Bird of the Yellow Mask
REC Cooperative Living
The distinctive hooded warbler sings its song through the East and South. Read about it HERE.
by Delia O'Hara
Autumn-Lynn Harrison, Program Manager of the Migratory Connectivity Project (MCP) at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo, learned to love animal migrations as an undergraduate student at Virginia Tech, watching wildebeest pound across the Serengeti in Africa in their annual search for greener grass. Now, Harrison coordinates the MCP's ambitious efforts to discover a fuller picture of the lives of birds: Where do birds like the long-billed curlew or the broad-winged hawk, spend their winters? Where do birds we see in other seasons go to breed?
These questions are of an urgent nature as bird populations are facing steady declines around the world. Last fall, an alarming study showed that North America has lost three billion birds since 1970, about one-third of the total bird population. For Harrison, however, the study created new resolve around learning all we can about birds in hopes of saving them.
“Without that knowledge of where they go, we can't even begin to figure out where the impacts are” — or how to structure conservation efforts, says Harrison, an ecologist and conservation biologist.
The question of why some birds disappear for several months has intrigued humans for millennia. Europeans theorized that birds hibernated in rivers to survive winters, like frogs; or turned into other birds; or flew to the moon. Then, in 1822, a hunter shot a stork in northern Germany and discovered an African arrow embedded in its body. But the mysteries of the 40% of bird species that migrate are only now beginning to be unraveled. Electronic tracking, such as small devices that are attached to birds, and other technologies, have played a large role in this, Harrison says.
Early trackers used in the 1990s were so big that only large birds like albatross and eagles could fly with them, she says. Now, tiny GPS devices with solar-powered batteries are being fitted to much smaller birds.
The MCP has field projects all over the Americas to track migrating birds, working with graduate students and agency biologists, choosing species that little is known about, or that have markedly declining numbers — the common nighthawk, rusty blackbird and Connecticut warbler, to name a few. Harrison herself leads projects involving oceanic and coastal birds, often in Arctic North America, a natural fit for a biologist with a background in marine animals. One bird Harrison studies, the Arctic tern, travels from the northern tip of the world every year, to the southern tip, and back, which can be an annual journey of more than 44,000 miles, Harrison says.
Earlier in her career, Harrison studied the migrations of large oceanic predators like seals, sharks and leatherback turtles as part of the Tagging of Pelagic Predators project. In one study of 14 such species, her team looked at their relationship with the human societies they pass, and the various levels of protection they are afforded as they travel. She presented that study’s findings to participants of the United Nations First Intergovernmental Conference on Sustainable Use of Marine Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction, in hopes of bolstering the chances of a treaty, still under consideration, to make migrating sea animals' journeys safer.
Harrison travels extensively for her research, and she will go back to that once the pandemic eases. This summer, though, there is a moratorium on travel.
So instead, “We have been able to take a breather, revisit the data we have collected, and tell some of the interesting stories,” she says.
One such story includes the first full-year tracking, held through 2019-2020, of the Pomarine Jaeger, a “gnarly” predatory seabird that breeds in the Arctic.
“We discovered that three closely related species of Jaegers nesting on the same island in the Arctic dispersed during migration to four different oceans to spend the rest of their year,” she says. “That's amazing to me.”
Harrison has also enjoyed returning to live near the Chesapeake Bay to work at the Smithsonian. She grew up on the bay, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where her father's family settled in the 17th century and became “watermen”— solely oystermen until the collapse of the oyster population forced them to diversify into harvesting eels, crabs and other food animals in the bay. Harrison's parents were a math teacher and office manager of an electrical contracting company, but she spent time at her grandmother's house on Tilghman Island, “poking around in the marsh.” She knew early on she would be a biologist, but thought she would be an estuarine researcher, studying Chesapeake Bay.
And lately, Harrison has indeed had a chance to study brown pelicans in the bay with Dave Brinker of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, who discovered their first nest found in Maryland, in 1987. Harrison's father came with her as a field volunteer on one trip, and it was “very special to have him involved,” she says.
“I respect scientific knowledge so much,” she says. “But I got a different kind of education from people who got up at 4 am to go out to catch crabs. They know the bay, they know the animals, they know these systems. That's knowledge to respect, too.”
Below are two articles, one from the Washington Post (submitted by Charlene Uhl) and one from the Audubon Society (submitted by Bonnie Beers) that talk about how we can assist insect populations and feed birds properly. Must reads for backyard naturalists!
