The Thousand Islands and the Plight of the Double-Crested Cormorants

The Thousand Islands is a lovely spot for a vacation or a day trip. There is lots of history, culture and natural beauty. The natural beauty of the islands is in contrast with the industrial might of the many transport ships traveling along the St. Lawrence Seaway. Home to many species, summer inhabitants of the Seaway include Osprey and Seagulls of all types.

This past summer, while on a boat trip in the Islands, I was introduced to Gull Island, a bird watchers’ paradise. Despite the name, Seagulls were not the main attraction of this tiny rock outcrop in the midst of the St. Lawrence River. Rather every available surface seemed to be covered with loud, socially active, nesting Double-Crested Cormorants.

Double-Crested Cormorants are a very interesting bird. Genetically related to a pelican, they resemble a loon while swimming. Both male and female Double-Crested Cormorants are all black birds, rather large in size, but lanky rather than stout at about thirty-three inches. Their long neck is a distinguishing feature, as is its bright, orange-yellow bill and face, made more stunning by the black surround. This bill has a hooked tip, very like a pronounced overbite, no doubt helpful in the pursuit of fish. The “Double-Crested” refers to two plumes or tufts of feathers that develop on either side of its head (about where ears would be) during the breeding season. The final, and in my mind most intriguing physical feature of the Double-Crested Cormorant is its sparkling, crystal-like blue eyes. Their eyes are very special as they have evolved to allow aerial and underwater vision. Underwater vision is particularly key for this species, as the birds diet consists of fish and mollusks.

As you would expect with an aquatic bird, swimming is a big part of the Cormorant’s life. Despite the fact that its name translated from Latin means “Sea Crow,” the Double-Crested Cormorant prefers fresh water to salt. If you see a Cormorant swimming, it is often alone or with a few fellow Cormorants. They bob in the water like a duck or a loon and then suddenly they dive with a great burst of speed and a splash. Because their pursuit of fish can be arduous, they are able to remain under the water for longer periods than ducks or geese. They also swim long distances and often pop up a yard or so away from their dive spot. Unlike a penguin, the Cormorant swims with its wings at its sides. Once the Cormorant returns to dry land, it is a very common site to see it standing with wings outstretched, the best method of drying its feathers in the sun.

Cormorants are colonizing birds, meaning they choose to nest in large groups. They are happy building nests either in trees or on the ground, however the whole colony will build consistently, so you will never find a colony where some nests are in trees with others on the ground. Each mating pair have one brood a year, of three or four eggs on average. The young Cormorants who grow up in ground colonies will get out of their nests after three or four weeks and wander the community, however they will still return to their nests to be fed. As they develop, the juvenile Cormorants take on a light gray or brownish color until their mature feathers grow in.

There is some controversy regarding the presence of Cormorants in the Great Lakes and Thousand Islands regions. Once a common resident of the Great Lakes Region, their populations were greatly diminished by a combination mandated population control and pollution in the 1940s-1960s. The elimination of DDT and other pesticides allowed their populations to grown throughout the 70’s and 80’s. Following this slow beginning, the population has been steadily increasing and they now thrive throughout the Great Lakes region. However, as living memory doesn’t reach beyond the time of DDT and its effects on the environment, many people look on the Double-Crested Cormorant as an invasive species.

