The Allegheny Front Migration Observatory (AFMO), Hiking, Wildflowers and More on Dolly Sods – late September, 2017

The AFMO has been operating each fall since 1958 and is the oldest continuously operating bird banding station in North America.  I have been visiting this bird banding station since 1972 and volunteering since 2004.  Jan has volunteered since 2007, the year she retired. We are both federally licensed bird banders, but at AFMO we volunteer as net-tenders removing birds from the 30 mist nets used for trapping migratory birds. The AFMO is located along the Allegheny Front (eastern continental divide) near the Red Creek Campground on Dolly Sods. Most of Dolly Sods is federally designated as Wilderness Area comprising 32,000 acres. The banding station is in the Dolly Sods Scenic Area.

Dolly Sods Wilderness fall scenic

Dolly Sods looking south from Castle Rock with the Allegheny Front to the left. (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

signs

photos (c) Jan Runyan

In late September this year, we spent 15 days on Dolly Sods working at the AFMO.  We stayed at Red Creek Campground.  Our days began at 5 a.m. when it was still dark.  Before 6, we walked to the AFMO to help open the mist nets at 6:15 a.m.  The thrushes began hitting the nets while it was still dark and we usually needed headlamps to take  them from the nets.

thrushes

Left – Gray-cheeked Thrush just banded;  right – Jan releasing a reluctant Swainson’s Thrush (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish a Gray-cheeked Thrush from a Swainson’s Thrush.  Having them side-by-side makes the differences easier to see.

103 IMG_4684

Left – Gray-cheeked Thrush;  right – Swainson’s Thrush (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

We also caught other thrushes:  Wood Thrush, Hermit Thrush and Veery.

veery

Veery (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Being on the Allegheny Front, looking east toward the ridge-and-valley area and the piedmont, the views from the AFMO are spectacular. Each sunrise (or sometimes just sky-lightening) is different.

scenic 2

Dolly Sods sunrises (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

The following video is from the AFMO.  We see something similar almost every morning. (video (c) Jan Runyan)

 

During and after the sunrise we begin to catch other kinds of birds, especially warblers.

cape-may

Black-throated Green Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

palm warbler

Palm Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

black-and-white

Black-and-white Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Sometimes we catch a bird that is uncommon at the AFMO and everyone stops what they are doing to get a good look. That was the case this year with this Mourning Warbler.  It was only the 34th of its kind banded at the AFMO since 1958.

mourning

Mourning Warbler (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

Many of the warblers we band are referred to as ‘confusing’ fall warblers due to the drastic color and pattern differences from their spring plumage.  This Chestnut-sided Warbler showed no signs of the beautiful chestnut colors it had during the spring, however the golden crown is a good indicator for identifying this species in the fall.

chest-nut-sided

Chestnut-sided Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

And this Hooded Warbler showed little or no indication of the black hood it will have when it wears its breeding plumage next spring.

hooded 1

Hooded Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

hooded 2

Hooded Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Sometimes identification comes down to the color of the soles of the feet or of the lower bill.

IMG_3805

Cape May Warbler (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

One of the things the banders record is the age of each bird that’s banded.  Among other things, they examine the wear, molt limits and colors of the feathers.

molt limits

photos (c) Jan Runyan

Occasionally there is a bird who is so young that some of his feathers are still emerging from their sheaths.  Still, he is already in the middle of his migration flight.

IMG_3837

photo (c) Jan Runyan

After sunrise there is often fog or mist in the valleys or rising from them. (video (c) Jan Runyan)

 

Each day after the birds were done with their morning feeding flight, we helped furl the nets to keep them safe and out of the way until the next day when net-tenders would be back to monitor them.  The station is usually closed by noon each day which gave Jan and me time to see many of the other wonders of Dolly Sods and other nearby areas.  One of the hikes I led was on the Bog-to-Bog Loop Trail with Jan and two friends.

bog to bog 1

Left – In the Red Spruce woods adjacent to the the west side of the Alder Run Bog dog-leg;  right – eating lunch in the Red Pine plantation near the High Mountain Meadow. (left photo (c) Bill Beatty, right photo (c) Jan Runyan)

bog to bog 2

Left – Fisher Springs Run Bog in background;  right – a Christmas-in-September Red Spruce surrounded by Black Chokeberry shrubs. (left photo (c) Jan Runyan, right photo (c) Bill Beatty)

During our 15 days we were fortunate to see three species of gentian in full bloom including the rare Fringed Gentian (found only in one place in West Virginia).

gentian

Left to right – Narrow-leaved Gentian, Bottle Gentian and Fringed Gentian (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

Due to the dry conditions most wildflowers were in poor condition, but those associated with wetlands seemed unaffected by the lack of rain.

plants 3

Left to right – Nodding Ladies’ Tresses, Black Knapweed and Orange Hawkweed (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

 

plants 1

Left – Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia);  right – a mosquito trapped on a fleshy Sundew leaf (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

plants 2

Oblong-leaved Sundew (Drosera intermedia) (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

One afternoon we went to the beaver dam along Forest Service Road 75 just south of Bear Rocks Nature Preserve to photograph the beavers.  Fortunately on this particular day the beavers  were quite cooperative.

beaver 1

Left photo (c) Jan Runyan;  right photo (c) Bill Beatty

The following three videos show just how much fun we had watching the beavers. (all three videos (c) Jan Runyan)

 

 

 

