Tuesday, December 18, 2018

In Memory of Louis, the Great Gray Owl

by Lauren Adams
Lead Wildlife Keeper
Louis, 1992-2018. Photo by Grae O'Toole.
Saturday, December 8th marked the end of an era at VINS. We lost a very special member of the VINS family, Louis, our Great Gray Owl. Louis was a favorite of visitors to VINS for many years. He lived a long life, and passed away peacefully, due, most likely, to old age.  

Louis had a long career as an education ‘animal ambassador’, first in Minnesota at the University of Minnesota Raptor Center, where he spent seven years, and then here in Vermont, where lived since July of 2000. At 27 years old (at least) Louis was among the oldest known captive Great Gray Owls, and nearly doubled the lifespan of the oldest known wild individuals.

For people who have met Louis at VINS, he surely left a lasting impression. He had his right eye surgically removed at the Raptor Center in Minnesota in 1992, due to permanent damage from an unknown trauma when he was a wild bird. This gave him a permanent wink, the left eye large, round, and bright yellow, staring intensely at you. Due to his impaired vision and some lasting neurological damage, Louis was considered non-releasable, but otherwise healthy enough to make the shift to living permanently in captivity.  His wings were uninjured, and therefore he was fully flighted. VINS guests and volunteers lucky enough to have seen him fly around his exhibit enclosure were awed and delighted by his massive wingspan and intricate feathers. Mostly, though, we would see him perched in his favorite spot, the top branch of his tree, almost motionless, his calm and stoic attitude only adding to his impressive stature.

Owls are always popular with VINS visitors, partially because of the mystery that surrounds them. Being nocturnal birds of prey, people come across owls in the wild much less frequently than other types of birds. They have amazing adaptations that allow them to hunt in complete darkness and to thrive in the harshest of conditions. The stunning combination of power, grace, and secrecy all contribute to the intrigue of owls. A close encounter with an owl is an extraordinary, memorable, and even haunting experience. The elusive and majestic great grey owl is possibly the greatest example of these qualities.

Losing one of our permanent residents at VINS is always hard for the staff and volunteers, especially when they have been with VINS longer than most of us have. But, it also reminds us how fortunate we were to have known this creature as intimately as we did. Louis’s legacy is immeasurable, and the wonder he inspired in children and adults alike will live on long after him. We are deeply grateful for Louis’s contribution to our mission and our community. He will be missed, but never forgotten. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

What is a Flat Fly? Curiosity and Research at the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation

By Anna Morris
Lead Environmental Educator

A flat fly (Christian Hugues)
The birds that arrive for care at VINS’s Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation have had a rough time out in the wild. Not only may they be injured from car accidents, window strikes, or cat bites, but they often have acquired parasites. Some of the parasites are internal, in the blood or intestines, but some live on the skin, under feathers, sucking blood from their host and staying hidden from predators.

One such curious hitchhiker on wild birds is known as the “flat fly”. Insects of the family Hippoboscidae parasitize birds and mammals, and shuffle sideways across their hosts, ducking under feathers to hide, but not much is known about them. Our rehabilitators find them an annoyance, but will always grab a plastic tube after one is spotted, and dunk the fly in alcohol, labeling the tube and storing it for later. We save them for Alan Graham, the former Vermont state entomologist, who aims to find out more about these little-known invertebrates.

Alan Graham (Seven Days VT)
In addition to his role as state entomologist, Graham has worked for the Stroud Water Research Center and for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture studying tick- and mosquito-borne diseases. He has many years of experience looking closely at parasitic insects and their populations, and VINS provides specimens for his continuing study.

But why the flat fly? I asked Graham what drew him to these little insects. “Curiosity,” was his answer. “Few people know what they are,” or even where they are. Vermont is an under-collected region for flat flies, and Graham argues that even with the good job our state does in protecting land, we should also know about what we’re protecting. Ever since he first collected a flat fly from a pigeon in graduate school, Graham has sought to answer fundamental questions about their life history.

Feather lice parasitizing a flat fly. (Alan Graham)
So what is known? Though some flat flies live on deer and other mammals, a great diversity live on birds. Flat flies that secure a good host will then snip off their own wings, which prevents them from flying again. They can travel long distances under the feathers of a bird’s wing, and survive the freezing temperatures of a New England winter next to their warm skin. A flat fly female lays only one egg, and it hatches mature, skipping through the larval stage common to many other flies. (Several veterinarians in the area also collect botfly larvae for Graham to document).    

But what is their phenology like--when do they mate? What time of year are they most abundant? Do they cause significant harm to their hosts, or like many parasites, are generally benign? Can they transmit diseases between hosts (Fascinatingly, there are none that Graham knows of—flat flies seem incapable of transmitting West Nile Virus, for example). Fueled by pure curiosity Graham has already collected many observations that will help him pursue the answers to these questions. VINS is glad to provide this help!

