Tuesday, May 31, 2011

200, 90, and 65

These are the numbers of Sanderlings that were banded today at the end of our street in the Villas. 200 is the total number of birds banded. 90 is the number of Sanderlings that Connie's group processed with Connie recording the data. And 65 is the number of birds that I weighed and released for my group (we processed fewer birds because we had to measure them too).


What a cool way to spend a hot day at the shore. It all started with Connie walking the dog while I sweat my ass off mowing the lawn(s). Connie saw a guy with binoculars walking toward the protected beach. She was just about to say something to him, when he stopped and scanned the beach with binoculars and turned around to leave. He told Connie that they were going to band some birds in about a half hour at Maryland Ave and that she could come and watch. Meanwhile I was at 243 Maryland Ave mowing around Poison Ivy and feral Cactus - but I digress.

We grabbed our binoculars and went to the end of the street to join the group. The group was a collaborative effort from a few state and federal agencies along with non profits including the Fish and Wildlife Service and Conserve Wildlife New Jersey group that I volunteered with last week. I had already met Mandy and Larry at the Shorebird Steward training, so they invited us to participate in the effort rather than just watch - cool.

Gary with a Sanderling

The process of banding shorebirds starts with scouting the beaches to find a location with alot of the target species - Sanderlings - which ended up being Maryland Ave. Next, the experts set up the net which is attached to cannons along the dune. The volunteers creep down the dune path and keep our heads low so that the birds can't see us. Then, on the signal ( 3, 2, 1, FIRE!), the cannon goes off and shoots the net over the birds on the beach. Then the banders (including me and Connie) run like banchees down to the water's edge and start moving the birds into the middle of the net, making sure to get any birds out of the water. Next, other volunteers start removing the target birds from the nets and placing them into covered bins - 20 Sanderlings to each bin. The bins are then placed under a tent to keep the birds cool until we can get them banded.

Once we had enough birds, the rest were released from the net and we started the banding process. I was put into Larry's group and Connie was in Clive's group. Clive is an Australian who invented the cannon net 40 years ago and is a pioneer in the field of shorebird banding and conservation. Larry is an expert in shorebird conservation and works with geolocators to track migration and nesting.

Clive attaching the band

Connie was the data recorder for her group. The banders would tell her the tag numbers and weight of each bird and she would record that info. She did that for 90 birds I was the weigher in my group. The young Chilean woman who was taking bill, head and wing measurements would hand the bird to me. I would put the bird in a little piece of PVC pipe, place it on the scale and tell our recorder the weight (in grams) and then release them on the beach. I did this for 65 birds.

Sanderling in the PVC pipe being weighed

Most birds met or exceeded the weight needed to make the rest of the migration to the arctic which is 83 grams. Some were still under weight and needed to fatten up a bit more before taking off. Connie's group had the fattest bird - 106 grams.

It was a really great experience. Connie told me everything she learned about the bird's anatomy, migration, weight, age of birds etc. She asked me what I learned and got mad when I told her what I learned - Larry went to Archbishop Wood, Joan grew up in Mayfair but moved before high school otherwise she would have gone to St. Huberts, Phillipa is from the UK and is here with her father who is part of the banding group, Gabby is a veterinarian from Chile and is here with her husband Sergio for the experience, Jane is on the board of NJ Audubon and likes to make up names for the birds based on the tag number ("Hip" for H1P, "Jim" for J1M, etc) and also likes to sing to the them while the pipe dope which secures the flags on the bird's leg dries, Mandy is from NJ and wants to grow her hair out like Snooki (not really) . I think Connie wanted me to learn more about the birds. . .

