Saturday, January 30, 2010

Owls and Dovekies and More Owls, Oh My!

13 degrees. THIRTEEN DEGREES. Okay, according to our website, less than 20 degrees cancels a field trip. So why were we all bundled up and heading out the door with the thermometer reading 13 degrees? Because we are crazy hard core birders, that's why!

There was a bit of panic on the way up to Pelham Bay Park as I realized that I had left my fleecey layers home, but luckily for me, Travis Turner, son of our conservation chair, John, had his gigantic, warm, incredibly puffy, bright yellow and green Packers down jacket in the trunk. Although I resembled a rather overstuffed field of green grass and daffodils for the rest of the day, the jacket did the trick and kept me reasonably warm. However, it did cause quite a stir among the other birders.

We started out the day with a joint field trip to Pelham Bay Park with the Hudson River Audubon Society to look for roosting owls. A good start was a northern saw whet owl, and we also managed terrific looks at a long eared. At that point, it was just too cold to mill about and stand still, so the HOBAS contingent (myself, John and Travis Turner, Cindy Wozny and Lauren Bryde) headed out for some more active birding. Hoping for pileated and red headed woodpeckers, along with a red shouldered hawk (I had all three there just the week before) we headed up to Rockefeller State Park. Alas, other than the usuals, this walk in the woods netted us nothing more than frozen feet, fingers and nosetips!

After stopping for lunch at a god awful diner, we headed back to Long Island, subtracting Lauren and Cindy and adding Simone DaRos, to try and pick up the dovekie that had become the latest local celebrity.

This tiny little alcid has been causing a sensation in Great River and I confess to the fact that this was my third time stalking it. The word cute doesn't even begin to describe this pint sized auk, who has been motoring over the inlet, eliciting oohs and aaaahs and "he's so cute"s as he dives, preens and swims his way into our hearts. After observing this enchanting little bird for quite some time, and all of us hoping out loud that he makes it, we grabbed the tundra swan in the east marina and next headed over to a random pond in a McDonald's in West Islip where we were treated to the sight of a pair of red head ducks (along with a few others) about as close as one will ever see these beauties.

Next up? Well, because we are hardcore, crazy bad ass birders, John, Travis and myself went out for some more owls after dark! We visited Cushman preserve and Wicks Farm where I gamely tried to call some screech owls in. No luck. Darn! All righty then, let's try one more place...Stillwell Woods!

After traipsing around (and wow, was it freezing again, esp. since the sun had gone down) for what seemed like an eternity, I geared up to call in a screech one more time. Nothing. John looked at me and said, "I am sorry, but you have taken me out twice for owls and twice you haven't produced". Are you kidding me? Was that a challenge? Now I was under the gun...but I belted out my best screech owl call and held my breath. Nothing again. BUT WAIT! Is that what I think it is? HA! It sure was! In fact, it was not only one screech owl, but two! What a great end to what turned out to be 11 hours of very cold, very numbing, very fun birding!!!!!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dovekie in Great River, NY

On Monday, local birder Ken Thompson found a Dovekie in a small marina which is part of a country club in Islip.  Dovekies, as you may know, are a normally pelagic species, but a storm with southwest wind gusts of up to 50 mph brought numerous indiviuals onto shore along the Great South Bay.  This is apparently the only one known to birders which has not been sent to rehabbers.  As an added bonus, a nice Tundra Swan showed up on one of the ponds in the golf course.  The Dovekie, which had probably never seen a person before in its life, was so tame it came within 2 feet of us!  All birders present, including Ken agreed that it was the closest ever.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Whatever Gets You Through the Night...If You Are An Owl, That Is!

Contrasting with our winter waterfowl walk, we were not quite so fortunate with the species count during our evening owl prowl, in fact, despite our heroic efforts (and hopes) the owls were not to be found. Participants might not have seen any wild owls, but they were treated to a program given by John Turner and myself on the natural history of LI owls, including what they eat, how they hunt and their amazing adaptations to nocturnal life. John spoke about the various owls that call LI home (temporary and permanently) and I spoke about what makes an owl so well adapted to the night life. Here are some cool facts that I thought might interest readers.

