Thursday, March 27, 2008

New at The Cornell Lab: Rusty Blackbird Survey

Rusty Blackbird, WikipediaThe Rusty Blackbird seems to be a species that has been slipping under the radar. Maybe it's because they spend much of their time inaccessible to most birders, breeding far north in boggy boreal forests, wintering in swamps and wet woodlands, and not typically flocking with the other "nuisance" blackbirds. Part of it may be because they aren't as charismatic as other flashy passerines. Whatever the reasons, it's nearing tragic proportions, like the Passenger Pigeon and Ivory-billed Woodpecker before them: based on Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count data, it's estimated their population has declined between 88 and 98% since 1966.

Nineteen sixty-six, people! That's not just modern era, that's immediate history, mostly within my lifetime. Let's think about it for a moment. The Beatles played their last concert in 1966 (and released Revolver), Bob Dylan released Blonde on Blonde and the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds; Star Trek debuted, the Dick Van Dyke Show aired it's last episode; the first Kwanzaa was celebrated and the Church of Satan was formed (note those two events are not related: the former happened in Long Beach, the latter in San Francisco).

OK, back to the point. Though the BNA Online account for the Rusty Blackbird points out difficulties in using existing data, it also highlights, "Numbers of winter Rusty Blackbirds in the s. U.S. need to be documented regularly and accurately."

I don't think it's an overstatement to say we need better data during migration and on the breeding ground, too.

Well, eBird is undertaking an effort to accurately generate more consistent documentation and asking your help. If you see a Rusty Blackbird, please submit your observations to eBird, whether you are within the focus period (April 1 - 7) or not - all observations are important!

Read more about the project on the eBird News and Features.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Happy Birthday To Me

Man, time flies. One year ago today I tentatively put my toe in the sometimes raging, sometimes placid waters of the blogosphere. Since then I've unabashedly doggie paddled in the shallow end, meandering on a fairly random course. This blog has "forced" me to sit and write, something I wasn't successfully setting aside time for in the years leading up to March 17, 2007. A very near post I've been sorting through is explaining why I started blogging and why I continue. But that'll have to wait for another week or so, for now all I can say is it's been refreshing to periodically "publish" a piece here and there, and flattering a few of you return to read it. Thank you.

Here's a question: what do I have in common with the bird in this video clip?

Answer: I also dove deep underwater and haven't resurfaced (yet).

Oh, and don't read too much into that Q&A: it wasn't meant to be funny or particularly clever, I mostly just liked the clip. Follow up question, what's the bird? (The answer is below.)

Right now I'm drowning in a large pool of "other obligations," but I swear I haven't abandoned this blog, just neglected it, hopefully in a benign manner. Like the bird in the clip, I'll appear again, but perhaps not in the same place. I'm aware I still owe a Friday Flashback, which I've been reliving in my head - I only need some extra time to transfer it to electronic media. When will we be able to download thoughts directly, anyway?

In the meantime, check out my first-ever post on this blog, just as relevant for this year as it was last March.
  • Information about the birds in this post birds can be found at All About Birds | Bird Guide
  • Ruddy Duck video © Mike Powers, filmed at Chincoteague NWR, November 2007.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

New at The Cornell Lab: NestCams, NestWatch, and CamClicker

Birds are already nest building in the more southerly states and they're starting to check out nest boxes in spite of our lion-like winter weather. That is the perfect backdrop to report the addition of a new section to the Lab's web pages: NestCams!

The cams were originally developed as part of The Birdhouse Network, a citizen science project where participants monitor a nest boxes, or a trail of boxes, and submit the information to an ever-expanding database. The data help uncover details of breeding biology for over 30 species at a geographic scale a single researcher could not logistically track.

The nest cams are always the most visited of the Lab's web pages, and for good reason. Lots of species to observe, lots of interesting behaviors to witness that used to take place privately, behind the walls of a snag or a birdhouse. Now, it's all displayed and archived on the Internet allowing anyone to learn about the lives of their backyard neighbors.

