Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Day at the Shack

Saturday, I returned to Shackleton Point, this time as a TA for my Field Biology class's field trip. Shackleton Point, "The Shack", or more formally, Cornell Biological Field Station, is a research station operated by my Natural Resources department on Oneida Lake, a large shallow lake near Syracuse. I spent my summer after freshman year as an intern there, doing my first real fieldwork on nesting colonies of gulls and terns. Since that summer, I've jumped at every chance to return to the station. I had returned as a student in Field Biology to learn about fishes and aquatic research, now I had come back as TA of the same class.

One big moral of this story is - never forget your camera. The biggest thing I wanted to post about was all the cool fish we saw, but I had no photos. No pictures of my students bumbling happily around in oversized waders, no pictures of the cool Pumpkinseed with a healed-over bite taken out of its back. I think I will throw in a link to some pictures from my previous experiences at the Shack just for old times' sake.

The class split into three groups. My group got to do fishes first. We went out on the lake in the Trawler and, well, trawled. We netted a huge mess of hatch year Yellow Perch, dumping them into a big bucket. There were so many you could just scoop up handfuls and not make a dent in the mass of fish. What to do about it? Make the students count them! Our group had just over 1500 ~70mm Yellow Perch with no other species at all. Another group later in the day exceeded our count, with over 1900 Perch.

The students next donned the aforementioned waders, and tried seining the inshore areas around the harbor. We got a lot more diversity from the seines, catching and studying in tanks:

Yellow Perch
Banded Killifish
Brown Bullhead
Sunfish sp. (hatch-year unidentifiables)
Bluntnose Minnow
Tessellated Darter
Logperch (a big Darter)

Rusty Crayfish

I love Darters - catching two species and not having my camera was frustrating.

The last bit of fish catching involved electroshocking. This process involves shocking the water, temporarily stunning fish so they float to the surface and can be caught. We got to see big, living examples of:

Freshwater Drum
Smallmouth Bass
Rock Bass
Brown Bullhead
White Sucker
Yellow Perch (if it isn't been obvious by now, Yellow Perch is the most abundant fish in the lake)

And one final added bonus, were the two long-term captive Longnose Gars in the office fishtank:

The rest of the day consisted of a floodplain forest walk with Charlie Smith (our class professor) and tours of the lab areas. We noticed a fair number of birds on the walk, including some moving raptors. A front had just passed through the day before and hawks were moving south on the winds. We saw Bald Eagle, both Sharp-shinned and Coopers, Turkey Vultures, and Red-tails. We also got lucky with game birds, encountering a Turkey flock with mostly-grown young and running across some Pheasant.

The coolest bird encounter was one that made me wish (again) that I had my camera. We ran into a small flock of migrants - Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Black-throated Green Warblers, a probable Black-throated Blue Warbler, and Chickadees. What made it special was having all but the BTB coming in and bathing in a pool at very close range, allowing fantastic views. Having them in close allowed all of the students see these delightful birds, too.

It was a very satisfying trip overall. The students learned a lot (or at least I hope so!), and I know they had fun. The trip had some level of finality for me too. I have returned several times as a student to the station, and this is probably my last in the foreseeable future. The director is planning his retirement, my grad student advisor is (finally!) graduating, and the cycle of two and a half years have replaced many of the grad students and techs at the place since I first arrived. If I do not return for a long time - so long, Shack, it's been good.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Death from above

I've been feeding crickets heavily for the past week after getting a shipment of 500. I've noticed the flying geckos have responded very well by adopting "hunting positions" in the dark. I have to snap quick pictures before they go running when I turn on the lights. I pity an cricket who runs beneath them.

It seems hanging upside down is a fun, social activity in geckos, because Dagoji started hanging out, too:

Birds can see the magnetic field

Some fascinating new research has suggested that birds can actually visualize the magnetic field they use for orientation during migration. The journal article can be found here, along with an NPR interview and a news article from msn.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Bird of the Day: Campephilus

Once in a while, a perusal of the infamous massive Ivory-billed Woodpecker thread on birdforum, which has long since devolved into something undescribable at over 11,600 posts, yields something useful. Like this post, highlighting videos of almost every extant Campephilus found on youtube. So here it is, a tour of that wonderful genus of woodpeckers:

Powerful Woodpecker (Campephilus pollens)

Crimson-bellied Woodpecker (C. haematogaster)

Red-necked Woodpecker (C. rubricollis)

Robust Woodpecker (
C. robustus)

Crimson-crested Woodpecker (C. melanoleucos)

Guayaquil Woodpecker (C. gayaquilensis)

Pale-billed Woodpecker (C. guatemalensis)

Cream-backed Woodpecker (C. leucopogon)

Magellanic Woodpecker (C. magellanicus)

Ivory-billed Woodpecker (C. principalis)

Imperial Woodpecker (C. imperialis)

Winter Finch Forecast: 2007-2008

*Edit (9/27): I just found the forecast is posted online at the Ontario Field Ornithologist website here, with links to previous forecasts. I suppose then that that it is fairly redundant for me to reproduce it here, but it has become one of my highest-hitting pages according to sitemeter. I have to wonder - was this post linked somewhere or how else is everyone finding it?

