Wrapping up a fantastic fall season!

We certainly can’t tell that fall is turning into winter by our weather; it is still steamy out and we did not have a single cool morning the whole season. The final week was excruciatingly slow as we only banded between 4 to 6 birds a day. We waited for a windshift associated with a dissipating front to pass through before shutting the station down completely on Nov 11, and we were rewarded with a couple of new species for the season and we passed the 2300 mark for only the second time ever in 14 falls of banding. There are likely more late neotropical migrants to the north of us still because of the unusual weather.

MYWA 5_111115_MPThe above photo shows three Myrtle warblers; a hatching-year female on the right and two hatching-year males on the left. This is the common wintering warbler species in the southern US, and they can persist much farther north than other warblers because they can digest the wax coating on waxmyrtle fruit. Myrtle warblers are also very flexible in their foraging techniques so they can utilize most available food sources.

Below are two more signs of ‘winter’ in south Florida. The left bird is a Blue-headed vireo originally banded by us in spring of 2014, so he is returning for at least his third winter in BBCFSP. We don’t band too many of these in the fall, but they are fairly abundant in the woods by late winter and early spring (we only have banded in spring for 5 seasons in collaboration with researchers). The bird on the right is a Savannah sparrow who missed our nets but got us all excited anyways because sparrows of any species are unusual at Cape Florida until later in November or December.BHVI-4_111015_DSSAVS 3_111115_RD

SEASON TOTAL: 2318 birds of 66 species

  1. Black-throated blue warbler: 386
  2. Ovenbird: 370
  3. Gray catbird: 269
  4. American redstart: 266
  5. Common yellowthroat: 172
  6. Worm-eating warbler: 131
  7. Black & white warbler: 107
  8. Northern waterthrush: 82
  9. Northern parula: 56
  10. Painted bunting: 55
  11. Prairie warbler: 53
  12. Red-eyed vireo: 38
  13. Western palm warbler: 35
  14. Swainson’s warbler: 34
  15. Swainson’s thrush: 32
  16. White-eyed vireo: 30
  17. Blue-gray gnatcatcher: 26
  18. Northern cardinal: 22
  19. Magnolia warbler: 13
  20. Chuck-will’s widow: 12
  21. Gray-cheeked thrush: 11
  22. Indigo bunting: 11
  23. Traill’s flycatcher: 10
  24. Great crested flycatcher: 6
  25. Wood thrush: 6
  26. Cape May warbler: 6
  27. Hooded warbler: 6
  28. Veery: 5
  29. Acadian flycatcher: 4
  30. Tennessee warbler: 4
  31. Common ground-dove: 3
  32. Eastern wood-pewee: 3
  33. Alder flycatcher: 3
  34. Myrtle warbler: 3
  35. Prothonotary warbler: 3
  36. Rose-breasted grosbeak: 3
  37. Sharp-shinned hawk: 2
  38. Cooper’s hawk: 2
  39. Red-bellied woodpecker: 2
  40. Northern mockingbird: 2
  41. House wren: 2
  42. Blackpoll warbler: 2
  43. Louisiana waterthrush: 2
  44. Kentucky warbler: 2
  45. Summer tanager: 2
  46. Scarlet tanager: 2

and single individuals of the following species:

Green heron, Red-shouldered hawk, White-crowned pigeon, Mangrove cuckoo, Eastern phoebe, Eastern kingbird, Gray kingbird, Blue-headed vireo, Yellow-throated vireo, Gray-cheeked/Bicknell’s thrush intergrade, Brown thrasher, Blue-winged warbler, Nashville warbler, Yellow warbler, Chestnut-sided warbler, Black-throated green warbler, Blackburnian warbler, Bay-breasted warbler, probable MacGillivray’s warbler, Yellow-breasted chat, and Lincoln’s sparrow.

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A huge THANKS to all the volunteers that make the Cape Florida Banding Station happen. The amount of dedication and the hard work you all put in is incredible! Another huge THANKS to all the Adopt-A-Net sponsors without which we would not be able to replace worn nets and other equipment as easily.

