Launching into Birding at Loxahatchee

The SICB conference started on January 3rd. However, as it was only registration and that wasn’t until 3, this meant we had hours of birding before us. Tara and I decided to start at the southern most point of Loxahatchee closest to Coral Springs and work our way north to West Palm Beach where the conference was being held.

Loxahatchee was recommended by both our ornithology professor and also by Olin Sewall Pettingill’s Guide to Bird Finding, which was referenced by Kenn Kaufman in Kingbird Highway!  However Kaufman referenced the first edition, while I was making do with the second, published a bit after Kaufman’s go at a big year. (The guide is awesome!)

However, as we realized once we were in Florida, Loxahatchee is a big, big, big place… and despite the internet, determining location of the visitor’s center wasn’t happening.

Locations of birding locations in Loxahatchee.

Eventually we figured out where the visitor’s center was, but not until we arrived. Locations of birding locations in Loxahatchee.

So we figured out how to get to the Boat Launch, which we learned was a boat launch after we got there. Ah well.  There were still birds to see.

We saw Monk Parakeets which would have been exciting if we weren’t from Bergen County in New Jersey where we have our own flocks of devout parakeets. Zillions of Black Vultures loomed overhead, which was peculiar because we had only seen Turkey Vultures up until this point.  But the looming wasn’t menacing because the Florida winter sun is so bright and cheery.

Anhinga sits on the waters edge... with its wings folded. Photo taken on January 2, 2015 with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

Anhinga sits on the waters edge… with its wings folded. Photo taken on January 2, 2015 with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

Anhingas are more common than Cormorants here.  We were trekking determinedly after a coy American Kestrel, when I caught site of this one hanging out on the side of the slough.

Then, I got distracted by a butterfly wherein the internet redeemed itself.  I’ve been able to identify all the (two) butterflies I’ve looked up so far with vague search terns such as “Florida butterflies” and “orange butterflies in Florida”.

Gulf Fritillary Buterfly, Agraulis vanillae. Photo taken on January 2, 2015 with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

Gulf Fritillary Buterfly, Agraulis vanillae. Photo taken on January 2, 2015 with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

You can see everything but it’s tongue and….. moving on.

We eventually did make our way up to the coy Kestrel.  Although each time we approached, just as I’d get the camera set, he’d move back further.

American Kestrels are not  in short supply in Florida. Photo taken on January 2, 2015 with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

American Kestrels are not in short supply in Florida. Photo taken on January 2, 2015 with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

Eventually it worked out in my favor as when I finally captured a reasonably respectable image, it was in a natural setting and not on a sign.

Early glimpse at two White Ibis. Photo taken on January 2, 2015 with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

Early glimpse at two White Ibis. Photo taken on January 2, 2015 with a Nikon 3200 Sigma 500mm.

After that we opted to turn around so we could have a chance to try a site further north before heading to the conference.  We were heading back when we glimpsed a flutter of white and located two White Ibises.

Florida Total: 37
Loxahatchee Boat Launch: 20
New for Florida: 13
Lifers: 1

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.

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!

Final Snow

On Saturday, the Kestrel Trio (a friend, my adviser, and myself) agreed to meet up at the Richard DeKorte Environmental Center within the NJ Meadowlands for a bit of birding.  (Someday hopefully I will learn that a bit of birding is never just a bit!).

The Meadowlands at that particular site contains embankments cutting through the watery meadows allowing good views of ducks, regardless of the position of the sun.  It also is an excellent site for raptors.  So when one wearies of ducks, a glance upward might be rewarded with raptors.  If there’s little luck within the park, just outside the entrance is Disposal Rd. a favorite spot for avian photographers.  The lay of the land creates an uplift of air, rewarding patient photographers with great images soaring hawks and darting falcons.

American Kestrel pauses from its aerobatics to bob in a bare tree. NJ Meadowlands. March 15, 2014.

American Kestrel pauses from its aerobatics to bob in a bare tree. NJ Meadowlands. Taken on March 15, 2014.

While ducking (hey, you can owl, so why can’t you duck?) I didn’t take photos, but I switched from my binoculars to my camera at the end when we wandered along Disposal Rd.  We heard reports of Rough-leggeds, but didn’t see any.  There are also Short-eared Owls known to be in the area, but we weren’t there at the right time.  I hope to head out there some day after work, before the Short-ears depart…

Northern Harrier skims the hillside. NJ Meadowlands. March 15, 2014.

Northern Harrier skims the hillside. NJ Meadowlands. Taken on March 15, 2014.

We did see a lovely Long-tailed Duck, and a Horned Grebe hanging out on the water, but the surprise of the day was the Snowy Owl. The surprise was made sweeter simply by the fact I wasn’t out to see it: I had seen it at Sandy Hook, dipped on my return visit and had mostly accepted it was how things were meant to be. (Not that we didn’t debate whether the large white thing that flew across Valley Brook Rd on the drive into the meet up point was a Snowy Owl… my vote was plane.)

