Action Alert from the National Audubon Society
Every year hundreds of millions of birds die when they fly into unseen or reflective glass in buildings. Many of these deaths could be prevented by commonsense bird-friendly building standards. Please join us in urging your congressional representative to support the Bird-Safe Buildings Act https://act.audubon.org/onlineactions/cFKDdto0hEC6HqnxgB0y-Q2 to reduce these unnecessary bird deaths.
Since 2013, over a dozen Wake Audubon Society volunteers have monitored the number of migratory birds killed locally by building collisions. Sadly, we have seen no reduction in bird deaths despite the City of Raleigh’s support for the Lights Out initiative. We need to take additional steps to make a difference for birds. Let your congressional representative know https://act.audubon.org/onlineactions/cFKDdto0hEC6HqnxgB0y-Q2 that you want them to act to protect birds.
Authored by John Gerwin
The Raleigh Christmas Bird Count in 2018 was very different from recent past years – it was relatively warm! I won’t say ‘balmy’ but compared to the below-freezing dawn temps some of us have experienced the past few years, this year felt a little, well, balmy. But it was also rather drizzly and indeed for the first 90 minutes, most of us experienced some form of light precipitation. I continued my tradition of providing a couple boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts (assorted variety), a thermos of bird-friendly coffee, for those willing to join me for one pre-dawn hour on site, to listen for any wood-be owl. To date, I have heard only one such owl in 5 or so years of this, and by the end of the hour, I am still at 1. But I always enjoy a few donuts and many many ounces of coffee. I have also enjoyed the company of a variety of other “dawn birds”. This year, my “flock” consisted of a couple Young Naturalists, a couple recent YNC graduates, some Audubon members, and a couple folks from the Museum.
Our overall effort this year took the form of 19 groups, covering their respective areas. By 12:30pm, with about “half the precincts” reporting, the species list total was at 95. This is noticeably higher than years past. Some of the groups will be sending in their reports in the coming 2 weeks, and the total species number may reach 100, something that hasn’t happened on this count in many years.
But it’s not just a high number that matters. Indeed, the main focus on the count is to cover the areas we do in a consistent manner. The data we collect are submitted to a national database, and this database is available to the general public. Many folks have performed a variety of analyses on these data, which span 118 years for some locations.
This is a ‘big year’ for seeing some “northern” species, which are moving into the SE in large numbers this fall/winter. Pine siskins have been showing up at various feeders. We found a couple Red-breasted Nuthatches at Walnut Creek.
Last year, we flushed an amazing Wood duck from the Garner Road pond along the Walnut Creek greenway – this year only half a dozen flew by. It’s pretty unusual to find 75 Wood ducks in such an urban setting. And some of our crew managed to flush a Gray Catbird, always rare for this count. Folks over along Swift Creek found some Rusty Blackbirds, anther good find.
A Peregrine Falcon and Merlin were seen along Mid Pines Road. A Peregrine was seen at the same spot last year, and the year before. Surely this Peregrine is a returning individual, enjoying some of the many pigeons along that stretch.
By 0900, the drizzle had stopped and the next few hours were nice for walking and birding. One of my favorite birding experiences of the year happened at the end of our count. A few of us wandered east along the Greenway into an adjoining neighborhood of southeast Raleigh (which is how the Greenway was planned at this section). In 20 minutes, covering about 3 blocks with normal yards and houses, but Walnut Creek nearby, we found nearly 75 individual birds of over 20 species. This was a section we have never covered before, but this year we had time. And it goes to show how interesting it can be to wander into such an area and see what you can find.
Indeed, the new organizer, Brian O’Shea, and I were discussing this very topic right before the count. And that we plan to get some folks into such areas in the future and thus expand coverage. There are many wooded neighborhoods within the count circle, that are never covered. If you are interested in being one of our “urban” stealth bird counters in the future, just let us know and we will set you up.
In the meantime, a big thanks to all who helped out. In the end, our Walnut Creek totals (species and individuals) were almost the same as 2017 – only a tad lower. I would have bet money that both were “a lot lower” but I would have lost. That’s in part why we do what we do. Even in a light drizzle.
This way we have real data, and we don’t have to rely on Gerwin’s faulty memory.
Here are photos of two other birds that were spotted.
authored by Erik Thomas
On June 15, I conducted some bird counts at the Lumber River Important Bird Area (IBA), which the Wake Audubon Society monitors. Counting consists of stopping for ten minutes at designated spots and making a record of all birds seen or heard. All of the sites in the Lumber River IBA are wetland habitats. This time, however, I decided to do something a little different. I counted at six of the designated sites along Ashpole Swamp, which parallels the South Carolina border a few miles away, and six other spots at nearby upland sites that are not designated locations.
The contrast in birdlife between the bottomland sites and the upland sites was striking. Down in the bottomlands, birds of wooded swamps were plentiful. I heard Yellow-billed Cuckoos at several sites, Red-shouldered Hawks at a few, and various kinds of woodpeckers. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were easy to find, and I heard—but only occasionally saw—quite a few Carolina Wrens and some Acadian Flycatchers. Prothonotary Warblers, Northern Parulas, and Yellow-throated Warblers were actively defending territories. Here and there a White-eyed Vireo chattered. There was even a flock of Wood Storks passing overhead.
