Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Spoon-billed Sandpiper Survey China Spring 2015

The plane landed and I was in Shanghai, getting my passport stamped and getting a smile from the Chinese Customs officer who appreciated or was perhaps amused at my use of Mandarin. I was back in China for another round of Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Calidris pygmaea) surveys.

Local Shell Fisher with his tools. Those baskets with shells are sometimes carried for miles.
Amid the back drop of whirring blades from the massive turbines that stretch for miles along the yellow sea in China, a whir of activity takes place on the mudflats. Fisherfolk, men and women tend to nets strung between bamboo poles that are designed to catch its prey on the rising tide. Shell fishers work the mud flats on the low tides, gathering clams and razor clams in bamboo baskets then having to carry them on their backs for miles back to the seawall where they sell their harvest to some local boss who then in turn sells to restaurants or to the market. This is back-breaking work and the payout is not that great as I learned. Additionally, construction workers can be seen either working on developing new areas for Wind Turbines or building some additional roadways.

Flock of shorebirds--this is a small number.
These mudflats are not just important for the local folks, they are also critical for birds! Thousands upon thousands of Shorebirds arrive during spring and fall migration. The dawn chorus of the trilling, peeping, calling of waders greets, the odd birders, photograpgers and ornithologists as they join the activity on the mudflats. The Yellow Sea bordering China and Korea, is the most important refueling stopover site for these birds as they navigate their way along the flyway covering Australasia through South-East Asia. Last year, was my first introduction to these mudflats as I worked with a group of researchers from China, the UK and Australia in documenting one of the rarest birds in the world, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. I also banded shorebirds in Chongming Nature Preserve and worked with renowned Wildlife Biologist, David Melville in documenting the loss of habitat. China, engaging in land reclamation has extended development out into the Yellow Sea at an alarming rate, claiming much of the mudflats used by shorebirds. This is a cause for concern and I was proud to be selected to assist David and the Chinese researchers in documenting this issue.  This year, I returned only this time my assignment was focused on working with the Spoon-billed Sandpiper team--the representation was only the UK and myself from the US working alongside Chinese Ornithologists and students.

Surveying against the backdrop of massive turbines on the mudflats.
Our surveys were in the Jiangsu Province, about 2-3 hours away from Shanghai on the mudflats of several sites. Depending on the tide cycles some surveys can be very early, especially if we have to factor in driving time and wanting to be on site a few hours before start time. It is extremely hard work and we tend to spend 12 + hours on the flats walking for miles in mud that can be very tricky and even dangerous to navigate. But work we must, schlepping our way around the mudflats at designated spots about 300 meters apart once given our assigned areas by the team leader. Each field ornithologist then begins to sift through birds either during rising or lowering tides. Depending on the tide cycles, sometimes we do two rounds per day. By the end of the day, a tired team drag ourselves to dinner and then to the data review session. Some nights we are heading off to bed around midnight to grab a few winks before we start all over again sometimes around 4:00 in the morning.

The Team From L-R; Jun, Richard, me, John, James, Adam, Xiaohui Ge and Professor Chang. Wei Liu taking the photo
This blistering pace that we set, continued through the duration of those good tide cycles. Sometimes we were going at a hectic pace for 7 days straight; this is not for the uninitiated. You have to be physically and mentally fit for this stuff. Nerves can get frayed as fatigue settles in and this is where team chemistry is so important. Last year, I bonded with some of my British teammates who loved my passion for shorebirds and how I worked with the locals; I considered myself lucky to be working alongside them then and a few of them again this year. We picked up right where we left off with the bantering and on field challenges. I consider some of these guys life long mates!

