Rusty Blackbird blitzing

Rusty Blackbird blitzing

i Nov 30, 2010 No Comments by

How many of us are really aware of the plight of the Rusty Blackbird? Sure, it’s not flashy, it’s rarely a target species for many as it’s buried there in the back of the field guide, and often can be difficult to tell from other blackbirds especially given the Icterid propensity to hang out together. But of all the species that have suffered declines in North America (and sadly, it’s many), the Rusty has quietly suffered one of the most severe. According to Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count statistics, the Rusty Blackbird population has collapsed, down a staggering 80-90% since the 1960s. The bird is in serious trouble.

In many states blackbirds, characterized as not only the ever present grackles, starling and red-wings but also the Rusty are listed as nuisance birds. Therefore, one is allowed to take as many as one wants if the birds are, and this is directly from Federal law (emphasis mine), “committing or about to commit depredations on ornamental or shade trees, agricultural crops, livestock, or wildlife, or when concentrated in numbers and in a manner that constitutes a health hazard or other nuisance“. There is a lot of gray area there. In short, you can shoot Rusty Blackbirds practically whenever you want. In North Dakota the USDA is currently testing a new plan that involves baiting the birds with brown rice. If that proves successful the rice will be treated with a poison. Migratory Bird Act need not apply apparently.

The problem, of course, is that there are no provisions differentiating starlings and grackles, which certainly can be nuisances in large numbers, from our Rusty Blackbird, whose population is taking a dramatic nosedive. And if no such qualifications are made, the Rusty Blackbird’s unfortunate resemblance to more problematic species may write its ticket right into extinction.

So we’re well aware of the bad hand the Rusty Blackbird has drawn.  And it can be overwhelming to sit there as a birder and feel completely helpless as these forces largely out of our control conspire to take one of North America’s unique bird species away from us right before our eyes.  But in this case there is something you can, in fact, do to help.  In heart of darkest cynicism shines a glimmer of hope.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology is launching their third annual Rusty Blackbird Blitz, encouraging birders from several states in the southeast and lower midwest to go out over a three week period, from January 29 to February 13, with Rusty Blackbirds specifically in mind.  Your bird lists, either with or without Rusties (negative data is still data!), should be submitted to Cornell via eBird.  More specific details are available here.

You should do this for several reasons.    First;  Rusty Blackbirds are in big trouble and we need to know where they are when they are so that appropriate habitat can be preserved.

Second; data collection via eBird will introduce you to what is a phenomenal tool for your personal birding records as well as a way for scientists to compile data on bird populations and movements.  In many ways conventional “citizen science” rarely provides useful data sets, but eBird is that rare project that is actually enormously useful for scientists and birders, and when more people use it, its usefulness grows exponentially.

Third; you’re already going to be birding then anyway, right?  Might as well look for Rusties!

I hope the case is easily made.  The bottom line is that Rusty Blackbirds need your help and that you have the opportunity to offer it.  So get out there and look for Blackbirds, folks!

Review: The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America

i Nov 16, 2010 No Comments by

By Nathan Swick, Wake Audubon Board Member

It goes without saying that birders in North America have a wealth of choices when it comes to field guides.  So many other places with well established birding cultures have a single guide that is considered to be the one to have.  Europe’s Collins guide or Australia’s Simpson and Day are good examples.  But on our continent we are nearly overwhelmed with choices.  In fact, you could probably argue that the greatest example of the unrestrained free market, the ultimate manifestation of good old American capitalism,  lies on the book shelves of your local bird store.

If you like illustrations, there are field guides for you.  If you prefer photos, you’re still in luck.  Expert or beginner?  Rarity codes?  Arrows?  Birds in flight?  Multiple plumages?  Juveniles? Subspecies? Any combination of the above? You’re likely to find a field guide that will adequately meet your needs.  Split the continent in half?  Even more options.  This means that while birders will likely find it easy to pick a field guide, or if you’re anything like me, a series of field guides, that works for them, it can be exceedingly difficult for field guide authors and publishers to break new ground in what is an increasingly crowded marketplace.

