Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

Spring Song of the American Robin

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Diane Cooledge Porter
AT A CERTAIN moment in March, spring arrives. Few events in life are so satisfyingly mathematical.

At 8:06 p.m. EST last Tuesday, March 20, it was winter. At 8:07, it became spring. It’s the moment at which days become longer than nights.

That’s the cosmic view, true for the entire Northern Hemisphere. But the local calculus of spring depends on where you are, on the weather, and even on who you are. For some, spring begins when the seed catalogs land in the mailbox, or when the first crocus buds emerge from the snow. For my husband it’s when he retires the snow shovel to the back of the garage.

By my reckoning as an Iowan, spring begins with the first song of an American Robin. Not the first sight of a robin, mind you. The mere presence of robins is not sufficient, because a few stay around all winter. Most skulk in the woods, where they stay out of view and live on wild fruits.

In late winter they sometimes venture into town to raid hawthorns and other berry-giving trees, and the local newspaper may proclaim on the front page, “They’re back!” But these birds are probably not the vanguard of the robin migration. They’re the ones who have wintered here. They are not singing. They’re just enduring.

Of course, most robins leave the North before winter sets in. They crowd into the southern U.S. and Central America, where it’s warm and there’s more food. In the North, the first returning robins sometimes look rather miserable during late snowstorms. Robins who’ve enjoyed an easy winter in the South don’t seem to like that sort of weather.

Until the soil warms to 45 degrees, earthworms don’t move around in the ground, and so the robins can’t find them. Wild berries and fruits are at their lowest ebb, too, picked over by the wintering birds. Although robins will accept blueberries, chopped apples, or soaked raisins at bird feeders, most people who feed birds provide only seeds. And robins don’t really regard seeds as food. No wonder they aren’t singing.

But then, robins usually don’t sing much in wintertime even if they do have enough to eat. When my father lived in southern Texas, he called one morning in January to say there were 50 robins on his front lawn. “You’ll be seeing them soon,” he told me. “They’re on their way.”

“Their music must be absolutely deafening,” I remarked.

But my father said that the robins weren’t singing. Now and then one of them said “Tuck-tuck,” but that was about it. In fact, my father couldn’t remember when he had last heard a robin sing. I wouldn’t have believed him, if I hadn’t known what a keen observer he was.

The next January, my husband and I camped at Brazos Bend State Park, near Houston. The park swarmed with American Robins. Robins running on the ground and on top of picnic benches. Robins gazing at us through Spanish moss that hung from oak trees and peering us from under parked campers. Robins perched on rocks and signs and tent poles. We tried to estimate how many there were in the 5000-acre park and came up with five million robins. I tried to extrapolate to the whole of Texas and came up with my head swimming. And all those robins were silent as monks.

Then I got it. A male robin’s song is an ad for a mate and a declaration of territory, warning other males to keep their distance. If robins were to sing in crowded winter quarters, there could be mayhem. So they usually don’t sing. First they migrate, spreading out, returning to old nesting grounds, filling the waiting continent. And then, as the Northern Hemisphere turns sunward, and the days lengthen, and conditions begin to feel right for attracting a mate, the males get the urge to sing.

Perhaps it’s on a late afternoon heavy with the promise of warm rain. More cheerful week by week, robins splash in my birdbath. They patrol the grass in my front yard, pulling earthworms out of recently thawed soil. I hear them tuck-tucking and making whinnying calls, like the voices of tiny horses. Then one robin takes a commanding perch in the hawthorn, clears his throat and whistles.

Cheer? Cheerily? the throaty song begins, and the robin pauses, ruffling his feathers.

I love those initial notes, like the violins’ first bow strokes when the orchestra starts to tune up–not as musical as the symphony to come, but thrilling for their freshness on the ear and for the anticipation they sharpen in the listener. Then he pours out a full song,

Cheerily. Cheer up! Cheerio, cheerily?

It’s the measured, deliberate melody that we listen to every spring, the song heard across North America, on every farm, in every neighborhood. Up and down goes the pitch, and on and on goes the song, until darkness falls.

And in the space of that song, spring has come.–

Spring Is In The Air–Really!

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Kathy Reshetiloff
ALL AROUND, there is an eruption of life beyond the typical signs of spring like robins and crocuses. The land, skies and waters—quiet and gray throughout the winter months—now sing day and night and burst with color.

In the waters, anadromous fish, like shad, journey from oceans to rivers to spawn. The word anadromous comes from the Greek word meaning “running uphill.”

What’s really amazing is these fish return to the same area where they were born. How they accomplish this remains a mystery. Many scientists believe that this homing instinct may be due to an uncanny sense of smell and sensitivity to magnetic signals, polarized light and unique characteristics of the natal stream or waterway.

Prompted by rising temperature, shad leave the ocean to spawn from March through June. Spawning runs of the American Shad (Alosa sappidissima) are particularly famed in the Chesapeake Bay. Native Americans harvested shad and taught colonists how to catch them.

By the 1800s, fishermen caught shad by the ton. Farmers took advantage of this seemingly endless supply of fish, using shad as fertilizer for their fields. Shad are also prized for their succulent meat and tasty roe.

Meanwhile, in the understory of woodlands, another messenger of spring is appearing: creamy white blossoms of the serviceberry tree (Amelanchier spp.). The flowers often appear in mid-April, before other flowering trees, making them quite conspicuous against the background of a still gray forest.

The common name, serviceberry, is believed to come from a colonial tradition. After the spring thaw, clergy would ride a circuit through the mountains to provide services to those who had died over the winter. This usually coincided with the blooming of the serviceberry shrubs. In the East, they are also known as shadbush because they flower around the same time that shad are spawning.

There are about a dozen Amelanchier species native to the United States. They range from low-spreading shrubs to tall trees. These flowering shrubs and trees are a food source for early pollinating insects. The word Amelanchier is an ancient Celtic word for “apple.” The sweet, reddish purple fruits are an important food for songbirds, squirrels, bears and other woodland wildlife.

Besides being an important source of food for wildlife, serviceberries make excellent additions to one’s yard. In addition to the early white blossoms and dark fruits, serviceberries have brilliant fall colors of yellow and orange that deepen to red.

Also in the woodlands and meadows throughout the Northeast, spring rains are creating temporary ponds known as vernal pools. Vernal pools may be small and inconspicuous but they explode with activity as frogs and toads call to attract mates and breed.

The Greek word, amphibios, means “creatures with a double life.” Amphibians spend part of their lives living in water and part living on land. Most amphibians lay soft eggs in water. Toads and frogs eggs hatch into tadpoles, which can only survive in water. As the larvae grow, they go through radical physiological changes, a process known as metamorphosis, transforming them into adults.

Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica) migrate to vernal pools early in the spring. Their call is a hoarse clacking sound, reminiscent of a quack. The wood frog is an explosive breeder, usually laying a large mass of eggs in a few days and leaving soon after.

Spring Peeper (Hyla crucifer), a tree frog, follows the Wood Frog by a week or two. Its unmistakable mating call, the peep, and large geographic range makes the spring peeper one of the most familiar frogs in North America. Its mating call can sometimes be heard up to a half a mile away.

Another familiar amphibian is the American Toad (Bufo americanus). Its habitat ranges from mountains to backyards. American Toads are found wherever there are moist places, plenty of insects to eat and shallow waters to breed. Despite their warty appearance, their mating call is a pleasant musical trill.

As the landscape gets greener and trees and flowers blossom, there is an explosion of worms, spiders and insects. And right on their heels are migratory birds.

Although they nest in North America, these birds eat foods that are not available in winter—such as insects and pollen—and must migrate to South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. As spring returns to North America, so do these species, following their food sources to the birds’ breeding grounds.

More than 360 species of birds make this annual migration, including songbirds—such as warblers, thrushes, tanagers and vireos—some raptors—hawks, kites and vultures—and a few waterfowl, such as teal.

Some of these birds are common: the American Robin, Eastern Bluebird, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Gray Catbird, Purple Martin, Barn Swallow and Chimney Swift. Others, such as the Red-eyed Vireo, Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush and Cape May Warbler, may be familiar only to bird watchers.

Like frogs and toads, birds sing to attract their mates. The bold spring colors of males also help to entice females. Birds add color, song and aerial displays as they ready for nesting. –Bay Journal

Snake-Ridden Island Provides Unlikely Bird Haven

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Blake de Pastino
SEAHORSE KEY, FL–On a remote Florida island crawling with venomous snakes, a scientist believes he has discovered an unusual truce between predator and prey.

The tiny island of Seahorse Key on the central Gulf Coast is renowned among researchers for its teeming numbers of poisonous Cottonmouth Snakes.

