Monday, July 21, 2014

Birding the East Slope of the Ecuadorian Andes

Mist over the forest of San Isidro
    My old friend and I woke up in a miniature, well-kept cabin, groggy at 5 in the morning. Soft droplets of rain resounded against a square skylight. It was my first day in Ecuador and I felt an eagerness, unparalleled by no other, to explore. My friend, Mr. Joost (my old teacher and Ecuador guide), and I left the Guango lodge. As we walked into what seemed like a cloud, solemn and darkened hills shrouded us. Few things in the Andean foothills are so saddled by reverence as the powerful landscape. As we pull up near a trail, we meet a short, tan character. He wears an old pair of Leica binoculars, and bears a long aluminum tripod mounted with a Kowa scope. He was our bird guide--Edwin. Explaining that the Eastern Andean foothills have some incredible species and examples of speciation when compared to the Western foothills (a sight I would visit days later), Edwin took us to a set of Hummingbird feeders. We blasted down a rocky ridge towards a sheltered cabin. Around the cabin seven pick feeders rested, replete with sweetened water. A mere scan of the area would give a birder at least four quick species. I spent several hours at the feeders, and saw a number of Hummer species including the incredible Swordbilled. Other notable Hummer species that were particularly exciting were:
  • Tourmaline Sunangel
  • Long-tailed Sylph
  • Tryian Metaltail

  Attached is the species list (recorded with Mr. Peter Joost) from San Isidro and Guango, two incredible sights that we explored with Edwin. 

Guango/San Isidro

Andean Guan (The first bird I saw on the Ecuador trip. Absolutely incredible. The Guan looks like a flying chicken/hawk hybrid that can perch in dense foliage. It also has a dramatic red eye.)

Wattled Guan
Roadside Hawk
Southern Lapwing
Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe (spotted in the snow covered paramo of Papallacta pass. Finding it was literally breathtaking)

Plumbeous Pigeon
Ruddy Pigeon
Speckle-faced Parrot
Squirrel Cuckoo
Swift sp.
Tourmaline Sunangel
Long-tailed Sylph
Tryian Metaltail
Bronzy Inca
Buff-winged Starfrontlet
Sword-billed Hummingbird
Buff-tailed Coronet
Chestnut-breasted Coronet
Fawn-breasted Brilliant
White-bellied Woodstar
Masked Trogon
Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan
Golden-olive Woodpecker
Powerful Woodpecker
Azara’s Spinetail
Rufous Spinetail
Spotted Barbtail
Pearled Treerunner
Olive-backed Woodcreeper
Montane Woodcreeper
Long-tailed Antbird
Chestnut-crowned Antpitta
White-bellied Antpitta
White-crested Elaenia
White-banded Tyrannulet
Sulphur-bellied Tyrannulet
Torrent Tyrannulet
Golden-faced Tyrannulet
Streak-necked Flycatcher
Rufous-breasted Flycatcher
Pale-edged Flycatcher
Golden-crowned Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Barred Becard (Heard, not seen)
Black-billed Peppershrike
Brown-capped Vireo
Turquoise Jay
Inca Jay
Blue-and-white Swallow
Brown-bellied Swallow
Southern Rough-winged Swallow
White-capped Dipper
Mountain Wren
Rufous Wren
Gray-breasted Wood-Wren
Plain-tailed Wren
Pale-eyed Thrush
Glossy-black Thrush
Black-eared Hemispingus
Gray-hooded Bush Tanager
Common Bush Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Palm Tanager
Hooded Mountain-Tanager
Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager
Golden-eared Tanager
Beryl-spangled Tanager
Saffron-crowned Tanager
Golden Tanager
Blue-backed Conebill
Capped Conebill
Rufous-collared Sparrow
Yellow-browed Sparrow
Slate-throated Whitestart
Spectacled Whitestart
Black-crested Warbler
Russet-crowned Warbler
Three-striped Warbler
Russet-backed Oropendola
Subtropical Cacique
Olivaceous Siskin
Thick-billed Euphonia
White-sided Flowerpiercer
Bluish Flowerpiercer
Masked Flowerpiercer

