Month: August 2017

Mothing: An Interlude

Since I started my working for State Parks,  I haven’t had as much opportunity to go birding. My “weekend” is on weekdays. I’m missing every one of my Audubon chapter’s Saturday-Sunday trips and I feel deprived of my yearly shorebirds. (I still need to acquire that GPS.) When breeding season was still active in June and July, I turned to birding by ear and was temporarily appeased. But songbird action truly seems to shrink to non-existence in August.

As a way to fill in this sorry hole, I’ve turned my attention to moths. They’re all over Fahnestock SP. I see different species every time I go to campground bathrooms. I felt an itch to know their names – just like my previous itch to know the name of the little dark gray sparrows I first saw foraging in my backyard garden.

These critters are entirely new to me and so very much more difficult to get into: There are 11,000 species in Eastern North America alone. Think of Empidomax flycatchers, then times that by a couple thousand. So many subtle moths exist in the first place, then they and even the more distinctive species become worn as the season progresses. Even with photos, I want to tear my hair out because:

  1. I can’t decide between four different species; or
  2. I think I have the ID – but my moth looks so different from the one in the field guide even though it looks so similar, yet it looks not quite the same as other species on that page.

If you want to explore the depths of your self-doubt capabilities, turn to moths.

  • “How many worn Porcelain Grays have I been seeing? Are they really all Porcelain Grays? What about worn Small Engraileds??”
  • “So sure I’ve got a Yellow-slant Line, but those median lines aren’t quite as thick…”
  • “This looks so much like a very worn Sub-gothic Dart/Dingy Cutworm/Bristly Cutworm. But the posture/wingspread in the photo is different the moth’s in the guide…”
  • “I feel like I’m seeing two different moths when they’re in different lighting.”
  • “Why can’t I find this moth? What’s in my photo then?? Does it really even exist?!”

Mothing isn’t as a common a hobby birding. Thankfully, a birding friend directed me to a Facebook group wherein experienced mothers are glad to come to one’s aid.

Like with birds, however, there are also highly distinctive and colorful moths. I can believe it. It’s just like subtle butterflies. Among my flashy lifers are Blinded Sphinx Moth (the moth pushed me into getting my Peterson’s), Showy Emerald, False Crocus Geometer, Painted Lichen Moth, and Ailanthus Webworm. I have quite a few target lifers: Giant Leopard, Virginia Creeper Sphinx, Polyphemus, Rosy Maple, Graceful Ghost (for that name alone), and Early Buttom Slug Moth (again, for the name).

Unlike with birds, I can actually use my tactile sense to interact with them. This way, their existence seems more concrete. Certain species don’t mind perching on your finger. Although they may be somewhat reluctant to get on, they seem even more reluctant to get off. Some moths like the Nais Tiger are so fuzzy I feel tempted to pet them (I did pet the Nais Tiger but I barely felt the mane on my fingertip).

A huge difference between birders and mothers is that the latter IDs their subjects by Latin name rather than by common. The authors of my Peterson’s undertook the task to supply common name-less moths with common names – more of a feat, a bizarre feat, for certain moths, especially a group called the Daggers have such curious appellations (Interrupted, Funerary, and Retarded Daggers, anyone?). I’m trying not concern myself with Latin names yet. I feel that it doubles the difficulty of mothing. Even moths within the same so-called group have different genus names, such as Emeralds and Slug moths.

My life list is currently shy of 30, my last certain lifer a Pale Beauty in my own backyard. Summer is the height of moth season, but some species are active throughout autumn. By the end of that season, I do hope to return to my home-base, the birds. But come next spring, I’ll be at it with the moths again for sure!

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A friend.

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Brinton Brook Hike, Report 8-2017

The day began cool but gradually warmed to slightly uncomfortable, with a little humidity. Several year-round birds sang the parking lot as I readied myself for the hike: Northern Flicker, Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, American Robin, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Crow.

