Friday, September 26, 2008

Sampling for avian flu

RRBO is in its second full year of sampling birds for avian influenza. There are many different subtypes of "bird flu," most of which are mild "low pathogenic" avian flu viruses which are not dangerous to humans. The type of bird flu often in the news is the highly pathogenic subtype H5N1, which causes high mortality in domestic poultry. It has not been found in migratory songbirds in North America.

The Landbird Monitoring Network of the Americas (LaMNA; RRBO is a charter member) and UCLA's Center for Tropical Research initiated a program in 2006 to learn more about the identity, frequency, and geographic distribution of virus sub-types and strains carried by landbirds. Sampling for avian flu is done at migration monitoring stations such as RRBO, breeding bird stations (Monitoring Avian Production and Survivorship, or MAPS), and wintering bird stations in Latin America (Monitoreo de Sobrevivencia Invernal, or MoSI).

Sampling only takes an extra minute during our banding process. It consists of taking a very tiny sterile swab and sampling cells shed from the intestines at the entrance to the cloaca. The tip of the swab is cut off and placed in a vial of preservative. Two tail feathers are also taken. These can be used in stable isotope analysis, which can give us an idea of where a bird nested. Identifying the breeding areas of birds will help researchers map out where certain strains of virus originate.

Since beginning this project, RRBO has contributed over 300 samples of nearly 50 species. Some are migrants, and some are residents. For many years, we didn't band House Sparrows, beginning during a period when the band size they take (shared by abundant migrants such as thrushes, White-throated, White-crowned, and Song Sparrows) was in short supply. Now they are a valuable species to sample for viruses due to their communal nature and urban haunts. Here's a young male House Sparrow who donated a few cells and two feathers to science.

Sampling will continue through fall here on campus. Then I'll sample at my nearby home to use up any remaining vials -- I'm one of the only banders in the state that provides winter samples to the project.

This is just another way RRBO is making a contribution to a wider understanding of birds in North America. To learn more, check out these links:

Monday, September 22, 2008

Week # 6 in review

While the numbers in the nets continued to be low, there was no decrease in our capture rate although it is still far below average. On the bright side, diversity increased this week, with some of my favorite species being banded. Let's just jump right to a photo salon of the week's highlights.

This is likely the brightest young male Blackburnian Warbler I've ever banded in the fall. Usually they stay pretty high in the trees so I don't catch many of them. They are always a treat.

Last week I was catching female Black-throated Blue Warblers, but this week I had a few males. Beautiful!

I expect to see Philadelphia Vireos between 15 and 25 September...they are pretty prompt and have a tight migration window. I just couldn't capture how fresh and bright the yellow on this bird was, but it was a beauty.

I like the fiesty personality of vireos, and my favorite species is Blue-headed Vireo. I don't catch many of them either, so I was happy to see this one. Isn't it gorgeous?

Another infrequently banded species is Eastern Phoebe. This photo doesn't show the nice, subtle yellowish color of the breast. The picture also makes it look a little more rotund than usual. They say the camera always adds a few pounds...

I banded our second Connecticut Warbler of the fall, today, too, but the photos are still in the camera.

On Sunday, September 28, the Detroit Audubon Society is having a field trip here, and it's open to the public. It will include short walks on the trails, and a look at birds in the hand, should we have some to show. I'll be available to answer all your burning questions. This program is weather permitting: we'll not be banding if it is windy or raining, or threatening rain. Meet on the south patio of the Environmental Interpretive Center (EIC) at 8 AM. Directions to campus and a campus map are linked about halfway down this page on the RRBO web site.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Week # 5 in review

We are officially off to the slowest start of any fall season in the past 16 years! While we focus on banding and not surveys in the fall, the few times someone has been out to walk the standard route not much has been found, so the shortage is not just limited to the banding area.

Connecticut Warbler (Oporornis agilis), hatching-year female

Connecticut Warblers are very sought-after birds, as they are not very common and notoriously hard to see. We band a fair number of them at RRBO, especially in fall. They are usually young birds, and the dull young females make you wonder what all the fuss is about. This bird was banded on 19 September; another individual bird was seen on a survey the previous day.

Indigo Buntings appeared in our nets this week. The bird above is probably the bluest female Indigo Bunting I have ever banded. This was an adult bird, and male-like coloration in old females is not too unusual -- I see it pretty often in Baltimore Orioles.

