Friday, September 26, 2008

Finger Lakes Frigatebird

Sunday afternoon, roughly 1:20 PM, I was on my roof. Tom Johnson and Shawn Billerman, returning from the New York State Ornithological Association's annual meeting in Rochester, NY, were standing at Myer's Point, a birding hot spot just north of Ithaca on the east side of Cayuga Lake.

I was fighting with electronics, bungee cords, and duct tape, trying to mount a skyward-pointing microphone; Tom and Shawn were hoping for a few shorebirds pausing in their southward migration. And as I was serenaded by a cacophony of Blue Jays, American Crows, and Canada Geese, they discovered a Magnificent Frigatebird.

Magnificent Frigatebird - by Tom JohnsonThe first Magnificent Frigatebird observed in the Cayuga Lake Basin,
discovered 21 September 2008 by Cornell students Shawn
Billerman and Tom Johnson. Photo © Tom Johnson

That's huge, so let me repeat that in a slightly different way: Shawn and Tom were watching a Magnificent Frigatebird, not while standing on a beach in Ft. Myers, Florida, but from the middle of the Finger Lakes region in central New York. Within hours (probably minutes) a regiment of birders (sadly, not including me) mobilized and had stellar observations from various points around the south end of the lake. Updates hit the Cayugabirds listserve fast and furious: still circling over Myer's Point, spotted from East Shore Marina, easily observed from Stewart Park.

Magnificent Frigatebird - by Tom JohnsonMagnificent Frigatebird and Ring-billed Gull - one is expected
on Cayuga Lake, the other, not so much.
Photo © Tom Johnson

Birders spent the afternoon tracking it as it swirled above Cayuga Lake, tracking it until dusk when it roosted with a gulp of Double-crested Cormorants on a dead tree just west of Stewart Park (did you know a group of cormorants is called a "gulp," according to this USGS page?). Evening posts announced the best locations to watch the bird when it left the roost tree the following morning while some observers, noting the bird's odd posture, such as the drooping primaries and how it held its head between its wrists, speculated about the health of the bird.

Magnificent Frigatebird - by Tom JohnsonPhoto © Tom Johnson

Sadly, two things were not to be: I wasn't able to make the pre-sunrise trip, which is all for the best as the bird was not in the roost tree when the sun rose. It had expired during the night and was spotted floating in the water. A local birder salvaged the bird, depositing it with the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates where it will be prepared for addition to the specimen collections.

Billerman photographs Magnificent Frigatebird specimenShawn Billerman photographs the Magnificent Frigatebird
he co-discovered just days before. The bird will be
prepared for placement in the museum's collection.

During a season when we're all searching for boreal-breeding warblers, sparrows, and the other songbirds that are passing through our area, or focusing on concentrations of raptors streaming by hawk-watching sites, you've got to wonder, "How did a frigatebird make its way from (presumably) the Gulf of Mexico to central New York? And why didn't it survive the night?"

Magnificent Frigatebird distribution - eBird
Magnificent Frigatebird observations reported to eBird.
Darker greens show higher frequency of observations,
depicting the expected range. Scattered light green in
the lower-48 are observations of vagrant individuals.

The most obvious answers are hurricane winds and starvation. Hurricane Ike, which made landfall near Galveston, Texas on Friday, September 12, probably carried this bird, along with many other offshore species, onshore. As the storm dissipated the birds made their way towards any large, open body of water. This individual potentially crossed some eight or nine states as it hopscotched across the coastal plain of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, the central hardwoods of Tennessee and Kentucky, and followed the Appalachians through West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania before arriving 1,300 miles away from where it started its overland journey on September 21.

After a journey like that a common assumption is that the bird is starving - what does a bird that spends the majority of its time wheeling above tropical waters eat when it finds itself above terra firma? When foraging over the ocean it gorges on small fish, squid, jellyfish, small turtles and crabs, and, before we romanticize this species too much, offal from sewage treatment plants and slaughterhouses.

Magnificent Frigatebird - billWith a bill like that, would you eat "offal"? Note the
bright-orange gular pouch, which the males inflate during
breeding, and the purple sheen on the back feathers.

They also parasitize other birds: they chase their target bird until it disgorges their most recent meal, which the frigatebird then catches in mid-air. So, while their familiar foodstuffs may not be found, suitable alternatives should be available -- there are plenty of gulls to be found inland - providing sustenance until they make their way back home to familiar waters.

