How birds sing such intricate songs

By Jeff Ritterson, Bird Conservation Fellow

The colorful bursts of flowers and the familiar smell of thawing soils that we all associate with spring is always accompanied by the wonderful sound of bird song.  There is nothing quite like waking early enough to experience the dawn chorus, where male birds, representing a slew of different species, are persistently singing to secure a breeding territory and attract a mate for the season.

Wood Thrush © Sheila Carroll

The beauty and complexity of these songs is attributable to a unique organ that most birds possess, called a syrinx.  Located where the trachea – commonly known as the windpipe – splits into the bronchial tubes before entering the lungs, the syrinx has two symmetric halves, each capable of producing sound independently.  This enables songsters to make seamless changes in pitch, articulate a complex burst of short notes, and even sing two tones at once.

Some of our most impressive singers are the thrushes.  This family (Turdidae) includes species such as the American Robin and Eastern Bluebird, but perhaps the most impressive singers are those which inhabit deep forests.  Some of these songs, such as the Wood Thrush’s and Veery’s, are featured on the following website, where you to listen at regular speed as well as slowed down:

http://www.wildmusic.org/animals/thrush

When you slow the songs down you can really hear the intricacies.  Put some headphones on to really have a close listen, and maybe you will have a fuller appreciation the next time you hear a bird singing.

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

Standing Together for Migratory Birds

By Jeff Ritterson, Bird Conservation Fellow

On Tuesday, May 9th, I was in Washington D.C. at Standing Together for Migratory Birds—a legislative briefing on federal migratory bird conservation programs.  With recent political changes in Washington, it may seem that support for these programs, and the crucial funding they provide, is on the chopping block.  But that’s not necessarily the case, and here’s why.

As conservation biologists, we understand that humans are inextricable from natural world, and that healthy and functioning ecosystems are inherently good for us.  However, we also understand that money talks, and this was a theme of the legislative briefing.  In remarks given by Senator Whitehouse (Dem-RI), he stated that, more often than not, humans come first on Capitol Hill, and every last issue gets monetized.

With that in mind, the American Birding Association presented on the economics of migratory birds and wildlife watching.  For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that in 2011 Americans spent about $15 billion on birdwatching trips and an additional $26 billion in related gear.  A presentation by Ducks Unlimited also showed that significant money is spent hunting waterfowl, and 98 cents of every dollar from federal duck stamps sales goes to the acquisition of habitat—more than 6 million acres since its inception in 1934.

Of course, these activities depend on the conservation of our migratory bird species, and that’s where federal programs come in.  For example, since 2002 the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act has provided about $60 million to fund over 500 migratory bird conservation projects.  Also, the Farm Bill funds conservation programs that successfully help agricultural producers and migratory birds.  For example, thanks to these programs, Whooping Cranes are now nesting in Louisiana farmland – the first state nest in 75 years.

However, it’s not just a federal handout.  Many programs require additional contributions—as much as 3 dollars for every 1 federal dollar provided.  This way programs stimulate conservation activity and non-federal support from sources such as private foundations and donors.

With such a sound economics, federal migratory bird conservation programs can receive support from both sides of the political aisle.  That said, they are periodically reviewed, and it is important to tell your senators and congressional representative that you support full funding of bird conservation programs.

 

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

Old Baldy Gets a Haircut

By Tom Lautzenheiser, Central/Western Regional Scientist

Mass Audubon’s Old Baldy Wildlife Sanctuary in Otis offers visitors with a rare view in south Berkshire County: a near 360-degree panoramic view from the summit of its eponymous hill. The landscape below is nearly entirely forested, with few interruptions. The clearing at the summit itself was expanded around 2000, when a previous landowner sought to subdivide the property, and at the same time the forest growing on Old Baldy’s sides was heavily logged. The resulting overlook is a gem in the Berkshires.

The forest harvesting, while completed for economic return, resulted in a conservation benefit because it created much needed habitat for young-forest associated wildlife species—many of whom are experiencing steep long-term population declines throughout the region due largely to habitat loss. In the years following the harvest young-forest species like Chestnut-sided Warbler, Indigo Bunting, White-throated Sparrow, and Eastern Towhee, thrived in the thicket.

Female Eastern Towhee © Susan Wellington

However, in recent years the canopy has been closing as the trees grow, and this crucial habitat has been disappearing.

With the successional clock ticking, Mass Audubon sought and was awarded a Habitat Management Grant from the state Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, which funded the maintenance and expansion of the clearing at Old Baldy in the early spring of 2017.

Old Baldy following the 2017 clearing of trees to create habitat

The loggers did their work well, though the transition appears shocking, with stumps and downed tops strewn as after a storm, and the remnant trees seeming thin and lonely over the slash. Importantly, however, increased sunlight on the ground will stimulate a flush of sprouting, and within a growing season or two the cleared area should be lush with brambles and tree sprouts, again forming the dense cover favored by many species of conservation concern. Within a few years the site will again be prime habitat supporting populations of young-forest birds. Many other wildlife species, including white-tailed deer and black bear, will also find food and shelter in the cleared area.

Until the dense regrowth sprouts up, visitors may notice large brush piles scattered throughout the site. These brush piles are supplemental habitat for New England cottontail, our native rabbit species that is of critical conservation concern.

