I like winter. As December rolls around and the snow sparkles and swirls outside my window, I have no choice but to stay inside and reflect on the year. And what a year the Rushton banding crew has had, with wonderful memories galore to keep us warm as the icicles fall.
The elusive Connecticut Warbler showed up on the 5th of October, a whole month later than its usual autumn debut at Rushton, possibly because of the wild and wacky fall weather. It was a balmy 60 degrees on that morning whereas a few days prior the mercury started out in the 40’s, chilly enough for the crickets to wait until much later in the day to pick up their strings.
Warbler numbers at Rushton always seem a bit more depauperate each year, but especially noticeable has been the decrease in our Black-throated blue catch with only eight individuals banded this fall. Does this indicate a decline in this species or are they simply not using Rushton as a stopover site? One window collision study has shown that this particular warbler is among the “super-colliders”, a few species that for whatever reason have a higher rate of mortality from communication towers. Could this be why we see less of them? On a positive note, thanks to the independent research of a single mom named Joelle Gehring, the Federal Communications Commission has approved changes that save birds without reducing air safety, i.e., removing steady burning lights from communication towers to reduce bird mortality by 70%.
Another disappointingly underrepresented species this year at Rushton was the Northern Saw-whet Owl. In seven weeks of owl banding we only captured 12 saw-whets. To be fair, we were expecting this since every other year is a good year for this cyclical species, which is essentially tied to the natural seed production of the boreal forest. Last year, we banded 95 saw-whet owls.
When the trees have a good year, the seed collecting mice have a banner year and the mouse munching owls make out. This past breeding season was poor for the saw-whets, likely because the trees did not give a mouse a cookie. As a result of few new baby owls competing for food combined with mild weather in the Northeast this fall, most of the adult owls did not feel like migrating. A great example is the one foreign recovery we had this year; an owl we banded last year around the traditional peak of saw-whet owl migration (end of October/beginning of November) was picked up in Canada about that same time this year, with no indication of any migratory itch.
Going back to our review of songbird banding, the age ratio of our catch this fall was, as usual, heavily skewed toward Hatch Year (birds in their first fall)— a whopping 86 %. Compare that to our spring, which typically consists of only about 60 % of these young birds, mostly due to the fact that many young birds do not make it through that first fall migration, thanks in part to what we’ll call anthropogenic complications.
At Rushton, we’re just helping to monitor the birds while encouraging people to learn about them. Birds are the global heartbeat. “As we learn about birds we learn about ourselves and the planet”, says John Fitzpatrick, Director of Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They teach us how to manage habitat and ecosystems, and they teach us how our actions affect Earth. Unfortunately, as the human population has doubled in the past 50 years, bird populations have declined by 50 percent. Habitat loss and urban sprawl have taken the worst tolls, especially on our neotropical species whose great migrations bring them up against even more human perils.
One-third of North American bird species need urgent conservation to avoid extinction. One way to expedite bird conservation is to learn faster about where they are going. This is where the peculiar tower atop the Rushton greenhouse comes into play. It is the first of a line of 20 automated radio telemetry receiver stations that now stretches across Pennsylvania from the Southeast to Lake Erie.
This array is part of the new cutting edge wildlife tracking technology called Motus that — although has only been around for a few years — has managed to generate over 350 million data hits from 350 receiving stations in the western hemisphere, putting it on track to be one of the world’s largest collaborative research and conservation efforts. The system uses the world’s smallest transmitters called nanotags that can be made tiny enough to sit on the back of a monarch butterfly during its migration.
Below is Bird Studies Canada’s spectacular new YouTube video about the Motus Wildlife Tracking System. In addition, Scott Weidensaul, author and naturalist, elaborates on Motus in our Sycamore newsletter here.
The line of Motus towers across PA (which was mostly erected in just 17 days this summer) was the work of the Northeast Motus Collaboration, an impressive new partnership including Willistown Conservation Trust, Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, Project Owlnet and Bird Studies Canada. It represents the first statewide effort of its kind. The towers are already revealing important information that traditional banding simply cannot; birds we never knew flew through PA indeed do, including Whimbrels and even a Yellow-headed Blackbird. Specifically our tower at Rushton has recorded nocturnal pings from tagged flyovers including many Redknots (a federally threatened shorebird), King Rails, Gray-cheeked Thrush from Colombia and even Silver-haired bats.
