Friday, April 30, 2010

Less appreciated sounds of spring...

Every spring we receive numerous phone calls from people who have problems with woodpeckers drumming up a storm in unwanted places like on your newly installed siding. Generally woodpeckers drum for two reasons: either to find food or to stake out their territory. Even though they all call, woodpecker vocalizations are not exactly on par with the songs that we generally hear emanating from passerine songbirds. Rather than sing, woodpeckers often use hollow trees and branches as sounding boards to advertise their presence. That’s why they’ll even go for your aluminum siding – it doesn’t provide any food but makes an excellent amplifier for their drum solos.

Female Downy Woodpecker (note the absence of red in the crown of females) - Photo By Scott Kruitbosch

If woodpeckers are bothering you in spring, odds are that their interest in your house is strictly of a territorial nature. However, if they are still working away at wooden boards in the summer it may be worth checking for pests such as carpenter ants, termites or carpenter bees, all of which are high on a woodpecker’s preferred menu.

If your house is pest-free you can be assured that the drumming will likely subside once the birds have established their territory and start breeding. Try to enjoy this springtime ritual if you can, but if the homestead is being damaged or if the battering is too pervasive there are a few things that can be done to discourage these birds. Although numerous woodpecker deterrents are available, not all work. Static deterrents like decals displaying images of raptors in flight or the classic plastic Great Horned Owl-on-a-stick work only briefly. Woodpeckers are pretty clever and soon figure out that these “predators” don’t move and don’t pose any real threat to them. High-tech sound-producing deterrents can play raptor calls or woodpecker distress calls and are often motion-activated. Although these systems seem to work better than static deterrents, they are also quite expensive and not terribly enjoyable.

Male Red-bellied Woodpecker (females only have a red nape) - Photo by Twan Leenders

The easiest way to discourage woodpeckers from battering your house is to place erratically moving objects on or near the area that the woodpeckers frequent. Strips of tinfoil suspended from string or old CDs dangling from a monofilament line make excellent deterrents since they move in the wind and provide an ever-changing pattern of movement and reflections that travel along the walls of your house.

If the woodpeckers are attracted to your house because there is food present (pests), you should address that issue first. Once the food source is removed it often helps to cover the area frequented by woodpeckers with hardware cloth. In addition, it can be helpful to install a suet feeder near the woodpecker’s favorite spot to coerce it to feed in places away from the house. Gradually, over the course of several days, you can move the feeder farther away from the house and hopefully that will do the trick!

Although the early morning wakeup call of a visiting woodpecker can be annoying at times, hopefully you’ll still be able to enjoy your interactions with these fascinating birds as they prepare for spring!

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are rarely found on buildings. These birds produce a distinctive pattern of small, shallow perforations in tree bark, often in lines, from which they drink tree sap and eat the insect it attracts. Photo by Twan Leenders

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Birds by accident

This morning I found a Black-and-white Warbler on the Fairfield University campus. The male sang loudly just as I got out of my car, or I would have never known he was there. The small area he was foraging in was full of small deciduous trees and shrubs. It had many twisting branches - perfect for the bird to creep along, as it does in a way similar to the White-breasted Nuthatch. Essentially, it was a perfect spot for a migratory stopover if one disregarded the size and surroundings. I had been bemoaning the fact I had not seen a Black-and-white Warbler yet this spring the past few days, and when I finally found one it was in a random moment of pure luck.

The point is that it reminded me to keep my eyes and ears open at all times. You never know what you might find high in the skies or right in front of you. Spring migration often puts birds in odd situations and strange habitats. This individual could have gone down the street to the nearby Birdcraft Sanctuary, or even a bit further to the 155-acre Larsen Sanctuary at the CAS Center, but it stopped right next to a parking lot. While most birds will end up in more appropriate habitats, such as those sanctuaries, others will end up in surprising suburban or urban locations. No matter what you are doing in the next month, do not forget to look and listen for spring migrants.

This also means to always have your binoculars and camera ready. I was prepared but still only snapped this poor photo before both of us had to keep moving.

If you have any stories of random encounters you would like to share feel free to send them to me at Maybe we will post an exceptionally strange sighting.

Photo © Scott Kruitbosch

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Young American Woodcock

A good friend of this blog, Charles Barnard Jr., brings us the following story and photos. He is an expert birder with decades of experience in Connecticut.

This morning I accidentally flushed a woodcock while walking along a trail in Shelton. It was in a low area near a very small, ephemeral stream which only runs right after or during spring rains. I took a look at where the bird flushed from and saw these 2 young ones. They can't be more than a couple of days old. I didn't get close enough to see if there were still eggs in the nest or not (they are supposed to lay 4 on average) because the mother was nearby and I know that she wanted me away from there. As I walked away, she kept flushing ahead of me to draw me farther away.

