Sunday, November 27, 2011

Meet the Millerbirds!

       It is time to meet the Millerbirds!   And no, I do not mean us.  Nor am I referring to our yard birds.  Instead, I want to share with you what I learned last week about an endangered species of Old World Warblers, that inhabits one island (Nihoa) of the Hawaiian Archipelago, the Millerbird.

Millerbird -- Image credit: R. Kohley/American Bird Conservancy & US Fish and Wildlife Service

How did I learn of this species so far from Charleston?  Well, I tend to sign regularly petitions for a variety of conservation causes, and as a result, I receive numerous e-mails from various conservation organizations.  The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) sends out a weekly "Bird of the Week" e-mail which highlights a specific endangered species endemic to a particular area.  I do not generally remember the information on the birds that they highlight.  But this species account on the Millerbird stood out from the rest because of the fascinating links to the collaborative work for the preservation of this species being accomplished this Fall, by three organizations, the American Bird Conservancy, the US Fish and Wildlife Service -- Pacific Region, and the Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument.

        Two different subspecies of this bird each once inhabited two islands in the Hawaiian Archipelago,  the 155 acre volcanic Nihoa and the considerably larger 1023 acre Laysan.  Unfortunately, the Laysan subspecies went extinct nearly 100 years ago due to the introduction of a nonnative species of rabbit which devegetated much of the island.  The rabbit has since been eradicated and the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been working to restore the island ecology over the last 10 years.  The goal now of these organizations is to translocate a group of Nihoa Millerbirds to Laysan Island in an attempt to reestablish the Millerbird there and to hopefully expand the population of birds.  Thus, if some tragedy were to strike the birds of the smaller Nihoa Island that resulted in the bird's extinction there, a population of these birds would continue to survive on Laysan.
Map copied from Wikipedia -- from the USGS

Nihoa Island -- Image credit: G. Wallace/American Bird Conservancy
       After several years of planning, a team of scientists and volunteers from the three organizations implemented in September the first crucial stage of this translocation project: capturing 24 Nihoan Millerbirds and banding each of them with the usual USGS metal band and a specific combination of colored bands (for individual field identification purposes).  Twelve of them were outfitted with temporary-use transmitters for better tracking.  The scientists assessed the  health, sex, age and general perkiness of the birds to make sure that these birds were in the best possible health to tolerate the stress of translocation to a new environment.

Camp set up on Nihoa -- Image credit: C. Farmer/American Bird Conservancy

Setting up mist nests on Nihoa -- Image credit: H. Freifeld/US Fish and Wildlife Service
Millerbird holding cages on Nihoa -- Image credit: C. Farmer/American Bird Conservancy

Preparing food trays for the newly captured Millerbirds on Nihoa -- Image credit: H. Freifeld/US Fish and Wildlife Service

Temporary transmitter placed on 12 birds to aid in tracking -- H. Freifeld/US Fish and Wildlife Service

Millerbird in holding cage -- Image credit: R. Kohley/American Bird Conservancy & US Fish and Wildlife Service

The next precarious step was to load the birds onto a zodiac to transfer to the USFWS research vessel M/V Searcher for their 3 day journey to Laysan. 

Image credit: H. Freifeld/US Fish and Wildlife Service
Image credit: C. Farmer/American Bird Conservancy
Image credit: T. Work/USGS-National Wildlife Health Research Center

Photo credit: H. Freifeld/US Fish and Wildlife Service

Image credit: R. Kohley/American Bird Conservancy & US Fish and Wildlife Service

After off-loading the birds and setting up camp on Laysan, the Millerbird team began the process of acclimation and release of the Millerbirds.  All told, the birds were captive a mere 6 days -- including the 3 days of transport. 

Millerbirds at camp on Laysan Island -- Image credit: H. Freifeld/US Fish and Wildlife Service
Carrying birds to the release site -- Image credit: H. Freifeld/US Fish and Wildlife Service

Millerbird looking out of the window of his release box -- Image credit: H. Freifeld/US Fish and Wildlife Service
     The team used a release box with a specially designed window permitting the bird to see its new territory  and the scientists to observe the bird to ensure that it was behaving normally prior to release. 

