Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Garlic Mustard Survey

There are two types of people, so goes the saying. Those that divide people into two types . . . .

Seriously, if you're among those that can resist the urge to pull up Garlic Mustard this citizen science project may be for you. Personally, I don't think I could leave the plant alone long enough to collect the data they want. We've been stalwartly defending our property from its relentless assault for a couple of years and we're not about to give up now.

That said, the folks at the Global Invasions Research Coordination Network launched a Global Garlic Mustard Field Survey with the goal to "form a broad network of scientists, students and environmentalists from across Europe and North America to fill an important gap in data on native and introduced plant populations."

From their introduction,

It is widely believed that invasive species are larger, reproduce more and reach higher densities compared to their native ancestors. However, there are surprisingly few hard data to support this claim, even for some of the most well?known invaders. One of the most problematic invaders in North America is garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), yet without good field data, important questions remain unanswered. Does garlic mustard really grow larger and reproduce better in North American populations than in native European populations? How much variation in performance is there among populations within Europe and North America? Answers to questions like these will ultimately lead to better understanding and management of invasive species.

A worthwhile cause which could yield some fascinating results - but not at the expense of our little plot of land.


Monday, March 30, 2009

Spring Progresses at Horseheads Marsh

This post should upload as I'm on my way to the Chemung County courthouse to fulfill my civic duty. Yep, I've been summoned for jury duty so I'll be wrapped up for 30 minutes to one month, depending on the how the jury consultants respond to me.

Saturday was tied up with prepping for, hosting, and recovering from our daughter's fifth birthday party (it went well, thank you, especially when I caught one of the parents photographing the Purple Finches at the feeder instead of the kids inhaling strawberry shortcake).

Song SparrowOne of many Song Sparrows bursting with song.

Sunday morning I took an hour-long hike at the Horseheads Marsh, strolling slowly down the Railroad tracks with camera at the ready. It was warm, vaguely misty, and completely overcast. Not great for photography, but decent activity and a few "First of the Year" birds. Expected birds were thick, with Red-winged Blackbirds, Song Sparrows, and American Robins serenading from all directions.

Red-winged BlackbirdOne of many (many, many) Red-winged
Blackbirds, staking his territory.

Several Northern Mockingbirds and a pair of American Kestrels made appearances. A few new waterfowl joined the Canada geese and Mallards, including Wood Ducks, Ring-necked Ducks, and both Blue- and Green-winged Teal. The next pool hosted American Wigeon and Hooded Mergansers, along with nearly two dozen Tree Swallows flitting across the water's surface.

Wood DucksTwo pair of Wood Ducks flushed as soon as I arrived, circled
for several minutes, before settling in a distant pool.

Last week it was a snipe, this week a somewhat mystery bird took off from the vegetation a few feet off of the tracks. It didn't vocalize, my impression was it was a Green Heron-sized bird, but not a Green Heron. I shot photos instead of observing it, click for larger images.

BitternWading bird taking flight. Note the clear difference
between the darker wing tips and the paler inner wings.

BitternI'm fairly sure it's an American Bittern, but I wonder
about the darkness on the back - it shows up pretty
dusky in these images. Possible Least Bittern?

I'm reasonably sure it's an American Bittern, which wouldn't be overly unexpected, but the color of the back seems darker than it should be. The size seemed small, too. Then again, Least Bitterns aren't expected for another month or so. American Bitterns, and Green Herons for that matter, aren't expected until mid-April, though Bull's Birds of New York State observes that "early arrivals the last week of March have occasionally been reported."

Thoughts appreciated!


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Pet Parrot Saves a Life

From yesterday's Morning Edition on NPR:

A pet parrot is credited with saving a toddler from choking. Willie's owner performed the Heimlich maneuver after Willie yelled for help, alerting the owner that a little girl she was babysitting was choking on her food. The parrot shouted "Mama, Baby" and flapped his wings until his owner ran back just in time. Colorado's governor is among those honoring Willie as a hero.

I'm reevaluating my decision to keep fish . . . .


Sunday, March 22, 2009

First Day of Spring at Horseheads Marsh

There's a quiz bird below!

I drive by the Horseheads Marsh every day I head to Ithaca for work. It's an easy-in, easy-out spot that attracts a decent variety of water, land, and marsh birds, from warblers and sparrows to rails and shorebirds to waterfowl and gulls. It's small, the daily numbers and diversity don't stack up to large, expansive marshes (like Montezuma NWR), but over a season it produces a decent list of species, especially for a site bounded by unsuitable habitat.

If the conditions are right, meaning if there's enough light and there are no hunters around, it's a regular pause on my commute for a quick stationary count. Typically I simply scope the pools and cattails from a central "hump" that overlooks the northern part of marsh. Occasionally I'll walk south along the railroad tracks that run through the middle of the marsh, especially if I'm thinking more about photographing birds and less about just watching.

Railroad Tracks through Horseheads MarshA reasonable walking path, though you really have to watch your step.
This shot doesn't betray that the cattails on either side of the
tracks are a narrow strip, giving way to large, open pools of water.

As I drove by Friday, the first day of spring, I was compelled to stop. Bright and sunny conditions, not another soul present, a burning desire to see what spring birds might have arrived following a long day (week, actually) of discussions and presentations at work . . . if ever there was a day for a stop, this was it. I had my camera so I was off down the railroad tracks.

Horned GrebeHorned Grebe - not a bad first bird for the stop.

