By Dr. Judith Scarl, International Coordinator, Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz. All photos by Mark S. Szantyr unless otherwise noted.
As temperatures creep above freezing and crocuses push through thawing earth on southern lawns, a sea change in avian behavior also begins, as many of our winter residents prepare for the long northward journey to their breeding grounds. For the second year in a row, many birders will spend these spring months searching for a historically unheralded black bird that squeaked, chucked, and gurgled through wooded wetlands and agricultural fields in the southeastern United States during the winter months. Soon, this much-overlooked bird will begin its spring migration to remote wetlands nestled within boreal forests of northern North America, and thousands of eBirders will document this journey. Of course, this bird, with its rust-tipped feathers and squeaky-hinge song, is the Rusty Blackbird, a species that represents both a conservation challenge and an environmental mystery. The Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz urges birders to find and report this bird to support an international initiative to conserve this enigmatic and vulnerable songbird.
In the second half of the 20th century, Rusty Blackbirds experienced a 95% population decline over a 40-year span; this crash represents one of the most dramatic population declines ever documented in a once-common North American landbird. Until the late 1990s, however, this decline went unnoticed, and scientists still struggle to understand what caused this precipitous drop in Rusty populations. To add to the mystery, this alarming crash was preceded by at least another half-century of gradual, chronic declines for this species. Over the last two decades, research on Rusties’ breeding and wintering grounds- including a Winter Blitz from 2009-2011- has begun to shed light on potential factors influencing the Rusty decline during these two phases of this species’ life cycle. However, Rusty Blackbird migration still remains a mystery.
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 provincial partners developed and launched a Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz in March 2014. This three-year challenge spans 38 US states, 9 Canadian provinces, and 3 territories to search for Rusty Blackbirds during their northward migratory journey. Between 1 March and 15 June 2014, 4,750 observers submitted 13,400 Rusty Blackbird observations to eBird, a 61% increase in submissions over the same period in 2013, the year before the Blitz. This Sunday, March 1, 2015, we launch Year 2 of the Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz.
Ultimately, data from the Blitz will be used to identify Rusty Blackbird hotspots across the landscape and assess whether critical stopover areas are adequately protected. Our 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. This study, along with research on Rusty Blackbird breeding and winter ecology, will help us unlock the Rusty Blackbird mystery and conserve this rapidly declining species.
When to Blitz
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. For example, most states in the southern US focus their efforts in March, while many Canadian provinces start their Blitz in April. Check out our “States and Dates” page to find target Blitz dates for your area. However, these target dates are only guidelines, since we can’t predict exactly when migration will occur. Regardless of where you live, please pay special attention to Rusty Blackbird potential habitat between 1 March and 15 June and report your observations to eBird.
How to Participate
In 2015, we encourage Blitz participants to use two strategies to find Rusties:
- Bird as you normally do, focusing your efforts on Rusty Blackbird habitat during your state/province’s target search dates. Report your observations under the “Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz” protocol in eBird. If possible, include additional information about habitat and behavior in the observation comments.
- To evaluate consistency in habitat use across seasons, please consider revisiting a Rusty Blackbird Area of Interest near you during your state/province’s target search dates. Read more about Areas of Interest, how to survey them, and how they were identified.
Even if you don’t find Rusty Blackbirds on your birding trip, please report your observations using the “Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz” protocol if you’ve searched for this species. This helps us determine whether Rusties are not using a particular area on a given day- or whether no one has looked.
Where to Search
Rusty Blackbirds favor wet, shallow habitat. Search for them in or around:
– Flooded forests
– At the edges of lakes or ponds
– Agricultural areas, including cropfields or feedlots
– Pecan orchards
– Flooded roadside ditches
As mentioned above, we encourage birders to search in these habitats regardless of where they occur, or you can target your searches to appropriate habitat within identified Areas of Interest. Remember, always respect private property when birding; please obtain permission before searching for Rusty Blackbirds on private lands.
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 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 list resources to help birders discriminate between Rusties and look-alike species, such as Brewer’s Blackbird, Common Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, and European Starling. If you are confident that you’ve seen a Rusty Blackbird, we welcome your report in eBird!
Rusty Blackbird Characteristics:
– Pale yellow eyes throughout the year
– Thin beak compared to other blackbirds
– Medium length tail with squared or slightly rounded corners; in comparison Common Grackles have longer rounded tails and Red-winged Blackbirds have shorter tails.
In winter: rusty-tipped feathers and prominent brown “eyebrows” on both sexes
During Migration: Rust tips gradually wear off feathers
Breeding: Males are glossy black, females are charcoal gray
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.
Thanks for helping with this Rusty Blackbird conservation effort!