Friday, July 31, 2009

Japanese Beetles and Silver Linings

Whenever our daughter is within earshot we really watch our Ps and Qs. So when we discovered Japanese Beetles covering every surface of every plant in our yard I refrained from doing what I wanted to do, which was to let loose a string of profanity not heard since Al Pacino ripped it up in Scarface while taking a flame thrower to the yard.

Rather than curse our darkness of the infestationpalooza I lit a candle of discovery. The part of my brain that creates "teachable moments" (a term I don't want to hear again after this past week's "beer summit" thing) came up with a game of collecting as many Japanese Beetles as we could, and watching for other, less prolific, organisms. We'd rid ourselves of at least one wave of invaders while learning about ecology - you can see the first showcase, the butterfly and moth edition, here.

While patrolling the yard we discussed how everything has its place in the grand scheme of nature, why these insects were "bad" while others were "good," and how arbitrary it is when assigning those categories. Along with the JBs we found several insects and spent some time watching them, trying to figure out what they were doing and why.

Unfortunately, many went unidentified in spite of my attempts to navigate through I used my old point-n-shoot's macro setting to snap some up-close, and in some cases personal, shots. Here is a sampling of insects from our yard, of the bee, wasp, fly, and/or dragonfly variety. If you can identify any, or know a good resource to assist, please let us know!

Click on images for larger versions.

Maybe a worker Honeybee, Apis mellifera?

Common Eastern Bumble Bee, Bombus impatiens?

No idea, but these are common in our garden, you can see why.
We think it's a fly (Diptera) and not a wasp. Another view below.

I'm frustrated I haven't figured this one out, maybe the female
of something common? My best guess is one of the darners. Thoughts?
UPDATED: Identified as Blue Dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis.

Coming up, beetles and whatnots.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Sapsucker Woods Heron Nest Progress: They Fledged!

From the photo files of 28 July 2009 . . .
Hint: click images for larger versions.

Adult Great Blue HeronAn adult Great Blue stalking along the pond's edge.

We knew it would happen one way or another: eventually, the Great Blue Heron nest would empty out. We all hoped for a successful fledging, but as anyone who observes the natural world knows it doesn't always turn out the way you wished. This was the first nesting attempt by Great Blues in Sapsucker Woods, so it's understandable there was a bit of trepidation underlying our excitement. We tracked the progress ever since the first stick was laid back in April, and now I'm happy to report a successful fledging. As of 9:00 AM this morning the nest was empty after the fourth bird took flight, the other three left ten minutes earlier.

Juvenile Great Blue Herons in nestOn Tuesday all four, appearing fairly comfortable in their now-tight-fitting nest.

This was to be an update post with some photos I took two days ago, but instead of marking progress the images serve as a reminder. Ah, the memories. Remember when the young were still in the nest? That was cool.

Or is it too early?

Juvenile Great Blue Herons in branches of nest treeRecently the young ones have spent time spreading out among the snag's branches.

Juvenile Great Blue Herons in branches of nest treeMore and more they exercised their wings, readying for that first flight.

Juvenile Great Blue Heron exercising its wings
I suspect the new fledglings will stick around, if I find them on my walks I hope to capture instances of them learning to behave like adult herons. Remember that first meal you had to cook by yourself in your first apartment? They're going through the same thing, but likely without the visit from the fire department.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Almost Wordless Wednesday: American Kestrel

American Kestrel

American Kestrel

American Kestrel

Kestrel parent-offspring interaction
Click images for larger versions.

Meet the American Kestrel
  • Scientific name: Falco sparverius.
  • Formerly known as Sparrow Hawk.
  • The smallest, most numerous, and most widespread North American falcon.
  • The only kestrel species that occurs in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Contains seventeen recognized subspecies.
  • Sexually dichromatic, meaning males and females have different plumages. Males have blue-gray wings, females have rufous wings. Tails also differ, the male showing a rufous tail with a black subterminal band, females show a rufous tail with black bars across the length of the tail.
  • Often seen in open areas with short ground vegetation.
  • Hunts by perching on limbs, fences, or wires or hovering if perch sites are limited.
  • Captures arthropods and small mammals on the ground, insects and small birds in flight.
  • Nests in natural cavities or those made by woodpeckers. Availability of suitable cavities may limit numbers in certain areas of breeding range; they will readily take to nest boxes.
Source: The Birds of North America Online


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Good Thing About Japanese Beetles

You'd never expect to see a word like "good" relate to such a prolific and invasive insect, would you? But it turns out there is a silver lining when it comes to Japanese Beetle infestations.

Last Sunday Reina and I spent a huge amount of time outdoors, ignoring many of the various chores that beckoned. That's when we found one of our newly planted cherry trees was under siege by no less than forty beetles. To put that in context, this tree only has about twenty leaves. We then noticed many of the plants in our various gardens were hosting "JBs". We found our afternoon mission: eliminate JBs from our yard.

Mating Japanese BeetlesI wondered if I should turn a hose on these Japanese Beetles before
collecting them. I decided to let them have one last fling.

We set up the standard pheromone-and-bag traps, a solution that may or may not be the gardener-landscaper's best friend. On the plus side, everyone agrees they work brilliantly to attract all JBs in the neighborhood and beyond. On the down side, several would-be-trappers noted many of the beetles never make it into the trap. Instead, they're rumored to take up residence nearby, skeletonizing the very plants you were trying to save. Instead of reducing the population you've swelled it to immeasurable numbers.

Song SparrowWe watched a pair of Song Sparrows collecting insects to feed their young.
Sadly, JBs are not a food source. I'm not sure what this one is holding.

In our experience the traps work extremely well. Each year we find the bags fill quickly and we note a huge, though never scientifically demonstrated, decrease in JB numbers in the yard. This year we couldn't sit idly by while our plants were suffering such an extreme bout of herbivory. We each grabbed a jar and headed for the garden. We were determined to collect as many as we could.

That's when we noticed the silvery outline of the black JB cloud. While capturing hundreds of JBs we discovered a good number of other interesting insects. Here's a showcase of butterflies and moths we found last weekend. I think I've identified most of them, save one. Any help and/or corrections appreciated!

Note: click on an image for larger version.

Female Black SwallowtailA first for our yard: a Black Swallowtail visits our Bee Balm patch.
I believe it's a female based on the amount of blue on the hind wings.

Baltimore CheckerspotA newly-emerged Baltimore Checkerspot, the state insect of Maryland.
Wikipedia says they only lay their eggs on the Turtlehead
(Chelone glabra)
(source), but I cannot verify that elsewhere. Anyone?

Baltimore CheckerspotA side view of the newly-emerged Baltimore Checkerspot.
Brock and Kaufman write, "Beautiful, distinctive, unlike any other
eastern butterfly." Hard to find fault with that description!

Tiger SwallowtailA yellow-form female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. I've noticed a couple similarly
marked swallowtails this summer, I wonder if they are Canadian Swallowtails.

Virginia CtenuchaA Virginia Ctenucha, the largest and most
broad-winged wasp moth in North America (source).

UPDATE: Identified as a Confused Haploa (Haploa confusa).
Thanks, nishiki_85 and Meena!


Monday, July 27, 2009

New Study: Cerulean Warblers Return to Same Wintering Ground

One aspect of birds I find absolutely mesmerizing is migration. As I watch the birds that arrive during the spring and choose to summer in our yard I can't help but wonder if they're the same birds I watched last year and if I'll see them again next year. I wonder where they are the rest of the year, and I generate vague pictures of the habitat I understand they use as stopover sites and where they choose to winter.

One reason I'm interested, apart from idle curiosity, is the answers directly affect how we approach conservation. The more you know and all that, because knowing is half the battle (leave it to G.I. Joe to turn that into a military action). And now we know a bit more about one of the warbler jewels, one that sadly doesn't breed in my yard. According to recent findings it appears "some individual Cerulean Warblers return to the same wintering area in succeeding years — something we’ve always suspected, but have never proven."

Image courtesy

This is hopefully an important step forward for this species, one that is of conservation concern throughout its range. From the All About Birds species account,

Cerulean Warbler is one of the species of highest concern in the eastern United States because of a small total population size and significant declines throughout its range. Under consideration for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Listed on the Audubon Watchlist.

Read the Nature Conservancy's account of the report here.


Saturday, July 25, 2009

Windpower and Migration

Author's note: there is a gratuitous lack of pretty pictures in this post. I'll be back on track next time.

My career has taken a few twists and turns over the years, all within the field of ornithology. My current path is studying bird vocalizations, specifically nocturnal flight calls -- short vocalizations given during sustained flight - a field I could never have comprehended back in my undergrad days. It's a fascinating field that is just starting to get widespread exposure, and if you know anything about me, you'll know I do love being on the cutting edge. But, and this is just between you, me, and the fencepost, I'm not really jazzed by pure research. I am the first to agree that knowledge for knowledge's sake is a worthy pursuit. But if my work doesn't apply to "the real world," if it's not directly making a difference on the ground one way or another, I feel jittery, like something's missing. Like a bird in an Emlen funnel, experiencing zugunruhe.

I find satisfaction knowing my efforts are directly making a difference. After noting a plateau in my day-to-day tasks, ones that seemingly affected no one by my personal mental health, I'm extremely happy to hear acoustic technology will play a role in studying the effects of windtowers on birds on migration. Earlier this summer a meeting, a big, important meeting, was held to discuss the state of where we stand and where we need to focus to adequately study this situation. The press release is below, and can be found on the American Bird Conservancy's web site.

I hope to post more about this field in the future, as studies progress and my involvement warrants it.

Scientists to Investigate Impacts of Wind Energy on Migratory Wildlife
Industry and conservation representatives set research priorities

Racine, WI & Ithaca, NY, July 23, 2009—Thirty top wildlife scientists have announced agreement on some of the highest research priorities to help America’s rapidly growing wind energy industry produce much-needed alternative energy—while also providing safe passage for birds and bats. This coalition of scientists from industry, government, nongovernmental organizations, and universities met recently in Racine, Wisconsin, to address unanswered questions about how continued wind energy development will affect migrating birds and bats. The meeting was hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the American Bird Conservancy, and The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread.

“We see great potential in wind energy for addressing global climate change and reducing America’s reliance on fossil fuels,” said Dr. Michael Fry of the American Bird Conservancy. “It’s critical we act now to understand the interactions between wind energy installations and birds and bats.”

“Billions of birds migrate annually, taking advantage of the same wind currents that are most beneficial for producing wind energy,” said Dr. Andrew Farnsworth of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “We know that in some locations a small percentage of wind turbines may cause the majority of bird and bat deaths. For example, Altamont Pass, east of Oakland, California, is an extreme case: in an area used regularly by migrant and resident raptors, only a fraction of the 5,000 turbines are responsible for most of the raptor deaths annually. As wind power develops further, we need to know more about how placement, design, and operation impact birds and bats as well as how habitat and weather conditions affect potential hazards.”

The scientists addressed some of the critical information that could be collected using cutting-edge tools such as weather surveillance radar, thermal imaging, and microphones directed skyward to map migrations by day and night. New research will build upon monitoring and research studies of birds and bats before and after construction of existing wind energy facilities as well as work done by other researchers. The coalition appointed working groups to move this new research agenda forward. Top research priorities identified by the coalition include:

  • Studying bird and bat behaviors, and more accurately estimating mortality at existing wind turbines
  • Using current and newly-obtained information on bird and bat population numbers and distribution to focus research on critically important migratory routes and timing
  • Documenting how interactions of birds and bats with turbines are affected by factors such as weather, topography, and their distribution within airspace swept by wind turbine blades
  • Establish standardized methods for pre- and post-construction studies for assessing bird and bat behavior at wind facilities
  • Conduct research on best practices for mitigating the impacts of wind energy development on birds and bats

“Conducting this research will help the wind industry make informed, science-based decisions about where future wind energy projects can be built, and how they can be operated to minimize the impact on migrating wildlife, while still providing much-needed alternative energy,” said Dr. John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “It will also help flesh out specific guidelines for wind farm construction being developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

“Imagine if a similar effort had taken place at the turn of the 20th century with the auto industry and air quality,” said Kraig Butrum, President and CEO of the American Wind Wildlife Institute, an umbrella organization for the wind energy industry and environmental groups. “We’d probably be in a completely different place when it comes to global climate change and energy dependence, because we considered environmental impact from the start.”


The American Wind Wildlife Institute is a nonprofit organization focused on timely and responsible development of wind energy while protecting wildlife and wildlife habitat through research, mapping, mitigation and public education on best practices in wind farm siting and wildlife habitat protection. Visit the AWWI website at

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a nonprofit membership institution dedicated to interpreting and conserving the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds. Visit the Cornell Lab’s website at

The American Bird Conservancy is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to conserve native wild birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. Visit the ABC website at

The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread seeks to be a catalyst for environmental and community solutions using leading-edge convening models at a unique, world-class conference center. The Foundation brings together leading scholars and decision-makers from the public and private sectors, forms partnerships, commissions research and shares information to broaden the dialogue around environmental challenges and solutions. Guided by the belief that new solutions are needed to ensure the sustainability of environmental systems, the Foundation does not advocate specific solutions nor bring preconceived ideas to its work on any issue. Visit to learn more.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Elbow Room

More from the photo files of 17 July 2009 . . .

After taking some time to photograph a pair of fledgling sapsuckers and a fledgie Great Crested Flycatcher, displayed in yesterday's post, I finally made it to the shore of the pond, my initial goal. Now I could spend some time shooting images of the still-occupied heron nest. They're awfully big, you'd think too large to all fit into the nest.

Nestling Great Blue HeronsAll four juvenile herons are still living at home.

But they do still fit. I'm told that earlier in the week, when storms were passing through with some high winds, they hunkered down while one of the adults crouched on top of them, shielding them from the weather. I kept thinking of some old commercial where the mechanic, holding some monstrosity of a muffler, assures the unbelieving customer, "we'll make it fit."

Nestling Great Blue HeronsI get mixed messages from this pose. Some seem so bored they
just sit and stare at one another, others turn their back.
I assume because they're sick of each other.

Reina and I have been watching some Schoolhouse Rock videos on YouTube. If you remember them, they're some of the catchiest tunes around. As my mind is wont to do I started humming one as I watched them stretch and flap their wings, bobbling around one another:

One thing you will discover
When you get next to one another
Is everybody needs some elbow room, elbow room.

It's nice when you're kinda cozy, but
Not when you're tangled nose to nosey, oh,
Everybody needs some elbow, needs a little elbow room.

(Author's note: It's worth watching so it'll be stuck in your head, too. Damn you, catchy songwriters!)

Seems apropos, especially when they exercise their wings. There's not much room to really stretch without whacking a brother or sister, and they often seem to tangle their nosey-noseys.

Nestling Great Blue Herons
I'm hoping for a huge coincidence, that one of my irregular walks will coincide with one of the birds leaving the nest for the first time. Really leaving the nest, a full-blown launch off the platform to fly to parts unknown. Or at least to gracefully soar to the pond's edge. Or, more likely and more fun to photograph, clumsily bomb their way to the earth's surface.

Nestling Great Blue Herons
There was a false alarm on Monday, 13 July. I was catching up on my work email and I came across two posts announcing one bird had fledged. Turns out the bird had left the nest, fluttered to a different branch or two, but then return to the nest a little while later.

I know it's a tough economy, but c'mon, kids! At one point you gotta strike out on your own!

For more images, and more impressive images, check out Laura Erickson's Flickr site. Laura occasionally posts about the heron family, too.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Young Ones, or A July Walk in the Woods

From the photo files from 17 July 2009 . . .

I complain, quite a bit, that I don't get out enough to look at birds, that all my birding is "yard watching." Which is ridiculous! I mean, I work at a world-class ornithological institution that sits in a 220+ acre wildlife sanctuary. You'd think it would be as easy as walking outside.

Well, it is. But I often get wrapped up enough, or fall far behind enough, in work-related "things" and the end of the day arrives before I've made it outside. So much for my time management skills, such that they exist.

Last Friday my camera and my binoculars found their way into my peripheral vision during my working lunch. I didn't hesitate. I grabbed my camera, left my binoculars, and embarked on a brief photo safari.

Juvenile male Yellow-bellied SapsuckerYellow-bellied Sapsucker, totem bird of Sapsucker Woods.

The first bird I stumbled across as I entered the woods was the sanctuary's namesake. In the most recent Living Bird John Fitzpatrick writes that exactly one hundred years ago, when Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were "unheard of in the wide-open, glaciated farmlands around the Finger Lakes," Arthur Allen and Louis Agassiz Fuertes discovered a pair nesting in an isolated woodlot a few miles from Cornell University. Fitz continues, "this was a prize find, because this migratory woodpecker bred mainly in the aspen and birch forests of Canada. This was the first documented breeding in New York's southern tier."

Today, they are common. So common, in fact, the single bird was almost immediately joined by another.

Juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers
Not as cryptic as a Brown Creeper, but their mottled back
and barred tail camouflage them against the tree trunk.

OK, it's not like the woods are swarming with sapsuckers on every tree. I'd crossed paths with two juvenile birds, likely siblings from the same nest cavity. Though they showed the classic marks you'd expect from a YB Sapsucker -- the face pattern, the white wing patch, the overall mottling - these birds wore more subdued plumage. They were overall darker, brownish rather than black in the facial markings. Also missing were patches of red on the throat and cap, sported by adult males, or solely on the cap (at least to some extent) as an adult female would show. The first bird did have reddish tinging on both the cap and throat, indicating he was a juvenile male. I didn't note any such tinging on the second bird, perhaps a female.

They were moving quickly, the blurriness in my photos wasn't only from hand-shake, and soon left me far behind. I watched as they scrambled around one tree trunk, flew awkwardly to another, scrambled again, fluttered to yet another trunk, then another.

No time to dwell on them, I was already faced with my next bird, one perched not too far off the trail. It sat with its back to me but head craned to the side to watch what I was doing. It was agitated, turning right, then left, then right again, in rapid succession. It was so agitated it bounced, as though it was launching itself into flight but forgetting to release its grip on the branch.

Fledgling Great Crested Flycatcher
One of my favorites, a Great Crested Flycatcher, and this one appeared to also be a juvenile. I say that based on the broad edging to the primaries and the greater and median wing coverts (your thoughtful analysis welcomed!). What convinced me it was a recent fledgling, later when I blew up the images, was the gape, clearly visible at the back of the mouth, something that young birds show but isn't visible on adults.

Somewhere nearby was a parental flycatcher, which made its presence known through near-constant wheee-eep calls, a sign of excitement. I wondered if the fledgling in front of me was agitated because of me, or if it was feeding off the parent's intruder warning, the avian "Danger, Will Robinson, danger!"

The bird appeared torn between wanting to flee and wanting to stay its ground. Eventually it successfully launched itself deeper into the woods where I lost sight of it; abruptly the parent's panicked calls stopped.

Young ones. That's what July birding is all about here in the southern tier of NY. A brief period where we can watch fledglings explore their new world, with or without their care givers. I started humming the theme song of The Young Ones, a British comedy from the early '80's. While I doubt lyricist Cliff Richard was thinking of birds (but who knows, I'm starting to think everyone in England is a birder to some extent), his lyrics were appropros.

We're young ones,
Darling we're the young ones,
And young ones shouldnt be afraid.

Love, me,
Theres a song to be sung
And the best time is to sing while were young.

To live, love
While the flame is strong,
For we wont be the young ones very long.

Very birdy, yes? Enjoy your summer birding!

UPDATED to announce: if you're interested in nestlings, four to be exact, the trip continues here.


Monday, July 20, 2009

Good News From Project Puffin

Because puffins are such cool birds I'm compelled to pass along the latest "PuffinNews," from 20 July 2009. You can (and should!) check out their web site for the history of puffins along the Atlantic coast, their efforts to restore the birds, and more.


Image by T.Müller, courtesy Wikipedia.

From Project Puffin:

Summary: The first weeks of July were wetter and cooler than most years—though not as wet as June. This was good news for terns, which suffered from the heavier-than-usual June rain. On the brighter side, most islands are reporting an exceptionally good summer for herring—an important component of puffin and tern diets. Atlantic herring are an excellent source of calories for rapidly growing chicks. These calories are helping counteract the weight loss caused by low temperatures and chilling rain. As a result, we are seeing surprisingly high success rates for Common and Roseate Terns at Stratton Island, Outer Green Island, Jenny Island, and Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge. However, the heavy rain at Eastern Egg Rock contributed to significant tern chick mortality, despite good food supplies. Puffin chicks have largely survived the weather, and some are now approaching six weeks. Very soon they will be fledging and leaving the islands. Then they will live at sea for the next two to three years. This appears to be another excellent year for puffins on Maine islands.

Island Updates (view clickable map):

Eastern Egg Rock
It has been a challenging breeding season for Egg Rock terns as the Laughing Gull colony has increased and the abundant rain has taken a toll. On the bright side, the first Common Tern chick successfully fledged on July 13th and some are now flying! So far, we have confirmed 80 puffin burrows—including one new burrow! Our researchers are now “grubbing” for puffin chicks to measure and band them, and trapping adult puffins that need new leg bands.

Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge
The seabirds of Seal Island have been enjoying plentiful food this year, with good supplies of highly desirable herring. Two new Razorbill burrows have been discovered, bringing the total to 13 Razorbill burrows, up from 11 last year. As of July 13th, some of the Common and Arctic Tern chicks had fledged. A count of over 600 puffins at once was recorded during this period- a new record one time count. Of the four puffins that received geolocators in 2008 to help discover the puffin’s mysterious winter home, one bird has not been seen this year and two of the remaining three have lost the devices. A fourth puffin is still incubating and researchers are waiting for it’s chick to hatch to see if the device is still present. The geolocators record the locations of puffins throughout the year, but must be taken off of the birds to download the data. We will be attaching eight new geolocators soon. The Red-billed Tropicbird that was present during most of June made a short reappearance in mid-July and recently a Black-browed Albatross was seen near the island.

Pond Island National Wildlife Refuge
The food supply on Pond Island this year includes abundant herring and sand lance, as well as butterfish being brought in by the terns. Our researchers have been diligently trying to chase off a Merlin and capture a second Great Horned Owl—both of which have been predating the tern adults and chicks. They are working night shifts in their efforts to trap the owl.

Stratton Island
Several large thunderstorms passed through on the July 4th weekend. These storms, combined with frequent raids by a Peregrine Falcon that chased parent birds off their eggs and chicks, resulted in exposure to the cold and chilling weather, killing 27 Least Tern chicks. Because of their smaller body mass, Least Terns may be especially susceptible to extreme weather and they are too small to eat the abundant herring that is helping the larger terns. A late second nesting of Least Terns may yet help to boost numbers here. Elsewhere on the island, Common and Roseate Terns are thriving. Many of the older Common Tern chicks are now flying around the island, and more Roseate Terns are hatching. And there is still more good news—on July 11th, a new American Oystercatcher nest was found- the third pair for this year!

Matinicus Rock
The puffin grubbing season has begun. In the coming weeks, about 100 puffin chicks will be carefully removed from their burrows to receive leg bands. Tern chicks are flying, and most of the young Razorbills have fledged. This year, predation by Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls has been heavy. Perhaps the poor weather and low price of lobsters has kept more lobster boats back in the harbor than usual. This makes the gulls hungrier than usual, as they typically feed on discarded lobster bait. In its absence, some gulls become chick predators, taking a heavy toll on young Razorbills. It was likely a Herring or Great Black-backed Gull that destroyed the Murre egg—the first seen on Matinicus Rock since 1883. Though that egg is gone, the Murre parents and others will likely return in 2010 to try again.

Outer Green Island
Early in the month, the tern chicks were fed largely on butterfish. By July 14th, the chicks were being fed mostly herring, as well as hake, and an occasional moth or butterfish. Many of the chicks are now large, and the first flying fledgling was seen on the 10th. A big re-nesting of Common Terns began on the 14th; this may help make up for the nests lost earlier this season from rain. The Black Guillemot chicks are getting large enough to receive leg bands. Exciting bird sightings included Eastern Kingbirds, Blackburnian Warblers, and Blackpoll Warblers, as well as an Atlantic Puffin and Razorbill which are rarely seen this far south.

Jenny Island
The last days of this short research season were eventful and productive. Two of the three Roseate Tern nests have hatched and the chicks are already developing flight feathers. They will likely be on their way to Brazil shortly. Most of the fish brought in during the feeding studies consisted of hake, herring, butterfish, and cunner. The 4th of July thunderstorms brought dime-sized hailstones to this small island. Without time to dry out, even an unopened box of spaghetti developed mold. As the last of the blinds were being taken down and the island readied for its early closing, the tern chicks began to fly—a perfect send-off for the island’s protectors!


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Back in the Driver's Seat

In theory I am taking the helm of my normal life again, though I might need a day or two to really settle back in. I'm home again after a ten-day, whirlwind family trip to Arkansas. How can a whirlwind last more than week, you ask? You'll see over the next few blog posts, but the keyword may be "overplanning."

Northern ParulaA vaguely blurry Northern Parula forages in my in-law's front yard.
Click the image for a larger version.

We packed a lot into this trip, including a multitude of family gatherings, bird walks and hikes, catching up with friends, a two-night, three-day trip to Fayetteville, more family get-togethers, and a trip to a pretty sweet fishing hole. [Aside: I haven't yet determined if the chiggers made the trip feel shorter or longer than it actually was.]

Morning on the Little Red RiverMorning on the Little Red River, near Heber Springs, AR.
Click the image for a larger version.

Posts to come after I process the hundreds (upon hundreds) of images and try to account for each hour of each day. Can it be done? Stay tuned to find out!


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Bird Handling Changes a Life

From the photo files from 17 May 2009 . . .

Our daughter, Reina, is five, and if you ask her career aspirations and goals she'll tell you she's strongly drawn towards education and the service industry.

Not in those words, of course, she just blurts out, "I wanna be a teacher and a waitress." And yes, we know she'll need that second income if she's gonna be a teacher.

But that all changed on a cool and sunny morning this past May. We were headed for an overnight to Rochester, NY, partly to visit my folks, partly to visit the Braddock Bay Bird Observatory's Kaiser-Manitou Beach Banding Station. I've been anxious to introduce Reina to bird banding, to the idea of handling wild birds to learn about them. This spring seemed perfect. She's not old enough to process the birds, of course, but she is old enough to appreciate what was going on and why. And not yet old enough to be jaded and cynical about the experience.

We planned to meet Laura Kammermeier, friend, fellow blogger, and former colleague who conveniently now lives near my folks, at the observatory's headquarters along the shore of Lake Ontario (Laura recounted her take of that morning's events, along with fantastic photos, in Bird Banding @ Braddock Bay Bird Observatory.

We walked in the door of the small, rustic facility and found a dozen animated folks busily interacting around a tall table. It was like walking into a local bar, where everyone pauses, glances over at the newcomers to give the ol' once over, then went back to their business. We weren't sure what to do, or what not to do, so we walked over to see what everyone was doing.

As we sidled up a woman turned to Reina, who was sporting the remnants of a butterfly face-painting from the day before, and asked, "Have you ever heard a hummingbird's heart?" To my surprise and complete joy Reina did not grab my leg and hide behind me.

"Nooo . . ." she sounded intrigued but unsure of the whole idea. She knows humans have hearts from playing with the models in the anatomy lab at my wife's college, but I'm not sure she transposed that information to other animals.

The woman crouched next to Reina held a Ruby-throated Hummingbird to her ear. As much as I wanted to hear the beating heart I stayed back and took pictures of a watershed moment. Her expression is all you need to realize something pivotal just happened in her life.

A Hummingbird's Heart"I can hear its heart beating?
I can hear its heart beating!"

Reina watched her finish processing the bird, then got an offer I was hoping would come. "Would you like to release the hummingbird?" Again the expression of uncertainty, so I explained.

"They got all the information they need from measuring the bird in here, now they let it go back into the wild. Let's go outside, and you'll get to hold the hummingbird until he decides to leave. You know, if you want to. Otherwise I'll do it." I was only half-goading her, I really wanted to release a bird!

"No, daddy! I can do it!" Yeah, she wanted to.

Hummingbird ReleaseReina held the male Ruby-throated Hummingbird, waiting for him to
either realize he's free to go, or to decide he was ready to take his leave
of all of us. He stuck around for about 30 seconds before taking flight,
29 seconds longer than it took for Reina to contemplate a new career path.

Then it was back inside to watch more processing of birds. There was only one hummingbird banded while we were there, but plenty of other action. The banding crew was extremely generous about letting us watch up-close-and-personal, especially the students of the banding class that was underway. We didn't even realize, everyone was so professional!

Mourning WarblerA male Mourning Warbler: one of the most
beautiful birds we saw that morning, maybe because
they are so skulky and hard to observe in our region.

Northern WaterthrushI'm always amazed how different birds look in the bander's grip compared to seeing
one in the wild, like this
Northern Waterthrush. It appeared so different than a
Northern Waterthrush in the wild, where they're behaving waterthrushy.

Swamp SparrowAnother bird of subtle beauty like the waterthrush:
the warm tones of a
Swamp Sparrow.

Back to the flashy colors of the warblers. This is another of my favorite images I've captured this year, a college student processing a Magnolia Warbler. Though technically accurate, "processing" sounds too clinical here, there is much deeper going on in the relationship between researcher and specimen. (And my sincere apologies: I did not catch the student's name, though we talked quite a bit - turns out she attends my undergrad alma mater, Hobart and William Smith Colleges. This photo deserves a more personal attribute.)

Magnolia AppreciationOpen caption: how would you describe this moment?

Magnolia Warbler ReleaseAgain Reina does the honors, though the Maggie didn't stick around.
He merely bounced off of Reina's open palm, off to turn his fancy
to flights of love. Or something more avian, but along those lines.

