08 de abril de 2020

Migration in Chittenden County

The turn of April is an exciting time for the birding community as it means that a new wave of migrants is on the way and spring warbler migration is getting ever closer. On Tuesday March 31st, I went on a “Big Day of Birding” all throughout Chittenden County to try to locate as many year birds for the county as I possibly could. One of the stops along this journey was a birding hotspot in Hinesburg, VT known as Lagoon Road. It’s nothing more than a dead end road that leads to a wastewater treatment plant along the LaPlatte River with an overgrown hay field to the west, a hemp farm to the east and a swampy solar farm bordering the actual “lagoons” of the treatment plant. It was overcast, with on and off rain showers and a high temperature of around 45 degrees. A light northwesterly breeze caused the tops of the grasses to sway back and forth gently. I spent 50 minutes at this particular hotspot and traveled a distance of 0.39 miles.

One of the resident species that I observed at lagoon road was the Red-tailed Hawk, 4 of them to be exact. These large raptors spend the majority of their winter in VT near open fields where they can often be seen perched in snags and on wires, peering over the land, listening and looking for rodents to eat. The warm feathers around their legs protect them from the cold. Limited areas of exposed apteria on this hawk allow them to endure the frigid temperatures of winter and stick it out until spring when they can breed. While some Red-tailed Hawks do migrate to areas as far south as central america, a good number of hawks have been documented overwintering in Southern Chittenden county. Another overwintering resident species that I observed on this outing was a pair of Blue Jays. These intelligent corvids have been known to store food in preparation for winter. A thick layer of down feathers and a knack for finding food sources given the opportunity allows these birds to forego migration for the most part and live in their home range and territories. While Blue Jays do not vacate the northernmost extents of their range, there are some fairly large migrations of these birds across the region in mid-May and again in late September as some proportion of the population migrates short distances north and south (eBird.org).

Probably one of the most exciting facultative migrants that I saw was four Eastern Meadowlarks, most of which were singing from the depths of the tall grass field. Since this was the second report of Eastern Meadowlark in the county this year I would be led to assume that these birds probably haven’t migrated very far and may have been birds wintering only as far south as Massachusetts or Connecticut. As soon as the snow cover melts and the ground thaws a bit, these birds make their way north. Although Eastern Meadowlarks have been known to breed in the fields surrounding Lagoon Road, I suspect that this was just a quick stopover for the birds that I saw as they were not observed by other birders on visits since then. My guess is that they continued north, following the Champlain Valley and probably are headed to the northern extents of their range, possibly the St. Lawrence River Valley or southern Quebec, CA.

Another facultative migrant that I observed was a calling Wilson’s Snipe from the wetter areas of a distant Hemp field. Along with the Meadowlarks, Snipe are reliant on the ground to be exposed and thawed in order to be able to feed effectively. Using their long beaks to probe the ground for insects, worms, and insect larvae, a Snipe would not fare well in a snow covered environment where the ground was inaccessible. This is why their migrations are typically driven more by temperature and the environmental conditions than the time of year. The bird I heard could’ve migrated from somewhere as far away as South America in theory, but probably migrated from New Jersey, which is where the northern extent of the winter range of this species lies. There is a pair of Snipe that has been continuing at this location for a couple weeks now, so I have my suspicions that these birds may actually be breeding here.

How Far Did the Birds I Saw Migrate?:
Eastern Meadowlark: ~ 130 Miles
Wilson’s Snipe: ~300 Miles
Common Grackle: ~100 Miles
Red-winged Blackbird: ~60 Miles
Northern Harrier: ~300 Miles
Killdeer: ~250 Miles
Wood Duck: ~100 Miles
Total Mileage of Facultative Migrants = 1,240 Miles

A second outing brought me to my home natural area, Saxon Hill Recreational Area. It was a bright and yet overcast day with minimal wind and a high temperature in the mid-50s. I traveled through a variety of habitats including Red-pine forests, mixed forest, hemlock forests, sandy sweet fern fields, and early successional fields. I birded for a total duration of 3 hours and 27 minutes and covered 4.23 miles in my time birding. I observed 33 species with no obligate migrants in the mix. In fact, almost all of the species I observed can be found in VT year round, with the exception of a Killdeer and arguably the blackbird species as well, including Common Grackle, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Brown-headed Cowbird.
One example of a species that is technically found in Vermont year-round, but more individuals are arriving from the nonbreeding range to the south right now is the Golden-crowned Kinglet. These tiny birds, if they do in fact decide to overwinter, tend to be found associating closely with flocks of Black-capped Chickadees and Nuthatches and seem to use other small birds as guides to help them find food in the tough times.
I can’t wait to see what the coming weeks bring for exciting migrants!

