Saturday, June 28, 2008

What Is a Mississippi Kite Doing in New Hampshire?

What is a Mississippi Kite doing in New Hampshire? Before answering that question, there is this one: What is a Mississippi Kite?

I was on a sidewalk in a small town in eastern New Hampshire. It was Main Street and residential. About a dozen people were standing around, looking up. They all had binoculars. There were several telescopes on tripods, and a couple of very serious cameras with three foot telephoto lens. Passing drivers craned their necks for a glimpse of whatever it was we were looking at. A trucker paused his rig, leaned out the window and asked, “What are you looking at?” A car stopped in the middle of the road, and asked the same question while three cars back the driver beeped impatiently. When another car stopped next to me and asked the question, I responded, “Mississippi Kite.” The look on her face was blank incomprehension. Had I said that there was a hot air balloon caught on an antenna, a cat stuck in a tree, or even an eagle soaring overhead, there would have been understanding. But a kite is a flimsy paper thing that kids try to fly on windy March days. What kind of paper kite is a Mississippi Kite, and why would a bunch of graying adults be looking at that with so much intensity?

Most of the question answering was done by the local birdwatcher who lived a block away. Her answer, “Mississippi Kite,” followed by definition and commentary, backed up traffic. So the next time a motorist stopped next to me, I answered, “A rare hawk,” and the satisfied driver moved along.

Calling the Mississippi Kite “a rare hawk” is barely accurate. “Kite” (from a Greek word) is a common name loosely applied to several kinds of medium-sized hawks. There are five “kites” seen in North America, none in the same genus. “Kite” does not refer to genetic relationship, but rather to physical and behavioral similarities. Most kites are slim birds; in flight they glide and soar gracefully, circling and swooping, somewhat similar to the way a paper kite on a string “flies.” The paper kite was named after the bird, not the other way around.

The Mississippi Kite was “discovered” by the early American ornithologist, Alexander Wilson, in Mississippi, hence its name. This southern state name also suggests its breeding range. It is a southern bird which nests in the southern half of the Gulf states, in the southern Mississippi River Valley, and in the southern Great Plains. It nests in trees near the edge of woodlots and hunts over open country. Trees planted as shelterbelts and in towns have enabled the Mississippi Kite to expand its range in the Great Plains, and its population in some areas has greatly increased. It winters in southern South America.

So, what is a Mississippi Kite doing in eastern New Hampshire? Apparently there are times when the Mississippi Kite on its northward journey doesn’t know when to stop. Or perhaps it gets a strong tailwind which keeps its going, or a storm which blows it north of its normal breeding range. Or maybe it just doesn’t read its range map in the bird guides. Whatever the reason, it is a regular vagrant in some areas far north of where it should be.

In the last half dozen years when I have made a Spring trip to Cape May, New Jersey, the Mississippi Kite has been present. One year I managed to see the bird. Four kites were flying high overhead - dark, pointed wing silhouettes, circling, soaring, and swooping, as they fed on dragonflies. Large insects make up most of its diet.

Mississippi Kites are also regularly reported in the Spring in southeastern Massachusetts, usually in the Cape Cod area. Presumably these birds eventually realize that they overshot their destination and return south. Or maybe they are young, nonbreeding birds out seeing the world.

So the first answer to the question: What is a Mississippi Kite doing in New Hampshire? - might be something like: they got lost, blown off course, or are tourists. But that hardly captures the excitement of New Hampshire birders when they first identified the bird, because there are no previous records of the Mississippi Kite being seen in New Hampshire. The first report posted two weeks ago hoped that they could somehow get three people to confirm the sighting, or some photographs - required for a fully documented state record.

That anxiety has vanished. Three Mississippi Kites are in the small town in eastern New Hampshire: an adult male, an adult female, and (apparently) a juvenile, or year old, female. They are breeding. In the top of a tall maple tree ten feet from the edge of Main Street, they have built a nest that (in Audubon’s words) “resembles the dilapidated tenement of the Common American Crow, formed of sticks slightly put together.”

