All posts by prairieland45

The Bird that Stayed

by Barbara Walvoord

(Originally published in the Lathrop Lamp Post, May 20-26, 2017)

Sometimes on a bird walk, with bird songs all around, and lots of  little flying shapes flitting through the trees, your leader stops, cocks her head to listen, then points into the woods, and says, “blue-winged warbler” or “Red-eyed vireo.”  Everyone raises their binoculars, and the lucky person who actually spots the bird says, “See that first little pine tree? Look to the left of it, the third tree down, just to the right of that dead tree?  The vireo is on a branch at about 11 o’clock, about half way up.”  And you raise your binoculars, crane your neck, and then, just as you’ve found the tree, your spotter says, “Oops, it flew.”

On the north campus bird walk May 9, a pileated woodpecker took pity on us.  It was hammering hard on a tree, trying to find the carpenter ants that are its main food.  When we came along, it just kept hammering, right in plain sight, even as we all inched closer, and Lucy raised her long zoom lens and followed it around the tree to get some fabulous photos. Continue reading The Bird that Stayed

A Pond is a Pond: Herons at Lathrop

by Barbara Walvoord

(Originally published in the Lathrop Lamp Post of May 13-19, 2017)

Last week, our group of bird walkers startled up a green heron on the east campus Teaberry pond. It flew into a nearby tree.  A few days later I saw a pair of them there, so maybe we have a heron family.

Our herons have flown here from perhaps as far south as Panama.  They  like small freshwater ponds surrounding by trees where they can nest.  Our Teaberry pond is a human-made retention basin that receives run-off from our streets and roofs, and holds it before sending it through a pipe into the adjacent wetland. The pond has a rubber liner, but there must be quite a layer of mud on the bottom because the pond is full of native cattails, and we see lots of frogs, toads, snakes, insects, and salamanders there–good food for herons, who stand motionless along the banks or on fallen logs and pounce on their prey. Continue reading A Pond is a Pond: Herons at Lathrop

Bird Brains

by Barbara Walvoord

From Lathrop Lamp Post, April 27, 2017

My daughter and grandchildren, for Christmas, gave me a book called The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman.

Ackerman’s thesis is that “the misguided use of ‘bird brain’ as a slur has finally come home to roost.”   Scientific evidence shows that birds exhibit “toolmaking, culture, reasoning, the ability to remember the past and think about the future, to adopt another’s perspective, to learn from one another.”  In short, “many of our cherished forms of intellect–whether in whole or parts–appear to have evolved in birds quite separately and artfully right alongside our own.” (p. 11)

Like humans, birds have brains that are large in relation to their body size.  Bird brains and human brains share many similarities in directing social behaviors, in brain activity during sleep, and in learning.  When scientists, in 2014, sequenced the genomes of 48 Continue reading Bird Brains

Bugs! We Need Bugs!!

by Barbara Walvoord

From Lathrop Lamp Post April 20, 2017

Our phoebes are back!  Newly returned from their winter homes in the south, they are perching on tree branches or fences. Our human residents often forget to wear their name tags in public, but the phoebe says its name over and over in a two-toned song: “FEEE be.”  You can hear them at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Phoebe/id.

You might also interpret this song as “FEED me.”  Our phoebes need food for the hard work of building their nests, mating, laying their eggs, and feeding their young.

And what we need to feed our phoebes is—BUGS!

The eastern phoebe (Saynornis phoebe) is a “flycatcher,” though it also eats wasps, beetles, dragonflies, butterflies,  moths, midges, and cicadas. Perched on a branch, low rooftop, or fence, in a yard or open woods, our phoebe will wag its long tail up and down restlessly, and Continue reading Bugs! We Need Bugs!!

Playing in the Pool

by Barbara Walvoord

From Lathrop Lamp Post, April 13, 207

To everyone’s amazement, an otter has been visiting the retention pond behind the Teaberry homes on the east campus.

This pond was constructed when the Teaberry homes were first built in 1996,  as part of the storm water runoff system required by law to protect our wetlands.  It has a rubber liner on the bottom, but it’s full of cattails, and we’ve seen plenty of turtles, frogs, salamanders, and toads in it, so there must be a layer of mud on top of the rubber.  Since the purpose of the pond is to filter pollutants from the road, roofs, and lawns, the water and mud may be polluted to some extent.
Fertilizer from the surrounding lawn undoubtedly contributes an abundance of nitrogen, leading to heavy algae growth in summer.

Nonetheless, here is our otter, playing in the pool. Where might it have come from?  Where is it going? Continue reading Playing in the Pool

Dancing on our Lathrop Land

by Barbara Walvoord

from Lathrop Lamp Post, April 6, 2017

American Woodcocks are small, brown, woodland birds that you very rarely see.  They hang out in shrublands, old fields, and young forests, quiet and shy, superbly camouflaged against the leaf litter, walking slowly along the forest floor, probing the soil with their long bills in search of worms and insects.

Except now, when the courting males put on quite a show.  East campus residents have heard them behind Huckleberry and Mulberry.  You can find them in wood openings and fields at dawn or dusk.  Listen for their buzzing “peent” sound, and the whir of their wings as the males leap straight up into the air.  Hear them at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Woodcock/sounds

The male puts on a  dazzling, high-energy, aerial display, sky-dancing to impress the ladies, and mating with as many of them as possible.  Continue reading Dancing on our Lathrop Land

The Physics of Sap

by Barbara Walvoord

from Lathrop Lamp Post, March 30, 2017

A bruised branch we see in the woods these days is likely to be oozing sap.  As we drive through our countryside, smoke rising from a shack along the road tells us the inhabitants are “sugaring.” Those of us who don’t do our own “sugaring” trek to the Hadley Sugar Shack for pancakes drowned in real maple syrup.

Behind this common New England scene lie some amazing physics.  Sap flows because of carbon dioxide–yes, that gas we have too much of, causing climate change.  But inside a tree, carbon dioxide is essential. A tree has a problem–it has to get nutrients and water to its branches and roots, especially in spring when it’s trying to nourish new shoots and buds.  It can’t burn coal for electricity, as we do to move heat and water through our homes.  Instead, a tree uses the properties of carbon dioxide, and the spring changes in temperature, to push around the life-giving sap.

Sap flows through a portion of the outer tree trunk called sapwood. Sapwood consists of actively growing cells that conduct water and nutrients (sap) from the roots to the branches of the tree. During the Continue reading The Physics of Sap