Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Windows on Duke's Campus are a Devil for Birds

Most birders come across a window strike victim every now and again and perhaps think of it as a tragic freak accident.  But did you know that collisions with windows are the second leading source of human-caused bird death in the United States?
Tufted Titmouse, a window strike victim at Duke University
It’s a serious problem, particularly for neotropical migrants, many of which have declined significantly in North America over the past century.  It isn’t possible to attribute population declines to collisions, but the annual death of an estimated 1 billion birds (*source below) certainly isn’t helping.  And with more and more buildings being constructed that means more windows and more chances for fatally concussed birds.  

The good news is that solutions are relatively cheap and easy.  Window panes can be coated with ultra-violet reflective films or stickers to make them appear visible to birds without ruining the view for people.  Mortality of nocturnal migrants can be greatly reduced by turning off lights and/or shutting blinds during peak movements.  This approach has been taken by major metropolitan areas, such as Toronto and Chicago, which have annual “lights out” programs.

Data on the scope of the problem here in the Carolinas is mostly anecdotal so far.  Around the campus of Duke University in Durham, NC a few birders have collected dozens of incidentally discovered carcasses to send to the natural history museum in Raleigh to be used as study skins.

An assortment of window strike victims found on Duke University's West Campus over the past year
I stumbled upon the first campus record of a GrasshopperSparrow outside Cameron Indoor Stadium over a year ago.  Luckily this bird was still alive, confused and fluttering against a ground-level window.  I was able to catch it, document it with an iPhone and release it unharmed. 

Grasshopper Sparrow, a window strike survivor at Duke University

The first campus Fox Sparrow record came a couple weeks ago, but this bird was less fortunate.

Fox Sparrow, a window strike victim at Duke University
Both these sparrow species are relatively rare around Durham and it is clear that buildings on campus are the cause of mortality not just to local residents, but also to passing migrants that may be drawn into the well-lit and reflective campus only to crash into invisible walls.  
a Hermit Thrush lies dead beneath Duke University's sparkling new Penn Pavillion
But it will take more than the tragic story of a few birds meeting an untimely end to sway the corporate administrators that crank the machinery running Duke’s multibillion-dollar empire.  Deliberate sampling, statistics and cost-benefit analyses are needed.

...which is exactly why carcass surveys began last week focusing on seven West Campus buildings. They will continue for 21 consecutive days of as part of a project led by Natalia Ocampo-Penuela, a doctoral candidate at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, and Nicolette Cagle, a Nicholas School instructor.  Their Duke team will pool data with a consortium of 45 other North American colleges and universities investigating bird death from windows on their campuses.  The international team includes academic institutions in Mexico and Canada and is spearheaded by researchers at Augustana College in Illinois.  Duke is the only participant in North Carolina.  

Surveys at Duke will not only help quantify the magnitude of the problem nationally, but also help identify local campus hot spots for bird strikes where mitigation can have the greatest positive effect.  Data on the shape, orientation, surrounding land cover and window properties of these buildings will also help inform future architects about strategies for bird-friendly design.  Six of the buildings in the survey have received awards for Leadership in Efficient Environmental Design (LEED certification), but so far it doesn’t look like many are that actually that friendly to birds.

Did you know that last Tuesday night there was a big movement of migrating Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, an uncommon woodpecker that winters in Duke Forest?  I do because surveyors found three dead ones around Duke buildings on Wednesday.  

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a window strike victim at Duke University
Durham’s first Ovenbird of the season arrived that night.  It may have crossed the Gulf of Mexico recently on its way to breeding grounds in Duke Forest or points to the north.  But it’s chance to breed this year were ruined by a window of the French Family Science Center at Duke.

Ovenbird, a window strike victim at Duke University

This kind of practical action-oriented conservation science that Ocampo-Penuela and Cagle are pursuing is exactly what these birds need.

For more information about this project and instructions on what to do if you should find a window strike victim on Duke's campus, see their website:

If you find window strike bird anywhere in the world, you can report it to this new iNaturalist project:

*Loss S.R., Will T., Loss S.S., and Marra P.P. 2014. Bird–building collisions in the United States: Estimates of annual mortality and species vulnerability. Ornithological Applications 116: 8-23. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Odd gulls off Cape Hatteras - photo quiz!

Most people take winter pelagics off Cape Hatteras for the alcids or a chance at Great Skua, but Brian Patteson's winter trips also happen to be an excellent opportunity for studying gulls.

