Monday, December 14, 2009

Winter Bird Feeding...Enhancing your Feeding Station

A great winter bird feeding station consists of more than just a few feeders and food.  Like all animals, birds need food, water and shelter to sucessfully survive.  All feeding stations provide food, but the best ones offer an appropriate amount of shelter and a source of water.  A great feeding station combines all three essential elements birds need to thrive, and it will encourage birds to frequently visit your backyard.

Shelter is more than just a safe place to sleep or take refuge from the weather.  Shelter also offers safety from predators, a safe approach to the feeders, a place to wait for access to a busy feeder, and a safe place to eat the seeds and other foods you are providing for your birds.  Ground feeding birds like juncos and sparrows especially appreciate nearby cover. 

Safety can come in many forms. The most obvious choice is vegetation like tall grass, bushes, or trees nearby.  Many of these items are already present in many backyards, but often they're not in close enough proximity to the feeding station.  Ideally, a source of cover should be within 10-20 feet of the feeding station.  This is just close enough to provide a safe escape in case of danger and far enough away to keep squirrels from accessing your feeders.

If live or standing vegetation is unavailable near your feeders, there are other things that can work just as well during the winter months.  One of my favorite things to do is create a temporary brush pile near my feeders.  I start in late fall, once the mowing season is over, and begin to collect and pile the sticks that fall in my yard on the ground near the feeders.  All winter long, juncos and sparrows congregate in and around the stick pile while visiting the feeding station, just the way they would do in their natural habitat.  Another simple trick is to place your live Christmas tree in the yard after the holiday season.  Birds flock to these discarded evergreens all winter long while visiting the feeders as well.

Discarded Christmas trees in my yard - Winter 2008/2009

Not a fan of leaving sticks or dead Christmas trees on your lawn for the winter?  Try making a manger decorated with evergreen boughs, place an outdoor table, bench, or chair nearby, or come up with another appropriate arrangement that provides shelter for the birds without compromising the aesthetics of your lawn.

Winter is an extremely difficult time of year for birds and other wildlife to access water.  Though its cold with plenty of precipitation, winter outdoors is very similar to a desert.  The air is dry, winter winds accelerate evaporation, and typical sources of water are usually frozen during the coldest periods of winter. 

So where do birds find a drink in nature?  To some extent birds will eat snow when necessary, but they'll usually seek out sources of liquid water like snowmelt along roads and on rooftops as well as any unfrozen moving water present in rivers and streams.  Because natural sources of liquid water can be few and far between in winter, providing water at your feeding station can dramatically increase the abundance of species and number of birds visiting your yard. 

Goldfinch enjoying a refreshing sip of water from my heated birdbath

A heated bird bath is the most common method for offering winter water.  Some bird baths have heaters built into them.  Bird bath heaters can also be purchased separately for other bird baths.  Other options include heated pet bowls or heated buckets.  If the depth of the container holding water is greater than 3 inches, be sure to place rocks, bricks, or another material in the bottom of the container to keep birds from "swimming" or potentially drowning in the deep water.  Be sure to change/refill bird bath water regularly all throughout the winter to keep things clean.

Other enhancements
There are a couple of other things to do to make your yard more inviting and create a more natural environment for the birds to feed. 

1.) One of the best tricks is to plant flowers, bushes, and trees that provide seeds and fruits for the birds in the fall and winter months.  Leaving seed heads on flowers in the garden and planting holly and winterberry bushes and crabapple trees are a couple of options.

2.) Making your own birdfeeder gives you the flexibility to establish a feeding station that fits into your landscape and can provide a more natural feeding experience for the birds.  Feeders made or adorned with natural materials also make for great photo opportunities showing the bird in a more natural environment.

3.) Make your own bird food.  There are plenty of possibilities here.  Make a string of garland out of natural popcorn and cranberries.  Create edible ornaments with pinecones, peanut butter, and mixed seed.  My favorite thing to do is to make my own suet.  Don't know how?  Here's my recipe:
Ingredients: 1 cup of lard or vegetable shortening, 1 cup of crunchy peanut butter, 2 cups of quick cook oats, 2 cups of cornmeal, 1 cup of flour, and 1/4 cup of sugar. 
Directions: Melt the lard and peanut butter together, mix the dry ingredients, and then mix everything together until thoroughly mixed.  Make cakes from the mixture by pouring the fresh suet into empty suet containers or leave it cool in the bowl to scoop onto a plate, dish, or into a suet log as shown above.
Try one or two of the above suggestions and see if you don't attract more birds to your backyard.

Happy bird feeding,

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Winter Bird Feeding...Solutions for Squirrels

Its inevitable.  Once you begin feeding birds, you've unintentionally sent an invitation to the local squirrel population.  The party starts small and everyone's getting along, but eventually your furry guests and their "bad manners" wear out their welcome.  When your birdfeeding station becomes a squirrel feeding station, things aren't fun any more.

