Sunday, December 27, 2009

Rockwood CBC: Lots of Refuge properties

Dawn at Humbug, looking from Jefferson Avenue toward the Trenton Channel Power Plant.

Since 2004, RRBO has been participating in the Rockwood Christmas Bird Count (CBC) by surveying the Humbug unit of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge (DRIWR). Last year I gave a little background on this count and our coverage of Humbug.

This year, my husband and I once again counted at Humbug, but we also made whirlwind stops at five other units of the DRIWR that are within the Rockwood count circle. Several are fairly new units that are under restoration and the USFWS wanted to see if waterfowl were using them. Since the units are not open to the public and we have a special use permit for various projects, we offered to give them a look.

Although it rained on Christmas Day, the next day most standing water had refrozen, limiting waterfowl use. That was probably not a bad thing. If the water had been open, we'd still be counting. As it was, this was more of a reconnaissance mission. Now we know the logistics, and can make recommendations on how the units should be covered in the future.

We ended up walking over ten miles, but only tallied 44 species, owing to our quick work at most of the units and drive time between them. It was nice to see a total of 10 Bald Eagles at 4 of the 6 units. A Killdeer at the Humbug unit was probably our best bird. Great Blue Herons are always found in good numbers at Humbug, since there is always some open shallow water there due to discharge from the Trenton power plant just north of the property. We had 49 herons at Humbug, close to our record of 53 in 2004. We had another 19 roosting around the old quarry pond at the Gibraltar Bay unit on Grosse Ile (more on the units below).

Sparrows in general seemed sparse, although we had two Fox Sparrows at the Brancheau unit. All of our 148 American Robins were at Humbug, feeding on Common Buckthorn, honeysuckle, and perhaps some rose hips. We completely missed any blackbirds, Carolina Wren, Cedar Waxwing (also missed by all other teams on the American portion of the count), and, sadly, American Crow. Very few crows were found on the count; this species does not seem to be recovering from West Nile Virus.

Numbers from all of the units except Gibraltar Wetlands are on the RRBO web site, and you can look at numbers from Humbug in previous years via the links on this page.

Here is a run-down of the units. Links will take you to maps of the routes we took at EveryTrail, which I wrote about previously. I used the GPS function on my Blackberry smart phone along with the free app for EveryTrail at each site. But due to one corrupt upload (at Humbug) and some weird looking tracks that looked as if we were walking on water, I ended up cleaning up the maps for these trips to more accurately reflect our routes.
  • The Humbug Marsh unit is in Gibraltar and Trenton. At least half of the northernmost section was rehabilitated over the summer, and was either unvegetated or iced over, making that part quick work. I've attached a number of photos to this route, so hover over the map, and click on the first icon on the right to go into slideshow mode. We had 29 species here.
  • The Gibraltar Wetlands unit is very near Humbug, behind the high school at Jefferson and Woodruff Road in Gibraltar. Since it was frozen and we only had a few birds there, I did not include this in EveryTrail.
  • The Gibraltar Bay unit is the former Grosse Ile Nature Area (and a one-time Nike missile site) at the south end of Grosse Ile. We mostly went for waterfowl. 22 species.
  • The Fix unit was the furthest south we traveled, and is adjacent to the Fermi nuclear power plant in Monroe Co. These old farm fields have been planted with prairie and grassland vegetation, but were unvegetated this winter. We had 15 species here, including our only Winter Wren. More info here.


  • Walking a muddy dike at the Fix unit, with the cooling towers of the Fermi nuclear plant as a backdrop.

  • The Brancheau unit is north of Fix, on the other side of Swan Creek. These fields will also be planted for wildlife. A pump system has been installed to bring in water from Lake Erie so the fields can be managed for waterfowl or shorebirds. 17 species. More info here.
  • The Strong unit is just south of Pointe Mouille State Game Area. It also has old farm fields, and a large wetland bordered by dikes. The main dike is tall and grassy, with fields and woods on one side, and the wetland on the other. In many places Phragmites makes it hard to see into the wetland. We had our Fox Sparrows here, along with most of our American Tree Sparrows. We also had a Sharp-shinned Hawk, less common than Cooper's Hawks here in winter. 24 species.
The final dike walk of the day, this one at the Strong unit.

Realistically, covering all these units effectively takes more than one group of people. In the future, we will probably continue at Humbug and then concentrate on Gibraltar Wetlands and Gibraltar Bay.

Monday, December 21, 2009

EveryTrail for bird counts and surveys

Whenever I do any type of formal bird survey, I make sure to record not only the route I take and the time I'm in the field, but also the approximate distance I travel. This information is required for participants on Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs), because measures of effort are needed in order to do any sort of data analyses.

A GPS unit is obviously the tool of choice for acquiring this information, and they are relatively inexpensive and ubiquitous these days. Still, it's my experience that the majority of people just guess at how far they have traveled on foot during a CBC. I consider myself a pretty educated guesser, but once I started using a GPS, I was surprised at how inaccurate my estimates were.

I've found a cool new tool that many people might find fun to use and encourage them to keep more accurate bird survey data -- EveryTrail. It can be used with a GPS unit, but I use it with the free mobile app for my Blackberry (there are apps for iPhones, Androids, and devices running Windows Mobile, too). It provides the usual route tracking, including time, distance, and speed, with pause and resume tracking if needed. The coolest aspect is the route sharing.

