Eastern Towhee

One of our first birds at CLDC last Saturday was an Eastern Towhee recapture.

Eastern Towhee

One of the most interesting things about this recapture was the condition of the band it was wearing. It was so worn and thin that Tom decided to give it a new band. For comparison, here is the old band sitting next to a brand new band of the same size:

Eastern Towhee.jpg Bands 2

This banding project is part of MAPS – “Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship.” This recapture was particularly exciting in that light. Tom put the original band on the bird on July 27, 2004. (I’m not sure how old it was when it was banded.) According to the Cornell website (who quoted the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Website), the oldest known Eastern Towhee was 12 years 3 months.


And so it begins…

… another spring/summer banding season…

Scott Stoleson and his team, Linda Ordiway, Don Watts, and Emily Thomas came to Audubon today to begin five weeks of banding. They will be at the Pavilion field Saturdays through May 23rd from 7am until 11am. If you live nearby, you should definitely plan a Saturday morning visit to the Center to watch the demonstrations… So much to learn… so cool to see the little birdies up close.

AMRO - First bird of Spring 2009 Banding at Audubon
Scott looks on as Emily holds the first bird of the season, an American Robin female, for her photo opportunity. This might be the little lady building a nest in the rafters of the pavilion. We’ll have to wait and see…

Black-capped ChickadeeBlack-capped Chickadees were plentiful… I think we banded six! They are so cute when the come to the feeder, or better yet eat out of your hands… But in the nets, and attempting to band… that’s another story. With that tiny little beak a chickadee can grab on hard and strong when it wants to.

(Emily makes grumpy faces when she has to band a Chickadee.)

Three different kinds of sparrows made it into the nets… I was disappointed in my photos of the Lincoln’s Sparrow… the only one that was in focus, it had its eyes half-closed:

Lincoln Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrows winter south of us and breed north of us… This little guy is just passing through. It had no visible fat, so we guess it may have arrived last night. Having used up all reserves, it will eat up, store more fat, and then move further north before looking for good breeding habitat.

Another north-bound migrant is the White-throated Sparrow. Emily and Don mentioned knowing of a couple of breeding pairs as far south as Forest and McKean counties in Pennsylvania. But most head further north.

White-throated Sparrow
I have had one singing “Oh Canada, Canada, Canada” in my backyard every morning for a week. I wish he would stay, such a pretty song… But alas, I fear he will move on.

We caught two White-throated Sparrows. Both had rather a lot of fat that will provide them with the energy they need to fly further north. You can see the fat when Emily blows on the feathers, separating them:

White-throated Sparrow - Fat

This one was so chubby he wouldn’t fit in the small pill bottle we used to weigh his buddy… So he had to move up to the medium size container. After weighing, he sat for a bit before flying off:

White-throated Sparrow Weighing Tube

This one will stay and breed here. Song Sparrow:

Song Sparrow

This tricky little birdie flew away before we could weigh it. Then, when we re-captured it, we forgot that we didn’t have its weight! House Wren:

House Wren

The early bird catches the worm and the early bander catches the birds… when things got slow later in the morning, we amused ourselves looking for herps. Linda impressed us all with her ability to reach through rose bushes and pull this handsome fellow out of the pond:

Green Frog

(Cross-posted at http://winterwoman.wordpress.com)

Oh No! It’s Happened…

Today, for the first time ever, except for when I would be doing a Birdathon or going to learn about bird banding, I went for a walk specifically to look for birds. Oh dear… I wondered when it would happen. And now it has.

Hard to see - Easy to hearThe morning was bright and sunny, though cold. That was OK, though, because my feet didn’t get muddy, but just stayed on top of the frozen mud.

As soon as I hopped out of the car, I heard them… those high pitched whistles that I have come to associate with Cedar Waxwings. Right there, but I couldn’t see them at first. Finally, one or two of them moved… Then I realized the trees were just dripping with them.

Cedar Waxwing

The fruit on the crabapples seemed pretty unpalatable… dry, shrivelled. But the flock gobbled them up greedily. There were two or three dozen of them, along with some Robins – also eating fruit. Chickadees hopped from here to there, but I couldn’t tell if they were also dining on crabapples, or if they were looking for something with more protein. Coming from opposite directions were the songs of Northern Cardinals, too.

I headed for the field where the Woodcock dances… I knew it was too late in the morning to actually find a Woodcock… but I hoped somebody else might be flitting around in the brushy old field full of dogwoods and goldenrod. I saw no one, but heard both Chipping Sparrows and Song Sparrows. Then it was into the woods…

Huthatch and CavityI walked quickly to try to get warm. Partway to the creek, Red-bellied Woodpecker gurgled at me reminding me to stop and listen once in a while. I paused and watched Crows and listened to Tufted Titmice and White-breasted Nuthatch. Nuthatch showed me a hole in the tree… His cavity for nesting perhaps?

