April 16-22, 2019 (Week 16 of 52): The Return to Above Normal Temperatures Will Propel Wildflower Blooming and More

With warmer than average temperatures forecast for the Buffalo-Niagara Region during much of this week, spring ephemeral wildflowers (woodland species that bloom fleetingly before trees leaf-out) will begin to flower abundantly later this week, and will likely reach peak bloom next week. Southerly winds will propel the ongoing passage of migrant birds, some of which will nest in the Buffalo-Niagara Region and others which will continue north to breeding grounds in Canada. Many other animal and plant activities will also advance.

Below are highlights of what you can expect to find outdoors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region this third full week of spring. Those in bold/italics are new 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):

  • 6:27 AM/8:03 PM DST (13 Hours, 36 Minutes)
  • 4 Hours, 35 minutes of daylight longer than at Winter Solstice

Typical Weather:

  • Normal High Temperature: 56.6° F  Normal Low Temperature: 38.1° F
  • Cumulative Growing Degree Days thru April 15, 2019: 53

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

  • While the west end of Lake Ontario is ice-free, the east end of Lake Erie is still mostly ice-covered (albeit less concentrated) as the ice boom is still in place.
  • The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo remained at 32°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) rose slightly to 39°F as of April 16.
  • Inland ponds, wetlands, and vernal pools are near annual high-water levels.
  • Streams will continue with moderate flow levels this week, with the potential for high levels if the Region experiences thunderstorms and/or other heavy precipitation.

Fungi:

  • Watch for early fungi such as scarlet cup fungus in hardwood forests.

Ferns and Grasses/Sedges/Rushes:

  • Fiddleheads (furled leaf fronds coiled like the scroll of a violin head) will start to emerge for a few species of wetland ferns (e.g., cinnamon, royal, and sensitive ferns) later this week.
  • Watch for field horsetail growing in wet areas, resembling a small pine seedling.
  • While we’ve seen just slight grass growth in our lawns, wool-grass (a type of bulrush), a variety of sedge species, and wetland grasses have grown several inches in wet meadows and the edges of marshes.

Wildflowers:

  • Skunk cabbage is nearly done flowering. Its large skunky-smelling leaves will become evident in forested wetlands over the next couple weeks.
  • The large leaves of false hellebore will also become evident in forested wetlands, but this species won’t flower until late May or June.
  • Sharp-lobed hepatica and bloodroot, the earliest of our spring ephemeral wildflowers (woodland species that bloom fleetingly before trees leaf-out), will continue to bloom in suitable areas this week.
  • Watch for other early-flowering spring ephemerals such as spring cress, purple cress, and red trillium.
  • Most other spring ephemeral wildflowers will begin to bloom later this week and reach peak flowering next week, including yellow trout lily, spring beauty, Carolina spring beauty, northern blue violet, Canada white violet, downy yellow violet, wild ginger, large-flowered (white) trillium, blue cohosh, early meadow rue, cut-leaved toothwort, two-leaved toothwort, foam flower, Dutchman’s breeches, and squirrel corn. Sites along the Niagara and Onondaga Escarpments offer the greatest diversity and abundance of these species.
  • Wild leek leaves have emerged in some upland forests. This is the best time of year to harvest leeks (AKA ramps). Be sure to harvest sustainably and with landowner permission.
  • Coltsfoot, a non-native species that has naturalized across the region, will continue to bloom this week. Look for its yellow, dandelion-like flowers.
  • Lesser celandine, an invasive non-native species of buttercup, will bloom in some areas this week. It is most common in floodplain forest habitats.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • The flowering of red and silver maple trees is now slightly beyond peak, but still adding subtle color to our leafless woodlands.
  • Pussy willows will flower across most of the region this week, developing stamens that will produce pollen.
  • Spicebush will start to flower in some forested wetlands later this week. Look for its small yellow blossoms. Blooming will approach peak over the next week.
  • A few serviceberry trees and shadbush shrubs may begin to bloom in forest understory and edge habitats. Blooming will approach peak over the next week.
  • Quaking aspen, big-toothed aspen, American elm, eastern hophornbeam, speckled alder, and American hazelnut will continue to flower this week.
  • Wind-dispersed pollen of red & silver maples, poplars/aspens, and American elm continue to be the leading allergens in the Buffalo Area at this time.
  • Leaf buds on Tartarian and Morrow’s honeysuckles will produce small leaves this week. Early leaf-out of this non-native invasive shrub species helps to give it a competitive advantage over native shrubs.
  • Choke cherry, a native fruit-bearing shrub, will also produce small leaves this week.

