If you subscribe to the Adirondack Explorer, you’re probably familiar with our Brief Bio feature. For each issue, we ask some notable person to answer a list of standard questions. One of them is, What’s your most memorable wildlife experience?
I’d like to ask you the same question.
If you spend a lot of time in the Adirondacks, you probably have several wildlife stories to tell, so feel free to share more than one. One of my favorite wildlife experiences occurred two summers ago, when I paddled with a friend and his son from Long Lake to Tupper Lake. On the first night, we canoed to a lean-to on the Cold River, where we spent the night in splendid isolation from civilization. The next day we continued our journey down a wild stretch of the Raquette and came upon a female common merganser followed by more than a dozen chicks. Whenever we approached, they would skitter ahead, roiling the water, then settle back into their lazy ways. Finally, they tired of the game and let us pass.
Later in the day we arrived at the mile-long carry around Raquette Falls. After finishing the portage, we went to the lower falls for lunch. It was a beautiful afternoon, sunny and warm. As we ate, three mergansers approached the falls. When they got to the brink, they retreated to a little pool out of the current.
We watched them, wondering what they would do next. The ducks must have been pondering the same thing. After a minute or so, the bravest re-entered the current, followed by the others. One by one, they plunged over the falls, disappeared beneath the foam, and popped up like corks a few yards downstream. They then continued their merry way, bobbing through the rapids and out of sight.
It was a sudden—and surprising—solution to the ducks’ dilemma. And it cracked us up.
I have some other stories I could tell, but I’d like to hear yours.
Thanks to clear skies with calm or light southerly winds, there is a massive northerly movement of birds tonight in the Adirondacks, and indeed throughout much of the northeastern quarter of the country. The image at left shows the Northeast U.S. Radar Mosaic Thursday evening, April 1. Below left is the the radar loop on Thursday evening, April 1 out of Ft. Drum, NY. The “starburst” of blue and green colors surrounding the radar site is typical of birds, as opposed to weather. » Continue Reading.
On Saturday, April 3, from 1:00 – 2:30 p.m., the Visitor Interpretive Center at Newcomb will host a Family Bluebird Nest Box Workshop. This will be an opportunity to learn about bluebirds, their lifestyles and their habitat.
Bluebirds can be found in the Adirondacks and are attracted by some open grassland such as a yard and a nest box or two. Participants will learn about bluebirds, how to make your yard “bluebird friendly” and join with VIC staff to build a nest box. Nest box kits are available to purchase for $10.00 each. Pre-registration is required by Thursday, April 1st. For information and to register call the Newcomb VIC at 518-582-2000.
The Newcomb VIC is located on NYS Route 28N just west of the Hamlet of Newcomb, Essex County.
The Adirondack Park Agency operates two Visitor Interpretive Centers at Newcomb and Paul Smiths. The mission of the Agency, which is headquartered in Ray Brook, is to protect the public and private resources of the Adirondack Park through the exercise of powers and duties as provided by law. For more information on the Adirondack Park Agency, call (518) 891-4050 or visit www.apa.state.ny.us.
On any given spring day here in the Adirondacks you are bound to hear an American robin calling from a treetop or front lawn. And then you ask, when did they get here? Later that day as you are paddling along the shoreline of a quiet lake you see an osprey circling overhead as it hunts for fish. Again you ask, When did they arrive?
Do these birds all arrive at once or is there some sort of bird-migration-schedule that our feathered friends use on their northward journeys? A simple answer is yes, they do arrive on somewhat regular schedules. But as with all things in the world of biology, it is not that simple.
Let’s look at the big picture first. We know that birds arrive in the spring and we can kinda guess-within a week to 10 day margin-when they might arrive. Someone once told me that our Adirondack hummingbirds arrive within a week, either side, of Mother’s Day. That’s true.
Our summer visiting common loons are usually on lakes and ponds just at or near complete ice out. Come to think of it that’s pretty easy for a loon to determine as they fly 500-1000ft in the air getting a loons-eye view of what lakes are open.
