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.
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 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.
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:
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.
But Chapman’s folly caught on!
So here we are.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Male Magnolia Warbler with a band, photo by Ellie George, c 2010
Male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, photo by Ellie George, C 2010
Eastern White-Crowned Sparrow in a net, photo by Ellie George, c 2010
Banding an Eastern White-Crowned Sparrow, photo by Ellie George, c 2010
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Third Grade Student ready to release a Mourning Dove, photo by Tom Barber, c 2015
First Grand Student and Great-Crested Flycatcher, photo by Tom Barber, c 2015
First Grade Class Presentation, photo by Tom Barber, c 2015
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.
Signs of spring are beginning to show in the great northeast. The days are getting longer, skunk cabbage is beginning to erupt from the cold ground and birds that have been afar for the winter months are beginning to return to New York State. One may think “What birds? The birds have been here all winter.” True, not all of our native bird species in New York migrate south for the winter months. Birds such as chickadees, northern cardinals, and red tailed hawks tough out the winter, anticipating the spring breeding season (see prior blog post on overwintering birds). But far more birds winter in South America, Central America, and the southern USA and make the long journey back to NY in the spring. It is an exhausting flight; the birds must make short stops to fuel up on available food and take a quick rest, then up to the sky to continue their journey. Upon arrival at their breeding/nesting grounds, whether in New York State or farther north, there is little time for rest or replenishment of their lost fat reserves from the long journey. The birds must stake out nesting territory, defend it, find a mate and start building the nest that they will care for, around the clock, in the weeks to come.
Keep your ears and eyes out for the early returning migrants, the birds that are first to arrive in the months of March and April. Before describing some of the species one may encounter while bird watching, lets discover the difference between bird calls and songs, primarily applying to passerines or “song birds”. A call is a brief simple sound like a chip note, peep, or chatter. A song is a longer sound segment, usually with distinctive melody such as a series of notes strung together. Calls can be heard all winter from our resident bird population, but in spring the songs begin. Songs are typically related to courtship and establishing territory. Bird sounds (song, hoot, chatter…etc.) are also very useful in assisting bird watchers with identification, as bird vocals are distinct to individual species.
Additional tips that help with bird identification are size, coloration or plumage, and habitat use. Pick a bird you are familiar with, say the American Crow, and think about the size of the bird you are trying to identify. Having an idea of what size the bird is can help you narrow down what the species is from one that may look similar but is larger or smaller than the bird you are trying to identify. Plumage (feather pattern) is very important when identifying birds and can also be very frustrating! However, the more you bird watch, the better you will get at noticing the differences between species. Habitat type can also help narrow down what species a bird is. For example, if you are observing a bird in a wetland and you think you know what the bird is, but you’re bird guide says that bird is primarily found in dry open fields – you will have to continue looking. All of these factors combined; sound, size, plumage, and habitat use are useful tools in assisting the observer with identifying a bird.
Early Returning Migrants: Meet the Birds!
Passerines or Song Birds
These birds often travel in large flocks and can be found nesting in wet marshy or shrubby habitat. A medium sized bird; the male has a distinctive red patch on the upper wing. The female looks very different in color, being a light brownish hue with darker streaking.
The House Wren is smaller in size than the Red-winged Black Bird, weighing about 41 grams less. Both female and male House Wrens have similar plumage (meaning they look the same). Wrens in general are noted for the characteristic pose seen in the picture, with their tail feathers and head up in the air. The House Wren nests in dense brushy habitat, usually within woods. They will also take to bird boxes.
The Common Yellowthroat is a warbler and one of the first warblers to arrive in New York. The Common Yellowthroat is a small bird, similar in size to the House Wren. The male has a distinctive black mask, outlined in white – which the female lacks. Warblers in general are very colorful and eye catching. The Common Yellowthroat nests in wet marshy and brushy habitats.
