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.

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,
Blake

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

Our Woodland Bird Nursery + Highlights from Spring Migration

Great spangled fritillary on Common milkweed. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Great spangled fritillary on Common milkweed. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff

Two weeks ago the Strawberry Moon rose within the Cusp of Magic.  In times past this full moon was so named because it occurred when the Native Americans were harvesting their ripe summer strawberries.   Though the wild meadows of Rushton are not filled with strawberries, the magical moonbeams must have whispered something sweet that night to the Common Milkweed, charming it into florescence as the moonlight hailed the official start of the lazy hazy days of summer.
Just as the milkweed fields are now saturated with the bustling activity of pollinators and other insects, the woods have come to life with the flurry of baby birds!  If there is a lazy season in a bird’s annual life cycle, it is certainly not this one.  One pair of adult chickadees, for example, must work together to find and bring up to 500 caterpillars to their hungry nestlings each day.  For this reason it is imperative that there are native trees around like oak, black cherry and American elm from which to forage as these support myriad more caterpillar species than do nonnatives like gingko and pear trees. (Read an article to learn more about this topic here.)

Eastern tent caterpillars are a favorite of many birds and use black cherry as a host among many others. Photo by Ian Gardner
Eastern tent caterpillars are a favorite of many birds and use black cherry as a host among others. Photo by Ian Gardner

The Rushton bird banding team is currently working to document the breeding  bird population of the mature woodland for what is now the 6th summer of participation in MAPS.  MAPS stands for Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survival and is truly one of the more rigorous of banding projects to which a banding station can contribute.  The Institute for Bird Populations has strict protocol and special banding codes, which we and about 500 other U.S. MAPS stations abide by in order to generate meaningful and comparable information on population changes and dynamics, survivorship and productivity.    We have just begun snagging newly fledged birds in our nets and are about to enter what’s called the Super Baby Period that will continue through August.  We take care to release these fresh flyers back near the net from whence they were abducted because it’s likely their confused parents are nearby and still diligently feeding them.  Many birds continue feeding their young for weeks after they can fly on their own.

A juvenile Wood Thrush that is most likely still being fed by parents. Photo by Bracken Brown
A juvenile Wood Thrush of Rushton Woods. Photo by Bracken Brown.

One of the things we love best about MAPS— besides all the cute fuzzy baby birds— is that we capture a lot of our own Ovenbirds, Gray Catbirds, Wood Thrush and Veery that we banded back in 2011 or 12.  If these birds were Second Year birds then, that makes them around 7 years old now!  These birds exhibit extreme site fidelity and fitness, returning to Rushton each summer after traveling hundreds of miles to and from Central and South America.  I wonder where these amazing birds would go if they ever returned to find that Rushton wasn’t there?
Here are some highlights from this MAPS season thus far:

First Gray Catbird baby this June. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
First Gray Catbird baby this June. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Juvenile Tufted Titmouse. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Juvenile Tufted Titmouse. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Downy Woodpecker fledgling in June. Juvenile Tufted Titmouse. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Downy Woodpecker fledgling in June. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Adult Hairy Woodpecker. Downy Woodpecker fledgling in June. Juvenile Tufted Titmouse. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Adult Hairy Woodpecker. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Adult Ovenbird. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Adult Ovenbird. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Adult Wood Thrush. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Adult Wood Thrush. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Lifelong Learning Of Chester County students visited the station in June. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Lifelong Learning Of Chester County students were delighted to visit the station in June . Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Eastern Towhee nest in June. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Eastern Towhee nest near the banding station in June. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Adult Eastern towhee. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Adult Eastern towhee. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff

Unfortunately, we cannot open MAPS banding to the public besides a select few special classes.  This is because of the strict protocol and also the fact that we want to minimize the disturbance in our woodland office so as to respect the nesting birds —some of which build their precious nests in low saplings, shrubs and even the forest floor near our station and along the net trails.  For this reason our summer banding sessions are only once every ten days.  This time of year, we treat Rushton Woods with hushed reverence  because it may be one of the most important bird nurseries in our area.
If you are itching to get out and see bird banding, you won’t have to wait long.  Fall migration banding is actually right around the corner and will begin the end of August.  Every Tuesday and Thursday through November, we’ll be open to the public.  Fall is always our most fruitful  bird banding season because the population has been proliferated by all the summer babies.  Our total catch numbers fall close to 1,000 birds in contrast to the average of 350 for spring.  Part of this disparity between spring and fall is a reflection of bird mortality; of the 20 billion birds that comprise the fall songbird population, only about half will return the following spring.  It is estimated that 1 billion of those deaths are from building collisions during migration.  Climate change, landscape changes and loss of stopover habitat also play roles in this multi-faceted tragedy.

Black-throated Green Warbler. Photo by Nathan Lewis. This is a species that we see during migration but has declined as a nesting bird in parts of the northeast due to climate change.
Black-throated Green Warbler. Photo by Nathan Lewis. This is a species that we see during migration but has declined as a nesting bird in parts of the northeast in part due to climate change.

The ugly truth is that we’ve lost half of our birds in the past 40 years because humans are changing the environment faster than birds can cope.  To raise awareness about the urgency of bird conservation, we hosted two sold-out showings of the new award-winning documentary, The Messenger, at King of Prussia IMAX this winter and spring.  View the trailer below and visit the website to see this modern day Silent Spring for yourself.

Luckily, Rushton provides migrant birds with a crucial stopover site that they can always depend on in an ever-changing landscape.  It’s like your favorite neighborhood Wawa that never goes out of business and that you can always count on for the best gas prices and hoagies!  While some birds use Rushton as merely a convenience store along their travels, many others treat it more like a Bed and Breakfast—some staying for weeks on end to fatten up for their travels.
We get important information about stopover ecology from migrant birds that are recaptured within the same season.  There was the Black-throated Blue Warbler that doubled her fat in just a week of dining out at Rushton last fall.  A Lincoln’s Sparrow gained 3 grams in about a week as well, and a Clay-colored Sparrow graced the Rushton B &B with his portentous presence for a few days. We also remember a curious little Worm-eating Warbler that stayed from September 3rd  well into October of last year.  Did he overstay his welcome?   Who knows when he finally decided to migrate, but we do know that one Gray Catbird decided to stay at Rushton all winter rather than migrate to the tropics like the rest of his kind.  He was heard calling from the snow covered thicket during the Christmas Bird Count in December! We’ll call him the White Walker.

Clay-colored Sparrow. October 2015. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Clay-colored Sparrow. October 2015. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff

This past spring was extremely cool and rainy, so we had to cancel many of our scheduled banding days.  However, we still fell within our average range of about 350 birds total.  All things considered, it was a great migration season in terms of birds banded as well as people educated through our program.  Songbirds may be small, but they are unequivocally powerful in their ability to inspire and evoke concern for the environment.  Enjoy the following photo review of this spring’s banding season.

