Saturday, December 9, 2017

Winter Storm: Snowy Owl

by Anna Autilio
Lead, Environmental Educator

VINS Ambassador "Snowy" - Allegra Boverman
Winter has barely begun, and it is already shaping up to be another Snowy Owl irruption year! These stunning, mysterious arctic visitors will find themselves looking farther than usual for a wide, expanse of hunting ground to pass the winter, delighting those of us who may get a chance to glimpse them before they return to the tundra.

But what is an irruption? The word means an abrupt increase in the natural population of an animal in one area (not to be confused with eruption, and abrupt increase in the amount of lava in an area).

Many animal populations go through cycles of high and low numbers, and the arctic ecosystem is no exception. The lemming, a medium-sized rodent that thrives in the tundra, is also known as the “pacemaker” of the arctic, because of how much their abundance affects other species. In years of high lemming abundance, Snowy Owls tend to lay larger clutches of eggs (the difference between 2 eggs per clutch, and 14), which leads to higher populations of Snowy Owls the following winter.

These owls can’t all inhabit the Arctic together, so some pack a few lemmings for a long journey south, wandering into southern Canada, east and west to Russia and Asia, and very occasionally, as far south as Florida.

A Snowy Owl nest stocked with 70+ lemmings - Christine Blais-Soucy
Scientists used to believe that these irruptions of lemmings and owls followed a fairly regular cycle, of every 5-8 years. Seeing as the last noticeable Snowy Owl irruption occurred in the winter of 2013-2014, this seems to hold up, but irruptions don’t occur at the same time everywhere in the country, and there may be no predictable pattern.

According to Project SNOWstorm, which tracks Snowy Owls in the US, most Snowys seen during an irruption year are healthy, efficient hunters; some of them are even fat. This is the general trend, but of course not all of them are so lucky. VINS’s Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation has already seen two Snowy Owl patients this year, both suffering from severe malnutrition.

Snowy Owls have been popping up all across the landscape of Vermont already, since the end of November: one at the Vermont Technical College in Randolph, another on a bridge in Colchester, a few at Chimney Point, Grand Isle, and even at the Burlington Airport. This individual probably should have chosen a better spot to hunt, and was luckily relocated by VT Fish andWildlife.

VINS Ambassador "LaGuardia" - Allegra Boverman
The last major irruption in 2013-2014 saw the arrival of one of VINS’s resident raptors, LaGuardia. This young male owl was found at the airport of the same name, and had broken both of his wings by getting to close to the exhaust from a jet engine. Snowy Owls seem to choose airports as foraging grounds, as they may resemble the treeless expanse of the arctic they are used to.

LaGuardia is now an ambassador for his species, and you can come meet him and his neighbor, Snowy, at VINS next weekend! Join us at VINS on Saturday, December 16th for Snowy Owl Appreciation Day, when you can enjoy owl-themed crafts, meet our flock of education owls, and warm up with hot cocoa and while watching a documentary about Snowy Owls!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Fab Four: Meet Our New Birds!

by Anna Autilio
Lead, Environmental Educator

This summer, VINS was fortunate to welcome a whopping four new birds to the education team. We are excited to introduce you to them, and look forward to your meeting them eye-to-eye as raptor ambassadors!

Miami, the Eastern Screech Owl

When next you come to VINS, keep your eyes peeled for our tiniest educator yet! Miami arrived this summer all the way from Florida, where his nest tree was cut down by a logger and he arrived at a rehabilitation center blind in one eye. He is a “gray morph” Eastern Screech Owl, the same species as our “red morph” Screeches on exhibit, Virginia and Kentucky, just a radically different color. All the same, Miami is a tiny treasure, already getting quite used to the gigantic humans that move about his space and blinking at them incredulously.

Ithaca, the Red-shouldered Hawk

The Red-shouldered Hawk is a species of Special Concern in New York state, meaning their population has been in decline but not so drastically as to warrant an Endangered status. But, as naturalist Rosalie Edge put it, “The time to protect a species is while it is still common”. Bred in captivity at the Cornell Raptor Program, some of Ithaca’s siblings were released into the wild to help bolster the New York population. She and one of her brothers were sent off to be education ambassadors, to help raise awareness of this fascinating and beautiful species. Ithaca is an energetic youngster, big even for a female hawk, and she loves sitting in the sun and watching chipmunks on the trail.

