Summer’s End

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Monday August 31, 2020: 36 new birds of 14 species; 10 recaps. New species: Ovenbird and Chestnut-sided Warbler. We have banded a total of 42 species this season, 21 of which are warblers. Bird of the day was a tie between American Redstart and Black-throated Blue Warbler each with 7 new bands, followed by Magnolia Warbler with 6.

Oh what a chilly morning as we opened the nets today! At just 11oC (52oF), we were grateful for clear sunny skies and little wind. We just kept moving until the sun peeked over the tops of the trees, and then things warmed quickly . . . although I think more than one of us basked in the sun like a snake to soak up all the last rays of summer.

Yesterday’s moth-eaters continued to be the story today. Seven American Redstarts were joined by several other Setophaga today, including two Cape May Warblers, six Magnolia Warblers, one Chestnut-sided Warbler, and seven Black-throated Blue Warblers . . . all of which, do in fact eat moths (or at least eat moth caterpillers).

Photos: Cape May Warbler (hatch year, female)

Cape May Warblers are considered to be “spruce budworm specialists”, and their populations track the prevalence of this forest pest. Spruce budworms are the larva of any of nearly 40 species of moth, all in the genus Choristoneura. The larva feed voraciously on the needles of fir and spruce trees, often completely defoliating them. Several successive years of defoliation can kill the tree, leading to forest devastation (not to mention a big economic impact for the logging industry). There are outbreaks every so often, in which the density of the larva may exceed 100 larva / 45cm branch tip (source: Wikipedia).

Chemical controls have been used for many years, often with debilitating effects not just for the natural ecosystem but for humans as well. Cape May Warblers and other spruce budworm specialists provide a level of biological control that seems to be sufficient in most years, but in years of severe outbreaks, the predatory birds simply can’t keep up with the overwhelming food supply.

So yes – Cape May Warblers love moth larva, which may comprise 50% of their diet in the summer months. But, they also have a perhaps surprising habit of sipping nectar from flowers (thanks to their straw-like tongue) and of eating fruit, especially in the non-breeding season when those sources may make up 1/3 of their diet (source: All About Birds). If you’re lucky, you might even be able to entice a migrating Cape May Warbler into your backyard by offering fruit and sugar-water!

And about the name . . . Cape May Warblers really have no special association with Cape May, except that a specimen collected there was used by Alexander Wilson to describe the species. It’s scientific name, Setophaga tigrina, means “tiger moth-eater” and that idea is reflected in both the French name (Paruline tigrĂ©e – tiger warbler) and in the Spanish name (Reinita atigrada – brindle or tabby warbler). Which name do you prefer?

Thanks to Lydia, Marilyn, Chita and Janet for great help today.

-Andrea Patterson

Day of the Moth-eaters

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Sunday August 30, 2020: 33 new birds of 16 species; 18 recaps. No new species today. We have banded a total of 40 species this season, 19 of which are warblers. Bird of the day was American Redstart with 5 new bands, followed by a three-way tie for second between Red-eyed Vireo, Veery and Magnolia Warbler, each with 4.

American Redstart; photo taken Aug 24, 2020

The breeze continued this morning, making banding possible but not ideal. When the wind is too strong, it isn’t safe for the birds to be in the nets (while humans might enjoy roller-coaster rides, birds don’t!), and so we carefully monitor how each net is reacting to both the direction and force of the wind. Luckily, we often find that the leaves on the treetops can flutter and the top branches sway, while at ground level scarcely anything moves. Such was the case today.

American Redstarts are one of our banders’ favorite warblers. They are instantly identifiable to species (at least once they’ve escaped their mousey juvenal plumage), and at least the adult males are easy to age and sex. The young birds and the adult females may present a bit of an aging-sexing challenge, but once you figure out the age, the sex is often pretty easy too.

These insectavorous birds used to be in a monotypic genus (i.e. a genus comprised of just one species) called Setophaga, which means moth-eaters. Recent genetic work shows that they are closely related to the Hooded Warbler, two species of parula, and all of the formerly-Dendroica warblers (such as Yellow Warbler and Magnolia Warbler). So now the genus has more than 30 species! Because there are conventions in how we name birds, however, the genus continues to be called Setophaga as that name was introduced in 1827 and the other generic names weren’t introduced until later.

So . . . do American Redstarts actually eat moths? Yes they do! They’ll eat a variety of insects which they tend to pick off of leaves and twigs, but they can also sally forth like a flycatcher to seize bugs out of the air. Overall a pretty nifty bird.

Today we welcomed Lydia and Cindy back to the crew, and it was like they had never been away. Lydia passed her NABC certification last fall with flying colors (seriously . . . everyone was really impressed!), and this season she’ll start learning the ins and outs of being bander-in-charge. So, she’ll be learning to make decisions about when to open and close nets, how many nets to open, how to monitor the weather while simultaneously making sure net runs and banding is happening in a timely way, and how to serve as a resource for less experienced volunteers.

Thanks also to Megan and Michaela for their excellent help today.

