Thursday, November 29, 2007

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Oct 2007 Auk: A Fossil Tody

A tody (Alcediniformes: Todidae) from the early Oligocene of Germany.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThis article describes a partial skeleton (missing the skull and one wing) of a tody, Paleotodus itardiensis, from 32 million years ago in Germany. Todies are Coraciiformes (sometimes split down to Alcediniformes, as in this paper), meaning they are burrow-digging relatives to Kingfishers, Bee-eaters, Motmots, and Rollers. They are brightly colored little green sprites (or 'little farters' as per the Cuban name) that are restricted in modern times to the Caribbean. Check out the fossil (click to enlarge):

(Source: Mayr and Knopf 2007)

I find this paper interesting for two reasons:

1) The fact that there were todies in Europe. Modern todies are restricted to the Carribean, but fossil todies have been found previously in Wyoming and France from about 30 mya. The previous European records are known from fragments of leg bones, so this find significantly increases our knowledge of these curious ancient stem-group todies. The Oligocene was the time of the splitting of the Atlantic, so the authors believe it is likely that the ocean split paleotodies into two groups, with the European lineage going extinct. This pattern is also seen in Motmots, also restricted to the new world with a fossil from Europe.

2) The fact that we can identify bird bones to family. Reading through the technical details, paleo-ornithologists have considerable knowledge of the minutiae of bird bones. It puts birder’s knowledge of plumage details to shame. Just look at these comparisons (click to enlarge):

(Source: Mayr and Knopf 2007)

The fossil record is a valuable tool relating to many of the research areas I am interested in: fossil calibration of molecular clocks, biogeographic patterns, etc. It is through the hard work of people like Mayr and Knopf that this record is built.


Gerald Mayr and Charles W. Knopf. 2007. A tody (Alcediniformes: Todidae) from the early Oligocene of Germany. The Auk Vol. 124 No. 4 October 2007. 1294-1304.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Black-headed Gull size variation

(Update 11/27: Added more pictures below)

One noticeable feature on this weekend's Black-headed Gull was the fact that it was barely larger than the surrounding Bonaparte's Gulls, and thus was hard to pick out when it had its head tucked while sleeping. This prompted me to look into the size variation in the species.

Sibley lists the dimensions of the two species as follows:
Bonaparte's - L 13.5" WS 33" WT 190g
Black-headed - L 16" WS 40" WT 270g

The size difference is noticeable as stated and drawn, but Sibley adds the following caveat:

Variation in structure and plumage in these species, as in all other gulls, is dramatic. Careful study of flocks will reveal exceptionally large, small, light, and dark individuals that may cause confusion when seen singly.

This was readily apparent in the Bonaparte's flocks that we studied at length in close to shore. There were noticeably larger Bonaparte's that had me hoping for Black-headed or Kittiwake when they woke up. The Black-headed was just slightly larger than the large Bonaparte's, and the difference was only readily noticeable when the bird was active preening and feeding.

But just how much overlap, if any, is there between the two? For this I consulted the two gull guides: Grant, and Olsen & Larsson.

Dimensions from Grant:
Wing (W), Tail (T), Bill (B), Tarsus (Tr), in mm

Bonaparte's - W 246-271 T 99-108 B 27-32 Tr 33-37
Black-headed - W 280-315 T 104-124 B 30-37 Tr 42-47

According to these dimensions, there is minor overlap between the biggest Bonaparte's and the smallest Black-headed in bill and tail lengths, but no overlap in tarsus or wing length.

Olsen & Larsson provide a much more detailed analysis of size and weight:

Black-headed M/F adult
W 284-335 / 280-310
B 30.1-37.3 / 28.2-35.2
Tr 40.0-48.9 / 38.0-46.6
Wt 186-400g / 166-350g

Bonapartes M/F adult
W 250-278 / 246-275
B 26.9-33.2 / 23.7-31.6
Tr 32-37.9 / 32-37.9
Wt mean wintering adult weight - 176.8g
breeding adult male weight - 182-227g

From these data, we can tell the size extremes come vary close in the two species in wing length and tarsus, and overlap in bill length and weight. How does this analysis of size variation hold up in the real world? I submit to you two photos for comparison:

Here is a direct, side-by-side comparison of our Black-headed Gull: the Black-headed Gull (right, if you couldn't tell) appears hardly any bigger than the accompanying Bonaparte's. Indeed, because it is hunched up it almost appears to be the smaller bird. Compare to this image pulled from the web:

I don't know the circumstances of this photo, but the birds appear very close together. Even given the distortion of the closer Bonaparte's appearing relatively larger, the Black-headed Gull is clearly the much larger bird!

