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Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Times, They Are A-Changin'

Oh man, it’s almost here. I can smell it on the wind – the sweet aroma of blooming flowers and fresh grass that means spring is here and migration is on its way. There’s an old adage that says robins are the first sign of spring. Now, any birder worth his salt knows that’s not true, and that American Robins are present throughout the year, weathering our coldest winters and breeding in our hottest summers. But that hasn’t stop huge flocks of robins from forming all around the Triangle recently, noisily foraging in suburban lawns and dense forest.

For being so common, it really is an awesome looking bird!

The warm temperatures are encouraging our winter birds to do strange things. Hermit Thrushes have started singing in the woods, and I’ve been hearing the ascending tunes of both kinglet species. But among them, I’ve begun to hear the songs of my familiar summer birds, finally back after this mild winter. At Mason Farm today, I heard both Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Northern Parulas, a welcome respite from my normal roster of White-throated Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Plus the herps have started moving too, and I managed to find several immature Five-lined Skinks with their electric blue tails.

Unfortunately I couldn't get one to sit still! Quick little buggers...

While herping, I’ve found that flipping logs is a perfectly fine way to find reptile and amphibians – just today I found my fair share of Marbled Salamanders, and last week it was the best way to find Brown Snakes. But recently, I’ve found loose bark to be even more productive, and every time I see a tree with its bark hanging off, I peek behind it to see what I might find. Mostly I’ve found Carolina Anoles and a couple adult Five-lined Skinks. But yesterday I found this beautiful adult Eastern Fence Lizard hanging out, perhaps the largest I’ve ever seen. You can even see a bit of that reflective blue underside showing from just beneath its chin!

Of course, the sun disappeared just as I took this shot. Figures.

But lizards aren’t the only thing I’ve been finding as of late. Sure, I’ve uncovered my share of termite nests and ant colonies, and immediately I’ll lay the bark back in place (I had a bad experience). But today, when I peered behind the dead bark I found the unmistakable black and gray pattern of an immature Black Ratsnake. Now, I’m far more used to seeing his larger brothers, but this little guy had some fight in him. As I dragged him off the tree, he immediately struck out and dug into my pointer finger like it was his last meal. Of course, being so small, his needle-sharp teeth barely drew blood, but it was a good experience for me – any good herper has to learn to be bitten by snakes, and this was my first step into a larger world. Eventually I got him under control, and learned how difficult it is to photograph a snake in one hand while holding the camera with the other.

He was an extremely wriggly little guy!

With my herping pretty much done for the day, I got to admire the birds, and there were a lot of them. For some reason, the White-throated and Song Sparrows took to flocking in the path looking for food. Occasionally a cardinal or mockingbird would join them, and on one occasion I saw a Hispid Cotton Rat make his way amongst the flock. While I watched one particularly large group of birds, I noticed an enormous yellow blaze hurtle to the ground and land among the sparrows. It took me a half second to realize it was a Northern Flicker, a large woodpecker that’s particularly keen on hanging out land-side. As I crept closer, the flicker ignored me for food, and I was more than happy to sit there and photograph him til he took off for a stand of trees. What a way-cool bird.

I mean, who can say no to a woodpecker with polka-dots?

Seeing as I had to get back and watch Lehigh kick some Blue Devil tail, I left the birds and herps as they were. In just a couple weeks time, the trees will be full of singing warblers, the trails full of cruising snakes, and the woods full of nature yet to be discovered. I can’t wait.

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