Female Black-throated Blue Warblers also don't compare to their gorgeous male counterparts. I don't band a ton of this species, but I did catch four this week -- and they were all females.

Sparrows begin moving through a little later than warblers. Our first Lincoln's Sparrows were banded this week. These are a commonly banded, but rarely seen, species at RRBO.

Savannah Sparrows are another handsome streaky-breasted species, but the streaks are wide and on a clean white breast, rather than fine streaks on a beige "vest."

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)

One thing you learn early on as a bander: if you catch a grosbeak, give it something besides your fingers to bite! And there's a new face at RRBO who will learn this lesson soon...

I'd like to introduce the newest member of our banding crew, Dana Wloch (and her friend, a Nashville Warbler). Dana is a UMD student with a strong, lifelong interest in birds and wildlife. She tells us that the historical figure she'd most like to have dinner with is Charles Darwin, and the obsolete object she can't seem to part with is a dried up fish given to her as a gift. Dana is refreshingly enthusiastic and a fast learner...I hope she can put up with me us for years to come. Welcome to team RRBO, Dana!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Bald birds


Joe's comment on my last post reminded me that it's that time of year to address the perennial bald bird issue. It is one of the most frequently asked questions about birds. Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata), and Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) are the most common victims of this disturbing-looking feather loss.

There's nothing wrong with most of these birds, despite how bad they look. All birds replace all of their feathers at least once a year, and fall is often the time that North American birds undergo this complete molt. Typically, this molt takes place over a few weeks. But some individuals, unfortunately, lose all the feathers on their head at the same time.

I've often read that ectoparasites such as feather mites are responsible for this condition. I have never found mites on bald birds that I've banded. All birds have some of these mites -- they feed on oils, fungi, and bits of skin, and don't cause feather loss. It would also be unlikely, if not impossible, that they would cause all the feathers in one area to fall out simultaneously. In fact, they typically move to tail and wing feathers -- cooler locations on the bird's body -- in warm weather such as is typical in fall.

There are a couple of other types of mites found on birds, but they have not been found on bald birds. My search for information on quill mites, for instance, didn't even turn up any evidence that they've been found on cardinals or jays. Nor does it make sense that these other mites would cause feather loss on the head but not elsewhere, since birds are not able to remove them easily from anywhere on their bodies via normal preening.

Although the role of mites in bird baldness has not been thoroughly studied, the seasonal and localized nature of the baldness and the fact that it is most common in a relatively limited number of bird species leads me to believe that their presence is coincidental and not causative. That this catastrophic molt is "normal" in at least some individual birds comes from Cornell staffer and former wildlife rehabber Laura Erickson. She was in charge of a Blue Jay in captivity that always lost all the feathers on its head simultaneously once a year -- for the 8 years she had it!

Sometimes bald birds are seen at other times of the year when they would not be expected to be molting. The reason for their feather loss may be different (running into a window, for instance, could cause at least a temporary loss).

Being bald is not harmful to birds, except perhaps in cold or wet weather. Within a few weeks, the feathers will grow back.

For more photos and information, see the Cornell web site. Top photo of a bald cardinal by Jimmy Smith.

Janet Hug from Commerce Twp., MI sends us this photo of an adult male cardinal at her feeder, on the road to refeathering, but still looking pretty shabby.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Dragonfly program this week

Ruby Meadowhawk (Sympetrum rubicundulum)

While most of RRBO's work involves birds, other flying objects are also of interest. For the past two years, RRBO has received grants from the USFWS to do inventories of damselflies and dragonflies at the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Humbug Marsh Unit in Trenton/Gibraltar (a list of all of RRBO's work at the Refuge can be found on this page). In the course of this work, as well as other surveys done in Wayne County, my husband Darrin O'Brien and I have recorded 33 new species of damselflies and dragonflies for the county (5 new for the state) and confirmed 54 others.

