Birds returning, frogs waking up: What’s back

April 29, 2016

Editor’s note:  This article was written by Nina Pierpont at this time of year, 8 years ago.  It’s worth re-reading.
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 Pine warbler (photo by Bill Garland)

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— Nina Pierpont, MD, PhD

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This is a blog for people who like to go outside and see what’s coming up or coming back or singing now that it’s spring. Please add your own observations and pictures, of whatever kind of animal, plant, or fungus you enjoy finding or watching.
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April 19, 2008:

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We’ve had three days of warm, sunny weather. Spring migrants ride winds from the south, so they tend to come in on warmer days. There’s been a burst of early migrants the last few days. The Wood frogs, which sleep away the winter, frozen in the leaf litter, have thawed out and woken up—and they’re cackling.

I like to follow the west side of Salmon River from the Willow Street Bridge, via Reservoir St., to the bottom of the high school track.  Then through the woods behind Franklin Academy, over the Pinnacle on the trail above the river, to the fields and mixed woods on the west side of the river.

This is a great time of year for seeing birds, because there aren’t any leaves, so you can see things, and the black flies aren’t out yet. During migration you can also see things which don’t breed here, but are heading further north. When they’re hungry and coming through in big flocks, they come right into the village. Birds don’t always stick to their usual habitats when they’re migrating.

I bird by ear. I ran into some people in the woods today who wanted to know how to learn bird calls. I’ve learned the most from tracking down unknown sounds until I can see the bird, but recordings are helpful too, especially if you don’t listen to too many at once. I thought if I posted pictures and calls of the birds that can be heard and seen in and around Malone right now, day by day as they come back, this would be a limited dose way to learn about what lives right here.

These birds are migrants who don’t winter here, who reappeared over the last three or four days:
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Yellow-bellied sapsucker (photo by Marie Read)

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Yellow-bellied sapsucker (above).  These are medium-sized woodpeckers and very common in our area. They are noisy and social, drumming in a distinctive, irregular pattern, with squeaky calls.  (More information on this species can be found here.)

Here is a recording by  Lang Elliot, an outstanding recorder of bird songs and other natural sounds, from Ithaca, NY. This and the other Lang Elliott recordings in this article are from his Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs, a 3-CD set of the songs, calls, and drumming sounds of 372 species of birds from the eastern United States.  

Pine warbler (photo by Bill Garland)

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Pine warbler (above) —one of the few accurately named warblers, because they are very faithful to pines. They breed here and are a common warbler in the Adirondacks. In migration they also feed in deciduous trees, as in this picture and this morning on the Pinnacle, and as a result are easier to see.

Warblers are small, brightly colored, insect-eating songbirds. They do more buzzing and trilling than the actual warbling. None winter here. The early warblers, like this one and the Myrtle or Yellow-rumped warbler (below), winter on this continent. The later-arriving warblers (who will be back in the next three or four weeks) winter in the Caribbean or Central or South America. (More information here.)

Pine warblers have a trilling call, as in this recording (click here) by Lang Elliot.  But there are two other birds around right now with very similar calls. One is the Chipping sparrow, which also arrived back just this week.

 Chipping sparrow (photo by Marie Read).
Chipping sparrow (above).  Pine warblers tend to be in or near pines, and Chipping sparrows tend to be out in the open, perched in trees in yards or at the edges of fields. Here is a recording by Lang Elliot.  (More information here.)

The third trilling species is the junco, which is waiting to head back north to breed but still around, and starting to sing its spring song.
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Junco (photo by J.R. Woodward)

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Dark-eyed junco (above).  Here is a recording by Lang Elliot.  (More information here.)

Ruby-crowned kinglets are tiny, hyperactive, insect-eating birds which come through in large numbers, also staying to breed. They like edges, both deciduous and coniferous trees. They have outsized voices, a series of high whistles followed by a clattering like little typewriters. When they get excited or irate, the red patch stands up as a crest.
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Ruby-crowned kinglet

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Ruby-crowned kinglet (above).  Here is a recording by Lang Elliot.  (More information here.)

The other early warbler that is back is the Myrtle or Yellow-rumped warbler. These warblers act like little flycatchers, catching bugs in the air as they fly out from little twigs. They’re common. Because they fly so much, they’re an amazing distraction a little later in the season, when you’re scanning for other kinds of warblers in the woods.
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Myrtle warbler (photo by Marie Read)

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Yellow-rumped warbler, eastern (Myrtle) form (above).  Here is a recording by Lang Elliot.  (More information here.)

