While most people like birds, some are totally ga-ga over them, while others downright fear them. When it comes to the corvids, though – birds informally known as members of the “crow family” – it seems it’s an either/or situation: either people hate them because they are “cruel,” “mean,” “vicious” birds, or they are intrigued by them because they are “clever,” “intelligent,” and “ingenious.” Somewhere in the mix, the truth lies.
Here in the Adirondacks we are lucky to have four species of corvids: ravens, crows, blue jays and gray jays. A fifth species, the fish crow, is listed as “rare” in the Lake Champlain Basin, so we can consider it an Adirondack possibility, but one exhibiting low probability. A more southern species, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the fish crow became a more frequent visitor to our region, along with vultures and cardinals, as our climate continues to change. » Continue Reading.
The Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge Junior Waterfowl Hunter Training Program is being offered to young hunters who want to learn more about the sport of waterfowl hunting and experience a high quality waterfowl hunt on Saturday, August 28th, 2010 in St. Albans Vermont. The program is offered to youngsters 12 to 15 years of age who have an adult waterfowl hunter to serve as a mentor. The Junior Waterfowl Hunter Training Program is a joint educational effort of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, the Vermont Chapter of Ducks Unlimited, and volunteers to teach young hunters about waterfowl hunting. The program instructs beginning hunters in the knowledge and skills necessary to become responsible, respected individuals who strive to learn all they can about the species being hunted and to become knowledgeable in firearms safety, hunter ethics and wildlife conservation.
Mentors and youths who would like to participate in this year’s program must pre-register with the Refuge by Monday, August 23. Participation in the program will be limited to 50 enrollees.
All mentors and young hunters must attend the one-day training session on Saturday, August 28, with instruction beginning at 8:00 AM at the Franklin County (Vermont) Sportsman’s Club on Route 36 (Maquam Shore Road) in St. Albans. The training session will be held rain or shine, so participants should dress appropriately.
Junior Hunters and their mentors, once they complete the training, are awarded exclusive use of several premier hunting areas at Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge for the first four weekends of the waterfowl hunting season, however, only the Junior Hunter may shoot. Blind sites and hunting dates for the Jr. Hunters are determined by a lottery conducted at the annual training session.
To register for this year’s program, call refuge headquarters at 802-868-4781. Please include the mentor’s and youth’s name, address and telephone number.
Waterfowl hunters of all ages are welcome to attend the training on Saturday, August 28. It is a great opportunity to improve waterfowl identification and other waterfowl hunting skills for the coming season. Children under the age of 12 are welcome to come for the day to learn about the program but will not be allowed to participate in the hunt until they are 12 years old.
If you have any questions about the program, please contact David Frisque, Park Ranger, at 802-868-4781.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is encouraging New Yorkers to participate in the Summer Wild Turkey Sighting Survey, which kicks off in August.
Since 1996, DEC has conducted the Summer Wild Turkey Sighting Survey to estimate the average number of wild turkey poults (young of the year) per hen statewide and among major geographic regions of the state. This index allows DEC to gauge turkey populations and enables wildlife managers to predict fall harvest potential. Weather, predation and habitat conditions during the breeding and brood-rearing seasons can all significantly impact nest success, hen survival, and poult survival. During the month of August, survey participants record the sex and age composition of all flocks of wild turkeys observed during normal travel. Those who want to participate can download a Summer Wild Turkey Sighting Survey form from the DEC website to record your observations. Detailed instructions can be found with the data sheet. Survey cards can also be obtained by contacting your regional DEC office, by calling (518) 402-8886, or by e-mailing [email protected] (type “Turkey Survey” in the subject line).
The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Adirondack Program, Adirondack residents and visitors, and other partners have successfully conducted the 10th Annual New York Loon Census.
More than 300 lakes and ponds were surveyed by more than 500 volunteers during this year’s census—up from 200 lakes and ponds last year. The data obtained during the census will be added and compared to those collected in years prior to gauge the status of the breeding loon population in and around the Adirondack Park and across New York State. » Continue Reading.
Every day for the last three weeks or so, the air has been filled with the thin, high pitched calls of cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). Highly social birds, they flock together year round as they forage for food in their favorite haunts. Lately these haunts have been the yards and lawns around town, where daily I see their heads popping up from the grassy carpets, peering at me with their beady eyes while they assess whether my presence is threatening or not.
