Winter Birding: Get Outside and Freeze Your Retrices Off!

Just because it’s winter in the northeastern US, doesn’t mean you can’t go birding; and honestly with the mild winter weather, there’s no excuse! Plenty of species are around this time of year that normally are not. We get our own mix of migrants during the winter that range from the Snowy Owl to Snow Buntings and southern or western residents that somehow got mixed up in their migratory trajectory. eBird is a great place to go see your local hotspots and find those wayward birds that could be a lifer for you.

Image result for snowy owl
A Snowy Owl takes flight – credit: Cornell All About Birds

A favorite bird to go looking for is the Snowy Owl, and with good reason. This striking bird breeds and mostly lives up north in the frozen tundra, but in the winter, they sometimes come farther south and give us an opportunity to observe this elegant species. I saw a Snowy Owl once a couple of years back. My significant other and I were on the way to a concert driving on one of the country’s busiest thoroughfares, I-95, when the owl flew in front of/above our car and over the highway to the other side of John Heinz Wildlife Refuge. It was quite exciting, and frustrating because sometimes your lifer does not happen when it’s convenient.

Snow Geese
Snow Geese making a stop at Middle Creek on their annual migration up to the Arctic for breeding.

However, there are some places where your lifer comes out en masse. A great place to see tens of thousands of Snow Geese is Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area starting in mid-February and lasting until about mid-March. It seems this year, the migration has started a little early, but with the mild weather, the trip to Lancaster County should be a breeze! There’s nothing quite like the sight or sound of seeing tens of thousands of geese moving around.

So, what are you waiting for? Get outside and bird! With the Great Backyard Bird Count coming up, there’s an extra excuse to get outside!

 

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Bambi, You’ve Screwed Us: Why White-Tailed Deer ARE A Problem In Pennsylvania

Image result for bambi
From “Bambi” (Disney, 1942) – the cute little monster who helped predispose people to loving deer.

I’m writing the blog post that I couldn’t find using data to back up my statements. I’m going to break down why white-tailed deer are a problem in Pennsylvania, and why residents (and hunters) should not feed them.

Deer Hunters of Pennsylvania: I may be your biggest fan. Because deer are one of the biggest problems in the commonwealth, nothing makes me happier than our hunting season. However, I don’t want you to get caught baiting them which is illegal in Pennsylvania (except for some special circumstances). See this PA Government News Post on the issue: http://www.media.pa.gov/Pages/Game-Commission-Details.aspx?newsid=59. So, make sure you follow the hunting regulations of Pennsylvania, wear your orange, and be careful not to shoot anything (or anyone) other than the deer you are permitted for.

Other residents of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: Deer do not need your help. In case you didn’t already know, deer carry ticks that carry lyme disease (and although the instance of the disease is increasing, it cannot yet be fully connected to deer populations alone) and are one of the top causes of car accidents in Pennsylvania. It’s no secret that deer are overpopulated in Pennsylvania, most likely due to their top predator, cougars and wolves, being extirpated from Pennsylvania. However, coyotes are responsible for fawn mortality and will chase down adults from time to time. Additionally, feeding them corn in the middle of the winter messes up their metabolism and can kill them.

Deer overbrowsing has caused habitats and ecosystems to change drastically, and there’s no easy way to combat it, other than to have less deer. When deer change the ecosystems by eating their way through it, they change the habitat availability for other species, but especially birds who already face other environmental pressures. Deer almost died out once, thanks to humans overhunting them, but we stopped for a time – the deer bounced back and now there are 30 deer per square mile in Pennsylvania (roughly 1.5 million..just in PA as of 2001). Deer in PA also now face other pressures such as Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) which can wipe out populations of deer if not kept in check and monitored.

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White-tailed deer buck (male) looking wistfully into the distance.

I’ll step off of my soapbox to say that while all wildlife deserves a chance to live and thrive, all wildlife also deserve to do so in a balanced ecosystem. So, next time you see feed corn in the wildlife aisle at the store, keep walking.