I left the binoculars and scope in the car, expecting to primarily photograph whatever I came across. Standing on the "hump" I scanned the open water. First bird: a lone Horned Grebe. Oftentimes waterfowl take flight when they notice someone peering at them, but this bird wasn't so antsy.

Canada GeeseA pair of Canada geese wing their way into the northern-most pool.

Canada geese, as you might expect, are resident as long as the water is exposed. They're gone in the winter months when all water is frozen solid, but I start seeing them perched on the ice in late February. They commute during these weeks, flying in from either the Chemung River, Seneca Lake, or perhaps agricultural fields in the area until mid-March when the ice has disappeared. Several pairs often nest on the railroad tracks, making passage a gamble - sometimes they yield the right of way, sometimes you do.

In direct opposition to the Horned Grebe, ducks tend to be very wary. They often burst into flight just before you spot them, circle the marsh repeatedly, eventually landing in a distant pool. I expected Ring-necked Ducks since they are usually the most numerous during spring migration. Perhaps I'd see a Wood Duck or two stealthily paddling among the cattails, maybe a few Hooded Mergansers. Not today, Mallards were the only ducks I found.

One shorebird flushed from nearly beneath my feet, a current quiz bird. No one's identified it yet, so I'm waiting to post the answer another day or two. Check my earlier post to weigh in - and check out the image, I'm pretty proud of it. It came out much better than I anticipated.

And the new quiz bird, promised earlier, is below. This bird skulked along in the vegetation, rarely allowing a satisfactory view. Finally it perched on a Multiflora rose where I "shot" it. I did get better, more-identifiable images which I'll post in the next day or two.

Quiz Bird - Image 1 A headless passerine: who am I?

Post your best guesses, or laboriously deduced conclusions, in the comments.


Friday, March 20, 2009

First Day of Spring - Quiz Bird

To celebrate the first day of spring I made a quick stop by the Horseheads Marsh (aka, the Holding Point) this evening. Two things crossed my mind as I pulled in: it's wonderful to drive home in not just daylight, but sunlight, followed by how deceptive this spring day was. Bright and sunny, but breezy with a temperature in the upper 30*s (F).

One bird surprised me when it flushed from under my feet as I walked the railroad tracks between two pools. As it flew it took a few seconds to process the fact I had a camera and I should "shoot" it.

Here's the view I had. Can you identify it? (Click the image for a larger version.)

Quiz Bird

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The State of the Birds

I'm excited, wicked excited. In what promises to be an inspiring tradition, the 2009 Report of The State of the Birds was officially released today.

The content is succinct, clear, and sobering, the message is not lost nor diluted in the usual bureaucratese that spews from Washington. There will be many blogs that discuss the findings, eventually I may return to some of that here, but what I'm most impressed with is how it's communicated. While that may be pegged as shallow, something I won't disagree with, the reality remains in this day and age that presentation is everything. This is geared towards the non-scientific community, the information is available to and accessible by everyone. Kudos are richly deserved by all individuals who took part in creating an attention-grabbing (and holding) document.

The intended audience is comprised of government officials who legislate and enact the laws that affect our natural lands and the organisms that live on them; appropriately a printed version was presented directly to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. But this document will provide insights and educate everyone interested enough to take a gander -- and especially those that aren't but can be persuaded to explore the findings. I anticipate it will be used by a diverse and widespread audience.

Maybe this will be a strong push forward for a "birding voting bloc."

While the entire 2009 report is worth a read -- and the web site is a must see, especially the embedded video - I pasted the key findings below.

Many of our nation’s birds are sending us an important and troubling message about the state of our environment, according to an unprecedented report based on 40 years of data analyzed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, state government wildlife agencies, and nongovernmental organizations. The report also shows that investment in conservation works, exemplified by the remarkable recoveries of waterfowl after more than 30 million acres of wetlands were restored and managed. Birds are beautiful, economically important, and a priceless part of America's natural heritage--and they are critical indicators of the health of the environment upon which we all depend.

The U.S. State of the Birds report offers heartening evidence that strategic land management and conservation action can reverse declines of birds.

Wetlands: Although many wetland birds show troubling declines, conservation programs have protected millions of acres and contributed to thriving populations of hunted waterfowl, herons, egrets, and other birds. Lesser Scaup, Northern Pintail, and several sea ducks are showing troubling declines, but most geese are increasing dramatically and many ducks have held steady.

Waterfowl: On the whole, 39 species of hunted waterfowl have increased by more than 100% during the past 40 years. Successful waterfowl conservation is a model for widespread habitat protection.

The report also reveals sobering declines of bird populations during the past 40 years--a warning signal of the failing health of our ecosystems. For example;

Hawaiian Islands: Threatened by habitat destruction, invasive species, and disease, nearly all native Hawaiian bird species are in danger of extinction if urgent conservation measures are not implemented immediately. Since humans colonized the islands in 300 AD, 71 Hawaiian bird species have gone extinct; 10 others have not been seen in as long as 40 years.

Oceans: At least 39% of U.S. bird species restricted to ocean habitats are declining and almost half are of conservation concern, indicating deteriorating ocean conditions. Management policies and sustainable fishing regulations are essential to ensure the health of our oceans.

Coasts: Half of all coastally migrating shorebirds have declined, indicating stress in coastal habitats besieged by development, disturbance, and dwindling food supplies.

Aridlands: The aridland birds indicator shows a 30% decline over the past 40 years. Unplanned urban sprawl is by far the greatest threat to aridland birds. A regional system of protected areas can enhance quality of life for people and enable birds to survive.

