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west rutland marsh - october monitoring report

The fall foliage is still brilliant on the hillsides, but the crystal coating on the cattails and other marsh vegetation this morning was a reminder of what is to come. Eighteen participants, sporting wool caps and warm gloves for the first time this season, joined together for our monthly monitoring of West Rutland Marsh.

Today’s tally was 37, three more than one year ago, and five more than our average for October (the high was 39 in October 2007).

Many species have departed or are at least packing their bags. In sharp contrast with September, only one gray catbird was recorded. No common yellowthroats or marsh wrens were observed, but a swamp sparrow sang weakly in the cattails.

Several ruby-crowned kinglets were flitting in the trees and goldenrod seedheads along with a few golden-crowned kinglets. Their contrasting call notes were quite obvious.

White-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos were seen in several spots along the route as well as song sparrows. Our first vesper sparrow for this walk was seen briefly along Marble Street. This is the third month in a row we have added a new species to our monitoring list.

Three purple finches, the two males looking particularly bright in the morning sun, sat in a bare tree. One was heard singing.

Three red-tailed hawks were noted, but no turkey vultures.

Our next walk: November 19 (Saturday) at 8 a.m.

Today’s list:

Canada Goose  2
Wood Duck  2
Mallard  2
Red-tailed Hawk  3
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  6
Mourning Dove  6
Belted Kingfisher  2
Downy Woodpecker  6
Hairy Woodpecker  1
Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted)  1
Pileated Woodpecker  1
Peregrine Falcon  1
Eastern Phoebe  1
Blue Jay  19
American Crow  45
Common Raven  4
Black-capped Chickadee  25
Tufted Titmouse  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  3
Brown Creeper  1
Carolina Wren  1
Golden-crowned Kinglet  4
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  5
American Robin  65
Gray Catbird  1
European Starling  3
Chipping Sparrow  1
Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored)  17
White-crowned Sparrow  2
White-throated Sparrow  10
Vesper Sparrow  1
Song Sparrow  9
Swamp Sparrow  2
Northern Cardinal  5
Red-winged Blackbird  49
Purple Finch  4
American Goldfinch  17


bobolink project results

Rutland County Audubon and many of our members have helped support the Bobolink Project for the past three years. Here is an encouraging report from Margaret Fowle at Audubon Vermont about this year’s results:                 

As many of you know, Audubon Vermont joined Mass Audubon and Audubon Connecticut to help continue the Bobolink Project in 2016. This project provides a financial incentive for farmers who delay haying during the Bobolink nesting season (mid-May through mid-July). To date, approximately $114,500 has been raised since 2013 in Vermont, enough to support bird-friendly management on 1,600 acres of hayfields in the State.

In 2016, the total acreage enrolled in Vermont was 407 acres. In addition, 22 acres were enrolled in Massachusetts and 98 acres were enrolled in New York, for a total of 527 acres. Allan Strong from UVM and Audubon Vermont staff surveyed the Vermont Bobolink Project fields in 2016 and estimated that 175 nesting pairs produced nearly 500 young. To do this work, we walked transects back and forth across each field to count the numbers of females and males, and then extrapolated the number of young produced using metrics from Allan's work. Often the landowners joined us on our survey and it was great for them to see the number of birds in their fields. In addition to the Bobolinks, we observed Savannah Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks, Northern Harriers and many other species.

Thanks to all of you who supported this important project - we look forward to continuing the work in 2017. Currently any donations to the project are going towards the 2017 field season. For more information, click here.


book review: the genius of birds

In her engrossing book, The Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman, elucidates recent findings that are shifting our understanding of bird intelligence. Indeed, birds have borne the brunt of our disrespect, from the ‘bird-brained’ stupid, foolish person, to the ‘lame duck’ ineffectual politician. The concept of ‘bird-brain’ arose from the belief that avian species possessed only diminutive brains since they functioned mainly by instinct. But, not only have scientists found that some birds have brains relatively large for their size, size matters less than where neurons are located, how they communicate at their synapses and how interaction with the environment drives neural activity.

