just before ice-out. A few species, such as lake sturgeon and emerald shiner, migrate in autumn to over-wintering areas. One cold-hardy species, the burbot (an elongated deepwater fish in the cod family) brazenly spawns when water temperatures are just above freezing, typically during February and early March.

Many species of fish move to deeper water and/or retreat to cover objects and then go dormant for winter months. Deeper water areas are slightly warmer than surface water and are less likely to freeze, which would kill dormant fish. Their metabolisms drop significantly, in response to cold water temperatures. Therefore, they consume much less energy and survive winter on stored energy reserves. For example, common carp and brown bullhead settle to the bottom where they remain for winter, sometimes partially buried in mud. Largemouth and smallmouth bass cease feeding and lie dormant close to cover objects such as rocks and logs.

Active and dormant fish are at risk of “fish kill” when there is prolonged and deep snow on top of ice covering shallow lakes and ponds. Under those conditions, sunlight penetration into the water is inhibited, preventing photosynthesis (which produces oxygen) by aquatic plants and algae. Dissolved oxygen levels, essential for animal life, drop and fish will succumb over time. Such anoxic conditions are exacerbated in eutrophic waterbodies where there is a heavy load of decaying organic matter, which consumes dissolved oxygen.

Like winter-active fish, some aquatic and semi-aquatic amphibians remain active in near-freezing water during winter months, often under ice. Mudpuppies are permanently aquatic salamanders found in the Great Lakes, Niagara River, and tributary streams. They are active and feed all winter, and are occasionally caught when ice fishing. Red-spotted newts, the aquatic stage of red efts, remain somewhat active during winter months in ponds and deep wetlands. Some northern two-lined and northern spring salamanders do the same in streams and associated springs.

In contrast to aquatic amphibians, aquatic turtles and frogs spend most of the winter in a state of dormancy. This form of “hibernation” is called brumation for amphibians and reptiles. Their metabolisms slow significantly as water temperatures drop. For example, the heart rate of painted turtles drops to one beat every ten minutes. Oxygen exchange is limited to a small level that occurs through skin. Snapping turtles and midland painted turtles settle into mud at the bottoms of ponds, lakes, and other waterbodies and remain dormant for the winter. Map turtles and spiny softshell turtles, two species found in the Great Lakes and its tributaries, may migrate relatively short distances before going dormant in select over-wintering sites. Wood turtles and northern water snakes retreat to protected areas within or bordering streams and wetlands, including stream banks, pond banks, and muskrat mounds. Dusky salamanders escape to deep pools in streams where they lay dormant under rocks. Bull frogs, green frogs, northern leopard retreat to bottoms of ponds, deep wetlands, and other waterbodies where they remain dormant for winter.

Terrestrial herps need to either dig a burrow or find an existing animal den (e.g., chipmunk burrow) or other hideaway below the frost line where temperatures stay above freezing. Most salamanders and American toads dig their own burrows which may be 18 inches below the surface. Since snakes have no appendages for burrowing, they utilize existing animal burrows, crevices, rock piles, and similar earthen cavities. For example, eastern garter snakes and red-bellied snakes retreat to rodent burrows, ant hills, and rock piles. They often over-winter in large congregations which suggests that these essential hibernacula are scarce. Eastern milk snakes often retreat to rock piles and the foundations of older structures, and therefore may be found in basements and barns during winter months.

Remarkably, several species of frogs do not retreat below the frostline but instead burrow just a shallow depth under dry leaf litter where they freeze solid, with little ill effect. Some people like to refer to frogs in this frozen state as “frogsicles.” Four relatively common species in our Region over-winter in this way: spring peeper, western chorus frog, gray treefrog, and wood frog. Three of these four species (all except gray treefrog) respond quickly to warming temperatures in spring by thawing and then traveling to breeding pools where males “sing” to attract females. Spring peepers, a small species that thaws quickly, may occasionally be heard singing during winter warmups. These four frog species survive subfreezing temperatures by utilizing high concentrations of glucose-based compounds that serve as an anti-freeze in their blood and tissues. They also utilize protein “seed crystals” that facilitate ice formation in extracellular spaces rather than in tissues where it would inflict deadly damage. They survive the winter in “suspended animation” with no evident heartbeat, breathing, or other signs of life. Regardless, they fully regain bodily functions once they thaw in spring. Hatchling painted turtles exhibit similar adaptations and can also survive freezing. Those that hatch but do not emerge during autumn can safely over-winter and emerge in early spring.

Below are highlights of what you can expect to find outdoors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region this week. Those in bold/italics are new or substantially revised highlights to watch for this week. Check out the list of 300 publicly accessible sites at https://bnnatureblog.com/nature-sites/site-lists/alphabetical-list/ to find areas to explore in your neighborhood and throughout the Buffalo-Niagara Region.

Average Sunrise/Sunset (Day Length):

  • 7:23 AM/5:37 PM EST (10 Hours, 14 Minutes)
  • 1 Hour, 13 minutes of daylight longer than at Winter Solstice

Typical Weather:

  • Normal High Temperature: 32.0° F; Normal Low Temperature: 18.3° F

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

  • The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo remained at 32°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) cooled to 35°F as of February 7, 2019.
  • Lake Erie is now mostly ice-covered while Lake Ontario is mostly ice-free, other than shore ice.
  • Water levels in most interior wetlands and vernal pools are near seasonal highs after a long period of normal or better precipitation and greatly reduced evapotranspiration rates.
  • Similarly, water levels in most ponds are close to seasonal highs.
  • Inland ponds, wetlands, and vernal pools are mostly ice-covered.
  • Many streams are now partly or mostly ice-free following the recent warmup.

Fungi:

  • With the onset of winter, most fungal fruiting bodies (e.g., mushrooms, bracket fungi) have been extinguished. The fungal “roots” (mycelium network) will survive the winter and produce new fruiting bodies during the appropriate season next year. Interestingly, fruiting bodies of some species of fungi (e.g., oyster mushrooms) remain viable during the winter and may disseminate spores during warm periods or in early spring.

Ferns and Grasses/Sedges/Rushes:

  • Freezing temperatures during late autumn killed remnant grass, sedge, and rush stems. The roots of these perennial plants will survive and sprout next spring.

Wildflowers:

  • Wildflower stems died back following late fall freezing temperatures. Roots and rhizomes of perennial wildflowers will survive and sprout next spring. Seeds of annual wildflowers will do the same.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • Some American beech trees will hold their dead leaves over most of the winter.
  • A few native shrubs and vines continue to provide fruit (soft mast) that is an important winter food source for a variety of birds and mammals: cranberry viburnum, staghorn sumac, and swamp rose.
  • In addition, one non-native species, multiflora rose, provides fruit consumed by wildlife.

Insects & Other Invertebrates:

  • Freezing temperatures during late autumn killed most adult insects and other invertebrates that have not migrated or entered hibernation. The vast majority of insect species in our Region over-winter as eggs or larvae/nymphs, although some species over-winter as adults.
  • On warm and sunny days in late winter, watch for “snow fleas” (springtails), especially at the bases of tree trunks in streamside areas. They emerge in large numbers and may appear like a sprinkling of pepper on the surface of snow. They apparently do not feed or mate but instead seem to wander somewhat aimlessly before returning below the surface at night.
  • Also watch for small winter stoneflies, winter craneflies, winter scorpion flies, and winter gnats.

Fish:

  • Burbot (AKA freshwater cod) spawn throughout February and early March in the Great Lakes, forming writhing balls of a dozen or more intertwined fish.
  • During brief warm periods throughout winter, fresh steelhead from Lakes Erie and Ontario migrate into tributary streams (including Niagara River) in preparation for spring spawning. Steelhead are an anadromous form of rainbow trout that spawn in streams but live most of their lives in Lakes Erie and Ontario. All forms of rainbow trout are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
  • Some brown trout that spawned in Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River in autumn remain in those areas through winter. Brown trout were introduced into our Region from Europe.

Amphibians & Reptiles:

  • With the onset of winter weather, essentially all amphibians and reptiles are now hibernating (technically considered brumation).

Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:

  • The annual buildup of “sea ducks” and similar waterbirds that over-winter in the Great Lakes and Niagara River is near its peak with impressive numbers of greater scaup, lesser scaup, canvasback, redhead, common goldeneye, bufflehead, white-winged scoter, surf scoter, black scoter, long-tailed duck, common merganser, and red-breasted merganser.
  • Watch for winter resident tundra swans congregating in open waters along the upper Niagara River (especially off Beaver Island, Buckhorn, and Niagara Falls State Parks).
  • This continues to be a good time to look for purple sandpipers feeding in rocky habitats above Niagara Falls.
  • This continues to be an excellent time to watch for rare species of gulls such as Franklin’s, little, black-headed, California, Iceland, Thayer’s, lesser black-backed, Glaucous, Sabine’s, and black-legged kittiwake among more common species such as Bonaparte’s and greater black-backed gulls. Such rarities add to the remarkable diversity of gull species – 19 species total – that have been observed along the Niagara River and bordering Great Lakes. The peak time is typically between mid-November and mid-January.

Birds of Prey:

  • Bald eagles can be found along the upper and lower Niagara River where good numbers are over-wintering.
  • Winter resident raptors will continue to occur in the region, especially in areas with extensive open grassland habitat, including northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, snowy owls, short-eared owls, and long-eared owls.
  • Snowy owls are frequently found along Great Lakes shorelines, such as the Buffalo waterfront, where they feed on ducks and other waterbirds.
  • Great horned owls have started to pair-up, form pair bonds, and establish nesting territories. Listen for their vocalizations, especially near sunset and sunrise, including duets consisting of a female and male singing nearly in unison (with male calls noticeably lower in pitch than those of the female).

Upland Game Birds:

  • Watch for wild turkey flocks in farm fields, along forest edges, and near bird feeders.

Songbirds:

  • Watch bird feeders for the following songbird species that are part of this year’s “winter finch” irruption: purple finch, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill, common redpoll, hoary redpoll, pine siskin, evening grosbeak, and red-breasted nuthatch. Nyjer (AKA thistle) and black oil sunflower are the best seeds for attracting these species.
  • Bird feeders are also excellent locations to watch for arrivals of more typical migrant and over-wintering feeder birds such as dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, and American tree sparrow.   Place seed such as white millet in ground feeders or directly on the ground to attract many of these migrants.
  • Bird feeders will continue to be active with year-round resident birds such as mourning dove, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, blue jay, northern cardinal, house finch, and American goldfinch.
  • Good tips for feeding birds are available from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, online at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/notes/BirdNote01_WinterFeeding.pdf
  • If you don’t have a feeder of your own, consider visiting a local nature center (see the 2nd to last column in the tables of nature viewing sites found under the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page).
  • The northern shrike, a predatory passerine that breeds in Canada and Alaska, will continue to occur in the Region. Watch for them on prominent perches overlooking open and brushy habitats.
  • While most American robins have migrated south, small to medium sized flocks may still be encountered.
  • Small flocks of horned larks and Lapland longspurs and large flocks of snow buntings can be found in open farmland and other tundra-like habitats by snow buntings.
  • To stay abreast of bird sightings in the region, consult eBird, Genesee Birds, and Dial-a-Bird (see the “Resources” tab on this web page for more details).

Mammals:

  • Resident species of cave bats (big brown, little brown, and eastern pipistrelle [tri-colored] bats), woodchucks, and meadow & woodland jumping mice continue to hibernate. These species are true hibernators.
  • False hibernators such as the raccoon and striped skunk are mostly dormant, other than occasional feeding forays during relatively warm weather. In contrast, Virginia opossums stay active all winter other than brief denning during particularly cold weather.
  • Most eastern chipmunks are in a state of torpor. In this condition, which is not a true form of hibernation, chipmunks sleep but arouse frequently to feed on hoarded food. They may forage aboveground during mild weather.
  • Gray squirrels and southern flying squirrels continue to actively forage for cached acorns and other available food, other than during extremely cold periods. Similarly, red squirrels feed from middens of pine and spruce cones.
  • Watch for increased activity by gray squirrels. They mate in February and early March.
  • Watch bird feeders after dark for nocturnal visits by southern flying squirrels.
  • Some white-footed mice and deer mice spend the winter in nests they built in woodpecker holes, bird houses, and squirrel leaf-nests. Some rehab old bird nests by adding a roof and insulation.
  • Beavers continue to feed on cut branches they cached in shallow water near their lodges during the fall, and muskrats do the same with herbaceous vegetation cached near their lodges.
  • The mating season for beavers is January and February.
  • Watch for increased activity by coyotes, red fox, and gray fox as they are beginning courtship and mating.
  • Raccoon courtship and mating typically starts in early February and extends into March.
  • Ermine (AKA short-tailed weasel) have molted from brown to white pelage for winter months.
  • The mating season for mink is February and early March.
  • Black bears, an uncommon species in the Buffalo-Niagara Region but increasingly common to our south, are in carnivorous lethargy. In this state, which is not a true form of hibernation, a bear’s heart rate is significantly lowered but body temperature falls only about 10°F (substantially smaller drop than for true hibernators).
  • Black bear cubs are typically born in January or early February while sows are in a state of carnivorous lethargy. 
  • White-tailed deer continue to travel in herds. Finding food will continue to be difficult until the growing season begins.
  • White-tailed deer bucks typically shed antlers between mid December and mid February in the Buffalo-Niagara Region.

Be sure to find an opportunity to get outside this week to discover signs of the season.

Chuck Rosenburg

January 22-28, 2019 (Week 4 of 52): Most of Our Summer Birds Survive Winter Through Mass Migration

The vast majority of our summer birds survive winter by escaping the Buffalo-Niagara Region, migrating to warmer climes well to the south. The longest distance migrants fly 1,500 – 3,000 miles or more to spend winters in the West Indies, Mexico, Central America, and/or South America. These birds are often referred to as neotropical migrants. Shorter distance migrants travel more modest distances of 300 – 1,500 miles to over-winter in the southeastern United States. Migration demands a large investment of energy and poses substantial risks to migrants such as predation, competition with other animals that already occupy wintering areas, exhaustion and death from drowning while crossing large waterbodies, and collisions with buildings and other objects. Regardless, migration has evolved to be the most common strategy for winter survival of birds that nest in the Buffalo-Niagara Region.

