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Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment
until it becomes a memory. ~Dr. Seuss
The weary winter sun is slowly setting behind the frozen horizon, casting a serene purple glow of promise in the golden streaked sky and turning the stark white blanket of snow a rose-colored hue. The birds have already retired to their secret roosting retreats, but a wise, plump squirrel dines in pensive solitude beneath the icy bird feeder that hangs from the solemn sugar maple.
As each new year begins, I imagine it like a roller coaster slowly and almost peacefully creeping up the hill—then methodically pausing at the very top before careening downward at thrilling speeds to destinations unknown. It is in that slow deliberate climb and the renewing pause at the top — somewhere within those few quiet moments after the birds have gone to roost and before the sun ducks below the horizon —that I find it gratifying and essential to reflect on the year past.
Sometimes we just need to slow down and take some time to direct our thoughts inward, to dreams and rumination. Out of quiet reflection comes clarity, boldness for the future and preparedness for the ups and downs of the roller coaster ahead. And so as 2/14— the day of love—approaches, let’s pause beneath the maple tree to recall and stock up on some of the most beloved memories of 2014 for the Trust’s bird conservation efforts.
Rushton Farm Emerges on the Cutting Edge of Groundbreaking Agroecology Research
In December, an exciting new finding emerged from a team of University of CA, Berkeley researchers showing that organic farming yields are much closer to industrial yields than previously touted. This new research eliminates the industrial farm bias with an impressive data-set three times larger than previously used. It basically shows that organic farming yield is only 19 percent less than conventional (or industrial) farming yields. This means it is indeed possible to grow food productively while taking care of the land and leaving room for feathered creatures as well!
Furthermore, findings show that the yield gap is greatly reduced or even eliminated when agroecological practices are used. These practices are all very familiar to our very own Rushton Farm, which is now becoming a model for feeding the world while keeping bird populations healthy! Such practices harness ecological interactions and include multi-cropping (growing a variety of crops), crop rotation for soil health and promoting native beneficial insects with native wildflower habitat.
This is the kind of farming that provides resiliency to soils, the environment, our health and biodiversity. It is farming for the future rather than using synthetic chemicals and biologically harmful practices for immediate short-sighted profits. It is the only kind of farming that can hope to reverse the profoundly unsustainable impact we are having on this planet, which has lost half of its wildlife populations in 40 years— a result of habitat loss and degradation coupled with unsustainable human consumption (according to WWF’s Living Planet Report 2014).
Although the birds have spoken and we have lots of anecdotal evidence of our own, it’s exciting to have this published confirmation that we’re doing it right and setting a great example at Rushton Farm! Read more about the disappearing yield gap in the following enlightening articles.
Agroecology and the Disappearing Yield Gap
Can Organic Crops Compete With Industrial Agriculture?
Organic Nearly as Productive as Industrial Farming, New Study Says
Declining Chimney Swifts Successfully Fledge from Rushton’s Brand New Chimney Swift Tower!
One of the many projects that our Bird Conservation Team has developed is the Homeowner Bird Box Program. Through this wildly popular program, the Trust provides and installs a variety of bird boxes for homeowners, including bluebird, wren, wood duck, kestrel and screech owl boxes. Bird box experts from the Bird Conservation Team work with the homeowners to devise a plan for the best location of the bird boxes on each property. Last year, 60 bluebird boxes were installed in Willistown and beyond, successfully pumping out broods of Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, House Wrens and even some chickadees all summer long, thanks to strategic placement and homeowner cooperation in monitoring their boxes.
However, it was the charming Chimney Swift chicks that stole the show last breeding season. In response to growing research indicating that swift populations have been suffering a steep decline of 65% since the 1960s due to habitat loss, our Bird Conservation Team decided to include them in our Bird Box Program. This tiny little aerial sprite is often called a “flying cigar” because of its stubby proportions and smudge-gray color; its feet are so reduced and claws so long that instead of perching it can only cling to vertical walls of chimneys, hollow trees or caves.