Insects & Other Invertebrates:

  • Ticks are now active so wear protective clothing and/or repellent, and do tick-checks after every outing.
  • Flooded lawns will force earthworms to the surface and onto roads, driveways, and sidewalks where they are easily gleaned by American robins.
  • A surprising diversity and abundance of vernal pool invertebrates will continue 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 emerge from streams and be active when air temperatures are about 40°F and warmer.
  • Watch for honeybees and native pollinators such as bumblebees and hover flies visiting newly blooming flowers this week.
  • Wooly bear caterpillars that overwintered beneath leaf litter will continue to be active on warm days. After a brief feeding period, each will spin a cocoon of their orange and black hairs and develop into an Isabella tiger moth.
  • Mourning cloak and eastern comma butterflies (which overwintered as adults) will continue to be active during relatively warm days this week.
  • Common green darners will migrate back into our Region from the South this week, typically the earliest dragonflies to be seen here.

Fish:

  • Northern pike are concentrated in tributary streams, ditches, and shoreline wetlands for spawning.
  • White suckers will continue to migrate upstream within Great Lakes tributary streams to their spawning grounds.
  • Large schools of alewife will continue to move from cold depths of Lakes Erie and Ontario to nearshore areas in preparation for spawning.
  • Large runs of brown bullheads will continue to enter tributary streams and harbors.
  • Walleye and yellow perch will continue to move into shallow waters to spawn.
  • Steelhead that migrated from Lakes Erie and Ontario into tributary streams (including Niagara River) last fall are joined by fresh steelhead entering 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 continue to stock some local streams with hatchery-raised brown, brook, and/or rainbow trout this week.

Amphibians & Reptiles:

  • Early breeding frogs such as the western chorus frog, spring peeper, northern leopard frog, and American toad will continue to vocalize and breed in wetlands and vernal pools when temperatures are warm enough (typically 40° F or warmer).
  • Most mole salamanders (spotted, blue-spotted, and Jefferson salamanders) have now migrated out of the vernal pools, where they bred, and have returned to their mostly subterranean lifestyles in nearby upland forest habitats. Look for egg masses left behind in vernal pools.
  • Red efts (non-breeding migrant phase of the eastern/red-spotted newt) will continue to migrate to breeding ponds this week where they will transform into breeding adults, joining newts that overwintered in the ponds.
  • Lungless salamanders (e.g., red-backed, northern slimy, northern dusky, mountain dusky, and two-lined salamanders) will remain active this week. They can be found under rocks and logs during the day.
  • Eastern garter snakes will continue to emerge from hibernation/brumation. Watch for “snake balls” – breeding clusters consisting of multiple males attempting to mate with a single female.
  • Common snapping and midland painted turtles will continue to be active this week. Watch for painted turtles basking on logs, especially during cool but sunny periods.
  • Watch for tiny midland painted turtles to emerge from nests in lawns, flower beds, and road shoulders – typically near ponds and wetlands.

Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:

  • Fair 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 continue to stop-over in the region as they migrate north, or return to local breeding areas such as Iroquois NWR.
  • Pairs of Canada geese will continue to occupy and defend nesting sites in ponds and wetlands.
  • Some early breeding ducks such as mallard and wood duck may already be incubating eggs. Don’t be surprised to see wood ducks perched in trees, near nest cavities, this time of year.
  • Great blue herons will continue to nest on Motor Island in the Niagara River (along with a few great egrets), as well as inland nesting areas (rookeries).
  • Black-crowned night-herons will gather at nesting areas (rookeries), including Motor Island and a large rookery on one of the small islands just above the brink of Niagara Falls.
  • Double-crested cormorants are returning in large numbers to the Niagara River and Great Lakes.
  • Watch for additional migrant and summer resident water birds such as the common loon, American bittern, black-crowned night-heron, pied-billed grebe, horned grebe, green heron, Virginia rail, sora, common gallinule, and American coot this week.
  • Bonaparte’s gulls will continue to enter the region, using the Niagara River as a significant stop-over feeding area along their migration route north. This species will reach its peak spring numbers in the region in mid- to late April when thousands will be present along the Niagara River.
  • The numbers of common terns will continue to build along the Great Lakes and Niagara River this week. They will start nesting at their typical colony sites soon.
  • Watch for Caspian terns, the largest of the tern species to commonly occur in the region, along the Niagara River and Lakes Erie and Ontario this week.
  • Killdeer pairs are courting this week and some may be nesting.
  • Male American woodcock and Wilson’s snipe will continue to perform their elaborate aerial displays designed to attract mates. Woodcock perform mostly near dawn and dusk whereas snipe display mostly during daylight hours.
  • Some woodcock hens are already incubating eggs.
  • Other early migrant shorebirds may arrive in our area this week: greater yellowlegs, lesser yellowlegs, pectoral sandpiper, and spotted sandpiper.
  • 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:

  • Spring migration flights of hawks, falcons, eagles, and turkey vultures will continue to follow the Lake Erie and Lake Ontario shores as they migrate north. An excellent observation area for seeing hundreds (sometimes thousands) of these migrants in a single day is Lakeside Cemetery in Hamburg.
  • 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.
  • Most year-round resident raptors such as the great horned owl, barred owl, eastern screech owl, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and red-tailed hawk are incubating eggs or brooding young chicks.
  • Recent arrivals such as the red-shouldered hawk, Cooper’s hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, and osprey are establishing breeding territories and initiating nesting.

