Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Keep those silver bracelets coming....

This Cooper's Hawk is just one of over 33,000 birds of 122 species banded by the Rouge River Bird Observatory on the campus of the University of Michigan-Dearborn since 1992. Our banding program is supported by donors like you. Help us continue this long-term conservation research project by making a contribution today. Donate online or see our website for a mail-in form.

Thank you from RRBO!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Former RRBO bander's research in NYT

Julie Jedlicka was an RRBO bander from 2000 to 2003, when she was a graduate student at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. She went on to receive her Ph.D at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is now at the University of California, Berkeley on an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship. Her research focuses on ecosystem services and avian conservation potential in northern California vineyards.

Julie and I have kept in touch throughout her academic career, and it has always been exciting to see her accomplishments accumulate. She has published a number of papers, and her most recent one -- Avian conservation practices strengthen ecosystem services in California vineyards -- was featured in the New York Times!

I like to think that RRBO had a small part in her success. But I know it is because Julie is a dedicated, creative scientist. Way to go, Julie!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Fall 2011 banding wrap-up

Our official fall banding season ended on 8 November. I had really hoped to squeeze in a few more days, but the wind or rain prevented me from doing so. I have posted a full summary with photos and stats on the RRBO web site.

Because we had a number of nets that were damaged by deer, instead of trashing them I moved them all into one area and decided to leave them up a little longer. As we have some warm days in November and December, I hope to catch a few more robins (and maybe even a wintering Hermit Thrush) to see what fruit they continue to eat as winter sets in.

As we identify and compile our seed samples from this fall and add them to our database, expect to see a blog post or two on what we have found our birds to be eating. Plus, a couple of exciting projects are being to come together, and of course our winter bird survey is also fast approaching. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Myth-busting: Birds, buckthorn, and diarrhea

[This post is in response to local interest in the effects of buckthorn fruit on the birds that eat it.]

For the last 5 or 6 years, my research has focused on the use of fruit by birds in the fall, especially non-native fruit and migratory birds. One of the most abundant fruiting shrubs in my southeast Michigan study area is Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), an invasive fruiting tree not native to North America.

Before I continue, let me issue this statement: I strongly believe in the use and preservation of native plants. I am not "pro-buckthorn." I believe it has many ecological liabilities. One prevailing notion is that buckthorn causes diarrhea in birds and is harmful to them. Based on a peer-reviewed literature search, I cannot find evidence that this is true.

Much of the background information here is from an excellent overview paper by Izhaki (2002). Other research is also cited.

Background: Chemical properties of buckthorns

Many plants have what are known as "secondary compounds," chemicals that play important roles in plant fitness and survival. These compounds or metabolites are generally believed to deter the consumption of unripe fruit, since the seeds in unripe fruit are not yet viable. See Cipollini and Levey (1997) for a discussion of other very interesting hypothetical functions of secondary compounds in ripe fruit.

The relevant secondary compound in buckthorns is emodin, a free-form (aglycone) anthraquinone found in 17 families, 28 genera, and 94 species of plants, including 23 species in the genus Rhamnus*. It can be found in many plant parts, including the leaves and fruit. Emodin has many properties. In regards to fruit, emodin can act as an antimicrobial, inhibiting fruit damage. Levels of emodin in fruit pulp typically decrease as the fruit ripens. As explained above, this may help to protect the seeds from being dispersed before they are mature, or eaten and destroyed by seed predators.

The biological activity of emodin (as well as many other compounds) is different in mammals than in birds. Emodin is well-known as a laxative in humans as well as other mammals. What about birds?

Buckthorn and birds

Wherever it occurs, buckthorn tends to be distributed by birds. There are two commonly held and frequently repeated notions about buckthorn fruit: that it causes diarrhea in birds, and that birds in North America don't "know" not to eat unripe fruit and can become very sick or even die from eating it. (Actually, there is a third notion, that buckthorn fruit is "junk food." That isn't entirely true either, but it a subject of a future post.)

The diarrhea myth, I think, starts with the fact that when people see birds eating fruit, they also see the birds poop a lot. This is, in fact, true of most birds and most types of fruit, especially wet, pulpy fruit and fruit with bulky seeds. Fruit passes quickly through bird guts -- many fruits are composed of mainly water and seeds, and nutrients (especially sugars) that are quickly assimilated. Birds only have so much room in the digestive system and it makes sense for them to process fruit as quickly as possible, including jettisoning the seeds. Birds are also able to consume more fruit if they choose species that have short retention times (Cipollini and Levey 1997). Hence, the appearance of diarrhea. I suppose if you define diarrhea as loose, wet, and frequent defecation, then many fruits give birds "diarrhea." But the implication in public discussions is that the frequent, conspicuous defectations of buckthorn pulp is abnormal or harmful. I've seen similar messes near large stands of Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) and Red Mulberry (Morus rubra), both native plants, and do not hear similar concern for birds' health.

Studies of secondary compounds in fruits (e.g., Wahaj et al. 1998) have indicated that plants exert "control" over the gut retention time of their seeds in birds through these chemicals; this includes both speeding up and/or slowing down of the passage through the digestive system.  This is presumably to influence the number of seeds expelled per defecation, the dispersal distance, and/or reduce or enhance the effects of gut passage on the seed coat. This control is advantageous to the plant if it increases its reproductive success.

Regarding emodin, Tsahar et al. (2003), working with Yellow-vented [White-spectacled] Bulbuls (Pycnonotus xanthopygos), found that emodin increased digestive efficiency in birds, aiding in the processing of dry matter, nitrogen, and other nutrients. They determined that this effect was the result of emodin slowing transit time of food through the gut. This study, then, found that emodin has a costive (constipating) effect, not a laxative one, at least in bulbuls.

