Monday, November 2, 2015

A bird in the hand is great, but keep an eye on the bushes

By Beth Sullivan
This is an active time of year for watching birds. Many of our summer residents have left the area, long gone to warmer climates, that are more supportive of the insects and fruits or nectars they require. The Hummingbirds, Orioles, Tanagers, and Flycatchers have been gone a while. The aerial insectivores, the Swallows, and our Purple Martins hauled out beginning in August and though September. Before they left they provided many of us with spectacular displays of roosting behaviors.
We are still seeing many migrants though: Birds from farther north, still on their way south, but using the coastal route, they stopover along our shoreline shrub-lands, forests and fields.
Holding a Cardinal can be a challenge and a hazard

This is the time we set up for our fall banding operations at Knox preserve.
This year we have had other studies of the birds ongoing there since the spring. The Trinity College team that has been studying at Knox has expanded their efforts to include birds. For several years now they have been studying our efforts to eradicate non-native invasive plants and restore native grasses and shrubs where we can. They also decided to collect data about the effect the efforts may have on bird life as well.
It's nearly impossible to spot birds in the tangle of protective vines

Knox bird survey

If you have walked Knox, you will have noticed wooden stakes with pink flags and metal tags, these are the 22 bird survey sites. Through the summer a team of students arrived at daybreak to do a very precisely laid out investigation of the species that use each site. The survey has continued through the fall now, with others of us gathering gather data on the birds that now use the site as a migratory stop over or as wintering grounds. The observations include vocalizations, songs and chip notes, as well as sightings of the birds at each area. This can be pretty difficult as Sparrows, in particular, tend to pop up, then immediately fly down into the tall grasses, making counting and identification really difficult. The dense thicket areas, the main attraction there, provide great hiding and protection, and also make spotting the flighty creatures difficult. To make it harder still, the birds just don’t sing in the fall like they do in the spring, so the survey has been a challenge.
Each circle represents a bird survey station

Long history of banding

The other technique to sort out the birds in an area is to catch them! We have been banding at Knox for nearly 30 years, so there is a large body of data available. Read about a previous banding here. This year we had hoped to have our special Avalonia day of banding on October 25, but the weather did not cooperate. We cannot do it even in the lightest rain as it is really dangerous for the birds to get wet to the skin; feathers clump, nets sag, and no one is happy!
A Yellow-Rumped Warbler caught in a mist net.

We did, however, set up the nets this week, as we wanted to get some consistent data for this period. On Monday Oct 26, it was clear and cold and sunny. The birds were active and in less than 3 hours we had captured and banded about 30 Yellow -Rumped Warblers, the most abundant fall migrant through this preserve. We also caught 3 Cardinals, a Song Sparrow and 2 Black Capped Chickadees. The surprise of the morning was that one of the Chickadees had a band already! By checking our back data entries, we discovered that the Chickadee we caught that day had been caught at Knox preserve last year on October 19th.
Song Sparrows are masters of hiding in grasses.

So that was a great day! The very next day we set up again, nearly the same conditions, and not one single bird was captured!!! Go figure. Maybe it was that hawk we watched …watching the nets!! Enough to spoil any little bird’s day!
White Throated Sparrows are here for the winter.

Photographs by Al Bach, Rick Newton and Beth Sullivan.

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