Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Spitting Spider Spotted

For a guy who's into nature, I deplore spiders. Actually, I don't really have anything against their existence, I'm just terrified of them. What is it that makes a spider repulsive, yet makes a beetle or dragonfly alluring?

The other day I opened the shower curtain of our much less frequently used second shower and discovered a very interesting arachnid just above the overflow drain. Its markings were unfamiliar, but very interesting.

I'm washing. Do you mind?

I browsed around BugGuide for a while, but didn't have much luck. Actually, I didn't know where to begin. So, I posted an ID request and quickly got an answer (how awesome is that site!). The fellow above is a male Spitting Spider in the genus Scytodes - probably Scytodes thoracica. They get their name from their ability to spit a sticky "glue" from their modified jaws. When they shoot the fluid, they move in a "Z" pattern in order to cover their prey completely. The viscous silk immobilizes their prey and the spider feasts on its bounty. Wild! Some videos of these guys in action can be found here (I had some trouble playing it). Unfortunately, I never got to see this guy in action. He's living elsewhere now.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Webb's Mill Bog Walk

This weekend must have been "bog weekend." Laura, from Somewhere in NJ, posted a report and some great pics from Webb's Mill Bog, located in the Pine Barrens of NJ. Beth and I also visited this location yesterday. Webb's Mill is the most accessible place in NJ to see unique plants such as Pitcher Plants, Sundews, Bladderworts, and several rare orchids. The prime time to go is in late June or early July, but this time of year is full of pleasantries in its own right.

Webb's Mill Bog

Beth and I had been planning to visit here for a long time and we finally made it down. The bog is accessible due to the existence of a terrific boardwalk that lets you get close to the habitat without disturbing it. Upon entering the bog, we quickly discovered Pitcher Plants and the only orchid of the day - Arethusa (aka Dragon's Mouth). The Arethusa were a little too far away to get descent pics. Among the sphagnum moss, we quickly found the three species of sundew: Thread-leaved Sundew, Spatulate-leaved Sundew, and Round-leaved Sundew. We had some trouble separating the latter two, but I think we saw both. None of them had flowers yet, but they should relatively soon.

Pitcher Plant Flower

Thread-leaved Sundew

Interesting shrubs abound in the bog. Sheep Laurel, Leatherleaf, Highbush Blueberry, and Swamp Azalea are all over the place. The Sheep Laurel are just beginning to bud and we managed to find one in bloom. Leatherleaf just finished blooming and some Blueberry bushes had flower buds and one or two had flowers (one even had some young berries).

Sheep Laurel in bloom

The dominant tree here is the Atlantic White Cedar. At one time covering a good portion of NJ, this tree is now restricted to a few areas of the state. Pitch Pine and Black Jack Oak round out the dominant trees.

Bird-wise we heard Pine Warblers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, lots of Common Yellowthroats, and Blue-winged Warbler among the more common birds. On the entomology front, we observed several Odonates including White Corporal, Blue Corporal, Common Whitetail, and Pine Barrens Bluet. Pine Barrens Bluet is a damselfly endemic to the pine barrens habitat.

Thanks to Beth for taking the pictures while I was hunting dragonflies. We can't wait to go back and we plan to before the end of June.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

New Family Members

Meet Amelia (left) and Roger (right):

Beth won a gift certificate for a free parakeet a few months ago. Yesterday, we finally redeemed that gift certificate. We waited a while in order to have warm weather for transportation and so we could learn as much about having parakeets as possible. We learned that they like to have companions, so we got two. The place we bought them from is a breeder with a really nice store in East Brunswick. They had all sorts of baby parrots. The conservationist side of me feels some guilt as to the original origins of these species. Our parakeets ancestors were probably brought over to the US a long time ago, but there's still some heavy trade in the larger parrot species.

In any event, we've given these parakeets a nice big cage, lots of food, and a bunch of toys to play with. They're a bit nervous around us now and they just sort of sit there. We handled them a bit yesterday and I got some nice nips on my fingers for it. We had them out and walking on our carpet too. We'll keep you posted on the progress of our "kids."

