Tag Archives: birds

Early Birds Get More than the Worm

In the wild, February and March may seem like the worst time for a bird to raise a family, with challenges including frigid temps, sleet, wind, and snow. But this is no ordinary bird, this is a great bird—a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). These large, thick-bodied raptors- weighing in at 2.5 to 5 pounds with 4 ½ to 5’ wingspans –  are one of the most widespread owls in North America and have plenty of ‘don’t mess with me’ moxie. They have a very diverse diet, including small mammals, rabbits, geese, herons, amphibians and reptiles, skunks, porcupines – and even other raptorial birds. It is this adaptability and tenacious behavior that gives them a leg up on surviving tough conditions.

Great Horned Owls are among the earliest birds to breed each year, with males staking out territory from other males beginning in October. Most Great Horned Owls mate for life and every autumn they reestablish their bonds by loudly calling to each other. Like many birds, they have a range of vocalizations. Their classic hoot is unmistakable, a deep slightly muffled resonating “hoo-h’HOO–hoo-hoo” call with the female’s voice slightly higher in pitch than the male’s.

While establishing their territory they will seek out a suitable nest. They don’t build their own– instead, they use abandoned real estate like an old Red-tailed Hawk nest or a hollowed tree cavity, even a cliff ledge will do.

Great Horned Owl family
Great Horned Owl, at the nest with her Owlets

When January arrives the parents-to-be will be settled in and ready to start a family. The female will lay 1-4 eggs and incubate the eggs for 30-37 days through all kinds of weather.  Only the female can incubate the eggs as she has a featherless patch on her abdomen called a “brood patch,” an area that has many blood vessels and is very efficient at transferring her body heat to the eggs. While she is incubating and brooding the young chicks, the male will hunt for them, but if the food he provides is insufficient she will also hunt for the family. Great Horned Owls are large birds and it takes owlets longer to grow than say a robin and longer to develop and master complex skills.

Great Horned Owl Feather
Great-horned owl feathers have a velvety texture and combined with tiny serrations along each feather edges called flutes which muffle their wing beats allowing owls to silently swoop down on their prey unnoticed.

Nesting early is a risky move but there are definite advantages. By day 45, the young are fully feathered and capable of flight and by the time spring arrives, these youngsters are ready to practice their main craft– hunting.  Not only are temperatures milder but there is now an abundance of young inexperienced prey animals, such as rabbits, mice, squirrels and chipmunks who are also venturing out on their own. These predators can now hone their flying and hunting skills under ideal conditions all because their parents were early birds.

Owl Talons
When clenched, an adult Great Horned Owl’s talons lock down like a ratchet and require a force of 28 lbs. to pry them back open.
Tiger Owl Eye
Owls have huge eyes compared to their body size– larger eyes are able to take in more light which is picked up by their rod- and cone-shaped photoreceptors. Rods allow them to see well in dim light, but colors, not as well. Cones help distinguish colors but only when our surroundings are well lit. Humans have about 200,000 rods per square millimeter while owls have close to a million rods per square millimeter. This is then magnified by the owl’s tapetum lucidum or ‘eyeshine,’ a feature humans do not have. This layer of tissue located behind the retina reflects all available light to those photoreceptor rods and provides superior night vision.

For More Information

Cornell Lab of Ornithology https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Horned_Owl/id

Audubon Guide to North American Birds https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/great-horned-owl

Babies Abound! Little Critters in State Parks

Spring is in the air and baby animals abound in our State Parks. Look and listen for some of these young critters in our parks. Remember, it is best to watch them from a distance so you do not scare the young animal or its parent. If you see a young animal that looks like it is abandoned, please leave it be. It is most likely fine on its own or has a parent close by and waiting for you to back away. It is fun to explore and watch, but don’t stay in one spot too long so that the animals can go back to their daily activities.

