Bucktoe Creek Preserve

By Ian Stewart, Ornithologist

Bird banding is in full swing at both Ashland Nature Center and Bucktoe Creek Preserve and our mist-nets are becoming dominated by Gray Catbirds! Gray Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) are grouped with Northern Mockingbirds and Brown Thrashers as ‘mimic-thrushes’ as all three are slender thrush-like birds with long tails and loud, elaborate songs. Indeed, catbirds get their name because of the peculiar cat-like ‘miaow’ call they often give while hidden low in a bush! Catbirds are by far the most common of the three mimic-thrushes however, and can be so abundant that many birdwatchers don’t give them a second glance. This is a pity, because catbirds have several interesting features which are particularly obvious when you are holding them during the banding process.

The first of these is the conspicuous rictal bristles around the base of their bill. Several other groups of birds have rictal bristles (especially flycatchers) and although their exact purpose is unknown they are thought to either have a sensory function or to prevent captured insects from scratching a bird’s eyes while they are being held in their bill.

Four rictal bristles can be seen at the base of this Gray Catbird's bill.

Four rictal bristles can be seen at the base of this Gray Catbird’s bill.

The second distinctive Catbird character is their crimson ‘crissum’. This is the patch of feathers underneath their tail which isn’t always easy to see in the field as Catbirds tend to stay fairly low to the ground. The third interesting plumage character of Catbirds, which can also be seen in the picture below, are the fairly obvious growth bars in their outer tail feathers. Growth bars appear as alternating light and dark bands and each pair of bands represents one 24 hour period of feather growth.

Underside of a Gray Catbird showing the crimson crissum and growth bars in the outer tail feathers.

Underside of a Gray Catbird showing the crimson crissum and growth bars in the outer tail feathers.

Not surprisingly, Catbirds were by far the most frequently caught species during the pilot banding project we conducted last summer at Ashland and Bucktoe. In just 3 months we caught 152 catbirds, of which 87 were juveniles likely hatched locally. So far this year we have recaptured 3 of the catbirds we banded last year and hope to recapture even more as the season progresses. It’s truly amazing to think that these 3 birds spent their winter over a thousand miles away in the south-eastern US or the Caribbean and yet came back to the same few hundred acre spots in DE and PA the following year!

The number on this metal leg band showed that this Gray Catbird was banded the previous year.

The number on this metal leg band showed that this Gray Catbird was banded the previous year.

So be sure to take a longer look at a Gray Catbird next time you see one. They are more interesting than you might think!

Public bird banding sessions are held at Ashland Nature Center on Monday and Bucktoe Creek on Wednesday, both from 8am – 11am, though banding does not take place if it is raining or windy, out of concerns for the birds’ safety.

Note that there will be no banding this Monday (May 30th) due to the Memorial Day Holiday.

By Dr. Ian Stewart, Ornithologist and Naturalist

Thanks to a generous donation, Ashland Nature Center and nearby Bucktoe Creek Preserve are hosting a bird banding project that the public is welcome to visit. Bird banding is an important tool for scientists and conservationists since tagging individuals helps us figure out if they remain in the same site year-round, or in the case of long-distance migrants, where they spend their summers and winters and which routes they take. Basically, birds are caught in fine nets erected along trails then carefully removed and fitted with a uniquely numbered metal band before being released. Because the birds’ welfare is the highest priority, we check the nets every 10-15 minutes and do not operate them on very windy or rainy days. Also, it requires many years of practice with extracting and banding birds before one can be granted a federal license to do so.

A Wood Thrush in a mist-net.

A Wood Thrush in a mist-net.

With the help of a crew of volunteer assistants (Steve, Angie, Kelley and Carol), we have caught over 150 birds from 25 species, primarily Gray Catbirds, Tufted Titmice and Northern Cardinals (and yes, they bite!), but also some really neat birds like Brown Thrasher, Willow Flycatcher and Northern Flicker. We obtain as much data as we can from each bird including its age, sex, body size and molt status to answer questions about how these vary between sites and different habitats. It’s much easier to work out the age or sex of bird species if you are actually holding them, and banding birds helps you notice many things you’ve never seen before. For example, the Tufted Titmouse in the top photo below is an adult, but the one in the bottom photo is a juvenile, as can be told by the yellow eye ring and yellow flanges (the fleshy corners of the beak left over from when it was a nestling).

An adult Tufted Titmouse.

