Saturday, December 31, 2011

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Yesterday afternoon, I found an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull along the edge of the artificial pond at Donaldson Park. At first it stood in the shallow water, and then it moved up onto the bank and stood there for a while. The mantle was clearly slate-gray, and its legs were obviously yellow in the afternoon sunlight. Light streaking on its crown and nape also indicates its identity. Oddly enough, there were no Great Black-backed Gulls present, or at least none that I saw. However, there were Herring Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls. This was a nice sighting to close out my county birding year.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Loose Feathers #323

Tundra Swans / Photo by D. Montgomery (USFWS)
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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Resident Birds

Two of the ubiquitous species in my area during the winter months (well, year-round, really) are the House Finch (above) and House Sparrow (below). Oddly, neither of these species is native to this area. The House Finch is a western species. Its eastern population grew from birds that escaped from the pet trade. The House Sparrow population grew from a series of deliberate releases in the 19th century.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Bizarro Birds

Birding in Johnson Park is usually an opportunity to observe the strange forms that result from domesticating waterfowl, and Monday was no exception. The bird above looks like the product of a Canada Goose interbreeding with a domesticated goose, probably a Greylag. This goose looks a bit different from the Canada X Greylag crosses that I normally see because of its mostly white face and white belly band. Greylag still seems like the most likely candidate based on availability.

This duck is one of many Mallard domestic breeds. It looked larger and bulkier than the wild Mallards nearby.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Christmas Bird Count Without Birds?

White-throated Sparrow in Donaldson Park
Yesterday was the Raritan Estuary Christmas Bird Count, my local CBC. As in past years, I participated along with my mother and sister, and we worked a section of the count circle that includes my patch, as well as a few other locations. Unfortunately, the birding yesterday was as slow as I have ever seen it in my area. Even Canada Geese and gulls, two mainstays for my area, were relatively few compared to past years. Common land birds were sparse as well; we only recorded four American Robins in the course of the day.

At least the starlings showed up
The highlights for the day were all in Johnson Park. They included a Wood Duck and two Common Goldeneye on the river, a Bald Eagle that flew overhead, and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker across River Road from the tennis courts. Also in Johnson Park, a Cooper's Hawk was harassing a Red-tailed Hawk. In Donaldson Park, I noticed that some of the Canada Geese were harassing a European Starling. I would have thought that a starling would be too small for the geese to care about it, but these geese were very aggressive. The count ended with 41 species and about 2,900 individual birds for our section.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Fern

One common fern from eastern North America is the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides). Christmas ferns stay green year-round, even through the coldest parts of winter. Because of this and their tolerance of multiple soil conditions, Christmas ferns are popular as ornamental plants. In the wild, this fern is partial to upland woodland, particularly rocky soil and wooded slopes.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Late December Frost

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Ring-billed Gulls

When the fields at my patch get wet from rain or flooding (or both), the puddles become a foraging area for waterbirds. Yesterday a group of Ring-billed Gulls were loafing and foraging in one of the wet fields near the pond. Here are a few of the birds.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Loose Feathers #322

Snow Geese and Ross's Geese at Sacramento NWR / Photo by Steve Emmons, USFWS
Birds and birding news
  • Scientists are urging that at least one third of "forage fish" like anchovies and herring be left for seabirds to eat. The high commercial demand for "forage fish" is starting to put seabird populations such as gulls, kittiwakes, terns, puffins, and penguins at risk.
  • When Lesser Kestrels and Jackdaws breed in mixed colonies together, they keep a truce of sorts: the Lesser Kestrels help protect the Jackdaw nests, and in return the Jackdaws do not prey on the Lesser Kestrels' eggs.
  • A study in Oregon found that thinning forests to give them old-growth characteristics (and thus make extra habitat for Spotted Owls) chases out flying squirrels, the Spotted Owl's primary prey. 
  • A pair of Whooping Cranes are wintering in western North Carolina.
  • The captive Spoon-billed Sandpipers that were taken to the U.K. are now out of quarantine.
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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Possible Benefit of Nest Parasitism