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Do's and Don'ts of Wildlife Photography

by Anna Morris
Lead Environmental Educator

photo by John Jones
In 2018, we mark the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the most powerful and important bird-protection law ever passed. In honor of this milestone, nature lovers around the world are joining forces to celebrate 2018 as the “Year of the Bird.” November's call to action is to "share your shot", go out and capture a piece of the wonder of birds through the lens of your camera. Share your vision to inspire passion for nature in others around the world...

You may have heard the phrase, upon entering a wild ecosystem, "take only photos, leave only footprints." In the age of camera phones, this has become a simple way to share your experiences with other people. One of the easiest ways to share your passion for nature with others who haven't experienced it with you is to share your photos of the wild flora and fauna you encounter.

But even if trying to think through things like lighting, shutter speed, composition, and depth of field make you uneasy, there are some basic tips to help you take better pictures of wildlife. What follows are a few easy rules to help you photograph wildlife, and leave the landscape as beautiful and wild as you found it:
photo by John Sutton

1. Let the scene be natural. Don't try to set up a specific situation, or bate animals to a spot by providing food. This endangers humans by letting sometimes dangerous wildlife get too accustomed to people, and endangers the wildlife in turn.

2. Don't get too close, and don't chase. This is especially important near nests, where your presence near new bird parents could cause them to abandon the nest. You wouldn't chase your human subjects during a family photo-shoot, would you? Choose one spot to stay in, and let the wildlife come to you, if they choose. Remind you fellow-photographers of this rule often.

photo by Samantha Driscoll
3. Sharpen your observation skills. Going into the field with an understanding of animal behavior or just a willingness to learn will really help you get those amazing shots. What time of day does that groundhog come out? How long does it take that Red-tailed Hawk to take flight after it ruffles its feathers? The more you look at their world, the better at showing it to others you will become.

4. Be patient. Sometimes the best photos will come only after the animal has gotten used to your presence in their environment, has decided to ignore you and go about their natural behaviors. That can take time! Plan an afternoon outing of photography, and you won't be disappointed.

5. Don't be afraid to get dirty! Some wildlife may think you are less threatening if you are low to the ground. Plus, you can get interesting, different perspectives and angles lying on your back or your stomach with your camera. Try it out!

Join us and World Story Exchange at the VINS Nature Center on Saturday, November 24th to pick up and practice your new photography skills, then share your photos with National Geographic in their "Your Shot" Gallery: https://yourshot.nationalgeographic.com/.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Stellar Monarch Tagging Season at VINS

By Jim Armbruster
Seasonal Environmental Educator    

As the leaves begin to change color, the days grow shorter, and the temperatures get colder, monarchs are still on the move south.  During a short break from the rain, on a nice sunny day, we at VINS tagged our last seven butterflies bringing our season total to 74 individuals. We may continue to see monarchs here throughout the end of October as they carry on their migration, but most will reach their wintering grounds by November.

Our tagging season started with our first butterfly on August 28th and ended with our last on October 9th. September 26th was a big day with 15 individuals tagged. All of our tagging data has been submitted to Monarch Watch, and while we endure another cold New England winter, we will wait to see if any of our butterflies write us from their tropical vacation in Mexico. (If one of our tagged butterflies is recovered while on their wintering grounds, we will be notified by Monarch Watch.)

 According to Monarch Watch, this year’s numbers seem promising for a successful migration. Several roosts of butterflies have been observed on their path to Mexico with some roosts estimated to contain 1000 or more monarchs. During the migration of 2017/2018 there were 124 million monarchs estimated on the wintering grounds taking up 2.48 hectares of forests (24,800 square meters). But monarchs are not all doing well. Although these numbers seem huge, this is actually down 14.8% from last season. 20 years ago, monarchs covered 18 hectares and were estimated at 1 billion individuals. This year’s prediction is for monarchs to cover 5 hectares, with 6 hectares being considered the target for monarch recovery.

Since this is our first season tagging butterflies at our Quechee Nature Center, it is hard to say how populations are faring here, but our initial numbers seem to show that our meadow is an important habitat for this species. Because of this we hope to expand our monitoring program in the coming years. This will include monitoring how well milkweed, a preferred plant for monarch eggs and caterpillars, is doing in our meadow. (This fall we have already spread milkweed seeds throughout the meadow in hopes to encourage more growth next spring.) It will also include monitoring butterflies for parasites throughout the summer, and of course tagging monarchs next fall.

There is still a lot that scientists don’t know about monarch migration. It is unclear what factors may lead to a big year of migration and what specific habitats are crucial to this species. Luckily, many of the citizen science projects that we at VINS participate in can be done in your own backyard. This means that we can all take part in helping to better understand and protect the magnificent winged creatures that are the Monarch butterflies.

Monarchs are still emerging, even in the October chill.

