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The “melting pot” of Hawaiian birds

Just back from 10 days in Hawaii, a region with one of the most screwed-up ecosystems on the planet. As a birder, it was certainly a fun trip, as I added at least 30 “new” species to my life list. Of those 30, however, only one-third were native to the Hawaiian Islands.  No area of the United States has suffered a greater loss of native bird species than Hawaii.  The reasons are many, but they all have a man-made origin. The devastation began when the islands first became populated, and ecosystems were directly impacted by mankind. Forest clearing and the introduction of fire certainly had an impact, but other anthropogenic factors were the most devastating.

There are no native reptiles or amphibians on the Hawaiian islands, and only one native mammal, a species of bat.  However, with the arrival of man came rats and mice, cats, as well as introduced mongoose that were brought to the islands to control the rat populations.  These introduced mammals all were new predators of eggs, young birds, and even adult birds…threats Hawaiian birds had never had to deal with before. Introduced pigs, goats, and sheep devastated the natural vegetation of the islands.  Disease also has had a devastating impact on Hawaiian birds, as introduced avian malaria has wiped out entire species and devastated other species.  Introduced plant species have changed the vegetative composition of Hawaiian ecosystems, and even now, a new fungal disease has started to wipe out Hawaii’s Ohi’a tree, one of the most common and important forest tree’s for Hawaiian birds.

For someone from South Dakota, it’s thus a fun place to bird, but it’s also sobering. Hawaii has certainly become a “melting pot”, regional ecosystem experiment, where birds, plants, and diseases from all regions of the globe are thrown together…winner take all. Unfortunately it’s the native plants and animals that are losing in this experiment.

Here’s a sampling of some of the birds I was able to photograph, and a bit of information as to where these now well-established “Hawaiian” birds actually originated.

Hawai'i 'Amakihi - Chlorodrepanis virens

An ‘Amakihi, specifically, the Hawai’i subspecies. Similar subspecies are found on O’ahu and Kaua’i. This is a native species. They are one of a very few Hawaiian honeycreeper species that has continued to thrive, despite all the ecosystem changes. They were quite common on our visit to the Big Island, and I found them on both the dry and wet sides of the island.

Erckel's Francolin - Pternistis erckelii

There’s no shortage of “gamebirds” now on the big island. Many species of pheasant, quail, and other similar birds have been introduced. This was one of the most common that we saw on Hawai’i, an Erckel’s Francolin. We found them on dry grasslands on the western side of the island, forest edges, and even forest clearings in the wet rain-forests of the eastern side of the island. Nasty looking spurs on these guys…I’d bet the males use them to good effect during the breeding season.

Yellow-billed Cardinal - Paroaria capitata

20 years ago, before I started birding, my wife and I visited O’ahu. Even as a non-birder I noticed the striking Red-crested Cardinals. It wasn’t until I became a birder a few years later that I learned they weren’t native. Hawai’i island doesn’t have the Red-crested Cardinal, but they do have a similar looking bird, the Yellow-billed Cardinal. They are native to parts of South America, but were introduced to Hawai’i several decades ago. They’re not actually closely related to cardinals, they are a species of tanager. We found them in a variety of settings, all over the island, but they certainly have adapted well to a human presence. They were almost ubiquitous in and around suburban settings and parks.

Photo of White-tailed Tropicbird - Phaethon lepturus

This one was a huge surprise to me! We were visiting Kilauea’s main crater, an active crater with a lava lake at the bottom, when I saw multiple white birds streaking through the sky in and around the crater rim. I never got close enough for a great photo, but it was quite obvious what they were once I got my binoculars on them…White-tailed Tropicbirds! I certainly wasn’t expecting to find a tropical sea-bird flying around the crater of an inland volcano, but these guys actually nest on the cliff walls in and around Kilauea’s summit! They are native, and given their unique habitat choice on the island, they are one species not heavily impacted by anthropogenic activity. Their choice of nesting location shields them from the rats, cats, and mongoose that have devastated other nesting birds on the islands.

Photo of African Silverbill - Euodice cantans

One of the best places I birded on Hawai’i was on the slopes of Mauna Loa, between 5,000 and 7,500 feet above sea level. There were many native mamane trees on the dry eastern slopes, and these dry woodlands with scattered trees and grasses were wonderful for a wide variety of species. This included native Amakihi and Elepaio, but also included MANY non-native species. That included roving flocks of these guys, African Silverbills. They are a native of western and central Africa.

Photo of Red-billed Leiothrix - Leiothrix lutea

Another non-native species that was common in the dry mamane forests on the slopes of Mauna Loa…Red-billed Leiothrix. Beautiful birds, these guys were mingling with mixed flocks of other small birds, including the native Amakihi. They are native to southern China and the Himalayan region.