Hawaii, the Peregrine Falcon

Hawaii was part of another educational raptor program in northern California before joining our flock. In 2008, he was found at a power plant in Nanakuli, Hawaii, having collided with something leaving permanent damage to his beak. Unable to feed himself properly, Hawaii was fitted with an artificial beak, but eventually grew back enough of his own beak to tear at meat - though he’s still a messy eater! Hawaii may look a bit like a bulldog with his massive underbite, but he is eager for food, playful, and fond of a bath.
Westford, the American Kestrel

Back in September, Carol Winfield, a wildlife rehabilitator near Burlington, found a box on her front porch. Inside was an adult American Kestrel--with jesses on. These leather straps around a bird’s legs are put on to help train and restrain captive birds, so this little guy had obviously been in someone’s care. The trouble is, it is illegal to raise raptors in captivity without a special permit, and Westford is otherwise healthy, but has no chance of being returned to the wild. Because of his strong familiarity with people, he will make a great educator, and will be a wonderful help in teaching visitors of VINS the importance of letting wild birds be - to fly free.

Who are you most excited to meet and learn about?

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

VINS Volunteer Transporter Training

by Lauren Adams
Lead Wildlife Keeper

Love animals?  Live in Vermont or New Hampshire?  Have a car?  Have some flexibility in your schedule?  We need you!  Help VINS rescue and rehabilitate injured wild birds by being a volunteer transporter!

Every year, VINS rescues and rehabilitates around 500 wild birds from all over the state of Vermont.  All of these birds make it to us because someone sees them get hurt or finds them not looking quite right during the course of their normal day.  Usually, they call VINS and we determine the best way to get the bird help.  In most cases, the rescuer is able to box up the bird and transport it to VINS where we can evaluate and treat the injuries.  The best chance a bird has to recover and be healthy enough for release back into the wild is to get to VINS as soon as possible.  If a rescuer is unable to transport the bird they’ve found to us, that is where our transporters come in. 

We are continually touched by the willingness of people to go out of their way to help an animal in need in whatever capacity they are able.  From the volunteers who spend one day a week here helping us feed, clean and care for our animals, to the kind people who find a bird by the side of the road and drop everything to get it help, it warms my heart to know that there are people all over who care about animals as much as we do here at VINS. 

There are so many ways to support VINS and our mission, even if you live far away, have a busy schedule, or don’t know quite where to start.  If you are interested in being a transport volunteer, you are encouraged to attend our transporter training on Sunday, December 3, here at VINS. The training is not required, but provides a lot of helpful information and resources.  The more transport options that we have across the state, especially in remote areas, the better we are able to help Vermont’s wildlife.

Join us for the training if you can!

Sunday, December 3, 2017
1pm-3pm in the VINS Classroom
Vermont Institute of Natural Science
149 Natures Way, Quechee, VT 05059

Please contact Lauren Adams for any questions: or 802-359-5001 ext. 218

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Book Review: Happiness is a Rare Bird

Happiness is a Rare Bird by Gene Walz was published in 2016. Gene is a friend of VINS' executive director, Charlie Rattigan, and supports our mission to motivate people to care about the environment through education, research, and rehabilitation, and the appreciation of birds. 

Review by Katharine Britton

Successful birding requires stamina, perseverance, patience, and luck. Gene Walz possesses all these qualities, as well as the ability to write vastly entertaining essays. Happiness is a Rare Bird: Living the birding life is a compilation of his writings.

Readers will find entries on common birds (Black-capped Chickadees, Mallards, and Song Sparrows) rare birds (the Cock of the Rock, Antpittas) the author’s least favorite bird (the Common Grackle) and even one on jinx birds, the species that an avid birder spends his or her lifetime unsuccessfully pursuing. The Golden Oriole was one of Walz’s jinx birds. He once trekked for thirty minutes “through thick foliage, thorn bushes, and swampy grounds” in order to spot one. When he returned to his group of fellow birders to report his success, they informed him that they’d just seen six Golden Orioles from the comfort of the roadside rest area. Having a good sense of humor will help the successful birder as well.

