A Surprise in the Net!

Finding a Sharp-shinned Hawk in the net was certainly thrilling.  But when you consider what Sharpies eat, it wasn’t really a surprise…  Last Saturday, I was truly surprised by this bird.  See if you recognize it:

Do you know who I am?

An American Woodcock!  Whoa!  Never expected that!

American Woodcocks, also known as Timberdoodles, are probably most well-known for their springtime courting dance.  Monarch wrote about it and included a video (dark – but cool because you can hear the sounds).  Click here to see (hear) it.  And if you have a copy of Aldo Leopold’s book A Sand County Almanac, read the essay on Woodcocks… it’s brilliant!

The Woodcock is a strange bird.  You’ll find it with the sandpipers in your field guide.  But you’ll have to go to the woods, not the beach, to find it outside.  It’s beak is long and flexible.  In the following photo, J had pried the bill open a bit to try to get a peek at the “teeth” and tongue.

Woodcock - Interesting Beak

I wish I had gotten a picture of what happened next!  When J removed his fingers, the upper bill curved, then straightened!  Woodcocks poke in the dirt with these long flexible bills probing for earthworms.  Their ability to manipulate the end of the bill undoubtedly helps in extracting tasty treats from deep in the soil.

The coloring of a Woodcock makes them excellent at hiding on the forest floor.  Many hikers have been startled when one suddenly rises just where a hiking boot was about to tread.

Woodcock - Camouflage coloring!

This was a big bird and a strong flier.  Tom and J had to work together to band it.  First they had to determine the appropriate size band by using a leg gauge.

Getting Ready to use Leg Gauge on Woodcock

Leg Gauge on Woodcock

Bird PaparazziOnce banded, the poor thing had to endure the Bird Paparozzi.  I’ll bet nearly a hundred photos were taken, many of them by me!



Then Tom let me release it.  He took my camera and shot this series:

About to Release the Woodcock

Release 1

Release 2

Release 3

Release 4

Release 5

Good-bye, Woodcock.  Live long and prosper!

Learn more:


“They” say…

Indigo Bunting - photographed in May“They” say that there are no blue feathers.  That is, there are no feathers that contain blue pigment.  When our brains tell us that we have seen a blue bird, it is the result of physics and a trick of the light…  reflection?  refraction?  I dunno… very complicated.

Whatever the science, it is always thrilling to see an Indigo Bunting!  My Sibley’s field guide tells me that Indigo Buntings are “common in any open brushy area, including weedy fields and hedge-rows, with trees nearby.”  The Cornell All-About-Birds website further explains that the Indigo Bunting is “a bird of old fields and roadsides” and that it “prefers abandoned land to urban areas, intensely farmed areas, or deep forests.”

Both descriptions fit the CLDC bird banding site quite well and we saw what must be a family of buntings on Saturday.

Indigo Buntings

I love how the Cornell website lists “Cool Facts” for each species.  Here are the two that intrigued me the most about Indigo Buntings:

  1. The Indigo Bunting migrates at night, using the stars for guidance. It learns its orientation to the night sky from its experience as a young bird observing the stars.
  2. Experienced adult Indigo Buntings can return to their previous breeding sites when held captive during the winter and released far from their normal wintering area.

Learn more:

Another Fine Day at Bird Banding

Yesterday, I spent the morning at Allegany State Park with Tom (a.k.a. mon@rch) learning about birds and bird banding.  I had been thinking during my drive to the park that it was odd that we hadn’t caught a Red-winged Blackbird, since the habitat seems agreeable for them.  “Ask and ye shall receive.” Look who was waiting for us at the first net check:

Red-winged Blackbird Female
Red-winged Blackbird, Female

It doesn’t show terrifically well in this photo, but look closely at the top of her wing.  I had no idea when looking at these birds in the field that the female has a bit of red on her wing, too.  I thought she was all brown.  When I searched Tom’s photostream in Flickr to find a picture of the male, I found this picture of a female that he took in June 2006.  Look at all THAT red!

Red-winged Blackbird Female
Another Red-winged Blackbird Female

Maybe next time we’ll catch the male.

