Friday, July 17, 2015

Summer Hummingbirds and other things

After returning from our week in North Carolina (and other states), preparations were made to begin a summer of banding hummingbirds, as I've been doing for 15 years now. Between June 15 and July 15, more than 300 hummingbirds were banded at 20 locations in southeastern and south-central Michigan. Some places, like our own yard here in Inkster, have low activity. But the places that are always busy, have a lot of hummers this summer as expected. 
Hatch-year female Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Rather unexpected was capturing a very young, very recently fledged (based on short bill, tail, and wings), female (based on the shape of her 6th primary) on the early date of July 3. She was among a large number of adults banded at a wonderful site near Augusta in Kalamazoo County. Around the 4th of July, there should be large numbers of hummingbirds fledging in southern Michigan. When the females arrive in mid-May they begin building nests (alone), which takes a week to 10 days. After that, they lay eggs and incubate them (alone) for 14 days. Then the nestlings take 18-22 days to fledge (females alone feeding them). One cool, wet summer a few years ago two nestlings did not fledge until they were 29 days old. But over the years, the average date when we first capture a hatch-year bird is July 25, with the earliest around the 16th or 18th, and by then their bill, wings, and tail are fully grown. 

video

At our site near Constantine, St. Joseph County, we were anticipating another good banding session since we have always had a lot of birds here since Rich and Brenda "discovered" this site in 2012. With the help of our new bander, Amy Wilms, from Indiana and her capable assistant Mike, along with a team from the Kalamazoo Nature Center, we banded 160 hummingbirds in 3 hours, and also recaptured 39 returning from previous years. The video above shows one small area where the homeowner hangs feeders, but does not really give a good idea of how many hummingbirds are visiting this property.

Hatch-year Tree Swallow
Other projects this summer have included banding nestling Tree Swallows at Lake St. Clair Metropark, Macomb County (see photo above). The nest boxes are adjacent to an area that is being investigated as a new banding site in the park, after the old site (used for 20 years) was flooded out last year with the success of the marsh restoration program. During June, 18 nestling Tree Swallows were banded from 3 nest boxes. And later in July, another nest box containing perhaps 4 young will be banded. Attempts to capture and band adults were unsuccessful.

Summer is also the season of bugs (insects), but it has been surprising so far how few mosquitos and deer flies there have been, considering how wet and rainy it has been. Perhaps the cool conditions (we have not had a 90 degree day yet) have been keeping their numbers down? Driving back and forth to hummingbird banding sites, I often stop at rest areas along the freeway and check the walls for moths. Again, there haven't been very many so far, but among them was this interesting species, which I've only seen once before. It is a Chestnut-marked Pondweed Moth, about an inch across the wings.
Paraponyx badiusalis
Butterflies have seemed to be more numerous this summer than last summer, and the butterfly count that I participated in at Seven Ponds Nature Center, Lapeer County, found good numbers of Hairstreaks and Skippers, but for the third year in a row, no Monarch. A surprise, in my own driveway in Inkster, was this Tawny Emperor that landed on the car tail light when we were unloading groceries in our driveway.
Asterocampa clyton
And finally, an interesting beetle was presented to me at a home where I was banding hummingbirds. It was a species I was not familiar with, but thanks to a new book on beetles (Beetles of Eastern North America by Arthur V. Evans, 2014, Princeton University Press), I was able to identify it as a non-native Scarab, the Asiatic Garden Beetle.
Maladera castanea
It has a similar size and shape to the destructive Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica), and apparently has been in the northeastern U.S. since the 1920s, but range maps do not show it quite reaching southeastern Michigan (see link here). Perhaps an unfortunate range expansion (see link here)? Or maybe I've misidentified it? Opinions are welcome on this.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Seabirding and interesting plants

On Friday, June 5 I arrived at the marina in Hatteras at 5:15 a.m. for a pelagic birding trip with Brian Patteson. Unlike the very popular trips in May, this trip only had 8 participants plus 5 crew, which included Steve Howell as our seabird spotting and identification expert. During the trip, he imparted quite a lot of great information on molt and identification, and it was an honor to meet him in person. Soon after leaving the harbor, we were out on the open ocean, and our views differed little during the day from the photo below.
Southeast of Hatteras, North Carolina