The American Woodcock is one of the Connecticut Audubon Society's Conservation Priority Top 20 Species. An excerpt from the CAS conservation matrix in the 2009 Connecticut State of the Birds Report describes the American Woodcock as:

A locally fairly common migrant but uncommon breeder. Uses open
habitats, such as wet meadows, vegetated wetlands, old fields and
forest clearings, for courtship displays but forages and nests in young
woodland. This species has shown a 50% decline over the last 40
years, predominantly due to loss of early successional stage habitat.
Acid rain and pollution may exacerbate this trend. An important game
species, but effects of hunting on the population are thought to be
minimal. Connecticut breeding population may qualify for state listing.

The complete CAS Top 20 list includes:

  • American Black Duck
  • American Woodcock
  • Blue-winged Warbler
  • Bobolink
  • Brown Thrasher
  • Cerulean Warbler
  • Common Nighthawk
  • Common Tern
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • Golden-winged Warbler
  • Grasshopper Sparrow
  • Least Bittern
  • Least Tern
  • Piping Plover
  • Prairie Warbler
  • Roseate Tern
  • Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow
  • Sanderling
  • Seaside Sparrow
  • Wood Thrush

Below is a photo of an adult American Woodcock taken on January 14, 2010, in a private yard not long after a snowstorm. This bird and another individual had retreated to a small wetland stream so that they would still be able to feed on earthworms, their primary food source, and other invertebrate species despite the snow and ice.
It is easy to see how well they blend into their surroundings.

Photos 1 and 2 © Charles Barnard Jr.; Photo 3 © Scott Kruitbosch

Sunday, April 25, 2010

SpringFest and Birdcraft

The first SpringFest at the Birdcraft Museum and Sanctuary in Fairfield went wonderfully. The weather could not have been more perfect on a day where we talked about spring and prepared for the season.

The above photos are of CAS Senior Director of Science and Conservation, Milan Bull. He is discussing the Eastern Bluebird. You can see a photo of a House Wren on the monitor. Bluebirds must compete with the species for nesting cavities.

Nest box with telltale signs of a House Wren nest - small sticks.

Mist nets for bird banding that were discussed while taking a guided tour.

While not listening to discussions, taking a guided tour or scavenger hunt of the sanctuary using cell phones (something we will look at closely another time), shopping for supplies and gifts, or partaking in various children's activities, visitors could enjoy some food and refreshments while strolling through the beautiful property.

The pond where a Black-crowned Night-Heron was seen during the day.

The Birdcraft Museum.

Many members of the CAS staff were on hand to answer any questions, whether they were about birds or the history of the oldest private bird sanctuary in the United States. Mabel Osgood Wright Birdcraft created Birdcraft in 1914. The large chimney on the property was erected for use by her favorite bird, the Chimney Swift, as you can see and read in the photos below.

At 12:30, there was another discussion on a familiar and beloved backyard bird: the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Our hummingbird feeders were up, but unfortunately, we did not have one stop by. It is a bit early in the season, though this week should bring them to many gardens across the state.

The store was a popular stop for many visitors before they left. We have a large variety of gifts for people of all ages, and everything you need for "your" birds. This is especially true of the Eastern Bluebird as you can see on the left in the second photo.

Thank you to everyone who came! The day was a tremendous success. We hope all of our visitors enjoyed themselves, learned something, and picked up everything they needed for the spring. Come back soon - this week will be the start of heavy spring migration, and the sanctuary trees will be dripping with warblers and other passerine migrants.

Photo © Scott Kruitbosch

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Milford Point news

Here is some of the latest news at Milford Point from the keyboard of Frank Gallo, Director of the CAS Coastal Center:

Two or three pairs of Tree Swallows visited our swallow nesting boxes today for the first time since they were erected two years ago. Last year, after the nesting season, we moved the boxes to what we hoped were more optimal locations adjacent to the marsh, and it appears that the swallows agree with our choices.

House Sparrows compete for nest cavities with Tree Swallows and Eastern Bluebirds. A pair of House Sparrows also seems interested the swallow boxes, but thus far, the swallows have prevailed. Both members of the swallow pair periodically rest in a small tree adjacent to the nest box; the tree offers unobstructed views of the marsh and the box.

While I was photographing the swallows, one of two Wild Turkeys that frequents the Coastal Center's grounds walked by for a better look on its way to one of our bird feeders.

Look for many more contributions like this one from experts like Frank Gallo and the rest of our talented staff across the state on a regular basis!

Photos © Frank Gallo.

