29 October 2012

Rare Flock Gathers at Fontenelle Forest

A rare flock gathered in the environs of Fontenelle Forest during the weekend of October 26-28th. They were first noted in a group Friday evening, and then again Saturday morning, when soon after gathering they dispersed elsewhere. Numbers were especially significant Saturday afternoon and evening near the nature center.

It was hard to determine specific identification, but the individuals had apparently arrived from their usual haunts elsewhere in Nebraska, as well as other inland states. Behavior was fairly similar among the group, and a number of them had a second set of eyes, or in some instances a huge single viewing lens more than a foot-long.

The variety seen was splendid and conditions were superb, because of the planning effort of Betty Grenon, the coordinator for a combined meeting of the Nebraska Ornithologists' Union and the Inland Bird Banding Association.

More than 100 people registered for the unique, weekend event, Grenon said. The focal point was the Fontenelle Forest Nature Center in Bellevue.

Events started Friday evening. Phil Swanson presented a "reception video" on Omaha history and birds through the season in this area of the Missouri River valley, Grenon said.

Loren and Babs Padelford brought homemade brownies — made Thursday evening with apparent care — as a tasty treat for the guests.

Later in the evening, a field trip was made to experience the banding of Saw-whet Owls at the Hitchcock Nature Center, in the Loess Hills of western Iowa.

Saturday morning, the bird enthusiasts gathered before going on field trips to the local places at Fontenelle Forest, across the river to Lake Manawa, also to Neale Woods — another site maintained by the Fontenelle Forest Association — and then onward to Hitchcock Nature Center in Iowa, to visit a raptor banding site, and the prominent hawk-watch.

Several presentations were given at the nature center Saturday afternoon.

"I wanted to highlight local talents involved in research," Grenon said.

Breeding Bird Atlas

The first speaker was Wayne Molhoff, responsible for managing the Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas project, during both of the multi-year periods as it was undertaken throughout the state.

There were 557 atlas blocks surveyed for this atlas investigation compared to 443 during 1984-1989, Molhoff said during his presentation to the group of bird enthusiasts. Included in the sites surveyed where all public lands larger than 640 acres in extent.

Twice as many sightings occurred in the second atlas effort, 54,000+ compared to 26,000 earlier. There were 203 species documented during the most recent effort, with field work from 2006 through 2011.

Data results were given for some particular species, including an obvious indication of range overlap between Black-headed Grosbeaks and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. These two species were shown to comingle in central Nebraska, and do inter-breed where their occurrence is among a common space.

Another similar sort of situation, is conveyed by towhees. Mixed pairs of the Spotted Towhee and Rufous-sided Towhee were noted by atlas surveys, Molhoff said. Hybridization does occur.

A new addition to the species denoted by the atlas surveys was the Osprey. It is now recognized as breeding in the state, with records from the atlas survey among the first indicators.

Distribution maps and other project documentation are currently being prepared by Molhoff.

Sponsors for this effort included the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission through a state wildlife grant, and the Nebraska Ornithologists' Union.

Raptor Banding on the Loess Hills

Raptors of several sorts have been lured for research purposes, into a trap atop the Loess Hills of western Iowa.

Since 2007 this effort has attracted many species close enough for capture associated with an effort to denote species presence, investigate particulars of migrant raptors, while providing educational opportunities, said Jerry Toll. The effort also broadens the mission associated with the nearby Hitchcock Nature Center hawk watch.

The primary raptor captured has been the Red-tailed Hawk, Toll indicated during his presentation, and for this species, records indicate the occurrence of three sub-species.

Results were presented for 2007-2012. During the period, eleven raptor species have been documented, Toll said. The top three species represented were the Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper's Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk..

For the other species, there were only 1-3 or no records each year.

Every bird captured is banded, Toll said. There have been band recoveries from Louisiana, the Alberta province in Canada, and for Red-tailed Hawks, especially along a confined corridor through the central United States.