When I'm done with a survey, I can save my trip and upload it to the EveryTrail web site right from my phone. It will appear on the site under "My Trips," on a Google Maps map. I can make the trip private, or offer it to the public to be added to the tens of thousands of other routes around the world on the site. Best of all, I can take photos along my route which will automatically be pinned to correct points along the route. More on that in a bit.

Here is an example of my typical route for RRBO's annual Winter Bird Population Survey. The default view for embedded routes like this is either really basic, or a "statistics" view which will require you to click the "x" in the upper right to clear the graph for a full view of the route. It's a better experience to view the trip at the EveryTrail web site.




My default view is the "statistics" mode. The graph will show speed and elevation and there will be a blue ball that travels the route in the direction and relative speed at which it was created. While still in the statistics mode, an "info" link will give distance, speed, time, etc. If photos were taken, they can be viewed in order, with each photo pinned to the correct place on the route, in "slideshow" mode. Modes are changed by placing your cursor over the map, exposing icons along the lower right corner.

It was a gray day when I did the survey above, so I didn't take any pictures. My Blackberry takes pretty high-resolution photos, so I have found that the files are so large that they take too long to upload through the phone. I just cancel the upload after the route is sent but before the app tries to send photos. Later, I transfer photos from my phone to my computer, make any edits, and transfer them to the trip on EveryTrail. Because they are geo-tagged, they all go to the right spots on the route automatically. You can add captions and descriptions as well.

There are some quirks to the app, but overall I'm pretty pleased with it, especially since the price is right! At least with my Blackberry, the route appears accurate and without gaps even when the phone is buried in a pocket. This weekend, I'll use the app on the Rockwood CBC and post the results.

Give EveryTrail a try, and please post your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

House Sparrow madness

The annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season is nearly upon us. The count in which I have participated the longest is the Detroit River MI/ON CBC, because the city of Dearborn is within the count circle. In 1995, RRBO started coordinating the Dearborn portion of the count, so there is intensive coverage in the city, and I keep a separate tally of the numbers in Dearborn before they are added into the count totals.

The CBC issue of American Birds, published by National Audubon, contains summary information and various analyses of CBC data. One standard article is the summary of highest counts of individuals for the U.S. Last year, the Detroit River count had a highest number of House Sparrows -- 4537 -- of any of the 1673 counts held in the U.S.

A quick look at my numbers showed that 77% of those House Sparrows were counted in Dearborn, and 3255 of them (72%) were counted in the various sunflower/wildflower fields planted by Ford -- 2400 in a single field, as I noted in my blog post last year. The Detroit River count also had the highest number of House Sparrows in the 2006-2007 count (5168), of which 57% were from Dearborn.

Does this mean that Dearborn, or the metro Detroit area, has the highest concentration of House Sparrows in the country? Hardly. Over the years, I've given some thought to the accuracy of counts of very common species considered "trash" by most birders, particularly House Sparrows, European Starlings, and Rock Pigeons. Let's face it: most people participate in CBCs and other bird counts in order to see what "goodies" might be found, not to spend the time it takes to get accurate counts of House Sparrows. I usually see numbers of mundane species coming into compilations as ballparked figures, especially in urban areas where counting these species can be tedious.

There is great value in being meticulous about counting very common species of birds. For nearly 20 years, I've conducted a Winter Bird Population Survey. I'm sure glad I took the time to count American Crows the first ten years or so (and there were often hundreds), because since West Nile virus hit town, numbers plummeted and have not recovered.

Despite whether you care about or like House Sparrows or other common birds, take the time to get reliable numbers on the various counts you participate in. These citizen science projects are some of the best sources of long-term population data we have, and their integrity may be jeopardized by "garbage in, garbage out."

In 2003, I co-authored a paper published in Ontario Birds summarizing the first 25 years of the Detroit River CBC. You can download a PDF copy here.

Thanks to Diane Newbery for publishing this House Sparrow photo under a Creative Commons license.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

RRBO bird banding video

This video was produced in 2001. Although I enjoy having people see me so much younger and thinner, it could use an update as it was shot on film and the digital conversion isn't very high resolution. Nonetheless, it gives you an idea of how and why we band birds. We use this to introduce students, program participants, and visitors to the banding process.

Banding at RRBO from Julie Craves on Vimeo.

Monday, November 23, 2009

"Look what the cat dragged in"

Only about 1% of banded small songbirds are ever recovered away from the place they were banded (much of the value of focused banding studies is in initial captures and within-season recaptures). So when a bander receives notice that one of their banded birds has been found somewhere else, it's a pretty notable event. Especially remarkable is when a migrant bird is banded on its wintering grounds and recovered where it breeds (or vice versa).

Thus it was astounding to learn that a Bobolink banded in Bolivia by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies was recovered three years later in Vermont, just miles from the bander's home, 4300 miles away! This was the first time a Bobolink banded on its wintering grounds had been recovered on its breeding grounds (or vice versa).

Tempering that news was the fact that this bird, having managed to have survived at least three migratory journeys totaling 35,000 miles in flight, was delivered dead to a homeowner by a house cat.

