Wednesday, May 30, 2007

To Allegany!

I set off tomorrow with several friends to Allegany State Park, Western New York's best patch of nature, and NY's largest state park. I have always loved the place, but have not been there in several years, so I'm very excited. We picked this weekend because it is the weekend of the Allegany Nature Pilgrimage. The Pilgrimage is a joint effort of several Audubon Society's, including my 'alma mater' Buffalo Audubon, that offers a multitude of nature walks, talks, and more, on birds, herps, mammals, ferns, wildflowers, old growth forest, insects, and a whole lot more. It is a real whirlwind of activity. I was involved in Pilgrimage efforts for several years in high school and have several good friends still involved with it. This should be a great time. If you're in the area, check this out, it is Friday-Sunday.

My friends and I won't necessarily be participating in many of the Pilgrimage's events, however, instead striking our own path and doing a lot of herping and birding. The Allegany region is a great spot that brings a lot of southern specialties, from birds to herps to plants and fish, into NY that aren't found elsewhere in the state. In particular, we hope to find such cool herps as Wehrle's Salamander, Shorthead Garter, Hellbender, and Long-tailed Salamander. Be sure to look for the results posted here next week (as long as my camera battery lasts).

Monday, May 28, 2007

Bird of the Day: Solomon Islands Frogmouth

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchA new Frogmouth (Podargidae) has been described just this April from the Solomon Islands (Cleere et. al. 2007). What makes this finding especially unique, is that a reanalysis of Solomon Islands subspecies (inexpectatus) of the Marbled Frogmouth (Podargus ocellatus), found in Australia and New Guinea, revealed not just that it deserved to be split, but that it warranted a whole new genus. Thus, the Solomon Islands Frogmouth Rigidipenna inexpectata was described.

The University of Florida's press release is here (including links to the discoverer's pages).

The paper is here (you probably need a journal subscription to access). Here is the abstract.

Source: Cleere et. al. 2007

The complex, confused history of the taxonomy of this group is described:

As was common in the 19th century, subspecies of Podargus ocellatus were originally described as full species, with P. inexpectatus the last to be named (Hartert 1901). A few years later, Mathews (1913) placed P. marmoratus in a poorly defined new genus (Micropodargus) that was said to differ from Podargus only in its much smaller size and stronger bill. Without explanation, Mathews (1927) subsequently treated six taxa, including marmoratus and inexpectatus, as races of ocellatus within Micropodargus. Peters (1940) treated Micropodargus as a synonym of Podargus, which has remained the sole genus for all Papuan–Australian–Oceanic frogmouths to the present day. (Cleere et. al. 2007 pg 274)

The authors also explain the difficulties in assigning their outgroups for osteological and molecular work, because the placement of Podargidae in Caprimulgiformes is questioned. One interesting note is the fossil presence of three extinct genera of Podargids, as well as "the oldest fossils assigned to the Nyctibiidae, Steatornithidae and many other currently tropical families of birds also are from early Tertiary deposits in the temperate Northern Hemisphere (Olson 1987, Mourer-Chauviré 1989)." (Cleere et. al .2007 pg 277).

The molecular basis for new genus placement is this phylogeny:
Source: Cleere et. al. 2007

This phylogeny alone does not necessarily warrant a split from Podargus (although it is a deep split from the rest of Podargus, it still forms a monophyletic clade), but combined with distinct, unique morphology, and distinct call notes more like Batrachostomus than Podargus, indicate that the new genus is justified.

All of this is technical systematics stuff that, while interesting to me, may not be interesting to the lay birder. Taxonomists and systematists get a lot of flak from others. This Birdforum thread, about an Economist article, showcases those viewpoints:

The day taxonomists say "Right, that's it, we've got it all sorted out!" they instantly negate their continued role as taxonomists. So we can expect infinite flux in this field, in order to keep taxonomists in jobs. (Post #23)
I agree it's a pseudo science. (Post #24)

The thread is actually a decent debate about splitting, but takes too much of the viewpoint that taxonomists do this out of species bias, rather than practicing a real science. The case of Rigidipennis clearly illustrates when an evaluation of a subspecies' status, a common event these days (and often maligned as birds get lumped and split and back again with new research), reveals incredible insights. Taxonomists aren't in it to keep their jobs, they're in it because we have barely begun to understand even the birds we thought we knew.

NIGEL CLEERE, ANDREW W. KRATTER, DAVID W. STEADMAN, MICHAEL J. BRAUN, CHRISTOPHER J. HUDDLESTON, CHRISTOPHER E. FILARDI, GUY DUTSON. 2007. A new genus of frogmouth (Podargidae) from the Solomon Islands - results from a taxonomic review of Podargus ocellatus inexpectatus Hartert 1901. Ibis 149 (2), 271–286.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

A few more blurbs on the Redhead team

Last I heard, the Redheads had raised $14,000 in Big Day Pledges for the World Series. It pales in comparison to the huge chunk of change the Sapsuckers raise every year, but it has put the team on the map. Hopefully next year we'll do even better, and put the money towards conservation and undergraduate research funds.

Here is a series of musings on the highlights from the Big Day.


Ben (Redheads): Our worst “dirty bird” (a bird not identified by the entire team) was a turkey. Late in the morning, one called really loudly and everyone was on it, we thought we had it, and then two turkey hunters walked out of the wood

Chris (Sapsuckers): With experience, you’ll learn that’s just “a coincidence.”

Here is the team featured in the Ithaca Journal.

More recent news blurbs

First, one to make your skin crawl. A boy discovers something nasty in his ear.

Stronghold for an endangered turtle found in Cambodia. BBC and Yahoo articles.

Hundreds of new species found in Antarctic waters. Almost 600 new species, mostly invertebrates, found in the deep. I love these kinds of announcements, but they never include enough pictures.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


Haven't had time for any new posts recently, and won't until next week, as I'm busy wrapping up the end of the semester and moving. But, here's a comic to hold you over:

Cyanide and Happiness, a daily webcomic
Cyanide & Happiness @

Monday, May 14, 2007

Featured Artist: Roy Zimmerman

Making good music out of political and social satire is a tough job, but Roy Zimmerman does the job excellently and with great humor. Check out some of his work on his Youtube profile.

My favorites:

"Creation Science 101"

"Jerry Falwell's God"

"What If the Beatles Were Irish?"

Kiwi Achieves Lifelong Dream

Here is a short, bittersweet animation by Dony Permedi featuring a Kiwi who can dream big.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Redheads Take Second Place

The Cornell student team in the World Series of Birding, the Redheads, took Second Place in the Cape May County division of the Series with 174 species. Fantastic job, guys!

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology team, the Sapsuckers, broke their own team record with 230 species to win the overall Series!

Check out the Series results here.

Check out the report from the teams here.

I'll add more reports from the teams later.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

History of N.A. Bird Names

I stumbled upon this really interesting link the other day. It documents the name changes for each North American species as prescribed by the American Ornithological Union from 1886-present. It includes hybrids accidently described as species, all lumps and splits, and both common and scientific name changes. An excellent resource!

The History of North American Bird Names

Nest cam season

Nesting season is in full swing for local birds, even as migrants continue to stream northward. Here are a few nest cams if you want to sneak a peak at the daily lives of local birds:

CLO Birdhouse Network - Currently running 11 nest cams on different birds

Rochester Falcon Cam - Rochester's resident Peregrine Falcon pair chose (fortunately for us!) to nest on the Kodak building several years ago. The result is the most-filmed pair of Peregrines out there. 5 cameras running on one nest!

There are many more available on the web, with a little searching.

Turtle Songs of North America

Check out this They Might Be Giants spoof of a nature documentary: Turtle Songs of North America (login: tmbg, password: thespinesurfs).

In a related note, it seems someone has found an Eastern Fighting Turtle (although they mis-identified it as the more common Killer Tortoise), and has documented one attacking their preferred prey: cats.

Another Africa update

Another photo update from Mike Harvey, this time in Lesotho: here.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Support the Redheads!

At midnight tonight, in less than 12 hours, the World Series of Birding begins. This 24-hour birding competition in New Jersey raises money for conservation. For the first time, this year the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is sponsoring not only its veteran team the Sapsuckers, but also a student team: the Redheads. While I am not participating this year, all of the team members are close friends of mine, including my roommate, Shawn Billerman. Root them on as the strive to win the Cape May County division of the Series, and raise money for conservation and undergraduate ornithological research.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Cormorant Coefficient

An amusing parody of tricky identifications (in this case, between subspecies of Phalacrocorax carbo in Europe) by the folks at punkbirder. A laugh for the experienced birders out there...

More bird oddities

Hybrids always interest me. Here's a few rounds of hybrid waterfowl for your enjoyment:

A hybrid American x Eurasion Wigeon (Anas americana x Anas penelope), found by Paul Hurtado, Shawn Billerman, and myself this past winter on Cayuga Lake.

A series of photos of a "Brewer's Duck", a presumed hybrid Mallard x Gadwall (Anas platyrhynchos x Anas strepera), also in the Cayuga Lake Basin.

A birdforum thread on an interesting hybrid of unknown eurasian duck species.

A presumed hybrid Hooded Merganser x Bufflehead (Lophodytes cucullatus x Bucephala albeola) with discussion on the Frontiers of Identification listserve.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Cornell Herpetological Society Spring Field Survey

Today, 18 intrepid herpers from the Cornell Herpetological Society descended on the Finger Lakes Land Trust preserve, the Lindsay-Parsons Biodiversity Preserve, for our annual spring field survey. Our goal was to survey some new parcels recently added to the preserve for the FLLT, and to try to find the local population of Black Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta), a rare snake in NY.

Derek got off to a good start by finding a deer limb stuck in a tree. Well-cured venison anyone?
And then, for the first herp find, a half-eaten Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum):
The living herps soon started rolling in. Here was my first live find of the day, a complete, living Spotted Sal:
We worked our way up a small tributary of Cayuga Inlet towards the steep hill known as Thatcher's Pinnacles, known locally as the only spot for Worm-eating Warbler (Helmitheros vermivorus) in the Cayuga Lake Basin.

We picked up some Mountain Dusky Salamanders (Desmognathus ochrophaeus), some of them quite small:
Here is a Mountain Dusky compared with a Northern Two-lined Salamander (Eurycea bislineata):
This small salamander confused us. Some people thought it might be a larval mudpuppy, but we narrowed it down to a larval Spring Salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus), which we thought was odd, due to the small size of the stream (more on that point later):
We also found some interesting invertebrates:

This millipede has some special significance to the preserve. I could not find a reference to it, but it is one of the millipedes that smells of almond when in defense mode, because it excretes cyanide. This bug was one of the catalysts for preserving Lindsay-Parsons as a biodiversity preserve for biochemical prospecting:
From the small creek, we moved uphill into some drier forest where we encountered a changing suite of species, including our first snake, an Eastern Garter (Thamnophis sirtalis):
A red eft (the terrestrial juvenile stage of the Red-spotted Newt, Notophthalmus viridescens):
A Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) away from the spawning grounds:
Eric even overturned a rock that had no less than seven Red-backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) under it:
We broke for lunch before beginning the assault on Thatcher's Pinnacle. The new plot we were to survey just happens to be on the other side of the rise:

The dry, rocky slopes of Thatcher's Pinnacle yields yet more species. We find our first Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon glutinosus) which come in a variety of amounts of spotting:
We also have entered the preferred microhabitat of Northern Ringneck Snakes (Diadophis punctatus):

Finally we crest the steep slope, and enter a cooler, upland mixed Hemlock-deciduous forest. We make our way to a vernal pool and small stream on the new parcel. We spy some egg masses:

Some more efts:
A Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus):
And finally, the jackpot for salamanders, several adult Spring Salamanders. It turns out we were wrong about Spring Sals required larger creeks, we found these in creeks we could straddle:

We made our way back off of the Pinnacle, with intentions of going to a staked-out spot for the Black Rat Snakes. At the base of the slope, I stumbled into one of the biggest beds of Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) I have ever seen. Two shots from the middle of the bed, looking in opposite directions:
I'm not big into wildflowers, but we did see some white and some red trilliums, which I am fond of.

This leaves us at the Black Rat Snake spot, which I will leave undisclosed to protect the snakes. They are known to rest there, and are presumed to overwinter. We very carefully checked the spot, with no intentions of disturbing any snakes for fear of scaring them away from the location. We found none, and people began to wonder off to check nearby ponds. I continued to search around, and I stumbled across one. My first wild Black Rat Snake!
We maintained are distance from the beautiful snake, never approaching close enough to touch it (which is why my photos are distant and lousy). We did have the kid in the group lay near the snake (which politely did not try to escape from our presence), and estimated her length to be just over five feet. Eventually she climbed into some bushes at eye level and moved off:

This was by far the highlight of the trip, and I ran out of photos just as the snake moved off. Our remaining highlights were observing two Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) performing some sort of wrestling behavior (courtship or fighting) on the far side of the pond. They repeatedly rolled, exposing bellys, heads, and limbs in the shallows. Also, a Red Fox den nearby revealed a yelping kit. Overall, an excellent trip! Our totals:

Chelydra serpentina - 2
Chrysemys picta ~13

Rana clamitans ~4
Rana pipiens ~4
Rana palustris - 1
Hyla versicolor - 2
Pseudacris crucifer - 1

Ambystoma maculatum - 3
Notophthalmus viridescens ~30
Eurycea bislineata ~ 12
Desmognathus fuscus ~3
Desmognathus ochrophaeus ~15
Gyrinophilus porphyriticus - 5
Plethodon glutinosus - 5+
Plethodon cinereus - too many to count, 40+

Thamnophis sirtalis - 2
Diadophis punctatus ~7
Elaphe obsoleta - 1

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Bird of the Day: Clay-colored Sparrow

Went out yesteday morning in an attempt to get the Basin first arrival record of Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizella pallida). We went to 'the' spot for them, had a good listen and a lot of false alarms with all the other sparrows flying around. In the end, no Clay-colored, but we did get some good birding in with a bunch of newly arrived warblers.

Upon return to the dorm, a check of the birding listserve reveiled a Clay-colored Sparrow - at a birder's feeder in collegetown. A hop, skip, and jump later, Shawn Billerman and I found ourselves watch the Clay-colored, along with Chipping, Field (for a Spizella trifecta!), White-throated, White-crowned, and E. Towhee. Here are some of my lousy photos:

Here's a few comparisons with other sparrows (unfortunately I missed the 3-Spizella shot):

Here's a few other photos:

And, now that you suffered through my poor photography, here's some much better photography of the Clay-colored:

Some photos by Chris T-H
A few stunners by David Ruppert