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Project Puffin | Stratton Island (Part V)

How to Recognize Feeding Patters among Terns

    A major aspect of studying seabirds is understanding how they feed. Terns feed by diving head first into schools of fish, their tail (normally shaped like a dark wedge) folded in. As I neared a blind about to embark on a "feeding study," the standard protocol rushed through my mind. The standard time for one feeding study is 3 hours. The birder has to stay as concealed as possible while watching 4-6 nests at a time. Both time duration and quantity of nests pose stress, but the hardest part of conducting a feeding study is recording data while birding.
A researcher in a blind on Eggrock
  The data I focused on primarily concerned the arrival time of the adult providing food for its nest, the nest number and amount of chicks, which adult was providing prey, which chick received the prey, the species of fish and its approximate size compared to the bill (this is recorded as a ratio to the adult's exposed culmen), and finally the departure time of the adult. One of the most challenging things when studying feeding patters was undoubtably eyeballing the species of fish while looking at the nest. Given that 1-3 hyper chicks are vying for a meal, and that the adult spends an average of 3 seconds of deliberating before handing over the fish to one of its offspring. Here are some tips I discovered for ID-ing fish species on-the-go:

Herring (the most nutricious prey for developing hatchlings)

  • Blue/grey countershading
  • Superior mouth
  • Forked caudal fin


To a beginner looks like an oversized Herring but here are more specific ID tips:
  • Smaller scales than the Herring/smoother look
  • Larger than Herring and Hake
  • Stiff body
  • Forked caudal fin
  • Blue countershading
  • Caudal peduncle is often narrower 

Credit: Project Puffin

  • Silver countershading
  • Mouth terminal
  • Caudal fin appears to be pointed
  • Terminal mouth
  • Other fins collapse toward the body more than Herring or other small prey

Sand Lance (the easiest fish to ID)
  • Fusiliform body
  • Hangs especially limply in bird's beak
  • Caudal fin is forked in water, but collapses when carried through air: looks pointed
  • Juveniles are translucent
  • Adults have silver counter
  • Mouth is superior

Pollock (sometimes Pollack)
  • Copper/Reddish countershading
  • Indented caudal fin
  • Mouth terminal
  • Two anal fins
  • Three dorsal fins
Butterfish (the least nutritious prey, also the hardest to swallow)
  • Oval body from the side
  • Compressiform body
  • Silver countershading
  • Forked caudal fin

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Project Puffin | Stratton Island (Part IV)

Adventures in the colony. 

    A cool wet breeze soothed my already defecated-on body. A Earlier that morning the sun rose, and my dark green tent started to get hot. I had crawled out, still new to navigating the small polyester portal. Holding my boots in hand, I headed over to base for a tough day ahead. There, my supervisor explained that we had to work in the colony immediately, since the vegetation had just dried and it was still early.
Data needed on specific nests at various blinds/zones between blinds
    An uproar of gawking, clicking, ear-tearing high toned squeals emerged as hundreds of Terns flew up and began to encircle us. Intrigued, I made the mistake of looking up and gazing at the cloud of grey and white. I didn't yet know that Terns were capable of aiming their excretions at predators. They were especially talented at hitting taller ones. Looking forward, I realized that the two interns formerly adjacent to me had continued towards a fenced plot--the productivity study.

    Rushing to catch up, I dodged my way through the rocky crags of one of Maine's "beautiful" beaches. Slipping, turning, often sliding down colossal boulders, I caught up with the group. In a field of flags, fences, plots, and construed wedges (housing protection for older chicks), pandemonium ruled the day. The youths/juveniles who are usually enthusiastic about running around the perimeter of their nesting area, snatching whatever fish they can get from their siblings or parents, hid themselves They had begun banding. Before my work at Project Puffin, I'd only really had experience banding ADULT Loons, whose 2 inch foot diameter required two large bands--one metal, and one plastic. Here on Stratton, I had to put one tiny metal band around the leg of a Tern chick.

