Sunday, February 28, 2010

Wrapping up the Great Backyard Bird Count

Though the Great Backyard Bird Count ended on February 15th, online data entry remained open for a time to allow birders enough time to submit reports. The deadline for submitting sightings is tomorrow, March 1st. If you have any extra checklists to submit, now is the time to do it.

The Audubon Magazine blog has a summary of the early results. Some of the unusual reports included Yellow-billed Loon, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Rustic Bunting, and Rufous-capped Warbler. You can see what else was reported on the GBBC's "explore the results" page.

Among the things you can see on that results page are the species reported in each state and locality. The lists are sortable, so it is easy to see which birds have been reported the most at a variety of geographic levels. You can also see data presented in map form and view reports for individual species. Below are two tables of  species reported in New Jersey.

The first shows the species that were reported in the greatest numbers.

Species Number of Birds Number of Checklists
Canada Goose 36408 426
American Crow 25306 716
Dark-eyed Junco 17439 1930
Common Grackle 16458 586
European Starling 13068 994
Snow Goose 10152 30
American Robin 8349 678
House Sparrow 8295 1039
White-throated Sparrow 7900 1204
Mourning Dove 7294 1507

The second shows the species reported on the most checklists.

Species Number of Birds Number of Checklists
Dark-eyed Junco 17439 1930
Northern Cardinal 5233 1797
Mourning Dove 7294 1507
Blue Jay 4836 1472
Tufted Titmouse 3869 1415
Downy Woodpecker 2153 1276
White-throated Sparrow 7900 1204
House Sparrow 8295 1039
European Starling 13068 994
House Finch 4349 972

There is nothing surprising on New Jersey's top ten lists. Birds like Snow Goose and Canada Goose gather in large flocks, so they appear in large numbers on relatively few checklists. Downy Woodpecker and Tufted Titmouse range widely, so they show up on many checklists, but birders usually only see one or two at a time, so they appear in the GBBC results in smaller numbers than other common birds.

One question going into this year's GBBC was how much the Pine Siskin count would differ from last year. In 2009, the GBBC recorded 7,848 Pine Siskins on 664 checklists in New Jersey. This year, New Jersey birders reported 185 siskins on 52 checklists. The difference is remarkable and emphasizes just how extraordinary last year's irruption was.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Color-marked Piping Plovers

 Color-marked Piping Plover / Photo by Ann Maddock

Within the next few weeks, Piping Plovers will start arriving in the Mid-Atlantic states, either to stay and breed or to rest briefly en route to breeding grounds farther north. (Last year, I saw my first of the year on March 14 in New York.) This year, some of the plovers may be marked with colored leg bands as part of a migration study. A Piping Plover with a black flag near the top of its left leg, like the one above, is likely to be part of a population that winters in the Bahamas.
How may a sighting be reported? Simple. Report all sightings to CHERI GRATTO-TREVOR, Prairie and Northern Wildlife Research Centre, Environment Canada, 115 Perimeter Road, Saskatoon, SK S7N 0X4 Canada, EM: , noting the color and location of each band on the bird, and location and behaviour of the bird (on nest, brooding, foraging at migratory stop-over, etc.), as well as presumed sex of the bird, if possible.

What do color bands of The Bahamas plovers look like? They look like the three Bahamas plovers pictured above. All have a black flag on the upper left leg. Each have a single white band on one of the lower legs, right or left. Each have two color bands (neither of which is a white band) on the lower leg opposite the leg with the single white band. Colors used were: red, orange, yellow, white, light green, dark green, dark blue, and black. No metal bands were placed on any of The Bahamas birds; nor were color bands placed on the upper right legs of the birds.
So far only the only previously banded Piping Plover to be resighted belonged to the Great Lakes population. That bird, an adult female, was banded in 2005 on her breeding grounds in Michigan. She has returned to Michigan to nest each year since then but was not recorded elsewhere until she was seen in the Bahamas.

Of the 57 color-marked Piping Plovers that are part of the current study, 50 were observed again within 24 hours of being banded. Many were seen during subsequent weeks, but they will be leaving the Bahamas very soon. These birds could be part of the Great Lakes population, or they could migrate and breed elsewhere. If you notice any Piping Plovers with color bands this year, make sure to record the colors and positions of all the bands and report the sighting.

The Piping Plover is federally listed as endangered in the Great Lakes region and threatened in the Northern Great Plains and Atlantic Coast. While their status has been improving thanks to the recovery program, the species is still vulnerable. More information about where each of the populations migrates and breeds will assist recovery efforts.

More details on the project and how to report sightings, along with additional photos of banded plovers, are available at the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory blog.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Loose Feathers #227

Birds and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Franklin Institute Hawks

A pair of Red-tailed Hawks appear ready to return to their nest at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

Their webcam is officially up and running. Last year, it gave thousands of viewers a peek-a-boo view of a red-tailed-hawk couple nesting on a ledge of the Franklin Institute. They hatched three young that flapped their way into the hearts of fans worldwide.

