Thursday, February 11, 2010

San Diego Coast Field Trip

Last Sunday I attended a field trip to a few of San Diego's finer birding places. In all I saw 74 species, 13 of which were new lifers. I didn't take a lot of photos, but here are some of the better ones.
Great Egret and Snowy Egret. Tijuana River Estuary.

Forster's Tern. Tijuana River Estuary.

Northern Harrier. Tijuana River Estuary.

Heermann's Gull. J Street Marina.
I am especially proud that I didn't have to go to the dump to see a lifer gull species!
The Birds
Location: Tijuana River Estuary, 32.569984, -117.128348
Observation date: 2/8/10
Number of species: 56
American Wigeon
Blue-winged Teal
Cinnamon Teal
Northern Pintail
Surf Scoter
Red-breasted Merganser
Pied-billed Grebe
Brown Pelican
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
Black-bellied Plover
Semipalmated Plover
American Avocet
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Long-billed Curlew
Marbled Godwit
Western Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Ring-billed Gull
Forster's Tern
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Anna's Hummingbird
Black Phoebe
Say's Phoebe
Loggerhead Shrike
American Crow
Common Raven
Marsh Wren
European Starling
American Pipit
Orange-crowned Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Hepatic Tanager
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Red-winged Blackbird
Western Meadowlark

Location: South San Diego Bay, 32.59038, -117.117019
Observation date: 2/8/10
Number of species: 15
Northern Pintail
Ring-necked Duck
Lesser Scaup
Surf Scoter
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Eared Grebe
Western Grebe
Clark's Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Black Skimmer
Rock Pigeon
Belted Kingfisher
Savannah Sparrow

Location: J Street Marina, 32.619663, -117.101312
Observation date: 2/8/10
Number of species: 20
American Wigeon
Blue-winged Teal
Great Egret
American Coot
Spotted Sandpiper
Marbled Godwit
Western Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher
Long-billed Dowitcher
Heermann's Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Western Gull
California Gull
Herring Gull
Rock Pigeon
Anna's Hummingbird
Northern Mockingbird

Time to Migrate

Its the final day of the joint conference of the Cooper Ornithological Society, the American Ornithologists' Union, and the Society of Canadian Ornithologists in San Diego. It has been a fantastic week. The morning session began with the young professional presentations. Three new professionals were selected to compete for a winning prize. They were provided an extended presentation slot in morning the plenary session.

The first presenter addressed latitudinal gradients in clutch size variation. There are multiple theories explaining this phenomenon including risk of nest predation and availability of food. This study focused trying to resolve this issue. First learning: there is significant variability between taxa. Second: those species with high adult mortality rates did follow the established predation risk hypothesis, but those with lower risk did not. In a controlled study where brood size was decreased it was shown that species with high annual mortality did not decrease per nestling provisioning rate as they were likely trying to ensure this brood was successful (might not get another). Those with low annual mortality rates, and thus many more future reproduction cycles, did decrease provisioning rate, apparently saving energy for future broods.

Second up was a study on suboptimal reproductive sharing in cooperative crows. Why is inbreeding so rare? There are costs. For example inbreeding depression or decreased fitness as compared to non inbred individuals. The benefits of inbreeding include getting a greater percentage of your genes into the next generation. So why is it so rare? The study focused on 30 families of crows over 6 years using nest monitoring, genetics, etc. Findings: 4% incestuously inbred (parent sibling or sibling-sibling), 16% by second order kin (aunts or uncles). Continued monitoring has shown that inbred birds had a much higher and significant mortality, mostly from disease. The researcher went on to define a fitness equation for this type of relationship using the data from the field. The model did not match when run with the most likely costs or the maximum costs of inbreeding, but it did match strongly for the minimum cost of inbreeding. This implies that the costs of inbreeding could be over estimated. Would expect it to be higher as these urban birds have higher populations and higher stress (bad food), but why lower? More questions than answers. Could it be that while most inbreeding pairs lose fitness, occasionally a winning inbred combination occurs? This was a very impressive talk.