PVC pipe dope being applied to the leg flag

All photos courtesy of Connie's cell phone today. The telephoto lens didn't do me any good when we were this close to the action.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Points North

Barbara and I just got back from 2 days in north Jersey birding Highpoint and Stokes State Parks with the NJ Audubon workshop. It was advertised as a birding by ear workshop but the most "by ear" that I got was the all of the yapping by the group. It started out with someone not getting the message about the new start time and consequently being late (and not apologizing to the group) which other people complained about and went on from there. The workshop was really a 2 day field trip with some emphasis on bird song rather than a true workshop with structured learning anyway. I should have paid more attention in my Organizational and Group Dynamics class in college. It would have come in handy!

I'd like to get the highlights out of the way right up front even at the risk that you will not read the rest of the post - we got Cerulean Warbler before 7 AM on the first day! We got 2 Cerulean Warblers, both male and female, singing and flitting over our heads not really that high up in trees before 7 AM on the first day. We got a total of 9 Cerulean Warblers over the 2 day trip.

You can't see the beautiful blue color of the bird in this photo, but you can see the nice "necklace" indicating that this is the male.

There, now that is out of the way, we can move on to other highlights including a Porcupine sleeping in a tree:

I want to bring this cutie home as a pet.

Barbara and I stayed at a really cute motel called Myers Motel in Milford PA which wasn't a motel at all, but little cabins. We went up on Tuesday evening so that we would have a shorter drive on Wed morning at 0'dark:30. We were delighted to find Chris - our handsome Swedish friend - was staying at the same place. He carpooled with us for the field trips which was alot of fun. All three of us forgot that we were supposed to pack a lunch, so we had to run out to McDonald's to pick something up. The trip leaders told us to meet at the campground for a picnic lunch. We had to take a photo of this sign on our way into the campground because it cracked us up:

No Picnicking!

Another highlight was this beautiful Canada Warbler that we saw along the bog trail at Highpoint. We met a serious photographer along the trail that was a really friendly. This guy was almost too friendly. Usually, when we see serious photographers in the field, they give us the cold shoulder hoping that we will go away and leave them to their secret find. Not this guy. Yack, yack, yack about what he was doing and asking what we were seeing. Then, he ended up on the boardwalk with us as we struggled to see the Canada Warbler through the shrubs. Our trip leaders were "pishing" and squeaking trying to get the bird to come closer. Not the photographer. He didn't struggle or pish or squeak. He just pulled out his iPod and played the Canada Warbler song which made the real bird come closer to investigate. Snap, snap, snap went the camera and viola, he had his shot. I got this shot which isn't great due to the limitations of my lens and the limitations of my skills:

Canada Warbler

Speaking of pishing and squeaking to get birds to come closer, the entire group was amazed by one of the leader's ability to imitate Barred Owl. Scott Barnes sounds more like a Barred Owl than a real owl. He was amazing. He would do the call - "who cooks for you, who cooks for you all" to get the woodpeckers riled up. Apparently, woodpeckers and owls have a long standing feud over nesting holes kind of like the Hatfields and McCoys. He made this call often but one time another owl called back - "who cooks for you, who cooks for you all" and then flew closer. The Barred Owl landed in a tree about 100 yards away through the woods. We all got a good look even though we had to line up:

taken with Barbara's iPhone

I was not able to get a photo of the owl since it was back in the thick of the woods. But I did manage to get a photo the other big highlight of the day - Mississippi Kite catching bugs and eating them in mid air out at the Highpoint monument overlook. What a great find. Here is a lousy photo, in which you can see the field marks of the bird - whitish head, pointy-ish wings, and feet up to it's mouth while it picks apart a bug in mid-flight.

Mississippi Kite
(yes, I still have to sign the m-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i song in my head when typing Mississippi)

Group Dynamics not withstanding, we all had fun and learned something. I learned that NJ Park Rangers are not the nicest. Although he didn't catch us picnicking, he did yell at me for parking outside of the designated parking spots at the monument overlook even though I explained that I was trying to use the car as a tripod for the camera to get this group shot, and there were no other cars around except ours.

