Thursday, July 3, 2014

Checking on Grassland Birds in Cheshire ~ Sunday, June 29th

As a follow-up to the MAS Breeding Bird Atlas project a few years ago, there has been an increased interest in protecting certain species of grassland birds that could very easily disappear.  A special follow-up focus has been placed on re-locating breeding Eastern Meadowlarks in the various atlas blocks.  Joan Walsh from MAS (who headed the project) has contacted atlasers and asked them to note specific locations, and if possible re-check the areas to see the status.  In addition they are interested in other species including, Bobolinks and Grasshopper Sparrows.

Since we had atlased 3 blocks in the Cheshire and Windsor areas where Meadowlarks had been noted, we decided to head west to re-check those blocks and spend the day birding.  We also wanted to check on the Cliff Swallow colonies we follow out there as well.
As we were coming down Rt. 116 into Adams we hit a detour.  I forgot that this area had recently received 4+ inches of rain and it appears that several roads sustained damage.  Luckily the detour allowed us to still get access to Ayr Hill Farm, and it was great to see that the swallow colony there was doing well.  Mark had remembered that last year they had lost most of their nests during the breeding season due to heavy rains.  Not only did we count over 100 nests, we also noticed that there were already fledged Cliff Swallows sitting on some of the power lines near the farm land.
We also had several Savannah Sparrows perched up and singing
And the key bird we came to check on, the Eastern Meadowlark, was easily found by it's unique song as well.  In fact we had 3 different singing birds on territory.
 We decided to move on to check our second block, but we ran into another washed out road and we unable to easily re-check the area without spending a tremendous amount of time doubling back and trying to find another entry point.  We will go back and check again in a few weeks, and hopefully the roads will be repaired.  We stopped at a few of our usual places to check on other songbirds, and found this White Admiral with a big chunk of his hindwing missing.  I'm always amazed that this fragile little things can keep flying around after they've obviously lost body parts to birds.
We decided to hike in the Rail Trail in Cheshire and check on the marshes for both birds and, hopefully, see some dragonflies.  We parked near Railroad Avenue and hiked north for about a mile and a half.  There were Redstarts, Eastern Kingbirds and Cedar Waxwings all along the bike path.
We had a Green Heron flying from the marsh on the east side into a pond and we had this female Wood Duck swimming around as well.  We began to notice that all the vegetation was covered with dried mud and you could see along the edges where the higher water line had been.  And we were seeing very few odonates in what should have been perfect habitat.  
As we continued to head north, we kept speculating on the dearth of dragonflies and damselflies.  We had the Hoosic River flowing on our east and lots of wet woodland on our right.  Could it be that the heavy rains caused all the larvae to be silted over just as they were emerging?  I mean it was really odd to not see one single odonate for the first quarter mile.
We did have some buterflies -- mostly Little Wood Satyrs, like this one which looked like he had been through the war already.
And we found this colorful caterpillar moving up a grass stalk.  When we got home Mark identified it as the caterpillar of the Harris' Checkerspot which is an uncommon and local butterfly of wet meadows.  This was a really nice find!

As we were looking at the caterpillar I finally noticed a couple of damselflies low in the grasses including this brightly-colored red one.  Since the male damsels I was seeing all looked like Eastern Forktails with their bright blue tips, I first assumed this was a female.  That is until I looked more closely.  Then I knew that I was seeing my "life" Eastern Red Damsel!!!  WOW, I was excited.  This little ode literally stayed in the same patch of grasses so that when we came back past this area 20 minutes later I could re-find her (I think it's a female.)  Always fun to get lots of photographs of a new species.
So finally we started to see some dragonflies....still not many, but I saw several Dot-tailed Whitefaces sitting on lilypads as we returned down the bike path.  And lots of damsels; some of which I couldn't id or get a photo.

Mark had walked ahead to continue birding while I waited to see what other goodies I could find.  Suddenly he was waving wildly at me to hurry up.  This could only mean one thing:  he's found an odonate that he thinks might be something different.  Sure enough, when I caught up to him he pointed out a green-eyed dragonfly perched on a bush over the Hoosic.  As soon as I saw it through my camera lens I knew it was another snaketail -- only not the Rusty Snaketail we had gotten on the Millers River just days before.  So that meant it was going to be another "life" dragonfly (once I got home and identified it hopefully.)
So even though the bike path didn't have a lot of odonates, it had produced 2 new species for me.  I was very happy.

We drove up Rt. 8 to another overlook of the river and spent a bit of time at the northern part of the bike path, but we had one quick fly by and that was it.  We decided to check some other roads out in Cheshire for birds, maybe do an overlook of the big lake (Cheshire Reservoir) and then head on to Windsor to check our last block for Meadowlark.  As we were driving up the dirt road from the river, we came across this Wood Thrush out gathering food for its young.  I can't quite tell what it has in its mouth, but I prefer to believe it wasn't the dragonfly that flew by us down the road.
The lake was covered with boaters so we made a cursory check and then moved south to a little dead-end road that would give us an overlook of the southern marshy end of the reservoir.
As soon as we got there we noticed all the Common Whitetails flying around...
 ...and in the grasses close to the road there were several spreadwings...most appeared to be Swamp Spreadwings
Eastern Forktails seemed to be everywhere as well...
 ...and when you look at this female Eastern Forktail you can see why I was cautious at first when I found the Eastern Red Damsel.
 And then there were the bluets...grrr.  These little damselflies continue to confuse me, especially the older females which turn dull blue as they age.  There are several species that look almost identical.  In fact most of the identification guides talk about examining in the hand or under microscopes for valid identification.  So I have resigned myself to having a large file called "Bluet species" where I keep these photos.
As we headed home we decided to stop at Moran WMA in Windsor to see if we could hear Eastern Meadowlark, but it was getting later in the day and the walk up to the top of the hill and beyond seemed better postponed for another day when we could get an earlier start.  We did have some wonderful wildflowers in the area and two of my favorites are below.
The Yellow Rattlebox always fascinates me both for it's visual distinction but also because of the noise it makes when it rustles in the wind....a very dry sound....almost insect-like.
 And of course it's always exciting to see Wide-leaved Ladies Tresses (Spiranthes lucida).  This early-flowering orchid is quite rare and only about 4 inches tall so easy to overlook.  Luckily an old friend told us where to look for these delicate flowers more than a decade ago and we try to find them every year.

A great day looking at all the gifts nature has to offer...birds, butterflies, odonates and plants....really who could ask for more?


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