“The population of Cottonmouths on Seahorse Key is large and dense—I mean a lot of snakes,” said Harvey Lillywhite, a University of Florida biologist who has been studying the island. About 600 vipers slither around the 165-acre (67-hectare) island, Lillywhite estimates—in some areas with an average of 22 Cottonmouths on every palm tree-covered acre.

Scientists have long puzzled over how so many snakes can thrive on an island with no fresh water and only a scant number of mammals to prey upon. The secret to the snakes’ success, Lillywhite believes, is Seahorse Key’s other inhabitants—tens of thousands of seabirds that nest there from spring to fall.

But the snakes aren’t eating the birds, the scientist says—instead they live almost exclusively on the huge amounts of dead fish that the birds drop, vomit, and excrete every year.

“There’s this disgusting carrion of fish that falls down for the snakes, and the snakes essentially scavenge on it,” Lillywhite said.

In return for this fishy bounty, the Cottonmouths not only refrain from eating the birds, the scientist added, they also seem to deter other would-be predators from raiding the nests. The result is a win-win for both predator and prey that Lillywhite said he has not seen on any other island.

“There are a lot of island systems where there are birds and snakes. Of all the cases I know, the snakes are predators on the birds,” he said. “At Seahorse Key, it’s totally different. Here the snakes do not eat the birds, and the birds are providing food for (the snakes). So it’s a pretty cool system.”

Cottonmouth Island
Seahorse Key is a centerpiece of the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge, a network of protected islands near the mouth of the Suwannee River. The island is home to one of central Florida’s biggest rookeries—a nesting site for more than a hundred bird species, including pelicans, ibis and egrets.

Lillywhite believes it’s no accident that the birds prefer this dry, viper-ridden island to other, more hospitable sites in the refuge.

“There’s a lot of other nesting habitats for the birds, but the birds don’t use them,” he said. “They come to Seahorse Key. Why is that? We think the key is the snakes.”

To examine this theory, Lillywhite and colleagues began by mapping the locations of both bird nests and snakes. Results showed that most Cottonmouths stayed close to the rookery, often directly under nests. Even without the maps, the team was usually able to tell where snakes had been, Lillywhite said.

“The snakes, which are normally almost jet black, can be almost white, because they curl up under the bird rookery and get pooped on.”

A coating of excrement may be a small price to pay, he added, because research so far has revealed that the snakes are getting a steady diet of predigested fish. Lillywhite has seen Cottonmouths foraging for fish firsthand, and has even seen baby snakes taking part in the regurgitated feast.

“I was with a faculty member showing him around (the island), and there was this wonderful example of a plop of half-digested fish,” he said. “There were two babies and about four or five other (snakes) … that had been attracted to it. So babies actually may get into this system fairly early.”

In addition to field observations, Lillywhite’s team is studying chemical signals called isotopes in Cottonmouth tissue to find clues to what the snakes are eating.

“We haven’t analyzed all the data yet, but based on our observations and limited isotope data, we know that (the snakes) have been largely feeding on fish,” Lillywhite said. What his team has not found, he added, is any sign—from the field or in the lab—that the Cottonmouths are preying on birds, no matter how young or defenseless.

“Sometimes chicks fall out of the nests for various reasons, so we see chicks on the ground. But the snakes aren’t eating them,” he said. “I think (that’s) probably (because the snakes) are full on fish. It’s a simple way to look at it, but that seems to be the key.”

Lillywhite stressed that his research is ongoing and his findings are “a progress report.”
One of the remaining issues to explore, he said, is the degree of mutualism—or shared benefit—that the Cottonmouths and seabirds derive from this distinctive dynamic. Here, Lillywhite suggested, the key may be one of the island’s smallest players: the Brown Rat.

The rats are an invasive species and are “notorious bird-nest predators,” he said. His team has found that Cottonmouths near the rookery—while presumably full on fish—are eating enough of the rats to keep them at bay.

“What we have found is, where the Cottonmouths are dense, there are fewer rats. And the snakes are largest in numbers where the birds are,” he said. “So that’s part of the mutualism.”

Alan Savitzky is a snake biologist at Virginia’s Old Dominion University who is not involved with Lillywhite’s research. “The association between Cottonmouths and bird rookeries is unusual but not unique,” he said. “But the situation at Seahorse Key is very interesting because (there’s) the deterrence of predators. So you have a mutualism of sorts in which there’s a benefit to both species.”

He and Lillywhite agreed that the findings on Seahorse Key, preliminary as they are, help burnish the Cottonmouths’ image as an indiscriminate predator.

“I think the real strength (of the research) is in revealing the flexibility of what we normally regard as rather stereotyped predators,” Savitzky said. “It also suggests that there’s probably a greater diversity of interactions between predator and prey across the landscape than we normally recognize.”

For Lillywhite, the findings highlight the snakes’ crucial role in a vital Gulf Coast ecosystem.”(The Cottonmouths) actually are an important, integral part of the system and probably are the reason that the birds keep nesting—and do so successfully—on Seahorse Key,” he said. “This is unusual, but kind of cool, PR for the lowly snake.” –National Geographic News

Sights And Sounds Of The End Of Summer

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Scott Shalaway
EVENING FLIGHTS of chimney swifts swirling down to roost, nighthawks feeding by the lights at high school football games and nightly katydid choruses confirm the inevitable. Summer is fading fast.

The sun sets a few minutes after 8 p.m. this week, and in the morning the bedroom brightens at about 6:45 a.m. Ever shorter days send clear signals to migrating birds, hungry rodents and amorous deer — cooler, shorter days will only get cooler and shorter.

As I walked my favorite trails Wednesday, I noticed many other signs of the transition from summer to fall. Juvenile goldfinches have joined the adults on my finch feeders and some adult males have begun to lose their brilliant luster.

Among the most conspicuous changes in the landscape is the appearance of late summer wildflowers. Every patch of ground that escaped the mower’s blades this summer is covered with plants that reach well above my head.

Ironweed and Joe-Pye-weed attract dozens of tiger swallowtails, monarchs, fritillaries and skippers. A huge stand of nectar-bearing jewelweed along the road served my hummingbirds well while the family was on vacation earlier in the month. I’m sure my nectar feeders ran dry within two days of our departure, but when we returned, hummers returned to the replenished feeders within 30 minutes.

I’m already noticing fewer adult male hummingbirds, the ones with the ruby red throat. Adult males began to leave in mid August and, within another week, any males you see will be migrants from further north. Adult females and juveniles will linger for another week before heading south. But throughout September migrants from points north will continue to pass through and use nectar feeders. So, do not take nectar feeders down Labor Day.

Shorter days, not a dwindling food supply, trigger hummingbird migration. Plan to keep at least one feeder filled until the end of Sept. I never take my nectar feeders down until I go 10 days without seeing a hummer. That usually takes me into early October. And if you keep one feeder up until Thanksgiving, you just might see a Rufous Hummingbird, a western species that has been showing up throughout the east with increasing frequency in the fall.

Another sure sign of the end of summer are maturing pods of milkweeds. Keep an eye on them and when they split, collect seeds to plant next spring. Monarch butterflies will thank you by laying eggs on the spring growth.

As I walk the edge of the yard, I notice pokeweeds that tower two ft. above me. The productivity of this annual “weed” is remarkable. From a single seed grows an 8-ft. “wildflower” that bears hundreds, if not thousands, of succulent berries.

Fruit-eating birds, such as robins, bluebirds, catbirds and Brown Thrashers, disperse the seeds through their droppings, so there’s never a shortage of new growth. The stalks are just now beginning to droop under the weight of the ripening fruit. Only about a quarter of the berries have turned deep purple, so there will be an almost limitless supply of poke berries for the next six weeks. They usually keep flocks of notoriously nomadic cedar waxwings around the yard for at least a week.

The last blooms of summer are just beginning to appear in the hayfield. Goldenrod and asters add splashes of color to grasses just approaching maturity. And for the last two years, I’ve been watching several small patches of big bluestem, a tall grass prairie species typically found on the native prairies of the Midwest.

I picked up a few small bags of big bluestem seeds a few years ago and scattered them over some freshly mown spots. Much to my surprise, the big bluestem has thrived and spread. The tallest stems stand well over six ft. high.

Observing the predictable transitions from summer to fall can be a really learning experience. You’ve just got to know when and where to look. –Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Scarcity of Common Birds Concerns Wildlife Biologists One suggests population reductions may be related to changes in the food supply–flying insects

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Monte Sonnenberg
SIMCOE,Ontario, Canada–These are boom times for bird populations across North America. Most every species has good news to report on the reproductive front, whether they be geese, songbirds or raptors.

But wildlife biologists are alarmed because one class of bird-aerial insectivores–has gone into a tailspin. Jon McCracken, program manager at Bird Studies Canada in Port Rowan, documents the decline in the most recent issue of BirdWatch Canada.

