Thursday, June 28, 2007

Wyoming AOU Trip

I got screwed by American Airlines today. My friend Shawn and I were booking tickets for the same flight to Denver. Hey bought first, but when I went to buy the same exact flight a moment later, the price went up a 100 bucks! Shawn's purchase must have reached some kind of price threshold. Needless to say, I was pissed.

My excitement for this coming trip outweighs the hurt from my bank account though. We're going to the 125th meeting of the American Ornithological Union in Laramie, Wyoming. This is only my second conference ever, the first being an absolutely mind-blowing trip to Mexico for the North American Ornithological Conference last fall. I'll have to post about that trip sometime. This conference is hosted by Craig Benkmen, a really neat guy who studies ecological evolution of Crossbills (Loxia), and their coevolution with conifer cones. Check out his site for more details on his research.

Shawn and I are going to Colorado and Wyoming from August 5th - August 12th, doing some birding and herping with friends, and then presenting posters at the conference, which has an awesome line-up in its program.

My poster was supposed to be:

Role of primary hooklets in copulation in the Northern Rough-winged Swallow. NICHOLAS D.
SLY, Lab. Ornithol., Cornell Univ., Ithaca, NY, and DAVID W. WINKLER, Dept. Ecol. & Evol.
Biol. Cornell Univ.

Long story short, I won't be presenting that poster. Instead, I'll be presenting a poster along the lines of:

Comparative phylogeography of Hispaniolan endemic birds. NICHOLAS D. SLY, Lab. Ornithol., Cornell Univ., Ithaca, NY, and IRBY J. LOVETTE, Dept. Ecol. & Evol. Biol. Cornell Univ.

I'll be posting about my research projects soon, if anyone is interested.

If anyone else is going to the conference, let me know!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Pre-dawn Swallow Shenanigans

I started work this morning at 3:30am, after only 3 hours of sleep. Why? To trap birds in their burrows before they wake up, of course!

I have joined Wink's research crew the past two mornings, to capture Bank Swallows by placing simple traps in their burrows before they wake up. The traps consist of a metal or paper towel roll tube, with a ziploc bag taped around the end. Place the tube in the burrow, the bird wakes up, heads out the tube, and falls into the bag. Here's Wink demonstrating the traps in action last year:

Unfortunately, our jaunt this year was too early to get light for my camera, so I have a lot of weird long-exposure images. I like to think of them as artsy.

Here's the bank (last year) with a large colony of Bank Swallows (if I recall correctly, over 70 active holes last year). A handful of N. Rough-winged Swallows and Belted Kingfishers also nest in the area:

We came in yesterday, and scouted out the holes. We identified and mapped which burrows were within reach of our ladder, and watched to see which were occupied. We then placed the ladder, and did a small bit of scraping to give the ladder some notches to fit into on the sloping face. We then stashed the ladder until this morning, when we returned before even the lightening gray of dawn. Ladder went up, Wink went up, placed some traps, and then treated us to a hearty breakfast:

We waited about an hour, and the sky lightened to gray. We heard one, then several, then a whole swarm of Bank Swallows as they awoke, and either exited their burrows or arrived from there roosts. We saw birds tumble into one trap, and Wink retrieved them. After a while, no birds came out of the other burrows, but we saw adults hovering at the traps trying to get in. We realized that the chicks were near enough to fledging, that the adults were no longer sleeping in the burrows. So, down came the traps and ladder, and off we went with our catch of the day:

You might now be wondering why we stole these birds from their homes. Last year, a fellow undergraduate started a project in Wink's lab to compare the aerial maneuverability of various swallows species and other insectivores. Wink wanted more Bank Swallow samples this year.

The flight tunnel (the long side tunnels are camera mounts):

It turns out we caught two from the same nest this year, both juvenile, post-fledged (fully flighted) birds. We were definitely too late this year to catch adults. Aren't they adorable?

A Bank Swallow from last year, showing a unique feature to the genus, a feather tuft above the hallux (rear claw):

It's quite an experience to finish an 8-hour workday before lunch!

