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That Asteroid That Killed the Dinosaurs? It May Have Sped Up Bird Evolution

Wed, 09/20/2017 - 09:51

Human activities could trigger an altered pattern of evolution similar to what occurred 66 million years ago when a giant asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, leaving birds as their only descendants. Cornell Ph.D. candidate Jacob Berv and Daniel Field, a Prize Fellow at the University of Bath, came to this conclusion after spending years studying the ancient genetic evolution of birds. They say knowing more about the effects of mass extinction on early bird life may reveal patterns for what lies ahead in the Anthropocene—the age dominated by humans.

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“To understand the role of mass extinctions in shaping patterns of biodiversity, we’re studying how modern birds arose and diversified following the asteroid impact that marks the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, also called the K-Pg event,” said Berv.

In a new study published in Systematic Biology, Berv and Field consider whether the K-Pg mass extinction led to a temporary acceleration in the rate of genetic evolution among its avian survivors. The journal has made the article publicly available online through November 20, 2017.

The researchers jumped into this line of inquiry because of a thorny issue that has puzzled evolutionary biologists for a long time: the “rocks and clocks” debate. There’s often a huge discrepancy between age estimates obtained from the fossil record and estimates generated by molecular clocks, which use the rate at which DNA sequences change to estimate how long ago evolutionary divergences between species occurred.

“For example, if there are 10 DNA differences between the genomes of two species, and the estimated rate of change is one change per million years, then we can infer that those species shared a common ancestor about 10 million years ago,” Berv explains.

Before the K-Pg asteroid impact, the median size of bird fossils was about that of a duck. After the mass extinction, that median size shrank to about that of a songbird today. Smaller body sizes mean higher metabolisms and shorter generation times, which could partly explain why estimates from molecular clocks are too old, the authors suggest. Photos: Yellow-billed Duck and Cape Weaver by Daniel Field.

But there’s a problem. “The oldest fossils we know of that can be assigned to the modern bird group are scarcely older than the K-Pg boundary itself at around 66 million years,” Field says. “Molecular clocks tend to place the origination of modern birds many tens of millions of years earlier than that, well before the asteroid impact. Depending on the analysis, this discrepancy can be up to almost 100 million years—far too long to be explained by undiscovered fossils.”

Molecular clocks may overestimate ages in the avian family tree because they often assume a relatively steady rate of genetic evolution. However, if the K-Pg extinction caused avian molecular clocks to temporarily speed up, Berv and Field say this could explain at least some of the mismatch between between fossil age estimates and those of molecular clocks.

More Early Birds

To support their hypothesis, the authors examined an extensive avian family tree and noticed a clear link between body size and rates of genetic evolution: small birds evolve much faster than large ones. Using statistical modeling techniques to overcome the sparse avian fossil record, Berv and Field found that avian lineages surviving the mass extinction may have been about 80% smaller than their pre-K-Pg counterparts. Size reductions after mass extinctions may have occurred in many groups of organisms, a phenomenon dubbed the “Lilliput Effect” by paleontologists (in a nod to Gulliver’s Travels).

Berv and Field say the existing evidence is consistent with an avian Lilliput Effect across the K-Pg mass extinction.

Smaller birds also tend to have a faster metabolism (think hummingbird versus albatross). The hypothesis is that a speedier metabolism generates more mutations in the DNA (while the molecular clock assumes a steady rate of mutations to generate its estimates). The exact process is still not understood, but the pattern is there.

So, when the asteroid killed off the larger birds, the remaining, smaller birds had faster metabolisms and bred more quickly. This meant that on average, birds evolved more quickly than the assumptions made by molecular clock models.


Berv, J.S., and D.J. Field. 2017. Genomic Signature of an Avian Lilliput Effect Across the K-Pg ExtinctionSystematic Biology.

The journal has granted free public access to this article through November 20, 2017.

“The bottom line is that, by speeding up avian genetic evolution, the K-Pg mass extinction may have temporarily altered the rate of the avian molecular clock”, says Field. “Similar processes may have influenced the evolution of many groups across this extinction event, like plants, mammals, and other forms of life. An interesting implication of this work is that the speedier rate of genetic evolution may have helped stimulate an explosion of avian diversity within only a short time of the K-Pg extinction event.” Says Berv, “Ultimately, The Lilliput Effect may have acted as nature’s hedge against avian extinction as new species proliferated to fill the gaps left by the mass extinction.”

The authors suggest that human activity may even be driving a similar Lilliput-like pattern in the modern world, as more and more large animals go extinct because of hunting and habitat destruction.

“We are currently eliminating the largest animals, just like the asteroid did. Many really big birds–the Dodo, elephant bird, and the moa, for example–have already gone extinct, likely because of human activity,” notes Berv. “Right now, the planet’s large animals are being decimated—the big cats, elephants, rhinos, and whales. We need to start thinking about conservation not just in terms of functional biodiversity loss, but about how our actions will affect the future of evolution itself.”

This research was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant to Berv (DGE-1650441, DEB-1700786), and a National Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada Graduate Scholarship to field. Berv was also supported by a Cornell Lab of Ornithology Athena Grant. Field is supported by a 50th Anniversary Prize Fellowship at the University of Bath.

Life In An Oak

Mon, 09/18/2017 - 13:23

Life In An Oak
Habitat Network Staff September 18, 2017
Oaks (Quercus) are a foundational tree genus and the official tree of the United States. Found throughout North America–in almost every habitat–their lives are intertwined with those of innumerable other organisms that feed on and interact with these ecologically-remarkable trees. For our Life In An Oak poster we selected a handful of species that represent a diversity of ecoregions from coast-to-coast to illustrate the critical roles of the oak in our ecosystems.

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.

John Muir
Love this artwork? Make a donation to Habitat Network and receive a FREE 16×20 poster of Life In An Oak! Donate

big oak image
Working from the left side of the image to the right, the following species in the image are:

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
Oak Titmouse (Baeolophus inornatus)
Virginia’s Warbler (Leiothlypis virginiae)
Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber)
Ilia underwing (Catocala ilia)
Hen-of-the-wood mushroom (Grifola frondosa)
Lichen (Lichenas)
Red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus)
Inky caps mushrooms (Coprinellus micaceus)
Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla)
Acorn weevil (Curculio glandium)
Globular drop snail (Olygyra orbiculata)
Curled leaf moss (Ulota crispa)

owl uploaded
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
Majestic nocturnal owls are frequent residents in oak woodlands throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The tall, strong, meandering branch structure provides ample roosting and nesting opportunity while the oak habitat provides favored acorn food for squirrels and mice making them excellent hunting grounds for Great Horned Owls.

Red Fox
Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
Red foxes utilize oaks for denning (as with the pups in the image above) and as a source of food–consuming both the acorns themselves and the rodents who rely on them. Found throughout most of the United States (minus the southwest) and Canada, red foxes sometimes surprise people with their omnivorous diet of small rodents, reptiles, and birds, but also berries and acorns when they are available. Dens built in the roots of a large oak can last for decades and will often be used season after season for raising pups.

Oak Titmouse
Oak Titmouse (Baeolophus inornatus)
An Oak Titmouse, appropriately named, is considered the “voice and soul” of western, dry oak forests found as far north as southern Oregon and as far south as Baja, Californiaopen_in_new. They are ecologically-tied to oak woodlands for foraging, nesting, and as mating territory. While they do consume acorns, they also eat a variety of other berries, nuts, and insects.

Virginia’s Warbler
Virginia’s Warbler (Leiothlypis virginiae)
Considered by some to be a drab-colored warbler, this species is found breeding in dry mountainous areas of California, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Texas. Preferring insects, they frequently nest in oaks and can be found singing in them from the tree tops and forging for one of the hundreds of different species of caterpillar that use oaks as their host. Climate projections for increasingly hotter and drier weather makes these birds a possible “climate change threatened” species as the habitat they rely on is projected to shrink in response to changing climateopen_in_new.

Red-breasted Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber)
A brilliant crimson-colored sapsucker drilling rings of holes around trees can be witnessed in western, predominantly coniferous forests as far north as Alaska and as far south as northern Baja. Red-breasted Sapsuckers survive on the sap they extract from their oozing tree-ring holes, tree-dwelling insects, and fruit. They prefer conifers, but will utilize oaks for sap-meals and some breeding activity.

Ilia Underwing
Ilia underwing (Catocala ilia)
Both the caterpillar and the adult moth ilia underwing is depicted in this artwork. Like most North American Lepidoptera, Catocala ilia, has a specific host species it requires for food and egg-laying–the black, burr, red, and white oaks are where it is at for this moth! As the pictures reveal this species blends in beautifully with oak trees, while the adult moth can display a fiery red underwing Found east of the Rockies and southern Canada, they are most abundant in eastern deciduous forests.

mushroom fixed
Hen-of-the-wood mushroom (Grifola frondosa)
This cream-to-brown-to-grey-colored, wavy, fan-shaped fungus is usually found in association with oak trees–growing at the base, or from the subterranean roots. It causes butt rot, a fantastic name for the decay of the tree caused by fungi. Hen-of-the-woods is common east of the Rockies, but rare in western states. It is well-loved for the table.

Lichen (Lichenas)
These colorful, structurally-complex organisms grow in ways that are reminiscent of moss; and, they are often mistaken for being in the kingdom Plantae. An old naturalist mnemonic might help you, too, remember that lichens are a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae (or cyanobacteria): “Freddy the fungus and Angie the algae took a ‘lichen’ to each other.” They can slowly grow on various substrates such as rocks, walls, roofs, and trees, including oaks. Their presence is used as an eco-indicator of good air quality.

Red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus)
Red-backs are small, terrestrial woodland salamanders that live under rocks, logs, bark, and among other moist forest-floor-debris. The dense, slow-to-decompose leaf litter characteristic of oak woodlands provides ideal conditions for these salamanders which need to stay moist for foraging and reproduction activities.

Inky Caps
Inky caps mushrooms (Coprinellus micaceus)
Growing in dense clusters, often at the base of hardwood trees (such as oaks), inky cap mushrooms are delicate, thin, shiny-fleshed mushrooms giving them one of their common names, “shiny cap”. More interestingly, the phrase “inky cap” describes the black, inky color of the gills and the process of deliquescence all the mushrooms in this genius use to distribute their spores by autodigesting (literally, self-eating). You can just see this process starting in the image on the right, where the margins of the cap appear to dissolve. These mushrooms have a large distribution as far north as Alaska and even on the Hawaiian Islands; growing where there are hardwood trees. (PS-the brownish-yellow slug in the picture is a common species in the coastal west, commonly called a banana slug–they love to eat mushrooms).

Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla)
Ovenbirds are a unique warbler, spending much of their time foraging on the ground for insects, instead of in the upper tree canopy with the other warblers. The dense leaf litter of Oak woodlands is ideal invertebrate habitat, and Ovenbirds can often be found there taking advantage of the hunting this affords. They live predominantly in broadleaf forests spending their summers in the United States (east of the Rockies) and Canada while winters are spent in southern Florida, Mexico, Central and South America.

Acorn Weevil
Acorn weevil (Curculio glandium)
Acorn weevils may look like they stepped right out of a Star Wars movie, but they are a common inhabitant of oak woodlands if you look closely. They are intimately dependent on oaks. If you have ever found an acorn with a small hole in it, there is a high probability that that acorn was used as a nursery for an acorn weevil. Found on the sides of acorns, the holes can be attributed to the long snouts of the female acorn weevils that are used for drilling holes into the acorns. Once the holes are drilled, they lay their eggs inside the nut and secure the hole with their feces until the larvae are ready to emerge, where upon they pupate in the soil.

snail on oak
Globular drop snail (Olygyra orbiculata)
Olygyra orbiculata are a terrestrial mollusk consistently found in woodlands, such as oak forests. As the picture indicates, these snails will use the deep fissures found in some species of oak bark for shelter during dry periods. While “holed-up” it uses its operculum to tightly close its shell to retain a moist environment. Globular drop snails are the only terrestrial snail to have an operculum.

Curled Leaf moss
Curled leaf moss (Ulota crispa)
Ulota crispa is a common, eastern woodland epiphyte, meaning it attaches to and grows on the surface of another plant, in this case an oak tree. Epiphytes get their nutrients from the sun, air, and rainwater but attach to a larger plant (usually a tree), which they use only as an anchor to afford it easier, often higher-up access to light. This moss is soft and spongy during wet conditions, but desiccates and hardens during long dry spells. It can be seen on trees in North America as far west as Wisconsin, as far north as southern Canada and as far south as Georgia–with small populations in Alaska.

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 12.44.36 PM
These are just a few of the many, many species that utilize oaks in their life-cycle. Pictured is word art of some the Lepidoptera that utilize oaks but are not pictured in the artwork. Impressive how important these trees are to so many species. Long live the Oaks.


Humans and Oaks
We’d be exclusionary if we did not recognize the numerous ways that humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) utilize oaks in their habitats (depicted at the bottom of the image from left to right).

Site for park bench (maybe provided the wood for it too) (Site parco scamnum)
Lining city streets and providing shade (Acies urbs via)
Tire swing anchor (Trigare adductius sublatis ancoris)
Saplings in yard (Virgultum navale)
To sit under (Sit sub)

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Beautiful original Life in an Oak artwork was created by two Bartels Interns at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for the Habitat Network Project.

Justine Lee Hirten:
J.L. Hirten is an experienced illustrator and wildlife rehabilitator. She studied science illustration under the guidance of artists-in- residence at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago where she also worked as an intern in their ornithology lab preparing, organizing, and illustrating specimens. She then went on to graduate from the California State University of Monterey Bay Science Illustration program in 2013. She believes that research, conservation, and education about birds is an essential part of preserving the natural world, and that birds are some of the best ambassadors for nature. To see more of her work, visit her webpage:

Virginia Greene:
Virginia Greene is an illustrator and biologist with a special interest in birds: her bookshelves are full of field guides, her master’s thesis was on bird behavior, and her sketchbooks are brimming with sketches of birds. Virginia earned an MFA in Illustration from the Savannah College of Art and Design (2013), and an MS in Biology from the College of William and Mary (2016).
Virginia’s versatile style makes use of a variety of media: watercolor, gouache, graphite, ink, and digital painting. Her illustrations are inspired by studying the natural world and infused with a sense of humor. To see more of her work, visit her webpage:

Gallery: Meet the New Cassia Crossbill

Mon, 09/18/2017 - 09:00
Cassia Crossbill by Craig Benkman.

From the Autumn 2017 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

More From Living Bird

A new species popped out of the latest annual deliberation of the American Ornithological Society’s Classification Committee—the Cassia Crossbill. The case for a Cassia Crossbill species distinct from the other nine types of Red Crossbills lies in the Cassia’s unique evolutionary adaptation to pine cones in its home grounds of Idaho’s South Hills. This crossbill’s crossed bill is well-suited for cracking into the unusually large cones of lodgepole pines in this area, with the bill acting like a key that unlocks the nutritious seeds inside the cone. Other crossbills don’t have that key. Thus, Cassia Crossbills stay in the South Hills year-round to feed on lodgepole pines, whereas other crossbill types are nomadic, cross-continent wanderers.

Craig Benkman of the University of Wyoming has been studying the crossbills of the South Hills since 1996. It was his two-decades-plus of research that convinced the AOS committee to make the split. Benkman successfully demonstrated the uniqueness of the Cassia Crossbill—in its physical shape, its relative reproductive isolation, and its genomic distinction. “Perhaps my greatest pleasure is thinking that the Cassia Crossbill will receive the attention it deserves,” says Benkman.

The People Behind the Birds Named for People: Williamson’s Sapsucker

Mon, 09/18/2017 - 09:00
Williamson’s Sapsuckers by Ian Lewington, from forthcoming Princeton Guide to the Birds of North America.

From the Autumn 2017 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.
More From Living Bird

Most male and female woodpeckers wear similar, if not matching, plumage, but Williamson’s Sapsuckers did not get the memo. The female is subtly checked with brown and black, while the male is a stunning black with white stripes on the face and a deep red throat. Both sexes have vivid, highlighter-yellow bellies, but this is the only marking they have in common. The differences are so stark that for years, the nineteenth century’s best ornithologists were fooled into thinking the sexes were different species. Yet the bird’s namesake, Robert Stockton Williamson, probably never lost a wink of sleep over the matter.

Col. Robert Stockton Williamson was an engineer and a Civil War veteran who had little interest in birds—but had one named for him all the same. Image via Library of Congress.

Williamson was an ambitious, no-nonsense engineer rather than a naturalist. After graduating from West Point fifth in his class, Williamson joined the Army as a topographical engineer and spearheaded expeditions into the Pacific wilderness to plan America’s first transcontinental railroad.

Williamson’s party was surveying in 1855, near Klamath Lake, Oregon, when the expedition’s naturalist, John Newberry, spied a striking black, white, and yellow woodpecker that was like nothing he’d seen before. As was customary for the time, he shot the specimen, described it as a new species, and named it for his boss: Picus williamsonii, Williamson’s Sapsucker.

In 1870, Spencer Fullerton Baird (of Baird’s Sparrow and Baird’s Sandpiper) called Newberry’s specimen “so entirely different from any other American bird as to require no special comparison.” It turns out special comparison is exactly what this bird required: the species had already been described just four years earlier—from that uniquely feathered female. For nearly 20 years, the two sexes remained “different” species, at least officially. Williamson might have been entirely unaware of the entire taxonomical development. After returning from the Oregon survey, he fought in the Civil War, serving with Colonel Burnside (whose name also became famous––not for a bird species, but for a beard style). Postbellum, he wrote a book on using barometers to map elevations, and returned to the Pacific Coast to build lighthouses, namely, Oregon’s oldest standing lighthouse on Cape Blanco. He also blew up a navigational hazard in San Francisco Bay.

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It was around the time Williamson’s book on barometers came out that taxonomists were realizing their mistake with the sapsucker. In 1873 a naturalist in Colorado discovered a male and female nesting together and finally put the issue to rest. The species was renamed Sphyrapicus thyroideus, in deference to the original description of the female, but kept Williamson as the bird’s common name.

Williamson succumbed to tuberculosis in 1882 and was buried in San Francisco. After his many years improving navigation in the West, his name is perhaps best known for this baffling bird of mountain forests, to which he never gave a second thought.

Alison Haigh is an Environmental Biology and Applied Ecology major at Cornell University (Class of 2019). Her work on this story was made possible by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Science Communication Fund, with support from Jay Branegan (Cornell ’72) and Stefania Pittaluga.

The Farm Bill Protects Birds and Clean Water. Here’s How

Mon, 09/18/2017 - 08:57
Henslow’s Sparrow by Jeff Timmons/Macaulay Library.

From the Autumn 2017 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.
More From Living Bird

The Farm Bill is typically associated with corn and soybeans, but it does a pretty good job of growing ducks, too.

Between 1992 and 2011, Farm Bill conservation programs enacted habitat improvements on private farmland in the Prairie Pothole Region that boosted waterfowl production by 37 million ducks, according to the 2017 State of the Birds report.

The report—published in August by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, a coalition of 28 government agencies and nonprofit groups including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology—spotlights the vital role that the Farm Bill plays in  conserving bird habitat.

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While most of the Farm Bill dictates federal agriculture policy, the Farm Bill’s conservation and forestry titles also allocate billions of dollars in federal conservation program funding on private lands. In the Lower 48 States, private lands constitute more than 60 percent of the land area, including 911 million acres of farmland and another 400 million acres of private forests. According to the State of the Birds report, more than 100 bird species in the U.S. rely on habitat on private lands.

Farm Bill conservation programs provide financial incentives for farmers, ranchers, and forest owners to adopt ecosystem-friendly practices, such as easements that pay landowners to maintain grasslands and wetlands on their property. While some critics knock such programs as “paying farmers not to farm,” the reality is that Farm Bill conservation programs compensate landowners for ecological services—such as clean water—that flow from a farm to  benefit the entire community. For example, grasslands in  Illinois created by the Farm Bill and other programs provided  $900 million in flood control, groundwater recharge, and water purification services to the Chicagoland area, according to the report.

Each time the Farm Bill has introduced a conservation program (dots), bird populations have leveled out or rebounded. See following slides for more details about each group.Northern Pintails by Kevin McGowan.Northern Bobwhite by Linda Chittum/Macaulay Library.Henslow’s Sparrow by Jeff Timmons/Macaulay Library.PreviousNext

The report also shows how birds respond to the Farm Bill. Population trends for wetland, forest, and grassland birds all showed positive turnarounds following the introduction of key Farm Bill conservation programs.

“The Farm Bill’s conservation provisions have helped to stabilize populations of grassland birds, which had suffered a nearly 50 percent drop before grassland easements were introduced in 2003,” said Ken Rosenberg, an author of the report and conservation scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Since that time, we’ve seen an encouraging 3 percent increase in numbers.”

In 2018 the Farm Bill is due for an update and revision by Congress, and conservationists are hopeful regardless of the outcome last time, when the 2014 Farm Bill reduced conservation funding by $4 billion.

“Despite cuts in the last Farm Bill, conservation did have policy victories,” says Kellis Moss, director of public policy for Ducks Unlimited. As one of the big wins, Moss points to rules that made farmers ineligible for federal crop insurance subsidies if they drained wetlands or plowed up native grasslands. The 2014 Farm Bill also strengthened regional conservation partnerships, such as the Sage Grouse Initiative in the West, and put a greater emphasis on purchasing habitat easements on private lands.

“Farm Bill conservation program demand far exceeds current funding,” says Moss, pointing out that many farmers who apply for conservation programs are turned away because the programs run out of money. “We hope to see greater funding for these programs that benefit producers, taxpayers, and wildlife.”

The next Farm Bill will be written during a time of economic stress in rural America. Farmers and ranchers have experienced a 45 percent drop in net farm income since 2014, the largest three-year drop since the Great Depression. Since 2012, per-bushel corn prices have dropped by half, and bankruptcy filings among small farms in Iowa were up 125 percent in 2016. That means farmers and ranchers may welcome the financial compensation provided by enrolling some of their land in the Farm Bill’s Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP.

“CRP is another tool in the toolbox for landowners to use when they are trying to diversify their holdings,” said Nathan Franzen of the American Bankers Association at a House Commodity Exchanges subcommittee hearing. “CRP can provide a steady stream of income for producers.”