Mass Audubon’s decision to maintain and expand a forest clearing at Old Baldy was not made lightly, but was made in recognition that without concerted effort, populations of dozens of wildlife species reliant on young-forest habitat will continue to dwindle in the state. Just as the views from the summit of Old Baldy were beginning to be obscured by maturing trees, habitat quality for young-forest species was also declining, and active intervention was necessary to secure the area’s value for these species.

It was time for Old Baldy to get a haircut. And like a haircut, the trees at Old Baldy will grow back, without substantially affecting the land underneath.

 

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

The Bobolink Project: 2017 season update

 

Male Bobolink © Allan Strong

The Bobolinks are arriving in New England and we’re finalizing the contracts with our participating Bobolink Project farmers. Thanks to the generosity of our Bobolink Project donors, we can protect over 630 acres of farmland this year! In return for some compensation, the Bobolink Project farmers will delay mowing on their hay fields until the young grassland birds have had time to fledge.

As in past years, we had more acres submitted into the project than we could cover with the available pool of donations. This year, we received 40 applications from farmers in Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and New York—but our donation pool, as of April 1st (our deadline for donations), could cover only 17 of the farmers’ fields. This may sound disappointing, but we are able to cover 20% more acres this year at a lower per acre price of $60 (vs. $75 last year).

We are glad that the project is continuing to grow and look forward to welcoming grassland birds to fields enrolled in the program this summer and sharing our results with you. Keep up to date with The Bobolink Project by signing up to the mail-list or follow us on Facebook.

The Bobolink Project donations are accepted all year. The 2018 donation pool is already growing: since April 1st we have received over $8,000 in donations that will be saved for next year. Donate now to help us protect more acres and birds next year.

 

Tree cavities: home to many creatures

When we think about a bird’s nest, we usually conjure up the image of a cup-shaped tangle of twigs and dried grass, with perhaps some moss or strips of bark, cleverly placed in a bush or the limb of a tree.  Maybe that’s because these are the most visible types of nests, whose remnants are easily seen when the leaves drop each fall.  Nests of other birds a quite difficult to see, even in plain sight.  For example, the Piping Plover creates a just slight depression in the sand, and the Eastern Whip-poor-will nests directly on the forest floor, each with highly camouflaged eggs.

Yet another type of nest are those placed in the cavity of a tree.  Many common bird species are actually cavity nesters, including nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, bluebirds, woodpeckers and some owls.  Cavity nests provide protection from predators, shelter from weather events, and can be chosen with respect to the regional climate.  For example, in northern latitudes woodpeckers are known to orient their cavities south towards the sun, so that their young will stay nice and toasty in the nest.

Pileated Woodpecker family; adult male on left, female on right. © Kim Nagy

Woodpeckers are particularly important in the world of cavity nesters.  While cavities can occur naturally in trees, most species are poorly suited to excavate their own cavities, and often rely on holes created by woodpeckers.

Cavities usually begin with a fungal infection, which creates a soft inner wood that is easy to excavate.  This condition is most common in older dying trees, which eventually become dead standing trees (called snags) and continue to be a good resource for cavity nesters.  Unfortunately, dying trees and snags present inefficiencies to timber production, and a history of land clearing and forestry practices have limited snag numbers.  Meanwhile, populations of woodpeckers and other cavity nesters can suffer if there are too few cavity trees available.

The good news is that forestry can also help to increase the number of cavity trees.  For example, the maintenance of large dying trees and snags is promoted by Mass Audubon’s Foresters for the Birds program.  This program, a partnership between Mass Audubon, MassWoodlands Institute, and the Mass Department of Conservation and Recreation, provides assistance to landowners who wish to manage their woods for bird habitat with sustainable forestry practices.

Empowering private landowners is critical because they own the majority (75%) of forests in Massachusetts.

— Jeff Ritterson, Forest Bird Conservation Fellow, Mass Audubon

Northern Flicker (yellow-shafted) adult female with young in cavity nest © Cynthia Rand

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

Eastern Meadowlark Citizen Science Project May 15–June 15

Eastern Meadowlark © Phil Brown

Calling all birders and bird enthusiasts!

We have launched a multi-year citizen science project to study Eastern Meadowlarks. The project aims to collect presence-absence data for Eastern Meadowlarks at randomly selected sites throughout Massachusetts from May 15 to June 15, 2017. Eastern Meadowlarks are in serious decline, both in Massachusetts and elsewhere in North America, and in order to better help this species we need to know more about their status in Massachusetts. The data collected through this project will provide valuable information about this species’ current distribution in the Commonwealth, and will form the basis for a better assessment of meadowlark habitat requirements and future conservation needs.

To get the information we need it is critical that we get help from citizen scientists. There are a lot of potential sites where Eastern Meadowlarks could be nesting, but there are only a few of us! The results of this work will help us develop models for use in evaluating potential sites that have not been visited.

Project data can be easily entered through the Anecdata website on a computer or in the field on a mobile smartphone device. The surveys required are simple and quick (10 minutes!) to do. We’ve provided our citizen scientist volunteers with “hotspots” where we specifically need a volunteer to do a meadowlark survey on three separate dates (with preferably at least 3 days in between each date) during the period of May 15 and June 15. Many of these hotspots will likely not have Eastern Meadowlarks, but knowing where Eastern Meadowlarks are not is just as valuable for scientific analysis as knowing where Eastern Meadowlarks are.

More information about how to get involved is available on the project website.

Not familiar with Eastern Meadowlarks? Check out our quick guide and listen to their song.

Questions? Contact us at birdconservation@massaudubon.org.

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.

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

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