Saturday, September 27, 2008

Watching Hawks on Putney Mountain

The Putney Mountain Hawk Watch is a relatively small hawk watch site, as hawk watch sites go. The combination of ridge and elevation help to bring migrating hawks over the watch site at a low enough elevation that they can be seen. A short walk (15 to 20 minutes) makes it easily accessible to many hawk watchers.

New England hawk watch sites, like Putney Mountain, routinely produce Broad-winged Hawks counts of several thousand during the peak migration in mid-September. Even so, around New England there are several places where mountain tops provide better geological assistance to migrating hawks; the Broad-winged count from these sites usually is much greater that what is reported from Putney Mountain.

As the Broad-winged Hawks proceed from their breeding grounds in Canada and the eastern United States southward, they become concentrated along flightways (the Appalachians and the Mississippi Valley). The further south a hawk watch site is located, the greater the numbers are likely to be - from a few thousand Broad-wings in New England to several tens of thousands. This funneling peaks in the United States near Corpus Christi, Texas, where half a million Broad-winged Hawks are counted in late September.

Putney Mountain is one of the few full-time hawk watch sites in New England, and the only one in Vermont. During September and October at least one watcher is on the ridge every day except when the weather is bad. Hawks migrate during the warm part of the day, so the hours of coverage tend to compress as the season progresses. But in September, coverage often begins by 8:00am and often continues until 4:30 or 5:00pm.

On Putney Mountain, it is all done by volunteers - by people with an odd assortment of backgrounds who are united by a common fascination with birds of prey, with the beauty and power of their flight, and the challenge of distinguishing the birds as they pass overhead. One person volunteers to cover a day of the week, but most days there are several people present and helping to spot and name the birds.

Most of the time, the hawk watchers on Putney Mountain are a friendly group of people who are happy to talk about hawks with anyone who passes by. That is not always the case. We often hear visitors to Putney Mountain talk about the aloofness of hawk watchers at some other sites. (“Aloofness” is my kindly synonym for some much less complimentary adjectives often used.)

In our world of instant messaging, sound bites, and constant contact, hawk watching is an unusual passtime and hobby. It often involves staring through binoculars at the sky for hours, looking for a tiny dark speck that is a hawk. Often when a hawk appears, it disappears; in a few seconds it has come and gone.

“What was that?” a visitor asks.

“Adult Sharp-shinned Hawk - probably a female,” a hawk watcher may reply.

“How do you know?”

In that question, is the attraction of hawk watching. How does a hawk watcher know? It has to do with such things as profile, body and wing shape, wing beat, flight pattern, and attitude. (Sharp-shinned Hawks and the Merlin, a medium-sized falcon, have “attitudes.”) Help can come from some good guides that focus on hawks in flight, but experience is the final arbiter that enables a watcher to say confidently that a distant bird, gliding steadily on “m” shaped wings is an Osprey, or that the delicate wisp on pointed wings being tossed about in the wind is a kestrel. Experience comes with patience. Admittedly, it also means having the time - being retired, self-employed, or otherwise having flexible schedules all help. (Occasionally on Putney Mountain there are enthusiastic young eyes that would put in the time if it weren’t for professors that take attendance or employers that demand their presence.)

So how has this year been on Putney Mountain? Early September was difficult. Long hours in the bright, hot sun produced few birds. It took almost week to count the first hundred migrating hawks, and another week to scrape over the thousand mark. Mid-September (10th to 20th) is the time for the big Broad-winged Hawk movement. Halfway through the peak period, it still hadn’t happened, and some were beginning to worry that it would not happen this year. There had been no strong weather patterns that help concentrate the broadies along the ridge, and no strong weather patterns were predicted.

September 15 was a pretty good day, but the strong winds dispersed the thermals on which the Broad-winged Hawks depend for lift. A couple hundred broadies were counted, but the highlight of the day was the variety: nine species of hawks were migrating, and three more resident species were observed.