The newest guide from Don and Lillian Stokes, The Stokes Field Guide to Birds of North America, comes into this yawning anti-void taking the more is more approach, promising to be the most comprehensive photographic guide ever published.  There’s little to argue with on that count, because by any objective measure the Stokeses have succeeded in creating a field guide that meets or exceeds that lofty standard.  Most field guides, simply to be considered worthy of the moniker, have to make certain concessions; unusual plumages are left out, range-restricted subspecies are removed, and vagrants given short-shrift, but the Stokeses made the executive decision to do none of that.  Birds are shown in every plumage you may or may not observe, at multiple angles, with particularly difficult identification issues given more room rather than less (Gulls are particularly well-represented).  Every subspecies is mentioned, if not pictured, regardless of relevancy to field identification.  And vagrants, even exceptionally rare ones, are pictured in all their glory, sometimes multiple times.   This, then, is a guide that leaves absolutely nothing out.

The success of a field guide stands or falls with the quality of its photos (or illustrations if that’s what floats your boat) and, like so many of the photo guides coming out these days, the ones picked to flesh out this guide are stunning, many of them from Lillian Stokes own extensive collection, and laid out to great effect.  Connoisseurs of bird photography may recognize the names of luminaries like Brian Small, Kevin Karlson and Richard Crossley (whose own photo field guide comes out next year) among others filling in the gaps and North Carolina birders will be happy to see our own Brian Patteson’s work well-represented in the seabird section.  Several of the photos are identical to those from Ted Floyd’s recent Smithsonian Guide, a testimony more to the difficulty of obtaining images of several species rather than anything intentional, but there’s surprisingly little overlap given the massive quantity of photos that made it into the book, a testimony to the explosion of field guide quality images in the wake of the digital photography revolution.  In an additional echo of the Smithsonian guide, Stokes have included location and date information in the corner of every photograph, an nice little touch that helps birders to begin to understand the basics of molt and practically essential for a guide that features as many photos as this one.  There’s no reason future photo guides should omit this particular feature ever again.

In an attempt to cover all possible bases, the text is perhaps more extensive that it needs to be.  As such, it’s small, packed into the space provided and filled with abbreviations that read a bit too much like a Pyle guide, more or less like checklists of important field marks rather than descriptions of the bird’s gestalt that would be useful for a beginning birder. This is not too much of a bother given the fact that the text is intended to play second fiddle to the photos, but it’s potentially a concern once you start trying to piece together a difficult ID.  That said, the inclusion of all described subspecies and known hybrids is an excellent touch, even if it may not be more than trivial knowledge to the majority of the book’s intended audience.  It is, however, an example of how a bias towards including more information rather than less is useful.  Even with all this specific information, the lack of general introductions to bird families at the beginning of each section was noted (the introductions are scattered throughout the section), and was, in my opinion, a missed opportunity to focus on the broad view in a text that can feel a bit obsessed with minutia at times.

Such thoroughness and attention to detail isn’t free, however.  The cost is paid in size.  This book is big, there’s no getting around it.  Unless future editions split east and west asunder this is hardly the type of book anyone is going to take into the field.  That’s not a knock, as Sibley’s masterwork is hardly field-worthy either, but begs the question of how much is too much when it comes to field guides.  The Stokeses have taken the medium about as far as it can go in a single volume, including just about everything that any birder would want, and that’s great.  But for the birder that needs something to take in the field to identify what they see right then and there, we may have reached perfection with the original Peterson’s (once it went full-color and got the maps in the right places, of course) and everything else is just gilding the lily.  Who knows, though. We’ll likely see no stop to new field guides coming down the pike in the immediate future, and as we learn more about birds the impulse to put more in our hands will increase.  There’s nothing inherently wrong about that, and in fact, I’m one who generally believes that more is better when it comes to information, but birders in North America will have to figure out what works for them.  Fortunately, they have no shortage of opportunities to do so.

As for this particular book, it’s definitely something to check out, and at $25 (going as low as $17 on Amazon) there’s really no reason not to have it on your shelf.  Because regardless of how accurate the term “field guide” is, the Stokeses have truly put together a beautiful and comprehensive book.

Thanks to Little, Brown and Company for sending me a review copy.

Cross posted at The Drinking Bird

Peregrine Falcon nests in western North Carolina

i Nov 9, 2010 No Comments by

Attempts to re-introduce nesting Peregrine Falcons to western North Carolina continue to be successful.  Beginning in 1984 with the release of four captive bred falcons, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission hacked (captive bred and released) Peregrine Falcons in several sites in Appalachian North Carolina through 1997.  Western North Carolina has several sites suited for the birds, with many steep, exposed rock faces that the species prefers.