So what are you going to do?  In a faceoff with your opponent, is it fight or flight?  Well, I'm going to encourage you to not give up.  There are some simple things that you can do to make the relationship between you and the squirrels a little less tense.

Baffle them
The first course of action should be to place a baffle below feeders placed on a pole or post or above feeders that hang from tree branches or roofs.  Baffles are designed to do just that...baffle and confuse the furry marauders about how to reach your birdfeeder.  A baffle comes in many shapes and sizes, but they are all designed to do the same thing.  They can even be made from a piece of sheet metal, an aluminun pie plate, a garbage can lid or other similar items.  Many look like funnels or domes while other are barrel-shaped and also work well for folks who have issues with raccoons.  No matter its shape, it should work properly.  Place baffles on posts and poles 5 feet from the ground with the feeder another 12 inches above the baffle, and hanging feeders should be placed directly under the baffle as shown in the photos.

Create some space
Squirrels are highly athletic, acrobatic, and somewhat fearless in their pursuit to gain access to a fully stocked bird feeder.  Feeder placement in relation to other surfaces and objects is critically important to reduce a squirrel's ability to reach the feeder.  The general rule of distance is 5-7-9.  A birdfeeder placed at least 5 feet above the ground, 7 feet from trees, bushes, or other elevated surfaces, and 9 feet below overhanging roofs or tree branches will greatly reduce the likelihood of an aerial attack.

Squirrel-proof feeders
There are a number of "squirrel-proof" feeders available on the market today.  If the above two tactics have proven uneffective, it may be wise to invest in a new feeder designed to keep the squirrels from helping themselves to all of the seed you intended for the birds.  Many of the newest designs incorporate some sort of mechanism that closes the feeding ports of the bird feeder when critters of a certain weight land on the feeder.  These can be effective as long as the squirrels don't figure out how to reach the seed without place weight on the triggering mechanism. 

Feeding ports stay open when small birds land to feed

When squirrels place their weight on the feeding ring, their weight closes the feeding ports

How do they figure it out?  Well, they've got all day every day to come up with a solution while we're at work or doing other daily tasks.  Their job is to figure out how to acquire food from readily available sources, so often times they eventually figure things out.  So actually, there are  a lot of squirrel-resistant feeders and very few squirrel-proof ones.  One of the best I've personally seen is the WBU Eliminator from Wild Birds Unlimited (picture above).  We've had one at the museum for three years and have yet to see a squirrel successfully remove one seed.  Its even placed intentionally so the squirrels can have access to it.

Change the buffet menu
Squirrels love sunflower seeds, peanuts, corn, and, in some instances, suet.  All of these items are precious treats well worth any squirrel's effort.  Changing to foods that are less desireable to squirrels can have a dramatic effect for many people.  Feeding thistle and safflower, both of which are eaten by numerous bird species, may reduce your squirrel problems since both seed types are less desireable.

Cayenne pepper mixed into bird seed can be effective in some circumstances.  Cayenne additives can be purchased at some retailers, but should be used with caution.  Birds will not be effected by the hot pepper flavor, but squirrels and other mammals like you certainly will.  Caution should be taken to keep the cayenne powder away from your eyes and nose.  Be sure to wash your hands immediately after filling feeders so you don't inadvertently get cayenne in your eyes or nose later.  The same burning sensation is what the squirrels will experience when they eat some of the seed, potentially leading them to avoid the seed altogether.

If you can't beat them, feed them
A favorite tactic for many bird feeding enthusiasts is to offer the squirrels a place to feed all to themselves.  There are a lot of options that can be entertaining for you and your squirrels.  A platform feeder near the ground is one choice.  At the museum, we use the benches of our amphitheater as feeders by spreading seed on top of them.  This makes the squirrels and ground-feeding birds happy.  At my house, I place cobs of corn out for the squirrels.  One is attached to a log, the other from a length of chain just out of reach from the ground so that the squirrels really have to work to get it.  If they're working to solve the corn problem, they're not solving the birdfeeder problem.  And we both get what we want in the end.

Check out these retailers for other squirrel feeders that occupy and entertain:

Happy bird feeding,

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Winter Bird Feeding...Getting Started

House Finch and Tufted Titmouse enjoying black oil sunflower seeds

Birdwatching and bird feeding are one of my favorite hobbies.  For me, and millions of Americans, they are one in the same.  Various reports claim that as many as 65 million people in the United States feed backyard birds.  Our collective interest in wild birds and attracting them to our yards has spawned an industry that contributes billions of dollars toward the purchase of seed, feeders, baths, and other related items. 

Nowadays, bird feeding products can be found in supermarkets, department stores, big box stores, specialty retailers, and a whole host of websites devoted specifically to bird feeding products.  With so many items  (foods, feeders, and other accessories) available for purchase, it can be both exciting and overwhelming for families and individuals to begin feeding birds and attain the entertainment and aesthetic qualities they expect.

