Evening Grosbeaks Used To Be Common In MA. This year, They’re Back.

Just as ornithologists predicted, 2018 is shaping up to be a banner winter for a number of nomadic finches in the Northeast, especially Evening Grosbeaks. Having steadily declined as winter visitors since the 1970s, these predictably unpredictable birds are a welcome sight this year.

Evening Grosbeak (Creative Commons)

Irruption Years: Boom And Bust

Evening Grosbeaks, like several species of “winter finch”, rely on conifer seeds and berries whose yield in the wild (or “crop”) varies intensely from year to year. When cone and berry crops in certain areas of the boreal forest are strong, winter finches stay close to their breeding areas year-round. When cone and berry crops fail, winter finches become nomadic, sometimes moving hundreds of miles to the south and to lower elevations.

Even within the season, these birds move around a ton. After an historic number of Evening Grosbeak sightings this mid-November, things seem to have quieted down a bit. EBird records suggest that as many birds may have moved on from or even “overshot” Massachusetts and landed deeper into the mid-Atlantic.  This is unlikely to last though—new pulses of irruptive species will continue into the winter and there is still plenty of finch forage left in the trees.

Shifting Distributions

Misconceptions abound regarding Evening Grosbeaks’ status in Massachusetts, in part because this species’ distribution is in almost constant flux.

The last Breeding Bird Atlas showed these grosbeaks breeding in small but growing numbers in the western highlands of Massachusetts, despite a precipitous decline in winter observations statewide. Climate change is shifting the general range of this species northwards, and the prognosis for breeding grosbeaks in Massachusetts–which rely on climate-sensitive and declining conifer species– is grim. Indeed, eBird data suggest they may have already declined since the last atlas.

Birders who were around in the 1960s and 70s often fondly remember the times when Evening Grosbeaks were abundant every couple of winters. It’s a popular misconception that this species was naturally abundant in Massachusetts, and that climate change alone is responsible for their shifting status.

In fact, breeding Evening Grosbeaks were historically restricted to northwestern North America. Their population slowly advanced south and east during the latter half of the 19th century until a significant irruption brought them into the northeast in 1890. The 1890 irruption carried them as far east as Revere Beach, and in subsequent winters, the birds returned in larger and larger numbers. Nearly 14,000 Evening Grosbeaks were recorded in the 1972 Christmas Bird Count, but in the 1990s and 2000s, their winter range shifted away from Massachusetts dramatically– despite a modest increase in local breeders.

This Year’s Conditions

Winter finch irruptions do not only reflect a snapshot of food availability in the current year, but are affected by longer-term trends. For example, 2017 was an excellent year for cone crops in Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, leading to increased reproductive success for seed-eating birds. This year, winter finch numbers are high as a result– in a year when food happens to be scarce.

This makes it a particularly good year to put out black-oil sunflower seeds, Evening Grosbeaks’ birdseed-of-choice. While many Evening Grosbeaks have been reported eating crabapples and ornamental tree fruits this winter, they’ve also been showing up in strong numbers at feeders.

Check out Your Great Outdoors for more information on this year’s winter finch irruption! 

Bald Eagle via USFWS

Rat Poison Is Killing Birds Of Prey, And People Are Finally Paying Attention

Note: this post contains an image of a dead Bald Eagle that some readers may find graphic.

Most rat poisons kill more than rats—they also pose a fatal threat to birds of prey. This topic recently made the news after a Bald Eagle on Cape Cod died of what appears to be rodenticide poisoning. The tragic story was picked up by several newspapers, and went locally viral on facebook.

This issue should not only get attention when a culturally iconic species like a Bald Eagle dies. Nearly every raptor species is vulnerable to rodenticide poisoning, from Eastern Screech-Owls to Red-tailed Hawks.

In fact, rodenticide poisoning is shockingly widespread. In one study, 86% of all raptors at a Massachusetts wildlife hospital tested positive for exposure to rat poison.

Second-generation rodenticides: the worst of a bad bunch

The EPA recently banned a class of rat poisons called second-generation anticoagulants from the consumer market, but licensed exterminators are still allowed to deploy them. The ban came about because of the 10,000 children annually admitted to emergency rooms for rat poison exposure. The ban certainly helps limit accidental ingestion by humans, but unfortunately doesn’t do much to prevent birds from eating poisoned rodents.