SWTH_103115_MAYou can go now. Good luck and enjoy your migrations!

-Michelle Davis

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Old bird!

This Northern cardinal is 2 months older than the boy holding him!

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We have had a good year for returning birds, defined as birds banded by us during other seasons. (We call birds banded by others but captured by us recoveries.) 23 birds of 9 species were returns in 2015 so far. Five Northern cardinals and 3 Common ground doves are residents that stay at BBCFSP year-round, while the balance were birds that came to spend the winter here from points north. These wintering birds include 7 Ovenbirds, 2 Gray catbirds, 2 Common yellowthroats, and one each of Blue-gray gnatcatcher, Black-and-white warbler, and Western palm warbler. The returning Great crested flycatcher could be either a resident or a winter visitor.

Return data gives us information about the longevity of birds in the wild and about the suitability of the habitat for overwintering. BBCFSP has proven over the years to be an excellent location for Ovenbirds to spend the winter, and they usually make up most of the non-resident returns. Some of these birds live to be fairly old and return here year after year. The oldest individual we have caught so far is the Northern cardinal pictured above; he was banded as a hatching-year bird in Sept 2005, making him 10 years old. The record known age for a Northern cardinal is the wild is 16 years! The Ovenbirds were all originally banded between 2010 and 2014, the catbirds are from 2010 and 2011, and the balance were mostly from 2013 and 2014.

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We had a little bit of excitement the other day when a Red-shouldered hawk hit one of the nets, carrying with it iguana prey. We were able to grab the bird and band it, although we had to release this powerful bird before a lot of photos were taken. These talons can hurt!

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Nashville warbler and other goodies

This last week has been slow for migration as a high pressure system was parked over the southeast and was creating unfavorable winds region-wide. A weak front let some birds through on Friday Oct 30, and another ridge of high pressure has re-asserted itself over Florida since then, creating fair skies and unseasonably warm and humid temperatures (grrr!). Still, we have managed to break several records this week, including the second-most birds banded in one fall (2273 as of today; record is 2561 in 2006) and the highest species diversity ever with 64 species banded in 2015 (63 in 2008). Some species all-time highs are Wood thrush at 6 (5 in 2014), Ovenbird at 368 (364 in 2006) and Painted bunting at 50 (38 in 2013). These good numbers are a result of a larger netting effort rather than an increased volume of migrants through the site; weather and structural changes in the hammock have conspired to actually reduce our birds captured per net hour over the years.

One of the more interesting species captured this week was this Nashville warbler. We have only banded two others in the last 14 years as they are very rare on the East coast. They are often mis-identified by overeager birders since they closely resemble several other species.

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The left bird above is the Nashville warbler, and the right bird is the far more common Magnolia warbler. Both are close to the same size: small active warblers often seen flitting around the midstory vegetation. Both have a grey head with a distinct eye-ring and yellow underparts. Look at the wings and tail to separate these easily; the Nashville has plain olive-green wings and tail while the Magnolia has wingbars and the distinctive white spots forming a band in the middle of the tail. Maggies also have a distinct yellow patch on the rump.

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A diagnostic clue is the belly of the Nashville warbler (above). This is the only species that has a white belly patch surrounded by yellow. Magnolia, Parula and Tennessee warblers all have yellow bellies and white undertail coverts, while Orange-crowned and Prairie warblers have solid yellowish underparts. Common yellowthroat females have a yellow throat and undertail coverts with a buff belly in between. This belly patch can be hard to see if you are not looking straight up at the Nashville.

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More views of the Nashville with lookalike warblers: above the Nashville is on the left with a Northern parula on the right. Parulas have strong white wingbars on a bluish back, but they do look similar from some views. Notice the broken eye ring and suggestion of an eye line on the parula, as well as the necklace across the throat (less distinct in this bird, probably a young female).

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Nashville and Magnolia again, with the Magnolia on the left this time. Brighter fall Magnolia warblers will also have a bit of a gray necklace on the throat and black streaks on the sides.