Also discussed were how banded birds were found elsewhere. They might have been found deceased, or being removed from airport runways, Toll conveyed during his presentation.

The current autumn season has been exceptional for banding efforts.

Three Merlins occurred, which is a new record. Two Red-shouldered Hawks were also banded, Toll indicated. On October 12th, a juvenile Northern Harrier was at the banding station, was captured, banded and released and was another new species of occurrence. A few days later, there was the first instance of a Prairie Falcon, Toll said.

In addition to the capture and banding, a student of a local university had been evaluating the breeding origin for transient Red-tailed Hawks. Feathers from hatch-year birds have been evaluated, Toll said, which can be used to determine the "latitude of origin" for the juvenile hawks. Birds occurring at the Hitchcock site have been determined to have origins near Anchorage, Alaska, in northwest Canada, and elsewhere hundreds of miles distant.

Funding for this effort has been provided by the Pottawattamie County Board and Foundation, Audubon Society of Omaha, Iowa Ornithologists' Union, and others.

Saw-whet Owl Banding

There is a focus upon raptor occurrence, whether night or day, among the hills about the Hitchcock Nature Center.

Another particular focus is the diminutive Northern Saw-whet Owl. A field trip during the meeting weekend visited the place for this research, with the focal point a barn in western Iowa.

The focus on the "saw-whet" started in 2007. Only six owls were captured, according to the results given by Sandy Reiken[?sic.]. Subsequent research results given were an interesting, personal perspective about discovering more about these little owls. At their research site, the owls in by using an "audio lure of a male saw-whet owl." Once captured, following several measurements of physical characteristics, beak coloration and a determination of sex by measuring the length of the wing chord, each owl is released.

Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship

A long-term effort initiated and continued by people associated with Fontenelle Forest has evaluated avian productivity and survivorship.

The effort was started in 1989 under the leadership of Betty Grenon, at a place on the floodplain of Fontenelle Forest, east of Bellevue. The effort involves a station of ca. 50 acres, nets, multiple days when birds are captured, and an expression of multiple data details for each morning, said Rick Schmid, during this presentation.

Grenon was instrumental in maintaining the effort essential to gathering the many details required for the MAPS project. Craig Hensley was recognized for his important help, by Schmid.

The study site moved to Boyer Chute NWR, and the intensive banding and documentation was done by Hensley, Grenon and Shmidt. Most recently in the past couple of years, a MAPS site efforts was moved to Neale Woods, Schmid said. This site is also along the Missouri River Valley.

A comparison of results for the floodplain at Fontenelle Forest and Boyer Chute N.W.R. was given. At the Fontenelle Forest site, there were 1008 bird captures during 4056 net hours, using the parlance of the MAPS statistics, representing 46 different species. Especially prominent among the captures were the House Wren and American Robin, with the Yellow-throated Warbler an unusual occurrence.

At Boyer Chute refuge, 1928 birds were captured during 3563 net hours, Schmid said. There were 47 species represented. Prominent among this number were the House Wren, Orchard Oriole and American Robin.

In addition to birds denoted during banding, details are kept about each bird seen and heard, along with notes about breeding activity.

More than twenty volunteers have been helpful during this banding effort, Schmid said. Occasional visitors are welcome to visit the survey site.

Live Birds in the Room

Raptor Recovery Nebraska is known for bringing birds to their presentations, so it was another special norm on Saturday afternoon. Following an introduction of the groups efforts, which started in 1976, Denise Lewis, the outreach coordinator, presented four different raptors.

Shown first was a dead, adult, Bald Eagle that was a victim of some tragedy, and missing an entire wing, when found near York, Nebraska. It was subsequently euthanized as it had no chance for survival, Lewis said. The bird arrived to the Omaha area soon enough to be shown to the people at the presentation, as seen dead on a table in long-gone, but still significant glory.

