Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Erie the Northern Harrier

by Grae O’Toole
Lead Wildlife Keeper

Erie (Hawk Creek Wildlife Center)
VINS is excited to announce our newest raptor ambassador, “Erie,” a female Northern Harrier! Erie can be found on exhibit with our male harrier, “Freedom”.  They are quite the pair and provide a great opportunity to see how strikingly different male and female harriers are from one another, as one of the few raptors with different plumages between the genders. Males have blue/gray feathering throughout their body,  and females have dark brown, mottled feathers; both sport a big white rump patch, a key identifying feature in the field.  Both also have large facial disks, a physical feature more commonly found in owls to help funnel sound to their large ears.  Harriers can be found in Vermont’s open grassy or marshy plains where they hover and hunt for prey in the open expanses.

Erie is only four years old, and has a bit of a mysterious past.  She was found on the side of the road in Ithaca, NY in October of 2015, when a caring member of the public brought her to the Cornell Wildlife Clinic for help. She still had her juvenile plumage, suggesting that she had hatched that spring. She was extremely emaciated, dehydrated, weak, and lethargic, but oddly enough, no major external injuries were found.  After weeks of supportive care (treating her for parasites, administering fluids, and providing ample food) she started perking up.  But then, staff at Cornell became concerned when she began making food-begging calls as people walked by her enclosure.  This behavior suggested that she was imprinted on humans, and therefore would not be releasable.

Imprinting happens early in development, during the stage when a bird identifies its parents and this influences their own identity.  Imprinting is something commonly seen in raptors, waterfowl, corvids, and doves, and if a bird is raised by something other than her own parents, she may identify herself as that particular species: in this case, a human. Unless federal and state permits are held for caring for young raptors, it is illegal for someone to raise a raptor they found in the wild.  VINS is permitted to take care of baby raptors because we have the tools and knowledge necessary to raise young specifically for release back into the wild.  Many precautions are taken to prevent imprinting, all medical needs are addressed, and proper nutrition for a growing bird is provided from day one.  Unfortunately, Erie did not have access to any of this as a baby, may have been given an improper diet, and as a result would not survive in the wild.

Once Cornell determined she was non-releasable, she was placed at Hawk Creek Wildlife Center in Aurora, NY as an exhibit ambassador.  To combat the possible imprinting, Hawk Creek decided to remain as hands-off as possible once she arrived. In their experience, she never exhibited behaviors that suggested imprinting, and believe that she may have suffered severe head trauma from being hit by a car. She may have habituated to the staff at Cornell, and once in new surroundings began to “wild up.”  Regardless, both facilities agreed that her behaviors were not that of a healthy, wild harrier.

Regardless of her past, we are excited to have her as part of our team. She was put on exhibit with Freedom at the end of March this year, and they seem to be getting along very well.  They are certainly a beautiful pair and we cannot wait to see how they interact with each other and guests in the future.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Project FeederWatch Season Summary (Winter 2018-2019)

by Anna Morris
Lead Environmental Educator

Common Feeder Birds (Project FeederWatch)
Another season of the citizen science program, Project FeederWatch is behind us, and it was a very big winter! Now in its 32nd year, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s winter bird-watching project aims to connect people with the wildlife in their backyards, and with the world of scientific research.

This is the 3rd year that VINS participated in the project, and this season we decided to count birds at 3 different sites each week. One site was visible out of our classroom window, in the roundabout overlooking the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation. Another was right behind the Crawl Space, which was itself turned into an entire exhibit about Project FeederWatch. The third was just outside a window in the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation, so even our busy rehabilitators could join in on the count!

A total of 48 two-day counts were submitted to Cornell (16 per site), containing observations of a whopping 30 different species. This is the most we have ever counted in one winter with this project, and we heard reports from other bird-watchers in the state of the diversity they were observing. Highlights at the VINS feeders included both Sharp-shinned AND Cooper’s Hawks, a Pileated Woodpecker, a Hermit Thrush, a Carolina Wren, a Field Sparrow, and a pair of Mallards. (And yeah, yeah, a Barred Owl; they seem to have been EVERYWHERE this winter).

Though many of us were missing the usual flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos at our feeders this year, over half of FeederWatch sites in Vermont did report the little gray birds consistently throughout the winter, with an average group size of just over 3. Still, this is quite low compared to last year, in which more than 80% of sites consistently reported Juncos, with an average group size of nearly 7.

American Crows were more frequently seen as the winter progressed, showing up at 44% of FeederWatch sites in Vermont during the last week of March. A similar trend was seen in Barred Owls, who had a rough time dealing with the thick ice layer covering the snow, which prevented many from hunting their usual mice and voles in their subnivean tunnels.  Evening Grosbeaks were seen across Vermont early in the winter (November & December), but gave way to Common Redpolls and Pine Grosbeaks later (February & March). And though a Carolina Wren stuck around the VINS feeders all winter long, only about 10% of Feederwatch sites in Vermont ever reported one as a visitor.
Field Sparrow, Spizella pusilla (Flickr)

By far, our most unusual visitor was the Field Sparrow. This scrubland-dwelling bird is normally only seen in Vermont during the summer breeding months, but one showed up to our feeders in early December, and again in mid-February. Though Field Sparrows are common, their populations have been experiencing a steep decline over the last 50 years.

Many thanks to everyone who contributed observations, and a super-huge thank you to Citizen Science volunteers Aine and Ian, who made nearly all of the Crawl Space observations. They watched the feeders with extreme dedication every weekend for 2 hours, and counted 13 species.