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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Eastern Bluebird is Back at NBNC!

Our first Eastern Bluebird of the year returned to NBNC today. I was surprised to see it perched in the Red Maple outside the office windows where it perched for at a good minute, allowing me to take the above picture using a point-and-shoot camera which I held up to the lens of my binoculars!

Monday, March 21, 2011

eBird: Tracking the Birds of NBNC (& beyond!)

Whether scientist, avid birder, or “backyard” observer, many people who watch birds keep a list of one form or another. Whether they be life lists (birds seen by a person in their lifetime), yard lists (birds seen in a person’s backyard), or year lists (birds seen over the course of a given year), listing is a way for individuals to archive their sightings and reference them in the future. Now, listing has been made easy by eBird, an online bird sightings database available for free. Best of all, the lists you enter can help scientists to learn more about bird abundance and distribution on a global scale.

As information is entered into eBird, it is made publicly available for all to see and use, and the observations submitted at the North Branch Nature Center have documented 127 species and revealed interesting trends in the distribution of birds at NBNC. While species that rare here (such as Eastern Towhee) may have only been reported once, many others have been documented dozens of times throughout the year. The more information is entered into the eBird database, the more it can tell us.

All sightings in eBird require a specific date and location for each observation. This allows for easy comparisons between the birds of NBNC and those of Washington County (or all of Vermont) over the course of the year. Users can even reference specific sightings and create maps that help track where birds have been seen recently. As more and more observations are entered, the power of eBird continues to grow, and this free tool offers countless other features that can enhance our enjoyment of birdlife and increase our knowledge at the same time.

For those who want to learn more:

Got eBird?
Tuesday, March 22, 7:00 - 8:30 p.m.
Fee: by donation
Every time that you see and identify a bird, you are holding a piece of a puzzle. Whether you are casually watching birds in your backyard, or chasing rare species, you are helping to put this puzzle together. Unfortunately, just like puzzle pieces, these observations lose their value if they remain separate from one another. Join VCE biologist Kent McFarland to learn how your bird sightings can help complete a picture of the life of birds through eBird. You’ll also learn how eBird is being used in the Vermont County Birding Quest.

Also check out the online eBird tutorial.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Perilous Journey and a Helping Hand

It was a warm, spring evening in a small village in Vermont. Patches of snow littered the forest floor, and a slushy precipitation fell from the sky. A deafening chorus of peeps and croaks rang through the night. Little did the inhabitants of this village know, an epic journey was underway.

This journey was the annual migration of a menagerie of amphibians, traveling from their over-wintering sites in forest uplands to their breeding grounds in vernal pools and other wetlands. Triggered by the first warm, rainy nights of spring, hundreds, or even thousands of small creatures simultaneously rise from their long winter slumber to make this expedition to procreate. Over half a dozen different species of frogs and salamanders partake in this dangerous trek, from Spring Peeper to Spotted Salamander. Unfortunately, their migration route is often intercepted by roads. It is a horrifying reality that many of these defenseless animals may never reach their final destination. Road mortality can be detrimental to the amphibians, disturbing or even destroying entire populations.

Thankfully, more and more people are learning of this little-known mass migration. North Branch Nature Center is one of several organizations around the state which has taken on the task of recruiting and training volunteers to act as crossing guards for our four-legged friends, ensuring they live to mate and sustain future generations of their species. Deep down in the mud, Vermont’s frogs and salamanders are still hibernating, but when it comes time to migrate over the next month they will again need our help. To learn more about amphibian migration and NBNC’s Amphibian Monitoring Program, please visit our website or attend one of our trainings sessions and learn how you can monitor and rescue amphibians:
    * Thursday, March 17, 6:30 p.m. Phoenix Books, Essex, VT
    * Wednesday, March 23, 6:00 p.m. Waitsfield Elementary School, Waitsfield, VT
    * Tuesday, March 29, 6:30 p.m. North Branch Nature Center, Montpelier, VT

Friday, March 11, 2011

Bird + Stick = Spring

While driving to work this week, a raven flew low over my car, carrying with it a sign of spring. The raven was holding a stick in its beak, which gave me hope that spring really is coming, despite the two feet of snow that fell just a couple of days prior. Although I quickly lost sight of the bird, I’m sure it was heading to a nest under construction somewhere nearby.

Common Ravens are one of our earliest nesting bird species in Vermont. They often begin construction of their nests in March, usually on cliff faces, but also in evergreen trees. Sometimes ravens will share a cliff with the much rarer Peregrine Falcon. Ravens lay between 3 and 7 eggs, with 2 to 4 nestlings usually surviving to fledgling. In Vermont, young ravens may be out of the nest as early as May, before many migrant songbirds have even arrived on their breeding grounds.

A few other bird species nest early in the season, including Great Horned and Barred Owls, American Crowd and Pine Siskins . The Gray Jay, a species in the same family as the Common Raven and found only in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, has been observed nest building as early as March in Vermont.

So, while spring doesn’t officially begin until March 20 (and it usually snows well into April), there are plenty of signs of spring to be alert to. What are you seeing? We hope you’ll share with us your own hopeful observations.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Probable Hoary Redpoll visits NBNC

At around 12:15 pm, a pale-looking redpoll landed in the Red Maple tree outside the office windows of the Nature Center, instantly grabbing the attention of those inside. After meticulously observing field marks, we are currently leaning in favor of calling this a Hoary Redpoll. More updates to follow, but here are a few pictures:

Notice the pale rump in the picture above

Notice the pale undertail coverts in the above picture, which show only a single black streak

The above photo shows two pictures of Redpolls taken just minutes apart under the feeder, in the same light conditions. The bird in the upper photo is a Common Redpoll. The bird in the lower photo? We're leaning towards Hoary... more details will be posted soon.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Bohemian Waxwings Invade

New England winters are notorious for being harsh, especially as winter lingers a bit longer than is often welcome in the beginning of March. But for those who appreciate birds, there are about a dozen types winged gems that wander from the north some winters and warm our hearts. One of these northern visitors that calls Vermont “south for the winter” is the Bohemian Waxwing.