To follow the monarch migration check out the maps at Journey North.

To see where monarchs are roosting check out this map.

To get involved with citizen science projects check out these organizations:
Monarch Watch
Project Monarch Health

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Migrating Monarchs Tagged at VINS

by Jim Armbruster
Environmental Educator

A male Monarch butterfly on our datasheet.
Have you ever watched a monarch butterfly struggling to fly on a breezy day and thought to yourself, "I wonder how they get where they want to go?" It might surprise you to know that in fact these butterflies can control their flights and can travel up to 3,000 miles.

That’s right, the butterfly you see dancing on the wind in your yard might someday migrate south and purposefully end up in Mexico. But it depends on when and where they hatched. Eastern monarch butterflies that emerge from their chrysalis in early summer live for two to five weeks. Their main goal in that time is to reproduce and create the next generation. Butterflies that emerge in late summer and early fall live eight or nine months and have another important task. They will need to complete a difficult journey south to reach their overwintering grounds in places like Mexico.  How monarchs make this incredible journey and how successive generations can navigate to the same locations each year is still not known to scientists. 

Tagging the monarch is a delicate process.
This year at VINS we are taking part in the magnificent monarch migration. During the end of August and the first weeks of September we are participating in a citizen science project to catch and tag monarch butterflies before they leave on their winter vacation. The hope is that butterflies tagged on our campus will be recovered at the end of their trip in Mexico. 

Each butterfly gets a sticker with a unique identification number, placed on its wing so as not to impact flight. If the butterfly is recovered at any point on its migration the number can be reported to the study. This information can then be used by scientists to figure out how monarchs can accomplish this amazing feat. Tracking butterflies is vitally important to learn about migration patterns and to determine what sites along the route are critical for the survival of the species.

The tag will stay with the monarch through its migration.

In this first year of tagging we have already placed stickers on 25 monarchs with the hope of adding more before the season ends. We are looking to certify our meadow habitat as a Monarch Way-station, designating it as critical habitat for monarchs. We hope to expand the project in coming years to include more help from the public and more butterflies tagged. 

So if you happen to see VINS educators leaping around our meadow with nets, know that we are not just having fun chasing butterflies during work hours, but are helping to protect the incredible species that is the monarch butterfly. And yes it is also very fun to chase butterflies. 

For more info on how you can help the monarchs contact Jim Armbruster at jarmbruster@vinsweb.org or check out monarchwatch.org.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Help Birds on Their Migratory Journey

by Anna Autilio
Lead, Environmental Educator

In 2018, we mark the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the most powerful and important bird-protection law ever passed. In honor of this milestone, nature lovers around the world are joining forces to celebrate 2018 as the “Year of the Bird.” September’s call to action is to help birds along on their migratory journey, discovering small ways changing our habits can make a big difference for birds…

Each year around this time, our Broad-winged Hawk ambassador, Northfield, gets fidgety. Soon the other birds begin to catch it—Bridport the Rough-legged Hawk, too, seemingly develops ants in her famous rough-legged “pants”. They are experiencing a feeling that English doesn’t have a word for, but German ornithologists termed zugunruhe, or “migratory restlessness”.

Migration is a phenomenon that was long poorly understood. Migration is defined as the seasonal, directed movements of organisms back and forth between where they raise their young, and where they spend the winter. Many species of animals migrate, and the reasons they undertake these arduous, sometimes multiple 1,000-mile journeys are varied. Seeking warmer temperatures, more plentiful food, reduced disease exposure and competition, migratory birds rely on multiple habitats spread across a wide geographic range in order to survive to breed every year.

A new field within conservation biology studies “migratory connectivity” looking at the demands of a single migratory species for these diverse habitats, and aims to bring communities and countries together under the common cause of protecting land for birds. As an example, although birds of prey are protected by law in the United States, they are often not in the countries they inhabit in the winter months, in Central and South America.

How can we here in Vermont help birds on their journey? Here are a few easy actions we can all take to ensure the safety of these creatures while they pass through our woods:

1.       Opt for shade-grown coffee and chocolate. This action supports the cultivation of habitats that are safe for birds in Central and South America, and encourages others to adopt sustainable farming practices.
2.       Avoid using chemicals outdoors. Pesticides and rodenticides are leading killers of many migratory birds, an accidental side effect of our efforts. Try snap-traps instead, or biodegradable solutions.
3.       Turn off the lights at night. Some migrating birds navigate using starlight, and can become disoriented and thrown off course by artificial lights.
4.       Keep cats indoors. Domestic cats kill over 3 billion birds per year. It is safer for birds, and safer for cats, to be kept indoors where they don’t run the risk of catching disease, or becoming injured.
5.       Prevent window collisions. The second leading cause of bird deaths year-round is collisions with windows or buildings. You can make windows easier to see and avoid by sticking up UV-reflective decals (available at the VINS Nature Store!) or hanging soft screens over the glass.
6.       Plant native grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees. In this way you will be providing food and shelter for migratory birds that stop by your yard.
7.       Keep bird feeders and bird baths clean. Don’t simply refill them—take them in for a good scrub whenever they get empty. This will prevent the spread of diseases between bird populations that cycle through your yard.