Friday, May 25, 2007

2007 Grassland Breeding Bird Surveys

It's that time of year again. As a volunteer for NJ Audubon's Citizen Science program, I am conducting surveys of grassland breeding birds. I have the same 9 scattered locations as last year plus 3 new sites on a private farm. The private sites are part of NJ's Landowner Incentive Program. "The Landowner Incentive Program (LIP) is one partnership that can provide private landowners interested in conserving threatened and endangered species on their property with financial and technical assistance. It is the goal of LIP to work with private landowners to protect important habitats so our children and great grandchildren can witness our great conservation efforts." (NJ F&W)

I did my first survey very early this morning. My route doesn't seem to be as productive this year. Last year I had Grasshopper Sparrows at 3 sites and Meadowlarks at 2 sites. I did not record either species today. In 12 locations the only grassland birds I had were 3 Bobolinks across 2 locations. The most productive site from last year was mowed not more than 2-3 days ago and was piled high with hay bales and the only birds I found there were Robins and RW Blackbirds. Very disappointing! Another site that had Grasshopper Sparrows last year was mysteriously devoid of them. I'll be doing a follow-up survey in a few weeks and hopefully they will be there. Perhaps they were just napping today.

On the bright side, all of the locations I surveyed last year still exist today and don't have $1 million+ homes on them.

I'm leading a field trip at Sandy Hook tomorrow so I'll report back later this weekend. Enjoy the holiday. It's going to be beautiful here in NJ!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Yellow-nosed Albatross coming towards NJ?

May 9, 2000 - A Yellow-nosed Albatross is spotted off Buzzard's Bay in Massachusetts (near Martha's Vineyard). On the same day, one is seen near Fire Island, New York.

May 21, 2000 - A Yellow-nosed Albatross flies over the southern coastal portion of New Jersey's Garden State Parkway (not seen by me... I wish!).

May 23, 2000 - Slightly south of the May 21 sighting, one is seen near the Delaware Bayshore

2000-2007 - Several sightings of this species are noted in Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island

April 28, 2007 - An emaciated Yellow-nosed Albatross is found in a cow pasture behind the home of Shelley and Ryan Coite of Cape Neddick, Maine.

This bird has been rehabilitated and was released off Cape Cod on May 21. The albatross was fitted with a transmitter and a web site is in the works to track its movements. Albatrosses cover huge areas. So, could this bird make its way south to NJ? Anything is possible... and it's possible that this bird is the same bird that flew over the Garden State Parkway.

There seems to be much speculation over how many Yellow-nosed Albatrosses have strayed to the northern hemisphere from their traditinal southern haunts. A sub-adult was seen in North Carolina in February 2000 prior to the sightings mentioned above (all adult birds). Those observers documented their findings and have speculated that 4-5 individuals may be roaming the Atlantic. Could the one individual seen near Martha's Vineyard fly to Fire Island, 200+ km away, in one day? There is much to learn about this species' status in the Atlantic. Perhaps the tracking device on the released bird will educate us.

Photo credit: Mike Danzenbaker

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Book Review: The Complete Birder

Birders can argue ad nauseum regarding the "must have" books for any new birder. Aside from preferred field guides, my argument would include several supplemental books. At the top of that supplemental list are Sibley's Birding Basics and Jack Connor's The Complete Birder: A Guide to Better Birding.

Back when I was a fledgling birder, I bought Connor's book for a whopping $4 from a store that was going out of business. What a steal! I read it from cover to cover, but at that time, I didn't appreciate some of the advanced birding tips the author gave. Over the years, I have repeatedly reviewed the book and have learned new things each time.

The Complete Birder covers a range of topics for the beginning and advanced birder. As a beginning birder, the author introduces topics such as bird biology, migration, optics, weather, and feather molt. Connor's friendly and humorous writing makes these sometimes confusing topics very accessible to a beginner. After introducing birders to the "required topics", Connor highlights birding throughout the seasons. He stresses the importance of knowing what birds to expect when. For example, he talks about Catharus thrushes in the winter and how you are most likely going to see a Hermit Thrush vs. any of the others. He also highlights buteos and terns in a similar manner.

As a birder becomes more advanced, the remaining chapters of the book are extremely beneficial. The common challenges of bird identification are given their own chapters: raptors in flight, shorebirds, terns, gulls, and warblers. Here's where Connor's book really shines. Each chapter breaks down these challenges into smaller, manageable chunks - separating shorebirds into "peeps" and "plumps" and by habitat, small vs. medium vs. large terns, etc. Each chapter also features supplemental charts and keys that can be used to separate problem species. For example, he has a key for separating fall Blackpoll and Bay-breasted Warblers. Using a simple list of "yes/no" questions (color of legs, streaking, presence of "bay" on the flanks), he breaks down this difficult id puzzle into simpler terms. He uses similar aids for separating buteos in flight, sorting through shorebirds, and identifying gulls. Comparing this content to Kaufman's Advanced Birding, the text in Connor's book is less technical and more conversational. It doesn't include as many sketches as Kaufman's book does though. (As an aside: I think both are required books for the advanced birder!)