The following is a forecast for the winter finch dispersal in Ontario and the northeast for this coming winter. It is compiled yearly by Ron Pittaway of Ontario, Canada, and forwarded around the various listserves. His full acknowledgments are listed below.


Date: Sat, 15 Sep 2007

This winter's theme is "finches going in three directions" depending on the species. Some finches have gone east and west or both, while others will come south. Most coniferous and deciduous trees have very poor seed crops in much of Ontario and western Quebec. The exception is northwestern Ontario such as Quetico Provincial Park, Dryden and Lake of the Woods, where there are good crops on some species. However, north of a line from the top of Lake Nipigon to Manitoba the crops are generally low in the boreal forest. This will be a quiet winter for most (not all) winter finches in Algonquin Provincial Park, in contrast to last winter's bumper seed crops and abundance of finches. Most of last winter's White-winged Crossbills and Pine Siskins departed Ontario this past summer. They probably went either to eastern or western Canada or both where there are bumper cone crops. Type 3 Red Crossbills, which were abundant in Ontario last winter, have probably returned to their core range in western North America. White-winged and Red Crossbills and Pine Siskins will not be irrupting south out of Ontario as they do in some flight years, because most have already gone east and/or west. However, other winter finches such as Pine Grosbeaks, Evening Grosbeaks, Purple Finches and redpolls are irrupting or will irrupt southward out of northern Ontario. See individual species accounts for details. In addition I comment on other irruptive passerines, such as the Red-breasted Nuthatch, whose movements are linked to cone crops. Also included is a comment on northern owls.


Pine Grosbeak: This grosbeak will irrupt south of the breeding range because crops on native mountain-ashes (rowan berries) are generally poor in northeastern Ontario and across the boreal forest. However, crops are good in northwestern Ontario west of Lake Superior. Pine Grosbeaks should wander south to Lake Ontario and perhaps farther in search of crabapples and planted European mountain-ash berries, which have average crops in southern Ontario. Watch for them at feeders where they prefer sunflower seeds. After irruptions, Pine Grosbeaks return north earlier than other northern finches. Most are gone by late March. Buds form a larger part of their winter diet when mountain-ash crops are poor.

Purple Finch: Most Purple Finches will migrate out of Ontario this fall in response to the low seed crops. Currently, Purple Finches are migrating south through southern Ontario. Very few or none will stay behind at feeders in southern Ontario.

Red Crossbill: The Red Crossbill complex comprises 9 sibling Types, possibly full species, which have different call notes, and different bill sizes related to cone preferences. At least three Types occur in Ontario. Type 3 (smallest bill) prefers small hemlock cones (and spruce cones) in Ontario. The hemlock Type 3 was abundant last winter, but is presumed absent now from the province because hemlock produced few or no cones in 2007. Type 4 (medium sized bill) is adapted to white pine cones. White pine cone crops are fair to good (but spotty) in northern Ontario. Currently, small numbers of Type 4 Red Crossbills are present on the "east side" of Algonquin Park (heavy crop on white pine) and probably elsewhere with extensive white pine forest. Algonquin's east side pine forest is accessible from Highway 17 west of Pembroke. South of Algonquin white pine crops are poor to none. An infrequent presumed Type 2 Red Crossbill is associated with red pine forests.

White-winged Crossbill: This crossbill moves back and forth across northern coniferous forests searching for new cone crops. Most White-winged Crossbills left Ontario this past summer. They will be scarce or absent in Ontario this winter. They presumably went either west to bumper spruce and fir cone crops in Alberta and British Columbia, and/ or to Atlantic Canada, which has large cone crops on spruce and balsam fir, particularly in Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. White-winged Crossbills are currently common in Newfoundland and western Canada.

Common and Hoary Redpolls: There will be a big flight of redpolls into southern Ontario and bordering United States. Seed crops on white birch, yellow birch and alder are very poor in most of Ontario. Expect redpolls at bird feeders this winter. Far northwestern Ontario has a good white birch crop so redpolls may be common there.

Pine Siskin: Similar to the White-winged Crossbill, most Pine Siskins departed Ontario this past summer, presumably attracted to huge spruce and fir cone crops in Alberta and British Columbia and/or to big spruce and balsam fir cone crops in Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island and probably elsewhere in the Atlantic Provinces. Some of the very few siskins that remained in Ontario are now wandering south with sightings of usually only ones and twos in southern Ontario. Large southward irruptions occur when cone crop failures span much of Canada. Very few siskins will visit feeders this winter in southern Ontario.

Evening Grosbeak: This grosbeak will irrupt south of the boreal forest this fall because tree seed crops are generally very poor in northeastern Ontario and western Quebec. In recent weeks scattered birds have visited feeders in southern Ontario. Beginning in the early 1980s the Evening Grosbeak declined significantly as large outbreaks of spruce budworm subsided. The larvae and pupae are eaten by adults and fed to nestlings. Expect Evening Grosbeaks at bird feeders in southern Ontario and northern United States, but not in the large numbers seen during the 1970s.


Red-breasted Nuthatch: They have been moving south since mid-June presumably because of the poor cone crop in central Canada. Almost all Red-breasted Nuthatches will depart Ontario's boreal forest by late fall and left the province. Some will be at feeders in southern Ontario, but they will be very scarce in Algonquin Park. Algonquin Christmas Bird Counts (32 years) show a biennial (every two years) high and low pattern, with some exceptions.