Adult and young-of-the-year neotropical migrant songbirds typically depart the Buffalo-Niagara Region in late August and September, in anticipation of the upcoming scarcity of insect prey. This group of birds includes hummingbirds, flycatchers, vireos, thrushes, about 20 species of warblers, and several miscellaneous other species. Most reach their wintering destinations by late September and October, clad in relatively drab plumage (compared to their colorful breeding plumage). Ruby-throated hummingbirds, the smallest bird in our Region, trek as far south as Costa Rica and Panama often including a flight across the Gulf of Mexico of 600 miles or more. Wood thrushes also over-winter in that area, but the veery (another species of thrush) migrates considerably further south – to Brazil and beyond. One of the relatively common warblers that nests in our region, the American redstart, is currently residing in the West Indies and from southern Mexico south to Ecuador and Guyana. The Blackburnian warbler travels even further south, with some reaching Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru. Our beloved Baltimore orioles over-winter primarily from southern Mexico to Colombia. Many scarlet tanagers travel well into South America, as far south as Peru and Bolivia. Still, bobolinks take the prize for furthest songbird migration with some traveling 4,000 miles to winter as far south as Paraguay and Argentina. It is noteworthy that neotropical migrant birds spend more months in their wintering areas than in their breeding areas (such as our Region), so it is irrational to claim them as “our” birds.

Shorter-distance migrants, most of which are destined for southeastern United States, typically linger in our Region well into fall. This group includes many of the ducks and rails that nest in our area, as well as some shorebirds and hawks. While many of our nesting songbirds are neotropical migrants, a handful of species winter within the continental United States, including northern flicker, eastern phoebe, tree swallow, eastern bluebird, American robin, eastern towhee, song sparrow, and red-winged blackbird.   Most of the above-listed species are currently spending winter months in areas from Arkansas to Virginia and south to the Gulf of Mexico.

While most of our summer birds migrate south for winter, a fair number remain in the Region as year-round residents, migrating little if any. Examples include wild turkey, red-tailed hawk (although some individuals migrate), mourning dove, eastern screech owl, downy woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, and northern cardinal. These year-round residents are joined by winter visitants that include several species of ducks, tundra swans, over a dozen species of gulls, several winter raptor species, northern shrikes, horned larks, snow buntings, red-breasted nuthatches, American tree sparrows, and dark-eyed juncos. In some years, large numbers of “winter finches” and other irruptive species (e.g., pine siskins, common redpolls, evening grosbeaks, white-winged and red crossbills) join the mix.

These over-wintering birds exhibit a variety of adaptations that help them survive food scarcity and cold temperatures during western New York winters. They must produce enough metabolic heat from food or fat reserves to offset heat and energy lost to their cold surroundings. That is particularly challenging for small-bodied songbirds that are especially prone to heat loss. Fortunately, feathers provide these and other birds with an excellent layer of insulation. Species that over-winter in northern latitudes, such as the black-capped chickadee and American tree sparrow, may add up to 50 percent more feather mass during their fall molt. Birds also fluff out their feathers when cold, which bolsters their insulating value by trapping air in tiny pockets near the skin. The legs of snowy owls and rough-legged hawks are feathered all the way down to their talons to provide extra insulation. Some wintering birds will draw up one leg beneath their feathers when perched to reduce exposure. In addition, some species add considerable body fat before winter sets in by feeding heavily when food is abundant during fall. That extra layer of fat affords additional insulation and provides essential energy reserves to help maintain body temperature.

On the surface, one might think that ducks and other waterbirds which spend much of the winter exposed to near-freezing water temperatures would be at severe risk of frostbite to their exposed legs and feet, and of losing excessive amounts of body heat to the cold water. Fortunately, these birds suffer no ill effect as they are well adapted to those harsh conditions. The exposed parts of their legs, from the knees down, consist mostly of resilient bones and tendons protected by thick scales. Furthermore, these birds have an outstanding physiologic adaptation that helps to minimize heat loss through legs and feet. They utilize countercurrent blood flow associated with dense networks of veins that are in close contact with arteries going out to the legs. Warm blood going out to the legs heats cold blood coming in from the legs and returning to the animal’s core. Cold blood coming in from the legs cools warm blood going out to the legs. In this way, legs and feet are constantly cold but warm enough to keep tissues alive. Moreover, less body heat is lost by reducing the temperature gradient between blood in the veins and cold water temperatures.

One the most remarkable winter bird survival adaptations is the ability of black-capped chickadees and a few other species to lower their body temperatures at night by up to 20° F in a controlled state of torpor, sometimes called regulated hypothermia. In that state, they become temporarily unconscious but recoup a considerable energy savings. At dawn, chickadees raise their body temperature back to normal and regain consciousness so that they can feed. Other songbird species, such as the American goldfinch, shiver constantly as they sleep to generate body warmth. While effective at generating body heat, that approach uses considerably more precious energy.

The most common adaptations exhibited by over-wintering birds are behavioral changes focused on improving feeding efficiently and conserving energy. Some of these behavioral adjustments start in autumn, with most birds feeding actively during that period of abundant food resources to build up fat reserves. In addition, some species cache food for consumption during lean winter months. For example, white-breasted nuthatches, red-headed woodpeckers, and blue jays cache seeds and other foods in crevices and under loose bark. Great horned owls cache unfinished prey for later consumption. Once cold weather sets in, the most important thing for a bird to do is to consume enough food during the day to maintain fat reserves. As soon as dawn breaks, birds begin searching for energy-rich foods such as fruits and seeds. Some birds flock together to optimize their search efforts for food. Large flocks of wild turkeys forage for seeds and fruits in agricultural fields and other areas. Mourning doves and dark-eyed juncos often travel in small to medium sized flocks. Mixed species flocks of chickadees, nuthatches, tufted titmice, and woodpeckers search for insect prey, in egg or pupa stage. Large flocks of snow buntings, sometimes consisting of 100 or more birds, can be seen foraging within open fields. Winter waterfowl, such as common mergansers and common goldeneye, feed on fish, mollusks, crustaceans, and aquatic plants in open water areas such as the Niagara River. Bald eagles hunt fish in those same open water areas.

To conserve energy, over-wintering birds seek sheltered areas for use as night-time roosts, such as conifers and other evergreens (lone trees and groves), tree cavities, bird houses, and dense thickets. Such areas provide greater thermal shelter from wind-chill and are often located close to feeding areas, further helping these birds conserve critical energy reserves. Woodpeckers excavate cavities in late autumn that serve as winter roost sites. Some songbirds (e.g., eastern bluebirds, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice) roost together in tree cavities, woodpecker holes, and bird houses to capitalize on shared body heat. During frigid weather, ruffed grouse and snow buntings are known to fly into snow drifts to take advantage of the insulative values of snow. On sunny winter days, birds will often perch in exposed areas to capitalize on solar warming.

One way that people can help over-wintering birds survive the challenges of food scarcity and cold temperatures during Buffalo-Niagara winters is to establish bird feeding stations. Bird feeders, when properly maintained, can help individual birds survive and can raise the songbird carrying capacity (i.e., the number of individuals that can be supported) in the immediate area around the feeding station. It is best to provide a good variety of seed types, as well as energy-rich suet and water (ideally using a heated bird bath). Black oil sunflower and nyjer (AKA thistle) are the best seeds for attracting winter finches, evening grosbeaks, and red-breasted nuthatches. Consider placing white millet or other small seeds on the ground to attract ground-feeding birds such as dark-eyed juncos, American tree sparrows, and mourning doves. In addition to helping birds survive, bird feeding is a great way to attract a diversity and abundance of songbirds for close observation and enjoyment (including species in your neighborhood that you might otherwise not see).  It helps to bring them out of the woodwork, so to speak, especially during cold and snowy weather. If a feeding station is not a good option for you, visit a local nature center (see the 2nd to last column in the tables of nature viewing sites found under the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page).

Below are highlights of what you can expect to find outdoors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region this week. Those in bold/italics are new or substantially revised highlights to watch for this week. Check out the list of 300 publicly accessible sites at https://bnnatureblog.com/nature-sites/site-lists/alphabetical-list/ to find areas to explore in your neighborhood and throughout the Buffalo-Niagara Region.

Average Sunrise/Sunset (Day Length):

  • 7:37 AM/5:18 PM EST (9 Hours, 41 Minutes)
  • 0 Hours, 40 minutes of daylight longer than at Winter Solstice

Typical Weather:

  • Normal High Temperature: 30.9° F  Normal Low Temperature: 17.9° F
  • On average, the lowest normal temperature of the year occurs during this week.

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

  • The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo cooled to 32°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) cooled to 36°F as of January 25, 2019.
  • Water levels in most interior wetlands and vernal pools are near seasonal highs after a long period of normal or better precipitation and greatly reduced evapotranspiration rates.
  • Similarly, water levels in most ponds are close to seasonal highs.
  • Inland ponds, wetlands, and vernal pools are mostly ice-covered.
  • Streams are mostly ice and snow-covered.

Fungi:

  • With the onset of winter, most fungal fruiting bodies (e.g., mushrooms, bracket fungi) have been extinguished. The fungal “roots” (mycelium network) will survive the winter and produce new fruiting bodies during the appropriate season next year. Interestingly, fruiting bodies of some species of fungi (e.g., oyster mushrooms) remain viable during the winter and may disseminate spores during warm periods or in early spring.

Ferns and Grasses/Sedges/Rushes:

  • Freezing temperatures during late autumn killed remnant grass, sedge, and rush stems. The roots of these perennial plants will survive and sprout next spring.

Wildflowers:

  • Wildflower stems died back following late fall freezing temperatures. Roots and rhizomes of perennial wildflowers will survive and sprout next spring. Seeds of annual wildflowers will do the same.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • Some American beech trees will hold their dead leaves over most of the winter.
  • A few native shrubs and vines continue to provide fruit (soft mast) that is an important winter food source for a variety of birds and mammals: cranberry viburnum, staghorn sumac, and swamp rose.
  • In addition, one non-native species, multiflora rose, provides fruit consumed by wildlife.

Insects & Other Invertebrates:

  • Freezing temperatures during late autumn killed most adult insects and other invertebrates that have not migrated or entered hibernation. The vast majority of insect species in our Region over-winter as eggs or larvae/nymphs, although some species over-winter as adults.

Fish:

  • Steelhead continue to occur in Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River at this time. Spawning does not occur until late winter and early spring. Steelhead are an anadromous form of rainbow trout that spawn in streams but live most of their lives in Lakes Erie and Ontario. All forms of rainbow trout are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
  • Brown trout continue to occur in Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River. Spawning typically occurs from late October to December in these tributaries. Brown trout were introduced from Europe.

Amphibians & Reptiles:

  • With the onset of winter weather, essentially all amphibians and reptiles are now hibernating.

Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:

  • The annual buildup of “sea ducks” and similar waterbirds that over-winter in the Great Lakes and Niagara River is near its peak with impressive numbers of greater scaup, lesser scaup, canvasback, redhead, common goldeneye, bufflehead, white-winged scoter, surf scoter, black scoter, long-tailed duck, common merganser, and red-breasted merganser.
  • Watch for winter resident tundra swans congregating in open waters along the upper Niagara River (especially off Beaver Island, Buckhorn, and Niagara Falls State Parks).
  • This continues to be a good time to look for purple sandpipers feeding in rocky habitats above Niagara Falls.
  • This continues to be an excellent time to watch for rare species of gulls such as Franklin’s, little, black-headed, California, Iceland, Thayer’s, lesser black-backed, Glaucous, Sabine’s, and black-legged kittiwake among more common species such as Bonaparte’s and greater black-backed gulls. Such rarities add to the remarkable diversity of gull species – 19 species total – that have been observed along the Niagara River and bordering Great Lakes. The peak time is typically between mid-November and mid-January.

Birds of Prey:

  • Bald eagles can be found along the upper and lower Niagara River where good numbers are over-wintering.
  • Winter resident raptors will continue to occur in the region, especially in areas with extensive open grassland habitat, including northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, snowy owls, short-eared owls, and long-eared owls.
  • Snowy owls are frequently found along Great Lakes shorelines, such as the Buffalo waterfront, where they feed on ducks and other waterbirds.
  • Great horned owls have started to pair-up, form pair bonds, and establish nesting territories. Listen for their vocalizations, especially near sunset and sunrise, including duets consisting of a female and male singing nearly in unison (with male calls noticeably lower in pitch than those of the female).

Upland Game Birds:

  • Watch for wild turkey flocks in farm fields, along forest edges, and near bird feeders.

Songbirds:

  • Watch bird feeders for the following songbird species that are part of this year’s “winter finch” irruption: purple finch, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill, common redpoll, hoary redpoll, pine siskin, evening grosbeak, and red-breasted nuthatch. Nyjer (AKA thistle) and black oil sunflower are the best seeds for attracting these species.
  • Bird feeders are also excellent locations to watch for arrivals of more typical migrant and over-wintering feeder birds such as dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, and American tree sparrow.   Place seed such as white millet in ground feeders or directly on the ground to attract many of these migrants.
  • Bird feeders will continue to be active with year-round resident birds such as mourning dove, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, blue jay, northern cardinal, house finch, and American goldfinch.
  • Good tips for feeding birds are available from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, online at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/notes/BirdNote01_WinterFeeding.pdf
  • If you don’t have a feeder of your own, consider visiting a local nature center (see the 2nd to last column in the tables of nature viewing sites found under the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page).
  • The northern shrike, a predatory passerine that breeds in Canada and Alaska, will continue to occur in the Region. Watch for them on prominent perches overlooking open and brushy habitats.
  • While most American robins have migrated south, small to medium sized flocks may still be encountered.
  • Small flocks of horned larks and Lapland longspurs and large flocks of snow buntings can be found in open farmland and other tundra-like habitats by snow buntings.
  • To stay abreast of bird sightings in the region, consult eBird, Genesee Birds, and Dial-a-Bird (see the “Resources” tab on this web page for more details).