Walz warns aspiring birders about the discomforts that await them: early-morning risings in the dark, seemingly endless drives, hours-long waits in cold, brisk winds or soaking rains. Birding “hot spots” are often in less-than-inspiring surroundings. “A sod farm near a bison compound,” was one such example. But Walz also shares the awe inspiring and sometimes unexpected sights that can reward a patient birder after enduring such hardships. He and a friend once watched eight falcons perform amazing aerial acrobatics for hours as they pursued a flock of Buff-breasted Sandpipers. Walz and his companion had only gone out to see the Sandpipers.

In his essays he passes along some lessons he’s learned. As a child he once found a Yellow Warbler nest in which a Brown-headed Cowbird (which doesn’t build its own nest but rather parasitizes other birds’ nests) had laid an egg. The warblers built another nest of top of their old one, eggs and all, and laid another clutch. The cowbird deposited an egg in that nest too, and in the next, and the next, until the warblers finally gave up. This was not the lesson Walz wanted to share, however. The lesson was that he believes he might have unwittingly alerted the cowbird as to the location of the warblers’ nest by visiting it so often, thereby condemning the warblers.

Birders of all levels will be entertained, informed, and inspired by Walz’s essays, as they find a new birding destination to explore, learn the name of a good bird book to read, or are simply reminded that birding expeditions give birders “a lot more than just fabulous, rare birds.”

Katharine Britton volunteers at VINS and is the author of three novels, HER SISTER'S SHADOW, LITTLE ISLAND, and VANISHING TIME. She lives in Norwich, VT.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

What's That Caterpillar?

By Anna Autilio
Lead, Environmental Educator

If you’ve been seeing as many caterpillars lately as we have, you’re probably curious about who they are and what they’re up to. Below you’ll find a peek into the life history of five common caterpillars seen around the VINS campus this September. How many of these have you spotted? 

Red-humped Oakworm Moth (Symmerista canicosta)

Red-humped Oakworm Moth by Kyle Jones.
You may have seen this striking, striped, orange-headed caterpillar making its way through the leaf litter underfoot. In late September, the larvae of the Red-humped Oakworm Moth drop to the ground after feeding for a few weeks on beech, chestnut, and oak leaves. Once on the ground, they find a rolled up leaf in which to form a cocoon, and overwinter in this pre-pupal stage. Next June, they will emerge as an inch-long, ashen gray moth that lives only for 2 weeks, long enough to deposit 50 creamy-white eggs on the underside of an oak leaf, and start the cycle again. Although Red-humped Oakworm Moths are native, they are known to defoliate entire sections of forest during peak population years.

Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella)

Isabella Tiger Moth by Erika Mitchell.
This objectively adorable caterpillar is so well-known that many eastern US towns hold “Woolly Bear” festivals each summer. In fact, quite a bit of mystique follows the Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar: they are believed to predict the severity of winter by the width of the brown stripe in the middle of their fuzzy body. This is not true, as the width of the band is only related to how old the caterpillar is. Despite being so fuzzy, these caterpillars are not venomous, and the hairs are not “urticating” or prickling, though they can cause a mild allergic reaction in some people. Picking them up is not recommended for this reason, and because when frightened, the caterpillars may “play possum” by rolling into a ball. The caterpillars are generalists, feeding on a variety of plants including plantains, dandelions, and nettles. After overwintering as caterpillars (they can survive being frozen solid), they emerge in the summer as a tiny yellow moth speckled with black dots.

Tussock Moths – Banded, Hickory, White-marked & Spotted (Family: Erebidae)

Hickory Tussock Moth by Susan Elliott
The bold and brazen tussock moths at VINS are seen confidently inching their way across parking lots, pathways, and trails. This may be because unlike the woolly caterpillar above, they are venomous (stinging), have urticating hairs, and are chemically protected—they are inedible because of alkaloids built up in their body from the plants they eat. They display this to would-be predators by being brightly colored, and sporting long, black tufts of setae called “hair pencils”. Tussock moths are late-season feeders on a wide variety of trees, including deciduous and coniferous species. Some, like the White-marked Tussock Moth, actually overwinter in the egg stage. When a female emerges from her cocoon, she sports reduced wings compared to the male, and does not leave the vicinity of her cocoon, laying the eggs right on top of it once she is fertilized.

Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail by Grae O'Toole.
The first known drawing of a butterfly in North America was of an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. They are conspicuous butterflies, as they are large and relatively long-lived, producing two or three broods of eggs between spring and fall each year. But perhaps even more alluring than the butterfly is the caterpillar. Green-brown and pudgy, this caterpillar sports two perfect eyespots on the back of its thorax after its third molt. These eyes, combined with a pair of orange osmeteria near its head that produce a foul smell, make the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar seem like a tiny snake. They even sway back and forth to complete the illusion, which is effective at deterring bird predators. Vermont is the northern edge of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail’s range although we routinely see Canadian Tiger Swallowtails here, and the caterpillars spend the summer munching away at cherry, magnolia, and tulip leaves.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus)

Monarch by Judy Welna
Finally, the state insect of Vermont—the Monarch! This gorgeous animal is well-known as one of the milkweed butterflies, because of its reliance on the normally toxic plant. Just like the tussock moths, these caterpillars (and the butterflies they become) are aposematic, or brightly colored as a warning to predators against toxicity. A female butterfly may lay 300 to 1200 eggs on a milkweed leaf, which hatch into black, yellow, and white-striped caterpillars than can grow to be several centimeters long. Famed for their long migration to Mexico, due to habitat loss and herbicide use, Monarchs have been experiencing a long-term downward population trend. Many conservation societies are studying this worrisome development, and are pushing for government protection for these important pollinators.

Have we missed any of your favorites? Send us photos of the caterpillars you have seen this fall!

Friday, September 15, 2017

How Do You Talk With Owls: Flustered

by aJbishop
CWBR Volunteer

I have the keys to their enclosures. The raptors. I open them, one at a time, and do service for owls and hawks and eagles and falcons. I rake and clean and water while they, wild talon shod birds, study my every move. As I work, I can’t help but ask: how do you talk to Owls?

#5 Flustered

by Allegra Boverman
We’re supposed to check the birds, make sure they seem okay. I’m not a specialist, but I can usually count to one or two or three birds. And all of them seem to have a favorite hang out. Snowy is always on the ground diametrically opposite from the door through which I enter. Louis, the Great Grey Owl, has a square post where he stares down on me, and a corner he flies to, making silent treks from one to the other when he’s a little disturbed. One of the Peregrines is always on the floor and will jump up to the rock to be fed, right next to the front where people can watch. A natural performer. And the screech owls are practically like live gargoyles as they occupy a fixed location in nap mode.

But one day, I can’t find the second screech.  I climb on the stool to be able to search into higher places, nooks and crannies, the little nesting box, craning my neck to get at different angles. The enclosure isn’t very big and I circle around without success, re-visiting the same places to look again.

As I search for it, I find it hard to believe that it is in the cage with me. It has entirely disappeared. Yes, I am panicked a little. Well, maybe not quite that serious: but I’m confounded and disturbed. I actually consider calling for help on the walkie-talkie I don’t know how to use.

Once, when all the birds were receiving their semi-annual check ups, I had the privilege of seeing one of the screech owls held in the palm of someone’s hand. When it’s perched on a limb, it’s the size of a kitten. Not exactly large, but it’s a substantially round puffy cutie. However, in hand, its feathers gathered, it shrinks to the size of a small rat or a bat. It is almost non-existent it is so small.

I know in the wild I could probably never see a screech, not even with a lot of determination, but I pride myself on having some observational skills. I once counted nine hawks in nine separate instances while driving all day along a boring highway. Which isn’t entirely interesting in itself except that a friend of mine, who that same day traveled the same stretch of highway, also counted nine hawks. I thought cool! My hunter gatherer skills are not entirely dead. Also, I take it as a good sign when I see a bird of prey in the wild  – like in Homer’s literature, the eagle descending is a thick omen. They – those seer guys who were professional interpreters –  used to be able to give pretty specific instructions about the meaning of the omen.  I know that nine has magical abilities:  have you ever noticed that every integer of every multiple of nine adds up to nine? That’s math magic.

by Allegra Boverman
So: what does it mean that there were nine hawks? I have no idea. I want to call on Homer’s dude, but there aren’t many of those prophet types around. I think:  Screech owl absence isn’t an omen; it’s an oversight. It’s an anomaly. It’s a test.

