Thursday, June 20, 2013

White-rumped Sandpipers

While birding around western Monroe County, Michael David and I came across some flooded soybean fields near the town of Kresgeville. Michael spotted a group of sandpipers in a distant pool, but they were too far way to identify without a spotting scope. We birded a few more stops including my house (heard the chat!) where we picked up my scope. When we returned to the sandpipers, we determined that we had found nine White-rumped Sandpipers, a very unusual species for the county!

White-rumped Sandpipers in flight

when the sandpipers landed, it was possible to see the characteristic white rump of this species, as the left-most bird is displaying

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Yellow-breasted Chat

While on a walk in our field almost two weeks ago, my mom and I heard a strange noise coming from one of the overgrown fencerows. When we heard the unique whistles, toots, and chattering of the bird a second time, it was clear that we were hearing a Yellow-breasted Chat, an odd olive and yellow songbird that is currently classified with wood warblers (although it looks and acts very differently than the rest of our warblers). Chats are very uncommon in this part of Pennsylvania, and this bird was my first record for the yard and county! We searched and searched for the bird in the tangles of autumn olive, barberry, and blackhaw, but he stayed hidden. However, he continued to sing throughout the evening and into the night:

(If the audio player does not work for you, check out the recording here:

Since that first encounter, we have heard the chat every day... and night too! In the earliest hours of the morning--when even the treefrogs have quieted--the chat continues singing, presumably from atop his favorite perch in a dead sassafras. In the morning hours, before the sun gets too hot and the cicadas begin their chorus, we have seen the chat perched alongside the resident thrashers and towhees. Unfortunately, he is extremely skittish and takes refuge in the densest brush whenever someone approaches. Nevertheless, it is still awesome to have this rare bird around and hear his distinct song coming through the window as I fall asleep each night.
A typical, distant view of the chat on his favorite perch

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Kestrels of State Game Lands #205

Last year, I wrote a about my experience banding American Kestrels in State Game Lands #205 in Lehigh County. I had a chance to return this past Tuesday to do some birding and check the nest boxes. The morning started out with a bird survey of the game lands that involved five-minute point counts at about twenty locations throughout the property. We found many common grassland bird species, including Field and Song Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds, Eastern Kingbirds, and Indigo Buntings. We also found a few less common species: Alder Flycatcher, Vesper and Grasshopper Sparrows, and Bobolink. The Bobolink and Vesper Sparrow were especially exciting, as these were species previously unrecorded in this game lands and are indicators of the excellent grassland habitat being created and managed there. For me, the singing Alder Flycatcher was intriguing, as there are very few known breeding territories of this species in Lehigh County.

After the bird survey, we checked on the nest boxes to determine the success of breeding kestrels this year.

All of the occupied nest boxes had chicks that were still too young to band, but we noted how many young and eggs were present in each nest.

Although the chicks were still too small for banding, we were able to capture several of the adult females. Most of these birds were unbanded, so we took measurements and placed a band around each bird's leg.

When we pulled the last bird of the day out of the nest box, we realized that she had was already banded and had a patagial tag, a type of wing marker used to identify individual birds without having them in the hand.

It turns out that this bird was banded as a chick in Warren County, NJ last June! One other adult female kestrel we caught was previously banded at the same location in New Jersey, but did not have a wing tag.

Based on the age of the young kestrels we saw, banding will take place in just a few weeks! All in all, the grassland songbird species we found in the morning and the many young kestrels we saw are good signs of a healthy grassland habitat that is sure to bring more birds in the future as the habitat matures and improves.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Brook Snaketail -- Pennsylvania's First

The Pennsylvania Game Commission recently acquired a large tract of land on the north face of the Kittatinny Ridge in southern Monroe County. This property, once slated for development, contains a variety of habitats including a sedge and alder wetland that borders the Aquashicola Creek. This habitat looked like an excellent place to search for dragonflies, so I headed down there with my net and camera in hopes of finding some interesting species.

Sedges, cattails, and alders (in back)
While walking through the sedges, I found numerous Ashy Clubtails--a very common species this time of year:

The sedges also held many Calico Pennants and Twelve-spotted Skimmers. Once I worked my way through the sedges, I decided to focus my search close to the creek where it would be easier to see and catch the insects. Here I found many more Ashy Clubtails as well as hundreds of Ebony Jewelwings.

male Ebony Jewelwing--a type of damselfly
I soon spotted a large dragonfly with a distinctive green color, unlike the other species I had been seeing. I netted this individual in order to get a closer look:

This green, black, and yellow dragonfly is a Maine Snaketail, a species that inhabits rocky streams. This species is ranked as an S2S3 species within the state by the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program, which means that this is a rare species in Pennsylvania.

Not long after catching the Maine Snaketail, I spotted another dragonfly that appeared to be similar. In fact, when I saw it flying, I figured it might be of the same species. However, closer inspection suggested that was not the case.

The general appearance is very similar to that of the Maine Snaketail, but there are few differences in coloration and a distinct terminal appendage shape. Examination of the male's terminal appendages can be extremely helpful when identifying dragonflies. Notice the difference in shape of the appendages between the Maine Snaketail and this individual:

Maine Snaketail--note the two distinct "spines" on the lower appendage
On this snaketail, note the single spike on the lower appendage and the different shape of the upper
When I got home, I was able to research this species and determined it to be a Brook Snaketail (Ophiogomphus aspersus). After consulting a few experts, my identification was confirmed. I also discovered that this is a species that had never been recorded in the state of Pennsylvania before! 

I can't wait to get back to these game lands to see what other species may be hiding there!