Friday, May 31, 2013

Loose Feathers #394

Northern Spotted Owl chicks / USFWS Photo
Birds and birding
Science and nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity
  • A survey of amphibian species found declines that were much worse than expected, even among populations thought to be stable.
  • It is possible that climate change could reduce the effects of chytrid fungus on frogs, if it warms above the fungus's optimal temperature. (However, climate change might still harm frogs in other ways.)
  • The wolf pack at Isle Royale in Michigan may soon disappear as it is too inbred to reproduce successfully.
  • A new butterfly species, the Vicroy's Ministreak (Ministrymon janevicroy), was discovered in Texas. It was previously unnoticed because it is rare and the only visual difference between it and other species is eye color, and eye color fades in the dead specimens lepidopterists traditionally worked with.
  • A 2.5-mile stretch of the Los Angeles River is open to the public for the first time in decades.
  • A pitcher plant in Borneo is colonized by ants, which kill and eat larvae that might otherwise be harm the plant. 
  • The endangered Island Fox, which lives in California's Channel Islands, is back from the brink and is now thriving.
  • A team of researchers has mapped sea-level changes along New Jersey's coast over the past 10,000 years. At several points, the sea-level has risen as much as 4mm per year, and those times have occurred at the same time that major glaciers were melting.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Middlesex Merlins in the World Series of Birding

Every year New Jersey Audubon sponsors the World Series of Birding (WSB), an event scheduled for the peak of spring migration. It doubles as a competition for local bragging rights and as a fundraiser for conservation efforts. The statewide winner usually records over 200 species of birds, while other teams compete at the county level and in other categories. Last year I participated in a World Series of Birding for the first time as a member of the Middlesex Merlins with three other excellent birders: Patrick Belardo, Anthony Laquidara, and Tom Ostrand. We made a good showing, explored some new birding sites, and found some new county birds. You can read more about that effort in my post about it.

This year we tried again, this time representing the Plainsboro Preserve, New Jersey Audubon's center in Middlesex County. We revised our route: dropping some sites, adding others, and shifting more land birding into the morning. The route was more compact, to reduce travel time, and had the potential to produce more species than we had seen the previous year. Building a good route is challenging. Each bird species, whether a Kirtland's Warbler or a House Sparrow, counts as 1, and all team members must see a bird for it to count (except for a limited number of 95% birds). A good route needs to include locations for rare birds but also must leave time for picking up common birds in order to build numbers. In Central Jersey, there is the additional challenge of not getting stuck in traffic.

Our early morning birding was a wash, so to speak. We heard an American Woodcock but missed out on rails, bitterns, owls, and other nocturnal singers as we listened at our scheduled stops in the light rain. As dawn broke, we found ourselves at Rutgers Gardens, and new birds started coming more quickly. Blackpoll, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Blue, and Tennessee Warblers. Veery, Wood Thrush, and Swainson's Thrush. Flocks of Cedar Waxwings overhead. Lingering Pine Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet in the pine plantation. A small flock of White-throated Sparrows. By the time we left, we had seen or heard almost all of the warbler species we would find that day.

The agenda for the rest of the morning was a series of stops south of the Raritan River. When we arrived at Ireland Brook, the rain started pouring, but we found our target species there, a Pileated Woodpecker, and Tom spotted a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, another species we missed last year. At our next stop, Davidson Mill Pond Park, we missed our target Eastern Bluebirds but found Purple Martins and a Blue Grosbeak. Giamarese Farms produced a Mute Swan; we failed to find Wood Ducks at our designated Wood Duck stop, but we heard an Eastern Wood-Pewee instead. At Capik Preserve, we found Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers, and a stop in South River produced the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron we hoped to find there.

At Kin-Buc Landfill, we found big flocks of Bobolinks and a surprise Eastern Meadowlark (which I missed, unfortunately), but missed out on Grasshopper Sparrow. Our miss might have been because of the loud singing of the numerous Bobolinks and Savannah Sparrows, which made it hard to hear quieter birds. (I think that was the most Bobolinks I have ever seen together at one time.) From the top of Edison Landfill, we saw a Bald Eagle cruising down the river corridor. A drive around Raritan Center produced Clapper Rails, as well as lingering American Black Ducks and Gadwall.

From there we headed to South Amboy to start our tour of Raritan Bay access spots.  Waterworks Pond was less productive than we hoped. It seems to have gone downhill as a birding spot since construction work and Hurricane Sandy changed its hydrology. A spontaneous stop at a boat ramp in South Amboy became one of our best stops of the day. Not only did we get our target bird, Bank Swallow, but Patrick found a Western Grebe! Morgan Mudflats had the birds we expected, but we had to get off the beach early because a thunderstorm was rolling in from the west. Pirate's Cove had a Lesser Black-backed Gull, and a stop in Lawrence Harbor produced a Northern Gannet.

At Brown's Marina on Cheesequake Creek, we found two very cooperative Black-crowned Night-Herons (one of which is pictured above). We also had a beautiful view of a Seaside Sparrow — a hard bird to see and a hard bird to find in Middlesex County.

From Brown's Marina, we headed north. We made a short stop at William Warren Park in Woodbridge, a wooded park with a mostly native understory, where we found our Downy Woodpecker for the day. Our stop in Carteret failed to produce any Monk Parakeets. Medwick Park had a singing Swamp Sparrow. When we tried again for the Monk Parakeets, we finally heard them squawking. Despite some night birding in South Amboy, the Monk Parakeets would be our last species of the day.

When we tallied our list for the day, it came out to 127 species — the same total as the year before. (You can view our full list here.) Because of this year's unfavorable conditions, I think that shows we devised a better route this year than the year before. However, 127 species was not enough to unseat the defending county-level winners, the Meadowlands Marsh Hawks, who found 145 species in Bergen County.

Here is the full list of winners and full list of species found statewide (pdf). For the first time ever, a youth team won the World Series of Birding.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Loose Feathers #393

Whimbrels / Photo by Dan Roby (USFWS)
Birds and birding
Science and nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Friday, May 17, 2013

Loose Feathers #392

Brown Pelicans / Photo by Roy W. Lowe (USFWS)
Birds and birding
Science and nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Friday, May 10, 2013

Loose Feathers #391

Least Bittern / Photo by Steve Arena/USFWS
Birds and birding
Science and nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Friday, May 03, 2013

Loose Feathers #390

Greater Sage-Grouse / Photo by Jeannie Stafford (USFWS)
Birds and birding
Nature and science blogging
Environment and biodiversity