How to get started:
An elaborate bird feeding station like those seen in magazines, online, or at your nearby nature center (read Westmoreland Sanctuary) is enviable, but often not the best way to start if you're just beginning your adventures in bird feeding.  A collection of feeders, and the food to fill them, can be an expensive investment with no guarantee on its returns.  This is when people become disappointed, unhappy, and upset, which leads to a bad experience and the desire to just give up.

Start small.  Try one feeder and one food choice when first beginning.  Most sources agree that one tube feeder or hopper ("house") feeder filled with black oil sunflower seed is a great way to begin.  The tube and hopper style feeders are readily available in a variety of colors and sizes, and the black oil seed is preferred by a great number of birdfeeder birds.  Tube feeders (right) work well when suspended from a hook or chain from above.  Hopper feeders (below) work best when attached to the top of a post or pole.  In either scenario, a squirrel baffle will usually be necessary to prevent squirrels from devouring all the seed before the birds get a chance to eat it (I'll discuss squirrel-proofing in another post).
Don't be disappointed if you don't see birds at your new feeder right away.  It may take a few days before the birds find your offerings.  It will take some time for the birds to feel comfortable feeding in a new location as well, so be sure to watch the feeders throughout the day.  Often times new feeders are visited very quickly and infrequently until the birds become comfortable around you and your home.  Birds may be visiting, but you may not be noticing them right away.

Placing your feeder in a location where you can easily observe the feeder and birds from your home is an important consideration.  Think about what room of your home you spend the most time in, or where you're usually most likely to look out the window.  For me, my feeders are placed where I can see them while eating breakfast in the morning out my dining room window.  They're also observable from the kitchen so I can see while cooking or washing dishes.  Optimal placement for viewing will enhance your enjoyment and allow you to see all the birds that are visiting.

Once you've established a regular crowd at your feeder, you may be ready to offer additional types of feeders and food.  The variety of food and feeder styles often leads to an increase in the diversity of bird species visiting your feeding station.  Simple additions to your new feeding station may include a different feeder offering the same black oil sunflower seeds.  Larger species often prefer the hopper feeders because they are easier to perch on while feeding.  Smaller species typically prefer the tube feeders which alleviates competition and bullying from the bigger birds.

Probably the best choice for a second food option at your feeding station is suet.  This high energy food typically consists of rendered beef fat combined with seeds, peanut butter, or fruit flavoring.  Whole suet or processed cakes placed in a simple suet cage (right) delights a number of the same species that enjoy black oil sunflower seeds, in addition to woodpeckers, wrens, bluebirds, and, in some areas, warblers.  Suet can also be provided in small hanging logs or other types of feeders that offer a more natural feeding experience.

For more advanced bird feeding stations, thistle feeders and platform feeders filled with the appropriate seed caters to even more species of birds.  Thistle feeders (left) are specifically designed to hold the tiny seeds or seed mixtures usually referred to as Nyjer.  These feeders and their seed require a little more care, but they are well worth the effort if you have a number of goldfinches, pine siskins or other species visiting that prefer these tiny seeds.

Platform feeders (right) placed near the ground and filled with a seed mixture will satisfy the needs of sparrows, juncos, doves, and other ground feeding species in addition to larger birds like jays and cardinals.  This method often satiates the desire of squirrels to consume seed and may serve as a diversion to keep them away from other feeders filled with black oil sunflower seed.  If feeding the squirrels is out of the question, platform feeders can be placed high above the ground on top of a post or pole.

Time to enjoy:
Now that you've got your new feeder(s) up and the birds have begun to visit, its time to enjoy the fruits of your "labor".  The most enjoyable feeding stations are those that actually require very little labor.  Bird feeding is supposed to be fun.  Make it a fun activity by including others and watching the birds together. 

Let young kids help fill the feeders and enjoy the sight of the birds and all of their activity.  Allow indoor pets, like house cats, to observe the flurry of activity outside a window.  My cat loves to watch the chickadees and titmice visit "her" feeder hung right outside her favorite window.  Keep a list of the different species of birds that visit your feeders each week, month, or year.  Even non-birdfeeder birds are often attracted to the feeding activity.  Share and compare your yard list with someone else. 

Learning to identify birds and understand some of their behaviors is easy to do in this "controlled" environment.  Soon you'll be able to recognize the feeding behaviors and flock dynamics of the various species of birds that visit most often.  If you chose to feed into the spring and summer, adult birds will bring their young to the feeders as well.

White-breasted Nuthatch (aka the upside-down bird) preparing to visit the suet log

For more information on starting your bird feeding station, check out the following resources:
Happy bird feeding!