The Complete Birder is a must read for anyone seriously interested in birding. The content covered helps turn a novice birder into a more advanced birder. Connor's conversational writing and humorous anecdotes make it a difficult book to put down. If I have one complaint about the book, it's that it has a slight northeastern slant due to the author's home territory. This doesn't draw away from the rich content included within.

And the fact that you can get this book for less than $2 used on Amazon is awesome...

Let me know if you've read this book and what you think of it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

More World Series Pictures

My buddy, Bob Devlin, has posted some new pics from the Sandy Hook Century Run World Series of Birding day. He includes some great shots of Summer Tanager, Piping Plover, and Savannah Sparrow, among others.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Dreaming of Thrushes

Have you ever heard a sound in your dream and then woke up to discover that the sounds is actually in real life? This happened to me this morning. I can't remember what I was doing in my dream (I usually can't), but I was definitely hearing the song of one of the Catharus thrushes (Gray-cheeked, Bicknell's, Swainson's, Hermit, Veery). I know Veery and Hermit well, but I always confuse the other three. Sure enough, my eyes popped open and I was still hearing the sound! It took me a few moments to realize that I was awake. I jumped out of bed and ripped open our sliding glass door. Sure enough, there was a thrush singing right on the other side of our fence. I was thinking "Swainson's", so I popped open the laptop and verified my thoughts. Sure enough, a Swainson's Thrush was singing in our yard. I've only heard this species once before and it is surely one of the most beautiful songs in North America. It's been my experience that Swainson's, Gray-cheeked, Bicknell's, and Hermit thrushes seldom sing in migration. I hear Veery often singing, but they breed in NJ. Hermits breed in NJ too, but I've never heard them singing off breeding territory. Does anyone have any info on this? I found some allusions to this online, but no distinct scientific info. I did get a brief view of the Swainson's when he perched on our fence. He then took off and was never seen or heard again. Interestingly, I had a Swainson's Thrush last year around this same time perched on the same fence.

Ooh... a Blackpoll just sang outside!

Friday, May 18, 2007

IATB and some puzzling news

Why are groups of seabirds and migratory birds attracted to this contaminated lake?

Also, please check out a very poetic edition of I & The Bird. Dave from Via Negativa put a lot of work into the presentation and the authors of the different writings put in huge efforts too.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Mimicry in Vireos

I love that birding is always a learning experience. If you read the Frontiers of Bird ID mailing list, you may have seen the messages going back and forth regarding mimicry in vireos. Most of us know about mimicry in Mockingbirds, Thrashers, Catbirds, and even Starlings and Blue Jays. I had no idea that vireos were capable of any type of mimicry. Here is an excerpt:

Subject: vireo mimicry
Date: Sun, 13 May 2007 17:26:37 -0700

Tim Spahr's report of a Bell's Vireo song presumably coming from a Warbling Vireo is of interest; I did not run into this specific combination when reviewing vireo songs, so perhaps his will serve as the first known such event. But, what is known is that vireos are excellent mimics and frequently sing all or parts of other species' songs. I assume the songs they mimic are those from their breeding grounds, so it is interesting to ponder the above-mentioned overlap (and subsequent WAVI occurrence in MA on spring migration if it bred near a Bell's Vireo).

I know several examples of vireo mimicry (some of which are documented in BNA accounts, like Yellow-throated and Blue-headed accounts). From personal experience, my favorites are listening to Black-capped Vireos in Hill Country TX where, interspersed in their song are notes from, among others, Acadian Flycatcher, Western Scrub-Jay, etc. One can do the same with White-eyed Vireos; in an almost Mockingbird-fashion, listen to vireo songs and determine how many notes are coming from other species. OK, perhaps I need a life.

Matt Heindel
Carlsbad, CA

Very interesting indeed!

You Don't Bring Me (Organic) Flowers...

Something to consider when sending flowers to a loved one:

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

BirdForum Opus

BirdForum, the very popular birding message board, has launched its "Opus". This site is a wiki-driven encyclopedia of birds, bird song, birding/photography equipment, and birding locations. I browsed through it briefly and I found that it's filled with a lot of great information on birding worldwide. There is an entry, or at least a stub, for all the birds of the world. The location section is heavily European right now, but that's to be expected since BirdForum is a European site.

