Thursday, May 31, 2012

Review: Owlet Caterpillars of Eastern North America

The Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America is not the only identification guide for eastern moths to be published recently. At the end of last year, Princeton University Press issued a mammoth volume on eastern owlet moth caterpillars. Readers may be familiar with the excellent Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner, which includes caterpillars of common moth and butterfly species. The same author has teamed with David F. Schweitzer, J. Bolling Sullivan, and Richard C. Reardon to produce Owlet Caterpillars of Eastern North America.

This book treats 815 moth species from the superfamily Noctuoidea. This is one of the most diverse insect superfamilies, with over 75,000 species recorded worldwide (and probably many more not yet discovered). Of the species treated in the book, 726 species are illustrated while 89 are only described; of the illustrated species, 372 receive full accounts while 354 are given brief treatment that includes their host plants and how to identify them. Many of the full accounts are reproduced Caterpillars of Eastern North America, with updates or corrections where necessary.

Full accounts include photos of pinned and living adult moths in addition to the caterpillar. They may include multiple caterpillar images for species with a high degree of variation. The photographs are superb and reproduced at a high resolution suitable for illustrating significant markings and body structures. Since this volume was originally intended to appear in the Forest Service's FHTET publication series, the accounts include information on the economic significance of each species. The accounts are based on years of research by the four authors and include previously unpublished data about host plants and life cycles. An introduction covers the basics of moth taxonomy and life cycles and includes notes on collecting and rearing caterpillars.

Those with a serious interest in moths, whether on an amateur or professional basis will want a copy of
Owlet Caterpillars of Eastern North America. Gardeners and land managers may likewise find the book useful for identifying potential pest species. Readers with a more general interest will probably be satisfied with the coverage in Caterpillars of Eastern North America but may be interested in the additional coverage and photographs.

This review was based on a review copy provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


One of the distinctive wildflowers blooming now is beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis). Native to eastern North America, these plants can grow up to about waist height and have clusters of tubular white flowers. The plant is named for the long, bristled stamen that protrudes from the opening of each flower, which has the appearance of a hairy tongue.

Beardtongue is one of several Penstemon species recommended for pollinator-friendly gardens by the Xerces Society. (I reviewed their book, Attracting Native Pollinators, last summer.) When I was photographing these flowers, I noticed that several where visited by small insects that would crawl deep inside the flowers to get at the nectar. I think this may be a sweat bee since it is not very hairy and it has a glossy bluish-green body, but a few other groups could fit that description. I any case it is probably one of the many native bee species.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Review: Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America

A long-awaited update to Charles Covell's Moths of Eastern North America is finally in print this spring. Moths are among the most diverse insect groups – over 11,000 species have been catalogued in North America alone. They also play an important role in ecosystems, as pollinators for many plants and as food for birds, bats, and other animals. Yet their nocturnal habits and poor reputation as pests keeps them from being better appreciated. In fact, very little is known about many moth species – in some cases even basic information like their range or larval hosts. Among more popular groups like birds and butterflies, this sort of information is often collected by amateur observers, who supplement the work of scientists. David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie hope to encourage a new generation of moth observers with their new guide, the Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America.

The new guide covers nearly 1,500 moths found in the northeast, roughly from Minnesota and Missouri east to Virginia and the maritime provinces. Of these, about two-thirds to three-quarters are macromoths, and the rest are micromoths. These 1,500 moths are the ones most likely to be encountered, especially at a light trap or sugar bait. The increased coverage of micromoths compared to existing guides is especially welcome. At my UV light, I see far more micromoths than macromoths, and it usually takes me a long time to identify them. One moth I was surprised to see omitted is the Indian-meal Moth – the moth most likely to infest a pantry – which has a very distinctive adult form.

The new guide uses the format familiar from other recent Peterson guides: plates on the right page and descriptive text on the facing page. The text includes the Hodges number (and MPG number for noctuoids), size, a succinct description, host plants (if known), and range. The species accounts include a range map for most macromoths but not for micromoths, which I believe is a first among moth guides. Unfortunately sufficient data does not exist to produce a range map for many species. The accounts also include a tricolored bar to indicate approximate flight periods. When I first flipped through the guide, the bar's meaning was not obvious to me, but it is explained in the introduction. The guide is illustrated with photographs that have been digitally edited to remove the moths from their backgrounds. Many of the photos are by the authors, but they also drew on other photographers to supply images. The photographs are of excellent quality, and the color is true to life, as far as I can see. The plates show the moths as they appear in life rather than as mounted specimens, which is a major improvement over Covell's guide for identifying moths in the wild or at light traps.

I sense some possible influence from Kenn Kaufman's excellent series of field guides here, and not only in the use of digitally-edited photographs. One feature of Kaufman's butterfly and insect guides that I really like is the inclusion of a silhouette showing the actual size of one species on each page, with the all the species on the same page scaled relative to that species. This feature helps especially with identifying very small insects such as micromoths. It helps to have a visual sense of how small they are but also have the illustrations large enough to see the detailed markings on the wings.

The new Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America is the best English-language* resource currently in print for the region it covers. If you are interested in identifying moths in northeastern North America, this is the book to use. (Moths of Western North America is available for that region.) Since obtaining a copy, I have already used it to identify several moths. I must say that having a book in my hand makes a huge difference when I am trying to find a familiar-looking but unknown moth. It is much faster (and less strain for my laptop) than browsing through the plates at the Moth Photographers Group (though that website is excellent). It should make identifying moths at my UV light and active participation in projects like National Moth Week much easier.

This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher. I have corresponded with one of the authors, Seabrooke Leckie, for help with moth identifications on a few occasions.