More than 300,000 people clicked in to one of two Web sites, some again and again. Some people - occasionally a dozen or more at a time - lined up on the sidewalk below to watch, waving at their friends through the webcam.

The birds were a hit not because they are rare - red-tailed hawks are common - but because the webcam offered such an intimate view. The camera was less than two feet away, inside a window.

Over the last month or so, the adults have brought new material to the nest, making it bigger and redefining the bowl in which the female can lay her eggs.

If the hawks follow roughly the same timetable, eggs could appear within two weeks. Last year, the female laid them March 9, and the chicks hatched April 16 and 17.

Institute president and chief executive officer Dennis Wint said there was no guarantee the birds would nest there again, of course, but "their behavior would indicate that they are likely to do so."
It helps the birds' popularity that their nest is in such a prominent location. The average Red-tailed Hawk nest is more concealed than a window ledge in the downtown of a major city. The best way to follow the breeding season's progress is at the Hawkwatch blog and, of course, the nest webcam. It is wonderful that we have the opportunity for such an intimate view of nesting activities while causing minimal disturbance.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Wind Farm Proposed for Puerto Rican IBA

A wind farm has been proposed for a site within Puerto Rico's Karso del Sur Important Bird Area.

The windfarm was proposed for construction on forested land that is both ecologically fragile and exceptionally important for biodiversity. This karst limestone area has been designated by the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources as a 'High Conservation Priority' and borders the Guánica Biosphere Reserve.

The forests and shrubland in this IBA are home to 19 (of the 23) restricted-range species found on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, including the largest known population (c.20% of the total) of the Critically Endangered Puerto Rican Nightjar Caprimulgus noctitherus. The IBA also supports a regionally significant breeding population of Roseate Tern Sterna dougallii. Small numbers of Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis nest on Don Luis Cay—one of the few nesting locations for the species in Puerto Rico.

"There are alternative and better locations for wind projects in Puerto Rico. However, the proponent refused to negotiate an exchange of development rights to relocate the project to an appropriate place", said SOPI spokesperson, Luis Silvestre.

The location for this particular development was deemed inappropriate. It was expected that construction and operation of the industrial windfarm would have caused significant negative impacts to the area's unique habitat and biodiversity. The area is also home to Puerto Rican Crested Toad Peltophryne lemur and the endemic Blue-tailed Ground Lizard Ameiva wetmorei. The IBA has more than 700 plant species including the Critically Endangered Woodbury's stopper Eugenia woodburyana, Vahl's boxwood Buxus vahlii and Puerto Rico manjack Cordia rupícola, and the Endangered lignumvitae Guaiacum officinale and Stahlia monosperma.
I support wind energy when thorough environmental reviews are completed and turbines are sited and operated in ways that cause the least amount of damage to birds and other wildlife. This project is an example of exactly what not to do. Wind farms can harm wildlife in two ways. One way involves bird collisions with the blades or turbine towers; this is probably the best known danger. In addition, bats may be harmed by changes in pressure around the blades.

The second way wind farms harm wildlife is through the destruction and degradation of their habitats. Land needs to be cleared for the turbine site and for roads to transport construction material to the site. What wildlife habitat then remains around the site will be more vulnerable to invasive species and less able to support species that specialize in the habitat that was cleared.

Clearing land and building an industrial wind farm in an Important Bird Area should be out of the question, especially in an area with so many sensitive and restricted-range species. Putting turbines in a bird-rich area like an IBA is likely to result in too many collisions, some of which will be critically endangered birds like the Puerto Rican Nightjar. Many of the species that inhabit the IBA are classified as critically endangered or endangered precisely because their range is so small. Any further range reductions that occur because of destroyed habitat will hasten the species' slide towards extinction. For those reasons, building a wind farm at sites like this will not be appropriate. I am glad to see that the Planning Board of Puerto Rico has blocked the site permit.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Meat on a String: A Possible Limit to Corvid Intelligence?

Common Raven / USFWS Photo

Corvids – crows, ravens, jays, and magpies – are well known to be among the most intelligent of birds. Along with parrots, corvids have been a frequent subject of avian intelligence studies. Experiments have documented problem-solving and tool use, both in the lab and in the wild. Many of the recent experiments have tested intelligence in New Caledonian Crows (Corvus moneduloides), but tests of Ravens (Corvus corax) and Rooks (Corvus frugilegus) have also found problem-solving capabilities. New Caledonian Crows are a common subect for research because they are known to use a variety of tools in the wild.

A classic test of bird intelligence involves a piece of food dangling at the end of a string. Multiple bird species can figure out through trial and error how to retrieve the food by pulling the string. Corvids and psittacids retrieve the food so quickly that researchers have suggested that these birds may solve the problem at an advanced level. That is, instead of relying on trial and error, these birds might be able to picture a solution in their minds. Experiments with Ravens and Keas (Nestor notabilis) have provided some hints of advanced problem-solving, but the birds have difficulty retrieving food at the end of a string if the string is crossed by another of the same color.