Monday, June 25, 2007


My summer herp blitz continues. This weekend's installment: Eastern Massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus)!

Finding this ultra-rare (in NY at least) snake involved slogging through mosquito-infested, brush-choked swamp and bog. First, before we even walked out of the parking lot, a nice big Pickeral Frog jumped by. It had nice electric lime green highlights around the dark spots on its back, and ridges down the middle of the back, which I haven't seen before. It posed nicely:

But, on with the rattlesnake!

The sweetest flip:

A large, gravid female Massasauga, very calm, only rattling a little bit and never even thinking about striking:

Kudos to Amanda T., the venomous expert among our group. Without her experience in handling rattlers, it would have been a very different trip (it probably wouldn't have happened at all).

She found the girl, and gently hooked her while our scattered group converged at her point in the swamp (gathering the troops when you can't see in any direction is a more difficult task than you might think!).

The eastern massauga has a black belly (western has white w/ dark markings):

We let her go after everyone had soaked in a good look. She didn't move far, and hid. She's still probably under the same coverboard.
We were ecstatic. Amanda was downright giddy (and still is today). I was absolutely stoked:

The others decided that this was the Holy Grail of NY herps. I disagreed, holding out for the Long-tailed Salamander from a few weeks ago, or at least a Hellbender. We settled on Champie.

On the way out of the swamp, we passed the edge of the field that was swarming with hundreds, if not thousands of skippers. They scattered before us in clouds. I failed to capture a decent shot to show you the numbers, but here's a few perched (Amy, what kind of milkweed?):

Group shot, and bog feet (my own socks were solid muck - i fell in up to my thighs twice):

Things unraveled from there. Jim didn't look while backing out of the parking lot. The result:

Notice, the rear wheel is in the air, the back bumper is supported on the far side of the ditch.

This incident, and lunch, and rattler euphoria (Amanda, during lunch: "Smell my hands... rattlesnake musk. I'm not washing that off!") killed our motivation. We did check one more spot, hoping maybe for Ribbon Snakes or Spotted Turtles (no luck on either). We did see a few more cool observations:

Cliff Swallows gathering mud:

A large Snapping Turtle, basking four feet up in a tree:

I missed the picture of him plunging off the branch, with a complete lack of grace.

My tally of herp species for the year in NY is at 35 (out of 68, not counting sea turtles). What will I go for next? I don't know, but it's going to be good.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Bird Oddities 3

Leucistic Purple Sandpiper

A hybrid Wigeon

A strange Swallow. It matches no species, and is probably some aberrant Barn Swallow or perhaps a hybrid.

A hybrid duck
Another hybrid duck
Discussion of the hybrids on ID-Frontiers

Odd variant or hybrid Western Kingbird

And finally, the oddest bird of all, tentatively identified as a Wink, sighted in an intro biology class:

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Eye on the Sky Today

This afternoon, Tompkins County and nearby areas were placed under a Tornado Warning - a very rare occurance for NY. Big supercell thunderstorms were barrelling down on us. I of course ran out onto a roof on campus to get a view of the spectacular storm looming overhead and just barely missing us. There were scattered reports of actual touchdown, but nothing confirmed yet. I didn't see any funnel clouds from the roof, but the view was stunning. I only wish I had my camera.

Continuing a day of awesome aerial displays today, I watched the Space Station and the Space Shuttle fly over Ithaca just after dusk. These bright beacons moved very fast, transiting the arc of sky I could see in no more than two minutes. I also observed Jupiter in a telescope, only the second time for me. It glowed brightly, and in the scope a line of four moons to either side was clearly visible. Very cool!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Adirondack Birding Trip

My summer weekend adventures continued this past weekend with a long-awaited trip to the Adirondacks. Jim Pawlicki, Shawn Billerman, and I made a trip up to the Old Forge, Saranac Lake, and Lake Placid areas for some target boreal bird specialties, and one unique boreal herp.