The AFMO can be a busy place.  Sometimes groups from schools or other organizations visit.  Some individuals who know about the banding station stop by to see the birds, the scenery, and familiar faces.  Sometimes people just happen upon the banding operation by following the well-traveled trail east of the Blackbird Knob Trail parking lot.

groups 1

Left – LeJay talking to a group from the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy;  right – Carol showing a bird to a school group (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

groups 2

Bill showing a school group how the birds are captured at the demo mist net. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

groups 4

Left – One of four groups from Marshall County Schools that visited the AFMO;  right – other visitors not with any organized group. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Giving people their first personal contact with birds is magical.  Young (and old) lives can be changed for all time.

groups 3

Jan putting a Ruby-throated Hummingbird in this young girl’s hand (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

chip

Left – Chip about to release a tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet;  right – Jackie holding a bird against a young lady’s ear so she can hear the heartbeat. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

jan lauren

Left – Jan with a Black-throated Blue Warbler;  right – Lauren with a Common Yellowthroat (left photo (c) Bill Beatty, right photo (c) Jan Runyan)

april jenny

Left – Apryl releasing a Swainson’s Thrush;  right – Jenny and Bill with one of her very favorite birds, a Mourning Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

33 IMG_3910

Girl releasing a Black-throated Green Warbler (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Birds are not the only animals visiting the AFMO.

other animals

Clockwise from top left – Red-spotted Purple Butterfly, Steve with a Smooth Green Snake, and Green Darner Dragonfly (photos (c) Jan Runyan

On our second Saturday on Dolly Sods, after banding I led a 5 mile hike on some well-known and lesser-known Dolly Sods Wilderness trails.

hike 1

In the beginning at “the Rock” and hiking cross-country between Alder Run and Red Creek (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

hike 2

Crossing Red Creek and hiking cross-country on the NE side of Blackbird Knob (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

hike3

Left – Time for lunch and rest;  right – play time at the confluence of Alder Run and Red Creek (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

hike 4

Hiking upstream along Alder Run and crossing the Beatty Labyrinth rock field (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

9 hike IMG_3968

The end…the Rock where it all began (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

For two days while we were at the AFMO a tick researcher studying the occurrence of Lyme’s disease was taking ticks from around the eyes and mouth of birds that nest on or near the ground.  She was also taking blood samples.

tick 1

Amanda explaining her tick research to Bill and removing a tick from a Swainson’s Thrush (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

tick 2

Wetting the underside of the wing to make the vein more visible and piercing the vein (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

tick 3

Taking blood and then applying an anticoagulant (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Each and every morning the bird banding research continued.

banding 1

photos (c) Jan Runyan

banding 2

photos (c) Jan Runyan

More and more birds were caught, removed from the mist nets, and taken to the ‘gurus’ in the banding shed.

BBWA BLBW

Bay-breasted Warbler (left) and Blackburnian Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

black-throated blues

Female (left) and male Black-throated Blue Warblers (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

OVEN AMRE

Ovenbird (left) and American Redstart (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

REVI PHVI1

Philadelphia Vireo (left) and Red-eyed Vireo (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

REVI eyes

Left – The reddish iris indicates this Red-eyed Vireo is an adult;  right – the brown iris indicates this Red-eyed Vireo was born this year. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

SASP SWSP LISP

From left – Savanah Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow and Lincoln’s Sparrow (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

One day after banding was done, Jan and I decided to check the out-and-back Old Growth Forest Trail to see if we could make it into a loop trail.  Anytime we are on this short trail we are mesmerized by the variety of habitats and the beauty, especially of the mosses and the mature oaks at the end of the trail.  The magic of the Morning Star (the planet Venus) early that morning had seemed to be a good omen of how wonderful the day would be.

old growth 1

Left – Venus, the Morning Star;  right – Jan beginning our hike on the little known Old Growth Forest Trail (left photo (c) Jan Runyan, right photo (c) Bill Beatty)

old growth 2

Left – the verdant Old Growth Forest Trail;  right – Jan looking closely at a Red Spruce nursery (left photo (c) Jan Runyan and right photo (c) Bill Beatty)

hen-of-the-woods mushroom

Bill found this Hen-of-the-woods fungus and took it back to the campground where our good friends and campground neighbors turned it into a delicious meal (which they shared with us). (left photo (c) Jan Runyan,  right photo (c) Bill Beatty)

We never did find a way to turn the out-and-back trail into a loop trail, but we had a great time trying.

One day we caught a bird with a bewildering difference.  A male Black-throated Blue Warbler had a red plastic band on his leg.  Researchers often use various colored plastic bands during research like nesting site studies so they can spot specific individual birds by sight.  But we were baffled because this bird did not also have a numbered metal band which would identify the bander and location.  That day’s AFMO bander put one of his numbered metal bands on the bird and made note of this anomaly in his records.

red plastic band

Left – the Black-throated Blue Warbler arrived at AFMO with just a plastic band;  right – the warbler left AFMO with the additional aluminum numbered band (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Always special at the AFMO are the larger and unusual birds, especially raptors.  There were two hawks caught while we were there.

jeff SSHA

Station Manager Jeff with an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk.  Notice the red iris and orange-brown horizontal bars on the breast. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

shelia SSHA

Station Manager Shelia with a young Sharp-shinned Hawk.  Notice the yellow iris and brown vertical barring on breast. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Each year, for many years, I have spent 1 to 3 months on Dolly Sods taking photos, leading wilderness hikes and volunteering at the AFMO.  Each time I leave I feel as if I’m leaving a wonderful dear friend…sad to leave but so glad to have been there.  What a wonderful place!

scenic 2

Two of the many moods of our friend, Dolly Sods.

