Track bird health with Project FeederWatch

bird bath croppedA nuthatch shares a wall-mounted bird bath with a tufted titmouse outside our kitchen window, close enough for an iPhone photo.

The 2013 edition of Project FeederWatch has begun. It offers families an opportunity to experience nature up close as they help scientists keep track of birds.

FeederWatch also has a new look for its 27th season, plus new web tools that make participation and exploration even easier and more fun.

“We have a new interactive tool called ‘Common Feeder Birds’ that allows people to learn about the food and feeder preferences of nearly 100 species, based on data collected by participants,” says FeederWatch project leader Emma Greig. “The tool can be used to predict what birds can be attracted to an area so you can offer foods strategically to attract desired species.”

Observations from a record number of participants last season helped scientists follow the changes in woodpecker and nuthatch populations in the Midwest where trees were infested with invasive emerald ash borer beetles.

“We need continued FeederWatch data on woodpecker and nuthatch populations throughout North America to better understand the long term consequences of this beetle invasion,” Greig says. “We also need renewed FeederWatcher effort to monitor the health of House Finches, which are susceptible to a disease that causes swelling around the eyes. Our participants will be asked to report whether they looked for the disease and whether they saw sick birds.”

To learn more about joining Project FeederWatch and to sign up, visit www.FeederWatch.org or call the Cornell Lab toll-free at (866) 989-2473. In return for the $15 fee ($12 for Cornell Lab members), participants receive the FeederWatcher Handbook and Instructions with tips on how to successfully attract birds to your feeders, an identification poster of the most common feeder birds, and a calendar. Participants also receive Winter Bird Highlights, an annual summary of FeederWatch findings, as well as the Cornell Lab’s quarterly newsletter, Living Bird News.

Project FeederWatch is a joint research and education project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada.

Capturing a snowy owl on camera

Capt. Ed Hughes photo

Capt. Ed Hughes photos

Wildlife photographer and harbormaster Ed Hughes headed out to Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Middlwtown RI this weekend to photograph a snowy owl that had been reported by Jeff Hall of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

Ed soon found the bird and got several shots of it, including these.

“Friendly owl,” he said in a text message.

Maybe, but it doesn’t look all that friendly in the next picture.

Many of Ed’s photos are displayed at the Beach Rose Cafe on Brown Street in Wickford RI where he is the harbormaster.

snowy owl 2

Beautiful: ‘Weeds and Wildflowers in Winter’

weeds in winter cover croppedThe first snow of the season fell on Massachusetts, eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island this morning. It sent many gold finches, tufted, titmice , nuthatches and other birds to the feeders before dawn.

In the withered perennial garden, there were more birds – mostly finches – feasting on the seeds of cultured plants and weeds left standing. High winds had blown seeds of goldenrod, beebalm, and Queen Anne’s Lace to the ground, and the birds scooped them up.

We encourage native “weeds” to find their way into the garden to feed the critters that depend on them.

We also love to look at the plants after they have withered and stand in contrast to winter’s snow.

We appreciate them even more since receiving a copy of Weeds and Wildflowers in Winter by Lauren Brown, a beautiful and helpful guide for plant lovers.

Her pen-and-ink drawings are lovely, and her text is succinct.

For anyone who lives and walks in the Northeast, Weeds and Wildflowers in Winter would be a perfect holiday gift.

If you’d like to learn how to sketch wildflowers, check out the wonderful blog, Let’s Paint Nature.

Save #CT and #RI forests to save birds, scientist says

For the first time in 300 years, residents of Rhode Island and Connecticut are seeing old-growth trees, says Robert Craig, executive director of Bird Conservation Research, Inc., a non-profit group tracking forest birds in southern New England. “Unless we set aside vast areas of forest now,” he says, the size and diversity of bird populations will be diminished.

Audubon Craig croppedCraig summarized his study, “The Forest Bird Survey of Southern New England,” at the 116th annual meeting of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island yesterday. Before he spoke, Candace Powell of Jamestown RI, Audubon’s president, reminded members that birds are indicators of health in the environment.

To save the size and diversity of bird population, it is critical to prevent the fragmentation of forests, Craig said.

His study of forest birds and their surroundings revealed the links between bird populations and habitat. “Extensive forests host the most diversity,” he said. Citing Rhode Island’s Arcadia Management Area and State Forest (which abuts Connecticut’s Pachaug State Forest) Craig said such vast tracts must be saved now, when they contain trees as old as 300 years as well as farm land.

To complete his study, Craig walked more than 1,000 miles and made 50,172 birds observation of 87 species. He examined 17,760 habitat sites.

