Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fall 2012 banding season review

Our 21st fall banding season took place on 38 days from 17 August to 25 October. An average of 17 nets (12 meter equivalent*) were open an average of 4.3 hours per day. This is the fewest number of days we have been open in a fall season, as we lost 14 whole days and curtailed many others due to rain, heat, or wind, including the last week or so of the season due to Superstorm Sandy and her winds (see below).

What we band in fall has a lot to do with weather in the preceding seasons, even those in years past. I'll leave aside the amazingly wet spring and very hot summer we had in 2011 -- not that they can't have lingering effects, but the weather in 2012 was unusual enough. 

We started the growing season well ahead of schedule, with an unprecedented March heat wave. I discussed possible effects in this blog post. Then came the extended hot, dry summer. It began with 11 days over 90 degrees by the end of June resulting in an average temperature for the first six months of the year being the warmest on record for Detroit. Record heat in July (13 more days over 90F) and precipitation well below normal created severe drought conditions (D2 on the U.S. Drought Monitor scale). 

Below is a map at roughly the end of the breeding season for many songbirds showing drought conditions throughout North America.

Click here for the original map in detail from the North American Drought Monitor.
Banding begins in mid-August, and while the month was still warmer and drier than average, most of the month's precipitation fell as we began the season. September was cooler (although still slightly above average) and remained drier than normal. October brought two episodes of high winds, one mid-month and the other at the end of the month as a result of Hurricane/superstorm Sandy. This ended our banding season.

We ended up banding just 616 new birds and handling 72 recaptures of 63 species (includes two species released unbanded, Ruby-throated Hummingbird and House Sparrow, and one species, Downy Woodpecker, in which we only had a recapture and no new individuals banded). A total of 725 birds were netted (which includes birds released unbanded). Our capture rate was 27.5 birds per 100 net-hours. Here is how this fall compared with the 20 previous autumn seasons:

Fall 2012 Previous
fall mean
Days open 38 51
New birds 616 1205
Total birds 725 1541
Capture rate 27.5 49.0
Species 63 70

Bold indicates the lowest numbers in our history for fall banding -- we'll give this some analysis in the trends section, below.

The top ten bird species banded this fall (new captures only) were:
  1. American Robin -- 107 (low; previous mean 188)
  2. Song Sparrow -- 37
  3. Blackpoll Warbler -- 36
  4. Gray Catbird -- 32 (new record low; previous mean 138)
  5. American Goldfinch -- 32
  6. Swainson's Thrush -- 30 (low)
  7. Magnolia Warbler -- 27
  8. Hermit Thrush and American Redstart -- 26
  9. White-crowned Sparrow -- 21
Our biggest day was on 16 October, when over 100 birds were banded -- 20% of the total that had been banded up to that point. The next day...just 8 birds! In fact, there were only 4 other days when more than 30 birds were banded.

Let's start out with good news. First, we had our first new species for the banding program in a long while. This handsome male American Kestrel was the first banded on campus by RRBO, and represented the 123rd species banded since 1992.

Connecticut Warblers are always a treat -- especially good-looking adult males like the one below, banded on 19 September.

What started out as a gruesome discovery on 28 September had a happy ending. We captured a Swainson's Thrush that had a piece of straw (hay) impaled through its eyelid and the skin past the ear hole. It was embedded at that point, the skin beginning to grow around it. This must have happened at least several days prior to our catching it, when the bird was foraging in some area with straw strewn about. Amazingly, the eye itself was unharmed, there was no infection, and the bird was in good condition.

Under magnification and in just a few minutes, I snipped off most of the exposed straw, severed it where is crossed the ear, extracted the portion between the ear and eye, and finally snipped it close to the point where it was embedded in the skin. I removed over 30 mm of straw! The bird flew off, hopefully to continue a successful migratory journey without the threat of the straw getting caught on something and ripping the skin or puncturing the eye.

Among the 21 White-crowned Sparrows banded this fall was this candidate that had the clear-lored look of the western "Gambel's" form. However, it has the bill shape and color that lean toward more typical eastern forms. This is the first adult of this type we've banded; for a full discussion and more photos see this page on the RRBO web site.

"Gambel's" White-crowned Sparrow?