I have not seen a copy of Louis Handfield's French-language Guide des Papillons du Québec (published by Broquet) to do a proper comparison between the two guides.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Bird's-foot Trefoil

Like the False Indigo-Bush I posted yesterday, the Bird's-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) is a member of the legume family (Fabaceae). However, it has a more typical flower, with a flag and keel. I found this plant in the same location as the False Indigo-Bush. Its yellow flowers are tiny; I doubt the flower head was more than 8 inches off the ground. The plant is native to Eurasia and North Africa but became naturalized in North America and is considered invasive in some locations. It is often grown agriculturally as a forage crop since it withstands regular browsing better than clover or alfalfa.

The name comes from the three leaflets at the tip of each compound leaf, which are thought to resemble a bird's foot.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

False Indigo Bush

A few days ago, when I was walking through one of my local birding spots, I noticed some medium-sized shrubs with compound leaves. What stood out most were the spikes of dark purple flowers at the tip of each of the branches. Despite the showy flowers, I could not remember having seen these plants before. After taking photos and searching through some plant references, I came up with a name: False Indigo Bush (Amorpha fruticosa), also known as Desert False Indigo. Since finding this patch, I have been seeing false indigo all over the place, which makes me wonder how I had ever missed them.

When I saw the compound leaves, I guessed that the shrub probably probably belonged to the legume family (Fabaceae), which turned out to be correct. (Legumes are not the only plants with compound leaves, but something about the smooth leaflets reminded me of other legumes, especially locust trees.) Shrubs in the genus Amorpha are unusual in having flowers with only one petal, curled into a tube out of which the reproductive parts emerge. A standard pea flower looks more like this, with a banner, keel, and sometimes wings. The single petal of an Amorpha flower is the reason for the genus name; it means "formless" or "deformed" in Greek.

False Indigo Bush is adaptable to different soil types and grows quickly. While it is native to North America, it is considered weedy or invasive in the northeastern and northwestern parts of its range, where it probably spread through escapes from cultivation. However, it does provide food to many insects, as foraging habitat for native bees such as mining bees and sweat bees and as a larval host plant for Silver-spotted Skipper, Southern Dogface, and other butterflies and moths.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Local Peregrine Falcon Nest

A few days ago, I got a tip from another birder about the presence of a local Peregrine Falcon nest. So yesterday morning I went to the site and checked it out. I had been waiting less than five minutes when one of the parents flew into sight and perched nearby (shown above). The chicks started calling and the adult called back in response. Around the same time, I got a brief look at what I assume was the other parent flying a short distance away.

Changing my position a few yards, I was able to get a better view of the nest. Unfortunately the angle was such that I was not able to see into the nest, but two of the chicks were perched at the edge. (I heard there are three, but I only saw two myself.) One of them was especially vocal and was flap-hopping around the ledge. Its wings looked developed enough that it probably will not be in the nest much longer. The adult made one delivery to the nest in the few minutes I was there, accompanied by even louder screaming.

Unfortunately my photos of the nestlings are not so good. I probably would have gotten better results on a sunny afternoon. I am not giving the exact location for this nest since it is still a state endangered species.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Loose Feathers #344

Marsh Wren / Photo by Steve Arena (USFWS)
News about birds and birding
Nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Records of What Birds Ate

Photo credit: Caridad Bojorquez/Proteus Gowanus
The Patuxent Wildlife Research Center houses a unique collection of records about avian diets. The records were compiled by federal scientists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who dissected the remains of 230,000 birds to analyze their stomach contents. While most of the jars that once preserved the stomach contents are gone, the records of their contents remain on hand-written notecards.
The 230,000 notecards that accompanied the jars sit in a musty basement, mostly forgotten. And they too may face destruction. As with many other historical collections, the United States Geological Survey, which now runs the center, has neither the personnel to digitize the collection nor the space to archive it properly. “If I disappear,” Mr. Droege said, “there will be no one left to champion it.”

The scientists who helped gather the collection published hundreds of articles, and even a few books, describing the food habits of more than 400 native species. Dozens of other scientists have used the collection to study how birds’ feeding habits, distribution and abundance have changed over the past 100 years. The collection, undertaken to determine how birds were harming humans, can now be used to determine how humans are harming birds.

Dr. Haas is using the collection to study how agricultural practices have changed bird diets. She said that during the 1950s, farmers in the South were encouraged to replace native grasses with cool-season grasses, which could provide food for livestock earlier in the springtime. Now several grassland birds are declining, and Dr. Haas suspects that it is because of the switch to nonnative grasses.

Jean-François Ouellet, a doctoral student at the University of Quebec at Rimouski, is using the collection to study evolutionary relationships between a bird’s size and the quality of what it eats. He said the collection was helpful for its detailed information about hundreds of birds across the country over different time periods. 
It would be a shame if these historical records disappeared. Perhaps the cards could be scanned and entered by volunteers, in a manner similar to the existing North American Bird Phenology Program.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Red Knots Return North

Red Knots / Photo by Gregory Breese (USFWS)
Once again, scientists are documenting the status of Red Knots as they migrate through the Delaware Bay region. Here is one interesting tidbit that echoes comments I heard from scientists last spring:
The great unknown is the plight of juvenile red knots between the time they leave the Canadian Arctic and when they return to Delaware Bay two years later, Kalasz said.

Last summer’s breeding season produced high numbers of juvenile birds, Kalasz said.

The concern is whether something happens to these birds – food supplies, hunting, habitat loss – in South America before they reach maturity and make their first breeding trip north through Delaware Bay, he said.

