|  Home  |   About us  |   Programs & Projects  |   Calendar  |   Birding  |   Blog  |   Get Involved  |

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Superbowl of Birding XI: RESULTS

Looking for Short-eared Owls at dusk
On January 25, for the sixth consecutive year, the North Branch Nature Center represented Vermont in the Superbowl of Birding! Our team, the Chocolate-headed Cowbirds (with sprinkles), scoured Essex County, MA, for every bird we could find.  A biting and blustery wind didn't slow us down!  Here are some of our highlights:

 - 4 Snowy Owls, including one owl dive-bombing another in flight!
 - Short-eared Owls hunting in the distance at dusk. 
 - A Red-headed Woodpecker in a residential area of Ipswich.
 - Pacific Loon off the coast at Plum Island.
 - A Eurasian Wigeon in Black Rock Creek at Salisbury Beach State Reservation.
 - Black Guillimot close to shore in Gloucester.
 - Calm weather at Andrew's Point, with Harlequin Ducks close to shore.

In the Superbowl of Birding, each species is assigned a point-value based on how easy or difficult it is to find.  Easy birds like chickadees are worth 1 point, and hard birds like Dovekie are worth 5.  Even some of the 1-point birds are absent from Vermont, so we enjoyed both the common birds as well as the rare.  Our total of 69 species and 128 points broke our previous record, setting a new personal best.  The complete checklist from the trip is shown below:

1 point (plain text)
2 points (bold)

Canada Goose Northern Gannet  NORTHERN FLICKER
Gadwall Great Cormorant Blue Jay
EURASIAN WIGEON Bald Eagle American Crow
American Black Duck COOPER'S HAWK  Horned Lark
Mallard Red-tailed Hawk Black-capped Chickadee
Greater Scaup  SANDERLING White-breasted Nuthatch
Common Eider Purple Sandpiper Carolina Wren
Harlequin Duck Ring-billed Gull American Robin
Surf Scoter Herring Gull Northern Mockingbird
White-winged Scoter Iceland Gull  European Starling
Long-tailed Duck Great Black-backed Gull SNOW BUNTING
Bufflehead RAZORBILL American Tree Sparrow
Common Goldeneye Black Guillemot SAVANNAH SPARROW
Hooded Merganser  Rock Pigeon Song Sparrow
Common Merganser Mourning Dove White-throated Sparrow
Red-breasted Merganser SNOWY OWL Dark-eyed Junco
Common Loon RED-BELLIED W..DPECKER American Goldfinch
Horned Grebe Downy Woodpecker House Sparrow

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Champlain Valley Birding: Trip Report

The group observes a Snowy Owl perched on a treetop
at the "Goose Viewing Area" at Dead Creek WMA

The weather was perfect for birding in the Champlain Valley today, January 18, with the water like glass, minimal heat distortion on the lake, and mild temperatures.  A group of 15 birders ventured out with the North Branch Nature Center to have fun, make friends, and see birds.  All three objectives were accomplished.  Here are the highlights:

The day began at Shelburne Bay, where a drake Canvasback has been hanging out for about a week.  This handsome duck is rare in Vermont, with only a handful of sightings in the state each year.  We trekked onward to Shelburne Point, where a nice assortment of waterfowl were congregated along the lakeshore.  Several Gadwall were a rare winter treat, as was a drake Ring-necked Duck.  Far offshore, a number of Red-breasted Mergansers were present.  On most days, they would have been hard to see, but the perfect conditions allowed us to see them well through spotting scopes.  

Snowy Owl 4/5 for the day
En route to our Charlotte Town Beach, we came across a flock of Eastern Bluebirds along Orchard Road.  A winter bluebird always warms the heart.  We also came across our third Red-bellied Woodpecker of the day at this location.  After arriving at the beach, a group of 4 Long-tailed Ducks were spotted far out on the lake.  A Common Loon was also seen, associating with a group of Common Goldeneye far offshore.