Such sophisticated tracking technology is unveiling the migratory stopover sites and routes that birds use. This knowledge is vital to saving habitat in today’s world where energy infrastructure and development projects seem to pop up any and everywhere. For example, the enigmatic Connecticut Warbler has recently been confirmed by Motus research as a seafarer much like the Blackpoll Warbler, traveling between one and two thousand miles over the merciless Atlantic Ocean from the Northeast. They eventually ride the tradewinds southwest over Bermudan airspace directly into Cuba, Haiti or the Dominican Republic after two days of ocean flight.
Evidently, Connecticut warblers use the Caribbean as stopover habitat along the ocean flyway before continuing on to the Amazon rainforest for the winter. So you see, not only is it important to focus conservation efforts for this particular species in the Amazon but also in the newly revealed Caribbean hideout.
As Joe Smith referenced in his excellent blog for Nature.org, Columbus and his voyagers once followed “the great flocks of birds” that were flying over the ocean toward the Caribbean Islands during the peak of fall migration. Though we may never know how great the great flocks of 1492 surely must have been, we can hope that Motus will help us preserve some of the migratory magnificence that has forever been one of Earth’s most awe-inspiring cycles.
Please enjoy the following collection of photos from autumn at Rushton with excerpts from our daily banding reports:
August 31st: This morning marked the dawn of another new autumn in Rushton Woods. Well seasoned banders arose expectantly minutes before their alarms went off and reported for duty at civil twilight in the heavy wet morning.
As the great Doris McGovern once said in one of her renowned banding reports, “what a privilege to be a part of the cycles of the natural world.” Indeed, it feels like an honor to call Rushton our office in which we experience and monitor one of the world’s greatest phenomena from late August until November: the migration of billions of songbirds to their southern wintering grounds.
November 2nd: Today was unseasonably warm for November making the White-throated Sparrows and juncos seem out of place. The soundscape resembled an aviary with dozens of robins chattering in the canopy, some singing as though it were spring. We also delighted in one more each of our favorite birds: the Golden-crowned Kinglet, Fox Sparrow and Winter Wren.
Wishing you cheerful holidays filled with peace and birds. And remember…there’s a lot going on in the woods,
The last day of August was the inauguration of our eighth fall banding season at Rushton Woods Preserve. Aside from the hemispheric wave of billions of songbirds south on the heels of the retreating summer, there is another local rhythm of which we banders are lucky to be a part. If an extraterrestrial being were to observe this banding production from above, it might resemble some sort of strange amusement park. In the central meadow, goldfinches ride the tall purple meadow thistle down to the earth like dumbwaiters and then launch off using the rebounding stems like slingshots. As this entertainment goes on, the banders ride the carousel every thirty minutes around the peripheral hedgerows, checking the nets for winged goodies. After getting their wristbands at central ticketing, the birds get ejected back out into the park while eager human visitors stream in through the turnstiles from the farm fields.
Banding reveals what birds are using this unique 86-acre nature preserve, the heart of which is actually a sustainable small-scale farm. Rushton Farm will be celebrating its 10th anniversary this month— 10 years of proving that farms can support both people and surrounding habitat without feeding the stereotype that farming is the most polluting industry on earth. We have seen an increase in the number of bird species over the years using the “green fences” of early successional trees and shrubs that have matured around the farm. There was our first Yellow-breasted Chat banded on September 10th of last fall, a bird that is seldom seen outside of the breeding season due to its skulking habits and preference for dense shrubby thickets.
Last fall we also banded our first Yellow-billed Cuckoo after being taunted by their milky cooing high in the caterpillar-filled canopy of the hedgerows for seven years. Our captive cuckoo was most likely hatched that summer from a nest we found in dense honeysuckle shrubs and was still clinging to its nursery hedgerow on its banding date of October 25th, making it one of the latest Chester County cuckoo records. We said a prayer upon release as we knew he had a long and treacherous nocturnal migration ahead of him to his South American wintering grounds.