In their review, Levey et al. (2007) noted, 

Despite the widespread detrimental effect of emodin on fruit consumption by vertebrates, ripe fruits that contain emodin are frequently consumed by a wide variety of seed dispersers... suggesting that the net benefits of fruit consumption somehow outweigh the negative effects of emodin. In particular, the nutritional reward of carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins in fruit pulp can be viewed as more important to consumers than the presence of co-occurring secondary compounds.

Do North American birds unwittingly eat unripe non-native buckthorn fruit, which contain higher concentrations of emodin than ripe fruit? Could they consume enough to harm them?

There are at least 14 native species of Rhamnus and Frangula in North America. Several species are widespread, and have similar fruit characteristics (phenology, size, color) as the non-native species. Given the widespread occurrence of emodin in this family, presumably it also occurs in the fruit of the native species. This indicates that North American birds are not naïve to buckthorn or emodin.

Even if they had no experience with fruits containing emodin, studies have shown that many bird species are sensitive to it and adjust their consumption accordingly. Tsahar et al. (2002) found the highly frugivorous Yellow-vented Bulbul could distinguish among artificial diets containing a range of emodin concentrations similar to what is found in ripe fruits, while House Sparrows could only discern emodin amounts similar to what is found in ripe versus unripe fruits.

Both of those bird species are Old World in origin. One of the only studies to take a long look at R. cathartica and North American birds was a doctoral dissertation by James Sherburne (1972). He found American Robins avoided feeding on fruits of other plants coated with emodin, and that even if starved for 12 hours, would only voluntarily eat a few unripe R. cathartica fruits. The unripe fruit contained between 0.6 to 1 microgram of emodin.

Sherburne went on to force American Robins and Gray Catbirds eat unripe Rhamnus fruit or capsules containing emodin. The birds showed signs of diarrhea after consuming 50 micrograms to 5 mg of emodin. At the lowest concentration showing effect (50 micrograms) and the highest concentration given for the unripe fruit (1 microgram), it would require ingestion of at least 50 unripe fruits to cause diarrhea.

Schafer et al. (1983) tested the toxicity of a wide range of compounds on birds, including emodin. The dose of emodin needed to kill half (LD50) of Red-winged Blackbirds and European Starlings was greater than 100 mg per kg of body mass. Under this scenario, an average-sized 65-gram male blackbird would need to consume at least 6500 unripe fruits of R. cathartica (based on the high estimate of 1 microgram of emodin in an unripe fruit from Sherburne) to reach the "LD50" dose. Little wonder the authors calculated a "hazard index" indicating little or no potential for emodin to cause acute poisoning in these species.

Given the ability of birds to detect emodin, their reluctance to eat unripe fruit (three other studies cited in Izhaki [2002] noted that in North America, "most bird species do not consume the unripe fruits"), and the high levels needed to create a negative response, we can probably infer that wild birds do not consume large enough quantities of unripe fruit to cause diarrhea or serious toxicity.

As for ripe fruit, Sherburne found no emodin in ripe fruits of R. cathartica, although other studies have found it in the ripe fruit of other Rhamnus species not yet established in North America (Tsahar et al. 2002). As it is found in far smaller amounts in ripe fruit, the number of fruits that would need to be consumed to cause harm would be many times greater than the examples listed above. Sherburne reported on 11 species of birds that readily ate ripe R. cathartica fruit, but did not mention any negative effects (in Knight et al. 2007).

In the wild, birds tend to mix their diets, choosing fruits and other foods within short feeding bouts, and this may be an attempt to balance nutrient intake or to avoid ingesting too much of a particular secondary compound (Cipollini and Levey 1997) . Further, the varied dietary inputs may contain their own qualities that could mediate any adverse physiological effects of emodin.

There are many ecological crimes we can pin on buckthorn. It doesn't appear that causing harmful diarrhea is one of them. If anybody has seen any other studies or peer-reviewed publications that do show that eating buckthorn fruit is harmful to birds, please post them in the comments. I am fascinated by this topic and interested in learning of new research.


*Glossy Buckthorn, Frangula alnus, has often been included in the genus Rhamnus as R. frangula. It also contains emodin. When I refer to "buckthorn" here, I am referring to both Common and Glossy Buckthorn in general, unless otherwise noted.

Cipollini, M. L., and D. J. Levey. 1997. Secondary metabolites of fleshy vertebrate-dispersed fruits: adaptive hypotheses and implications for seed dispersal. American Naturalist 150:346-372.

Knight, K. S., J. S. Kurylo, A. G. Endress, and J. R. Stewart. 2007. Ecology and ecosystem impacts of common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica): a review. Biol. Invasions 9: 925-937.

Izhaki, I. 2002. Emodin -- a secondary metabolite with multiple ecological functions in higher plants. New Phytologist 155:205-217.

Levey, D. J., J. J. Tewksbury, I. Izhaki, E. Tsahar, and D. C. Haak. 2007. Evolutionary ecology of secondary compounds in ripe fruit: case studies with capsaicin and emodin. Pages 37-58 in A. J. Dennis, E. W. Schupp, R. J. Green, and D. A. Westcott, eds. Seed Dispersal: Theory and its Application in a Changing World. CAB International, Cambridge, MA.

Schafer, E.W. Jr, Bowles, W.A. Jr, and J. Hurlbut. 1983. The acute oral toxicity, repellency, and hazard potential of 998 chemicals to one or more species of wild and domestic birds. Arch. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 12:355-382.

