Friday, May 30, 2008

Vacation, Interrupted

We slated the last week of May for a family trip to Chincoteague Island, VA, but a mere three days into our vacation we were summoned to Arkansas to deal with some family issues. Things are mostly fine now, thanks for asking, but instead of coastal shorebirding and ocean watching we spent the bulk of the week in central Arkansas. We were mostly in a hospital room, though we included as much outside activity as possible to entertain an unconfinable 4-year-old.

Once again lemons, but an opportunity for lemonade: this will likely be the only trip I'd make to the south and/or central U.S. before December, and here was a chance to look for some species I wasn't likely to find easily in the northeast, like Dickcissels, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Prothonotary Warblers, and the like. I missed a few I was hoping for, but got the Scissor-taileds.

Tyrannus forficatus, maleScissor-tailed Flycatchers (male pictured here) are usually
present near my in-laws house during the summer months.
This pair are near the eastern edge of of their breeding
range, come winter they'll be loafing in Central America.

This was family, not birding, time. No leisurely trips to Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge, the Big Woods, the Ozarks or Ouachitas, just some sporadic around the neighborhood walks. Luckily it's a nice neighborhood. A pair of Great-crested Flycatchers seem to agree, taking up residence in a cavity in a Sweetgum tree.

Myiarchus crinitusMore often heard than seen (man, do you hear them when they call!),
this Great-crested Flycatcher wasn't very camera shy.

I didn't witness any deliveries of nesting material or food, so assuming there is a nest built they must be in the egg-laying or incubating stage.

Myiarchus crinitus at nest siteGreat-crested Flycatcher checking out a cavity.

The neighborhood is a pretty rural affair, which you could deduce from a trip list, which includes nesting Eastern Meadowlark, Barred Owl, Acadian Flycatcher, Indigo Bunting, Red-shouldered Hawk, Eastern Bluebird, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and Eastern Kingbird. Very few, if any, cars drive by. Several lots have livestock - cows, horses, goats, Shetland ponies. As if the ticks and chiggers weren't enough to keep my Teva-covered feet off the private property, the barbed wire fences quell any temptations.

Zenaida macrouraA pair of Mourning Doves finds the barbed wire a useful perch. I suspect
this couple may be the most gentle of all the neighborhood residents.

My in-laws have at least six hummingbird feeders hanging behind the house. After a fruitless effort of trying to shoot them in natural settings I gave up and parked myself next to a feeder. For a brief period just before dinner the feeder was in the sun but the house was still shaded, giving that lit-up bird against a black background effect. It's almost like I planned it. In fact, I did . . . yeah, that's the ticket!

Archilochus colubris, femaleA female Ruby-throated Hummingbird is allowed to refuel.

My father in-law noted there are fewer hummingbirds coming this spring than in the past, a trend noted on various email lists. Several folks point out there are plenty of natural sources of nectar right now, once they disappear hummingbird numbers at feeders will increase again. In the week I was there I noticed an increase from six birds visiting the feeders during the first couple of days to more than double that number during the last couple of days.

Neighbor-wise, I wouldn't want to live near a hummingbird. The near-constant motion, the noisy "chit-chit-chit ing" and whirring wings, the bossy males: two of them patrolled the line of feeders, chasing away almost all hummers who ventured close. The Downy Woodpecker and the House Finch, who also frequent the nectar feeders, were left alone.

Of course, there is more to see than birds and livestock. I didn't get pictures, but there are feral dogs (well, maybe not truly feral, I think they're loosely associated with someone's home), butterflies, dragon- and damselflies, other insects, and lizards, one of which was very accommodating.

Eumeces laticeps, adult maleThe uniform gray-brown body and large, orange head of this Broadhead Skink identify this individual as an adult male.

Eumeces laticeps, close up of adult maleExtreme close up!!!! I love macro photography, especially when it's in focus!

Hmmmm, anyone catch that trend? Three Saturday Night Live-based quotes, two in this post and one in a comment over on 10,000 Birds, over the past couple of days. I promise only to use funny ones, nothing from the unfunny seasons.

Now, a request: please help me out! What is this bird? I can't remember what I identified this bird as in the field, and it's stumping me right now. Let me know what you think!

Help! Identify me!

