The last snow on the ground has finally melted away. It’s early spring. The first hints of warmth are beating down from the sun. Life, for as long as you can remember, has been cold and white… has it been 6 weeks? No, maybe 2 months… longer? Who knows how long it has been since you’ve seen green grass, but it is a glorious sight. The bright green of new growth surrounds you. You finally get a chance to sit out on your back deck with a nice cocktail after work when all of a sudden you hear a “whinney” from a tree in your side yard… you know this sound. It means spring is officially here. And as if it knew you were thinking of it, a flash of orange descends onto your yard on a mission for a tasty treat.
The American robin, Turdus migratorius (Latin for migratory thrush), is the first sign of spring for many in northern North America. Though its range stretches south into areas where it can be viewed year around, it is typically one of the earliest birds to lay its eggs during the spring breeding season. These resourceful thrushes make their nest out of anything from paper to twigs. They will smear mud to hold the nest all together and often will make a soft lining out of grass. A protected and safe nesting site can sometimes produce up to three broods with multiple chicks in one year.
With a sleek gray to brown back and head and a rusty orange chest and belly, there isn’t any other bird in North America that can really be mistaken for an American robin. When in flight, a white patch under the tail and lower belly can be noticed. Sexual dimorphism, or the visual difference between male and female, within this species isn’t very noticeable, but the female does tend to have a more pale head.
This large member of the thrush family uses a wide range of habitats from wide open spaces like lawns and tundra, to neighborhoods with scattered trees and shrubs, as well as deciduous and evergreen woodlands. Robins are often found hopping along or standing erect on a lawn searching for invertebrates, such as earthworms or grubs, but can also be seen in bushes and trees feeding on caterpillars, fruits and berries. Typically, a robin’s diet changes throughout the day, with more yummy earthworms in the morning — thus the phrase “the early bird catches the worm” — and more delectable berries in the afternoon. During the late fall and winter months, they often gather in large flocks (sometimes numbering close to 250,000 individuals!) to eat berries and roots that are still available. Sometimes, when winter flocks feed exclusively on crabapples or honeysuckle berries, they can become intoxicated due to the fermentation of sugars in the berries! When birds become intoxicated from fermented berries, most are just a bit tipsy and you might not be able to notice any signs. However, when some birds overdo it, they may have trouble perching, hopping/walking, and controlling their flight, often crashing into branches and each other. Sadly, this also includes crashing into larger obstacles, like buildings, which can lead to the bird’s death.
Cousin to the musical hermit thrush and wood thrush, the robin is also an impressive songster. However, as one of the first birds to sing at dawn – or predawn – they make many a camper grumpy from the early wake-up call. The song is a loud, repeated musical whistle that ascends and descends through a series of notes. They have a variety of calls ranging from an alarm ‘yeep chuck’ to a loud ‘whinney’. To hear their songs and calls, or to learn some more cool facts about American Robins, visit The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. Get started by listening to robins call below.
Some interesting tidbits:
Only 40% of nests produce offspring
Only 25% of young robins survive the first year
The average lifespan is 2 years; longest known is 14 years
State bird of Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin
They occur across almost all of Canada and the United States
Known to winter as far south as Mexico, the Gulf Coast, and Cuba
Was featured on the Canadian $2 bill (no longer in use)
As temperatures rise, spring rains roll in, and the ground thaws, the amphibians of New York are preparing themselves for a great migration. On the 10th of March, a group of about 30 volunteers congregated near Hop Field at Thacher State Park armed with flashlights and buckets. With great excitement they looked along the road edges for salamanders and frogs, hoping to help them cross the road as the amphibians migrated to woodland pools. Throughout most of the year, mole salamanders and woodland frogs spend their time burrowed under rocks and leaves on the forest floor, but each spring salamanders and frogs can migrate up to a quarter mile to woodland pools to breed. The mass migrations to the vernal pools occur during spring rainstorms with temperatures above 40 degrees.
The rain was intermittent that night, and although spring peepers and leopard frogs were escorted across the road, no salamanders were found. The migrations typically happen in late March and early April, so there is still hope! On nights when the conditions are right, many nature enthusiasts can be seen on roadways close to wetlands helping the amphibians safely cross the road. If you are interested in getting involved in preventing vehicle related deaths during these mass migrations, contact your local State Park or local DEC office. These organizations sometimes coordinate volunteers to come together on rainy nights to help salamanders cross busy roads. The more volunteers there are to help, the more amphibians will successfully breed! Before you help the amphibians, be sure to brush up on your identification! Here is a sampling of the native amphibians that you could see in New York.
The blue spotted salamander is black with pale blue flecks all over its body. It can grow from 3.5 to 5.5 inches long. They are frequently seen in woodlands.
Spotted Salamander Congress by Hannah Long, SCA Environmental Educator Member Thacher State Park, 2016
The spotted salamander is black and has yellow spots. It can grow up to 8 inches long. It is one of the most common salamanders in the area, and if you go out on a migration night there is a good chance that you will see it!