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Some non-warblers banded recently include this hatch-year female Baltimore oriole (above) and hatch-year male Scarlet tanager (below). The tanager is just starting to acquire the jet-black wing feathers that will contrast with the brilliant red body feathers come springtime.

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Past the 2,000 bird!

The pace of migration has slowed down a lot this week as the weather has changed. A large high pressure system sitting over the southeast US is creating unfavorable winds for the birds so they are probably waiting it out all up and down the Atlantic coast. Some birds do appear to be moving short distances overnight on the radar. Still, we banded our 2,000th bird of the season on Tuesday, a White-eyed vireo.

GCTH SWTH 4_101815_MPAbove is a Gray-cheeked thrush (left) next to a Swainson’s thrush. Note the bold buffy eyering of the Swainson’s, compared to the cooler brown tones on the face of the Gray-cheeked.

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We have had a lot of buntings at the Cape for the last week. The left bird is a fall adult male Indigo bunting, with traces of his rich blue plumage tempered by the warm browns. He will molt his body feathers before returning north in the spring and will become a solid turquoise-violet.

The bird on the right is a House wren, a common wintering species in south Florida and one of the first of the winter birds we have captured so far. Most of the other wintering species (Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned warblers, Blue-headed vireos, etc.) have yet to arrive, although we have heard several Eastern phoebes already.

INBU_wing_MA cropHere are close-ups of the feathers of some of these buntings; a bander’s-eye view you could say! The top wing is the adult male Indigo bunting pictured above; notice the black feathers edged in blue. He will still have these big flight feathers next spring, and the brown body feathers will be replaced with blue to match the wings.

PABU_wing_101015_MA closerThis is the wing of a hatching-year Painted bunting, probably a male. There are so many gorgeous shades of green on this bird! Notice the browner feathers mixed in; this is one of the ways we can tell the age of the birds. Fledgling songbirds leave the nest with a suit of (usually duller) and weaker feathers that they then begin to replace one-by-one almost immediately. This is possibly related to the energy required by the bird’s body to grow all its feathers at once for fledging; for the rest of the bird’s life it will replace feathers a few at a time over several weeks during certain times of the year so the body can put more material into each one. The replacement adult feathers have a different quality to them; in the case of this bunting they have darker shafts and brighter green edging, and will wear less over the next year until they are molted again.

Here is a quick rundown of our top ten as of today:

2069 birds banded of 58 species

1. Ovenbird: 354
2. Black-throated blue warbler: 344
3. American redstart: 255
4. Gray catbird: 180
5. Common yellowthroat: 159
6. Worm-eating warbler: 131
7. Black & white warbler: 102
8. Northern waterthrush: 80
9. Northern parula: 52
10. Prairie warbler: 52

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They keep coming

The last two days have continued to be busy at Cape Florida with 157 birds of 24 species banded on 15 Oct, and we banded 74 more this morning before we had to close at 1020 because of the rain. The stalled front in the Keys is drifting northward over extreme south Florida, and this is creating ideal circumstances for migrants to have to stop here and wait for better weather. The birding is great area-wide right now!

Black-throated blue warblers are the dominant species this week, but there was quite a bit of diversity along with them. We banded our fifth ever Black-throated green warbler (below, left); a species easily found overwintering in live oaks but not often seen at the Cape. Thrushes were on the move this week, too, and we banded Swainson’s, Gray-cheeked and Wood thrush on the 15th. Wood thrush (below, right) are an uncommon migrant in this area, and we get to hear their voices in the woods for only a couple of days a year. They are much larger than the more common Swainson’s and Gray-cheeks, with distinct round spots on a potbelly and a solid rufous-brown back.

