Backyard Finches

For the last few weeks, finch numbers have really increased in my backyard, thanks in large part to a cool double sock nyger seed feeder that really seems to draw in both American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins. My high counts have been 32 goldfinches and 5 siskins at one time.

The double sock stuffed with njyer seed really seems to maximize the amount of space for finches to feed on because they can perch anywhere they want, in whatever orientation they want to.

I particularly enjoyed watching the Pine Siskins because they are not as common, especially in this part of Pennsylvania. Finches are definitely moving south further this year than is typical according to reports. In the photo above you can see the distinctive pointy bill that the siskins sport. The golden edging on the flight feathers and wingbar can be seen as well as the streaky undertail feathers.

I am hoping for some Evening Grosbeaks and Common Redpolls to show up at my feeders. They have been showing up all over PA and so I am going to be optimistic.
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In the market for optics?

Yesterday was the day that I finally upgraded my binocular. I had decided that it was a good time to pass my adequate Swift Audubon HHS 8.5×44 on to my wife to replace her lower quality Bushnell’s. At least that was the noble reason. I also felt bad making her use those Bushnell’s when I was counting hawks at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. It is amazing how much more you can enjoy bird watching when you are looking through a binocular that is sharp and has a large field of view (FOV) and I want her to enjoy birding with me.

So I headed to Lost Creek Shoe Shop to look at binoculars. This Amish run shoe shop in Oakland Mills, Pa also has a large selection of all the top optics ranging from the hundreds to the thousands of dollars. They generally have excellent prices as well and accept trade-ins of optics as well.

I already pretty much knew what I wanted because I had researched all the top bins that are currently available. I knew I wanted something with a huge FOV, it should be comfortable to use with and without glasses, and it should feel good to hold. Well, I ended up with what I had in mind, the new Zeiss Victory FL* 8×42. I tried the Leica Ultravids and they were also fantastic, but the FOV was slightly less, and they were also heavy. I know, I know, I was nitpicking but I wanted to end up with something I would enjoy. I will give my thoughts on the Victory FL’s in a later post.

So if anyone is looking to buy optics at good prices I highly recommend Lost Creek Shoe Shop. Click for a Google Map to the shop. The high end bins are usually several hundred dollars cheaper than Eagle Optics and optics4birding.

Bird Migration Forecast

Despite the much lauded launch of Cape May Bird Observatory’s, the most exciting thing for me on the site is the Mid-Atlantic Birding Forecast. When its updated, it provides a nice update on the potential weather conditions for movements of birds. David La Puma of woodcreeper.com is the guy who updates it and he has several years experience of looking at wind conditions and weather patterns to guesstimate flight conditions for both north and south migrations. I would recommend reading both these sites as well as Paul Lehman’s National Migration Forecast.

Battle at Kruger

You have to check this video out. At 8 minutes its a bit long for the typical internet browsing attention span but its well worth it. Enjoy!

Winter Finch Forecast 2007-2008

from the Ontario listserv…looks good for Evening Grosbeaks, redpolls and Red-breasted Nuthatches to irrupt into the US, hopefully into Pennsylvania.

“This winter’s theme is “finches going in three directions” depending on the species. Some finches have gone east and west or both, while others will come south. Most coniferous and deciduous trees have very poor seed crops in much of Ontario and western Quebec. The exception is northwestern Ontario such as Quetico Provincial Park, Dryden and Lake of the Woods, where there are good crops on some species. However, north of a line from the top of Lake Nipigon to Manitoba the crops are generally low in the boreal forest. This will be a quiet winter for most (not all) winter finches in Algonquin Provincial Park, in contrast to last winter’s bumper seed crops and abundance of finches. Most of last winter’s White-winged Crossbills and Pine Siskins departed Ontario this past summer. They probably went either to eastern or western Canada or both where there are bumper cone crops. Type 3 Red Crossbills, which were abundant in Ontario last winter, have probably returned to their core range in western North America. White-winged and Red Crossbills and Pine Siskins will not be irrupting south out of Ontario as they do in some flight years, because most have already gone east and/or west. However, other winter finches such as Pine Grosbeaks, Evening Grosbeaks, Purple Finches and redpolls are irrupting or will irrupt southward out of northern Ontario. See individual species accounts for details. In addition I comment on other irruptive passerines, such as the Red-breasted Nuthatch, whose movements are linked to cone crops. Also included is a comment on northern owls.