Let us know what actions you are taking to help birds this fall!

Friday, August 17, 2018

NestWatch 2018 Report

by Anna Autilio
Lead, Environmental Educator

Nestling Eastern Bluebirds
Another season of nesting birds at the VINS Nature Center is behind us, and the world is full of young fledglings learning to make their way in the wide open world. It was quite a busy summer here, between the rush of baby birds needing care at the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation, and the wild birds being raised by their wild parents right next door in our meadow nest boxes (and under the eaves of our buildings!)

Eastern Bluebird eggs
Through the citizen science project NestWatch, run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the staff at VINS spent a little time each week checking on some 30 nest sites, observing the hard-to-reach ones with a bent mirror on the end of a broomstick. We collected data on the number of eggs, the ages of the hatchlings, and the behavior of the parents and reported this information to the NestWatch website. There, Cornell scientists pool our data with others from thousands of other NestWatch volunteers all across the country to learn more about breeding bird distribution and abundance.

American Robin eggs

Here's a brief summary of the 2018 Season at VINS:

Number of nesting attempts monitored: 19
Number of species nesting at VINS: 6
Number of eggs laid, total: 72
Number of young hatched, total: 58
Number of young fledged, total: 48
Number of fledglings per nesting attempt, average: 2.5

Nestling Eastern Bluebird
The six species nesting here were the expected resident Tree Swallows, American Robins, and Eastern Phoebes, but we also had a family of Black-capped Chickadees take up residence in a nest box, a Red-eyed Vireo build a tiny, delicate nest in an oak tree behind the Bald Eagle exhibit, and an Eastern Bluebird family, the first in several years, fledge 5 young out of one of our nest boxes in two separate nesting attempts, a phenomenon called “double-clutching”.

Our Eastern Bluebird nest was actually one of only 10 monitored in Vermont this year, and our Black-capped Chickadees were one of 5 monitored. Do you know of a nest near you? Join the effort! You can participate in NestWatch too! It’s free and help contribute to real science. Check out nestwatch.org and create your free account. You’ll learn how to safely monitor nests in your yard, and hopefully join other NestWatchers all across the country next year!

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Discover Your Parks and Public Lands this August with VINS

by Anna Autilio
Lead, Environmental Educator

In 2018, we mark the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the most powerful and important bird-protection law ever passed. In honor of this milestone, nature lovers around the world are joining forces to celebrate 2018 as the “Year of the Bird.” August’s call to action is to discover your parks and public lands, and help protect these havens for both birds and people…

Many Vermonters are familiar with our state park system, but did you know that the VINS Nature Center connects directly to Quechee State Park? From our Welcome Center you can walk down through a beautiful forested landscape back through geologic history to the bottom of the Vermont’s deepest gorge—our “little Grand Canyon”!
The Quechee Gorge formed 13,000 years ago by a sudden rush of water draining from Glacial Lake Hitchcock, which at the time covered nearly half the state. It is 165 feet deep and cradles the flow of the Ottauquechee River. It is known to be the deepest gorge in Vermont, and many geologists marvel at the rare rock formations visible in the slanting, striated walls of the gorge.

When humans came to Quechee, a bridge was built over the gorge for trains to pass from east to west. The bridge, built in 1911 and adapted for use by motorcars in 1933, still stands over the gorge today represents Vermont’s oldest surviving steel arch bridge.

Quechee State Park was established in 1965 to encourage visitors to travel to see this natural, geologic marvel. It is one of 55 state parks in Vermont, whose recreational trails offer a great opportunity for both families new to exploring their local natural ecosystems and rugged outdoors-people looking for a real hike. From 1933 to 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps worked to making Vermont state parks more accessible to the public, including planting 1.2 billion tree seedlings over 1.2 million acres of state land. Vermont’s State Parks saw over 1 million visitors in 2015.

Exploring your public lands is a great idea for this summer. Get closer to the unique flora and fauna of your region in these places that belong to all of us equally. Plan a picnic, a birding trip, wading in the water, or a lazy afternoon absorbing the woods in your local state park this weekend!

Then during the school year, schedule a field trip for your class to VINS to learn more about the Quechee Gorge. VINS Science Educators lead educational 1.5-hour hiking trips down to the bottom and back through geologic time!

Thursday, July 12, 2018

VINS and iNaturalist

by Anna Autilio
Lead Environmental Educator

Have you gotten into iNaturalist yet? At VINS, this citizen science project has become a favorite downtime activity for our staff. When someone spots a new wildflower blooming in the meadow, you can see at least a few of us up there with our phones out, taking pictures to document the sighting for iNaturalist. 

