Amico Island

It has been a busy few days here at BirdNation. To begin with, the second owlet has hatched on the Savannah Landings Great-horned Owl cam! Momma was seen eating the eggshell in the wee hours of the morning and we saw two little fluffy heads by the afternoon. Congratulations Momma and Dad owl!

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Little owlet heads 🙂 (Image by SavannahOwls via Twitter)

I was able to get out birding twice this weekend. The weather was very different both times (we are in New Jersey so that’s not surprising), but we did see a lot of nice things.

On Saturday morning my mom, sister, and I went to Smithville Park. I was hoping the Common Mergansers from the other day were still there and they were (although not as many).  Others birds included two Cooper’s Hawks, the Belted Kingfisher, Canada Geese, and some Carolina Chickadees. Not as busy as last time, but I finally remembered my camera and took some pictures of the mergansers. They were still pretty far away so this was the best I could get.

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Three pretty female Common Mergansers
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A drake (male) and 2 hen Mergansers
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Got all my ducks in a row 😉

When we were at Smithville on Saturday it was 38 degrees. When Dave and I went birding at Amico Island Park today it was almost 60 degrees! (Pick a temperature NJ!) It was a beautiful Sunday.

Amico Island is not actual an island. It is a peninsula that is surrounded by the Delaware River, Rancocas Creek, and Dredge Harbor. The park is 55 acres with 4 trails that feature forests, ponds, and river shoreline. It’s one of our birding hotspots. The last time we were there was around November so we didn’t see as much then. Today we started seeing glimpses of spring during our walk. Our count was:

  • 11 Mallards
  • 2 Buffleheads
  • 9 Common Mergansers
  • 9 Great Blue Herons
  • 250+ Ring-billed Gulls
  • 4 Mourning Doves
  • 2 Belted Kingfishers
  • 3 Downy Woodpeckers (2 males, 1 female)
  • 3 Carolina Chickadees
  • 1 Tufted Titmouse
  • 12 American Robins
  • 1 Song Sparrow
  • 1 Northern Cardinal
  • 10 Common Grackles

My favorite part of the day was the Great Blue Herons. When Dave and I were there in the fall we noticed an island that had some trees with large nests. We weren’t sure what the nests were at the time. Turns out it’s a Great Blue Heron rookery! If you remember my second blog post about Wetlands I featured the Great Blue Heron and mentioned rookeries. A rookery is a nesting colony. It looks like there’s about 20 nests in this colony and there were about 8 Herons there today! I am super excited! We plan on going back to Amico in a few weeks to see if we can spot any chicks.

Later while walking on the shoreline we found this nest. I wonder who used to live there.

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Mystery Nest

All this nice weather is giving me spring fever! It’s supposed to be around 60 the next two days then get a little colder again, but as I said previously change is in the air. I’m looking forward to the return of Gray Catbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, Orioles, and all sorts of warblers. I will miss our winter visitors though, so I will enjoy them in the meantime.

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Hatch Day!

I don’t have TV. Well technically I own a TV, and I have Netflix but no cable. Sometimes the topic comes up in conversation and people get confused and act like I’m missing out on something. But they don’t realize: I have something better than TV. I have bird cams.

My love affair with bird cams began a little over a year ago. I was on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s web page (as I frequently am) and discovered a whole page of them. Eventually I ended up watching most of them (as you know Laysan Albatross cam changed my life for the better), but at that time I was enthralled by the Great-horned Owl cam.

I love owls. Especially Great-horned Owls. They are in my top 5 of all-time favorite birds. So as you can probably guess, I have spent many many hours since then watching owl cam (I’m watching right now!)

The cam I watch is the Savannah Owls Landings Cam from Skidaway Island
Audubon in Georgia. The nest being filmed was originally a bald eagle nest but in December 2014 Great-Horned Owls (GHO) showed up instead. Momma owl (that’s my nickname for her, she obviously doesn’t have a name) laid her first egg on January 1, 2015 and her second egg a few days later. On February 3 and February 6 the 2 chicks hatched and the real fun began. It was amazing to watch the owlets grow up and fledge successfully.