Celebrating a release! -- Image credit: T. Speetjens/US Fish and Wildlife Service

Tracking newly released birds -- Image credit: C. Farmer/American Bird Conservancy
These two researchers, Robby Kohley and Cameron Rutt, are remaining on the island through April 2012 to track the birds survival, distribution and nesting attempts.  

The Happy Millerbird Team in a celebratory photo -- Image credit: H. Freifeld/US Fish and Wildlife Service
             Kudos indeed to this dedicated team of scientists and volunteers who have worked so hard to ensure the success of this project and the survival of this species!  

For more details on the project, I recommend the following links:

Nihoa Millerbird Translocation Protocols (pdf 1.85MB) (Sept.2, 2011) -- the fascinating details in the science and planning behind the project!

Slideshow: Millerbird Study trials (pre-release) -- September 2, 2011 with fabulous images of the landscape and close-ups of the birds!

FAQs - Nihoa Millerbird Translocation Frequently Asked Questions (Sept. 19, 2011) -- an excellent  summary of the  interesting details on the hows, whys and wherefores of this project!

Photos - Link to USFWS Flickr site (Sept. 19, 2011) -- Source of the photos used in this blog post with detailed captions and VIDEO!

And finally, we can continue to follow this project through the blog posts of Robert Kohley and Cameron Rutt, the Nihoa Millerbird Monitoring Team, who remain on Laysan, to monitor the birds.  To summarize a bit, most of the males and females have paired off, established territories and have even attempted nest building and egg-laying.  Finch predation on eggs has posed a problem thus far.  But since the birds coped with similar types of finch predation on Nihoa, the team is hopeful that the birds will learn to deal with this.  Male and female differentiation is difficult to assess with these birds and relies on wing measurements.  Occasionally, a female turns out to be a small male.  And thus, Robert Kohley and Cameron Rutt recently discovered via observations of one aloof bird's behavior, that "she" was actually a male, making the ration of males to females 13 to 11.  Their fascinating blog posts also include tallies of bird species that have arrived on Laysan during this Fall migration.  As a person who is completely unfamiliar with many species possible in the Pacific, I find these counts intriguing.  But I will not spoil the details of their blog.  I recommend that you follow it too! 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Lowcountry Oysters: Not Just for the Birds! But also for the Birds!

American Oystercatchers -- Intracoastal Waterway -- May 2008

        Cool weather is frisky weather.  Some of my fondest childhood memories include the frisky night chill of the neighborhood oyster roasts that my brothers and I enjoyed in our backyard on Schooner Creek (James Island, SC).  As kids, we would run around and play chase while the adults slurped down the oysters that my father and friends had gathered from the creeks earlier in the afternoon, and that they then roasted over an open pit fire.  Once we were well-winded, we would join the adults around the table and eat the delicious Lowcountry pluff mud grown oysters.

       As an adult, the feel and smell of the cool, damp air over our salt marsh triggers these nostalgic memories for me.  And so it is with great anticipation that I await Charleston Audubon's Annual Holiday Party & Oyster Roast at Bowen's Island each year.  And since the event is always close to my brother's birthday, I happily invite him and Mom to join in the fun.  Though we are too old to play chase anymore, we enjoy the crisp outdoor air, the smell of the pluff mud, the camaraderie with family and friends, the spectacular sunset and the devine taste of Lowcountry oysters. 

Lowcountry oysters!

Until I had moved to Texas as a graduate student, I did not know that oysters from elsewhere could taste differently.  What a shock for my tastebuds, to order oysters in a restaurant and to be so disappointed in the flavor!  Too put it mildly, those Gulf Coast oysters are simply inferior.  And yet, that is what you find largely, even in many of our Lowcountry restaurants now.  I had tasted oysters from New Jersey and France also.  They actually do have some flavor thanks to the saltiness of the Atlantic Ocean waters.  But nothing can match the rich flavor of the oysters from our pluff mud!

       The Charleston Audubon Society (aka. Charleston Natural History Society) uses the oyster roast as a fundraiser.  So, though oysters are not just for American Oystercatchers and Boat-Tailed Grackles, but for birds and wildlife, in general. 