Farm income isn’t the only thing declining in farm country. Grasslands continue to be plowed up. In 2007 there were more than 36 million acres of CRP grasslands on private farms in the U.S., but after Farm Bill conservation funding cuts there are about 25 million CRP acres today.  The rate of grassland loss in the western Corn Belt from 2006 to 2011 was comparable to tropical deforestation rates in Brazil and Indonesia. Wetlands also continue to be drained. Despite a stated no-net-loss wetlands federal policy, the Prairie Pothole Region lost more than 125,000 acres of emergent wetlands to conversion to agriculture between 1997 and 2009.

“The no-net-loss of wetland policy goal has not yet been reached in the [Prairie Pothole] region,” admitted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a report published in 2014.

Not coincidentally, the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico—an oxygen-depleted area where fish can’t survive—has grown to almost 8,800 square miles, an area the size of New Jersey. It’s the biggest Gulf dead zone ever measured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And it’s fed by water runoff from cropfields, as scientist Don Scavia told National Public Radio in August.

Read the Report

“Most of the nitrogen and phosphorus that drives this problem comes from the Upper Midwest,” said Scavia, who initiated NOAA’s dead zone survey more than 30 years ago. “It’s coming from agriculture.”

So in the name of clean water, and birds, and even stable farm income, there’s a lot riding on the Conservation Title of the next Farm Bill. So far, Congress has signaled that it plans to defend conservation in the Farm Bill.

“The [Trump] administration’s proposal for major cuts to the Farm Bill conservation programs has thus far not been supported by Congress,” said Steve Holmer, vice president of policy at the American Bird Conservancy. “The 2018 Farm Bill will hopefully build on its previous successes by fully supporting conservation programs.”


Analysis: Hybrid Birds Are Supercolliders of Speciation

Mon, 09/18/2017 - 08:54
Lawrence’s Warbler (Golden-winged x Blue-winged hybrid) by Geoff Malosh/Macaulay Library.

From the Autumn 2017 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.
More From Living Bird

Just a few steps from my desk here at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a tall cabinet holds 800 stuffed reminders of how difficult it can be to define the exact boundaries between bird species.

These specimens are hybrids between what we now know as the Baltimore Oriole (which breeds in eastern North America) and Bullock’s Oriole (which breeds in the West). In between, Baltimore and Bullock’s Orioles meet up and interbreed in the cottonwood-lined corridor formed by the Platte River valley in Nebraska. In the 1950s, a team of Cornell scientists—motivated by then-new ideas about what hybridization might mean for how we define bird species—traveled along the Platte collecting specimens of orioles and other birds along the way. This project from more than a half-century ago is the origin of our cabinet of oriole hybrids, drawer after drawer of expertly prepared specimens in a Day-Glo range of yellows and oranges.

Cornell University undergraduate student Lindsay Serene extracted DNA from museum specimens to explore the genetic structure of the hybrid zone of Baltimore and Bullock’s Orioles. Photo by Susan Spear/Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

One of the principal findings of that original oriole study was that hybridization is fairly common in these Nebraska orioles. Birds from near the eastern edge of the plains generally look like Baltimore Orioles, and birds from the western edge are typical Bullock’s Orioles. But in between, in central Nebraska, there is a steady and gradual transition in the average appearance of these birds. This means that not only are the pure birds breeding together when they find themselves in the same nesting habitat, but their hybrid offspring are returning after spring migration to nest in those same areas.

After much debate, it was this finding of substantial and successful hybridization that caused ornithologists to merge these birds into a single species, the Northern Oriole, in 1983. But a new generation of researchers quickly followed up on those early studies with additional fieldwork, concluding that hybridization might indeed be a bit of a dead end for these orioles. And at about the same time, it became evident that Baltimore and Bullock’s Orioles are not each other’s closest relatives within the phylogeny, or evolutionary tree, of all orioles. The weight of the evidence swung back toward a split, and in 1995 these species were officially separated once again.

Bullock’s (left) and Baltimore (right) Orioles often hybridize in the Great Plains, creating intermediates like the hybrid at center. Photos, left to right: Brian Small, Bryan Calk/Macaulay Library, David Speiser.

The lumping and then re-splitting of these orioles was controversial at every stage of that process, in part because this kind of taxonomic volatility makes everyone—ornithologists, birders, conservationists—unhappy. Yet while the classification and naming controversy is a bit fraught, there are many fascinating facets of these birds’ underlying biology that make them—and other birds that similarly hybridize—incredibly useful for studying how species evolve their distinct attributes over time.

I like to think of hybrid zones as the supercolliders of speciation biology.  Just as physicists smash atoms to better understand their building blocks, researchers in our group at the Lab (and elsewhere) use hybrids to dissect the processes that keep species separate, or that cause them to merge. Instead of being frustrated by these situations where we can’t be entirely confident in our lumping and splitting decisions, we find great value in these natural experiments involving birds that hybridize in nature.

More About Hybrids and Speciation

In fact, birds tend to hybridize a lot; more than 10 percent of all bird species have been known to hybridize at least once. So there are many examples to study, each with attributes that can tell us a bit more about the overall process of speciation by which all biodiversity is generated.

Here at the Cornell Lab we have many such studies underway on hybrid zones in orioles, flickers, chickadees, towhees, warblers, sparrows, and more. In all of these cases we are linking what we know about the birds from the field—how they pair up, what habitats they prefer—with a great abundance of new genomic information that we generate in the laboratory.

Although we’ve had these genomic tools for only a few years, we have already identified some new themes and are looking forward to making additional discoveries. For me, the biggest takeaway thus far is how variably the speciation process plays out among different groups of birds. There is no single pathway to becoming distinct species, and different species accordingly evolve their distinctiveness in different ways. For example, it is not uncommon for two species that look quite different to be genetically very similar, or vice versa for species that look almost identical to be quite distinct genetically. It is no wonder that we end up arguing about the lumps and splits that are in the natural intermediate zone where some evidence supports a split and other evidence a merger!

We are similarly excited about ways in which we can use hybrids to understand evolution at the genetic level. A certain type of hybrid zone turns out to be perfect for prospecting for the exact genes that underlie interesting traits. Even closely related bird species tend to differ at millions of places within their overall genomes, so associating a particular difference with a particular gene is nearly impossible when comparing most species. In hybrid zones, however, the genomes get scrambled into many different combinations in the hybrid birds, so it becomes much easier to find the genetic variants that are always associated with a particular trait. We’ve done this recently, for example, to find some of the genes that determine the plumage differences between Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers.

A Golden-winged Warbler (left) may hybridize with a Blue-winged Warbler (right) to produce “Lawrence’s” Warbler (top middle), “Brewster’s” Warbler (middle), or other unnamed hybrids (bottom middle). Images (left to right, top to bottom): Digital Plume Hunter, Geoff Malosh/Macaulay Library, Corey Hayes, B.N. Singh, and Sue Barth.

Perhaps even more intriguingly, we already have enough data from different but comparable hybrid zones that we can start to look for commonalities across different groups of birds in the genes involved in speciation. Although every hybrid zone has some unique genetic attributes, we are starting to see some of the same genes pop out as important in different groups. Sometimes these genes are involved in conspicuous differences like plumage color, but other times they involve physiological adaptations to different kinds of environments or habitats. For example, we see parallel changes in certain genes involved in salt tolerance for different sparrow populations that have independently colonized salt marshes.

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We don’t know exactly what we will find as we continue these studies of hybrids and their genomics, but it feels like we are still only in the early stages of deploying a greatly upgraded genomic supercollider. Wherever this line of research takes us, it is unlikely that it will provide cleaner break points for lumping and splitting species. But we will end up knowing more about the evolutionary processes that occasionally make those decisions so much fun to debate.

Irby J. Lovette is the Fuller Professor of  Ornithology at Cornell University and director of the Fuller Evolutionary Biology Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

In the Aerie of the Philippine Eagle

Mon, 09/18/2017 - 08:39

From the Autumn 2017 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

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It was the same grueling routine, but of course Neil Rettig was a senior citizen now—at 63, a good three decades older than he was in 1977, when he first climbed into the tops of 100-foot trees in the Mindanao jungle to photograph the Great Philippine Eagle.

His support crew in this century had better gear and safer techniques. But still.

Climbing up before dawn and back down after sunset, Rettig spent hundreds of hours in his jungle canopy blind. Photo by Kike Arnal.

Every morning at dawn, Rettig strung a climbing rope into the uppermost branches, climbed into his harness, hitched himself to the rope, and climbed like an inchworm—a foot at a time, brow sweating and arms burning—until he hoisted himself onto a cramped platform of boards screwed into the tree, and wriggled himself into a camouflage blind.

The crew had started on a hillside 97 yards from the eagle’s aerie, a heap of sticks tucked above a big knot of epiphytic plants so wrapped in vines and foliage that it was nearly invisible from the ground. The length of a football field was close enough for shots of eagle parents soaring through the forest canopy and flying into the nest, but still too distant to capture this majestic raptor’s personality and intensity.

Day by day, tree by tree, Rettig and his crew hoisted themselves above the ground and built new platforms, each incrementally closer than the one before. Each time they dreaded the thought that this might be the effort that would scare the parents from the nest, with the risk that they would abandon their single chick. But they were convinced it was a risk worth taking if they were to produce new film footage of one of the world’s rarest birds.

And that was the aim of Rettig’s return—to recapture the regal Philippine Eagle in all the majesty of today’s Ultra-HD film technology, to give Filipinos the most intimate look ever at their national icon, to peer right down into the nest and see the glint in the eyes of newly hatched chicks.

“I think the closer we can get to the eagle family, the more intimately we’re going to bring in the viewer and move people in the end,” Rettig explains. “And I think that’s really important, because we want to sway people. We want people to look at these images and say, yes, we have to save the Philippine Eagle.

A Philippine Eagle feeds its chick. Rettig and his team were able to place a canopy blind only 20 yards from this nest. Photo by Kike Arnal.

Finally, they began work on a blind just 20 yards from the nest, hauling lumber up to the treetop, fastening a few boards in place, and then climbing down after an hour so the parents would return to the nest. It took days of intermittent labor, but at last the platform was complete. And best of all, when Rettig and his crew returned to the ground, the eagles returned. The crew was jubilant, smiling and slapping high-fives.

At daybreak, Rettig inched his way back up the tree and settled into his blind. He remembered how much fun this was, perched above the world in a wilderness of tree limbs he shared with eagles, an airy aerie of his own. He switched on his video camera. The telephoto lens put the adult eagle right in his lap, filling his viewfinder with its flamboyant pompadour of variegated feathers.

“When a Philippine Eagle looks right in your eye and makes eye contact it’s breathtaking,” Rettig says. “The crest flares up, those light eyes, those beautiful bluish eyes stare right at your eyes and that contact is riveting, powerful. They’re magnificent, they’re splendid, you know. It’s truly, truly a unique creature.”

Rettig spent hundreds of hours in his jungle canopy blind, never taking his eye away from his camera’s viewfinder. From this perch 12 stories high off the forest floor, the filmmaker could capture every visible moment in a Great Philippine Eagle nest just 20 yards away. Photo by Kike Arnal. The Power of Film Tells a Critical Conservation Story

Neil Rettig is an internationally renowned wildlife filmmaker who has worked for National Geographic, IMAX, and the BBC over a 40-year career built on the daring and difficult task of trekking into jungles for mountain gorillas, jaguars, Harpy Eagles, and—the Philippine Eagle.

The Great Philippine Eagle occurs on only four islands in the Philippines, a fraction of its historical range. The current best estimate of its global population—about 400 breeding pairs—makes it one of the world’s most endangered raptors. Map by Matt Strimas-Mackey/Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

He first traveled to the Philippines with two high school chums in 1977, having never seen the eagle or the country. On the insurrection-wracked island of Mindanao, the young men searched the rugged countryside for nests. Then for hundreds of hours they sat in treetop photography blinds and watched as Philippine Eagles hatched their eggs, raised their chicks, and hunted prey.

The payoff after a year and a half: a stockpile of 16-mm footage that stretched four miles, including breathtaking scenes, never filmed before, of a bird the world barely knew. Besides anchoring a feature story in National Geographic magazine, the images were made into films in three languages and donated to the local Philippine Eagle Foundation, which used them to spread the word about the plight of the eagle and its forest habitat.

“I think our original project and our original films may have bought the eagle time,” says Rettig. Over his four-decade, globe-trotting career, the striking intensity of the Philippine Eagle never left him. He always wondered if there would be an opportunity to update his work on the eagle—to capture new footage for conservation and do more to foster the love of Filipinos for their national bird.

In 2012, Rettig was back in the Philippines on assignment from National Geographic to film monitor lizards, and he took his wife, Laura Johnson, to see a captive Philippine Eagle in the Manila zoo.

Johnson began to cry.

“They are the most regal, incredible creatures in the world,” she says. “We both got really emotional and decided we really have to try to make something happen again, knowing that the eagle is really critically endangered.”

I didn’t want to waste the last years of my life just sitting at home in retirement, when I could still climb a big tree. I wanted to go out and do something.~Neil Rettig

“I vowed right then and there,” says Rettig, “I’m going to return to the Philippines.”

Back in the States, Rettig broached the subject of funding a second trip to the Philippines with longtime friend John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“We just jumped,” says Fitzpatrick. “What better way to tell that story than to use an iconic top predator as the symbol of that forest? That’s what makes it an especially gripping and important conservation story. It’s not just saving the eagle. The eagle represents the entire future of the tropical forest of the Philippines.”

“Bird of Prey” is the film resulting from Rettig’s collaboration with the Cornell Lab. In August 2017, it was selected as a Special Jury finalist at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival. Learn more about the film.

The Cornell Lab joined forces with Rettig and the Philippine Eagle Foundation—based in Davao City—on a conservation media initiative to tell the eagle’s story anew to Filipinos everywhere, from the most remote jungle villages to the highest levels of government.

The foundation was a key partner. The only conservation group that’s fully focused on the species’ conservation, the Philippine Eagle Foundation is breeding captive eagles; rehabilitating and releasing injured birds; and employing biologists and local “forest guards” to research, track, and protect the few eagles that remain.

Director Dennis Salvador says the foundation was on board from the beginning: “We think it will provide prestige and credence to what we do, but more importantly, elevate the status of and the plight of the eagle to where it should be.

“That’s on top of the world’s list of most endangered birds.”

So in 2013, Rettig returned to Mindanao to film one more massive eagle project before his body would no longer tolerate the abuse of climbing trees and swarms of insect pests.

“I knew the job wasn’t done,” Rettig says. “Producing new, beautiful images of the eagle could go a long way for conservation.

“I didn’t want to waste the last years of my life just sitting at home in retirement, when I could still climb a big tree. I wanted to go out and do something.”

Photo by Kike Arnal. The Ultimate Forest Predator

The Philippine Eagle is one of the largest eagles in existence, with a wingspan of 7 feet and the weight of a large female approaching 20 pounds. It has a greater length and wing surface than the Harpy Eagle and Steller’s Sea Eagle.

Catching the Philippine long-tailed macaque for prey gave the eagle its nickname of "the monkey eating eagle." Photo by Kike Arnal.

It occasionally soars on thermals above the tropical forest, but the Philippine Eagle makes its living by diving and dodging through the forest canopy. Once called the “Monkey-eating Eagle,” it indeed does eat monkeys, but also flying lemurs, squirrels, civets, hornbills, and bats. It even stalks the forest floor like a winged velociraptor, snatching up lizards and snakes. Rettig has seen it clasp a tree trunk with its wings and use its talons to pluck prey out of a nesting cavity.

Jayson Ibanez, a Philippine Eagle Foundation biologist, says the Philippine Eagle is the ultimate forest predator, exquisitely designed by nature: “It has this magnificent crest of feathers, which it uses as a satellite dish to hone in on its prey. And as it hones in, it moves its head sideways. It’s like, I don’t know, zooming in on its prey. Then it flies silently across the forests, like a thief, surprising prey.”

The eagle was unknown to Western science until it was reported by English naturalist John Whitehead in 1896. Since then, it has been found on only four islands—Luzon, Samar, Leyte, and Mindanao.

Purely a bird of the forest, the Philippine Eagle’s range once covered 90 percent of the Philippines. During nearly four centuries of Spanish rule and another half-century of U.S. colonization, the forests shrank. Logging accelerated as Japan imported wood to rebuild from the destruction of World War II. Then the regime of Ferdinand Marcos dispensed logging contracts as patronage, and heavy trucks carried logs from the forest day and night.

Marites Dañguilan Vitug, author of Power from the Forest: The Politics of Logging, says that “before all the massive logging that took place, primarily in the 1960s and 1970s, we had some of the most diverse forest ecosystems on the planet. From something like 70, 80 percent forest cover, we’re down to less than 20 percent.”

The remnant jungles on Mindanao are mostly near the tops of mountains, since most of the lowlands have been cleared for agriculture. But deforestation pressures are pushing higher. About 50 percent of Mount Apo National Park has been deforested. Photo by Kike Arnal.

As lowland forest disappeared, eagles lost nesting sites and, more vitally, prey. The eagle’s range contracted to higher, more rugged terrain as loggers cut the lowlands. In 1965, Dioscoro Rabor, a noted Yale-educated Filipino zoologist, announced that the bird was in rapid decline. Soon after, the government established the Monkey-Eating Eagle Conservation Program. The effort really found its footing in the early 1970s with the arrival of several Peace Corps volunteers who worked with the government’s Parks and Wildlife Office.

One of the volunteers was Robert Kennedy, a graduate student from the College of William & Mary who first became acquainted with the Philippine Eagle at an American Ornithologists’ Union meeting in Buffalo, New York.

“This mounted specimen was in a corner of the museum and it was kind of like love at first sight,” says Kennedy. “The rockets went off, the whole thing. I said, ‘Okay this is what I want to study.’”

Kennedy helped the Philippine government survey the remaining population of eagles on the southern island of Mindanao in 1972–73, but a Muslim-Christian civil war forced him to leave. When he returned to the islands in 1977, Kennedy brought with him Neil Rettig, Wolfgang Salb, and Alan Degen. The three young men had recently filmed Harpy Eagles in South America. With a grant from National Geographic, Kennedy and the three filmmakers took off for Mindanao to make films of a rare, never-before-photographed eagle.

“That’s where it all started,” says Rettig, “this obsession with the Philippine Eagle.”

A Philippine Eagle flies through the forest. Video by Neil Rettig. Listen

But first they had to find a nest. And a nest hadn’t been seen in years—at least by anyone in the government. Kennedy, Rettig, and the team split up to different parts of the island and found a nest in a remote jungle corner of Mindanao. Then they began spiking up nearby trees, hauling lumber into the canopy, building platforms, and filming.

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They climbed up every day at dawn and endured torrential rains and clouds of bugs. Gnats pasted themselves to their eyelids. Hours passed when nothing happened.

Then one day Rettig noticed the female eagle began to shuffle on the nest. As she moved, Rettig spotted the egg beneath her cracking open.

Rettig and his assistants kept the film rolling as the chick grew. Every 10 days Kennedy climbed the tree and into the nest to weigh the chick. These were perilous visits. Once an eagle attacked, leaving a deep gouge in Kennedy’s motorcycle helmet. Even so, all was going to plan.

Then, when the chick was 27 days old, a catastrophe. As Rettig was filming, the chick refused morsels from its parent. It began shaking its head violently, gagging for several minutes. In a series of spasms, it died. Something, perhaps a bone, was lodged in its throat.

“The whole project fell apart,” Rettig recalls. “We went back to Davao, to our house, and we just sat there. What are we going to do next, you know?”

Then more disaster. Armed guards at the airport X-rayed the crew’s film of the chick. The only footage in existence of a Philippine Eagle nest was shot through with electromagnetic waves.

“It looked like the aurora borealis in every frame. Just curtains of light,” says Rettig. “That X-ray mishap probably destroyed three weeks of some of the rarest footage we got on the whole project.”

Still, Rettig and his team regrouped and carried on to look for another nest. After two months, they found one after tagging along with loggers on Mindanao.

“Because that’s where we could find eagles, in the forest that they were intending to cut,” says Rettig.

The eagle was nesting in a lauan tree marked with a blue X. A road had been cut right up to the tree. Machinery and bulldozers were staged to cut it.

“We were desperate,” says Rettig. “This was the perfect nest for filming.”

Rettig and Kennedy talked to the head of the logging company. Not only would he spare the tree, he said, he’d set the area aside as a sanctuary.

Then the government got involved, and it overreacted, expanding a no-cut zone around the tree to 2 kilometers and forcing farmers off their land.

“So all of the families, some of these were traditional peoples who had lived in those mountains from the beginning of time, they were going to lose their ancestral properties and everything else,” recalls Kennedy. “Well, they justifiably became angered. And who is responsible for this but a guy named ‘Bob Kennedy’. Right away there was a price on my head.”

Filmmaker Neil Rettig (right) shakes hands with Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos at the Malacañang Palace. Despite his reputation for corruption and using logging contracts as patronage, President Marcos was supportive of Rettig’s Philippine Eagle filming efforts in the late 1970s. Photo courtesy of Neil Rettig.

Kennedy went directly to President Marcos and convinced him to allow the people back on their land, which made it safe for the filmmakers to go back to work. Despite Marcos’s reputation for corruption and destructive logging, the Philippine president was a strong supporter of the filming effort in the late 1970s. After one crucial meeting with Rettig and Kennedy at the Malacañang Palace, Marcos renamed the “Monkey-eating Eagle” as the Philippine Eagle, an eminently more honorable moniker. Marcos also proclaimed the eagle to be the national symbol. Today, the Philippine Eagle appears on the nation’s currency, and it’s an emblem for many units of the Philippine Air Force.

Kennedy and Rettig left the Philippines in 1979 with exhilarating photos and film of Philippine Eagles flying, hunting, nesting, and caring for their young. The first film they completed, in 1981, has been shown to Filipino school kids and communities for more than 30 years. Rettig also produced a film about the eagle for the BBC.

