Monday, September 08, 2008

Tarmac Ground Nesters, One Answer for Yesterday, and a Skunk Report

All Photographs Donegal Browne

Thursday 10:01am Billy Mitchell Field, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Having taken my 20 minute flight from Madison to Milwaukee in a downpour, survived security one more time, (Try going through, with a computer, several cameras of varying sizes, a birding scope often taken for something a sniper night use, several dozen batteries, and all the cables in the world, and see what happens to you.), and plopped down in a seat near the window with a bag that refused to stand up on it's own, and--What are those? The windows are very wet. It's hard to see and I need some magnification.

I start digging in my bag, pull out the camera with the most zoom, boot it up, and ding, ding, ding, bells go off in my head as I realize that the powers that be really, really, really, don't want people taking photographs out the windows of airports.

DRAT! I want to know what those birds are and I want photos. I walk over to the window, thinking fast about what I'll say if someone gets after me about it. I just have to be careful to stick to the birds and not include, planes, buildings, or whatever they might consider a security risk. I remember the time the Monarch Butterflies and the sky were considered a security risk near the Port Authority. There is just no telling.

I'll be calm and sensible-- show them that all I have are bird photos, right? It should be just fine.

What if photographing birds is a security risk? Seems very unlikely but these people can be very tense at times. So I keep the camera in front of me and sit on the floor hoping I look like I'm mooning over the torrential rainstorm that's sweeping across the airfield.

Zoom in and ta da! He's stepping out. It's a pair of Killdeer, Charadrius vociferus. Being Plovers, the kind that are wading birds and hunt by sight, all the water isn't bothering them one bit.

Yes, Killdeer are water birds who often don't nest or even feed near water for great swathes of time.

They like to lay their eggs in gravel. And here is an interesting factoid, they lay eggs that match the gravel in which the eggs are laid. It isn't clear if they are able to vary how their eggs look in some mysterious way to match the substrate they've chosen or whether they pick a substrate that is going to match what their eggs always look like.

Speaking of nesting, and eggs, what is the bi-color lump behind the Killdeer? Is that a hunkered down chick? It would have to be tiny and it's quite late for tiny chicks. Remember the Killdeer in the alfalfa field at Thresherman's Park were full grown and the same size as everyone else in the family.

There's another lump up right. Could that be one? You can tell that I'd love to see some chicks. They are precoccial and beyond cute. Little identical models of their parents though they tend toward only a single neck ring at first.

The other parent, (Identical males and females) looks steadily at yet another lump. Is it a possible eatable or is it a chick. It really does have a bi-color look to it.

I realize I'm probably beginning to give off an excited presence and try go limp to look like just another bored, tired, and put out airline passenger.

Then Dad goes past a lump and Whoopee!! That is undoubtedly a chick!

See! Absolutely a baby Killdeer. And very late they are. Many ground nesting birds lost clutches to the very wet spring and flooding that occurred in Wisconsin. After that, there has been drought so some birds have only finally been successful very late in the year. If the snow holds off as it has for the last few Falls things should be fine.

Little guy is still there, though it wouldn't hurt for him to seek some slightly higher ground I'm thinking and there seem to be a number of lumps up right. Though some of that could be vegetation.

Suddenly a plane is coming towards them. This is the area in which passengers do get onto planes after all. My heart goes into my mouth.

Mom checks the plane, checks the area, and takes off very rapidly at an angle.

In fact both parents do. Though the rain is so heavy and chicks so tiny I've no idea what has become of them.

I console myself with the fact that planes park here many times a day therefore these birds must have it down or they'd have no chicks. Also neither bird is going into the broken wing ruse used for predators. But perhaps planes don't cue that response.

On the other hand they aren't going into the Killdeer defensive posture used for big lumbering herbivores either. As Killdeer often use pastures for their breeding activities, sometimes cows, horses, sheep, goats, or other grass chewing pasture inhabitants progressively graze too close to the nest. In these cases the Killdeer, puff up all their feathers, spread their tail over their heads and rush the offending beast startling it and causing it to veer away from the nest.

