Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I and the Bird

I and the Bird
This week I and the Bird appears on a Tuesday due to Thanksgiving and a scheduling mistake. Go visit I and the Bird #139 at From the Faraway, Nearby for the best in recent bird blogging.

Branches and Clouds

Yesterday's sky featured some wispy high altitude clouds that formed sinuous parallel lines. I am not sure what these are called.

In the afternoon I had the opportunity to watch a Cooper's Hawk dismember a bird at relatively close range. It sat outside my window while it plucked the wings and feathers off its prey. I could not see the prey very well, but from what I could see, it looked like a robin.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Turkey Genome Sequenced

Wild Turkey / USFWS Photo

This fall, scientists sequenced most of the turkey's genome.
In a study published in the journal PLoS ONE in September, a team of scientists estimated that the genome of the domestic turkey, Meleagris gallopavo, has 1.1 giga base pairs, about a third the size of the human genome, and bears a close resemblance to its relative, the chicken, whose genome was completed in 2004....

But there's more sequencing to be done before we have the genetic key to that distinctive turkey taste. Researchers would need to compare sequences from multiple individuals and multiple regions along the ladder-shaped molecule to understand the genetic basis for turkey taste, he said.
Sequencing the turkey genome is a priority because of the species's economic significance as a food animal. Presumably it will help elucidate some evolutionary relationships as well, though the LiveScience article emphasizes the agricultural applications to the exclusion of anything else.

If you want to read the original journal article, you can find it here. It is in PLoS Biology rather than PLoS ONE.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Late Migrants and Some Photos

On Thanksgiving morning, I was out birding along the Delaware and Raritan Canal near DeMott Lane in Somerset. The sky was overcast and light was poor, but there was still a lot of bird activity, starting with a group of crows chasing a Red-tailed Hawk. Right at the access bridge, there was a mixed flock of sparrows and other birds. It included my first Fox Sparrow of the fall among the more common birds. The highlight of the morning was a Rose-breasted Grosbeak that was lingering around the spillway. The bird was in winter plumage, as one might expect, but it should have been spending the weekend somewhere far south of here. Unfortunately I was not able to get a recognizable photograph of it while the bird was in front of me since I forgot to unscrew the close-up filter from the front of my lens.

The top photo is from the canal; the rest of the photos are from the Sourlands Mountain Preserve. All of them link through to Flickr photo pages.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sea Level Rise in Virginia

Yesterday's New York Times has an example of the sorts of challenges that people in coastal areas will face increasingly as the climate warms.

Climate change is a subject of friction in Virginia. The state’s attorney general, Ken T. Cuccinelli II, is trying to prove that a prominent climate scientist engaged in fraud when he was a researcher at the University of Virginia. But the residents of coastal neighborhoods here are less interested in the debate than in the real-time consequences of a rise in sea level....

Larchmont residents have relentlessly lobbied the city to address the problem, and last summer it broke ground on a project to raise the street around the “u” by 18 inches and to readjust the angle of the storm drains so that when the river rises, the water does not back up into the street. The city will also turn a park at the edge of the river back into wetlands — it is now too saline for lawn grass to grow anyway. The cost for the work on this one short stretch is $1.25 million.

The expensive reclamation project is popular in Larchmont, but it is already drawing critics who argue that cities just cannot handle flooding in such a one-off fashion. To William Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, a local conservation group, the project is well meaning but absurd. Mr. Stiles points out that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has already spent $144,000 in recent years to raise each of six houses on the block....

Politics aside, the city of Norfolk is tackling the sea-rise problem head on. In August, the Public Works Department briefed the City Council on the seriousness of the situation, and Mayor Paul D. Fraim has acknowledged that if the sea continues rising, the city might actually have to create “retreat” zones.
Norfolk has special problems since it has to deal with land subsidence in addition to sea level rise. The fill and natural sediment underneath the city is settling, which exacerbates the effects of climate change. Between subsidence and sea level rise, the city has lost 14.5 inches to the sea in the past century. While Norfolk's situation is unusually severe, it bodes ill for other coastal towns and cities.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Loose Feathers #266

Northern Gannet / USFWS Photo

Birds and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Oil Spill
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sun and Branches

Morning on the Delaware and Raritan Canal, near Griggstown, New Jersey.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Images of Late Autumn

Fallen leaves.

Dried out leaves and wildflower stems.

Shriveled crabapples.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Snow Geese at Brigantine

In addition to the avocets I mentioned in an earlier post, Brigantine is now hosting a large flock of Snow Geese. When I was there last week, I counted about 500 geese in one large flock. Other observers have reported similar numbers since then, as well as possible Ross's Geese in the mix. I did not see any Ross's Geese myself, but the viewing conditions were not ideal for picking out rarities like that. However, I did find some "Blue Goose" forms in my photos.