We started at Ferd's Bog near Inlet around 7pm Friday evening. We had a Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus) nest staked out by some contacts Shawn made before the trip. This is a boreal-specialty woodpecker that is only found in the 'Daks in NY. According to Shawn's research, a Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis) was associating with these birds, which is the rarer of the two boreal woodpeckers in the Adirondacks, and is much harder to find.

Ferd's Bog

The evening started slow, and we picked up a few neat local breeders, including Lincoln's Sparrow singing and carrying food for its young, and a chorus of White-throated Sparrows. Shawn and I found some Pink Lady's Slippers (Cypripedium acaule) including an alba variety:

While Shawn and I worked the woods near the bog for woodpeckers, Jim began a series of incessant Barred Owl hoots from the bog boardwalk. No woodpeckers responded, but a Common Raven (Corvus corax) and two Gray Jays (Perisoreus canadensis) came in to investigate.

We gave up at dusk, and camped at Limekiln Lake, where we had the good fortune of having a lakefront site and a serenade of Bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana). Disappointingly, we heard no Loons, nor did we have any at all during the trip.

We returned to Ferd's bright and early Saturday, at 5:30am. Just as we entered the spruce woods surrounding the bog, we heard a Black-backed Woodpecker calling and drumming. We located a male on a snag, drumming and preening.

Ferd's Bog at Dawn

Male Black-backed Woodpecker

Male Black-backed Woodpecker preening

We got excellent scope views of this lifer for all involved. What happened next was one of those classic 'ones that got away' stories. We heard a second Black-backed drumming close by, and Shawn went to investigate while Jim and I watched and photographed the first. Shawn walked out to the start of the boardwalk, where it exits the spruces and enters the bog, and found a female Black-back on the edges of the spruces. There was a 'commotion of woodpeckers' in the spruces, with at least two, possibly three woodpeckers calling, and one clearly chasing another. I walked out onto the boardwalk to see what Shawn was looking at, when Jim behind us yelled. We ran back to him, but the woodpeckers had all flown. In the sudden flurry of woodpecker activity, Jim had spied a second male woodpecker, smaller than the male Black-backed, with more white in the wings and more yellow and white on the head. Lighting and views were too poor and short to see the back, and just when his mind clicked 'Three-toed!!!' the bird was gone, being chased away by the Black-backed pair. The birds flew across the bog and channel to the woods disappearing to the west. Fairly quickly, a Black-back started drumming from that direction. Jim wasn't confident enough to call it a Three-toed for sure, but based on what he first saw, and after reviewing the Sibley description of eastern birds with less white on the backs, we feel pretty confident that we just missed a male Three-toed Woodpecker.

For the next 45 minutes or so, we could hear two Black-backs drumming: the pair from the west, and another individual from the forest in the northeast corner of the bog. We found a nest hole in a tall branchless snag to the west, occupied by Tree Swallows. After a long wait, we were joined by a couple of NYC birders, just in time to observe the pair of Black-backs fly east toward us and land on this snag. They began interacting aggressively, chasing the swallows off their perchs at the top of the snag, and the swallows dive-bombing the woodpeckers.

After several minutes, the pair flew over our heads on the boardwalk and disappeared into the woods to the east. Other birds seen included Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Northern Parula, Nashville Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Purple Finch, Winter Wren, and Lincoln’s Sparrow. We left very happy.

From Ferd's, we drove up to the high peaks region, to Whiteface Mountain overlooking Lake Placid. This peak had Bicknell's Thrush, the northeastern endemic thrush recently split from Gray-cheeked Thrush. Also there have been recent reports of both Red and White-winged Crossbills. We were surprised to find the Whiteface memorial road to the summit had a $19 toll. We forked the cash, and continued up the mountain, taking in the incredible views. We had multiple Nashville and Blackpoll Warblers, Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, and a flocks of Pine Siskins on the way up. We went up to the summit, and walked around there, hoping to hear a Bicknell’s down below. It wasn’t until we started the drive down when we picked up Bicknell's. Four or five Bicknell’s began counter-calling to each other, and one finally popped up for a look. It teased us by staying just out of view, but finally offered a look long enough to see the field marks. A little further down the road, we heard another Bicknell's sing.