Grasslands: The grassland bird indicator shows nearly a 40% decline in the past 40 years, based on birds that breed exclusively in grasslands. Farm conservation programs provide millions of acres of protected grasslands that are essential for the birds in a landscape where little native prairie remains.

Additional Findings

Forests: Representing eastern, western, boreal, and subtropical forests, the forest birds indicator dropped by roughly 10% from 1968 through 1980, then increased slightly. In eastern forests, the indicator dropped by nearly 25%. Sustainable forestry, landowner incentives for forest preservation, and urban greenspace initiatives can protect natural resources and help ensure the long-term viability of many forest birds.

Arctic: Because the Arctic is so remote, we lack quantitative information for most species. Arctic-nesting geese are increasing dramatically, but 38% of species that breed in arctic and alpine regions are of conservation concern. The future of arctic habitats and birds depends on our ability to curb global climate change and to explore energy resources with minimal impact to wildlife.

Game Birds: Of 19 resident game bird species, 47% of species of conservation concern. Cooperative partnerships have implemented landscape-level management benefiting both game and non-game bird species.

Marsh Birds: Secretive marsh birds are not well covered by current surveys, but the data we do have suggest relatively stable populations that fluctuate with wet and dry conditions. Marsh birds respond quickly to management and restoration efforts, and even small marshes can support large numbers of birds.

Urban Birds: More than 100 species of native birds inhabit urban or suburban environments. The indicator for these birds shows an increase of 20% over the past 40 years, driven primarily by a small number of very successful species such as gulls and doves. Creating greenspace for birds in cities can help adaptable urban birds as well as migrants stopping over during their long journeys.

Endangered Species: Four American bird species have gone extinct since the birth of our nation, including the Passenger Pigeon, once the world’s most abundant bird. The possibility of extinction is still a cold reality for many birds: 13 species may no longer exist in the wild (10 birds from Hawaii, plus Bachman’s Warbler, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and Eskimo Curlew). Several species face unprecedented conflict with humans from development, for example, in peninsular Florida, mid-continental prairies, coastal California, Texas hill country, and the Pacific Northwest.

  • The United States is home to a tremendous diversity of native birds, with more than 800 species inhabiting terrestrial, coastal, and ocean habitats, including Hawaii. Among these species, 67 are federally listed as endangered or threatened. Additionally, more than 184 are species of conservation concern because of their small distribution, high threats, or declining populations.

  • Habitat availability and quality is the key to healthy, thriving bird populations. That is why the report explores different habitat types and the threats they and the birds that depend on them face--and offers recommendations to protect and restore them.

  • The U.S. State of the Birds report is the result of an unprecedented partnership among the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), state wildlife agencies, American Bird Conservancy, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, and other conservation organizations.

  • Using new statistical techniques developed by U.S. Geological Survey and Audubon scientists, the report integrates long-term trend data from three bird population surveys: the North American Breeding Bird Survey administered by the USGS and the Canadian Wildlife Service, National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, and the USFWS and Canadian Wildlife Service Spring Waterfowl Survey.

  • Each year, thousands of citizen-science participants from across the United States contribute data to these important surveys. However, little is known about the population trends of birds in many habitats, hampering our ability to help them. Greater monitoring efforts are needed to ensure that we can identify where birds need help--while we still have time to make a difference.


Monday, March 16, 2009

An Ivory Coast: Watching the Ivory Gull

When I last posted our hero was patrolling Plymouth Harbor on a balmy day in January. Although I was also scouring the harbor that day, the hero is the Ivory Gull. And in one of those rare chase-moments it was the first bird my binoculars rested on, almost immediately after getting out of the car.

As I worked out a couple of muscle cramps and cracked my back a few times, all the while on the phone with Marshall Iliff, I watched a small group of gulls flying south towards a breakwater about 300 meters from where I stood. A single bird trailed a few meters behind, as if trying to keep up. The wing beats were a bit quicker, the flight more buoyant, almost tern-like. It was smaller than the others, paler than the others. This bird almost glowed, no gray or black to absorb the sunlight. A brief check with the bins and I told Marshall I had the bird.

They landed on the railing of what appeared to be a bridge on the breakwater, not fifty feet from a coalescence of binoculars, tripods, scopes, and cameras. I thought of the listserve posts where the bird the bird flew near the observers, flew over the observers, even landing behind the observers to perch on a snowbank a few yards from their feet. It's reported that Ivory Gulls can be quite tame and often approached by people. If that's true, that our presence wasn't stressing the bird, I was excited for an up-close-and-personal time with this rare visitor.

Gull Row, Herring and Ring-billed GullsWhat's missing from this row of gulls? The target bird.

I walked out towards the breakwater, crossed the parking lot where I should have parked, and set up my scope. I trained it on the breakwater bridge and scanned for the distinctly unmarked bird. Slowly panned along the row of gulls, right to left, waiting for the one to jump out. Didn't see it. Re-scan, slower, left to right. Still nothing.

I went back and forth across the gulls twice more with the scope, then scanned with binoculars. It wasn't there, not hidden behind a Herring Gull, not oddly-lit so it mimicked a local resident gull with a gray back and dark wing tips. It simply wasn't there. I cheated, sneaking a peek at the other birders. Surely they'd all be gazing uniformly in one direction, the gull sitting at the intersection of their various optics.

First-cycle Herring GullFirst-cycle Herring Gull. There are other birds to
watch on a chase, after all.

