Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sparrow Migration at Sandy Hook

On Friday, someone reported a Le Conte's Sparrow at Sandy Hook near the marine biology labs. Since this is a species none of us have seen, I went with my mother and sister yesterday to see if it might still be around. Migration was still heavy at Sandy Hook. The field south of Gunnison Road near the labs was loaded with sparrows – at least 9 species by my count. Unfortunately, none of the dozens was a Le Conte's, as far as I could tell. It is difficult to be sure that one was not present since the sparrow action was hot and heavy at times.

Sparrows present along Gunnison Road included Song, Swamp, Lincoln's, Savannah, White-throated, American Tree, and Chipping, along with many Dark-eyed Juncos. Even without the Le Conte's or other Ammodramus types, it was delightful to watch so many sparrows yesterday. Getting the chance to watch Lincoln's and Swamp Sparrows was especially rewarding – the first for its relative rarity and the second since it is one of my favorites. In the same area, there were good numbers of Hermit Thrushes, Eastern Phoebes, both kinglet species, and Brown Creepers. Many of the kinglets seemed to be foraging at or near ground level, often in a grassy lawn. Normally I see kinglets higher in the vegetation structure, so I was surprised to see them acting like juncos.

Raptors included several Red-tailed Hawks, at least two Merlins, and a few Sharp-shinned Hawks. Someone reported a Yellow-breasted Chat at the Gunnison lot a day or two ago, but it was either not present or uncooperative today. However, there was an immature White-crowned Sparrow near Battery Gunnison.

Here are a few photos of the autumn foliage on Sandy Hook:

There were very few butterflies around, but I did see a few Pearl Crescents.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A New Biodiversity Treaty

U.N. members finally agreed on a new treaty for conserving biodiversity.
The agreement, known as the Nagoya Protocol, sets a goal of cutting the current extinction rate by half or more by 2020. The earth is losing species at 100 to 1,000 times the historical average, according to scientists who call the current period the worst since the dinosaurs were lost 65 million years ago.

The new targets include increasing the amount of protected land to 17 percent, from the current figure of about 12.5 percent, and protected oceans to 10 percent, from less than 1 percent. The protocol also includes commitments of financing, still somewhat murky, from richer countries to help poorer nations reach these goals.

“We would have liked to see more ambitious targets in protected area goals and the financing,” said Glenn Prickett, the chief external affairs officer for The Nature Conservancy. “But the fact that they were able to reach an agreement is a big deal.”

The goals, 20 in total, are specific enough to be able to gauge whether progress is being made, he said. A previous and vague agreement in 2002 to substantially reverse the loss of species by 2010 failed to achieve that target.

The most significant change was breaking a nearly 20-year impasse over the issue of sharing the benefits of medicines or other products developed from plants or animals. Developing nations have long complained of exploitation by richer nations, and have been imposing stringent export controls on such material.
Whether this will be more successful than the previous protocol remains to be seen. Since the U.S. still has not ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, it seems unlikely to ratify this protocol either, especially with the likely changes in Senate composition. Without U.S. support, it is hard to see this protocol meeting its goals, however well structured it may be. Still, even without meeting its concrete goals, it may serve a useful aspirational purpose.

This BBC article has a nice slideshow on biodiversity issues.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Loose Feathers #262

Rough-legged Hawk / Photo by Dave Menke (USFWS)

Birds and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Oil spill

Environment and biodiversity
  • Over the past decade, a new species has been discovered in the Amazon about every three days – over 1200 news species, including 637 plants, 257 fish, 216 amphibians, 55 reptiles, 16 birds, and 39 mammals. Here is a gallery of some of the highlights.
  • A new USGS survey estimates that Alaska's North Slope contains only 896 million barrels of untouched oil, one-tenth of previous estimates.
  • Scientists found hundreds of new insects from 52 million years ago encased in amber in Gujarat. The amber is soft enough to be dissolved so that the scientists can examine the specimens in three dimensions, like contemporary specimens. Here is a gallery of some of the insects. See also the comment at Myrmecos on taxonomy.
  • Pennsylvania has announced a moratorium on new natural gas wells on state lands. The extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing is suspected of contaminating local groundwater.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

20% of Vertebrates Endangered with Extinction

According to a recent report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one-fifth of vertebrate species worldwide are threatened with extinction. The situation continues to worsen, as over 50 animals move closer to extinction each year, as measured by the IUCN's Red List. The hardest-hit areas are in the tropics, especially Southeast Asia. (Dark areas on the map at left show the highest numbers of endangered animals.) A high concentration of unique species combines with rapid environmental change to create a difficult biodiversity situation in Southeast Asia, eastern Africa, and the Andes in South America.
Even Southeast Asia's most iconic species—rhinos, orangutans, tigers, and elephants—face extirpation and in some cases total extinction. The Javan rhinoceros is down to some 40-60 individuals, none of which are in captivity.