In addition to species diversity and abundance, banding gives us finer details of our bird population including individual longevity and site fidelity. For example, during our MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Suvivorship) banding program this summer, we recaptured a handsome Northern Flicker originally banded by us as a Third Year adult in 2013. That makes him 7 years old now, so he has theoretically been returning to the summer woods of Rushton ever since we first blazed the original net lanes and completed the rigorous habitat survey to become one of the 1200 MAPS stations providing long-term vital rates of North American landbirds to the Institute for Bird Populations.
Banding recaptures also give us valuable insight into local post-fledging movements, a previously understudied part of the avian life cycle that is now gaining more attention from scientists. Our MAPS breeding banding occurs in the open woodland of Rushton where many of our babies are hatched in June and July. At the end of August when we begin fall migration banding back in the shrubby hedgerows bordering the farm, we often recapture some of our woodland youth —a testament to the importance of such early successional shrub habitat. This unkempt habitat is profoundly significant for the survival of young birds because it offers high food density along with lower density of predators as compared to the open woodland. Post-fledging recaptures of this type over the years have included Ovenbirds, Wood Thrush and Veery to name a few.
Another important reason why we band is to understand stopover ecology, or how migratory birds use Rushton to optimize fuel loads. Birds only carry fat during migration, which is assigned a numerical score (0-6) during the banding process. Recaptured birds within the same migration season can give us rates of fat gain, which can tell us something about the quality of our habitat. For example, last fall a Black-and-white Warbler that we banded on September 11th with only trace fat (rated 1) was recaptured at Rushton ten days later with a fat score of 5. “Its flanks, thighs and furculum all with buttery glow,” said Doris McGovern who holds our Master permit from the USGS Bird Banding Lab, allowing us to band birds protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Last but not least, the Rushton Banding Station provides an intimate connection for the people of our community to birds and nature. We invite people under the eaves of our banding station to learn about the importance of birds as the glue that holds the biological web in balance and to understand the global nature of the incredible migration phenomenon that connects all of us beyond country lines. They learn what they can do to help slow the alarming decline in birds. Of course, nothing we preach to them about the wonders of birds and why they should care can compare to what the birds themselves inspire in their hearts after leaving their hands. These pictures show what I mean.
The opening day of this fall (8/31) produced 57 new banded birds of thirteen species including residents, migrants and many young of the year in their very first fall. This is more birds in one day than we had total for the first two weeks of banding last September; the warm weather and unproductive wind patterns of that September made for a slow start to migration. In comparison, the cool weather and north winds of this fall have ensured an explosive start to migration. Notably, our best day last fall once cooler nights became the norm was on October 11th when a record 104 birds were banded!
Even with the slow start, we still closed out last fall season with a grand total of 1,247 birds (100 more than our best fall) in part thanks to the addition of two new nets, which were installed where we noticed high densities of birds. The new nets are working hard for us again this season. One near the compost pile catches goldfinches, warblers and sparrows that are dining in the farm edge, and the other in the middle of the wild meadow catches other migrants that may be traveling to and from our shrub habitat demo area. In all, our 14 nets give us a thorough picture of Rushton’s avifauna.
The showstoppers of our opening day this fall were two Blue-winged Warblers. The first was a stunning After Hatch Year female, and the second was an equally dashing male despite being in his hatching year. Upon closer inspection of our photos, however, we discovered that the male is quite possibly a Brewster’s Warbler (a hybrid of Golden-winged Warbler and Blue-winged). Notice the striking yellow wing bars on our male, which is a Golden-winged trait. Otherwise, he looks like a regular Blue-winged. Golden-winged Warblers have suffered one of the steepest population declines of any songbird species in the past four decades as a result of habitat loss and hybridization. Our probable Brewster’s Warbler may be the closest Rushton ever gets to seeing a Golden-winged Warbler.
