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Monday, January 31, 2011

North Branch Noddies Score Big in Superbowl

For twelve consecutive hours, the North Branch Noddies scoured the coast of Essex County, MA, in search of all the birds that they could find in the Superbowl of Birding. This was our third year taking part in the competition and we tallied an impressive 66 species, more than we ever have before!

Fair weather and calm wind were a welcomed change form last year, and we were easily able to find Eastern Screech-Owl in two locations before dawn. At first light, we headed to Andrew's Point where birds were very active off the coast. Under good lighting and at close distances, we had great views of Red-throated Loon, Red-necked Grebe, Harlequin Ducks, and a group of a dozen Razorbill among others.

Before noon we had already found amazing birds such as the Barrow's Goldeneye at Loblolly Cove, the King Eider (pictured above) at Bass Rocks, and the Common Murre at Eastern Point. Every stop we made throughout the day seemed to add new species to our list. As the sun was setting, with less than 10 minutes left in the competition, a Short-eared Owl flew silently across the sky at Plum Island as our final bird.

After a fantastic day of birding, the Noddies were happy to learn that they won the Seeker's Award, which is given to the team that finds the most birds off of a special checklist of 30 species. The only species off the list that we didn't see were Northern Gannet, Iceland Gull, and Snowy Owl (which surprisingly wasn't found by any team). Learn more about Youth Birding events.

In this competition, birds are ranked by difficulty to find (1 point being easiest and 5 points being hardest). Our complete checklist is below:
* on the Seeker's Checklist
1 point (plain text)
2 points (bold)

Canada Goose
Mute Swan
American Black Duck
Greater Scaup
Common Eider
Harlequin Duck*
Surf Scoter*
White-winged Scoter*
Black Scoter*
Long-tailed Duck*
Common Goldeneye*
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser*
Red-breasted Merganser*
Red-throated Loon*
Common Loon
Horned Grebe*
Red-necked Grebe*
Great Cormorant*
Bald Eagle*
Northern Harrier*
Red-tailed Hawk*
Purple Sandpiper*
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Black Guillemot*
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Eastern Screech-Owl
Downy Woodpecker*
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark*
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch*
Carolina Wren*
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird*
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing*
American Tree Sparrow*
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow*
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
American Goldfinch*
House Sparrow

Monday, January 24, 2011

Winter tracking at NBNC

Animal tracks abound in all of this snow!  Snow is advantageous to many active animals in Vermont’s winter landscape, though as it gains depth rapidly with the series of storms we’ve had this month, it will slow down movement for larger animals such as white tailed deer.   But smaller animals will burrow safely in its insulating depth to move from food cache to nesting sites, gaining protection from predators and from more serious cold in the air above.

Around our Nature Center we saw a beautiful pattern of small rodent tracks, perhaps belonging to a white footed mouse or deer mouse, making a large figure eight around our white pine trees.  The children attending our morning Preschool Discovery Program were fascinated with the tracks that ended in a one inch hole, and they bent closely to see what they might spot down below.  However, when we followed a separate set of tracks in the same area, those tracks ended more ominously at a hand sized depression flanked by light strokes of wing feathers.  Clearly, a predatory bird had found a meal.  We didn’t see any of this happen, we could only read the story in the tracks.  So, as you venture out on skis or snowshoes, watch for tales unfolding in the snow.  Wild animals have to move a lot to find energy to survive at this time of year, but we can read that message of movement from knowing basic track patterns.  Keep your eyes on the snow!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Varied Thrush in Bolton Becomes a Celebrity


For weeks, a Varied Thrush has resided in the backyard of Don and June Kenney of Bolton.  Last week, the bird was featured on WPTZ (news channel 5) and the video is now online, with some commentary from NBNC educator Larry Clarfeld.  View the video.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ice Circles on the North Branch

Meetings at the North Branch Nature Center frequently get interrupted by natural phenomena. Usually it’s a bird sighting or a butterfly, certainly something alive. But what had us pulling on boots and hats recently was something more geometrical in nature. Larry Clarfeld, environmental educator at NBNC, had found what’s called an ice circle/disc or “pizza ice”. When he first came upon the ice circle along a bend of the North Branch of the Winooski River, it was slowly revolving in place. This particular stretch of river has a sharp bend near a spot we call “otter rock”. The river here features a deep hole and an eddy that may have helped the circle to form.

