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!

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!