Great Horned Owlets at Bombay Hook

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I pulled up along Wildlife Road at Bombay Hook and the Great Horned Owl nest was so close to the road that I could take a photo clearly showing one of the owlets in the crook of the tree with my iphone. Thank goodness, however, for telephoto lens!

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Using the car as a blind, I remained on the road so as not to stress the owlets. With the lens set at 300mm, the second owlet popped his head over one of the branches of the tree.

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With the lens fully extended to 500 mm, I felt like I was in the tree with the owlets.

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Great Horned Owls, the largest common owl in the Americas, lives year around in all but the northern-most reaches of North America. They prefer a habitat that includes a mix of forest and open areas. Within that habitat, they most often adopt a nest built by another species, such as Red-Tailed and other hawks, herons or even squirrels! At a nearby refuge this year, a Great Horned Owl adopted a nest on a man-made Osprey platform and recently an owlet has been peaking over the edge of the platform!

Great Horned Owls, fierce and adaptable predators, hunt prey as large or larger than they are, including Peregrine Falcons, Osprey, and mammals such as Marmots, Skunks, and Woodchucks. According to Cornell’s allaboutbirds website, when clenched, it takes 28 pounds of pressure to open a Great Horned Owl’s talons. With this powerful grip, they break the spines of larger prey.

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Looking closely in his eyes, I can see the predator this baby will become.

Our Bluebird Boxes Have Nests!

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It’s nice to be back! My laptop crashed (Boo, hiss!!) and I thought it was dead. After doing some research, however, my son resurrected it from the dead (Cheers, yeah!). In the meantime I took a couple of birding trips (imagine mating Ospreys and Great Horned Owlets), and Annie and I faithfully monitored our Bluebird boxes.

The first time we went out, we cleared out the old winter nests, distinguished by the presence of bird poop that would not be there during breeding and nesting season, as the adult Bluebirds meticulously clean out the nests as they raise their young. The next two times we checked the nests, we were disappointed by the lack of nests. Our long, cold winter, at least by Mid-Atlantic standards, delayed spring migrants and nesting by at least a month, if not more.

Last night, however, things were hopping! Over one-third of our boxes had nests. Many, like the one above, were Bluebird nests. Bluebirds construct their nest in pre-existing nesting sights. In natural settings, think tree cavities created by rotting spots in the trees or by woodpeckers. Our nests, of course, are all man-made boxes. The Bluebirds weave grass, pine needles, straw, hair, and sometimes feathers into their nests. One of our nests may possibly be a Tree Swallow nest. Tree Swallows also build grass nests, but they line the nest with bird feathers. One of our nests was indeed lined with bird feathers.

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Several of our nests were Chickadee nests. Chickadees construct their nests with a base of moss, in which they place a cup of soft down from animal fur or plant fibers. The birds were still in the process of building these nests, as we didn’t see any of the soft down nesting cups on top of the moss.

We didn’t see any eggs or roosting mama birds, though we did hear a couple of birds reprimanding us from nearby thickets when we checked the Chickadee nests. Needless to say, we can’t wait to return next week! Will we have eggs by then? We’ll let you know. Stay tuned!

Where Did the Banded Bird Come From?

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Saturday, I reported that one of the birds I photographed was a banded Oystercatcher.

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If you look closely, you can see a black band with white lettering at the top of each leg and a small silver band on the ‘ankle’ of the right leg. I contacted the Patuxent Wildlife Bird Banding Laboratory to report this bird.

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I wasn’t expecting  reply so soon, but this morning I received the information on this bird. This Oystercatcher was banded on July 27, 2011. At the time of the banding, the bird was too young to fly. Interestingly, the bird was banded on the same stretch of beach at Chincoteague NWR where I photographed him on Saturday.

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Our Disappearing Birds: The Black Skimmer

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I was standing on the causeway at Chincoteague NWR photographing terns when a blur of black and white, with a flash of bright orange, flew through the view finder. Could it be? Wait… maybe… YES! Black Skimmers!!

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Black Skimmers are among the more unusual birds in the Mid-Atlantic Region. Extremely streamlined with long, thin wings, Black Skimmers are easily identified by their razor-thin orange-and-black bill, with their lower bill extending longer than their upper bill. The purpose of the unusual bill quickly becomes evident as you watch them hunt.

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The Skimmer flies barely inches over the surface of the water, and lowers its bottom bill to drag through the water as it flies, waiting for the touch of a fish to clamp its bill shut and claim a meal.

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The pair of Skimmers I saw at Chincoteague flew back and forth in front of the causeway for well over a half an hour, providing ample opportunity for photographs.

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Black Skimmers are not currently federally protected as an endangered species. However, the Skimmers are listed as endangered or threatened in many of the states within their historical breeding range. For example, in Maryland, there are an estimated 150-350 breeding pairs who nest in just a handful of breeding colonies on the southern Eastern Shore of the state.