This American Oystercatcher slurping mussels -- October 2008 -- Pitt Street -- Photo received Honorable Mention in the SC Wildlife Magazine 2009 contest

And for us, YUM!  Pre-paid ($20) tickets can be purchased by mailing in your check and the form available on our link (above) for the December 11 event.  Or, you can pay $25 at the door.  The event goes from 2 pm to 5 pm.  We are offering both vegetarian and regular chili (several varieties), cornbread and desserts for those who do not like oysters.  There will also be a silent auction, live music and dancing.  And with a fishing license, you can fish from the dock! 

A happy Brother Jimmy slurping oysters!

         Robert Barber, owner of Bowen's Island generously donates the use of his oyster dock to us for our roast.  And if you have never been to Bowen's Island, hmmm....  Well it is a true Lowcountry cultural experience that should not be missed.  This is where locals go to be local.  This is where a binya can show a comya how we live (see explanation of binya and comya reference here).

Bowen's Island  -- December 2009

        More photos from past Charleston Audubon Annual Holiday Party and Fundraising Oyster Roasts follow to further entice you to come and join in the fun!
Two Steves and Melissa -- members of Charleston Audubon enjoying the camaraderie and the views -- December 2009

A Foggy view at the December 2009 event!

Dennis and Joe -- December 2009
Cornelia, Paul & Andy -- December 2009
Joe leaves our mark on a newly rebuilt Bowen's Island dock -- post fire!  -- Signing walls:  A Bowen's Island tradition -- December 2009

Ring-Billed Gull -- Bowen's Island -- December 2007
A Bowen's Island sunset -- December 2007

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Donnelly WMA -- A Favorite Birding Site: Part 2: One Summer Day

Donnelly WMA -- 1st impoundment just beyond park office -- looking towards egret and wood stork rookery -- July 2011

        The evening of July 16, the weather forecast for the next day called for an unbelievably low, cool morning temperature of 65 degrees and low humidity -- in the sultry Lowcountry!  So often in July, our morning temperatures hover around 78 - 80 degrees.  This was indeed a treat and we needed to treat the day accordingly.  With a vote taken in the Miller household, we unanimously decided to visit a favorite refuge, Donnelly Wildlife Management Area (WMA), an hour south of Charleston, in hopes of seeing a would-be life bird  -- the Purple Gallinule.  We really are at the limits of its northern summer range so there was no guarantee of finding this bird.  However, a friend had recently seen one there.  So why not try? 

Donnelly WMA -- 1st impoundment just beyond park office -- looking towards egret and wood stork rookery -- July 2011

         After "bathing" in the requisite bug spray, we set off before dawn.  We delighted in watching the temperature reading on the car's thermometer drop as we left our garage and headed south in the cool crisp air!  We arrived just before 6 am right after first light and headed down a dike that looks out over an impoundment just beyond the park's office.  And we spent more than an hour in that area watching young wood storks feed and compete for perches as well as other egrets and herons perching and flying over.

Young Tri-colored Herons -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

Young Tri-Colored Heron -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

Young Wood Storks feeding at dawn -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

Young Wood Stork flying over -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011
Young Wood Stork flying over -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

Young Wood Storks sharing a perch -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

Young Wood Stork balancing -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

Young Wood Storks -- sharing becomes competing when the perch becomes crowded -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

Wood Duck flyover -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

Eastern Kingbird hunting insects -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

           Carl and I heard an unfamiliar bird call and searched to identify its source.  We discovered that the call was coming from a rather bold Black-Bellied Whistling Duck!  It was the first time we had ever heard the call as it is the first time we had ever visited Donnelly at the height of their breeding season.  The hot summer temperatures and the thick and ferocious mosquitoes have served as reasonable deterrents in the past!  This guy was not at all shy and very happily posed for us for as long as we wanted.  This gregarious behavior was quite different from what we have usually observed in these ducks.  I have read that the breeding season for Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks is rather long and can range from mid-May to mid-September and this would explain why I have actually seen a pair of Black-Bellieds with chicks in Donnelly in October!  According to data on eBird, Black-Bellieds have been spotted in Donnelly in all the months from April to December. 

