Sunday, January 10, 2016

Windsor Prison Farm Lands Finally Conserved!

During the final day's of last year Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed an executive order transferring 739 acres of the 899 acre Windsor Prison Farm property from the Department of Buildings and General Services (BGS) to the Fish and Wildlife Department (FWD).   The remaining 160 acres are to be retained by BGS on which the Southeast State Correctional Facility is located and additional lands for a possible 4.9 MW panel solar array development.  This decision assures the lands will remain in the public domain to be responsibly managed for wildlife and the enjoyment of outdoor enthusiasts.

Mount Ascutney from Windsor Prison Farm.

In an April 2014 post I wrote of the Windsor Prison Farm and its noteworthiness as a special Connecticut River Valley birding destination.  Once a state operated working farm affiliated with the Department of Corrections, farming operations largely ended by 1992.  Since then open lands have been gradually reverting back to various stages of early successional habitats (ESH), such as upland and lowland shrub and young forest communities.  Several fields have been maintained in grasses and mowed annually through lease arrangements with local farmers for hay production.  The consequence has been a boon for ESH bird species,  Fifteen (or 26%) of the 57 state designated bird Species of Greatest Conservation Need have been documented on prison farm lands.  These include Ruffed Grouse, Northern Harrier, Cooper's Hawk, American Woodcock, Black-billed Cuckoo, American Kestrel, Veery, Wood Thrush, Brown Thrasher, Blue-winged Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Eastern Towhee, Field Sparrow, and Bobolink.  Being ESHs are ephemeral in nature and will in time transition to forests active management is necessary for their maintenance and continued use by ESH birds, wildlife and flora.

For some years the future of the property had been up in the air with proposals including prison expansion, intensive agricultural use, and residential and industrial development.  The former Governor Douglas administration sought to dispose of "surplus" state lands for local development pursuits.  While this had its proponents, it also greatly concerned many local citizens who recognized the importance and value of the prison lands as wildlife habitat, bird watching and other recreational uses (e.g. hunting, hiking, snowmobiling, horseback riding), or to those who simply receive pleasure from taking in views of Vermont and New Hampshire undeveloped rural landscapes.

With the land transfer now in hand, the FWD and other Agency of Natural Resources departments will need to prepare a long-range management plan with involvement of stakeholders for the 739 acres.  According to FWD Commissioner Louis Porter, "We are looking forward to managing [the land] for the wildlife and for the people who care about wildlife." Porter and other agency staff will meet with the Windsor Selectboard early next month to begin a discussion of the planning process.

Southeast State Correctional Facility.

This will become the FWD's 85th Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and the 11th located in Windsor county.  Unlike the other southeastern Vermont WMAs, that are primarily forested tracts, the former prison lands present unique management opportunities for habitat diversity and bird conservation.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Black Squirrels

While spending Christmas with our daughter, her husband and extended family members in Melrose, Massachusetts we were surprised by the appearance of a melanistic Gray Squirrel.  It was in the company of typical gray morph individuals foraging for acorns under a backyard oak tree. Now I have been aware of the existence of melanistic populations in other parts of the country, such as in several mid-western states, since having studied genetics during my long-ago college years, but until this sighting I had never seen one in the flesh.

As many birders have experienced, including myself, once a long sought after "lifer" species is seen, it afterwards seems to pop up everywhere with little to no effort.   And so, I may be experiencing this phenomenon once again except now with black Gray Squirrels.  This past Sunday, now back in Vermont and running errands, I saw another black squirrel feeding under a local bird feeder. What's with that: two black squirrel sightings in different states within a day of one another?

Melanism, a genetic condition whereby tissues (skin, hair, feathers) produce excessive amounts of the dark-colored pigment melanin, occurs widely in the animal kingdom at both individual and population levels.  Among birds, several raptor species exhibit dark plumage morphs, including Short-tailed, Swainson's, Red-tailed, Ferruginous and Rough-legged hawks, and the Gyrfalcon. Unlike amelanism (the absence of melanin) and albinism, melanism appears to be a genetic adaptation to a particular environment increasing a species fitness for survival.  Adaptive melanism may allow animals to better absorb solar heat and more efficiently maintain body warmth in cold environs; or others to blend in with their habitat enabling either dark-morph hunting predators to evade detection by prey species or, vice versa, allow dark-morph prey to hide from predators.