But looking at the nuts and bolts of migration we see there are many biological signals that kick these birds into migration mode.
Deep within birds there are biochemicals, testosterone and estrogen, surging through veins and into cells. This in turn signals other processes to begin: reproductive parts start to increase in size; increasing day length signals readiness for migration; and there is a general restlessness that birds exhibit as they begin orienting their movements towards north or south, depending on the season.
As all this occurs, birds then get an uncontrollable urge to eat and fatten up as a result. This is good because the fat is the fuel for long distance migration.
But back to the main point-are birds on a schedule? One way to answer this is to look at the “waves” of different species that arrive in our woods, fields, or wetlands.
As March began we noticed bunches of Canada geese, and snow geese in flight far overhead. A week later we take note of our first red-winged blackbird down by the swamp or cat-tail marsh. About 2 days later the common grackles find their way into the fields and call to announce their arrival. Cardinals, brown creepers, and golden-crowned kinglets begin singing their songs for the early riser.
As I write this blog near the end of March we find the arrivals of song sparrows and fox sparrow to the neighborhood. My guess is that next week will bring tree swallows, northern flickers and white-throated sparrows.
April is when the migratory birds really make their presence known across the Adirondacks. Belted kingfishers will be seen along the shorelines of ponds, American kestrels(small falcons) will be hunting for the first crickets from telephone poles and wires. Great blue herons will be fishing among the grasses of the beaver swamps, and eastern phoebes will be scolding us from the roofs of backyard sheds.
Think of bird migration as a large conveyor belt cycling though the spring months and dropping off species of birds at timed intervals. But keep a sharp eye about you because the bird scene changes daily and then weekly.
Personally I’m looking forward to late April when the wild flowers have poked through the dead leaves and the sounds of the first warblers fill the woods and finally reach my winter-weary ears.
I have come to the conclusion over the years that collecting things is a very human trait. I suspect this harkens back to our prehistoric selves, whose days were filled with collecting, be it foodstuffs for later consumption or burnables for the evening’s fire. With the advent of the corner market and central heating, most of us (at least in this country) no longer have “real needs” that are fulfilled by the urge to collect. As a result, we turn our craving for collectibles to other things, which in my case includes books and sand. Collecting objects from the outdoors is therefore a natural habit. Who among us as a child didn’t come home with pockets full of rocks, or pluck a few flowers to present to Mom? Even as adults we eagerly pick up nature’s little treasures when they come our way. Two of the more commonly collected items are feathers and nests. » Continue Reading.
Adirondack Bracket fans, welcome to the Benzene-Toluene-Ephedrine-Iodine-Phenylpropanolamine-Crystal methamphetamine-Sweet-Sixteen. The field is narrowing and the narrative is coming into focus. Chris Kowanko, the Renderer bros. and the whole crowd at Upper Jay Upholstery and Furniture —home to the Recovery Lounge—got the stuffing knocked out of them by a handful of bad mushrooms. They could have benefitted from a class in basic mycology. The mushrooms now face pond hockey, which put those cougar sightings on ice, and is said to be making a real comeback (beats waiting for the peewees to clear out of the rink). The town of Black Brook, coached by Howard Aubin and LeRoy Douglas, displayed their unique style of environmental sensitivity with a proper burial of Jenks swamp, the state-protected wetland bisected by the Adirondack Northway, that nobody in their right mind would have built on anyway. Their pep squad of attorneys chanted from the sidelines, “make a federal case out of it!”
UPDATE: Black Brook now faces an equally potent wetlands menace in Triclopyr. This APA-sanctioned herbicide will be applied to Eurasian watermilfoil beds in Lake Luzerne. The public has been assured that this chemical will not harm grasses in areas where the lake water is used for irrigation. Studies have yet to be conducted, however, on its effect on municipal commitment to preventing invasive species from entering our lakes in the first place. One thing is for certain, however, in the Adirondack Bracket, it proved toxic to frankenpines. Strong stuff.