Kennedy wrote “Saving the Philippine Eagle” for the June 1981 issue of National Geographic, illustrated with photography from the three cameramen. Kennedy climbed the tree and into the nest to weigh the chick. These were perilous visits. Once an eagle attacked, leaving a deep gouge in Kennedy’s motorcycle helmet. Even so, all was going to plan.

“At that time, National Geographic had a circulation of 10 million people. You could go to remote places of the Philippines and they could hardly afford food, but somebody in town had a subscription to National Geographic,” says Kennedy.

“And that film alone was so popular in the Philippines that one of their famous newspaper editors or editorial writers, he was so moved by that film that he urged all the Filipinos to fall behind to help save that bird,” Kennedy continues. “In fact, he ended up writing a check for 40,000 pesos out of his pocket, because he thought it was so important.

“It fueled a whole conservation movement,” Kennedy says, noting that today’s Philippine Eagle Foundation was created by the Philippine government as an offshoot of that first filming project. “There are a lot more people out there that are interested in trying to save it now than there ever were back in the ’60s and ’70s.”

A Philippine Eagle stands by its nest high in the forest canopy. Photo by Kike Arnal.Rettig waited patiently from a treetop blind each day during the months-long nesting period. Photo by Kike Arnal.A parent towers over its young, still-downy chick. Photo by Kike Arnal.Both parents help to raise the chick. Philippine Eagles typically have one nesting attempt every other year, making them slow to recover from population losses. Photo by Kike Arnal.A chick watches a parent return to the nest with food. Photo by Kike Arnal.The Great Philippine Eagle was once known as the "Monkey-eating Eagle" for good reason. Photo by Kike Arnal.A parent breaks off pieces of prey to feed its young chick. Photo by Kike Arnal.Philippine Eagles hold large territories, making them particularly vulnerable as forests shrink due to logging and increased human settlement. Photo by Kike Arnal.A parent flies over the large nest platform high in the canopy. Photo by Kike Arnal.An eagle family at the nest. Photo by Kike Arnal.PreviousNext

The Pressures of a Growing Human Population An eagle chick sits in its large platform nest. Philippine Eagles cling to what’s left of their shrunken jungle domain. More than 80 percent of the forest cover in the Philippines is gone, and much of what’s left is fragmented. Photo by Kike Arnal.

But the eagle isn’t saved. Population estimates of a secretive forest bird have always been a bit of a guessing game. A 2002 study, based on spacing between nests in suitable habitat, estimated that the maximum number of breeding pairs on Mindanao was be­tween 82 and 233. Even the current total Philippine Eagle population estimate of 400 pairs is at best an educated guess.

A new road is cut into jungle on the side of Mount Sinaka on Mindanao. Logging and development have taken a heavy toll on the island’s forests. As of 1988, only about 30 percent of forestland remained on Mindanao, and today that number is likely much lower. Photo by Kike Arnal.

But it’s clear the eagle’s forest habi­tat continues to shrink. Even though commercial logging was restricted in the 1980s and 1990s, illegal logging has continued as poverty-stricken villagers have followed logging roads deep into the forest and continued cutting trees for slash-and-burn farming. Estimates of remaining forest coverage range from about 20 percent to less than 10 percent, and much of what remains is fragmented and in poor condition.

At the same time, the population of the Philippines has nearly tripled since 1970 to more than 100 million.

“There’s a huge population of peo­ple that are just scraping a living off the land throughout the country,” says Ken­nedy, who with several coauthors wrote A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines. “And any available land, whether it’s for­est or not, is pretty well taken up quickly by squatters in the mountains.

These new dwellings have sprouted near a Philippine Eagle nesting territory. As the population grows on Mindanao, people are pushing deeper into the forest. Photo by Kike Arnal.

“That is the primary threat. The log­ging industry is certainly to blame to some degree, but they were regulated by the government to selectively log and then to allow for regeneration when they could log again. But the problem really was that the loggers would build roads to get that timber out, and that provid­ed the avenue for people to migrate into the hinterlands. So it accelerated the to­tal destruction of the rainforest in areas.”

Kennedy himself is pessimistic about the eagle’s future.

“I don’t give the wild population much hope unless the socioeconomics of the country change dramatically,” he says. “I don’t want to be a doomsday guy. I want to be as optimistic as possible, but I just don’t see how this eagle can hang on into the next century, unless they provide massive management, sup­plemental feeding to wild birds, maybe even artificial nesting structures.”

If there is a bright spot in the eagle’s future, it’s the Philippine Eagle Founda­tion, “probably the most successful con­servation effort in Asia,” says Kennedy.

With his hand disguised by an eagle puppet and his body hidden behind a curtain, a worker at the Philippine Eagle Foundation feeds a 2-month-old eaglet that was hatched in captivity. Photo by Kike Arnal.

Cut loose from government sup­port in 1987, the foundation has found private donors and grown to about 55 staffers, says director Dennis Salvador. The foundation has successfully bred and raised 27 Philippine Eagles in cap­tivity since 1987, a strategy that may keep the species in existence if every­thing goes wrong in the wild. The foun­dation also rescues, rehabilitates, and releases injured eagles. Released birds are outfitted with GPS and radio trans­mitters so that biologists can track their recovery in the wild.

Last year an eagle that had been re­habilitated and released in 2010 made a nesting attempt, and even though the egg didn’t hatch, the at­tempt “underscores the potential of rescued birds,” says Ibanez, the foundation’s research and conservation di­rector.

That eagle, released in one block of forest, followed a river corri­dor to another chunk of forest. Understand­ing how eagles move across the landscape allows the foundation to design management plans and forest corridors that help the birds make the most of their dwindling habitat.

“This gives us an idea of dispersal patterns, that they don’t fly outright from one big forest block to the other, but they use stepping stones or linear habitats,” says Ibanez. “This can guide restoration initiatives, to allow connec­tivity between forest fragments, and doing that through community-based reforestation, primarily of river systems.”

In another case, a young injured bird was nursed back to health in 20 days and released to its home.

“The parents took it in and resumed feeding of this young bird, which is also a big success in terms of rehabilitation protocols,” Ibanez says.

Hunters walk through forest near a Great Philippine Eagle nesting territory on Mindanao. Poaching is one of the biggest threats to eagles, but rural Filipinos here rely on resources from the forest for survival. Photo by Kike Arnal.

But tracking tagged birds has re­vealed a problem that has proved to be as vexing as habitat loss. People are shooting them at an alarming rate.

“We believe that many of these young birds do not survive into adulthood mainly because the forests are diminish­ing and when they cross open landscapes, they get shot or captured,” says Salvador.

On several occasions, foundation workers and volunteers have joyously and hopefully celebrated the release of a rehabilitated bird only to follow its trans­mitter months later to a pile of feathers and bones with the telltale marks of a bullet from a rifle or pellet gun. Ibanez reports that of 10 birds released since 2008, three were shot, one was illegally captured and died, and another disap­peared and is believed to have been shot.

Since the birds breed every other year and produce only a single chick, the loss of every bird is devastating. “Just one crazy person can undo every­thing that we work for,” says Salvador.

The motivations for poaching range from food—one eagle was made into soup—to retaliation for pilfered chickens and piglets. Other shootings seem com­pletely gratuitous. Ibanez blames a tro­phy culture: “The idea of shooting a really huge bird. It gives them this fulfillment.”

Though killing eagles is illegal, pros­ecution may be more effort than it’s worth. One prosecution took three years, says Salvador, “and the judge slapped him with a six-month sentence.”

Instead, the foundation is working with forest communities to reforest cleared areas and protect existing forest so the birds can travel and hunt in safe­ty. It’s hiring local forest guards to deter crimes such as clearing trees and shoot­ing eagles—and to provide jobs that give local residents a reason to value conser­vation. According to Ibanez, the founda­tion employs more than 700 local forest guards in 20 eagle territories.

Foundation workers and biologists have also found new areas of breeding eagles, on the island of Leyte, where the eagle was thought to have been extir­pated, and in areas of the northern is­land of Luzon, where the species wasn’t known to occur.

The fieldwork can take workers into disputed territory—the more isolated for eagles, the more hazardous for humans.

Philippine Eagle Foundation Director Dennis Salvador wears his nation’s symbol on his arm. “Just one crazy person can undo everything that we work for,” he says. Photo by Kike Arnal.

“It is dangerous work, mainly be­cause you don’t know when encounters between the rebels and the military will occur,” says Salvador. “So we find our­selves having to ask permission from the military to enter an area and make sure the other parties are aware that we’re operating in the area. Sometimes it’s dif­ficult when you’re caught in the middle.”

Foundation staff have been caught in crossfire, with artillery shells exploding just 50 yards away. Salvador says that a colleague died in a crossfire exchange.

“Peace and order, especially in Min­danao, continues to be a big problem,” he says. “That’s really basically a fact of life in working in the forest. Not only in Mindanao, but in many areas through­out the country.”

At its Davao City headquarters, the foundation offers guided tours of the Philippine Eagle Center, along with ed­ucational presentations for school kids.

Rettig’s films from the 1970s have been a key part of the educational ef­forts, even if they are showing signs of wear and tear. The old, faded and grainy footage has still been the most import­ant tool for spreading the story of the Philippine Eagle, says Salvador.

“It’s just so regal and big and nothing compares to [it],” he says. “You have to see to believe and begin to take pride in what we have, especially our countrymen.”

Families gather under the statue of a Philippine Eagle at the People’s Park in downtown Davao City. Photo by Kike Arnal. A Return Trip Brings Hope

In November 2013, Rettig returned to the Philippines. Arriving in Davao City, a city that had tripled its popula­tion to 1.6 million, he was stunned by the sheer humanity, noise, pollution, traffic, and congestion.

But compared to his first film project, when Rettig and crew were on their own in the search for eagles, this time they had plenty of help. The Philippine Eagle Foundation took them directly to nests.

“Without them, we couldn’t have done it,” says Rettig.

At dawn Rettig and his fellow cam­eramen again climbed high into the trees, remaining motionless, eyes glued to their viewfinders until sunset—the same swarms of gnats as before, the same long hours of tedium punctuated by glorious moments when adults flew into the nest, or the chick took its first clumsy wingbeats to a nearby branch.

All the time as Rettig watched a young eagle through his viewfinder, he wondered to himself, “Where will it go?”

“When I look at that, through that tun­nel of vegetation, at that ancient scene, I think, what future does that little guy have? How’s he going to find his own territory, when all the surroundings here have been completely altered by human landscapes?”

A pair of Great Philippine Eagles and their chick nest on a flank of Mount Apo on Mindanao. Photo by Kike Arnal.

One day an adult swooped into his viewfinder and knocked its mate off its perch. Rettig was filming a Philippine Eagle courtship behavior.

“They locked talons together, spi­raled down, embracing each other, and then flared off at the last moment and soared in unison riding the winds up along this forested cliff face,” Rettig re­calls. “They spent hours aerial like that all through that day. It was really al­most like a celebration of life, a bonding event. It was beautiful to see. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

After six months Rettig had the im­ages he needed—of adults swooping through the canopy, gently tending to the chick, even prowling the forest floor for prey. And this time, the Ultra-HD footage can be archived digitally and used forever.

In the three years since he completed filming, Rettig has worked with the Cor­nell Lab to produce several films for the Philippine Eagle Foundation to show in rural communities near eagle territo­ries, and to school groups and families at the Eagle Center. A feature-length documentary—entitled Agila: Laban Ng Lahi (or Eagle: Fight of Our Race)—debuted on the largest TV network in the Philippines in June 2015.

“The images are really awesome,” says Salvador. “The high-definition cameras really do justice to the eagle, especially for people who have never been to a forest.”

“I don’t think it’s too late,” Salvador says. “I think we have a real chance of saving the eagles, even with the little we have left. It’s just a matter of political will and attitude of the Filipino people.” Photo by Kike Arnal.

Salvador says that if the Philippine Eagle is to be saved, it will require a mass movement among Filipinos everywhere for the country’s national symbol. And, he stresses, the eagle can still be saved.

“I don’t think it’s too late,” Salvador says. “I think we have a real chance of saving the eagles, even with the little we have left. It’s just a matter of political will and attitude of the Filipino people.”

The foundation’s Ibanez says the fight is not just for the future of the Philip­pine Eagle, but for Filipinos themselves.

“As Dr. Dioscoro Rabor said, ‘The Philippine Eagles are as Filipino as we are,”’ Ibanez says. “If we let deforestation destroy all our forests, if we let our fel­low Filipinos shoot and hunt the Philip­pine Eagles, if the Philippine Eagles get extinct because of these wrong doings, it only means that we have lost our con­nection to the environment.

“And at the end of the day it would be the Filipinos who would suffer with the loss of our eagles and our forest.”

Freelance contributor Greg Breining has writ­ten about science and nature for the New York Times and Audubon. His story on Kirtland’s Warblers ran in Living Bird Summer 2017.

Greater Yellowlegs: Animated Map Of Migration Across The Western Hemisphere

Fri, 09/15/2017 - 07:55

eBird STEM Abundance Models
Greater Yellowlegs

15 September 2017

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Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) is a migratory shorebird that occurs throughout the Western Hemisphere, from southernmost South America to Alaska and the boreal forests of Canada. While most know them as a species that occurs in small groups in freshwater or brackish wetlands during winter and migration, those who have visited the boreal forest in summer may envision a Greater Yellowlegs scolding them from the tops of spruce trees to protect their ground nest, possibly at the base of that same spruce!

See photos | Listen to audio

One of the chief challenges of STEM maps to date has been to model the range and movements of waterbirds in addition to landbirds. Thanks to recent advancements in the models, Greater Yellowlegs is one of a suite of shorebirds now being modeled from eBird data.

Juvenile Greater Yellowlegs by Bridget Spencer/Macaulay Library.

Season-specific information


Greater Yellowlegs is one of the more widespread shorebird species and, along with Sanderling, it may have one of the most extensive winter ranges. It is one of the shorebirds most likely to be found of Christmas Bird Counts in the United States, with regular wintering as far north as Massachusetts and Maine on the East coast and British Columbia on the West coast. Although most winter in coastal estuaries, in warmer regions they can be quite common at inland marshes and freshwater wetlands. Even small water bodies may host a Greater Yellowlegs: often it will be the only shorebird species at a small inland pond.

They occur throughout South America in winter, more commonly on the coasts, as far south as central Argentina and the southern portions of Chile. As seen on the map, the pampas–extensive seasonally wet grasslands south and west of Buenos Aires–is a really important wintering area for this species in Argentina. Unfortunately one of the areas with large concentrations of the species is northeastern South America, where thousands spend the winter (and hundreds oversummer), especially in the Brazilian states of Pará, Maranhão, and Amapá as well as French Guiana. STEM models don’t have enough data to work with to make predictions in this area; these areas badly need more eBird data so that we can produce more accurate models in these regions. Enter your records please if you have them!


Greater Yellowlegs are one of the earlier spring migrants, with early hints of northward movement visible along the Mississippi River Valley in the last week of February. During March they stream northward, showing up in coastal areas where they did not winter as well as inland marshes and pond edges as winter frost begins to lose its grip. A wet flooded field with puddles can be perfect habitat and full of yellowlegs.

The smaller cousin of Greater Yellowlegs, the Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) often occurs together in the same areas but tends to be a later migrant by two weeks or more. This migration timing can be a good aid to identification in spring.


Greater Yellowlegs is a forest bird in summer, occurring in bogs, muskeg, and clearings in spruce forest. They aggressively guard their territories with their loud calls. As with many species of central and northern Canada, eBird data are sparse so the STEM models have less information to work from, which is apparent from the fairly distinct “no prediction” edge to the range in the north.

Even though the model limits itself from making predictions far to the north, the range shown is quite accurate, showing the main breeding area in the northern Prairie Provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta) extending east to northern Ontario, Quebec, and Labrador and west to parts of Alaska. It does not breed in the mountains much, so British Columbia is relatively devoid of yellowlegs.

As with many shorebirds, a number of birds (especially immatures) oversummer on the winter range, and this is evident on the animation and accounts for the obvious signal along the coasts of southern Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina during June. Some of these oversummering birds may have significant parasite loads that prevent migration: see the BNA account for more information on this.


Fall migration begins very early for Greater Yellowlegs, with the first southbound birds arriving in late June (note the 27 June map, which shows obvious arrival in the Lower 48 United States). They also have one of the longest migration windows of any American bird, as migrants can be found anytime from late June to mid-November. As with all shorebirds, the southward migration of adults precedes the migration of juveniles. In the field, you’ll see the southward migration of adults peaking late June to mid-September and juveniles from mid-August to mid-November.

Although the fall movement overlaps broadly with Lesser Yellowlegs, the migration timing still differs, with Greater Yellowlegs still on the move into November while most Lessers have reached their wintering range by late October.

To learn more about the life history of Greater Yellowlegs, please consider a subscription to Birds of North America (just $42/year), where experts in the species have written a full-length species account covering all aspects of the species biology, from migration to diet to conservation status.

Deborah House, August 2017 eBirder of the Month

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 08:56

Deborah House, August eBirder of the Month

12 September 2017

Deborah out with her frequent birding partner, Rudolf
Please join us in congratulating Deborah House of Bishop, California, winner of the August 2017 eBird Challenge, sponsored by Carl Zeiss Sports Optics. Our August winner was drawn from eBirders who submitted 31 or more eligible checklists in August. Deborah’s name was drawn randomly from the 5,498 eligible eBirders who achieved the August challenge threshold. Deborah will receive new ZEISS Conquest HD 8×42 binoculars for her eBirding efforts. Read more to see Deborah’s full story!

Winning the August eBird challenge was an exciting surprise – all I did was to keep doing one of my favorite things: birding in August! There are so many things I like about birding this time of year, especially in the Eastern Sierra: post-breeding dispersal of birds, adult and juvenile shorebirds in varying combinations of molt and plumage to study, brown ducks and more brown ducks, – and then there are those quiet migrants lurking in my neighborhood just after dawn, or just before dusk – providing an endless source of frustration and intrigue. Birds are on the move in August and they provide ample challenges!


Shorebirds are on the move in August, like these American Avocets at Owens Lake in California. Photo by Deborah House/Macaulay Library.

I use eBird primarily as a way to contribute to science by archiving personal data. Fortunately my training in the biological sciences instilled good field note habits, and the eBird interface allows me to easily upload my historical data from the 1990’s forward (a work in progress). I have used eBird sightings both personally and professionally to help evaluate the seasonal and spatial distributions of species, and to fill in information gaps when monitoring or survey data are not available. I use eBird for trip planning, either by reviewing the species richness maps, or for finding sightings of species that inform me about the bird habitat. Mostly, eBird provides a justification for my behavior to my friends and family, and I continue to obsessively record and count all the birds I see, even when I’m not working, as now I have something useful to do with my data. One of my favorite eBird features is the ability to enter breeding code observations. Somebody cares!

Early in my career, I was amazed by a colleague who identified a hummingbird in flight – solely by its call. I then immersed myself in learning bird vocalizations, and to this day I prefer aural birding. After attending Cornell’s Sound Recording Workshop, I now find recording quite addictive, and especially enjoy recording unusual or less-frequently heard bird vocalizations. I am currently working on an informal “sage sparrow” project where I live, which is a zone of contact between the Sagebrush Sparrow (Artemisiospiza nevadensis) and Bell’s Sparrow (A. belli canescens). Thankfully, eBird has made the process of archiving recordings easy. In my retirement, I look forward to filling in local data gaps and exploring ways to make my contributions more supportive of conservation objectives in the Eastern Sierra.


Many shorebirds in the Eastern Sierra enjoy feeding on brine flies at this time of year, like this Baird’s Sandpiper. Photo by Deborah House/Macaulay Library.

The developers of eBird have created a very user-friendly tool that is supporting increased knowledge among a wide variety of user groups regarding the status and distribution of birds on a remarkable scale. While not always a replacement for traditional protocol-based monitoring projects, the scope and breadth of data that eBirders contribute is of tremendous value for science and conservation. So if anyone gives you a hard time about going birding – tell them that you need to go take data!

Thank you for the opportunity to be eBirder of the Month and for the new pair of Zeiss binoculars!

Regional Migration Forecast: 8-15 September 2017

Fri, 09/08/2017 - 07:59

Regional Migration Forecast: 8-15 September 2017Regional Migration Forecast: 8-15 September 2017
8 September, 2017
Western Meadowlark. Louise Courtemanche/Macaulay Library. eBird S32042676.
Continental SummaryLight to moderate movements featuring Sora, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, House Wren, Swainson’s Thrush, Common Yellowthroat, and early Golden-crownd Sparrows will be widespread from Saturday to Wednesday in the West, while two pulses of favorable migration conditions sandwiched around Irma will bring heavy flights featuring American Golden-Plover, Least Flycatcher, Swainson’s Thrush, Yellow-throated Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Ovenbird, and Chestnut-sided Warbler in the East. Irma comes ashore after devastating the Caribbean, bringing with it a large haul of pelagic and nearshore species.
Play/Pause   ▶◃▹↺-SPEED+Arrows show wind speed and direction (arrow points in the direction to which wind is blowing) 100 m above ground level. Areas with southerly winds are colored red; northerly winds colored blue. Accumulated precipitation (in 6 hour intervals) is green, outlined by white. Broadly speaking, areas of the map in blue will experience conditions that are favorable for migration, and areas where blue and green (and red and blue) intersect and overlap may experience migrant concentrations and fallouts as migrants interact with precipitation.
We use data collected by eBird users help make more accurate forecasts. If you enjoy the predictions contained in these posts, please consider submitting your own bird sightings to eBird to even further improve the content. Every observation counts, whether it be a single bird at a feeder in your backyard, or an entire day spent in a national park. To get started with eBird, head on over to the site!
Please note that photographs and other digital media showing birds come from the Macaulay Library, which receives credit along with the photographer/observer in the media caption as part of a new initiative that allows public contribution, access and use of natural history media.
Need a review of our definitions for regions, species on the move, and migration amounts? Please visit this link.
Quick Links to RegionsUpper Midwest and NortheastBirdCast Upper Midwest and Northeast Region Gulf Coast and SoutheastBirdCast Upper Southeast RegionGreat Plainsbirdcast_plains WestBirdCast West Region
Upper Midwest and NortheastWith the passage of a cold front, heavy and locally very heavy flights kick off the weekend in much of the region. Favorable conditions persist for moderate to locally very heavy flights for the days that follow, as the influence of high pressure in the region and a serious Irma plodding toward the region from the Southeast keep skies mostly clear and winds northeasterly. Note, there is potential between Sunday and Wednesday for Irma-displaced birds, especially aerialists like Magnificent Frigatebird, in the southern reaches of the region (along with other species depending on how far and fast the storm moves). By Tuesday and Wednesday, as the remnants of Irma move into the region, generally unfavorable or marginal conditions arrive to put the brakes on many of these more intense flights. But by Thursday, the next significant frontal boundary will arrive, clearing away these unfavorable conditions and ushering in a new wave of moderate to locally very heavy flights to end the period.