Just up the hill from the swamp, however, the birds changed dramatically. Three members of the icterid family—the Eastern Meadowlark, Orchard Oriole, and Red-winged Blackbird—appeared there. Indigo Buntings were singing at several spots, and Northern Mockingbirds guarded yards throughout. Mourning Doves sat on power lines or flew by nearly everywhere. Cattle Egrets were attending a group of steers at one site and a Chipping Sparrow was singing heartily at another. Most impressively, a congregation of Mississippi Kites—I counted nine, but there may have been more—was sailing over some fields.
If you’d like to see more details, I’ve uploaded all the counts I did to eBird. One additional sighting I had was a series of realtor signs in Ashpole Swamp. It seems that most of the swamp is for sale. It’s too wet to develop for housing (fortunately!), but logging interests may want to pounce on it. It would be desirable if the state or an environmental organization could acquire this valuable and extensive habitat, perhaps to be added to Lumber River State Park at some future date.
Authored by Jeff Beane
This is a report on a joint field trip between NC State Museum of Natural Sciences and Wake Audubon. We visited the following areas between November 17th and
19th: Alligator River, Pea Island, and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges; Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve; Cape Hatteras National Seashore; Pettigrew and Jockey’s Ridge State Parks; and a few other stops.
Trip leaders: Jerry Reynolds, Jeff Beane, Martha Fisk
Other participants: Betty Lou Chaika, David Chaika, Marty Demko, Phyllis Demko, Eileen Hancox, Sue Harvey, Stephanie Horton, Jerry Johnson, Debbie Ludas, Mary McClure, Adair Pickard, Carole Stevens
* = observed only as dead-on-road (DOR) or otherwise dead specimens.
All photos by Jeff Beane.
Gambusia holbrooki Eastern Mosquitofish (many)
Acris gryllus Southern Cricket Frog (many)
Rana catesbeiana [Lithobates catesbeianus] American Bullfrog (at least 1)
Chrysemys p. picta Eastern Painted Turtle (several)
Pseudemys rubriventris Red-bellied Cooter (several)
Trachemys s. scripta Yellow-bellied Slider (many)
Coluber constrictor Black Racer (1 adult male DOR) *
Nerodia taxispilota Brown Water Snake (1 adult female)
Aix sponsa Wood Duck (at least 2 or 3)
Anas americana American Widgeon (many)
Anas clypeata Northern Shoveler (many)
Anas crecca Green-winged Teal (many)
Anas platyrhynchos Mallard (many)
Anas rubripes American Black Duck (many)
Anas strepera Gadwall (many)
Aythya americana Redhead (several)
Aythya collaris Ring-necked Duck (several)
Bucephala albeola Bufflehead (many)
Melanitta americana Black Scoter (several)
Somateria spectabilis King Eider (1)
Branta canadensis Canada Goose (many)
Oxyura jamaicensis Ruddy Duck (a few)
Meleagris gallopavo Wild Turkey (1 DOR) *
Podilymbus podiceps Pied-billed Grebe (many)
Morus bassanus Northern Gannet (many)
Phalacrocorax auritus Double-crested Cormorant (many)
Pelecanus erythrorhynchos American White Pelican (several)
Pelecanus occidentalis Brown Pelican (many)
Ardea alba Great Egret (at least 1)
Ardea herodias Great Blue Heron (many)
Botaurus lentiginosus American Bittern (1)
Egretta caerulea Little Blue Heron (at least 1)
Egretta thula Snowy Egret (a few)
Egretta tricolor Tricolored Heron (at least 1 or 2)
Eudocimus albus White Ibis (many)
Cathartes aura Turkey Vulture (many)
Coragyps atratus Black Vulture (several)
Buteo jamaicensis Red-tailed Hawk (many)
Buteo lineatus Red-shouldered Hawk (at least 1)
Circus cyaneus Northern Harrier (many)
Haliaeetus leucocephalus Bald Eagle (many)
Falco columbarius Merlin (1)
Falco sparverius American Kestrel (many)
Fulica americana American Coot (many)
Charadrius vociferus Killdeer (many)
Pluvialis squatarola Black-bellied Plover (several)
Calidris alba Sanderling (many)
Calidris alpina Dunlin (several)
Gallinago delicata Wilson’s Snipe (1)
Tringa flavipes Lesser Yellowlegs (a few)
Tringa semipalmata Willet (many)
Chroicocephalus philadelphia Bonaparte’s Gull (several)
Larus argentatus Herring Gull (many)
Larus delawarensis Ring-billed Gull (many)
Larus marinus Great Black-backed Gull (many)
Leucophaeus atricilla Laughing Gull (many)
Sterna forsteri Forster’s Tern (many)
Columba livia Rock Pigeon (many)
Zenaida macroura Mourning Dove (many)
Bubo virginianus Great Horned Owl (1 heard)
Strix varia Barred Owl (1)
Megaceryle alcyon Belted Kingfisher (at least 3 or 4)
Colaptes auratus Northern Flicker (several)
Dryocopus pileatus Pileated Woodpecker (at least 2 or 3)
Melanerpes carolinus Red-bellied Woodpecker (several)
Picoides pubescens Downy Woodpecker (at least 2)
Sayornis phoebe Eastern Phoebe (several)
Vireo solitarius Blue-headed Vireo (1)
Corvus brachyrhynchos American Crow (many)
Cyanocitta cristata Blue Jay (several)
Tachycineta bicolor Tree Swallow (many)