From the first time I saw a cedar waxwing, I fell in love with it. Its feathers are so sleek that they blend together to form a whole, making the bird look like something made of silk or satin. In fact, the name Bombycilla was coined in an attempt to reflect this: silk-tailed. Add to the fine-textured caramel-colored body a jaunty crest, a black mask, a yellow stripe on the tail and wings tipped with “red sealing wax”, and you have one dapper bird. I recently found a deceased waxwing on the side of the road and had the chance to examine it in great detail. Those bits of red on the wings really do look like someone dripped sealing wax on the ends of the feathers. In truth, however, each red “thing” is merely a flattened extension of the feather’s shaft. It is quite stiff and does feel waxy.
People have speculated for many years the reason(s) for these decorations, and in the 1980s a theory was put forth that the birds use them to assess each other for potential mates. Apparently the number of “droplets” reflects the age of the bird: more droplets means greater age. It seems that the birds select mates who share the same number of droplets as they sport, thus mating with individuals that are the same age. It seems as good a theory as any.
Several years ago, I had a friend who had a parakeet. She had to be sure to provide the bird with red or orange foods to keep its color optimum, otherwise it faded to a pale yellow. Likewise, flamingoes that don’t eat enough shrimp start to loose their pink coloration. The same seems to hold true with the waxwings. Back in the 1960s birds started to show up in the northeast with orange-colored wax droplets instead of red, and orange tips on their tails instead of yellow. It turns out that this color change coincided with the introduction of non-native honeysuckles. The red wax droplets are colored by the presence of certain carotenoid pigments found in the birds’ regular food. The birds eating the foreign fruits consumed different carotneoids and ended up with differently colored feather tips.
Cedar waxwings are one of the most serious fruit-eating birds we have. Most of the year they dine on fruits: cherries, serviceberries, winterberries, dogwood berries, hawthorns, mountain ash, et al (note that all these fruits are red). These small fruits are inhaled whole and digested with such rapidity that the seeds pass right through the birds’ digestive tracts. When fruits are ripe, the flocks sweep in, take a seat on a convenient branch and start gulping them down, although sometimes they will hover mid-air and pluck the fruits. A tree or shrub can be stripped clean in a day or two, and then the flock moves on.
A classic waxwing behavior, and one every bird photographer has captured, is the passing of a fruit from bird to bird. Sometimes this is done between members of the flock, until one bird decides to eat it. Other times it is done as part of a courtship ritual, where the male presents the female with a fruit. She in turn takes it and hops away, contemplating the gift. If she is impressed, she hops back and gives the fruit back to him. This little ritual repeats until the female decides to eat the fruit (or not). Apparently fruit consumption is equivalent to accepting an engagement ring. Shortly thereafter, nest building begins.
By the time late spring and early summer roll around, however, there are few, if any fruits, left for the birds to eat. When this happens, these birds don’t starve and fade away, they have a back up plan. They change their diet to insects. And just as they eat fruit like there is no tomorrow, so, too, do they gorge on insects. This can be quite the boon when insect pests are around, for a flock can go through an insect population like wildfire through a drought-stricken forest. I’d be willing to bet that this is what all those waxwings on the lawns have been doing for the last few weeks: hunting down insects to fill their bottomless bellies. Sadly, this single-minded behavior can get them in trouble, for flocks foraging along roadsides can get run down by passing cars and trucks, like the waxwing I found yesterday.
If you find yourself walking along a forest edge, or a grassy field near a woodlot, keep your eyes and ears open for waxwings. You are bound to hear them, and when you do, it is only a matter of glancing around before you find the source of their distinctive sound.
This weekend marks the 8th Annual Great Adirondack Birding Celebration, hosted by the Adirondack Park Agency’s Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC) at Paul Smiths. This annual event draws as many as 400 visitors to the region. This year participants have come from throughout the Northeast down to Maryland and Virginia and as far away as Texas. Highlights of the Celebration include field trips both Saturday and Sunday mornings led by local experts to to birding hotspots such as Bloomingdale Bog, Madawaska, Spring Pond Bog, Whiteface Mountain, as well as the Paul Smiths VIC. Birders hope to see boreal bird specialities such as the Black-backed Woodpecker, shown at the left, as well as Spruce Grouse, Boreal Chickadee, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and many northern warblers. More than 160 species have been seen over the eight years of this birding festival. » Continue Reading.