Dark-morph Red-tailed Hawk, Catron County, New Mexico

So what is the adaptive advantage to a black squirrel inhabiting an urban or suburban environment? It seems doubtful that such individuals are better camouflaged from predators, such as hawks and free-ranging house cats.  Easily the gray-coated squirrel in the photo below blends in better with the setting than if it was black.  On the other hand, melanism seems to be an effective survival strategy as long as the squirrel is not out in the open but takes advantage of deep shade produced by thick vegetation and forest canopy (bottom photo).  

Here are a couple links to web sites discussing specifically melanism in Gray Squirrel populations: Wikipedia and a more technical treatise in the Journal of Heredity.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

December 2015

As 2015 winds down birders' attentions may be catching the few remaining lingering fall migrants or enjoying some early winter arrivals, or many of us look forward to taking part in one or more annual Christmas Bird Counts. The holiday season also calls on many to indulge in more family-centric activities.  In addition to all of these activities I find this is a good time to reflect on the many birding experiences encountered over the year, such as my attending a family reunion in central Missouri and finding a little time to steal away for first time birding in that state; the spring and fall trips we made to New Mexico; and here in Vermont a personal first: birding in all 14 counties.  The following photos are a small sample of ones taken last May during a visit to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, one of the premier birding destinations in New Mexico.

Yellow-headed Blackbird, male, and Brewer's Blackbird, female

Blue-winged Teal, male

Cliff Swallow constructing mud nest

A completed nest

Cinnamon Teal, male

Greater Roadrunner

Northern Shoveler, male

Snow Goose, a straggler

White-faced Ibis

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Birding Sawmill Well

Water is essential for life and this is no less true than for wildlife and flora living in arid environments.  In the Southwest, where water is a rare commodity much of the year, artificial sources (tanks, troughs, ponds) that ranchers provide for livestock on the range also become oases for a diversity of wildlife, including deer, elk, mountain lion, bats, small mammals, and birds.  This past September during one of our annual visits to New Mexico I had the pleasure to stake out a local livestock watering tank (Sawmill Well) and view first hand a variety of birds attracted to the sight and sound of running water.

Sawmill Well (34.147333 N; 107.908425 W) is in Crosby Canyon which is located in northeastern Catron County in west-central New Mexico.  The canyon originates just east of the Crosby Mountains and extends about six miles east-northeastward before merging with White House Canyon near the small community of Datil at the intersection of US Route 60 and NM Route 12.  Lower elevations within Crosby Canyon is a grassland biotic community with Pinyon-Juniper Woodland dominating the surrounding slopes.  Deeper into the canyon the biome type becomes Ponderosa Pine Forest interspersed with Gambel Oak and junipers.

Sawmill Well & East Sugarloaf Mountain

The well is located on U. S. Forest Service land and flanked on the north by East Sugarloaf Mountain and to the south by Anderson Mountain, both with elevations greater than 8,700 feet.  At first sight the well is not a particularly impressive facility but is a critical water supply for free-ranging cattle and opportunistic wildlife.  One of my brief visits to the well produced the following bird species flying in for a drink or to bathe: Mourning Dove, Red-naped Sapsucker, Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker, Western Scrub-Jay, Pinyon Jay, Western Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird, Yellow-rumped (Audubon's ) Warbler, Canyon Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Cassin's Finch, House Finch, Pine Siskin and Lesser Goldfinch.  Being that most local neotropical species (flycatchers, warblers, tanagers, orioles, buntings) had already departed for their winter habitats, imagine what might be seen spring through summer before the monsoon rains arrive.  The following photos were taken at the well.

Red-naped Sapsucker, male

Western Bluebird, male

Northern "Red-shafted" Flicker, male

Mountain Bluebird, male

Canyon Towhee

Sunday, November 1, 2015


Yesterday, a small group of Windsor County birders located a Dickcissel in Woodstock, Vermont at essentially the same spot one was sighted almost to the date two years ago (October 29, 2013).  The habitat is a hedgerow within a power line right-of-way separating two corn fields off Maxham Meadow Way.  This morning hoping the bird was still present and to see it myself  I arrived at the location and encountered Kent McFarland of Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE), who had the same objective. Shortly before he heard from Chris Rimmer, also of VCE, that the Dickcissel was seen about an hour ago. Together we walked the edge of the hedgerow checking out the numerous sparrows (American Tree, Song and Savannah) flitting about and skulking in the thick undercover and at times feeding on corn scrap at the edge of the field.  As we approached the end of the hedgerow we both heard a single distinctive short, sharp insect-like buzz note, that neither one of us recognized. Soon we saw that Chris was still present but had to leave. Spending another 45 minutes or so, our quest was found perched in brush at the hedgerow terminus in the vicinity of where it was first discovered. Both of us managed getting photos of it, three of mine posted below.