Shiny Cowbird / Photo by Lip Kee Yap
Brown-headed Cowbirds are well-known among birders for parasitizing the nests of other songbirds, particularly sensitive species like Kirtland's Warbler. Nest parasitism, in this sense, means laying eggs in the nests of other songbirds for the host birds to incubate and feed. Such nest parasitism puts pressure on the host species, but scientists studying Chalk-browed Mockingbirds (Mimus saturninus) and Shiny Cowbirds (Molothrus bonariensis) in South America have found an unexpected benefit.
Shiny cowbirds regularly visit mockingbird nests and attack and puncture any eggs they find there -- damaged eggs are later removed by the mockingbird host. During these visits cowbirds will often lay their own eggs in the nest for mockingbirds to hatch and bring up alongside their own chicks.

Whilst mockingbirds will mob an attacking cowbird, once an alien egg has been laid in their nest they will usually accept it -- even though it looks very different from their own eggs.

The researchers recorded video of 130 cowbird visits to see what happened to the eggs in mockingbird nests over three breeding seasons. They experimentally manipulated clutch compositions to compare host egg survival in clutches with different numbers of cowbird eggs. They found that mockingbird eggs were more likely to survive a puncture attack when more cowbird eggs were present in the nest.

Computer simulations showed that this is likely to be a widespread phenomenon, and that, paradoxically, the greater the local density of parasites, the stronger the benefit hosts get from the presence of parasite eggs.
It would be interesting to see if this applies to parasite-host relationships elsewhere as well.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Surprise Ducks

One of the great things about birding is its capacity for surprise. No matter how much you may think a bird might be a given species, it is always worth a closer look because it could be something else. Yesterday as I was walking through my local patch, I saw large numbers of the usual waterfowl like Canada Geese and Mallards. Across the river were some small, very white ducks. At first, I though they were probably Common Mergansers since those are usually present along this stretch of the river from December through March and even April. However, I checked more closely, and they turned out to be Common Goldeneye, a less common species for the site. It was hardly a rarity, but it was still a present surprise and a reminder of the importance of testing assumptions.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Fishing Line and Birds

At one time or another, we have probably all seen a bird hampered by fishing line, with the line wrapped around its legs or tangled elsewhere on its body. This is a widespread problem, especially since plastics line fishing line persist in the environment.

The problem is not new — or limited to Prospect Park. Birders in other city and state parks report similar cases. The Ocean Conservancy in Washington points out that monofilament fishing line, which is made from an individual fiber of plastic, has been in use since World War II, and as the decades pass, it has accumulated in the water and on land. For a quarter-century, the conservancy has organized coastal cleanups throughout the world on a single day in September. Over that time, 1,340,114 pieces of discarded fishing line have been collected, according to the group.

“Plastics in general are the most persistent forms of marine debris,” said Nicholas Mallos, a conservation biologist with the conservancy. “Once monofilament line becomes loose in the marine environment, it poses a serious threat.”

Birding groups and wildlife experts say that most fishermen and women are quite likely unaware of the impact on wildlife. The solution, they contend, is more education, as well as the availability of secure receptacles for old fishing line and hooks. Open trash cans easily overflow, they say, and the wind blows the line away.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Birds at South Amboy

Yesterday morning I birded two sites in South Amboy, the mudflats at Morgan Avenue and Waterworks Park. At the first site, there were a large number of the expected gull species loafing on the sandy spit or resting in the bay. As I was looking through those, a flock of Brant flew in and landed nearby. They proceeded to act as Brant normally do until the flock got spooked and took off. Some American Black Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers were present further out in the bay. Very few land birds were evident at either site.

The pond at Waterworks Park had more waterfowl, chiefly a flock of Canada Geese and about 35 American Coots. I had not seen that many coots in a while, so it was fun to watch them. They were particularly active and vocal yesterday. Out in the middle of the pond, there was one duck that took me a while to identify. Eventually I settled on female Redhead, but I was left with a little uncertainty. I find it much easier to identify Aythya ducks when there are in a group and individuals can be compared with each other.