June is birding month in the Adirondacks of Northern New York and avid ornithologists can enjoy the pristine wilderness habitats of several species of birds during one of the many birding events and festivals this spring.
At Great Camp Sagamore, two adventure programs featuring Boreal Birds of the Adirondacks will take place May 25-28 and June 10-13. Space is extremely limited – only 15 people are accepted per program and reservations are required. See and hear the boreal birds (gray jay, white- throated sparrow, black-backed and Northern three-toed woodpeckers, boreal chickadee, etc.) that make their home in and breed in the Adirondacks. Lectures, slide shows and bird-call lessons will prepare you for field trips to two New York State “Important Birding Areas.” $439 per person for this three-night, four-day program. » Continue Reading.
Out along the walkway coming down to the main building here at the VIC, we have an old, hollow snag. There’s a perfectly round hole in the side that I’ve often thought was ideal for a chickadee, but I’ve never seen a bird fly in or out of the tree. One year I took our Treetop Peeper, a cavity camera that is mounted on a telescopic pole, and tried to peek inside the hole, but the opening was a just a bit too small for the camera head, so I never found out if it was being used by birds or not. This morning, however, I heard a loud whack-whack-whack as I came down the walkway. I thought for sure a pileated woodpecker was drilling away, but instead what I saw was its much smaller cousin, the yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius).
First off, you have to love that name: yellow-bellied sapsucker. It sounds like an insult some rustic dude from the Old West might sling at another rustic dude about whom he had a poor opinion. But, when it comes to birds, it is a pretty apt descriptor. The bird, after all, does have a somewhat yellowish tint to its underside, and it does consume the sap of trees, although not by sucking. More on this in a bit. The sapsucker is one of the smaller woodpeckers in our area, coming in just behind the hairy. Like its relatives, its feathers are mostly black and white, with a touch of red. Both the male and female sport red caps, but only the male has a red throat patch (see photo). And like all good woodpeckers, the sapsucker has stiff tail feathers that act as supports while the bird climbs trees and whacks away at the wood.
When it comes to excavating trees, the sapsuckers make two types of feeding holes. The first kind is round and deep. Into these holes the bird plunges its beak to extract sap. The second type of hole is more rectangular and shallow. These holes are maintained over the course of several days to keep the sap flowing. The bird uses its brush-like tongue to lick up the flowing sap, and any insects that are stuck to it.
Now, there is an art to this whole hole-making jag. You can spot a sapsucker tree at a distance for it will have a series of horizontal rows of holes going around the trunk. The bird makes these rows, one on top of the next, for a reason: they dam up the flow of the phloem sap in the summer. Phloem sap? Time for a little tree physiology 101.
Trees have phloem and xylem – two “types” of wood. The xylem is the part that provides structure to the tree – most of the wood. It also contains the “vessels” through which water and nutrients rise from the roots to the leaves of the trees. It is xylem sap that maple sugerers tap in the spring to make the sweet stuff we put on our pancakes and waffles. It is mostly water.
Phloem, on the other hand, is the part of the tree (wood) that carries nutrients from the leaves back down towards the roots. It is closer to the outer edge of the trunk. The sap that runs through the phloem is thicker, being chocked full of all sorts of nutritious goodies: proteins, amino acids, sugars, etc. It doesn’t flow in the same manner that xylem sap flows. Which raises an interesting question among tree and bird folks: how does the sapsucker keep the flow, well, flowing?
Apparently scientists have studied this and have tried to come up with an answer with little success. Attempts at mimicking the sapsucker’s techniques have met with failure. The conclusion is that there must be some sort of anticoagulant in the bird’s saliva that keeps the tree’s sap fluid enough to flow. Kind of like vampire bat saliva, which has been found to be useful in medicines for patients suffering from blood clots and heart disease, but that’s fodder for another post.
So, we have these birds making row up on row of holes, creating a backlog of sap in the phloem cells above the holes. Each new row taps into this stored sap, providing nutrients not only to the sapsucker, but to a whole host of other animals, from squirrels and porcupines to warblers, hummingbirds and insects. In fact, the sapsucker has been given the label “keystone species” for the role it plays in maintaining food sources for a variety of lifeforms within its community.