Though I didn't see the bird in the wild, I did see it in the Lab. Feeling the keel, a quick and dirty method of estimating condition by feeling the breastbone and pectoral muscles, did not indicate an emaciated bird. The keel bone did not protrude beyond the muscle (which would indicate starvation), conversely the bone was palpable, showing it wasn't storing fat. Kim Bostwick, the Curator of Birds and Mammals, mentioned that in addition to preparing the specimen for the collection the stomach contents will be sent to the vet school for analysis. Perhaps those results will shed some light on this bird's fate.

Magnficent Frigatebird - footShawn spreads the toes to show the vestigial webbing
(not well seen here, the fault of the photographer).

As unfortunate as it is to see a specimen rather than a live bird, it's also a wonderful moment to study the bird in a way you simply cannot in the wild. Not a better moment, but an equally enlightening experience. Holding this bird, which Tom initially described as a "very unexpected giant black bird," you realize that it is predominantly feathers: it's so light there's barely anything physical to it. Viewing it up close, how else would I get to see the webbing between the toes, a vestigial trait as this bird spends very little, if any, time sitting on the water or swimming? Turning it over to view the back yielded a surprise: the feathers that cover the back are not black, but shimmer with a purple sheen. The head and wings flash metallic green iridescence.

Magnificent Frigatebird - iridescenceI envy those that watched the bird soaring freely above the Finger Lakes, I feel sorrow the bird wasn't able to follow the contours of eastern ridge of the Appalachians back towards home. But I also feel pride, and satisfaction, that I was able to experience this bird in a way I likely will never see again, especially knowing I won't be able to look at free-flying frigatebirds differently because of this encounter.


Saturday, September 20, 2008

Winter Finch Forecast, 2008-09

Approximately one year ago I wrote the following:

Below is one of the most forwarded emails in cyberspace, at least in the birding world. Each fall Ron Pittaway, from the Ontario Field Ornithologists, puts together a forecast of the distribution and abundance of winter finches in Ontario.

You can read the rest of my introduction from last year's post, all the information and background still holds true.

Here's Ron's general forecast for the upcoming 2008-09 winter season:

This winter's theme is where will crossbills go and will they irrupt south? Both species wandered widely this summer. Cone crops are poor in the Atlantic Provinces and fair to moderate in Western Canada. In Ontario, spruce crops are fair to good west and east of Lake Superior and in central Ontario such as Algonquin Park, but cone abundance diminishes rapidly northwards into the boreal forest. White pine (Ontario's provincial tree) has heavy cone crops in most areas. The hemlock crop is poor in central Ontario. The white birch crop is fair to good west and east of Lake Superior to Lake Ontario, but poor in the boreal forest. The mountain-ash (rowan berry) crop is excellent in Ontario and Western Canada, but poor in the Atlantic Provinces. Individual finch forecasts below apply mainly to Ontario, but adjacent provinces and states may find the forecast of interest. I also comment on three irruptive passerines and two boreal forest raptors.

This year, instead of posting the entire forecast here, I'll refer you to the eBird website where they've already uploaded it -- with images and proper web formatting, tasks I'm happy to turn over to someone else. I'll likely follow up in a couple of weeks when our own Matt Young posts his comments of how this will relate to central and western NY.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Latest eBird Map Quiz

New map available on eBird's Map Quiz. They provide a range map, based on submitted observations, you guess logically deduce the species.

What species could this be?

eBird Map Quiz 11eBird Map Quiz 11

And what about eBird Map Quiz 10, did you get it? I didn't.

eBird Map Quiz 10eBird Map Quiz 10: The range map of the American Black Duck.
Check the eBird site for a description of how you can deduce it.


Monday, September 15, 2008

Butterfly Update: Two More Butterflies!

Reina and I have turned increasingly to watching insects, especially caterpillars and butterflies, in our continuing effort to explore and experience the natural world in our own backyard. In August we collected two Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars but released a single Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly. Then, in early September, we collected three Monarch caterpillars with the intent of releasing three Monarch butterflies.

Our remaining Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) chrysalis remains a Spicebush Swallowtail chrysalis. As I wrote in an earlier posts (linked above), some swallowtail caterpillars will emerge the same year, some overwinter and emerge the following spring.

Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) typically hatch some 9 - 14 days after forming a chrysalis.When the three caterpillars pupated on three successive days we expected three straight days of butterfly emergence.

Three ChrysalidsDifferent rates of development: the youngest chrysalis (center) is still a
light green, the oldest (right) is dark. Look close, the butterfly is visible inside.

Yes, I made my daughter get all science-geeky with me. We got a calendar and marked off which dates each caterpillar (Rosemary, Kee, and Skinloser) formed a chrysalis. Next we counted off the earliest and latest expected emergence dates.

Chrysalis Close-upThe second-oldest chrysalis is as dark as the oldest, you can also
see the butterfly inside. The caterpillar skin stuck to the chrysalis.