Ovenbird. Ian Davies/Macaulay Library. eBird S25203380.
Species on the MoveBeginning Arrivals What is this?SPECIESNOTICEABILITYMIGRANTS BEGIN ARRIVINGRAPID MIGRANT INFLUXPEAKRAPID MIGRANT DEPARTURELAST MIGRANTS DEPARTNorthern Harrier ** 8/2 10/9 10/21 11/2 11/13Peregrine Falcon * 8/2 9/23 10/4 10/17 10/28Northern Shoveler ** 8/9 10/12 11/8 After Nov 30 -Green-winged Teal ** 8/13 10/11 10/24 After Nov 30 -Northern Flicker ****! 8/30 9/12 9/25 10/10 10/30Brown Thrasher *** 8/30 9/9 9/21 10/4 10/17Sharp-shinned Hawk *** 8/31 9/10 10/17 10/30 After Nov 30Gray-cheeked Thrush *** 9/2 9/11 9/23 10/5 10/14Palm Warbler *** 9/2 9/21 10/6 10/21 11/1Pied-billed Grebe *** 9/4 10/11 10/31 11/20 After Nov 30Northern Pintail ** 9/5 10/12 10/27 11/7 After Nov 30Great Cormorant * 9/5 11/16 After Nov 30 – -Marsh Wren * 9/7 9/19 9/30 10/17 10/29Blue-headed Vireo *** 9/8 9/21 10/4 10/19 10/31Eastern Phoebe ****! 9/9 9/18 9/30 10/18 11/3Lincoln’s Sparrow *** 9/10 9/22 10/5 10/19 10/31Indigo Bunting *** 9/10 9/16 9/25 10/12 10/21American Pipit *** 9/10 9/22 10/24 11/11 11/25Eastern Bluebird *** 9/12 9/27 10/18 11/12 After Nov 30Savannah Sparrow *** 9/12 9/26 10/12 10/29 11/12Dunlin ** 9/13 10/17 10/29 11/11 11/22American Robin *** 9/13 9/24 10/13 11/8 After Nov 30Yellow-bellied Sapsucker *** 9/16 9/25 10/5 10/16 10/24Chipping Sparrow *** 9/16 10/2 10/12 10/29 11/9Peaking ArrivalsSPECIESNOTICEABILITYMIGRANTS BEGIN ARRIVINGRAPID MIGRANT INFLUXPEAKRAPID MIGRANT DEPARTURELAST MIGRANTS DEPARTBelted Kingfisher ** – 8/2 9/19 10/16 10/29Prairie Warbler * – 8/2 9/10 9/25 10/7Sora * 8/12 8/21 9/24 10/12 10/25American Golden-Plover ** 8/16 8/26 9/9 9/22 10/16Chestnut-sided Warbler *** 8/14 8/26 9/9 9/25 10/6Wood Thrush ** 8/22 8/28 9/12 10/1 10/12Yellow-throated Vireo *** 8/21 8/29 9/9 9/22 10/2Ovenbird ** 8/15 8/29 9/12 9/30 10/12Black-and-white Warbler *** 8/2 8/29 9/13 9/30 10/11Tennessee Warbler *** 8/17 8/29 9/15 10/4 10/19White-eyed Vireo *** 8/23 8/31 9/10 9/23 10/3Northern Waterthrush ** 8/2 8/31 9/10 9/24 10/9Hooded Warbler * 8/23 8/31 9/10 9/24 10/5American Redstart *** 8/20 8/31 9/12 9/26 10/8Wilson’s Warbler *** 8/22 8/31 9/11 9/23 10/2Red-headed Woodpecker * 8/23 9/1 9/11 9/27 10/13Magnolia Warbler *** 8/20 9/1 9/16 10/2 10/13Common Yellowthroat *** 8/24 9/2 9/17 10/9 10/23Black-throated Blue Warbler *** 8/23 9/2 9/25 10/14 10/23Nashville Warbler *** 8/23 9/3 9/20 10/10 10/22Scarlet Tanager *** 8/24 9/3 9/15 10/1 10/12Merlin *** 8/26 9/4 9/20 10/26 11/6Red-breasted Nuthatch ** 8/12 9/4 10/2 10/17 After Nov 30Cape May Warbler *** 8/25 9/4 9/18 10/2 10/15Bay-breasted Warbler *** 8/26 9/4 9/15 9/28 10/8Pine Warbler ** 8/23 9/4 9/21 10/12 10/26Bald Eagle *** 8/2 9/5 9/17 9/26 10/1Red-shouldered Hawk ** 8/26 9/5 9/21 11/10 11/19Philadelphia Vireo *** 8/27 9/5 9/16 9/28 10/7House Wren ** 8/30 9/5 9/15 10/7 10/21Swainson’s Thrush *** 8/27 9/5 9/17 9/30 10/14Turkey Vulture *** 8/28 9/6 9/19 10/27 After Nov 30American Kestrel ** 8/29 9/6 9/26 10/22 11/2Cooper’s Hawk ** 8/2 9/7 10/11 10/28 11/8Northern Parula *** 8/28 9/7 9/20 10/4 10/15Blackpoll Warbler *** 8/28 9/7 9/22 10/8 10/23Black-throated Green Warbler *** 8/24 9/7 9/21 10/6 10/17Summer Tanager * 8/27 9/7 9/17 10/2 10/12Rose-breasted Grosbeak *** 8/30 9/7 9/17 9/30 10/9Broad-winged Hawk *** 8/31 9/8 9/18 9/29 10/7Blue Jay *** 8/23 9/8 9/28 10/30 11/26Gray Catbird *** 8/28 9/8 9/18 10/9 10/22Brown Thrasher *** 8/30 9/9 9/21 10/4 10/17Sharp-shinned Hawk *** 8/31 9/10 10/17 10/30 After Nov 30Gray-cheeked Thrush ** 9/2 9/11 9/23 10/5 10/14Northern Flicker *** 8/30 9/12 9/25 10/10 10/30Indigo Bunting ** 9/10 9/16 9/25 10/12 10/21Beginning DeparturesSPECIESNOTICEABILITYMIGRANTS BEGIN ARRIVINGRAPID MIGRANT INFLUXPEAKRAPID MIGRANT DEPARTURELAST MIGRANTS DEPARTYellow-crowned Night-Heron * – 8/2 8/6 10/10 10/28Yellow-billed Cuckoo * – 8/2 8/6 9/28 10/12Tree Swallow *** – 8/2 8/9 10/25 11/6Snowy Egret ** – 8/2 8/11 10/17 10/31Green Heron *** – 8/2 8/12 9/16 10/5Great Egret *** – 8/2 8/13 10/22 11/5Solitary Sandpiper *** – 8/2 8/13 9/11 9/30Laughing Gull ** – 8/2 8/14 After Nov 30 -Great Blue Heron *** – 8/2 8/15 10/20 After Nov 30Osprey *** – 8/2 8/15 10/19 11/4Forster’s Tern * – 8/2 8/16 9/26 After Nov 30Cedar Waxwing *** – 8/2 8/17 9/25 After Nov 30Semipalmated Plover *** – 8/2 8/18 9/11 9/28Chimney Swift *** 8/9 8/14 8/18 10/11 10/20Greater Yellowlegs ** – 8/2 8/20 11/11 After Nov 30Caspian Tern ** – 8/2 8/20 9/12 10/22Wood Duck ** – 8/2 8/21 11/2 11/22Royal Tern * – 8/2 8/21 11/8 After Nov 30Blue-gray Gnatcatcher *** 8/2 8/12 8/26 9/15 9/27White-rumped Sandpiper * – 8/2 8/27 9/15 9/22Great Crested Flycatcher *** 8/15 8/21 8/27 9/14 9/24Red Knot * 8/11 8/19 8/28 9/10 9/22Western Sandpiper * 8/13 8/19 8/28 9/9 9/20Blue-winged Warbler ** – 8/2 8/28 9/15 9/26Eastern Wood-Pewee *** 8/7 8/18 8/29 9/24 10/9Canada Warbler ** 8/2 8/18 8/29 9/11 9/24Baird’s Sandpiper ** 8/12 8/20 8/30 9/10 9/19Olive-sided Flycatcher * 8/2 8/18 8/30 9/12 9/25Ruby-throated Hummingbird *** – 8/2 8/31 9/21 10/3Sanderling ** – 8/2 9/2 9/22 10/4Bobolink ** 8/2 8/19 9/2 9/16 10/19Buff-breasted Sandpiper ** 8/16 8/23 9/3 9/14 9/22Least Flycatcher ** 8/11 8/21 9/3 9/21 10/4Warbling Vireo *** 8/19 8/27 9/5 9/17 9/25Yellow-bellied Flycatcher * 8/13 8/24 9/6 9/20 9/30Blue-winged Teal ** 8/2 8/19 9/7 10/22 11/5Red-eyed Vireo *** 8/15 8/24 9/7 9/28 10/11Veery *** 8/19 8/28 9/7 9/19 9/28Golden-winged Warbler * 8/18 8/28 9/8 9/20 9/29Blackburnian Warbler *** 8/12 8/23 9/8 9/26 10/7American Golden-Plover * 8/16 8/26 9/9 9/22 10/16Yellow-throated Vireo *** 8/21 8/29 9/9 9/22 10/2Chestnut-sided Warbler *** 8/14 8/26 9/9 9/25 10/6White-eyed Vireo *** 8/23 8/31 9/10 9/23 10/3Northern Waterthrush *** 8/2 8/31 9/10 9/24 10/9Hooded Warbler * 8/23 8/31 9/10 9/24 10/5Prairie Warbler * – 8/2 9/10 9/25 10/7Red-headed Woodpecker * 8/23 9/1 9/11 9/27 10/13Wilson’s Warbler *** 8/22 8/31 9/11 9/23 10/2Wood Thrush ** 8/22 8/28 9/12 10/1 10/12Ovenbird *** 8/15 8/29 9/12 9/30 10/12American Redstart *** 8/20 8/31 9/12 9/26 10/8Black-and-white Warbler *** 8/2 8/29 9/13 9/30 10/11House Wren *** 8/30 9/5 9/15 10/7 10/21Tennessee Warbler *** 8/17 8/29 9/15 10/4 10/19Bay-breasted Warbler *** 8/26 9/4 9/15 9/28 10/8Scarlet Tanager *** 8/24 9/3 9/15 10/1 10/12Philadelphia Vireo *** 8/27 9/5 9/16 9/28 10/7Magnolia Warbler *** 8/20 9/1 9/16 10/2 10/13Killdeer *** – – Before Aug 1 10/25 11/24Whimbrel * – – Before Aug 1 9/19 10/3Ending DeparturesSPECIESNOTICEABILITYMIGRANTS BEGIN ARRIVINGRAPID MIGRANT INFLUXPEAKRAPID MIGRANT DEPARTURELAST MIGRANTS DEPARTBlack Skimmer * – – Before Aug 1 8/3 10/28Yellow Warbler *** – – Before Aug 1 8/10 9/24Glossy Ibis * – – Before Aug 1 8/23 9/24American Oystercatcher * – 8/2 8/4 8/23 9/26Common Tern *** – – Before Aug 1 8/24 9/30Little Blue Heron * – 8/2 8/9 8/25 10/24Black-crowned Night-Heron * – 8/2 8/9 8/25 10/27Northern Rough-winged Swallow ** – – Before Aug 1 8/25 10/25Black-bellied Plover * – 8/2 8/18 8/27 After Nov 30Willet ** – 8/2 8/11 8/28 9/14Bank Swallow *** – 8/2 8/5 8/28 9/12Barn Swallow *** – 8/2 8/9 8/28 9/13Cliff Swallow ** – – Before Aug 1 8/29 9/17Blue Grosbeak * – – Before Aug 1 8/31 10/17Ruddy Turnstone ** – 8/2 8/10 9/2 9/25Spotted Sandpiper *** – – Before Aug 1 9/3 9/18Baltimore Oriole *** – 8/2 8/20 9/3 9/13Short-billed Dowitcher *** 8/2 8/11 8/17 9/4 9/14Lesser Yellowlegs *** – 8/2 8/19 9/5 9/24Semipalmated Sandpiper *** 8/2 8/7 8/20 9/6 9/20Pectoral Sandpiper ** 8/11 8/17 8/23 9/7 11/13Black Tern ** 8/7 8/16 8/25 9/7 9/18Stilt Sandpiper ** 8/12 8/18 8/26 9/8 9/18Least Sandpiper *** – 8/2 8/19 9/8 9/22Common Nighthawk *** 8/13 8/20 8/29 9/8 9/15Western Sandpiper * 8/13 8/19 8/28 9/9 9/20Red Knot * 8/11 8/19 8/28 9/10 9/22Baird’s Sandpiper *** 8/12 8/20 8/30 9/10 9/19Semipalmated Plover *** – 8/2 8/18 9/11 9/28Solitary Sandpiper *** – 8/2 8/13 9/11 9/30Canada Warbler *** 8/2 8/18 8/29 9/11 9/24Caspian Tern ** – 8/2 8/20 9/12 10/22Olive-sided Flycatcher * 8/2 8/18 8/30 9/12 9/25Buff-breasted Sandpiper ** 8/16 8/23 9/3 9/14 9/22Great Crested Flycatcher *** 8/15 8/21 8/27 9/14 9/24White-rumped Sandpiper ** – 8/2 8/27 9/15 9/22Blue-gray Gnatcatcher *** 8/2 8/12 8/26 9/15 9/27Blue-winged Warbler ** – 8/2 8/28 9/15 9/26Green Heron *** – 8/2 8/12 9/16 10/5Bobolink ** 8/2 8/19 9/2 9/16 10/19
Gulf Coast and SoutheastModerate to heavy flights will be apparent in much of the region for the first days of the period, as light and northeasterly flow in advance of Irma’s arrival dominates the region. All eyes, of course, are on Irma’s arrival later on Saturday or Sunday, and when and where it tracks, migration will stop. With safety always first, keep in mind that numerous pelagic and displaced species are likely to occur in the wake of this dangerous storm’s passage, particularly on inland bodies of water from Georgia and South Carolina north to eastern Tennessee and North Carolina. By Tuesday the favorable conditions continue to the west of the the remnants of Irma, with moderate to locally very heavy flights persisting. These flights become less intense and less extensive until the passage of the next cold front on Thursday, when a new round of heavy and very heavy flights arrive.

Yellow-throated Vireo. David Hall/Macaulay Library. eBird S31532331.
Beginning Arrivals What is this?SPECIESNOTICEABILITYMIGRANTS BEGIN ARRIVINGRAPID MIGRANT INFLUXPEAKRAPID MIGRANT DEPARTURELAST MIGRANTS DEPARTGreat Blue Heron *** 8/2 11/5 11/16 After Nov 30 -Cooper’s Hawk ** 8/2 9/21 10/17 After Nov 30 -American Avocet * 8/2 10/22 11/7 After Nov 30 -Belted Kingfisher *** 8/13 9/18 10/22 After Nov 30 -Ovenbird *** 8/26 9/11 9/25 10/25 11/5Black Vulture ** 8/28 9/30 11/18 After Nov 30 -Sora * 8/29 9/21 11/7 11/17 After Nov 30Nashville Warbler *** 8/30 9/11 10/4 10/24 11/12Scarlet Tanager *** 8/30 9/12 9/28 10/14 10/25Tennessee Warbler *** 8/31 9/11 10/3 10/23 11/3American Redstart ****! 8/31 9/12 9/26 10/19 11/2Magnolia Warbler *** 8/31 9/13 10/1 10/19 10/31Black-throated Blue Warbler *** 8/31 9/11 10/11 10/27 11/5Common Yellowthroat *** 9/1 9/17 10/6 10/21 11/2Brown Thrasher *** 9/2 9/22 10/6 10/21 11/3Clay-colored Sparrow * 9/2 9/16 10/4 10/21 11/6Bald Eagle *** 9/3 9/15 11/21 After Nov 30 -Blue-headed Vireo ** 9/3 10/15 10/31 11/8 11/14Cape May Warbler *** 9/3 9/12 9/25 10/28 11/5Broad-winged Hawk *** 9/6 9/15 9/25 10/6 10/16Northern Mockingbird ****! 9/7 9/23 10/10 10/26 11/22Sharp-shinned Hawk *** 9/8 9/24 10/28 11/15 After Nov 30Merlin *** 9/8 9/18 10/9 11/2 11/16Scissor-tailed Flycatcher ** 9/8 9/23 10/7 11/3 11/23Swainson’s Thrush *** 9/8 9/17 9/29 10/13 10/23Wood Thrush ** 9/10 9/21 10/2 10/15 10/25Eastern Towhee ** 9/10 10/10 10/19 11/1 11/12American Kestrel *** 9/12 9/29 11/12 After Nov 30 -Rose-breasted Grosbeak *** 9/12 9/21 10/4 10/16 10/26American Bittern * 9/14 10/9 11/12 After Nov 30 -Peregrine Falcon *** 9/15 9/25 10/7 10/18 10/26Brown-headed Cowbird ** 9/15 9/27 10/23 After Nov 30 -Palm Warbler ****! 9/15 10/5 10/20 10/31 11/7Northern Harrier *** 9/16 10/27 11/16 After Nov 30 -Gray Catbird ****! 9/16 9/27 10/10 10/23 11/6Peaking ArrivalsSPECIESNOTICEABILITYMIGRANTS BEGIN ARRIVINGRAPID MIGRANT INFLUXPEAKRAPID MIGRANT DEPARTURELAST MIGRANTS DEPARTSwainson’s Hawk * – 8/2 10/2 10/16 10/28Black-bellied Plover * – 8/2 10/31 After Nov 30 -Caspian Tern * – 8/2 11/7 After Nov 30 -Hooded Warbler ** 8/8 8/20 9/20 10/5 10/29Worm-eating Warbler ** 8/11 8/23 9/16 10/1 10/10Blue-winged Teal * 8/8 8/26 11/8 11/29 After Nov 30Ruby-throated Hummingbird *** 8/13 8/29 9/13 10/4 10/19Blue-gray Gnatcatcher *** 8/2 8/29 9/12 9/26 10/15Mourning Warbler ** 8/21 8/30 9/11 9/22 10/2Yellow-throated Vireo ** 8/17 8/31 9/15 9/30 10/13Eastern Wood-Pewee *** 8/19 9/1 9/17 10/17 11/2Acadian Flycatcher ** 8/21 9/1 9/15 10/2 10/16Pine Warbler *** 8/15 9/1 10/9 10/26 11/3Summer Tanager *** 8/21 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/18Least Flycatcher ** 8/2 9/2 9/12 9/24 10/5White-eyed Vireo *** 8/21 9/2 9/19 10/13 10/28Blue-winged Warbler ** 8/21 9/2 9/15 9/29 10/10Northern Parula *** 8/11 9/2 9/19 10/24 11/4Baltimore Oriole *** 8/26 9/2 9/12 9/23 10/1Bobolink * 8/21 9/2 9/20 10/13 10/26Red-eyed Vireo *** 8/20 9/3 9/17 10/8 10/24Yellow-throated Warbler ** 8/2 9/3 9/25 10/20 11/4Red-headed Woodpecker * 8/22 9/4 9/18 10/26 11/5Yellow-bellied Flycatcher * 8/2 9/4 9/16 10/1 10/11Wilson’s Warbler *** 8/27 9/4 9/17 9/29 10/16Chimney Swift *** 8/23 9/5 9/21 10/11 10/22Black-and-white Warbler *** 8/22 9/5 9/22 10/25 11/5Blackburnian Warbler ** 8/26 9/5 9/18 10/3 10/28Warbling Vireo * 8/28 9/6 9/17 9/29 10/8Cedar Waxwing * 8/28 9/6 9/18 9/29 10/7Chestnut-sided Warbler *** 8/23 9/6 9/22 10/9 10/23Black-throated Green Warbler ** 8/28 9/6 10/10 10/25 11/6Northern Waterthrush *** 8/15 9/7 9/20 10/3 10/13Prairie Warbler ** 8/2 9/7 9/22 10/14 11/3Veery *** 8/31 9/8 9/20 10/1 10/10Ovenbird *** 8/26 9/11 9/25 10/25 11/5Tennessee Warbler *** 8/31 9/11 10/3 10/23 11/3Nashville Warbler *** 8/30 9/11 10/4 10/24 11/12Black-throated Blue Warbler ** 8/31 9/11 10/11 10/27 11/5American Redstart *** 8/31 9/12 9/26 10/19 11/2Scarlet Tanager *** 8/30 9/12 9/28 10/14 10/25Cape May Warbler ** 9/3 9/12 9/25 10/28 11/5Magnolia Warbler *** 8/31 9/13 10/1 10/19 10/31Bald Eagle ** 9/3 9/15 11/21 After Nov 30 -Broad-winged Hawk ** 9/6 9/15 9/25 10/6 10/16Clay-colored Sparrow * 9/2 9/16 10/4 10/21 11/6Beginning DeparturesSPECIESNOTICEABILITYMIGRANTS BEGIN ARRIVINGRAPID MIGRANT INFLUXPEAKRAPID MIGRANT DEPARTURELAST MIGRANTS DEPARTBarn Swallow *** – 8/2 8/10 9/9 11/14Stilt Sandpiper * – 8/2 8/14 9/17 9/27Pectoral Sandpiper * – 8/2 8/16 9/19 9/30Spotted Sandpiper *** – 8/2 8/18 9/10 9/22Common Tern * – 8/2 8/18 9/30 11/10Upland Sandpiper ** – 8/2 8/19 9/11 9/24Semipalmated Plover ** – 8/2 8/20 9/17 9/27Piping Plover * – 8/2 8/20 After Nov 30 -Solitary Sandpiper ** 8/13 8/16 8/20 9/11 9/23Wilson’s Phalarope * – 8/2 8/23 9/14 10/2Black Tern *** 8/2 8/6 8/24 9/10 9/26Least Sandpiper *** – 8/2 8/25 9/15 After Nov 30Semipalmated Sandpiper ** 8/2 8/13 8/26 9/14 9/28Prothonotary Warbler * 8/2 8/15 8/29 9/24 10/6Baird’s Sandpiper * 8/2 8/19 8/30 9/17 9/28Western Sandpiper ** 8/2 8/17 8/31 9/15 After Nov 30Bank Swallow ** 8/14 8/21 8/31 9/12 9/22Great Crested Flycatcher *** 8/15 8/23 9/2 9/19 10/1Common Nighthawk *** 8/21 8/27 9/3 9/16 9/24Buff-breasted Sandpiper ** 8/18 8/27 9/4 9/17 9/25Cave Swallow * 8/2 8/28 9/4 9/16 11/21Kentucky Warbler * 8/2 8/13 9/4 9/25 10/6Dickcissel * 8/21 8/29 9/5 9/20 10/25Olive-sided Flycatcher * – 8/2 9/6 9/24 10/4Yellow-breasted Chat ** 8/17 8/25 9/7 9/23 10/7Yellow Warbler *** – 8/2 9/8 9/30 10/13Canada Warbler ** 8/17 8/27 9/8 9/22 10/4Mourning Warbler ** 8/21 8/30 9/11 9/22 10/2Least Flycatcher ** 8/2 9/2 9/12 9/24 10/5Blue-gray Gnatcatcher *** 8/2 8/29 9/12 9/26 10/15Baltimore Oriole *** 8/26 9/2 9/12 9/23 10/1Ruby-throated Hummingbird *** 8/13 8/29 9/13 10/4 10/19Acadian Flycatcher ** 8/21 9/1 9/15 10/2 10/16Yellow-throated Vireo *** 8/17 8/31 9/15 9/30 10/13Blue-winged Warbler ** 8/21 9/2 9/15 9/29 10/10Summer Tanager *** 8/21 9/1 9/15 10/1 10/18Yellow-bellied Flycatcher * 8/2 9/4 9/16 10/1 10/11Worm-eating Warbler ** 8/11 8/23 9/16 10/1 10/10Cattle Egret ** – – Before Aug 1 10/3 10/18Green Heron *** – – Before Aug 1 9/18 10/8Yellow-crowned Night-Heron * – – Before Aug 1 10/8 10/23Black-chinned Hummingbird * – – Before Aug 1 9/21 10/10Eastern Kingbird *** – – Before Aug 1 9/22 10/5Cliff Swallow ** – – Before Aug 1 9/14 10/18Orchard Oriole * – – Before Aug 1 9/14 9/30Gray Kingbird * – – Before Aug 1 9/17 10/11Ending DeparturesSPECIESNOTICEABILITYMIGRANTS BEGIN ARRIVINGRAPID MIGRANT INFLUXPEAKRAPID MIGRANT DEPARTURELAST MIGRANTS DEPARTPurple Martin *** – – Before Aug 1 8/3 9/10Blue Grosbeak ** – – Before Aug 1 8/24 10/28Sandwich Tern * – 8/2 8/16 8/27 After Nov 30Black Skimmer ** – 8/2 8/14 8/30 9/11Wilson’s Plover * – 8/2 8/14 9/3 9/23Sanderling * – 8/2 8/19 9/3 9/16Least Tern *** – – Before Aug 1 9/3 9/17Short-billed Dowitcher * – 8/2 8/22 9/6 9/21Louisiana Waterthrush * – 8/2 8/13 9/6 9/30Barn Swallow *** – 8/2 8/10 9/9 11/14Spotted Sandpiper *** – 8/2 8/18 9/10 9/22Black Tern *** 8/2 8/6 8/24 9/10 9/26Solitary Sandpiper ** 8/13 8/16 8/20 9/11 9/23Upland Sandpiper ** – 8/2 8/19 9/11 9/24Bank Swallow ** 8/14 8/21 8/31 9/12 9/22Semipalmated Sandpiper *** 8/2 8/13 8/26 9/14 9/28Wilson’s Phalarope * – 8/2 8/23 9/14 10/2Cliff Swallow ** – – Before Aug 1 9/14 10/18Orchard Oriole ** – – Before Aug 1 9/14 9/30Least Sandpiper * – 8/2 8/25 9/15 After Nov 30Western Sandpiper * 8/2 8/17 8/31 9/15 After Nov 30Common Nighthawk *** 8/21 8/27 9/3 9/16 9/24Cave Swallow * 8/2 8/28 9/4 9/16 11/21
Great PlainsGenerally marginal or unfavorable conditions for migration stagnate most movements in the region for the first half of the period. This is primarily due to the presence of the powerful Irma and her remnants to the southeast of the region. Movements will be locally light to moderate where conditions are more marginal. The big change arrives on Wednesday, as a significantly cooler and drier air mass arrives; with it will come a wave of moderate to locally very heavy flights in the northern and central Plains. These movements continue, albeit less intense, in the eastern Plains to end the period.