I decide I will not call for back-up. I can handle this. And reason convinces me that it has to be in the cage.  I stand in the middle of the enclosure for a few seconds to gather my thoughts. A friend of mine calls on St Christopher when she loses something and it often works. I don’t do that, but the effect of pausing calms me.

And then I start looking again, this time not for the owl, but for the places I haven’t looked. It’s not exactly as if it comes out of hiding, but I suddenly see where it could be. And when I look, there it is: in a place that I could not have imagined possible. Hiding and completely camouflaged in a crack between its favorite post and the enclosure frame, a slit that would barely allow my fingers to reach in. It is squished with its wings spread wide, like it is embracing the post. Its little head is hidden in the flurry of feathers. I wonder if it is trapped. I worry that maybe it has fallen down into a trap.

I say a few soft words to it and it turns to look at me. Just a little movement and I back away. When I check on it again, it’s back up on its post. Sound asleep. Unflustered.

aJbishop recently moved to New Hampshire from Montreal. She is a poet, business manager, mother and facilitator of sacred wilderness events. She also volunteers at VINS and occasionally posts vignettes about her experiences with the raptors. Her blog can be found at 

Friday, August 25, 2017

NestWatch 2017: Summer Update

by Anna Autilio
Lead Environmental Educator

NestWatch training at VINS (Nathan Thoele)
A young visitor noticed me sticking a long, bent pole up into the rafters of the Nature Nook last month. “What are you doing? What’s up there?”

“I don’t know yet—do you want to help me find out?” I asked.

Pointing her towards the mirror that was duct-taped to the bent part of the pole, we peered up together, where the mirror extended over the top of the rafter and quickly revealed a hidden treat—a nest!

This one belonged to an Eastern Phoebe, and I’d seen the adult several times returning to this spot with tiny caterpillars in its beak, which must have been breakfast for the growing young. The eggs had already hatched, and the fuzzy gray nestlings contained inside were packed closely together in a heap, and difficult to distinguish from one another.

After a few seconds, moving the mirror for a better angle, we decided there were three phoebe nestlings. I pulled the mirror down and helped our visitors record this observation—3 partly feathered young, no eggs, no adult nearby—on a clipboard. “Now you’re a citizen scientist!”

Western Screech Owl nestlings (Lee-Hong Chang)
Through the citizen science project NestWatch, run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, VINS has been monitoring its local nesting birds since 2013, in order to help scientists better understand breeding biology. Our staff and lucky visitors gather valuable data on the timing of laying and hatching, the number of eggs laid, and the behavior of the adult birds, among other things. The information is uploaded online, and though it is completely free for the scientists and participants, NestWatch has generated mountains of data and aided the publication of dozens of scientific papers. There is also a photo contest for participants every year, and who can resist browsing through photos of cute baby birds?

That phoebe nest was one of 2 at VINS this summer. In fact, 2017 was quite busy, the campus hosted 2 House Wren nests, 1 Red-eyed Vireo nest, 1 Black-capped Chickadee nest, 11 American Robin nests, and 5 Tree Swallow nests. Here is a bit of our data:

Summer 2017:

American Robin
House Wren
Eastern Phoebe
Tree Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-eyed Vireo
Nests Monitored
1st Egg Date
27 April
20 May
< 28 May
28 May
30 May
27 June
Total Eggs
> 3
Live Young/Nest
Nest Success**
** Nest Success is the percentage of young that successfully fledged out of all eggs laid.

Tree Swallow adult (Bren Lundborg)
Two of our American Robin pairs double-clutched, or raised two complete sets of young sequentially in the same nest. If food is available early enough in the spring, and consistently available through the summer, many birds try to squeeze in an extra breeding attempt. We even had one robin triple-clutch, but for a different reason than abundant food. This bird decided one of the lights by the Administration building would be a great place to nest, and as visitors moved past every day, just inches away, the robin kept abandoning her nest, and knocked her first two eggs onto the ground. This was followed by a second and third attempt before she decided to find a more suitable location.

