So yesterday, I teased that I would be starting a new bird-related journey soon. Well, without further ado:
I will be taking the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Comprehensive course in Bird Biology!
If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, I’m sure you know that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is one of my favorite places. It’s one of my main sources of avian information and we even took our 2016 vacation to Ithaca, NY specifically to go birding at the Lab (you can read about that here and here). As a Lab member, I’ve spent countless hours on their website reading articles, watching videos, taking webinars, and watching bird cams.
So when I learned about their Bird Biology class, I knew I had to take it. My dream is to be a Conservation Biologist/Environmental Scientist/Ornithologist, which is why when I’m not at my non-science related full-time job, I’m taking night/summer classes as a biology major. But when I found out about the Lab’s course, I knew it would exactly what I needed to start moving forward with my goals.
The Lab’s Bird Biology course is a university-level self-study course that anyone interesting in birds can take. The course was developed was by one of my favorite ornithologists, Dr. Kevin McGowan, as well as Dr. Sarah Wagner. (Side note: I took a webinar with Kevin McGowan a few winters ago: Odd Ducks and Wandering Waterfowl. If you’re interested in identification courses I recommend checking out his classes/webinars). The course consists of using the textbook (pictured above) and online resources, as well as multiple tests and quizzes for each chapter.
Pretty much anything you would want to know about birds can be found in this course. Topics covered throughout the 700-page book include anatomy, evolution, migration, vocal behavior, social behavior, ecology of populations, and flight to name a few topics. I’m so excited to dive even further into the avian world and share some of the information I learn with you!
If your interesting in learning about the Cornell Lab’s Bird Biology course check out their website.
If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile now, you know that I love bird cams. I discovered the Cornell Lab Bird cams about 2 years ago. It all began with the Great Horned Owl cam and quickly turned into an obsession where I was pretty much keeping track of all the cams. I’ve spent countless hours watching Red-tailed Hawks, Laysan Albatrosses, Great Horned Owls, Barred Owls, and Barn Owls successfully (and sometimes unsuccessfully) raise their young. There are also a variety of feeder cams to watch, such as the one at the Lab’s Sapsucker Woods, the Ontario feeder, and the West Texas Hummingbirds.
Over the past year, the Lab has created new partnerships with other wildlife organizations to add more cams to their website. Their newest cam is the Bermuda Cahow (my latest obsession :-)). The Cahow cam is hosted by Nonsuch Expeditions from Nonsuch, Bermuda.
The Bermuda Petrel (or Cahow as its called in Bermuda) is the second rarest seabird in the world and has an interesting history. The arrival of humans, rats, cats, and other mammals to Bermuda in the early 1600s had a terrible impact on the Cahow population, which was said to have been around a half a million birds at the time. Twenty years later, people believed that the Cahow went extinct. This belief lasted for about 330 years (from 1620-1951), until a team of scientists discovered 18 breeding pairs on offshore inlets. Many people refer to the Cahow as a “Lazarus species”.
Since it’s re-discovery, the Cahow has been the focus of intensive conservation management. One of the people to re-discover the Cahow in 1951 was David B. Wingate, a Bermuda native. This event inspired him to study zoology at Cornell University so he could help the Cahows recover. Starting in 1960, Wingate and other conservationists have been running the Cahow Recovery Program to help reduce threats that the Cahow face. David Wingate also wanted to help other species in the process and restore Nonsuch Island to it’s pre-colonial ecology through the Nonsuch Island Living Museum Project.
Many strategies have been employed to conserve the Cahows. In 2001, David Wingate’s successor, Jeremy Madeiros started a translocation project to move the birds to a more suitable environment and protect them from harsh weather conditions.In 2004, 14 Cahow chicks were translocated to a new breeding colony on Nonsuch Island. Volunteers and scientists monitored, banded, and fed the chicks, and they all successfully fledged. The colony on Nonsuch Island now has 15 breeding pairs, and the total number of breeding pairs in Bermuda increased to 120 in 2016. Other conservation strategies include using geolocators and banding.
