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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.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Thanks for an amazing year!

Serving with the North Branch Nature Center as an AmeriCorps member has been an amazing experience. A year spent teaching and learning outdoors – what could be better? During quiet moments in the field, I often stopped to consider how lucky I was to pass a year in a beautiful place, with great people, doing fun and important work.
Lindsey leading the Fall Forest Preschoolers through the field 

           2013-2014 was the first year of my life spent so wholly outdoors and in one location. I felt connected to the field, forest, and river of NBNC in a unique way that allowed me to learn more from it. Seeing the landscape shift with the seasons seemed to put daily life in context.
Beautiful snowy field
Mary and our Spring Forest Preschool crew
            The incredible folks of North Branch Nature Center provided me with the support and knowledge I needed to grow as a teacher in my own right. Seeing these educators in action was inspiring. Always eager to share resources, tips or suggestions, these wonderful folks were open books of insight and experience to me. The little ones I spent my time with taught me a great deal, too! Through this lens, I was able to see the world in a new light – to slow down and investigate our world through play.
Forest School & their boats
On top of the education experience I gained, I was also exposed to so much naturalist knowledge. The wide range of topics covered by nature center staff is astounding! River ecology, mammal tracking, caterpillars, moths, wildcrafting, turtles, birds, bird banding, wildflowers, amphibians, crayfish, bees, medicinal herbs, fire tending… the list goes on. Participating in many events around the nature center (owl banding, the Superbowl of Birding, Birdfest and more) were great opportunities. I felt lucky to be surrounded by passionate people, so happy to share what they know about the natural world.

            To everyone in the North Branch Nature Center community (staff, volunteers, parents, students, campers): Thank you! Thank you for welcoming me onto the team, for sharing your wisdom, for letting me learn from your children. With expanding programs and many possibilities ahead for North Branch, it has been an exciting year to serve with such a unique and important organization.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Red Knot and the Feisty Dogs

Four shorebirds whiz by the shore of a
sandbar on Lake Champlain.
It was the first day of September, a federal holiday, and a picture-perfect summer afternoon; the waters of Lake Chaplain were packed with canoes, kayaks, jet skis, and sailboats. As my wife and I paddled through the shallow waters of the Winooski River delta, we saw two dogs racing energetically from one side of a large sandbar to the other. It wasn’t until peering through my binoculars that I saw why the dogs were so frantically running back and forth.

The dogs were chasing shorebirds. On August 27, local birders Jim Mead and Ted Murin discovered a Red Knot, a rare sighting in Vermont, on that same sandbar. Almost every day since its initial sighting, Jim had observed the Knot, sometimes with other shorebirds and sometimes all by itself. As we paddled closer, we could see that the Red Knot was one of four birds being pursued by the eager canines. Every time the birds would land, the dogs were close behind. Much to my surprise, the shorebirds were persistent and continued to return to the small sand island again and again, only to be chased off once more.

The shorebirds were relentlessly pursued by the
dogs until their owners intervened.
After several minutes of cat-and-mouse, or rather, dog-and-shorebird, it became clear that the birds were intent on staying put. We decided to paddle to the dog owners who were conversing in the shallow water as their dogs ‘got some exercise’. After greeting them as we paddled close by, I kindly told them, “I don’t know if you realize, but your dogs are chasing a group of shorebirds. These birds are actually quite rare around here and seem to really need this island. As much as the dogs chase them, the birds keep coming back”. I didn’t want to lecture these strangers, nor did I want to blame them or shame them. Without further elaboration, they replied, “we didn’t realize, we’ll call them in now,” and within minutes, they were back in their canoes, rowing away as their dogs swam alongside.

Red Knot (front), Semipalmated Sandpiper (middle),
and Sanderling (back) return to feeding after
the dogs and their owners disperse.
The shorebirds quickly resettled on the sandbar and began feeding. They allowed me to approach quite closely and photograph them without opposition. I later saw the same canoers on shore and one seemed eager to learn more about the birds. I explained to her how they breed in the arctic and can migrate thousands of miles over open ocean in a single flight. I showed her a picture of the Red Knot and told of how its population has declined drastically in recent years and could be in danger of extinction. She seemed intrigued and enlightened.

As is often the case, a little education went a long way towards changing a behavior for the benefit of wildlife. It can be hard to approach a stranger, especially when you anticipate how they will react. But it is always better to be actively engaged than to be a passive bystander, no matter what reaction you receive. And always remember, if you are kind, considerate, and open, you increase your chances of being heard. Whether you are asking a neighbor to keep their cats indoors or reminding a friend to recycle, these little things add up. Make sure you are doing your part for the environment by being part of the conversation. As lovers of nature, we have a lot to teach and society, as a whole, has a lot to learn.
Red Knot catches a worm. After nearly a week refueling in Vermont,
it still has over 5,000 miles left to go to reach its wintering grounds.