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New study identifies pine bush as "Stop Over" for migrating birds
Dr. Joel Ralston (left), a State Museum researcher and co-author of a new study on bird migration patterns, shows some Albany Pine Bush Discovery Center educators how to handle a tiny bird without harming it. Photo courtesy of NYS Museum.

ALBANY, N.Y.- Documenting the first study of its kind, a New York State Museum scientist has co-authored a new article that describes the diversity of bird species that pass through the Albany Pine Bush Preserve, an important fall migration “stop-over” for birds that breed hundreds of miles away.

This is the first known study of migratory “stop-over” in a rare pine barrens ecosystem like the one found in the Albany Pine Bush Preserve. The study also is among the first to use isotope measurements from feathers to estimate the breeding-site origin of migrating birds in eastern North America.

The results indicate that some individuals passing through the Pine Bush bred as close as the Adirondacks, but that over half of the birds had breeding localities more than 470 miles northwest of the Pine Bush. Many birds, including all of the captured Blackpoll Warblers, originated over 940 miles away.

Dr. Jeremy Kirchman, the Museum’s curator of birds, co-authored the study with Dr. Joel Ralston, and with Neil Gifford, conservation director for the Albany Pine Bush Commission. They were assisted by Albany Pine Bush Commission staff and interns, Albany Pine Bush Discovery Center educators and student groups, and volunteers. The study is published in the September issue of The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, a peer-reviewed quarterly journal that since 1889 has published original research on bird ecology and evolution conducted around the globe.

The research provided the first data on the diversity of species found in the Pine Bush during fall migration. These data were instrumental in establishing the Pine Bush Preserve as a documented concentration site for migratory birds with diverse breeding ecologies, and led to the designation in 2009 of the Preserve as a Bird Conservation Area by the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation.

The researchers used biochemical analyses of birds’ feathers to track individual birds of six different species and determine where they were breeding. The research team deployed a series of “mist nets” in pitch pine-scrub oak habitats of the Pine Bush, near the Discovery Center, to capture birds during the early morning hours 2-4 days per week from late August to late October of 2007, 2008 and 2009.

A total of 244 migrating song birds (passerines) from 32 species that do not breed in the Pine Bush were captured. They were fitted with numbered leg bands, sampled for a single feather, and released. Several species were encountered that had not previously been known to occur in the Pine Bush, including Winter Wren, Wilson’s Warbler, and Philadelphia Vireo.

The researchers measured stable hydrogen isotope ratios from feathers to estimate the breeding site origin of 6-19 individuals each of Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Nashville Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Palm Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler and Lincoln’s Sparrow.

Monitoring has continued in 2010 and 2011 under the direction of Gifford and Kirchman. Ralston graduated from the University at Albany in May 2011 and is now a visiting assistant professor in the Biology Department at Utica College.

Gifford will lead a free public program providing more information about the research, and demonstrate how the birds are identified and studied, on Oct. 15 at 7 a.m. at the Pine Bush Preserve Discovery Center at 195 New Karner Road in Albany.

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