Jim Pawlicki just sent me two more photos for comparison, of a Black-headed Gull that showed up on the Niagara River last summer. A larger bird in every dimension!

(Previous two photos by Jim Pawlicki)

We definitely observed a Black-headed Gull that was very much on the small end of the size ranges given for Black-headed Gull. It just goes to show that size is a finicky thing in identification, and analysis of all marks available for study is essential!


David Allen Sibley. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds.
P J Grant. 1986. Gulls: A Guide to Identification. Second Edition.
Klaus Malling Olsen and Hans Larsson. 2004. Gulls of North America, Europe, and Asia.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Gulls for Thanksgiving

While home for Thanksgiving break, I of course did some birding, including my annual gull trip along the Niagara River. On Friday, I spent the afternoon with Jim Pawlicki and Sal chasing White-winged Crossbill at Willie D'Anna and Betsy Potter's house. No luck finding the beautiful male Betsy saw earlier at her feeders, but I did have fun photographing COMMON REDPOLLS, a CAROLINA WREN, and RED-BREASTED NUTHATCHES.

After leaving Betsy's, we worked west along the Lake Ontario shore looking for more winter finches. We struck out on the Pine Grosbeaks being seeing periodically at Fort Niagara, but we did find a NORTHERN SHRIKE.

On Saturday, I joined Jim again as he led the aforementioned BOS trip on the Niagara River for gulls and waterfowl. Our route started in Ft. Erie, Ontario, and worked our way north along the river, ending the day at the Bonaparte's Gull flyby at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. The day was marked by periodic lake effect snow showers, which obscured visibility farther out on the river.

Buffalo in the morning lake-effect snow

The day was marked by very few gulls overall. Numbers at the Falls simply have not built up yet like they have by late November in past years. In fact, there was hardly anything in the gorge below the Falls and the flypast of Bonaparte's Gulls in the evening where the River empties into Lake Ontario had scarcely five hundred birds. We did manage to find one adult and one immature LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL and two adult KUMLIEN'S ICELAND GULLS.

By far the highlight of the day was watching the BONAPARTE'S GULL flocks on the river in Fort Erie. They were roosting and feeding right along shore, allowing me to get (halfway-decent, if a bit dark) photos.

Three of the four common gull species

The feeding frenzy:

Some video:

Of course, if you've already heard about my weekend, you know I'm holding back the very best thing - BLACK-HEADED GULL! Jim expertly picked a roosting adult in among the Bonaparte's by seeing a sudden flash of red bill, before it resettled to sleep. The bird was very difficult to pick out as it slept among the sleeping Bonaparte's Gulls. It was only marginally bigger than the Bonies, and was most easily told apart by the white nape and head and limited black head markings. The bonies all showed some degree of gray wash to the nape (is it ironic that we identify Black-headed Gull by the white head?). The flock flew and reshuffled in front of us several times, during which all observers sighted some or all of the field marks - black in the wing underside, white head, general paler grey mantle color, and red dark-tipped bill. Finally, the flock of two hundred or so Bonaparte's did a major reshuffling, after which we could not relocate the bird.

About half an hour later, this time about a kilometer north of the Railroad Bridge, we found a group of ~100 Bonapartes in a feeding frenzy right next to shore. We all piled out (with more Ontario birders accompanying) and quickly picked up the Black-headed Gull right in front of us a stone's throw away! The flock moved around quite a bit, keeping us moving, but it was always feeding close into shore. Eventually they settled in sit on the water, and everyone got great looks.