Not only that, but it seems that these birds target trees that are often already in poor health. Apparently trees suffering from insect damage, weather damage (wind, lightning), or disease produce a greater amount of protein and amino acids in their sap – no doubt a last ditch effort to try and heal themselves. This extra nutrition is highly attractive to sapsuckers – a bigger bang for their buck, so to speak. This also means they are less likely to tap into healthy trees, which cuts down on the likelihood of the birds irritating foresters and the timber industry.
If you suspect you have yellow-bellied sapsuckers in your woods, you can find out fairly easily by listening. Not only do they have a cat-like call, but when they are whacking away on a tree, the sound is quite distinctive: you’ll hear a series of about five rapid whacks, followed by three or so slower, quieter whacks: WHACK-WHACK-WHACK-WHACK-WHACK …whack…whack…whack. Add this to the discovery of trees riddled with rows of holes, and you can be pretty sure that yellow-bellies have taken up residence in your neighborhood.
Last month I was talking with a friend about my bear invasion and asked if she’d had any problems at her house yet. She told me no, and that she was leaving her feeders up because she wanted to get some bluebirds at her house. Are you putting out mealworms, I asked. No, just birdseed, she replied. When I told her that bluebirds are insect eaters, not seed eaters, she told me that another local woman had told her that her feeders were loaded with bluebirds, and had been all winter. AH, I said, she means blue jays.
Not all blue birds are bluebirds. One of the first things I do when I give a bluebird presentation is show pictures of blue jays, indigo buntings, and blue grosbeaks. All three of these birds have lovely blue feathers (which technically are not blue; when it comes to feathers, the color blue is a result of light and feather structure, not an actual pigment), but there the similarity ends.
Blue jays are members of the crow family, and can be found in the Adirondacks year round. They are fairly large birds, with pointed crests on their heads and long tails out behind. The light blue feathers are nicely offset with black and white markings, and their loud “JAY!” is unmistakable. These birds are frequent visitors to bird feeders, hoovering up seeds like there’s no tomorrow (they can store numerous seeds in their throat pouches for later consumption), and especially like peanuts. You can have a lot of fun with blue jays by setting up Rube-Goldberg-like contraptions for them to figure out in order to get to a peanut reward.
Indigo buntings are a delight to see, mostly because they are uncommon. When one shows up, it may linger for a day or two at your bird feeder, but then it moves on. I’ve only seen indigo buntings a couple times in my life, but their solid almost-neon blue coloration will remain in my mind’s eye forever.
Based on range maps, blue grosbeaks are unlikely to be seen this far north. Like their cousins the evening and rose-breasted grosbeaks, they have, well, gross (large) beaks, which are handy for opening large seeds and cones.
The bluebird, however, is a seasonal visitor that, given the right set of circumstances, you can see every spring and summer in the Adirondack Park. Those circumstances are habitat: they like open spaces with short grass, and they need cavities in which to nest.
Farmland, cemeteries, golf courses, and yards are all ideal places for attracting bluebirds because the land is open and the grass is usually kept short. Why is short grass so important? Bluebirds hunt for insects by perching on a branch, or fencepost, or tombstone, and watching the grass for movement. When an insect is spotted, the bird flies down to the ground to grab it. If the grass is too long, the bird has a harder time finding its prey, and the insects have a greater chance to escape capture.
Historically, bluebirds nested in cavities excavated (usually by woodpeckers) in rotting trees, but people began cutting down these trees. Then invasive species, like house sparrows, house finches and starlings, started to compete for the remaining nest sites. Bluebird numbers took a real nosedive. The invention of the nestbox in the 1930s, and the subsequent establishment of bluebird trails, has made a real difference in bluebird populations, to the point where today just about anyone has the chance to see a bluebird, something our parents and grandparents could not claim when they were younger.
For the last week or so I’ve been on the lookout for bluebirds on our local golf course, where I maintain a small trail of about eight nestboxes. Two evenings ago I saw a flash of blue flit over the pocket wetland on the fourth fairway, and last night I heard the unmistakable call of several bluebirds while the dog and I traversed the first fairway. They were back. I watched a pair of bluebirds flying from the treetops to the box tops, no doubt checking out the real estate and the local housing market.
