Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Nesting Report Update

Right after posting the nesting report, I joined favorite companion on the chairs by the river with a glass of vino. She heard squawking coming downstream and we watched (for about 10 seconds) as momma merganser quickly led her brood past us.

... and my apologies to the resident Northern Cardinals for omitting them from the nesting report. Young from the first brood are around the feeders.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Backyard Nesting Report

I'm still processing the photos from my trip last week - hope to have some posts beginning tomorrow.

The nesting/breeding season in my backyard is at its height. So far we have helped raise, through the VERY generous provision of seeds and suet, or nest boxes, families of the following:
American Crow, Common Grackle, Red-winged Blackbird, European Starling, Chipping Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Evening Grosbeak, House Wren, Blue Jay, Mourning Dove, Rock Pigeon. Brown-headed Cowbird probably belongs in this list - at least we are feeding a lot of them.

Yet to bring their young around for our free board, but busily feeding them with our provisions: Gray Catbird, Purple Finch, Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

Also nesting in the neighborhood are: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Veery, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Robin, Eastern Phoebe.

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is an enigma. There have been two pair visiting the feeders regularly. It seems they should be tending their nests. Perhaps they tried and failed, or decided to skip it this year given the really crappy weather.

I have probably forgotten a few.

Also enjoying our largess are chipmunks, red squirrels, gray squirrels, and one humongous ground hog (which is also munching some favored plants - a no-no which has prompted putting out the hav-a-heart trap), plus assorted other smaller rodents and burrowing creatures.

Two nest boxes are hosting first broods of House Wrens. They scold me when I sit and watch their nest box, but with young to feed, they come in spite of my presence:

The Evening Grosbeak families have been coming the last three days ....

Gray Catbirds seem to be getting protein for their young from the suet; I expect the young will be around in a few days. At lunch today, I watched a young Hairy Woodpecker clinging to this suet feeder; she knew food came from it but could not figure out to pick it out. She kept looking expectantly toward a young male Downy, hoping he might feed her. Having just learned the mystery of feeding himself, he had no interest in feeding his larger cousin.

So ... lots of good birding in my own backyard.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Pond Starling

The Canada Goose used to be the forerunner of winter and the harbinger or spring. Not anymore.

Edward Forbush in A Natural History of American Birds, 1925, described the reaction of people to the “flying wedge” of Canada Geese which “brings to all who see or hear the promise of another spring. The farmer stops his team to gaze; the blacksmith leaves his forge to listen as that far-carrying clamor falls upon the ear; children leave their play and eagerly point to the sky where the feathered denizens of the northern wilderness press steadily on toward the pole, babbling of the coming of spring .... Coming after the long, cold winter, not even the first call of the bluebird so stirs the blood of the listener.”

Forbush wrote when most Canada Geese still migrated to and from their breeding grounds, and when those breeding grounds were mostly north of the U.S. - Canadian border. He described it as “a distinctly American bird.”

A combination of factors has contributed to Canada Geese becoming so common and widespread that some birders now refer to them as “pond starlings,” an unflattering comparison to the European Starling which is an introduced species whose abundance, habits, and characteristics makes it a pest bordering on a pestilence.

In the case of the Canada Goose, native intelligence and adaptability has combined with human ineptitude to create a population explosion and a goose-human conflict.

Habitat loss and over-hunting caused the population of Canada Geese to hit a low point in the 1920s and 1930s. Over a period of years, a variety of steps were taken which created the situation which we have today.

Unlike many species, migration among Canada Geese is a learned trait, not an inherited trait. Some species of shore birds, for example, hatch their young, and then the adults head south. Some time later, the first year birds make their own way to the same wintering grounds to which their parents flew. Clearly, migration for these birds is encoded in their genes.

