Thursday, March 31, 2011

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #147 is online at 10,000 Birds.

Changes in Rainfall Affect Birds' Wintering Grounds

Migratory bird species that breed in the U.S. and Canada often winter in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. A Smithsonian study of American Redstarts on their wintering grounds in Jamaica found that rainfall changes disrupted the birds' migration schedule in the spring.

Precipitation in Jamaica is highly seasonal, with consistent rainfall from September to November and a pronounced dry season from January to March. The scientists observed the redstarts in their non-breeding territories for five years during the dry season. They paid special attention to the annual variation in dry season rainfall. The correlation between the amount of insects in a bird's territory and the timing of its departure suggested to the team that annual variation in food availability was an important determining factor in the timing of spring migration. Had the redstarts relied on internal cues alone to schedule their spring departure, they would have all left their winter territories at the same time each year.

"Our results support the idea that environmental conditions on tropical non-breeding areas can influence the departure time for spring migration," said Colin Studds, a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's Migratory Bird Center and lead author of the study. "We found that the same birds changed their spring departure from one year to the next in relation to the amount of rainfall and food in March."

During the past 16 years, the dry season in Jamaica has become both increasingly severe and unpredictable, leading to an 11 percent drop in total rainfall during the three-month annual drought. Making the future even more dire, climate models predict not only increased warming on temperate breeding areas but also continued drying in the Caribbean.
The result has obvious implications for climate change, since warmer average temperatures are likely to reduce rainfall in many areas. A major question is how birds will cope with the disrupted migration schedule. In many cases, birds time their migrations to arrive on their breeding grounds just as certain food sources are becoming available, whether those are insects or seeds or some other source.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Risks of Oil Sands Mining for Migratory Birds

Alberta's oil sands region has been back in the news recently with proposals to build new pipelines to carry unrefined oil extracted there (diluted bitumen) south to Texas for refining. Those pipelines have their own risks, especially when they cross important watersheds or wildlife areas. Regardless of how the oil is transported, the extraction process has a tremendous impact on migratory birds. Bird Canada calls our attention to this report from 2008 on the dangers oil sands mining poses for migratory birds and their habitats (pdf). It is worth a read if you are unfamiliar with the conservation issues and the birds at risk.

Also, a book I reviewed two years ago is worth reading if you want to explore the issues in more detail

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Look What Came in My Mailbox

Yesterday I received a book I had been coveting for some time, Moths of Eastern North America by Charles V. Covell. This field guide was originally published in the Peterson field guide series in 1984. Unlike many other guides in that series, it was never updated or reprinted by the publisher,* so that copies are usually hard-to-find or  expensive, either as used books or as a third-party reprint. So when I did find a copy at a reasonable price, in this case a special fiftieth anniversary edition printed to mark the 50th anniversary of Peterson's first bird guide, I snatched it up as quickly as possible.

The odd thing is that from the outside it does not look at all like a standard Peterson guide with its red leather cover and gold leaf lettering and page edges. It even came with a bookplate and a ribbon bookmark sewn into the binding. Despite its outward appearance, it is the same inside as any other edition of the guide, with plates of pinned moths and identifying text.

I am looking forward to using this once moths start flying in greater numbers as the weather warms.

* I should add that the series does have a new moth guide in preparation, which will be substantially different from Covell's.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Will Trees Along the Parkway Be Replanted?

If you have traveled the southern portions of the Garden State Parkway at all in the last few years, you will no doubt have noticed the extensive tree-clearing and road-widening underway. Under the state's no-net-loss law, the agency overseeing the project needs to replace the trees being cleared or contribute to a tree-planting fund. However, it looks like the Turnpike Authority is trying to avoid that obligation by reclassifying the tree-clearing from mile 30 to mile 64.5 as routine maintenance rather than preparation for construction.

Officials from the Turnpike Authority say they have lived up to their “no net loss” obligations and plan to continue doing so. But they believe the tree-cutting project may be eligible for exemption since the state’s Division of Parks and Forestry has said the cut trees could classify as a firebreak for the pinelands.