But as far as type of species goes, nothing is worse than being a frog: according to the study 41% of the world's amphibians are threatened with extinction. In contrast, 33% of cartilaginous fishes, 25% of mammals, 22% of reptiles, 15% of bony fishes, and 13% of birds are threatened.

Highly-sensitive to environmental changes amphibians face a barrage of threats, including habitat loss, pollution, climate change, agricultural chemicals, and overconsumption for food and the pet trade. However, the largest threat to amphibians is known as the 'amphibian plague': chytridiomycosis, a fungal disease, has decimated amphibian populations even in pristine environments. Recent studies have shown that frog species never known to science have already been lost. At least 120 amphibians have vanished entirely in the past three decades, making this group a poster child for the extinction crisis.

But of all the world's species—vertebrates, plants, fungi, insects, etc.—vertebrates make up just 3% of the total. The study also reported on a number of non-vertebrate species types—not included in the overall analysis—finding, for example, that 14% of seagrasses, 32% of freshwater crayfish, and 33% of coral reef species are threatened with extinction. An earlier study, looking at a representative sample of plants, found that 22% of the world's plant species are threatened with extinction.

One of the most threatened groups of species on Earth is the cycads, an ancient group of plants: 63% percent of cycads face extinction.
The one bit of good news that the report offered was that conservation has worked to reduce the threat of extinction. According to the report, the biodiversity crisis would be 18% worse without conservation action over the past several decades, and 7% of the species that changed categories moved from a worse category to a safer one. Unfortunately, relatively few threatened species benefit from concrete actions or even a conservation plan, as most of the attention goes to a handful of iconic species. In some cases, scientists do not even know how secure or threatened a species is. The report's findings underscore the need for continued protection of threatened species and preservation of habitats where unique species occur.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

More Birds Die in a Syncrude Oil Tailings Pond

Just last week, the Syncrude finally received an historically large fine for the deaths of 1600 waterbirds in one of its oil tailings ponds in Alberta. This week, another one of their tailings ponds is involved in yet another case of oiled waterfowl. At least 230 waterfowl were euthanized after landing in one of Syncrude's ponds during a rainstorm.
Syncrude released a statement in the afternoon saying a freezing rain storm made it difficult for the birds to fly, causing dozens of the waterfowl to land at various locations on the company's site, including roads, parking lots and the Mildred Lake tailings pond. Originally spokeswoman Cheryl Robb said the government ordered about 125 of the birds that came in contact with the bitumen pond euthanized.

Approximately two hours later, a company called — emphasizing it wants to be open and transparent — with a revised number of duck deaths: 230. After 5 p.m., the government said it was conducting a regional investigation into why bird landings occurred at multiple oilsands facilities, including Suncor and Shell sites.

Alberta Environment spokeswoman Cara Tobin said there were “a handful” of bird deaths at Suncor and provincial investigators are being sent to a Shell site.

“It will become part of the larger investigation,” Tobin said. “It’s interesting that it’s happened at more than one site.”
According to Syncrude, its bird-deterrent tools were operational but failed to stop the tired waterfowl from landing in the ponds. Similar incidents occurred at ponds owned by Shell and Suncor, but with fewer ducks killed. In my opinion, a deterrent system should be able to work during severe weather since rain is a common event during migration season.

The incident is increasing political pressure for oil companies to clean up tailings ponds and for the national and provincial governments to regulate oil sands operations more effectively.
"I'm more than disappointed. I'm angry," Alberta NDP MLA Rachel Notley said. "For the last two years, since the last time this happened, the government has done nothing but invest money in PR."

"What needs to happen is the government needs to finally take this seriously. They need to take action, they need to enforce their own standards, they need to increase penalties, so they actually serve as a deterrent. That's not happening right now."

Notley said the latest incident creates an impression that the province isn't taking its obligation to develop and clean up the oilsands seriously enough.

According to Greenpeace, the industry needs to stop using tailings ponds.

