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