Gray-cheeked Thrush being photo-bombed by a bander this May. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Gray-cheeked Thrush being photo-bombed by a bander this May. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Northern Waterthrush in May. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Northern Waterthrush in May. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Blue Jay in May. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Blue Jay in May. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Least Flycatcher in May. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Least Flycatcher in May. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Open Connections Naturalist Club visited in May and were treated to a White-eyed Vireo. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Open Connections Naturalist Club visited in May and were treated to a White-eyed Vireo. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
A professional children's book author visited us in May and took beautiful notes on what she learned. Check out here website here!
A professional children’s book illustrator visited us in May and took beautiful notes on what she learned. Check out Kate Garchinsky’s website here!
Comparing Ovenbird ages.
Comparing Ovenbird ages. The one on the right is what we call After Second Year. The one on the left is Second Year.
Westtown Elementary students visited the banding station in May. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Westtown Elementary students visited the banding station in May. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Boys Latin of Philadelphia Charter School visited the station in May and were amazed. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Boys Latin of Philadelphia Charter School visited the station in May and were amazed at the beauty of a female Baltimore Oriole. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
A young naturalist marvels at a shimmering Tree Swallow before release. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
A young naturalist marvels at a shimmering Tree Swallow before release. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
A handsome Tree Swallow in May. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
A handsome Tree Swallow in May. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Male Canada Warbler in May. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Male Canada Warbler in May. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
A Drexel co-op student takes a blood sample from a Yellow-rumped Warbler for a study on how Lyme disease bacteria moves through the environment.
A Drexel co-op student takes a blood sample from a Yellow-rumped Warbler for a study on how Lyme disease bacteria moves through the environment.
Worm-eating Warbler in May. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Worm-eating Warbler in May. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Yellow-rumped Warbler in April. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Yellow-rumped Warbler in April. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Magnolia Warbler (After second year male). May 2016. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Magnolia Warbler (After second year male) in May.. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Male American Goldfinch in April. Photo by Blake Goll
Male American Goldfinch in April. Photo by Blake Goll
Hermit Thrush before release in April. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Hermit Thrush before release in April. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Yellow-billed Cuckoo eyeing up an Eastern tent caterpillar nest. Photo by Ian Gardner. A pair of these cuckoos nested near the banding station this spring!
Yellow-billed Cuckoo eyeing up an Eastern tent caterpillar nest in June. Photo by Ian Gardner. A pair of these cuckoos nested near the banding station this spring!

Take an early morning stroll along the trails of Rushton Woods Preserve, breathe in the extraordinary blooms of the Common milkweed in the wild meadows, marvel at the bounty of insect life in the fields and let the ethereal song of the Wood Thrush fill your soul in the cool, green forest.
There’s a lot going on in the woods,
Blake

Dusky salamander at Rushton in May. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff
Dusky salamander at Rushton in May. Photo by Blake Goll/Staff

 

Get Your Fill of Fall Feathers!

Young Wood Thrush wing
Young Wood Thrush wing

It’s that time of year again folks!  The goldenrod at Rushton is ablaze, which means that fall migration songbird banding is well underway and we’ve been busy!  83 birds in the nets yesterday including 44 Gray Catbirds.  A nice assortment of warblers graced our nets last week including Nashvilles, Magnolias, Canadas, Redstarts, Yellowthroats, Chestnut sided, a Worm-eating and our very first ever Bay-breasted!
Young Bay-breasted Warbler at Rushton
Young female Bay-breasted Warbler at Rushton this September

Yellow-throated Vireo banded at Rushton this September
Yellow-throated Vireo banded at Rushton this September

Another first for Rushton was a shockingly beautiful and equally as boisterous Yellow-throated Vireo (pictured above).  Northern Waterthrush, Wood Thrush, Veery,  Swainson’s Thrush, lots of American Goldfinches, Indigo Buntings, woodpeckers, a Brown Thrasher, Song Sparrows, Field Sparrows, Titmouse, wrens and even a Screech Owl have been banded thus far in what is already shaping out to be a fantastic fall banding season.  Last fall, our catch numbered about 1500 birds of about 56 species.  Let’s see if we can beat it this year!
We have an open house at the banding station THIS SATURDAY the 13th, so anyone of any age is welcome to stop on by to get your fill of our fabulous fall feathers between the hours of 6am and 10am.  Get out of bed and come in your pajamas if you have to- you don’t want to miss this! (The station is also open to public observation every Tuesday and Thursday morning until the end of October).
Children learning about Common Yellowthroat banded at Rushton
Children learning about a Common Yellowthroat banded at Rushton.

There’s a lot going on in the woods and in the fields,
Blake
Pondering by the stream.  Photo by Blake Goll
Pondering by the stream. Photo taken by Blake Goll at Ashbridge Preserve.