Category Archives: Citizen Science

CBC highs & lows

If you ever want to feel really good about your skills as a birder, I highly recommend spending a day working a suburban Christmas Bird Count (CBC) route with two non-birders. That’s what I did last Saturday and I had a blast with two neat ladies who volunteered after reading about the Christmas Bird Count in the local newspaper.

Prior to last week I had only participated in one CBC. A couple of weeks ago I looked at the map of CBC circles and was surprised to see that our house is within the circle of the Wekiva River CBC, and so is Gemini Springs. Score! Or so I thought. I contacted the compiler and hoped hard for assignment at my local patch. Instead, I was asked to help in area 14, a segment that had two volunteers lined up but could use a third pair of eyes, hopefully with some birding experience. So that’s where I went.

Area 14, mostly in the cities of Lake Mary and Longwood, is almost completely developed with suburban homes and shopping centers. It is an area with which I was (and still am) basically not familiar, but that didn’t matter. My partners in crime, Laurie and Anne, were driver and navigator and came equipped with intimate knowledge of the area. I came with my scope and my modest birding skills. We hit retention ponds, city parks, and store parking lots, looking for birds at every stop. It’s kind of neat how pointing up in the sky at a bunch of tiny dots and shouting out “30 Cedar Waxwings flying overhead!” seems a bit like magic to non-birders. I found specks across ponds in my scope and ID’d them, sharing the view with Laurie and Anne. Laurie kept tally. They both got us access to several ponds that were completely surrounded by homes — by visiting their friends or by boldly making new ones, on the spot. We stepped into a lot of backyards during our day.

At one of our first stops we came across more Black-bellied Whistling Ducks than I had ever seen in one place before. Our final count there was 87 birds. They were flying around, making their adorable chirping calls, sparring, foraging, and loafing around. I am pretty sure they were lifers for Laurie and Anne. We stayed here for while, because new birds kept coming into view every time I scanned the water. Wood Ducks multiplied before our eyes. My first of fall American White Pelican flew over. A Belted Kingfisher rattled. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers buzzed in the trees around us.

At each small body of water we tallied a few birds and then moved on. We stopped briefly at Big Tree Park, where last year many tears were shed over the death-by-arson of The Senator. How can you not cry over the destruction of a living thing that has stood on our planet for at least 3,400 years? It was awful to see the remains. We picked up a heard-only American Kestrel here, and not much else.

We ended up with around 52 species (I don’t have the final tally) for our part. In the evening we met at compiler Jay’s house for dinner and an informal tally of species for the circle.

Now, if you ever want to feel crappy about your skills as a birder, all you have to do is receive an eBird county needs alert for your local patch. Containing several birds that you’ve never observed at said patch. Ugh.

The group that covered Gemini Springs for the CBC found 60+ species, including Virginia Rail, King Rail, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Eastern Meadowlark. I know others have seen EAME at Gemini Springs. In fact, every time I visit a certain area of the park I think to myself, there should be meadowlarks here. But I’ve never seen one or heard one, and I’ve certainly been listening. Ugh. The rails aren’t a huge surprise to me but I’ve never heard them either. But the Grasshopper Sparrow… All I can say is &#%!@?!

Fortunately, as we all know, birders are AWESOME people as a general rule. So when I sheepishly emailed the eBird offender in a hopefully not-too-stalker-like-fashion (since we don’t actually know each other), he kindly gave me detailed intel on the location of all desired species. The search is on. And I’m looking forward to the Daytona Beach CBC on December 28th. Hopefully I’ll get to stay in Volusia County this time. 😀

Laurie, Amy, Anne
Laurie, me and Anne after a day of CBCing

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Give beach-nesting birds a chance

The Dutch branch of BirdLife International, Vogelbescherming, came up with this great animated clip that shows the stresses and dangers beach-nesting species face. The original Dutch animation was recently translated into English:

Not everyone understands the gravity of the many stresses facing birds who nest on the beach. Share this video – spreading knowledge will help our feathered friends.

If you leave near beach habitat, you may be able to help even more. There are bird stewards monitoring nests at Ft. De Soto Park in Florida, volunteers are monitoring Piping Plover nests in Michigan and Connecticut, and monitors check habitat for both sea turtle and shorebird nesting on Anna Maria Island, Florida. Search online for “nest monitoring” or “bird stewards” in your area and you may find there are volunteer projects you can join to can help birds that nest locally.