The authority has submitted a plan to the state Department of Environmental Protection to mitigate the loss of wetlands and trees, although it did so only after the clearing work had begun, a breach of etiquette if not of the regulatory process....

In recent months, the Turnpike Authority has repeatedly said the clearing is not part of the $900 million parkway widening project that, when completed, will widen the roadway between mileposts 80 in Toms River and 30 in Somers Point, but rather a maintenance program designed to keep drivers safe and the roadway clear of debris.

Tom Feeney, a spokesman for the Turnpike Authority, told The Press in February that “originally, this was billed as clear zone maintenance for this entire stretch and, also, the northern part was going to be worked into the removal for the widening project. But we’re still in the planning process for the next phase of the widening, and any actual work is so far away that some of the trees will probably have started to grow back by the time work begins on the widening.”

On March 17, Kropp told The Press that the Turnpike Authority submitted a reforestation or payment plan in February for the section of the project that stretches between mileposts 30 and 64.5, but that the plan still had not been reviewed at that time.
The plan originally submitted described the work as minor, in contrast to the clearcutting evident along the Parkway now.
The size of the undertaking is reflected in both the $6 million price tag to clear the trees and in the visual impact of the razed oak, maple, cedar and pine trees. The scene has become familiar to motorists: heavy machinery, specially fitted timber-cutting machines and dump trucks picking their way through long swaths of denuded ground and fallen timber. Piles of woodchips tower more than 20 feet high.

Yet despite the scope of the project, the authority’s environmental impact study, submitted in 2006, describes the work as relatively minor.

“The proposed project will require minor disturbances of vegetated areas. ... In total, 155.58 acres of existing vegetated area will be cleared, of which 88.84 acres will be converted to paved area,” the report reads.

The report states that a majority of the permanent impact will be to the plant and animal habitat in the project area, including those of threatened and endangered species, such as bald eagles, ospreys and Pine Barrens tree frogs. But it states that the loss of habitat is not expected to affect the ability of existing species to successfully breed, forage and hibernate because there is plenty of available habitat space nearby.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Robins and a Snipe

Yesterday I visited the Negri-Nepote grasslands for the second time in two weeks. This time the fields were a lot quieter, without the small flock of Tree Swallows that I had noted last time. What was notable was the number of American Robins, which were present in several large flocks. In the photo below, you can see 20 robins, and that was only a portion of their number.

Besides the robins, there were three American Kestrels, two Northern Harriers, and a Red-tailed Hawk patrolling the fields. A few Eastern Bluebirds seem to be setting up breeding territories in the fields. Beyond that, the preserve is still waiting for the influx of spring migrants and summer residents.

On Thursday, another birder found a Wilson's Snipe in Johnson Park, with further reports of the bird on Friday. So yesterday I went over to follow up since it would be a county bird for me. Sure enough, the snipe turned out to be easy to find, as it was hanging around the same drainage ditch where it was reported for the previous two days.

A couple of Mallards hanging around nearby provided a nice size comparison for the snipe.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Canada Goose from Canada

A little more than a month ago, I found a Canada Goose wearing an orange neck collar in Donaldson Park. I photographed the goose and reported the number on its collar, "H8W1," to the Bird Banding Laboratory. It appears that all four geese in that image are wearing leg bands, but I was not able to get clear photos of any of them, except for the large neck collar. Yesterday I received a certificate of appreciation from the Bird Banding Laboratory, and it included some information about the goose. It was banded near Boucherville, Quebec, in July 2008; when it was banded, it was too young to fly. Boucherville is just northeast of Montreal, about 400 miles north of here. So unlike most of the geese I have reported, this goose had to cross international boundaries to get here.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Loose Feathers #283

Western Snowy Plover Chicks and Egg / Credit: Ron LeValley/LeValley Photographs/USFWS

Birds and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Oil Spill at Tristan da Cunha

A freighter, the Malta-based MV Oliva, ran aground near Tristan da Cunha, a group of islands in the South Atlantic. The ship released 800 tons of oil, and there is now an oil slick around Nightingale Island. The slick has the potential to be difficult to clean up since the islands are remote and cleanup vessels will have to travel a long way to reach Tristan da Cunha.

