Some Nice Surprises

As I wrote last month, 2014 marks the first in 11 seasons that no Canada geese bred here. I am aware plenty of people hate the geese and would consider this good news, but that would be a serious error, as it indicates the serious degradation of habitat.

I had all but despaired of ducks, too, but a single mother mallard has a half dozen healthy chicks! Now the littles scramble among the other adults for a bit of breakfast bread … and that single, out-of-place, domestic duck.

Mallard mama and ducklings/

Mallard mama and ducklings

I’ve seen a Great Blue Heron several mornings of late, which is always a magnificent treat, – and a small Egret was near wood ducks at dawn Thursday last!

Screech owls have been trilling. The Hermit Thrushes who have been serenading me so long now, I’ve been taking their lovely song for granted, have diminished, and were silent this morning, yet I still saw one in the messing about in the underbrush.

Rabbits seem a staple these last months; I’ve seen as many as five of them in a morning. When they adopt the freeze mode, I am happy to pretend not to see them, but they usually bound away, – the classic white tail disappears into the undergrowth.

On-going is the need to pick up plastic and glass bottles, bags, cigarette, cigar and food packaging, worm containers, and fishing line that strangled a foot-long snapping turtle I discovered reeling in the near-invisible line attached to a branch in the water at the Armory Street bridge. I focus on the positive, but there is always the heartbreak.

 

Some Life Fails to Return

I haven’t written for some time, because it is painful. Witnessing decline in the resurgent beauty of spring is particularly poignant. Since the ice thawed, I’ve wept to watch as a few mallard ducks and Canada geese drink water at the pond’s edge that is topped with the blue iridescent sheen of gasoline.

Mallard Duck (male)

Mallard Duck By Cameron Rognan

By this time in every other year, adult waterfowl were on the pond shepherding dotted lines of little ones. In 2012, I recorded the first six goslings on May 7. Last year (2013) there were six on May 10, and on the next day, there were two families with 11 young. On May 22,  the baby count went up to 13 as another pair of parents joined the pond community.

Ducks used to breed here aplenty, too, but their numbers plunged precipitously since 2006 and 2007, when in July and August, I took pictures of the pine-needled shore covered with mallards and American Black Ducks, which outnumbered the geese! Though I may yet spot a brood of geese or ducks to tell you about, I have no basis for optimism.

On Monday my heart went to my throat as a beautiful mallard male stepped into the pond with a mess of fishing line dragging behind him… then the end in his mouth pulled free! After three attempts, I found a suitable branch, extracted the deadly stuff and got it into a trash can. I feel joy, but it is tempered. I know tomorrow I’ll find more fishing line and plastic bags here, and I carry memories of animals I found too late to save.

The rules for Springfield parks are neither posted, nor enforced at Van Horn. So unlicensed fishing, open fires, drinking, drug taking, and worse things go on unchecked. On any day you may encounter unleashed dogs or off-road vehicles that are potential dangers to kids and seniors, as well as to wildlife.

Then, the city itself dozed, graveled, and erected white and orange markers at two manhole covers – that have always been perfectly visible to the Water / Sewer folks. They stand monuments to stupidity, insults to nature, and wasted taxpayer money.

Meanwhile, the city has not picked up bags of garbage tossed by the south gate last fall, or removed electronic components leaching toxins on the north side since last summer, or collected the tires and shopping cart that have sat in plain sight for years, – but I digress.

The point is that Springfield’s mismanagement of natural resources has exacted a cost in the environmental health and quality of life that an ordinary citizen can see. The park department’s relentless incursions with fossil-fueled, noise-making, and pollution-belching machinery have disturbed and degraded the precious pockets of green wood, ponds, and marsh. The dead, drab and dirty urban wasteland closes in.

Though I thrill each morning that I hear the songs and calls of a  thrush, catbird, or flicker. I can’t help but smile when the bullfrogs harmonize. But I am grieving for the absence of babies this spring, – and for what that signifies for our future.

American Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana)

American Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana)

Link

Yesterday morning (March 11), I heard that squeaky-hinge noise for just a second and jotted in my notes, “Red wing?”

This morning it’s confirmed, – I had eyes on 12 Red winged Blackbirds, who were raucously announcing their arrival at Van Horn Park!

You can learn about them here – http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-winged_Blackbird/id

Spring is near!

Image

It’s getting closer… Click to find instructions, FAQs, Tally sheet and a List of birds for your region (U.S. and Canada)

Missing Chipmunks

When I saw the first Canada Goose chicks on the pond Saturday (5/11), it struck me that another sign of renewal is late. The Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) has been scampering across my backyard for weeks, but I haven’t seen one here in Van Horn Park. These are dates from my notebooks for first chipmunk sightings past:

  • 2012    April 30
  • 2011    April 12
  • 2010    March 17
  • 2009    May 8

I walked today (5/13) and still no luck.  It troubles me because 10 years ago my relationship with the park began as an enchantment with chipmunks.

In those early days, there was a man who came late in the afternoon, and walked at a leisurely pace with a bag on his shoulder and tossing its contents onto the ground as he neared a stand of  rhododendrons. When I drew close enough to recognize the peanuts, something else made me gasp, – mind boggling numbers of chipmunks.

They swarmed from beneath the shrubbery, fearlessly, eagerly toward the man with the peanuts, – as if he were the Pied Piper of Hamlin. I was one of many who witnessed this delight. People instinctively hung back and kept quiet, so as not to frighten the animals and spoil the moment.