Common Yellowthroat Male AdultThis is a great time of year for learning about all the plumage differences in birds – male vs female, juvenile vs adult.  I borrowed the picture of the male at right from Tom (again)…  We didn’t catch a male yesterday.  But we did catch Mother and Fledgling:

Common Yellowthroat Mommy and Baby
Common Yellowthroat Mother and Child

Once again, we caught several American Redstarts.  Their changes in plumage are quite dramatic.  This fellow provided quite a lesson in feather moult and regrowth:
American Redstart Male 1a

American Redstart, Male

He was born last year.  He has mostly adult feathers, but still some first year feathers:
American Redstart Male 1b

Eventually, the feathers with yellow will be replaced with feathers like those on the left – with orange.

Here are two views of another American Redstart male – younger.  Notice that his head is still gray, not black:
American Redstart Male 2a

And his wing feathers are all yellow, no hint of orange:
American Redstart Male 2b

American Redstart, Male

There were plenty more birds, and there was plenty more learning… But I have to get ready for work now… So I’ll save them for future posts.

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet TanagerIt’s such a stunning bird and I’ve seen it so infrequently that I can remember each sighting vividly:

  1. Ruth had just started working at Audubon and we were taking her on a walk around Big Pond.  There he sat on a branch directly above the trail.
  2. Backpacking with Mary and lots of little girls…  Chip-BURR.  Chip-BURR.  Mary’s backpack was off in a flash and she was fumbling with her binoculars.  “Scarlet Tanager!  Scarlet Tanager!”  She listened and looked and finally spotted him.  We rested here for a while and watched him foraging for insects.
  3. A leisurely afternoon walk at Bentley Sanctuary… sitting on a bench with the tall, tall trees above me…  And there he was, directly overhead.
  4. Coffee on Terry’s back porch and there sat a male in the cedars on the edge of the yard.
  5. A week ago at the CLDC banding station with Tom and friends – flitting in the aspens on the forest edge.  (Jeff willed him to go into a net, but it would be a week before he complied!)
  6. And then there was yesterday…

Yesterday, Jordan took a gorgeous male from the net.  And then, though Tom offered the honor of banding the bird to him, Jordan deferred and let me band him.  I felt like a kid in a candy shop.  (Thanks again, Jordan!)

Scarlet Tanager - banding Scarlet Tanager - I banded this bird
Modest Photographer, Tom LeBlanc, took these photos…

Scarlet Tanager - FussingScarlet Tanagers tend to be birds of the forest interior and most of my sightings have been in such habitat.  Seeing one on the edge of a forest seemed unusual.  When I started surfing about the internet for more information about Tanagers I found that Cornell enlisted the help of citizen volunteers to collect data for three years, from 1993 to 1996, on tanagers and forest fragmentation.  Tanagers were selected as the main species for Project Tanager because their habitat needs are similar to those of many forest interior species.

Scarlet Tanager - Closeup

As I hopped from link to link learning about Scarlet Tanagers and forest fragmentation, I think the most interesting thing I learned was about a shift in the thinking for wildlife management.  There was a time when landowners were encouraged to create as much “edge” habitat as possible, because when you create edges (between forest and field) you increase the diversity of wildlife.  However, when you take a step back and look at the situation more broadly, here’s what really happens:  Local diversity may be increased, but regional diversity decreases.  It’s a tradeoff:  You get more species arriving that like edge habitat, but the species that prefer deep woods disappear.

As a result of the Cornell study, different land management techniques are recommended to maintain diversity on a broader scale.  Click on the links below to learn more.

Isn’t it fascinating how one little bird can teach you so much about the world around you?

Scarlet Tanager Range Map from CornellLearn more:

That's the end!  Goodbye now!

Bird Banding at Allegany State Park – July 4th

The first net check filled the bags and Tom had to work quickly in order to stay on his schedule.  Still, he took the time to teach Kyle and me as he worked.  There were some new birds, and young birds, and molting birds… and some tricky IDs for us.  I found myself getting frustrated sometimes and would say, “Well, I wouldn’t be able to band this one, because I don’t know what it is.”  Those Little Brown Birds are part of the reason that I’m such a Reluctant Birder!