The last of the young professionals studied the genetics of high altitude adaptation in Rufous-collared Sparrows. This South American species is distributed from sea level to over 4500 meters! The focus is on two genes, one for oxygen transport (hemoglobin) and one for oxygen processing (mitochondria processes). The high altitude birds did demonstrate a mutation in their hemoglobin which decreased phosphate affinity and increased oxygen affinity. There are two mutations. The low elevation birds had neither, the mid elevation had one, and the high elevation had both. For oxygen processing, early results do show different haplotypes which are related to elevation. The next step looks into gene expression differences as it relates to acclimation. This was performed by transporting birds from native high elevation territory to lower elevations. At there home range these birds had high expression of these critical genes. When moved lower, within a week, the gene expression was drastically altered demonstrating rapid acclimation, much faster than seen in other species. Lots of continued work in this area.

This morning's keynote was much shorter than previous days due to the young professionals presentations. The keynote focused on why species are not more distributed than they are. The focus was on Western Bluebirds which are currently expanding their range. Aggression is functionally correlated with dispersion indicating that more aggressive individuals are more likely to disperse. The researchers have shown that the aggression is higher at the invasion front and lower at more established locations. The Western Bluebird is also very successful at displacing the sister species, the Mountain Bluebird, as a result of its higher aggression. They have also shown that aggression is determined by genetics indicating that the dispersers are truly different than the core of the population. They also demonstrated that aggressive individuals had highest fitness when colonizing and non-aggressive individuals had highest fitness in non-colonizing environments, which is the stabilizing force of this relationship. Bluebirds are dependent upon fire to modify forests for appropriate nest cavities, but this only lasts a few years. As a result, they must have a life history strategy to constantly expand territory to new areas. Bad news for Mountain Bluebird? Not really. Mountain Bluebirds have a higher individual dispersal pattern and higher elevation capabilities. This will be an interesting study to watch going forward.

For the morning sessions I focused on the bio-geography track. There was a study on historical high elevation adaption. This broad study found 4 different strategies based on timing of evolutionary divergence. The most ancient appears consistent with the believed optimized human adaption as represented by the high plateau people in Ethiopia. Next, why do suboscines have higher numbers in Latin America than in other places in the world were it is believed that suboscines are out competed by oscines? Timing of co-existence is believed to be an indicator, but do oscines really out compete suboscines? Metabolic theory - suboscines have restrictive tropical physiological adaptations. This was investigated by looking at summit metabolic rate. Oscines do have higher summit metabolic capacity so have a competitive advantage especially in cold environments. Next, bio-geography of some closely related Manakins. Interesting presentation of gene flow within a narrow scale in Panama which has been influenced by sea level rise in the last 2000 years. What about hummingbirds expanding winter range along the gulf coast? Huge growth of 5 species in past 20 years, probably the result of winter feeding (only found at feeders). Circum-Amazonian distribution of birds - how established, how maintained? Interesting interactions of geography and climate. Fancy tools and cool maps! Shifting to Asia, what about the impact of climate on passerine species in Malaysia and Indonesia. Do the relatedness and population size of birds on the islands relate to when the islands were formed? Hmm, data shows two splitting events instead of one. Did that happen?

For the afternoon it was all about supporting my fellow Boise State representatives. First up, my research adviser, Jay, presented the result of last years Flammulated Owl surveys. These are surveys that I will be performing starting this May. Interesting new learnings about the habitat preferences of this owl species. Eric then presented his preliminary findings about hawkwatch efficiency using a double observer method. I participated in this survey last fall as one of the hawkwatchers at Lucky Peak. Both presentations were well attended and well delivered. Alison had the late afternoon slot which decreased attendance at her presentation on the breeding preferences of Snowy Plovers in the Florida Panhandle. Her study was looking at why Plover appear not to favor engineered beaches. Lots of potential factors, but in the end it does not appear to be the engineering but the human presence which is discouraging them. She delivered a great talk.

The afternoon sessions also included a summary of Mexican Spotted Owl monitoring in Grand canyon where they have identified preferred habitats and preliminary data shows higher than expected productivity. Another talk focused on the Williamson's Sapsucker in Canada. Identifying the specific habitat structure which promotes strong productivity in the sapsucker - a specific combination of Aspen density and Ponderosa Pine density in the west, and Larch stem density in the east. A study of Snowy Plovers on the Los Angeles beaches, their native wintering beaches, has shown a number of declines and problems, primarily people. There is a common theme here. The group is investigating conservations measures that are acceptable to the human population but provide some protection for the birds. The team is gaining valuable experience in the minimum size of a protected environment and how they enable movement and provide adequate nesting materials. Tough problem.