I'll be giving a program on the damselflies and dragonflies of the area at the upcoming Washtenaw Audubon Society meeting. The program will be at 7:30 PM on Wednesday, September 17 at the Matthei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor. More details, including directions, can be found at the WAS web site. Hope to see you there!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Week #4 in review, and longevity records

Another week shortened by rain at the beginning (Sunday) and end (today). In between, numbers were disappointing. Over last weekend one wave of migrants representing good diversity arrived, but it continued to dissipate over the course of the week. Not helping matters was an adult Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) that was hanging around the area the entire time. This is the first time in 16 years we have ever had an individual of this species even perch in the banding area, much less stick around for a few days! It hasn't approached the nets (Broad-winged Hawks eat primarily small mammals and amphibians, and rarely adult birds), but has a chilling presence. It may be attracted to by what seems an unusually high number of chipmunks and Red Squirrels in this immediate area. Happily, this issue should be self-limiting, as Broad-winged Hawks migrate almost en masse, with peak passage in this area tightly focused around 15 September. I think these are beautiful birds, but won't be sad to see the last of this one!

I've updated the fall totals in the right sidebar. They are quite dismal for this time of year, and our capture rate actually declined this week. We have only had 5 years out of the last 16 in which our rate was less than 50 birds per 100 net-hours, and only two where it was below 40 (our high was in 1996, when it was 63).

Only a few new species were banded this week, including Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (Empidonax flaviventris), pictured at the top of the post. This is probably the easiest eastern Empid to identify, although I have never been entirely successful at capturing their beautiful yellow-olive color with a point-and-shoot camera.

We did have a few interesting recaptures from previous years. Two were catbirds -- one was first banded as an adult in September 2007, the other as an adult in September 2006. It isn't too unusual for us to get a lot of between-year recaptures of catbirds. The third bird was a female American Goldfinch. She was first banded as an adult in August 2004. Almost four years between captures is not a record for us (that stands at 6 years, 7 months for goldfinches here), but still impressive for a small songbird. I have a compilation of some of the birds that have had at least two years between recaptures at the RRBO web site. You can also examine longevity records based on banded birds at the USGS's Bird Banding Lab web site.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Bill deformities and tumors


The other day I banded this HY (hatching-year) cardinal with a bill tumor. It looks sort of like a scab or blob of gunk stuck on the bill, but it's actually growing out of the tissue near the base of the bill. The dark coloration of the rest of the bill is normal: young cardinals have dusky-colored bills well into fall. It's one of the easiest ways to tell a juvenile from an adult.

Bill tumors and other deformities are not terribly uncommon. They often are seen on young birds, probably because many of the deformities ultimately impact survival. Most tumors I have seen have been due to a virus called avian pox. As I wrote on the RRBO bill tumor page, avian pox most frequently causes lesions on the feet and legs of birds, but also affects other soft parts. Pox lesions are scabby, crusty, or warty growths. If near the nostril they can obstruct breathing, or can obstruct vision if near the eyes. The lesions fall off after about a month when the virus runs its course, but it appears they can sometimes compromise the bill structure -- some post-pox birds have chunks of bill missing. This may not be due to the pox itself, but might be due to secondary infections of the pox lesions. Pox can be spread by mosquitoes, or contact between birds (thus it can be spread at feeding stations).

The tumor on the cardinal does not appear to be due to pox, as it actually seems to be growing out of the horny structure of the bill versus "on top," which is how pox often presents. I don't think this tumor is life-threatening in any way, if it doesn't continue to grow. The inside of the bill and mouth are okay, it doesn't look like it will interfere with feeding or grooming, and the nostril is open.

Bill deformities such as crossed bills are a whole other matter. Many years ago, upon capturing a catbird with a crossed bill, I did some research, and ended up publishing a paper on the incidence of bill deformities in passerine birds (songbirds) in North American Bird Bander. Since then, I have kept a compilation of these kinds of deformities in songbirds on the RRBO web site. Many have been contributions from banders and people who have seen the information on the site (I moderate a group on the photo sharing site Flickr on bill deformities which includes all types of birds, not just songbirds).

It is hard to say whether these types of deformities are increasing, or if awareness is just elevated. However, there is one geographic region where something is definitely going on: the Pacific Northwest and in particular Alaska. The USGS's Alaska Science Center has devoted a section of their web site to these abnormalities, many showing up in chickadees.

The USGS Alaskan researcher, Colleen Handel, cited my paper and the RRBO web site several times in her presentation on "The mystery of the long-beak syndrome" at a recent ornithological conference. Colleen and I have discussed these deformities several times over the years, and are planning on collaborating on a paper next year.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Week #3 in review

Although spring warblers are bright and colorful, I have always enjoyed fall banding the most. The pace is steadier and a little less weather-dependent, and I like seeing all the young birds and gauging the success of the breeding season. The nice variety of bird species which inevitably begins in September makes up for the inescapable reality that winter is on the way.

