Archive for October, 2014

Yesterday, I was up in the mountains for my last field day of the year. I spent a few hours in Truckee, CA and after not getting a lot of Evening Grosbeak action, I headed to Soda Springs, CA. Not much going on their either, so it was not a particularly strong finish, but it is always nice to be in the wilds. Just how nice it is to spend regular time in wilderness got me thinking about next year. I am not planning on having field work next year, as I will be working on other projects, and I am really gong to miss my regular mountain visits. I have been spending one day a week, almost every week, in the Sierra for the last two summers and falls. I have seen some beautiful locations and had the opportunity to get to know several areas at a very detailed level. It has been wonderful to feel like I am genuinely getting better at knowing the birds up there by sight and sound. To get more comfortable with a biological community like this has been a really special treat, for me.

I am not sure what I am going to do to fill that gap next year. My research projects are probably going to keep me pretty close to home most of the time. I have already started exploring my local area in more detail, which has been fun and which I will certainly continue to do. But birding in the Sacramento area is just not wild like the Sierra. There is nothing close to me that is. Well, we will see what happens.

I can say that these past two summers have been fairly successful. I have collected enough data for what should become one chapter of my dissertation! I am now going to get to work analyzing the data, writing the paper, and getting it published. That is going to be fun. But it will certainly be good to have this section of my work finished. Feeling like I am accomplishing steps towards my degree is something I have been lacking recently, and getting this out the door will be a big step in the right direction. I will certainly post updates as that process occurs!

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HMANA Press release – October 14, 2014

Over One Million Migrating Hawks Counted during International Hawk Migration Week

Hancock, NH – The Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA) celebrated its first annual International Hawk Migration Week (IHMW) September 20-28, 2014 by tallying over 1.2 million migrating hawks, eagles and vultures at 100 sites throughout Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

Each year hundreds of thousands of hawks, eagles and vultures make their journey from Canada and the United States through Mexico to wintering areas as far as South America. Dedicated counters at hawk watch sites document this movement starting as early as 1 August and continuing daily into December. Their daily numbers are reported to HMANA’s online database, HawkCount.org. This particular week in late September was chosen due to the sheer number of hawks that are counted across North America.

One hundred watch sites from 33 states and provinces across the continent counted an astounding 1,203,067 raptors during September 20-28. Twenty-nine species were tallied, the vast majority being broad-winged hawks (1,125,597) – since IHMW took place during their peak migration. Other high counts included 24,899 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 8,909 Mississippi Kites, 8,724 Turkey Vultures and 7,192 American Kestrels.

Raptors tend to follow topographic features during fall migration such as north to south running ridgelines, coastlines, and river valleys. As they move further south, there’s a funneling effect as they approach the southern US. The majority of hawks choose to avoid long water crossings so are then squeezed along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and on through Mexico. This is why the Veracruz, Mexico watch sites counted more than any other at 812,949 during IHMW. Corpus Christi, Texas located on the US Gulf coast tallied 226,224 raptors. Other counts across the continent included 15,862 at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, MN; 4,151 Holiday Beach Conservation Area, ON; 4,811 at the Goshute Mountains, NM and 2,777 at the Florida Keys Hawk Watch, FL.

In addition to submitting their daily migration counts to HMANA’s HawkCount.org database, sites celebrated across the map with hawk watching festivals, identification workshops and live bird of prey events. Dr. Laurie Goodrich of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Kempton, PA (the oldest hawk watch site in the western hemisphere) said: “IHMW is a fantastic demonstration of the popularity of hawk watching and the value of raptors in the environment.”


HMANA (www.hmana.org) is a non-profit organization with a mission to advance scientific knowledge and promote conservation of raptor populations through the study, enjoyment, and appreciation of raptor migration. It oversees the online database, Hawkcount.org, an archive of count data with a wealth of information for birdwatchers and general public alike, including maps and directions to sites, average counts, population status and migration timing by species.
HMANA partners with Hawk Mountain Sanctuary PA (www.hawkmountain.org), Hawk Watch International (based in Utah: http://www.hawkwatch.org), and Bird Studies Canada (in Ontario: http://www.bsc-eoc.org) in the Raptor Population Index program, which aims to track changes in hawk populations for conservation purposes.
For directions and contact information for hawk watch sites near you, visit http://www.hawkcount.org.

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Biodiversity is a the total number of species that exist. Biodiversity can be assessed on many scales. People can look at the biodiversity of a particular park or reserve, a county, a state, a habitat type, a continent, or they can assess the total number of species on the entire planet. Biodiversity is an incredibly important measure of ecosystem health because so much of what keeps ecosystems working are in interconnections of all the various species that live in them. As those species are lost, all are effected and many more may be lost as a result of the loss of the first. This ecological interactions reason is one of the arguments put forward to protect biodiversity, and it is one of the most important in my opinion, but there are many other.