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Momma is beautiful! (Image via SavannahOwls Twitter)

This year us cam viewers were lucky because the owls showed up again. We can’t tell if it’s the same pair but it is possible. This year Momma laid her first egg on January 23 and the second egg on January 26. GHO eggs take 30-37 days to incubate, so right now we are in the hatching window. Yesterday (2/24) the first egg started pipping. Pipping is when a chick uses their egg tooth (a small bump on the  top of their beak) to break open the egg. The resulting crack is the “pip”. The chick will fully emerge from the egg within a 24-hour period.

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Pip in progress (Image by Landings Bird Cam via their Twitter page)

When I put GHO cam on this morning there was fantastic news: the first chick hatched over night! Momma left the nest briefly around 4:45am when the chick was spotted. GHO chicks have a layer of white down feathers that are wet upon emergence. They are limp and can’t raise their heads on the first day. They will start to raise their heads by day 3 and open their eyes after 9-11 days. Momma has been feeding the chick. Withing a few days its sibling should be hatching too. We were also lucky enough to see Dad owl stop by to deliver food. The male owl doesn’t spend much time at the nest, but he does roost in a nearby tree. He will deliver food directly to the nest occasionally, but he usually leaves prey in a separate spot and calls to Momma.

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Momma keeps owlet #1 warm (Image by SavannahOwls via their Twitter page)
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Dad owl (left) brings Momma and owlet some prey (Image by BeccaJane via Twitter)

I’m so happy that the egg finally hatched. I’m looking forward to the second egg hatching which will hopefully be by the end of the weekend. If you never watching Great-horned Owl camyou check it out (you will probably fall in love with it too!). Watching wild animals being born and develop is a fascinating and life-changing experience that you normally wouldn’t be able to see without bird cams. Here’s the link:

Landings Savannah Great-horned Owl Cam

You can also watch a variety of other bird cams at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website:

Cornell Lab Bird Cams homepage

Now that’s reality TV that’s worth watching!

Tundra Swan: Waterfowl Wednesday

Happy Waterfowl Wednesday, y’all! Today’s waterfowl species is the Tundra Swan. The Tundra Swan is one of New Jersey’s winter visitors. Dave and I were lucky enough to see 79 Tundra Swans on Day 3 of the Great Backyard Bird Count at Forsythe NWR.

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Tundra Swans at Forsythe NWR (Image by David Horowitz)

Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus)

Description:

Tundras are large (53″) and adults have entirely white plumage (feathers). They have long necks, black feet/legs, and black bills. Their bills usually have yellow at the base. Immature Tundras have gray feathers on their heads, necks, and wings.

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Adult Tundra Swans (Image by Becky Cairns)
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(Image by Dan Mitchell)

Range:

Breeds in Northern Canada and Alaska in the summers. Winters in Southern Alaska through Baja, California extending towards Nevada and in the Mid-Atlantic states in the East

Habitat:

Tundras breed in the arctic tundra and winter in coastal waters and lakes.

Food:

They mainly eat plant matter. Tundras may also eat tubers, mollusks, aquatic vegetation, and anthropods. They may also sometimes graze in fields of rice or corn. In the Chesapeake Bay area, wintering swans will almost exclusively eat clams that they dig out from the mud.

Breeding/Nesting:

Tundras will have 1 brood (family) a year, with a clutch (number of eggs) of 3-6 eggs.To created a pair-bond, the birds will face each other, call out loudly, and quickly quiver their wings. Both pair members will aid in constructing a nest out of grasses, moss, and other plants. The nest will be placed to water. The same nest will usually be used the following year. After about 30 days, the creamy white eggs will hatch and nestlings will fledge (leave the nest) around 2-3 months. Cygnets (young swans) will usually stay with their parents throughout the first winter.

