Friday, August 18, 2017

Lake Champlain's Floating Lab - UVM Melosira

Birders spend their time in nature, surrounded by nature. Many of us get interested in dragonflies, or butterflies, or wild flowers. Most become passionate advocates for habitat protection and conservation. Yesterday, we learned about protecting a very special habitat, Lake Champlain.
We went out on the UVM research vessel Melosira 

to learn about biological, chemical and physical measurements made by limnologists (people who study inland waters). 

Maeve tried her hand at steering the boat - while we were still docked!

While Captain Steve motored out into the lake, Kris and Amelia from the Rubenstein Science Lab told the group about the geology and formation of Lake Champlain and its extensive watershed.

The boat stopped and everyone on board used instruments for various measurements. 

The CTD measures conductivity, temperature and depth - and costs $20,000!

Readings from the CTD were fed into a computer program and graphed. The lake temperature was about 72-74 degrees for the first fifty feet down, then precipitously dropped to 42 degrees. 

Here's a much less high-tech tool. This little girl was gathering water samples so we could all look at plankton under microscopes.

The cruise was part of the Rubenstein Lab's outreach program, one of three public outings this summer. 
The many children aboard were serious and focused on the scientific tasks.

Even the adults were enthusiastic!

Other public outreach initiatives include classes at ECHO and local schools, providing hands-on learning about the lake to students and their teachers.
Scientists at the Lab also meet with fishermen, officials at marinas and water treatment plants, and people who own lakeshore property to encourage responsible boating and run-off management. One recent success was a change in filters at the Burlington water treatment facility that resulted in an immediate decrease in the quantity of microfibers reaching the lake.


We didn't spend a whole morning without noticing birds! Here's a mallard-domestic duck hybrid seen along the waterfront.

Here's just a little bit of the vast amount of information we learned from Kris, Amelia and Steve on the cruise.

Lake Champlain is the sixth biggest lake in the United States, after the five Great Lakes. 

Vermont's own Great Lake is 120 miles long and 12 miles across at the widest point. The depth reaches 400' deep near the Charlotte-to-Essex ferry route, at the site of an ancient tectonic slip. Most of the lake is much more shallow, and problems with water quality are greater in the shallowest areas such as Missisquoi Bay, Malletts Bay and St. Albans Bay.
Lake Champlain has a much higher ratio of adjacent land to water than the five Great Lakes, so it receives a greater amount of run-off from surrounding mountains, cities, suburbs, forests and farmlands. 
Kris noted that agriculture often gets the blame for lake pollution but in reality, acre for acre, urban areas put more algae-feeding nutrients into the lake than farms. Vermont has much more agricultural land than urban land, though, so the aggregate effect is higher for farmland.

The Lake Champlain Land Trusts web site also offers more information about Lake Champlain.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

What is birding? South Hero, Vt. Marsh Trail

left to right: Barbara, Rich, Pam, Trish, Carol, Maeve

For me, birding is an activity or even a set of behaviors whereby people walk through fields, woods, and water - ecosystems as complicated as human life if not more so. People birdwatching, as they stop, look, and listen, begin to realize how much there is to be seen in the world of birds and nature in general. 

Increasingly, as we grow our observation skills, we realize how many species of birds inhabit our fields and woodlands and waterways. 

Then after determining the rich diversity of songs, colors, and species of birds that we before had not noticed or sought out - then and perhaps only then do we realize what birding is: birding is many, many, bird eyes on us. Perhaps we view one for every __(dozens?) or more that watch us passing through landscape that they are much more aware of than we are. 

Immature Black-crowned Night-Heron

Oh how the birds must giggle at our noisy approaches, our somewhat impatient movement, our nearly unseeing eyes, our grounded feet and flightless wings. Still they periodically honor us with warm melodies upon open leafless branches, gleaming colorful feathers basked in sunlight like music stars on a stage. 

This Song Sparrow had a juicy insect to feed nestlings, but the parent was reluctant to deliver the tasty morsel until we humans departed.

Often, if we are the least bit patient, quiet, birds will acclimate to our presence and go about their everyday chores: feeding, nest building, family raising, even playing in the air, on the ground and water, and in trees and bushes and grasses.

Then we people can enjoy observing birds' behaviors and intricate attire (as perhaps they do of us); for then we become less clumsy intruders and more welcomed guests. 

