Friday, April 27, 2007

Indigo Morning.

Renee Hudgins and John Young joined me this warm, humid morning for another interesting day of migration banding. Renee and John extracted many birds and assisted at the banding table to make a busy day most enjoyable.

The southeast wind was blowing hard enough to keep a few nets closed. Rain showers, wind and heat finally shut things down by 1100. Nevertheless, we ringed 18 species, including three, male, first-of-season Indigo Buntings.

The final tally was 38 new banded, 5 recaps and one hummer (released at net). Gray Catbirds were eight; Black and White Warbler and White-throated Sparrows were each four. In all, there were nine warbler species: Ovenbird, Worm-eating, Northern Waterthrush, Common Yellowthroat, B&W, Palm, Black-throated Blue, Prairie and Northern Parula. The station's first male Eastern Towhee was banded along with another Wood Thrush.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Are There Fewer White-throated Sparrows at Your Feeder Today?

It was a cool 52 degrees and the wind was in the east before dawn, but the chip calls of White-throats were everywhere as I opened the nets at 0540. I placed a dozen birds in bags just walking back to the banding table before the first net run was to start. Eight of them were White-throats!

The station has been open for six weeks this spring. During that period exactly two White-throats were netted. No Tom Peabody songs were heard. Today, forty-six now sport some bling. Yes, White-throats are on the move. And they are everywhere in the First Landing State Park today. In the leaf litter, on the shrubs, in the sand trails--there are sparrows foraging and singing.

There were three new species today among the 82 new banded, 5 recaps and one hummer. The station was so busy I only took an image of one—a Blackpoll Warbler. A Veery and a Blue-headed Vireo were the others. In all the activity, the fourth Pileated Woodpecker of the season was just another avian. More tomorrow.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Do We Have a Trend?

The tally today was 42 new banded, 3 recaps and 2 hummers (released unbanded). Twenty-three species, of which seven were new for the season, were handled with able assistance from volunteers Renee, Kathy and John. All went smoothly on the net lanes and at the banding table. Highlights of the day were season's first Yellow-breasted Chat, Wood Thrush, Hooded Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Brown-headed Cowbird, Northern Waterthrush and Black-throated Blue Warbler. Seven Swamp Sparrows led the day followed by four Northern Parulas and four Northern Waterthrushes. Get out your field guide to ID the new species pictured. Hint: the last bird shown is a female and has yellow undertail coverts.

As the daily numbers rise, more able assistance is needed at the station. If you have extracting or scribing skills, kindly contact me at caspiantern at or Dr. Bob Reilly at rjreilly at


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Prothonotary Sort of Day.

When I think of a Prothonotary Warbler visions of damp, shaded, hot Southern swamps come to mind. With the air temperatures now unseasonably warm and a brisk southerly breeze blowing through the Spanish Moss, a Prothonotary arrived in net B7 just after ten. My first in hand and I had the bird as an ASY female. Do you agree?

With the addition of Ovenbird, House Wren and Common Grackle it was a very nice day at First Landing. (And the wind kept five of our 21 nets closed.) The day's final tally was very respectable: 31 new birds banded, three recaps and two hummers released at the net-eighteen species in all. Gray Catbirds placed with four, but Yellow Palm Warblers numbered eight to take the day. Among the eight was a SY individual with the white primaries and primary coverts pictured. This example of partial albinism is highly unusual. Google the term and you will find this to be the case. Note the dramatic wear on the tips of the white primary feathers of each wing.


Monday, April 23, 2007

South Wind Turnover.

It cannot be called an influx. The daily numbers of new birds banded on Sunday and Monday did not break the teens. However, the south breeze of Saturday night and again Sunday brought in a Catbird, an Ovenbird, a Worm-eating Warbler and a Great-crested Flycatcher, each new species for the season. Things are looking up. More birds are behind these. Gnatcatchers have moved on; no recaptures or new individuals in two days. None heard today.

