Friday, April 11, 2014

Windsor Prison Farm


Just a 10 minute drive outside of historic Windsor, Vermont (birthplace of the Vermont Republic, 1777-1791) are 945 acres of state owned farmland that hosts the 28± acre Southeast State Correctional Facility (SESCF).  The farm was established in 1915 as an annex to the Windsor State Prison, the first state penitentiary in the United States and longest operating facility until it closed in 1975.  Prison inmates worked the farm raising a dairy herd, a piggery, chickens, as well as produced vegetables and fruits for themselves and residents of other state institutions.  When the dairy herd was sold off in 1992 the property essentially ceased being an actively managed farm. 
    

Apart from the SESCF the remaining acreage is a patchwork of plant communities, representative of early seral and climax successional stages that typically follow farm abandonment including the broad categories: grass-forb fields, old fields, pole stage woodlands, and mature forests.  Other habitat types present on the property are feral apple orchards, wet sedge meadow, hedgerows and woodland brushy borders, a pond, and small streams.   This diversity of habitats attracts diverse birdlife. 
In recent years, Windsor Prison Farm (WPF) has become a popular Southern Windsor County bird watching destination.  A total species count exceeding 100 so far has been documented on or in the vicinity of the property.  Birds of particular interest to birders are those associated with old field habitats, such as Blue-winged and Golden-winged warblers, Eastern Towhee, and Field Sparrow. Old field communities are becoming increasingly uncommon in New England as abandoned farmlands revert to forests or are being developed.

Click on image to enlarge.
Numbers correspond to habitat types described below.
1.  Grass-Forb Fields are a prominent WPF landscape feature.  Annual mowing and periodic brush hogging maintain these habitats.  Perennial grass-dominated fields make up much of the property; however, these are gradually being superseded by biennials forbs, such as goldenrod (Solidago sp.).  Grassland nesting birds on WPF are Bobolink and Savannah Sparrow.  Other associates are Wild Turkey, American Kestrel, Tree Swallow, Eastern Bluebird, and Red-winged Blackbird. 

Bobolink
2.  Old Fields exist where hay fields and pastures were abandoned from active agricultural use and natural early plant community succession has been allowed to proceed. The largest area of this habitat type is located upland of the large wet sedge meadow near the center of the WPF property (7).  This is a shrub-sapling community dominated by brambles (Rubus sp.), multifora rose (Rosa multiflora), shrub dogwood (Cornus sp.), black cherry (Prunus sp.) and white pine (Pinus strobus). Birds likely to be seen in this habitat are American Woodcock, Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher,  Golden-winged Warbler (rare),  Eastern Towhee, Field Sparrow, and Indigo Bunting.  Prairie Warbler has been documented nesting in a dry old field habitat  abutting the WPF property and Marton Road.
Brown Thrasher
3.  Feral Apple "Orchards" provide habitat for Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Black-billed Cuckoo, Cedar Waxwing, and Blue-winged Warbler among other spcies.   Typically the understory vegetative layer in and around the "orchards" is dominated by pasture juniper (Juniperus communis) and brambles (Rubus sp.).  Because apple fruit are an important late fall and winter food source for white-tailed deer, grouse and turkeys, these stands are actively managed a local hunter group in partnership with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department to improve apple tree health and fruit production through selective tree and brush removal.

Blue-winged Warbler
4.  Mature Deciduous-Mixed Forest is Northern Hardwood Forest Formation represented by sugar maple (Acer saccharum), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), yellow birch (Betula allegahaniensis) and eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is the dominant forest type on the property.  Some of the mature forest bird species located on the WPF property include Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, 
Pileated Woodpecker, Great Crested Flycatcher, Red-eyed and Blue-headed vireos, Veery,  Thrush, Ovenbird, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.


Rose-breasted Grosbeak

5.  Mature Coniferous Forests are either predominantly hemlock or white pine stands.  Mature pine stands exemplify advanced old field succession.  Hemlock forests are critical winter habitat for white-tailed deer.  Common bird associates of coniferous forest include Barred Owl, Winter Wren, Hermit Thrush, and Blackburnian Warbler.

6.  Woodland Edges and Hedgerows represent the boundary between two very contrasting habitat types (e.g. forest and grassland).  Ecologically this produces the "edge effect" where the abundance of food and cover tends to favor high species diversity.  Birds associated with wooded-brushy edges on the WPF are  Mourning Dove, Black-billed Cuckoo, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Eastern Kingbird, Red-eyed Vireo, American Robin, Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwing, American Redstart, Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Indigo Bunting, Baltimore Oriole, and American Goldfinch.  During spring and fall migration seasons edge habitats may attract a variety of warbler and sparrow species not present at other times of the year, e.g. Palm, Blackpoll and Wilson's warblers and Fox, Lincoln's and White-crowned sparrows. 