And one last thing: here’s a nifty little pamphlet from the PA Game Commission on why not to feed deer: http://www.pgc.pa.gov/Wildlife/WildlifeSpecies/White-tailedDeer/Documents/feeding_deer.pdf 

Breaking Down Science: An Article On Bird Migration And Climate Extremes

Ah, migration – what a wondrous time of year. The seasons are changing, birds are moving, and scientists are science-ing, or rather researching. However, none of this research is worth it if it’s not accessible to everyone. Articles can be heady and full of jargon that is confusing unless you are very familiar with the field of study. The article I’m going to write about is called “The implications of mid-latitude climate extremes for North American migratory bird populations” by Sorte, Hochachka, Farnsworth, Dhondt and Sheldon (hence forth referred to as Sorte, et al.). Basically, the researchers of this article took a bunch of data from eBird over a five-year period, and analyzed it to look at effects of climate extremes at mid-latitudes (see map below) on migratory bird species. They looked at short-distance vs. long-distance migrants occurring over non-marine areas; and used eBird checklists that were complete and that used either stationary, traveling, or area sampling methods of bird observations. It should also be noted that they did not look at anomalies such as accidental species (birds that got lost while migrating) or species associated with primarily marine environments (seabirds).

 

midlats
Mid-latitudes are located around 45 degrees North and South.

In case you weren’t aware, extreme weather and weather events are expected to increase over time. So, buckle up, fellow humans, the weather is going to get weird and it could be problematic for our fellow creatures, specifically migrating birds. The results of this study showed that basically some longer-distance-migrating species experienced climate-related stress during spring migration (primarily the month of March in this study) and then had a low productivity during the summer months (AKA breeding season for most creatures in the Western Hemisphere in non-tropical areas). However, the species that had a shorter distance to migrate seemed to show some resilience and flexibility when it came to dealing with the stress of climate extremes because they could detect changes and adjust. Migration is cued by seasonal changes, so if the changes occur at atypical times and birds follow those cues, then it can be problematic when extremes occur.

Why are these climate extremes a problem for migratory birds? Well, for species that have a long distance to migrate, these birds are expecting the weather to be a certain way upon arrival, and are unlikely to be able to detect and adjust for seasonal climate extremes during migration. If it’s incredibly hot or cold or there’s an intense storm, that will take away precious energy resources typically used for breeding. This will result in getting allocated to feeding and/or protecting themselves, and keeping warm or cool when they normally would not have to.

blackpoll
Enjoy this blackpoll warbler, who breeds in boreal coniferous forests of Canada and Alaska in the summer. In the fall, these birds fly 1500 miles nearly non-stop down to eastern South America. This species is a long-distance migrant.

While this study looks at a lot of data and presents interesting findings that are probable, I believe more research needs to be done. Since everyone and anyone can submit to eBird, there are varying skill levels and not all observations may be accurate. I think that perhaps if this study only contained checklists from well-known, experienced birders, scientists, and researchers, then the data may be more credible.

 

Magnificent Monday: Spix’s Macaw Is Back!

You may have heard of this species since it inspired the movie Rio, an animated movie about Blu, a Blue Macaw (really, it’s a Spix’s but they changed that in the movie), who is raised in captivity after being poached from the wild, and ends up back in Brazil for a breeding program, and then the story gets a little complicated after that when he’s poached again. I won’t ruin the rest of it, but it’s a good movie, so see it for yourself – my birds also enjoy the movie. Now, let’s get to the clip of the real Spix’s macaw flying in Brazil…

The video evidence: http://www.birdlife.org/americas/news/spix%E2%80%99s-macaw-reappears-brazil 

Now that you’ve seen it for yourself…

This is not the only species to make a comeback from extinction: American Alligator, Canada Goose, White-tailed Deer, Whooping Crane, Gray Wolf, Grizzly Bear, Giant Pandas, etc.

Look at those two little dinosaurs... I mean Spix's macaws. Source: Audubon.
Look at those two little dinosaurs… I mean Spix’s macaws.
Source: Audubon.