The following photos were taken by Barbara Mines on the South Hero Marsh Trail walk.

Yellow Warbler

Swallowtail Butterfly

Juvenile robin - looking mottled and messy!

Island Arts sponsored a talk about Birds of Vermont's Lakes, Rivers, Ponds and Swamps, followed by a field trip to the South Hero Marsh Trail

Join Maeve for other informative, energetic and interesting classes about birds and birding. Click here.

To see many more photos of South Hero Marsh Trail birds, go to

Friday, July 28, 2017

Bird Banding photos - Audubon Vermont

Blue sky, sun, light breezes - Perfect for a trip to Audubon Vermont in Huntington for a bird-banding demonstration!

Mark LaBarr
Audubon Vermont's Conservation Biologist

This is the twentieth year for the Audubon Vermont bird-banding station. Ten mist nets were set out and checked frequently to make sure no bird injures itself. Before becoming a licensed bird bander, Mark had to do a lot of studying and then be vouched for by three master banders. His license allows him to net and band specific species in specific states, and always for the purpose of a scientific study or survey. Mark explained that strict regulations and monitoring are for the birds' protection.

This American Goldfinch weighed a mighty 12.2 grams. The plumage identified it as a male.

This young Swamp Sparrow showed rich chestnut coloring on its wings. Habitat changes on the Audubon property - in particular, the reduction in beaver activity - have resulted in changes in bird life. Swamp Sparrows are becoming more prevalent.

This feisty Red-eyed Vireo latched onto Mark's finger. Three Red-eyed Vireos were banded this morning. This bird's deep red eyes show that it's an adult. One was a female with a "brood patch": a section of the breast that's featherless, so the bird can keep her eggs warm with her body heat.

There are several ways to determine a bird's age. One is to look in its mouth. The mouths of juvenile birds are colorful, presumably to help a parent bird aim food in the right direction. One of the two Gray Catbirds banded today was a fledged recently and was almost white inside its mouth. The other was dark inside its mouth, indicating an adult.

Metal bands or "bracelets" are placed on one foot, the size of the band depending on the size of the bird. 

Mark recently found the large band below on one of the Lake Champlain islands. Using the number on the band, he was able to find out that it had been worn by a Canada Goose.

After each bird is banded, it is weighed, sexed, aged and its wing is measured. Data is sent to a lab in Maryland and added to a huge data bank for use by ornithologists and other scientists.

The wing of this juvenile Gray Catbird measured 90 mm, and the bird weighed 34.9 grams. 


A bird's skull can also provide information about its age. As a bird matures, it develops a double skull, the two layers connected by support columns. The positions of these columns show up as little dots on the skull. A bird that hasn't yet developed support columns is a first-year bird.

Banders also look for evidence of wear and molt on the birds' feathers. This male American Redstart has lots of different colors! Some of its wing feathers still show the juvenile yellow coloring while other, newer feathers show adult orange. It's a second-year bird, hatched in summer 2016. 

The differing lengths of the redstart's wing feathers show that it's in the process of molting: losing some feathers and growing new ones. Songbirds molt gradually, losing and gaining feathers at different times. (Ducks, by contrast, molt all their feathers at once and can't fly at all for a while.)

This is "the bird-banders' bible". The pages and pages of detailed information help banders determine birds' age, sex, health, stage of molt, and even subspecies.

Very modern high-tech equipment is used in weighing small songbirds! They're placed head down inside a toilet paper roll or a film canister, and then placed on a scale. (Larger birds such as Blue Jays are weighed inside a stocking, using a hanging scale.)  

Children and adults alike were fascinated by the birds and very attentive to Mark's clear explanations.

But this little one preferred the tiny frog he was holding.

The bags hold birds that were caught in mist nets and are waiting to be banded, evaluated and released.

For today's banding, Mark LaBarr was assisted by Felicia King and Steven Lamonde.

Mark proudly wears his bird-banders' smock from the British Trust for Ornithology - a Christmas gift from his kids!

A Broad-winged Hawk viewed the banding station with haughty disdain. Mark said the bird is "a regular" and probably nests on the Audubon property. 

Audubon hosts many classes and summer school sessions each year. This little girl was learning what she would need to succeed as a bird: feathers, a bill, big feet and talons.

For more information on banding birds:
Why band Birds.
What purpose does bird banding serve?
About Bird Bands.