Using an iPad in the meadow to observe Wild Bergamot.
So what is iNaturalist? iNaturalist is "an online social network of people sharing biodiversity information to help each other learn about nature...You can use it to record your own observations, get help with identifications, collaborate with others to collect this kind of information for a common purpose, or access the observational data collected by iNaturalist users." It's primary goal is to connect people to nature, and secondary goal is to create a scientifically valuable biodiversity database. 

Since April 2017, VINS has had its own project on the website, the VINS Campus Index. Our aim is to create an inventory of all wild species found living at the VINS nature center, and encourage our visitors to notice and document life all around them. 

Just last week we sailed past our recent goal of documenting 250 wildlife species at VINS, and now have 262 species identified onsite by both visitors and staff, all in just 16 months of observing.

A big thanks go to everyone who helped flesh out our knowledge of the local flora and fauna (and special congrats to Linda Conrad who documented the most of any observer--100 species!). Here is the breakdown of our stats thus far:
A Pickerel Frog observed at VINS for iNaturalist.

Total Observations: 599 
Total Species: 262
Total Observers: 36
Most Observed Species: Common Snapping Turtle
Plant Species: 121 (including Butterfly Milkweed)
Insect Species: 67 (including Snowberry Clearwing)
Bird Species: 36 (including Great Horned Owl)
Mushroom Species: 16 (including Common Morel)
Mammal Species: 13 (including River Otter)
Amphibian Species: 5 (including Pickerel Frog)
Reptile Species: 4 (including Milk Snake)

...and with only 30 introduced species documented, 88% of our species are native!

Well done folks! For those of you who haven't joined in the fun yet, join and observe for free at inaturalist.org!

Friday, July 6, 2018

Take a Child to Nature This July

By Anna Autilio
Lead Environmental Educator

In 2018, we mark the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the most powerful and important bird-protection law ever passed. In honor of this milestone, nature lovers around the world are joining forces to celebrate 2018 as the “Year of the Bird.” July’s call to action is to introduce a child to nature and build their love for wild animals and landscapes…

The first step in my career as an environmental educator began at a very young age. I was 11 years old when I attended a program about owls late one night at our local nature center, and I was immediately hooked. Fifteen years later, the environmental ethic that I first started learning then has become such an important part of me that I have made a career of passing on my love and knowledge for the wild world on to others.

That moment of inspiration is out there for everyone—you just have to go and find it! Discover something new together with your family this summer. Here are a few ideas for getting kids excited to be outside in nature:

  1. Do some Citizen Science. Anyone can be a scientist, especially with long-running citizen science projects like iNaturalist and eBird, that allow you to document the cool things you find in nature and send your observations to biologists around the world. What’s that caterpillar on the sidewalk? iNaturalist’s community can even help you identify the animals and plants around you!

  1. Make a habitat for wildlife. Your backyard has the potential to be a perfect habitat for wild species. With the right food, water, shelter, and space, you can arrange even a small corner of your yard to be a friendly home to birds and other wildlife.

  1. Create a nature journal. Feeling artistic? Put together a few pieces of paper with a long rubber band, and find something interesting to draw. It doesn’t have to be a perfect rendering, just a sketch to remember the shape and color or your natural ecosystem.

  1. Cool off and discover an underwater world. Have a stream or pond nearby? Plan an adventure and visit your local freshwater ecosystem! See who you can find hiding out under rocks in the stream, or sit quietly and count how many birds you can find.

  1. Build something big! Balance rocks on top of one another to make a tall tower, or construct a mud house for a toad. Gather together some bark, leaves, twigs, and pine needles and create your own “fairy” house in your backyard!

  1. Visit your local Nature Center! Whether it’s learning about nesting birds, hiking the trails, or talking to a naturalist, nature centers have so much to offer kids who want to learn and explore. Come see what it’s all about!
 Share your ideas for fun outside with us, or come visit VINS!

Friday, June 22, 2018

Target Training with LA – the vision.

by Nathan Thoele
Environmental Educator 

What’s the point of this? To give her a way to show herself off on stage. To let people see how goofy it is when a vulture gallops around. To put people in a good mood so I can talk to them about difficult topics. To help me help people fall in love with vultures. To help me monitor her health. To get her from point A to point B. Los Angeles is a black vulture and a tennis ball is her target.

Target-training Los Angeles (LA) will help with three major elements of her life. First, it’ll help her perform in programs and be an effective ambassador for vultures. Second, it’ll help us take better care of her. Third, it’ll keep her life new, spicy, and enriched.

An ambassador for vultures
When all is said and done, I hope to be guiding LA around campus via the tennis ball. People who come here, at the right time, will get to meet her; see her walk; and hear not only her story, but the story of all vultures. Let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a goofy walk?

