midwinter visitors

14 01 2009

somethingdifferentLook carefully at this group of mallards and you’ll see that, in fact, they’re not all mallards. It’s like that old Sesame Street skit, “One of these things is not like the other things, one of these things just doesn’t belong…

The last couple of days have been good for our less common Sapsucker Woods birds: the day before this wildfowl visitor showed up (any guesses as to its identity?) we had several great looks at a northern shrike terrorizing the north side of the pond.  I even overheard someone this morning saying that they had watched a shrike impale and dismantle a mouse just a hundred feet off of Sapsucker Woods Rd. Looking at the Sapsucker Woods eBird data from the last 100 years, it shows that shrikes are fairly common during the fall and winter, but the odd duck out is a fairly rare occurrence.  

noshpondNow, you might be thinking that a duck and a hook-billed songbird aren’t all that exciting; but add in a sprinkling of dozens of pine siskins, a healthy dose of american tree sparrows, and a light dash of white-throated sparrows, and you’ve got quite a diversity of birds to watch.  Not to mention the red-tailed hawk that skimmed by right outside the windows of the lunchroom.  And the furtive brown beady-eyed mink that I saw in the gloaming last night.  Plus a group of rosy-breasted robins in the late dusk sunlight, high in the trees.

So keep an eye on those windows! Despite the single-digit highs of the next few days, there’s no telling what else the woods will reveal…


Unmoved by the snow…

19 11 2008

Despite the onslaught of cold, snowy days, the little blue heron that has stalked the shallows of Sapsucker Woods pond is still standing its ground. Literally. It has stood, unmoving, for nearly the entire day, on a half-submerged log on the north side of the pond. As I write, my thoughts drift toward the cold forecast for the next few days, and I wonder how many more mornings I will arrive to see that shining white beacon greet me from across the water. Stay warm, youngster, and Godspeed toward warmer (unfrozen) climes…

Rarity Alert!

7 11 2008

Little Blue Heron – New York

Originally uploaded by bonxie88

Just in case you’ve been wondering what you should do this weekend, take the opportunity to get out and see a great rarity hanging out around the pond in Sapsucker Woods. This Little Blue Heron has been spending its time skulking around the pond margins, perching on snags, and generally making itself available to the birding public. Try the platform on the back edge of the pond for the most likely viewing; also, rewarding views have been garnered from inside the Visitors’ Center, especially on the second floor.

Hope to see you out there!

Slaty shades of grey

7 02 2008

Birding for gulls around Sapsucker Woods is generally slim pickings; the most common gull to be found (flying over, of course, always flying over) is everyone’s favorite parking lot resident, the Ring-billed Gull. In general, I don’t spend a lot of time trying to identify difficult gulls because it’s such a confusing mess of plumages: first-year, second-cycle, subspecies, hybrids, 2-yr, 3-yr…When I add up all the potential combinations and laminate them onto a bird that is basically white, grey and black, I become relatively confused. Hence my penchant for reporting Ring-billed Gulls on my clandestine visits to Taco Bell, a Great Black-backed Gull here and there, maybe a Herring Gull if I get a good look. But I never thought I’d find myself squinting through the gloaming for a gull.

(BMC on the lookout for gulls)

But that’s exactly where I found myself last Sunday before the Super Bowl. A rarity, the Slaty-backed Gull, had been sighted a mere handful of miles from the Lab. As a siberian breeder. it isn’t seen round these parts very often, and when I was invited along to go search for it among the thousand odd gulls that clamored along the ice edges in Stewart Park, I was hesitant but respectfully interested. (At this point I should mention that I probably am one of the least “twitchy” birdwatchers at the Lab of O, but after a long grey day spent holed up out of the weather, I needed air, and a foray to look for gulls seemed like an appropriate way to spend such a dreary day.)


(the larger, darker mantled bird in the upper right is the Slaty-backed Gull; shot through my scope. Note the pinkish legs)

Arriving at the shore of Cayuga Lake, we spotted fellow basin birders with scopes unfurled and converged on a spot near the Swan Pen to scan for gulls. In the end, the quarry we sought made an appearance, allowing for a great deal of observation and study. Seven gull species were seen that day (Slaty-backed, Iceland (Kumlien’s), Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, Glaucous, Ring-billed, and Herring), and it was the perfect prelude to watching the Giants win later that evening (go Giants!).