After European settlement, the birds became quite adjusted to nesting in chimneys and their population increased accordingly. Unfortunately, more people cap their chimneys now and other ‘too narrow’ or ‘too slick’ modern chimneys just aren’t as good as the old brick ones for Chimney Swift nesting. Logging of old growth forests has also contributed to the decline. To help prevent Chimney Swift decline, you can either preserve your chimney or offer the birds a giant fake chimney structure, which is exactly what we did at Rushton last June.
The magnificent wooden tower, meticulously built by a dear neighbor, glowed every summer morning like a golden shrine in the verdant fields of Rushton until one day in July it became the bustling epicenter of a new family of swifts! You’d think that large structure would be occupied by a colony of swift nests, but unfortunately it’s just one breeding pair per tower. Nevertheless, the tower’s swift success is more proof that ‘if you build it, they will come,’ and humans can have a positive impact on bird conservation right in their own backyards if they wish.
Check out chimneyswift.org if you’re interested in having your own swift success story. (I apologize in advance, but all this swift success talk makes me unable to resist: ‘Cause the chimney cappers gonna cap, cap, cap, cap, cap and the loggers gonna log, log, log, log, log… but I’m just gonna build, build, build, build, build… I build a tower, I build a tower.’)
500 School Children Got Feather Prints Left on Their Hearts at the Banding Station
The main purpose of the Rushton banding station is to capture annual data on what bird species are using the preserve during migration and breeding and what effect the sustainable farm and other land management practices have on the bird populations. Our data is shared with the national bird banding database to contribute to conservation, and —perhaps just as importantly— our “field office” is shared with the public to promote local awareness and enthusiasm for the birds that travel through and dwell in our backyards.
Last year, hundreds of children visited Rushton Farm and the banding station from a variety of public and private schools including some spirited urban groups like the Melton Center’s afterschool New Directions program from West Chester and the Mighty Writers from Philadelphia. All of the groups gain an understanding of agroecology and farming with a conscience, enjoy an enlightening walk through the cool woodlands, discover the beauty and fragility of the birds up-close at the banding station and then reflect on the harmony of it all in the herb garden. The emotional impact the trip has on these children can be seen in the photos below. Some even say that the Rushton field trip is their favorite day of the school year.
The urban students to which nature is a little more unfamiliar were extra fascinated by it all and enjoyed the little wonders they discovered, even if they did endearingly experience them first from behind their cell (read:comfort) phones.
Service Students Went Wild while Helping to Create Winter Bird Habitat
Our service students are of great value to the Willistown Conservation Trust because every year they help our small staff accomplish more than it otherwise could: repairing tree cages at our preserves, weeding around the office and even planting native wildflowers. Not only do they get the job done, but they do it with a one-of-a-kind flair that makes it fun and memorable.
Last December, the Shipley students got really creative and built an original bird shelter from large branches and sticks they found around the office. The shelter is holding up well, strategically propped up against the maple tree from which the feeder hangs. The birds took to it immediately, and it has been a joy to watch them using it as a perch while they wait in line for the feeder, a shelter from the cold wind and a sanctuary from hawks that patrol the open fields. Consider building one of your own for your birds this winter!
After that hard work, the students ran wild, exploring in the native wildflower meadow. They took particular delight and fascination in the old milkweed seed pods. They opened them up and happily sprinkled them around the meadow so that it looked like it was snowing milkweed seeds! These are the moments of magic that a little free time in nature elicits for children, even in a dormant, winter landscape.
Junior Birders Connected to Nature on All New Levels
Our Jr. Birding Club meets monthly to go birding and learn about many other amazing aspects of nature including butterflies and moths, tracks and scat, native plants, bird migration, woodland ecology, farm ecology, stream health, and even bats. Through a productive combination of structured lessons , free exploration and creative expression—with birds as the backbone— our Jr. Birders gain a deep appreciation for the natural world and an understanding of the importance of conservation.
Below are photos from a few of the activities that were new last year including a native wildflower and watercolor workshop, wetland study at Ashbridge Preserve and free nature play—that neglected pastime that is so important to children’s cognitive and emotional health.