Once at home, I checked out Sibley (2000) and National Geographic Society (2011) guides for descriptions of Dickcissel vocalizations.  Both references give renditions of the call often given in flight as "fpppt" (Sibley) and "bzrrrrt" (NGS). The website Xeno-Canto has an extensive library of bird sound recordings from all over the world and is the source for this Dickcissel flight call recording which is spot on what we heard.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Paradise Park/Lake Runnemede

My previous post of October 18, 2015 announced the recent sighting of a Nelson's Sparrow at Lake Runnemede which is the first record for the species at this popular birding location.  Since then I thought this is as good a time as any to do a post on this site for birders not familiar with it.

Lake Runnemede/Paradise Park and Mount Ascutney (elev. 3,130 ft)

Paradise Park situated within easy walking distance from downtown Windsor is comprised of Windsor Town Forest (115 acres) and the Lake Runnemede/McLane parcel (109 acres) of which 62 acres is the lake itself.  At present according to the eBird's database Paradise Park/Lake Runnemede is currently the Top Birding Hotspot in Windsor County with a total of 194 bird species having been reported.  The park has an extensive trail system providing access to a variety of habitat types. Perhaps the focal point for birders is horseshoe-shaped Lake Runnemede, also known as Evarts Pond, and its associated riparian habitats, wetlands, woodland edges and center field.  The latter is actively farmed (pumpkins and squashes) and surrounded by tall grasses and forbs: great for sparrows in late summer and fall.

In spring and fall seasons the lake is a magnet for waterfowl (ducks, geese, grebes, cormorants); and neotropical migrants (warblers, flycatchers, orioles, etc.) frequent shrub lands and the woodland edges. In season, a variety of raptors, including Osprey, Northern Harrier, Cooper's and Sharp-shinned hawks, Merlin, and the year round resident nesting Bald Eagle pair, can be expected to be seen.   Besides birds, the lake is home to River Otters, Beaver and other locally common mammals.

While not obvious to most visitors, the lake is particularly noteworthy for having one of only two populations of Ogden's Pondweed (Potamogeton ogdenii) currently known in Vermont and one of 10 populations known globally (distribution confined to Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, Ontario).  The Lake Runnemede property was purchased by the town of Windsor from the Evart family in 1997 with a provision that the town use and manage the property in a manner that is protective of this rare plant and consistent with conservation easements which are co-held with Upper Valley Land Trust and Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.

Directions to Paradise Park/Lake Runnemede: From the center of downtown Windsor (traffic light at intersection of U. S. Route 5/Main Street and State Street) travel north on Route 5 about one-half mile.  Price Chopper supermarket is on left (east side of road).  Parking is limited to road shoulder on west side and access (foot travel only) to lake is via a lane called Eddie's Place.  Please do not drive down this road.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Nelson's Sparrow!

This morning I had the good fortune to encounter Upper Valley Birders (George Clark, Chris Rimmer, Scott Johnson, Ed Hack, Peter LaBelle, Tii McLane and others) as they were close to finishing another Windsor County Birding Quest walk for 2015, this time in Windsor at Paradise Park/Lake Runnemede.  No doubt the find of the morning was a Nelson's Sparrow first spotted and identified by Ed and with perseverance observed several times albeit briefly by others in the group.  The bird spent most of the time skulking under the cover of tall grasses, goldenrod and joe-pye weed in a patch of old field habitat adjacent to the northeast corner of the "pumpkin patch."  From time to time the sparrow revealed its location either when foraging by twitching grass stems or taking a brief flight before dropping back into thick cover.  Luckily I was able to click off several photos (a couple posted here) of this handsome sparrow and uncommon migrant passing through the Connecticut River Valley for more southern climes.