Sherburne, J. A. 1972. Effects of seasonal changes in the abundance and chemistry of the fleshy fruits of northeastern woody shrubs on patterns of exploitation by frugivorous birds. Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

Tsahar, E., J. Friedman, and I. Izhaki. 2002. Impact of fruit removal and seed predation of a secondary metabolite, emodin, in Rhamnus alaternus fruit pulp. Oikos 99:290–299.

Tsahar, E. 2001. The impact of the secondary metabolite emodin in Rhamnus alaternus fruits on fruit removal and seed predation. M.S. thesis, Tel-Aviv University, Israel.

Tsahar, E., J. Friedman, and I. Izhaki. 2003. Secondary metabolite emodin increases food assimilation efficiency of Yellow-vented bulbuls (Pycnonotus xanthopygos). Auk 120: 411-417.

Wahaj, S. A., D. J. Levey, A. K. Sanders, and M. L. Cipollini. 1998. Control of gut retention time by secondary metabolites in ripe Solanum fruits. Ecology 79:2309-2319.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Fall banding: Weeks 8-10

Good riddance to a wet September. October has been occasionally wet or windy, but overall the weather has been much better. Unlike some Octobers, we have had only two mornings with frost, which can delay us from opening in the morning if the nets get stuck shut. On the downside, deer are mating and they've managed to get in the banding area regularly. One night a buck was presumably chasing a doe and they ran into the gate of the chain link fence so hard they bent open the latch! We are now operating with a reduced number of nets, and all but two of the ones remaining are damaged from their activities.

The number of birds we have banded so far in October represents over 40% of the total for the season. Most have come after mid-month, when American Robin numbers increased, and the first big push of Yellow-rumped Warblers, Hermit Thrushes, and sparrows began. It is heartening to see respectable Hermit Thrush numbers. The number of Swainson's Thrushes banded this fall was our second lowest. We have already hit our average for Hermit Thrushes, and are getting plenty of seed samples from them, which is excellent. We're still below average for White-throats, and they don't seem as numerous this year as usual. We have only banded four White-crowned Sparrows, which is ridiculously low. Our average is 22.

White-throated Sparrow.

Warblers continue to be banded. In addition to Yellow-rumps, late species such as Common Yellowthroat, Orange-crowned, and Palm still are around, as is Tennessee. Every day we still get a Nashville Warbler or two, and we are far over our fall high of 59 Nashvilles banded. Notable was a Blackpoll Warbler banded on 22 October that tied the late fall date for Dearborn -- but one seen the next day furnished the new late date. An American Redstart was also banded  on 22 October, and that was a new late date for that species.

Orange-crowned Warbler.

Two species were banded this month that we don't get too often: Eastern Towhee and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Young male Eastern Towhee.

Young female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.
We are now around 1000 new birds banded of 72 species, approaching average but with a capture rate (based on number of nets and hours opened) still well below average. Typically we band into the first week of November, but we may go longer than that this year if the weather holds. The next banding update will be a summary of the season.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Poison ivy: Breakfast of champions

Our study of the fruit composition of the diets of fall migratory birds focuses on Catharus thrushes and the super-abundant non-native fruits found in urban areas. However, we do look for seeds in the "samples" (droppings) provided by all the birds we band. This helps us examine which other bird species are eating fruit, what types of fruit they consume, and whether the diets of different bird species favor different fruit species.

One of the native fruiting plants that is common on our site is poison-ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). The flowers are rather insignificant and can be overlooked.

They do result in fruit, and large mature vines produce good crops of small, off-white drupes. This often occurs overhead, where the vine has climbed up a tree and gets good sun exposure.

This portion of poison-ivy is growing on a fence where it gets direct sun, and each fall it has a lot of fruit.

Poison-ivy fruits themselves are about half the size of a pea, quite dry, and papery. They contain very little pulp. Each fruit has one to three, odd-looking, globular seeds that are very distinctive.

We find the seeds in samples from only a few species of birds. Most often it's woodpeckers, and we've gotten poison-ivy seeds from Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, and Yellow-shafted Flickers. The sample below is from one dropping from a flicker.

The three seeds in the upper right are from wild grapes (probably Vitis riparia). The other 13 are poison-ivy. Over the past several years, the only other bird species contributing poison-ivy seeds has been Yellow-rumped Warbler.

When we find seeds in a Yellow-rump sample, it's always poison-ivy. The other day I was holding a Yellow-rump while writing down some data. Suddenly, a single poison-ivy seed shot out of the warbler! Usually, we just collect the seeds that are deposited in the holding bags we use to transport the birds from the nets to the banding lab.

This week, we got two poison-ivy seeds from a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, the first seed samples of any kind we've had from a kinglet. This particular bird was first banded on 7 October, when it weighed 6.3 grams. We recaptured it several more times. On 12 October, it weighed 6.7 grams, on 16 October it was 7.2 grams, and on 18 October it was 7.4 grams. It doesn't sound like much, but that's a 17.5% increase in the bird's original weight.

Poison-ivy fruit are very high in fats (over 40%) and low in sugars. Not all birds are able to easily or efficiently digest and absorb fats. Differences in digestive physiology, as well as the varied nutritional needs among residents,  long-distance, and short-distance migrants has a great influence on fruit choice.

In the special case of poison-ivy, the fats in the fruits are also of a waxy (high melting point) nature, and only a few bird species are able to process plant waxes. The eastern form of Yellow-rumped Warbler, found here, is called "Myrtle Warbler" because of its ability to eat the fruit of wax myrtle (Myrica sp.). Poison-ivy fruits are very similar in composition to myrtle fruit.

