Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Flycatchers Gather at the Beaver Pond Before Flying South

The Great crested Flycatcher is still at the preserve, but soon they will head south
We've had a good showing of flycatchers just lately. Most have been observed at the beaver ponds – where these specialized hunters find a dependable supply of flying insects. However, a few species - like the Least Flycatcher are only rarely found at the beaver pond. You're most likely to encounter it along the edge of the forest.
The Least Flycatcher is the smallest Empidonax flycatcher in the Northeast
The  Least Flycatcher is easy to pick of a foraging mixed flock of songbirds
In the latter part of summer the Least Flycatcher will keep company with chickadees and a variety of migrant warblers and vireos. Together these mixed foraging flocks travel through the woods – and often along the forest edge. I was almost certain that I spied a relatively uncommon migrant Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in one such flock, but alas, I didn't get a good enough look at it to clinch the ID. 
A migrant Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
The Yellow-bellied Flycatcher is about the same size as the Least Flycatcher and their behavior is also very similar. Like the Least, the Yellow-bellied tends to travel with mixed flocks of songbirds. Perhaps the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher is the prettiest of the empidonax flycatchers - at least of the ones that occur in the Northeast US. It is clear that it is the only one with distinct enough plumage to make its identification a fairly simple matter
The Alder Flycatcher remained on its breeding ground until just last week
The Willow Flycatcher (partially hidden) and the Alders are often both gone by September
The Willow and Alder Flycatchers (also empidonax flycatchers) are both so similar in appearance that they can't be safely identified in the field without hearing their diagnostic songs or call notes. Since both species breed at the nature preserve, if you see one you need to wait patiently for the bird to call before identifying the species. Not so long ago the Willow and Alder Flycatchers were considered to be the same species - called the Trail's Flycatcher. Interestingly, though these birds are virtually identical, they don't interbreed. It only goes to show that it's not how you look but what you say that is most important with these birds.
The Eastern Wood Pewee - note the lack of a distinct eyering
The Pewee also shows light "vest" markings
The Eastern Wood Pewees are still singing their trademark whistled songs at the beaver pond and in the old woods where they nested during the summer. The Pewee is of a similar size to the Alder and Willow Flycatchers, but their wings are longer. The Pewee has obvious wingbars like the empidonax flycatchers, but they lack a distinct eyering. The Pewee also shows a slight vest, which is similar but not nearly as pronounced as the dark vest markings on the Olive-sided Flycatcher. 
The Olive-sided Flycatcher has an obvious dark "vest"
Like the Pewee, the Olive-sided  may often return to the same perch while hunting
The Olive-sided is a fairly uncommon migrant in Central New York; they breed in bogs and swamps in the north country. We usually see no more than one individual per migration season. Most often they appear at the beaver pond where the insect hunting is reliably good.
The Eastern Kingbird is definitely the "king" of the flycatchers
A Kingfisher was easily deposed  and chased off of its perch by the Kingbird
The resident pair of Eastern Kingbird that raised 2 offspring this season still show up at the beaver pond. They fly in with purpose, ready to chase off the perceived competition as well as any other birds that might look at them the wrong way. Today they chased away the Pewee, a Flicker and a Belted Kingfisher. 
A flock of Cedar Waxwings comes to the pond daily
Waxwings are very proficient at catching flying insects above the water
Many immature Cedar Waxwings are at the pond - note the white outline around the black mask
Cedar Waxwings are currently presenting the Kingbird and the other flycatchers with the most serious competition for insect resources. For the last moth a flock of at least 20 have been daily visitors to the pond.  Most people think of the waxwings as strictly berry eaters, but they are also highly proficient at catching flies on the wing. It's safe to say that the waxwing flock catches thousands of insects each day. Still, for some reason the Kingbird doesn't seem to get too upset about their presence and he doesn't usually try to chase them off.
A Great crested Flycatcher looks out of the nest hole over the beaver pond

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Utica Peregrine Falcons - August Update