I misidentified this one, for example.  Before you mouse over it, make your guess…
Louisiana Waterthrush

Did you guess Louisiana Waterthrush?  I didn’t.  I guessed Northern Waterthrush, which supposedly is yellower than this one.  Based on pictures in the field guide and on Cornell’s website though, I’m still confused…  The songs are way different, though… but we never heard this one sing…

I did get this one right:
Baby Hermit Thrush
Hermit Thrush!  Yeah me.

This is the first Black-capped Chickadee I’ve seen in a mist net:
Black-capped Chickadee

I now know why the banders aren’t anxious to find them in the nets!  The poor little dear was hopelessly tangled.  But with infinite patience, Tom managed to get him out.

There were several American Redstarts in the nets… This male was very pretty:
American Redstart

Sometimes an ID pops into my head the moment I see a bird in the net, but then I doubt myself.  After checking and double-checking, I discovered I was right on this one:

Hooded Warbler
Hooded Warbler.  Yeah me, again!

There were lots more birds, some of which I photographed, and others that got processed and released so fast that I couldn’t keep up.  One of the highlights, though, was a bird we couldn’t band:

Ruby-throated Hummingbird - Female

Tom isn’t licensed to band hummingbirds.  We brought her back anyway for photos, lessons, and to weigh her:  4 grams (0.141 ounces)!  Isn’t she so dear?

Thanks Tom, for all the great learning!

Kyle with Rose-breasted Grosbeak That's me - Banding the Gray Catbird


Two warblers have been doing their best to confuse me over the last few springs…  They are both fairly common around here.

Yellow Warbler
Yellow Warbler Closeup

Chestnut-Sided Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler Closeup

Now you may look at those two pictures and think, “This WinterWoman person is crazy.  Those two birds don’t look anything alike!”  You may be right about the crazy part, and I do recognize the field marks of these two species… when they’ll let me see them.  The Yellow Warbler is a little less shy and will flit before me when I walk the trails at Audubon.  I almost never see the Chestnut-sided.  Most often, though, I hear them first and see them later – if at all.

The Yellow Warbler’s song is often described with the phrase “Sweet-sweet-sweet-sweet, I’m so sweet!”  Listen to it by clicking here (from Cornell).

The Chestnut-sided Warbler’s song is described as, “Pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha!”  Listen to it by clicking here (from Cornell).

Pretty similar.  Pretty frustrating to a reluctant birder who is just trying to get it right…  It took me a few seasons to add habitat clues:  Near water?  Probably the Yellow Warbler.  Shrubby woods?  Probably the Chestnut-sided.

I finally got around to reading accounts of these two birds after catching and banding both at Tom’s SWAT banding station.  I was delighted to find that even the experts find the songs to be very similar.  In fact, look what it says at the Cornell website:

Recent DNA-based studies indicate that the Chestnut-sided Warbler is the closest relative of the Yellow Warbler. Both sing similarly phrased songs, and Yellow Warblers regularly sing songs nearly identical to those of the Chestnut-sided Warbler.  (source)

Ha!  No wonder I was confused!

Learn More:

Bird Banding at SWAT

I groan as I turn off the alarm.  It takes me a few seconds to remember why it is set for 3:45 a.m.  I crawl out of bed and head for the shower.  Another day of bird banding experience…  Don’t want to be late.  Somehow I manage to check the radar, make a thermos of coffee, and eat a bowl of cereal before heading out.  Despite having to stop for gas along the way, I make it to the banding station two minutes before Tom and Jordan.  As we head out to open the nets they explain why today will be a busy day:  several families will attend to observe and participate.  (Click here for Tom’s post about the day.)

Tom and Jordan with Swamp Sparrows
Tom holds an immature and Jordan holds an adult Swamp Sparrow…

These two guys goof around a lot, but they are both great teachers.  Even though there were a lot of people today, I got quite a bit of experience handling birds and am feeling much more confident.