We discovered the expected emergence dates fell after school started, not a great situation if it happened while no one was home. Reina brought them to school for an extended show-and-tell, then they came home for the weekend.

Sunday afternoon two of the chrysalids were deep, dark green, but also transparent: you could see the butterfly inside (click on the images for a larger image). We'd read that was a sure sign they'd be emerging in the next 24 hours. We were happy they held on for the school week to begin so the students could witness the event.

Chrysalis Close-upI have no idea what function that alien-like pattern on
the chrysalis performs, is that where it will split? The
caterpillar skin sticks to the side of the chrysalis.

Seven-o'-clock Monday morning I came downstairs and immediately noticed a chrysalis was cracked open and a boldly colored Monarch was hanging from the branch - not a bad pre-coffee observation for me. Reina came over and pointed out there were two Monarchs, highlighting that my pre-coffee observation skills are questionable.

Monarch ReleaseThe older butterfly (Rosemary) took off as soon as we
uncovered the vase, landing in a nearby oak. Kee,
the second oldest, rested on Reina's finger for awhile.

One butterfly started slowly flexing its wings. Afraid it would damage itself by rubbing the wing on the branch we decided we had to release them before we got to school.

MonarchEventually Kee rested on a Trumpet Creeper - sheltered
from view and the remnants of Hurricane Ike. After a
rest she'll be off, Monarch migration is underway!

Happily there is still one to go, by my estimation it will emerge Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest, and hopefully after 9:00 AM when the kids are there. Look close on the following image and you'll see the wings.

Chrysalis Close-up
For the scientific minded, 13.5 days from chrysalis formation to butterfly emergence (n=2).


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Morbid Bird Quiz Answer

It took a mere 27 minutes after I posted the quiz for N8 of The Drinking Bird fame to find the post and nail the correct answer. The white feather tips were enough for his tentatively positive, or maybe a positively tentative, identification. Then again it was probably a positively positive ID, what other bird could this be?

Original quiz bird photo

I thought this might be a bit tougher than it was for two reasons: difficulty in orienting some parts of the bird, and the fact that it was overcast yielded little color in the photo, just shades of gray and white. Northern Mockingbird, my only reasonable alternate thought, is a gray and white bird common in the Southern Tier of NY. It fits the color scheme, but the pattern on the visible feathers is wrong. If those white-tipped feathers are from the tail you would expect pure gray feathers or pure white (immature mockingbirds may have some irregularly patterned or spotted feathers, which these clearly aren't. And if these were wing feathers we'd expect to find the white near the base of the feathers, not the tips.

Check out this mockingbird in flight to clearly see those patterns.

In a nutshell, mockingbirds don't have white-tipped wings or tails, but Blue Jays do.

Here's a second shot, different angle.

The tail, seen just below and parallel to the wire, shows the black-banded blue tail with white tips. Nicely played, N8!


Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Morbid Quiz Bird

Things have been crazy busy, but I stopped on my way home when I found a bird I didn't recognize. Like many car-spotted birds, it was on an overhead wire, unlike many birds on a wire, it was hanging upside down.

Only once have I seen a bird in this position before, a Great Egret in Louisiana that had apparently been electrocuted. The muscles had clenched, the foot unable to release. In its state it, obviously, couldn't consciously let go. Who knows how long it hung there before someone removed it - it was hanging near the entrance of the Sabine NWR, probably not the first thing you want your visitors to see.

Any guesses on the identification of this one?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Summer Rewind

The calendar says we have a couple of weeks before the solstice but it's decidedly fall in our parts. More and more birds on the move every day, leaves starting to turn, temperatures so low I may break out the long pants and sleeves at any moment. As everyone asks, mostly with the threat of a new school year around the immediate corner, where did the summer go?

This summer, which I'll define as roughly between Memorial Day and Labor Day, was fraught with many levels of uncertainty for us. A Memorial Day trip took us through Delaware searching for Red Knots in various places, eventually arriving in Virginia, but ultimately we wound up in Arkansas.

Note: I discovered the entire Delaware-Virginia series of posts never left "draft" status, they were recently published but time stamped so they appear around Memorial Day.

The bulk of June was spent around the yard getting to know our neighbors, for better or worse.

I became captivated by non-bird interests in mid-July, specifically the presence of Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars. Carefree summer days never really took hold. Having to bail on two vacation trips and one scientific meeting forced allowed me to spend more time at work, though working in Sapsucker Woods isn't a bad place to be. We did manage some weekend trips that filled the void quite nicely.