I stood at the kiosk intersection for a bit. An Eastern Wood-pewee cried “pe-weeeeee!” Three Downy Woodpeckers sounded off one-two-three. Two chanting Black-capped Chickadees, singing in different keys, managed to utter one “fee-bee” phrase simultaneously, puncturing the air with brief discord.

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A not-so-inconspicuous nest – right above the path. © S.G. Hansen

At the meadow, I heard an unfamiliar chipping note coming from a bush. I attempted to pish the bird out. Chickadees and a male cardinal gathered nearby and responded with annoyance. A Pileated Woodpecker manically called deep in the trees. I persisted for another half-minute. Finally, an immature male Indigo Bunting popped up to the tree above. His transformation to become an adult was nearly complete. Small brown spots dotted his vibrant blue.

Hardly any goldenrod grew in the meadow. Only one bush. Unfamiliar vegetation – most likely invasive species – had taken hold instead. Not many butterflied fluttered about. Maybe one Great-Spangled Fritillary and a couple Red Admirals.

At the pond, up to maybe a dozen Blue Jays – adults and immatures – called and bugled as they flew around. I didn’t see the Great Blue Heron from last month. The Red-winged Blackbirds had quieted down, save for the half-dozen immatures that flew from lily pad to lily pad. It was difficult to look for anything in the reeds on the other side of the pond since the tree branches blocked much of my view. To live up to the label “birder,” I made believe I could somehow find a bittern. Instead, not disappointingly, I caught the movement of two Eastern Phoebes flycatching and fighting. As I continued walking I heard a wet rustling behind me. A female Wood Duck flew from my side of the pond to the other. She quickly disappeared into the reeds.

My ascent to the powerlines on the blue trail was a little quiet. I heard my third pewee, more titmouse families, and still more blue jays. I startled a male flicker that was foraging on the ground. It was at this point the temperature warmed to that of a typical summer day. And it was at this point that the black flies began to harass me. I hoped they would stop once I’d the powerlines.

And they did. Sunshine forces them to hide in the shadowed woods. Other insect life was in full swing in the field. Countless bees, butterflies, and other bugs whizzed around the flower-filled vegetation, including the many goldenrod bushes. Cicadas – which I’d been hearing since I got out of the car – screamed at their loudest potential from all directions.

The first bird I spotted was a phoebe perched high in a dead tree on the edge of the sanctuary. To the west, towards Bear Mountain, a lone Turkey Vulture soared and two unseen young Red-tailed Hawks begged for food. A few Gray Catbirds meowed. A small bird zipped to a bush way behind me: a Prairie Warbler, black facial markings so faint that I wondered if it were a young one or an adult receding to fall plumage.

Green frogs hung around in the same pools where I’d scared the turtles last month. They dived into the mud at my approach. A couple of them, though, floated like this:

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Green frog. © S.G. Hansen

Ahead, a towhee slurred its call so that it sounded like “twEEEE!” instead of “tow-WEEEE!”. A female Orchard Oriole perched atop a bush, then disappeared shortly. I heard another unfamiliar chipping coming from two different small trees. The chipping, identical in sound, hinted that it belonged to two birds of the same species. I managed to get a glimpse of one of them, a female American Redstart. Since I didn’t get on the other bird, I could only guess as much that it was simply another redstart.

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Close-up of a Carpenter Bee in the wild. © S.G. Hansen

As I rounded the corner to the path that would lead me back into the sanctuary, I saw an orange flash. Baltimore Oriole. I tried coaxing it from the reeds with no luck.

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Goldenrod and Queen Anne’s Lace, the latter of which is not native to this continent. © S.G. Hansen

No sooner than I re-entered the woods the black flies swarmed around my head again. I walked with my hands poised over my ears. I was swatting them every four seconds. The descent was very quiet, save for a jay calling. Disregarding bird presence, the woods actually weren’t at all quiet. Cicadas buzzed and buzzed and buzzed. I realized that there was no reason to remain patient for the birds if there were no birds to observe, so I jogged down the white and red trails to escape the black flies. Magically, I didn’t have to deal with them once I got to the yellow trail.