Marsh Wren. Brian Peterson/Macaulay Library. eBird S24909879.
Species on the MoveBeginning Arrivals What is this?SPECIESNOTICEABILITYMIGRANTS BEGIN ARRIVINGRAPID MIGRANT INFLUXPEAKRAPID MIGRANT DEPARTURELAST MIGRANTS DEPARTWilson’s Snipe * 8/2 10/3 10/18 11/3 11/16Peregrine Falcon * 8/2 9/13 9/24 10/9 10/23Western Meadowlark ** 8/2 9/9 10/15 10/29 11/7Purple Finch * 8/2 10/27 After Nov 30 – -American Golden-Plover * 8/12 9/22 9/30 10/12 11/16Osprey *** 8/28 9/9 9/23 10/6 11/11Sharp-shinned Hawk *** 8/31 10/2 10/17 10/28 After Nov 30Eastern Phoebe *** 9/1 9/13 9/25 10/12 10/25Summer Tanager *** 9/2 9/10 9/20 10/4 10/14Pied-billed Grebe *** 9/3 9/16 10/30 11/13 11/29Franklin’s Gull *** 9/3 9/16 10/16 11/7 After Nov 30Red-tailed Hawk *** 9/5 9/27 10/27 11/9 After Nov 30Orange-crowned Warbler ****! 9/5 9/21 10/4 10/17 10/28Western Grebe * 9/6 10/17 10/31 After Nov 30 -Scissor-tailed Flycatcher *** 9/6 9/16 9/27 10/19 11/1Lincoln’s Sparrow *** 9/6 9/21 10/11 10/29 11/10Northern Flicker ****! 9/7 9/16 10/1 11/4 11/13Ruby-crowned Kinglet *** 9/7 9/21 10/8 10/24 11/8Vesper Sparrow *** 9/7 9/23 10/10 10/27 11/6Indigo Bunting ** 9/7 9/11 9/20 10/12 10/21Broad-winged Hawk ** 9/8 9/15 9/23 10/5 10/12Spotted Towhee *** 9/9 9/23 10/9 10/25 11/6Double-crested Cormorant *** 9/10 9/26 10/23 After Nov 30 -Northern Harrier *** 9/12 10/11 10/28 11/12 After Nov 30Yellow-bellied Sapsucker ** 9/12 9/27 After Nov 30 – -Red-winged Blackbird *** 9/12 9/26 10/22 After Nov 30 -Savannah Sparrow *** 9/13 10/3 10/15 10/29 11/8Common Grackle *** 9/13 9/20 10/6 10/29 After Nov 30Marsh Wren *** 9/14 9/27 10/9 10/23 11/5Yellow-rumped Warbler ****! 9/15 9/26 10/11 10/24 11/15White-throated Sparrow *** 9/16 9/28 10/15 11/6 11/17Peaking ArrivalsSPECIESNOTICEABILITYMIGRANTS BEGIN ARRIVINGRAPID MIGRANT INFLUXPEAKRAPID MIGRANT DEPARTURELAST MIGRANTS DEPARTGreat Egret * – 8/2 9/13 10/20 11/11Swainson’s Hawk ** – 8/2 9/11 10/14 10/22Sora * – 8/2 9/27 10/20 11/4Greater Yellowlegs * – 8/2 10/27 11/16 After Nov 30Tennessee Warbler ** 8/2 8/9 9/9 10/3 10/23Blue-winged Teal *** 8/2 8/10 9/13 10/24 11/10Magnolia Warbler * 8/16 8/27 9/9 9/23 10/3Caspian Tern * 8/2 8/31 9/11 9/26 10/9Philadelphia Vireo * 8/18 8/31 9/13 9/27 10/6White-eyed Vireo * 8/24 9/1 9/12 9/27 10/8House Wren ** 8/25 9/1 9/11 10/6 10/20Swainson’s Thrush *** 8/24 9/1 9/11 9/22 10/1Blue-headed Vireo *** 8/25 9/2 9/16 9/28 10/24Northern Parula ** 8/26 9/2 9/12 9/24 10/5Black-throated Green Warbler * 8/20 9/2 9/22 10/13 10/28Clay-colored Sparrow *** 8/20 9/3 9/24 10/16 10/30Turkey Vulture *** 8/2 9/4 9/27 10/16 10/25Gray Catbird *** 8/2 9/4 9/13 10/1 10/13Brown Thrasher *** 8/26 9/4 9/14 9/29 10/9Cooper’s Hawk ** 8/2 9/5 9/24 10/24 11/8Nashville Warbler *** 8/27 9/5 9/22 10/14 10/24Merlin * 8/19 9/6 10/24 11/8 11/24Common Yellowthroat *** 8/30 9/6 9/20 10/12 10/21Red-shouldered Hawk * 8/2 9/7 9/29 10/28 11/25American White Pelican ** 8/2 9/8 10/18 After Nov 30 -Osprey *** 8/28 9/9 9/23 10/6 11/11Western Meadowlark *** 8/2 9/9 10/15 10/29 11/7Summer Tanager ** 9/2 9/10 9/20 10/4 10/14Indigo Bunting ** 9/7 9/11 9/20 10/12 10/21Peregrine Falcon * 8/2 9/13 9/24 10/9 10/23Eastern Phoebe *** 9/1 9/13 9/25 10/12 10/25Broad-winged Hawk ** 9/8 9/15 9/23 10/5 10/12Pied-billed Grebe *** 9/3 9/16 10/30 11/13 11/29Franklin’s Gull *** 9/3 9/16 10/16 11/7 After Nov 30Northern Flicker ****! 9/7 9/16 10/1 11/4 11/13Scissor-tailed Flycatcher ** 9/6 9/16 9/27 10/19 11/1Beginning DeparturesSPECIESNOTICEABILITYMIGRANTS BEGIN ARRIVINGRAPID MIGRANT INFLUXPEAKRAPID MIGRANT DEPARTURELAST MIGRANTS DEPARTYellow-headed Blackbird * – 8/2 8/9 9/27 10/8Lark Bunting ** – 8/2 8/11 9/17 9/24Solitary Sandpiper ** 8/2 8/7 8/15 9/10 9/26Marbled Godwit * – 8/2 8/15 9/10 10/2Chimney Swift *** – 8/2 8/15 10/11 10/20Green Heron *** – 8/2 8/17 9/22 10/9Mourning Dove *** – 8/2 8/17 10/4 10/25Bank Swallow *** – 8/2 8/19 9/10 9/26Wood Duck ** – 8/2 8/20 10/28 After Nov 30Snowy Egret ** – 8/2 8/20 10/5 10/26Lesser Yellowlegs ** – 8/2 8/20 9/13 11/8Semipalmated Sandpiper *** 8/2 8/13 8/20 9/9 9/23Forster’s Tern ** – 8/2 8/20 9/10 10/19Eastern Wood-Pewee *** – 8/2 8/20 9/21 10/5Wilson’s Phalarope ** 8/12 8/17 8/23 9/12 9/25Least Sandpiper *** 8/2 8/6 8/25 9/14 9/24Western Wood-Pewee * 8/12 8/18 8/25 9/11 9/23Bell’s Vireo *** 8/14 8/19 8/26 9/9 9/19Black-crowned Night-Heron * – 8/2 8/27 9/27 10/28Semipalmated Plover ** 8/22 8/25 8/29 9/15 9/23Buff-breasted Sandpiper ** 8/16 8/21 8/29 9/10 9/18Common Nighthawk *** 8/15 8/21 8/29 10/1 10/10Red-headed Woodpecker *** – 8/2 8/29 9/23 10/13Yellow Warbler *** – 8/2 8/29 9/18 9/27Great Crested Flycatcher *** 8/2 8/25 8/30 9/16 9/25Blue-gray Gnatcatcher *** – 8/2 8/30 9/20 10/1Ruby-throated Hummingbird *** – 8/2 8/31 9/22 10/5Canada Warbler * 8/2 8/16 8/31 9/14 9/25White-faced Ibis * – 8/2 9/1 10/2 10/30Red-eyed Vireo *** 8/2 8/20 9/1 9/20 10/2Mourning Warbler * 8/12 8/20 9/1 9/13 9/27Rose-breasted Grosbeak ** 8/2 8/12 9/2 9/29 10/12Olive-sided Flycatcher *** 8/13 8/23 9/3 9/16 9/24Chestnut-sided Warbler * 8/11 8/21 9/3 9/18 10/1Least Flycatcher *** 8/2 8/20 9/4 9/20 10/2Ovenbird ** 8/13 8/22 9/4 9/18 10/5Black-and-white Warbler *** 8/11 8/23 9/5 9/21 10/2American Redstart *** 8/10 8/24 9/5 9/19 9/28Yellow-breasted Chat * 8/19 8/26 9/5 9/20 9/30Sanderling * 8/2 8/20 9/6 10/7 10/26Warbling Vireo *** 8/20 8/28 9/6 9/19 9/27Red-necked Phalarope * 8/2 8/22 9/7 9/29 10/15Say’s Phoebe ** 8/16 8/28 9/7 9/26 10/8Yellow-throated Vireo ** 8/24 8/31 9/8 9/19 9/27Tennessee Warbler * 8/2 8/9 9/9 10/3 10/23Magnolia Warbler * 8/16 8/27 9/9 9/23 10/3Swainson’s Hawk *** – 8/2 9/11 10/14 10/22Caspian Tern * 8/2 8/31 9/11 9/26 10/9House Wren *** 8/25 9/1 9/11 10/6 10/20Swainson’s Thrush *** 8/24 9/1 9/11 9/22 10/1White-eyed Vireo ** 8/24 9/1 9/12 9/27 10/8Northern Parula ** 8/26 9/2 9/12 9/24 10/5Blue-winged Teal *** 8/2 8/10 9/13 10/24 11/10Great Egret *** – 8/2 9/13 10/20 11/11Philadelphia Vireo ** 8/18 8/31 9/13 9/27 10/6Gray Catbird *** 8/2 9/4 9/13 10/1 10/13Brown Thrasher *** 8/26 9/4 9/14 9/29 10/9Blue-headed Vireo ** 8/25 9/2 9/16 9/28 10/24Cattle Egret * – – Before Aug 1 10/1 11/2Killdeer *** – – Before Aug 1 11/4 After Nov 30Spotted Sandpiper *** – – Before Aug 1 9/9 9/29Baird’s Sandpiper ** – – Before Aug 1 9/10 9/21Black Tern ** – – Before Aug 1 9/12 9/30Northern Rough-winged Swallow ** – – Before Aug 1 10/7 10/23Tree Swallow ** – – Before Aug 1 9/9 11/1Lark Sparrow *** – – Before Aug 1 9/13 9/26Ending DeparturesSPECIESNOTICEABILITYMIGRANTS BEGIN ARRIVINGRAPID MIGRANT INFLUXPEAKRAPID MIGRANT DEPARTURELAST MIGRANTS DEPARTWestern Kingbird *** – – Before Aug 1 8/3 9/15Orchard Oriole *** – – Before Aug 1 8/15 9/18Yellow-crowned Night-Heron * – – Before Aug 1 8/17 10/10Yellow-billed Cuckoo *** – – Before Aug 1 8/17 10/2Least Tern * – – Before Aug 1 8/22 9/15Upland Sandpiper *** – – Before Aug 1 8/25 9/17Willet * – – Before Aug 1 8/26 9/29Cliff Swallow *** – – Before Aug 1 8/31 9/22Black-bellied Plover * – 8/2 8/21 9/1 11/21Pectoral Sandpiper ** – – Before Aug 1 9/2 10/23Eastern Kingbird *** – 8/2 8/13 9/4 9/21Bobolink * – – Before Aug 1 9/4 10/2Mississippi Kite *** 8/9 8/14 8/20 9/7 9/20Black-necked Stilt ** 8/2 8/15 8/24 9/7 9/18Little Blue Heron ** 8/2 8/11 8/21 9/8 10/7Snowy Plover * 8/2 8/9 8/23 9/8 9/19Stilt Sandpiper *** 8/13 8/19 8/27 9/8 9/16Northern Waterthrush ** 8/12 8/19 8/29 9/8 9/17Baltimore Oriole *** 8/7 8/17 8/26 9/8 9/18Spotted Sandpiper *** – – Before Aug 1 9/9 9/29Semipalmated Sandpiper *** 8/2 8/13 8/20 9/9 9/23Bell’s Vireo *** 8/14 8/19 8/26 9/9 9/19Tree Swallow ** – – Before Aug 1 9/9 11/1Solitary Sandpiper *** 8/2 8/7 8/15 9/10 9/26Marbled Godwit * – 8/2 8/15 9/10 10/2Baird’s Sandpiper *** – – Before Aug 1 9/10 9/21Buff-breasted Sandpiper ** 8/16 8/21 8/29 9/10 9/18Forster’s Tern ** – 8/2 8/20 9/10 10/19Bank Swallow *** – 8/2 8/19 9/10 9/26Western Wood-Pewee * 8/12 8/18 8/25 9/11 9/23Wilson’s Phalarope *** 8/12 8/17 8/23 9/12 9/25Black Tern *** – – Before Aug 1 9/12 9/30Lesser Yellowlegs ** – 8/2 8/20 9/13 11/8Mourning Warbler * 8/12 8/20 9/1 9/13 9/27Lark Sparrow *** – – Before Aug 1 9/13 9/26Least Sandpiper *** 8/2 8/6 8/25 9/14 9/24Canada Warbler * 8/2 8/16 8/31 9/14 9/25Semipalmated Plover *** 8/22 8/25 8/29 9/15 9/23Olive-sided Flycatcher *** 8/13 8/23 9/3 9/16 9/24Great Crested Flycatcher *** 8/2 8/25 8/30 9/16 9/25
WestLight to moderate movements become increasingly more extensive over the weekend to begin the period. This is particularly true for areas of the Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies. These movements will reach perhaps their greatest extents in the middle of the work week, particularly in the northern Rockies where favorable conditions may see locally higher migration traffic. But new energy and associated scattered precipitation arrive by the end of the period to dampen movements in many areas, keeping migration local and primarily light.