Mammals:

  • Resident species of cave bats (big brown, little brown, and eastern pipistrelle [tri-colored] bats), woodchucks, and meadow & woodland jumping mice continue to hibernate. These species are true hibernators.
  • False hibernators such as the raccoon and striped skunk are mostly dormant, other than occasional feeding forays during relatively warm weather. In contrast, Virginia opossums stay active all winter other than brief denning during particularly cold weather.
  • Most eastern chipmunks are in a state of torpor. In this condition, which is not a true form of hibernation, chipmunks sleep but arouse frequently to feed on hoarded food. They may forage aboveground during mild weather.
  • Gray squirrels and southern flying squirrels continue to actively forage for cached acorns and other available food, other than during extremely cold periods. Similarly, red squirrels feed from middens of pine and spruce cones.
  • Watch bird feeders after dark for nocturnal visits by southern flying squirrels.
  • Some white-footed mice and deer mice spend the winter in nests they built in woodpecker holes, bird houses, and squirrel leaf-nests. Some rehab old bird nests by adding a roof and insulation.
  • Beavers continue to feed on cut branches they cached in shallow water near their lodges during the fall, and muskrats do the same with herbaceous vegetation cached near their lodges.
  • Ermine (AKA short-tailed weasel) have molted from brown to white pelage for winter months.
  • Black bears, an uncommon species in the Buffalo-Niagara Region but increasingly common to our south, are in carnivorous lethargy. In this state, which is not a true form of hibernation, a bear’s heart rate is significantly lowered but body temperature falls only about 10°F (substantially smaller drop than for true hibernators).
  • White-tailed deer bucks typically shed antlers between mid December and mid February in the Buffalo-Niagara Region.

Be sure to find an opportunity to get outside this week to discover signs of the season.

Chuck Rosenburg

January 8-14, 2019 (Week 2 of 52): The Marvels of Mammal Survival Through Winter

Wild mammal species found in the Buffalo-Niagara Region exhibit amazing adaptations that help them survive food scarcity and cold winter temperatures. The most remarkable adaptation is hibernation; true hibernation to be precise. Several species of mammals in our Region are true hibernators: five species of cave bats (big brown, little brown, northern long-eared, small-footed, and eastern pipistrelle [tri-colored]), woodchuck, meadow jumping mouse, and woodland jumping mouse. These true hibernators undergo incredible biological changes, triggered by a hormone-like protein, that bring them into a death-like state which allows them to conserve enough energy to survive the winter without eating or drinking. Their body temperatures fall to that of the surrounding environment (typically below 40° F) and their metabolic rates drop drastically. The heart rate of a hibernating mammal drops to just a few beats per minute and breathing rate reduces to as few as one breath every few minutes. These animals survive on body fat accumulated during heavy feeding in late summer and fall. Most hibernator species have relatively large amounts of brown fat, another marvelous over-wintering adaption. Brown fat is capable of greater heat production than white fat because it is packed with mitochondria which burn energy and produce heat. It surrounds vital organs and can provide heat on demand, by hormonal release. Finally, these mammals retreat for hibernation to relatively warm, protected areas (e.g., caves for bats, underground burrows for woodchucks) that further aid in conserving critical energy reserves.

Another group of mammals that retires to burrows and dens to endure the winter months are sometimes referred to as false hibernators. This group of winter dormant mammals includes raccoon, striped skunk, and black bear. These animals feed heavily in fall to build up body fat, then retire to burrows, tree cavities, and other protected areas to “sleep” for most of the winter. Raccoons and skunks may emerge occasionally during relatively warm periods to feed. False hibernators do not experience the radical biological changes experienced by true hibernators. Their body temperatures fall relatively little and metabolic rates drop less significantly than true hibernators. The most dramatic changes are displayed by black bears, which enter a state called carnivorous lethargy that is relatively similar to true hibernation. Their heart rates are significantly lowered but body temperatures fall only about 10°F (substantially smaller drop than for true hibernators). It is noteworthy that black bears utilize brown fat, like most true hibernators. Also, black bear cubs are born between mid-January and early February while sows are in this lethargic state.

Eastern chipmunks have a slightly different approach to winter dormancy than the above-listed species. They hoard food in their dens (versus building up large fat reserves) and then awaken from torpor frequently to feed. They may also forage aboveground during relatively mild weather.

All three species of tree bats found in our Region during summer months (eastern red, silver-haired, and hoary bats) migrate south for the winter, typically departing in late September and October as insect prey becomes scarce. These bats over-winter primarily in the southeastern United States. Many of these bats breed in their wintering area and return to our Region to give birth and raise young. Those in the northern part of their wintering range may hibernate for a portion of the winter. It is worth noting that many of our Region’s cave bats migrate relatively short distances from their summer ranges before they enter hibernation.

A large percentage of our Region’s mammals do not migrate, hibernate, or otherwise go dormant during winter months. They stay active all winter, focused on surviving long cold periods with limited food supplies by continuing to feed and conserving as much energy as possible. Behavioral changes and physical adaptations help them survive. Some of the behavioral adjustments start in autumn, with most mammals feeding actively to build up fat reserves under the skin and elsewhere (e.g., in the tails of beavers). In addition, some species cache food for consumption during lean winter months. For example, eastern gray squirrels and southern flying squirrels gather and stash or store acorns and other hard mast for winter feeding. Similarly, red squirrels form middens of pine and spruce cones. White-footed and deer mice stockpile small fruits and seeds in nests and nearby “pantries.” Beavers cut, transport, and cache branches in shallow water near their lodges for wintertime feeding. Muskrats have a similar practice of caching herbaceous vegetation near their lodges. Mink occasionally hoard fish and other prey for later consumption.

The most common behavioral changes of winter-active mammals focus on conserving energy. For example, white-footed mice and deer mice construct insulated nests in woodpecker holes, bird houses, squirrel leaf-nests, and old bird nests (rehabbed by adding a roof and insulation). Some small mammals, such as meadow voles and short-tailed shrews, adopt a subnivean (defined simply as “underneath snow”) lifestyle. There they are sheltered from extreme cold air temperatures because snow serves as an effective insulator, especially when it is relatively dry and fluffy. Virginia opossums, which stay active all winter, remain sheltered in burrows and other protected areas when conditions are especially cold. Many other winter-active mammals also den-up during particularly cold periods, including several species that do so in small groups to capitalize on shared body heat. Examples of these “huddlers” include striped skunks, eastern gray squirrels, red squirrels, beavers, muskrats, white-footed mice, and meadow voles.

White-tailed deer congregate in protected areas called “deer yards,” sometimes in large numbers, especially when snow cover is deep. Such areas are densely vegetated (often dominated by pines and other conifers) and therefore provide greater thermal shelter from wind-chill and accumulate shallower depths of snow. These yards are often located close to feeding areas which further helps deer conserve critical energy reserves during harsh winter periods.

Once cold weather sets in, winter-active mammals must produce enough metabolic heat from food or fat reserves to offset heat and energy lost to their cold surroundings. That is particularly challenging for shrews and other small-bodied mammals that are especially prone to heat loss. Shrews are remarkable in that they utilize brown fat, like most true hibernators and black bears, with its heat production benefits.

The most common physical adaptation found in winter-active mammals is a heavy coat of fur. For example, coyotes and red and gray foxes shed their thin summer coats and replace them with thick winter coats consisting of a dense wooly underfur overtopped by long coarse guard hairs. The winter coat of white-tailed deer is similar except that their guard hairs are hollow and therefore are particularly effective at insulating. Beavers step it up another notch with their extremely dense underfur plus their meticulous preening and oiling of the underfur to keep it waterproof. These specially designed coats of fur, combined with thick layers of fat built up during fall feeding, provide effective insulation that helps winter-active mammals minimize losses of body heat.

Another interesting physical adaptation is countercurrent blood flow in the tails of beavers, muskrats, and river otters which allows these animals to avoid losing excessive amounts of body heat and to keep tails from freezing. A dense network of veins occurs in close contact with arteries where warm blood going out to the tail meets cold blood coming in from the tail. The warm blood heats cold blood returning to the animal’s core, and the cold blood cools warm blood going out to the tail. In this way, the tail is constantly cold but warm enough to keep tissues alive. Moreover, less body heat is lost by reducing the temperature gradient between blood in the veins and cold water temperatures.

The next time you see a gray squirrel, red fox, beaver, or white-tailed deer, consider the remarkable adaptations that allow them to survive the typical food scarcity and cold temperatures associated with Western New York winters.

Below are highlights of what you can expect to find outdoors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region this week. Those in bold/italics are new or substantially revised highlights to watch for this week. Check out the list of 300 publicly accessible sites at https://bnnatureblog.com/nature-sites/site-lists/alphabetical-list/ to find areas to explore in your neighborhood and throughout the Buffalo-Niagara Region.

Average Sunrise/Sunset (Day Length):

  • 7:45 AM/5:01 PM EST (9 Hours, 16 Minutes)
  • 0 Hours, 15 minutes of daylight longer than at Winter Solstice

Typical Weather:

  • Normal High Temperature: 31.2° F  Normal Low Temperature: 18.7° F

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

  • The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo cooled to 37°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) cooled to 38°F as of January 11, 2019.
  • Water levels in most interior wetlands and vernal pools are near seasonal highs after a long period of normal or better precipitation and greatly reduced evapotranspiration rates.
  • Similarly, water levels in most ponds are close to seasonal highs.

Fungi:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks extinguished most fungal fruiting bodies. The fungal “roots” (mycelium network) will survive the winter and produce new fruiting bodies during the appropriate season next year. Interestingly, fruiting bodies of some species of fungi (e.g., oyster mushrooms) remain viable during the winter and may disseminate spores during warm periods or in early spring.

Ferns and Grasses/Sedges/Rushes:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks killed remnant grass, sedge, and rush stems (thus known as a killing frost). The roots of these perennial plants will survive and sprout next spring.

Wildflowers:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks killed remnant wildflower stems (thus known as a killing frost). Roots and rhizomes of perennial wildflowers will survive and sprout next spring. Seeds of annual wildflowers will do the same.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • Many American beech leaves remain clinging to limbs but have now changed to brown. Some beech trees will hold their leaves the rest of the winter.
  • Several native shrubs and vines continue to provide fruit (soft mast) that is an important winter food source for a variety of birds and mammals: winterberry, cranberry viburnum, staghorn sumac, and swamp rose.
  • In addition, one non-native species, multiflora rose, provides fruit consumed by wildlife.

Insects & Other Invertebrates:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks killed most adult insects and other invertebrates that have not migrated or entered hibernation. The vast majority of insect species in our Region over-winter as eggs or larvae/nymphs, although some species over-winter as adults.

Fish:

  • Many species of fish have moved into shallower areas and are feeding more heavily as water temperatures have cooled, including muskellunge, walleye, smallmouth bass and schools of yellow perch.
  • Steelhead continue to occur in Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River at this time. Spawning does not occur until late winter and early spring. Steelhead are an anadromous form of rainbow trout that spawn in streams but live most of their lives in Lakes Erie and Ontario. All forms of rainbow trout are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
  • Brown trout continue to occur in Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River. Spawning typically occurs from late October to December in these tributaries. Brown trout were introduced from Europe.

Amphibians & Reptiles:

  • With the onset of winter weather, essentially all amphibians and reptiles are now hibernating.

Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:

  • The annual buildup of “sea ducks” and similar waterbirds that over-winter in the Great Lakes and Niagara River continues with additional arrivals of greater scaup, lesser scaup, canvasback, redhead, common goldeneye, bufflehead, white-winged scoter, surf scoter, black scoter, long-tailed duck, common merganser, and red-breasted merganser.
  • Watch for winter resident tundra swans congregating in open waters along the upper Niagara River (especially off Beaver Island, Buckhorn, and Niagara Falls State Parks).
  • This continues to be a good time to look for purple sandpipers feeding in rocky habitats above Niagara Falls.
  • This is an excellent time to watch for rare species of gulls such as Franklin’s, little, black-headed, California, Iceland, Thayer’s, lesser black-backed, Glaucous, Sabine’s, and black-legged kittiwake among more common species such as Bonaparte’s and greater black-backed gulls. Such rarities add to the remarkable diversity of gull species – 19 species total – that have been observed along the Niagara River and bordering Great Lakes. The peak time is typically between mid-November and mid-January.

Birds of Prey:

  • Bald eagles can be found along the upper and lower Niagara River where good numbers will over-winter.
  • Winter resident raptors will continue to arrive in the region, especially in areas with extensive open grassland habitat, including northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, snowy owls, short-eared owls, and long-eared owls.
  • Snowy owls are frequently found along Great Lakes shorelines, such as the Buffalo waterfront, where they feed on ducks and other waterbirds.
  • Great horned owls have started to pair-up, form pair bonds, and establish nesting territories. Listen for their vocalizations, especially near sunset and sunrise, including duets consisting of a female and male singing nearly in unison (with male calls noticeably lower in pitch than those of the female).

Upland Game Birds:

  • Watch for wild turkey flocks in farm fields, along forest edges, and near bird feeders.

Songbirds:

  • Watch bird feeders for the following songbird species that are part of this year’s “winter finch” irruption: purple finch, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill, common redpoll, hoary redpoll, pine siskin, evening grosbeak, and red-breasted nuthatch. Nyjer (AKA thistle) and black oil sunflower are the best seeds for attracting these species.
  • Bird feeders are also excellent locations to watch for arrivals of more typical migrant and over-wintering feeder birds such as dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, and American tree sparrow.   Place seed such as white millet in ground feeders or directly on the ground to attract many of these migrants.
  • Bird feeders will continue to be active with year-round resident birds such as mourning dove, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, blue jay, northern cardinal, house finch, and American goldfinch.
  • Good tips for feeding birds are available from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, online at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/notes/BirdNote01_WinterFeeding.pdf
  • If you don’t have a feeder of your own, consider visiting a local nature center (see the 2nd to last column in the tables of nature viewing sites found under the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page).
  • The northern shrike, a predatory passerine that breeds in Canada and Alaska, will continue to occur in the Region. Watch for them on prominent perches overlooking open and brushy habitats.
  • Most eastern bluebirds, American robins, eastern meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, brown-headed cowbirds, and summer resident sparrows have now left the Region for southern climes.
  • While most American robins have migrated south, small to medium sized flocks may still be encountered.
  • Small flocks of horned larks are being joined in open farmland and other tundra-like habitats by snow buntings and Lapland longspurs. Many will over-winter in our region.
  • To stay abreast of bird sightings in the region, consult eBird, Genesee Birds, and Dial-a-Bird (see the “Resources” tab on this web page for more details).