    As I got in place, my supervisor greeted  me with a gleeful "Ah you've showed up" and proceeded to hand me a set of banding pliers, the numbered BBL band, and a chick from nest 6. As a relatively tall male in size 11 boots, sitting down in a 5x5 meter plot littered with eggs, chicks, and deceptively hidden nests posed a knee-straining challenge to say the least. There are several different methods of banding depending on the species of Tern we were working with. The only species islanders that are not licensed as supervisors can band are Least Terns and COTEs. My first banding practice was on a 2 day old Common Tern hatchling. Chicks of 3-5 days would already make calls to its parents in distress, nibbling at a bander's fingers and angrily flapping the fluffy stumps that would in a few weeks become fledged wings. As the chicks grow, their apparent hunger breeds aggression and an eagerness to beg for food from a variety of adults--even passing Terns.

    When working with a recently hatched bird, one of the first things you notice is the rubber texture of the chick's physical structure. Coated in a layer of brown, spotted fluff, Tern hatchlings feel like a durable alloy. As it turns out, chicks can take quite a bit of stretching and abuse; we were careful and gentle while banding, but while "resighting" bands, I've seen 2-day hatchlings accomplish incredible feats: from swallowing a Bluefish 2.5x an adult's bill length to basically doing an accidental summersault in place. Therefore, a bander should prioritize placing the band correctly and securely over constantly worrying about the chick you're gripping--it'll be fine. The banding pliers have five holes, increasing in diameter. Once you have the band in the fore grip (next to the first hole), I found it helpful to tighten the band until it's almost pinching the chick; this will help seal the band, now shaped like a partially open ellipse. To entirely close the band, just move it to the third hole (for Common Tern chicks) and tighten.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Project Puffin | Stratton Island (Part III)

   Onto the colony. But before I explain my experience leading up to a visit in various Tern nest sites on Stratton, I thought it would be worthwhile reviewing some Tern history, and why I decided to devote some time to studying and protecting them. 
   Terns have been hunted, harassed, and persecuted for centuries. The birds' delicate sea-gray, ebony, and brilliant white feathers have enticed hunters since pre-Columbian America. Native Americans along the Atlantic Coast collected Tern eggs in significant quantities. Moreover, they took Tern feathers for aesthetic decorations. Terns were shot for their feathers in far greater quantities in the nineteenth century, however. To quantify the impact of such shootings, let's look at regions of Massachusetts. In 1890, Nantucket's main beach hosted about 100,000 nesting Terns. Many locals boasted of the their neighbors whose wide variety of tonal calls could be heard from far off. This was subject to chance. In a matter of two decades, Massachusettes' total Tern population dropped to about 5,000 COTE pairs. Contemporary accounts correlate this decline to increased shootings and hunting escapades. While I recognize the statistical dangers of attributing change to only correlation, the  rise in popular and frequently commercial shootings of the late nineteenth century clearly explains at least a significant decline in shorebird populations. 
   Although Common Terns rebounded effectively after the onslought of the 18 and early 1900s, their counterparts, the Roseate Tern saw troubling population decline and habitat status. Roseates by their nature are less resiliant and adaptable than COTEs. They rely on rocky shores of uninhabited beaches (most often on islands) for homes. To an inexperienced birder, it's particularly easy to overlook and mistake a Roseate for a Common Tern. ROSTs nest under crags, bits of debris or driftwood, and among low vegetation, placing their eggs in the shade of miniature caves. Nesting in the middle of Common Tern colonies, Roseate populations have become increasingly concentrated in fewer, greater colonies, Dr. Nisbet explains in a report for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Currently they number at  3,000 pairs at best. Here in coastal Maine, where a large population of all four NE Terns or "medricks" (as locals endearingly call them) breed, the bird has seen improvements the protection of its habitat.
   And there I was on Stratton tightening my "Tern hat," a blue baseball cap sprinkled with white residue and flanked by a duct-taped wooden stake (a target for dive-bombing medricks). 