Often, banders do not know the exact cause of death of a reported bird...usually the report is only coded "found dead." Sometimes the person who finds the bird is more specific. Out of the last 40 or so birds we have banded here at RRBO for which we have received reports, only around 30% were found alive. The majority of those found dead did not specify a reason. Of those that did, nearly 40% were coded "caught by or due to cat." They included these birds:
  • A White-throated Sparrow banded on 26 October 1992 "caught by or due to cat" 5 May 1993 in Columbus, OH.
  • A Song Sparrow banded on 3 April 1995 "caught by or due to cat" 17 Jun 1995 just south of North Bay, Ontario.
  • An American Goldfinch banded on 10 May 2001 "caught by or due to cat" 12 May 2002 in Berea, KY.
(You can view a map and list of our out-of-state recoveries of banded birds here.)

The huge problem to birds and wildlife posed by outdoor cats is one that sparks a great deal of emotion. In fact, the blog post about the Bobolink pussy-footed around the issue to avoid the controversy. The bander pointed out that the fact that a cat brought home a dead bird is not concrete evidence that it killed the bird. However, it is generally believed that items brought home by cats are indeed prey killed by that cat, and numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies have used this behaviorial trait of cats to determine composition of prey items (see Barratt 1998, Churcher and Lawton 1987, and Woods et al. 2003 and the scores of references therein).

Don't get me wrong -- I love cats! I have two of my own, but they never go outdoors. Please, if you own a cat, keep it indoors. It is better for wildlife, and it is better for your cat.

For more information, you can see RRBO's keep cats indoors page, or visit the American Bird Conservancy's Cats Indoors! campaign web site.


Barratt, D. G. 1998. Predation by house cats, Felis catus (L.) in Canberra, Australia. I. Prey composition and preference, Wildl. Res. 24:263–277.

Churcher, P. B., and J.H. Lawton 1987. Predation by domestic cats in an English village, J. Zool. (London) 212:439–455.

Woods, M., R.A. McDonald, and S. Harris. 2003. Predation of wildlife by domestic cats Felis catus in Great Britain, Mammal Rev. 33:174–188.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Free Birder's World web access this weekend

Many of you know I write a regular column called Since You Asked and occasional features for Birder's World Magazine. They have an extensive web site that has recently been revamped, and this weekend (until 8 AM CST on Monday) they are allowing free access to all the features that are usually available only to registered users (registration is free, by the way).

At the Birder's World blog, Field of View, editor Chuck Hagner has picked out a some of his favorite Since You Asked columns. If you are on Twitter, you can also follow Chuck (@CH_BirdersWorld) and Associate Editor Matt Mendenhall (@mdmendenhall).

This magazine isn't great because I write for it, I write for it because it's great. Go take a look!

Fall 2009 banding summary

I've posted a summary of the fall 2009 banding season at the RRBO web site. You'll find all the summary stats, a weather summary, top ten species banded, some commentary on deviations in numbers from previous averages, and notable within-season and between-year recaptures. There is also a brief explanation of how we calculate our capture rate, and our weather policy.

I've also updated our lists of the most commonly banded species. For the first time in RRBO history, American Robin unseated Gray Catbird at the top of the list.

Coming up, some results from our diet study.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

An amazing white-breasted robin finishes the season

This stunning and unusual American Robin with a white breast was the highlight of our final day of banding for the fall 2009 season today. Our short, final week was not particularly notable; I'll be posting a season summary in a few days. Meanwhile, let's check out this very cool robin!

American Robins with abnormal plumage are not terribly uncommon. There was the funky orange-faced bird I banded a couple of weeks ago. I band robins with one or a few white feathers at least once a season. In October 2007 I banded an adult female in which nearly all the gray feathers had a frosted appearance (scroll down on this page for a photo). I have found photos of quite a few robins that were the "opposite" of our bird, with pale backs but normal breasts (in Minnesota, Saskatchewan, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Utah). However, I have never encountered or heard of a robin that had a completely white breast with a normal back, wings, and head like the bird we banded today.

Most of the gray plumage on this robin, which was a hatching-year bird (born this year), was normally-colored. It did have a few partially white feathers on each wing. Most of these feathers were short and/or deformed. On the left wing there was one slightly brittle short feather with a bit of white, and one mostly white feather next to it.

On the right wing, one primary was half white, stunted, and growing in this weird direction. About half of the tail feathers were also "messy" looking, due to some brittleness and twisting to them.

The only hint of orange pigment was on a few feathers under each wing.

This condition is usually called "leucism," which is an abnormal reduction in the deposition of pigment in the feathers. Some leucistic birds appear entirely washed out or pale if the reduction of pigment is roughly equal in all feathers (some authors now call this "hypomelanism"). More often, pigment is absent in only some feathers, and this is known as pied leucism, or "partial amelanism." Both the grayish-brown and orange/rust feathers on robins are colored by various types of melanin pigments.

There are a number of causes for this type of plumage abnormality. Some are environmental, including injury, disease, or malnutrition. Others are genetic. In the dozens of pied leucistic birds that I have handled, I have never noted the white or pale feathers being deformed in any way. This tends to make me believe that this robin's problems were genetic in some way. The bird appeared healthy otherwise.

This was the last robin -- the 391st -- of the season, and a pretty cool way to wrap up fall 2009.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

National exposure in E/The Environmental Magazine

The November/December 2009 issue of E/The Environmental Magazine has an article about brownfield restoration called "Strange Sanctuary: Old Factories Offer New Hope for Wildlife." It focuses on the potential for wildlife habitat in industrial settings, highlighting the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge and work I have performed there as part of RRBO's partnership with the Refuge. The article also mentions the monitoring I've done on various Ford Motor Company properties, including the sighting of a Gyrfalcon in 2005. The Ford surveys are done as part of my regular inventories of birds throughout the city of Dearborn.