Larus ridibundus (Photo by Jim Pawlicki)

Comparison with Bonaparte's Gull

Feeding shot - note the black primary undersides

A perfect birthday gull for me! I was hoping for a new life gull, but this was my wished-for runner up and Jim went and found it. I was very gleeful (and still am). Thanks, Jim.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Bird Oddities 8

Definitely the coolest oddity is a very unusual feeder bird in Tennessee posted second-hand to the ID-Frontiers listserve:

(Photo by Simeon Panagatos, source)

with the following description:
> The attached photo was taken by me at our bird feeder here in
> Smyrna last Fall. As of yet I have not found anyone who can give
> me a definitive I.D. The bird was about 6" in length. I did appear
> to have a tuft but does not look exactly like a tufted titmouse.
> I spotted it 2-3 times in 2 days and then not again.
Instead of the usual well-reasoned discussion of the ID points, this single not-too-clear photo of this pigmentally-challenged bird sparked a wild round of SWAGing (Scientific Wild-Ass Guessing). I tallied the responses on the listserve:

Tufted Titmouse - 6
Carolina Chickadee - 3
Blue Jay - 2
Dark-eyed Junco - 2
Prothonotary Warbler
White-breasted Nuthatch
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Ivory-billed Woodpecker
a hoax

I think the consensus on the bird was Tufted Titmouse, and I would have to agree, especially given the description of the crest and the length. One confusing factor on this photo is the bill, it appears too long for a parid or sparrow. However it was realized that this was due to a branch in the background obscuring the real outline. See also Chris Tessaglia-Hymes blow-up comparison with a Titmouse in a similar posture here. This was a very fun oddity that definitely had me perplexed for a while.

Now, for an intermission, with a hybrid Aythya in the UK from the chums at Punkbirder.

For the second bird oddity story of the post, there is a major Patagonia Picnic Table Effect going down on Montauk (Long Island) right now. Shai Mitra provides details [bold emphasis mine]:

The “Patagonia Picnic Table Effect” is a familiar concept to active birders. Extra scrutiny directed toward one rare bird often yields another, and the process sometimes plays out in several iterations. Pat Lindsay’s and my experiences yesterday took this theme to a comical extreme. We actually mentioned “the Effect” early in the morning, when we found a Chat while twitching a previously reported Cattle Egret in Water Mill. Although a Chat is always very nice, I’m starting to wonder whether the egret was perhaps too obliging. Ditto for the Whistling Swans in Easthampton—but not for the Barnacle Goose in Montauk. This bird evaded our efforts to find it long enough to prompt a goose by goose examination of the entire neighborhood. During this search, my binoculars fell upon a Pink-footed Goose. This was of course very exciting, but the goose promptly disappeared from view, intensifying our excitement in a rather unpleasant way. While trying to relocate the Pink-foot, Pat found a Western-type Kingbird, which also immediately disappeared. This engendered even more unpleasant excitement, as we were intensely aware that we needed to rule out Cassin’s Kingbird, an example of which had been present recently just a couple of miles from where we were standing. A forced march to find additional vantages ensued. From the very most remote of these, I scoped the pasture and found an Ash-throated Flycatcher! Beyond anything resembling composure, I am reported to have said, “Pat, it would be very improbable to find an Ash-throat and a Western Kingbird at the same place and the same time.” (For the record, she did not waver and ultimately was the first to re-find and positively identify the Western Kingbird.) It goes without saying that the Ash-throat promptly disappeared also, prompting a forced retreat back to our original vantages. Shell-shocked, oxygen-deprived, and over-heated, I called in reinforcements. Gail Benson and Hugh McGuinness were relatively merciful in the sport they later made of these calls. It helped that all three birds cooperated. We eventually saw the Barnacle Goose, too, but it seems fortunate that we had such difficulty doing so at first. Some of my photos are posted at, but other people obtained much better pictures.
Shai Mitra, Bay Shore
(Posted to nysbirds-l 11/19/07)

As of today at Montauk, there is a Pink-footed Goose, a Barnacle Goose, a wiley Ash-throated Flycatcher, and TWO Western Kingbirds. Some of Mike Andersen's pictures from the day are here.

Oct 2007 Auk: White-throated Sparrow Morphs

A genotyping assay to determine plumage morph in the White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis).

