Thursday, May 28, 2009

Before and after Migration....

(male Hooded Warbler)

(male Hooded Warbler)

(male Hooded Warbler)

It is now May 28th, and this year's Spring migration is coming to a close. For me, personally, it was amazing. I began seriously birding in March of '08... which is just in time for migration. However, I was too enthrawled with Juncos and White-throated Sparrows and Brown Creepers to even realize what was beginning to happen around me. (I didn't learn what a FOY was until I had a FOY (first of the year bird))! And what was that, you ask? The mass migration of hundreds of bird species flying thousands of miles to their summer breeding grounds. Colorful warblers fliter and bug catch in habitats they wouldn't breed in. Uncommon ducks begin to be seen in local ponds and bays. And they skies become spotted as large amounts of hawks lazily list north on high altitude thermals.

Don't get me wrong, I saw tons of great migrants that year. Though it was all by luck and accident. This year I had somewhat of a game plan: Stay focused on my yard/woods/powerline cut to get an idea of what moves through, pay attention to reports on the local e-mail listservs, try to get to as many migrant traps as possible, and focus my efforts on learning the seemingly unlimited number of bird songs so I can ID birds quicker, find them faster, and be more certain about the ID.

Here in southwestern coastal Connecticut, certain migrants begin to be seen in mid to late-March. The very first of these bird are Tree Swallows and Eastern Phoebes. The near the end of March, the Ospreys return to their fishing grounds and start refurbishing last years nest. Or if a young'un, they find their own locale to start their own nest. At this time you also begin to notice birds molting into breeding plumage. Common and Red-throated Loons, Long-tailed Ducks, Horned Grebes various gull species begin their annual transformation into, quite often, an entirely different appearance. This process coincides with the departure of our wintering species. Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls, Scoters, sea ducks, Rough-legged hawks, Snowy Owlsm Snow Buntings and Longspurs begin their trek north and are seen less frequently.

By the beginnig of April, random shore birds begin to be seen more often, such as Black-bellied Plovers and Great and Snowy Egrets, followed soon by Night-herons and Yellowlegs. The earliest warblers are Pine and Palm warblers, showing up in mid-April. Some Pines, as well as Yellow-rumped warblers overwinter on the eastern seaboard as far north as Rhode Island. So many of the first and early Pine and Wellow-rumps, even some Palms, are over-wintering birds who don't travel as far as their true migratory relatives.

By the time May rolls in warbler, vireos, tanagers, thrushes, ducks and shorebirds begin to be seen in numbers. Now, many species begin to court and start the process of nesting. Most winter species are gone and on their way to the northermost territories of Canada. The Pine and Palm warblers than were common in April are now becoming more scarce, while the mid-level migration warblers are starting to be seen more often. Black-throated Blue and Green, Yellow, Chestnut-sided, Common Yellowthroats, Blue-winged, Black-and-white warbler and American Redstarts can be seen in almost any habitat during their journey to the breeding grounds. Indigo Buntings, Baltimore Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and White-crowned Sparrows begin to show up at feeders, only the latter continuing through CT to its northern breeding grounds.

Species that over winter, and those who don't now show their striking breeding plumages. Swamp and Chipping sparrows who wear drab plumage during the winter transform into contrasting little bundles of color. Gulls are transforming into the next level of their plumage/age cycles. For example, a 1st winter Glaucous Gull spent the winter at a local beach in Stratford, Connecticut. During the winter it had it's pearled and somewhat mottled white and light grey plumage going. He is still present, in the same spot (as of 5/27/09) and is now almost entirely in his glowing white plumage.

As May rolls along and June starts to peak around the corner, migration slows and numbers of warblers and other migrants slow. Those who breed here get right into the thick of breeding, if the haven't already. Later migrants like Eastern Wood-Pewee and Mourning warbler are now seen and late stragglers can still be found in several habitats.

So now, sitting here on May 27th, the bulk of the spring migration is over. But for me, that just signals that it is time to learn about the birds who breed near me. One of which was a life bird for me no more than a month ago.