Upland Game Birds:

  • Wild turkey flocks are starting to dissolve. Wild turkey toms, with colorful heads and fanned tails, will intensify their courtship displays to hens.
  • Listen for drumming displays by male ruffed grouse in the southern part of the Buffalo-Niagara region as well as the Alabama Swamps area.
  • Male ring-necked pheasants that have become naturalized in the region will continue their rooster-like crowing to establish territories and attract mates. Some hens may be laying eggs at this time.

Songbirds:

  • Enjoy viewing dark-eyed juncos and American tree at bird feeders as most will leave for northern breeding grounds over the next week or two.
  • Watch for early migrant feeder birds such as red-winged blackbird, common grackle, brown-headed cowbird, chipping sparrow, white-throated sparrow, fox sparrow, song sparrow, purple finch, and American goldfinch. Be sure to place seed such as white millet in ground feeders or directly on the ground to attract these migrants.
  • 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).
  • Additional early migrant songbirds will continue to trickle into the region:   brown creeper, golden-crowned kinglet, ruby-crowned kinglet, blue-gray gnatcatcher, eastern phoebe, tree swallow, barn swallow, rough-winged swallow, bank swallow, purple martin, winter wren, house wren, northern flicker, yellow-bellied sapsucker, American pipit, belted kingfisher, hermit thrush, brown thrasher, eastern meadowlark, red-winged blackbird (females), rusty blackbird, eastern (rufous-sided) towhee, white-throated sparrow, fox sparrow, chipping sparrow, field sparrow, swamp sparrow, and savannah sparrow.
  • Among the early migrant songbirds will be some warblers, including yellow-rumped warbler, pine warbler, palm warbler, yellow warbler, black-and-white warbler, Louisiana waterthrush, and northern waterthrush.
  • Songbirds have initiated their pre-nuptial molt – most evident in male American goldfinches visiting feeders.
  • Early breeding songbirds such as the mourning dove, blue jay, American crow, horned lark, white-breasted nuthatch, Carolina wren, American robin, eastern bluebird, European starling, song sparrow, northern cardinal, common grackle, house finch, and house sparrow may already be incubating eggs. Others will continue to sing, establish territories, and court as they prepare to nest.

Mammals:

  • Male woodchucks have emerged from hibernation and seek to mate with females as they emerge from their winter dens.
  • An occasional big brown bat may emerge late this week from hibernacula in local attics etc. and be seen foraging for insects.
  • Other true hibernators (several species of bats, meadow jumping mouse, and woodland jumping mouse) will continue to be mostly inactive in the region during the coming week.
  • Newborn opossums suckle from the safety and warmth of their mother’s pouch. A single litter often consists of over a dozen young.
  • Eastern chipmunks have emerged from winter torpor and are actively feeding and breeding this week.
  • Gray squirrels, red squirrels, and southern flying squirrels will continue to give birth to the first of two litters of young at about this time.
  • Yearling beavers disperse from natal ponds to establish their own territories at this time. Now is an especially good time to find scent mounds marking beaver territories, typically along edges of beaver ponds.
  • Eastern cottontails will continue to give birth to the first of three litters of young at about this time.
  • Coyotes and red & gray fox give birth to pups at about this time.
  • White-tailed deer will continue to travel in herds. Finding food will continue to be difficult until the growing season gets into full swing.

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

Chuck Rosenburg

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April 9-15, 2019 (Week 15 of 52): Large Temperature Swings Have Caused an Erratic Spring Progression

The large swings in air temperature that the Buffalo-Niagara Region experienced over the past few weeks will continue through much of Week 15. Those temperature swings have led to an erratic progression of spring, characterized by fits and starts. The unexpectedly warm weather April 6-8 triggered considerable plant growth and insect emergence while the associated southerly winds provided excellent conditions for northbound migrant birds to enter the Region. Subsequent cool temperatures and northerly winds shut down that progression. However, tomorrow’s unseasonably warm and wet weather will revive plant growth and animal activities, albeit briefly.

Below are highlights of what you can expect to find outdoors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region this third full week of spring. Those in bold/italics are new 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):

  • 6:38 AM/7:55 PM DST (13 Hours, 17 Minutes)
  • 4 Hours, 16 minutes of daylight longer than at Winter Solstice

Typical Weather:

  • Normal High Temperature: 53.5° F  Normal Low Temperature: 35.6° F
  • Cumulative Growing Degree Days thru April 10, 2019: 40

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

  • While the west end of Lake Ontario is ice-free, the east end of Lake Erie is still mostly ice-covered (albeit less concentrated) as the ice boom is still in place.
  • The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo remained at 32°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) remained at 38°F as of April 11.
  • Inland ponds, wetlands, and vernal pools are near annual high-water levels.
  • Streams will continue with moderate flow levels this week, with the potential for high levels if the Region experiences thunderstorms and/or other heavy precipitation.

