Woodcocks galore

Over the past two weeks, people have been reporting American woodcocks displaying at sites throughout the state. So, this weekend, just before dark, I made the 5-minute trek to the nearest overgrown field to my house to see if I could document them in atlas block 40F.  Sure enough, shortly after 7 pm, I heard a distant “bzzzt”, followed quickly by another, and another.  Over the next 20 minutes I also saw several display flights high up into the sky.

Prompted by an email from Greg Hanisek, I also dug around in the literature and emailed with a couple of woodcock biologists to try to find out if migrating males engage in courtship displays before they get to their breeding sites.  As I noted in a recent post ducks will begin to display long before they reach the breeding grounds, so a courting duck is not necessarily a sign of local breeding.  Similarly, many species of songbirds begin to sing while on migration – every year I hear white-throated sparrows and blackpoll warblers singing in my yard, though neither nests nearby.

It seems there is some debate, but the consensus is that birds will display on migration, which is why we have set safe dates starting in mid-April for this species.  On the other hand, woodcocks are early nesters, with females laying eggs by the first week of April, so it is likely that many displaying birds really are local breeders, even though there might be migrants in the mix too.

Another consideration when deciding whether to report these birds to the atlas is the difficulty of detecting woodcocks later in the year, or of confirming breeding.  During the first breeding atlas in the 1980s, George Clark wrote “Because the birds breed substantially earlier than most species in the state … it seems likely that the birds could have been missed in many of the areas from which they were not reported …”.  That birds were simply missed was a particular concern for eastern Connecticut, where survey effort was lower.

The map below shows the distribution from the 1980s atlas and shows both how few blocks the species was confirmed to breed in and the paucity of records from eastern Connecticut.

For all these reasons, it is a good idea to report any displaying woodcocks you encounter (breeding code C for courtship), as long as they are seen in suitable nesting habitat (e.g., overgrown, shrubby fields). When we analyze the atlas data we will look to see whether early records skew our findings in ways that suggest we should abide closely by the safe dates, but for now, all records of displaying woodcocks would be appreciated.  For information on how to submit data from evening woodcock watches, go here.

For more information on woodcock displays, including stunning video, go here.

Nesting hawks

One of the great things about living in Connecticut is the wealth of experience in the birding community.  The atlas team is taking advantage of that expertise not only to help us gather data, but also to provide insights to help volunteers become better atlasers.  Here, Connecticut Warbler editor and long-time birder, Greg Hanisek provides tips on finding evidence for breeding hawks in your block:

Red-tailed Hawks are on their nests. With no leaves on the deciduous trees they favor, now is the time to log some Atlas confirmations. When I lived in rural northwestern New Jersey I spent a couple of years systematically studying Red-tailed Hawk nests, so I offered to share some thoughts on finding them.

At this time of year many large nests are visible in leafless trees, but few of them belong to hawks. In most areas the majority are the work of Gray Squirrels. In general, these are round, made of deciduous leaves and are situated in small branches. Some may be bigger and take other forms, but the predominance of leaves will usually eliminated Red-taileds.

Red-taileds are big birds with big nests, substantial structures made of large, sturdy sticks. They’re usually broad and flat, and they’re placed in a substantial crotch of branches fairly high in big trees. A nest made of smaller sticks anchored in small branches probably belongs to something else, such as a crow. Red-taileds are birds of open country, and they usually choose nest sites adjacent to fields or other open areas. Woodlots are prime nesting locations. Because the nests are conspicuous once you know what to look for, you can spot them from some distance. This eliminates the need for disturbance and provides a good viewing angle with a telescope, which may be needed to see if an adult is hunkered down on the nest.

These circumstances lend themselves to cruising around in a vehicle looking for potential occupied nests, so you can cover a lot of ground in the search. Nests along major highway corridors are not unusual. A bonus may be discovery of a Great Horned Owl in residence on a nest built by Red-taileds. Again avoiding disturbance is quite easy given the circumstances of most nests, and close approach is never advised or necessary.

Red-shouldered Hawks are also active right now. I’ve seen three copulations occur over a four-day period ending Monday. These are noisy birds, and I learned very quickly that if I quietly hang around a calling one it may be joined by a mate. On the three aforementioned occasions, a bird calling from a fairly low perch was joined by another that flew in very directly, landed next to it on a mid-level branch and commenced mating.

I haven’t yet found a nest associated with these three events, but Red-shouldereds build smaller nests than Red-taileds and favor less conspicuous places. I think they also nest a bit later. When I was doing Big Days in N.J., we found Red-shouldereds on nests in May, after most Red-taileds had fledged.

This red-tailed hawk is one of a pair that I’ve been seeing frequently on Horsebarn Hill in Storrs.  This site is right on the boundary between two blocks though, so I clearly need to follow Greg’s tips to figure out exactly which block they are nesting in.  More info on identifying large nests can be found here.

When is a pair of ducks really a pair of ducks?