Golden-crowned Sparrow. Marlene Cashen/Macaulay Library. eBird S35938380.
Species on the MoveBeginning Arrivals What is this?SPECIESNOTICEABILITYMIGRANTS BEGIN ARRIVINGRAPID MIGRANT INFLUXPEAKRAPID MIGRANT DEPARTURELAST MIGRANTS DEPARTCanada Goose ** 8/2 11/4 After Nov 30 – -Pied-billed Grebe ** 8/2 10/19 11/11 After Nov 30 -California Gull * 8/2 10/22 11/7 After Nov 30 -Red-tailed Hawk *** 8/7 9/10 After Nov 30 – -Ring-billed Gull ** 8/10 11/7 11/22 After Nov 30 -Turkey Vulture *** 8/14 9/9 9/17 10/5 10/17Heermann’s Gull * 8/15 9/14 9/21 10/2 After Nov 30Black Phoebe *** 8/16 9/9 11/17 After Nov 30 -Northern Harrier ** 8/17 11/8 11/20 After Nov 30 -Red-shouldered Hawk ** 8/17 9/12 10/3 After Nov 30 -Marsh Wren * 8/21 9/20 10/29 After Nov 30 -Sharp-shinned Hawk ** 8/23 9/10 10/19 11/11 After Nov 30Brewer’s Blackbird *** 8/23 9/11 9/27 10/20 After Nov 30Red-winged Blackbird *** 8/25 9/12 10/10 10/27 After Nov 30Red-necked Grebe * 8/26 10/20 11/3 11/13 11/20Merlin ** 8/30 9/14 11/9 11/28 After Nov 30Lincoln’s Sparrow *** 8/30 9/11 10/4 10/21 11/5American Pipit *** 8/31 9/11 11/15 After Nov 30 -Say’s Phoebe *** 9/1 9/13 11/21 After Nov 30 -American Wigeon *** 9/2 10/17 11/22 After Nov 30 -Eared Grebe *** 9/2 9/16 11/11 After Nov 30 -Sabine’s Gull * 9/2 9/11 9/21 10/3 10/13Summer Tanager * 9/4 9/9 9/16 10/3 10/13Northern Flicker *** 9/5 9/29 10/16 11/8 11/22Red-naped Sapsucker * 9/6 9/19 10/7 10/22 11/3White-crowned Sparrow ****! 9/6 9/21 10/11 10/21 10/31Fox Sparrow *** 9/9 9/23 10/20 11/1 11/8Golden-crowned Kinglet ** 9/10 10/4 10/23 11/6 11/18Black-bellied Plover ** 9/12 9/18 9/30 After Nov 30 -Greater White-fronted Goose *** 9/13 9/21 10/3 10/12 10/19Yellow-rumped Warbler ****! 9/13 9/27 10/14 10/23 11/3Golden-crowned Sparrow *** 9/13 9/26 10/19 10/26 11/18Sandhill Crane * 9/14 11/10 11/18 After Nov 30 -Cackling Goose ** 9/16 10/3 After Nov 30 – -Western Meadowlark *** 9/16 9/30 10/16 After Nov 30 -Peaking ArrivalsSPECIESNOTICEABILITYMIGRANTS BEGIN ARRIVINGRAPID MIGRANT INFLUXPEAKRAPID MIGRANT DEPARTURELAST MIGRANTS DEPARTBlue-winged Teal * – 8/2 9/22 10/23 11/3Common Merganser * – 8/2 9/23 9/28 9/30Belted Kingfisher ** – 8/2 10/22 After Nov 30 -Blue-gray Gnatcatcher * – 8/2 9/10 9/22 10/3Black-throated Gray Warbler * – 8/2 10/4 10/19 10/29Black Turnstone * 8/6 8/17 9/21 10/2 After Nov 30Northern Shoveler *** 8/6 8/20 11/20 After Nov 30 -Northern Pintail ** 8/12 8/20 11/19 After Nov 30 -Green-winged Teal ** 8/2 8/20 11/17 After Nov 30 -Pectoral Sandpiper ** 8/16 8/25 9/20 10/9 10/24Pacific-slope Flycatcher ** 8/14 8/25 9/12 10/3 10/17Pink-footed Shearwater * 8/8 8/27 9/14 10/25 11/7Clay-colored Sparrow * 8/17 8/28 9/14 10/18 11/6Warbling Vireo *** 8/21 8/29 9/9 9/22 10/9Swainson’s Thrush ** 8/22 8/29 9/10 9/25 10/7Brewer’s Sparrow * 8/2 8/29 9/9 9/24 10/5Common Yellowthroat *** 8/18 8/30 9/15 10/5 10/27Townsend’s Warbler *** 8/13 8/30 10/2 10/22 11/6House Wren ** 8/23 8/31 9/9 9/21 10/26Sora * 8/21 9/1 9/13 9/23 After Nov 30Orange-crowned Warbler *** 8/18 9/1 9/18 10/15 10/27Vesper Sparrow ** 8/24 9/2 9/13 9/27 10/15Savannah Sparrow *** 8/2 9/3 9/23 10/24 11/2American Robin ** 8/30 9/4 10/10 10/17 11/14Green-tailed Towhee ** 8/28 9/4 9/13 9/24 10/3Sooty Shearwater * 8/2 9/5 9/15 9/29 10/8Vaux’s Swift * 8/28 9/5 9/14 10/3 10/20Parasitic Jaeger * 8/26 9/6 9/19 10/1 10/29Common Tern * 8/24 9/6 9/17 10/1 10/11Cooper’s Hawk ** 8/2 9/7 10/1 10/24 11/11Mountain Bluebird * 9/3 9/8 9/19 10/17 10/27Turkey Vulture ** 8/14 9/9 9/17 10/5 10/17Black Phoebe ** 8/16 9/9 11/17 After Nov 30 -Summer Tanager * 9/4 9/9 9/16 10/3 10/13Sharp-shinned Hawk * 8/23 9/10 10/19 11/11 After Nov 30Red-tailed Hawk *** 8/7 9/10 After Nov 30 – -Sabine’s Gull * 9/2 9/11 9/21 10/3 10/13American Pipit ** 8/31 9/11 11/15 After Nov 30 -Lincoln’s Sparrow *** 8/30 9/11 10/4 10/21 11/5Brewer’s Blackbird ** 8/23 9/11 9/27 10/20 After Nov 30Red-shouldered Hawk ** 8/17 9/12 10/3 After Nov 30 -Red-winged Blackbird ** 8/25 9/12 10/10 10/27 After Nov 30Say’s Phoebe ** 9/1 9/13 11/21 After Nov 30 -Heermann’s Gull * 8/15 9/14 9/21 10/2 After Nov 30Merlin * 8/30 9/14 11/9 11/28 After Nov 30Eared Grebe *** 9/2 9/16 11/11 After Nov 30 -Beginning DeparturesSPECIESNOTICEABILITYMIGRANTS BEGIN ARRIVINGRAPID MIGRANT INFLUXPEAKRAPID MIGRANT DEPARTURELAST MIGRANTS DEPARTWestern Wood-Pewee *** – 8/2 8/10 9/20 9/30Lazuli Bunting ** – 8/2 8/14 9/21 10/2Lark Sparrow ** – 8/2 8/15 9/20 9/30Bank Swallow * – 8/2 8/17 9/11 9/25Lark Bunting * – 8/2 8/17 9/17 9/26Swainson’s Hawk ** – 8/2 8/18 9/28 10/12Spotted Sandpiper *** – 8/2 8/18 9/17 10/3Mourning Dove *** 8/9 8/14 8/19 9/21 10/8Barn Swallow *** 8/2 8/9 8/23 9/17 10/12Osprey ** – 8/2 8/25 9/16 10/2Solitary Sandpiper ** 8/2 8/13 8/26 9/9 9/22Wandering Tattler * 8/10 8/17 8/26 10/2 10/10White-faced Ibis ** 8/2 8/12 8/27 9/26 10/13Black-necked Stilt ** 8/16 8/20 8/27 9/26 10/6Green Heron * 8/2 8/10 8/28 9/23 10/17Greater Yellowlegs * 8/11 8/18 8/28 After Nov 30 -Marbled Godwit * 8/9 8/17 8/28 9/29 After Nov 30Virginia’s Warbler * 8/2 8/14 8/28 9/16 10/1Olive-sided Flycatcher ** 8/23 8/26 8/29 9/17 9/28American Avocet * 8/15 8/21 8/30 9/30 After Nov 30Franklin’s Gull * – 8/2 8/31 10/3 11/5Sage Thrasher * – 8/2 8/31 9/20 10/13Red-necked Phalarope *** 8/8 8/20 9/1 9/16 10/9Cinnamon Teal * 8/2 8/13 9/2 9/27 10/13American White Pelican * 8/2 8/13 9/2 9/27 10/19Gray Catbird ** 8/2 8/25 9/2 9/17 9/26Yellow-headed Blackbird * 8/6 8/22 9/2 9/23 10/11Willow Flycatcher *** 8/14 8/26 9/5 9/19 9/29Nashville Warbler ** – 8/2 9/5 9/19 9/29MacGillivray’s Warbler *** – 8/2 9/5 9/21 10/2Plumbeous Vireo * 8/27 8/31 9/6 9/19 9/27Killdeer ** 8/2 8/14 9/7 10/3 11/3Elegant Tern * 8/2 8/21 9/7 After Nov 30 -Red-breasted Nuthatch * – 8/2 9/7 10/19 10/30Sanderling * 8/2 8/17 9/8 9/26 10/6Hammond’s Flycatcher * 8/24 8/31 9/8 9/19 9/26Cassin’s Vireo ** 8/2 8/29 9/8 9/20 9/29Yellow Warbler *** – 8/2 9/8 10/2 10/21Wilson’s Warbler *** 8/2 8/27 9/8 9/24 10/9Chipping Sparrow *** – 8/2 9/8 10/18 11/2Western Tanager *** 8/23 8/30 9/8 9/21 10/3Warbling Vireo *** 8/21 8/29 9/9 9/22 10/9House Wren *** 8/23 8/31 9/9 9/21 10/26Brewer’s Sparrow ** 8/2 8/29 9/9 9/24 10/5Blue-gray Gnatcatcher * – 8/2 9/10 9/22 10/3Swainson’s Thrush ** 8/22 8/29 9/10 9/25 10/7Pacific-slope Flycatcher ** 8/14 8/25 9/12 10/3 10/17Sora * 8/21 9/1 9/13 9/23 After Nov 30Green-tailed Towhee ** 8/28 9/4 9/13 9/24 10/3Vesper Sparrow ** 8/24 9/2 9/13 9/27 10/15Pink-footed Shearwater * 8/8 8/27 9/14 10/25 11/7Vaux’s Swift ** 8/28 9/5 9/14 10/3 10/20Clay-colored Sparrow * 8/17 8/28 9/14 10/18 11/6Sooty Shearwater ** 8/2 9/5 9/15 9/29 10/8Common Yellowthroat *** 8/18 8/30 9/15 10/5 10/27Summer Tanager * 9/4 9/9 9/16 10/3 10/13Snowy Plover * – – Before Aug 1 9/11 10/1Whimbrel * – – Before Aug 1 9/29 10/13Black Tern * – – Before Aug 1 9/22 10/4Black-chinned Hummingbird *** – – Before Aug 1 9/14 10/3Bell’s Vireo * – – Before Aug 1 9/28 10/11Northern Rough-winged Swallow ** – – Before Aug 1 9/10 9/25Black-headed Grosbeak *** – – Before Aug 1 9/14 9/28Blue Grosbeak ** – – Before Aug 1 9/16 10/9Ending DeparturesSPECIESNOTICEABILITYMIGRANTS BEGIN ARRIVINGRAPID MIGRANT INFLUXPEAKRAPID MIGRANT DEPARTURELAST MIGRANTS DEPARTTree Swallow *** – – Before Aug 1 8/3 9/17Violet-green Swallow *** – – Before Aug 1 8/3 10/23Yellow-breasted Chat * – – Before Aug 1 8/3 9/25Hooded Oriole ** – – Before Aug 1 8/3 9/22Broad-billed Hummingbird * – – Before Aug 1 8/7 9/16Cliff Swallow *** – – Before Aug 1 8/11 9/14Eastern Kingbird *** – 8/2 8/14 8/30 9/10Broad-tailed Hummingbird *** – – Before Aug 1 9/1 9/26Common Nighthawk ** – – Before Aug 1 9/2 9/24Bullock’s Oriole ** – – Before Aug 1 9/2 9/14White-winged Dove *** – – Before Aug 1 9/3 9/15Hermit Warbler * – 8/2 8/19 9/3 10/23Western Kingbird *** – – Before Aug 1 9/4 9/24Purple Martin * – – Before Aug 1 9/4 9/20Semipalmated Sandpiper ** 8/2 8/9 8/20 9/5 9/15Calliope Hummingbird * – – Before Aug 1 9/5 9/24Lesser Yellowlegs ** 8/2 8/15 8/25 9/6 10/7Least Sandpiper *** 8/2 8/14 8/25 9/6 9/16Western Sandpiper *** 8/2 8/14 8/25 9/6 10/5Short-billed Dowitcher ** 8/10 8/18 8/26 9/6 9/13Caspian Tern *** – – Before Aug 1 9/7 9/27Rufous Hummingbird *** – – Before Aug 1 9/7 9/24Semipalmated Plover *** 8/9 8/17 8/26 9/8 9/20Baird’s Sandpiper *** 8/3 8/17 8/27 9/8 9/20Wilson’s Phalarope ** – – Before Aug 1 9/8 9/27Solitary Sandpiper ** 8/2 8/13 8/26 9/9 9/22Northern Rough-winged Swallow ** – – Before Aug 1 9/10 9/25Snowy Plover * – – Before Aug 1 9/11 10/1Bank Swallow ** – 8/2 8/17 9/11 9/25Black-chinned Hummingbird *** – – Before Aug 1 9/14 10/3Black-headed Grosbeak *** – – Before Aug 1 9/14 9/28Osprey *** – 8/2 8/25 9/16 10/2Red-necked Phalarope *** 8/8 8/20 9/1 9/16 10/9Virginia’s Warbler * 8/2 8/14 8/28 9/16 10/1Blue Grosbeak ** – – Before Aug 1 9/16 10/9–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––Farnsworth and Van Doren

What’s in a Name? How Genome Mapping Can Make It Harder to Tell Species Apart

Wed, 09/06/2017 - 12:17

From the Autumn 2017 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.
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If you had opened a copy of the Sibley Guide to Birds when it was first published in the year 2000 and flipped to the section on wood-warblers, you would have found 13 pages devoted to members of a single genus: Dendroica, Latin for tree-dweller. Dendroica’s inhabitants included 21 colorful species—such as Magnolia, Blackburnian, and Cerulean Warblers—dear to the hearts of many birders.

Open a copy of the second edition of the Sibley Guide today, and Dendroica is nowhere to be found.

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There hasn’t been a mass extinction in the intervening years. The wood-warbler species are all still there, but filed under a different genus name, Setophaga. Instead, there has been a major shift in how ornithologists sort and classify bird species, and the genus name Dendroica was a casualty.

Decisions about how North American bird species are classified and what is and is not considered a species are made every summer by a special committee of the American Ornithological Society. An AOS committee bases its judgments on the best available science. But the science is rapidly expanding. Like many other branches of biology, ornithologists are trying to make sense of a flood of new information flowing from the latest advances in genome mapping. Today, avian geneticists can dive deep into genomes to unveil the molecular differences underlying variation between birds.

But instead of providing clarity, all this new technology is adding complexity. It turns out there’s much more that separates bird species than meets the birder’s eye—or binocular lens.

The Bullock’s Oriole (left) and Baltimore Oriole (right) were once lumped together as one species, the Northern Oriole, because they can mate and produce viable offspring. Photos by Brian Small.

The definition of what constitutes a species has changed more than once in the past two centuries, as scientists have advanced their understanding of evolution and behavior. In the 1800s, ornithologists classified birds based mostly on morphology, or how they looked. Examining specimens harvested via shotgun, they split populations into smaller and smaller segments based on tiny variations in size, shape, and plumage. As legions of scientific expeditions roamed America’s unexplored wilds in the 19th century—collecting specimens and sending them back east to institutions such as the Smithsonian—there was a continuous increase in the number of recognized species through the turn of century. For example, ornithologists had divvied up juncos into 14 distinct species by the early 1900s.

But this species bonanza didn’t last. A pivotal point for ornithology, and for biology in general, was the publication of Ernst Mayr’s Systematics and the Origin of Species in 1942, which formalized the biological species concept. This new definition of species as “groups of interbreeding natural populations that are reproductively isolated from other such groups” sparked a trend of species lumping (or combining two or more species into one). Now, scientists were considering the behavior of living birds, not just how they looked.

There were nearly 19,000 scientifically recognized bird species in the world at the turn of the 20th century. But the introduction of the biological species concept caused a reshuffling that dropped that number by half. Graphic adapted from Handbook of the Birds of the World, Lynx Edicions 1997. View larger image.

Many such lumps occurred when scientists in the field documented that two species originally thought to be distinct were actually mating with each other and producing viable hybrid offspring. That’s how the number of scientifically recognized junco species shrank from 14 to three. Baltimore and Bullock’s Orioles were combined under the name “Northern Oriole,” and Myrtle and Audubon’s Warblers were consolidated under the single “Yellow-rumped Warbler.” From 1900 to the end of the 20th century, the number of scientifically recognized bird species worldwide plummeted from nearly 19,000 to around 10,000.

Debates about how best to define species didn’t end with Ernst Mayr, however. In the 1980s, a new idea known as the phylogenetic species concept began to gain prominence, partly owing to scientific advances in constructing the evolutionary trees (or phylogenies) that depict the evolutionary relationships among birds, from today’s species all the way back to the earliest avian origins. Proponents of the phylogenetic species approach argue that species should be classified according to their evolutionary past—a species is any unique, independently evolving lineage, regardless of its potential mating isolation (or not) from its current relatives. A bird’s taxonomic status, they contend, should be informed by its history.

The Magnolia Warbler was once a member of the genus Dendroica, but is now in the genus Setophaga. Photo by Tim J. Hopwood via Birdshare.

It was phylogeny that led to the demise of Dendroica at the genus level. Irby Lovette, director of the Fuller Evolutionary Biology Program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and his colleagues used analyses of the DNA of 107 warbler species to rewrite the warbler family tree. Lovette and his team sequenced more than 10,000 individual nucleotides from the birds’ nuclear and mitochondrial DNA and applied a series of statistical techniques to the results. They concluded, among other things, that all of the erstwhile Dendroica species fell within an evolutionary group that also included Setophaga, another genus that as of 2011 only included the American Redstart. So the Dendroica and Setophaga warblers belonged in one genus. Setophaga happened to be the older name, and the rules of scientific nomenclature meant it took precedence, so Dendroica was history.

The biological species concept remains the most widely accepted standard among ornithologists for classification decisions at the species level. But in the last five years, yet another revolution has rocked the world of avian classification. Gone are the days when ornithologists would labor for months to sequence just a few individual genes on their way to building an evolutionary tree. Today’s “high-throughput” or “next-generation” genome sequencing means a student in an evolutionary biology laboratory today can assemble an entire genome—all 1 billion or so units in a bird’s DNA—in just a few weeks.

Lovette describes it as a shift from “genetics” to “genomics.”

“Before, we did what I would call genetics, pulling out very, very small pieces of DNA,” he says. “With next-generation sequencing, we’ve moved from dealing with tiny fractions of the genome to all of it, and that’s expanded the amount of information we have by many orders of magnitude. It’s opened the door to all kinds of new analyses of how genetic variation is packaged through space and time in birds. It’s not that the underlying biology has changed, it’s just that our window into it has widened so dramatically.”

And birds, it turns out, make an ideal subject for these genomic studies.

More About Hybrids and Speciation

“Birds have a modestly sized genome compared to a lot of other organisms,” says Lovette. “It’s still huge, but not as vast as in mammals, for example. And the organization of the avian genome is really similar across all birds, which makes comparing bird genomes with one another much more straightforward. We can do genomic-scale studies on birds relatively cost-effectively.”

All of this means that scientists have the ability to peer more deeply into the DNA of birds today than ever before. But in some ways the resulting picture for species classification isn’t getting clearer—rather, it’s getting blurrier. It seems that the more closely evolutionary biologists look into the genome, the more arbitrary the boundaries between some species appear to be. It’s a bit like stepping too close to a pointillist painting: instead of revealing tiny details on the picnickers’ faces, the whole thing dissolves into dots.

“On the one hand, this is the kind of information we’ve been wanting forever,” says Lovette. “We can see how different parts of the genome are, say, moving between species that are hybridizing, or evolving in different directions due to selection. In that sense, it’s a fantastic advance.

“But genomics, especially at the species level, is also starting to illustrate just how many pathways there are to becoming a separate species,” he continues. “Now that we can see these patterns in all of their wonderful complexity, how do we link these fairly complicated histories to the more simplistic models of what we expected to see among species when we didn’t have that great richness of information?”

Put another way, how does next-generation genomics—with all its high-tech analysis sifting through millions of genes at light speed—translate into the age-old discipline of taxonomy where birds are ordered like last names in a phone book?

Lovette was as sad as anyone to see Dendroica go. (“I once had a license plate that read DNDRCA,” he admits.) However, Lovette is quick to point out that questions about how to organize birds at the genus, family, and order level are distinct from questions about whether to lump or split individual species.

“The higher-level classification derives from the evolutionary trees, while the species-level divisions derive from what we think is happening among those species in an ongoing biological context,” he says. “They’re really two different things.”

In other words, higher-level taxonomy like the kind he tackled in the Dendroica paper is based on the past—the evolutionary relationships that underlie the diversity we see today. To understand things at the species level, we need to understand what’s happening now.

Some of the most recent genomic research to hit scientific journals is still being hotly debated among ornithologists. But if the latest findings find wider acceptance, they threaten to overturn—or restore—the classification of some of North America’s most beloved and sought-after songbird species.

The redpoll spectrum: The bird in the upper left (1) is a classic streaky Common Redpoll, while the bird on the lower right (6) is a snowy Hoary Redpoll. In the field, birders see flocks of redpolls with many variations in between these two extremes. Research from the Cornell Lab suggests that all these redpolls may be the same species. Photo credits: (1) Melissa Groo, (2) Brian Small, (3, 5, 6) David Stimac, (4) David Speiser.

If you’ve ever seen a Hoary Redpoll, chances are you were pretty cold at the time. American birders routinely travel to remote parts of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin in hope of adding this small, red-capped bird to their life lists. It breeds in the far reaches of the Arctic, and even in winter it only irregularly descends into the Lower 48 States.

Birders who brave the cold for their lifer Hoary Redpoll may have a hard time distinguishing it from its more southerly cousin, the Common Redpoll. As their name suggests, Hoary Redpolls tend to have whiter plumage than streaky brownish Common Redpolls. But what looks obvious in a field guide often isn’t quite so clear in the field.

“You really want to see a Hoary Redpoll, but then when you do you’re like, am I sure what that is? There’s a lot of variation,” says University of Colorado scientist Scott Taylor. Taylor saw his lifer Hoary among a redpoll flock in Cortland, New York, when he was a postdoctoral researcher at the Cornell Lab. As he scanned the flock, he noticed that the birds varied along a spectrum in their appearance. Some were very streaky (clearly Common), some had a snow-white breast (clearly Hoary), but there were lots of redpolls with many degrees of streakiness and snowiness in between.

Genome Mapping Explained Illustration by Virginia Greene, Bartels Science Illustration Intern.

How exactly do scientists map a bird’s genome? In short: they color-code it.

First, scientists unzip the DNA’s double helix, exposing the sequence of chemical “bases” (A, T, C, and G) that are combined to make a genome. Then, they chop the long strands of DNA into smaller, more manageable fragments, and place the DNA fragments onto a tiny plate about the size of a quarter. (Think of a microscope slide.)

Next, scientists add a fluorescent dye that makes the bases light up. For example, A’s turn yellow, T’s turn green, C’s turn red, and G’s turn blue. A high-speed computing program then reads the color-coded bases and outputs the fragment sequences. A genome contains more than 1.2 billion base pairs, so stitching all of these short sequences together requires big-data computer processing.

In the early 2000s, the Human Genome Project cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But today, the genome of a bird can be sequenced for much less—thousands of dollars. Bird genomes from several species can even be sequenced side by side, which makes it possible to compare differences. That’s how evolutionary biologists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology compared Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warbler genomes and found that they differ in just 0.03 percent of their bases.

—Alison Haigh, Branegan Science Writing Fellow

In 2015 Taylor and his colleague Nick Mason (a graduate student at Cornell) published a genomic study that surveyed the genetic variation that might underpin this redpoll plumage variation. Altogether, they analyzed more than 236,000 individual points in the redpoll genome—still less than 1 percent of the whole thing, but previous studies of redpoll genetics had never sequenced more than a dozen regions at a time.

Even with this much larger sample size, Taylor and Mason couldn’t find a single DNA difference where they could reliably distinguish between Hoary and Common Redpolls, or between those two species and their European cousin the Lesser Redpoll.