Monday, May 26, 2008

The End of Migration

25-26 May, 2008: Chincoteague NWR, VA

It's not the end of bird migration - not this year, and not even this season. It's the end of our redetermined migration, south along the Atlantic coast to our final destination, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Summer and late Autumn are when we usually visit, I cannot find any birding checklist dated earlier than July 03. We finally made it to find out what a spring time visit would be like.

As expected, it was awesome. Too short, as our week-long stay would be cut to a mere three days, but we managed a lot of fun playing on they sandy beaches, riding our bikes around Assateague Island and riding Chincoteague Ponies on Chincoteague. And, of course, lots of bird watching though I didn't manage any early morning trips into the woods for migrating landbirds.

Our house overlooks Assateague Bay, the neighborhood best described as "sleepy" in the sense there is minimal traffic to bother you as you search the planted vegetation for landbirds, including expected spring birds like Brown-headed Nuthatches, Carolina Chickadees, Barn Swallows, Northern Mockingbirds, Common Yellowthroat, and so on. Overlooking the bay provides a variety of habitat types: tide-dependent mudflats for Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, oyster beds hosting American Oystercatchers, marshes for Clapper Rails, herons, egrets, Northern Harriers, and Purple Martins, and, of course, open water for Great Black-backed Gulls, Forster's and Least Terns, Osprey, and waterfowl in the winter months. Although our trips are short and almost exclusively in late July and/or late November I've recorded at least 93 species* in our neighborhood.

Bald EagleA Bald Eagle sail by the house - not a bad yard bird!

The bulk of activity, though, takes place on Assateague Island, a confusing mesh of political divisions I've never completely understood. The important aspect is the island, at least the portion situated in Virginia, is the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (which also includes some areas in Maryland and two small areas not on Assateague).

Anyway. Two nature centers, a lighthouse, and the beach draw many visitors, but the real attraction are the protected natural areas: woodlands, freshwater pools and saltwater bays, marshes and mudflats, beach and open ocean.

If you've read my blog before you already know I could go on and on, but I won't. I'll let a few select images give you an idea of how my birding time was spent, but first a quiz to test your knowledge of sleeping birds. These two species were found napping on the same freshwater mudflat.

Sleeping BirdQuiz Bird 1 - click for a larger image.

Sleeping BirdsQuiz Bird 2 - click for a larger image.

Of course, a primary feature of shallow water are waders. Chincoteague NWR sports good numbers of egrets, herons, and Glossy Ibis, and even a Black-necked Stilt here and there.

Wading birdsA flock of Snowy Egrets and Glossy Ibis,
with a single Black-necked Stilt in the mix.

Great EgretA Great Egret silently hunts, keeping an eye on bird watchers.
Look carefully and you can see new feathers growing in on the wing.

A walk along the beach typically yields people sunbathing, people fishing, people swimming, and people surfing, but you can find some non-human wildlife, too.

Sanderling flushedA Sanderling launches itself towards the ocean, but
only for a moment. Typically they will fly a short
distance up the beach then return to feed in the surf.

Sanderling beachA Sanderling sporting breeding plumage as opposed
to the black-and-white of a non-breeding bird.

Ruddy TurnstonA Ruddy Turnstone flushes from approaching beach combers (us).

Black-bellied PloverA Black-bellied Plover over the ocean. More
commonly you'd find them probing the mudflats, along
with a smattering of Calidris sandpipers, or "peeps,"
and Piping Plovers, and Killdeer.

It doesn't stop with dusk. The birds will continue to call well into darkness, including nocturnal species like Chuck-wills-widow, Eastern Screech-owl, and Great Horned Owl.

Chincogeague NWR sunsetFollowing a picnic on the beach we stopped to watch the sunset
and listen to the calls of
Chuck-wills-widows, at least until
the mosquito numbers threatened to drain too much blood.

Unfortunately, we'd be called away before we took advantage of the full vacation days, but at least there were more opportunities for birding.

* The list may be a bit higher, I still have dozens of checklist to enter from pre-eBird days.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Redetermined Migration, Part III

24 May, 2008: Slaughter Beach, DE

Following two earlier stops we resumed our migration south, intending the next stop to be our destination, Chincoteague NWR, VA. But the call of an actual beach was too enticing, especially since there were small parking areas between summer homes every quarter mile or so allowing public access. The DuPont Nature Center was pretty much a "stationary count" so we quickly decided to take off the shoes and stroll in the surf before committing to an afternoon in the car.