This comeback is wonderful considering it’s humans that generally are speeding up the process of extinction with deforestation, over-hunting/over-fishing/over-harvesting, pollution, farming, global warming, poaching, and whatever else it is that our species does to drastically change the environment. Perhaps that like other success stories, this is an indication that despite the threats, something humans have changed (i.e., forest practices, habitat restoration and/or protection) have had a positive impact on the comeback of the species. However, considering that rainforests and other habitats of Brazil are still highly under threat, Spix’s macaw is not out of the woods yet. Also, I hope that researchers are going to go in there soon to do some monitoring and find more individuals of this macaw species. It’s been 15 years since the last one was spotted in the wild, so hopefully just like in Rio 2, they’ve found a mini pocket of undisturbed paradise that will get protected to prevent any more disturbance by humans.

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

2014: Second-to-last born in the wild Spix’s macaw dies at around the age of 40

More success stories of species recovery

Information on Deforestation and Rainforest Threats:

Brazil.org.za

NatGeo Rainforest Threats

Threats to the Amazon

WWF Overview on Deforestation

 

 

Fantastic Friday: Creches

Today this French-based term isn’t about a tableau for the birth of Jesus, or a British daycare or nursery. This is about animal behavior and the communal care and raising of young. This is a behavior that is exhibited by some bird species, particularly aquatic-based birds such as ducks, geese, eiders, penguins, and cormorants.

Female Mallard with ducklings. Washington, D.C. May 2016. Photo credit: Heather L. Kostick
Female Mallard with ducklings. Washington, D.C. May 2016. Photo credit: Heather L. Kostick

So, how does this even happen? Well, in some cases it’s just parents feeding the wrong kid, like in the case of cliff swallows who are colonial nesters. In other cases, there could be a territory dispute between females with young in tow, and a mix-up of children happens, and they end up with a different mother than they arrived with. However, sometimes it’s just moms teaming up and taking the “it takes a village” approach to parenting. Sometimes even non-breeding females will assist with the care of the young. I observed an example of a creche in D.C. when I was in town for the National Geographic BioBlitz, when a female Mallard had three ducklings in tow, and one of them was decidedly younger than the other two (not pictured). A National Park Service ranger informed me that it’s very common in the Constitutional Gardens to see that sort of thing, and that it was probably poor parenting on the other hen’s part that led to the hen I saw with the mixed-ages young.

So, this is mostly a bird behavior, but there are mammals, such as humans (ever drop know a kid dropped off to a daycare center?) and lions, that exhibit this behavior. It’s pretty cool to see instances of what could be considered adoption and/or daycare in species outside of Homo sapiens.

A little more information and examples:

Brandt’s Cormorants

Penguins

African Lions 1

African Lions 2 

Thesis Stuff: June Bioblitz A Success

Holy hoonah! That phrase about sums up my June bioblitz for my capstone work, which was a success if I do say so myself. I’m still working on the species count, but it’s looking like we will break last year’s 299 record. Until I have a pretty chart or graph to post, take a look at some pictures from the day.

(photo credit: Heather Kostick)

Mama tree swallow peaking out of her nest box - sorry for bothering you, mama, but I was chasing insects.
Mama tree swallow peaking out of her nest box – sorry for bothering you, mama, but I was chasing insects.
fairy ring fungi in mint
fairy ring fungi in mint
Sphinx attracted to the mercury lamp sheet
Sphinx attracted to the mercury lamp sheet

Thirsty Thursday: World Oceans Day

Well, World Oceans Day was yesterday… but it’s never too late to discuss the importance of oceans! Truly, every day we should be celebrating and respecting the environment in which we live, but it doesn’t hurt to have a day dedicated to oceans.

The oceans are an important part of our weather cycle. According to nature.org, oceans provide $21 TRILLION in goods and services. Cosmetics and medicine contain ingredients sourced from the ocean. Oceans provide jobs for us – fishing, aquatic sports and hobbies, life guards, etc. However, despite the ocean providing many resources for us, we continue to dump plastic, sewage, garbage, oil, and other pollutants into it. There is at least 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean – and that is only an estimate! The tiny beads in your tooth paste and soap, the classic six-pack plastic rings, soda bottles and caps, and many more items are being dumped every day into the ocean. According to National Geographic, nearly every seabird on Earth is consuming plastic – they are mistaking it for food. Fish are also eating plastic and passing the potential contaminants up the food chain, which can make some species of fish very dangerous to eat (barring the fact that some are dangerous to eat on their own – looking at you fugu).