August started with an operation, leaving me watching nature from the indoors for a couple of weeks. That time allowed me to chronicle the Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar-to-butterfly development though we missed the actual emergence by a few minutes. I heard from the USGS and Canadian Wildlife Service about a banded Sanderling I photographed earlier in the summer, and with migration getting underway my direction turned towards nocturnal flight calls. Hopefully a series of species profiles will inspire even more people to train their ears upward and listen for the phenomenon. Even by day migration brings the unexpected as I found during a 20-minute stop at Montezuma NWR.

Not least of all I highlighted some new web content, including a challenging bird quiz (there's no bird directly involved!).

Ups and downs, but I think we're cleared for a good fall season. I wish you all the same!


Friday, September 5, 2008

I and the Bird #83

Wren of Wrenaissaince Reflections has posted the latest I and The Bird, entitled "The Joy of Birds." Most definitely worth reading Wren's presentation and, to state the obvious, most definitely worth reading the collection of posts. Enjoy!


Thursday, September 4, 2008

Do It Again

We're at it again. It's only been a few weeks since we took two Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars into captivity to witness the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly. In another post I mentioned one emerged and was released, the other looks as though it'll be spending the winter months with us and we won't see the final product until next year (but what a way to start the spring!).

Now we've adopted a few new "pets," three Monarch caterpillars (Danaus plexippus) found on our Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), one of the best plants to attract Monarchs.

Monarch Caterpillar on Swamp MilkweedMonarch caterpillar feeding on Swamp Milkweed. Which end is which?

Feeling inspired by the swallowtail experience we decided to take all three into captivity and watch the chrysalis development, and when Reina starts school next week hopefully they can go with her. They can listen in on some geography to learn their migration route, but more to the point I suspect her class, including the teachers, would love the chance to witness the emergence of a butterfly.

We placed them in the same container we used for the swallowtails, not necessarily due to superstition, but it's the biggest and gives the clearest view.

Monarchs in captivityThree caterpillars in a jar (wasn't that a song by the Cure? No?).
Note the one in the lower-left, already in the pre-pupating "J-shape."
Chrysalis formation should follow in about 24 hours.

We discovered them on a "yard exploration" last Saturday morning, that evening we stocked the jar with fresh milkweed leaves and we clipped a suitable branch for crawling and the eventual chrysalis attachment. On Sunday two of the caterpillars we active, chomping on newly added leaves, the third (spontaneously named "Rosemary") was serenely lining the top of one of the branches. By evening Rosemary had formed a small, silk button and attached to the underside of the branch, hanging upside down in a classic J-shape.

Monarch in J-shapeWhen I took this photo I noticed "Rosemary" was slowly but
rhythmically pulsating, looking as though the milkweed it
ate was about to come back up. I should have stayed to watch!

Monday was Labor Day, that evening I checked in on the caterpillars as I went out to cut the lawn. Forty-five minutes later, when I returned, I glanced over - there was a chrysalis instead of the J-shaped caterpillar. And we missed it. But the second caterpillar, cryptically named "Kee," was now hanging in a J.

Monarch chrysalisThe chrysalis, hardened and with very interesting golden
decorations - that line of beads near the top and a few spots elsewhere
on the chrysalis. If anyone knows what they're for I'd love to hear!

Next day, Tuesday, and I was at work. Seems a similar series of events played out: Reina checked on the caterpillars, went outside to play and when she came in thirty minutes later there were two chrysalids. Missed it again, but we got the idea of when to expect it and how fast it occurs. One last chance: the third caterpillar, not named, was now in its J-shape.

Monarch chrysalids and caterpillarWednesday morning: two chrysalids complete,
caterpillar three (soon to be named) should be pupating
this evening. The light-green chrysalis is about 15
hours old, the dark-green one is about a day and half old.

The third time was a charm, just not for me. The caterpillar jar was moved in the living room before I went to work. Reina planned to check on the final caterpillar periodically, especially during and following her afternoon snack. Sure enough, she and Donna witnessed the event in the late afternoon. I got the excited, not-so-coherent second-hand accounts: apparently it was cool, it involved a lot of wiggling, or maybe it was wriggling, but that's all I really understood about the process. Maybe this gives a clue: after watching the caterpillar pupate Reina promptly named it "Skinloser." Of course, you can always check out numerous examples on YouTube, but it's not the same. Assuming the Swamp Milkweed comes back, my consolation is that there's always next year.


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Eggs On a Stick

Urgent help needed: what are these eggs??

Eggs on a Stick: sounds like something you'd order at a Renaissance Festival.

We found this branch in our brush pile covered with tightly-packed, very decorative beads. Out of curiosity we put it in a jar and now they're hatching. Tiny, tiny inchworm looking things are all over the inside of the jar and we'd like to feed them something.

Anyone with any ideas, please let us know! Please?

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