The Green Heron pictured is the individual here at First Landing. The previous pictured Green was an Everglades bird.


Saturday, April 21, 2007

Storm Holdovers Gone; No Replacements.

The last three days have been slow, slower and slowest. Only four, new banded birds today with but two recaps (although one of the new was a SY Brown-headed Nuthatch). The migrants which were trapped here during the NEer have departed in the gentle evening breezes which have prevailed here since Thursday. This morning was calm, cool, damp and quiet at dawn. Until a southerly wind brings in some replacement migrants, it is likely to remain the same. A group of Catbirds and Ovenbirds would be nice.

One new species was banded yesterday, a female Prairie Warbler. Other images show an alternate plummaged, SY male Myrtle Warbler, a recaptured SY Pileated Woodpecker (banded earlier this season) together with a look at the equipment which allow him to climb vertical surfaces with such ease (with tail assistance).

A south wind would be wonderful.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Gnatcatcher Day.

Thirty new birds banded today; six recaptured. No new species netted. Fifteen of the thirty were Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Warblers were Common Yellowthroat, Myrtle, Northern Parula, Pine, Palm and Black and White. Kathy Spencer, a participant in the Master Naturalist Program, assisted at the banding table and nets today.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

All's Well and Active.

I visited the banding station mid-morning to check on the nets, net lanes and banding table. Everything was in good order and secure.

On the walk in and out along Long Creek I came upon a number of feeding flocks composed of gnatcatchers, parulas and Black and White Warblers. There were also groups of chickadees, Brown-headed Nuthatches, titmice and kinglets. The banded Osprey and her mate were by the nest and they looked to have survived the blow, which is slowly moderating. Our nets will re-open on Wednesday morning.

Perhaps there have been additional migrants brought in by the storm. A quick look at yields some interesting possibilities: tanagers and grosbeaks are on the eastern end of Long Island, for example!

Snowy Egrets are now numerous about the marshes along the Creek. A group of 12 Glossy Ibis flew overhead. The Horned Grebes were no longer present, but the Buffleheads, mergansers and Common Loon continue. The Green Heron remains as well.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

Green Herons.

On Saturday the 14th, the first of the season Green Heron appeared at the station. [As three Snowy Egrets had flown past on Friday, this completed the list of herons expected to be seen at First Landing during the breeding season.] The sight of a Green Heron always causes me to reflect on a flightless, still somewhat-downy, juvenile Green Heron which I “boarded” in my bathtub for two weeks in late July a number of years ago in upstate New York.

That heron had walked out of the hayfields and into the front yard on a Sunday morning. It was about to be killed by my farm flock of laying hens. I grabbed the bird before the hens could undertake their plan.

According to the first breeding bird atlas of New York State, Green Herons did not breed in my county. Nor did they breed above 1200 feet in elevation. This heron disproved both hypotheses. The bird wanted no part of wetted dog food. But the juvenile instantly grabbed an offered frog and knew what to do with it. As that Green Heron daily consumed a dozen or more frogs and fished from a large dog bowl as many minnows as I could catch, it allowed a glimpse into what it is to be a wild creature and how proficient they are at it. (The bird never tolerated close human presence. It hissed at every approach.)

On the morning of the bird’s release, a bright band identifying this Green Heron was placed on the right leg. With a cotton hood over the bird’s head to reduce stress, I walked the heron down to the stream which runs through my farm out of which I had taken many of the frogs and minnows. As the time came to release the bird into our world, I found myself trembling and in tears. What would become of “Esmeralda?” Would THIS bird survive a first south-bound migration? Would THIS heron find wintering habitat in which to survive the non-breeding season? Would THIS individual complete a north-bound migration and perhaps even return to this area to breed?
My fears were not about Esmeralda’s fitness to survive in an environment in which Green Herons had evolved for countless generations. Rather, it was whether this bird could survive the obstacles of what we call “our civilization.” I ask that question and wish good fortune for each wild bird I have the privilege to handle. Each year these obstacles rapidly grow in number and degree.

