Saturday, March 28, 2009

Headed West

Yesterday we started our journey westward from Iowa. The bad weather stayed to the south and we had clear skies all day. Unfortunately, the winds were strong and cold, making for a long day of driving. Between Grand Island, NE and Kearney, NE on I-80 there were tons of sandhill cranes! It is hard to say how many but considering we were seeing them consistently over a ~35 mile stretch I’d say we saw at least 10,000. There were large flocks across the fields and several flocks flying overhead towards the Platte River where they stay over night. We came to the area around dusk so it was perfect timing. We stopped at a rest stop where there was a flock of cranes hanging out in a cornfield behind the buildings. We took a few pictures but Matt’s new camera is giving him problems and neither of us has a wide-angle lens to get the full effect, but it was still cool to see so many cranes. We also saw flocks of snow geese, Canada geese, and ducks flying overhead. The rest of the day was rather uneventful. We reached our destination for the evening, Sterling, CO, around 10 pm Mountain time.

Today the drive was rather uneventful although the scenery was beautiful, and we did see several large herds of pronghorn antelope along the way. Through CO a blanket of snow covered the landscape but as soon as we hit the NM border the snow disappeared.

We arrived at the house in Bosque Farms around 8:30 pm MT. The house belongs to Geoff, a friend of our boss, and is apparently referred to as “Herp Tech.” The house is awesome and there are critters everywhere – 3 dogs, 3 cats, 2 tortoises, a rabbit, a skink, a hamster, fish, turtles, an iguana, and chickens! The house is what I imagine ours will look like one day with antlers, skulls, and herp stuff everywhere. Who could ask for a better place to hang our hats?


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Iowa Wetlands

Yesterday was beautiful so we played golf. Today wasn’t nearly as nice as it was dreary and a howling wind was from the North, but I decided to get outdoors anyway to visit the 4000 acre Big Marsh WMA ~ 30 minutes away. Two eagles and ~ 12 ring-neck ducks were found along with hundreds of Canada Geese, which are now paired off as they head into the breeding season. No snow geese, which was a bummer since I've been seeing some good sized flocks on the move lately. But I did hear that Sandhill Cranes are thick in western Nebraska along the Platte River near Carnie, NE so I’d like to head to NM via W then S if the weather allows. At one point while birding, something caught Aubrey’s eye on the side of the road and she gestured ahead. I decided to run up and see what I could encounter. I thought perhaps it was a turtle, since we had previously seen a couple of snapping turtles basking, the first I’ve seen this year (in Iowa). The weather has been nice for a couple of days so some of the ectotherms are beginning to stir. Instead, it was a young muskrat foraging for grubs along the side of the road and I decided to grab him for no real reason. He wasn’t happy and would have loved to bite me but I have a couple of seasons of small mammal trapping experience so I knew better and managed to avoid his tenacious bite. After a few seconds I released him, but I can now say I’ve caught a muskrat by hand (along with armadillos and deer), and if ever given the opportunity again I would gently poke him from behind and see how high he jumps. On the way home, we got a great look at a beautiful mink as it crossed the road and also flushed 4 female pheasants.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Iowa Wildlife

Saw my first male ringneck pheasant sitting on the side of the road. We thought it was unusual that it was out in the open, so vulnerable along the side of the road, but once the car door opened, after watching it for a couple minutes, the bird exploded off the ground, ran 10 feet and flew yonder into a neighboring field. Boy, are they fast and beautiful. Their speed reminds me of roadrunners in the Southwest.

We also heard western chorus frogs beginning to call on the way home for the first time since we arrived, a sign that spring is near. Two nights ago, we saw a fox curled up sleeping along the side of the road ~ 1/8 mile away.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Trip to the Museum

We took a trip to E Iowa to visit the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque, IA, a very neat museum with a lot of great information and hands on exhibits. We then headed North so I could visit Wisconsin for a little while and check it off the list of states I’ve been too. I’d love to come back and plan to. The topography is much different and there is a lot more relief than across the river. I’m guessing it has something to do with the glaciations way back when, with the landscape consisting of many more hills and rocks - very beautiful indeed. I imagine the sledding is phenomenal. Saw 7 eagles along the way!!!


Monday, March 16, 2009

Iowa Floodplain

Decided to hit up some of the local woods. Walked about a mile or so back until I came to the floodplain of the West Fork of the Cedar River where I shifted gears and got out of the bottom and instead followed a couple of ridges until I came to the main tributary. Didn’t see much on the way but the tree community here is very different from the piney woods of the South I’ve spent so much time in as of late. Lots of Elm, Maples, Cherry, Oaks, and what look like Dogwoods (Cornus sp?). In any case, they are beautiful and the area looks like a great place to romp around in during the fall when the seasons are changing. I bet the winds coming through the trees are great when the leaves rattle about. The wind was brisk today, but there wasn’t much vegetation to react to the wind.