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Historically, in the late 1800’s, Black Skimmer eggs were commercially harvested and adult birds were hunted for feathers for the millinery industry. Black Skimmer populations plummeted until laws were passed in the early 1900’s protecting them from hunting. Their numbers slowly rebounded until the middle of the twentieth century, when rapidly increasing development of beachfront property destroyed their breeding and nesting habitats. They are currently facing new threats as coastal flooding incidents are increasing due to the rise in sea levels due to climate change.

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Our Disappearing Birds: The Piping Plover

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These were once common breeding birds across the Great Plains, around the Great Lakes and along the Atlantic seaboard. Since the 1930’s, however, their numbers have dropped precipitously, and they are now endangered or threatened in all three of their breeding areas. As of the early 2000’s, just over 3,000 breeding pairs of Piping Plovers were left in the world, with a total population of just over 8,000 birds. As of 2014, the Piping Plover was listed as one of the 233 United States birds most in need of conservation action by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI).

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One of the primary reasons for this decline is loss of habitat. The diminutive Piping Plover, weighing in at just a couple of ounces, breeds and nests in the narrow strip of sandy shoreline just above the high tide line. In short, our appetite for owning waterfront property destroys their homes. Where their habitat is not outright destroyed, the increased foot and automotive traffic destroys or disturbs their nests. It is no coincidence that their population numbers dropped significantly after the 1950’s as waterfront property has developed at ever-increasing rates.

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Increased use of waterfront property by humans also leads to higher rates of predation by pets, and by fox, raccoons and other natural predators who are attracted to areas of human habitation.

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A new and growing threat to these beautiful birds comes from coastal flooding as a result of increased sea levels due to our changing climate, which lowers reproduction rates.

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What is being done to save the Piping Plover from extinction? In 1985, the Great Lakes popultion of Piping Plovers, reduced to less than 50 breeding pairs, was designated as endangered by the federal government, and all remaining populations of Piping Plovers were designated as threatened. Cooperative research groups, comprised of the US and Canadian wildlife services, universities, and private non-profits, research and monitor the birds. Measures have been put in place to improve nesting success, by limiting human access to nesting areas, and to manage the impact of human development on the breeding habitat of the Piping Plover. State and local agencies are also running public education campaigns designed to inform the public of the plight of the Piping Plover.

The breeding pair of Piping Plovers photographed for this post were located at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge has roped off the sand dunes throughout the refuge and marked them with signs informing beachgoers of the need to protect these nesting areas. I was fortunate to be sitting at the edge of one of these areas when these two birds flew in to check out nesting sights. With only approximately 3,000 breeding pairs of these beautiful birds left in the world, I feel particularly blessed that they came by to be photographed.

Sources of information for this post:

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Piping_Plover/id

http://www.stateofthebirds.org/extinctions/watchlist.pdf

http://www.fws.gov/plover/q&a.html

http://www.defenders.org/piping-plover/basic-facts

http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=3127

Another Banded Oystercatcher

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Yesterday was a beautiful day to bird. Shorebirds are beginning to arrive. Many are paired up. One pair of American Oystercatchers were resting on the dunes. One of the pair was banded, the other was not. I’ll be reporting these birds to the Patuxent Wildlife Bird Banding Laboratory. Hopefully, I’ll get some background information about this particular bird.

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It’s Breeding Season at the Marsh!

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The marshes of Cape May, New Jersey, that is! I went there looking for early migrating shorebirds and warblers. Thanks to our long, cold winter, there were few early migrants to be found, but there were plenty of other birds showing off their spring colors!

04 07 15 Cape May 016  This Savannah Sparrow, with his tell-tale yellow spot in front of his eye and flared crown feathers, usually found foraging for seeds on the ground, was perched at the top of a scrubby patch of bushes, claiming his territory and looking for a mate.

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This Field Sparrow, identified by his crisp white eye-ring and pink bill, sang long and loud from the highest branches around, his bouncing-ball trill clear and distinctive across the marshes and dunes.

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The Mute Swan, with his bright orange bill, has a black knob that swells during breeding season.

04 07 15 Cape May 040 The Red-Winged Blackbird flairs his scarlet epaulets to claim his territory and attract his mate. The marshes echo with the ubiquitous conk-a-ree song of this very common marsh bird.

04 06 14 Cape May & Forsythe 112  Egrets show their breeding attire not just by their elegant, flaring plumage, but by their bills, which brighten to an almost neon color.

04 06 14 Cape May & Forsythe 116 American Oystercatchers are colorful birds year-round. According to the allaboutbirds website, courting birds will fly in tight formation, and will be joined by birds from adjoining territories, all while whistling their distinctive wheeps.

 

Back to the Ospreys at Almshouse Creek

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The Ospreys have definitely set up house on Almshouse Creek. This fine pair of birds has taken over the platform that rests over the creek. It doesn’t appear that they’ve laid eggs yet, as both birds seem to come and go at will. We’ll see what happens in the coming weeks.