You may wonder if the compounds (urushiol) in poison-ivy that cause a skin rash in most people are present in the fruit. I'm not entirely sure; some sources say yes, others indicate they are only present in the sap, and therefore only the stems and leaves. In other plants with urushiol, such as mangoes, the fruit does not contain the poison. I'm not very sensitive to poison-ivy, and I have not had a problem handling the seeds once pooped from a bird.

Update: My friend Steve Hamilton has taken some great photos of a Cedar Waxwing and a Yellow-rumped Warbler at poison-ivy, and a video of a Yellow-rumped Warbler eating poison-ivy in Ohio.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Barred Owl in Dearborn

I get a fair number of calls to help rescue birds from various situations, often inside buildings. Usually they are very common species (European Starlings, in particular, seem to have a knack for falling down chimneys). Often there isn't much I can do but offer advice, which is often sufficient to solve the problem.

Late yesterday afternoon I got a message from Jim Barber at the First Presbyterian Church of Dearborn, directly across the Rouge River from campus. They had a large owl (he thought Great Horned) trapped in the basement boiler room of the church. He was at wits end -- the bird had been there for at least several days and nobody he called was taking any action. The notion of a Great Horned Owl getting down a ventilation shaft seemed pretty unlikely to me, and he told me the room was around 20 by 20 feet with high ceilings. This seemed like a difficult situation, but my curiosity, the plight of the bird, and Jim's frustration compelled me to immediately head up to the church and figure out how I could help.

Within 15 minutes I was looking in the boiler room. Not only was it big, it was cluttered with all sorts of equipment and supplies. This was the part of the room I saw when I walked in:

To the right was the large boiler, and the ceiling went up another 10 feet, criss-crossed with pipes and supports. A large owl did indeed take off from a ceiling beam and fly over to a pipe above the boiler. To my great astonishment it was not a Great Horned Owl (or a Cooper's Hawk, which I sort of expected), but a Barred Owl (Strix varia), a species with only a single record from Dearborn, in 1976 (see history, below).

I decided there were two possibilities for catching the owl. One, with a long-handled net, although with so many obstacles I thought this might result in a lot of chasing around, which would stress the bird. The other was to use a bal-chatri trap, a common way of catching raptors. Bal-chatris are wire traps topped with small nooses made of fishing line. A mouse is placed in the trap, and when the raptor pounces on the trap it gets its talons caught in the nooses. The mouse isn't harmed, and the bird can be quickly released from the nooses. I figured the owl would be very hungry after three days, and this should work pretty well.

After outlining my plan, I called my husband Darrin O'Brien to have him bring a bal-chatri from home as well as a net for back up. I also called my good friend Jim Fowler. Jim has a great deal of experience handling raptors, and also spent 30 years at Greenfield Village as the head of the grounds department, rescuing plenty of birds from buildings. He would bring a long-handled net and a second bal-chatri. I went up to the RRBO banding lab on campus to fetch my banding gear.

When we all reconvened at the church, a member of the Michigan Humane Society wildlife department had shown up. He and the church employees had ambushed the owl and had it wrapped in a shirt, saving us a great deal of trouble. We took the owl from him, and after one loud screech, it settled down and stared up at Jim, who held it while we checked the bird's condition and I measured the wing.

Considering its ordeal, the owl was in great shape. It had some fat, and had no injuries or even broken feathers. Jim Barber and his co-worker Jamie told us there were certainly mice in the boiler room (and they also put out water for the owl), so we can only assume it probably ate while holed up.

Darrin took the bird so we could band it.

I let Jim Fowler do the honors. While it looks like Jim's nose might be in danger here, it's really the talons you have to worry about. Sure enough, it did grab Jim's thumb at one point, drawing blood.

Outside the breeding season, Barred Owls cannot be sexed, so we don't know if the owl is a male or female. But looking at the color, shape, and wear of the wing and tail feathers can help determine age.

All the wing feathers and their coverts (the row of feathers covering the bases of wing feathers) are quite uniform in color and wear, which indicates that this is a hatching-year (HY) bird. The outer six wing feathers (primaries) are slightly more worn that the inner four, but that might be due to flying around a room full of close objects and brushing against them. Further, at no age would we really expect all the inner primaries to be replaced and the outer primaries retained. The shape of the primary coverts is rounded, with the pale areas more round than block-shaped, also an indication of HY.

In the photo above, we can count the number of pale bars on primary number 9, the second feather from the outside. Five bars are visible, not counting the pale tip. In the first set of wing feathers on a Barred Owl, p9 will have 4 to 5 bars; there will be only 3 to 4 bars on it after it is molted. This feather might be molted in the owl's second fall, or not until the third fall. This owl was not actively molting any wing or tail feathers. If it was older than HY, it should have been molting some feathers, or there should have been some new wing feathers that looked different -- less worn with narrower bars spaced further apart.

The photo above not only proves I was actually present at this event, but also shows the pointed, whitish tips of the tail feathers. These are the first tail feathers, which will probably not be replaced until the bird's third fall molt, after which they will have darker, blunter tips and narrower bars. All of this leads to my conclusion that this is an HY bird. By October 10, we would expect that any flight feather molt would be nearly or fully complete, so if it were an older bird, we would see the contrast in old and new feathers discussed above. It's always tricky determining the age of a bird with which you have no experience, so I'm happy to take any corroboration or contradiction in the comments!

We walked to the edge of the parking lot to release the owl. It took flight and landed in a tree, shook itself, gave us one last look, and took off toward the Rouge River and UM-Dearborn campus. 

