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Monday, November 17, 2014

Birding Plum Island and Cape Ann

Barred Owl at Plum Island
It was cold but beautiful for the North Branch Nature Center’s trip to the Massachusetts coast this past weekend. Seven participants scoured the seashore of Essex County, MA in search of ocean birds and discovered the surprising diversity of birds that are around in late-fall. As one season ends and another begins, birds of both fall and winter can be found along the New England coast in mid-November.

Winter birds complemented winter temperatures in our birding adventures. Snowy Owls had just begun arriving from the north over the past week, and one was seen at Plum Island. Loons, scoters, and others were seen migrating south along the coast. Snow Buntings and Horned Larks were active in the dunes at both Newburyport and Salisbury. And a variety of winter birds were seen off the coast, including Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Horned and Red-necked Grebe, Harlequin Duck, and others.

Greater White-fronted Goose in Newbury
While many species of ‘winter birds’ were seen, a handful had not yet arrived to the wintering grounds. Iceland and Glaucous Gulls were notably absent. Common Goldeneye, which can be fairly common in winter, was represented by only a single individual at Brace Cove in Rockport. And Short-eared Owl sightings so far this season have been sparse; we weren’t able to locate any during our dusk attempt.

Snowy Owl at Plum Island
Yet other species we observed were species more typically associated with warmer weather. A Hermit Thrush was observed in Rowley and a Yellow-rumped Warbler in Rockport. An American Bittern put in an appearance at Plum Island and a Great Egret was observed in Salisbury. A few lingering shorebirds were also seen, including Black-bellied Plover and Greater Yellowlegs at several locations.

Perhaps the most unusual sighting was a Greater White-fronted Goose in Newbury, mixed in with a flock of about 250 Canada Geese. This one was a lifer for most of the group. The Eurasian Wigeon seen at Plum Island was another highlight. While not unusual in Vermont, the Barred Owl seen at Plum Island was a pretty atypical species for that location.

American Bittern at Plum Island
When all was said and done, a total of 84 species were observed during the three days of birding (and 1 day of scouting by trip leader Larry Clarfeld). In addition to all the birds, a trip to Cape Ann and Plum Island is enjoyable just for the ambience. The glowing sunsets, scenic vistas, and historic downtowns of the coastal New England towns we visited were all fantastically beautiful. NBNC will be back to the Massachusetts coast in January to participate in the Superbowl of Birding, where we’ll spend a day with youths and adults, participating in this birding competition for the seventh consecutive year.

Complete Species List

Greater White-fronted Goose Sanderling
Canada Goose Dunlin
Mute Swan Purple Sandpiper*
Gadwall Razorbill
Eurasian Wigeon Black Guillemot
American Wigeon Bonaparte's Gull
American Black Duck Ring-billed Gull
Mallard Herring Gull
Northern Pintail Great Black-backed Gull
Green-winged Teal Rock Pigeon
Ring-necked Duck Mourning Dove
Greater Scaup* Snowy Owl
Common Eider Barred Owl
Harlequin Duck Red-bellied Woodpecker*
Surf Scoter Downy Woodpecker
White-winged Scoter Hairy Woodpecker
Black Scoter Northern Flicker*
Long-tailed Duck Peregrine Falcon*
Bufflehead Blue Jay
Common Goldeneye American Crow
Hooded Merganser Horned Lark
Red-breasted Merganser Black-capped Chickadee
Wild Turkey Tufted Titmouse
Red-throated Loon Red-breasted Nuthatch
Common Loon White-breasted Nuthatch
Pied-billed Grebe* Carolina Wren
Horned Grebe Hermit Thrush
Red-necked Grebe American Robin
Northern Gannet Northern Mockingbird
Double-crested Cormorant European Starling
Great Cormorant* Snow Bunting
American Bittern Yellow-rumped Warbler
Great Blue Heron American Tree Sparrow
Great Egret Savannah Sparrow
Northern Harrier Song Sparrow
Cooper's Hawk White-throated Sparrow
Bald Eagle Dark-eyed Junco
Red-tailed Hawk Northern Cardinal
Rough-legged Hawk* Red-winged Blackbird
American Coot House Finch
Black-bellied Plover American Goldfinch
Greater Yellowlegs House Sparrow

