Bucktoe Creek Preserve

All posts tagged Bucktoe Creek Preserve

By Ian Stewart, Ornithologist

Some of the coolest birds we have been catching at the banding stations at Ashland Nature Center and Bucktoe Creek Preserve are the ‘tree-dwellers’: the woodpeckers and nuthatches. These birds aren’t always easy to see during the summertime as they spend most of their day deep in the forest, hugging trunks or branches. However, once you learn to recognize the high-pitched ‘peenk’ of the Downy Woodpecker and the nasal ‘honk-honk-honk’ of the White-breasted Nuthatch you soon realize that both of these birds are quite common year-round.

We have caught and banded 11 Downy Woodpeckers since June and they are a treat to handle. Their bill is thin but strong and they have distinctive tufts of stiff bristles over their nostrils which probably stop chips of wood flying up their nose when they are hammering on trees!

Like several woodpeckers, you can tell what sex adult Downies are by checking out how many red feathers they have on their head – males have a red square at the back of their head but females do not. In most birds you cannot tell what sex juvenile birds are but in Downy Woodpeckers you can – the males have a spotted red cap but the females have a spotted white cap. Try to see if you can spot this next time you are out birdwatching!

Woodpecker collage

In this collage, the Downy Woodpecker in the main image is an adult male. In the lower left corner is a juvenile male, low center is an adult female, and the lower right is a juvenile female.

One morning at Ashland a group of lucky visitors were present when a Downy Woodpecker was captured in the same net as a Hairy Woodpecker! The Hairy Woodpecker is a larger version of the Downy but is much less commonly seen or heard, and the two can easily be confused as they look very similar. If you happen to be holding them both however, the difference is obvious – the Hairy is a bulky, powerful bird that is over twice the size of the dainty Downy.

A Hairy Woodpecker is above, and a Downy Woodpecker is below. Notice the beak of the Hairy...it is about as long as the head is wide. On the Downy, the beak is shorter than the head is wide.

A Hairy Woodpecker is above, and a Downy Woodpecker is below. Notice the beak of the Hairy…it is about as long as the head is wide. On the Downy, the beak is shorter than the head is wide.

We have caught 7 White-breasted Nuthatches so far and one of the first things you notice about them is their long thin, uptilted bill, which they use to pry up pieces of bark to get at the juicy insects beneath. Nuthatches can also be sexed according to their crown color, with males having a black crown and females having a paler, gray crown.

A male White-breasted Nuthatch. The black crown and uptilted bill is easy to see.

A male White-breasted Nuthatch. The black crown and uptilted bill is easy to see.

Even though nuthatches are striking birds at any distance they are even more stunning up close, with a sublime mix of black, white and blue-gray feathers and a distinctive patch of pale brown feathers underneath their tail. Interestingly, even though nuthatches spend a lot of their time climbing up tree trunks in the same way as woodpeckers, their toes are arranged like those of most birds, with three toes forward and one back (although the back toe has a long claw, as seen in the photo below). Unlike woodpeckers however, nuthatches will also climb down trunks and branches, and maybe they need three forward-pointing toes to brace themselves on these downward trips?

Note the underside of the White-breasted Nuthatch, and the very long claw on the hind toe.

Note the underside of the White-breasted Nuthatch, and the very long claw on the hind toe.

If you want to see either of these amazing birds, please visit one of our banding stations and you may get lucky. Alternatively, both of them can easily be attracted to bird feeders filled with black oil sunflower seed, especially during the wintertime.

Ian Stewart will be conducting a Bird Banding Demonstration on Saturday, October 10 as part of our programming at the Big Sit.  The Big Sit is an international competition to find as many species of birds from one location, a 17-foot-diameter circle, during the day this Saturday.  The Big Sit will be held at the Ashland Nature Center Hawk Watch, and we will also be offering nature walks at 10am and 2pm, a 1pm lecture on the Raptors of Fall Migration, and food to keep you going!