Barred Owls in Wayne County

According to historical accounts, Barred Owls nested in Wayne County until about 1910, after which they were apparently extirpated, being hunted and pushed out by agricultural and urban development. The next record I found was a report from the UM-Dearborn campus on 12 May 1971. I was unable to confirm the veracity of this record. The only reliable report I have had from Dearborn is a bird seen on 7 April 1976 by Gary Hutman on land that is now the TPC Golf Course. Over a decade passed before a report came from Grosse Ile on 27 December 1987. In 1994, one was seen at Lake Erie Metropark by my husband Darrin on 17 September.

In recent years, Wayne County reports have become more frequent. Daryl Asprey found one at Crosswinds Marsh (phase 1) on 6 December 2003. When RRBO was coordinating the breeding bird atlas work for the county, one or two were reported calling in a wooded area in Canton Township from 2004-2006; we were never able to confirm nesting. Several years ago, a pair took up residence at Oakwoods Metropark, first heard calling by Daryl Asprey on 23 February 2007. Feel free to add any further records in the comments.

Thanks to everybody who participated in this rescue. Good luck to the owl, and to the guys who I understand will be on the roof of the church today, closing off a certain ventilation shaft...

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Fall banding 2011: Weeks 6 and 7

The month of September drew to a close on a windy, rainy note -- the 9th full day of banding missed this month due to weather. Notable mid-way through the season is the near total absence of sparrow migration, with only two White-throated Sparrows banded so far, and no noticeable movement of Swamp, Song, or Lincoln's Sparrows.

Thrush migration has also been dismal. Gray-cheeked Thrushes are never numerous, and Hermit Thrushes have yet to arrive, but Swainson's Thrushes (left) are one of our bread-and-butter birds. Our average for Swainson's Thrush is 70, and a number of years we have topped 150. Our lowest year we caught 24, and we are tied for that number right now. It sounds like other banding stations are also below average. South of us, Black Swamp Bird Observatory was at 131 Swainson's Thrushes as of mid-month, and their mean is 480. If you have any thoughts or observations on thrush migration in the eastern U.S., please feel free to leave a comment! Looks like we'll have to put in at least one more year to increase our sample sizes for our dietary study.

Speaking of which, many trees and shrubs are still laden with late-ripening fruit. I don't ever recall having any substantial crops of arrowood (Viburnum dentatum) or elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) into September, yet these trees have had fruit most of the month, some still coming ripe. The Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) crop, a non-native, is still only about half-ripe. On the final day of September, I found multiple plants of this species, as well as gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa), woodbine (Parthenocissus inserta), and Japanese honeysuckle (L. japonica) still blooming! This year we have large crops of wild grapes (Vitis spp.), poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), and non-native climbing nightshade (Solanum dulcamara). Does anybody else think fruit crops are a little tardy this year?

Good numbers of warblers, relatively speaking, are still moving through, although we have yet to see Yellow-rumped Warblers in any numbers. This past week we exceeded our high number of Nashville Warblers (above), with 60 banded so far (our fall mean is 28). Two more uncommon species were also banded this period.

 This Connecticut Warbler was banded on 27 September...

...and so was this female Blue-winged Warbler. The Blue-winged is actually much rarer here in fall than the Connecticut. This is only the fourth Blue-winged Warbler we've banded in fall, whereas we've banded over two dozen Connecticut Warblers.

A reader asked for an update on the condition of American Robins, since I mentioned in our week 1 summary that the young robins we were catching were quite emaciated. For the month of August, the average weight of young robins was a full 5 grams below the average for previous Augusts. For August and September combined, it was about 1 gram below average. However, our sample size for this fall is very low. The ratio of young robins to adults is very out of whack. Normally for August-September, 75% of the robins we band are young. This year, it's only 36%. This is really surprising, since productivity (as judged by the multitude of young robins we saw this summer) seemed very high. What happened to them? Was there high mortality among other underweight robins? Unfortunately, we will probably never know.

Let's hope October brings us better weather, and more robins, catbirds, and thrushes!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Geolocators on catbirds

Geolocators are tiny devices that measure light levels for up to two years. This data can be used to calculate latitude and longitude when compared with sunrise and sunset times and light levels at noon in different geographic locations. They are accurate to about 200 km for latitude, with better resolution for longitude.

When mounted on a bird, a geolocator records light intensity data at intervals throughout each day. Retrieved later, the data can be downloaded and migration routes, pace, and destination can be determined. For species with broad breeding and wintering ranges, this can provide important information on exactly where particular breeding populations spend the winter. Given that we have long-term Breeding Bird Survey data indicating that populations of some species are declining in particular regions of North America, figuring out where these birds spend most of the year helps us identify what may be causing their declines, and helps us devise more effective conservation measures.

This fall, RRBO is placing geolocators on a sample of summer resident Gray Catbirds. This project is a joint effort between RRBO and Dr. Melissa Bowlin, who joined the UM-Dearborn faculty late last year and who is a research partner of the Environmental Interpretive Center. Dr. Bowlin's interest is in how physical traits of birds influence their migratory performance. In our catbird study, she will be looking at how the wing shape of individual birds impacts the pace of their migration. The geolocator data will allow us to determine the time it takes for each of the birds to reach their wintering destination, and hopefully where the birds stop each day, so we can calculate the rate of migration for each bird.

RRBO is interested in the approximate route followed by catbirds breeding in this area, as well as where they spend the winter. Previous data from other researchers have indicated that Midwestern catbirds winter in Central America, whereas catbirds Mid-Atlantic nesting catbirds winter in the southern U.S. and the West Indies. This information is based on small sample sizes: recoveries of 17 banded birds and 6 birds with geolocators. Our data will add to this knowledge. 

