When it's Cold Outside, I've Got the Month of May

Cape May Warbler banded Wednesday. Photo by Blake Goll

As if we weren’t already a motley crew, banders donned their mismatch layers of winter coats, thrifted fleeces, alpaca fingerless gloves, and garish hats this week.  Mornings dipped into the 30’s, and although the sun was (actually) shining bright, the brisk autumnal wind kept the temps suppressed.   Banders and birders live for this  kind of weather though, because riding in the dark on these cold north winds come oodles of southbound migrants.

Indeed, Tuesday set a record for our season thus far even though we kept two of our fifteen nets closed all morning due to the wind.   Banders bared the cold and cranked through 65 birds of 19 species. We were thrilled to host some savvy birders from Birding Club of Delaware County who wisely chose this day to bird at Rushton, knowing this first cold front would have opened the migratory floodgates.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet before release on Wednesday. Photo by Blake Goll
The first Ruby-crowned Kinglets came en masse, and we are always amazed by these little flying nickels (they weigh little more than that).  Thrushes abounded as well including Swainson’s, Gray-cheeked, and Hermit, and the array of warblers was astonishing— Tennessee, Palm, Yellow-rumped, Blackpoll, Black-and-white, Black-throated Blue, and even a Common Yellowthroat still hanging around.
American Robin banded Tuesday. Photo by Celeste Sheehan
Swainson’s Thrush banded Tuesday. Photo by Celeste Sheehan
Swainson’s Thrush banded Tuesday. Photo by Celeste Sheehan
Yellow-rumped Warbler banded on Tuesday. Photo by Celeste Sheehan
Yellow-rumped Warbler banded Thursday. Photo by Blake Goll
Palm Warbler banded Thursday. Photo by Blake Goll
The stunner was our very first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker!  Even as a young hatch year bird, she still stole the show with her beautiful golden belly, her bark-like charcoal flecking, and her finely spotted red princess crown.  As a more northern breeder, sapsuckers are only seen in our area during migration and winter.  Sapsuckers drill small holes in trees with their sturdy bills to consume the sap and even the cambium of the tree.  Other creatures can sip the sap at these sapwells, including bats, porcupines, and hummingbirds.  In fact, some Ruby-throated Hummingbirds time their spring migration to parts of  Canada with the arrival of sapsuckers.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker banded on Tuesday. Photo by Blake Goll
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker banded Tuesday. Photo by Celeste Sheehan
Northern Flicker banded Tuesday. Photo by Celeste Sheehan
Wednesday was another cold  and exciting morning with 52 birds of 16 species.  The morning opened with a delightful suite sparrows — Field, Song, Swamp, and Lincoln’s— and Rushton’s first adult male Purple Finch!  These finches have the most beautiful dusty rose hue to their feathers, like raspberry sorbet, pink velvet, and peonies.
Field Sparrow banded Wednesday. Photo by Blake Goll
Swamp Sparrow banded Wednesday. Photo by Blake Goll
Song Sparrow banded Wednesday. Photo by Blake Goll
Lincoln’s Sparrow banded Wednesday. Photo by Blake Goll
Purple Finch banded Wednesday. Photo by Celeste Sheehan
Purple Finch banded Wednesday. Photo by Blake Goll
Then came the morning’s fun puzzle, a confusing fall warbler species that Rushton banders had never had in the hand before.  After happily poring over various warbler guides and bander references, we concluded that this was a first year female Cape May Warbler! She was beautiful with her delicate streaking and yellow auricular patches; breeding males are even more handsome with tiger stripes and chestnut cheeks.  This is a fascinating and poorly understood warbler that breeds in the conifers of the boreal forest and winters in the West Indies where it sips nectar from a semi-tubular tongue that no other warbler has.
Cape May Warbler banded Wednesday. Photo by Celeste Sheehan
Thursday saw the last of the Gray Catbirds, lots more warblers including another Blackpoll, thrushes and white-throats, and our first spunky Golden-crowned Kinglets.  We processed 56 new birds, 7 recaps, and a total of 16 species.  An additional  handful of Purple Finches set another record for Rushton and validated the official finch forecast, which called for an irruption year.  This means the pine cone seed crop up north was poor, so finches and other boreal seed-eating birds like Red-breasted Nuthatches will flood south for the winter.  You’ll likely see Purple Finches, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Pine Siskins at your feeders this fall and winter.
Golden-crowned Kinglet banded Thursday. Photo by Blake Goll
There’s a lot going on in the woods,
Blake
Black Swallowtail caterpillar on dill at Rushton Farm on Tuesday. Photo by Blake Goll

Something to Chat About

Yellow-breasted Chat (Hatch Year) banded on Tuesday at Rushton. Photo by Blake Goll

Another dreary, drippy morning on Tuesday surprisingly produced a season record of 54 birds spanning a dazzling 20 species.  Highlights included Gray-cheeked Thrushes, another prized Connecticut Warbler, the first Yellow-rumped Warbler of the season, and an increase in numbers of individuals of several species as compared to previous years—including Black-throated Blue Warblers, Indigo Buntings, and Eastern Towhees.  The grande finale was a glorious Yellow-breasted Chat, the second ever for Rushton!