After a time, the peanut man stopped coming and I never again saw the spectacle, but every year, from spring through fall, I recorded an average of 4-5 chipmunks in the park every day.

I am afraid the Springfield Parks Department’s thoughtless and repeated onslaughts and wanton destruction of living trees and fallen ones under which chipmunks live. They intruded as recently as March – when pregnant females and this year’s young may have been killed by heavy machinery.

Up until 2013, chipmunks could be seen scampering over a pile of logs that protected their  burrows. This is what's left.

Up until 2013, chipmunks could be seen scampering over a pile of logs that protected their burrows. This is what’s left.

Dead Things

When I list wildlife, it’s not just sign (scat, tracks), vocalizations or sightings I record. My field notes include an “M” for mortality, and every day I have to use it, I carry around a lump in my stomach.

Sometimes it’s a small lump, say an earthworm or slug has wandered onto the asphalt ocean, where small life forms cannot see their way to “shore.” Most are doomed to labor unto exhaustion, succumb to exposure, or be extinguished by the crushing weight of someone’s foot. And I saw snakes‘ and bats’ bodies crushed by Parks Department vehicles for  many years before I recorded living animals here.

Among the dead, I’ve made notes of piles of dead fish left in pails or plastic bags at the pond edge among the cigarette packs, cigar and food wrappings. And I carry around the discomfort of knowing that ‘sporting’ humans take pleasure in nature by killing blameless creatures.

Other times, the lump is larger and more painful. This morning I recorded a dead raccoon on Armory Street, not merely hit and killed, but thoroughly tire-marked and eviscerated. It might even have been an accident.

This stretch of Armory Street toward cuts through the middle of the little habitat provided by Van Horn Park. No sign warns motorists to proceed slowly or to watch for animals crossing. In addition to raccoon, squirrels, skunks, possums, turtles, robins, jays, pigeons, a goose and a hawk were all killed by drivers here in 2012, – many of them purposely. (More about that.) –While most days my walks make my heart soar, other days I am heart-sore.

The Drum Off

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker (Photo credit: Ed Gaillard)

Took the new photo for the header this morning to better illustrate the season. It was a bracing 20 degrees, but after many cloudy days, the sun was brilliant.

Though I left peanuts, I am still being shunned by squirrels. Chickadees were noisy and numerous. I noted several woodpeckers chucking and churring, then at the north side I heard drumming… and then another drummer from the south, seemingly in answer. I tried to ID the bird nearest me, but even with trees bare, I couldn’t tell whether it was a Downy, Hairy, or Red-bellied.

Squirrels don’t like snow

Turned back from my walk yesterday at the ess curve. Face-stinging winds and the prospect of slogging miles through 9 inches of snow would have proved more pain than pleasure

Today  I held off until late morning because of cloud cover and a late sunrise (7:18).  Though still cloudy, the day was mild and pleasant. Also, the city plowed the park AND the Armory Street sidewalk (though it remains an icy terror).

I arrived too late to be greeted by the cardinals, but the crows were hanging around. A jay called over and over, seemingly all alone, but eventually I heard responses.

My pocket bulged with extra peanuts because I felt guilty. I imagined squirrels on bare branches with snow swirling and fur ruffled by wind gusts as they waited in vain for yesterday’s treat. I scanned the white blanketed ground and glanced up into trees as I walked, but I saw no sign and heard no skittering. I left my offerings and hoped they might square my account.

I made a mess of my field notes.The spiral bound pad got wet more than once. I jammed it into my pocket with gloved hands that lacked sensitivity. The edge of the last page is rolled and jagged with tiny tears. I smudged pencil marks. But it’s the last page, on the last day of the year: Monday; 11:25 AM, 33 degrees (F); cloudy. I listed jay, robin, crow, junco, titmouse, chickadee, cardinal, nuthatch, woodpecker and starling. Yet I’ve missed many life forms. So each day holds the promise of surprise for me, – and I am never disappointed. Tomorrow with a fresh notebook, I’ll begin another cycle of walks in the park.

I wish you a Happy New Year, – and for all of us, I wish that in 2013 more cities will act to protect and preserve nature.

Bunny

Rabbit in Van Horn Park

First Rabbit in 2011

Finally saw a rabbit this year. It appears to be a good sized adult. I took this from some distance so as not to spook it…as I drew closer, it scampered into the bushes. I recorded multiple “bunnies” all through June 2010…and was worried that between the loose dogs, Parks Dept, and other stupid-human activities, they had been done in. Happy day!

After the rain

It rained most of last week, however it was sunny and lovely this morning, but oddly quiet. I discerned the telltale signs that the Parks Dept. had ridden through performing the vital service of blowing trash into the woods and water. Yet maybe the city management is not completely bent on destroying wildlife. Here is a newly created breeding area for mosquitoes…

Erosion by trucks creates a mosquito breeding area

Erosion by trucks creates a mosquito breeding area

…right next to the children’s playground.

Though the Parks Dept. staff had finished, we encountered an unmarked police patrol car and I was grateful, grateful that there was no dog. On prior occasions, a cruiser came up silently behind us and when it got along side… furious barking erupted, launching me several inches into the air.  The officer drove on without a word, the German Shepherd’s maw pressing against the back seat window. This must have been amusing, as the officer repeated the behavior on subsequent days.

Lastly, I was hoping still to see evidence that ducks had bred this year. A group of six mallard drakes with three females was in the big pond, but as we slide into July, still no young.