Sue Lewis, one of our Berkshire Bioblitz bird experts, and her team reported seeing a snowy owl at Silver Lake in Pittsfield on December 15, 2013. It was sitting on one of the solar panels WMECO installed. The weather here has been until today, almost balmy. Yesterday the skies were blue and the sun was warm.
This year marks the tenth season of banding Northern Saw-whet Owls (NSWO) at Hopkins Forest. Luckily for me, my friend John found out about it and got hold of Drew Jones who runs the research station. The researchers are collecting data from NSWO during their fall migration that begins in October and ends mid-November. They use an eerie audio-lure to call the birds in and almost invisible mist nets to snare these little owls. Data they collect is used to record the birds migration routes and timing, growth, survivorship and molt progressions.
The habitat of these small owls, Aegolius acadicus are coniferous forests and mixed coniferous and deciduous woods throughout North America. Their diet consists deer mice, toads and small animals. Although they are small, they are not the smallest owls.
The NSWO has a round, light, white face with brown and cream streaks with dark beaks and yellow eyes. They are cute and look like little toys. But they are raptors and have a formidable constitution, they can scratch and tear at skin if you don’t hold them correctly. The color of the yellow in the eyes ranges from bright to almost brown. Females have the brighter yellow eyes. They have no ear tufts, but the ear slits are huge and offset as in all owls. This way they can triangulate the sound they hear, enabling them to be very good hunters. They also have big eye sockets, that don’t turn, so the entire head turns with the sound and sight.
We parked in the lower lot as told. It was dark. So dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. While getting out of the car I grabbed my flashlight, but couldn’t manage to turn it on. John used his phone to light up the switch. It was my battery charger, not a flashlight. So much for that.
The night was cold and crystal clear. The stars, there were a blue million of them. We followed the sound of the owl call up to the building to meet Drew and the crew. Then we hiked out into the forest with head lanterns. We didn’t go far. In the net were three owls. They were swiftly placed in blue bags and brought back to the research station, aka, the tool shed.
The birds were weighed, head first in a tin can. Yes a soup can. It was a funny sight, but it works. They stay still. Then they had their wings measured, their eye color checked, the new feathers were counted. Then the bird was placed under a UV light where the new feathers glowed a pretty pink. Interesting. Wonder if that works for chickens too? Their beaks were measured, amount of body fat and skin color were recorded. Then they were banded. All three we caught that night were females. One was previously banded and a Canadian research station.
We then hiked a little way from the shed and the nets and released them into the woods, back to their migration to the south. Good luck to our little feathered friends.
Around here the name you hear when these insects are found is Praying Mantis or Preying Mantis and the scientific name is Mantodea. There are over 2, 400 species and a young man from Pittsfield, doing research out of the University of Florida has set his sights on knowing all of them. More to come on that topic.
Meanwhile this beautiful lady showed up on my friend’s picket fence. She is a good size fully mature mantis. She is dark in color because its fall and it helps her blend in, early this year she was probably bright green to blend in with the summer colors. Oh, and there is no $50 fine for killing a praying mantis. That is an urban legend. Mantis’ are not even native to Berkshire County, this lady hails from Asia.
The ‘praying’ part of the common name comes from the position she holds her front legs, as though she were praying. And the ‘preying’ part of the common name comes from the fact that she is a voracious predator and uses those legs to grab food that comes her way. She prefers crickets. Gravid crickets–those that are full of eggs. Sometimes she only eats the eggs and leaves the cricket for scavengers. (Don’t feel too bad for the cricket, since crickets themselves are known to eat other crickets when they have the opportunity.)
How do male mantis mate with females that eat almost any insect in their grasp? Very, very carefully. The idea that females take the head off the males during copulation is up for debate. Some think it is an artifact of watching mating in laboratory settings where the male cannot get away. But its is the same as it is with spiders, approach cautiously and try to escape, but in the long run the reason to mate is to pass on your genes, and the males achieve this with a head or without.
More to come on this as the students in my class observe and write about they learn. Mainly we are going to focus on pre-programmed cell death. By the end of November this mantis will be an old lady and her cells will wear out and she will die, but first she will whip up an impressive egg mass sack to pass on her genes.
The blue-tongued skink, Tiliqua scincoides, has a blue tongue as a warning for predators to stay away. It says, “Watch out—I BITE!” Although this one has been raised in captivity and in the past 12 years has never bitten anyone.
The blue-tongued skink can’t make its own energy so it is considered a “heterotroph.” It gets its energy from the food it eats. It eats carbohydrates such as plants, cellulose, and fiber. It eats bugs for protein and for microorganisms to break down lipids and fiber. Its diet is supplemented with vitamins made especially for reptiles. He gets “monkey biscuits.”
We discussed that this reptile, who is native to the deserts of Australia, can store fat and water in its body for long periods of time in order to survive the harsh climate.
He does sleep with his eyes closed and likes to burrow.
My biology class is about to adopt a red-eared slider. This was a rescue turtle. Its companions died of neglect and shell rot. The pictures are too gruesome to share, but this turtle here is doing well.
At first it wasn’t eating, was skiddish and the shell was in poor condition. You can still see its spine through the shell. Not a good thing. Finally it has started eating and is becoming curious with its surroundings.
The students in my class are going to do some research for this website and give it some tender love and care.
More information and photos to come!
This large green frog lives all around Berkshire County in ponds, swamps, lakes and streams. They like to hang out along the edge of the water and jump in when surprised or threatened.
These frogs spawn in the spring; this means the female lays eggs, up to 20,000 in shallow water while the male releases its sperm into the water near the eggs.
The fertilized eggs hatch out tadpoles that have external gills and rows of tiny teeth across the top of their mouths. They feed by pumping water through their gills and mixing up the bottom water that contains bacteria, algae, singled celled organisms and pollen grains which they eat through their mouths. As they get older they eat larger things such as copepods (small crustaceans) and larval aquatic insects as well as scraping off bits of vegetation.
Metamorphosis from tadpole to frog in our climate takes 2-3 years. That means if you bring one in for a pet; don’t expect a frog for a couple of years at least. And remember to feed it lettuce. I should mention bullfrog tadpoles do not make very good pets. Releasing them in the fall is a good idea so they can hibernate through the winter.
The adult frog is voracious, this means they like to eat a lot, all the time. They are predators, eating any animal that will fit in their mouths even if they have to use their hands to get it in. Their usual diet is made up of invertebrates, such as insects and worms. If in captivity you will need to make the food move for them to ‘catch’.
Scientists estimate their lifespan in the wild to be eight to ten years, but one frog lived for 12 luxurious years in captivity at the Berkshire Museum.
To tell the difference between the adult male and female, look at the ear drums or tympanic membranes, the round circles behind its eyes, if the circles are bigger than the eyes the frog is male. If the circles are smaller or the same size the frog is female. These ear drum of sorts, connect to the inner ear in which they hear but they also hear with their lungs, but that is another story.
Filtered water is an important part of the water system here in Berkshire County. The water we drink comes from a water treatment plant that first filters our water for big bulky things like leaves, branches and live animals such as fish and frogs. This is a filter with big holes. Next the water is filtered through a finer medium like sand and finally it is filtered through an even finer medium to remove even smaller particles.
Today the kids did some of their own experiments to see what would clean leaves and twigs out of water and then what worked best to remove dirt particles. They used, paper, cotton and filter paper. First one at a time, then in combination.