I saw the Snow Geese from the south dike observation platform. They took flight as a flock from somewhere in the middle of the impoundments, flew over and around the observation tower, and finally settled out in the tidal marsh south of the dike. Some of them actually flew back and forth over the tower a few times as they tried to choose a spot in the marsh.

One Blue Goose is in this photo. In addition, some geese appear significantly smaller than others. I am not sure if that is a matter of distance or whether it reflects a real size difference.

Monday, November 22, 2010

November Meadowhawks

November is a difficult time to find dragonflies in New Jersey, particularly after overnight lows start dropping consistently into the 30s. Most of the dragonflies I see this late in the season are Autumn Meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum) like the one above. Meadowhawks can be tough to identify, but the almost entirely red abdomen makes this species relatively easy.

The yellow face is also a clue to this meadowhawk's identity. This dragonfly was at Trenton Marsh on Saturday. There were quite a few of them flying around in the border between the woods and marsh.

Not all November dragonflies are Autumn Meadowhawks, though. When I was at Cape May Point State Park last week, I saw this dragonfly flying around next to the red trail boardwalk. I figured that it was probably an Autumn Meadowhawk or a member of a difficult meadowhawk complex. As it turns out, this is a member of another species, the Blue-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum ambiguum). A few markings point towards this species: the turquoise blue face and dark blue eyes, the gray thorax, and the red abdomen with black bands around each abdominal segment.

Blue-faced Meadowhawk is a less common species in New Jersey than some of the other meadowhawks. According to the species page on NJodes, most of the records in the state were south of Monmouth County. November 15 is also a very late date for the species; prior to my sighting, the late observation date listed at NJodes was September 24. Thanks to Patrick Belardo and Allen Barlow for help confirming the identification.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Lingering Blackpoll Warbler

Yesterday morning I was at Trenton Marsh. This is a good place to visit in fall and winter since the freshwater tidal marsh (the northernmost along the Delaware River) attracts migratory dabbling ducks and other interesting birds. Waterfowl are already starting to gather in the marsh. However, they do not seem to be at their peak numbers yet. I suspect that the relatively warm fall* allowed a lot of birds to stay further north. Water birds in the marsh included about 50 Gadwall, along with smaller numbers of American Wigeon, American Coots, Ring-necked Ducks, Green-winged Teal, and a lone Wood Duck.

The most surprising sighting was a first winter Blackpoll Warbler. It was foraging low in the shrubs along the main entrance trail (the one running from the parking lot between the impoundments) in the company of Yellow-rumped Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. I had some good looks at the warbler since it would sit or hop out in the open, but it would hop back behind branches whenever I had my camera in position to take a photo. Other songbirds included a Winter Wren and a half dozen Golden-crowned Kinglets.

Some of the trees still had their foliage, so the view across the marsh was colorful.

In some impoundments the water level appears to be maintained by a beaver dam. Several mounds in this section of the marsh appeared to be beaver lodges. This lodge was the largest of them.

Finally, this tree, which I think is a Red Maple, has an unusual shape. I am intrigued that the trunks grew apart from a common base but then rejoined a few feet further up the tree.

* Worldwide, this October was the warmest ever recorded; in the lower 48 United States it was the eleventh-warmest October.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sandpipers on the Rocks

On Monday I was at the Avalon jetty during heavy fog. The fog was so thick, in fact, that the regularly-scheduled seawatch had been called off for the morning. It would not have done any good to have the counter there since it was barely possible to see birds near the jetty, much less birds migrating past the jetty. It was much easier to see the shorebirds running on the jetty itself. Most of them were Purple Sandpipers, such as the one above.

The Purple Sandpipers were feeding in some of the pools that formed after a wave hit the jetty. I am not sure exactly what they were finding to eat there, or if they were finding anything in the pools. Perhaps the waves carried some small animals onto the rocks.

Others were working the edges of the jetty, but they had to run for cover whenever one of the larger waves crashed.

The were also Ruddy Turnstones, like the one above. These moved  faster than the Purple Sandpipers, so they were harder to photograph, even though sometimes they ran right past my feet.