The next day, Broad-winged Hawks began flying about 9:15. The numbers were modest. One here, two there. A few minutes later, four passed over. Hawk counts are done in one hour segments. During the 10 o’clock hour, distant broadies were counted as they rose out of the Connecticut River Valley - over 200. The number of hawk watchers climbed during the morning; by the 11 o’clock hour there were ten watchers scanning in all directions, looking for Broad-wings as they streamed from one thermal to the next, or as they rode the rising warm air of a thermal close to, or above, the ridge. The hour produced over 500 hundred birds.

Often a Broad-winged flight peaks during the hour around Noon, then begins to taper off or even come to a virtual end. But on this day the 12 o’clock hour produced 40 here, 30 there, another 20 in the valley, an additional 35 overhead, and by the end of the hour the count was over 600 for the noon hour. The 1 o’clock hour finally seemed to bring a tapering, until birds again rose out of the river valley. Over the ridge just south of the watch site, they kettled up, a swirl of birds rising in two masses - 70 birds in the higher group, 60 in the lower group. The count for the 1 o’clock hour broke 500.

Finally in the mid-afternoon the Broad-winged Hawk flight started to ease off, but the modest numbers continued to add up and the hawk watchers began to realize that this was going to be the best day on Putney Mountain - ever. When the day finally ended in the late afternoon, the count included one harrier, one Red-shouldered Hawk, 2 Bald Eagles, 2 kestrels, 14 Osprey, 42 Sharp-shinned Hawks, and 1821 Broad-winged Hawks - a total of 1885.

By everyone’s definition, it was a day of good hawk watching.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Songbirds on Putney Mountain

In addition to some good hawk watching on Putney Mountain, the songbird watching has also been very good. On a recent day I listed about 30 songbirds, some of which even cooperated slightly and allowed me to get some pictures, such as this Black-throated Green Warbler.

Eastern Towhees were hard to confirm as a breeding species in our area, but they do breed in the clearing on the Putney ridge and have been calling throughout the day during September. They stay hidden in the thick brush; pishing gets them riled up, but their appearances are brief. This young bird (or molting female) was feeding on buckthorn berries and gave me a fleeting view.
Yellow-rumped Warblers are abundant, feeding on the many berries, and flycatching on the insect swarms.
Likewise the Cedar Waxwings are abundant, and seem to be limiting their diet entirely to the flying insect swarms.
The chickadees, of course, are common year-round residents, but I never tire of their cheerful calls, and this one posed very nicely for me.

Good Birding!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Golden Eagle on Putney Mountain

Putney Mountain Hawk Watch has been relatively quiet in terms of number, but exciting in terms of birds. A Golden Eagle passed over the watch site on Sunday and Monday, both days around 4pm.

Today there were 2 Golden Eagles, both sub adults, seen on either side of 1pm. Both were relatively low and provided good views.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Time to Go - Regardless

During the second week of August, it was time to go. Regardless.

When we lived in Pennsylvania, the House Wrens arrived during the last week of April. Their bubbly, unending song began before first light and ended after last light. Six wren houses were scattered around the yard, and they used them all. Some only had a few sticks in them, but at least two, sometimes three, were crammed tight with sticks, except for the small cup that formed the nest.

They seemed to choose the box immediately outside our bedroom window for their first nest, which put their song very close to us for the first couple of months. Wrens volubly proclaim their every movement. And then the first nest would be silent. The young fledged and disappeared into the shrubbery and moved off toward denser habitat than that provided by the yard.

The activity shifted toward a second box, as did the voluble song. The second clutch of eggs had been laid even before the first brood had fledged, the female incubating the former, the male feeding the latter.

Many summers this scenario occurred a third time. This time the nest box was in the cherry tree at the side of the house, near the drive. The activity was in full gear in late July and early August, the wren singing before every entry into the box, and again with every departure, and often from somewhere in the yard as he foraged for the young in the nest.

Then during the second week of August, it was quiet. One day, I would be aware that the background noise of the summer was gone. Most years I could tell you the date when they first arrived in April, because I recorded such arrivals. But departures are more difficult to record. Unless you take attendance every day, you are not aware of an absence. You don’t write down last observations, because you’re never sure they are the last. One day I realized that the wrens were gone. The realization came during the second week of August. The wrens had left. I would not hear them again until the following April.