   Swishing wings, shrieks, a white plume of nervous Terns arises as I walk past Team Tower to a productivity plot. The plot I was visiting was covered in a 5x5 synthetic carpet to test COTEs' versatility in laying nests. The nests I was approaching were randomly selected as a part of the study. 
   When going into the colony the first thing you notice is a nervous tension from the birds nesting in the periphery. Anxious readiness to peck, defend, or fly off lingers in the air. The next thing that becomes apparent is a Tern's tendency to act together and unity under a mutual threat. It takes one Tern to give a distress call (often a RIK-tik-RIK-tik clicking repititon) and trigger a clamoring multitude to fly up and scout out the (apparent) predator. 
   Seeing that this is about to happen:
   I will break and describe how field work happens regarding productivity checks, banding, etc. next time. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Project Puffin | Stratton Island (Part II)

   Around noon the following day, I arrived on the rocky shores of Stratton from a layover at Prout's Neck. Upon setting foot on shore I was immediately "dive-bombed" by furious Common Terns (COTEs). I looked around the island before going to camp and meeting up with the team. Across a narrow strait from LETE beach rests Bluff Island, a rocky structure only a few feet above sea level, sprinkled with bits and pieces of shrubbery. A seeminly irrelevant isle, Bluff island proved critical in our studies since it hosts a significant gull (predators if Tern) population. 

   After looking over the island's neighboring areas, I walked with Kristina, my supervisor to camp. Flinging excited laughter, small talk, and heavy gear over our shoulders, we pursued a narrow trail into the more woody heart of Stratton. I was given a half hour to unpack and pitch my tent before I would be taken to the "Visitor's Blind," one of the island's viewing blinds, to practice sighting nesting COTEs. 
   As I pitched my tent--an activity I was rather unaccustomed to doing as a jaded NYC birder--the afternoon sun went in behind some clouds leaving me in a newfound shadow. But in this brief moment of desparation a high light melodious symphony liberated me. My tent was surrounded by Common Yellowthroats and Yellow Warblers singing in the trebles. Catbirds and Common Grackles hit the mid-ranged notes, and to top it all off, a family of Common Eider gawked nature's bassline mere feet from my tent. 
   When I unpacked successfully, I rushed towards Visitor's blind. Upon arriving, I encountered Kristina already waiting for me in the two-person wooden shelter. Together we watched swarms of Terns flying rapidly to their mates who were then incubating eggs. As it turns out, Audubon had been monitoring randomized sites across the colony. Productivity and feeding studies were conducted from several blinds: Team Tower, Watcho Hannafuda, Little Big, the "Porta-Blind," and other miscellaneous shelters. 

   As I took in the incredible quantity of Common Terns resting and flying only feet in front of me, Kristina and I went over some of the specific methods for protecting the colonies. For starters, there was Tern Habitat management: constructing makeshift wooden habitats and housing for mostly Least, Arctic, and Common Terns. Interns build wooden wedge shaped shelters for chicks amd adults to hide from predators. Roseates, which require stone inlets surrounded by COTEs for protection, recieved rock caves built from beach rocks. Tern management also includes more rigorous duties of which I have more experience. Chick banding becomes increasingly important in June, when most begin to hatch. These chicks are banded in productivity checks and banding sessions almost every morning and afternoon. Interns and the supervisor go into designated areas of the colonies and visit flagged nests, reading out that status amd number of each egg found. By status I mean the condition of the egg: its color, if it's "starring," or whether the chick within is "pipping," a.k.a. poking it's way out of the egg. 

   Moreover, Tern population protection extends to predator management, my supervisor explained. The primary predators we would deal with were gulls: Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, and occasionally the Laughing Gull. Tern populations on Stratton and other islands studies like Seal, Outer Green, have chronically suffered from overexplpitation and habitat loss. Predatory gulls will consume multiple youths, chicks, and eggs of nesting Terns. Methods we use on Stratton to manage the overpowering population of surrounding gulls includes egg-poking, shooting of nesting adults, nest destruction, and dissuasion by "gull walks." In 2013, the 6 Herring Gull and 7 GBBG nests that were destroyed marked a 45% and 63% decline, respectively, in nests destroyed the previous year. Furthermore, the total number of gull nests destroyed on Stratton, Little Stratton, and Bluff island decreased on net since 2007, indicating clear success in reducing the number of nesting gulls. 
   Later that afternoon I met the three other members of my team, all were either still in college or recent grads. As one of them explained, "Just wait until you get inside the colonies tomorrow. That'll make this the camping experience of a lifetime." I found out the next day that she had a point. Taking notes, calling out egg numbers, banding chicks, weighing and measuring hatchlings, and trying not to step on the minefield of nests around my size 11 boots was alltogether a rude awakening to what i would be studying for the next few weeks. 