Box Turtle_E Becker
A class gets a close-up look at a young box turtle at Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve. The turtle was handled briefly and then released where it was found. If you find turtles crossing the road or trail, you can move them to safety by putting them on the side where they were headed.
baby raccoon FNSP
A pair of young raccoons peek out from behind a tree at Fort Niagara State Park.
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Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is one of the monarch caterpillars preferred plants. You can find milkweed in along unmown trail edges and in meadows in many State Parks
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A red fox vixen keeps a watchful eye over a pair of kits at Letchworth State Park.
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Warm weather brings the honey bees back into action. Here, a drone honey bee (at left) is hatching from the hive at the Taconic Outdoor Education Center.
S. Montefinise
Canada geese and goslings at Jones Beach State Park. Adult geese can be pretty aggressive about protecting their babies, so watch quietly from a distance. The goslings can be a lot of fun to watch as they scurry about.
mallard
Mother mallard and her many ducklings.
Fawn_G Lamitina2
A white-tailed deer fawn hiding in the brush at Letchworth State Park. The mother is close by, watching you and waiting for you to move on. You have to look hard and move quietly to get a chance to see these youngsters in the woods.
Red Eft at Thacher -Photo by Lilly Schelling
Red efts are the young stage of the aquatic eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens). You can hold this one gently, but keep it close to the ground as it will run right out of your hand. This one was seem at John Boyd Thacher State Park.
BarnSwallow Chicks-Photo by Lilly Schelling
Red efts are the young stage of the aquatic eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens). You can hold this one gently, but keep it close to the ground as it will run right out of your hand. This one was seem at John Boyd Thacher State Park.
chickadee
Black-capped chickadees nest in tree cavities or will use birdboxes as seen here.
ecottentail
You might see Eastern cottontails in your back yard, local park or in the campground or picnic area in many of the state parks.
Eaglet
Bald eaglet are really big baby birds. This one has been banded by wildlife biologists. The blue and silver leg bands help identify the bird when it is seen elsewhere over the course of its adult life.
killfawn
Young killdeer on the run at Allegany State Park. They have a really loud call and may be seen in open areas like lawns and parking lots! Killdeer are precocial birds, meaning they leave the nest shortly after they are hatched.
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Eastern phoebe nestlings getting a little too big for their nest. Time to try out those wings.
roughwingedswallow
Northern rough-winged swallow fledgling.
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Young snapping turtle covered in duck weed from its pond. Remember that bigger snapping turtles bite, so keep your distance.
woodfrog
A very tiny wood frog, identifiable by the dark mask on its face. It’s ok to hold them gently for a bit, but let them go so they can grow up in their home in the woods.
wooduckwithmarshmellow
Woodchuck mom and her pups in Allegany State Park. The white one was known as “Marshmallow.”
woodcock
A young American woodcock hides in the underbrush, so well camouflaged and thus seldom seen.
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A young dusky salamander found in a wet log at Allegany State Park. It is great to explore and find young animals. Keeping hands off can keep them safe and allow you to observe their behavior in their natural habitat.

Take time this spring to enjoy our State Parks little critters!

Thank you to all staff who contributed to this post.

The Return of the Eagle

Between 1950 and 1972, chemical contaminations such as DDT almost eliminated bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). The chemicals lead to soft, very breakable eggs resulting in no baby bald eagles and a drastic decline in the population, at which time the species was put on the NYS endangered species list as well as the federal list. By 1960, only one active eagle nest was known in New York State. So, in the late 1970’s, an intensive restoration program began to rebuild the population in the state, to hopefully remove them from the list. The program involved bringing in and raising wild bald eagles from the Great Lakes region and Alaska in hopes that the birds would reestablish the population here in New York. The project, known as “hacking”, was a big success! In 2014, a statewide survey found approximately 330 nests in New York, 250 of which were occupied by breeding pairs, causing the species to be moved from  endangered status to threatened within the state. In addition, the birds’ successful recovery across the U.S. led to the removal of bald eagles from the federal Endangered Species list.

immature-bald-eagles-often-hang-out-near-the-nest-during-the-summer-notice-that-these-birds-are-all-brown-indicating-they-were-born-this-year-photo-by-state-parks-july-2014
Immature bald eagles often hang out near the nest during the summer. Notice that these birds are all brown, indicating they were born this year. Photo by State Parks.