Nightengale Island is notable for its large population of Northern Rockhopper Penguins (Eudyptes moseleyi), an endangered species that has more than half of its population living within the archipelago. Conservation workers on the islands say that about 20,000 penguins have been oiled so far, with the potential for more to be oiled by the time rescue workers arrive.

There are photos of the penguins at and updates at the Tristan da Cunha website.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Frogs Chorusing in Cape May

Along with the warmer temperatures, spring revives sounds, the songs of animals calling to establish breeding territories and attract mates. Birds, of course, do this; my first sign of spring is usually when the House Finches start to sing in earnest again in February. Insects sing, too, though we will not get the full effect of those nightly choruses for a while yet. Right now, the nights around wetland areas are full of the sounds of amphibians.

Several species of frogs were calling in Cape May Point State Park one night last week. I took these videos at various points along the boardwalks, as the evening got darker and the choruses got louder. The video above, taken early in the evening, records the sound of Northern Spring Peepers. Other sounds in the video include waves on the beaches and footsteps on the boardwalk.

This video has mostly Wood Frogs, as well as a New Jersey Chorus Frog.

This video has four species: Northern Spring Peepers, Northern Cricket Frogs, Wood Frogs, and Pickerel Frogs.

This video, my last of the evening, has the same set of species as the previous one.

New Jersey's fish & wildlife agency produced a guide to the state's amphibians. There is a pdf summary of the frogs and a website with links to factsheets about each of the state's reptiles and amphibians.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Oldest U.S. Bird Found Again

The oldest known bird in U.S. states and territories is a female Laysan Albatross named Wisdom. She breeds at Midway Atoll and disappeared after the recent tsunami swept over the atoll's islands. Her chick survived, and yesterday she was seen feeding her chick for the first time after the tsunami. Barry Stieglitz, Project Leader for the Hawaiian and Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex, had this to say about Wisdom's return (pdf):
"Although wildlife biologists generally manage at the level of populations," Stieglitz said, "we, too, become entwined in the fates of individual animals. Wisdom is one such special creature. She has also provided us valuable information about the longevity of these beautiful birds - in her case over 60 years - and reinforces the importance of breeding adults in the population. It's also very humbling to know this 8-pound bird has been producing chicks longer than I have been alive."
The fate of the parents of the endangered Short-tailed Albatross chick is still unknown, but the chick at least survived.

The image at the top of this post was taken by Pete Leary of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. You can read updates about the albatrosses and cleanup from the tsunami at Midway on his blog.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Hardest Part of Birding.

Unless you always bird by yourself, an important and under-appreciated skill is being able to get other birders onto a good bird. Nick Lund, who formerly wrote The Birdist, created this video to show just how difficult that can be sometimes. I know I have been involved in this type of conversation (playing both roles) many times.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Moths at the Light

I have run my moth light three times over the past two weeks in the hope of attracting some early season moths. The first session, on March 8th, was mostly a bust, with no moths and not even midges or gnats. In the second session, on March 11th, I recorded one moth, a Spring Cankerworm (Paleacrita vernata), in two and a half hours of running the light. That moth is shown below. It came towards the end of the session after the temperature had dropped to 43°F.

