Monday, January 31, 2011

Interesting Gull at Gloucester Harbor

Yesterday morning, before we left Massachusetts, we spent a few more hours birding around Gloucester to get better looks at some of the birds we had seen during the Superbowl of Birding on Saturday. (I will have more to say about the competition in a future post.) At our first stop, in Gloucester Harbor, there was an interesting gull near the pier where many gulls normally roost. on top of a green warehouse. Most of the more knowledgeable birders present believed it to be a 3rd winter Slaty-backed Gull, a rare species along the eastern coast of North America, but one that has appeared around Gloucester before. If you have not already done so, take a look at Corey's post, which has photographs of the gull in question and summarizes points in favor of the bird being a Slaty-backed Gull. If you have an thoughts on the identification, especially if you know a lot about gulls, please leave a comment there.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Afternoon Sky During the Superbowl of Birding

Near Salisbury Beach State Reservation in Essex County, Massachusetts.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Superbowl of Birding

As I mentioned earlier this week, today is the Superbowl of Birding, and I am competing as a member of the Bloggerhead Kingbirds. I hope that you all had a chance to click through the links in that post and meet my  teammates. If not, here is a list of the introductory posts, so you have another opportunity:
I will post updates on Twitter as frequently as I can during the competition. You can follow them on my account and those of my teammates on my Bloggerhead Kingbirds list. If you have your own Twitter account, you can follow them all individually. Here are their pages:
I will have some blog posts on the competition once I get back from Massachusetts.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Loose Feathers #275

Blue Jay (photo by me)

Birds and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hawk Rescued from the Library

Some of you may have heard that a Cooper's Hawk has been trapped for several days within the Library of Congress Jefferson Building. (For those who are not familiar with the library's layout, the Jefferson Building is the main library building with the domed reading room.) Apparently the hawk flew in while chasing after birds and took up a roost in the main reading room. While it managed to get in, it was unable to find its way out. So yesterday, staff from the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia captured the hawk and removed it from the library.

Here’s how they got their bird: 
The team put a pair of starlings – Frick and Frack, according to their owner – in a trap on a ledge inside the dome and waited, hidden beneath a tarp.

The starlings saw the hawk poised nearby and froze. But the noise of a truck passing by the Jefferson Building startled the pair and caused them to move.
The motion drew the attention of the hawk: She immediately flew onto the trap, where its talons entangled in the nylon nooses attached to the top of the wire cage.
The team grabbed the hawk, weighed and banded the bird, then placed it in a covered cardboard carrying box....
The capture occurred about 8:30 a.m., and the process took about 25 minutes from setup to completion, according to Craig Koppie, an eagle and raptor biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
According to the post, the trapped raptor was a female, but it weighed only 424 grams. That is very light for a female Cooper's Hawk. Most females weigh between 500 and 600 grams, sometimes even more than that. This is clearly a very hungry bird. In addition to losing significant weight, the bird was also somewhat dehydrated, but it was otherwise healthy and sustained no injuries during its time in the library. After some time for rehabilitation, the hawk will be returned to the wild.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dunlin at Barnegat Light

The last time I was at Barnegat Light, there was a large flock of Dunlin camped out on the jetty. Some were foraging, but most were huddled wherever there was shelter from the howling wind. The uneven surface on the top of the jetty makes walking difficult, but it provides plenty of depressions where shorebirds can take shelter.

I estimated that there were about 180 spread over the top and sides of the jetty. This is a small portion of the flock. This group did not want to move when I approached to pass, whether because they are used to foot traffic or because they did not want to give up their sheltered roosting places.

Meanwhile, other Dunlin were feeding among the mussels attached to the rocks.

The many mussel beds along the sides of the jetty made it easy to understand why so many waterfowl and shorebirds were gathered in the location.

Here are some of the Dunlin with a Purple Sandpiper in their midst.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bloggerhead Kingbirds Ride Again

Regular readers may remember that last year I joined the Bloggerhead Kingbirds to compete in the Superbowl of Birding. If you have a good memory, you might remember that we acquitted ourselves well, finishing 6th in species and 7th in points, and we won a prize for earning the most points in Essex County. This weekend, we will be gathering in eastern Massachusetts once again to defend our Essex County title and attempt to win the whole thing.