Second-generation anticoagulants don’t kill rodents immediately. While these rodenticides can kill rats with a single dose (which is why many consumers prefer them), poisoned rats can still live for a few days and continue eating poisoned bait. This delay means that rats can ingest enough poison to kill a much larger animal by the time they finally succumb. While any rodenticide can kill a raptor, second-generation anticoagulants are the most dangerous.

The aforementioned Bald Eagle on Cape Cod likely fell victim to this class of rodenticide. While vets at the Cape Wildlife Center are still waiting for test results to come back, the eagle was bleeding heavily, and its blood failed to form scabs or clots—a nearly sure sign of anticoagulant poisoning.

This Bald Eagle was admitted to Cape Wildlife Center, but sadly didn’t make it. Photo courtesy of Cape Wildlife Center.

Rats are a human-made problem

Native to Eurasia, brown rats have colonized much of the globe and become the most common urban rodent worldwide. These rats were among the first human-assisted invasive species, living aboard ships and rapidly spreading to other continents as early as the 15th century, much to the detriment of countless sensitive ecosystems. Rats and other rodents especially wreak havoc on species found only on small islands, and have driven several seabird species to extinction.

Rat populations are on the rise, and towns are struggling to keep up (the town of Belmont even had to close a city park over a recent rat infestation). Rodent control is sometimes critical to the health of a city or an ecosystem—so what are some poison-free ways to prevent or control rodent problems?

(Don’t) pick your poison

  • Prevention is the best cure for rodent problems. Rodent infestations only occur when there’s an easy source of food. Make sure your trash cans are scavenger-proof, cover vegetable gardens with net or wire, attach tree guards to the trunks of fruit trees.
  • Limit access to shelter and hiding places that appeal to rodents. Seal up holes in your attic, basement, crawl spaces, and shed, and remove tree limbs within three feet of your roof.
  • Consider alternatives to poison. The Tufts Wildlife Clininc points out, “People often believe poisons are more humane than snap traps, but an animal bleeding to death is neither quick nor especially humane.”
  • If a rodent problem has gotten out of hand and you choose to use an exterminator, try to pick one that practices “integrated pest management”— a multi-pronged approach that avoids chemical control methods.
  • Finally, call your town or city hall and ask how the local government addresses rodent control. Suggest eliminating rat poison if it hasn’t been done already!

 

Licorice In The Sky: A seasonal gathering of crows

Crows © Craig Gibson

An annual late autumn phenomenon in New England is the spectacular crepuscular gathering of American Crows into large nocturnal communal roosts. Felt by many to be large, raucous, and often pesky, crows in fact are intelligent, crafty, and creative survivors in a world heavily populated with humanity.  A crow aficionado ever since kidnapping a baby American Crow from a nest for a pet in my boyhood (don’t try that at home), I have been fascinated by crows.  Their myriad vocalizations, their ability to count at least to three, to eat practically anything, and to survive seemingly everywhere are collectively worthy attributes. But to fully appreciate the magnificence of crows in all their glory is to observe them at a winter roost.

To dispel the erroneous perception that American Crows are sedentary residents in Massachusetts throughout the year is to visit any of the leading autumn hawk watching sites in Massachusetts from late September to early November. As autumn’s foliage is acquiring its brilliance and then falling, small groups of crows daily stream southward from northern New England and eastern Canada, some following ridge lines and valleys, others the course of major river ways or the seacoast. As fall transitions to winter these northern migrants join more southerly resident crows every evening to form what are often aggregations of many thousands of individuals.  Wherever these nightly roosts happen to be, the late afternoon and nightly behavior of the crows within the roosts is a matter of considerable interest to the careful and dedicated watcher.  And there are lots of unanswered questions surrounding these winter roosts.

For example one might assume that every evening crows from far and wide simply fly directly to a communal roost site for the night, or that in the morning the crows utilizing a roost might routinely head for the same daytime foraging areas.  Not only are these assumptions untrue, they also offer insight into the mysteries of crow behavior.  Normally relatively solitary during the mid-spring nesting season, by mid-summer crows become increasingly gregarious, and by winter they have gathered into large roosts that may contain many thousands of individuals from great distances away.