A fewof the more prominent reasons to protect biodiversity come on moral/ethical grounds. For example there is the argument that each species has a right to exist. Just as each human as a inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, so to does each species. By the very dint of the fact that they have made it this far in evolutionary history, they should be protected. Another reason that is put forward to protect biodiversity is that we, the people, have an obligation to act as stewards of the earth. Since we are the ones who are most responsible for much of the habitat disruption that is occurring planet-wide, we have the responsibility to also be the ones who minimize the negative effects of those disruptions on the other species that call Earth home. A third ethical argument for preserving biodiversity is that we all have a duty to our descendents. Someday, our great-great-great grand kids will be wandering around and wondering how the Earth got be the way they see it. It is up to decide what Earth those descendents will look at, at is seems prudent to make sure it is a good one.

But some people are not moved by these kinds of arguments. They say that if a action benefits humans, then that action is worth taking. Working towards the betterment of humanity is a high and worth goal. So, if you are one of those people that does not put a lot of weight in the wish-washy philosophical arguments of moral rights and wrongs, here is a very human-centered reason to protect biodiversity.

Mantis Shrimp can see cancer.

Yes, you read that right. Mantis Shrimp, which are really cool shrimp that can hit things harder than anything else in the animal kingdom, can see cancer cells. Part of how these shrimp see is by using polarized light. When given choices between tissues that contained cancer cells and healthy tissues, they were able to pick the two apart! Researchers are now in the process of using the same polarized light detection ability in a camera so that doctors, and anyone else, will also be able to see cancer cells in a person. This may even become something as everyday as a cellphone app. that you could download and use to scan yourself. Talk about early detection!

Now here is a non-philisophical argument to protect biodiversity. There was really no way to predict that Mantis Shrimp would have this ability. There was no way to predict that Horseshoe Crabs would have bacteria detection agent in their blood (another amazing story). The only way we were able to find these abilities in other animals was to have those animals around and then have some scientist get lucky enough to try something crazy. That is how science works, but there would be no way for these discoveries to be made in the Mantis Shrimp had already gone extinct before anyone had the chance to find out what it could do! Who knows what else is out there waiting to be discovered! But if those species, what ever they are, go extinct before we get a chance to study them, we will never know what we have lost.

Let that sink in for a moment.

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I was out along the shores of Bucks Lake near Quincy, CA, last week, in the hope of getting some more of my field work done. Unfortunately, I did not think to check the weather report before I left. It has been so dry this summer that it did not even cross my mind that it might rain! Well, this was the day that rain it did. A lot! It started as I was driving up into the mountains, and did not stop all morning! When I got to Bucks Lake I parked near Haskins Creek and sat in my car for a while. I soon decided, however, that if I was going to up there, I might as well get out and do some birding. Maybe I would find some Evening Grosbeaks and see what they were up to in the rain.

Well, I did not find any Evening Grosbeaks, but I did get a good bit of birding in. I spent most of my time watching a big flock of White-crowned Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. Watching the birds forage in the rain was pretty cool. The lighter showers were not enough to bother most of the birds most of the time, and so they stayed along the roadside. It was only when a heavier downpour began that the birds would retreat into the cover of some dense willow thickets and wait until the rain lightened up again. I was struck, as I often am, by how dramatic an event migration is. Just last week, I was up in the mountains and saw my very first White-crowned, and Golden-crowned, Sparrows of the fall. Now, here is a flock of about 60 White-crowns and 20 Golden-crowns! Just like that, this synchronized wave of millions of birds has descended upon California!

As I continued to watch this flock, I started to pick out the odd birds that were mixed in. There was one Song Sparrow. A few Yellow-rumped Warblers flew in and out. Of these, two were of the Myrtle subspecies, which is generally the more eastern subspecies, so they were cool to find. I continued to watch through my binoculars, but suddenly the birds that I could see scattered. I took my binoculars down and saw that the whole flock was racing for cover! I looked up and found out the reason for the sudden panic. An adult Red-shouldered Hawk was flying right up the middle of the meadow and directly over the foraging passerines. The hawk did not actually make any directed move towards the small birds, but instead flew off into the trees. A little later, an adult Bald Eagle also flew, rather dramatically through the rain and mists, over the flock. This bird did not cause any reaction from the sparrows at all, and neither did a Common Raven a few minutes after the eagle. The sparrows can apparently tell the difference between various predators, and know which they should worry about. I thought this demonstrated some pretty fine ID skills on the part of the sparrows!

In spite of being cold and wet and not finding any Evening Grosbeaks and not getting any field work done, I really enjoyed that morning in the storm. It made me realize how much I have missed being out in the rain!

Here is my full species list:

Bald Eagle (1)

Red-shouldered Hawk (1)

Northern Flicker (2)

Steller’s Jay (11)

Common Raven (1)

Mountain Chickadee (3)

Red-breasted Nuthatch (3)

Golden-crowned Kinglet (5)

American Robin (8)

Yellow-rumped Warbler (3 Audubon’s, 2 Myrtle)

Song Sparrow (1)

White-crowned Sparrow (60)

Golden-crowned Sparrow (20)

Dark-eyed Junco (20)

Brewer’s Blackbird (1)


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