At last, a Peregrine Falcon claims our new nest box - photo by D Cesari
For about 3 weeks, I've been receiving reports of a Peregrine Falcon visiting the new nest box on the Adirondack Bank Building in Downtown Utica. This late in the season, there is little chance that the falcon would be breeding, but it is an encouraging sign that the bird knows about the box and appears to be claiming it. When the box was installed back in the spring, no adult pair seemed to be in residence in the downtown area, but now things look very different.
Perched above a window on the State Office Building - photo by D Cesari
Recent reports of a pair of falcons at the State Office Building were confirmed last Saturday by me and wildlife photographer, David Cesari. Upon getting out of my car, I immediately spotted an adult  Peregrine perched above a window on the west face of the State Building. After Dave arrived we picked out what appeared to be its mate perched about half way up the spire of Grace Church.
Note the full crop (bulging throat) typical of a bird that recently fed - photo by D Cesari
After  walking a few blocks downtown to get a better view of the Grace Church bird, a 3rd Peregrine - this one a large juvenile female, flew in from the south and brought both adult falcons off their perches. Interestingly, this new bird was not outright attacked, but a screaming match ensued between the adult male and the juvenile female. They both landed on the nest box on the Adirondack Bank, where they continued to argue for a minute or so, after which, the juvenile flew off toward the west. The male remained in the nest box for the remainder of the time we were there.
Adult male (center) and Juvenile female (right) "arguing" on the box - photo by D Cesari 
The 15 story Adirondack Bank Building in Utica - home to the new falcon box
A Peregrine perches next to an office window - photo by D Saltis
The adult female Peregrine - photo by D Cesari
The adult female came by a little later and perched above him on the building's facade. It seems clear that this adult pair has claimed this box and they are defending it. There is a fair possibility that come next spring, they could very well breed and give Utica a new shot at hosting a successful Peregrine Falcon nest. We can only keep our fingers and talons crossed.

Maya, Utica's original nesting female Peregrine disappeared in early 2012
Tor, the male of original pair died in 2012 presumably after striking a window
Many thanks to Deb Saltis and Craig Podosek for their reporting their observations. Thanks also to Dave Cesari and Deb Saltis for contributing pictures of the new Peregrines.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Fall Warblers Begin to Arrive

The first Canada Warbler came through last week
Though it seems too early, but by this point in the summer fall bird migration is well underway. Many warblers, swallows, bobolinks, orioles and shorebirds are on the move - and some have been for several weeks. These birds aren't flying directly to their wintering grounds. Instead many will linger in places along the way - in habitats with good food reserves. There they will fatten up as best they can before proceeding on the next leg of their long journeys south.

The Blue-winged Warbler is most often gone by September
In fall the adult Chestnut-sided Warbler molts into less ornate plumage
About a half dozen species of warbler came through today. Most breed locally, but a few are migrants from the north country - from the Adirondacks and Canada.
The Northern Waterthrush (a warbler) looks much the same in fall as it does in spring
An immature Black & White Warbler needs to fatten up before its flight to the tropics
It's interesting that family groups often break up and make separate journeys south. The immature Chestnut-sided Warbler and Black and White Warbler have never embarked on this journey before, but still they know right where to go. With no guidance from their parents, they will fly thousands of miles to the tropics and to a wintering ground that they've never seen before.
The Warbling Vireo (not a warbler) sometimes shows yellow on its flanks
The immature Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle Warbler) perches briefly over a stream
At this time of year warblers and other migrant songbirds can be difficult to find. After the breeding season, most songbirds cease singing territorial songs, and quiet birds are generally harder to find than noisy ones. Interestingly, when some of them do attempt to sing, often what comes out is a jumbled song that is barely recognizable. I heard one such "song" today. Rhythm wise, I thought that it resembled the song of a Warbling Vireo, but I couldn't be sure. In a case like this, in order to properly verify the species, all you can do is hope catch a glimpse of the singer or hear one of its more distinctive call notes.
The adult male American Redstart looks much the same in fall as it does in spring
This immature American Redstart is completely independent from its parents
Plumage wise, many of the warblers look much different in fall than in spring, but this is not universal. Some, like the adult male American Redstart, retain the same bold pattern and colors throughout the year. Also, often enough, when the Redstart sings in late summer, the song remains recognizable.
The adult male Black-throated Blue Warbler also looks the same in the fall
The female Black-throated Blue Warbler looks like she belongs to a different species than the male
Immature warblers can be hard to identify. It's not unusual for birders to mistake an immature Mourning Warbler for a Connecticut Warbler. The later species is a rarely seen migrant in our area, so legitimate sightings are of particular interest. Both species are shy and often skulk in heavy brush. With both the Mourning and Connecticut, a short glimpse is usually all you can hope to get. Both species are yellow and have a complete dark hood, but in immature Mourning Warblers the hood does not extend over the throat. An obvious white eye ring (absent in the adult) is the feature that causes the most confusion. A close examination, if possible, reveals that the young Mourning Warbler’s eye ring is incomplete and shows a gap by the bill.    
The immature Mourning Warbler shows an incomplete eye-ring and shorter undertail coverts
The adult male Mourning Warbler has no eye-ring
The Nashville Warbler always shows a distinct white eye-ring and a yellow throat
An immature Magnolia Warbler lacks the adult's heavily barred breast
Warblers and their neotropical allies will continue passing through upstate New York until November, but by the end of that period there are only one or 2 species likely to be observed. Warblers only infrequently overwinter in the area; in early winter the most likely species to be encountered  is the Yellow-rumped Warbler – also known as the Myrtle Warbler. Locally I have seen a few in winter – usually in areas that are rich in poison ivy. The small waxy berries that grow on those infamous vines can be a staple food for these warblers in wintertime. So indeed yes, Poison ivy is good for something!
The adult male Wilson's Warbler has a black cap