© Craig Gibson

The behavior of crows near these evening roosts is particularly curious, if not mercurial.  For instance, from night to night crows approaching a roost will regularly make several pre-roosting stops (called staging areas), sometimes more than a mile from the final roost site.  These short stops are generally accompanied by much raucous vocalizing, before the birds present often suddenly depart and head off to another staging site where this behavior is then repeated.  This may occur several times before dark within a several mile diameter area of the final roost, and the staging areas may change location from day to day.

Finally, during deep dusk or shortly after dark, most of the birds in these staging areas will make a last and often silent flight to the ultimate roost site.  Surprisingly for birds as timid and wary as crows normally are during the day, at these nighttime roosts the birds often perched on bare, leafless deciduous tree branches where it is sometimes possible to literally walk under roost tree without disturbing them – something that would be virtually impossible during the day.

American Crow © Craig Gibson

Undoubtedly a number of important functions occur in these enormous winter roosts.  One is the opportunity for crows in a winter roost to “meet other crows.”  Since crows do not breed in their first year after nesting, these roosts may serve as “dating bars” for un-mated immature crows to meet at the winter roost, then eventually breed for the first time in the spring with mates established in the winter roost.  Similarly, first-year immature crows probably learn what it truly means to be a crow in a winter roost.  They likely acquire important winter foraging skills, learn how to avoid predators and other related dangers, and how to modify the many nuances of complex crow vocabulary.  While seemingly speculative, there is also good evidence to reinforce and support these concepts.

To best appreciate some of the spectacular mysteries described above, currently there are few better places in eastern Massachusetts to experience them firsthand than a huge, well established American Crow and Fish Crow roost located in the city of Lawrence.  This Lawrence roost has been well described in a previous Distraction Display post.

So to appreciate one of winter’s most impressive avian spectacles, try spending a late afternoon in the months ahead near the New Balance building in downtown Lawrence adjacent to the Merrimack River and behold the sight of Licorice in the Sky for yourself.

 

Give the gift of birds this holiday season. You can make a gift to Mass Audubon in honor of your loved ones.

 

Remembering Kathleen S. (Betty) Anderson: June 15, 1923–August 24, 2018

Betty Anderson receives Mass Wildlife’s Sargent Award on September 10, 2007. Photograph by W. Petersen.

The conservation and ornithological communities of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—along with the countless lives that Kathleen (Betty) Anderson touched—have sadly lost one of the Great Ones.

Betty, as she was known among her friends and colleagues, originally hailed from Montana, the state she often considered her “real home.” Regardless, she spent most of her adult life living with her beloved husband, Paul, and raising two children in Carver and East Middleboro. In the 65 years she lived at Wolf Trap Hill Farm, Middleboro, Betty “kept track of every living critter [she] could identify…not just birds but also mammals, amphibians, reptiles, insects, and plants.” (Bird Observer, February 2016). Her love and stewardship of the natural world radiated outward from the farm to the rest of Massachusetts as she taught and advocated on behalf of the environment, inspiring other people in all of her endeavors.

I want to paraphrase part of the speech Betty made upon receiving one of Mass Audubon’s most prestigious awards, the Allen H. Morgan Award, in 2009:

“From the day in late October 1949 when I first came upon a group of Mass Audubon birders at the Lakeville Ponds, this organization has enriched my life in so many ways. Foremost, always, the friends I’ve made who share my interests and my concerns. But also the events, the publications, and the incentives for providing active participation in environmental issues.”

Betty Anderson claimed that her 60 years as a Mass Audubon member offered a continuous learning and enriching experience, along with ongoing opportunities to contribute to various projects where she always felt she learned more than she produced.

Here I have to disagree. Betty Anderson gave so much of her knowledge, her friendship, and herself to so many people for so many years, that her greatest legacy will forever be her love of other people and her own incalculable ability to enthuse, enlighten, educate, and motivate others to become the best that they can be. And I’m confident that there are legions of ornithologists and conservationists throughout the country who learned from what she produced, which will long withstand the test of time.

What Betty Anderson produced throughout her life is truly remarkable.

Always curious and ever-intrepid, Betty began her professional ornithological career in 1957, working with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Encephalitis Field Station in Lakeville, whereshe was employed trapping, banding, and bleeding birds in cedar swamps in Raynham as part of early research on Eastern Equine Encephalitis. When her two children were young, Betty became a Mass Audubon teacher where weekly she introduced hundreds of young children to birds and natural history in school systems in southeastern Massachusetts.