INDIVIDUAL FINCH FORECASTS

Pine Grosbeak: This grosbeak will irrupt south of the breeding range because crops on native mountain-ashes (rowan berries) are generally poor in northeastern Ontario and across the boreal forest. However, crops are good in northwestern Ontario west of Lake Superior. Pine Grosbeaks should wander south to Lake Ontario and perhaps farther in search of crabapples and planted European mountain-ash berries, which have average crops in southern Ontario. Watch for them at feeders where they prefer sunflower seeds. After irruptions, Pine Grosbeaks return north earlier than other northern finches. Most are gone by late March. Buds form a larger part of their winter diet when mountain-ash crops are poor.

Purple Finch: Most Purple Finches will migrate out of Ontario this fall in response to the low seed crops. Currently, Purple Finches are migrating south through southern Ontario. Very few or none will stay behind at feeders in southern Ontario.

Red Crossbill: The Red Crossbill complex comprises 9 sibling Types, possibly full species, which have different call notes, and different bill sizes related to cone preferences. At least three Types occur in Ontario. Type 3 (smallest bill) prefers small hemlock cones (and spruce cones) in Ontario. The hemlock Type 3 was abundant last winter, but is presumed absent now from the province because hemlock produced few or no cones in 2007. Type 4 (medium sized bill) is adapted to white pine cones. White pine cone crops are fair to good (but spotty) in northern Ontario. Currently, small numbers of Type 4 Red Crossbills are present on the “east side” of Algonquin Park (heavy crop on white pine) and probably elsewhere with extensive white pine forest. Algonquin’s east side pine forest is accessible from Highway 17 west of Pembroke. South of Algonquin white pine crops are poor to none. An infrequent presumed Type 2 Red Crossbill is
associated with red pine forests.

White-winged Crossbill: This crossbill moves back and forth across northern coniferous forests searching for new cone crops. Most White-winged Crossbills left Ontario this past summer. They will be scarce or absent in Ontario this winter. They presumably went either west to bumper spruce and fir cone crops in Alberta and British Columbia, and/or to Atlantic Canada, which has large cone crops on spruce and balsam fir, particularly in Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. White-winged Crossbills are currently common in Newfoundland and western Canada.

Common and Hoary Redpolls: There will be a big flight of redpolls into southern Ontario and bordering United States. Seed crops on white birch, yellow birch and alder are very poor in most of Ontario. Expect redpolls at bird feeders this winter. Far northwestern Ontario has a good white birch crop so redpolls may be common there.

Pine Siskin: Similar to the White-winged Crossbill, most Pine Siskins departed Ontario this past summer, presumably attracted to huge spruce and fir cone crops in Alberta and British Columbia and/or to big spruce and balsam fir cone crops in Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island and probably elsewhere in the Atlantic Provinces. Some of the very few siskins that remained in Ontario are now wandering south with sightings of usually only ones and twos in southern Ontario.
Large southward irruptions occur when cone crop failures span much of Canada. Very few siskins will visit feeders this winter in southern Ontario.

Evening Grosbeak: This grosbeak will irrupt south of the boreal forest this fall because tree seed crops are generally very poor in northeastern Ontario and western Quebec. In recent weeks scattered birds have visited feeders in southern Ontario. Beginning in the early 1980s the Evening Grosbeak declined significantly as large outbreaks of spruce budworm subsided. The larvae and pupae are eaten by adults and fed to nestlings. Expect Evening Grosbeaks at bird feeders in southern Ontario and northern United States, but not in the large numbers seen during the 1970s.

OTHER IRRUPTIVE PASSERINES

Red-breasted Nuthatch: They have been moving south since mid-June presumably because of the poor cone crop in central Canada. Almost all Red-breasted Nuthatches will depart Ontario’s boreal forest by late fall and left the province. Some will be at feeders in southern Ontario, but they will be very scarce in Algonquin Park. Algonquin Christmas Bird Counts (32 years) show a biennial (every two years) high and low pattern, with some exceptions.

Bohemian Waxwing: The poor crop of native mountain-ash (rowan berries) in much of northern Ontario will cause Bohemians Waxwings to wander south and east this winter. Watch for them eating buckthorn berries and crabapples in southern Ontario. The mountain-ash crop is better west of Lake Superior with a big crop around Kenora at Lake of the Woods.

Blue Jay: A strong flight is expected this fall. The beechnut crop is zero and the acorn crop on red oak is only fair to good (aborted in some areas) in central Ontario. Soon thousands of jays will be migrating southwest along the shorelines of Lakes Ontario and Erie, exiting Ontario south of Windsor. This winter there will be far fewer Blue Jays in Algonquin Park and at feeders in central Ontario.