Most of the Sanderling were on the beach, but one ran up on the jetty.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Loose Feathers #265

Snow Geese / Photo credit: Jim Bahn

Birds and birding news
  • California Condors that forage and breed along the California coast may have trouble breeding due to lingering DDT contamination. Sea lions, a food source for those condors, still store DDE in their blubber because large amounts of DDT were dumped off the coast of Southern California by the Montrose Chemical Corporation up until 1971.
  • During migration, birds can show up in places they normally would not normally use as habitat, such as American Woodcocks in downtown Washington.
  • Wildlife officials are looking for help in finding and convicting the person who shot a Bald Eagle in Wareham, Massachusetts. Bald Eagles have also recently been shot in Vermont and poisoned in Delaware.
  • British researchers placed cameras within European Starling roosts to learn more about how they live. Adults dominate the roost and push juveniles to colder parts of the roost, where the juveniles huddle together to keep warm.
  • Only seven pairs of Hen Harriers nested successfully in England this year – a possible sign that the species will be extirpated in the near future.
  • In the southeastern U.S., some hummingbirds stay through the winter, including western species that have migrated east. The wintering hummingbirds are being studied by banders to learn more about their movements.
  • A flock of African Pink Pelicans recently landed in Siberia during an unusually warm November. The birds were captured by a local zoo and will be released in the spring.
  • People on the remote island of St. Kilda survived by eating nesting seabirds well into the 20th century. 
  • ABC North Queensland is encouraging Australian birders to tweet their bird sightings under the hashtag #bluewrentweet. The project is coordinated on Twitter by Ron Smith (@bluewrentweet) and ABC North Queensland (@ABCnorthqld).
Birds in the blogosphere
Oil Spill
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Avocets at Brigantine

American Avocets are regular visitors to New Jersey in warmer months, especially late summer. They show up frequently enough that one can expect a few to show up around southern New Jersey's coastal hotspots, but not often enough for birders to take them for granted. With their elegant bodies and thin, upward-curving bills, it would be hard to tire of them even if they were far more common here.

This small flock has been lingering at Forsythe NWR (a.k.a. "Brigantine"). Sightings of this species in colder months are somewhat unusual, so these birds may not stick around much longer. When I first saw them, they were wading into deep water – so deep that it came up to their chests. They almost appeared to be swimming.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cemetery Bird

Unfortunately acid rain has worn away most of its features.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Birds in the Fog

The fog was as thick as I have ever seen it as we arrived at Avalon's 8th Street jetty yesterday morning. The fog was so thick that it was impossible to see the end of the jetty from land, or land from the end of the jetty. It also foiled any chance of watching seabirds, except for handfuls of Black Scoters and Common Eiders that passed close to the jetty. A few Purple Sandpipers, Sanderling, and Ruddy Turnstones were foraging on the jetty's rocks. I will post photos of those later in the week. The story was much the same at Stone Harbor Point. Fog obscured any birds that were not standing on the public portion of the beach, which were mostly gulls and Sanderling. A pool near the observation platform held Brant, Dunlin, and Greater Yellowlegs.

The fog lifted for a time in the afternoon, which made a visit to Cape May Point State Park more productive than the morning stops. Once again, I missed the Ash-throated Flycatcher that has been reported there. Instead, I got great views of the Red-breasted Nuthatch at left, which was foraging in the pines along the boardwalk loop near Lighthouse Pond. The park's ponds held an assortment of waterfowl, pretty much the same species combination as yesterday, including the Eurasian Wigeon. There were also two Purple Finches (and possibly more) along the yellow trail. Eventually the fog rolled back in – so thick that the lighthouse was invisible from most of the park. A short stop at the Meadows produced great views of an American Bittern. It flew several times, from one feeding location to another.

Follow-up on the Bird Heist

The American citizen arrested for stealing bird study skins has been charged.

Detectives investigating the theft of nearly 300 brightly colored stuffed birds from the Natural History Museum in Tring arrested Edwin Rist on Friday.

Police said Monday the 22-year-old has been charged with burglary and money laundering offences.

The bird skins disappeared after reports of a break-in at the museum in June last year.

Richard Lane, director of science at the museum, said the specimens were valuable and included male trogons and quetzals from Central and South America, and birds of paradise from New Guinea.

Monday, November 15, 2010


In late October, a White-tailed Kite – possibly the same one that spent the summer in Connecticut – showed up in a small part of Forsythe NWR in Barnegat, New Jersey. This was only the second state record for the species, and a lot of the state's birders eagerly rushed to see it. Yesterday was my first chance to look for the kite, so I headed down with my mother and sister. We arrived at the Barnegat Municipal Dock and scanned the far shoreline for about 40 minutes with no sign of the kite. Another birder told us that he had been there for about an hour before we arrived, also with no luck. Moving on, we stopped at two vantage points for the Forsythe impoundments, one at the public beach and the other at a small observation platform. Neither had any sign of a White-tailed Kite, though we did see some waterfowl and a Belted Kingfisher. After checking the first location once more, we moved on.