Of all the birds we banded today, I find the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker to be the most interesting.  Ironically, I didn’t handle this bird at all.  Hee hee.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Long before I had read a word about this member of the Woodpecker family, I observed it in action at Girl Scout Camp over the course of several summers.  Yellow Bellied Sapsucker HolesThere are two White Birch trees outside Bellinger Lodge where the girls wait to enter the dining hall at mealtimes.  Both of these trees are riddled with holes…  holes made by Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.  Sapsuckers get their name from their habit of drilling sap wells and licking the sap that flows from them.  One summer, I watched a pair fly back and forth from these two birch trees to another behind the lodge – near where the trading post is now located.  It took a little patience, but eventually I discovered the nest in a much larger hole in the trunk of that tree.  When I listened carefully, I could hear the babies peeping a greeting when the parents entered the cavity.

Hummingbird at Sapsucker Hole - by Jeremy MartinA few years later, I took my education staff to Timbercrest for a working retreat.  We worked under another tree that sported Sapsucker holes and watched several species take advantage of the running sap.  Small insects buzzed around the hole, as did hornets.  What fascinated us most, though, were the hummingbirds.  (Were they eating the insects, sucking the sap, or both?)

Last Christmas, I received Bernd Heinrich’s book, The Trees in my Forest.  He has a fascinating chapter entitled “Of Birds, Trees, and Fungi” that describes in more detail what I had been observing over the years.  He introduces the chapter with this familiar quote from John Muir:

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.

This is particularly true of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker which is referred to by both Heinrich and the Cornell All About Birds website as a “keystone species,” a species which, like the keystone that holds a stone arch in place, plays an essential role for the overall ecosystem in which it lives.  Not only does it provide food for insects and hummingbirds, it’s abandoned cavities provide nest sites for smaller birds such as chickadees and tree swallows.

I could go on and on.  But instead – just click on the Cornell link below for more details!

Trees in my Forest BookLearn more:

Hmm… That was quite the tangent… You just never know where a post is going until you start typing… I’ll have to tell more bird banding stories in future posts, I guess…

Bird Banding at CLDC

Spider Web or Fairy JewelryIt is always so much fun to go bird banding with Tom.  Sunday the 15th of June was a perfect day for it.  Well, it was better than Saturday the 14th, anyway!  It rained like crazy and Tom postponed banding until Sunday.  Sunday was misty/foggy at first… but the mist burned off to produce a perfect June day.

Emily and I tried to get our acts together to be on time for the first net check.  (When you’re camping at the most beautiful place on the planet, leaving it can be difficult.)  Alas, we arrived just after the group had left for their 2nd net check at 6:30am.  I’d love to give you a blow-by-blow of what we caught and processed at each net check.  But when things get to moving so quickly, it’s hard to remember what happened when…  If the nets are loaded, the processing can sometimes take us past the next net check time and we get behind…

Checking the Nets
Checking the Nets

You get a lot of exercise during banding at this station.  Tom has 10 nets set up and we walk the loop every 30 minutes.

Karen and Jaqueline Look on as Kyle removes a bird from the netKyle is a future veterinarian studying at Canisius College.  Here, visitors watch as he extracts a bird from the net.  Depending on how tangled the bird got, that can be very tricky business.  The most difficult one of the day was a Hairy Woodpecker that managed to get “tongued”.  Bird tongues are barbed in the back.  Sometimes the net gets wound around the tongue.  Tom had quite a time getting that bird out!  I was fortunate to practice on a very easy one:  Just as we arrived at one of the nets, a Goldfinch flew in.  It didn’t have time to get very tangled at all!

Tom Won't tell us What this Bird is

Tom is a good teacher.  He doesn’t just tell you all the answers.  He gives you a chance to figure it out on your own, and he provides you with the tools.

But He Gives us the Tools to Figure it out
Karen and Jacqueline look through the “Thrush” pages…

 It’s a Veery! Karen holds it for a photo op.

It's a Veery Karen Holds a Veery for Photo Op

Tom uses his point-and-shoot camera to take some amazing close-up shots of the birds.

Tom Photographs the Veery
Check out Tom’s photo of the Veery here.

Getting back to the Woodpecker story, at one net check there were two Hairy Woodpeckers in the same net.  Tom told us the tradition with woodpeckers:  Whenever you catch one, you simply HAVE TO smell the head.

The Woodpecker's Head Smells Good
After Emily took one last piney-woodsy sniff, she released this relatively calm bird.