We weren't the only ones with that in mind. The beach was covered in shorebirds, almost exclusively Sanderlings.

Sanderling Flock
This small flock was just the beginning. Imagine replicating that group of shorebirds and tightly packing new groups all along the coast, as far as your eye, aided with 10x binoculars, could see. In both directions. More birds flew in, but fewer flew out. Like the surf is never still, the beach seemed to be constantly quivering as distant birds scurried back and forth. I couldn't give you an accurate estimate. Thousands of birds? Tens of thousands? I'd probably be off by an order of magnitude.

SanderlingAlways casting a wary eye, some birds were bolder than others.

They were on this beach for the same reason they covered Mispillion, and for the same reason they were covering beaches all over Delaware Bay. Unfortunately, no Red Knots available for close-up photo ops.

Horseshoe CrabsMale Horseshoe Crabs, smaller in size,
attempting to mate with the larger female.

Horseshoe Crab eggs were probably everywhere, though we didn't find any, probably because we didn't look. Reina was worried about some of the stranded crabs, those that couldn't right themselves while on their back, those that were high on the dry sand feebly trying to make their way back to the ocean. She and Donna helped save crabs, I couldn't help but watch the shorebirds.

DunlinA handsome, breeding-plumaged Dunlin wades in the surf.

Finally we decided really needed to get going. In the scrub as we reached the parking lot I ticked the only landbird for this stop, a striking Common Yellowthroat.

Common YellowthroatCommon Yellowthroat in the dunes along the shore.

How close was he? Look closely and you can even see a filoplume emerging from the back of his head.

Finally it was on to Chincoteague.


Redetermined Migration, Part II

24 May, 2008: DuPont Nature Center, DE

As mentioned in Part I, the anticipated highlight of our southward spring migration was crossing paths with Red Knots (Calidris canutus), specifically the rufa subspecies (C.c. rufa) This group winters along the Atlantic coast of South America. The largest wintering concentration (our boreal winter, that is) occurs in southern Argentina, possibly with another concentration numbering in the "low thousands" in equatorial Brazil (there is confusion whether those are C.c. rufa or another subspecies, C.c. roselaari).

That said, consider the effort the rufa knots make each spring. From the southern tip of South America they start arriving in central Argentina in February, the bulk passing through between mid-March and mid-April. They pass through southern Brazil in late April and early May, in mid-May they're passing through the West Indies (though infrequently seen during northward migration). In late-May they arrive at Delaware Bay, then they're off to northern Canada. A 9,000-plus mile migration, one way.

Approximation of Red Knot (C.c. rufa) migration.

And it's perfectly timed to hit the beaches of Delaware Bay in the same time frame that Horseshoe Crabs are mating and depositing eggs in those same shores. No coincidence there, eggs are the power bars of the natural world. The subtleties of this migratory route and its timing has been worked out over thousands of generations. I would love to see them in Argentina, Brazil, the West Indies, or on the Arctic Tundra, but the logistics of getting to Delaware are bit more favorable right now.

We were anticipating a front row seat at the DuPont Nature Center at Mispillion Inlet. We aimed to arrive at shortly after high tide, the most active time when the shorebirds are scarfing up the eggs left by the crabs. And when we arrived, that's exactly what was going on.

The shore of one jetty was covered with Horseshoe Crabs, gulls,
and various shorebirds, predominantly knots and Dunlin.
Can you identify the bird in the lower-right corner that is flying left?

The event lived up to they hype, just not as fervent as we would have seen some 20 years ago. Horseshoe Crabs were receding from any sandy stretch, Red Knots were scampering back and forth, probing the sand for the eggs. Larids, specifically Laughing, Herring, and Great-black Backed Gulls, were a bit more relaxed in their searching but also took part.

The shorebird mix included Dunlin, Ruddy Turnstones, Black-bellied Plovers, Sanderlings, Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowtichers, and Willets.

Thankfully there was one Red Knot I could capture on film!