On the day of my third session, March 18th, the daytime temperature had risen to 77°F, so I expected to see a few moths. However, I only saw one micromoth, pictured below. I think it is a Palmerworm Moth (Dichomeris ligulella), a species I first encountered last fall. That species is active from early spring through late fall.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Cape May Light at Dawn

I took these photos this week from the dune crossing observation platform at St. Peter's in Cape May Point.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Loose Feathers # 282

Birds and birding news
  • The tsunami generated by Japan's recent earthquake washed over many Pacific islands used for nesting by seabirds, including Midway Atoll. Visit the USFWS Pacific photostream to see images of the damage. The endangered Short-tailed Albatross chick (pictured above) managed to survive the tsunami. You can read more about it at Pete Leary's blog.
  • A study explored why birds collide with human-made obstacles such as buildings and wind turbines by examining how their sensory information. Part of the reason is that they are more likely to be looking down or to the sides than straight ahead. Birds' forward vision may also be tuned to detect movement rather than stationary obstacles.
  • Oklahoma wildlife officials are trying to rebuild the state's Northern Bobwhite population, which has declined in recent years.
Birds in the blogosphere
Environment and biodiversity
  • A recent study found 89 cases of national parks and protected areas being shrunk or abolished over the past century.
  • A new population of the rare Andean cat was discovered in central Argentina. The find was significant both for extending the cat's known range and because this population occurs at a much lower altitude than any of the other known populations.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Bird Strikes against D.C. Buildings

City Wildlife tracked the deaths of migratory birds around buildings in Washington, D.C., last year during spring and fall migration.The group collected 123 birds, 36 of which appeared at the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building near Union Station. The building proves particularly deadly to birds because it fronts an open plaza with a glass facade. When the lights are left on all night, migrating birds seeking shelter at the end of a long flight see the trees inside the atrium; instead of landing in the trees, they crash into a glass wall. In other cases, birds may simply be disoriented by the bright lights.

Here is a list of the most dangerous buildings, with the numbers of dead birds in parenthesis.

  1. Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building (36) 
  2. TechWorld, 800 K Street NW (21) 
  3. Senate Hart Office Building (11) 
  4. U.S. Court of Appeals, 430 E St. NW (10) 
  5. 300 New Jersey Avenue NW (8) 
  6. 1099 New York Avenue NW (7) 
  7. Washington Convention Center (7) 
  8. 425 I Street NW (6) 
  9. 20 Massachusetts Avenue NW (3) 
  10. Second and G Streets NE (3)
The organization proposes a voluntary "lights out" campaign similar to those implemented in other cities, like Toronto, Chicago, and New York City. If you want to get involved, you can more information at

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Hermit Crab

A hermit crab in a snail shell at Two Mile Beach near Wildwood Crest.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Piping Plovers at Stone Harbor Point

Yesterday I saw my first Piping Plovers of the year at Stone Harbor Point, on a barrier island a little north of Cape May. I counted seven: two visible in the restricted area and then five more on the beach near the water. The first Piping Plovers were reported a week or two ago, and it appears their numbers have risen since then.

The plovers near the water were accompanied by hundreds of Dunlin and Sanderlings, but the plovers tended to keep their distance from the two sandpiper species and not mix with them in any significant way.

I checked each of the plovers as carefully as possible for any sign of bands or color markers on their legs, but I did not see any. Some Piping Plovers that winter in the Bahamas have been marked with colored plastic bands; if you happen to see one, report it following the directions at the link. One that was sighted by Andrew on Long Island last year and then re-sighted in the Bahamas; at least one Bahamas plover has already been reported this spring in Connecticut.

As a bonus, here are a couple of American Oystercatchers that were in the same area.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Review: Parrots of the World

The growing ranks of field guides to bird families was recently joined by Parrots of the World, written by Joseph M. Forshaw and illustrated by Frank Knight. Forshaw was already the author or co-author of several guides to parrots, including Parrots of the World, a reference work that went through multiple printings over several decades, and a handbook for identification published in 2006. His latest book, in the Princeton Field Guides series, is intended for field use by birdwatchers and ornithologists, especially birders participating in "parrot-watching" tours in South America or Australia.