Woodpecker Won't Leave at First

In the meantime, Tom was off photographing the other Hairy Woodpecker… the one that had been through a little more trauma from getting his tongue stuck…  Tom’s bird wasn’t nearly so calm:

Tom's Hand After Several Photos of the Woodpecker
He managed to get this shot, though.  So I guess it was worth it!

House Wrens are Very Cute and Have such a bubbly song
I’ve got a House Wren

Jacqueline Releases the Wren
Jacqueline releases House Wren

I want to see the Orange under his tail

Blue-winged Warbler
Blue-winged Warbler

And last, but not least… I banded this beauty!I banded this female Goldfinch

P.S.  There were plenty of dragons flying, too.  Next CLDC banding day, I’m bringing a net and I’ll do a Dragonfly survey, too, while I’m there!

Allegany Nature Pilgrimage (Sort Of) – Bird Banding!

Sunday, June 1, 2008 – Bird Banding with Tom at CLDC (MAPS banding station)

Net CheckI (now) know that there is bird banding right at the Pilgrimage – right at Camp Allegany.  Ha ha…  Instead, we drove out to Tom LeBlanc’s (a.k.a. Mon@rch‘s) CLDC banding site… the long way through the park… I hadn’t had coffee yet to realize that going through the park would add several miles to our trip).  We took a wrong turn and drove places a 15-passenger van should never go.  Just don’t tell my boss…  or the parents of the children who went with me…

Tom is a great teacher and always let’s the kids have a hands-on experience.  Each of “my” kids got to release at least one bird.  Here they all are:

Karen and the Veery
Karen and Veery

Abbey Has a Towhee
Abbey and Towhee

Liz has a House Wren That Won't come out
Liz and House Wren

Eric and Common Yellowthroat
Eric and Common Yellowthroat

Emily and Goldfinch
Emily and Goldfinch

Emily's Goldfinch Won't Fly
Emily’s bird won’t fly…  I think she thought it was dead… But it wasn’t.  It eventually flew!

Jacob and Red-eyed Vireo
Jacob and Red-Eyed Vireo

The Red-eyed Vireo sat for while then nipped at Jacob before it flew
Jacob’s bird wouldn’t fly at first either.  Just before it finally DID fly, it turned and gave Jacob a little nip!

For Tom’s version of this story, click here:

Opening Day at SWAT

I’ve been away for a couple of days and while I was gone, I let WordPress publish scheduled posts automatically.  Now I’m back “live” with lots of stories to tell…

May 30, 2008 – Bird Banding

Canisius College Bird BandersDue to circumstances far too tedious to list, I arrived at Tom LeBlanc’s SWAT banding station later than I had intended on opening day (May 30) – maybe 8:30 a.m. or so…  Tom and his team had already banded and released many birds.  SWAT is a MAPS banding station.  MAPS stands for Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship.  SWAT is the four-letter code Tom selected for this station… and it soon became clear why.  The gnats were annoying to say the least!  We SWATted many of them throughout the morning.  I had to keep reminding myself:  They are not bugs.  They are bird food.

It was a joy to follow these experts around and soak up the knowledge.  I realize I have a LOT to learn!…

There were so many beautiful, colorful birds!  My favorite pair had contrasting colors:  a Yellow Warbler and an Indigo Bunting:

Contrasting Colors

Couldn’t resist a bunch of pictures of the Baltimore Oriole, either:

Baltimore Oriole

I racked up plenty of experience including recording data and holding and releasing the processed birds.  This fine Gray Catbird did me the honor of being the first bird to nip at me:

Catbird in my Hand

Tom generously and patiently talked me through banding a darling little female Magnolia Warbler:

My First Band at SWAT I didn't kiss her but I wanted to

Later, we caught her boyfriend.  Now they have matching bracelets.

Magnolia Warbler - the Boyfriend

There were plenty more birds and lots of fun and conversation…  I’m really enjoying learning about bird banding.  After we closed the nets, I was off to the Allegany Nature Pilgrimage…  Posts for the next few days are going to be about that!  And maybe I’ll even get some time to catch up on reading all YOUR blogs, too!

Read Tom’s story about Opening Day here: http://monarchbfly.com/2008/05/31/swat-banding/