The chick that we watch on Bermuda Cahow came hatched on March 2, so as of today it is 12 days old. It’s parents are E0212 (male) and E0197 (female), who have been breeding together at the same burrow site since 2009. Cahow pairs stay together for life, which may sometimes last for around 30 years. After a few years of failure, they started successfully fledging chicks since 2014, so hopefully our little chick this year will fledge as well.
Similar to the Laysan Albatross on their cam, Cahow parents leave the chick to forage for squid, and its not unusual for a chick to be left alone for up to a week without a visit. It takes so long because the adults will travel north to the cold Gulf Stream waters, sometimes up to 4,500 or more miles away! The chick was just visited today by the mother, who spent some time feeding, preening, and resting with her chick.
So if you haven’t seen Bermuda Cahow cam, you should check it out! The chick is absolutely adorable and it’s exciting to observe the life of these fascinating seabirds. I’ll include the link to the cam below in addition to some cool Cahow facts. And while you’re there, check out some of the Cornell bird cams (link is up in the first paragraph).
The Great Backyard Bird Count has begun! I got out of work a little earlier today, so Dave and I went to Amico Island. It was about 40 degrees at the time, so 20 degrees warmer than Day 1 last year. We didn’t get too many pictures because of the sun was setting and washing everything out, but we did what we could.
Upon entering the park, we heard some Mourning Doves and the conk-la-ree! of male Red-winged Blackbirds. Male and female Red-winged Blackbirds migrate separately. The males arrive at the breeding grounds a few weeks before the females in order to establish a territory. They tend to start migrating mid-February and usually arrive up north by March, so the 5 males we saw got a head start. Guess the early bird gets the territory (sorry, I had to haha :-p).
We walked the blue loop that goes through the forest along Dredge Harbor first. Along the way we spotted Carolina Wrens, a large flock of Ring-billed Gulls, a Double-crested Cormorant, Downy Woodpeckers, a Tufted Titmouse, American Robins, Song Sparrows, European Starlings, and a Golden-crowned Kinglet. I even heard my first Gray Catbird (my favorite) of the year, but didn’t actually see it.
Carolina Wren (Image by BirdNation)
Male Downy Woodpecker (Image by David Horowitz)
Remember the Great Blue Heron rookery that we would watch last year? The herons were back and getting their nests established. We weren’t able to see the back end of the island, but from our view could spot at least 32 Great Blue Herons. They seemed to be pretty relaxed for the most part, either sitting on their nests or standing around.
Then the trouble started. A juvenile Bald Eagle appeared and flew towards the rookery island. The herons started yelling and flying away from their nests in a large group. But that wasn’t all! Once the juvenile landed in one of the trees, 2 adult Bald Eagles showed up. The herons continued to yell and circle the island, while the adult eagles made loud high-pitched whistles. One adult eagle landed near the juvenile, while the second adult sat down in a nest right below the other one. Once the Bald Eagles settled down, the Great Blue Herons returned to their nests. What a spectacle!
(Sorry that this is not the best quality picture. The rookery is just slightly too far out for our current lens, so this was the best we could get until we buy a new lens that zooms in farther. I chose to post it though because you can see all 3 Bald Eagles together)
Then we realized something. Last year, we saw a Bald Eagle hanging out near some Great Blue Herons in that same tree (see image below). At that time, nobody seemed to phased and the 3 birds just sat there together. We began to wonder: does a pair of bald eagles nest in the heron rookery? After a little research I found that sometimes Bald Eagles will nest in the same tree as a Great Blue Heron colony, but it’s unclear why. The nest did look a little bigger, so it’s a possibly, especially since one of the eagles was sitting in it. Bald Eagles tend to return to the same nest site each year. We’ll just have to find out if these Bald Eagles nest here in the coming months.
It was a great way to start off the Bird Count weekend, especially with 32 Great Blue Herons and 3 Bald Eagles! Tomorrow I’m off to Haddon Lake Park to continue my tradition of doing the bird count at that location (not in 18 degree weather this time). I’ll be going with my mom, sister, and my original bird teacher, Maria. See you tomorrow!
To read Day 1 of the 2016 bird count, click on this link.
The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is a worldwide citizen-science project run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. The goal of the count is to help scientists track changes in bird populations. Data collected from the GBBC will help scientists investigate how weather, climate, migration patterns, and diseases are impacting bird populations from all over the globe. Here’s the best part about it: anyone can participate.