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(Image via animalspot.net)

Sounds:

High-pitched whistle-like whoo-oo, similar to an elephant

Fun Facts:

  • One way to tell the difference between a Tundra Swan and the similar looking Mute Swans is to look at the necks. Tundras will hold their necks straight up white Mutes will hold their neck in an S-shape.
  • Meriwether Lewis nicknames them “whistling swans”, due to their whistling calls.
  • Tundras can migrate in groups of over 100. They larger flock is made up of small family groups.
  • In the winter, Tundras will usually sleep while afloat in the water, but while breeding they will sleep on land.
  • The Tundra Swans is the smallest of the 3 North American swans (the other two are Trumpeter and Mute)

Outstanding Ospreys

I read an article from Conserve Wildlife New Jersey that had fantastic news. There are around 600 nesting pairs of Ospreys here in New Jersey. In the 1970s there were 50 nesting pairs. That’s a significant difference! The 2015 New Jersey Osprey Report was released today, so if you would like to see the article and the full 2015 Report click here:

Conserve Wildlife NJ Blog

So in celebration, here are 5 reasons why Ospreys are outstanding:

1.Ospreys are the only hawks in the country to have a diet that’s almost exclusively fish (up to 99% of their diet!). They have the ability to dive underwater from the air in order to catch fish swimming in shallow areas. Other hawks are only able to retrieve fish from the surface. When Ospreys dive their nictitating membranes (3rd eyelids) act as goggles. They can also close their nostrils while diving.

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An osprey brings fish to its nest (Photo by George DeCamp)

2. Ospreys are one of the few raptors that have a reversible outer toe. That means they can grasp with  two front and two rear toes. To grip fish they use the barbed pads on their feet.

3. Osprey pairs use the same nests each year. Nests are usually placed up high and can be made of a variety of materials. The nest will start with large sticks as a foundation.The sticks can be lined with materials such as bark, sod, flotsam and jetsam, leaves, sod, and sometimes man-made materials (such as fishing nets). The male will retrieve the materials and the female with arrange them. Ospreys will add new material each year. After many years of reuse, a nest could be up to 10-13 ft long and 3-6 feet in diameter!

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Osprey pair on their nest (Photo by Jim White)

4. You can find Ospreys on 6 continents (not on Antarctica). Ospreys that live in temperate areas (like here in New Jersey) will migrate to the tropics and return  in the summer to breed. Species who live in the tropics year-round will breed at the same nest site annually.

5. Ospreys will usually mate for life, unless a bird in the pair dies. Males will start breeding around the age of 3. To attract females, males will hold nesting material or fish in his talons and fly around the nest site. He will alternate between slow swoops high above the nest and hovering while a female watches. If a female approves she will go the nest and eat the fish the male offers her.

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Male on the right, female on the left

Bonus Fact:

If you see an osprey how will you know if it’s a male or female? An easy way is to look at the bird’s upper chest. Both sexes are brown on their back and white on the chest, but females have brown speckles on her upper chest. People sometimes refer to this as her “necklace”.

I’m looking forward to the Ospreys returning to New Jersey in the spring. It’s always a joy to see these incredible hawks.

A Taste of Spring

Gorgeous.

That’s the word I would use to describe the weather this weekend here in Southern New Jersey. After snow and really frigid temperatures the last few weeks we finally got a little taste of spring with weather hovering near the 60’s. I’m at the point where I am definitely craving spring weather. It was a perfect weekend to bird watch both days: once in a new place and once in a familiar place.

On Saturday Dave and I ventured to Tuckahoe Wildlife Management Area in Atlantic County with some friends. Tuckahoe WMA has a variety of habitats including salt marshes, impoundments, woodlands, and rivers. It’s definitely off the beaten path and very quiet and serene. And my favorite part…waterfowl galore!!

We saw 8 species of waterfowl:

  • Northern Pintails
  • Mallards
  • Buffleheads
  • Common Mergansers
  • Hooded Mergansers
  • American Black Ducks
  • Canada Geese
  • Swans (too far away to tell if they were Mute or Tundra)

There were hundreds of them! They were mainly Northern Pintails and were making a high pitched sound. Unfortunately we didn’t get any good pictures because everything was really far away. Even with our binoculars it was a difficult to see them well. We also saw 3 Great Blue Herons, a small flock of Song Sparrows, and 3 shorebirds (all the same species) that we haven’t been able to identify yet. It was exciting to visit someplace new and I was thrilled by all the waterfowl we were seeing. I would like to visit again in the spring to see what migrants arrive.

