Saturday, April 21, 2007

Spring Field Ornithology - Ithaca Sites

This morning I lead a field trip for the Spring Field Ornithology class, taught each spring at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology by Steve Kress. Steve is Audubon's vice-president for Bird Conservation, but he's reached a milestone at the Lab: he's been teaching SFO for 30 years. The course consists of Wednesday night lectures (an unfortunate term: they're much more fun that what the word "lecture" implies) by Steve and guests, then weekend field trips to local hot spots with a few overnight trips to more distant ones, such as Brigantine, NJ. As an aside, it is amazing how many folks repeat the course voluntarily year after year, and many just for the birding: they quit going to lectures years ago.

Although I've worked at the Lab for (almost) seven years, this is only the second year I've lead trips. I took a four year hiatus after my daughter was born, but this year I'm back. Most of the class headed north to Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge for an all-day or, optionally, overnight trip, Jay McGowan and I lead a group of about 16 who could only commit to a half-day of local sites.

SFO birders at the Ithaca City Cemetery. © Mike Powers 2007

Because the weather had been favorable for migration we decided to first spend some time in Sapsucker Woods (home of the Cornell Lab). Unfortunately, not too much new was around, although we had a long and spectacular encounter with a flock of Rusty Blackbirds, a species that has been steadily declining since the '60s. From there we stopped by the Ithaca City Cemetery where a pair of Merlin have been reported as possibly nesting. Almost immediately one of the group spied a bird somewhat inconspicuously disemboweling a House Sparrow in a large, leafless tree just around the corner from the purported nest.

Female Merlin calling to her mate. © Mike Powers 2007

Feathers slowly drifted past us as we scoped the bird, she simply ignored us as she continued to devour her prey. Eventually, when finished, she called, and we discovered the male had been perching in a nearby spruce when he responded. It's possible these two were the same birds that successfully nested last year in town, just a few blocks away from the cemetery. As far as anyone could recollect, that pair was the first confirmed breeding pair in Ithaca. It's interesting that Merlin breeding in urban areas is becoming more commonplace, and makes me wonder what will we discover over the next few years? It's also worth keeping an eye on any pairs seen at this time of year in our area. And considering I found a male and female earlier this week at Horseheads Marsh I should keep an eye out for a nest!

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