Rusty Blackbird Blitz

All posts tagged Rusty Blackbird Blitz

By Sally O’Byrne, Teacher Naturalist

As part of the Rusty Blackbird Blitz which is an international effort to track down Rusty Blackbirds in their spring migration, I have been searching Banning Park., off of Maryland Ave in Wilmington.   Banning, not usually thought of as a nature hotspothas proven to be a popular spot for the Rusties’, most likely one of the best in the state. Read more about the Blitz here in a previous post to this blog.

Banning Park is an urban park in Wilmington with some nice natural habitat.

Banning Park is an urban park in Wilmington with some nice natural habitat.

Much of Banning Park is playing fields and picnic grounds, but there are also two ponds and a mature deciduous woodland.  The larger pond is bordered by the Amtrack RR line on one side and deciduous woodlands on two sides.  The last sideis a fishermans parking lot.  Along the back end of the pond, there is a wooded wetland, created by a stream that meanders through the woodland.

Here, a male Rusty Blackbird forages along a wet woodland, their favorite habitat on their wintering and breeding grounds.

Here, a male Rusty Blackbird forages along a wet woodland, their favorite habitat on their wintering and breeding grounds.  Photo courtesy of the Rusty Blackbird Working Group.

In the past couple of years, a family of beaver have set up lodging, with a major dam now flooding areas that were just boggy, and many of trees chewed off or showing chew marks – can you find the beaver lodge in the photo?

Here is some habitat favored by Rusty Blackbirds...wooded wetlands with muddy areas and wet leaves.

Here is some habitat favored by Rusty Blackbirds…wooded wetlands with muddy areas and wet leaves.

I first noticed Rusty Blackbirds here one or two years ago, so knew that this was a place to check-out during the Blitz.  On every visit I have made here since the March 7th, I have had at least 10 Rusty Blackbirds.  On April 2, I had a flock of 35 fly up into a tree where I could easily count them.  When I hike into the wet areas and sit quietly,  the Rusty Blackbirds fly in and start to flip leaves as they walk along the edges of the water.

Rusty Blackbirds feed at the edge of the water at Banning Park.

Rusty Blackbirds feed at the edge of the water at Banning Park.

Even though the wet boggy areas seem to be their preferred habitat, I have also seen them sitting in the tops of trees around the pond, and one day, I had a large group settle into the grass between the fishermen and the Amtrak line.  The many park visitors have no idea that they are being visited by such a rare and sought after group of birds!

Small urban oases are of great value for wildlife, including migratory birds that need these places as a stopover and feeding ground.

Small urban oases are of great value for wildlife, including migratory birds that need these places as a stopover and feeding ground.

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

On Thursday, March 27, 9am to 3pm, I will be conducting a citizen science field trip to seek Rusty Blackbirds in New Castle County, participating in an effort called the Rusty Blackbird Blitz.  This field trip is free for members of the Delaware Nature Society, and $15 for non-members.  Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) is a scarce, declining, and poorly known blackbird species that prefers to live and feed in swamps, bogs, beaver ponds, and other wooded wetlands.  Unfortunately, over the last 40 years, this species is thought to have declined 85-95% across its range probably due to wetland habitat loss and disturbance.  However, the causes of this steep decline are largely unknown, and the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group is leading the effort to learn more.  Delaware Nature Society, with the help of University of Delaware PhD student Desiree Narango, is coordinating the Rusty Blackbird Blitz effort locally.  Our field trip is part of this project to identify spring migration stopover sites that might be important to their survival.

Female Rusty Blackbirds are fairly distinctive, with a broad eyestripe, pale eye, and rusty feather edges.

Female Rusty Blackbirds are fairly distinctive, with a broad eyestripe, pale eye, and rusty feather edges.

Why go out and look for Rusty Blackbirds now?  In Delaware, Rusty Blackbirds are migrating through the state from their wintering grounds further south.  Rusty Blackbirds are on their way to the wild boreal forests of Canada and Alaska to nest in boggy wetland areas.  The migration period in Delaware is roughly early March through mid-April.  Rusty Blackbirds stop and feed along their migration route and can be found in wooded wetlands flipping over wet leaves, and poking along water edges for food.  On our field trip, we will visit a variety of such wetlands looking for these birds, which travel in small groups of less than 100.  We will also be listening for their spring song, which sounds like a creaky, rusty door hinge.

Here, a male Rusty Blackbird forages along a wet woodland, their favorite habitat on their wintering and breeding grounds.

Here, a male Rusty Blackbird forages along a wet woodland, their favorite habitat on their wintering and breeding grounds.

Since March 1, Delaware birders have been looking for Rusty Blackbirds, and contributing their sightings to the Blitz project by entering them into eBird.  Anyone can participate, and all you need is a free eBird account.  When entering your sightings, choose Rusty Blackbird Blitz when indicating the type of birding you were doing.  Thirty reports of Rusty Blackbirds have been entered into the system through today, and the biggest flock reported so far was 70 at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge on March 22.  70 is a large number to see these days.  In the past, their migratory flocks were referred to as “spectacular, noisy, and ubiquitous”*.  This is certainly not the case today.

By the time breeding season rolls around for Rusty Blackbirds, they lose the rusty edges to their feathers and appear black with a pale eye.  Rusty Blackbirds are very easily confused with the much more common Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, and Brown-headed Cowbird.

By the time breeding season rolls around for Rusty Blackbirds, they lose the rusty edges to their feathers and appear black with a pale eye. Rusty Blackbirds are very easily confused with the much more common Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, and Brown-headed Cowbird.

Large-scale, international citizen science data collection projects like the Rusty Blackbird Blitz are helping scientists collect the data they need to learn more about declining species.  The Delaware Nature Society is proud be a part of such an effort which could lead to more effective conservation of this species and the habitats it requires.  What will we learn about their spring migration stopover sites in Delaware?  Join our field trip on Thursday to help find out, and if you would like a chance to see Rusty Blackbirds.  Register by visiting www.delawarenaturesociety.org or by calling (302) 239-2334.  If you can’t g0 on the trip, keep you eyes out for these interesting blackbirds, and listen for their creaky, rusty-door-hinge sound.  If you find some, get photos and note your location and the date.  If you do not use eBird, but find these birds, you can report them to me by emailing joe AT delawarenaturesociety.org.

*(Avery, Michael L. 2013. Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu.)

Photos courtesy of the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group.