Of course, not all owls are strictly nocturnal. Some, such as the short eared and great gray are crepuscular (meaning they are active at dawn and dusk, although the great grey will also hunt during the day). Others, such as the snowy, are partly diurnal (active during the day), while some are mainly diurnal (northern hawk owl).

Many people believe that owls can see in complete darkness. Not true. They are just as blind as you and me in a completely blackened room. How do they see at night then? Well, think about it. The night sky is never completely dark. Not really. Owls possess a remarkable ability to utilize even the smallest amount of light due to an abundance of rods in their eyes. There are two types of photoreceptors in the eye: Cones, which are related to color vision, and rods, which are related to the ability to see in dim light. Owls have 10x as many rods as humans do. Check this out: if a match stick was lit in a football stadium, not only would an owl see it, that tiny flicker of light would provide enough light for successful hunting! Owls also have huge eyes, which account for 1-5% of their body weight. In fact, the eyes are so huge that they are elongated, rather than round. These tubes are held into place by bony structures called sclerotic rings. This is why an owl cannot move its eyeballs. Thanks to its 14 vertebrae (to our 7) an owl can move its head 270 degrees, lightning fast, 3/4 of the way this way, 3/4 of the way that way, and almost upside down, thus making up for this lack of peripheral vision.

Now, what is not a myth is that owls CAN hunt and catch prey in complete darkness. Wait, didn't I just say that it is a myth owls can see in complete darkness? How can this be then? Well, I didn't say they couldn't HUNT in complete darkness! Because they do not need to SEE to hunt. Their hearing ability is astounding. The ears are located at the side of the head, behind the eyes and are covered by feathers. Most owls have asymmetrical openings. The feathered facial disc acts like a radar, guiding sounds into the owl's ears. When a sound is detected, the owl is able to tell from what direction it is coming in an instant. If a sound is coming from the left of the owl, the left ear will pick up on it first. The owl will turn its head until it can hear the sound simultaneously in both ears. At that point it knows whatever is causing the sound is directly in front of it. Owls can detect a left/right time difference of 30 millionths (!!!!) of a second. They can also tell if the sound is higher or lower, thanks to those asymmetrical ear openings.

The owl's brain processes this melding of left, right, up and down in an instant, which then pinpoints with deadly accuracy where the sound is coming from. Once the bird has determined the location of its victim, it flies towards it, always keeping in direct line, adjusting midflight if the prey moves in order to keep the prey within the mark. Thanks to their astonishing hearing, owls are also able to strike prey that is buried under snow or leaf litter, without ever seeing it. Incredible!!!

You have to admit, owls are pretty cool to look at, but when you understand the adaptations that make an owl an owl, you understand just how amazing these birds of prey truly are!

Young Naturalist Winter Waterfowl Walk Field Notes

An enthusiastic group of seasoned and beginner birders, including myself, Vinny and Brent, embarked on a waterfowl extravaganza on Saturday January 23, netting us 22 species of duck and 43 species total for the day. Highlights included the sight of a red tailed hawk tearing apart a gull and the incredible visual of anywhere from 20,000-40,000 greater scaup off of Morgan Park in Glen Cove. The raft was never ending!!!!! Another exciting find? A blue morph snow goose at Sunken Meadow SP, a first for me. At the Mill Pond in Oyster Bay a dozen northern pintails were in view and at Tung Ting Pond in Centerport, we had about 75 canvasbacks. Green winged teal were also spotted at this location. Led by John Turner and Vinny Pellegrino in the am, with myself taking over as co-leader in the afternoon, the day was fun, birdy AND we were thrilled to see new faces!!