Local blog The Erie Hiker also mentioned the article (and said nice stuff about me!).

Urban ecology is not, generally, very glamorous work. But as I was quoted saying in the article, "I have come to really love this juxtaposition of the hyper-urban with resilient nature.”

Read: "Strange Sanctuary: Old Factories Offer New Hope for Wildlife (PDF)."

Monday, November 2, 2009

Fall 2009: Week 11 in review

Things seemed more "normal" this past week, at least in terms of volume. Diversity slacks off this late in the season, with only a smattering of lingering migrants but more winter-type birds.

We banded an Eastern Phoebe on 25 October, a species we don't band too often. This was also the day we banded what will probably be our last Gray Catbird of the season, and when we caught our first Purple Finch of the fall (below).

It's always a treat to band a colorful adult male Purple Finch (the young males are not red and look like females). If the color difference between Purple Finches and House Finches doesn't tip you off, also notice the lack of brown streaking on the sides of the Purple Finch, and how straight the top of the upper bill is -- it is curved on House Finches (a male shown below). Should you have either species in your hand, House Finches are pretty docile, while Purple Finches are known for their biting!

On 29 October we had a nice surprise. We recaptured a Slate-colored Junco banded here as a young (hatching year) bird on 24 Oct 2007. Winter site fidelity is well-known in juncos, but given the number of them here during fall and winter, and the wide area on campus they occupy, it's not very often that we recapture one from a previous year. Also on 29 October, a Rusty Blackbird sang for me in the banding area. We no longer see many of this declining species (although it was the 10,000th bird banded at RRBO), so even though I didn't catch it, I was happy to see and hear it.

I also don't catch many White-breasted Nuthatches, but this one got snagged investigating a chickadee that was fussing in the net.

On 1 November, we broke our record for the most robins banded in a single fall season. We ended the day at 357. Our fall average is 172, and our previous high number was 354. This is only the fourth fall season that we have broken 300.

Will be winding down the fall banding season this week.

Monday, October 26, 2009

At last! Online giving to RRBO

You can now make donations directly to the Rouge River Bird Observatory through the University of Michigan's online giving. The University will also provide that spiffy letter indicating that your gift is tax-deductible.

Remember, RRBO is supported by you. It is not part of the University budget, and relies on outside funding for all operations. Help RRBO begin its 19th year of urban bird research on solid ground. Give to the fall campaign today!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Fall 2009: Weeks 9 and 10 in review

Things have picked up the last two weeks, although the bulk of the birds have been American Robins. We're up to 295 banded this fall. At this pace, we may break our record of 354. Since we are working on determining what they are eating, this is the first year that I welcome them all!

I banded two interesting robins this week. One only had one leg. It looked like an old injury: the foot was gone, along with half the tarsus (the lower part of the leg). The other half of the tarsus was still attached under the skin, but apparently not by a tendon, as it moved and rotated fairly freely. It was all well-healed, and the bird was a healthy-looking adult.

The other robin had orange, rather than white, facial markings (below, with a normal robin up top for comparison). This picture doesn't quite convey just how bold and orange this bird looked. Although I can't recall ever having banded one quite like this, it's not too unusual to get robins with this orange color in place of buff or white on some of the wing coverts.

As for warblers, we are down to the usual Yellow-rumped Warblers, the occasional Nashville Warbler, and some Orange-crowned Warblers. The duller Orange-crowns, like the one below, look a lot like Tennessee Warblers. Orange-crowned Warblers have longer tails, and yellow undertail coverts.

The bird below is a little brighter. The long-tailed look is quite evident here.

For comparison, a Tennessee Warbler banded earlier in the season, a very yellow individual. Slightly different angle, but note the shorter-tailed look.

I also recaptured a Blackpoll Warbler on 22 October which I had banded 10 days earlier. It was very fat to begin with, and positively rotund upon recapture (it weighed 20.2 grams). This represents a late fall departure date for Dearborn.

Other late dates include a Common Nighthawk in west Dearborn on 20 Oct; four Chimney Swifts over campus on 21 Oct; Northern Rough-winged Swallows near the Rouge River, also on 21 Oct; and a Green Heron on campus on 22 Oct.

We have a week or so to go for fall banding before we wrap things up for the season.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fall campaign warm-up

This week has been truncated by marginal weather and too many administrative things to take care of. I will summarize our weeks 9 and 10 next week. Meantime, here is an important announcement.

I consider part of my job answering questions and providing educational materials to the public. This includes the RRBO web site; this blog; postings on the local birding lists, Facebook, and Twitter; giving public presentations and programs; and answering questions posed to me directly. These things all consume time, and I am responsible for raising money for every activity I engage in. I am not supported by University base salary.

On top of the difficult state budget situation, there are new faces at the top of the UM-Dearborn administration. This year in particular, it's extremely important for me to show them that RRBO is "value added" to the University by demonstrating community support. As you might imagine, donations are the metric most easily understood. While grants fund specific research projects, individual donations "pay" for the time I spend serving the community.

We send out only one mailing a year (three times in 18 years, we have sent out two), and it is our annual fall campaign to solicit donations. Please consider adding your name to the RRBO mailing list using the form below to receive this letter. Of course, we'd love a donation, however modest (if you are a Michigan resident, donations to state universities are subject to additional tax deduction benefits -- make sure to check that out when you do your taxes). But even the addition of names of potential donors is worthwhile! The RRBO and the University will not share your information with any outside organization.