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:

  • While freezing temperatures during late autumn killed remnant grass, sedge, and rush stems, the roots of these perennial plants survived and are beginning to sprout (in particular, wool-grass (a type of bulrush), a variety of sedge species, soft rush, and wetland grasses).

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 continue to flower in forested wetlands, remaining near its peak blooming period this week.
  • The earliest of the spring ephemeral wildflowers, sharp-lobed hepatica and bloodroot, may start to bloom in some areas this week.
  • The leaves of spring ephemeral wildflowers can now be found in many woodlands, the most evident being yellow trout lily with its mottled pattern (resembling a brook trout). A few buds and blossoms may start to show this week.
  • Wild leek leaves have emerged in some upland forests. This is the best time of year to harvest leeks (AKA ramps). Be sure to harvest sustainably and with landowner permission.
  • Coltsfoot, a non-native species that has naturalized across the region, will continue to bloom this week. Look for its yellow, dandelion-like flowers.
  • Lesser celandine, an invasive non-native species of buttercup, will begin to bloom in some areas this week. It is most common in floodplain forest habitats.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • Red and silver maple trees will be remain near peak flowering this week.
  • Pussy willows will continue to “flower” across most of the region, soon developing stamens that will produce pollen.
  • Quaking aspen, big-toothed aspen, American elm, eastern hophornbeam, speckled alder, and American hazelnut will continue to flower this week.
  • Wind-dispersed pollen of red & silver maples, alder, and American elm are currently the leading allergens in the Buffalo Area.
  • Leaf buds on some Tartarian and Morrow’s honeysuckles may open this week. Early leaf-out of these non-native invasive shrub species helps to give them a competitive advantage over native shrubs.

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.
  • Flooded lawns will force earthworms to the surface and onto roads, driveways, and sidewalks where they are easily gleaned by American robins.
  • A surprising diversity and abundance of vernal pool invertebrates will continue 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 emerge from streams and be active when air temperatures are about 40°F and warmer.
  • Watch for honeybees and native bumblebees visiting newly blooming flowers this week.
  • Wooly bear caterpillars that overwintered beneath leaf litter will continue to be active on warm days. After a brief feeding period, each will spin a cocoon of their orange and black hairs and develop into an Isabella tiger moth.
  • Mourning cloak and eastern comma butterflies (which overwintered as adults) will continue to be active during relatively warm days this week.
  • Common green darners may start migrating back into our Region from the South this week, typically the earliest dragonflies to be seen here.

Fish:

  • Northern pike are concentrated in tributary streams, ditches, and shoreline wetlands for spawning.
  • White suckers will continue to migrate upstream within Great Lakes tributary streams to their spawning grounds.
  • Large schools of alewife will continue to move from cold depths of Lakes Erie and Ontario to nearshore areas in preparation for spawning.
  • Large runs of brown bullheads will continue to enter tributary streams and harbors.
  • Walleye and yellow perch will be moving into shallow waters to spawn.
  • 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 continue to stock some local streams with hatchery-raised brown, brook, and/or rainbow trout this week.

Amphibians & Reptiles:

  • Early breeding frogs such as the wood frog, western chorus frog, spring peeper, and northern leopard frog will continue to vocalize and breed in wetlands and vernal pools when temperatures are warm enough (typically 40° F or warmer).
  • Some American toads have joined the frog chorus in ponds, wetlands, and vernal pools.
  • Red efts (non-breeding migrant phase of the eastern/red-spotted newt) will continue to migrate to breeding ponds this week where they will transform into breeding adults, joining newts that overwintered in the ponds.
  • Lungless salamanders (e.g., red-backed, northern slimy, northern dusky, mountain dusky, and two-lined salamanders) will remain active this week. They can be found under rocks and logs during the day.
  • Eastern garter snakes will continue to emerge from hibernation/ brumation. Watch for “snake balls” – breeding clusters consisting of multiple males attempting to mate with a single female.
  • Common snapping and midland painted turtles will continue to be active this week. Watch for painted turtles basking on logs, especially during cool but sunny periods.
  • Watch for tiny midland painted turtles to emerge from nests in lawns, flower beds, and road shoulders – typically near ponds and wetlands.

Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:

