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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Average Sunrise/Sunset (Day Length):

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

Typical Weather:

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

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

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

Fungi:

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

Ferns and Grasses/Sedges/Rushes:

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

Wildflowers:

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

Trees and Shrubs:

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

Insects & Other Invertebrates:

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

Fish:

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

Amphibians & Reptiles:

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

Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:

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

Birds of Prey:

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

Upland Game Birds:

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

Songbirds:

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

Mammals:

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

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

Chuck Rosenburg

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

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

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

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

Average Sunrise/Sunset (Day Length):

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

Typical Weather:

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

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

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

Fungi:

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

Ferns and Grasses/Sedges/Rushes:

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

Wildflowers:

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

Trees and Shrubs:

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

Insects & Other Invertebrates:

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

Fish:

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

Amphibians & Reptiles:

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

Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:

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

Birds of Prey:

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

Upland Game Birds:

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

Songbirds:

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

Mammals:

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

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

Chuck Rosenburg

October 29-November 4, 2018 (Week 44 of 52): Fill Your Feeders – A Winter Finch Irruption is Upon Us

 

Once every several years, we experience an irruption of “winter finches” where significant numbers of songbirds that typically overwinter in Canada migrate south into the Buffalo-Niagara Region and across much of the rest of the northeastern United States. This year is one of those exciting times for birdwatchers! Pine siskins and purple finches have already arrived in the Region in large numbers over the past few weeks. Red-breasted nuthatches, while not finches, have also settled in our Region in larger than average numbers. Common redpolls and evening grosbeaks are close behind, and a few white-winged and red crossbills are starting to reach the Toronto area and will likely arrive here soon. Significant southern flights of these birds are made in response to scarce seed and fruit crops (e.g., spruce, fir, and hemlock cones; birch seeds, mountain-ash berries) across much of northeastern Canada.

If you would like to greatly improve your chances to observe winter finches and related birds, consider establishing a bird feeding station near your home. 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). Nyjer (AKA thistle) and black oil sunflower are the best seeds for attracting winter finches, evening grosbeaks, and red-breasted nuthatches. Even during non-irruption years, feeding is a good way to attract a diversity and abundance of songbirds for closer observation (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. Start feeding in early autumn to attract species that primarily migrate through the area (versus overwintering), such as white-throated sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, and fox sparrow. These species are currently passing through our Region.

Another noteworthy natural phenomenon happening this week is prolonged fall color. We have been fortunate this autumn to experience an especially long period of bright leaf color, extending about two weeks later than normal so far. An important factor has been the lack of a hard frost to date. While leaf color is a now past peak across most of the Region, near peak brightness still radiates in some areas – particularly upland forest habitats dominated by sugar maple and lowland forests dominated by silver and/or Freeman maple (hybrid of red and silver maples). This is an excellent time to explore the forest understory to experience bright leaf colors, both on trees/shrubs and on the ground. To find public properties that offer both forest habitats and trails, check the 6th and 10th columns of 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 (“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):

  • 7:50 AM/6:07 PM EDT (10 Hours, 17 Minutes)
  • 5 Hours, 4 minutes of daylight shorter than at Summer Solstice

Typical Weather:

  • Normal High Temperature: 53.3° F  Normal Low Temperature: 38.1° F
  • Cumulative Growing Degree Days thru October 31, 2018: 3196 (>10% above normal)
  • Light frost is likely this week.

Lake, Pond, Stream & Wetland Conditions:

  • The Lake Erie water temperature off Buffalo dropped to 53°F and the Lake Ontario water temperature off Greece (Monroe County) dropped to 50°F as of October 30, 2018.
  • Water levels in most interior wetlands and vernal pools remain low but continue to rise in response to recent rainfall and reduced evapotranspiration rates.
  • Similarly, the water level in most ponds is low but continuing to rise.
  • Most streams will exhibit high flow levels this week in light of forecasts for significant rainfall.

Fungi:

  • A few late season species of fungi may still be observed in rich woodlands this week: giant puffball, hen of-the-woods, oyster, bear’s head tooth fungus, and bearded tooth.
  • Shaggy mane mushrooms can be found in lawns and along wood chip trails, often in fairy rings.

Ferns and Grasses/Sedges/Rushes:

  • An often overlooked fall color change occurs with ferns in the forest understory. The following ferns often exhibit striking color changes, albeit briefly, at this time: New York, lady, bracken, royal, cinnamon, interrupted, and ostrich ferns.
  • A few species of grass will continue to exhibit showy color changes this week, especially rice cut-grass, white grass, and witch grass found in wetlands and other poorly drained areas.
  • Wool-grass, a native species of bulrush, is still evident in wet meadows and marsh edges as a result of its abundant rusty brown and wooly fruits.
  • Broad-leaf and narrow-leaf cattail stems are now mostly brown and laden with fruit in marshes, pond edges, ditches, and other wet habitats. Many fruits are starting to disintegrate, releasing thousands of tiny fluffy seeds to the wind.

