Sam Crowe on March 19th, 2017

Whooping Cranes visit the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge along the Texas coast from September to early April each year. Survey estimates for this year are not complete but April 2016 report indicated the presence of 329 Whooping Cranes, up from an estimated 308 cranes the previous year.

Before human interference, there were believed to be 15,000-20,000 whooping cranes, so the Whooping Crane population was never very large. Habitat loss and hunting drastically reduced the whooping crane population. By 1860 the number had dwindled to about 1400 cranes.  The all-time low fell to 15 birds in 1941.  From there conservation efforts, while slow because of the very limited number of Whooping cranes, have increased the population to a little over 500 birds, some wild and some in captivity.  This includes a non-migratory population that is being established in Louisiana.

There are many online resources for learning more about the conservation efforts dedicated  to save the whopping crane.  Here are a few.

Texas Tracking
Tracking device study by Texas Parks and Wildlife has been attaching trackers to cranes on their wintering grounds on the Texas coast.  As of Feb, 2014 68 birds had trackers attached.  The devices record 4-5 locations every 24 hours and help identify migration routes, habitat use, nesting areas and more.  Here is a YouTube video about the program.

Eastern Migratory Flock
An Eastern Migratory Population has been established in Florida. Efforts began in 200 and the current population is estimated at about 100 birds.  Visit the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership web site for details on this effort.

Cows helping Whooping Cranes

Sam Crowe on March 8th, 2017

Last month, the Boreal Songbird Initiative released a short but important report that helps underscore the importance of Canada’s boreal wetlands. The report, called “Wetland Wonders,” focuses on six specific boreal wetlands zones.

Canada’s boreal forest is home to 25% of the world’s wetland and the largest concentration of wetlands on earth. The report calls upon Canada to increase its wetland conservation for the billions of North American birds that nest there (many of which winter in the US), the caribou populations, and other wildlife that thrive there, and to ensure that 700 years’ worth of Canada’s industrial greenhouse gas emission are kept safe in the ground.

The entire boreal region faces stresses of industrial development (logging, mining, hydro-power, and oil and gas – including tar-sands extraction), transportation, agriculture, and settlements. These factors demonstrate the need to conserve large portions of the boreal forests to create a sustainable balance.

The six carbon-rich wetland regions that are described in the report significantly contribute to global bird life, provide healthy habitat for caribou, and are either in need of conservation planning or are still awaiting final, permanent protection designation.

You can download the 11-page report in PDF format.

The 2018 International Ornithological Congress (IOC) will unite about 2000 scientists and conservationists from 100 countries around the world. The event will be held in Vancouver, British Columbia from August 19-26, 2018.

The event is only held every four years so this is a rare opportunity for U.S. and Canadian birders to visit with and learn from the top scientists from around the world.

The Congress roster of nearly 50 symposia has just been released, complete with abstracts. Topics include:

Avian cognition
Evolution of birds and dinosaurs
Human-raptor interactions
Millions of migrations
Navigation from arctic to desert


IOC President; Biodiversity Research Centre, Taiwan:
“Avian ecology’

University of East Anglia, UK :
‘Migratory birds in a changing world’

Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behaviour, UC Davis, USA
‘Avian olfaction’

University of Buenos Aires, Argentina
‘Evolutionary ecology of brood parasites’

Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, USA
‘Bird pathogen interactions’

University of Colorado, Boulder, USA
‘Phenotypic variation, sexual selection and speciation’

Australian National University, Australia
‘Behavioural ecology of a cooperative breeder’

The Edward Grey Institute, University of Oxford, UK
‘Social ecology of wild bird populations’

AGNeurosensorik/Animal Navigation, University of Oldenburg, Germany
‘Sensing the magnetic field’

Registration information is not yet posted on the event web site but the event is sure to draw a large audience so it would be wise to check back regularly to insure a spot at one of the host locations.  Visit the site to sign up for their email newsletter.

Sam Crowe on December 13th, 2016


If you think the above image is of a feather and not of a frond, you would be correct.  But that’s not all there is to it.  What you are looking at is a feathered dinosaur tail with primitive plumage trapped in Mid-Cretaceous amber! WOW. The amber is thought to be about 99 million years old.

