Blackpoll Warbler: an impressive sprinter

Male Blackpoll Warbler © Kenneth Cole Schneider

“Its activity is pleasing, but its notes have no title to be called a song. They are shrill, and resemble the noise made by striking two small pebbles together, more than any other sound that I know.” – John James Audubon, Birds of America

The Blackpoll Warbler is a very common migrant in Massachusetts, and it is often located by its high-frequency song as it passes through the state. The sound is so high that many birders claim that being unable to hear the Blackpoll Warbler’s song is one of the first signs of hearing loss. From June through August, however, there are precious few places in the Commonwealth where even observers with the keenest hearing can hope to hear a Blackpoll Warbler sing. Given that we are on the extreme southern edge of this species’ breeding range, it is not surprising that breeding pairs of this subalpine specialist are few and far between in the Bay State. Mount Greylock is most likely place to see a breeding Blackpoll Warbler in Massachusetts.

Did You Know?

During migration the Blackpoll Warbler—weighing in at just 12 grams (lighter than a soda can)—flies for three straight days over the Atlantic Ocean before stopping in Colombia or Venezuela. In addition, Blackpoll Warblers that breed on the northwest coast of the U.S. first fly across the continent to join up with their eastern counterparts before flying south. This is one of the most impressive migrations of any animal.

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What is it like to participate in Bird-a-thon?

Bird-a-thon, Mass Audubon’s largest annual fundraiser, features a 24-hour team birding competition where birders and team supporters raise money to support Mass Audubon programs and sanctuaries. What is it like to be a part of Mass Audubon’s Bird-a-thon? Michael Pappone, longtime member of the Bird Conservation team and Mass Audubon board member, shares his experiences from Bird-a-thon 2016:

“My team is up by 3:30 a.m. to gather well before dawn at the Bolton Flats Wildlife Management Area in Worcester County. The mist lurks around the cat-tails and willows. The Eastern Phoebe’s ‘vree-bee’ call rings out in the near distance (check!), and then the ‘oonk-a-dunk’ of the endangered American Bittern crouching somewhere out there in the wetness signals that it was time for another (check!) and that it is going to be a great day in the field. Then suddenly a Sandhill Crane floats by. Is he mistaking the Worcester County wetlands for Nebraska? Big (check!).

Bird-a-thon is in full swing! Behind us, a Scarlet Tanager let loose with his robin-with-a-sore-throat imitation. (Check!) At this rate our palms will be smarting from all the high-fiving before sunrise. Over at the sandy end of the Flats, another endangered fellow greets us from the heights of his very own 3-foot shrub sticking out of the sandy soil: a Grasshopper Sparrow, sounding very much like a grasshopper that just touched a high-voltage wire. With about 40 check marks on our list, we obey the law of diminishing marginal returns and split for new territory.

Next stop is Wachusett Mountain, where our ascent is rewarded with not only a good number of (checks!) but amazing numbers of Ovenbirds (teacher-Teacher-TEACHER!), Scarlet Tanagers, and Black-and-White (te-tsee te-Tsee-Te-TSEE) and Black-throated Green Warblers vocally squabbling over territory. The (non-check!) bonus is the sighting of a few remaining snow patches. Really good ‘gets’ here are the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Winter Wren. The last of the Dark-eyed Juncos has favored us with a delayed trip north just so we could be the team who gets to count him. Nice.

It’s on to the Quabbin Reservoir: a totally new venue for me out in Hampshire County. The reservoir was formed by a dam built in the Depression years from 1930-1939. The public works project flooded a number of communities to make way for 420 billion gallons of water and a new 181 miles of shoreline. It’s a big hit with the birds, that’s for sure. We revisit a number of previous species – in broad daylight this time; and notch a good number of new ticks on our checklist.”

©Michael Pappone

Join the Bird Conservation team as either a Booster or an Official Birder!