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Friday, November 27, 2009


The Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) is a sure barometer of the season's transition from fall to winter. Many folks fondly refer to the Junco as "snowbirds" because of their habit of showing up to bird feeders just before a winter storm. For most of the season, they seem just as content to forage throughout our woodlands, kicking through the leaf litter looking for seeds and insects. Juncos are easily identified in the field by their striking color variation of dark grey upper body and bright white lower body. They have a small, pearl-colored beak as well. And in flight, their white outer tail feathers flash brilliantly as they dash for cover into the brush.

Earlier this week, I found a deceased Junco out on the trail. There was no apparent trauma on the outside of the bird's body. My guess was that it perished as a result of the rigors of migration. The majority of these birds migrated from their summer ranges in Canada. Wintering populations can be found from New York and points south into the southern U.S. The journey of migration takes a lot of casualties, especially younger birds making their first trip south.

We can tell the age of this species of bird with a variety cues from its appearance, which we often do when bird banding. Using the Identification Guide to North American Birds by Peter Pyle, this Junco was aged as a "hatching year" bird by plummage. It is also a male as indicated by its dark gray coloration (females are brownish-gray). As a hatching year bird, this fall was its first (and last) migration from its summer range. The arrows in the photos below indicate the clues provided by the bird's plummage which allow us to age it reliably. Click on the photos to enlarge them.
The brown wash over the bird's head and back, and the amount of fraying on the ends of the tail feathers indicted HY (hatching year) designation. Older male Juncos have no brown wash, and their recently molted tail feathers would be fresh and not worn at this time of year.

The mostly tapered outer tail feathers (the white ones) and the noticeable amount of wear on the ends of the tail feathers indicate HY. An older Junco's outer tail feathers would be truncate (flattened) near the ends and would show little to no wear at this time of year.

Finally, there are a number of other comparisons that can be made between HY Juncos and older Juncos amoung the various feathers of the wings. Most of these differences are hard to see in the above photo but are discernable when the bird is in the hand. The photo is best at conveying the various regions of the bird's wings and their associated names.
The longest feathers of the wings are the flight feathers which are divided into three categories: Primaries (the outer most feathers on the wing), Secondaries, and Tertials. Like shingles on a roof, the feathers are arranged in overlapping layers to create a smooth contoured surface to the wing. These layers of coverts create the smooth surface of the wing. The wing's shape is ultimately what allows most birds to effectively fly. Aircraft wings were manufactured to follow the same shape.

One of the finest details of the Junco's body are its relatively long, delicate legs adorned with long, slender toes and nails. These feet are the Junco's primary means of foraging for food. The feet and legs work simultaneously to scratch through the leaf litter in search of seeds and insects. Many bird species that forage in this manner exhibit similar physical traits in their legs as well.

Keep an eye out for the snow birds, Dark-eye Juncos, this winter. If you've got bird feeders, be sure to leave a little seed on the ground for these and other ground feeding species. If the Juncos begin to flock to your feeders, you'd be wise to check the forecasted weather. Flocks of Juncos at the feeders are often a sign of the winter weather turning for the worst. Their presence may even be of more benefit than the evening's weather forecast.
-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Fox Sparrows

Sparrows are often overlooked by a lot of casual bird watchers. They're generally less colorful and more inconspicuous than other bird species, which can make them difficult to find and observe.

Late fall and early winter is one of the best times of the year to observe a variety of sparrows as they make their way into or through our area. Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows become common visitors to our gardens and bird feeding stations this time of year. Others like Field, Lincoln's, Vesper, and Chipping Sparrows have mostly left or moved through to warmer locations in the south.

The one sparrow species I look forward to seeing most each fall is the Fox Sparrow. Pictured below, the Fox Sparrow is much larger and more colorful than other frequently encountered sparrows. My poor pictures make it hard to realize how much larger the Fox Sparrow is than other species, but you can get an idea of its beautiful coloration. The rusty red coloration is present throughout the chest, face, back and tail of the Fox Sparrow. A deep gray color mixes with the rusty red across the bird's face, back, and wings.

Fox Sparrow from the side

Fox Sparrow from the front

Other than the obvious physical field marks of the Fox Sparrow, I find its behavior to be a key element in locating and identifying the species. These sparrows, like many, frequent locations with heavy brush and/or thick undergrowth. It is in these locations where they forage for food.

Unlike chickens and turkeys who scratch the ground with alternating succession of their feet, these guys prefer the two-footed scratching method. It looks like a difficult maneuver to pull off, but they seem to do it with ease.

Take a look under your bird feeders over the next couple weeks and keep an eye out for this beautiful, large sparrow. They do tend to frequent feeders while in migration. Once winter sets in, seek them out in your local parks and other areas with heavy undergrowth. My favorite location for Fox Sparrows in the winter is Croton Point Park near Ossining, NY.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Monday, November 23, 2009

Become a Fan!