In the article, McCracken examines possible explanations for the increasing scarcity of common, beloved species such as swifts, swallows, martins, flycatchers and whip-poor-wills. McCracken concludes we should find answers to this mystery sooner rather than later.

“There are a whole lot of question marks out there,” McCracken said in a telephone interview. “That’s what’s got our attention. We feel time is of the essence.”

“Aerial insectivores” belong to a “guild” of birds that feeds on flying insects. Patterns of decline have been documented in recent years in the Breeding Bird Survey and the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas. In some cases, the decline is continent-wide and not just in Ontario.

In his article, McCracken suggests population reductions may be related to changes in the food supply. However, insufficient data is available to assess the state of the flying insect population. Key members include moths, butterflies, dragon flies, damsel flies, midge flies, bees, wasps, hornets and the like.

Any number of factors could be in play. Suspects include climate change, the widespread use of pesticides in agricultural areas, changes in ultra-violet light from the sun, and increasing light pollution in expanding urban areas. McCracken notes many insects at issue have an aquatic stage of development that could point to important changes in water quality.

“Although population levels of most of the affected bird species are still sufficiently large enough to allow meaningful scientific studies to be carried out, population trajectories suggest sample sizes will be much reduced over the next decade or two,” McCracken says in his article.

“To come up with the answers in time, a massive research effort should be considered. If we find compelling evidence that the aerial insectivore guild is indeed ‘bugged out’ owing to changes in food supply, there are potentially very large ecological and socio-economic ramifications, particularly if pollinators are part of the picture.”

Dr. Phil Taylor, chief scientist at Bird Studies Canada, expects the institute will place a priority on explaining this problem. Researchers just might find, he said, that the species at greatest risk is our own.

“These kinds of questions are important because the changes seem so dramatic,” Taylor said. “When you see this kind of change without understanding it, you need to devote the resources to get a handle on it. When you see dramatic changes across entire groups like this, it may point to underlying, deeper changes in the environment that have implications for humans.”

Species in “statistically significant decline” include the Chimney Swift, the Eastern Wood-Pewee, the Bank Swallow, the Common Nighthawk, the Olive-sided Flycatcher and the Barn Swallow.

The Chimney Swift tops the list. The Canadian population has declined by an average annual rate of 8.4 per cent since 1968. Corresponding figures for the species named above are in the range of three to five per cent per year.–Sun Media

Robins Provide Early Wake-up Calls

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

YAKIMA, WA–American Robins, one of our most familiar birds, launch into their morning chorus at first light every spring morning.

In June days, this means 4 a.m. While their caroling song might be deemed beautiful by bird lovers, anyone trying to sleep at oh-dark-30 might describe it in less glowing terms. Why the morning cacophony? Well, this songster is merely announcing to all other robins in the neighborhood that your yard is his territory. Both he and Mama robin need your yard in order to bring up a bunch of strong baby robins each spring and summer.

Want to delay that wake-up revelry?
Try making your yard and home as dark as possible. It may not be good for security, but it may keep you securely in that warm bed a little while longer in the morning.

In the Yakima Valley, you can see them anytime and everywhere. OK, that’s not strictly true. Robins are familiar yard birds, but look out into your backyard right now. Do you see any robins? Probably not. By the end of the month, though, you will. From October through January, most robins either migrate south or form large, loose flocks and head to orchards, vineyards or Russian olive groves–wherever berries of fruit abound.

Robins are harbingers of spring. As warm air invades the Yakima area from the south, with the snow barely melted from our yards, robins arrive in huge, even staggering numbers. At dusk on Feb. 7, 1988, 40,000 robins were counted flying from orchards in the Naches Valley into night roosts in conifers. People were beating bushes to scare these birds off. The smell of guano was unmistakable.

During last February’s Great Backyard Bird Count, Yakima’s robin count of 79,327 was second most of any city in the nation. Yakima, for a period in February, hosts one of the bigger concentrations of robins in North America. We have a ways to go though to beat St. Petersburg, FL, with an astounding tally of close to two-million American Robins in February 2007.

American Robins have brick-red breasts and yellow beaks. Males have brighter brick-red breasts and blacker caps than females. Young birds are spotted and sport a shorter tail.

Robins are noted for their ability to hear and snatch earthworms and other insects from urban lawns; that’s why they like our backyards. Robin young grow very quickly on a diet of protein. Come winter, insects disappear and snow cover prevents robins from “worming,” forcing them to migrate south or switch their diet to the plentiful Yakima Valley orchards and vineyards that have gone unharvested. Robins that remain through the winter often commute long distances from those avian cafeterias to their nightly roost sites, usually in the relative warmth of dense conifer treeslike spruce, cedar or arborvitae.

The majority of the first robins to return in February will be males, anxious to be first back on the prime patches of habitat. Female robins, as with all birds–and some humans–strive to latch on to the males with the best territories, an evolutionary adaptation to raise the most and fittest young.

The American Robin is a member of the thrush family. Over 310 species occur almost throughout the world. Many are celebrated songsters. In Europe, the Song Thrush–with a song often described as “cocksure”–wakes folks up at the crack of dawn just like the American Robin. –Yakima Herald

Robin Never Fails To Lighten Winter Of One’s Soul

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Michael Burke
THE LAST SNOW of winter was rapidly melting, but our holly tree was still draped in a peaceful white coating.

Kelly green leaves and brilliant red berries poked through the pure snow, much like a Currier and Ives print. What caught my eye, though, were the more than 50 robins plucking those succulent red berries as fast as they were able.

I was as hungry for warmer weather as these birds were for holly berries. The recent snowstorm capped a long string of gray days. Late sunrises and depressingly early sunsets had already put me in a mood that was as dreary as the weather. The flock of robins, mindlessly feeding, forced me out of the doldrums, and I smiled.

The American Robin (Turdus migratorius)—the proverbial harbinger of spring—is really a year-round resident in much of the United States. And, they can be found everywhere: They are as equally at home in the full range of woodlands as they are in parks and other open spaces.

Virtually everyone conjures up the same image when they hear the word “robin”: an erect, relatively large songbird (about 10 inches) with a puffed out orange-red breast hopping around on the lawn, cocking its black head from side to side as it feeds on worms.

Earthworms are a staple in the robin’s diet for much of the year. With their sharp eyesight, the birds are remarkably adept at spotting their prey in the grass. Robins use their slender bills to pull the worms out of the tangle of vegetation. Other members of the thrush family exhibit similar ground-feeding behavior, often using their bills to thrash through leaf litter in search of insects and other food.

With the arrival of cold weather, though, earthworms go deeper underground to escape snow, ice and frost, not to mention the reach of the robin’s beak.

The change in seasons and diminished availability of a preferred food are typical reasons for birds to migrate south in the winter. The remarkably adaptive robin, though, simply changes its diet and behavior and gets along just fine. Robins migrate, but their movements are more like a long commute than the prodigious travels of neotropical songbirds. Robins will drop down out of Canada during the winter, but most go no farther than the southern United States.

As the view out the window made clear, robins switch to fruits and berries in winter. Instead of foraging for food singly on the ground, they form relatively large flocks and feed in trees.

They also waste no time in building up energy reserves for the coming breeding season. As the days begin to lengthen, robins abandon the flocks to stake out mating territory. Listening to the beautiful, rich, clear song of males looking for mates, it is no wonder that robins are so strongly associated with spring. The fact that they have been here all along, hiding in plain view, doesn’t seem to hurt their association with spring in the least.

I love spring. The world seems more fully alive, and the promise of new beginnings is everywhere, from early daffodils and the pregnant buds of flowering trees to the expanding reach of sunlight and warmth. But all of this vitality doesn’t just magically appear. Nature has simply been taking a moment to quietly gather its strength for the annual rites of spring.

Occasionally, I think I’d like my life to be a perpetual spring, always bursting with new ideas and breathtaking displays of beauty. But that’s not the natural order of things. Changing circumstances demand adaptation.

Like robins in the winter, I must find new sources of sustenance to carry me through darker days. In the meantime, life in plain view continues, and with it the need to build new energy reserves for the more propitious times of light and warmth that will surely come.–Bay Journal

Replanting The Prairie To Encourage Wildlife

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Bill Graham
KIRKSVILLE, MO–Pieces sewn together make a quilt.
Steve Mowry is using that approach to rekindle hope for endangered Prairie Chickens and other grassland natives in a north Missouri neighborhood better known for corporate hog farms.

If he succeeds, Prairie Chickens, rare butterflies and other wildlife will receive a boost, and the public will get a new place to see what Missouri looked like before European settlement.

A 540-acre tract once used by Premium Standard Farms to spread hog wastes on nonnative grasses is being replanted to prairie near the Adair and Sullivan county border, west of Kirksville. Nearby sits a rare, virgin, 50-acre native-grass tract recently bought by the Missouri Prairie Foundation. It’s the nonprofit’s first land purchase in north Missouri.