The Yellow-breasted Chat is a large, chunky warbler with an atypical song that is more similar to the varied, staccato songs of catbirds and mockingbirds than to its more refined sounding relatives in the warbler family.  Dining mostly on spiders and insects in dense thickets, it also feasts on berries as evidenced by the traces of wild grapes on this chat’s bill.
Although this was undoubtedly a migrant, chats could theoretically breed at Rushton; we have everything a chat could ever want like dense shrubbery of blackberry bushes, sumac, multiflora rose, and honeysuckle.  Perhaps on its way back north from winter in the tropics, it will remember Rushton and decide to start a family here.  Never mind those pushy jewelers peddling their silver bracelets from the shady shack in the hedgerow.
Connecticut Warbler banded at Rushton. Photo by Blake Goll
Female Eastern Towhee banded on Tuesday. Photo by Blake Goll
Gray-cheeked Thrush banded Tuesday at Rushton. Photo by Blake Goll
One of our banding volunteers carefully blows the feathers aside to assess fat stores of a migratory Northern Waterthrush. Photo by Blake Goll
Students from Strath Haven High School experienced nature like never before as they crowded around the banding table in their pajamas (they mumbled something about homecoming school spirit week).  They were touched by these creatures as they guessed how many nickels a Common Yellowthroat weighed and learned of their arduous journeys to Central America.
Strath Haven student releasing a Common Yellowthroat on Tuesday. Photo by Blake Goll
The nets were still on fire on Wednesday with 42 new birds, 7 recaps, and a total of 14 species.  As I opened the woodland nets in the dawn haze, I got chills as high-pitched “weep” calls echoed from every corner of the dark woods.  It was as if I was surrounded by spring peepers in a second spring.  They were the distinct contact calls of Swainson’s Thrush, reserved specifically for migration.  These were birds that probably just touched down after a long night of travel and were checking in with each other before breakfast as the sun came up.
White-throated Sparrow banded at Rushton. Photo by Celeste Sheehan
White-throated Sparrows are now outnumbering Gray Catbirds as the fall migration plays out.  Rain kept us from banding on Thursday, but we will be back again next week, and the next and the next.   If you have been meaning to stop by to see us, you have three more weeks: every Tuesday and Thursday morning from 6:30-11 am.
Dewy dahlia bud at Rushton Farm. Photo by Blake Goll
There’s a lot going on in the woods,
Blake
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Rushton Conservation Center and dahlias for days. Photo by Blake Goll

Not Just Smoke and Sparrows

Spider webs illuminated by the dew at Rushton. Photo by Blake Goll

Mornings at Rushton this week were humid with water dripping from every leaf and berry.  As the sun ignited the fog, the water rose like smoke from the spicebush hedgerows and the cedar roof of the banding shelter.  It reminded me of a jungle sunrise— the forest visibly exhaling and enormous marbled orb-weavers retreating from their ubiquitous webs.
A new tinkling call from the north woods entered the soundscape.  It was the unmistakable chip note of the White-throated Sparrow.  Sure enough, we caught our first White-throat of the fall season on Tuesday, which marks the transition from a catbird- heavy catch to one dominated by sparrows.  Many of these White-throats will continue south, but some may stay to overwinter at Rushton Farm.

First White-throated Sparrow of the season banded on Tuesday. Photo by Celeste Sheehan
Red-eyed Vireo banded on Tuesday. Photo by Blake Goll
Indigo Bunting (After Hatch Year male) banded at Rushton on Tuesday. Photo by Blake Goll

Wednesday was a bountiful day of 30 birds of 17 species, including more White-throats and the guest of honor, a bright male Connecticut Warbler!  Adult male Connecticuts are large, stunning warblers with easter egg-yellow bodies and elegant gray hoods.  Breeding in northern spruce and tamarack bogs, this is a relatively uncommon bird to see during migration and one that gets birders flocking.  According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this is a bird that is of conservation concern, meaning it is at risk of extinction without significant conservation action to reverse declines.

Connecticut Warbler banded Wednesday at Rushton. Photo by Blake Goll

Abington Friends second graders enjoyed their visit to the banding station on Wednesday.  However, the muddy woodland might have rivaled the excitement of the birds.  These children will always remember the simple thrill of their shoes getting stuck in the deep mud and creating forest art from found objects.  And when they see birds at school or home, we hope they will experience a deeper emotion thanks to their time at Rushton.

Abington Friends second graders with earthworm in Rushton Woods. Photo by Blake Goll
Abington Friends second grader creating nature art in Rushton Woods. Photo by Blake Goll
Abington Friends exploring bumble bees at Rushton Farm. Photo by Blake Goll

According to radar and nocturnal flight call analyses, Wednesday night saw some fairly heavy migration activity in our region.  Consequently, Thursday’s catch produced 35 birds: a good bunch of Swainson’s Thrushes, Wood Thrush, American Redstarts, Black-throated Blues, a Field Sparrow, and American Robins.  We also caught a few residents including a Hairy Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, and  White-breasted Nuthatch.  Our Connecticut Warbler from Wednesday decided to stay at Rushton another night to continue bulking up fat stores.  He’s trying to figure out which net he likes best.

Field Sparrow banded at Rushton on Thursday. Photo by Blake Goll

Last but not least, a teeny tiny Winter Wren delighted us all. Do yourself a big favor and listen to the video below from Garth McElroy.

Winter Wren banded at Rushton on Thursday. Photo by Blake Goll


There’s a lot going on in the woods,
Blake

Marbled orb-weaver spider at Rushton. Photo by Caitlin Welsh.