Rushton Banding Crew Tirelessly Tagged Nearly 2,000 Birds during 105 banding days
It was a great year for the banding team; the numbers of birds were up and so were the number of species! Check out the previous blog post, titled The Spirit of Autumn, to see lots more photos of our beautiful birds. Below are some photos of the highlights and favorites plus brand new species never before caught at Rushton.
Rushton’s Saw-whet Owl Banding Station had Second-Best Year Yet
Last Fall marked Rushton’s 5th anniversary of monitoring Pennsylvania’s tiniest owls as they disperse south from their coniferous haunts as far north as Canada. In 34 nights, we captured and banded 96 new Northern Saw-whet Owls, plus caught 3 “foreign recoveries”—owls with bands given to them by other banders before they came to us. We got all of our foreign birds in November; they included two young females banded earlier that October in New York state 300-some miles away and an older (after second year) female originally banded in Wellington, Canada in 2013! We also had some exciting reports of owls we banded in years past trying out the nets at other banding stations: Valhalla, NY had one of our owls— originally banded here in October 2012— last November.
It was an unusual banding season in that the cold weather took its sweet time arriving, and the katydids were still casually singing in mid-November! Consequently, the owls were fashionably late to their own party. And then perhaps because the party got started so late, many of the owls did not travel as far south as in previous years. Most banding stations, especially those south of us—like Virginia, Maryland and Georgia— had below average years.
Not us! We had our second-best year yet! Our best was 2012 when we banded a whopping 268 saw-whets after a high-success breeding summer. In our opening year of 2010 we caught 90 birds, and 2011 and 2013 were the abysmal years of just 33 and 30 birds, respectively. We and the 130 other banding stations participating in Project Owlnet (which just turned 20) are still trying to learn more about the cyclical nature of this species, how the population is doing and what factors play a role in their winter dispersal movements.
One thing we know is that these little owls are closely dependent, as all birds are, on the reliability of their food sources. They are rapacious hunters of small rodents, especially mice. Each Saw-whet owl hunts two personal mice per night, saving half of the last one they catch —usually just before dawn— to take with them to their daytime roost site as a “bagged lunch”! If they can’t get their two mice per night quota… they simply move on to a place with better eats.
Interestingly, an exceptional 23 of our 96 owls caught last fall were caught on multiple nights. This indicates that the eating was good at Rushton, so the owls were able to stick around for awhile. Our banding records show that 8 of the 23 stayed more than 10 days! This is as good as getting a 5-star rating on OpenTable, folks! In addition, a mammal survey carried out by a UPenn graduate student also proved that the Rushton rodents were abundant.
As always, the human density was high during Fall nights at Rushton as well! Sixteen loyal volunteers and over 700 visitors of all ages were enchanted by our adorable—sometimes demonic as banders will tell you—Saw-whet Owls and learned about the science we and others are doing to fuel the future conservation of these spunky woodland elves.
According to Audubon’s climate model, this owl may be largely absent from the lower 48 during winter by the end of the century, as a result of its winter range steadily marching northward with climate change. For now though, we can be pretty certain we’ll see these owls again next fall—perhaps in a very big way according to the pattern. Whoooo knows? Maybe one is overwintering in a forgotten tangle of honeysuckle in your backyard.
Even on a cold winter’s night as the wild wind howls with disquietude, perusing these photos of warm memories makes me feel as satiated as the plump squirrel beneath the maple tree (you know, the one I mentioned way back at the beginning of this post), stuffing his cheeks full of nourishment in the rose-colored snow beneath the purple sky of promise.
Ignore that groundhog and hold onto your feathers! According to the birds, Spring is just around the corner.
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In today’s electronically connected world, breaking news gets disseminated at mind boggling speeds, emails are read and responded to immediately and even seemingly old fashioned hobbies like birding have evolved into sophisticated, tight-knit communities of very connected people exchanging information at lightening speeds. Wednesday morning’s Snowy Owl on a rooftop in our own neighborhood of Berwyn was discovered by a single birder whose excitement spread like wild fire through the birding community of Chester County. Emails were shot out and hasty calls were made to birding friends , breakfast was skipped, business meetings were delayed, birders called in sick to work for the morning, and even non-birders caught the sparks of excitement and wanted to see the “Harry Potter Owl”.
