Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Cedar Waxwings

I was playing golf last week with my neighbor Bob and he asked what the next nature article was going to be about. I told him I was thinking of writing about Cedar Waxwings. He said instead of that, why didn’t I write about whatever bird it is that is causing purple stains all over everything in his yard with their droppings. Bingo! They are one and the same!

When I was a youngster with one of my first bird books I always thought that Cedar Waxwings were the best looking birds in the book….never mind that I never even saw a live one until about 10 years ago. Cedar Waxwings are kind of a brownish gray color with a beautiful black mask edged in white. They have a crest on their head and small waxy red appendages on their secondary wing feathers (that gives them their name), and a bright yellow bottom edge of their tail. They are bigger than a sparrow and smaller than a robin…about the size of a bluebird, but slimmer. Females and males look the same. But the way to spot Cedar Waxwings is much easier than looking for colors and patterns. This time of year they fly in large flocks of 50-200 birds. They are usually high in the trees or on bushes with fruit. Look for a large active flock of birds moving from tree to tree. Chances are they are cedar waxwings.

I am not a birder, but distribution maps show that Eastern Tennessee might be about as far south as Cedar Waxwings nest; however they are mainly a northern bird and show up in East Tennessee about this time of year in large winter flocks. They range far and wide in search of fruit, so don’t expect a flock to hang around in one area all winter.

During the summer breeding and nesting season they will eat insects; often chasing them down in the air like flycatchers do. I have seen them do this in my yard just last week. But throughout the winter they mainly eat fruit…lots of it and all kinds. One cute trait of waxwings, although I haven’t witnessed it yet, is that sometimes a row of birds on a branch will pass a berry from bird to bird down to the end of the line for the last bird to eat. They eat all kinds of fruit, including berries from dogwood, cotoneaster, cherries, blackgum, juniper, and especially eastern red cedar. There are lots of blackgum trees in my area of Fairfield Glade and I suspect that it was the blackgum berries that were staining my neighbor’s yard. As you might guess, an animal that eats a lot of fruit might have a lot of droppings. In fact Waxwings eat so much fruit that they sometimes get drunk on fermented berries. If you see a small good-looking bird singing karaoke, it might be a drunken Cedar Waxwing.

Lots of birds fly south to get out of that cold northern weather. But remember, we are the south; so all of you Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other northern folks can watch for your northern buddies, the Cedar Waxwings, visiting for the winter. Look for a large flock of birds moving from tree to tree and purple stains on your driveway. Purple stains are a small price to pay for the chance to see one of our most beautiful birds.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Good Turtle or Bad Turtle?

A couple of months ago my friend Ray called to say that he had a very large turtle under a chair on his patio. A week later another friend, Mark, called to say that he had a nice picture of a turtle crossing the road in Crossville. In both cases these were Common Snapping Turtles, and probably both females. On land, these turtles often act like the nastiest characters that you would ever want to encounter. But, are they the bad turtles that many people think they are or are they really just good guys that are misunderstood?

Snapping turtles live up to 40 and they are large…up to 50 pounds or more. As the most widely distributed turtle in North America, they are found from Maine to Florida and from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountains. They live in ponds or slow moving water and rarely ever leave the water except to lay eggs. That is how I know that the turtles that Ray and Mark found were probably females. Snapping turtles like shallow water with muddy bottoms and lots of vegetation if possible….just like many of the ponds on our golf courses and our local lakes. Common snapping turtles have a close cousin called an Alligator snapping turtle that grows up to 150 pounds, but they are not found in eastern Tennessee.

Right now up north, snapping turtles are getting ready to hibernate for the winter. In cold climates they slow down their metabolism and bury in the mud under the water and ice to survive the winter. During hibernation they get all the oxygen they need through absorption through their skin without having to breathe. Around here they may hibernate for short times or not at all.

Many people don’t like snapping turtles for two reasons: first because when encountered on land snapping turtles are very aggressive, and second, because they eat fish (which many people like to catch for themselves). Here is some interesting information about their aggressiveness: In water snapping turtle are very non-aggressive…they will swim away and will not bite. Their aggressiveness on land is for self defense. I have read that even though they hiss and strike out with their formidable jaws, that they will usually not bite. Supposedly, they will close their jaws just before they reach you hand. I haven’t verified this and don’t intend to, but that is what I read about these guys. Their act is enough to keep me far away. By the way, in case you decide to check out the no-bite theory, their neck is about the same length as their shell so they can reach out a very long way.

Now, about the rumor that snapping turtles will clean out a lake of fish. Snapping turtles eat lots of stuff…mostly vegetation, but also crayfish, snails, worms, fish, carrion, and even small mammals or ducklings if they can catch them. All of the information that I can find says that the fish they eat are mainly slow, non-game fish and that snapping turtles actually benefit sport fishing by reducing the competing non-game fish populations. In any case, because snapping turtles are cold-blooded, they don’t need to eat nearly as much as mammals. Snapping turtles only eat about their own body weight in a full year. And if you think about it, snapping turtles have lived in balance with fish and ducks for millions of years and they haven’t wiped out any bass populations yet.

So are snapping turtle good or bad? You decide for yourself, but for me, I like to see them. Hey, we all moved to the country to be surrounded by the beauty of Tennessee. For me, a big old ugly snapping turtle is a beautiful part of nature.