Gray Jay and Boreal Chickadee: They are moving in northeastern Quebec east of Tadoussac along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. These movements could extend to southern Ontario and northeastern states.

NORTHERN OWLS

Small mammal populations were abundant this summer in northern Ontario, presumably increasing after the big seed/berry/fruit crops in 2006. However, crops this year are very poor in much of the north, partly caused by cold weather and snow in late spring that froze the buds and flowers of many plants. In early August, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources biologists on aerial surveys noted many raptors near James Bay including 15-20 Great Gray Owls, Short-eared Owls (common), Northern Harriers (common) and scattered Rough-legged Hawks. If small mammal populations crash this fall, then Great Gray Owls, Northern Hawk Owls and Boreal Owls will move, possibly southward into areas accessible by birders. Northern Saw-whet Owl numbers are linked to red-backed voles (a forest vole) in Ontario. There is the possibility that this vole could decline soon because it often cycles with deer mice. The huge population of deer mice in central Ontario is declining rapidly now because of poor seed crops this summer, particularly sugar maple samaras, which they store for the winter. If red-backed vole numbers decline as they often do in association with deer mice, there will be a strong flight of Northern
Saw-whet Owls this fall.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I thank staff of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) and
birders whose reports allow me to make predictions about finches.
They are Ken Abraham (OMNR Hudson Bay Lowlands), Dennis Barry (Durham
Region and Haliburton County), Kevin Clute (Algonquin Park), Shirley
Davidson (OMNR Minden), Bruce Di Labio (Eastern Ontario), Carrolle
Eady (Dryden), Dave Elder (Atikokan), Bruce Falls (Brodie Club,
Toronto), Brian Fox (OMNR Timmins to Chapleau), Marcel Gahbauer
(Labrador, Alberta, British Columbia), Michel Gosselin (Gatineau,
Quebec), Charity Hendry (OMNR Ontario Tree Seed Plant), Leo Heyens
(OMNR Kenora), Tyler Hoar (central Ontario and southern Quebec),
Peter Hynard (Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia), Jean Iron (Toronto
and northeastern Quebec), Christine Kerrigan and Peter Nevin (Parry
Sound District), Barry Kinch (Timiskaming), Bob Knudsen (Ontario
Parks, Algoma), Bruce Mactavish (Newfoundland), Scott McPherson (OMNR
Northeast Region), Brian Naylor (OMNR North Bay), Marty Obbard (OMNR
Peterborough), Justin Peter (Algonquin Park), Janet Pineau (Arrowhead
Provincial Park), Fred Pinto (OMNR North Bay), Gordon Ross (OMNR
Moosonee), Rick Salmon (OMNR Lake Nipigon), Don Sutherland (OMNR
Hudson Bay Lowlands), Doug Tozer (Algonquin Park), Ron Tozer
(Algonquin Park and Muskoka), Declan Troy (Alaska), Mike Turner (OMNR
Brancroft District), Stan Vasiliauskas (OMNR Northeast Region), Mike
Walsh (OMNR Muskoka and Parry Sound), John White (OMNR Ontario Tree
Seed Plant) and Alan Wormington (Point Pelee). I thank Michel
Gosselin, Jean Iron and Ron Tozer for reviewing the forecast. Ron
Tozer also provided information from his upcoming book on The Birds
of Algonquin Provincial Park.

PREVIOUS FINCH FORECASTS archived at Larry Neily’s website:

http://ca.geocities.com/larry.neily AT rogers.com/pittaway-old.htm

Ron Pittaway
Ontario Field Ornithologists
Minden, Ontario

The Moth Invasion of `07


Gypsy Moth Lymantria dispar

It’s particularly bad this year. At least I don’t remember noticing the large swathes of mountainside that were nearly absent of any green. While the gypsy moth caterpillar can be a real boon to birds such as cuckoos which feast on the insects, they can also cause tremendous damage to their hosts which include oaks and aspen.

According to Donald Eggen, director of the Office of Forest Pest Management for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, “Nearly 700,000 acres of Pennsylvania forests- primarily in the Poconos and central Pennsylvania- were defoliated last year because of the persistent bugs, and the infestation could be worse in 2007.”

Originally introduced accidentally around Boston in 1869, the first outbreaks began around 10 years later and it 1890 the first attempts were made to eradicate the moths. Unfortunately they were not successful and the moths still are causing problems over 100 years later. Below is the projected spread of the moths if their range continues expanding at the present rate of 21 km/year.