Baeolophus bicolor Tufted Titmouse (several)
Poecile carolinensis Carolina Chickadee (several)
Cistothorus palustris Marsh Wren (at least 1 or 2)
Thryothorus ludovicianus Carolina Wren (many)
Regulus calendula Ruby-crowned Kinglet (many)
Regulus satrapa Golden-crowned Kinglet (several)
Catharus guttatus Hermit Thrush (at least 1)
Sialia sialis Eastern Bluebird (several)
Turdus migratorius American Robin (many)
Dumetella carolinensis Gray Catbird (a few)
Mimus polyglottos Northern Mockingbird (many)
Toxostoma rufum Brown Thrasher (1)
Anthus rubescens American Pipit (a few)
Setophaga coronata Yellow-rumped Warbler (many)
Vermivora celata Orange-crowned Warbler (1)
Junco hyemalis Dark-eyed Junco (a few)
Melospiza georgiana Swamp Sparrow (a few)
Melospiza melodia Song Sparrow (several)
Passerculus sandwichensis Savannah Sparrow (several)
Zonotrichia albicollis White-throated Sparrow (at least 1 or 2)
Cardinalis cardinalis Northern Cardinal (a few)
Passerina cyanea Indigo Bunting (1)
Agelaius phoeniceus Red-winged Blackbird (many)
Quiscalus major Boat-tailed Grackle (many)
Sturnella magna Eastern Meadowlark (many)
Carpodacus mexicanus House Finch (a few)
Passer domesticus House Sparrow (at least 2)
Didelphis virginiana Virginia Opossum (many DOR) *
Ursus americanus American Black Bear (ca. 4)
Procyon lotor Common Raccoon (at least 1 DOR) *
Canis rufus Red Wolf (1)
Sciurus carolinensis Eastern Gray Squirrel (a few)
Odocoileus virginianus White-tailed Deer (at least 3 alive, many DOR)
Tursiops truncatus Atlantic Bottle-nosed Dolphin (several)
Fishes: at least 1
Reptiles: at least 5
Birds: at least 95
Mammals: at least 7
[Not all species were seen by everyone in the group, and some group members may have seen species not listed above. Some additional species were potentially glimpsed or heard but not positively identified (e.g., Spotted Turtle, Blackpoll Warbler, et al. may have been glimpsed; glimpsed road-kills may have included Gray Fox, Eastern Cottontail, et al.).]
Authored by Erik Thomas
Wake Audubon board member Erik Thomas engaged in monitoring of the Lumber River IBA (Important Bird Area) on October 6-8, 2017. He was able to conduct counts at 27 of the 41 roadside sites over the weekend. The weather was rainy and some of the counts took place in drizzle. The hope was that he could document southward-bound migrants in the area. Unfortunately, the only transient birds that appeared were a Yellow-billed Cuckoo and two Black-and-white Warblers, and the latter may have been wintering in the area. One surprise was a flock of Cattle Egrets, which are common in that area in the spring but unusual this late in the year. They were feeding, predictably, with a herd of cows, but not at any of the official count sites. The big stars of the trip were acorn-eating birds. Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, and Blue Jays each appeared at most of the sites. There were Downy and Pileated Woodpeckers at some sites as well. They were all vocal and foraging actively for acorns. At this time of year, these birds are busy collecting and caching acorns for winter storage, and they play a crucial role in disseminating acorns to locations far from the parent tree. Oaks are highly dependent on jays and woodpeckers for spreading their seeds. Many nut-caching birds, including jays, have phenomenal memories for locations where they have buried nuts, but they never retrieve every nut they’ve cached.
You may not have thought of acorns as a food source, but they are edible. In fact, Native Americans in California relied heavily on acorns as a source of food. If you have a ready supply of acorns, you can make acorn bread. Some labor is involved, however. First, you have to crack and clean the acorns. This is the step that involves the most work. Acorn shells are soft and a standard nutcracker will suffice. Some acorns will have weevil larvae, so you’ll have to remove the weevils and frass. (Hint—put the weevil larvae in your birdfeeder.) You’ll probably want to peel off the fibrous covering from the nut meats. Once you’ve done that, you need to chop the acorn meats into small pieces. Then you boil them in several changes of water—two or three changes of water will do for white oak acorns, but you’ll probably need more for red oak acorns. The purpose of the boiling is to leach out the bitter tannins. Once that part is done, dry the chopped acorns out. You may want to beat them into a powder at this point. Then you’ll need equal amounts of acorn meal, flour, and milk, as well as an egg, a few tablespoons each of sugar and cooking oil, a tablespoon or two of baking powder, and a little salt. Mix the dry and fluid ingredients separately and then mix the two together. Pour the batter into a baking pan and bake it at 250º for an hour. The bread will appear marbled with brown streaks when you cut into it, and it has a unique but pleasant flavor.
