Bird list & natural events, December 2014

December turned warmer than average, though it was so cloudy you’d be forgiven for thinking it was cold. This grey stability really shows up in the NWS monthly graph, which looks rather bizarre for here. We also had very little snow, but as the Kansas City NWS office pointed out, this says nothing about the rest of the winter:

 

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Animal sign of the month: We have some old metal roofing panels that we put on the ground in order to kill off vegetation (especially fescue) in a targeted area by blocking light from reaching the plants–effectively a non-chemical herbicide. Periodically, we’ll check to see if the plants are dead, then move the panels to a new location. In mid-December, I (Joanna) picked up a couple of panels that had been in place for many months, and was surprised to see green grass underneath. Then I took a closer look. The grass wasn’t growing, but rather had been harvested by rodents (voles, we assume) to line their tunnels, which squiggled their way below the panels and in places plunged deeper into the ground (photo, left). In addition to the fescue, various other types of food had been stashed away, the most abundant and readily identifiable being Jerusalem artichoke tubers and dandelion roots (photo, right).

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Featured seeds of the month: For many perennial plants, winter is a time of dormancy. Fully mature seeds often still cling to the plants, ready to fall to the ground or be dispersed by the wind or a biological agent. We acted as an agent of biological dispersal ourselves for these and other native plants that we would like to have more of. December is a good time to spread such seeds, as the freeze/thaw of the winter and spring will work the seeds into the ground, where some of them will hopefully germinate when the appropriate weather conditions arrive. From left to right: Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), ironweed (genus Vernonia), and blazing star (genus Liatris) on stalk & a handful of seeds for dispersal.
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December photosynthesizers: Not all plants take a break in the winter. All of the plants above were growing in the main vegetable field in December (many in the location where the fall carrots had been harvested, before we got those beds mulched in for the winter). Many of these are weeds, though spinach (middle left) is a food crop and rye/vetch (lower center) is a cover crop. What all of these plants have in common is a growth habit that tends to hug the ground during the cold winter months. A couple obvious advantages come to mind: for one, the heat retention of the soil probably helps to buffer the plants’ exposure to temperature swings; another advantage is that the that can come at this time of year would be less damaging to a plant that is already pretty flat. Once the weather warms in spring, most of these will add a significant vertical component to their growth, and those that managed to make it though the winter will have a head start on the competition.

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Beetle of the month: I think this is Merinus laevis, based on identification from a new (and beautiful) book on beetles that I received for my birthday. One evening I was sitting in front of the wood stove, browsing Beetles of Eastern North America, slightly sad that this isn’t a good time of year for extensive beetle observation, when this specimen crawled by. Not surprisingly, it turns out that the larvae of this species are are associated with wood, so this beetle probably came in with our firewood. It doesn’t even have a common name, but is a member of the Family Tenebrionidae, or darkling beetles.

Deer/coyote activity report: Not that long after we advertised for a bow hunter, the coyote activity increased dramatically. Overall, we’d characterize 2014 as a very quiet year for coyotes, but in the last few weeks of December, we started hearing increased activity at night on multiple occasions, and a hunter reported seeing 5 during broad daylight in the valley. The deer activity subsided somewhat, and our trail cams recorded far more activity at night than during the day, with obvious implications for hunting. The result: no additional deer taken here in December. Sigh.

Bird list

Pretty typical December, really, other than the continued regular presence of Trumpeter Swans in the area. Seems like every few days we’d hear their strange, high-yet-throaty “honks” and see a flock of up to ten or more skimming the trees on their way somewhere local. We finally set up our winter bird feeders and are engaged in the usual cold war with the Union of Socialist Squirrel Republics, who think our resources should be distributed to all species equally, especially theirs. No shots have been fired. Yet.

2014 2013 2012 2011
Dec Dec Dec Dec
Species count 29 25 30 23
Snow Goose x x
Canada Goose x x x x
Trumpeter Swan x
Great Blue Heron x
Turkey Vulture x
Bald Eagle x x x
Northern Harrier x
Red-shouldered Hawk x x x
Red-tailed Hawk x x
Great Horned Owl x x x x
Barred Owl x x x x
Belted Kingfisher x
Red-bellied Woodpecker x x x x
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker x
Downy Woodpecker x x x x
Hairy Woodpecker x
Northern Flicker x x x x
Pileated Woodpecker x x x x
Blue Jay x x x x
American Crow x x x x
Black-capped Chickadee x x x x
Tufted Titmouse x x x x
White-breasted Nuthatch x x x x
Winter Wren x
Carolina Wren x x x x
Golden-crowned Kinglet x
Eastern Bluebird x x x x
Hermit Thrush x
American Robin x x x x
European Starling x
Cedar Waxwing x x x x
Yellow-rumped Warbler x x x
American Tree Sparrow x
Song Sparrow x x x
Dark-eyed Junco x x x x
Northern Cardinal x x x x
House Finch x
Purple Finch x x
American Goldfinch x x x x

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