"It's obvious that the provincial and federal governments are asleep at the wheel in regulating the tar sands industry and that nothing has changed since 1,600 ducks died two years ago," Greenpeace Alberta campaigner Mike Hudema said in a news release. "Syncrude needs more than a slap on the wrist and this government needs to do more than act as a public relations firm for the tar sands."
Whether political pressure will be sufficient to lead to reform remains to be seen. However, some U.S. politicians and business owners are feeling sufficient pressure to show concern over oil sands environmental problems.

Alberta Environment officials are still investigating the tailings ponds of the three companies, so the numbers and other details may change.

Update (10/27, 4:30 pm): The number of dead ducks has risen to 350, and there may be more in the pond.
Oilsands giant Syncrude says 350 birds have now died after landing on the Mildred Lake tailings pond Monday night while Suncor said the grim tally on their ponds rose to 40 ducks....

Tailing ponds are a toxic slurry of chemicals and hydrocarbons used to separate bitumen from sand.

Reporters were invited to visit Syncrude's Mildred Lake facility Wednesday where a full-scale recovery operation is underway. Several boats are trolling for birds while others on shore are using nets. It's expected the operation will take another week.

Syncrude president and CEO Scott Sullivan said the number of dead waterfowl will continue to climb. Speaking at the recovery command post, he said he's disappointed the deaths occurred despite the company's deterrent system.
According to the local radio station in Fort McMurray, Suncor reported 40 dead waterfowl and Shell has not reported any.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Yosemite Great Grays from the Ice Age

Recent genetic analysis shows that the Great Gray Owls of Yosemite National Park are a subspecies stranded by the last Ice Age rather than a remnant chased out of northern California by logging and development.

The Yosemite owl is not only genetically different from great gray owls in Oregon, Idaho and Canada, it also nests slightly differently and prefers a more narrow diet of rodents, scientists say.

More than half of California's great gray owls are in the Yosemite region, and there are very few between the park and southern Oregon. Scientists say they still do not understand why there are only a few great grays in Northern California forests.

It is not unusual to find species in the Sierra that were stranded during the last Ice Age, said wildlife ecologist John Keane, who led the research for the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station....

Great gray owls live at an altitude of 4,000 to 8,500 feet in the Sierra, but they migrate to lower elevations in snowy winters or when there is a lack of food.
While other Great Gray populations eat a diverse array of rodents, ones in the Sierra specialize in pocket gophers and voles.

One interesting note is that the researchers are working on a method for finding Great Gray Owl populations. Rather than doing foot searches, they are setting up microphones to record all of the sounds of a meadow for a week at a time. The sounds are analyzed by computer to detect owls.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Studying Stress in House Sparrows

Researchers are Radford University are studying the effects of stress on House Sparrows.

As recently as 20 years ago, most research was limited to laboratory rats bred in captivity and monitored through extensive handling by humans.

But wild birds shaped by natural environments and observed remotely by robotic systems may provide a more nuanced picture of biological processes, Davis said.

Once Davis and his students catch some house sparrows, the birds will be transferred to a new aviary at Selu, a research and retreat center owned by Radford University.

There Davis and Selu manager Jeff Armistead have built a state-of-the art research aviary with robotic feeding and monitoring systems. It can house several hundred birds at a time, even separating them into groups so scientists can conduct different studies simultaneously.

Tiny transmitters can be injected into each bird to monitor food intake, hormone levels and other information, which can be shared online with students, faculty and other researchers.

At Selu, Davis' group will observe and analyze hormone and immunity activity in individual birds.

The study of how house sparrows deal with stress hormones may one day lead to better treatments for stress-related illnesses in humans, University of South Florida biologist Lynn "Marty" Martin said.

Martin oversees a large research laboratory devoted to the house sparrow.

Before modern civilization mitigated threats such as starvation, predator attack and exposure to extreme weather, humans evolved in environmental contexts similar to house sparrows.

To survive, humans, like the birds, developed stress response systems that helped them avoid predators (or university professors). But today, those same systems, when triggered by run-ins with a demanding boss or problems at home can, over time, make people sick.
Since House Sparrows are fairly intelligent, the research team has had some difficulty catching them. The birds seem to know to walk under the mist nets rather than fly into them.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Database Matches Plants to Birds (Updated)

Sometimes I wonder which birds might use a particular plant, or how to attract a bird species. There is now a tool to help answer this question, at least for some eastern birds. Pennsylvania Audubon has assembled a database of plant-bird relationships. (Caution: the link was fine when I first wrote the post, but it may now lead to a phishing site.**) You can select a bird or a plant from dropdown menus; on hitting submit, you get a table of that species's relationships. (An example is shown below.) The tables show more than simply food plants, as the database includes plants that a bird might use for cover or nesting. (Some species have very specific needs for nest locations). It also breaks down the food uses by plant part. This information as the food sources are available at different times of year.