Photo of 'Apapane - Himatione sanguinea

Like the Amakihi, this is another of the few native Hawaiian honeycreepers that seems to still be doing well…the ‘Apapane. They are still quite common and widespread on Hawai’i. Wherever we found Ohi’a trees on the wet, eastern side of the island, we found ‘Apapane. Alas though, even the few native Hawaiian honeycreeper species that have survived are faced with devastating population losses. The Ohi’a tree on which these guys depend (shown in this photo) have been subjected to a new fungal disease that just started devastating Ohi’a populations on Hawai’i in 2010. In the few short years since, large areas of Ohi’a-dominated forest have been affected. We ourselves saw huge swaths of forests with all the large Ohi’a trees dead. So far the fungus is confined to the island of Hawai’i, but it’s a horrible development for Hawaiian birds that are so dependent upon this plant.

Photo of Grey Francolin - Francolinus pondicerianus

Another of the non-native Francolin’s, this is a Grey Francolin. These weren’t nearly as common as the Erckel’s Francolin, and they seem to be restricted to the dry lowlands on the western side of Hawai’i. I also saw a number of Black Francolin on Hawai’i, but wasn’t able to get a photo of them. The Grey Francolin shown here is native to southern Asia.

Photo of Nene - Branta sandvicensis

The state bird of Hawai’i, the Nene. We saw them flying over on occasion, but the ONLY place we ever saw them on the ground? Golf courses. Nene nearly went extinct several decades ago until captive breeding was used to rebuild the population. Despite seeing them on a number of occasions on Hawai’i, it’s not a complete conservation success story. Populations on the main island of Hawai’i are still likely not self-sustaining. As ground nesters, eggs and young are extremely susceptible to predation from rats, cats, and mongoose. Even brooding adult birds may be attacked. Without captive breeding, it is unlikely the species would survive on Hawai’i.

Photo of Zebra Dove - Geopelia striata

A Zebra Dove sitting on a fenceline. A native of southeastern Asia, these guys are EVERYWHERE on the Big Island, particularly in and around urban and suburban areas. Zebra Doves have pretty much become the equivalent of Rock Pigeons in the continental United States…a species that is found everywhere humans are found.

Photo of Yellow-fronted Canary - Serinus mozambicus

A beautiful, yet non-native, Yellow-fronted Canary. They are native to sub-Saharan Africa. We found them in a number of habitats, but particularly on woodland edges with grasses and grass seed available nearby.

Photo of Black Noddy - Anous minutus

A Black Noddy…specifically the Hawaiian sub-species, known locally as the Noio. When visiting southern part of Hawai’i, we saw them on multiple occasions, cruising in and around the coastal seacliffs upon which they nest. A native seabird that seems to still be doing quite well.

Photo of Saffron Finch - Sicalis flaveola

One of the first birds we saw after getting off the plane in Kona were a pair of absolutely gorgeous Saffron Finches near the Airport. Beautiful, found in many places all over the island, but alas, not native. They are a tanager relative native to South America.

Photo of Eurasian Skylark - Alauda arvensis

European settlers introduced some of their favorite European species in multiple locations throughout the globe. One of their favorite birds from “back home” were Eurasian Skylarks, a song known for their melodious songs. They are now well established on the Big Island, and we saw them EVERYWHERE on the grassy western slopes of Mauna Loa.

Photo of Pueo - Asio flammeus sandwichensis

For our first 4 days on the island, we stayed at an area about 20 miles north of the Kona airport. Despite driving across several parts of the dry, western part of the island in those first few days, it took THREE FULL DAYS before I finally saw a bird that was actually NATIVE to Hawai’i. That bird was a “Pueo”, the local name for the only native owl found in the Hawaiian islands. Most think it’s a subspecies of the Short-eared Owl. There was one road on the western slopes of Mauna Loa where I had incredible success finding these guys, including 5 individual owls in one 8-mile section of road one evening.

Photo of Pueo - Asio flammeus sandwichensis

Both the first and last native bird photos of our trip were of a Pueo. This was our last evening on the island, with a lone Pueo sitting on a fence post on the western slopes of Mauna Loa.

 

In the News – Week of January 1st, 2017

A new year, a new set of nature and science news pieces for the week…

Black-tailed Prairie Dog - Cynomys ludovicianus

A “varmint”, a Black-tailed Prairie Dog. I have on several occasions run into “sportsmen” in South Dakota who are lined up at the edge of a prairie dog town, picking them off one by one with rifles. Killing for the sake of killing…and doing twice the intended harm, given the lead that’s ingested by predators when they eat the carcasses.