Spoon-billed Sandpiper with Code 3 plumage.
Are there on field challenges?  Yes, several. The mudflats are very tricky and in some spots outright dangerous. Cuts, especially deep ones in the flats which are not too bad to navigate on a low tide could be quite dangerous on a rising tide. One teammate got stuck this year and it was noted that emphasis on "safety" needed to be included in the playbook on navigating the flats.  Lack of Spoonie sighting.  This can become a heavy burden for the teammate who fails to record a Spoon-billed Sandpiper when all other team members have documented either one or multiple.  Sure, one could make up a sighting but we are all honorable Ornithologists at the top of our game doing scientific research--no stringing with this bunch.

Code 6 Spoon-billed Sandpiper with Sanderlings.
Our documentation of Spoon-billed Sandpipers include observing behavior, noting the plumage score (there is a plumage chart for this 1-7, with 7 being almost breeding plumage), getting a GPS location, time and tide cycle. If you found a flagged bird, it was critical to note the color, which leg it was on and a read out of the code if in-scripted. Photos and videos if possible of flagged birds are also quite important. In addition to looking for Spoonies, we also are required to note shorebirds flock size and the breakdown. Documenting other flagged birds are also of importance. Even when you are not finding Spoon-billed Sandpipers, there is much to enjoy on the flats in seeing other rare or endangered birds, such as Saunders Gull or Nordmann's Greenshank or Black-faced Spoonbill.  A few of us were also keying in on the type of habitat (the mudflat makeup) Spoonies tend to be found in while feeding. All of this requires discipline, focus and skills. No one leaves their station to chase down someone else's Spoon-billed Sandpiper sighting...even if you were batting zero to that point.  This is serious business, requiring team work, it is not an individual quest and no one has much time to think about their own listing. This is work readers, hard work -- for me when you love what you do, it becomes easy and I absolutely loved every second of my time on the flats, even when I was not finding Spoonies.

Nordmann's Greenshank with roosting shorebirds. Can you identify all the species?
The survey does not end on the flats.  During high tide, the task would turn to locating roosting flocks and to then documenting the make up of the roosting flocks, while sifting through them for Spoon-billed Sandpipers. Sometimes this involves a lot of walking depending how far you found a roosting flock. Our driver  Mr. Tang, is invaluable in this process as he has to be aware of who might need a ride to a far off roosting site.  More often than not, the team leader, is the one who gets to keep the driver.  Whoever keeps the driver must not be selfish in that it becomes all too important if the weather becomes sticky as getting caught in the rain without proper gear can be problematic for our optics. The driver may be required to rescue someone who might be caught in a downpour with nowhere to shelter. Sometimes, looking for roosting flocks takes us to fish ponds where we have to walk along mud banks looking through every fish pond in the hopes of finding roosting birds.

Tough to score - I settled on advanced Code 2 and a Code 3 Spoon-billed Sandpipers.
Working roosting flocks requires quick work.  There is a time factor in all of this, meaning that we have to move quickly before the tide turns. These shorebirds are quite attuned to the tide cycles. I have often watched how within minutes of the tide turning, a scout group would head out from their roosting spot over the seawall and circle around looking for open mudflats. They know the areas that offer higher ground and the long legged waders like Bar-tailed Godwits (Limosa lapponica) are some of the first to scout. Eventually joined by other long legged waders and finally the peeps show up. From my experience with the various tide cycles that I have birded in New York, I find that the tides in China move at a more rapid clip on both rising and lowering.  You might be wondering how we did this time around. Well, let me throw out some numbers for you. At a minimum, the team recorded 62 individual Spoon-billed Sandpipers with a total of 251 different sightings. Out of that number, my personal tally was 101 Spoon-billed Sandpipers. In total we documented 13 flagged birds of which I found 7. I would say we had a pretty successful survey!