Bohemian Waxwing: The poor crop of native mountain-ash (rowan berries) in much of northern Ontario will cause Bohemians Waxwings to wander south and east this winter. Watch for them eating buckthorn berries and crabapples in southern Ontario. The mountain-ash crop is better west of Lake Superior with a big crop around Kenora at Lake of the Woods.

Blue Jay: A strong flight is expected this fall. The beechnut crop is zero and the acorn crop on red oak is only fair to good (aborted in some areas) in central Ontario. Soon thousands of jays will be migrating southwest along the shorelines of Lakes Ontario and Erie, exiting Ontario south of Windsor. This winter there will be far fewer Blue Jays in Algonquin Park and at feeders in central Ontario.

Gray Jay and Boreal Chickadee: They are moving in northeastern Quebec east of Tadoussac along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. These movements could extend to southern Ontario and northeastern states.


Small mammal populations were abundant this summer in northern Ontario, presumably increasing after the big seed/berry/fruit crops in 2006. However, crops this year are very poor in much of the north, partly caused by cold weather and snow in late spring that froze the buds and flowers of many plants. In early August, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources biologists on aerial surveys noted many raptors near James Bay including 15-20 Great Gray Owls, Short-eared Owls (common), Northern Harriers (common) and scattered Rough-legged Hawks. If small mammal populations crash this fall, then Great Gray Owls, Northern Hawk Owls and Boreal Owls will move, possibly southward into areas accessible by birders. Northern Saw-whet Owl numbers are linked to red-backed voles (a forest vole) in Ontario. There is the possibility that this vole could decline soon because it often cycles with deer mice. The huge population of deer mice in central Ontario is declining rapidly now because of poor seed crops this summer, particularly sugar maple samaras, which they store for the winter. If red-backed vole numbers decline as they often do in association with deer mice, there will be a strong flight of Northern Saw-whet Owls this fall.


I thank staff of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) and birders whose reports allow me to make predictions about finches. They are Ken Abraham (OMNR Hudson Bay Lowlands), Dennis Barry (Durham Region and Haliburton County), Kevin Clute (Algonquin Park), Shirley Davidson (OMNR Minden), Bruce Di Labio (Eastern Ontario), Carrolle Eady (Dryden), Dave Elder (Atikokan), Bruce Falls (Brodie Club, Toronto), Brian Fox (OMNR Timmins to Chapleau), Marcel Gahbauer (Labrador, Alberta, British Columbia), Michel Gosselin (Gatineau, Quebec), Charity Hendry (OMNR Ontario Tree Seed Plant), Leo Heyens (OMNR Kenora), Tyler Hoar (central Ontario and southern Quebec), Peter Hynard (Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia), Jean Iron (Toronto and northeastern Quebec), Christine Kerrigan and Peter Nevin (Parry Sound District), Barry Kinch (Timiskaming), Bob Knudsen (Ontario Parks, Algoma), Bruce Mactavish (Newfoundland), Scott McPherson (OMNR Northeast Region), Brian Naylor (OMNR North Bay), Marty Obbard (OMNR Peterborough), Justin Peter (Algonquin Park), Janet Pineau (Arrowhead Provincial Park), Fred Pinto (OMNR North Bay), Gordon Ross (OMNR Moosonee), Rick Salmon (OMNR Lake Nipigon), Don Sutherland (OMNR Hudson Bay Lowlands), Doug Tozer (Algonquin Park), Ron Tozer (Algonquin Park and Muskoka), Declan Troy (Alaska), Mike Turner (OMNR Brancroft District), Stan Vasiliauskas (OMNR Northeast Region), Mike Walsh (OMNR Muskoka and Parry Sound), John White (OMNR Ontario Tree Seed Plant) and Alan Wormington (Point Pelee). I thank Michel Gosselin, Jean Iron and Ron Tozer for reviewing the forecast. Ron Tozer also provided information from his upcoming book on The Birds of Algonquin Provincial Park.

PREVIOUS FINCH FORECASTS archived at Larry Neily's website: AT

Ron Pittaway
Ontario Field Ornithologists
Minden, Ontario
15 September 2007


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Herp of the Day - Theloderma

Back in March, I stumbled across this thread on requesting ID of an unusual frog from peninsular Malaysia. I was immediately struck by the subtle characteristics of shape, that this was a Theloderma species, but not one I was aware of. All species I have seen are covered in many tubercles. One species is becoming common in the frog hobby: the Vietnamese Mossy Frog, Theloderma corticale, featured in this education program:

I'll add in a photo comparison of the structure of T. corticale with this unidentified frog later. In any event, I posted my suspicions, unable to find hard structural traits to use to support my ID in the limited available literature. Hans forwarded me to this post on his forum, Nature Malaysia, where the prevailing view was that it couldn't possibly be a Theloderma. Fast forward until just a short while ago. I was chatting with a herp-keeper I know who arranges some imports from southeast asia. He mentioned, as I've been interested in various frogs from southeast asia lately, that he is getting in some Theloderma. What species, I ask, thinking T. corticale, T. asperum, or T. gordoni, the only ones I know about in the hobby (and the latter two very rare). T. licin he says.