We normally think of dinosaurs of being very, very, large creatures. But there were also very small dinosaurs. The tail was from a feathered dinosaur about the size of a sparrow. It was found perfectly preserved in amber from Myanmar. Detailed examination of the structure of the feathers revealed they were from a dinosaur and not from a  bird.

The amazing piece of amber was found by Lida Xing from the China University of Geosciences in Beijing at an amber market in Myitkina, Myanmar.  The amber had already been polished for jewellery and the seller had thought it was plant material.  The sharp-eyed Lida Xing recognized it as something much more exciting.

One of the co-authors of the article published in the journal of Current Biology Prof Mike Benton, from the University of Bristol, noted: “It’s amazing to see all the details of a dinosaur tail – the bones, flesh, skin, and feathers – and to imagine how this little fellow got his tail caught in the resin, and then presumably died because he could not wrestle free.”

3D imaging of the fossil has reveled how the feathers were arranged on the creature, something impossible to tell from fossils in sedimentary rocks.

The image showing the fine structure of the feathers is from the article in Current Biology.  Details of the research along with photomicrographs and SR X-Ray μCT Reconstructions are available online.

A report on the BBC web site includes an artists impression of what the tiny dinosaur might have looked like.

Journal of Current Biology

Authors of the article: Lida Xing13, Ryan C. McKella, Xing Xu13, Gang Li13, Ming Bai13, W. Scott Persons IV, Tetsuto Miyashita, Michael J. Benton, Jianping Zhang, Alexander P. Wolfe, Qiru Yi, Kuowei Tseng, Hao Ran, Philip J. Currie

Sam Crowe on December 7th, 2016

From The Auk
Smart female Wood Ducks live longer.  (our interpretation)
An 11-year study of almost 500 Wood Ducks found a positive correlation between annual survival rate and nesting success.  It seems female Wood Ducks that were better at raising their young were better at surviving from one year to the next.  Seems like a good indication of a variance in the intelligence of female Wood Ducks?

Female Wood Duck

Female Wood Duck © Alan Wilson

From The Condor
Breeding Bird Surveys and changing weather patterns.
Researchers using BBS data studied the populations of of several grassland birds.  They found that Grasshopper and Baird’s Sparrows were especially vulnerable to hot, dry conditions. perhaps indicating their populations could fall from further climate change.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow. © Greg Lavaty.


Baird's Sparrow

Baird’s Sparrow. © Greg Lavaty

Breeding Bird Surveys monitor the status and trends of North American bird populations. Following a rigorous protocol, BBS data are collected by thousands of dedicated participants along thousands of randomly established roadside routes throughout the continent. Professional BBS coordinators and data managers work closely with researchers and statisticians to compile and deliver these population data and population trend analyses on more than 400 bird species, for use by conservation managers, scientists, and the general public.

Participants in a BBS run specific routes from their vehicle.  They typically start early in the mourning during the nesting season.  The participant drives .5 mile, stops, looks and listens for 3 minutes, recording the birds seen and heard.  There are 50 stops in a route.

A vast amount of data has been acquired over the years and is available to researchers and the public.

Ground-Level Artificial Light Disrupts Bird Migration
Researchers studied the night flight calls of birds during fall migration.  They found that significantly more flight calls were recorded at lit sites than at dark sites.  It appears from the study that ground-level lights could be disorienting birds.  The lights could be causing the birds to fly lower (a danger) or they could actually be attracting the birds.

Tall, lighted buildings are well-known to attract migrating birds and are a major source of bird mortality.

While I have not seen any studies, while on a cruise ship south of Florida, during spring migration, I observed hundreds if not thousands of migrating birds flying around the ship, apparently attracted by the lights. I found Ovenbirds (2) and Common Yellowthroat on the ships’s deck.

FLAP Canada is one of the best resources to learn more about bird window collisions.

Sam Crowe on November 29th, 2016

The Institute for Bird Populations is an excellent organization for those interested in studying, what else, bird population trends and the development of conservation programs. Their web site is chock full of information on a variety of topics, including links to recent research publications.  Their programs include:

Information on the MAPS program
The MAPS Program is a continent-wide collaborative effort among public agencies, non-governmental groups, and individuals to assist the conservation of birds and their habitats through demographic monitoring.