Scientists aren’t detecting any increases in the red knot population even though the numbers of juveniles in Canada – at least last year – was good.
Stopping the horseshoe crab harvests in Delaware Bay was clearly the most important means of protecting Red Knots and rebuilding their population. Having a ready supply of horseshoe crab eggs in the Delaware Bay area during spring migration is vital to the species's breeding success. However, there are other pieces of the puzzle, on their breeding grounds, on their wintering grounds, and on their fall migration routes. Finding what the remaining problems are and their solutions will be important for the Red Knot's long-term survival.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Birds Hitting Windows in Philadelphia

Like in other cities, buildings in Philadelphia's Center City have reflective glass surfaces that fool birds so that birds die in window strikes. Two researchers that have been studying the problem estimate that about 1,000 birds die each year in their four-block study area on Market Street. Most of the victims are migratory songbirds such as Ovenbirds and White-throated Sparrows, but they also include American Woodcocks and Wild Turkeys. Possible solutions, like elsewhere, involve shutting lights off at night during periods of heavy migration and incorporating designs that make glass surfaces more visible to songbirds:

Films applied to the glass to make it visible are one idea. At Temple University, art students held a competition to come up with attractive and effective designs. The winning version resembled sheet music with the notes shaped like birds.

Another student cut translucent film into the shape of molecules for the chemistry building's windows.

A New York company, SurfaceCare, provided a film with small, almost imperceptible, black stripes for the Bear Country exhibit at the Philadelphia Zoo, which, like many other zoos, has a combination of glass enclosures and trees. The bird strikes stopped.

SurfaceCare owner Marc Sklar is looking at new technologies, including glass that has elements in the ultraviolet light spectrum, which humans can't see but birds can.

Christine Sheppard, a bird collision expert with the American Bird Conservancy, has been testing prototypes of bird-friendly glass at a bird-banding station near Pittsburgh. She said the results could be used to write guidelines for architects.

"Nobody wants to kill birds," she said. But, still, "nobody wants more rules and regulations." Her goal is to educate.

"There are lots of beautiful buildings that are very bird-friendly," she said. "You can be creative and do architecture that will win awards" and still not kill birds.

Recently, the national green building certification program - Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) - began a pilot program that gives buildings points for having bird-friendly windows.

"So-called green buildings . . . are never green to me, no matter what their LEED award, if they kill birds," Muhlenberg's Klem said.

Chicago and San Francisco require that new buildings and major renovations incorporate bird-safe elements.

Minnesota requires that all state buildings turn off lights during migration. Michigan's governor issues an annual proclamation declaring migration "safe passage" dates and asking that buildings remain unlit at night.

A year ago, Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley introduced national legislation, still pending, to mandate bird-friendly construction for federal buildings.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Olive-sided Flycatcher

One of the benefits of participating in NJ Audubon's Lower Raritan Bird Survey has been the opportunity to spend time birding a new site and see new birds in the process. Raritan Center is best known as the site of a convention center and numerous industrial buildings. It once served as Raritan Arsenal, a center for storing and shipping munitions during World Wars I and II. Currently, the land not in use for industrial purposes is a mix of wetlands and early successional habitat. In fact, it may contain the largest wetland complex on the Lower Raritan and combines with the Sayreville and South River marshes to form an important wildlife corridor. My survey route takes me through a portion of the wetland complex.

During my last survey, a couple weeks ago, I happened to see an odd-looking flycatcher sitting on a wire. I initially passed it off as an Eastern Kingbird or Eastern Wood-Pewee, but then I realized something was not quite right. For one thing, the tail was short. Plus it had white patches behind the wings, but I initially assumed these were a sign of leucism. Only after I got a good look at the breast markings – striped instead smudgy – did I realize I was looking at an Olive-sided Flycatcher. The white markings were not a sign of leucism but instead most likely a sign of a first-spring bird. It was my first in New Jersey, and it has been several years since I last saw one overall.

Unfortunately, I saw the bird outside of my five-minute point counts, so it is not included in my migration survey data. It was a special bird nonetheless.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Birding Watching Reservation

After spending the past few weeks birding Middlesex County, partly in connection with the Middlesex County big day run I did with Patrick, Anthony, and Tom, partly my usual patch birding, and partly for NJ Audubon's Lower Raritan Bird Survey, I felt that I wanted to take a break and go someplace different. One place that looked inviting was Watchung Reservation in Union County. I had been there frequently as a kid but only once, several years ago, as an adult. It is mentioned in Bill Boyle's Guide to Bird Finding in New Jersey, but judging from the eBird data, it appears to be somewhat underbirded for a site in such a densely-populated area.

Watchung Reservation is a long strip of woodland nestled between the First and Second Watchung Mountains. The Blue Brook runs between the two mountains; a dam near the northern end creates a narrow lake. The forest is mature with a high canopy. Unfortunately nonnative invasive plants dominate much of the understory. (During my walk, I noted Multiflora Rose, Japanese Barberry, Garlic Mustard, Japanese Knotweed, Mile-a-minute Weed, and Norway Maple – all very numerous.) However, I did see some signs of a healthier understory, in the form of Tulip Poplar seedlings, Jack-in-the-pulpits, Christmas Ferns, and the Red Baneberry shown below. I also noted a few viburnums such as Mapleleaf Viburnum and another that I think was an Arrowwood Viburnum.

The birding was as good as I had hoped. I started out at the Trailside Nature Center, followed a series of trails to the Deserted Village, and then wound my way back with a short stop at the lake. As I entered the woods, I quickly saw a Northern Parula and heard Blackpoll Warblers. Continuing along the green trail, I found Magnolia Warbler, American Redstart, Ovenbird, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Near the junction of the green and orange trails, where the trails run along a stream, I heard a Louisiana Waterthrush sing a few times. Continuing along the orange trail, I started hearing thrushes: Wood Thrush, Veery, and even a Swainson's Thrush. I heard quite a lot of Veeries, which pleased me since they sing one of my favorite bird songs. I heard more warblers, too: Black-throated Blue, Blackburnian, and Yellow Warblers. I took a trail that followed Blue Brook south towards the Deserted Village. Along this trail I heard Eastern Wood-Pewees and a Worm-eating Warbler.