Theloderma licin
? Well, that's a new one to me. A few google searches later, and my earlier opinions were vindicated: the mystery frog was described as a new species - Theloderma licin - in this year's first Russian Journal of Herpetology. The citation is:

McLeod, David S., and Norhayati Ahmad. 2007. A new species of Theloderma (Anura: Rhacophoridae) from southern Thailand and peninsular Malaysia. Russian Journal of Herpetology. 14 (1): 65-72.

Hans posted about it here, and Danny the herp-keeper posted some of the first specimens in country here. I am unable to get my own copy of the paper, as my library stopped carrying the RJH last year, but here are some scans (click to zoom in and read) from Hans at Nature Malaysia (be sure to check out his site!):

A huge thanks go out to Hans, Danny, and all those involved who helped bring this awesome new discovery to light. Theloderma licin joins the ranks of many other awesome, awesome frogs.

A good overview of many of the other Theloderma species can be found in the excellent journal RJH. This article from RJH last year described another two new species:

Orlov, NL, SK Dutta, HV Ghate, and Y Kent. 2006. New species of Theloderma from Kon Tum Province (Vietnam) and Nagaland State (India) [Anura: Rhacophoridae]. Russian Journal of Herpetology. 13 (2): 135-154.

Pictures I scanned from this article follow (click to zoom and read the caption):

One of the new species, T. ryabovi

T. corticale

T. stellatum

Just begging to be called the bird-shit frog: T. asperum

T. gordoni

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Great Blue Heron vs. Snapping Turtle

An awesome post forwarded with permission from cayugabirds-l:

I've been lurking on this list for a while, but this is my first post. So first off, to everyone who posts their findings on here - a big thank you.

I had a curious encounter with a Great Blue Heron at Sapsucker Woods this morning. I found a juvenile in the little pond on the right that one passes when walking towards the Owen observation platform and he was hunting turtles(!).

He would pick up a turtle, place it on a rock and then try to pierce the shell by using his beak like a harpoon, and one could hear the jarring cracks repeatedly as beak collided with shell, but he made no headway. He then tried to swallow one of the smaller ones whole, but obviously that didn't work either. Eventually, one of the more tenacious pond dwellers decided to fight back - by firmly clamping down on the heron's tongue. The GBH tried for a whole 5 minutes to shake him off (and ended up all bloody from the effort).

Eventually, the turtle let go, but the heron did not learn his lesson and tried a couple more turtles before eventually giving up and wading off.

Here's the link to the rest of my birds gallery, mostly shot at Stewart Park, Sapsucker Woods and the Baldwin Preserve:



Some friends and I headed up to the southern shore of Lake Ontario yesterday to take advantage of stiff winds out of the northwest, driving jaegers and who knows what else towards this end of the lake. Ryan Douglas reports to cayugabirds-l:

Chris Wiley, Shawn Billerman, Nick Sly and I went to Broadway Road on the shore of Lake Ontaio in Wayne County this morning from about 7am-10am. In the first twenty minutes we saw four JAEGERS and ID'd two of them as PARASITIC JAEGERS. One of them eventually flew right over us at close range. A rain squall came through, sending most back to the car, but I stayed out there and saw two more PARASITIC JAEGERS, including one that was only about 20m off shore. All in all we saw 6-10 JAEGERS this morning (Personally, I feel like we saw 8, but a couple were definitely circling around chasing gulls), with almost all of them seen by 8am. After the rain squall went through I only saw one JAEGER way out around 9:30am. Also in the area were 4+ BALD EAGLES, 1-2 PEREGRINE FALCONS, a MERLIN, 8-10 DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANTS, a CASPIAN TERN, RING-BILLED and HERRING GULLS and a COMMON MERGANSER. I also watched one OVENBIRD fly in off the lake and perch out in the open for a few seconds before disappearing.

After Broadway Road we visited the Audubon Headquarters at Montezuma, where the mudflats from last week's Muckrace are now very large puddles. We counted 5 LEAST and 1 SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER, 2 GREATER YELLOWLEGS, 4+ LESSER YELLOWLEGS and 4+ WILSON'S SNIPE. Overall it was pretty dead.


At Tschache Pool we were treated to a flyover SNOW GOOSE with a few CANADA GEESE. Out on the flats I counted 27 LEAST SANDPIPERS in one flock, though more were scattered around. About ten GREAT EGRETS were far out, a MERLIN was flying around and there were scattered SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPERS and SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS.

LaRue's was the highlight of the wildlife drive, but diversity is down from last week. I counted 7 PECTORAL SANDPIPERS, 5 LEAST SANDPIPERS, ~8 SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS, 1 GREATER YELLOWLEGS, 3 LESSER YELLOWLEGS, 4 CASPIAN TERNS and an AMERICAN BLACK DUCK in with the normal gulls and MALLARDS.

On the rest of the drive we added PIED-BILLED GREBE, many NORTHERN SHOVELERS, lots of BLUE-WINGED TEAL and GADWALL and a few AMERICAN WIGEON.