American Redstart, young maleSome birds don't look like what you're used to seeing flitting about in the trees,
like this young male American Redstart. Yellow where he will eventually be
orange (like a female), but the black lores (area between the eye and the bill) and
the black feathers coming in on his breast, face and cheek confirm he's a male.

Not all the captured species have been absent from our New York backyard since last fall, plenty of year-round residents are caught in the nets. Of course, they're processed, too: collecting data on our common birds is in lockstep with the goal of keeping them common.

Blue JayBlue Jays, though familiar in western New York year-
round, do migrate. This bird may be returning from a
mid-Atlantic state where the winters are more moderate.

Green DarnerNot all the captures are avian, either. Dragonflies, such as this common
Green Darner, are gently removed and released when caught.

In the 90 minutes or so we stayed we saw some two dozen birds pass through the capable hands of the BBBO staff, volunteers, and the students, each released adorned with a flashy silver band stamped with a unique identifying code by the Fish and Wildlife Service. If any of these birds are captured again they'll provide an important piece of information about that bird's travels and condition, shedding insight on the species as a whole and migration in general.

Through it all Reina helped release a few birds, as well as followed the banders as they checked the nets for newly caught birds (nets are checked every 30 minutes, at least). Actually, she only followed during the first net run. She lead the way on the subsequent trips.

Now ask her what she wants to be when she's grown and you'll hear, "I want to band birds, be a waitress, and teach." The requisite crack still applies, you're going to need the combined salaries to make ends meet. At least she'll be well rounded.


Monday, July 6, 2009

A Hummingbird's Heartbeat

Sometimes words aren't needed, they just distract.

Reina and Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Tune in tomorrow to get the backstory.


Sunday, July 5, 2009

Typical Songbird Photograph: Identity Revealed

The Hawthorn Orchard, where I took that poor-quality photograph in last week's teaser post, is a remarkable patch during spring migration. Hawthorn flowers bring in the insects, which bring in the migrating birds. And in mid-late May there are a lot of flowering Hawthorns, a lot of insects, and therefore a lot of songbirds. Most hawthorns in the orchard are less than 30 feet tall, many only 15 - 20 feet high. The best way to avoid "warbler neck"? Don't look up, look horizontal! This is where you go for paralyzing looks at warblers that are often difficult to lay glass on - Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, Wilson's, Tennessee, and many, many more.

Luckily, the photo I presented was the last in the series. While trolling through the shrubby Hawthorns I successfully tracked down a lively weeta-weeta-weetsee.

The singer was a very handsome male Magnolia Warbler, a species Alexander Wilson originally called "Black-and-Yellow Warbler" when he collected one from a Magnolia tree in 1810. That was unfortunate, and not just for the individual he shot: he selected "magnolia" as the scientific name, Dendroica magnolia. Unfortunately, magnolia trees are not a big part of this species life history. These birds like dense, young growth; nests are usually in a conifer.

No matter, a rose by any other name still looks stunning. I had a reasonable amount of time to witness him flitting among the branches of a Hawthorn, maybe 20 feet from me. Eventually I had the presence of mind to drop the binoculars and raise the camera, capturing some foraging behavior.

Classic Magnolia Warbler foraging, scanning and probing the
undersides of leaves from below. Note the undertail pattern, as the
white patch towards the body and wide, dark band across the tips
are a very useful diagnostic feature for identifying tail-only birds.

Magnolia Warblers, or "Maggies" if you're in the hip birding crowd (a group who must all have Rod Stewart's "Maggie May" running through their head whenever someone finds one), feed primarily on caterpillars and a variety of other tree-dwelling organisms: leaf beetles, weevils, leafhoppers, spiders. This one thoroughly scanned the leaves, striking at unseen (to me) items. While they typically focus on the undersides of leaves and conifer needles, this one was checking every surface. Sometimes twice.

Any morning where you stumble across a beauty like this is an unequivocal successful trip. Enjoy this sequence of Maggie foraging - he was trying every leaf, bud, nook, and cranny. As always, click on the images for larger versions.

"Hullo, what's this?"

"Ah, yes, this looks promising indeed."

Smacks mandibles, munch, munch

"Blechh! Oooh, what's up here?"

This went on for a few minutes, until I got the parting shot. Now do you see a Maggie?

There is a bird in there, promise.
Click on the image for a larger version.

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