Mammals:

  • Resident species of cave bats (big brown, little brown, and eastern pipistrelle [tri-colored] bats) have entered hibernation. Most woodchucks have also started their winter hibernation. Two other species of true hibernators, meadow jumping mouse and woodland jumping mouse, have also begun hibernation.
  • False hibernators such as the raccoon and striped skunk are mostly dormant, other than occasional feeding forays during relatively warm weather. In contrast, Virginia opossums stay active all winter other than brief denning during particularly cold weather.
  • Most eastern chipmunks are in a state of torpor. In this condition, which is not a true form of hibernation, chipmunks sleep but arouse frequently to feed on hoarded food. They may forage aboveground during mild weather.
  • Gray squirrels and southern flying squirrels continue to actively forage for cached acorns and other available food. Similarly, red squirrels feed from middens of pine and spruce cones.
  • Watch bird feeders after dark for nocturnal visits by southern flying squirrels.
  • White-footed mice and deer mice prepare for winter by building nests in woodpecker holes, bird houses, and squirrel leaf-nests. Some rehab old bird nests by adding a roof and insulation. These mice often cross paths with homeowners this time of year as they seek shelter in sheds, garages, and houses – along with non-native house mice.
  • Beavers continue to feed on cut branches they cached in shallow water near their lodges during the fall, and muskrats do the same with herbaceous vegetation cached near their lodges.
  • Ermine (AKA short-tailed weasel) have molted from brown to white pelage for winter months.
  • Black bears, an uncommon species in the Buffalo-Niagara Region but increasingly common to our south, are in carnivorous lethargy. In this state, which is not a true form of hibernation, a bear’s heart rate is significantly lowered but body temperature falls only about 10°F (substantially smaller drop than for true hibernators).
  • White-tailed deer bucks typically shed antlers between mid December and mid February in the Buffalo-Niagara Region.

Be sure to find an opportunity to get outside this week to discover signs of the season.

Chuck Rosenburg

January 1-7, 2019 (Week 1 of 52): Winter Raptor Watching is an Exciting Way to Start the New Year

Please note that several of the above photos were taken during a winter raptor study conducted several years ago by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. That study was focused on learning more about habitat use and home range size of the short-eared owl (state-listed endangered species) and the northern harrier (state-listed threatened species), and therefore required trapping and tagging of those raptors. Please be aware that trapping wild birds is illegal without proper federal and state permits.

Early January is typically an excellent time of year to actively search for “winter raptors” in the Buffalo-Niagara Region. This group of winter visitant birds-of-prey includes the northern harrier (AKA marsh hawk), rough-legged hawk, snowy owl, short-eared owl, and long-eared owl. While I find it exciting to see any raptor, I especially enjoy watching northern harriers and short-eared owls course back and forth over grassy fields in search of prey, sometimes just above the tops of dried weed and grass stems. Both species often occur in small groups, sometimes consisting of a dozen or more birds in a single field. Short-eared owls are particularly interesting to watch, with their moth-like flight pattern, bark-like vocalizations, and frolicking behavior that occasional includes prey stealing. They are most active near dawn and dusk (crepuscular). It is noteworthy that the long-eared owl, a night-active (nocturnal) species, hunts in a similar manner as the short-eared owl but is much less commonly seen in foraging flight due to darkness.

While winter raptors typically start to arrive in our Region in November, sightings often increase noticeably in January. This may be the result of actual increased numbers of these birds in our Region, or it may simply be the result of increased activity (and thus increased visibility) of these raptors in response to decreased numbers of small mammals and other prey as winter progresses. Deeper snow cover, which provides greater protective cover for meadow voles and other prey, may have the same effect. Under difficult winter conditions, raptors must work harder to catch enough prey to survive. It may take a period of seasonally cold weather with an accumulation of snow before winter raptor sightings increase this winter. Those of us willing to venture out under such conditions may be rewarded by wonderful views of these intriguing birds-of-prey.

Most of the above listed birds-of-prey are found in the Buffalo-Niagara Region during winter months only, typically departing for breeding grounds in late March or early April. While some northern harriers and long-eared owls breed in our Region, most nest near open lands within the boreal forest zone of Canada. Short-eared owls breed primarily in open muskeg areas along the northern edge of the boreal forest zone and across the tundra zone of Canada. Rough-legged hawks and snowy owls breed primarily in the Arctic tundra and come south only during winter months.

Winter raptors are exceptional “mousers,” well adapted for catching small mammals and birds. All three species of owls listed above, as well as the northern harrier, have facial disks that reflect and concentrate sound waves toward the ears (much like commercially available parabolic listening devices). The owls also have asymmetrically located ear openings that allow the owls to locate sound sources by triangulation. These hearing adaptations greatly assist in detecting prey by sound. That is an important skill when hunting meadow voles. This field mouse creates extensive networks of runways beneath grassy cover, and maintains them beneath snow, where they stay very well concealed from sight. However, the vole’s high-pitched vocalizations and other sounds are detected by owls and the northern harrier, to the extent that these raptors can catch voles by sound alone (sometimes under a foot of powdery snow).

Another amazing ability of the three owl species is night vision. Several eye adaptions allow owls to see well in extremely low light levels. Those adaptations include large eye size relative to body size, large pupil opening for maximizing the amount of available light entering the eye, large lens and cornea to enhance light gathering, and a retina layer that is packed with rods – light sensing cells. These night vision adaptations greatly assist owls in locating and capturing prey after dark.

For folks interested in finding winter raptors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region, here are a few tips. Time of day is important. Day-active (diurnal) species such as the northern harrier, rough-legged hawk, and snowy owl can be found most any time between sunrise and sunset. However, late afternoon is typically the best time to find the crepuscular short-eared owl, usually from about a half hour before to a half hour after sunset. Focusing searches in areas of suitable habitat is also key. Winter raptors are typically found in broad, open, tundra-like areas with extensive grassland habitat. These birds-of-prey often require 100 acres or more of quality grassland habitat such as fallow farm fields, hay fields with relatively long grass (versus short-mowed), pastureland, and airports. Such areas typically provide the highest densities of meadow voles and similar prey animals.

Scan large grassy fields with binoculars to locate raptors that are perched or in flight. The rough-legged hawk and especially the snowy owl are most often seen perched on fence posts and other low objects, utility poles, treetops, etc. In contrast, the northern harrier, short-eared owl, and long-eared owl frequently hunt on-the-wing, coursing back and forth low over grassy fields. Rough-legged hawks also hunt in flight but typically from considerably higher heights and often by hovering in place. Short-eared owls occasionally perch on fence posts and utility poles, but most of their foraging time is spent in flight. Finally, frequently check eBird, Genesee Birds, and Dial-a-Bird (see the “Resources” tab on this web page for more details) for reports of winter raptors.

Identification of some raptors may be difficult for beginner birders. The most challenging of the five species covered here is the rough-legged hawk. This species is similar in size and sometimes in color pattern to the red-tailed hawk, a much more common buteo in our Region. Key field marks differentiating rough-legged from red-tailed hawks include the white rump patch and dark wrist marks (seen in flight) of the rough-legged hawk and the rusty red upper tail color (adults only) and white un-streaked chest of the red-tailed hawk. To add to the challenge, two color morphs of rough-legged hawks (light and dark) occur in our Region. Northern harriers also vary in color. Adult females are dark brown with streaked chest and belly, juveniles are dark brown with cinnamon-colored chest and belly, and adult males are a striking combination of gray upperparts, white underparts, and black wing tips. All have a large white rump patch. Consult field guides as necessary to validate species identifications.

When searching for winter raptors and observing birds you’ve discovered, be sure to be respectful of private property rights by requesting landowner permission before entering private land. Keep in mind that these birds can often be observed well from public roads. However, that needs to be done safely and respectfully by parking cars on road shoulders completely out of travel lanes (which simply may not be possible on some roads), staying off roads while observing birds on foot, and paying close attention to traffic when crossing roads. Of course, be respectful of the birds by not approaching too closely and by avoiding any other behavior that may be disruptive. Disturbing these birds causes them to waste vital energy reserves at this crucial period of survival. More details about safe and respectful birding are available at https://www.dec.ny.gov/press/112637.html.

Below are highlights of what you can expect to find outdoors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region this week. Those in bold/italics are new or substantially revised highlights to watch for this week. Check out the list of 300 publicly accessible sites at https://bnnatureblog.com/nature-sites/site-lists/alphabetical-list/ to find areas to explore in your neighborhood and throughout the Buffalo-Niagara Region.

Average Sunrise/Sunset (Day Length):

  • 7:47 AM/4:54 PM EST (9 Hours, 7 Minutes)
  • 0 Hours, 6 minutes of daylight longer than at Winter Solstice

Typical Weather:

  • Normal High Temperature: 31.9° F  Normal Low Temperature: 19.5° F

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

  • The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo cooled to 38°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) cooled to 39°F as of January 2, 2019.
  • Water levels in most interior wetlands and vernal pools are close to seasonal highs after a long period of normal or better precipitation and greatly reduced evapotranspiration rates.
  • Similarly, water levels in many ponds are now close to seasonal highs.

Fungi:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks extinguished most fungal fruiting bodies. The fungal “roots” (mycelium network) will survive the winter and produce new fruiting bodies during the appropriate season next year. Interestingly, fruiting bodies of some species of fungi (e.g., oyster mushrooms) remain viable during the winter and may disseminate spores during warm periods or in early spring.

Ferns and Grasses/Sedges/Rushes:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks killed remnant grass, sedge, and rush stems (thus known as a killing frost). The roots of these perennial plants will survive and sprout next spring.

Wildflowers:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks killed remnant wildflower stems (thus known as a killing frost). Roots and rhizomes of perennial wildflowers will survive and sprout next spring. Seeds of annual wildflowers will do the same.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • Many American beech leaves remain clinging to limbs but have now changed to brown. Some beech trees will hold their leaves the rest of the winter.
  • Several native shrubs and vines continue to provide fruit (soft mast) that is an important winter food source for a variety of birds and mammals: winterberry, cranberry viburnum, staghorn sumac, and swamp rose.
  • In addition, one non-native species, multiflora rose, provides fruit consumed by wildlife.

Insects & Other Invertebrates:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks killed most adult insects and other invertebrates that have not migrated or entered hibernation. The vast majority of insect species in our Region over-winter as eggs or larvae/nymphs, although some species over-winter as adults.

Fish:

  • Many species of fish have moved into shallower areas and are feeding more heavily as water temperatures have cooled, including muskellunge, walleye, smallmouth bass and schools of yellow perch.
  • Steelhead continue to occur in Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River at this time. Spawning does not occur until late winter and early spring. Steelhead are an anadromous form of rainbow trout that spawn in streams but live most of their lives in Lakes Erie and Ontario. All forms of rainbow trout are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
  • Brown trout continue to occur in Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River. Spawning typically occurs from late October to December in these tributaries. Brown trout were introduced from Europe.

Amphibians & Reptiles:

  • With the onset of winter weather, essentially all amphibians and reptiles are now hibernating.

Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:

  • The annual buildup of “sea ducks” and similar waterbirds that over-winter in the Great Lakes and Niagara River continues with additional arrivals of greater scaup, lesser scaup, canvasback, redhead, common goldeneye, bufflehead, white-winged scoter, surf scoter, black scoter, long-tailed duck, common merganser, and red-breasted merganser.
  • Watch for winter resident tundra swans congregating in open waters along the upper Niagara River (especially off Beaver Island, Buckhorn, and Niagara Falls State Parks).
  • This continues to be a good time to look for purple sandpipers feeding in rocky habitats above Niagara Falls.
  • Bonaparte’s gull numbers will remain relatively high in the region this week, using the Niagara River as a significant stop-over feeding area along their migration route south. This species typically reaches its peak fall numbers in the region in November and December when thousands may be observed along the Niagara River.
  • This is an excellent time to watch for rare species of gulls such as Franklin’s, little, black-headed, California, Iceland, Thayer’s, lesser black-backed, Glaucous, Sabine’s, and black-legged kittiwake among more common species such as recent arrivals of Bonaparte’s and greater black-backed gulls. Such rarities add to the remarkable diversity of gull species – 19 species total – that have been observed along the Niagara River and bordering Great Lakes. The peak time is typically between mid-November and mid-January.

Birds of Prey:

  • Bald eagles can be found along the upper and lower Niagara River where good numbers will over-winter.
  • Winter resident raptors will continue to arrive in the region, especially in areas with extensive open grassland habitat, including northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, snowy owls, short-eared owls, and long-eared owls.
  • Snowy owls are frequently found along Great Lakes shorelines, such as the Buffalo waterfront, where they feed on ducks and other waterbirds.
  • Great horned owls have started to pair-up, form pair bonds, and establish nesting territories. Listen for their vocalizations, especially near sunset and sunrise, including duets consisting of a female and male singing nearly in unison (with male calls noticeably lower in pitch than those of the female).

Upland Game Birds:

  • Watch for wild turkey flocks in farm fields, along forest edges, and near bird feeders.

Songbirds:

  • Watch bird feeders for the following songbird species that are part of this year’s “winter finch” irruption: purple finch, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill, common redpoll, hoary redpoll, pine siskin, evening grosbeak, and red-breasted nuthatch. Nyjer (AKA thistle) and black oil sunflower are the best seeds for attracting these species.
  • Bird feeders are also excellent locations to watch for arrivals of more typical migrant and over-wintering feeder birds such as dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, and American tree sparrow.   Place seed such as white millet in ground feeders or directly on the ground to attract many of these migrants.
  • Bird feeders will continue to be active with year-round resident birds such as mourning dove, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, blue jay, northern cardinal, house finch, and American goldfinch.
  • Good tips for feeding birds are available from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, online at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/notes/BirdNote01_WinterFeeding.pdf
  • If you don’t have a feeder of your own, consider visiting a local nature center (see the 2nd to last column in the tables of nature viewing sites found under the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page).
  • The northern shrike, a predatory passerine that breeds in Canada and Alaska, will continue to occur in the Region. Watch for them on prominent perches overlooking open and brushy habitats.
  • Most eastern bluebirds, American robins, eastern meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, brown-headed cowbirds, and summer resident sparrows have now left the Region for southern climes.
  • While most American robins have migrated south, small to medium sized flocks may still be encountered.
  • Small flocks of horned larks are being joined in open farmland and other tundra-like habitats by snow buntings and Lapland longspurs. Many will over-winter in our region.
  • To stay abreast of bird sightings in the region, consult eBird, Genesee Birds, and Dial-a-Bird (see the “Resources” tab on this web page for more details).

