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Monday
Mar202017

patagonia picnic table effect

What do picnic tables have to do with birds? The Patagonia Picnic Table Effect is an expression that longtime birders know as the phenomenon of one ‘good’ bird attracting more birds. What it really means is the ‘good,’ or rare bird, will attract more birders who will in turn find more birds. It has its roots with a sighting of a black-capped gnatcatcher at a rest area in Patagonia, Arizona. It was an unusual sighting even for that very birdy area. Subsequent visitors to the rest area found more and more species as word of the gnatcatcher spread.

Rutland County recently had its own version of the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect. In the second week of March an alert observer noticed a swan in a flooded area off Route 73 in Brandon. Mute swans occur occasionally in Vermont, but they are not a native species and are often unwanted because of the habitat destruction they can cause. Tundra swans pass through the state on migration, infrequently, but not unexpectedly.

This swan was a bit different and expert birders, aided by today’s digital photography, determined that the Brandon swan was a trumpeter swan. Trumpeter swans are the largest of our North American swans and the shape of its beak is different, longer and straighter than a tundra swan’s beak. Further, if accepted by the Vermont Bird Records Committee, this will be only the second state record of trumpeter swan in Vermont, the other seen in Addison County on Lake Champlain in May 2014.

Kent McFarland of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies noted that reintroduction efforts in Ontario and the Great Lakes may mean that more trumpeter swans could be seen in Vermont in the future if reintroduction efforts ares successful.

As of March 20, 37 other species have been observed at the site of the trumpeter swan in Brandon. Many are the expected species such as nuthatches, woodpeckers and chickadees. Others reflect the changing season and consist of returning waterfowl, including wood duck, northern pintail, green-winged teal, bufflehead and both hooded and common merganser. Not to mention a good number of mallards, American black ducks and Canada geese!

Robins, a northern harrier and an American kestrel were seen. Red-winged blackbirds and common grackles were reported in high numbers. Most unusual was a golden eagle spotted at the site on the 9th and again on the 12th.

Just as impressive though, and maybe more important, is the fact that 65 eBird checklists were submitted, checklists that contain not only the swan, but the other species noted at the time.

Trumpeter swans may be expanding their range. We hope they do. We would love to see more of them. But if the occurrence of a rare species means more reports of the species we expect in Vermont so much the better.

Note: the swan was still present as of March 20. 

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