An adult Tufted Titmouse.  Can you see the small tick just above the right side of the eye?

A juvenile Tufted Titmouse.

A juvenile Tufted Titmouse.

Also, the male Eastern Towhee in the bottom photo below was likely hatched last year (2014) since it still has some brown juvenile feathers on its head while the one in the top photo was likely hatched in 2013 or even earlier as it has a solid black head. Look at those amazing red eyes!

An adult Eastern Towhee.

An older adult Eastern Towhee.

A juvenile Eastern Towhee.

A younger Eastern Towhee.

Some features on certain birds are only evident when you see them up close. For instance, the bright red eye of this Red-eyed Vireo is hard to see in the wild because they usually forage quite high up in the trees. In the hand, the red eye is striking and you can also the see the small hook at the end of the vireo’s bill, a feature that distinguishes them from warblers.

A Red-eyed Vireo up close, where it is easy to see the red eye and the hooked bill.

A Red-eyed Vireo up close, where it is easy to see the red eye and the hooked bill.

Note that mist-netting is an unpredictable business and so if you visit the banding station, we can’t guarantee you will see a bird being caught and banded. Cooler mornings can produce over a dozen birds though we catch fewer birds on hot, humid days, probably because the birds are less active. Nevertheless, even on quieter days, several lucky visitors have seen some great birds, including Downy Woodpeckers and a Northern Flicker. Woodpeckers are especially interesting up close, as one can see their unusual toe arrangement with 2 toes pointing forward and 2 pointing backward, unlike the standard arrangement of 3 toes forward and 1 back. This helps woodpeckers climb up tree trunks, as does their stiffened, spiky tail feathers.

The underside of a Flicker showing its distinctive toe arrangement and spiky tail feathers.

The underside of a Flicker showing its distinctive toe arrangement and spiky tail feathers.

In addition to its scientific value, bird banding is a fantastic educational tool, allowing for both adults and children to see birds up close.  By providing this experience, the Delaware Nature Society is helping people better appreciate key bird characteristics like their feathers and differences between species in plumage color and the shape of their feet or beak.  We are also banding nestlings of a variety of species found breeding in our nest boxes, including Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, and House Wrens, but also Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees. If we are lucky some of these may turn up as adults next year! Dozens of children attending our summer camps have enjoyed checking out the nest boxes for eggs and nestlings, and some have been lucky enough to hold a baby bird!

Happy campers at Ashland Nature Center holding baby Eastern Bluebirds.

Happy campers at Ashland Nature Center holding baby Eastern Bluebirds.

Banding takes place at Ashland Nature Center on Monday and Tuesday 8am -11 am, and at Bucktoe Creek Preserve 8am – 11am, and will run through September. There is no charge to attend the banding, but for non-DNS members visiting Ashland, a trail fee applies.  We hope to see you at the banding station soon!  Songbird migration has started, and you never know what will turn up in the nets.

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Delaware Nature Society volunteers manage and monitor about 100 bird nest boxes at the Bucktoe Creek Preserve near Kennett Square, PA.  These boxes usually house lots of Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, and House Wrens, with the occasional Carolina Chickadee and Tufted Titmouse.  This year, there are a few boxes that have produced some new, exciting nests.  My wife and I check a portion of the boxes, and in one of them, we discovered a White-breasted Nuthatch nest, complete with 5 lightly brown, speckled eggs, and a nest made up of a lot of bark strips and animal hairs.  I have never seen a nuthatch nest, so it was really exciting to attract this species into a box.

Jill and her husband Jeff manage and monitor the “big boxes”.  Last year, they installed about 10 Wood Duck boxes on the property, up and down the Red Clay and Bucktoe Creeks.  Lo and behold, last weekend, they discovered the first Wood Duck nest in one of their boxes.  All of their hard work paid off, and hopefully they find more Wood Duck nests.

A wood duck nest in a nesting box at Bucktoe Creek Preserve.  They lay a LOT of eggs!  Photo by Jill Kennard.

A wood duck nest in a nesting box at Bucktoe Creek Preserve. They lay a LOT of eggs! Photo by Jill Kennard.

In another one of the “big boxes”, Jeff and Jill made another interesting discovery…an Eastern Screech-owl nest.  They had noticed the owls roosting in this box together for some time, but then discovered that they laid eggs, and as of last weekend, now have chicks!