The effects of the gypsy moths could very well mean that only the less susceptible tree species will dominate the forest and some ecologically and economically important trees such as oaks will be lost.

Over the last 100 years over 20 insect parasitoids and predators from Europe and Asia were introduced to help control the moths with limited success. Birds feed on the insects but apparently not in quantities that affect the moths populations. More recently a virus and as well as a fungus have had good success in limiting the outbreaks. Unfortunately this year spring came so late that the fungus did not have time to have its effect before the caterpillars hatched and that is why there is a larger outbreak this year.

Moth outbreaks are currently also being controlled by direct spraying in areas that are hit under a joint program of state governments and the USDA Forest Service. If you are witnessing an outbreak on your property you should contact your extension service for more information on programs in your area.

Sources:

WBOC-TV- Gypsy Moths Leaving Their Marks on Mid-Atlantic Forests
USDA Forest Service- Gypsy Moth in North America

10 Ways to See more Birds

These aren’t backed by any guarantee, just what has held true from my experience. In no particular order I present you with 10 ways to see more birds.

Walk slower. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen people walk past birds because they aren’t walking slow enough, giving the birds more time to move and become visible. There is always the urge to walk fast and cover more ground, but I have found that it is when I am moving the least that I see the most.

Spend more time outside. This one is obvious, there aren’t many birds that you can see from your house unless you have a spectacular feeder setup. Not everyone gets to spend two months outdoors counting hawks in the spring, but any chance you have to bird could be the time you find something really special.

Start earlier. Birds are most active in the first couple hours of the day, particularly during migration when they are landing at first light after a long night of flying. Being there when they are most active means there will be more to see. I spent many mornings at Garret Mtn Reservation in northern NJ this spring, and I always felt bad for the people who had just showed up at 8:30am, after I had already seen 17 or so species of warbler. By the time they showed up the warblers were not as active and their chances of seeing even 10 species was getting small.

Know the habitat. Birds can turn up anywhere. Birds can and will show up in backyards, waste water treatment plants and pretty much any other place that might not seem enticing. But this is more the exception than the rule. Spending time in high quality habitat that the birds are more likely to navigate towards will often allow you great observations of foraging behavior.

Learn to interpret radar. An excellent way to get an idea if new migrants will be arriving is to check the radar every night. My favorite sources are the National Weather Service and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Woodcreeper.com is a great website that posts nightly about migration conditions in New Jersey. Reading the past posts can be a great way to learn about how this tool can be used to predict where birds will be.

Look at the weather. Great birding days can come when the weather stalls the migration during the night, leaving lots of little birds to forage while they wait for better weather. Checking out some good locations during a light rain or after a rainstorm can be very productive.

Understand migration timing. For instance, in mid-May, you will want to head to spot to catch migrating warblers, in January find an unfrozen lake that might hold ducks and in August look for flooded fields or mudflats to see shorebirds migrating south. September can bring large Broad-winged Hawk flights, while November will be dominated by the Red-tailed Hawk. Knowing what to look for will point you towards the correct type of habitats to bird.

Learn birds calls, flight calls, chip notes, contact calls, noises their wings make, and anything else that gives their presence away. Birds communicate with their voices and it is the easiest way to find them. A well hidden bird can still be heard, giving you clues to its location as well as its identity. Chips and flight calls can help you identify the bird even if you only have a brief look at it. Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs is an excellent resource for the birds songs while Flight Calls of Migratory Birds is great for learning the flight calls. Any sounds you add to your repertoire will increase you skill and enjoyment of birding.

Bird with friends. Take a buddy or two along, even if they aren’t experts. An extra set of attentive eyes can go a long way in finding birds. I would have missed my life Boreal Chickadee if my interested but inexperienced friend hadn’t asked me, “Hey, whats that one? It looks different.” And if they are experience birders, there is always the opportunity of learning new information or tricks to identify difficult birds.

Find migrant traps. There are certain places that, because of weather, topography or location, attract ridiculous concentrations of bird during migration. Point Pelee, High Island, Garret Mountain and Sandy Hook all come to mind. Some of these spots are bottlenecks, where the birds are all forced into a small area as they avoid flying across water until the last moment. Others, such as High Island and Point Pelee are the first places that birds reach after a long water crossing and so they land en masse, covering the trees as they desperately try to recover and find food. Visit a migrant trap like these and you could see flocks of warblers, tanagers, flycatchers and anything else that is flying.

I hope that these ten ideas help you to see more birds and if you have more helpful ideas, please leave them in the comments.