Bald eagles mate for life and will usually return to the same nesting site year after year, somewhere near their birth nest area. Bald eagle pairs perform various activities together before mating, such as sharing food, building the breeding nest, and sometimes even courtship flights. The nesting season in New York ranges from the beginning of January to the end of August. Between September and December some birds may stay if there is open water and ample food, while others may migrate to a wintering location. During the nesting season, the eagles are extremely sensitive to human disturbances, such as loud noises, fast movement, or being too close to the nest. If too many disturbances happen during the nesting season, the eagles may leave or even abandon their nest. This past summer, State Parks and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) enacted a plan to help protect the bald eagles nesting in Beaver Island State Park from these human disturbances. Similar protections are in place for eagles nesting in other State Parks such as on the Hudson River, Thousand Islands, and other regions.

one-of-many-no-motorized-vessel-buoys-located-around-the-nesting-area-photo-by-josh-wulf-july-2016
One of many “no motorized vessel” buoys located around the nesting area. Photo by Josh Wulf,2016.

One protective measure is to keep motorized vessels away from the nesting bald eagles. The “no motorized vessel” buoys extend 330 feet all around the nesting area in all directions. Non-motorized vessels such as kayaks or canoes are permitted. In all cases, there are still federal navigation laws around the islands to help protect the habitat, such as maintaining a 5 mph speed limit while within 100 feet of the shoreline. There are also signs on the land that note the edge of the prohibited area for anyone walking on foot. You can help by paying attention to signs to keep your distance from nesting eagles and also avoid disturbing groups of eagles you may see in the winter.

immature-bald-eagle-in-late-winter-notice-the-white-feathers-are-starting-to-come-in-but-the-bird-still-lacks-the-white-head-of-the-adults-photo-by-gary-mcdannel-2014
Immature bald eagle in late winter. Notice the white feathers are starting to come in, but the bird still lacks the white head of the adults. Photo by Gary McDannel, 2014.

Preserving and maintaining good habitat in State Parks has played an important role to the return of this majestic species. With the cooperation of everyone, we can continue to enjoy the wonder of seeing bald eagles on New York’s lakes and rivers, thanks to the remarkable recovery effort that brought the eagles back.

For more information on bald eagles and the protection, please visit the NYSDEC website:

Viewing Tips

Life History

Protection

Post by Jillian Harris, State Parks

 

The Christmas Bird Count. And You Can Too!

In 1900, Frank Chapman, editor of Bird Lore (forerunner of Audubon magazine), whimsically urged people to go out and count birds on Christmas Day. The foray was intended as a civil alternative to the then-traditional “side hunt”, where teams vied to shoot the greatest number of furred and feathered creatures possible on Christmas Day. Anything that moved was fair game, the winning team commended in sportsmen’s magazines.

Happy holidays.

But Chapman’s folly caught on!

So here we are.

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CBC counts in New York State often include American robins, photo by David Johnson

Driven if only by tradition, birding field parties will be scouring 1,500 National Audubon Society-sanctioned count “circles” from Canada to South America during the official 3-week Christmas Bird Count period (always 12/14 – 01/05). Participants tally the number of birds of each species they see or hear during each circle’s designated 24-hour timeframe. NY State has 69 official count circles, each managed by a “compiler” who sets the count date, musters field parties and  compiles all of the data collected by the birders in the circle.

Count circles are 15 miles in diameter, too big for a single field party to adequately census in one day, so compilers typically divide circles into smaller territories which a car-load of wide-eyed “bird dogs” can cover in a day’s time. On the appointed date, the eager field parties trudge through likely birding hot-spots within their assigned territory, often on public lands such as state parks and other conservation properties. They conduct windshield surveys en route, beginning at midnight to count owls, and ending hours later as the cold, hungry, and exhausted teams meet at a compilation pizza party.

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Sightings of Dark-eyed juncos are common during the CBC, photo by David Johnson

What do you find on a Christmas Bird Count?  In some locations, not much – like in Prudhoe Bay in 1994 only 1 species of bird, a Common Raven was spotted in the darkness of a winter’s mid-day. In contrast, 425 bird species were found in one circle in the Andes in 2007. In New York State, you can expect anywhere from 40 to 80 different species and numbering up to many thousands of birds, depending on the locale of your circle and recent weather patterns. That’s the beguiling thing about birding…you just never know.

