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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Saw-whet Banding Season Summary

The North Branch Nature Center completed its first season of Northern Saw-whet Owl banding this fall with a total of 54 owls captured between two banding stations. At NBNC’s property in Montpelier, 21 owls were banded in six nights (~21 hrs) and at Shelburne Bay, 33 owls were captured in 22 nights (~75 hrs). An additional two recaptures occurred at Shelburne Bay of owls that had been banded there a few days before.

Recaptures between

Much to our excitement, this season we had three foreign recaptures (owls that had already been banded at other banding stations).  One owl captured October 24, had been banded in Montreal, Canada just 16 days earlier.  And two other owls, captured October 24 and November 4, had been banded last fall near Allentown, PA (within 15 miles of each other).  With each recapture, will help reveal how Saw-whets utilize Vermont during their journey south.

While this was only our pilot year of owl banding, we can still learn a lot from the owls we caught.  At our Shelburne Bay site, only around 12% of our captures were of hatch-year birds (those born this past spring and summer).  This low proportion of young individuals typically occurs in years of food shortage on the breeding grounds, during which few young owls are born.  Other Saw-whet banding stations in the east experienced a similar lack of hatch-year birds this fall, along with low numbers of migrants overall.  

At the NBNC station, however, hatch-year birds accounted for a much higher percentage of captures at 38%.  It is possible that owls migrating through NBNC come from a different population than those migrating through Shelburne Bay, accounting for a difference in natal productivity and hence the differing proportion of hatch-year birds.  This is hard to confirm, but it is interesting to think about how the geography of Vermont’s landscape may funnel owls from different populations through different migratory corridors.  

In keeping with NBNC’s devotion to education and outreach, over 200 kids and adults visited the banding stations in Shelburne and Montpelier to observe science in action.  It is our hope that this unique opportunity both deepens participants’ interest in nature and empowers them to do something positive for the environment.  Thanks to everyone who visited the banding stations this fall, and special thanks to volunteers Mattias Sirch, Abby Sirch, Rebecca Gray, and Aileen Lennon. 
Photo by Brian Jenkins, 3rd Stone Images

Birds and Ice Storms

The effects of the recent ice storm that hit parts of Vermont last weekend are still folding out, as tree limbs strain under the weight of their ice-covered branches.  For birds, the storm poses both threats and opportunities.  It all comes down to diet.

Forest Insectivores
While insects might seem like the most difficult food to locate in winter, those birds that specialize in finding bugs on and within bark will be largely unaffected by the storm.  Iceless tree trunks remain just as accessible to birds such as woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, and others.  The storm will actually provide long-term benefit to these species.  The wounds from fallen branches will attract insects in the coming years, providing food and creating nest cavities for forest insectivores.   

Seed & Fruit Eaters
For those birds that rely on seeds and fruit, their quest for food just became a bit more challenging.  Birds like sparrows and goldfinches may need to forage in new locations where ice hasn’t encapsulated buds and berries.  If you keep a bird feeder, seed-eating birds will love you right now!

Small Mammal Eaters
The birds of prey that specialize on small mammals, such as owls and some hawks, will be having a hard time until the ice melts.  Many of these predators locate their prey by sound, catching and killing mammals as they move under the snow.  But with the thick, icy crust across fields and forests, these raptors may be unable to break through the ice to catch their meals.  

Monday, December 23, 2013

Plainfield Christmas Bird Count Results

Birders warming up at the annual
compilation dinner potluck.

The 53rd Plainfield Christmas Bird Count took place under cold conditions on Saturday, December 14, with lows of -11 F in colder spots and highs in the single digits.  Our total of 41 species (plus one count week) is slightly above the 10-year average of 38.8.  Highlights this year included a Hermit Thrush along the Stevens Branch of the Winooski River in Barre, only the second time recorded in the count.  A Belted Kingfisher in Lanesboro was also a big surprise, where open water was scarce. 

As with the other counts this year, winter finches were completely absent, but we did manage to set record highs for Red-tailed Hawk (5), Hairy Woodpecker (69), American Robin (31), and Northern Cardinal (49).  Some other highlights included American Black Duck (our first since 2008), 2 Northern Goshawks, an adult Bald Eagle in Marshfield, White-throated Sparrows in 2 different territories, and a pair of Song Sparrows in Barre (our first since 2008).

Thanks to the 34+ participants who braved the cold.  A full list of species is included below:

The only Snowy Owl seen during
the count was Ken's meatloaf!
Canada Goose  cw
American Black Duck 2
Mallard  6
Common Merganser 4
Ruffed Grouse 4
Wild Turkey 147
Bald Eagle 1
Sharp-shinned Hawk  1
Cooper's Hawk 1
Northern Goshawk 2
Red-tailed Hawk 5
Rock Pigeon 364
Mourning Dove 364
Barred Owl 3
Belted Kingfisher  1
Downy Woodpecker 49
Hairy Woodpecker 69
Pileated Woodpecker 11
Blue Jay 403
American Crow 313
Common Raven 29
Black-capped Chickadee 1318
Tufted Titmouse 7
Red-breasted Nuthatch 42
White-breasted Nuthatch 50
Brown Creeper 3
Hermit Thrush 1
Golden-crowned Kinglet 19
American Robin 31
European Starling 76
Cedar Waxwing 86
American Tree Sparrow 52
Song Sparrow 2
White-throated Sparrow 3
Dark-eyed Junco 68
Northern Cardinal 49
Brown-headed Cowbird  13
House Finch 10
Purple Finch 1
American Goldfinch 425
Evening Grosbeak 8
House Sparrow 23

