Sunday, December 30, 2012

Fox Sparrow

Before the snow's arrival yesterday, I walked through Rutgers Gardens. I started out by walking through the ornamental conifers to see if anything unusual was hanging around them. There was very little activity, so I moved on. My impression is that there are not a lot of seed cones on them, so winter finches there are probably unlikely.

From there I walked through Helyar Woods. There were quite a lot of trees down in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. A lot of trails were blocked by fallen trees, especially the trails close to the lake, which are blocked in multiple places.

There was some bird activity in the woods, but the best birding was in the meadow that is across Route 1 from Sears. One of the first birds I heard there was a Winter Wren; I would see another one further out in the meadow. There were a lot of White-throated Sparrows around, and then a Fox Sparrow popped up and perched on top of a multiflora rose tangle. That made it my 221st bird species in Middlesex County and my 195th in the county for the year. I saw three Fox Sparrows in all, one of which was singing, including the one in the photograph above. Other birds in the meadow included Golden-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a Hermit Thrush (also a county year bird).

On a sad note, there was a dead Cooper's Hawk near the bamboo forest. From the plumage and size, I would say that it was an adult female. The cause of death was not visibly obvious, but the location suggests an auto collision.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Best Photos from 2012

Every year for the past few years I have compiled my best photos into a set. Here is a collage of my best from 2012, which you can also see as a set on Flickr. I think my favorite is this photo of an American Redstart that I took in September.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Loose Feathers #373

Blue-winged teal in flight at Sand Lake NWR / Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS
Birds and birding
Nature and science blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Friday, December 21, 2012

Loose Feathers #372

Blue-winged Teal / Photo by Barbara Wheeler Photography, USFWS Volunteer
Birds and birding
Nature and science blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Friday, December 14, 2012

Loose Feathers #371

Fledgling Horned Lark / Credit: WCS
Birds and birding
Nature and science blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Friday, December 07, 2012

Loose Feathers #370

Rough-legged Hawk / US Forest Service
Birds and birding
Nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Monday, December 03, 2012

Morgan Mudflats after Sandy

On October 29, Hurricane Sandy pushed a storm surge that reached at least 13 feet at Sandy Hook into Raritan Bay. When it reached South Amboy, it was still high enough to lift boats onto the North Jersey Coast Line tracks and wedge other boats into the Cheesequake Creek drawbridge. I was curious to see how Sandy had affected Morgan Mudflats, a local birding hotspot, when I arrived there yesterday. The damage was not as bad as I expected. There were trees down, a lot of vegetation washed away, and extra trash washed up on the beach. It will be interesting to see how the habitat recovers and how it affects birding at the site.

Yesterday there were not a lot of birds around. Brant are back, in large numbers. The highlight was a Bald Eagle that flew past and perched near the railroad tracks. A few other waterfowl were around: American Black Ducks, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Mergansers, and Hooded Mergansers.

The beach at Morgan Mudflats has always been a little grungy, but there was a lot of extra trash left after Sandy. Most of the wrack line was covered in plastic bottles, and there was larger trash like boards and plastic crates. A beach cleanup here probably is not a priority for South Amboy or Sayreville, but it may be worth doing since the beach is frequently used by birders, fishermen, and other people.

The other sort of damage was to vegetation. A prominent holly grove was substantially reduced when several trees fell. These trees were a favorite perching spot for egrets, night herons, and other birds. For example, these egrets were sitting in the grove.

I am not sure if this eastern red cedar had stood somewhere along the beach or if it originated somewhere else and floated in with the storm surge or a subsequent tide.

This wetland was not previously visible from the beach but is now thanks to vegetation being knocked down. I think the vegetation that blocked the view had been mostly Phragmites, so I imagine it will grow back fairly quickly.

This is the hill between the beach and the cul-de-sac. It had been a mixture of trees, shrubs, and other vegetation with a trail going through it, most of which has been swept aside. There also seems to be a fair amount of erosion along the railroad right-of-way.