The geolocators are tiny, and are carefully fitted on the birds with a flexible harness that loops around the bird's legs. The total weight of the geolocator plus the harness is less than a gram, or about 2.5% of the weight of an average catbird. The recommendation for any kind of radio transmitter or attachment to a bird is 4% or less. The geolocator rests just above the bird's rump. Dr. Bowlin has done careful studies, published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, determining the effect of drag and weight of various types and configurations of geolocators, using preserved bird bodies in a wind tunnel. The set-up we are using is the best available configuration to minimize these effects.

A geolocator, attached with a leg harness, above the rump of a
catbird at RRBO. The little wand pointed toward the tail is
the part with the light sensor.

When the feathers are smoothed out, only the light wand
sticks out.
Catbirds were chosen for this pilot project because it is not only our most frequently banded long-distance migrant, but also because we recapture a lot of individuals in subsequent years. This is critical because in order to get the data, we have to recapture the bird next year, remove the geolocator, and download the information! Geolocators are typically put on nesting birds, because they have the highest probability of returning to the same site in subsequent years. RRBO banding data has indicated that both adult and young birds (hatching year) captured in early autumn, after hatching year birds have become independent, also have a high return rate. This study will also help us determine if deploying geolocators on hatching year or post-breeding birds is viable. If so, it could help expand the use of these devices by migration banding stations that do not operate during the breeding season. Since we are putting geolocators on both adult and young of the same species from the same population, we hope to also see if age is a factor in the choice of migration route or wintering site.
Because the geolocators are hard to see in the field (the arrow
is pointing to the wand on this one), catbirds are also getting
a single green color band to help us relocate them next year.
(The dark "mustache" on this bird is a juice stain from a meal
of berries!)

As you can see, the potential for these little devices to unravel basic life history mysteries is huge. The pioneering study with bird and geolocators was done by Dr. Bridget Stuchbury and published in the journal Science. The study looked at Wood Thrushes and Purple Martins, and is summarized here. Geolocators are being used to study Bicknell's Thrushes, Bobolinks, Red Knots, Ruddy Turnstones, and Golden-crowned Sparrows, among other species.  Much more information on this technology, as well as the importance of what we can discover is available at the web site of the Migratory Connectivity Project.

We plan to offer donors an opportunity to sponsor these catbirds. To be included in our fall campaign, add your name to the RRBO mailing list.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Fall banding 2011: week 5

Well, things can sure change in a hurry. After probably the dullest first month in 20 years of fall banding came two of the busiest days in RRBO's history. The same stalled low pressure system that was responsible for days of rain and/or wind eased up just enough on Friday, Sep 9 to let us open our nets. Birds that had been pushed west by the weather systems in the prior days were all over the place. We caught 127 birds on Friday morning, and nearly all of them were warblers. It was raining at sunrise on Saturday, but stopped for two hours which allowed us to open nets. It was clear things were still hopping. We closed when it rained, and re-opened again. Although we were not open as long as Friday, we caught 134 birds, again mostly warblers.

Twenty were RTHU, which we released unbanded. Subtracting those and recaptures, 216 were new birds. Thanks to Darrin O'Brien and Dana Wloch, two of my most experienced banders, we worked out a system where birds were fully processed -- measured, aged, sexed, and weighed -- in less than two minutes and we were never away from the nets for more than 40 minutes.

In the fall, Bay-breasted Warblers usually don't show
much bay color on the flanks. This one has a hint.
The big story for the week has been Bay-breasted Warblers. Our fall average is just two, and our previous fall season high number is five. We have already banded 26 and seen many others. Tennessee Warblers are more numerous west of here in fall, but we've exceeded our fall average of nine with 11 so so far. These two species (along with Cape May Warbler), are generally thought of as "spruce budworm" warblers, since their populations can be tied with outbreaks of this insect on their nesting grounds.

Black-throated Green Warbler

When there are large pushes of birds due to weather systems, it's hard to attribute inflated numbers to actual increases in populations, but a few other species have more numerous than usual this season overall (not just on the two big days). Blackpoll Warblers are much more common; our fall mean is 23, and we've banded 43 so far. Our current total of ten Black-throated Green Warblers is well above our fall mean of two and high of six. We've netted and released 52 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Since they are not marked some may be repeats, but it isn't too unusual to catch three to five in one net. However, the most we've netted in the past was 50, and we usually get them into October.

Things tapered off after those two big days and have more or less returned to normal. I hope to have a post up about one of our special projects within the next week or so.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Fall 2011: Weeks 3 and 4

As you might imagine, banding has been largely at a standstill. Week 3 was very hot, limiting banding to only a couple of hours in the morning. Week 4 so far has been -- and looks to be -- completely rained out. A low pressure system (the remnants of tropical depression Lee) has been stalled just to our east, unable to move as Hurricane/Tropical Storm Katia moves up the Atlantic. Not much we can do but wait out the weather. Here are a few birds we banded when the conditions cooperated.

American Redstarts are quite numerous this fall. Most are young birds. Some young males and females can't be told apart. Male redstarts look a lot like females for an entire year. However, a few have more boldly colored orange patches on the sides, which you can just make out in this photo.

Wilson's Warblers are also common early migrants here. The young females show barely any trace of the dark black cap of males.

Yellow-bellied Flycatchers are a personal favorite of mine. It is really hard to capture their true lemony-olive color, but this photo comes close. Notice that their heads look too big for their bodies -- this can be a good field mark, especially when combined with the color.