Sunday, August 11, 2013

News from the Pond: Jumping Mice, Beavers, Ducks and Muskrats

Great Blue Heron and a White-tailed Deer fawn at the beaver pond
Last evening I went down to the main beaver pond to see what was happening with our beaver colony. While I waited in the blind, I heard some movement behind me in the meadow. It sounded like several grasshoppers were descending down the hillside. Finally, I saw one of them, and they weren't grasshoppers, they were instead a family of Meadow Jumping Mice.
The seldom seen Meadow Jumping Mouse most often lives close to water
These remarkable creatures were hurdling back and forth through the undergrowth at a good clip. In fact it was impossible to put my camera on them while they were moving. At one point one of them bounded up a Multiflora Rose bush - perhaps to gnaw on a berry or to glean a beetle from a leaf.
These tiny Jumping Mice are mainly nocturnal
I had put a few handfuls of sunflower seeds up on one of the blind's support posts - I do this primarily for birds, but the seeds also  attract Chipmunks, mice, voles and shrews. This time however, it was the jumping mice that were interested in the seed - or at least 2 of them were.

The Jumping Mouse's long tail helps it to keep its balance when jumping
As their name implies, jumping mice get around by hopping - using locomotion more similar to a kangaroo than other mice. Many of us that spend any time in the outdoors and are fond of examining animal tracks are familiar with the footprints of the jumping mouse. A set of their small, narrow prints look like no other mouse tracks in the region. Impressions from their disproportionately large back feet and consistently dragged tail are diagnostic. Despite the fact that this mouse's tracks are sometimes found in the snow, the jumping mouse is supposed to hibernate for the entire winter - well that's what the literature says. Since they do not make a winter food cache and instead rely on their fat reserves to survive the winter, it's conceivable that when these reserves are insufficient  they may break hibernation in order to resume foraging. 

Note the Jumping Mouse's long back leg and toes
The farthest they can travel in a single bound is 10 feet, which is astounding considering the mouse is only 3 1/2 inches long minus its tail. The tail of the Meadow Jumping Mouse is extremely long - fully 1 1/2 times longer that its head and body. The mouse's back legs, and feet are also noticeably longer than those of other mouse species.
A Great Blue Heron perches right near the blind at the beaver pond
"Tippy" the yearling beaver takes an apple
Before I became distracted by the mice, I was watching one of our yearling beavers interact with a family of Mallards. Usually the beavers don't have much to do with the waterfowl that frequent their ponds,  but this particular beaver was intrigued by the Mallards as they repeatedly swam back and forth at the east end of the pond. The ducks wanted to access the overland trail in order to walk to our turtle pond, but they didn't want to walk past me, so they just kept swimming back and forth - and this is what peaked the beaver's interest.
Tippy the Beaver checks out one of the young Mallards
The Mallard family swims back and forth in front of the blind
At one point the young beaver joined the ducks and even swam several laps with them. This culminated with the ducks and the beaver, together climbing onto shore and attempting an alternate route through the field. They hadn't gotten very far when evidently something spooked them - and all came crashing back into the pond - the beaver first, followed by the ducks.
Mother Muskrat waits for a treat
While all of this was going on a resident muskrat discovered a bag of apples that I brought down for the beavers. She bit into the bag and pulled it off of the bench - causing it to dump some of its contents into the pond. The perfect heist! This particular muskrat is quite a character; sometimes she will sit behind me and whimper until I start doling out apples or carrots. She's a mother and has at least 2 young kits that have now begun swimming after her on her foraging adventures around the pond.
One of 2 Muskrat kits
Muskrat kit (left) and mother (right) swim around the pond together