Sunday, February 28, 2010

Gulling in Churchill: A Larophile's Dream

Oh Canada! Land of the gulls! (adult Thayer's Gull)

If there is one thing that has put Churchill on the birder’s map of North America, it was the arrival of breeding Ross’ Gulls in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Ross’ Gull in North America has always been the holy grail among gulls, second perhaps only to Ivory Gull in beauty and rarity. However, the chance to see a Ross’ Gull, in breeding plumage, reliably, was something that, until found in Churchill, had been only a pipe dream for most birders. Ross’ Gull, though, is not the only neat gull that can be found around Churchill.

Our gulling adventures around Churchill began the first few days of June, at the new dump. Where else would you start a winter gulling expedition, than the local dump? The dominant gull around Churchill by far was the Herring Gull. However, we tried our darnedest to turn up some more species, and we were not disappointed. We were able to track down 3 other species of Larus gulls, with Glaucous Gull being second to Herring Gull, followed, surprisingly, by Thayer’s Gull (although on some days, Ring-billed Gull were more numerous than Thayer’s). We spent quite a bit of time searching through Herring Gull flocks for Thayer’s Gull, and we spent a lot of time photographing them. When in alternate plumage, Thayer’s are a sharp looking gull. We were also able to get some audio recordings of Thayer’s Gull long-call, which was a new species for the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

How many Thayer's Gulls do you see in this flock (hint: there are more than one)?

Adult Thayer's Gull in flight at close range, along the ice edge on the Churchill River

A pair of adult Thayer's Gulls lounging on a rooftop in Churchill

Moving into the second week of June, while the large gulls were still loafing around town and the dump, the Bonaparte’s Gulls started showing up along the Churchill River. Over a three day period, a particularly large feeding flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls had gathered along the Churchill River. In this large flock, to our excitement, were 30+ Sabine’s Gulls, and 5-10 Little Gulls. Also associating with this gull flock were many Arctic Terns. Being able to watch this group of birds forage, often at close range, was incredible, and it was the first time I was able to study Sabine’s Gulls for any length of time.

An adult Glaucous Gull loafing with the Herring Gulls along the Churchill River

A pair of Arctic Terns resting on a rock in a pond near town

Along with the influx of small gulls along the river, came jaegers. At first, we only saw a few Parasitic Jaegers here and there, often either as fly-overs, or along the river. However, we also started seeing Long-tailed Jaegers, as well as a few scattered Pomarine Jaegers (I only saw one myself). The Long-tailed Jaeger was a new bird for me, and quickly became my favorite jaeger. One day, Jay and I watched a pair of Long-tailed Jaegers hawking insects above a small pond. It was quite an incredible sight.

One of a pair of Long-tailed Jaegers that were hawking insects at Akudlik

By the end of the second week of June, most of the non-breeding gulls began departing. Soon, we were left with only Herring, some Ring-billed, Bonaparte's, and some Little Gulls. Unfortunately, we never were able to find a Ross' Gull.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

An Adventure into the Great White North Begins

*Note: Text and photos in Churchill and Chile posts are by Shawn Billerman

On May 27th 2009, I started my summer job. What was my summer job? I was a field assistant for a graduate student from Cornell University studying Hudsonian Godwits in Churchill, Manitoba. I was with a crew of 3 other students, all friends from Cornell. Our primary tasks were to find godwit nests, catch and band godwits, try to recover light sensing data loggers that the crew put out last field season (which are used to figure out the godwits’ movements over the course of the previous year), catch and band godwit chicks, collect insects in daily and weekly transects to get an idea of what is available to chicks to eat, and, finally, complete habitat surveys to get a better idea of the micro-habitat requirements for nest sites, as well as the preferred chick foraging habitat.

But, I’m getting way ahead of myself. I left New York early the morning of the 27th, flew to Minneapolis, then to Winnipeg, and finally I was on a small prop plane on my way to Churchill. I was very excited. The plane could seat roughly 25 people, and I was only one of 8-10 people on the plane. I had an entire two seats to myself. As we fly north from Winnipeg, it started to cloud over. Darn. I was looking forward to seeing the area as I was landing, to get a feel for it. Oh well. After about a 2 hour flight, we start to descend into the Churchill area. Still cloudy… Finally, with only about 2 or 3 minutes of flight time left, we drop below the clouds… and I was stunned by the view. Now, I had some idea of what to expect from what the others told me last year… there was still snow on the ground, but there were open patches, the smaller ponds were all free of ice, and full of birds, such as Pacific Loons, there were shorebirds starting to set up territories, ptarmigans were calling, the works. What I saw was not what I was expecting… the land was covered in snow and ice… and it was still snowing. We land, and I step off the plane and onto the tarmac, and the snow is swirling around me, and I rush to the building to collect my luggage. Lee Ann, the science coordinator for the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, the place I would be living for the next 2 months, was there to pick me up. After introductions, and a short wait, we were off. The study center was a short 15 km drive away, but the roads made that a difficult trip. The roads were coated with snow and ice, with tall, 3 m tall snow banks on either side of the road. I got my first view of Hudson Bay on the drive in… a sheet of ice and snow.
We got to the center, I get a brief tour, I eat a quick dinner, and I am off to hang out, meet new people, and get better acquainted with my new home.