By the 1960s, Betty’s enthusiasm for research and birdbanding led to her establishment of an Operation Recovery banding station on Duxbury Beach. Betty’s active involvement with this cooperative banding project—coordinated by Chandler Robbins, James Baird, and other active banders of the day—and her long-standing friendship with John and Rosalie Fiske—whose summer home was in Manomet—ultimately led to the establishment of the Manomet Bird Observatory (now called Manomet, Inc.). She was the founding director from 1969–1983.

As Betty’s reputation and expertise in conservation-related activities broadened, her influence and experience similarly grew. In 1973, she became a founding trustee of the Plymouth County Wildlands Trust (now the Wildlands Trust). From 1981–2018, she began a continuous run as a member and eventually chair of the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program’s Advisory Committee. Betty received the prestigious Governor Francis W. Sargent Award from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife in 2007.

While her many honors and tributes are legend, several of the most notable are: being among the first women elected to membership in the Nuttall Ornithological Club in 1974 and being one of only two women to serve as president of that Club in 1987; receiving the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Arthur A. Allen Award in 1984; being elected a Fellow of the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2005; and her service on the boards of Mass Audubon, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the New England Wildflower Society, the North American Loon Fund, and the American Birding Association.

Throughout her career Betty authored more than 50 professional papers and published numerous popular articles in journals and magazines. However, her personal journals documenting and detailing indications of climate change as a result of 50 years of continuous observation of events on Wolf Trap Hill Farm, her 100-acre property in Middleboro, may be among her most valuable professional and valuable contributions.

The beacon that was Betty’s life for me was a brilliant beam that significantly shaped my life and career. May her rich legacy live on forever, and the lessons that she taught me always remain a beacon for others to follow.

Reprinted with permission from Bird Observer 2018,  Volume 46, Number 5. www.birdobserver.org

Join Us In Costa Rica!

A Fiery-throated Hummingbird in central Costa Rica’s Talamanca Highlands. Photo by Will Freedberg.

This March, our Director of Conservation Science, Jeff Collins, is leading a group trip to Costa Rica. In addition to supporting Costa Rican ecotourism ventures, proceeds from the trip will go towards bird conservation projects at Mass Audubon.

Bird diversity in Costa Rica is higher than anywhere north of the Andes, but that’s not the country’s only draw. Read on for details on what makes Costa Rica such a unique destination for birders.

Costa Rica’s Conservation Legacy

Costa Rica’s commitment to conservation is one of the strongest of any country in the Americas, rivaling (and in many ways outdoing) that of the US and Canada.

In the 1980s, the government decided to bet on making conservation at least as much a priority as agriculture, extraction and development. The country invested in protected areas, sustainable livelihoods for rural communities, and reforestation programs that increased forest cover from 21% to 50% in a few decades.

Ecotourism is certainly the most-often cited economic benefit to come from these decisions, and indeed nearly 15% of the country’s GDP comes from tourism (and about half of that from ecotourism). But another major boon was the emergence of Costa Rica as a hub for tropical biology studies. The country’s high index of human development paired with its intact ecosystems have both attracted researchers and engaged the international community as well as developed Costa Rica’s now-booming national academe.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that some of the best birding areas that travelers will visit on this trip are famous research sites.

For example, La Selva Biological Station, the most prolific research site in the Americas, has yielded as many as 8 papers describing new species per week.  Carara National Park, which in addition to hosting over 430 bird species in just 20 square miles, also hosts important studies on tropical forest birds’ response to roads and development near protected areas.

The Birding

While the basic rhythm of forest birding is similar much of the world over, a few phenomena give birding the neotropics a very different “feel” than, say, New England.

Mixed-species foraging flocks feature prominently on most birding days. While mixed-species flocking is a global phenomenon, these aggregations reach epic proportions in Costa Rica. A quiet patch of forest turns into a birding bonanza when two dozen species of birds pass through over the course of a few minutes, each feeding according to their niche—tanagers plucking berries, warblers gleaning insects off leaves, and woodcreepers probing moss and debris on tree trunks.

Army ants often serve as the nucleus of a more specialized foraging flock: as the ants maraud across the forest floor searching for prey, they scare up insects, which in revealing themselves make easy prey for a host of understory birds. Finding an “antswarm” and an attendant cohort of skulking antbirds, antpittas, and flycatchers—all with a specific niche they fill in the feeding aggregation—can be a spectacular sight.