Mowry, a Northland attorney who is president of the foundation, also is working with other private- and public-property owners to create a native-grassland ecosystem in a countryside where thousands of Prairie Chickens once thrived, but fewer than 20 now survive.

“The potential for wildlife is tremendous,” Mowry said. “We can connect a patchwork of habitats so Prairie Chickens and other grassland nesting birds have a shot.”

North Missouri was a prairie stronghold before the Civil War. But deep, fertile soils were easy to stick a plow into, and the land was transformed into row crops or pastures. Prairies vanished, said Max Gallagher of Clinton, a biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. So did wildflowers and the Prairie Chickens.

Modern agriculture, which converted pastures to fescue grass, has taken a toll on birds that evolved on prairies. Fescue attracts few insects for food and is hard to run through when it is tall, which is especially important for young birds to survive. The most common nonnative fescues also can be too short for wildlife cover when pastures are heavily grazed or cut for hay.

Crop fields often are bare in nesting season and winter, when birds need the shelter the taller and less-thickly bunched prairie plants provide. Fewer than 500 Prairie Chickens survive statewide, mostly in southwest Missouri. Other than a flock that migrated from Iowa into northwest Missouri, numbers keep dropping. Prairie advocates such as Frank Oberle said the birds can be brought back. He has been burning fescue and clearing brush in pastures on a farm in the neighborhood. Prairie seeds and plant seedlings have sprouted with vigor, and the fields are reverting to bluestem grasses and wildflowers.

“The wildlife is moving back in,” he said, “including rare butterflies and birds.”

Regal Fritillary Butterflies and Henslow’s Sparrow Birds are among the returnees. Mowry is aiming for the same results on the land that Premium Standard Farms owns. The Kansas City-based company formerly sprayed wastes from hog-production barns onto the land as fertilizer for grass production in livestock grazing.

Premium Standard now converts wastes into fertilizer pellets for commercial sale, said Forest Decker, the company’s superintendent of land resources. The company has granted a 10-year lease for the land to the Prairie Foundation for free, while retaining rights to spray wastes if needed, though in far lower concentrations than before, Decker said.

If successful, Mowry said the foundation would like to negotiate similar leases on Premium Standard lands to broaden the partnership. –Kansas City Star

Red-Winged Blackbirds’ No Flights Of Fancy

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Michael Burke
THE FLOCK of blackbirds raced in a tight mass above the road, then swirled in an impossibly tight ball, changing directions in a matter of seconds. They looked like a single organism as they whirled, stretched out and collapsed again in a series of fluid movements against the gunmetal gray winter sky.

Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) are plentiful in this region with the male’s trademark red epaulets giving the species its common name. I find it impossible to think about what individual birds look like, though, when I’m witnessing these aerial displays. The intricate, coordinated flocking behavior demands attention to the flock, not an individual.

Even if I wanted to, tracking a single bird would be impossible. There doesn’t appear to be a leader directing the complex movements. A bird at the head of the pack is quickly absorbed into the swirling mass as it continuously changes directions.

In the field, Red-winged Blackbirds look like two different species: The males are larger and have a different color pattern than the females. Theses physical differences between the sexes, which biologists refer to as sexual dimorphism, make the males easy to identify and the females easy to overlook.

Males, a bit smaller than a robin, are all black except for the bright red shoulder patch that is trimmed in yellow. The females, which are about 20 percent smaller, are streaked brown with a bit of white showing through.

Both sexes have a “song-spread display.” They partially spread their wings and fan their tail feathers as they sing. In the males, the display is more pronounced because the red patches are more prominent as they sing their distinctive “kon-ka-reee” song.

Red-winged Blackbirds are found throughout the United States. They breed in cattail marshes, which limits their geographic range somewhat. They are also abundant in areas with fields and open fresh water, and can occasionally be seen in suburban backyards but are rare in urban areas.

Insects, which are plentiful in marshes, constitute the main part of the blackbird’s diet during the summer breeding season. When mating, males aggressively defend their territory from competitors. They will even attack people near nest sites during the breeding season. Red-winged Blackbirds can have a lot to defend: A single male may mate with multiple females in his territory.

At the end of the breeding season, the males’ aggressive territoriality seems to switch off, and their diets also switch from insects to grains and fruits. Birds of both sexes form huge feeding flocks—which often include other blackbird species—from early fall and continue throughout the winter.

When I watch the birds exhibiting their flocking behavior, I am always amazed that they simply don’t crash into one another. How do they execute these complex turns in such tight formations without constantly getting in each other’s way?

Scientists have developed computer programs that attempt to simulate the behavior. Given a few simple decision rules—if the guy on my right turns right, so do I—the virtual birds exhibit flying skills akin to live birds. Each bird is making a series of individual decisions based on its immediate environment, not as part of a coordinated grand plan.

Sometimes, I wish I were like those swirling blackbirds, mindlessly being swept along as part of a larger, graceful movement. I’d be happy to play a small part, and happier still to let all the responsibilities and decisions of modern life fall away and simply follow the lead of others.

But then I remember that in the avian world as in our own, it’s not so simple as that. Winds change, obstacles appear and suddenly a whole new set of decisions needs to be made: Lead or follow? Left or right? Faster or slower?

At home, at work, with friends, or in the anonymity of beltway traffic, in truth we live in a complex, swirling mass of humanity, making thousands of decisions and adjustments constantly.

And so the realization comes upon me again: The goal is not to be mindlessly swept away, but rather to play a mindful role, aspiring to add a tiny element of grace to humanity’s sweep across the heavens.–Bay Journal

Red Knots Migrate 20,000 Miles

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Scott Shalaway
AS MOST of us eagerly await the end of winter, some residents of Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America prepare for the end of the austral summer.

Red Knots, a small migratory shorebird, are experiencing a predictable sensation of pre-migratory restlessness. Having just molted into breeding plumage, Red Knots will soon begin a 20,000 mile trip to their arctic nesting grounds.

The journey begins with a 1,700-mile leg along the east coast of South America. Then they cross Brazil before striking out across the open Atlantic Ocean to the east coast of North America, a journey of about 7,000 miles. Many reach the Delaware Bay in mid-May. The final leg of the trip covers about 1,000 miles to their arctic breeding grounds.

The journey requires dependable food supplies along the way. But the stop at the Delaware Bay is critical. Here Red Knots nearly double their body weight to prepare for the physiological demands of migration and nesting. Timing is everything; knots reach the Bay just as horseshoe crabs leave the deep ocean waters and come ashore to breed and lay eggs. It is the horseshoe crab eggs that fatten and fuel the Red Knots.

In an amazing display of ecological synchronicity that has been taking place for eons, Red Knots reach the Delaware Bay just as horseshoe crabs spawn. The intersection of these journeys has long fascinated scientists and birders. It’s a primary reason birders flock to south Jersey in May. The sight of tens of thousands of birds on a beach or in the sky is breathtaking.

But about 15 years ago ornithologists began to notice that knot numbers were declining. The problem, superbly depicted in a recent episode of PBS’s “Nature,” is an overharvest of horseshoe crabs.

Horseshoe crabs, more closely related to spiders than crabs, are familiar to anyone who has walked an East Coast beach in May or June. Despite a ferocious appearance, they are harmless. But watermen who harvest conchs and eels use them for bait.

Initially, horseshoe crabs were taken in modest numbers, but about 10 years ago, watermen began collecting them by the truckload as they came ashore to spawn. Since horseshoe crabs require about nine years to attain sexual maturity, such a sudden overharvest of breeding individuals had devastating consequences. Fewer breeding horseshoe crabs laid fewer eggs which fed fewer Red Knots. Knots couldn’t gain the weight necessary to successfully nest, and the knot population began to decline.

Today Red Knot numbers stand at critically low levels. In a Feb. 11 story in the Newark Star-Ledger, Kathleen Clark, senior biologist with New Jersey’s Endangered and Non-Game Species Program, said, “The news from South America is not good. Surveys show a 30 percent drop in the Red Knot populations since last year.”

The story goes on to report that the entire Western Hemisphere Red Knot population is estimated to be 18,000 to 33,000 birds compared to 100,000 to 150,000 just 20 years ago.

A few days ago, New Jersey’s nine-member Marine Fisheries Council voted 5-4 against extending a two-year old moratorium on horseshoe crab harvests. Five commercial fishermen on the council voted against it; four recreational fishermen voted for it.

This debate clearly pits science against commercial interests. The simplest solution would be for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect red knots under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. The Service, however, has, “… determined that the Red Knot warranted protection, but placing it on the endangered species list is precluded by higher priority listing actions for species at greater risk.”