There were relatively few birds singing in the vicinity of the Deserted Village when I arrived there. I very vocal House Wren was nesting under the eves of one of the abandoned buildings. An Eastern Phoebe appeared to be nesting somewhere in the area. I also heard an Indigo Bunting singing and saw a Baltimore Oriole. I heard a Least Flycatcher near the lake, but scanning the lake did not produce any waterbirds. A few Chipping Sparrows were on the ground near the scout camp area, and one Red-tailed Hawk was gliding on a thermal high above. Two birds I did not see: Mourning Warbler and Kentucky Warbler, both of which are supposed to be regulars in the vicinity of the Deserted Warbler. I was also surprised not to hear any Scarlet Tanagers; it seemed like good habitat for them. I am glad I revisited Watchung Reservation. It seems like a place worth going back to, especially when birds are singing like they were yesterday.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Next Ten Species in Middlesex County

The birds I saw last weekend during our World Series of Birding run and Corey's predictions about the future of his Queens list remind me that I never posted a listing wishlist at the beginning of this year. At this point, any lists I posted at the beginning of the year would need to be revised anyway since my county list has grown since then. I reached one of my listing goals in January – 200 species in Middlesex County – with a Rough-legged Hawk that Patrick found for me at Sayreville Marsh. With my current county list at 212 species, it still has room to grow, though there is not an obvious target number at the moment. The trouble is that the longer a bird list becomes, the harder it becomes to add new species. Here are the species I think I am most likely to see next in the county, in roughly taxonomic order.

Fox Sparrow / Creative Commons Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar
  1. Northern Shoveler: Freshwater dabbling ducks tend not to hang around very long, so finding one will be a matter of luck.
  2. Cattle Egret: One of these is bound to show up at Donaldson Park sooner or later.
  3. Pectoral Sandpiper: As long as Donaldson Park has mud puddles and Johnson Park has a pond with mud flats, I think one of these is a good possibility during migration.
  4. Short-billed Dowitcher: These have appeared at Morgan Mudflats in the past, so finding one is just a matter of being there at the right time.
  5. Little Gull: This species has eluded me despite repeated attempts to see one, but I will see one eventually.
  6. Yellow-billed Cuckoo: These cuckoos are so common that I am surprised I have not seen or heard one yet in this county.
  7. Horned Lark: Some have been seen in a nearby town, so I figure that I must have a shot at seeing some.
  8. Fox Sparrow: This is one of my favorite birds, but it is hard to find locally.
  9. Snow Bunting: Some of these must visit Perth Amboy and South Amboy occasionally in winter.
  10. Eastern Meadowlark: Middlesex County has little habitat for open-country birds, but there is enough that I ought to find one of these eventually.
Ruffed Grouse / Creative Commons Photo by Seabamirum
While I am talking about listing, here are ten life birds that I want to see. All of them are possible in New Jersey, though few are resident species.
  1. Little Gull: I would really like to take this species off my nemesis list.
  2. Ruffed Grouse: Another species I have sought previously without success.
  3. Hudsonian Godwit: A difficult species to find in New Jersey, though they do show up annually.
  4. Ruff: A spectacular species in breeding plumage, but more likely to be encountered in something more subtle.
  5. Red Phalarope: The only phalarope I have not seen yet.
  6. Barn Owl: Finding one of these will be tough in New Jersey even though these owls are fairly common.
  7. Ash-throated Flycatcher: This species has eluded me on previous occasions when I looked for it.
  8. Bohemian Waxwing: This species is somewhat unpredictable in its movements, but any large  Cedar Waxwing flock in winter might have a Bohemian Waxwing or two accompanying it.
  9. Painted Bunting: This species is simply too cool not to include, and they do show up in New Jersey occasionally.
  10. Yellow-headed Blackbird: This is also one I have sought before; finding one will probably be a matter of getting lucky.
As with the Middlesex County list, it is getting harder for me to find new species in this state.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Loose Feathers #343

Virginia Rail / Photo by Steve Arena (USFWS)
News about birds and birding
  • San Juan Capistrano is trying to lure Cliff Swallows back to the mission by playing recordings of Cliff Swallow calls; the swallows stopped breeding there during a restoration project and have not returned since then.
  • Crows can learn to recognize familiar voices from other species, such as humans and jackdaws. This ability is most likely useful for distinguishing threats; some humans may harm crows while others might be beneficial.
  • Birds carry chewing lice that live on their wings and chewing lice that live on their bodies. According to a new study, it is easier for the body lice than the wing lice to spread between birds, most likely from adults to young during nesting or between partners mating. Another finding was that body lice on sandpipers worldwide were genetically almost identical; the only exceptions were body lice on Dunlin and Ruff.
  • Male Robins feed their chicks more often if they hatched from eggs that were brighter shades of blue. This suggests that males use the color of the eggs as a signal of their mate's quality.
  • Dovekie (called Little Auks at the link) have adapted their foraging patterns to changes in food distribution caused by climate change. However, it is still unclear whether climate change will affect their future breeding success.
  • David Sibley continued his series on bird song this week. The latest installment is Describing Quality.
  • BirdWatching opened its archives for this weekend, so you can read many of the feature articles that are usually available only to subscribers. All columns and articles will be accessible through Sunday night.
  • Hen Harriers are close to being extirpated from England as a breeding bird, mainly due to persecution. This year, only one pair is breeding.
Nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Forsaken by Fish Crows

Last Saturday was the World Series of Birding, an event run each year by New Jersey Audubon. Teams compete to see the most species of birds in the Garden State or to win a variety of other categories while raising money for conservation. This year, for the first time, I was on a WSB team, the Middlesex Merlins. Patrick Belardo recruited us; my other teammates were Anthony Laquidara and Tom Ostrand, who compiles the Raritan Estuary Christmas Bird Count. I had met and birded with Patrick and corresponded with Tom, but I had not met or birded with either Tom or Anthony before we started planning our big day attempt. Somehow, though, we all got along well and worked well together as a team. We competed in the Limited Geographic Area (LGA) category, which meant that all of our sightings had to be in Middlesex County, and the winner of the category would be based on percent of par (with a different par for each county) rather than the absolute species total.