The other thing I can do is show them that I get this many hits on the web site and blog, I have that many followers on Twitter, there are loads of fans on the Facebook page, and so many people have copies of my book. So if you are a fan of social networking, follow us on Twitter, become a Facebook fan, visit the web site often, and buy a copy of my book.

If you value RRBO, the research, and the public service it provides, these are the ways to let the University know!

As always, my personal thanks for your support.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fall 2009: Week #8 in review

The brown birds of fall have arrived. Here's our first Winter Wren of the season. This species has a very broad range across the Northern Hemisphere. In England, it known simply as the "Wren." In Germany, it is called "Zaunkoenig," which translates to "King of the Fence." An evocative and accurate description for these little balls of fiesty attitude! We often seem to catch them early in the morning. Extracting from a mist net what amounts to an energetic and slippery ping-pong ball in dawn's dim light is one of banding's challenges.

Another brown bird of fall is the last of the Catharus thrushes to migrate through, the Hermit Thrush. This is my favorite of the thrushes in my study, although I like them all. They can be very common this time of year, although so far they have not reached a peak here by any means.

Our #1 species right now is the American Robin. Early October is the peak of migration for them, and the time when large numbers in wandering flocks are descending on campus. Because migration has been relatively slow this fall, I've been coming in on my days off whenever the weather is okay. The first net run or two in the morning can be loaded with robins. I had to drag my good friend Jim "The Big Bwana" Fowler out of banding retirement earlier this week to help out in case I got swamped with robins.


Dana Wloch is the UM-D student in charge of identifying and compiling all the seeds found in the droppings of robins and species other than Catharus thrushes, so she's pretty happy with all the robins right now.

The other group of brown birds that are abundant this time of year are the sparrows, especially White-throated Sparrows. They have certainly arrived, but not yet in the numbers I expect. The non-brown sparrow that is conspiciously scarce so far is the Dark-eyed Junco. We've only seen a few so far this fall. That should change in the coming week.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Everything you wanted to know, still only $5

As fall migration winds down, people often want to know things like, "Shouldn't I be seeing juncos by now?" or "Is this a late date for Chimney Swift?" If you live in southeast Michigan, The Birds of Dearborn can answer those questions. Compiled from over 65,000 bird records spanning over 30 years, it gives details on the 250+ species seen in the city of Dearborn. For all the regularly-occurring non-resident species, it provides early and late arrival and departure dates for each season, and "average" dates for many species. There is a ton of other information in the book, too. Although specific to Dearborn, it is extremely useful for the entire region for the dozens and dozens of species that are common to urban, suburban, and forested areas.

Because RRBO runs on a very lean budget funded strictly by grants and donations, we cannot afford to carry an inventory of books (or any other product). That's why I went with Lulu.com for this edition of the book, published in 2007. Lulu is a print-on-demand publisher. You can buy a paperback of the book for $10, or download a PDF copy immediately for only $5. I see that the both options are no longer obviously available on the same page, so here are the links again:

  • As a paperback from Lulu, $9.96 plus shipping.
  • As an immediate PDF download from Lulu, $5.
  • You can request a special order from your local bookstore. It's a "real" book (ISBN 978-1-4303-2942-8) that will be listed in their wholesale catalogs. Price will vary.
Purchasing the book not only gives you a lot of local bird information at your fingertips, but also shows the University that the community is engaged and interested in this information and supports the role of RRBO in providing it.

I can't tell you now important this is. Actually, in an upcoming post I'll try. We are gearing up for our annual fall campaign which will be one of our most imporant in years. I'll tell you why in the next week or so.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Fall 2009: Week #7 in review

Things picked up this week, although overall the weather was quite uncooperative, with rain or wind cutting down our hours substantially. We began the week with a Detroit Audubon Society field trip, which occurs around this time every year. It's an informal morning of talking about RRBO's research, answering questions, discussing the species that we bring out to show the group after they've been banded and just before they are released. This year there was a nice variety of birds. The photos below were taken by Bill Rapai, of Grosse Pointe Audubon.

Orange-crowned Warbler

Gray-cheeked Thrush. Speaking of which, one was
recaptured twice this week that ended up gaining
a whopping 12.8 grams over 11 days -- that's a
gain of 40% of it's original mass! I have had other
over-achieving Gray-cheeked Thrushes over the years,
including one that gained 16 grams. I don't have an
answer why this particular species would pile on so
much fat at this relatively early stage in their
migration (they winter in northern South America). In
these situations, I usually recapture them more than
once over 10 days or so in which weather doesn't seem
to be a factor in delaying their departure. They are
often recaptured the first time quite fat, and just get
fatter every time I catch them.


I've been training a new bander this season, Guadalupe Cummins. She is an environmental science graduate student here at UM-D, and I'm trying to convince her to work on a project having to do with birds. She began extracting birds and banding them on her own this week.

"Probie" and a goldfinch.

Speaking of student projects, we have now collected over 100 samples of bird droppings from robins and catbirds to examine for seeds (and far fewer from thrushes). Robins are especially productive, although sometimes they don't wait until they are in a bag to provide a donation. I carry little glassine envelopes to collect any errant seedy blobs, so long as I can attribute them to an individual bird. This activity has been the source of a lot of amusement and a variety of suggested names and titles. I'll leave you with the winner.

Julie Craves, the Number One of Number Two.


Friday, October 2, 2009

RRBO on the Internet

It's a rainy day (and my day off) so I get to catch up on housekeeping matters.
  • First, it has been nearly two weeks since I have been unable to update the RRBO web site, in particular the Latest Sightings page. My work computer crapped out, and as we were scheduled to get new ones soon, fixing it was not pursued. All my files are okay, I just don't have easy access to them. I should be back in business next week.
  • Our friend Joe Fago started a Friends of the Rouge River Bird Observatory group on Facebook. We've had the badge in the sidebar of the blog since we started, and we have just passed 200 members. If you're on Facebook, please join...the University loves to see community support!
  • RRBO now has a Twitter account. I'll tweet regular tidbits regarding banding, survey, research, and conservation activities. (Some of you are interested in my work on sustainably-grown coffee, and I have a separate Twitter account for that.) So, if you are on Twitter, please follow RRBO...did I mention the University loves to see community support?
And if you didn't see the Free Press article, RRBO was mentioned in a press release from the USFWS (also reprinted here) regarding the first successful Osprey nest in Wayne County in 100+ years. I've done extensive historical research on the breeding birds of Wayne County, and as far back as the first compilations of species in the late 1800s, there was no documentation of Osprey nesting in the county, or for that matter in southeast Michigan. At that time, they were considered uncommon or rare migrants in the area. It's taken several years for this pair of birds in Gibraltar to successfully raise young, but two were fledged from the nest this summer.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Where's the jet stream?

In my last post, I blamed the poor fall migration on the position of the jet stream. Fall migration is best following the passage of a low pressure system/cold front, with winds from the north or northwest. Weather systems in North America generally travel from west to east across the continent, with their route guided by winds aloft -- the jet stream. Thus, a nice dip in the jet stream somewhere in the western Great Lakes is most likely to bring the right kind of conditions for birds to move into our area.

My friend Mike McDowell posted some graphics and a nice explanation on his blog last week. Go take a look! His four-panel image comes from WeatherImages.org, and is updated at least daily. The direct link to the current jet stream position image is here, and as I write this on Friday afternoon, it looks like this:

At long last, the jet stream is beginning to sag south. Although it isn't in the ideal position (such as the example Mike posted), it should help move birds along.

The California Regional Weather Service has a great web site that has all sorts of jet stream images and forecasts, including loops. Use the North America "latest available" link here for a detailed current map. This link goes to an animated loop of a five-day forecast.

These maps and forecasts should be used in conjunction with radar images. The Wisconsin Society for Ornithology has a tutorial on how to understand radar images and so does New Jersey Audubon.

Here are those handy links again:

Fall 2009: Week # 6 in review

Another slow week has gone by. We finally broke 400 new birds banded this week, after 28 days of banding. This time of year, we can expect to band 400 birds in a week. Other folks in the western Great Lakes have also complained about this being a really lousy migration so far. The culprit: the jet stream has for the most part been stubbornly parked at a high latitude, through the middle of central Canada. It's been in this general position since mid-August, a highly unusual situation. Migration is strongly influenced by weather systems, and weather systems are influenced by the jet stream. Rather than going into this here, I'll put some links together in my next post.

We did have a few mildly interesting days. The predominant warbler has been the Blackpoll, followed by Magnolia (below) and Nashville.

This is the time of year when we get very large flocks of blackbirds, mostly Common Grackles and lesser numbers of Red-winged Blackbirds, along with some Brown-headed Cowbirds and (if we're lucky) Rusty Blackbirds. So far, it has only been grackles, and they seem to have arrived/gathered a little early this fall. They mass on the oak trees, ripping off acorns, and carpet the forest floor flipping through the leaf litter. Because of their weight, grackles don't "stick" in the banding nets very well, but it isn't unusual to catch a whole batch of them if they are moving through the net lanes. This is never very fun. They can (do!) pinch quite hard with their sharp bills. They also have very strong feet and it can be uncomfortable if they grab on and get a toenail stuck in your cuticle.

I happen to think that grackles are pretty handsome, but right now they are molting. The one below is a young bird, molting from its dull juvenile plumage into the more typical glossy garb. Judging from the color, this is probably a male. The wing feathers are also molting, or I'd be able to tell which gender by the length of the wing -- males are larger than females.

Speaking of toe nails, here's a robin with pale nails; they are usually dark-colored. We see a number of birds lacking pigment in their nails every season. Often it is Gray Catbirds and robins for some reason.As you'll see in my next post, the jet stream and weather systems are finally on the move. So long as we can avoid rain and wind, things should pick up next week.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Fall 2009: Week #5 in review

It was another quiet week. There was an influx of migrants on Sep 15, and some obvious large movements of American Robins and Blue Jays beginning on Sep 17. Some new species were recorded this week. Philadelphia Vireos have a very tight fall migration window right around September 15. We saw our first on Sep 12, and banded two on the 15th.

The 16th saw our first White-throated Sparrow of the season, and more were around on Sep 20. Sep 19 we had our first Gray-cheeked Thrush. Cape May Warblers seem to have had a good year. We banded two nice-looking hatching-year males, one of which is shown at the top of the post.
Two older birds were also recaptured this week. The first was a female Northern Cardinal first banded as an adult on April 13, 2003, making her at least 7 years old. We had recaptured her a number of times in 2003 and 2004, but this was the first recapture since then.