“Rainbows, Bluebirds and Buffleheads” at the Ohio County Public Library, Wheeling WV

This program is free and open to the public.   December 6, 12 – 1 pm

For years people have told me they often come to my programs just to hear my stories.  Many said, “You should write down your stories!  You should write a book!”   So, I did!

This  book is a collection of my favorite bird-related stories and describes my progression from a young boy fascinated by the rainbows in starling and pigeon feathers, to becoming an expert in bird identification, natural history, having a Master Personal Federal Bird Banding Permit for over 40 years and studying eastern screech-owls for 28 years.  Most of the stories describe experiences which took place in West Virginia…many of those in Ohio County.

At Ohio County Public Library’s “Lunch With Books”, I will be speaking about my new book and telling stories from it.

Rainbows, Bluebirds and Buffleheads will be available for purchase at the program.

Ohio County Library: Lunch With Books http://www.ohiocountylibrary.org/calendar/lunch-with-books-discovering-life-through-birds-with-bill-beatty/1303

Allegheny Front Migration Observatory (AFMO) on Dolly Sods – 2016

I have been visiting this bird banding station since 1972 and volunteering since 2004.  Jan has volunteered since 2007, the year she retired.  We are both federally licensed bird banders, but volunteer as net tenders removing birds from the 30 mist nets used for trapping migratory birds.  The AFMO is located along the Allegheny Front near the Red Creek Campground on Dolly Sods.  Most of Dolly Sods is federally designated wilderness comprising 32,000 acres.  The banding station is in the Dolly Sods Scenic Area.

In late September this year, we spent two weeks on Dolly Sods working at the AFMO.  At the banding station our days begin  at 6 am when it is still dark.  Being on the Allegheny Front, looking east toward the ridge-and-valley and the piedmont, the views from the AFMO are spectacular.  Each sunrise (or sometimes just sky-lightening) is different.  Click on photos to enlarge… use back button to return to blog.

Dolly Sods sunrises (c) Bill Beatty and Jan Runyan

Views from along the Allegheny Front at the AFMO. (c) Jan Runyan

Right away we are busy removing birds from the nets.  The earliest birds are mostly thrushes:  Swainson’s, Gray-cheeked, Hermit, Wood and Veerys.  It is usually still dark and head lamps are necessary.  Some of the other net tenders are also back-up banders.  If the day gets busy, they start banding, too, so that the birds are on their way as soon as possible. As the morning progresses we are mesmerized by the birds as well as the sunrise and other scenery.

Busy removing birds from the mist nets (c) Jan Runyan and Bill Beatty

Each bird is put into a separate brown paper lunch-sized bag.  Those small bags are collected in grocery store bags with handles.  Then they are taken to the banding shed where all the banding takes place.

Left – AFMO volunteers… and Right – some visitors observing and learning about birds and banding (c) Jan Runyan

All of the people who work at the station are highly trained volunteers who apprenticed at the station and return year after year to work.  They pay for their own training, equipment (except bands) and travel expenses.  Some help at the station for one or two weeks during the month and a half it is open (mid-August to early October) and several stay for almost the whole time.  The AFMO is funded completely by donations.

Visitors are always welcome and if the day is not too busy, we can teach about birds, bird banding and the science behind what we do.

Left to right – Banders checking a Lincoln’s Sparrow, Blue-headed Vireo and boy being handed an Ovenbird for release. (c) Jan Runyan

Most of the birds we catch are warblers (“fairly small, vocal, insectivorous, perching songbirds which vary widely in color and pattern”).   Some days we capture many hundreds; other days only a few.  The banding is weather dependent.  We do not open the station on rainy, foggy or very windy days.  Most birds are caught in the early morning hours, often before 10 am.  The banding is over by noon except on very busy days.  On October 26 of this year we caught and banded 829 birds and the banding (3 banders with several helpers) continued until 2:30.

Left to right… Connecticut Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Nashville Warbler and Hooded Warbler (c) Jan Runyan

On days with few birds the station closes earlier and we are able to take more time to appreciate Dolly Sods’ scenic beauty.  On slow days I often hike and sometimes Jan joins me.

Left to right… view from the AFMO and red spruce forest along the Bog to Bog Trail. (c) Jan Runyan

One day I led a group on a 4.7 mile wilderness hike for some friends. We traversed part of the Beatty Labyrinth, Alder Run Bog, several red spruce forests, a CCC red pine plantation, a high mountain meadow and Fisher Spring Run Bog.  Much of the hike involved bushwhacking into beautiful areas most hikers on Dolly Sods never see.

The wilderness hike and the Wilderness (c) Bill Beatty and Jan Runyan

On the hikes we see wonderful kinds of wildlife.  During any season there are many beautiful and interesting plants to enjoy.  The fall glows with Goldenrods and Asters accented by plants like Joe-Pye weed and different kinds of Gentians.

Left to right… Narrow-leaved Gentian, Bumblebee at Closed Gentian and Five-flowered Gentian (c) Bill Beatty

With the plants we often find an interesting variety of insects and spiders.  Some of the spider webs are spectacular, especially when wet with dew or fog.

Grass/Funnel Weaver Spider and male at funnel entrance (c) Jan Runyan and Bill Beatty

If we look fast, we might see several kinds of small snakes “running” away from us. Occasionally when the day is warm, we get to watch a Milk Snake sunning itself on a rock.