Stratford Point 4/18-4/24

The weather improved this week after last weekend's washout. As you can see in the photo the left, Stratford Point is rapidly going from brown to green with an explosion of spring growth. While northerly winds persisted most nights, there was a short period of southerly flow that allowed for some heavy migration. This brought waves of Savannah Sparrow in. Another sparrow species that made a mid-week appearance was the Eastern Towhee. We also recorded more Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Tree Swallow. Thursday brought us the first Barn Swallow of the season. During the late summer there will be numerous swallows and swallow species here - on a lucky day you will be able to record Tree, Barn, Bank, Northern Rough-winged, and Cliff possibly simultaneously! Great Egret numbers are steadily increasing, with multiple birds seen on multiple days. Shorebirds are also being seen more and more as Dunlin, Sanderling, and Black-bellied Plovers are regular visitors now.

We still have some wintering species around as well. Red-breasted Mergansers can be seen flying by the Point nearly every day. On Wednesday, a Northern Gannet was sighted very close to shore. Brant have been a fixture at Stratford Point, often numbering into the hundreds as they graze around the tidal line. One interesting species for the week was a Cooper's Hawk. The site has very few trees and is far from any spacious wooded area, but the Cooper's Hawk has been recorded soaring over the rear upland areas on repeated occasions. This week should bring some fantastic passerines migrants and increased numbers of shorebirds - stop by to see what we get!

Photo © Scott Kruitbosch

Friday, April 23, 2010

SpringFest at Birdcraft

Please join us at the Birdcraft Sanctuary and Museum in Fairfield tomorrow, April 24, from 10-2 for SpringFest. This special new event will feature a variety of family activities, lectures, literature and a guided bird walk. We will have two scheduled discussions given by the CAS Senior Director of Science and Conservation, Milan Bull. At 11 the talk will be on the near-demise and incredible recovery of the Eastern Bluebird. At 12:30 the topic will be hummingbirds, the tiny creatures many of us enjoy seeing in our yards every spring and summer - and who will be migrating back to our state very soon.

Also in store: are a cell phone scavenger hunt through our 6-acre Sanctuary; Curator Frank Mitchell will be on hand to discuss our Museum collection; children’s activities including bird bingo, scavenger hunts, seed plantings and bird crafts. You can purchase birdhouses, feeders, potted plants, birdseed and food specifically for hummingbirds and bluebirds, and staff will answer questions and share tips for setting up birdhouses and feeders. Light refreshments will be available. Fee: $2/adult, $1/child CAS Members; $4/adult, $2/child Non-members.

Photos © Scott Kruitbosch.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day!

Happy Earth Day from the Connecticut Audubon Society!

This Eastern Bluebird hopes you do something to help the Earth today - and every day!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bird banding

It's that time again! The Connecticut Audubon Society operates two bird banding stations: one in Fairfield at the Birdcraft Sanctuary and Museum, and another at the Coastal Center at Milford Point. Volunteers licensed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service run these stations. Birds are captured using mist nets from which they are removed then measured, weighed, and banded. They are released completely unharmed after this process. The rare Yellow-breasted Chat in the above picture was mist-netted at Birdcraft in the fall of 2009.

Banding at Birdcraft in Fairfield.

The banding station at Birdcraft in Fairfield runs weekdays in the spring and the fall. The spring operation commenced on April 1 and will continue through Memorial Day.

Judith Richardson, master bander.

The Milford Point banding station will kick off the season on Tuesday, April 27. The nets will open at 6AM in hopes of netting newly-arrived spring migrants.

Can you find the Gray Catbird?

More than 20,000 birds have been banded at Birdcraft since 1979. Visitors are always welcome to come and observe mist-netting and banding in action. Demonstrations in Fairfield are available to any group by appointment. It something that anyone with an interest in birds should experience at least once. You will not be disappointed!

Yellow-breasted Chat photo © Scott Kruitbosch; all other photos © Twan Leenders.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

CAS Staff Teaches Litchfield High School Students in the Costa Rican Rainforest -- Presentation 4/27/10

Between March 5 and March 16 Connecticut Audubon Society staff members travelled to the Costa Rican rainforest again to teach Connecticut high school students about the importance of rainforest conservation as part of the Forman School Rainforest Project. This unique hands-on biology course based out of the Forman School in Litchfield, but also catering to high school seniors and juniors of the local public high schools (Litchfield High School and Wamogo Regional School), is currently in its 17th year. Every year a group of 12-14 students travels to the remote (and difficult to reach) rainforest preserve Rara Avis, where they work around the clock studying the area’s biodiversity and developing sustainable non-timber resource projects that can provide local people with alternatives to the commonly used slash-and-burn method of agriculture.

Rara Avis Rainforest Preserve is surrounded by Braulio Carrillo National Park, a vast rainforest area on
the Caribbean slope of northeastern Costa Rica
The only access is by 4-wheel drive tractor-pulled cart
and even that can be tricky at times!