-Andrea Patterson

Another windy day

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Saturday August 29, 2020: 0 birds of 0 species, 0 recaps.

The threat of rain never materialized, but the promised winds whipped the trees about and made it unsafe to band today.

Porcupine Bird

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Friday August 28, 2020: 28 new birds of 11 species, 16 recaps. New species: Nashville Warbler. We have banded a total of 40 species this season, 19 of which are warblers. Bird of the day was Gray Catbird with 6 new bands, followed by a tie for second between Red-eyed Vireo and Magnolia Warbler, each with 4.

Canada Warbler with nanotag #69

It was a relatively ordinary August day today with a double-handful of new birds and a half-bushel of recaptures. We were lucky enough to get a Canada Warbler big enough to be radio-tagged. and so he was fitted with tag #69 and released. It will be interesting to see how long our tagged birds remain in the area. We don’t recapture most of our banded birds, and even when we do, at best you learn the mimimum amount of time the bird was lurking. With the nanotags, we’ll get really fine-grained information on exactly when the bird moves out of the area.

At this time of year, a lot of our birds are molting. Some of them are replacing feathers they grew last year or earlier this year, and some of them are still getting their first set of feathers. When a feather grows in, it is encased in a protective sheath that eventually falls off or gets preened away. Normally, the sheath is quite short, but today we caught a young catbird just getting his first set of feathers, and the sheaths on his rectrices (tail feathers) were so long they looked like porcupine quills!

Thanks to Marilyn, Peggy and Sheryl for a smooth morning!

-Andrea Patterson

Too windy to band

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Thursday August 27, 2020: 0 birds of 0 species, 0 recaps.

The forecast was pretty dicey for the morning hours, with rain and wind predicted. Out of an abundance of caution, we decided to cancel the morning rather than have our volunteers sit huddled in our education room or under the eaves (properly distanced, of course!).

Banding at a distance

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Wednesday August 26, 2020: 45 new birds of 17 species, 12 recaps. New species: Downy Woodpecker, Veery, and Tennessee Warbler. We have banded a total of 39 species this season, 18 of which are warblers. Bird of the day was Gray Catbird with 8 new bands, followed by Least Flycatcher with 5.

So I bet you’re all wondering . . . what does banding during a pandemic look like? Last spring, we ran the season with just two volunteers, but this fall we have cautiously allowed most of our “old reliables” to return. We’ve developed a rigorous set of COVID-19 protocols that require masks, social distancing, and good hand hygiene, and we have moved our banding operation outdoors.

The scribe and the bander face each other at separate tables that are set 6 feet apart, and everyone else brings a lounge chair and finds a comfy spot in the shade so that they can daydream or birdwatch between net rounds. We’ve added a sink with a foot-pump so that people can wash their hands (although we still have to cart in the water), and we’ve decided that we can’t bring Timbits or brownies to share. Other than that, it’s all pretty much the same and it seems to be working well!

Four years ago – almost to the day – we published a post about Baltimore Orioles that have abnormally colored plumage due to their consumption of invasive honeysuckle. We caught three such birds today. The carotenoids in the honeysuckle augment the normal carotenoids present in the orioles’ feathers, and so the birds have an abnormally bright polka-dotted appearance. Baltimore Orioles are snazzy enough to begin with, but these extra adornments just put them over the top.

Baltimore Oriole (hatch year, male)
abnormally colored by invasive honeysuckle

This was the Wednesday crew’s first day back. Peggy was back at the helm as BIC, and she flew through an assortment of confusing fall warblers without a single hiccup. Ann and Sue patrolled the nets, and John settled back into the scribing. With the station in capable hands, I was free to clean the main banding building and hang bird-safe tape on some of the windows. Thanks everyone!

– Andrea Patterson

I hear the wind among the trees . . .

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I hear the wind among the trees
Playing the celestial symphonies;
I see the branches downward bent,
Like keys of some great instrument.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, A Day of Sunshine, Stanza 3

Tuesday August 25, 2020: 19 new birds of 10 species, 3 recaps. New species: House Wren. We have banded a total of 36 species this season, 17 of which are warblers. Bird of the day was Gray Catbird with 6 new bands, followed by Baltimore Oriole with 3.

Baltimore Oriole
Radar of storm front moving through Rochester

Wow – what a rainstorm we had last night! Thunder, wind gusts up to about 30 mph, and just under a half inch of rain woke Rochesterians around 3AM and kept them up for a little over an hour before things quieted down. While the morning that dawned was rainless and sunny, the wind kicked up again late morning. It set the trees to swaying and the leaves to rustling and so we closed the wind-exposed nets early.

We continued the slow pattern of birds that is typical in August. Local birds have either realized where the nets are and can avoid them or are hunkered down molting, and migrants haven’t really arrived in numbers. So we dutifully make our rounds and get overly excited when we get a bird because at least it’s something to do!

Gary and Carolyn were back on the Tuesday crew for the first time this season, and Gayle rounded out the team. Since there weren’t many birds, we spent much of the morning catching up as most of us haven’t seen each other since last October!

