Thursday, November 27, 2008

Birding Notes

While I have been neglectful of this blog over the past two weeks, I have been seeing some good birds.

Last week was phenomenal for red-tailed hawk migration. At a single banding station we banded 102 for the week, including 36 on one day (tying a single day record for the project), and 27 and 24 on two other days. It appears that a lot of buteos were lingering north of here, until a series of strong cold fronts (and possibly some snow) pushed them south. The last two weeks have also brought three red-shouldered hawks, a peregrine falcon, and a merlin – all rather late migrants – to our station. The hawk watch had similarly impressive red-tail numbers last week.

At the same time that red-tailed hawks were barreling through, fox sparrows started to arrive in large numbers. I have been hearing their songs all over the island this week. At first the song confused me because it starts off like a cardinal's but does not end like one, and at times sounds almost like an oriole. Eventually I figured out what it was. Speaking of orioles, there are still some around here, including one that I saw outside of where I am staying.

Owls are also migrating through. Yesterday I followed a report to find a long-eared owl. It was mostly obscured by branches, but still identifiable. A northern saw whet owl was reported from the same location, but I did not find that species. Had I stayed and checked each tree thoroughly, I might have located the tiny bird, but I did not want to create too much disturbance in that grove.

This afternoon at the Beanery, I encountered a Cooper's hawk, a sharpie, a red-tail, a kestrel, and a merlin. That's not bad for a walk of only about an hour. Plus there were several sparrow species – all of which gave great looks in the low-angle sunlight – and a few meadowlarks.

Happy Thanksgiving! I'll be back to regular posting fairly soon.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #86 is now available.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Taking Aim

Background here.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Adult Male Harrier

We band very few adult hawks in Cape May, as most of the coastal migrants are hatch year birds. This is the first adult male northern harrier that I have seen in the hand; I still have not held an adult female.

Note the bright yellow eyes and gray facial disk.

While the breast is gray, the belly is white (with light brown barring).

The back is darker gray than the wings.

These birds stand out at a distance, so much so that they seem less in tune with their surroundings than the female and immature forms, which take the color of marsh and meadow grasses. Male harriers seem to belong on the tundra, like snowy owls or gyrfalcons.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

How Many Rare Birds?

David Sibley has been running an interesting series of posts on how many rare birds are out there versus how many we find.

  1. How many do we miss?
  2. How many do we find?
  3. Rare birds and the internet
The second post was partly in response to an interview that I did with Nick at the Birdist. I had already been changing my opinion somewhat since doing that interview because of my experience at Cape May. While there are a lot of birders here, it seems that the same few places get the bulk of attention from most birders, while other sites get less coverage. So a lot of rare birds could be slipping through, even here.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Hawk Personalities

N8 is right that bird species show different temperaments in the hand, and this holds for raptors as well as the songbirds that he helps to band. Among raptors, larger birds tend to be calmer than smaller birds. This is not always true, as bald eagles and northern goshawks both have reputations for being a bit high strung, but it holds for most raptor species.

Among buteos, red-tailed hawks are fairly docile, which is a good thing since their legs are powerful and their talons are particularly large. They just sit still with their mouths open and their wings spread wide until it is time for release. Red-shouldered and broad-winged hawks will try to bite and are often successful. (Bandages and hand wipes are very useful in a banding station.) The buteo-like golden eagle is also remarkably calm; both golden eagles this week tolerated many curious onlookers and extra measurements without struggling at all.

Accipiters are more likely to struggle and bite, though the majority of both sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks will tolerate the handling necessary for banding. I have been bitten numerous times (and occasionally footed) by both of the common accipiters. Sharpies often act tough despite their small size, much more so than Cooper's hawks.

Falcons are the most high strung of all the raptors that I have handled this fall. Like N8's chickadees, they are very good at finding sensitive spots when they bite, which they do at every opportunity. They are also very flexible, especially kestrels. Both kestrels and merlins will scold during the banding process; merlins often keep scolding as they are flying away after release. Still true to the size rule, peregrines will not struggle or scream as much as the smaller falcons, but they do hiss (like a cat) and bite. Hissing makes their fish breath even more noticeable. Unlike other hawks, most falcons will perch near the banding station and try to pull their bands off immediately after release.

Those observations, of course, do not hold for all individuals of a species. From time to time we get a feisty red-tailed hawk or a calm merlin.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #88 is available at Aimophila Adventures.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Sharing Checklists

EBird now allows checklist sharing, so that multiple users can submit sightings to the same checklist when they bird together.