There is also WikiBird, another Wiki birding site. It doesn't seem to have as much information as the Opus and seems to be more US-focused.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Some pics of the Rosella

Here are some pictures of the probable Eastern Rosella that we found on Sandy Hook during the World Series of Birding. Thanks to Bob Devlin for the pics.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

World Series of Birding Recap

The weather was splendid and the birds were plentiful for the 24th annual World Series of Birding. The Sandy Hook Century Run team, led by senior naturalist Scott Barnes, associate naturalist Linda Mack, and me, racked up a very respectable tally of 126 species from 5:30 AM to 9:00 PM. We had one of the biggest groups for the Century Run's history with around 30 participants. Extra credit goes to the 12 hardy folks who stuck around until the very end.

We started the morning birding "Plum Island", which is more of a peninsula than an island, where we found birds such as Solitary Sandpiper, Common Loon, Clapper Rail, Willet, and Oystercatcher. We then quickly headed to the far north end of Sandy Hook, which is a good migrant trap. We found a few small pockets of warblers, tons of orioles, tons of Yellow Warblers, and a small handful of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. The oddest find of the day was a large escaped parrot, which was most likely an Eastern Rosella from Australia.

What the heck am I doing here? (pic from Wiki)

We did some more woodland birding where we found perhaps our "best" bird of the day - 2-3 Summer Tanagers in various plumages. They put on quite a show, at times being joined by small groups of Scarlet Tanagers. The trees looked like they were covered in Christmas ornaments. We also added some additional warblers to our list including Ovenbird, Redstart, and Chestnut-sided. Veery and Hermit Thrush were also observed.


Lunchtime was spent lounging at the observation deck on Spermaceti Cove. This is one of those places where you just never know what will come by. Nothing exceptionally rare appeared, but we did find a Black Skimmer, Black-bellied Plover, and Peregrine Falcon. A close-feeding Black-crowned Night Heron put on quite a show eating killies from the water's edge.

Black-crowned Night Heron

After lunch we unsuccessfully searched the bay for a lingering Long-tailed Duck or Red-breasted Merganser with no luck, but we did find our only Least Flycatcher. The afternoon lull had set in, but we pressed on. We made our obligatory stop to see a Piping Plover in one of its protected enclosures. The foxes and raccoons really do a number on them at Sandy Hook and electrified fencing has been installed to keep them out. A long scan of the ocean yielded a flock of Red-breasted Mergansers and a Bonaparte's Gull.

We then headed back to the wooded areas to find our "missing" Eastern Phoebe and Black-capped Chickadees. After some heavy searching, one of the leaders in the group heard a Chickadee, but no Phoebe would be found on this day! Next, we stopped for dinner at the Sandy Hook Bird Observatory and then headed back to the north end for a long beach walk - AKA the "Death March."

It was a worthy haul out to the beach. We were able to find 4 new birds for the list. A few members of the group walked out a bit more and found a Lesser Black-backed Gull and a female Black Scoter. So, 6 new birds were seen on this one walk.

Darkness was approaching and we waited and waited for a Nighthawk to appear. No luck there, but we did hear a calling Least Bittern (very faint, but very cool) and Marsh Wren. We finished off the day by standing in the dark waiting for a Whip-poor-will or other night bird to call. We settled for a distant silhouette of a Great Horned-owl for bird #126!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

World Series of Birding time!

It's that time of year again! NJ Audubon's World Series of Birding is this Saturday, May 12. Last year, our team, the Sandy Hook Bird Observatory Ocean County Wanderers, had a lackluster day birding Ocean County. This year, the brains behind our operation is having some health issues and we will not be competing in Ocean County. Instead, the team is doing a Big Day Stay at the Sandy Hook Hawk Watch platform.

I decided to opt out of the Big Day Stay and, instead, I am helping lead the Sandy Hook Century Run team. This team does a "Sandy Hook only" run and typically finds around 130 species – not bad for a 1700 acre peninsula. Anyone is able to participate on the Century Run team for a small "per bird" donation. We have about 30 people signed up already which means big bucks for the Sandy Hook Bird Observatory.

If you're interested in helping to sponsor our team, you can use this form. I'll be sure to take lots of pictures. Pray for good weather!

Monday, May 07, 2007

Monday Hawk Counting

I spent all day today as a volunteer hawk counter at Sandy Hook. A few of us volunteer each year to give the paid hawk counter a few days off. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a slow day as far as hawks go. A good migration day means winds out of the southwest or south to push the birds to the coast, but the winds today were easterly. Hawk numbers were low, but I made the best of a gorgeous day.