*Seen only during scouting

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Record-setting Season for Saw-whets

The Saw-whet Owl banding season is now in its fourth week and owls continue to move through the area in good numbers. In 20 nights of banding between our two stations, we have banded 86 Northern Saw-whet Owls so far. Our busiest night of banding yet was October 24, when 16 owls were banded in Montpelier and 10 in Shelburne.  As the season begins to wind down, the data we've already collected are starting to tell the Saw-whet's story.

A remarkably high proportion of this year’s owls are hatch-year birds; those born over the just-completed breeding season. Roughly 63% of owls captured in Montpelier and 85% of owls captured in Shelburne have been hatch-year. This ratio of hatch-year owls is indicative of high productivity on the breeding grounds and is consistent with observations from other banding stations in the northeast.

The other big news this season was an owl we had banded last fall in Shelburne being recaptured by the McGill Bird Observatory in Montreal! This is the second owl-exchange we've had between Shelburne and Montreal, after re-capturing an owl on Oct. 24, 2013 that they had banded 16 days earlier. There have been no other foreign recaptures or recoveries so far this season. This being only our second season of banding after last year's pilot, we still have much to learn.

We have also been delighted to host over 250 visitors to the banding stations this year. With the banding season ending in early November, there are still a few more opportunities to visit and observe. Contact Larry for information about visiting either banding station.

Our owl banding initiative is supported by a grant from the Oakland Foundation and your support. Help us make sure we can continue this project for years to come by making a donation or adopting an owl.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A World of Leaves at Forest Preschool

"The leaf looks bigger! "I see lines and dirt."
Mother Nature pulled out all the stops this Autumn, transforming the landscape into a brilliant wash of red, orange, and gold. It's a poignant time of year as the natural world is shifting and readying for a long, sleepy winter. With leaves raining down and crunching underfoot, Forest Preschoolers have been alive in their senses and exuberantly exploring the wild world around. Leaves on the ground this time of year are abundant and fascinating; ideal for play and learning. At Forest Preschool, we have been taking full advantage!

Preschoolers learn rapidly from what interests them. When learning is driven by interest, information is more easily retained and strong synaptic connections are made. Many Forest Preschoolers were drawn to pile, move, and build with leaves, others to examine closely, some to sort by shape and color, and count. Many children used leaves in "mud kitchen" baking recipes. Some collected and designed with them. Stitching leaves with a blunt needle was also a source of intrigue. This foray into sewing was a first for many and provided a great way to develop fine motor skills.

"I wonder what THIS might look like under a
magnifying glass?"
I love asking children open ended questions that have no wrong answers. The answers are sometimes priceless but more importantly, they engage curiosity. One morning I sat with a child while the two of us wove yarn in and out of holes punched in several leaves. As we worked the yarn through the leaves, she spontaneously declared, " I could make this anywhere. There's leaves everywhere." I wonder where the leaves are in the winter?" I asked. She took moment and then stated, "Under the snow but you can build a snowman in the snow. But you can't put in on a piece of string!"

Building a nest for an owl backpack!
Many nests for wild animal friends were built using leaves at Forest Preschool. Pretending to be an animal building a nest and then snuggling in the final product is great fun. Preschoolers are primed to learn by engaging their imagination!

Nestled in with owl backpack aptly named Mr. Owl!

"I'm going to use my paws to build the rest!"
Each day I tell an oral story. One day, part of my story told of a red squirrel building a nest with fallen leaves. When the story was over, a child was excited to build a squirrel nest of his own. In the  process of construction, play, and my asking open ended questions, he and friends learned about nest sites, construction, materials used, and the insulating property of leaves. 

Later that morning the child sat back, looked around, and exclaimed, "The world is covered in leaves!" Another shared, "There's mostly maple trees here at Deer Camp."

"Where can we put the door?" "Now, the thing is, can we make a door out of a stick?"

Another busy squirrel building a nest!

