Thursday, February 26, 2015

Ice and Bluebirds--a Special Matter

Eastern Bluebirds are one of the most popular and enjoyable birds to have around your home. They don't mind being near people and their activities, and, like many other birds, they recognize you when you're providing food. Bluebirds that are familiar with you will even fly toward you when you are filling their mealworm feeder.
Our nesting Eastern Bluebirds in Tennessee are non-migratory and remain here year-around. They are joined by birds from neighboring states and young bluebirds from neighboring territories to form small wintering flocks that aid winter survival. These flock members help each other find food, spot predators and provide warmth when they roost together in a sheltered cavity, such as a nest box, when the temperature drops below 20 F degrees.
Bluebirds are not your typical feeder birds, however. Their natural winter diet consists of spiders, berries and fruits. If these foods are available they can maintain fat reserves that sustain them during the extreme cold. T. David Pitts, in his book, Studying Eastern Bluebirds, A Biologist's Report and Reflections,  also says the following:  "As a result of their high rate of metabolism, bluebirds can quickly use the fat they store.  If extremely cold temperatures linger for several days, many bluebirds may die since they normally store only enough fat to protect themelves for a day or so, and they may not be able to find enough food to replace the fat that has been used."
A male Eastern Bluebird feeding on the berries of the burning bush.

Pitts also conducted extensive studies in northwest Tennessee that revealed that bluebirds do not digest the seeds that are in the fruits they eat.   These seeds pass through their system undigested and provide no nutritional benefit.  Herein lies the challenge.  A non-seed eating bird that primarily recognizes insects, spiders and berries as food.  How do you feed them when winter gets rough?
And even more challenging, how do your feed them when larger, territorial birds are chasing them away from the berry sources?
Female Eastern Bluebird, above and below.

I had this challenge over the past week, when freezing rain and sleet coated everything with ice and temperatures plummeted to single digits with windchills below zero.  Suet crumbs froze, mealworms froze and larger birds, such as American Robins and Mockingbirds became aggressive, chasing smaller birds, like bluebirds and Hermit Thrushes away from the berry bushes. In fact, one robin was so territorial he chased bluebirds away from both the holly and the neighboring burning bush.
One male bluebird was familiar with the mealworm feeder guard and could navigate through it and eat suet and mealworms offered there, protected from larger birds.  The other bluebirds that came with him did not know how to navigate the guard.  With feathers fluffed against the cold and mealworms frozen motionless, there was little hope they would learn about the guard in sub-freezing conditions.
After consulting friends, Billie Cantwell and Liz Cutrone at Knoxville's Wildbirds Unlimited, I adjusted a Dinner Bell feeder to exclude larger birds by lowering the dome cover to a few inches above the tray, filled the tray with smooth "butter bark" suet pellets, small home-made suet crumbs and freeze-dried mealworms and hung it near the bluebird feeder.  When the male bluebird came to the feeder, his companions soon discovered the added food source and were also able to eat from it. In their absence, I noticed the Hermit Thrush landing on the dinner bell also to eat suet.

Additional good advice-- spread your suet feeders out so if a larger bird claims one feeder, there is an alternate area for the smaller birds to visit.
In the spring you can also consider planting Sumac near the borders of your yard.  In Pitts' studies in northwest Tennessee, two native species, smooth sumac and winged sumac, were the most favored fruit of bluebirds, composing 50-90% of their winter diet even when a variety of other fruits were available.
Pitts advises to plant more than one sumac spaced apart in different areas of the yard to prevent mockingbird dominance.  If a group of robins or cedar waxwings flies in and takes over the holly berry supply, a protective mockingbird will likely take over the sumac next.  Planting shrubs spaced far apart in different areas will give the bluebirds an alternative choice for feeding.
Northern Mockingbird in holly

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Winter Birds and Tennessee's Ice

