Best Birds 2014 Edition

The obligatory moment as a handful of sunlit hours remain in the year: time to reflect on birds past.  The year began with a bang, and a trip to Ecuador, and continued strong through the spring.  May saw a whopping 162 species, nearly double what I saw in April and June.

The summer saw a significant drop between running a summer camp and building a bed (it’s a beautiful bed though!).  Returning to Rutgers, saw an uptick of birding opportunities and species which I maintained through the year’s end.

Lists Submitted to Ebird by Month

month 2013 2014 change
January  50 2 -48
February  34 4 -30
March  25 4 -21
April  22 26 4
May  24 36 12
June  16 10 6
July  5 3 -2
August  22 6 16
September  4 9 5
October  8 17 9
November  5 5 0
December  8 9 1
Year 223 131

What I lost in frequency of birding, I made up for in species. The 2013 list is exclusively domestic, specifically the NY/NJ region while my 2014 list is limited to the same region for comparison purposes and for standardizing the geographical limits of The Bet.

Species By Month

month 2013 2014 change
January 70 30 -40
February 52 39 -13
March 60 46 -14
April 48 87 39
May 114 162 48
June 64 85 21
July 37 32 -5
August  65 40 -15
September  72 102 30
October  57 114 57
November  63 86 23
December  79 90 11
Year 200 222

Additionally, I have 39 species from Arizona (28 unique) and 154 from Ecuador (135 unique) for a world total of 385 for the year.   I had an opportunity to post regarding my Arizona adventures (Key to Life, Sunrise Stakeout, Oooooh for Owls, All the Broken Things).  I didn’t get to post as much as I wanted about the Galapagos (where did the time go?) but what I did post is collected under Galapagos Journals.

My best day of birding occurred early in the year: I mentioned it in my brief update from the field, Birding Trifecta Achieved (Wandering Albatross, Galapagos Penguin, Short-eared Owl).  I’m not sure a better day of birding is possible, ever.  (Unless I get photos of all three species!)

wpid-IMAG3342.jpg

Galapagos Penguin at the Lava Tunnels at Isabela Island. Galapagos, Ecuador. An unreal moment in an unreal landscape. Photo taken January 8 2014 with a cell phone.

I’ll be kicking off 2015 leading a trip down to Sandy Hook tomorrow, with the conclusion at the Meadowlands.  Then on the 2nd, I jump on a plane and head to (hopefully sunny and warmer) Florida for the SICB conference, to be followed with some Everglades birding.

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Life Changes

As you may have noticed, posts dropped precipitously this fall.  While the season was  steeped in birds, I just didn’t have enough time to write about it!  In September, I began a PhD program in Biology at the urban Rutgers University campus located in Newark, NJ.   For several weekends, I joined Montclair State University’s ornithology class as they traveled around the state to stellar birding locations such as Brigantine and Cape May.

At Rutgers my focus will be birds. (Dear reader, do you expect anything else?) During the first semester, we were required to join a lab for mentoring purposes and pick a small project or skill to build upon.  My adviser and I identified banding passerines for my mentoring project.  Most of the following photos were taken by cellphone since the purpose of the activities were science, not photography.

Early in the season, I joined the New Jersey Meadowland Commission’s (NJMC) banding project:

In 2013, the NJMC banded 5,503 birds. More than 26,000 birds have been banded since the program began in 2008. The information helps researchers learn more about how habitats in the Meadowlands benefit migrating birds. (link)

The NJMC runs an extensive operation with as much as a dozen nets operating at once, capturing 200+ birds on a busy morning.  On these days, they may have as many as 10-12 volunteers running the nets and banding the birds (hopefully!).  Some nets require a quick bike ride to reach.  It’s quite the challenge to bike and bird, but a greater challenge to bike and carry birds over one’s shoulder.

Early in the season I was at the Meadowlands about once a week, but as the season lengthened, things got busier and I was mostly at the Rutgers Station, pictured below.

Location of RUNBO:  Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. Note the cart at the top of the stairs to the right.  October 2014.

Location of RUNBO: Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. Note the cart at the top right of the stairs. October 2014.

Claus and I decided to run the station twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays, opening on Mondays if a day had been rained out.  Compared to the Meadowlands set up, you might think our set up was rather drab, but how many banding observatories do you know of with a Starbucks close enough to hit between net runs?

On my first day in the Meadowlands, one of our first captures was an American Kestrel. As my previous research focused on the kestrel, the other banders decided this was most auspicious.

Early catch at the Meadowlands. Meadowlands Banding Program.  September 2014.