VINS is Vermont’s only NestWatch chapter, and we encourage our visitors and members to participate in nest monitoring on their own. Would you like to get involved with citizen science projects at VINS or at home? Contact for more information!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

An Eagle Against the Odds

By Sheena Patel
Wildlife Rehabilitator

Here's a remarkable story about a Bald Eagle on its last breath who, against all odds, was able to be nursed back to health and rejoin the wild:

On February 20th, the Vermont Institute of Natural Sciences (VINS) Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation received a call about a Bald Eagle found lying face down in a slurry of ice on a snowmobile trail in Brattleboro, Vermont. The concerned caller had stumbled upon an eagle surrounded by piles of its last meal, which were regurgitated all around its face. Initially believing it to be deceased, the caller was awestruck after seeing the eagle take a small breathe. The local game wardens carefully brought the eagle to VINS' rehabilitation center, where it was put into the ICU and given an enclosure with a heating pad to try and warm it up. Throughout the day, the eagle continued to regurgitate food, indicating it may have ingested something poisonous or toxic. The treatment plan for the eagle was to administer IV fluids in an effort to flush out whatever harmful substances were in its body. 

Upon entering the exam room, the staff noticed that the eagle was banded with the United States Geological Society (USGS). After looking up the band information, the eagle was determined to be a female from Canada banded by biologist Dr. Guy Fitzgerald on November 21st, 2013, the year it was hatched. This remarkable information came as a great surprise to many of the staff in the rehab department, because often times it is impossible to tell the sex of an adult bird, let alone know the year it was born or where it originally came from. Upon ICU intake, she was too weak to stand and could only lie face down in her enclosure with her eyes closed. She continued to regurgitate her last meal while rehab staff looked on unable to aid her any further - all desperately hoping that she’d make it through the night. When the staff arrived the next morning, they immediately checked on her and discovered she was no longer lying face down on the ground, but standing up on her own power. Although she still lacked the strength to perch, her small triumph was a glimmer of hope for everyone that had seen her in her previous state. She continued receiving IV fluids and soon after began a liquid supplemental diet in addition to the fluids. 

Over the next few weeks she slowly gained the strength and energy to begin perching a few feet off of the ground in her ICU enclosure. She was also transitioned off of her liquid diet to one of solid food. This meant being force fed rat and fish as opposed to the liquid feeding tube she had previously received her nutrients from. The force feeding soon turned into hand feeding and she eventually was able to move out of the ICU and into an outdoor enclosure where she quickly began to eat on her own. After continuing to do well in her outdoor enclosure, she was finally moved to our largest enclosure, the flight cage, in which she had space to fly back and forth for longer flights and perch high up in the air. Once she completed flight physical therapy, which involved encouraging her to fly and bank around corners, she eventually regained the muscle strength she would need to be released back out into the wild. 

On May 10th, the eagle was released back into the wild in Windsor, VT where she took flight and eventually caught a great thermal pocket of air that gave her plenty of lift and she continued to ascend high into the sky. She was even greeted by a wild Bald Eagle that soon joined her and flew beside her!

Her rehab story is remarkable, not only because VINS doesn't often get calls about Bald Eagles needing medical attention, but also because she was banded which provided us with a wealth of information on her. When reaching out to bander, Dr. Guy Fitzgerald, to let him know about her story and her release, he explained that back in 2013 the eagle had been found in a slurry pit after having inhaled a lot of fumes. Concerned for her safety and well being, she had x-rays and an endoscopy exam which confirmed that she was indeed a female. After clearing her of any overall health issues or internal damage to her respiratory system she was returned back to the wild by a volunteer and over the years must have made her way down to Vermont. We can now proudly and successfully say that she is back out in the wild where she belongs - thanks to the help of all staff, supporters, and volunteers who made her recovery possible.

Monday, July 24, 2017

A Change of Feathers: The Molt

By Anna Autilio
Lead Environmental Educator

Feathers are one of the defining characteristics of birds. They produce the brilliant red of the Northern Cardinal, and the shocking blue of an Indigo Bunting. Though one purpose of feathers is to be flashy and attractive, especially to a potential mate, feathers have a host of other functions. From helping a bird keep warm, to protecting it from UV rays, to masking the sounds of flight, to the act of flying itself, feathers allow birds to survive in nearly every ecosystem on Earth. And yet, they are not permanent fixtures on a bird’s body.