Ammunition choice in shooting “varmints” — There have been many occasions on my birding trips to the central part of the state where I come across a sight that makes me sick to my stomach.  I’ll drive past a prairie dog town, and see multiple hunters lined up along a fence line, crouched and in a shooting position, picking off prairie dogs for “fun”.  That’s it…there’s no other purpose to it, other than killing for the sake of killing.  The prairie dogs that are killed aren’t used for anything, they’re simply left to rot.  Unfortunately, “sportsmen” who feel this sick need to kill for the sake of killing end up doing even more harm to animal communities.  By leaving the dead bodies, it provides an avenue for predators to consume the dead prairie dogs, and ingest the lead in the ammunition that was used to kill them.  Lead poisoning is a major cause of mortality for many raptor species, and is THE leading cause of California Condor mortality. A simple solution, as this article points out, would be to use ammunition that’s free of lead.  Even that common-sense approach though, one that still allows redneck hunters to kill prairie dogs and other “varmints”, is hated by hunting groups, as they claim that lead alternatives in ammunition don’t perform as well as lead shot and bullets.  Given what I have come across over the years on all my birding excursions, I’ve had a major downturn overall in my attitudes towards hunting…and particularly…hunters.  Stories like this don’t help my perceptions of hunters.

Cheetah numbers down to 7,100 worldwide — Over the last century, cheetah numbers worldwide have dropped from 100,000, to only 7,100 today.  Think about that…in a world with nearly 7 billion human beings, for an iconic, well-known predator such as the cheetah, there are only several thousand left. As with most species’ declines, habitat loss is behind the cheetah’s loss in population.  They range over huge territories, and there simply aren’t “huge territories” available in most parts of their range any more.  Throw in targeted persecution, such as the shooting of cheetahs by poachers and farmers, and this story estimates cheetahs could be extinct in the wild in 20-40 years.

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle

Is this the face of Earth’s largest animal migrations? This is a Goldenrod Soldier Beetle from here in South Dakota, and I admit I have no idea if these “migrate” as with some beetles mentioned in this story. By sheer mass, however, this story points out that insect migration likely dwarfs any other migration on the planet.

Biggest migration of land animals on the planet — When you think of what creature may make up the largest migration of any land animal on the planet, in terms of sheer mass, what species do you think of? Or group of species?  When you say “migration”, most people probably think of birds first, and there certainly are mass migrations of birds that are so heavy that weather radar is being increasingly used as a tool to study those migrations. In terms of sheer mass, perhaps some people think of large caribou migrations.  However, as this study notes, one overlooked migration likely has all of these beat…insect migration.  This study notes that around 3.5 trillion arthropods migrate over southern Great Britain each year, accounting approximately 8 times the mass of bird migrations in the same area.  Some winged insects are well-known for their migratory talents, such as the Monarch Butterfly in North America.  But as this study notes, there all sorts of winged and even non-winged creatures that migrate through the atmosphere.

What the heck is a “species” anyway? — People are funny.  We have this intrinsic need to categorize things, put them in neat little bins that help our minds process realty.  Birders sometimes take that to an extreme, with “life lists” that are often incredibly detailed, with “big day” lists (how many species you see in one day), “big years”, “state lists that detail bird species seen within the confines of state boundaries, and more.  What gets bird listers in a tizzy?  Just what IS a species!  The American Ornithological Union and American Birding Association are always making tweaks to their “official” lists of species that have been found in North America.  Just watch birders heads collectively explode if the AOU or ABA does decide to split Red Crossbills into up to six distinct species…life lists will be substantially increased!!  Even with the science of DNA-based splits, it’s still not a precise science in determining what’s a unique species.  As with many things, we’re categorizing things into unique thematic categories, when the phenomena you’re measuring is actually a continuous variable with no definite boundaries.

One, maybe two new comets moving through — Speaking of birders and their lists, I have a friend at work who is a birder, and someone who has a life list.  He also has another, more unusual life list posted on his bulletin board in his office…his “comet life list”!  He’s about to get one, and maybe two new ones for his list.  Comet C/2106 U1 was recently discovered by the “NEOWISE” project, and is potentially visible with binoculars right now, through about January 14th. It would appear in the southeastern sky just before sunrise.  An object called 2016 WF9 was also discovered by NEOWISE, and it will come close to Earth’s orbit in late February.  It’s estimated to be 0.5 to 1.0 km in diameter.  Note the designation “object”, because it’s not clear whether this object is an asteroid or comet (related to the previous story, in that the categorization of what’s a “comet” and what’s an “asteroid” can be fuzzy).

Bird Dropping Moth - Caterpillar - Ponometia

A caterpillar of Ponometia…the “Bird Dropping Moth”. Should a new species of “shit moth” be discovered, I would suggest it be named after Trump, in the same manner that several creatures have been named after Obama in recent years.

Nine creatures named for President Obama — Over the last few years, no less than 9 different creatures have had scientific names that honor Barack Obama.  Multiple fish, a lizard, bird, etc…all have scientific names such as “Nystalus obamai” (A Western Striated Puffbird, in this case). Once Trump leaves office in 4 years (or in a perfect world, once he’s impeached after a year or so), I wonder what creatures will be named after him?  I have many, many classes of creatures where new discoveries should consider his name. There are the Onychophora phylum of worms known for excreting slime. There are the Annelidas…leaches…which would be a wonder creature to name after him.  There’s a moth called Ponometia, and it’s associated caterpillar, that would be good.  Their common name is the “Bug-dropping Moth”.  Naming him after shit would be a perfect way to “honor” him once he leaves office.