That's the end of the sessions. Tonight is the final banquet then I fly home very early in the morning. It has been a very educational week. I definitely learned more than I would have in class. Now I have to try to catch up with those classes after missing a full week. Three exams next week. Ouch...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bleeding for science!

The conference continues. This is my second to the last day at the joint conference of the Cooper Ornithological Society, the American Ornithologists' Union, and the Society of Canadian Ornithologists in San Diego. While all of my classmates were pouring their blood into the Mammalogy exam, which I am missing, I donated blood for science! UCLA has a multi-year study into avian influenza. They are sampling as many individuals with bird handling experience as possible for avian influenza antibodies. I decided to pitch in some of mine. There was a pretty good number of individuals donating blood so it should be an effective study.

The plenary talk this morning was the actual person scheduled to give the talk! The focus of the talk is on cavity nesting webs. This integrative presentation included studies from around the world of forest make up, primary cavity excavators such as the larger woodpeckers, secondary excavators such as nuthatches, and then cavity users such as bluebirds. Cavity nesting birds make up 15-50% of forest species within a given ecosystem and range from as small as 6 grams (Lucy's Warbler) up to 5 kilograms (Southern Ground Hornbill - another bird I recently saw in Kenya for the first time). The studies have shown that cavity availability directly effects both quantity and diversity of other species including birds and mammals. The presence of other kingdoms such as fungus also play a critical role. The talk emphasized the complex relationships required for a healthy cavity ecosystem - including the trees, the fungus, all of the birds and mammals. It was interesting to see how the webs are similar and different between locations with and without primary excavators. Some locations without cavity excavators have more natural holes available and they generally last longer than other areas. The real problem is that cavities take a long time to become available. In some places a cavity tree way have to be 100 years old before become a prime target. These trees are also the targets of industry either for logging or clearing for agriculture.

For the morning science sessions I focused on the conservation theme. The first three talks were based on the Illinois bird survey. Illinois has data from scientific surveys performed 100 years ago. They have repeated the surveys and calibrated the results with other surveys such as Audubon's Christmas Bird Count. Much has changed, some species have won, most have lost. The winners are those that are well adapted to human developments such as Canada Geese, Ring-billed Gulls, and Turkey Vultures. The losers include those that are dependent upon the historical make up of the area - grass, shrubs, marsh, and savannah. The other talks included focused studies of the Swainson's Warbler, the Tricolored Blackbirds, the American Kestrel, and the California Condor. After a little too much information on how human land use is systematically destroying species, I decided to get a little change of pace. I moved over to the brood parasitism track and picked up some interesting talks there. Brood parasitism occurs when one individual lays eggs in another's nest. The parasitized bird then takes on all of the responsibility of raising the young. This occurs between species and within species. The first discussion covered how the first egg in an American Coot's nest is used to imprint the related chicks to the adult. If the first egg hatched belongs to that parent, the siblings of that egg are most likely to be accepted by the adult. If the first egg hatched is a parasite, the adult is more likely to accept the siblings of that parasite over her own. In the next talk the focus shifted to whether or not singing at a nest increases parasitism. Many studies have shown this to be true. But in the Least Bell's Vireo, singing near the nest appears to decrease parasitism. In this species, singing near the nest increases nest attentiveness, which decreases parasitism by decreasing opportunities for the parasite. The last talk in this session covered whether the type of song of the target species attracts Bronze Cowbirds (parasite species). This study showed that the song does attract the cowbird, but at different rates between species. Oriole songs attracted more cowbirds than sparrow songs for example. This is likely due to the success of previous parasitism with that species, but it is unknown if this is learn behavior or genetic.

