Today I spotted an unusual American Robin at Dorsey's Knob Park. Instead of having the typical orange-colored breast, this one had a white breast. This is a good example of a leucistic animal. Leucism is a condition in which an animal lacks normal pigmentation in some or all body parts. In this case, the robin lacked pigment in its orange body feathers. Fortunately I was able to take a quick cell phone picture of it as it fed in an ornamental fruit tree beside the lodge.
I saw on a local television news report that this has been the 6th coldest February on record. I believe it! Unfortunately, the persistent snow cover and single digit temperatures have really limited the number of new invertebrate and moss species that I've seen at Dorsey's Knob Park this past month. If nothing else, a harsh winter makes the arrival of springtime just that much sweeter.
Although the thermometer may still be showing sub-freezing temperatures, the animals are telling a different story. During this past week, there has been a flock of American Robins feeding on a grassy patch at the Dorsey's Knob disc golf course. Generally you can always find a robin or two around Morgantown throughout the winter, however, a flock of forty birds probably represents a group that has recently migrated north. And along those same lines, I've also been seeing high-flying V's of Canada Geese honking their ways northward.
Of course we don't want to leave out those classic mammalian harbingers of spring...the hibernators. So far there has been no sign of our local Groundhog, but I'm sure that he'll make an appearance any day now. On the other hand, I recently spotted an Eastern Chipmunk gorging his cheeks on the bird seed at my feeder. It would be interesting to know just how much of my sunflower seed and millet this little guy has carried away into his burrow. Or maybe I don't want to know... Regardless, his message is clear. Warmer days are right around the corner!
My Dorsey's Knob trail camera photographed all three of West Virginia's wild canine species last night...within a four hour period! These included a coyote, a gray fox and a red fox. Red foxes are generally larger than grays and they have a white tip on the end of their tails. In addition, red foxes also "wear" black "boots." This was the first time that I documented a red fox in the park.
My Big Year is off to a pretty good start. Or at least I think it is. After just six days of searching, I've found 80 different species at Dorsey's Knob Park. I'll be satisfied if I reach 100 species in January.
The unusually mild 60 degree weather that we enjoyed last Saturday provided me with a few bonus species that I didn't expect to get so early in the year. Take for example this Dark Fishing Spider (Dolomedes tenebrosus) that I found crawling on the outside of the Dorsey's Knob Lodge. Most species of fishing spiders stay close to water just as their name suggests. The Dark Fishing Spider is an exception. Not only do they often stray far from water, but they also regularly show up inside people's homes!
The unseasonably mild weather also brought out a few moths over the weekend. More specifically, I found three species of adult moths and a moth caterpillar. This black furry caterpillar below greeted me at my front door one morning. Its one of my favorites, a Giant Leopard Moth (Hypercompe scribonia). People often find these caterpillars while raking leaves during the late fall. They hibernate over the winter and develop into adults the following spring.
During the warm spell, I also photographed a caddisfly, a fly and a harvestman, but I've not yet ID'd them to species...if that's even possible. I'll know soon enough.
I kissed my first species of the year as the clock struck midnight and my Big Year commenced. Now my wife (Homo sapiens) literally is #1 on my list! But with 999 more species to go, I couldn't tarry. And no, I have no intention of kissing them all! Within minutes, I was bundled up and heading out the door into the uncomfortably cold night.
I had recently found two species of owls during the Christmas Bird Count at Dorsey's Knob and I hoped to re-locate them both. The first one was easy. All it took was a short walk in the dark and my best whistled rendition of an Eastern Screech-Owl. Within seconds I had one of the diminutive owls fly in and land perhaps 30 feet away. Screech-Owls nest in tree cavities in the lower elevation wooded portions of the park. Unfortunately, the second owl was a no show. I had been hearing a pair of Great Horned Owls calling off and on for a month. Sometimes they called from within the park while at other times they called from the vicinity of the federal minimum security prison located below the park. I knew the Great Horned Owls would be a long shot because they typically fall silent when they begin to incubate their eggs in early January.
As I walked back toward my home at the Groscup Center, I decided to check for moths at some of the dusk to dawn lights at the Dorsey's Knob Lodge. Bingo! A very cold looking Morning Glory Plume Moth clung motionless to the side of the building. A gentle poke confirmed that it was still alive. Unfortunately, it fled the scene before I obtained a picture. To the right is a photo of one that I took at the park late last year. Who says that you can't find moths when the temperature drops below freezing?