So, what's new? There are a variety of features available from the main page at "".

First, check out the NestCams, described as, "A virtual window into the natural world: View our exciting live cams, explore our extensive collection of photo, video, and daily archives, and view HD footage of breeding behaviors from Macaulay Library." Note: you will not find anything about breeding behaviors of the staff of Macaulay Library, I already looked. You will find four cams are up-and-running right now, Barn Owls and Northern Flickers from California, Barn Owls and Wood Ducks from Texas. The Texas owl is incubating eight eggs (did I hear that right?), the Wood Duck is still laying - seven eggs at a recent count. There should always be four highlighted cams on the main page, with many more to come in the near future, accessed through the drop-down menu on the page.

Next, explore NestWatch data (and contribute, too!). NestWatch is a citizen science program that teaches people about bird breeding biology and engages them in collecting and submitting nest records, and it's not just about cavity-nesting species anymore. You don't need a nest box, just a nest you can monitor on a regular basis. Got a robin nest in an ornamental shrub? Find out how to monitor it and submit your observations!

Finally, join the newest and most innovative citizen science program, CamClickr. Over the years the Nest Cams have generated over 7,000,000 images, all of which are archived. In this project,

. . . participants move through two levels of behavior classification in an effort to tag and code all of our archived images! Users choose the species and phase of the nesting cycle they want to start off with and then launch Level 1.

In Level 1, you simply drag and drop images into photo albums that are classified according to presence or absence of nests, adult birds, eggs, or baby birds. Once you tag 99 images, you are ready to move to Level 2, where the classifications become more challenging! Every Level 1 image tagged earns you 1 point towards fun prizes!

In Level 2, all images that passed through Level 1 can now be classified according to pre-defined behaviors. Every image tagged in Level 2 earns 4 points towards fun prizes! Your tags will be compared with those of others and given a score based on how consistent they are with other users. Once individual images are tagged by 5 different users, they can be added to the searchable database that will be available to scientists and the public, to help us answer behavioral questions.

Soon our neighborhoods will be bustling with birdsong and the mad rush of adult birds caring for eggs, nestlings and fledglings. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Blue Highways

Does anyone remember the book Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon? I remember seeing it around my parents house growing up, along with copies of acknowledged classics like Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, a collection of Shakespeare's plays, and probably a few others. Eventually I read through them all, sometimes more than once. Obviously, the ones that stuck in my memories left an impression. Blue Highways, as far as I know, is not on any high school's required reading list. I'm not aware of any college courses dissecting and analyzing it. It hasn't been made into a major motion picture or even an after-school special. So why does that relatively unknown book stick out so well in my memory?

Sumac provides a late winter food source for robins, bluebirds,
and waxwings. It also, apparently, provides a convenient perch.

The obvious answer is that I made a connection with the author through his writing, and recently, since I started driving back roads to work, I feel a little like Least Heat Moon. These are the roads colored blue on old highway maps, before DeLorme gazetteers became the rage, before Google Earth presented real images with roads colored . . . well, like roads. These are the roads he traveled to find America, the real America, and himself. His real self. Perhaps, in a roundabout way, I'm looking for more than safer stops and more interesting birds when I'm commuting to and from the daily grind. As I mentioned earlier, I am consciously trying to find more meaningful paths.

I've encountered a small flock of Horned Larks regularly on
my back road drives, this was the first time they let me get close.

This morning I encountered only one other car on my blue highway, fortunately while I was just driving and not stalking any birds. I watched a triad of Horned Larks for some ten minutes, slowly creeping forward in the car, which served as a convenient (and warm) blind. Eventually I stopped altogether and let them come to me, which they did. I must have stopped near the tastiest grit.

In a field covered in white snow and opaque ice this
Red-winged Blackbird lends a welcome burst of color.