What is the Superbowl of Birding? It is an annual competition sponsored by Massachusetts Audubon. Teams compete to see the most species and earn the most points within a 12-hour period (5 am to 5 pm). Unlike the World Series of Birding, in which every species counts the same, bird species are worth from 1 to 5 points, depending on how common they are, with extra points possible for the first team to report a 5-point species. All species must be recorded in Essex County, Massachusetts, or Rockingham County, New Hampshire.

So who else is on this year's team? To find out, you will have to visit Feathers and Flowers, the blogging home of one of my teammates. Mike blogs with the authority of an experienced ornithologist about such important topics as the mass death of blackbirds in Arkansas and what bird-related costumes not to wear for Halloween. Mike is also a dedicated eBird user. In addition to maintaining his own daily lists, he made sure that all of our sightings from last year's competition were properly recorded, with complete eBird checklists for each location that we visited. Last year, he brought an extra spotting scope along with him, which allowed me to have use of a scope for the competition day. So go visit Mike's blog to learn more about this year's team!

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Cold C&O Canal Count

This weekend I went down to Washington so that I could participate in this year's C&O Canal Count. (My apologies for the lack of posts this weekend. I forget to schedule them before I left.) Like last year, I stayed with my friend Jed and traveled with him to cover some miles around Little Orleans in Allegany County. This year we helped Paul with his section, miles 141-143.

Allegany County has more northerly bird life than most of Maryland. For example, while most of Maryland is the land of Carolina Chickadees, Black-capped Chickadees predominate in Allegany. Birds that are common on the coastal plain, like Fish Crows, are scarce, but mountain-loving Common Ravens are present. Uncommon eastern birds like Ruffed Grouse and Golden Eagle are present but hard to find. This means that a bird count covering the area will probably produce fewer species but more interesting ones, and possibly even something unusual.

No such rarities presented themselves during Saturday's count. The Potomac River was frozen for pretty much the entire three-mile stretch, so waterbirds were scarce. There was only a single flock of Canada Geese. Only one raptor (a Red-tailed Hawk) made an appearance, and even sparrows were hard to find. Instead we had a steady stream of chickadees and titmice, with occasional nuthatches, Brown Creepers, and Carolina Wrens. The crunchy snow on the towpath did not help, as the sound of our footsteps made it difficult to listen for bird sounds. Probably our best birds on the count were a flock of Eastern Bluebirds in mile 143. Their bright blue backs were a pleasant relief from all the brown and gray.

Of course, as soon as we finished our section and left the park boundaries, we encountered a mixed species flock that included Red-breasted Nuthatches and a Hermit Thrush, neither of which we recorded for the count.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Loose Feathers #274

Birds and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Oil spills
Environment and biodiversity
Blog carnivals

Thursday, January 20, 2011

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #142 is online at Birds O' The Morning.

Five Species to Join New Jersey's Endangered List

New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection plans to add five new species to the state's Endangered Species List.

The DEP proposal, which will be presented to the Endangered and Nongame Species Advisory Committee today, would also reclassify eight other endangered species on the list so that they will only be considered endangered during certain times of the year.

Under the proposed changes, there will also be fewer categories for classifying species that do not rise to the level of endangered or threatened. Current classifications, such as "declining," "increasing" and "stable," would be eliminated and replaced by fewer categories such as "special concern," officials said....

The five species proposed for the list include three birds — the black rail, the golden-winged warbler and red knot — as well as the gray petaltail dragonfly. Also newly included on the list is the tiny Indiana bat, which has been on the federal endangered list since 1973.

The eight birds which are going to be reclassified, include the bald eagle, which has rebounded in recent years. Under the new plan, it would only be considered endangered during its breeding season from January to August. The rest of the year it would be classified as "threatened."
Unfortunately the DEP is also using the opportunity to reduce habitat protections.
The proposed changes would also reduce the need for protected habitat in New Jersey by about 31,000 acres — over 48 square miles — which could then be opened to economic development, the plan concludes.