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Highlights from our first CBC

On Saturday Arthur and I participated in our first Christmas Bird Count. We counted in the southwest sector of the West Volusia County circle with six other birders. The weather was perfect for being outdoors, but a string of pleasant weather days kept many birds generally quiet.

We started out at the home of our sector’s leader, where the count cars were outfitted with official signage. Here’s our minivan ready for the day. We counted some feeder birds before heading out.

Birdmobile

We listened for birds from the car, driving slowly on some low-traffic roads. At an early stop we spotted an adult Osprey bringing major branches and other material to a dilapidated-looking nest.

Osprey nest

Along Cummer Road, a popular birding-by-car spot here in Volusia County, we found 130 Sandhill Cranes.

Sandhill Cranes

We also counted 15 Wild Turkeys here, plus a Red-shouldered Hawk, several hunting American Kestrels, our first Eastern Bluebird of the day, and our only Eastern Meadowlarks. Our leader knew about a Bald Eagle nest in the area, and we were able to see one adult already on the nest. While scoping other birds, we heard a Bald Eagle vocalizing. Shortly the the other adult appeared, soaring over the nest.

Bald Eagle nest

While we really enjoyed the entire day, one of the best parts was finding out about local birding hotspots that were previously unknown to us. We stopped at many private marinas where special access for the count was granted, but other public spots were visited as well.

Marina

One cute discovery was the Hummingbird Garden at the Hontoon Landing Resort & Marina. While we didn’t have any hummingbirds on count day, we learned that hummingbirds frequent the feeders especially during spring migration, so this is a spot we’ll have to hit again in the new year.

Hummingbird Garden

At the north end of Lake Beresford, we found a large flock of White Ibis feeding. At this little hotspot we also found our only Blue-gray Gnatcatchers of the day, another Eastern Bluebird, and the only Orange-crowned Warbler of the CBC circle.

Flock of Ibis

Another roadside stop, at a hunter’s access point to Lake Woodruff NWR, we searched for Brown-headed Nuthatches but came up empty. We did pick up our only Eastern Towhees of the day, our only Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, plus a few additional birds.

Lake Woodruff NWR hunter's access

It was a great day out with some new friends. In all we counted 1243 individual birds of 56 species. The initial tally at the CBC dinner came up with 108 species for the circle. Not a record, but not a bad number, either. And a very good count day for these two newbies.

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Posted in Citizen Science, Florida, Volusia Birding | 1 Comment

Nest failure and success

For a second year I have been watching an American Robin nest in our front yard. I expected the chicks to hatch this year between May 8th and 14th. Following the discovery of three eggs (down from the original four) in the nest on May 8th, I checked again on May 11th, when I found two freshly-hatched chicks.

Just hatched robins
American Robin chicks shortly after hatching

I was amazed when I looked back over last year’s observations from this same nest and saw that the babies hatched on the same exact date in 2010!

On May 16th I observed both adult robins make frequent visits to the nest. At one point I saw one of the adults feeding a chick and then consume a fecal sac (“aww…. eww!”). Later in the day I made a quick check inside the nest.

5-day-old robin chicks
5-day-old American Robin chicks

I was away all day on the 17th so I didn’t note any observations. On the 18th I noticed a lack of activity at the nest. The nest is partially visible from our living room, and even if I wasn’t actively looking at the nest, I could normally notice adults going to and fro in my peripheral vision. I decided to have a quick peek inside the nest.

Empty robin nest
Empty robin nest

Oh, how sad! I didn’t see any evidence of the chicks or their eggs on the ground around the nest. The nest didn’t look terribly disturbed so I’m not sure what happened to the chicks, but I suspect predation, possibly by neighborhood crows. American Robins in our area typically have two broods, but they don’t usually reuse a nest twice in the same season. I wish the best for the robins that lost their babies in our front yard, but I know that robins in general are doing quite well in our neighborhood. I was heartened to watch two adult robins attending to a chick in our back yard a couple of days after finding the empty nest.

Life is tough for wild birds, but they do bounce back from what we would consider a terrible family tragedy. If you’ve got nesting birds on your property, don’t forget that you can contribute your observations to science using Cornell’s NestWatch.

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Robin nest redux

We have nesting American Robins in our front arborvitae again this spring. Last year the nest was constructed from scratch; two babies fledged. Here’s a picture from last year which shows the location of the nest.

Placement of American Robin nest

This year, I first noticed activity in the nest on April 20th, when the female robin was making frequent visits to the nest. She was bringing in soft grasses and mud to reline the existing nest, which was in good shape. I looked inside the nest on April 22nd; it was empty. We were away from April 23rd to May 1st, so the next time I could check the nest was on May 2nd, when I found four eggs.

American Robin nest with eggs

According to the Birds of North America Online, American Robins lay one egg per day. The incubation period from the date of the last egg being laid varies from 12 to 14 days. The fourth egg could have been laid any time between April 26th and May 1st. Therefore the window I’d expect the eggs to hatch would be from May 8th to May 14th.

Yesterday, I didn’t notice any increased activity at the nest site. The female was seen on the eggs more often than not, but in the early afternoon when I had a peek from our living room I saw the female was away. I took her break time as a quick chance to peek inside the nest. I was very surprised at what I found.

American Robin nest with eggs

I am very curious about what happened to the fourth egg. There is no trace of it underneath the nest or in the branches below the nest. American Robins are known to have the ability to recognize a Brown-headed Cowbird (a brood parasite species) egg when it is laid in their nest. The robin will puncture the intruding egg and remove it. I wonder if the nest was used by a cowbird and one of the robin eggs was accidentally lost when the cowbird egg was removed? It’s also possible an egg was predated by a crow. I guess I’ll never know. So now, like last year, we are waiting for three eggs to hatch.

Again this year I’m entering the nest data in the online citizen scientist database at Cornell’s Nestwatch. If you’ve got nesting birds on your property, consider observing the activity and entering your findings in the Nestwatch database. It’s free, fun, and educational, and it helps ornithologists (and the birds) too!

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These birds have flown

Late last month we first noticed an American Robin nest-building in our front shrubs. I had my first peek inside the nest on May 3rd. Two chicks hatched on May 11th. I took a final look inside on May 17th to find two six-day-old chicks.

Even though I didn’t look inside the nest again, the site was visible from inside our house, so I still kept an eye on the babies.

On May 21st the babies were getting too big for the nest, and at times it was hard to see the second baby behind the one closest to our window, especially if they weren’t moving.

Baby American Robin

On May 24th the babies started stretching their wings a lot and standing up on the side of the nest. Based on the lifecycle of the American Robin, I expected the baby robins to fledge on May 25th – and that’s exactly when they did!

Early in the morning one of the babies ventured onto a branch about a two feet from the nest, higher up in the tree. There it sat for several hours, eventually dozing on its perch.

Baby American Robin sleeping in tree

The other baby sat up in the nest.

Baby American Robin hours from fledging

Meanwhile, Pa Robin rested on a utility box in our front yard, facing the nest tree.

Pa Robin watches the nest

In the afternoon I saw the baby was not on its branch any more. There appeared to be one baby in the nest, but I wasn’t sure.

At about 7:30pm I noticed Pa Robin looking for worms in our back yard, and then I spied a baby robin sitting close to some evergreen trees in our neighbor’s back yard. Pa Robin brought the baby a worm and then then both hopped together in the neighbor’s back yard. I looked at the nest tree again and now found the second fledgling on a branch about two feet from the nest. Then I closed the curtain for the night.

This morning there was no sign of any baby in the nest tree. But I saw Ma Robin hanging around the front yard, so I guessed one of the babies might still be nearby. Then I noticed Ma Robin pull a worm from our front lawn and hop into a nearby, heavily leafed tree. She emerged a moment later, without worm.

Good luck, robin fledglings!

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Quick robin nest update

I had a quick peek inside the American Robin nest late this afternoon. The last time I looked, on May 11, I saw two freshly hatched chicks and one unhatched egg. This is what I saw when I checked today.

American Robin babies

From what I can tell, there are just two babies. They have grown so much! When I went out to check, Ma Robin was off the nest, but soon after I climbed up my ladder, I could hear a robin telling me off. I had seen a pair of adults foraging in our back yard, and I guessed this might by the parents of our nest. I’m not sure who was chipping at me, though. After taking a few photos and one short video, I headed back inside. Soon Ma Robin was back, settling on her babies and resting just a bit taller in the nest than before.