“We didn’t see the kinds of genomic differences that we’d expect to see between birds that have been [reproductively] isolated for long periods of time,” says Taylor.

Instead, says Mason, the world’s three redpoll species seem to be “functioning as members of a single gene pool that wraps around the top of the globe.” Indeed, Hoary, Common, and Lesser Redpolls all have overlapping breeding ranges around the Arctic.

Instead of different genes, the morphological variation—or differences in how various redpolls look—seemed to stem from genetic expression. It’s kind of like how two humans might have the same gene for brown hair, but one person’s hair might be lighter than the other’s—that gene is being expressed differently. In the same way, Hoary and Common Redpolls have remarkably similar sets of genes, but those genes are expressed differently, causing plumage differences.

Mason and Taylor used their research to produce an official proposal for the AOS to lump Hoary, Common, and Lesser Redpolls into a single species, based on the genetic evidence. But while genomics research has put the Hoary Redpoll’s species status into question, it also put two beloved species lost to a past lumping on the path to a potential comeback via a split.

Many older birders never stopped using the names “Myrtle Warbler” and “Audubon’s Warbler” for the eastern and western forms of the Yellow-rumped Warbler, after they were lumped in 1973 based on the fact that these forms meet and hybridize along a narrow band in western North America. New research led by David Toews, another Cornell postdoctoral researcher, and his colleagues suggests that maybe the species division between Myrtle and Audubon’s Warblers was correct all along.

These researchers sequenced around 37,000 regions of the warblers’ genomes (again, a tiny fraction of their total DNA, but far more than any past studies). Their results, published last year (see Goodbye Yellow-Rump?), show that about 60 of those regions differ significantly between “Myrtle” and “Audubon’s” Warblers, and there may be active selection at work on the genes in those particular areas maintaining the two populations’ distinctiveness. The proof, says Toews, lies in the hybrid zone between “Myrtle” and “Audubon’s” Warblers—the narrow 80-mile sliver in their ranges where the two forms meet and hybridize in western Canada, the entire reason they were lumped into Yellow-rumped in the first place.

“Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler. Photo by Marie Read."Myrtle” Yellow-rumped Warbler. Photo by Marie Read.

Toews notes that the Myrtle and Audubon’s hybrid zone hasn’t budged in the last 50 years. In other words, the hybrids aren’t thriving reproductively; they seem to be stuck in neutral. Toews thinks there must be some sort of detriment in the hybrids that keeps them from surviving and carrying their genetic material farther afield. The checklist committee used that very same reasoning to re-split Northern Oriole back into Baltimore and Bullock’s in 1995, because upon further review the level of interbreeding where the two ranges overlapped was not substantial enough to justify the lumping.

This year Toews submitted a proposal to re-split Yellow-rumped Warblers as well.

Toews, Taylor, and Lovette were all involved in an effort to compare the entire genomes of yet another pair of hybridizing species: the Golden-winged Warbler and the Blue-winged Warbler, two species that look distinctly different and usually sing different songs, but that hybridize frequently.

“When you capture that process of speciation in action, you’re naturally going to find in-between cases that are in this gray zone," explains Lovette, "where by some criteria they’re separate species and by other criteria they’re not.” Illustration by Virginia Greene, Bartels Science Illustration Intern

In contrast to the 60 or more regions of differentiation between Audubon’s and Myrtle forms of Yellow-rumped Warblers, the Cornell team discovered that Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers differ in only six regions—or just 0.03 percent—of their entire genomes (see Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers Are 99.97 Percent Alike Genetically). While these two warblers look different, the few genes that determine those plumage patterns are among the only things that set the two species apart genomically.

The complexities of reconciling species status with genome mapping are enough to set a birder’s head spinning. Two birds can look similar (as in Hoary and Common Redpolls) or quite a bit different (as in Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers) and still be nearly genetically identical, whereas birds that look only modestly different (Audubon’s and Myrtle forms of Yellow-rumped Warblers) can be quite distinct genomically.

When it comes to understanding what makes a species, what birders can see through their binoculars is only part of the story.

Hoary Redpoll by Pierre Casavant via Birdshare.

So are birders everywhere about to lose their coveted Hoary Redpoll checkmarks from their life lists? Not so fast, says the American Ornithological Society’s North American Classification Committee. A document updated every July by this 11-member group of ornithologists—the official Checklist of North and Middle American Birds—is the ultimate authority on what is and is not considered a species when it comes to our continent’s birds.

Every year, the committee invites proposals for official taxonomic changes. They don’t only handle lumps and splits, but also issues such as moving species among genera, changing birds’ official English common names, and adding new species that have expanded into the checklist’s geographic area.

“I compile all the proposals into a set and send them out to the committee,” says Terry Chesser, a research zoologist with the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the AOS committee’s current chair. “People send back votes and comments on the proposals, and there’s usually some discussion back and forth about some of them. The species-limits ones, the lumps and splits, tend to be more controversial.”

The committee leans conservative in its decisions, preferring to wait for further data in cases where the evidence is deemed intriguing but not yet conclusive. The group generally uses the biological species concept as its guiding principle, though its members recognize the longstanding differences of opinion within the ornithological community on the best way of defining a species.

“I don’t want to do things in haste when there’s no compelling reason why you can’t wait a year to make a decision,” says Chesser. “We try to make considered decisions based on as much evidence as we can, and if for some reason I feel that that hasn’t happened, then I’d rather just put it off for a year and allow us to do a good job. The last thing you want to do is get into a position where you’re reversing yourself.”

Is the Cassia Crossbill (left) a separate species from the Red Crossbill (right) even though they look the same? Cassia Crossbill by Craig Benkman, Red Crossbill by Wandering Sagebrush via Birdshare.

This summer, the committee considered proposals to lump redpolls and split Yellow-rumped Warblers. Both failed to pass, though the vote tallies were very close. The redpoll vote was split five to five. Another proposed split—breaking out the new Cassia Crossbill of southern Idaho from the widespread Red Crossbill—passed on its second time through the AOS committee. A similar crossbill proposal failed in 2009 due to insufficient evidence, but this time the split succeeded due in part to new genomic analyses that underscored the Cassia Crossbill’s distinctness, and also field evidence that hybridization between these and other crossbills is rare.

Louisiana State University ornithologist Van Remsen is a member of the AOS Classification Committee, and he says his votes are guided by the biological species concept. Remsen voted against both the Yellow-rumped and redpoll proposals, though he emphasizes that the research itself was excellent in both cases. But he contends that scientists just don’t know enough about how frequently Hoary and Common Redpolls interbreed in their remote Arctic nesting grounds. Similarly, despite the new genetic data on Yellow-rumped Warblers, he thinks that the ease with which they intermingle in the wild demonstrates that Audubon’s and Myrtle Warblers view each other as members of the same species.

“The biological species concept is intuitively pleasing, because it allows the birds to express their opinions, so to speak,” he says. “If they don’t tell each other apart, why should we?”

Remsen sees the use of genomics for species-level taxonomy as still in its infancy.

“We don’t have any context into which to put the data,” he says. He wants to see more genomic studies done of pairs of birds whose species status is not in question to provide a basis for comparison.

Are the Golden-winged Warbler (left) and Blue-winged Warbler (right) one species just because their genes are the same? Photos by David Speiser.

The “one species or two?” questions, as with “Audubon’s” and “Myrtle” Warblers, probably don’t have a single answer. The reason, as more and more members of the ornithology community acknowledge, is that speciation is an ongoing process that plays out over many thousands of years. When scientists study these kinds of situations, they catch species in the midst of this long process.

Lovette is a strong proponent of this viewpoint: “We’re all programmed to think of bird diversity like a page in a field guide, where everything is in clean categories and every species is separated. We don’t often stop to consider the fact that all of those species on a page of warblers or sparrows evolved from the same common ancestor, and they’ve all become diverse through a process of speciation that’s played out over time.”

It usually takes about a million years, he says, to go from one species to two or more.

When you capture that process of speciation in action, you’re naturally going to find in-between cases that are in this gray zone, where by some criteria they’re separate species and by other criteria they’re not.”

Lovette likens it to looking at just one section of a fork in a waterway and trying to determine whether it’s one river or two. You can’t know just by looking at the water at this one point; you need to also know what the river looks like upstream and downstream.

Likewise, when scientists study birds in the process of evolution at a single point in time, what is and is not a species is—occasionally—a judgment call.

“The most wonderful aspect of all of this,” says Lovette, “is that this process is where biodiversity comes from. So instead of being frustrated by our inability to define clear breakpoints between all sets of related species, I’m excited about the chance to explore these many ways that species come to be.”

People watch birds all over the world and keep track of the species they see, but the numbers of species they see may change as official stances on the number of species in existence change. Photos from the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Why, ultimately, do we even need an official checklist of bird species? Is the whole concept eventually going to become obsolete?

“Our names for birds are partly motivated by our need to categorize the world in ways that are useful for humans, and sometimes that’s more simplistic than the actual biological reality that we’re trying to classify,” Lovette admits.

But the checklist isn’t going the way of Dendroica just yet. The AOS’s Chesser puts it succinctly: “People need a standardized taxonomy in order to communicate.”

“We need to be able to give names to things. Whether it’s for the Endangered Species Act or for ecological studies of how many species of birds exist in a certain place, you have to have that organizing principle. You really can’t function without it,” says Lovette, who is also on the AOS Classification Committee.

“I personally voted in favor of both the redpoll lump and Yellow-rumped Warbler split, but I’m not upset that I was in the minority,” he says. “In ornithology, we are very fortunate to have official groups like the AOS committee that give us some order and standardization. While I might not agree with the outcome of every AOS vote, it’s even more important to me that we retain an agreed-upon system for classifying birds.

“And besides, every recreational bird watcher knows that keeping lists is super fun.”

Only one thing’s for sure: With all the possible taxonomic changes being debated, field guide publishers won’t go out of business any time soon.

Rebecca Heisman is a freelance science writer and communications assistant for ornithology journals The Auk and The Condor.

View from Sapsucker Woods: Envisioning the Cornell Lab—Past, Present, and Future

Wed, 09/06/2017 - 11:47

From the Autumn 2017 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

Eighteen years ago, staff and board members of the Cornell Lab spent several days discussing its purpose and future. Those conversations in 1999 resulted in a document we called the Millennium Strategic Plan. It was a vision for the Lab of the 21st Century—both an articulation of our mission and an action plan for creating the world’s leading center for birds and biodiversity.

More From Living Bird

Those lively discussions produced the 17 words we still live by today: To interpret and conserve the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds. This statement of purpose declares an essential truth about our work, that birds supply routes to a larger purpose. They represent key entry points for understanding, communicating about, and protecting the broader biological world of which they are a part. Our mission’s two action verbs—“interpret” and “conserve”—encode the Lab’s commitment to knowledge, training, inspiration, and conservation action.

Eight years later, having acted on every point in our Millennium action plan (including building a superb new home), the Lab was rapidly expanding its resources, staff, programs, and impacts. Organizational growth (and a few growing pains) coincided with dizzyingly rapid world changes, both technical and social. Wholly new possibilities and horizons were emerging for the Lab, so it was time to convene another period of comprehensive strategic planning. The resulting Centennial Strategic Plan, approved by our board in 2007, identified 100 concrete objectives and actions in science, conservation, education, and communication that we would strive to advance on or complete by the Lab’s 2015 centennial celebration.

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While our score is not perfect, the Lab has made huge progress on almost all of the objectives we identified 10 years ago. In declaring, for example, our intention to “Launch an internationally competitive postdoctoral research program,” we could scarcely have imagined that by 2017 we would be hosting 22 exceptional postdocs from seven different countries. These recent PhD graduates are producing scores of advances in bird biology, from solving the genetic mysteries of Blue-winged/Golden-winged Warbler hybridization to documenting coordinated song-and-dance displays in Australian lyrebirds; from understanding the evolution of plumage coloration in birds-of-paradise to using NEXRAD radar data to census the entire North American population of migratory songbirds.

Another objective—“Engage global audiences…”—has advanced an extraordinarily powerful worldwide database project (eBird, with bird sightings reported from every single country in the world), popular and authoritative websites (such as All About Birds, Bird Academy, and Neotropical Birds, which are used by more than 15 million people annually), and a revolutionary bird ID app (Merlin, now available in English and Spanish, and in use throughout the Americas as well as Great Britain and northern Europe). Our globally focused Multimedia Productions program produces best-in-class conservation media to be used by partners across the planet.

A complete account of the 2007 objectives on which we’ve made significant progress would more than fill several issues of Living Bird. What you will find in this issue—including our 2017 Annual Report—is a remarkable series of stories that represents just a taste of that progress. Strategic planning really does work when it is focused and taken seriously by talented staff, leaders, and supporters. In this last respect especially, we have you—our members—to thank for providing the Lab the means by which we can accomplish our mission.

This fall, a decade after our last strategic planning exercise, and having continued to gain in breadth and scale of impact, we are again undertaking a comprehensive look at our organization and our aspirations. This is a time to study what we are doing well, how we could be doing that even better, and where we are falling short of our potential. The process is engaging our staff, our board of directors, and a number of outside experts and stakeholders. Please consider this an open invitation to you, our extraordinary supporters, to communicate your own thoughts to us at about what you dream the Lab should be doing after another decade goes by.

John W. Fitzpatrick is the Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The Wildlife Value of A Messy Garden

Tue, 09/05/2017 - 10:37

The Wildlife Value of A Messy Garden
Becca Rodomsky-Bish September 5, 2017
Birds Cover Design Advice Food Other Wildlife Pollinators Gall
Gardens are alive. No matter what time of year, if you quietly listen and watch, you will notice the plethora of activity. From budding flowers in the spring to the rustle of withered seedheads in the fall, our gardens are supporting animals of all shapes and sizes. Here’s a secret not all gardeners know–if you choose to be a messy gardener in the fall and winter–the wildlife value of your garden soars.

Seeds and Migrants
Seedheads left on dried flowering plants are a bird’s paradise. Numerous North American song birds eat seeds–finches, sparrows, chickadees, buntings, jays, nuthatches, blackbirds, grosbeaks, etc. One stop in a messy garden packed with dead, seed-filled, native flowers equals a smörgåsbord for resident and migratory birds.

savannah sparrow
The conditions of winter habitat for migrating birds, it turns out, are a crucial part of their survival and reproductive success in the spring. Savannah Sparrows, pictured above, were studied in their wintering grounds of the southern United States. The birds turned out to be very sensitive to climatic changes in their wintering habitats. In particular, their ability to access reliable food resources essential during long periods of cold or unusual weather influenced their breeding success in the springopen_in_new. Gardens rich in shriveled fruits and abundant seedheads help these migratory birds survive not only winter, but spring breeding.

Overwintering birds
The same is true for our year-round-seed-eating birds. Bird feeders, especially those that are well-maintained, are a popular hang-out spot for birds in their wintering habitat; but, a messy garden can provide a comparable, more natural foraging habitat. Some native flowers that provide an abundance of seeds in the fall and winter are goldenrod (Solidago), asters (Asteraceae), cone flowers (Echinacea), sunflowers (Helianthus), Coreopsis, and Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia). If these species are native to your region and are not in your garden, consider adding them.

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Some plants have an extra superpower–galls. Galls are swellings in the tissue of a plant created by insects, fungi, or bacteria. Many species of plants experience galls and play into food chains in unique and sometimes important ways. Goldenrod’s gall story is something straight out of a science-fiction movie.

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If you’ve walked in a field of Solidago you may have noticed bulbous structures (pictured right is a dried gall) in the middle of the flowering plant stems. These tumor-like-structures are homes for incubating goldenrod gall fly (Eurosta solidaginis), native wasps (Eurytoma obtusiventris, Eurytoma gigantea), OR beetles (Mordellistena unicolor). The flies will lay their eggs on the emerging goldenrod plant in the spring, the eggs hatch into larvae that burrow down into the stem, creating a nutritious cavity to incubate in until spring when the adult emerges.

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This brilliant plan can be thwarted by one of the parasitoid wasps or beetle that can oviposit, or lay their own eggs in the cavity of the developing goldenrod gall fly. (Pictured above is a braconid wasp ovipositing eggs straight into the gall on eucalyptus tree in Australia). If parasitism occurs, instead of a fly emerging in the spring, a wasp or beetle will emerge after a winter feast of the goldenrod gall fly larvae.

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The plot thickens, however, as all the insects are vulnerable to the nondiscriminatory predation of hungry woodpeckers and chickadees harvesting the tender, plump larvae of the fly, wasp, or beetle. These larvae provide a protein and fat-rich treat in the middle of a resource barren winter. Yet another reason to leave our gardens messy–to invite the phenomenal life cycles of glorious galls.

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And, it’s not just about the birds and the galls. Messy gardens provide habitat to a diversity of other insects. Many species of native bumble bees, mason bees, leafcutter bees, etc. use garden spaces to overwinter. Depending on the species, bees will take winter refuge under a pile of bark or dried leaves, or nest in cavities in hollowed out stems and decomposing logs. Some, such as the native cellophane bee pictured above (Colletes inaequalis), will create burrows in the ground to reproduce and ride-out the cold winter months.

Butterflies can also utilize gardens for overwintering. Species such as the mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) (top left), question mark (Polygonia interrogationis) (top right), eastern comma (Polygonia comma) (bottom left), and Milbert’s tortoiseshell (Aglais milberti) (bottom right) will, amazingly, overwinter as adults. These butterflies find thick piles of leaf litter, a chunk of tree bark, or other cavity to nestle into. Other butterflies, such as the swallowtail and sulphur butterflies will remain in their chrysalis’ overwinter suspended under a dried leaf or tucked away on the ground. When you leave your gardens messy, including ignoring the dried leaves on plants, you help to encourage a rich population of native butterflies and moths in the following spring and summer.

wild monarda Karen Eszenyi Roberts
Leave your leaves on the property
Allow the gorgeous dried flower heads to stay standing in your garden
Let the grass grow tall and seed
Build a brush pile with fallen branches instead of removing them
Forget the chemicals
Leave snags on your property
Delay garden clean-up until spring, after several 50℉ (10℃) days, which allows overwintering pollinators to “wake-up” for spring and move on
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Butterflies like the red-spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis), the viceroy (Limenitis archippus) (pictured), and the meadow fritillary (Boloria bellona) have caterpillars that wrap themselves up in the leaf of their host plant during the winter. These make-shift cocoons are hard to spot in the garden but the caterpillar stays protected and in a state of torpor, or deep sleep, until the warm days of spring arrive. To ensure you do not disrupt them, just leave all the leaves where they dry and fall. We recommend waiting until mid-spring to clean your gardens, or after subsequent 50℉ (10℃) days. This provides the caterpillars time to emerge from their torpor to forage or reproduce.

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If the butterflies were not convincing enough, hundreds of other critters can overwinter in gardens–assassin bugs, praying mantises, lace wings, wolf spiders, minute pirate bugs, damsel bugs, ground beetles, and ladybugs (pictured eating an aphid). All of these insects and arachnids are considered beneficial, meaning that, as a gardener, you benefit from having them around. As predators, they eat other insects, some of which can be problematic pests in our flower and vegetable gardens. Leaving layers of leaf litter for these animals to burrow under in the winter allows them to get a jump-start on minimizing pest infestations in the spring and summer.

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If mammals are your focus, rest assured that squirrels, rabbits, woodchucks, opossums, deer, and others will gladly enjoy the end of season bounty in the form of dried seeds, unharvested vegetables, or the hardy leaves that are tolerating early frost. The presence of small mammals creates likely hunting territory for foxes, coyotes, bobcats, and raptors. A messy garden provides nourishment at all levels of the food chain.

frosted garden
Last, but certainly not least, is the value of helping to shift what we find aesthetically beautiful. Allowing our gardens to be messy for wildlife continues the growing awareness of the value of supporting native biodiversity.

Have you ever taken a moment to see beyond the brown, dried, shriveled flowers and admired the sturdy fragility of a winter garden? This splendor is especially noticeable after the first frost (in areas that experience frost) as the stems and flowerheads are covered in a thin layer of frozen dew. Stunning!

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For those that experience regional snowfall, did you know some people actually garden to ensure a pleasing winter garden view? This often entails selecting plants with colorful and structurally resilient stems and seed heads built to stand-up to snowfall. Arching branches of native shrubs displaying frosty fruits, seedheads shooting up from the icy white blanket reminding birds where to land for sustenance, and the vibrant stems of some of our favorite natives assure us that the warm colors of spring and summer will return.

resting gardener
Gardens can be alive all year if we embrace a new paradigm of seasonal lazy gardening. One person’s mess is another person’s gift to wildlife. Go ahead, put away the shears, set-down the rake, pull up a lawn chair, and join us in celebrating the abundance that can emerge from a messy garden.

Just click this pledge button to start
Pledge to be a lazy gardenerGardens are havens for wildlife–even at the end of the growing season. Overgrown grassy reeds, dried flower stalks, and shrubby fruit-filled branches provide food, cover, and protection in the fall and winter for animals big and small. Take our Pledge to be a Lazy Gardener and join thousands of other gardeners who vow to not clean-up their gardens until spring 2018. Learn More…

For Advertisers

Fri, 09/01/2017 - 09:30

The mission of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is “to interpret and conserve the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds.” For an overview of Cornell Lab’s worldwide impact and contributions to conservation and education in the last year, please see our Annual Report.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service performs a national survey of U.S. residents 16 years old and older every five years about the impact of fishing, hunting, and wildlife-associated recreation. Bird watching is part of wildlife-associated recreation (observing, feeding, and photographing wildlife) and by far attracts the largest following of wildlife watching. For the economic impact of bird watchers, see the 2011 USFWS Survey (starting on page 35).

Banner ads are available on our All About Birds website, and print ads are available in our quarterly publication Living Bird magazine.

Online advertising

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers online ads at its All About Birds website. Ad contracts are for a minimum of three months and paid quarterly. Advertisers can choose from a variety of standard packages, or we can prepare customized packages.

In the last 12 months, there were 70 million page views and 14 million unique visitors to All About Birds. Ads can be rotated with other ads, or advertisers can take over ad slots based on the average number of monthly page views.