Sometime after the wrens had departed, I gathered the wren boxes from around the yard, and cleaned them out before bringing them in for the winter. It was always the box from the cherry tree, the one that the wrens had been using just before they were suddenly no longer there. One year as I pulled out the dense stick nest, I found five unhatched eggs. Another year, I found four hatchlings and an unhatched egg. Most often I found four to six nestlings, perhaps half way to fledgling status. None were alive.

The nest had been abandoned and the eggs or hatchlings or nestlings were left to die. The internal clock of the wrens told them it was time to go. Regardless. Migration must begin. The wrens departed. For three and a half months, parental activity had been frenetic. The instinct to breed and raise young drove their every waking moment. Occasionally they must have consumed some insect or grub of their own, but these were quick bites squeezed in among the hundreds of trips they made to feed first one brood, then a second brood, then a third.

And then a second instinct took control, a more primal instinct than the parental one. Individual survival trumped the survival of their offspring. It was time to go, and they went. Quietly they headed to the thickets and woods, in a general southerly direction. They bulked up, adding fat for their long journey. The young in the nest were left to die.

Nature is a harsh odds maker, and it plays the odds. The odds of any fledgling bird surviving to the next year and being able to breed are long. Some estimate the odds to be, at best, one in five. The odds of an adult bird who has bred this summer surviving to breed again next summer are better. One in two is often suggested, sometimes a little better. The purpose for any individual is to pass along its genes. And that means playing the odds. Small parent birds expend tremendous energy and effort to raise their young, but rarely do they deliberately endanger themselves in the process. To do so would mean an end to their genetic line - a dead end.

Small birds defend their nests against predators such as larger birds, or snakes. But they don’t sacrifice themselves; that would be a literal dead end for themselves and their offspring. The young they raise may not survive, but if the adults survive they may have another opportunity to breed in the future.

I have used the House Wren as an illustration and example. There are lots of exceptions to the generalizations I have drawn from the wrens. There are birds that stay together in family groups throughout the year. There are young that stay with parents as helper birds during the next breeding season. But for most small birds, there is a harsh limit to parental care. When the limit is reached, the parents focus their energy only on their own survival.

We often romanticize and sentimentalize nature. We are entertained, amused, and delighted by the birds which flock to our feeders, by their cuteness, vivacity, acrobatics, and antics. Sometimes we are upset when some seem aggressive, act like bullies, seem voraciously greedy. We scarcely recognize that none of them are influenced by human values.

I watch harried parent birds feeding their young. The young flutter and call and beg, and chase after their parents to be fed. I smile and think about how glad I am that my children are raised, and feel a moment of sympathy for those parent birds. But then I watch more closely, and I see that the parents are leading their young to food, showing them where to find food. Often the young birds that are slow to learn are driven away by their parents. Dependency by the young must come to an end; they must learn to survive on their own, for their sake, and their parents’ sake. A point comes when the parent must turn to its own survival and let whatever happens to its young, happen.

I felt a poignancy and sadness whenever I cleaned one of those wren houses and found a nest of dead babies. But then I reminded myself that even if those young had fledged, most would not have survived when finally left on their own. For the parents birds, it was time to head south, even though there were young still in the nest. Time to go. Regardless.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Putney Mountain Hawk Watch

Putney Mountain Hawk Watch is a small site in Vermont. In September & October, volunteers are on the ridge every day except when the weather shuts things down. September started very slowly, but this week - somewhat as anticipated - the flight of Broad-winged Hawks finally took off.

With a NW wind and brisk temperatures on Monday, 292 birds were counted (229 BWHA). Nine raptors were counted (peregrine, merlin, kestrel, cooper's, sharpie, harrier, osprey, eagle, broadies) plus three additional non-migrants (red-tail, goshawk, and TV)

Then came Tuesday. Calm winds, variable clouds through the day, and enough sunshine to create thermals. The flight started about 9:15, and then just continued. By the end of the day, the count was 1882, with 1821 BWHA - the best day for Putney Mountain EVER!! A mid-afternoon kettle had 130 birds, one of several large kettles during the day.

Wednesday slowed down, but was still an excellent day for Putney Mountain with 727 broad-wings and a total of 765 raptors - an excellent count considering that it was a brutally, clear blue sky, and the birds were often flying very high - barely within binocular range.