2016-2017 Christmas Bird Count Summary

Ross’s Geese have been seen more often in Massachusetts in the last few years © Aaron Maizlish

The last issue of The Warbler provided a brief history of the venerable Christmas Bird Count (CBC) – a scheme established in 1900 to monitor winter bird populations during a three-week period around Christmas.  This issue offers a few Massachusetts highlights from the 2016-2017 CBC season.  In checklist order, waterfowl made a big splash this winter with rarities such as Pink-footed Goose, Greater White-fronted Goose, Ross’s Goose, and Cackling Goose variously honking things up on several counts, along with some mega-numbers like 17,629 Black Scoters on the Truro CBC, 33,054 Long-tailed Ducks at Nantucket, and a state-wide total of 2,231 Hooded Mergansers.  Several “chickens” continued a downward trend with only 13 Northern Bobwhites tallied on one count, and a state-wide total of 12 Ruffed Grouse on only 6 CBCs.  Compare these figures with the state total of 2,273 Wild Turkeys!

Vultures continued maintained a northward shift in winter numbers (possibly a climate change signal) with a total of 19 Black Vultures noted on just two counts, and 133 Turkey Vultures on 8 CBCs.  A rare-in-winter Osprey appeared in Truro, and state-wide, 219 Cooper’s Hawks maintained their seasonal dominance over the 138 recorded Sharp-shinned Hawks.  In the unobtrusive category, a Yellow Rail recorded at Nantucket was most unusual, and a total of 255 Lesser Black-backed Gulls on that same island speaks to how rapidly this Old World species is moving into North America.

A heavy fall flight of Northern Saw-whet Owls was no doubt responsible for tallies of 45 Saw-whets on the Concord CBC and 30 in Truro.  Two White-winged Doves in Boston’s Victory Gardens and a hardy Rufous Hummingbird on the Buzzards Bay CBC were unique this CBC season. Falcons reflected varying success, with the beleaguered American Kestrel state total of only 13 individuals continuing a disappointing downward trend, while cumulative totals of 37 Merlins and 34 Peregrine Falcons can only be described as optimistic.

Several bona fide rarities included an Ash-throated Flycatcher on the Mid-Cape Cod CBC, a Sedge Wren at Buzzards Bay, and a Townsend’s Solitaire at Cape Ann.  And for any readers who think that American Robins are only harbingers of spring, consider a total of 35,125 robins on the Mid-Cape CBC and the state-wide total of 53,300!

Late lingering can only explain the occurrence of an Ovenbird, a Northern Waterthrush, and a Black-throated Green Warbler at three different localities.

While this summary speaks only to some of the highlights gleaned from this season’s CBC, full details and more information will soon be available at the CBC website.

 

Audubon’s “Extra Warbler”

Male Black-throated Blue Warbler © Mark Peck

“This is a real wood warbler. It loves the woods.”Edward Howe Forbush, 1929

The Black-throated Blue Warbler has a relatively small breeding range that extends from Nova Scotia westward to Lake Superior. Some of these warblers breed in suitable habitat as far south as Georgia, but almost all “suitable habitat” south of Pennsylvania exists only in the Appalachian Mountains. Black-throated Blue Warblers reside primarily in mature hardwood forests, where they make their nests in dense understory growth, particularly where mountain laurel abounds. Predictably, this species suffered a significant decline in Massachusetts when much of the old-growth forest was cut down to make way for agriculture.

Black-throated Blue Warbler range map © Birds of North America

Trend in Massachusetts

The Black-throated Blue Warbler is increasing in MA and expanding their range eastward in the state.

Did You Know?

The male and female Black-throated Blue Warbler look so different from one another that they were originally thought to be two separate species. The female Black-throated Blue Warbler is also know as John James Audubon‘s “extra warbler” because he painted a separate plate for his Elephant Folio of the Birds of North America of what he thought was a “Pine Swamp Warbler” but was actually a female Black-throated Blue.

Female Black-throated Blue Warbler © Kenneth Cole Schneider

Bird-friendly Forestry at Elm Hill

These 17 birds were chosen to represent different forest habitats and management options in the Massachusetts Foresters for the Birds program.

Mass Audubon’s Foresters for the Birds program provides assistance for private landowners to manage their forests for bird habitat. Empowering private landowners is important because about 75% of Massachusetts’ forests are privately owned, and management on these lands will be necessary to address conservation needs on a landscape scale.

To promote the program, and to engage and educate the public, we are creating a long-term demonstration site at our Elm Hill wildlife sanctuary in Brookfield and North Brookfield. The first step: develop a 100-year forest management plan for Elm Hill. To do this we are working with a forester who was trained in our Foresters for the Birds program.

