Friday, January 17, 2020

NJ Bird Declines: We've Been Asleep At the Switch

 [Above, Red Knots, Delaware Bay, Cape May County, NJ in May. Below, Piping Plover, a Cape May beach in late March. Two exceptions that prove the rule.]
This is the second and final preamble before I lay out what I think the top threats to NJ birds are, although what I'm about to say is a threat in and of itself. We lack defensible scientific information on the majority of NJ birds when it comes to population status, population trends, and/or the causes for those trends. And we have only ourselves to blame: birders and NJ agencies and organizations who profess to protecting birds.

Two examples to prove this, both exceptions. We all know or should know about the plight of the Red Knot, an NJ migrant species and occasional winter resident that went from over 100,000 birds on the Delaware Bay in May as recently as the 1980's to fewer than 20,000 currently. It got so bad that when my children were in elementary school, I made it a point to show them Red Knots, because I was not sure how much longer we would have this species. But we know what's going on with Red Knots thanks to an incredible team of scientists for whom I have the utmost respect.

Aerial surveys, ground surveys, and mark-recapture studies proved the decline. Recapture studies proved knots on the bay were not "making weight," i.e. not gaining enough fat to continue to the Arctic nesting grounds. Studies of horseshoe crabs proved crabs were declining because of overharvest, and proved there were fewer crab eggs on the bay beaches for birds to consume. Additional work showed knots were threatened by shooting on their wintering grounds in South America. It drives me bonkers that all this careful work was required to eliminate horseshoe crab harvest in some states and limit it in others. Will all this work succeed? Don't know. Climate change may eventually affect knot nesting success. Oil spills, even in Delaware Bay (an important oil shipping lane) threaten. But at least we know.

Piping Plovers are NJ beach nesters and migrants and a federally listed species. Thanks to incredible work by NJENSP/Conserve Wildlife Foundation and the USFWS, we know pretty much exactly not only what the NJ nesting population of Piping Plovers is, we know their annual nesting success, which is the single most important bit of information we need on any nesting species. Piping Plovers are relatively easy to monitor thanks to where they nest, but please understand this work is anything but easy, so hats off to the biologists and interns doing the work. Will Piping Plovers persist? Don't know, you'll be reading about sea level rise in the next post about all this.

Now, what about forest songbirds? Whip-poor-wills? Hell, what about Gray Catbirds, which are ridiculously common, right? But what is the catbird's population trend? Remember this: the time to save a species is while it is still common. When my wildlife biologist son was a lad, I told him about Passenger Pigeons and Eskimo Curlews and bison and he asked, "Dad, is that really true?" F--- yeah it is.

What should be done? Some suggestions:

1. eBird everything, with complete checklists and numbers, not X's. A very easy lift, coarse as that data is.
2. For god's sake, re-do the NJ Breeding Bird Atlas. NJ should be absolutely ashamed about the fact that we've done only one atlas, and that was 23 years ago. Again, the data is coarse, but we would at least know which species have retracted in statewide range. This would be an easy lift. 5 years, one coordinator, one data gnome, possibly a few paid observers for nocturnals and tough-to-reach blocks, partner with the Cornell Lab, all data entered digitally by volunteers overseen by volunteer regional coordinators.
3. Keep up the Christmas Bird counts. We know pretty well the ebbs and flows of wintering birds thanks to them.
4. Now, some heavy lifts. Pick a few poster species for each habitat and figure out a way to monitor nesting success. Analyze the data already out there, like banding data and radar studies. Stop banding without a defined purpose. Ringing and flinging migrants is no longer necessary, and before someone trolls me for being anti-banding, know that I support and have participated in sound banding programs like the MAPS program. Geolocators and transmitters are clearly the next big thing.
4. Establish June counts based on the CBC model.

[Ruffed Grouse, Washington state. It is telling I have no NJ grouse photos since I went to digital in 2007.]