One week ago, a friend and I spent about two hours on the sidewalk across the street from the nest tree. We watched the male carrying sticks back and forth, eventually disappearing into the foliage with his nesting material. We saw the kite gracefully dipping and soaring high overhead. One of the females spent long minutes perched on a high bare branch, preening. In a more distant willow tree, one of the kites also preened.

In the rather brief time I spent watching the kites, it was not clear which female was the younger one, and the identity of the male (smaller than the female) was only clear when he copulated, which he did on several occasions. Observations reported in the last week seem to suggest that the male has copulated with both females and that incubation is occurring, but it is still unclear what the role of the younger female is. Is she a helper bird? Has she laid an egg in the nest? One or two eggs are the usual number. No one has yet suggested that there may be a second nest in the vicinity, though the Mississippi Kite often nests colonially.

What is a Mississippi Kite doing in New Hampshire? The answer: it is breeding. But that still doesn’t explain how three kites came to be so far out of their normal range, nor why they decided to stay in the north and breed. We won’t know those answers. Nor will we know whether those vagrants seen in previous years far outside of their range stayed around to breed, unnoticed by anyone who could identify them.

I do know that last Friday on that Main Street sidewalk, there were a dozen or so very intent birders, a number of curious motorists and passing joggers, and three Mississippi Kites. The birders were getting a rare treat, a vagrant seldom seen in New England, putting on an exceptionally rare show. The birders had smiles on their faces.
And the male kite, with his two females ... well, he seemed to have a smile on his face too. Good birding.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Mississippi Kite, NH

Friday went to Newmarket, NH, for the Mississipi Kite. One male and two females are busy nest building and copulating. Nest is hidden in a maple tree next to a fairly busy state route in a residential are. Parts of the nest are visible. This is the first breeding record for Mississippi Kite in New Hampshire, and the first record of this species in New Hampshire. There have been fairly regular Spring reports in eastern Massachusetts the last few years.

After a couple of hours watching the kites, went on to Plum Island. Dipped on the King Rail, but had a great demonstration of Least Bittern agility at Hellcat Swamp (no decent photos), and near the maintenance shed watched a pair of Orchard Orioles feeding young - here is the year old male feeding young.

Early Results from the 2003-2007 Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas

The second Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas (VBBA) conducted its field research from 2003 to 2007. The aim of the project was to document the nesting status and location of every bird species breeding in Vermont. Sponsors of the project included Vermont Fish & Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service. It was under the direction of the conservation biology department (now the independent Vermont Center for Ecostudies) of the Vermont Institute of Natural Science.

Data for the first Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas (VBBA) was gathered during 1977-1981 and published in 1985. This atlas helped pave the way for similar atlases in 30 other states and established Vermont as a nationwide leader in conservation biology research focused on birds. Now, after almost 25 years of changes in land use, climate, and many other factors that affect where birds breed, the need for a new Atlas documenting these changes was evident to researchers.

In brief, here’s how the atlas project worked: U.S. Geological quadrant maps cover a ten kilometer by fifteen kilometer area. Each map was divided into six blocks. From these six blocks, a priority block and a secondary block were randomly selected. These blocks were then surveyed by volunteers; data about birds observed within the block was carefully recorded. Three designations were used. A “Possible Breeder” is a species observed in its breeding season in suitable nesting habitat, with no other indication of breeding noted. A species was recorded as a “Probable Breeder” if activity was observed which indicative of breeding, such as a singing male, defense of territory, courtship display or agitated behavior suggesting the presence of a nest. Breeding was “Confirmed” when there was nest building, an occupied nest, fledged young, adult carrying food for young, a nest containing eggs, or downy young.

During the five year period for field research, data was gathered by over 200 volunteers who logged nearly 30,000 hours of field time.

A total of 200 species was documented during the second Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas, with 180 species confirmed.

Fourteen species confirmed in the first atlas (‘77-‘81) were not confirmed in the second atlas. Those species are: Red-breasted Merganser, Cattle Egret, Northern Pintail, American Coot, Gray Partridge, Barn Owl, Short-eared Owl, Common Nighthawk, Loggerhead Shrike, Red-headed Woodpecker, Cape May Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Tennessee Warbler.