Within less than an hour of the sighting over eight local birders were on the scene gazing breathlessly through binoculars at this rare six and half pound visitor from the arctic tundra, the embodiment of a wild world where life comes simply one day at a time, surroundings are austere and uncluttered and the only schedule to answer to is that of the polar sun.
The Snowy Owl was in the Willistown Conservation Trust’s program area, so we were proud to add it to our 2013 Species Seen List. As this year comes to a close, feel free to report to us any bird species you see that are not already on our list!
The southward invasion of these large white owls with five foot wingspans has only just begun for this winter and already reports have been popping up all over the state: one in Berks County, one in Lancaster County, a few in Centre County, two in Lebanon County, five or so in Erie County at Presque Isle State park, one at the Philadelphia airport at the southern end of the Girard Point Bridge and then the one that showed up this week right here in Berwyn on Whitehorse road! Most of these birds were sitting on top of roofs, on fence posts, on utility poles or just right on the ground in the middle of fields or dunes. As the largest owl in North America and a denizen of the open tundra, the Snowy is quite conspicuous and not accustomed to hiding anywhere. So keep your eyes peeled!
If you do happen to spot a Snowy Owl (and not just a white grocery bag way out in a field), you should immediately report it to eBird, which is amassing one of the largest biodiversity databases in the world and revolutionizing the way birders, ornithologists, educators, and conservationists distribute and share information about bird populations. Reporting bird sightings is easy; just set up an account and you’re ready to report your incidental checklist. With eBird, you can explore all kinds of data like range maps for specific species. For example, if you wanted to discover all the locations near you where Snowy Owls have been sighted this winter so far, you would type the search terms into this map http://ebird.org/ebird/map/ .
Click here to see an up-to-date sightings map of Snowy Owls in PA this winter. Zoom in with your mouse and click on the points for specific location information. Also be sure to check the box on the right that says, “Show Points Sooner,” if you want to see actual points instead of purple blobs. Zooming out will reveal that the Snowy Owls have also been appearing in southern Canadian Provinces, New England, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and even one in Bermuda! Newfoundland is seeing an astounding 150 Snowy Owls at once!
While you are chasing down these regal visitors and enjoying their beauty this winter, keep in mind that these owls flew an incredibly long distance from the arctic to get here. The reason they are here is because a lack of food (primarily small rodents called lemmings) up north drove them to migrate south. The theory behind the invasion is that the lemming population was actually booming this summer and consequently the owls had many young. Once this surplus of hungry owlets becomes a surplus of huge adult owls at the end of the breeding season, lemmings become scarce again and the owls (many hatch years) are forced south for food. We have no way of knowing if the owls we are happily viewing are starving to death, which is a very real possibility as some of the young typically do not survive their first winter. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that birders enjoy these birds from a distance so as not to disturb them and cause them to fly off, expending extra vital energy they are trying to conserve.
An invasion like this occurred in 2011, but the brunt of it was in the Pacific Northwest and Great Plains. The Northeast U.S. and Atlantic Coast did not see the numbers then that they are seeing this winter, presumably because this year’s owls originate from the Eastern Arctic and Greenland rather than the central or western Arctic as in 2011. Read more about this year’s and 2011’s invasion in the eBird article here.
Snowy Owl males are almost all white, while juvenile females have heavy dark barring all over. Adult females and juvenile males fall somewhere in between in terms of amount of black bars on their plumage.
Check out these website articles to see more photos and learn more about the Snowy Owl and this year’s invasion (also known as an irruption):
GoErie.com (this one also has a video link of one of the Snowy Owls in Erie)
Nemesisbird.com (for the 2013-14 Snowy Owl Irruption Watch)
wctbirds.com (an article I wrote in February 2012 about my first Snowy Owl experience)
And for all of you out there who have experienced the gut-wrenching, sinking feeling in your stomach when you realized that that heart-racing, big white owl-ish looking thing in the middle of the field was just a grocery bag, there’s even a website for you to report your stories of defeat and photos of things you thought were Snowy Owls. It’s pretty funny. Check it out here : “That’s Not a Snowy Owl”.