The Cedar Waxwings grace our region year-round, but Bohemian Waxwings only occasionally wander to our reaches. Known as an ‘irruptive species’, some years Bohemians are numerous while others they are wholly absent. Their presence depends mostly on the availability of food in the boreal forests farther north. Their preferred winter diet consists mainly of berries and fruits, so if, for example, the Mountain Ash crop is weak in Canada one year, we may find a plethora of Bohemian Waxwings in our backyards.

Although they are quite similar to their southern cousins, Bohemian Waxwings are quite distinctive if you know what you are looking for. In sound they are quite similar, with the Bohemian having a more ‘musical’ sounding high-pitch tremolo than the fairly flat, mechanical high-pitch sound of the Cedar. This distinction, however, is subtle and distinguishing calls comes with practice. A key feature that sets the Bohemian Waxwing apart from the Cedar Waxwing is the rusty-brown undertail coverts. When viewed from below, this field mark is very apparent and the easiest way to distinguish the two. Bohemian Waxwings are slightly larger, but this field mark is only useful when the two species are side-by-side. The name waxwing is derived from the red tips of some wing feathers, which reminded early observers of sealing wax and these feathers can also help to distinguish these species. The Bohemian Waxwing has yellow and white in addition to the red on its wing-tips. Another more subtle field mark is the grayer belly of the Bohemians, but this can be quite subjective based on lighting and is better used as ‘supporting evidence’ of an ID rather than a sole characteristic to rely on.

Finding Bohemian Waxwings is a game of chance. Even in years when they are present, their nomadic nature makes them difficult to find predictably over a period of time. A huge flock might descend on a tree, pick every branch clean of berries, and then move on, never to return. They often seem to show up in downtowns, working the fruits of ornamental crabapple and cherry trees that line city streets. When they do this, the flock will often land atop a nearby tall tree which they’ll use as a ‘staging area’. Smaller groups from the flock descend upon the fruiting tree, swallowing entire fruits whole. When they go into this sort of feeding frenzy, they can often be approached fairly closely without being spooked. After all, in the remote northern regions where they breed, they may never encounter a single human so why perceive us as a threat on their wintering grounds?

I once observed a flock of Bohemian Waxwings 1,000 strong in the heart of Burlington. The typically soft, high-pitch trill blared throughout the two city blocks they filled along College Street. I quickly ran to a friend’s house down the road and dragged them out to see the commotion. These non-birders couldn’t help but smile with delight as we stood between the waxwings’ staging areas and the fruit trees from which they fed, birds buzzing within inches of our heads. While this flock was unusually large, they frequently gather in groups of 50 or more, sometimes attracting attention from creatures other than humans. While photographing a flock of Bohemian Waxwings outside my apartment in Winooski, the entire bunch abruptly took off. Despite my close proximity to them, my slow fluid movements must have spooked the flock. Or did they? As I turned my head, a Merlin sat on the ground, waxwing clenched in its talons, before flying off with its prey (pictured below). A study in South-central Saskatchewan found that Bohemian Waxwing accounted for over a quarter of Merlins’ diet!

While seemingly oblivious to the Merlin’s presence in this instance, Bohemian Waxwings can be quick to take notice of other predators. The soft chatter of a flock I observed in South Burlington stopped abruptly and all the waxwings struck a cryptic pose, bodies extended vertically and necks craned skyward (pictured right). As I mimicked the waxwings with my own posture, I quickly saw the cause for their change in behavior: a Northern Harrier passing high overhead.

In addition to attracting the attention of predators, there are inherent risks that come with a diet of fruit. Feeding on street corners means encounters with cars are inevitable, and Bohemian Waxwings can be susceptible to being hit. This fall, an injured Bohemian Waxwing was brought to NBNC from the statehouse lawn in Montpelier, the likely victim of a hit-and-run. In spring, different problems arise. Fruits that have managed to persist through the winter may have been host to a congress of yeast and sugars, resulting in fermentation. On one occasion in Winooski, I found a waxwing that lay helpless on the lawn incapable of flight. At first I suspected injury, perhaps from a cat (another major predator), but then I realized this waxwing was drunk! Waxwings aren’t the only creatures prone to inebriation, but their choice of food means an increased risk of succumbing to alcohol, sometimes fatally.

While you may witness waxwings’ misfortunes, the careful observer will also enjoy a host of other interesting behaviors and interactions. Waxwings are highly gregarious creatures that enjoy each others’ company. Their constant chatter is thought to strengthen cohesion of the flock, and intensifies prior to the waxwings’ movement from one location to another. Even though they breed hundreds of miles away, we get a glimpse into their summer lives as they begin pairing up as early as January. Amongst the waxwings repertoire of flirtatious displays are the “gifting” of fruits, feeding, and “billing” (touching or clasping of beaks). In a 1988 study, Cramp reported “…[a] male sidling up to perched female and hopping from one side of her to the other, billing, and hovering briefly in front of her to offer a fruit.”

Not only is the Bohemian Waxwing a bird worthy of adding to any “life list”, but anyone who ignores them after marking the Bohemian on their checklist is missing out. The next time you stumble upon a flock of Waxwings, spend some time with them and get to know them and you won’t be disappointed. Before you know it, spring will come you’ll be once again waiting for winter’s gems.

Essay and photos by Larry Clarfeld