Parrots of the World covers all 356 species of parrots, including extinct species such as the Carolina Parakeet. The guide groups species by geography rather than taxonomy, to make it easier to find species in the field. Each species is represented with the high quality painted illustrations I have come to expect from Princeton's field guides. Illustrations depict each species's major forms, as well as the uppersides and undersides of their wings and tails. The top and bottom views appear more like study skins than flying birds, but they achieve the same goal as a depiction of a flying bird would.

Facing each color plate is a page with text for each depicted species. The accounts include a range map, identification points, and notes on the bird's distribution and conservation status. Each account also names a handful of places where a species is most likely to be found. The suggested locations are usually national parks or other protected reserves, or in some cases lodges that cater to birders.

Why might a North American birder want a field guide on parrots when the only native parrot species in the U.S. or Canada is extinct? First, parrots are beautiful and intriguing species. Some are highly intelligent, and many are threatened by habitat loss or capture. Of the 356 species, 123 are listed as threatened or endangered by BirdLife International. This makes parrots one of the most threatened groups of birds. This alone makes it worth learning more about parrots.

Second, exotic parrots are establishing themselves in American cities by escapes or releases of imported birds. Monk Parakeets are on the state lists for New York, Illinois (pdf), and more recently New Jersey (pdf); they have been documented in other states as well. California and Florida have small populations of numerous parrots. Escaped pet parrots like Budgerigars can turn up almost anywhere. Virtually any species brought into the country can escape and not all of them are depicted in standard field guides. (The Sibley Guide to Birds and The Crossley ID Guide both have extensive sections on the most common feral parrots.) Since Parrots of the World covers species from every continent, it is a useful reference for checking the identity of an unknown parrot. I think it will prove especially helpful to urban birders who encounter escaped or feral parrots on a regular basis.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Skunk Cabbage: An Early Spring Wildflower

In the last week or two, I have started noticing skunk cabbage in swampy wooded areas. Skunk cabbage is one of the earliest native plants to flower in the spring. The flower is inside the green and purple sheath. Shortly after the flower appears, the green leaves begin to spread.

Skunk cabbages get their name from giving off a rotten smell. The smell is strong enough that it is recorded in the Latin of the scientific name (Symplocarpus foetidus) as well as the English name. A strong odor is produced whenever a leaf is torn, which may discourage herbivores from eating the leaves. The rotten smell may also attract some pollinators such as flies and bees.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Rain Drops on Branches

These photos are from Thursday, when it rained for most of the day. The drops are clinging to maple buds. Unlike the red maples, these trees probably will not flower for another month or more.

As usual, the photos link through to larger versions on Flickr.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Loose Feathers #281

Birds and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Some Moths from the Files

Recently I started re-examining some of my unidentified moths from last year to see if a second or third look might turn up IDs for some of them. So far I have been mostly successful. A few are probably not identifiable, but there are others that I probably overlooked while I was working on some of the larger and easier moths. Leading off this post is a Small Mottled Willow Moth (Spodoptera exigua), a species introduced from southeast Asia.

The small moth appears to be a Kearfott's Rolandylis Moth (Rolandylis maiana). 

It took a few trips through the same set of moth plates for me to figure out that this is probably a Decodes basiplagana, a tortricid that appears to lack a common name.

After I posted this on Flickr, Ali Iyoob suggested Palmerworm Moth (Dichomeris ligulella), which seems to fit the shape of this moth pretty well. Sometimes it pays to revisit unsolved identification problems!

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

More About the Banded Goose

I received my certificate from the Bird Banding Laboratory faster than usual this time. I reported a banded Canada Goose on Saturday and received the certificate on Monday. Certificates usually include some interesting information about where or how the bird was banded. In the case of this bird, the certificate states that it is a female and that she "was too young to fly when banded," which means that she was big enough to keep a size 8 band on its leg but had not grown her first set of flight feathers yet. The bird was banded in 1997, so she has probably produced plenty of her own (probably banded) offspring.