I was out in the woods today in part because this time of year is great for scavenging shed antlers since the trees haven’t leafed out quite yet and the visibility is high, but I didn’t really expect to find anything. I had been following a wet ditch, but I found a suitable place to cross and no sooner did I begin to cross through the brambles and up the other side of the ditch did I spot my prize. I crawled through a small (and I mean small) opening in the fence already established and found a nice 8 point buck carcass with the anterior in good shape, perhaps a young 2 year old as the base of the antlers weren’t very wide. There was a pretty decent shell of the animal present, so I had to drag the animal ~ 400 yards to retrieve a knife in order to remove the skull from the carcass.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Exploring Iowa

We decided to check out a nice patch of native sand prairie near Aubrey’s house in Butler County, IA. The site is about 90 acres in size and managed by The Nature Conservancy. The temps were in the high 30’s when we visited and the wetlands were still frozen but the site of native vegetation and continuity of upland and wetland habitats were a nice site compared to most of the managed Iowa countryside I’ve seen. I expected to find a few sparrows and other avian fauna but I only heard the familiar chatter of red-winged blackbirds in the distance. The few notable finds were a few carcasses of birds and an abundance of pushed up mounds from fossorial mammals (pocket gophers or ground squirrels?) in the more upland portion. I hope to return in the future when things are in full swing and examine the native grasses and wildflowers and search for creepy crawlies such as bullsnakes and eastern hognose snakes.

- Matt

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Iowa Winter

Iowa. The temps here are currently well below that of a Florida winter (10 degrees, -12 wind chill). Despite that and the lack of signs of spring, I decided to do a little birding. I saw quite a few species of birds including a couple which I don't readily see down south or in the abundance they are here this time of year: hairy and downy woodpeckers, northern juncos, black-capped chickadee, house finches, cardinals, and blue jays were all found in a short period of time. Crows, Canada Geese and Red-tailed Hawks were abundant as well. Brewer’s blackbird was another species I haven’t seen in a while.

- Matt

Monday, March 9, 2009

Birding Iowa

Made Iowa. I didn’t see much in Southern Illinois but once we crossed the state line, things started to pick up. As I crossed the mighty Mississippi River on I-74, 2 eagles caught my attention to the west. Saw another juvenile bald eagle an hour later, lots of Canada Geese and decent sized flocks of red-winged blackbirds. I saw a couple flocks of large birds which looked like wood storks from below (solid white with black wing tips) but wood storks are definitely not up here, so perhaps it was a flock of another species of goose. I didn’t get enough of a look to tell whether or not the black extended down the ventral side of the wing.

Only minutes from our destination we stopped to watch 3 baldies (1 adult, 2 sub-adults) dance around on the frozen ice of Beaver Valley Wetlands reserve. A great way to finish off a road trip by keeping our good fortune of watching so many eagles over the past year in Florida streak alive.

Side note: Last year while passing through Beaver Valley Wetlands (a road bisects the wetland), I saw a nice sized snapping turtle basking about 6 ft above the water, assisted another snapper while trying to cross the road and found a dead northern water snake in the same stretch.

- Matt

Sunday, March 8, 2009

On the Road Again

Departed Alabama for Iowa. In North Alabama I saw what appeared to be a medium-sized cottonmouth trying to cross the interstate and while turning onto an on ramp for the interstate, I saw a young grey rat coiled up on a tree branch on the edge of the road. If the situation had allowed, I would have tried to snag a photo of the rat snake. I also observed one adult bald eagle just before crossing into Tennessee on I-65.

- Matt

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Alabama Spring

It was a beautiful spring day in Auburn, AL, so with our good friends John and Lindsay and their adorable dog, Tico, we decided to re-visit a few spots where I learned to herp while in college. I decided first to visit a pond, which I have always had success finding midland water snakes. After hopping a fence, in very short order we found 3 snakes, a juvenile, a sub-adult and 1 large adult. Aubrey had never seen this species so after taking a quick photograph she successfully wrangled the beast, which had been coiled nicely with some loops in the sun and other parts of the body in the shade. A young couple happened to be nearby so we invited them to come and take a look. They were really curious and did not display any hostility towards the creature. Rather they stepped forward to touch the animal and asked several questions simultaneously. Education and awareness are critical if you want to help a cause and we took control of the situation and gave our spiel. Hopefully they will recount the story to others thereby doing their part. Sometimes it’s the little things that have such an impact on the direction of our lives.

After the park, we headed to Tuskegee National Forest, the smallest national forest in the country, totaling around 12,000 acres. On the way, we stopped for a road kill snake. It turned out to be worth the effort; an eastern kingsnake, a species currently suspected of experiencing severe declines or extirpation (local extinction) where it is was, until recently, abundant in portions of the Coastal Plain. In the past 25 years, researchers and experienced field biologists have noted that populations have disappeared from protected lands (public and privately owned) including large quail plantations in southern Georgia, the 300,000 acre Department of Energy Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and throughout large portions of Florida of which over 25 percent is protected in conservation.
We took notes on where the snake was found and put it in the cooler so we could deposit the specimen in the biological collections museum at Auburn. Ten minutes later we arrived at our destination. We decided to search a few wetlands with varying degrees of winter rainfall. We didn’t find an abundance of any one species but we found pretty good diversity. In perhaps an hour, we found marbled and slimy salamanders, heard choruses of upland chorus frogs, and found the shells of slider and musk turtles. We also spooked a male hooded merganser which I had been thinking of yesterday with the notion of visiting another spot where I have had luck finding them. Two birds with one stone.
- Matt