The lower left regionals witnessed an upset in the contest between birders and—the latest salvation of struggling hamlet economies and declining school populations—broadband. The unexpected outcome of this mismatch between fast and powerful telecommunications and what by any measure must be considered a rag-tag (though incredibly patient) bunch, turned on a simple miscommunication. The birders turned out in vast numbers, flocking to the Bloomingdale Bog, expecting to catch a rare glimpse of the broadbanded boobyhatch. Their tweets alone crashed the fledgling broadband network.
Birdiers go on to face the very ostrich-like John Brown. The martyr of Harper’s Ferry, perhaps boosted by a New York Senate reprieve on the possible closure of his Historic State Park, took 2009 Final Four contender Northville-Placid Trail in stride on his way home to the Plains of Abraham.
The second match-up in this region features the enduring pate-fluff of the Adirondack high peaks, Krumholtz and Cairns (not to be confused with the legal firm, Crumhorn and Korn) who were just too much for some of this area’s art centers to surmount.
They will face the legendary Yellow-Yellow, vanquisher of bear-proof canisters, and most recently of Moriah Shock and Lyon Mountain correctional facilities. In fairness to Moriah Shock and Lyon Mountain, they were both put on New York State Senate’s endangered species list before being devoured.
Climate change threatens to further imperil hundreds of species of migratory birds, already under stress from habitat loss, invasive species and other environmental threats, a new report released today by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar concludes.
The State of the Birds: 2010 Report on Climate Change, follows a comprehensive report released a year ago that argued that nearly a third of the nation’s 800 bird species are endangered, threatened or in significant decline. The report is available online at http://www.stateofthebirds.org/ “For well over a century, migratory birds have faced stresses such as commercial hunting, loss of forests, the use of DDT and other pesticides, a loss of wetlands and other key habitat, the introduction of invasive species, and other impacts of human development,” Salazar said in a press relase issued last week. “Now they are facing a new threat–climate change–that could dramatically alter their habitat and food supply and push many species towards extinction.”
According to the reports authors, which included the collaboration of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and experts from some of the nation’s leading conservation organizations, climate changes will have an increasingly disruptive effect on bird species in all habitats, with oceanic and Hawaiian birds in greatest peril.
Key findings from the “State of the Birds” climate change report included in the media release include:
• Oceanic birds are among the most vulnerable species because they don’t raise many young each year; they face challenges from a rapidly changing marine ecosystem; and they nest on islands that may be flooded as sea levels rise. All 67 oceanic bird species, such as petrels and albatrosses, are among the most vulnerable birds on Earth to climate change.
• Hawaiian birds such as endangered species Puaiohi and ’Akiapōlā’au already face multiple threats and are increasingly challenged by mosquito-borne diseases and invasive species as climate change alters their native habitats.
• Birds in coastal, arctic/alpine, and grassland habitats, as well as those on Caribbean and other Pacific Islands show intermediate levels of vulnerability; most birds in aridlands, wetlands, and forests show relatively low vulnerability to climate change.
• For bird species that are already of conservation concern such as the golden-cheeked warbler, whooping crane, and spectacled eider, the added vulnerability to climate change may hasten declines or prevent recovery.
• The report identified common bird species such as the American oystercatcher, common nighthawk, and northern pintail that are likely to become species of conservation concern as a result of climate change. White-tailed Tropicbird chick by Elena Babij
Birds are considered indicators of the health of our environment. The reports offers suggestions such as conserving carbon-rich forests and wetlands, and creating incentives to avoid deforestation and reducing emissions.
The report is the product of a collaborative effort as part of the U.S. North American Bird Conservation Initiative, between federal and state wildlife agencies, and scientific and conservation organizations including partners from American Bird Conservancy, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Klamath Bird Observatory, National Audubon Society, The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, U.S.D.A. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey.
