Monday, December 26, 2016

Winter Birds at Four Mile Run

Belted Kingfisher (photo: D. Howell)
On the return trip from retrieving photos off the wildlife cameras at Four Mile Run Park, I was walking along the wetland trail when I heard a high-pitched 'rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat!' Only a few months ago, I surely would have noticed the sound, but today I instantly turned toward the water, scanning the tidal wetland for a blue-, white-, and rust-colored bird. The Belted Kingfisher has been observed regularly in lower Four Mile Run lately, and sure enough, there she was, perched on one of the stakes that holds up the pink flagging that wards away geese from the young plantings. I was lucky to have binoculars, and I watched as she dropped down into the water, popping right back up and alighting again on the stake with a small fish in her mouth. She flipped it around a few times in her beak, and waited a short time as the fish wriggled, then swallowed it whole.

Sundays at the Farmers and Artisans Market I have often seen interesting birds, including Bald Eagles. More recently, with wildlife cameras and volunteers documenting the natural world of the Park, I've become more acquainted with Four Mile Run's feathered friends. This month birds have  especially been on my mind, and below are a few reasons why.

Bird count field notes
The Christmas Bird Count
With the opportunity for the Four Mile Run Conservatory Foundation to get involved in Audubon's 117th annual Christmas Bird Count, I contacted potential volunteers to join the birding party covering lower Four Mile Run on December 17. As it turned out, that morning brought freezing rain and slippery roads and trails. Most of the scheduled bird counts were delayed a few hours. Because our Audubon site coordinators had another site to cover as well, they informed me that they probably wouldn't make it to Four Mile Run as planned. Thus, with our party down to just two observers, we headed to the Park early in the afternoon. And the Park did not disappoint: our walk of 90 minutes along the wetland and Four Mile Run trails yielded a count of nearly 600 birds from 23 different species. We also caught a brief glimpse of a raptor we couldn't positively identify (a Red-Tailed Hawk was photographed later that day in the same area, though). It turns out the Park is an great birding destination, in part due to the natural habitat variety: tidal open water, forested wetland, open meadow, and marsh. If you want to sharpen your birding skills, check the events page later this winter for more opportunities to count birds with us as a citizen scientist.

Edible ornaments in the Park
Bird Seed Ornaments
The following week I led a birdseed ornament-making activity with the after-school program at Casa Chirilagua. Making holiday ornaments from the right materials is a fun way to provide for wintering birds when their regular diet isn't so readily available. For the Kids Club kids, it was also a way to decorate for Christmas at the Conservatory Center, where Casa Chirilagua's programs will be based starting this winter. We covered pine cones with vegetable shortening, then decorated each one with birdseed, raisins, and cranberries. Instead of hanging them with string, which can entangle and injure birds, we used raffia, which is better suited and unlikely to cause harm. The day after making the ornaments, the Kids Club walked to Four Mile Run Park and decorated the native trees between the Conservatory Center and the soccer field. Many thanks to Casa Chirilagua for their stewardship!

Wintering Rusty Blackbirds
Special Surprise Caught on Film
Thanks to the 395 Express Lanes Community Grant program, we have been able to place wildlife cameras in several locations, as we begin to document the non-human residents with whom we share Four Mile Run Park. A photo that caught my eye from the most recent set showed 5 or 6 distinctive brown-black birds in the woods, not a species I recognized. After some time looking through field guides and web searching, and with additional help from experienced birders, we determined that these were Rusty Blackbirds. These birds spend the breeding season in boreal forests of Canada, then overwinter in forested wet areas of the eastern United States, like Four Mile Run Park's bottomland woody wetland. Though the Rusty Blackbird isn't currently designated as endangered, the species population has declined sharply in the last 40 years--by more than 95%, by some estimates. Habitat loss/degradation in breeding and wintering grounds is a likely factor, as are blackbird control efforts in some agricultural areas, but the causes are not well understood. The International Rusty Blackbird Working Group seeks to understand and reverse the decline, and you can help the Four Mile Run Conservatory Foundation contribute to the ongoing research by participating in bird surveys this spring. We will post details on the events page later this winter.

Don't think it isn't the right time to visit the Park this winter just because it's chilly--there's a lot to see and hear. Bring a camera, or binoculars, or just your keen senses, and spend some time with the birds of Four Mile Run Park!