Early catch at the Meadowlands. Meadowlands Banding Program. September 2014.

At Rutgers, in addition to banding birds twice weekly, we conducted two point counts, a deathwalk, and Claus leads bird walks on Wednesdays in October and May.  I’ve outlined our fieldsite below in classy yellow.

RUNBO field site located in urban Newark, NJ.

RUNBO field site located in urban Newark, NJ.

The above map indicates the location of our banding station, “RUNBO”, the Rutgers University Banding Observatory, our fancy name for our banding cart; the location of our two nets (in previous seasons there was a Net 2); and the path we walk on our deathcount, or deathwalk.

The deathcount, or deathwalk, is a lap we do around the interior of the quad to collect any of the poor migrants who fly into the glass surfaces.  To date, we have a freezer with ~400 frozen bodies.

New friend; male Common Yellowthroat. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

New friend; male Common Yellowthroat. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

However, sometimes we find more than corpses.  This young fellow, an immature male Common Yellowthroat was only stunned.  I picked him up, and having nowhere else to put him safely where he could recovered from his befuddled state gave him a ride.  He stayed with me for most of the perimeter until we encountered a stunned (or stunning?) female Common Yellowthroat.  The immature male instantly recovered and demonstrated his prowess by immediately flying into a nearby window, not once, but twice.

Red-eyed Vireo. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

Red-eyed Vireo. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

We mostly catch Common Yellowthroats and various Sparrows, but sometimes we get an unusual visitor.  Pictured above was a silly challenge to identify correctly.  You don’t often get good looks at this fellow: a Red-eyed Vireo.  Note the lack of red-eye in this photo – very deceiving!

Male Black-throated Blue Warbler recuperates before departure on a cold morning.  Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

Male Black-throated Blue Warbler recuperates before departure on a cold morning. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

After removing them from the nets, and placing a USGS band on the leg, we release them.  Sometimes however, they’re more content to remain in the hand, particularly when it’s a bit nippy out.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet.  Note the fiery red cap. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Note the fiery red cap. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

This fellow looks quite fierce, but like the Black-throated Blue Warbler, he stayed in the hand before heading for the bush.

Rare Yellow-breasted Chat visits campus. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

Rare Yellow-breasted Chat visits campus. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

One of our most exciting captures was this Yellow-breasted Chat.  Not only did we get one, but we got two. (And we know they were different individuals thanks to the bands!) It was also a lifer.  (I saw it later perched in a London Plane tree.)

A common visitor, the American Woodcock. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

A common visitor, the American Woodcock. Rutgers Newark Banding Observatory. October 2014.

A surprising, but common find, are American Woodcocks.  What is most unusual about this one is the fact it is alive (or at least was at the time of the photo).  All too often we find these birds dead or dying due to collisions with the glass.

So why do wildlife studies in Newark? What’s the draw?  While tropical and remote sites are fascinating to visit (until you acquire a botfly!), many areas are highly developed requiring the wildlife to interact with them in novel ways.  So often we look to study pristine regions in hopes of conserving them and we forget about the natural places right close to home for most of us.

So lots of birds, just not lots of words.

Lost Animals of Yesterday and Tomorrow

via New Report: 122 Species of Colombian Birds Facing Extinction.

I first read this in Spanish (don’t ask me how!) , but here’s an English translation.   In essence, 6% of Colombia’s birds are facing extinction (time frame not listed) with 10 species facing it within the next decade (pictured).   There is a specific region, that due to agriculture, is under more intense pressure.  Go ahead and read about it through the link below.

What struck me the most through the article and afterwards was, in some cases, how little is known about these birds.  For instance, the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest has not been seen since 1974.  Is it already gone? Declining rapidly?  Not actually found in the habitat in which it had been reported? Thriving elsewhere undiscovered?

10 most imperiled birds of Colombia.  Some of these have been seen in the wild a handful of times, or not for the last 50 years. Image credits: 1 - John Gould; 2 - HBW; 3,4,6,7 - Pixark; 5, 8-10 Arkive.

10 most imperiled birds of Colombia. Some of these have been seen in the wild a handful of times, or not for the last 50 years. Image credits: 1 – John Gould; 2 – HBW; 3,4,6,7 – Pixark; 5, 8-10 Arkive.