Now that I was nearing the end (or the beginning), I started hearing more birds. Nothing new except for a perpetual Red-eyed Vireo. I stopped at the patch where the hardy kiwi was eradicated. Behind it, perhaps fifty feet away, mid-canopy, I noticed small bird movement – a different bird. I only got a couple glimpses of it before it vanished, but that was enough for me to ID it as a Canada Warbler. Besides the soft gray back and bright yellow breast, it had the diagnostic apparent white-eye rings and a very faint necklace. I can never get enough of Canada Warblers. Their appearances are always so fleeting.

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I have no clue what this could be but it is very interesting. I spooked some of the insects that were chilling on top of the round things. © S.G. Hansen

I lingered at trail’s end for a while. That jogging got me ahead of time. It turned out that the timing was just right. I happily observed three excellent additional species for the list. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird rocketed in and out of view, green back shimmering brilliantly. A female Scarlet Tanager foraged mid-canopy. A male Black-and-white Warbler crept along the trees’ branches. I also watched a female and an immature male Baltimore Oriole forage, a scruffy looking Carolina Wren climbing a rotted snag, and a pewee flycatch and use the same snag as a perch.

A quick check at the Weinstein pond only yielded a Mourning Dove – the first and only for the hike – on the lawn.

I observed 33 species. I didn’t exactly experience the summer doldrums. Granted, not as many songbirds sang because this isn’t spring migration. Certain birds – besides the Red-eyed Vireo – are still vocal in the morning even during the time of year I thought they would feel like they would no longer have to sing. But I am merely going by one isolated location. Another surprise is the lack of American Goldfinch. I only heard two during my hike. Since they breed in August, I expected to observe a few more than that.

Check out the eBird list!

Bird Banding with Bedford Audubon

For the past nine years, Bedford Audubon – headquarters located in Katonah, NY – has been participating in the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program. The program, created by the Institute for Bird Populations in 1989, collects breeding data about birds to discover why and how populations decline. Currently, there are over 1200 stations in the United States and Canada. Scientists, naturalists, and volunteers set up mist nests in June, July, and August. They band the captured birds, and determine attributes such as wing length, weight, age, sex, and whether nor not they have brood patches. Birds that already have bands can further “provide information on survival, reproductive rates, and sometimes, movement patterns.”

Bedford Audubon’s MAPS sessions usually take place on Wednesdays and Thursdays, when I work. Luckily, one session was postponed to a Tuesday. On July 18, I left at 4:15AM to meet with Bedford Audubon’s naturalist Tait Johansson and Krista, their summer field biologist and a college student majoring in general biology. Monday was relatively clear and cool for a summer day. But an intense rain during the night amplified the humidity level. In his first email blast, Tait warned that the banding area can get pretty muddy, and that one should “wear footwear they don’t mind getting wet & muddy, possibly up to above your ankles.” Of all the days to rain like this, it had to be the day before the one time I get my first chance to go bird banding. Summer is my least favorite season for its hot humidity and disease-ridden insects.

At 5:00, Tait, Krista, and I met at Bylane Farm, Bedford Audubn’s headquarters. It would just be the three of us this time, myself as the one volunteer. (The number of volunteers and who shows up vary per session.) Tait drove us to Hunt-Parker Sanctuary down the road. After fifteen minutes of hiking, we departed the publicly established trail to get to the banding station, a small yet spacious plot. Tait pulled a small table from behind a rock. He and Krista set up the banding kit, clipboards of data sheets, and the loaded Peter Pyle’s Identification Guide to North American Birds Part 1.

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The banding table. © S.G. Hansen

Around 5:40, we hiked around the circuit to unravel the nets, which were placed to create a circle with corners. The daylight slowly brightened from pre-dawn dark blue to full-blast summer sunshine. I heard a dawn chorus of American Robin, Northern Cardinal, Yellow Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Eastern Wood-pewee, Eastern Towhee, Common Yellowthroat, Wood Thrush, Veery, etc. More birds than I expected to hear in mid-July.