Back in April I’d made sure the boxes were cleaned out and repaired (one had to be completely replaced), and last week I noticed a couple boxes had been filled with moss: black-capped chickadees were taking up housekeeping. Last night I peeked into one of these to see if the chickadee was present, and there she was, peeking back out at me. I slowly closed the box and left her to her thoughts.
Most of my boxes are put up in pairs, a technique recommended in areas where tree swallows are present. Tree swallows are native birds that also nest in tree cavities, and bluebird nestboxes are the perfect size for these helpful insectivores. Unfortunately, they are very territorial birds and have been known to evict bluebirds from their nests, even going so far as breaking eggs and bodily removing nestlings. By pairing up your nest boxes, you give the bluebirds a chance, because tree swallows will move into one box and prevent other tree swallows from moving into the second. Bluebirds who have been evicted may move into the second box and try again.
It was after 8:00 last night when the dog and I finally got back home, and I was delighted to see a bluebird fly from the utility lines towards my yard, where I have five more nestboxes set up. To encourage the bluebirds to choose one of my boxes, I usually purchase a bag of mealworms, which I keep in my ‘fridge and slowly dole out to these would-be neighbors. This can be a real boon once babies hatch, for finding enough food for their gaping maws can be a challenge for the parents, especially if they are faced with a cool and wet summer. By providing mealworms early in the season, I can establish a food source for these prospective parents and perhaps sway their choice in nesting sites.
I encourage everyone who has a patch of open land to build (or purchase) a couple nestboxes and put them up. You’ll want to mount them on posts about five feet high, and ideally away from trees predators can use to gain access. Predator guards placed around the posts will also help protect your birds from raccoons, squirrels, snakes and cats. Make sure your nestbox has a door that you can open so you can monitor the box and its inhabitants. Checking your nestbox once a week is usually enough to make sure your birds are safe and doing well.
Once the eggs are laid, it’ll be about two weeks until they hatch, and another two to three weeks until the babies fledge. You’ll want to stop opening the box when the nestlings are about ten days old to avoid startling them into fledging before they are ready to fly. Keep a small bowl of mealworms handy, and you will have a happy bluebird family close at hand.
Ornithologist William Leon Dawson described the bluebird in his 1903 book Birds of Ohio as “Reflecting heaven from his back and the ground from his breast, he floats between sky and earth like the winged voice of hope.” What a wonderful description of these chirpy backyard friends.
The 2010 spring turkey season opens on May 1 and the annual Youth Turkey Hunting Weekend is this weekend (April 24-25). For more information about turkey hunting in New York, visit the “Turkey Hunting” pages of the DEC website.
An analysis of the 2009 spring turkey take, including a county-by-county breakdown, can be found on the DEC website; the numbers for the 2009 fall turkey season are also online. Do you have photos from a spring turkey hunt you would like to share? DEC has created a Hunting and Trapping Photo Gallery for junior hunters (ages 12-15), young trappers (under age 16), and hunters who have harvested their first big or small game animal. If you are the parent or legal guardian of a junior hunter, or if you are an adult who would like to share your first successful hunt, visit the photo gallery.
To participate in our Summer Wild Turkey Sighting Survey, Winter Wild Turkey Flock Survey, or other game bird surveys visit the “Citizen Science” page of the DEC website.
To be eligible for this year’s Youth Turkey Hunt, hunters must be 12-15 years of age, and holding a junior hunting license and a turkey permit. Youth ages 12-13 must be accompanied by a parent, legal guardian or a relative over 21 and with written permission from their parent or legal guardian. Youth ages 14-15 must be accompanied by a parent, legal guardian or an adult over 18 and with written permission from their parent or legal guardian. The accompanying adult must have a current hunting license and turkey permit. The adult may assist the youth hunter (including calling), but may not carry a firearm or bow, or kill or attempt to kill a wild turkey during the youth hunt.
Shooting hours are from one-half hour before sunrise to noon each day. The bag limit for the youth weekend is one bearded bird. This bird becomes part of the youth’s regular season bag limit of 2 bearded birds. A second bird may be taken beginning May 1. All other wild turkey hunting regulations are in effect.