On Saturday, March 13, the Visitor Interpretive Center at Newcomb will host a kestrel nest box workshop, a seed exchange program, and a guided trail walk. The Newcomb VIC is located on NYS Route 28N just west of the Hamlet of Newcomb, Essex County. For more information on any of these activities (described below), call 582-2000.
The public is invited to join members of the Northern New York Audubon Society (NNYA) in building nest boxes for American Kestrels from 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. on Saturday. Breeding pairs of kestrels in New York have declined significantly over the past 20 years, partly due to both habitat loss as well as competition for nest cavities in suitable habitat. To address this, local Audubon New York chapters will be building, erecting, and monitoring kestrel boxes in suitable habitats throughout New York State, including the Adirondack Park. Participants on Saturday will also have the opportunity to meet a live American Kestrel, one of the VIC’s educational birds of prey. Pre-registration is not required and the program is free.
On Saturday afternoon from 1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. the Newcomb VIC will host a Seed Exchange. Master Gardener Lorraine Miga will lead a pre-season scramble for seeds! Bring seeds you collected from your garden last fall, seeds left over from last summer’s plantings, and seeds from previous years’ gardens. Also get tips on how to save heirloom seeds from your own plants. Among the available seeds will be beans, peas, corn, squash, tomatoes and more. If you have no seeds, but are interested in seeing what others are surplussing, stop by. No seeds will be for sale – all are available for swap only. As with most plant swaps, those who come earliest get the best selection. VIC staff will also be on hand to answer your questions about invasive species in the garden. Pre-registration is not required and the program is free.
Also on Saturday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. there will be a guided trail walk entitled “Out and About: Winter Still Here.” Guest Naturalist Peter O’Shea will lead a snowshoe walk on one of the VIC trails. Snowshoes will be available, if needed, at no charge. Pre-registration is required and the program is free.
Over the past two weeks dozens if not hundreds of birders from New York and nearby states have traveled to Rouses Point to see an Ivory Gull, one of the rarest birds in the U.S. With its striking white plumage and blue-gray, orange-tipped bill, an adult Ivory Gull is also one of the most subtedly beautiful birds in the world. Ivory Gulls spend most of their time feeding along the edges of the pack ice in the Arctic Ocean, where they search for food, only rarely venturing further south than coastal Laborador and Newfoundland. Feeding mostly on small fish, Ivory Gulls also search out and scavange the carcasses of seals killed by polar bears. The Rouses Point bird seems to have been enticed to remain for a couple of weeks by handouts from ice fishermen. » Continue Reading.
Well, Punxsutawny Phil got it right again this year. We’ll see another 6 weeks of winter, but those of us living here in the Adirondacks already knew that. In fact we can look forward to another 6 to 8 weeks of snow, slush, and the occasional deep freeze. March and April’s weather can be very finicky. Take comfort in knowing that the birds are getting restless down there in their tropical locales. They want to start flying north as soon as they can. However their arrival is still some ways off. So to placate our wishes for green grass, warmer temps and sunny skies, I give you several offerings. Cams, or remote video cameras placed near a bird nest, have thrilled millions of birders and non-birders alike. This Eagle cam from Virginia is a very well-known cam that shows the daily nesting habits and egg-rearing behavior of two adult bald eagles in Norfolk, VA.
Another popular video is this cam from Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland.
Are you California dreaming? Here’s a cam from the far western state’s Channel Islands.
Maybe you’re interested in Osprey nests? This one in Hilton Head, South Carolina looks active.
When the weather is not an issue, nesting can begin in earnest for these predators well before our Adirondack eagles and ospreys.
This winter has been a good one for grouse. At least in the tracking sense it has been a good one for grouse. Almost every day I have found fresh grouse tracks in the woods, along the roads, down driveways. I’ve even flushed a couple of the birds, their thunderous take-offs turning a few more hairs white, but mostly it’s their tracks I’ve seen.
The ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) is one of two grouse species that call the Adirondacks home. The second is the spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis), which is an uncommon boreal species found in only a very few pockets within the Park. Therefore, I will stick to the ruffed grouse in this piece since that is the one most readers are likely to encounter. » Continue Reading.
Well, I don’t know if we can call it “love”. Maybe a more scientific term is called for. How about “potential mate selection”? No, it just doesn’t quite have that Valentine’s Day ring to it. However we say it though, mate selection has begun in the wild woodlands of the Adirondacks.
One day last week, as I skied through the wonderful trails of the Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive Center.
I stopped to watch the acrobatic high-jinks of some black-capped chickadees. Off in the distance came a loud, monotone drumming on a tree down the hill. As I heard it I knew that spring was not too far away. What I heard was the drumming “call notes” of a male hairy woodpecker calling for a mate. He will rapidly drum with his bill on a branch, preferably hollow since he wants that sound to carry a great distance through the winter woods. By the way, he’ll also drum on your metal gutters, down spout, or nearby telephone pole! Hard to imagine a bird going through such self abuse while winter still holds firm in the North Country.
But as they say, the early bird catches the worm; in this case he attracts a female, courts her, and then sometime around March or early April they begin nesting, and about 30 days later they’ll have a growing family in that hollowed-out nest hole.
I’ll bet you have observed this courting of hairy and downy woodpeckers on your walks though the late winter woods. You’ll first hear the loud “chink” call notes of the male and then you’ll see the two birds chase one another around the trunk of the tree. Often she’ll fly away, but hot on her tail is the male. He’s not letting this one go. So chances are if you see two woodpeckers playing a game of tag this month or next, it’s a courting pair.
Are other birds gearing up for the mating season now? You bet your sweet-smelling-red-roses they are! Peregrine falcons will soon be returning to the Adirondacks from their wintering grounds along the coastal US, Mexico, or Central America, in search of a good cliff-dwelling-casa. We often get falcons back on North Country nesting territories in late February or early March.
Hear any owls hooting in the woods? That’s most likely a male defending his chosen territory and also trying to attract a female. Being year-round residents, barred, great horned, and saw-whet owls will begin nesting in early March. I recall seeing a great horned owl on a nest with almost a foot of snow balanced along the rim of the nest on St Patrick’s Day. And in mid April I’ve observed large great horned owl chicks sitting on a nest.
Bald Eagles will soon be courting, and what a treat that is to watch. Look for two adult bald eagles flying high above in unison, like two joined figure skaters in the air. If you’re really lucky you’ll get to see them performing a talon-locking maneuver that defies death. They will begin cleaning out the nest and re-attaching branches to spruce the place up. It’s not unusual for a pair to be sitting on eggs in a raging, late winter snowstorm.
Just like the eagles, falcons, and owls, a male red-tailed hawk will begin his pre- spring courting in the skies above our neighborhoods. Listen for the high-pitched screech he gives in flight as he searches for a mate.
In February and March there’s a whole text book list of things that are going on in the bird world, and I’ll soon be writing about them. Hormones are coursing through bodies; ovaries are growing; testes are enlarging (oops, sorry, thought this was the adult version-too graphic?). Anyways, all this is happening in our winter visiting birds and also in the birds that will soon be winging their way northward from tropical climates to find love in our Adirondack woods.
Photo: Male hairy woodpecker by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.
Over the years, I’ve slowly been converting my backyard into a little oasis for wildlife. This may seem like a rather odd thing to do in the middle of the Adirondack Park, where wilderness areas surround us on all sides. After all, it’s not like the wildlife is hurting for natural foods in our area. My goal, however, has been to change my yard from a barren wasteland (a carpet of perfectly weed-free grass) into a diverse habitat composed of native vegetation. First I added some free-form gardens, floating in the middle of the yard. Admittedly, these gardens are not hosting many native plants, but I do try to avoid those species that are aggressive invaders. The primary goal of these gardens was to provide some color and relief to an otherwise blah yard, but I also wanted to provide nectaring areas for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, and winter seed sources for chickadees and finches. One of our native plants fills this bill very well: bee balm.
