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National Audubon

west rutland marsh - march monitoring report

Winter is not quite ready to release its grip as evidenced at today’s monitoring walk at West Rutland Marsh, our 164th consecutive monthly trip. Seven participants started out at 11 degrees and were facing into a brisk north wind. Nevertheless, 21 species were tallied, one more than last year and one less than our average for March.

Looking back, the records show a wide swing in the number of species that might be seen in the fickle month March. 2009 and 2010 showed species counts of 32 and 31 respectively. With no open water today, the difference is mainly in the number of waterfowl species seen – none today!

Black-capped ChickadeeThe winter birds are still with us. The Northern Shrike that has been lurking along Marble Street was seen just south of the green house. Eight American Tree Sparrows, all near feeders along the route, at least nodded to spring by bursting into song. If you aren't familiar with their song, click here at National Audubon's new online field guide to hear it.

On a brighter note, eight male Red-winged Blackbirds have staked out positions on the cattails out the marsh and were also singing. Are these perhaps members of the small flock that spent the winter in the area huddled over the feeders?

The second half of the route along Whipple Hollow Road was mostly quiet except for two Golden-crowned Kinglets in the hemlocks, two Red-breasted Nuthatches and a single outburst of song by an American Creeper.

American Tree SparrowThe small south-facing depression along Whipple Hollow Road, known for sheltering Mourning Doves in cold windy weather, contained 15 today, all well camouflaged in the brush and fallen leaves. At least they were warm!

Today’s list:

Wild Turkey  23
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  3
Mourning Dove  18
Downy Woodpecker  5
Northern Shrike  1
Blue Jay  8
American Crow  11
Common Raven  1
Black-capped Chickadee  32
Tufted Titmouse  4
Red-breasted Nuthatch  2
White-breasted Nuthatch  2
Brown Creeper  1    
Golden-crowned Kinglet  2
European Starling  2
American Tree Sparrow  7    
Northern Cardinal  4
Red-winged Blackbird  9
House Finch  3
American Goldfinch  6
House Sparrow  3


rusty blackbird blitz 

Rusty Blackbirds:  Looking Forward, Looking Back by Judith Scarl, International Coordinator, Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz  

A female Rusty Blackbird huddles on a Minnesota rooftop during a blizzard, fluffing herself into a ball to keep warm. A male flips leaves in a roadside ditch in Maryland, navigating partially frozen mud to hunt for spring’s first invertebrates.  A noisy, mixed flock of Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and the occasional Rusty lifts off from an Ohio cornfield, seeking safety in nearby trees.

These snapshots highlight the adventures and challenges of Rusty Blackbird spring migration, a journey that takes this species from its flooded forest wintering grounds in the southeastern U.S. northward to the boreal forests of Canada, Alaska, and far northern New England.  Rusty Blackbirds pose both a conservation challenge and an environmental mystery. This species has experienced one of the most precipitous declines of any once-common landbird, losing up to 95% of its population over a 40-year span. Until the late 1990s, no one noticed this decline, much less understood it.  Today, although some of the bird’s habits remain unstudied, our new understanding of Rusty Blackbird breeding and wintering ecology enables scientists to formulate conservation strategies for this species on both ends of its migratory range. However, we know little about Rusty Blackbird migration ecology, a critical element to ensure that the species is protected throughout its full annual cycle.

To identify migratory hotspots, understand migration timing, and inspire the public to support Rusty Blackbird conservation, the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group, in partnership with the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and dozens of state and local partners, developed and launched a three-year Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz in March 2014.  This Blitz challenges birders across 38 states, 9 provinces, and 3 Canadian territories to search for Rusty Blackbirds during their northward migratory journey. While rangewide Blitz dates span the beginning of March through mid-June, each state and province focuses efforts during peak Rusty migratory activity for its region. Here in Vermont, our peak Blitz dates are mid-March through the end of April when the majority of Rusties will travel through our region.  To participate, birders scour the landscape for Rusties and report their data to eBird under the “Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz” observation type, allowing the Blitz to tap into an existing network of citizen scientists and to encourage new supporters to use a broad-based conservation tool. These data will be used to identify Rusty Blackbird hotspots across the landscape and assess whether critical stopover areas are adequately protected. The ultimate goal is to ensure that Rusty Blackbirds have access to high-quality habitat throughout a journey that is energetically costly and already fraught with peril.