Other Important Details for the Spring Turkey Season, May 1-31, 2010:
• Hunting is permitted in most areas of the state, except for New York City and Long Island.
• Hunters must have a turkey hunting permit in addition to their small game hunting or sportsman license.
• Shooting hours are from one-half hour before sunrise to noon each day.
• Hunters may take 2 bearded turkeys during the spring season, but only 1 bird per day.
• Hunters may not use rifles, or handguns firing a bullet. Hunters may hunt with a shotgun or handgun loaded with shot sizes no larger than No. 2 or smaller than No. 8, or with a bow and arrow.
• Successful hunters must fill out the tag which comes with their turkey permit and immediately attach it to any turkey harvested.
• Successful hunters must report their harvest within 48 hours of taking a bird. Call (1-866 GAMERPT) or report harvest online.
• Hunters who take a bird with a leg band are encouraged to call the “800” number listed on the band, in addition to reporting their harvest via phone or Internet. Hunters will find out when and where the bird was banded and the information will help DEC staff better manage wild turkeys.
On this Earth Day of 2010 I find myself thinking. First, thinking of the abuses this planet has taken and is still taking. Then I think of some of the more positive things that we have witnessed, as we slowly bring about the changes this planet needs…”Be the change that you want to see in the world”-Gandhi I recently “rediscovered ” a book I have entitled Important Bird Areas of New York and as I paged though it I came to a map depicting all the Important Bird Areas(IBA) of northern New York. Looking closely at the map it shows all the IBA’s in small gray circles. Some bigger, some smaller. Each one designating a large IBA or a smaller IBA.
Then I got out my calculator and started adding up the number of acres each IBA contained. To my surprise, in an area that runs north of the NYS Thruway and bound by Lake Champlain on the east, Lake Ontario on the West, and the St Lawrence River to the north, I count over 902,000 acres designated as IBA.
Now this is just an estimate-it could be greater. But smack dab in the middle of all these gray circles of IBA’s sits our Adirondack Park. Some areas within the Blueline are IBA’s but looking at the big picture we can take a calming breath knowing that over 2 million acres are protected for birdlife (and other forms of wildlife of course) in our “park”.
This was truly an eye-opener when I recently looked at a map showing all the IBA’s in the United States. If you look at the upper right corner of the map you see a large green blob. That’s the protected Adirondack Park with all it’s avian inhabitants. Pretty cool when you consider the size of the blob in relation to all the other blobs on the map.
But what does this afford us? Well for one thing it gives recognition that we have something unique here in our own backyards. We have a Park that encompasses over 12 different critical habitats that wildlife need, ranging from endangered alpine summits to precious peatland bogs and wetlands that provide habitat to millions of organisms.
Birds have depended on these habitats of the Adirondacks for thousands of years. Bicknell’s thrush can safely raise young in the thickets of spruce-fir forest on our mountains; spruce grouse may get a second chance at survival in our carefully managed forests; olive-sided flycatchers can seek out protected wetlands as they return from a 2,000 mile spring journey from a tropical rainforest; and rusty blackbirds, though numbers severely depleted, can still find habitat in our acreage.
We may never see the day when all the “green blobs” on the IBA map will meld into one big blob, but it’s nice to know that we are trying.
With all the unseasonably balmy weather we’ve had this month, and all the advanced blooming and migrations, it really shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone that the bears are awake and searching for food. In fact, I’m surprised that the first signs of bear activity only appeared this weekend. Unfortunately, these signs were in my back yard, where the bear broke through the fence and ravaged two birdfeeder poles and something like seven bird feeders, not to mention my compost bin. Yes, the bears are awake. » Continue Reading.
The mere mention of the word “vulture” often conjures up images of Halloween, death, or the African plains. I, however, find vultures to be endlessly fascinating creatures. Mostly I’ve seen them from afar, as they glide overhead in a wobbly “V” while soaring on a thermal, but I’ve also been lucky enough to see them roosting in trees along rivers where I’ve paddled, and once I even came upon a family unit on a rocky prominence overlooking Bridgewater, New Jersey – we were only about six feet way from each other. Turkey vultures are probably the most common of the New World vultures, living in open and semi-open areas from southern Canada all the way to the southernmost tip of South America. Here in North American they tend to be commonly called “buzzards,” but I’m a purist and prefer to stick to the word “vulture.” In the world of science, they are called Cathartes aura. Cathartes is Latin for “purifier,” and probably refers to the bird’s habit of eating dead things – they are the sanitary engineers of the natural world. In fact, while most people no doubt find the vulture’s habit of eating carrion revolting, we should all be grateful that they do, for they help keep the incidence of disease at a minimum.