Mammals:

  • Resident species of cave bats (big brown, little brown, and eastern pipistrelle [tri-colored] bats) have entered hibernation. Most woodchucks have also started their winter hibernation. Two other species of true hibernators, meadow jumping mouse and woodland jumping mouse, have also begun hibernation.
  • Most eastern chipmunks are in a state of torpor. In this condition, which is not a true form of hibernation, chipmunks sleep but arouse frequently to feed on hoarded food. They may forage aboveground during mild weather.
  • Gray squirrels and southern flying squirrels continue to actively forage for cached acorns and other available food. Similarly, red squirrels feed from middens of pine and spruce cones.
  • Watch bird feeders after dark for nocturnal visits by southern flying squirrels.
  • White-footed mice and deer mice prepare for winter by building nests in woodpecker holes, bird houses, and squirrel leaf-nests. Some rehab old bird nests by adding a roof and insulation. These mice often cross paths with homeowners this time of year as they seek shelter in sheds, garages, and houses – along with non-native house mice.
  • Beavers continue to feed on cut branches they cached in shallow water near their lodges during the fall.
  • Ermine (AKA short-tailed weasel) have molted from brown to white pelage for winter months.
  • Black bears, an uncommon species in the Buffalo-Niagara Region but increasingly common to our south, are in carnivorous lethargy. In this state, which is not a true form of hibernation, a bear’s heart rate is significantly lowered but body temperature falls only about 10°F (substantially smaller drop than for true hibernators).

Be sure to find an opportunity to get outside this week to discover signs of the season.

Chuck Rosenburg

December 17-23, 2018 (Week 51 of 52): Niagara Falls is the Gull Capital of the World

Many ardent birdwatchers consider Niagara Falls, and sections of the Niagara River upstream and downstream of the Falls, to be the “Gull Capital of the World” in recognition of the abundance and diversity of gulls found there during winter months. The Falls area annually supports one of the world’s most spectacular concentrations of gulls, with one-day counts of over 100,000 individuals and 19 species recorded, according to the National Audubon Society. Birders flock to this hotspot at this time of year in hopes of observing some of the dozen or so rare species that have been documented there.

Even to those not seeking rarities, the sheer magnitude of gulls along the Niagara River can be an awesome sight. Flocks of thousands or tens-of-thousands can be seen above and below Niagara Falls and elsewhere along the Lower Niagara River. In particular, the section of river in Lewiston near the outlets of the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant (on the New York side) and Sir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Generating Station (on the Ontario side) supports huge, boiling flocks of gulls that soar above the turbulent water and sporadically dive for fish.

Gull numbers and diversity along the Niagara River typically peak between mid-November and mid-January. This timing coincides with the annual buildup of fall migrant Bonaparte’s gulls and the arrival of wintering herring and great black-backed gulls. Among those common species are about a dozen uncommon to rare winter visitants that arrive about the same time. Gulls are attracted to the Niagara River during winter months by extensive areas of open water (i.e., unfrozen) and abundant food resources, especially emerald shiners. Some of the shiners and other small fish may be stunned from turbulence near the Falls and the outlets of the hydropower plants, thus making for easy prey. The critical resources that the Niagara River provides for gulls, waterfowl, and other waterbirds is a significant reason why the River is listed as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society.

Gulls are renowned travelers. Most of the species found in the Buffalo-Niagara Region during winter months breed elsewhere, in some cases >1,000 miles away. Glaucous, Iceland, Thayer’s, and Sabine’s gulls breed primarily in the Arctic and drift south only during winter months. Bonaparte’s gulls nest near lakes and other waterbodies across the boreal forest zone of Canada. They build stick nests in trees, in contrast to almost all other gulls. Most great black-backed gulls and laughing gulls breed along the Atlantic coast. Black-legged kittiwakes are pelagic species seldom found far from salt water, but occasionally observed along the Niagara River. Franklin’s and California gulls travel here from the Prairie Potholes Region and Pacific coast. While rare in our Region, some European breeders have been recorded here in winter on a fairly regular basis over the past few decades, including lesser black-backed, black-headed, and little gulls.

Gull-watching can be both invigorating and frustrating. It can be an invigorating experience to witness huge and raucous masses of gulls, with some flocks consisting of thousands or even tens-of-thousands of birds. That feeling can be augmented by the knowledge that many of the gulls traveled here from far-distant breeding grounds. It can simultaneously be a frustrating experience because of the challenge of trying to pick out rare species within huge flocks, keep track of any rare gull once spotted (like following an individual snowflake in a squall), confirm with confidence which species it is, and simultaneously relay your findings to other birders. Adding to the challenge is the frustration that most gull species have different plumage patterns as they mature from year to year.

A good approach for finding rare gulls in our Region is to first learn to readily recognize the most common species (especially in flight): Bonaparte’s, ring-billed, herring, and great black-backed gulls. Once comfortable with the common species, scan large flocks of gulls to look for birds with slight anomalies, especially different wing color patterns. Here are a few examples. Bonaparte’s gulls are small tern-like gulls with a distinct white wedge at the tip of each wing. They often occur in medium to large flocks. Scan those flocks to spot dark underwings or primary feathers that are typical of little and black-headed gulls. Ring-billed and herring gulls are medium and large-sized gulls (respectively) with gray mantles and black-tipped wings. Scan flocks of ring-billed and/or herring gulls for “white-winged” gulls (those lacking dark wing tips) such Iceland, glaucous, and Thayer’s gulls. As one might expect, the great black-backed gull is a big gull with a black back. Watch for lesser black-backed gulls which are about 30% smaller, noticeably more slender, and have yellow legs (compared to pink legs of the great black-backed gull).

Some of the best birding for winter gulls can be experienced around the turbulent waters above and below Niagara Falls. Productive public viewing areas on the U.S. side of the Falls include Niagara Falls State Park, including Goat Island (above the Falls) and Niagara Gorge Discovery Center (below the Falls). On the Canadian side, the International Control Gates and Dufferin Island Nature Area (both above the Falls) can be excellent.

The Lower Niagara River typically supports huge flocks (thousands or tens-of-thousands) of gulls, especially near the outlets of Robert Moses and Sir Adam Beck generating stations. Valuable public viewing areas include the Niagara Power Vista visitor center, Lewiston Landing Waterfront Park, Joseph Davis State Park boat launch, and Fort Niagara State Park. On the Canadian side, the Niagara Glen Nature Area and overlooks at the north and south ends of the Sir Adam Beck hydro station have been excellent gull locations for decades.

Large numbers of gulls can sometimes be found on the Upper Niagara River during winter months. Good public viewing areas include Beaver Island State Park, LaSalle Waterfront Park in Niagara Falls, and waterfowl overlooks along the Robert Moses Parkway upstream of the Falls. On the Canadian side, pull-offs along the Niagara Parkway between Fort Erie and Niagara Falls offer good gull viewing opportunities. At times, the Buffalo Waterfront supports good numbers of gulls, especially Bonaparte’s and associated rarities. Public viewing areas include Gallagher Beach State Park, Buffalo Harbor State Park, Erie Basin Marina, LaSalle Park, and parkland on Unity Island.

Below are highlights of what you can expect to find outdoors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region this week. Those in bold/italics are new or substantially revised highlights to watch for this week. Check out the list of 300 publicly accessible sites at https://bnnatureblog.com/nature-sites/site-lists/alphabetical-list/ to find areas to explore in your neighborhood and throughout the Buffalo-Niagara Region.

Average Sunrise/Sunset (Day Length):

  • 7:43 AM/4:44 PM EST (9 Hours, 1 Minutes)
  • 6 Hours, 20 minutes of daylight shorter than at Summer Solstice
  • The first day of winter this year falls on December 21, when daylength is the shortest for the year and the sun traces its lowest and shortest arc through the sky (AKA winter solstice).

Typical Weather:

  • Normal High Temperature: 34.6° F  Normal Low Temperature: 22.7° F

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

  • The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo cooled to 40°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) cooled to 39°F as of December 21, 2018.
  • Water levels in most interior wetlands and vernal pools are approaching seasonal highs after a long period of normal or better precipitation and greatly reduced evapotranspiration rates.
  • Similarly, water levels in many ponds are now close to seasonal highs.

Fungi:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks extinguished most fungal fruiting bodies. The fungal “roots” (mycelium network) will survive the winter and produce new fruiting bodies during the appropriate season next year. Interestingly, fruiting bodies of some species of fungi (e.g., oyster mushrooms) remain viable during the winter and may disseminate spores during warm periods or in early spring.

Ferns and Grasses/Sedges/Rushes:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks killed remnant grass, sedge, and rush stems (thus known as a killing frost). The roots of these perennial plants will survive and sprout next spring.

Wildflowers:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks killed remnant wildflower stems (thus known as a killing frost). Roots and rhizomes of perennial wildflowers will survive and sprout next spring. Seeds of annual wildflowers will do the same.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • Many American beech leaves remain clinging to limbs but have now changed to brown. Some beech trees will hold their leaves the rest of the winter.
  • Several native shrubs and vines continue to provide fruit (soft mast) that is an important winter food source for a variety of birds and mammals: winterberry, cranberry viburnum, staghorn sumac, and swamp rose.
  • In addition, one non-native species, multiflora rose, provides fruit consumed by wildlife.

Insects & Other Invertebrates:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks killed most adult insects and other invertebrates that have not migrated or entered hibernation. The vast majority of insect species in our Region over-winter as eggs or larvae/nymphs, although some species over-winter as adults.

Fish:

  • Many species of fish have moved into shallower areas and are feeding more heavily as water temperatures have cooled, including muskellunge, walleye, smallmouth bass and schools of yellow perch.
  • Steelhead continue to run up Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River at this time. Spawning does not occur until late winter and early spring. Steelhead are an anadromous form of rainbow trout that spawn in streams but live most of their lives in Lakes Erie and Ontario. All forms of rainbow trout are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
  • Brown trout continue to run up Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River. Spawning typically occurs from late October to December in these tributaries. Brown trout were introduced from Europe.

Amphibians & Reptiles:

  • With the onset of winter weather, essentially all amphibians and reptiles are now hibernating.

Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:

  • The annual buildup of “sea ducks” and similar waterbirds that over-winter in the Great Lakes and Niagara River continues with additional arrivals of greater scaup, lesser scaup, canvasback, redhead, common goldeneye, bufflehead, white-winged scoter, surf scoter, black scoter, long-tailed duck, common merganser, and red-breasted merganser.
  • Watch for migrant tundra swans congregating in open waters along the upper Niagara River (especially off Beaver Island, Buckhorn, and Niagara Falls State Parks).
  • This continues to be a good time to look for purple sandpipers feeding in rocky habitats above Niagara Falls.
  • Bonaparte’s gull numbers will remain relatively high in the region this week, using the Niagara River as a significant stop-over feeding area along their migration route south. This species typically reaches its peak fall numbers in the region in November and December when thousands may be observed along the Niagara River.
  • This is an excellent time to watch for rare species of gulls such as Franklin’s, little, black-headed, California, Iceland, Thayer’s, lesser black-backed, Glaucous, Sabine’s, and black-legged kittiwake among more common species such as recent arrivals of Bonaparte’s and greater black-backed gulls. Such rarities add to the remarkable diversity of gull species – 19 species total – that have been observed along the Niagara River and bordering Great Lakes. The peak time is typically between mid-November and mid-January.

Birds of Prey:

  • Bald eagles can be found along the upper and lower Niagara River where good numbers will over-winter.
  • Winter resident raptors will continue to arrive in the region, especially in areas with extensive open grassland habitat, including northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, snowy owls, short-eared owls, and long-eared owls.
  • Snowy owls are frequently found along Great Lakes shorelines, such as the Buffalo waterfront, where they feed on ducks and other waterbirds.

Upland Game Birds:

  • Watch for wild turkey flocks in farm fields, along forest edges, and near bird feeders.

Songbirds:

  • Watch bird feeders for the following songbird species that are part of this year’s “winter finch” irruption: purple finch, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill, common redpoll, hoary redpoll, pine siskin, evening grosbeak, and red-breasted nuthatch. Nyjer (AKA thistle) and black oil sunflower are the best seeds for attracting these species.
  • Bird feeders are also excellent locations to watch for arrivals of more typical migrant and over-wintering feeder birds such as dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, and American tree sparrow.   Place seed such as white millet in ground feeders or directly on the ground to attract many of these migrants.
  • Bird feeders will continue to be active with year-round resident birds such as mourning dove, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, blue jay, northern cardinal, house finch, and American goldfinch.
  • Good tips for feeding birds are available from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, online at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/notes/BirdNote01_WinterFeeding.pdf
  • If you don’t have a feeder of your own, consider visiting a local nature center (see the 2nd to last column in the tables of nature viewing sites found under the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page).
  • The northern shrike, a predatory passerine that breeds in Canada and Alaska, will continue to arrive in the Region. Watch for them on prominent perches overlooking open and brushy habitats.
  • Most eastern bluebirds, American robins, eastern meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, brown-headed cowbirds, and summer resident sparrows have now left the Region for southern climes.
  • While most American robins have migrated south, small to medium sized flocks may still be encountered.
  • Small flocks of horned larks are being joined in open farmland and other tundra-like habitats by snow buntings and Lapland longspurs. Many will over-winter in our region.
  • To stay abreast of bird sightings in the region, consult eBird, Genesee Birds, and Dial-a-Bird (see the “Resources” tab on this web page for more details).

Mammals:

  • Resident species of cave bats (big brown, little brown, and eastern pipistrelle [tri-colored] bats) have entered hibernation. Most woodchucks have also started their winter hibernation. Two other species of true hibernators, meadow jumping mouse and woodland jumping mouse, have also begun hibernation.
  • Most eastern chipmunks are in a state of torpor. In this condition, which is not a true form of hibernation, chipmunks sleep but arouse frequently to feed on hoarded food. They may forage aboveground during mild weather.
  • Gray squirrels and southern flying squirrels continue to actively forage for cached acorns and other available food. Similarly, red squirrels feed from middens of pine and spruce cones.
  • Watch bird feeders after dark for nocturnal visits by southern flying squirrels.
  • White-footed mice and deer mice prepare for winter by building nests in woodpecker holes, bird houses, and squirrel leaf-nests. Some rehab old bird nests by adding a roof and insulation. These mice often cross paths with homeowners this time of year as they seek shelter in sheds, garages, and houses – along with non-native house mice.
  • Beavers cut more trees this time of year, in preparation for winter. They will cut, transport, and cache cut branches in shallow water near their lodges for wintertime feeding.
  • Beavers are also actively building and repairing dams and lodges at this time.
  • Ermine (AKA short-tailed weasel) have molted from brown to white pelage for winter months.
  • Black bears, an uncommon species in the Buffalo-Niagara Region but increasingly common to our south, have entered carnivorous lethargy. In this state, which is not a true form of hibernation, a bear’s heart rate is significantly lowered but body temperature falls only about 10°F (substantially smaller drop than for true hibernators).