Ice presents stressful winter conditions, not only for people, but for wildlife.  Though beautiful to witness from warmth and safety, a wintery mix of precipitation that coats food sources presents challenges for bird survival.
In Tennessee we have birds that live here year-around and remain for the winter because of the generally moderate winter conditions and abundance of food.  If enough food is available, many bird species can survive temporary plummets in temperature.  Extended periods of sub-freezing temperatures, however, such as the single digits that we recently experienced, and a quarter inch coating of ice over everything increases survival challenges considerably.  
The American Robin is one of the species that we call resident birds because they remain during the winter.  Many northern robins join our local ones to take advantage of the food sources, so we may see large flocks of robins descending on our yards and visiting fruit producing trees and shrubs. Asian holly is one of the berry producing shrubs that attracts many species of birds, though if you are planting holly, the native American Holly is a better choice.
In these images, you see a Robin picking berries from the holly.  He not only was feeding on berries, he soon claimed the holly for himself, driving away other robins and also driving away the area bluebirds that came to visit.  He ignored sparrows, the Hermit Thrush and did not bother the Mockingbird, the bird we all expect to be territorial with a holly.
The ice and the several days of below 20 F temperatures, presented conditions so stressful, that many birds we normally don't expect to be aggressive were chasing others away from their food source. Above, you see the robin in the act of grabbing another berry.  Notice what happens to the berry in the next image.
An ice coated berry is hard to hold on to!  People feeding birds during the ice storm and deep freeze temperatures in east Tennessee noticed many territorial birds and an influx of species that weren't commonly seen visiting their winter feeders.
I'll show you some of those species in the next few posts.

Next:  Bluebirds and ice--a special matter

More on wintering birds in this blog

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Polar Bear Alley on the Hudson Bay

On our final day in Churchill, we enjoyed a tour of the town's history and natural areas with interpretive guide, Paul Retson.  
It was impossible to miss the rifle over the windshield.  Polar Bears present a variety of challenges for the locals, sometimes coming into town, breaking into homes, taking a resident's storage of winter meat or causing general destruction and havoc.  On the other hand, Polar Bears are one of the main attractions that bring tourist dollars to the Churchill economy.
The Polar Bear Holding Facility is more frequently called the "bear jail".  After many years of trying to manage bears for the safety of bears and people, the holding facility has become the solution to problem bears.  
Traps are baited and placed in the area where the problem bear frequents.  Once the bear is captured, it is temporarily sedated and placed in the holding facility. Manitoba's Polar Bear Protection Act regulates conditions under which a live polar bear may be considered for placement in a captive situation.
Bears are not fed while in the facility.  Polar Bears are mostly fasting this time of year.  The females fast while nursing their cubs except for chewing a bit of vegetation. The males are partially fasting and will feed on whatever food source they find.  Officials learned many years ago, that if they feed the bears while they are in the facility, the bears remember the food and return, creating a worse problem.
While we were visiting, there were eleven bears being held in the facility.  The bears are held for a pre-set number of days and then lifted out by helicopter and taken to a wilderness area and released. 
The Hudson Bay shore area along Polar Bear Alley on the outskirts of Churchill.

Churchill, Kaskatamagan and Kaskatamagan Sipi are three Wildlife Management Areas dedicated to protecting land habitat for polar bears in Manitoba.  Together they encompass 14,000 sq km or 5405 square miles.  Wapusk National Park, located 28 miles south of Churchill, protects 11,470 square km of land (4430 sq miles) and is one of the world's largest Polar Bear maternity denning areas in the world.
Our guide, Paul Retson, discusses the natural history of the area and bear trapping.

Wapusk is the native Cree word for polar bear. In order to protect the habitat and wildlife, the Park is accessible only by special permit and by helicopter or tundra buggy.  Wapusk is the area where scientists first documented Grizzly Bears crossing over into Polar Bear habitat.  Seven Grizzly Bears were documented in the Wapusk park between 2003 to 2008.
Above, Billie Cantwell pauses with her camera.  Misty rain/snow and wind were common conditions, requiring protective covers for camera gear.
The dirt road that skirts the edge of town is frequented by Polar Bears and has become known as Polar Bear Alley.  Fresh Polar Bear tracks were spotted on the road as we arrived.
Located a good distance away from the road, a female Polar Bear and her cub were making their way along the Hudson Bay shore.  Though difficult to see in the gray light in the image below, the Hudson Bay is just beyond the dark rocky area.




In the wee hours of the morning, we said 'Goodbye' to Churchill and boarded our train for the return trip to Winnepeg.  One of our stops the next day was the town of The Pas.
On the roof of the depot, I found a cooperative Black-billed Magpie.  These members of the jay family were seen in many areas, but seldom stayed still long enough for me to capture a good image!

Located near the depot, a mural created by Mike O'Toole depicts Manitoba's changing habitat and wildlife heritage.



Billie Cantwell and Colin Leonard board the train as we head for our final destination, Winnepeg.
Sunset viewed from the window as we near the end of our travels with Via Rail.
This is the fourteenth and final post in the series on my journey to Churchill, Manitoba, to see Polar Bears including a visit to Riding Mountain National Park.  Click the journey to Churchill link to see all the posts.  The most recent post will appear first.  When you reach the end of the page, click "older post" to continue with the series.