Authored by John Gerwin, trip leader.
Our August Butterfly Walk began at Raulston Arboretum at 9 am on Saturday, August 5th. We had 16 participants, 11 of which of which followed us to Prairie Ridge for part 2. (for about an hour at the end). Thanks to everyone who came out.
We had ~19 species including a cool one I have not seen in years, called Hayhurst’s Scallopwing. The larvae of the Scallopwing feed on Lambs Quarters, which is a common “weed”. Which is closely related to Quinoa.
Another good one for the day was a Gulf Fritillary. This is a more “tropical” species that reaches the Raleigh area now almost every year. That is, early broods way down south (Florida, Georgia) grow up, lay more eggs, and the new ones sort of “drift” northward. Almost like the Monarch pattern. The larvae of this one feed on Passionflower.
The Pipevine Swallowtail larvae feed on plants in the genus Aristolochia. In the mountains, this is a vine called Dutchman’s Pipe and this butterfly is really a “mountain” butterfly, where it is far more abundant. Here are photos of the Pipeline and the Black Swallowtail, both of which we saw.
Red-banded Hairstreak: the larvae feed on fallen, decaying leaves of Wax Myrtle and several Sumac species. It seems no one has documented them feeding on live leaves, or rarely. Those who raise them in captivity raise them on decaying/dead leaves and some studies in nature find the same thing.
Authored by Jeff Beane
On Saturday, 25 March, I led a field trip, “Ephemeral Ponds in the North Carolina Sandhills,” as a follow-up to my talk on ephemeral wetlands at the 14 March general meeting. Participating were Colleen Bockhahn, Genya Bragina, Chad Chandler, Carol Cunningham, Stephanie Horton, Annie Runyon, and Joanne St. Clair. We met at 9:30 a.m. at my Sandhills house near Hoffman and visited a variety of ephemeral wetlands (seven total) within the longleaf pine ecosystem in Scotland and Hoke counties. Sites ranged from large to small, from artificial borrow pits to clay-based Carolina Bays, and from completely dry to too-deep-for-hip-waders—well illustrating the nature of ephemeral wetlands. We turned up a total of 11 amphibian species (about four of them obligate ephemeral wetland breeders, and a few others heavily dependent upon ephemeral wetlands). We also turned up four lizard species, and saw three fox squirrels (a lifer for some trip participants) as well as many interesting plants, birds, and invertebrates. We made a few brief detours to look at a pitcher plant seep, radio-track a coachwhip, and visit the world champion turkey oak. The weather was beautiful—mostly sunny and 70s°F. We ended the enjoyable day with dinner in a Mexican restaurant in Aberdeen, and most folks headed back toward Raleigh at around 9:00 p.m. A good time was had by all, and everyone learned something.
Ambystoma mabeei Mabee’s Salamander (2 larvae)
Ambystoma t. tigrinum Eastern Tiger Salamander (1 dead, partially eaten larva)
Notophthalmus viridescens dorsalis Broken-striped Newt (2 adults)
Pseudotriton m. montanus Eastern Mud Salamander (1 adult)
Bufo [Anaxyrus] terrestris Southern Toad (at least 1 calling; eggs; 1 dead, partially eaten adult)
Acris gryllus Southern Cricket Frog (many seen and calling)
Pseudacris crucifer Spring Peeper (at least 3 seen; several calling)
Pseudacris nigrita Southern Chorus Frog (several seen and calling)
Rana [Lithobates] capito Carolina Gopher Frog (1 large tadpole)
Rana [Lithobates] clamitans Green Frog (a few tadpoles)
Rana sphenocephala [Lithobates sphenocephalus] Southern Leopard Frog (tadpoles; eggs; a few calling)
Anolis carolinensis Green Anole (at least 1 or 2)
Sceloporus undulatus Fence Lizard (1 adult male)
Eumeces [Plestiodon] inexpectatus Southeastern Five-lined Skink (1 adult)
Scincella lateralis Ground Skink (at least 8)
Authored by John A. Gerwin, Treasurer, Wake Audubon Society and
Research Curator, Ornithology, NC Museum of Natural Sciences
This is a final note from Finca Esperanza Verde, in the north central highlands of Nicaragua. I have included here a mix of birds we see on our excursions to this reserve and ecolodge, my home away from home. Some of the species shown are tropical residents which remind me of birds back home. Others are indeed migrants that bred back in the U.S. or Canada sometime last year and flew here for half a year. Others are just notable tropic-colorific. I hope you enjoy the images below and more so, I hope you get the chance to visit a tropical forest some day.