Chum reliably summons a flock of a few hundred that parade along behind the Stormy Petrel II like the tail of a comet.  Unlike most gull-watching which involves staring at loafing flocks on the beach, gulls behind the boat come in to point blank range with wings spread for easy viewing.

Some unusual gulls turned up on last Sunday's pelagic trip, which makes a great opportunity for a good old fashioned bird quiz!

Ready, Go!

Bird #1

practice bird

Just kidding!  That was a warm-up bird to get you used to the mediocrity of the photos, and for the uninitiated, to introduce the default species seen here, the Herring Gull.

Here's the real bird #1

bird #1

bird #1

bird #1

Bird #2

bird #2

bird #2
bird #2 (right)
Bird #3

bird #3
bird #3

bird #3
bird #3

Bird #4

bird #4 (left)

bird #4

bird #4

bird #4

That's it!

Leave your answers in the comments below, or if you're shy, email them to me directly: scott dot winton at gmail dot com

Wild guesses are totally fine, but it would be great to hear the rationale for your answers.

First person to get them all correct wins a free Brown Boobies t-shirt!

Winter birding on and off North Carolina's Outer Banks

Last weekend I led a group of Nicholas School of the Environment graduate students on a grand birding tour of North Carolina's Outer Banks.

We hit up all best hotspots--Bodie Island Lighthouse, Oregon Inlet, Pea Island, Cape Point--and spent Sunday offshore with Brian Patteson looking for pelagics.  All told we racked up a whopping 58 non-passerine species.

The frigid winter has made for an excellent year for ducks in North Carolina and on Saturday we managed to stumble upon 17 duck species.

Highlights included this confiding Redhead near the Hatteras lighthouse...
Redhead, Cape Hatteras
... and beautiful views of dabblers by the Bodie island lighthouse, such as some gorgeous drake Northern Pintail...
Northern Pintail, Bodie Island lighthouse pond
...but it was the assortment of sea ducks at Oregon Inlet that stole the show.
Harlequin Duck, Oregon Inlet
Surf Scoter, Oregon Inlet
Harlequin Duck, Surf Scoter and five White-winged Scoters, Oregon Inlet
 We birded the banks Saturday because wind kept us from going offshore, but our trip aboard the Stormy Petrel II on Sunday, with calm winds and unseasonably warm air, was the most pleasant winter pelagic I've ever been on.
Nicholas School students checking out life on the edge of the gulf stream

Slack winds made the ocean glassy and it was unusually easy to spot alcids on the water.

Razorbill, pelagic off Hatteras
Dovekie, pelagic off Hatteras
 We followed a sharp color change for several miles, which was teaming with birds and other sea life.  I had never seen so many huge flocks of Bonaparte's Gulls and Red Phalaropes.

 Manx Shearwaters are expected in winter and we saw several.
Manx Shearwater, pelagic off Hatteras
 But a Sooty Shearwater was a rare treat!
Sooty Shearwater, pelagic off Hatteras
It flew in and fought with the gull flock for chum scraps for half an hour!

For many of the students the bird life on this trip was outshone by other sea creatures, such as loggerhead sea turtles, a basking shark, bottlenose dolphins and a whopping 25 (or so) Manta Rays!

Manta ray with remoras, pelagic off Hatteras
 This was a lifer for me, but I'll admit I was more excited about the life bird I saw this trip.  More to come on this in a later post, but *hint* it was a gull.

A fun time was had by all.

The group at Hatteras lighthouse
 A big thanks to Brian Patteson and Kate Sutherland for running another awesome pelagic trip, to Jeff Lemons for helping spot birds and to my co-leaders Nicki and Natalia.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Snowy Birds at the Outer Banks

Last weekend I went all the way to the outermost of North Carolina's Outer Banks, Ocracoke, accessible only by ferry in search of Snowy Owls in the cold rain.

I had already seen one at Cape Hatteras in November, but for Natalia, who hails from the equator more or less, seeing this beautiful bird that has wandered halfway down from the top of the world is worth just about any hardship. 

We met up with the now-famous Peter Vankevich, Ocracoke's preeiminent librarian and birder, who shrugged off the nasty weather to take us, his 130-somethingth personal guests, on what has become his daily ritual, an island Snowy Owl chase.

It is sometimes said that the best birds are the ones you work for and this owl was tough!