Good birding,

Before this trip, jaeger (any species) would have been a lifer for me. The funny thing is, I saw none of these jaegers. I couldn't get on the distant birds over the lake with a lower-zoom scope, and when the one came flying overhead, I had been tracking a different bird and didn't realize it until too late. Oh well, I guess I'll just have to head up the lake again sometime soon.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Bird Oddities 4

First, some out-of-range birds from this summer:

First record of Newell's Shearwater from Mainland North America

First North American record of Brown Hawk Owl

A Great Knot was recording inland on the East Coast, in West Virginia. Photos were posted on IDFrontiers by Matt Orsie here, here, and here.

A Green Violet-Ear was reported in MAINE.

And best of all, a LARK BUNTING was found by Mike Andersen and Ken Rosenburg in the Basin the day after the Muckrace. I bolted out to see it in the rain, after 12 hours of much-needed sleep. Photos from Mike are here and another by Ryan Douglas here.

Second, a breeding record and hybrids:

A Lesser Black-backed Gull was confirmed breeding in North America for the first time - with a Herring Gull.

An intergrade Yellow-shafted x Red-shafted Flicker was found at the Lab of Ornithology on August 24th by Chris Wood. His description, posted on cayugabirds-l:

"The flicker has extensive red to the underside of the tail and at least two red primaries on each wing (the rest of the primaries and secondaries appear yellow). The face pattern is like that of a Red-shafted but with a hint of buff on the malar."

And finally, aberrant plumages:

A "Cave-like Swallow" posted by David Arbour on IDFrontiers on September 4th. I believe no conclusive opinion was posted to the list, he may have received some privately.

Scott Zevon posted this bird on IDFrontiers on September 12th, which others believe and I agree is a melanin-deficient (leucistic?) Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Migration, Radar, and Stadium Birding

This past spring, I posted some animated .gifs showing songbird night migration erupting northward on radar. That season has returned, with a southbound trend. Here are some collection of links to help you get acquainted with radar birding (these were originally posted to cayugabirds-l by the very helpful Chris Tessaglia-Hymes, thank you Chris!):

Clemson University Radar Ornithology Lab
CUROL Introduction to Radar Ornithology

Christ T-H's page on recording flight calls over his house.

Migration liftoff from Montezuma NWR on Youtube.

Monday night (Sep 9th) was a particularly strong night for migration (click to animate):

Even better, the big bank lights at the Cornell football stadium were on. Conditions weren't perfect - there was little cloud cover and birds were flying by high up, but the call quickly went out on cayugabirds-l and on our cell phone network of friends - there was a heavy fallout at the stadium. In less than half an hour, a dozen birders had assembled in the bleachers of the stadium while the football team practiced on the field below. Tom Johnson reported our findings on cayugabirds-l later:

Last night's light south winds and high clouds still produced a large
flight of birds over Ithaca... I suppose it is just that time of year
when migrants are moving. The lights were on at Schoellkopf Stadium
for football practice, and so of course the birders swarmed the
bleachers from 9:30 PM until nearly 1 AM. We experienced a flight
mostly composed of Common Yellowthroats, Savannah Sparrows, and
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. This year, perhaps more so than the flight
of 15-16 September 2006 (the last large flight), we saw quite a few
warblers in the trees at the edges of the stadium. Savannah Sparrows
again blanketed the turf of the football field, and an American Pipit
(perhaps the first of fall for the Cayuga Lake Basin) briefly joined
We collectively recorded 42 species (same species count as the big
night last year, though overall numbers were much lower this time),
some counts of which I've estimated below. Some counts might be off,
but it is interesting to note that at the elevation of Cornell on the
hill, we get very few thrushes in September in contrast to
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. However, several hundred feet higher out in
Dryden, Jay McGowan recorded a heavy flight of thrushes before heading
over to the stadium. Veeries have started to taper off for the fall,
and were almost nonexistent at the stadium. The highlights of the
flight were 2 Ruddy Turnstones, one of which flew low through the
lights and afforded visual identification in addition to plaintively
calling for several minutes. A distant Dickcissel was also worthy of
note. It seems clear that Dickcissel can be recorded overhead pretty
much any night with a decent flight in Ithaca - this was the 7th I've
heard from campus in the past two falls.


Location: Cornell--Schoellkopf Field
Observation date: 9/10/07

Green Heron 10
Killdeer 1
Solitary Sandpiper 2
Ruddy Turnstone 2
Common Nighthawk 1
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 1
Northern Flicker 1
Eastern Wood-Pewee 2
Eastern Phoebe 1
Gray-cheeked Thrush 15
Swainson's Thrush 60
Veery 2
American Robin 1
Gray Catbird 1
American Pipit 3
Tennessee Warbler 2
Nashville Warbler 2
Northern Parula 2
Yellow Warbler 6
Chestnut-sided Warbler 1
Magnolia Warbler 8
Black-throated Blue Warbler 8
Black-throated Green Warbler 4
Blackburnian Warbler 5
Pine Warbler 1
Palm Warbler 3
Bay-breasted Warbler 5
Blackpoll Warbler 5
American Redstart 5
Northern Waterthrush 4
Ovenbird 1
Common Yellowthroat 400
Wilson's Warbler 4
Canada Warbler 4
Scarlet Tanager 3
Savannah Sparrow 200
Lincoln's Sparrow 1
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 800
Indigo Bunting 10
Dickcissel 1
Bobolink 30

Empidonax sp. 1
Thrush/ Grosbeak sp. 75
Warbler/ Sparrow sp. 200

Almost all of the warblers were confirmed visually, as they fed in the trees near the stadium lights. It was an incredible experience - birds were flying all around above, just visible in the darkness above the lights. We were lucky enough that the lights remained on until nearly 1am, despite the football team finishing up practice before midnight.

