Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Treasure Hunting for Purple Sandpiper

This past weekend, I took a roadtrip to the Indiana lakefront for some birding. We were in search of some rare birds that had been reported in the area. It was a balmy day, with a windchill of 10 degrees, or less, with blustery gusts of 20 mile an hour winds. Not weather for couch potatoes.

Let's back up just a bit. Some of you may wonder why in the world would someone want to go out to look for birds in such frigid weather? For me, birding, or any other nature excursion, is a really fun game, a treasure hunt, if you will. I "find treasure" when I get to see a plant or animal that 1) I really like, 2)I haven't seen before, or 3) I have seen before, but it is uncommon or I didn't see it well the first time. I also get excited when I witness animal behavior, like an eagle chasing ducks, a warbler scarfing down a big, juicy caterpillar or a Hognose Snake playing dead.

I especially enjoy learning new things out in the field with others, like how to pick out a particular species of duck from a huge flock by its quick wingbeats, or how to tell what species of sparrow is hiding in the bush by its call note. These are skills that are developed over time, and I truly enjoy watching more skilled naturalists show off these talents. I am grateful for all of my mentors who have taken the time to show me these things.

On this particular day, we went searching for rare birds. One of the target birds I had never seen before, a Slaty-backed Gull. I knew this was a long shot. Unfortunately, we did not get to see it. Some of the other targets were ones I had seen but were uncommon, like Harlequin Duck, Long-tailed Duck, Northern Shrike and Purple Sandpiper. Accompanying me on the trip was my friend, Andrew. I baited him into coming on this trip with the promise of visiting a Cabela's after we looked for birds.

Purple Sandpiper foraging with ice crystals in the foreground. Brrrr!

First stop was Michigan City Harbor. We were in search of various gulls, but also a Purple Sandpiper. Purple Sandpiper is a rarity for Indiana. I searched the archives for reports of the bird and as far as I could tell, one had not been seen in the state since 2008. At the harbor, we ran into a fantastic photographer and birder, John Kendall. John said they hadn't seen the bird all day and assumed it was gone. So off we went, a bit disappointed, into the headwind to look for gulls. A bit later, John appeared on the horizon excitedly motioning to us. The sandpiper was back! Woo-hoo!

This is a great thing about nature treasure hunting. There are many others out there that want to share the bounty. They will take the time to help you find these living jewels. And what a jewel it was! My photo does not do the bird justice. I really urge you to take a look at John Kendall's photos that you can access by clicking here. He was using top notch equipment while he was belly down on the cold pavement happily snapping away. The sunlight was just right and I could see the purple sheen glowing off the sandpiper's feathers. We watched the bird for quite a while as it probed its long bill into the mud and snatched up tasty zebra mussels.

Later in the day, we also found a female Long-tailed Duck and a gorgeous brilliantly-colored male Harlequin Duck. It was well worth braving the cold to find this bounty!StumbleUpon

Monday, January 3, 2011

Southern Flying Squirrel

Over the holiday break, my friend, John Howard, captured these wonderful photos of Southern Flying Squirrel, Glaucomys volans. I just had to share them!
Southern Flying Squirrel is found throughout the Eastern United States. Though considered uncommon in Indiana and Ohio, they may be more plentiful than the data indicates. The species is nocturnal and usually is not out and about during the day. Mammals of Indiana, by Mumford and Whitaker, does not have them listed in Marion County, but my friend Dawn VanDeman has rehabilitated some Southern Flying Squirrels that were found in Indianapolis a few years ago.
Southern Flying Squirrels frequent mature woods with dead snags. They will also take over trees with woodpecker holes and natural cavities. They utilize multiple trees in the area to cache food and for dens or nests to hide and sleep. They line their nests with dried grasses and finely shredded bark. They have also been known to inhabit abandoned Fox Squirrel and Gray Squirrel nests. One source found a Southern Flying Squirrel occupying a bluebird box.

Photo from Wikipedia

Southern Flying Squirrels don't actually fly, as the name indicates, but glide from tree to tree. They leap into mid-air and extend flaps of skin on either side of the body called a patagium. The patagium extends from the wrists and ankles of the squirrel and acts like a parachute. The direction and speed can be controlled by the squirrel positioning its legs. In one of the sources I read, the author had seen one glide from the top of one tree to another that was 90 feet away!

Look at that face! Those eyes aren't just for cute points. Since they are nocturnal, the large sized eyes are essential for capturing available light so they can see in the dark. The long whiskers help them sense the edges of cracks and crevices while they are scurrying about, as well as juicy moths and beetles they readily snatch up. Southern Flying Squirrels eat mostly nuts, seeds, ripe berries, insects, eggs and fungi. They are also known to gnaw the bark of maple trees and drink the sap. Yet, these little munch monsters with their ravenous appetites weigh less than 3 ounces! Hmmm... eats a lot, yet weighs 3 ounces...maybe some of us should consult the Southern Flying Squirrel about our New Years resolutions. Look for The Flying Squirrel Diet at a bookstore near you! ;)

Thanks so much, John, for sharing your photos!