Monthly Archives: April 2009

Night Visitor

Flying squirrel at Marcy's feeder (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)Who is this bright-eyed visitor at Marcy Cunkelman's feeder in Indiana County?

For starters he is very, very cute. With large, beautiful eyes he is so small you can hold him in the cup of your hand. He has soft gray-brown fur on his back and a white belly. His body is flattened and he has a fold of skin from his wrists to his ankles. Even his tail is flat so he can steer effectively.

He's nocturnal, shy and gentle unlike his distant cousins who damaged my bird feeder. And finally, his Latin name Glaucomys volans means "graymouse flying."

By now I'm sure you've guessed he's a flying squirrel. I've done some guessing too - that he's a southern, as opposed to northern, flying squirrel - based on their relative abundance in Indiana County (fewer northerns) and the type of forest near Marcy's house (the kind southerns prefer). To really identify this guy I must see his size and color, neither of which I can tell from this picture.

Flying squirrels live in mature forests with abundant oaks, hickories and beeches. Their main foods are nuts and fruits. Like all squirrels they store food for the winter and can hardly wait for spring. Soon they'll be munching on tree buds - a favorite delicacy - as well as blossoms, mushrooms, eggs, nestlings (oh no!) and even maple sap. They are so omnivorous they'll even eat carrion.

Their principle means of travel is by gliding from tree to tree - almost, but not quite, flying. They climb high, bob their heads to judge distance and take off. Sailing with arms and legs outstretched they look like kites, then land back feet first on the target tree. Click here to see a video of this action.

Flying squirrels nest in tree cavities that they line with shredded bark, leaves and grass. They normally have several nests located in abandoned woodpecker holes: a primary nest that they use the most and others that are havens when the first one is threatened. The nests must have small entrance holes 1.6" to 2" in diameter or else gray squirrels take them over.

This month and next the flying squirrels will produce their first of two annual litters containing three or four young. Their newborns are hairless and helpless with closed eyes and ears. In seven weeks they reach adult size and are weaned. By the Fourth of July Marcy will have several more flying squirrels in her area and perhaps at her feeder.

I have never seen a flying squirrel - my city neighborhood doesn't have the right habitat - but it pays to watch your feeders at dusk. Maybe you'll have a night visitor.

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Not Angels

European starlings from below (photo by Chuck Tague)I usually think of European starlings as boring, if not obnoxious.  They hang out in raucous flocks, hassle native birds, and make a lot of annoying, wiry noises.  In the spring they look oily, their feathers so shiny and rough. 

Yet they're still able to surprise me.  I learned three new facts about them this week.

How many birds do you know whose underwings are a different color than their bellies? 

My favorite in this category are black-bellied plovers in non-breeding (winter) plumage:  sandy brown backs, white bellies and black "armpits." 

Well, starlings are in this category too.  Their entire bodies are dark but their underwings are grayish brown.  Before I understood this, I thought it was a trick of the light that their underwings looked pale, but this reasoning didn't work on cloudy days.  Finally, I consulted my field guide. 

Not only do they have pale underwings but their flight feathers are translucent!  That's why you can see through their wings on sunny days and why they look like angels in this picture.

And finally, I've read you can tell the difference between adult males and females in the spring.  Per Cornell's Birds of North America Online, "For birds in breeding condition, shown by a yellow bill, the base of the lower mandible is bluish or blue-gray in males, and pinkish in females."  One more thing to look for!

No, they are not angels but I am learning - again - not to take them for granted. 

(photo by Chuck Tague)

Falconry Moment

Kate St. John holding a falconry Harris Hawk (photo by Mike Fialkovich)Last Wednesday, for the first time ever, I held a Harris's hawk on my hand. 

My opportunity came at the Three Rivers Birding Club meeting when master falconer Jeff Finch, president of the Pennsylvania Falconry and Hawk Trust, presented a program on falconry. 

Jeff taught us about the rules and traditions of falconry, a hunting technique that's at least 4,000 years old.  In it, the falconer and his bird go to the field and look for prey.  The falconer stirs up the prey, the bird flies to the kill.  What they hunt depends on the bird's natural hunting technique: ground-based prey (rabbits, squirrels, muskrats) for red-tails, harris's and goshawks; ducks and pheasants for peregrines.  Sometimes more than one prey item is caught per day but it doesn't go to waste.  The falconer brings it home to feed his birds throughout the year.

Falconry is hard work and a lifetime commitment, not only to train and care for the birds but to hunt with them all season - September through March.   For falconers it's a passion, a life-changing experience.  We saw how falconers bond with their birds because Jeff brought his male American kestrel and female northern goshawk and master falconer Richie (I didn't catch his last name) brought his Harris's hawk

The birds were gorgeous.  It was such a treat to see them up close.  Here I am holding the Harris's hawk while Richie stands just outside the picture to the right.  The hawk is wearing a falconry hood so you can't see its face.  (Click here for a better view of this species.)  And don't be fooled by my expression.  My brows are knitted because I'm squinting.  Those glasses in my right hand should be on my face!

Because of the peregrines, I have a special place in my heart for falconers whose passion, knowledge and breeding birds helped make the Peregrine Recovery Program such a success. 

For more information on falconry in Pennsylvania, contact Jeff Finch at the Pennsylvania Falconry and Hawk Trust.  

(photo by Mike Fialkovich)

Yellow throats or What to Look For in Early April

Yellow-throated warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)
Yellow-throated warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)

T. S. Eliot wrote "April is the cruellest month" but in my opinion it's the frenzied one.

Everything's blooming, everything's popping, frogs are mating, birds are migrating.  Every day produces a new sign of spring.  The birds are frantic to court, mate and nest.

Hurry. Hurry.  For the next eight weeks I'm frenzied too.  There's just not enough time to see it all.

Where to begin?  With a list of what to look for!

  • Top of my list for early April are yellow-throated warblers, pictured here, who will return in the next 10 days.  They sing from the sycamores along our creeks and are amazingly hard to spot.  Unlike most warblers they move somewhat slowly, walking on the high trunks and large branches.  When they stop to sing they throw their heads back and show their yellow throats.  I look for them at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve and Enlow Fork.
  • While looking up high for yellow-throated warblers, don't forget to check the creek banks and understory trees for Louisiana waterthrushes.  You'll probably hear them before you see them.
  • Also coming are osprey, common loons, golden-crowned kinglets, rough-winged swallows, barn swallows, purple martins and the first blue-gray gnatcatchers.
  • You'll see flowers in the woods:  Spring beauties, Hepatica, Harbinger-of-spring, Purple cress, Twinleaf, Violets and more!  I've already seen my first bittercress. Hairy bittercress, an alien, pops up in my backyard.
  • With flowers in bloom the insects come out: bees, flies and butterflies.  My favorites are mourning cloaks and spring azures (yes, they're azure blue).

And much, much more.  For all the details - and you will need them - see Chuck Tague's phenology.

(photo by Chuck Tague)