Be sure to find an opportunity to get outside this week to discover signs of the season.

Chuck Rosenburg

December 3-9, 2018 (Week 49 of 52): Tremendous Numbers of Ducks Overwinter on the Great Lakes and Niagara River

A little-known natural phenomenon associated with the Buffalo-Niagara Region is the tremendous concentration of ducks that overwinter on the Great Lakes and Niagara River. In fact, our Region serves as one of the most important water­fowl wintering areas in the northeastern United States, especially for diving ducks. Already, early in December, thousands of diving ducks (e.g., canvasback, scaup, common goldeneye, common merganser) and over 300 tundra swans have arrived here from Canada and Midwest Prairie Potholes. Most will spend the winter in our Region. Their ranks will swell to tens-of-thousands later this month, as the majority of wintering ducks typically arrives during December. Total numbers may exceed 100,000 ducks in January and February. For example, a February 2, 2017 winter waterfowl survey from shoreline observation points conducted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) documented the presence of >110,000 ducks along the Buffalo Waterfront and Upper Niagara River.

Waterfowl are attracted to the Great Lakes and Niagara River during winter months by the extensive areas of open water (i.e., unfrozen) and abundant food resources, both plant and animal. The following species feed mostly on aquatic plants such as eel-grass: canvasback, redhead, and tundra swan. Crustaceans such as crayfish are the primary prey of common goldeneye and long-tailed duck. The following species feed mostly on mollusks such as mussels and aquatic snails: greater and lesser scaup, bufflehead, and white-winged scoter. Common and red-breasted mergansers feed primarily on fish.

The Buffalo Waterfront (both inside and outside the breakwalls) typically supports large and compact rafts (i.e., flocks of ducks floating together) of diving ducks, especially early in the winter before Lake Erie freezes. Rafts of thousands (sometimes tens-of-thousands) of greater scaup, lesser scaup, canvasback, redhead, common goldeneye, bufflehead, and common merganser have been recorded there. Such rafts can often be observed from public viewing areas such as Gallagher Beach State Park, Buffalo Harbor State Park, Erie Basin Marina, and LaSalle Park.

Extensive areas of open water attract large rafts of ducks to the Niagara River throughout the winter, especially when ice forms on Lake Erie and (occasionally) Lake Ontario. Assuming Lake Erie will freeze this winter, as it usually does, large numbers of ducks will move from there to the open waters of the Niagara River creating even more impressive concentrations. The critical open water and food resources provided by the Niagara River for overwintering waterfowl and other waterbirds is a significant reason why the River is listed as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society.

Large rafts (thousands and sometimes tens-of-thousands) of greater scaup, lesser scaup, canvasback, redhead, common goldeneye, bufflehead, and common merganser can often be seen on the Upper Niagara River during winter months. Fruitful public viewing areas include Aqua Lane Park, Beaver Island State Park, Buckhorn Island State Park, LaSalle Waterfront Park in Niagara Falls, Niagara Falls State Park, and waterfowl overlooks along the Robert Moses Parkway upstream of the falls. Watch for migrant tundra swans that frequently congregate along the upper Niagara River, especially offshore from Beaver Island and Buckhorn Island State Parks and upstream of Niagara Falls. On the Canadian side, pull-offs along the Niagara Parkway between Fort Erie and Niagara Falls offer excellent waterfowl viewing opportunities.

It is well worth a winter visit to Goat Island (within Niagara Falls State Park) to view a particularly amazing feat performed daily by common goldeneye. Scan the rapids above Niagara Falls and you will see individual goldeneye maneuver the rapids, both on and below the water surface, as they forage for crayfish and other prey. How they avoid being dashed against the rocks in those turbulent waters is a wonder! They often come to the surface right above the brink of the falls just to fly back upstream to repeat the performance.

The Lower Niagara River typically supports medium to large rafts (hundreds and sometimes >1,000) of common goldeneye, white-winged scoter, long-tailed duck, common merganser, and red-breasted merganser. When winds gust across Lake Ontario, many more ducks enter the Lower River, upstream to Lewiston and farther. Valuable public viewing areas include the Lewiston Landing Waterfront Park, Joseph Davis State Park boat launch, and Fort Niagara State Park.

The Lewiston Reservoir, which typically freezes by early to mid-January, occasionally serves an important migratory feeding and resting area in late fall and early winter for greater and lesser scaup, as well as canvasback. Rafts of >5,000 scaup and >2,000 canvasback have been recorded there. Viewing areas are limited mostly to Reservoir State Park.

Lake Ontario does not freeze in a typical winter, although shore ice may extend well out into the lake (i.e., 0.5 mile or more) during the dead of winter. Large numbers (hundreds and sometimes >1,000) of the following species can be observed from shoreline overlooks: common goldeneye, white-winged scoter, long-tailed duck, common merganser, and red-breasted merganser. Occasional common loons, red-throated loons, and red-necked grebes may also be seen. It is noteworthy that very large rafts of long-tailed ducks and white-winged scoters often occur well offshore in Lake Ontario, out of sight and beyond NYSDEC survey limits. In addition to scoping out rafts of ducks at various waterfowl concentration areas, some birders choose a good overlook along the Lake Ontario shore (e.g., Wilson-Tuscarora State Park, Wilson Public Pier, Krull Park, and Golden Hill State Park) to observe flights of waterfowl and other waterbirds traveling east and west, close to shore, over an hour or more. Remarkable numbers of the birds listed above can be observed in this manner.

Extensive open water and an abundance of prey attracts other birds to the Great Lakes and Niagara River. Snowy owls frequently feed on ducks and other waterbirds concentrated close to shore. Bald eagles do the same, and also hunt and scavenge fish where open water is found. A few great blue herons and belted kingfishers, two species that mostly leave our Region in winter, can often be found foraging for fish and other prey in these productive habitats. Considering this abundance and diversity of birdlife, open water areas of the Great Lakes and Niagara River can be exciting places to visit during winter months.

Below are highlights of what you can expect to find outdoors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region this week. Those in bold/italics are new or substantially revised highlights to watch for this week. Check out the list of 300 publicly accessible sites at https://bnnatureblog.com/nature-sites/site-lists/alphabetical-list/ to find areas to explore in your neighborhood and throughout the Buffalo-Niagara Region.

Average Sunrise/Sunset (Day Length):

  • 7:32 AM/4:41 PM EST (9 Hours, 1 Minutes)
  • 6 Hours, 12 minutes of daylight shorter than at Summer Solstice

Typical Weather:

  • Normal High Temperature: 39.1° F  Normal Low Temperature: 27.1° F
  • Lake effect snow is forecast for this week.

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

  • The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo was 43°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) was 43°F as of December 5, 2018.
  • Water levels in most interior wetlands and vernal pools is continuing to rise in response to recent precipitation and greatly reduced evapotranspiration rates.
  • Similarly, the water level in many ponds is continuing to rise.
  • Most streams will exhibit moderate flow levels this week.

Fungi:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks extinguished most fungal fruiting bodies. The fungal “roots” (mycelium network) will survive the winter and produce new fruiting bodies during the appropriate season next year. Interestingly, fruiting bodies of some species of fungi (e.g., oyster mushrooms) remain viable during the winter and may disseminate spores during warm periods or in early spring.

Ferns and Grasses/Sedges/Rushes:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks killed remnant grass, sedge, and rush stems (thus known as a killing frost). The roots of these perennial plants will survive and sprout next spring.
  • Broad-leaf and narrow-leaf cattail fruits are disintegrating, releasing thousands of tiny fluffy seeds to the wind.

Wildflowers:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks killed remnant wildflower stems (thus known as a killing frost). Roots and rhizomes of perennial wildflowers will survive and sprout next spring. Seeds of annual wildflowers will do the same.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • While a few northern red and pin oak trees continue to retain some leaves, most dropped them following the hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks.
  • Many American beech leaves remain clinging to limbs but have now changed to brown. Some beech trees will hold their leaves the rest of the winter.
  • The availability of hard and soft mast is noticeably less abundant now as squirrels, chipmunks, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and other wildlife have consumed a large amount over the past several weeks.
  • Several native trees, shrubs, and vines continue to provide fruit (soft mast) that is an important winter food source for a variety of birds and mammals: winterberry, cranberry viburnum, staghorn sumac, swamp rose, and wild grape.
  • In addition, two non-native species provide fruit (soft mast) consumed by wildlife: multiflora rose and common buckthorn.

Insects & Other Invertebrates:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past few weeks killed most adult insects and other invertebrates that have not migrated or entered hibernation. The vast majority of insect species in our Region over-winter as eggs or larvae/nymphs, although some species over-winter as adults.

Fish:

  • Many species of fish have moved into shallower areas and are feeding more heavily as water temperatures have cooled, including muskellunge, walleye, smallmouth bass and schools of yellow perch.
  • Steelhead continue to run up Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River at this time. Spawning does not occur until late winter and early spring. Steelhead are an anadromous form of rainbow trout that spawn in streams but live most of their lives in Lakes Erie and Ontario. All forms of rainbow trout are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
  • Brown trout continue to run up Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River. Spawning typically occurs from late October to December in these tributaries. In headwater streams, where brown trout have been stocked, they typically spawn a little later than brook trout. Brown trout were introduced from Europe.

Amphibians & Reptiles:

  • With the onset of winter weather, essentially all amphibians and reptiles are now hibernating.

Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:

  • With cold temperatures across the Buffalo-Niagara Region three weeks ago, most of our inland lakes and ponds were frozen. The ice cover drove most dabbling ducks (e.g., mallard, wood duck, American wigeon) and Canada geese south, out of our Region. Many of those that remained, primarily mallards and Canada geese, relocated to open waters of the Niagara River and Great Lakes.
  • The annual buildup of “sea ducks” and similar waterbirds that over-winter in the Great Lakes and Niagara River continues with additional arrivals of greater scaup, lesser scaup, canvasback, redhead, common goldeneye, bufflehead, white-winged scoter, surf scoter, black scoter, long-tailed duck, common merganser, and red-breasted merganser.
  • Watch for migrant tundra swans congregating in open waters along the upper Niagara River (especially off Beaver Island, Buckhorn, and Niagara Falls State Parks).
  • This continues to be a good time to look for purple sandpipers feeding in rocky habitats above Niagara Falls.
  • Bonaparte’s gull numbers will continue to build in the region this week, using the Niagara River as a significant stop-over feeding area along their migration route south. This species typically reaches its peak fall numbers in the region in November and December when thousands may be observed along the Niagara River.
  • This is an excellent time to watch for rare species of gulls such as Franklin’s, little, black-headed, California, Iceland, lesser black-backed, Glaucous, Sabine’s, and black-legged kittiwake among more common species such as recent arrivals of Bonaparte’s and greater black-backed gulls. Such rarities add to the remarkable diversity of gull species – 19 species total – that have been observed along the Niagara River and bordering Great Lakes. The peak time is typically between mid-November and mid-January.

Birds of Prey:

  • Bald eagles can be found along the upper and lower Niagara River where good numbers will over-winter.
  • Winter resident raptors will continue to arrive in the region, especially in areas with extensive open grassland habitat, including northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, snowy owls, short-eared owls, and long-eared owls.
  • Snowy owls are frequently found along Great Lakes shorelines, such as the Buffalo waterfront, where they feed on ducks and other waterbirds.

Upland Game Birds:

  • Watch for wild turkey flocks in farm fields, along forest edges, and near bird feeders.

Songbirds:

  • Watch bird feeders for the following songbird species that are part of this year’s “winter finch” irruption: purple finch, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill, common redpoll, hoary redpoll, pine siskin, evening grosbeak, and red-breasted nuthatch. Nyjer (AKA thistle) and black oil sunflower are the best seeds for attracting these species.
  • Bird feeders are also excellent locations to watch for arrivals of more typical migrant and over-wintering feeder birds such as dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, and American tree sparrow.   Place seed such as white millet in ground feeders or directly on the ground to attract many of these migrants.
  • Bird feeders will continue to be active with year-round resident birds such as mourning dove, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, blue jay, northern cardinal, house finch, and American goldfinch.
  • Good tips for feeding birds are available from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, online at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/notes/BirdNote01_WinterFeeding.pdf
  • If you don’t have a feeder of your own, consider visiting a local nature center (see the 2nd to last column in the tables of nature viewing sites found under the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page).
  • The following “short-distance” migrant songbirds are passing through on their journey south or over-wintering in our region: brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch, golden-crowned kinglet, dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, American tree sparrow, and pine siskin.
  • The northern shrike, a predatory passerine that breeds in Canada and Alaska, will continue to arrive in the Region. Watch for them on prominent perches overlooking open and brushy habitats.
  • Most eastern bluebirds, American robins, eastern meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, brown-headed cowbirds, and summer resident sparrows have now left the Region for southern climes.
  • While most American robins have migrated south, small to medium sized flocks may still be encountered.
  • Small flocks of horned larks are being joined in open farmland and other tundra-like habitats by snow buntings and Lapland longspurs. Many will over-winter in our region.
  • To stay abreast of bird sightings in the region, consult eBird, Genesee Birds, and Dial-a-Bird (see the “Resources” tab on this web page for more details).

