Conservation and Condors

Before telling you about California Condors, I wanted to share a petition from the National Audubon Society. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to create a new wildlife refuge throughout 6 states in the Northeast called Great Thicket NWR. This refuge could potentially help many bird and other animal species. Please sign and share! The deadline for this petition is Friday March 4.  Here’s the link:

Great Thicket NWR petition from Audubon

I read a great article from the National Audubon Society about California Condors. For the first time in decades, 2015 was the first year that the number of chicks raised was higher than the number of deaths in the wild. There were 12 California Condors deaths and 14 chicks raised. Check out the article here: California Condor Recovery

This is good news for the California Condor. In the 1970s the Condor was one of the first animals to be protected by the Endangered Species Act By the 1980s there were only around 23 individuals left in the wild. The numbers declined due to lead poisoning, DDT, and habitat loss. In 1987 all the remaining individuals were put into captivity. Through captive breeding programs,  organizations have helped the California Condor’s population increase. There are now around 270 individuals in the wild and around 150 in captivity. There’s still a lot of work to do to help this species, but so far things are progressing well.

Here’s some fun facts about this amazing bird.

  • The California Condor is a New World vulture that lives in Arizona, California and Baja. It is the largest bird species in North America, with a wingspan that can stretch  up to 10 feet from tip to tip!
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California Condor (Image by Stacy via Wikipedia)
  • California Condors nest high on cliff tops. Population recovery is slow because California Condors don’t breed every year and females only lay one egg for each breeding attempt. Young condors don’t begin breeding until they are around 8 years old.
  • They can soar for hours on air currents as high as 15,000 feet!
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Condor #87 soaring in Grand Canyon National Park (Image by Ned Harris via allaboutbird.org)
  • California Condors are not predators, they are carrion feeders. This means they don’t kill their own prey, but consume animals that were already killed. These huge birds dine on large mammals such as deer, cattle, and sheep. Condors will gorge themselves until they can’t eat anymore and may not eat for another week or two until they find another carcass. They can store up to 3 pounds of meat in a part of their esophagus called a “crop”.
  • Mating pairs are monogamous. They will stay together throughout the year and share parenting duties, usually until a member of the pair dies.
  • California Condors don’t have vocal cords. They only make hissing and grunting noises.
  • It can take up to a week for a chick to fully hatch from its egg.
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(Image via animals.sandiegozoo.org)

Last year the Cornell Lab of Ornithology had a California Condor cam in partnership with Sespe Condor Sanctuary. Unfortunately, the condor chick we were watching died, but there is a possibility that there will be another cam in the future. California Condors are really magnificent birds. Hopefully through conservation efforts we will be able to continue enjoying California Condors for generations to come.

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.

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.

Common Merganser: Waterfowl Wednesday

Last week I enjoyed writing about the Wintertime Waterfowl in my area so much that I decided to do another Waterfowl Wednesday! (I am a waterfowl enthusiast after all! :-p).Today we’re going to learn about a species that is a newer bird for me: the Common Merganser. I saw my first Common Merganser on Sunday for Day 3 of the Great Backyard Bird Count. I thought it would be a great chance to learn about this interesting bird.

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The male Common Merganser Dave and I saw at Forsythe NWR

Common Merganser
Mergus Merganser

Description:
Males have white bodies, black upper backs, round green heads, and red bills. Females have gray bodies, cinnamon-colored heads with a crest, red bills, and white throats. Common Mergansers are slightly larger than Mallards, but smaller than geese. They tend to sit lower in the water like a loon would.

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Male and female Common Mergansers (Image by Merv_J._Cormier via photoclub.canadiangeographic.ca)

Range:

Breeds throughout Canada and the Northern United States. Winters in mid- to Southwestern United States into Northern Mexico.

Habitat:
Ponds and rivers while breeding, freshwater and occasionally saltwater in winter

Food:
Mainly fish. Common Mergansers will also eat invertebrates, small mammals, plants, frogs, and other birds. They can dive up to 13 ft to retrieve food, and sometimes dive deeper in the winter.

Breeding and Nesting Behavior:
Common Mergansers will have 1 brood (family) a year, with 6-13 eggs per clutch (number of eggs produced at a single time). They nest in tree cavities or nest boxes. Females incubate their eggs for about a month. Sometimes females will lay eggs in another Merganser’s nest, including other species of Mergansers. Once the eggs hatch the chicks will leave the cavity within a day or two and join their mother in the water. Picture this: flightless little chicks skydiving from the nest cavity to the forest floor! The mother will protect them, but she doesn’t feed them like a robin or hawk would feed their chicks pieces of food. The chicks will feed themselves while practicing swimming and diving.

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A female (hen) Merganser giving her chicks a ride (Image by Dave Czaplak via marylandbiodiversity.com)

Sounds:

Common Mergansers are usually silent. Females with make a frog-like gruk calls to the male and high cro cro cro sounds to her chicks. Males may give bell-like sounds while courting females.

Fun Facts:

  • Common Mergansers are the largest of the 3 species of mergansers in North America (Hooded and Red-breasted are the 2 other species).
  •  Common Mergansers spend a lot of time floating around in open water on the surface. They sometimes sleep while floating around.
  • Nicknames for Commons include “sawbill” and “goosander”
  • Common Mergansers have teeth-like projections that help them hold onto slippery fish.
  • Sometimes gulls will hang around with Common Mergansers and wait until they emerge from diving to try to steal fish. (This would explain why there were gulls hanging out with the male Merganser I saw at Forsythe).

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See the gull watching our male Merganser? There were a few others hanging around as well.

Have you every seen a Common Merganser? We will have a new species of waterfowl next Wednesday. In the meantime, check back here at BirdNation for more bird info!