Birds

Ian Stewart

Every fall birdwatchers throughout the eastern United States wait anxiously by their computers for an email containing this year’s Winter Finch Forecast http://jeaniron.ca/2018/wff18.htm. For almost 20 years now Ron Pittaway, a former naturalist at Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario Canada, has been predicting whether this group of small, seed-eating birds that breed in Ontario remain there during the winter based upon how successful the cone crop was that summer. Simply put, if the trees produced a lot of seeds then the finches will have enough food to survive the winter and will stay up north, but if the cone crop was poor they will have to fly south to find food and will ‘irrupt’ into the northern United States or maybe even further south.

Remarkably, Ron’s forecast is usually correct so local birders were thrilled to read his prediction that finches would be travelling south this winter because the cone crop in Canada was poor. Sure enough, about 2 weeks ago people throughout Delaware and south-eastern Pennsylvania started seeing flocks of Purple Finches at their feeders! These look a bit like our resident House Finches but the males are raspberry-colored over their whole body while the females and immature birds are heavily streaked below and have white stripes on their face. Purple Finches are attracted to black oil sunflower seed, especially if it is piled on a horizontal platform feeder.

A flock of Purple Finches at a platform feeder

The Delaware Nature Society’s bird banding program has confirmed that this is an irruption year for Purple Finches. So far this fall we have banded no fewer than 40 of these birds, compared with just 5 in the winter of 2016 and none at all last winter.

Male House Finch (left) and Purple Finch (right) banded this fall

Now people across our region are seeing a second species of winter finch at their feeders, the Pine Siskin. This small, streaky finch has yellowy-green wing patches and a very thin beak which it uses to pry nyjer (thistle) seeds from finch socks or hanging feeders with narrow holes.

Pine Siskin feeding on ground (Photograph by Hank Davis)

The thin beak of a Pine Siskin

Whisper it quietly but this winter we may see two more highly-prized finches which usually remain far to our north. The first of these is the Redpoll, a small streaky finch with a red forehead that flocks in weedy fields and congregates at nyjer feeders. The second is the majestic Evening Grosbeak, a striking yellow, black and white version of our familiar Cardinal which is attracted to platform feeders baited with sunflower seed

All of the above winter finches readily come to bird feeders and best way to attract them to your yard is to provide a variety of seeds in different types of feeders, like hanging tubes of either black oil sunflower or nyjer coupled with platform feeders filled with sunflower seeds or millet. Try visiting Wild Birds Unlimited in Hockessin for a large selection of seed mixes and feeders.

Flock of Siskins at a hanging feeder (Photograph by Hank Davis)

Another two irruptive winter finches that are much sought after by birdwatchers are the crossbills. The Red Crossbill tends to occur in pines and the White-winged Crossbill in spruces and larches. These intriguing birds are unique in that their upper and lower beaks are ‘crossed’ and are used to prise open pine cone scales to get to the seed within. Crossbills do not usually come to seed feeders but if you want to attract them you could try pulling the old ‘salt block trick’. Apparently they are very fond of salt and can be attracted to platform feeders using chunks of the salt blocks that farmers leave out for cattle and horses!

The winter of 2018/2019 could be a memorable year for winter finches in Delaware, so be sure to take full advantage of it. The best places to search are weedy fields and stands of cone-bearing pine trees in public parks or cemeteries, but you are just as likely to see them at the feeders in your back yard or the Ashland Nature Center bird blind. And maybe consider dropping by our free bird banding sessions to see if you are lucky enough to see a winter finch up close. Bird banding takes place through November every Monday at Ashland Nature Center and every Wednesday at Bucktoe Creek Preserve near Kennett Square, 8am-11am.

 

Ian Stewart

Migration is a fascinating aspect of animal biology. Each spring and fall, millions of birds, mammals and insects fly thousands of miles to get to either their breeding or wintering grounds. Migration can be challenging to follow however, as many of these animals migrate at night and travel quickly. There are several methods scientists use to track migration but a new collaborative method has recently emerged: the Motus system.

The Bucktoe Motus tower

The Motus system is an international network of automated towers which detect any animal fitted with a special small tag within a 15km range (‘Motus’ = Latin for ‘movement’). Since each tag emits a unique signal it is possible to track the movement of individual animals as they pass by one of more towers. The great majority of animals fitted with tags are birds but tags have also been placed on bats and large insects like dragonflies or even butterflies! The Motus network allows scientists to collect data on tagged animals to help them find out how variables like weather and the animal’s age, sex, and physical condition affect the timing and speed of their movements. It also aids conservation efforts by identifying key areas where animals stop to feed and rest during migration which can then be protected.