Then I started to remove the invasives that dotted the property, like honeysuckle. All around the yard I have replaced these aliens with a variety of native shrubs: nannyberry, native hawthorn, pin cherries, sumac, dogwood. These plants, after they out-grow their twiggy sapling stage, will create a hedge full of shelter and food for birds and insects. I’m hoping their growth is rapid, for the yard looks empty without the honeysuckle border, and I’ve lost some significant shade.
And then there are the birdfeeders. Some naturalists prefer to go the route of providing strictly native food sources and forego artificial food stations. This is very noble and I salute it. However, in my yard it will be a while before the native vegetation starts producing. The crabapples were a hit for a while, but now they are slowly rotting away on the tree. And besides, I like watching birds as they visit my feeders, so I join the millions of other Americans who put out food for our feathered friends.
It is so easy to get sucked into the latest and greatest at the birdfeeding store: feeder pole “systems” that you can build upwards and outwards to accommodate a glorious variety of feeders; bird baths (regular for summer, heated for winter); squirrel deterrents (baffles of all shapes and sizes; feeders that fling squirrels into the air or bounce them up and down at the end of a bungee); misters (for those birds that prefer a shower over a bath); suet; peanuts; mealworms; mixed seed; gourmet seed…the list goes on and on.
But my favorite part of the wildlife-friendly backyard, however, are the homemade bits, like the feeder pictured at the top. This was a gift I received this winter, and it is one of the coolest things. The woman who made it apparently was looking for something to do with her juice bottle caps. She cut a triangle from a piece of scrap wood, nailed the caps to it, on both sides, added a few small dowels for perches and a larger dowel at the bottom for a “trunk,” painted the whole thing and put a string at the top. Voila! A nifty homemade feeder! With a little ingenuity, not do we have a cool suet-type feeder, but we’ve also managed to keep some stuff out of the landfill; you can’t get much more wildlife-friendly than that.
About the only thing my yard is missing is a water source, a pond or stream that would attract frogs, dragonflies, and assorted other water-loving creatures. The ideal aqueous feature would have a shallow bit where birds could bathe without worrying about drowning, and a deep area where tadpoles could shelter in the winter. It would have cattails, duckweed, pickerel weed, native floating heart. It wouldn’t have to be large, but it should circulate, getting a constant source of oxygen and keeping the mosquitoes to a minimum. A little waterfall would be nice.
Of course, when you strive to attract wildlife, you must accept it when wildlife avails itself of your offerings, and this includes deer. I must confess that deer are not ranked high on my list of backyard desirables. I have a five-foot fence surrounding my yard, which is there to keep the dog in, but it also serves to keep the deer out, most of the time. It won’t do much if a deer is determined, though. Or a bear. The downside of this fence, however, is that I don’t get foxes, coyotes, or snowshoe hares. Weasels can get through, but they usually don’t visit.
Wildlife friendly yards don’t have to be a drain on the wallet. The biggest key is to stick to native vegetation. Remove invasives and non-natives. Provide diversity in species and structure. Have food, shelter and water readily available. Most of your investment is likely to be in sweat and elbow grease. In the end you will have a little piece of paradise that you and your wild friends can all enjoy.
One of the great family-friendly activities of the winter will soon be upon us: the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), which this year runs from Friday, 12 February, to Monday, 15 February. The brain child of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this four-day long bird watching event is one of the easiest citizen science projects out there. Anyone, regardless of age or birding ability, can participate. Citizen science programs have a long history at the Lab of Ornithology. Back in the mid-‘90s, I signed on to do my part for their wood thrush and golden-winged warbler projects. Those projects were quite involved, requiring participants to get aerial photographs of their research areas, determine acreage of irregularly shaped plots, measure the distance to the nearest water and roads…and this was all before setting out to look for signs of the actual birds.
