Monday, April 23, 2007
The Bicknell’s Thrush, a rare, secretive songbird of highland forests in northeastern North America, appears to be in decline in the Maritimes. Data from four years of surveys from Bird Studies Canada’s High Elevation Landbird Program (HELP) indicate that Bicknell’s Thrush are declining along routes in both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Up to 28 routes in the highlands of Cape Breton NS and 43 routes in the highlands of north-central and northwestern NB have been run by staff and volunteers using a consistent protocol since 2003. Recent analyses of HELP data conducted by the Canadian Wildlife Service have revealed annual declines of 7% in NB and 9% in NS. Declines remain apparent even within sub-regions of the two provinces; for example, Bicknell’s Thrush is declining on routes both inside and outside of Cape Breton Highlands National Park in NS.
Bird Studies Canada is currently working with a group of Canadian and U.S. partners to convene an International Bicknell’s Thrush Working Group to discuss these declines, which may be due to habitat change on their North American breeding grounds or on their wintering grounds in the Dominican Republic. BSC will continue to monitor Bicknell’s Thrush through the High Elevation Landbird Program, with field surveys taking place in June. To volunteer for a HELP survey route, or for more information, visit http://www.bsc-eoc.org/regional/acbithsurvey.html or contact Becky Whittam at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Exploring the Vernal Pool
Ahh, spring fever has set in. I heard my first peepers of the year yesterday and daffodils in bloom this morning. Fresh air is circulating through my house and my laundry is set on the line outside. It really is the little things in life that bring us joy. Perfect example, watching a child touch a frog for the first time and screeching with both excitement and fear.
Today we celebrated Earth Day at VINS, kicked off by a talk on Vermont's vernal pool specialists, frogs and salamanders that depend on temporary water bodies to breed. Conservation Biologist Steve Faccio told us about frogs with antifreeze (ever wonder how they survive the repetitive freezing and thawing in spring?) and salamanders that hunt from tunnel entrances made by small mammals. After all the fun facts we learned about conservation issues and how there is no legal protection over vernal pools like there is for permanent wetlands. As the kids were getting restless (even us big kids), we trotted on down to the vernal pool along the trail. To many people's surprise, wood frogs were calling. We took the net and buckets down and watched as they all scurried into the deeper water. We caught some green frogs, got some good looks at wood frogs, and even found one bullfrog! It was a fascinating trip. I can't wait until the first evening rain this week so I can go to one of Vermont's amphibian crossings and watch masses of them migrate across roads to breed in the local vernal pool.
Butterflies were the focus of the afternoon. The first butterflies are being reported in Vermont, although I seem to be among the few butterfly enthusiasts that attended today's Vermont Butterfly Summit that hasn't seen one this year (yet). It's the last year of the Vermont Butterfly Atlas and forty or so of us reforming birders rallied for the last big push. Kent McFarland and Bryan Pfeiffer shared results of the survey so far, gave pointers on how to identify tricky butterflies, reviewed the Sweet 16 list of priority butterflies to target for this year's season, and explained how our efforts will be used for conservation. Special note: if you live or play in the Northeast Kingdom, we need your help! We learned about butterflies that specialize in rare habitats, such as bogs, pitch pines, and floodplain forests. We heard about some species that are thought to live in Vermont but have never been documented (like the mystical Bog Elfin), while other species are more numerous than previously thought, such as the West Virginia White.
Of course, I can't help but mention that bird migration is also in full swing (sorry fellow butterfliers, I'm not fully reformed yet). First-of-the-year birds are showing up every day. This morning there were White-throated Sparrows in my yard, a Louisiana Waterthrush across the street, a snipe winnowing up the hill, and I can't forget to mention the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that watched us chase frogs in the vernal pool.
So, it's time for us budding naturalists to grab our nets, binoculars, field guides, notebooks, cameras, rubber boots, sun block, bug dope, hat.....er, just get outside and start exploring!Happy Earth Day,
Friday, April 20, 2007
Ruffed Grouse photo by Dave Herr
Vermont forests are slowly awakening with a chorus of bird sounds. Juncos are giving their bell-like trills, creepers circle the trees giving their melodic song, and phoebes are singing their name-sake, while chickadees give their own rendition. Soon the warblers and flycatchers will return and add their songs to fill in the missing notes. Underscoring it all is the low booming drum of the Ruffed Grouse.