A close look at the turkey vulture shows us just how well it is adapted to its role as nature’s clean-up crew. First, it has a phenomenal sense of smell. This is rare among birds in general, and even among vultures it is a trait that stands out. Turkey vultures fly low over open areas scanning the ground with their keen eyes and sense of smell. The early stages of decay are marked with the emission of particular gasses, and the vulture’s highly developed olfactory system can detect even the smallest trace. Black vultures, which do not have the ability to smell, keep their eyes on their red-headed cousins to learn where the nearest food is located.
Next we should take note of that red head, which on the juveniles is grey. Some native stories say that the vulture’s head is featherless and red because it flew up to the sun to bring light back to earth, and its head was burned in the process. In reality, a naked head is a trait of most carrion birds. When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Y’see, these birds stick their heads into rotting, decaying flesh, ripping off bits to feed themselves or their off-spring. Rotting animals are full of “unsavory” things, like maggots and bacteria. By having featherless heads, vultures are able to keep themselves cleaner and avoid contamination. This could also be why their feet and legs are featherless, too.
Sometimes turkey vultures are seen standing with their wings spread out in the sunlight, much like anhingas. This is something they tend to do in the morning, especially after a damp night. I read that at night turkey vultures drop their body temperatures by about 11 degrees Fahrenheit, making themselves slightly hypothermic. I don’t know why they do this, but perhaps this is one reason why they “sun” themselves in the morning – to warm up. But they also do it to dry off and to bake off any bacteria that might be lingering in their feathers. When you think about it, these are really very tidy birds.
Okay, maybe not all their habits are tidy, like when they defecate on their feet and legs, a trait they share with their stork relatives. But, in all fairness, they do this to cool down. It’s an evaporation thing. The liquid evaporates from the skin, which cools off the blood that runs close to the surface of their legs and feet. Not everything can sweat like you and I.
And the projectile vomiting thing is rather revolting, too, I guess. But again, they do this only when necessary. Even though turkey vultures are fairly large animals, and therefore have few “enemies,” there are some animals that may try to take on a vulture or attack its nest of young. Because they don’t have strong feet with sharp talons, or fearsome beaks for killing prey, turkey vultures don’t have a lot of options for fending off attackers – beating them about the head and shoulders with their vast wings will only go so far. Vomiting up partially digested, rotting flesh, however, serves as a pretty good deterrent. The foul mess is even reported to sting when it lands on the offender. I know that if a large bird barfed all over me I’d be likely to leave it alone; apparently it works on raccoons and eagles, too.
It’s always good to take a second look at animals that we usually look at with a jaundiced eye. Just because something isn’t cute and cuddly, warm and fuzzy, doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. Beauty can be found in many forms, and while on the surface the turkey vulture may not win any beauty contests, it is, in my humble opinion, one of our more beautiful birds. I’d rather see a flock of vultures roosting in a tree over a flock of robins pulling worms out of my yard any day. This morning I heard my first report of vultures in the area for 2010. I’ll be looking skyward on my way home tonight to catch a glimpse of their silver-lined wings rocking gently overhead.
Photo: Turkey Vulture in flight over Florida (Wiki Commons).
Lake George is the summer home of many people we never see.
The most reclusive summer resident, however, may not be any particular family but a migratory bird, the woodcock. As one sportsman put it, “The for-centuries extinct dodo bird is sighted about as often and by as many watchers.”
The woodcock (otherwise known as the timberdoodle, bog sucker, mud bat, big eyes, and, in the south, as becasse de nuit, or nightswipe) is a game bird that comes to Lake George in early spring; it stays no longer than six or seven months and departs before the first frost.
Typical of the summer resident, the woodcock returns to the same place every year. Its preferred habitat is abandoned farmland. The woodcock lives on a diet of worms, which he consumes in amounts equal to his weight every day, and as boys who fish will tell you, moist, poorly drained fields are the best places to find them.