I did take a look at the previous RRBO data and compared it to our August data to see if my hunch that birds seemed to have nested a little later, based on molt patterns, was correct. I mentioned this in my previous post. I examined all hatching-year birds banded in August 1992-2010. About 13% of those birds had not yet started their first post-juvenile molt. For August 2011, it was 26%. So it does seem that a lot of the juvenile birds we caught in August were a week or so younger than in previous years.

We hope to be able to resume banding over the weekend.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Fall 2011 banding: week 2

Another very quiet week, with not many migrants around. A higher percentage of the young resident birds that I'm banding have not yet started or are just beginning their post-juvenile molt than I usually see this time of year. This is the replacement of their juvenile plumage into their first winter adult plumage. It's usually in full swing right now. Same with the molt of adults, who typically molt all of their feathers after they are done nesting. The adults I've banded have just started this process.

The extent of this molt this year tells me that these species -- cardinals, catbirds, robins, and Song Sparrows mostly -- were a little later in fledging than usual. It could be that the big flood in May caused some birds to lose their first nest, and pushed breeding back a couple weeks. Or, good conditions this summer (warm, good amount of rainfall, lots of bugs) could mean some species attempted a third nesting.

I have heard and seen adult birds still tending their newly-fledged young. Here is a brand-new youngster I captured this week. Can you guess the species?

While it seems a little lost and forlorn, I found one of the parents in a nearby net. Although both sexes of this species look alike, they can sometimes be distinguished in the hand. The incubating parent (in most songbirds, just the female) develops a bare area on her belly called a brood patch. The area loses feathering and becomes vascularized in order to facilitate the transfer of heat from her body to the eggs and chicks. I was able to tell that this was the female parent of the chick above.

It's a Chipping Sparrow, a common nester here on campus.

Another frequent nester is the Baltimore Oriole. Because they migrate so early in the season, I sometimes don't catch any in the fall. I had three in one net this week, including this adult male. Orioles are pretty sassy. This one seemed astonished, and a little indignant.

Over the weekend, we had some north winds which brought in some migrants that were observed on our survey on Sunday. This week may bring a small uptick in captures if the migrants stick around, but the forecast is for more southerly winds and hot temperatures toward the end of the week. That could slow things down, but we'll see!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Fall banding 2011 begins

RRBO began the 2011 fall banding season on 12 August. The first week was a "soft" opening, when we put up only a portion of the nets each day, make adjustments, and handle all the young fledglings in the area with some extra TLC. We were also taking some extra time to prepare for a special project, which I'll write about in a future post.

Not too many migrants were present. We caught a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher on 15 August, which was an early date for a fall migrant in Dearborn. A Chestnut-sided Warbler captured on 17 August was the only other passage migrant netted this period. I like the inquisitive look it has.

What we did have was a lot of mosquitoes. This is the worst year for mosquitoes I can remember. In fact, so many come inside with me that they are as bad inside the banding room as many typical years outside.

The coolest bird we caught was not uncommon -- a male Northern Cardinal. But it was a bird we had banded on 19 April 2001 as a second-year bird. Thus, he is now over 11 years old, the oldest cardinal we have recaptured and the second oldest bird we have ever recaptured. While 11 years falls short of the record listed at the Bird Banding Lab web site of over 15 years, it was still good to see him. Over the years he has been recaptured 21 times, but the last time was in 2009.

This is our fifth year of studying the diets of fall migrant birds on campus. We're off to a good start with our sampling of seeds in the poop of various birds. These are all from robins and catbirds.

Just about every species of fruit that is currently ripe has showed up in the samples: grape, pokeweed, glossy buckthorn, dogwood, cherry, and nightshade.

Speaking of robins, three of the six robins we've caught so far have weighed less than 60 grams and have been fairly emaciated. By comparison, only six robins out of over 3500 previously banded here have weighed less than 60 grams, and the average weight for robins is about 78 grams. Generally, I only see birds like this when they are on death's door, and often after they have been exposed to lawn chemicals. I don't have an explanation for the lean condition of these birds, but we'll be monitoring future captures carefully.

Finally, it looks like it may be a very good year, the first in some time, for chickadees. Over the decade between 1992-2002, the resident chickadee population on campus was on the decline. Last fall, there was a large movement of chickadees in eastern North America. It was notable here, and I wrote about it after our last Winter Bird Population Survey season. Clearly, many chickadees chose to stay and nest here, as they were evident on our spring survey as well. We've already banded nine, which is our average over the past nine years. Our high was 52 in 2002. As you might imagine, they are quite the little fussbudgets. I'm happy that their numbers are rebounding, but not so sure I want to band a record number of them.

A Black-capped Chickadee was the first bird banded by RRBO during our inaugural fall season in August 1992. That's right -- this is RRBO's 20th fall banding season. Stay tuned for anniversary-year news.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Dearborn Goldfinch in Ontario

RRBO recently received notice that one of the 2500+ American Goldfinches banded here on campus was recovered elsewhere. Only about 1% of small songbirds banded are found away from the place they were banded, so a report of this kind is always interesting. Usually, birds are not found far away, and usually they are dead. This report indicated that the goldfinch in question, a hatching-year male we banded here on 19 October 2010, was captured and released by another bander north of Guelph, Ontario (about 175 miles from Dearborn, as the goldfinch flies) on 10 May 2011.

Location of capture and release of American Goldfinch banded at RRBO.

This has happened only a few times for RRBO: a Yellow-rumped Warbler caught in Tallahassee, FL, a White-throated Sparrow on Ontario's Bruce Peninsula, and a Northern Waterthrush in Wisconsin.

What made this American Goldfinch capture even more special was that it was captured by Antonio Salvadori.

Young male American Goldfinch like the one RRBO banded
that was caught in Ontario. Photo by. D. O'Brien.

Toni has been banding for nearly as long as I have been alive, founded the Guelph Banders Group, and bands at three locations. One is at his home in Guelph; another a property in Ermosa, just outside of Guelph; and at Colwyn Farm, northeast of Guelph near the town of Fergus.

But here's the kicker. In 2008, Toni captured and released a Blue Jay banded in the east Dearborn yard of RRBO's Julie Craves and Darrin O'Brien. He caught the jay at his Ermosa, Ontario location.

It's hard to imagine the odds of this occurring. I might expect that Black Swamp Bird Observatory would capture some of our birds, or vice versa, given their volume and location on the north shore of Lake Erie about 50 miles nearly due south of RRBO. So far, this hasn't happened.

You can read more about other out-of-state recoveries of RRBO's birds on our recoveries page, and about Toni's banding history in this PDF from the Guelph Field Naturalists newsletter.

Cross posted at the RRBO web site.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Spring migration 2011

The spring 2011 survey season took place 1 April through 15 June. On campus, regular surveys were conducted on on 50 of the 70 days, with nearly daily surveys between 20 April and 3 June. The surveys recorded 146 species (another 15 were recorded in Dearborn off-campus). This is greater than the previous ten-year average of 130 species, or the five-year average of 133. The peak day was 10 May with 95 species, of which 25 species were warblers. Typically, our peak day is around 80 species and occurs later in the month (May 16-20 the past three years).

Spring 2011 was the second wettest spring on record for Detroit, according to the National Weather Service. April was generally cool, with measurable precipitation 18 out of 30 days and a rainfall total 2.5 inches above normal. May featured normal temperatures, and 21 days of precipitation. This included a dramatic soaker on May 25-26 with over 2.5 inches of rain on campus that caused the Rouge River to peak at least five feet above flood stage (upper left in photo is the waterfall at Fair Lane Estate, inundated by the high water). The month ended up being the second wettest May on record.

Thirty species of warblers were recorded on campus this spring. This includes all 26 regularly-occurring species (at least 8 of the last 10 years), as well as the less-common species Pine Warbler (26 Apr), Prothonotary Warbler (9 to 11 May), Kentucky Warbler (10 May), and Hooded Warbler (18 and 22 May).

In general, migration was excellent this year, which has not been the case for the past five years or so. In addition to great diversity, numbers were also better. Early season migrants were especially abundant. The two eBird graphs below show two of these species, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Palm Warbler for the last five spring migrations. Lines represent the highest count of a species submitted on a single checklist from the UM-Dearborn campus during the weekly periods indicated. They show peak numbers in 2011 were much higher than in recent years (click to enlarge).

A variety of things could factor into these increased numbers, but a couple stand out, especially for the high numbers of early migrants. First, this was a La Niña year. While La Niña/El Niño cycles do not have a strong impact on our weather here in the upper Midwest (which is more influenced by the North Atlantic Oscillation), it does have a strong impact on weather where many of "our" birds winter. Namely, it was a very wet winter in much of Latin America. Wetter winters tend to have higher insect abundance, which translates into better overwinter survival for some species of birds. Thus, some species may have been more abundant this year.

Another factor could be detectability. The overall cool weather, without early hot spells, slowed leaf-out on woody plants. When trees don't have leaves, birds are simply easier to see and count. The graph below shows the accumulated growing degree days (GDD) for the period of 15 March, when woody plants here often begin to awaken, and 10 May, when we would expect many migrant bird species to be present. GDD are a measure of heat accumulation based on daily temperatures that are often used in agriculture to determine, for example, when crop species are likely to mature (data from Detroit Metro airport, click to enlarge).

As you can see, by our peak day of 10 May, the accumulated GDDs were the lower than they had been for years, which was reflected in the slow leaf-out of the trees here on campus.
Other notable birds this spring included Osprey on 10 and 23 May; five records of Bald Eagle, of which three were on campus; five records of flyover Sandhill Cranes, all from campus (there have only been 10 records in the past 10 years!); and the spate of Bobolink sightings around Dearborn between 6 and 9 May which included ten singing males in the fields at Hubbard and Southfield on 8 May.

Arrival dates
Only two species arrived earlier than any previous record for Dearborn. They were Ruby-throated Hummingbird on 26 Apr (4 days earlier) and Indigo Bunting (27 Apr off-campus, 1 day earlier). A Blackburnian Warbler on 27 Apr tied the previous early arrival date. Two Common Loons seen over east Dearborn on 20 Mar were also early, but occasionally this species winters in the Great Lakes.

Extremes are interesting, but deviation from a more typical arrival date is probably a more accurate depiction of any shift in migratory phenology. I have 14 to 21 years of spring arrival dates for 43 species. There are a number of ways to calculate central tendency (or the "expected" middle value of a data set). For simplicity's sake in this example, I calculated the arithmetic mean, or average arrival date for each species to compare to this year's arrival dates. For these 43 species:

  • Fourteen (32%) arrived on their average arrival date.

  • Seven (16%) arrived later than average (the average for those species only was 3 days later)

  • Twenty-two (51%) arrived earlier than their average arrival date (for those species, the average was 4 days earlier).

  • For all 43 species, arrival time averaged 1.6 days earlier than "usual."

All spring data from 1994 through 2011 is now in eBird. You can explore all of the survey data input for the campus at eBird. Use the "Change date" button at the top of that page to look at separate years or to compare years.

Many thanks to Darrin O'Brien and Mike O'Leary, who assisted with surveys this spring.