The Cormorants’ large populations throughout the region has caused them to attract the attention of the fisherman, who feel the presence of so many Cormorants is negatively affecting their fishing. There are even some shocking reports of unlicensed killing of whole Cormorant colonies in an effort to protect fish populations in the region. The worst report I came across occurred in 1998 outside of Watertown, New York. 800 birds were killed in the name of recreational fishing. I am sad to say this is not an isolated incident. The decline of the Smallmouth Bass population specifically has been blamed on the increased populations of Double-Crested Cormorants, however the fisheries believe that a number of contributing factors, of which the Cormorant population is only one of many, has led to this population decline. Extensive studies of the Cormorant diet in the Great Lakes and Thousand Islands regions found this concern to be unfounded (study conducted in late 1990s). While a Cormorant’s diet does consist of a variety of sport fish, both Northern Pike and Smallmouth Bass comprised of only 3% of the fish they consumed. The same study found that smaller fish (pumpkinseed, yellow perch and rock bass) made up the majority of the Double-Crested Cormorant’s diet, about 83%. The same study found some differences in the diets of the birds residing in the St. Lawrence verses those birds that colonize in Lake Ontario, however these variances still did not effect the Smallmouth Bass populations. I also feel the need to point out that the Cormorants also do their bit for the Great Lakes/Thousand Islands ecosystems. They eat indiscriminately, meaning that their presence helps battle invasive species of fish and mollusks, such as the alewife and zebra mussel.

While they are innocent of the charges against them with regard to fish populations, the Cormorants are guilty of another crime which some of the locals think is just as bad. Their settlement on an island seems to spell impending doom for all vegetation and trees that live there. This phenomenon could definitely be seen from the state of Gull Island. This is directly related to the Cormorants’ excrement which is very rich with ammonia. The effect is worsened by the fact that the Cormorant lives in colonies, meaning that small areas receive a concentration of the droppings and they are repeat visitors, returning the same nesting location year after year, which gives the vegetation little time to recover.

In the discussion of these Cormorant controversies I do not mean to imply that people are totally wrong or that the Cormorants are completely victimized. I think one look at Gull Island can show that the Cormorant population is thriving in this region, which can have many negative effects on both the vegetation and habitats of other bird species. Rather, I think it is best left up to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and other similar departments on both sides of the lakes to monitor and manage. The Cormorant population is being monitored and controlled in New York, which include nest destruction and nesting deterrents. The idea that wholesale slaughter of a bird population won’t have negative effects on the whole region demonstrates a lack of understanding I thought far behind us. Did we learn nothing from the Dodo? Individuals should never take matters into their own hands. Ecosystems are very delicate webs and the slightest changes can have catastrophic effects.

Sources

http://tilife.org/BackIssues/Archive/tabid/393/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/2101/The-Devils-Bird-in-the-St-Lawrence-River.aspx

http://www.glfc.org/pubs/lake_committees/ontario/cormorant.pdf

https://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/28442.html

Cooper’s Hawk

This November I was able to add a new bird to my list. I was particularly pleased about this sighting as it was not only a new bird, but a new bird of prey. In my own backyard, literally. Thank goodness for the strong fall breezes removing most of the leaves from the trees. I had only been sitting out for about fifteen minutes, relaxing and waiting for the birds to get used to my presence and return to the feeders, when they all called out this horrible racket. As the Cooper’s Hawk settled down on a nearby branch, the trees erupted with objections from every other feathered and furred creature in the vicinity. The Blue Jays attempted to intimidate the predator with there loudest shrieks. The Squirrels making their panic noise, which is a cross between the sound of a dry-heave and nails on a chalkboard. The House Sparrows were also adding their sweet voices, not so much to intimidate as to deter the would be predator by demonstrating their greater numbers. Together these sounds and calls created the most inharmonious chorus ever heard. And they just kept it up!

At first I thought they were disturbed by the neighbor’s cat, who I had seen rushing from the middle of the next yard a moment earlier. This is a fairly regular occurrence. Later I realized that the cat was also panicked by the Hawk and running for his life. Not to sound too mean, but I took a slight bit of satisfaction that for once the cat was being terrorized, instead of terrorizing. But when the cat appears the ruckus soon calms down. With the cat gone, I started looking for another reason for their unhappiness. And that was when I spotted it. To have that kind of power to have just your silent presence on a branch cause so much commotion.

I knew instantly that this magnificent creator was not a Red-Tailed Hawk, the species of hawk seen very often in our town, especially in the nearby park. The darker color of the wings was my first indication that this bird was different. A quick look at its tail and rump confirmed that it was not the Red-Tailed Hawk (pictured on right below). The hatch marks of the feathers along the belly were also differently patterned and more heavily colored.