Group shot taken from the car which was legally parked in the designated spot - we could see NJ, NY, and PA from this overlook

I highly recommend a trip to Highpoint State Park for birding. I also recommend going with a group for your first trip if possible as the park is pretty big and you can miss the "hotspots" if you try it on your own. You can decide whether to brush up on your group dynamics skills or not.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Volunteering to Protect Shorebirds

I signed up to be a Shorebird Steward through the Conserve Wildlife NJ program. This program asks people to work at protected beaches along the Delaware Bay during the spring shorebird migration period. Asa Shorebird Steward, the volunteer should educate people about beach closings in order to protect the endangered Red Knot shorebirds. These birds migrate from Argentina all the way to the Arctic to nest, stopping at Delaware Bay to fatten up on horseshoe crab eggs during crab spawning season which runs from May 7 to June 7 this year. Basically - keep people off of the beaches that are designated as protected.

There are several beaches with this status along the bayshore - the famous Reed's Beach, Cook's Beach, Kimble's Beach, Foresque, and the Villas. What? The Villas is a mecca for horseshoe crabs and endangered shorebirds? Yep. The Villas. Guess where our new shacks are? Yep. Smack dab in the middle of the protected beach. What luck. Obviously, I volunteered for the Villas duty which turned out to be really smart since our refrigerator quit working and we had to make a quick trip to Cape May Court House to buy a new one (which Di found on Craig's List really cheap) and also let the Comcast guy in to hook up cable TV (we have been miserable without the Phillies games).

I worked on the Sunday after the World Series, this past Saturday, and today. The first day was kind of a bust. No crabs, very few birds, and zero Red Knots. Yesterday was a little better. About 100 crabs came onto the beach at high tide (around 1 PM) and there were a few more birds but still no Red Knots. The majority of birds were Laughing Gulls, Semi-palmated Sandpipers and Sanderlings. The big downer of the day was the text message I recieved stating "Red Knots are here. 5000 + Red Knots at Reed's Beach" Meanwhile I was twiddling my thumbs in the Villas.

Today was the best day so far with over 2,000 crabs on the beach at high tide, a few thousand shorebirds, and a few dozen Red Knots mixed in. Here is a photo (click to enlarge) showing horseshoe crabs (the big gray blobs in the foreground) and shorebirds (the small gray dots that stretch to the end of the beach).
Here is a close-up of the horseshoe crabs mating (still rated G). The large crab in the center is the female. All of the other crabs are males trying to fertilize eggs.
Here is a close-up of the eggs - the little green dots in between the stones. It reminds me of tapioca. These eggs consist of alot of protein and fat that the shorebirds (particularly Red Knots) need to successfully breed this season.
This is a photo of a Red Knot taken by Christopher Wood from the Allaboutbirds.org website. Remember, I didn't get to see many so I didn't get a photo for myself.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Scouting is the Most Fun

The "Big Day" of the World Series of Birding is fun, but we don't really get to do much bird watching. It's more bird counting, then running off to the next place, the next bird, the next tweet. We like to actually see the colorful warblers, and see the breeding plumage and see the behaviors rather than just hear a song, or a tweet or a whistle and say - "oh, that's a Blackpoll Warbler" or " Didjya hear that? - Summer Tanager".

We spent a few days leading up to the Big Day scouting the areas hoping that the birds we saw would still be there on Saturday. We did a pretty good job of note taking, we tried some new spots, and we even got a Microwave at a yard sale for $5!

Here is the best photo that I have of a Common Yellowthroat - ever. This guy popped up at the Cape May Lighthouse Hawk Watch Platform during our scouting while we watching a Yellow-billed Cuckoo pick tent caterpillars out of the cherry tree. We got to count this species again for the Big Day on Saturday. I am telling myself it was the same bird.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

We ARE Smarter than 5th Graders!

Whew, we completed our 2nd annual World Series of Birding this Saturday and beat those pesky 5th graders. We got 121 species (5 more than last year) while the elementary school children only got 118. HA. We showed them That's the good news. The bad news is that the 8th graders beat us again. They got something like 143.