The view I had from the plane coming into the Churchill Airport. The line going down through the boreal is the rail line that connects Churchill to Winnipeg

The road to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre was sometimes very hard to see during the first week, with all the snow that fell. But, rest assured, there is a road there

One of my first views of Hudson Bay. In this particular year, my view of the bay would not change until July, when it finally began to thaw

The Churchill Northern Studies Centre! My home for 2 months

Welcome to the Town of Churchill: Polar Bear Capital of the World, Bird Watchers Paradise, Beluga Whale Capital of the World, and Nature's Lighthouse.

Shortly afterward, I get to my room, dig out some clothes, and go to bed early.

View from my room on the first night. Cold... so cold

Ceding control to a Godwit Lover

Since I have been grossly negligent in my blog-writing duties for a long time, I am turning over bird reporting for a while to Shawn Billerman, so he can report on his shorebird field work. Shawn has been working as part of field crew tracking Hudsonian Godwits from their nesting areas at the top of North America all the way to their wintering grounds in southern South America. Stay tuned. (Also see Godwit reports from the same field crew on Round Robin)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Conservation, Paper Subdivisions, and the Google Age

I've been recording Florida Scrub-Jays recently on various sites on the Lake Wales Ridge. I had an interesting experience today trying to make connections between my google maps printouts, my map of the scrub and reserve boundaries, and my on-the-ground field-truthing of where these jays are. My target today was to record every jay in Silver Lake, a scrub reserve that is part of a network of protected areas on the ridge (see map). Here is the Google roadmap of the protected area, most of the area you see north of Columbus Boulevard and Minorca St:

Basically, besides the patch west of Silver Lake itself, it looks like all subdivision! Zooming in farther, the roads even all have names:

Now click from street map to satellite view and turn off the labels. Poof! Roads gone! It looks like a subdivision slated for development made it as far as being uploaded to Google Maps before being bought up for scrub conservation. Then I realized what a common pattern this is in Florida conservation. I couldn't be happier to never see those roads developed. We have too many already.

More depressing is the land not currently protected. Go ahead and click the "Show Labels" on Sat View on and off. Watch the habitat magically disappear!

If that makes you too depressed, like it did me, I checked around and it does look like that parcel is actually targeted for conservation acquisition. Check Appendices 2 and 3 under the "State of the Scrub" report here and search for the Silver Lake properties.

I've encountered other sites like these in my fieldwork in Florida over the past year. Here is a section of another one of these protected sites, Carter Creek. Unlike Silver Lake, this paper subdivision got as far as clearing lanes through the flatwoods and scrub for the roads. There are even a few holdout land parcels with houses scattered through it. Check it out, switch the labels on and off again:

My current work on the Bombing Range sometimes takes me up to another paper subdivision, this one with a very different history. That story was featured, not particularly kindly, in a book, Redneck Riviera. Basically the roads were never cleared (never even intended to be cleared, if you believe the stories in the book), and it is now under the governing of the River Ranch Property Owners Association. There is a big swath of land dedicated to setting up camp or RV or trailer, and an enormous tract of undeveloped land used for lots and lots of hunting. While it may be criss-crossed by an insane maze of ATV and 4wd and swamp buggy tracks, I don't think this is a particularly bad end for a paper subdivision. Some of the camps get really redneck, which makes working there fun:

Finally, last spring Eric and I, on a herping trip through south Florida, briefly visited the big granddaddy of all paper subdivisions: Picayune Strand. Read that link for the backstory.

It was a bit of a shock while roadcruising to pop out the back end of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve (that road coming through the wilderness on the right) and into a maze of cleared dirt roads and canals. These road scars through the state forest are easily visible on the zoomed-out satellite view, and they also have names in Google Maps, if you zoom in and turn the labels on.

Is this a uniquely Floridian conservation strategy? I can't recall encountering anything like this in New York, but then upstate NY isn't besieged by swarms of retires looking for nice gated communities.

Edit, postscipt:

I came across a relevant quote in the old Pat McManus book I've been re-reading:

"City planners have shown beyond doubt that old orchards, meadows, and pine woods, which once threatened the outskirts of many of our towns and cities, can be successfully eradicated by constructing a housing development on top of them. To my knowledge there has not been a single recurrence of an old orchard, meadow, or pine woods after one application of a housing development."
(Patrick F. McManus, "The Backyard Safari" in A Fine And Pleasant Misery)