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May 31, 2011 / stephanie

Recap of May Migration in Ohio: Part 1

It is now the end of May and the thrill of peak “Warbler season” has passed. The lovely buzzes, trills & flute-like songs of migrants from high aloft in the canopy have gradually faded and we are now simply left with the old familiar sounds of our loyal breeding birds. But let’s go back to May 1 for a moment!

May 1st was an amazing day for migration here at my temporary home in Columbus, Ohio. It also happened to be a Sunday and I had the day off from my also-bird-related job. I didn’t know quite what to expect, but migration had been quietly picking up speed during the past week. I made the short trip to Blendon Woods Metro Park and was amazed to find 20 species of Warblers along with the colorful splashes of male Baltimore Oriole, Indigo Bunting, Rose-breasted Grosbeak & Scarlet Tanager. It was 11am, possibly getting in the range of “late” to be out birding, but the migrants didn’t care. They had been flying throughout the night and needed to replenish their energy stores. Warblers during migration will continue to feast all day long once they have found a spot to land that has plentiful enough resources. Birders, as well, will continue to bird all day long as long as the warblers are there to amuse them. And birders I did find. Along the path, everyone was on a mission to see their first-of-the-year birds.

To explain further for non-birders, birders like to write lists and many are not content with just one list of “birds I have seen.” And so it becomes “birds I have seen in 2011” and “birds I have seen in Franklin County” and “birds I have seen in North America in January” etc. For me, I do like having a list of birds that I have seen but it can sometimes be a stretch for me to take that a step further. Still, it is something quite special to see the birds that are only here for just a tiny portion of the year, and if you don’t look now you might miss them. And even better, in spring migration you get to see them in all their glory when they have their brightest plumage and are full of song. And so it becomes a joy for birders to discuss how many “first-of-the-year” birds they got in one day! I had several on May 1, 2011 though I didn’t keep quite a perfect tally.

American Redstart, Blendon Woods Metro Park

Birders also of course flock to the specialness of seeing a “life-bird,” the first ever sighting of a bird species. And what makes it all the more fantastic if the “lifer” is also a rare species. My current life list stands at 452 species, though I only started a comprehensive list since taking Ornithology class my junior year of college. Anyway, the most recent addition to my list took place right here in Columbus during spring migration. Typically, I’m not one to make specific trips to see specific birds or receive rare bird alerts directly to my cell phone, but this was maybe a little different since I love warblers. And so on May 4th, a rare Kirtland’s Warbler was spotted a mere 2 and a half miles from where I live. For some back story, numbers for this bird are around 5,000, and its conservation status is currently listed as “near threatened,” as the bird has made some recovery since its “endangered” listing in the 1970s. No matter the amount of recovery though, this bird will always be relatively rare since its breeding habitat in the USA is so small and specific (for more info: check out All About Birds).

Life Bird: Kirtland's Warbler

And that’s how I saw my first Kirtland’s Warbler, at 7pm, nowhere else but foraging in a lawn with 3 trees, next to busy Columbus traffic. Strange place to see a rare bird, but not entirely out of place for Kirtland’s to be in the Columbus-area during migration since they typically breed in Michigan.

So, that was my first week of May in Ohio! Not too bad. But not done with migration yet, so I’ll have to make this a two-parted entry. So, I’ll leave you this Migration blog entry with the mnemonic for the song of a common migrant, the Blue-headed Vireo: See you, be seeing you, so long!

May 17, 2011 / stephanie

Columbus, Cardinals, and Cats

Spring is now in full bloom here in the Midwest, and with the advent of spring 2011 comes a new field season for wandering biologists like myself. This year, I have temporarily relocated to Columbus, Ohio to work on an urban bird study with the Ohio State University. I have been meaning to post about it for awhile, but have been pretty busy with work plus the excitement of spring migration.

Now that I have finally sat down to type a bit about my work here, it is a little overwhelming since so much has happened! Let me just explain a little bit about what I’m doing here. We are monitoring birds (specifically American Robins, Northern Cardinals & Gray Catbirds) that are nesting in urban neighborhoods, with the permission of the kind homeowners who are allowing us to use their yards. The hardest part of nest monitoring can be finding the nests to begin with. Once in awhile though, we get lucky and it’s pretty easy. Either a robin is building a nest above someone’s porchlight, or a participating homeowner steps outside and lets us know that they have found the nest themselves. In one case, a robin had been building right inside of a child’s playhouse.