Yesterday, a quick stop at a small pond in Mansfield turned up 2 gadwalls (a male and a female), 5 green-winged teals (3 males, 2 females), and a dozen mallards. The gadwalls were swimming around together, and one of the female teals was sitting close to one of the males. Given this observation, it would be tempting to report both species with breeding code P (pair) to the atlas project.

In both cases, however, this is probably a mistake. Let’s take the teals first. Although a male and a female were sitting close to one another, I did not see them interact in any way. Consequently, I have no way of knowing whether they were paired or not – they might just have been two birds that happened to choose the same spot. The gadwalls are a little trickier, because they spent the whole time I was present swimming around together. And, when I went back today, they were still there, and still moving around in unison. This is reasonably good evidence that they are in fact paired. I still would not enter them in the atlas database, however. Why? Because ducks are well known to form pair bonds on the wintering grounds or during migration. Given the date, even if these birds stay together, they could end up breeding hundreds of miles away.

It is because of situations like this, that we have established breeding “safe dates” for each species. These are dates, within which, we can be reasonably confident that records apply to birds that are truly nesting where they are observed. Obviously, if you find a nest, or some other evidence that confirms breeding, outside of the safe dates, then a record is good. But for possible and probable breeding codes, the safe dates provide a useful way to navigate trickier decisions.

Below is the “pair” of gadwalls (both facing left, notice the white speculum in their wings), which I photographed today, along with 3 mallards.

Which eBird checklists should you share?

Spring is just around the corner, but as the recent snow has shown us, it’s not quite here yet. Some birds are starting to breed, but most are not. So, how do you know which birds to report to the atlas project? This question is a particular concern for people who are already entering their sightings into eBird and may be unsure when they should share a checklist with the ctbirdatlas account.

My rule of thumb is to share any checklists that contain observations of confirmed breeding (see the list of breeding codes here to find out what counts – basically any breeding code that consists of two letters).  I also share checklists for species that may be hard to confirm later, especially if there is evidence of probable breeding (again, see the list linked above).

For example, the wild turkeys pictured below are clearly engaged in courtship behavior (breeding code C), with the two males in the center displaying to the females. Courtship does not confirm breeding in the block, but it is likely that these birds will nest somewhere nearby. Consequently, we were very pleased when Gail Martino shared her checklist from block 95 (East Haven), and will add the record in the atlas database. Checklists without breeding codes are useful, but do not need to be shared with the atlas eBird account.

And, if you don’t use eBird, you can report your early breeding observations using the form available here.

Many thanks to Gail Martino for permission to use her photo.

Over 250 atlas blocks assigned!

It is just over a week since the atlas web site was launched and the response from the state’s birding community has been overwhelming (in a good way).

We currently have volunteers for 252 of the 601 atlas blocks, almost 42 percent, with additions every day.  At the current rate, we should have a clear majority of the blocks assigned by the time breeding starts in earnest.  The map below shows all the assigned blocks in black (to see the most recent update go here, and click the “Show Closed Blocks” button).  If you live or regularly go birding in one of the open blocks, feel comfortably identifying most of the common birds in the state, and can commit to spending a few mornings birding in that area over the next three years, then please consider taking on the assignment.  If you can’t make that commitment, then we’d still love to have your observations of any breeding birds you find.

Nesting ravens

Although it is too soon to begin surveying atlas blocks in earnest, a few species have begun to nest and atlas data have started to flow in.  For example, last weekend I saw a common raven fly across the Merritt Parkway in Orange (block 94F) with a stick in its beak – carrying nest material (atlas code CN).  I was a little surprised about the location, but I checked with local birder Frank Gallo who confirmed that there is pair that nests on a cell tower nearby.

A week earlier, Steve Broker (COA president and regional atlas coordinator for the New Haven area) went one better.  Not only did he confirm that ravens are breeding in his block, but he found the nest and took some great pictures showing the adults allopreening – behavior that suggests that the birds were a pair – and that the nest contained eggs.  Steve’s pictures are show here (with his permission):

With this collection of evidence Steve could use atlas codes P (for a pair), maybe C (for courtship behavior, although ravens will allopreen birds they are not paired with), or NE (for nest with eggs). We only need people to record the strongest piece of evidence observed on a given day, though, so the correct code to use was NE.

For the atlas project, we do not need people to submit photographs. In fact, there is not even any need to find the birds’ nest – my flying raven carrying nest material was sufficient to confirm breeding.  If, however, you have photos that were taken from a respectful distance to ensure that the birds were not disturbed, (see the bird photographers’ code of ethics here) they can provide additional documentary evidence.

Other species that are beginning to nest already include bald eagles, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, and some owls. If you have strong evidence of nesting for any of these species, anywhere in the state, please submit your data as an incidental observation.

For more pictures from Steve’s raven observations, check out his eBird checklist here.

Atlas web site launched

Data collection for the Connecticut Bird Atlas begins this year and the full web site went live  this weekend, so we have a lot of new information available. We will use this blog to post updates about the project over the next few years.  Here are a few introductory comments taken from our initial email to volunteers.