Checklist sharing makes it possible to copy an eBird checklist to another user's account. Each user can edit the checklist to more closely match the species he or she saw that day. This allows multiple copies of the same checklist to be associated with a single birding event and ensures that we do not create unnecessary duplicates for our scientific analyses. At the same time, this gives our users the flexibility to make sure that their personal records are accurate. We are excited about this release for several reasons: 1) it will make data entry easier for eBirders that bird in groups; 2) it allow us to more accurately describe your group birding events; and 3) it provides an easy way to introduce people to eBird.

When birding as part of a group, we consider there to be two types of checklists: a Group Checklist and an Individual Checklist. A Group Checklist is the summation of the highest counts of each species seen by the group. Thus, if one person in the group sees 8 Painted Redstarts and 2 Red-faced Warblers, but the rest of the group saw 6 Painted Redstarts and 3 Red-faced Warblers, then the Group Checklist would show 8 Painted Redstarts and 3 Red-faced Warblers. When a shared eBird checklist is accepted by another member of the group, a unique Individual Checklist is created which can then be edited. In addition, a Group Checklist is automatically created that is a summary of reports by all members of the group, taking the highest value for each species from each checklist. Although each user's Individual Checklist will remain unique within his or her personal account, the Group Checklist that eBird uses for output (maps, graphs, bar charts) will be a combined checklist for all individuals.
The link has directions for how to do this.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

More Golden Eagles

Yesterday was the first cold front followed by clear weather in about two weeks. As a result, a lot of birds that had been bottled up north of here started moving through. There were decent number of buteos – as many red-shouldered hawks as I have seen so far this season and some red-tailed hawks, too.

The real story were the golden eagles. One of our blinds banded a second golden eagle, also a hatch year male, but with darker wings and a narrower tail band. This was only the fourth time the project has banded more than one in a year.

Also, I hear the hawk watch had a record day for golden eagles. (Update: More on the record day here and here.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Golden Eagle

We banded one of these yesterday. It was the first of the season to be banded, though nine have been counted from the hawk watch. This bird may have been seen from the hawk watch on the same day.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Snowy Owls, Part 2

Some bloggers north of here went to see snowy owls that have already been reported in the northeast.

Christopher went to see the snowy owl at Plum Island (MA).

Tom visited the snowy owl in Norwalk (CT).

Remember, if you do follow a snowy owl report and find the bird, keep a respectful distance and do not interfere with its normal activities.

Deformed Bills

Raptors with deformed bills are turning up along the West Coast.

Hundreds of other birds are not so lucky. The most commonly affected seem to be raptors and crows. But it’s easy to find distressing pictures of other species... from chickadees to hummingbirds....

Manthey surveyed fish and game departments and wildlife rehabilitation centers across the region. Reports of affected birds stretch from California to Alaska. Sightings appear to be concentrated west of the Cascades. It gets sketchier the further east you go; for example, nothing in Idaho. Among researchers, this has become known as “long billed syndrome.”
The cause of the deformity is undetermined.
Veterinarian Lindsey Oaks studies animal diseases at the university in Pullman. Other researchers are based at the Alaska Science Center in Anchorage and Oregon State University. Dr. Oaks says “many, many things” could cause a bird’s beak to grow abnormally.

Oaks: “Since there are no inflammatory cells, no evidence of infectious disease, it sort of makes you want to think about toxins. But of course there are all kinds of toxins, all different sorts of things. There is nothing consistently associated with this type of disease that we’re aware of. So it presumably would be something new.”

Oaks says genetic defects could play a role as well. The affected birds are a mixture of residents and migrants, which adds to the mystery....

Oaks hopes to unravel the mystery by figuring out what’s happening at the molecular level and then working backwards. So far, he’s found unusual proteins in affected birds that are not present in normal bird beaks.
I hope that the cause is found soon if this is being caused by an environmental contaminant or a contagious disease.

Saturday, November 08, 2008


After several days in which rain shut down most banding activities, we finally reopened all of the banding stations yesterday morning. Unfortunately, the results were still not good. The "best" bird of the day (at my station, anyway) was a purple berry-stained sharpie. (Unfortunately, I did not get photographs of it.) Midway through the day, we got a call about a rare bird being seen at St. Mary's Jetty - a thick-billed murre.

Normally found off eastern Canada and New England, this alcid comes this far south only rarely. So we closed up and went down to see it. The murre was floating in the surf about 10-20 feet offshore. For a long time it hung around the jetty; then suddenly it started swimming westward towards the bay. It appeared to be injured, and gulls (both herring and great black-backed) would occasionally harass it. Eventually it grew more distant from land and disappeared.