Lineated Woodpecker – this one looks very similar to our Pileated, and it
is in the same genus. We found a pair investigating a cavity and according to one of our local guides, they are beginning to breed now. Instead of offering suet, lodges here offer bananas to any interested birds.
Pale-billed Woodpecker – this species is in the same genus as the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. And this one will make a “double knock” bill-strike-on-wood that is similar to that described for the Ivory-bill. Vanessa found one at a nest cavity, apparently feeding young. We know little about the life history of this species in Nicaragua. The Costa Rica field guide indicates this one finishes nesting in late December so perhaps up here, a little further north, they finish in January.
Black-cheeked woodpecker – this species is in the same genus as our Red-bellied Woodpecker. They are normally found just east of here, at lower elevations. The property at this site is between 1000-1200 meters and this woodpecker is mostly below 1000m. But we see numerous “Caribbean slope” species up here – presumably due to the local geography. The sound of this woodpecker reminds me of the Red-bellied.
Woodcreepers. In the New World Tropics there is a group of birds called Woodcreepers. They are sort of in between a woodpecker and a brown creeper. They creep and probe in loose bark, mosses, and other epiphytes. Most of these species have stiff tail tips. They range in size from a Downy Woodpecker to a Flicker. They never stop moving
(except at night of course) so I can never seem to get a good shot of one,
except when I can hold it very still…….
The Spotted Woodcreeper in the photo shows the tail tips very well, along with an oversized bill.
Lesson’s (formerly Blue-crowned) Motmot – This is one of a few species of Motmot’s found in the humid forests, where we are working. The national bird of Nicaragua is a dry forest species called Turquoise-browed Motmot, and I have also included an image of that species. The Motmot’s are another new world tropical group of birds. They nest in cavities dug into mud banks. No one seems to know for sure where the word Motmot comes from, although I have read at least one interesting note about this. I just can’t remember where I read it, sorry. For now, enjoy the photos.
Bushy-crested Jay – the tropics is full of some fun-looking jays. In addition, some clearly carry on the black and blue theme of a jay. This species has a rather small range – it is found from Guatemala to No. Nicaragua. I recently found a family of them just off the west edge of the Finca property which represents about the southernmost sighting for this species and what is essentially the first for the Finca. As you can see, a jay is a jay anywhere you go.
White-collared Manakin – Manakins are another new world tropical
group of birds. Males gather at leks to sing and dance and carry on, to try and attract a mate. You can search the Internet for some very amusing videos. Here is one of 4 species we find at the Finca property and this is one Olivia captured in a mist net, while trying to lure in a Golden-winged and/or a Brewster’s Warbler (we found both warblers occupying the same area).
Rufous-browed Peppershrike/Yellow-throated Vireo – The Peppershrike is essentially a tropical vireo. At our site we get this species plus a couple neotropical migrants, the Blue-headed (rare) and the Yellow-throated shown here.
Warblers – here, the most common warblers are some neotropical migrants: Chestnut-sided, Wilson’s, Tennessee, and Black-throated green; and many Golden-wings. This Tennessee Warbler is proof enough that one man’s trash is another bird’s treasure. Both coffee and Chestnut-sided’s migrate to the U.S. at some point. And then, we also find some resident warbler species, and this Rufous-capped Warbler is one of my favorites.
Common Pauraque – this is one of many nightjar species found in the tropics. It’s a cross between our familiar Whippoorwill and Chuck-wills-widow although more like the former to me. Fortunately, we seem to be able to find at least one each trip. Olivia Merritt photographed this one.
There are ~340 species of hummingbirds. Species diversity peaks in Colombia (~150), but Ecuador and Peru are not far behind. While Nicaragua has many fewer, it’s nice that 10 species of hummingbirds visit the feeders at this lodge. Some have only been seen at the feeders a few times over the past 7 years or so. The Crowned Woodnymph is a species more commonly found at lower elevations on the east/Caribbean slope – but a few individuals are regular in the forests and at the feeders.
One that is rare on the property (and elsewhere in the country it seems)
is the White-bellied Emerald. It looks like a female Ruby-throated. This individual has been visiting the feeders for almost a year. But up until now, we almost never saw it on site. I have captured 3 in 20 mornings of mist-netting, over a 10-year span. We don’t really know much about how it makes a living, at least, not in Nicaragua.
The Violet Sabrewing is named for the shape of the outer flight feathers, easily seen here. And the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird is, well, aptly named. Note the outer flight feathers of this Sabrewing.
And then here’s one that Vanessa spotted one drizzly afternoon, as the rest of us were looking in the other direction. I won’t print her initial reaction – but it got my attention. And I’m glad, because it was a new species to our list for this property (after some 20 trips) – called the White-necked Jacobin. It is another one that occurs mostly at lower elevations – we’re pretty much at the upper limit for this species, at the Finca. Vanessa Merritt regained enough composure to capture a nice memory.