My afternoon agenda focused on molt, migration, and stopover biology and then on population ecology. The molt studies included controlled experiments into whether interaction with a artificially induced breeding mate (via hormones) will delay molt in its pair (it didn't), and what the effect of double brooding (raising two clutches instead of one) has on annual molt in the Wood Thrush (delays molt, higher corticosterone, overlaping molt/migration, but no delay at wintering grounds). A stopover study demonstrated three different approaches to measuring weight gain at a New England migratory stopover sites (all species gained weight during autumn migration as measured by all three methods, but not in the spring - probably thinking too much about mating). One study used radio tracking of Wood Thrushes to determine if August body condition predicted arrival on the wintering grounds two months later (it does).

For the population ecology sessions there were a number of interesting presentations. The first studied carry-over effects by using stable isotope measurements to determine if winter habitat quality and location, determined by different isotopes, predicted breeding territory arrival dates. There were only limited conclusions which could be made in older female migrants, but the second year of data has not yet been analyzed. The next study continued the theme investigating carry-over effect of Wood Thrushes on reproductive output.  This study also uses isotopes from both breeding and non-breeding range and geo-locators. Are there any Wood Thrushes out there without locators??? Reproductive output was measured by arrival corticosterone and 1st egg date. Findings: early departure did not equate to early arrival, early arrival did equate to early egg, days migrating equated to higher corticosterone (stress) not lower, and the higher stress delays reproduction.

Next up: survivability of a neotropical passerine - Western Slaty Antshrike. What factors influence first year survival? Low support for sex, year, or body mass. Highest support for day of year - safest is the middle of reproductive season. Now on to wolves! Thought this was a bird conference? Ok, Wolves and Ravens. This study looked at the population responses of the Common Raven to reintroduced Grey Wolves. Ravens have adapted to respond to wolf vocalizations, follow tracks, and follow wolves directly. Utilizing the wolf kill database maintained by the wolf project in Yellowstone National Park, the team found a very positive relationship between wolf kills and the number of the ravens, and thus the number of wolves and number of Ravens in a given area. They then looked across the west to see if the reintroduction of wolves has shown up in the various Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Counts. It has actually shown a decrease in Raven numbers. There are a number of possible explanations, but further study is required. The most likely is that Ravens are attracted away from the count sites and humans, back into the wilderness, but we really don't know. The study continues.

Its been another full day of great research. Wow, so many cool projects that would be great to work on. I have a number of ideas in my head for possible master projects. I need to look at the literature to see which of them might be novel. Cool stuff. One more day to go, then I head home.

Presentation Day!

After months of anticipation, the day for me to present my research to the scientific world has arrived! I am at the joint conference of the Cooper Ornithological Society, American Ornithologists' Union, and the Society of Canadian Ornithologists in San Diego California. There are over 1000 ornithologists here. I present my research on the weather impacts of migration in the migration and stopover biology session.

Speaking of weather and migration, the weather on the east coast has continued to disrupt the migration of our plenary speakers to the conference. Monday morning's speaker has not yet arrived, so a new speaker volunteered to fill the slot. While not as controversial as yesterday's talk, it did provide some fascinating information. The speaker has studied a palearctic breeding sandpiper known as the Ruff. I recently saw this species for the first time on my trip to Kenya, although they were not in breeding plumage. This species has an interesting mating system. It has the highest polyandry rate of any of the shorebirds. The males gather in leks and work together to attract females in which the dominant males get most of the copulation opportunities. Different males grow different plumage and their behavior is associated with the plumage. It has been shown that this plumage/behavior is genetically controlled and maintained via the percentage of copulations. The dominant allele represents the non-dominant behavior, leaving dominant birds to make up a small portion of the population. A few years back a new male type was discovered which makes up 1% of the population. This male is smaller and mimics the female in plumage, size, and even behavior. This makes it a sexual trimorphic species. I didn't even know that trimorphism existed! This mimic behavior and plumage is also genetically controlled. This mimic sneaks matings with the females and uses interesting behaviors to decrease the reproductive success of the dominant males. For example, he will sneak in between a male trying to mate with a female to disrupt the copulation. If a dominant male moves for a female, a mimic might also take a female mating stance to distract the other male. We saw videos of both. It was a great program into some very unique genetically controlled behaviors for a species. It speaks to just how fascinating birds can be.

