Thursday, September 3, 2015

Ornithology Lab, September 2

Hey everyone! This is the first installment in a series of weekly posts for my Ornithology Class at Ohio University. We go out in the field every Wednesday (weather permitting) to do some birding and bird banding. One of our assignments is to write a blog post about each of these field trips, which is what this series will be about. A note to my regular readers: these posts will most likely be very different from my usual posts. I try to have a photo for every individual thing I talk about, but I won't be able to bring my camera on these field trips. As a result, these posts will be more like a journal than anything. I'll try to post any relevant photos I have from my library, but no guarantees! I'm hoping to intersperse "normal" posts with these posts as well. This series will run until early December. Alright, back information aside, let's get started!

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The morning started early. I would say bright and early, but it's quite dark outside at 5:30 AM. I got ready, grabbed my field guide, binoculars, field notebook, and a pen, and left my dorm room at 6:30 AM. We packed up the banding equipment and drove up to The Ridges, arriving at about 7:10 AM. The Ridges lies on the edge of the city of Athens in Athens County. It's an interesting place, and I honestly spend way more time there than I probably should. Most people know it as the site of the old Athens Lunatic Asylum, but it's much more than that. The land is now owned by Ohio University, and behind the old asylum building is dozens and dozens of acres of land with a smorgasbord of different habitats. Miles of trails, utilized by the students of Ohio University and the "townies" of Athens, crisscross the landscape, cutting through mature deciduous forest, grassland, abandoned orchards, shrubby overgrowth, young forest, and more. I've previously given a quick of The Ridges, which you can read here

The view of Radar Hill, one of the main attractions at The Ridges. Field Sparrows nest all throughout the grassy areas you see, while more "deep forest" birds like Pileated Woodpeckers call the forests you can partially see on the sides of the photo home.

As you might expect from a place with a variety of habitats, it's a good place for birds. I mean, it's a really good place for birds. I would definitely say it's one of the best places in Athens County to go birding. To give you an idea, 224 species have been recorded in Athens County on eBird. Of those 224 species, 155 of them have been seen one time or another at The Ridges. That's about 70%. I personally have a list of around 90 species here at The Ridges, including 21 species of warblers. 

The first bird we heard this morning was a White-Eyed Vireo. This is a common species along the beginning of the Nature Trail by the Challenge Course. The White-Eyed Vireo pictured here is from April 2015 along the Nature Trail.
Now that you have some background information on the area, let's get into today. As I mentioned, we arrived at around 7:10 AM, so all of the sightings I'll mention here happened between then and when we left at 11:40 AM. The morning started off relatively warm at around 65 degrees. It was incredibly humid and only got worse throughout the morning. Light fog hung in some of the low lying areas, while a hazy sky with some cirrus clouds soared overhead. The fog and haze left between 9:30 and 10:00 AM. We were hoping for a lot of good Fall migrants, but this week was a bad week for migration. Southerly winds prevented large movements of many of the northern-breeding songbirds. 

One of the main goals of our class is to get better acquainted with bird banding, specifically with the use of mist nets. Essentially, a mist net is a thin, hard to see net that birds will fly into before getting stuck in a tiny pocket. Once caught, a bird can be removed from the net, inspected for various things such as age, sex, and weight, and then banded. When banded, a bird is given a unique number code that is printed on a tiny aluminum ring. This ring is attached to the leg of the bird. If recaptured at any other banding station, or by any other bander, the code can be looked up and they will have access to all of the previous information gathered on that specific bird. This helps ornithologists gain a better idea of the basic morphology of a species, migration routes used and timing of those routes, what species utilize certain habitats, and much more.

We set up mist nets at 5 different locations. These locations were in a power-line right-of-way with a deciduous forest on each side, by a small pond, by a shrubby area next to an area of semi-developed land, and in a young deciduous forest. Upon setting up these nets, you wait for 10-30 minutes (depends on the conditions of that day) away from the nets, and then make a round checking all the nets. You hope there's at least one bird at one of the nets, but sometimes you come up empty. On a good day and at a good location, some banding stations can get hundreds and hundreds of birds. This day was not a good day. We ended up banding 5 birds total. However, 2 of these birds were really "good" birds.