Advanced Code 6 Spoon-billed Sandpiper which is also a flagged bird.
Hours became days and days became weeks, all too quickly the survey was wrapping up. I was going to miss my teammates and all the new friends I made on this survey especially, Zhang Jun, Jiayu Xu and her mom, Professor Chang and his two students, Xiaohui Ge and Wei Liu!  I love China, the people, the culture, the food and most of all the birds.  It was time to move onto other business in China. The survey was coming to an end but I was going to do some other birding in China with my mates Adam, James and John. This was going to be an important part of my trip to China as I am in the process of designing my own tours to China as part of Calidrid Tours. If you are interested in adding Spoon-billed Sandpiper to your shorebird list, contact me at birdingdude@gmail.com, I am already planning on returning this fall or next spring either doing surveys or leading my own tours or both. Check back for my post on my non survey birding adventures in China. There are lots of good birds to report!


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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Skua Fest in NY Waters...

Captain Mike and his 1st mate saying bye after we returned.
When the Brooklyn VI pulled out of Sheepheads Bay in Brooklyn NY on  June 1st for the See Life Paulagics, overnight pelagic, almost everyone save for those crazy optimistic types were probably thinking about the weather.  It was almost 6:00 p.m. when I parked and headed towards the boat and the clouds were gathering. Rain was on its way and it was going to be a rough ride heading out to sea, especially for those who might be assigned to sleep on the top deck. One leader who was assigned the top deck "presumably" took one look and bailed out attributing his departure to not feeling well. I don't blame him, I might have felt sick too had I ended up on the top deck.

Jesus who worked hard all through the trip providing a steady supply of chum.
Luckily, signing up early paid off, I was first to be called and I grabbed a bench in the lower deck cabin. This, by the way is the process of assigning benches--it goes by who signed up first, which I think is pretty fair. A few, rather I should say all of our leaders as far as I know, opted to stay top deck thereby leaving room for more folks in the cabin.  And that night, you wanted a cabin slot because it was raining, meaning a wet, cold and likely a miserable ride out for anyone on the top deck which had no cover. I decided to try and get some shut eye and so after most people had their fill of chatting and getting their sleeping area sorted out the cabin gradually got quiet.

Participants await their bench assignments in the lower cabin.
I was in and out of sleep for most of the night and was up and ready for birds at around 3:45 a.m. By 4:00 a.m. I was geared up and heading outside to the  stern of the boat. I checked in with the crew and found out that we were some 120 miles offshore, the seas were calm and you would not know we rode rough seas the night before.  Some people were already up and our chum monkey (pelagic term), Jesus was already getting the good stuff together. Paul Guris the owner of Sea Life Paulagics had explained the strategy for the day the night before. We were going to set out a chum slick (consisting of fish oil, beef fat and other nasty stuff--good for the birds but not something we want to chow on) which we hoped would first bring in the Petrels including Leach's as well as the expected Wilson's. It did not take long before we began to get flashes of Petrels; some, we could identify with the help of the boat lights while others were just flashes. Soon we had ample light and all hands were on deck as calls for Leach's among the many Wilson's Storm Petrels began to fill the air.

Wilson's Storm Petrel dancing on water.
Not long after the 1st South Polar Skua made its appearance. I had a hand in seeing it first but could not get a solid ID and mumbled large bird/shearwater type way out near the horizon. It was way out and one of our leaders on top got on it as it broke the horizon giving a better view and called it out. South Polar Skua, was a target bird and for many it was a life bird, for others like myself it was a state bird. I was quite happy but hoped for better views. Little did I know that I would see 5 more South Polar Skuas before the trip was over--most with killer views and I fulfilled a wish of mine as I got to shout, "SKUA" on a New York Pelagic.

1 of several South Polar Skuas seen throughout the trip.
In fact, by the time the trip was winding down, shouts of SKUA hardly evoked any responses, imagine that on a New York Pelagic. Other great birds we got included Audubon's, Manx, Cory's Sooty and Great Shearwater, a sweep for the expected Shearwater species, Long-tailed and Pomarine Jaeger along with Arctic Tern rounded out the birding highlights. The non birding highlights included Blue Shark, Risso's Dolphin, Common Dolphin, Offshore Bottlenose Dolphin, Portuguese Man O' War, Mola Mola (Ocean Sunfish), Pelagic Barnacles likely the genus lepas , and one of the best moments of the trip a Basking Shark, which breached twice.