** Update: After several days I still have not had not a response from Audubon PA to an emailed query about the corrupted link. A lot of the same information can be found on the Audubon at Home website. Unfortunately, it does not have the same level of detail as Audubon PA's bird-plant database.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Syncrude Sentenced for Waterbird Deaths

Syncrude will have to pay a $3 million fine for the deaths of 1600 migratory waterbirds in one of its oil tailings ponds in Alberta.
Judge Ken Tjosvold fined Syncrude Canada Ltd. $3 million for the deaths of about 1,600 birds on its Aurora tailings pond in April 2008. The birds died after the company failed to get its deterrent system out on time. The sentence was a joint submission from the company's lawyers and government prosecutors.

Tjosvold found Syncrude guilty of breaking Sect. 155 of the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act and Sect. 5.1(1) of the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act in June, but held off on sentencing until Friday so lawyers could work out a creative sentence.
The sentence includes three requirements, with a deadline of November 30 for payment:
First, Syncrude must pay $300,000 to the federal government and $500,000 to the province — the maximum fines allowed by law. Both fines include the victim's fine surcharge. The federal fine and half the provincial fine will go into general revenue.

The other half of the provincial fine, or $250,000, will go to Fort McMurray's Keyano College to create a wildlife management diploma program, said provincial prosecutor Susan McRory. This would help teach locals to monitor and protect wildlife in the oilsands region.

Second, Syncrude must give the Alberta Conservation Association $900,000 to buy about 24 hectares of wetlands near North Cooking Lake, located about 27 kilometres east of Edmonton.

The land purchase would complete the association's efforts to protect a 600-hectare wetland called Golden Ranches, said federal prosecutor Kent Brown, which is part of a large migratory bird corridor. It would also give many Edmontonians a chance to learn about the importance of wetlands.

Third, Syncrude must give the University of Alberta $1.3 million to research bird deterrents on tailings ponds. “The simple way to describe it is ‘how to build a better bird deterrent program,'” McRory said.

Colleen Cassady St. Clair, the University of Alberta biologist picked to head the research program, said her team would spend the next three years testing bird deterrents to figure out which ones work best.
The $3 million fine was the largest fine issued for environmental violations in Alberta. It might have been larger if the government sought a fine on a per-bird basis.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Loose Feathers #261

Blackpoll Warbler / Photo by Donna Dewhurst (USFWS)

Birds and birding news
Oil spill
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Autumn Colors in New Jersey

Now that it is late October, we are already nearing the peak foliage season in New Jersey. Some trees, like locusts, sweetgums, and some maples, have turned already. Other trees like oaks are still mostly green.

A concern this year is that the extreme heat and lack of rain during the summer months will cause many trees to show less intense colors or turn brown more quickly. This maple is already showing a lot of brown spots.

Here are more photos of the colors so far, presented without further comment.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

British Soldier Lichens

While I was at the Great Swamp on Saturday, I heard some insects singing in a clearing. I never did find the source of the sound, but while I was looking for the insects, I noticed some odd lichens along a log. Looking closer, I saw the red caps that marked them as British soldier lichens (Cladonia cristatella).

Despite their distinctive appearance, the lichens do not look like much from a distance. The stalks are very short, with even the tallest being shorter than than half of an inch high. That may be why I have missed these lichens in the past.

Species in genus Cladonia are cup lichens, which often grow in branching, bush-like shapes. Like other lichen, British Soldier Lichens are unions of an alga (Trebouxia erici) and a fungus (Cladonia cristatella), the latter of which provides the scientific name for the lichen. The alga photosynthesizes food, and the fungus provides structure. Lichens are very slow-growing organisms; this species only grows about two millimeters per year.

The red caps at the tops of the stalks are the fruiting bodies that produce spores for spreading the organism. A British solder lichen will produce its first spores after four years of growth. The red caps are also the reason for the lichen's common name as they are reminiscent of British army uniforms of the 18th and 19th centuries. Some guides suggest the name refers to "red hats" worn by British soldiers during the American Revolution, but it more likely refers to their red coats since soldiers of the period wore a variety of headgear, much of it not red.