1. If you want to sign up to survey a block, there is an interactive map on the web site where you can do this.  Instructions are on the web site.  Note, that if any of the links to create emails, or if the interactive parts of the map do not work, it is probably because your browser is set to block pop-ups, which you should be able to change by going into your browser security settings (another possible issue is that you have no email address associated with your browser).

2. If the block you’d hoped to work in has already been assigned to someone else, that does not mean you cannot collect data in that block.  Anyone can collect data in any block.  For us to get the most out of the project, though, we need to spread effort around across the entire state.  So, taking on an unassigned block is the best way to ensure that your data will expand the quality of the overall project. The reason we are trying to designate a key person for each block is not to give them some sort of “ownership” over the block, but rather to make a specific person responsible for ensuring that that block gets covered – either by them, or by some combination of people that will collectively put in the needed hours.

3. Although the web site has a lot of information, not everything is there yet. The main gap for the breeding survey is the Field Card for data submission and details on how to fill it out.  That form is not something anyone should need for at least another month, though, and it will be coming very soon.

4. Although it is a little early to begin block surveys, a few species are breeding already.  If you have records of breeding activity, especially confirmed breeding (e.g., hawks carrying sticks to build nests, nesting or fledgling owls), then fill out an Incidental Observations form and submit the data right away. The web site has information on how to do this both via a paper form, which you can print and fill out, or via eBird.

5. Note that any time you submit atlas data via eBird you should (a) include an atlas breeding code for every breeding species in the eBird checklist and (b) share the checklist with the atlas eBird account (name = ctbirdatlas).   There are instructions on how to do both of these things on the web site.

6. Although there has been a stunning response from the CT birding community with over 500 people already signed up to our atlas mailing list, we are still looking for more people to volunteer.  You can do this on the web site.  If you have heard one of our talks and thought that you have signed up, but have not been getting emails from Craig Repasz, our volunteer coordinator, then please sign up again through the web site.  (A few email addresses on our sign-up sheets from the talks were hard to read, and we know there are some people out there who are not getting messages that we’re sending them.)

7. Information about winter and stopover data collection is not yet on the web site.  We are still finalizing those protocols and will post the information latter in the summer after the breeding work is under way.  Field work, though, will be somewhat similar to that for a Christmas Bird Count.

8. Similarly, there are a few other things that we plan to put on the web site, and may even have told some of you that we’ll include, that are not there yet.  We (probably) haven’t forgotten, but have been trying to prioritize and make sure that the most critical information is taken care of first.  Over the next few weeks, we will be tying up the various loose ends.

9. Over the long term, we expect this web site to become a general repository for all sorts of information about the status of Connecticut’s birds, with a separate page for every species that has occurred in the state.  We’re a ways off from making that happen, but you should expect to start seeing additions fairly soon, starting with all of the distribution maps from the first CT breeding atlas conducted in the 1980s, which should be available within a few weeks.

10. Lastly, at the COA annual meeting Chris Elphick will be giving a talk about the atlas.  This will not simply be a repeat of the talks we’ve been giving around the state over the past couple of months.  He will touch on all the main points for anyone who has not seen one of those talks, but will also talk in more detail about information that is on the web site and how you can use it, how to collect data that will be maximally helpful to the project, what will be coming to the web site in the future, etc. etc. etc.  We will also have a table at the meeting where people can get help signing up for blocks and/or ask questions about anything to do with the atlas.



Our History

Scientifically-designed bird atlases began in the UK in the 1960s. Dozens of bird atlases have been produced since, at scales ranging from counties, to countries, to continents.

For a list of projects in the US, click here. Most projects have focused on breeding birds, but some have tackled winter or migration patterns. Most simply document where each species occurs, but some also estimate abundance. And, while the focus has largely been on documenting distributions, most have also made some attempt to explain the distributions in relation to habitats, land use, and other factors. Increasingly, atlases are being repeated with a primary goal of determining whether and how bird distributions are changing.

Connecticut conducted its first atlas from 1982-86, with the results published in 1994 as the Atlas of Breeding Birds of Connecticut by Louis Bevier. The state was subdivided into a grid of 596 blocks, each of which was visited by volunteer birders to generate a list of species present during the breeding season and to determine how strong the evidence was that breeding occurred within the block. Breeding evidence was assessed by observing birds and assigning their behaviors to pre-defined categories that represent possible, probable, and confirmed breeding. To see data from the first Connecticut breeding bird atlas, go here.

The new Connecticut Bird Atlas will repeat the data collection of the first atlas, but will focus on much more than just breeding birds. In addition to describing breeding distributions, we will collect information on the abundance of each species during summer. We will also repeat the effort during the winter and describe non-breeding distribution and abundance patterns. Lastly, we hope to collect data on patterns of land use during migration periods. By the end of the project, we aim to provide comprehensive information on where each species of bird occurs in the state.