However, seventeen species not found breeding in the first atlas were confirmed during the second atlas (‘03-‘07): Bald Eagle, Osprey, Peregrine Falcon, Great Egret, Double-crested Cormorant, Sandhill Crane, Caspian Tern, Great Black-backed Gull, Ring-necked Duck, Merlin, ring-necked Pheasant, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Fish Crow, Palm Warbler, Clay-colored Sparrow, White-winged Crossbill, Red Crossbill.

The breeding Bald Eagles were in Rockingham, the first confirmed breeding of this species in modern times. This breeding pair has had its difficulties. One year they hatched a chick, but it did not succeed in fledging. Then the nest was destroyed. The next season they began building a new nest, but one of the pair died. The survivor has found a new mate. The pair is often seen along the Connecticut River in the vicinity of Herricks Cove, but to date still has not successfully raised a chick.

The Peregrine Falcon and Osprey are success stories. Like the Bald Eagle, both raptors were severely impacted by DDT which thinned their egg shells, resulting in nesting failure. Throughout their eastern range they were on the brink of extinction, particularly the Peregrine Falcon. They have recovered through management efforts, and were confirmed in multiple blocks.

A Sandhill Crane pair nested in wetlands near Bristol; this was the first record of this species breeding in Vermont.

Comparing the second atlas to the first atlas, a few of the gainers are: Tufted Titmouse - 109/9; Carolina Wren - 18/2; Peregrine Falcon - 20/0; Merlin - 2/0; Red-bellied Woodpecker - 20/0. The titmouse, wren, and woodpecker in this list are all southern species which have been extending their range northward. The first breeding record of the Red-bellied Woodpecker was in Brattleboro in 2001; it has been rapidly expanding its range. It is now most common in Windham County and the Champlain Valley. The movement of southern species northward is often attributed to the warming of the climate; natural adaptability and habitat availability are also important factors.

The Merlin is an anomaly. This falcon breeds across Canada and Alaska (except arctic regions). In recent years, however, it has been expanding its breeding range southward. As yet, there are no documented reasons for the expansion, but adaptability and food are probably factors in some way. Its presence is certainly welcome in Vermont.

Also comparing the second atlas to the first atlas, a few of the losers are: Upland Sandpiper - 1/15; Common Nighthawk - 1/15; Vesper Sparrow - 6/28.

Looking at Windham County, in the first atlas Tufted Titmouse was found in only three blocks; in the second atlas it was found in 14 blocks (9 confirmed). In the first atlas, Eastern Meadowlark was found in 7 blocks; in the second atlas it was found in only one block. There was a similar pattern for the Eastern Towhee: first atlas - 17 blocks, second atlas - 3 blocks, no confirmations.

This was a pattern throughout the state. Species associated with grassland or early successional habitats (e.g. meadowlark and towhee) showed range contractions. They are holding their own in the Champlain Valley, but elsewhere in the state the reversion of farmland to forest has greatly reduced suitable habitat.

Common Nighthawks and Chimney Swifts have become dependent on human structures for nesting (flat gravel roofs and unused chimneys) and both showed marked decline, perhaps reflective of the change in roofing materials and in chimney construction.

Biologists are beginning to analyze the wealth of data, producing summary tables and distribution maps, and writing species accounts. The VBBA Database can be accessed through the website of Vermont Center for Ecostudies, - “Wildlife Research.”

Good birding.

Material for this article came from the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department newsletter, “Natural Heritage Harmonies,” Winter, 2008, and from “Field Notes,” the newsletter of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, Winter, 2008.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

One More Colorful Blackbird

The river of grass stretched in all directions before us, broken occasionally by a cluster of shrubs or pines growing on a slight rise in the flat landscape. The sun had just risen above the horizon; its low rays cast a golden glow on the dry sawgrass.

