Friday, December 31, 2010

Loose Feathers #271

Northern Saw-whet Owl / Photo by Dave Darney (USFWS)

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

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Review Roundup for 2010

I wrote several reviews of bird and nature books over the course of 2010. Most (but not all) of the reviews are based on review copies provided by publishers. Here is a list of them, with links to the reviews. The first three are the best new nature books I have encountered this year; the rest are in reverse chronological order.
In addition to the books I reviewed, I received other review copies of new books from publishers. I still hope to review some of these, but here are some of the more interesting ones in case I do not finish the reviews.
These lists are by no means exhaustive, either of bird and nature books that I have seen this year, let alone what has been published. A good way to keep up with the latest bird and nature books is to follow The Birder's Library, which posts links to bird book reviews, and The Birdbooker Report, which covers general nature and science books in addition to bird books.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sparrows in the Snow

Deep snow still covers most of the ground in my town. However, there are some bare spots – places where people have shoveled or plowed, places sheltered from the snow, or places where snow has been trampled or melted a little. After not seeing many birds for most of my walk through my patch yesterday, I found a cluster of sparrows in one such bare spot. The sparrows were gathered under a tree, which must have reduced the amount of snow that fell in that area.

The sparrows were all Song Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos, with juncos making up about two-thirds of the total. A couple robins also dropped down to feed in the same area. There was a park road nearby with sloped snow embankments. It was amusing to watch some juncos skidding down the embankment as if they were sledding or skiing. They did not seem any worse off for it.

One junco seemed to have some snow and grass stuck to its wing. I assume that it got the snow off eventually as no junco appears that way in subsequent photos.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Post-Christmas Blizzard

There is a traditional Christmas carol that starts, "Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even." "Feast of Stephen" refers to the day honoring St. Stephen the first martyr, which falls on December 26. That came to mind on Sunday as I watched snow fall and pile up. In less than 18 hours we got 23 inches (58 cm) of snow in central New Jersey – in other words, sufficient to be deep and crisp. Nearby towns had about the same amount while areas to the north and west got a lot less.

The result was very pretty but also a lot of work to shovel. It also makes me wonder how lingering snow will affect next weekend's Christmas Bird Counts. I am planning to do the Long Branch count with Patrick on Saturday; then thanks to its postponement, I will be doing the Raritan Estuary count on Sunday. Will the important parts of our count sectors be accessible? Will the predicted rain on Sunday turn the local parks into a slushy, muddy mess? Hopefully the answers will be yes to the first and no to the second.

In the meantime, here are some photos of the snow. A photographer in Belmar (about 35 miles from me) made a time-lapse video of the snowstorm. NASA's GOES-13 satellite took a pretty cool photo as the storm was passing over New England yesterday. If you expand the image to its original size (and scroll to the right and down), you can see the snow lying on the ground in the mid-Atlantic states and the Carolinas. One part of New Jersey that does not appear white is the Pine Barrens; I am not sure exactly why it is dark.

Weather Underground, as usual, has informative coverage of the blizzard in yesterday's and today's blog posts.

Monday, December 27, 2010

My Best Photos of 2010

Inspired partly by Flickr's Your Best Shot 2010 group and partly by posts I have seen on other blogs, I decided to put together an end-of-year blog post with some of my better photos. I decided to pick one photo per month, since photographic subjects change throughout the year. Some months are good for snow photos, others for flowers, other for insects, etc. Some months were harder to choose than others because the number of photos I took and posted to Flickr varied so much – from a low of 27 in May to a high of 146 in September. Photos link through to Flickr in case you want to see larger sizes; I added text links to blog posts if I wrote a post about the photo's subject.

January: From the C&O Canal in western Maryland.

February: My local patch after a snowstorm.

March: A pier in North Cape May, near where I saw a Black-headed Gull.

April: Double Bloodroot at Leonard Buck Gardens.

May: Pyramidian, a sculpture by Mark di Suvero at Storm King Art Center. May was the last month I used my old Canon A520, which died while I was photographing moths.

June: Red Milkweed Beetles at Griggstown Grasslands. By June I had switched to a Panasonic FZ-35, my current camera.

July: A flower-like fireworks burst on Independence Day.

August: Cicada Killer with a cicada at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. I think this is my favorite photo from the year, though the bloodroot and a few others are close behind.

September: A Red-banded Hairstreak in the backyard.

October: Greenhouse Camel Cricket in my town's environmental center.

November: The sun's reflection in the waters of the D&R Canal near Griggstown.

December: A total lunar eclipse on the winter solstice.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Water Birds at Perth Amboy

This morning I was planning to participate in the Raritan Estuary Christmas Bird Count, but the count was postponed a week due to the forecasted snowstorm. Next weekend's weather is not looking great, either, but at least a chance of rain is easier to deal with than a blizzard. Unfortunately the postponement means that my sister will not be able to participate, but I think my team will still be able to cover its section adequately. It may take a little longer than usual, though.