Mammals:

  • Resident species of cave bats (big brown, little brown, and eastern pipistrelle [tri-colored] bats) have entered hibernation. Most woodchucks have also started their winter hibernation. Two other species of true hibernators, meadow jumping mouse and woodland jumping mouse, have also begun hibernation.
  • Most eastern chipmunks have now entered a state of torpor. In this state, which is not a true form of hibernation, chipmunks sleep but arouse frequently to feed on hoarded food. They may forage aboveground during mild weather.
  • Gray squirrels and southern flying squirrels continue to actively gather and store acorns and other mast for winter. Similarly, red squirrels form middens of pine and spruce cones.
  • Watch bird feeders after dark for nocturnal visits by southern flying squirrels.
  • White-footed mice and deer mice prepare for winter by building nests in woodpecker holes, bird houses, and squirrel leaf-nests. Some rehab old bird nests by adding a roof and insulation. These mice often cross paths with homeowners this time of year as they seek shelter in sheds, garages, and houses – along with non-native house mice.
  • Beavers cut more trees this time of year, in preparation for winter. They will cut, transport, and cache cut branches in shallow water near their lodges for wintertime feeding.
  • Beavers are also actively building and repairing dams and lodges at this time.
  • Ermine (AKA short-tailed weasel) have molted from brown to white pelage for winter months.
  • Continue to watch for white-tailed deer buck rubs. Bucks actively rub saplings and small trees, depositing scent from forehead glands.
  • Bucks will continue to make scrapes by pawing away leaves to expose soil, then urinating over the scraped area to deposit scent from tarsal glands. They typically mouth and rub their antlers on an overhanging branch, depositing even more scent.
  • Deer courtship (the “rut”) continues this week. Does become more active as they start estrus and bucks are often seen following them. As a result, the frequency of deer-car collisions increases sharply during the rut, from mid-October through December.
  • Black bears, an uncommon species in the Buffalo-Niagara Region but increasingly common to our south, typically have mostly entered carnivorous lethargy by now. In this state, which is not a true form of hibernation, a bear’s heart rate is significantly lowered but body temperature falls only about 10°F (substantially smaller drop than for true hibernators).

Be sure to find an opportunity to get outside this week to discover signs of the season.

Chuck Rosenburg

November 26-December 2, 2018 (Week 48 of 52): Stories in the Snow

Snow fall and accumulation early this week have provided an excellent, albeit brief, opportunity to learn more about animal life in our neighborhoods and natural areas. Only when there is a blanket of snow can we behold the intimate details of wildlife movements. This is especially true for nocturnal mammals but can also be true for diurnal species since we often miss seeing many of their daytime movements.

Fresh snow cover creates a clean page on which animals share their stories, providing details about their occurrence, abundance, schedule, pace, habits, and habitat use. Species occurrence can be determined by track size, track pattern, and features such as the numbers of toes (e.g., four for gray fox, 5 for river otter), presence/absence of toenails (e.g., fox vs. bobcat or house cat), and presence/absence of tail-drags (white-footed mouse vs. meadow vole). The number of individual sets of tracks reveals abundance, such as the size of a deer herd or turkey flock. An animal’s schedule can be estimated based on the freshness of their tracks, as affected by accumulation of snow or melting of snow. Pace can be assessed by track spread, with closely-spaced sets left by walking animals and far-spaced sets by those that were running. An animal’s habits (e.g., feeding, bedding down, or just passing through) and habitat use (e.g., foraging along a woodland edge, seeking cover beneath a rock pile) can be determined by following the trail of tracks and closely examining the snow surface for ancillary material (e.g., acorn shell remains, weed seed fragments), cut stems (e.g., straight and clean cuts by an eastern cottontail), compressed depressions (deer beds), and other signs of activity. Occasionally, you may even find evidence of predator-prey interactions such as blood on the snow surface and/or wing marks from a hawk or owl.

To learn more about animal tracks and sign, find a good field guide (there are many available) or simply use online guides such as https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/administration_pdf/c4k0712.pdf. Take advantage of this brief opportunity to read stories in the snow before it disappears during the weekend warmup being forecast.

Below the snow surface, some animals have adapted to a subnivean (defined simply as “underneath snow”) lifestyle during winter months. There they are sheltered from extreme cold air temperatures because snow serves as an effective insulator, especially when it is relatively dry and fluffy. Temperatures beneath the snow, at the soil surface, are often close to freezing whereas air temperature may be much colder (especially at night). The snow cover also keeps these animals out of sight from most predators (at least those that search for prey visually). Probably the best example of a subnivean animal in the Buffalo-Niagara Region is the meadow vole. This field mouse creates extensive networks of runways in grassy fields, and maintains them beneath snow cover, where they stay relatively warm and very well concealed from sight. While voles are chatterboxes with high-pitched vocalizations evident to predators such as owls and fox (and our pet dogs), people rarely hear them or know they are underfoot. Watch for ventilation holes that sometimes give away runway locations, or simply wait until snow melt to discover them. It is noteworthy that meadow voles are so reliant of their subnivean lifestyle that their populations appear to experience rapid declines during winters with poor snow cover.

Please keep in mind that snow cover makes it more difficult for birds to find and access natural food sources and therefore drives them out of the woodwork to visit feeders. To cater to their needs and attract a diversity of species, maintain a good variety of seed types, as well as suet and water (ideally using a heated bird bath). Consider placing white millet or other small seeds on the ground to attract ground-feeding birds such as dark-eyed juncos, American tree sparrows, and mourning doves.

Below are highlights of what you can expect to find outdoors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region this week. Those in bold/italics are new or substantially revised highlights to watch for this week. Check out the list of 300 publicly accessible sites (“B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page) to find areas to explore in your neighborhood and throughout the Buffalo-Niagara Region.

Average Sunrise/Sunset (Day Length):

  • 7:25 AM/4:43 PM EST (9 Hours, 18 Minutes)
  • 6 Hours, 3 minutes of daylight shorter than at Summer Solstice

Typical Weather:

  • Normal High Temperature: 42.0° F  Normal Low Temperature: 29.5° F
  • Lake effect snow is forecast for this week.

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

  • The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo dropped to 41°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) dropped to 43°F as of November 28, 2018.
  • Water levels in most interior wetlands and vernal pools remain low but continue to rise in response to recent precipitation and greatly reduced evapotranspiration rates.
  • Similarly, the water level in many ponds is low but continuing to rise.
  • Most streams will exhibit moderate flow levels this week.

Fungi:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past couple weeks extinguished most fungal fruiting bodies. The fungal “roots” (mycelium network) will survive the winter and produce new fruiting bodies during the appropriate season next year. Interestingly, fruiting bodies of some species of fungi (e.g., oyster mushrooms) remain viable during the winter and may disseminate spores during warm periods or in early spring.

Ferns and Grasses/Sedges/Rushes:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past couple weeks killed remnant grass, sedge, and rush stems (thus known as a killing frost). The roots of these perennial plants will survive and sprout next spring.
  • Broad-leaf and narrow-leaf cattail fruits are disintegrating, releasing thousands of tiny fluffy seeds to the wind.

Wildflowers:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past couple weeks killed remnant wildflower stems (thus known as a killing frost). Roots and rhizomes of perennial wildflowers will survive and sprout next spring. Seeds of annual wildflowers will do the same.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • While a few northern red and pin oak trees continue to retain some leaves, most dropped them following the hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past couple weeks.
  • Many American beech leaves remain clinging to limbs but have now changed to brown. Some beech trees will hold their leaves the rest of the winter.
  • Most willows, Tartarian and Morrow’s honeysuckles (both non-native), and common and glossy buckthorn (both non-native) have finally dropped their leaves.
  • The availability of hard and soft mast is noticeably less abundant now as squirrels, chipmunks, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and other wildlife have consumed a large amount over the past several weeks.
  • Several native trees, shrubs, and vines continue to provide fruit (soft mast) that is an important winter food source for a variety of birds and mammals: winterberry, cranberry viburnum, staghorn sumac, swamp rose, and wild grape.
  • In addition, two non-native species provide fruit (soft mast) consumed by wildlife: multiflora rose and common buckthorn.

Insects & Other Invertebrates:

  • The hard frost/freeze we experienced over the past couple weeks killed most adult insects and other invertebrates that have not migrated or entered hibernation. The vast majority of insect species in our Region over-winter as eggs or larvae/nymphs, although some species over-winter as adults.

Fish:

  • Many species of fish have moved into shallower areas and are feeding more heavily as water temperatures have cooled, including muskellunge, walleye, smallmouth bass and schools of yellow perch.
  • Chinook salmon (AKA king salmon) and coho salmon are mostly done spawning in Great Lakes tributary streams and the Lower Niagara River. These salmon die after spawning. Both species are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
  • Historically, Atlantic salmon (AKA landlocked salmon) followed a similar spawning pattern in the Lake Ontario. However, Atlantic salmon do not die after spawning. This native and one-time abundant species was nearly extirpated in the late 1800’s. Restoration efforts have had limited success to date.
  • Another native species, lake trout, continues to spawn in shallow rocky/gravelly shoals of the Great Lakes and Lower Niagara River.
  • Steelhead continue to run up Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River at this time. Spawning does not occur until late winter and early spring. Steelhead are an anadromous form of rainbow trout that spawn in streams but live most of their lives in Lakes Erie and Ontario. All forms of rainbow trout are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
  • Brown trout continue to run up Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River. Spawning typically occurs from late October to December in these tributaries. In headwater streams, where brown trout have been stocked, they typically spawn a little later than brook trout. Brown trout were introduced from Europe.

Amphibians & Reptiles:

  • With the onset of winter weather, essentially all amphibians and reptiles are now hibernating.

Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:

  • With cold temperatures across the Buffalo-Niagara Region two weeks ago, most of our inland lakes and ponds were frozen. The ice cover drove most dabbling ducks (e.g., mallard, wood duck, American wigeon) and Canada geese south, out of our Region. Many of those that remained, primarily mallards and Canada geese, relocated to open waters of the Niagara River and Great Lakes.
  • The annual buildup of “sea ducks” and similar waterbirds that over-winter in the Great Lakes and Niagara River continues with arrivals of common loon, red-throated loon, red-necked grebe, horned grebe, greater scaup, lesser scaup, canvasback, redhead, common goldeneye, bufflehead, white-winged scoter, surf scoter, black scoter, long-tailed duck, common merganser, and red-breasted merganser.
  • This continues to be a good time to scout for migrant brant resting and feeding in parkland and other open habitats bordering Lakes Erie and Ontario. Brant is a relatively small species of goose that nests in the tundra and into the Arctic Circle.
  • Watch for migrant tundra swans congregating in open waters along the upper Niagara River (especially off Beaver Island, Buckhorn, and Niagara Falls State Parks).
  • This continues to be a good time to look for purple sandpipers feeding in rocky habitats above Niagara Falls.
  • Bonaparte’s gull numbers will continue to build in the region this week, using the Niagara River as a significant stop-over feeding area along their migration route south. This species will reach its peak fall numbers in the region in November and December when thousands may be observed along the Niagara River.
  • This is an excellent time to watch for rare species of gulls such as Franklin’s, little, black-headed, California, Iceland, lesser black-backed, Glaucous, Sabine’s, and black-legged kittiwake among more common species such as recent arrivals of Bonaparte’s and greater black-backed gulls. Such rarities add to the remarkable diversity of gull species – 19 species total – that have been observed along the Niagara River and bordering Great Lakes. The peak time is typically between mid-November and mid-January.

Birds of Prey:

  • Bald eagles can be found along the upper and lower Niagara River where good numbers will over-winter.
  • Winter resident raptors will continue to arrive in the region, especially in areas with extensive open grassland habitat, including northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, snowy owls, short-eared owls, and long-eared owls.
  • Snowy owls are frequently found along Great Lakes shorelines, such as the Buffalo waterfront, where they feed on ducks and other waterbirds.

Upland Game Birds:

  • Watch for wild turkey flocks in farm fields, along forest edges, and near bird feeders.

Songbirds:

  • Watch bird feeders for the following songbird species that are part of this year’s “winter finch” irruption: purple finch, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill, common redpoll, hoary redpoll, pine siskin, evening grosbeak, and red-breasted nuthatch. Nyjer (AKA thistle) and black oil sunflower are the best seeds for attracting these species.
  • Bird feeders are also excellent locations to watch for arrivals of more typical migrant and over-wintering feeder birds such as dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, fox sparrow, song sparrow, and American tree sparrow.   Place seed such as white millet in ground feeders or directly on the ground to attract many of these migrants.
  • Bird feeders will continue to be active with year-round resident birds such as mourning dove, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, blue jay, northern cardinal, house finch, and American goldfinch.
  • Good tips for feeding birds are available from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, online at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/notes/BirdNote01_WinterFeeding.pdf
  • If you don’t have a feeder of your own, consider visiting a local nature center (see the 2nd to last column in the tables of nature viewing sites found under the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page).
  • The following “short-distance” migrant songbirds are passing through on their journey south or over-wintering in our region: brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch, golden-crowned kinglet, dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, American tree sparrow, purple finch, and pine siskin.
  • The northern shrike, a predatory passerine that breeds in Canada and Alaska, will continue to arrive in the Region. Watch for them on prominent perches overlooking open and brushy habitats.
  • Most eastern bluebirds, American robins, eastern meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, brown-headed cowbirds, and summer resident sparrows have now left the Region for southern climes.
  • While most American robins have migrated south, small to medium sized flocks may still be encountered.
  • Small flocks of horned larks are being joined in open farmland and other tundra-like habitats by snow buntings and Lapland longspurs. Many will over-winter in our region.
  • To stay abreast of bird sightings in the region, consult eBird, Genesee Birds, and Dial-a-Bird (see the “Resources” tab on this web page for more details).

Mammals:

  • Resident species of cave bats (big brown, little brown, and eastern pipistrelle [tri-colored] bats) have entered hibernation. Most woodchucks have also started their winter hibernation. Two other species of true hibernators, meadow jumping mouse and woodland jumping mouse, have also begun hibernation.
  • Most eastern chipmunks have now entered a state of torpor. In this state, which is not a true form of hibernation, chipmunks sleep but arouse frequently to feed on hoarded food. They may forage aboveground during mild weather.
  • Gray squirrels and southern flying squirrels continue to actively gather and store acorns and other mast for winter. Similarly, red squirrels form middens of pine and spruce cones.
  • White-footed mice and deer mice prepare for winter by building nests in woodpecker holes, bird houses, and squirrel leaf-nests. Some rehab old bird nests by adding a roof and insulation. These mice often cross paths with homeowners this time of year as they seek shelter in sheds, garages, and houses – along with non-native house mice.
  • Beavers cut more trees this time of year, in preparation for winter. They will cut, transport, and cache cut branches in shallow water near their lodges for wintertime feeding.
  • Beavers are also actively building and repairing dams and lodges at this time.
  • Ermine (AKA short-tailed weasel) are molting from brown to white pelage at this time.
  • Continue to watch for white-tailed deer buck rubs. Bucks actively rub saplings and small trees, depositing scent from forehead glands.
  • Bucks will continue to make scrapes by pawing away leaves to expose soil, then urinating over the scraped area to deposit scent from tarsal glands. They typically mouth and rub their antlers on an overhanging branch, depositing even more scent.
  • Deer courtship (the “rut”) continues this week. Does become more active as they start estrus and bucks are often seen following them. As a result, the frequency of deer-car collisions increases sharply during the rut, from mid-October through December.
  • Black bears, an uncommon species in the Buffalo-Niagara Region but increasingly common to our south, typically have mostly entered carnivorous lethargy by now. In this state, which is not a true form of hibernation, a bear’s heart rate is significantly lowered but body temperature falls only about 10°F (substantially smaller drop than for true hibernators).