Welcome bugs into your yard
When It's Okay (or Not) to Feed Birds
By Diana Madson on Jan 8, 2020
Yale Climate Connections
You may enjoy gazing out the window and seeing familiar birds like goldfinches, robins, or warblers flitting between tree branches. But as the climate warms, many bird species will need to leave some of the places they’ve long considered home.
“These areas just become no longer suitable, and they’ll have to move to new areas,” says Brooke Bateman, a senior scientist at the National Audubon Society. She says for bird lovers who want to visualize what this means in their own yards, Audubon created an online tool. Users can enter a ZIP code and learn more about local climate threats and the risks they pose to birds.
“It really gives you a local snapshot of what’s happening with climate change,” she says. The tool highlights which species will no longer find suitable local habitat by the end of the century. Users can toggle between different levels of future warming. Bateman says this lets people see that without climate action, “Oh, these birds that come to my feeder, or these birds I see in my backyard … they’re not going to be there anymore.”
But if carbon pollution is sharply reduced, the risks to many species are, too. The tool shows how climate action can help your favorite birds return to your feeder year after year.
Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media.
By Bonnie Beers
Two studies published in October 2019 document changes and potential challenges facing North American bird populations:
Cornell’s study describes actual changes over the past 50 years. The Audubon study predicts population declines based on 140 million observations from 40 different data sets interfaced with habitat preferences and needs of each species and on climate change projections. The web-link above describes details of the study and allows viewing of predictions that illustrate vulnerabilities of specific species typical of a given zipcode at projected temperature rises of 1.5, 2.0, and 3.0-degree Celsius.
Both studies present some grim realities, but also provide pathways for hope, at both individual and policy levels. Make a New Year’s Resolution to do something for birds!
By SANDY HAUSMAN, Radio IQ WVTF, NOV 29, 2019
(submitted by Barry Buschow)
Hundreds of people spends each spring and summer checking on baby birds in their neighborhood. They’re part of a national effort to bring back bluebirds after their population dropped 90%. You might expect those volunteers to retire in the fall, but one bird lover from Virginia is busier than ever.
200 years ago, eastern bluebirds were common in Virginia. Settlers would find their nests in the holes of trees, but the situation changed as farmers took down forests and non-native species arrived in America – cavity nesters that compete with bluebirds.
“One of them was house sparrows, and another is the starling, and those two species of birds are now the two most populous of all bird species in North America, ” says Clark Walter, a man who played professional basketball in Europe in his youth. He stands 6-foot-six but has great compassion for smaller creatures. “Bluebirds are tiny little things, and they just weren’t winning the war against the starlings and the house sparrows,” he explains.
Now retired from the Cleveland Zoological Society, Walter knew it was possible to help bird populations recover.
“I’ve had some exposure with Andean condors into Venezuela or Trumpeter swans in the state of Ohio, but I didn’t know much about my own backyard,” Walter admits.
So he became a master naturalist and built a trail through his Albemarle County neighborhood, putting up specially designed boxes for bluebirds. He turned his garage into a cozy workshop with a wood stove and more than a dozen antiques, including a cabinet with 125 tiny drawers that supplied a 19th century pharmacy.
“They held different medicines, things like arsenic and turpentine and other sorts of things that we probably wouldn’t want to take today,” he muses Now they’re filled with screws and nails he uses to build cedar bluebird boxes he sells for the cost of the materials. In his first year, he made 65 of them. “The following year I was building a couple of hundred," Walter recalls. "The next year 400, and the next year 600, and a couple of years ago 700.”
Each comes with a pole and a baffle that protects the birds, their eggs and babies from predators. “We love housecats, and we have one of them, but they take a heavy toll on the bird population, in the billions. Also, snakes, raccoons and bears.” Actually, there’s no stopping the bears. Walters says they’ve destroyed five bluebird houses in the last three years in his neighborhood alone. Still, the birds are prolific, often raising two broods in a season and sometimes three or four.
“You clear out the old nest and that prompts the parents to build a new one," he explains. "It takes them a day or two, and then they lay another set of eggs and raise them until fledging.” The bluebird population has grown more than two percent a year since the sixties, but Clark Walter plans to keep building boxes. He’ll finish this year’s batch at the end of November. Then it’s on to his next project -- a seasonal business called Captain Breck's Rum Cakes. Like the birds, he’s a productive guy. Next month, in the kitchen he shares with his sweetheart Connie Friend, he’ll
bake, pack and ship a thousand cakes made with twenty cases of rum.
Click Here for Audio of this Interview.
