Montezuma Birding (and Nature) Trail

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Birding in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex of Central New York

Contents of Species Profile pages:

This page contains profiles of the Cerulean Warbler, Warbling Vireo and Eastern Kingbird.  There are additional pages for Wading Birds, Shorebirds, Aquatic Birds (misc.), Raptors, and Aquatic Plants

Links to external species profiles can be found at the bottom of this page.

Cerulean Warblers   © Dave Spier  (other species follow)

Southeastern Wayne County is home to an uncommon warbler that is declining throughout its range in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic region.  The Cerulean's core summer range is soft-coal country – eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, southern West Virginia and Ohio and southwestern Pennsylvania – an area noted for strip mining and mountain-top removal which impacts the mature forests these birds need for breeding.  This species is being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act, and the National Audubon Society has already added the bird to its Watchlist.   

I've known about the Cerulean Warblers (Dendroica cerulea) on the Seneca Trail at the Montezuma refuge for some time, but I recently "discovered" they also live along the Clyde River in the Town of Galen.  I had stopped to see Dave Odell, retired DEC Region 8 Wildlife Manager, at his Old Duck Inn, a 100-acre farm and bed & breakfast on Tyre Road in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex.  I wanted to see what birds I might add to a checklist I started for the Montezuma Birding Trail, so I was happy to learn that Dave heard the warblers earlier that morning.

The Cerulean is named for the male's sky-blue color which is set off by white on the throat, belly and wingbars.  Black streaks on the flanks, a black "necklace" and black in the wings and tail add contrast.   The female is much duller and lacks the distinctive blue.  Pale yellow replaces much of the white.  Their preferred habitat is deciduous forests with tall trees and open understory like those found in wet bottomlands.  Actually seeing the bird is difficult because it feeds and nests in the treetops, higher than most warbler species.  You’re more likely to find the bird by its song, four whistled notes leading to a higher trilled note and a high buzz at the end.  See All About Birds for a recording.

The nest is an open cup made from fibers, grass and hair held together with spider silk.  If the first nesting fails, the spider silk is reused in making a new nest.  This likely saves time and energy.  When the female leaves the nest after incubating for a time, she briefly drops like a stone before opening her wings to reduce the chances of attracting attention to the nest.  The average clutch of four speckled eggs hatches in less than two weeks.

After breeding season, the Cerulean makes the long trek south through the southern states, flies across the Gulf of Mexico, migrates along the Central American highlands and ends up in its winter home in the evergreen forests of the northern Andes.  Over 60% of this winter habitat has been converted from forest to farms and pastures, further impacting the species and adding to its decline.  Ceruleans will use shade-grown coffee plantations, so in the interest of bird conservation, please consider buying one of the shade-grown coffee brands.  These can be found in the gift shops at the Montezuma Audubon Center and the Montezuma NWR visitor’s center.  [You may have to click refresh to get the MNWR link to open.]

Questions, corrections, anctedotes and suggestions may be sent to The Northeast Naturalist.  Cerulean Warbler photo © Dave Spier.

Warbling Vireos    © Dave Spier  (other species follow)

The Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus) prefers riparian habitats – in other words, wooded creek edges and deciduous swamp borders. It is widespread in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex, including along the Erie Canal corridor, where it nests in trees and feeds on insects by picking them off tree and shrub leaves. That said, they are sometimes found in drier habitats. Their finely woven nest is suspended in the fork of a branch. Vireos choose an open area of the tree to avoid damage caused by wind gusts. Unfortunately, they often become victims of cowbird parasitism.

Vireos are small, tree-top birds about five inches in length. Few vireo species have exciting colors and this one is just plain drab. The Warbling Vireo is gray above, light below and there’s a hint of a light line over the eye. Like the Red-eyed Vireo, it lacks the wing bars and eye-ring shared by some of the other vireo species. They are more often heard than seen, but now and then you can catch a lucky glimpse.

The Warbling Vireo song is a rambling, up and down roller-coaster series of notes ending on an accented higher pitch. Someone with a sense of humor decided it was saying "If I see’s you, I’ll seize you, and I’ll squeeze you till you squirt!"