The linens on this tree may or may not have been put there by Sandy.

The trail through the woods from the cul-de-sac is mostly intact, aside from a few fallen trees.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Gulls at the Edison Boat Basin

Yesterday morning I made a couple stops at Middlesex County locations. The first was Morgan Mudflats, which I will have more about in a subsequent post. The second was Edison Boat Basin. A lot of times I stop there when there are very few gulls around, but yesterday morning there were thousands. I suspect the activity on top of the Edgeboro Landfill had something to do with that. A work crew was moving trash around, which attracted thousands of gulls that swirled in the air above the landfill. Another thousand or so were sitting on the river or loafing on the boat ramp.

The best bird was a Glaucous Gull that flew past the boat basin and then joined some Herring Gulls circling over Kin-Buc (a closed landfill on the Edison side of the river). I would have preferred to see it on the ground at close range, but it was fun to watch a white-winged gull in flight. It looked impressively white — closer to an egret than a first-year Herring Gull on the waterbird scale of whiteness. (In fact, when I spotted a large white bird flying past, I raised my binoculars expecting to see an egret.) At first it looked all white, from wingtip to wingtip, but when it turned, I could see some grayish streaking on its back and wing coverts. There was no sign of any dark marking on its wingtips. It looked larger and bulkier than the Herring Gulls it joined.

Speaking of Herring Gulls, here is a second or third-year bird that perched on one of the boat ramp docks. Herring Gulls were the most numerous of the gulls that I could identify yesterday.

Ring-billed Gulls were also present at the boat ramp.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Loose Feathers #369

Chestnut-collared Longspur / WCS Photo
Birds and birding
  • Birds in areas that are brightly lit by artificial lights are able to forage longer into the evening, which may be an advantage for overwintering birds. (Of course, artificial lights have well-known detriments for birds in the process of migrating.)
  • A student at Berkeley replicated bird surveys that were done a century ago and turned up similar numbers of species.
  • Injuries to swans' hips may be more common than thought and probably result from landing on hard surfaces.
  • A dead carrier pigeon from World War I was found in a British chimney. It had a coded message attached to one leg, which has proven resistant to interpretation.
  • A rat eradication program is continuing on South Georgia Island to rid the island of invasive rats that threaten the island's breeding birds.
  • The American Bird Conservancy wants Congress to ban five species of constrictor snakes from importation. The release of constrictor snakes in Florida is having significant effects on its native wildlife.
  • The Manumea still exists in Samoa but faces threats from habitat destruction and hunting.
Nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity
  • Sea levels are rising 60% faster than the IPCC predicted. Along with temperature data, this suggests that climate change is likely to be worse than the consensus forecasts. Here are some interactive maps showing what portions of major metropolitan areas could flood under several sea level forecasts. Meanwhile, Arctic sea ice melted over an area larger than the continental United States in 2012 and set a record 20% lower than the previous record.
  • A newly-approved natural gas pipeline will go through the New York portion of Gateway National Recreation Area, particularly Jacob Riis Park and Floyd Bennett Field.
  • Recent studies suggest that the animals and especially plants of US urban areas are homogenizing, to the extent that there are now large differences between the fauna and flora of cities and the surrounding rural areas. (I am not sure why they chose to put a Blue Tit on the Empire State Building, though.)
  • Eastern wolves (formely Canis lupus lycaon) are now considered a separate species from gray wolves.
  • Also in wolf news, hunting caused the deaths of seven tagged research wolves from Yellowstone. The deaths of those wolves pose a significant setback for the research program.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Loose Feathers #368

Birds and birding
Nature and science blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How Soon Can Refuges Recover from Sandy?

Damage at Forsythe NWR / USFWS Photo
The Washington Post covers some of the damage that Sandy wrought at national wildlife refuges in the Mid-Atlantic region:
The wreckage at Forsythe and other Northeast coastal refuges was yet another testament to the destructive power of Sandy, the superstorm that ripped up the New Jersey shore and flooded Manhattan. And it drew attention to the costly plans being considered by the federal agency to protect wildlife refuges from the impact of climate change and sea-level rise.

