Friday, March 28, 2008

Northern Mockingbird Habits

I have some exciting news to report- the Northern Mockingbird that lives in the shrubs of our side yard has hatchlings! I've posted about and referred to this mockingbird several times, and recently I've formed quite the relationship with her. I would often see her on the fence and in the fruit tree on the border of our neighbor's lot, but lately she's been hanging out in the shrub right next to where I park my car. One day I was on the front lawn going through the low bushes and picking up trash that blows into the yard and I saw her there inside one of the bushes. She didn't budge and just watched me intently as I picked up the papers caught in the leaves and branches. That's when I realized her nest must be inside of there.

In the weeks since I've watched her hang out at the bush, guarding it carefully. In the morning she'll usually be sitting right on top of it and won't move, even as I open the doors on my car adjacent to the bush. One morning there were two house sparrows harassing her in the bush and I yelled at them and made a commotion to scare them away.

Luckily the nest was untouched and this morning when I was up really early I heard their chirping from inside the nest and there was the mother in her usual perch on top of the bush.

I really wish I could have a pet right now, but our lease doesn't allow cats or dogs. I suppose my mockingbird friend is the next best thing. I like to talk to her as I get into the car and pull out of the driveway on the way to work. Anyone who witnesses this obviously must think I'm crazy.

Am I alone in this? Does anyone else have personal 'bird friends'?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Edge Habitat and Grassland Birds- Interview with Dave Scarpitti: Part Three

I am continuing with part three of my interview with Dave Scarpitti, an Upland Game Bird Biologist with MassWildlife. Dave will be speaking about habitat management at the Mass Audubon Birders Meeting Saturday March 15th at Bentley College.

Describe edge habitat in relation to grasslands.

Edge habitat is where grassland and forest meet. This area enhances biodiversity because it boasts the characteristics of two different structures. However, there are benefits and minuses. They support wildlife like foxes, and can be good for plants and various insects. However, a negative edge effect for birds is that predators like foxes and raptors lurk there since they have cover and then can sneak out and grab them.

What types of native grasses grow in Massachusetts?

Warm season grasses are most abundant, used in places like horse pastures, but they're not native. They give more homogeneous ground cover, and are most palatable in the middle of summer. Cool season grasses on the other hand, are native and grow much differently. They grow more patchy and birds and other grassland inhabitants like the clusters this grass grows in because they can crawl between them and hide for cover from predators when foraging. Cool season grasses benefit a larger group of species, and are native birds are better adapted to using them. They are most palatable in the early spring and fall.

Does you ever recommend local seed resources to landowners? There is a small niche market for commercial cool season grasses. We might tell them to look for a specific blend.

Do you know of any prescribed burns taking place in Massachusetts as a means of habitat management?

Some habitat types are very well adapted to burning- pitch pine for example. They best regenerate after a burn since the high heat melts the wax in the cones and allows them to easily disseminate their seeds. Also, fire helps reduce competition from other plants. Prescribed burns are more likely to take place in southeastern Massachusetts- like the Cape where pitch pine are abundant. Montague is one area in Western Mass where prescribed burns have been done. This area also supports pitch pine and scrub pine. Prescribed burning can also be used as an alternative to manage debris from land clearing.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Massachusetts Bird Habitat- Interview with Dave Scarpitti: Part Two

This is a continuation of my interview with Dave Scarpitti, an Upland Game Bird Biologist with MassWildlife who will be speaking about habitat management at the Mass Audubon Birders Meeting Saturday March 15th at Bentley College.

There are three primary types of land conversation for birds, breeding habitat, wintering habitat, and migratory corridors. Can you give examples of birds in Massachusetts requiring these types of habitat.

Breeding Habitat: A lot of different groups breed in Massachusetts- hawks, owls, warblers and sparrows breed in forests, while the Massachusetts coastline is very appealing to shorebirds and wading birds like herons, and egrets.

Wintering Habitat: There are many wintering birds in Massachusetts, such as black ducks and eiders attracted to Nantucket Sound. The type of wintering habitat requiring management is earl successional habitat- maintaining open tracts of land.

