This post is written by Eli, a 2014 Brookie, and avid birder. He has a number of feeders near his home, as well maintaining a sanctuary area for birds of all kinds to enjoy. Eli is also a boy scout, and often instructs younger scouts on good birding practices. Here, he writes about vagrant birds, and some of the reasons they will occasionally be spotted in nontraditional locations. All photos are also taken by Eli.
Two weeks ago, I was leading the bird chat at the Appalachian Audubon Society meeting. There were the usually juncos, cardinals, titmice and other usual suspects as birders call them being reported. Then out of the blue one Auduboner shouted out, ‘’Brown Thrasher!’’ Upon hearing this, the rest of the group let out a big ‘’aww’’ immediately followed by some quiet murmuring among the more experienced birders. As the witness to the sighting testifies in front of the birding ‘’jury”, the jurors either convince the witness he or she is wrong, or the sighting is confirmed and the witness is congratulated. In this case, the evidence stood and the sighting was confirmed.
Unfortunately, the trial did not reveal the reason for this bird’s utter ignorance of traditional migratory patterns. Instead of the Gulf Coast, this hardy bird chose to stick it out in Pennsylvania, where it was a balmy -2 degrees. These are the birds that completely ignored their traditional migratory patterns and instead do what they want. They are called vagrant birds, and Up until recently, we knew little about them and what made them go so far off course (or not). The recent increase in participation in citizen science has helped unveil some of the mystery about bird migration and even found some previously un-known migratory routes. Here are some reasons that birds may become vagrants and some recent vagrants that have been found in our neck of the flyway.
Birds are hardy animals that can survive both extreme heat and cold. Temperature doesn’t greatly affect the birds themselves, but temperature does affect insects that many birds depend upon for food during the summer months. When cold weather hits, some birds such as flycatchers and thrushes (like the Brown Thrasher) head south, others like the Chickadee and Cardinal switch to eating seeds and berries during the cold winter months. Still other birds only go as far south as necessary like the Bald Eagle and Eastern Blue Bird. Often times, a few birds will find a stockpile of insects such as an ant mound or wasp’s nest and stay longer on their breeding grounds, hence making them vacate their normal migratory route.
One of the newest theories on the why birds vacate their routes is that it is a natural way for the species to expand its range and increase genetic diversity in the flock. If the ‘’sacrificed’’ bird survives, the species expands its range. If not, one or two birds dying is no big loss to the flock. This theory has come about largely since citizen science projects, such as Cornell’s Great Back Yard Bird Count, allow for ornithologists to examine large quantities of data quickly without having to spend hours in the field collecting the data. This new found resource has led to creation of extremely detailed range maps. This large scale data collection has led to scientists discovering that Rufus Hummingbirds come east before heading south for Mexico. One bird that was banded in Alaska, was re-captured in December in Pennsylvania!
Storms are another common source for bird vagrancy. Strong winds and poor weather often disorient birds making them turn up in places they shouldn’t be. Bad weather also has another effect on bird migration, fall-out. Fall-out is when there is a large storm off the coast during migration. Birds flying over the ocean at this time become extremely tired from the less than optimal flying conditions. As a result, they land on the first spit of land they can find. This effect is called fall-out because the tired birds seem to just fall-out of the sky. Fall out occurs commonly at places such as Cape May, New Jersey and South Padre Island in Brownville, Texas.
You may have been wondering how birders react when they find one of these vagrant birds. Well, usually if a good bird is found, within the first 24 hours the location is up on the internet where birders are looking for reports of rarities. After the tech birders find out about the bird, mobs of them show up at the location within the first 48 hours of it being reported. After the first mob finds the bird, all of their less tech-savvy friends find out about the bird, and they arrive soon after the tech birders. If the bird has not left by the time the more casual bird watchers find out about it and get to its location, a flood of these “weekend” birders will venture out to see the spectacle. This sometimes results in large ‘’bird jams” in the vicinity of the bird’s location.
Nature never fails to surprise us, and vagrant birds are no expectation. Go out and look for these amazing animals but remember to respect private land and other birders. Never get too close to the bird and never disturb a nest or nest cavity. If you follow these guidelines, you enjoy chasing birds for many years to come.
Thanks and Good Birding,
This collage of photos was created by Rachel, a Bucktails alumnus – she took the photos during the warmer months of 2014. Hopefully this little taste of summer will help us get through the last of the cold winter months!
This piece was sent to us by Helen, a 2014 PA Brookie – she writes about her recent vacation to Assateague Island. During the trip, she and her family had the opportunity to see the famous wild ponies, as well as a variety of other wildlife and beautiful vistas.
It must have been ten years since my family had gone on vacation when my mother decided we should take a trip this past summer. I hadn’t been to the ocean since I was three, and so it was decided that we should head to the coast somewhere—and when I heard the final destination, I was thrilled: we were going to camp at Assateague Island National Seashore, on the long, narrow island off the coast of Virginia and Maryland that is home to the famous Chincoteague ponies. Not to mention, my friend Maria was invited to come too, which made the idea all the more exciting.
It was a seven- or eight-hour road trip down to the island and our campsite, and by the time we arrived we were all more than ready to get out of our Subaru and stretch our legs. The car was absolutely packed—the trunk was so full that in order for my dad to be able to see out the rear window, Maria and I had to unroll our sleeping bags in the backseat and sit on them instead of adding them to the pile in the back. A small mountain of pillows and bags was thrown higgledy-piggledy on the seat between Maria and me, and our poor legs had very little room because of more pillows and bags on the floor. But all the arranging of pillows and bags, and stuffing of the trunk, and suffering of the cramped conditions was quite worth it, for we had no sooner driven across the bridge onto the island than we caught our first glimpse of wild ponies—and were constantly seeing them thereafter.