A new PLoS ONE article takes the intelligence tests a step further with New Caledonian Crows. Once again, a piece of meat is suspended at the end of a string. This time, however, the reward is screened from view by a piece of plywood with a small hole in it – just wide enough to pull the meat through. If a crow goes under the board, it can see the food and string. From above the board, it can still see the reward through the hole, but not well enough to judge its distance or whether pulling the string is moving the meat closer. The image shows the setup for this study; this image shows examples of prior experiments. Successful retrieval would require pulling the string part way, stepping on the portion pulled, and then pulling the rest of the string.

When this problem (A) was presented to four crows that already had some experience retrieving meat on strings, the crows were able to solve the problem, but with difficulty. The experienced crows made more mistakes and took longer to arrive at a solution. Naïve crows – ones with no experience of string problems – had a much harder time. One naïve crow was able to complete the task (A) after five trials; the other three naïve crows pulled or pushed the string but never used the pull-step action necessary for completing the task. Another group of four naïve crows was presented with the same problem, but this time with a mirror that showed the result of pulling the string (B). Two of the crows completed the task after a few attempts, but the other two never figured out the solution. The article includes video of crows presented with simple and screened string problems.

The results of this study suggest that crows learn to solve problems through a combination of visual feedback and prior experience with related problems. When crows have an unobstructed view of the string and the meat, they can see the meat get closer each time they pull the string and step on it. Without that visual feedback, they can still solve the problem if they remember that pulling on the string works. This supports the idea that crows solve problems mainly through trial and error and not by insight or causal reasoning. However, the study is not conclusive since one naïve crow did solve the problem and naïve crows that had the benefit of a mirror did not all find the solution.

It seems that researchers have found a limit to corvid intelligence. Even if they do not have the benefit of causal reasoning, crows and ravens still best other bird species at the string pulling problem. Some finches can complete a simple string-pulling task but have a much higher error rate, and many finches never figure out the solution. Even naïve crows, however, can solve the simple string problem almost immediately. Their larger forebrains may allow corvids to process and act on visual feedback more quickly than birds in other families.

ResearchBlogging.orgTaylor, A., Medina, F., Holzhaider, J., Hearne, L., Hunt, G., & Gray, R. (2010). An Investigation into the Cognition Behind Spontaneous String Pulling in New Caledonian Crows PLoS ONE, 5 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009345

Monday, February 22, 2010

Why Are Pelicans Dying in California?

For the second winter in a row, hundreds of Brown Pelicans have died or been sickened along the coast of California for reasons that remain unclear.

When found alive, the birds appear hungry and disoriented. But necropsies performed on dead pelicans found that they had been eating, so the casualties don't appear to be from lack of prey. But their stomachs did contain unusual prey, like squid—not the sardines and anchovies they normally dine on.

Many of the pelicans also appear to have some sort of unidentified residue on their feathers, which may affect the feathers' insulating ability. "When we wash them, you can tell something is coming off. The water is discolored, like when you wash really dirty clothes," Jay Holcomb, director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) in Cordelia, Calif., told The Mercury News. "That's not normal."

Scientists don't know where this residue is coming from or what it is exactly, but so far theories include side effects from red tide or pollution runoff into the ocean.
Unfortunately the agency responsible for managing wildlife, the California Department of Fish and Game, has no money for an investigation because of the state's budget crisis.

Wildlife rehabilitation organizations, such as the International Bird Rescue Research Center, have been doing their best to rescue and treat sick pelicans. The IBRRC alone has handled 435 sick pelicans since the start of January. However, there have been so many sick pelicans that the groups' resources have been strained to the limit, especially for supplying food for so many pelicans at once.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

House Finches, Disease, and Bird Feeders

House Finches at a Feeder

Like humans, birds can be infected by various diseases, some of which can be quite contagious. Among feeder birds, House Finches are particularly susceptible to Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis. Avian conjunctivitis causes very noticeable changes to a bird's appearance and behavior. Infected birds appear to have swollen or crusty eyes. Becoming lethargic, they succumb more easily to starvation or predation.

A new study examines behaviors that may encourage the spread of conjunctivitis among House Finches. Researchers placed healthy finches into the middle chamber of a partitioned cage with a healthy finch on one side and a visibly diseased finch on the other; all three finches were of the same sex. Food dishes were placed at the edge of each chamber so that the middle finch would have to interact with neighboring finches in order to feed. The researchers then monitored the behavior of the middle finch.

While female House Finches fed equally near healthy or diseased finches, males strongly preferred to feed near a diseased finch. This preference may be explained by the symptoms of conjunctivitis. Since the disease produces lethargy, infected males are much less likely to challenge a healthy male for dominance at a feeding station. Feeding near infected individuals thus reduces the energy and social costs of losing such a confrontation.