"The net result of the proposed listing and de-listing is an overall reduction in lands protected as endangered and threatened species habitat," according to the plan. "The indirect effect is a potential for increased economic growth due to the net decrease in area determined to be potential threatened species habitat and thus restricted under other regulations."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Yesterday's Ice Storm

A storm dropped snow and freezing rain on New Jersey yesterday. It left bushes and trees covered in a thin coat of ice. One thing I found interesting about the ice was that its surface was not smooth, but instead had fissures and ripples running over it.

This dogwood branch is covered in ice, but you can still see the shape of its flower bud.

The azalea bushes, which still have some leaves, were also coated.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Saner View of Bird Deaths

Since the first mass bird deaths were reported on New Year's Day, a new round of proposed explanations has accompanied each additional bird kill – some plausible, others far-fetched, still others downright loony. The reality is that there are many bird deaths every day. Some birds die from natural causes or predation, and others are killed because of dangers introduced by humans. This article puts the deaths into some perspective:

Even without humans, tens of millions of birds would be lost each year to natural predators and natural accidents — millions of fledglings die during their first attempts at flight. But according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, people have severely complicated the task of survival. Although mortality rates are difficult to calculate for certain, using modeling and other methods like extrapolation from local research findings, the government has come up with estimates of how many birds die from various causes in the United States.

Some of the biggest death traps are surprising. Almost everyone has an experience with a pet proudly bringing home a songbird in its jaws. Nationally, domestic and feral cats kill hundreds of millions of birds each year, according to the government. One study done in Wisconsin found that domestic rural cats alone (thus excluding a large number of suburban and urban cats) killed roughly 39 million birds a year.

Pesticides kill 72 million birds directly, but an unknown and probably larger number ingest the poisons and die later unseen. Orphaned chicks also go uncounted.

And then there is flying into objects, which is most likely what killed the birds in Arkansas. The government estimates that strikes against building windows alone account for anywhere from 97 million to nearly 976 million bird deaths a year. Cars kill another 60 million or so. High-tension transmission and power distribution lines are also deadly obstacles. Extrapolating from European studies, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates 174 million birds die each year by flying into these wires. None of these numbers take into account the largest killer of birds in America: loss of habitat to development.

All of this explains why about a quarter of the 836 species of birds protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act are in serious decline. For a third of the other birds there is not enough information to be sure about the health of their populations.
It is unfortunate that conservationists and responsible reporters have had to counter misinformation in the aftermath of several large bird kills. However, it is good to see more information on human-induced bird deaths making it into mainstream publications. Most of the numbers above were familiar to me, as I expect they will be to many readers. But that is a result of my reading bird blogs and conservation-oriented magazines over the past decade. It would be helpful for bird conservation if more people became aware of how many bird deaths are caused by common hazards.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Ruddy Turnstones at Barnegat Light

Beautiful sea ducks are the main reason so many birders visit Barnegat Light in the winter, but they are hardly the only birds to watch. The inlet's jetty also hosts a fair number of shorebirds. Five species predominate: Purple Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Dunlin, Sanderling, and Black-bellied Plover. When I was last at the jetty, I did not see any Sanderlings, but there is usually a flock on the beaches there. (Perhaps they had flown across the inlet to Island Beach State Park.) All the rest were present, with Dunlin outnumbering the rest. I will have a post on them later in the week.

I saw relatively few Purple Sandpipers (normally a highlight at Barnegat Light) or Ruddy Turnstones on my last visit there, but both were on the jetty. In winter, Ruddy Turnstones lose the ruddiness that gives them their name, but they retain the distinctive bib and moustache. Ruddy Turnstones are one of the northerly breeders among shorebirds, with their breeding range covering parts of Nunavut and Greenland, as well as the northern coasts of Alaska and Siberia. Their winter range extends along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North and South America.