Since its inception the project has been a demonstration project of sorts, researching different ways to reveal the tremendous value of an intact rainforest - both biologically and financially. Only once people realize that it pays to leave forest intact and use its resources intelligently rather than replacing it with poor quality pasture land, a major step has been taken towards the preservation of these important habitats.

Golden-hooded Tanager (Tangara larvata)
Every year students build on the knowledge and experience previous teams have accumulated. The students are directed and supported in their endeavors by a support staff of experts in their respective fields. Connecticut Audubon Society's Frank Gallo, Director of the CAS Coastal Center at Milford Point is a master bird bander and expert on Neotropical migrants. He joined the program for the 9th time this year to run his banding station in Rara Avis.

This banded Wood Trush may show up in your backyard sometime soon...
His team's work will help us better understand the needs of some of the migratory birds we see in Connecticut during the summer months while they are on their wintering grounds. Birds are caught and banded so they can be individually recognized. Some of the migrants banded in Rara Avis are just passing through on their way north, but Frank’s work has already shown that some species winter right there. For example a Chestnut-sided Warbler banded in Rara Avis was recaptured twice more over a four year period, each time in the same line of trees and roughly on the same date! This kind of information helps us understand how to better protect our migratory birds when they are not in Connecticut and provides insights in the poorly known parts of these amazing animal’s biology.

Bay-headed Tanager (Tangara gyrola)

Frank and his team also carry out studies on the local hummingbird populations and document the avian diversity in the preserve each year.

The bird team carries out experiments with the local hummingbird population

After dark, nectar-feeding bats (Carollia castanea) take over the feeders

CAS Conservation Biologist Twan Leenders is one of the original staff members of the project and has been involved for 17 years. Twan is an expert on Central American amphibians and reptiles and very familiar with the other animals and plants in the area, since he was the preserve’s manager in the past.

Students stake out study plots to monitor poison-dart frog populations
Strawberry Poison-dart Frog (Oophaga pumilio)
Twan has been studying declining amphibian populations in Costa Rica for many years and his team has been documenting the recovery of some critically endangered amphibian species in the preserve, species that have all but gone extinct after being infected with a water-borne fungal pathogen in the late 1980s.

Ghost Glass Frog (Centrolene ilex), one of the species that almost disappeared in the 1980s

Even though the devastating effects of this disease on amphibian populations are best known from the tropics where many species are going extinct while researchers frantically try to come up with creative ways to save them, this is truly a global phenomenon and the pathogen has been reported from all continents, including North America. Twan is also involved with research programs in Connecticut that monitor local amphibian populations and track the spread of the disease.

Juvenile Fer-de-Lance (Bothrops asper), the most dangerous snake in Central and South America

This Short-nosed Vine Snake (Oxybelis brevirostris) is not dangerous at all, but fools most people

A bizarre Yellow-spotted Night Lizard (Lepidophyma flavimaculatum)

Banded Slug-eater (Sibon annulata). Most tropical snakes have a highly specialized diet

Helmeted Iguana (Corytophanes cristatus) in the lush rainforest vegetation

As scientific advisor for the project, Twan oversees the other projects that students work on this year, such as a spider project that researches the possibility to sustainably harvest silk from the Golden Orb-weaver (Nephila clavipes), a fiber that has great industrial potential and spurred a multi-million dollar industry attempting to artificially synthesize the silk rather than extract it.

Cupiennius coccineus is a large hunting spider, similar to wolf spiders

A fourth team researched the dazzling moth diversity in Rara Avis, a group of animals that still remains largely unstudied.

Owl Butterfly (Caligo atreus), named after the large eyespots on the closed wings
that supposedly deter predators by resembling an owl

Students work day and night on their projects

Butterfly traps with black lights are placed throughout the forest to capture moths and other nocturnal
insects and retrieved later for analysis

Caterpillar of the Owl Butterfly (Caligo atreus)

In the past, teams have also worked on radio telemetry of rainforest mammals (ranging from bats to tapirs), researching the potential to sustainably harvest and market canopy orchids and rare palms, and studying potential pharmaceutical uses of the venom of the largest Neotropical ant, the bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) in treatment of stroke victims.

Coati (Nasua narica) a relative of our raccoon

Leaf-cutter Ants (Acromyrmex octospinosus) are ubiquitous in a tropical rainforest

If you would like to learn more about this project and hear first-hand accounts of the experience and discoveries, on Tuesday April 27 students will be presenting their findings during their annual dissertation day. The event is open to the public and takes place at the Forman School’s Johnson Art Center, 12 Norfolk Road, Litchfield and starts at 8:45AM.

85-foot waterfall at Rara Avis
If you are interested in more travelogues, click here to visit the blog of Andy Griswold, Director of Ecotravel at Connecticut Audubon Society. Or if you would like to travel somewhere exotic yourself, click here to visit our ecotravel department and see what we have to offer. Enjoy!

All photographs and video © Twan Leenders