The Cooper’s Hawk is considered a medium sized hawk. They measure between just over a foot to twenty inches. The females are slightly larger than their male counterparts, but this is their only difference in appearance. The Cooper’s Hawk has a white chest, which appears rusty due to the closely placed hatch-marks on his belly feathers. Its back and wings are a slate gray and its tail is also gray and long, with a rounded end and a series of black bands running along the width of its tail. The face of the Cooper’s Hawk made the greatest impression on me. A fierce intelligence radiates from its red eyes. The top of its head is capped with dark gray feathers, while its cheek is covered in a rust colored blush, which further helps to emphasize the bird’s eyes. The Cooper’s Hawk looks almost the same as the Sharp-shinned Hawk except it is larger and has rounded tail where the Sharp-shinned has a squared tail.

The Cooper’s Hawk has shorter wings than some other hawks, a feature that helps them steer through trees. They apply ambush tactics when hunting and have been known to spend time at or near feeders, hoping to pick off an unsuspecting songbird. They are mostly silent, calling only to or from their nests. This quiet adds to their aura of danger and menace. While their diet is mostly comprised of smaller birds and small mammals, they have been known to eat reptiles and amphibians in a pinch.

While this species of hawk is present in New Jersey year round, some birds do migrate to Mexico and other warmer areas in the south. While their population was badly affected by DDT pollution in the 1950s-1980s, today they are a common bird. Spotting them however is often by chance. Knowing that I feel doubly lucky that I chose that morning to enjoy a bit of the autumn sunshine.

A Chance Encounter with a Famous Owl

This past August I attended the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire and had a brush with fame. Located on the estate of the Mount Hope Winery, the faire is home to the wide variety of acts and demonstrations we have come to expect at Renaissance themed events. Alongside the jousts and human chess, the jugglers and musicians, was Her Majesty’s Royal Falconer. It didn’t take much convincing to get my party to both take a look at the birds in their pens and to check out one of their daily educational demonstrations. The faclconer, Ash Cary gave a wonderful talk entitled Knightwings: Birds of Prey, which included a lot of information about the efforts made toward conservation of birds of prey. To learn more about Cary and his conservation efforts, you can visit the website of his non-profit One World Raptor at https://oneworldraptor.org/

Unfortunately, I had decided I would enjoy the faire more without carrying the weight of my camera and lens, so I was forced to rely on a phone camera for the show. As you might expect, not all the birds are included in each demonstration. Our demonstration included Zuul, a South American Black Hawk-Eagle and Ulysses, a European Eagle Owl. While Zuul was a beautiful bird, it was Ulysses who completely captivated me. Elegant and distinguished, his large size dominated your attention from the moment he emerged. And one look into his large orange eyes with their disdaining disinterest, and you understand immediately why humans often personify owls as being stuck up and haughty.

It is really a small wonder that Ulysses caught my attention. Eagle Owls are the largest species of owl in the world. While in looks they somewhat resemble the Great Horned Owl, the Eagle Owl is over two feet tall. Its size is further enhanced with its “fluffy” plumage, presenting a large girth that seems formidable. Ulysses and other Eagle Owls have yellowish brown bellies with darker brown wings and back. Besides their large orange eyes, their other distinctive facial feature are their long ear tufts on either side of their forehead, which stand straight up except when they are in flight. The young look much less distinguished, being as white as snow with fluffy downy bodies, resembling a clump of cotton candy.

When living in the wild, Eagle Owls reside in mountain regions. They like forests that have rocks or cliffs. They often nest in the cliffs and spend most of the daytime hours roosting in coniferous trees. Like many other owls, they feed on small mammals and small birds.

