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!
Even though the autumn equinox has not yet occurred and you’re still wistfully packing your bags for one last summer fling at the beach this weekend, billions of songbirds have started the silent nocturnal procession south. Though we are not lucky enough to be graced by the steely gray tuxedos of the dapper Black-throated Blue Warbler during their nuptial season, they are one of the first warblers to appear at Rushton during fall migration. After nesting in higher elevations of mixed hardwood and evergreen forests — the kind with yellow birch towering over thick tangles of mountain laurel and rhodedendron— they often gravitate toward early successional shrubby areas with their “teenage” offspring. Consequently, these young birds probably recognize these types of shrubby habitats as safe havens during their first migration.
Rushton got shrub. The hedgerows of Rushton where we operate fourteen mist nets are largely composed of early successional habitat. Maybe that’s why we often get the younger, what we call Second Year or Hatch Year, Black-throated Blues. These have greenish edging on some of the feathers and feather coverts as compared to the entirely blue edged adults. Compare the two photos below of the older male we caught in spring and the younger male we caught this morning. Can you tell the difference? If not, you would not make a good female songbird; you must know when to swipe left on a sub-par mate by looks alone. Yes, the natural world is a place of unforgiving vanity.
On this steamy opening day of our fall banding season, we also blinged out, skulled, and aged many young Gray Catbirds, Wood Thrush, Common Yellowthroats, American Robins, and a lovely American Goldfinch. We watched the mercury closely and closed early to keep our birds cool and safe. Still our total was 15 new birds of 7 species.
Join the fun Tuesday and Thursday mornings at Rushton Woods Preserve now until November 1 from sunrise until about 11 am.
There’s a lot going on in the woods,
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,
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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.