There are over 200 towers spread across the world, most of which are in North America (see the map on the Motus homepage www.motus.org). In the summer of 2017 a team of dedicated field biologists erected a line of towers all the way across Pennsylvania. The towers are so close together that their detection ranges overlap, meaning that they would pick up every tagged animal that migrates north or south anywhere in the entire state!

Distribution of Motus towers across PA and DE

Thanks to generous funding from the Starrett Foundation and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources via the Willistown Conservation Trust, a Motus tower was erected at Bucktoe Creek Preserve near Kennett Square in August 2017 as part of this line and has been recording 24/7 ever since! In the fall of 2017 it detected 7 thrushes, 3 warblers, a woodcock and a bat, all presumably heading south for the winter. In the spring of 2018 it detected a thrush and 4 shorebirds, all likely heading north to breed.

Another remarkable feature of the Motus system is that much of the data is open-access and can be viewed by anyone with the Internet. To see what animals are being detected follow these 4 simple steps.

1. Visit the homepage at www.motus.org then scroll down to see a map of the world with a yellow dot representing each tower.

2. Zoom in to find the tower you’re interested in (e.g. Bucktoe Creek) and click the dot. A box will then open telling you the name of the tower and its location plus the contact details of the organization overseeing it. The bottom row gives the number of tags detected by that tower (if there have been any) with ‘table/timeline’ in parentheses next to it.

3. Click on ‘table’ and a new page will open with several columns including the date each tag was detected plus the ID# of that tag (in blue text) and the species it was placed on.

4. Click on the ID# to reveal the date and place where the animal was tagged, and then if you want to explore further, either click on ‘table’ in the bottom row to see a list of towers at which that bird was detected, or ‘timeline’ to see what time the animal passed by the tower and how long it stayed. My own favorite is to click on ‘map’ to show the route the animal took!

Every year more Motus towers are erected throughout North America and they are also starting to spread across other continents. The number of tagged animals is also steadily increasing and every time one is detected it adds to our understanding of animal migration. Watch this space for updates from the Bucktoe tower!

Story and Photos by Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager

What happens on a Delaware Nature Society Eco-trip? This spring’s adventure to Montana and Yellowstone featured lots of Black Bear, Grizzlies, Bison babies, over 150 species of birds, and world-class scenery. Throw in a few overnights in haunted hotels, cute mountain towns, and great food, and you have the recipe for an eco-trip to remember for a lifetime.
Forrest Rowland from Rockjumper Birding Tours led the trip. Forrest leads groups around the world, but lives in Montana. Joe Sebastiani, Ashland Nature Center Manager, accompanied the Delaware Nature Society group to experience one of America’s most wild and beautiful areas.  Many fans of the Ashland Hawk Watch know Forrest as the first Hawk Watcher during our 2007 inaugural season.  Now he is in charge of New World Operations for Rockjumper, and a highly sought-after guide.

Richardson’s Ground Squirrel looks like a pint-sized Prairie Dog. This one is barking at our group!

Our trip started in the short-grass prairie ecosystem around Billings, and focused on finding the birds of the region.  Many prairie species are declining, and some of the rare ones take inside knowledge of where to find them.  Luckily, Forrest lives in the area, and is tuned-in to where pockets of decent prairie habitat remains that supports birds.

Some of the highlights include watching the breeding displays Sprague’s Pipit, McCown’s and Chestnut-collared Longspurs as well as Long-billed Curlews chasing Golden Eagles.  Curlew disdain for eagles is known right away, as they scold and chase the larger eagles, America’s most powerful predatory bird, across the prairie.  Rare prairie nesting species we encountered included Ferruginous Hawk and Baird’s Sparrow.  A few species I thought I would never see in my life.

Chestnut-collared Longspurs fly up in the air and parachute back to the ground on wings held high, impressing feathered and human onlookers.

We were lucky to encounter a Plains Hog-nosed Snake which allowed us some close-up looks.

After the prairies, our group ventured into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in southwest Montana.  Our base was Livingston, and we enjoyed the town and hotel as much as the adventures.  The Murray Hotel, downtown, allowed us to experience an old, western, authentic establishment, that is famously haunted, especially on the third floor, where my room was!  After returning from an old burned-over woods containing Lewis’s Woodpeckers, and visiting a wonderful bird feeding station with Evening Grosbeaks, Cassin’s Finches, Red Crossbills, and many others, the Murray awaited.  The rooms were well-appointed in Western and Native American decor.  Old photos of folks dressed in long-ago outfits decorated the walls.  I did not have a supernatural experience that night, but others in the group might have been in touch with the spirit world.