Leks, or cooperative mating displays, are another phenomenon rarely seen in the US (outside of the lekking grouse of the interior west). These are more predictable than feeding flocks—most leks have a fixed location in the forest where it’s easy to watch moonwalking Red-capped Manakins or the popcorn-like snapping displays of White-collared Manakins.

The Landscape

Costa Rica also stands apart from many other countries for packing in five major biogeographic regions within a couple hours’ drive of the capital:

  • The cloud forests of the high central cordillera, home to quetzals and most of the country’s endemics,
  • The dry northwest, low on bird diversity but famous for waterbirds at its seasonal wetlands,
  • The Caribbean foothills, famous for massive mixed-species flocks and some of the most enigmatic species in the country, like Snowcaps and Black-crowned Gnatpittas,
  • The rainy and humid Caribbean lowlands, where species richness peaks for birds, and charismatic species like Keel-billed Toucans and Great Green Macaws are easy finds,
  • The equally wet South Pacific lowlands, Costa Rica’s most unique biome with a completely different suite of rainforest species from the Caribbean, including incomparable Turquoise Cotingas and Scarlet Macaws.

Our upcoming short trip focuses on the latter three ecoregions. There is simply too much ground to cover in Costa Rica without spending several weeks there!

If you have any questions about the trip, get in touch with our travel office, or register here.

 

 

November Is Western Vagrants Month: 6 Species To Watch For

Every November, most migratory birds of the American West are on their way south, but a handful always end up in New England. While it might seem surprising to find a Western Kingbird along the chilly Massachusetts coastline, it can be fairly easy to predict which weather conditions will bring a small wave of western vagrants into the Northeast.

Fronts and storms are key, especially those bringing winds from the southwest. After the breeding season, some migratory species disperse in seemingly random, weather-dependent ways before continuing to the tropics. Additionally, most populations of migratory birds include a few individuals born without their cohort’s navigational abilities. These birds with “reversed compasses” often migrate irregularly during their first year of life.

These vagrants can show up anywhere, but there are a few tricks to looking for them. Watch the weather, and go birding a few days to a week after strong southwesterly winds. Seek out edge habitats, bodies of water, and potential sources of food— like thickets of late-season berries, or low and sheltered areas near coastlines where flying insects persist later into the fall.

The past few weeks have been a promising lead-up to western rarity season, with Cave Swallows already appearing on the South Shore, and a Say’s Phoebe seen in Barre in mid-October.

Right now, conditions look fairly promising—winds over the dry interior of the US are blowing strongly from the northwest, but they connect with two large cyclonic storms moving northeast. Following that, forecasters call for strong southwest winds. It will be interesting to see whether or not the upcoming storm system leaves any vagrants in its wake, and in all likelihood, it will.

 

 

Here are some species to stay on the lookout for:

  1. Cave Swallow: These small birds of the south-central US and Caribbean have begun to show up like clockwork. They arrive almost exclusively at coastal sites after strong pulses of southwest winds, and in recent years, there have been numerous annual sightings several birds at once. The phenomenon of Cave Swallows showing up in the Northeast is fairly new. Cave Swallows were extremely rare in Massachusetts before the last decade or so.
  1. Ash-throated Flycatcher: These also used to be much less frequent, but in recent years, have been showing up every 1-2 years at coastal sites. A couple have been seen a few miles inland at open, brushy sites like Drumlin Farm in Lincoln and Danehy Park in Cambridge, but with less regularity.
  1. Western Tanager: Roughly the same patterns as Ash-throated Flycatcher, but with more inland records.
  1. MacGillivray’s Warbler: One or several show up about every other year. They are mostly detected in farm fields and suburban thickets . Most sightings are from November, though a few exist from the Cape and South Coast regions in the early fall or late winter.
  1. Mountain Bluebird. These only show up every 3-5 years, having been most recently seen in MA at Turner’s Falls Airport from November 13-16, 2016.
  1. Townsend’s Solitaire: Almost annually, some solitaires arrive in November and linger until at least midwinter. In Massachusetts, most records are from Cape Ann and Cape Cod, although there are many inland records from Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire.

There are plenty of other species that show up well outside of their range in November, from the annual Western Kingbird to the exceptionally rare Common Ground-Dove. Will you be the next Massachusetts birder to find one?

Subscribe to Distraction Displays for more birding tips, news, and updates on Mass Audubon’s conservation activities.