We stopped at Cape May Point State Park in the late afternoon. I had hoped to see the Ash-throated Flycatcher that has been hanging around there; unfortunately it must have turned in for the evening by the time we were walking the trails. Instead, there were lots of waterfowl to look at, including a Eurasian Wigeon among the hundreds of American Wigeon. Other ducks included Ring-necked Duck, Ruddy Duck, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Gadwall, and Green-winged Teal. I noticed two male Green-winged Teal swimming close by each other, one of which had a much more prominent vertical white bar than the other one. I am not sure if this is simply normal variation or marks a difference in populations. Sibley has an illustration of a Green-winged X Common Teal hybrid that has a similarly narrow vertical bar; however, that hybrid should have a more prominent white line where the wings rest against the body than this bird does.

As the sun set and dusk rolled in, we had two memorable sightings. First, as we were watching the waterfowl, a Merlin popped over the far treeline, flew out over the lake, grabbed a songbird in midair, and flew off with the bird in its talons. It is with good reason that raptor banders call the hour before sunset the "magical Merlin hour"! Second, as we were listening to some Brown Thrashers in the twilight, a Woodcock flew over our heads; it landed a short distance in front of us and started feeding. Shortly after that we saw a couple more Woodcock flush and fly past the trail.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Bird Skin Heist

An American citizen was arrested in the U.K. for stealing 299 bird skins from one of the world's largest ornithological collections.
Speaking at the time, Professor Richard Lane, director of science at the museum, said the birds formed part of the collection assembled over the past 350 years.

He said the items were of scientific interest, and many were irreplaceable and "literally priceless".

There are some 750,000 bird skins, representing 95% of known living species, held at the museum.

Some of them appear on the Red List of endangered species.

Professor Lane said the ornithological collections were used by researchers throughout the world, who either visit Tring or request loans.

He said: "The knowledge gleaned from these collections can help protect endangered species and answer questions about the biodiversity of the world around us.

"It is very distressing that we should have been deliberately targeted in this manner."
I hope that the skins were not severely damaged and that any scientific information accompanying them is recovered also. A bird skin is literally that: the skin (with feathers attached) of a deceased bird, stuffed with some material. (To see how a skin is prepared, see Nate's posts: part 1, part 2.) Each skin is a record of how an individual bird looked at a particular time and place. While field observation has become increasingly sophisticated, examining birds in the hand is still vital. Bird skin collections are training tools for bird illustrators, repositories for the type specimens for species and subspecies, and records of historic distribution, among other things. A theft of that many skins would be a major loss for ornithology, not just for the skins themselves, but the information they conveyed.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Finding Color in Late Autumn

Each year, autumn catches me a little off-guard, even though it goes through more or less the same sequence year after year. I am surprised by how early the first leaves start turning, by how long it takes the foliage peak to arrive, how quickly the peak passes, and how long traces of color persist after the peak. A similar process happens with bird migration, especially in the spring when birds need to reach their breeding grounds quickly.

The tree up at the top is a Pin Oak. I posted a photo of the same species, but in black and white, a couple days ago. I like photographing leaves backlit or against the sky since that seems to bring out the best in their color, whether it is green in summer or other colors in autumn. This is true of the Pin Oak at top and even more so for the plum tree above, whose colors look far more dull when viewed from other angles.

Backlighting really helps to bring out the varied colors of dried or drying leaves, like this grape leaf. Subtle gradations of brown are often visible to a careful observer's eye, but they can be difficult to reproduce on a camera's sensor. These dried leaves are not just dead and boring; they have a beauty of their own.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Loose Feathers #264

Bald Eagle with Young / USFWS Photo

Birds and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Oil Spill
Environment and biodiversity
  • Entomologists recently recorded 6,619 ants of 13 species on the medians of major streets in Manhattan.
  • The EPA issued guidelines about how it expects to enforce its new greenhouse gas regulations. Regulators will take technological constraints into account when deciding whether to require modifications of an existing carbon source.
  • You can find more accurate information about climate change in The Onion than you will hear from my state's governor.
  • The winners of the 2010 European Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition were announced this week. National Geographic has a gallery of the images.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #138 is online at Wanderin' Weeta.