If you are interested in joining a field party or submitting free-lance data, you can contact the nearest compiler. See if your location falls within a count circle by going to christmasbirdcount.org. Click on the “join the Christmas Bird Count” box on the right, then click the highlighted phrase “A map view of circles” on the next page.  Then type in your locale at the “find a location” box and scroll to find the nearest circle. A yellow bird icon represents the center of a count circle. Click on the icon to reveal compiler contact info.

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Great-blue herons can be seen near open water, photo by David Johnson

Openings may be scarce, as established teams tend to stick together year after year. Having the same teams patrol the same routes at pretty much the same time of day, year after year makes for reliable data. Joining a field party is very regimented field work, and, yes, it is work.

But good data like this helps us see changes in our environment and is the lifeblood of sound wildlife and natural resource management. Long-term studies like this are rare and with over 116 years of observations, CBC data has become a gold mine for professionals studying winter bird distribution and abundance and broader topics like climate change.

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A retired NYS DEC Environmental Educator, Craig D. Thompson has served as President of the Audubon Society of the Capital Region and Vice Chair the Audubon Council of New York State.

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Canada geese at Rudd Pond, Taconic State Park, photo by State Parks

 

Bird Banding at Crown Point State Historic Site

The small girl skipped ahead of her family on the grassy path toward the bird banding station, a couple of picnic tables covered with a canopy, with two tents pitched nearby.   Five rows of mist netting were strung along alleys in the dense brush, with hopes that birds would fly into them and get caught so that they could be studied, banded, and released.  Master bird bander Gordon Howard sat at one of the tables with a tiny bird in his hand, a book open in front of him.   He gently stretched the wing feathers to look for different color patterns and signs of wear to help him determine the age of the bird.

The girl and her family walked up to Gordon, and he smiled and explained what he was doing.   When he was finished, he asked if she would like to hold and release the brightly colored male yellow-rumped warbler.  She nodded her head, and Gordon showed her how to gently wrap her small fingers around the bird’s neck and body so that it would not be injured.  A broad smile spread across her face as she felt the soft, warm feathers and the rapidly beating heart of the bird.  Her parents took pictures, and then Gordon told her to gently toss the bird into the sky and let go.  The warbler flew from her hand right back into the hawthorn shrubs and began feeding, preparing for its migration further north.   Although the bird had left her hand, the memory never left the child.

Bird banding began at the Crown Point State Historic Site 41 years ago by J.M.C. “Mike” Peterson.  Spring migrant birds have been monitored here every year since for two weeks in early to mid-May.   Over 17,000 individual birds of 106 different species have been banded here, with each bird receiving a small metal band with a unique identifying number that is placed around its leg like a bracelet.  Information on each bird that is banded, such as species, sex, age, and condition, is forwarded to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees all bird banding in the United States.  If the bird is ever found again, the band number can be reported to the USFWS and much can be learned about the bird’s movements.  The current main banders are Gordon Howard, Gary Lee, and Tom Barber, with help from several other banders and a number of volunteers.  Visitors are welcome from 7 AM to 5 PM every day of the season, which runs this year from the afternoon of May 6 to the morning of May 22.  Educational programs about birds and bird banding are offered to school groups, birding clubs, and civic organizations.  Reservations for these are arranged by contacting Gordon by email at ghoward@clemson.edu.

Bird banding has several values, including education, determining bird longevity, and figuring out migration routes.   The Crown Point peninsula that juts north into Lake Champlain is an excellent place to capture and study migrating birds, because birds concentrate here to feed and rest on their journey northward each spring.  Many of these songbirds wintered in South or Central America, and are migrating to their summer breeding ranges in New York, New England, and Canada.

If you go to visit, the best time of day is early to mid-morning.  Calm, dry days are usually better than windy, wet days.  Park in the lot by the museum, and walk up the blacktop road toward the barns.   Then follow the signs that direct you onto the grassy path to the banding center which is tucked in by the brushy edge.  Wear casual clothes and boots or shoes that can handle mud.  Bring your family, a camera, binoculars, and your sense of wonder.

Post by Ellie George, volunteer with the Crown Point Bird Banding Association

Photos were supplied with one time use permission from the photographers Ellie (Eleanor) George and Thomas Barber.
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