Snowy Owl hangs out in the phragmites along the watery meadows of the NJ Meadowlands.  March 15, 2014.

Snowy Owl hangs out in the phragmites along the watery meadows of the NJ Meadowlands. Taken on March 15, 2014.

Ghost Birds

This week I rejoined the birders of Rutgers Newark for the Wednesday Walks.  When I arrived, Claus immediately set off in pursuit of the Clay-colored Sparrow and Lark Sparrows he had discovered on his scouting excursion earlier that morning.

Well, we discovered sparrows galore! 200+ Chipping Sparrows, 100+ White-throated Sparrows, a few Song Sparrows, Dark-Eyed Juncos, and even Eastern Towhees and Swamp Sparrows.  We searched long and hard, high and low…. located an unidentifiable (due to distance) falcon… Probably the American Kestrel who frequents the campus and had been seen earlier in the morning, but looked a bit Merlin like for the hopeful.  Woodpeckers were also scarce this morning with only a lone Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in evidence.

It was a chilly morning!  I was grateful I had pulled a lazy birder and thrown clothes over my pajamas rather than change – it provided just the right amount of warmth.  But the two birds that would have been new for the list: the Lark Sparrow and Clay-colored Sparrows were lost in the host of sparrows (reference).  I did see my first American Woodcock of the year – dead, but it was still a woodcock.   (They’re already on my life list so I feel less guilty about counting it!)

Unfortunately as the campus became more active, the sparrows became more restless.  A few times the host swarmed when someone walked too close and a few would inevitably fly into the windows.  We walked through the fall zone, practicing avian triage.   My patient was inclined to scramble away from the others, but for some inexplicable reason tolerated me.

RecoveringChipping Sparrow catches a ride around campus on m arm.

Recovering Chipping Sparrow catches a ride around campus on my arm. Photo by Claus Holzapfel.

He rode on my arm for a bit before he went to rest in a planter to resume his recovery. Claus Holzapfel, excursion leader also writes up the Wednesday Walks. His write up can be found here.  Additionally you can see all the bird species that have been idenified on the urban Rutgers Newark Campus as well as their efforts at wilding an urban oasis to increase biodiversity.

Catching Kestrels

With kestrel research this year we’ve made a concerted effort to capture and identify or band all adult kestrels. We also needed to visit newly hatched boxes to determine the day of hatching.  Determining the day of hatching determines the banding and tagging window.  This requires going into the field a couple times a week to visit all the active boxes, which means my free days are typically busier than the days I work.

On this particular day a few weeks ago, we were joined by two by two turtlers (people who work with turtles; verb is to turtle.) for a day of kestreling (to specifically seek out kestrels).

The chosen one (me!( saunters down the road with the modified butterfly net.

The chosen one (me!) saunters down the road with the modified butterfly net.

Catching adults involves the use of a modified butterfly net. A chosen individual (think shortest straw or Hunger Games style selection process) assembles the net and proceeds on the quest to sneak up to the box and slip the net over while the remainder of the team sits in the car and bets on your success. When you are successful, the entry hole is successfully blocked, allowing the team to drive up, scale a ladder, and remove any inhabitants.

Here I am learning how to handle adults.  This is my teacher look.

Here I am learning how to handle adults. This is my teacher look.

On this particular day, I began learning how to remove the kestrels from the butterfly net which is a delicate process because kestrels have claws of death and they are none too pleased with you.

Female after banding.

Female kestrel, after banding.

We determine whether the birds are returns from a previous year, new to the area, or banded by someone else. We measure wing and tail feather length and weigh the birds before release. In the event that it is a new bird, we also band and tag the bird.

With the checks at this age, we simply weight them. Their weight allows us to determine hatch date. At this time kestrels gain weight at a uniform rate so you can backtrack to figure out when hatching occurred. Then you return during the banding window to band and tag the chicks.

Baby kestrels have attitude from the day they hatch.

Baby kestrels have attitude from the day they hatch.

Here are the chicks we’ve pulled from one of the last boxes of the day. You can see how small and scrawny they are.

226714_10201320565884094_1406863123_n

Baby Kestrel peers up at the world.

Kestrel temper tantrum from being removed from the nest box.

Baby kestrels sleep in the sun. Warmth is warmth.

They’re pretty docile. They have no idea what is going on. There’s a bit of whimpering and murmuring, but nothing like the older chicks or the adults! Once the measurements are complete, we return them to the boxes. At this particular box there were 4 chicks that were hatched and 1 egg.

I climb back up to the box to return the chicks to the nest.

I climb back up to the box to return the chicks to the nest.

I climbed back up to return the four to the nest and this is what I discovered:

389747_10201320567444133_1054396455_n

A kestrel chick that hatched just moments ago.  Still  in the egg!

A kestrel chick that hatched just moments ago. Still in the egg!