Carter Preserve tells a great glacier and nature story

carter erratic with plantsThe Nature Conservancy’s Francis C. Carter Memorial Preserve in Charlestown, RI is a natural wonder.

carter oak signEncompassing 841 acres, this is the Rhode Island Chapter’s second largest nature preserve. It straddles the rocky uplands of the Charlestown moraine and the sandy floodplain of the Pawcatuck River, the property supports a variety of natural communities, most notably are pitch pine/scrub oak barrens, vernal pools, and a 35-acre grassland.

If you park in the lot off Carolina Back Road (Route 112), the 1.3-mile Yellow Trail will soon take you to an observation deck overlooking a vernal pool. Empty now, the area is surrounded by colorful maples.

carter observation deckMy Brittany, Penny, and I turned off onto the Red Trail. What a treat! The woods tell the story of the great glacier as it covered and then receded over the region. The boulders are nature’s sculpture. Erratics, as they’re called, he enormous stones weer tossed about throughout the region, and today, trees and ferns spout from many of them, along with colorful lichens and mosses.

We turned left on the 1.5-mile Blue Trail to take a short cut back to the Yellow Train and our truck. Much of the trail was rocky, but the footing was pretty easy except for one tiny bit of rock, covered by some slippery leaves. (Most f the trails are not suitable for wheelchairs or strollers, however, a young dad was there with two children, one of them in a stroller, so it can be done.)

carter blueberriesThere was plenty of autumn color in the trees and along the ground. A stand of high-bush blueberries was aflame in autumn red.

If you go, wear a blaze-orange hat or vest, to be visible during archery deer hunting season.

Depending on the trails you choose, the Francis C. Carter Memorial Preserve can offer an hour to a full day of exploring.

For a map of the Carter Preserve, click here. (It may take a while to load.) For driving directions, click here.

Janet Coit: ‘What I did this summer’

Janet Coit, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, wrote these loving memories of her summer among her state’s natural wonders. The essay has appeared in The Providence Journal and the latest newsletter of the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association. We’re pleased to share it here, too.

janet coitLast week, I bit into my first apple of the season, a fresh MacIntosh from Phantom Farm in Cumberland, and tasted the sweetness of September. As they have all summer, my senses felt acutely alive.

Showing off the tastes, smells, sights and sounds of beautiful Rhode Island to millions of residents and visitors is the work and pride of dedicated professionals at the Department of Environmental Management and organizations across the state. The special qualities of the experiences and places that we safeguard and steward provide tens of thousands of jobs across a variety of economic sectors.

When I think back on “what I did this summer,” here’s what comes to mind.

Kayaking down the Blackstone River, enjoying conversation with other paddlers, who also marvel at how the teeming, green corridor has rebounded from the pollution and stress associated with its industrial past.

Picking strawberries in the sun, my daughter’s fingers and lips stained red with juice, anticipating my favorite dessert — strawberry shortcake.

Climbing to the Fishermens’ Memorial at Camp Cronin on a lovely summer evening, paying respects to the people who have lost their lives at sea, and recalling the power of the surf the day I watched the waves toss boulders around that cove during Superstorm Sandy.

Fly-fishing (poorly) in the Narrow River, my heart pumping as I pulled in a small and feisty skipjack, and later, watching the sun drop behind the ridge lighting up the spartina in Pettaquamscutt Cove.

Attempting “geo-caching” for the first time in the woods of Arcadia (and deciding it is for those who are more techno-savvy).

Frying my first, homemade calamari, and enjoying the special texture and tang of squid harvested earlier that day from Narragansett Bay.

Pedaling down the East Bay Bike Path and seeing every kind of person — from a little girl in her patent leather shoes to a bald, buff, tattooed fisherman — taking in the view off the bridge over the Palmer River, as I ride to my destination at Colt State Park.

Crunching sweet kernels of fresh-picked corn purchased hours earlier from a farmer at his road-side stand, and swearing there is nothing better.

Shooting at a modern range in a beloved old club in Tiverton, excited to finally hit a bullseye.

Drinking Rhody Fresh milk at the “Great Outdoors Pursuit” event at Fort Adams State Park, while drinking in the sights of the kites and kids on the north lawn, surrounded by the breezy backdrop of Newport’s world-class sailing venue.

Spotting the bright-red bill of an oystercatcher at Napatree Point, and delighting in the diversity of birds that find sustenance where the shifting sands and eel-grass beds frame the edge of Little Narragansett Bay, and the Pawcatuck River meets the sea.

Slurping a raw oyster off its rough shell in Matunuck, appreciating the unique flavor, and knowing that, for thousands of years, others have enjoyed the same sensation.