  • Noticeably smaller numbers of over-wintering ducks remain in open water areas of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario this week. The most abundant species at this time is the red-breasted merganser, many of which are performing courtship displays and vocalizations.
  • 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 continue to stop-over in the region as they migrate north, or return to local breeding areas such as Iroquois NWR.
  • Pairs of Canada geese will continue to occupy and defend nesting sites in ponds and wetlands.
  • Some early breeding ducks such as mallard and wood duck may already be incubating eggs. Don’t be surprised to see wood ducks perched in trees, near nest cavities, this time of year.
  • Great blue herons will continue to nest on Motor Island in the Niagara River (along with a few great egrets), as well as inland nesting areas (rookeries).
  • Black-crowned night-herons will gather at nesting areas (rookeries), including a large rookery on one of the small islands just above the brink of Niagara Falls.
  • Watch for additional migrant and summer resident water birds such as the common loon, double-crested cormorant, American bittern, black-crowned night-heron, pied-billed grebe, horned grebe, and American coot this week.
  • Bonaparte’s gulls will continue to enter the region, using the Niagara River as a significant stop-over feeding area along their migration route north. This species will reach its peak spring numbers in the region in mid- to late April when thousands will be present along the Niagara River.
  • Watch for Caspian terns, the largest of the tern species to commonly occur in the region, along the Niagara River and Lakes Erie and Ontario this week.
  • Killdeer pairs are courting this week and some may be nesting.
  • Male American woodcock and Wilson’s snipe will continue to perform their elaborate aerial displays designed to attract mates. Woodcock perform mostly near dawn and dusk whereas snipe display mostly during daylight hours.
  • Some woodcock hens are already incubating eggs.
  • Other early migrant shorebirds may arrive in our area this week: greater yellowlegs, lesser yellowlegs, and spotted sandpiper.
  • 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 migrate through and linger in the Region, especially in areas with extensive open grassland habitat.
  • Spring migration flights of hawks, falcons, eagles, and turkey vultures will continue to follow the Lake Erie and Lake Ontario shores as they migrate north. An excellent observation area for seeing hundreds (sometimes thousands) of these migrants in a single day is Lakeside Cemetery in Hamburg.
  • 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.
  • Recent arrivals such as the red-shouldered hawk, Cooper’s hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, and osprey will be establishing nesting territories.

Upland Game Birds:

  • Wild turkeys will continue to travel and feed in flocks. Wild turkey toms, with colorful heads and fanned tails, will intensify their courtship displays to hens.
  • Listen for drumming displays by male ruffed grouse in the southern part of the Buffalo-Niagara region as well as the Alabama Swamps area.
  • Male ring-necked pheasants that have become naturalized in the region will continue their rooster-like crowing to establish territories and attract mates. Some hens may be laying eggs at this time.

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 and common redpoll will continue to visit local bird feeders. Most will leave for northern breeding grounds over the next two or three weeks.
  • Watch for early migrant feeder birds such as red-winged blackbird, common grackle, brown-headed cowbird, chipping sparrow, white-throated sparrow, fox sparrow, song sparrow, purple finch, and American goldfinch. Be sure to place seed such as white millet in ground feeders or directly on the ground to attract these migrants.
  • 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).
  • Additional early migrant songbirds will continue to trickle into the region:   brown creeper, golden-crowned kinglet, ruby-crowned kinglet, eastern phoebe, tree swallow, barn swallow, rough-winged swallow, purple martin, winter wren, northern flicker, yellow-bellied sapsucker, American pipit, belted kingfisher, hermit thrush, brown thrasher, yellow-rumped warbler, pine warbler, eastern meadowlark, eastern bluebird, American robin, horned lark, red-winged blackbird, rusty blackbird, eastern (rufous-sided) towhee, white-throated sparrow, fox sparrow, chipping sparrow, field sparrow, swamp sparrow, savannah sparrow, and American goldfinch.
  • Songbirds have initiated their pre-nuptial molt – most evident in male American goldfinches visiting feeders.
  • Early breeding songbirds such as the mourning dove, blue jay, American crow, horned lark, white-breasted nuthatch, Carolina wren, American robin, eastern bluebird, European starling, song sparrow, northern cardinal, common grackle, house finch, and house sparrow may already be incubating eggs. Others will continue to sing, establish territories, and court as they prepare to nest.

Mammals:

  • Male woodchucks have emerged from hibernation and seek to mate with females as they emerge from their winter dens.
  • Other true hibernators (several species of bats, meadow jumping mouse, and woodland jumping mouse) will continue to be mostly inactive in the region during the coming week.
  • Ermine (AKA short-tailed weasel) are molting from white to brown pelage at this time.
  • Newborn opossums suckle from the safety and warmth of their mother’s pouch. A single litter often consists of over a dozen young.
  • Eastern chipmunks have emerged from winter torpor and are actively feeding and breeding this week.
  • Gray squirrels, red squirrels, and southern flying squirrels will give birth to the first of two litters of young at about this time.
  • Yearling beavers disperse from natal ponds to establish their own territories at this time. Now is an especially good time to find scent mounds marking beaver territories, typically along edges of beaver ponds.
  • Eastern cottontails will give birth to the first of three litters of young at about this time.
  • Coyotes and red & gray fox give birth to pups at about this time.
  • White-tailed deer will 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

April 2-8, 2019 (Week 14 of 52): Spring’s Advance Continues at a Moderate Pace This Week

The weather forecast this week for the Buffalo-Niagara Region calls for seasonal temperatures which will continue to progress spring-time plant growth and animal activities. A few grasses, sedges, and rushes are now beginning to sprout. Skunk cabbage will continue to bloom, and coltsfoot will follow suit. Red maple, silver maple, and pussy willows will continue to flower, joined now by quaking aspen, big-toothed aspen, American elm, and eastern hop-hornbeam.