Three live raptors shown were an excitement for the crow. The obviously appreciated guests were:

1) Orion (named after the stellar constellation) but better recognized as a Great Horned Owl; it had been shot and its wings were so damaged it could not be released back into the wilds; Ms. Lewis was interested in getting it to be more expressive with a taller stance;
2) Grasshopper, a distinct, dark-colored morph Swainson's Hawk that had been shot, illegally; the bird had only a partial wing, and according to rule-making by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this malady would currently mean its demise;
3) Arrow, an expressive female Peregrine Falcon, that came from Colorado; it did not have enough wing strength for flight needed for survival in the wild, Lewis said.

Many cameras were focused on these magnificent birds, each one lively in a wonderful and distinctive manner in the conference room. Each of these birds are cared for by Lewis, and shown in other educational presentations. In recent years, raptors cared for by the group have been presented to at least 8,850 people, as represented by Lewis visits among the community.

Raptor Recovery has about 30-34 educational birds within Nebraska, Lewis said.

Linda Brown, a board member of the group was also present and contributed to the presentation.

A Black-capped Chickadee banded at the NOU/IBBA meeting.

Orion, the Great Horned Owl.

Grasshopper, the Swainson's Hawk.

Arrow, the Peregrine Falcon.

These pictures are courtesy of Anne and Ron Kruse.

Tom Labedz, museum curator at the University of Nebraska Museum commented on the condition of Snowy Owls they had received during the irruption of this species last winter. They were emaciated and plagued by parasites.

Raptor Recovery had 16 Snowy Owls arrive at their facility during the past winter season, Lewis said. Of the four that survived, two had broken wings and were placed at an educational nature facility elsewhere. The other two were shipped northward, received additional care, and were released back to the wild up north, Lewis indicated.

For birds which do not survive, carcasses are sent to a federal agency, so the feathers can become available for tribal purposes. Several of the Snowy Owls from Nebraska went to Sia, a tribal feather repository in Oklahoma.

Raptor Recovery can handle 90 birds at a time, Lewis said, and they are typically full. There were 472 raptors cared for in 2011. Through the years, "a little over 50% of the birds handled," have been released, Lewis noted.

This group relies upon contributions and money from members to help birds recover from a traumatic event. Significant expenses include payments to veterinarians and purchase of the food essential to the survival of hawks, owls, eagles and falcons receiving care. Contributions are welcomed to help the debilitated raptorial birds.

Further Events

After the presentations, birders walked about, peering into the foliage while using their ever-ready binoculars, with those big-lens cameras at the ready, the events of the continued. There was an IBBA group meeting. Then an evening banquet.

The post-banquet presentation started upon the arrival of "Spencer Baird" to discuss a few particular birds and the origin of their names. A focus of his presentation was about warblers, and specifically a few whose name had a female derivation when the newly known species was "officially" described in the ornithological literature.

The presentation by Dr. Neil Ratzlaff, suitably dressed in garb of the period, had a topical focus on the name origin details for the Lucy's, Grace's, Virginia and Blackburnian warblers, which were thus named for women. For the latter species, additional details were to be presented about the "Lady Anna Blackburn" who maintained a natural history collection in Britain, at the family estate, near Liverpool, England, Ratzlaff said.

Dr. Baird was the first assistant in natural history at the Smithsonian Institution, and instrumental in developing the collection of bird material at the national museum.

Dr. Ratzlaff, a retired radiologist, has been interested in this topic as a result of a personal investigation of birds that were first described by physicians.

The bird enthusiasts continued their events Sunday, with additional field trips and certainly, more conversations about birds.

It has been more than ten years since the autumn meeting Nebraska Ornithologists' Union was held in conjunction with another bird group, Grenon said. Banding, which is part of the educational program at Fontenelle Forest, "is a good chance to get close to birds." Many visitors, including young children, or volunteers appreciate being able to touch the live birds.

Members of the IBBA came from several states, including Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri.

Grenon expressed her appreciation for the help of Rick Schmid for meeting planning and operation, to the boards of the Nebraska Ornithologists' Union and IBBA for a willingness to meet at Omaha at the same time.