It was the best stadium birding night I've yet experienced, but it pales in comparison to the 'big night' two years ago, when stadium birding as a phenomena was discovered by Cornell students. You can check out my classmate Mike Harvey's page on that infamous night of 17 warbler species in October (I missed it) here, and you can hear Ray Brown's Talkin Birds interview Mike about it here. There is even a publication out of it:

Lebbin, D. J., Harvey, M. G., Lenz, T. C., Andersen, M. J., & Ellis, J. M. 2007. Mixed-species flock of fall migrant birds foraging at night by artificial light. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 119:506-508.

This event is incredible to experience. If you have a stadium or other suitable bank of lights, get out there and start looking for night migrants - if you hit a fallout you will never forget the experience.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Scissor-tailed Prairie-Robin Sightings

Now it's finally time for the Muckrace results. My team, one of two Cornell student teams, was the Scissor-tailed Prairie-Robins - Ryan Douglas, Paul Hurtado, Shawn Billerman, Brad Walker, and myself. We were tasked with tromping around the Muckrace territory (outlined in red) for 24 hours to find as many bird species as possible:

Our team headed up to Montezuma as soon as we could get out of class in the mid-afternoon on Friday, Sep. 7th, and scouted a last few locations for the race. We decided to start at Larue’s Lagoon on the wildlife drive, and try to scope and hear some shorebirds in the dying light. When we arrive a little after 7:30pm, many things were readily visible, best of them being a small flock of BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS and a SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER. Light was quickly fading, though, and by 7:55 it was getting increasingly more difficult to pick out and identify the smaller peeps. It was at this point that the shorebirds and gulls began to get restless, and they were inadvertently spooked. The Black-bellies and gulls took off for parts unknown, just minutes before start time.

We started picking off shorebirds immediately at 8pm while we could still pick them out, assisted by call notes as well. We made a decent list, then left Larue’s to begin the night’s owl chasing. We first stopped at last year’s Saw-whet Owl spot, No. 39 Rd near Carncross and Morgan Rds, running into two other teams. Ryan and Paul did their best tooting impressions for twenty minutes, with nothing but silence in return. We next moved locations to try for Barred Owl. We saw another car down the road, so pulled off a ways away and listened. The other car began hooting for Barred, and realized quickly realized one of the voices was a real BARRED OWL, responding. After the other team stopped hooting and we all heard the bird, we drove up and thanked the team (Micky Scilingo’s team) for letting us poach their owl. While chatting with them, we heard a young BARRED OWL screeching/begging to the adults still hooting at us – a new vocalization for many of us.

Next up was an unsuccessful attempt at rails and bitterns on Railroad Road, followed by a never-ending nightlong saga of searching for Screech Owls, or any new species. With stiff south winds on a hot, muggy night, migration was entirely non-existant, and the owls were not responding. We finally gave up halfway through the night, sleeping for two hours in the Audubon Center parking lot. We continued for Screech Owl until the gray light of dawn was bright enough to scope shorebirds. In the end, our searching was entirely fruitless and we had a good six hours with no new species.

Over the next three hours we hit, and re-hit, the classic shorebird spots – Wildlife Drive, Tschache, May’s, and Knox-Marcellus. We pretty quickly ticked off most of the expected shorebirds – highlights were both GOLDEN and BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS (at Tschache and Larue’s, respectively), and BAIRD’s and WHITE-RUMPED SANDPIPERS (at Tschache and Larue’s respectively). Other highlights were falcons – a PEREGRINE flew around our first stop at Tscache, and a MERLIN blitzed by Larue’s. We picked up LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL by stopping to see what Bob McGuire’s team was looking at from the road in the northeast corner of Tschache (across from May’s), before taking cover from a short-lived rainstorm. Spirits reached ever higher when, after lamenting the lack of rails, coot, ruddy duck, and other birds, we quickly saw right near each other on the Wildlife Drive: several YELLOW WARBLERS, a family group of five SORA, a COOT, and a RUDDY DUCK.

By now we had a great list going, especially strong in the ducks and shorebirds, and our spirits were high. However, it was already near to 10am, and we desperately needed songbirds. We headed straight for Howland Island, picking up TURKEY in a random field along the way. We drove across from Carncross Rd. and began hiking from where the main road turns south. We ran into a small flock pretty quickly, near the grove of spruces along the main road. We picked up RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH and PURPLE FINCH right away – normally tough birds that require a side trip to Clyde Cemetery. We also started getting warblers, including REDSTART, NASHVILLE, and MAGNOLIA, but many of these warblers were ‘dirty’ (not seen by all team members) because we got too spread out.

Two or three hours of hiking on Howland yielded relatively poor results, but we still had a lot of fun. Pretty soon after the initial warbler flock, a screech owl whinny sounded off the trail to the south. Other birders had just been imitating screech owls nearby, but this sounded different. So, the only obvious thing to do was to yell at it – “Are you real???” No answer. Careful listening and imitations and we realized that this was a real SCREECH OWL singing at 11am – probably riled up by all the birders spishing and whinnying.

