Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ravensnest Update

I checked Ravensnest midday today. On my previous visit, parents were off foraging and the chicks were sleeping. Today all three chicks were up and active. Their wing stretching took on a noisy and chaotic tone when the parents returned for food. The parents' wariness about my presence was overcome by the need to feed their growing family. I am guessing that they are not long from fledging. I failed to note dates, but they must be close to a month old.

Photography Note: These photos were not digiscoped. I just got a Sony DSC-HX1 with 20x optical zoom. That gives me almost as good a reach as the older camera used with my scope. With these photos, it meant I did not have to carry heavy scope and tripod up a steep mountain side. Quality is still not up to SLR for something this distant, but adequate.

And BTW - good birding season is in full swing.

Bird Feeder Activity!!

And I thought the squirrels were bad!

I've been bringing the feeders in at night, but this guy showed up on Monday, and again Tuesday, during the day. The birds had already eaten their seed allocation for the day, so there wasn't much for him, but he created quite a stir in the neighborhood. I had a kitchen full of people watching him.

My cats, on the other hand, took one look through the window and went dashing off to hide under a bed. They seem to put the bear in the same category as grandchildren. The window feeders are now at the top of the windows - about 8' off the ground. Suet feeders will not go out until I can figure some way to hand them at least that high, and maybe not until the Fall.

The suet feeder that the bear is reaching for was about 6' high. Doesn't look like he can reach much higher. On the other hand, it may be best not to tempt him with smells.

After the first bit of excitement, quite frankly, this is a pain! I'd rather have the birds.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Good Stuff

Early morning birding at Bennett's Meadows in Bernardston, MA, produced this wonderful American Bittern posing in the grasses. So tough to see these secretive birds.

I have to remind myself that many people rarely have the opportunity to see an Evening Grosbeak - their population has declined, and they are birds of the northern forests. In my backyard, they are occasional through the winter, but regular in spring, summer, and fall.

I have at least ten grosbeaks that feed on my sunflower seeds daily. They nest nearby and regularly bring fledglings to the feeders. Finally got this handsome male in a more natural setting than the window feeder.

It's the season for good birding. Enjoy it!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Warblers, Ravensnest, More

Glorious weather, and the birding is notching up. Over the last couple of days, warblers are starting to arrive including: Yell0w-rump, Palm, Black-and-White, Black-throated Green, Yellow. Also Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Barn, Northern Rough-winged, and Bank Swallows; Blue-headed Vireo, White-throated, Savannah, Vesper, and Field Sparrows ... and a whole bunch more. Today was the first 50+ day locally.

Only songbird which held still long enough and close enough was this (Eastern) Palm Warbler ...

A visit to Ravensnest showed two chicks growing like weeds. They spent most the time asleep while waiting the next home delivery meal to arrive. Mom and Dad are clearly nervous about coming to the nest when I'm watching, so I left quickly.

One chick awoke enough to stretch a bit and preen ...

Bar-headed Goose is still hanging with the Canada's in the pasture and waters around the treatment plant at the Retreat Meadows ...

In the West River, this Great Black-backed Gull was feasting on what one in the group named a yellow perch ...

Once in a while, instead of looking up, I looked down. The Spring wildflowers are bursting with the irresistible impulse to life, gathering in light before the trees leaf out. Here's a sampling:

Trilium ...

Bloodroot ...

Dutchman's breeches ...

Good birding ... wildflowering ... and whatever else you may be doing. And now it's time to toast Bacchus by the river.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Bar-Headed Goose - Brattleboro

Yesterday at dusk, Richard Foye spotted a Bar-headed Goose in the pasture in front of the Brattleboro water treatment plant along Route 30. It was grazing with Canada Geese.

This morning, the goose has been hanging in the cove just south of the fence of the treatment plant, and was seen by seven local birders.

Native to Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent, this goose is also popular in zoos and waterfowl collections - so its origin is certainly suspect; I'll leave it to others to decide. Wild or feral, it is a beautiful goose.