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We anticipate being busy the whole weekend, as long as the rain lets up enough during the daytime so that we can open the nets. Here is a gallery of species caught in the last two days:

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Summer Tanager, hatch-year male. Photo by Robin Diaz

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Hooded warbler, hatch-year male. Photo by Miriam Avello

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Rose-breasted grosbeak, hatch-year male. Photo by Miriam Avello

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Indigo bunting, hatch-year male. Photo by Miriam Avello

TOTALS: 15 Oct /16 Oct

Overall: 157/74

  1. Black-throated blue warbler: 54/34
  2. Gray catbird: 31/12
  3. American redstart: 22/8
  4. Ovenbird: 12/3
  5. Common yellowthroat: 6/1
  6. Western palm warbler: 3/4
  7. Black & white warbler: 2/4
  8. Swainson’s thrush: 3/1
  9. Northern parula: 3/1
  10. Wood thrush: 3/0
  11. Northern waterthrush: 3/0
  12. Gray-cheeked thrush: 2/1
  13. Eastern wood-pewee: 2/0
  14. Painted bunting: 0/2
  15. Acadian flycatcher: 1/0
  16. Great crested flycatcher: 1/0
  17. White-eyed vireo: 1/0
  18. Tennessee warbler: 1/0
  19. Magnolia warbler: 1/0
  20. Black-throated green warbler: 1/0
  21. Worm-eating warbler: 1/0
  22. Hooded warbler: 1/0
  23. Summer tanager: 1/0
  24. Rose-breasted grosbeak: 1/0
  25. Indigo bunting: 1/0
  26. Blue-gray gnatcatcher: 0/1
  27. Prairie warbler: 0/1
  28. Swainson’s warbler: 0/1

NOPA 2_RDGCTH 1_101415_RD

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October birds are here!

Migration has continued at a steady if not overwhelming pace for the past week, with the notable exception of yesterday (see totals below). Classic October migrants have been increasing such as Common yellowthroats and Painted buntings. In fact we had our best single day ever for Painted buntings on 11 Oct, with 11 birds banded. About a quarter were adult males and the rest were ‘greenies’, a mix of young birds of both sexes and adult females. Below is an adult male with a hatching-year male; young birds can be hard to sex but this individual was very bright green-yellow with a suggestion of the adult plumage in the bluish cast to the head and yellow-green back.

PABU_3_101115_MPPABU 2_101015_MP

Each day the species composition changed a little bit, but in general the diversity was high. Some interesting captures included a Gray catbird originally banded in 2011 and a Great crested flycatcher banded in 2012; both by us so these are likely birds returning to winter at Cape Florida.

We also banded these two Tennessee warblers. They can be identified by a sharp pointed bill, fairly small size and plain underparts, if one is looking up in the canopy of a tall tree (a likely place to see them). They most resemble the Orange-crowned warbler, which is a later short-distance migrant that winters in south Florida. Orange-crowneds are completely yellowish below while Tennessees become whitish on the undertail coverts. Another warbler species that shares the same plain face pattern and also is migrating at this time is the Bay-breasted warbler, but a good look will show distinct wing bars and tail spots on a much larger bird, by warbler standards at least.

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Below is a Prairie warbler mixed in with the two Tennessee warblers. The Prairie is a good example of a shorter-distance migrant with structural differences between them and the long-distance traveling Tennessee warblers. These birds are all a similar size but the Tennessees are somehow more ‘solid’ in the hand, likely due to greater musculature and fat loads. Tennessee warblers share the long wings and short tails with other warbler species whose final destination is South America, such as the Blackpoll warbler.

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Radar indicated heavy flights down Florida for the last few nights, but with little to no rainfall overnight to bring them down the banding totals were modest. However, yesterday for some reason hundreds of birds landed at Cape Florida and 106 were banded. We perhaps could have had another 180 bird day if all the nets had been open all day, but one of the most important considerations when banding is to control the volume of captures so that individual birds do not have to wait too long to be processed and released. It can be very easy to get backed up on a busy day, especially if they all come in at once!