With lowered windows, we crept slowly along the park road, the only ones out so early on the April morning. Distantly I heard a song greeting the sunrise: Wee’he See’ee you.

“Listen,” I said, and again the song traveled over the river of grass: Wee’he See’ee you. We looked at one another; together we said, “Meadowlark.”

We pulled over and climbed out, wondering whether we could find the maker of that ephemeral song: Wee’he See’ee you. It came from my left, but then another answered from the right, and yet another more distantly. I found him even before I raised my binoculars - a bright yellow spot atop a tiny bush in the sea of golden yellow grass. A plump Eastern Meadowlark, bright yellow breast with a black vee thrust forward, head and beak tilted upward, sang his “Spring of the year” song: Wee’he See’ee you.

I don’t see meadowlarks often. They are birds of grasslands and farmlands, and as the forest has reclaimed Vermont, the meadowlark has lost habitat. They are still found in the Champlain Valley, but the recent breeding bird atlas in Vermont did not confirm any nesting meadowlarks in Windham County. Standing on the park road in Everglades National Park and hearing their song from multiple directions was a treat. It cleared the last remaining night fog from the mind and left us without words.

The meadowlark is not a lark, though many think it sings like one, and that explains its name. It has sometimes been called meadow starling, because its shape, posture and behavior resembles that of a starling. But it is not a starling. The meadowlark is a blackbird, in the family, Icteridae, the family of grackles, orioles, bobolinks and even real blackbirds.

Like grassland birds, it hides its presence with its nondescript brown streaked back. It can be easily missed as it forages through the grass. When approached too closely, it bursts into flight, and then it might be identified by its stumpy, flared tail with white outer feathers.

But then comes the spring of the year, and the meadowlark - the males - perch atop fence posts, a scrawny shrub, a utility wire, a bare branch, or any other elevated perch. The bright yellow breast with the black pendant vee becomes prominent, and the “high, plaintive, and somewhat wistfully whistled Wee’he See’ee you” (Dunne) carries across the hayfield, the pasture, the grassy plain, or on our April morning, the Everglades’ river of grass.

Early science thought the Eastern Meadowlark was, in fact, related to the starling, but beyond that there was little logic about the name assigned to it in 1758: Sturnella magna. Sturn comes from the Latin for starling; -ella from the Latin for little. Hence the genus name means “little starling.” The species name, magna, means large. So the meadowlark’s scientific name in translation means “large little starling.” I share this with you in case you were thinking that scientific names are intended to be descriptive or make sense. Under the nomenclature rule of priority, that we are forever stuck with the nonsense name.

Just to take the name situation a little further: the Eastern Meadowlark has a close relative known, logically, as the Western Meadowlark, since it tends to be a western species. Its scientific name is Sturnella neglecta, “neglected.” Audubon so named the Western Meadowlark in 1844 as a protest against the ornithologists whom he felt were guilty of dilly-dallying about the identify of this western bird.

Unlike so many of the blackbirds, the affection for the meadowlark seems almost always positive. When Audubon writes about the “Meadow Lark, or Meadow Starling,” he rhapsodizes for several long pages. “The prudent and enlightened farmer,” Audubon writes, “mindful of the benefit his meadows have received from the destruction of thousands of larvae, which might have greatly injured his grass, disturbs it not, and should he find its nest while cutting his hay, he leaves the tuft in which it is placed.”

In a similar vein, Bent’s Life History begins: “The meadowlark is the outstanding and the most characteristic bird of the American farm. It is revered by the farmer not only because of its charming simplicity and its cheerful, spirited song, but also for its usefulness as a destroyer of harmful insects and the seeds of obnoxious weeds.”

Unfortunately, modern farming requires several hay cuttings, which means early cutting, and employs large machinery with little chance to avoid the secreted ground nest of the meadowlark. Add to these challenges the abandonment of much farm land, the return of shrub and forest, and the conversion of farm land to suburban tracts. These factors all combine to make the meadowlark’s spring song a much less common one, and here in southeastern Vermont, an almost non-existent song.