The GBBC, on the other hand, is very easy and user-friendly. All you have to do is look for birds in your backyard. You can do this for as little as fifteen minutes, or for as long as your interest holds. You can do it for one day of the weekend, or record observations for all four days. You can watch for birds at each of your bird feeding stations (do you have more than one?), or you can choose to observe the visitors to just one tree or shrub. As for me, I will probably spend some time watching each of my stations (I have two, with a total of about twelve feeders), as well as the feeders at work.
Maybe you are unsure about participating because you don’t know a black-capped chickadee from a black-backed woodpecker. Not to worry. You can go on-line to www.birsource.org/gbbc/ and check out their simple bird ID pages. You can also print out a checklist for the most common birds in your region, which will help narrow down your options. For example, it is highly unlikely that a flock of northern parulas will be buzzing through any Adirondack backyard in February, so you won’t have to worry about telling one warbler from another.
One of the important aspects of your observations is recording the numbers of each species you see. This can be tricky, so the Lab has put together a really simple rule to help you out. Let’s say you decide to record the birds you see between 10:00 and 10:30 AM. You see two goldfinches at 10:01. At 10:15 you see twelve. At 10:17 there are 32. By 10:30 they have all flown away. How many goldfinches do you record? Thirty-two. In other words, to eliminate the possibility of counting the same bird(s) more than once, you only report the greatest number you saw at any one time.
Counting large numbers of birds can be a bit of a challenge. Some birders are very good at estimating how many are in a flock; others are not. I read an article once that said that it is easy for humans to eyeball numbers in pairs, threes, and fours. Fives get a bit harder, and anything above five is nearly impossible. So, if you can fix in your mind what five birds look like, then you can guesstimate how many of those fives you see in the flock as it shuffles and flits about. Good luck.
You will want to keep track of your sightings on a piece of paper, and when you are ready, simply go to your computer and pull up the GBBC website (see link above). Open the tab labeled “Submit Your Checklist” and follow the easy directions for reporting your observations. Afterwards, you can “Explore the Results” to see what birds other people found. Are you wondering where all the pine siskins are this year? Here’s a good way to find out. The genuinely curious can check out the results from past years as well.
The website is chock full of all sorts of interesting bird information. There is a whole series of activities just for kids, and there’s even a page dedicated to educators. For those who enjoy looking at really great bird photographs, there’s a gallery of photos taken by past GBBC participants. My favorite is a really funny photo of a very soggy orange-crowned warbler caught in the act of taking a bath.
This year marks the thirteenth anniversary of the GBBC. If you haven’t participated in the past, I hope you will take up the challenge and participate this year. Not only is it a great way to spend time with your family and feathered friends, but it also helps provide a snapshot of where the birds are across North America, a practice that has turned up some interesting trends in population shifts and declines.
And if being a good Samaritan isn’t enough of an incentive to get you to participate, check out the list of prizes the Lab is giving away. There are plush birds that chirp when you squeeze them, assorted feeders (you can never have too many), a bird camera (takes photos for you while you stay toasty warm inside), field guides, and much, much more. So, dust off your field guide, set a comfortable chair by the window, have your beverage-of-choice close at hand, and get ready to count.
Every winter we have a barred owl that takes up watch just off the back deck here at the VIC, and we remember every visit it makes. Sometimes he (she?) is here off and on for a couple weeks, and sometimes it’s only a quick visit of a day or two. However long, or brief, its stay, it is always a welcome sight.
Barred owls (Strix varia) are fairly common around these parts. With their pale plumage, rounded heads, and big brown eyes, they seem to us mere humans to be a softer, gentler owl than their fiercer-looking cousins the great-horned owls (Bubo virginianus). Like all owls, they have nearly silent flight, thanks to the special fringed edges on their flight feathers and the extra fluffy body feathers that help muffle sound. This stealth coating, so to speak, comes in very handy when you are hunting for nocturnal prey, for food that is out at night tends to have good hearing. Which brings up a good question. If owls are nocturnal (with some exceptions, like the snowy owl), then why is this particular bird visiting our bird feeders during the day? A couple potential answers come to mind. First, it is not uncommon to see owls active during the day, especially when that day is overcast (like much of this winter has been). A cloudy, gloomy day may seem like nothing more than an extended twilight to a hungry owl.