In addition to mapping different forest resources, and describing the amount and value of the standing timber, this plan also includes an assessment of the current bird habitat and recommendations for improvement. For example, the structure of the forest understory and midstory, where many birds place their nests, are described in each area of the forest.

The plan also includes strategic locations for the placement of early successional habitat. We are currently reviewing initial drafts of the plan, and working with our forester to iron out the nitty gritty details.

Once the plan is complete, we will then undergo active forest management on the property (probably next year), which will include things like removing invasive plants, and selectively removing trees to improve the composition, health, and resiliency of the forest.

We are also designing a bird monitoring study which will investigate how effective our forestry practices will be.  Because on-the-ground management will not happen until well after this year’s breeding season for birds we have the opportunity this year to characterize how birds are currently using the forest. Comparing that data to similar data collected post management will help us adapt our future efforts to maximize the benefits to our birds.

Beginning as soon as this summer, we will invite foresters, landowners, land trusts, and other conservation entities to visit the property and see how they can manage their woodlands for birds and other wildlife.

Keep checking back for more updates as we nail down our plans and begin the bird monitoring. For more information about the project, see our previous blog post.


Photo credits From top left: American Woodcock © David Larson; Black-and-white Warbler © David Larson; Black-throated Blue Warbler © John Harrison; Black-throated Green Warbler © John Harrison; Brown Thrasher © Patricia Pierce; Canada Warbler © David Larson; Chestnut-sided Warbler © David Larson; Eastern Wood-Pewee © Fyn Kynd; Eastern Towhee © John Harrison; Mourning Warbler © Gerard Dewaghe; Northern Bobwhite © Paul McCarthy; Northern Flicker © Richard Campbell; Ruffed Grouse © Richard Johnson; Veery © Mark Thorne; White-throated Sparrow © David Larson; Wood Thrush © Sheila Carroll; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker © John Harrison

Meet “Fire-throat”

Blackburnian Warbler (male) © Kevin Bolton

“When the low morning sun shines full upon its gorgeous frontlet, backed by the dark recesses of the pines, it flashes out like a burning flame as the bird turns its breast suddenly to the light.”Edward Howe Forbush, 1929

The fiery throat, face, and breast of the breeding Blackburnian Warbler set it apart from its fellows. A boreal forest warbler, most of the species’ breeding range lies in northern New England and eastern Canada. Although Blackburnian Warblers require fairly substantial areas of intact mature forest, they will tolerate some “edge” in that habitat, and have managed to keep their fires burning brightly throughout the past few centuries in Massachusetts.

Trend in Massachusetts

Increasing west of the Worcester Plateau.

Did you know?

The Blackburnian Warbler is the only North American warbler with an orange throat.

 

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A New Bird Song ID App

As most beginning—and even intermediate—birders can attest, learning to identify bird songs is a daunting, but crucial undertaking as oftentimes a bird is heard and not seen.

The folks over at Wildlife Acoustics, in collaboration with David Sibley, have created an app called SongSleuth that will open up your birding world. The app listens to the songs of birds singing around you and suggests three birds that you are likely hearing. While it is not yet springtime in Massachusetts, we’ve tested the app this week and it has correctly identified some early-singing Black-capped Chickadees and Dark-eyed Juncos.

The features don’t stop there, though. The app also includes bird ID references by David Sibley, allows you to store your bird song recordings in your own personal library, and it even shows you what the song looks like on a spectrogram.

To help users quickly become experts at using the app, Wildlife Acoustics and David have put together a detailed walk-through video and FAQs. They strongly advise that first-time users thoroughly read through the instructions and watch the video.

Fun fact: the Bobolink’s song sounds a lot like R2-D2! Photo © Knut Hansen

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Meet “Maggie”

Male Magnolia Warbler © Laura Gooch

“The Magnolia Warbler is to my mind the most strikingly beautiful warbler that makes its home in New England. The Blackburnian with its orange front may be preferred by many, but that bright front is its chief glory, while the Magnolia Warbler’s beauties are distributed to every part of its graceful little form.”Edward Howe Forbush, 1929

A favorite of early 20th century master birder, Edward Howe Forbush, the striking and distinctive Magnolia Warbler (sometimes called “Maggie” by birders) is an iconic breeding species of young coniferous woods. Indeed, this species breeds almost exclusively in boreal conifer forests dominated by spruce, fir, hemlock, and cedar. This might prompt one to wonder why the bird is named for a distinctively southern plant family. Alexander Wilson, the man responsible for many common names of North American birds, is the person behind this name. Magnolia Warbler is so called because this conifer-loving species was christened after Wilson first collected a migrant individual in a magnolia tree in Mississippi in 1810.