Meeting friends in the gray light of dawn to motor out beneath the Mount Hope Bridge and catch some stripers — my friend’s daughter reeling in one big enough to take home for a delicious dinner.

Getting lost in the maze at the Clayhead Trail on Block Island’s northern bluffs on a hot day in July, and then cooling off with a therapeutic swim in the cold Atlantic.

Helping to measure and weigh the fish we hauled in as part of DEM’s regular trawl survey, and seeing firsthand what our fishermen know innately, that the diversity of life in our salty waters is a natural bounty that sustains us (and sometimes confounds us).

Laughing with sheer joy at the power of the waves that toss me on the sand as I boogie-board at the beach.

Joining family and friends in a towering natural amphitheater at Camp Yawgoog for my son’s Boy Scout ceremony.

Clambering up Pulpit Rock, wading through Nag’s Marsh, and taking in the panoramic view from the T-wharf on Prudence Island.

Watching an osprey scoop up a fish from Hundred Acre Cove out the window of my car during my daily commute.

Walking from the sandy to the rocky shore at Rocky Point, and daydreaming about the larger park that will open on that glorious stretch of coast.

Savoring steamers, fresh fluke and local tomatoes as part of a scrumptious dinner out.

Learning about the Native Americans, the colonial farmers, and the mysteries of those who lived near the Tomaquag River during a magical late-August hike in Hopkinton.

Spending a recent afternoon in Galilee, where an exciting fishing tournament and seafood festival celebrated commercial and recreational fishing at one of the most important ports in New England. The event did more than that; it brought people together.

We are fortunate in Rhode Island to have a vast diversity of beautiful places that support our economy and fill us with wonder. Our natural assets are there every season for all to enjoy. Get out there, enliven your senses, eat local, and discover beautiful Rhode Island!

It’s Walktober in The Last Green Valley

Farmers Market at the Nathan Hale Homestead

Farmers Market at the Nathan Hale Homestead

It’s Walktober, a celebration of The Last Green Valley, in southern Massachusetts and eastern Connecticut, along the  Rhode Island border.

The 23rd edition of Walktober features scores of walks and paddle trips among natural wonders and important historical sites from Sturbridge, MA to Griswold, CT.

Sunday, we visited the Coventry CT Farmers Market at the Nathan Hale Homestead (pictured above), and walked around a bit through the rain. It was wet and muddy, but several children had a blast in the puddles. (And the farmers market was wonderful.)

Walktober includes 106 walks, hikes, paddles and bike rides as well as 36 events that highlight the cultural, historic or natural resources of The Last Green Valley.  The Walktober Calendar labels each walk as easy, moderate, or difficult. Many offerings are geared specifically for families with children. The family dog is welcome at pet-friendly walks. Adventurers will enjoy 13 paddles and three bike rides included in this year’s schedule. To download the schedule as a PDF file, click here.

Walktober is such a gift!

Help hummingbirds by keeping feeders filled

Perhaps the action at your hummingbird feeder has slowed down with the slightly cooler New England weather recently, but the folks at Wild Birds Unlimited in Warwick RI remind us that all the birds haven’t left yet.

“Now is a crucial time for migrating hummingbirds to stop for a refueling on their journey south,” the WBU staff says. “Even if your resident birds have left the neighborhood, you may get some very hungry migrants. Your feeder could mean the difference between them making it or not.

“Watch for overnight frost when you should bring the feeder in at night and put it back out in the morning.” 

Let us prey: Raptor Weekend is coming

Owls, hawks and falcons will swoop into Bristol RI for Raptor Weekend, presented by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, Sept. 7 and 8.

Experts from across the Northeast will gather for the largest celebration of raptors in New England. They will present live flight presentations, educational programs, and family activities from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days.

New this year – master storyteller and environmental author Michael Caduto will present a dynamic performance on Sept. 7 celebrating birds of prey.

Admittance costs $10 for member adults and $5 for children. Non-member admittance costs $12 for an adult and $6 for children.

Audubon’s Environmental Education Center will be the site of Raptor Weekend. It is on Route 114 in Bristol.

For more details and a complete schedule, click here.

Sparkling span links Grills trails

Grills bridge

The Grills Sanctuary in Hopkinton RI and the Grills Preserve in Westerly RI offer some lovely walks in a variety of habitats. Now, a sparkling steel bridge over the Pawcatuck River connects them, offering lots of hiking opportunities..

Grills flowersBoth properties are owned and maintained by land trusts in their communities, and August is Land Trusts Month.

The Grills Preserve, owned by the Westerly Land Trust, has more than 500 acres with over two-and-a-half miles of frontage on the Pawcatuck River. There is a large parking lot with an information kiosk at the end of Bowling Lane, off Route 91 in the village of Bradford.