So what can we do about this? SO MANY THINGS. There are quite literally so many things we can do to clean up the oceans and environment.

-Reduce your waste: recycle everything you can, compost your food waste, use cloth bags, use reusable coffee cups, donate your clothing and shoes, repurpose items when possible

-Recycle: recycling starts at home – check with your local township or city to see how you can recycle at home. Encourage your place of employment to also recycle, if they aren’t already. Don’t let plastic end up in a turtle’s nose.

Sustainable seafood: If you’re going to eat seafood and shellfish, make sure you know the source of your food and how it was caught.

Other useful information

http://www.theoceancleanup.com/problem.html

http://www.oceanconservancy.org/our-work/marine-debris/

http://ocean.nationalgeographic.com/ocean/take-action/10-things-you-can-do-to-save-the-ocean/

http://ocean.si.edu/ocean-news/how-you-can-help-ocean

 

 

Don’t Get It Twisted Tuesday: Mental Health at University

I think I like the sound of “Don’t Get Get It Twisted Tuesday”, let’s see where we end up. By no means am I an expert on the following subject matter – I am just writing about what I’ve seen in the news, a little statistics, and to help break a stigma.

Today I go off the usual topics of ecology, conservation, conferences, research, and biology to delve into something a little different. Yesterday morning, my commute was terrible. It took me 45 minutes to drive 20 blocks instead of the usual 10-15 because police had sections of streets blocked off and were rerouting trains and buses. It was the strangest sight and I didn’t find out why that was happening until mid afternoon yesterday. Much to my dismay and heartbreak, ANOTHER Penn student had seemingly committed suicide and thrown herself in front of a train at 40th Street Station. This is absolutely tragic, and to say otherwise means that you don’t quite understand mental health issues or the pressure the university, particular its president, Amy Gutmann, has been facing to change the way Penn handles its mental health crises and potentially its overall culture on campus.

Depression and anxiety are the main causes of suicide which have spiked in recent years on college campuses around the United States and Europe. The rise of social media and constantly being plugged in, has also allowed people to manipulate their image into a seemingly perfect life. Add that superficial pressure onto the massive changes that come along with attending any college: independence from parents, figuring out your career (if you’re lucky), participating in extra curriculars, volunteering, applying for internships and doing internships, taking classes, making new friends (and keeping them or finding new friends again), and slowly evolving into a (relatively) functional adult. Oh, and one more thing if you’re at an Ivy League – add the pressure of going to an elite school and competing with your peers for highly coveted internships, jobs, club positions, and social status. There’s a thing called Penn Face (Duke calls their version Duck Face) where on the outside everything seems happy, sunny, and successful, but inside the student is struggling to keep up and questioning everything (Duke’s version: people seemingly glide along a surface and are doing well, but frantically peddling underneath). While it is known that Ivy League students are high-achieving, perhaps that’s the not the culture that Penn should be pressuring onto their students. Success is measured in other ways, and while it is important to achieve goals, it’s also important to slow down a little and be a human.  Or if a campus culture revolution is off the table, perhaps they should talk about mental health issues right from the start and foster an environment that acknowledges that you don’t have to be “perfect” to be successful. Penn has taken many strides to address the mental health issues on campus by offering more counselors, training for faculty and staff, and other resources; and they are at the forefront of violence prevention at the university level (issues that include: sexual assault, stalking, relationship violence, etc.). While I applaud my university for taking steps to address issues, I think that all universities need to take the steps to address that mental health is a serious issue, and that we need to erase the stigma associated with it. Penn can be better.