Ruffed Grouse is a great example that follows the rule. We kind of know grouse have declined, and I am confident that they're gone from South Jersey, and all but gone from the Watchungs, Sourlands, and even the southern Highlands. Don't know about the Pine Barrens, maybe someone can fill us in. One NJ organization is touting starting grouse surveys. Everybody blames habitat loss. But riddle me this; why aren't there still grouse where there is plenty of habitat? One reason Northern Bobwhite is disappearing from south Jersey is that bobwhite habitat has now succeeded into grouse habitat. Pat Sutton used to run "Ruffed Grouse a'Drumming" programs down here. I used to see Ruffed Grouse happily chomping birch buds in front of my winter bowhunting stand on the Second Watchung Mountain, where my Dad and Uncle had logged our woodlot 10 years before. There is still habitat in the Watchungs, even allowing that a lot has been lost to McManshions.

A Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist named Lisa Williams has figured out part of the grouse answer, and it's not what you think. Go to pa ruffed grouse youtube webinar and you'll find a webinar she did (I don't know her, but she came from studying White Nose syndrome in bats, which is a clue). OK, I'll spoil it. It's West Nile virus plus habitat change and loss. The mosquito that is most responsible for West Nile in PA doesn't like elevations above 1200'. Guess where there are still grouse in NJ? There's hope, this is a classic genetic bottleneck and hopefully enough West-Nile-resistant grouse will survive and trickle back into good habitats.

Up next: The top threats to NJ birds.

Thoughtful Thursday: The Elephant

 “As an elephant in the battlefield withstands arrows shot from bows all around, even so shall I endure abuse.”

— Buddha 


Friday, January 10, 2020

Yellow in Winter is Nice to See

[The long-staying Western Kingbird at Cape May Point State Park, NJ, January 10, 2020. click to enlarge photos.]

Mark Garland and I wandered around Cape May Point this morning, two old curmudgeons enjoying birds (I said "I like birds;" Mark allowed he had heard that. He does, too.) But we groused, me mainly, about the state of bird conservation, failings therein, bird-banding without purpose, social injustice, poor healthcare . . . but we like birds. Birds with yellow in winter are especially nice.

[One of two female Baltimore Orioles at a Lighthouse Avenue feeder, Cape May Point, NJ January 10 2020.Were it a bullock's Oriole, it would be brightest on the jaw, not the breast.]

Other birders were about on this especially nice winter day, including Tom Reed, man of mystery, Claudia Burns, and many others. Tell me again why climate change is bad? Oh, I will, it's coming to a blog near you, and Reed and I and many others are going to find out why as we watch our homes float away. . .

Birds. Mark pointed out it's nice to see Tundra Swans regularly in Cape May. I so agree, I love these birds, who's problem here is being driven off by Mute Swans.

[Above and below, Tundra Swans, Cape May Point State Park, NJ January 10, 2020.]

Our State Park list is below.

Cape May Point SP, Cape May, New Jersey, US
Jan 10, 2020 10:30 AM - 12:15 PM
Protocol: Traveling
0.8 mile(s)
41 species

Canada Goose  10
Mute Swan  15
Tundra Swan  4
Northern Shoveler  10
Gadwall  40
American Wigeon  30
Mallard  50
Northern Pintail  4
Green-winged Teal  6
Hooded Merganser  2
Ruddy Duck  4
Pied-billed Grebe  1
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  4
Mourning Dove  1
American Coot  1
Great Blue Heron  1
Downy Woodpecker  1
Northern Flicker  3
Western Kingbird  1     Continuing, photos.
Blue Jay  4
Carolina Chickadee  3
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  1
Carolina Wren  8
European Starling  50
Brown Thrasher  1
Northern Mockingbird  3
Hermit Thrush  1
American Robin  35
Cedar Waxwing  15
House Sparrow  4
House Finch  4
Fox Sparrow  2
White-throated Sparrow  10
Song Sparrow  1
Swamp Sparrow  2
Eastern Towhee  1
Red-winged Blackbird  10
Orange-crowned Warbler  1
Nashville Warbler  1     Continuing, near Al’s pond, chipped several times: sharp, slightly burry spik.
Yellow-rumped Warbler  20
Northern Cardinal  4

View this checklist online at

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Thoughtful Thursday: The Color Purple

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”
―  Alice Walker,  The Color Purple

[Purple Sandpipers do wear purple when viewed closely. This one was at the 8th street jetty in Avalon, NJ.]