Where you’re most likely to get struck by lightning — We had a very unusual Christmas day in South Dakota.  I believe it was 4 years ago when we were absolutely smothered in snow, getting close to 2 feet on Christmas.  We’ve had Christmas’s where the temperature never got above zero.  And then there was this Christmas where we had…a thunderstorm?  In late December? In South Dakota?  We set a record for most rainfall on Christmas Day, getting over an inch in most areas, and the lightning and thunder was the first time that’s ever occurred here on Christmas (or late December for that matter).  I could go into global warming here, but no, the point is the story in the above link.  Standing outside on Christmas Day in South Dakota normally isn’t a high-risk endeavor, in terms of being struck by lightning.  So where are the most active areas on earth for lightning?  Thanks to a satellite called the Tropical Rainfall Monitoring Mission, we now know.  The winner…a Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela.  Over each one square kilometer in the area, one could expect over 230 lightning strikes per year.  The lake is surrounded by mountains, and nearly every night, cool airflow from the mountains hits the warm waters and air above the lake and produces thunderstorms.

Western Meadowlark - Sturna neglecta

A Western Meadowlark, taken with a temp of -10° near Presho, South Dakota, in the winter of 2003-2004. I have a billion Meadowlark photos, but specifically remember this one because it was so rare to SEE one in the heart of winter. Now? They’re everywhere.

Bird migration changing with climate — As I noted in a previous post, I went birding to the central part of the state last week, and was amazed at how many Western Meadowlarks were around.  15 years ago, it was rare to spot one in winter in that part of the state.  Now…I saw hundreds, all across the region.  Global warming? It’s hard to ignore signs like that.  As this story describes, many birds are changing their migration patterns as the climate changes. Many are arriving on the summer breeding grounds much earlier than they used to.  There are also some species where migrations have become shorter, or perhaps such as the case of the Western Meadowlarks, where they’ve simply stopped moving south for the winter.

China bans ivory trade and purchase — A rare bit of good conservation news.  This last week, China announced that they will ban the sale and trade of ivory by the end of 2017. China was by far the largest market for legally sold ivory, with ivory selling for over $1,000 a kilogram.  The Great Elephant Census recently published noted that elephant populations world-wide plummeted by 30% in just the last 7 years (!!!!!), and incredible population decline for such a short time period.  With the shutting of the largest legal ivory market, it’s hoped that poaching pressures will decline.  However, it’s hard to guess what will happen with ivory trade, and if much of this will simply move to the black market.

Time to edit the website again…

Hoary Redpoll - Carduelis hornemanni

A Hoary Redpoll in my crabapple tree. For now, I can still count a Hoary Redpoll as its own species, as the AOU committee decided to hold off on a proposed action to merge Hoary and Common Redpolls into one species. Which means for one more year, I can proudly proclaim that I’ve had a rare Hoary Redpoll in my yard.

It’s damned hard trying to keep up with all the official changes on the American Birding Association’s (ABA) North American birds checklist! The ABA list is generally based on the checklist from the American Ornithological Union (AOU).  Every year, the AOU Checklist Committee considers formal proposals to change the checklist, with recommendations coming from scientists who have published research and other materials that may support a checklist change.  Every July The Auk (the journal for the AOU) publishes the changes for the year.  And every year, I either ignore those changes, or spend several months delaying any related changes to my website.

Ever since I started my website more than 15 years ago, I’ve been working on having individual species pages for each species seen in North America.  Especially when a new species is added, I try to keep up and edit my checklist and summary pages, but I admit I’m behind in doing so.  If it’s simply adding a new species (for example, if an exotic species is now established enough in the U.S. that the AOU considers it a new, permanent species in North America), it’s easy enough to add a page.  I’m fairly caught up with those changes. What’s a major pain in the butt is trying to keep up with the “order” changes.  Every year, they make changes in the official “order” that species are listed in the checklist. The AOU checklist is presented in a “phylogenetic order”, using DNA and other information to “rank” species according to their origin and where they are on a evolutionary tree.  Basically, more “ancient” species are listed first, while species more recent in origin are listed last. On my pages, for example, I still have finches “ranked” very near the bottom.  However, in recent years finches have received a “promotion”, and are now higher on the phylogenetic order list.  It’s a major change moving things around on my master species page, thus the order changes that have occurred in recent years are those changes least likely to be represented in my checklist and species pages.