Between 1 March and 15 June 2014, 4750 observers submitted 13,400 Rusty Blackbird observations to eBird, a 61% increase in submissions over 2013, the year before the Blitz. In 2014 240 eBird checklists were submitted with Rusty Blackbirds and increase over 89 in 2013.[Insert a sentence here about how your state/province did- how many checklists with Rusty observations were submitted during the Blitz?  Did your state/province have one of the highest number of submissions or one of the greatest percent increases from 2013?] Data from this pioneer Blitz year will guide our 2015 and 2016 Spring Migration Blitz efforts; based on where observers reported large flocks of Rusties in 2014, we’ve identified potential hotspots that need to be revisited in 2015 to evaluate whether Rusties rely on the same areas year after year. Of course, the Blitz effort will still be looking for new hotspots in 2015, so birders are encouraged to search far and wide for Rusties and report all observations to eBird.

As the Rusties’ namesake plumage fades to black (for males) and charcoal gray (for females) in the spring and summer, Rusties can be challenging to identify even for more experienced birders.  To ensure that the Spring Migration Blitz collects high-quality data, we ask that birders brush up on their Rusty Blackbird identification skills before participating in the Blitz.  The International Rusty Blackbird Working Group Spring Migration Blitz web pages (click here) contain several resources to help birders discriminate between Rusties and look-alike species such as Common Grackles, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and European Starlings.  If you are confident that you’ve seen a Rusty Blackbird, we welcome your report in eBird!

So, whether you’re looking for the first spring crocuses, walking your dog, hiking near wooded wetlands, or specifically out birding, keep your ears open for a squeaky-hinge call and look around for Rusty Blackbirds- your efforts will help to solve one of the final pieces of the Rusty Blackbird conservation puzzle.

To learn more about the Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz and how to participate, visit our website and email address].

This piece is adapted from an article, authored by Judith Scarl, that originally appeared in the Spring 2014 version of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies’ “Field Notes” publication.


john gould's birds

John GouldA few weeks ago, while shuffling past the oversize book shelves at the Rutland Free Library, a tome, fronted with a painting of a sharp-eyed merlin, alighting on its nest, with her desperately gaping young, caught the corner of my eye. Boldly titled John Gould’s Birds, my curiosity was now piqued, and I had to take a closer look. After flipping through just a few pages, I knew that, despite being already burdened down by clunky boots, a down coat and several books for winter reading, this had to be added to my pack.

John Gould is known for his publications on the birds and animals of three continents, monographs on toucans, trogons and hummingbirds, illustrations for two ships’ voyages, and about 300 scientific articles.

He was born on September 14, 1804, in Lyme Regis, Dorset, England, a town noted for its healthy clime and restorative bathing opportunities, certainly a snug “nest” for someone with a bent for nature. A childhood family move to Surrey, an area rich in wildlife, provided a variety of meadows, woodlands, ponds and rivers for exploration. He collected nests and shot specimens. As I’ve learned from my previous reading (and related in my book reviews), this was considered at the time, not mischievous antics, but wholesome, and was common in the U.S. as well. The introductory chapter included a side comment that Great Britain passed its “Wild Birds Protection Act” in 1880. I couldn’t help wonder, why, despite our pompous declaration of rights, liberty and democracy, the Brits were decades ahead of us in taking a stand against slavery AND against mindless destruction of birds.

Gould’s father was a gardener, eventually attaining a position at the grounds of Windsor Castle, where the young Gould was placed under a Mr. Archer for further horticultural training. However, John found his interest turned toward taxidermy. In 1825, he set up business as a taxidermist in London where he became renowned for his skills. In 1827, he was appointed “Curator and Preserver” to the Zoological society of London. He preserved a great number of specimens for their museum’s constantly growing collection.