The Warbling Vireo spends its winters in southern Mexico and parts of Central America. In the summer it can be found across the U.S. from coast to coast (except the southeast) and its range extends northwestward to the Yukon.

Questions, comments and suggestions may be sent to northeastnaturalist@yahoo.com

                                   Eastern Kingbirds   © Dave Spier

 Eastern Kingbird photographed at Montezuma NWR on June 30 -- © Dave Spier

Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) are easy to recognize; they are charcoal above, black around the eyes and crown, and white underneath including a white throat. The clincher is a black tail with a white tip. They are smaller than robins and often fly across a field with a fluttering of wings. If you are familiar with its relative, the phoebe, another type of flycatcher, the kingbird is larger. The Great Crested Flycatcher is about the same size or slightly larger than our kingbirds.

The scientific name, Tyrannus, is the same as tyrant and refers to their aggressive behavior, even toward birds as large as hawks and crows which are potential nest predators.

The name "Kingbird" refers to a seldom-seem patch of golden or orangish feathers on the crown. The color resembles flowers and may be used to attract insects which the kingbird eats. The birds are members of the flycatcher family and typically hunt from an exposed branch or wire. When an insect buzzes by, the kingbird flies out, grabs it in its beak and returns to the perch or takes it to the nest.

Kingbirds are known to eat over a hundred species of insects. Unfortunately, dragonflies are on their menu. The dragonfly’s nickname, "mosquito hawk," will tell you why we’d prefer them to be left alone. About a third of the kingbird’s diet is from the order Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, flying ants, etc.). The kingbird’s nickname of "bee martin" refers to its habit of hanging around beehives and eating honey bees as fast as they can. Before songbirds became protected, there was a bounty on kingbirds. It turns out that kingbirds eat primarily drones, the stingerless males, with little consequence to the colony. Drones are identified by being darker and larger than worker bees (which do have stingers).

A quarter of the kingbird’s intake is beetles, including types we consider harmful. Grasshoppers and crickets average 12% of the summer diet. Yes, flycatchers eat flies, but those only amount to 10% or less – little more than appetizers. If there’s a shortage of insects, then frogs, snails and small fish might become prey. Perhaps as a last resort, small fruits and seeds (like wild grapes and pokeberries) are eaten.

There’s a resident kingbird (probably a pair) in the fields around the Montezuma Audubon Center and it sometimes sits on top of the Purple Martin house to watch for insects. The martins tolerate its presence, but it would do little good for them to try and chase it. In fact, kingbirds are essentially bullies and have been known to attack other insect-eating birds and steal their prey.

Our local kingbirds show a slight preference for nesting near open wetlands, but can be found in many rural settings with open areas and nearby trees. Given a choice, they favor the edges of ponds, streams and marshes. If a pond has a small island with trees (a situation that occurs near Brooder Pond on Howland's Island), this is prime real estate because the water affords protection from four-legged predators.

The Eastern Kingbird's summer range covers the eastern half of the United States and extends northwest across the upper Plains and Rockies well into Canada. They are absent from the Southwest. Migration takes them down through eastern Mexico and Central America to their winter range across a large portion of South America, including the western Amazon, and as far south as the Argentine Pampas. During our winter (South America's summer), kingbirds are much more atuned to eating fruit.

For more on current kingbird sightings and seasonal distribution, see eBird's "View and Explore Data" section. Questions, anecdotes and suggestions may be sent to The Northeast Naturalist.

Links to external bird species profiles (in checklist order):

Northern Shoveler ** (scroll down)

Ring-necked Duck *

Common Loon *

Northern Harrier * (another version of this article with different photos is on this website)

American Kestrel * (a similar article is on this website at the bottom of the Raptors page)

Solitary Sandpiper *

Least Sandpiper * (this article with a different photo is on the Shorebirds page of this website)

American Woodcock *

Ring-billed Gull *

Great Black-backed Gull *

Mourning Dove *

Blue Jay *

Red-breasted Nuthatch *

White-breasted Nuthatch *

Catbirds **

Northern Mockingbird *

White-throated Sparrow *

Baltimore Oriole ** (scroll down)

*The Northeast Naturalist's blog

** the Eaton Birding Society website