Even with relatively little precipitation in the forecast, early breeding species of frogs and salamanders will continue to migrate to and breed in vernal pools and other ponds and wetlands. Southerly winds will carry more northbound migrant birds into and through our region, especially late in Week 14. Early breeding bird species are continuing to sing, display, and initiate nesting. Squirrels, foxes, and coyotes are now giving birth to young.

Below are highlights of what you can expect to find outdoors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region this third full week of spring. Those in bold/italics are new 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):

  • 6:50 AM/7:47 PM DST (12 Hours, 57 Minutes)
  • 3 Hours, 56 minutes of daylight longer than at Winter Solstice
  • 57 minutes of daylight longer than at Vernal Equinox

Typical Weather:

  • Normal High Temperature: 50.3° F  Normal Low Temperature: 33.0° F
  • Cumulative Growing Degree Days thru April 3, 2019: 22

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

  • While the west end of Lake Ontario is ice-free, the east end of Lake Erie is still mostly ice-covered (albeit less concentrated).
  • The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo remained at 32°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) remained at 38°F as of April 4.
  • Inland ponds, wetlands, and vernal pools are near annual high-water levels.
  • Streams will continue with moderate to high flow levels 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:

  • While freezing temperatures during late autumn killed remnant grass, sedge, and rush stems, the roots of these perennial plants survived and are beginning to sprout (in particular, wool-grass (a type of bulrush), a variety of sedge species, soft rush, and wetland grasses).

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 continue to flower in forested wetlands, near its peak blooming period this week.
  • Coltsfoot, a non-native species that has naturalized across the region, is starting to bloom in some areas. Look for its yellow, dandelion-like flowers.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • Sugar maple sap will continue to flow (and be harvested within some sugar bushes).
  • Sap is flowing in trees and shrubs, as visualized by brighter yellow branches of crack and other willows and redder branches of red osier and silky dogwoods.
  • Red and silver maple trees will be close to peak flowering this week.
  • Pussy willows will continue to “flower” across most of the region, soon developing stamens that will produce pollen.
  • Some quaking aspen, big-toothed aspen, American elm, and eastern hophornbeam have started to flower this week.
  • Wind-dispersed pollen of red & silver maples and poplars are currently the leading allergens in the Buffalo-Niagara Region.

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.
  • Flooded lawns will force earthworms to the surface and onto roads, driveways, and sidewalks where they are easily gleaned by American robins.
  • A surprising diversity and abundance of vernal pool invertebrates will continue 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 emerge from streams and be active when air temperatures are about 40°F and warmer.
  • Wooly bear caterpillars that overwintered beneath leaf litter will continue to be active on warm days. After a brief feeding period, each will spin a cocoon of their orange and black hairs and develop into an Isabella tiger moth.
  • Mourning cloak and eastern comma butterflies (which overwintered as adults) will continue to be 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.
  • Northern pike are concentrated in tributary streams, ditches, and shoreline wetlands for spawning.
  • White suckers will continue to migrate upstream within Great Lakes tributary streams to their spawning grounds.
  • Large schools of alewife will continue to move from cold depths of Lakes Erie and Ontario to nearshore areas in preparation for spawning.
  • Large runs of brown bullheads may enter tributary streams and harbors.
  • 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 continue to stock some local streams with hatchery-raised brown, brook, and/or rainbow trout this week.

Amphibians & Reptiles:

  • Early breeding frogs such as the wood frog, western chorus frog, and spring peeper will continue to vocalize and breed in wetlands and vernal pools.
  • Some northern leopard frogs have joined the frog chorus in ponds, wetlands, and vernal pools.
  • Spotted, blue-spotted, and Jefferson’s salamanders will continue to make their annual migration to vernal pool breeding sites when conditions are favorable this week.
  • Red efts (non-breeding migrant phase of the eastern/red-spotted newt) will migrate to breeding ponds this week where they will transform into breeding adults, joining newts that overwintered in the ponds.
  • Lungless salamanders (e.g., red-backed, northern slimy, northern dusky, mountain dusky, and two-lined salamanders) will become active this week. They can be found under rocks and logs during the day.
  • Eastern garter snakes will emerge from hibernation/brumation. Watch for “snake balls” – breeding clusters consisting of multiple males attempting to mate with a single female.
  • Common snapping and midland painted turtles will continue to be active this week. Watch for painted turtles basking on logs, especially during cool but sunny periods.
  • Watch for tiny midland painted turtles to emerge from nests in lawns, flower beds, and road shoulders – typically near ponds and wetlands.