The Killdeer is an interesting bird, in that it has the unique behavior of displaying a broken-wing act to draw predators away from their nest. So if you see the act, consider yourself lucky, but do not approach! Killdeer are in the plover family, which primarily are a shore bird. However, the Killdeer can be found nesting on open ground in many habitat types, such as agricultural fields, parking lots, and sandy/bare ground areas. Their vocals sound similar to “Killdeer” and they have two distinctive black rings on their chest. Killdeer are larger than the song birds previously discussed, but smaller then a crow.
Great Blue Herons have long legs for wading in water and can be over three feet tall! These birds have a diet composed of fish, frogs, and invertebrates (organisms lacking a spine, such as bugs and insects). Therefore they rely on open water to forage and find food and can be found anywhere from marshy wetlands, rivers, lakes and flooded areas to the shores of the ocean. Look for Herons as the waterbodies began to thaw in spring. These birds nest in rookeries with dozens of nests built of large sticks in a single tree or group of trees, usually within a wetland.
Ospreys are a large raptor – meaning they are carnivores. Primarily eating fish, they hover high in the air over water and then dive, talons first, at their prey. They can be found along the shores of river, lakes, and the sea and build huge nests compiled of sticks. The nests can be built on the crotch of a tree, utility poles, or platforms specifically installed for osprey nesting. Typically these birds mate for life, meaning once a pair bond is formed; it lasts until one of the birds dies. Ospreys will return to the same nesting site year after year, adding more to their nest as they see fit. Look for these birds as the water bodies begin to thaw, and their characteristic hovering behavior.
Now that you have learned about some of the early returning migrants, grab a good bird field guide, a pair of binoculars and a birding buddy and head to your local State or Town Park! Remember that these birds are under physical stress from their long migration, so avoid flushing or pushing them with your presence (don’t chase them). View with binoculars from a comfortable distance and maybe you will observe courtship behavior or the gathering of nesting material.
*Bird length, wingspan , weight and habitat preference obtained from The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America by David Sibley.
Post by Lilly Schelling, OPRHP, Wildlife Specialist
The days start getting shorter, the nights are cooler, and the leaves start to turn vibrant colors. Fall is a time of change and when plants and animals start to prepare for the long winter months ahead. It is a great time to get outdoors and observe nature’s seasonal changes.
One of the Northeast’s finest wildlife spectacles happens in fall, the autumn migration of hawks. Beginning in early September until the end of November, broad-winged hawks, falcons, eagles, kestrels, harriers, and more travel from their northern breeding grounds south due to scarcity of food during the winter. The birds soar on thermal updrafts, minimizing energy expenditure. A group of birds in a thermal is termed a “kettle” and may resemble a spiral of ascending birds. The migrators utilize these updrafts to glide over ridges and down the coast to regions as far as Central and South America where food is plentiful. Thacher Park hosts an annual Hawk Migration Watch at the escarpment overlook where visitors can help count passing birds and learn more about the species they see.
Plants start dispersing their seeds in the fall by way of wind, water, animals, and even explosion or ballistic seed dispersal. It all starts at the end of August when blackberries, mulberries, and other fleshy fruits start to ripen and fall to the ground. These fruits contain small hard seeds and are dispersed after passing through the digestive system of animals, but make a yummy treat for us! Acorns are theseeds of oak trees and sprout rapidly after falling to the ground. Squirrels can be seen scurrying around this time of year, storing nuts to eat later in the winter. Luckily for trees, squirrels only find about 30% of the nuts they hide – allowing more seedlings to sprout in the spring.
A warm summer leading to damp September days is the perfect combination for mushrooms to sprout throughout the forest floor. Fungi are made up of a vast underground network called mycelia, which helps decompose leaf litter, dead animals, and rotting wood. The mushrooms we see above- ground are the fruiting bodies of the mycelium and are composed of spores that disperse in the fall to continue the growth of their kingdom. Puff balls, hen of the woods, oyster mushrooms, and fly agaric are just a few of the mushrooms to look for on a forest hike. It is important to have a great deal of knowledge on mushrooms before picking any to eat, as some can be fatally poisonous.