Since then, NCWRC staff and volunteers have located several potential nesting spots and monitored them every year for Falcon breeding activity, recording the number of wild fledged young when the Falcons do nest successfully.  While Peregrine Falcon has been delisted from the Federal Endangered Species list, due to significant increases in the western part of the species’ North American range, it’s still protected by the state of North Carolina and remains an uncommon breeder in the Appalachians of North Carolina.

Here’s a summary of 2010 peregrine falcon nest results for North Carolina as reported by Chris Kelly of the NCWRC.  Many are great spots for birders who want to get a look at the birds too!

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) , photo from Steve Spitzer, used with permission

* 10 of the 13 “known” territories were occupied this year.  Falcons were not found at Moore’s Wall, Buzzard’s Roost, or Shortoff Mountain.
* 2 “new” pairs were found this year: Pickens Nose and Victory Wall.
* Nest success improved:  58%. Seven of 12 nesting pairs were successful in raising young.
* Productivity improved: 1.25 nestlings/pair (based on 15 nestlings from 12 nesting pairs).
* Second year females were found at three sites: Big Lost Cove, Grandfather Mountain, and NC Wall.  The female at Grandfather Mtn was banded; first instance of a banded PEFA found nesting in western NC.  Her state of origin could not be determined.

Here are the detailed site summaries:

Big Lost Cove (Avery County)
* Result:  nest failure
* Observations:  The female was a sub-adult based on plumage.
* History:  Falcons were first discovered at this site in 1997 and have reared nine chicks. They were successful for four of the first five years and were successful in 2008-09.

Hickory Nut Gorge (Rutherford County)
* Result:  Two (2) fledglings.
* Observations:  Nesting activity observed at Blue Rock early in season, then they were not often seen. Reece Mitchell observed fledglings in early June. Based on activity and white wash, suspect the birds nested at Blue Rock, approx 1 mi up the gorge from Chimney Rock.
* History:  First successful nest since 1990.

Devil’s Courthouse (Transylvania County)
* Result:  Nest failure
* Observations:  Pair on territory.
* History:  The pair at Devil’s Courthouse has been successful eight of the last eleven years, raising a total of 14 chicks. This cliff is a popular tourist attraction on the Blue Ridge Parkway and an easy place for birders to get a good view of the falcons’ breeding activities.

Grandfather Mountain (Avery County)
* Result:  unknown
* Observations:  Second year, banded female on territory with adult male. Active at usual nest ledge, but not clear if they nested.
* History:  Grandfather Mountain is very remote with plenty of rock faces. A total of 9 chicks have been raised here.

Hanging Rock State Park (Stokes County)
* Result:  Unoccupied
* Observations:  Falcons were not observed during two four-hour observation sessions, along with several shorter observation sessions throughout the winter and spring.
* History:  Falcons returned to Hanging Rock in 2007 after a three year absence and have been successful three times (2001, 2007, and 2008) raising at least three chicks. The falcons face considerable competition from the many ravens and vultures in the area.

Shortoff Mountain (Linville Gorge, Burke County)
* Result:  unoccupied
* Observations:  Falcons were seen on just one occasion near the nest ledge.
* History: A pair has been in the gorge at NC Wall, Shortoff, or Gold Coast every year since reintroduction began.  Although falcons were largely unsuccessful at first, they have produced 24 fledglings in the past eleven years.

North Carolina Wall (Linville Gorge, Burke County)
* Result:  Nest failure
* Observations:  Second year female and adult male on territory.
* History:  North Carolina Wall is the site of the earliest post-reintroduction nesting attempts in Linville Gorge (1987-2000). NC Wall and Shortoff Mtn are now the two closest known nesting sites, less than three miles apart.

Looking Glass (Transylvania County)
* Result:  Three (3) fledglings.
* Observations:  Following a few years of nest failure, this site was successful this year.
* History:  In 1957, Looking Glass hosted the last known pair of falcons before the species was extirpated from North Carolina. A total of 31 chicks have fledged here, including 19 in the past eleven years.