(One obvious harbinger of the woodcock’s arrival is the flock of robins that descends upon the field as soon as the sun’s heat is warm enough to draw worms to the surface.)
The nesting hen also likes the shrubby areas and young groves of oaks and maples that grow up on the edges of old fields.
I would not have known of the woodcock’s existence here had not a friend who is knowledgeable about these things told me that the woodcock’s preferences in food and shelter matched the conditions of the fields between our house and barn, alerting us to its presence.
The “peent, peent” that we hear every spring evening, it turns out, is part of the male woodcock’s mating ritual. It is the sound that he makes just before he ascends in a widening parabola through the dusk. When he achieves a maximum altitude, or perhaps just as he is about to descend, he lets loose a song that is as beautiful as any birdsong I’m familiar with. It is the only time he sings, according to John Burroughs. The naturalist adds: “Surprising it is to see this stupid-looking mud-prober transformed into an ecstatic song-bird under the influence of the mating instinct. Whoever has witnessed its hurried spiral flight in the March and April twilights, and heard its curious smacking, gurgling notes rain down out of the obscurity of a couple of hundred feet of air, has been present at one of the surprising incidents in the life of this bird.”
Actually, the woodcock does not descend so much as he falls, like a leaf at first, then like a rock dropped to illustrate the principals of gravity. He then returns to the spot from whence he came, and repeats the entire ritual. Now that the hours of daylight have increased, we have had better luck catching sight of him as he flies out of the juniper and circles the field.
There is another curious habit of the woodcock, which I have yet to see and have only read about: “If, in shooting, you meet with a brood of woodcocks, and the young ones cannot fly, the old bird takes them separately between her feet, and flies from the dogs with a moaning cry.” (This from an old sportsman’s guide; the writer is identified only as the author of “Scandinavian Adventures.”)
“All nature is so full that that district produces the most variety that is most examined,” wrote Gilbert White, the 18th century English parson who spent most of his life observing nature in one parish. White would have appreciated the fact that one of nature’s most elusive creatures can be found in our own backyards.
Woodcock illustration from New York State Fish and Game Reports
On a warm spring day we may look out over some open field with a mountainous backdrop, and while admiring the simple beauty of it all we might perchance see a hawk flying over the field in great spiraling flights as it rides a column of warm air from the valley below.
We learn, as we watch its flight pattern, that this hawk is hunting the fields in search of mice or other small mammals. We wonder how this bird has spent the winters because we never see it during the cold months in the Adirondacks. Many species of hawk are migratory. Some spend several of our winter months in the warmer climes of Mexico, Central America, and even South America. But it was not until recent times that we discovered this phenomena of hawk, and falcon migration in Eastern North America.
Readers might be familiar with the broad-winged hawk. They are common throughout the lower elevations of the Adirondacks and can often be seen in hardwood forests or around open spaces.
But let’s take a look at the arduous journey this species and other hawk species have to make in order to reach the nesting grounds of our Adirondack woodlands.
Broad-wings can be found deep in Central America during our winter but by May they have completed a huge migratory pathway along the Appalachian Mts and end up nesting in our woodlands.
For the most part, broad-wings will follow the mountains along the east coast because they provide a “highway” of warm air thermals(air rising up from the valley floors) and these thermals are what the hawks soar on as they fly north. Soaring expends less energy than constantly flapping wings.
After safely negotiating the mountains and strong winds, the hawks then face another obstacle in their way. Water! Most hawks do not like to fly over large bodies of water. In our case those bodies of water are the Great Lakes.
The two eastern-most lakes, being Erie and Ontario, have become home to some of the best known spring hawkwatching areas in the United States. Hawks, while migrating, will encounter the open lakes and suddenly slam on the brakes and re-configure their flight direction….around the water.
As they adjust, they find the shoreline of these lakes more to their liking. So any wide open viewing areas along the shoreline can yield views of these hawks streaming along the shoreline on their northward march.
Places like Derby Hill, and Braddock Bay along southern Lake Ontario offer phenomenal viewing opportunities. A bit closer to home one can find some good viewing along Lake Champlain on top of Coon Mountain, just north of Westport in Essex County.
What a pleasure it is to watch these majestic raptors as they cruise their way over valleys and mountains to finally settle into quite forests, and raise a family all in the shelter of these Adirondacks.
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