LA's first time targeting outside at about 30 feet.

Since we’re still being honest, who knows how important vultures are for the world? I can tell you all about it here, but it’d take up way too much of your time which you’d probably rather not spend staring at a screen. Better to come to VINS and meet LA to hear exactly how large scavengers help protect everyone from rampant disease and prevent mass carcass buildup on our roadways. When you do get here, you may find LA strutting her stuff on stage in a live bird show or walking the campus like she owns the place. Don’t worry, I’ll be right there with her to make sure nothing happens to her. But that’s not all.

Keeping her healthy
LA being targeted to the scale.

As with all the birds we care for, we need to be able to weigh LA on a daily basis to help us monitor her health. Targeting her to perch on a scale is an unobtrusive way to get a weight on her. Similarly, we need to be able to transport her long distances in a car – maybe for a visit to the vet or maybe for a visit to a school. Have you ever tried putting a seat-belt on a vulture? Probably not, but I can assure you it won’t go well. So what do we do? We put her in an animal crate. With targeting, we can guide her into the crate, put the crate in the car, buckle the crate in, and set off for our destination. Targeting helps us be prepared. Of course, there is more to keeping a bird physically healthy. Mental stimulation goes a long way in promoting good welfare in any creature. 

A spiced up life
Although vultures in the wild spend a huge chunk of their time doing nothing but sitting and preening (a form of self-grooming for birds), they live in a dynamic and unpredictable world that encourages them to think on their toes. Life as an ambassador-vulture isn’t as dynamic as it would be in the wild, but we can try to keep things exciting. Training of any kind is basically a series of puzzles that the bird must go through in order to get food. Sometimes the puzzle is simply figuring out how to jump from one person’s hand to another person’s hand. Sometimes the puzzle is navigating a strange room with strange objects that could be new and intimidating or provide food. Either way, training allows us to give the birds something to think about and something to do. This, in return, will keep them psychologically healthy. 

Other humans will be joining in LA’s training from here on out. 

Los Angeles is here due to an injury sustained years ago that left her with one eye. Unable to survive in the wild, she makes a living by helping us teach people about vultures. While we can never completely emulate life in the wild, it’s our mission to get as close as possible while keeping her healthy and letting her be useful. Training is how we achieve that.

Stay tuned for more updates...

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Easy Ways to Reduce Your Plastic Waste Today

by Anna Autilio
Lead, Environmental Educator

In 2018, we mark the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the most powerful and important bird-protection law ever passed. In honor of this milestone, nature lovers around the world are joining forces to celebrate 2018 as the “Year of the Bird.” June’s call to action is to reduce our use of plastic, to help eliminate this choking devastation on our ecosystems...

When you go to the beach this summer, think about this: the greatest threat to wildlife on land is the loss of habitat, but the greatest threat to life in the ocean is plastic garbage.

It seems that more and more often, we hear a news stories about a whale or seabird that has died from eating plastic waste. Despite the fact that the Earth’s oceans are incredibly vast, covering 70% of the planet’s surface, human life has made an unmistakable impact on the wildlife that calls the sea home.

We can easily help fix this problem, just by making choices about our lifestyles now. Though the actions appear small, the cultural shift actions can bring about has the potential to be one of the most important environmental triumphs we have ever seen.

Here are just a few ways you can help. Can you think of other we’ve missed?

1. Carry a reusable water bottle or coffee cup, and don’t buy bottled water. Tap water is no less healthy, and much safer for the planet.

2. Use reusable shopping bags. Many stores encourage this practice now, and will actually give you discounts for using your cloth shopping bags!

3. Say no to plastic straws and cutlery. Paper plates are better—but better still are your own dishes and metal utensils. Absolutely need a straw for that thick milkshake? You can buy metal ones!

4. Choose foods packaged in paper rather than plastic. There are many great examples—bread, fruits and veggies in paper bags, boxed laundry detergent, eggs in recycled paper containers. Glass is also preferable for things like peanut butter and soda.  

5. Bring your own containers to restaurants to package leftovers. Don’t waste food, or Styrofoam—bring a glass container to put your leftovers in.

6. Use bar soap (packaged in cardboard) over liquid body wash (packaged in plastic).

7. Use paper to wrap delicate packages, instead of bubble-wrap. Got junk mail? Crinkle it up into balls and help cradle your items that way.

8. Avoid food with excessive packaging altogether. We all know the ones—a single lollipop packaged in 4 layers of plastic. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but do you really need all that?

9. Use a metal razor or a bamboo toothbrush over a plastic one. The metal can be recycled, and the bamboo will biodegrade within 6 months.

10. Just think twice. Before you buy something made of plastic or packaged in plastic, ask yourself if there might be an alternative. Get in the habit of examining all your options, and thinking about the long-term as well as the short-term impact on the environment.