So, I called this post “Don’t Get It Twisted Tuesday” – so what don’t we want to get twisted? Well, in short…

  • suicide is caused by depression and a symptom of the condition
  • suicide is the number 2 cause of death for college students
  • depression manifests itself in different ways in people
  • depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are not a choice and can appear at any time in life (see this video for perception), and could be brought on by a variety of things
  • there have been increases of suicides on university campuses despite increasing efforts to address issues by universities
  • I personally think that students need to be told that it’s okay to not be perfect or fit a mold, to not know what you want to do with your life, to question everything, that they are not alone, that life is worth living, and that you can get help
  • it’s okay to change your mind and take some time to figure out what you want out of life
  • we need to erase the stigma of mental health issues so that people do not feel pressured into hiding these issues and therefore encouraging more people to have those issues addressed and worked through

2013: Alice Wiley, Arya Singh

2014: Wendy Shung, Madison Holleran, Theodoric Reed, Elvis Hatcher, Amanda Hu

(7 suicides at Penn between 2013 and 2014)

2015: Timothy Hamlett

2016: Ao (Olivia) Kong

This post is dedicated to the students who were suffering and unable to get help and sought to end their lives too soon. I hope that if you are struggling, you have someone in your life that recognizes it and encourages you to seek help. Even if you don’t, if you think you are struggling, do not be afraid to ask for help – it is more than okay to do so. Below are some useful links and information.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (languages: English & Spanish; available 24/7/365)

Post Secret

Deconstruct the Penn Face & Update on the website going live

Mental Health Among Graduate Students

Graduate School’s Mental Toll

The Cost of Getting a PhD

 

News and Articles on the Topic

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/mar/13/tuition-fees-have-led-to-surge-in-students-seeking-counselling 

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/dec/14/majority-of-students-experience-mental-health-issues-says-nus-survey

http://www.bestcolleges.com/resources/top-5-mental-health-problems-facing-college-students/

https://www.change.org/p/amy-gutmann-hamlett-reed-mental-health-initiative

http://america.aljazeera.com/watch/shows/america-tonight/articles/2015/11/17/college-suicide-penn-family.html

http://www.phillymag.com/news/2016/01/12/stephen-kyle-wilshusen-suicide-university-pennsylvania/

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/education/edlife/stress-social-media-and-suicide-on-campus.html?_r=0

http://berkeleysciencereview.com/article/mind-grad-school/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/27/university-of-pennsylvania-suicide_n_5044412.html

http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/campus_inq/Parents-of-suicide-victims-student-leaders-urge-change-at-Penn.html

 

Personal Anecdote

When I was a high school senior and anxiously awaiting replies from the schools I applied to, I was nervous but not for the reasons you might immediately think of. Yes, I was waiting to hear back from my top choice, but it was not an Ivy League, rather a small liberal arts school located in rural Pennsylvania. However, I still felt the pressure of the Ivies – what if I did get into one of the Ivies I had applied to that both have notoriously low acceptance rates? I would have felt pressured to go to one of them even though my parents (lucky for me) did not pressure me one way or the other, because they are amazing schools even though I knew there would be a lot of pressure from peers to be uber successful and high-achieving. I fell in love with Juniata College when I visited campus, for a variety of reasons, and immediately became worried about my admission to the Ivy schools – how would I choose if I was offered admission? Luckily for me, the admissions committees made the decisions for me, and I was able to go to Juniata without a second thought (AKA Penn and Cornell said “sorry, kid, but no”). I was able to grow and learn in an environment encourages you to not be totally married to your schoolwork or have the perfect life – they want you to succeed and graduate in four years, yes BUT it is also a place where you can graduate with a degree in pottery and story telling. Sure, I had my little existential crisis – I had wanted to be a veterinarian but found the coursework awful. I struggled through organic chemistry twice – that awful class was my turning point AND my parents reaffirmed that it was okay to change my mind. I realized I was attracted to the environmental science classes my friend was taking and now here I am, 4 years later halfway through my Masters degree in Environmental Studies and hoping to move onto a PhD next year in wildlife ecology. I am a certified NABC bird bander, get to conduct my own research in my Masters program, have helped others with their field research through seasonal positions, and am feeling fulfilled in my field which has also become my passion. I was lucky to be told that it’s okay to change your mind, so I am here to say the same because I do not know where I would be if I was pressured otherwise. It’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay to explore your options. And a note on graduate school – it is not easy. Many folks I have talked to have likened graduate school to being married or having a child, and I cannot say that I disagree. If and when you search for graduate programs, make sure the school and program are the right fit, and that you “click” with your advisor if you have one. See the articles above on mental health issues at the graduate level.