The danger, of course, is that feeding and other interactions with infected individuals is likely to increase a healthy bird's chances of catching disease. Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis is a relatively new disease among House Finches, first documented in 1994. In the context of such a new and contagious disease, male finches' instinct to reduce confrontation may work against their ability to resist disease.

ResearchBlogging.orgBouwman, K., & Hawley, D. (2010). Sickness behaviour acting as an evolutionary trap? Male house finches preferentially feed near diseased conspecifics Biology Letters DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.0020

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Skywatch: Icicles

The combination melting snow and prolonged cold air temperatures have caused icicles to form in front of my house. The stems extending downward from the gutter – the subject of my SkyWatch shot – were not the most impressive part of this formation. Water dripping from the roof froze and accumulated on the bush below. The resulting series of icicles seems like an icy cascade extending from the gutter almost to the ground.

While the icicles hanging from the gutter have since fallen, the ones in the bush were still there the last time I checked.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Loose Feathers #226

Birds and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environment and biodiversity
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #119 is online at Somewhere in NJ.

Also, today marks the inaugural edition of An Inordinate Fondness, the carnival for beetle bloggers.

Iron in the Beaks of Birds

Birders know well that birds migrate – the cycle of bird movements keeps birding interesting throughout the year. Many landbird migration routes are well-documented, and even some over-water routes are starting to be determined. What is less understood is how the birds know where they are going. Recent research has focused on how birds might sense, or even see, the Earth's magnetic field for orientation. At least one recent study proposed that some birds use an olfactory sense for guidance. Visual cues, such as the stars for nocturnal migrants or waterways for diurnal migrants, have also been proposed.

One new study finds iron-containing cells in the upper beaks of birds. Three years ago, the same research team reported that the upper beaks of homing pigeons contain iron minerals arranged in structures that could allow a pigeon to sense a magnetic field. This study found similar structures in the beaks of three other bird species: Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin), European Robin (Erithacus rubecula), and domestic chickens (Gallus gallus).

Prussian blue stained dendrites in the inner lining of the upper beak of (A) homing pigeon, (B) garden warbler, (C) European robin, and (D) domestic chicken. (E) General semi-schematic drawing of an iron containing dendrite. (F) Axon bundle with several iron containing dendrites.

In all four species, the iron-rich dendritic cells are located near the top of the upper beak and not in the lower beak or in any other tissue. The iron particles are arranged in narrow rod-like clusters, which appear to lie parallel to one another. The clusters are connected to the ophthalmic nerve, so they form part of a bird's sensory system. The iron minerals contained in the dendritic cells appear to be maghemite (Fe(III)2O3) rather than magnetite (Fe (II)Fe(III)2O4), but the sample was too small to determine that conclusively. Given that such similar clusters are present in several bird species that are not closely related, including a nonmigratory bird, they may be present in many more (or even all) bird species, and an important part of avian direction-finding abilities.

ResearchBlogging.orgFalkenberg, G., Fleissner, G., Schuchardt, K., Kuehbacher, M., Thalau, P., Mouritsen, H., Heyers, D., Wellenreuther, G., & Fleissner, G. (2010). Avian Magnetoreception: Elaborate Iron Mineral Containing Dendrites in the Upper Beak Seem to Be a Common Feature of Birds PLoS ONE, 5 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009231

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Wordless Wednesday

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Hybrid Goose Found During the GBBC

Yesterday while watching birds at Johnson Park, I encountered a very odd goose. As you can see from the photo, it has a pale orange bill with a dusky tip, white feathers at the base of the bill, light cheek patch, dark brown crown and neck, grayish brown wings, light undersides with barred flanks, white undertail, and orange legs. The bird is most likely a hybrid, probably the offspring of one of the zoo's domestic Graylag Geese (Anser anser) and one of the semi-wild Canada Geese that forage within the zoo. This is a known hybrid type; Kevin McGowan has documented several examples around Ithaca, New York.

At Johnson Park, the line between "wild" and "domesticated" can be difficult to define. This bird was within the fenced boundaries of the park's zoo, but not within any of the completely enclosed cages. As far as I can tell, the zoo's waterfowl do not have their wings clipped, so that birds inside the fence are not necessarily owned by the zoo, and birds outside the fence are not necessarily wild. Many nominally wild Canada Geese and Mallards congregate around the open water and free food offered within the zoo's fence. While there they mix freely with the zoo's domestic geese and ducks. I have seen birds similar to this one on a few occasions at this and other local parks, so that interaction between wild and domestic birds clearly includes occasional breeding.

Visitors often feed the birds in and around the zoo, so that some of the waterfowl have lost their fear of humans. As I knelt to photograph the hybrid goose, one of the Canada Geese that was with it walked up, stuck its bill through the fence, and started pulling on my glove. It must have expected me to give out food instead of just take pictures.