Studying Forest Structure At Elm Hill

Our bird conservation staff spent the past week collecting data at Elm Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, our demonstration site for Foresters for the Birds. Since we’re using this site to show how responsible forest management can enrich bird habitat, we need before-and-after data to compare changes in vegetation and bird diversity.

Birds See Forests For The Trees

The physical structure of a forest directly affects which birds are found there. The amount of vegetation near the forest floor (or “understory”) changes whether or not the forest can host a whole suite species that nest near the ground, like Ovenbirds and Black-throated Blue Warblers. Forests with open midstories (the layer of vegetation between 5–50 feet off the ground) attract flycatching birds like Eastern Wood-Pewees, but dense midstories appeal to Wood Thrushes and Canada Warblers.

The goal of our work at Elm Hill is to demonstrate how every forest species has its own habitat preferences, and how thoughtful land management can create habitat for declining species. Since three quarters of Massachusetts’ forests are in private hands, it’s critical to make these lands as hospitable as possible to wildlife.

Collecting Vegetation Data

A data sheet we use for recording information about trees and forest structure at Elm Hill.

Before we alter any habitat at Elm Hill, we’re recording these factors at sites where we’ve previously done bird surveys:

  • Total woody biomass (i.e., the average size and number of trees in a given area)
  • Tree species makeup (i.e., which trees are there, and how many of each)
  • Canopy density (i.e., the amount of cover provided by leaves in the treetops)
  • Sapling density (i.e., the number of young trees from around 1–6 feet tall)
  • Coarse woody debris (i.e., the number of logs and slash piles on the ground)

We outline a 400-square-meter plot with ropes at every site to make sure we collect data from the same area of land each time. This works pretty well until somebody tangles the ropes:

Jeff tangled the ropes. It definitely was not me.

While measuring trees, logs, and saplings is straightforward, you might wonder how researchers measure canopy density— and the instrument for this is quite cool. A spherical densiometer (pictured below) condenses a wide view of the canopy into a small image (much like a fisheye camera lens) with a grid over it. By estimating the percentage of each grid square occupied by leaves or trunks (and adding them up, and taking readings in each cardinal direction), we have a standardized and simple way of measuring canopy density. This also works as a proxy for determining how much light reaches the forest floor.

A spherical densiometer, used for measuring the amount of leaves in the treetops.

Long-term Goals

After foresters have cleared the woods of invasive species and created a variety of spatial habitat types, we’ll be able to show what changes this brings to Elm Hill’s bird species.

Elm Hill contains mostly 70–90-year-old forest, like much of Massachusetts. We’ll manage parts of the sanctuary for birds that prefer young forest, which are in trouble statewide, and in other part’s we’ll try to mimic old-growth forest conditions, which would take over a century to emerge naturally. Hopefully, we can then use this site as a physical example of how foresters and landowners can improve bird habitat on the properties they manage.

 

 

Cities Need Bird-Friendly Buildings

Between 100 million and 1 billion birds die annually from collisions with windows. Glass windowpanes can reflect nearby trees, shrubs, and sky. Birds’ eyes aren’t able to distinguish clear reflections from the real thing, so they sometimes aim for a reflection and fly smack into a pane of glass.

Earlier this year, Mass Audubon’s advocacy team expressed concern about a plan to install an all-glass façade on a building facing Post Office Square in Boston. An island of green in downtown’s sea of concrete, Post Office Square is a locally important stopover site for migratory birds. A few plantings in the middle of a nearly treeless part of the city attracts a surprising diversity of species, and adding a wall of glass panels across from one side of the park increases the risk of collisions . The well-meaning developer wanted to add a perimeter garden and a green roof to the site, which ironically would increase window strikes by attracting birds to reflections of the greenery.

Luckily, when told about the risk the project posed for birds, this developer was willing to make the site safer. They are in the process of installing glass with non-reflective stripes, which will break up reflections of what’s outside and steer birds away from the windows. Many similar technologies exist to make windows visible obstacles to birds without interfering with peoples’ view—from glass incorporating ultraviolet patterns that only birds can see, to entire panes made of non-reflective material.

Post Office Square, an urban stopover site for migrating birds (Photo by Will Freedberg)

You Can Help!