Migratory Corridors: Most birds migrate; the ones in Massachusetts that require management are resident birds. Woodcock migrate in winter, but grouse and quail do not and they require management of open spaces with areas of ground cover from the snow and cold.

Tell me about migratory flyways in Massachusetts. Birds use the coastline, in this case the Atlantic Ocean, as a guide in Massachusetts. Cape Cod sticks out in the migratory path, which results in a high concentration of birds stopping there to rest along the way. As for rivers, the Hudson in Connecticut and the Kennebec in Maine are other local waterways that serve as migratory flyways.

Birds like hawks, follow mountain ridge lines in their migration. As a matter of fact, it's been reported in recent years that some hawks have adapted to use major highways as migratory flyways. I had someone tell me they saw migrating birds following the Mass Pike just the other day.

Tomorrow's portion of the interview will cover edge habitat and grassland birds.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Hermit Thrush- Mystery Bird Solved

Thanks to Bennet and to Andrea for their help in identifying my mystery bird from last weekend at Drumlin Farm. I naively thought it could be one of several thrushes, but Andrea set me straight that the most likely thrush to be seen this time of year is the Hermit Thrush.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Habitat Management for Birds- Interview with Dave Scarpitti: Part One

I had the good fortune to sit down with wildlife biologist Dave Scarpitti and discuss his topic for a break-out session at the Mass Audubon Birders Meeting. Dave is an Upland Game Bird Biologist with MassWildlife and will be speaking about habitat management in Massachusetts and how birders can play a role in this conservation effort.

Many birds have learned to adapt to their urban surroundings. Can you give some examples of birds going through such a transition right now?

Red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures can be seen circling around highways- this is something that we've seen within the last 100 years. These are birds that have been around for thousands of years so they have learned to adapt to their current environment. The highway provides an open space for hawks to hunt small prey and it provides roadkill for the turkey vultures.

Humans have altered every square inch of land so everything has learned to adapt.

What are the types of birds in Massachusetts requiring large tracts of woodland and grassland?

There are many, but the most notorious are the ones that require the largest areas of land. 5 acres is not good enough- some of these birds need 30-40 acres of uninterrupted land.

Upland sandpipers (related to shorebirds) have evolved to live inland, and they really have declined since the end of widespread agriculture in MA. Others include grasshopper sparrows, vesper sparrows, and bobolinks. Crane Wildlife Management Area features large open tract areas of land that these types of birds require. The northern portion serves grassland birds, while the southern portion serves quail.

The Frances A. Crane Wildlife Management Area on Cape Cod provides 1,800 acres of conversation land for hunting and maintaining an open tract of land of land for birds and other wildlife. Parking is located in Falmouth near the Nickelodeon Cinema. The land was purchased by the state in 1958 from the Crane family and is named after Charles Crane's daughter Frances Crane who was killed in a car accident after leaving the Falmouth Playhouse.

The largest open area is the meadowland, featuring a large grass strip from the former Falmouth Airport. This is area is actively maintained with mowing to prevent it from reverting back to forest and it supports several species of threatened plantlife, including native grasses.

The area is also stocked with quail and pheasant for hunting, and also offers other recreation opportunities such as mountain biking, horseback riding and walking. As a matter of fact, I blogged about how much my friends Chelsea Harry and Chris Walsh's dog Jackson enjoyed the area back in a December post. He was exhibiting instinctive bird dog skills and flushed out a bird in the meadowland.

Watch for tomorrow's continuation of the interview where Dave talks about wintering birds and migratory flyways.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Snowy Owl at Drumlin Farm!