But this is not the case with Canada Geese. The geese “learn” to migrate, and when the opportunity presents itself, they “relearn” their migration. Scott Weidensaul (in Living on the Wind, 1999) describes how “wildlife management” effected geese migration: “Canada Geese from the central Arctic always wintered along the lower Mississippi, but in 1927 the state of Illinois converted thousands of acres of rich bottomland into a waterfowl refuge; within a few years, half of the geese on the central flyway were stopping there instead of continuing south. Then in 1941, the federal government opened the enormous Horicon National Wildlife Refuge even farther north, in Wisconsin, employing the same mix of ponds, lakes, and crops to shortstop the fickle geese that so recently had favored Illinois. The original migration to Louisiana and Arkansas, meanwhile, had dried up ....” With food available, the geese did not have to make the long, arduous flight.

But the elevation of the Canada Goose to “pond starling” status really began in the 1960s and 1970s. The intent was to restore the species to the wildlife refuges and establish it in parks. Wing-clipped geese were introduced for this purpose. The effort was successful beyond all expectations, but ... the new populations of geese were non-migratory. The original wing-clipped birds couldn’t migrate; their offspring and the succeeding generations never learned to migrate, and the adaptability of the species precluded the need to migrate. In Pennsylvania, for example, there were historically no breeding Canada Geese. During the 1990s, the permanent, non-migratory population of Canada Geese in that state grew to in excess of 200,000 birds.

Again, Weidensaul: “What had started as small, picturesque flocks in widely scattered locations became larger, messier, more widespread, until by the 1990s it was hard to find a body of water without geese. The resident population in the East ... has been growing at the light-speed rate of 17 percent a year since the late 1980s ....”

Meanwhile, the number of breeding pairs in the Atlantic population in northern Quebec plummeted, causing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to close Fall Canada Goose hunting in order to preserve the breeding population. This in turn has had economic repercussions and has disabled efforts at controlling the non-migratory goose population.

The explosion of the Canada Goose population also has a negative effect on other waterfowl species. Their size and aggressiveness drives away other nesting ducks. The beaver pond near my home has had no nesting Wood Ducks or Mallards for the last three years. Instead, Canada Geese have laid claim to the pond.

Thirty years ago when the first Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas was done, the Canada Goose was a confirmed breeder in only a few survey areas in the entire state; nearly all of those were in the Champlain lowlands. During the second VBBA, 2003-2007, the Canada Goose was one of the first species to be confirmed in many, if not most, survey blocks throughout the state. Nearly every survey block in Windham County had confirmed breeding of Canada Goose. Thirty ago, the Canada Goose was not reported anywhere in Windham County as a possible breeder, much less a confirmed breeder.

The Putney Mountain Hawk Watch often sees the “v” formation of geese overhead, occasionally with snow geese mixed in. These are probably birds from the Canadian north who are migrating south for the winter. On the other hand, most of the several hundred Canada Geese typically counted during Christmas Bird Count in the Brattleboro area are probably non-migratory birds. They have never learned to migrate, and when the water is open and the ground is free of snow, they can find ample food.

Canada Geese, like the European Starling, are not indicators of good birding. Rather they are reminders of humanly induced environmental havoc.

Post of "Tailfeathers," Brattleboro Reformer, Friday, June 26, 2009

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Number 300

Yesterday the weather finally cooperated and three other birders from SVAS joined my for the hike up Stratton Mtn.

Highlight of day (which I did not figure out until I got back home) was Year Bird #300 - Yellow-bellied Flycatcher which called (sang?) clearly in several places and once gave us a good, although brief look.

Swainson's Thrush was singing in many locations along the trail. Also Hermit's Thrush. One in the group had a brief look at a fly-over Swainson's.

Bicknell's Thrush (which has been extensively studied on Stratton by VCE) was almost completely quiet - one brief song and a couple of calls. No sightings and no photos of BITH from yesterday. This one is from Mt. Snow when I was doing the VBBA in '07.

Many signs of breeding birds including family of recently fledged Brown Creepers - carrying of food by Ovenbird, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo -full throated singing by Ruby-crowned Kinglet and this Blackburnian Warbler - the only bird all day which gave me a half decent opportunity for a fairly decent photo. Otherwise the woods were deep and dark and/or the birds where hidden in foliage high overhead.