We started the day with some pre-dawn nocturnal birding. Our first bird for the day was a Killdeer in a parking lot next to one of the marshes in southern Edison. We quickly tallied Marsh Wren, Northern Mockingbird, and Common Yellowthroat, all of which were singing near the edge of the marsh. Moving on to Raritan Center, which we had permission to bird for our big day attempt, we heard more vocalizing birds. American Robin – almost as familiar of a nocturnal singer as Northern Mockingbird – was a quick find. More importantly we heard Virginia Rail – giving its kidik call – and Swamp Sparrow at one stop, followed by Northern Bobwhite and American Woodcock at subsequent stops. Northern Bobwhite was a real surprise since that species has become increasingly scarce in the state.

From there we went to Rutgers Gardens, where we arrived before dawn. With the start of the dawn chorus, we started tallying new species more quickly. In the display gardens and hedgerows, we found Chipping Sparrow, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Phoebe, Blackpoll Warbler, and Eastern Towhee. Several pairs of Wood Ducks passed overhead, as well as flocks of Cedar Waxwings. Along the edge of Helyar Woods, we quickly found Scarlet Tanager, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows, Hairy Woodpecker, and a suite of warblers, including Canada Warbler. Inside the woods, we found three thrush species, including Veery (a personal favorite) and Swainson's Thrush, a hard species to find in the county. Other birds included Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Worm-eating Warbler. Somewhat ominously, some silent crows passed overhead.

We spent so long in Rutgers Gardens that we were already behind schedule when we left, even though we had arrived there ahead of schedule. A quick stop at the US 1 Bridge netted some common urban birds but not the Peregrine Falcon we had hoped to see. Once we arrived at Cliff Avenue in South Amboy, we walked back along the dirt road to check the ponds and woods. The local Cooper's Hawk did not make an appearance, but Anthony picked out a Black-capped Chickadee, an uncommon species south of the Raritan River. Out on the mudflats, we did not see nearly as many birds as we had hoped. We picked up Dunlin and a distant Red-shouldered Hawk but missed lots of shorebird species, Little Gull, and large terns.

Following on that stop we visited the other sites along Raritan Bay in Middlesex County. Pirates Cove produced a lingering Greater Scaup and Belted Kingfisher. A few stops in Laurence Harbor produced a Green Heron and not much else. At this point we decided to skip a planned stop at Cheesequake State Park and head to South Amboy Waterworks Pond. Here we added Glossy Ibis, Eastern Kingbird, Bank Swallow, and Sharp-shinned Hawk. Unfortunately an American Coot that Patrick had found while scouting did not make an appearance.

We started the afternoon portion of our itinerary at Raritan Center. As we ate lunch, a Bald Eagle passed overhead. A short drive around the roads produced more species we needed to see there. A Field Sparrow sang in the location where I had heard one on my point counts. A Lesser Yellowlegs and a Solitary Sandpiper were foraging in two of the ponds. An American Black Duck was paddling in the Raritan River near the old piers. A real surprise was seeing a Wild Turkey dart across Olympic Drive. We heard American Crows but still no Fish Crows.

Our next stop was the Kin-Buc Landfill, where we had permission to bird for our big day attempt. This former landfill is now a Superfund site and forms a complex of grasslands and early successional habitat with two other former garbage mounds. A friendly staff member let us in and showed us how to get to the top of the landfill. As we made our way to the top, we could hear Willow Flycatchers and Field Sparrows. At the top, we stopped and walked a bit on the road. We heard two Grasshopper Sparrows singing right next to the road and saw four Bobolinks fly up out of more distant grasses. The latter was a county bird for me, but not a particularly satisfying sighting due to its brevity. As we left the landfill, we listened for Blue Grosbeak in a patch of suitable habitat where they have been seen before, but none sang.

Middlesex Merlins on top of the Kin-Buc Landfill. L-R: Tom, Patrick, Anthony, Me. Photo by Tom Ostrand
After this we started to track down individual species. We made a quick stop in Johnson Park to see the nesting Cliff Swallows at the Route 18 Bridge, and then a visit to Giamarese Farm in East Brunswick turned up three species we would not see elsewhere that day: Mute Swan, Purple Martin, and Eastern Bluebird, all of which are breeding on the property. We had confidential information on a Great Horned Owl nest and stopped there just long enough to see one of the owls. American Crows were scolding the owls as we arrived.

We returned to Morgan Mudflats to look for species we had missed on our initial visit. Unfortunately Little Gull once again did not make an appearance, even though Anthony and Patrick combed carefully through the large flock of Bonaparte's Gulls on the beach. However, we did add a few more species. An American Oystercatcher flew in front of us as we made our way down to the beach. Anthony picked out a distant Common Loon, and Tom spotted a Least Tern that landed on the beach near the gulls. Patrick found a trio of Red-breasted Mergansers. A return to Zaunerowikz Road turned up a Seaside Sparrow across Cheesequake Creek – my 212th species in the county. It also turned up more silent crows – at this point we still had not heard a Fish Crow, even though we had seen numerous crows in appropriate habitat. For some reason, the crows were simply not very vocal that day, and we ended up missing an insanely common species as a result.

