Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Summer Solstice: June 21st!

by Anna Autilio
Environmental Educator

Happy Summer Solstice!

Earlier today, the sun was at its highest point in our sky--the highest it will be for the rest of the year. Today, June 21st, is the longest day of the year, at just about 15 hours and 33 minutes. Perfectly timed to make the most of the beautiful weather!

The Salk Institute, during a spring equinox--different from a solstice!
by Joe Belcovson
What is a solstice? The words solstice itself comes form the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). Many cultures, from Native American groups to the ancient Egyptians, have holidays or rituals surrounding the summer solstice. In some places it is celebrated as the beginning of summer, others as the midpoint or "midsummer". There is even some architecture that takes advantage of the sun's position during the solstice, creating views that can only be seen once per year.

Solstices occur on any planet orbiting a star, when one of its poles is most inclined towards that star. Since the Earth's axis is tilted with respect to the sun about 23.4 degrees, during the summer solstice, the northern hemisphere is dipped more dramatically towards the sun's rays than at any other point in the year. On this day, if you are standing on the Tropic of Cancer (a latitudinal line at roughly 23 degrees North, going through Mexico, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and India) the sun will traverse the sky directly overhead. By comparison, an equinox occurs when day and night are of exactly equal length: in the fall and the spring.

Image result for summer solstice

A common misconception is that the Earth is closest to the sun during summer--not true! It is in fact farthest away at this point. Though summer is hot and winter is cold, these temperatures have everything to do with the amount and angle of daylight experienced by different parts of the Earth each season, and nothing to do with distance to the Sun.

However, it's not the summer solstice everywhere on the planet. Today is the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere, and places like Chile, Australia, and South Africa are experiencing the shortest day of the year, as the Earth tilts them away from the sun by 23.4 degrees. Ushuaia, a city in far southern Argentina, will experience just 7 hours of sunlight today.

What are you planning to do with your extra moments of daylight today? Let us know!

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Red-tailed Hawk with Bald Eagle Parents

by Anna Autilio
Environmental Educator

Amidst the news stories this week is the curious tale of a nestling Red-tailed Hawk in British Columbia, Canada. Why is this little bird, of the most common hawk species in North America, the subject of headlines across Canada and the United States?

Nestling Red-tailed Hawk (front, left) with Bald Eaglets. NPR.

A young Red-tailed Hawk has been spotted among three eaglets in a nest at the Shoal Harbor Migratory Bird Sanctuary, and is being fed and cared for by the Bald Eagle parents. How did a baby Red-tail, unable to fly, get into a Bald Eagle’s nest? There are a few possibilities, but a likely scenario involves the Bald Eagle’s opportunistic, predatory tendencies. Imagine a nest of hungry, growing eaglets that need to be fed. Nearby is the nest of another bird, whose young are fluffy, defenseless, and look tasty to boot. Now imagine the adult eagle carries one of these back to the nest to feed its own young.

Ordinarily, that would be where this story ends, but in this instance, it seems the baby Red-tail survived, and even started begging for food in its new home. The Bald Eagle parents saw an additional mouth to feed…and start supplying it.

Why can the eagles not recognize the Red-tail doesn’t belong? It may be because they are wired not to. Killing prey near or inside the nest carries a serious risk that the eagles will cause harm to their own young. The balance between the risk of harming your own and providing a bit of extra food to an intruder often lands in the favor of the interloper. 

Brown-headed Cowbird egg (speckled) with Eastern Bluebird eggs.
This is often how parasitic nesters get away with what they do—dumping eggs in other birds’ nests, and leaving the host parents to care for the hatchling. A bluebird could try its best to identify the cowbird egg in its clutch, but the risk of making a mistake and kicking out one of its own eggs is greater than the risk of caring for the growing cowbird—at least, in the short term.

The unwillingness of raptors to kill prey near their own nests has other side effects as well. Occasionally, smaller songbirds will nest very close to or within the same structure as a raptor’s nest. This seems extraordinarily risky—shouldn’t the Goshawk parents eat the sparrow hopping around near their babies? Well, not if they don’t want to accidentally talon those babies in the ensuing fight. In exchange, smaller birds nesting near raptors gain protection from other types of predators that the raptor will fend off. 

