Monday, June 20, 2011

West Rutland Marsh, VT

If you're ever passing through western Vermont and head anywhere remotely near Rutland, definitely stop by the West Rutland Marsh. It's not far to the west of downtown Rutland (and to the east of Castleton State), right off of Route 4A; though, if your car cannot handle a really bumpy road covered in gravel, it might be best to avoid Marble Street and Whipple Hollow Road, which both run along the marsh.

I took J. out with me early in the morning yesterday as we have a few times in the past. Usually it's very quiet there, but this time we ran across an older woman, apparently a local birder. We exchanged a bit of information on birds seen there before she took off. J. and I then slowly wandered down the boardwalk that juts right into the middle of what is mostly phragmites and cattails. Even midsummer, the marsh is inundated with swallows. There is a bird box right at the entrance to the boardwalk, and the tree swallows obviously had a nest inside. Plenty of barn swallows and a few northern rough-winged were also tumbling overhead. Later on, while not a swallow, a chimney swift, probably from downtown West Rutland, came along for a visit.

Two willow flycatchers had also chosen the marsh as their nesting site this season and we got great views of them even though they are extremely nondescript birds. I think we enjoyed listening to them singing a bit more; the ones at this site seem to say, "RITZ-bew" rather than the softer "FITZ-bew" I hear around farmlands in NY. An eastern kingbird pair took up a bush at the end of the boardwalk for their nesting location and weren't too shy even when we got close.

The vegetation at this point has grown quite high, providing great cover, and not-so-great views of just about anything else we heard yesterday. This to me is not a problem, since I absolutely enjoy birding by ear, though J. and I were a bit eager to see rails. We mostly failed, although he caught sight of a fast-moving sora amongst the reeds. I never got a good view, but the sora performed various calls and songs, from their typical "ko-WEEE-EE-ee-ee-ee" fading whinny to outright screaming. I was disappointed that we couldn't hear any Virginia rail this time. Our least bittern from the spring was nowhere to be seen or heard, though the birder had confirmed it was still around. If there were any ducks or herons nearby, I wouldn't have known, but we did have a great blue heron and a green heron fly overhead. The reeds are also full of marsh wrens and swamp sparrows singing, and of course plenty of red-winged blackbirds. And J. and I got quite a surprise yesterday - a perfect view of a belted kingfisher (male) repeatedly hovering over the marsh and then diving down for fish! J. and I were captivated and watched for probably about twenty minutes. We were interested over him periodically going out of view after diving, and guessed that he might have been bringing fish to young.

The birder had mentioned that the groups that get together for walks there tend to walk the four miles around the marsh. I was skeptical, but J. and I enjoy adventuring and decided to try it out anyway. It was too far in by the time we realized that one side of the marsh was fairly pointless for birding (though it did offer a few ovenbirds, veeries, redstarts, a yellow warbler, and I got a great view of a female common yellowthroat for J.) and that the connecting road was extremely far away. This lead to joking around, random conversations, and munching on apples rather than much birding. The road we were on did eventually lead to open view and we got a view of a few crows mobbing a red-tailed hawk.

The roads do eventually lead back around, and we found where Rutland Audubon had set up an interpretive trail with small markers, most of them mentioning ecological habitat (such as the black ash habitat, which lead to me making immature jokes which cannot be repeated here). At that point it was way too hot in the day for much birding, but I did notice common yellowthroats fairly evenly spaced out, many of the males singing. A female popped out at one point, carrying an insect, likely to her young.

There is also a power line corridor habitat up the hill nearby which was once suggested to us by someone from Rutland Audubon, although I have been unsure as to whether it's actually off-limits. This did not deter J. and I from going up there last time, however, and we found it to be a good place to get warblers. It's also a great place to get scared out of your wits as to the locals visit the site frequently to shoot off their guns! Despite terrifying, I have found them friendly and not at all wary of random birders wandering around. Just...make sure you know which way they are shooting before you go off-trail!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Red-eyed Vireo and the Unexpected

Sorry for the pause, everyone! I started as a field research assistant in May on a common yellowthroat (cute little warblers) project in Saratoga Springs, NY and am still helping out on that; what a strange experience it has been. I will talk about that in a near-future post.

What I want to talk about today is something I actually witnessed in a common yellowthroat during the project - birds making sounds you just do not expect. Now, my strength in birding lies in recognizing songs and calls. Birds' songs and calls just absolutely fascinate me, and I love learning all of them; even more fun is knowing who is out there in the morning just by listening to them 'talk' to each other. But being still fairly new to the game, I've focused on learning the typical song and then maybe one call, what you would find with most modern birdsong software or reading the 'voice' section in a field guide. So it's been a bit surprising to hear other calls and songs going on out there that might be typical but all the guides and recordings glossed over (like the typical male rattle of a breeding yellowthroat) or maybe even a song or call that the species rarely ever makes.

The past two mornings I've been out trying to watch this extra secretive female yellowthroat and seeing where she's building a new nest (her old one had a predation; mmmm yummy eggs). She has absolutely tested and broken my patience level. At the same time, she's in a great habitat spot for birds in general - it's wet, there's also a field full of tall grass, there's a hidden trail nearby in the woods, and it's seems there might be a field nearby as well. This spot has had yellow-throated vireos, red-eyed vireos, scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings, an abundance of woodpeckers (saw a pair of pileateds today loudly exploring the trees), solitary sandpipers moved through in May just nearby, and a kingfisher has been going back and forth recently. I also had the surprise of hearing a black-billed cuckoo's song ringing through the woods there about a week ago!

Yesterday morning I began hearing this quiet yet persistent call that never seemed to stop and went on for over an hour. It was pleasant to the ear, but it was strange that in all my birding in similar habitats I had simply never heard this before. I've never heard it in recordings, either. It could best be described as sounding like "TSITSI doom," with the TSI notes being distinctly separate but repeated very quickly as half-notes. The "TSI" had a chiming, high-pitched quality, much like you would find in a chickadee or kinglet. The "doom" was interesting - it wasn't really musical, but instead sounded like a mix between a kiss and a soft knock on hollow wood. It was far enough away yesterday that I only heard the phrase and it sounded as if there was a pause between it, but I found out today there wasn't a pause...this bird would 'say' the phrase and then sing the "doom" note at regular intervals with pauses between them, much like this: "TSITSI dooom...dooom...doom...TSITSI dooom..." and so on. It would also sometimes throw in an extra "TSI" before the phrase.

After two hours of trying to find this female yellowthroat she had disappeared for a good long while...I'm convinced yellowthroats have perfected teleportation technology and use it frequently, suddenly re-materializing far away from where you last saw them. While she was gone, curiosity got the better of me, and I lurked to the woods to follow this incessant call. I stood under the only opening in the trees I could find and hoped for the best and pished away. Surprisingly, the bird plopped onto the branch just above my head and called again! I looked up, and saw the white breast and belly, and pale yellow vent and the rather large size, and then it peered over the branch, showing off it's red eye, black eye-stripe, white supercilium, and black bordering the supercilium. I was rather surprised to see a red-eyed vireo peering down at me, though the persistence of this call led me onto a vireo yesterday as a wild guess.

I don't know what to make of it still. I've googled and googled but everything only references the robin-like song and it's "MEEeeer" whining descending call. I have not sat with the Macaulay library yet, but things don't seem promising with the lack of literature from the most knowledgeable birders that have existed.