This is a good moment to point out bird chases are not only about the bird. A secondary purpose is to socialize, meeting local birders and those from the region, even some from across the country, catching up with those you haven't seen in ages. Birders from New York, Pennsylvania, Maine, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, and elsewhere were meeting and greeting. I heard everything from, "Nice to be able to put a face with your name" to "It's been a while, since the Wood Sandpiper in Delaware, right?"

What I didn't hear were directions on where the bird happened to be at that particular moment. I started to wonder if the ten-second flight was going to be the extent of my Ivory Gull sighting, one of those "better than nothing, but c'mon" sightings.

Plymouth Harbor, street viewLooking out over Plymouth Harbor.
Somewhere out there is the Ivory Gull.

I asked a woman who seemed to be in charge of the event -- she was the loudest, orchestrating who should put what scope where - if she'd seen the gull fly.

"It's up on the railing, have a look, it's simply glorious!" She turned to look, noticed it was missing. "Agnes, where's the bird? Have you seen it, Mildred? Where's it off to?" It was reminiscent of Monty Python sketches like this one; wrong accent, right pitch. I turned my attention to the handful of gulls lazily circling the harbor. Ring-billeds, Great Black-backs, Herring, none of the white-winged gulls, none Ivory.

How about on the water? I'd read Ivory Gulls tend not to swim as much as other gulls, but they certainly can. I scanned the water surface, flat as glass on this sunny morning. More non-target gulls, along with Common Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, Bufflehead, American Coot, and Common Loon. I paused on each small piece of floating ice, they mimicked a white bird swimming on the water. None were the gull. One of those pieces, however, had the gull sitting on it. About 100 meters from where I stood the bird was loafing on what must have vaguely seemed like home.

Ivory Gull floating on iceThe Ivory Gull, blending in: white on white.

I called out that I refound it, several birders re-aligned their scopes and went back to more Monty Python. "Ooooh, look at it now! So cultured, beautiful plumage. Have you tried the clam chowder at the East Bay Grille? Brilliant!"

For some, this is where it could become boring. The bird perched on the ice for the next hour and forty-five minutes, barely moving. No flying in to tear at a chicken carcass, no interacting with other gulls, no raucous vocalizing. No aerial acrobatics, none of the buoyant flying I noted when I arrived.

Yawning Ivory GullUh-oh, is that a yawn? The action might really slow down now!

But there are plenty of other aspects to focus on. I was soon joined by a birder from Maryland. He and his girlfriend left home the night before, arrived in Gloucester before daylight, and spent several hours not finding that bird (after daylight), then bailed and headed to Plymouth. Slightly out of breath, "Please tell me this one is around!"

"Right here in the scope." On par with watching a new species, taking in all of its uniqueness, is helping another "chaser" get on the bird. He took it in, satisfied he at least saw it, then went to get his scope, camera, and bins. Oh, and to wake his girlfriend.

I had plenty of time to take in the plumage, which was immaculate. Completely unblemished, snow white.

Ivory Gull perching on iceAn impromptu digiscope, which came out much better than I expected.
The legs are black, the bill dark (actually greenish) with yellow tip.

Pure, one word that comes to mind, as the driven snow. Immature birds are flecked with dark markings across the face and wings and show a dark tip to the tail feathers. All I saw was dark legs, dark, yellow-tipped bill, a dark eye, and white. The Gloucester bird showed a few dark smudges on the flanks, indicating it was a separate bird. When the two birds were reported at the same time in two different locations, that definitively showed there were two adult birds on the Massachusetts coast at the same time, something I'm not sure has ever happened. In fact, the last adult in Massachusetts was in the 1800's (the 1976 bird was an immature, three birds in the 1940's were also immatures). Adults are not completely unknown, an adult was found on the Hudson River as recent as two years ago, but they appear to be less common than vagrant immature birds.

What were two adults doing so far away from their normal wintering range? And what are the odds they'd wind up 45 miles away from each other? I have no idea, and I'm not sure anyone else does. We simply don't know a whole lot about them. The Birds of North America Online states, "knowledge of the life history of Ivory Gulls has been slow to accrue and there have been no truly long-term studies of its demography." Is it possible they come south more than we think but go unrecorded? After all, birders can't be everywhere. But it seems if this was a regular event the odds of an experienced observer encountering one (or more) would favor more documentation.

Ivory Gull resting on iceSettling in for a nap, giving the two dozen observers lots of
time to contemplate all aspects of this amazing species.

It does seem something is going on this year. In the east, most vagrant records come from the northeastern states, some from the mid-Atlantic, possibly a record from North Carolina. But in numbers? Nick, the Shorebirder, had already posted about an incursion of Ivory Gulls in Newfoundland and Labrador. More recently Jochen at Belltower Birding highlighted some interesting European sightings of Arctic gulls. An Ivory Gull in southern France? A Ross's Gull in central Spain? Jochen translates this to North American terms,

The magnitude of this incident is comparable to an Ivory Gull being found on the coasts of Georgia while an Alabama inland lake hosts a Ross's at the same time.

What's going on in the Arctic to prompt these movements? Something must be underlying these vagrant wanderings, how best to unravel this mystery?

My mind wandered back to more mundane questions. Your mind has to wander in these cases: you'd have to play the two hours I had with the gull in fast motion to make it physically interesting. The rough breakdown of Ivory Gull activity was nearly 90 minutes of near-motionless resting on the chunk of ice, another 15 minutes lethargically stretching and uninspired preening, ten minutes floating next to the ice chunk. Physically the bird was relatively passive, but that didn't slow the myriad of questions running through my head.