Several other blogs and websites have interesting commentary on these lichens, including The Marvelous in Nature, Hiker's Notebook, and this site.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Song Sparrows Cooperate to Repel Intruders

Song sparrows listening to the songs of other sparrows can figure out which bird was the intruder in a territorial dispute.

The research has shown that song sparrows can distinguish an aggressor from an "innocent" bird that has had its territory invaded.

Scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle, US, used recorded calls to stage territorial disputes between two birds.

They played the songbird squabble so that neighbouring sparrows were able to hear it and studied the birds' reactions.

After hearing this "dispute", the sparrows reacted aggressively only when they heard the broadcasted calls of the intruding bird. When the victim's song was played the birds did not react.

"This [was] not simply increased aggression to any call they overheard recently in an aggressive situation," explained graduate student Caglar Akcay.

"They seem to be able to infer that the victim is [not at] fault."

The results indicated that, although the birds react defensively to protect their own territories from intruders, they co-operate peacefully with non-aggressive neighbours.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Red-banded Hairstreak, Again

When I first spotted this insect in a bunch of asters, I thought it was moth because all I saw was a brownish triangle. Moving closer, I realized it was actually a hairstreak butterfly, in this case a Red-banded Hairstreak. It looks a lot browner than most other members of this species I have seen, which tend to be predominantly gray, like this one. I know that some butterflies have brownish fall variants, but I have not found any confirmation that this species does.

The flowers are most likely calico asters, which have both yellow and purple centers.

Vulture Overhead

Yesterday I did not have much time for birding, but in the short time I was outside it was clear that raptors were moving. First I saw a few accipiters circling high overhead; they turned and drifted south. Then a Black Vulture soared even higher as it made its way steadily south. With clear skies and such a high ceiling, I probably could have picked up more with more powerful optics.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Birds from the Great Swamp

Yesterday I was at the Great Swamp NWR on a cool and blustery day. Despite the unfavorable weather for bird observation, a lot of people were on the boardwalk trails, most of them gathered in two tour groups. The wind kept much of the bird activity out of view, but there were still birds to be seen. Winter residents are arriving in good numbers now.

Around the parking lot, I saw many Palm Warblers and a handful of Eastern Bluebirds, three of which sat for portraits.

There were some sparrows along the trails – mainly White-throated Sparrows but also an especially ruddy Swamp Sparrow. One Yellow-rumped Warbler caught insects from the boardwalk railing and sat out long enough for some photos.

It showed off the reason for its name. In some of these photos, it almost appears that the warbler evolved its plumage to blend with boardwalk railings.

There were a lot of waterfowl flying around in the distance, but I couldn't see any in the water visible from any of the blinds. The Friends Blind (the one closest to Long Hill Road) is entirely screened by reeds and brush right now, so the stream normally visible from the blind is not visible at all.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

EPA to Revoke Mountaintop Mine Permit

An EPA regulator has recommended revoking the permit for a planned mountaintop strip mine in West Virginia, on the basis of wildlife impacts.

In a report submitted last month and made public on Friday, Shawn M. Garvin, the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional administrator for the Mid-Atlantic, said that Arch Coal’s proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County should be stopped because it “would likely have unacceptable adverse effects on wildlife.”

In 2007, the Bush administration approved the project, which would involve dynamiting the tops off mountains over 2,278 acres to get at the coal beneath while dumping the resulting rubble, known as spoil, into nearby valleys and streams. The Obama administration announced last year that it would review the decision, prompting the mine owner, Arch Coal, based in St. Louis, to sue.

In its review, the E.P.A. found that the project would bury more than seven miles of the Pigeonroost Branch and Oldhouse Branch streams under 110 million cubic yards of spoil, killing everything in them and sending downstream a flood of contaminants, toxic substances and life-choking algae....

The E.P.A. said the construction of waste ponds as well as other discharges from the Spruce No. 1 mining operation would spread pollutants beyond the boundaries of the mine itself, causing further damage to wildlife and the environment.