Leaves add a whole new element to "mountain climbing,"
healthy risk taking, and gross motor skill development.

Pure joy!

Now that most of the leaves have fallen and the temperatures are following suit, we look forward to what nature will offer the children's innate sense of wonder and endless curiosity in the coming weeks.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Owl Banding – Midseason Update

The North Branch Nature Center’s second season of Northern Saw-whet Owl banding is underway. In collaboration with other owl researchers around the U.S. and Canada, we are operating banding stations in Montpelier and Shelburne to track the fall migration of these incredible birds. While it is still early in the banding season, we have already learned that this year is going to be very different than last.

In 2013, the banding station in Shelburne showed the rate of hatch-year birds we encountered to be only 11%. Hatch year birds are those born during the most recent breeding season. This low rate of occurrence typically signifies a poor breeding season where not many Saw-whet Owls were fledged. So far in 2014, 87% of the birds encountered in Shelburne had been hatch year birds, which suggests that this year's breeding season was much better than last, with high productivity.

This weekend’s public demonstrations in Montpelier and Shelburne were attended by roughly 80 people. We caught and released a total of 9 owls in Montpelier on Saturday and 2 in Shelburne on Sunday. If you are interested in visiting the banding station, please email Larry. And, please consider supporting our banding project by adopting an owl.

Learn more about NBNC’s Saw-whet Banding program. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Celebrating 5 Years of Educating Children Outdoors in Vermont

In central Vermont we are welcoming in another school year with stunning foliage, warm days and the ongoing chorus of crickets and katydids. Here at the North Branch Nature Center we are celebrating our 5th year of ECO- Educating Children Outdoors. This year we are welcoming Alex Rob and Carrie Riker to our ECO team. Carrie and Alex bring years of experience leading children outdoors and a passion for connecting children to our rich landscape here in Vermont. We are also thrilled to expand ECO to a new school, Calais Elementary! During the 2014-15 school year ECO will be in 7 schools, reaching 463 children and 40 teachers with a standards based nature immersion program.

Small group work in the forest
In these past five years we have been inspired by all the teachers, parents and of course the students we work with by being immersed in nature throughout the seasons. As a classroom community we are learning with children on a continuous basis through ECO. We are also developing long lasting relationships with students and the green spaces that we visit each week.  Whether it’s sitting around a fire on a chilly winter day, witnessing spring ephemerals unfold or watching skeins of geese fly south, students and teachers are experiencing phenology in an active way that connects them to the place they live in. When asked why we live here in Vermont, most people reference the values of our state that we love so much. The mountains, crimson red maple trees, the change of seasons, clean lakes to swim in, local food, deep snow, family traditions, and small towns with a big community feel.

Through ECO we want to help our students to foster a love for Vermont that will last their entire lives. I can’t think of a better way to do that then to help them understand where they live by introducing them to the natural world that surrounds us and all its wonders.

So, what do children know about the natural world in Vermont? First and second graders at Moretown Elementary can easily name at least 10 native species of animals and what their distinguishing characteristics are. Children at Union Elementary will be able to tell you later this month about the history of stonewalls and their importance in shaping our agricultural heritage.  It may appear that third graders were only playing hide and seek in various locations on the East Montpelier school property last week, but really they are studying habitats from the ground up. What better way to start a lesson than with hiding in 3 different habitats?  If you need a map of Twinfield’s forested trails you can always ask an ECO student. This year students will be become cartographers.

Kindergartners at any of our participating schools will surprise you as well. These are our youngest students and they know where every animal home is in the forest, they can build you a squirrel drey or a giant eagles nest. They will be the first to tell you that in nature we “hurt no living thing”. So be careful where you step and hold that insect ever so carefully.

At the end of a day learning in the forest we feel a sense of joyful exhausted accomplishment. We are also reminded that children will only protect what they love and they will only love what they know.
We know Vermont and we love it.

What is 20? Showing our mathematical thinking.