Avoiding the word ‘intelligence’ because of its anthropomorphizing human connotations, animal scientists now prefer the term ‘cognition,’ defined as any mechanism by which the animal acquires, processes, stores and uses information. It usually refers to mechanisms involved in learning, memory, perception and decision making. Higher forms of cognition constitute insight, reasoning and planning; however, forms are attention and motivation.

Cognitively defining intelligence, however, opens up another problem – how to measure it. There is no standard IQ test for birds, so scientists devise puzzles for birds, in order to reveal their problem-solving abilities. Such meticulously designed laboratory experiments have been very useful in disclosing bird skills, such as that of ‘007,’ a New Caledonian crow, that was able to shape one tool and use it to obtain another too, which was ultimately employed to extract a food reward (‘mega-tool use’).

But Ackerman cautions that judging bird intelligence by speed and success at solving lab problems, may overlook many variables, such as the boldness or fear of an individual. Birds that are faster at solving tasks may not be smarter, just less hesitant to engage in a new task.


Thus, to avoid the artificial framework of the lab experiment, another approach would be observation, of birds doing routine as well as unusual or new behavior in their own habitat. Though lacking the rigors of an experiment’s strict parameters, anecdotes, from both professionals and amateurs, have resulted in an enormous amount of useful enlightening data. These have been validated as repeated observations have confirmed them. For example: Green-backed herons have been found to use insects as bait, placing them lightly on the surface of water to lure fish.


So in amassing all the research to date, wherein does our understanding of bird intelligence lie? What birds are the smartest and why? Scientists have concluded that it is the ‘primary innovators,’ mainly crows and parrots; then grackles, raptors, woodpeckers, hornbills, gulls, kingfishers, roadrunners and herons. Innovation is accepted as a measure of cognition. Another example is owls scattering clumps of animal feces near the opening of their nest chambers and watching for unsuspecting dung beetles to scuttle toward their trap. Or consider the woodpecker finches of the Galapagos when they use their skills to chip away at bark, producing wood splinters to probe crevices beyond the reach of their beaks.

Delving deeper, Ackerman questions whether they are evolutionary forces driving bird innovation. Two theories postulate the source of such forces. First, there are the ecological problems birds encounter, especially foraging (how to find enough food, how to fetch hard to get foods, remembering where seeds are hidden). Secondly, there are social pressures – getting along with others, thieves, finding a mate and carrying for young. From this has arisen the ‘social intelligence hypothesis,’ the idea that that a demanding social life might drive the evolution of brain power.

Having covered the larger, overarching theories, Ackerman then investigates lesser, more discrete topics and issues.

Brains of many birds are actually considerably larger than expected for their body size. Reproductive strategy may play a role. Species that are precocial (born with eyes open and able to leave the nest in a day or two) have larger brains at birth than altricial birds (born naked, blind and helpless and remain in the nest until they are as big as their parents). On the other hand, birds that migrate have smaller brains than their sedentary relatives. Since brains consume a lot of energy, this would seem reasonable.

Calls, songs, mimicry and the virtuosity they entail, are address in a lengthy chapter. These vocal feats are brought about by the ‘syrinx,’ somewhat analogous to our vocal cords, but more complex in its anatomy and innervation, enabling the simultaneous production of two harmonically unrelated notes at the same time. Nonetheless, such structurally well-equipped birds must still learn by trial and error, working through wrong, off-key notes, to produce their vocalizations.

Nest building requires many intellectual abilities besides instinct: learning, memory, experience, decision making, coordination and collaborations.

And of course, there is the everlasting mystery of migration. Some new theories have arisen. ‘Infrasounds’ are produced by many natural sources, but mainly oceans. Interacting waves in the deep ocean and movements of sea surface water create a background noise in the atmosphere that can be detected with low frequency microphones. Birds may be capable of detecting such low frequencies and use them as a guide through the ‘soundscapes.’ Or the ‘olfactory navigation hypothesis’: pigeons with several olfactory nerves never returned home! Homing pigeons have very large olfactory bulbs compared with non-homing domestic pigeons.

Much more awaits the reader of this engaging, in-depth book. Ackerman has done extensive research, attested by 50 pages of explanatory notes at the end. Yet, at 271 pages, she has consolidated the heavy science to a layperson’s comprehension. My one criticism would be the need for explanatory diagrams. Lovely pen and ink drawings introduce each chapter, but, for example, her description of the complex steps of the New Caledonian crow in constructing a hook tool from the leaves of the pandanus tree left me befuddled.