Other Howland highlights included a singing YELLOW-THROATED VIREO, a long-distance SCARLET TANAGER picked up from across one of the Howland ponds, after checking out a perched FLICKER, a drumming RUFFED GROUSE, and a small flock of VEERY, BLACK&WHITE WARBLERS, and RED-EYED VIREOS. We returned from our big loop to the spruce grove, where we encountered another Cornell team, the Kingbirds (Ben Clock, Jesse Ellis, Nate Sennar), working a warbler flock. We picked out BAY-BREASTED and CAPE MAY WARBLERS, among others.

Howland had slowed from few birds to very little by noon, so we departed to check other locations, despite having disappointing few songbirds. A stop at the Audubon Center for registration yielded INDIGO BUNTING and PILEATED WOODPECKER, but our perusal of the shorebirds failed to turn up the Western Sandpiper we later learned was lurking under our noses.

We did another run through of wetland locations, from Martens Tract on south. We cleaned up on all the expected shorebirds, adding our last peep, SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER, at Martens. A stop at feeders near Mudlock yielded CHIPPING SPARROW and TUFTED TITMOUSE. The Wildlife Drive yielded PINTAIL, helpfully pointed out by Ken being just a little too loud in his coaching one of the youth teams, as well as a female REDHEAD, both hidden among the Mallards. Tschache relinquished PIED-BILLED GREBE and HOODED MERGANSER.

Finally, we hit Knox-Marcellus from East Road again. We scoped 3 BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPERS and 2 SANDHILL CRANES, a huge highlight of the race. Having amassed as big a list of wetland birds as we could hope for, we headed back to Howland at 5:30 for a last-ditch attempt at more songbirds. It was pretty quiet, but we did add CLIFF SWALLOW, the last swallow we needed. Finally with the clock ticking down after 6pm, we abandoned Howland and tried the Blueberry Farm for more songbirds. It worked amazingly well – we picked up five new species in fifteen minutes, no easy feat this late in the race – JUNCO, WOOD THRUSH, BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLER, ORIOLE, and FIELD SPARROW.

Our very last spot at East Road for the finish did not yield our much-missed Bitterns. We finished up with about 3 minutes to spare, turning in our day’s tally of 122 species at the Audubon Center at 8pm. Those last five species at the Blueberry Farm saved us (big thanks to the owners!) as we would soon learn.

We tied for third with Chris Tessaglia-Hymes' team, the Gallinagos. Another Cornell team, teh Kingbirds, won second, and the second student team, Wings Over Ithaca, won first with 140 species. It was almost embarassing to have all four top teams be Cornellian. Overall, it was a fantastic Muckrace. We had 17 species of shorebird, all six swallows, and nine warblers. We may not have found great songbird diversity, but we saw plenty of excellent birds.

Jillian Liner, the event organizer, sent out this summary:

The eleventh annual Montezuma Muckrace was a blast thanks to all the
participants, volunteers, and donors. Final results, stories, list of
donors, and more will be compiled into the Muckrace Musings expected out
later this week. In the meantime, some summary stats:

2007 Statistics

Date: 7-8 September

# teams entered: 19

# species seen: 162

# species winning team: 140

Amount money raised: still counting.

Project to be supported: eBird kiosk

Winning team with 140 species: Wings Over Ithaca (Cayuga Bird Club)--Jay
McGowan, Mike Harvey, Glenn Serholzer, Tom Johnson, and Tim Lenz

Second Place with 130 species: The Kingbirds (Cornell Lab of
Ornithology)--Ben Clock, Nathan Senner, and Jesse Ellis

Tied for Third with 122 species: The Gallinagos (In honor of Brenda
Carter)--Gerard Phillips, Chris and Diane Tessaglia-Hymes AND The
Scissor-tailed Prairie Robins--Ryan Douglas, Paul Hurtado, Nick Sly, Shawn
Billerman, and Brad Walker

Winning youth team with 77 species: Downy Chicks (Cayuga Bird Club)--Peri
McGowan, Sarah Beckwith, Rachel Rosenberg, and Olivia Rosenberg

Second place youth with 74 species: The Hummers (Wildbird
Unlimited)--Geoffrey Twardokus and Christian Burns

And, the first Low Carbon Team (participated via bike) finished with 94
species: Audubon NY No rEgrets (Audubon NY)--Mike Burger, Mike Morgan,
Rachel Vallender, and Jillian Liner

Most memorable team bird: Barred Owl family, Western Sandpiper, Sora,
Sandhill Crane, Hood Warbler, and falcons chasing shorebirds

# species seen only in 2007 1 (Clay-colored Sparrow)

# hours birded: 7--24 hours

# warbler species recorded: 20

# shorebird species recorded: 21

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Me in 10 years?

Source: PhD Comics

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Montezuma Muckrace time!

I have 36 hours to go until the start time of this year's Montezuma Muckrace - a 24-hour Big Day competition at the Montezuma Wetlands Complex. If you're not familiar with the Big Day concept - you try to find as many species of birds as possible in one day. In this case, teams compete in competition to find species in a defined area - the MWC. We raise money for conservation projects by collecting pledges based on the number of species found by our team. Last year, the Muckrace raised nearly $10,000 for conservation projects involving the Cerulean Warbler.