Ad rates and Specifications

Click on the links to download

Bird watchers tend to be an older demographic and highly educated. Our surveys show that they are not only bird enthusiasts, but also green advocates, health conscious, techie, and have active lifestyles. Birders enjoy travel, museums, federal/state refuges/parks, photography, movies, music, and dining out.

Digital ads are available on 600 North American bird species profiles and on a variety of other pages such as on the home page, bird guide search by name/shape/taxonomy, live-streaming bird cams, bird ID skills, feeding birds, bird-friendly homes, FAQs, biology, news & features, videos, and Living Bird magazine.

If you are promoting travel, tours, or events to specific North American locations, ads can be placed on bird species found in those destinations. Our web visitors can also be geo-targeted by their location—by city, county, state/province, and/or country.

Festivals that place banner ads on All About Birds will also have their ads included on our Festival Listing page. This listing is free! If you want your event listed, please provide the following information to the advertising manager: dates, festival title, map location (city, state, or full address), brief description (about 100 words, e.g., keynotes, workshops, field trips), contact (telephone number, name, e-mail), and the festival’s URL.

For a digital media kit, contact our advertising manager.

Print advertising Contact our Advertising Manager

Susanna Lawson
phone: 434-983-1771
fax: 434-983-1772

Living Bird is an attractive full-color magazine, lavishly packed with spectacular full-color photographs. The magazine has an ever-widening readership among libraries, universities, and many other organizations. Advertising rates, publication dates, due dates, and ad specifications are provided as PDFs on the right side of this page under “Ad Rates and Specifications.” For a media kit, contact the advertising manager.

Feature articles cover bird behavior, habitat, identification, research, conservation, travel, bird-finding, bird-watching, and bird photography/art. Columns/departments include News Briefs (urgent news in bird science and conservation, Spotlight (engagement with individuals and their stories), Science (new insights from recent research), Conservation (impacts and actions), Season Preview (geography, climate, and birds), Profiles (insights about a bird species or taxonomic family), Practical Tips (bird-watching skills, methods, and best practices), Reviews (books, products, apps, travel destinations), FAQs (answers to readers’ questions, and FreshPerspectives (infographic about birds).

Living Bird is an excellent advertising resource for companies that want to reach the bird-watching market and some of the most enthusiastic and influential birders in the world. By advertising in the magazine, a company is associating itself with an organization held in high regard by the bird-watching community.

eBird Science: Prioritizing Dynamic Conservation for Migratory Shorebirds in California

Fri, 09/01/2017 - 08:00

eBird Science: Prioritizing dynamic conservation for migratory birds

1 September 2017

Long-billed Dowitcher is one of many species benefiting from dynamic conservation practices in California. Photo by Matthew Pendleton/Macaulay Library.
What if, instead of buying habitat, conservationists could rent it when and where migratory birds need it most? eBird data is playing a critical role in helping make this a reality, enabling new cost-effective approaches to complementing protected areas with ‘pop-up’ wetlands. This work has just been published in Science Advances, “Dynamic conservation for migratory species.” To pinpoint where and when migrating shorebirds most need habitats in California’s Central Valley, scientists at The Nature Conservancy, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Point Blue Conservation Science used models based on eBird data on shorebirds and NASA satellite data on surface pattern of wetlands and flooded agricultural fields.

The Nature Conservancy then used a “reverse auction,” paying landowners to create temporary wetlands on their properties, since shorebirds depend on shallow water habitats for foraging. In a recent paper, this team of scientists report on this novel ‘dynamic conservation’ approach of using big data and new market mechanisms to create habitat when and where birds need it most. The scientists recorded a high amount of use of the rented fields: more than 180,000 observations of birds representing 57 different species during the spring of 2014. On average, the researchers found three times more bird diversity and fives time greater density on fields that participated in the program compared to un-enrolled fields. Since 2014, TNC has enabled farmers to create more than 50,000 acres of temporary wetlands during fall and spring migration. Dynamic conservation programs such as this can offer additional tools in an era of unprecedented and rapid global change, though the authors caution, are not a replacement for permanent protection. Read the full open-access paper here.

This post was written by Mark Reynolds, the lead author on the paper featured above. If you do research that uses eBird data, and want your work featured for the eBird community as an eBird Science post, please write to us and include the words “eBird Science” in the subject.

Bird Academy September Giveaway: Be a Better Birder—Color and Pattern

Wed, 08/30/2017 - 08:00

Bird Academy giveaway—Be a Better Birder: Color and Pattern

30 August 2017

Red Avadavat by Natthaphat Chotjuckdikul/Macaulay Library.
Want to work on your bird identification skills? After you’ve mastered size and shape in the first Be a Better Birder course, color and pattern are the next best clues. We’re excited to partner with the Cornell Lab’s Bird Academy to offer a suite of educational resources in thanks for your eBirding: in September, every eligible checklist that you submit gives you a chance to win free access to the online self-paced course Be a Better Birder: Color and Pattern.

Ten lucky eBirders will get this course for free for their September eBirding! If you like taking part in the eBirder of the Month Challenges, here are even more opportunities to motivate yourself to get out birding. Each month of 2017 will feature a different Bird Academy course offering—tune in at the start of October to see what’s on tap for next month.

Live Map of Birds Displaced by Hurricane Harvey

Mon, 08/28/2017 - 16:28

28 August, 2017
Team BirdCast monitors birds and their associations with hurricanes when we can, as they provide rare opportunities to study entrainment and displacement of birds (despite their often horrible devastation). Such storms are dangerous in the extreme, no matter what intensity, and Hurricane Harvey proves no exception. This storm is coming ashore as a Category 4 hurricane, very strong and very dangerous! This storm may fundamentally change the landscape of portions of the Texas coast for years to come.

For those of you birding from safe locations outside the path of this powerful storm, your observations will be important. Safety first, always, of course. In the graphics below we highlight the occurrence of several species of typically pelagic birds that are often associated with Gulf of Mexico hurricanes. This map will show reports of birds as they occur, we hope from people who are on high ground and safe.

Additionally, we show the approaching landfall of this powerful storm. In the imagery below we can see the eye of the storm in the reflectivity image. This is visible just to the east of Corpus Christi as the black spot.

And amazingly (although we have seen this before and others have published on it), biological targets appear in the eye! Note the blue colors in an otherwise sea of red color to the east of Corpus Christi in the image below. This is characteristic of biological targets surrounded by bands of precipitation (some of which are heavy). These are almost certainly birds and insects (and perhaps some bats).

Note that this slow moving storm is likely to produce not only entrained Magnificent Frigatebird, Sooty and Bridled Terns, and perhaps Brown Noddy, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, and Cory’s and Audubon’s Shearwaters; it also is likely given its slow speed and meandering forecast to displace near shore and coastal birds inland (like Royal, Sandwich, Gull-billed Terns), a pattern not often seen with faster moving hurricanes.

When conditions are safe for viewing, visits to large inland lakes (like Lake Texana and perhaps Choke Canyon Reservoir) are likely to yield a spectacle of entrained and displaced birds. But safety, above all, is the number one priority.

Post by Farnsworth, Van Doren, and Horton

Trip report: eBird Giveaway to Trinidad and Tobago

Mon, 08/28/2017 - 08:30

Trip report: eBird giveaway to Trinidad and Tobago

28 August 2017

Dave and Debbie at Asa Wright
Last November we were able to offer a trip for one lucky eBirder to Trinidad and Tobago, thanks to the generous sponsorship by the Asa Wright Nature Centre, JetBlue, Caligo Ventures, and the Trinidad and Tobago Tourism Board. David Fees was the lucky winner, and he wrote up a nice summary of the time there with his wife Debbie. Thanks to everyone who took part in the giveaway, and keep an eye out in the future for similar offers!

In early February my wife Debbie and I flew out of New York for a non-stop adventure to the two-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago located just off the coast of South America. I had never been to the tropics and had never aspired to be an international birder. This trip changed that thinking.

Soon after arriving in Trinidad we headed to the Asa Wright Nature Centre located in the tropical rainforest of the Northern Mountain Range of Trinidad. What we didn’t know before the trip is that Asa Wright is an internationally acclaimed birding destination. Once we checked in and made our way to the veranda of the former coffee and citrus plantation’s estate house, we understood why this is such a special place. The veranda overlooks the Arima Valley, and even before we had a chance to witness the spectacle of birds attracted to the dozens of feeders below the veranda, a guide at the Centre showed us through his spotting scope a Channel-billed Toucan perched in the crown of a towering tree down the valley. The toucan was the first of fifty-seven life birds seen in two days at Asa Wright.

Once perched on a bar stool along the veranda’s railing, we were overwhelmed by the activity at the feeders. There were six species of tanagers in a variety of colors, honeycreepers, antshrikes, manakins, euphonias, the ubiquitous Bananaquit, and the stars of the show –nine species of hummingbirds. Thankfully I was carrying a good guide book, the Field Guide to the Birds of Trinidad & Tobago by Martyn Kenefick, to help us sort out all of these new birds from a number of strange and unfamiliar genera.

We could have easily spent our entire time at Asa Wright there on the veranda, letting the birds come to us, but Asa Wright has a good network of trails, so off we went exploring. Once on the trails, we observed many forest birds including the Bearded Bellbird with its odd call that sounds convincingly like repeatedly hammering an anvil, the shy White-bellied Antbird, and other forest dwellers such as the White-flanked Antwren, Cocoa Thrush, Squirrel Cuckoo, Stripe-breasted Spinetail, Forest Elaenia, Guianan and Collared Trogons, Trinidad Motmot, Long-billed Gnatwren, Plain-brown Woodcreeper, and Lineated and Red-rumped Woodpeckers.

On the second day we took a guided boat tour into the Caroni Swamp, famous for its evening roost of a thousand or more Scarlet Ibis. Lesser numbers of Tricolored and Little Blue Herons, and Snowy Egrets joined the ibis. On the way to the roosting site, we were treated to marsh dwellers such as the Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Yellow-headed Caracara, our tenth hummingbird species, the Green-breasted Mango, and Masked Cardinal. On the drive to and from the swamp, we saw a number of Smooth-billed Ani, a common species in Trinidad.

After our complimentary two-night stay at Asa Wright, we decided to add several days to our trip and also visit the island of Tobago. There we enjoyed a mix of adventure birding and some island relaxation enjoying the local culture and cuisine. On the first full day in Tobago we toured the Main Ridge montane rainforest. Some of the species seen on this trip not seen on Trinidad included the Great Black Hawk, Orange-winged Amazon, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Blue-backed Manakin, Yellow-legged and White-necked Thrush, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Crested Oropendola, and the globally restricted White-tailed Sabrewing, a type of hummingbird.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar as seen on Tobago by Dave and Debbie

Looking for something a little different, the following day we caught a boat to Little Tobago Island off the east side of Tobago where Red-billed Tropicbirds nest by the hundreds, and Brown and Red-legged Booby nest there as well. This tour was coupled with an hour of snorkeling on one of the best coral reefs in Trinidad and Tobago.

Here are a few checklists of our time in Trinidad and Tobago.

Asa Wright Nature Centre

Caroni Swamp

Main Ridge Forest Reserve – Tobago

We enjoyed our first taste of tropical birding and island life. Thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and to all the sponsors of the trip for a memorable experience.

What Do Birds Do During a Total Eclipse? Observations from eBird and Radar

Fri, 08/25/2017 - 19:15

Approximately every 18 months a total solar eclipse is visible somewhere on the surface of the Earth. During previous total solar eclipses, numerous observers have reported interesting animal behavior—especially describing birds. With the advent of citizen science and projects like eBird, we now have the opportunity to examine bird behaviors as reported by a large number of observers almost immediately and at a much grander scale. The amazing accounts below of birding during Monday’s total solar eclipse are all from eBird checklists submitted by birders like you—please submit your eclipse sightings if you haven’t already!

We looked at 7,800 checklists submitted to on August 21, 2017 and focused on 1,350 checklists submitted from the time of maximum eclipse. Below, we highlight interesting observations from the path of totality (black circular icons with white borders, representing a total eclipse) and outside of it (partial eclipse icons of varying magnitude).

Click on each icon and the link to each checklist to read how eBirders experienced and documented the event. We noticed that observers were less likely to note behavioral effects at sites where sun obscuration was less than 95%.

Highlights Aerial insectivores dropping out of the skies

Several observers noted aerial feeders like swallows and swifts appearing at low altitudes as the midday light waned – potentially having descended to roost. Jeff Shenot submitted the following fascinating observation of 161 Purple Martins:

I looked out to check the solar eclipse, which started here about 30 minutes ago. After a few minutes I noticed a huge flock (for here) of Purple Martins that started dropping out of the sky. Many were so high up I couldn’t identify them at first, just specks. They came down and landed on a utility wire at first, and as they kept coming they began to also land in adjacent trees near the tree tops. It was mostly sunny and calm, and I thought it was very weird that they would suddenly drop down to here out of migration, in the middle of the day. Not to mention that by now most PUMAs [Purple Martins] are far south of here.

They were clearly migrants (not local breeders) and there was no apparent reason for them to suddenly come down here. I have no suggestion for a reason other than maybe they were confused or disoriented by the eclipse?

Also, normally PUMAs [Purple Martins] are very vocal but these were oddly very quiet. I counted them by 1s, and had 161 of them in view at once. Then they all got up at once at 2:49, shortly after the eclipse “peak” (for here). They were flying around, etc and many went soared back up high and took off. but about 50 lingered in the vicinity. Those that stayed were soaring around excitedly and calling a lot for about 10-15 minutes and eventually they all left too. Cool!

From Joshua Stone and Nicole Trimmer in Johnson County, Illinois:

Just before totality, the chimney swifts started flying low and acting like it was dusk. They continued during totality, flying low overhead and chittering.

From Bill Michalski in St. Louis City County, Missouri:

Observed 5-10 Chimney Swifts (and their telltale song) soaring over the park as it grew dark about 5-10 mins. before the eclipse totality at 1:17 PM. In the 5 minutes during and after the totality, their number grew to at least 40 from my vantage point (probably many more). By 1:25 PM they appeared to be all gone.

From John Parker in Jefferson County, Idaho:

In total close to 500 swallows of which nearly all were BANS [Bank Swallows]. During the eclipse they roosted on the sedge and rushes.

Radar reveals an emptying sky

We looked to Doppler radar imagery to see whether we could corroborate these observations at a larger scale. The following radar loop, from South Carolina, shows aerial animals (certainly some insects and birds, although we have not yet tried to characterize what is flying) getting lower to the ground as the eclipse progressed, being lowest in the minutes after totality, and then taking to the air again as the eclipse ended. We’ve highlighted the descent of animals by manually drawing a white circle in each frame to show the extent of aerial fauna—note how the circle shrinks in size as totality approaches and then enlarges afterwards.

We will continue to investigate these patterns, using recent advances in processing and analysis of radar data to study how animals reacted to the solar eclipse.

Nocturnal (and crepuscular) birds emerge

Observations of Common Nighthawks were widespread during totality.

Steven Kahl on 26 nighthawks:

All in one flock that appeared out of nowhere to the west of station. Birds came from the north flying south in a line 1-4 birds deep and wide; less than 1/4 mi south of station, birds swung around and headed back north directly overhead. Reached my location near end of totality and started dispersing. Bird perched in tree next to me during previous count never moved during totality.

Other observers of nighthawks during totality include Ian/William HearnGlenn KincaidDebra CorporaKristie NelsonFrank PinillaKevin Bennett, and Barbara Taylor.

Owls were out, including Barred Owl in Georgia and IllinoisGreat Horned Owl in South Carolina and Eastern Screech-Owl in South Carolina:

Singing emphatically and making odd contact calls for about 2 minutes starting 20 seconds after the end of totality, when ambient light picked up again.

Nocturnal migrants acted as if they were set to depart for a night-long migratory journey.

Steven Kahl:

Three Yellow Warblers and a Wilson’s Warbler popped out of lush green undergrowth into top of dead tree, flitted for a few seconds giving nocturnal flight calls. Acted as though they were about to take off for night migration. Flew off toward a different treed area.

Finally, even as far away as New Jersey, BirdCast’s own Andrew Farnsworth noted an intriguing Baltimore Oriole:

Coolest of all behaviors. I watched this bird from the boardwalk slowly work its way from mid story in a small relatively open ornamental to the top of the tree, and after about 3-5 minutes atop the tree, the bird took flight and flew straight SE over the road and toward the ocean. I ran to the beach to watch the bird, and I saw it fly basically out of sight over the ocean, clearly showing what looked like nocturnal migratory behavior of over water migration! The bird did not climb terribly fast, maintaining an even gain in altitude. I watched the bird circle back, and though it did not return to the same perch from which it originated, it did return to a patch of trees somewhere to my south and then out of sight.

Roosting and confusion

Joe Donahue photographed Black Vultures “coming into roost for the eclipse”:

Larry Versaw from Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska:

Turkey Vultures “flew off from the ground or a tree when light returned at end of total eclipse,” and 12 Black-billed Magpies “flocked into a tree as if to roost as sky darkened rapidly; immediately dispersed as sky lightened.”

And an observation of a confused Mourning Dove by Laura Mae in Greenville County, South Carolina:

It flew to us in a haste and almost crash landed in tree above our heads. We speculated that it was anxious to get to an overnight roosting location before darkness. It was a moment or two before the total solar eclipse’s totality. Darkness was descending rapidly, crickets started to chirp, flowers began closing, the bottom of the sky went pink and we observed eclipse/double shadows. This location had 2 mins 14 seconds of totality followed by shadow bands wiggling on the pavement in front of us. It was incredible!

Courtney Buxton, Hugh Buxton, Jim Buxton, and Julian Buxton also documented confusion in South Carolina:

Total eclipse at 2:47pm that lasted for almost 2 minutes. Moon covering sun appeared lavender with pink solar providences that may have appeared this way due to light cloud cover. Absolutely zero bird activity immediately before and for about 45 seconds into the totality. Then herons were flying back by the dozens to roost, diving into the pond next to our location. Record number of Wood Storks (22) rose from the marshes about 300 yds east of our location, utterly confused. 13 split off and flew north in formation, 9 stayed relatively stationary, rose up in the air, circling higher and seemed also confused. The latter 9 then eventually headed back toward the marsh as the sun began to emerge. Three kites were flying in weaving patterns above the treetops–also heading back to known roost site. It was brief, but there was definite bird confusion. For the first few minutes afterward, Chimney Swifts and swallows were everywhere, but clearly after the herons.

Shanna Kahler on a confused Cooper’s Hawk:

During totality of the eclipse – The bird was acting confused, flying erratically about 10 feet overhead, alternating rapid wing flaps and short glides and quick direction changes as it flew around the hotel parking lot. There were no other birds present.

Other species noted to roost include Northern CardinalRed-tailed Hawk, and Eurasian Collared-Dove.

Andrew Farnsworth also noted interesting and conflicting behaviors among coastal birds:

Larger than usual day time numbers [of gulls], also moving in small groups north and south along the beach in the direction of typical roosts. Very different diurnal behavior than typical day time activities, such as loafing on the beach.

See Andrew’s checklist for more.

We are not the only people to ponder animal behavior during solar eclipses. Check out this project and this array of papers!

A huge thanks to the over 1,200 eBirders (so far) who submitted checklists during the maximum eclipse in their area. Stay tuned for more eclipse-related insights and a research paper, and make sure to submit your observations! Your email: 

Macaulay Library’s Vast Archive of Natural Sounds Profiled in NSF Science Nation Video

Fri, 08/25/2017 - 12:35
Science Nation is a video series produced by the National Science Foundation to highlight innovative science projects supported by NSF funding. In August 2017, the program profiled the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  hbspt.cta.load(95627, 'a8fe3c9a-217b-40fd-b1ff-2bb76ebe2cf3', {}); --> hbspt.cta.load(95627, '394b2cc2-4447-4677-b18b-d2f2de5b57cd', {}); -->

Transcript of episode:

Listen up, audiophiles! The good old days of reel-to-reel aren’t over yet. At least not here at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Can you guess what this is?

(intense creaking sound)

It’s an Eastern narrow-mouthed toad.

“It’s a question of long-term preservation and accessibility of the media,” says Mike Webster, director of the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library.

With support from the National Science Foundation, evolutionary biologist Mike Webster and a team at Cornell University’s Macaulay Library are digitizing and cataloging a huge archive of animal audio and video recordings from their vault—mostly birds, but other animals too.

“The analogue material that we have in the collection has been coming in for decades,” Webster says. The digitized recordings are a bonanza for animal behaviorists, who use the archive to study critters from all over the world—even some that have gone extinct, like the Imperial Woodpecker.

“It stood about 2 feet tall and it dwarfed the Ivory-billed Woodpecker,” he says. “It’s sadly no longer with us, but we can still know how those birds behave and how they flew and how they foraged on the trees.”

Animal behaviorists like Webster work hand-in-glove with colleagues who study preserved physical specimens, like these Alder and Willow Flycatchers, for example. “They’re a pretty cryptic group,” says Charles Dardia, collections manager at the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates. “A lot of them look exactly alike. The best way to tell them apart is the call they make.”

Until the 1960s, they were thought to be one species. But all was not as it seemed. Some of their songs were different. Macaulay’s Collection Management Lead Matt Young played us some recordings. Alder Flycatcher first, a scratchy free-beer. Then Willow Flycatcher, a falling fitz-bew. Different songs, from what turned out to be two different birds. Identical? Not even close.

Macaulay Library curator Greg Budney says digitizing all the historic “metadata”—notebooks documenting the who/what/when/where—is important too. “Without it an audio or video asset really has extremely limited value,” Budney says. “This is what tells the story. This is what gives it context.”

And they’ve put a lot of work into picking the right digital format for the archive. What’s state-of-the-art today won’t stay that way for long. “The digital format that we adopt today will probably not be the digital format that exists 50 years from now,” Budney says. “The strategy is to move these things into a digital format that allows you to migrate to the next technology.”

In the end, Webster says this digital archive is about sharing this treasure trove of pictures and sounds with scientists and birdwatchers all over the globe. “By having a collection like this, people who are interested in behavior can study the behavior of animals and places where they can’t necessarily get to themselves,” Webster says.

That’s a project worth spooling up and pressing play. For Science Nation, I’m Miles O’Brien.


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