Arch Coal had proposed to construct new streams to replace the buried rivers, but the E.P.A. said they could not reproduce the numbers and variety of fish and plant life supported by the indigenous streams.
The company plans to sue, so this may not be the last word on the subject.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Loose Feathers #260

Western Flycatcher / Photo by Dave Menke (USFWS)

Birds and birding news
  • Endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatchers are at the center of a dispute over whether and how to control invasive Eurasian tamarisks. Land managers had introduced beetles as a biocontrol for tamarisks, which push out native trees and reduce biodiversity – and the beetles have largely been successful at reversing the tree's spread. However, the beetles tend to strip trees of foliage at a bad time for nesting flycatchers, which often nest in tamarisk trees.
  • Biologists are trying to determine the number and types of birds that migrate through the Gulf of Maine region each fall. The researchers are combining a variety of techniques, including radar, passive acoustic observation, and banding. 
  • Hatch year Whooping Cranes have begun their migration from Wisconsin to Florida guided by an ultralight aircraft.
  • Two new species have been found in Nepal: Grey-necked Bunting and Long-billed Wren Babbler.
  • Scienceray has a list of what it considers the 20 most brilliantly colored birds in the world.
  • Birds are dying from type-e botulism along Lake Michigan.
  • The songs of 20 birds that are rarely heard on the streets of Brooklyn are going to be broadcast from loudspeakers in various Brooklyn neighborhoods. You can read more about the project at Birds of Brooklyn.
  • A study of outdoor domestic cats in New Zealand claims that belled collars reduce the amount of predation but does not eliminate it. (Keeping cats indoors is still more effective.)
Birds in the blogosphere
Oil Spill
  • According to an Audubon report, birds in Important Bird Areas along the Gulf Coast are rebounding, but threats remain from residual oil and chemicals. Major concerns include oil that has seeped into the sand and tar mats just below the tide line. Even birds that look healthy now could suffer health effects from residual oil in the future. You can read the short version or the full report (pdf).
  • Many migratory water birds have been using wetlands created by flooding farm fields as an alternate habitat to oiled marshes along the Gulf Coast.
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What Happened to Released Pelicans?

Pelicans Released at Aransas / US Coast Guard Photo

In the photo above, two Brown Pelicans that had been found coated in oil are being released at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. (The government chose to release pelicans in Texas or Florida rather than risk having them coated in oil again.) That photo was taken on June 27, and it was one of several releases over the course of the summer. So what has happened to the released birds since then? It seems that no one knows for sure since they have not been seen or reported since their release.
To date, 443 brown pelicans have been reported dead from the BP Chemical oil spill, according to the Unified Command Center's website, but the fate of pelicans moved into Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and Goose Island State Park remains unclear.

"No, we haven't come across any of the relocated ones, but no news is good news in this case," Texas Parks and Wildlife pollution biologist Alex Nunez said.

The relocated birds aren't being tracked, so the only way they would be found is if they were dead, Nunez said....

There have been no reports of the birds being sighted at either of the release points Goose Island park interpreter Mike Mullenweg said.

"The birds may have simply made their homes in the area or they may have migrated back to Louisiana," Mullenweg said.

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge wildlife specialist Vicki Mueller took a more positive view. While the pelicans haven't been sighted in the area that doesn't mean they aren't still there, she said.

"These birds have short legs and they keep them tucked up under them most of the time. An aluminum ring can be kind of hard to spot," Mueller said.

Muelller said they accepted 104 pelicans - the most they could comfortably take in the area.
Another biologist interviewed for the article thought the lack of sightings meant that the pelicans had traveled back to Louisiana, where they could encounter some of the lingering oil on the beaches and marshes.

In addition, bands are generally reported when a bird is recaptured by a bander, flagged with a color marking of some sort, or found dead. (There are also rarer cases in which an observer can read the aluminum band's code on a living bird.) In order for a banded bird to be found dead, it has to die in a place where someone can find the carcass before scavengers carry it off. Since pelicans are large birds, the odds of being found when dead are somewhat in their favor, but I still would not assume that the bodies would be found if they did die at the refuge.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Greenhouse Camel Cricket

This cricket was wandering in Highland Park's environmental center last night. Its humpbacked appearance, large hind legs, and oversized antennae suggest that this is a camel cricket, one of a family of Orthopterans that live in cellars, caves, and other dark and damp places. The most likely species is Greenhouse Camel Cricket (Diestrammena asynamora), a species native to China. (It has spread worldwide since it can easily hide in luggage or shipping containers.) The species is recognized by the dark projecting bumps between the antennae.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Amazing Flights of the Red Knot

Scientists have been able to trace the annual journeys of individual Red Knots using tracking devices attached to the birds' legs. (I linked to an article on this in my last Loose Feathers edition, but I think it deserves its own post so that it does not get lost among the other articles.) Prior to this study using geolocators, the general outline of the birds' migration was already known: most Red Knots winter in Tierra del Fuego, make migratory stopovers along the Atlantic coast (especially Delaware Bay), and breed in Arctic Canada.