Feathered Flatlanders

Flatlanders are people living in Vermont who are not native to Vermont, but came from someplace else - the flat lands. The flat lands are presumably a region such as the Connecticut River Valley as it runs south through Massachusetts and Connecticut - or New Jersey, or Long Island. A person not born in the Green Mountain State (emphasis on the “mountain”) is a flatlander. It doesn’t really matter if the place a flatlander comes from is actually flat, just as long as it is not Vermont with its Ethan-Allen-Green-Mountain-boys heritage. There may be exceptions allowed for the New Hampshire native who moves from the White Mountains to the Green Mountains, or the New Yorker who moves from the Adirondacks to the Green Mountains, but that’s about it. All others are flatlanders. You grew up in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and moved to Vermont; you are a flatlander. You moved to Vermont from a Swiss chalet in the Alps; you are a flatlander. You came from the Tibetan Himalayas where your entire life was lived about 15,000 feet - more than four times the highest elevation anywhere in Vermont. Then you moved to Vermont. You are a flatlander.

The opposite of a flatlander is a woodchuck, a term that is applied, often with negative connotations, to a native born Vermonter.

In a recent gathering, a friend said that he had been born in Vermont. “So you are a woodchuck,” I replied. “No,” he said, “I am a Vermonter!” Growing up he never heard the term woodchuck. He opined that when the native Vermonters started complaining about all the changes caused by the flatlanders moving into the state, the flatlanders retaliated with the term, “woodchuck.”

With this discussion of flatlanders and woodchucks, I am probably wading into a mucky bottomed beaver pond. It’s time to get out. If you need more information about “woodchuck” and “flatlanders,”, try The Vermont Owner’s Manual by Frank Bryan and Bill Marers. For now let’s just leave it that generally speaking, flatlanders are usually from someplace to the south of the Vermont border.

In addition to the two legged flatlanders that have moved north to Vermont, there are a lot of feathered flatlanders that have also moved north.

Last week I wrote about the Black Vulture, the most recent southern species to begin making regular appearances in the mountainous realms of Vermont. Primarily a bird of the southeast, it has been following its cousin, the Turkey Vulture, northward. Historically, the Turkey Vulture was accidental in Vermont and only occasional in New England. Since the mid-twentieth century, it has increased dramatically. The TV is now commonly seen soaring over lakes, fields, and ridges from early Spring through late Fall. Direct evidence of breeding vultures is difficult to obtain, but there is lots of indirect evidence that Turkey Vultures are resident breeders, and it appears that the Black Vultures will soon join them.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the Red-bellied Woodpecker, a feathered flatlander. Also from the Southeast, the Red-bellied has firmly established its residential status since its first breeding record in 2001.

In March, I wrote two columns on the Mallard. Historically, the common dabbling duck in the Northeast was the American Black Duck. Audubon knew the Mallard from the interior states, but not from New England. As recently as 1933, a Vermont bird list called the Mallard a “rare summer resident” and “not common.” Fifty years later when the first Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas was compiled, the Mallard was described as the “most well-known of all wild waterfowl” and the “commonest duck in western Vermont.”

Canada Geese used to be known in Vermont as a migratory species going to and from breeding grounds in the arctic tundra. Many of the arctic birds still pass through, but many more have become feathered flatlanders. Thirty years ago there were only a few places in Vermont where Canada Geese nested. Today they have an abundant breeding population. Several nesting pairs are already incubating around the Retreat Meadows.

But let’s talk about the songbirds. Around those brushy edges of the Retreat Meadows, one of the first songbirds to burst into full-throated splendor has been singing for at least three weeks. He is a feathered flatlander: the Northern Mockingbird.

One of the earliest songbirds to begin greeting the Spring is yet another feathered flatlander: the Tufted Titmouse. A warm day in January may elicit song from the titmouse, and by the time the days are becoming noticeably longer, he is at it with enthusiasm, celebrating the impending life of springtime. His expectation of Spring is frequently premature, which might prompt a real Vermonter to mutter, “lander” (as in flat), meaning that the titmouse obviously is from someplace else and doesn’t know that winter isn’t over, for certain, until the corn finally comes up, and even then it can be dicey in some places.