Here we are in mid-December, a mere 5+ months since the latest updates, and I’m finally taking a peek at the changes.  Looks like I have more work ahead of me on my website, particularly if I want to update the checklist order.  Some highlights of the changes for the year:

  1. Scrub Jay species — I have a new species on my life list, thanks to a new species split!  The Western Scrub-Jay has been split into two distinct species, the California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica) and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii). The California species is found from Baja California northward into Washington state, and is darker with richer colors, while the interior species is found in the dry interior of the southwestern U.S. and is paler in appearance.  When a species is split like this, it’s sometimes hard to know which of the new species you’ve seen, but fortunately I have photos of the former Western Scrub Jay from both California and Arizona, meaning I’ve seen (and photographed) both new species!
  2. Leach’s Storm-Petrel split —  The Leach’s Storm Petrel has been split into 3 distinct species.  Given a pelagic species such as a storm petrel isn’t exactly native to South Dakota, it’s not one I’ve seen, but alas, it still means a needed change on my website.
  3. Changes in scientific names — I won’t pretend that I understand why scientific names of species are sometimes changed.  Most of the changes this year are for shearwater species, but I saw they also changed the Sandhill Crane from Grus canadensis to Antigone canadensis. 
  4. Substantial changes in the phylogenetic order — Of course.  Sigh.  A hard one to keep up with, and once again this year, these are changes I’ll likely ignore on my website. Especially once you’ve been birding for a while and have used the same field guide for years, it’s tough even in your own mind to mentally adjust to a different “order” of species.
  5. Redpoll species — My “best” yard bird without question was a Hoary Redpoll that showed up 3 or 4 winters ago. That winter was the only winter I’ve ever even had Common Redpolls in my yard, but one day my son looked out at several redpolls on our thistle feeder and asked “what’s the white one”?   It wasn’t exactly white, but there was a Hoary Redpoll that was very obviously different than the Common Redpolls around him.  For years it’s been speculated that the Hoary Redpoll really isn’t a different species, that it’s just a plumage variation.  The AOU committee decided for now to hold off on lumping the two into one species, so for now, my best yard bird still holds!!

In the News – October 9 – 15

A collection of bird, science, photography, and news links from the past week. Click on the links for the actual stories.

Eastern Screech Owl - Megascops asio

I think I’ve actually been pretty lucky, in that I’ve run across Eastern Screech Owls relatively often over the years, and have many good photos. What I can NOT do is attract one to my yard.

  • Attract Screech Owls to Your Yard!! — HAH!  I’ll believe it when I see it!  This piece from Birdwatching Magazine touts how easy it is to attract Screech Owls to your yard, by building and putting up a nest box.  Three years ago, I bought a box built specifically for Screech Owls.  Over three summers, many a young bird has fledged from that box!  Of course all of them have been House Sparrows, the one thing I do NOT need more of.  Hopefully some day an actual Eastern Screech Owl finds it, evicts the House Sparrows within, and justifies my purchase.
  • Coal Declines in the U.S. — One of the things that bugs me great is lying.  In the world of politics, it’s an art form.  This week, fact got in the way of rhetoric, with a study coming out that refutes those who try to pin the decline of coal, and mining jobs in the U.S., to government policy.  Coal started to decline in 2008, right when Obama was elected.  It’s his fault!! Well…no.  As this study notes, it’s basic economics and the rise of cheap natural gas.  People love to complain about cheap energy prices, but now that we have it?  They’ll find something else to complain about…
  • Get ready to add new species to your life list! — There’s been speculation for a while now that Crossbill species in North America may be split into as many as 6 or more new, distinct species.  This study provides more support for that move, using genomics to look at the rapid evolution of Crossbills that feed on pine seeds. It’s always handy when you can add a new species to your life list, without ever leaving your living room.
  • Hotter than Hell — Which, evidently must be around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, given 1) where people believe hell is likely located (think ‘down’), and 2) the estimated temperature at the center of the earth.
  • Caspian Terns Breeding near Arctic Circle — If you’re one of those that doesn’t believe in climate change, you might as well stop reading my blog altogether. As yet more evidence that strange things are afoot, scientists confirmed breeding of Caspian Terns north of the Arctic Circle…1,000 MILES further north than they’ve been found before. If it were just thing one piece of evidence…sure…could be a fluke.  Where there’s smoke, there’s fire though, and it’s getting damned hard to breath with so much “smoke” around.
  • Fires of Hell

    Ever wonder how toasty it will be when your tortured, evil soul rots for an eternity in hell? Evidently it will be around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Before you die, perhaps you should change into shorts…

    Getting away from it all (Noise, that is) — My son and I usually go fishing in the Black Hills of South Dakota once a year.  You wouldn’t want to be in the area in late summer, when the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is going on, and there are certainly tourist hotspots scattered throughout the area.  But what’s always nice about the Black Hills is that if you want solitude, you can find it. Think of the soundtrack of your daily life.  Think how rare it is to NOT have some background noise, be it street noise, a barking dog, etc.  That what struck me at one point this summer while fishing in the hills…how we were hearing…NOTHING. And it was fabulous.  As this story notes, it’s been darn hard to find a noise-free environment going back at least 50 years.