The MoSI Program
MoSI is a collaborative, international network of bird monitoring stations across the northern Neotropics that bolsters conservation efforts through population monitoring. Since 2002, the program has operated more than 200 stations in 15 countries to help answer questions such as:

Pacific Islands Bird Conservation

Birds of the Pacific Northwest National Parks
Ranging from sea level to the top of 14,410’ Mount Rainier, the national parks of the Pacific Northwest encompass a stunning diversity of species and ecosystems, including temperate rainforests, rugged, undeveloped coastline, and glaciated peaks. Much of these are within vast tracts of roadless mountainous and forested areas.
In summer IBP deploys a crew of expert bird surveyors, who conduct point counts of all bird species heard and seen at pre-selected, mostly off-trail locations that are visited year after year.

The web site lists both paid and volunteer position for some of the spring surveys.

Great Gray Owl.

Great Gray Owl by Elaine Wilson.

Molt and plumage studies

Bird bander training

Burrowing Owl research and monitoring in California.

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker. © Glenn Bartley

The Institute is home to the Sierra Nevada Bird Observatory.
The organization uses an array of research, monitoring, and conservation initiatives aimed at strengthening bird conservation in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. They use cutting-edge science, long-term population monitoring, short-term surveys, and thoughtful conservation planning – often in close partnership with federal, state, and private land managers – to develop practical solutions to conservation and land management challenges. The end goal is to help land managers safeguard at-risk bird species, ensure continued robust populations of common species, and promote good stewardship of the natural resources that birds require throughout the Sierra Nevada region.

Current studies focus on the Black-backed Woodpecker, the Great Gray Owl (in California) and the Willow Flycatcher.

An online, searchable database of 158 land bird species based on information from their MAPS program.

Sam Crowe on November 20th, 2016

Another Audubon Christmas Bird Count season is just around the corner.  This great winter birding tradition started in 1900, making this its 117th season!  This  year the count runs between December 14 and January 5.  Tens of thousands of volunteers working throughout the Western Hemisphere help monitor populations of wintering birds.

If you have not been on a Christmas Bird Count, they are fun!  Birders work from down to dusk, and perhaps even longer to record and report the birds they see.  Reports include a list of each species seen or heard as well as an estimate of the number of each species.

Prairie Warbler.

Prairie Warbler. © Greg Lavaty.

Many counts have a Count-Down dinner at the end of the day.  All the participants gather for a nice dinner and a count down of all the species identified.  Birders with rare and exclusive species are rewarded with appropriate cheers and admiration.

Birders of all skill levels, from the beginner to the expert, are welcomed and encouraged to participate.

Participating on Christmas Bird Counts is a great way to see more birds and learn about new birding locations.  Travel around your state, to other states  and even into Mexico, Central and South America to experience great birding opportunities.  Out-of-area birders will often been placed in a small team lead by an expert birder familiar with the area. Its like having your own personal guide in an area you have never birded before.

Northern Jacana

Northern Jacana. © Sam Crowe

116th Christmas Bird Count Alphabetical Index of Regional Summaries
A fun way to review previous Christmas bird counts is to visit the Audubon regional summaries. Coastal counts usually report the greatest number of species. Here is a review of a few of the top count areas.

Texas has always been a hotbed for CBCs.
In 2015 a total of 3021 birder days expended 7864 party-hours on 110 CBCs to produce 376 species, 12 infraspecific forms, and 11 exotics.

Matagorda County led the state with 239 species, and was followed by Guadalupe River Delta with 224.  Freeport greatly improved with a report of 211 and San Bernard (195), Corpus Christi (186) and Port Aransas (180) had a good year on the Coast.

Grace's Warbler.

Grace’s Warbler. © Greg Lavaty.

Southern California
This is the area to be if you are looking to add to your list of pelagic species.

Northern Fulmars were reported from Oceanside-Vista, Orange County (coastal), Rancho Santa Fe, San Diego, and Santa Barbara. A scattering of shearwaters found in Southern California included a Pink-footed from Thousand Oaks, a photographed Sooty in San Diego, and a well-documented Short-tailed Shearwater on the Palos Verdes Peninsula count. Many counts reported Brown Booby including Malibu, Oceanside-Vista, Orange County (coastal), Palos Verdes Peninsula, Rancho Santa Fe, San Diego, Santa Cruz Island, and Thousand Oaks.