Several miles out, we began encountering flying fish, and I tried my hand at photographing them, with a little success. This one is an Atlantic Patchwing.
Atlantic Patchwing













As we approached the Continental Shelf edge, about 27 miles offshore, the water depth changed from about 200 feet to 800 feet, then off the edge dropped quickly to 6000 feet. In this area of upwelling gulfstream currents, we began seeing seabirds. Among the first to arrive, and with us the whole time we were in deep water, were Wilson's Storm-Petrels. They were drawn in by "chumming", a mixture if fish guts and oil that these birds can smell from long distances. Most birds have a poor sense of smell, but seabirds depend on being able to detect their food by smell. Easily over 150 photos of these storm-petrels were taken, most of which were deleted as the motion of the boat made photography difficult.
Wilson's Storm-Petrels













These thrush-sized birds with a wingspan similar to a small tern, have long legs with yellow webs between their toes, seem to dance over the surface of the water.
Wilson's Storm-Petrel












Wilson's Storm-Petrel














Most of them were heavily molting, but a few appeared to be in fairly fresh plumage.
Molting Wilson's Storm-Petrel












Molting Wilson's Storm-Petrel













Molting Wilson's Storm-Petrel













Molting Wilson's Storm-Petrel














A few Band-rumped Storm-Petrels were seen, but all were only in view briefly and I was not able to get any photos. One of the specialties of the gulfstream is Black-capped Petrel, easily identified by its bold black-and-white pattern below, and bold white rump above.
Black-capped Petrel













They nest in the West Indies, and are not very common. Recent studies in the Dominican Republic have located nests of the buff-necked form, which was also in fresh plumage; apparently not molting.
Black-capped Petrel













The nesting areas of the more frequently encountered (at sea) white-necked form are not known, if I'm remembering what Steve Howell said correctly. It is also notable that they were showing wing molt. Such differences other places in the world have resulted in separating these populations into different species. So, are there two species here?
Black-capped Petrel













Several Great Shearwaters were also seen, which included adults with obvious wing molt shown by the outermost primaries being worn, and recently arrived "juveniles" with all their primaries clean and fresh. The bold pattern on the under side is superficially similar to the Black-capped Petrel, but note the dark belly of the Great Shearwater.
Adult Great Shearwater













The all black cap, white cheeks, and throat help distinguish the Great Shearwater from the also-common Cory's Shearwater.
Great Shearwater












Juvenile Great Shearwater













Juvenile Great Shearwater












Juvenile Great Shearwater














The second most common species we encountered, after the Wilson's Storm-Petrels, were Cory's Shearwaters. They looked bigger than the Great Shearwaters, and were browner overall with a pale bill and brownish on the crown and cheeks.
Cory's Shearwater












Cory's Shearwater













Cory's Shearwater














Probably the best photo of the day was the one below, of a Cory's Shearwater that came in close behind the boat.
Cory's Shearwater













But a good friend, and outstanding photographer, Dave Stimac might prefer the photo below as he seems to like birds in unconventional poses.
Cory's Shearwater













As with the Black-capped Petrels, there were two "types" of Cory's Shearwater seen. Those nesting on the Azores and surrounding islands are the most often encountered in North American waters. They are larger, with thicker bills, and most importantly, the undersides of their primaries are all black.
Cory's Shearwater













The ones nesting in the Mediterranean are called Scopoli's Shearwater, and may soon be considered a separate species. They are slightly smaller, with a thinner bill, and whitish on the inner webs of the outer primaries.
Cory's (Scopoli's) Shearwater












Cory's (Scopoli's) Shearwater














I was very lucky to get the photo below, which shows both types for an excellent comparison.
Scopoli's (left) and Cory's Shearwaters













We came back ashore in time for dinner. It was a rough trip, though there were only 4-6 foot swells, and several of us suffered from seasickness, though I only had one "event", after which everything was fine.

