Friday, October 28, 2011

Help Rusty Blackbirds

Rusty Blackbirds are one of my favorite species. I don't know why exactly, though I imagine part of it is their tendency to appear in my yard in the winter. Another part is simply my fondness for their slick brown and black appearance during their time here that contrasts so well with their bright yellow eyes. This Rusty Blackbird, with a Red-winged Blackbird, was in my yard in January 2010.

Sadly, they are also a species in serious danger. To give you a better sense of what is happening, I'll quote directly from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center's website:

"The rusty blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) is a widespread North American species that has shown chronic long-term and acute short-term population declines, based both on breeding season and wintering ground surveys. Rusty blackbirds are ecologically distinct from other blackbirds, depending upon boreal wetlands for breeding and bottomland wooded-wetlands for wintering. The decline, although one of the most profound for any North American species, is poorly understood. Moreover, no conservation or monitoring programs exist for this species. Given the species close association with wooded wetlands throughout the year, it could prove to be an excellent indicator species for environmental processes in these threatened ecosystems."

I am lucky enough to be a member of the International Rusty Blackbird Technical Working Group composed of scientists researching that decline. Connecticut hosts decent numbers of Rusty Blackbirds in fall and spring migration, though as I mentioned above, a fair number do overwinter in the state. Most often I see a pair or two here or there taking advantage of a feeder or warm and wet woodland patch, though some areas can hold dozens. I really want to take monitoring of the species in our state to the next level of awareness. Here is how you can help:

  1. By recording all sightings as precisely as possible in eBird or sending me the information via email to skruitbosch 'AT'
  2. Detailing the sighting with how many birds were seen, their sex and age, the habitat they were found in, the ground wetness (dry, moist, partially or fully flooded), the date and time, their behavior (foraging, preening, singing, roosting, etc.), the birds they associated with (such as Common Grackles, Brown-headed Cowbirds, or others, if applicable), and any other information you feel is relevant.
  3. If they were foraging, explaining what they were feeding on or around.  
  4. Noting the general weather and conditions at the time - a six-inch snowfall bringing them to your yard? A sunny and warm day?
  5. Taking a photograph or shooting video of them, if possible.
If you have a long-term sighting, such as several birds visiting your feeders every day for a month, I would really appreciate a general overview including the information requested above. However, I do want to know about every sighting, no matter how brief, as it will do a great deal to fill in the many blanks we have for the species.

Last Sunday, I led a walk at the Trout Brook Valley Preserve, part of the Aspetuck Land Trust. We walked through the expansive orchard that runs all the way to active farm fields. Once there, I spotted a group of Brown-headed Cowbirds feeding on the edge of a wet pumpkin field. Looking through them carefully I was thrilled to see a male Rusty Blackbird feeding with them! A moment later, they moved around enough to expose a female Rusty Blackbird as well. Not long after spotting her, a hunting Merlin flew over, flushing up all of the birds and ending our sighting. It was still one of the highlights of my year in the field.

That is the type of situation I would love to have recorded in detail by everyone in Connecticut. Trout Brook Valley, with its wet woodlands and farm fields, may be a regular migration or, as I am hoping, wintering site for the species. Twan and I will continue our surveys there year-round and find that out soon enough.

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

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