My columns will be posted on Saturday, but I'm off for a while. Hope to have some good birding to report when I return.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

This Red-winged Blackbird is waiting for me to disappear, even though I am quite a distance away, before she takes a meal to her hungry brood somewhere nearby.

At my feeders, the European Starling was one of the first to bring fledged young. Over the weekend, there were also downies, chickadees, and doves, and the evidence is that many others are busy feeding young. Photos of the young as they become available.

This White-breasted Nuthatch is almost certainly one of the fledged young, although they all move about so quickly that it is difficult to sort them out. But this one was fluttering its wings while on the trunk and pecking at the bark as though it thought maybe possibly there might be something there. But as soon as a parent appeared overhead, it headed in that direction.

This is definitely an adult White-breasted Nuthatch. I watched it going from feeders to branches with food. The photo makes the plumage appear pretty neat, but my impression was one of worn plumage as it moved about - maybe frazzled is a better description. Raising kids is tough work.

The House Wren are constant entertainment, even though I know they are chasing off other species from the nest boxes. They took over at least one chickadee box. But the chickadees are doing all right. They had young around on the weekend. The male wren is never quiet, although he gets nervous when I walk pass, or worse (in his wren mind) when I stand there and dry to see him. She is also very wary. After several long waits, I finally got her tail end as she entered the box. She did not re-emerge, so I am presuming incubation.

Near a second box, this male scolded me at length for walking through what I presume to think is my yard. The box he appeared to be defending has a nest in it, but I have yet to determine if it has eggs or a female. This male is a second resident male; the other I could hear up the slope while this one analyzed my faults. Relationships among wrens can get rather tangled, so I won't count on sorting them out. After patient waiting for the previous photo, this one just suddenly happened. Sometimes the only way to get a photo of a bird is not to try.

Hope you're having opportunities for good birding!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Progress of the Breeding Season

My intended hike up Stratton Mountain this morning was canceled due to the unsettled weather. I've rescheduled to Wednesday AM. Most of those planning to join me have can do the change, but if a couple more would like to join, let me know. We meet at 6:15am at the trailhead - early start so that (hopefully) Bicknell's Thrush will still be singing when we reach the top. Also likely - Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Blackpoll Warbler, plus other edge, woodland, and montane species. So instead of hiking 3.5 miles this morning, I am revisiting the birding of the last week (inbetween the rain).

The male Ruby-throated Hummingbird makes regular visits to the feeders while patrolling his domain. He makes only one contribution to the next generation, albeit an important one. Occassionally a female sneaks past his guard and feeds on the columbine or the nectar provided by my bounty.

Cedar Waxwings flocks seem everywhere. Most are still a few weeks from nesting.

Red-eyed Vireos are lactive into their breeding season. Males sing in between their nesting responsibilities and occasionally one even has allowed me a brief glimpse.

Some American Robin pairs are close to fledging their first brood. I have no idea if this one was building a first or second nest for the season, but was certainly busy in construction. The bird made regular trips to the muddy edge of Herrick's Cove, returning with big loads of building materials. Nest was somewhere in a dense tangle of brush roses.

After a couple of days of rain, I returned to where I had seen the Blue-headed Vireos in the early stages of nest building. There was no sign of the pair, but the nest appears ready for occupancy, and perhaps deep in the nest, incubation is proceeding. The bottom of the nest is comprised of wood chips and wood shavings. A couple hundred yards away I saw an old tree which had been heavily worked by Pileated Woodpecker, perhaps excavating a nest hole. A Blue-headed Vireo was carrying wood chips. They were singing in many places along the old road, so I can't claim it was "my" pair. Clearly the nest building activity of one species was assisting the nest building activity of another species.