Black-Bellied Whistling Duck -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

           Carl and I also learned  that day that these ducks are cavity nesters and make use of nest boxes. This makes me wonder about possible competition with Wood Ducks for boxes in places such as Donnelly.  Although, Wood Ducks tend to nest as early as February, they are also known to produce a second clutch in April/May.   So after researching the question on Birds of North America, a subscription service site with detailed accounts of research conducted on multiple species, I found evidence that showed interspecific parasitism can happen with egg dumping (when a female will lay her eggs in another's nests) resulting in mixed Wood Duck / Black-Bellied Whistling Duck clutches of chicks.  Another species with which there exists documentation of nest parasitism is the Muscovy Duck.  Reseach shows that apparently Black-Bellied Whistling Duck chicks hatch successfully when brooded by either of the above species.

Black-Bellied Whistling Duck -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011
       We were delighted to have the opportunity to watch the Wood Storks, herons, egrets, etc. and to photograph our gregarious duck but we had not forgotten the goal -- the Purple Gallinule.  So we scanned all of the lily pads to no avail.  We left that area and continued past other impoundments with lily pads.  Again, we had no luck finding the Purple Gallinule.  Eventually, we arrived at an old rice impoundment known as the Savage Backwater, where a small overlook is built off of a small dike reaching out into the impoundment.  The sun was getting high in the sky and the quality of light for photography was beginning to diminish.  Carl decided to explore the woods and look for an opening in the brush allowing him a better view of the impoundment than what the overlook seemed to afford.  I decided to bird the edge of the road and then move out on the dike and onto the small platform which facing into the sun.  However, the water lily pads were very thick behind the platform where the light was good.  But alas, there were no Purple Gallinules.  As I preceded towards the dike, I saw a pair of small yellow, brown and white birds -- the size and shape of a green heron -- fly into the marsh adjacent to the dike.  I preceeded slowly and quietly down the dike.  One of the birds flushed.  But I found the second one on the opposite side -- perched on the marsh grass -- a Least Bittern! 

Least Bittern nesting in the Savage Backwater impoundment -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011

      It was my second Least Bittern ever and it certainly was a much better view than that provided by the first one a couple of years ago!  I was thrilled.  This bird did fly off.  But as I settled down on the observation platform to watch the wildlife, both of these bitterns eventually returned.  Though I did not see an actual nest, I suspect that this clump of marsh grass probably contained a Least Bittern nest.  Thankfully, I saw the red hornets' nest before I bumped into it where it was attached under the rail of the platform.  It was easy to see that these bugs were very busy going about their business at the nest, and that as long as I did not bother them, they would not bother me. 

Hornets under the rail of the observation platform -- Savage Backwater, Donnelly WMA -- July 2011
I call these "red hornets" but I really have no idea what kind of hornet they may be. Perhaps, one of my go-to  "bug men," (my entolmologist friends about whom you can read here in a previous post) will let me know! 

            While waiting for Carl to return from his foray into the woods and while scanning the lily pads for the elusive Purple Gallinule, I also watched the other wildlife.  The gators were initially fairly active and I was glad they were in the water and not on the dike.  I also watched a mother Common Gallinule (formerly known as Common  Moorhen) foraging with her chicks.  At one point, I was fairly certain that I was going to see gator feeding on gallinule!

Gator stalking Common Gallinule family -- Savage Backwater, Donnelly WMA -- July 2011
       But the gator changed his mind.  And the birds moved on.  Even though I never got my Purple Gallinule, the water lilies were in bloom and were lovely.  Carl eventually returned and was able to see ever so briefly the Least Bittern.  All in all, it was the loveliest of July mornings and we are so glad to have been able to enjoy it at Donnelly.

Water lily with ant -- Donnelly WMA -- July 2011
          On the way home, we stopped ever so briefly at CawCaw Interpretive Center.  Carl thought that  CawCaw might provide us the opportunity to see a a Purple Gallinule.  At the desk, however, they told us that there had been only one record of this bird at CawCaw.  Nonetheless, we briefly  wandered out onto the dikes and saw these magnificent water lilies -- and no PGs! 

Waterlilies at CawCaw -- July 2011
          By this time, it was noon, we were hungry, the heat of the day had developed and the bug spray had worn off.  It was time to head home -- content with a beautiful morning and fabulous views of wildlife!  And so ends "Donnelly WMA -- A Favorite Birding Site: Part 2:  One Summer Day."  I eagerly anticipate continued enjoyment of this wildlife rich area on a future visit.  Do you want to come along?