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Raptor Wednesday

The neighborhood American Kestrels are all over the place lately. Here’s the female perching on a roof fence nearer to Falcon Crest — a new name for the apartment — than usual.The building behind her — four little row houses away — is where you will typically find her, perching on the various roof pipes and sundry outcroppings. There was a lot of feather maintenance this time. On Monday, I watched her eat two birds, swallowing down even the feet and toes of each one.

When it’s cold and windy, the pair huddles on this drainpipe housing. (They did this last year, too.) Here they’re out of the wind and get the full force of the morning sun. You can see how much bigger the female is in comparison to the male. They’re usually active at sunrise — we’ll hear them before seeing them. They’re spending a lot of time on a TV antenna across the street, but it’s behind a London Plane tree so the view is awful. We spot them sporadically during the day. They usually hang out together around sunset, although it looks like they both go separate ways for roosting.  The female should be taking to the nest cavity soon.

When Doves Sit

Mourning Doves: one of our earliest local — that is, non-migratory — nesters. Their rudimentary stick nests can be tucked into trees or your windowsill. Here’s another pair on our fire escape recently. One or two has been showing up there or on the roofline a lot lately. (These were photographed though window and screen.)There’s a great view from this fire escape, but it’s awfully exposed for a nest. It’s a good place to throw your coo, though.The eyes are closed while grooming. Safety first!Got to see the familiar cooing up closeThe beak is closed, the throat puffs up, presumably like a resonating chamber. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed this before.

Northern Water Snake

Nedordia sipedon sipedon are fairly melanistic in our neck of the woods.The species, with four subspecies in the east, is highly variable in coloration and patterning, but these dark ones are the only versions I’ve seen.There is some lighter coloring and markings on their underside, as these chins suggests.They can get up to five feet in length.A very nice look at the keeled scales in the pictures above and below. The keel, or ridge, along the center of each scale is quite prominent in this species. Figuring out if your snake has keeled or smooth scales is a good first step in identification. For instance, the somewhat similar Racer (Coluber constrictor) has unkeeled scales.These things will eat a huge variety of fish and amphibians; young ones will go for invertebrates, too.Snake-killers, a particularly nasty subspecies of H. sapiens, often target this species (as well as other harmless snakes) because they’re mistaken for cottonmouths or other venomous snakes. Fish-killers, and their game warden allies, also kill this species because they mistakenly think the snakes are serious competition for game fish.

Snake Book

Snakes of the Eastern United States by Whit Gibbons is an excellent addition to the natural history bookshelf. It’s sumptuously well-illustrated by many photographers.

Here’s the skinny on our snakes: there are 63 species of snakes native in the eastern US. There’s a serious north-south gradient: Maine has 10 native species (one of which, the timber rattlesnake, may be extirpated from the state) and Florida has 45 native species.* About 20 of the 63 species are endemic to the US east of the Mississippi (and Louisiana). There are subspecies and color variations for more than a few of all these.

Only 7 of the 63 species are venomous. They get way too much not just bad press but wrong press. These snakes are very reluctant to bite humans. And if you do get bit, we have a medical system of sorts that functions pretty well for this kind of thing (the cost is another issue, which we should be able to solve with Medicare for all were it not for our masters wanting us to worry ourselves and bankrupt ourselves to death). You have a better chance of being killed by lightning than being killed by a venomous snake. Bites from dogs are three times more fatal. Sure, the Venomous Seven can be dangerous, but use common sense, know what to look out for, watch where you’re going, wear boots when hiking, leash your dog, et cetera.

I’ve seen too few of these critters: Rat, Garter, Ribbon, Northern Water (pictured below). This year, I’m aiming to spot a Brown.

*There are some 3000 described species in the world. More than 140 of these are native to the entire U.S. This book also touches upon four introduced species, including the nightmare pet trade African python currently eating up Florida.

Northern Water Snake:

These nature goals were written for NYC, but are apropos everywhere.

Old Nests

The nesting season is already upon us, especially for such early nesters as owls, some raptors, doves. So, here’s one last look at some of the previous year’s nest. These have all made it through the winter, in one form or another. Above, the rough pottery suggests American Robins, who line the inside of their nests with mud.It’s remarkable that these dangling woven bags made by Baltimore Orioles manage to hold eggs, adults, and squirmy youngsters. And then make it through the winter. More and more artificial fibers (rope, fishing line, ribbon) turn up in these things: will some be re-purposed this year? Not that this is necessarily a good idea! Fishing line, for instance, can easily choke nestlings. (On this note: I gather well-meaning people are giving various fibers to the birds, thinking this is a good idea: it isn’t.)Very twiggy in a shrub. Mockingbirds?About two feet above the water, this one looks brand new. Red-winged Blackbird? Another woven affair, about fifteen feet up in a maple. Perhaps the product of one of the locally breeding vireo species.
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Rebecca Solnit on the problem with heroes.

Wood Frogs


A year ago on April 1st, 2018, we heard Wood Frogs and saw their spawn floating here. It takes about a week for their eggs to rise up from below, where they’re laid. This year, on March 30th, we heard the frogs and saw them both mating and egg-laying for the first time. Male Wood Frogs sound like a bit like ducks as they announce their presence. Half a dozen of them can produce a helluva sound.The females are notably larger and redder than the males. You might think they were a different species if you saw them on their own.We didn’t see any on their own. This is amplexus, Latin for “embrace,” the amphibian mating stance.The females are full of eggs — the black spheres seen under water in some of these images — lots and lots of eggs. She can spawn a 1000 at a go.

At the end of the bath…

And so our saga comes to an end. I had walked around a corner and there was this Red-tailed Hawk on the edge of the water. A large weeping willow was near by, so I used it as cover to get a bit closer. I got this look. It wasn’t as if the bird didn’t know I was there. But it didn’t give a fig (leaf?) for my presence and went about its ablutions. The whole sequence can be seen here.
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Allow me to call your attention to this excellent short essay on humor in our dark age.


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