Symmetry in nature

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Predicting the Birds of Winter

Occurrence of Common Redpoll in Vermont
from 2002-12 based on Christmas Bird Count data.
Predicting the future isn’t easy. Crystal balls are unreliable and tarot cards can seem uselessly ambiguous. Weather forecasts do pretty well, but even with multimillion dollar radar equipment, they have their margin of error. Look at a graph of occurrence for Common Redpoll, and it can seem as random as flipping a coin. So how can one person accurately predict which northern-breeding birds will travel south, months in advance? Ron Pittaway has figured out.

Ron Pittaway is a prominent ornithologist in Ontario who began producing his famous ‘winter finch forecast’ over a decade ago. His forecast addresses ‘irruptive’ species of birds. These species are cold-hardy, and if they had it their way, would stay in the far north all winter long. But, in some years when food is scarce, they are forced to move south. Ron Pittaway predicts the movements of these birds by collating data on the seed crops of trees in the far north each year.

A Common Redpoll feeds in a birch
For example, Ron predicts a decent number Common Redpolls to move south this winter, because, “birch seed crops are variably poor to average in the boreal forest.” Redpolls like birch seeds, and without birch seeds in the boreal forest, the redpolls will move south. His forecasts not only predict which birds will come south with pretty good accuracy, they also give a glimpse into the life histories of these birds and how/where to observe them.

I, like many birders, eagerly await the winter finch forecast each year. As thousands of breeding songbirds disappear from Vermont each fall, it gives me something to look forward to in the winter to come.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What happened to all the Monarchs?

A Monarch visits Joe-Pye weed this fall at NBNC
“What happened to all the Monarchs?” This has become a common question the past few years, as the iconic, once-common orange butterflies are now a rare treat to find. The milkweed in fields and meadows across Vermont that once harbored Monarch caterpillars are now devoid. So, where have they gone?

The decline of the Monarch population began decades ago. While the causes are varied, the primary factor thought to be responsible for the 90% reduction in the Monarch population is the increased use of pesticides that kill milkweed, the Monarch’s only hostplant. The Midwestern states are at the core of the Monarch’s reproductive range, and Monarch breeding habitat there has been rapidly disappearing. Farms that once provided marginal Monarch habitat, with milkweed popping up between rows of corn, are now ecological deserts. The use of glyphosate (aka round-up) on genetically modified, pesticide-resistant crops has killed what little milkweed could grow in the mega-farms of the Midwest (and beyond).
Source: monarchwatch.org

Added to this are all of the other threats and stressors that Monarchs face. Bad weather, such as droughts, unusually hot or cold periods, and storms, can wipe out large percentages of the population or limit their reproductive success. Illegal logging in the forests of central Mexico threatens the important overwintering grounds of the Monarch. Predators and pathogens may be an increasing threat as Monarchs become squeezed into smaller patches of milkweed as their breeding habitat continues to shrink. And global warming may pose another set of challenges that are only beginning to be realized. The rapid decline of Monarchs has prompted a number of conservation organizations to seek protection for the Monarch under the federal Endangered Species Act.

A Monarch tagged at NBNC, to help track its migration
So far this fall, Monarch numbers appear up from 2013. Sightings have been more numerous throughout Vermont and other parts of the breeding range and the overwintering population is expected to be double that of lastyear. While this gives some hope, Monarchs need our help to be brought back from the brink. Here are a few things you can do:

  •  Help preserve milkweed! Milkweed is a native plant and is common in open or disturbed areas. When it comes time to mow, be sure to leave some milkweed for the Monarchs! You can also plant milkweed to create habitat for breeding monarchs.
  • Plant a butterfly garden. Late-flowering plants such as Joe-Pye weed, asters, and goldenrods provide important food sources for migrating Monarchs to refuel on their long journey.
  • Report your Monarch sightings! There are several tools you can use to report butterflies, including eButterfly.org, iNaturalist.org, or you can send yourobservations to us at NBNC. (Note: The Viceroy butterfly can look a lot like a Monarch… learn how to identify a Monarch)
  • Help monitor migrating Monarchs. You can order tags through monarchwatch.org, or, join NBNC for our Monarch tagging events on Wednesday afternoons at 3:30 p.m.