Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Finding Southern Breeding Birds During the Afternoon Doldrums

I've often been asked by other WSB teams how we manage to find the necessary Southern breeding birds during the WSB when we're trying for them at 2-3pm when it's often 80 degrees, sunny, and windy. Conditions are often about as tough as they get for songbirds when our route finally takes us to the Southern forests and fields. Lucky for us we don't need to get too many birds down here! We get as many as we can in the North when everything is singing, and we sometimes go out of our way to get a bird up there rather than risk looking for it later in the day when it's not calling. Some birds just don't occur any where else and we're stuck with trying in the heat of the day. Some birds we have to get down here include White-eyed Vireo, Carolina Chickadee, Orchard Oriole, Indigo Bunting, Blue Grosbeak, Summer Tanager, Yellow-throated Warbler, Prothonotory Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Horned Lark, and a few others.

Here are my tips for finding target birds in the heat haze:

1) Scout for the birds at the time of day you'll be looking for them. It won't do you any good to know where a Yellow-throated Warbler has a territory if he only sings in the mornings.

2) Learn the birds call notes! They often won't be singing, but some creative pishing/screech owling can often get a bird to call in alarm. This works particularly well with Kentucky and Prothonotory Warblers and is often how we get them.

3) If possible, try to find an actual nest. It takes a LOT of scouting, but sometimes you get lucky and it saves you some time.

4) Find as many possible territories for the target birds right along our route as possible. Sometimes you have to visit multiple spots until you hear or see the bird. I often have 5-6 Kentucky spots and up to 15 Prothonotory spots lined up along our route and it can be scary how many we stop at before we get our quarry. It only takes a minute to make a quick check at each spot as long as it's along the way.

5) Keep your eyes open too! It's easy to get so keyed in on listening that you forget to look for the birds. We spend a lot of time in Blue Grosbeak habitat and probably see them as often as we hear them.

6) Look for birds on territory that are unpaired or have lots of established neighbors close by. These birds are the most likely to be singing at any time of day because they're still trying to attract a mate or carve out a territory (ie: desperate!). If you spend a lot of time scouting you'll see patterns to when birds sing and learn to pick out these individuals. It's particularly valuable for Summer Tanager which can be spread out pretty thin. Birds that have already attracted a mate and are starting their nest cycle are the least likely to bother with singing.

7) Make a mental note of every spot where you find your target birds. you never know which ones will decide to sing the afternoon of "game day". Sometimes a spot where you hadn't had that bird for over a week will for some reason hold an individual in full song that afternoon?! I'll take it, and it happens.

Mike Fritz

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