Trend in Massachusetts

According to our second Breeding Bird Atlas, Magnolia Warbler has made steady gains in the central/west part of the state.

Did you know?

Magnolia Warblers often spend their winters on shade coffee farms. Shade coffee farms are important habitat for many birds—a discovery which spurred the creation of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Bird Friendly certification. The next time you buy coffee, look for “Bird Friendly®” on the package. One popular brand is Birds & Beans, which can be found at some Whole Foods Market locations, our Mass Audubon shop, and a few other places. Search for a retailer who carries it near you here. We’ll be serving Birds & Beans coffee at the Birders Meeting.

Attend our Birders Meeting on March 19 to learn more about warblers.

Male Magnolia Warbler singing © Victor Fazio

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Have You Seen a Pine Warbler?

Pine Warbler © Andy Morffew

“The Pine Warbler is the gentle, modest minstrel of the pines…Its sweet monotonous song harmonizes well with the sighing of the summer wind through the branches, while shimmering heat-waves rise from the sandy soil.”Edward Howe Forbush, 1929

As its name suggests, the Pine Warbler typically shuns deciduous woods or high-altitude stands of spruce and fir. Rather, it goes where the pines are, and pre-Colombian Massachusetts certainly had plenty of pines. Tall White Pines, intermixed with resinous Red Pines, covered large portions of the state. Gnarled but venerable Pitch Pines dominated the sandy forests of Cape Cod and the Islands. Of course, after the arrival of colonists, homes and farms sprang up as the trees went down. Even as acres upon acres of pine forest disappeared across the state, Pine Warblers persisted for many years on Cape Cod.

Trend in Massachusetts

The Pine Warbler has had extraordinary success in Massachusetts since our first Breeding Bird Atlas in the late 1970s. Pine Warblers persisted on the Cape and significantly increased in almost all of the rest of the state. The Breeding Bird Survey also indicates an increasing population of this short-distance migrant.

Pine Warbler change in presence between Breeding Bird Atlas 1 and Atlas 2.

Did You Know?

Pine Warblers are one of two warbler species that regularly stick around in Massachusetts in the winter. They can often be seen at suet feeders, so keep an eye out!

Attend our Birders Meeting on March 19 to learn more about warblers.

Please consider supporting our bird conservation work by making a donation today. Thank you!

Did You Know? The Ovenbird is a Warbler!

Ovenbird ©John Harrison

 “Among them all, the most common and conspicuous was the Oven-bird. Its staccato song with its crescendo ending rang through the woods, seemingly the loudest of them all, and when I saw the pretty bird walking with its alert air along a log, putting its little head forward at each dainty step in a manner of a diminutive chicken, I was utterly captivated.”Edward Howe Forbush, 1929

Though it looks and sometimes acts like a spotted thrush, the Ovenbird is a warbler. Its loud and oft-repeated call is a familiar backdrop in the spring woods, and, where many males all sing in close proximity, the din can be impressive. Like other birds of mature mixed forest, Ovenbirds were likely plentiful in the time before European ships landed on the shores of the “New World.”

As the forests began to fall before the fire and axes of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the majority of Ovenbirds retreated to the remaining forests of the western part of the state until the widespread agricultural period was over. As large areas of contiguous mature forest have gradually returned, Ovenbirds have been quick to recolonize them.

Habitat

Ovenbirds build their oven-shaped nests in mature forests.

Ovenbird nest

Trend in Massachusetts

Like the Prairie Warbler we posted about last week, the Ovenbird is what we refer to as a “whispering bird”, because it’s breeding footprint in Massachusetts (according to our Breeding Bird Atlas 2) is stable or increasing, but the Breeding Bird Survey is showing significant declines for the species in the state.

Fun Fact

Ovenbirds will often sing together with their neighbors, though they do not sing as a chorus. One male will sing, followed shortly thereafter by another male without overlap between the two. They may repeat their successive songs up to 40 times.

Attend our Birders Meeting on March 19 to learn more about warblers.

Please consider supporting our bird conservation work by making a donation today. Thank you!