When does the Great Backyard Bird Count begin?
The GBBC takes places every year for 4 days the 3rd weekend of February. This year the count is Friday, February 17 to Monday, February 20. Why February? It gives scientist the opportunity to find out about the distribution of bird species before the spring migration begins in March.
How do I participate?
Participating is free, easy, and fun! Like I said earlier, this bird count is global so you can participate in any country.
Pick a location. It doesn’t have to even be your backyard, anywhere will do.
Count all the bird species you see for 15 minutes or more. I suggest making a list to track the names of your species and the totals of each.
Submit your data on eBird. ebird.org is the website the Cornell Lab and Audubon use to gather the data you send them. Creating an eBird account is quick, easy, and free. Once you make an account you can add your lists from the GBBC, as well as pictures. It’s also great because once the GBBC is over you can continue to submit data if you like to keep lists from you birding trips. eBird also keeps track of your life list, and you can see what other birders are finding in your area.
Go birding as many times you want, for as long as you want, throughout the 4-day weekend.
That’s it! This is my 3rd year participating in the GBBC. Like last year, I will be birding all 4 days, and will report my counts for you here on the blog. Here in New Jersey, the bird count weekend always tends to fall on the coldest weekend of the year (last year we went to Forsythe to do the wildlife drive in 10 degree weather!). However, this year the New Jersey temperatures will be in the 40s and 50s. I’m curious to see how my counts will differ from 2016.
Speaking of 2016, over 163,000 people from 130 countries submitted over 162,000 checklists and counted 5,689 bird species. That’s over half of the world’s bird species and totaled to over 18 million individual birds!
It was April 1944. Don Eckelberry,who worked for Audubon, went to Singer Tract in Madison Parrish, Louisiana on a mission. His goal was to spot a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker. A few months prior, this bird was seen by Richard Pough, who later became the first president of the Nature Conservancy. Singer Tract was a large stretch of primeval southern forest that was owned by the Singer Sewing Company. The logging rights to this forest were sold to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company. The National Audubon Society tried to buy the land from Chicago Mill but were unsuccessful.
Unfortunately, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers need large sections of forest to thrive. And Singer Tract happened to be where a few of these woodpeckers were living at the time. Tragically, the forest at Singer Tract was eventually logged.
But in April 1944, Don Eckelberry did find his female Ivory-billed in Singer Tract. She was alone in an uncut area of the forest. Eckelberry wrote in a letter to John Baker, “It is sickening to see what a waste a lumber company can make of what was a beautiful forest.” Eckelberry’s observation in April 1944 was the last universally accepted sighting of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
And so the mystery began. Does the Ivory-billed Woodpecker still exist, or is it extinct? It’s been a topic of much debate and study over the years. There have been sightings reported, but nothing is confirmed and the evidence is almost non-existent.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is considered the third largest woodpecker in the world, at 20 inches in length and a 30 inch wingspan. It’s body is black with large white patches on its wings/neck, and a bright red crest. Historically, this species was found in the Southeastern United States from Texas east to North Carolina, north up to lower Ohio, and south to Cuba. The Cuban Ivory-billed is considered a subspecies and may also possibly be extinct. They lived in thick, uninterrupted hardwood forests and swamps that had a lot of dead and decaying trees.
What cause the decline of this species? There are multiple factors, including hunting for sport, science, and used in Native American culture/trading. However, habitat destruction throughout the early 1900’s broke up the Ivory-billed’s territory, which prevented them from being able to sustain their populations. In 1939 it was estimated that only around 24 individuals lived in the United States. The number of birds alive today, if any, is unknown.
Much of what we know comes from research in the mid-1930s. In 1935, Arthur Allen (founder of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), Peter Paul Kellogg (Cornell professor), James Tanner (Cornell graduate student), George Miksch Sutton (a bird artist/ornithologist), and Jack Kuhk (a local game warden), set up camp in the swamps of Singer Tract to study the Ivory-billed. They did find a nest in a maple tree and studied it for a few weeks. They were able to capture audio and video recordings on this expedition. The recordings made by Kellogg in 1935 are still used today in recent searches.