  • Hurricane Matthew Punches Above its Weight — Hurricane Matthew’s story was fascinating, because of the unusual path, its immense power as it tore through the Caribbean, and because it became an afterthought for many Americans once it avoided a direct hit on Florida. Of course, certain political stories overshadowed Matthew when it raged across the Carolinas, but more than that, it was the feeling of relief, the feeling that the U.S. had dodged a bullet.  Instead of Category 4 hurricane striking Florida, it stayed offshore of Florida and was downgraded to a Category 1 by the time it struck the Carolinas. As this story notes, perhaps we need a new rating system for Hurricanes.  Sandy too wasn’t the most powerful hurricane, but it certainly did some damage, and so did Matthew, with 18 inches of rain in parts of North Carolina.
  • Hummingbirds should listen to their parents!! — It’s rough out there for a lil’ wild critter!  Not only do they have to deal with other critters that may want to eat them, but sometimes they just don’t KNOW what they’re supposed to do to survive. That’s one takeaway from this story, that notes different individual hummingbirds use different feeding and migration strategies.  Hummingbirds that have made the migration before?  They are more strategic, Adding up to 40% onto their body weight right before making a long migratory flight.  First-time migrants? They are less strategic, tending to NOT pack on the pounds, but instead migrate south in short bursts and feeding in between.  The lesson overall…LISTEN TO YOUR PARENTS.  They know best.
  • Climate Change Doubles Western U.S. Fires — According to this study, fires overall have likely doubled in the western U.S. since 1984, due to climate change.  Overall fire increase has been even more than that, but due to other issues like fuel build up, beetle kill, ignition sources, and other risk factors.  I believe that fire risk overall has gone up.  As a scientist though, I do find it extremely, extremely difficult to attribute a certain percentage increase in fire due to just one factor, however.  There’s so many factors that drive fire risk, with complicated feedbacks among them, that I’d have a hard time stating “twice” as many fires are due just to climate change.  Good article though for highlighting the issue.
  • Dumbledore - Harry Potter

    Coming back to a movie theater near you…Dumbledore!! I’d certainly welcome it, but alas, for Michael Gambon, the actor who played Dumbledore in the last 5 Harry Potter movies, this will undoubtedly be Dumbledore when he was much younger.

    Captain Kirk was Brain Damaged — OK, maybe that’s not what this story is saying. But it IS saying that there’s a high risk of cognitive issues for astronauts spending time in space, due to cosmic rays and radiation.  Interesting study, given that this week, Obama said a government and private partnership would help us reach Mars by the 2030s.  That’s certainly a very ambitious goal, one that may be doable, but there are a lot of technical challenges to be solved.

  • Dumbledore Returning!! — Not exactly science.  Or birds.  Or really news for that matter.  But with JK Rowling’s “Fantastical Beasts” coming out as a movie in a month, it was announced that she’s working on at least 4 more scripts, for at least 5 movies in total.  There’s also talk of Dumbledore coming back to play some role in these movies!  My cynical side can’t help but scream out “MONEY GRAB!!!” with the announcement that they’re going to make 5 movies.  But my Harry Potter fandom side is loving it.

 

 

Mesmerizing Migration Map

Cornell - Migration Map

The mesmerizing migration map, from Cornell University. Each dot represents the typical migration movement and timing for an individual species.

I’m not nearly clever enough for such use of alliteration in a post title…this is straight from the source!  But it’s such a great name and title for the material, I had to use it.  Using eBird data that provides millions of bird sightings submitted by everyday citizens, Cornell University put together animated maps that depict bird migrations in the Western Hemisphere (click to see the animated maps).  118 species are represented, showing typical migration routes over the course of a year.

It’s fascinating to view.  The animation starts at the start of a year, and there’s not much movement at first, as birds are settled into their winter range.  A few oddballs start migrating quite early, but by March there’s widespread movement which crescendos in April and May before most birds are in their summer ranges.  Some species already start moving back south during the month of June, and by September there’s a mass south-bound flux of birds.

The long established monitoring programs of the Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count are great, providing relatively consistent observations of birds for well established routes and locations over several decades. This animated map, however, helps to show the power of eBird.  As someone who has used eBird both as a birder for the recording of my sightings, and as a scientist for the use of the data in bird species distribution modeling, I’m well aware of some of the difficulties with the data.  Given that anyone can enter sightings, there’s no systematic sampling design, there’s definite bias in sightings towards both heavily populated areas and for more “charismatic” species, and there are issues with reliability of sightings with bird ID skills ranging from novice to expert.  But given that eBird data aren’t limited to a specific season or geography, they offer an opportunity that BBS and CBC cannot…the ability to track bird movement, and also track how those movements change in the face of climate change or other stress factors.

Very cool map…it’s very interesting to try and follow one dot over the course of the year!  Only thing I wish it had were some kind of label (or clickable dots) so you knew what species each dot represents.