Skyscrapers account for disproportionate numbers of bird deaths, but the number of single-story buildings in the US make them an equally important front for reducing window strikes. Every homeowner interested in conservation can take steps to make their homes safer for birds:

  1. Keeping window screens on year-round. This is a great option because it provides a visual barrier as well as soft, springy physical barrier to incoming birds.
  2. Purchase and apply a one-way, see-through film to your windows, which both cuts reflections for birds and blocks the view into your home from outside.
  3. Finally, any birdfeeders close to your house (within 15 feet) should be even closer to windows (less than 1.5 feet away). While this sounds weird, birds do slow down before perching, so any window collisions as a bird comes in to land at your feeder is unlikely to injure the bird.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References: Daniel Klem, 1990: Collisions Between Birds And Windows: Mortality And Prevention

 

50 Years Of Discovery At Great Gull Island

A Season With The Terns

I first visited Great Gull Island as a volunteer in 1980. I was an undergraduate at Southern Connecticut State College, and had friends who worked on the island. I went out for a weekend, and like many others, I never really left. Sure, I’ve gone off and worked in Georgia, on the Farallones, in Cape May, and for Mass Audubon, but there is something about this place that never leaves you.

This year, the project celebrates its 50th year of full-season tern research. I wanted to go back and indulge in a full summer once again. I arrived on April 22 for an 8-week stint, which meant that for the first time, I saw the birds arrive fresh from their wintering grounds in South America. On a cold and grey April 29 morning, burrowed deep into my winter-weight sleeping bag I heard one tern, then a second calling. I raced outdoors, camera in hand, and got a video of them drifting through the clouds, calling as they came home.

A tern and a bander on Great Gull Island. Photo by Joan Walsh.

A quick check of eBird records showed very few had been reported south of us before they came home. Had they flown over water most of the way? Was the last place they saw South America? Did they fly directly to their island? The details of the transit were important to my science brain, but the shimmering white birds falling from the grey sky, calling for their 20,000 neighbors, was one of the most powerful natural moments I have ever witnessed.

They come back slowly – just a few at first, coming in in the morning, the numbers, and noise, building each day. At first they fly in tight flocks, looking more like a group of migrating Red Knots than terns. They leave at midday to go forage, then return at night and through the early morning. Then, one day you realize they aren’t leaving, and some are even courting, then more, then more.

Their tentative residence is no longer. They are home, and they are fierce.

The Setting

Great Gull Island seems unremarkable at first: 19 acres of sand and rock, formed as so much of our coastline was by the terminal moraine of retreating glaciers 10,000 years ago. The island is tiny— about half a mile long and a quarter mile wide.

The island sits in some of the roughest waters in Long Island Sound, between Plum Island and Fisher’s Island, NY. Each outgoing tide drains Long Island Sound of 2-3 feet of water, and about half of that water comes past Great Gull. A typical tide rushes by at 5 knots; a strong tide moves even faster. The sea is often heaped into 4 foot standing whitecaps, giving the water to the east of Great Gull the title of The Race, and to the west, Plum Gut.

The currents are so strong that sandlance and small herring can’t swim well against them, making them easy prey for lurking striped bass and bluefish. The currents also put baitfish at risk from aerial predators, which is one reason Great Gull Island hosts up 30,000+ Common and Roseate Terns during the summer breeding season.

In profile, the island shows a tall “hill” to the east, a flat meadow in the center flanked by another hill, and a long meadow towards the west. Much of the island is lined with huge granite boulders, similar to those used in jetties along the rest of the coast. In the summer the Island sprouts 20 or more small white-topped towers used as blinds for watching nesting birds. This, coupled with severe signs warning “DO NOT LAND” give it an otherworldly appearance – a mysterious place clinging to the bedrock as tide rush by, and thousands of birds swirl and scream overhead.

The Military History

The two “hills” seen in profile are anything but. They are the remains of a US Army coastal defense project. Great Gull was re-christened Fort Michie when the Army ejected the resident tern colony and began construction of a fort in 1896, which they occupied through World War 2. At one point hundreds of men lived on the island in a self-contained small town, complete with electricity, running water, and a hospital. The remains of the coastal defenses are still in evidence everywhere. Most notable are those cement “hills,” honeycombed with tunnels where armaments were stored.

These tunnels, and 6 gun emplacements, are still standing around the island. And the biggest of them all is the massive gun emplacement that held a 16 inch gun – it actually took a shell that was 16 inches in diameter. Three brick officer’s quarters also remain, and two concrete watch towers are still standing. The rest of the fort was reclaimed by the weather or demolished by 1960.