I spent about an hour just scoping (and eating), as well as chatting with a videographer from England who filming for a British nature program, something we'd be seeing here in the Fall on Discovery Channel (I'll post if I can figure out what show it is!). He was spending the day waiting for a Peregrine Falcon, which had been reported strafing the beach the day before, in order to capture a couple of minutes of footage that would be classified as "the perils of migration." That's humbling: days spent shooting, the result might be a fifteen-second fly-by in the final product.

We never saw the falcon, but we did listen to the non-step calling of Clapper Rails from the marsh. Inside the nature center my wife and daughter participated in Red Knot-oriented events, such as drawing, coloring, making something that reportedly was a beach scene, and other kid-pleasing activities.

Like the ornithologists of yesteryear, Reina
likes to wear her Sunday best in the field.

Just like the Black-necked Stilts at Bombay Hook, Reina wanted to see the knots and crabs. Our plans for raising a budding naturalist are coming along nicely! On the way out we passed a few shorebirds wading next to the road. After reviewing this image I'm going to suggest "The Sneezing Willet" as a pub name to anyone who wants to use it (just set a stool at the end of the bar for me . . . ).


Then it was off to our final destination, read more in Part III.

  • More about Red Knots and the other birds mentioned in this post in the All About Birds Bird Guide.

Redetermined Migration, Part I

24 May, 2008: Bombay Hook NWR

Living in the northeastern U.S. has its drawbacks, specifically the relationship between spring birding and our vacation plans this year. We're sticking around through the cold, slushy early spring, patiently waiting for neotropical migrants to come to us, but right as they're arriving en mass we're heading south for a week. In an ideal birder's world you'd stay with the birds as they travel to their breeding grounds, migrating along with them. We'll be engaged in a sort of redetermined migration*, following a path differing from where we should be going, passing underneath them as they travel in the opposite direction overhead.

I'm not complaining, I swear. We decided to take an early vacation trip this year, foregoing the usual late-summer trip to Chincoteague NWR and visiting the refuge in spring. I may miss waves of warblers in Sapsucker Woods and my favorite local haunts, but I'll be gaining coastal species. And the real focus of our trip, with a couple well-timed stops in Delaware, we'll witness the Red Knot feeding frenzy as they take advantage of the Horseshoe Crab egg-laying frenzy, a phenomenon I haven't seen live and in person in a decade. Given the frightening population decline in both Horseshoe Crab and Red Knot numbers, who knows how long the spectacle will exist.

The viewing hot spot this year appears to be near Slaughter Beach at the Mispillion Harbor Reserve. We aimed to arrive at shortly after high tide, the most active time when the shorebirds are scarfing up the eggs left by the crabs. The tide schedule showed prime viewing coincided with a late lunch. That left us with time to explore Bombay Hook NWR for a couple of hours in the morning, then join the knots and other shorebirds for lunch at the DuPont Nature Center at Mispillion Inlet (we brought our own lunch, I don't find horseshoe crab eggs very filling). You don't have to chase Horseshoe Crabs and shorebirds through the woods or across fields, we figured why not set up a scope and eat sandwiches at the same time?

Purple Martins at a gourdA Purple Martin pair sits in the entrance of their gourd next to the
Bombay Hook Visitor's Center. It's extremely rare, if not impossible,
to find martins nesting in natural cavities east of the Rockies.

Bombay Hook was, as always, worth the stop. No Eurasian vagrant, like a Little Egret or Curlew Sandpiper, to quicken the pulse, but a great place to explore nature and stretch the legs. And for a 4-year-old cooped up in a car this was paradise (both for her and us!). And there were birds, of course. We watched Purple Martins entering the gourds by the nature center, Marsh Wren songs bubbled through the phragmites and cattails, and happily we stumbled across some songbirds along the short trail to the observation tower overlooking Raymond Pool.

Raymond PoolOverlooking the Raymond Pool. Just in front of the trees
across the pool is a smattering of shorebirds - the first birds
our four-year-old "scoped," and hopefully not the last.

American Redstarts, Common Yellowthroats, and a modest slew of other warblers decorated the trees. In a matter of minutes we identified Blue-winged, Yellow, Blackpoll, Canada, Black-throated Blue, and Chestnut-sided Warblers, along with Red-eyed Vireos, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and a single Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

Blurry Marsh WrenMy camera had trouble auto-focusing on the intended subject,
so I'll market this as a nice shot of wetland vegetation.
A blurry Marsh Wren blocks the view.