The distinctive northern forest buteo, the Broadwing hawk, also just got back. It sounds like a high captain’s whistle, and you even hear it over town. They nest near town and throughout the Adirondacks, and wheel and soar high over the woods on warm and windy days.
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Broad-winged hawk (photo by Bill Garland)

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Broadwing hawk (above). Here is a recording by Lang Elliot.  (More information here.)

Killdeer use high calls for their flight displays, too. They like open earth and nest in fields. I’ve been hearing them right by Franklin Academy.
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Killdeer (photo by Marie Read)

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Killdeer (above).  Here is a recording by Lang Elliot.  (More information here.)

A lovely, early spring woodland sound is the song of the Brown creeper, a delicate year-round resident who lives in flocks with chickadees and nuthatches. It climbs trunks and finds insects in bark cracks. Its crystalline song is remarkable in the brown woods of this season, and from such a plain little bird.
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Brown creeper

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Brown creeper (above).  Here is a recording by Lang Elliot.  (More information here.)

The White-throated sparrow sings the first few notes of “O Canada,” or reverses it to make falling notes in its clear, flute-like voice. I heard it singing Wednesday right in my yard, where it spent the day under the feeder, just five days after my sister had heard one in Manhattan.
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White-throated sparrow (photo by Mike McDowell)

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White-throated sparrow.  Here is a recording by Lang Elliot.  (More information here.)

And the Wood frogs were singing this morning, at 11 a.m. on a sunny, warm, dry day. I heard their cackling from the woodland trail over the Pinnacle, the sound coming from the direction of a beaver pond in the backwaters of the Salmon River. I scrambled down to the beaver pond, thinking I’d hear them very loud there, but all was silent. Later, climbing back over the Pinnacle, I heard them again, cackling away.

These frogs aren’t as tied to water as most, though they need woodland pools to lay eggs in. This website has a great recording and more information on how Wood frogs survive freezing solid in leaf litter in winter. Unlike other frogs, these ones overwinter on land, rather than at the un-frozen bottoms of ponds.
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Woodland frog (photo by James Harding)

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Woodland frog.

Other birds have been back for a few weeks. Everyone knows the robin, but perhaps not its song (click here), recorded by Lang Elliot.  When orioles, vireos, and Rose-breasted grosbeaks get back, this will be a confusable song, but not now.

Redwing blackbirds were back the week after Easter, despite ice and snow, males clustered in trees, thrusting out their red shoulders as they sang to each other only—no females around yet.
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Red-wing blackbird (photo by Marie Read)

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Redwing blackbird.  Here is a recording by Lang Elliot.  (More information here.)

Newly arrived Cedar waxwings find old berries or crab-apples softened by overwinter freezing. A flock spent days at my neighbor’s bush at the beginning of April, cleaning it off and sunning themselves in nearby cedars. In warmer weather they live by the Salmon River and other waterways and marshes, flycatching for the same the emerging insects the fish and fly fishermen like. The calls are high-pitched whispery squeals, a common summer sound in our northern town.
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Cedar waxwing (photo by Marie Read)

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Cedar waxwing.  Here is a recording by Lang Elliot.  (More information here.)

Ducks return as soon as patches of open water appear. Snow geese have already come and gone: they stayed only a few days on their northern journey, compared to many weeks in the fall. Common mergansers are here year-round, fishing the open, rushing waters of the Salmon even in winter. This year I even heard a kingfisher in January, the airborne equivalent of the merganser and often found together: the merganser fishes shallow water by swimming or looking under the surface, while the kingfisher dives from perches above the water.
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Common mergansers (photo by Terje Kolaas)

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Common merganser.  A recording is below, combined with the Hooded merganser. (More information here.)
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Belted kingfisher (photo by Mike Baird)

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Belted kingfisher.  The kingfisher has a dry staccato call (click here, recording by Lang Elliot) that rattles up and down the Salmon and around all our area lakes. (More information here.)

The charming Hooded merganser, another fish-eating diving duck, appeared all over on marshes and flows as soon patches of water opened. Hoods go up, heads are tossed back, and the males buzz and grunt when they display to each other..

 Hooded merganser (photo by Wm. L. Newton)

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Hooded merganser.  Here is a recording by Lang Elliot.  (More information here.)