Monday, February 15, 2010

GBBC Day 3: The Peregrine Show


For day 1 and day 2 of the Great Backyard Bird Count, I covered my local patch, Donaldson Park, in addition to some feeder watching. Yesterday I stayed in my town but covered a different location where I rarely bird. The site is a very small nature reserve adjacent to Donaldson Park. It used to be a marina but was purchased and remediated by the county after the marina closed its operations. Now it is covered partially with early-succession vegetation.

On most days one can find a few sparrows around the edges of the site, but yesterday the snow depth forced most of them to seek food elsewhere. (As I was leaving the site later, I found two dozen White-throated Sparrows and one American Tree Sparrow at a house with feeders just outside the site.) I could see that there were still many Common Mergansers on the river. I counted 17 and found one female Hooded Merganser among them. Gulls were also present but in smaller numbers; there were only a few dozen of each of the common species.

As I was watching the gulls, a lot started taking off, and three American Crows arrived and started cawing. This could only mean one thing – a predator. Expecting an eagle, I looked up and instead saw an adult Peregrine Falcon calling loudly and flying slowly over my head in level flight. I watched until it disappeared over the far treeline. A few minutes later it returned, this time accompanied by a second, slightly smaller, adult Peregrine. The size difference was significant enough that I think these were a male and a female. The female continued to call and maintained level flight. The male wove back and forth over and around her, at times appearing to tag her on the back. After disappearing over the trees again, they came back two more times, executing the same maneuvers. This is not listed among the falcon's courtship displays in my raptor books or in Birds of North America. However, it seems likely to be some sort of mating-related aerial play given the time of year and lack of aggression.

Despite walking around the site, I did not add many more birds after seeing the Peregrines. On my way out I saw the sparrows mentioned above and a small flock of Cedar Waxwings. The birds around my home were mostly the same as usual except for a Northern Flicker that flew over the yard. In the evening, I walked around the neighborhood to listen for owls, but I did not hear any.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

GBBC Day 2: Hordes of Mergansers

More snow than the Winter Olympics

The last month or so has been very tough for birds in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, with very cold temperatures and several heavy snowstorms. Here in central New Jersey, we have at least a foot of snow on the ground, burying trails and making ground-feeding birds scarce. This creates a challenge for birding, particularly surveying birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count.

For yesterday's GBBC walk, I returned to my local park. With knee-high boots, I was able to wade through the snow and survey some good songbird areas more thoroughly than I had the day before. Almost immediately I came upon a large patch of songbird activity – mostly House Finches, White-throated Sparrows, Blue Jays, House Sparrows, and the like. Then there was one surprise bird, a Gray Catbird. Back in December, we had recorded one for the Raritan Estuary CBC at a different location, but I had not seen one since then, so it was a pleasant surprise to see that one had survived this long through the winter. The flight feathers on this bird appeared rather worn, though that may have been an illusion prompted by the angle at which the bird was holding its wings. Scanning through the two dozen House Finches, I found one bird that was somewhat smaller and more crisply streaked, which turned out to be a Pine Siskin, the first I have seen this winter. Perhaps it got pushed south in the last few weeks.

As I was finishing my songbird counts, I spotted one of the local Red-tailed Hawks fly overhead. A pair has been nesting near the park for several years. On my way towards the river, I could see that the usual horde of gulls was waiting for me. Seeing another gray bird lift up near the river, I first thought just another gull, but then it morphed into a different familiar shape – a Northern Harrier! It was only the second I have seen at that location, in several years of observations.

Canada Geese were again strangely absent. I am not sure where they went, but yesterday there were only 20 along the river. Mallards were in their usual numbers. Common Mergansers, though, were present in much larger numbers than I am used to seeing. There were at least 70, the vast majority of which were males. This is probably low compared to what some areas get, but I usually do not see more than about 10 at a time at this site. It is possible that some birds were forced to relocate to the Raritan's open water by frozen water elsewhere.

There was nothing unusual among the birds around my home, except perhaps for a group of Canada Geese that flew overhead – notable in that I don't usually see them from inside the house. Otherwise it was just the same groups of House Sparrows, House Finches, and Dark-eyed Juncos that usually hang around at the feeders and bushes.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

First Day of the GBBC

Yesterday, for various reasons, I was not able to count birds as much as I would have liked. However, I did get a chance to do a bird walk in my local park in the late afternoon. As I mentioned in a previous post, we got a heavy snowstorm this week. There has been some melting since then, but there is still a foot or more of snow on the ground in any unplowed areas. When it comes to birding this means two things. First, my normal birding route through the park is not as passable as I would like, especially without waterproof boots. Second, many ground-feeding birds are harder to find than usual.