Wildflowers:

  • One non-native summer wildflower, butter-and-eggs, will continue to bloom in open field and roadside environments this week.
  • A few individuals of late season asters will continue to bloom this week: heath aster, calico aster, crooked-stem aster, and New England aster.
  • Golden yellow leaves of native common milkweed, swamp milkweed, and Indian hemp may still be seen in old fields and wet meadows.
  • Common milkweed pods are bursting and releasing hundreds of seeds to the wind, each equipped with fluffy “parachutes” to aid dispersal.
  • This is bur season so be watchful where you (and your dog(s)) walk. Several local plants have adapted a hitch-a-ride strategy that capitalizes on animal disbursal. Those currently in fruit include common burdock and multiple species of bur marigold and avens.

Trees and Shrubs:

  • While leaf color is past peak over most of the Buffalo-Niagara Region, near peak color can still be found in certain habitats, particularly upland forests dominated by sugar maple and wetland forests dominated by silver and/or Freeman maple (hybrid of red and silver maples).
  • The following trees and shrubs continue to exhibit some bright red leaf color: sugar maple (some individuals), Freeman maple (hybrid of red and silver maples), arrow-wood, cranberry viburnum, and maple-leaf viburnum. Some pin oak leaves have now changed to a bright red-brown.
  • Many shrubland areas and forest edges continue to be colored reddish-purple at this time as a result of the abundance of Region’s three species of dogwood (gray, silky, and red-osier) which are now joined by similar leaf colors of arrow-wood, nannyberry, and blackberry.
  • Some brilliant orange leaves can still be seen on sugar maple (some individuals), American hornbeam, serviceberry, and shadbush.
  • The following trees and shrubs display gold and yellow leaf color: tamarack (AKA larch, a deciduous species of conifer), silver maple, Freeman maple (hybrid of red and silver maples), many sugar maples, American basswood, quaking aspen, big-toothed aspen, eastern hop-hornbeam, shagbark hickory, bitternut hickory, American beech, tulip poplar, sassafras, witch-hazel, and spicebush.
  • Wind and rain will shed leaves soon, especially after we receive a hard frost, so enjoy the color while you can.
  • Leaf color for some species of trees and shrubs stays green late into autumn, including most oaks, willows, Tartarian and Morrow’s honeysuckles (both non-native), and common and glossy buckthorn (both non-native).
  • Eastern white pine and red pine have shed old needles as new needles take their place. The shed needles have created golden blankets beneath the pines.
  • Be on the lookout for stringy yellow petals of witch-hazel flowers. Also watch and listen for seeds being explosively ejected from ripe (but woody) fruits (from last year’s flowers).
  • The availability of hard and soft mast is noticeably less abundant this week as squirrels, chipmunks, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and other wildlife have consumed a large amount over the past several weeks.
  • Some hard mast (acorns, hickory nuts, etc.) continues to be available, on and off trees, for consumption by many mammals and some birds (e.g., wild turkey, blue jay). Sources at this time include northern red oak, pin oak, bitternut hickory, and black walnut.
  • Several native trees, shrubs, and vines continue to provide some ripe fruit (soft mast) that is an important source of food for a variety of birds and mammals: cucumber magnolia, gray dogwood, cranberry viburnum, winterberry, staghorn sumac, poison ivy, Virginia creeper, and wild grape.
  • In addition, the following non-native species provide ripe fruit (soft mast) consumed by wildlife: multiflora rose, autumn olive, and common buckthorn.

Insects & Other Invertebrates:

  • Adult stage ticks become especially abundant in early October and remain active as long as temperatures stay above freezing and the ground is not covered with snow. Therefore, be especially careful to wear protective clothing and/or repellent, and do tick-checks after every outing.
  • A few late season butterflies may still be active during relatively warm periods this week, including orange sulphur and clouded sulphur.
  • Included among the late season butterflies are individuals of three species that will overwinter as adults and be the first butterflies on the wind next spring: mourning cloak, eastern comma, and question mark butterflies.
  • Wooly bear caterpillars will continue to be active. This species will overwinter beneath leaf litter and ultimately metamorphose into Isabella tiger moth next spring.
  • A few late season dragonflies may still be active during relatively warm periods this week, including shadow darner and autumn meadowhawk.

Fish:

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

Amphibians & Reptiles:

  • Northern leopard frogs have migrated to flooded wetlands and ponds where they will hibernate, similar to most other aquatic species of frogs (e.g., green frog, bullfrog).
  • Some American toads will still remain active in upland environments this week, at least during relatively warm periods. Soon they will all dig-in and enter hibernation.
  • Listen for occasional single-syllabled “peeps” from spring peepers during relatively warm periods.
  • This is still a good time of year to inspect areas around outdoor lights for spring peepers that feed on moths and other insect attracted to the lights. This species has suction-cups on its toes that allow it to cling to windows and siding. Some may still be moving toward upland hibernation areas.
  • Eastern garter snakes remain active at this time but will soon enter hibernation. Watch for them basking in sunny spots.
  • Midland painted turtles may still be seen basking on logs, especially during cool but sunny periods.