Our campsite was on the Chesapeake Bay side of the island. We pitched our two tents—one for my mom and dad, and one for Maria and me—between two clumps of bushes; beyond the tents we could see clear across the narrow blue strip of bay to the mainland beyond. Between us and the bay lay a wetlands that seemed to have a flock of noisy white birds constantly in residence. They sounded from a distance like a bunch of old hags, with voices raised in arguing or cackling laughter over some joke. But their appearance was quite at odds with their sound, for they were, for the most part, tall, slender and graceful: pure white with long yellow bills. They were great egrets, and it was the first time I had ever seen such birds in real life.
Indeed, I saw several things for the first time on Assateague. I had certainly never seen the ponies before, and it was absolutely delightful to be at such close quarters to wild horses in their daily life. At night we could hear them all around our tent, tearing up mouthfuls of the coarse grass and munching on it; if we looked out our tent window, we could even see some of them, big black shapes against a backdrop of stars. Much fluctuation took place among the various bands in our general area, at least while we were there—even in the course of one day, we’d see bands increase, and decrease, and mares who had just been in one stallion’s band be added to another band, and stallions who had possessed no mares suddenly become the proud leaders of three or four of them.
But much in nature begged to be seen besides the ponies. The egrets were one example; but in addition to them, Maria and I saw flocks of brown pelicans flying over the beach, and little sandpipers scampering nervously back and forth along the sea strand, as though they’d lost something and were trying to retrieve it. We even believed we saw a bald eagle flying above us at one point, though it soon got too far away to be seen clearly. Someone in our campsite found a baby turtle—it was a tiny little thing, smaller than the bottom of a glass; its Skittle-sized feet were drawn up close to its shell, and its head was drawn as far back as it would go. If we looked under the lip of the shell, we could see its tiny, elfin face, with a pair of big eyes looking rather bewilderingly out at us.
Not all of the wildlife was as delightful as that baby turtle, of course. We very generously played host in the mornings and evenings to mosquitos and black flies; on one occasion, our guests drove Maria and me to jump in the car and close the doors. We also had a few sticky (and painful) experiences with some hostile plants, which lodged in our socks some of the sharpest burrs that I have ever dealt with.
But apart from our guests and the few bits of hostile vegetation, I think all of us loved every minute of Assateague. At one time, the island was going to be made into a resort town; however, a colossal storm produced a flood that destroyed the work that was being done, and after that the island was left to the ponies. Now part of it is a national park, and part of it is a state park; the ponies roam wherever they like, and the habitat is preserved as well as possible.
I am infinitely glad that the island was not made into a resort town. Possibly one of my favorite times on Assateague was after all the crowds were gone, taking with them the noise and the cheerful but artificial colors of towels, beach umbrellas and sand toys. We visited the beach at dusk; the sky was filled with lovely shades of rose and jasper, and I could just barely make out the thin crescent of the new moon. As the color faded to a warm purple, stars began to appear, pricking out one by one, then two by two, and then suddenly all becoming visible as the last rays of the sun faded on the horizon. Maria and I waded in the water, which was still pleasantly warm; it rushed in and sucked the sand from under our feet, and then withdrew and deposited the sand on top so that if we stood still, we kept sinking deeper and deeper into the beach. And when we looked up—above us, in the velvet-black sky, we were able to see for the first time the Milky Way. Out in the wilderness, as it were, away from the glare of the cities, we were able to see the dense band of stars that stretched across the sky, that all the people of the world must have been able to see hundreds of years ago. Looking into the sky on Assateague, one could see the vastness and mystery of the heavens; and looking across the water, one could see the vastness, mystery and power of the sea. The beach and the sky and the ocean felt wonderfully wide and open; standing there was exhilarating, and made one feel as free as the ponies that wandered over the ridge and down along the shore.
I hope the world never runs out of places like that. In the rush and glamour of ordinary life, we often lose track of what true peace and beauty are, and how precious they are. We need places like Assateague to be able to find them again.
Eli D., a 2014 PA Brookie, recently shared with us the website he has designed and created. He is passionate about birding, and discovered that there weren’t many resources for birding in his local area. He took the initiative to fill this gap! Eli explains a bit about his website (be sure to check out his blog!):
Recently, I started a website to highlight birding and conservation in the greater York Springs region of Pennsylvania. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this region of our state, it is located between Harrisburg and Gettysburg. The York Springs area has produced such rarities as the Purple Gallinule and Sand Hill Crane, and it is also one of the best places in the state to see a Red-headed Woodpecker. Until now, there weren’t any good websites about birding in the region. WWW.yorkspringsbirding.weebly.com is now a place to find information on the best birding spots, birding tips and conservation organizations from around the York Springs region. Even if you are not from the area or plan on birding, there is useful information contained in the site helpful for any birder or nature lover. I will also be running a blog, Birders View, from the website dealing with a wide variety of topics relating to birds. Please check it out and comment.
Thanks and Good Birding,
Logan, a PA Brookies graduate and Assistant Team Leader, shares his experience with the wildlife found right in his backyard! It is amazing the variety of species that make use of his wood duck boxes.
I am lucky enough to be able to look out my window and have a nice view of our half-acre pond. We have several Wood Duck boxes that we built and maintain, and each year we have several pairs of Wood Ducks that nest and raise their young.
We also have nesting Mallards, Black Ducks, and Green Herons. This past spring we replaced an old Wood Duck box with a new one, and it seems like it has become a very popular place. In addition to the Wood Ducks, this year a hen Hooded Merganser, a Kingfisher, and a Canada Goose all decided that the top of our Wood Duck box was the place to be.
Just the other day, I came home from school to find a Screech Owl in the same box. I can’t wait to see what visits next.