Northfield, the Broad-winged Hawk, growing in some new tail feathers.
Contrast the 2 white-striped on the right with the duller brown on the left.
The process of losing and replacing feathers is called the molt, and it is a uniquely bird event. Though snakes shed their skin, dogs their fur, and insects their exoskeletons, a bird’s molt is timed, ordered, and an astounding physiological process.

The function of the molt is to replace last year’s feathers that have been damaged by wear and exposure, to ensure the thermoregulatory and aerodynamic properties remain reliable. In North America, most birds go through a molt of all of their flight and body feathers each summer, a process that can take weeks or months. Most wouldn’t want to drop all of their feathers at once, then spend a week grounded while regrowing them all! Instead, the pattern of molting in each species is unique, but ordered. Some, like the hawks, lose their innermost primary flight feather first, and proceed outward. Some start in the middle and proceed in both directions, like the falcons. Some owls molt synchronously, losing all the feathers on their tails in the space of a few days, but it does not appear to impede their mobility.

Molting body feathers: the reddish bars on Northfield's flanks are replacing
the brown, tear-drop splotches.
Our ambassador Broad-winged Hawk, Northfield, is an excellent molting educator, and this summer is helping visitors visualize the molt in action. As a second-year bird, Northfield came to VINS in June 2016, still with a coat of down. By late August he had grown in the full set of feathers that was his “juvenal plumage”, characterized by mottled brown on his back and wings, a brownish tail with multiple thin stripes, and most noticeable of all, heart-shaped brown splotches on his flanks and legs. This summer, Northfield is undergoing what ornithologists call the “prebasic molt” into his adult or “basic plumage”. His brown mottling is becoming darker and more reddish as new body feathers grow in. His tail feathers are being replaced by wide, starkly black-and-white stripes, and sadly, his "heart-pants" are giving way to russet horizontal bars on his chest.

Broad-winged Hawks are long-distance migratory birds, and so Northfield's wild counterparts often have trouble fitting the entire molt in before September, when they must soar down the Appalachians to Central America. As such, some Broad-wings suspend the molt mid-summer, and finish it on their wintering grounds. 

Molting birds can be hard for the casual observer to identify--a strange mix of two radically different birds in one—but understanding molting patterns can help scientists learn much about a particular bird’s age and lifestyle. Within each feather is the story of when and where it was grown.

What should you do if you find a molted feather? Enjoy looking at it, then leave it be. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Book Review: The Snake and the Salamander

by Sara Evangelos
VINS Docent
with Nicole Meyer, Environmental Educator

The Snake and the Salamander: Reptiles and Amphibians from Maine to Virginia
Alvin Breisch
Illustrations by Matt Patterson
Johns Hopkins University Press 2017
Let’s face it: Reptiles and amphibians aren’t at the top of most people’s favorite animals list. Often, says author Alvin Breisch, they’re “treated as second-class citizens.” But Breisch’s new book The Snake and the Salamander could go a long way toward changing that. With engaging, enlightening text, Breisch connects us to the world of “herps”—snakes, turtles, salamanders, lizards, and frogs.

The Snake and the Salamander is part art book, part natural history, part plea for conservation, and is written for readers of any age. Each animal’s page lists common and scientific names, size, and status as endangered or threatened. But if you’re looking for a field guide, this isn’t it. Instead of offering a structured, dry list of facts, Breisch creates a portrait of each animal, exploring aspects of behavior or biology that he considers important. Why is the eastern ratsnake such a good climber? Can a softshell turtle really run 15 miles an hour? Is the American bullfrog an invasive species? How did the eastern fence lizard move to Staten Island? Did you know that the northern leopard frog is the state amphibian of Vermont?

Breisch offers 83 portraits of reptile and amphibian species found in 13 states in the Northeast, from Maine to Virginia. Organized by habitat into nine sections, the book shows us herps in their environments, from Dry Pine Woodlands to Bogs to Wicked Big Puddles—the name for seasonal wetlands, like the vernal pool at VINS. Breisch explains how species have been affected by deforestation and recovery in New England. And he defines scientific concepts in relation to specific animals: How do salamanders and skinks differ? What’s a rattlesnake’s rattle made of? How exactly does a constrictor kill its prey?