Here is a Ruddy Turnstone with a Purple Sandpiper. It is easy to see why shorebirds winter here, with a convenient mussel buffet. Turnstones switch from eating flies and other insects to a more varied diet in winter. Crustaceans and mollusks are their main prey items, but they also will scavenge animals killed by other birds and refuse left by humans. Speaking of refuse, the gray item in the lower right of this photo appears to be a fishing weight.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Harlequin Ducks at Barnegat Light

One of the most popular sea ducks during winter in North America is the Harlequin Duck. The adult male's blue, red, and white plumage is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. The female is brown but retains echoes of the male's harlequin pattern in its facial markings. The ducks are highly social, spending the winter in small groups whose interactions are delightful to watch.

Harlequin Ducks breed along fast-moving rivers in the far northwest and northeastern Canada. In the winter, they migrate to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, where they seek out rocky coastlines. In the southern parts of their winter range, where the beaches are sandy, they are often found along jetties and seawalls.

Handfuls of Harlequin Ducks are present all along the northeastern U.S. coast, but one of the best places to watch them is along the jetty at Barnegat Light in New Jersey. This is a consistently great spot for two reasons. First, it attracts a large flock; when I was at the jetty two weeks ago, I counted about 15, but there are often more than that. Second, you can walk out along the jetty (at your own risk!) and see them at very close range.

They bob up and down on the waves, staying in close proximity to the jetty even as the waves crash against it. The ducks dive to feed on a variety of invertebrates such as crustaceans and mollusks, which they pick off the rocks underwater.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Trees Along the River

Two photographs of trees in their winter condition.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Loose Feathers #273

American Oystercatcher / USFWS photo

Birds and birding news
  • Yesterday a Red-tailed Hawk hit a window on the New York Times building in Manhattan. Colliding with windows is a major form of avian mortality in the U.S.; for raptors it is the third-highest human-induced cause of death after being hit by cars and rat poison.
  • Three endangered Whooping Cranes were shot and killed while they were migrating through Tennessee in December. The three cranes were migrating separately from the ultralight-led flock.
  • Winter recreation and alpine sports threaten the survival of European mountain birds such as the Capercaillie.
  • A new study looked at how seabirds at a breeding colony in the Falkland Islands vary their feeding habits to avoid conflicts with other species.
  • Great Tits with access to bird feeders start their dawn chorus 20 minutes later than they otherwise would.
  • The El Paujil Bird Reserve in Colombia will cover an additional 1,480 acres to protect habitat for five threatened bird species (Blue-billed Curassow, Cerulean Warbler, White-mantled Barbet, Antioquia Bristle-Tyrant, and Turquoise Dacnis) and three threatened mammals (Magdalena spider monkey, spectacled bear, and Colombian tapir).
  • Snowy Owls use their bright plumage to impress rivals and defend their territory from encroachment.
Birds in the blogosphere
Oil spills
  • The official oil spill commission concluded that the Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent spill were preventable. It recommends the creation of a safety board and an independent monitoring office to oversee safety at future drilling operations.
  • The National Wildlife Federation found that new tar balls continue to wash up on the beaches at Grand Isle in Louisiana.
  • The Brown Pelican population in the Gulf of Mexico is still strong despite being hit hard by the oil spill.
Environment and biodiversity
  • 2010 tied 2005 as the hottest year on record, and it also was the wettest year on record. It was the 34th consecutive year that global temperatures were above the 20th century average, and 9 of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001. The year was not as unusually warm in the United States as in the rest of the world; in the U.S., the summer was the fourth-hottest on record, and the entire year was the 23rd warmest.
  • The EPA revoked the permit for a massive mountaintop-removal coal mine in West Virginia. The agency made the move on the basis of Clean Water Act violations.
  • Changes in the climate of western Europe may have contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire and the outbreak of the Black Death. A study of European climate over the past 2,500 years identified a period of unpredictable weather from 250-550 C.E. and prolonged cold snaps during the early 14th century and early 17th century.
  • Six frog species considered extinct were rediscovered in Haiti.
  • According to new projections, even if humans stop producing excess greenhouse gases by 2100 the world will be a much hotter place by 3000 with much different effects in the northern and southern hemispheres.
Blog carnivals

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Snow Up Close

Yesterday's fresh snow provided another opportunity to try photographing it up close. It turns out to be harder than it seems to get clear and detailed photographs of the snow's surface. The two biggest problems I have encountered are chromatic aberration and shallow depth of field (due to the close focal distance and high magnification).