Over the course of the day, I picked up several more species on an incidental basis. Hearing the call of a Northern Cardinal just prior to sunrise was quite pleasant. On the other hand, seeing a White-footed Mouse scamper across my kitchen floor was rather unwelcome. Regardless, they both count equally toward reaching my target of 1000 species in 2015
In 2014 I undertook a Green Birding Big Year. What follows is the list of 157 species of birds that I either saw or heard without burning any fossil fuels. I only wish that I knew how many miles I walked in the process! Some of my highlights included seeing Rufous Hummingbird, Black-crowned Night-Heron, White-winged Scoter, Surf Scoter and Red-throated Loon.
American Black Duck
Great Blue Heron
Great Horned Owl
Great Crested Flycatcher
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Every game is governed by a set of rules to play by and Big Years are no exception. What then are the ground rules to my Dorsey's Knob All Taxa Big Year? Since nobody likes complicated rules, I'll keep these brief.
1) The goal of this game is to locate and identify 1,000 species within a single calendar year starting at midnight on January 1st 2015.
2) Only species level identifications count toward reaching the goal of 1,000. In other words, something identified only to family or genus level does not count.
3) In an All Taxa Big Year, every living thing is countable regardless of whether it is plant, animal, fungi or something microscopic.
4) The "playing field" is the 71 acre Dorsey's Knob Park. If a bird is seen flying directly above the park, it counts. On the other hand, a bird flying outside of the park, but seen from a vantage within the park does not count.
5) Animals can be counted if they are either seen, heard, photographed via game camera, identified with a bat detector or documented through some other conclusive form of evidence. Dead animals, or parts thereof, are also countable provided that they had died within the park during the calendar year.
6) Getting help with a challenging identification is allowed.
7) Non-native species are only countable if they have become naturalized. Intentionally planted ornamental trees, shrubs and flowers do not count.
8) Have fun and learn something about biodiversity!
This Gray Fox spent some time in front of my game camera late last night. Note the black tip of the tail, which distinguishes it from Red Foxes with their white tips. This is a new mammal species for my Dorsey's Knob Park inventory.
Like many birders, I always look forward to the dropping of the ball at Times Square. Not only does it represent the flipping of the calendar year, but in the birding world, it is also the great equalizer. At the stroke of midnight, every birder's list of birds seen during the current year rolls back to zero. It is a new beginning. Like New Year's resolutions, many birders set birding goals for the upcoming year. In 2013, my birding goal was to submit over a thousand complete bird observation lists to eBird, which I did. And in 2014, I focused on local birding by pursuing a BIGBY, which is an acronym for Big Green Big Year. Unlike the conventional Big Year that involves seeing or hearing as many species of birds as possible within a defined geographic area, a birder doing a BIGBY can only count birds that are seen or heard without having to burn any fossil fuels. Basically, it means that you have to be prepared to do a lot of walking and biking. Although four days still remain in 2014, I will likely end the year at my current 149 species.
Lately I have been contemplating my birding goal for 2015. After much consideration, I have actually decided not to pursue a particular birding goal during the new year. Instead, I will be doing an All Taxa Big Year, or ATBY! In essence, an ATBY is a Big Year challenge that involves locating and identifying as many flora, fauna and fungus species as possible regardless of taxonomy. Everything counts from birds to trees to snakes to even single-celled organisms. The geographic area for my ATBY is the 71 acre Dorsey's Knob Park where I both work and live.
Aside from the temporal and geographic limitations of my All Taxa Big Year, there is another very real limiting factor against which I must contend. It is the limit of my own personal knowledge of natural history. Although I feel very comfortable in locating and identifying birds, moths, trees and most mammals, I admittedly know very little about fungi, most orders of insects, almost all arthropods, lichens, mosses and a whole host of other life forms. Doing this Big Year is guaranteed to be a learning experience. And really, that's what this is all about. By the end of 2015, I hope to be much more knowledgeable of the biodiversity and ecology of this part of the world that I call home.
While looking for salamanders, I also came across this male Ocellated Darner (Boyeria grafiana) sitting on a lichen-covered rock. This is a species that likes swift flowing rocky streams and rivers located within forests. That pretty well sums up Valley Falls State Park.