The geolocator study added some detail to the general picture and emphasized just how important horseshoe crabs are for Red Knots' survival. The bird whose data is presented in the graphic at right (click to see a larger version) made several nonstop long-distance flights, including one over 2,000 miles, another over 3,000 miles, and a third of almost 5,000 miles. The last of those flights crossed the Amazon, the Caribbean, and part of the Atlantic before it terminated in Ocracoke, North Carolina, right around the time that horseshoe crabs would be spawning. At that point, the bird would be tired, starving, and in need of some quick nutrition in the form of fresh horseshoe crab eggs.

The study was funded by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, which wanted better data on how offshore wind energy projects might affect Red Knots, Piping Plovers, and Roseate Terns – three vulnerable species that migrate or breed along the U.S. Atlantic coast. Several wind farms are already planned in the vicinity of Delaware Bay.

Here is a bit more about the technology behind the study:

Basically, the geolocators determine location by measuring daylight. The length of a day shows the bird's latitude, and the time of local "noon" - when the sun is at its highest - shows longitude....

Far better devices exist than even the geolocators, but only for larger birds. Several years ago, Pennsylvania officials outfitted a peregrine falcon with a solar-powered backpack that transmitted fixed GPS locations to a land-based receiver - allowing scientists to fly along virtually via a laptop.

The geolocators were developed by the British Antarctic Survey in England. Every year, they are able to tweak the technology to get a smaller instrument, said James Fox, an electronics engineer with the Survey.

The problem is that the devices for the red knots need to be so small that it's impossible to add the capability to transmit. To get the data, the scientists have to find the birds and recapture them.
The scientists capture and tag the birds at Delaware Bay since so many Red Knots gather there during the spring and then recapture them at the same site the following year. So far 47 Red Knots have been tagged with geolocators and three have been recaptured. When (if?) the other birds are recaptured, there will probably be more interesting tales in the data.

The full article is well worth a read.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Small Asters

These are asters, but a different species from the New England Asters I posted earlier in the fall. I am not sure what the species is, though.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Autumn Meadowhawks

October and November are prime months for Autumn Meadowhawks; they remain active while most other odonates have stopped flying. They were active in good numbers yesterday. The only other dragonfly I saw was a darner of some sort (probably Aeschna sp.), and besides that I saw one spreadwing damselfly.

This individual is a female, which has a light brown body color in contrast to the red of the adult males.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Migrating Shorebirds May Use Food from Stopover Sites for Egg-laying

Since migration and egg production both require a significant amount of energy, it was uncertain whether long distance migrants used all of the food they consumed at stopover sites for migrating (and used food from the breeding grounds for egg production) or whether they used some for migrating and some for egg production. The question now appears to have an answer, at least for Pectoral Sandpipers. Sandpipers that arrive early at the breeding grounds use energy stored from stopover sites, and birds that arrive later eat to produce eggs.

By means of an isotope ratio mass spectrometer, the scientists studied different isotopes in the diet and the tissue of the birds to determine the origin of the accumulated resources. Using the distribution of stable carbon and hydrogen isotopes they could reveal when those elements had been incorporated through the diet. First, it was found that the values of the stable carbon isotope C13 in blood plasma of females, but also in feathers and claws, were different from those of their chicks. Moreover, the chick values showed an isotopic signature that was clearly different from the local diet.

From this observation the researchers concluded that the resources for egg formation could not originate from nutrients of the breeding area. Interestingly, isotopic values of female red blood cells matched those of the offspring, suggesting that resources were acquired somewhere along the migratory route. The wintering site as origin could be excluded, because in this case the red blood cell values should correspond to those of claws and feathers (assuming that birds moult in the wintering site). "The stable isotope analysis allowed us to confirm the hypothesis that body stores of migrating sandpipers are acquired at stopover sites along their migratory routes. This finding emphasizes the importance of these stopover sites for the well-being of the population", explains Bart Kempenaers, director at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen.