Today's most welcome sighting was a Red-winged Blackbird, which had been absent two days ago. He perched solidly on the ice-covered branches and loudly proclaimed he was back. I'm not sure if anyone else heard him, but I certainly did. I heard his raucous "conk-a-REE," who could miss it, but I also heard what it meant. It meant the migrant flood gates are open, and soon the rest will be pouring in. Next the phoebes, Tree Swallows, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, meadowlarks, and Fox Sparrows, then the catbirds, towhees, thrashers, Pine, Palm, and Yellow-rumped Warblers, followed by the vireos, flycatchers, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, the rest of the warblers, and so many species I'm neglecting here. And through it all you'll still find me slowly taking in the blue highways.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

More Signs of Spring

Last week we were treated bona fide signs of spring. I mentioned turkeys as a harbinger in an earlier post, but early last week they were joined by our first Common Grackles and "our" Red-winged Blackbird, who spent some time perched on our tallest spruce reclaiming his territory.

This wild bunch is a late-February, early-
March fixture at our feeding station.

OK, they're not charismatic signs, like warblers or hummingbirds, or impressive signs, like migrating raptors or geese, but they are a true sign. Later in the week we did record thousands of Canada geese streaming overhead, which continued well into the night. I still heard steady honking while listening for owls 11:00 (no owls to report). We don't really get much of a Snow Goose migration here, maybe we're too far west for the Chesapeake Bay wintering birds to pass over head? Thousands of them pass over Ithaca, to the east, and rest on Cayuga Lake. I find that interesting, but don't know how to explain it.

Bee balm seed heads, protected underneath an overhang.
Seeds were picked out long ago; the new flowers will be a
food source for hummingbirds and other wildlife.

And all of this while a coating of ice still covers much of our yard, supplemented with another coating from this weekend - more on that soon. Ah, the mixed messages as winter and spring battle for dominance. The question isn't whether spring is just around the corner, it's how far away is that corner?

A bee balm seed head not protected. Much of our hill looks like this!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Flashback Friday: The Time for a Loon

As far as I know, my flashbacks are not products of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome or past abuse of drugs. Because they're not Hunter S. Thompson-weird, I pretty much enjoy them, especially when I can figure out what clash of current events triggered it. This week our weather was instrumental. The last few days have been slushy, sleety, icy . . . pick any precipitation type, mash it with temperatures hovering around freezing, and we've got it. It is no wonder that reading Greg's post at Conservation Conversations about a recent trip to the Branson, MO area threw me back to my own winter experience there. I am surprised and mildly disturbed at my near-complete lack of note taking about the trip, so I'm really going straight from memory and a few recent Internet searches.

Dateline: 15 February, 1995, Table Rock Lake, Missouri
I will always remember that my phone number in Fayetteville ended in -8563, an easy-to-remember pattern on the key pad. Start at the middle-bottom, up a row, jog to the right, then up a row. Unfortunately, it just so happened that in our area you could dial 555 (or something) - "T-I-M-E" to check the time, our phone number spelled "T-J-M-E," and a lot of people are really bad dialers. Or spellers, I'm not sure which.

Lemons, lemonade. We got a lot of phone calls at all hours, but we (mostly) cheerfully gave people the time and had entertaining conversations with complete strangers. Most everyone was friendly after they got over the surprise that we weren't recordings.

File that information for a moment, on to the weather. Please correct me if I'm misremembering, but February always seemed to be the transitional weather month in the southern Ozarks. We had warm evenings where we'd sit in an old field and listen to American Woodcocks display, we had cold snaps with ice. Sometimes snow, but mostly ice. Like the fabled box of chocolates, you never knew what you were going to get.

In spite of the covering of ice, a Dark-eyed Junco still enjoys a
brush pile. This photo comes from our recent ice storm, which
was reminiscent of ice storms that hit us in Arkansas.

