Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Kestrel Banding

Today, I had the opportunity to band American Kestrels with the Pennsylvania Game Commission at State Game Lands #205. SGL #205 in Lehigh County has excellent grassland habitat and is home to numerous kestrels that require this open environment. In order to keep track of breeding success of this important grassland bird, the game commission bands chicks every year. While not all the chicks on the property could be banded today, we did find a bunch:

The first nest box was right next to the game lands headquarters building. We started our morning here and found five baby kestrels--four males and one female. The group set up a ladder, then the licensed bird bander climbed up...

...and placed the chicks into a bucket.

Note the four males with their blue wings and the female with the barred reddish-brown wings.

When the young kestrels were brought down, each one was weighed and banded.  All of this information was recorded for the Bird Banding Laboratory.

Once the whole batch was recorded, they were placed back in the nest box right where they were found. We then headed out to the larger fields to the other nest boxes where we found plenty of baby kestrels!

The boxes all contained between two and five offspring. Many of the birds were very colorful, ready to fledge, and ready to be banded.

A couple of these youngsters were quite feisty and tried as hard as possible to escape by biting, clawing, flying, and running.

Others were still very young and docile. These little guys could not yet be banded.

The success of the American Kestrels at this State Game Lands is very exciting to me, as I have noticed that this species has become increasingly difficult to find here in eastern Pennsylvania. Loss of crucial habitat is a major factor in the decline of this beautiful falcon. With current development of large-scale building projects in former agricultural areas, kestrels are going to continue to have a very hard time surviving.

Other grassland species are facing the same threats. Many of the other bird species I heard and saw at the game lands today--Grasshopper Sparrows, Orchard Orioles, Field Sparrows--will all disappear along with the fields. This is why the work that the game commission does is so important. The Pennsylvania Game Commission works to conserve, improve, and maintain large tracts of important habitat so that all wildlife, not just game species, can thrive.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Review: Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America

Normally when I receive a field guide to review, the book covers wildlife in some exotic country, often in a different hemisphere. When I get books like that, all I can do is judge the book by how well it seems to convey the information to someone who is new with those species. It is very unlikely that, between the time I receive the book and the time I need to have a written review, I will be able to travel to somewhere on the other side of the world. However, this book was different. The Peterson Field Guide to Moths covers species that I can find in my own backyard. Also, when I got the book in the mail, I knew that I would be part of the invertebrate team at a local bioblitz in a few days, so I would have 24-hours to try out this new guide!

Before the bioblitz, I spent some time flipping through the book and getting familiar with the species accounts and information presented. I found the layout to be excellent. Each spread contains photographs on the right side and accompanying text on the left. The photographs are all sharp and bright, and the text is very helpful. The plates also have arrows pointing to key identification marks on each species. These arrows make it easy to learn what characteristics and patterns are important to look at in order to make an accurate identification.

Finally, the bioblitz came, so off we went looking for insects! The event began in the afternoon, so there were few moths around at first, but the guide did give information on the Forage Loopers and Lucerne Moths that we saw fly up from the old hay field. Once the sky got dark, the moths really became active. We set up a blacklight against a white sheet in hopes of attracting moths (discussed well on pages 5 and 6 in the book). Although most of the insects that came to the light were mayflies and caddisflies, we managed to find a huge number of moths as well.

Light set-up used to attract moths during the bioblitz

Over the course of the night, we checked the light and put anything we could not identify on the spot into small jars. We took these back to the bioblitz tent were we pulled out the lights and the new field guide. Two of us had this guide along, and we were both glad we decided to pack it! Many of the moths that we did not know were easy to identify using the guide.

Walnut Caloptilia - a species we would not have identified without this book!

We spent a good portion of the night pouring through the guide and sorting through the moths we had collected. In total, we found almost 150 moth species during the bioblitz!

White-dotted Prominent
There are thousands and thousands of moth species that occur in this region. That is an incredible number, one that cannot be adequately treated in a single field guide. Yet the Peterson Field Guide to Moths does an incredible job of depicting nearly 1,300 species that are commonly found in the northeastern potion of the United States. Sure, we may have found a few species at the bioblitz that we couldn't find in the guide, but that just adds to the fun of mothing. The guide probably helped us with 75% of the unknown moths we found, a great percentage... and we may have even missed a few that are in the book due to our sleep deprivation.

One-spotted Variant

This may very well be the most useful and information-packed insect field guide I've ever read. The manner in which the authors presented the information is incredibly well-done and easy to understand and remember. There are so many great things about this book that I cannot think of a single thing that stands out as being better than the rest! If I had to pick one "con" of this book, it would be the lack of discussion on separating certain moths from similar-looking species. Other than that minor issue, I find this guide to be excellent, so I will certainly be using this one for a long time. I am certain that the Peterson Field Guide to Moths will inspire most people to notice and appreciate these insects.

Orange-headed Epicallima

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Monk Parakeets

When most people think of parrots and parakeets living in the United States, images of birds in cages come to mind. However, there are actually a number of parrot and parakeet species that were introduced and have now established populations across the nation. Of these, the American Birding Association recognizes seven species in the Psittacidae family as being well-established in North America north of Mexico. Most of these species are restricted to Florida and Southern California, but the Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus) can be found in over a dozen states across the country.

It is believed that Monk Parakeets were accidentally released in the 1960s at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where they became feral and eventually bred and created a large number of colonies in the New York and New Jersey metropolitan areas. It is also likely that others later escaped or were released. This species, originally from South America, has also established colonies in western Europe. 

Although common in New York City and near Newark, NJ, Monk Parakeets are very uncommon in Pennsylvania. However, just the other day, a local birder received a report of parakeets nesting in Allentown, PA. The birder stopped by the location a few days later and found a pair of Monk Parakeets and their large nest! 

It's hard to imagine how much effort went into building a nest like this!

Over the weekend, my dad and I stopped by to check out the birds. The massive stick nest was easy to find. After a little while of waiting, one the parakeets flew out and perched on a nearby tree. Its loud, screeching call is unlike any bird in the area and reminded me of the noisy flocks of parrots I heard in Costa Rica! While this species is not native to the region, it is accepted by the American Birding Association (as are other non-native species like the European Starling and House Sparrow). That said, I am not sure how the Pennsylvania Ornithological Records Committee will handle this species, as this may be the first breeding pair in the state. As of right now, I don't think "listers" can count this species for Pennsylvania, but in a couple of years this species may be added to the state list. 

Monk Parakeet; Allentown, PA