TOTALS 13 Oct 2015: 106 birds of 19 species

  1. Black-throated blue warbler: 27
  2. Common yellowthroat: 18
  3. American redstart: 12
  4. Northern parula: 10
  5. Gray catbird: 7
  6. Black and white warbler: 7
  7. Ovenbird: 7
  8. Northern waterthrush: 3
  9. White-eyed vireo: 2
  10. Swainson’s thrush: 2
  11. Swainson’s warbler: 2
  12. Painted bunting: 2
  13. Great crested flycatcher: 1
  14. Gray-cheeked thrush: 1
  15. Northern mockingbird: 1
  16. Brown thrasher: 1
  17. Tennessee warbler: 1
  18. Cape May warbler: 1
  19. Northern cardinal: 1

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Hawks, kingbirds and good days again

COHA (HY female)_RD

After a slow week we are finally starting to catch some birds again! Yesterday we banded our first raptor of the season, a hatching-year female Cooper’s hawk. We don’t catch very many hawks these days as the trees in the hammock have grown over the years and the canopy has closed in. Cooper’s hawks, however, and their smaller relative the Sharp-shinned hawk specialize in hunting birds and other animals in wooded habitats. Most other species stay above the trees, and we saw quite a few Merlins zipping overhead today whenever we were looking at a patch of sky. The Florida Keys Hawkwatch is tallying these birds as they stream overhead on their way south.

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This is the National Weather Service radar for the southeastern US around 1015pm the night of Oct 6. The severe rain event over the Carolinas has finally broken up and millions of birds are rising up in the dark to continue their migration south. The green blobs are dense concentrations of migrant birds, and they haven’t quite made it to the Florida peninsula yet. The lighter blues to the SW of FL near the Keys are birds that likely left the northern Gulf coast the night before and have been flying all day; these possibly will land and rest in Cuba.

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This is the radar the next morning, around 430am on Oct 7. After a good night’s flight thousands (millions?) of birds have made it as far south as Tampa and Melbourne. A few leaders are reaching the Miami area, as the blue colors show. Birds have a distinct look on radar; compare the diffuse blobs of blue and green overland to some lingering convection offshore of Melbourne. The convection has sharper edges and usually contains yellow, orange and red colors.

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This was the radar from last night, Oct 7, around 930pm. The huge pulse of migrants has reached south Florida. I went outside last night and this morning and heard flight calls from dozens of Veery and Swainson’s thrushes passing over. These strong fliers were on the leading edge of this wave of migrants, followed by assorted warblers and millions of Common yellowthroats. Gray catbirds are further upstream according to reports from other banders and observers to the north of us; we will probably have many around by the weekend. The advantage of a slowdown (besides giving banders a chance to clean their house) is you can track a distinct movement of birds down the coast once they get going again, and get a sense of how long it takes aggregates of birds of various species to make their way south.

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We banded a first for the station yesterday; this Eastern kingbird was in the same net as a Gray kingbird. Given how aggressive these flycatchers are, one probably chased the other into the net. This was a great opportunity to compare these two species. The Eastern kingbird is an overall darker blackish-backed bird with white tipping on its tail. The Gray kingbird, a Caribbean and Florida specialty, is a larger bird with a distinct mask and a  plain tail that looks squared-off when spread but is notched when folded. In both sets of photos the Eastern kingbird is on the left and the Gray kingbird is on the right.

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Here are our totals for the last two days. If there had been rain overnight near Cape Florida today would have been a record-breaker. The weather was quite nice so the thrushes kept going while some of the warblers dropped in.

TOTALS: 7 Oct/8 Oct

Overall: 43/87

  1. American redstart: 13/16
  2. Common yellowthroat: 3/26
  3. Ovenbird: 3/14
  4. Black-throated blue warbler: 9/7
  5. Northern parula: 4/7
  6. Worm-eating warbler: 1/3
  7. Western palm warbler: 3/0
  8. Black & white warbler:  0/3
  9. Painted bunting: 1/2
  10. Northern waterthrush: 1/1
  11. White-eyed vireo: 0/2
  12. Swainson’s thrush: 0/2
  13. Cooper’s hawk: 1/0
  14. Eastern kingbird: 1/0
  15. Gray kingbird: 1/0
  16. Cape May warbler: 1/0
  17. Prairie warbler: 1/0
  18. Green heron: 0/1
  19. Red-bellied woodpecker: 0/1
  20. Blue-gray gnatcatcher: 0/1
  21. Swainson’s warbler: 0/1
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