The Eastern Screech-owl chicks are visible here.  Look for the little white blobs, one is on one bird, and another is slightly under the bird on the right.  Can you see what the owls have been eating?  I see two sparrows, which look like White-throated Sparrows, and I also see an Eastern Bluebird feather.  Photo by Jill Kennard.

The Eastern Screech-owl chicks are visible here. Look for the little white blobs.  One chick is sleeping on the owl on the right, and another chick is slightly under it. Can you see what the owls have been eating? I see two sparrows, which look like White-throated Sparrows, and I also see an Eastern Bluebird feather. Photo by Jill Kennard.

Here are the stats for the Bucktoe bird boxes last year: Eastern Bluebird – 28 nests; Tree Swallow – 25 nests; House Wren – 24 nests; Carolina Chickadee – 3 nests; Tufted Titmouse – 1 nest; Eastern Screech-owl – 1 nest.  We will see how many we get this year.  All nest data is being entered into Cornell’s NestWatch program.  You can use NestWatch too!  NestWatch is a fun database that allows you to map the nests you find, and report the nest progress, all for science.  Check out the website, and start monitoring a nest or two in your backyard!

The Delaware Nature Society also has a program in place where volunteers monitor nests on our lands, as well as other private land such as Red Clay Reservation.  If you would like to be trained to become a NestWatch volunteer for the Delaware Nature Society, please contact me at joe@delawarenaturesociety.org.

Photos and story by Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

Today, Ian Stewart, a University of Delaware Biologist visited the Bucktoe Campout camp at the Bucktoe Creek Preserve to conduct a bird banding session.  We all learned what banding is, how it is used for research on birds, and how much training goes into learning how to band birds.  We learned that banding is when you take a tiny metal ring and put it on a birds leg.  The band has a unique number that goes into a database with the US Geological Survey so that scientists can look it up if the bird is ever found again.

Ian is telling the group about his research banding Tree Swallows.

Ian is telling the group about his research banding Tree Swallows.

After Ian explained a little bit about his research on Tree Swallows, we went out to some active nest boxes on the preserve to see if we could band, measure, and learn about Tree Swallows and Bluebirds that use the boxes.

Here, we are getting to hold some baby Tree Swallows that are fully feathered and ready for banding.

Here, we are getting to hold some baby Tree Swallows that are fully feathered and ready for banding.

At the first nest box we visited, we found a nest of Tree Swallows with three fully feathered young.  They were old enough and big enough to band.  We got to hold the birds, which doesn’t hurt them, band them, weigh them, and measure their wings.  Believe it or not, they weigh more than their parents at this stage!  Their wings were only about half as long as an adult Tree Swallow though.

Cool!  A baby Tree Swallow!

Cool! A baby Tree Swallow!

After we banded the nestlings, we set up a little trap to catch one of the parents as they came back to the nest to deliver food to the young.  In less than a minute, it worked!  The adult still had the food in its bill when we examined it, which was really neat to see what the babies were eating.  We then banded it, measured its wing length, and weighed it.  After releasing it, it went back to the box to check on the family.

We caught an adult Tree Swallow that was bringing food in to the nestlings.  It caught lots of little hover flies!

We caught an adult Tree Swallow that was bringing food in to the nestlings. It caught lots of little hover flies!

After all of this banding, we visited a Bluebird nest which had four eggs.  Since they were still in the incubation phase, we did not trap the adult for banding, because they might abandon the nest.

Taking a look at some Eastern Bluebird eggs.  This is the second brood that this pair is raising.

Taking a look at some Eastern Bluebird eggs. This is the second brood that this pair is raising.

Finally, on our last box, we found a Tree Swallow nest that had tiny little young that were only a few days old…too young for banding.  We also didn’t trap the adults since their naked young would get cold quickly, so we examined the young nestlings and quickly left the area.

In another nest, we found Tree Swallows that were very young, only a few days old, and too young to be banded.

In another nest, we found Tree Swallows that were very young, only a few days old, and too young to be banded.

None of these activities hurt the birds, and now we have a record of the banded ones.  Next year, we will look to see if they come back to the area.  If someone else at a banding station finds one of them on their migration or wintering grounds, we will find out where they went.

In all, it was a great experience and a treat to learn some real science, and see these creatures up close.  Thanks Ian!

Thanks for visiting the Bucktoe Campout Classic camp Ian!  I see a few young ornithologists in the group I think.

Thanks for visiting the Bucktoe Campout Classic camp Ian! I see a few young ornithologists in the group I think.