Where he was heading I do not know, but one lone Canada Goose flew over, honking.

Down by the creek there was a very high-pitched tsee-tsee. I recognized that sound and started scanning the bark of the trees looking for a Brown Creeper. I never found him, but I’m sure that’s who it was.

As I walked I heard more Cardinals and saw a Blue Jay. And as I headed out of the woods, the Crows went crazy! Unfortunately, they were between me and the sun, so I couldn’t see who they were pestering today. A hawk perhaps? Or an owl?

Crossing the field, I heard several Killdeer, then saw them…

When I got home, I posted my list on the Western New York Birding blog.

It’s official… Despite much reluctance, I think I now qualify as an offical Birder.

Cross posted at A Passion for Nature.

It’s a Lifer for Me

Ann asked if I wanted to go for a walk today – just 1/2 hour, she said. I told the Universe that I wanted to see a new bird.

And the Universe obliged. Ann spotted movement on a tree ahead of us on the trail. Pinkish, black, white… We both though of Purple Finches first when we saw all that pink… But, no! Purple finches don’t have black wings with white stripes… It’s a White-winged Crossbill!

White-winged Crossbill

Everyone has been reporting them, but I had not seen one until now. I was so glad I was lugging BOTH binoculars AND camera. The former helped me ID the bird, the latter document it. I took a few shots from too far away. I inched closer and took a few more shots… We were able to get fairly close and watch how it extracted seeds from White Pine cones. Unusual, I found out later, as they prefer the seeds of Spruce and Tamarack.

What a great sighting. Thanks, Ann, for twisting my arm for a short afternoon walk!

White-winged Crossbill

Learn more:

Montezuma Wildlife Refuge – Take 2

I wrote over at my general nature blog about an evening visit to the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge.  Evening is not the best time to see birds at this sanctuary.  The visitor center sits on the east side of the pond, so you are looking into a sunset if you go in the evening… and the day I went, the sky was clear and the sunlight was harsh!  I vowed to return in the morning with the sun on my back to see what I could see.

Montezuma MapThe refuge is huge – just over 7,000 acres.  It is situated at the north end of Cayuga Lake. There are several access points for viewing wildlife. (Click my small version of the map to go to the Refuge website and a larger version!)

On this lovely, sunny, Sunday morning (Aug 31, 2008), I opted to check out the North and South Spring pools before heading over to the Visitor Center on the Main pool.  Never before has my desire for a long, image-stabilized lens been so strong!

At the Audubon Center where I work, we get excited if we see one Great Egret.  This summer, we have sometimes been treated to two at a time!  Wow!  Well… at the North Spring Pool, I saw at least 30.  THIRTY Great Egrets!  They were spectacular.  It was fun to see so many and watch their interactions with one another.  This was the best I could manage:


Just a little to the left of this scene is a platform which has an Osprey nest on top.  I watched for quite some time as an Osprey preened and then did some aerial stunts before flying off to the trees and out of sight. Here’s a really bad picture. That black and white blob above the nest is the Osprey:


 I got pretty wet hiking around this trail, which is a mowed path that hadn’t been mowed in a while and was all dew covered.  I found several of these:

Caterpillar Closeup

And quite a few of these:


After a bit, I turned back and drove to the South Spring Pond where I met up with some folks who had really good binoculars.  They let me watch a few Green Herons for a while.  (You can tell I’m still only a reluctant birder by the fact that I didn’t have binoculars with me on a trip that I knew would take me close to the Refuge…  And you can tell I’m becoming more of a birder by how much I regretted that!)

Next it was on to the Visitor Center, which still wouldn’t open for another hour… but that never stops the birders!  There were several folks there with really good spotting scopes who helped me add a lifebird to my list:  Long-billed Dowitcher!  (Uh oh… did I just imply I keep a Life List???)  They also told me plenty about Harriers, one of which was being mobbed by crows.  There were plenty of other shore birds, geese, ducks, and herons, too.

It’s a pretty spectacular place for birds!  Stop driving past it!  Get off the Thruway and go have a look.

Cedar Waxwings

Cedar WaxwingThis was my first picture of a Cedar Waxwing.  It’s not as good as my very encouraging Flickr friends make it out to be, but I was pretty pleased with it…  being one of my first bird pictures at all!  I like looking at it because it reminds me of an evening when I was at the lake, waiting for the perfect sunset photo to come along.  The willows along the shore were full of Waxwings making their high-pitched calls.  What were they doing?  It looked like they were just playing.  They would take off into the wind and hang there like kites over the waves, then return to the trees to chitter away again, as if saying, “Did you see me that time?  That was awesome!”

