Saturday, December 8, 2018


(An earlier version of this post appeared as an article in The Other Paper, South Burlington's community newspaper.) 

No, we're not having an eruption! We're having an irruption, a now-and-then event that bird lovers always greet with delight. An irruption year means that feeders all over Vermont are now hosting birds that aren't our regular winter visitors, birds with flashes of brilliant gold, raspberry, even cherry pink! 

Irruptions, also called “super flights”, are irregular large-scale migrations of birds to areas south of their normal wintering grounds, migrations that are usually prompted by food shortages. 

Each fall, a Canadian ornithologist named Ron Pittaway monitors the abundance of spruce cones, birch seeds, mountain ash berries, and other native foods that boreal (northern) birds rely on for winter survival. He then puts out a forecast letting those of us to the south know what avian visitors might be showing up at our feeders. This year, seed crops are poor in much of eastern Canada, so Ron predicts that New Englanders will be seeing northern species we haven’t seen in several years.

The first of the irruptive species to show up at Chittenden County feeders were Pine Siskins. Siskins resemble goldfinches but are even smaller. 

Pine Siskins are active little birds with sharp bills, lots of brown coloring, and lemon yellow edges on wings and tails. They are almost never seen alone! 

Siskins descend on feeders en masse, making constant wheezy “zeeeeEEEET” noises. 

Another tiny twittering species is just beginning to show up in Vermont. 

Common Redpolls are named for the little red cap sported by both sexes. Ron Pittaway’s forecast says that we’re likely to see these birds first in weedy fields and then having “feeding frenzies” wherever they can find nyger or thistle seed.

Sometimes a flock of Common Redpolls might include a paler bird, a bird that looks like it's been touched by hoar frost.  Hoary Redpolls are now considered a separate species, but ornithologists are debating whether they're actually just a variant or a "morph".

A larger and much flashier kind of northern visitor has also been showing up at many Vermont feeders.

Evening Grosbeaks have enormous bills designed for cracking hard seed casings to get at the nourishing food inside. The bills on these hefty birds makes them noticeable; the glorious colors cinch the identification. 

Males are decked out in brilliant gold, black and white. Females are quieter but just as beautiful in their muted gray and yellow.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, Evening Grosbeaks used to descend on Vermont feeders in huge groups, voraciously eating pounds and pounds of black-oil sunflower seed. Their population was at an all-time high due to a spruce budworm infestation in their Canadian breeding grounds. (Grosbeaks love spruce budworms!) The beautiful birds are much less plentiful now, making them even more celebrated when they show up.

Another bird with a “gross beak” is also predicted to come south this winter. Pine Grosbeaks are plump birds with large conical bills, the females golden and the males rosy, both species with white bars on dark gray wings. 

These beauties will come to feeders but they’re more often seen devouring the small fruit on ornamental crab apples. A good place to watch for them is Technology Park in South Burlington.
We might also see more Purple Finches than in most years.  Roger Tory Peterson described the males as "sparrows dipped in raspberry juice".

This year, one of those wonderful irruption years, will bring unusual and dramatic birds to feeders. So stock up on seed and get ready for some real treats!

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Expedition to See Snow Geese!

Seven of us spent a morning in Addison, first looking for Snow Geese and then enjoying demonstrations at the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area Visitor Center.

We lucked into a spectacular day! The famous Addison County wind made it feel a lot cooler than the actual temperatures (in the 50s for most of the day), but sun, blue sky, puffy clouds, brilliant fall foliage, and camaraderie made up for the chill. And when we arrived at the Goose Viewing Area on Route 17, we were welcomed by a big, beautiful rainbow, every one of the seven colors bright and distinct.

About 800 Snow Geese were feeding in a nearby field and then gave us all a thrill as the whole flock rose into the air, flew in front of us, and settled in a new location.

Sharp-eyed members of the group (an OLLI-UVM class) spotted a Great Blue Heron and two Bald Eagles, one an all-dark immature bird and one an adult with the iconic white head and white tail.

There were also Canada Geese, Turkey Vultures, many Green-winged Teal, American Black Ducks, a few late-to-migrate Red-winged Blackbirds, and many starlings, chickadees, robins, woodpeckers and sparrows. 

We also saw all three common members of the corvid family: Blue Jays, crows and a raven.

Northern Harriers are frequently seen "dancing" over the open agricultural land of the area, their buoyant flight mirroring the contours of the ground below them. The cinnamon belly color identified this bird as immature. 

The activities at the Visitor Center were an unexpected bonus. All morning long, there were several mist nets set up, with demonstrations of bird-banding. This little Black-capped Chickadee got a silver-colored "anklet".

Wildlife Biologist Amy Alfieri demonstrated a "rocket net", which is used to capture a large number of ducks for banding. The crowd was warned to turn off cell phones (to avoid accidental detonation of the rockets!) and to stand back. With a loud noise and puffs of smoke, the rockets were set off and the net was thrown out and over the imagined ducks.

A young Red-tailed Hawk (hatched this past summer) had also been caught, weighed, examined and banded. 

We got to see the magnificent raptor up close. 

The hawk hadn't yet developed the red tail of an adult although the rich colors showed hints of red.

When the hawk was  gently laid on the ground, it stayed there, unmoving. A Fish and Wildlife official told us that this posture, with talons raised, is defensive and is sometimes used by hawks when they're not sure whether they're under attack. 