A fellow PA birder reminded me that Snowy Owls are a great species for getting people hooked on birding, especially children! Here are a bunch of links of fantastic Snowy Owl resources that he suggested for kids (and kids at heart!):
National Wildlife Federation Kids (Ranger Rick pages)
Review of Snowy Owls: WHooo Are They? (Children’s Book)
National Geographic Kids (Creature Feature)
Nature: Magic of the Snowy Owl (DVD. You can also watch online at PBS Nature)
Look for Snowy Owls and Ducks at the Willistown Conservation Trust’s second annual Duck Hunt
(with binoculars and scopes)
tomorrow December 7, from 8-11am. Still Spots Left!
Contact me if interested (Blake Goll, email@example.com). We will meet at the Rushton Farm Parking lot on Delchester Road and then drive around Willistown touring the ponds and lakes for migrant waterfowl like the Hooded Mergansers pictured above, and of course Snowy Owls! You never know what surprises a morning of birding may bring.
There’s a lot going on in the woods,
Don’t miss the rare moment of fame for birds and birders tonight at 9pm as HBO premiers Jeffrey Kimball’s new documentary, “Birders: The Central Park Effect”, an exploration of the birds of Manhatten, the birders (aka bird nerds, dweebs or dorks), and the reasons behind the addictive nature of birding. Read this article to find out more.
Also, as a follow up to our last blog post, “Purple Martin Majesty”, here is our very own documentary about Purple Martin Banding by Adrian Binns, Senior Tour Leader for Wildside Nature Tours. We band Purple Martins to contribute to population and migration data, which ultimately helps conserve this special, human-dependent species. Of course, none of the birds were harmed in the making of this documentary, and the small lightweight bands do not decrease the survival of the chicks. Please visit a previous blog post, “Bird Banding Proven to be Safe for the Birds”, for more information about banding safety.
And last but not least, if you have not checked out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Heron Cam, you MUST! It’s a beautifully edited video that delicately and intimately documents the secret family lives of Great Blue Herons, focusing on a successful family from this spring in Sapsucker Woods.
Enjoy the birds!
The vernal clock is ticking, the fervent winds from the South are rising, and I can almost hear the steady beating of the wings as the migrant wave swells steadily northward. The birds that have already arrived or passed through seem to be twittering, “The tide is coming, the tide is coming!”, as they hurriedly move on or get right down to reserving the best territories before the crowd comes.
The crowd is indeed coming! Birders have been reporting that migration is “raging” in the south, and birds in the east that have been bottled up by the recent storms just moved north in massive numbers in the last couple of nights. Although it is still a bit early for neo-tropical migrants here, we can expect to see increasing numbers of warblers, vireos, tanagers, orioles and grosbeaks.
Check out this radar image of migration movement south of us last night. The circles of blue indicate migrating birds, while the irregular patterns are storms. Pretty cool, huh? Radar images are being used more regularly in ornithology and birding to help predict bird migration and link bird movements to weather patterns.
We are expecting the banding station to start getting very busy! We have been open for “birdness” (as Lisa Kiziuk, Director of the WCT Bird Conservation Program, puts it) for the past three weeks, and things have been pretty quiet with only half a dozen birds on some days. However, we have had good quality to make up for the lack of quantity: a migrant flock of American Robins, several Brown Thrashers, nice little flocks of White-throated Sparrows, a couple Winter Wrens, Hermit Thrush, a White-eyed Vireo, and a red phase Eastern Screech Owl! A pair of Brown Thrashers are nesting at Rushton Woods Preserve, so we get to listen to the male’s lovely song every morning.
Last week, we captured a recap Common Yellowthroat ; we had banded him in a previous year, so he has returned safely to his summer home! This week, Gray Catbirds arrived, including one of ours that we banded at Rushton last year. Welcome home! I’m never more excited to see a catbird than I am for the first catbird of the year. They become so common so fast, our “bread and butter bird”, but for now the Catbird elicits smiles from ear to ear as if he were a good friend of ours that had been out of touch for years. His beautiful song now fills the woods and our yards with tropical euphony.
Those tiny denizens of the leaves, the wood warblers, should be arriving now that their tree havens have sprung to life. I can’t wait!