Click here for Part 1--Polar Bears on the Hudson Bay and Part 2
Visit my sketchbook page on Polar Bears
Blue Sky Expeditions in Churchill
Blue Sky Expeditions on Facebook
Link to my Polar Bear video
Hudson Bay Buggies and Bears with Rail Travel Tours
Learn about Polar Bears
Hudson Bay
Eskimo Museum
History of Churchill from Churchill Science
Churchill History
the impact of sea ice decline

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Dog Sled Experience in Churchill with BlueSky Expeditions

On my second day in Churchill, Oct 11th, we had beautiful, quiet piles of snow, the kind that make you feel kid-like excitement.  I finished my coffee and was out the door by 7:30 to go for a quiet walk in the magic before daylight.  
The polar bear statue and distant grain storage facility across the inlet viewed from the end of the main street of Churchill.
The inukshuk located in the same area.

Perfect weather for my morning destination--Bluesky Expeditions, for a dog-sled experience.  On the way to the facility I was lucky to ride in the front passenger seat of a truck with a beautiful, retired female sled dog as my companion.  She was polite, focused and excited about where we were headed.
I don't know how she knew, but she clearly knew we were going to Bluesky.  Above, one of Bluesky's active sled dogs.
Gerald Azure, owner and operator of Bluesky Expeditions, was born and raised in the northern Metis community of Commorant, Manitoba. His parents made their living with commercial trapping and fishing and dog sleds were their chief transportation until the 1970's.  Dog sledding and the aboriginal culture remain a strong tradition in the Azure family with Bluesky's 75 dogs trained primarily for the tourist industry.
Along with offering dog sled experiences, Bluesky operates the Bluesky Bed and Sled, a bed and breakfast for visitors to Churchill.
I am wearing multiple layers under my coat, plus a Bluesky coat on top of mine and a water resistant blanket over my legs.  It worked.  I was comfortable and dry in the wind and blowing snow!

The dogs love to run and were full of energy and eagerness.  The history of the use of dog-pulled sleds goes back 4000 years and pre-dates the use of horses for transportation.  The first documented dog sled race began in 1850 and ran from Winnepeg, Canada, to St Paul, Minnesota, US.
Ernest Azure, Gerald's eldest brother, provided the dog team for my sled experience. Ernest competed in the Hudson Bay Quest in 2014, a 220-mile wilderness course that goes from Gilliam, MB, to Churchill, MB.
In this great image taken by Jenafor Azure, Ernest begins the race with Gerald cheering him on (behind, second from his right). Gerald assisted with the care of his dog team during the race.  Ernest was the oldest musher to compete in the race, first to cross the half-way check-in, the first Churchill musher to cross the finish line, and finished 7th in a field of thirteen with a time of 38: 30: 23.
An amazing wilderness endurance feat with competitors facing harsh conditions even though health checks for the dogs and rest are built into the course.  Mushers and their teams must travel 50-70 miles a day to complete the race.  Above, Ernest and his dog team as they cross the Churchill River.
Husband and wife team, Gerald and Jenafor Azure, operators of Bluesky Expeditions and the Bluesky Bed and Sled.

Bluesky's hospitality includes Jenafor's Wild Berry Bannock bread and cookies with hot tea. Yummm!
When I wasn't busy with the dog sled or tea, Gray Jays provided delightful entertainment out on the porch.
A special thank you to Jenafor Azure of Bluesky Expeditions for providing the images found in this blog post (excepting images 2, 3, 4, and 14, taken by the author).

This is the thirteenth post in a series on my journey to Churchill, Manitoba, to see Polar Bears including a visit to Riding Mountain National Park.  Click the journey to Churchill link to see all the posts.  The most recent post will appear first.  When you reach the end of the page, click "older post" to continue with the series.

Next:  Polar Bear Ally

Blue Sky Expeditions
Blue Sky Expeditions on Facebook
Click here for Part 1--Polar Bears on the Hudson Bay and Part 2
Visit my sketchbook page on Polar Bears
Link to my Polar Bear video
Hudson Bay Buggies and Bears with Rail Travel Tours
Learn about Polar Bears
Hudson Bay
Eskimo Museum
History of Churchill from Churchill Science
Churchill History
the impact of sea ice decline
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For the Love of It...

...the sage sees heaven reflected in Nature as in a mirror, and he pursues this Art, not for the sake of gold or silver, but for the love of the knowledge which it reveals.
Sendivogius (1750)

Your Uncapped Creativity...

Your Uncapped Creativity...
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. You must keep that channel open. It is not for you to determine how good it is, nor how valuable. Nor how it compares with other expressions. It is for you to keep it yours, clearly and directly." ----the great dancer, Martha Graham