It then lifted off the water, circled twice to gain a little altitude, then headed farther south into the harbor. It ultimately settled near a growing colony of gulls on the water, far enough away that it became impossible to tell which gull was which. After watching what essentially amounted to specks in the distance for another few minutes, hoping for a return flight, I understood it was time to break away for my lunch meeting. The bird had left me, and it was time to leave Plymouth.

More Ivory Gull information available at:
All About Birds
BNA Online (subscription needed)

One (of many) news pieces about this gull:
Mature Arctic Ivory Gull Seen in Massachusetts (Patriot Ledger)


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Pi Day

Quick post to celebrate what's left of Pi Day. I discovered my birthday appears at position 10,338,142 counting from the first digit after the decimal point. The 3. is not counted.

That settles that, now maybe I won't be up at nights anymore.

Find out where your birthday, or special numbers, appear at Pi-search Results.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

An Ivory Coast

File under "Better late than never." I found this in my drafts, finally time to publish it.

The big January news among birders in the Northeastern U.S. was ivory, especially on the coast. Snow everywhere, white caps offshore, and not one, but two Ivory Gulls hanging out on coastal Massachusetts.

That is, to put it mildly, huge. The Birds of North America Online's species account asserts that "only rarely does it occur as a winter vagrant south of the Bering Sea and Maritime Provinces."

Ivory Gull distribution, courtesy BNA OnlineExpected distribution of Ivory Gull. Note that New England is
almost off the southern end of the map - clearly, not an
expected observation. Image courtesy of BNAOnline.

"Rare" and "vagrant." Two words that evoke a range of emotions in a birder. Awe washes over you at the prospect of seeing a bird a limited number of people have seen. Excitement at the prospect of seeing something you may never get a chance to see again in your lifetime. Depression when you realize you will likely not get a chance to even try for it.

Why depression? Consider this: the last Ivory Gull to grace the shores of Massachusetts was in 1976. Most observations are one-day wonders, most Ivory Gulls that undertake such southerly dispersions are immature birds, and most sightings are of single birds. And here were two adult birds, within an 90 minutes of each other (by car, they were within 45 miles of each other as the gull flies). An unheard of scenario in the lower 48.

So that was the progression of emotion that washed over me when I heard about the sighting, on a Monday. A few Cornell birders made the trip the days before, the weekend of the 17-18th January. I was looking at a long five days until the weekend, the next opportunity I'd have to even plan for a chase. And for a bird that is typically a one-day wonder, well, five days is five days too late - do the math, you'll see. Even if it stuck around, unfortunately for me, a weekend trip was not possible. I'd have to wait until an Ivory Gull graced the shores of one of New York's Finger Lakes, preferably nearby Cayuga or Seneca Lake.

eBird map of North America, 1990 - 2009Map generated from eBird data, 1990 - 2009. Note the vast majority
of reported sightings concentrate on the northern coast of Canada.

Enter providence: I discovered I had a "flexible Friday," meaning no pressing meetings or deadlines. I could take a personal day, making up work during the weekend. Done deal.

The Gloucester bird was iffy, reinforcing my decision on chasing the Plymouth bird. Plymouth looked to be a slightly shorter trip and (more importantly) that bird appeared to be more reliable, in no small part due to the chicken carcasses birders were leaving for it. Seriously.

Whatever the reason, positive reports came in from Plymouth late on Thursday. 4:30 Friday morning I was heading east, double fisting coffee and a bagel, finally coasting into Plymouth, MA by 10:30.

eBird map of Massachusetts, Winter 2009eBird reports showing the locations of the two Ivory Gulls in
Massachusetts, winter 2009. The Plymouth bird (southern cluster of
yellow pins) stuck around longer than the northern Gloucester bird.

Then the worry started. I knew exactly where to go, partially due to the Massachusetts birding listserve and partially to eBird's Google maps of bird sightings. But I didn't know where to park, as usual I had no change for parking meters . . . . Turns out my irrational fears continue to be unfounded. Many parking lots, some permit only but I found a spot for visitors.

I called Marshall Iliff, the one-third of the current eBird team who conveniently lives in Boston, as I started unloading the scope and camera from the back seat. As we made lunch plans I scanned the harbor, my bins settling on a white bird following a small group of gulls. I stopped in mid sentence, realizing this white bird was all white, like one of those white pigeons that stand out in ubiquitous flocks of Rock Pigeons in any urban or rural areas. In fact, I saw one of these albino/leucistic birds on my drive through Plymouth, not realizing how close it would resemble the bird I crossed state lines to see.

I don't know which expletive I chose, but I do remember announcing, "I just saw it." Another wash of emotion: it's still around, I saw where it landed, now I can saunter over and enjoy leisurely but chillingly delicious looks at this rare vagrant.

More follows . . .


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Finger Lakes Frigatebird Necropsy Results

Remember the Magnificent Frigatebird that wound up in the Finger Lakes? The one I wrote about last fall? If you missed it, the Finger Lakes Frigatebird, seen in late September, 2008, sadly expired the day after its discovery. Ryan Bakelaar was given the exalted privilege of preparing the specimen for placement in the Museum of Vertebrates because of his excellence in bird preparation during his time in Ithaca. Just yesterday he posted this summary of the findings on the Cayugabirds listserve.

Hello all,

I had the pleasure of visiting Ithaca for Homecoming weekend several days after the Magnificent Frigatebird was found. Though I did not have the opportunity of seeing the bird alive, I did have the privilege of preparing the specimen. I brought the celebrity bird to my current home in North Carolina to prep it and am happy to report that it is now back at its final resting place in the Cornell Collections.