The Hooded Warbler is a new world wood warbler who breeds in mature mixed hardwood forests with a vey thick understory. The male is brigtht yellow, with a striking dark black 'hood' that circles his face.

I had gone to a sanctary about 40 minutes from my house here in CT to see one of these amazing birds. I had never seen or heard one before and I was very excited. Even more so when I actualy found him! I heard him sing a few times, got some photos, then went on my way. At that point I didn't think I would see another one this year... without going back to the sanctuary where they breed.

But sure enough, about a week ago I heard a very loud, and very confident song coming from the dark thickness of the woods behing my house. I had only heard the Hooded sing once earlier in the month, and I didn't know what was singing from my woods. It remined me of a Hooded, but I wasn't sure. I sent out an e-mail to the CTBirds listserv for assistance. I said that I thought it was a Hooded warbler, but the song was somewhat shorter. Most people suggested a Magnolia warbler. So I listened to some sound files for both Magnolia and Hooded, and Hooded fit well. The song of the Magnolia warbler is somewhat similar (personally, I don't think it really is), but it is quieter, longer and slower. The song of the Hooded warbler is very pronounced, loud, and conifident.

So after people telling me it could be something else, I had to find out for sure. Three days after first hearing the bird, I heard him sing again. So I went out into the woods, found the thickest area and what seemed to be exactly the Hooded's breeding habitat requirements, found a rock and sat and waited. He was singing all over the place, but I couldn't locate him. This went on for about 2 hours before I decided to call it quits. On the way out I didn't take the trail, instead I moved through the thickness where the bird had been singing for 3 days. At this point, it wasn't singing, but I had high hopes.

As I approached a very wet area (several spots of wetlands back there and a few streams) I saw a quick flash of yellow jump into a low bush. Common Yellowthroats are everywhere in my woods and powerline cut, so that is what I thought it was at first. A few seconds later it flew out in front of my face and landed on a low branch no more than 10' in front of me. It was a male Hooded warbler!!! Vindication! I was right! Man I can't explain how good of a feeling that is. For one, the excitement of finding an awesome bird is running strong. Then add to that the excitement of seeing a bird for only the 2nd time ever. Add on the fact that it was in my woods, and that I correclty identified it by song. Now throw in a little bit of people not believing you, and you got a great feeling.

The Hooded warbler's breeding range extends from the Florida panhandle, west to just past the Texas/Louisiana border, north to the southern Missouri border, then east to the Atlantic shore. The range spreads north along the eastern shore the south-central Connecticut and southern Rhode Island. It's range goes much further north in the east and on the coast that it does in the mid-west. There are random pockets of populations in Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, half of Ohio and Missouri... while the range covers most of West Virginia, Viginia and Pennsylvania. My woods are just about at the northernmost part of their breeding grounds.

The Hooded warbler's habitat requirements vary from thier wintering grounds, breeding grounds, and habitats frequented while in migration. In migration they are usually found in dense, low thickets and the thick understory of mature woodlands. The breeding habitat requirements are similar... they breed in both up and bottomland woods, with the most important ingredient being well-developed scrubby thickets/undergrowth beneath extensive, mature, shaded woods. This habitat description could have been describing my woods.

I have yet to see and sure-fire signs of breeding, but I have high hopes. For one, this male is just about at the northermost tip of his breeding range.... although there are certainly perfect breeding habitats for the Hooded north of my location, according to breeding range maps he doesn't have much more breeding grounds to his north. Second, there were 2 males yesterday, and I heard 3-4 when they stopped singing and started making their single, short note metallic 'chip' call. Third, and most important is the habitat.... all descriptions I've read of the Hooded warblers breeding habitat describe the habitat he is in now to a T. So hopefully he will stay to leave his mark on the world, and hopefully bring more back next year!

The spring migration of birds is an amaing thing. There are several aspects and periods throughout. IN addition to the possibility of seeing a great quantity of species, it is the best time of year to hone up on ones birding skills (spotting, IDing, songs) and to learn more about birds in general.

(photos shown are of a male Hooded warbler seen in the woods behind my house in Stratford, Connecticut)

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