As if Ulysses was not cool enough already, he is also a movie star. According to Cary, he was cast as Draco Malfoy’s owl in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001). A quick review of the movie credits indicated that they did not list every animal by name. I decided to re-watch the movie in full to see if I can spot him. While he might have been cast as Draco’s owl, I am confident that there are no scenes of Draco with an owl. I did however spot a European Eagle Owl in a few scenes. Assuming that owl was Ulysses, he was in the first scene, sitting on the street sign as baby Harry is delivered to his aunt and uncle’s home and he was the owl who delivered the first Hogwart’s letter to Harry. He was hanging on the roof with several other owls trying to deliver Hogwart’s letters when uncle Vernon goes to work, he was among other familiars hanging out in Diagon alley and he also delivered some mail to Hogwarts when Neville received his remembrall. Unfortunately my DVD doesn’t include deleted scenes so I couldn’t investigate further.

I am very excited because this post has given me the opportunity to use the newest resource in my growing bird library, a gift from my husband Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe text by Lars Svensson, 2009.

Black-Capped Chickadees

Black-Capped Chickadee’s are one of Northern New Jersey’s year-round residents. Small but spunky (they are only about 5 inches), the Chickadee tends to be a bit shy of other birds around the feeder and will often wait to have some alone time with the seeds. When they are feeding young, often the pair will visit the yard together, one keeping watch while the other gets seeds. Then they swap places before flying off to fill the empty bellies and gaping mouths of their little ones. But don’t let this behavior make you think of them as cowards. The are cautious adventurers. If you are just starting to feed birds or you put out a new feeder, it is very likely that the Chickadees will be the first to find it.

Besides their small stature, you will know the Chickadee easily. He has a black cap and neck, with a tan belly and gray wings. There is some white in his wings and a white section at the back of his neck. I say he, but in fact the male, female and juvenile Black-Capped Chickadees are all identical. Even if you can’t see a Chickadee, they tend to be very polite, and introduce themselves with their typical “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call that gives them their name (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-capped_Chickadee/sounds)

Attracting a Black-Capped Chickadee to your yard with a feeder is pretty easy. Their diet is varied enough with a mix of insects, seeds and fruit that they will come to seed or suet feeders. It is also pretty easy to convince them to become tenants. In nature the Black-Capped Chickadees like nesting in cavities, but they think the basic nest box is very homey. In my garden they have tried to move in for a few years now, however the Sparrows seem to intimidate them until they abandon their nesting activities. It takes them about 10-14 days to make their cavity homey, lining it with moss, feathers, hair and cocoons. They typically have one brood of 6-8 white eggs with red-brown markings. After three weeks the babies fly off make their own way in the world.

In the winter Chickadees have been known to flock in groups up to twelve. They like to roost in dense conifers for protection from the weather. They are easily spotted in the snow, foraging for food as they need to eat on a daily basis to survive. They must even brave the worst winter storms to search for food. So next time you look out your window into a snowstorm, spare a moment of thought for the brave little Chickadees.

Palm Warbler

According to my Birds of New Jersey and Birds of Eastern North America, the Palm Warbler isn’t a common bird to my region. Despite that fact, I have laid my eyes on a couple on my various walks. I guess the few I saw were in New Jersey on vacation.

There is definitely no way that I mistakenly identified this bird. With olive-yellow on its back, a bright yellow neck and belly and a chestnut brown cap on the top of its head, this bird is very difficult to confuse with any others. The impression of yellow overall was not so bright as that of the Yellow Warbler and the chestnut cap is very distinct as many other warblers with yellow bodies have black trimmings.

My first sighting of a Palm Warbler was by far the best. I was in the Meadowlands and the Warbler was on the ground behind a bush. The olive-yellow of its feathers made it stand out prominently and I was able to get photos while only being a few feet away. He wasn’t really upset by my presence, and continued to do his thing, including puffing up his feathers for a good cleaning.