The data analysis revealed another surprising result. As the breeding season progressed, the isotopic values of females and chicks became more similar to those of the diet. This means, females that started egg laying later in the season mainly used dietary items from the breeding site, such as crane fly larvae and oligochaetes, as resources for egg production. "It suggests that pectoral sandpipers adopt different strategies for resource allocation according to their arrival time and the start of breeding", argues Elizabeth Yohannes, first author of the study.

But the question remains why some birds arrive earlier than others. Again, this could be answered with the help of stable isotopes. When the researchers analysed the hydrogen isotopic composition from feathers of female pectoral sandpipers, they found that these values corresponded closely to those of precipitation in northeastern South America. Presumably, birds overwinter in different areas (where they also moult their feathers), and those that start off from northern South America migrate shorter distances and therefore, arrive at the breeding ground in Alaska earlier than their conspecifics that start further south. However, details on the routes and timing of migration, and whether the different breeding strategies have an impact on the reproductive success of pectoral sandpipers are still unknown.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Loose Feathers #259

White-crowned Sparrow / Photo by Dave Menke

Birds and birding news

Birds in the blogosphere
Oil Spill
  • According to a report from the oil spill commission, the Obama administration failed to act on the worst case scenarios that its scientists knew were possible. It also vastly underestimate the oil flow in its public statements.
  • In the aftermath of an oil spill off the Spanish coast in 2002, European storm petrels skipped their breeding season and moved to other areas for feeding. This allowed them to prevent population losses from contact with the oil and resume breeding in subsequent years.
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, October 07, 2010

American Wigeons

American Wigeon is one of the characteristic waterfowl of New Jersey's coast during the colder months. These ducks breed in freshwater wetlands of the prairie pothole region in western Canada and the north central U.S. During migration and winter, they move to larger bodies of water that are less likely to freeze, primarily lakes and estuaries with plenty of subaquatic vegetation. A site like Cape May's Lighthouse Pond works very well for them since it is a sheltered spot that only freezes completely during the coldest weather.

Wigeons are smaller ducks than Mallards, but are members of the same genus (Anas). This photo may exaggerate the size difference since the bank slopes down somewhat from the reeds and the camera was on a plane parallel to the two ducks.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Buckeye Caterpillar

I found the caterpillar above on a plant stem in Cape May Point State Park. Given the number of Common Buckeyes at the location, I was not surprised to learn that it is a Common Buckeye caterpillar. You can see more images of caterpillars for that species here.

According to Caterpillars of Eastern North America, buckeye caterpillars feed on:
Plants in snapdragon (Scrophulariaceae) and acanthus (Acanthaceae) families, including plantain, gerardia, Ruellia, snapdragon and toadflax.
Distinguishing traits include the metallic blue dorsal spines, the orange bases for the spines along the sides, and the orange head with white bumps.

Assuming that the caterpillar survives and emerges from its chrysalis, it will look like this.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

More Late Season Moths

Aside from the Yellow-collared Scape Moth I posted yesterday, I have been seeing a variety of other moths. Here are a few. All of these moths were photographed between September 23 and October 2.

I saw lots of these moths at flowers all around Cape May Point State Park and the Meadows. At first I thought they might be skippers, but when I photographed one (badly) and looked at the photos, I realized that they were actually diurnal moths. This photo are from a later attempt, which produced much better results. The moths were Soybean Loopers (Chrysodeixis includens). Even though there were a lot of these moths, they proved difficult to photograph since they rarely stopped moving.

I found two individuals of this species, Rubbed Dart (Euxoa detersa), inside one of the restrooms at Sandy Hook. The species is common in sandy habitats such as beaches and grasslands and flies late in the season (July-October).

I think this moth, which I photographed at the Meadows in Cape May, is also a Rubbed Dart. The species shows a fair amount of variation; while the one from Sandy Hook is dark gray, this one is almost white. That seems consistent with the example photos at BugGuide and the Moth Photographers Group, though most of their photos are of darker gray moths. The pale coloration makes sense for the habitat; if the moth had not flushed when I walked near it, I probably would not have noticed it against the sand.

I found the moth below at Willowwood Arboretum. Though the date is rather late for the species, I think it is a Veiled Ear Moth (Amphipoea velata). (Some sources list the moth in genus Loscopia.) None of the other species I considered seems to fit the wing pattern as well. EDIT: Seabrooke comments that this is probably a Bronzed Cutworm (Nephelodes minians), which makes more sense given the late September date.