Monday, December 24, 2012

Field Testing the BirdLog App at Stony Brook WLS

In the winter geese, ducks and other water birds will seek open places in the ice in wetlands and ponds. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
I suppose when it comes to technology I am what people might term a "late adapter," however ,when I find something useful I tend to embrace it eagerly. I rarely go afield without my digital camera, for instance, and I've been using my smart phone to keep birding lists using the note function for a while now.

So I was intrigued when I logged into e-bird recently to enter a list and noticed that they were featuring a new app called birdlog, which allows birders to keep track of field observations in real time and syncs with the ebird website. For $4.99 I thought it was worth a try, so this morning I downloaded the app and tried it out this afternoon during a short trip to Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Norfolk, Massachusetts.

Black-Capped Chickadees like the one pictured above are frequent visitors to backyard bird feeders throughout the winter months. They will often join mixed foraging flocks along with Tufted Titmice, Nuthatches and other birds. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
The weather was very nice - a slight breeze and partly cloudy skies, warm enough to go without gloves, and the moment I got out of the car I could see a lot of activity near the bird feeders beside the nature center. I immediately began to scan that area, noticing a vivacious flock of Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and American Goldfinch. As I got closer I noticed Juncos had joined the mix, flashing their distinctive black and white tails as they moved from branch to ground and back again in search of seeds. I love to watch the activity and interactions between species at feeders, and the staff at Stony Brook does a great job of keeping their feeders stocked throughout the winter, attracting the usual suspects as well as Downy Woodpecker, House Finch, American Gold Finch, and Red-breasted Nuthatch.

As I walked down the trail, heading toward the boardwalk, I noticed an impressive level of motion and birdsong evident along the path. From behind stone walls, inside brush piles, and along the bare branches of deciduous trees I saw several active White-throated Sparrows and brilliant red Northern Cardinals. 

As I was enjoying this informal chorus of avian arias I saw something very large land on the trail ahead of me, just beyond the far edge of a wooden footbridge. I raised my binoculars quickly and confirmed my suspicions, as a Great Blue Heron came into focus. The bird was soon spooked by a loud group of people coming up from behind me, but it landed on a nearby rock sticking up out of the water. While much of the surface of the ponds was covered in a thin layer of ice, the heron soon made a rather ungraceful lunge for one open spot and managed to catch a bright green and yellow sunfish in its bill. It was thrilling to watch, and of course very surprising to see a Great Blue Heron still hanging around eastern Massachusetts. I've seen sporadic reports on e-bird of sightings, but I have definitely never seen one this late in the season before.

This Great Blue Heron was an unexpected sight so late in the year at Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary, by this time of year most herons have headed to warmer climes for the winter. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
The heron was still there when I left about an hour later, perched on large rock in the pond. I imagine it might hang around for a while if temperatures remain tolerable and there are some open spots where it might be able to catch fish. I would be very curious to know what the latest/earliest records are for this species in Massachusetts.

Out along the boardwalk I could see that most of the ponds were covered with ice. The resident Mute Swans were visible, along with two separate groups of Canada Geese, but aside from a small flock flying overhead I didn't see any ducks.

Mute Swans are native to Eurasia but have escaped from captivity in the United States where they have established breeding populations. Mute Swans are known for being particularly aggressive. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
I spent a while watching the Canada Geese try to navigate the uneven terrain created by thin ice on the pond - some of were able to walk along quite easily while others kept hitting soft spots and dropping through into the water below.

Canada Geese make their way across a pond at Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary. Thin, uneven ice makes for tricky footing as these web-footed birds move about. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.
On the other side of the pond, just up a small hill, I was back in the action again, with Northern Cardinals, Juncos, Chickadees and others moving rapidly and calling loudly as they moved from branch to branch. As the afternoon warmed up a bit I looked up at the sky which was turning increasingly gray to try and discern what kind of weather might be headed my way, but the birds seemed undeterred by the unusual warmth or the potential promise of rain or snow. Back near the feeders there was even more activity, with one small group of Tufted Titmice moving at a frantic pace from trunk to branch to feeder, picking up seeds as they went. Beneath them, two American Tree Sparrows picked through fallen seeds, while two Downy Woodpeckers, one male, the other female, alternated between hammering away on a gray branch and checking out the feeder below.

Overall it was a great outing and I was pleased with the BirdLog app - my only concern is how much power it might draw from my phone, which could be an issue on longer outings, so I'll need to keep an eye on that. Otherwise it was a great asset in the field and as I think it will be a valuable tool as I attempt to tackle my Massachusetts big year in 2013.

In all I managed 18 species in about an hour and forty five minutes and got to enjoy the winter landscape. I don't think I could ask for much more.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

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