Sandy’s winds rammed a dirt and gravel dike at Forsythe with seawater, causing it to burst. Bay salt water rushed into a shallow freshwater pond created for birds such as the American black duck and Atlantic brant. The usual foot of water in which the birds dip their heads got saltier, rose to five feet and washed out vegetation, so the birds could no longer reach underwater seeds or pick bugs from leaves.

Dozens of refuges between Maine and Virginia were pummeled. Four were damaged severely, including Forsythe, where about 130 boats in the Atlantic City area were blown into marshes, Kahan said.

At Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, part of the public beach and two parking lots were washed away on Assateague Island. At Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware, a 1,500-foot breach in a dune sent salt water from the Delaware Bay into a freshwater pond where waterfowl eat, nest and give birth, and flooded homes on an island near the refuge. And at the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex in New York, fallen trees blocked the entrance.

Sandy created sea surge powerful enough to reshape portions of the coasts of North Carolina, Delaware and Maryland, and Virginia’s portion of the Delmarva Peninsula, which includes Chincoteague, said the U.S. Geological Survey.

Thirty-five of the region’s 72 refuges were closed after the storm. Six million people per year — many from the District, Virginia and Maryland — visit the refuges, which cover 535,000 acres, and managers acted to protect visitors from “widow-makers,” damaged trees that crash down after storms, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman said.

Forsythe still has not reopened. In addition to the busted dike and ruined pond, the wrecked boats appear to be leaking fuel, Kahan said.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

White-throated Sparrows in Autumn

White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) breed in northern forests and migrate south to the eastern and southern United States during the fall. In New Jersey, they stay through the winter, often in large flocks. I usually hear White-throated Sparrows before I see them. They call constantly to each other and kick up leaves with their feet to uncover food. Even though they are so noisy, it can be hard to see them under shrubs and thick tangles of branches.

I took all of these photos in my backyard over the past few days. There have been at least six, maybe more, hanging around. The challenge with photographing them is to catch them when they hop onto an exposed perch where they might only sit for a few second before going back down into the fallen leaves.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Loose Feathers #367

Merlin / Photo by Bill Thompson (USFWS)
Birds and birding
  • A census of Island Scrub Jays on Santa Cruz Island in California documented fewer of these endemic jays than expected. With only 2,500 individuals, this is one of the rarest bird species in the U.S.
  • A survey estimated that 22 million birds die from window strikes in Canada each year. The number is likely higher than that in the United States, which is more densely populated. For more about human-caused bird mortality, see this fact sheet (pdf) from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. David Sibley puts the same numbers into graphical form.
  • Thousands of Lesser Flamingos have arrived at Tanzania's Lake Natron for their breeding season, which may be the largest breeding event since 2007. The habitat around Lake Natron is currently threatened by low water levels due to drought and proposed industrial development.
  • The NY Times took a look at how hurricanes affect birds.
  • Whooping Cranes are returning to Aransas NWR in eastern Texas to spend the winter. Meanwhile, there are lingering legal issues left over from the deaths of 23 cranes last winter. Environmental groups want the state to create a water management plan for the Guadelupe River that will provide adequate water for the refuge.
  • A project is photographically documenting all 39 species of birds-of-paradise in their natural habitats. There are a few videos of bird-of-paradise courtship dances embedded in the article, and you can watch more here.
  • A recent study found that New Caledonian Crows are able to infer hidden causes. 
  • The National Post has an article on Canada's quest to collect and retire all of its $1,000 bills, which are mostly in the hands of criminal enterprises. The main reason I am linking that article is that the Canadian $1,000 bill has a lovely image of Pine Grosbeaks on it.
  • A bee-eater found in Scotland is very rare for that area. Bohemian Waxwings are also irrupting into the UK this winter. Also in the UK, a new wetland reserve opened in the Trent Valley.
Nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Friday, November 09, 2012