Absence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder

Well, at least that’s what the old saying is. I’ve been away from my blog for a few weeks now, and it’s because I’ve become incredibly busy. Keeping up with environmental news is difficult, so I will probably retire those pages for now, but I will continue to try and post weekly since it’s important for scientists to use their voice.

I am enjoying my Fantastic Friday series, so I plan to keep that going.

In the mean while, check out my previous blog post which gives better insight into my Masters capstone work, and my interests.

 

Until next time.

My 2015 Bioblitz

The first UPenn Bioblitz at Rushton Woods Preserve in early June of 2015 was truly an experiment and a success. When I first spoke to Lisa Kiziuk, WCT Bird Conservation Director and Penn Lecturer, about my capstone and what I was interested in doing, she suggested a bioblitz as a way to collect a lot of data in a short time and effectively take a snapshot of Rushton’s biodiversity. After some research involving contacting others who had conducted bioblitzes, it seemed like it would be a great approach to documenting the fauna and flora at Rushton Woods Preserve and a lot of fun. The whole point of doing a bioblitz at Rushton was to both establish a baseline for future comparison and to explore what we already suspected – that Rushton Woods Preserve’s Rushton Farm, a small-scale, organic operation, coexists with and benefits wildlife and plants. This is important when considering how harsh conventional, large-scale agriculture is on the land. If research can demonstrate that a small-scale, sustainable operation is better for ecological health, as well as productive and profitable, there could be a shift towards more environmentally-friendly agricultural practices.

I started my Master of Environmental Studies degree at Penn in the spring of 2015, and am now in my second and final year – I expect to graduate in December of 2016. As soon as I started my Masters coursework, I got to work with Lisa and Blake Goll, Nature Education Coordinator, on figuring out the dates and logistics. I received a lot of help from my peers in organizing the appropriate data sheets and from Sue Costello, GIS Coordinator, in making a map to pinpoint survey points for birds and plants. However, it was more than just birds and plants we intended to survey – mammals (including bats), reptiles, amphibians, aquatic invertebrates, insects, and fungi would also be sought out during the nearly 24-hour bioblitz. The bioblitz ran from 6:00PM on Friday, June 5, with a 5- hour break from 12:30am-5:30am, until 4:00PM on Saturday, June 6.

This bioblitz was completed with the assistance of 30 volunteers whom I recruited through Penn, my alma mater Juniata College, various online list serves, and just good old fashioned word-of-mouth (or rather sometimes, word-of-email). Volunteers were affiliated with following the institutions and organizations: University of Pennsylvania, Juniata College, Willistown Conservation Trust, University of Delaware, Millersville University, Villanova University, PA Amphibian Reptile Survey, Pennsylvania Master Naturalists, Delaware Department of Natural Resources, Warwick School District, and New Jersey Certified Volunteer Master Naturalist.  This truly was a remarkable group effort motivated by the enthusiasm, curiosity, and expertise of many people, I could not have done this alone.

The 2016 field season should be as productive, and likely busier, than in 2015. I have planned two bioblitzes at Rushton for June 3-4 and September 9-10, in order to compare results between June 2015 and June 2016 and to capture seasonal differences between early summer and early fall. In addition, there are plans to conduct a bioblitz at a conventional, large-scale farm using the same methodology in order to compare biodiversity with that observed at Rushton in late June 2016. I welcome additional help.  If you’re interested in volunteering or have any questions, please contact me at upennbioblitz@gmail.com.

 

Willistown Conservation Trust

University of Pennsylvania