Robin nest

It is definitely a different kind of field job than ones that I have had in the past. It is a lot less dangerous in some regards (no ticks or poison ivy or military practices to avoid, no venomous snakes or wolves to be wary of) but it’s not without its own risks, like… rusty nails lurking in old wooden gates! Slippery steps! Traffic! And uh… sometimes Robins dive-bomb at my face when I interrupt them on the nest. OK, so I’m not in that great of danger really. The urban habitat may actually pose a much greater risk for the birds than for me. First off, and another thing I haven’t dealt with in field jobs before, there are house cats and strays absolutely everywhere. I like cats and when I’m working on my own, sure, they provide nice company. But, I don’t exactly want a furry little predator following me around when we’re either trying to band birds or searching for nests and fledglings. Of course, the cats will be gobbling up baby birds all summer long without us even being there, we just don’t want to be the ones influencing that predation in any way, so we have to be pretty careful. I’ll stand around for awhile and the cats will usually get bored and wander off to stalk something.

At one of our study sites, an outdoor house cat watches potential prey in a yard with a dozen or more birdfeeders

Other predators that we have to be watchful of are hawks, crows, Blue Jays, and raccoons, which are all over urban areas just waiting to chomp on eggs and baby birds. It’s not easy to raise a clutch in the bird world, but it never has been no matter where you go. The mortality rate for birds in their first year of life is incredibly high and it’s highest at the very earliest stages of life. Nest building songbirds, such as our focal species, make up for this by being incredibly persistent. If one nest fails, they will immediately start rebuilding a new nest in a different location. And once their young take flight and leave the nest, it may not take very long for the adult pair to start up with their next nest, especially if one parent takes on all the feeding duties.

So far in our season, we’ve seen lots of nest failures, but a few have birds have already squeaked out some fledglings! The cats might snag some of the fledges, but I’m sure a few will make it!

Here’s a little peek at the life cycle of a Cardinal nest:

Cardinal nest with two eggs, seems to be a fairly typical clutch size for this species.

Cardinal nestlings getting big! Just a few days away from fledging (leaving the nest)

Cardinal Fledgling! Free from the nest and can make short flights, but a little clumsy still. He or she will still depend on mom and dad for food for some time.

March 24, 2011 / stephanie

Spring Break!

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary


Being jobless and out of school at the moment, the whole month of March has actually been somewhat of a spring break for me. But the weather here in Wisconsin is still hovering around freezing, so I think all of us get a little anxious for spring. Luckily, I was able to escape the wind and snow for a warmer climate in Fort Myers, Florida. Famous for its spring break beach parties, Fort Myers also happens to be nearby some very well-known wildlife preserves! Those who know me well wouldn’t be surprised that I wasn’t there for the beach parties.

I was visiting my parents who were renting out a condo at a golf course. They informed me that there weren’t very many birds there, but I knew there would be many more in Florida than there were in Wisconsin. Turned out I was right, I cranked out about 74 species for the week-long hiatus including 2 new additions for my life list. Many migratory bird species are only in Florida for the winter, so March is an excellent time to see them before they head north to their breeding territories.

On my first bird walk I already noticed little flocks of warblers in the trees. The most common species were Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers. These are also the first warbler species that you will see in Wisconsin during spring migration since they don’t migrate as far south as other species. I was pretty excited to see a Palm Warbler in a habitat with actual Palm trees. However, I didn’t actually see the Palm Warbler in a Palm, so I guess I’m not really positive where the name came from. All the warblers were flocking to Live Oak, which were blooming at the time. The caterpillars were busy eating the flowers and the warblers were busy eating the caterpillars. The more birding I do, the more I realize I can be kind of a warbler fiend. You see, there are many types of birders, some love shorebirds and others are crazy about pelagic seabirds that you can only see if you’re in the middle of the ocean. I definitely like to see a variety of different birds, but since I was 8 years old I have loved to go after the tiny colorful birds at the top of trees that you have to break your neck to see. I guess it all comes down to the fact that I’m a sucker for “ooh pretty colors” and the cuteness factor, and that’s how I got hooked on warblers.

Little did I know that I was able to walk into a warbler-birder’s paradise at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. My main goal in going to Corkscrew Swamp was that I knew that there Painted Buntings there and my mom had never seen one. My mom isn’t necessarily a birder, but she is when she’s with me. (She is also the main audience for my blog so it seems kind of silly to be referring to her in the third person. Hi mom!) Anyway, if anything, a Painted Bunting can be a fabulous goal for any non-birder. So, we had barely walked onto the boardwalk at Corkscrew Swamp and I got my mom her first view of a Painted Bunting (actually 3, two males and a female) and her first Pileated Woodpecker. Not too shabby!