Most of the feathered natives are not much for singing: the nuthatch (terse anks), the chickadee (wordy for a Vermonter but native nontheless), the creeper and junco (thin little buzzes & clicks). Feathered flatlanders, by contrast, have brought some real musical abilities to the Vermont landscape. In addition to the mockingbird and titmouse, the Northern Cardinal has moved north from its home in the south, and sings with a whistled enthusiasm that can thaw even the winter-frozen heart of a real Vermonter. And what a splash of brilliant color he adds to the winter landscape. A red cardinal perched on a green, but snow covered branch of a white pine is capable of prompting even the real-est of real Vermonters to admit, grudgingly, that “Some of them landers is okay.”

I know a couple of real Vermonters who are so real that their ancestors came to Vermont on the heels of the great land grabber and speculator, Ethan Allen; their great-great whatever may have been one of the first to buy Ethan’s sales pitch. But oh do they get excited about the Carolina Wren when it comes to the feeder, and especially when he limbers his cords and rivals the cardinal in his song. Then the real Vermonter can barely contain his love for the flatlander.

I said this to a real Vermonter one time. “You love the cardinal and wren, and they’re flatlanders. How come you don’t love me?”

“You can’t sing!” I tried mumbling my other virtues and contributions, but he cut me off. “Nuff said.”

Point is: some of the most common and/or familiar birds in the current Vermont landscape, are relative newcomers. There are various reasons why they have extended their range to the Vermont mountains, and for good cause we should worry about some of those reasons. But these feathered flatlanders brighten the landscape and enrich the airwaves. They contribute to Vermont being a special place ... as do most of us other two-legged flatlanders ... most of the time.

Good birding!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Newest Vulture in the Neighborhood

Mid-morning I was driving north on Putney Road. Two black birds flapped over the road ahead of me. The regular flapping at first said crows, but they were too big to be crows. The big black size said Turkey Vultures, but Turkey Vultures flap their wings rather slowly as they try to get far enough aloft to catch the thermals. These two birds were flapping hard, but awkwardly with quick choppy wingbeats. It looked as though they were struggling to gain altitude, indeed struggling just to fly. The broad wings tried to lift the stumpy bodies with a head, but barely any suggestion of a tail. Finally my mental synapses fired: Black Vulture.

The drivers seat of a vehicle on Putney Road is a precarious place for birdwatching. Most people driving that road are in a hurry to get somewhere. What with radios, cell phones, mental shopping lists, and a determination to get wherever as soon as possible, there is little patience for the distracted bird watcher in the car ahead. But Putney Road is lined with a couple of miles of parking lots and lots of places to access those parking lots. I made a right hand u-turn into one, grabbed by binoculars from the passenger’s seat and got out to check the awkward flaps of the big black birds. They were, indeed, Black Vultures.

Black Vultures have been reported sporadically in the Spring and Fall for the last few years. Most of the Vermont sightings have come from the lower Connecticut River Valley, principally around Brattleboro. In 2007 the first Black Vulture was reported by the Putney Mountain Hawk Watch.

The Black Vulture is a bird of the southeast. In recent decades, it has been slowly extending its range northward along the coastal states. By the mid-1990s, I saw it regularly around my home in eastern Pennsylvania. Though hardly common, it was not unexpected. Turkey Vultures roosted in pines across from my home during the Spring and Fall; the roost often included a Black Vulture.

Black Vultures have been moving up the Connecticut River Valley. Their regular presence in Vermont has been predicted as the erratic sightings have become more frequent from year to year.
This Spring, Black Vulture reports have been coming from many places in the state, and not just one or two birds, but as many as six. The predictions are being confirmed.

The Black Vulture is a close relative of the Turkey Vulture. These New World vultures were once classified with hawks, as were the Old World vultures. The Old World vultures are still hawks, but a few years ago, the taxonomists reconsidered the New World vultures. They concluded that the New World vultures were really short-legged storks.

More recently, the taxonomists have concluded that the New World Vultures are unrelated to storks and should have their own family classification. The official story is that DNA studies compel separating the vultures from the storks, as well as from the hawks. But I suspect that the official story and the real story are different. I think the real story is that the storks were offended at being related to anything as ugly as the Black Vulture and the Turkey Vulture and lobbied for the reclassification.