7.  Wet Sedge Meadow that is at the core of the WPF property likely grazed by cows back when the farm maintained a dairy herd.  Today, the dominant plants are sedges (Carex sp.), sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), some common cattails (Typha latifolia), scattered alder (Alnus sp.) and willow (Salix sp.).  Birds to be seen here are American Bittern, Wilson’s Snipe, Alder and Willow flycatchers, Yellow Warbler, Red-winged Blackbird, Swamp and Song sparrows.  In 19XX, a pair of Northern Harriers successfully nested and fledged young here.  During the nesting season listen and look for male snipes engaged in aerial display flights to attract mates and defend their territories.

Wilson'snipe
8.  Prison Pond was constructed in 1925 by damming a tributary stream to Hubbard Brook and has a surface area of one acre.  Occasional pond drop-ins are Great Blue Heron, Wood Duck and Hooded Merganser.  More predictable during the nesting season is a pair of Louisiana Waterthrush sometimes found in the brushy pond shoreline but more often heard singing downstream from the forested ravine through which the brook flows.
9.  Pole Stage Woodlands is at the present time a relatively minor habitat type on the property.  It is a successional stage between old field shrub and mature forest communities.  Species associated with pole stage woodlands are Ruffed Grouse, American Woodcock, Warbling Vireo, Cedar Waxwing, and Chestnut-sided Warbler.
 
The latest revision of the Connecticut River Birding Trail  – Upper Valley Section added Marton Road, including the WPF property, is one of 49 Vermont and New Hampshire birding sites identified within a 77 mile long section of the Connecticut River Valley.

Directions to the WPF property: From the traffic light at the intersection of Main Street (US Route 5) and State Street in downtown Windsor drive  0.7 miles on State Street to the junction of it with Hunt and County roads.  Bear left onto Hunt Road and drive 1.5 miles and turn right onto Marton Road.  Drive 1.7 miles to intersection with Prison Road (closed to vehicles) on the right.   Cautionary Note: the SESCF is located due east of here and is off limits to the public.  While birding the property obey signage and do not approach the correctional facility.   

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Western Massachusetts Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus) sightings in the Northeast have been occurring with increasing frequency since the late 1990s.   A winter vagrant to eastern Canada and northeastern U.S., its nesting range is eastern Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard.  Normal winter range is Great Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark.  Increased vagrancy to North America has been attributed to the population having undergone a 10 fold increase over the past 50 years. 

Based on eBird postings, five Northeastern states report single bird sightings of Pink-footed Geese between last December through today: Maine, Dec. 12; Maryland, Feb. 4; New York, Mar. 19; Pennsylvania, Mar. 21; and Massachusetts, Mar. 30.

The Massachusetts bird was in the company of a large flock of Canada Geese feeding in agricultural fields along Knightly Road in Hadley (slightly grainy digiscoped image below).
 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Rusty Blackbirds

Today six Rusty Blackbirds were observed and digiscoped on Old Connecticut River Road in Springfield, Vermont.  These were in a flock of 10+ Red-winged Blackbirds and four Common Grackles.

Rusty Blackbird is a North American species of high conservation concern.  Since the 1960s its population has declined 85 to 99%.  Causes of this trend are unknown at this time, but the scientific community suspects global climate change and habitat degradation/loss.  The 2014 Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz is a citizen science effort to engage birders in seeking out "rusties" and to submit their observations on-line.   Check out the link for details.



Male Rusty Blackbird in late basic/early alternate plumage.

Male Rusty Blackbird (left) and Red-winged Blackbird (right).

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Bear Alert!

Vermont Fish & Wildlife
Department photo.
One sure sign of spring in northern New England is the first appearance of bear sign whether it be scat, paw prints in snow or mud, or experiencing destruction of backyard bird feeders.  Bear have begun coming out of hibernation and are searching for high caloric food following a long winter fast.  Bird feeders stocked with sunflower seed and suet are irresistible to a hungry bear; and once such a food source has been located, it can be difficult to discourage regular bear visits and the expensive loss of bird feeders.  The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department recommends bird feeding be stopped by April 1st at the latest and that feeding not be resumed until early December after bears have denned.    

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Turners Falls Waterfowl

After seeing recent reports of a Canvasback and a Redhead on the Connecticut River and Barton's Cove in Turners Falls, Massachusetts, I drove down to check out the action being last week's late season major snow storm and subsequent cold temperatures greatly limit birding prospects in the vicinity of home.