Pileated Woodpecker


But of course my favorite part of Corkscrew swamp was the warblers. Near the end of our little 2 mile walk, I stumbled upon a flock of maybe 2 dozen birds or more, Northern Parula, Palm, Black-and-white, Pine and Yellow-throated Warbler. Mixed in with that were Blue-headed Vireos and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Fabulous! We also got to see a Red-shouldered hawk nest and baby alligators at Corkscrew swamp. An excellent mix of Florida’s breeding wildlife and migratory species. It is a pretty nice place to visit, with lots of helpful guides, ready and willing to help visitors get a closer look at the surrounding wildlife.

Male Anhinga at Corkscrew Swamp

I didn’t get any pictures of the warblers at Corkscrew, but I wanted to share a few pictures I got where the warblers were a little closer to the ground. These were taken at the Manatee Park in Ft Myers:

Prairie Warbler


Palm Warbler (western subspecies)

It’s funny, the Manatee Park isn’t any wildlife-enthusiast’s idea of a real well-preserved oasis for animals, it’s more of a coincidence that species tend to flock there. The adjacent power plant pushes warm waste water into the waterway that goes through the park. During the colder months of the year, manatees are attracted to the warmer water. And the sprawling live oak trees attract flocks of warblers, as seen above. It may not be ideal habitat, but it makes for an interesting case to see how animals are adapting to our ever-urbanizing world.

Anyway, my trip to Southwestern Florida also necessitated a trip to the infamous “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. The Refuge is very well known to birders as a great place to get close-up views of a variety of shorebirds. You actually are meant to drive the 5 miles through the park and stop along the way to catch glimpses of Herons, Egrets, Anhingas, Sandpipers and Ospreys. It is definitely a beautiful park, but personally I think that the crowds of people and all the vehicles tend to detract from the birding experience. I’ll repeat that, that is definitely my own view, though! I did enjoy my visit there and I did get a few nice pictures of birds and a lovely 6 or 7 foot gator.

Green Heron at Ding Darling


Shorebirds, cormorants, pelicans, and gulls! oh my!

Great Blue Heron

Common Buckeye

White Ibis

February 28, 2011 / stephanie

Ecuador Adventures 8: Christmas Count on the Coast

Gray-hooded Gull

My final day in Ecuador I headed back to the coastal town of Valdivia to participate in the Christmas Bird Count. The Christmas Count is a very organized ordeal, with groups all across the USA getting together and counting as many birds they can find during a 24-hour period the week before Christmas. The groups all have designated “circles” to bird in so that they don’t overlap with other groups. All the data is collected in one database and goes toward conservation research. To find out more, you can check out the Audubon Website.

So, I had known that the Christmas count took place in the USA and participated in a few counts before, but I had never known that they also did a few counts in the tropics as well. I wish I could do the count in South America every year! A typical count in Wisconsin involves warm winter boots, struggling to adjust binoculars while wearing mittens, and hoping against hope that you might just see a Bald Eagle or a White-winged Crossbill to break up the monotony of chickadees and House Finches. Typically, there aren’t a whole lot of species to be seen. Things are a little different though when you’re in a tropical paradise, a wondrous hotspot for bird diversity. For my count in Ecuador, I jotted down about 47 species for the group, which included several new “life birds” for me. 174 total species were seen between all our groups in the Loma Alta area.

My bird counting group consisted of about a dozen Ecuadorian college students led by their teaching assistant, Evelyng. I was the only non-native there, but at least most of the students spoke English and communication wasn’t a problem. Pointing at a bird and pointing at a picture in a field guide is one thing that can be universally understood, but it’s another thing when you’re trying to pick out a specific bird that’s hard to see (look just left of the riverbed, about one meter up in the brush, behind that heron that’s just on the bank). I was impressed how fluent the students were in English and it definitely made me want to improve my Spanish skills!

Pictures from the count:

Checking out the dry scrub forest during the Christmas Count with college students from Guayaquil

Scarlet-backed Woodpecker

Magnificent Frigatebirds looking for handouts from fishermen

Gray-headed Gull, Common Terns and Elegant Tern

Semipalmated Plovers and Sanderling

So that wrapped up my trip to the Loma Alta region of Ecuador! It was a fantastic time and I hope some day I will be able to go back. Thank yous go to Dusti Becker, Mauricio Torres, Pascual Torres, Jessica Medina, Alicia Torres and Eve Astudillo, and thanks to the other volunteers: Larry, Matt & Will. Thanks for making this such a unique and memorable experience.