The Turkey Vulture has a small, featherless red head. Only the most aesthetically impaired could consider this bird to be cute, attractive, or beautiful. It is not. However, the Turkey Vulture does have redeeming features. It is a master of the air and wind. It may flap its long, broad wings when it first takes flight and until it finds the rising air currents, but once it finds those currents, it soars effortlessly, tipping and bobbing and circling. The Turkey Vulture has an acute sense of smell; it can pick a molecule or two out of the atmosphere and follow that scent for dozens of miles to the carrion on which it feeds.

The Black Vulture has a bigger, dark gray, wrinkled head. Its stubby tale looks like it was lopped off with garden shears. Where the Turkey Vulture has grayish white on the back underside of its wing, on the Black Vulture the grayish white is on the end of the wings. Its splayed primaries are spikey, as though the spikey top-knot of some gothic teen were relocated to the extremities.

The Black Vulture forages by sight; historically it has been more a bird of open areas than the Turkey Vulture. But in forested areas, such as its newer territory in Vermont, it often flies with the Turkey Vulture, taking advantage of the latter’s keen smell to find the carrion. Where the Turkey Vulture seems to prefer fresh meat, the Black Vulture prefers to wait until its meat has ripened and the decaying mass has become insufferably odorous.

The Black Vulture also has the unendearing practice of not always waiting until its carrion is, in fact, carrion. Just because something hasn’t quite died is no reason, in the Black Vulture’s mind, why it should not begin feeding.

When Black Vultures joined Turkey Vultures in my old Pennsylvania neighborhood, a neighbor was very concerned. She had two old Labrador retrievers who spent most of the day asleep in the middle of the yard, their only movement coming from barely perceptible breathing. Even the call for dinner brought a desultory response, a slow lifting of head, raising of ancient body, and shuffle toward the door. My neighbor worried that the Black Vultures would, in her mind (not the vultures), make a very serious presumption. I have not found confirmation of this tendency among my resources, but those resources do cite the destruction caused by Black Vultures raiding the rookeries of herons and ibises.

The ugly feather-less heads of the vultures are an adaptation to their feeding style. They often stick their heads inside a carcass. Feathers would be a nuisance ; feathers would get gunked up foul fluids and rancid bits of meat, and would be impossible to keep clean. Hence, these large, avian refuse cleaners and protein recyclers have no feathers on their heads. But, as to their eating dead things - well, so do crows, ravens, owls, hawks, eagles, coyotes, and bears, not to mention many insects, grubs, and so on. For that matter, I occasionally dine on a juicy piece of meat from a dead bovine.

Vermont birders have been waiting with anticipation for the arrival of the Black Vulture in our state. I haven’t much shared that excitement. I wonder and worry about why they are moving northward: More garbage? More climate warming? More of some change (or mess) made by humans?

Anyway ... look more closely at those big black birds circling overhead. Look for a slight dihedral in the wings, a head but almost no tail, and gray-white at the end of the wings ... you’ll be looking at the newest vulture in the neighborhood.

Good birding.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Red-bellied Woodpecker - An Established Vermont Bird

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is an established Vermont Bird, on its way to becoming as common as the many other flatlanders that have moved north to make the state its home. The Red-bellied Woodpecker is being reported at feeders all around Windham County, and it should come as no surprise to you if one shows up at your feeder. In my backyard, it occasionally feeds on the suet along with the downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, but it is more likely to cling to the bulk seed feeder and consume whatever is in the seed mixture. Last Spring, a Red-bellied was also attracted to the oranges which I put out for the orioles.

About the size of the Hairy Woodpecker, the Red-bellied has a zebra back, white breast, and red cap on its head. More precisely, the male has bright red which extends across the forehead, top and back of head and down the back of the neck. The red on the female is confined to the back of the neck. The red belly, which gives the bird its name, is seldom seen.