Philly Bird Nerds at the Awards Breakfast (no, we didn't get an award)

We started at 2:55 AM and ended after 9:15 PM and had a lot of laughs along the way. When you do a "Big Day" contest like this, you see the same groups of birders and teams at various locations throughout the day. We tend to amuse ourselves by giving them names. Like "No Stripes", the couple that has the same Mini Cooper as Diane, but no stripes on the car which doesn't makes it look as nice as Di's. And "Marge and Judy" the 2 women that I tried to descibe the location of the Phoebe nest that made Diane tease me for the rest of the day so much that Lori almost peed her pants. And "Those Crazy Bikers" - the group of guys who did the whole day on bicycles. We vowed to run them over with the Suburban but gave up on that idea after the parents of the one guy showed us Norther Harrier at Stipson's Island Road (and took the photo above).

We have no doubt that they have names for us too. Especially on this Big Day. You see, I had a genius idea last week to quell the onslaught of mosquitos that we endured last year - screens for the car windows. Yup. We put screens on the windows of the Suburban. My genius idea was to use duct tape to secure screen on the outside of the truck. The plan got even better when we talked to the guy at Napa Auto Parts who sold us "automotive body work" tape which will not damage the paing and easy to remove.

nothing but class for us

We also got a life bird for all of the team members - a Parasitic Jaeger that was chasing terns around off of Cape May Point. We didn't get a lot of common warblers including Northern Parula that we were seeing and hearing every day since mid-April even in the middle of Philly. We didn't get Cedar Waxwing. And we didn't get our "signature" bird - the Black-throated Blue Warbler (enlarge our team photo above to view the logo). We did manage to get Great Horned Owl this year. We almost didn't get Bald Eagle which are a given along Delaware Bay any other day.

I want to thank all who made the day a big success including the Nerds:
Tara who sacrificed her birthday for scouting on Friday
Di who limped through the day still recuperating from knee surgery
Lori who suffered the day without her beloved warblers
Barbara who endured the most scouting with me
Connie who had to miss most of the day due to a funeral and showed up for the end at 7:30 PM

Big shout out to Barb Kolb who graciously designed and embroidered our new team shirts on short notice. Thanks Barb, at least we looked good at the Awards Breakfast.

Huge thanks to Marleen, Sheila and the rest of the WSB support staff/volunteers for making this year another fun event.

At last, the final thanks goes to you, the readers and pledgers. Please send a check made out to NJ Audubon in the amount of whatever you pledged per bird x 121 to me. I'll collect and forward the whole lot to them.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

I've been getting up at O dark 30 to bird for the past couple of weeks. Trying to listen to warbler songs, getting ready for the big day this saturday in Cape May with the rest of the bird nerds. Went this morning to Peace Valley Park in Bucks County. Learned that I still stink at figuring out who's singing. Stood still at one place because I kept hearing a warbler. One thing I did learn is that if you just stand still long enough, birds start to think you just belong there. I had male and female scarlet tanager hanging around my head, she was getting nesting material, and he kept sitting by me, not up high either. One of my favorite birds. Then a pileated woodpecker landed 20 feet from me, low on a tree, just pecking away. I looked at him, "Really? You're right there, and I can't find a stupid warbler....." Finally, after half an hour, ( mind you a lot was going on at this particular spot.) I spotted my singing warbler. A Redstart. Common warbler, should know his song, but I didn't. Then I heard a song that sounded like a bug, "Oh, worm eating warbler." Go chase down that bird. Norther Parula. Common warbler again. When I say common, it's just that we see these birds a lot. No chestnut sided, no cape may, no bay-breasted, no hooded, no kentucky, not even a magnolia. Did get rewarded with black-throated blue though. I guess I'm getting a little better, at least I know when I'm hearing a warbler. And, I'm able to ignore the catbird.
38 species total.