My second and third sightings were both more fleeting, frantically trying to get a photo or two in while the bird was still in site. As with all Warblers, Palm Warblers are small, quick and always seem to be moving. They will sit on branches, but like an antsy child, they are always on the move. A bit to the left…move back where they started…hop up a branch to see if that is better…jump back down to the original spot…hop to the left. If many of the species of Warbler were not bright yellow, I don’t know if I would ever catch any of them on camera at all. My second sighting was again in New Jersey, at Garret Mountain Reservation and the third was while walking the Albany Pine Bush in upstate New York.

The Palm Warbler probably derived its name during its winters in Florida and the Caribbean. Most of the population summers in Northern Canada. They nest on the ground or on the lower level of trees, which may be why my first Palm Warbler was under a bush. They eat insects which they hunt on the ground and on trees.

So let this be a lesson to you. Field Guides are helpful tools, but your own powers of observation are also good. Sometimes Field Guides are wrong. Bird migrations and other natural annual occurrences are effected by weather, urban development and tons of other factors which can combine to change how birds behave and where they live. Don’t doubt what you think you saw, you might be right.

The Dark-Eyed Junco- A Winter Resident

It isn’t often that anyone chooses to winter in the Northeast (birds included), but I guess New Jersey is just like Florida to a Canadian bird. A least the Dark-Eyed Junco seems to think so. Juncos spend their summers in Canada, flying South for the winter months. If you leave your feeders fulled in the winter, Dark-Eyed Juncos will probably be regular customers. In winter they are often seen in flocks, some of which include other small birds, such as chickadees and sparrows. When not at a feeder, you will see them foraging on the ground using their “double scratching” technique, which makes them appear to be hopping in place. In summer they eat a varied diet of insects and seeds, but in winter it is all seeds, all the time.

Dark-Eyed Juncos are actually a very common sight in winter throughout the continental United States, but the species is divided into five regional subspecies. The sub-species to frequent the Northeast is Slate-colored; Oregon, White-winged, Grey-headed and Guadalupe being the other four sub-species.

As the name implies, the male Slate-colored Dark-Eyed Junco has a matted or slate black body, with a grey belly and white under-tail. The female is even more muted, with a tan/brown body and white belly and under-tail. At about 5 1/2-6 inches, they are only slightly smaller than House Sparrows and only slightly larger than a Chickadee. Their most defining feature is their rounded belly, which is reminiscent of Santa Claus, even if it doesn’t seem to shake like a bowl full of jelly.

Like so many of nature’s other clues, the arrival of the Dark-Eyed Junco in November tells of impending changes in the weather. When they finally depart New Jersey, often in April, we know that Spring has truly arrived!

Brown-Headed Cowbird

The Brown-Headed Cowbird is often considered an unsavory character of the bird feeder crowd. Perceived like a seedy, back-alley character from a gangster film, many bird watchers chase the Cowbird away from their feeders. They see the Brown-Headed Cowbird as only a nuisance, taking food from the “pretty” birds. In many ways that could easily be a metaphor for human nature and life, but we won’t dwell on the greater philosophy and psychology behind it.

Brown-Headed Cowbirds are in many ways the loners of the bird world. But this loneliness is self-inflicted. The Brown-Headed Cowbird does not build a nest in which to lay eggs. Instead, the female leaves her grayish-white eggs with brown speckles in the nests of other birds. They are the only parasitic bird to reside in New Jersey. Their eggs have been found in the nests of over 200 different species. Some of these birds recognize an imposer and abandon the nest or remove the Cowbird egg. However, many other species raise the Brown-Headed Cowbirds’ babies along with their own young. It is this leaving of their young, like orphans, to fend for themselves in an ugly duckling situation that leads me to pity them.

But while this behavior may seem appalling to some bird lovers, especially those of us particularly partial to songbirds, we need to remember that such is the nature of nature. Brown-Headed Cowbirds were probably laying their eggs in the nests of other species long before man, pencil and paper in hand, decided to study and record his behavior. We shouldn’t judge them harshly for it.