Species seen for day:

fish crow
snow goose
northern flicker
red tailed hawk
canada goose
common merganser
hooded merganser
red breasted merganser
american wigeon
red head duck
northern pintail
american coot
long tailed duck
greater scaup
lesser scaup
great blue heron
ring necked duck
american black duck
mute swan
dark eyed junco
song sparrow
white throated sparrow
red bellied woodpecker
horned grebe
red throated loon
common looon
northern mockingbird
common goldeneye
barrows goldeneye
downy woodpecker
green winged teal
carolina wren
belted kingfisher
rock pigeon
house sparrow
starling (gotta count these birds for the day!)
ring billed gull
herring gull

Monday, January 18, 2010

Why mass die-off of bats should be of grave concern

Bats get a bad rap. Considered by many to be nothing but rabies carriers, or scary creatures of the night that will tangle in your hair (pleeeease, that is a myth), the general public is not aware of just how beneficial these animals really are to our ecosystems. As the largest predators of night flying insects, bats are a vital component to the natural order of things. I happen to think they are cute too! But bats are in deep trouble. Dying at an alarming rate from an insidious disease called White Nosed Syndrome, they are facing one of the most accelerated and dire wildlife crises in the past 100 years. The following is a reprinted article from

(NECN: Anya Huneke, Dorset, VT) - When it comes to cute animals, bats are not generally on the top of the list. But they are a vital part of our eco-system- as a major predator of insects. And now they are being threatened with extinction-- a number of species have contracted a disease that is causing massive die-offs.
Getting to the top of mount Aeolus in East Dorset Vermont, is never an easy feat. Especially in the dead of winter, when snow shoes are a must on this two mile uphill climb. But it's a climb biologists are compelled to make - now, perhaps, more than ever before, as they search for answers to a mystery that has them profoundly baffled... And concerned.

The Aeolus cave is where bats from all over New England hibernate for the winter, historically, the largest site of its kind in the region. But in just two years' time, the population of bats here has plummeted- ever since a disease called 'white nose syndrome' was discovered in caves and mines across the state. The fungus - which appears on the muzzles and wings of bats - was first identified in New York during the winter of 2006 and 7... And quickly spread to neighboring states- including Vermont and Massachusetts. It has now moved as far south as Virginia.

Tuesday, a group of five wildlife experts ventured into Aeolus cave. Barely inside the entrance- they started to lose hope. A few bats - frozen to death - clung to the wall. And farther in, more disheartening signs. The main room of the cave is generally filled with hibernating bats. But this time in- scientists spotted just a few small clusters. Wildlife biologist Scott Darling had hoped for the best, but knew the numbers likely would be low. On a site visit last winter, he found tens of thousands of bat carcasses on the ground. The floor of Aeolus is now covered with bat bones-- left over from a major bat die-off last year. And the ceiling- where there are normally many thousands of bats- there are now very few.
The difference is stark-- here's a picture from last year, when infection was already rampant in this cave.

And here is one from this year. Yet little to date is known about the fungus-- its cause... or its cure. What scientists do know is that bats with white nose syndrome lose their winter fat reserves faster than normal... And emerge from hibernation early- and hungry. During warmer weather, most bats feed on insects-- acting as a natural pesticide by consuming large quantities each night.

That is one reason the impact of this mass mortality of bats, experts say, should be of grave concern. Darling says the timing of this crisis is unfortunate- with federal funding limited and many other national issues taking precedence. But *this* issue - these experts say - is unprecedented... Many infected caves and mines - including Aeolus - are seeing a 90-percent or greater mortality rate.
Experts say bats are slow to reproduce- about one offspring per year. So with the number of bat deaths across the region now moving into the millions, a fix, if one is found, will be years in the making.