In 1830, Gould somehow acquired a collection of Himalayan bird skins which he stuffed and mounted. Perceiving their artistic qualities he visualized how well they would look in an illustrated book. The previous year Gould had married Elizabeth Coxell, an accomplished artist with talent that surpassed her pedagogical drawing duties as a governess. Thus, Elizabeth was engaged to draw the Himalayan birds.

Gould himself was not primarily responsible for the fine art work of the bird illustrations. The plates were based on rough drawings Gould made of the mounted model. These were pencil or charcoal sketches indicating the position of the birds on the page, plants to be used, and perhaps a few dabs of suggested color. Elizabeth (and later other artists) painstakingly produced the detailed lithographic plates and drawings. Another group of watercolorists did the final painting of the prints.

Gould found 298 subscribers for his Himalayan bird book, mainly gentlemen, earls, lords, dukes, institutions and natural historians. He continually obtained specimens through his Zoological Society contacts. Next came Birds of Great Britain, Birds of Europe and Birds of Australia, for which Elizabeth journeyed with him to the southern continent. However, because of her untimely death at age 37, Gould was obliged to find other illustrators to complete the Australian and future works. Edward Lear and Henry Richter were notable artists who illustrated over 1000 plates.

One naturally is inclined to compare Gould and Audubon. Not only had Gould purchased some Audubon prints in 1827, but the two men apparently knew each other. Audubon borrowed skins from Gould and acquired a (live) dog from him.

Personality-wise, they seem to have been near opposites. The text notes that Gould’s “business methods remained brusque and direct, and he never seemed to have acquired the finesse of a gentleman.” On the other hand, Audubon was a social charmer when seeking subscribers in London. With his “shoulder-length chestnut ringlets and fringed buckskin jacket” he became the archetypical beloved “American Woodsman.” A significant difference was that Audubon had received training as an artist in Paris at the atelier of the great French master Jacques-Louis David.

Their techniques and styles were different. Gould utilized taxidermists’ specimens situated in stereotypical positions. His model’s feathers were often faded. Audubon set up recently killed birds in positions secured by wires. His compositions could become quite complex and appear staged, to the point of being contorted and almost “frenzied” such that some scientists questions their accuracy. Audubon appeals to the spectacular and striking, Gould to the formal and lyrical. “There are, for example, Audubon’s pintail ducks whose necks crane upward eager to catch a moth, whereas Gould’s ducks are quietly waddling toward the water. Audubon’s great white heron strides forward with a fish in its bill; Gould’s pair of herons is perched side by side in a tree. Audubon’s great black gull dies bleeding its wing shattered by a storm, whereas Gould’s gull glides peacefully through the water.”

Another clearly evident difference is that virtually all of Gould’s birds are done in vignette format, while Audubon often uses the entire sheet for his painting. Gould’s colors tend toward earth tones – ochre, russets, burn orange, umber, olive green, stormy blues, while Audubon’s encompass a wider spectrum and are more vivid. It seemed to be that Gould’s illustrators’ employment of more subtle, less saturated palette enabled them to achieve finer detail. In this respect, the accompanying wildflowers and plants are as exquisitely rendered as the birds, and they could serve as a fine reference for botanists except for the point that, oddly, they are not identified. If they deserve such study and care in their depiction, one might think a comment would be made as to the possible necessity of the plant in the bird’s chosen habitat. For example, goldfinches flittering about teasel – do they extract tiny seeds from the pods?

Check this one out at the library. Oversize books are upstairs, main room, far west stack. Often, many are set up in display fashion. And, yes, any oversize book can be checked out and taken home. Just bring a big pack!


volunteer appreciation dinner and photo show

Purple-throated Mountain Gem in Costa Rica
Painted Bunting in TexasCabin fever anyone? This winter’s low temperatures and deep snow are keeping us from being outside as much as we like. Solution? Join us on Wednesday, March 4, at the Proctor Library as members and supporters show their favorite bird and nature photos. 

