Thursday, October 9, 2014

Field work, fall 2014

We have been dividing our time here at RRBO censusing and measuring fruit, and banding birds in order to collect the seeds of fruit eaten by the birds.

I know you want me to show you bird stuff first!

Bird of the season so far goes to this Marsh Wren, only the second ever banded by RRBO; the other one was in 1999. Since there are essentially no marshes in Dearborn, this is not a common species here, and this is only the 7th record. Probably the coolest thing was the amazing sound this bird made. I took a short recording -  click here to listen (it's a m4a file, but I can play it with Windows Media Player).

One of the most interesting warblers I've banded lately was this adult female Black-throated Blue Warbler. In dimorphic species, sometimes older females can have relatively male-like plumage. This gal had a lot of blue tones in her feathers, a darkish face, and a very large white "hanky."

Orange-crowned Warblers are always nice -- one of the treats of late fall.

We catch very few Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers -- this is the 6th in over 20 years -- so this youngster was fun to see. Woodpeckers tend to hammer on your fingers, and the very fine, chisel point of a sapsucker bill is an effective weapon...

...although nowhere near as formidable as the powerful bill of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. We always give grosbeaks a lot of respect!

One thing we always look at when trying to determine the age of birds is whether there is contrast between old and new feathers. In the photo above, it's easy to see the four paler, more worn wing feathers, which she has not replaced this year, and how they contrast with the new, fresher, darker wing feathers. The new feather in the middle that is a bit shorter is still growing in.

Onto the fruit. Our analyses of seeds found in the fecal samples of birds requires context: some sort of compilation and rank abundance of all the ripe fruit available to birds to eat when they are present in the area. Each year, we estimate the percent of ripe fruit on the common species once a week or so throughout the season. This year we are making sure we have complete data on all fleshy fruits available, even if they have not shown up in fecal samples -- all together around two dozen species. For less-common fruits, we have tried to locate and count all individual fruit, once a week. For abundant species, we cut down branches, counted all the fruit, and came up with an average for a "representative" branch. Then we go out and count the number of representative branches each week in a 200 meter circle centered on our banding area.

I can tell you that this work falls under both "tedious" and "easier said than done." It is not precision work (and it varies annually depending on fruit crop), so what we'll end up with is a list in approximate rank abundance, based in categories that increase by orders of magnitude. Even with that crude ranking, it's not easy and very time consuming. Much of our counting is done along a busy public bike path. People are intrigued when they see one of us standing and staring at the vegetation for long periods of time; they inevitably ask us what I am looking at. I know I have become much more adept at writing down my fruit counts and keeping track of where I am so that I can stop and explain what I'm doing.

How many ripe multiflora rose hips are just
in this one bush?
We also take various measurements of the fruits of each species throughout the season: the diameter of individual fruits, how many seeds they contain, and the diameter of the seeds. This can help us understand what size fruits are favored by different bird species, if they prefer fruits with a few large seeds or more small seeds, etc. Some fruits are simple: the shrub dogwoods are typically 5 to 8 mm, and have one seed. Then there are fruits like Climbing Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), which have around three dozen, 2 mm seeds each! All get dutifully counted and measured. 

We start on Monday, spend at least one full day just working on fruit, and finish as best we can on days we band. Due to our funding shortfall, our days have been cut back so we are cramming as much work in as possible.

These tasks would not be possible without the help of Dana Wloch, who first started with RRBO as an undergrad, then under several grants, including one where she helped develop our seed identification website, and now is back as a volunteer. Thank you, Dana! We are the dynamic fruit duo of Dearborn.

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.