American Crows are nesting down river from my home. Evidence suggests a pair and a helper, since 3 are often around the feeders. This one is "carrying" food - note the bulge in its crop. I have seen the crop much larger. They are very wary birds able to sense when someone is inside watching them. It is difficult to get close to the window for a photo without having them fly off.

The Eastern Phoebes at Herrick's Cove fledged their first brood at least a week ago. The youngster is here waiting for another meal, but occasionally tried some things on his own.

I have been astounded at how much suet is being consumed by the birds. At least two pair of Downy Woodpeckers, one pair of Hairy, and two pair of starlings seem to be relying on the suet for feeding their nestlings. Plus a wide assortment of other birds are also using the suet. The suet gets taken in at night. In the morning the woodpeckers are lined up on the tree waiting for us to bring it out.

The European Starling brought the fledglings to the suet this week. We typically say, "aww, cute," when other birds bring the young to the feeders, but respond with "oh ugh" when the starlings do the same. I would suggest that is not evidence of birdy cuteness, but human prejudice.

Fledgling Downy Woodpeckers were at the suet this morning. At one time, there were five Downies, from two families - all female. The youngster is clinging to the post; its understanding of life is that someone will feed. Well, for a while someone will.

Good Birding!

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Goosey, Goosey, Goosey

I watched as my friend scattered corn for the family of Canada Geese. There was mom and dad and five goslings already approaching their parents in size. Jokingly and flippantly I said something like: “Fattening up the tender goslings for your Christmas dinner.”

He shot me daggers. He did not think that was the least bit funny. This pair of geese returned year after year to his farm pond. They were dearly loved pets, and you don’t joke about dining on your pets.

In half a dozen places around the county, I have seen home-made road side signs cautioning drivers in some way about the goose crossing - usually with a graphic of parent geese leading their line of young.

Young goslings are admittedly very cute. It is almost impossible not to say, “Ahhh, aren’t they adorable,” when you see them scrambling after an adult goose.

The protective attentiveness of parent geese to their young is commendable, and very effective. If you don’t pay too close attention, goose parenting could provide fodder for the family-value moralists. But if you do pay attention, you might ask why a pair of geese are protecting a dozen or more goslings when they normally lay only six eggs. Just a few days ago in the Retreat Meadows, I watched two adult geese leading twenty-eight goslings; I was able to count the moving number only when I had my photograph on the monitor so that the birds stayed still. Behind that group came another pair of adults leading sixteen youngsters. These were only two of the gosling collections scattered around those waters.

A friend on Newfane Hill wondered why the nesting geese and all of their recently hatched young disappear after a couple of days. Did snapping turtles grab all of the young, leaving the adults to fly off? Or is something else happening? A farm pond in Brookline has one nesting pair of geese, but through the summer, several families use the pond and farm fields to raise their young. Where did the other families come from?

Canada Geese have become so common, that I could elicit many reports of geese families that disappear from small ponds, or of larger ponds and bogs that host several grazing families and many goslings. But what’s happening?

The Canada Goose (she is a goose, he is a gander) lays a big egg - about 3 inches in length. Physiologically, she is designed to incubate six eggs. If there are more than six eggs in a nest, it may be due to another goose having dumped an egg in her nest. The large, nutrient rich eggs of the Canada Goose result in “precocial” hatchlings - they are relatively well-developed, have a thick coat of natal down, and are able to feed themselves almost immediately. Parents show their young what to eat and watch out for dangers. Parenting of precocial young is relatively easy. By contrast, songbird hatchlings are altricial - helpless, naked, eyes closed, and totally dependent upon their parents. Parenting of altricial young is hard work.

The parenting of a dozen young goslings is relatively easy, since they can feed themselves. But a typical clutch of eggs is only six. What’s going on in goose society?

Bern Heinrich (The Geese of Beaver Bog) noticed that his pair of Canada Geese disappeared with their six hatchlings after only a couple of days. Curious, observant, tenacious (he made notes for several years) and a little lucky, he discovered that his pair had led their hatchlings through the woods to another larger pond with good grazing fields where they joined the resident breeders of that pond. The new pond was about three miles from his beaver bog. Other pairs also came to the new pond.