This is an important issue to birders and conservationists far beyond the shores of the Delaware Bay. Letters to New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (P.O. Box 001, Trenton, NJ 08625), especially from out-of-state, nature-minded tourists, might convince him to heed the advice of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection.

For more information about Red Knots and horseshoe crabs, visit or consult “The Flight of the Red Knot” by Brian Harrington (1996, W.W. Norton & Co.).–Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Rare Scrub-Jays Losing Ground

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Tom Palmer
LAKE WALES, FL–The number of Florida Scrub-jays, the only species of bird found exclusively in Florida, is declining–even within preserves set aside for them–according to a report by The Nature Conservancy

The declines were based on a comparison with results of surveys conducted by The Nature Conservancy’s Jay Watch program over the past five summers with the results of an intensive survey conducted by scientists in the early 1990s to document the status of the Florida Scrub-jay.

Florida Scrub-jays have been federally protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1987, when they were declared a threatened species. Tricia Martin, who directs The Nature Conservancy’s local office at Tiger Creek Preserve near Babson Park, said the decline is troublesome.

“They’re a flagship species for Florida and we’d like them to continue,” she said. “No one wants it to go extinct on their watch.”

The Florida Scrub-jay’s classification as a threatened species rather than as an endangered species means it is not in imminent danger of extinction, though it has disappeared from a number of areas of Florida during the past decades.

The Nature Conservancy’s report was released in connection with an annual event held in December to honor the 165 volunteers in TNC’s Jay Watch program. The volunteers donated 1,624 hours to survey jay populations this year in Polk and 10 other counties.

Martin said efforts like Jay Watch are important to the survival of declining species because they help to educate and involve people. “It was so refreshing to see people so engaged in conservation,” she said.

Big Declines Noted
The report’s conclusions echo the results of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s five-year assessment of the Florida Scrub-jay that was issued last summer. FWS officials found declines of between 37.5 percent and 65 percent in major jay populations throughout Florida.

Scientists estimated in the 1992-93 survey that 11,000 Florida Scrub-jays lived in the state and concluded the population had declined by 25 percent to 50 percent in the previous decade, mostly as a result of habitat loss. The 1992-93 survey has not been repeated, so there are no current statewide population estimates.

However, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report, Florida Scrub-jays have disappeared from seven Florida counties within their original 35-county range and are expected to die out in the near future in seven more counties. In the other 21 counties, stable jay populations exist, but as both reports observe, maintaining the populations will require work.

Highlights of Report Include:

  • In 60 percent of the family groups the size declined, in 33 percent the size increased and in 7 percent it remained stable.
  • Reproduction rates declined.
  • A large number of sites have 10 or fewer family groups, a condition scientists say makes those populations vulnerable to local extinctions as a result of disease, predation or habitat loss.
  • Among the sites where numbers have declined was Crooked Lake Prairie, a Polk County preserve that was not monitored before 2002, At Crooked Lake, the number of birds declined from 22 to eight over the past five years.
  • One of the places where populations have been increasing is Lake Kissimmee State Park, where the number of groups has increased from two to nine between 1992 and 2007.

Causes of Decline
The decline in reproduction noted in the report means there are fewer birds to replace their parents or other adult jays–who live an average of five years–and to aid in rearing of young in connection with the species’ unique social structure.

So what’s behind the decline? One potential factor mentioned in the report is inadequate habitat management. According to scientists, breeding populations of Florida Scrub-jays persist only where there are scrub oaks in sufficient quantity to provide an ample winter acorn supply, cover from predators, and nest sites during the spring

“Habitat condition at sites with declining groups of scrub-jays needs to be assessed to determine if it requires management to be suitable for scrub-jays,” the report concluded.

FWS officials made the same point in their evaluation, recommending Florida adopt a scrub-jay management plan and that the existing management plans on public lands be evaluated to determine how well they are benefiting the jays.

However, there’s more to it than having ample stands of scrub oaks. When scrub oak stands become overgrown because of a lack of fire, jay populations decline because it’s harder to move through the territory and also harder to spot predators, such as hawks. The Nature Conservancy’s Martin said jays have returned to overgrown areas that have been opened with fire management, but it may take time, depending on how close jay populations are to the site.

Reed Bowman, a biologist at Archbold Biological Station in Lake Placid, the center for Florida Scrub-jay research, wrote in the The Nature Conservancy report that, despite the declines, there was some reason for hope.

“New populations are being established through vigorous management efforts. Habitats are being restored, and jays are being translocated to build large, healthy populations that have the potential to rescue populations that were on the verge of extinction,” he wrote.

Cheryl Millett, a Nature Conservancy biologist who coordinates Jay Watch, suggests taking a longer view.“Unfortunately, seeing the results of management can take time. It can be five years before burned areas are suitable for scrub-jays. In the meantime, the dedication of the people is inspiring,” she said. –The Ledger

Rare Bird Vanishes From Ultralight Migration

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By James Bruggers
WILDLIFE crews are searching for a missing young Whooping Crane that failed to keep up with a migration led by ultralight aircraft pilots.

The bird, designated “733,” was last seen last week near the Ohio River northeast of Louisville, said Liz Condie, a spokeswoman for Operation Migration, the conservation group that oversees the human-assisted migration.

The rare birds and aircraft were flying in turbulent air between the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge in Jackson County, IN, and a stopover location at a farm in Shelby County, KY, Condie said.

The remaining 16 birds were resting yesterday in Washington County, awaiting the next leg of their journey to Russell County. There, the public will get a chance at the Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery to see them depart for Tennessee, weather permitting.

Even though the missing male bird is equipped with a radio transmitter, ground and air teams have been unable to pick up the signal. Depending on the bird’s location, the transmitter’s range could be one to five miles, Condie said.

“It’s a bit like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack,” she said.

The bird on one occasion earlier in the journey decided to land early but was found and rejoined the group. If it is not found this time, it would be the first Whooping Crane to be lost during the migrations, which began in 2001.

If the bird is still alive, it may end up joining the more common Sandhill Cranes, Condie said. But she said biologists would not want it mating with the other species because their offspring would not likely survive.

“We don’t want any whoop-hills,” she emphasized.

The bird was hatched June 8. Operation Migration’s Web site includes a photo of him–misidentified as a her–and a brief description of the chick’s early personality, saying anybody who got in his way could expect to be pecked until they moved. His plumage now is mostly cinnamon color with some white, and he is wearing a single green leg band.

Whooping Cranes are the tallest birds in North America, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When fully grown, they stand 5 ft. and have long, sinuous necks, long legs and a wing span of 7 ft. They are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Only about 300 remain in the wild, with most of them part of a western population that migrates between Canada and Texas.

In recent years, the Fish and Wildlife Service, Operation Migration and other organizations have worked to restore an eastern population which winters in Florida. The young cranes going south are raised from eggs taken from adults at wildlife centers and do not have their parents to show them the way. After following the ultralight aircraft pilots dressed as birds, they know how to migrate on their own.

Last year, the program suffered a setback when a series of storms and tornadoes in Florida killed 17 of 18 birds that were part of the class of 2006.–Courier-Journal

Questions Are Flying About Hummingbirds

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Scott Shalaway
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are back!

Their tiny size, acrobatic flying ability and eagerness to use nectar feeders make hummers one of America’s favorite backyard birds. This fascination always triggers a flurry of mail, so let me review the most common hummer questions I get each spring.

How many species of hummingbirds live in the east?
Only the Ruby-throated Hummingbird nests regularly east of the Mississippi River. The female lacks the male’s bright red throat, so some people mistakenly believe two species visit their feeders.

When should I put up my hummingbird feeder?
Today. To track Ruby-throats’ northward journey visit (

What’s the recipe for nectar?
Add one part table sugar to four parts hot or boiling water. Hot water simply allows the sugar to dissolve faster. Stir, cool at room temperature, and store in the refrigerator. Red dye is unnecessary. And never use honey as a sweetener. Honey promotes a fungal disease that can kill hummers.

How can hummingbirds survive if they just sip sugar water?

If they ate just sugar water, they would not survive. Sugar is nutritionally empty, but rich in calories. Hummers drink nectar for the energy-building calories. They obtain nutrition by eating soft-bodied invertebrates such as flies, aphids and gnats. Nectar probably makes up less than half their total diet.

Is there a “best” nectar feeder?

Any red nectar feeder will catch the attention of hummingbirds, but it must be easy to clean. Rinse the feeder and change the nectar every three days, and wash it with hot soapy water once a week. I also recommend that nectar feeders have perches so the hummers aren’t forced to hover while they feed. Look for manufacturers that guarantee their products, and expect to pay $20 to $25 for a quality feeder.

What else I can do to attract hummingbirds?
Plant red, tubular, nectar-bearing flowers. Trumpet honeysuckle, trumpet creeper, cardinal flower, jewelweed and bee balm are all hummingbird favorites. A less conventional way of providing food is to offer overripe bananas. Hummers have a field day feasting on the fruit flies that inevitably appear.

