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,

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

It's Raining Warblers, Hallelujah!

Magnolia Warbler (After Hatch Year male) banded at Rushton this week. Photo by Blake Goll

Late September is a thrilling time of abundance in the natural world.  As more yellow leaves begin to hustle to the earth ahead of the equinox, the goldenrod finds its stride, and deep purple asters become more plentiful.  Butterflies seem to be more omnipresent now than ever, energized by the late season nectar, and their caterpillars can be found hiding under every leaf and bud.  Our catch mimics this floral and faunal flamboyance in species richness and numbers. 
Even though we were rained out again on Tuesday just like last week, we more than made up for it.   We had a great catch on Wednesday of 35 birds with the highlights including a radiant male Magnolia Warbler and a female Scarlet Tanager.  Although tanagers nest in Rushton Woods, they are a rare catch because they tend to dwell in the tree canopy high above our nets.  Tanagers dine largely on insects, but they also enjoy berries including blackberries, raspberries, huckleberries,  serviceberries, mulberries, and strawberries.  The only reason we caught this one is because we have a new net nestled in a grove of tall sumac shrubs; she was most likely feeding on the velveteen berries of the sumac.  She will continue south, across the Gulf of Mexico, to her wintering grounds in South America.

Scarlet Tanager (After Hatch Year female) banded at Rushton.  Photo by Blake Goll

The view from our new net in the “tropical sumac forest”. Photo by Blake Goll

Yesterday, our catch was even more sensational — 47 birds of a dazzling 19 species! A handful of American Redstarts, a bushel of Black-throated Blues, lots of Common Yellowthroats and Ovenbirds, a Black-and-white Warbler, a vivid Tennessee Warbler, and the prized Connecticut Warbler.  Wood Thrush migrants are now joined by their cousins, the Swainson’s Thrush and Gray-cheeked Thrush.  The Gray-cheeked is the most northern breeding of our thrushes, nesting in underbrush near the edge of the arctic tundra, and is an infrequently seen skulker like the shy Connecticut Warbler.

Gray-cheeked Thrush banded at Rushton this week. Photo by Celeste Sheehan

Connecticut Warbler banded at Rushton this week. Photo by Blake Goll

American Redstart (male) banded at Rushton this week. Photo by Blake Goll

Tennessee Warbler (Hatch Year) banded at Rushton this week. Photo by Celeste Sheehan

Black-and-white Warbler (male) banded yesterday at Rushton. Photo by Blake Goll

The other little surprise was a goofy young Yellow-bellied Flycatcher who kept his fuzzy eyelids tightly closed when in the bander’s grip in the hopes of tricking us into letting him go prematurely.  I could see him peeking out from under those sneaky little lids though…you can’t fool me, you sly fly!

Yellow-bellied flycatcher banded at Rushton this week. Photo by Celeste Sheehan

Last but not least, a couple of crazy cool cats made their debut — caterpillars, that is.  A Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar was curled up in its silk day bed it had spun for itself in a spicebush leaf.  We marveled at how incredible nature is for this caterpillar to so closely resemble a snake.  The false eyespots on its thorax, coupled with the rearing up action, is enough to deter any sane bird from turning it into a spicebush twinkie.

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar at Rushton. Photo by Blake Goll

Poisonous Saddleback caterpillar at Rushton. Photo by Blake Goll

Tomorrow is our Open House from 6:30 am- 10 :30 am.  We’ll welcome close to 80 people including University of Pennsylvania students, Rushton Nature Keepers, and everyone else throughout the course of the mayhem, I mean morning.  We hope that all visitors leave feeling closer to nature.
There’s a lot going on in the woods,

Young male American Redstart just before release. Photo by Celeste Sheehan