If the count were happening today, one place that would be covered is the Perth Amboy waterfront. That is where I walked on Christmas Eve. The main appeal of the waterfront, from a birding perspective, is that it attracts diverse flocks of waterfowl and gulls. Usually there are dabbling ducks and Brant close to shore and diving ducks further out in the bay. On one visit I even saw a Long-tailed Duck. The usual numbers and diversity were not in evidence on Friday, however, and the few diving ducks were pretty far out. I was thinking that whoever had the section for the CBC would not have much to count. Maybe there will be more birds there next week.

On Friday, the common water birds provided a nice diversion. Ring-billed Gulls were especially plentiful, easily outnumbering the other two species combined. The first-winter gull on the lamppost gave a clear view of its undertail coverts.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Christmas Goose

Well, sort of. I am used to seeing lots of Canada Geese in my local patch. That is usually the only goose species present, and they are usually present in large numbers, a couple hundred at least, and sometimes many more than that. A couple days ago, this Snow Goose showed up. It was accompanied by almost 900 Canada Geese, which were spread out in several flocks around the park. The grayish bill and dark back combined with a white underside mark this as an immature white-morph goose.

The Snow Goose calmly kept eating even while Canada Geese were carrying on raucously in the background.

When it stretched, it gave a nice view of its rump and flight feathers.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Loose Feathers #270

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

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Book Note: Field Guide to Dragonflies and Damselflies of New Jersey

When I visited Scherman Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary a couple weeks ago, I picked up a new odonate guide, Field Guide to Dragonflies and Damselflies of New Jersey, by Allen E. Barlow, David M. Golden, and Jim Bangma. I was looking for a guide that would cover more of the region's species than the basic Stokes Beginner's Guide to Dragonflies, which only includes the most common ones. I think I found what I wanted in the guide by Barlow et al.

Despite its small size, New Jersey boasts an unusually diverse population of Odonata, thanks to its varied geography. To date, 182 species of damselflies and dragonflies have been identified in the state. Some of these are fairly uncommon within the state, such as northern species that reach their southern limit in the northwest corner of the state and specialties found only in Pine Barrens habitats. All 182 New Jersey species are included in the guide, both in species accounts and in a checklist at the end of the book.

The field guide is printed on heavy glossy paper and spiral-bound. It is too large to fit in a pocket, but it could be carried in a bag. Introductory materials discuss New Jersey's geography, the biology of dragonflies and damselflies, and how to observe and record them. The core of the book are the species accounts, which describe how to identify each species, where and when to find it, and how common each species is within the state. The species plates are in a separate section from the species accounts. Each species plate has at least one photo (usually photos of both males and females), its key identification features, a map showing the counties where it has been recorded, and a timeline showing the months when it is most active. The plates also indicate which species are endangered, threatened, or of species concern.

Unfortunately Field Guide to Dragonflies and Damselflies of New Jersey is not available on Amazon. If you would like a copy, you can order it through the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey. It is also available in New Jersey Audubon centers and presumably at other wildlife-oriented stores in the state.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lunar Eclipse on the Winter Solstice

On Monday night I stayed up to photograph the total eclipse of the moon. While lunar eclipses are not rare, it is unusual to have a total eclipse of the moon occur on the winter solstice. It last happened in 1638 and will occur again in 2094. These are a few of the photos I took when the eclipse was near totality. We were lucky to have clear skies in central New Jersey. A lot of people in North America were prevented from seeing the eclipse due to overcast conditions. The photo above was taken at 2:45 am; the one below is from 3:23 am, when the moon was almost completely dark.

The photo above is from 3:43 am; the one below is from 3:54 am. By this point the moon was clearly coming out of the earth's shadow.

I was not outside to see and photograph the full progress of the eclipse. I went out when the eclipse was approaching totality, went inside for a short break, and then went out again around the midpoint of the eclipse. Once the period of totality ended, I went back inside, posted the photos on Flickr, and went to bed. For the earlier stages, see Aydin's eclipse photos at Snails Tales. There are also photos by other people in a Flickr group set up by NASA.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Oldest Living Red-tailed Hawk

A Red-tailed Hawk found in New York last month turns out to be the oldest wild Red-tailed Hawk.

She doesn’t have a catchy name (or any name), a fashionable perch or Twitter twitter (“Pale Male’s Central Park is infested with humans but he’s tolerant”), but the red-tailed hawk first seen just before Thanksgiving sitting on a dead rabbit on the white line in the middle of Route 17M near Monroe, N.Y., has quite a story to tell.

When finally contained, after a somewhat erratic journey, she was clearly old and infirm. But it was not until people were able to study the aluminum band that had been placed on her left leg when she was 6 or 7 months old that they realized just how old she was: about 27 years and 9 months. Most red-tails that survive their first year — more than 60 percent do not — live about half that long.

Among red-tails whose ages could be documented, she was the oldest ever found alive in the wild in North America.
She was captured as a result of injury, but she is on the mend:
She has almost certainly traveled far since then, but her current acclaim began on Nov. 15 when a motorist, worried that the bird would be hit by a car, stopped to pick her up after seeing her feeding on a rabbit carcass in the road. When the bird didn’t fight him and wouldn’t let the rabbit go, he figured there was something wrong with her and put her in the back of his van, where she perched on a mop handle.