Global Warming hits South Dakota

Budgerigar - Melopsittacus undulatus

A sign of global warming? Budgies hanging out with House Sparrows in rural South Dakota. I feel sorry for the guy actually, given his anticipated life span here.

As a scientist, I don’t have much patience for global warming “skeptics”.  The science, like most science, has uncertainties, but there’s no doubt that 1) the climate is warming overall, and 2) man is to blame.  I do get a little upset though with news stories that attribute specific events to climate change.  For example, overall, yes, models indicate there will be increased frequency of severe weather events, but it’s hard to specifically attribute the current California drought or an individual hurricane to climate change.

With that said…for people who have been in the same geographic area for decades, I would imagine there are many astute folks who have noticed changes in the climate, be it more precipitation, an earlier spring, or milder winters.  For us here in South Dakota?  There are CLEAR signs of global warming. In fact, the climate has warmed so much here, that Australian bird species are setting up shop in the state.

This photo is of a Budgerigard (“Budgie”) hanging out on a fence post. This is just east of Brandon, the town where I live, near Beaver Creek Nature Area.  I had to do a double-take when I saw him, but it’s hard to miss that bright green color that no other bird around here comes close to matching.  This was at a small rural home, where the Budgie was hanging out with a bunch of House Sparrows.

An escapee?  Or a sign of climate change?  CLEARLY it’s the latter.  It’s only a matter of time before other Australia species begin showing up in South Dakota.  Koalas munching on invasive Eucalyptus trees on the plains?  Kangaroos hopping around the Black Hills?  Dingos prowling through city streets?  THIS is the future we face as South Dakotans, thanks to climate change.  The budgie sighting is just the beginning…

The tale of “Swabby” and “Captain”

Pearly-eyed Thrasher - Margarops fuscatus

“Captain”, the bold “leader” of the local clan of Pearly-eyed Thrashers hanging out around our vacation beach house at St. John’s in the Virgin Islands.

Back from the Virgin Islands!  The family vacation for the summer was on the island of St. John’s in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  We had a rental house right on the water and had a wonderful time.  Our own little private cove and beach, wonderful snorkeling right outside the door, and great food. Of course, there was also a wee bit of birding involved!  I’d never been to the Caribbean, and although the relatively small island of St. John’s doesn’t have a huge variety of bird species, there were some nice “lifers” I was able to see and photograph.

One of those species is the Pearly Eyed Thrasher.  They are a very common and very visible species in the area, but given their geographic range, they were obviously a “new” species for me.  It didn’t take long after we arrived for us to see our first Pearly Eyed Thrasher!  We flew into St. Thomas and took the ferry over to St. John’s, then driving across the island towards Coral Bay and the location of our beach house.  The owner met us and as we were being shown the features of the house, we were greeted by “Captain” (the name my son immediately gave him!), an extremely tame Pearly eyed Thrasher who the owner said “owned” the beach house! Captain certainly did act as if he owned the place!  Every time we were on the deck overlooking the ocean, Captain was there, either casually searching for food, or just hanging out on a nearby tree or the deck itself.  Captain was certainly curious, often choosing to sit and perch within just a few feet of where we were lounging.

Captain was usually accompanied by “Swabby” (again, the name my son gave him!).  “Swabby” was a bit more shy than Captain, and usually was only around if Captain was around.  Swabby generally hung out a little further away from us than Captain, but he too was often very close to us.

I knew before we arrived that they were a common species, with one local birder telling me that locals in the Virgin Islands think of Pearly eyed Thrashers in much the same way as we would think of House Sparrows or Common Grackles here.  One of the joys of birding, however, is seeing a “new” species.  No matter how common a Pearly eyed Thrasher is in the Virgin Islands, they were new to us and were a real joy to have around, particularly as they were so tame and entertaining.  Clearly Captain and Swabby were accustomed to guests at the beach house.  The owner warned us not to leave any small items out on the deck, as they would be “confiscated” by Captain and Swabby!  That certainly was the case for food items too, as Captain and Swabby could be quite bold in begging for food.  We refrained from giving them “human food”, but after noticing their love of the petals of a certain flower, we did gather a few on occasion and put them out for Captain and Swabby to enjoy.

Pearly-eyed Thrasher - Margarops fuscatus

“Swabby”, the day after an accident or attack left him with an obviously broken leg. Despite the horrible looking injury, Swabby seemed to quickly adapt to his new situation.

3 days after arriving, it was obvious that Swabby had been attacked or had some serious accident.  One of his legs was clearly broken and/or dislocated.  The leg was useless to Swabby, held at an awful-looking angle.  For the first couple of days after the leg was broken, Swabby struggled. He wasn’t around as much, and when he did come near the deck, he struggled to adapt to his new situation.  He didn’t seem to have enough strength in the one remaining leg to hold up his body, so whenever he landed somewhere, he typically would lay on his belly.  We gathered a few more flowers for Swabby, and thankfully he was still feeding normally. After a couple of days, the leg still was useless and was still held at a horrible angle, but Swabby seemed to be gaining strength in his remaining leg.  He was starting to hop around on one leg, and seemed to be able to hold his body up with the one leg.