The banding site was given as Dunellen, New Jersey, and lies about 5.8 miles (as the goose flies) from where I saw the bird. The site appears to be a wetland of some sort, and it appears to be connected by a stream to the Dismal Swamp area. So far every banded Canada Goose I have reported has come from either that site or Raritan Center.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Red Knot to be Listed as Endangered in NJ

New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection is proposing to change the state's listing of Red Knot from threatened to endangered. The proposal is based on a few years of studying their population trends, but it was made more urgent by recent reports from South America:
In late February, biologists returned with sobering news from their annual trip to the bird's wintering grounds in Tierra del Fuego, Chile.

Immense flocks of red knots once swooped over the vast tidal mudflats, rich in tiny organisms that were a nonstop banquet. In recent years the number declined to 16,000, but remained stable.

Now, the count showed the population dropping again, to between 10,000 and 11,000.

"We're dismayed," said Larry Niles, former chief of the DEP endangered-species program, now a wildlife consultant. He has led red knot research for more than a decade.

The crew of more than a dozen international researchers had hoped for an uptick because conditions on Delaware Bay last spring were so favorable. The weather held, the crabs laid their eggs, the birds feasted.

Data from netted birds showed that nearly 80 percent were at or near ideal body weight, prime for breeding.
An online version of the state's proposal is here, for anyone who wants to read and comment on it. Comments must be received by March 19. It looks like comments have to be submitted by mail even though NJDEP asks for an electronic copy.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Bird-Smart Wind Power

Wind energy holds some potential for reducing the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by our power sources, but this environmental benefit comes at a cost. Wind farms may harm birds and bats, either by creating obstacles for them to strike or by habitat degradation. The American Bird Conservancy is circulating a petition calling for mandatory standards for the wind industry to reduce the threat to birds and bats. The petition reads as follows:

Wind power is the fastest developing source of energy in the United States and can be an important part of the solution to climate change. However, wind farms can harm birds through collisions with turbines and associated structures, and through loss of habitat birds need for survival. These losses are largely avoidable. The solutions are within our reach.
I support bird-smart wind power that includes mandatory standards to minimize bird deaths and habitat impacts.
Bird-smart wind power:
1. Is carefully sited to avoid harm to birds
2. Uses best technology and best management practices to minimize harm to birds
3. Employs effective, federally reviewed and approved, site-specific, pre- and post-construction studies/assessments to assist with improved siting and operation, and to properly quantify impacts.
4. Compensates fully for unavoidable harm to birds caused by collisions with wind turbines or associated structures, and lost or degraded habitat.

If you agree with this, you can sign onto the petition here. The petition is a shortened version of ABC's policy statement on wind power, which provides more information about what they mean by each of those four points.

(via the ABA blog)

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Birds at Johnson Park

I took a walk through Johnson Park yesterday afternoon. I was hoping to see some waterbirds on the ponds, which had been frozen over on my last visit to that park about a month ago. Aside from the usual Canada Geese and Mallards, the only waterfowl I saw were a few Common Mergansers that flew past and some distant Common Goldeneye. There was a large group of gulls on a sandbar across the river from the park. I made out one Lesser Black-backed Gull among the group. A few other dark-backed gulls looked like candidates for Lesser Black-backed Gulls based on size, but I couldn't quite tell if other field marks were also consistent. A blackbird flock at the horse track included one Rusty Blackbird. Most of the birds in the flock were European Starlings, with a few dozen each Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles, as well as one Brown-headed Cowbird. The flock flushed pretty frequently, so it was difficult to make out anything more than that.

As I was leaving the park, I came upon a flock of Canada Geese close to the pathway. They tolerated my presence enough that I could get close and photograph them. A few birds were banded, and I was able to get a complete band number for one of them. The bird above has the band number 0908-42802. After I entered the band on the Bird Banding Laboratory's website, I got an automatically-generated email from them saying that the goose was banded in New Jersey in 1997. I am waiting to receive a certificate with more information about the bird.