Today was the inaugural day for my Mass Audubon membership- I got a membership for myself and my boyfriend yesterday and today the cards were in action!
It snowed last night into this morning and I really wanted to get out there and enjoy the snow before it's too late! Yes, unlike everyone else in Boston I am not sick of the snow. Ok, I'm a little tired of shoveling but I truly love having snow on the ground since it's been a rarity in recent years.
I threw on my Tretorn rubber boots and we headed off into the slush. At the point we got to Drumlin Farm it was lightly sleeting, and the overall temperature was pretty mild today so the snow had gotten very wet. The boots help up great- my feet were completely dry and warm- I highly recommend them.
We explored the farm yard for the first time, now that we did have to pay for admittance. We checked out the Drumlin Underground, which allows you to view various animals' dens through glass panes from within a basement of sorts. The dens are connected by tunnel to the above-ground enclosure. The only active animals today were the Red Fox and the Black Fox (?). The Red Fox was the friendliest though- when we went around to the above-ground enclosure he stayed out in his pen and jumped around and seemed interested in us. Maybe it was the fact that we were the only people walking around the grounds today...Oh and on our way out the door of the Underground there was a tank containing baby mice that had just hatched. They were red and squirming around their mother.
We went on to check out the birds in Bird Hill. They included owls (barred owl, great-horned owl) raptors (red-tailed hawk, broad-winged hawk, american kestrel), a pheasant, and a crow. They all had interesting back-stories and it's nice that they found a good home where they can also help educate.
As for birding, we certainly heard lots of active birds on the grounds, but dismissed a lot of the common chickadees and titmice in favor of covering more ground on this wet sloppy day. There were some very active male cardinals that caught my attention. Normally when I encounter cardinals I only see a male/female pair; however, today was interesting because I saw males only and observed how they were interacting with each other. There was a lot of squawking and chasing going on, which I found interesting. I kept assuming that I would see a female in the mix, but no- just males chattering and following each other around the canopy. I decided to do a little research since I'm ignorant on the subject and I learned a lot from All About Birds on the Cornell Ornithology Website.
The most natural thing to assume is the sparring had something to do with a female, and the site said they will very fiercely defend their breeding area. Perhaps there was a new male trying to encroach on that patch of land. I also learned that brighter colored males are also evolutionarily superior, living in areas with denser vegetation, feed more often and have better reproduction success. I can't recall the colors of the various males I saw, but here is a picture of one I captured from far below. Note his crest high in the air.

I also saw quite a few robins during the trip.

I stopped to take pictures of a bird that was along high up in a tree making a shrieking sort of noise since I thought it might be a type of hawk. Upon getting home; however, I discovered it was merely a robin!

And a BirdingGirl post wouldn't be complete without a Mystery Bird!

Here's the progress I've made so far: At first glance I thought it was just a house sparrow since it had brown and white feathers, but it was by itself and that made me pay more attention. Next I tried getting a closer look at the coloring and saw that there were markings on the head. It also hopped and clung upside down more than I've seen house sparrows do. I managed to get some pictures through the trees, but unfortunately the branches obscured most of them. This is the best picture I have to work with. Once home I pulled out my Sibley Guide and first started trying to identify if by the coloring on the breast and flanks, but that wasn't enough. The next identifying feature I saw was the beak, which is long and narrow. That helped rule out finches and sparrows. I picked up on the resemblance to the ovenbird I saw at Gifford Pinchot State Park in Pennsylvania, but I remembered that bird was large and kept to the ground.

Here are my guesses- feel free to shoot me down!

Swainson's Thrush, Gray-cheeked Thrush, or Hermit Thrush- narrow beak, spotted breast and white eye-ring (which can be seen just barely in the photograph); I'm leaning toward Swainson's because the tail seems to be more gray than red.

Ovenbird- again, I doubt that it is this, but the spotted breast, white eye-ring and stripes on the crown make me consider it.

Last but not least, I have to report on the Snowy Owl we saw. I'm still trying to verify that there have been other sightings at Drumlin Farm, but I am 99% positive that's what I saw, especially after having seen one already at Crane Beach in Ipswich.

I first spotted it as we came up the hill where Hayfield Loop meets Drumlin Loop. I saw it swoop down from a big evergreen over the hillside. I remember the distinct slow beating of the wings, along with the very long wingspan. I kind of shook it off as possibly a seagull, but then as we continued along the ridge of the hill I saw it come back up from the field and fly into another large tree up ahead. At this point the weather was getting really bad and I didn't want to expose my camera to anymore sleet and wet snow so we didn't hang around long enough to see it again. Not to say we didn't try- we did linger for another 10 minutes or so. But after all the time we spent tracking the snowy owl at Crane Beach we felt we had gotten that out of our system.