Monday, February 21, 2011

Cuban Tree Frog Travels to Minnesota

I love my job as Communications Director for the WRC (Wildlife Rehab Center of Minnesota).  Every day it seems I learn something new. I either get to bother the vet techs until they let me peer into a microscope or I see a species that I've never seen before.

Well, courtesy of Bachman's Floral I've just seen my first Cuban Tree Frog!  It arrived with a shipment of plants from Florida so they brought it into the Center.

As you can see in the photo, this isn't a typical Minnesota tree frog. For one thing, it's BIG.

And those big, bulgy eyes? They're strong and they serve a purpose: when the frog eats a baby bird or mouse, or another "large" meal, its eyes close and recede into its head where the muscles actually help force the meal down its throat. Wow.  

I've never traveled to the Caribbean, Central/South America so to see one of these big, tropical tree frogs in person is pretty exciting!

WRC releases animals back where they were found so I offered to transport this cute guy back to Florida when I leave tomorrow morning for a week's trip. That's when we learned that as cute as he is, he isn't getting a return trip to Florida. The USFWS has posted "WANTED" posters for this frog all over Florida.

Apparently one of the Cuban Tree Frog's favorite dietary items is our very own native tree frogs, and they're doing quite a number on them in Florida. I'll admit that I laughed when I say the name of one of the methods they use to euthanize the frogs: HopStop Euthanasia Spray.

I can't help but wonder though, do Floridians really take the time to positively identify a Cuban Tree Frog  before they euthanize the frog? Apparently Cuban Tree Frogs are highly versatile in their coloring/markings, which I suspect makes them difficult to correctly ID in Florida.  Maybe their large size is the clincher? I just have a suspicion that lots of other frogs are being disposed of via freezers at the urging of the Florida USFWS. You can learn more here.

So what happens to this guy? He's lucky he made it so far north that he can't survive if he were to escape. He's been placed in a home with one of our staff who has other amphibians and reptiles.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Goldfinches Showing Signs of Spring

Someone said to me yesterday that days like these are why we love Minnesota. These glorious teaser days that promise spring will really return.

Today, when I looked out at our feeders, I noticed that goldfinches are starting to show signs of spring, too: they're undergoing their winter molt, changing over to their bright yellow plumage.

Look at those bright yellow feathers!

Goldfinches are the only cardueline finch to undergo two annual molts: one in the late winter and one in the fall. The Carduelis genus includes redpolls, crossbills and siskins.  Note that Purple Finches and House Finches are not part of the Carduelis genus.

The molt will continue through the spring, with the heaviest molt occurring in May. Birds will continue to molt all the way into June when the males finally become decked out in all their bright mating colors.  Watch for the males' caps to begin appearing in the next few weeks.

Researchers have long pondered the relationship between the goldfinches' late breeding cycle and their prolonged molt. Many believe that since goldfinches' diet is more heavily seed-based than other finches, their molt takes longer to bring out these vibrant colors. For science geeks, here's a pretty cool research article.

Take a close look at your finches, breath in the warm spring air and celebrate the fact that spring is quickly approaching!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Fun Friday Video

I found this video doing research on another project today.  The project?  Well, one of our vet techs at WRC is getting married next week and her bachelorette/shower is tonight. Being science minded and working with animals, combined with the fact that it's a bachelorette party, led to let's just say a certain themed trivia game for the evening, of which I did the research.

Maybe QGirl will share the trivia quiz on her blog tomorrow...  check back.

But, this video was so cute and funny I just had to share.  It's of the Red-capped Manakin, a bird of Central and South America.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dark-eyed Juncos

Everyone appreciates the splash of color that cardinals, blue jays and flickers bring to the winter feeding station, but for me it's all about the subtle colors.  The incredible detail in the female cardinal's plumage, the soft look of the gray jays and then, my all-time favorite, the dark-eyed juncos.

Those drab little gray birds you say? Take a good look at one through your bincos some time. The white to dark demarcation lines are graceful and soft, the line from their heads to their necks is rounded and gives them a "bundled up" look. The outer tail feathers are bright white and flash as they fly from the side of winter roads into scrubby trees just to let you know that yes, that flock of birds you startled were indeed juncos.

And then there is the junco's beak. Seriously, their beaks are what sold me. Juncos' beaks are a soft pearly pink, in fact I think they look just like the inside of seashells. Many of them even have a slight swirl of white throughout. Set in their soft gray faces, the pink is even more stunning. What a surprising delicate finishing touch to this diminutive bird!