En route to Canadian forest lakes and the arctic, a bufflehead stopped on Ballard Mill Pond this week.
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Bufflehead (photo by Marie Read)

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Bufflehead.  (More information here.)
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April 22, 2008:

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Today I watched a honeybee collecting pollen from a crocus. She never put her head down towards the bottom of the pistil-stamen cluster in the middle of the flower, or extended her mouth parts—she was not collecting nectar. (I say “she” because all worker bees and queens are females, sisters within each hive. The only male bees are the drones, whose only function is to fertilize the queen at the time of swarming. The queen then settles down into a hive with her sister worker bees, and lays the eggs which become the next brood. Food is gathered and the brood tended and fed by the queen’s sisters, the workers. In the peculiar genetics of bees—and wasps and ants, the insect family Hymenoptera—workers are more closely related to their sisters than they would be to their own offspring, if they had them. This genetic situation is thought to be the basis of the high degree of social behavior found in this insect group.)
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Crocuses

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Over and over, the bee landed in a clumsy, lurching way on the orange, feathery platform of the pistil, the highest part in the middle of the flower.  She then crawled down and bumbled around on the anthers, just below the platform, then flew 6 inches away and hovered. Then she went to another flower, did the same thing, and back to the first, over and over.

I could see orange pollen all over the fuzz on her underside. A saffron-coated bee! (The yellow spice saffron, used in paella and other Spanish dishes, is indeed the pollen and anthers of crocuses.) How perfect for pollination: she got covered with pollen while crawling around on the anthers, then landed on the feathery platform of the pistil of the next flower, so conveniently designed as a landing stage for a pollen-coated bee.

But why did she keep flying out and hovering, and then fly back in and do it all again? As I watched, each time she landed on a crocus the lumps of orange pollen packed into her pollen baskets, on the top segments of her rear set of legs, seemed to be getting bigger. I watched more—they definitely were bigger, and when she was hovering, her other legs were busy. She was using her other legs to scrape the pollen off her body fuzz and transfer it to the pollen baskets, then coming back in to the flowers to bumble around and get more.
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Honey bee gathering pollen, by Tsukuba

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The lumps of orange pollen on her back legs were bulging by the time she backed off a few feet, hovered and disappeared in a beeline for her hive.
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April 23, 2008:

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Another warm, sunny day, until a thunderstorm at night cooled it down. At the Visitor Interpretive Center at Paul Smith’s, early migrants are back. Myrtle warblers are everywhere. Pine warblers here and there. Brown creepers singing. Winter wrens are back and singing. These tiny boreal forest wrens are summer wrens for us, but Winter wrens for whoever named them, further south in their wintering grounds. They are easy to hear and hard to see, though they live near the ground.
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Winter wren, photo by Marie Read

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Lang Elliott
has recorded Winter wrens (click here) right at Paul Smiths. (More information here.)

Hermit thrushes have exquisite songs, and have been back at the VIC at least since April 13 this year, as soon as there were just a few patches of melted leaf and pine litter for foraging. On April 13, a chilly day, the thrush fluffed up to twice its usual size. Today I heard its wheezy call note here and there, but not the song; they sing more when it’s a little dark, before dawn and in the later afternoon, right up to dark, and sometimes in the night.
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Hermit thrush, photo by Marie Read

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Lang Elliott
has also recorded (click here) Hermit thrushes at Paul Smiths. (More information here.)

The first vireo to return to our woods, deciduous and conifer, is the Solitary or Blue-headed vireo. These are understory and mid-story birds—not in the treetops, but low enough to see easily. In our area, I’ve found their nests in hemlock trees.
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Solitary vireo, photo by Marie Read

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Many vireo calls are similar (and similar to robins, tanagers, orioles, and Rose-breasted grosbeaks). The Solitary vireo’s call (click here) is slower than all the others, and also the only vireo heard in this early wave of migrants (recording by Lang Elliott).  (More information here.)

American bitterns are large, marsh-dwelling members of the heron family. With some patience, they are easy to hear and see; the first bench/boardwalk of the Heron Marsh trail at the VIC is a good place to watch from. Look for a stationary spike in the grass that looks like a stub of wood, or which moves:
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American bittern, photo by Marie Read

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The call is bizarre and carries a long way, up to the Visitor Center building. It sounds like a pump (click here), in this recording by Lang Elliot. When calling, bitterns draw their heads in and thrust them out, their necks rippling in rhythm with the waves of sound. Bitterns can swallow large fish. (More information here.)

Ring-necked ducks, elegant divers, are back on small ponds, where the ice is now out. It’s easier to see the white rings on their bills than the narrow brown rings on their necks. They breed in Adirondack ponds and are present until well into the fall.
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Ring neck ducks, photo by Marie Read

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More information here.

I look forward to seeing the new arrivals and emergences over the next weeks—birds, bugs, frogs, turtles, flowers, and everything else.  This is the news right beyond our doors.  Please share yours!
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