It is now possible for everyone to follow individual wild birds of many species through web cams and satellite positioning devices. [The weight of such devices is now light enough to place such transmitters safely aboard birds weighing as little as 100 grams.] Likely you know about web sites for eagles, falcons and loons. Thanks to a tip from an old friend in New Zealand, you might try following the current north-bound migration of Bar-tailed Godwits, a shorebird related to the Marbled and Hudsonian Godwits seen on the east coast of the United States, from wintering grounds in New Zealand to breeding grounds in Siberia and Alaska at: or Read about the destruction of important stop-over sites in Korea.

If you find yourself bound to these remarkable birds do not be surprised for we are each bound to the other; do something. Join an organization, like Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory,, or Defenders of Wildlife, Speak out for the conservation and preservation of healthy ecosystems in your community. Ask questions of government, such as why the Cape Hatteras National Seashore allows off-road vehicles year-around use of beach areas essential to the survival and recovery of sea turtles, migrating shorebirds and beach-nesting plovers, terns and oystercatchers.

The Last Net Run of the Day!

Mr. Berra had it about right--the day is not over until the last net run. There had not been a bird captured in over five hours. Not one. Yes, the first two runs of the day at 0650 and 0740 had yielded nine birds, including the female Northern Parula and first newly-banded Eastern Tufted Titmouse of the year, both pictured. (And yes, Titmice are strange birds, undaunted by people or cameras.) Birds were singing and things were looking up.
At once around 0800, the woods and marsh were silent. Not even the Marsh Wren sang. The Osprey were quietly incubating and eating fish about their nest. Clouds rolled in and it began to rain just after 1000. There were thoughts of closing as a second batch of showers rolled in around 1100. But thanks to text messaging with a trusted advisor who checked the computer weather radar several times and correctly predicted better weather coming, the nets were left open, though checked more frequently. And the weather did improve. Bird song and activity resumed, but the nets were empty still.
I admit it. I took a short snooze, 20 minutes. I did so while watching several Pileated Woodpeckers in the woods while I sat in the sun on the platform just beyond the A nets of the station. I recall thinking that today might yield a second Pileated. It was now 1340, time for the last run of the day.
After closing all nets in A, B and D, I checked C1 and C2, no luck. But as I began to furl C2 there arose much screaming from net C3, our Pileated, indeed. She was banded here in March 2005 as a second-year bird. That was good, as I later aged her as being after third-year! While extracting the Pileated, I glanced in the direction of net C4. More birds there, six to be exact! Two Palm Warblers, one Pine Warbler, Song Sparrow, Downy Woodpecker AND a Black and White Warbler, first of 2007. A fine ending to the day before a giant Northeaster rolls in for a visit. Placed extra ties on each net.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Diversions for Slow Banding Days