Bombay Hook is known for the mudflats and water, but in those areas we didn't find too much. We were on a schedule so we only patrolled the main driving loop. We did find the expected egrets and herons, Forster's Terns, Osprey, and Dunlin. Eventually we picked out a small group of waders comprised of Short-billed Dowitchers with a few Black-necked Stilts scattered among them.

Reina was intrigued with the name Black-necked Stilt, and this time the field guide presentation wasn't satisfying her. After a lot of tripod manipulation and trial-and-error they became the first bird she ever scoped. A proud moment for Papa.

Noting the time we packed it up and headed south for the Red Knots: read more in Part II.

*Redetermined migration, as defined in a New Jersey Audubon Society article about Morning Flight (worth reading, by the way): "Movement, usually by nocturnal migrants, is typically in a direction different from (sometimes opposite) the nocturnal flight path."


Monday, May 12, 2008

Garlic Mustard Imponderables

Pulling garlic mustard is a relatively easy but time consuming activity. It's great for being outside, getting into a meditative, zen-like state as you rip living plants from the ground (how's that for oxymoronic?), and letting your mind wander. I asked, and in some cases answered, a lot of questions about our garlic mustard infestation while performing my penance for neglecting the back end of our lot. I don't think I've spent as much time on my hands and knees since celebrating my 21st birthday on New Year's Eve with my college buddies and a bottle of Absolut.

That image aside, through my Socratic dialogue with myself I discovered the following tidbits of information. While this is essentially subjective and free of any supporting evidence, I'm operating under the Golden Rule of Talk Radio: if you repeat it enough, it will be true.

I first discovered that answering even the most basic question of how many plants are growing on our property is near impossible. Top mathematicians at Cal Tech, collaborating with botanists at the Max Plank Institute, have calculated the population density is effectively immeasurable due to the constant production of new plants at a variable rate, determined by how long you look at an individual plant and how many you attempt to pull.

One of the invaders. The flowers look so innocent, but the
havoc wreaked by their loins in almost unimaginable. And
before you ask, no, I'm not sure that plants have loins.

With that understanding of their population dynamics, here's what I surmised on my own experience on pulling garlic mustard:
  • Laid end to end, the plants pulled on our property would stretch from our house to the El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico (1,775.77 miles).
  • You can burn 280 Calories/hour pulling garlic mustard.
  • You can drink 8.25 helmet-mounted beers while pulling garlic mustard before you succumb to the need to lie down for a nap.
  • Although garlic mustard is non-toxic, and in fact makes a tolerable pesto, you will be enjoying the flavor on everything you eat no matter how many times you wash your hands. That's fine when eating pasta, salads, or beans-and-rice dishes, but not so delicious when eating breakfast cereals, chocolate, or drinking wine.
  • If converted for use as biofuel, garlic mustard would generate enough power to heat/cool our house, run all of our appliances, and recharge the batteries in the remotes, or the camera, for a full lunar month.
  • If left as a pile in the backyard it would be visible from space and could be used in the nests of the 1,500 American Robins that have claimed our neighborhood as their breeding territory.
  • If left to dry like straw, and if this were a fairy tale along the lines of the "Three Little Pigs," you could build a research facility with office space for a staff of 75, four conference rooms (with video-conferencing capabilities) and facilities to house a GIS lab, a server room, and workstations for two dozen graduate students.
  • If Red Knots would change their dietary requirements and time their migration a bit differently, their population would be exploding, not declining.
Or, maybe what we need is a different mindset. Garlic mustard simply needs a new PR strategy.

Instead of being the vilified invasive plant, it could once again be heralded as the culinary herb it once was. To rip off comedian Brian Regan, garlic mustard should hire the same marketing guy cranberries did. Look how a dwarf, evergreen shrub growing in acidic bogs with bitter tasting berries established itself as producing a "superfruit," and then the marketers got into it.

"Hey, you got some apples? Put some cranberries in there. We’ll call it cran-apple and go 50-50. You got grapes? How about cran-grape! You got mango? Cran-mangos! You got pork chops? Cran-chops!"

The possibilities for garlic mustard are endless. Seriously, take garlic mustard pesto as a starter recipe, then feel free to contribute your own ideas.
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