We have joined the Facebook network. Please see the Facebook badge on the right side of this page to view our Facebook page and add yourself as a Fan of Westmoreland Sanctuary. We will be posting many pictures of the property and facilities in addition to photos of wildlife sightings, programs and events happening at the sanctuary. You can share the content of this blog on Facebook, too. Also check in for updates on programs and news.

The best part of the Facebook network is that our visitors and Facebook fans will be able interact with the Westmoreland staff and each other. There is also the opportunity for Fans to share their photos from their visits to the sanctuary.

Please join us and express your support for Westmoreland Sanctuary.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Waterfowl Migration

Hooded Mergansers

Waterfowl migration has begun! From now until nearly the end of December there will be an increase in the presence and abundance of various waterfowl species as they make their way south for the coming winter. Some species will stick around here for the winter along the Hudson River and Long Island Sound while others are merely passing through on a longer trip to the southern US.

Check any sizable body of water in our area and you're sure to see some "new" species. The Hooded Mergansers above were vigorously feeding on fish in the pond at the Bedford Hills Memorial Park. Other species on and near the water at the park included Mallard, Great Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher, Canada Geese, and Ring-billed Gull.

The reservoirs along 684 will have more hoodies, in addition to other diving ducks like Buffleheads and Ring-necked Ducks over the next couple weeks. Byram Lake is another good place to look for various species of migrating waterfowl in the area. This quiet waterbody often has Pied-billed Grebe and Common Mergansers on our annual Christmas Bird Count as well.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Reclaiming the Route 22 Field

Second only to environmental education, wildlife and habitat management is one of Westmoreland Sanctuary's most important initiatives. The forests and fields are largely left to grow and mature with very little interference except under conditions which are likely to lead to the habitat's decline or unsuitability for wildlife.

One habitat that needs periodic maintanence is the sanctuary's fields and meadows. Periodically it is neccessary to stop the invasion of woody shrubs that slowly (or not so slowly) invade the field habitat. Prior to this year, most attempts at keeping woody growth at bay involved a lot of manual labor, including cutting shrubs by hand as they reached an unruly size. One year we rented a super mower and spent the entire day push mowing the entire field adjacent to NY route 22 until the mower gave up on us.
Thankfully, the Bedford Riding Lanes Association donated a couple hours of time and their tractor with brush hog to help us mow down the field. Scott Vigliotti (pictured above), BRLA's trail man, was able to mow the entire field in a fraction of the time it would have taken us to do it with the rented super mower. The tractor and brush hog were able to mulch up any shrub standing in its way.
Pictured here are two of our most unwanted species growing in and around the edges of our fields and meadows. The thorny shrub in the above photo is Multiflora Rose. Mixed among its branches are an Asiatic Bittersweet vine with ripening fruit (surrounded by the yellow covering).

Probably the nastiest shrub invading our forest, fields, and meadows is the Japanese Barberry. Its needle-thin thorns, tough stems, and vigorous growth make it the most difficult to control and remove from the landscape. The specimen above was loaded with the red berries containing seeds poised to wreak more havoc in the field.
Thankfully, many of the unwanted shrubs were mowed down, a few young Red Cedar and Holly saplings were spared, and the field is cleared and prepared for next spring's growth of grasses, forbs, and wildflowers.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Home Invasion

For the last 2 weeks, my home and the nature museum have been under assult by a variety of six-legged home invaders. It initially began with a sudden influx of Asian Multicolored Lady Beetles. They were swarming all over the outer surfaces of the building's siding looking for a place to rest during their winter hibernation.

No sooner did the ladybugs dissappear and new invader showed up looking for a place to hibernate as well. The assailant (pictured above) is the Western Conifer Seed Bug. Believe it or not, there really is such a thing as a bug. True bugs are taxonomically different than other groups of insects and there are many different types. They can usually be differentiated from other types of insects by their leathery wings and they way they lay flat across their backs when folded, often creating an X shape.

Western Conifer Seed Bugs belong to a group usually referred to as leaf-footed bugs because of the wide,flattened sections of the hind legs. They are a little obnoxious when trapped in the house but are mostly harmless. If handled roughly they may emit a bit of a smelly odor but are not apt to bite.

So if your home looks like this photo above, you can relate to the home invasion. The ladybugs and seed bugs are relatively harmless as they rest on or in your home. They are only intending to hibernate. Neither species eats wood or drywall or any other type of building material. If you do notice them in your home, it is best to remove them alive rather than spraying insecticides to kill them. In fact, common insecticides are rarely effective on these species since the spray was developed to kill more common house pests like ants, flies, mosquitoes, spiders, etc.