I was already done with the humidity and also, it seemed, were Tait and Krista. Not  much of our “trail” was muddy, but one particular length – at the very first nets we checked – was so bad we could barely avoid stepping in the the mud. Even the sides of the path were hardly safe. The few planks set on the ground – spread a bit too far a part – were nearly consumed, barely visible like alligators lurking in a swamp. To step on one and then lift up your foot produced an unnervingly loud squelch. We discovered that the first net had a large hole, possibly made by a trapped, furious flying squirrel. The net was declared retired. I supposed it was just as well since the path to this net was the very worst of mud. Still, at other locations, you have to maintain balance carefully as you cross thin logs. It was like playing the child’s game “The Floor is Lava” but with something to avoid literally. Krista remarked that this day was so far the worst in regards to humidity and mud. By session’s end, my pant legs up to my calves were quite dirty. I hosed my boots as soon as I returned home.

All in all, we checked ten nets seven times. The nets – about twenty feet in length – were woven in layers so that birds would be entrapped in pockets. The circuit length measured just less than a mile. So from 5:20AM to 12:40PM, we hiked a little over eight miles. Depending how many birds we caught, each circuit around lasted twenty-five minutes and the data collection roughly the same amount of time. We barely had time to rest between each round.

Since I’m not scientifically trained in ornithology and banding, I merely observed Tait and Krista collect data. There was a lot of new information to take in. I can’t recollect much of it. I was distracted by the excitement of banding for the first time and concentrated on having an opportunity to get so close to birds, actually touching a bird, and watching how Tait and Krista hold the birds.

When collecting data, first they banded the birds if they weren’t already banded. Then they determined age and sex (only if the former were difficult due to the species not being sexually dimorphic) by blowing onto their feathers, which revealed if they had a brood patch (a bald spot on their stomachs), any pin feathers, and so on. Next they measured wing length. Lastly, they measured weight. They dropped the bird upside-down in an old Minute Maid drink canister, which sat on top of a scale. None of the birds struggled in the can. The small space and darkness possibly provided a sort of comfort. Once the bird was weighed, they took a hold of the can, tilted it in mid-air, and jiggled it to get the bird to realize it had an opportunity to escape. And off the bird flew, usually to perch on a branch nearby.

We already caught birds in the initial round: one Veery and one Wood Thrush. The Veery was found in the first net, and the Wood Thrush in the second.

As soon as they saw us, they started squeaking and flapping wildly. Krista first untangled their feet and then their wings and heads. We put them muslin drawstring bags, tightened by a clothespin. I offered to carry the Wood Thrush as we continued the circuit. The thrush was still for most of the time. It floundered intermittently. I held the bag half-an-arm’s length away from my person and stared at it. Krista stated that the birds are fine throughout the process. After release, they continue with their life as if they weren’t captured at all.

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Wood Thrush in the muslin bag. © S.G. Hansen

Second round: two Wood Thrush, one female Northern Cardinal, and one immature male Downy Woodpecker. Since the one of the thrushes and the cardinal were caught in the same net, Krista allowed me to untangle the thrush as she went for the cardinal. I had an OK time with the feet, but the netting was so entwined around the neck and head that I worried I might hurt or strangle the thrush. Krista came over to help. She, too, had some difficulty but managed after some time. Thereafter, I didn’t untangle any more birds. I did help carry them.

Ranking the birds by how much they scrapped for freedom (based on this session alone), woodpeckers take first place, cardinals second. The cardinals squealed shrilly (I had never thought they could make such sounds), but the woodpeckers were boisterously noisy and flapped their wings with such might as if they thought they could cut us. They gave us hell in the bags – they climbed the sides and poked their feet and bills through. Krista told me she tied a bag containing a woodpecker around a belt loop; she could feel the woodpecker’s sharp bill stabbing her thigh.

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Krista unravels the immature male Downy Woodpecker. © S.G. Hansen

As the more experienced bander, Tait got the tougher birds. I didn’t get a chance to see him deal with the male downy since Krista and I went to make another round by ourselves. (We did most of the most of the rounds without Tait, who hung around the station to collect data.)

