Rainbound on Appledore Island, among the gulls

28 05 2014

This week, your blogger is off on Appledore Island in very southern Maine helping out with our own Dr. Julie Ellis’ gull banding study.

First of all, I think you should all know that our own Dr. Julie Ellis had a baby girl this weekend–the brand new Ruby Ellis Hoffman is well and home with her proud parents and big sister!

Because of this happy event, Julie cannot, rather obviously, be out on the island herself, but we are striving to do her proud. So far, the weather has been somewhat unfavorable. Yesterday, we caught a brief window of dry, though cool, weather, and managed to band and draw blood from a scant three adult Herring Gulls. Alas, at that point, the wind picked up, and later in the day we started to get some rain as well. We devoted a few hours to scouring the island for any banded gulls and appear to have picked up a few subadults who may be back for the first time since being banded as chicks. After lunch though, the weather drove us inside and we’ve been pinned down since. Now, we’re hunkered down, sheltering from a steady rain.

Sarah Chieng and Sean Jeffery scan for banded birds, while a gull scans them in turn.

Sarah Chieng and Sean Jeffery scan for banded birds, while a gull scans them in turn.

For now, I introduce our May gull team: the intrepid Bill Clark, gull guru, is here of course, and your guest blogger (Sarah Courchesne still) and our student recruits: Carly Emes of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry is back for another round; Sean Jeffery, who just graduated from North Shore Community College; and Sarah Chieng, who also just finished up at North Shore with a veterinary technician’s degree. We are looking forward to clearing skies and warmer temperatures in the coming days so we can go on a banding spree and search for ever more banded birds as well.

What were those things in New Jersey?

22 05 2014

Aside from the live birds, which, by comparison were exceedingly easy to identify, the two dead specimens in the last post have generated substantial debate and controversy. I won’t claim to play tiebreaker here since I don’t know the right answer, but I will do my best at my usual role, which is musing and pondering through the options.

For our dead bird, we can, at the very least, state that this is some kind of bird of prey. We can see the taloned toes, and the other features we have here are a strongly banded tail and stripes on the wings as well. Guesses that came in via the comments or via email were: 1) Cooper’s Hawk; 2) Sharp-shinned Hawk; 3) female Northern Harrier. Let us take that last one first. Could this be a harrier, as Wouter suggested? Here are the usual things I would grasp onto in making that i.d. which are unavailable here–an owl-like face (head is missing); a white rump (feathers over tail base and back have weathered away); flight pattern, usually low over dunes and marshes (dead). What do we have? That banded tail, which hen harriers do have, and the legs, which appear quite skinny to me.

The legs and feet of a captive harrier. Seem maybe more substantial than our dead bird's? (Photo: University of Minnesota)

The legs and feet of a captive harrier. Seem maybe more substantial than our dead bird’s?

It’s hard to get an overall sense of size in this case, so that’s not a big help. It does seem to me that harriers will usually have more tail bands and that they are more closely spaced than we see in our dead specimen. The background color in the tail and wings of a female harrier also strikes me as darker and more gray than what we have in our specimen, but I am open to debate on all these points.

Female Northern Harrier in flight. (photo: Dan Pancamo)

Female Northern Harrier in flight. (photo: Dan Pancamo)

If we take up the cause of the accipiters, we come to a very familiar question: is this a Sharp-shinned or a Cooper’s Hawk? There are several field marks to be used to help make the determination, though it can be difficult given that the largest Sharpies overlap with the smallest Cooper’s in terms of size. But features like tail shape and overall impression of the head seeming big or small for the body can be of help when those traits are evident. We dead bird enthusiasts, however, are accustomed to challenges like “head not present.” So we will work with what we do have. From the angle we see here, it’s fairly hard to say whether the tail is rounded or squared off. There is a pale band at the very end of the tail, but is it more like a Sharp-shinned or a Cooper’s? We do at least have the legs, and if forced to say whether they are more pencil-like, or more stocky, I think I’d concur with Mary Wright and say they look skinny, and that this is thus a Sharp-shinned Hawk. As usual, I will entertain debate, shouting down, and fierce opposition.