Loose Feathers #366

Western Grebe and chicks / Photo by Dan Nelson (USFWS)
Birds and birding
Nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity
  • President Obama's re-election this week means that his EPA will be able to proceed with regulations on greenhouse gas emissions if it chooses. However, what the administration will be able to accomplish on this front will be limited by Congressional opposition and the administration's embrace of an "all of the above" energy policy.
  • Hurricane Sandy has entered the climate change conversation; whether it will spur significant action remains to be seen.
  • One thing that may result from Sandy is the erection of barriers to protect New York Harbor from storm surges. There are various proposals floating around; one is to ring Manhattan and Brooklyn with artificial wetlands that would serve as parks most of the time but absorb some of the energy of storm surges that enter the harbor. Floodgates are another option.
  • Monsoon failures may become more common in India thanks to climate change.
  • Deforestation can be detected from space via a NASA satellite. Recent data shows extensive deforestation in South American and West Africa.
  • A 2001-2002 drought in the Rocky Mountains made the mountain pine beetle infestation much worse.
  • An extremely rare whale, the spade-toothed beaked whale, was found beached in New Zealand. It was the first time the species was recorded as a complete specimen, and it was only identified by DNA testing.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Brigantine after Sandy

It looks unlikely that birders will be driving around the wildlife drive at Brigantine in the near future.

Those cormorants are swimming through what used to by the road along the south dike. Other parts of the road are eroded as well.

It looks like the refuge will be closed indefinitely, but the status will be updated on the Forsythe NWR website.

Update: Some aerial views of the south dike:

All photos are courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Loose Feathers #365

A new avian family tree / Credit: University of Sheffield
Birds and birding
Nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, November 01, 2012

My Sandy Experience

Hurricane Sandy / Image credit: NASA GOES Project
Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey around 8 pm on October 29. Up until that point, things had been going as well as could be expected, with a lot of rain and wind, but not much damage. Around the time Sandy made landfall, trouble started with the electricity. First the lights started flickering, and then there were two or three momentary power drops — the lights would go off, my desk fan (to cool my laptop) would stop, and I'd lose my internet connection. Each time, the power was restored after about a minute. Then around 8:30 pm, the power went off for good. It was off until about 6 pm last night. A lot of nearby towns are still without power.

The good news is that I survived the storm with no injuries. So did my parents and sisters and everyone else I know that I've been able to contact so far. My house is still intact, and the water never got cut off. It also isn't 90°F, so life without electricity was a lot more bearable. I am so glad that the stove and hot water heater are both powered by natural gas and not electricity. There was surprisingly little flooding for a storm of this magnitude, at least in Central New Jersey. Low-lying areas were wet, and a few roads were flooded, but the main roads seemed to be open. The flooding was nothing like that during Irene and Floyd.

While there was little flooding, the wind was ferocious on October 29. It was the worst wind storm I can remember. Many trees and branches are down. I saw at least one car with a Silver Maple on top of it. Bradford Pears were massacred. One Gingko had its top ripped off and tossed on the ground beside it. Other trees took power lines with them, and some crashed through houses. Many trees in my birding patch were uprooted. The Norway Maples along the back fence of my yard lost a lot of limbs, including a big one that crushed the fence.

I feel very lucky because this could easily have been a lot worse, and there are still a lot of people that have no power or water or even homes in some cases.

I did a little bit of post-hurricane birding on Tuesday morning, once I had an idea of what the storm had caused. There was nothing rare at Donaldson Park, my one stop. The Chipping Sparrows I had seen on October 28 were still there, though reduced in number. There were hundreds of gulls, including 119 Laughing Gulls. These are almost certainly storm-blown birds since they rarely visit the site except during unusual weather patterns. I also saw a Peregrine Falcon and a Northern Harrier. The latter might be a storm-displaced bird, though it is hard to be certain. I have only seen one other harrier at the site as far as I can remember, and that was several years ago. The Peregrine, of course, is a local breeder.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Loose Feathers #364

