Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Superman may have claimed the “S”, but three bird species in North America boast a distinct “V” on their chests, and Vermont hosts one of them. The black V-shaped breastband of the Eastern Meadowlark stands out against its bright yellow throat, chest and belly, making it a relatively easy species to identify. Even as it flies away from you, the combination of its overall body size (slightly smaller than a robin) and its white outer tail feathers help distinguish this bird from other species.
The challenge of Eastern Meadowlarks in Vermont can be in finding them, if you don’t know where to look. They occupy large, open grasslands with diverse vegetation composition and structure. The Champlain Valley hosts the bulk of the state’s population, although based on recent data from the Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas, there are fewer now compared to 25 years ago.
Historically a bird of the prairie, Eastern Meadowlarks and other grassland birds adapted to some types of agricultural grasslands. Despite their flexibility, Eastern Meadowlark populations have been declining in recent decades throughout their range in the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. Major contributors to the declines include the loss of grassland habitat to crops and development, and frequent haying that destroys the nests they weave into the grassy vegetation on the ground. Central America and northern South America host separate, non-migratory populations.
As the name suggests, the Eastern Meadowlark has a counterpart. The range of the Western Meadowlark overlaps with that of the Eastern in the middle of the country. The two species look almost identical but can be distinguished by song. Although the two species will sometimes breed, the offspring have been proven sterile, putting to rest a long-held view by some that they were the same species. The third North American species that carries a black “V” is the Dickcissel, another grassland bird that lives in the prairie region of the Midwest.
Other birding highlights of the past week include Common Nighthawks seen in three different locations, although it is difficult to know yet whether they are passing through or here to attempt breeding. Not so common in Vermont, populations of this species have dramatically declined for unknown reasons. Other rare breeders found this week included a cerulean warbler building its nest in Colchester, clay-colored sparrows singing in South Burlington, a merlin pair in Greensboro, and a palm warbler nest with three eggs at Moose Bog, and a prairie warbler in Rutland.
White-winged crossbills have been seen on Vermont’s mountaintops this year, and VINS researchers obtained a rare breeding documentation when they captured a female on Stratton Mountain with a brood patch. Birds develop these vascularized, featherless regions on their bellies to keep eggs and young chicks warm.
- Rosalind Renfrew
Friday, May 18, 2007
Baltimore Oriole by Henry McLin
What do crafts, music, sports, and colonialism have in common? A bird of course! One boldly patterned bird that nests in Vermont knows how to weave, sings a rich song, is the namesake of a famous sports team, and is named after early colonists from Europe.
Baltimore Orioles have a striking orange and black plumage. When the first naturalists arrived in North America and discovered the bird, they likened the bird’s pattern to the first proprietors of Maryland, the Baltimores, whose colors were orange and black. This historical link is passed on to current-day pop culture as the mascot of the famed Baltimore Orioles baseball team.
Orioles, the birds, also have an artistic side. Birdwatchers marvel as they build intricately woven nests hanging from high tree branches. Orioles use a variety of long and thin materials to weave their dew-drop shaped nest, including grasses, bark, hair, wool, twine, and synthetic fibers. They prefer to nest in trees in the open, such as on the edge of a forest, along a waterway or hedgerow, and in urban parks, a recent adaptation. Females build the nest and incubate the eggs, while both parents raise the young, feeding them spiders, caterpillars, other insects, and fruit.
The sweet pleasant song of an oriole is highly variable and consists of single- and double-noted flutelike phrases separated by pauses. It is hard to believe that the harsh chatter call they give to predators, competing males, and intruding humans comes from the same bird. This aggressive call and accompanying striking behavior allows them to fend off would-be nest parasites, the brown-headed cowbird, with efficiency. If a cowbird does lay an egg in the nest, orioles are adept at removing them.
Baltimore Orioles return from their tropical wintering grounds in early May. Males have a black head, black wing with contrasting white wing bar, black back and tail, and flame-orange stomach. Females are drabber, with olive brown to black coloring on the upperparts and a lighter orange stomach. The smaller Orchard Oriole is also found in Vermont, though in much smaller numbers and only in the Champlain Valley. Adult males also have black upperparts, but have a dark chestnut stomach, which makes it easy to distinguish the two species. The first Baltimore Oriole of the season was sighted in North Ferrisburg on April 30 and the first Orchard Oriole on May 9 in Wallingford.
This week marks the height of migration in Vermont. Storm fronts in the early part of the week brought the latest wave of migrants. This week’s warbler arrivals included Mourning, Tennessee, Canada, Cape May, Cerulean, and Wilson’s. Philadelphia Vireo joined the chorus of Red-eyed, Blue-headed, and Yellow-throated. Olive-sided and Least Flycatchers are trickling in as are cuckoos, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and thrushes. A rare report of a Eurasian wigeon came from Salisbury Station on May 12.