Finding the locations where these insects are entering your home will go a long way to reducing the number of individuals coming inside. Ted Gilman, Greenwich Audubon Naturalist, referred to them as "little energy conservationists". Where they come in will be the same place your home will be leaking cold air once winter comes. Seal it up for the bugs, and seal it up to reduce your heating costs! To safely remove large numbers of lady bugs or other insect invaders, use this handy trick to convert your vacuum to safely collect and release your bugs outside.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Persistent Spider

Cross Orbweaver (female)

The Encarta World English Dictionary defines persistence as:
  1. quality of persisting: the quality of continuing steadily despite problems or difficulties
  2. act of persisting: the action of somebody who persists with something
  3. long continuance of something: continuance of an effect after its cause has ceased or been removed
  4. ZOOLOGY resilience of organism: the ability of a living organism to resist being disturbed or being altered

The Cross Orbweaver (Araneus diadematus) living on the side of my chicken coop certainly exemplifies the definitions of persistence described above. She has continued to carefully reconstruct her web each evening along the side of the coop in hopes of capturing an unsuspecting arthropod. Her attempts to do so have been mostly fruitfull during the few mild evenings recently. And despite the rain and colder temperatures the last few nights, she continues to complete her evening ritual in hopes of a meal.

The Cross Orbweaver, also known as the Garden Orbweaver or Cross Spider, is a native of Europe but can be found throughout most of northern North America. The common name comes from the pattern of white spots on the anterior (front) of the abdomen that form the shape of a cross. Overall color patterns may vary from very light individuals to very dark individuals, though nearly all have a diagnostic "cross" on the abdomen.

Like many other orbweavers, they create intricate webs that sometimes span large distances in an attempt to capture prey. The spider is usually seen sitting face down in the middle of the web. Hungry spiders will eat their prey right away after quickly wrapping them into a bundle with their silk. Satiated spiders will wrap their catch and leave it attached to the web for later consumption.

With this species and similar species, the web is torn down and reconstructed every day. The valuable silk is not simply thrown away, but, like all things in nature, it is recycled. In this case the spider reingests its silk to save the valuable proteins and nutrients the silk contains. These ingredients will be reused for the next evening's newly reconstructed web.

I know one evening soon I won't see this pretty spider anymore. She will have accumulated enough energy through her nighttime meals to lay her eggs. Once she's completed this task, her life will soon be over. But until that time, she remains forever persistent.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Remember Fall?

Does anyone remember Fall? You know, Fall? When the leaves shine crimson, orange, and yellow against a crisp blue sky? Cool, brisk morning temperatures are slowly warmed into comfortable afternoons? The sound of dry, rustling leaves underfoot while walking the trails? You know, THAT Fall? Anyone seen it lately?

Well, just in case you forgot, or like me, you are yearning to see it return, here are some photos I took during October 4th's Lost Pond Lunch Hike.
This spider was putting the finishing touches on her new web a few feet above the trail in a strong, warm beam of sunlight.

These White-flowering Dogwood fruits were gleaming in the light of early morning, beckoning Catbirds, Veery's, Swainson's Thrushes, and others to eat. These berries will nourish a variety of songbirds on their journey south while distributing the seeds in their feces across the forest.

The airspace above Lost Pond was full of Meadowhawk Dragonflies. This one perched on the bench between foraging flights and chases with others of its kind. There were many pairs mating and distributing eggs which will hatch and become next years population of Meadowhawks.

There were still a variety of Bullfrogs and Green Frogs moving around the edge and on top of the lily pads of Lost Pond. Dragonflies and other insects moving about in the sunshine could quickly turn into one of the last meals for these two frogs before hibernation begins.

White Ash trees were ablaze with yellow color amongst the still green tones of the other forest trees.

A variety of birds like this Common Yellowthroat were fueling up on insects in our gardens, forests, and fields during their migration.

And now we have this. Cold. Rain. And snow. We got it all this weekend. But there's hope on the horizon. Weather reports generally look optimistic. Slowly warming temperatures and sunshine will hopefully make our acquaintence again this week. Keep your fingers crossed.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Wildlife Sightings: Breakfast with the Birds

Saturday morning's weather was less than ideal for finding and viewing birds. The damp and foggy conditions created difficult lighting conditions for clear viewing of birds in the confines of the understory, but forest clearings and the area around Bechtel Lake provided sufficient levels of light.

There was a lot of activity from migrant species in various locations. Near the beginning of Easy Loop, in the clearing designated as Nichol's Field, there were Gray Catbirds, Veerys, and Swaison's Thrushs, and Robins gulping down the ripening "fruit" of the Dogwood trees. Zipping back and forth in the same area were a few of Black-throated Blue Warblers.

Further along on the Catbird Trail, the first clearing was full of actively foraging White-throated Sparrows and a Magnolia Warbler. More Gray Catbirds and Robins were moving about the grape vines in the back of the clearing.

Along the rest of the Catbird Trail, feeding flocks of Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmouse moved through the mixture of Black Birch, Oak, and White Pine trees. Northern Flicker and Red-bellied Woodpecker made vocalizations indicating their presence in the viscinity as well.