A European Starling (far left) inches from a Red-tailed Hawk nest.

What is the risk of imprinting for the Red-tail? Probably high. When any young animal is growing up, they gain knowledge from their parents. For some, the parents themselves are a crucial component—they let the young know what species they are. Usually, everything goes smoothly: mallard ducklings are raised by adult Mallards, and later learn to seek out other Mallards. But occasionally, a mismatch occurs. The duckling is raised by a human, and decides it is a human. Imprinting is irreversible, and it is cause for a rehab patient to be deemed non-releasable. We cannot know what is going through the mind of this young Red-tail as it looks up at its Bald Eagle parents, but it may be making important decisions that will affect its success later in life.

Is there a risk the Bald Eagles will suddenly turn on the Red-tail, and treat it as the meal it was meant to be? Of course, but given the facts above, it seems unlikely. At least, unlikely until the Red-tail fledges, physically leaving the nest under its own power.

We’re hoping the best for the little guy and his adoptive family. Please share your questions and thoughts below!  

Monday, June 5, 2017

Project FeederWatch: Winter 2016-2017 at VINS

by Anna Autilio
Environmental Educator

The beginning of spring marked the last days of this season of Project FeederWatch, a citizen science project run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, aimed at documenting the abundance and distribution of wintering birds in North America. This year, VINS officially participated in this important project, which will be celebrating its 30th season next year.

Each Saturday and Sunday, starting in November, we invited guests at the Nature Center to watch birds with us; many who'd never held binoculars before or tried this strange "bird-watching" thing. We heard and shared many stories of feathered visitors to backyards across New England, and even got some young minds thinking about birds and science, and how anyone can be a scientist if they enjoy wondering about the world. 

This year, about 80 FeederWatchers monitored birds within the state of Vermont. VINS was one of only 8% of these to report a Brown Creeper in March, and one of only 3% of sites to report Cedar Waxwings at all. Though we only saw a pair of Northern Cardinals once, cardinals were consistently reported at 50-60% of other FeederWatch sites in Vermont this winter, and are typically seen at 85% of count sites in the Northeast region. 

Below is a list of the 19 species we documented at our feeders, located in front of the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation. And they are...

Largest Group Size
First Date Observed
American Goldfinches
Mourning Doves
American Tree Sparrows
Cedar Waxwings
Black-capped Chickadees
American Crows
Blue Jays
Dark-eyed Juncos
Tufted Titmice
White-breasted Nuthatches
Downy Woodpeckers
Northern Cardinals
Pine Siskins
Red-breasted Nuthatches
American Robin
Brown Creeper
Cooper's Hawk
Hairy Woodpecker
Red-winged Blackbird

If you have a couple of birdfeeders in your backyard already, or are thinking about putting some up next fall, you might want to become a FeederWatcher too! Participation costs $18 ($15 for Lab of Ornithology members) and comes with posters, datasheets, and a helpful manual to get you started on your own backyard science project! Sign up now at

Our partnership with the Tractor Supply Co. in Lebanon, NH helped make our FeederWatch season possible. Many thanks to Tractor Supply for donating approximately 300 lbs of bird seed to fill our feeders! We are looking forward to contributing to this project for many years to come.

Monday, May 29, 2017

How to Rehabilitate – Lesson 1

by Peter Gau
Wildlife Keeper

Ever wonder how we get the birds we rehabilitate back to flight ready status? Well the answer might surprise you, maybe you have even experienced it yourself. We put them through physical therapy! That’s right, we work their muscles for them! Now you are probably wondering how you work a bird’s muscles. We can’t ask them to extend their wing or to stretch their leg out. In order to get them back to flying condition we have to be innovative and crafty.

Picture a bird that got hit by a car. They come in to our rehab facility with a fractured right humerus. Radiographs show that the break is clean and the ends are perfectly lined up. We put the bird in a wing wrap and start them on an anti-inflammatory/pain medicine. After their wing has healed and they are done with medications, we start them on their first part of physical therapy. That includes grabbing the bird, and stretching the post-injured wing several times a day. The point of this is to create some flexibility in the wing as it starts to heal and, hopefully, prevent tough scar tissue from growing. After this is done we then move them outside to a flight enclosure.