You can explore all the birds reported last week in Vermont and add your own sightings at Vermont eBird.
Julie Hart, Conservation Biologist
Friday, May 11, 2007
Palm warblers have been migrating through on their way northward over the past several weeks. The rusty-capped palm warbler is easily recognized by the tail-wagging habit that shows off its yellow undertail. But some birders have spied something different about some of them this spring.
The palm warbler has two different forms easily identified while birding. Those that breed in the western part of the breeding range are duller, and have whitish bellies. Those breeding in the eastern part of the range are entirely yellow underneath. The two forms inhabit separate breeding grounds but share some of the same wintering grounds. The western nests roughly west of Ottawa and winters along the southeastern coast of the United States and in the West Indies while the yellow palm warbler nests east of Ottawa and winters primarily along the Gulf Coast.
Yellow palm warbler migrates slightly earlier than the western during spring and slightly later in the fall. Previous studies have found that few western palm warblers migrate through New England in the spring, instead traveling up the Mississippi valley. It is considered a rare migrant east of the Appalachians. But several Vermont birders this spring have noted otherwise.
Several weeks ago Hector Galbraith from Dummerston found 18 palms along the Connecticut River in the Hinsdale, NH area, but only 1% were western. But this week Taj Schottland from Putney noted good numbers of palm warblers at Herrick’s Cove in Rockingham. Of the 25 he observed, nearly 40% were western.
Have migration patterns changed? Was this just a one time anomaly? We don’t know, but sharp observations by birders combined with a data collecting tool like Vermont eBird can help unravel mysteries like these.
Rare bird highlights this past week had a European flavor. A black-tailed godwit, a first for Vermont, was discovered in West Salisbury by some Mad River birders. And four Eurasian widgeons were found in Ferrisburg.
New migrants are arriving daily with warm south winds. Ruby-throated hummingbirds began to show at feeders across the state on May 5. Several flycatcher species made their first appearance: yellow-bellied flycatcher at Hyde Park on May 6, least flycatcher returned to Hartland, Norwich and Middlebury on May 5, and great crested flycatcher at Dead Creek on May 6.
First sightings of warblers included: black-throated blue warbler on May 1, Nashville warbler on May 4, ovenbird, northern parula, American redstart, common yellowthroat, blackburnian, and prairie warblers on May 5.
You can explore all the birds reported in Vermont and add your own sightings at Vermont eBird.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
A member of the shorebird family, Wilson’s Snipe are relatively widespread in Vermont and New Hampshire, nesting in a variety of wet open habitats, including bogs, fens, sedge meadows, wet fields, and alder and willow swamps. Somewhat resembling the American Woodcock, to which they are closely related, Snipe are less chunky and more streaked. Like the woodcock, however, snipe look as if they could have been put together by committee – with a plump body, large eyes set far back and high on their small head (enabling them to see both forward and behind), short legs and tail, and a 3-inch long flexible bill that is used effectively to probe soft soils for worms, snails, insect larvae and other animal foods.
After wintering in the southern
A favorite spring activity for me is to lie on my back in the lawn and follow our local snipe with binoculars as he circles our property and the adjacent hayfield announcing his territory. If the angle is right, as the bird begins to accelerate into his dive, I can clearly see him spread apart his short tail feathers a moment or two before the sound reaches my ears. The outer tail feathers on each side are greatly modified to produce the sound and are thin and curved.
Wilson’s Snipe was recently recognized as a different species from the Common Snipe of Eurasia. The two snipes look extremely similar, but differ in the shape, patterning, and usually the number of tail feathers. Wilson’s Snipe typically has 16 tail feathers, whereas the Common Snipe has 14. These numbers vary, however, and a Common Snipe may have from 12 to 18 tail feathers.
New birds are arriving nearly every day this time of year, and a few highlights of the past week include a Black-tailed Godwit in Salisbury that several excited birders were lucky enough to see before it moved on; the first report of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds from Sunderland; and a several warblers including Black-and-White, Black-throated Green, Pine, and Yellow-rumped. You can explore all the birds reported in
The Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS) is a membership-based organization dedicated to protecting our natural heritage through education and research, locally and internationally. Visit VINS on the Web at www.vinsweb.org.
Tuesday, May 01, 2007
Louisiana Waterthrush by Mike McDowell
Few bird songs herald spring’s arrival as do the sweetly ringing tones of
This early-breeding species places its nests in unusual locations for a songbird, usually in a small hollow or cavity on a stream bank, under a fallen log, or entwined within the roots of an upturned tree. Nests in
In addition to the spring’s first reported Louisiana Waterthrush from Hartland on April 22, other birding highlights of the past week included a rare Great Cormorant along the Connecticut River near the Vernon dam on the 21st, and two Black Vultures soaring over Vernon on the 17th. Common Loons were observed on six different water bodies statewide, and a Horned Grebe was seen on Lake Champlain in