The Nashville Warbler (Vermivora ruficapilla) above was, as are over 80% of the fall birds we band, a hatching-year (HY) bird. Nashville's have a very protracted fall migration, with the earliest records from late August, and some lingering into early November.

Blackpoll Warblers (Dendroica striata) are one of my favorite species. In the field, they can be hard to distinguish from Bay-breasted and Pine Warblers in the fall, and these three species are the classic "confusing fall warbler" complex. In the photo above, you can't see the yellow feet, which help distinguish this species. McGill Bird Observatory has a nice guide to the fall warblers.

Magnolia Warbler (Dendroica magnolia) is one of our top-ten most frequently banded species. In all seasons, they show a pretty wide variation in plumage, from dull young females to bright old males. Because of this variation, banders are not "allowed" to sex HY Magnolia Warblers (if we submit records to the federal Bird Banding Lab that say a HY Magonlia is a male or female, we are told to change the sex to "unknown"). However, very dull birds with short wings are likely female, so for this bird, I noted "female" -- but only in the comments of our data form.

At the other end of the spectrum are most small Empidonax flycatchers, in which not only do the ages and sexes look alike, but so do many species. Wing and bill measurements, and examination of the shape of some of the feathers helps tell apart many of the species in the hand. For the most part, however, Willow and Alder Flycatchers (E. trailli and alnorum) cannot be told apart in the hand. We submit them as "Traill's" Flycatchers.

Stats for the season so far have been updated in the right sidebar.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The first migrant thrushes

Many new species of migrants are coming through this week. Today I banded the first Swainson's Thrush of the fall season. I am really looking forward to thrush migration this year. The three most common species of migrant thrushes here -- Hermit, Gray-cheeked, and Swainson's -- are the subjects of a major paper I recently had accepted to the peer-reviewed Wilson Journal of Ornithology:

Craves, J. A. 2009. A fifteen-year study of fall stopover patterns of Catharus thrushes at an inland, urban site. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 121:112-118.

I analyzed weight and fat data for over 2,000 individual thrushes banded here at RRBO during the fall seasons 1992 to 2006. I used both a regression analysis for all initial captures, and recapture data to examine weight and fat changes in these birds as they used our site as a migratory stopover.

In the paper, I present and discuss a number of different findings. Among them, the majority of individuals of all three species gained significant fat and weight during their stopover on campus. This is especially important because in an urban site such as this one, migrant birds are faced with unique challenges, including a high level of human disturbance which may decrease foraging opportunities, and a preponderance of non-native fruits.

These thrushes rely heavily on fruit during fall migration. Much of the native fruit, to which they are evolutionarily adapted, has been depleted by other species by the time the bulk of the thrushes move through, in particular Hermit Thrushes, which are late migrants. The remaining fruits are predominantly introduced, invasive species such as buckthorn and honeysuckle.

My findings have conservation and management implications. It suggests that thrushes are in fact able to find sufficient resources in urban natural areas similar to our site. Since thrushes gain mass on a diet high in non-native fruits, it demonstrates that some introduced plants do perform ecological functions.

The next question are which fruiting plants and shrubs commonly found in urban areas -- both native and introduced -- are most important to migratory birds? What is their relative availability? If highly invaded urban natural areas are to undergo restoration efforts, which introduced plants should be left to provide resources for migrant birds while native plants become established? In a future post, I'll talk about exactly how we intend to shed some light on those questions with ongoing research!

The vast majority of published papers on stopover ecology have focused on coastal or rural sites, and frequently cover a study period of only 2 or 3 years -- the length of time a graduate student takes to complete a degree. RRBO's work is unique with its focus on an urban, inland site, and especially its long-term nature. It's not enough to catch some birds and see that they've gained some weight between captures. There are many pitfalls in designing studies and gathering data that can be used to draw statistically and biologically significant conclusions. Large data sets are needed to account for many extrinsic variables (such as weather) and weed out ambiguous or problematic data points. I have raw data for a suite of other species besides the thrushes. At some point, they will also be run through the analytical mill, but first I'll be concentrating on the thrush and fruit connection. Stay tuned!