At the new pond, other goose dynamics took over. The six goslings of Heinrich’s pair were adopted by the resident geese, and his pair returned to his beaver bog. They stayed for a while, then probably flew north to Quebec where they joined other geese on a “molting” territory where numbers and remoteness would protect them during their summer feather molt when they are unable to fly.

Meanwhile, the resident pair successfully protected their own six goslings and their six adopted goslings - this in spite of the fact that their favorite grazing field was also the home of a red fox. The ever-alert gander warned off the red fox, and the fox wisely decided not to challenge his powerful beak or wings.

Hatchling geese imprint on what they first see and follow that form. Hence, when they see their parents at hatching, they imprint on them and follow them through the woods. But it seems that imprinting on specific individuals of that form takes place a few days later. If they are in the presence of other adults, they may imprint on those adults, rather than their hatch parents. Since all they need is some protection and leadership, it is not a big burden to the adoptive parents. They can guard a dozen as easily as they can guard half a dozen - or, given what I saw in the Retreat Meadows, two dozen.

But why do these adoptions occur in the first place? One would think that the parents would have a genetic self interest in staying with and protecting their own offspring.

There are probably several explanations, but protecting turf from outsiders seems to be one factor. John Anderson has been watching the resident geese on Sunset Lake for many years. A couple of years ago, two pair nested and hatched young. Not long after the hatching, he watched the resident gander attack the second gander who had had the gall to intrude on his lake. This was not a wing-flapping, goose-hissing confrontation, but an out and out physical fight. The second pair of adults left, and the resident pair adopted their goslings. (It seems that we aren’t the only species that tries to guard its borders and keep others out.)

Canada Geese are longed lived, perhaps twenty or more years. They usually begin breeding in their third year and have a strong fidelity to their nesting territory, returning to the same place year after year. If they have friendly human neighbors, they will establish neighborly relations. A friend has scattered corn for the resident pair at his camp for many years. One summer, he got a new truck. When the road finally opened in the spring, he drove in to the camp. He saw a pair of geese at one end of the lake. By the time he got to his camp half-way down the small lake, the pair was waiting for him and his corn. They not only remembered him - they remembered his new truck.

Canada Geese have become so familiar that it is easy to overlook their fascinating complexity. They have society and culture, loves and hates, just as we do.

Good birding!

For more on the Canada Goose, see Bern Heinrich, “The Geese of Beaver Bog,” 2004. Thanks to John Anderson for sharing his careful observations.

(Post of "Tailfeathers," Brattleboro Reformer, 06/05/09)

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Local Birding

I've been fortunate to get out for some local birding the last few days, including birding with my favorite companion, whatever the occasion might be. Up in the Green Mountains we bushwacked into a beaver pond, then just sat still and enjoyed the setting (made possible, in part, by heavy applications of toxic substances).

Highlight at this pond was the Northern Waterthrush, which is why we bushwacked in the first place; we heard it singing. Finally it showed itself feeding in the muddy edge. The rest of the time the pair were busy moving about, seldom staying still.

The highlight this morning was finding a pair of Blue-headed Vireos building their nest. What appears to be a white glob beneath the bird in the very delicate beginning of their hanging nest.

I can't tell the male from the female, but we can assume that they know the difference. To the left of the visible vireo is the mate working on the nest. It is a joint project.

Nothing more needs to be said about this Scarlet Tanager.

Nor does much need to be said about this Blackburnian Warbler.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails seem to be everywhere.

And finally, while waiting for the Swamp Sparrow and Alder Flycatcher to come close in yet another marshy beaver pond (they never did), I was joined by this moose cow, and that's no bull!

Moose are fairly common, but shy and secretive. I often see signs of moose, but do not often see them. Always a treat!

Sometimes a morning of good birding includes things that don't have feathers.


Related Posts with Thumbnails