We visited two fantastic feeding stations, allowing opportunities to view hard to find species such as the Evening Grosbeak, a large finch.

Forrest Rowland, our Guide, enters the Murray Hotel in Livingston, with its famously haunted 3rd floor, where my room was.

Our group eagerly awaited Yellowstone National Park.  Large mammals abound, not to mention otherworldly hot springs and geothermal features.  Our first stop was Mammoth Hot Springs, which bubbles up boiling water, creating a beautiful cascade of dissolved limestone that reforms when in contact with the air at the surface.  Said to look like an inside-out cave, Mammoth Hot Springs is a beautiful sight, combined with sulphury smells, hot steam, and swirling colors.

Mammoth Hot Springs

We took one of the longest hikes of the trip here, partially to find Dusky Grouse and Williamson’s Sapsucker.  We found the Grouse by listening for its soft, low, cooing calls, produced by pinkish air sacs on the side of the male’s neck.  Forrest heard it, located it, and had us making concentric circles around the bird, without making eye contact with it, until we were right on top of it, taking a seat feet from the bird.  It went about its business, unconcerned by our proximity, so it seemed.

This male Dusky Grouse allowed us to sit practically next to it, as it made low, soft cooing sounds from the air sacs on its throat.

Along the walk, a few of us were looking at a butterfly, trying to identify it, when a brown figure was seen walking up a side trail towards us.  EEEEK!  It was a bear!  We noticed it when it was about 25 feet away, which is rather close.  We quickly stumbled away from it, walking at first, then moved with a little more urgency towards Forrest, who had the can of bear spray.  Hearts were racing, and there might have been a little pushing, but it turned out to be a young male cinnamon-colored Black Bear, only interested in getting a drink at the nearby creek, and eating some flowers.

This mild-mannered cinnamon Black Bear certainly startled a few of us on the trail, as we did not notice it until it was very close to us.

After our Bear encounter, we moved on to some of the large, open valleys in the park to seek other large forms of wildlife.  One way to do this is to stop where other people are on the side of the road looking at something.  One of our first “wildlife jams” on the road was caused by a mother Grizzly Bear and her two cubs tearing apart an elk that she had just killed.  As we watched them feed (300 yards away through the scope), you could see them tearing meat off the carcass…a brutal reminder there are animals here that are one step higher up the food chain than you.

For many of us, it was the herds of Bison that made the show at Yellowstone.  These hump-backed, woolly cow-like creatures plod around grasslands, roll in the dirt, walk down roadways, butt heads, and move along with young calves, right in front of you.  The calves are extremely cute, and allowed us fabulous looks.

In early June during our trip, it was “Cute Calf Season” for the Bison.

During our last few days in the park, continued our search for wildlife.  Sightings included Coyote, White-tailed Deer, Mule Deer, Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Goats, Moose, Pronghorn, and many species of birds including Harlequin Ducks and Barrow’s Goldeneye which inhabit the fast-moving rivers in the park.  One thing we missed by 10 minutes, however, was Gray Wolf.  We gave it a good effort, but didn’t end up seeing them.

Coyote are apparently more difficult to see in Yellowstone that Gray Wolves. We missed the wolves, but had this Coyote walk right past us.

Finally, although it was early June, we couldn’t leave the Rocky Mountains without at least one shot of snow.  Beartooth Pass, at nearly 11,000 feet in elevation, was closed to vehicular traffic up until the day we needed to cross it.  Finally, on June 3rd, hours after it opened, we ascended to the top.  Snow was falling, as was the thermometer in the car as we climbed.  At the top, the temperature was 31 degrees, the wind howled, and we dressed in every layer we brought.  We drove through canyons of snow 20 feet deep, as the road snaked its way over the barren top of the pass.  Considered one of the most scenic roads in the Lower 48,  it was a perfect way to cap off the adventure to the Montana and Yellowstone National Park.

The weather at Beartooth Pass finally allowed for some blue sky and clouds, after 31 degrees, snow, and high winds earlier in the day.

The next Delaware Nature Society Eco-trip is to Ecuador to see hundreds of species of birds in the Andes Mountains, where you will have the opportunity to surpass the elevation on the Yellowstone trip.  From 13,000 feet down to about 5,000 feet, sample the best of birding, eco-lodges, food, and natural beauty in one of the world’s most bio-diverse countries.  Sign up today!!!

