Saturday, December 22, 2007

More Canadian Birds Show Up in Christmas Bird Count

There was more snow on the ground than I can remember in my eleven years of doing the Brattleboro Area Christmas Bird Count (CBC). And it was colder than previous years. And when the wind blew, it was colder yet. By mid-afternoon, the clouds began moving in; the air became dank and damp and felt even colder. My heavy insulated boots kept my feet warm, but everything became chilled.

Tiny birds moving through tree tops are located by ear, not eye, and that means exposing tender, delicate flesh to the frigid air. We could sort of warm up in the car as we crept slowly from place to place, except that the windows had to be down so we could listen as we crept along, and the fan motor on the heater had to be low or off because it made too much noise. The rivers and ponds were frozen. The fields were barren and cold. There were icy patches on many roads, and no place to pull off the road when we had to stop, walk, listen, count, freeze and shiver.

I had a blast!

The annual CBC is one of my favorite days of birding throughout the year. In the late Spring, I can stand in my backyard and see or hear thirty to forty species in the early morning hours. Last Saturday, the team I was with scoured our assigned area and eventually tallied twenty-nine species. We wandered slowly along dirt roads until somebody watching or listening through the car windows cried, “Stop.” Then we tumbled out of the vehicle before it had stopped to chase an elusive sound or sight.

But in the winter landscape, when all of life seems to have gone into hiding, finding signs of life still on the move - up and about and around - is energizing and affirming. And we never know what we will find.

We almost always find wintering bluebirds in our survey area, and this year we found one lone bluebird perched on a wire not far from Brattleboro. We continued searching the orchards along our route. Sooner or later we almost always find bluebirds working through one or more of these orchards, but not this year.

In the mid-afternoon we were in a dense stand of hemlocks; Juncos moved through the forest understory. Watching them, and counting, we were led to a Golden-crowned Kinglet in a small, leafless beech, and that lone kinglet led us to more kinglets. Conventional wisdom has it that several species will forage together through the winter woods, and we soon found the only Brown Creeper of the day, inching its way up a huge hemlock, then following the juncos and kinglets south along the road. Movement deep in the woods caught our attention. A larger bird ... another ... and another. One landed on the road forty feet from us, picked salt and grit from the road, and flew. Eastern Bluebirds - thirteen in the flock.

About thirty people participated in this year’s CBC. Seven teams surveyed assigned areas and counted the winter birds. One team searched frustratingly all day and tallied only a few species and few numbers. But they had a great time following mammal tracks. Numbers often seemed hard to come by. But by the end of the day, forty-eight species had been tallied with an unofficial total around 3000. Additional “count week” species brought the total for this year’s CBC to fifty-five.

Fifty-plus species has become the norm for the Brattleboro CBC. The species vary from year to year. Each year there are a few species reported which have no business being here; they should have gone south long ago. This year there was a Great Blue Heron seen in flight, and a Northern Flicker. Species recorded for the first time were Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (two) and an American Woodcock. These migrants should have migrated before now, and quite frankly, not having done so may be a fatal mistake.

With almost no open water, it was no surprise that Canada Geese (some years there are hundreds) were completely absent as were most other waterfowl. A few ducks were found in the open water above and below the Vernon Dam and where Whetstone Brook enters the Connecticut River.

Totals for most of the usual wintering birds were close to the average for the last nine years. Here are a few “Average/’07 Count” - American Crow: 230/74; Blue Jay 195/161; Black-capped Chickadee: 447/576; Downy Woodpecker: 42/38; Hairy Woodpecker: 15/27; Tufted Titmouse: 54/54; Northern Cardinal: 34/41; Mourning Dove: 196/206; White-breasted Nuthatch: 58/55.

Count numbers for the invasive birds that no one likes but which feed the wintering hawks also matched recent numbers - European Starling: 362/336; Rock Pigeon: 285/ 271; House Sparrow: 211/166

The significant difference this year was the presence of wintering finches. Reports of birds irrupting south from Canada (where many seeds crops failed this year) have been coming from all over the Northeast. But we had to find them on count day, and we did. We counted fifty-one Common Redpolls, probably an undercount - since these birds are very nomadic as they forage. One year counters found a single flock of redpolls with over 200 birds, but not this year. There was a flock of twenty Snow Buntings, a scattering of forty-plus Tree Sparrows, and fourteen Evening Grosbeaks.