Chautauqua Lake Sunset

It took me a while to decide that those lake birds they were Waxwings.  The light was dim and the context was wrong; I associate Waxwings so strongly with fruit and there was no fruit nearby.  In fact, when I think of Waxwings, I often think of this image by Tom LeBlanc:

Cedar Waxwing eats Honeysuckle Berries by Tom LeBlanc

Over the summer, through bird banding experiences and subsequent reading, I’ve tried to learn a few more things about Cedar Waxwings.  For example, Jordan  taught me that the chin patch can help you determine males from females:

Male and Female Cedar Waxwing by Jordan
The male on the left has a bigger dark chin patch than the female on the right.

The name “Waxwing” comes from waxy, red appendages on the tips of some of the secondary flight feathers.  Here’s a good picture of that, once again from Tom’s collection:

Cedar Waxwing's waxy wings by Tom LeBlanc

While banding with Scott Stoleson and his field crew, I learned that the number of waxy tips can sometimes be an indicator of the sex of the bird… and that there are always exceptions.  Emily pulled a Waxwing out of the nets the other day that had eight tips on each wing making her pretty certain it was a male… except… the chin patch wasn’t very big… and a little poof on the belly showed a huge brood patch.

Cedar Waxwing Female - unusual w 8 tips

A couple of cool facts from here and there:

1 – Supposedly, if a Cedar Waxwing finds a particular non-native shrub covered with orange berries and eats those at the time the tail feathers are coming in, the tips may be orange instead of yellow. My favorite bird photographer, Jim Gilbert, found one:
Cedar Waxwing with Orange Tail by Jim Gilbert

Honeysuckle2 – Sometimes the Waxwings eat berries or other fruit that has started to ferment.  And guess what?  They get drunk!

3 – Because they rely on late summer fruit, Cedar Waxwings are one of the latest breeders in North America.

While they are, according to Cornell, “one of the most frugivorous birds in North America,” Cedar Waxwings will eat insects.  Please go check out this series of three photos from Hard Rain’s Flickr account to see a Cedar Waxwing eating a 17-year Cicada!  Pretty amusing:

 Learn more:

Purple Martins

The Jamestown Audubon field trip committee organizes some pretty cool trips.  I don’t usually go, though, because after putting in a 40 hour week, I usually have a list of things a mile long that need to get done…  But this time, since I’m getting into birds, and since we had a very interesting presentation at Audubon last spring on Purple Martins and learned about their roosting at Purple Martins - Calling Them InPresque Isle (Erie, PA), and since I suggested the committee arrange a field trip to see the phenomenon, and since the weather was perfect, and since… oh well… it just worked out to go… so I went!

After meeting up and getting some dinner, we went with one of the researchers, Tim, to Beach 11 where he set up some speakers in his van to play the Purple Martin dawn songs in hopes of calling in some of the birds. It didn’t take long before the birds started to arrive.

They seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere, all at the same time.  One or two at first, then dozens.  Eventually, we estimate there were 300-500 birds on the wire.  It was pretty darn cool!

Purple Martins - On the Wire

Purple Martin by Toni KellyThere were lots and lots of juvenile birds in this flock, but a we did spot a few mature males, too.  Mature males are all bluish-black, where the females and juveniles have white or grayish bellies.

As sunset approached, Tim asked us all to follow him to a second site where we would be able to watch the Martins settling into their roost for the night.  This had already been pretty interesting… But OK.  We’d follow him.

He took us off of Presque Isle, to the east just a bit to where the water treatment plant is located.  From this point, we had a good view of two cattail “islands” in the bay.

Purple Martins Coming to Roost by Toni KellyWhat happened as the sun went down was crazy and stunning and ridiculous and something I will never forget.

It’s hard to see in this photo, but when we looked up into the dimming sky, it looked like someone out of sight was sprinkling pepper on us.  As the flakes of pepper got closer, they got bigger and turned into bird shapes that swirled and circled and chattered to one another.

The islands seemed to be magnets or vacuums pulling the birds down.  Some resisted and flew back out, not ready to go to bed yet, I suppose.  If we saw 300-500 birds on the wire at Beach 11, we saw 30-50,000 birds here.  No lie.  It was incredible.

Prior to migration, Purple Martins gather from hundreds of miles around into enormous flocks.  They will be at Presque Isle roosting at night like this for maybe another week or two.  Then they will take off for South America for the winter.

Learn more:

Many thanks to Toni Kelly of A Spattering for use of her pictures!