Our final stop was Cheesequake State Park. We walked out almost to the end of Steamboat Landing Road, where it meets Cheesequake Creek, and scanned the skies as the sun set and dusk set in. Lots of swallows were still flying, along with herons and blackbirds. The no-see-ums were annoying, but we persevered long enough to hear and then see a Common Nighthawk fly overhead.

At this point we wrapped up our itinerary and headed home. It is possible that a little more nocturnal birding could have turned up another species or two. However, without known locations for the species we still needed, our efforts may well have been unproductive. So the nighthawk was our last species for the day, and our final tally was 127 species – easily the most bird species I have ever seen in the single day and not bad at all for Middlesex County. As it turned out, we would not win the LGA category; the Meadowlands Marsh Hawks from Bergen County finished with 139 species and 83% of par. To beat them, we would have needed to find 151 species. Despite not winning our category, we had a great time and were already talking about next year before this year's big day had ended.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


Another non-threatening three-leaved plant is trillium. Trillium is a genus of spring ephemeral plants, which means that they complete their entire life cycle prior to the summer solstice. Trillium plants sprout a single stem, at the top of which are three large leaves. Above that is a single flower, which may or may not be on its own stem. Some species have mottled leaves, and the flowers can appear in various colors.

I think the dark flowers in this post are Trillium cuneatum, which has a variety of English names.

I think this yellow flower is Trillium luteum.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Loose Feathers #342

Snowy Egret / Photo by Gregg Aronson/USFWS
News about birds and birding
Nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity
  • The Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf in Antarctica is more vulnerable to melting than climate scientists had previously thought. Warm currents in the Weddell Sea threaten to melt the ice shelf from below.
  • A new study examines how female pirate bugs adapt to the costs of traumatic insemination. Some will lay more eggs than other females to make up for their shorter lifespan.
  • Biologists in Guam are trying to fight the invasive Brown Tree Snake in Guam by dropping dead mice laced with acetaminophen, which reduces pain and fever in humans but is deadly to snakes. Officials are also trying to prevent the snakes from leaving the island and establishing themselves elsewhere by inspecting all luggage of air travelers with snake-sniffing dogs.
  • Lakes in the High Peaks area of the Adirondack Mountains are frozen in winter for a shorter period than they were 32 years ago. The five lakes in question are frozen for 7-21 fewer days each winter. The biggest change was at the most pristine lake, Wolf Lake.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Reforming the USDA's Wildlife Services

Bobcat at Tule Lake NWR / USFWS Photo
Last week I linked to some important investigative reporting from the Sacramento Bee on the practices of the USDA's Wildlife Services program, which is responsible for controlling wildlife that affects agriculture. On Monday, the Sacramento Bee followed up with an article on suggestions for reforming Wildlife Services. There are some who argue that the agency cannot be reformed and should be abolished altogether. Under that view, the agency is too closely tied to agricultural interests, which provide much of the agency's funding, to move beyond the lethal control and inhumane practices that have characterized much of its history. Other approaches include banning specific practices, such as the use of explosive cyanide capsules and leg-hold traps.

One idea is to change the agency's focus from controlling native wildlife to controlling invasive species.
"We believe that current science does not support much of Wildlife Services' lethal control of native mammals, that it is wasteful and often counterproductive," Mares, the society president, wrote in a letter to the agency in March.

"Perhaps the primary emphasis … should be to control invasive, exotic species, a rapidly worsening threat to rare native species and ecosystems," Mares suggested in the letter.

Although Wildlife Services does some work to control nonnative species – such as wild pigs and nutria – Deputy Administrator William Clay would like to do more. "Invasive species have been recognized as a national problem for many years," he wrote in a letter back to Mares, "and was a focus of the symposium we sponsored in 2007 … to inaugurate our new invasive species research building.

"Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the National Invasive Species Council … resources have not emerged," Clay added. "Thus we usually work on a small scale in response to specific complaints. We would welcome additional ideas for financial support."
This could be a more useful role for the Wildlife Services program, though I would not want to see the inhumane and wasteful practices of predator control transferred to invasive species control. Another idea is better education for field agents:
Recently, Niemeyer traveled to Washington, D.C., to share his concerns with agency managers. Asked what he would do if he were in charge, Niemeyer replied with a long email calling for better training and education in wildlife management, ethics and the humane treatment of animals.

"I would phase in college-trained wildlife personnel," he wrote. "Many (trappers) have a basic high school education … and only district supervisors like myself receive some specialized training while trappers were seldom considered."

He also called for less killing and more transparency....

He said employees in the West could learn from colleagues back East. "The eastern program is much more advanced," Niemeyer said. "They are dealing with disease surveillance, feral animals, including wild pigs and urban wildlife problems: rodents, deer, beaver, skunks, opossums, raccoons, etc., and give me the appearance that they are much more grounded in dealing with the everyday public in urban and farming communities.

"In contrast, I see the western program still hung up, primarily, with killing predators like foxes, coyotes, wolves, bears and mountain lions, not so much because these animals are problems but because they exist and are macho to kill and the 'western culture' encourages and demands Wildlife Services be funded and continue to focus on these species," Niemeyer said.

"I would downgrade predator control in the West to a corrective program and phase out the preventative program of thinning out coyote populations in the event that they might kill livestock in the future," Niemeyer added.
This sounds interesting and could point towards a positive role, as long as the inhumane control methods were ended or scaled back and fewer nontarget species were being affected. Nonlethal control methods are already being implemented with some success. One or more of the ideas included in the latest SacBee article could be a way towards better wildlife management. What is clear is that Wildlife Services should not be allowed to continue with what it has been doing.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Gray Catbird

This Gray Catbird was foraging under the bird feeders yesterday morning.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012


Most readers have probably heard the expression, "leaves of three, let it be," which warns of the itchy rash that usually results from touching poison ivy. This is a reasonable precaution to take if you are unsure of a plant's identity, especially since reactions to poison ivy exposure can be extremely unpleasant. However, not all three-leaved plants are necessarily toxic. Some are worth looking at more closely.