After a good night's rest, on Saturday June 6 we headed back inland, and south, to an area we visited back in January. On the way, we stopped again on Roanoake Island as there had been recent reports from the salt marshes there of Black Rail. As usual, we failed to find them, but did encounter some other interesting things, including orange species of milkwort and milkweed. The Butterfly Milkweed looked different in form from what we see in Michigan in most areas.
Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)













Orange Milkwort (Polygala lutea)















In this same area, several dragonflies were easily seen as they attempted to land on us. They appear to be Seaside Dragonlet.
Seaside Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax berenice)














South of Wilmington, we stopped in at Carolina Beach State Park, where in January we'd found a few Venus Flytraps. This time, it was easier, and there were more to find, as they were blooming. The flowers were on rather large stalks for the size of the leaves.
Venus Flytrap leaves














Venus Flytrap in flower



















Venus Flytrap flowers














Around another part of the trail, we encountered a really nice bunch of Golden Trumpets, a species of pitcher plant that is also carnivorous.
Golden Trumpets













Golden Trumpets














Adjacent to the marina area in the park, we were told there was a bird feeding area where Painted Buntings could be seen. We waited there for a few minutes...it started to rain of course, then a male Painted Bunting started singing nearby. Then a female came to the feeder, followed by a second one. A second male was singing farther along the shoreline, and the closer male came into the feeder. Spectacular! In the woodlands around the marina, there were two additional males singing. This is one of only three areas in North Carolina where they breed.

Our final destination of the day, and essentially of the trip, was the Green Swamp Preserve of The Nature Conservancy. Here we walked a trail to a boardwalk choked with shrubbery, looking for carnivorous plants and orchids. In the sandy area in the pine woods there was one orchid, Spring Lady's Tresses. Another target in this habitat was Bachman's Sparrow, which was singing nicely for us.
Spring Lady's Tresses (Spiranthes vernalis)













Just past the boardwalk, the trail opened up and there were blooming Venus Flytraps everywhere. Literally hundreds of them. It was nice to see this, especially since poachers have wiped out so many populations of this range-restricted and now endangered species. Another target here was the Rosebud Orchid, and there were a couple dozen in loose groups.
Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes divaricata)












Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes divaricata)













Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes divaricata)













Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes divaricata)














On our way north to Fayettville for the night, we stopped at a few side roads and eventually found one last target bird, a calling Chuck-will's-widow. From there, it was a long (700 miles) drive back home on Sunday, June 7.


Now the summer will be spent banding hummingbirds, until our next planned trip in late August. Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Here we go again

Allen's quest for my 700th ABA bird species has entailed a significant effort to find a Black Rail this year. Our first attempt to see this species was in 1978, in Florida, where we checked two or three locations without even hearing one. In the 37 years since, we have made at least two other attempts to find it in Florida, as well as attempts other years in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland (twice), Texas (3 times), Kansas, California, and Colorado. In January this year, we failed to find one at 5 locations in Florida, and in March we failed to find one at two locations in Texas. Yes, a real jinx bird for us. This trip was planned during the best time of year to hear them calling, and we had sites in New Jersey, Maryland, and North Carolina to try.

On Sunday, May 31, we left home in the rain. Weather maps suggested that the rain would stop when we got east of Toledo, Ohio, but it did not. We had hard rain, interspersed with torrential rain, most of the way across Pennsylvania, where we stopped in Harrisburg for the night. The next morning, June 1, we wound our way between Philadelphia and Wilmington into southern New Jersey. It was still raining, but there were at least brief periods when it was lighter or not raining at all. Our intent was to stay in Millville, but since it was early we went to the Atlantic coast and drove around the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge (formerly Bringantine). There were lots of waterbirds and shorebirds (see checklist here), but the best bird photo taken there was of a Blue Grosbeak along the dikes.
Male Blue Grosbeak













A nice surprise was seeing a species of turtle we'd never seen before. Apparently, it was egg-laying time for the Diamondback Terrapins, a species that is found only in salt and brackish marshes. We saw more than a dozen of them, many right in the road.
Diamondback Terrapin












Diamondback Terrapin













Diamondback Terrapin














We returned to Millville and got a room, then went southeast to some salt marshes to look for Black Rails in the afternoon and early evening. The rain had held off most of the time we were at the wildlife refuge, but it was light and intermittent this afternoon. At the start of the Stipson Island Road, we found an Eastern Box Turtle in the road; not the first one of the trip.
Eastern Box Turtle













At the end of the road, a small group of Black Skimmers was fishing up and down a channel until dusk.
Black Skimmer












Black Skimmer













Black Skimmer













Black Skimmer














Finally, after trying for over an hour, we heard a Black Rail. We were waiting for the typical vocalization, "ki-kee-doo", but instead we heard what is called the growl call. What a relief after all these years to finally at least hear one! Now we'll have to keep trying. We headed back to our motel in Millville, and it started raining torrentially fairly soon after we left the marsh, and continued all the way back.