I remember there being questions about the condition of the bird and possible cause of death, so between me and the Cornell Vet school which reviewed pathology slides, hopefully some will find the following of interest.

First, the bird was prepped as a roundskin, spreadwing, body skeleton, and multiple tissue samples were taken. We tried to get the biggest bang for the buck seeing as how we probably won't get many of these birds in in the future (certainly, not from Ithaca, anyway).

The plumage characteristics were consistent, as many excellent photos of the live bird demonstrated, with an adult male Magnificent Frigatebird. The bird seemed slightly emaciated with slight pronouncement of the keel above the surrounding pectoralis muscles, indicating that this muscle was likely being metabolized for energy. The bird was several hundred grams lighter than what would be expected (at least compared to the weight that Sibley cites in his guide.....I don't know how he gets the info).

On preparation, there was minimal fat; this would be expected as fat deposits would be metabolized prior to muscle except for some specific spots. There was only a trace of fat in the periorbital area, behind the eye, and near the proximal leg/abdominal area. The stomach was empty and

There were 3 separate identifiable pathologic/parasitic processes which were found:

1) On prep, a large amount of parasites were seen over the lower pectoralis muscles and proximal leg muscles. The final diagnosis from the Vet School pathology report was Metazoanosis, which bascially shows parasitic non-bacterial cells not otherwise specified. Evaluation of photos led to a possible diagnosis of apicomplexa parasites, which are can be seen in the active muscle tissues of birds.

2) There were a small number of nematodes found in the stomach/gizzard and intestines. These were maximum length of about 1.5-2 cm. There were no nematodes found elsewhere in the body cavity, etc.

3) In the lower aspect of the left lung, there was a lesion approximately 1 cm x 1 cm that was consistent with Aspergillosis. This is a fungus that can form, especially in the lungs, a complex called an aspergilloma which contains a fungal core surrounded by inflammatory and scar tissues. This fungus can sometimes spread, leading to a condition called disseminated aspergillosis where these fungi can be seen forming elsewhere in the body but none of these were found.

Unfortunately, due to a combination of repeated freezing and thawing and problems with tissue fixation, the apicomplexa parasites and nematodes could not be further identified. The same problem was associated with the remainder of the tissues. Several slides were not able to demonstrate pathology due to the above issues but one interesting finding was hypercellular bone marrow. Both the erythroid (red blood cell) and myeloid (white blood cell) lineage precursors were found to be hypercellular. Don't know what in this case would cause erythroid proliferation (physiologic stress???) but either of the 3 parasitic processes could definitely lead to the body stimulating the bone marrow to produce WBC's to combat these infections. There was also a lack of fat in the marrow, consistent with a bird that was metabolizing normal tissue for energy production.

Overall, the cause of death of this bird could not be determined from these tissue sections. Some of the changes in the bone marrow interpreted as serous atrophy of fat, as well as finding from the gross exam during preparation suggest chronic inanition as a potential cause.

I had to look up inanition and Webster Miriam say that it is "the quality or state of being empty: a: the exhausted condition that results from lack of food and water b: the absence or loss of social, moral, or intellectual vitality or vigor." My guess is that "a" is more applicable to this case

So, despite the fact there there were three distinct pathologic processes, these were likely not the cause of the birds death. Rather, as we might expect from a bird likely blown by Hurricane Ike off the ocean over Texas about 2 weeks prior to the bird being found in Ithaca and deposited in the interior, the bird probably starved. Not many flying fish to catch or terns to harass over Cayuga Lake. I remember following the reports after Ike hit the Texas coast and recall many frigatebirds being seen in coastal areas and some miles in from the coast. I believe there was also a report of a frigate in Ohio around the same time as the Ithaca bird.

I hope this is helpful. I do have photos of the specimen immediately after prep that shows the very fleshy gular pouch (it's amazing how much the pouch dries out and atrophies) and of the muscle parasites. I also have the final pathology report if any are interested. Please e-mail me what you want and I'll try to get them to you.

Thanks to Dr. Elizabeth Buckles of the Cornell Vet school for review of the tissue specimens.

Ryan Bakelaar

Monday, March 9, 2009

What's In Your Bookmarks?

This blog recently received the following comment.

Hi, I'm a homeschooling mom who recently moved to North Carolina. My 5th grade son and 3rd grade daughter are enamored with all the birds right in our own back yard. They recently found a black and yellow feather and decided that they wanted to figure out what bird had dropped it. I had them observe the feather and draw and write out all they could by looking at the feather. Then we went to the internet and tried to search ways to use what we observed to classify the bird.

I naively thought this would be easy! ;) Could you recommend a book we might check out, or a web site, or even some tips on how to go from "feather to species?" I know I may be over simplifying, but I am at a loss for how to follow through on this project with the kids.

First, thanks for the question, I'm ecstatic to hear your kids have caught the bird watching bug! This is the part of my day job I enjoy the most: talking birds and inspiring everyone to move to their next level in nature appreciation through birds. Couple that with being inspired by parents who come up with creative ways to educate from simple backyard experiences - priceless! I'm going to use this idea with my own daughter.

Burying a reply that might have widespread interest in the comments would be a crime, not because everyone should read my $.02, but because of the knowledge others could contribute. This is a perfect topic for a full-blown post. Below I'll list a few of my favorite web resources, then count on you, Gentle Readers, to add to the list. I'll compile the full list in a future post.