The intersection of the Catbird and Chickadee trails gave a glimpse of Bechtel Lake where two Wood Ducks were paddling around. Moving toward the lake, a White-breasted Nuthatch flew over the trail.

After turning onto Easy Loop and traveling parallel with the shore of Bechtel Lake, a group of Wood Ducks (about 10 total) exploded off the water into the air and flew off into the forest. Traveling further down the length of the lake toward the boat house, there were more White-breasted Nuthatches, Winter Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Eastern Phoebe.

Among the fragmites around the end of the lake were Song Sparrows and more Gray Catbirds. There was a Northern Cardinal and Eastern Towhee vocalizing from the Red Maples beyond the fragmites. Cedar Waxwings made a pass over the lake and disappeared over the towering Tulip Trees.

Working my way up the hill on Easy Loop, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers moved through the canopy.

23 species in total were observed. Not an overwhelming diverse crowd of species, but there were lots of individual birds to been seen and heard on this morning.

Join me November 1st for the next Breakfast with the Birds. We will observe birds visiting our feeding station from the comfort of the museum. We'll also discuss how to participate in various citizen science projects like Project Feeder Watch, Christmas Bird Count, and Great Backyard Bird Count.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Fall Festival Amended

Sunday's forecast is anything but sunny. It may rain, but it won't rain on our parade. We are moving most of the festival's activities inside the nature museum. Pony rides and the petting zoo will be located on the second floor of the museum. JUST KIDDING! They won't be coming, but there will still be plenty to do from 11AM to 4PM.

There's no admission for Sunday's event. A few of the activities and food will still have small fees, but there's plenty to do for free. Here's the schedule of events for Sunday, September 27:
  • 12 Noon and 2:30PM: Live Animal Program - get upclose and hands-on with some of the animals that reside in the nature museum. FREE.
  • 11AM and 1PM: Woodworking for Wildlife - make a bathouse or bluebird nesting box to enhance the wildlife habitat of your backyard (while supplies last). MATERIALS FEE.
  • 3:30PM: Snake Hike and Pond Study - search for snakes in Nichols Field and aquatic life in Bechtel Lake (weather permitting). FREE.
  • Sand Art
  • Track and Fossil Casting
  • Face Painting
  • Coloring station
  • Food
  • Explore the nature museum
We hope you'll join us despite the rainy weather!

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Visiting the Chestnut Ridge Hawkwatch

That's not a cluster of flies you're seeing in the photo above. That's a kettle of migrating Broad-winged Hawks. These medium-sized raptors are concentrating in great numbers at this time of the year as they journey south for the winter.

Broad-wings can be seen in groups ranging in size from a few to a few hundred as they migrate high above our heads through the 3rd and 4th weeks of September. The above photo was taken on Tuesday, September 15 - a day that would see 2,400 of these birds passing over head.

Did you miss it?
These birds, and 15 other species of migrating raptor, can be viewed from now till the end of fall at the Chestnut Ridge Hawkwatch.

Where is it?
The Chestnut Ridge Hawkwatch is located across the street from Westmoreland Sanctuary at the Arthur Butler Sanctuary. Park in the parking lot and follow the orange trail blazes to the left and up the hill until you reach a set of bleachers.

So what happens when I get there?
Well, you want to introduce yourself to Arthur Green, this year's official hawk counter, and ask what he's been seeing. He and/or other hawk counters will be more than willing to fill you in on what you've missed, what to look for, and how to identify it.

The scenery from the hawk watch is spectacular at this time of year. Repeat visitors will be treated to a changing sea of foliage as autumn progresses. There's also a great view of Long Island Sound and Long Island in the distance on a clear day.

Unfortunately, the migrating hawks, falcons, eagles, and vultures do not come right up to you at the hawkwatch. Depending on the wind direction, the hawks may be moving across the horizon from a variety of trajectories with a direction of travel generally from left (North) to right (South). Some days bring excellent views at moderate distances, while others leave you wondering what species may be represented by the tiny speck moving across the distance. Either way, you're going to need to bring a pair of binoculars to view the vast majority of the birds.

The view from the Chestnut Ridge Hawkwatch faces generally East with an approximately 180-degree field of view. This huge panorama can make finding individual hawks a little difficult, so various features of the landscape are used as points of reference. These are also helpful when trying to describe the location of a bird that other hawkwatchers are straining to locate. The photo above (click to enlarge) identifies a few of the most obvious points of reference on the landscape at the hawkwatch: The Gap, Hill 1, Hill 2, Microwave Tower, Hill 3, The "V", Eagle, and The Sound.

There are other points of reference in between that are easily spotted through binoculars that are used as well, including Single Stack, Cell Tower, Four Stacks, and so on. Cloud formations (if present) are often referenced when a bird or group of bird's flight path takes them high above the horizon.