Both photos show the same individual, but the color looks different in the second because the direction of light changed.

Finally, here is a view out into Raritan Bay at the end of Cliff Avenue.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Loose Feathers #321

Tufted Titmouse / Photo by Bill Thompson (USFWS)
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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Species Missing Endangered Species Act Protection

Cerulean Warbler / Photo by Lana Hays
It is no secret that the Endangered Species Act gives incomplete protection to vulnerable species in the United States. Not all vulnerable species are listed, and even when a species is listed, a recovery plan may take years to create or lack adequate funding. A new study attempts to quantify just how many species lack Endangered Species Act protections.
A study - now published in Conservation Letters - has compared the ESA list of endangered species with the world's leading threatened species list, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

The study has found that of the American species included on the IUCN Red List, 40% of birds, 50% of mammals, and 80-95% of other species such as amphibians, gastropods, crustaceans, and insects, were not recognised by the ESA as threatened.

This amounts to approximately 531 American species on the IUCN Red List that have not made the ESA protection list. These include bird species such as the critically endangered Kittlitz's murrelet (Brachyramphus brevirostris), the endangered ashy storm-petrel (Oceanodroma homochroa), and the vulnerable cerulean warbler (Dendroica cerulea).

"The ESA has protected species since its establishment in 1973, and it may have prevented 227 extinctions. However, the implementation of the ESA by successive US governments has been problematic, including poor coverage of imperilled species, inadequate funding, and political intervention," says study leader Bert Harris, a native of Alabama who is undertaking his PhD with the University of Adelaide's Environment Institute and School of Earth & Environmental Sciences.

"Vague definitions of 'endangered' and 'threatened' and the existence of a 'warranted but precluded' category on the ESA list are also contributing to the gap in species classification," he says.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Locust Trees in Black and White

The locust trees that I like so much are mostly bare, aside from a few stray seed pods. Even in winter, though, their crooked branches make the trees visually interesting, both in small details like above and in wider views like the ones below.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Bracket Fungi

These white bracket fungi covered the side of a tree at the Great Swamp on Saturday. Since I am a novice at identifying fungi, I am not going to venture a guess as to what they are.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Gulls, Geese, and Puddles

Rains last week left large puddles at my patch for these Ring-billed Gulls and Canada Geese to bathe in and drink.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Scenes from the Great Swamp

Yesterday I was at the Great Swamp NWR. There was very little visible or audible bird activity while I was there. In fact, there were not even many waterfowl, which is what I had hoped I might see there. So instead of looking at birds, I found myself looking at reflections in the water.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Kirtland's Warblers Like Young Forests

One of the early conservation challenges in rebuilding the Kirtland's Warbler population was providing sufficient nesting habitat. These birds nest in jack pines that are five to fifteen feet tall – in other words, very young forests. Jack pines need fire for their seeds to germinate, so stands of young jack pines are relatively uncommon in a context where forest fires are carefully controlled. Fortunately, conservationists found ways around this problem, and the Kirtland's Warbler population has recovered steadily since its nadir.

Kirtland's Warbler / Photo credit: Dave Currie
An interesting finding is that Kirtland's Warblers prefer young, disturbed forests on their wintering grounds as well as their breeding grounds.
But those extensive efforts only occurred at the Kirtland's summer home, so a team of researchers reviewed the conditions of many a warbler's winter home - the Bahamian island of Eleuthera. They did this by painstakingly putting together Landsat data to create cloud-free images of the isle's forest cover....

The researchers did this not just once, but ten times, obtaining a record that spans a 30-year time period. According to Helmer, this allows them to tell how long it had been since the forest was last disturbed by fire, crops or grazing.