How can I keep ants out of my hummingbird feeders?
An ant guard is an inexpensive moat-like saucer from which you hang the feeder. Fill the moat with salad oil or dish detergent, and ants get trapped in the liquid when they try to cross the moat. Some nectar feeders come with built-in ant guards.

How can I keep bees and yellow jackets away from my hummingbird feeders?
Feeders equipped with “nectar guards” allow hummers’ long bills easy access to the nectar, but prevent bees and wasps from reaching it. Look for “Nectar Guards” on the package.

Can you briefly outline a hummingbird’s nesting season?
Males return before females in the spring and establish feeding territories. Fiercely protective of their nectar sources, males seem to spend more time chasing competitors away from “their” food supplies than actually feeding. When females arrive a few days to a week later, courtship begins. The male performs aerial displays while the female looks on from a nearby perch. He flies back and forth in a wide semicircle. After mating, the promiscuous male goes on to find another female.

The female builds a tiny nest on a small horizontal branch 5 to 20 ft. above a stream or other open spot. She begins by using sticky spider silk to fasten bits of leaves or bud scales to the branch. Over a span of days, she builds an elastic cup about the size of a walnut. She lines the nest with soft plant fibers and camouflages the outside with bits of lichens.

After laying two tiny eggs, the female incubates them for about 16 days. Because the female tends the nest alone, she must leave it periodically to eat. When she leaves, the eggs cool a bit. One price of single parenthood is an extended incubation period. Young hummingbirds leave the nest about three weeks after hatching. –Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Put Feathered Friends in Focus

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

IF YOU want to take close-up bird photos good enough to be published, follow this advice from amateur photographer Jay F. of Henderson, New York:

“To get really close without scaring the birds away, you need a simple blind. My bird blind is basically a frame 4 ft. long by 3 ft. wide and 5 ft. tall. The front angles out a bit to make room for the legs of my camera tripod. I made the frame from scrap two-by-fours and covered it with an inexpensive plastic tarp. I cut an L-shaped flap in the tarp just large enough to accommodate my camera lens.

“Just outside the blind, I put up a tray feeder and cover the tray with a few small tree branches to create the illusion that the birds are in a forest instead of in the middle of my backyard. It works like a charm!

“I’ve found the best time for photographing birds is first thing in the morning or late in the day, when the sun is at a lower angle. This gives the images a warmer, softer light. I use a 35mm camera with a 75-300mm zoom lens. With a lens that big, a tripod is a necessity—make sure you use a sturdy one that will hold your camera nice and steady.

“I usually have good luck shooting in the ‘automatic’ mode, which allows the camera to select all the necessary settings. But occasionally I play with the settings myself, especially when I feel the telephoto lens will not let in enough light.

The best tip: Practice, practice, practice. Keep shooting lots of pictures. Before long, you, too, will have photos good enough to appear in nature magazines.

Most people (not all) have a tolerance for squirrels, they just don’t want them on their bird feeders. You really can keep them off the feeders but you have to make the effort. Here are our suggestions for detering squirrels from your feeders.

  • Place feeders at least 12 to15 ft. from any surface the squirrel can jump from, such as any part of a tree, shrub, fence, or house.
  • If pole mounted, put your feeder at least 5 ft. off the ground and place a baffle below the feeder.
  • If hung from a tree, make sure your feeder is 10 ft. from the trunk, 5 ft. off the ground and there is a large dome baffle above the feeder.

Purple Martins Will Arrive Soon

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

PERHAPS no other North American bird has a more interesting association with humans than the Purple Martin.

As early as the 1800’s, it was discovered that Native Americans had been providing the birds with hollowed out gourds to attract them to their dwellings. Martins were useful in driving off vultures, small hawks and crows from the vicinity, and it’s possible that the Native Americans also appreciated the birds’ voracious insect-eating appetites!

Over time, perhaps because of the safety of being near humans, and the success of the provided nesting gourds, Martins began to prefer nesting in close proximity to us and using man-made housing over the natural cavities they had used previously. Now Martins use man made housing exclusively and are very particular about wanting to nest near their human benefactors.

Because Purple Martins have become so dependent upon us for their survival, it’s important to realize that attracting and maintaining a Purple Martin colony is not for everyone. It does require commitment and also a fair amount of work.

But, for the serious birder, there is likely no more satisfying an endeavor than becoming a Purple martin landlord, for without such dedicated people, the Purple Martin is unlikely to continue to survive. So, if you have been successful aiding the nesting efforts of other birds, such as bluebirds or swallows, perhaps you are ready for the ultimate challenge; attracting and caring for a Purple Martin colony.

There are a number of considerations that you will want to review before taking the big step. These would be habitat, housing, predator control, and parasite control. The Purple Martin Society of North America is an excellent source of information about these birds and their requirements. Their site is a “must read” for anyone considering attracting a colony.

So, perhaps you’ve read a little about Martins at this point and you’ve made a decision; you want to become a landlord! But first, let’s see if you have the right spot to be successful in attracting Martins, because the most important consideration is a proper habitat. In other words, location, location, location!

The ideal spot for a Martin house would be in the center of a large open area, approximately 100 ft. or less from your own dwelling and in fairly close proximity to a water source. Martins are strictly insect eaters and need open spaces to spot and dive for prey. Tall trees will harbor predators like lawks and owls, so Martins won’t nest near wooded areas.

OK, so you have a great location and now you’re ready to choose your Martin house. Today, man-made housing for Martins is available in many forms, from the gourd variety, both natural and plastic, to multilayered aluminum housing with up to six compartments per floor, as well as some very pretty wooden housing.

When choosing among your housing options, be sure to think about how easy the compartments will be to clean, how the house will be raised or lowered and if future expansion is possible, should it become necessary. Choose the advantages that are most important to you. If you don’t mind getting up on a 20-ft. ladder to check the nests, then you won’t need a telescoping pole.

If you just have to have that beautiful wooden house, remember that yearly cleaning will be a lot more difficult than with an aluminum house, and it will probably need to be painted at least every two years. The Purple Martin Conservation Association offers in-depth information on housing.

So, with your housing up and fingers crossed, lets look at the amazing migration patterns of Martins, so you can be on the watch if they decide to investigate your offering. Martins are the largest member of the swallow family and can be found distributed throughout the United States and Canada, except for some areas of the Rocky Mountains.

Wintering in South America, primarily in the Amazon Basin, Brazil and northern Bolivia, Martins begin returning to the United States through three major migration paths. As of this writing, Martins have already been spotted in the southern states! The Purple Martin Society has a section on their website where you can view sightings that are updated daily.

Interestingly, colonies do not migrate together. The first birds of the colonies to arrive are the “Scouts”. These are mature birds who have already established a nesting location to which they return year after year. When they arrive at their location, they re-establish and defend their territory, waiting for last year’s fledglings (called sub-adults) to arrive approximately four weeks later, when they will begin to mate and build their nests.

Contrary to a common belief, the scouts do not leave the location to go back and retrieve the younger birds. Many of the sub-adult birds will return to last year’s location, but some will stop along the way and establish a new colony in a new place. These are the birds that will settle in your location. That’s why it’s important to keep your house closed up until well after the scouts arrive.

Otherwise, your housing will be populated with starlings, sparrows and other birds which arrive much earlier. When the sub-adult Martins finally arrive, they will pass by housing if it’s already occupied. Almost all Martin houses come with special door plugs for this purpose. It’s a little “hit or miss”, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a colony the very first year.

Once you do attract Martins, your job as a landlord begins. This will entail protecting the birds from predators, and monitoring the health of the nests and young. This is truly a labor of love, but it is the reason our Purple Martins continue to survive.

Martins can be subject to raids from Raccoons, snakes, opossums, Chipmunks and many other animals. There are special predator proof baffles you can use for your poles. Duncraft offers a raccoon guard that will be effective in most situations involving climbing animals. You can also build your own predator baffle.

Finally, you will want to keep your colony healthy. Monitoring the nestlings will alert you to any parasites that may have infested the nest. For the most part, a light infestation of lice, fleas, mites or martin blowfly is pretty normal in most bird’s nests.

However, if the young have been weakened by other conditions, such as cold and damp or lack of feed, these parasites can be deadly. In dire situations, you may even have to replace the nest. The Purple Martin Preservation Alliance has an excellent on-line article on parasites and how to control them. It’s pretty graphic, so be forewarned! We did say that caring for Martins was a labor of love!

By now, you probably know more about Martins than you ever thought you would! Are you ready for the challenge? As a good Martin landlord you will likely encounter many challenges, but your reward will be a healthy, thriving colony that will be back each spring in greater and greater numbers, with their striking plumage, lovely song and soaring flight.