If you’re ever interested in a future trip with the fabulous Life Net crew or if you just want to see more bird photos, you can now follow them on facebook!

January 29, 2011 / stephanie

Ecuador Adventures 7: back to the lowlands

Day 10. December 13, 2010. Although I would later sorely miss the peace and quiet at La Casita, we were ready to move on and bird the lowlands surrounding the village of El Suspiro. We packed up our belongings and the local helpers strapped everything back on the mules. For only my third time riding horseback, it was a little nerve-wracking going down the steep parts of the mountain, but I just held on tight and put my faith in the mules who had been trekking up and down these hills all their lives. The skies were clear for our trek down, so we all were smiling, thinking that we were leaving the heavy rains of the high altitudes behind.

Once we made it back to the village of El Suspiro, we settled in at the village shop and had a few cervezas. A boy that lived there came by and showed off his pet, which happened to be a Rufous-headed Chachalaca that he raised from an egg. These chicken-like native birds are relatively common in the area, but are decreasing in number and are officially listed as having a “vulnerable” status, meaning one step below being endangered. We felt pretty lucky to be in such close presence to this noisy, but otherwise elusive species. And, as Dusti pointed out, if this boy could raise Chachalacas from eggs by himself then the birds have a good chance of recovering their numbers if people ever had to turn to captive-rearing and releasing them.

Village boy with his pet Chachalaca

Our house in El Suspiro

Our back porch in El Suspiro

Making our home in El Suspiro was much more comfortable than at La Casita. We had beds! Indoor plumbing! A lovely back porch with a beautiful view of the green valley below. It did come at a cost though, which we didn’t find out until we were all tucked in under our mosquito nets. The village dogs, which mostly were found lying around sleeping all day, liked to congregate at night and bark right outside our house. The barking woke up the incredibly loud peacocks that were sleeping on the roof (what? why did there have to be peacocks??) And then when you thought it was all about to be over the roosters would sound their alarms as well. After the worst night of sleep of the trip, we all dragged our feet out of bed around dawn for breakfast. We had a long day ahead. We completed a survey of the area’s birds and then set up 20 more mist nets in the dense scrubby dry forest. After tramping up and down the big hill to our study site, the local children welcomed us back and pleaded for us to come play with them. I could hardly keep up with their endless amounts of energy and the difficulties of the language barrier, but we learned some of the local games, the boys played soccer together, and we also set up a few educational activities. My favorite activity was when we all went birding together and tried to teach the kids some of the names of the birds. I was impressed with their enthusiasm, their ability to find and point out birds, and that they already knew the general names of different groups of birds (Gallinazo for Vulture, Garceta for Egret, and Paloma for Dove).

Leading my group of young birders

I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to grow up in a place with such rich species diversity. Especially since the first field guide only came out in the last decade, and on top of that, hauling it around was like carrying a brick! It was a little intimidating learning the birds there, but I think I did a pretty good job in the short time that I was there.

Since coming down to the lowlands, we got to meet a lot of fun and new birds, like Mot-mots and Scythebills, along with some old favorites, the Gray-and-gold Warblers and Plain Antvireos. The first day of banding in the lowlands we yielded a successful total of 73 captures and 19 species. The most exciting bird of the day being the Pacific Pygmy-owl. These owls are absolutely tiny and are the smallest owls in the world if not for the somehow tinier Elf Owls. I could hardly contain myself when I saw one caught in the net just after dawn. Then I remembered that owls come complete with some dangerous weaponry and we didn’t even have the proper tools for preventing ourselves from being bitten — oops. Oh well. There was a little bit of damage to my fingers, but I couldn’t be happier to band my first owl. I also got to band my first endangered species, the Blackish-headed Spinetail along with a vulnerable species, the Henna-hooded Foliage-gleaner. By the way, in the USA you need a special permit to band endangered species, but south of the border there aren’t any such restrictions that I know of.

