Sunday, October 20, 2013

Bio Bits: A Foxy Winter Visitor

The fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca) is a northern bird that spends the summer on its breeding grounds across Canada, Alaska, and the mountainous regions of the western United States. In the fall it migrates south, but not as far as some birds. Instead of heading for the tropics, the fox sparrow spends the winter along parts of the Pacific coast or eastern half of the United States. It can often be seen in wooded or shrubby backyards in our area. 

The fox sparrow in the East is one of our largest sparrows, measuring about seven inches in length. Because of its size, its overall rusty coloration, heavy streaking on the breast, and its bright rufous tail, it can initially be confused with a hermit thrush. But notice its thick bill (the bill of a sparrow, not a thrush) and the gray markings above its eye, on its neck and along its back. And notice the way in which it feeds. The fox sparrow will use both its feet simultaneously to kick up leaf litter in search of food. This comical dance may be what first alerts you to the bird’s presence. Well camouflaged among the leaf litter on the ground, the fox sparrow will expose itself nonetheless when it scratches about for winter sustenance. When snow covers the ground, the beauty of this bird is revealed against the stark white background. Look for it on the ground beneath your bird feeders as it takes advantage of the fallen seeds.

If you are lucky enough to have a fox sparrow visit your yard this season, enjoy this migrant’s short visit. Before long it will be heading back to the far north.

Submitted by Cindi Kobak

Images: Wikipedia

The Atlantic Flyway

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed listing the rufa red knot (Calidris canutus rufa) as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. 

The rufa red knot is an extraordinary bird that each year migrates thousands of miles from the Arctic to the tip of South America and back, but – like many shorebirds – it is vulnerable to climate and other environmental changes,. In some areas, knot populations have declined by about 75 percent since the 1980s, with the steepest declines happening after 2000.

Service biologists determined that the knot meets the definition of threatened, meaning it is likely to become in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range. The knot uses spring and fall stopover areas along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Changing climate conditions are already affecting the bird’s food supply, the timing of its migration, and its breeding habitat in the Arctic.

A primary factor in the recent decline of the species was reduced food supplies in Delaware Bay due to commercial harvest of horseshoe crabs. In 2012, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted a management plan that explicitly ties horseshoe crab harvest levels along the Atlantic Coast to knot recovery targets.

Audubon has listed the red knot as one of 83 priority species that are the targets of it conservation strategies.

The PBS Nature episode Crash: A Tale of Two Species explores the fragile connection between horseshoe crabs and red knots. Watch it online at

Late Fall Field Trips

Bird Walk at RWA Lake Saltonstall, Branford, CT
Saturday, November 2
8:00 a.m.-10:00 a.m.

Join birder Nina Levenduski on a walk through the Regional Water Authority’s Lake Saltonstall trail system to look for fall migrants and water birds and fall foliage. Beginning birders welcome! Please bring binoculars, sturdy footwear, and field guides. Bad weather or heavy rain the day of the trip cancels.

Meet at the parking area on Hosley Avenue (map) in Branford, CT.

Bird Watching at Hammonasset Beach State Park, Madison, CT
Sunday, December 15
9:00 a.m.  –  11:00 a.m.

Hammonasset Beach State Park is one of Connecticut’s premier birding spots. After the breeding and migrating birds (and sunbathers) have moved on to warmer places, Hammonasset takes on a somewhat different character during the colder months.

Join Nina Levenduski and other Menunkatuck birders as we walk the park to look for wintering shorebirds, ducks, sparrows, raptors and others. Beginning birders welcome! Please bring binoculars and dress in layers for cold & windy conditions. Camera, hand lens, field guides, etc. are also suggested. Bad weather the day of the trip cancels.

Meet outside the Nature Center at Hammonasset at 9:00 a.m. (map). There is no park admission fee. 

For directions, carpools or to register for either of these walks, visit the calendar page of the Menunkatuck website, or contact the leader at

Citizen Science: Birds and Windows

It has been estimated up to 1 billion birds are killed in North America each year as a result of bird window collisions! This is one of the largest threats facing urban bird populations. Residential homes are estimated to represent 90% of building-related mortality, directly related to their large number compared to other building classes. However, more work is needed; only four studies in the past have focused on bird window collision mortality at houses.

The University of Alberta Birds and Windows Project was designed to use citizen science and active participation to continue to identify the factors that affect collision risk at residential homes.
Window glass is an invisible barrier to birds, and collisions occur as birds attempt to fly through what appear to be reflections of open space and vegetation. Generally, this occurs as a result of panic flights where birds panic due to pursuit by raptors, the presence of cats or larger birds arriving at feeders, loud noises, and being chased by other birds.

Environment factors, such as nearby trees and shrubs, and the presence of bird attractants, such as bird feeders, bird houses and bird baths, have been shown to increase the abundance of bird window collisions.

To better understand what can be done to reduce bird window collisions, the University of Alberta has developed this project to actively involve you in data collection. They are looking for people to search for evidence of bird window collisions on a regular basis. Ideally you will search your residence daily for a period of at least one month. 

The researchers prefer daily searches as previous studies have shown this reduces the chance of evidence being lost due to searcher error or evidence being removed by scavengers. If window collision evidence is observed at a time other than during a perimeter search try to complete a full search at this time to maintain consistency and account for the possibility of multiple collisions.
Evidence of bird window strikes include dead or injured birds found beneath a window or blood smears, body smudges or feathers found on the window glass. To help in understanding what happened to the bird when it collided, please take a photo of the collision evidence to be uploaded to the survey. Photos will help provide accurate species identification. If a dead bird and a body smudge on the glass are found for the same collision, take a picture of the bird as it will be used to identify the species.

After creating an online account, enter data about bird-window collisions by answering a series of questions and uploading photographic evidence.

For complete details visit  and contact if you have any questions.

Tree Swallow, Purple Martin Egg Laying Is Up at Hammonasset, Fledging Is Down

Top line - Number of eggs laid; bottom - Number fledged
Bad weather just as Hammonasset’s tree swallow and purple martin chicks were about to fledge resulted in the deaths of many of the young birds. As a result the number of nest box success rate was down for the summer.

Of 183 tree swallow eggs that were laid, 143 hatched and 114 young fledged.

The Bridgeport Wildlife Guards, a team of students learning and teaching about conservation in Bridgeport, CT, came to Hammonasset to learn about nest box monitoring. They were able to see the difference between the purple martins’ bayberry leaf-lined nest and the tree swallows’ feather-lined nest.

The Bridgeport Wildlife Guards, a team of students learning and teaching about conservation in Bridgeport, CT, came to Hammonasset to learn about nest box monitoring. They were able to see the difference between the purple martins’ bayberry leaf-lined nest and the tree swallows’ feather-lined nest.