We guarantee you’ll be hooked for life, and in the process you will truly make a difference in the future of these wonderful birds! So, talk to other landlords, join a few on-line forums, continue to expand your knowledge and enjoy your new hobby. And don’t forget, when your birds return next year to raise the next generation…you’ll be a grandparent!–Duncraft Wild Bird Blog

EDITOR’S NOTE: Visit Duncraft’s website to read “Top Ten Mistakes with Purple Martins”, an article that will keep you from making the most common mistakes regarding martin housing and placement.

Predators’ Effects On Wildlife To Be Studied

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Steve Pollick

FREE-RANGING cats and other predators of wild birds may come under increasing scrutiny–and perhaps some control–under a cooperative program that the American Bird Conservancy launched this month.

Dubbed Project Predator Watch, the effort is intended to engage bird watchers and other nature observers in investigating the impact of stray, feral, or otherwise unattended cats and other bird predators.

“Scientists estimate that free-roaming cats and other predators kill hundreds of millions of birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians each year,” stated George Fenwick, president of the ABC. The organization, based in Washington, DC, works to conserve native wild birds and their habitats throughout the Americas.

“Any citizen can participate in Project Predator Watch and provide valuable information needed to conserve birds and other wildlife by clicking a few buttons on their computer,” Fenwick said.

The PredatorWatch survey can be found on-line at Participants are asked to provide information to be used by scientists and conservationists in the following areas:

• Helping to identify birds and other wildlife most likely affected by interactions with cats and other predators.

• Determining whether predator/wildlife interactions are affected by season or climate.

• Determining whether certain wildlife species, age or sex classes, are more vulnerable to predators.

Survey participants observing what is quaintly called “predator/wildlife interactions” can complete a short on-line survey through ABC’s Cats Indoors! Web site at

The Conservancy initiated the indoor-cat program in 1997 to educate cat owners, decision-makers, and the general public that cats, wildlife, and people all benefit when cats are kept inside, in an outdoors enclosure, or are trained to go outside on a harness and leash.

In related news, the ABC and the Wildlife Society report that nationwide, domestic cats kill hundreds of millions of birds and more than a billion small animals annually.

“But cats are not ultimately responsible for killing native wildlife – pet owners are,” asserted Laurel Barnhill, bird conservation coordinator and wildlife biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Barnhill was responding to an ABC report on the impact of feral cats on bird species of concern in New York, New Jersey, Florida, California, and Hawaii.

The report, done under a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, analyzed the effects that cats are having on some of America’s most at-risk bird species in cat-predation hot spots. Among the species especially threatened by free-ranging felines are Florida scrub-jay, piping plover, and Hawaiian petrel. Other key targeted birds include painted bunting, least tern, and black rail.

A copy of the report can be seen at the Conservancy Web site.

The Wildlife Society, the professional association of wildlife biologists, has reaffirmed its position advocating the humane elimination of feral cat colonies because of their threat to wildlife.

Feral cats and free-ranging, or stray cats in fact are exotic species to North American wildlife and are one of the most widespread and serious threats to the integrity of native wildlife populations and natural ecosystems, according to Rickie Davis, a Clemson University professor and president of the South Carolina chapter of the society.

The society supports passage of ordinances that ban public feeding of cats, and supports educational programs and materials that call for pet cats to be kept indoors, in enclosures, or on a leash. The society’s positions on cats can be read on-line at

The related ABC report highlights the growing trends of so-called managed feral cat colonies that use trap-neuter-release techniques and their effects on birds, especially at state and globally important bird areas.

Commentary: This column long has been critical of permissive or careless cat owners who allow their pets to roam free and kill at will, or who stupidly dump excess cats in rural areas because they lack the guts to face reality and do the right thing and have them put down.

The cat problem is just as prevalent in Ohio and Michigan as it is elsewhere. Two thumbs up to the ABC and Wildlife Society for calling such public attention to an inexcusable problem that is easily remedied.

Zero tolerance with free-ranging cats is the answer. –Toledo Blade

Predators and Prey: Gracefulness Before Meals

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Michael Burke
A DOZEN CARP swirl in the muddy waters. They are trapped in a shallow pool as the tide recedes, but seem oblivious to their predicament as they feed aggressively on the food-rich sediment.

The scaly backs of the biggest break the water. Sea gulls have gathered, as have a pair of Great Blue Herons. An over-eager heron can’t resist. It grabs one of the big fish and quickly gets the carp’s head in its mouth. But the bird can’t lift the heavy fish, nor does it stand a chance of swallowing the fat 18-incher. The geometry of the situation is irrefutable.

Suddenly, a flash of dark-and-light breaks our field of vision. A rocketing Osprey (Pandion Halieaetus), talons outstretched, plucks a slightly smaller carp out of the pool. The bird has a death grip on the fish and is heading for the tree line. Several Ring-billed Gulls give pursuit, but the Osprey shows no sign of slowing or loosening its grip. Gradually, the gulls give way.

Others in the family accipitidae, such as hawks and eagles, feed on fish, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, snails and even insects. Ospreys stop at the first item on the menu. They are called fish hawks with good reason.

Ospreys resemble a cross between Bald Eagles and sea gulls. They have a wide, 5-foot wingspan and a raptor’s hooked bill. But in flight they look more gull-like, with bent wings and a narrow body. They weigh about 3 pounds, just one-third of what an eagle does.

At first glance, the Osprey shows a white head, but a moment later the dark eye patch registers, as does the brown crown. The bird has an almost black back. The wings and tail, when viewed from the top, are a similar hue. Underneath the body is white, and that light coloring extends well out to the crook in the wings. The golden beak and talons of the Bald Eagle are replaced with dark gray feet and a black beak in the Osprey.

The Osprey’s hooked bill is well suited to tearing the flesh away from a fish. But those imposing bills aren’t for killing. That’s a job for its feet. An Osprey catches its prey, as we had just witnessed, by swinging its talons forward all the way to the beak just as the bird reaches its prey. Our bird spread its toes wide and grasped the fish with its needle-like talons. The deep puncture wounds and lack of oxygenated water will combine to kill the carp.

Most birds have four toes. They have three forward and the fourth, akin to our thumb, faces back. That’s an ideal set-up for holding on to a perch. But Osprey can also rotate one of their front toes backward, so that the bird can effectively grab a slippery fish with a strong, symmetrical hold. The Osprey’s talons even have ‘grippers’ on the underside that help them hold fresh fish.

This Osprey was likely heading back to the nest. The birds returned to the Chesapeake about a month ago and are now well into the breeding season.

Ospreys usually mate for life and return to the same nest annually. Each year, they refurbish the nest, adding more sticks and a fresh lining of vegetation. Both sexes build the nest, although the male typically brings more materials to the site while the female does the finishing work. They’ll hatch just one brood, usually one or two chicks. The new birds take a month or so to leave the nest.

In the meantime, the parents feed them. The male brings most of the fish to the nest during incubation and before the young fledge. The parents tear off bits of fish for the young, who from their first hours eat fresh fish. Gradually, they will learn to catch prey on their own. But even then, the parents will continue to feed the insistent youngsters for some time.

Ospreys have made a strong rebound from their decimated numbers of 30 years ago. Like Bald Eagles, Ospreys were severely depleted because of hunting, habitat loss and pesticides, primarily DDT. Poisoned birds and paper-thin shells took their toll until protective laws and a ban on DDT saved the species from collapse.

Now the birds continue their strong comeback. Their nests are a common sight, and the platforms that conservationists erect on tall poles and towers near water have been homes to countless new generations. The bird we had just seen with that big carp in its talons was off to feed itself or perhaps its mate. Another generation seems assured.

Back in the shallow waters, the Great Blue Heron has abandoned the carp. Moments later, the bird grabs a small, wriggling fish instead. The heron deftly flips it into the air and downs it head first.

As a birder, I’m thrilled to see the Osprey’s aerial hunting skills and the blue heron’s adroitness. Would I find this scene so fascinating if I knew fish as well as I know birds? Does familiarity alone breed compassion?

For the birds, fish are simply food. But for me, the scene is food for thought.–Bay Journal

Persistence Pays Off In Search For Warbler

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Scott Shalaway
MAY IS PRIME time for birders. Beginners can go on bird walks at nature centers and birding festivals and add dozens of species to their life lists in just a day or two. Veteran birders watch various states listing reports of species within a day’s drive.

The first week of May found me at West Virginia’s New River Birding and Nature Festival for the fifth consecutive year. Though I attend officially as a speaker and bird walk leader, the original appeal of the event was to see Swainson’s Warbler, an elusive resident of rhododendron thickets and hemlock forests.

In a column four years ago, I described my first efforts to see Swainson’s. It was easy to find and hear, but I never got a glimpse of the bird. Over the next three years, I searched for Swainson’s Warbler, but the results never varied. I heard several birds each year, but saw none.