Join us in our effort this month at VINS to eliminate our plastic waste! Together we can help keep our environment clean and healthy.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Target Training with LA – the beginning.

by Nathan Thoele, 
Environmental Educator

What are you doing? I’m convincing this black vulture that right now, in this moment, in this context, there is nothing in the world more important than touching this ball with her beak. I’m building up my relationship with her by reminding her that, when I’m around with my trusty tennis-ball-on-a-stick, she gets food. Los Angeles (LA) is a black vulture and this tennis ball is her target.

‘Targeting’ is the behavior of touching an object with a part of your body. You ‘target’ when someone holds their hand out for you to shake. LA targets when I hold a tennis ball out for her to touch. The thing with black vultures is, though, that you can’t just tell them to put their beak to the ball. You have to shape the behavior with them.

Positive reinforcement is the behavior shaping technique I like to use. In short, positive reinforcement is the act of adding something pleasant to the trainee’s environment as a consequence of their performing the behavior the trainer wants – poking a ball. In practice, it’s the act of giving the vulture a piece of food for poking the ball. 

This method helps me build a nice relationship with LA and helps me inform her that she’s done something right, something she wants to do again.
“Even once the behavior is established,
a trainee may find other activities more interesting."

The first step I took in target-training LA was to find what her motivation is. That shouldn’t be hard. She’s a vulture. She loves to eat meat in large quantities, right? Well... I found that she doesn’t like mice all that much. Or rats. Or rabbit. Chicken is okay. Quail is alright. Insects are useless. Organs. Loves organs – slimy and mushy organs. That is her favorite meat. Now we can continue.

After finding her motivation, I found myself in her mew, tennis-ball-stick in one hand, clump of organ meat in the other. She wasn’t about to poke that ball for no reason, so I took it upon myself to poke her with it first. It’s okay, it was a gentle poke and she immediately got a juicy clump of organ meat for it. I did it again. She got more food. Again. More food. Was that drool coming from her beak? This next time, I held the ball a few inches from her face. After a few seconds, she leaned forward and poked it.

I cued her to the ball again, this time a few inches farther away. Reluctantly, she stretched her neck as far as she could without moving either of her feet and poked it. Once again, she was promptly rewarded. I cued again, farther still. Now she had to step toward the ball. Then again, two steps. Again, three steps. Each time she poked the ball she got a piece of meat. By the end of ten minutes, she was chasing the ball all around her mew. 

“Because LA is so quick and sloppy in her eating, it’s easier for me to hide
the food in my hand and let her fish it out with her beak."

Thus concluded the first session of target-training with LA. The future holds many more similar sessions but with more activity. Using a tennis ball, I will be able to train her to step onto a scale for her daily weighing, walk into a crate, participate in natural history programs at VINS, and explore new places. I suspect it won’t always go so quickly as it did in this first session, but that’s half the fun of it all. While she learns, so do I.

Stay tuned for future blog posts on Nathan and LA...

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Helping Wildlife in Spring

by Lauren Adams
Lead Wildlife Keeper

Spring is a magical time in Vermont.  From endless piles of snow and bleak, gray skies, we are starting to see signs of life.  Bluebirds are gathering nesting materials, pairs of Canada geese are returning to freshly thawed ponds, and bears have emerged from their winter slumbers.  Springtime is a big deal for wildlife.  As warmer weather and longer days fuel the budding and blossoming of native flowers and trees, insects begin to arrive, busy at their task of pollinating the world. Before we know it, Vermont will be green and lush again.

Wildlife takes full advantage of this awakening of life.  This is the perfect time to nest and mate, with nature’s all-you-can-eat buffet to feed newly hatched or born young.  Baby animals will spend the summer getting their fill of nourishment and learning the ropes of the wilderness so that, by the time next fall’s cold air begins to blow in, they are strong and healthy and ready to confront their most difficult missions: surviving the harsh winter or embarking on a long journey of migration.

What a great time to shake off our cabin fever and venture outside to experience Vermont’s wilderness.  There are so many opportunities to view wildlife during the spring.  This is also a very vulnerable time for the brand new life that walks, crawls, slithers, swims or flutters around.  Before they have mastered the behaviors and skills they will need to survive in the wild, young animals are susceptible to injury, defenseless against predators and other dangers, and at risk of becoming orphaned before they are ready to be independent.  

Many factors, both natural and human-caused, can subject inexperienced young to these unfortunate perils.  

Thousands of baby wild animals, kindly rescued by caring individuals, are cared for and raised at wildlife rehabilitation centers every spring and summer around the world. 

As we enter this special season, it is important to know how to co-exist peacefully with wildlife and how to avoid interfering with the intricate process of nesting, mating, breeding and fledging that animals are working so hard at.  Also, what to look out for: when and if an animal needs rescuing, how to rescue it, and when to leave the situation alone, and just observe from a distance.  Many baby animals in the wild may appear orphaned, or even injured, but are in fact healthy and being cared for by unseen parents.  