Anotado en abril 08, miércoles 23:04 por jacobcbirds jacobcbirds | 59 observaciones | 0 comentarios | Deja un comentario

26 de marzo de 2020

A Look At Social Behavior and Phenology in Birds From New Jersey to Vermont

It is officially the second week of March, March 8th to be exact and I find myself in an unfamiliar park in central New Jersey on a particularly pleasant sunny day. The wind is calm and the temperatures have soared into the mid-50s. Not something I have experienced in a LONG time, having just come from Vermont’s Champlain Valley, an area still gripped by the hand of winter. I walk through a patchwork of fields, forests, and shrubbery, which should almost definitely be hiding some feathered treasure. Surprisingly, the landscape is relatively quiet and motionless aside from a few Turkey Vultures circling high in the air on the thermals created by the mid-day sun. Finally, after about 15 minutes of limited bird activity, I stumble upon a patch of forest with an active pair of Carolina Chickadees, a life bird for me! The presumed pair of birds were quietly calling back and forth to one another, keeping tabs on the location of their partner. Movement in the treetops up above drew my eyes to a beautiful male Red-bellied Woodpecker! Although silent, his plumage was anything, but loud and attention drawing. The showy red crest and nape along with the finely barred black and white mantle, scapulars, and secondaries appear to be examples of both repeating and bold patterns designed to advertise to nearby females and rival males this bird’s presence in the area.

It wasn’t long after seeing that bird that I heard an all too familiar sound… “Tea-KETTLE, tea-KETTLE, tea-KETTLE!!” The song of a male Carolina Wren rang out from the impenetrable brush impoundment he called home. Seconds later, the song of a rival male sounded from across a narrow field. In the blink of an eye, territory wars were on in the World of the Wrens and songs from 4 different wrens filled the air almost simultaneously. This was a busy Carolina Wren neighborhood, and each male wanted to ensure that his voice was heard and his territory was safe, afterall, the days are getting longer and the breeding season is drawing closer with each song-filled sunrise. The dark brown back and buffy yellow breast of the Carolina Wren is an example of countershading that makes them difficult to spot both from above and below.

I was able to locate a mixed flock of wintering sparrows in a brushy ravine bordering the field. Field Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, Song Sparrows and even an Eastern Towhee could be found in the mix. Most were quietly feeding and resting in the dense tangle of brush, with the exception of the Song Sparrows, boy were they excited for spring! Some quiet pishing drew an aggressive reaction from a nearby Song Sparrow which captured the attention of most other small birds in the area, who all came into view briefly to investigate the commotion and possibly mob an unwanted predator. The harsh “cheep” call of the Song Sparrow is commonly used as a sort of alarm call that tends to clue other birds into a possible threat. I thought it was quite interesting how all of these sparrows could happily coexist with one another in such tight quarters.

As I headed back to my vehicle, I noticed a large gathering of vultures circling over a sun beaten southwest facing hillside. The sheer number of birds that had collected at this point seemed to be bringing in more and more birds by the minute. By the time I left, 22 Turkey Vultures and even a Black Vulture and a Red-tailed Hawk had joined the circling “kettle” of birds. The constant circling commotion of birds seems to act as a signal to all other vultures and hawks in the area saying “Guys! I found a nice thermal over here!” By the end of the walk I had been birding for just over 80 minutes (3:20 PM start time) and travelled 1.47 miles.