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Varied Thrush in Central Park

Since late November a Varied Thrush has been wintering in Central Park's Ramble. As other urban rarities seem to do, it picked a rather odd location. The most reliable place to see the vagrant thrush is a small brushy area wedged in between a bustling transverse road and the men's bathroom in a maintenance building. The choice seems all the stranger if you consider its native habitat. Varied Thrushes are rare in the eastern United States. Their breeding range extends from the Pacific Northwest north to Alaska; they winter south to California. These are somewhat secretive birds, preferring to dwell in dense, wet forests.

By this point, most birders in the New York metro area have probably already seen it if they wanted to, but I just saw it for the first time yesterday. As I arrived at its regular location, I met another birder who had seen it briefly before a Blue Jay's alarm call sent the thrush and other birds flying. After I had waited about 10-15 minutes, the Varied Thrush reappeared, staying long enough for me to get a good look but not long enough for me to take photos of it. So I waited another 15 minutes or so, as a snowplow passed by going one direction along the path, and then a garbage truck and two snowplows drove in the other direction, and finally a police golf cart drove past and parked in front of the maintenance building. After all that, the thrush reappeared, and I took the photos you see above.

As the thrush disappeared away for the second time, I became aware of someone approaching along the path. It turned out to be a familiar figure – Corey of 10,000 Birds pushing his son, Desi, in a stroller. I stood with him for a while and waited for the Varied Thrush to come back. When it did not appear for a while, I decided to move on and look for another unusual bird for the park, an immature Red-headed Woodpecker that has been using the trees on the south end of the Sheep Meadow. The woodpecker was easier to find than I expected; I was only waiting about five minutes when it flew into view, and I had a good look at it. Unlike the Varied Thrush, the woodpecker was not a life bird, just an interesting one.

I stopped briefly at the Ramble feeders while walking to and from the Varied Thrush's location. There were not unusual finches like Pine Siskins or Common Redpolls, but there were plenty of other birds around. Here are a few images of the those birds.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Goose Footprints

About 400 Canada Geese were in my local park yesterday afternoon. I did not see any Cackling Geese among them, or any other unusual geese, for that matter. That many geese leave a lot of footprints in the snow.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Frosted Cattails

Snow and cold mornings leave plants covered in frost and ice. Sometimes it is just a thin coating of ice crystals. Other times the frost takes interesting shapes, like on this group of cattails.

Those cattail heads that were releasing their seeds had frosting along the fluffy hairs.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Cackling Goose on the Raritan

Since prolonged cold temperatures have frozen still water (and some ponds in Johnson Park have been drained), many of the Canada Geese in the area have been pushed to roost in the moving waters of the Raritan River rather than their favorite ponds. Yesterday about 2500 Canada Geese were spread out along the Raritan upstream from the Landing Lane bridge. In that flock I found at least two Cackling Geese; one of them is pictured above. It has the classic blocky head, short bill, and grayish brown breast of the Richardson's subspecies. Plus it has a partial white collar and is clearly smaller than the surrounding Canada Geese.

The Canada Geese on the river, especially those who were separated from the densest flocks, had a hard time with the ice. As they rested, the water froze around them. Each goose had to struggle a bit to get out of the water and onto the ice. Many of them had frosted or ice-covered feathers.

Other waterfowl on the river included Black Ducks, Greater Scaup, Ring-necked Ducks, Common Goldeneye, Buffleheads, and Common Mergansers.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Turkey Vultures

I meant to post these photos as a skywatch contribution on Thursday. From a distance, soaring vultures appear to turn lazy circles as they search for tasty carrion. Until I tried to photograph them, I did not realize how fast they actually move. With even a slight breeze or updraft, they can zip across the sky or change altitude more quickly than I or my camera's autofocus can adjust. While they are not perfect, I am still satisfied with these attempts at vulture photos.