Many of the Canada Geese that normally inhabit the park have departed; I am not sure where they went, but only about 100 remained yesterday. On the other hand, gulls seem to be more numerous; a mixed species flock numbering well over 1000 was loafing on the river, either on exposed mudflats or on ice. I estimated about a third were Ring-billed Gulls, and reported 400 Ring-billed Gulls, 800 Herring Gulls, and 17 Great Black-backed Gulls (a species that is easier to pick out and count than the other ones). A flock that large is likely to have some odd gulls, but unfortunately viewing conditions were not favorable for picking them out.

The only songbird I saw in significant numbers was European Starling. One large flock and a few smaller ones flew overhead. There was also a flock of about 15 American Robins, feeding on what little bare ground they could find around the trunks of bushes and trees. Very few other songbirds were present. The river held about a dozen Common Mergansers, a beautiful species that I never tire of seeing.

Overall today was not as productive as I would have liked. This week's snowstorm could produce some interesting results for the Great Backyard Bird Count. Some species might virtually disappear from areas affected by the storm, but there will probably be some strange concentrations elsewhere. It may end up being a good weekend for feeder watching.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Loose Feathers #225


Birds and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, February 11, 2010

SkyWatch: SnowWatch

Some readers might have noticed that the Mid-Atlantic states got a bit of snow this week. For many states in the region, this has been the snowiest season on record; for many of the region's cities, the season's three major storms have been among the heaviest snowfalls ever recorded.

Yesterday it snowed all day. New Brunswick's official snowfall total was 16 inches. That figure seems to match what I saw in my neighborhood. Unlike the previous storms this winter, this storm brought wet, heavy snow, made more heavy because of midday sleet. By late yesterday afternoon, many tree branches were pulled low by the weight of the wet snow. After I took my pictures, I knocked snow off as many of them as I could.

By this morning, the snow had stopped and the sun had come out. However, there was much snow to be cleared, and it will probably stay here for a while.

Despite what some people are claiming, the heavy snowstorms this winter are not evidence against climate change. Snowstorms like these occur when very cold air meets warm, moist air. Thanks to an active El Nino and an unusual jet stream pattern, we have had plenty of both this winter. The best explanations of the phenomenon are on Jeff Masters' WunderBlog and the Cape May County Herald.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Plan

I hesitate to post on this topic given some of the extreme responses it can generate, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service is about to publish a final recovery plan for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
But after five years of fruitless searching, hopes of saving the species have faded. "We don't believe a recoverable population of ivory-billed woodpeckers exists," says Ron Rohrbaugh, a conservation biologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who headed the original search team.

The FWS has spent $14 million trying to document and conserve the ivory-billed woodpecker throughout the southeast United States, including $8 million for habitat preservation and $2 million for search-associated costs. The hunt was suspended last October after it ran out of money. Chasing down a string of dubious and faked claims of sightings added an extra burden, undermining already-stressed wildlife programmes, experts say.

Jerome Jackson, an ornithologist at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers who serves on the FWS's ivory-billed woodpecker recovery team, says that a draft recovery plan from 2007 is "incredibly biased". In his view, the plans have overemphasized evidence of the bird's existence to shore up political support for saving it. "I don't think I'm going to be happy with the final plan either," he adds.

Laurie Fenwood, coordinator of the ivory-billed woodpecker project at the agency's office in Atlanta, Georgia, says that recovery plans are needed to collect the best scientific knowledge on species — even if it's not clear whether they have already gone extinct.
For those who are interested, the draft recovery plan (pdf) is available Fish and Wildlife Service's Ivorybill website. Without confirmation of a viable population (or where it might be located), I think it would be difficult to construct a meaningful recovery plan. Perhaps preservation of more habitat within their historical range could be a centerpiece of such a plan, though such preservation could not be targeted to benefit a known population. If the final plan does call for additional conservation actions, it will need to be careful not to draw resources away from other threatened species that need it.

The linked article also carries the tidbit that the facts in the Daniel Rainsong episode may soon become more clear. For those unfamiliar with the name, he claimed to have found and photographed Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Sabine River Basin of Texas. No photos have been released; instead he sent out a press release (which seems to have been revised subsequent to its initial release) to establish his "right of claim in this discovery." Cornell's Ivory-billed Woodpecker research group has met with him and plans to release their own analysis of Rainsong's story and documentation within the next week.

So far that claim has met with a great deal of public skepticism because the photos have been withheld and few details of the alleged discovery are available. The most thorough coverage of the story has been at cyberthrush's Ivory-bills Live blog. Hopefully next week's release will put the issue to rest.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Great Backyard Bird Count Coming Soon

Pine Siskin / Photo by Maria Corcacas, NY

This weekend, February 12-15, will be the annual Great Backyard Bird Count. The count is an opportunity for thousands of bird lovers to watch birds and provide observation data for scientists who monitor bird populations. Bird distribution is constantly changing, and a large-scale survey like the GBBC can provide a picture of where birds are located at a single point in time. Last winter was notable for a heavy influx of Pine Siskins into the eastern United States; participants recorded 279,469 siskins on 18,528 checklists, a record year for the species on this count.