Tanagers. We love our tanagers in North Carolina, and for good reason. Now, it seems, a tanager is not a tanager. That is, who is related to whom has changed with new genetic studies. In the meantime, one can visit the tropics and find some real jewels in the real tanager cohort. Included here are a few examples. Crimson-collared and Passerini’s tanagers are closely related and spend much of their time in the understory and along forest edges. The Golden-hooded Tanager is an example of the genus Tangara – a group of spectacularly colored birds that reaches its colorific peak in the eastern Andean cloud forests. The colors of this Golden-hooded Tanager are more electric in the sunlight…..
Summer Tanager – the Central American forests are full of migratory birds. This is a very familiar species to us all, although you may not have realized how much it loves bananas.
I just have to point out that the intrepid, adaptable House Sparrow is
found throughout Central and South America. In spite of what they represent, I find them rather adorable and I have to give them credit for being so adaptable. So, I couldn’t help but snap a few images when I found a small group of them just over the mountain in the small town of San Ramon. Who knows, these may be the only pictures of House Sparrow from Nicaragua……… here’s one.
Vesper Rat – there are many rodents in these parts. And sometimes,
those “parts” include a bedroom or kitchen. Here is one of the cutest little rodents around, trying to make a home behind a hanging over Vanessa’s bed. But this is only after it failed to finish a nest in her binocular case, and after chewing up one of her shirts for bedding material. In spite of these pesky events, I still find it mighty adorable – more so because it is in their room and not mine (it seems to come back each night……).
Spiders – no surprise, this area is full of them. It’s been fun to see some that are familiar, like this Aranea species – very similar to the one that we find in lovely webs on our front porches in late summer/fall. Another species both here and back home is this Orchard Spider. One this is also familiar, but for a different reason, is this Tarantula species. This one was climbing a post in the dining lodge (outdoor eating area). It’s been cold at night here, in January, and I wish I had more clothes like what this guy is wearing.
Three-toed Sloth – one can never get enough sloth pictures.
[photos by John Gerwin, except where noted]
Authored by John Gerwin
A significant element of the Nicaragua economy is based on coffee exports. Based on numerous surveys, a significant number of birds thrive among the vegetation found in traditional coffee farms and there are many such farms in northern Nicaragua. On a traditional farm, the coffee bushes are planted under the canopy of taller trees. Those trees can be a broad mix of native species, or a mix of native and fruit/nut bearing trees, or even a single species. Although a forest consisting of a mix of native species is preferred, even one of only a layer of the Flowering Inga can provide food and “lodging” for a suite of birds. And of course, coffee growing/harvesting/processing is a form of agriculture, and this suite of activities yields employment for many people.
One of those jobs is the “cortador”, or harvester; a.k.a coffee picker. Well, the person is not picking “coffee” but rather, coffee beans. And technically, coffee fruit, called a “cherry” because the typical fruit is a bright red color when it is mature. Finca Esperanza Verde is located in the north-central highlands of Nicaragua. In these parts, the coffee cherries mature between December to mid-February. Some bushes will continue to yield ripe fruit into early March, at higher elevations. The cherries on a given bush do not all ripen at once. Thus, pickers will re-visit bushes several times during the harvest season.
Another critical element of life here is the machete. In Spanish, the verb
“cortar” also means to cut. Here our Young Naturalists learn the importance of knowing homonyms (“twin” words).
On a traditional coffee farm, the cherries are picked by hand. In some places, the pickers cheat a bit and strip all the cherries off, discarding unripened ones. This is a bad technique for two reasons. It wastes those unripened fruits that would continue to ripen if left on the bush; and it damages the stem where the cherry had been attached and this can cause that part of the bush to not fruit again. So, on a farm that is designated, or strives to be, sustainable, pickers are not allowed to use that technique. Each farm employs a “coffee manager” who oversees how the picking is done and how it is proceeding each year, which ensures compliance. At FEV, a coffee cherry is picked, one by one. As you can imagine, this is a laborious process.
In this photo of coffee cherries, red are ripe, green or ‘reddish’ are still ripening.
To get a sense of just how laborious, I asked Vanessa and Olivia to give it
a try one morning. We set out with Luis, the resident coffee “mandador” on a bright sunny morning in mid January. Luis helped them attach the baskets around their waists that local pickers use. Two sizes can be found – the women got a size that holds about 15 pounds of coffee cherries. With baskets tied around their waists followed by a quick introduction to picking, it was time to get to work. Each spent the next hour tugging, pulling, and twisting away.
When a basket is full, a worker will empty it and return to pick more. At the end of a day, her coffee haul is weighed and she is paid for the day. In the Matagalpa region and provinces to the north, most of the pickers are women. Different folks have told me that the women have better dexterity and concentration. And as is the case in most cultures, their focus is on providing for the family. Pickers may move around a province, or remain in a smaller area, perhaps working a few farms. But the work is considered “migratory”. Often, women bring their children along (there is no school in January; also a Fair Trade certified farm cannot allow children at all). When a social cproblem arises among a group of pickers it tends to be testosterone-driven, exacerbated by alcohol abuse. Thus, overall, women are preferred.