The buzz came with two other winter finch species which have only been recorded once in the last dozen years. In 2001, eleven Pine Grosbeaks were reported. This year, eighty-one were counted. These large, tame, red and gray male - or olive and gray female - finches are being found in fruit trees and berry bushes in many locations in southeastern Vermont. They stripped my loaded crab apple weeks ago.

The other finch species, also last reported in 2001 during count week, was found in a pine forest atop Stratton Hill in Newfane - five White-winged Crossbills. This is be the first time our CBC has recorded an actual count number for this species which feeds on pine and spruce cones.

So it was cold, and wintery, and sometimes difficult to find the birds. But the end result is a snapshot of the bird life present in the Brattleboro area in the middle of December. Added to the results of thousands of other counts done around North America, we also contribute to a snapshot of the continental bird life. These accumulated snapshots from many years help researchers analyze the health and well-being of the birds, and more importantly, of the state of the environment and climate on which the birds - and all other life, including us - depend.

And it was fun. The Christmas Bird Count is always a good day spent with some crazy bird nerds and resulting in - by definition - a day of good birding.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Winter Finches Have Arrived

Winter finches have arrived! They’ve been expected, and the reports from around the state indicate that they are here. Birds that breed in the boreal forests of Canada and winter in those forests, are on the move and are being seen in widely through the Northeast.

During Monday’s snowstorm, I was continually distracted from my Christmas baking by the need to take photographs through the kitchen window. There were more Common Redpolls at my bird feeders than I have ever had - a flock of thirty to forty feasted on my largess throughout the day. On at least one occasion, redpolls occupied the six perches on the thistle feeder, the nine perches on the sunflower feeder plus the rim, and lined the mixed feed seeder. Another eighteen crowded the platform feeder. Two squeezed onto the window feeder, while others waited in line impatiently. With the camera set next to the window, I frequently interrupted my baking to snap off another batch of photos.

Mixed in with the redpolls were goldfinches and siskins. An Evening Grosbeak showed up around noon. And all of the neighbor residents came by - chickadees, titmice, cardinals, doves, pigeons, jays, nuthatches, downy and hairy. Judging by an increased noise level around noon, there may even have been a Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk in the area for a while.

It is the winter finches that have bird watchers in a mode of heightened anticipation. And they’ve been that way for at least a month, maybe two. One of the grandaddies of Vermont birders posted a message on the VTBird listserve last weekend that said simply - “Redpolls finally!” With reports of Common Redpolls coming in from all over, he had been feeling frustrated that he had missed them.

Redpolls generally appear in notable numbers in the Northeast every other year. There were very modest numbers in the winter of ‘05-‘06. Looking through my records, I had a couple at my feeders briefly in early January, ‘06. I have never had the flocks like I had early this week.

What’s happening? And why have birders been expecting it?

Ron Pittaway of Ontario Field Ornithologists makes a prediction each year about the movement of birds during the winter. He collects information from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources about food sources in the boreal forest and then does what most in the birding community are unwilling to do: make predictions. His late September predictions for this winter put bird watchers in a state of agitation.

Finches are seed eaters in the winter, and throughout most of Ontario and western Quebec, coniferous and deciduous trees had a very poor seed crop. Here is one of Pittman’s predictions: “There will be a big flight of redpolls into southern Ontario and bordering United States. Seed crops on white birch, yellow birch and alder are very poor in most of Ontario. Expect redpolls at bird feeders this winter.”

I began to wake up to what was happening in mid-October when Pine Siskins started appearing at my bird feeders in significant numbers. Some years, they barely appear at all. But cone crop failures caused most Pine Siskins to leave Canada’s boreal forest in the summer. The energy expended in long flights is high. This year, with the shortage of food, the expense of not traveling south is even higher. I suspect that many siskins have continued to roam southward, but I also expect that they will be seen regularly throughout the winter and into the spring.