James Tanner went back to Singer Tract between 1937 and 1939 as part of his dissertation. He was able to study these birds in-depth. In this trip he was able to observe a young woodpecker being raised by its parents for 16 days. Tanner banded this young bird, the only one of its species to ever be banded. He published The Ivory-billed Woodpecker in 1942, which featured his research and two pictures of Jack Kuhk with the chick perched on his arm and head. These were the only 2 pictures of an Ivory-billed juvenile, until a few more were discovered by Tanner’s wife Nancy in 2009. Tanner traveled a total of 45,000 miles around the southeast, but only ever found the woodpeckers at Singer Tract. He died in 1991, believing that the bird was extinct.
There many still be hope though. Scientists are still looking, and there have been sightings in the past 20 years. The Cornell Lab searched for the woodpeckers in 2002 in Louisiana with no luck. In 2004 Gene Sparling, an Arkansas native, spotted one while kayaking in Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. This sparked interested again, so Tim Gallagher (from the Cornell Lab) and Bobby Harrison of Oakwood College in Alabama went down to “The Big Woods” in Arkansas to investigate. They sucessfully spotted one on that trip. Other employees and students of the Lab have made trips to Arkansas as well and may have seen the woodpeckers too. A search for the Cuban Ivory-billed took place in January 2016 by Tim Gallagher and Martjan Lammertink, but they yielded no results.
So the question remains: does the Ivory-billed still exist? Studies are ongoing, and at the moment there is not enough data for scientists to agree on this predicament. Only time will tell if this elusive species will be resurrected from the dead once again. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a lesson in how human carelessness can cause destruction far beyond what we anticipate in our environment. From this experience we can learn just how important conservation is to all species. Hopefully this Ivory-billed Woodpecker can be found again one day. In the meantime, it will remain a mystery.
This week’s featured woodpecker is the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. It is one of North America’s four sapsucker species. This sapsucker is the most migratory woodpecker in the world.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are small (7.5-9 inches) with straight bills and a pied facial pattern. Both sexes have a red forehead and white napes. Males have bright red throats, solid black malar (cheek) stripe, a black bib, and pale yellow was on the breast. Females have pale white throats, black malar stripes, and a black bib. Adults of both sexes have black and mottled white bodies with a solid white stripe down their folded wings. Juveniles are a dusky brown with a yellowish belly and gray heads. They also feature a white wing stripe.
Summer (breeding): as far North as eastern Alaska and across the boreal forests of Canada, parts of New England, and Adirondack Mountains. Migration: Midwest United States. Winter: Eastern and Southeastern United States, and goes as far south as Central America (down to Panama) and the Caribbean
tree sap, insects, berries, and other fruits. True to their names, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers drill neatly organized sapwells in horizontal rows. The trees they choose to drill have a higher concentration of sugar in the sap, and are usually sick or wounded. Aspens, Paper birch, sugar maple, and hickory trees are a few of the tree species they drill. They drill throughout the year to keep the sap fresh on both their wintering and breeding grounds. Sometimes they will catch insects in mid-air after perching from a branch, similar to flycatchers.
Males arrive at the breeding territory a week before females to scout out a drumming post. The female and male will scurry around the tree trunk together while tapping a potential excavation site. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are monogamous. Like other woodpeckers, these Sapsuckers are cavity nests. They usually use the same tree for up to 7 years, but will use a different cavity in that tree each year.
Females lay between 5-6 (sometimes 3-7) eggs per year and started incubating around the third or fourth. Males and females will share incubation duties for around 12-13 days. The young fledge 25-29 days after hatching. The parents will teach the young sapsucking skills for around 10 days after leaving the nest.
Quieter during the winter but pretty vocal during breeding. A repeated nasal mewing meehhr!, a quee-ah, queeah! scratchy call. Drumming is typically done by males.
In the past, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers received a bad reputation for damaging and drilling in timber in the Eastern United States. Due to forest clear-cutting numbers declined, but recently have increased and are more widespread. It’s estimated that there is a global population 10 million breeding pairs by the organization Partners in Flight. It’s possible that the population is higher than pre-settlement times. Although more common, they are still consider climate-threatened.