Today I went with my mom and sister to Historic Smithville Park. We went there a week ago for Day 4 of the Great Backyard Bird Count. It was in the mid-20’s and snowing when we were there last, so today was a big difference. The lake was thawed and filled with Common Mergansers! There were about 30 of them, both males and females, floating around the lake. It was the first time I saw a female Mergansers (we saw a male last week at Forsythe) and the first time we’ve seem them at Smithville. There were also 2 Canada geese (who didn’t seem to happy when the mergansers would get close), 3 Scaups (most likely Greaters) and a Ring-billed Gull. The resident Belted Kingfisher was also hanging around. As we walked through the woods next to the lake we spotted a Tufted Titmouse and a Cooper’s Hawk.

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Belted Kingfisher (Image by Kevin Cole via Wikipedia)

As we walked along the floating bridge through the lake I had a realization: we only have a few more weeks to enjoy our visiting winter waterfowl. Pretty soon Smithville Lake will say goodbye to the Mergansers and Scaups, and welcome swallows, red-winged blackbirds, and green herons again. It seems like winter just began, but in reality it’s almost over. The weather will get colder again for a bit but spring will be here before we know it. I can already sense change in the air. This weekend was definitely a nice little preview of things to come.

 

 

Trouble in Paradise

Yesterday we talked about how magnificent and amazing Laysan Albatrosses are.  I’ve learned so many cool things about them, but I also learned that they have some big problems to face. They are not problems that are exclusive to Laysans, but effect many other ocean/shore birds and marine animals. One major issue is plastics. I’m mainly going to talk about the effect on Laysan Albatrosses since they are the seabird I’m the most knowledgeable about.

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(Image by Jay Holcomb)

Laysan Albatrosses are ingesting plastics that are floating in the ocean when they are hunting for food. One source of food is fish eggs and sometimes egg strands will attach to debris. Laysans will eat these strands and the plastic it is attached to it. According to a study by Barbara Mayer of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Management, plastics can make up to 50% of indigestible material in a Laysan’s digestive tract. Laysan parents will return to their chicks and feed them these materials without knowing what’s happening. A chick who has never flown or seen the ocean will in turn have a stomach full of plastic. Decomposing bodies of Laysan chicks are being found filled with plastic that they’ve accidentally been fed. Many albatross stomachs are filled with plastic cigarette lighters.  The plastics in the chick’s stomach can make them feel full. Laysan parents can regurgiate food; chicks can’t. So the plastic just sits in their stomach. As a result the chick may not eat as much food as it needs, leading to starvation.

Last year on Albatross cam one of the chicks, Niaulani, casted a bolus. A bolus is a mass of swallowed food and in albatrosses will include materials that were not digested. At a certain point a bird can “throw up” the bolus. Scientists should be finding materials like squid beaks in a bolus, but are finding much more than that. Some scientists dissected Niaulani’s bolus on camera and discovered fishing lines and plastic pieces.

Learning about this issue made me sick to my stomach. I’ve spent countless hours watching sweet, innocent Albatross chicks grow on bird cam and knowing their stomachs are filled with plastics is horrifying.

So the question is: what can we do about it? Unfortunately it’s extremely hard to avoid plastics these days. However, there are some steps we can take to help reduce the problem.

  • Reduce, reuse, recycle!!!
  • Make sure you are recycling properly. It’s no use if you are not following recycling guidelines for your area. Plastics are labeled 1-7 and certain plastics need to be recycled in certain ways. Learn about the different plastic numbers here.
  • Avoid and/or reduce your use of one-use water bottles and plastic bags. Use reusable bags when you shop. If you do have plastic bags many store offer recycle programs.
  • Make sure to throw away trash in the proper bins. Follow “carry in, carry out” rules whenever you visit natural areas.
  • Spread the word about these kinds of issues. Knowledge is power. If people learn about the negative impacts plastics have on the environment then people can come up with solutions to help. We can make positive changes, but people need to be aware of how their actions affect others (both humans and other creatures) in order to make these changes.