Bird watchers of all skill levels are invited to submit sightings. To participate, set aside at least 15 minutes sometime during the weekend of February 12-15. Count all the birds that you see during that period, and report the results on the GBBC website. The website will update in real time, so participants can see what birds are being reported in their towns or states and view maps of recent sightings.

Despite its name, the Great Backyard Bird Count is not solely about backyards. Feeder-watching is probably the activity most associated with the count since it is one of the most common ways that bird lovers interact with birds. If you do not have feeders or a backyard, you can submit checklists for your neighborhood or local parks. Since the count is intended to record all species of North American birds, submissions for wildlife refuges or seawatches are also encouraged. If you already submit sightings to Project FeederWatch or eBird, you can submit those checklists for the GBBC as well.

If you use social media, you can become a fan of the GBBC on Facebook or tweet your sightings on Twitter using the hashtag #gbbc.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a joint project of the National Audubon Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Bird Studies Canada.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Feathers for Adornment and Touch

Whiskered Auklet / USFWS Photo

A new study of Whiskered Auklets finds that ornamental head feathers help a bird feel its way around in its environment.
The researchers placed individual auklets into a dark experimental maze, designed to resemble a natural crevice, and recorded how often they bumped into things.

Both crested and whiskered auklets bumped their heads 2.5 times more often if their feathers on their heads had been artificially flattened.

Also, "without the aid of the crest, naturally long-crested individuals had more head bumps than short-crested individuals," Dr Seneviratne told the BBC.

The two ornithologists then conducted a wider comparative analysis: checking which bird species sport long ornamental feathers against their lifestyles and where such birds live.

What emerged was a striking pattern.

"Birds that live in complex, cluttered habitats and are active at night tend to have a greater probability to express such facial feathers," says Dr Seneviratne.

"We found a highly significant correlation for the observed trend."
The idea that birds use some feathers for touch is not entirely new, even though the BBC article gives that impression. Many birds have rictal bristles – stiff feathers with few barbs – around their mouths; these have long been thought to have a sensory function. (See examples of bristles on a Spotted Dove, a White-cheeked Barbet, and a Large-tailed Nightjar.) Many songbirds also have filoplumes – long, hairlike feathers. (See examples at the link.) Filoplumes help birds detect the positions of feathers on their wings or backs. So it is not at all surprising that other feathers could be used for touch as well.

What I find interesting is that these types of ornamental feathers are usually discussed in terms of a trade-off. Flamboyant colors or headdresses can make a male bird more attractive to potential partners but require a resource investment that could come at the cost of an individual's survival. In this it seems that a feature could serve both sexual advertisement and survival functions.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Reporting Sensitive Species

Today eBird issued some guidelines for submitting sensitive bird sightings to the website. The guidelines were published for bird species (such as owls) that are easily stressed by disturbance, but they could be applied to endangered that need protection or observations on private land that cannot handle an influx of visitors. This is going to be a more common concern as more applications are developed to take advantage of the various data feeds produced from submitted checklists. The guidelines offer four ways to contribute a sighting to the eBird database while protecting the individual birds.

  • Wait to submit the sighting until the end of the season or after the bird has departed the location.
  • Map the bird to the general area rather than the exact coordinates.
  • Wait a week to keep the bird out of the Notable Birds data feed. 
  • Hide the checklist after submitting it using the option available through "manage my observations."
 These all seem like good recommendations. I was surprised to learn about the option for hiding a checklist. I had not noticed that option before.

Historical Eiders on the Jersey Shore

In his post yesterday on Common Eiders, Corey quoted Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion on eider distribution: “Several decades ago, King Eider was the expected wintering eider south of New England.  Sightings of Common Eider were considerably fewer.  This has changed, and Common Eider now lives up to its name, outnumbering King Eider along the mid-Atlantic coast.” Curious about this, I decided to check some historical sources to see when things changed.

John Bull's Birds of the New York Area (1964) states that King Eider was historically seen more frequently than Common Eider off Montauk in Long Island. It attributes changes in winter distribution to population growth at the Common Eider's breeding grounds. For example, the breeding flock at Muscongus Bay in Maine grew from 800 in 1949 to 6,000 in 1959. Bull also mentions an impressive irruption of King Eiders in the winter of 1887, in which flocks of 20 and 30 were recorded.

For historical records in coastal New Jersey, one place to turn is Witmer Stone's Bird Studies at Old Cape May. This book was first published in 1937 based on observations from the preceding decades. What makes the book valuable is that Stone reports his own observations as well as those of other ornithologists and sometimes cites 18th and 19th century observers as well. Though dated, it provides an interesting window into past bird distribution in the state. Regarding eiders, Stone first notes that many observers (including hunters) were unfamiliar with either King or Common Eiders. (Stone refers to Common Eiders as American Eiders.) He then lists observations for Common Eiders in the Cape May area:
The only records that we have were made by the Audubon Association wardens stationed at the Point. A female or immature male was seen by William Rusling on the ocean off Cape May Point near the jetties in front of the Villa Maria. It remained there from October 10 to 14, 1935, and he watched it several times a day for four days having it in good view, once within twenty-five feet. When caught by the tide and carried out from shore it immediately swam back to the jetties. He identified it as an American Eider.

