Monday, February 27, 2012

Bird of the Week - XXIII

Male Red-winged blackbird.

Male Common grackle.

This week's BOTW isn't one bird, but two! Red-winged blackbirds and Common grackles are two of the earliest returning migratory birds to our area and serve as signs of spring.

Perhaps the most abundant bird in North America, the Red-winged blackbird is one the the earliest returning migratory birds in our area. After spending the winter in the southern part of the United States, they arrive back here in Reading from the end of February through early March. Saturday (Feb.26th), I observed a flock of 11 Red-winged blackbirds, with several of them singing.
The Red-winged blackbird is a medium-sized songbird that has a moderately long, slender bill and a medium length tail. The male is black with a bright red to reddish-orange patch on it's wings. The female is totally different appearance, looking a lot like a large, dark sparrow. It's song is a harsh, gurgling trill described as "kon-ka-reee".

Female Red-winged blackbird.
Red-winged blackbirds breed in a variety of wetland and grassy areas, including swamps, marshes, meadows, and fields. The male Red-winged blackbird flashes and displays the red patches (epaulets) on it's wings to attract a mate. The males vigorously defend their territory, chasing any birds that comes into it, trying to drive them away.

Mal Red-winged blackbird displaying.
About 75% of the Red-winged Blackbird diet is seeds. During the breeding season, they also eat insects, especially dragonflies, mayflies, and caddis flies as they emerge from their aquatic larval stage. In winter, grain is an important source of food, and many birds feed on corn stubble and at feedlots.

The Common grackle is a large blackbird, approximately 12 inches long with a wingspan of about 16 inches. It is an iridescent black all over with a long tail that looks keel-like in flight. It's eyes are yellow and it has a fairly long, black bill. The head, neck, and breast are a glossy, purplish-green or blue. The female is slightly smaller and less glossy than the male. It's song is a harsh, unmusical "readle-eak," like a rusty gate.

Common grackle.

It spends the winter in southern United States and is one of the earliest returning migrant birds, often returning in March along with flocks of Red-winged blackbirds. It forages (eats) on ground, often in large flocks with other blackbirds where it will eat insects, other invertebrates, grain, seeds, acorns, and fruit. The Common Grackle is an opportunistic forager (hunter of food), taking advantage of whatever food sources it can find. It will follow plows for invertebrates and mice, wade into water to catch small fish, and sometimes kill and eat other birds at bird feeders.

Flock of Common grackles.
The Common grackle breeds in much of central and eastern United States and Canada, living in a variety of open areas with scattered trees, including open woodland, boreal forest, swamps, marshes, agricultural areas, urban residential areas, and parks.
Photos from All About Birds and

Friday, February 17, 2012

Great Backyard Bird Count 2012

The Great Backyard Bird Count is an annual four-day event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of where the birds are across the continent and in Hawaii. Anyone can participate, from beginning bird watchers to experts. It takes as little as 15 minutes on one day, or you can count for as long as you like each day of the event. It’s free, fun, and easy—and it helps the birds.

Why Count Birds? Scientists and bird enthusiasts can learn a lot by knowing where the birds are. Bird populations are dynamic; they are constantly in flux. No single scientist or team of scientists could hope to document the complex distribution and movements of so many species in such a short time.
Your counts can help us answer many questions:
How will this winter's snow and cold temperatures influence bird populations?
Where are winter finches and other “irruptive” species that appear in large numbers during some years but not others?
How will the timing of birds’ migrations compare with past years?
How are bird diseases, such as West Nile virus, affecting birds in different regions?
What kinds of differences in bird diversity are apparent in cities versus suburban, rural, and natural areas?
Are any birds undergoing worrisome declines that point to the need for conservation attention?
Scientists use the counts, along with observations from other citizen-science projects, such as the Christmas Bird Count, Project FeederWatch, and eBird, to give us an immense picture of our winter birds. Each year that these data are collected makes them more meaningful and allows scientists to investigate far-reaching questions.
Please consider participating in this years Great Backyard Bird Count!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Bird of the Week - XXII

This week's "Bird of the Week" is the Carolina wren. Twenty years ago, it would have been very rare to see a Carolina wren in Reading. Now, they are fairly common around town. This bird is a great example of range expansion, that is living organisms expanding the range in which they live. The Carolina wren is a bird of the Southeast but now can be found in all most all of Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire and southern Maine. It can be found in a wide range of habitats, from swamps to forest to residential area. They requires moderately dense shrub or brushy cover. They eat primarily insects, but can be found around winter bird feeders eating suet.

The Carolina wren is a small, buffy, songbird with rusty colored underparts. It oftens holds it tail in the upright position and it has a white eye stripe. The sexes look alike with the male slightly larger. The Carolina wren's song is a very loud, clear, 3-syllabled chant, like "tea kettle - tea kettle - tea kettle." It is one of the few birds that will sing in the dead of winter.
The Carolina wren is quite creative as to where it will nest and roost at night. It will nest in hanging plants, tipped over flower pots, nest boxes, it will even nest in garages if the door or window is kept open. Last winter, I had a Carolina wren roost (sleep) in my Christmas wreath hanging on my front door! Here are plans you could follow to build a shelter box for Carolina wrens, or other small birds, to use at night.
Photos taken from Cornells All About Birds

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Pompeii Field Trip

Our Team took a field trip to the Museum of Science in Boston to visit the Pompeii exhibit as part of the Social Studies curriculum.  In addition, we also saw the IMAX movies Ring of Fire.
We also visited the Beyond the X-Ray exhibit, the Cosmic Light exhibit, and the A Bird's World exhibit where the kids looked for some of the Birds of the Week they have been learning.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Bird of the Week XXI

This week's "Bird of the Week" is the Red-bellied woodpecker. This is the third woodpecker to be a "Bird of the Week". the other two were the Downy woodpecker and the Hairy woodpecker. The Red-bellied woodpecker is a relative new-comer to our area. It is a great example of a bird expanding it's range northward. It is not considered migratory, but it is at the northern edge of it's range and may move farther south in very cold winters. Ten years ago, the Red-bellied woodpecker was very uncommon around here. Now, we see it more frequently at feeders and in the backyard. While it's belly is covered in a light, red wash, it is easier to spot by the red on the back and top of its head.

The Red-bellied woodpecker is a medium to large-sized woodpecker, approximately 9 inches long with a wingspan of about 13 - 17 inches. It has a red hood from the top of it's head to the back of it's neck. It's back is barred black and white.
It will glean (eat ) insects from the bark of trees as well as using it's long bill to probe for insects in dead wood. The Red-bellied woodpecker will store food in cracks and crevices of trees and fence posts.

Photos from All About Birds and Bird Watchers Digest.