Water & Shore Birds, Gulls & Terns:

  • As Canadian waterbodies freeze, noticeably larger numbers of ducks and other waterbirds will begin to arrive in the Region. Check ponds and wetlands for mallard, American black duck, wood duck, American wigeon, northern shoveler, gadwall, ruddy duck, ring-necked duck, green-winged teal, northern pintail, hooded merganser, and American coot.
  • Watch and listen for migrant Canada goose flocks passing overhead. Some will stop-over in our region to rest and feed on their journey south.
  • This is a good time to scout for migrant brant resting and feeding in parkland and other open habitats bordering Lakes Erie and Ontario. Brant is a relatively small species of goose that nests in the tundra and into the Arctic Circle.
  • The annual buildup of “sea ducks” and similar waterbirds that overwinter in the Great Lakes and Niagara River continues with the arrival of common loon, red-throated loon, red-necked grebe, horned grebe, greater scaup, lesser scaup, canvasback, redhead, common goldeneye, bufflehead, white-winged scoter, surf scoter, black scoter, long-tailed duck, common merganser, and red-breasted merganser.
  • Watch for migrant tundra swans to start passing over and congregating along the upper Niagara River and at Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge and adjoining state WMA’s.
  • Bonaparte’s gull numbers will continue to build in the region this week, using the Niagara River as a significant stop-over feeding area along their migration route south. This species will reach its peak fall numbers in the region in November and December when thousands may be observed along the Niagara River.
  • This is an excellent time to watch for rare species of gulls such as Franklin’s gull, little gull, black-headed gull, Iceland gull, lesser black-backed gull, Sabine’s gull, and black-legged kittiwake among more common species such as recent arrivals of Bonaparte’s and greater black-backed gulls. Such rarities add to the remarkable diversity of gull species – 19 species total – that have been observed along the Niagara River and bordering Great Lakes. The peak time is typically between mid-November and mid-January.

Birds of Prey:

  • Migrant turkey vultures and hawks are continuing to pass through the Buffalo-Niagara Region, including red-tailed hawk, rough-legged hawk, red-shouldered hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, and northern harrier.
  • Bald eagles are starting to be seen more frequently along the Niagara River at this time. Good numbers will over-winter along the upper and lower rivers.
  • Winter resident raptors, in particular northern harriers and rough-legged hawks, will continue to arrive in the region, especially in areas with extensive open grassland habitat. A few snowy owls, short-eared owls, and long-eared owls may begin to join them starting this week.
  • Northern saw-whet owls will continue to migrate through the Region in large numbers, as documented by Project Owlnet and ebird.

Upland Game Birds:

  • Wild turkey flocks have started to form. Watch for them 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 overwintering feeder birds such as dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, fox sparrow, song sparrow, and American tree sparrow.   Place seed such as white millet in ground feeders or directly on the ground to attract many of these migrants.
  • Bird feeders will 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.
  • Good tips for feeding birds are available from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, at: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/notes/BirdNote01_WinterFeeding.pdf
  • If you don’t have a feeder of your own, consider visiting a local nature center (see the 2nd to last column in the tables of nature viewing sites found under the “B-N Region & Sites” tab on this web page).
  • The following “short-distance” migrant songbirds are now passing through our region on their journey south: brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch, golden-crowned kinglet, ruby-crowned kinglet, eastern phoebe, winter wren, yellow-bellied sapsucker, American pipit, hermit thrush, yellow-rumped warbler, rusty blackbird, dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, fox sparrow, song sparrow, American tree sparrow, purple finch, and pine siskin.
  • The northern shrike, a predatory passerine that breeds in Canada and Alaska, will continue to arrive in the Region. Watch for them on prominent perches overlooking open and brushy habitats.
  • Small flocks and family groups of eastern bluebirds may be seen this time of year, as well as small to medium sized flocks of American robins.
  • Watch for large flocks of blackbirds consisting of red-winged blackbird, rusty blackbird, common grackle, brown-headed cowbird, and/or European starling.
  • Small flocks of horned larks are being joined in open farmland and other tundra-like habitats by snow buntings and Lapland longspurs. Many will overwinter 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.
  • Eastern chipmunks, gray squirrels, and southern flying squirrels continue to actively gather and store acorns and other mast for winter.
  • White-footed mice and deer mice prepare for winter by building nests in woodpecker holes, bird houses, and squirrel leaf-nests. Some rehab old bird nests by adding a roof and insulation. These mice often cross paths with homeowners this time of year as they seek shelter in sheds, garages, and houses – along with non-native house mice.
  • Beavers cut more trees this time of year, in preparation for winter. They will cut, transport, and cache cut branches in shallow water near their lodges for wintertime feeding.
  • Continue to watch for white-tailed deer buck rubs. Bucks actively rub saplings and small trees, depositing scent from forehead glands.
  • Bucks are also making scrapes by pawing away leaves to expose soil, then urinating over the scraped area to deposit scent from tarsal glands. They typically mouth and rub their antlers on an overhanging branch, depositing even more scent.
  • Deer courtship (the “rut”) is well underway. Does become more active as they start estrus and bucks are often seen following them. As a result, the frequency of deer-car collisions increases sharply during the rut, from mid-October through December.

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

Chuck Rosenburg