Jump forward exactly two weeks and I find myself in a totally different setting. I have returned to the Burlington area looking for birds once again. A successful early morning stop by an Eastern Screech-Owl roost has me hungry for some more exciting bird finds! Once again it’s sunny, but temperatures are still in the upper 20s. The time is 8:20 AM and I have decided to stop by Ethan Allen Homestead from some exploring. To keep this field journal entry from being too long winded I’ll jump right to the action! As I neared the shores of the Winooski River, walking through a floodplain Silver Maple forest, I noticed a pair of Canada Geese slide down the river bank and into the river. I wasn’t the only one who noticed these two birds though as, shortly after, I heard an eruption of honking coming from somewhere downstream on the opposite side of the river. It was another pair of Geese who were not too happy to see that they had neighbors. In seconds, what was a peaceful swim across the river for the pair that I had initially seen was a full blown Goose fight! The two males had interlocked heads and had grabbed a hold of the feathers on the breast of one another and began flapping wildly and splashing violently. All the while this battle was taking place the two females (presumably) circled their mates and honked wildly. Eventually the females began chasing one another as well. After about 45 seconds, the fight ended with one male chasing the other through the air and down the river. This was probably the most epic bird fight I have ever witnessed and I could only imagine that this was a form of territorial dispute. I would translate what I think the geese were saying to each other with those guttural honks, but I don’t think they were saying anything nice at ALL! Drama in the floodplain forests! During this birding adventure, I covered a total of 1.32 miles and elapsed 67 minutes. All in all, March has been an exciting month for birding.

Anotado en marzo 26, jueves 03:52 por jacobcbirds jacobcbirds | 51 observaciones | 0 comentarios | Deja un comentario

06 de marzo de 2020

Late Winter Birding Thrills: A Look at the Birds of Burlington and Essex

As winter begins to loosen its grip on the landscape, the struggle for survival that birds face each and every day and, especially, night begins to lessen. Warmer nights and longer days begin to reduce the energetic and metabolic needs of birds to stay warm as well. Over thousands of years, birds have evolved and adapted to the cold, harsh winters of the north country through various morphologies and fascinating behaviors that allow birds to retain body heat and budget their energy reserves wisely. Over the past few weeks I have been paying close attention to the world of birds around me and have noted some exciting changes. Along with looking for birds in the natural world, I have also been monitoring birds and their movements across the land through an online citizen science engine aptly named eBird.org. On February 21st at approximately 4:20 PM, as I was driving west on Main St past the Staples Plaza, I saw a very large black bird swoop down close to the road. In a split second my mind jumped to Bald Eagle as the ID of this specimen, but I quickly realized that this bird, in fact, lacked the classic large protruding white head and tail feathers of an Eagle. Gliding unsteadily on motionless wings in a high dihedral, I knew that this bird was a TURKEY VULTURE!!! One of the very first (the first reported on eBird in 2020) to return to Chittenden County. I pulled quickly into the Jeffords building parking lot and jumped outside, camera in hand in an attempt to photograph the bird, but was unable to relocate it. Warmer temperatures would, presumably, make locating and consuming carrion easier for the vultures as the scent would probably travel better. The next day, more Turkey Vulture reports flooded in on eBird for the area. Spring migration has officially begun!

Migration is perhaps one of the most impressive methods that birds utilize to indirectly preserve body heat. While the Turkey Vultures that summer in Vermont may only travel as far south as New Jersey for the winter, others may travel as far as Colombia. Only when the days lengthen and the temperatures warm do the Turkey Vultures return to the Champlain Valley. Canada Geese, Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles are three additional examples of early arriving spring migrants which I first observed on March 3rd while standing at the edge of a solar array situated in the midst of a young Pitch Pine/Red Pine forest at Saxon Hill Recreational Area in Essex, VT. Flock after flock of approximately a dozen Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles each streamed northward over the tops of the pines on a warm bluebird day. As I was counting the fast moving flocks and adding the counts to my running eBird checklist (Traveling Checklist- Start Time: 8:32 AM, Duration: 120 mins, Distance Traveled: 2.51 Miles), I heard a “honk” from above and looked up to see a single Canada Goose fly directly overhead. All of these birds were seemingly on a mission to cover some serious miles in search of a nearby or distant marsh, pond, or reedy riverside to stake their claim in and forage for food.