The river immediately upstream of Turners Falls Dam was found to be largely ice free with good numbers of waterfowl including the following species: Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Mallard, Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser, and Red-breasted Merganser.  While there I was told by another birder that three Canvasbacks were present earlier in the day, but only two remained by the time of my arrival.  The Canvasbacks and the Redhead (all males) were napping the entire time and not cooperating to be digiscoped.  Even though their heads were snuggled into their backs, identification was straight forward.  Note in the photo below the light gray back and sides of the Readhead contrasting with the very white back and sides of the Canvasback.
 
Redhead, left; Canvasback, right.
 
Left to right in foreground, Canvasback and Redhead. 
Ring-necked Ducks to rear and right.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Winter or Spring: Which Is It?

Ludlow, VT.  March 9, 2014.
The eventual arrival and settling in of Spring weather and bird migrants is a given.  However, when or how soon is always a guessing game at this point in time.  Turkey Vultures, Killdeer, American Woodcocks, and Red-winged Blackbirds are beginning to show up in Vermont, and there has been at least one report of a Peregrine Falcon returning to its nesting cliff.  At home I am now greeted each morning with a chorus of singing Mourning Doves, Black-capped Chickadees, Purple Finches, and the drum roll of a Downy Woodpecker...such a wonderful start to the day in contrast to the quiet of Winter.  And, along with these developments was last weekend's warm (40s!), sunny weather which saw the year's first appearance of sap buckets on roadside maple trees and frozen unpaved roads morphing into oozing mud.  Today was another lovely warm day so much so that I spotted a wooly bear caterpillar crawling on a curb against a snowy backdrop, and a freshly awakened chipmunk under one of the bird feeders.   But as all Vermonters know well enough Winter is slow to let go of its grip.  As case in point a major storm is forecast for tomorrow and Thursday and to deliver 12+ inches of snow!  Perhaps once the last of our overwintering Snowy Owls has departed for more northern latitudes can we be assured that Spring has arrived.


Late winter/early spring Wooly Bear (Isabella Moth) caterpillar.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Curing the Midwinter Birding Doldrums


Having just passed the midpoint of winter, halfway between winter solstice and spring equinox, but little else giving hope of an early spring arrival other than increasing day length, I'm passing the season enjoying birds visiting the feeders and checking out  the few nearby spots that offer some potential for interesting birdwatching. Unfortunately this is the winter birding doldrums. So, I am enjoying the comforting heat of the woodstove and am reminded of our getaway last February to northern Florida for a mini-family reunion in St. Augustine and some personal time to seek out a couple specialty birds.  This took me to Ocala National Forest in the north-central part of the state.  Covering over 380,000 acres, it is the most southern national forest in the continental United States and constitutes the world's largest remaining contiguous sand pine scrub ecosystem.
 
One of my quests was the federally endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, a keystone species of mature longleaf pine forests.  Luckily I succeeded in finding at least two by keeping a close watch on a clump of marked nesting trees observable from the road and listening for any vocalizations.
  
Female Red-cockaded Woodpecker at entrance
to nesting cavity.
 
Cluster of marked Red-cockaded Woodpecker nesting trees in
longleaf pine forest, Ocala National Forest.
 
Next on my list was the endemic Florida Scrub-Jay.   Although a brief visit to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge located adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center produced one jay, the mother load was definitely the Big Scrub in Ocala National Forest.  The Big Scrub is a sand pine scrub ecosystem which makes up about 70% of the national forest.  It is a fire-dependent system that provides habitats for a high diversity of rare, threatened and endangered animal and plant species. It is accessible on foot via the Yearling Trail. 
  

A pair of Florida Scrub-Jays in the Big Scrub.
 
Banded Florida Scrub-Jay, Merritt Island National
Wildlife Refuge.
 
The Yearling Trail through the Big Scrub.  Note jays perched
at the top of each of the two right-hand tree snags.
 
"Yellow-eyed" Eastern Towhee, a common inhabitant of the
Big Scrub.  


This harmless Eastern Hognose Snake was encountered as it was crossing a forest road.  A nonvenomous species that resorts to a routine of bluff when threatened.  Its first move is give the illusion of being larger than it really is by inflating the body, spreading the head for a "hooded" effect, hissing and striking.  If that does ward of the intruder, well then roll over and play dead: mouth gaped open, tongue extended, cloaca inverted, and abdomen sunken.  One minor flaw with this ruse is that if it is turned right side up, the snake will roll over and play dead again.  Left alone and sensing danger has passed, it will right itself and continue on its way.   
 
Eastern Hognose Snake.
 
Same hognose snake convincingly playing "dead."