In mid-November, my spouse returned from a late afternoon walk along Augur Hole Road and casually mentioned that there was a flock of Pine Grosbeaks feeding in some cherry trees. At the same time, a neighbor called to share bird reports. I passed along the grosbeak report. Fifteen minutes later when I drove along Augur Hole Road looking for the grosbeaks, he was there on his bike. Neither of us had seen this boreal species for several years. The tame flock of twenty-plus birds allowed us to approach within a few feet of where they were feeding.

When I finally found Pittaway’s prediction report, I read: “[The Pine Grosbeak] will irrupt south of the breeding range because crops on native mountain-ashes (rowan berries) are generally poor in northeastern Ontario and across the boreal forest ... After irruptions, Pine Grosbeaks return north earlier than other northern finches. Most are gone by late March.”

Other finches which are likely to be moving southward because of the seed failure are Purple Finch, Red Crossbill, White-winged Crossbill, and American Goldfinch.

Flocks of Common Redpolls should be checked carefully for Hoary Redpoll. An adult male Hoary is sometimes described as a "snowball," and is said to be fairly easy to identify, but females and first year Hoarys are very difficult to identify.

There are other passerines which are also affected by the seed crop failure. Red-breasted Nuthatch is likely to seen more often than usual. The year-round Red-breasted Nuthatches are likely to be joined by those from further north.

Bohemian Waxwings are already being reported with unusual frequency. Like the Pine Grosbeaks, they like mountain-ash berries, and there are few of those in the Bohemian’s normal home range. They will sometimes join the large nomadic flocks of Cedar Waxwings, but we should also be alert for flocks of just Bohemians.

It has been several years since a Boreal Chickadee has been reported in southern Vermont, but this could be the year. Gray Jays in Canada are on the move. I know of no reports of Gray Jays as far south as southern Vermont, but if they need food, they may wander far out of their normal range.

Northern Shrikes are being reported frequently. Most birders know the Northern Shrike as a predator of songbirds, but in winter their prime food source is the meadow vole. The meadow vole population in the Hudson Bay lowlands, after an abundant summer, suddenly crashed in October and November.

The abundance of meadow voles during the summer meant that northern owls had a great deal of breeding success. But now those owls, like the shrikes, will be looking for food. Significant movement of owls has been reported throughout the Fall. Northern Saw-whet Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Boreal Owl, and Great Gray Owl, - all might be expected.

This is a good time to spend time with a copy of Sibley’s Guide to Birds. This guide presents the most illustrations of plumage variations. Study these possible winter visitors. Then expect the unexpected. If you are unfamiliar with the birds, be cautious. If possible, take a photo. Be alert.

The predictions, and the reports so far, point toward a winter of very good birding.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Shorebirds in Hawaii Have Remarkable Journeys

When I was in California a few years ago, there were two wintering shorebirds that I was unsuccessful in finding: the Pacific Golden-Plover and the Wandering Tattler. The plover is closely related, and very similar, to the American Golden-Plover which appears along the New England coastline in very small numbers (usually juveniles) during the Fall. The two were considered one species until 1993. The Wandering Tattler is similar to our Spotted Sandpiper which is common along our New England streams. The tattler is larger; it wanders widely along Pacific coastlines after finishing its breeding task. Both the Pacific Golden-Plover and the Wandering Tattler nest in Alaska and northwestern Canada. The occasional report of one of these species on the Atlantic coast are usually dubious.

With no chance of seeing either bird in the East, I had hoped to see them on that trip to California. In the tattler’s case, I gave the search especial diligence, returning to a rocky piece of coastline several times where one was known to be spending the winter. No luck.

The main problem with looking for these North American birds along the Pacific coast of California is that they winter there in very small numbers. However, had I gone 2000 miles further west across 2000 miles of open ocean with no land along the way, I would have had no trouble in finding these two shorebirds.

On our first day in the Hawaiian islands, we were trying out one of the many beautiful beaches on Maui. It was late afternoon; the low sun cast a warm glow on the palm trees, the white sand, the gentle surf, and the many sun worshipers. I was enjoying all of the sights (although some of the sun worshipers I enjoyed more than others). The beach was interrupted by a jagged crop of lava rock. I noticed a shorebird silhouetted atop the rock and immediately forsook the other sights for a closer look at the bird. Maybe it is a sign of age that I so readily abandoned some of those sights for a bird, but ... this bird was a slim, sleek, gentle-looking, golden-brown shorebird. Pacific Golden-Plover.