The Gruills Sanctuary, owned by the Hopkinton Land Trust, is smaller, but equally beautiful. The entrance is on Chase Hill Road, at the intersection with Route 216.

Earlier this summer, the land trusts celebrated the opening of the new Polly Coon Bridge, a narrow, steel span over a  usually sleepy stretch of the Pawcatuck. (In June, with record rainfall, the river roared.

The bridge is hard to find from the Hopkinton side. Follow the white-blazed Tomaquag Trail that starts in a farm field near the parking lot. (Note the cool stone bridge over Wine Bottle Brook.) Turn right onto the red blazed trail and follow that to the end, and then turn right and follow the trail to the bridge.

Grills trailFrom the parking lot at the end of Bowling Lane in Bradford, take the red- and blue-blazed trail to the right of the kiosk. Take the first right onto the blue trail and follow it over two small bridges for about 25- to 30-minutes. When the blazes end, keep going along the river, and you will find the shiny new bridge on the right.

Most of the trails offer easy footing, but they are too rough for a wheelchair or stroller. You can easily, and enjoyably, spend a whole day in the two properties. The sanctuary on the Hopkinton side, has lots of beautiful benches along the trails, and picnic tables near the parking lot.

Rhode Island has 48 trusts that belong to the state’s land trusts council, and most of them offer recreational opportunities for families. During Land Trust Days, through the end of September, there will be more than 60 guided walks on land managed by trusts and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

For maps and information, visit ExploreRI.org.

Outdoor notes: Wade and find lovely aquatic wildflowers

Marsh rose-gentian

Wading in Worden Pond, RI late yesterday afternoon  was a rewarding experience. Fish weren’t biting, but white waterlilies were everywhere and marsh rose-gentian plants were in blossom in about six inches of water along the shore.

What a stunning flower! With eight to 12 pink petals, the delicate looking flowers usually grow in brackish water, according to some online sources. The US Department of Agriculture and a couple other sources also say that Sebatia dodecandra grows as far north as Connecticut.

If you’re on the water this weekend, stop to notice the flowers.

Fishing report

On Long Island Sound, it’s a typical August, says Pat Abate of Rivers End Tackle. There is still a “fair number of bass and some good sized ones on the local reefs, mostly on live bait,” he reports. “Bunker days, eels at night. Long Sand Shoal isn’t on every day, but it’s a worthwhile shot most days. Fresh bunker chunks are the most effective way to fish if you don’t have live ones. There have been some schoolies to medium sized bass along the Old Lyme shore for eel casters. The Race has had some bass also if you can get through the blues and the winds.”

RICKA picnic

The Rhode Island Canoe/Kayak Association (RICKA) This year’s  RICKA Family Picnic will be held on Saturday, August 24, at Goddard Memorial State Park in Warwick, RI.  There will be paddle trips in the morning, and a southern barbecue lunch (veggie burgers will be available) will be served around 12:30.

RICKA is a terrific group. For more information about the picnic, click here.

A hummingbird feeder without ants

It’s a banner year for ruby-throated hummingbirds in southern RI.

Normally, we have two families of hummers, one on the north side of the house where the perennial garden grows, and another on the south side where the deck has lots of geraniums, a hibiscus of two and a scarlet Mandevilla vine. The north side of the house has one syrup feeder, and the south side has two feeders.

Monarda (bee balm) grows wild everywhere in the yard.

This summer, we have had as many as eight hummers at one of the feeders on the deck. An old-fashioned bottle feeder, it had only four feeding holes. And recently, it was attracting a lot of ants. The bottle feeder on the north side was loaded with ants, too.

So, it was off to Wild Birds Unlimited this morning to buy two more ant-free feeders that the company makes. The feeder has a moat that you fill with water to keep ants out of the nectar-syrup. We have had one up since the birds arrived in April, and it work beautifully.

We go through a quart-and-a-half of nectar-syrup a day, sometimes re-filling a pint-size feeder three time a day. Today, we got one that holds 24 ounces, so the birds will always have something to drink.

Citizen scientists follow hummingbirds@home

The National Audubon Society has launched a new phone application to track the health of North America’s hummingbird population. In southern New England, this appears to be a banner year for ruby throated hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds @ Home works with citizen scientists who monitor when birds arrive and depart, what nectar sources they’re using (including feeders), unusual species for a particular area, and more.

Once you register, you identify a patch, such as a perennial garden, patio or window box, and keep track or what the birds are doing. It only takes a minute or so. Your observations join thousands of others so scientists can monitor the birds’ well-being.

In southern Rhode Island this summer, we are seeing more hummingbirds at the feeder and in the bee balm than ever before.