A Toast to Our Birds of 2017 and the Peculiar Tower Atop the Greenhouse

Ruby-crowned Kinglet feeding at Rushton November 3rd. Photo by Celeste Sheehan
Ruby-crowned Kinglet feeding at Rushton November 3rd. Photo by Celeste Sheehan

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.

 Speaking of fall, we finished out this fall banding season with a catch total of 1,060 birds including 158 recaptures.  Species diversity was 52 strong, with the top five customers including Gray Catbird (245!), White-throated Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Common Yellowthroat.  Brand new to the station was a devastatingly dapper Blue-headed Vireo, and a Cedar Waxwing was the other handsome ornament that does not typically grace our nets.  Other notables included thirteen Field Sparrows (a species declining in PA) and a healthy thrush population including 23 Veery, 25 Wood Thrush, and 16 Swainson’s Thrush.  Much to my joy we caught a station record of four Winter Wrens— not a partridge in a pear tree but my favorite nonetheless.
Blue-headed Vireo banded at Rushton in October. Photo by Blake Goll
Blue-headed Vireo banded at Rushton in October. Photo by Blake Goll
Cedar Waxwing banded in October. Photo by Blake Goll
Cedar Waxwing banded at Rushton in October. Photo by Blake Goll
Field Sparrow banded in October. Photo by Blake Goll
Field Sparrow banded at Rushton in October. Photo by Blake Goll
Swainson's Thrush banded in September. Photo by UPenn student, Yimei Li
Swainson’s Thrush banded at Rushton in September. Photo by UPenn student, Yimei Li
Connecticut Warbler banded in October. Photo by Blake Goll
Connecticut Warbler banded at Rushton in October. Photo by Blake Goll

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%.

Black-throated Blue Warbler banded in October. Photo by Blake Goll
Black-throated Blue Warbler banded at Rushton in October. Photo by Blake Goll
Northern Parulas banded in September at Rushton. Photo by Blake Goll
Northern Parulas banded in September at Rushton. Photo by Blake Goll

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.

Northern saw-whet Owl banded in November. Photo by Blake Goll
Northern Saw-whet Owl banded at Rushton in November. Photo by Blake Goll

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.

Bird Mortality Infographic by Smithsonian
Bird Mortality Infographic by Smithsonian

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.

Monarch on dahlia at Rushton in October. Photo by Blake Goll
Monarch on dahlia at Rushton in October. Photo by Blake Goll

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.

Lisa Kiziuk. Director of WCT Bird Conservation Program, Dave Brinker of Project Owlnet and Scott Weidensaul of Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, in front of the Rushton Motus tower
Lisa Kiziuk (Director of WCT’s Bird Conservation Program), Dave Brinker of Project Owlnet and Scott Weidensaul of Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, in front of the Rushton Motus tower on the greenhouse.  The brains behind the Northeast Motus Collaboration!
Map showing existing Motus towers before our PA array
Existing Motus towers before our PA array
Map showing Motus towers in the Northeast after installation of our PA array
Motus towers in the Northeast after installation of our PA array
Nanotag on a Bay-breasted Warbler. Photo by Blake Goll
Nanotag on a Bay-breasted Warbler. Photo by Blake Goll
Different sizes of nanotags. Photo by Blake Goll
Different sizes of nanotags. Photo by Blake Goll

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.

Connecticut Warbler banded in October. Photo by Blake Goll
Connecticut Warbler banded at Rushton  in October. Photo by Blake Goll

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.

Todd Alleger extracting a bird from the nets. Photo by Catie Ritchie
Bander, Todd Alleger, extracting a catbird from the nets. Photo by Catie Ritchie

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.