Left to right… Camouflaged Smooth Green Snake, holding a Smooth Green Snake and Red-bellied Snake (c) Bill Beatty

Because of its geology, the top of the mountain is dotted with bogs.  Some are small wet spots; others are huge open areas that take a long time to traverse.  In the fall, the Cottongrass spikes speckle the bogs and dance in the wind. In wetter parts, the bogs are filled with insectivorous Sundew plants–both the native Round-leaved Sundew and the invasive Spatulate-leaved Sundew.  In the fall the Sundews often have flower stalks above their insect-catching leaves.  Dolly Sods’ bogs are a moss lover’s delight.  Sphagnum can be found everywhere, but many other kinds entice us to kneel down and look carefully.   This year the Reindeer Moss (which isn’t a moss at all, but a complicated lichen) was very dry and crispy in exposed areas, but lush and spongy in the deep, moist woods.

Left to right… Sphagnum Moss, Cotton Grass and Spatulate-leaved Sundew (c) Jan Runyan

After our hikes or cranberry picking or photo expeditions or visits with friends, we savor an early dinner and fall asleep as the sun goes down.  Each morning while it’s still dark we are back at the banding station looking in awe at the Milky Way, watching the sunrise and, of course, catching more birds.

Left to right… Jan with Black-throated Green Warbler in mist net, Grace with a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Jan with a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (c) Bill Beatty and Jan Runyan

One of the very special things about being involved with bird banding is experiencing and examining the birds so closely.  We can see the subtle differences which give clues to the age and gender of each bird.

Left to right: Cape May and Blackburnian Warbler comparison; back and front of the Cape May Warbler (c) Jan Runyan

Of the 44 species of warblers listed in Peterson’s East/Central guide, the AFMO has banded 38 species.  The real challenge for fall banders comes because, of those 44 possible species, 24 species change their plumage, sometimes radically, after the summer breeding season.  In the species that do change, both the young and mature birds look very different in the fall than they do in the spring when most of us see them.  Of Peterson’s 24 “confusing fall warblers”, the station has caught all but one species.

In the spring most warblers look very different from each other.   In the fall their  different and muted colors can make us search for hints of washed-out color, faint streaks, a couple of different colored feathers or even the color of the feet to tell them apart.  Although we are sometimes left scratching our heads for a while, we relish the challenge.

Left to right… Bay-breasted Warbler with band, Bay-breasted Warbler head and Chestnut-sided Warbler (c) Jan Runyan

Although warblers are the most frequently banded birds at the AFMO, many other types of birds are also caught and banded.  From tiny Kinglets (both kinds) and Brown Creepers to Blue Jays, Hawks and even Northern Saw-Whet Owls, birds of all sizes leave the Allegheny Front with numbered aluminum bands on their legs.

Left to right… Brown Thrasher in the orange light of early morning sun, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Gray-cheeked Thrush (c) Jan Runyan

No matter what we catch, it is always a thrill to release a bird.  Sometimes when the station is not too busy and we have the right kind of birds, we can teach a visitor how to hold and release a bird.  Usually the bird flies away almost before the person holding it opens their hand.  But occasionally a bird will stay on a hand for a few moments, not realizing that the covering hand has been removed.  That is always magical.

Lee releasing a Wood Thrush (c) Jan Runyan

Field markings which may be hard to see on a bird in the field become very obvious when the bird is in hand.  Even the almost-indistinguishable Flycatchers can be identified with the help of expert books (and expert banders).

Left to right… Eastern Phoebe, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and White-throated Sparrow (c) Jan Runyan

Hawks are always a rare and exciting event.  Because their feet and wings are so much larger than those of most perching birds, hawks have an easy time getting out of a net.  Most of our captures occur on the rare occasion when a hawk tries to go after a bird that is already in the net.  When a hawk hits the net, it usually bounces off and flies away.  But if it hits just right, it falls into the pocket of the net.  If there is a net tender close enough, he or she can gather the net around the hawk before it has a chance to fly away.  One morning Jeff was net tending on a nearby south net when some of us saw a hawk hit a net near the far end.  People yelled, “Run, Jeff, run!”  and he took off running toward the far nets, not knowing exactly where he was headed, but knowing exactly why we told him to run.

One day I was fortunate to remove a hawk that hit near where I was removing another bird.  I was able to reach it before it could fly away.  He was a beauty!

Juvenal male Sharp-shinned Hawk in the process of being banded, sexed and released (c) Jan Runyan and Bill Beatty

Note the difference in eye color between the young male Sharp-shinned Hawk above and the older female “Sharpy” below. The iris color changes from grayish-yellow and yellow to orange and reddish during the first couple years of life.

Some sparrows can still be difficult to identify, even in hand.  But being able to turn the bird around and see both the top and bottom makes it easier to see the finer points of identification.

Left to right… Lincoln’s Sparrow, Yellow-throated Vireo, Indigo Bunting and adult female Sharp-shinned Hawk (c) Jan Runyan

Jan and I always collect Dolly Sods spring water the day before we leave for home.  Because everything was so dry this year, the spring was running much slower than most years.  We usually bring home enough water to last us the entire year, but we didn’t think we would have the time or patience to fill all of our containers this year.   With the help of an old coffee pot and a beautiful day to distract us while we waited, it only took a couple of hours to gather a year’s worth (we hope) of water.  In the middle of winter, the taste takes us right back to the sunny, green warmth of the Wilderness.