Here's a photographic sample of the last couple of days (mostly Wed, when I did not have to keep the count tally and had time to take some pics).

Adult Broad-winged Hawk.

Part of one of Wednesday's relatively low elevation BW kettles.

Adult Bald Eagle - 10 on Mon., Tues & Wed - 29 for the season.

Young Red-tailed Hawk hunting over the West River Valley, considered a resident bird. We don't usually begin counting RTs until October, though they are seen regularly in Sep. During Sep they are wandering north and south, clearly not migrating.

In the lulls between birds (not many lulls on Tuesday), other things are also noted.

An annual list of other birds is maintained. Cedar Waxwings spend most of the day flycatching from tree tops. Towhees are calling in the brush most days. Tues had a warbler/songbird fall-out.

Monarch butterflies are counted by one of the watchers every year. Their numbers seem to correlate with the BW flight. They don't often come down and linger, but this Question Mark did.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Bird That Dances on Water

Bird watching stimulates many different reactions within me. A brilliantly colored bird, like an oriole might stimulate a “wow.” Amusement comes from watching fledglings fluttering their wings and begging food, or ravens playing on the wind, or nuthatches just being nuthatches. There is drama when a hawk stoops, and a gasp of surprise when a grouse or woodcock suddenly flushes - pleasure when an unexpected bird appears - concern when the temperatures plunge and the birds hurry to and fro from the feeders for energy to fight the cold.

Often I am mesmerized by the birds, but seldom am I so delightfully mesmerized as I was when I watched birds dancing on water. Far from land, where sky and ocean mingled in shifting blues and grays, small dark birds followed the wake of our boat. Swallow-like, they dipped to the water’s surface. Their feet pattered. Beaks dipped to scoop some morsel, wings lifted them, then they dipped again. With long, stick-like legs, they danced along the water, webbed feet barely touching the surface, skipping and prancing with a lightness and grace that would be the envy of a prima ballerina. As they neared the stern, they lifted easily into the air, circled widely, and again dipped to forage what the wake had stirred.

Wilson’s Storm-Petrel is common in New England waters during the summer. Whenever I have taken a ferry or whale watch that has sailed ten or more miles from the coast, I have seen this small seabird, usually one or two, typically resting on the water, or taking flight at the approach of the boat. But on this occasion in late August, ten to fifteen birds followed the boat, dipping and tip-toeing and dancing along the water, and I was enraptured as I watched them.

There are two storm-petrels which are common in the North Atlantic: Leach’s and Wilson’s. Leach’s Storm-Petrel summers in the North Atlantic, nesting on islands. A few years ago I accompanied an ornithologist to Kent Island, near Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy, where an estimated 20,000 pairs nest in underground burrows, raising one chick a year.

Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, by contrast, winters in the North Atlantic during our summer. When our weather turns it migrates south; when it is summer in Antarctica and the South Atlantic, it nests in colonies on islands and remote land masses.

The wintering Wilson’s Storm-Petrels danced along the water’s surface with agility and delicacy, somewhat contrary to what their name might imply. “Petrel” may mean “Little Peter.” The name is an allusion to Peter’s tentativeness about walking on the water of Lake Galilee when Jesus called Peter to come to him. When landing on water, petrels dangle their feet and appear hesitant about alighting - seemingly, like Peter, unsure whether they might sink to the bottom. At least, this was the origin put forth by the English buccaneer and navigator, Dampier, also known for having rescued Robinson Crusoe (nee Alexander Selkirk) on a voyage which netted him a huge fortune. My somewhat more staid English resource for bird names says that “petrel” comes from “pitterel,” inspired by the jingle “pitter-patter,” and is an allusion to the birds tapping the water with their feet as they skim the surface.

So “petrel” derives from a biblical allusion or the refrain of a sea chantey sung by bored sailors. Take your pick.

Storm-petrels are seabirds in the Family Hydrobatidae. They are small dark birds, distinguishable by naturalists, but looking alike to the common sailor concerned mainly to reach the next port safely. Often when these birds were seen on the open sea, their presence presaged a storm, which led the sailors to call these small dark birds “storm-petrels.” The truth behind the sailors’ name is that storm-petrels are more active just before storms and seem to delight in stormy weather. A group of petrels sitting quietly on the water is said to be a sign of calm weather, which it often is ... at that moment.