After several seconds, the bander gently nudged the bird and it righted itself and immediately lifted into the air, soaring over the parked cars to a smattering of applause.

After the field trip ended, Bernie and Maeve had a great lunch at the wonderful Foote's Diner in Port Henry NY.

Right outside the diner, there's a great view of the Champlain Bridge. 

Before heading home, we stopped in at the Farrell Access of Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area, one of the "back doors to the refuge". There we were excited to see some shorebirds and - amazingly! - a Sandhill Crane! Their range has been extending eastward over the past decade or so, but they're still a rare sight in Vermont. (The beautiful bird, with its deep red crown, was too far away for good photos.)

The following five photos were taken by Henry Swayze of Tunbridge VT. Thanks, Henry!

In this photo, the hawk's brand-new leg band is visible.

From beginning to end, this was a wonderful Vermont day, with many nice people and great natural beauty! 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Big Sit! Mills Riverside Park, Jericho VT. Oct 14 - All Day, All Welcome

BIG SIT UPDATE!!! - The 2018 Big Sit has come and gone. 

Yesterday we sat and stood at Mills Riverside Park in Jericho from a little before 7AM until 5PM, looking and listening for birds. 

We were joined all day by Karl, most of the day by Nathan, and parts of the day by Sabina, Shirley, Warren, Anna, Daniel, Gaye, Cara and Sharon.

Curious passersby also stopped by, many eager to share stories of birds they'd seen and enjoyed at the park.

The morning was cold (37 degrees) and overcast with dark clouds. By mid-morning, we saw breaks of sun and blue sky, and by the afternoon the temperature was in the 50s with sun, wind, and glowing fall foliage.

The day started with lots of bird noises, mostly crows, chickadees, juncos, and White-throated Sparrows. 

Bernie had brought a stuffed robin just in case we didn't see any real ones. 

He shouldn't have worried! We were entertained by a flock of thirty or so robins feasting on wild grapes and then dropping to the mowed lawn to hunt for grubs. They were joined there by four Northern Flickers and some starlings.

From 10:30 or so until 1:00 was a definite lull, enlivened by snacks, hot tea and coffee, and friendly human visitors.

In all, we counted more bird species than we'd expected in such a busy park, with almost constant human and dog traffic. High school senior photos were being taken in several locations throughout the day, with people bringing in cameras, lenses, reflectors, props and changes of clothing. One enterprising photographer even carried a large stuffed wing chair on his back!

Each new bird species was recorded on The Official Big Sit Orange Board. 

In the evening, we got an e-mailed photo and a lovely PS from Reed Sims. He and his wife had come by as we were packing up.

Here is the "remainders of the day" photo, those dedicated hold-outs who didn't abandon their companions, but instead continued to add to the Big Sit List with aplomb and extraordinary, nay, astounding diligence, hoping for the occasional eider or macaw.
Thank you all for adding to the national database.

Pre-Sit Post below

Free - All Day Bird Watching Event. First timers to experts - all welcome. 

The Big Sit! is a one day event whereby beginners and experts and anyone at all interested come together during the day and count how many bird species they can spot or hear while sitting or standing in a 17-foot circle. 

This annual international non-competitive event hosted by Bird Watcher's Digest and Swarovski Optik and founded by the New Haven (Conn.) Bird Club, is held around the world to promote birds, bird watching, and the birding community. 

You can stop by for a few minutes or a few hours or the whole day. Bring, if you have them, chair, binoculars, bird guides, scope, camera. We will have some extras available as well. And then join in as we sit and watch for every bird species we collectively can spot or hear. 

We promise it will not be this cold!

Where: Mills Riverside Park, Jericho, VT.
When:  All Day - Sunday Oct 14
Leader: Maeve Kim, co leader: Bernie Paquette 
Team name: Jericho Juncos


Here is a good description of the Big Sit. 

Hope to see you (and the birds) at Mills Riverside Park on Sunday Oct 14. Stop by for a few minutes, or few hours, or all day. 

Introduction to bird watching
Oct 14 Mills Riverside Park
Jericho, Vermont

Why get into bird watching? It is the most relaxing of hobbies. Only requirements are eyes and or ears, some free time, and an outdoor area. You can choose how deep you get into it – casual bird observation to identification and record keeping; from backyard bird watching to spotting birds on walks in parks, fields, and woodlands; from recreational activity to citizen science.  

Now is a great time to go bird watching as many birds are migrating through the area, and the temperature is moderate.

Bird watching gives you a reason to explore the natural world and is a form of mindfulness.

Bird watching works for all ages – for everyone. Bird watchers like to help others to find and identify birds. No minimum skill level required – just an interest in spotting, hearing, and learning about birds. Bird watching can be especially fun for children, once introduced they may become bird watchers for life.

About 50 million Americans plan an outing to observe wild birds this year.

Bird watching sharpens your sight, your observation skills, encourages you to explore the world, and helps you to treasure the moment. One moves from the pretty in nature through successive stages of beautiful.

Getting to know birds is like getting to know people and their names. The more we know about them the more we see, recognize and hear them.

FREE EVENT: Try bird watching with us at Jericho Mills Riverside Park any time during the day on Sunday Oct 14. We will be there with spare binoculars, scope, guides, and the birds of Jericho will be there too.