Merlin / USFWS Photo
Birds and birding
Nature blogging

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Big Sit at Morgan Mudflats

This is the annual Big Sit weekend, and yesterday I participated in the Big Sit at Morgan Mudflats in South Amboy, led by Rick Wright and sponsored by the Montclair Bird Club. Unlike big days, which can cover as large an area as a birder chooses, a big sit is a stationary count. Only species seen or heard from within a 17-foot circle may be counted towards the big sit total. Site selection and circle placement are the keys to a successful big sit; good sites should have a mix of habitat types visible from the count circle. At Morgan Mudflats, the habitats include bay, beach, saltmarsh, deciduous forest, and successional areas. Not all of these are easily visible from a count circle on the beach, but at the very least, they provide an opportunity for fly-by sightings.

Rick's count ran from 8 am to 3 pm. I was there along with Patrick and Anthony, my Middlesex Merlins teammates, for the morning portion of the count. Brant were back at the mudflats, and they were joined by several flocks of Green-winged Teal. Other waterfowl included seven Wood Ducks and a Black Scoter, the latter a new county bird for me. The raptor flight was highlighted by Bald Eagles — two while I was there and eight overall. Yellow-rumped Warblers and House Finches were constantly passing through the brush behind us. Occasionally they were joined by other species like Eastern Phoebe, American Pipits (which ran in and out of the Seaside Goldenrod), Savannah Sparrow, and Pine Siskins (which perched on the Phragmites heads to eat the seeds).

See Rick's full report at the Big Sit homepage.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Loose Feathers #363

White-tailed kite/ Photo by Brian Hansen (USFWS)
Birds and birding
Nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Monday, October 01, 2012

Blog Comments Note

I have been using Haloscan, which morphed into Echo and JS-Kit, for my blog's commenting system almost as long as this blog has existed. In 2005, Haloscan offered a better user interface than Blogger's comments, both for commenters (who did not need to register for an account anywhere to comment) and for blog owners (who could easily moderate comments to filter out spam). That advantage eroded over the years, but the system remained good enough to leave in place. As of today, October 1, that system has been discontinued. I will try to switch to a replacement — most likely Blogger's (much improved) native comments or Disqus — as soon as possible. In the meantime, if you would like to comment on a post or say hello, you can contact me via Twitter (@dendroica) or email me at empidonax AT gmail DOT com.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sparrows on the Move

Recent cold fronts have pushed more sparrows into the area. Song Sparrows, like the one above, are present year-round, but in the last couple weeks, I have been seeing a lot more of them than usual. Some of that is probably post-breeding dispersal (yesterday I saw one that looked very young!), but migrants are surely part of the influx.

Yesterday I also saw my first White-throated Sparrows of the fall. I thought I had heard some calling (with their soft chip notes) once or twice before, but I had not gotten a visual confirmation.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Birds Through My Window

Outside my bedroom window there is a line of crabapple trees, and close by, there is an eastern red cedar. Both tree species are fruiting heavily right now, and birds are taking advantage of the bounty. Yesterday afternoon I noticed a lot of bird activity in those trees, so I took some time to photograph birds through my window.

First off, this European Starling seemed especially fond of the cedar berries. When I have seen birds eating berries from that tree in the past, they have mostly been House Finches, so the starling's interest came as a bit of a surprise. This individual is interesting for another reason as well. It shows feathers from two different plumage stages, juvenile (the brown patches on its head) and formative or first basic (the white-spotted body feathers).

House Sparrows were part of the crowd. How often do you get to look down at birds sitting in a tree?

Northern Cardinals were also present, though they seemed more interested in the feeders behind the house than the crabapple fruits.

Last but not least, this American Redstart was a bit of a surprise. I have been seeing them around, in the yard and further afield. This was something of a lucky shot, too, as I only had time to take two photos before it moved on, and the first was affected by motion blur. Unlike most of the other birds, redstarts are primarily insectivores, so it would have been drawn by whatever insects were in the trees rather than the fruits.