Expert on ice formation, Faye Hicks, a professor at the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, says these rarely-seen discs form near the outside of a bend in the river. When flow enters a river bend, flow velocities increase due to the effects of centrifugal acceleration; also, the bulk of the flow is pushed towards the outer bank."

"This high-velocity flow curves around the outer bank of the bend and, if there is an ice cover in the bend, the curving flow creates a curved drag force on the underside of the ice," Hicks said.

The rotating ice scrapes along the bank or nearby ice, eventually smoothing off the rough edges and creating a nearly perfect circle.

By the time we all got down to the river the ice circle had frozen in place, but there were actually two frozen ice disks nearly in contact with each other. One wheel, the recently rotating one, measured an estimated 25 feet in diameter, while the smaller one was about 15 feet across. I imagine one wheel formed first, eventually floated a bit downstream and froze into place, while another formed in its place.

If you’d like to learn more about how ice circles form, you can visit the Burlington Free Press's coverage on ice circles last year and even watch a video of it rotating in place (somewhat akin to watching paint dry).

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Hawk Owl Returns

After not being seen since January 1st, the Northern Hawk Owl was seen this morning at around 9:30 am. Here is a digiscoped picture:

More details about this sighting are in the comment of the previous post

Monday, January 3, 2011

New Year's Northern Hawk Owl in Berlin, VT!

2010 ended with some excitement for Nat Shambaugh as he discovered a Northern Hawk Owl hanging out in the fields around Towne-Aire farm at the end of Jones Brook Rd in Berlin! “Go west on route 2 out of Montpelier, turn left at the fork past the Dairy Creme onto Three Mile Bridge Rd,” directed Nat, “go over the bridge and turn right onto the river road and start looking around in the tree tops and elec. poles…” After reporting the bird on the VTBIRD list on December 31, eager birders from around the state converged on Berlin to see the owl and over a dozen people saw the Hawk Owl in the 48-hours following Nat's original posting.

Northern Hawk Owls are indeed owls, not hawks, and are breeders of the boreal forest, only venturing to our southern reaches occasionally in winter. It gets its name because, as one would expect, it is said to resemble a hawk in appearance with a more slender, stream-lined body, smaller head, and overall more “hawk-like” posture and appearance than other North American owls. A treat for any birder (or non-birder, for that matter) to see, these owls are diurnal. When they do appear in our state, being active by day makes them much easier to observe. Furthermore, they have a tendency to choose the most prominent perch, be it the tippy-top of a tree, a telephone pole or wire, a fence post, or a street sign. Although their appearance in our state is rare, when they do appear, they tend to stick around and attract hordes of birders. The image above of a Hawk Owl in Eden, VT spent almost 2 months in the same location in the winter of 2009, being seen dozens of times by scores of birders. How long the Berlin owl will stick around is anybody’s guess.

Despite many search attempts since January 1st, the Berlin Hawk Owl hasn’t been relocated. Living only a few miles from the site where it was discovered, Chip Darmstadt was hot on the scene before its disappearance and got the picture shown above. “Eventually it flew over Jones Brook Road,” recounted Chip, “continuing to hunt from the powerline on the open hillside (technically in Moretown). There's a lot of open country along this stretch of the Winooski, so it would definitely be worth driving all of River Road between Montpelier and Middlesex [for those who want to look for it].” Another lucky observer, John Snell, managed to capture some thermal images of the owl as the sun set on New Year ’s Eve. Check out these amazing images below! (note that the right image shows the Hawk Owl on the ground after catching a rodent!)

We’ll keep trying to relocate this bird and will make updates on our blog, so check back for more details. Also, Bryan Pfeiffer, guru birder and friend of NBNC is keeping tabs on sightings on his blog, The Daily Wing. Whether the bird is rediscovered or not, it has already put on quite a show and given us a great start to the Washington County Birding Challenge!