Storm-petrels also have one of the most unusual folk names I have encountered: “Mother Carey’s Chicken.” The origin is a mystery, but somehow related to the sea. Mother Carey is only mentioned in connection with storm-petrels. It has been suggested that Mother Carey was some unknown hag, that she is the aunt of Davy Jones, or that she is a witch of the sea accompanied by imps in the form of the little black birds. In sharp contrast, it has also been suggested that Mother Carey derives from Italian madre cara, meaning “dear mother,” a title for the Virgin Mary. Sailors of southern Europe prayed to the “dear mother” when the gales began to blow. No great linguists, the English sailors rendered it as “Mother Carey.”

The storm-petrel which delighted me as it danced on the water is named in honor of Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology. Now overshadowed in the popular memory by John James Audubon, Wilson has been described as a great ornithologist with an artistic talent, while Audubon was a great artist with a talent for ornithology. Wilson recognized that his storm-petrel did not breed in the North Atlantic and speculated that perhaps it bred in the Bermuda and Bahama Islands. Audubon, on the other hand, confused Wilson’s Storm-Petrel with Leach’s Storm Petrel and confidently asserted that the Wilson’s breeds on small islands south of Nova Scotia - the breeding territory of the Leach’s.

Audubon may not have known the difference between Wilson’s and Leach’s Storm-Petrel, but his painting of the Wilson’s is delightful.

Wilson’s Storm-Petrel is a small bird. Its body is just over seven inches; its wingspan is about eighteen inches. Body size and wingspan are about the same as that of a Purple Martin, our largest swallow. The storm-petrels are often called sea swallows. Even as I was charmed watching them dance on the water, I had an “ah-ah” experience as I felt the swallow-like flight in their wingbeat and glide.

Swallows feed on the wing, swooping and swirling to capture flying insects. There are no insects over the ocean. (The pelagic birding trip I was on provided a whole day of summer birding without a single mosquito bite.)

But the flight of the storm-petrels is only superficially swallow-like. What distinguishes the Wilson’s Storm-Petrel is not its flight but the way it feeds - its foot-pattering action while hovering on wings and grabbing nourishment from the surface. All of the storm-petrels do this foot-pattering, but the Wilson’s does it more often. It is the bird that dances on water.

Good birding.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Birding the Deep Blue Sea

See "Note on Photos" at end.

On a Saturday in late August, I spent a day with seventy-five people on a sport fishing boat which sailed from Hyannis, Massachusetts. There was hardly a fishing pole to be seen. Unlike many of the vacationers I saw back on the streets of that Cape Cod resort town, the people I was with were not glamorous or stylish, though there was a similarity to their fashion.

Here’s the fashion of most of those people: Take a Vermonter in working attire with lots of earth tones and subdued colors, and some frayed cuffs and worn collars. Add to this a ball cap with some sort of bird or conservation related logo. And most important of all, around the neck is a pair of high-end, high quality binoculars.

I give you this description of the people on that boat because it defines what they are: birders. And the seriousness and intensity of their birding will become apparent as I continue.

I was on a pelagic birding trip. “Pe-LAH-gic” - of or pertaining to the sea - conducting operations upon the open sea. We were in quest of sea birds which can rarely, if ever, be seen from the shore.

The boat had been chartered for the day by the Brookline Bird Club, one of the oldest and most venerable bird clubs in the country. Founded in 1913 by bird enthusiasts in Brookline, Massachusetts, the club today has over 1100 members, most from the Boston area and eastern Massachusetts.

Pelagic birds (sea birds) spend their lives on or over the open waters, often far from the sight of any land. They come ashore only to nest and raise their young; those nest sites are often remote islands or in extreme latitudes. But, if these pelagic birds are seen off the coastal waters of North America, a birder can make another check mark (a tick) on his or her North American life list. If they are seen off the coastal waters of a particular state, such as Massachusetts, they can be ticked on that state’s life list. Some birders are very avid about adding new ticks to their multiple life lists.