Filling our water containers at the Red Creek Campground spring.  Jan fills, Bill carries. (c) Bill Beatty

There is always something new and special to discover when we are on Dolly Sods and at the AFMO.  At night, the stars or moon are so bright and close it seems that if you climbed to the top of a spruce tree you could reach out and touch them.  Bushwhacking in the forests, meadows and bogs brings unexpected discoveries, both natural and, occasionally, human-made.

On our last day on the Sods, we were pleased to realize that we had helped add a significant number of birds to the AFMO tally for the year.  We feel very satisfied to be able to help with such an important scientific endeavor and very happy to be able to spend time with such good friends in a place as incredible as Dolly Sods.

Left to right… the early dark sky greeted us with a beautiful full moon, a Dolly Sods Wilderness boundary marker and the daily tally of total birds banded and total species on our final day of net tending.

Rainbows, Bluebirds and Buffleheads

MY NEW BOOK HAS JUST BEEN RELEASED!

When I teach, I tell stories about birds I’ve met and many of you have asked me to share my stories in writing.  I also am asked how I could manage to learn so much about birds.  Well, let me tell you a story…..

In Rainbows, Bluebirds and Buffleheads I share my favorite memories and stories about birds and how they changed my life.  You’ll meet the rainbow birds that started it all and some amazing people who helped me when I was a fledgling.  Midnight owl surveys…an avalanche of birds…Ralph-ael…bare-handing birds…pileated prowess…and so much more.

Finally I have answered your requests and am excited to share many of my birding life stories with you.

Enjoy!

6X9 inches 312 pages

Autographed copies are available for $18.95 plus $3.50 shipping.  West Virginia residents add $1.13 sales tax per book.  Not available outside the continental United States.  Mail check or money order to:  Bill Beatty, 540 Genteel Ridge Road, Wellsburg, WV  26070  Please make sure you include your shipping address.

Bill Beatty

Bill Beatty

 

Bluebirds and Blue Birds are not Blue!

Some may think, “If I see an Eastern Bluebird, I certainly see blue.”  Well, yes you do… and no you don’t.  It’s complicated!

Eastern Bluebirds nest on our property. We trap, band and release them. (c) Bill Beatty

My daughter, Julie, was active in Science Fair when she was in school.  In ninth grade her project was “Pigment and Structural Colors in Bird Feathers”.  Most birds’ feathers get their color from chemicals in the foods the birds eat.  Those foods provide different birds with different kinds of pigments in their feathers.  The pigments show color by absorbing some of the colors of the light spectrum and reflecting the other colors…we see the reflected colors.  Northern cardinals reflect red, therefore we see red; American goldfinches reflect yellow, Baltimore orioles reflect orange and so on.  The color blue is different, however.   Bluebirds do not reflect blue, yet we see blue.  There are truly no blue colored birds…anywhere.  The blue we see is not a reflective color from a blue pigment, rather a refractive color.  It’s physics and light playing tricks with our eyes.  For blue birds, instead of the light reflecting off the feathers and showing the color of the pigment, the light enters into the feather  and bends (refracts).  This refracted (not reflected) light is what we see.

Can you identify these ‘not really blue birds’ by their feathers? All are native to the United States. Answers are at the bottom of this page.  Click on the feathers to enlarge and then click again. (c) Bill Beatty

To study this, Julie gathered feathers from different kinds of dead birds we found along roadways.  Certain federal laws forbid collecting birds or any parts of birds, including feathers, but my Bird Banding Permit allowed me to salvage dead birds.   I already had several in our freezer.  With mortar and pestle Julie ground the red feathers of a cardinal with the resulting powder being a red color.  After grinding the feathers of a goldfinch, the powder was yellow.  The color resulting from oriole feathers was orange.  She destroyed the structure of the feathers but the pigments were still there and their respective colors did not change.  This showed that these birds’ colors resulted from the pigments in their feathers.  When she ground the eastern bluebird feathers into a powder, however, the powder was black.  This demonstrated that the bluebird’s color comes from the feather’s structure, not its pigment:  destroy the structure and the blue color disappears.

Every time I see a blue bird I’m thankful that nature has made a way for me to see the blue color that is not really there.  Nature is AMAZING!

For a more detailed explanation of how birds make colorful feathers, see – https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/how-birds-make-colorful-feathers/

Answers: Left-to-right… Bluejay, Blue-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Eastern Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird, Wood Duck, Steller’s Jay

Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here….Pine Siskins………by Jan Runyan

Raft of Ducks

Band of Jays

Vein, Treasury or Charm of Goldfinches (truly)

Exaltation of Larks

Murmuration of Starlings

Parliament of Owls (political commentary?)

Congress of Ravens (more political commentary?)

Siege of Herons

Ballet of Swans

Banditry of Chickadees

Herd of Wrens (really?)

Descent of Woodpeckers

Slurp of Sapsuckers

Asylum of Loons (yes, really)

Many kinds of birds have a special word to designate their flock, often a word that is appropriate in a subtle (or not so subtle) way. But for the species of bird Bill and I almost always see in flocks, there appears to be no group name. That’s a shame because on our property Pine Siskins are the ultimate flocking birds. There is never just one. If we think we only see one it’s just because we haven’t checked the bushes or trees nearby.

Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus) (c) Bill Beatty

Siskins have been especially prevalent this late fall and early winter. We hear their rising “eeeeeeep” and chatters in the tops of the spruces along the driveway. We see the flock occupying every small perch in the top of the Black Locust. We futilely try to count the number of tiny black dots as they zip across the open sky. The count sometimes reaches two or three dozen before they are out of sight.

Pine Siskin’s yellow wing patch (c) Bill Beatty

Pine Siskin’s yellow tail flash (c) Bill Beatty

 

 

 

 

 

But we see the flocking compulsion most when we have the bird banding nets open. Just as they do everything else, Pine Siskins feed together. At times they almost cover our sunflower feeders. And they don’t seem to be net wary at all. So as the flock flies in to feed, many bounce off the nets and a few get caught. After a few moments in a tree or bush, the rest of the flock returns.

Pine Siskin in net (c) Bill Beatty

Some of the birds eat, but others just perch near their netted brothers and sisters. “I’m here for you,” the free birds seem to say. Some balance on the top string of the net. Others alight on the strings which run the length of the net forming the pockets. A few even grab hold of the netting near a captured friend and just hang there. Sometimes the net sitters will fly over to feed and then return again to sit watch near their buddies.

As the free Pine Siskins remain near the flock members who can’t fly away, it is inevitable that little by little more of the birds hit the net and fall into the pockets. So we also rarely band just one siskin. Sometimes the nets have more than a dozen at one time.

Pine Siskins in mist net (c) Bill Beatty

If you are a Pine Siskin, it’s a group thing. Fly together, perch together, eat together, watch over each other, get banded together! Like the three Musketeers, it’s one for all and all for one!

So for loyalty above and beyond just the usual hanging out near each other, I think Pine Siskins deserve to have a special name for their flocks. I have searched the thesaurus extensively to find the word that truly conveys the level of closeness and concern evidenced by these birds. A word that goes beyond “acquaintance”, “familiarity” or “relationship”.  I would like to make two suggestions for consideration by those who are fascinated with birds and who would like to see Pine Siskins get their own appropriate group name:

a Friendship of Pine Siskins                             an Alliance of Pine Siskins

What do you think?

 

 

A Bluebird Brings Happiness…..by Jan

This morning as we were banding, Bill showed me just the head of a bird he was about to band and asked, “What is it?”

(c) Jan Runyan

This is one of the tests a “sub” bander gets from time to time. I could tell it was in the Thrush family, but I had to admit in the dim light of the garage I couldn’t tell which one. Then he revealed the tail. The bold sapphire color made it clear he was holding an Eastern Bluebird.

(c) Jan Runyan

“Male or female?” was his next query. I smiled because that’s not hard to determine.

Then he showed me the back. Yes, the tail and rump were in-your-face azure like a male, but the back and wings….so much brown, so dull like a female.

(c) Jan Runyan

He definitely had me scratching my head over this ID. I felt pretty uneducated until Bill finally said, “I don’t know which it is, either!”

(c) Jan Runyan

We dove into the bird banders’ guides. The differences they wrote about sounded pretty clear for older birds—maybe this could be a young one? The key seemed to be working pretty well until we came to these two entries for young birds:

“5A Wings, tail, head and back bright blue or, in winter, tinged with brown…..Male*.”

“5B Wings, tail, head and back bright blue, or, in winter, tinged brown…..Female*.”

Yes, the difference is just the word “with” and a comma.

The asterisks took us to a note below: “Some birds may be difficult to sex and should be sexed U if plumage characters are doubtful.”

(c) Jan Runyan

I had to smile. We know so much information about birds. Sometimes the color of one tiny feather or subtle wear of feathers can speak volumes about a bird’s age. Sometimes the difference between deep black and brownish-black or between white and buffy-white tells the gender.

But yet there is still so much we don’t know. I am truly glad to live in a world where we don’t have all the answers and where there are still things to be searched for, studied and just plain wondered about. There is also happiness in not knowing…just enjoying the mystery.


 

Post Script: We finally labeled the bird as unknown sex, unknown age, which later caused the software which receives our bird banding data to say the electronic equivalent of, “What?! I don’t think so! Do you want to rethink this entry?”

 

 

Not GOLDFINCHY . . . . . . by Jan Runyan

“That bird doesn’t really look goldfinchy,” said a perplexed Bill.   “But I can’t tell what it is.” Bill had been keeping watch on the mist net near the back feeders as we swam and splashed in the pool with family members. Normally we just band birds in winter, so this was a trial to see what, if anything, we could discover by summer banding. It had been a good way to learn the looks of young birds and to get some practice at skulling—looking at the development of the skull bone as a way to identify hatch-year birds. Cardinals, Song Sparrows, Titmice, occasional Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, lots of House Finches (banded and transported as part of our homing research), and Goldfinches had graced our nets and each one but the “hummers” left with a tiny numbered band on one leg.

All birders know the feeling of being able to identify some bird, not by seeing all the specific field marks, but by more of a gestalt–it just looks like that kind of bird. And more often than not, if we chase the bird to get a good look, we find we are right. Male American Goldfinches in their brilliant gold and black breeding plumage are some of the most beautiful and easily identifiable birds.

American Goldfinch in mist net

American Goldfinch in mist net (c) Jan Runyan

 

 

But this bird in the net, while it was a dazzling yellow and about the right size, just did not look “goldfinchy” to Bill. He left the pool-yard, dripping, to retrieve our puzzle.

 

“So what is it?” I asked when he had the bird in hand. “I don’t know!” This was not the answer I expected. Bill doesn’t know what it is??? I made a towel-wrapped dash through the house to get Peterson’s Warblers and Sibley’s. We had to ID the bird correctly before Bill could band it.

We turned page after warbler page in Sibley’s looking for a warbler-sized bird with plain yellow on the belly from beak to the tip of the tail and a darker “greenish” color on top from the bill to the tip of the tail.

Yellow underside, greenish top

Yellow underside, greenish top (c) Jan Runyan

 

 

The flight feathers of the wings and the tail feathers had multiple colors: pale black, yellow and “greenish”.

 

Wing and tail colors (c) Bill Beatty

 

It was strikingly colorful and plain at the same time.   Looking back and forth between several possibilities, we finally made a preliminary identification as a female Yellow Warbler although we could not see even faint rusty streaks on the breast.

Plain yellow breast (c) Jan Runyan

Then I remembered—under-tail coverts! Looking at the color of feathers that cover the base of the tail on the underside of a bird and looking at the color, pattern and shape of tail feathers is one way to differentiate warbler species. And the Peterson Warblers guide has two pages showing all of the possibilities.

Undertail coverts and tail (c) Jan Runyan

 

 

Scanning the 52 tail and covert feather options, it was clear that our preliminary identification was, indeed, correct. There wasn’t anything else with undertail coverts that looked like the bird in Bill’s hand.

 

 

 

Yellow Warbler female (c) Jan Runyan

So we formally said “Hello” to our female Yellow Warbler—the first Yellow Warbler ever banded on our property, in fact, the first Yellow Warbler Bill or I had ever held or banded.

She got her tiny band, posed for some photos and soon was on her way. And as she departed, she left us a little something which, thankfully, landed just outside the edge of the pool.

Banding a Dinosaur

“If I tell you to…run as fast as you can out to the net and hold the net around the bird until I get there!!  Well, first I’d better give you some background:  On May 5 we decided to end our “winter” mist net bird banding season.  The next morning we left for the WV Wildflower Pilgrimage at Blackwater Falls State Park, followed immediately by a birding trip to Magee Marsh along Lake Erie near Oak Harbor, OH and then on to the Ralph Bell Birding Extravaganza near Waynesburg, PA.  Between Pilgrimage and Magee Marsh, I banded five baby Eastern Bluebirds from one of the nest boxes on our property.  After these trips Jan and I had two and a half weeks off before our next major trip.  While we gardened and did other outdoor jobs, we watched about a dozen House Finches visit the last sunflower seeds remaining in some of our feeders.  For the past five years we have been studying the House Finches’ homing skills by banding and relocating birds to different locations and distances from our home.  I decided to put up a mist net to catch as many of the House Finches as I could.  Ten were trapped, banded and added to the study.  The next day I left the net up thinking, “I’ll be working nearby and can check the net regularly.  By day’s end the seeds will be eaten and, who knows, perhaps we’ll catch something interesting.”  With most of the House Finches gone, it was a slow banding day.  But just after lunch I looked out back towards the net and said to Jan, “If I tell you to…run as fast as you can out to the net and hold the net around the bird until I get there!!”  Out the back door I ran screaming like a banshee toward the bird on the other side of the fence.  The Pileated Woodpecker feeding on a nearby stump flew right into the net and was caught.

Pileated Woodpecker on the stump between the house and a mist net. (c) Jan Runyan

SIDEBAR:  The reason Jan had to run to the net was because she was dressed and ready to go; I, on the other hand, was in my underwear and bare feet.  Taking a bird like this out of a mist net can take a while and cause quite a commotion.  Even though our neighbors aren’t all that close, in the past a screaming woodpecker has brought a neighbor to the net to see what we were doing.  Net-tending in my skivvies probably wouldn’t make for good neighbor relations.  

Jan was fast and was able to gather the net around the large bird until I could arrive (dressed) and help extricate him.

(c) Jan Runyan

Bill with Pileated Woodpecker

That Velociraptor look (c) Bill Beatty

Jan’s feathered dinosaur (c) Bill Beatty

This was only the second Pileated Woodpecker I have ever banded and it was Jan’s first.  It took both of us to control the bird for the banding process and photos afterwards.  As we marveled at the bird Jan said, “Doesn’t it just remind you of a tiny dinosaur?”  The Pileated has a remarkably long neck compared to all our other woodpeckers.  The regal head and crest, constantly moving lengthy neck, long-clawed legs and piercing stare reminded me of a miniature, colorful Velociraptor of Jurassic Park fame.  Unlike the first one I had caught and banded which produced a constant series of sharp calls and screams, this bird was very quiet.  The ear protectors I had brought as I hurried to the net were soon removed.  Jan and I were in awe of this creature; studying every detail and taking many photos.  The only photo I didn’t take was a shot of its extended tongue.  Because of the Pileated’s persistently moving, long, powerful neck and head I thought it might injure the bird if I attempted to pull the tongue out to full length.

The Pileated’s long, stiff tail feathers (c) Bill Beatty

The Pileated’s long, sharp claws (c) Bill Beatty

Photos accomplished, it was time to release the “tiny dinosaur”.  Jan coached me on how to use the video feature of her camera to record the occasion, then she opened her hands. Our new friend flew high on the trunk of the nearest Black Locust tree.  The last we saw him, he was hopping his way around to the back side of the trunk.