Please check out this video:

Monday, January 11, 2010

Brookhaven to go Solar

I was recently shown an article about a proposed solar farm in Brookhaven, featured in Long Island's local Newsday. As someone very interested and optimistic about sustainable energy, I was delighted to hear that 200 acres were to be allocated for the farm. According to the article over four thousand homes would be freed from the tyranny of some power plant, besmirching the air wherever it may be. The customers' payments would not even increase by a dollar for the extra effort in extracting alternating current from the sun.

Yet this beautiful idea came with a footnote just as big. The 200 aces mentioned currently exist as pine barrens habitat, which is a rare sort of ecosystem in the state. Eastern Long Island has some excellent tracts that support uncommon and local flora and fauna. These places have been preserved to keep a way of life as it naturally exists on Long Island, so it does not make much sense in discarding them for a different project. Sure, solar power helps alleviate the stress of pollutants on all living organisms in the long run, but so do the carbon dioxide-absorbing trees that already occupy the property.

The fate of this small corner of the pine barrens is likely out of our hands. But what have we learned? Separately, a solar farm and a forest work together to benefit our environment. A patch of Pitch Pine is not an ideal place for a solar farm as it is now. The habitat must be razed so that the panels can occupy more space and so the requisite sunlight my shine upon them. If an effort is being made to reconstruct the habitat to suite the brigade of panels, why not relocate them elsewhere in the future? Even notorious large businesses have found that having a green perspective can be lucrative, so why would superstores not be willing to add a solar cover to their immense parking lots, for example? Then both trees and solar parking lots are working in our favor, plus your car's innards won't be melting when you come out of the mall.

Sites for followup on some of these thoughts:

"200-acre solar farm planned at Brookhaven Lab." by Jennifer Smith. Newsday.

CO2 Now. Check for current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, and other information.

"Will Big Business Save the Earth?" by Jared Diamond. New York Times Op-Ed. <>

Sunday, January 10, 2010

From Crickets to Whales, Animal Calls Have Something in Common

ScienceDaily (2010-01-06) -- Animals produce a tremendous diversity of sounds for communication to perform life's basic functions, from courtship and parental care to defense and foraging. Explaining this diversity in sound production is important for understanding the ecology, evolution and behavior of species. Scientists have presented a theory of acoustic communication that shows that much of the diversity in animal vocal signals can be explained based on the energetic constraints of sound production. ... > read full article

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Northern Nassau & Smithtown CBC's part I

On Saturday, December 20th I participated on the Northern Nassau County Christmas Bird Count.  THe circle covers Northern Nassau County from Port Washington to Lloyd's Neck, south to Jericho and all points north.  I counted on the Oyster Bay Cove team with Bill Reeves, this being his 65th annual NN CBC, and several other of the usual co-counters in the area. 

Since the day was shortened due to the approaching snowstorm, we cut out one of our less important stops.  Our first location was the East Woods School.  Here we had some good birds, including 4 Golden-crowned Kinglets, 3 Red-winged Blackbirds, 150 Dark-eyed Juncos, 15 Cedar Waxwings, and our only Gary Catbird.  From there we moved to the Pulling Estate, which turned out to be much more quiet the East Woods, and we didn't see any outstanding birds there.  Our next location was probably the best, Tiffany Creek.  Here we found 100 American Goldfinches, 150 House Finches, 1 Sharp-shinned Hawk, 2 Red-breasted Nuthatches, 1 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and the highlight of the day 6 Rusty Blackbirds.

Tiffany Creek

We then went to the Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary where many birds were visiting the feeders,, including 3 Common Grackles and 5 Red-winged Blackbirds.  We also found large numbers of common feeder birds like Mourning Doves.  Our final stop, the Tiffany Creek Preserve was also good, with three Eastern Towhees, 2 Winter Wrens, and good numbers of other birds.

At the compilation we learned that many good birds had been seen, inluding 4 Wilson's Snipe, a Lesser Black-backed Gull, a Green Heron, and 2 Count Week Ravens. Although we only got 100 species for the total count, it was a good day, and thankfully the snow held off for the night.