After a few fruitless hours traversing the island and it's beaches we took a lunch break.  Luckily a hot tip hit Peter's email inbox about a sighting at the airstrip and at long last that's where we found "Blanche," as Peter has named this individual, looking a bit waterlogged from the persistent rain.
Snowy Owl, Ocracoke, North Carolina
After snapping photos from various angles we raced back up to the north end of the island to catch the ferry back to Hatteras.  To our surprise a second Snowy Owl flushed up off the roadside as we cruised past.  It gave us a side-long look as it flew over to the dunes as if to say "don't forget that I'm here too!"

Peter has known that two birds have been residing on the island, but after examining some photos thinks there may at least three!

We spent Sunday birding our way north up the banks and then west back toward Durham.  This winter has been especially good for ducks and we had little trouble getting all three scoter species, both scaup and Natalia's first Long-tailed Duck and Harlequin Ducks.

But the snow bird theme continued for us at Jockey's Ridge State Park where we got great views of some cute Snow Buntings.
Snow Buntings, Jockey's Ridge State Park, North Carolina

These little arctic wonders are usually reported on a beach somewhere in NC each year, but this state park is only place I've ever been able to track them down locally

Snow Buntings, Jockey's Ridge State Park, North Carolina
And we saw seven to boot!

A huge thanks to Peter Vankevich for making our snow bird weekend a success!  Also to Jeff Lewis for keeping track of all the interesting birds across Dare County for us...

sleeping Band-tailed Pigeon butt, Manteo, North Carolina

...and to the host of this Band-tailed Pigeon in Manteo who has graciously allowed more than 150 birders to drop by and see North Carolina's second record of this western species.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Carolina Bird Club Field Trip to the Caribbean Coast of Colombia

Twelve brave souls ventured out of the Carolinas and across the Caribbean Sea to embark on a week-long birding tour of Colombia’s northern coast led by conservation biologist, Natalia Ocampo-Penuela and Carolina Birder, Scott Winton (the author).  We collectively observed more than 285 species including about 30 endemics or near-endemics and more than 40 neotropical migrants.  Lifers were added constantly and some participants saw more than 200 new birds!  

Our trip started and ended at the beautiful , historic city of Cartagena, a UNESCO world heritage site.  While the birdlife here is outshone by the city’s ramparts and colonial architecture, the Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown-throated Parakeets ever-present overhead set the tropical tone. 
Brown-throated Parakeet, common along the Caribbean coast

The first major birding stop was made for a boat ride through the mangroves of Salamanca National Park.  While being poled through creeks and pools we spotted a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, American Pygmy Kingfishers, Golden-green Woodpecker, and the mangrove specialist, near-threatened Bicolored Conebill. 

Boat Ride at Salamanca National Park

After a night in Santa Marta we headed up the side of the Sierra Nevada toward El Dorado, a lodge and reserve set high in the cloud forest.  The road up the mountain was very rough, but lead us to exciting and easy birding right from the lodge. The hummingbird and banana feeders were abuzz with Green Violetears, Purple-crowned Woodnymphs, Blue-naped Chlorophonias and Black-capped Tanagers.   

Violet-crowned Woodnymph, El Dorado

Blue-naped Chlorophonia, El Dorado

Occasional visits by the endemic White-tailed Starfrontlet and endemic Black-backed Thornbill were thrilling.   
Black-backed Thornbill (with Violet-Crowned Woodnymphs), El Dorado
 The lodge’s compost pile attracted both endemic Brush-Finch species (Santa Marta and Sierra Nevada)...

Santa Marta Brush-Finch, El Dorado
Sierra Nevada Brush-Finch, El Dorado
 ...and a flock of 13 of the endemic Black-fronted Wood-Quail.  

Black-faced Wood-Quail, El Dorado
The yet-to-be-described Santa Marta Screech-Owl could be viewed roosting two minutes away from the dining room.

Santa Marta Screech-Owl, El Dorado

Our first morning at El Dorado we set off an hour before dawn along another very bumpy road to 2500 meters elevation.  We were rewarded immediately by endemic Santa Marta Parakeets at dawn, endemic Yellow-crowned Whitestarts singing away...

Yellow-crowned Whitestart, El Dorado

...and spectacular views and even photos of the elusive, difficult endemic Santa Marta Warbler, a frequently missed species.   

Santa Marta Warbler, El Dorado

We also enjoyed scope views of the endemic Santa Marta Toucanet... 

Santa Marta Emerald Toucanet, El Dorado
...and the endemic White-tipped Quetzal, which was for many the bird of the trip. 

White-tipped Quetzal, El Dorado

After ticking a couple endemic spinetails, Buff-breasted and Santa Marta Mountain-Tanagers, and failing to scare a Rufous Antpitta or Brown-rumped Tapaculo into view, we made our way back downslope during the afternoon lull. 

