Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Update on catbird research

In 2011, RRBO embarked on a collaborative research project with Dr. Melissa Bowlin, a member of the UM-Dearborn Natural Sciences faculty. Dr. Bowlin had a number of geolocator devices left over from a previous project. Geolocators are tiny devices that measure light levels. 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 can be placed on a bird, and if the bird can be recaptured the following year, the data can be downloaded and migration routes, pace, and destination can be determined. You can read a full explanation of how geolocators work and the goals of the project on the RRBO web site.

In 2011, we placed 11 geolocators on catbirds. In spring 2012, we resighted 3 birds with devices, and recaptured 2 of them.

We did get data from the 2 retrieved geolocators. As it turns out, the data was not high quality; not only do catbirds spend a fair amount of time in shaded areas, but the light-collecting stem on the devices we used was a little short and we suspect ended up being covered by feathers a good amount of the time. Without a good reading on the light, the data from one was deemed inaccurate. The other bird seems to have wintered in Florida -- which is unexpected as preliminary data from other researchers (based on banding and geolocators) indicates that Midwestern-nesting birds winter in Central America. We put the geolocator on this bird on September 29, 2011, it appears to have left Dearborn on October 12, arrived in Florida on the October 16, left the wintering grounds on March 30, 2012, and arrived back in Dearborn on May 8, 2012. We recaptured it May 17, 2012 (here's the story of its recapture).

In fall 2012, we put 2 more geolocators on birds, but did not see any birds with geolocators in spring 2013, despite a lot of patient observation of the catbirds on site.  Earlier this year, Dr. Bowlin received a grant to purchase 26 new geolocators with longer light-collecting stems better suited for catbird study. You can see the older device below in the top picture, and a newer one with the longer "stem" in the bottom photo. They both weigh the same, 1 gram including the harness.

During my spring bird surveys, I spent time locating territories of catbirds that I thought would be easiest to catch and re-find next year. Two of Dr. Bowlin's students, Kelli Gutmann and Quen Watkins, then staked out these birds to see where they tended to hang out so they could be captured with a minimum of fuss. I also set up our regular fall banding site, and began banding a month earlier than usual.

We have had good success so far this summer. We have put 14 geolocators on resident catbirds. Even more exciting, one of the birds I recaptured was a male with a geolocator from 2011! The batteries on the devices can last for 2 years, so if it is good quality we could conceivably get 2 years of data from it. 

We feel confident we can catch enough catbirds for all of our devices, and look forward to finding out what routes they use on migration; if the routes differ for males and females, or adults and young; where the birds stop during migration and how long they stay at each stopover; and where they spend the winter. Stay tuned for more updates!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Yellow-headed Blackbird in Dearborn

Last week, a local man, Ron Prowse, came in and spoke to a co-worker (I was off campus) regarding an unusual Blue Jay-sized bird he had seen at his bird feeders on June 12. He provided this photo.

Photo by Catherine Prowse. Not to be used without permission.
Based on the picture and the description he provided my co-worker, we conclude that this is a Yellow-headed Blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus), a new species for the Dearborn bird list!

Yellow-headed Blackbirds are typically a more western species that nests in the grasslands and marshes of the Great Plains. They have nested regularly in Michigan in small numbers for at least 50 years. The most notable small breeding populations are in the Saginaw Bay area. The closest location they are typically found is at Pt. Mouillee State Game Area in Wayne/Monroe Cos.

Map of eBird sightings in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan
for the year 2013.
If I were expecting to see a Yellow-headed Blackbird in Dearborn (which I was not!), I would presume I'd see it during spring migration. A July date is quite interesting, as it would be at a point in their breeding cycle when young are leaving the nest. This wandering bird could be an adult whose nest failed elsewhere, or a non-breeding adult. The most recent sighting at Pt. Mouillee put in eBird was on July 13.

The observer's location not far from the TPC Golf Course along the Rouge River. This portion of the river is channelized, but there is a small wetland on TPC property adjacent to the channel that does have nesting Red-winged Blackbirds and waterfowl. Perhaps the bird was/is hanging around there. Yellow-headed Blackbirds are very tied to cattail marshes for nesting, so the habitat is probably inadequate for that, but it might be a good place to pass the summer.

View Larger Map

Hats off to the Prowse's for this great observation!

This is the 258th species documented for Dearborn. For an interesting historical perspective on Yellow-headed Blackbirds in the state, see Why are Yellow-headed Blackbirds rare in Michigan? by Richard Brewer.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Let's talk turkey

Turkey track found at the north end of Fairlane Lake
next to my notebook for scale.
(Update at end of post!)

On April 16, a Wild Turkey was reported on campus. It was seen twice at Fairlane Estate, once at the feeders behind the EIC, and I found a track at the north end of the lake (right). For one morning, this bird really got around!

Wayne County has had many turkey reports in the last few years, mostly from Sumpter Township and nearby areas in the southwestern part of the county. These probably originated from the successful re-introduction and restocking of turkeys by the Michigan Deptartment of Natural Resources in northern Monroe Co. Back when RRBO was working on the Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas, we obtained data on the relocation of nearly 150 turkeys from Barry, Cass, and Washtenaw counties to Monroe County (a few to St. Clair County) between 2002-2005.

Over the past winter, it seems like turkeys were on the move. Reports came from Belle Isle and near Willow Run airport. This spring, there more reports from Willow Run and environs, and on April 26, someone photographed a turkey on a fifth-floor window ledge near Ford Field in downtown Detroit! I suspect Detroit-area birds come from Canada, including from Fighting Island in the Detroit River, where a large flock has been released. And now Dearborn joins the list of Wayne County communities with a turkey sighting.

I did not include Wild Turkey in my book on Dearborn birds; they did occur here historically, but the book included only those species with specific documentation. Most long-time Dearborn residents are familiar with the pioneer memoir of William Nowlin, The Bark Covered House. Although Nowlin's circa 1840 homestead was just outside Dearborn city limits, it no doubt depicts the turkey situation in the region at the time.  In one passage the author notes,
"Sometimes I would rise early in the morning and go out of the door just at daylight. ... I would listen to see if I could hear the gobbling of the wild turkeys. I hardly ever failed to hear them, sometimes in different directions. I frequently could hear two or three at once."
Turkey poop in my Washtenaw Co. yard with the
toe of my boot for scale. Kind of like Mourning
Dove droppings, but lots bigger.
Alas, by the turn of the 20th century, Wild Turkeys were pretty much gone from Michigan, primarily from overhunting. In the 1950s, a program was initiated to reintroduce turkeys into Michigan. The state population is now around 200,000 birds. An interesting side note: occasionally, one sees grayish or whitish turkeys, which some people believe means wild turkeys have interbred with domestic turkeys. In fact, this is an uncommon genetically-linked color form that was brought to southern Michigan from turkeys relocated from Iowa in the 1980s.

Perhaps ironically, the MDNR is now moving turkeys from southern Michigan to northern Michigan to both bolster populations and to rid urban areas of "nuisance" turkeys. Admittedly, turkeys are very large birds that can do a bit of damage scratching in gardens. And their poop is pretty big, though not as voluminous and messy as goose poop, in my opinion. But despite periodic horror stories, Wild Turkeys are pretty wary and urban areas really don't provide adequate habitat for them.

Nonetheless, the situation reminds me of all the efforts to re-establish and foster populations of White-tailed Deer or Canada Geese, which are now over-abundant and troublesome in many urban areas. I wonder if stories like this will become more common, and what the fate of Wild Turkeys in populated areas will be if their populations flourish.


A (the?) hen turkey was seen again along Fairlane Drive near the old stone cottages on May 2, where Dr. David Susko took the photo at left. There was a very large outdoor event on campus that day, so she probably didn't hang around, but this seems to indicate that she may be hanging around the area.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Winter Bird Population Survey 2012-2013

The 21st year of RRBO's Winter Bird Population Survey has been completed. Over the late-December to late-February survey period, 39 species were tallied. The previous annual average number of species is 38. We added yet another new species this year, a Merlin recorded on 19 December*. This brings the total cumulative species list for 21 years to 73.

Comparing this season's results to the previous 20 years, a few things stand out. First, the number of American Robins was the lowest since 1995. Only previous two years have had lower numbers than this year. While many people still think of robins as harbingers of spring, a lot of robins will winter in southern Michigan so long as they have a food supply -- temperature itself is not the limiting factor. I looked at historical climate data (average temperatures and precipitation for December and January) for the past 20 years and found no correlation between any combination of these weather data and the number of robins counted each year.

For robins, food supply primarily means fruit. Due to the long drought over the summer of 2012, the fruit crop this season in our area was quite poor. Additionally, fruit set was diminished because of the unusual warm period in March, when some fruiting plants set fruit very early, or bloomed but failed to set fruit because pollinators were not yet on the wing.

This robin has staked out some wild grapes.
Photo by alsteele under a Creative Commons license.

For the past 20 years, the mean number of robins seen over the winter survey season was 348, with a mean of 28 robins per visit (each season the area is surveyed/visited an average of 14 times). This season a total of only 47 robins and 3 birds per visit were recorded. The highest counts (although still fewer than 20 individuals) came the last two visits of the season, when robins began to coalesce into larger flocks and move back into the area.

Pine Siskins provided another highlight, this one more positive. This species has only been recorded in three previous years, and this year they were present on all but one visit and in numbers greater than 20 birds each visit prior to mid-January. This winter was excellent for many "winter finches" although strong numbers of siskins were not predicted for this region.

The lack of recovery of American Crows in Dearborn from West Nile Virus (WNV), which first showed up here in 2002, continues. A group of three American Crows flying over campus on January 1, 2013 were the only ones recorded all season. Nine out of the last ten years have recorded fewer than ten crows all survey season. My 2011 post provides more background on the crow decline.

*Technically, this survey is supposed to take place from 20 December to 20 February.  Due to weather and scheduling difficulties, we ran it from 19 December to 21 February this season.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Dearborn portion of Detroit River CBC, 2013

Frozen Fairlane Lake on the University of
Michigan-Dearborn campus.
The Detroit River Michigan-Ontario Christmas Bird Count was held, as it is each year, on January 1. This was the 36th year for the count, which is centered at I-94 and Warren Ave, and the 19th year that RRBO has coordinated the field work in the city of Dearborn.

The day began on a high note. As usual, my husband Darrin O'Brien and I drove friend and participant Cathy Carroll to her starting point, so she can walk along the west side Rouge River back to her car on campus. Due to the fact I have just turned old enough to join the AARP (or, perhaps, a lack of coffee), we drove her to the wrong spot! My dunder-headedness turned out to be serendipitous, as I spotted an adult Bald Eagle perched in a tree along the Lower Rouge River just west of Evergreen Road. As we pulled over to admire it, I got a call from my co-worker Rick Simek, who was covering the south end of campus. He excitedly told me he had just flushed an adult Bald Eagle! Later, Greg Norwood, covering the north end of campus, also saw the eagle; Cathy saw it again later, too. While eagles are getting more and more common in the county and the city, this is only the third time we have recorded this species on the count.

Darrin and I traditionally cover the Ford "sunflower" fields which can vary in productivity from year to year depending on which ones are planted, and with what. Usually, the most productive field is the original field at Hubbard and Southfield. However, the last few years it has been planted in hay. (Curiously, given the very high prices and demand for hay this year due to the drought, the hay was still being stored on-site in the field.)  Sometimes a cover crop is used for winter, but this year it (and the one across the street) was left fallow, save for a narrow fringe of sunflowers along the edges, long since picked over.  There wasn't much at this field, nor any of the others except the one adjacent to Ford World Headquarters.

Hay bales stacked up in one of Ford's fields; The Henry hotel at Fairlane Town
Center in the background.
It seemed that every seed-eating songbird in the city was stuffed into that field along Michigan Avenue. Over 200 Red-winged Blackbirds were there, along with over 3,500 House Sparrows; yes they are tedious to count and require at least two hours of multiple estimates. Prior to these fields being planted in 2002, we would tally a few hundred House Sparrows on the entire count. Now it's usually over a thousand, and this year's total set a record. Here's how the last 17 years* look:

House Sparrow numbers on the Dearborn portion of the Detroit River CBC,
adjusted for effort. The dip in 2010 was due to a rainy day with poor
counting conditions.
All these small birds in one place are very attractive to raptors. At this field were several Red-tailed Hawks, an immature Cooper's Hawk, and a lovely adult Peregrine Falcon, seen earlier in the day winging to this spot from the Oakwood Hospital area. The most unusual species seen at this location was Mute Swan: five were seen flying over and heading east. This is only the second count on which they have been recorded.

The horse paddock at Greenfield Village once again yielded Horned Lakes (five).  Darrin spotted one first, and it prompted this exchange:

Darrin: I have one. It's on the pile of poop to the left of the side door.
Julie: Got it. And here's three...four...five.
Darrin: What?! Are you on the same poop that I am?

The best time to look for interesting birds at the Greenfield Village horse
paddock is right after they are fed, and hay piles are strewn about.

Lest you think Dearborn is entirely pastoral, here is a photo approaching the massive Ford Rouge complex, often considered the birthplace of mass industry in North America. The city is really more concrete than natural habitat, and in fact we need fewer people to cover it than we used to a decade ago.

The summer drought played a role in our bird sightings. The soft mast crop (berries and other fruit) was the poorest I can remember. Our 66 American Robins was the lowest number we've counted since 1999; the average over the last decade is over 250.

The drought may also be partially to blame for the widespread tree crop failure (seeds, cones, and other hard mast) this year. Earlier in the season we experienced movement of just about every "winter finch" through the area in search of food. Many kept going, but at least a few hung around. Our total of 23 Pine Siskins on campus was part of a flock that has been either visiting the feeders or feeding on European Alder cones. This was only the fourth count they have been recorded, and this is a record number.

Surely the highlight of the day was also one of the wandering winter finches: ten White-winged Crossbills on a spruce tree in Detroit River CBC compiler Jim Fowler's back yard. This is a new species for the count, bringing the Dearborn cumulative species total to 86.

We ended the day with 47 species, which is one above average. We added a count week species the next day (Brown-headed Cowbird) at the campus bird feeders.

*Although RRBO has been coordinating the Dearborn portion of the count since 1995, we've only had uniform coverage of the city since 1997.