On Saturday 0500 last there was snow and rain in the air and on the ground. And there were 40 knots of wind at Cape Henry-just a typical April day in my home territory, upstate New York. No banding Saturday. Sunday, Monday and today were mostly sunny, but air temperatures struggled to break out of the upper forties. Indeed, there was a small pile of snow at the station on Sunday. Today at net opening, many of the furled nets were frosted together and difficult to open fully until thawed by the sun. The daily total of birds caught each day failed to break ten, only six today!
So what does one do during the seven hours that the nets are open on a slow day? Well, one can evaluate which nets are not catching birds and ponder whether there might be better places to place those nets. That done, new net lanes can be cut, nets taken down and reset in the new lanes. I did that on Sunday. Three nets were taken down; two new net lanes were cut about 75 yards away. The nets were reset on Monday morning and today, four of the six birds captured came from those very nets, including the season’s first female Eastern Towhee, pictured. (The third net will be reset when a pair of net poles is located.)
One can also try to take a good digipicture of a bird which does not particularly like to have its picture taken-like the Belted Kingfisher. Kingfishers are a common fish-eating bird across North America. They are also noisy and like to perch on conspicuous perches above water from which they can spot fish to plunge-catch and eat. Kingfishers do not seem to be binocular-shy, but take out a tripod and spotting scope to get a better look or take a digipix-good bye Kingfisher with a harsh rattle call of a rebuke as it flies off to a “safe” perch. Well, I got a few acceptable images-including one which caught this male bobbing its tail as they do while calling!
And one can listen, quietly from different places on the station. Such efforts yielded three new birds for the station this spring. A Long-billed Marsh Wren was heard in the inland marsh near White Hill Lake on Monday and today. A White-breasted Nuthatch was seen and heard Monday on dead trees near Osprey 788-20124’s nest. And a Common Loon in breeding (alternate, see below) plummage was seenand heard on Long Creek. (All is well at the Osprey nest.)
Finally, one can fuss over a common bird undergoing prealternate molt. Prealternate molt, which corresponds to prebreeding or prenuptual molt in earlier terminology, is a second annual molt which occurs in the early spring in about half of North America’s passerines. It is primarily a molt of body feathers (recall the American Goldfinch). Prebasic molt, which occurs in all passerines yearly following the breeding season, includes body and flight feathers. Compare the two Yellow-rumped (‘Myrtle”) Warbler pictures along with the wing detail. The first picture is of a male taken on March 14th; the second is of another male taken on April 9th. The wing detail shows the fresh and molting greater coverts of the April 9 individual. That is prealternate molt!
On each of the last three banding days I have either seen, heard or caught Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Northern Parulas and Eastern Phoebes. The insectivores which were captured showed body fat and otherwise were in good condition. Those seen were foraging on insects in the noon sun in shrubs along the sheltered edges of wetlands. First Landings early insect-dependent migrants are very much alive. (Nor is a singing bird about to die.) A south wind will bring new migrants north tonight and help push others across the Chesapeake.


Friday, April 6, 2007

A Winter Wren for a Winter-like, Spring Day.

Seventeen birds found our nets today and only a few looked comfortable as they were banded, measured, weighed and photographed. Species which rely upon insects for their primary food source, such as the female Northern Parula and male Blue-gray Gnatcatcher pictured, were fluffed up to save energy, perhaps concerned when they might find their next meal in this cold Canadian air. Such is the plight of the north-bound migrant with an early spring urge to forge north to their breeding grounds.

The Winter Wren, also, is a migrant! And they breed in Alaska, across Canada and the northern tier of the United States, nearly coast-to-coast! Why, with those short, rounded wings and that short, stubby tail, it seems a wonder that such a bird can fly across the street, much less across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and beyond. Indeed, this half-pint of a wren weighs several grams more than and has wings over one-half inch shorter than a Kinglet. Not bad for aerial maneuvers of short duration, but ……how do they ever make it there and back again? Compare the male Golden-crowned Kinglet caught today. Small, yes; but built to fly a few hundred miles in a reasonable amount of time.
All banders enjoy Winter Wrens. They are a challenge to catch, a horror to get out of the net (invariably they are captured in the lowest pocket of a net and often manage to twirl themselves into a ball of netting and bird) and a test to get out of a bird bag. You see, Winter Wrens think they are mice with wings. They can run as well as they can fly. They know there is only one way out of the bag and that the hole need not be very large for them to escape. They need not escape directly. They are content deftly to avoid your hand as the bag is being opened. In a moment they can wiggle up your sleeve and emerge from the neck of your tee shirt before taking flight. Ask my friends Betsy Brooks and Ryan Kayhart at Braddock Bay Bird Observatory near Rochester, NY,!
Finally, the male American Goldfinch pictured was also comfortable in the cool air gripping First Landing today. But if molting new body feathers is as itchy as it seems it ought to be, perhaps he was not entirely so. Within a week or three, this fellow will have his shiny black cap and bright yellow body feathers for the breeding season ahead. Winter is over, even if there are snow flurries and frost predicted overnight.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Pace of the Migration is Uneven.

