Friday, March 25, 2011

New for Dearborn: Ross's Goose

In the late afternoon of 24 March, Jim Fowler, Jr. found an adult Ross's Goose on private property, a first record for Dearborn. Several of us were able to see the bird and get some photos, and were hopeful the bird would be present in a more accessible area the next day. Searches all over the city turned up empty, however.

The goose was in the company of three Canada Geese, and was approximately the size of a Mallard, perhaps slightly larger. In Mike O'Leary's first photo, the bird is relaxed and shows the short-necked appearance of a Ross's Goose (it later got a little wary and raised its head a lot). The feathering between the bill and face was very straight, and the base of the bill had the characteristic blue-gray color and the some of the warty bumps of a Ross's Goose. (These warts are most pronounced on older males, least on females.)

Looking at the bird with binoculars, no grin patch was readily apparent; in the close-ups of Cathy Carroll's photos below, a thin dark line is present. This seems to be within the range of an "acceptable" Ross's Goose. The forehead didn't appear as "steep" as some Ross's Goose photos I have seen, but is also within the range for Ross's. It was obviously not a Snow Goose, but many of these geese have been judged to be hybrids.

We all appreciated (and enjoyed!) Cathy's belly-crawl up to the goose for a few closer photos.

The last two are the same photo; I increased the contrast of the second photo.

Those of us who saw this goose feel pretty comfortable calling it a Ross's Goose, and not a hybrid with a Snow Goose. According to the Birds of North America account for Ross's Goose, the percentage of hybrid Ross's x Lesser Snow Goose was 1.9% between 1989 and 1992 (n=2,943 Ross’ Geese captured) during banding operations in central Canadian Arctic. This was down from 4.7% for the period between 1962 and 1968 (n=29,880). It sure seems like many more birds are called hybrids than are likely to be actually present in the population. Perhaps this speaks to our lack of ability to truly distinguish the species of some intermediate-looking birds.

A final clue is available that may corroborate the identity of this goose. It had a band on its left leg. We have several photos that show most of the numbers, and I have a call into the Bird Banding Lab to the person in charge of looking up partial band numbers.

UPDATE: We have confirmed that this is indeed a Ross's Goose, banded in Nunavut on 7 August 2006, a male of unknown age.

This is the 257th species for Dearborn. There are fewer than 6 records of Ross's Goose for Wayne County.


Thanks to Joe Hildreth for his comment below noting that a banded Ross's Goose was seen in Bowling Green, OH from 13-19 March. The pitch of the forehead, feathering near the bill, and bill structure look strikingly similar to the Dearborn bird. There is a link in the comment to a couple of photos.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

More shade coffee birds and banding: part 2

In my last post I outlined the first portion of my recent trip to Nicaragua. Here is the next installment.

Part 2: Finca El Jaguar

In 2009, during our brief stopover in Managua, Nicaragua, my husband and I met Georges and Liliana Duriaux-Chavarría, the owners of El Jaguar, a fantastic cloud forest reserve and coffee farm near Jinotega in the north-central highlands of Nicaragua. We were immediately taken by both their charm and their dedication to bird conservation. There was no question we would visit them on our next trip to Nicaragua.

El Jaguar consists of about 240 acres, of which 80% is protected cloud forest reserve. This is beautiful old-growth forest with towering trees and thick multi-story growth.

Around 50 acres is coffee (in the foreground above, forest beyond). The coffee areas are broken up into plots separated or connected by forest or natural habitat patches. The coffee itself is grown among banana and other trees, but is not considered heavily shaded. This is because at an elevation of 4300 feet, the farm is covered by misty clouds part of nearly every day. The clouds provide the "shade" and the coffee would suffer from not enough light and a variety of fungal diseases if there were lots of trees planted with the coffee. So while El Jaguar does not qualify for Smithsonian Bird-Friendly certification, they are Rainforest Alliance certified.

Over 270 bird species have been recorded at El Jaguar (we saw about 80 in our few days there). More than 50 are Neotropical migrants (those that primarily breed in the U.S. and Canada and winter in the tropics). This includes an amazing 27 species of "our" warblers -- Golden-winged Warbler, the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler, and the Cerulean Warbler among them. Due to this rich bird life, El Jaguar was designated as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International in 2006.

Two winter bird banding stations are run by Georges and Lili at El Jaguar, one in the primary forest, one in the coffee area. Since 2009, El Jaguar has also collaborated with the Golden-winged Warbler Working Group to do regional surveys for this declining North American-breeding warbler. A similar project, the International Wood Thrush Conservation Alliance, is now being launched to benefit the Wood Thrush, and El Jaguar participated in the first workshop.

Wood Thrushes are one of the most common North American-breeding migrants found wintering at El Jaguar. Here is one captured in the nets at the coffee banding station. As part of the working group project, a unique combination of color bands is put on each Wood Thrush so that individuals can be identified without having to recapture them.

This species has declined an estimated 50% over its broad breeding range since the late 1970s. It is evident to us, having traveled in the Neotropics, that Wood Thrushes require mature forests in the winter. The remarkable forests at El Jaguar by far had the most Wood Thrushes we've seen in our travels. The banding program at El Jaguar (and Finca Esperanza Verde) has shown that individual Wood Thrushes return to the same places each winter. Further studies with new technology indicate that there is strong connectivity between particular nesting regions and specific wintering regions. Since RRBO has a history of working with Wood Thrushes, we are anxious to get involved in this conservation effort seeking to understand the linkages with breeding and wintering areas, and factors important to their survival. (Your donations provide the support to help us in these initiatives!)

If all that work isn't enough, in 2010, Georges and Lili received a Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act grant, through the US Fish and Wildlife Service and matched by the American Bird Conservancy. This grant will assist El Jaguar in reforesting neighboring farms and help community coffee farmers work towards certifying their coffee with Rainforest Alliance. The photo above shows the native tree nursery that is part of this project. Within the next few years, El Jaguar will have raised and distributed over 20,000 trees!

Wilson's Warblers are also amazingly common there. We see them in most coffee farms we visit, and they are one of the few North American migrants that will actually feed in the coffee trees themselves.

Of course, we always like seeing the tropical resident birds. Georges and Lili are now starting a program where they will band throughout the year in order to gather the same type of important survivorship data on resident species.

As always, I like seeing the tropical cousins of the thrushes that I study here at RRBO. Here is an Orange-billed Nightingale-thrush (Catharus aurantiirostris) getting measured.

Quail-doves are notoriously hard to see. This White-faced Quail-dove (Geotrygon albifacies) was captured in the forest nets. Due to the efforts of Georges and Lili, and their son Jean-Yves, to educate the surrounding community, elusive forest birds that are typically scarce because they are hunted are much more common and relatively easy to see at El Jaguar. On the short trail behind our cabin, we saw Violaceous and White-faced Quail-doves (Geotrygon albifacies), and had drop-dead looks at a strolling Little Tinamou (Crypturellus soui) and Highland Guans (Penelopina nigra).

In fact, the guans actually come to feed with the chickens! So do a few Gray-necked Wood-rails (Aramides cajanea).

We didn't do as much hands-on banding at El Jaguar as at Finca Esperanza Verde. They use a different protocol at El Jaguar, and while I am familiar with all the extra measurements they take, the young Nicaraguans who help Georges and Lili could process birds way faster.

Hopefully, I came in handy interpreting the banding and conservation projects to this group that came for a visit.

In trying to make ourselves useful, we also spent time working on putting together a dragonfly list for the property.

We only brought one net, so Darrin did all the catch-and-release. I just posed with the net, but did a lot of ID work.

We were able to find and identify over a dozen species, including this very gorgeous Rhionaeschna jalapensis.

We also photographed and identified over two dozen butterfly species, many of which were new for the El Jaguar list.

We took perhaps eight photos of clearwinged butterflies, which turned out to represent seven different species and several families! This is Greta morgane oto.

We are still working on compiling our lists for Georges and Lili (and then could use a vacation from our vacation). It was a productive trip, and if anybody is interested in the logistics of travel to Nicaragua or El Jaguar, feel free to drop me a line. Here are a few links that may be of interest as well:

Thank you Georges, Lili, and Jean-Yves!

Monday, March 21, 2011

More shade coffee birds and banding: part 1

Readers will recall that my husband Darrin O'Brien and I like to do "working" vacations, where we travel to Latin American countries to do bird banding, bird surveys, and/or insect survey work. Usually, this involves work on coffee farms, as coffee grown in a sustainable manner is critical to "our" migrant birds, and therefore a topic of great importance to me. Last year we went to west-central Mexico, and in 2009 it was Nicaragua. We returned this year to Nicaragua, taking part both in the same project as 2009, as well as visiting a new location. Here are some highlights of our recent trip. I'll do it in two parts.

Part 1: Finca Esperanza Verde

We started out, as we did in 2009, working with a North Carolina group doing some banding at the shade coffee farm, Finca Esperanza Verde (FEV). A recap of the 2009 trip is here, and more details on the coffee farm itself are here.

In 2009, there were five banders, including us. This year, we were two of three. During banding sessions, we were super-busy! I have a bum knee, so Darrin had the roughest set of nets to check. Nearly everything in coffee country is up or down, and we were at 1150 meters elevation. He often came back to the banding area out of breath. All the nets were in the coffee production area, which at FEV is under a lovely canopy of shade and interspersed with thick forest patches.

We were pretty excited to catch this male Red-capped Manakin (Pipra mentalis) on the first day. Aside from being very cool and crazy-looking, this is the species that "moonwalks" during its courtship display. The next day, we caught a female Long-tailed Manakin (Chiroxiphia linearis). Female manakins are generally dull green, but this family of birds are dependent on forest where they seek out a variety of fruit to eat. Catching them at FEV was evidence of the quality of the forest there.

On the third day, we caught a male Long-tailed Manakin. He was a real crowd-pleaser!

Another blue-colored bird we caught was Blue-black Grosbeak (Cyanocompsa cyanoides). They are a little smaller than our Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and, frankly, didn't seem to bite as much.

One thing we did was take photos of the spread wings of most of the tropical resident birds we processed. Our knowledge of molt strategies and ageing of these birds is limited, and the Institute of Bird Populations is requesting such photos.

This is the wing of an Olivaceous Woodcreeper (Sittasomus griseicapillus), a member of a large family of birds that behave similar to woodpeckers or our Brown Creeper.

And here's the wing of the unrelated Plain Xenops (Xenops minutus). Xenops are also bark-foraging birds that will cling to tree trunks or branches, extracting insects with their wedge-shaped bills. I think the similarity in the wing coloration between these two unrelated birds is quite interesting.

Speaking of cool bills, here is a Stub-tailed Spadebill (Platyrinchus cancrominus)a tiny flycatcher will a nifty, wide, flat bill.

Here's another resident flycatcher with an interesting bill -- a Northern Bentbill (Oncostoma cinereigulare). This was one of several we banded, and two were recaptures from 2008!

Of course, many American migrants rely on shade coffee farms in Latin America, and our interest in this issue is how we got involved in these visits in the first place. The most common North American-breeding migrants at FEV are Wilson's Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, and Wood Thrush.

Here's another: Louisiana Waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla). This waterthrush was a recapture, and had first been banded at FEV in 2006. That's at least five round trips between the U.S. and Central America. It had also been recaptured a year or so ago, underscoring the winter site fidelity of many migrants, and how important it is that their habitat remains intact during all parts of their life cycles.

There wasn't a lot of time for relaxation, but we were grateful to the FEV workers for bringing down a couple of chairs to the little spot where we had the banding area set up.

I think we banded around 60 birds in our three morning sessions. We caught fewer hummingbirds than we did in 2009, I think because the flowering phenology was different due to the very wet La Niña conditions this winter. More Guilford College students were on this trip, and everyone got a chance to learn about bird banding and participate in the process. Our thanks to John Gerwin of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Lynn Moseley of Guilford College and her students, and Dave Davenport of EcoQuest Travel for not only allowing us to come along, but putting up with all of our niff-naw as well.

After five days, it was time to say goodbye to FEV and the Guilford group, and head to north of Jinotega for our stay at another coffee farm, El Jaguar. It will be the subject of my next post.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Winter Bird Population Survey 2010-2011

The 19th year of RRBO's Winter Bird Population Survey has been completed. Over the 20 December to 20 February survey period, 44 species were tallied. The previous annual average number of species is 38. There was a new species for the count this year, Tundra Swan, bringing the cumulative total over the years to 70 species. This is only the second year in which we have recorded Red-shouldered Hawk. Although only seen during one survey, the bird was observed several times throughout the period. A small number of Common Redpolls were recorded on three occasions late in the count period. One species that has been showing a dramatic trend is American Crow. The average number of crows counted per year from 1993-2002 was 139. Then West Nile Virus (WNV) entered our region and greatly reduced their numbers. In Dearborn and much of Wayne County, their numbers have not recovered. The average number of crows counted per year since then has been just 9. That number represents the cumulative number of crows counted over an average of 13 surveys days per year. Over the past decade, crows are often not seen on any given survey day, and the average number of crows per visit has been under 1.0 since 2004. This year it was 1.5, mostly owing to a flock that flew over campus on 1 January, the day of the Christmas Bird Count. Thus, that modest increase probably does not really represent a solid gain in numbers. The graph below tells the sad story. Another species that people were concerned was impacted by WNV was the Black-capped Chickadee. I last reviewed their status in 2002 and 2003. Our data showed a long-term decline that preceded WNV in our area, but this decline seemed to become more pronounced and numbers stayed depressed after WNV became established here. One interesting aspect of chickadee ecology is that every so often, very large numbers of young birds come south in the fall after a year of high productivity in the north. This phenomena occurred in fall 2010. It was much more pronounced east of here, even as closely as across the Detroit River in Canada. At Ontario's Long Point Bird Observatory along the north shore of Lake Erie, the number of chickadees banded over a few days in November exceeded any annual totals for the past 50 years! The ended up banding nearly 2000 chickadees, almost 25% of their 50-year total. Numbers here were nowhere near as remarkable, but they were noticeable here on campus during fall banding and evident in our winter survey numbers. The cumulative total of 355 chickadees during the survey period was the highest since RRBO counted 417 in 1995-1996, and the second highest total ever. The average number of chickadees per visit was the highest since 1998. Here's the graph: For resident species like crows and chickadees, this type of long-term data set in invaluable in seeing how birds react to various environmental changes, including diseases like WNV. It's critical to have monitoring programs like this in place, ready to provide "before" data when some unanticipated natural event occurs. Next year, after our 20th annual survey, I will be doing some more serious analyses on our data set, with an eye towards publication. Now, on to spring surveys...

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Dearborn portion of the Detroit River CBC, 2011

The Detroit River Michigan-Ontario Christmas Bird Count was held, as it is each year, on January 1. This was the 34th year for the count, which is centered at I-94 and Warren Ave, and the 17th year that RRBO has coordinated the field work in the city of Dearborn. Our expectations were kind of modest. Temperatures had been mostly below freezing much of December, until a few days before the count. A lot of the Rouge River was frozen, and much of the Detroit River was also frozen, or flowing slush ice. This resulted in most gulls and waterfowl moving out of Dearborn. New Year's Eve was warm and it rained much of the night, continuing periodically in the morning on count day, followed by wind and falling temperatures. The number of hours in the field was diminished by both these conditions and the fact that both Michigan State and U of M were in bowl games, causing some early attrition among observers. In spite of this, 45 species were found in Dearborn, only slightly off the average of 47. For the first year, Ring-billed Gulls were missed in the city. However, we had high counts for Red-breasted Nuthatch (10) and White-breasted Nuthatch (36). Ember the Peregrine was found by my husband and I on one of her usual perches at Fairlane Plaza in the morning, and I later saw her on top of Ford World Headquarters. Our territory includes counting the bird in the various plantings on Ford properties. For some years, they were all sunflowers and attracted many thousands of birds. The last couple of years only one field has been entirely sunflowers, some have been wildflowers (but mowed in fall) and others were cropped in timothy hay and once harvested left barren. This year the wildflowers weren't mowed and the hay fields had sunflowers around the borders, although the cover crop was of no interest to birds. The best field was the sunflowers around the world headquarters: That's the headquarters building in the background between the trees. Although blackbirds has really worked these sunflowers over in the fall, there were still seeds in the centers of the heads. Over 100 Red-winged Blackbirds and a couple of Brown-headed Cowbirds were present, along with hoards of finches and other seed-eaters. It takes a few hours to get accurate counts on the thousands of birds moving in and out of the crop and a brushy line of trees in the middle. We also usually walk the concrete channel of the Rouge River. My husband Darrin O'Brien covered it this year. Here is another shot of the Ford headquarters, this time from a mile or so away along the channel: Snow Woods is another Ford property we cover. Here I am, dwarfed by a big tangle of grape, creeper, and Japanese honeysuckle vines. Although it looked perfect hideaway, there was no Northern Saw-whet Owl in residence. Probably one of the most interesting things on our count is the high number of wintering Black-crowned Night-herons. Around 2004, a winter roost was discovered inside the sprawling, mega-industrial Ford River Rouge complex, which is surveyed with special permission. The herons, which are not happy-looking birds in any circumstance, gather in what appears to be glum silence in thick Phagmites rimming a pretty nasty-looking small pond. It's near one of the blast furnace buildings, so maybe it stays open because it's receiving warm water somehow. Since 2004, the average number of night-herons here has been 24, and there were 25 this year. I'm sure a bunch are not counted that are hidden in the reeds. It's a very weird, post-apocolyptic-flavored experience seeing them there. I'm not sure what they find to eat. The boat slip and turning basin that you can see to the right of the "heron pond" in the photo below are deep, made to accommodate freighters. The channelized portion of the river leading into the basin is vee-shaped, so it freezes along the margins. Whatever they find, it is highly likely to be contaminated. It's just a weird situation! Finally,we had a new generation participating in the count. Greg Norwood did his first Dearborn CBC in 1997, when he was still a few years away from getting his driver's license. This year, he brought along his daughter Ruth, and his wife Terry documented the occasion. Althought this makes me feel really old, it's great to be part of a family tradition!