Next was a Gray Catbird that had been banded as an adult, in its second year, on May 17, 2005, making this bird at least five years old. We have captured it several times each year, often in breeding condition -- this was a male.
And here's my ID tip of the week (don't get your hopes up that I'll have one weekly!). The bird above is a Chestnut-sided Warbler. Like many (most that I see) individuals of this species in the fall, there isn't any chestnut on the sides. However, the color of the back and top of the head are very distinctive. To me, it's just like the color you get when you use a fluorescent yellow highlighter on newsprint. What do you think?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

How do we know what thrushes are eating?

Last fall, I described the focus of my research: the autumn stopover ecology of migrant thrushes. My paper summarizing weight and fat changes in Hermit, Gray-cheeked (shown above), and Swainson's Thrushes was published earlier this year. This is the third year of building on those results by looking at the specific resources thrushes use here in the fall. Because most migrant birds, including those that typically eat insects, also incorporate fruit into their fall migratory diet, the thrushes make great surrogates for a whole suite of migrant species.

There are lots of fruiting trees, shrubs, and plants on campus. Our banding area, for instance, is located in an area with a high density of Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa, below), a native shrub with plentiful white berries.

However, like most urban areas, many of the dominant fruiting plants are from non-native species, such as the Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus) shown below.

As I mentioned previously, some of the questions I seek to answer include 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?

To find out what the thrushes are eating, we simply collect the droppings they leave in the bags we use to transport the birds from the nets to the banding station. Because fruit passes through birds so quickly (and it is thought that many birds, especially migrants, choose fruit that can be processed quickly and efficiently), we know that whatever they poop out has been eaten on-site. We collect each sample in a plastic bag, labeled with the bird's information.

Later, I sort through and identify all the seeds. I have assembled samples of nearly all the seeds found in fruits growing in the campus natural area (certainly all the common ones). I've also put together a reference book, made up of magnified photos of seeds of dozens of species; these photos are available at the excellent USDA PLANTS database web site. It's actually pretty straightforward. I've had very few seeds I have not been able to identify. I think a lot of them are just malformed seeds of common species. So far, I've collected over 200 seeds from 100 samples from 79 birds (some are from multiple samples from the same bird captured more than once).

In order to determine if resident birds are competing with migrants for the same fruits, or depleting certain fruiting species before migrants arrive, I've started collecting samples from all species of birds, concentrating on American Robins and Gray Catbirds. As we catch WAY more robins and catbirds than thrushes, we will end up with a lot of samples. A UM-D undergraduate and bander, Dana Wloch, will be assisting with the sorting, identification, and compiling of the seed samples as an independent research project this fall. Her time will go to waste, so to speak (sorry, I couldn't resist).

Interested in what I have discovered so far? I'll be presenting an overview of my research and some preliminary seed sampling results at presentations at several bird groups over the winter. The first two are November 2 for Macomb Audubon Society, and November 16 for Grosse Pointe Audubon Society. Check their web sites for locations and times. I'll announce January program dates in a couple months.

Fall 2009: Week #4 in review


I don't have much to say about this week. It was pretty boring. We've had some nice groups of warblers, usually consisting of a dozen species, right behind the EIC. Not many have materialized in the banding nets, however. I think this may be the slowest start to a fall season ever. I've updated the stats in the sidebar, and leave you with a photo of a pair of Black-throated Blue Warblers banded this week. We need some good weather fronts to get things moving, but nothing looks promising over the next 5 days or so.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Fall 2009: Week #3 in review

In contrast to last week, this week was gorgeous. A high pressure system remained stalled over the region, creating beautiful weather but a doldrum of sorts for migrants. Last weekend saw some movement, and early in the week, which meant we had our first observations of Cape May Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, and Blackburnian Warbler. We banded several other new arrivals, including Nashville Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Ovenbird, and Wilson's Warbler. As the week progressed, things just petered out.

Ovenbirds are a personal favorite.

The air is filled with the (obnoxious, if you ask me) begging calls of young American Goldfinch, a species that is among our latest nesters. We've started catching families. The adults are just now beginning their fall molt, and their old feathers are extremely worn.

The white wing bars on this adult male goldfinch have worn nearly completely off. Dark pigments make feathers stronger, and the pale areas often wear away first.

I've also netted a lot of hummingbirds this year; one day this week I released eleven. I presume many are the same individuals, but between mulitple birds in the nets at the same time and plumage differences, I know there were at least seven different ones out there one day. Hummingbirds require special bands and permits, so I just release the birds when I catch them.

A molting adult male hummingbird ready to zip off. Only a few of the 40 I've caught so far have been adult males or this one!).

The most disappointing news of the week was finding out that the massive construction project next door at Henry Ford Community College will not be complete for at least another month. This loud, dusty project is directly adjacent to my site, and the bulldozers, piledrivers, and other big noisy machinery get going just after sunrise. I believe this is having a negative impact on my banding activities. The resident birds seem to be used to the commotion, but when the hubbub gets vigorous, the migrants seem to move away from it all. Although the very large underground retention basin, capped with a parking lot, is supposed to be complete by October 15, this is a three year project and will continue the next two summers. Arrgg!

The big dig next door. If this view isn't enough, for the next couple of months, you can have the excitement of following along on a web cam.