Thus, I felt it was best to just have Vanessa and Olivia do the picking while I watched and took photographs……. I’m sure you would all agree.
Our Young Naturalists now hard at work (yet still smiling)
A skilled picker will pick enough coffee cherries to yield 130-160 pounds. In January of 2017, a picker will receive 200 cordobas (Nicaraguan currency) for 130 pounds picked, which is nearly $7 USD at this time. And so, after one hour, Vanessa and Olivia ended their coffee-picking session and it was time to weight the fruits of their labors.
So how did our industrious Young Naturalists fare? Will they earn enough to eat dinner tonight? More importantly, will they earn enough to feed their mentor Juancito dinner tonight?
Each picked about 3 ½ pounds. After doing some complicated math, we come to the realization that we will all be going to bed hungry tonight. They have each earned about $0.10 in one hour, so if they were to work a 10-hour day, they would each get $1 USD. Of course, with enough time, practice, and putting their deXXterity and concentration into play, I’m sure they would soon be up to the more livable $7 USD/day. That is livable right? Parents’ wishes notwithstanding, I ask each if they would like to come back and be a seasonal coffee picker, or go home and on to college – for now, they will go to college. It’s nice to have such choices.
Picking coffee fruit is only the beginning of a very detailed, laborious, multi-multistep process in getting fresh beans to your local roaster. I won’t go into all those details (you can find a lot written and described online). Suffice it to say, to produce really good coffee beans requires a lot of hands-on work, with an eye towards minutiae. Good coffee is expensive and I understand why. I wish the people in Nicaragua were paid more, but that’s how the market works. In the end, I’m grateful for the opportunity to enjoy good coffee, and the birds I love (both at home and in the tropics). And once/year visit my second family here at Finca Esperanza Verde (Green Hope Farm).
John Gerwin is Treasurer of Wake Audubon and
Research Curator, Ornithology, NC Museum of Natural Sciences
All photos are by John.
Authored by John Gerwin, Treasurer, Wake Audubon
Research Curator, Ornithology, NC Museum of Natural Sciences
I have been visiting Nicaragua since 2005. It is a country with wonderful birds, coffee and lovely people. I was invited by Dave Davenport and John Connors, who had been co-leading some ecotours to Nicaragua since 2000. They had helped a group out of Durham (Sister Communities of Durham/San Ramon=SCDSR) to set up trails and cabins for a tourist operation at a restored shade-coffee farm, called Finca Esperanza Verde (FEV), near the town of San Ramon in Matagalpa province. I was asked to initiate some bird-banding and add to their bird-watching activities and I confess I was leery of going. But after just one visit, I was smitten. For the next 7 years we did 1-2 tours/year, during March, mostly with classes from North Carolina State University or Guilford College. In 2012 FEV was put up for sale. At that time, I had two new graduate students and decided to take them to another farm north of FEV to do some studies on Golden-winged and Wilson’s warblers – two species found to be fairly common in several coffee farms in northern Nicaragua. In 2013, FEV was sold to new owners but SCDRN remained active in supporting the local community and offering its own tours. Dave, John, and I have continued to bring tour groups down each year.
We have helped to train Humberto and Omar, shown below, to be nature guides & excellent birdwatchers. Donations from recent trip participants and a generous discount from Tracy at the Wild Bird Center in Chapel Hill, paid for the purchase of 2 new pairs of Nikon binoculars.
The Golden-winged Warbler (GWWA) is a species now quite threatened. Population numbers have declined dramatically in the past 20 years. As is often the case, we do not fully understand why – there are numerous factors involved. And like many (I suppose most) migrants, the Golden-wing spends 5-6 months in Central or South America. And so, to do effective conservation work, there is an International coalition of biologists who are working together to get, and share, as much data as we can about GWWA, across the species entire range (that is, breeding, migration, and non-breeding).
My now-former student and I returned to FEV in 2014 to continue our studies of the GWWA. We have continued tagging individual warblers with color bands/rings, radio transmitters, and in 2015, geolocators. The radio transmitters allow us to track individual birds over very short distances/areas – the radio signal transmits about 500 meters from the bird to our receiver. With this technology we can find tagged birds and observe behaviors, e.g. how they feed, where they feed, who they are with, how much space they use, and more. In 2015 we were invited to participate in a multi-country effort to put a different type of tag on individuals of this species, that would track and record their migration. These are called geolocators. The units are solar-powered and last for up to one year. The units are attached using degradable thread tied in a figure-8 harness. They take many measurements each day to record the length of daylight, the date and time of day. These data can be used to estimate the location of the bird at the time of the recording because daylength varies by latitude and of course, changes as the seasons do. The units record the data – they do not transmit it – so the device must be recovered in order to download the data. To do that, we have to return to where we first caught the birds and try to recapture them. We have documented that 30-50% of the GWWA’s banded in one year will return to the same site the next, which makes this species a good candidate for the use of geolocator technology. The geolocator technology is not perfect. The accuracy of the point locations is good but not great (about 50 miles). But when a bird is migrating from say, Nicaragua to Pennsylvania, a 50 mile accuracy is good enough. If the solar panels can get covered by feathers, or debris; or if the bird spends a lot of time in denser vegetation, these can negatively affect the data collection.
