Thursday, March 25, 2010

Wild parakeets in New Jersey

Believe or not, there are wild populations of Monk Parakeets living in the Garden State. These birds were released in New York in the middle of the last century, spread into the suburbs, and have somehow managed to survive the winters and continue to reproduce successfully for the last 50 or 60 years.

There are now a few colonies in New Jersey, with the largest containing about 50 of these native Argentinians. They use sticks and twigs to create large nests, such as the one pictured below. Usually built around transformers, it is believed they gain some measure of warmth from building their nests in these locations. Some officials have expressed concern over potential problems, but so far the birds haven't caused any harm.

As serious birders know, last year the Monk Parakeet was added to the official New Jersey state checklist, recognizing the species as a sustainable population in the state. Unlike escapees from homes and pet stores, this means the birds are known to be permanent residents here in NJ, able to breed and live in the wild. How these South American parakeets have survived the frigid winters here in the northeast is anyone's guess - but they have.

The small colony we visited in Carteret seemed to have at least five birds heading in and out of the nest. We were informed by a resident that there is another colony only a few blocks away. The species seem completely out of place - bright green and blue birds feeding in empty lots, chomping on grass (see the photo below) and hanging around with European Starlings and Mourning Doves.

As long as the species remains confined to these types of areas and their population sizes stay relatively low, they don't seem to pose much of a threat. In Argentina they are considered agricultural pests, so there has been some concern over the possibility of populations spreading to more rural regions. I certainly hope that doesn't happen, as these birds were a real treat to watch. I wouldn't want to have to lump them in with other invasive avian species like the House Sparrow and European Starling - yuck!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Salamander migration

While many eyes and binoculars will be pointed toward the sky in anticipation of spring migration, another type of migration has already begun here in New Jersey. Late last week, as temperatures rose and rain started to fall, amphibians started to stir.

The migration of a salamander isn't exactly the 40,000 mile round-trip of the Arctic Tern, but it is just as important to these amphibian species. After awakening from their winter slumber, they have to move into vernal pools, seasonal ponds that fill with water during late winter and spring. Unfortunately many of these areas have been filled for development, and those that remain may be cut off from breeding populations by roads or other man-made obstacles. As salamanders move across roads in concentrated numbers, it only takes one car to drastically alter their population size, which could ultimately lead to local extinctions.

Spotted Salamander (c) Richard Wolfert 2010

One of the best known spots for salamander migration in the area is East Brunswick's Beekman Road. The town closes the road when conditions are favorable to limit the hurdles these animals must overcome to reach the vernal pools. Nature-lovers flock to the area when the migration begins, and carefully scan the road for different species.

The migration event lasts for only a few short weeks, and will only occur on warm, wet evenings. Rainfall is being predicted for the latter part of this upcoming weekend and early next week, so that may very well be the next best time to check out these little critters.

Please check the Salamander Page of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission for updates on when the road will be closed for migration. Currently there is also an emergency alert due to the recent storm.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

North Shore

American Woodcocks are being seen and heard throughout the state. Butterflies started to appear this week. And just yesterday, an Osprey was seen flying over Cape May. Despite these signs of spring, winter isn't over just yet! I headed down to the "North Shore" of NJ with some fellow birders (and graduate students in the Ecology & Evolution program at Rutgers University) to see what winter waterfowl were still hanging around.

It turns out, quite a bit! We started in Belmar and walked the jetties at Shark River Inlet. There were good numbers of Long-Tailed Ducks and Common Loons in the water, and eventually we spotted a Western Grebe that had been observed a few times earlier in the year.

Ring-Billed Gull

We moved south down the coast, stopping to scan the ocean whenever we were offered a good vantage point. A few Red-Throated Loons were added to the mix, although we had no luck finding the Pacific Loon that had been reported earlier in the week. Black Scoters and Surf Scoters were also seen out in the Atlantic, along with a rare winter sighting of a sub-species of Homo sapiens: the surfer!

As we continued on our way, we visited some of the coastal lakes known for their wintering waterfowl. Almost annually you can find a Eurasian Wigeon in one of these lakes, and sometimes a Common "Eurasian" Teal as well. These are closely related to the American Wigeon and Green-Winged Teal that are found regularly in the United States, except the former species are lost individuals who have ended up on the wrong side of the pond. We weren't lucky enough to find either on this day, but we were able to observe large numbers of Red-Breasted Mergansers, Hooded Mergansers, Bufflehead, and Ruddy Ducks. We also found a pair of Green-Winged Teal, a single Lesser Scaup, and an American Wigeon.

Ruddy Ducks

Our next stop on the coast was the Manasquan Inlet. We walked the jetties again and were treated to more good looks at the aforementioned species. A few small groups of Purple Sandpipers moved around the jetties.

Purple Sandpiper

After dining on some authentic and completely delicious Mexican food at Jose's, we turned around and headed north. Our final stop was Sandy Hook. We searched the bay across from the Sandy Hook Bird Observatory, but weren't able to locate either species of goldeneye. However we did spot a seal sticking his nose out of the water, and were able to watch as a few male Red-Breasted Mergansers started practicing their mating display. If you haven't seen it, the display is quite entertaining.

We walked the beach one last time and saw our third species of scoter for the day - the White-winged Scoter. A nearby raft of Black Scoter afforded us some fantastic, crystal-clear views, and a single Surf Scoter ventured close to shore as well.

Soon all these birds will be heading north for the mating season, and a whole new group of birds will begin migrating through and settling in New Jersey. For most naturalists this time of year is truly exciting - birds in bright breeding plumage singing for prospective mates, salamanders migrating to precious vernal pools, and flowers blossoming in vibrant spring colors. The season is upon us!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Eco-travel & conservation in Peru

Eco-travel. Eco-tours. Eco-lodges. They all sound fun and adventurous - but what are they really doing for the natural world? In the case of Kolibri Expedition's 8-day birding trip through Manu National Park, plenty!

Scarlet Macaws (c) Kaitlyn Rose

Manu is a biosphere reserve located in Peru, offering some of the most awe-inspiring glimpses into the wild that you can find anywhere on the planet. Within the park you can find over 15,000 species of plants, 1,300 butterfly species, and...wait for it...1,000 species of birds! That's more than you can find throughout all of Canada and the United States.

Black-Faced Brush-Finch (c) Carol Foil

The 8-day adventure through Manu's various hot spots isn't all fun and games, though. For the traveler it may be all about birds, or bugs, or flowers - but for the people of Peru it is about protecting and preserving this exceptional example of life on Earth. Instead of mining, logging, and exploiting other natural resources, the people of the Amarakaeri communal reserve outside of Manu are working toward more sustainable forms of industry. Eco-tourism is at the forefront of this crisis, and Kolibri Expeditions is lending a much-needed hand to the communities of the Amarakaeri.

Walking Stick (c) Kaitlyn Rose

Leaf-cutter Ants (c) Kaitlyn Rose

Rufous-Crested Coquette (c) Carol Foil

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (c) Carol Foil

I will be serving as the hosting blogger for the May 23rd trip, which you can sign up for here. I strongly encourage anyone interested in eco-tourism and/or birding to think about making Manu your 2010 vacation. Not only will you be able to visit some of the most spectacular places in the world, see some of the most breath-taking birds, and meet some of the nicest people - but you will be helping those birds and helping those people keep the natural areas of South America wild and free from bulldozers and dynamite. The price of the trip drops precipitously as more people sign up, so I encourage people to email with your name - or you can reserve your space right on the event page at the bottom.