One particular morning in mid-February we didn't have class, a layer of ice covered our town, and a couple friends and I were debating if (well, more like where) we should go birding. What should our focus be, waterfowl? Sparrows? Raptors? Then came the phone call, a woman who was glad to find out the correct time, but who also provided a piece to our puzzle. When she mentioned she was calling from Eureka Springs Rob interrupted to ask about the road conditions, which she reported were fine. Something was clearly going on in Rob's mind.

After hanging up Rob dangled the idea about chasing the Yellow-billed Loon that was being seen on Table Rock Lake, a destination that required passing through (or at least near) Eureka Springs. If the weather was better a couple hours away, Rob proposed, we should go there. Perfectly logical, we agreed, and a Yellow-billed Loon? A species that shouldn't be anywhere near Arkansas? Shouldn't we go for that regardless of weather?

Another image of our recent ice storm, which
took down an already-dying White Birch.

Known as a White-billed Diver to our British friends, these high-arctic breeders should be nowhere close to southwestern Missouri. From what was "known," they should barely be reaching coastal Washington. What was this bird doing halfway across the country? It hadn't read the field guides.

And here's the kicker. This wasn't a recent sighting, the bird had been around for weeks. In fact, it had likely been around for years, returning each winter. Chris Lundberg discovered a Yellow-billed Loon on Valentine's Day 1990, which stayed until May. Chris refound it that December, possibly (probably?) the same bird returning to its wintering ground. Chris found the same species, possibly (probably?) the same individual, again in December 1991. I'm not sure if anyone was looking, it seems to be unreported or unobserved in 1992 and 1993. But in December 1994 Chris found the bird again, and it was still reported in mid-February of 1995.

Actually, starting in the 1980's, more and more Yellow-billeds have been photographed in locations well inland from their expected winter range, such as Idaho, Colorado, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Illinois, Minnesota, Arkansas . . . . This leads to a fundamental question: is the species actually expanding its wintering range, or are we simply getting better at identifying loons in basic (wintering) plumage? From the BNA Online account,

Many of these (inland) records were from manmade reservoirs that represent new potential habitat for this species. The recent discovery of these birds, however, probably stems from new information on field identification of basic-plumaged loons that has only recently become widely available.

This is where my note taking failed me. I have no notes written for this trip, just a single bird entry into my now-ancient version of Thayer's Birding Software. I remember the drive to Table Rock Lake being slow and dismally slushy, lots of downed branches and wires as we left Fayetteville. The weather didn't get better, but the conditions got less icy as we crossed the border into Missouri. Rob's detailed directions to the boat ramp in Table Rock Lake State Park guided us to the most reliable spot to watch for the bird.

Yellow-billed Loon (juvenile). Note how the lower mandible is not
straight from head-to-tip, but abruptly bends towards the upper
mandible. This gonydeal angle is not found on Common Loons.
Photo from the California coast, 2006, by Len Blumin.

We were prepared to stand here and watch for however long it took for the loon to appear, even though we were ill-prepared to stand in the wet, cold drizzle, the kind of damp that penetrates your bones. The reports suggested this bird favored the cove between the boat ramp and a stretch of land jutting out into the lake south of the marina. Given enough time, we were told, it will return. Just be patient.

There wasn't anything on the lake that I remember, other than water droplets. I certainly didn't list any other birds (not a coot? Not a Bufflehead? Not even a Mallard?). But I also remember the drizzle barely had time to coat the scope's lenses when a bird popped up almost in front of us. Unbelievably, we were only a few dozen feet from the Yellow-billed Loon, a species that the annotated checklist kept by the Missouri Bird Records Committee lists as Winter Resident, Accidental (1-4 records, a vagrant).

Like many species, the winter plumage (definitive basic for the ornithologically accurate) isn't as flashy as the breeding plumage (definitive alternate), but what a distinctive bird. The bill was massive, oddly-shaped (compared to a Common Loon), unmistakable. I have vague memories of Rob, a much more experienced and more detail-oriented birder than I was, talking us through diagnostic features. I don't remember any of them, though, just that the bill was huge! As someone described this species, it's like it has a banana stuck on its face.