One assumes this does not work for diddley with planes and they know it. Therefore having watched the planes patterns of movement they have planned accordingly.

He's looking at something across the way. Is it food or progeny?

Now watching the oncoming plane.

And what is that lump back there?

A chick sheltering in a crack behind a sprig of vegetation.

Aha! A snack. Come to think of it planes probably smack many an insect which then fall to the tarmac.

Then it's my plane that comes rolling through. No problem, the parents know their stuff. I start grabbing my things and I have to admit my layover between planes absolutely flew by.
If only all airports had ground nesting birds handily raising their families on the tarmac in full view of observant passengers.

NEXT UP--Many thanks to R. of Illinois for sending in the link with the begging vocalization of a Raven and a young Crow to help sort out one of yesterday's mysteries.
Without a doubt, what I saw yesterday in the parking lot of the train station was a juvenile Crow begging from atop the light pole. Yet another youngster that's a bit late in the season from his age.

Check it out--- YouTube - Agitated Raven.url (71b) For the Raven vocalization then continue through until you come to The Crow and I (or Mom's...) for the young Crow vocalization.
Two to three years ago a family of skunks lived a couple of houses down my street near the water. They were often in my yard at night. They seemed to disappear after one was reportedly caught by a large bird. And my neighbor tells me, it was dispatched in a rather hair-raising fashion. But this year skunks are back. I saw a beautiful one hightailing it across my yard just before dusk one night, and my neighbor tells me his wife has seen them a couple of times eating under my deck. I am guessing that the birdseed or peanuts that fall thru the deck from my open feeders are attracting them.I wonder if the bird who got the skunk was some type of hawk, which my neighbor, where the skunks lived, told me hung out in his trees.
I have only seen the hawk once, that year. My indoor-only cat was very upset one day, and finally I happened to look outside and saw this enormous bird perched on my deck railing.

Karen Anne Kolling

p.s. I forgot to mention that some (all?) of my raccoon visitors smell awful, like they have been zapped by skunks. I never noticed that before when I lived in another state. This has been the case for at least a mont
It sounds like the Skunks and Raccoons in your area are having territorial issues. And as Skunks can spray up to fifteen feet, unless the Raccoons don't mind that form of perfume, the Skunks may be getting first dibs on the peanuts under your deck at night.
As to the hawks taking Skunks, absolutely they do, but only the largest hawks are able to take a full grown skunk. For instance a large female Red-tail is much more likely to be able to take a full grown chubby rabbit than her consort would. The same applies for Skunks. Hawks are opportunistic and if it looks possible they will give it a shot.
I wonder if hawks and owls ever get sprayed by skunks? So far I haven't found the answer to that one yet.
Donegal Browne


Sally said...

Dear Donna,
Yes, Great Horned Owls DO apparently take, or at least try to take, skunk, as we occaisionally get skunked owls into the rehab center where I volunteer. You figure a 4 pound GHO can carry off a 12 pound mammal, and kill one much larger if not carry it away. My GOD it does stink to high heaven and we wear gowns to protect even our grubby work clothes from being impregnated with the odor when we have to handle them. I recall at least one that seemed to have its feather discolored by the stuff although it could have been in contact with something else that caused that discoloration, and more than one that seemed to have its vision temporarily affected. I supppose getting sprayed in the face would do that!

Donegal Browne said...


Do the Great Horns end up in rehab due to vision issues related to the skunking or is it just coincedence? Shunning from other Great Horns wouldn't be a problem, but I do wonder if it affects their ability to hunt, even without vision issues, as prey would be able to smell them coming or lurking at any rate.

Yes, they'd smell like skunk instead of Owl but still, doesn't everything with experience perk up at least a little and become more alert, at the scent of skunk?:-)