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.

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.

 

Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

The subject line in an email I received this week read “Wood Duck Box Update…OH MY GOODNESS!”

Jill Kennard emailed me to report that she and her husband Jeff went out to put up predator guards on several Wood Duck boxes they volunteered to build, install, and monitor at the Bucktoe Creek Preserve.  While checking the contents of the boxes, they made an exciting discovery…Eastern Screech-owls!

Upon inspecting Wood Duck boxes at Bucktoe Creek Preserve, Jeff and Jill Kennard discovered roosting Eastern Screech-owls in two of the boxes, and got this photo.

Upon inspecting Wood Duck boxes at Bucktoe Creek Preserve, Jeff and Jill Kennard discovered two roosting Eastern Screech-owls, and got this photo.

In the photo above, the owl looks dead.  It isn’t, but it is trying to act that way.  When surprised during the daytime, they freeze up and try to pretend like they are not there, only flying away if they absolutely have to.  Also, what looks like poop (or more scientifically scat), is actually a pellet of indigestible fur and bones that the owl coughs up.  Yummy!  From the looks of it, this owl has used the box for a while as a day-time roost.

Here is a photo of the other Eastern Screech-owl that Jeff and Jill Kennard found.

Here is a photo of the other Eastern Screech-owl that Jeff and Jill Kennard found.

Notice that there are fewer pellets in this box.  Perhaps this owl only uses this box for a nap once in a while, or has recently started using it.  Normally, these little owls roost in a hole in a tree, but will also spend the day sleeping in a very dark, protected spot such as an impenetrable conifer tree.

How can you see these owls yourself?  First, I recommend that you install a box for them in your yard.  If you are the handy type, you can search for plans to build such a box on-line.  If you would rather purchase one, Screech-owl boxes sell for $49 at the Wild Birds Unlimited store in Hockessin, DE.  Of course, if you are a Delaware Nature Society member, you will get 10% off.  As long as you don’t let squirrels take over the box, you might get Screech-owls to roost and peer out occasionally.  Also, sometimes the owls set up shop for the summer and raise a family.

If you install a box in your yard, make sure you can see the entrance hole, as Screech-owls frequently take a look around during the daytime, like this one at my house.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani

If you install a box in your yard, make sure you can see the entrance hole, as Screech-owls frequently take a look around during the daytime, like this one at my house. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Sometimes Eastern Screech-owls nest in bird boxes.  These three chicks were raised in a box at the Delaware Nature Society's Coverdale Farm Preserve.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Sometimes Eastern Screech-owls nest in bird boxes. These three chicks were raised in a box at the Delaware Nature Society’s Coverdale Farm Preserve. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Another way to see these owls is to go on a guided program to look for them.  Delaware Nature Society is offering two of these soon.  On Sunday, January 27th at 4:30 p.m. at the Bucktoe Creek Preserve, we are offering a free Bird and Owl walk for Families.  Maybe you will see one of the owls in the photos above.  Hot chocolate and snacks will be provided too!  Call (302) 239-2334 if you are attending.

For adults and teens, register for the Owls and Other Winter Raptors trip, Sunday, February 10th, 8am to 7pm led by Jim White, DNS Associate Director of Land and Biodiversity.  This trip meets at Ashland Nature Center, and you travel around to find as many species of owls as you can in a day.  On most of these trips you get to see Great Horned Owl, Eastern Screech-owl, Barred Owl, Barn Owl, and Short-eared Owl.  Sometimes if you are lucky, Long-eared and Northern Saw-whet Owls are found.  Once in a while, Snowy Owls are found, but there aren’t any in the area so far this winter.

I thank Delaware Nature Society members and volunteers Jill and Jeff Kennard for volunteering to design, build, install, maintain, and monitor Wood Duck boxes, or should we say, Screech-owl boxes, at the Bucktoe Creek Preserve.