It is challenging for the meadowlark in many parts of the east, but not bleak. A few weeks ago I took an early morning walk through Pennsylvania farmlands outside of Philadelphia. Housing developments are pushing hard against this countryside, but farming continues. Most fields already had their first hay cutting, so I was not surprised that Bobolinks were absent. Even so, from the far side of one pasture I heard the spring song of a meadowlark. A couple of days later I stood, as I try to do every year, in a coastal tidal marsh along the Delaware Bay. The song of the meadowlark floated through the air.

We returned to the Everglades very early the next morning, this time to walk a trail through an open southern pine forest. It was an area where turkey, bluebirds, and Brown-headed Nuthatch were beginning to become reestablished. We heard name calling Bobwhite, and turned a bend in the trail to see one strutting before us. But the real delight, again, was the singing of the grassland bird: Wee’he See’ee you ... “Wee’he See’ee you. All along the trail, meadowlarks were proclaiming their territory, defending their prerogatives, intent on the task of extending their species to the next generation.

One flew from the grass to a bare branch above my head. Briefly he paused and posed. His profile and beak looked like that of so many blackbirds. But his yellow chest glowed in the morning sun. He lifted his head and song poured forth - a song about the season, and the joy of life.

Good birding.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Bobolink and Robert of Lincoln

Alfred Cleveland Bend was of the opinion that “bobolink” derived from an abbreviation of “Robert of Lincoln, a classic poem by William Cullen Bryant written in 1864. Ernest Choate (American Bird Names) finds that this is “hardly creditable. It likely originated in imitation of the bird’s unpatterned bubbling song ...” Since Audubon in the 1840s knew it to be a “bobolink” in New York, it would certainly seem that the name preceded the poem. Nevertheless, the poem is quite delightful.
Merrily swinging on brier and weed,
Near to the nest of his little dame,
Over the mountain-side or mead,
Robert of Lincoln is telling his name:
Bob-o'-link, bob-o'-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Snug and safe is that nest of ours,
Hidden among the summer flowers,
Chee, chee, chee.

Robert of Lincoln is gayly drest,
Wearing a bright black wedding-coat;
White are his shoulders and white his crest
Hear him call in his merry note:
Bob-o'-link, bob-o'-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Look, what a nice coat is mine.
Sure there was never a bird so fine.
Chee, chee, chee.

Robert of Lincoln's Quaker wife,
Pretty and quiet, with plain brown wings,
Passing at home a patient life,
Broods in the grass while her husband sings
Bob-o'-link, bob-o'-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Brood, kind creature; you need not fear
Thieves and robbers while I am here.
Chee, chee, chee.

Modest and shy is she;
One weak chirp is her only note.
Braggart and prince of braggarts is he,
Pouring boasts from his little throat:
Bob-o'-link, bob-o'-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Never was I afraid of man;
Catch me, cowardly knaves, if you can!
Chee, chee, chee.

Six white eggs on a bed of hay,
Flecked with purple, a pretty sight!
There as the mother sits all day,
Robert is singing with all his might:
Bob-o'-link, bob-o'-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Nice good wife, that never goes out,
Keeping house while I frolic about.
Chee, chee, chee.

Soon as the little ones chip the shell,
Six wide mouths are open for food;
Robert of Lincoln bestirs him well,
Gathering seeds for the hungry brood.
Bob-o'-link, bob-o'-linl,
Spink, spank, spink;
This new life is likely to be
Hard for a gay young fellow like me.
Chee, chee, chee.

Robert of Lincoln at length is made
Sober with work, and silent with care;
Off is his holiday garment laid,
Half forgotten that merry air:
Bob-o'-link, bob-o'-link,
Nobody knows but my mate and I
Where our nest and out nestlings lie.
Chee, chee, chee.

Summer wanes; the children are grown;
Fun and frolic no more he knows;
Robert of Lincoln's a humdrum crone;
Off he flies, and we sing as he goes:
Bob-o'-link, bob-o'-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
When you can pipe that merry old strain,
Robert of Lincoln, come back again.
Chee, chee, chee.


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