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Female Northern Cardinal © S.G. Hansen

The third round captured a more subdued group: warblers. One immature Ovenbird (its crown was striped and not a solid buffy color) and one female Common Yellowthroat. The yellowthroat was hard to hold because it was so small.

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Female Common Yellowthroat © S.G. Hansen

The fourth round produced a male Northern Cardinal (as resistant as you can imagine) and a female American Redstart.

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Tail of the Female American Redstart. © S.G. Hansen

Like the female, this male cardinal was poised to bite a finger as Tait held him, his bill slightly open. To pacify the crimson embodiment of pure fury, Tait gave him a clump of paper to chomp on. When the time came to weigh him, I tried taking the paper away. We ended up playing tog-o’-war. When Tait tried, he tore a bit off the clump. Finally, the cardinal simply dropped it on his own.

The fifth round: an immature female Downy Woodpecker, an immature male Northern Flicker, and a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

The female downy and the flicker were caught in the same net. The female downy, as expected, vocally struggled as much as the male downy. But the flicker cried out so deafeningly that I cringed and covered my ears. Krista cringed as well while she untangled him. A couple other flickers came to investigate. I saw their silhouettes flutter above and around the foliage. They disappeared when Krista and I left the net. I noted that the flicker was the only species to respond to cries of one of their own.

Krista carried the bags in either hand. She commented on the weight difference, how the downy was light and the flicker so heavy. She handed me the bags to see for myself. It was certainly a difference. The former felt weightless, the latter actually felt like it had mass.

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Krista prepares to band this immature female Downy Woodpecker, which does indeed look downy. © S.G. Hansen

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Tait holds the immature Northern Flicker as he reads through the banding guide. The flicker, amusingly, was a doozy to weigh. © S.G. Hansen

Tait hiked with us during this round and had gone ahead while we untangled the woodpeckers. We rejoined before the last net, where we found a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. MAPS doesn’t collect data on hummingbirds, so Tait released her immediately. She was more difficult to handle than the warblers – so small and flighty that he had to wait for her to stop wriggling for a second. Her ceaseless cries resembled a baby chicken’s vocalization – pew pew pew pew. It sounded heart-wrenching. I briefly wondered if hummingbirds make that sound when their being eaten by praying mantises…. Once she was free, she flew into the net and got herself tangled again. After the second attempt to release her, she flew away for good.

Sixth round: We thought we would have nothing for this round. Caught in the final net, though, we found an immature Gray Catbird and a Carolina Wren. Tait untangled the catbird, Krista the wren. When the wren was fully untangled, it teared off, leaving Krista startled still for a second. This was the second or third that this happened thus far during the summer. If it happens, it happens – with an oops.

The catbird didn’t vocalize much, but it did struggle quite a bit physically because it was a larger bird. Of all the birds we captured that day, this catbird pooped the most. Other birds stained the bags with fecal matter of varying shades of brown. The catbird had clearly eaten blueberries. The stains resulted in an indigo-violet tye-dye job.

Seventh round: One Wood Thrush, our fourth for the session and our last bird, caught in the final net. While checking the nets during this round, Krista and I also raveled the nets. Such an act is harder than it sounds. You have to mind loose areas as you grasp the top and quickly whirl it around. We were relieved to go through the ankle-deep mud one last time for the day and looked forward to showers and naps upon coming home. By the time we returned to the station, the time was past noon. I felt exhausted and fatigued. I couldn’t wait to shower and shuck my outfit. It would be impossible to do this every day.

Krista banded the thrush. While recording the number, she held the thrush under the table (she and Tait often held the birds under the table while writing down data – a natural pose of rest). Somehow, it loosened from her grip. It disappeared. The three of us were fooled by an illusion that made it look like it remained under the table, but it wasn’t there. We chuckled. Then we packed and went home.

Overall, we caught and collected data from 9 species and 15 individuals.