One such plant is the Jack-in-the-pulpit, which blooms for a short time in mid-spring. The plant sprouts one or two stalks, each with three leaflets. These may be large or small; the plant shown above was particularly large. It may sprout an additional stalk that bears the flower. The flower, which gives the plant its name, is a bit unusual in its structure. Instead of petals, the jack-in-the-pulpit has a spathe that curves up and over to protect the inner parts of the flower. This forms the "pulpit." Instead of stamens and a pistil, it has a spadix that sits inside space protected by the spathe and bears the plant's reproductive organs. This is the "Jack."

The pulpit is usually green, but it may have striping or mottling. This one, from the plant shown at top, has gorgeous purple striping.

This pulpit, from a different plant, has dark and light green striping.

Jack-in-the-pulpits are blooming right in New Jersey, so look for these unique plants while they are still in flower. Look for them in wet woods or swampy areas. I photographed the plants shown in this post at Heathcote Meadows Preserve last Saturday.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Canada Mayflower

Also known as wild lily-of-the-valley, Canada Mayflower shares its genus, Maianthemum, with False Solomon's Seal and several other plants that also bear racemes of tiny white flowers. Canada Mayflower grows close to the ground, often in dense colonies. I photographed this flower yesterday afternoon at Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Birding Heathcote Meadows

Trail through swampy woods at Heathcote Meadows
Yesterday morning I visited Heathcote Meadows Preserve near Kingston. I had never been there before and wanted to find out what the preserve looked like and what the birding was like. The preserve is actually part of a complex of five natural areas that form a greenbelt along tributaries of the Millstone River.

Apparently it was the right day to go because the volume of birdsong was overwhelming. Most of the volume was from fairly common birds – I counted 33 Gray Catbirds along a two-mile route. There were some gems, though. Northern Waterthrush can be hard to find in Middlesex County, but I saw two of them yesterday. I heard and then saw a Blue-winged Warbler, and I heard a Blackburnian Warbler – my second in three days. In addition, I had some nice looks at some favorites like Swamp Sparrow and Black-throated Blue Warbler and some other flashy birds like Scarlet Tanager and Common Yellowthroat. All told, I saw 13 species of warbler as well as many other birds. Unfortunately I missed a Pileated Woodpecker that lives in the preserve.

The portion of the preserve was mostly a narrow strip of swampy woods that border a stream. There was also a large field with an old barn. I expected to see and hear more meadow species than I did. Perhaps that was because it was late morning by the time I walked through the meadow portion.  It would be great if the county turned the meadow area into a native grassland, but so far that does not seem to be the case.

Old barn in the meadow portion of the preserve
This park seems like a spot worth visiting again in the future.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Review: Wild New Jersey by David Wheeler

New Jersey is the fifth-smallest – and the most densely-populated – state in the United States. A wide ribbon of urbanization stretches across the state from Philadelphia to New York, and another strip of urbanization runs along the state's Atlantic coast. The state has a long history of industrialization stretching back into the 18th century. The early start on the Industrial Revolution and two subsequent centuries of industrialization left toxic sites around much of the state. Now much of the industry is gone, and New Jersey is left with more Superfund sites than any other state (which is less surprising if you consider that New Jersey politicians were instrumental in drafting Superfund and getting it passed).

Despite all this, New Jersey supports a wealth of biodiversity. This may be ascribed to its geology, latitude, and proximity to the coast. The northern part of the state, particularly the mountainous northwest corner, supports plant and wildlife communities similar to those found much further north. Likewise, the southern half of the state has winters just warm enough to support plants and animals found much further south. As a result, many species find the northern limit of their ranges in or near New Jersey, and many others find their southern limit here. Chickadees are an example of this phenomenon: the ranges of northerly Black-capped and southerly Carolina Chickadees meet in the middle of the state, close to the boundary of the coastal plain.

David Wheeler gives readers a taste of this natural diversity in his recent book, Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State. Each chapter narrates a visit to a refuge or an encounter with New Jersey's natural world, starting with a search for black bears in northwestern New Jersey and continuing with visits to sites such as the Meadowlands, various points along the shore, and up again through the Pine Barrens and central Piedmont region. In some cases, a chapter is focused on a single trip, but in most cases Wheeler includes a few sites centered around the same habitat type or activities such as fossil-hunting and birdwatching. While there are far too many interesting natural places and ecological problems in the state to cover in a single book, Wheeler does well in selecting a representative sample. I was particularly pleased to see sites from the state's urban core included in the book.

The sites are grouped into parts by geographic region, and each part is prefaced by a map showing approximate locations for the sites mentioned in the following chapters. I noticed one error on the map for part 3 (The Jersey Shore), which places Cheesequake State Park in Monmouth County. (It is actually in Middlesex County.) The chapters are illustrated with black and white photos, many of which were taken by David Wheeler while others were supplied by other photographers (often the people that he interviews in the same chapter). Color photos are printed on plates in the center of the book; I especially liked one of a Bald Eagle flying across the path of a rower on the Millstone Aqueduct.

The narrative is informed by interviews with the people who work or volunteer at those locations or who visit them regularly. In many cases, the people Wheeler interviews are responsible for keeping New Jersey's natural areas wild or restoring degraded habitats. Middlesex County's Dismal Swamp, for instance, might not exist as a natural area without the efforts of Robert Spiegel, one of the many environmentalists who appear in the book. In other cases, the interviews add expert commentary on ecology or historical background.