After a stop at the Old Brick Store in Charlotte, we were off to Addison County in search of Snowy Owls.  We were not disappointed!  A total of 5 Snowy Owls were seen throughout the afternoon.  We admired each, noticing their different plumages and behaviors.  Raptors abounded in the open landscapes of Addison, with Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, and even a few American Kestrels.  After moving from spot to spot, with another stop at the West Addison General Store, our final bird of the day was a Snowy Owl, seen right around sunset.  A full bird list is included below:

(note: all observations were posted to eBird)

Canada Goose
American Black Duck 
Ring-necked Duck 
Long-tailed Duck 
Common Goldeneye 
Common Merganser 
Red-breasted Merganser 
Common Loon 
Horned Grebe 
Cooper's Hawk 
Bald Eagle 
Red-tailed Hawk 
Rough-legged Hawk 
Ring-billed Gull 
Herring Gull 
Great Black-backed Gull 
Rock Pigeon 
Mourning Dove 
Snowy Owl 
Red-bellied Woodpecker 
Pileated Woodpecker 
American Kestrel 
Blue Jay 
American Crow 
Black-capped Chickadee 
Tufted Titmouse 
White-breasted Nuthatch 
Eastern Bluebird 
American Robin 
European Starling 
Cedar Waxwing 
Northern Cardinal 
American Goldfinch 
House Sparrow

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Learning Through Legos: The value of play for all ages

I was recently relaxing with a group of friends on a Sunday evening. The weather had us cooped up, huddled inside for warmth in the below-zero-temperatures. Another friend arrived, carrying a big plastic tub which he set down in the middle of the room. As the lid was removed and the Lego blocks were exposed, we went into a frenzy. Space was cleared immediately to make room for construction. Ideas were suggested, different building teams were established and we dug into our work. With the arrival of the Legos we were transformed - “adults” in our mid-twenties quickly became thoroughly engaged children like those in Forest School. 

While building, deconstructing and rebuilding our castle I was also observing myself and my friends. It isn’t often that a group our age has the opportunity to work on a project like this, and even less often that the only goal is fun. What stood out to me as I watched and participated was the intensity, the planning and the cooperation that erupted. These skills are key to active community involvement. The important role of play as an applicable learning experience was being illustrated right in front of my eyes and hands. 

There was a lot of planning - we talked and gathered pieces before snapping blocks together. The resulting communication and cooperation was natural, requiring no effort as it flowed from us into our work. We offered pieces to each other that we thought might be helpful. We mined the pieces left in the tub, looking for that one hinge piece needed by a friend. We were open to suggestions, fluid about our own visions and driven as a cohesive group. As construction drew to a close, and we added Lego people to staff the castle, we slowly stepped back to see what we had created.

Being so immersed in play reminded me of the Forest Schoolers and how they must feel when they delve into free-play. In late fall, a fun morning of stick-play by the barn evolved into building an entire make-believe house, with sticks laid on the ground to mark walls and rooms. The students worked through the complex social interactions, figuring out how to divide resources and space fairly. The skills being exercised in group-play are essential. This is how we learn to work together, to be part of a community. Play is how young children learn it, and how older, adult “children” practice it.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Students Welcome Snowy Owls to Vermont

Right before the end of the 2013 school year, students at Moretown Elementary School spent the day learning about Snowy Owls. The temperatures on this ECO day were well below zero so we spent our morning and afternoon sessions indoors celebrating Snowy Owls. An irruption of Snowy Owls
here in New England this winter helped inspire the days activities. 

The children love these magnificent birds and already knew quite a bit about them. Who hasn't heard of Harry Potter and his owl Hedwig? Our older students having been involved in ECO for 2 years have a lot of prior knowledge about birds and owls of Vermont. In ECO, this is what we do! We talk about animals, nature, and how animals survive here in Vermont. Children love talking about and learning about animals. They have a natural connection to and empathy for living things. Plus, how cool are Snowy Owls? Well, for these young children, very, very cool. A whole 2 and 1/2 hours of cool, focused learning.

