Saturday, February 23, 2008

Eastern Gray Squirrel Copulation

Yes, it's that time of year. There are two seasons for Gray Squirrel copulation, December through February and May through June.
I'd noticed that suddenly even though it's extremely cold, that there were nine squirrels this morning in the feeding area. Over the last few days the squirrel group had expanded daily and now I know why.
Male squirrels start following a female 5 days before she goes into estrus even though her vagina is still closed. The guys were out in force. Some may have come from as far away as 500 meters.
Male squirrels compete with each other for the chance to mate with a female. The visible cue of a female in estrus is an enlarged pink vulva. This is usually a condition which lasts less than 8 hours. (Looking at all the males around here, I’m assuming she’d get very tired if the condition lasted much longer than that.)

The Gray Squirrel is considered polygynandrous. Another way of saying that they are promiscuous and a female may mate with several males. Actually, it’s unclear to me if she has that much choice in the matter or if those males who may follow the first have any chance at fertilization. After the less than 30 second copulation and ejaculation, a gelatinous white vaginal plug forms, preventing further sperm entry. It looks like the joke is on everybody but Number One.

Though unlike what occurs with some species of bird, I don’t see the other male squirrels running over to interrupt the copulation.
And not only does the female go into estrus twice a year but male squirrels cycle through testicular recrudescence and regression twice a year as well. That way one assumes the problem of raking their protruding testicles across rough bark doesn’t have to occur year round. Besides all that friction could really cut down on their speed.
Now after all that talk about Squirrel sex, how about something completely different?
We haven't visited taxonomic classification in awhile, here is that of the Eastern Gray Squirrel

Kingdom: Animala
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Rodentia
Suborder: Sciuromorpha
Family: Sciuridae
Subfamily: Sciurinae
Genus: Sciurus
Species: Sciurus carolinensis
Donegal Browne
P.S. Sorry about no Bald Eagles along the Mississippi today, I'm down with a virus. Besides we'd have missed all that squirrel sex if I'd left home.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Winter Into Spring

It's still definitely winter here in Wisconsin. And winter once again brings to mind that I've always wondered how the Junco, who can't weigh more than a few ounces manage to get through the night without freeing solid. Yes, they spend every waking minute foraging and eating as fast as they can find it, but still. It turns out that like Red-tails, Juncos "practice" controlled hypothermia at night. They and Chickadees reduce their body temperatures while asleep to conserve calories.

Now if I just knew why Mourning Dove's eyelids are that lovely shade of blue...

Of course, for the Junco, it's not just regulated hypothermia, look at his underwear.

Photograph courtesy of the Ohio DNR
But Spring has to be on it's way, no matter how it feels at the moment.
Robin of Illinois sent in this great link to a Flickr site where you can watch the Blackwater Eagles "dance" in courtship. Eagles are marvelous. Take a look!
Donegal Browne

The Eclipse

Ahhhhhhhh! But lets go back to the beginning.

Here she comes!

Temperature: -20F

Wind: light and variable


7:08:38PM What is that? A maenad?

7:09PM A double headed Hippocamp?

Nah, that's what the moon looks like when the tripod slides down the ice flow of a driveway as the shutter clicks.










9:41PM Saturn

9:49:21PM And then all the way back the other way.

Donegal Browne

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lunar Eclipse!!

If you're within the viewing range, don't miss tonight's total lunar eclipse!

And from astronomy buff as well as Hawk watcher Kentaurian:

The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Spain are organizing live webcasts of the event. This Link below will have five images from various locations on one page:">
Other webcasts (links on their page): * Lunar Observers (Birmingham, UK)*
AstroCam (Cambridgeshire, UK)*
High Moon (Switzerland)*
Universidad Complutense de Madrid (Madrid, Spain)* (Gran Canaria, Canary Islands)* Associación Argentina "Amigos de la Astronomía" (Argentina)* SEMS - SUN Earth Mopon Systems, University of North Dakota (Grand Forks, ND, USA)

(And if you haven't checked the blog since, last night-- Tuesday, don't miss John Blakeman's report on the Plum Brook Station Eagles in the post below.)