In the moments we had them down for weighing, the last egg hatched! This is a kestrel hatched moments ago!

The Merry Month of May

Was very busy!  I only submitted 24 lists, most of which were megathon outings from fieldwork for either kestrels or turtles because May has been a very busy month (as has June!)  In addition to the birding,  I worked extra hours every week, defended my thesis, completed my Masters Program, and moved!

May saw 32 life birds, 113 different species, bringing the total to 150 for the year.

Cormorants sunbathing after work.

Cormorants sunbathing after work.

Apparently I’m on a cormorant kick. Hopefully more posts as we settle into the month, including another kestrel research update from the most recent outing.

Birds and Butterflies: Thesis Progress

Still need a title for my thesis.  Mentally, I keep calling it “In Defense of Kestrels” and “Plight of the Kestrel” by they don’t quite have the professional ring I’m looking for.

Submitted first draft of thesis Saturday evening.  Had feedback on Sunday morning while I was doing turtle fieldwork that the first draft was very impressive.  Yay!  Met with my adviser this afternoon to discuss revisions.  These mostly fell into the minor edits and formatting types.   Those are due 48 hours from now.

As of 20 minutes ago, I had confirmation from all members of my committee regarding my defense date.  It looks like I will be defending on May 6th at 1pm.  Exciting!

Well it’s exciting right now.  I’m sure as the hour approaches, there will be butterflies, but butterflies are exciting, right?

Now, I have two weeks to pull together a defense. My adviser is putting together a copy of his archives of kestrel photos – hopefully they’re the photographer’s.  He has a photographer who likes to join him in the field for a day every season and take photos.  If anyone else has kestrel photos they want to share, I’d love to see them.

Best part about my defense date?  It’s the same day my 2 papers are due for evolution and I have my last evolution exam.

Kestrelets!  Or very ugly ducklings.

Kestrelets! Or very ugly ducklings.

Here a Kestrel

Here a kestrel, there a kestrel, everywhere a kestrel.  Or, if that were the case, I’d need a new thesis topic!  It’s thesis writing week for me.  So there don’t anticipate many posts, unless they’re reflections.   What I can share is that I’ve gotten about 2800 words down so far and I spent most of this afternoon making a table.  (I’m very excited about this.)  One of my favorite quotes is by Oscar Wilde.  I think I spent most of a year in high school English pondering the quote.  He says, “I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.”  The table feels like my comma. ( Hopefully I won’t have to take it out!) I think if I spent less time thinking about the quote and more time writing, I’d be further along, but I’m pleased with my progress so far.

However, it’s been awhile since I’ve posted a real photo. So I’ve dug out an appropriate photo from the archives.  Enjoy!

Male American Kestrel prepares for take off!

Male American Kestrel prepares for take off!

We’ve just finished banding and tagging this adult male kestrel and he’s about to be released.   He looks big and fierce, doesn’t he?  Mind you he’s being held by a six-year old.   Quite a professional six-year-old, too!  She comes out in the field with us as her mother is runs the Sussex team and she can do pretty much everything competently at this point except carry the ladder and drive the vehicle.

S’No Way!

I have really bad luck when it comes to traveling for spring break (or when it comes to finding pink churches in Spanish-speaking countries).  When I went to the Great Smoky Mountains, it snowed.  When I went to the Grand Canyon, it snowed.  So if you want snow, invite me to visit during spring break.

Then, I gave up traveling for spring break.  It stopped snowing.  This year, I hope to get in a few day trips during my furlough.  But it snowed this year, suggesting maybe it’s my outdoor/birding attempts that bring out spring snows.   Which means, I have been cooped up with no birding for a week now due to prepping for midterms and presentations!  Wanted break my birding fast with an afternoon outing either Thursday or Friday afternoon, but snow has postponed those plans.   Was also supposed to go with Dad to Wild Birds Unlimited so we can do some grandiose landscape to attract more birds each season.  Snow has also postponed those plans.  Mind you, I was going stir crazy last weekend without an outing.  Prognosis is not so good!

So hopefully birding next week, fit in around my work-schedule.  No sunrise birding unless it’s Wednesday.  But I might have time to checkout Sandy Hook or the Meadowlands.  I’ve heard lots of good things about birding in the Meadowlands, particularly Disposal Road.  But visiting the Meadowlands is more convenient  as I drive through there frequently, so perhaps I should head out to Sandy Hook on the ocean.  I birded there once, three years ago.

Immature Red-winged Blackbird investigates the feeder in hopes of food.

Immature Red-winged Blackbird investigates the feeder in hopes of food.

Field season in Warren county for American Kestrels kicks off Tuesday, Sussex date hasn’t yet been finalized. It should be before the month is out.

Haven’t seen the Wood Duck again, but I did have a Red-winged Blackbird checking out the feeder the other day.  I’m assuming it’s immature because it has the epaulets, but it’s back isn’t fully black.  (You can see a hint of red.)  When I found him, he was actually up on the feeder.