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, 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 continue to 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 continue to stop-over in the region as they migrate north, or return to local breeding areas such as Iroquois NWR.
  • Pairs of Canada geese will continue to occupy and defend nesting sites in ponds and wetlands.
  • Some early breeding ducks such as mallard and wood duck may already be incubating eggs.
  • Great blue herons will continue to nest on Motor Island in the Niagara River (along with a few great egrets), as well as inland nesting areas (rookeries).
  • Watch for additional migrant and summer resident water birds such as the common loon, double-crested cormorant, American bittern, black-crowned night-heron, pied-billed grebe, horned grebe, and American coot this week.
  • Bonaparte’s gulls will continue to enter the region, using the Niagara River as a significant stop-over feeding area along their migration route north. This species will reach its peak spring numbers in the region in mid- to late April when thousands will be present along the Niagara River.
  • Male American woodcock and Wilson’s snipe will continue to perform their elaborate aerial displays designed to attract mates. Woodcock perform mostly near dawn and dusk whereas snipe display mostly during daylight hours.
  • Some woodcock hens are already incubating eggs.
  • 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 migration flights of hawks, falcons, eagles, and turkey vultures will continue to follow the Lake Erie and Lake Ontario shores as they migrate north. An excellent observation area for seeing hundreds (sometimes thousands) of these migrants in a single day is Lakeside Cemetery in Hamburg.
  • 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.
  • Recent arrivals such as the red-shouldered hawk, Cooper’s hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, and osprey will be establishing nesting territories.

Upland Game Birds:

  • Wild turkeys will continue to travel and feed in flocks. Wild turkey toms, with colorful heads and fanned tails, will intensify their courtship displays to hens.
  • 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 sparrow 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, chipping sparrow, fox sparrow, song sparrow, purple finch, and American goldfinch. Be sure to place seed such as white millet in ground feeders or directly on the ground to attract these migrants.
  • 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).
  • Additional early migrant songbirds will continue to trickle into the region:   brown creeper, golden-crowned kinglet, eastern phoebe, tree swallow, winter wren, northern flicker, American pipit, belted kingfisher, eastern meadowlark, eastern bluebird, American robin, horned lark, red-winged blackbird, rusty blackbird, common grackle, brown-headed cowbird, purple finch, song sparrow, white-throated sparrow, fox sparrow, chipping sparrow, and American goldfinch.
  • Watch for large flocks of migrating blackbirds consisting of red-winged blackbird, rusty blackbird, common grackle, brown-headed cowbird, and/or European starling.
  • Songbirds have initiated their pre-nuptial molt – most evident in male American goldfinches visiting feeders.
  • Early breeding songbirds such as the horned lark, mourning dove, American crow, and American robin may already be incubating eggs. Others will continue to sing, establish territories, and court including black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, Carolina wren, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, pileated woodpecker, blue jay, northern cardinal, red-winged blackbird, song sparrow, and house finch.

Mammals:

  • Male woodchucks have emerged from hibernation and seek to mate with females as they emerge from their winter dens.
  • Other true hibernators (several species of bats, meadow jumping mouse, and woodland jumping mouse) will continue to be mostly inactive in the region during the coming week.
  • Ermine (AKA short-tailed weasel) are molting from white to brown pelage at this time.
  • Tiny newborn opossums suckle from the safety and warmth of their mother’s pouch. A single litter often consists of over a dozen young.
  • Eastern chipmunks have emerged from winter torpor and are actively feeding and breeding this week.
  • Gray squirrels, red squirrels, and southern flying squirrels will give birth to the first of two litters of young at about this time.
  • Muskrat love is in the air. Male muskrats actively seek females 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.
  • Coyotes and red & gray fox give birth to pups at about this time.
  • White-tailed deer will 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

March 26-April 1, 2019 (Week 13 of 52): Spring’s Advance will First Surge and Then Stall (Briefly) Late in Week 13

With temperatures mostly at or above normal in the Buffalo-Niagara Region, the spring-time advancement by plants and animals that started in Week 11 has continued into Week 13. Red and silver maples, as well as pussy willows and skunk cabbage, are flowering. Early breeding species of frogs and salamanders have started migrating to and breeding in vernal pools and other ponds/wetlands, especially following Saturday’s heavy rainfall. Early migrant bird species are continuing to trickle into the Region, and early breeding species are continuing to sing, display, and initiate nesting. However, from Sunday through early Tuesday this week, the Region is forecast to return to temperatures that are well below normal. That will put most of the plants and some of the animals into a brief period of suspended animation. Regardless, an abundance and diversity of life can still be found by anyone eager to get outdoors.