Donegal Browne

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

John Blakeman and The Plum Brook Station Bald Eagles

Winter lasting a little too long for you? Do you need to remember that August actually exists? Here's a gorgeous view of The Gill, Central Park in August, from nature photographer Eleanor Tauber.
And now for the promised report from John Blakeman on the Plum Brook Station Bald Eagles!

I tried to get into Plum Brook Station on Monday, but it was closed, for President's Day. I wasn't able, then, to discover anything about the 5 Bald Eagles I saw going over the fence into the facility on Sunday.

But this afternoon I went in for a quick look. I toured the entire site, looking for any new Bald Eagle's nest, finding none. I did find a new Red-tail's nest, which I'll also watch. There are probably 6 to 10 Red-tail pairs in the Station. I've spent no time tracking down any of the RT nests.

At the PBS Bald Eagle nest, at "K-Site," the pair was sitting together in a tree perhaps 50 yards from the now-completed nest. The birds weren't hunting, nest-building, or even socializing, just sitting up there and relaxing.

But the pair had been seen in copulation earlier in the day. Because of this, the NASA people presumed that an egg would be therefore appearing in a few days. This is not very likely, as the numerous pre-egg copulations of the 927 Red-tail pair reveal. Red-tails and Bald Eagles (can you imagine this) seem to copulate just for the social (and other) fun of it, long before any real haploid (unfertilized) egg begins to appear in the single fallopian tube of the female.

An egg will be laid at the appropriate time, which isn't necessarily right after copulation. Yes, as I reported yesterday, one of the nearby Ohio Bald Eagle pairs is now sitting on at least one egg. The pair is famous for laying February eggs, among the first in the entire state each year. Why they do this is unknown. Most of the other 120-plus nests get eggs deposited mostly in March. The majority of Ohio Bald Eagles have the good sense to wait for March's warmer weather.

And I think the Plum Brook Station pair is likely to follow that pattern. Things at the nest could be rather mundane for the next two or three weeks. The nest is full-sized now, and probably has a thick complement of lining material.

Although it looks like nothing significant is happening with the pair, other than the increasing number of copulations, this is really a very, very important period of time. The female is now taking it easy, expending only moderate amounts of energy in her hunts. She's looking for some large fish in the Lake Erie marshes, or a dead road-kill deer, both of which can allow her to gorge out. The production of two or three fertile eagle eggs is metabolically taxing, requiring the concentration of a large amount of pure, nutrient-filled lipid, the yellow part of the egg, along with an even larger concentration of dense proteins, the "white." Covering all of this is the shell, the minerals of which are known to be chemically extracted from the mother eagle's own bones.

Therefore, for all of the winter the big female has been attempting to get as fat as she can, loading herself with proteins, lipids, and bone minerals. A tremendous amount of energy must be expended to quickly form (in about two days) each new egg that descends down the fallopian tube. If the female has eaten well this winter, she can lay as many as three eggs. If food has been scarce, she might lay only a single egg.

Those who can closely watch a female hawk or eagle in the middle of egg formation can often note a vacant, distant look in the eye of the bird. Her concentration is no longer focused on prey, perches, or anything else. Her focus is internal. Who knows what it feels like to have an egg slowly descend a long fallopian tube, all the while growing and becoming hard as the shell is laid down.

So, now we wait. It could be several weeks before anything of real interest is visible. The wait will be worthwhile, however.

--John Blakeman
And as I can't quite wait for the Bald Eagles to reappear in my area, I'm going to take a jaunt to the Mississippi River on Friday to see if I can find some open water--and hence, I hope, some Eagles!
Donegal Browne


Photograph courtesy of

John Blakeman's exciting report from the Plum Brook Station area of Ohio follows--There is at least a chance that we may be monitoring more than one pair of Bald Eagles this season or at the least a few supporting characters in this season's Eagle drama.