The Jefferson salamander is dark brown and has pale blue spots on its limbs and lower sides. The blue speckling is best seen on younger salamanders. It can crossbreed with the blue spotted salamander and usually grows to 4.5 to 7 inches long.
This red eft/ red spotted newt can secrete poisonous toxins. When it is on land in its juvenile stage, it is orange. However, in its aquatic adult stage it is an olive brown color and has a wide paddle like tail.
The wood frog has an extremely high freeze tolerance and can live in a variety of habitats including forests, tundra, and bogs. It has the nickname “Lone Ranger” because the coloration on its face resembles a mask. Last year a bill was proposed by a class of 3rd graders to declare the wood frog the State Amphibian of New York. To see the bill’s progress check out this website.
The spring peeper has large vocal sacs that it uses to create high pitched tones during the spring mating season. It typically grows to about one inch long and has a dark X marking on its back. Listen to the call of a male spring peeper.
The leopard frog gets its name from the irregularly shaped dark patches on its legs and back and can grow to be 3 to 5 inches long. They were once the most abundant frog species in North America, but they suffered large population declines in the 1970s.
“Salamander Migration Extraordinaire” Check out this naturalist’s blog post that has videos of spotted salamanders and Jefferson salamanders migrating to a vernal pool. There is amazing underwater footage of the salamanders at the breeding site!
Check out this video of Ranger Eric Powers from Your Connection to Nature to learn more information about vernal ponds and the animals that rely on them!
Post written by: Emily Crampe, SCA Member, Thacher State Park
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
No, I didn’t forget an s. After months of cold, brown surroundings, the spring season is beginning to breathe new life into our little town. I’m not talking sundresses and flip-flops just yet. No, the subtle signs of spring are what you and your kids are after. Tiny harbingers that chip away at the dirty parking lot snow and melt your wintery heart drip by drip. This time of year, if you’re watching closely, they seem to appear daily. There are many family-friendly places for you to visit and experience early spring in the capital region, and we can tell you where to start!
Have you ever driven past a pond on a warm evening in April or May? The next time you do, roll your windows down. The chilly breeze will carry a chorus of peepers into your car and surround you with spring. The tiny animal that makes this huge noise is called a Spring Peeper. It is a frog the size of a postage stamp! In Saratoga Spa State Park, the sound of peepers is the first true sign that spring is around the corner. For a special glimpse of this frog, join Spa Park’s FrogWatch. On the last Thursday evening of April, a Park Naturalist will guide visitors through a special wetland where they get a chance to hear and see the little frog with a huge voice!
Another of Saratoga’s spring sounds comes from a sharply dressed male bird called the Red Wing Blackbird. These birds fly south to escape the snow and ice, but they are one of the first to arrive back from their winter vacation. Smaller than a crow but just as loud, the blackbirds congregate in tall grasses and proclaim their territory with a raucous “okalacheeee!”. To hear them yourself, visit Moreau Lake State Park on a sunny day and bring your binoculars to see their wings flash red!
After all of this peeping and proclaiming, perhaps your family would enjoy a quiet walk to enjoy a silent sign of spring. Visit Saratoga Spa State Park’s Hemlock Trail for a short, flat walk to see the first spring plant, the Skunk Cabbage. This magenta and green flower unfurls from the swampy sections of Saratoga. It gets its name from the acrid odor it releases when it is crushed. Later in the spring, the strange looking flower will be replaced by large, showy green leaves. To see and smell this plant for yourself, go to the Hemlock Trail entrance on Crescent Avenue in Saratoga Springs. You’ll find the plants about half way around the mile-long loop.
We hope you enjoy your outings in our state parks, and everywhere spring is sprouting. Each day of this special season provides a new opportunity for you and your family to explore the outside world!
For more information regarding outings at Saratoga Spa State Park, please call the Environmental Educator at (518) 584-2000 Ext. 116.
Check out these additional spring-themed events that are happening across the state:
It is NatureTimes’ first birthday and it is spring! So get outside and celebrate, the snow will soon be melted and signs of life are appearing all around. Dust off your nature guides and your binoculars, get on your boots, and get out to a park near you. Last year, we posted some images of wildflowers that are the first to appear. Check that out – see how many you remember (hover over the photo to see the name). Here are some other flora and fauna to look for in the coming month.
Hepatica triloba. Photo by J. Lundgren, NYNHP.
Hermit thrush nest after Minnewaska fire. Photo by J. Lundgren, NYNHP.
Moss. Photo by J. Lundgren, NYNHP.
Shadbush Amelanchier. Photo by S. Young, NYNHP.
Indian Cucumber after Minnewaska fire. Photo by J. Lundgren, NYNHP.
White-throated sparrow. Photo by T. Howard, NYNHP.
Woodlawn frog eggs. Photo courtesy of NYNHP.
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