Friday, August 31, 2012

Loose Feathers #358

Palm Warbler / Photo by Keenan Adams (USFWS)
Birds and birding
Nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Grass Diversity

Recently someone asked me questions about particular grasses, and I realized I could not answer them because I knew next to nothing about grasses. I mean, I can recognize certain grasses like the ubiquitous Phragmites australis and a few other wetland grasses like cattails and Spartina. Beyond those, though, my knowledge is very limited. So I have been making an effort to learn more about the grasses I encounter in the types of habitats I bird frequently.

Grasses (family Poaceae) are an incredibly important group. Wheat, oats, barley, rye, corn, and rice are all grasses, as is bamboo. Many species of butterflies and moths, such as skippers and grass-veneers, use grasses as their larval host plants. Some bird species also associate with particular grasses or depend on habitats where grasses predominate. Along with grasses, rushes (family Juncaceae) and sedges (family Cyperaceae) may be found in those sorts of habitats and present similar identification challenges. Grasses, sedges, and rushes are all in the order Poales, along with many other plant families.

One of the distinctive native grasses is wild rice, a plant of wetland habitats. The wild rice sold commercially is usually Zizania palustris, a species native to the Great Lakes region. In my area, the native wild rice is Zizania aquatica. Wild rice is an important food source for waterfowl and other wetland birds. A distinctive feature of wild rice is that the male and female flowers are on separate branches. The female flowers are on thin branches that stick up from the top of the stem; male flowers droop from horizontal branches below the female flowers. The photo above shows the male flowers on one plant.

Another wetland grass is cockspur (Echinochloa sp.). Plants in this genus are sometimes grown as forage crops for livestock, but otherwise just grow wild. I think this is E. walteri, a grass of both saltwater and freshwater marshes that characteristically long bristles along its spikelets.

Like grasses, rushes have round stems, but their flowers and seeds are structured somewhat differently. On this Soft Rush (Juncus effusus), the flowers burst in a clump from the side of the stem rather than emerging from the top.

Sedges are another group of plants that grow in wetlands and meadows. As a group, sedges are fairly easy to recognize because most of them have obviously triangular stems ("sedges have edges"). Narrowing down to a species, though, can be more difficult. I think the plant above is a Dark Green Bulrush (Scirpus atrovirens), which shows one common sedge structure. The main stem ends in a leafy bract, from which several branches emerge that bear the sedge's flowers. Another plant that shares a similar structure is Yellow Nutsedge.

So far I have been aided in my learning by Grasses: An Identification Guide by Lauren Brown. This guide, published by Houghton Mifflin, uses simplified terminology and emphasizes broad characteristics such as shape and color rather than minute details. (The latter, unfortunately, may still be necessary to confirm a species identification.) The book contains a key followed by descriptions of 135 species from the Midwest and Northeast. I have found it very helpful as an entry point to learning about grasses.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Loose Feathers #357

Puerto Rican Nightjar / Photo by Mike Morel (USFWS)
Birds and birding
Nature blogging
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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Herons at De Korte Park

Yesterday I was at De Korte Park in the Meadowlands. There had been a number of interesting sightings there in the past few weeks, and I was eager to track down a few of them. The first, Least Bittern, was in its usual spot at the start of the Marsh Discovery Trail. Least Bitterns bred here over the summer, and for the past few weeks, the juveniles have been coming out of the reeds and sitting in the open. The bitterns were really hard to see yesterday, perhaps owing to the high water level. One briefly came out of the reeds, and another perched just inside the reeds on the other side of the island. Initially I mistook the second one for a rail, but it turned out to be a second Least Bittern juvenile after further examination. Neither was in a good clear position for me to photograph them. It was delightful to see them, especially since I had not seen one in five years, and it was my first sighting of one in New Jersey.

A second bird I was interested in seeing was a Tricolored Heron. This immature heron was foraging at the far end of the East Shorebird Pool, almost all the way to the NJ Turnpike. There are also quite a lot of Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets patrolling the edges of the pools.