American Robin on nest

Yes, that’s not a great picture. Having a nest right by the front window is a good excuse out of window washing, don’t you think? 😉

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Teeny tiny baby American Robins!!!

I’ve been keeping an eye on the American Robin nest in our front yard. Earlier this week it was pretty windy, but she held tight.

Since we’re going away for a few days, I wanted to check inside the nest once more before we leave. I had planned to check today, but the forecast of relative cold (mid 40s°F) and rain didn’t seem ideal. Still, when I looked at the nest about a half hour ago, I saw Ma Robin wasn’t on, so I quickly grabbed the ladder and my camera and had a quick peek inside the nest.

It looks like two chicks are just hatched, while one egg remains intact (I had estimated hatching would be between May 9 and May 12). Ma Robin started to chip at me after a half minute so I got out of there fast (you can hear her at the end of the video).

American Robin nestlings

By the time I got back inside the house, she was back on the nest. American Robin chicks fledge at approximately 13 days so we should be able to watch them a bit more in the nest.

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Robin nest!

I was so excited to see an American Robin busy building her nest in our front shrub last month. When I was growing up, my parents always had birdhouses on our property — but I’ve never had the chance to see inside an active nest before!

I could see her flying in and out of the tree several times during the day, and I wondered about her placement choice. There’s not a lot of traffic at our front door (we often go via the garage), true. But I wondered about the bright porch light we leave on all night, which shines right into the shrub, pretty much at nest level. Early last week I taped a covering over one side of the fixture, so we still have the security of the light — but it shines much less brightly towards the nest.

I first saw her sitting more or less constantly on the nest sometime in the middle of last week. Since then we have noticed that she doesn’t fly off if we use the front door. We can see her from inside the living room, if we crouch down to peek through the foliage.

American Robin on nest
See her? She’s right in the middle. (Click to embiggen)

With my camera’s zoom I can get a little better view.

American Robin on nest
oh hai! (Click to embiggen)

Last week I registered the nest site with Cornell’s NestWatch, a citizen-driven nest-monitoring project. The site has instructions and tips for observing active nests, and participants are required to become certified (by completing an online quiz) before joining the project. There are also datasheets for the focal species, which includes the American Robin.

Yesterday afternoon I briefly checked the nest. The robin was still incubating when I came outside, and I could see her (once I crouched down).

American Robin on nest
The underside of Ms. Robin’s tail. (Click to embiggen)

Soon after I started talking and fussing with my ladder, she flushed off. Four eggs are usual, but American Robins will lay 3-5. I reached over with my camera to take this photo inside the nest.

Eggs
Eggs! (Click to embiggen)

The robin was back incubating within about 15 minutes. American Robins incubate for 12-14 days; I estimate the eggs were laid April 27-28 so there should be nestlings some time between May 9 and May 12.

I continued to follow the nest during the following weeks. For further reading: Teeny tiny baby American Robins!!! | Quick robin nest update | These birds have flown

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Hawk Watch starts tomorrow @ IBSP

Tomorrow the 10th season of hawk watching will begin at Illinois Beach State Park. Last Saturday I attended a very informative Hawk Watching Seminar at Volo Bog State Natural Area. During the first part of the seminar, IBSP Hawk Watch founder Vic Berardi shared a great presentation on identifying hawks in flight. I took several pages of notes but clearly the best way to improve hawk ID skills will be to sit with the team, watching, which I hope to do some time before the Hawk Watch finishes at the end of November.

In the afternoon Vic shared some (more) of his wonderful photography and gave us attendees lots of great tips on taking pictures of raptors in flight. Vic has a new blog, The Raptorphile, as well as a super photography tips website along with his son at Photo Naturalist. You should check them out!

Later, other founding members of the IBSP team, Janice Sweet and Paul Sweet, shared data and analysis of the data the team has gathered over the last 9 years, like season records and trends in age data and period of migration for the different species. For instance, most of the Bald Eagles observed at the IBSP Hawk Watch are juveniles. Adult birds tend to congregate around the Mississippi River, but the local juvies don’t know that yet.

Do you volunteer at a hawk watch in your area, or have you ever visited one?

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