Here's a sample of the gorgeous view from the hawk watch platform. Today was exceptionally clear and you could see New York quite well. That's the Empire State Building on the left there. I used the panoramic mode on my camera to take this really cool picture (3 MB download).

The white flowers above are beach plums in full bloom. They will have fruit in the fall and I hear it makes a great jam. I tried eating one raw and found it pretty sour.

Ospreys, Red-winged Blackbirds, Eastern Towhees, Tree Swallows, and Barn Swallows kept me company all day while waiting for the raptors. My total numbers for the day were 2 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 3 Cooper's Hawks, 1 Red-tailed Hawk, 20 Turkey Vultures, and 2 Black Vultures. I've had a run of bad luck in my times as a volunteer hawk counter. I hope that one of these days I will volunteer and see a monumental hawk flight!

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Another new yard bird

Sorry for the shortage of posts recently, I spent 4 days last week at a big corporate meeting. It was one of those meetings right out of a sitcom, complete with drumming, singing, tons of food, and lots of "rah-rah-rah."

We got another new yard bird on Friday - a White-crowned Sparrow! He/she was feeding under our feeder and then perched on the neighbor's fence.

I didn't get to do too much birding this weekend due to a friend's wedding and being pretty darn sick on Sunday (bad seafood I think). A quick trip this evening to the Delaware & Raritan Canal got me some year birds including Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Warbling Vireo.

I'll be covering the Sandy Hook hawk watch on Monday. The hawk watch had a Crested Caracara fly over on Friday. That's just crazy. Who knows what will show up at the Hook on a given day?

Friday, May 04, 2007

Friday Night Sounds

Well, prior to just hearing the sound of my beloved Rangers losing in overtime, Beth and I enjoyed some night sounds at the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Our intention was to use our newly acquired knowledge from our recently purchased book The Calls of Frogs and Toads by Lang Elliott. The core of the refuge is closed at dusk, but the roads on the perimeter allow for some listening. The most vocal frog of the night was the ubiquitous Spring Peeper. While listening to the frogs, I finally added a Woodcock to my year list. Beth had never heard the peenting of a Woodcock. Unfortunately, this guy just peented and we never got to hear his courtship display flight.

We drove to another area to listen. We were rewarded with our only other frog species of the evening - Northern Gray Treefrog (pictured). I've heard Cricket Frog, Southern Leopard Frog, and Chorus Frog at this refuge in the past, but tonight was not our night.

With the frogs being relatively quiet, I decided to try out my Barred Owl impression. I gave a few calls which elicited some laughs from Beth. She said that it sounded like a Barred Owl, but with the tone of my voice. Well, regardless of this, it seemed to work because a distant Barred Owl called back several times. Way cool! With that, we called it a night!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Bird Nicknames

My circle of birding friends has a ton of nicknames for birds. We use the common ones like "Sharpie" and "Coop" for Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper's Hawk. We have a few others too. When one of us is leading a group, its hard to not use the nicknames and confuse people. Here's a list of ones I can think of.

Big Cranky - Great Blue Heron (named for its call)
Yumper - Yellow-rumped Warbler
Greg - Great Egret (its banding code is GREG)
Ceg - Cattle Egret (similar to above, pronounced "Keg")
Sneg - Snowy Egret
Snorkeler - any loon
Biter - Great Black-backed Gull (a friend was bitten once while trying to free one from a fishing line)
Croaker - Common Raven
"Weetchie" - any tiny bird
Tailpumper - any bird that bobs its tail (Waterthrush, Spotted Sandpiper)

What nicknames do you have for birds?

Yumpers and IATB

After you're done reading this, check out Greg's great take on I & The Bird - the best in bird blog posts from the last few weeks.

My yard was graced with a new bird today. As I was sitting down to watch some TV, I heard a song come from right outside my screen door. At first I thought it was a Wilson's Warbler due to its quick drop in pitch. I jumped up and saw a bird bolt from the oak tree in our yard. I then saw a group of birds chasing each other in the distance and I realized the song I was hearing was a Yellow-rumped Warbler. Their songs can be variable, but are generally a short trill ending in a sudden lower-pitched or higher-pitched shorter trill. "Yumper" may be a local NJ term that my birder friends came up with, but we use it a lot as a nickname for the bird. Yard bird #41! Not bad for a condo.