As I mentioned, the water levels are higher than ideal, which means in turn that shorebird numbers are pretty low. However, there are still about 500 Semipalmated Sandpipers in the Shorebird Pools, along with a few dozen yellowlegs. I noted on Short-billed Dowitcher and one Spotted Sandpiper in addition to those birds.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Donaldson Dragonflies

Recently I started participating in the Dragonfly Pond Watch Project run by the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership. I hear about a lot of projects like this through insect bloggers; in this case I heard about it through the Xerces Society's newsletter. This particular project tracks the migratory movements of two very common dragonflies, the Common Green Darner (Anax junius) and Black Saddlebags (Tramea lacerata). It involves periodically counting dragonflies at the same pond over the course of the fall migration period. This works well for me since an artificial pond is part of my normal walking route through my local patch, and I can just add 15 or 20 minutes to my normal route to count dragonflies there.

So far the results have not been auspicious. My first visit, on August 2, netted exactly one Black Saddlebags and no Common Green Darners. During my second visit to the pond yesterday, I saw neither of the target species during my count period. Most of the odonate activity around the pond consisted of Eastern Amberwings and Familiar Bluets, with an Eastern Forktail thrown in for good measure. One red dragonfly caught my eye, so I photographed it as best I could. After reviewing my dragonfly resources, I think this is a male Needham's Skimmer. The lack of black triangles along the sides of the abdomen rule out most meadowhawks. The closest species in appearance is the Golden-winged Skimmer, which is more uncommon in this state than Needham's Skimmer, especially on the coastal plain. Plus there are hints of a few other features characteristic of Needham's but not Golden-winged.

I mentioned in the previous paragraph that I did not see either of my target species during the count. Of course, when I walked along the river to continue my route, what do I see on the other side of the field? Black Saddlebags. And not just one, but a half-dozen or more. In their company was a Common Green Darner. If I did my watch by the basketball courts instead of at the pond, I would be recording more sightings.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Loose Feathers #356

Snowy Egret / Photo by Mary Ellen Urbanski (USFWS)
Birds and birding
Nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Friday, August 10, 2012

Loose Feathers #355

Ruby-throated Hummingbird / Photo by Bill Thompson (USFWS)
Birds and birding
Nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Spiders Celebrate National Moth Week

While I was conducting my mothing session for National Moth Week, some spiders decided to observe the week in their own idiom. When I put the black light out, I spend most of my time watching and photographing moths on the white sheet I hang next to the light. However, I also check potential moth perches away from the sheet — hosta leaves in the garden next to the sheet, the lattice fencing I hang the sheet from, the back wall of the house, and nearby trees. Two spiders had spun webs against the back of the house. When I first noticed them, they were simply lying in wait, but they soon moved to action.

The larger one, identified on BugGuide as Neoscona crucifera (a type of orbweaver), caught a moth larger than itself. The moth appears to be a noctuoid of some sort, but I would not be able to identify it to species without unwrapping it and depriving the spider of its meal.

The second spider is most likely a House Spider (Parasteatoda tepidariorum) or a closely-related species. It caught a small moth, probably a micromoth. This moth is so well wrapped that I am not even sure what superfamily it belongs in. Seeing these two acts of predation make me wonder how much my black light influenced the spiders' success. Were these moths blundering around the back of the house because their direction-finding capabilities were addled by the ultraviolet light? Or would these moths have been caught anyway?

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Black Blister Beetles

On Saturday I was at Fairview Farm in Somerset County to look for odonates and butterflies. As I passed through one of the meadows, I noticed that the goldenrod plants were covered with black beetles. Upon closer examination, they turned out to be blister beetles, most likely Black Blister Beetles (Epicauta pennsylvanica), which are common on goldenrod in the late summer.