Second, we have made our bird feeding area a great hunting place for predators interested in small birds and small mammals. One glance at the ground in the winter brings this clearly into focus: fox, squirrel, mouse, and bird tracks are everywhere! Every winter we chuck a conifer tree over the railing to provide shelter for small birds and mammals. Mice and squirrels are particularly appreciative of this gesture, which in turn brings in the predators. When I lead tracking workshops, I can just about guarantee “fresh” fox tracks beelining from the woods towards the feeders.
I’ve watched barred owls hunting during the day along roadsides in winter. One particular time I was cruising into Minerva when a barred owl perched on a speed limit sign caught my attention. I hit the breaks, turned the car around, and parked, watching and waiting along with the bird. Although it was fully aware of my presence, its attention was focused on the snowbank beneath the sign.
After about ten minutes or so, the owl flung itself from the sign and landed with a face- and foot-plant in the snow, its outstretched wings caught on top of the snow above its head. It hopped a bit, shuffled its feet, then struggled to lift off…empty footed. There must’ve been some small rodent beneath the snow that the owl, with its hypersensitive hearing, could detect, but either the bird’s aim was off or the rodent was too fast, for it got away. Many folks don’t realize that predators tend to miss their prey more often than not. It’s a tough thing being a predator, a life full of peril (what if the prey fights back?) and potential starvation (food gets away from you, the snow is too deep for you to hunt successfully, etc.).
This is why I don’t mind too terribly much when a raptor snags a bird at my feeding stations, which invariably happens at least once every winter (and if I’m lucky I get to see it). After all, they are birds, too, and they also need to feed. If they are smart enough to realize that bird feeders are essentially convenience stores, then more power to them. Same goes for foxes and weasels. I’m an equal opportunity feeder.
This is a great time of year to go on an owl prowl, for owl mating season is upon us. Great-horned owls will soon wind down their mating, while barred owls will soon be starting. Now is the time to go out at night to listen for owl calls. The barred owl has the soft “who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-allllll” pattern, while the great-horned is the typical eight-hooter: “hoo-hoohoo-hoo-hoo-hoo” (okay, that was only six, but they can do up to eight or so at a time).
If you are really lucky, you might hear the truck-backing-up “toot-toot-toot-toot” of the northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus). About three years ago we had a couple saw-whets (tiny little owls) hanging out near the golf course and every night for a week or two I would hear them tooting away when I took the dog for his evening stroll. Haven’t heard one since.
If you want to find winter owls, your best bet is to go out at night and listen for their calls. But, if standing out in the cold on a clear winter night isn’t your thing, then put on some snowshoes and go for a walk in the woods on an overcast day. You want to look up in trees, where fairly good-sized branches attach to the trunk. It is here that owls will sit during the day, with their feathers fluffed up and their eyes (did you know they have feathers on their eyelids?) shut. They blend in perfectly with their trees of choice, often looking like just another bump on a limb. They can be difficult to spot.
If you want more of a sure thing, you can keep an eye on the bird hotlines for announcements of recent owl sightings: short-earred owls at the Saratoga Battlefield; snowy owls at Fort Edwards, northern hawk-owls at Bloomingdale bog, great greys in Watertown. Unusual birds get groupies, and all you need to do to find these itinerant birds is find the people with the binoculars and big camera lenses. A group of birdie nerds is a whole lot easier to spot in a snowy field than a single snowy owl, and the chances are that they will be more than happy to help you find the bird they’ve all flocked to see themselves. Birders are like that – they think everyone is a potential bird nut like themselves and they are eager to recruit.
So, find yourself a birding group and keep your eyes (and ears) peeled for the owls of winter. They are out there, and if you want to see them, you have to get out there, too.
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