Of course we’ll never know what happened to Swabby, but there are a couple of “unnatural” predators on the island that could have been the culprit.  Mongoose were introduced to the islands many decades ago, a misguided attempt to control runaway rat populations (another introduced species).  Mongoose have had a devastating impact on the native wildlife of the Virgin Islands, particularly on ground-nesting birds.  Another potential culprit is another introduced species, the iguana.  We ran across some extremely large iguanas during our trip, including one gorgeous, bright green iguana in a tree right outside the beach house.  My guess is that either a mongoose or an iguana managed to get a hold of Swabby’s leg, and Swabby only escaped after breaking free of whatever predator attacked him.

Green Iguana - Iguana iguana

A gorgeous Green Iguana lounging in a tree outside the beach house in St. John’s. Could he be the cause of Swabby’s broken leg?

As we left the Beach House to start the long trek back home, Captain and Swabby of course were present to give us a proper send off!  We did put out a bit of left-over bread as we left, which Captain and Swabby immediately devoured.  “Common” or not in the Virgin Islands, it was a treat to see a new species.  Birders tend to get enamored with adding new species to their life lists, and often forget to appreciate the birds that are commonly seen.  Watching their behavior at such close range, interacting with them in the way we did, was a reminder to appreciate the “common” species we have back here in South Dakota.

More invasive species…

Iguana - St. John's, Virgin Islands

Another non-native species on the Virgin Islands, a huge iguana.

A quick follow up on the previous post…on this day in the Virgin Islands, we had a giant iguana laying by the road, several places we had to slow down or stop because of goats in the road, and a “wild” donkey that chose our beach house yard to graze in for the day. Yes, some good birds again, but it’s the non-native species that dominate the ecology.

 

“Arrogant” to think man can change the Earth?

Photo of Cruz Bay on St. John's, U.S. Virgin Islands

St. John’s, U.S. Virgin Islands. “Virgin” it is not, as it is about as unnatural a place as you can go.

One of my pet peeve lines from politicians and business people who are climate change deniers…that it is “arrogant” to think that human beings can have such a huge impact on the Earth. It is usually meant to pander to those with a religious bent, as it is often said hand in hand with comments about only “God” being able to affect that kind of change. Ridiculous, of course, when you see the astounding effects man has had on the planet.

Our effect on the planet is something you are constantly reminded of, no matter where you live. For me it was recently reinforced while on vacation. We took a family trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands. We have never vacationed in the Caribbean, and even after researching things to death, it’s still always a new experience when you go somewhere for the first time. There are certainly some great things to do and see there (more posts on birds there will follow!), but the big impression I have after our first visit? It’s colored with sadness over what things may have once been like there, as compared to now.

You of course have the visible human footprint.  We were on St. John’s Island, but flew through St. Thomas before ferrying across. Over half of St. John’s is covered by National Park, the population is one-tenth that of St. Croix or St. Thomas. St. John’s is generally considered the more quiet and unspoiled island. There are certainly fancy, well kept up parts, but there is also a lot of very run down and impoverished areas. There is no central trash collection on St. John’s, instead there are what have turned into “drive by” trash containers where people (quite literally!) throw their trash, often from a moving car.  It seems about half the trash actually makes the bin. Government seems ineffective, with incredibly high crime on St. Thomas and St. Croix (better on St.

John’s) and poor roads and services the norm. Junk is found scattered around many parts of the islands, from abandoned cars and buildings to the good ol’ plastic bottles and bags you find junking up every other part of the planet

Beyond the visible human footprint though is the altered ecology of the area.  Even on the “quiet” island of St. John’s there are chickens and goats running around everywhere.  “Wild” donkeys are the largest animals, followed by introduced deer. Mongoose, introduced to control introduced rats, have devastated native birds and other animals (as have rats).  As a birder there are certainly some great new birds I found there, but the bird community is vastly different than it was a few hundred years ago, thanks to habitat alteration, introduced bird species, hunting, and the introduction of the mongoose and other animals.

We we had a blast snorkeling the beautiful waters around the island. Back on land though, it’s not exactly a natural, lush, island paradise.

Living in eastern South Dakota amongst the vast fields of corn and soybeans, you realize just how much of an impact man has on the Earth   Sadly you see the same devastating impact even in an area such as St. John’s in the Virgin Islands.  Multiply those effects for every other spot on the planet that people are found, and you quickly see the only “arrogance” comes from blowhard politicians who try to use any excuse they can to 1) get re-elected and 2) pander to short-term, money-driven interests.

Arrogance indeed…

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