Early ornithologists studied birds in their hands - they “collected” birds with a shotgun. They were able to see things about birds that are not apparent to the modern bird watcher in the field, and they sometimes named birds for those characteristics. The red belly of the Red-bellied Woodpecker is a case in point. When I was birding in Florida last year, there were several occasions when I had a good angle on breeding Red-bellies and saw the red belly. But the pair that have been frequenting my feeders since late last fall have yet to expose their red belly for my admiration.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a common bird in the South, but until recently, it was scarcely ever reported in Vermont. Beginning in the mid- 1990s, there were occasional, but regular, sightings of the Red-bellied Woodpecker in Windham County. Often these sightings were from the Christmas Bird Count in mid-December.

Historically, the Red-bellied was a mere straggler in New England, and during settlement and industrial expansion, it gradually withdrew from all of the Northeast. Forbush reported that the bird had once been common in the lower Hudson valley, but by 1925 had virtually disappeared. Along with the Red-headed Woodpecker, its range retired westward and southward during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is handsome and conspicuous. During the breeding season, it is also very noisy bird. Often when I bird Cape May and the Jersey shore in the Spring, it is the most common woodpecker seen - and heard. Its "churr-churr" seems to be everywhere.

This morning when I went out for the paper, and later for the mail, I heard the “churr-churr” from the trees around my home. It seems quite likely that the wintering pair will be taking up residence this year.

Newer bird guides usually note the Red-bellied Woodpecker as common in its southern range, and as extending its range northward. During the 1990s, its nesting range moved into Massachusetts and sightings in Vermont increased. It was been anticipated that eventually the bird would nest in Vermont.

In 2001, it did. A backyard birdwatcher in Brattleboro reported: "Several weeks ago my wife noticed a woodpecker in the willow tree in the yard next door here in Brattleboro. We started watching and found that there is a pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers. They were using a hole about 40' up in the tree. A couple of weeks ago my daughter saw them carrying away egg shells ....” Then a short time later, he reported again: "My daughter saw the babies sticking their heads out of the hole yesterday." With the added evidence from a video camera, which included the distinctive “churr,” this became the first confirmed record of the Red-bellied Woodpecker nesting in Vermont.

From that first Brattleboro record in 2001, the Red-bellied Woodpecker has spread rapidly throughout Vermont. The five year survey of breeding birds by the Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas confirmed the species as nesting in widely scattered locations across the state. It is now expanding from the warmer valleys, such as the Connecticut River valley, and colonizing outward and upward. I anticipate it will be nesting soon, perhaps this year, in my South Newfane neighborhood. From atop Newfane Hill, several hundred feet higher in elevation, a friend has reported occasional visits from a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

A couple of musings about the establishment of the Red-bellied Woodpecker as a Vermont bird. When Forbush, the late 19th early 20th century Massachusetts naturalist, reported the presence of a new species, he did it with the bird in hand - literally. Scientific documentation used a shot-gun to collect physical specimens to prove visual observations. The irony is that the presence of a rare species could only be proven by killing the bird. As though the rare species or wandering vagrant did not have enough problems, it had to elude a gun-toting naturalist intent on proving the bird had been truly, and fatally, present. Today digital cameras, video recorders, and even cell phones can provide the necessary proof. The bird continues to live, and the rest of us have the opportunity to enjoy it.

More important are questions as to why the Red-bellied is extending its range northward, even into an area where historically it has never before been present. Does it have to do with the return of forests to New England? Does this new forest, different from the virgin forests of a couple of centuries ago, now provide a welcoming habitat? Is it moving into and filling an ecological void? Is the expansion of the Red-bellied Woodpecker in New England another sign of milder climate?

Backyard birdwatchers and citizen scientists provide important observations and data. It was, after all, a backyard birdwatcher who scooped the experts on Vermont’s first nesting record for the Red-bellied Woodpecker in 2001. A Red-bellied Woodpecker at a backyard feeder is now rather old news. Nevertheless if one comes to your feeder for the first time, it will be exciting new news for you.

Good Birding!

Friday, April 03, 2009

Two Signs of Spring

Yes - Spring. This Common Raven has been incubating her eggs for at least a week ...

... while this Northern Mockingbird was in full throated splendor, running through an amazing repertoire of songs.


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