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are one of the three sapsuckers in the varius superspecies. The other two sapsuckers in varius are the Red-breasted and Red-naped Sapsuckers. These species have been known to hybridize in certain areas of the west. The fourth North American sapsucker, the Williamson’s, is more genetically different than the other sapsucker superspeices. Studies show they are the most ancestral of the four sapsuckers in the Sphyrapicus genus.
These sapsuckers make two different holes to access sap. Small round holes are made deep in the trunk, which are used to reach the sap. Rectangular holes that are shallower must be maintained to keep the sap flowing.
Hummingbirds are attracted to the sapwells that Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers make. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have become so depend on these sapwells that they will time their spring migration to when the sapsuckers arrive.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is the logo for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary is names for this species. It was in Sapsucker Woods that Arthur Allen (the Lab’s founder) and artist Lous Agassiz Fuertes discovered the first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nest in the Finger Lakes area of New York in 1909. Fuertes later named this spot Sapsucker Woods. (story found in the Lab’s publication Living Bird, winter 2015 edition)
Today’s Woodpecker of the week is the smallest Woodpecker in North America: the Downy. The little Downy is acrobatic, versatile, and found throughout most of the country.
Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)
Downy Woodpeckers are black and white with straight chiseled bills and wide shoulders. Their upperparts are black with white checkered patterns on their wings and a white stripe down their backs. Their underparts are white and their tails are mainly white with some black spots. Their heads are boldly striped, and males have a red patch that the female lacks. A Downie’s bill is about half the width of their heads.
Downies are found throughout the majority of the United States and Canada, with the exception of extremely northern Canada. They are rarely seen in the Southwest United States. They are more common in the East than the West.
Open deciduous woodlands, orchards, shade trees, willow groves, backyards, and city parks
Mainly insects, as well as seeds and berries. Downies are common at backyard feeders where they may eat suet. Sap consumption is more common in the winter and bark foragingoccurs more in the summer. Due to their small size, Downies not only forage on the trunk but on smaller limbs as well as weed stalks and shrubs. Their chiseled bills helps them get right under the surface of the tree bark so they can pierce insect tunnels.
Downies are monogamous and renew their pair bonds starting in the fall and continuing into the winter. They have a few different courtship/bonding activities. Bonding activities include drumming on separate trees until the male approaches, foraging together, and the butterfly flight. The butterfly flight includes the pair chasing each other through the trees with their wing held high and flapping slower,weaker wing beats. They may loop around the territory multiple times during this display. The female usually chooses a nest cavity with the male approving, which is usually in some part of a dead tree.
A clutch size (number of eggs) for a Downie’s brood is usually 3-8 eggs. Incubation by both parents begins around when the last egg is laid. The incubation period is about 12 days. Hatching is asynchronous, meaning the eggs will hatch within a few hours (or sometimes days) of each other. The chicks in the eggs who hatch first have a higher chance of survival since they can start begging for food sooner. Therefore, Downy chicks who hatch later have a high mortality rate. Both parents will bring bill-fulls of insects to feed the young. About 20-25 days later the young will fledge and follow the parents for up to 3 weeks.
Highly vocal. A descending whinny, that starts with a single or double notes with a rapid acceleration and the pitch doing downwards (sometimes called a rattle call). This whinny is used to announce location, defend a territory, or in solidifying a pair bond. Common call is a sharp pik! or peet!
Many people have trouble distinguishing Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers since they are similar in appearance. An old trick that’s used is “Downy dinky, Hairy huge”. To be more specific, a Downy is around 6 inches (like a House Sparrow) and Hairys are around 9 inches (like an American Robin). A Hairy’s bill is about as long as its head is wide, while Downie’s bills are smaller than their head’s width.
Downies are the second most abundant bird in North America (the Northern Flicker is #1 in that category).
They are one of the 10 smallest Woodpeckers in the world.
Females tend to forage more on the tree trunk and larger limbs. Males tend to forage on smaller limbs and weed stems.
Tapping is used to describe when a Downy is excavating on a tree. Tapping is slower than drumming, which is generally used for pair bonds and is much quicker.
If you want to learn more about Downy vs. Hairy identification tips, check out Project Feederwatch’s (from the Cornell Lab) article listed below. (Project Feederwatch is where I got the above downy/hairy picture).