Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Field study offers different perspective to birding
June 16, 2007
Last week, I talked about the local breeding birds that are going about their domestic business. I’ve also mentioned in past columns, that this year marks the start of the second Breeding Bird Atlas, conducted by the Massachusetts Audubon Society. This survey attempts to determine which species are breeding in the state.
The state is divided into 970 blocks of about 10 square miles each. Volunteers methodically survey those blocks for a minimum of 20 hours to determine which bird species are breeding there. The last Atlas was completed back in 1979, and more than 25 years of change in landscape and habitats will be reflected in the results. Such data is invaluable in mapping the future for many species of birds in Massachusetts. The data can also be used to assess land use and its impact on various species of birds.
I have volunteered to cover two blocks that include Newburyport, Newbury and Byfield and, I must say, this kind of field work is totally different from the birding that I have been doing in recent years. You’ve read about my field trips, my search for rare and exotic species, my encounter with unusual birds, and my attempts to identify large numbers of species in a given day (i.e. Superbowl of Birding, and Bird-a-thon). But I must tell you, that doing a breeding bird survey is a different animal all together. It is a whole other way of birding – one that takes me back to some of my earlier days when times seemed simpler, birds more numerous and somehow closer.
On field trips, we travel around and look and listen to identify birds along the way. On my field trips, I try to take time with as many birds as possible, to observe well their plumage, their habits and song, so that such information could be stored away for the next encounter with that bird. Still, with a group of people, birders that is, all at different levels of birding experience, there is a need to keep moving and to keep seeing different birds so that all can enjoy the experience.
There is excitement in seeing new birds, or many birds, but there is also excitement in studying individual birds well. I spent a couple of days this past week surveying my areas, concentrating on Martin Burns Wildlife Management Area in Byfield on Sunday, with Margo’s help, and Maudslay State Park on Monday.
At Martin Burns, we heard numerous breeding birds singing on territory, including yellow-billed cuckoo, Eastern wood pewee, great-crested flycatcher, wood thrush, blue-winged and prairie warbler, ovenbird, rose-breasted grosbeak and indigo bunting. We had our best luck along the railroad bed, where we found four young great blue herons sitting in their single nest with mama. Interestingly, a great egret fed in marsh below.
Nearby, we waited patiently while a female red-winged blackbird, carrying food in her bill, finally “showed us” in which clump of grass her nest was hidden. We watched for long minutes while an oriole called all around us. We watched the male fly tree to tree. We saw it gather food and fly to one spot in a tree where a nest was hanging. There, it fed its young, hidden in the hanging basket of woven grasses, and flew off. A short while later, the female came with food to the nest.
We watched another nearby tree intently, as a warbling vireo sang from within the foliage. Not only could we not spot the nest, we could not even spot the birds. Despite the time we spent staring and searching, no vireo was visible. We did watch as a hairy woodpecker went into a hole in a dead tree to feed its young, yet nearby calling flickers and downy woodpeckers gave no indication of their nesting locations. On the return trail, though, we did watch a robins, mourning doves, and a field sparrow carrying food to young – excellent evidence to confirm nesting.
So what we learn is that trying to observe birds, to determine if they are breeding, requires that you stop in one place and observe. It requires listening not just for bird song, but for every little chip note that you may have overlooked in the past. The chirping of young birds is subtle and often overlooked or dismissed as “unidentifiable.” Yet, for this survey, it is important to follow up each note or series of chirps as they could lead to a nest or family of breeding birds.
When I continued the next day in Maudslay, I found this to be so true. I spent the first half hour just standing in one place in the field behind the headquarters building, just trying to absorb the various breeding birds around me. There was a male and female bobolink singing in around the taller grasses in the field and after much patience, I finally saw the female ascending into a clump of grass with food, evidence of nesting. A pair of tree swallows were at one of the nest boxes. One was perched atop while another brought food into the cavity. There were bluebirds around, but it looked they had already nested once, with no obvious signs of nesting in any of the boxes while I was there.
Chirping sparrows were singing in nearby pines, but no visibility of nesting there. I did watch another male Baltimore oriole bring food to a nest. Their bright colors make them easy to spot! One of the highlights of my efforts was finally locating a singing pine warbler 60 feet up in a pine tree. I watched it carry food, but to a much bigger bird in its nest – obviously a cowbird. Unfortunately, this is a two-fer, confirming nesting pine warbler, but also confirming the “nesting” parasitic cowbird, that lays its eggs in other species nests to be raised by those parents.
There was also a robin on its nest, a white-breasted nuthatch bringing food to its young in a hole in a tree, and a house wren feeding young in one of the nest boxes. Singing wood pewees, great crested flycatchers, and kingbirds, wood thrush, ovenbirds, scarlet tanagers, song and swamp sparrows, rose-breasted grosbeaks and indigo buntings were evidence of breeding birds. And so I look ahead to the next few weeks of stopping, listening and observing for as many breeding birds as I can locate in my designated areas.
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