Whiteface Mountain

Sitting at the summit, 4857 ft.

View from the summit (Lake Placid to the South)

That afternoon, after pitching the tents, we spent a little time herping, and soon found the Adirondack’s only specialty herp, the Mink Frog (Rana septentrionalis), in a scummy little pond. I sniffed a few, and they do indeed have an unpleasant odor, like a musk with a hint of rotting onion. You have to get pretty close to smell it:

The Mink Frog is similar to the Green Frog (Rana clamitans) and co-inhabits the same areas. The Mink has a splotchy dark pattern all over, with little or no dorsolateral ridges. The legs are blotched, in Green Frog they are banded. All the Minks I saw were smaller than Greens, I don't know if they can get bigger.

That evening we birded the Chubb River, upstream of Lake Placid. It was nice to spend the evening along the riverside and listen to the local breeders, although we saw nothing new of note. We did find some Raccoon tracks along the muddy banks:

Sunday morning we woke bright and early to head to Bloomingdale Bog, north of Saranac Lake. On Bigelow Road, a dirt lane through dense spruce forest, we heard our first Boreal Chickadees (Poecile hudsonica) of the trip. We spished a few into view and got good looks, tallying 5 total. Driving (and walking when the road deteriorated too much to drive) down the road, we saw several Snoeshow Hares (Lepus americanus), a new mammal species for Jim and I.

Spruce Forest

Boreal Chickadee

Snowshoe Hare

Kinglets, Warblers (including Parula and N. Waterthrush), and Hermit Thrushs were singing in good numbers down the trail. We reached an area of dead trees, and found a female Black-backed Woodpecker drumming.

We headed back south a little bit, and found a trail out into some more open habitat of Bloomingdale Bog. Right at the entrance, we had a possible Philadelphia Vireo, and a definite Blue-headed Vireo in close, singing. Shawn spied Gray Jays back in the forest, and a pair came out to investigate us. They mostly stayed quiet, calling once, and we followed them quietly down the trail. We found ourselves working silently down the trail (me snapping pictures as best I could), with one bird on each side of the trail. I don't really know who was following who, but we walked together for a good quarter mile, offering stunning looks at these great birds.

After recovering from that awesome experience, we continued down the trail, and encountered many good breeders: Winter Wren, Nashville Warbler, Lincoln's Sparrow, both Kinglets, and Palm Warblers, to name a few. The Palm Warblers were all yellow underneath, and were very close in appearance to the Eastern race of Palms, although a little duller. We heard another Black-backed Woodpecker, but didn't get to see it. In the marshes, we heard some Mink Frogs calling along with the Greens. We made our way back out, running into a small group including fellow Lab of Ornithology birders Chris Wood, Jeff Gerbracht, and Steve Kelling. We can't go anywhere anymore without running into people. In the parking lot we found one of the better bumper stickers I've ever seen:

From there, we headed home. We had a fantastic trip, and owe special thanks to the people who responded to Shawn's request for locations. With their help we were very successful in locating birds. Thanks!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Random tidbits on Knots and Science

The ban on horseshoe crab harvest in Delaware has been struck down by a judge. I guess a few fishermen are more important than the major food supply for our Atlantic Flyway shorebirds. In other news, Red Knot populations have plummeted 80% in recent years, from 100,000+ in the 80's to less than 20,000 now.

The Evolution vs. Intelligent Design people in the blogosphere have been very active recently:

'Irreducible Complexity' is reducible after all - Another purported example of Michael Behe's ridiculous concept falls prey to actual science. You should take this cartoon to heart, Behe: Science, it works...

Behe is out with a new book: The Edge of Evolution. I would love to dissect this book myself, but as I looked it over in Borders, I decided I don't want to support him with a single cent. I'll wait till I can get my hands on a free copy. Meanwhile, science bloggers are having a heyday skewering it.

The Discovery Institute has put out a new textbook to subvert the teaching of science: Exploring Evolution. It looks like a well put-together affair. It plays the evolution 'debate' like it is even-handed, but just from reading the online samples, I can tell how quietly and subtly it downplays and misrepresents the science of things. It really disgusts me how they market this to an audience of high school teachers and home-schoolers, who don't have the background to see through the bullshit.