The morning science sessions which I focused on were in nest selection, habitat selection, and dispersal. This included owls, woodpeckers, warbler, and eagles. There was a lot of focus on aspen species such as woodpeckers and sapsuckers as Aspen are currently decreasing in the western US. For example, the dependence of a Red-naped Sapsucker on Aspen for nesting, but Willow for foraging. Another study focused on Flammulated Owls and the dependence on a mixed forest for the right balance for food, primary nest excavators, cover, and protection. The methods of many of these studies are just as interesting as the results themselves.

On to my session on migration and stopover biology. The session chair presented the first talk on the winter distribution of Yellow-rumped Warblers. I was up next. My presentation went very well. I didn't stumble or forget any key points that I wanted to make. It won't surprise my friends to know that I finished the talk exactly when I intended to. One of the few people that left time for a few questions. Other talks in my session included climate effects on boreal migrating songbirds, shifting Burrowing Owl populations, Loon migrations, and Great Bustard migrations. The Burrowing Owl study was interesting as their population center is actually shifting south. Possible explanations: declining northern populations and more southern habitat through agriculture. They also performed stable isotope analysis which shows some mixing of populations (i.e. Canadian birds breeding in Arizona).

The late afternoon sessions were also on migration. This included some interesting analysis of Painted Bunting migration based on wind chord length differences in breeding populations. Attracting a great deal of attention was a series of three presentations on using radio transmitters to track migration on three species migrating from Alabama to the Yucatan. One Swainson's Thrush with a tailwind made the jump in 23 hours. Others were closer to 29 hours. Pretty impressive considering they can't stop, eat, or drink.

In the evening it was time for the poster sessions. There were about 100 posters. A few of the BSU students were presenting posters here. If you aren't familiar with a poster session, it is similar to a presentation will all of the content printed on a large poster. During the poster session the authors stand by their poster and talk about it with anyone who is interested. It basically results in presenting your work many times. It does provide the opportunity for deeper discussions with individuals with a deep interest in your work. There is also a photo content running in which I submitted three photos. The whole contest has 175 photos. Some very impressive work. Wow, that was a pretty big day. My brain is in overload trying to keep up with all of the great science here.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Bird Conference Day 2

This is a second update on my experience at the joint conference of the Cooper Ornithological Society, the American Ornithologists' Union, and the Society of Canadian Ornithologist in San Diego California. Today was the first day of the general scientific paper presentations. The conference is organized with a general plenary session first thing in the morning followed the rest of the day by six separate tracks of scientific paper presentations. The sessions were somewhat synchronized so it was possible to jump between sessions which I did on a few occasions. Each paper presentation is 14 minutes long with one minute until the next talk starts. It moves fairly fast.

It was a very educational day. I learned a great deal about avian species, the impact of climate, scientific methods, good presentation styles, and even some not so good presentation styles. I thought a lot about how to improve my own research. I want to rewrite my manuscript to make it better! I want to make it broader!

There was a small issue to start the day as the plenary speaker was stuck in the snow on the east coast. Luckily Tuesday's speaker was willing to speak a day early. The presentation was fascinating. The speaker, Ken Dial from the University of Montana, discussed the evolution of flight in birds. He strongly criticized the current approach to answering the question and the answer that most studies are reporting. He presented a multifaceted, integrated approach to answering the question focused on integrating fossil, evolutionary, life history, and current bird development knowledge into answering the question. He presented some very compelling arguments and wow'd the crowd with some of the experiments they are using to answer the question. For example, using birds in an olive oil gas suspension with lasers to observe and measure the air vortex of a flapping chick to determine the effectiveness of a partially developed wing. He also talked about the fascinating case of the mound builder birds. These are super-precocial species where the parents leave the nest before the eggs hatch. When the chick hatches and crawls out of the mound, it can fly better than an adult. This is because it has to to survive. This is an example of matching development to life history strategies. He recommends a similar integrative approach to the evolutionary question. He was very convincing but it would have been great to hear the other side of the argument.