Ruffed Grouse, or partridge as they are locally known, select logs or rocks slightly raised from the forest floor to advertise their presence to females and competing males. Contrary to popular belief, the drumming sound is not made by the wings beating the chest, but is actually made by the rushing of air filling the vacuum created by the fast beating of the wings. They are miniature sonic booms. Starting off slowly, grouse gradually increase the tempo and produce 50 beats in the 10 second-long drum.
Most people will admit that their heart has, on occasion, skipped a few beats as they flush a grouse trailside and it jets off through the trees. In the summer months you might even have been fortunate enough to witness their intense distraction display. The hen cowers down with feathers ruffled out and scurries back-and-forth across the ground while barking as her dozen chicks hide in the leaves and shrubs nearby.
While grouse have exceptional cryptic coloring to match leaf litter, they also have special adaptations for winter. In late September their feet begin to grow little tooth-like projections called pectinations that act like snowshoes. They also sometimes burrow into the snow to spend the night, similar to an igloo. Imagine being surprised by a bird exploding out of snow!
Vermonters also enjoy grouse at the dinner table. Hunting can be a controlling factor of bird populations, but this doesn’t appear to be true for Ruffed Grouse. Many people have studied grouse biology and local and regional populations seem to be regulated by aging and available habitat. In the northern part of their range, their population fluctuates with snowshoe hare abundance. When the hare population declines, large predators such as owls and Northern Goshawks look for a substitute food source and heavily prey upon grouse.
Ruffed Grouse drum throughout the year, but drumming peaks in late April-early May with another resurgence in October. Grouse are drumming across
With the retreat of ice across the state, wading and water birds are slowly returning. American Bitterns have been seen in Grand Isle and
Black Vultures, a southern vulture with a short, square tail, were seen taking advantage of the thermals in Williston on April 14 and in
Adding their voices to the forest chorus, the first Blue-headed Vireos were heard singing in Huntington and Warren on April 13, Ruby-crowned Kinglets in
You can explore all the birds reported last week in
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
There are more than 90,000 lighted communication towers across the country. Most of these use steady burning or slow pulsing lights to warn aircraft of their presence. These lights attract birds, particularly during bad weather during peak nighttime migration periods. The birds become disorientated by the lights and crash into the towers, their guy wires, and each other, or plummet to the ground in exhaustion.
Strobe lights are just as visible to aircraft, and science has repeatedly shown they are far less attractive to birds. By mandating the use of these strobe lights instead of slow pulsing or steady-burning lights, we can prevent these deaths.
Now the FCC, the agency that licenses towers, is considering a rule that will mandate strobes on all towers. They are seeking public comment on this proposal. This is your opportunity to let them know how important it is that they approve it.
Click Here to send in your comment today.
Deadline for comments is April 23!
A copy of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is available from the FCC here.
Friday, April 13, 2007
Stick your tongue out and say “ahhh”. If you were a woodpecker your tongue would be nearly two feet out of your mouth!
Bird tongues display an amazing array of adaptations. I first became aware of this while studying birds in the
How do they stick their tongue out so far? Our tongues are almost completely controlled by muscles. A bird’s tongue has small bones sheathed with tissue and muscle down the entire length. The small bones are collectively called the hyoid apparatus.
But not all woodpeckers have long barbed tongues. The yellow-bellied sapsucker has a relatively short tongue that has feather-like bristles on the tip. These help it lap sap via capillary action that oozes from small rows of holes they drill in tree bark.
The first yellow-bellied sapsucker of the season was observed in Huntington on April 6 and East Clarendon on April 7 and northern flickers were seen at Herrick’s cove and
Other Bird Sightings
Highlights this week include two black vultures near Burlington on April 8, a greater white-fronted goose near the Champlain Bridge on April 5, an Eurasian green-winged teal at Herrick's Cove on April 7, four redheads on April 3rd at the Champlain Bridge and two off Grand Isle on April 6, a tufted duck south of the Champlain Bridge on April 2, and two sandhill cranes in Bristol on April 5.