The Return of Nature

After World War 2, the Army sold the island to the American Museum of Natural History for $1, and for the most part little was done on the island for about 10 years.

In the early 1960s, the island was visited by a group of ornithologists from the American Museum of Natural History. One woman, Helen Hays, saw the island’s potential as a research site, grabbed ahold of her work, and 58 years later is still directing the research on Great Gull Island (GGI). A handful of Common and Roseate Terns had begun to colonize the retired US Army fort, and the visitors, being curious scientists, hatched a plan to return Fort Michie to its former natural glory (and name).

The Research

At GGI, Helen Hays has managed thousands of volunteers to amass one of the longest runs of known-lineage data in the world. It is not hard to trap a bird, read the band, and follow that bird’s lineage back to 1980. This is done by daily nest searches, aided now by GPS locations for all nests. A subset of the adult birds are trapped and banded, and as many Common Tern chicks are banded as possible. Roseate Terns, as federally endangered species, have stricter rules for handling. All nests are marked, but a very limited number of adults and chicks are handled.

Despite the presence of the researchers the colony has flourished. Hundreds of papers have come from the work, and each year more questions are brought to the forefront. Helen has encouraged work by independent researchers, and has mentored thousands of ecologists, despite managing one of the most complex research stations on the eastern seaboard.

Four years ago I began a series of simple observations on Common Tern. We had done them in the past, but what would a repeat show? I select a set of nests, and for two hour intervals record the time of each fish delivery to the young. I identify the fish, and estimate the size. Each year I choose between 10 and 30 nests to watch. Preliminary work with the data showed really impressive changes in the feeding rates for the nestlings. For two years we recorded fairly similar feeding rates – each nest received about 1.1 per hour. But in 2018 that rate tripled to 3.3 fish per hour per nest. These data support the anecdotal observations we had on GGI this year – there were a lot of fish!

Data like these are important for understanding the variability in chick survival, and can act as a surrogate for understanding changes in fish populations. Coupled with the long-term research on annual productivity and survival rates on the island, this helps us to flesh out what is happening in Long Island Sound from year to year, and as the waters warm due to climate change.

 

A team of researchers from Argentina that visits Great Gull every Summer. Photo by Joan Walsh.

1,027 Bobolink Fledglings Saved This Summer

By The Numbers: The 2018 Bobolink Project

We’re tallying up the results of this year’s Bobolink Project, and the numbers look great! The Project protected 932 acres of nesting habitat, up from 512 acres in 2016 (which was the project’s first year at Mass Audubon). Field surveys showed 368 pairs of Bobolinks on participating farmers’ land. Since Bobolinks fledge an average of 2.79 chicks every season, this translates to saving an estimated 1,027 Bobolinks—many of which may return to nest again next year!

It takes just 12 days for nestlings to leave the nest, but another two to three weeks before they can fly well enough to escape the mowers used for haying. Photo by S. Bardella

How it Works

Bobolinks rely on grasslands to breed, and often find that hayfields work just as well. Until the mid-20th century, many hayfields were mowed in late summer, weeks after Bobolink chicks had left the nest. Now, high demand for livestock feed means that farmers are mowing earlier and earlier; early-cut hay is richer in protein and more valuable. Sadly, this means that many Bobolink nestlings end up under the mower.

Every year, Mass Audubon offers farmers compensation for waiting to mow their hayfields until after nesting season. This model has so far proved effective: plenty of farmers would rather not mow over active bird nests, but need their hayfields to produce some source of income. Mass Audubon uses donations to cover these farmers’ losses from delaying mowing, keeping their farms economically viable while protecting grassland birds.

Bobolink © Martha Akey

Photo by Martha Akey

Next Year’s Goals

Even with increased donations, the number of interested farmers is outpacing available funds. This year, we had enough funds to protect two thirds of project applicants’ land. We also had to leave an additional 492 acres of Bobolink habitat on the table. Sadly, this funding gap meant that most fledglings on the unprotected acreage didn’t make it.

While it may not be possible to prevent every single agriculture-related Bobolink death across the region, it is painful to have to turn away farmers who want to partner with us to protect birds.

If you’d like to help us protect even more acres and Bobolinks next year, please donate here!