Friday, August 28, 2009

Fall 2009: Week #2 in review

This week was largely a washout. Even during dry periods, the generally damp weather has really encouraged the mosquitoes, which are worse this year than I can ever remember them being. Yuck!

The first boreal-nesting migrant was banded this week, a young female Canada Warbler on 25 August. A couple more Baltimore Orioles were in the nets, thus breaking our previous fall record of 14 banded; we now stand at 16. I've banded five Yellow-shafted Flickers so far, which is above-average. They are fairly heavy and so do not "stick" in the nets very well. But they seem to love digging around in the new wood chips, so I expect we may set a record for this species this year as well.

Young (hatching-year) female Canada Warblers can be pretty dull.

Most notable bird banded this week, in my opinion, was an adult Red-eyed Vireo netted on 25 August. It was a recapture, and had originally been banded, also as an adult, in August 2003. This means this bird is at least 7 years old. We've had returns of other Red-eyed Vireos before, but prior to this bird the longest period between recaptures was less than 5 years. You can take a look at RRBO's age records on this page. It lists a variety of species with at least two years between captures. According to the Bird Banding Lab's longevity records, the oldest Red-eyed Vireo is estimated at 10 years, 2 months old.

What makes this particularly remarkable is that Red-eyed Vireos winter in South America, making the minimum distance traveled between Dearborn and the northern coast of Colombia about 2200 miles one-way.


Range map for Red-eyed Vireo, from Cornell's All About Birds, a recommended resource.

This bird, then, has flown at least 36,000 miles on migratory flights!

Looks like the weather will be much improved next week. With reports of migrants in the region already trickling in, things should start to get interesting soon.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Fall 2009: Week #1 in review

RRBO's 18th fall banding season began on 17 August. First, I must show you the fabulous results of our big net lane chipping project. It's like banding in a park!

The weather wasn't bad this week, so I did get to band every day. A drenching downpour cut things short on Thursday, as did gusty winds today. Things started out rather slowly, with mostly resident birds being captured. Of the 18 species banded, only two do not nest on site: Veery (one banded on Aug 17) and American Redstart (one banded on Aug 18).

Two species stood out. The first was Warbling Vireo. My fall average is 6 birds a season. I've already banded 10; I have only topped 10 birds in three years, and my record is 20. We'll see how that shakes out. Among those I banded this week was this individual, which had a deformed bill. The maxilla was about 2 mm too short, and curved to the left. This type of deformity isn't terribly uncommon. When it's minor like this, it doesn't seem to handicap the bird too much. If it's severe and interferes with feeding or feather care, the bird doesn't survive long. The bird below was a hatching-year bird of average fat and weight for this species at this time of year. You can read more about my compilations of bill deformities in this previous post.

The other notable species was Baltimore Oriole. Orioles are also common here, but they are early migrants. Some autumns, I catch none at all. My fall average is less than 3 birds a season, and my record is 14. I've tied that record already, with over half of them being captured yesterday -- six were in one net!

Same as last year, I will post a running total of the fall banding season in the right sidebar.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Getting ready for fall banding

You may recall when I first started writing this blog a year ago, some of my first posts were on the work involved getting the net lanes ready for the banding season. These past couple of weeks, we've been doing some work that will hopefully make the annual prep less of a chore.

On 1 July, I had a team of volunteers out to lay down weed barrier in the net lanes, after my co-worker Rick Simek had so kindly killed the earliest growth of vegetation and most recently mowed what re-sprouted. These people made fast work of this job! It took less than half a day to cut, lay down, and anchor about a thousand feet of landscape cloth!

Andy Dettling, Darrin O'Brien, Sheri Smith, Linda Patterson,
and Jerry Mitchell after a job well done!

Here's what the project looked like as we worked (from front
to back, Linda, me bustling around, and Andy).


On 6 July came the task of spreading a layer of wood chips on the cloth. The cloth is slightly translucent, and without some cover, weeds could still grow underneath. This is a HUGE job, but the soonest we could get a large group of volunteers was early August. So, a handful of people also turned up to at least get a layer spread. The wood chips were generously donated and delivered by the City of Dearborn's Scott Racer, in a very large truck.

No messing with dump trucks. Most of the loads came directly from the big chipper.

The City of Dearborn has a gem in Scott Racer, who delivered at least 10
loads of wood chips. Thanks also to his boss Bruce Yinger.

Darrin O'Brien, Jerry Mitchell, Mike Lapko, Karen Gref, Linda Patterson,
and Mike O'Leary still smiling after hauling at least 10 yards of wood chips.


In late July and early August, two more groups of students spread still more chips. This resulted in a shallow layer over all of the landscape cloth. Finally, on 3 August, an energetic and enthusiastic group of Ford Motor Co. volunteers finished up the job.

Part of the Ford crew. These guys were amazing! In this photo Noori
Pandit,
Bob Sawyer, Anatoli Dubovitskiy, Mario Iaquinta, Franco
Ragazzi and Joe Mantle. Photo by Steve Lake, who I appointed leader
because he and Noori showed up first!

This was an enormous undertaking, with about 170 hours of volunteer work contributed; I lost track of how many giant loads of chips were donated. All of this represents a donation of at least $3000 of time and materials. This is how the Rouge River Bird Observatory thrives, so to all who helped, my heartfelt appreciation!

In the next week, I'll be doing some pruning, checking and repairing the fencing that excludes the deer, and putting up the nets. Fall 2009 banding -- our 18th fall season -- begins on 17 August.