Now, I want you to remember that this bird has been in a small enclosure for about 2-3 weeks to limit their wing movement in order to promote correct bone healing. They haven’t been able to exercise their pectoral or breast muscles (flight muscles), which account for 15-25% of their body weight, and are the main muscles that control their flight. During that 2-3 week process they go through a small amount of muscle atrophy, which is to be expected. Imagine that you laid in bed for 2-3 weeks, without getting up once, your legs would lose some amount of muscle and wouldn’t be as strong as they were. That is where physical therapy comes in handy.

When we place them outside we need to build on their flight muscles again. When a bird is left alone outside by itself, they will more than likely just sit in one spot and not move. That obviously won’t build any muscle. It is our job to go in the enclosure with them and convince them to fly. Whether that is just walking close to them, or standing behind them and clapping. We use the bird’s healthy fear of humans to encourage them to exercise and re-build their flight muscles. We keep track of flights completed and make sure that number steadily goes up. Once they complete a pre-determined number (species dependent) of completed flights and don’t show they are tired, they are ready to once again be part of the wildlife you see every day!


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Part 2: Re-nesting Great Horned Owls in Rutland, VT

By Nathan Thoele
Environmental Educator

Two days after finding the colony of nests, the second Great Horned Owlet, and at least one parent, our team (Peter, Grae, and myself) returned to the nest site at the College of St. Joseph. With a ridiculously long and heavy ladder, a laundry basket, some paracord, scale, some nets, and the little owlet who’d been brought to VINS, we were ready to build and seek a new home.

After caching all of this, the first thing we did was search for the wild owlet. Amazingly, after 36 hours, it was still perched atop the ten-foot-tall snag. Only now, where he was standing at attention two days ago, he was lying on his belly like a duck. Nonetheless, he looked healthy and alert. The second thing we did was search for an appropriate tree to make a nest in. Just ten yards away, standing next to a stone wall, we found it: a wolf tree, or an old, huge, split-trunked pine with gnarly, but hefty branches. Just 20 feet off the ground, two of these branches radiated out from the trunk, side by side: perfect for cradling our new nest.

While Peter and I wrestled the ladder into place on top of the stone wall, Grae filled the laundry basket with leaves and a carefully woven network of sticks—much more work than any Great-horned Owl would put into its own nest. During this construction process, Dick and Ann, the two who found the owlet, showed up with a few friends and family members, ready to share the enthusiasm and even some of the labor. They were delighted to hear how we found the second owlet and took some photos of our work.

With basket-turned-nest in tow, Peter and I climbed the ladder and began lashing it into place. It is surprisingly difficult to stand in the crotch of a split-trunked pine and securely wrap paracord around a couple of branches to secure a laundry basket, but that is exactly what we did. Much to our relief, the gnarly branches of the pine held solid and we could comfortably maneuver everywhere we needed to. Our final task before calling it good was to drill holes into the bottom of the nest for drainage.

Now it was Grae’s turn to climb the ladder: this time up the snag to catch the wild owlet who had been watching the whole thing unfold. Up until now, the owlet had been watching with interest and without concern. When Grae ascended with a net in hand, though, he took to his feet and started beak clacking and hissing, two behaviors that we interpret as “stay away or I’ll attack!” For good reason, he was afraid of us. To the owlet, we were just a bunch of predators ready to pluck him out of his roosting spot and eat him. That, however, was far from our intention! By the advice of a professional raptor re-nester, our goal was to examine the owlet’s health, as we did with its sibling, and to re-nest them together.

Without even using the net, Grae managed to safely grab the owlet and ferry him down the ladder, all the while being gentle with his newly growing feathers and covering his big yellow eyes to keep him calm. Now it was time for the exams.

The only flat surface happened to be a stone alter-like table in front of the statue of St. Joseph. Thus, we carried both owls, some protective gloves, and a scale up to it and proceeded to examine the owlets. After checking their bodies for any signs of injury or malnourishment, we weighed the owlets and found them to be healthy, and very nearly full-grown.