Three were seen off the end of the jetty at the entrance to the Harbor, on November 3, 1936, by James Tanner.

In the Barnegat Bay region several of these ducks have been seen. Charles Urner sends me the following list: One on November 3, 1930 (Harry Ridgway); a drake, January 11, 1931; one on December 27, 1931 (Lester Walsh and Charles Nichols); two on December 17, 1932 (Oscar Eyre); one drake, on December 26, 1932 (Urner and others); one young drake, February 18, 1934 (Urner).
Turning to King Eider, Stone notes that most of the specimens are young birds and that there had been no recent sightings in Cape May County, but that specimens had been shot in 1928 (in Great Bay) and 1900 (on the lower Delaware). He continues:
Charles Urner sends me the following list of individuals observed in the Barnegat Bay region by him or his associates: One December 15, 1924, (Watson); one March 3, 1929 (Jacques); two November 9, 1930; one January 14, 1934; two February 4, 1934; four February 18, 1934. The 1934 birds were seen immediately following the extremely cold weather of that winter which was undoubtedly the cause of their southward wandering.
The impression I get from Stone is that neither species was common but that both made regular appearances along New Jersey's southern coast, either singly or in groups. I do not know of a similar resource for more recent decades, though one could probably piece it together by going through back issues of New Jersey Birds and its predecessors. As an alternative, I turned to archived Christmas Bird Counts. Using historical CBC data presents problems since participation and coverage have changed over time and count circles have gone in and out of existence. However, using birds per party hour controls somewhat for effort and New Jersey has some long-running counts along the coast. Here is graph for New Jersey since the winter of 1940-41, roughly Stone's time to ours.

This leaves a somewhat muddled impression because it is dominated by a few tall spikes and lacks a clear trend, though sightings of Common Eiders have increased in frequency in the second half of the time period. Adding Delaware and Maryland shows a somewhat clearer trend.

This shows an increase in Common Eiders in the second half of the time period, while King Eider sightings have held more of less steady. These days Common Eiders are fairly easy to find along New Jersey's shore since large numbers winter at or migrate past Barnegat Inlet and Cape May Point, with smaller numbers wintering farther south. King Eiders are regular, at least in New Jersey, but are usually single birds and are much harder to find. So it seems, at least, that Common Eiders have become much more frequent and abundant in the Mid-Atlantic states since the early 20th century. What remains unclear to me is whether King Eider was really more common than Common Eider in this area, at least south of Long Island. So far, the sources I have checked seem to show relatively equal abundance for the two species in years past.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

A Few Snow and Ice Photos

These photos are from yesterday's snow storm. Central New Jersey did not get nearly as much as DC, Delaware, Philadelphia, or even southern New Jersey. Reported snowfall totals in my area ranged from 5 to 8 inches; I think my neighborhood had about 6, though it was hard to be sure because of drifting. Even without a snowmageddon, it provided a good excuse to take some snow photos. Here are a few.

The wooded ravine looks peaceful compared to the snow-blown street, below.

The last is a photo of ice chunks on the Raritan River, which I took at the beginning of last week.

New Blog Carnival: An Inordinate Fondness

A new blog carnival devoted to beetles is starting this month: An Inordinate Fondness. Submissions for the first edition are due by February 15th, and the first edition will appear on February 18th.
The inaugural issue of An Inordinate Fondess is only two weeks away.  We are still looking for submissions, so don’t miss out on your only chance to be a founding contributor.  Blog posts dealing with beetles in any aspect are welcome, and you don’t have to be a coleopterist (entomologist specializing in beetles) to participate.  An Inordinate Fondness is a celebration of beetles and their diversity, significance, and beauty from the perspective of serious student or casual observer alike.  Do you photograph beetles?  Share the wonders of their exquisite designs with us.  Do you study beetles?  Let us know about your research.  Are you a beetle collector?  Take us along on one of your field excursions.  Did you find a beetle that you had never seen before?  Tell us how you went about trying to identify it.

To submit a post, pick out your favorite blog post dealing with beetles and send an email with the title, link, and a brief description. You may also use this handy blog carnival submission form.  If you’re not sure if your selection meets the criteria for this carnival, send it in anyway and we’ll let you know.
The carnival's name comes from a quote attributed to biologist J.B.S. Halsane, who is said to have told English theologians that God "has an inordinate fondness for beetles." There are over 350,000 known species of beetles, which comprise nearly half of all known insect species.

Those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are at a slight disadvantage since it is still winter here, but the carnival is accepting older posts for the first edition.

(Found via Seabrooke at the Nature Blog Network Blog.)