The RRBO banding program has focused on bird community composition and various metrics relating to the condition of migrant birds at our site. Thus, overall numbers have not been a main theme for us. Limitations and biases inherent in migration banding cannot be overcome, and much has been published in the literature cautioning against the sole use of banding data to monitor bird population trends. However, it's always interesting to take a look at trends of some species, especially in a year like this with unusual climate events and very low numbers. We just need to take it with a grain of salt.

Of the 25 species of which RRBO has banded over 200 birds, five were banded in greater than average numbers and the rest were below average, when effort was considered*. A half-dozen of these species are among our most commonly banded, and all those were banded in numbers far below normal. Low numbers of a few of them (Hermit Thrush, Song Sparrow, American Goldfinch) could be attributed to the premature ending of the banding season, when I tend to band quite a few of these species. Let's look at the others.

Both Swainson's Thrushes and Gray Catbirds continued a long-term decline in our nets that I wrote about last year. Catbirds in particular I think may be responding to landscape-scale habitat changes being engineered by a burgeoning deer herd.

I'm not sure what to think of the -74% departure from normal of White-throated Sparrows. While they do persist longer in the season here than White-crowned Sparrows (many overwinter), they have been scarce at local feeders as well. This is the first fall season when White-crowns outnumbered White-throats, which are typically banded in three times the numbers. If I had to pick a reason, I would guess that White-throated Sparrows, since they most often feed on the ground, may have had trouble finding leaf-litter invertebrates due to dry conditions. This would be especially true during migration, but it could have impacted them on the nesting grounds as well.

Early in the banding season, I wrote about the lack of young birds being banded. This usually indicates low reproductive productivity. Typically, 81% of the birds we band in fall are young-of-the-year (or hatching-year, HY, birds). This year, just 72% were HY. A look at American Robins, our most commonly-banded species, is instructive.

We've banded nearly 4,000 robins in fall, and roughly three-quarters are HY. This year, the figure was just 46%.

I think this is likely attributable mostly to the drought, as robins rely heavily on leaf litter insects and soil invertebrates (such as worms) to feed their young.

Another interesting metric appeared late in the season. By mid-October, most robins have completed molting -- young birds will have lost their distinctive breast spots and adults will have completed molting their wing feathers. This year that was not the case.

Young robins with breast spots after 10 October:
1992-2011: 2.9%
 Fall 2012: 25%

Adult robins still molting primary feathers after 10 October:
1992-2011: 16.1%
Fall 2012: 25%

This indicates that many robins nested later this season. I expect this was due to re-nesting after lost broods (because of the drought), perhaps additionally influenced or initiated by the mid-August rains.

Finally, while I've already provided the caveat that our banding program is not designed to accurately monitor population trends, I have to look at the overall trend in our capture rate for the last eight fall seasons:

Prior to that, there were ups and downs but our effort and capture rate remained fairly stable. We have been banding in the same location all these years, and strive to keep the vegetation structure at its original stage of succession. This may be an indication that populations of the species we typically band in fall are truly declining, and/or that the landscape surrounding our banding area is changing through urbanization, fragmentation, the interactions of deer and canopy loss due to emerald ash borer, or a combination of these and other factors. The value of long-term data collection is having these trends to look at, even if we are not sure how to interpret them at this time.

Twenty-two individuals of 10 species of passage migrants (those which do not normally nest or winter in this area) were recaptured. Seventy-seven  percent of them maintained or gained mass.

The old man cardinal. More RRBO longevity records here.
We also recaptured 13 birds banded in previous years. The oldest was a male Northern Cardinal first captured as a second-year bird in April 2001, making it 12 years old.

Six Gray Catbirds from the past were recaptured; there were two from 2008 that were both originally captured as adults. A Downy Woodpecker first banded in 2006 as an adult at least three years old was also back again.

Finally, I’d like to thank this year’s banding crew: Shelley Martinez, Mike Sullivan, and Dana Wloch. RRBO couldn’t operate without you!

*In order to compare different locations or years that may operate the same number of hours but with more or fewer nets, capture rate is calculated by "net-hours." One net hour is one 12-meter net open one hour, or two 6-meter nets open one hour, etc. This rate is often expressed per 100 net-hours for more manageable numbers.

*Weather statistics from the National Weather Service.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Our online seed guide

As regular followers know, RRBO's primary research focus is the ecology of fall migrant birds in urban areas, and one of our main project is examining the fall diet of birds at our urban site.

To do this, we collect fecal samples from the birds that we band, and identify and catalog all the seeds we find. We initially compiled a book of photos of seeds from plants known to occur in the area, as well as a large reference series of seeds collected on campus and nearby.  This has enabled us to identify all but 9 out of nearly 6,500 seeds we have collected in fecal samples from 2007 through 2011.

Although our big binder of seeds and photos was handy, we found we also wanted to have other reference material in it. We also found there was a lot of interest in this project from other researchers as well as land managers and homeowners interested in what birds are eating. We conceived an online reference guide that would include all this information in the form of species accounts.

Thanks to support from the Jimmy F. New Foundation and the Michigan Audubon Society, our web site is coming together. You can take a look at the first set of species accounts: Fruit Seeds of Southern Michigan.

The guide provides accounts of plants that produce fleshy, bird-dispersed fruits, with special emphasis on the identification of seeds. It will focus on fall- and summer-fruiting plant species found in southern Michigan, but since many of these species are widespread in North America, it will be useful for a broader region. Both native and non-native species are covered.

The financial support has provided a stipend for UM-Dearborn graduate Dana Wloch to work on the site. As a student, Dana worked for several years collecting and compiling seeds from our banded birds under two independent research projects. As the "Number 2 of Number 2" she is uniquely qualified for this task, and I'm grateful for her help and work on the web site, as well as sorting through, identifying, and compiling all the seeds pooped out by every species except the Catharus thrushes for the fourth year in a row.

Take a look at our site. It's a work in progress, so there will be many more species added, revisions to the existing accounts, and the bibliography and resource pages will be completed.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"Gambel's" White-crowned Sparrows

A western form White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) was banded by the Rouge River Bird Observatory on 20 October 2006, described below and compared with typical eastern and “intergrade” forms. There is a very nice article on identifying subspecies, with range maps, in a 1995 issue of Birding (27:182-200). Two other web pages, Oiseaux Birds and David Sibley’s blog also have a nice set of comparative photos of some of the variations.

Adult White-crowned Sparrows of all subspecies have black and white head stripes, while juvenile birds have brown and tan head stripes. Here are some examples of juvenile White-crowned Sparrows banded at RRBO, concluding with the western “Gambels” type banded in 2006.

Above is a  typical eastern hatching-year White-crowned Sparrow (Z. l. leucophrys).  Characteristics include a deep-based, pinkish bill with a dark tip, a medium-brown crown stripe, and a dark line through the eye that connects to the crown stripe in front of the eye.

This White-crowned Sparrow, banded on 16 Oct 2006, shows traits of an intergrade between the eastern form and the western “Gambel’s” White-crowned Sparrow form. Bill shape and color and crown color are similar to the eastern form.  The lack of dark feathering between the eye and crown is more like the western forms.

This White-crowned Sparrow banded on 20 Oct 2006 is most like the western “Gambel’s” form (Z. l. gambelii).  It not only lacks dark feathering between the eye and crown, but has a thinner, orange bill which is yellowish at the tip (described as looking like “candy corn”), and a more rufous crown stripe coloring.

This adult White-crowned Sparrow banded on 22 Oct 2012 is also a good candidate for the western “Gambel’s” form. It obviously lacks dark feathering between the eye and crown, the bill shape is farily narrow, but the bill color is a little ambiguous

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Banding update

We are well on our way to banding the fewest birds in any fall season in 20 years! The fewest new birds we have banded prior to this year was 739 in 1996. Our "slowest" year was actually 2008, when our capture rate (birds banded as a function of the number of nets we used and the number of hours we had them open) was 33.4 birds per 100 net hours. You can see our current numbers in the right sidebar. I'm pretty sure there is not enough time left in the season for this year not to come in dead last in both categories.

While a lack of birds is disappointing (and kind of alarming), these low numbers are providing valuable data.The weather this growing season is mostly responsible, in particular the drought.  In a previous post, I noted the low numbers of young birds we were banding. This has continued to be the case. American Robins in particular have exemplified the kind of season we are having.

The average number of robins we band in fall is 188, with 300 or so not being uncommon. Prior to today, we had banded only 15!! Today we had 17 more, bringing our total to 32, a remarkably low number.

Based on our 1992-2011 fall data, we can expect around 76% of the robins to be hatching-year birds. This year it is only 23%. This is an indication that robins failed to fledge a "typical" number of young. Since many of the robins we are catching now are migrants likely to have nested elsewhere, this suggests that nesting failure was not just a local problem. And indeed, the drought covered a very large part of the continent.

One interesting aspect is that nearly half young birds I have captured recently still had some spotting on their breasts; this is the plumage they have when leaving the nest. Typically, only about 3% of hatching-year birds have spots this late in the season, having already mostly completed their fall molt. Similarly, 61% of the adult robins are still completing their fall molt. In the past, only about 16% were still molting at this time of year. It looks like, then, that many robins nested late this year -- probably after losing an earlier brood.  It's possible that the skewed ratio of young to older birds may even out a bit in the next couple of weeks.

The prolonged and severe drought contributes to low reproductive success by diminishing food supplies, especially for birds like robins that utilize a lot of leaf-litter or soil invertebrates to feed their young. Besides just reducing the number of birds available, the dry weather contributes to our low capture rates by impacting the fruit crop. Our very early spring heat wave also compounded the failure of many types of wild fruit, as I discussed earlier in the season. Fruit is a vital food source for many species of migratory birds, and of course, a main topic of our research.

In short, many of our staple fruiting plants had small crops or did not fruit, or fruited later than usual. I noted that locally, fruit crops were better in areas adjacent to water. Our banding site is not (unlike many banding stations, which are located in some sort of coastal situation). So this year provided interesting insight into the impacts of growing season weather.

In a future post, I'll provide an update on the 2012 fruit crop and what we found birds were eating.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Silent Spring after 50 years

Have we learned our lesson?

Fifty years ago this month the important book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published. This book warned about the lethal and persistent effects of the pesticide DDT. This book, while in some ways outdated, remains a classic not only for its role in inspiring environmental stewardship, but also because although DDT has been banned in the United States, as a society we still enthusiastically embrace a whole suite of chemicals that end up in our air, water, and soil (and ultimately in animals and ourselves). And we still tend to trust that they are perfectly safe.

In fact, testing of pesticides and other chemicals is focused specifically on active ingredients used in certain amounts and circumstances. Many people use chemicals in ways not intended by the manufacturers, in amounts beyond recommended volumes, in combination with other chemicals, and when none are really needed in the first place. Aside from the risks of these types of applications, we further know very little about the components of this toxic soup interact with each other and the environment.

An excellent example is the American obsession with cosmetic lawn and garden chemicals. I don't want to get too soap-boxy here, but I can tell you two things. First, you can have a nice lawn (if you must) and garden without the use of any chemicals. I've done this my whole life. Second, one of the best things you can do for birds (your pets, the ecosystem, and yourself) in your area is to quit using all chemicals in your yard, because they do harm birds.

I see the effects of "safe" lawn chemicals every year on common birds. I have held emaciated robins in my hands as they had seizures and died, and looked up from their lifeless bodies to rest my gaze upon those little signs indicating an expanse of grass was sprayed with some concoction. Without direct toxicology tests, I can't honestly say lawn chemical exposure was the direct cause of these deaths. I do know that robins can't read to keep off the grass, that their symptoms are typical of exposure, and it is far too common an occurrence to not at least suspect that some combination of chemical exposure is to blame.

On this anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring, I encourage you to read or re-read this book and related material. We are in an age where enough data is available for us to be truly informed and where our actions can make a real difference. Unfortunately, we are also at a point where we are distrustful of science, and often bombarded with conflicting messages from special interest groups. I don't have a horse in this race, except my love for the natural world. Here are my recommendations:

An excellent overview of the context and impact of Silent Spring can be found at the Pop History Dig website: Power in the Pen: Silent Spring 1962. The New York Times Magazine also recently published How Silent Spring ignited the environmental movement.

The book itself, Silent Spring (Kindle edition here), as well as a new biography of Rachel Carson, On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson (Kindle here).

I also strongly recommend Our Stolen Future, which further explores synthetic chemicals in the environment.

There are many excellent sites on thee continued risk of chemicals many of us continue to use regularly. The non-profit Environmental and Human Health published a report very worth reading: Risks from Lawn Care Pesticides. The organization Beyond Pesticides has extensive information about pesticide issues, risks, and alternatives.