Having to be flexible with weather conditions in Vermont and changing plans quickly, this is what we came up with for a morning of learning indoors.

Small Group Discussion and Writing 
We started with asking "I wonder" questions about Snowy Owls during morning meeting. After sharing questions and talking about how Snowy Owls are here in Vermont this winter (very exciting!) we split into small working groups with an adult to answer some of our questions. With field guides and plenty of books on hand we decided to write letters to the owls welcoming them to Vermont! What would our arctic guests need to know?

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

Owl Pellets! 
Of course, give an elementary school teacher a "materials challenge" and they come up with something every time! Pam Dow just happened to have a box of owl pellets handy. We set them up on trays under the ELMO and the children were instant scientists. What do owls eat? These children found out very quickly. The big question was whether these were actually Snowy Owl pellets. That question alone created a cascade of more questions on the discoveries found in the pellets. How big are lemming bones? The pellets were magnified and projected up on the classroom wall for all to see. Yucky and AWESOME!


Crafting a Snowy Owl
What is a morning of learning without a messy craft? This was a simple and fun craft that really relies on fine motor skills. We had pine cones, stuffing, pipe cleaners, and google eyes. Voila! Instant Snowy Owl. Teachers helped with the hot glue gun for the eyes. The children loved the owls they created. Note to self: save all sizes of pine cones for future use!


 Look Closely, Listen, Relax, and Create 
Another learning station during our Snowy Owl celebration was an area set up where children could pour over books and pictures and then draw a picture of a Snowy Owl. We provided different mediums to draw with: black and white paper, craypas and pencils. During this time we also had a documentary by PBS called  Magic of the Snowy Owl playing on the wall in the classroom. You can find the 53 minute video here.

This was a very busy and productive ECO session for our friends at Moretown Elementary. We may have not been able to get outdoors, but the spirit of the Snowy Owl was very present in the classroom. What I loved most about this day with my colleagues was that there was very little direct instruction on the topic of Snowy Owls. The students asked their own questions and with plenty of resources, inquisitive minds and enthusiastic adults the learning was truly intrinsic. Guess who loves Snowy Owls? Children in Vermont!

Want to know more? Check out these links:
Arctic Wanderers - Snowy Owl Invasion 2013 (eBird)
Notes from a Snowy Owl Invasion (Audubon Magazine)
*Coming Soon* Students at East Montpelier become Snowy Owl activists!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A New Year’s Day Surprise: Prairie Falcon!

Vermont's 1st Prairie Falcon, photo by Tyler Pockette
View full size image here
On January 1, even the most prolific bird watcher’s year list resets to zero and thousands of birders rush outdoors, anxiously awaiting their first birds of the year.  With this huge influx of birders comes the discovery of unusual birds.  Last year, it was the discovery of a Pochard near the Champlain Bridge that caught everyone’s attention… 2014 will be remembered as the year that started with the Northeast’s first ever PrairieFalcon.

A group of three birders, including Tyler Pockette, Ted Murin, and Kaylee Pollander, were on Gage Road in Addison, a local hotspot for raptors.  While the group was observing a pair of Peregrine Falcons, Tyler spotted a bird he recognized from out west.  “I noticed this 3rd falcon flying over the Peregrine Falcons and immediately noticed the black axillaries. Familiar with Prairie Falcons from the southwest, I immediately knew what the bird was and did my best to document it.”

Tyler’s pictures successfully captured the distinguishing features of this rare visitor: the first ever confirmed sighting in the Northeast.  Especially noticeable in his photo are the dark axillaries (under the wings).  The range of the Prairie Falcon barely extends east of the Great Plains, where they nest on cliffs in open habitat such as grassland, shrub-steppe, and desert.  

Whether or not this bird will be re-located is a mystery, but with the incredible rarity of this discovery, there is no doubt that many will be spending the first few days of their new year searching for New England’s first ever Prairie Falcon.

One of the two Peregrine Falcons on Gage Road on January 1.
Larry took this photo a few hours before the Prairie Falcon was discovered