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Rusty Blackbird Blitz 2015

Posted on Jan 6, 2015

Rusty Blackbirds:  Looking Forward, Looking Back

Authors: Judith Scarl, International Coordinator, Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz (www.rustyblackbird.org)
Scott Kruitbosch, Conservation & Outreach Coordinator, Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History (www.rtpi.org)
Connecticut Coordinator, Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz

A female Rusty Blackbird huddles on a Minnesota rooftop during a blizzard, fluffing herself into a ball to keep warm. A male flips leaves in a roadside ditch in Maryland, navigating partially frozen mud to hunt for spring’s first invertebrates.  A noisy, mixed flock of Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and the occasional Rusty lifts off from an Ohio cornfield, seeking safety in nearby trees.

These snapshots highlight the adventures and challenges of Rusty Blackbird spring migration, a journey that takes this species from its flooded forest wintering grounds in the southeastern U.S. northward to the boreal forests of Canada, Alaska, and far northern New England.  Rusty Blackbirds pose both a conservation challenge and an environmental mystery. This species has experienced one of the most precipitous declines of any once-common landbird, losing up to 95% of its population over a 40-year span. Until the late 1990s, no one noticed this decline, much less understood it.  Today, although some of the bird’s habits remain unstudied, our new understanding of Rusty Blackbird breeding and wintering ecology enables scientists to formulate conservation strategies for this species on both ends of its migratory range. However, we know little about Rusty Blackbird migration ecology, a critical element to ensure that the species is protected throughout its full annual cycle.

Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) feeding on seed in snow-

To identify migratory hotspots, understand migration timing, and inspire the public to support Rusty Blackbird conservation, the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group, in partnership with the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and dozens of state and local partners, including the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History (RTPI), developed and launched a three-year Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz in March 2014.  This Blitz challenges birders across 38 states, 9 provinces, and 3 Canadian territories to search for Rusty Blackbirds during their northward migratory journey. While rangewide Blitz dates span the beginning of March through mid-June, each state and province focuses efforts during peak Rusty migratory activity for its region. Here in Connecticut, our peak Blitz dates are mid-March through April, when the majority of Rusties will travel through our region.  To participate, birders scour the landscape for Rusties and report their data to eBird under the “Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz” observation type, allowing the Blitz to tap into an existing network of citizen scientists and to encourage new supporters to use a broad-based conservation tool. These data will be used to identify Rusty Blackbird hotspots across the landscape and assess whether critical stopover areas are adequately protected. The ultimate goal is to ensure that Rusty Blackbirds have access to high-quality habitat throughout a journey that is energetically costly and already fraught with peril.

Between 1 March and 15 June 2014, 4,750 observers submitted 13,400 Rusty Blackbird observations to eBird, a 61% increase in submissions over 2013, the year before the Blitz. Connecticut eBirders have done an increasingly terrific job entering checklists with Rusty observations as there were 123 checklists entered during the period containing the species in 2013 with that number increasing to 193 checklists in 2014 – a 57% change! Data from this pioneer Blitz year will guide our 2015 and 2016 Spring Migration Blitz efforts; based on where observers reported large flocks of Rusties in 2014, we’ve identified potential hotspots that need to be revisited in 2015 to evaluate whether Rusties rely on the same areas year after year. Of course, the Blitz effort will still be looking for new hotspots in 2015, so birders are encouraged to search far and wide for Rusties and report all observations to eBird.

Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) feeding on seed in snow-3

While Connecticut is a small state in the strictest geographical terms it is a large one when it comes to avian migration. It would be tremendous if we could log well over 200 checklists containing Rusties in 2015. We undoubtedly have more Rusty Blackbirds than we know of and focusing survey efforts at isolated swamps, large fields and agricultural areas, known multi-species blackbird roosts, parks with ponds and even backyard feeders should yield additional sightings and new hotspots. Please tell your friends and neighbors about your searches – by even sparking up a conversation you may learn they have seen the species in their yard or home or at a nearby patch you can visit. Connecticut’s birding community is wonderful and welcoming, and an effort like the Rusty Blackbird Blitz can be a fantastic cooperative endeavor.

As the Rusties’ namesake plumage fades to black (for males) and charcoal gray (for females) in the spring and summer, Rusties can be challenging to identify even for more experienced birders.  To ensure that the Spring Migration Blitz collects high-quality data, we ask that birders brush up on their Rusty Blackbird identification skills before participating in the Blitz.  The International Rusty Blackbird Working Group Spring Migration Blitz web pages (http://rustyblackbird.org/outreach/migration-blitz/) contain several resources to help birders discriminate between Rusties and look-alike species, such as Common Grackles, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and European Starlings.  If you are confident that you’ve seen a Rusty Blackbird, we welcome your report in eBird!

Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) feeding on seed in snow-096

So, whether you’re looking for the first spring crocuses, walking your dog, hiking near wooded wetlands, or specifically out birding, keep your ears open for a squeaky-hinge call and look around for Rusty Blackbirds – your efforts will help to solve one of the final pieces of the Rusty Blackbird conservation puzzle.

To learn more about the Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz and how to participate, visit our website at http://rustyblackbird.org/outreach/migration-blitz/ or contact your state/provincial coordinator. In Connecticut this is RTPI Conservation & Outreach Coordinator Scott Kruitbosch: [email protected]

This piece is adapted from an article, authored by Judith Scarl, that originally appeared in the Spring 2014 version of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies’ “Field Notes” publication.

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation & Outreach Coordinator