Sunday, January 5, 2020

New Jersey Bird Life, First Preamble: What We Can Do, What we Can't Do, and Who Decides What We Should Do

[Want more White-tailed Deer, or less? We know how to do either, and can. Same question, resident Canada Geese? Same answer. Ruffed Grouse, saltmarsh birds, freshwater marsh birds, beach-nesting birds, forest songbirds. . .um, uh, um, well, you see. . .]

Please note that throughout the following few blog posts, I will use "we" to mean people who care about birds: scientists, professional conservationists, professional birders, amateur birders, backyard birders, somebody who enjoys the robins on their lawn or the chickadees at their feeder, or even people who notice those big white swans on the pond.

Let's get to it. Here's what we're NOT going to do, because we can't. We're not going to get rid of NJ's hardscape, which I define as places where humans have made it impossible for water to get into the soil (aka impermeable surfaces) and for plants and other living things to get out of the soil. We've got a lot of that, I don't know exactly how much but I'm sure my friends in the Rutgers GIS lab could tap their keyboards a few times and tell us exactly the acreage, square miles or land cover percent of NJ that is hardscape. GIS stands for Geographic Information System, although back in the 1980's one of my major professors, Dr. Jim Applegate, wryly called it Guaranteed Income Stream for those proficient in it hoping to enter the environmental conservation fields. However, crusty old biologists are still needed to figure out what we should ask GIS to tell us.

So think Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Morristown, New Brunswick, Flemington, Camden, most of the Jersey Shore. These places are hardscaped and they're going to stay that way, although places like Woodbridge are buying and demolishing houses in the face of sea level rise, and eventually (spoiler alert) that force is going to de-hardscape the Jersey shore, or more likely force the hardscape inland.

Similarly, we're not going to put back all the rock we've cut off the Palisades, Watchungs and other rocky places to make the hardscape. Done deal, though I would argue that quarries have not done a whole lot to NJ bird populations.

One final thing I don't think we're going to do, although we eventually could and maybe already can: we're not going to un-extinct species. We could grow some Great Auk eggs in a petri dish, implant them in, I don't know, Thick-billed Murres or puffins, and bingo we've got another tick for our life lists. Ditto Carolina Parakeet and their closest South American relative. How about some mastodons while we're at it? Just think of the emotional scarring the foster African or Indian elephant would develop when it gave birth to one of those things. . . OK, I'm being facetious, but even if this stuff could work, we're looking at billions of dollars. Not gonna happen.

Now we get down to what we can do and what we should do. Another major professor of mine, Dr. Len Wolgast, taught us that wildlife management is "The manipulation of wildlife populations, habitat and people for a specific human goal." When 10 years later I was back at Rutgers teaching Lenny's classes while he was on sabbatical, I used the same definition. It works, though I would add that the word "manipulation" is used without any negative connotation.

Here's our first challenge: what is our specific human goal? Which goes straight to who decides, and the answer when it comes to NJ birds is that collective "we" I mentioned above. If you think of humans and nature as separate (I don't, and I think the notion is dangerous), and if you think we should just let nature take its course without human involvement, here's the newsflash: it has been over two million years since humans were not involved, and like it or not, we are involved now.  Perhaps you've read the best-selling book 1491? If you haven't, it makes a fine start when it comes to North America, because it demonstrates that humans were affecting nature on this continent for a loooong time before Columbus, and then the arrival of Europeans turned that whole bit on its head, and here we are. So, WE decide what the goal for NJ birds is, and while I'm going to confine myself to NJ, the line of thinking applies to the entire planet's bird life.

I'm comfortable saying our goal is lots of birds of lots of species. Where humans have caused species declines, let's set it right if we can and if we know how. The devil is indeed in the details: more to come.