Certainly, though, not all birds migrate. Many have had to adapt to winter living. By congregating in large condensed roosts called murders every evening, crows are able to sort of “share” information about where to find food. If one crow has a relatively unsuccessful day of scavenging the landscape for food, they might note which crows in the flock have returned with a full belly and decide to follow them in the morning as they seem to know where to find some good food. I have seen large numbers of American Crows frequenting compost piles and cut corn fields recently. This food source differs from the variety of insects, fruits, berries, songbird eggs and chicks that American Crows add to their palate during the spring and summer months. While the nightly American Crow migration across the afternoon Burlington skyline is a well known and documented spectacle, a smaller relative of the American Crow, the Fish Crow, also calls the Burlington area it’s home.

During a recent birding excursion to the Burlington Waterfront on February 22nd at 1:28 PM (Stationary checklist- Duration: 48 mins), on a partly cloudy day with highs in the mid-40s I witnessed something that very few have ever seen before in Burlington. While sitting on a bench, scanning the waters of Lake Champlain, looking at the Mallards, Common Mergansers, Ring-billed, Herring and Great-black Backed Gulls, I heard a familiar call from overhead. “Uh… uh-uh… uh… uh… uh-uh…”, the nasal quality of the Fish Crow’s classic “uh-uh” call is diagnostic of this species and I knew exactly what I was going to see when I turned my head, probably one, maybe two of these rare Burlington residents? Nope! It was a whole flock of Fish Crows, 24 to be exact! Dumb founded, I got up and started aimlessly walking down the boardwalk, staring at the birds as they made their way in a tight knit flock North towards Lone Rock Point! I snapped a quick burst of photos of the flock and counted them again and again, all the while listening intently to the calls coming from the flock. American Crows and Fish Crows are nearly identical in every way except for a slight size discrepancy (Fish Crows are slightly smaller) and a vast difference in vocalizations. With no signs of any American Crow calls coming from within the flock, I could verify that this was, in fact, purely a flock of Fish Crows, the most anyone has ever documented in the state of Vermont at one time. About 15 minutes later the same flock of birds circled back around and 3 birds even landed on top of a Hotel building for a brief amount of time before rejoining the flock. This particular flocking behavior of the Fish Crows was similar to that of the American Crow in the sense that this was probably the entire Burlington population of Fish Crows in one location and it seemed to be looking for a place to roost.

My third and final observation of winter survival/body heat retaining behaviors in Vermont birds can be found in the woodlands of Centennial Woods, or any mixed deciduous and coniferous forest in the state in general. Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Brown Creepers, White and Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers all seem to band together more or less in the winter and pick apart each different food source the winter forests have to offer. Each species has a slightly different specialty when it comes to finding food, which limits competition between them and allows for all species to coexist in a food finding, predator watching, cavity packing feathery dream team and all species were seen on my walk through Centennial Woods on March 4th (Traveling Checklist- Start Time: 12:18 PM, Duration: 40 mins, Distance Traveled: 0.69 miles). In winter, these species are very commonly seen in mixed species flocks, constantly foraging to find every last morsel of energy before the cold night ahead of them. Some species, like the Black-capped Chickadee, have been known to congregate in tree cavities at night to share and conserve body heat amongst one another. Not only are these birds safer from predators during the day due to the increased number of eyes watching the sky, but they also help each other find food by using each others Intel. I can’t help, but to think that the Chickadees are the masterminds behind each flock and that they are the ones with the know how to find the most insect and seed rich patches of woods and all the other birds just follow them around. I’ve seen it many times during Spring and Fall migration, where warblers or vireos will be found closely relating to the resident flocks of Chickadees, seemingly using their knowledge of the patch of woods they have just dropped into to find the best areas to feed. Masterminds or not, the Chickadees are a part of a helping bird community that seems to aid one another through the harsh winter.