The first common loon of the season was seen at
In addition to the migrating species of waterfowl present in previous weeks, the first blue-winged teal were spotted at Dead Creek on April 8. On April 2nd two red-breasted mergansers were seen at the
Merlins were seen in Johnson on April 2nd and at Dead Creek on April 8.
Sparrows are trickling back into the region. A field sparrow was spotted at Dead Creek on April 8. The first swamp sparrow of the season was heard singing at Herrick's Cove on April 3 and the first savannah sparrow was seen in
You can explore all the birds reported last week in
Friday, April 06, 2007
Centuries ago, before bird migration was an accepted phenomenon, Europeans attempted to explain why some bird species disappeared for part of the year. Convenient myths were created and propagated; for example, some breeding birds were said to spend the winter hibernating in mud. Winter residents like the Barnacle Goose were never seen breeding, and how they reproduced was also a matter of speculation.
To explain the yearly disappearance of the geese, a species of barnacle that looks (with a little imagination) like a miniature version of the Barnacle Goose was implicated. Because these creatures were often attached to pieces of floating wood, they were thought to grow on trees. The barnacles were only seen in summer, when the geese were gone. The logical conclusion was that the geese hatched out of barnacles that hung from trees. The barnacle species is, of course, called the “Gooseneck Barnacle.”
In reality, the geese spend the summer breeding in the high Arctic, and winter in coastal Europe. This was bad news for Catholics, who had been able to enjoy eating goose during Lent because the barnacle geese had been classified as fish.
Today the Barnacle Goose still evokes lively discussion, although for different reasons. Last week a Barnacle Goose was spotted in Vernon with a flock of Canada Geese. Because this species is also raised domestically, birders are debating whether the goose is a true wild bird that has gone astray, or an escapee that followed the other geese. To most, the distinction may be academic and inconsequential. But to a Bird Records Committee, charged with verifying rare bird sightings for a state, the origin of a bird has implications for the official list of rare bird observations. Specifically, birds of domestic origin don’t count.
Another species eliciting discussion throughout the birding community this week is an unusual hawk in Westminster. Some claimed it was a Red-tailed Hawk, others pointed out important features that distinguished it as a Red-shouldered Hawk. Now the big guns are weighing in. David Sibley, author of Sibley’s Guide to Birds, suggested that it might be an extremely rare Red-shouldered Red-tailed hybrid.
Migrants continue to roll into and through Vermont, in what is an exciting time of year for birders. The complex display song of the American Woodcock and the eerie, winnowing of the Wilson’s Snipe are now being heard at dusk throughout much of the state. Barrow’s Goldeneye, Osprey, American kestrel, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Winter Wren are among the new arrivals. Thousands of Snow Geese continue to head north through the Champlain Valley, and rarities include a Greater White-fronted Goose in Springfield, a Tufted Duck at the Champlain Bridge, and a Fish Crow in Burlington.
Monday, April 02, 2007
The delicate, tinkling song of the brown creeper announces spring’s coming in
Although generally considered a year-round resident in
Brown creepers employ a unique habit of building hammock-like nests behind a peeling or loosened flap of bark on a large dead or dying tree. The nest base is constructed of twigs and bark strips layered together, adhered to the bark’s rough inner surface with insect cocoons and spider egg cases. The inner cup is lined with fine materials such as hair, grass, leaf fragments, lichens, and feathers. Nests are extremely difficult to find, their presence usually revealed only by the comings and goings of adults, both of which feed young. Despite their welcome early singing behavior, brown creepers typically commence nesting in May or early June.
Birding highlights of the past week featured waterfowl. Most remarkable was a well-documented barnacle goose at the Vernon Dam on March 25. This relative of the brant is a European visitor that occurs in eastern
Newly-arriving raptor migrants included northern harriers at Middlebury and Dead Creek and red-shouldered hawks in