By Jeff Stehm
As November arrives it is time to pull out our binoculars and cameras and go gawk at the gobblers, otherwise known as Meleagria gallopavo silvestris or the eastern wild turkey. With some luck, a little study, and observation (and a judicious reading of this blog) you’ll be able to wow your Thanksgiving Day guests!
Range, Habitat and Food
Wild turkeys currently exist in 49 states (yes, Hawaii; no Alaska), southern Canada and Mexico. They have historically ranged throughout North America. However, by the early 20th century, hunting and habitat destruction had reduced the population to about 30,000. Conservation efforts in the 1950s and 1960s brought the current population back to about 6-7 million, although in some states (Mississippi and Arkansas) their numbers are declining because of habitat loss. In Virginia, wild turkeys number about 180,000 to 200,000 with the higher concentrations found in the Tidewater, South Mountain, and South Piedmont regions.
Source: Wikipedia Source: VA DGIF
The home range of individual birds in the spring can be as much as 3 – 4 square miles, shrinking to as little as 50 acres in the winter. In terms of habitat, wild turkeys prefer hardwood and mixed conifer-hardwood forest with areas of pasture, fields, orchards, and seasonal marshes. Of course our beloved Blue Hills fit this bill. Planting nut and berry trees is a good way to encourage turkey populations as well as practices such as prescribed burning, forest thinning, and grazing. One of the reasons for their extensive range in North America is the wild turkey’s opportunistic foraging. Wild turkeys are omnivores. While they prefer acorns, nuts and other hard seeds, they also eat berries, roots, insects, and the occasional amphibian, small reptile and small snake. This ability to feed on a range of food sources allows wild turkeys to survive in different areas of the country.
Characteristics and Life History
Turkey communities consist of toms (adult males), jakes (juvenile males), hens (females) and poults (young chicks). Toms weigh from 17-21 pounds and 40 inches tall, and hens weigh 8-11 pounds and 30 inches tall.
A Jake in Pennsylvania, Source: US FWS (Photo: Bill Buchanan/USFWS)
An interesting anatomical feature of the toms is the snood – an adornment that dangles from between the eyes. The snood can change color and length based on the tom’s excitement. Turkeys walk a lot and are not known for their flight ability, but they can fly up to 55 mph in short bursts and can run at 18 mph. At night, turkeys will fly into trees to spend the night as protection from predators.
Turkeys have acute eyesight and hearing, but poor taste and smell. Turkeys’ eyes are located on the sides of their head, giving them monocular vision. They compensate by turning their heads to better judge distance. This is combined with excellent hearing allowing turkeys to locate the source of a sound with uncanny ability. Field studies suggest turkeys hear at lower frequencies and can hear more distant sounds than humans. Turkeys’ key defense against predators, therefore, is their sight and hearing. In sum, don’t move when a turkey is looking and don’t think about moving when they’re not.
At times, turkeys can also be aggressive in self-defense against predators, if cornered, or if defending territory.
Mating and Nesting. Mating season is March to June and nesting occurs from mid-April to mid-June. Nesting sites are on the ground, typically in native bunchgrasses, forbs, or shrubs between 20-26 inches tall. Nests are a shallow depression or bowl scratched out from the dirt. Hens lay between 9-13 eggs over a two-week period. Incubation takes about 28 days. Poults take about two weeks before they are able to fly up into trees for protection, and hence are vulnerable to predation during this early period.
Survival Rates and Predators. Studies indicate that only 10 to 50 percent of nests successfully hatch and then only about 25-50 percent of poults will make it beyond 4 weeks. Most of this loss is due to predators such as foxes, skunks, raccoons, possums, crows, hawks, and some snakes.
Fun Facts about Wild Turkeys
Hope you enjoyed this brief romp through gobbler land!
VA Department of Games and Inland Fisheries https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/turkey/
Wild Turkey – Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_turkey
Wild Turkey Life History, Cornell Ornithology Lab www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Wild_Turkey/lifehistory
Eastern Wild Turkey https://wildlife.tamu.edu/wildlifemanagement/eastern-wild-turkey
National Wild Turkey Federation www.nwtf.org
Wild Turkeys https://thevlm.org/portfolio_page/wild-turkeys/
How to Draw a Turkey http://paolosaporiti.com/how-to-draw-a-turkey-step-by-step/
by Bonnie Beers
During my career as a special educator, I worked with groups of students for whom time was at a premium. As we moved through lessons and activities, I often found myself asking what I call the ‘So What?’ questions. So What? Is this lesson worth their time? Why does this skill matter? Does it expand their educational, vocational, or personal pathways? What steps need to happen to make a skill more than an addition to a bag of tricks?