Doris McGovern educating students from Abington Friends who visited the banding station in October. Photo by Blake Goll
Master Bander, Doris McGovern, educating students from Abington Friends who visited the banding station in October. Photo by Blake Goll
September 16th…But it was worth it when we learned that young ones had eagerly jumped out of bed to 5:45 AM alarms or anxiously nudged their sleeping parents awake, complaining that “they should have left an hour ago for banding!”
Jr. Birders releasing an Ovenbird during September's Open House. Photo by Blake Goll
Jr. Birders releasing an Ovenbird during September’s Open House. Photo by Blake Goll
 One Jr. Birder even gave up his typical Saturday morning of video gaming to attend the open house.  That’s a win when a kid gives up his playstation for the banding station!
A Jr. Birder's notes from the Open House in September. Photo by Blake Goll
A Jr. Birder’s notes from the Open House in September. Photo by Blake Goll
September 13th: One very fat Veery was a whopping 46.3 grams today; on August 31st this Veery had no “junk in the trunk” and was only 31.4 grams.  A 15-gram weight gain is quite substantial for a little bird like this, but it’s an effective strategy for launching yourself to southern Brazil.
Veery banded at Rushton in September. Photo by Blake Goll
Veery banded at Rushton in September. Photo by Blake Goll
 This morning started like so many other fall mornings so far: gray, sticky and misty.   As the early light brightened the navy blue skies, we set the nets to the beat of the Wood Thrush dawn calls.  Soon a Great-horned Owl began singing his sad lullaby, the prelude to the catbird mewing chorus and a bridge of scolding blue jays.
Mistnet at Rushton. Photo by UPenn student, Yimei Li
Mistnet at Rushton. Photo by UPenn student, Yimei Li
 September 20th: A young female American Redstart and a Black-throated Blue Warbler were the sprinkles on our cake today.  The icing was a gorgeous older female Indigo Bunting, a tawny bird with fluorescent indigo on her shoulders and gracefully lining every flight feather and covert.
Black-throated Blue Warbler banded in September. Photo by Blake Goll
Black-throated Blue Warbler banded in September. Photo by Blake Goll
September 20th: One of the middle school students exclaimed, “hey, this is actually pretty cool,” at the bird banding station, and another in the woods marveled, “I haven’t heard crickets in years!”  To see the world through a child’s eyes is one thing.  To see the world through a North Philly student’s eyes is another.
Mighty Writers of Philly student releasing an American Goldfinch in September
Mighty Writers of Philly student releasing an American Goldfinch in September. Photo by Blake Goll
Mighty Writers students trying on the banding gear. Photo by Blake Goll
Mighty Writers students trying on the banding gear. Photo by Blake Goll
October: Ribbons of deep red sky outlined the violet clouds in the apocalyptic October dawn.  The trees are looking more somber with browns and yellows dominating the sparse foliage, portending the arrival of our next study subjects: the Northern Saw-whet Owls.
Northern Saw-whet Owl banded in November. Photo by Blake Goll
Northern Saw-whet Owl banded in November. Photo by Blake Goll
 October 14th: Dripping.  That’s the word to describe our incredible morning.  Rushton morphed into a cloud forest with water dripping from the enveloping mist and birds dripping out of the skies and from our sagging nets by the dozens.  It was a land of plenty at last!  The catch totaled 73 birds of 23 species. Banders kept banding, extracters kept extracting, University of Pennsylvania students kept taking notes, and Lisa, Todd and Alison kept teaching.  If we were a machine, we would have been smoking.
Hermit Thrush and UPenn Masters of Environmental Science students in October. Photo by Blake Goll
Hermit Thrush and UPenn Masters of Environmental Science students in October. Photo by Blake Goll
Banders, Alison Fetterman and Todd Alleger, integral components of the Northeast Motus Collaboration. Photo by Blake Goll
Banders, Alison Fetterman and Todd Alleger, integral components of the Northeast Motus Collaboration. Photo by Blake Goll
October 17th:The Winter Wren is a wondrous little creature.  Its stubby wings and tail make it look like a tiny bubble, and it bounces around the forest floor inspecting the leaf litter for insects.  No bigger than a minute, but somehow always looking charmingly tubby, this is as adorable as birds get.  Don’t be fooled by its cuteness though.  The commanding song of the Winter Wren is as enchanting as the majestic old-growth forests from which it reverberates.  That such a diminutive bird such as he can send forth such an incredible cascade of notes is one of Nature’s divine mysteries.  In its small brown frame lies the heart of the forest.
Winter Wren banded at Rushton on Halloween. Photo by Blake Goll
Winter Wren banded at Rushton on Halloween. Photo by Blake Goll
 October 19th: Geese flew low in large numbers, looking especially regal this morning as the sun in tandem with the rising fog softly lit their wingtips in a dreamlike golden glow.  Single silver threads of spider silk lined with dew were delicately draped from one spent goldenrod to the next, like cobwebs across old dusty furniture in the attic.  
Chimney Swift towers at Rushton in the November dawn. Photo by Blake Goll
Chimney Swift towers at Rushton in the October dawn. Photo by Blake Goll
October 26th: Our first Fox Sparrow of the year also got some Rushton bling and almost got stuffed into Lisa’s coat pocket.  She adoringly exclaimed how it reminded her of a teddy bear.  The warm red-brown of the stately Fox Sparrow’s plumage is awfully reminiscent of autumnal comforts like pumpkins, crimson leaves, cinnamon, spice and everything nice.
Fox Sparrow banded in November. Photo by Blake Goll
Fox Sparrow banded in November. Photo by Blake Goll
 October 26th: One recap White-throated Sparrow was previously banded at Rushton at about this time last year, so he either likes Rushton as a trusted convenience store along his route or he overwinters here.  If only he was nanotagged…
White-throated Sparrow banded in October. Photo by Blake Goll
White-throated Sparrow banded in October. Photo by Blake Goll

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.  

Golden-crowned Kinglet banded in November. Photo by Blake Goll
Golden-crowned Kinglet banded in November. Photo by Blake Goll

Wishing you cheerful holidays filled with peace and birds.  And remember…there’s a lot going on in the woods,

Blake

Ruby-crowned Kinglet banded in October. Photo by Celeste Sheehan
Ruby-crowned Kinglet banded at Rushton in October. Photo by Celeste Sheehan

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