The first was a surprise. By the tiny pond we caught a waterthrush, a species of warbler. Now, the first thought by me and most others was "Oh, it's a Louisiana Waterthrush." This is by far the most commonly seen waterthrush around Athens, and the only one that breeds here. However, the yellowish wash on its flanks, streaks on the throat, and yellow supercillium (eyebrow stripe) actually meant this was the Northern Waterthrush. This was a lifer for me and a few of the other birders in the class (although I don't really "count" birds that have been caught with a net). A great start to the semester. 

The second bird that was netted was a female Northern Cardinal. This individual was caught along a slight slope in a scruffy secondary growth woods next some lawn, a normal type of habitat that you would expect a cardinal in. Right now in the year, nesting is essentially over. As a result, we have an influx of juvenile birds going through their awkward teenage years. A young male Northern Cardinal superficially looks like an adult female; however, there are a few differences. The most obvious is the bill color; adult females will have a bright orange bill, while young males will have a dull gray bill. Another feature, which you won't see unless you have the bird in hand, is a brood patch, which this female had. Essentially, a brood patch is an area of featherless skin on the stomach of a female. A female's skin is much more efficient at directly transmitting heat to her eggs than adding the feathers as a "middle man." 

The third bird we banded was a Chipping Sparrow that had hatched this past season. As a result, he had juvenile plumage and was missing that species' characteristic rufus crown.

The fourth bird was the second "good" bird of the day. In a young and scrubby deciduous forest patch by an ephemeral creek we caught a Swainson's Thrush, another migrant species. Looking similar to a Wood Thrush or a Hermit Thrush, the Swainson's Thrush is a bird of Canada. They only pass through Ohio during Spring and Fall migrations, typically in April/May and September/October, respectively. A reserved skulker of a bird, this is a species most people don't see unless they're looking for one. It was great to see one so upclose!

Hey, I actually have a picture for this species! This is a Carolina Chickadee from Pickaway County, Ohio.
Last, but not least, was a Carolina Chickadee. A very common species at The Ridges, we heard several this day but only netted one, a young juvenile. The Carolina Chickadees should be, if they haven't already, starting to form mixed foraging flocks for the winter months. These typically consist of species like the Tufted Titmouse, Brown Creeper, and others. If you hear a chickadee starting from September on through the winter, it's best to look around and see what other birds are in the area!

There were plenty of other birds that we saw and heard during our time this morning. Here's my personal list of birds that I saw or heard (also including the species banded) during the field time, in taxonomic order. Note, species with an * means "heard only."

1. Turkey Vulture
2. Red-Bellied Woodpecker
3. Pileated Woodpecker*
4. Eastern Wood-Pewee*
5. Yellow-Throated Vireo*
6. White-Eyed Vireo*
7. Red-Eyed Vireo
8. Blue Jay
9. American Crow
10. Carolina Chickadee
11. Tufted Titmouse
12. White-Breasted Nuthatch
13. Carolina Wren*
14. American Robin
15. Swainson's Thrush
16. Cedar Waxwing
17. Northern Waterthrush
18. Chipping Sparrow
19. Eastern Towhee
20. Northern Cardinal
21. American Goldfinch

Some of the other species that I did not personally see, but others in the class did include:

1.Yellow-Billed Cuckoo
2. Ruby-Throated Hummingbird
3. Northern Mockingbird 

A flock of Cedar Waxwings came through at one point over the pond along the Nature Trail. The Cedar Waxwing pictured was an individual from earlier in the year taken along the Radar Hill Trail at The Ridges.
Overall, it was a really good first week out. I'm hoping that next week will bring northerly winds, and more migrants with it. I'm eagerly awaiting the return of Golden-Crowned Kinglets, Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers, and White-Throated Sparrows as well, which should be around mid to late September.

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