Friday, December 20, 2013

Snowy Owl Camouflage

With hundreds of sightings of these magnificent birds throughout the northeast this season, you might be wondering, "why haven't I seen a Snowy Owl yet?"  That's exactly what I was thinking about as I spent hours upon hours searching for these visitors from the north.  After finally seeing my first of the year near the Berlin Airport, I understood why.

It may seem counter-intuitive that such a large, conspicuous bird could be hard to find, but the picture below illustrates well how they can blend into their winter surroundings.  Can you see the Snowy Owl?

Can you spot the Snowy Owl in this photo?
Watch the video below to reveal it's location.

If you're having trouble spotting it, so to did a group of NBNC staffers, all experienced birder watchers.  And the owl was only about 100 feet from us!  If you look carefully in the above image, you can actually see one of it's eyes, staring squintily back at you.  It wasn't until the bird moved that it's location became clear.  Check it out in the video below:

While they often perch in conspicuous locations such as rooftops, telephone poles, fence posts, and hay bails, they can disappear in an instant into a snowy field.  So to all you folks out there still waiting for your first Snowy Owl of the season, be persistent... it may be right under your nose!

p.s.  After it flew, we got a better look at the bird out in the open.  A gorgeous sight to behold!

Friday, December 6, 2013

7 Reasons to Christmas Bird Count

Hundreds of birders around Vermont are gearing up for this year’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC).  They’ll face cold and snow to search for birds in backyards, on roadsides… places they might not normally go “birding.”  At the end of the day, they will have seen more chickadees than they can remember, leaving not a single bird un-counted.  But why?

Here are 7 reasons so many people participate in the CBC and reasons why you should join your local Christmas Bird Count this year:
  1. Birding is fun – Most participants of the CBC enjoy watching birds.  And that is what the CBC is all about!
  2. Furthering Conservation – Data collected through the CBC has been used in hundreds of research articles that have shed light on the abundance and distribution of winter birds, helping inform conservation decisions that help birds.
  3. Tradition – Now entering its 114th year, some have participated in the CBC for decades.  It has even become a tradition for some families, being passed down from one generation to the next!
  4. Discovering Something New – Because the CBC is a complete census, participants find themselves looking for birds in places they never ordinarily would and discovering new things about their community at the same time.
  5. Discovering Rare Birds – With the enormous amount of effort that goes into the CBC, unusual birds are found regularly, and this can be the most exciting part! Even if you don’t find something ulta-rare, the anticipation is excitement enough!
  6. Good Eats – After most CBC’s, there is a potluck dinner in which participant discuss the day’s birds over a delicious home-cooked dinner.  The potlucks alone are worth spending six hours in the cold!
  7. Making Friends – For many, the CBC is a social event and an opportunity to make new friends and catch up with old ones.  After a few years of participating, CBC’s begin to feel like a family reunion. 

What is your favorite reason for participating in the Christmas Bird Count?

Find out more info about the CBC and its history, and look below for how to find a count near you:

view a map of all the count circles
Jan. 1, 2014
Contact: Charlie Brown

Dec. 28, 2013
Contact: Kevin Hemeon

Dec. 21, 2013
Contact: Al Merritt

Dec. 15, 2013
Contact:  Shirley Johnson
Compiler: Eric Lazarus

Champlain Islands/St. Albans
Dec. 15, 2013
Contact: Liz Alton

East Franklin County
NEW! The count was a pilot area last year and  includes the towns of Enosburg Falls, Montgomery, and Richford.
Jan. 4, 2014
Contact: Eddy Edwards

Dec. 14, 2013
Contact: Mike Winslow

Jan. 1, 2014
Meet in front of Hopkins Center in Hanover, N.H. at 7am
Contact: Daniel Crook

Jan.  4, 2014
Contact: Paul Wieczoreck

Island Pond
Dex. 14, 2013
Contact: Jayson Benoit

Lamoille County
NEW! The count was a pilot area last year.
Dec. 29, 2013
Contact: Noel Dodge

Mad River Valley/Northfield
Dec. 16, 2013
Contact Pat Folsom

Dec. 15, 2013
Contact: Jim Andrews

Mt. Abraham
Dec. 14, 2013
Contact: Randy Durand

Dec. 14, 2013
Contact: Chip Darmstadt

Randolph Area
Dec. 14, 2013
Contact: Rick Enser

Dec. 28, 2013
Contact: Roy Pilcher

Saxton’s River
Dec. 14, 2013
Contact: Don Clark

Dec. 15, 2013
Contact: Hugh Putnam

Dec. 14, 2013
Contact: Ruth Stewart

Dec. 18, 2013
Contact: Sally Laughlin