Don’t forget about our Warbler Walk at Kirkwood Preserve next Sunday May 6 from 7:30am -10am, led by our federally licensed bird bander and master birder, Doris McGovern! We will meet in the Kirkwood parking lot on Grubbs Mill Road. Please RSVP to me, Blake Goll (firstname.lastname@example.org), by May 3.
Also be sure to visit the banding station at Rushton Woods Preserve and Farm as migration picks up. We are open to the public Tuesday and Thursday mornings from sunrise (5:30am) until about 11am (unless it rains). No need to RSVP unless you plan to bring a large group. We band to contribute to global bird conservation efforts, to document the bird populations and species diversity using the preserve, and to connect people to nature through intimate experiences with birds.
PA Young Birders Update
The PA Young Birders had a blast birding and “migrating” this past Saturday at Rushton. The children had a chance to hold the newly hatched and very naked Carolina Wren nestlings, which we borrowed from the funky weed wacker nest. What was Mama Wren thinking? Needless to say, our farm staff will be short one weed wacker this season! What a perfect picture of farm and nature existing in harmony.
The Young Birders also got their exercise racing against each other in an obstacle course that simulated bird migration and the many (often human imposed) hazards birds must face. These hazards included having to find food and water while avoiding being eaten by cats and other predators, weaving in and out of buildings in a city, avoiding glass windows, flying over habitat destruction and around windmills, and dodging cars! (No children were injured in this simulation).
The next PAYB meeting, “Spring Migration Morning at the Rushton Woods Preserve Banding Station” will be held Saturday May 19, 9am-11am. The children will experience songbirds in the hand and science in the field during the peak of spring migration at Rushton. We offer this unforgettable memory to children for free, but a donation of $5 per child is suggested to help us maintain our special outdoor classroom and quality educational programs. Please RSVP to me, Blake Goll (email@example.com).
Also coming up is the Pretty Big Bird Day , May 12 from as early as you wish until 6pm. Click here for more information about the event. This event is a friendly competition between teams to see who can spot the most species in the Willistown area. Families and birders of all ages are welcome! Form your own team or join an existing one by contacting Dick Eales at REales@gmail.com. Any interested PA Young Birders should contact me, Blake Goll (firstname.lastname@example.org), by May 8th to join my team for a couple hours of the competition!
Early Spring Babies
Here is a picture of the happy bluebird babies in my own backyard. They all hatched successfully before the egg- pecking House Wren returned, and they are just 4 or 5 days from fledging! Unfortunately, the bluebird family at Rushton was not so lucky. They nested much later than mine, and their eggs were pecked this week by the aggressive House Wren. Hopefully, once the wren gets busy with his own nest, the bluebirds will have a chance. We also plan to place three more bluebird boxes at Rushton in a more open area of the fields, far away from the hedgerow. Bluebird boxes that are too close to hedges or the edge of woods are at high risk for wren predation.
The skies are alive at Rushton with the theatrical dynamics of the Tree Swallows, which are starting their nests. Fred De Long, Director of the Farm, remembers when there was only one lone pair of swallows 3 years ago when the farm was just starting out. This year, there are several pairs; like the orioles, the swallows seem to be flourishing with the maturation of the sustainable farm nestled in the nature preserve.
Lisa Kiziuk has a family of House Finches that nested in her wreath at her home. The babies have already fledged and the TAP students ( The Achievement Project of Chester), who have been learning about the farm and birds, were thrilled to have a chance to cradle the charming nestlings in their hands last week. House finches were once sold as pets and called Hollywood Finches; their sweet and amusing dispositions coupled with their beautiful song make it easy to see why they were desirable pets!
Happy Belated Birthday to John James Audubon!
Born on April 26, 1785, he is one of the most celebrated French-American ornithologists, naturalists, and painters. His seminal work, “The Birds of North America,” is considered the finest ornithological work ever completed and can be viewed online here. This online version is definitely not as fabulous as the real thing (which is a wonderful coffee table book!), but fun to browse nonetheless.
Excuse me, but I must go plant a tree for the birds…
Happy Arbor Day!