My wife and I had to travel for two miles along the edges of NASA Plum Brook Station on our way home, down US 250. Just as we began to parallel the NASA expanse to the west, I saw a big Bald Eagle passing over the road, heading right toward Plum Brook. I was certain that it was one of the two PBS eagles. The nest would have been about 3 miles or so to the west.

But following the first eagle was a second one. Okay, the second member of the pair. Perhaps they had spent the morning hunting fish in the Lake Erie marshes 3 miles to the NE.

Nope, something was up. At least three more Bald Eagles trailed right into PBS. At least four of these were adults, a total of at least 4 whiteheads flying over the 8-ft PBS security fence, with at least one immature, maybe more.

What was that all about? I have no idea. Why were they all going into Plum Brook? No idea. Maybe one of the residents found a dead deer to munch on, drawing a crowd of neighborhood locals.

I'm going to try to run over to PBS this afternoon and take a quick spin around the place and see if anything new presents itself.

It’s probably not the case, but there is the outside chance that a new eagle nest might have been begun.

Last week, observers reported the first eggs in an Ohio Bald Eagle nest, about 25 miles south of me, along a tiny little creek out in the middle of nowhere. This pair always lay eggs in February and is usually the first pair to lay in the state.

The nesting season has begun, in earnest.

John Blakeman

Sunday, February 17, 2008

REPORT FROM THE BENCH and A Frenzy of Wildlife Feeding

Lola Preens on the Woody Building
Hawkwatcher Ludie Stern reports that Pale Male and Lola copulated lustily on the NW corner of the Linda Building at 7:42, this morning. She also reports that Lola went to the nest and did a little home decorating by rearranging some twigs on the nest as well.

Photograph by Donna Browne

The forecast was for the possibility of a new foot and a half of snow. Evidentally the wildlife had been listening because there was an absolute frenzy of feeding today. Therefore a great time to look at feeding behavior.

Frosty the Squirrel does the big stretch--

Photograph: D.Browne
Her Chubbiness then scrambles back up to a sitting postion to munch the heart of the corn kernel, drop the rest, and then go for another.

D. Browne
The feeding area is crowded with local male Juncos and Mourning Doves. There are no displays of any kind to disrupt feeding, neither aggression or crowding. The business at hand is too important.

D. Browne
See the bird sized blobs? Beyond the birds in the feeding area, the back row of trees are filled with a new flock of male Juncos. There seem to be hundreds of them. Racing before the storm?

D. Browne
A few come down to the feeder farthest from the house and reconnoiter.

D. Browne
Suddenly all but one of the local Juncos take off for the Spruce, excepting the one in the far up- left corner who seems to have found something un-leave-able.
Here is an example of intra-flock and inter-flock avian behavior. Birds are always monitoring what the other birds are eating. Perhaps it's better than what they're eating. And part of the definition of better for many birds, in the first place, is that someone else is eating it.
Note the Dove, right center, who is watching the other Dove.

D. Browne
But this is my favorite, we have a grand view of the Junco's bottom as he leans to his full extension to eat something. The Dove is very interested and leans in as well. She's the picture of curiousity. Look at her face.
D. Browne
Rain turns to sleet and freezes this dove's chest feathers stiff. She still feeds though there is a crystal right on the rim of her eye. The sleet on her back gradually melts and turns into perfectly round droplets which eventually rolls off.

Photograph by Marian Anderson
Over at Marian Anderson's a male Cardinal appears, stands in the Lilac Bush, cocks his head at the ground, and spies a morsel.

Photograph by Marian Anderson
He flits down, grabs the corn, and he's off in a flash to a tree to eat it.

Photograph by Marian Anderson
The usual Junco feeding technique is to ground feed in place. When there is some kind of possible threat they fly in a flock to a tree or bush. According to Marian's report this little fellow flies to a sunflower seed, retrieves it, and then takes it into the sheltered area under the bird bath to eat it whether the others fly off or not.
Photograph by Marian Anderson
This White-breasted Nuthatch is eating at the "favorite" feeder in this yard. Why is it the favorite? Is it the shape with it's little roof that adds shelter? Or is it because it hangs very close to an outbuilding?
Donegal Browne