Ian Stewart

The global Great Backyard Bird Count took place from February 16th to the 19th and was a huge success. Despite its misleading name, participants counted every bird they saw no matter how far they were from home, with more than 6,000 bird species recorded across the world from over 160,000 checklists! Delaware Nature Society played its part with 10 people joining Joe Sebastiani and Matt Babbitt on a bird-filled tour of Port Penn Wetlands, the Aquatic Resources Education Center, Bombay Hook NWR, and Port Mahon Road, finding over 50 species in the process including a rare Tree Swallow.

Although the global comparisons are fun, what’s really fascinating is to sift through the species and checklist totals from each US state (https://ebird.org/gbbc/region/US/regions?yr=cur&m=). The top 3 in terms of species seen were California (370), Texas (358) and Florida (288) with Delaware coming in 24th with a very respectable 145 species. The top 3 in terms of checklists submitted were again California and Texas (8,113 and 6,389 respectively) and New York (6,154) with Delaware coming in 37th with a decent 709.

DNS Members enjoying a duck extravaganza at Port Penn

But wait, I hear you cry! Surely this is unfair! California, Texas and Florida are all large states with extensive oceanic coastlines and inland water bodies and because of their southern latitude have resident tropical birds that we can only dream of. Furthermore, large parts of these states have mild or even warm winters so their birdlife gets supplemented by migrants that summered much further north. California, Texas and New York all contain huge numbers of people which presumably translates to lots of birders so it’s hardly a surprise that these 3 states produce the largest numbers of checklists.

I decided to see how Delaware fared during the GBBC once you take into account our small population (ranked 45th in the nation) and size (ranked just 49th!). To do this, I simply divided the number of species seen and checklists submitted from each state by their population (in millions) and size (total land area).

Sure enough, once you control for population size (as a crude estimate of the number of birders) we jump to second in the nation!

State Species per 1M persons
1. Alaska 158
2. Delaware 152
3. Wyoming 147
50. New York 9

And when you take into account our small size, Delaware recorded the second highest number of species in the country.

State Species per 1000 square miles
1. Rhode Island 74
2. Delaware 58
3. Connecticut 24
50. Alaska 0.2

The number of checklists is also an interesting statistic although obviously they aren’t all created equal. One checklist may summarize birds seen by a large group of experienced birders during an intense 6-hour search of a large, rural, mixed-habitat wildlife preserve while another could be birds seen at an urban backyard feeder by a relative novice during a 15 minute coffee break. Still, when you account for population size, we generated the third highest number of checklists in America.

State Checklists per 1M persons
1. Vermont 1503
2. Maine 918
3. Delaware 745
50. Nevada 119

And when you take into account our small size, Delaware produced the third highest number of checklists in the US!

State Checklists per 1000 square miles
1. New Jersey 325
2. Connecticut 292
3. Delaware 285
50. Alaska 1

Admittedly, trying to boil down differences between state bird lists based on just their size or population is simplistic. The dramatic differences between states in their habitat diversity and latitude and longitude means you are never comparing like with like. For example, birders in coastal states see large numbers of seabirds and shorebirds which are hard to find further inland. Freshwater lakes or marshes in the south will have more waterbirds than those in the frozen north. Plus, even though some states are huge a large proportion of their area is inhabited by very few people let alone birders, and so only a small proportion receives coverage. I’m sure there are many more bird-related differences between states you can think of yourself.

But it’s these exact same caveats that make Delaware such a fantastic place to live if you like birds! Because we are mid-latitude we get a sprinkling of unusual birds from further north plus a few rarities from further south. We have freshwater, seawater, estuaries, lakes and ponds, marshes, plowed fields and pasture, pine woods, deciduous woods, urban habitats, suburbs and a big open sky. This diversity of habitats was probably the main reason the Delaware GBBC produced such an amazing diversity of birds despite our small population and size. To all the Delaware birders who contributed to the GBBC (and you know who you are) I say well done! We’re in the Top 3!

If you want to continue to enjoy birds, why not come along on these upcoming DNS events and bird walks?

Dinner and Owls

February 28
5:30pm
$20/$25
Coverdale Farm

Led by Jim White and Courtney McKinley. Get close up looks at the rare Long-eared Owl, and search for other owls like Screech and Great Horned Owls. Dinner and an owl presentation are included too!

Frogs and Woodcocks

March 28
5:30pm
$15/$20
Coverdale Farm

Led by Jim White.Take a walk in the evening to find chorusing frogs and see the amazing display of the American Woodcock.

Tuesday Bird Walks (April/May)

8am, Middle Run Natural Area
Free, just meet in the parking lot

Thursday Bird Walks (April/May)

8am,Ashland Nature Center
Free, just meet in the parking lot