With Dick’s help (it turns out he used to be a roofer!) we easily finagled the ladder back into place atop the stone wall and against the big pine tree. Peter climbed up to the nest, and we ferried the owlets up to him so he could place them gently into their new home.

At first, when both owls were back together, they looked at each other with shock and spread their wings defensively, not sure where the other had come from or what its intentions were. Then they quickly realized the bigger threat was the giant two-legged, ladder-climbing creature just feet away. Confident that they were not going to attack each other, Peter descended the ladder.


The next morning, Peter, Grae, and Anna went back to weigh them after their first night in the new nest only to discover that they had already left it! Both owlets now sat inaccessible at the far end of one of the anchoring branches. Probably, their parents had come back during the night with a tasty meal, alighted on the branch, and the young, already confident from recent adventures, scurried up and out after her, then found themselves in this spot until morning.

Our intention had been to weigh the birds twice to ensure that their parents had fed them overnight. Without this second weight, it was hard to be sure what had happened. However, since it would have been dangerous to try to get to them, the team went back to searching for signs. Sure enough, another few owl pellets turned up, as well as some discarded prey—the foot of a large songbird, most likely a crow, among those remains. This was a very good sign, showing the owlets had indeed eaten since we put them in this new spot.

After taking some pictures, videos, and time to admire these wild creatures, everyone headed back home. Over the next few days, Dick and his family drove out to check on the owls, and to make sure they were both safe. They were rewarded by seeing both young and the adult at various times this last week. With confidence, we hope that these two young owls will grow into capable hunters and beautiful birds of prey, and will be a vital part of this ecosystem for many years to come.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Part 1: Re-nesting Great Horned Owls in Rutland, VT

By Anna Autilio
Environmental Educator

Spring means many things in Vermont, and for the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation (CWBR) at VINS, it means the beginning of baby bird season. As early as the second week of April, some local species already have new families well underway.

Dick and Ann showed up at CWBR on April 14th with a cardboard box containing the bird they’d found while hiking in Rutland, VT. Bringing the container in to the exam room, Grae didn’t have to open the box all the way to know it contained a very young bird: puffs of down coated the football-sized lump, out of which peeked two wide, yellow eyes. So it was that CWBR received their first baby bird of the 2017 season: a fledgling Great Horned Owl.

Being a fledgling means the owl was already making short explorations out of the nest to feel new perches under its growing feet. Many baby birds make such excursions even weeks before they can fly. This can be dangerous if the bird strays too far from its nest, or into an area containing cats, dogs, and cars. But for most wild animals, this is a time for the young to learn about the world while still being cared for by their protective and watchful parents.

A quick examination determined the baby owl was uninjured, and therefore should be reunited with its parents. Dick and Ann were concerned about this—after all, they had found the bird in the middle of a walking trail on a college campus. Wouldn’t it be dangerous to put the bird back in the same spot? Grae explained that a reunion would be much more involved than simply returning the bird. It would be a re-nesting: finding the old nest or creating a safe, artificial nest to place the bird in where it would be out of reach of predators. It seemed unlikely there would be no nest near where the baby was found. If he had fallen, he could not have traveled far. We determined to go see the place ourselves.

In Rutland, Dick and Ann led us to the place where their dog found the owlet. It was just off a trail, in a patch of large, old pines overlooking a garden at the College of St. Joseph. One look skyward revealed the nest; a collection of thin twigs, molded around larger sticks, bark, and dirt. It was conspicuous, about 60 feet up in one of these pines, but the occupants were not. We stared for a while, passing around binoculars, when Nathan spotted another nest.

We switched to examining this one, wrapped around the trunk of another pine. Birds do build back-up nests, in case one is started in a less-than-ideal spot, and another area opens up later. Great Horned Owls, though, do not build their own nets, rather taking over the stick nest constructed by Red-tailed Hawks or Common Ravens. Because the owls nest so early in the year, it is possible for them to select the best of last year’s construction before the builders themselves return from their wintering grounds. One of these had to have been used by the Great Horned Owls—they were the right size and material, and the owlet had to have come from somewhere not too far away.

But... “Guys there’s another one.” Grae pointed to a 3rd nest.

“That’s…not the same one I was looking at,” I replied, pointing out a 4th.

In all, there were 6 or 7 large stick nests in as many of the pines growing in this stand. Many birds species do nest in colonies (think of penguins, or Purple Martins), and the density of nest sites is often related to how much food is available for all. Hawks and owls, however, rarely tolerate another nest within a certain distance of their own, no matter how much food there is to be found.

What we had found was not a huge colony of owls, but likely a group of American Crow nests. Crows are early nesters by songbird standards, but way behind owls. Whereas crows can be incubating eggs in early April, these Great Horned Owls had to have laid their eggs in mid-February at the latest, assuming the young one in our care was about a month old. The crows had been thinking of spring yet when these owls decided to nest.

The task was now to find which of the crow nests had been occupied by owls this spring, and that involved looking for signs. Nathan took off looking for casts, or owl “pellets”, under each nest tree. Because owls cannot digest the fur and bones in the prey they consume, their stomach compacts all of it into a neat pellet, which they then cough or “cast” up once or twice a day.

I noticed that one of the nest trees had whitewash, or projectile raptor poop, streaking down its trunk. Nathan scrambled over to this tree, and called back over his shoulder. “It is this one!”

Two owl pellets sat on the ground—one round and intact, with clean white bones poking out of dusty gray fur. The other had melted in the rain and fallen apart against a twig, but revealed the same kind of prey remains. There was no doubt that a Great Horned Owl had been here recently. And there was no doubt as to what had happened to evict the owlet—the nest was also “melting”, its twigs and branches spilled over the sides of the branch it sat on, with no neat cup to keep the young one contained.

The question remained, where is the adult?

The next step was to find a comfortable spot and sit silently in the woods, watching and listening for the adult owls. Having been trampling the dead leaves and calling back and forth to one another, it was unlikely we were going to just look up and see a wild owl. So we doubled back a bit, and were getting settled when Grae said, “Wait. Is—is that?—it is! An owlet?”

Right in front of us, staring back in our direction, was another fluffy, baby Great Horned Owl perched about 10 feet up on a tall snag. His body was facing away but his long, flexible owl neck was curved toward us, and his tiny ear tufts stood tall.

After taking a few moments to contain our surprise and excitement, we settled into quietly watching and listening into the darkening forest around us. The wild owlet never moved, but after a while did decide it was okay to ignore us. The Spring Peepers took up a few waves of calling, and the Northern Flickers hammered and squeaked at us from the trees. When half an hour of patient silence had gone with no sightings of an adult owl, Nathan gave a few Great Horned Owl calls into the woods, and Grae found a recording of a begging juvenile on her phone. When neither of these produced the adult after another 20 quiet minutes, we decided to leave and form a plan.

But before we could go, Grae froze, staring off into the woods. “There’s an owl… looking… right… at me…”

The rest of us turned to follow her gaze, and caught only a glimpse of the silhouette of an adult Great Horned Owl flying away into the forest. It made no sound as it went.

This is exactly what we had come to see—evidence that the young owls were still being watched over by their parents, even outside of their dilapidated nest. We had only now to construct a safe place to reintroduce our little fledgling to its sibling, and let the adult care for them both once again.

Check back in a few days for the conclusion of this re-nesting adventure!

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Great Egret

By Lauren Adams
Lead Wildlife Keeper

Around the rehab center at VINS, winter brings few surprises. Lots of Barred Owls, maybe a few Red-tailed or a Cooper’s Hawks, a scattering of Mourning and Rock Doves, the odd winter songbird. Those are the usuals. So you can imagine our surprise when a very lovely, but very sad Great Egret came through the doors a few weeks ago in mid-December.

If you’ve never seen this type of bird, that is because they are extremely uncommon in Vermont. Individuals are spotted on rare occasions during the warmer months along rivers, lakes and other wetlands, and they may pass through on a migration route from breeding grounds in the central US to the coast, but they do not typically breed in Vermont or most of inland New England. They also prefer to spend the winters in places much warmer than here, migrating to Mexico, Central and South America. Certainly, just spotting a Great Egret in the middle of Vermont in the middle of December is the first indication that something is not right.

I am so pleased to share this bird’s story because of its uniqueness, but also because it is a wonderful illustration of the kindness of people. I sometimes say, “It takes a village to help a bird,” and this case exemplifies that concept.