A beautiful head-on view, look how wide the bill is! Also note a
diagnostic feature: the culmen (top of the upper mandible) is
yellow, not black like a Common Loon. Photo by Len Blumin.

A winter-plumaged Common Loon for comparison, note the dark
culmen and the not-so-bent lower mandible. Photo by Len Blumin.

We had plenty of time to take in the bird, study it, watch it dive for extended periods only to appear hundreds of yards away. It was one of those birds that didn't leave you, eventually we had to make the decision to leave. We were soaked, we were cold, but we were fulfilled. On the way back we did two things I distinctly remember. First, a stop at the fish hatchery under the dam where we watched gulls. I don't know what gulls, but Rob annotated the various plumages as we watched, leaving me to feel as though I was starting to get a handle on gull identification. Second, a long stop at an Atlanta Bread Co., or was it St. Louis Bread Co.? Or San Francisco? Do those even exist anymore? Regardless, it was among the best, hottest soup-in-a-bread-bowl a cold, wet birder could find.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Taking to the Air

Each year we make a couple of trips that require flying. Invariably on those flights I flip through the in-flight magazine. I mean, c'mon, it's right there, it's glossy, there are crosswords and sudoku, and you can find out what advertisers are trying to sell to business executives (answer: steak houses, matchmaking services, golf courses, vacation resorts, a Ph.D. lady selling pheromones, and some seminar to teach you the art of negotiation).

But just now I learned of something I would actually read in one of those magazines: David Sibley announced the publication of an essay he wrote for Delta-Sky magazine. Yes, that David Sibley, and yes, a real airline that probably gets dozens of readers a year! Thousands of travelers a year, but how many break away from their laptop or DVD player to read?

Regardless, it's not a fluff piece about how cute birds are. David lays out the wonderment of migration, the challenges birds face on their epic journeys, and gives the non-birding reader something to think about:

You travel for a reason, and with some assurance that your travel will be successful, but what if you flew from Portland, Oregon, to Springfield, Missouri, only to find that the Springfield airport had been turned into a shopping mall and there was nowhere to land? What would happen to the Baird’s sandpipers if that lake in Ecuador was drained for agriculture?

Maybe David's piece will make an inroad to not-yet-conservation-minded, captive-audience readers who haven't really "got it" yet, and it's all about winning those hearts and minds, isn't it? Read the full article here.
  • Illustration by Gary Overacre

Sunday, March 2, 2008

New from The Cornell Lab: Citizen Science Central and eBird

There are two new additions I'm particularly excited about on the Lab's ever-growing web presence.

First, the Citizen Science ToolKit is available. Yeah, I call Conservation Science my home department and my title is "Research Biologist" (OK, that's what I call myself, technically I hold the rather obtuse title of "Extension Support Specialist II"). But Citizen Science is why I joined the Lab and what still overwhelmingly dominates my interest. Last June I participated in a conference that gathered representatives from varied disciplines to discuss citizen science as among other things a unique discipline unto itself and perhaps a way to coordinate all of the projects that currently exist. Further, a goal was to design a web site to bring together anyone interested in citizen science, encouraging discussion and collaboration, and ultimately creating a web site where anyone could go to discover existing projects or even create their own.

That site now exists and is fully functional at Citizen Science Central, a resource I hope you can use or will pass along.

Second, there is more data-out functionality on eBird. That means there are new ways to explore the database, querying the database about first- and last-dates and high counts. Now you can easily determine when are the hummingbirds expected back in your county, when the last wintering birds should depart from your region, and whether that huge raft of Aythya ducks is record setting or not. Learn more about these tools on the eBird web site, and then explore the movements of birds across the continent. Er, hemisphere, I already forgot South America was recently added . . . .

Ah, yes, more technology to empower your time spent in the field! Enjoy!
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