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThis simple methods paper was interesting to me because it explained what is known about the causes and differences in the two color morphs of White-throated Sparrow, something I haven’t read about before. As you may or may not know, there are white-striped and tan-striped morphs of White-throats, which may be mistakenly viewed as male/female or adult/immature. They can in fact be either gender and adults, much like red and gray phase Screech Owls. This paper develops a simple PCR method for genotyping individuals not identifiable by morph to plumage (basic-plumage or immature birds).

This is possible, as the authors explain, because the morph differences are caused by a chromosome inversion present in white-striped forms. The exact biochemical effects of this inversion have not been worked out, but there are noticeable behavioral differences that accompany the plumage differences. White-stripe males and females are more aggressive and sing more frequently, while tan-stripe individuals spend more time in parental behaviors (see citations in paper for more information).

Hopefully the genotyping method Michopoulos et al. have developed will lead to further insights into this strange system!

Vasiliki Michopoulos, Donna L. Maney, Caroline B. Morehouse, and James W. Thomas. 2007. A genotyping assay to determine plumage morph in the White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis). The Auk. Vol. 124 No. 4 1330-1335.

Oct 2007 Auk: Interesting Papers

I just received my October 2007 edition of The Auk, so I will be posting summaries and thoughts on the papers that most interested me. These include: novel uses of isotope analysis, courtship displays, a really cool method of feeding by shorebirds, a fossil, a phylogeny, and a hybrid zone analysis. Stay tuned, this will be fun.

Update: This issue of the Auk is now available from BioOne.

A genotyping assay to determine plumage morph in the White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis).

A tody (Alcediniformes: Todidae) from the early Oligocene of Germany.

Cooperative display and lekking behavior of the Lance-tailed Manakin (Chiroxiphia lanceolata).

Small-prey profitability: field analyses of shorebirds’ use of surface tension of water to transport prey.

Stable-isotope (C, N, H) analyses help locate the winter range of the Coastal Plain Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana nigrescens).

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Something I'm not Thankful for


I always take the Ithaca -> Geneva -> Rochester -> Batavia -> Buffalo bus when I head home, taking a total of 3 to 3.5 hours. Yesterday I took this bus to head home for Thanksgiving, and it took a total of 7 hours to get home to Buffalo. It was the single most ridiculous trip I've ever taken.

I had my doubts when I got on the bus in Ithaca, and heard the driver outside saying that Geneva wasn't on his itinerary and denying people on the bus (despite people already Geneva-bound on the bus). Well things seem to be resolved and the bus chock full of people heading to Rochester, Buffalo, and points west took off. Here is the usual route, for reference. The bus took off, and headed east. Very strange, but I decided the bus must be headed up the east side of Cayuga Lake, because a portion of the road west was closed. Instead of heading up the lake, we continued east to Cortland. Well now I thought, we must be looping through Syracuse (see our actual route here), which was profoundly stupid and adds 1.5 hours to the trip. Oh well, I thought. I should mention at this point that the driver never once addressed the bus the entire trip.

We arrived in Syracuse and instead of turning onto the 90 west, we pulled into the bus station and the driver opened the luggage compartments. Sheer pandemonium resulted, as several people got out to question what the F we were doing at the Syracuse station and then the whole bus practically revolted. I caught snippets of the arguing outside the bus and basically the explanation was the bus driver forgot where he was going, and thought this was Rochester. Well we ended up staying at the station for nearly half an hour as the driver vanished for a while, leaving us in a state of near-panic, and he finally came back and quickly started to pull away (still not addressing the bus with a single word), before he was shouted down because there were still people outside (he muttered 'they shouldn't have gotten off').

Well we finally got to Geneva (a Geneva local on the bus had to guide him to the station) and Rochester (a Rochester native had to guide him to the station), and then Batavia. Along the way it was very apparent that he was a terrible driver, and the whole ride was taking its toll on us because he had the heat cranked, the vents didn't work, and the reading lights didn't work. In Batavia, we promptly got lost for 40 minutes looking for the station to drop off a single person (we let her off at a Rite-Aid after about 30 minutes). Now, Batavia is barely a city, so that means we were criss-crossing the main drag repeatedly.