Two days later, we were returning from a snorkeling trip to Molokini Crater (where a whole new underwater world of beauty had been opened). Walking back to our car along the rocky shore, I noticed a shorebird. Like the golden-plover, it was silhouetted atop the rocks. Like most shorebirds, it was rather nondescript - shaped like a Spotted Sandpiper, mostly gray and streaked gray. Its body perched atop bright yellow legs; its tail bobbed from time to time. Wandering Tattler.

Subsequent to these first sightings of the golden-plover and the tattler were many more. The Pacific Golden-Plover is an abundant wintering bird in the Hawaiian Islands. Occasionally I saw it on a rocky shore, but more commonly it was foraging on golf courses and the grassy expanses of lawns, city parks, and cow pastures. It ran with short bursts, then stopped to feed on insects and invertebrates, then ran again.

On the Big Island, Hawaii, we stayed in a home on the edge of a thermally heated lagoon filled with native tropical fish. (Yes, life can be difficult.) Near the edge of the lagoon, I lifted my head to clear water from my snorkeling mask. Ten feet away, a gray bird bobbed its tail, then uttered a “tattling” call as it flew off. But not to worry - it was regular around our lagoon, often choosing the grassy edge to preen and rest.

The Hawaiian Islands are so isolated that relatively few birds found their way across the oceans and survived. The several species of Hawaiian honeycreepers are believed to be descended from a single undistinguished species of finch related to such birds as goldfinches and crossbills. Only a handful of birds found the islands, stayed put, and have gone, or are going, their own evolutionary way. In wetlands there is the Hawaiian Coot (related to American Coot), Hawaiian Duck (related to Mallard), Nene (related to Canada Goose), Hawaiian Stilt (a sub-species of Black-necked Stilt) and Common Moorhen (an Hawaiian sub-species).

However, this extreme isolation of the Hawaiian Islands presents no barrier to a few species of shorebirds, notably the Pacific Golden-Plover and the Wandering Tattler. These birds make a remarkable journey twice each year. As the short Arctic summer wanes, these birds bulk up in western Alaska. Then, they fly some 3000 miles non-stop. Adults make the trip in August. Juveniles, with no adults to guide them, do it in late September. Once they have begun their flight, there is no choice about the flight being non-stop. There is no place to stop. There are no islands on which to rest along the way. If one of these birds burns up its fat reserves before reaching the islands, it dies.

The Pacific Golden-Plover makes the non-stop flight in about two days, flying at speeds somewhere around sixty miles per hour. It is no wonder that the bird appears thin beneath its feathers when it arrives. It is thin. The plover spends the winter, restores its fat reserves toward spring, and makes the northbound journey in May

Like the Wandering Tattler and the endangered Bristle-thighed Curlew, the Pacific Golden-Plover winters on tropical islands throughout the Pacific. Why would birds evolve such a physically demanding migration pattern? I could speculate reasons, and scientists probably have some empirical explanations. But I am content, for the moment, to gape at the journey.

One thing I do not have to speculate about. Randomness does not figure into the migratory journey. The birds which make this long flight across the open Pacific waters know where they are going. Individual Pacific Golden-Plovers will return to the same spot on the same island year after year. On that favored spot - the fairway of the third hole of a particular golf course, for example - that individual golden-plover will aggressively defend its wintering territory from others of its kind. The same bird will often be in the same spot day after day and will return year after year. It may share the general territory with aliens like the Common Myna or Cattle Egret, but it is loath to share it with another golden-plover.

I enjoyed wandering the beaches in Hawaii. The beach fauna came from all over and in many sizes and shapes. Most sported minimum winter plumage. And some beach fauna, in shape and minimum plumage, were truly eye-catching. But with the exception of a few island residents, all came with the help of technologically sophisticated navigational instrumentation operated in their behalf. By contrast, the Pacific Golden-Plover and the Wandering Tattler have been finding their way to these same places with only their own inherited resources. For me, most of the time, that makes them the more interesting and fascinating.

Good birding!


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