Whale watching excursions from many New England harbors will often get far enough off shore to produce pelagic bird sightings. The ferry between Maine and Nova Scotia can be an even better venue for sea birds. Occasionally bird groups do short day trips (four to eight hours) off the New England coast specifically in search of these birds.

A few years ago the Brookline Bird Club chartered a longer trip that produced such exciting results that they now do one a month during June, July, and August. The trips have come to be called “extreme pelagic trips” which go to the “last frontier of New England ornithology.” That sounds like overstatement, hype, and hyperbole. And it may be - but not entirely.

I registered for the trip in late March which made me one of the earlier registrants. The boat is boarded in the order in which one registers, so I was one of the early boarders. That meant that I could claim one of the thirty-nine berths on board. Boarder number forty might not be so lucky. Boarding began at 3:30am, about two and a half hours before sunrise and before one could see any birds. By claiming a berth, I increased the possibility that I would get a couple hours of sleep. To my relief, I did.

I did not reclaim the berth in the evening. I was staying in Hyannis. Many on the boat were going home and faced drives of two or more hours. They needed a place to sleep. We were sceduled to return to port at 9:00pm. It was 10:30pm when we docked.

The boat went where almost no nature related sea trips go - to the edge of the continental shelf, over a hundred miles from the coast. The waters of the continental shelf are relatively shallow (a few hundred feet) and cool (in the 50 degree range). When we crossed the edge of the continental shelf we were in water that was six to eight thousand feet deep and warm; on this day the temperature in the Gulf Stream which flows north along the continental shelf was 74.5 degrees.

With the change in water temperature comes a change in the oceanic fauna, including, potentially, the bird life on and above these warm waters. For example, off the warm coastal waters of North Carolina, a birder can expect to see the Audubon’s Shearwater. A birder would not expect to see it over the cold waters of the Bay of Fundy or the Georgian banks; the range maps in the bird guides only bring it occasionally to the southern New England coast.

The life and habits of many seabirds are very poorly known. Once they leave their breeding ground, they wander the vast oceans where there are few people and even fewer naturalists. The oceans are unknown frontiers when it comes to bird life. New discoveries await. In 2006, the New Zealand Storm-Petrel, not seen for a hundred years, was “discovered.” Early this year, Beck’s Petrel, not seen for eighty years and thought extinct, was reported in Papua, New Guinea.

Closer to home, the “extreme pelagic” trips by Brookline Bird Club have shown that the range of Audubon’s Shearwater extends much further north than previously thought. In the warm waters beyond the continental shelf, we saw this small shearwater skimming along the water’s surface with fast wingbeats and short glides. It was a new tick for me.

Previous trips by the BBC have turned up other rarities, some subspecies of common New England pelagic birds, and at least one first ever sighting. The dates and locations are carefully noted on an ocean chart; if these trips continue, they will gradually add to the understanding of seabird life off the New England coast.

The hard work on a pelagic trip such as this one was done by the spotters, the three exceptionally adept birders who continuously scanned the water with their binoculars looking for birds. They were equipped with headsets and microphones, quickly passing along a sighting to the other spotters, one of whom relayed the information over the boat’s public address system: “Small shearwater at 3 o’clock.” “Jaeger low at 12 o’clock.” There may be scientific value which comes from these trips, but the trips are being paid for by birders who want to see birds they can’t see while standing on shore.

So how did this trip do? Frankly, not very well. There were not large numbers of seabirds and there were no real rarities. On the long trip back to port, I could tell that some were disappointed. But birders know that there are no guarantees. For whatever reason, this trip did not cross paths with very many species or large numbers.

I wasn’t disappointed, however, and I am looking forward to next summer when I hope to do another of these trips. The highlight of the day, for me, was seeing one of the smallest sea birds dance on the water. Come back next week and I’ll tell you about it.

Good birding!

Note on Photos: I was primed to take 'great' photos of the seabirds, only to discover when three hours from shore that I had left my memory card in the card reader back home. When I reduced the resolution, I had room in internal memory for 30 pictures. So I missed a lot of opportunities, and the few photos I did get are not up to my usual expectation. I guess I'll just have to go again next year.

The Greater Shearwater was taken last summer on a whale watch.


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