But first, what is the black-and-yellow feather found in North Carolina? Feather identification is not easy - the experts at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History can attest to that. First, you'd figure out what type of feather it is, one from the wing? If so, which specific feather? Each one is numbered and often unique in shape and/or color pattern. The tail? Again, which feather? Perhaps it's a contour feather? Next, you'd determine what birds are possible based on distribution. What black-and-yellow birds occur in your local area, and which of those show the colors of interest and the patterns of those colors? It would certainly help to know how those patterns on the bird were created, meaning what the individual feathers look like, and how they appear on the bird - at rest, in flight. A knowledge of bird topography would be necessary . . . clearly, this is not a simple process!

Years of observation, study, and experience help, of course, as does a large reference library of books and actual specimens. Here's my knee-jerk reaction: it could be a flight feather from a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), the Yellow-shafted race. Common in wooded areas across the eastern states, including backyards, their flight feathers (wings and tails) show a wash of yellow with black in feathers. Rather than try to describe them, I'll refer you to the images on these pages:


If you're reading, commenter from North Carolina, please let us know if any feathers appear similar, and feel free to send any images you take. Naturally, thoughts from others are welcome (especially North Carolina birders that have museum experience).

Now, a perfunctory list of useful resources on the web. These sites should start helping learning all about birds and help with the next feather, or nest, or unknown bird you find. Of course, this list probably already exists elsewhere in the Wide World of Webs, so please post a link if you've got one!

The Feather Atlas - a site displaying flight feathers from North American birds. The U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory presents high-resolution photos of wing feathers (primaries and secondaries) and tail feathers (retrices) to help identify feathers you may find.

All About Birds - Developed and manged by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this site aims to provide a sold, general background in all things birds, from the birds themselves to the gear used to appreciate them. There are loads of pages about each species in North America providing details about each species - not so much to overwhelm the casually interested reader, but enough to give a robust understanding. Expect a brand new look and feel in Spring 2009 (early April, I'm told).
http://allaboutbirds.org which forwards you to the official web address, but this is easier to remember.

Internet Field Guide to Birds - From the BioDiversity Institute, this site aims to assist users in identifying birds they see. The user chooses characteristics they observed about the bird in question (size, shape, colors, state/province where the bird was located, etc) and the program displays images of birds that fit that description. You can fill in as much detail or as little as you noted, and you choose from drop-down menus - you don't need to come up with terminology on your own. Once a list is returned you can discard obvious "wrongs" and directly compare the rest. In a couple of scenarios I've run it does a reasonable job, especially if you have no idea where to start.

KidWings - Geared towards school-age kids (upper elementary and junior high, maybe?) with lots of activities to teach about birds. The virtual Owl Pellet Dissection is very cool - be sure to check it out (and learn some rodent anatomy while your at it). Also an interactive way to teach about feathers, bird topography, and more - all helpful in feather identification.

Birding On The 'Net - Geared towards anyone with an interest in birds, from the hardcore to the new bird watcher. Jack Siler's site is a warehouse of listserve discussions from across the globe, but organized for fairly easy navigation. Anyone can check in periodically without subscribing to the list - go to the BirdMail section, look up the listserve that includes your location, and read through the subject headings. They're very useful to see what birds are being commonly seen, or what uncommon birds show up, and often there are other discussions about local nature. Most on the lists are very welcoming to new bird watchers, you can post questions and count on local experts and/or aficionados to chime in with answers.

eBird - Geared towards anyone who wants to learn about distribution and abundance while tracking the birds they see. When you contribute your observations they reside in a single database used by ornithologists, educators, naturalists, other birders . . . anyone with an interest in where the birds are and how their numbers are changing over time. Developed by the CLO and Audubon, this project is near and dear to my heart, I find it most useful (and fun) to track what birds I've recorded in our yard and using the "View and Explore Data" functionality to see when/where different species are occurring.

Hopefully that'll get a list going - please contribute your thoughts in the comments.


Friday, March 6, 2009

North American Birds and eBird

One more reason to submit your observations to eBird: your archived sightings help write the pages of North American Birds.

eBird Banner
If you're asking, "What's North American Birds?" prepared to be dazzled. NAB is a quarterly journal published by the American Birding Association. It focuses on the distribution and abundance of birds -- all birds - across North America, region-by-region, season-by-season. It's much more than a simple list of rare birds that were found. Instead, it's all noteworthy sightings put in context with what else is going on around the continent, or in a certain region over time. You'll find stories about the arrival and departure dates of your backyard birds (are they shifting?), reports of lingering or wintering migrants, encounters with unexpected large flock sizes, explorations of expanding or contracting range distributions. Of course, details about rare birds are included, especially how their presence might fit into a larger picture.

North American Birds - Spring 2008 Cover
To discern interesting patterns and trends, along with where the rarities appeared, the regional editors need data. In the past they received index cards from a small network of observers, those who took it upon themselves to record and submit their unusual sightings. They attended local birding club meetings and trolled listserves.

And now they have a new weapon: they can download and peruse all of the eBird submissions from their area.

So while you are set up to track your observations, you're contributing pieces to the puzzle of bird distribution and abundance across North America. So, take a few minutes each day to contribute to eBird - it's quick, simple, and you'll be helping document trends in North American avifauna.

Read more on the eBird web site, and check out the North American Birds archive for a sample of how important your sightings are.


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

New at The Cornell Lab: Neotropical Birds Online

Neotropic BirdsThe Internet is undeniably a phenomenal gateway to a flowing river of knowledge, but there are areas where it's tough to find exhaustive and well-organized information. If you're interested in birds, for example, the All About Birds Bird Guide is a wonderful one-stop pool to get your feet wet. If you want to plunge deeper, there's the Birds of North America Online, the more-exhaustive relative of All About Birds. Here's where you'll find the details about each species that regularly occurs in North America, north of the U.S. - Mexico border.