If their looks don't do it for you, how about their sound? Walking outside on a spring day as they're flocking up to migrate north is like walking into a room filled with old Atari games (minus the crinkle of Cheetos bags). Multiple tones of buzzing, rattles, trills and pipping fill the air as the birds busily flit about the yard gleaning leftover Nyjer seed.

Yes, Nyjer seed. For years it was believed that white millet (not to be confused with the yucky red millet that very few birds eat) was the preferred seed of juncos. Recent studies by the Wild Bird Feeding Industry (WBFI) show that juncos actually prefer Nyjer seed. To be honest, I always thought juncos did prefer Nyjer seed since they've always been under our Nyjer seed feeders. I've even had them perch on our Nyjer tubes with the finches. They don't do well with the cling feeders, so I keep a mix of Nyjer tubes and metal mesh feeders around. A handful of Nyjer seed tossed under all the feeding stations twice a day keeps our flock of more than 60 well fed and happy.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Metro

How do Red Squirrels (Pine Squirrels to those of us who have migrated West from Wisconsin), not sink in deep, fresh snows?  They actually excavate and use tunnels throughout the winter! (Grey Squirrels do not.) Their own private Metro good for not only navigating in deep snow, but for escaping dogs.

Here's one of their favorite tunnels - you can see all the traffic it gets.  Think Chicago's Union Station.

The quarter is there for a scale/size comparison.  This Metro runs from under a Norwegian Spruce, down our sloping garden, exits into the driveway (where apparently they pick up a transfer) and then back into the Metro, up the sloping garden on the other side of the driveway direct to...  yes, you guessed it: our front yard birdfeeders!

This is what the tunnel looks like from above:

What do they do when they come to a tree?  Easy!
All told, the Red Squirrels have excavated probably 40-50 yards of tunnel throughout our snow piles this winter.  The patterns vary from year to year, too. The ones in the front creeping juniper by our steps are gone, replaced by one that runs parallel to the steps. Maybe a new squirrel? Just a different route?

Once the tunnels are in place, they're of course used by other tiny critters, namely voles and mice.  I've seen them scampering in and out of them in order to get to their own unique tunnels that are just under the snow's surface.

Now if only I could get a photo of the squirrel popping its head out of the tunnel...  I never seem to have a camera with me when they're scampering through their Metro.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Non-hibernating Opossums

It is true: Opossums do not hibernate.  Unfortunately for them, their feet, ears and tails have no fur so they frequently suffer from frostbite in our northern climate. You'll spot them in alleys, along the streets and especially under bird feeders.

Officially named "Virginia Opossum," opossums have gradually made their way northward and are now even found in Canada.  In fact, most literature is still outdated and shows the northern range of opossums to be just north of the Twin Cities.

I find it fascinating that there is one striking difference between our opossums up here and their southern relatives: the southern opossums are furless on their bellies, probably to help them keep cool during the summer.  Our opossums? They have furred bellies.  I think of it as actually being able to watch a species evolve to better their survival odds. How cool is that?

Unfortunately for opossums, they don't survive long in the wild: 3 years is considered maximum life expectancy. They are slow moving, and as noted above do not hibernate so they struggle through the winter.  And, even with the most number of teeth of any North American mammal (50!), they still fall heavily to predation. They really do play 'possum, rolling onto their sides and playing dead.  Alas, this makes them sitting ducks for coyotes, fox, dogs, wolves and other larger mammals.

Young opossums are preyed upon by owls, hawks and even squirrels.  In my opinion, this is when opossums are at their very cutest stage:

The opossum is unique in two other ways: 1) It's the only marsupial in North America. The female gives birth to 9-16 babies, but only has 13 teats in her pouch. Babies who do not immediately latch on to a teat die. And, 2) the species-standard number of teats is 13, an odd number, as opposed to an even number.  The majority of mammals have an even number of teats as the standard, although individuals often have an odd number.

One of the most impressive things I learned when first working at WRC is that people will actually stop at the side of road to check the pouch of a roadkill opossum.  It's amazing to me that people take the time to rescue these tiny babies - no wonder Minnesota has such remarkable parks and wildlife, it has great stewards. To be honest, the thought had never crossed my mind to stop and see if there were live babies in an opossum's pouch. 

Opossums are nocturnal as a general rule, but it's not unusual to see them out in the early evening hours or early morning. In fact, this post was prompted by an opossum enjoying spilled birdseed in the middle of the afternoon today.