What the scientists discovered was that, like in their summer homes, Kirtland's warblers are found in young forests. On Eleuthera, these forests only occur after a disturbance of some sort - like fire, clearing for agriculture, or grazing. And grazing turns out to be a disturbance the warbler can live with just fine. Old forest whose underbrush has been munched on by goats provides the most suitable habitat for warblers, said Helmer.

The results, published in this month's issue of Biotropica, suggest that goat grazing stunts the forest regrowth, so that the tree height doesn't exceed the height beyond which important fruit-bearing forage tree species are shaded out by taller woody species. Helmer said that understanding how and where the warbler's winter habitat occurs will help conservation efforts in the Bahamas.

Helmer said that a unique feature of warbler's winter habitat is that the age of this forest correlates very strongly with its height.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Loose Feathers #320

Brown Pelicans overwintering at Oregon Coast NWR / Photo by Roy W. Lowe (USFWS)
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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Delaware Bayshore Is an Important Bird Area

New Jersey's Delaware Bayshore has now been designated as a Globally Significant Important Bird Area.
To achieve the “Globally Significant” label, [New Jersey Audubon] and National Audubon submitted years of annual shorebird and waterfowl survey data to a panel of nationally and internationally recognized experts. The panel found that four species were present in numbers that met or exceeded the quota required to trigger the “Globally Significant” designation: The Bayshore is a crucial stopover site for migrating Red Knots and Ruddy Turnstones, and provides critical winter habitat for large concentrations of Snow Geese and American Black Ducks. The survey data was collected in annual surveys by wildlife biologists from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP).

Stretching along approximately 50 miles of coastline, from Fairfield Township in Cumberland County to Cape May Point in Cape May County, the Delaware Bayshore IBA includes about 50,000 acres, much of which is protected conservation land, including 13 state Wildlife Management Areas and the Cape May National Wildlife Refuge....

Awareness of the Delaware Bayshore’s importance began to grow in 1982, when staff at the New Jersey Audubon Society began the first aerial shorebird surveys to quantify the number and species of shorebirds using the Bayshore. These aerial surveys were later assumed by the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, which has performed them annually since 1986. The state also performs the annual winter waterfowl surveys that led to the inclusion of American Black Ducks and Snow Geese in the “Globally Significant” designation....

Of the four species named in the Globally Significant announcement, the plight of the Red Knot and Ruddy Turnstone is the best known and lends a bittersweet note to the designation. While recent surveys show significant numbers of birds refueling at the Bayshore during spring migration (12,000 to 16,000 Red Knots and 17,000 to 37,000 Ruddy Turnstones), they are lower than numbers of 95,000 Red Knots and 80,000 Turnstones recorded in the early aerial surveys. A precipitous decline in these populations began in the mid-1980s, when horseshoe crab harvesting rose dramatically for use as bait. The horseshoe crabs’ eggs are essential food that allows these long-distance migrants to make it to their summer arctic nesting grounds to breed.
I am actually surprised that this area was not designated as an Important Bird Area sooner since the importance of the area for migratory shorebirds (especially Red Knots) has been known for some time. Much of the area is already protected, so I am not sure whether this designation will lead to further conservation measures.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

A Birding Big Year in 2011

Amidst the talk over the recent movie based on Mark Obmascik's The Big Year, a birder named John Vanderpoel is doing an ABA big year and compiling some impressive numbers.

John W. Vanderpoel, who now lives in Colorado, has spotted 736 species of birds in 2011.

That means he has the second-biggest Big Year ever. He trails only Sandy Komito of New Jersey, who logged 748 species in 1998.

The 62-year-old Vanderpoel passed Virginia birder Bob Ake, who had 731 species in 2010, for second place.

He is only the 15th birder in the United States to log 700 species on a Big Year.

Topping 700 made him “happy and humble,” he wrote on his Big Year blog.
Apparently he has already reached one of his original goals:
He said his goal was to get to 700 species, not to set the record. In fact, he was the quickest Big Year birder to reach 700 species.