The morning of Tuesday, June 2 was overcast and raining only very lightly. We discovered that we had damaged something on our front wheel well when we drove through a deep puddle last night, and rather quickly that part fell off. We were going to have to get to a Toyota dealer to get it fixed today. We stopped again at the Stipson Island Road, and after about a half hour heard what was probably the same Black Rail give a few growl calls from the same area of the marsh. But it wasn't showing itself, or giving any other calls, so we moved on. We took the ferry from Cape May, New Jersey to Lewes, Delaware, which was unexpectedly expensive ($47). It seems like the last time we took it (1981?) it was only about ten bucks. We did a little birding along the Atlantic coast in Delaware, with intermittent rain, and then headed into Maryland where the only decent photo was of these Purple Martins in Ocean City.
Purple Martins













We headed away from the seashore, where we found a Toyota dealer in Salisbury. It only took about two hours, and cost less than $60 for them to reattach the wheel well guard, and we were on our way. A very well known location for Black Rails was Elliott Island Road, west of Salisbury, where in years past many of them were recorded. In recent years (including May of this year), only a single bird has been detected there. We did hear a single Virginia Rail and many Seaside Sparrows,, but no Black Rail (full bird list here). And it was raining. The video below, showing a rainy road in the foreground and calling Green Treefrogs, tells the whole story of this 20 mile long road.
video

We went back to Salisbury for the night.

On Wednesday, June 3, we headed south down the Delmarva Peninsula, stopping at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Of course it was raining off and on, but we tried to walk part of the loop road anyway. There were a lot of shorebirds around (full bird list here), but the most photogenic may have been these American Oystercatchers.
American Oystercatchers












American Oystercatchers














Our trip was capped off there by a sighting of the endemic subspecies, the Delmarva Fox Squirrel.
Delmarva Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger cinereus)













Continuing south, we crossed over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which can often be very good for birds. Not today though. And it was still raining lightly. We did stop in at the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, which was a really nice place, with good forest and swamps.
Great Dismal Swamp, Virginia














Along one of the walking trails, we encountered a Black Bear. We turned around immediately, and the bear went the opposite direction thankfully. It was starting to rain again anyway...
Black Bear at Great Dismal Swamp, Virginia














One of the birds we wanted to find here was Swainson's Warbler, which we succeeded in doing, and it can be heard singing sweetly in the video below (the louder bird is a Tufted Titmouse).
video

From there, we continued south to Williamstown, North Carolina for the night.

Our plans for Wednesday, June 3 were altered as we did not get as far into North Carolina as we had wanted to. So instead we decided to head east to the Outer Banks where we needed to be this evening anyway. Along the way, we stopped at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, which had a network of roads that had lots of birds, especially Prothonotary Warblers (full bird list here). At one point we encountered a snake basking in the middle of the road (there was actually a little sun today, with only very sparse light rain). It turned out to be a Cottonmouth, and a very brightly marked one at that.
Cottonmouth












Cottonmouth












Cottonmouth















A bit farther on, we saw another one swimming in a ditch. This one was more typical in coloration, being very dark, almost black.
Cottonmouth














Other wildlife along these roads included no less than THREE Black Bears, one of which was very close to the road.
Black Bear












Black Bear














From here we crossed east to Roanoake Island, where Allen's ancestor's had colonized centuries ago (his great grandfather's last name was Raleigh). And then down the Outer Banks to the town of Buxton where we had a room reserved for two nights. Tomorrow, Allen goes out with a birding group by boat out of Hatteras, beyond the Continental Shelf, in search of some possible new birds that we didn't see in the same area in 1995.