-Andrea Patterson

Just a bit on the warm side

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Monday August 24, 2020: 17 new birds of 8 species, 5 recaps. New species: Blue Jay and Yellow-rumped Warbler. We have banded a total of 35 species this season, 17 of which are warblers. Bird of the day was Gray Catbird with five new bands, followed by a tie for second between Warbling Vireo and Baltimore Oriole, each with three new bands.

Although we hate to be a Goldilocks, today was just too hot! We started the morning at well over 70oF and by our normal closing time, it was 89oF (and that’s without the “feels like” factor!). We started closing nets that become exposed to the sun about half way through the morning, and we even ended up closing the shady nets early due to the heat and stagnant air. The birds stopped moving mid-way through the morning, so overall we likely didn’t miss much.

Yesterday we posted about a young female Mourning Warbler; today we caught an older male. His grey hood and mantle contrast sharply with his shoulders and back, and while you can’t see it in the photo above, the black flecking on the chin and chest is quite different from the smudgy yellow of yesterday’s bird. While Mourning Doves may be named for their sad and plaintive song, the Mourning Warbler’s song is actually quite animated and cheerful, and so the name appears to be a reference to the grey hood which may resemble a mourning veil.

We were also treated this morning to a stunning adult male American Redstart. He almost appeared to be glowing like hot coals or hot glass, and the contrast between the fiery orange and the jet black was striking.

Thanks much to Janet and Chita who made the day go much faster!

-Andrea Patterson

Weirdest Tie Ever for 2nd Place!

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Sunday August 23, 2020: 19 new birds of 14 species; 7 recaps. New species: Eastern Wood-pewee, Eastern Phoebe, and Mourning Warbler. We have banded a total of 33 species this season, 16 of which are warblers. Bird of the day was Gray Catbird with three new bands, followed by a three-way tie between Red-breasted Nuthatch, Song Sparrow, and Blue-winged Warbler, each with two new bands.

Mourning Warbler

It seems like the weather pattern has us heading into a bit of a slump, with warmer temperatures and fewer favorable winds. Nevertheless, we press on because you never really know what will turn up until you look.

A young female Mourning Warbler caused a momentary head-scratch, as she resembled in many ways the Common Yellowthroats that we catch in big numbers every year. With the back, wing and tail a uniform green and the breast and belly a fairly uniform yellow, what was it that gave away her identity? The slightly larger size, the “a little too yellow and grey with not enough brown” coloration, and the eyering just make the bird look a bit off for a Common Yellowthroat.

We didn’t catch any species in big numbers today, and that left the door open for a strange trifecta of birds as our second place birds-of-the-day. While we catch Song Sparrows frequently, Blue-winged Warblers are less common. The Red-breasted Nuthatches were noticeably absent from the area until about 10 days ago, when they started beep-beep-beeping in the trees. We’ve banded four of them in the last three days, and we suspect it will be a good year for them. Looking back at our data, we see an interesting trend over the last couple of years:

FallTotal BandedSpringTotal Banded

It looks like Red-breasted Nuthatches are on a two-year cycle, with every good fall and (the following spring) followed by a dismal year. Will we uphold the trend this fall? We’re off to a good start!

Some of the Sunday crew is on a break through the middle of September (the pull of the Adirondacks and Maine is just too strong!), but we welcomed a new scribe today. Megan Murante is a graduate of the ecology program at the University of Rochester. While she has a “regular job” during the week, she spends her Saturdays volunteering for Wild Wings and now she’s chosen to spend her Sundays with us. We’re excited to welcome her aboard!

-Andrea Patterson

A big welcome to Nathan!

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Saturday August 22, 2020: 38 new birds of 14 species; 18 recaps. New species: Cape May Warbler and Black-throated Blue Warbler. We have banded a total of 30 species this season, 15 of which are warblers. Bird of the day was Gray Catbird with ten new bands, followed by Magnolia Warbler with six.

Photos: Cape May Warbler and Black-throated Blue Warbler

With most of the Saturday crew vacationing in Maine or the Adirondacks, it was a slender team indeed that gathered this morning. We were thrilled to welcome a new scribe – Nathan Ukens – to our ranks. He moved to Rochester last fall when he took a job playing French horn for the RPO. With the orchestra on hiatus, he’s seized the opportunity to pursue other interests . . . one of which is birds. He caught on quickly to the scribing duties, and – if he ever decides to turn in his horn – could find a job at any station furling nets at the end of the day.

The surprise birds of the day were a matched trio of Cape May Warblers. They were caught in different nets at different hours of the morning, but all three were young (hatch-year) females. Furthermore, all were molting body feathers. Most of our passerines molt before they migrate, but we frequently get a stray Cape May in August or even as early as mid-July that is molting on migration.

Our first Black-throated Blue Warbler was a handsome young male. If you look at the photo, you can see green mixed in with the blue on his back. That greenish coloration is typical of younger males, and it’s a quick and easy way to age them.

-Andrea Patterson

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