Finally, we arrived in Buffalo at 9pm, after a 2pm start, giving a total transit time of 7 hours for a 3.5 hour trip. Absolutely. Goddamn. Ridiculous.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


How thousands of fish are destroyed in the streams.
The destructive work of the Heron, Kingfisher, Wild Duck, Water Snake, and the Snapping Turtle.

So begins this New York Times article from 1884. It exemplifies the attitude of the time towards wildlife - game species are good, anything that impacts our preferred game species is vilified, and we should manipulate the natural world to meet our will. Throw in a healthy dose of anthropomorphism and you have yourself a party.

The main body of the article describes the hunting practices of major predators along a creek in NY. Check out the characterization of the following:

The Heron

One blue heron, given free scope in a trout stream, would take from it, on a reasonable average, 1200 trout, all full grown, and many of them filled with eggs, during the time the bird fishes, which is from the time the ice leaves the streams in the Spring until it forms again in the Fall or Winter

Many of them filled with eggs! Not the babies! It's relatively pointless to correct an article like this on its numbers, but I am interested in what this figure entails. Lets see.. spring through fall... say 245 days. 1200/245 = 4.9 adult trout a day per heron. Say 2kg for an adult brook trout, our smallest species, and you have herons comsuming 10kg of fish a day. The weight of a Great Blue Heron in Sibley is 2.4 kg. So herons consume four times their weight in trout a day. Anyone know actual figures regarding heron consumption?

The Wild Duck

Always a glutton, when a duck finds the spawning beds in the small streams that feed the main water it will soon devour thousands of eggs, and shovel the entire contents of the breeding places into its stomach if not molested. One flock of wild ducks can easily destroy the entire breeding prospects of any trout stream in a short time.

I wonder what duck hunters would think about the implied attitude of the article that ducks should be controlled? Everyone has different values.

The Water Snake

The water snake, lurking as it does by the hundred along every trout stream, fishes with so much tact and cunning that it numbers its prey by the thousand from the time it emerges from its hole when the warm weather comes until it is driven into its Winter quarters.

By the calculations above, that means water snakes also eat 4-5 prey items a day. Ridiculous.

The Snapping Turtle

The harshest words of all are saved for the snapping turtle: of the deadliest foes of the finny tribe in existence.

The snapping turtle is one of the antediluvians. It has cruelty in its eye, strength in its muscles, imperviousness in its shell, and neither mercy nor gentleness in its heart and bowels.

Ahhh! No mercy from the snapping turtle bowels!!

The article concludes:

By the watchfulness displayed by the employees of the State Hatching House on Caledonia Creek thousands of trout are saved every year from the depredation of these persistant enemies of the fish. If the game protective laws could prohibit their operations generally throughout the country the increase in the number of trout in those streams would be surprising.

This article clearly predates the Migratory Bird Treaty Act as highlighted by this response to predators:

No less than 30 blue or night herons, some of them measuring seven feet from tip to tip of their wings, have been killed while fishing in the creek this season.

Sadly, this attitude towards the natural world is still very much present today. Today, you just need permits or to pressure the DEC to do it. Just look at the lethal cormorant eradication debate. Cormorants eat fish, sometimes large fish (I know of a Double-crested Cormorant taking a 14 or 15 inch Walleye on Oneida Lake). Anglers don't want anything to impact their fish stocks, so they pressure governments to do anything to remove this easy target. Check out the debate in the UK and in NY.

Compare the vilification of trout predators with the vilification of Double-crested Cormorants in this Niagara Gazette article from 2006 (bold emphasis mine):

The double-crested cormorant is now on the hit list of many northern states along with southern states that have no use for the destructive birds at all. Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Ohio and Wisconsin are joining Vermont, Minnesota and other states in attempting to curtail the explosive growth of the bird.

They have been blamed for denuding islands in Lake Champlain, Ohio and many other states with their droppings and nesting sites. In the southern states, they snatch fish from fish-farm impoundments costing fish farmers millions of dollars in loses.

Most states employ marksmen who use air rifles or .22-caliber long guns to kill the birds. Some states destroy the nests, or when a nest is found, oil the eggs to prevent hatching. In the Great Lakes, double-crested cormorant nests increased from 89 nests in 1972 to more than 120,000 today.

