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 por jacobcbirds jacobcbirds, marzo 06, viernes 04:09

Observaciones

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Pato de Collar Anas platyrhynchos

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Febrero 22, 2020

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Pato Chillón Bucephala clangula

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Febrero 22, 2020

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Mergo Mayor Mergus merganser

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Febrero 22, 2020

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Paloma Asiática Doméstica Columba livia

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Febrero 22, 2020

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Gaviota Pico Anillado Larus delawarensis

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Febrero 22, 2020

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Gaviota Plateada Larus argentatus

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Febrero 22, 2020

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Gaviota Mayor Larus marinus

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Febrero 22, 2020

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Águila Cabeza Blanca Haliaeetus leucocephalus

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Febrero 22, 2020

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Cuervo Norteamericano Corvus brachyrhynchos

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Febrero 22, 2020

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Cuervo Pescador Corvus ossifragus

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Febrero 22, 2020

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Vermont State High Count accepted by eBird reviewers.

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Gaviota Pico Anillado Larus delawarensis

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Marzo 4, 2020

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Águila Cabeza Blanca Haliaeetus leucocephalus

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Marzo 4, 2020

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Carpintero Velloso-Menor Dryobates pubescens

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Marzo 4, 2020

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Carpintero Velloso Dryobates villosus

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Marzo 4, 2020

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Cuervo Norteamericano Corvus brachyrhynchos

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Marzo 4, 2020

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Carbonero de Capucha Negra Poecile atricapillus

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Marzo 4, 2020

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Carbonero Copetón Baeolophus bicolor

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Marzo 4, 2020

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Bajapalos Pecho Canela Sitta canadensis

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Marzo 4, 2020

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Bajapalos Pecho Blanco Sitta carolinensis

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Marzo 4, 2020

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Trepadorcito Americano Certhia americana

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Marzo 4, 2020

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Estornino Pinto Europeo Sturnus vulgaris

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Marzo 4, 2020

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Mirlo Primavera Turdus migratorius

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Marzo 4, 2020

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Count by 1s and 5s of a flock that emerged from the underbrush near some White Pines

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Cardenal Rojo Cardinalis cardinalis

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Marzo 4, 2020

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Tordo Sargento Agelaius phoeniceus

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Marzo 3, 2020

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First of the Year Migrants!

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Ganso Canadiense Mayor Branta canadensis

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Marzo 3, 2020

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Zanate Norteño Quiscalus quiscula

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Marzo 3, 2020

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Zopilote Aura Cathartes aura

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Febrero 21, 2020 04:20 PM EST

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