Blister beetles are so-called because they secrete a toxin called cantharidin as a defensive mechanism when they are threatened. Contact with cantharidin can cause blistering of the skin; ingestion can cause renal damage or even death. For this reason, it is best to avoid touching blister beetles directly. If you must move one, capture it in a container and move it that way. Fortunately, their distinctive shape makes blister beetles easy to recognize.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Draft General Management Plan for Sandy Hook and Jamaica Bay

Yesterday the Star-Ledger reported that Gateway National Recreation Area is in the midst of drafting a new general management plan. This is the first I can remember hearing about this, although it is possible that I heard something about it previously and did not recognize its significance. The plan will set priorities for programs and maintenance at all the parks within Gateway. These include Sandy Hook in New Jersey and Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Fort Tilden, Floyd Bennett Field, Fort Wadsworth, and Great Kills in New York, along with several smaller units. You can read the general management plan and its various alternatives and submit comments on Gateway's website.

Many of these parks were once part of New York City's harbor defenses, a role they played as recently as the Cold War. The remaining coastal fortifications are a unique historic resource that deserves to be protected and as open to the public as possible. Because these areas were involved in harbor defense, much of the land remains minimally developed, in contrast to adjacent parts of the metropolitan area's coastline. This means that the various parts of Gateway are also important wildlife areas. Finally, Gateway provides public access for the metropolitan area's beachgoers and related recreational activities.

Each of these elements is important. However, the first two are what make Gateway unique within the metropolitan area so they should get special emphasis in any future management plan. New Jersey has relatively few areas along its Atlantic Coast where natural dune communities and related ecosystems may flourish: Sandy Hook, Island Beach State Park, the Two Mile Beach division of Cape May National Wildlife Refuge, and the complex formed by Cape May Point State Park and the Nature Conservancy's Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge. Sandy Hook's beachfront, saltmarshes, and maritime forest make it an important stop for migratory birds during both spring and fall migration. They serve as breeding grounds for endangered Piping Plovers and other beach nesters and host numerous waterbirds in the winter months. Dense development of the rest of the state's coastline makes the few remaining natural areas all the more critical. Likewise, the historic structures of Fort Hancock (and elsewhere in Gateway) are a unique resource that should be maintained for future generations and as open to the public as possible. Some of the structures are in very poor condition, and I worry that if something isn't done to preserve them soon, that they will pass a point of no return and eventually be gone forever. For that reason, my preference is that the National Park Service adopt Alternative C: Experiencing Preserved Places as the basis for future management at Sandy Hook and elsewhere within Gateway.

There are some good elements within Alternative B and Alternative D that ought to be considered regardless of which alternative the National Park Service chooses. Under Alternative B, the park's historic structures would see the most adaptive reuse, something that could probably be done under any of the three action alternatives. This means that the buildings would retain their historic appearance but would be renovated for use as restaurants, lodging, or offices. Buildings that are actively in use are more likely to be maintained, so adaptive reuse could further the goal of maintaining Sandy Hook's historic character. Expanding transportation options is also an excellent idea. In particular, a shuttle linking points on Sandy Hook, the ferry terminal, and the closest NJ Transit train station could reduce traffic congestion and provide alternative ways for people to visit the park. Kayaking facilities could enhance the recreational experience as well as provide a vehicle for environmental education if naturalists led kayak tours around Sandy Hook. The hiker/biker trail on Sandy Hook is often very crowded (sometimes with packs of birders) so widening the existing trail or adding other trails could make it easier to get around the park.

However, such recreational facilities should not be expanded at the expense of Sandy Hook's natural ecosystems. I would not want to see expanded camping areas eat away at the unique maritime forest on Sandy Hook. I would not want to see expanded boating activities adversely affect the saltmarshes and coves along the bayside. Both Spermaceti Cove and the inlets at Plum Island (across from Lot B) are heavily used by waterfowl and other birds as migratory stopovers and throughout the winter. Any expansion of beach facilities, particularly at North Beach and including the addition of shade structures and concessions, should take care not to disrupt the breeding activities of endangered Piping Plovers and other beach-nesting birds.