Later that day, from the mature woodlands behind our house, we could hear the familiar “jungle” bird call of the male Pileated we banded.  Click for the call…

http://www.audubon.org/sites/default/files/PILWOO_2.shortcalls_GAle_1.mp3?uuid=55637eac9a144

Welcome Home My Little Chickadee — by Jan

People often ask us how many years songbirds can live. Sometimes it is hard to know for sure…is the Northern Cardinal you see at your feeder this year the exact same bird as the one you saw last year? Unless there is something distinctive about the look or actions of the bird, it’s hard to tell. The bird banding we do on our property is beginning to give us some data about this question, however. Shortly after noon today Bill arrived in the sunporch with a bird in hand and he (Bill) was grinning from ear to ear. “You know what’s special about this Black-capped Chickadee?” he asked me. Although I thought most of the Black-caps had already traveled to their more northern breeding grounds, I could not spot anything out of the ordinary about this little guy. So I admitted I had no clue.

Bill grins at an old friend

Bill grins at an old friend (c) Jan Runyan

Bill announced, “We banded him on the very first day we ever banded here—December 10, 2010!” So that little bird is at least 5 years old…more if he was born before 2010! Although our place will not be his (or her?) summer home, it felt great to know that he had survived so long and that our feeders were part of his migration path…again. UPDATE:  Shortly after 3 on the same day, Bill again arrived in the sunporch with the same grin and a different bird. He was holding a Tufted Titmouse, all pecks and bites and tough-guy yelling (the bird, not Bill). We had also banded him on the first day we ever banded here, Dec. 10, 2010. This male is the first bird listed on the page of size 1B bands, so he might even have been the very first bird ever banded here! He is at least 5 years old, if not more. Titmice don’t migrate so he is one that we have been hearing year-round. And judging by the number of other Titmice we hear nearby, he is doing quite well at finding mates and providing new generations.

Jan with a Tufted Titmouse who shares their yard (c) Bill Beatty

American Goldfinch Heaven

We are in the midst of American Goldfinch heaven.

American Goldfinch in Redbud tree (c) Bill Beatty

Every year at this time we are quite busy banding the spring migrants that come through.  Jan and I often refer to our property as “Goldfinch Ridge”.  For about two weeks the goldfinches are by far the most common birds in our mist nets.

Jan removing an American Goldfinch from a mist net. (c) Bill Beatty

However we are delighted at the surprise birds we also catch like yesterday’s (April 25) Ruby-crowned Kinglets , the first we have caught since moving here in 2010.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (c) Bill Beatty

Since bird banding is weather dependent, when we have high winds and/or rainy days we can’t put out the nets and the birds at our feeders don’t get banded.  So far this spring the weather has cooperated.  Last Thursday, April 23, we trapped and banded 121 new birds.  Ninety-three were American Goldfinches.  As of today we have banded 344 goldfinches.  Our spring banding operations will end soon as we will be traveling to idyllic scenic areas in WV to lead bird walks and wilderness hikes, teach about wildflowers and speak at nature-related events.  As I write this Jan is playing in the gardens planting future meals in the raised beds and sunflowers (future meals for birds) in various places on the property…and keeping a watchful eye on the two mist nets set up to catch the birds migrating through toward their northern breeding grounds.

Return of the “Gold”finches….almost — by Jan

American Goldfinch males are starting to look at bit like clowns!

Splotches of black feathers on the head…a bright yellow feather here and there among the tan.   Did they lose at paintball?

Am Goldfinch male showing spring molt

Am Goldfinch male showing spring molt (c) Jan Runyan

Am Goldfinch male showing spring molt

Am Goldfinch male showing spring molt (c) Jan Runyan

Am Goldfinch male showing spring molt

Am Goldfinch male showing spring molt (c) Jan Runyan

 

 

 

 

 

 

Am Goldfinch female

Am Goldfinch female (c) Jan Runyan

 

 

 

 

 

After last summer’s breeding, all Goldfinches gradually lost and replaced all their feathers. The new male feathers were not the bright “gold” of breeding season, but a more “understated” look similar to females– “basic plumage” in human words.

Am Goldfinch male during spring molt...pin feathers circled

Am Goldfinch male during spring molt…pin feathers circled (c) Jan Runyan

Now, in response to complex hormonal changes triggered by seasonal changes, one-by-one the body feathers (not tail or flight feathers) are being replaced. So going through these gradual changes, the males have some pretty strange looks before all of their breeding “gold” returns. (See photo with tiny “pin feathers” just beginning to grow.)

 

In the past 3 days we have banded 40+ Goldfinches…none in their full breeding plumage. It won’t be too long, though, until our Goldfinches are back in all their gilded glory.  This is just the beginning!

3 Am Goldfinches in breeding plumage

3 Am Goldfinches in breeding plumage (c) Bill Beatty

Am Goldfinch in breeding plumage

Am Goldfinch in breeding plumage (c) Bill Beatty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you want to see month by month pictures of the male Goldfinch’s year, check out:

http://www.sibleyguides.com/2012/05/the-annual-plumage-cycle-of-a-male-american-goldfinch/

Behold…the American Goldfinches are coming.

American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) on bird feeder

American Goldfinches on thistle feeder (c) Bill Beatty

So far this year Jan and I have banded 198 birds.  Soon the American Goldfinches will begin moving through our area en masse.  Some will eventually nest nearby while most will nest farther north all the way into Canada.  Although I can’t be sure, I expect to band 500+ (in 2013 we banded 543 and in 2014 the number was 557).  We have already noticed the males getting their new, bright yellow/black-capped spring plumage.  Soon their migration will begin and, weather permitting, we will be able to trap the goldfinches visiting our feeders.  Other seed eaters will also be caught and a few strict insect eaters will hit our mist nets and be banded, too.  But it will be the goldfinches that will highlight our spring banding season.