Greater Shearwater
Overall, it was a fantastic trip but not without some issues for some as a few people got very sick. I myself felt queasy twice but managed to held it together. If you are interested in See Life Paulagics, check out their website. Paul and Anita Juris are two of the nicest people trip/organizers you could meet.  The leaders can fluctuate but for the most part, the consistent lineup include Sean Sime, Doug Gochfeld, Shane Blodgett, Angus Wilson, Andy Guthrie, Joe DiCostanza, Shai Mitra and others (sorry forgot all the names) along with Paul and his gregarious personality all work hard to get people on birds. In addition, there are several people on board who equally lend their skills to spotting and getting people on birds. The New York Pelagic Birding with See Life takes on a family affair atmosphere. Our next trip is in August and maybe I'll see you on-board on out next outing.

Another South Polar Skua.


Cory's Shearwater.


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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Franklin's Gull in Brooklyn NY

In what appears to be a first documented record for Brooklyn, a Franklin's Gull (Leucophaeus pipixcan) was discovered by photographer Deborah Allen. It was a chance find, as Deborah who was photographing Laughing Gulls at Plum Beach discovered the adult Franklin's as she was cycling through her photos. Realizing the rarity of such a bird, she immediately got the word out and Brooklyn birders were out the next day looking for the bird.  Fortunately, the bird stuck around and has been putting in sporadic appearances along the beach.



Franklin's Gull is rare for downstate New York; it is more uncommon in upstate NY with more sightings reported in those areas. The New York State Avian Records Committee (NYSARC) records show birds documented in Suffolk County LI and upstate NY. This is a bird that breeds in the northern plains and most of them tend to spend the winter south of the Equator along the west coast of South America. Its diet includes, insects, worms, fish, mice, garbage and seeds. Interestingly, the Brooklyn FRGU appeared to be foraging with the Laughing Gulls on Horseshoe Crab eggs on the beach. I saw this bird with friends Tom Burke and Gail Benson along with several other birders on Monday May 25th. It was re-found first by Shane Blodgett and then refound again by Sean Sime who was with Rob Jett. It was Sean's phone call that enabled many of us who were on the eastern end of the beach to see this bird.  The views were distant and not for long so I returned on May 27th where I enjoyed extended views of the bird. During this visit, I documented the bird capturing both video and photos.


Here is a shot showing the Franklin's and Laughing Gull in flight. Note the difference in the wingtips. The Franklin's has less black in the primaries and show an extensive mirror on P10. Even in this distant photo the thicker eye arcs of the Franklin's can be seen.

Here is a flight shot of the Franklin's showing the top side; it also provides a closer look at the wingtips. What a handsome looking Gull.

Here is a side by side comparison of the Franklin's with a Laughing Gull. Here you get a look at the smaller bill. Note the nape of the Franklin's as the white goes further into the hood than on a Laughing Gull. This was a feature that enabled a few of us to pick out this bird from a distance when we observed it on May 25th.

Another flight shot of the Frankin's Gull (Leucophaeus pipixcan). Here you get another look at the bill size, the thicker eye arcs and white in the wingtips.

Finally, this shot shows the underside nicely. Here you could see the pinkish tone that is on the chest and belly of the Franklin's Gull plus another view of the underside of the wing showing the primaries.  Here is a cool tidbit - Do you know that Franklin's Gull is unique in that it is the only Gull to have two complete molts in a year rather than one.

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Friday, May 1, 2015

Cleanup in Forest Park Queens NY

When you see these folks at the Waterhole in Forest Park, Queens New York, you might want to say, "Thank You!" Heck, you might even want to consider giving up your prime viewing spot as a way to thank them for the work they did in cleaning and clearing up a path around the waterhole. These volunteers took the time out from their busy schedules to participate in a cleanup that was long overdue. In no order, the volunteers were John Anderson, John Heidecker, Eric Miller, Joe Smulkstis, Gail Benson, Thomas Burke, Jeffery Paris, Steve Walter, Frank Donovan, Daniel Melore, Robert Veltri, Jean Loscalzo and Wendy Armenio. Nicole Gamory and Josephine Scalia from Parks who were there to supervise the project were supportive of the event and instrumental in getting us tools.