On typical winter day, cold in the air, snow on the ground, December 17, 2016, some folks in Hardwick, VT came upon some unexpected wildlife. Noticing a large white bird, huddled on the ground, trying to hide in some snow and under a car, they recognized the oddness of the situation and chose to help. They did the right thing by contacting their local Fish and Wildlife Game Warden, and not attempting a rescue themselves. These birds, when healthy, can be very dangerous. We got the call at our rehab center that morning from the officer that he had the bird and was on his way.

The egret came into us weak, dehydrated, starving and cold, symptoms I would expect of a bird that should be sunning in Florida right now, but somehow got stuck and grounded during migration. Any longer in the wild, this bird surely would have gotten frostbite, feather damage, and likely starved or frozen to death. But it was his lucky day.

We started him on our typical ‘critical care’ program, or as I like to say it, the TLC treatment plan. He was put on heavy duty fluid therapy, heat support and nutritional support, anti-parasitic and pain medications, and vitamin supplementation. We had to balance the right amount of treatment to gently build up his strength with handling as little as possible due to the high-stress personality of these birds. After a few days, his attitude perked up quite a bit, and he began standing and perching on a branch, a great sign.

As the days went by, the improving condition of the bird was encouraging, but also had me worrying about the next step. What are we going to do with this bird, once it is healthy? We can’t release him here in the dead of winter, and unfortunately, we don’t have the space or proper set-up to keep him until springtime brings more hospitable weather. Am I going to need to fly this bird down to Florida?

With those thoughts in mind, we continued our rehab. By the new year, the bird wasn’t quite ready to go yet, but was getting close. The main challenge we had to overcome was getting him to self-feed. Up until this time, we had been force feeding him twice every day. I bought so much frozen smelt at the local grocery store that at one point I felt compelled to qualify my purchase to the quizzical look on the cashier’s face, saying “They’re not for me, they’re for a bird.” Although the bird’s strength was greatly improved, and we were able to discontinue all other treatment, he showed no interest in the delicious smelt we left for him each day and each night.

Finally, I went to the pet store to by the live ‘feeder fish’ that folks use to feed their larger fish and reptiles. I bought a dozen little fish called Comets, and left him a handful of those with his smelt that afternoon. He hadn’t eaten by the time I left work at the end of the day, and I skipped his afternoon force-feed to make him good and hungry. It was with measured hope that I came in and did my morning peek into his enclosure to see if he’d eaten, and I nearly cried with happiness. He ate! Everything was gone, all five live fish and the ten or so smelt that had been left. We immediately discontinued the force-feeds and kept his dish replenished with fish throughout the remaining days in rehab. From that day on, he continued to eat consistently, and we were able to completely ease off of treatment, only handling him at his weekly weight-checks.

That obstacle out of the way, the question of release or transport that had been in the back of my mind raced to the front. It’s odd to think about packing a bird into an airplane to fly it down south. Thankfully, we were able to avoid that. After several phone calls and emails, I was able to secure our bird a spot at a rehab center dedicated to the care of herons, egrets and bitterns only, a place where they had proper aviaries, freezers full of fish, and the resources and know-how to keep this guy over the winter until he could be released. And it was only 7 ½ hours away.

You’ll find in the field of wildlife rehabilitation no shortage of kindness and generosity. People regularly go to great lengths, far out of their way, with no expectation of receiving anything in return, to help out an animal in need. One of our amazing volunteers here at VINS didn’t even hesitate before she offered to make the trip. From the people who first found this egret, to the game warden that drove him almost two hours, to the rehabber to offered to take him on for the winter, this guy had a lot of folks in his corner. I was, and am, so touched by the compassion shown by these people, and that I am lucky enough to see every day.

The egret was good and strong, having gained over 200 grams, about a fifth of his total body weight, in care, when we boxed him up for transport on Wednesday, January 11th. After a total of 26 days in our rehab center, this bird had a lot of people rooting for him. I am thrilled to report that the trip was a success, and he is now in good hands. We expect his release and return to the wild, strong and healthy, sometime this spring.

Thank you to everyone who cared about this bird. I know I won’t ever forget this one.