If you want to learn more about Laysan Albatross threats and ways you can help the oceans check out these links:

Ocean Portal: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Friends of Midway Atoll: Laysan Albatross Facts

International Bird Rescue

Marine Debris

On a related note, Audubon has a petition regarding the Albatross and Petrel Conservation Act (HR4480). If you are interested in learning more about this petition you can find it here:

Audubon ACAP petition

 

 

Albie Love

About a year ago, I fell in love at first sight…with a bird. I just discovered the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s bird cams page, and was spending a lot of time scrolling through looking at various cams. I never heard of a Laysan Albatross before, so I clicked the link. That’s when it happened.

There was a small, gray, downy chick on the screen. It was sitting in its nest looking around curiously, while a parent preened it. My heart melted immediately. My first thoughts:that chick was adorable and how sweet it was that the adult was so tender and affectionate. I’ve been hooked on Laysan Albatrosses ever since (or “albies” as some people call them). The more I watch and learn the more I fall in love with them.

So here are 11 cools facts about Laysan Albatrosses a.k.a. reasons why you should love them too 🙂 :

  • Laysan Albatrosses are large seabirds that live mainly breed in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. There is also a colony on Midway Island.
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(Image via The San Pedro Coast)
  • When not breeding, Laysans spend their time out soaring across the Pacific Ocean. They can soar extremely long distances to look for food. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Laysan Albatross page, one albatross traveled 4,120 miles from Midway Island to the Philippines!
  • Once they fledge (leave the nest to take their first flight) at around 6 1/2-7 months of age, young albatrosses with spend the next 3 or 4 years out at sea bef0re returning to land.
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A cute Albatross chick from the Cornell cam.
  • Laysans typically form long lasting bonds. If a pair breeds successfully they will mostly likely continue to breed together. They usually returned to the same breeding spot each year. Most albatrosses won’t breed successfully until they are about 8 or 9 years old.
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(Image via montereybayaquarium.org)
  • Albatrosses are very social and curious birds. When they return to land after they are 3 or 4 they will form groups of 2 or more and do courtship dances. Sometimes a dance that starts as a pair will turn into a whole group displaying (us cam viewers refer to these as dance parties hah!). It’s good practice for when they actually choose a mate.
  • Laysan courtship displays are elaborate and made up of a variety of moves. Sometimes the pair will try to synchronize their movements. Albatross “dance moves” include: beak clacking, standing on their toes, wild whinnying sounds, head bobs, placing their bill under a wing, and pointing their bills to the sky while making a “mooing” type sound (refered to as “sky moos” by viewers). Pairs have their own unique combinations of moves, and will usually greet each other with a courtship display to strengthen their pair-bond. (If you’ve never seen a Laysan courtship display you should open a new tab in your browser right now and Youtube that immediately. You will not be disappointed.)
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Sky moo!
  • Laysan Albatrosses can have 1 egg a year. Parents take turns incubating the egg. Once the egg hatches the parents will continue to take turns brooding (keeping their chick warm) until the chick is about 2-3 week old. After that they will leave the chick by itself to go hunt but return every so often to feed it and spend time with the chick.
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Another day in paradise…
  • Laysans can journey up to 1,600 miles away to find food for their chicks. A parents can be gone for up to 17 days while searching for food!
  • Albatross chicks go through 2 layers of down feathers before they start getting their adult flight feathers. The best part: they start to lose their 2nd coat of down in little chunks so they look like they have little “feather boas” around their necks and “silly hairdos”. (You should Google that right now too, it’s very cute)
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Check out this guy’s haircut…(Image by Paulo Maurin)
  • When full grown, albatrosses can  have wingspans of up to 7 feet! Each Laysan has a unique feather pattern on the underside of their wings, just like we each have unique fingerprints.
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Albatross wingspan (Image via http://pvs.kcc.hawaii.edu)
  • Laysans have long life spans. The oldest know individual is Wisdom, who breeds on Midway Island. She just had her 36th chick and she is 64 years old! You can learn more about her at this Audubon article.
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Wisdom and her chick Kukini (Image by Kiah Walker/USFWS)

Laysan Albatrosses are amazing birds. I recommend you check out the Cornell Lab’s Albatross cam to see these beautiful birds in action. Warning: you may become addicted to albatross cam (but that’s not necessarily a bad thing :-P). . Maybe you’ll feel some “Albie love”  too.