Sunday, August 11, 2013

Mid-Summer Birds, Beasts, and Bugs

 Adult and juvenile Barn Swallows sunning themselves on the metal roof of a barn.

One was too lazy to pick up this dragon fly near the barn.

July is a real challenge for birding. The birds are quiet, usually staying well hidden in the foliage, feeding their young or fattening themselves up before fall migration.

Some observations are serendipitous such as a flock of Cedar Waxwings  performing aerial acrobatics over the West River in pursuit of insects, fluttering, zigzagging, turning and twisting and intermittently perching on to a tree to rest. The biting deer flies, usually helicoptering around one's head this time of year looking for a suitable landing spot,  are mercifully absent because of the heavy rains we've had.

The one species I would encounter almost without fail when walking past a moist  thicket are the Common Yellowthroats. They are very territorial and just passing by will trigger their Tchak, tchak alarm calls. With a little bit of pishing they'll usually pop right out.

When not distracted they are busy feeding their offspring

House Wrens are almost done feeding their young in their nest. They are almost ready to fledge.

And a couple of days later:  

Late afternoon I saw a brown shape foraging in the grass ahead. Only on coming closer did I realize it was a doe.

Taking a walk with my dog on the gravelly path up the hill brown and gray winged grasshoppers were popping up with every step, whirring through the air and dropping down a few feet further up.

 They are almost invisible unless you look very closely.

In the meadow on top of the hill a flock of 6 to 8 Bobolinks, juveniles and females, no males, were fattening up for the fall migration later this month.

Getting ready for take-off

A solitary male Indigo Bunting on a look-out from the top of a tall pine

Goldfinches showing up to feast on the seeds of the two tall thistles in our yard. 

Several times a day this Downy Woodpecker is taking a drink from my hummingbird feeder.

It's August. The end of summer is in sight. Shorebird migration is already well under way and warblers and nighthawks are soon to follow. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Where are the Bobolinks?

The first time I saw Bobolinks was about 30 years ago, when I was just a casual birdwatcher. I was taking my mother, who was visiting from Germany, on a tour of the mountain state that had become my home. We stopped at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, VT, for  lunch, but did a look around first. It was a glorious day in mid June. There were several large hayfields on the slopes around the lodge and on them a burbling joyful cacophony, made visual by the spectrogram below, of black and white birds swirling over the fields and riding the fences. Emily Dickenson calls the Bobolink the Sorcerer of the Meadow in her poem "The Way to know the Bobolink"  :

"The Way to know the Bobolink
From every other Bird
Precisely as the Joy of him—
Obliged to be inferred.

"Extrinsic to Attention
Too intimate with Joy—
He compliments existence
Until allured away

"By Contrast certifying
The Bird of Birds is gone—
How nullified the Meadow—
Her Sorcerer withdrawn!"

Bobolinks are iconic  grassland  birds of the northeast and center of the country. The males are easily recognized by their  buffy napes, black front and on their backs white shoulder patches and white on their rumps.  Many meadows may look empty at first glance  but watchful waiting and listening is often rewarded.

They are semi-colonial and need at least 20 acres for a breeding. They prefer wide open grasslands, old hayfields with a mix of grass and broad-leaved forbs. They tend to cluster in the middle of a field away from  woody edges. The female builds her nest on her own in a small hollow in the ground weaving old grass and fine sedge together into a thin cup at the foot of a broad-leaved plant which provides shade and leafy shelter. Both she and the male are polygamous Her hatchlings are often fathered by different males. The males have a primary female who gets most of their attention, but they may also breed with, and provide for, other females. The males are generally not territorial, except during courtship, and often flock and sing together. 

These were the only two Bobolinks I saw carrying food during several field trips this year.

The relentless torrential rain this spring and early summer must have flooded many, if not most, nests and drowned eggs and nestlings. I haven't yet seen any juveniles. Unless they are successful in re-nesting before the meadows are mowed the outlook for any first-year nestlings returning next year is not good. Unlike other songbirds many Bobolink yearlings return to the site where they were originally hatched according to banding studies done by Noah Perlut as recounted in this lively Burglinton FreePress article and video. 

Below are a series of photos of male Bobolinks on their perches, blades of grass, on which they often do their singing and calling.

Mid-season June mowing will destroy nests and nestlings. To give late nesters and re-nesters a chance mowing is best delay until August. Here's a link to NY Audubon management recommendations. By October most birds have left for their wintering ground south of the Equator, the Argentine pampas.

A couple of weeks ago I sent out an email on the VTBird listserve with title "Where are the Bobolinks?" because they seemed to be absent in the areas where I had seen them before in sizable numbers. For example I took these shots of a feeding pair on a meadow just up from my house in 2008. but I haven't seen any on there for the last several years.