First, even before you start to see young emerge, there are things to keep in mind so that you don’t disturb nests.  BEFORE you trim trees or clean out gutters, check thoroughly for nests.  It is actually illegal, thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, to disturb, destroy or relocate an active wild bird nest.  If you see eggs or nestlings, you have to wait until after the breeding season to trim.  BEFORE mowing your lawn, check carefully for rabbit nests.  These can look like little tufts of grass, sometimes barely visible, but already containing infant rabbits who would really not appreciate a visit from a lawnmower.  

The most important thing to remember when assessing a baby wild animal is that animals are good parents.  The best chance at survival for a baby is to remain with its own mother and father.  The first choice is always to reunite an animal with its parents, or to leave it where its parents will return to find it.  Sometimes this involves waiting and watching for a while.  

Please follow these instructions to help our wildlife thrive.

If you find a baby deer:

If you find a baby bird:

If you find a baby mammal:

If you find a baby turtle:

Baby turtles actually don’t spend any time with their mother after they hatch, so usually they are fine if left alone.  Most likely, you will see a new hatchling making its way from its nest site on land to the closest wetland.  IF the baby is in a dangerous location, such as the middle of the road, you can help it out by carrying it across.  Try to assess which direction the turtle was going, and carry it that same direction, otherwise it may turn around and cross the road again.  If there is a wetland nearby, you can carry the turtle all the way to the edge of the water and set it down.  

For more information, check out the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, NWRA:


Of course, if you are ever in doubt, please call VINS or your local wildlife rehabilitation center.  If you aren’t sure, contact your region’s Fish and Wildlife Agency, and they should be able to refer you to the right place.

We all want to protect and enjoy our beautiful wildlife.  Help us keep this world safe for them, so we can continue to celebrate the miracle of nature in springtime.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Beauty of Native Wildflowers

By Anna Autilio
Lead Environmental Educator

In 2018, we mark the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the most powerful and important bird-protection law ever passed. In honor of this milestone, nature lovers around the world are joining forces to celebrate 2018 as the “Year of the Bird.” March’s call to action is to cultivate gardens full of native and wildlife-friendly plants...

Here in Vermont, it might be hard to imagine gardening when there are still a few inches of snow on the ground. But it’s never too early to plan! This year, participants in the Year of the Bird’s 12 months of action for wildlife are making an effort to plant native flowers—and you can too!

Planting native plants is a simple and highly effective way to make a positive impact on the environment--just as important as recycling, turning off lights, and using less water. The Audubon Society has even made it incredibly easy to find which plants are native to your area, and which nurseries sell them. Type in your zip code to their Native Plants Database, and discover hundreds of trees, flowers, shrubs, and vines that are native to your neighborhood.

Think native flowers aren’t as colorful and pretty as exotics? Think again. Here are just 5 (and it was hard to choose!) of the most beautiful native Vermont flowers to grace your garden with this spring:

This gorgeous perennial bluebell attracts hummingbirds with its sweet nectar, and without the constant refilling your plastic feeder requires. Known also as the "harebell" in the British Isles, this plant grows native across the northern hemisphere. Durable and opportunistic, Bluebell-of-Scotland will grow well in sun or shade, in cooler climates like New England, and actually flourishes in dry, nutrient-poor soil. You may already know of some patches growing out of cracks in stone walls.

Aster blooms are a sign of the arrival of fall in New England, and those beautiful, multi-colored flowers will stay out through October to greet the changing leaves. They love a moist, acidic soil in part shade. Providing nectar for monarch butterflies, the aster also is a source of food for seed-eating birds, including sparrows and finches.

Though smaller than our modern image of a "sunflower", this forest-dwelling perennial blooms bright and confident even in dry, sandy soils. In sun or shade, just like any sunflower the bloom deflects toward the source of light, tracking the sun throughout the day. Woodland Sunflowers will bring countless birds to your yard, among them cardinals, waxwings, warblers, orioles, wrens, and thrushes, as well as caterpillars and butterflies.

Named for the cluster of white or lavender-tinged two-lipped flowers that are thought to resemble turtle’s heads, this perennial is also a late summer bloomer that grows best in wet, acidic soils. It is the host plant of the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly, and attracts a variety of nectar-loving birds, including vireos, hummingbirds, and thrushes.


Lobelia is a showy, bright blue flowering plant that blooms in late summer. Its counterpart, also native, the Cardinal Flower, is brilliant red and sports the same tube-shaped flowers. Though toxic to humans, this plant attracts a wide variety of birds, including hummingbirds, orioles, cardinals, thrushes, wrens, and vireos, as well as caterpillars and butterflies. One important requirement is wet soil—this plant will not tolerate droughts.

What is your favorite native plant in your area? Share your pictures!