So using the points of reference mentioned above, I would say to other observers at the hawkwatch that I see a Turkey Vulture, left of the Microwave Tower, flying low and moving to the left. These cues would help others not looking in the same direction to quickly find the bird that I'm observing. Knowing what species of bird it is isn't necessarily important, as it is often the responsibility of the official counter to identify and tally each bird seen exhibiting migrating flight behavior. The most important thing is to call out the location of the bird so that the official counter and others have an opportunity to view the bird, identify it and enjoy the incredible sight of a raptor in flight.

Raptor ID takes a bit of practice and is a skill that will come with time and experience. Below are a couple of photos of birds flying over the Chestnut Ridge Hawkwatch. Each species has a definitive silhouette, flight behavoir, and other characteristics that allow identification even at a great distance. But not every bird is positively ID'd, so there are a few URs (Unidentified Raptor) every now and then. See if you can identify the birds pictured below (click on the photos for an enlarged view). I've included a few clues that may help. The answers are at the very bottom of this post.

Clue: Small, woodland hawks who make short work of nearly any songbirds it can capture.

Clue: Large raptor associated with rivers, lakes and marshes due to its preference for fish.

Clue: Most of these birds are the same as in the very first photo at the top of this post. The bigger birds in the photo are close relatives of our most common carrion-eating raptors.

Take some time to visit the Chestnut Ridge Hawkwatch or another one near your area. It's sedentary birding at its best! To keep up with the daily sightings from the Chestnut Ridge Hawkwatch, follow this link, and click on "Latest Count Data". Check our website for hawkwatching programs if you'd like to join in on the migration sensation.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Answers: Photo 1: Sharp-shinned Hawks, Photo 2: Osprey, Photo 3: Broad-winged Hawks with 3 Black Vultures

Friday, September 11, 2009

In the news...again

Read an email that I wrote on behalf of Westmoreland that turned into an article on

So here's the story of how the article came to be:
Earlier this week I was browsing through the AllAboutArmonk site and came across a photo of a bobcat posted in the "Outdoors" section of the site. My initial excitement about the photo quickly faded after reading a sentence in the accompanying article suggesting that local residents should be concerned about the safety of their pets and small children.

The site's publisher graciously responded to my initial email in which I requested the sentence in question to be removed and/or replaced with a statement suggesting that the bobcat's presence is positive indicator of our local ecosystem's vitality. In her response she kindly asked for more information about why local citizens should not be concerned for their safety.

My response to her was subsequently recieved and posted as an article on the website. Please take a moment to read the article and search through the rest of the site when you get a chance, especially if you reside in the Armonk, NY area.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

In the news...

Westmoreland Sanctuary was recently in the news. A reporter from the Journal News attended our Hawkwatching program and was quickly immersed in the fall sensation we refer to as hawkwatching.

See the article here.

Keep your eye on our calendar of events for more hawkwatching programs. Learn all about and see for yourself how these magnificent birds of prey navigate our area's air space on their long journey south for the winter.

September 12 is a great hawk identification program called Raptor's for Rookies. September 13 is your chance to try out your new hawk ID skills at our Hawkwatching program. Check our website for more details.

We'll try to post more about our area's hawk migration latter in the fall.

Keep your eye on the sky,

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Flying Away

Summer is slowly slipping away as we approach the end of August. There are many signs of the season's end: Labor Day, Back-to-School sales, mums for sale/on display all over town, etc. One of the surest signs of summer's end for me is bird migration.

Many folks are aware of bird migration in the spring. Robins and bluebirds and others return from their wintering grounds and fill the air with song. Just as dramatic, though not so audible, is the end-of-summer migration.

It's still warm! Why are the birds beginning to leave so soon? Well, temperature actually has very little to do bird migration. Days are shortening and so are the food supplies that these birds rely on to sustain themselves and their young all during the spring and summer. For many migrants, they have a long trip ahead of them, and there's no good reason to delay departure until food sources run low or disappear.

For the hummingbirds, orioles, flycatchers, ospreys, and broad-winged hawks (just to name a few) traveling to Central and South America, the time is now. As they move south, they will stop over and forage in locations where food is still abundant. Eventually they will reach the wintering grounds in the southern hemisphere where summer's bounty is just beginning.

In honor of the beginning of this migration that will continue well into the fall and the beginning of winter, I've posted a few of my favorite photos of birds in flight from this past spring and summer. Enjoy them and then make your way outdoors to witness the miracle of bird migration for yourself.
Laughing Gull - photographed near Hilton Head, SC

Double-crested Cormorant - photographed at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Ohio

Great Blue Heron - photographed at Westmoreland Sanctuary

Chimney Swift - photographed in Massillon, Ohio

Black Vulture - photographed near Hilton Head, SC

Turkey Vulture - photographed near Hilton Head, SC

Red-tailed Hawk - photographed near Hilton Head, SC

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist