Friday, September 12, 2014

RRBO update

It's been awhile since I've posted an update due to some changes here at RRBO.

As has been the case with many non-profits, fundraising has been particularly challenging over the past five years or so since the recession. While things have improved recently, RRBO's funding shortfall has forced us to reduce our operations. We're doing our best to try to prioritize research activities on our curtailed schedule. One goal is to finish a solid version of a major paper on the diet of Hermit and Swainson's Thrushes on fall migration. Most of the analyses and a big chunk of the writing is done, and this fall we are working on the last of our fruit crop surveys and fruit/seed morphology work (more on that in another post) which is both time-sensitive and time-consuming! Our fall banding has been focused on catbirds and robins, as these can be the subject of another paper.

Two things have further limited our banding program this fall. After 7 years, the plastic deer fencing that we found necessary to install around the banding site has finally deteriorated so that we are no longer able to repair it. Given the current circumstances, we don't have the resources to replace it. The deer herd has grown substantially since the fence was put up, and due to major construction on the other end of campus, many deer are in and around the banding site. We're using fewer nets and reconfigured them to (hopefully) minimize potential damage, conserve our equipment, and provide a safer situation for birds.

Second, in early August we discovered that someone had dumped 10 or more cats around the Environmental Interpretive Center, and had also been feeding them. This is a tragedy for both the cats and the wildlife. We cannot band birds when there are free-roaming cats in the area, and it takes considerable effort for us to trap these cats, if we can at all.

Therefore, we are doing limited banding here on campus as well as at the Washtenaw County site we used last year for the catbird study. Speaking of which, while we did see a number of catbirds banded in previous years this spring and summer, we only saw one returning bird with a geolocator, and many attempts to recapture it were unsuccessful. Many of our catbirds return multiple years, and the batteries last on the geolocators for two years (and even if dead, the data can still be accessed). We may still get one this fall; otherwise we will have to see what happens next year.

Somewhere in the mix, I have to squeeze in our annual fundraising campaign. The goal is to increase support by 30% in order to avoid further cuts and furloughs. But you don't have to wait -- visit this page on the RRBO web site to learn how to make a gift today!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Spring bird survey results

Over the months of April and May, 127 bird species were recorded on campus, bringing the 2014 total to 139 species. For the city of  Dearborn, the 2014 species count is 141. The best day was 8 May with 73 species reported, including 19 warbler species. The previous 5-year average for April-May counts on campus is 131, so this year was only slightly below average. Big misses (excluding several species mentioned in the warbler account below) included Black-billed Cuckoo and Willow Flycatcher. Flycatchers in general have seemed scarcer here in recent years, although this year we had good numbers of Least and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers.

The entire survey season was severely hampered by major construction on campus directly adjacent to the Natural Area. In particular, there was daily jackhammering in the parking structure, which served as a giant amplifier and made hearing anything in the northern half of the area nearly impossible. Fortunately, the prolonged cold of early spring delayed leaf-out, so many birds were easy to see.

It was a good year for warblers. Despite missing Golden-winged Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Hooded Warbler (which although rare is still recorded almost every year), we recorded 28 species. Highlights included:
Prothonotary Warbler -- A silent individual along Fairlane Lake on 9 May.
Connecticut Warbler -- Singing male 27 May.
Prairie Warbler -- One reported on 10 May.
Yellow-breasted Chat -- One along the south bike path was the first Dearborn record in 8 years.

Other highlights included:
Osprey -- Individuals seen around Fairlane Lake on 18 April and 14 May.
Bald Eagle -- Flyovers on 15 and 17 April were the third and fourth records for campus for the year.
Olive-sided Flycatcher -- One on 28 May by the Fair Lane Estate boathouse.
Acadian Flycatcher -- Singing along Fairlane Drive on 21 May.
Eastern Bluebird -- A male by the EIC on 14 May. 
Summer Tanager -- A male near the EIC on 24 May.
Bobolink -- A male singing high in a tree in the forest adjacent to Fairlane Lake on 28 April tied an early spring date for Dearborn, and was radically out-of-habitat!

An interesting Baltimore Oriole first found by Dr. Orin Gelderloos and his field biology class on May 21 and present through at least the end of the month near the north bridge over the Rouge River, behind Henry Ford College. It had the typical plumage of an older male, except it had no black on the head or face, and just a smattering down the chin and chest. The head color was a glowing golden orange, and the bill color was horn/beige, rather than the usual blue-black. Thus, it apparently had some sort of lack of melanin in the head -- quite stunning and unique!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

RRBO's work on Detroit Public Television

Detroit Public Television and The Nature Conservancy have partnered to produce a series of programs on topics of regional environmental importance called Great Lakes Now Connect. Coming up next week is their program on migratory birds, and Julie Craves and the work of the Rouge River Bird Observatory are among the featured scientists.  Here is a terrific preview:

Or you can view it here.

Please note that in this preview, and I assume in the program as well, I have received an "educational upgrade." I don't want to misrepresent myself: I do not have a doctorate, a fact that unfortunately didn't make it to the final editors of the show. This lack has presented a major challenge over the years, as I do not have the access to funding that is more readily available to faculty members or other more highly-credentialed researchers. Yet without the benefit of more traditional academic support, RRBO has made scientific contributions meaningful enough that our work can be included with that of amazing people like Michigan's own Dr. Dave Ewert and Dr. Jen Owen. That's due in very large part to RRBO's faithful and generous donors, making RRBO a truly community-based conservation organization.

Please enjoy the preview, and watch the program -- it will live-stream on on Tuesday, May 6th from 1 to 2 PM. EST.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Winter Bird Population Survey 2013-2014

The 22nd year of RRBO's Winter Bird Population Survey has been completed. Those of you that know me know that I do not like winter. I can't believe I've been doing this for so many years, and the weather this year made it especially difficult, mentally and logistically! This will wind up being the second snowiest winter on record for the Detroit area. There was snow cover the entire late-December to late-February survey period, and walking was often difficult. Worse were the cold temperatures. Despite many days of sub-zero temps or wind chills that at times prevented me from going out, I still got in 15 surveys (the average is 14). On the "bright" side, water was frozen most of the time, and I was able to do the around-the-lake portion of my route on the lake, which was easier to walk on!

This year 42 species were tallied. The previous annual average number of species is 38. Two new species were added this year: Purple Finch and Red-breasted Merganser, bringing the cumulative species total for 22 years to 75. The Purple Finch was seen twice. This is a species that is a fairly common migrant here, but not very frequent in winter and never recorded on a survey day. Thus, it was perhaps and "expected" species.

Much less expected were the Red-breasted Mergansers, which usually overwinter on big water (oceans, large lakes, or in smaller numbers on large rivers). Several were seen with Common Mergansers (and some Common Goldeneyes) in the Rouge River where the lower Rouge enters the main river at the south end of campus. This occurred on the last survey date, after a very long period of cold weather, on the only open water in the vicinity. This was only the second record of Red-breasted Merganser on campus and one of the few Dearborn records outside spring migration. Here is my lousy cell phone photo of an adult male:

The ice cover was responsible for the low numbers of our most common waterfowl over the course of the survey period. Canada Goose and Mallard were each only recorded on one day. Great Blue Herons and Belted Kingfisher were also mostly absent this year.

Last year, Merlin was a new species, and we had another this year, on 10 February.  The falcon was sitting along the river near the waterfall behind Fair Lane Estate, and was spied by an American Crow, the only crow recorded during the survey period. The fiesty Merlin turned the tables on the crow and chased it off. A fun, yet bittersweet, encounter, given the continuing lack of recovery of crow numbers here in Dearborn. This marks the tenth time in the past 12 years when fewer than 10 crows were counted on the survey.

On the other hand, people commented that Blue Jays seemed quite abundant this year, which was confirmed on the survey. Our average is 122 a year, and we had 216 this winter, a record.

After last year's winter finch invasion, we had no Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls, or other species usually included in this group (including Red-breasted Nuthatch). But due to deep snow we did have a lot of seed-eating birds hanging around our organic garden, native gardens, and bird feeding areas. Mourning Doves, White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, House Finches, and House Sparrows were all counted in above-average numbers.

On the RRBO web site, you can find the full results of all 22 years of surveys, along with information on the protocol.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Dearborn portion of Detroit River CBC, 2014

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 20th year that RRBO has coordinated the field work in the city of Dearborn.

The weather was probably one of the most miserable we have experienced on a count day. Temperatures did not exceed 11F all day, it was windy, and it snowed continuously. As it had been snowing much of the previous night, roads were slippery and a hazard. While waiting at an intersection at one point, we narrowly missed being hit by a car that could not stop; the car next to us was far less fortunate.

As we expected with the weather, birds were not easy to find. Counting on the west side of the Rouge River opposite the Henry Ford Community College and University of Michigan-Dearborn campuses, Cathy Carroll had the best birds. She had a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, which has only been found on two previous counts. She also had the only Golden-crowned Kinglets of the day (found on five previous counts), as well as the only Brown Creepers and Northern Flicker. Her best bird was probably this forlorn-looking, snow-covered American Black Duck in the river near Dearborn's Ford Field. This is a species that is getting more and more infrequent in the city.

American Black Duck.
While the weather was a notable cause for a lack of bird numbers, it was not the main culprit. This year the sunflowers on the Ford World Headquarters site were planted late and got caught by a frost while they were still in bloom, so they did not set seed. Last year, this field had thousands of birds, including 3500 House Sparrows. This year, all we had there was a single Northern Cardinal.

Sunflower field with Ford World Headquarters in the background. Inset shows
a frozen sunflower head that did not set seed.
The fields at Hubbard and Southfield have been planted in hay the last few years. Not much going on there, except for nearly 300 Canada Geese hunkered down in the stubble. One of them was familiar, a goose with a neck collar that we first found and reported during winter 2011. She was originally banded as an adult female in August 2002 on Akimiski Island, Nunavut. We used to see a whole flock of birds from this James Bay island in the winter around here, but she appears to be the only one left. Another 400+ geese were in another field at Rotunda and Schaefer, with more at the Ford Rouge Plant. This was the second-highest total of geese we've had on the count since 1999.

Besides the geese, not much in these fields. Our numbers of small songbirds, especially Dark-eyed Junco, House Finch, American Goldfinch, and House Sparrow are at or near record lows due to the lack of seeds in these field. We also usually have a wintering flock of blackbirds in these fields, and this is only the second count since 2003 we have not had any Red-winged Blackbirds.

Although I have not received any recent reports of wintering Peregrine Falcons in this area this season, we did have one fly from the Ford building north across this field in the morning.

The flat-line crow numbers continue, with only a single American Crow counted. We have not counted more than 18 crows on any count day since the West Nile virus hit the area in 2002.

American Robins furnished an interesting story, with a total of 653 being our second highest total in 20 years. As noted in my post regarding our fall banding season, the fruit crop was phenomenal this year, after a near-failure last year due to drought. Robins took full advantage of this and were found feasting on non-native Common Buckthorn and ornamental crabapples in various places throughout the city. In previous counts, about 56% of the robins on average are found on campus, where there they have primarily fed on buckthorn. This year, nearly all of the buckthorn and other non-native fruiting plants have been eradicated in the campus natural area, leaving robins and other fruit-eating birds to forage elsewhere. Only 6% of the robins on this count were found on campus. The only other year when the percentage was below 33% was last year when the drought wiped out the fruit crop; 8% of robins on that count were on campus.

In this region, there are not a huge number native plants with fruit suitable for songbirds that are available in winter. Climbing/Prairie Rose (Rosa setigera), American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), and Eastern Red-cedar (Juniperus viriginiana) come to mind. For better or worse, if it were not for generations of widespread planting of non-native fruiting plants, we probably would not have as many overwintering robins.

Oddly enough, we have never had Purple Finch on the count until this year. This is not an uncommon species, but we mainly see them here in fall migration, and they are gone by count day. Rick Simek found this one the previous week on campus, and was able to relocate it for a new count day species. This brings the cumulative number of species to 87 for the Dearborn portion of the count.

We ended the day with 48 pecies, which is two above average.