While we were standing on the beach, with a flock of other birders, some other interesting birds passed by, including a parasitic jaeger, Bonaparte's gulls, northern gannets, and a lot of royal terns.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Snowy Owls on the Way?

Some bloggers in Connecticut are reporting that there has been a spurt of snowy owl sightings in their state. From sphere:

From Frank Mantlik:
11/05 - Norwalk, Calf Pasture Park -- 6:35-6:50am (at least) SNOWY OWL on ground in parking lot, located with the help of a few crows. I walked in, as gate was not opened till 6:50.

From Mardi Dickinson, Larry Flynn, et al:
11/05 - Norwalk, Calf's Pasture Beach Park -- 9:52 SNOWY OWL continued to the right of pier roosting on jetty rocks. The owl stayed in that area for most of the day. The Owl did however fly several times back in front of the stone wall, the grassy area next to the pier, and the fence along the path with incredible looks and photographs were taken. Sara Zagorski and I stayed till 5:15PM watching the owl sitting on the post fence looking around gearing up for it's evening hunt for food. Not a care in the world!

From Bev Propen:
11/05 - Stratford, Stratford Point -- 1 SNOWY OWL. I could only stay from 10:30AM-11AM, but I got magnificent views of this majestic bird; Beautiful gold/yellow eyes, and some dark streaking on its crown. Blood still on its claws from a recent hunt.
If this is an irruption year, as some are calling it, there is a good chance for snowy owl sightings here in New Jersey or even farther south. Keep an eye out for big white spots in open areas.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

More Weakened Environmental Regulations

Even as we celebrate Obama's victory, the outgoing administration is still working its usual mischief on environmental regulations.

We've seen a number of new rules in just the last few weeks, including ones that would ease restrictions on mountaintop-removal coal mining, push forward plans to store nuclear waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, speed up the offshore leasing process, and advance efforts to mine uranium in the Grand Canyon. The Bureau of Land management has also proposed opening wilderness-quality areas to oil and gas drilling in Utah.

The Bush administration is likely to move forward with plans to weaken air-pollution standards for power plants by altering the "new-source review" rules. Those rules now require power plants to install new pollution-control equipment if they are making upgrades that would keep their facilities operating more hours each day and increase overall emissions. Instead, the administration's proposal would allow older power plants to upgrade without installing costly new equipment as long as their hourly emissions rates don't increase. There's also talk of easing limits on emissions from coal-fired power plants near national parks, and allowing increased emissions from oil refineries, chemical factories, and other industrial plants with complex manufacturing operations, as well as weakening the cleanup standards for radioactive releases.
And there is more:
Mountaintop removal coal mining: On the bright side, the Office of Surface Mining is expected to issue a final rule that would extend the current rule—which requires a 100-foot buffer zone around streams—to include all bodies of water. Unfortunately, the new rule requires companies to avoid dumping mining waste within the buffer zone “or show why avoidance is not possible.” If they dump waste, they must minimize hurting waterways “to the extent practicable.” Hello, wiggle room.
All that is in addition to the administration's effort to weaken the Endangered Species Act earlier this fall. Like the ESA revision, each one of these new regulations is likely to be pushed through with minimal review or opportunity for public comment so that they may take effect before Obama's administration takes power. Undoing the regulatory damage will take months or years to accomplish.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama Wins!

Photo by Jim Young/Reuters

Obama won at least 349 electoral votes last night, more than enough to win the presidency for the next four years. (As of now, North Carolina and Missouri are still too close to call.) I do not have any illusions about what he is likely to accomplish, with all the roadblocks that exist within the federal government, but his administration will be a substantial improvement over the present one. For now, it is enough to savor the moment and celebrate.

Democrats picked up a few Senate and House seats, which should help matters. Unfortunately, a few Senators that should have been defeated held on, and some others appear to be holding despite vigorous challenges.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Day

If you have not voted yet, please go and vote. I voted a week or two ago by absentee ballot since I am temporarily away from home. Today I am just waiting for the results. If you are still undecided, consider Nate's profiles of Obama, Biden, McCain, and Palin on conservation issues.

On a different note, the state of Florida is having school children vote on a new state bird today.

The mockingbird has been Florida’s feathered mascot since 1927, but it is neither unique nor representative of the Sunshine State, according to the Conservation Commission. The mockingbird also is the state bird of Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.

After today’s votes are tallied, The Conservation Commission intends to present the outcome to the state Legislature next year. A final decision on naming a new state bird is up to legislators.
The candidates for a new state bird are: osprey, snowy egret, great egret, brown pelican and black skimmer.