In 2015 we deployed 5 geolocator units. In 2016, I received a small grant to return with more help, and more units. Our work at Finca Esperanza Verde is part of a multi-country effort in collaboration with scientists at Indiana University at Pennsylvania (Dr. Jeff Larkin); Cornell University (Ruth Bennett, Ph.D. candidate); the American Bird Conservancy; Audubon NC; and Jaguar Reserve & Ecolodge north of here. In addition, Jeff and Ruth are working with scientists in Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras to deploy geolocators as well.
In February of 2016, 4 of us went to FEV where we recaptured one of the birds from 2015 and deployed 18 more units on 17 GWWA and one Brewster’s Warbler (a hybrid between GWWA and Blue-winged Warbler). We also visited a coffee farm just north of FEV and put geolocators on 3 warblers. In November/December I sent two of my technicians back and they recovered 5 of the 18 at FEV – they did not have time to visit the other site. We received news that the unit from 2015 failed at some point in its life – the principle investigator of this project was unable to recover any data from the unit. This was disappointing news but is a typical event in the world if research – it’s always one flap forward and two flaps back. Jeff and Ruth are receiving units from the other countries. Hopefully a good number will provide data and by this summer, we will have generated a handful of migration maps, and we’ll know where the birds from each country went to breed.
My two technicians also discovered more disappointing news. Many of the areas where we had captured the other birds that we had tagged in February, were occupied by new birds (unbanded). We don’t know if “our” tagged birds had gone to another area after being “asked” to carry this device around for a year, or if they had not yet arrived, or just what. The devices weigh 5% of the birds’ body weight – studies of birds carrying different weights have determined that 5-6% is the upper limit for an individual bird (so we don’t exceed 5%). But there could be other factors that affect a given bird, using this technique, that we don’t fully understand yet. So to be thorough, I came down in January, along with two Wake Audubon Young Naturalists, Olivia and Vanessa Merritt, to double check the FEV site, and visit that one other site to the north.
Olivia and Vanessa are twin sisters who have worked with me for nearly 5 years, assisting with field and museum work. They are quite experienced at putting up the nets we use to capture birds, at tagging/measuring/releasing birds, and other field tasks as needed. They recently spent 10 weeks in Spain, where their grandmother lives. While there, they assisted with some migration/bird banding on Gibraltar island and during a 4-day period there were so many birds around that each of them removed ~250 birds from the nets – that’s a lot of birds in 4 days. So down we came, on January 3rd, to re-visit areas and assess the situation where the warblers hold territories. Another aspect of our study is to see if birds remain on territory during this non-breeding season. From similar work with Wood Thrush, we are finding that individuals seem to roam during the non-breeding season. And many do not return to the site where they were banded. I have banded many Wood Thrushes here at FEV but over the years, have not recaptured any. But in years past, a handful of our banded GWWA have returned and remained at least into March, so we’re trying to piece together this element of the species life history.
My first two field techs banded ~20 male and 3 female GWWA’s in Nov/Dec, but reported that there are still unbanded Golden-wings on the property. So we will now try to capture/band as many of those as we can. Another element of our research is to band and monitor these birds for as many years as we can, to learn what we can about which ones return, and for how many years (some migrants we’ve banded in NC returned up to 10 years). So far this trip (in two weeks) we have not found any more of the birds from last year. We will continue to tag with bands (rings, really) any new birds we can capture.
Vanessa and Olivia will also do some GPS (Global Positioning System) work to help create detailed digitized maps of the property (to outline the coffee plots, the forested plots, and other features on the landscape). We are also creating some educational documents that highlight the birds that visit the banana and hummingbird feeders. This farm has some nice cabins that can house up to 28 visitors and there are many tourists that visit between December and April of each year. So we are creating some educational material about both the resident and migratory birds that visit the feeders and are easily observed by the tourists.
Coffee is an important product for many people – those who grow it, those who export it, those who roast it, and those of us who drink it. Small “traditional” farms grow their coffee plants in the shade of taller native trees and those trees provide habitat for many birds. Thus, there are two strong connections between a place like northern Nicaragua and North Carolina: the coffee we crave, and the migratory birds we love. And now we have a third connection: a number of these coffee farms provide lodging and guides who are here to showcase the plants and animals, and the coffee process, to anyone who wishes to visit. Birdwatchers/nature lovers are a welcome addition to the economy of this region.
In subsequent posts, I will share a few adventures and discoveries during our time here. I will post images of some bird species that are local residents and which ar very much like some of our own residents, along with some familiar migrants. I will also describe the coffee-picking effort of Olivia and Vanessa and explain why they earned a whopping $0.25 (each) for their one hour of labor. So, make like our favorite local animal here, the sloth, and hang around.
Photos by John Gerwin except first photo by Dave Davenport.