Anotado en marzo 06, viernes 04:09 por jacobcbirds jacobcbirds | 27 observaciones | 0 comentarios | Deja un comentario

17 de febrero de 2020

Birding In Charlotte: A Quest For Hawks And A Look At Bird Flight

On February 10th, 2020 I went birding at a new location off of Ferry Rd in Charlotte, VT that I have never been before. My initial intent was to simply scan the nearby fields for signs of Rough-legged Hawk, but once I got out of my car to scan the distant tree lines for birds of prey, I heard a familiar call note flying overhead. Eastern Bluebirds! The temperature was 34 degrees Fahrenheit with a stiff south wind at 5-15 miles per hour. Overcast skies made it difficult to discern any real colors on birds in flight, but once it dropped below the horizon and landed in a nearby sumac tree, I could see the brilliant blue coloration on the bird's head, wings, mantle, and tail, contrasting nicely with a brown breast and white belly. Flying with slow, shallow wing beats, it almost seemed physically unlikely that the bird could remain in the air. Relatively long, pointed wings probably allow for this flight pattern, as they provide the bird's small body with ample lift. It's somewhat erratic bouncing flight makes it hard to believe that they are as nimble and agile as they are in the air. Eastern Bluebirds are birds of open landscapes, especially in during the breeding season when they are primarily aerial insectivores. But in the winter, Eastern Bluebirds flock to road side sumacs and berry producing bushes. Although, long pointed wings with a lot of surface area, may not be the best for zipping through thick undergrowth and weaving in and out of trees in a dense forest, they offer great speed and agility when chasing insects through the open air. While bluebird flight pattern is quite distinctive, it is much easier to make a confident ID when you take into account other aspects of the bird, especially flight calls, which Eastern Bluebirds are known to make.

A scan of the distant tree line resulted in the discovery of 3 Red-tailed Hawks. One of which took off from a treetop just 50 yards away and began circling over head. 3 to 4 powerful wing beats followed by a soar. The bird used it's broad buteo tail as a rudder in the air to tilt it's body toward the center of rotation. I find it hard to imagine that without any direct sunlight or general warming effects from the sun, that there were any thermals for this large adult Red-tail to ride high into the sky, but that's what appeared to be taking place. More likely, the hawks' wings with their high lift primary feathers and high surface area secondaries and covert provided the bird with enough lift to gain altitude without hardly any effort. Red-tailed Hawks, along with the Eastern Bluebird are open land specialists, but in a very different way. While Eastern Bluebirds rely on their wings to be able to sally out from a fence post or branch to catch a passing dragonfly, Red-tailed Hawks rely on their wings for soaring high above open fields and being able to control and hoist larger prey. The flap-flap-glide flight pattern of the Red-tailed Hawk is easily distinguishable from other birds of prey and larger birds in general. The rounded tail that is spread out in flight while the bird glides and the fingered wingtips are characteristics often seen in birds of the Buteo genus along with some vultures and members of the eagle family and even Common Ravens in some instances.

The Rough-legged Hawk is also a member of the Buteo genus along with the Red-tailed Hawk and is known to share an affinity for open landscapes and farmscapes during the winter months. With a flight pattern very similar, if not identical to that of a Red-tailed Hawk, when I saw one of the RTHA take flight for the first time, my heart jumped. "Could it be! My first Chittenden County Rough-legged Hawk since December of 2018?" Right size, right shape, right wing beats, and... nope, totally wrong color pattern and lacking the classic coloration of a RLHA and... a red tail. Rough-legged Hawks breed in the high arctic and parts of Alaska and only winter in the lower 48, so my chances at seeing this amazing species are limited to only the cold winter months from November to Late-March and Early-April (eBird.org).

Yet another bird with a distinctive flight pattern that I saw during this outing were American Goldfinches. These tiny finches are year-round residents in VT and do not need to migrate. Nonetheless, they are quite speedy in the air. With a high arching, undulating flight pattern, American Goldfinches seem to bounce from side to side and up and down when in the air. Similar to a woodpecker flight pattern, they give a few quick beats of their contrasting black wings before folding them against their body in a momentary free fall. In addition to this diagnostic finch/woodpecker flight pattern, American Goldfinches also have a tendency to make high pitched calls in flight. The classic "a-dee-dee-dee.... a-di-du...." flight calls, made with each burst of wingbeats are a great way to ID American Goldfinches by simply seeing them in a distant flyby.

Anotado en febrero 17, lunes 21:05 por jacobcbirds jacobcbirds | 20 observaciones | 0 comentarios | Deja un comentario

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