I started the scientific sessions in one of the symposium sessions on ornithological applications focused on conservation. The sessions started with some general education talks on the endangered species act and the important of sub species designations. The ESA does support subspecies designations, but the government must look to the taxonomists in each field to define and justify the subspecies. This isn't being performed consistently in the avian world. The next talk moved into a discussion of conservation reliant birds. Some birds may fit the "preferred" endangered species formula of recovery and removal from the list. Many will not. Some will require an ongoing investment to prevent them from sliding back toward extinction. This requires a new way to look at the issues. The first morning session wrapped up with a discussion of conservation partnership between management agencies and rice farmers in the central California valley to help migrating shorebird populations. Using science they demonstrated an effective management strategy which is being deployed more broadly. It's not all bad news.

In the late morning session I moved over to the habitat and landscape sessions to hear about desert species in the Intermountain West and the effects of habitat disruption and power line right of ways in influencing different species. Bottom line, big impacts but not always what we would think. As with all changes, there are winners and losers. The last talk before lunch was focused on behavior of social manakins. This was a very cool study about how different males interact in a complex hierarchical bird society. The researchers studied the number of connections between individuals, the strength of those connections, and why the alpha male would have a different strategy than the omega male. It all comes down to reputation. Wow, is it only lunch time on the first day!

It was a beautiful sunny day here in Southern California. I enjoyed a nice walk outside for lunch!

My afternoon was dominated by the climate change sessions. Lots of studies, lots of birds, lots of methods, but one main story - bad news! Most species are moving up in elevation, north in latitude, down in population, or all of the above. Some species are reacting in different ways in different places as their historical ecological role is squeezed. I was surprised that desert species seem to be impacted more than non-desert species, likely due to the fact that they were already living on the edge.

I went for a run this evening. I was thinking about the climate change talks as I jogged by a restaurant which had a full row of outside heaters burning. There was no one sitting outside. There was no canopy to hold the heat, just pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. We don't have to eliminate all energy use, but we could definitely find some places to conserve. That was just one example. But I digress...

Quite a day! More tomorrow. I present my talk at 2:15pm. I am really looking forward to it. After the presentations tomorrow is the poster fair. Some other BSU students present talks tomorrow and some present posters tomorrow night. It will be a long day.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Bird Nerds

The last 8 months of work on my research project into the effect of weather on avian migration has been paying off. I am now in San Diego at the joint conference of the Cooper Ornithological Society, the American Ornithologists' Union, and the Society of Canadian Ornithologists, to present my results. The conference and Boise State University each helped to bring me here. While the conference has just started, it has been great so far.

I came a day early so I could attend a Sunday morning field trip. Up early to discover that the field trip leaves before any place to get breakfast opens. Good thing I brought a spare energy bar! Our first destination was the Tijuana River estuary. This is a great place for birding. Before heading out onto the estuary we had to do some serious birding in the parking lot of an apartment building! Yes its true, birders have no shame. This particular parking lot offered two great birds, a Heptatic Tanager and a Yellow-crowned Night-heron. The trails out on the estuary were great. Lots of Say's Phoebes, Great Egrets, shorebirds, waterfowl, etc. The highlight occurred at the far end as we were identifying hundreds of gulls and shorebirds. Suddenly they all took to the air! Birds everywhere! Just then we saw the culprit. A Peregrine Falcon flew through the bunch and over our heads. He would stay hungry for now, but it was fun to watch! We stopped at a few other locations picking up more shorebirds. One highlight was a group of Black Skimmers that flew right by us. In another location we observed three different subspecies of Savannah Sparrow. In the end we logged 72 species. Probably 13 new life birds for me!

In the afternoon, it was time to get down to business. I attended a 4 hour session on Avian First Aid. It was excellent. While the instructor was primarily experienced in avian rehab, she tailored her talk toward field work since her audience was dominated by field researchers. She covered many of the most common injuries and a number of techniques for reducing the stress on an injured bird. How to help ensure that the treatment doesn't provide additional stress on top of the original injury. It was packed full of great information.

Today the general research presentations begin. It will be a full day of science. I plan to attend sessions on the endangered species act, conservation reliant birds, birds and wind energy, oil spill rehabilitation success, ecosystem fragmentation, bird social networks, and a number of studies regarding climate change. It will be a full day! Tomorrow afternoon I present my research.