We are holding the program as a Volunteer Appreciation Dinner and is a good excuse to get out and enjoy the company other birders. It’s a potluck so bring a dish to share. The evening starts at 6 p.m. Utensils and beverages will be provided. The program is open to members and non-members alike. Bring a friend! Bring photos!

If you have photos to share, either send them to Marv Elliott at vtbirdhouses@yahoo.com or bring them along on a flash drive.

Contact Kathleen Guinness 287-9338 or kguinness@hotmail.com.

Cheerful thought: We are now less than a month away from Red-winged Blackbird arrival!


encounters with bugs and birds in mexico

Crimson-collared Tanager“Watching birds and eating bugs” – that’s how Mike Blust characterized the highlights of his September 2011 to November 2103 sojourn in Mexico as a Peace Corps volunteer. He spoke and showed photos of his experience at the Rutland Free Library on February 10, 2015 in an evening program sponsored by RCAS.

Watching birds has been a lifelong endeavor of Mike’s, a Ph.D. professor emeritus of biology at Green Mountain College, with special interests in ornithology and entomology and ongoing dragonfly research.

He and his wife, Evangelina, were based at Santiago de Anaya, Hidalgo, Mexico, a town of 2000 people at 7000 feet on the edge of a high plateau, 3-4 hours northeast of Mexico City. They lived in a small modest brick house. Although initially unfurnished, they readily found the basics and Evangelina put in a soon flourishing flower garden. It was not primitive living. They had a microwave and internet connection. But the house was not heated, and winter nights at 30-40 degrees F meant sleeping in their jackets.

Mike worked with the state agency of environmental and natural resources which was concerned that the local populace was overharvesting their endemic insects. The native Otomi Indians have always lived off the land, depending on it for food, including insects which are an important part of their diet. This is celebrated in the annual spring Otomi Indigenous Food Festival at which a football field sized white tent houses long tables at which contestants show off their prized insect-inspired recipes and delicacies. Visitors from a wide area flock to the event.

Four insects are commonly consumed. The pupa of the escamole ant is fried and mixed into dishes. Chinicuile worms, which live around the roots of the agave plant, are fried for snacks. The caterpillar of chicharas, which is found amidst the leaves of the agave, is also considered savory. Lastly, the mesquite bug, which feeds on the mesquite tree, Mike described as tasting rather sweet.

Violet-crowned HummingbirdAfter observing for the first few months, Mike concluded that the people knew a lot about harvesting and cooking, but didn’t have a knowledgeable grounding in the ecology and biology of their environment. His goal became the cultivation of a program for sustainable harvesting and management. As a part of this, he led the local farmers in planting a 2500 agave demonstration plot as a ‘no harvest zone” to try to increase the number of insects.

Evangelina latched onto similar goals, but focused on children’s education. She found the school system well-intentioned but sorely lacking in rigor. Pupils were encouraged to love the trees and animals, but had no familiarity with even common names much less species biology and interdependence. She developed illustrated information sheets on the trees, mammals, plants, birds, etc. with details on identification, life cycles, habitat and interrelationships. These were laminated and placed, with a bird bingo game, into “toolboxes for environmental and bio-cultural education,” sturdy green canvas tote bags which she designed and produced for distribution to numerous classrooms.

A secondary project of Mike’s was Saturday morning bird walks with high school students. They compiled a list of more than 100 common birds. Mike used photos of 72 of them to design an educational poster for schools.

“Time-off” was spent on intensive birding ventures. Highlights included seeing the Military Macaw in Oaxaca and participating in the Toh Birding Festival in the Yucatan. Overall, Mike saw 413 species.

The bird photos were enthralling, but Mike stressed their work with the people. The 21st century Peace Corps has matured from its origins. As experience and knowledge are gained, both in and outside of the program, its goals and projects have evolved in new directions and are often conceived and directed by the volunteers themselves as exemplified by Mike and Evangelina Blust in Mexico.