Skies, Clouds, and Trees in Black and White

This photo is from Manasquan Reservoir, last Saturday morning. The sky was clear with patches of clouds; later in the day, clouds would fill the sky, but at this point it was still sunny. What impressed me about this scene was the variety of cloud types and altitudes, in just this one small portion of the sky. The dead trees in the foreground were presumably killed when the reservoir was initially flooded. In the distance you can see the dam. I shot this with a polarizing lens and then applied black and white processing in GIMP.

In autumn, I normally like to emphasize color, especially for trees that have turned brilliant shades of yellow, orange, or red. We only get these colors for a few short weeks; during the rest of the year trees are either green or bare, so it seems good to take advantage of the colors while we have them. However, these brilliant colors can create interesting effects in black and white. This tree is a Pin Oak, and most of its leaves are at least tinged with dark red. (The color looks a bit like this tree.) In black and white, the contrast between the blue of the sky and the red of the leaves jumps out much more dramatically than it does in color. In this version, the blue sky appears dark while the red leaves appear light.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

State of the World's Waterbirds

A new report from Wetlands International describes the current conservation status of waterbird species. The State of the World’s Waterbirds 2010 found that 47% of waterbird populations are decreasing, while 16% are increasing. One of the interesting (but unsurprising) findings is that the rates of change differ geographically.
The report shows how the status of waterbird populations is improving in regions where strong conservation legislation is implemented, such as North America and Europe.

However, the rate of decline of waterbird populations is increasing in all other regions without such instruments. The situation is especially alarming in Asia where 62% of waterbird populations are decreasing or even extinct.

“The combination of rapid economic growth and weak conservation efforts appears to be lethal”, said Ali Stattersfield – BirdLife’s Head of Science. “Waterbird populations are exposed to a wide range of threats, such as agricultural intensification, leading to the loss and degradation of marshes and lakes, as well as unsustainable hunting and the impacts of climate change”.

The status of long-distance migrant waterbirds is generally worse than of those remaining in regions with strong conservation measures. This highlights the importance of coordinated conservation measures across entire flyways from the breeding to the non-breeding grounds.
Among long-distance migrants like shorebirds, 70% of the populations are decreasing. Cranes are an exception, with stable or recovering populations thanks to active conservation efforts. You can read the full report (pdf) online.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Alaskan Birds with Beak Deformities

An unusually high number of birds with beak deformities have turned up around Alaska, according to the USGS. According to a statement issued by the agency, the birds most affected have been Black-capped Chickadees and Northwestern Crows.

In birds affected by what scientists have termed “avian keratin disorder,” the keratin layer of the beak becomes overgrown, resulting in noticeably elongated and often crossed beaks, sometimes accompanied by abnormal skin, legs, feet, claws and feathers. Biologists with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center published their findings in this month’s issue of The Auk, a Quarterly Journal of Ornithology.

“The prevalence of these strange deformities is more than ten times what is normally expected in a wild bird population,” said research biologist Colleen Handel with the USGS, “We have seen effects not only on the birds’ survival rates, but also on their ability to reproduce and raise young. We are particularly concerned because we have not yet been able to determine the cause, despite testing for the most likely culprits.”

The disorder, which has increased dramatically over the past decade, affects 6.5 percent of adult Black-capped Chickadees in Alaska annually. Beak deformities in this species were first observed in the late 1990s and biologists have since documented more than 2,100 affected individuals. Increasing numbers of other species have also been observed with beak deformities throughout Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington. An estimated 17 percent of adult Northwestern Crows are affected by avian keratin disorder in coastal Alaska.

A variety of other Alaskan species have also been found with beak deformities, though not to the same extent as Black-capped Chickadees (pictured above) and Northwestern Crows (pictured right). An online gallery shows images of those two species, plus American Kestrel, Common Raven, White Pelican, Downy Woodpecker, Red-breasted Nuthatch, European Starling, Northern Flicker, Steller's Jay, Rough-legged Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-winged Blackbird, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-billed Magpie, Black-crowned Night Heron, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Clark's Nutcracker.

According to the USGS, beak deformities can have a variety of causes, so more research is needed. Possible candidates include pollution, poor nutrition, and diseases. Deformities have sometimes been traced to specific pollutants such as agricultural runoff.

To learn more, you can explore the USGS beak deformity website, which includes a section on how to help (if you live in Alaska or the Pacific Northwest) and links to articles the research team has published about the beak deformity problem. The two recent Auk papers are both downloadable at the last link.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Downy Woodpecker

This is a Downy Woodpecker that I saw and photographed at Manasquan Reservoir. There were a lot of Downy Woodpeckers along the trail on Saturday, and in fact a lot of woodpeckers overall. I think the only common New Jersey woodpecker species I failed to see at least once was Pileated.