1. Blue-bearded Helmetcrest (Oxypogon cyanolaemus) – Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
2. Sinu Parakeet (Pyrrhura subandina) – Cordoba
3. Santa Marta Sabrewing (Campylopterus phainopeplus) – Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
4. Antioquia Brush-finch (Atlapetes blancae) – Central Antioquia
5. Gorgeted Puffleg (Eriocnemis isabellae) – Algeria, Cauca
6. Perija Thistletail (Asthenes perijana) – Serrania del Perija
7. Santa Marta Wren (Troglodytes monticola) – Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
8. Chestnut-capped Piha (Lipaugus weberi) – Northeastern Antioquia
9. Colorful Puffleg (Eriocnemis mirabilis) – Munchique, Cauca
10. Urrao Antpitta (Grallaria fenwickorum) – Northwestern Antioquia

For Christmas one of my many wonderful gifts was a copy of Lost Animals by Errol Fuller.  I read the preface last night in which the author discusses the poor quality of photos reproduced in the book.  Lost Animals is a collection of tales relating to extinct animals. It features photographs and stories, inspired by a previous work of the author’s. The author goes on to explain the quality of these images: large, bulky equipment, needing perfect conditions, the chemical requirements to develop photos, not to mention you have no idea about the quality of the shot until you get back to your (photography) lab!  In today’s age where it’s remarkably easy to throw a point-and-shoot in one’s pocket or digiscope, to verify quality instantly, it’s an important reminder of how far the field of photography has come.  The other important takeaway from the preface was so often the photographer had no idea how important the photo would be later: it’s easy enough to recognize this is a First Moment, but not a Last Moment.

Binge Birding: CBC Bingo Results #1

Final results aren’t in, but this is what I remember after a weekend of binge birding. My recommendation is to fill out the bingo card as you go along, not after!

CBC Bingo Results: Liberty State Park

CBC Bingo Results: Liberty State Park

The official results aren’t in yet. I think we were at 55 species when we tallied around 2:30. We then went off to look for a Robin. (Which we failed at.)

House Finches spend the day at the beach. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

House Finches spend the day at the beach. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

There were no surprising finds at Liberty State Park, which is… surprising.

We're eying you, or sleeping with one eye open. Greater Scaups sleep in the same spot annually. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

We’re eying you, or sleeping with one eye open. Greater Scaups sleep in the same spot annually. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

Toward the afternoon we located the Greater (and Lesser) Scaup.  They seem to always sleep in the same area.  I don’t know if it’s their annual Christmas nap or their annual charity; either way, it works.

Lost civilization in NJ. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

Lost civilization in NJ. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

We had a quick detour to go see a lost civilization.  This castle is actually carved into the rock on site.

Area X at Liberty State Park. Restricted Access. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

Area X at Liberty State Park. Restricted Access. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

The interior of Liberty State Park, “Area X”, is off-limits to most birders, but we have a permit and permission allowing us access.  There have been rumors of owls lurking here for years, but no evidence since I joined this CBC-team. Dipped both years now.

The satellite office of Rutgers Newark Holzapfel Lab. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

The satellite office of Rutgers Newark Holzapfel Lab. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

As a post-industrial forest, there are some unexplainable sights.  Such as this table. Why?

We're really serious in our quest for American Robins. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

We’re really serious in our quest for American Robins. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

We did a tally and realized we were missing some incredibly common birds: Common Grackle, Red-winged Blackbird, White-throated Sparrow, American Robin.  Seriously who goes birding and misses *all* of those species?  It’s like we weren’t even birding or something, but from the photo, we were quite determined to find a robin as evidenced by our use of this climbing contraption.

American Kestrel - one of the final birds of the count. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

American Kestrel – one of the final birds of the count. Christmas Bird Count at Liberty State Park. Photo taken on December 14, 2014.

As we returned to the cars, lo and behold we had a Kestrel in a tree (but not a partridge, and no pears, either), and then a Merlin flew by in the background.

We cut out an hour early (shush) and went down the road 10 minutes to where there were reports of a Snowy Owl.  Turns out there may be as many as three.  We waiting about 45 minutes, and just after the sun set we saw one flying low over the Bayonne Public Golf Course.  So that’s why it’s in a blue circle, not a yellow.  Cause it doesn’t quite count.

Next week, I’ll be heading out to Boonton for round 2, so stay tuned!

Coming to CBCs Near You

Oh, winter birding! Fewer species to eliminate; fewer leaves to block the birds. Fewer degrees; more toes to lose. For those of you looking to the upcoming CBCs with trepidation, consider implementing a CBC Bingo competition.  Particularly helpful for novice birders and tag-a-long children.  Feel free to use the bingo card below, or make your own.  Other suggestions for what to look for?

Make your own CBC Bingo card to get you and your party through the cold.

Make your own CBC Bingo card to get you and your party through the cold.