Reading through the blog entries about recent studies that document alarming bird population declines over the past 30 years, I find myself thinking that this research answers the ‘So What’ questions regarding Citizen Science. Many times, Citizen Science may feel like a fun field trip--a day in the woods listening and looking; observing birds, butterflies, or other wildlife; noticing and documenting plants; pulling invasives; counting invertebrates in a stream. The Cornell study, Link to Science Magazine article, demonstrates that the data we collect combines with data across the country and world to provide information that cannot be generated in any other way. The NEXTAR radar provided important facts about the decline in overall avian biomass over the past 30 years. Citizen Science data over time, however, documented specific species losses, and gains. The study demonstrates that policies protecting species and ecosystems have made a difference in targeted populations of birds. The patterns lead to understanding the effects of some factors we cannot control, but also of some that we can influence.
As ORMN members, we have some opportunities coming up:
Cornell Feederwatch: begins November 9
Sign up to sit at home with the beverage of your choice and document the birds that you see at your feeder. The requirement is to spend 2 consecutive days watching for whatever amount of time you can or desire, not necessarily contiguous. You can watch 2 days weekly or less often, whatever fits your time. Report your data on paper or online to Cornell.
Sign up at : https://feederwatch.org/
Christmas Bird Watch: December 14.
Join a team of ORMN members to spend a day looking and listening for birds at your assigned site. Good company (both birds and people!).
Contact Victoria Fortuna if you are interested in joining a team. (Audubon Project)
Audubon is launching a new Citizen Science project in 2020 to understand effects of climate changes by surveying populations of specific bird species: bluebird, nuthatch, painted bunting, goldfinch, and towhee. When you sign up, you identify an observation site and follow procedures to survey your selected species on one day between January 15- February 15, and one day between May 15 and June 15.
For more information: https://www.audubon.org/features/esri-climate-watch
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is getting the word out on simple steps we can all take to help save birds. This follows on the Lab's reporting on the significant loss of birds that was highlighted in one of our earlier blog posts. On the Lab's website are Seven Simple Actions to Help Birds. Check it out.
Some the actions listed are approved ORMN projects. For instance Feeder Watch and eBird. And if you need to brush up on your bird identification skills, the Lab's Bird Academy is offering Feeder Watch bird identification online courses (as well as host of other online courses to meet your continuing bird education needs) . Check out their other bird information resources as well.
The FeederWatch season runs from November 9 – April 3. Happy feeder watching!
By Eva Frederick, Science Magazine Oct. 10, 2019 , 12:15 PM
State birds can be a source of tremendous local pride—but as the climate warms, at least eight state birds may no longer call their native state home, The New York Times reports. In a new study, National Audubon Society scientists mapped the ranges of 604 North American bird species and used climate models to predict how the their habitats would change. Many species, the team concluded, would likely end up moving north to find their ideal habitats. For example, if temperatures rise 3°C above preindustrial levels—a plausible outcome, according to scientists—the common loon, Minnesota’s state bird, might bypass the state entirely and fly farther north to breed and hunt for food. Unfortunately, moving north might not be enough for many species—out of all types of bird studied, two-thirds face increasing risk of extinction as temperatures rise.
Attached is a paper titled "Biodiversity Loss - The Decline of the North American Avifauna" authored by scientists from Cornell Ornithology Lab, SCBI, and others on the loss of North American birds. It not only documents the extraordinary loss of birds in North America, but also shows important citizen science has been in conducting such research.
Paper Summary: Species extinctions have defined the global biodiversity crisis, but extinction begins with loss in abundance of individuals that can result in compositional and functional changes of ecosystems. Using multiple and independent monitoring networks, the article reports population losses across much of the North American avifauna over 48 years, including once-common species and from most biomes. Integration of range-wide population trajectories and size estimates indicates a net loss approaching 3 billion birds, or 29% of 1970 abundance. A continent-wide weather radar network also reveals a similarly steep decline in biomass passage of migrating birds over a recent 10-year period. This loss of bird abundance signals an urgent need to address threats to avert future avifaunal collapse and associated loss of ecosystem integrity, function, and services.
Link to Science Magazine article
What Can ORMN Members Do?
Cornell Ornithology Lab is encouraging citizen scientists in the month of October to use the eBird application to record bird observations. In particular, October 19th has been designated as the Global Big Day where citizen scientists are asked to use eBird over 24 hours to note the birds observed at their favorite park/county/state/province country/continent (https://ebird.org/octoberbigday). The record to beat is last year’s total of 6,331 species on a single October day.
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