Day 2 of banding in the lowlands, we were reminded that the rain was not finished with us yet. It poured all night, which silenced the dogs and allowed us to sleep in until 6:30! We got a late start but ended up with an impressive 79 birds and 22 species. We also caught several new species such as seven Variable Seedeaters (we had zero the day before), a Necklaced Spinetail, Tawny-crowned Pygmy-tyrants, and two Red-eyed Vireos. The interesting thing about the vireos is that I had banded them before in both Wisconsin and Texas, so they were familiar friends. Although Red-eyed Vireos migrate to the tropics, the ones we captured appeared to be breeding and were supposedly part of a non-migratory subspecies. Dusti said that the subspecies in this area though had brown eyes instead of red. Oddly enough, our birds had red eyes! We also caught a subspecies of Streaked Saltator that was not supposed to be there. Even stranger, it had blue eyes, a trait that is not even mentioned in the book! Another interesting fact that was not in the book, I learned from experience that Spinetails have a strong musky odor! Why is that? I have no idea. It all goes to show that we still have a long ways to go and a lot to learn about the birds of South America.

January 21, 2011 / stephanie

Ecuador Adventures 6: Brilliants & Emeralds

Violet-bellied Hummingbird

Hummingbirds are only found in the Western hemisphere, and if you want to find a lot of them, well, I think you have to go to Ecuador. Ecuador has an astounding 130+ species of Hummingbirds (Trochilidae), falling behind only the Flycatcher family (Tyrannidae) in species diversity. During my stay at La Casita, we only banded 8 species (Violet-bellied Hummingbird, Andean Emerald, Baron’s Hermit, Speckled Hummingbird, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Green-crowned Brilliant, Band-tailed Barbthroat, & Green-crowned Woodnymph), but we also spotted other hummers such as the Brown Violet-ear, Little Woodstar, Esmereldas Woodstar, and Blue-chested Hummingbird. In order to get the best sampling of what hummingbirds were using the area, we placed sugar-water feeders in two locations along the ridge. So after a full morning of banding, we trekked back into the woods and carefully watched our hummingbird feeders, taking notes of the birds and their behaviors. Hummingbirds are incredibly aggressive across the board and they can definitely make for some good entertainment as they are patrolling the feeders and chasing off competitors. The much larger Green-crowned Brilliant would sometimes dominate a feeder and was able to scare off potential intruders just by craning its neck and glaring at them. The Rufous-tailed Hummingbird liked to do laps around the feeder while emitting little chirp noises and madly fanning its tail. The Baron’s Hermit, with its awkwardly-long bill, would usually approach the feeder more hesitantly and then only stay for a short while. The bill being so long that the Baron was completely unable to perch at the feeder while drinking.

Green-crowned Brilliant at feeder

As far as birds go, hummingbirds definitely rank high in beauty as well as personality. It’s no wonder birders travel far and wide to see them. It’s also interesting to note how so many hummingbird species tended to gather in these higher-altitude areas. As you go down the mountains, the diversity drops. In the villages we only had one common species of hummingbird, the Amazilia Hummingbird. But hopefully with the help of others who love hummingbirds, money brought in by ecotourists can help to preserve these high & moist places and help protect the birds that live there.

Amazilia Hummingbird resting on a branch

Green-crowned Brilliant

January 15, 2011 / stephanie

Ecuador Adventures 5: Banding on the Ridge

Day 7. We were ready to band at the top of the hill at our Ridge banding site, but when we woke up around 5am it was raining. The rain eventually began to subside but it was still dripping from the trees and the ground was even muddier than before. That didn’t matter though since we had a job to do. So, we trudged up to the top of the hill in our rain gear and had the nets open late, which was some time around 7:00am. Although we were late, we still managed to net a whopping 98 birds and 21 species!

The next day was even wetter, it poured right through the night into the morning, so we got to sleep in for an extra hour. When we opened the nets it wasn’t pouring but it was still raining steadily. This worried me a bit because I have typically avoided banding in the rain since it can be dangerous for the birds. However, with all the tree cover, the birds did not actually get very wet at all. Dusti also reminded us that this is the rainforest, the birds are used to it being wet all the time and they are experts at keeping themselves dry. I can’t say the same about myself. My knee-high boots were caked in mud and the water and mud rose up the legs of my pants, mud was all over my jacket, and rain and fog collected on my glasses, obscuring my view. I was basically a mess, and the picture below proves it!

Oh.. so why were we hiking up a steep hill in the mud at dawn again? Oh right.. the birds!

Since day 2 had an even wetter and later start than the first day on the ridge, we only yielded 34 birds and 16 species. Day 3 on the ridge top we had a full morning of banding that yielded 65 captures and 25 species.