Be sure to find an opportunity to get outside this week to discover signs of the season.

Chuck Rosenburg

November 12-18, 2018 (Week 46 of 52): Our Landscape has been Transformed Following Leaf-Drop

Wind and rain have stripped most leaves from trees and shrubs over the past week, rapidly transforming our brightly colored landscape to one dominated by drab browns and grays. While the loss of leaves and the associated color may be disheartening to some, their absence provides an opportunity to observe bird nests, squirrel nests, bald-faced hornet nests, unusual tree bark, and other features that have been hidden from view the past several months. This is an excellent time to hike established trails and the edges of fields and woods to discover what has just been revealed.

Leaf drop also provides a bonanza for many organisms, both terrestrial and aquatic, that rely on leaves for food. A variety of soil invertebrates feed on leaves (and/or fungi and bacteria on leaf surfaces), shredding them and assisting with the recycling process that returns leaf nutrients back into the soil for continued use by trees and other plants. Examples of these invertebrates include earthworms, snails, slugs, sow bugs, pill bugs, millipedes, springtails, nematode worms, and soil mites. Similarly, a variety of aquatic invertebrates feed on leaves that fall into streams. These organisms include leaf shredders (e.g., isopods, and juvenile stages of certain species of crane flies, caddis flies, stone flies, and water beetles) as well as filter feeders (e.g., juvenile stages of certain species of midges, blackflies, and caddis flies). Leaves and the terrestrial and aquatic organisms that feed on them are essential components of the food webs associated with forest and stream ecosystems.

Below are highlights of what you can expect to find outdoors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region this week. Those in bold/italics are new or substantially revised highlights to watch for this week. Check out the list of 300 publicly accessible sites (“B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page) to find areas to explore in your neighborhood and throughout the Buffalo-Niagara Region.

Average Sunrise/Sunset (Day Length):

  • 7:08 AM/4:52 PM EST (9 Hours, 44 Minutes)
  • 5 Hours, 37 minutes of daylight shorter than at Summer Solstice

Typical Weather:

  • Normal High Temperature: 47.9° F  Normal Low Temperature: 34.2° F
  • Heavy frost/freeze and snow are forecast for this week.

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

  • The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo dropped to 48°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) dropped to 46°F as of November 13, 2018.
  • Water levels in most interior wetlands and vernal pools remain low but continue to rise in response to recent rainfall and reduced evapotranspiration rates.
  • Similarly, the water level in most ponds is low but continuing to rise.
  • Most streams will exhibit moderate flow levels this week.

Fungi:

  • The hard frost/freeze forecast for this week will extinguish most fungal fruiting bodies. The fungal “roots” (mycelium network) will survive the winter and produce new fruiting bodies during the appropriate season next year. Interestingly, fruiting bodies of some species of fungi (e.g., oyster mushrooms) remain viable during the winter and may disseminate spores during warm periods or in early spring.

Ferns and Grasses/Sedges/Rushes:

  • The hard frost/freeze forecast for this week will kill remnant grass, sedge, and rush stems (thus known as a killing frost). The roots of these perennial plants will survive and sprout next spring.
  • Broad-leaf and narrow-leaf cattail fruits are disintegrating, releasing thousands of tiny fluffy seeds to the wind.

Wildflowers:

  • The hard frost/freeze forecast for this week will kill remnant wildflower stems (thus known as a killing frost). Roots and rhizomes of perennial wildflowers will survive and sprout next spring. Seeds of annual wildflowers will do the same.
  • This is bur season so be watchful where you (and your dog(s)) walk. Several local plants have adapted a hitch-a-ride strategy that capitalizes on animal disbursal. Those currently in fruit include common burdock and multiple species of bur marigold and avens.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • Wind and rain have stripped leaves from most trees and shrubs over the past week, transforming a brightly colored landscape to one dominated by browns and grays.
  • Most American beech leaves continue to retain a golden hue, but the change to brown will advance quickly following a hard frost/freeze this week.
  • While most oak leaves are brown, some northern red oak and pin oak leaves in sheltered areas retain some red-brown color.
  • Leaf color for some species of trees and shrubs is still mostly green and greenish yellow, including some willows, Tartarian and Morrow’s honeysuckles (both non-native), and common and glossy buckthorn (both non-native).
  • Be on the lookout for stringy yellow petals of witch-hazel flowers. Also watch and listen for seeds being explosively ejected from ripe (but woody) fruits (from last year’s flowers).
  • The availability of hard and soft mast is noticeably less abundant now as squirrels, chipmunks, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and other wildlife have consumed a large amount over the past several weeks.
  • Some hard mast (acorns, hickory nuts, etc.) continues to be available, on and off trees, for consumption by many mammals and some birds (e.g., wild turkey, blue jay). Sources at this time include northern red oak, pin oak, bitternut hickory, and black walnut.
  • Several native trees, shrubs, and vines continue to provide some ripe fruit (soft mast) that is an important source of food for a variety of birds and mammals: winterberry, cranberry viburnum, staghorn sumac, swamp rose, poison ivy, Virginia creeper, and wild grape.
  • In addition, the following non-native species provide ripe fruit (soft mast) consumed by wildlife: multiflora rose, autumn olive, and common buckthorn.

Insects & Other Invertebrates:

  • The hard frost/freeze forecast for this week will kill most adult insects and other invertebrates that have not migrated or entered hibernation. The vast majority of insect species in our Region over-winter as eggs or larvae/nymphs, although some species over-winter as adults.
  • Adult stage ticks become especially abundant in early October and remain active as long as temperatures stay above freezing and the ground is not covered with snow. Therefore, be especially careful to wear protective clothing and/or repellent, and do tick-checks after every outing.

Fish:

  • Many species of fish are moving into shallower areas and are feeding more heavily as water temperatures have cooled, including muskellunge, walleye, and smallmouth bass.
  • Schools of yellow perch continue to move into progressively shallower water as fall advances.
  • Chinook salmon (AKA king salmon) and coho salmon are mostly done spawning in Great Lakes tributary streams and the Lower Niagara River. These salmon die after spawning. Both species are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
  • Historically, Atlantic salmon (AKA landlocked salmon) followed a similar spawning pattern in the Lake Ontario. However, Atlantic salmon do not die after spawning. This native and one-time abundant species was nearly extirpated in the late 1800’s. Restoration efforts have had limited success to date.
  • Another native species, lake trout, continues to spawn in shallow rocky/gravelly shoals of the Great Lakes and Lower Niagara River.
  • Steelhead continue to run up Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River at this time. Spawning does not occur until late winter and early spring. Steelhead are an anadromous form of rainbow trout that spawn in streams but live most of their lives in Lakes Erie and Ontario. All forms of rainbow trout are native to Pacific coast watersheds.
  • Native brook trout (our state fish species) continue to spawn in riffles and shallow areas of small headwater streams at this time. Male brook trout develop a hook on the lower jaw and are ornately colored at this time of year.
  • Brown trout continue to run up Great Lakes tributaries and the Lower Niagara River. Spawning typically occurs from late October to December in these tributaries. In headwater streams, where brown trout have been stocked, they typically spawn a little later than brook trout. Brown trout were introduced from Europe.

Amphibians & Reptiles:

  • With the onset of winter weather, essentially all amphibians and reptiles are now hibernating.

Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:

  • With recent cold temperatures across the Buffalo-Niagara Region, most of our inland lakes and ponds are now frozen. The ice cover has driven most dabbling ducks (e.g., mallard, wood duck, American wigeon) and Canada geese south, out of our Region. Most of those that remain, primarily mallards and Canada geese, have relocated to open waters of the Niagara River and Great Lakes.
  • Watch and listen for migrant Canada goose flocks passing overhead. Some will stop-over in our region to rest and feed on their journey south.
  • This is a good time to scout for migrant brant resting and feeding in parkland and other open habitats bordering Lakes Erie and Ontario. Brant is a relatively small species of goose that nests in the tundra and into the Arctic Circle.
  • The annual buildup of “sea ducks” and similar waterbirds that over-winter in the Great Lakes and Niagara River continues with arrivals of common loon, red-throated loon, red-necked grebe, horned grebe, greater scaup, lesser scaup, canvasback, redhead, common goldeneye, bufflehead, white-winged scoter, surf scoter, black scoter, long-tailed duck, common merganser, and red-breasted merganser.
  • Watch and listen for migrant tundra swans passing over and congregating along the upper Niagara River and at Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge and adjoining state WMA’s.
  • This is a good time to look for purple sandpipers feeding in rocky habitats above Niagara Falls.
  • Bonaparte’s gull numbers will continue to build in the region this week, using the Niagara River as a significant stop-over feeding area along their migration route south. This species will reach its peak fall numbers in the region in November and December when thousands may be observed along the Niagara River.
  • This is an excellent time to watch for rare species of gulls such as Franklin’s gull, little gull, black-headed gull, Iceland gull, lesser black-backed gull, Sabine’s gull, and black-legged kittiwake among more common species such as recent arrivals of Bonaparte’s and greater black-backed gulls. Such rarities add to the remarkable diversity of gull species – 19 species total – that have been observed along the Niagara River and bordering Great Lakes. The peak time is typically between mid-November and mid-January.

Birds of Prey:

  • Migrant hawks are continuing to pass through the Buffalo-Niagara Region, including red-tailed hawk, rough-legged hawk, and northern goshawk.
  • Bald eagles can be found along the upper and lower Niagara River where good numbers will over-winter.
  • Winter resident raptors will continue to arrive in the region, especially in areas with extensive open grassland habitat, including northern harriers, rough-legged hawks, snowy owls, short-eared owls, and long-eared owls.
  • Snowy owls are frequently found along Great Lakes shorelines, such as the Buffalo waterfront, where they feed on ducks and other waterbirds.
  • Northern saw-whet owls will continue to migrate through the Region, as documented by Project Owlnet and ebird.

Upland Game Birds:

  • Watch for wild turkey flocks in farm fields, along forest edges, and near bird feeders.

Songbirds:

  • Watch bird feeders for the following songbird species that are part of this year’s “winter finch” irruption: purple finch, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill, common redpoll, hoary redpoll, pine siskin, evening grosbeak, and red-breasted nuthatch. Nyjer (AKA thistle) and black oil sunflower are the best seeds for attracting these species.
  • Bird feeders are also excellent locations to watch for arrivals of more typical migrant and over-wintering feeder birds such as dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, fox sparrow, song sparrow, and American tree sparrow.   Place seed such as white millet in ground feeders or directly on the ground to attract many of these migrants.
  • Bird feeders will continue to be active with year-round resident birds such as mourning dove, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, blue jay, northern cardinal, house finch, and American goldfinch.
  • Good tips for feeding birds are available from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, online at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/notes/BirdNote01_WinterFeeding.pdf
  • If you don’t have a feeder of your own, consider visiting a local nature center (see the 2nd to last column in the tables of nature viewing sites found under the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page).
  • The following “short-distance” migrant songbirds are passing through our region on their journey south: brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch, golden-crowned kinglet, ruby-crowned kinglet, winter wren, American pipit, hermit thrush, yellow-rumped warbler, dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, fox sparrow, song sparrow, American tree sparrow, purple finch, and pine siskin.
  • The northern shrike, a predatory passerine that breeds in Canada and Alaska, will continue to arrive in the Region. Watch for them on prominent perches overlooking open and brushy habitats.
  • Small flocks and family groups of eastern bluebirds may be seen this time of year, as well as small to medium sized flocks of American robins.
  • Small flocks of horned larks are being joined in open farmland and other tundra-like habitats by snow buntings and Lapland longspurs. Many will over-winter in our region.
  • To stay abreast of bird sightings in the region, consult eBird, Genesee Birds, and Dial-a-Bird (see the “Resources” tab on this web page for more details).

Mammals:

  • Resident species of cave bats (big brown, little brown, and eastern pipistrelle [tri-colored] bats) have entered hibernation. Most woodchucks have also started their winter hibernation. Two other species of true hibernators, meadow jumping mouse and woodland jumping mouse, have also begun hibernation.
  • While a few eastern chipmunks are still active, most will enter torpor soon. In this state, which is not a true form of hibernation, chipmunks sleep but arouse frequently to feed on hoarded food. They may forage aboveground during mild weather.
  • Gray squirrels and southern flying squirrels continue to actively gather and store acorns and other mast for winter. Similarly, red squirrels form middens of pine and spruce cones.
  • White-footed mice and deer mice prepare for winter by building nests in woodpecker holes, bird houses, and squirrel leaf-nests. Some rehab old bird nests by adding a roof and insulation. These mice often cross paths with homeowners this time of year as they seek shelter in sheds, garages, and houses – along with non-native house mice.
  • Beavers cut more trees this time of year, in preparation for winter. They will cut, transport, and cache cut branches in shallow water near their lodges for wintertime feeding.
  • Beavers are also actively building and repairing dams and lodges at this time.
  • Continue to watch for white-tailed deer buck rubs. Bucks actively rub saplings and small trees, depositing scent from forehead glands.
  • Bucks are also making scrapes by pawing away leaves to expose soil, then urinating over the scraped area to deposit scent from tarsal glands. They typically mouth and rub their antlers on an overhanging branch, depositing even more scent.
  • Deer courtship (the “rut”) is well underway. Does become more active as they start estrus and bucks are often seen following them. As a result, the frequency of deer-car collisions increases sharply during the rut, from mid-October through December.
  • Black bears, an uncommon species in the Buffalo-Niagara Region but increasingly common to our south, typically enter carnivorous lethargy at about this time. In this state, which is not a true form of hibernation, a bear’s heart rate is significantly lowered but body temperature falls only about 10°F (substantially smaller drop than for true hibernators).

Be sure to find an opportunity to get outside this week to discover signs of the season.

Chuck Rosenburg