For those of you not familiar with the Waterhole, it is one of several vernal pools (also called ephemeral pools, are temporary pools of water that provide habitat for distinctive plants and animals.) in Forest Park Queens. This one has the distinction of being a magnet that attracts hordes of migrating birds. On a good spring migration day, birders and photographers can be seen in great numbers as they eagerly wait to get looks and photos of those colorful birds that sends hearts a flutter.

These days the Waterhole has lost some of its luster with many fallen trees impeding the path around the area. This created hazardous conditions for many--especially, those elderly birders and photographers. I have often wanted to go in and cleanup myself but rules are rules and so I have been trying to get something done with Parks approval but for one reason or another it never got off the ground until last Saturday
(April 24th).


Even then, it was hard like it usually is to get anyone to participate in these events. It seems either the dates are always wrong or people just don't see cleaning up around the places they bird and take photos at as a priority. I suspect that it is a bit of both. The latter is one of frustration for me because I think this is where many in the birding/photography community lose the plot. We cannot expect to get things done if we don't step up and be a part of the changes that are needed.

But I digress and enough of my ranting--I'll save that for another day. The volunteers who showed up for this event are to be commended as they worked with the few tools that were provided. I say "few" because all we had were a few loppers and hand saws. No power tools or rakes were involved. Nevertheless, this group of determined volunteers did an excellent job of cleaning up, cutting and removing several fallen trees and ended up clearing a path around the waterhole. It looked a lot better when we wrapped up the project and everyone was filled with pride as they surveyed the work that was done. Never underestimate a group of determined people, we got the job done!

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Saturday, April 18, 2015

White-throated Sparrow - a Photo Study

Migration is "slowly" picking up and while I, like many other birders are eager to see the return of those spring migrants. I have not forgotten those wintering birds and have been spending some time enjoying the ones in my backyard as they will soon be moving on. One such bird is the White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis). This is a bird that beeds from Yukon and the Northwest Territories south to northeastern Minnesota and Pennsylvania, east to New England and Newfoundland. Nests, can be found in brushy or semi-open mixed woods.  Its wintering range includes much of the eastern United States with small numbers in southwestern states and could be found on wood lots, scrub lands, gardens, and backyards. They frequently visit bird feeders like mine.

This is a fairly large Sparrow and sexes are similar with females generally duller than males. The photos of 3 different birds below were all taken in my backyard on April 15th, 2015. You get an idea of the variation in plumage. Let's look at the first photo which shows a rather handsome WTSP. This adult bird shows the striking head pattern showing the broad white supercilium and the bright contrasting yellow supraloral. The white throat is surrounded by a gray face and chest.












This second photo is another adult bird but take a look at the plumage and compare it to the bird above. This bird shows less dark gray in the face and chest. What about the post-ocular stripe? It looks browner on this bird.


How about this bird? Look how this bird shows even less yellow in the supraloral compared to the two birds above. What about the stripes? Do you notice the striping on the breast that run towards the flnak. We don't see this with the first bird but we do see some of it on the second bird. There is another field mark on this bird that is common with WTSP number 2. Look at the throat on this bird, it shows thin malar stripes which we see on the second bird but not the first. When I observed these two birds in my backyard, I wondered if these were what are referred to as "tan-striped" WTSP. What do you think? Have you seen White-throated Sparrows like this on the East Coast that looks like this?  Here is a tidbit on White-throated Sparrows. Do you know that both sexes may sing? Find a bird you think might be a female and see if it sings. The best time is early in the morning to watch them singing. 


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