Below are highlights of what you can expect to find outdoors in the Buffalo-Niagara Region this third full week of spring. Those in bold/italics are new 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):

  • 7:02 AM/7:39 PM DST (12 Hours, 37 Minutes)
  • 3 Hours, 36 minutes hours of daylight longer than at Winter Solstice
  • 37 minutes of daylight longer than at Vernal Equinox

Typical Weather:

  • Normal High Temperature: 47.2° F; Normal Low Temperature: 30.4° F
  • Cumulative Growing Degree Days thru March 29, 2019: 17

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

  • While the west end of Lake Ontario is mostly ice-free, the east end of Lake Erie is still mostly ice-covered (albeit less concentrated).
  • The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo remained at 32°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) warmed slightly to 38°F as of March 30.
  • Inland ponds, wetlands, and vernal pools are ice free and near annual high-water levels.
  • Streams will continue with moderate to high flow levels 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 survive and will 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 continue to flower in forested wetlands, approaching its peak blooming period this week and next.
  • Coltsfoot, a non-native species that has naturalized across the region, is starting to bloom in relatively sunny areas (but little activity yet in shaded areas). Look for its yellow, dandelion-like flowers.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • Sugar maple sap will continue to flow (and be harvested within some sugar bushes).
  • 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 trees have begun to flower in full force this week.
  • Pussy willow flower buds burst across most of the region this week.

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.
  • Flooded lawns will force earthworms to the surface and onto roads, driveways, and sidewalks where they are easily gleaned by American robins.
  • A surprising diversity and abundance of vernal pool invertebrates will continue 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 emerge from streams and be active when air temperatures are about 40°F and warmer.
  • Wooly bear caterpillars that overwintered beneath leaf litter will continue to be active on warm days. After a brief feeding period, each will spin a cocoon of their orange and black hairs and develop into an Isabella tiger moth.
  • Mourning cloak and eastern comma butterflies (which overwintered as adults) will 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.
  • Northern pike are concentrated in tributary streams, ditches, and shoreline wetlands for spawning.
  • White suckers will continue to migrate upstream within Great Lakes tributary streams to their 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 continue to stock some local streams with hatchery-raised brown, brook, and/or rainbow trout this week.

Amphibians & Reptiles:

  • Early breeding frogs such as the wood frog, western chorus frog, and spring peeper will continue to vocalize and breed in wetlands and vernal pools.
  • Spotted, blue-spotted, and Jefferson’s salamanders will continue to make their annual migration to vernal pool breeding sites when conditions are favorable this week.
  • Some eastern (red-spotted) newts may migrate to breeding ponds this week where they join newts that overwintered in the ponds.
  • Common snapping and midland painted turtles have been active over the past week. Watch for painted turtles basking on logs, especially during cool but sunny periods.

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 continue to 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 continue to stop-over in the region as they migrate north, or return to local breeding areas such as Iroquois NWR.
  • Pairs of Canada geese will continue to occupy and defend nesting sites in ponds and wetlands.
  • Great blue herons will continue to nest on Motor Island in the Niagara River (along with a few great egrets), as well as inland nesting areas (rookeries).
  • Watch for additional migrant and summer resident water birds such as the double-crested cormorant, black-crowned night-heron, pied-billed grebe, and American coot this week.
  • Bonaparte’s gulls will begin to build up in the region, using the Niagara River as a significant stop-over feeding area along their migration route north. This species will reach its peak spring numbers in the region in mid- to late April when thousands will be present along the Niagara River.
  • Male American woodcock and Wilson’s snipe will perform 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 migration flights of hawks, falcons, eagles, and turkey vultures will continue to follow the Lake Erie and Lake Ontario shores as they migrate north. An excellent observation area for seeing hundreds (sometimes thousands) of these migrants in a single day is Lakeside Cemetery in Hamburg.
  • 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.
  • Recent arrivals such as the red-shouldered hawk, Cooper’s hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, and osprey will be establishing nesting territories.

Upland Game Birds:

  • Wild turkeys will continue to travel and feed in flocks. Some toms may start displaying to hens.
  • 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 sparrow 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, chipping sparrow, fox sparrow, song sparrow, purple finch, and American goldfinch.
  • 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).
  • Early migrant songbirds (e.g., brown creeper, winter wren, golden-crowned kinglet, eastern phoebe, tree swallow, northern flicker, eastern bluebird, hermit thrush, American robin, eastern meadowlark, red-winged blackbird, rusty blackbird, common grackle, brown-headed cowbird, chipping sparrow, field sparrow, fox sparrow, song sparrow, swamp sparrow, and American goldfinch) will continue to trickle into the region.
  • Watch for large flocks of migrating blackbirds consisting of red-winged blackbird, rusty blackbird, common grackle, brown-headed cowbird, and/or European starling.
  • Early breeding songbirds such as the horned lark, mourning dove, American crow, and American robin may already be incubating eggs. Others will continue to sing, establish territories, and court including black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, Carolina wren, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, pileated woodpecker, blue jay, northern cardinal, red-winged blackbird, song sparrow, and house finch.

Mammals:

  • Male woodchucks have emerged from hibernation and seek to mate with females as they emerge from their winter dens.
  • Other true hibernators (several species of bats, meadow jumping mouse, and woodland jumping mouse) will continue to be mostly inactive in the region during the coming week.
  • Ermine (AKA short-tailed weasel) are molting from white to brown pelage at this time.
  • Tiny newborn opossums suckle from the safety and warmth of their mother’s pouch. A single litter often consists of over a dozen young.
  • 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 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 will 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

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

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