Comments on William Dembski's ID blog attempt to skewer 'Darwinists' over the discovery of some function in 'junk DNA'. The arguments are so twisted and stretched to blame the Darwinists, it is hilarious. A science blogger responds.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

More herping - We just can't stop!

Cornell Herpers with no classes to keep them occupied have proven yet again to be a formidable force. Five friends and I herped some local spots today, with four targets: Coal Skink (the only lizard in Upstate NY, rare and localized, would be new for almost all), Smooth Green Snake (an awesome snake that some of us (including me) had never seen), Wood Turtle (multiple females laying eggs on a friend's property, would be new for nearly all), and Four-toed Salamander (would be new for nearly all).

Paul, Shawn, Eric, Tina, Mike, and I set out at the break of dawn to get to the fields known to contain Coal Skinks before they warmed up. We wanted to catch them hiding in brush piles or basking before they could warm up enough to move out and forage, where only random chance could find them. Less than 10 minutes out of the van, Eric lets out a cry - "Green Snake!!" One target reached very fast! The snake was very obliging:

Shawn seems just a little too excited about his first green snake:

The next 2 hours were spent combing these upland fields for more finds. We found a large number of Common Garters, as well as good numbers of Redbelly Snakes. Here are a few, some of whom had more pink than red bellies:

We also had a very nicely colored Ring-neck Snake:

Finally, in one of the small fields, one of the last options we had left, I located a bark pile and started to dig through. Out came my first Coal Skink!

This specimen was a juvenile, as was the second one we found, while trying to remember the combination to the gate at the back end of the property (we ended up having to drive back to the front!):

We had some time to kill before heading over to our friend Sarah's house to look for the Wood Turtles, so we popped on over to our local Black Rat Snake spot. We quickly located one roosting in the rafters, as well as several large skins:

The Wood Turtles ended up being a bust. We missed the laying females by several days, and failed to locate them with an hour of searching the woods and marshes nearby. However, Sarah will keep close tabs on the known nests, so we may yet get to see baby Wood Turtles running around! Our final spot of the day, a local bog where we hoped to find the sphagnum-loving Four-toed Salamander, was also a bust today. We did find a Painted Turtle on the trail:

We were all still happy with our mornings' finds though, and missing some things means we'll just have to get out there again soon...

Finally, as a small add-on, here are a few other pics from the day:

A Ctenucha moth

A really cool crane fly. When it flew, it held its bold black-and-white legs out stiff, and flew slowly. It was very strange. I have some poor video of the flight I will try to add later, and I will see if I can get an ID on it.

A large shelf fungus

A note on snake photography technique (applies to all small herps). Eric demonstrates the method he taught us: cup your hands over the critter for a minute, until you feel it settle down. Then release and snap the picture while it's still curled up, before it runs again. It works really well and allows for more natural shots than those restrained by hands.

Trip Totals

Ambystoma maculatum (Spotted Salamander) - 1
Notophthalmus viridescens (Red-spotted Newt) - 26
Plethodon cinereus (Redback Salamander) - 33

Bufo americanus (American Toad) - x

Hyla versicolor (Gray Treefrog) - 1
Pseudacris crucifer (Spring Peeper) - 2

Rana clamitans (Green Frog) - x

Rana catesbeiana (Bull Frog) - x

Rana pipiens (N. Leopard Frog) - x

Rana palustris (Pickeral Frog) - 4

Chrysemys picta (Painted Turtle) - 16

Eumeces anthracinus (Coal Skink) - 2

Storeria dekayi (Dekay's Brown Snake) - 8

Storeria occipitomaculata (Redbelly Snake) - 15

Thamnophis sirtalis (Common Garter Snake) - 35

Diadophis punctatus (Ringneck Snake) - 1

Opheodrys vernalis (Smooth Green Snake) - 2

Elaphe obsoleta (Black Rat Snake) - 1