Our knowledgeable local guide, Lorenzo, had us stop midway at a spot known for having Golden-breasted Fruiteater.  We heard it calling quickly enough, but then it went silent and I could see that Lorenzo was worried.  The looming figure of a Black-and-Chestnut Eagle (listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN) swooping overhead proved to be the issue!  After some patience the fruiteater began to vocalize again and somehow I caught a glimpse of it as it landed in the canopy where it cooperatively sat for 15 minutes so all could view it in the scope.  Lorenzo said that many birders leave thinking they’ve seen the fruiteater when they were just looking at a leaf—not us! 

That evening we enjoyed spectacular views of several Band-tailed and Sickle-winged Guans feeding on flower buds in some trees hanging over deck outside the lodge dinning room.

Band-tailed Guan, El Dorado

As anticipated, the birds at El Dorado were the trip highlights, not to mention the views of the Caribbean Sea in one direction and Colombia’s highest snow-capped peaks in the other.  
view of the Caribbean Sea and Cienega Grande from El Dorado

I think we all wanted to stay and bird the reserve more, but after two nights it was time to bump our way back downhill.  Birding stops on the trip down yielded Barred Forest-Falcon, Keel-billed Toucan, fantastic views of the Santa Marta subspecies of Red-billed Parrot, a Mourning Warbler, and the endemic Santa Marta Antbird.  

Santa Marta Red-billed Parrot, Bolivar

We stayed a night in the foothill town of Minca at a hotel by the same name.  Its hummingbird feeders hosted a new array of species, such as Rufous-tailed Hummingbird...

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Minca
...and Steely-vented Hummingbird.

Steely-vented Hummingbird, Minca

The next morning we birded the road up from Minca, with some of the crowd favorites being Golden-winged Sparrow, Swallow Tanager, Scaled Piculet and White-bearded Manakin.   

Golden-winged Sparrow, Bolivar

After lunch we said goodbye to Lorenzo who had been our faithful guide for three days and resumed our journey northward along the coast.  

After rough roads and cold early mornings up in the Sierra Nevada, the idyllic beachfront splendor of El Matuy resort is just what the group needed.  While the setting demanded relaxation, that didn’t stop us from birding!  It was well worth the early wake-up in order to get to our desert birding spot early.  We immediately found one of the key targets here in a very cooperative male Vermillion Cardinal.  Other exciting finds were Caribbean Pale-legged Hornero, White-whiskered Spinetail, Orinocan Saltator, Chestnut Piculet...
Chestnut Piculet, Guajira

...and Black-crested Antshrike.
Black-crested Antshrike, Guajira

By the time we got to the lagoon at Los Flamencos it was midday and blazing hot with the namesake flamingoes nowhere in sight.  We decided taking a boat out under the sun for two hours would be a bad idea.  The flamingos were not worth heat stroke and we had already seen three in a roadside pond anyway.  

American Flamingos in a roadside pond near Cartagena

While scoping the lagoon from shore I noticed a black-backed, white-headed gull looming over a large flock of Royal, Common and Sandwich Terns.  I told the group it was a Great Black-backed Gull, but later realized I had been looking at a Belcher’s Gull, not quite as rare a bird for Colombia, but way out of range on the Caribbean Coast.  This was probably the most unusual bird we observed on the trip and I managed to misidentify it—a classic gringo mistake!

The evening after Los Flamencos I came down with a nasty stomach bug that put me out of commission for the next 24 hours.  I expected somebody to get sick on the trip I just didn’t think it would be me!  I think I may have had better birding luck sitting at the van than walking the road on our final morning, picking up a flyover Pearl Kite and a couple Golden-fronted Greenlets.  Fortunately one of the latter stuck around for the group to see when they returned. 

Golden-fronted Greenlet, Bolivar

In an effort to spend down our budget surplus we dined at the fanciest of Cartagena’s restaurants, Don Juan, for our final trip dinner. While we couldn’t manage to break the bank (even the best food in Cartagena is reasonably priced) it was an excellent spot to celebrate all the lifers and reminisce over a fantastic week of birding.  
The Group
Anybody who watches the news can't help but have the idea that Colombia is a good place to visit if you want to be kidnapped or murdered.  In our case, the cheesy slogan penned by the ministry of tourism, "the only risk is wanting to stay," proved to be spot on.  There are still the 1600 or so Colombian species we missed out there and we can't wait to return to see some of them!