No one has come up with any good things to say about the bird and many fishermen wish for an open season on shooting them. Many anti-hunting and animal-rights groups object to drastic measures to control a pest that has no redeeming value whatsoever. When one bird species, such as the double-crested cormorant, renders an island uninhabitable for humans, then it’s time for it to go.

(Note: I am not denying that Cormorants impact fish stocks and do considerable damage to colony habitat. I only wish to draw comparison to the wording)

This attitude places the human at the forefront, bending nature to his will. If an animal doesn't have a positive economic impact on the human consumer, it has no "redeeming value". This attitude wasn't right in the 1800's and it isn't right now.


One final, unrelated note regarding this quote from the NY Times article:

"The author... saw a mink, a kingfisher, and a water pilot all watching for trout within a distance of 100 feet"

Anyone know what a water pilot is? I tried googling it and came up dry

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Patterns of winter irruptives

First, the almost-winter-finch: Bohemian Waxwing. The first for the Cayuga Lake Basin was reported yesterday by Chris Wood and Tim Lenz. Chris's photos here (note his flickr name).

Matt Young the winter finch guru has posted some more notes on winter finch patterns reposted here with permission (thanks Matt!).

I'd be willing to bet the Bohemian Waxwing found near Long Pt. yesterdy is an early record for the basin.

And in a recent post someone had wondered about Pine Grosbeaks arriving in the Ithaca area before Bohemian Waxwing-- For those of you that don't know, I believe this has to do with origin of irruption. Bohemian Waxwing appear to have a more west to east trajectory, first showing up in numbers to the north in Maine. Birds appear to backfill in from Maine to NY. So, they head west from say Alberta to Maine/Nova Scotia and then backfill in from Maine to NY. Their core zone of appearence in NY is the northern 1/3 of the state from say Watertown to Champlain Valley and points north. During irruptive years they're often found in northern NY in mostly "pure" Bohemian flocks in Jan --usually only a few Cedars are found at all during such years in the winter in northern NY. Bohemian Waxwing is more a Jan bird in northern NY and more a late Feb-early April bird in Ithaca. Then from say Watertown to Syracuse across to Albany many mixed flocks appear and some smaller pure flocks of both species appear.

South of Syracuse we primarily find Cedar flocks with just a few to a handful of Bohemians. South of NY, any Bohemian is quite rare.

Pine Grosbeaks invade the state more from North to South (especially the Maritime ssp.) and from the NW to SE (the Canadian ssp.). So, during the rare years Pine Grosbeaks make it into the Ithaca it is not at all uncommon to find them before Bohemian Waxwings since Bohemians are usually not found in the "basin" until Feb. I believe there were a handful of nearly pure Bohemian flocks in the Ithaca area March 2002. I've also heard about Steve Kelling seeing a pure flock of 20-30 on Mt. Pleasant in Jan back in mid 90's?

Matt Young

Sunday, November 18, 2007

More enucleators

I returned to Summerhill this morning after seeing Pine Grosbeaks there yesterday, with hopes of seeing my life White-winged Crossbills and longer looks at Redpolls. Summerhill did not disappoint. Yesterday, blaze-orange hunters outnumbered birders. After finding the Pinicola yesterday, this morning birders outnumbered hunters with over 20 binocular-bearers plying the dirt lanes in the cold forest. We went for several hours with only the ever-growing numbers of Evening Grosbeaks, a few flyover Crossbills (several of them likely White-wings, a major torment of mine), and two different sightings of Goshawk blitzing across the road's gap in the forest (another miss for me). Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Shrikes, and a flock of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings were seen in the farmland around the woods by myself and others.

It wasn't until later in the morning that the birders found the Pine Grosbeaks being somewhat quiet, feeding on the Spruces and in an open shrub patch feeding on Winterberries (Ilex verticillata). They demonstrated their species name, enucleator, by enucleating the seed centers from berries.

Enucleating! (Following three photos by Shawn Billerman)

So I ended up not yet seeing White-winged Crossbill, but we finished the day by finding a reported flock of Common Redpolls on the way home, totaling near 60 and feasting heavily on Birch seeds - one of their preferred foods and a good way to search for them.