It is great to read about someone else's experience in a park or refuge, but I wish books like this gave a little more information about visiting sites. Theoretically a park or refuge should be good in any season, but in my experience each shines especially in one season over others, and the prime season is not always obvious. For larger refuges (or obscure sites) is there a preferred entry point? Is a site open to the public or only by special permission? I think information like this would be helpful for moving people from reading about New Jersey's natural areas to visiting and enjoying them.

That said, Wild New Jersey provides a window into New Jersey's natural history. It will likely be most interesting to newcomers to the state or people who grew up in the state but have not explored its wild side in depth. Readers who (like me) have spent a lot of time in New Jersey's natural areas will probably find much that is already familiar. I have visited sites from at least half of the book's chapters and have met many of the people interviewed for it. Even so, I found much of interest here, and I imagine other readers would as well.

This review was based on a review copy provided by the publisher.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Loose Feathers #341

Atlantic Puffins / USFWS Photo
News about birds and birding
Nature and science blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Consequences of the USDA's Wildlife-Killing Program

Coyote at Tule Lake NWR / USFWS Photo
This week The Sacramento Bee is reporting on the results of its investigation into the wildlife-killing practices of USDA Wildlife Services. The report is in three parts. Two have already been published, and the third will run on Sunday, May 6. The articles are long and maddening but very much worth reading, as this is some excellent investigative reporting. The articles are based on interviews with past and present USDA employees, as well as outside scientists and documents obtained through FOIA requests. The article focuses on mammals since that is the USDA's primary target in the western states, but the agency's actions affect birds as well.

This federal agency originated in the early 20th century as a means to protect livestock from wolves. Since then its role has expanded to reduce all manner of wildlife impacts on agriculture such as blackbirds eating sunflower seeds. It also includes other missions such as protecting endangered species from predation and airplanes from bird strikes. That all may sound reasonable, but the reality is that Wildlife Services causes a great deal of collateral damage in the process, including killings of species of conservation concern.
In all, more than 150 species have been killed by mistake by Wildlife Services traps, snares and cyanide poison since 2000, records show. A list could fill a field guide. Here are some examples:

Armadillos, badgers, great-horned owls, hog-nosed skunks, javelina, pronghorn antelope, porcupines, great blue herons, ruddy ducks, snapping turtles, turkey vultures, long-tailed weasels, marmots, mourning doves, red-tailed hawks, sandhill cranes and ringtails.

Many are off-limits to hunters and trappers. And some species, including swift foxes, kit foxes and river otter, are the focus of conservation and restoration efforts.

"The irony is state governments and the federal government are spending millions of dollars to preserve species and then … (you have) Wildlife Services out there killing the same animals," said Michael Mares, president of the American Society of Mammalogists. "It boggles the mind."

One critical loss occurred two years ago when a wolverine, one of the rarest mammals in America, stepped into a Wildlife Services leg-hold trap in Payette National Forest in Idaho. It was the third wolverine captured in agency traps since 2004 (the other two were released alive.)

"Shot wolverine due to bad foot," the trapper wrote in his field diary, which The Bee obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The collateral damage is not limited to wildlife; it includes pet dogs and people, sometimes even USDA employees. Even when the agency is successful in killing the target species, it is unclear that the killings are actually beneficial, either to agriculture or to the ecosystems. This is discussed in detail in part 2 of the series, which focuses on coyote extermination. And yes, coyote extermination is not a thing of the past. Over 500,000 coyotes were killed by the USDA between 2006 and 2011, but coyotes still prosper:
In Nevada, scientists found that when Wildlife Services began killing coyotes to protect deer south of Ely in 2004, the average coyote litter size jumped from one pup to 3.5. In 2007, one coyote killed by a Wildlife Services hunter in Nevada had 13 fetuses in its uterus.

Just how coyotes prosper amid persecution remains a mystery. But many believe they benefit from better dining opportunities that emerge over time as coyotes are killed and rabbits and mice begin to multiply.

"A lot of it comes down to nutrition and competition. When you have fewer animals (coyotes) on the landscape, you have more food available per individual. There is a ton of food on the landscape. Why not have a bigger litter?" said Stewart, the Nevada ecologist.
Coyote extermination is usually carried out either to protect mule deer or (more commonly) to protect livestock. However, the actual impacts of coyotes (and other wild predators) are probably exaggerated:
Wildlife Services spends about $30 million a year to protect livestock from predators – mostly coyotes. On its Web page, it says losses to predators top more than $127 million a year....

Like a crime scene investigator, Niemeyer journeyed into the field to inspect sheep and cattle that ranchers said had been killed by predators. Often, his verdict was not guilty.

"You start looking and you realize nothing killed this," said Niemeyer. "They died from a multitude of things: birthing problems, old age, bad hooves, cut by barbed wire. There were an awful lot of things attributed to predation that really were not."

Niemeyer is not the only former Wildlife Services employee to raise questions about agency practices. In California, biologist Mike Jaeger did, too, with studies in Mendocino County that showed most coyotes don't prey on sheep at all and those that do are the hardest to kill with nonselective traps and poison.
As one ecologist quoted in the article says:
"There is a widespread perception that predators are the root of all evil and I'm tired of it," said Stewart. "More often than not, if you have predation on a mule deer population, you're going to have a healthier population."
Many readers will not find the agency's actions surprising. I was already aware of the agency's existence and that it often killed non-target species, but the extent of the killings and the details of the investigation were still sickening. I can see a case for lethal control of wildlife under some circumstances, such as protecting the nesting areas of endangered birds or individual animals that cause repeated damage or kill humans. Reducing the numbers of large herbivores like white-tailed deer that have no remaining natural predators makes sense if they start affecting other species. However, the widespread and indiscriminate killing is unacceptable, especially when it results in the deaths of thousands of non-target animals. For that reason, I am glad that WildEarth Guardians has filed a suit to force the USDA to stop killing wildlife until it conducts a new analysis of the environmental impacts.