The combination of natural ecosystems and historic structures make Sandy Hook unique, both in New Jersey and in the wider metropolitan area. I hope that the National Park Service will take care to preserve and enhance these resources. This post is based on a comment I submitted to the National Park Service yesterday. I encourage any birders that visit one or more of Gateway's park units to submit comments of their own. Comments do not necessarily need to be long or address every aspect of the alternative plans, but I do think it is important that the National Park Service hear from us.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Loose Feathers #354

Broad-tailed Hummingbirds / Photo credit: Brady Smith (U.S. Forest Service)
Birds and birding
Nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Birding Raritan Bay with the Middlesex Merlins

Last Saturday I went birding with the other members of my World Series of Birding team — Patrick, Anthony, and Tom. We started out at Morgan Mudflats, which in recent weeks has been a hotspot for rare terns and other unusual birds. I saw my life Sandwich Tern there a few weeks ago, on a day when over 140 Common Terns were present at the mudflats, with another 350 at Pirate's Cove. Other recent reports included an American Avocet, Gull-billed Terns, and Short-billed Dowitchers.

Tern numbers were down significantly on Saturday but still substantial. Shortly after we started scanning the mudflats, Anthony picked out a Roseate Tern. It hung around the mudflats for the rest of the morning, mostly loafing but sometimes venturing out on short trips over the water. This bird appeared to be banded on both legs, but the distance was too far to make the bands out with confidence. I shot the photo above through Patrick's spotting scope; the bird on the left is a Common Tern.

Patrick picked out another interesting bird, a Surf Scoter swimming just offshore. Scoters are highly unusual anywhere in New Jersey during the summer months, and even more so in Middlesex County where they rarely venture even in winter. This bird was a county first for me; the Roseate Tern was a state first.

We moved on to Pirate's Cove, a spit of beach at the Middlesex-Monmouth border. As at Morgan, the mudflats at Pirate's Cove held a lot fewer terns than in previous weeks. No rare terns were present despite our best efforts to pick one out from the reduced crowd. We did hear a Fish Crow, our bête noire from the World Series. From there we stopped at a couple marinas on the north side of Cheesequake Creek. At the first, we saw a Clapper Rail chick (shown above) foraging in the mud along the edge of the creek. I had never seen a rail chick before, so this was a great way to end the morning.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

National Moth Week Summary

I did one mothing session in my backyard during National Moth Week. I had hoped to do more, but it did not work out due to rain on many nights and other evening activities on a few nights. I already posted some highlights, but here is a full list of the species I recorded, ordered by Hodges number. (Hodges numbers are named for Ronald Hodges, who compiled a numbered checklist of all known moth species that occur in North America north of Mexico in 1983.)

Acorn Moth Blastobasis glandulella 1162
Beautiful Cosmopterix Moth Cosmopterix pulchrimella 1472
Sweetclover Root Borer Moth Walshia miscecolorella 1615
Spotted Dichomeris Dichomeris punctidiscella 2283
Ailanthus Webworm Moth Atteva aurea 2401
Tufted Apple Budmoth Platynota idaeusalis 3740
Sooty-winged Chalcoela Chalcoela iphitalis 4895
Celery Leaftier Udea rubigalis 5079
Lucerne Moth Nomophila nearctica 5156
Double-banded Grass-veneer Crambus agitatellus 5362
Sod Webworm Pediasia trisecta 5413
Bluegrass Webworm Parapediasia teterrella 5451
Common Tan Wave Pleuroprucha insulsaria 7132
Bent-line Carpet Costaconvexa centrostrigaria 7416
Common Eupithecia Eupithecia miserulata 7474
American Idia Idia americalis 8322
Early Zanclognatha Zanclognatha cruralis 8351
Green Cloverworm Hypena scabra 8465
Black Fungus Moth Metalectra tantillus 8502
Celery Looper Anagrapha falcifera 8924
Large Wainscot Rhizedra lutosa 9447.2
Variable Narrow-wing Moth Magusa divaricata 9637.1
Yellow-striped Armyworm Moth Spodoptera ornithogalli 9669
The Wedgling Galgula partita 9688
The White-Speck / Armyworm Mythimna unipuncta 10438
Linda Wainscot Leucania linda 10445
Pearly Underwing Peridroma saucia 10915

That makes 27 species, plus two unidentified moths (one very worn noctuid and one probable gelechiid). Several species Several moths were new to either my life list or my yard list, like the Sooty-winged Chalcoela. That makes it a fairly typical summer mothing session for the location.