Another goose in the same group had an odd wing. Its left wing was held slightly away from the body, and it appeared to have a dark underneath. The right wing looked normal. I am not sure if this was due to injury or some other cause. Whatever the cause, it did not seem to hamper the goose's ability to feed itself. With few predators capable of taking on a goose, this bird is probably relatively safe. I did not see this group of birds take off, so I am not sure if the wing is actually injured enough to prevent it from flying.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Eastern Screech-Owl in Daylight

Yesterday afternoon, I noticed this Eastern Screech-Owl along the Delaware and Raritan Canal. Since the owl was small and its cryptic plumage blended well with the trunk, the bird was actually hard to recognize, despite the large opening. When I photographed it, I initially was not sure if my hunch was right, but the photo showed that it was.

While screech-owls are primarily nocturnal predators, they sometimes emerge from their roosting places during the day, especially the late afternoon. In the winter, sitting in an opening gives them the opportunity to bask in the afternoon sun and warm themselves after a cold day of sleeping. So if you happen to be out on a winter afternoon, it is worth checking openings in tree trunks for the characteristic shape of an owl.

If you do happen to find a roosting owl, be careful about how you share the sighting and do not post an exact roost or nest location publicly. Owls can be sensitive to disturbance, so frequent visits may push an owl to change roosts, possibly to a less favorable location.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Loose Feathers #280

Turkey Vulture in flight / Photo by Garry Tucker (USFWS)

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

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Signs of Spring

It is still winter according to the calendar, but the signs of spring are becoming unmistakable. As I mentioned in some prior posts, the bird life around here is shifting. I have been seeing more flocks of blackbirds, though I have not seen the massive flocks I often see in February. Ring-billed Gulls are outnumbering Herring Gulls along the river. House Finches are looking brighter and have started singing more insistently. The House Finch male above must be the most purple House Finch I have seen, so much so that I looked it over carefully to make sure I was not looking at a Purple Finch. Size and structure, though, marked its real identity.

The red maple I mentioned previously has now started flowering. Red maples are usually one of the first trees to start blooming. I recently read Bernd Heinrich's Winter World, which discussed the early blooming of red maples and other trees in the context of bee survival. Early flowers like these provide an advantage to those bee colonies that can afford to sacrifice some scouts to cold snaps in order to find those flowers as soon as they bloom. I did not notice any bees on these flowers, but they were well above my head, so I may have missed some.

Here is a closer look at flowers on a different red maple.

Crocus sprouts are starting to appear as well. Yesterday was the first day I noticed them, but some probably started before then.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Leucistic Mallard

I found this unusual duck yesterday in my local patch, Donaldson Park. It is almost entirely white, except for random speckling on the head and back, the dark flight feathers, and the tail and tail coverts. I think this is a leucistic female Mallard. Leucism is a condition in which an animal loses some or all of its pigmentation so that it appears pale, all white, or with white blotches around patches of normal color. Unlike albinos, which lose all of their melanin, leucistic animals typically retain their normal eye color.

With Mallards, there is always a question of whether an unusual individual is a wild Mallard, a hybrid of a Mallard and some other duck, or a domestic Mallard breed. I think this is a wild Mallard for a few reasons. First, the bird seems slightly smaller and more compact than the normal wild female and male Mallards close to it, but not so small that it would have required selective breeding to produce it. Second, its bill is similar in size, proportions, and color pattern to the nearby female's.

Third, although the wing feathers on the two birds appear to be folded slightly differently, the overall color patterns of the plumage appear similar on the white duck and the normal female Mallard. The head of the white duck has fine, dark streaking; the breast, back, and tail coverts have teardrop-shaped dark streaking; the tail and tertials are dark; and the speculum (barely visible in these photos) is blue with black and white borders. The blue on the speculum is only visible in the photo with the wild male Mallard, and even then it is only a small part of it. I do not see strong evidence of another species's plumage pattern in this bird.

Regardless of its true identity, this is an interesting and beautiful bird. If you happen to see reasons why this is not a leucistic wild female Mallard, please leave a comment!