It’s only going to get worse as we turn to that mammal paw emerging from the sand. Mammals are way outside my wheelhouse. My first instinct was to say raccoon, based on the hand-like appearance (though the fifth digit is hard to make out, which would help) and the grizzled look to what fur is visible. In terms of what our other contestants thought, Mary Wright says mink, Mary Myers says opossum, and Wouter thought either raccoon or marten. So our list ranges from a marsupial to something in the weasel family, to a member of the Procyonids (raccoon). A diverse slate that speaks to the confusion that can arise when faced with a hand-like paw. The best I can really do is offer a side by side of those various paws and see what you think:

Check out this blog post including close up of the partial webbing between a mink’s toes. Does the toe length and degree of webbing match our specimen? Marten are typically found farther north than Jerry’s beach in Jersey, but for other weasels generally, they tend to have a more paw-like foot, rather than distinct, divided toes, at least in my judgment. Opossums have an opposable digit on the hind foot, but the forefoot looks more like our specimen’s, so I think opossum is a definite contender. Raccoon feet are somewhat similar, with long, free toes, but they are generally furred all the way to the toe tip, and our specimen’s toes look a bit more hairless. I think I might reject my initial guess and go with Mary Myers on this one. Anyone see anything I’m missing? Other ideas?

Raccoon paw languorously reaching for some cat food.

Raccoon paw languorously reaching for some cat food.

Virginia opossum: Hind foot with opposable "thumb" and forefeet in the background.

Hind foot with opposable “thumb” and forefeet in the background.

Just the usual things in New Jersey

20 05 2014

One of our longest suffering of our long suffering Seanetters, Jerry Golub, has sent along a few pics from his New Jersey beach. Though not at all restricted to dead birds, and including not any dead seabirds at all, I found all his photos so fascinating I wanted to share them as a view of his beach. I particularly like his note about the mysterious paw, poking daintily out of the sand as if inviting a manicure; Jerry wrote, “The strangest thing on my beach was a mammal paw I was afraid to excavate. Any ideas?” How about you, Seanetters? Any ideas on that one?


Snappy dressers! They’re not dead, and they’re terns, so I am outside my area of expertise on two counts. But still, Least Terns is what they look like to me.


Know who this character is?


Oh, I think a nice bubble gum pink shade would do nicely.


Simply stunning. And lucky for me, no mistaking an oystercatcher, even if they are alive.

Common Eider die-offs in the news

6 05 2014
A cheery looking Chris Dwyer with a less cheery looking eider (Boston Globe photo)

A cheery looking Chris Dwyer with a less cheery looking eider (Boston Globe photo)

While visiting my parents the other day, my father brought the paper in from outside and tossed it on the table. Imagine my surprise when I caught sight of a picture of our partner, Chris Dwyer, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, in a front page article in the Boston Globe. The story highlights the work of a cadre of biologists, Massachusetts state and local officials, and a veterinary surgical team. The group went to work on the Boston Harbor Islands, the southern limit of the Common Eider’s breeding range. Team members came from a number of institutions and agencies, including US Fish and Wildlife Service, USGS, University of Pennsylvania, USDA, Biodiversity Research Institute, National Park Service, and Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation and Division of Fisheries and Wildlife seeking to continue their research on Wellfleet Bay Virus, a newly discovered pathogen suspected of driving the annual die-offs of eiders on the Cape. The crew was able to capture, band and sample 38 birds. Ten males and nine females also had satellite tags surgically implanted before their release. Two of the captured birds had been previously sampled in earlier years, so the researchers are eager to see how their viral test results compare over time.

It was a very successful trip, and we’re excited to see what the results show as they come in. Congrats to this hard working team, and an additional congratulations to Chris himself, who recently won the prestigious William T. Hesselton award for distinguished service by a Northeast wildlife professional. Kudos on the win, Chris; very well deserved!