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Project Puffin | Stratton Island (Part I)

   On Friday June 13, I left New York for a chance to explore places and birds in Maine. Arriving at Portland in the morning, I met up with an Audubon office manager who drove me to the "base" of Project Puffin two hours north of The airport. I was to stay at the base for two days because of inclement weather (constant showers) and rough seas for rowing to Stratton (4-5 foot waves). My beginning, albeit anticlimactic, would prepare me for one of the most intense and rewarding bird expeditions of my career.
   At base I met Rose Borzik, the Associate Director of the Seabird Restoration Program at Project Puffin, as well as Paula Shannon, the Project's Seabird Sanctuary Manager. In the base's attic--where I was staying--we reviewed both where I was working, and whom I would be helping.  

As planned, I was headed to Stratton, an island in Saco Bay, roughly 1.5 miles (2.4 km) south of Prout's Neck, Maine. Rose and Paula fuether explained that the island supports an incredibly diverse habitat for a northern relatively small island. The varying 24 acre habitat hosts a multitude of migratory and resident bird species. Most relevant to Project Puffin, Audubon's Seabird Research Project in the Gulf of Maine, Stratton hosts large colonies of four Tern (Sterna and Sternula) species Common, Roseate, Arctic, and Least in its rocky shores. 
Stratton also has a pygmy forest heronry which hosts an assembly of nesting waders. In the middle of the island lies a freshwater pond which offers shelter to several species of ducks like Mallard, Green-winged Teal, Blue-winged Teal, Black Duck. 
   After discussing the island's topography and unique characteristics, we went over research history--details about my work would be discovered on the island under my supervisor, Kristina. As it turned out, Tern restoration efforts began on Stratton in 1986. Although numbers of Common Terns and Roseates appeared to be increasing and stabilizing healthily, an unknown avian disease known as "The Funk" and increased predation by Black Crowned Night Herons and Mink drastically reduced population numbers and productivity in colonies. In 2005 only 156 pairs of COTEs and 2 pairs of the Endangered ROSTs remained. 
   During the Tern breeding season 3-6 Audubon researchers work at Stratton, collecting data and managing a variety of other conservation projects. By Sunday the 15th, I would land on Stratton, my posessions soaking in brine and bird feces. The trip had begun. 


Friday, April 18, 2014

Two Articles

Two fascinating bird stories trending across social media these daysthought I'd post both... The first story initially reported by BBC, describes a 13-year-old girl in Mongolia who hunts with a Golden Eagle. The Kazakh eagle hunters of the Altai mountain range, are allegedly the only people in the world hunt by training Golden Eagles to kill and gather species of fox and other small mammals. Kazakhs go out to hunt in the rugged steppes when temperatures reach a low of -40C. Eagle hunting is a Kazakh tradition that dates back thousands of years. Currently only 350 hunters keep the practice alive.

The second interesting article I noticed was trending on Facebook; it confirms Crows' ability to solve puzzles/problems with tools. Researcher, biologist, and conservationist James Gorman, basis his research on an ancient Greek or Ethiopian (Nubian Kummaji) fabulist: Aesop. Gorman set out to see if Crows could really drop stones into a water container in order to raise the water level to an accessible height. Recent research in fact confirms that Aesop's fable holds some truth to it. New Caledonian Crows  studied could in fact use stones to raise the water level in several tubes to grab a piece of floating food. Furthermore, the Crows tested utilized sinking (over floating) objects to raise the water level; they could also distinguish between hollow and entirely solid objects. The hypothesis: that the Crows need to visualize the cause and effect of dropping these objects into hollow tubes of water held, since they couldn't apply buoyancy principle to non-transparent tubular containers of water.