There were a few stops and missteps. She escaped when a worker at Sterling Forest State Park in New York tried to transport her in a banker’s box, but she was picked up the next day on the same highway and taken to the Bear Mountain Zoo, and then to Suzie Gilbert, a wild-bird rehabilitator in Garrison, N.Y.
The hawk is currently undergoing treatment for a hairline wing fracture at The Raptor Trust in northern New Jersey. If she recovers and is able to fly, she may be released in the spring.

(via 10,000 Birds)

Monday, December 20, 2010


This is an American Winterberry tree that I photographed at Cheesequake State Park on Saturday. These shrubs look unremarkable at other times of year, but they bear bright red berries through the winter. They provide a burst of color when most other plants look brown.

I do not recall ever seeing birds eat a winterberry's berries, but I have read that they provide a source of winter food in addition to their showy appearance.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Pitch Pines at Cheesequake

Yesterday I was at Cheesequake State Park. The bird life was not all that diverse, possibly because the preceding week was so cold. The best birds (from my perspective) were a couple of Red-breasted Nuthatches in a tract of pitch pines. I feel that a birding trip is always a good one if some Red-breasted Nuthatches are involved. Beyond that, there were two Great Blue Herons and three Great Egrets gathered on the ice of a single small pond. There was a small patch of open water at one end of the pond, but they mostly stood around the opposite side. I have seen Great Blue Herons on ice before, but a Great Egret looks out of place in such circumstances.

The photo at the top of this post comes from the trail through pitch pines where I saw the nuthatches. This is a very common tree species in New Jersey, especially in southern New Jersey's coastal plain. One of the odd characteristics of this species is that needles often sprout directly from the trunk.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas Trees and the Environment

Are real or artificial Christmas trees better for the environment? The New York Times comes down on the side of real trees.

The balance tilts in favor of natural Christmas trees because of the way they are grown and harvested.

Close to 400 million trees now grow on Christmas tree farms in the United States, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, which represents growers and retailers of real trees. About 30 million trees are harvested annually.

The living trees generate oxygen, help fix carbon in their branches and in the soil and provide habitat for birds and animals, Mr. Springer said.

Christmas tree farms also help preserve farmland and green space, particularly near densely populated urban areas where pressure for development is intense.

“It allows people with land that may not be the best farmland to have a crop that they can actually make a profit on, and not be under pressure to sell out to developers,” said Mike Garrett, owner and operator of a Christmas tree farm in Sussex, N.J.

After the holidays, real trees can continue to serve a purpose. New York City, for instance, offers free curbside recycling for trees, which are turned into compost. The city’s parks department also provides a free mulching service for trees at several locations after the holidays. In 2009, nearly 150,000 trees were composted or mulched in the city.

Artificial trees, by contrast, are manufactured almost exclusively in Asia from plastic and metal and cannot be recycled by most municipal recycling programs. After six to 10 years of use, most will end up in a landfill.
How much better natural trees are is subject to disagreement. A recent analysis by an environmental consulting firm concluded that a fake tree would have to be used for 20 years to have less environmental impact that buying a real tree annually. Industry groups making artificial trees argue that the difference is really five or ten years. In either case, the impact of a tree is probably smaller than choices we make year-round, such as commuting methods.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Loose Feathers #269

Birds and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere

Oil spill

Environment and biodiversity


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dried Red Oak Leaf

The leaf showed more reddish coloration than I expected when I photographed it with a flash.

I and the Bird #140

I and the Bird #140 is now available at Peregrine's Bird Blog.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Rate of New Species Discoveries

Since I started this blog five years ago, I have read and posted about new species discoveries numerous times, such as the Spectacled Flowerpecker earlier this year or the Limestone Leaf Warbler from last year. But how many new species are being discovered, and how does this compare with past discoveries? Further, are we likely to see more species discoveries in the future? Luckily, Nick Sly of Biological Ramblings has tried to answer those questions in a series of blog posts. In the first, he looks at rates of discovery by year and decade. In the second, he assesses common characteristics of species discovered since 1942. A third post breaks down recent discoveries by order and family.

As one might expect, the rate of species discoveries has declined considerably since the 19th century. However, birds continue to be discovered at a consistent pace, and there has been a slight uptick in the last decade or two. Discoveries since 1942 tend to be in families with a lot of cryptic species (like Sylviidae, or Old World warblers) or habits that make them difficult to study (like Strigidae, or owls). Discoveries also tend to be concentrated in tropical countries or involve species with small ranges.

Nick lays out all of this and more with charts that make it easier to understand the trends. So go visit his blog to read about it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Lichens on a Conifer

On Saturday afternoon, after the morning at Scherman Hoffman, I walked through part of Willowwood Arboretum. I followed a trail that led into a field that I had not seen before. As I walked around it I saw lots of birds, mainly Dark-eyed Juncos, but also Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice. At one end of the field there was a group of conifers, mostly stripped of their leaves. Instead, their branches and cones were covered with lichens. At some places they seemed to be dripping with lichens.

Some of the lichens had black hairs around the edges of their "leaves."