This year, I'm competing on one of two Cornell Student Bird Club teams - the Scissor-tailed Prairie-Robins. Cornell Student teams have a long history of placing high in the standings - often at least one of our teams are in the top three. Last year, one student team placed Second, while mine placed sixth with 119 species. See last year's results here.

So - root for us when we hit the field at 8pm tomorrow. And if you're interested in pledging for our team, please write soon - it's not too late.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Stand back...

(Source: the wonderful XKCD)

Monday, September 3, 2007

Hellbender Survey

Saturday, Aug 25th, was Cornell Herpetological Society's annual Hellbender survey in the Southern Tier. We use this trip as an introduction for freshmen to the society. We joined veteran herp researcher, Dr. Richard Bothner, (professor emeritus from St. Bonaventure, author of the new NYS Herp Guide, and and an expert on Thamnophis brachystoma, the rare garter snake whose world range is from the Allegany region to Pittsburgh), and NYS DEC biologist Ken Roblee. They have been monitoring the Hellbender populations in NY for years. The situation isn't good. The species may soon be elevated from its Special Concern status to Threatened or even Endangered in NY State. You wouldn't suspect it, the way Dr. Bothner and Mr. Roblee take us to one of their study sites and we quickly turn up beastly salamanders. However, these sites are some of the last remaining in the state where they occur in any numbers, so we took care to tread carefully. Last year, we had good success. We caught three individuals, including a big 20+ incher. Check out photos and commentary from last year here.

Our first catch this year at Location A was a mid-sized Mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus).

Not long thereafter, a massive Hellbender was discovered. I looked across the creek to see what the shouting was about, and saw a big, squirming Hellbender go flopping person-to-person as they scrambled to get a grip on it, then diving back into the creek and disappearing. Given that it was the one-that-got-away, I'd estimate it was at least 5 feet.... not really, but I think it was a least a 20-incher.

Flipping away!

A few more rock flips later, and someone netted a Hellbender successfully. This guy/gal was small - measured out to 10 inches. Everyone, including our guides, were quite pleased to see a young individual. Finding young Hellbenders has become a rare occurance at many locales. They thought this one was only four or so years old.

We found little otherwise at Location A, so we proceeded to Location B, where the water was flowing faster and clearer, and there were more rocks to flip. After about twenty or so minutes of coordinated groups working there way up the stream, we uncovered two big 'benders in quick succession. We kept them waiting in nets dipped in the running water to keep them oxygenated, while we took them through the data collection process with Ken Roblee.

'Bender Transfer. We placed it into a big tote with some water, inside a long tray to measure length in. Ken is talking about directly measuring the O2 levels of the Hellbender as they work on them, so they can monitor their oxygenation and stress levels.

'Bender Length. Both total length and standard (snout-vent) length are taken, because some 'benders lose tail tips (or more!). They are flipped over to check gender. The two we caught measured just over 18" and 20".

Data on all distinguishing features are taken - toe counts, scarring, etc. The big males can be really beaten up, as they fight with each other over nesting territory. See my linked post from last year to see a male with a big, fresh bite taken out of his neck. These guys have cool toes.

All toes present and accounted for.
Toes not quite all there.
Rex faithfully entering Data, while Dr. Adler and Ian chat.
Mass is also measured:

Finally, the 'benders are checked for PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tags. These subcutaneous electronic tags do not harm the 'bender, and allow Ken to swipe them with a reader and get an individual identification number. Ken has been tagging individuals at these sites for several years, but individuals always escape his efforts, and one of these adults was untagged. I filmed the tagging process (really quite simple). All you do is insert a big nasty looking needle into a skin fold, and leave the tag in place just under the skin.

The PIT tags


After these measurements are taken, the 'benders are returned next to their home rock.

Of course, photography was rampant throughout the process, so here are a few closeup of these beautifully ugly, endearing monsters of the creek:

After these two big 'benders were measured and released, we decided to call it a day. We posed for a group shot on the way out (Second from left: Ken Roblee; Right: Dr. Bothner; Right, kneeling: Dr. Adler):

Despite the potential of looming thunderstorms all day, we luckily escaped without a drop of rain. Thunderstorms chased us all the way home as we drove eastward back to Ithaca. As I drove the van up East Hill towards Cornell campus, a big storm loomed up behind us, and I could see the flashes from the lightening bouncing off the buildings ahead. We pulled to a stop in front of Corson-Mudd Hall to drop off our gear. I stepped out and turned around, and saw a massive storm about to bury us. In less than a minute, it was raining so hard that I was soaked to the skin in approximately ten seconds, along with everyone else who had just piled out of the van. We decided to carry on with gear removal since we were already soaked, despite some of us violently shivering from the sudden cold. We struggled to carry 15 pairs of waders at a run through rain driving so hard it stung. Lightning was crashing down right on campus, lighting up the sky electric purple. It was probably one of the top five most violent storms I've ever experienced. Needless to say, we survived, thoroughly soaked:

My friend Cristina Munk, who also witnessed this freak, fast (~30 minutes and the sun was out again), said she saw ball lightning in the sky, also observed by others I talked to. Cristina didn't capture any cool lightning photos, but she did get this dramatic photo of the Cornell Clocktower and the colorful sunset that followed. I'll close this exciting trip with these photos: