Friday, September 30, 2011

Loose Feathers #310

Common Yellowthroat / Credit: Bill Thompson/USFWS
Birds and birding news
Nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: Binocular Vision by Spencer Schaffner

Many, perhaps most, of the books I review here on A DC Birding Blog are field guides, from new editions of respected guides like Birds of Europe to annotated checklists like Birds of the West Indies to genre-creating guides like The Crossley ID Guide. Birding field guides are primarily tools. While watching birds just requires good vision (usually assisted by binoculars or a spotting scope), one needs to turn to a field guide to identify birds or learn more about them. Since most birders own at least one field guide, how field guides represent birds can influence birders' attitudes towards birds and towards birding as a pursuit. In Binocular Vision: The Politics of Representation in Birdwatching Field Guides, Spencer Schaffner analyzes field guides that have assisted birdwatchers since the development of birdwatching as a hobby in the late nineteenth century. In the process, he shows how these books have reflected and guided changes in the ideology of birding, particularly the relationship between birding and aspects of consumer culture and environmentalism.

Early field guides such as Birds through an Opera Glass and Birdcraft sought to make the professional study of ornithology into the widely accessible hobby of birdwatching. In the process, they hoped to turn public opinion against the millinery trade, which at that time made extensive use of real birds and their feathers for decorated fashionable hats. So they made birds as sympathetic as possible by anthropomorphizing them and emphasizing their useful and ethical qualities. Not all birds were portrayed as equally good, however. While some were praised for their beauty or songs, others were denounced for cannibalism or placing their eggs in the nests of other birds. This set up an ideology of birding in which some birds should be protected and appreciated by birdwatchers, while others were to be scorned or controlled.

In the 1920s and 1930s, field guides became more technical and less sentimental, with a narrow focus on helping birders identify birds by visual and auditory clues. Such trends culminated in Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds and continued through most subsequent printed field guides up the present. While field guides presented all birds on equal footing, favoritism lived on culturally, both among birders and society at large. Schaffner examines how favoritism affected four "nuisance birds": Bald Eagle, Mute Swan, gulls, and crows. Each of their fates has changed as public and expert views of them have shifted; however, these shifts are not reflected in field guides. Schaffner argues that the persecution programs that have targeted those and other "nuisance birds" benefit birdwatchers by making those birds rarer, and thus more exciting to see. This is an argument, by the way, that I have not heard from birders, only from people seeking to justify projects that would harm birds.

Most contemporary field guides separate birds from their environments, either by depicting them against a plain background or showing minimal naturalistic backgrounds. These have an advantage of focusing attention on each bird and its key characteristics. However, it deprives field guides of the opportunity to make the user grapple with the environmental problems facing birds. One field guide, All the Birds of North America, breaks from that trend by showing birds in human-altered landscapes such as an airport and a garbage dump. Grappling with the environmental effects of modern society is left for artists outside of the field guide genre. Some companies attempt to make their products appear environmentally friendly by showing birds interacting with them or going about their lives with the products in the background. Meanwhile, some contemporary artists take the opposite perspective, showing birds and other animals being killed by human technology and waste. It would be interesting to read how Schaffner would interpret The Crossley ID Guide, which like All the Birds of North America shows birds in altered landscapes.

Electronic field guides provide new opportunities to help birdwatchers identify birds, as they have the ability to include recordings of bird vocalizations instead of just written descriptions or sonograms of them. Some audio tools like Identiflyer do this on a rudimentary level, but there are already sophisticated apps for mp3 players and smartphones that present audio recordings together with images and descriptions of birds. Meanwhile online guides (Schaffner discusses and Cornell Lab or Ornithology's Online Bird Guide) present illustrations, descriptions, recordings, and life histories. It seems likely that tools will be available in the near future to automate identification of birds based on their appearance or sounds or provide birders with mobile access to vast databases of bird observations. Electronic guides offer the opportunity to present birders with a richer understanding of the birds they encounter than is possible in a standard printed field guide. However, they also link birdwatching to consumer culture, by expanding the number of "essential" products for birders to purchase.

From field guides, Schaffner moves to the phenomenon of competitive birding on polluted lands like landfills and sewage lagoons. This chapter has limited relevance to field guides, though such places are often included in bird-finding guides. However, it is important for Schaffner's major theme of the relationship between birding and environmentalism. Schaffner is fairly persuasive in arguing that birding is not a form radical environmentalism because birders use competitive birding to raise funds for conservation rather than to protest or highlight environmental degradation. (I am not sure that anyone would mistake it as radical, though.) I am less convinced by his argument that birders inadvertently support continued environmental degradation by looking for birds at toxic sites. He connects birding on toxic sites with projecting an image of toxic sites as being safe and friendly to birds if there is no overt mention of the toxicity, which is often hidden from view. Such an image of greenness becomes a tool for businesses or governments that want to minimize the scope of the toxic hazards that a landfill, Superfund site, or sewage lagoon contains. The reason I find this unconvincing is that many birders also engage in various forms of environmental activism from habitat restoration to political advocacy. What projects the image of harmlessness is less the birders than the birds themselves, and birders are at the sites because the birds are there, and not the reverse. Even without birders present, a person who sees a brownfield site covered in plants with birds singing in the shrubs is going to miss the toxins hidden in the soil underneath.

Spencer Schaffner poses important questions about the relationship between birdwatching and environmentalism and how that relationship is reflected in field guides. He offers a vision of a birdwatching that engages more with entire habitats and environmental problems. His prose is somewhat dense (especially towards the beginning of the book) but understandable and engaging. Overall, I think he provides a more useful account of twentieth-century birding than Scott Weidensaul did in Of a Feather, which I reviewed several years ago. I would recommend Binocular Vision: The Politics of Representation in Birdwatching Field Guides for anyone interested in the development of field guides or in re-imagining birdwatching for the twenty-first century.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Silver-spotted Skipper

There were fewer Monarchs around this afternoon than there were yesterday, but there were still several of them working the butterfly bush outside my window. Among them was this Silver-spotted Skipper. This is one of the larger skippers. Unlike most skippers, this one is easily recognizable because of its tall shape and the white splotch on the underside of its hindwing. It usually sits with its wings folded over its back instead of using the jet plane posture of the smaller skippers. Very occasionally I have a Silver-spotted Skipper with its wings spread flat. Silver-spotted Skippers are very common, and their larvae feed on locusts, wisteria, and legumes.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Monarch Migration

There is a large butterfly bush with white flowers outside my window. On most days I see a few butterflies at it, and some days there are a lot, with multiple species visiting it. Yesterday, this bush was covered with Monarchs. I could see at least a dozen at a time, and I could tell that more were present because I cannot see the entire bush from one position, and Monarchs kept arriving and leaving. Normally there will only be one or two Monarchs among the butterflies at the bush, so I think there must have been a major migratory movement yesterday.

Monarchs are probably the most familiar insects to the general public, as they are often used in schools as examples of biological phenomena like metamorphosis and mimicry. They are also large, colorful, and (at times) plentiful, so they are easily noticed even by people whose eyes are not tuned to insect movements.

Unlike most butterflies, Monarchs are fully migratory. In the fall, the eastern population migrates to wintering grounds in central and southern Mexico, while the western population retreats to southern California. In spring, these routes are reversed. No individual Monarch completes the entire round trip. Rather, females from the wintering population lay eggs in February or March, and subsequent generations complete the northward journey.

As with birds, geography influences Monarch migration. The best places to see large numbers of Monarchs at once are at southward-pointing peninsulas, like Cape May Point in New Jersey. Sometimes the air will be so full of Monarchs (and dragonflies!) that it can be hard to pick out birds from other flying things. One of my most memorable experiences of Monarchs was at Point Lookout State Park in Maryland on a chilly October morning when thousands of Monarchs were gathered at the point of the peninsula as they waited to warm enough to continue their journey. Migration occurs across a broad front, however, so you may see increased numbers in other butterfly gardens as Monarchs migrate.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Honey Bees

I find honey bees unusually difficult to photograph well. I am not sure if this is because they tend to keep moving or because they are so hairy. Either way, most of my photos of them are plagued by blurring from movement or improper focus. Yesterday, though, I caught up with a few honey bees that were plying the white snakeroot in the back garden.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Threat to the Winter Refuge of Whooping Cranes?

If you have been following weather news in North America, you may be aware that Texas is in the midst of a prolonged drought that is extreme even by that state's standards. That drought has been exacerbated by one of the hottest summers on record. That situation is unpleasant for the people who live there and sets up battles over water rights. One of them concerns the winter residence of endangered Whooping Cranes.

Whooping Cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge / USFWS
The western migratory population of Whooping Cranes breeds in Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada and migrates south to Aransas NWR for the winter. The refuge protects freshwater and brackish marshes where the cranes can forage. Unfortunately these marshes are now threatened by the recent drought to the extent that their water chemistry is changing. Conservationists are seeking to change water usage upstream along the Guadeloupe River to protect the cranes' winter home.
In drought-stricken Texas, heavy water use by chemical plants, refineries, and cities has left less fresh water for estuaries downstream, helping raise salinity levels in the coastal marsh 175 miles southwest of Houston. So environmentalists have sued state regulators to restrict water use along the river to protect the habitat of the last wild flock of whooping cranes that spend each winter there. But Dow Chemical (DOW), with a plant just upstream from the cranes, says it was there first. Citing the state’s first-come-first-served water-use regulations, Dow claims permits dating back to the 1940s allow it to use as much of the Guadalupe River’s output as it wants.

All this will be aired in federal court in December in a case that threatens to upend long-standing water rights....

Due to Texas’ historic drought, the Guadalupe’s flow is down by more than 60 percent at Victoria, roughly 20 miles upstream from the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the cranes’ winter range. In September the refuge’s marshes were three times saltier than normal. The birds migrate from Canada each year to spend the winter feeding on crabs and berries along the Texas coast. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counted 571 wild and captive whooping cranes in July 2010. The Aransas group makes up half that number and is the world’s last migrating flock that can sustain itself in the wild.

The coastline from just east of the cranes’ refuge to the Louisiana border bristles with the world’s largest concentration of petrochemical and refining complexes, many of which rely on river water. An association including owners of five petrochemical plants near the refuge, including Dow, DuPont (DD) and Lyondell Basell (LYB), several power plants, and a nearby steel mill, have sided with Texas authorities to defend the allocation system, while some coastal towns and businesses that rely on healthy bays and estuaries support the environmentalists.

The two sides are far apart. LaMarriol Smith, the river authority’s spokeswoman, says that giving more water to the cranes “could basically wipe out economic development, especially in the lower end of the basin.” Yet Charles Smith, a county commissioner in Aransas County, counters that his county’s economy depends on tourists who fish, hunt, and bird watch along the coast and commercial fishing that relies on proper salinity levels maintained by adequate freshwater inflows. Says Smith: “Estuaries are the most productive zones on the planet—the cradle of life—and I think our cradle is being robbed.
It should be noted that this is not a simple conflict between birds and petrochemical companies. There are residents upstream who need drinking water, and there are fishermen downstream whose livelihoods depend on healthy estuaries. Ecotourism provides an additional economic incentive to maintain the estuaries. The endangered status of the Whooping Cranes may be the legal tool used to save the marshes, but if the suit succeeds, they are unlikely to be the only beneficiaries of a change in water rights.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Winter Finch Forecast

Purple Finch / USFWS Photo
Even though the season just turned to autumn, Ron Pittaway has issued his annual forecast for the migration of winter finches and associated birds in eastern Canada and the northeastern United States. This is a useful service for birders since many finch species do not follow the same migration pattern each year. Instead they move in response to the availability of seed crops, which vary from year to year. If the seed crop in the boreal forest is really good, finches stay in the boreal forest. If the crop is sparse, they move to a location with a better crop, which could take them south, west, or east. Heavy southward movement of one or more finch species is known as an "irruption."

This year the seed crops are good, so mass southward migration is unlikely. These species seem the most likely to wander south:
PURPLE FINCH: Purple Finches will be uncommon in Ontario, but probably in higher numbers in Atlantic Canada, New York and New England where cone crops are excellent. A few may frequent feeders in southern Ontario. The Purple Finch has declined significantly in recent decades. Some suggest it declined due to competition with the House Finch. However, the drop in numbers began before House Finches were common in eastern North America and also occurred where House Finches were absent. A better explanation for the decrease is the absence of large spruce budworm outbreaks that probably sustained higher Purple Finch populations in the past....

PINE SISKIN: The nomadic siskin is a spruce seed specialist. There are currently large numbers of siskins in Yukon including a high proportion of hatch year birds. They will move because the spruce crop is average in Yukon and Alaska this year, possibly coming to the East. Siskins are expected to be widespread across Ontario this winter. Good numbers are likely to be drawn to the excellent spruce and hemlock crops in Atlantic Canada, New York and New England....

RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH: This nuthatch is a conifer seed specialist when it winters in the north and its movements are triggered by the same crops as some of the boreal finches. There has been very little southward movement indicating that this nuthatch will winter in areas with heavy cone crops such as the boreal forest, Quebec, Atlantic Canada, New York and New England States.
Read the full report for information on the other species. To read more about which birds are classed as winter finches and their habits, see this essay by Ron Pittaway (pdf).

Friday, September 23, 2011

Loose Feathers #309

Chaffinch / Photo credit: Michael Apel
Bird and birding news
Nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, September 22, 2011

S is for Snakeroot

One of the plants blooming profusely at the moment is White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima). Snakeroot is comfortable in a variety of habitats, from thick shade to partial sun. It is especially at home in open woods and thickets, but I have also seen it growing in more open areas. Snakeroot produces clusters of small white flowers on long stems. Its leaves are vaguely heart-shaped and roughly toothed. Snakeroot is one of many species that were formerly grouped in genus Eupatorium, so you may occasionally see its scientific name given as Eupatorium rugosum in older publications.

Snakeroot seems to be much unloved. Part of the reason is its weediness; it often grows in dense patches, spreads rapidly, and can take over an area if left unchecked. While I appreciate the beauty of its white flowers, the large, rough leaves might not be aesthetically appealing to everyone. Another reason for its poor reputation may be its toxicity. White Snakeroot produces tremetol, a toxin that produces severe intestinal distress if it is ingested. In the 19th century, tremetol often poisoned humans who had consumed milk from cows that had eaten snakeroot, a disease known as milk sickness.

Despite its bad reputation, not every animal is harmed by the plant's toxins. Many insects find snakeroot useful for food. According to the HOSTS database, five species of moths have been recorded using White Snakeroot as a larval hostplant. They are Clymene Moth (Haploa clymene), a leaf blotch miner moth (Leucospilapteryx venustella), Hitched Arches (Melanchra adjuncta), Ailanthus Silkmoth (Samia cynthia), and another silkworm moth (Samia walkeri).

Besides that, many insects use snakeroot for nectar, like this Asian Tiger Mosquito (Aedes albopictus). I have also seen various bees and hoverflies nectaring at snakeroot, but I cannot find an image from my files.

Others just rest on its leaves, like this picture-winged fly (Delphinia picta).

Yesterday I found something I had not noticed before in the snakeroot patches in the backyard. Many snakeroot plants had long lines of tiny aphids up and down the stems. Of course, where there are aphids, there are likely to be ants, so there were also many ants walking up and down the stems to tend to the aphids. Thanks to Alex Wild for identifying these as winter ants (Prenolepis imparis). Click through the photo above to see more of the ants.

There was a particularly dense cluster of aphids near the top of the plant, and there were ants along with them. This cluster was harder to photograph because the flower head was in the way. While snakeroot may be nutritious to some insects, I still would not suggest eating it yourself. However, unless there is a risk of accidental ingestion (by a pet or small child, for example), it may be worth leaving some snakeroot in place for insects to use.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Least Skipper

I found this Least Skipper on my local patch yesterday afternoon. I accidentally flushed it off of some asters, but it landed nearby. It then sat very still while I took a series of photos of it. I almost turned my ankle while I was getting into position to photograph it because a deep rut hidden in the long grass. As you can guess from the name, Least Skipper is a tiny butterfly. It prefers wet meadows, marshes, and streams.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Another Example of Crow Intelligence

As if we needed further evidence for the intelligence of corvids, researchers studying New Caledonian Crows have found them using mirrors to solve problems.

Scientists captured 10 wild birds and placed them in large cages in order to record their behaviour in response to mirrors.

All the crows reacted to seeing their reflections as if they were encountering another crow; the birds made rapid head movements, raised their tails and even attacked the reflection.

Lead researcher Felipe S Medina Rodriguez said the crows' antagonistic reaction to their mirror image "was not surprising". He explained that an animal usually had extensive exposure to mirrors before it began to display an understanding that the image it was seeing was itself....

The second part of the experiment, though, revealed some surprising findings.

The scientists devised a task to test whether the crows could use mirrors to locate cubes of meat that were hidden from direct view.

All of the crows tested appeaed to understand how the meat's reflection correlated to its location.

"We were surprised by how quickly the crows learnt to use a mirror reflection to locate hidden food," said Mr Medina.

"Usually, it takes longer for an animal to start using the properties of mirrors to have access to otherwise non-visible objects."
Further tests ruled out the possibility that crows were using a sense of smell to find the food. Other animals that can interpret images in mirrors include African grey parrots, great apes, dolphins, monkeys and Asian elephants, but apparently these New Caledonian Crows were the first to do so without extensive prior contact with humans.

The linked article also contains a summary of a study on the problem-solving skills of Great Tits and Blue Tits.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Backyard Insects on Goldenrod and Sedum

With the approach of autumn, a lot of summer flowers are starting to die back and be replaced with seed heads or berries. The insects that made such intensive use of them are also fewer in number. A few types of flowers still are blooming, though, and if you look closely you can still see insects using them.

Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) is one of the most prominent plants of autumn meadows and wildflower gardens. Insects notice and take advantage of their rich yellow flower bracts. One of the insects making use of the goldenrod in my backyard was this fly. It appears to be Trichopoda pennipes, a new species for me. It is in a group known as "feather-legged flies," in reference to the hairy tufts on their hind legs.

Also nectaring at goldenrod were several mosquitos, including this one.

Finally, this wasp, which appears to be Eumenes fraternus, was sitting on top of one of the Sedum plants. It barely moved at all while I ran off a series of photos, which made me wonder if it was really sipping nectar or doing something else.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Migration at Scherman-Hoffman Sanctuary

Yesterday I went to Scherman-Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary in search of migrating songbirds. The weather conditions favored inland hotspots, so I expected some diversity. As it turned out, warblers were rather sparse, so that I only recorded four species (Common Yellowthroat, Bay-breasted, Palm, and Magnolia Warblers). Blue Jays, American Robins, and Northern Flickers were all present in numbers above what I would normally expect. The most noticeable migrants, though, were Broad-winged Hawks. I saw two kettles, one with about 40 individuals and another with about 20 individuals. Another group apparently saw 100 hawks in a single kettle. Aside from those, I noted one migrating Osprey.

Fall wildflowers are blooming in the sanctuary's meadows, including many types of asters. There were, of course, a lot of New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). I have identified these three additional species as best as I can. The one above appears to be a Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve). The one below seems to be Purplestem Aster (Symphyotrichum puniceum). The one at the bottom looks like a Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum). If you see a better identification for any of them, please leave a comment.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Local Migration Birding

I had read that weather conditions would be favorable for migration Thursday night into Friday, so yesterday morning I headed over to the closest patch of woodland: the Rutgers Ecological preserve. I hoped the woods might shelter some warblers and other migratory songbirds as they rested from a long night of flying. As it turned out, the numbers were fairly sparse. I recorded 27 bird species overall, 7 of which were warblers. The best bird of the morning was a Tennessee Warbler, a new county bird for me. I also had nice looks at a first-fall Blackburnian Warbler, a couple of Black-throated Green Warblers, and a Scarlet Tanager. The woods overall were very quiet, with only a couple of roaming flocks of birds. There were hawks moving, once the morning warmed a bit. I saw two Red-tailed Hawks, three Broad-winged Hawks, and one Sharp-shinned Hawk kettling at an altitude that suggested migration rather than foraging locally.

Aside from the birds migrating through, there were other signs that fall is coming soon. For one thing, the air was very chilly, so chilly that I felt underdressed for the first time in months. Some trees are already starting to change into their fall colors, such as this winged sumac.

Fall wildflowers were also in bloom. Above is a calico aster, noteworthy for the mix of yellow and purple centers combined with white rays. Below is a grass-leaved goldenrod, whose flower heads have flat tops instead of the hanging stems characteristic of other goldenrods.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Loose Feathers #308

Blackpoll Warbler / Photo credit: Donna Dewhurst (USFWS)
Birds and birding news
Nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Backyard Wasp and Weevil

Insects are taking advantage of the crop of fall flowers in the backyard. Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) is now in bloom and attracting a variety of bees and other insects. One of them was this paper wasp. It seems to match some examples of Polistes fuscatus that I found on BugGuide, but I am not absolutely sure of the identification. Polistes fuscatus is a very common and variable species, and I have encountered it before around the same time of year.

Here is another view of the same wasp. Its face was yellow, which I think means that it is a male.

Another insect I found yesterday was this weevil, which is crawling through Sedum flowers. There are numerous species of weevils, and I am not sure which one this is, or even what its genus is. Curculionidae is one of the largest of all animal families, with over 40,000 species worldwide and 2,500 species in North America. If you are familiar with Sedum, you can get a sense of just how tiny this weevil is. It seems dwarfed by the flowers, which themselves are pretty small.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Whimbrel Navigates a Storm but Gets Killed Anyway

Machi being fitted with satellite transmitter in August, 2009. Image credit: Barton Paxton
A few weeks ago, I mentioned a migrating Whimbrel that had successfully flown through the most severe portion of Hurricane Irene. There are other Whimbrels tagged by the same monitoring program at the Center for Conservation Biology, which follows the migratory paths of these distinctive shorebirds. Another Whimbrel, named Machi, recently navigated another tropical cyclone, this time Tropical Storm Maria. This story, though, does not have a happy ending for the bird, as it was shot and killed by hunters on Guadaloupe.
Scientists at the Center for Conservation Biology learned today that a whimbrel that they had been tracking via satellite for 2 years as part of a migration study had been shot by a hunting party this morning on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe (French West Indies).  The bird named “Machi” had just flown through Tropical Storm Maria and made landfall on Montserrat before flying to Guadeloupe.  Machi had been tracked for over 27,000 miles (44,000 km) back and forth between breeding grounds in the Hudson Bay Lowlands of Canada to wintering grounds on the coast of Brazil.  The bird was tracked on 7 nonstop flights of more than 2,000 miles.  During the spring of 2010, Machi flew more than 3,400 miles directly from Brazil to South Carolina.  Machi serves as an example of birds that interact with many landscapes and cultures throughout the year and a reminder of how international cooperation is required for their continued existence.
The center argues that this is a persistent conservation problem on Caribbean islands since many are not subject to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which governs the treatment of birds crossing international boundaries in North America.
Guadeloupe, Martinique and Barbados continue to operate “shooting swamps” some of which are artificial wetlands created to attract migrant shorebirds for sport shooting during fall migration.  It is estimated that tens of thousands of shorebirds continue to be taken annually by hunting clubs on just these three islands.  This practice is a throwback to more than a century ago when gunners hunted shorebirds throughout the Americas.  The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed, in part, to protect dwindling numbers of birds that migrate across country borders.  Operated as a French overseas department, both Guadeloupe and Martinique are part of the European Union and are not party to the Treaty.  Barbados, once a British colony is now an independent state and also not party to the Treaty.  The last Eskimo Curlew known to science was shot on Barbados in 1963.  Shorebird hunting within these areas continues to be unregulated to the present time. Conservation organizations continue to work toward some compromise that will reduce pressures on declining species. 