But judging by the response to my message Bobolinks are widespread and locally common most everywhere. However according to the Atlas of Breeding Birds in Vermont there has been a rather significant decline of one to two percent annually in Vermont and neighboring states. In some parts of the continent, especially in Ontario, CA, the decline has been dramatic: 88% since 1970 and it's continuing unabated. Studies by the Canadian Wildlife Service with help of researchers from the Vermont Center for Eco Studies are underway to figure out why this is happening. Bobolink survival is threatened on multiple fronts:  habitat loss from development, conversion of hayfields to crop plants, nest destruction due to more frequent mowing, and reforestation.  For anyone looking for more information there is an excellent NY Audubon Guidance for Conservation pamphlet with specific management recommendations.

Post Script:  An upbeat note from ornithologist Noah Perlut --who by the way also authored the Bobolink article in the Atlas of Breeding Birds in Vermont that I mentioned above--
“A mowing program has been developed for intensive dairy farmers in VT.  At last count, >1300 acres were enrolled--and it has major (positive) benefits for bobolinks.There is also a new grazing program this year based on our research that is specifically aimed at increasing habitat for bobolinks, Savannah sparrows and meadowlarks.”

Please note: I am reducing my posting to the 6th of every month. My post will appear on Birding is Fun. Head over there now for the site's daily wonderful posts! 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Vanishing Whip-Poor-Wills

                                                                                                                          Photo: Paul Cools

When mentioning to friends that I'd never heard the call of a Whip-poor-will, I'd  get the reply more often than not: "Oh yes, I used to hear them but don't remember the last time I did". Last year when I wrote a blog post on the Montague Sandplains  in Western Mass., I had heard about their presence there, but hadn't stayed late enough to actually hear one. I was determined to do so this year.  The Montague Sandplains is a 1500 acre pine barrens habitat of low shrubs, scrub oak and small pine stands, maintained with controlled burning, on a large sand delta formed by melting glaciers more than 10,000 years ago.  I am including a map below for anyone interested in visiting the area.

The species is shrouded in mystery. They are difficult to observe because of being active only at dawn and dusk, or on moon-lit nights.  Because of this crepuscular behavior and their camouflaging plumage little is known about them. They are an edge species, requiring dry woodland for breeding and open spaces for foraging, just what the Montague Sandplains WMA is offering.  When resting, they usually lie lengthwise on the limb of a tree and to the casual observer appear to be part of the tree.  Males establish and defend their breeding territories by calling from their perches on trees, fence posts or the ground. 

In the IUCN , International Union for Conversation of Nature, the Whip-poor-will is listed as a Species of Least Concern, and yet in the just published Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont their territorial range has shrunk dramatically compared to the first atlas published in 1985.  They were once very common and were widely recognized by their characteristic call  but having lost habitat to agriculture and suburbanization they are now a Species of  Special Concern in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and Connecticut.

I had arrived at about 7 PM intending, while is was still light, to look for Prairie Warblers, Brown Thrashers and Eastern Towhees which are also common in this kind of habitat, and then wait until dusk for the Whip-poor-wills to appear. However shortly after my arrival three dirt bikers rolled in and started cavorting on the sand road and in the sand pit that formed one corner of the intersection of Plains Rd and the power-line corridor, their racket drowning out all other sounds. Fortunately they drove off just before 8:30 PM when the Whip-poor-wills started their repetitive calls.

I had brought a flashlight to see whether I could get a reflection from their eyes during their foraging flights, but it wasn't yet dark enough. I saw one briefly though as a gray shape flying around a solitary  pine tree. Here is a recording of their calls: 

The spectrogram below shows a small  initial  "whip" followed by a brief pause, and ending with a crescendo "poor WILL"  Each call lasts about a second and usually goes on for many minutes; one bird was once recorded as making 1000 + calls in a row.

The birds iintermittently sally forth from their perches after flying insects, or go after them during continuous aerial feeding flights. Their beaks are tiny but when open, their gape is enormous, wide enough to swallow a large moth tail-end first, as shown in James Audubon's painting below. 

Eastern Whip-poor-will distribution in the US

Directions to Montague Sandplains Wildlife Management Area

I placed a marker near the crossroad of Plains Rd (off Turner's Falls Rd) and a wide corridor with tall pylons carrying high voltage power lines. At the intersection a sandpit is shown  in the upper quadrant. The Whip-poor-will calls were recorded from a bird in left-hand quadrant and Prairie Warblers, as well as Eastern Towhees, were heard in all quadrants.

Prairie Warblers  and Eastern Towhees in the Northeast are also declining in numbers probably due to loss of habitat brought on by changes in agriculture and by urbanization. Eastern Towhees and Brown Thrashers, all abundant in this area, prefer dense low shrubs, whereas  Prairie Warblers prefer successional habitat dominated by small trees and scattered shrubs. 


Happy Birding!