The book is available at the Rutland Free Library.


west rutland marsh - september monitoring report

It was a glorious first day of autumn at West Rutland Marsh! Forty-five species beat last year by three and our September average of 39. We originally thought the day’s tally was 44, but a photo later revealed we actually had one additional species, a northern parula. Thirteen lucky participants all contributed to the total.

The day started with two tussling marsh wrens near the boardwalk, perhaps an immature still begging food of an adult?

One of the highlights of the day was Philadelphia vireo, with a nearby red-eyed vireo for contrast. They were both feeding frantically, but we had good looks at each. It was a life bird for some participants. Two warbling vireos were singing weakly.

Swamp SparrowRed-winged blackbird and blue jay numbers were high with 243 and 69, respectively.

Warblers included the parula, a black-throated green warbler, a magnolia warbler, a chestnut-sided warbler and several common yellowthroats.

Gray catbirds are still around in good numbers – 14 (last year we counted 13). Swamp sparrows are stilling singing away as well as a few marsh wrens. White-throated sparrows are putting in an appearance as the season changes.

Raptor numbers were low, one in fact, a sharp-shinned hawk.

Species #151 for our monitoring walk appeared today: an immature northern mockingbird, keeping company with starlings. At first we thought it was a juvenile starling, but its long tail and white wing patches gave it away.

The next monitoring walk is scheduled for Saturday, October 15, at 8 a.m.

Today’s list:

Canada Goose  9
Wood Duck  12
Mallard  7
Great Blue Heron  2
Sharp-shinned Hawk  1
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  2
Mourning Dove  6
Belted Kingfisher  2
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  1
Downy Woodpecker  8
Hairy Woodpecker  1
Northern Flicker  1
Pileated Woodpecker  2
Eastern Phoebe  9
Philadelphia Vireo  1    
Warbling Vireo  2    
Red-eyed Vireo  3
Blue Jay  69
American Crow  4
Common Raven  3
Black-capped Chickadee  15
Red-breasted Nuthatch  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  1
House Wren  1
Marsh Wren  3
American Robin  1
Gray Catbird  14
Northern Mockingbird  1    
European Starling  5
Cedar Waxwing  2
Common Yellowthroat  4
Magnolia Warbler  1
Chestnut-sided Warbler  1
Black-throated Green Warbler  1
White-throated Sparrow  3
Song Sparrow  5
Swamp Sparrow  15
Northern Cardinal  2
Rose-breasted Grosbeak  1
Red-winged Blackbird  243
House Finch  1
Purple Finch  1
American Goldfinch  9
House Sparrow  1


un-hawk watch - september 17

Of all the bird outings, hawk watches are probably the hardest to plan. Not because of difficult birders, but because migrating hawks are so subject to weather conditions.

So it was on September 17 as we sent off for our annual trip to Mt. Philo State Park. As soon as we settled ourselves on the rocky promontory, we realized the gusting south wind was not in our favor. After sighting three immature bald eagles, two broad-winged hawks and one osprey, we sat down for our picnic lunch and plotted other stops for the day. Fortunately, there is always birding hotspot worth checking out in Addison County.

Lesser YellowlegsAt Charlotte Town Beach we spotted a black-bellied plover, two killdeer and a group of common mergansers. At the confluence of Otter and Dead creeks, a flock of 15 lesser yellowlegs with a single least sandpiper were near our viewing point. Further out in the water we could see a great egret and six great blue herons. A late barn swallow flew overhead.

Hoping for more shorebirds we stopped at the ‘Stone Bridge’ and came up with three more lesser yellowlegs, a Cooper’s hawk and an osprey.

When the birding slows down, birders eat ice cream! A stop at Goodie’s Snack Bar in West Addison left everyone smiling. And in an ironic twist to the day, a broad-winged hawk landed in the single tree outside the snack bar, said “nyah nyah nyah” and flew off.

Our last stop of the day was at McCuen Slang, we spotted another great egret, another osprey and a single lesser yellowlegs.