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One of the birds was busy dining on a recently caught fish. Mmmm… sushi, anyone?

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But, then a large dog got too close to the nesting platform, which is only 10-15 feet from the shoreline. The birds took off, with this one still gripping his prized prey.

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They came back a short time later.

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If any other Ospreys flew overhead, the larger Osprey would put up quite a fuss.

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I’ll be heading back every few days to see what happens with these guys. Hopefully, the dogs won’t bother them too much, and we’ll see some Osprey chicks this year!

Insecticides and Songbirds: What’s the Connection?

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It began with a short exchange as a longtime volunteer taught us how to monitor our Bluebird boxes. He explained that the environmental research center where the bluebird boxes are located rent out the farm fields on the property to local farmers. “For several years, these fields were covered in hay,” he said as we walked the perimeter of the fields. “On average, we fledged 200 Bluebirds each year. Last year, they planted corn – GMO corn – here. We only fledged 130 Bluebirds.” Questions bounced around in my head. Was it a causal relationship or coincidence? Why would GMO corn hurt the Bluebirds? Why do we need GMO crops, anyway? What’s going on here?

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Eastern Bluebird, Pt. Lookout, Maryland, February, 2014

The link between the GMO corn and the Bluebirds has to do, not so much with the corn itself, but with the chemicals used to treat the corn. Genetically engineered crops are genetically modified, in part, so that the plant will survive the increasingly toxic herbicides and pesticides with which they are treated. Of particular concern is a relatively new class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, derived from nicotine, a natural insecticide. The neonicotinoids cause paralysis and eventual death when consumed by organisms. They were developed in the early 1990’s to combat crop pests that had become increasingly resistant to older generations of insecticides. They are now the most widely used insecticides in the WORLD. There are over 300 types of neonicotinoids used in the United States today. They are used to coat seeds, in crop sprays, in granulated spreads for pastures and parks, and in lawn and garden sprays and granules for suburban use.

So, what’s the problem?

Well, first of all, these are acutely toxic chemicals. They don’t discriminate between bad insects that devour crops, and good insects like bees and other pollinators. In fact, they are so potent that they are acutely toxic for birds as well. According to a study sponsored by the American Bird Conservancy in 2013, “A single corn kernel treated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird.”

Secondly, this class of pesticides is highly persistent, lasting up to 19 years in the soil. Compounding this level of persistence is that most of the pesticide leaches into the soil, where it washes out into the water system. Data on surface and ground water contamination from California and the Great Plains indicate that levels of neonicotinoids in run-off waters are so high that it’s contaminating surface and ground waters, and impacting the aquatic food chain – it’s killing the aquatic invertebrates. In other words, it’s so effective that it’s destroying the food supply  – the insects and the invertebrates – upon which so many bird species depend.

Additionally, the combination of the persistent nature of the chemical along with it’s pervasive use (90% of the corn and 95% of the soybeans produced in the United States are GMOs, laced with these pesticides), means that they are available to birds chronically, leading to reproductive toxicity. Again citing the 2013 study sponsored by the American Bird Conservancy, “As little as 1/10th of a neonicotinoid-coated corn seed per day during egg-laying season is all that is needed to affect reproduction.”

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Eastern Bluebird, Schoolhouse Pond, Upper Marlboro, Maryland, March, 2014

So, back to my 23 Bluebird boxes. Does any of this relate to the declining numbers of fledgling birds at this particular sight last year? I suppose it would take a longitudinal, scientific study to come to any conclusions about that. What this line of questions has done is to raise my level of awareness and knowledge regarding the impact of genetically engineered crops and the use of increasingly toxic chemicals to treat those crops on the environment. Hopefully, it’s raised some questions and some eyebrows among my readers. For those of you who would like to read more, I am including the sources of information used to write this essay. Let’s learn together.

Sources:

Main, Emily. (March, 2013). “First the Bees, Now the Songbirds: Pesticides Silencing America’s Songbird Population.” Retrieved from   http://www.rodalenews.com/pesticides-and-songbirds

mercola.com. (June, 2013). “Ecosystem and Food Supply Threatened by Gross Underestimate of Toxicity of Neonicotinoid Pesticides.” Retrieved from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archieve/2013/06/18/neonicotinoid- pesticide.aspx

Mineau, P. & Palmer, C. (March, 2013). “The Impact of the Nation’s Most Widely Used Insecticides on Birds.” Retrieved from http://extension.entm.purdue.edu./neonicotinoids/PDF/TheImpactoftheNation’sMost WidelyUsedInsecticidesonBirds.pdf

Monbiot, George. (August, 2013). “Neonicotinoids are the New DDT Killing the Natural World.” Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2013/aug/05/neonicotinoids-ddt-pesticides-nature

Paul, K. & Cummins, R. (Feb, 2014). “GMOs are Killing Bees, Butterflies, Birds and… ” Retrieved from                                                     http://www.organicconsumers.org/essays/gmos-are-killing-bees-butterflies-birds-and

 

 

 

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