But the progress of the migration is relentless. The pre-dawn walk was almost silent in the cool air. The weatherman was wrong about the wind. The predicted strong Northerlies had not materialized. Only a single Cardinal was heard across Long Creek from the residential plantings.
As I approached the Station, there was a call of a New England summer night--a Whip-poor-will--in the moonlight from the dry woodland along the Kingfisher Trail.
The nets yielded only four unbanded birds and three recaps--Hermit Thrush, Chickadee, Carolina Wren and Swamp Sparrow. Gnatcatchers were about; Parulas sang occasionally.
With time on my hands between net runs, I watched the Osprey pair. Again they were quiet. She stayed on the nest all morning save for a brief exercise flight and prompt return. And I watched her fuss about the nest on two occasions and move her head as to turn an egg. Yes, she is incubating. How many eggs I do not know.
The full moon had brought a very high tide to the salt marsh. And the change in weather had caused four Little Blue Herons (first of the year for First Landing) to drop in for a migratory rest. They never fed during the five hours I kept loose track of them. They moved thrice to keep their feet dry, allowing the Great Egrets, now three, to feed in the marsh along with two Great Blue Herons and nervous Kingfisher.
What a fine day.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Today at First Landing......

The pre-dawn walk in the dark along Long Creek was largely a quiet one. A Northern Cardinal, or two, along with a Chickadee, or three, were heard, but there were no Hermit Thrushes along the path as there have been recently. The first two net runs yielded but two Hermits and one Swamp Sparrow. Yesterday, I had a dozen or more birds. The air was warm, humid and quiet. Even the Ospreys were silent (I think she may have laid her first egg, but more investigation is necessary).
The third net run demonstrated, once again, the magic of a spring migration banding station. There in net B8, Dr. Bob Reilly's "new" net, was a White-eyed Vireo! First of the season. Look at that bill! Well, I know, you have not stopped looking at the eye yet! And those yellow spectacles are nice, too.
The weather began to change. Around 1030 the wind shifted more to the south and began to build. No more birds. I furled half the nets because rain was in the forecast and the sky had begun to darken. The wind let up about 1130, but rain was imminent, so I closed more nets. Not a bird to be found or seen. Steady rain commenced just before 1150 and I moved to close the four remaining nets. Suddenly, at nets A10 and A6, there were birds in the bushes and trees and four in the nets, including the female Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and the male Yellow-throated Warbler pictured. On the walk back to my cottage there were gnatcatchers everywhere. What will tomorrow bring?

This Passerine Banding Station.

The Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory banding station at First Landing State Park has 22 mist nets, each of which is about 39 feet long and eight feet high. The netting stops the bird's flight; the pockets of the nets, of which each net has four, hold the birds until they are removed by, well, me. Each captured bird is placed alone in a cotton bird bag which is marked by a clothes pin so that which bird was caught in which net can be recorded in the data. All nets are checked every 30-45 minutes during each banding day-more frequently in cold or very hot weather. The nets are furled when not in use.
The birds are brought to the central data station in their bags and kept out of the weather and sun while awaiting their turn to be processed. Kinglets are processed first, as they are the smallest and most fragile.
Each bird is identified by species and immediately banded with a metal band appropriate for the size of its leg or tarsus. Each bird is then measured, evaluated for body fat, feather wear and other attributes, aged and sexed (if possible) and finally, weighed. The bird is then released.
The data on each bird is recorded by hand on a banding sheet. The band number and some of the general data is thereafter sent electronically to the Bird Banding Lab of the USGS, as recounted in an earlier blog. The complete data from this station, the CVWO Kiptopeke Station and others is used by ecologists, ornithologists and other scientists to address a great variety of questions including: species morphology, population trends, migratory stop-over issues, migratory arrival trends.
By the way, how much do you think a Ruby-crowned Kinglet weighs? Answer: about 6 grams or 1/5th of an ounce. A fat Kinglet will weigh 6.7 grams!