Meanwhile, across the state at Niagara Falls another rarity had been sighted, this one even rarer: the fabled Ross’s Gull. According to Nick over at Biological Ramblings, a weekend field trip to Niagara Falls for a group from the Cornell area exposed the ever-present risk of twitching: sometimes the bird just doesn’t show.

Veery Lucky

7 07 2007


Each day I try and take a walk around the Lab of O; in this case, I’m not sightseeing or birding, or even on a trail. I stalk the space within a few meters of the physical building, eyes scanning the ground for a patch of color that stands out from the green or the gravel. Many have spoken of the new Lab as being a beautiful building in a beautiful setting, but upon further reflection, this building’s beauty betrays birds. The energy-efficient, UV filtering windows that offer unimpeded views of Sapsucker Woods pond and the surrounding forest offer birds a lethal reflection of their environment, and from time to time this reflection results in the death of a bird.

A few caveats before I go further: I work for the Lab, and know that everyone working here cares about the issue of windowstrikes. In fact, the oddly proportioned windows in the Observatory of the Visitors’ Center, with their deep mullions and multitude of frame sizes, were originally thought to reduce the likelihood of strikes (and who knows-perhaps they do?). This general pattern was carried out throughout the rest of the building’s exterior, and all of the windows face habitat (except those on the East side of the building). Yet windowstrikes still occur, though my general impression for the past year is that windowstrikes peak during migration periods, with the Fall migration having the highest proportion due to naive juveniles.


The stalking I mention in the first paragraph is a part of my windowstrike monitoring effort here at the Lab. So far this summer, there have been very few reports of birds striking windows (from those Lab staff lucky enough to have a window), and no dead birds have been found beneath the windows. One incident involved the veery pictured above. I received an email from someone on the first floor, north side, that something had struck their window; I didn’t see this email until 15 minutes after it happened, and when I arrived on scene to check on the bird I found a veery sitting calmly underneath the window, breathing regularly but seemingly in a daze. After a few moments in a dark box the bird perked up, and within moments it had flitted off to the low bushes and begun preening (and I breathed a sigh of relief).

Read the rest of this entry »

Restarting Redstarts

2 06 2007


Many of the interesting things happening in Sapsucker Woods can be seen during a single visit to the sanctuary; yet there are also a suite of compelling stories happening on a much longer timescale.

If we go back 60 years, there was a student named Oliver Owen that studied the birds of eastern Sapsucker Woods under the tutelage of Lab of O founder Dr. Arthur A. Allen (I actually used to rent a house from his son and daughter-in-law!). If we consult Owen’s breeding bird surveys, we’d find that American Redstarts were present, but not in high numbers (he found 1-2 breeding pairs in the 2 years of his thesis research). Dr. Allen also initiated a set of 15 breeding bird surveys off and on for the next 30 years, using sampling points along the trail system, and noted only two years where there was a single instance of breeding American Redstarts. By the time Tom Litwin did his thesis in 1979-80, he recorded no instances of breeding Redstarts during his surveys.

Fast forward to the present.

The northern edge of the pond, nearest the building, is alive and resonating with the songs of male Redstarts on territories. Within the last week we have found more than three nests (though one has already failed), and at least two have birds incubating on them.

So what gives? We’re in the process of figuring it out, so you’ll have to wait for the answer in a future post. But until then, I’ll leave you with a video I shot this morning showing what an incubating female does when she gets hungry.

CAUTION: this video contains extreme violence and death for one unfortunate caterpillar.

Sapsucker Cecropias

1 06 2007


It never fails to amaze me what you can find in your own backyard.

Two days ago I was leading a group of second-graders on a nature/bird walk in Sapsucker Woods when I saw the biggest moth I had ever seen north of the tropics: a Cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia), with a wingspan approaching six-inches. Even better, these two moths were illustrating a neat bit of ecology just by being in that spot at that time. The female was perched on the edge of her cocoon, and perched perpendicular to her, abdomen touching, was the male. Most likely this male had encountered or homed in on the emerging female and decided that it might be a good time for a roll in the hay (especially before she had the ability to fly away!). Males have been known to travel over 6 miles in search of a female, and usually mate with as many as three females during their short 7-10 day life cycle. Keep your eyes peeled for these spectacular spring messengers!