Worldwide, many shorebird populations are experiencing dramatic declines.  Most of the migratory shorebird species breeding in eastern North America and the Arctic pass over the Caribbean region during the late summer and early fall on their way to wintering grounds.  When they encounter severe storms the birds use the islands as refuges before moving on to their final destinations.  Hunting clubs take advantage of these events and shoot large numbers of downed birds following the passage of these storms.  During the 2009 and 2010 fall migrations, Machi did not stop on any of the islands but flew directly from Virginia to Paramaribo, Suriname before moving on to winter near Sao Luis, Brazil.  It appears that the encounter with Tropical Storm Maria caused the bird to stop on Guadeloupe.
This comes from the press release about the incident, which may be downloaded here.

Tracking map of Machi (2009-2011).  Image credit: The Center for Conservation Biology.
Update: It turns out that a second tracked Whimbrel was also shot there on the same day (pdf). BirdLife and other conservation organizations, including the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds, are calling for better regulation of hunting in the Caribbean to avoid killing species of conservation concern.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

An Abundance of Mushrooms

Over the past month, New Jersey has received an extraordinary amount of rain. Most of it came in the course of two storms: a drenching rainstorm on August 14 and Hurricane Irene on August 27-28. Since then, the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee and other have kept the ground moist. The results of this month-long saturation were evident during my walk in Cheesequake State Park on Saturday. While the birding was slow, mushrooms were varied and plentiful. I do not know mushrooms very well, so these will go unidentified for now. If you recognize one, please leave a comment.

The star of the show was this red mushroom.

This was a close second because of its rich orange color.

Some mushrooms were tiny.

Others were large and cup-shaped.

At first I thought this black cup-shaped fungus was just a version of the one above that was past its prime, but then I realized there were a lot more like it.

This fungus resembled a flattened white blob, like someone spilled dough or batter on the ground.

This orange fungus grew from the end of a fallen branch.

This white fungus looked dainty compared to some of the others.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Pale Beauty at East Brunswick Moth Night

On Saturday evening I went with my friend Anita and her husband to the final session of East Brunswick Moth Night for 2011. The moth diversity was a bit lower than expected. Relatively few macromoths visited the sheet, and those that visited the moth sugar were almost all Copper Underwings. However, there were plenty of insects to keep all of the attendees occupied, including one large katydid that alternated between sitting on the sheet and spooking attendees with its loud katydid calls from a nearby tree. I will post more photos from Saturday's session as I identify the insects.

Near the end of the night, just when we were thinking of wrapping up, this moth arrived and landed on the ground in front of the mercury vapor lamp. It is a Pale Beauty (Campaea perlata), a geometer notable for its large size and pale green color. A second Pale Beauty (shown below) flew in shortly after the first. The two moths displayed noticeable differences in size and color, despite being the same species.

Dave Moskowitz, who runs the moth night series, wrote a recent post on discovering the biodiversity that lurks in suburban backyards, especially insect diversity.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Looking for Warblers and Finding a Wren

Now that the Ospreys are gone, other birds can make use of their platforms.
I was at Cheesequake State Park yesterday morning to look for newly-arrived southbound songbirds. The birding was slower than I expected, with only five warbler species seen: Black-and-White Warbler, Northern Parula, Pine Warbler, American Redstart, and Common Yellowthroat. The Pine Warbler was notable since it was singing when I found it, which is a behavior I cannot recall seeing with Pine Warblers in past falls. It was in its characteristic habitat, the pitch pine forest near the edge of the salt marsh.

A hint of autumn
The clear highlight of the morning was a Marsh Wren that I pished up on the Yellow Trail between the lake and the interpretative center. It was very vocal, chattering in response to stuk sounds I was making with my tongue. Other possible migrants included a Red-eyed Vireo and an Eastern Phoebe.

Perennial salt-marsh aster
Birders thinking of visiting Cheesequake should be aware that there is bow-hunting in the park this fall to reduce the number of White-tailed Deer. I spoke to one of the park staff about this, and from what he told me, it safe to walk the blazed trails between now and November 1 (but not to venture off of them); after November 1, hunting will include all of the park except the areas immediately around the buildings and family campground.