Birding is a personal adventure sport with no “official” rules. The way I play is that to check a bird on my life list, which is what birders do when they see a bird for the first time, I must see it well enough to identify it by sight. I must see and recognize the key field marks. Having someone else point out a bird that flies quickly by just won’t do. And it must be a wild, free flying bird; one netted and released for banding doesn’t count.

So you can imagine my frustration after four years of hearing, but never seeing, Swainson’s Warbler. That others on different Festival field trips saw the bird well each year only added to my frustration. But that is the challenge of birding. Eventually, persistence is rewarded.

I’ve been birding for 35 years, so I have a respectable life list. Adding new species usually involves an investment of time and travel. So Swainson’s Warbler, which nests just 175 miles from my home, has become a bit of an obsession.

On May 2, I was assigned to the Cerulean Warbler trip, and we had a successful day. Everyone in the group got great looks at Cerulean, Worm-eating, and Hooded Warblers, and we found an American Redstart building a nest. We watched a Wood Thrush sing for several minutes. And at one point everyone had a Scarlet Tanager and an Indigo Bunting within the same binocular field of view. We ended the day listening to, but never seeing, Swainson’s Warbler.

That evening at dinner, Geoff Heeter, one of the festival organizers and field trip leaders, asked if I’d like to try for Swainson’s the next morning. I had no responsibilities until mid-day, so I jumped at the chance.

The morning of May 3 was overcast, misty and dark in the hemlock forest where seven of us gathered. Only Heeter had seen Swainson’s, so everyone was hopeful.

First, we heard a Hooded Warbler, and it took only about 10 minutes for that bird to come in for a good look. It was a lifer for several in the group, so we paused for a brief celebratory life bird dance.

When the giggling subsided, we listened. After several minutes of silence, Heeter pulled out a BirdJam (, an iPod loaded with bird songs and played a Swainson’s song just once. Almost immediately a chunky brown bird flew right in front of me and vanished into a rhododendron thicket. My heart quickened. It’s the feeling a deer hunter gets when a big buck approaches a deer stand.

Everyone remained quiet and still. Several more silent minutes passed. Then Heeter played the song again. This time the bird flew to a perch about 15 ft. in front on me, just above eye level. It was a perfect view. For about 10 glorious seconds I studied that bird– olive above, gray below, brown crown and pale eye line–then it was gone. It appeared one more time, and everyone in the group got their Swainson’s Warbler.

That’s what birding’s all about. And yes, this time everyone did the life bird dance. –Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Peregrine Falcons Soaring Back

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

By Kathy Reshetiloff
IN 1999, when the American Peregrine Falcon was removed from the list of endangered species, the bird’s recovery from near extinction in North America was hailed as a tremendous conservation success story.

Today, the peregrine’s recovery continues at an impressive pace.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the results from the first nationwide monitoring effort measuring the Peregrine Falcon’s recovery, which put the number of nesting pairs in North America at about 3,000—nearly 10 times the number estimated in 1970 when the bird was first protected as an endangered species and considerably more than the roughly 1,800 breeding pairs estimated in 1999, when the peregrine was declared recovered and de-listed.

In 2003, the first year of post-delisting monitoring, more than 300 observers—many representatives from the same partners who supported the recovery effort—monitored 438 Peregrine Falcon territories across six regions. Surveyed areas included the Northeast/Great Lakes, Southeast, Southwest, Rocky Mountains, Pacific and Alaska.

A second round of monitoring was done this year, and preliminary results indicate that the peregrine population continues to grow. Final results and analyses from 2006 will be published in a report in the summer of 2007. Monitoring will continue in 2009, 2012 and 2015. The monitoring of contaminant levels in eggs and feathers will be reported in the future as well.

A medium-size bird of prey, an adult Peregrine Falcon is slate gray on the head and back, barred and spotted on the underside, and has distinctive black “sideburns.” Like other falcons, the peregrine has long, pointed wings and a slender tail. Immature peregrines have brown backs with heavy dark streaks below.

Historically, the Peregrine Falcon ranged throughout North America and much of the rest of the world. In the eastern United States, they nested from the Great Lakes and eastern Maine south to Georgia and Alabama.

The Peregrine Falcon feeds primarily on other birds. Shorebirds, blackbirds, robins, jays and flickers are commonly taken. Prey ranges in size from swallows to large ducks.

After World War II, the use of new insecticides known as chlorinated hydrocarbons increased. Simultaneously, the populations of peregrines, bald eagles, and other birds of prey began to decrease. Small birds and mammals ate invertebrates contaminated with pesticides. Eagles and falcons feeding on contaminated birds and rodents were, in turn, poisoned by the progressive buildup of pesticides in their body tissue.

DDT, a widely used pesticide, was especially harmful because it caused eggshell thinning and, therefore, reduced reproductive success. Although adult birds survived, they could not produce offspring. By 1964, nesting peregrines were extinct in the eastern United States. Peregrines still nesting in the western part of the country were listed as endangered in 1970, two years before DDT was finally banned from use.

During the recovery effort, more than 6,000 Peregrine Falcons were released into the wild by government and private raptor specialists.

Some of the reintroductions took place in urban areas after researchers discovered that the falcons can successfully adapt to nesting on skyscrapers and other urban structures, where the abundant pigeons and starlings are the mainstay of their diets. In the Northeast and Midwest, two-thirds of Peregrine Falcons nest on man-made structures.

In addition to the DDT ban, the recovery of the Peregrine Falcon has been credited to protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act. Combined efforts of the federal and state wildlife agencies, universities, private organizations and falcon enthusiasts greatly accelerated captive breeding programs, reintroduction efforts and the protection of nest sites during the breeding season.

Similar efforts took place in Canada. –Bay Journal

Pennsylvania’s Peregrine FalconCam Goes Live

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

HARRISBURG, PA–The story of two peregrine Falcons that have nested on the ledge of Harrisburg’s Rachel Carson State Office Building since 2005 will continue this year before a worldwide audience now that the webcams that broadcast their experiences are live online.

Two cameras will chronicle the falcons while streaming the footage live on the Internet to viewers around the world. The video is available on the PA Department of Environmental Protection’s website,, where the FalconCam is featured on the front page.

DEP Secretary Kathleen McGinty said the popularity of the online broadcast has made the Peregrine Falcon page one of agency’s most visited. “The response we receive from this webcast is phenomenal every year,” she said.

“Last year, the falcon page was viewed more than three million times. It’s amazing to see and read the comments visitors from around the world have left,” McGinty said. “We’ve received questions and feedback from viewers in America, Canada, Europe, New Zealand–basically, from every corner of the planet.”

Much interest is coming from classrooms where teachers and students are following the progress of these falcons and learning about the ways they can protect their habitats.

“By seeing the falcons’ progress up close, we can appreciate how our actions have a very real and direct impact on the wildlife and environment around us, the secretary said.

McGinty said viewers may be able to see the eggs, Based on data recorded at the site from past nesting seasons, the first egg arrived sometime around March 25.

In each of the past two years, the female falcon has laid a “clutch” of five eggs. The eggs should begin to hatch around Mother’s Day, May 11, and the young falcons, or “fledglings,” will begin to take their first flights around Father’s Day, June 15.

The female has laid eggs here since 2000 with two different males, the second having been introduced in 2005 after the original male was discovered injured the previous year.

This will be the fourth year this pair of falcons has nested at the Rachel Carson building, named for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worker and author of “Silent Spring” who discovered that the pesticide DDT was thinning the eggshells of wild birds, preventing them from reproducing.

The general use of the pesticide DDT was banned in the United States as of January 1, 1993, ending nearly three decades of application during which 675,000 tons of the chemical were used to control insect pests on crop and forest lands, around homes and gardens, and for industrial and commercial purposes.

Peregrines are predators at the top of the food chain and accumulate high levels from their prey since pesticide residue becomes more and more concentrated as it works its way up the food chain.

In the early 1900s, there were about 350 pairs of nesting peregrines in the state, but the use of DDT contributed to the near extinction of birds, including the Bald Eagle and the Peregrine Falcon.

Pennsylvania’s Peregrine Falcon population has increased since the early 1990s as a direct result of reintroduction efforts such as the one at the Rachel Carson State Office Building.

Today, there are approximately a dozen pairs of Peregrine Falcons nesting at locations across the state. While their numbers are improving, Peregrine Falcons remain an endangered species in Pennsylvania.

So far, the nest at the Rachel Carson State Office Building has produced 34 eggs. Of those, 32 hatched, producing 16 males and 15 females. The sex of one nestling hatched in 2006, the runt of the clutch, could not be determined. Of these, 19 falcons survived–10 males and nine females. This is the eighth year that the state has provided this up-close webcam look at the falcons. –ENS