He has also seen 911 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians in his travels. His goal: 1,000.
Will he reach Komito's record? At this point it seems unlikely that he will pick up the 12 species he would need to tie the record (or the 13 to break it), but it is still possible. You can follow the rest of his big year on his blog.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Mute Swan at Donaldson Park

As I was walking around Donaldson Park (my patch) yesterday, I saw a Mute Swan on the park's pond. Mute Swans are not uncommon in New Jersey. In fact, they are very common in certain locations like Cape May or the Meadowlands. However, this was only the second time I have seen one on my patch (the first time was last Sunday). Since it was foraging close to the edge, I stopped to take some photos.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Snowy Owl at Merrill Creek Reservoir

A few weeks ago, a Snowy Owl was reported at Merrill Creek Reservoir in Warren County, New Jersey. If current trends continue, it may turn out to be part of the vanguard in a Snowy Owl irruption year. That aside, it has stuck around for a few weeks and has been seen by numerous observers. Yesterday, I finally got a chance to visit the reservoir and see it. Normally, when I visit Merrill Creek, I prefer to stay in the wooded wildlife sanctuary on the north end of the reservoir, but yesterday I decided to walk all the way around to see the owl and look for any waterfowl that might be hanging around the edges of the reservoir.

As you can see from the photo, I was successful in finding the Snowy Owl. Thanks to some directions posted on Friday on Jerseybirds, the owl was fairly easy to find. The owl is visible from the top of the main dam, on the south side of the reservoir. The dam is very high, so a scope will give better views, but I was able to see the owl and watch it turn its head back and forth just with binoculars.

The rest of my walk was fairly quiet, with only a few bird flocks here and there. I saw a lot fewer waterbirds than I expected: only about two dozen Buffleheads and a half dozen Horned Grebes. It felt a little strange to be walking around a body of water with no Canada Geese or Mallards visible. Land birds were also a little sparse. The highlights were a couple of calling Hairy Woodpeckers and a pair of Eastern Bluebirds. Somehow, though, I managed to add 13 species to my bird list for Warren County.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Finally a Greater White-fronted Goose

On Thursday, I had a chance to see a bird that has been on my wishlist for a while: a Greater White-fronted Goose. This was one of the last waterfowl missing from my lifelist that I could see in the eastern United States. I had attempted to see it on a few other occasions in a few other places but missed each time, often getting there a day or two after the last known sighting. Early this week, I found out about one that had been observed at Duke Island Park, a small park near the confluence of the North Branch and South Branch of the Raritan River. So on Thursday I went out to see it.

As it turned out, this turned out to be one of the easiest life birds I have ever looked for. The Greater White-fronted Goose was associating with a large flock of Canada Geese, and on Thursday morning, the flock was in the park's small pond. The Greater White-fronted Goose was on the side of the pond closest to the parking lot, so I had spotted the bird within five minutes of arriving. It stayed on that side of the pond for the entire time I was there, so I had plenty of opportunity to watch and photograph the goose.

Greater White-fronted Geese breed in the Arctic. Most winter in western North America and eastern Canada, but a few show up in the eastern United States each winter. These geese are slightly smaller than Canada Geese and resemble Greylag Geese, which provided the ancestral stock for most domesticated barnyard geese. They are recognized by their distinctive bright orange bill with a white vertical stripe at the base of the bill. They also have black barring on their breasts, but that field mark was mostly not visible on this bird since it was sitting in the water. In the photo above, you can see one of the black bars poking just above the waterline.

The rest of the park was pretty quiet. On the road leading from the park commission building to the dam, I saw a half dozen Eastern Bluebirds, two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and three Yellow-rumped Warblers. Other characteristic winter birds were present, like White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. One Blue Jay was making some odd noises that sounded more like chirps than like the typical Blue Jay calls. (Now that I think of it, I probably should have tried recording its vocalizations.) I was surprised to see two Orange Sulphurs, one of which is in the photo above. I had not seen any butterflies in a while and figured that they had been killed off by recent cold weather.