Breisch draws on science, history, and popular culture, and offers snippets of his own encounters with herps. He adds plenty of information on biology, genetics, breeding, behavior, and diet. We learn terms like ovoviviparous, fossorial, allopatric, diploids and triploids. Through a portrait of the carpenter frog, we learn about the variety of frog calls and what they communicate. And we discover that the smooth greensnake isn’t even green at all, but a mix of yellow and blue pigments.

Each animal portrait offers insights ranging from the practical—Why is it so hard to tell exactly where those spring peeper calls are coming from?—to the scientific—What’s an obligate species?—to the entertaining—Why doesn’t Linus like queensnakes? We learn that the timber rattlesnake had such a toxic, terrifying reputation that it was chosen to adorn the “Don’t tread on me!” flag during the Revolutionary War. We also learn about the snake’s behavior, breeding, coloration, and history with Native Americans and European settlers.

Matt Patterson’s original color illustrations partner beautifully with the informative text. While photos in a field guide capture one individual—that you might expect to see in the wild, but probably won’t—Patterson’s illustrations are composites, based on many photographs. They show habitat, size, coloration, and reproduction: an eastern box turtle next to a strawberry plant; a red cornsnake swallowing a mouse; a group of adult and young broad-headed skinks; a northern dusky salamander with eggs; male and female painted turtles.

The Snake and the Salamander is full of engaging, fascinating facts presented in the context of habitat, science, and history. You won’t learn everything there is to know about these often misunderstood animals. And you won’t see maps of exactly where to find each species. But getting to know hellbenders and mudpuppies is a great start. And that’s one major benefit of this book: it inspires people to fall in love with reptiles and amphibians, to learn about how and where they live—and to protect them.

Environmentalists know that when people get excited about a single species—say, a Siberian tiger or California condor or blue whale—they want to save that animal’s habitat. During the past 30 years, as we’ve learned more about reptiles and amphibians, their reputation has improved. But there’s a long way to go. By making herps come alive, The Snake and the Salamander encourages us to protect these extraordinary animals.

About the Author and Illustrator
Alvin R. Breisch, a collaborator with the Roosevelt Wild Life Station, was amphibian and reptile specialist and director of the Amphibian and Reptile Atlas Project for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation until he retired in 2009. He coauthored The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State: Identification, Natural History, and Conservation. Matt Patterson illustrated Freshwater Fish of the Northeast, which won the 2010 National Outdoor Book Award in the category of Design and Artistic Merit.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Yearly Cycle: Vernal Pools

by Anna Autilio
Environmental Educator

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)
One of the most beautiful natural illustrations of the cycle of the year is found in the vernal pool. Often called “ephemeral”, these pools provide crucial, temporary homes for some distinct wild plant and animal species. Filling in the spring and drying in the summer, they track the changing temperatures and weather patterns without fail, year after year, for those who care to find them and peek inside!

The vernal pool at VINS went through a wet year in 2016-2017. Although it dried up in the summer, it filled again in the fall, and stayed filled through our warm yet snowy winter. A large snapping turtle even hibernated in the muddy bottom—she was seen catching some rays on an unusually warm December day.

Spring (May 2016)

Summer (July 2016)
Fall (October 2016)
Winter (December 2016)
Just this spring, the pool hosted some more diverse visitors, including another large snapping turtle to join the one who stayed the winter, a green frog (unusual at a vernal pool), several wood frogs, and even a pair of mallards and a barred owl, who were no doubt using the pool as a hunting spot.

At this time of year, the snapping turtle residents of our vernal pool have made their way uphill to lay eggs in specially dug burrows, sometimes quite far from the water. VINS has currently 6 different snapping turtle nests, which may contain each up to 50 eggs! These will hatch in September, and we will be on the look out for the tiny turtles making their way back downhill to the water.

Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina)

If you are interested in learning more about vernal pools, and even helping scientists track them down, the Vermont Vernal Pool Mapping Project is for you! Run by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies and Arrowwood Environmental, this project aims to map the locations of all vernal pools in the state of Vermont. Almost 5,000 pools have already been mapped, but citizen scientists are still needed to confirm the location of potential pools, and identify the animals and plants species living within. Follow the link below to learn more:

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!