Panthertail Mountain (Transylvania County)
* Result:  Two (2) nestlings.
* History:  Falcons were first successful at Panthertail in 1995. Since then, 29 chicks have fledged from this site.

Buzzard’s Roost (Pigeon River Gorge, Haywood County)
* Result:  unoccupied
* Observations:  Due to the I-40 rock slide closure, the first opportunity to visit the site was in May, late in the nesting season. Falcons were not observed on two visits, though there was fresh white wash.
* History:  In 2004, a pair established a territory but nesting was not documented.

White Rock (Madison County)
* Result: Two (2) fledglings
* Observations:  New nest ledge on the right side of the cliff.
* History:  The female was a sub-adult in 2008 and had the distinct blond wash of a young bird in 2009.

Whiteside Mountain (Jackson County)
* Result:  Two (2) fledglings
* Observations:  New nest ledge on right side of the cliff.
* History:  This enormous cliff has been the most successful peregrine falcon breeding site in North Carolina since 1984. A total of 45 chicks (28 in the past ten years) have fledged at Whiteside.

Dunn’s Rock (Transylvania County)
* Result:  Nest failure
* Observations:  Pair on territory. Lots of vulture activity near the eyrie.
* History:  The pair nested successfully in 2007.

Chris also checked a few secondary sites this year. These are sites where there is decent cliff nesting habitat, but no records (recently or ever) of nesting peregrines.

Pickens Nose (Macon County)
* Result:  Minimum two (2) fledglings
* Observations:  No clear view of the eyrie.  Adults active at site all spring. Could hear at least two young calling.  Later observed one fledgling at a time flying.
* History:  A birder reported PEFAs at this site in 2009.  Pickens Nose was historically used as a hack site during PEFA reintroductions.

Victory Wall (Haywood County)
* Result:  Two (2) nestlings.
* Observations: Two young observed in nest before leaves blocked view.
* History:  Falcons were observed nesting here in the 1990s, then moved to Devil’s Courthouse. In June 2009, NCWRC observed an adult PEFA on territory, but it was too late in the season to determine if nesting had taken place.

Young Naturalists in the Sandhills

i Nov 2, 2010 No Comments by

By Jeff Beane, Wake Audubon Board member

The Young Naturalists Club enjoyed a successful field trip to the North Carolina Sandhills on Saturday, 9 October 2010.  The trip focused on Sandhills ecology and herpetology, and covered portions of Moore, Richmond, and Scotland counties.  Ten club members participated.  Leaders were Jeff Beane, Ed Corey, Ross Maynard, and Adrian Yirka.

The group observing and photographing the hatchling Southern Hognose Snake.

The group took two Museum passenger vans and split up for most of the trip, but stayed in contact so that if one group found something of particular interest, the other could come see it.  At least 13 reptile and six amphibian species were turned up during the trip, including two of the primary target species—the rare Southern Hognose Snake (one live and two dead hatchlings) and the more common and widespread Eastern Hognose Snake (one live adult and one dead juvenile).  Both of these species are most readily found during fall.

This live hatchling male Southern Hognose Snake (Heterodon simus) was probably the best find of the trip.

The spectacular defensive behavior of the Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos) contributed to this adult male being a trip highlight.

Other herp species encountered were Fowler’s Toad, Southern Cricket Frog, Squirrel Treefrog, Eastern Narrowmouth Toad, American Bullfrog, Southern Leopard Frog, Eastern Box Turtle, Yellowbelly Slider, Green Anole, Northern Fence Lizard, Southeastern Five-lined Skink, Ground Skink, Black Racer, Rat Snake, Banded Water Snake, and Cottonmouth.

Fall can be a slow season for amphibians, but this Squirrel Treefrog (Hyla squirella) was one of several species turned up.

An Eastern Fox Squirrel was also seen, along with numerous birds (including Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Bald Eagles, Black-throated Blue Warbler, and Palm Warblers); fall-blooming wildflowers; and a wide variety of butterflies (at least 14 species were noted at one random roadside stop), odonates, and other arthropods. The day ended with an excellent dinner at Los 2 Potrillos Mexican restaurant in Aberdeen.  A good time was had by all, many photos were taken, and hopefully everyone learned something.

Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) feeding on Carphephorus.

The Carolina Mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) is one of many insects abundant in the Sandhills in fall.