But swim a bit father afield, into the neotropics, and the organization isn't as structured. Lots of info to be found, but often scattered across multiple sites, difficult to find, and in some cases completely lacking. And in other cases, it's even worse: the information is simply wrong, based on conjecture; fact-checking can be sketchy on the 'Net.

But not for long. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is pleased to announce the launch of Neotropic Birds, a free resource that covers all species that regularly occur south of the U.S. - Mexico border, all the way to the southern tip of South America. Act now and you'll get the birds of the Caribbean for three easy payments (and one complicated one)! I'm kidding. Of course, all of those Greater and Lesser Antilles are yours, absolutely free!

It's a work in progress, not all species are represented. They will be, over time, and the current introductory accounts will continue to be updated and expanded as we learn more about these amazing species. You can read a letter of introduction from Tom Schulenberg, one of the site's creators, at Laura's Birding Blog. Now is the time to safely dive into Neotropic Birds!


Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Mysterious Affair at Amherst, Epilogue

Forgive me for I have committed a cardinal sin. I started a series of posts and then left them floating in the webosphere as I dropped off the face of the Internet. St. Jerome, Patron Saint of Sarcastic Bloggers, pray for me.

I'd keep this pithy "whodunit" going a while longer, but I'm afraid I'm not exactly sure where I was going with it in the first place. It started quite by accident, a silly mood brought on by one too many drinks, one too many good birds on a (then-recent) trip to Canada, and long-standing love affair with Agatha Christie novels.

I suppose this would be the part where Hercule Poirot gathers all of the suspects in a room and, after employing the little gray cells, exonerates everyone except the guilty party, the one person or duo we never dreamed of suspecting. I didn't give out many (any?) clues, so there was nothing to figure out - sadly, I don't have Ms. Christie's talents, particularly planning and forethought, so I will spare any attempt to gracefully dig myself out of this.

So, some explanations. Who were the victims? Two cousins, Aegolius funereus and A. acadicus, known to their friends as Boreal and Northern Saw-whet Owl, and their buddy Asio otus, or Long-eared Owl. The killer? Strix varia, a.k.a. Barred Owl (No way! I'd never have guessed!). And what in the Sam Hill was going on at Amherst? Elementary, my dear Watson.

But first, what is Amherst? In this case, an island situated in the northeast portion of Lake Ontario. No bridge connects it to the mainland, a ferry is the only way to get back and forth. If the ferry stops running, you're quite cut off from civilization - sounds like a set up for The Mousetrap or And Then There Were None, mua-hahahhaha! Sorry, we're done with that now, aren't we?

You're not really cut off. It's a 15-minute ferry ride, every hour on the hour. There are no public restrooms, but there is a Bed and Breakfast. And the wonder of Amherst Island, to birders, is the wintering population of raptors, especially owls, and especially in irruptive years. You're likely, even guaranteed, to come across birders as they patrol the roads, searching the fields for Snowy and Short-eared Owls, Rough-legged and Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, Northern Harriers, and (fingers crossed!) a Northern Hawk-owl or Great Gray Owl.

The star of the island is a grove of conifers, cedars and pines, mostly, known as "Owl Woods." A short trek from the road and you are surrounded by needle-laden branches, any of which can hold a Long-eared, Northern Saw-whet, or Boreal Owl. Getting to be a pretty good day list, right? No wonder it's an attraction for birders. But what's the attraction to owls?

In the fall they migrate south, in some years, those with food shortages in the boreal forest, they arrive in high numbers. The birds have no problem flying over land to southern Ontario, they easily handle the short moat between the mainland and the island. But then they're faced with the lake, miles of open water which they're reluctant to cross. So they stay put, settling in for the winter. As long as the rodent population holds things are wonderful for everyone involved.

We planned a trip for early February to explore the Kingston, Ontario area and make a day trip to search for owls on Amherst Island. Here's a tip: if you're going to take an almost-five year old birding, owls are a great target bird, especially ones that are perched low and are disposed to stay put when stared at.

Anyway, while checking the Ontario listserve I found some depressing reports. The number of individuals residing in Owl Woods was steadily dropping. Mid-December reports counted three Boreal Owls, which soon dropped to two, then down to one. Reported numbers of Long-eared Owl were also decreasing, as were Northern Saw-whet Owls. Carcasses of both Boreal and saw-whets were found by birders trudging through the woods. And shortly before all of this happened the population of Barred Owls increased, from zero to one. Because it's a small area and there's virtually no migration off the island until spring, the interpretation was the Barred Owl was depredating the smaller owls.

Makes for a nice mystery, if the Barred Owl didn't enter the picture with a reputation of preying upon smaller owls. Maybe if it was another, more innocuous species, maybe a handsomely-attired Snow Bunting. Who knows, perhaps something like this inspired Ms. Christie to start writing mystery novels. I know your interest is piqued: what did we see on our trip? Did we find the Barred Owl? Any carcasses? Were any smaller owls left at all? More shortly (I promise!).

By the way, here are some alternate names I thought about using, along with their original titles. Got any others I should have considered?

Murder Most Fowl (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene V)
Evil Under the Moon (Agatha Christie, Evil Under the Sun)
The Owltrap (Agatha Christie, The Mousetrap)
The O.W.L. Murders (Agatha Christie, The A.B.C. Murders)
And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None)

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