Last week, we only banded on Thursday (9/7) thanks to the rain. We kept up our momentum with 46 new birds and 5 recaps, including the usual suspects like Common Yellowthroats and catbirds sticking around from the previous week. Dapper Wood thrushes and Veery continue, while Ovenbirds and Magnolia Warblers were the new arrivals to the fairgrounds. Some notable birds in the hand included a Veery with an overflowing fat of 6 —a true athlete that could have traveled 160 miles that following night at a chilly altitude of 1.2 miles on its way to southern Brazil. An American Goldfinch had a big brood patch (the bare vascularized skin on the stomach used for regulating egg temperature during breeding), indicating that she is a busy mom right now! Begging goldfinch chicks can now be seen and heard in chirping flocks bouncing all over the farm and upper meadows of Rushton , tirelessly harassing their poor parents.
Meanwhile, some of our less ostentatious residents hide in the lower meadow behind the banding station where the morning mist is slow to retreat into the cool shadows of the wood: the iconic Monarch caterpillars. They are a legion this year, with black and yellow stripes to be found on virtually every milkweed plant, despite the fact the plants are past their peak with more brown leaves than green now. These are special caterpillars. They are the fourth generation of this year. This means that once they become butterflies, instead of dying in 2-6 weeks like their brethren they will endure the 3,000 mile migration to Mexico’s fir forests and live 6-8 months to start the cycle again. We wish them luck on their journey and hope that they find enough pesticide-free habitat to sustain them along the way.
Our bird banding station at Rushton Woods Preserve is now open to the public every Tuesday and Thursday morning from 6am until we close the nets at around 10:30 or 11 am. The season ends on November 2nd. Please note the station is closed in the event of rain. For those who cannot make it to the station during the week, we do have this Saturday, September 16th, open to the public for our annual open house (6-10:30 am).
As Doris was wont to say in her daily banding reports, see you in the woods!
The following is an excerpt taken this year from my journal, “Meadow Walking,” an attempt to document the delights of our native wildflower meadow through the seasons. This meadow is located in front of the Willistown Conservation Trust office on Providence Road in Newtown Square and has been flourishing in place of a traditional lawn for nine years now.
Early September in the wildflower meadow is absolutely spectacular. Many of the flowers are admittedly past their peak, but their charming seed pods serve to add more texture to the intricate palette and only make the late blooming flowers that much more vibrant. There is a palpable heartbeat here…
A flock of fifteen goldfinches frolics across the sky from one patch of seed heads to the next. First to the Virginia cup plant, then the False sunflowers. Next the thistle and back to the cup plants for a drink. Meanwhile, two young mockingbirds awkwardly flash their wing patches in the trails, practicing stirring up insects to eat. They notice me and dive into the swath of Virginia cup plant where they suspiciously eye me up as I attempt to catch photos of the shy goldfinches. A sporty chipping sparrow runs across the grass trail in front of me like a mouse diving into the meadow. I hear young blue jays begging for food and a teenage , “gray headed” Red-bellied woodpecker tap tap tapping on the walnut tree. Honeybees lazily buzz from the delicate white sprays of boneset to the mustard yellow of the grass-leaved goldenrod. A black swallowtail flits from one deep purple spray of New York ironweed to the next. I marvel at how the autumnal violet of the ironweed complements the harvest yellow of the goldenrod in this beautiful meadow of life.
You cannot stand amid this cathartic jubilee without absorbing the energy that abounds in the grasses, the flowers, the birds and the insects. You cannot help but feel rejuvenated as a cool breeze momentarily cuts the summer heat, whispering of the fall to come. Although I didn’t quite get that photograph I was looking for, I received far more than I sought.
As I head back up the path, those stealthy goldfinches dodge the yellow leaves that spiral down from blue skies as they continue their methodical wanderings from one corner of the meadow to the next.
As you wander from one chapter of your life to the next, may your pulse echo the rhythm of the meadow. Like the perennials, may your roots reach deep into good soil so you stand strong in the changing winds. May you revel in the clear days but remember the buoyant grace of the goldfinches when those leaves inevitably fall from blue skies. If life doesn’t quite give you what you dreamed of, remember that in nature you often receive far more than you seek— advice from the great John Muir who undoubtedly also sought solace and strength from wildflower meadows.
May your new year be filled with deep breaths, quiet walks in nature, vitality and magic.
P.S. Be sure to stay tuned in the new year for the summary of this fall’s spectacular banding season, big news for 2017 and more musings from the meadow.