If you are planning a winter trip to Florida, why not add a Christmas Bird Count to the activities. The state hosted 74 CBS which recorded 285 native species. The Jacksonville count lead with 168 species.

Crimson-collared Grosbeak

Crimson-collared Grosbeak. © Greg Lavaty.

Several warbler species and along with the colorful Painted Bunting can be seen on many of the Florida counts.

Tropical CBCs
In South America, Colombia reigns again as far as number of counts included this season, with 27 areas submitted. My first tropical birding experiences were CBCs in Mexico, they were fantastic experiences.

Blue-winged Warbler.

Blue-winged Warbler. © Greg Lavaty.

All of the images shown represent species seen on one of the Christmas Counts in Texas in 2015.

Sam Crowe on November 12th, 2016

We should all know a little more about the countries to the north and south of us.

Almost everyone knows the Bald Eagle is the National Bird of the United States.  Some may know that Benjamin Franklin wanted the Turkey to be the National Bird of the United States,

But what about our friends to the north?  Do you know what the National Bird of Canada is?

Think hard.   Still don’t have it?

Don’t worry, you are not alone.   Canada does NOT have a national bird.  But that may soon change.

The Royal Canadian Geographic Society recently held a national poll to determine what the citizens of Canada wanted as their national bird.  The top three vote getters, in order, are:

Common Loon

Common Loon


Snowy Owl in flight

Snowy Owl


Gray Jay

Gray Jay

The Royal Canadian Geographic Society will make its official recommendation on November 16.  Their recommendation to the Canadian Parliament will be based on the public poll, an expert panel and other input.

Each of these birds nest and raise their young in the vast Boreal Forest, often described as North America’s bird nursery.  The Boreal Forest extends across much of Canada and into Alaska.  The Boreal forest Initiative seeks to preserve at least 50% of the Canadian Boreal Forest.  Both Ontario and Quebec have pledged to conserve at least 50% of their northern Boreal regions.

For additional information:

Canada’s Choosing A National Bird (And It’s Surprisingly Suspenseful)

National Bird Project

Boreal Songbird Initiative

Sam Crowe on November 2nd, 2016

Bird identification can often be a real challenge.  Birds captured at banding stations sometimes provide an opportunity to study unusual plumages.

In the spring of 2014, researchers at Long Point Bird Observatory captured an interesting-looking warbler which somewhat resembled a Magnolia Warbler.

After a detailed inspection of the bird’s plumage and a genetic analysis, it was determined that the bird is the first-ever documented hybrid between Magnolia and Chestnut-sided warblers.

Male Magnolia Warbler

Male Magnolia Warbler


Female Chestnut-sided Warbler.

Female Chestnut-sided Warbler.



Hybrid Magnolia x Chestnut-sided Warbler.

The results were published by Ken Burrell (Natural Resources Inc.), Jeff Skevington and Scott Kelso (Agriculture and Agri-food Canada), and Mike Burrell, Dayna LeClair, and Stu Mackenzie (Bird Studies Canada) in the most recent issue of the Wilson Journal of Ornithology.

Here is the abstract of the article.  Subscribers to the Wilson Journal can read the entire article

New World Warblers represent a complex and closely related family, with a high propensity to hybridize. With more than 73 known hybrid pairings of Parulidae documented, we report a previously undocumented hybrid: a Chestnut-sided (Setophaga pensylvanica) × Magnolia Warbler (S. magnolia). The parentage of the hybrid individual and its identity are supported by morphological and genetic evidence. DNA sequencing of a fragment of cytochrome oxidase c subunit I (COI) supports the female parent as Chestnut-sided, while strong morphological features support Magnolia Warbler as the father.

The new hybrid represents the first documented hybridization of Chestnut-sided Warbler.

Although hybrid warblers are rare, they do occur.  The most well-known are perhaps the Blue-winged x Golden-winged Warbler hybrids.

First generation hybrids are know as Brewster’s Warbler and have a Blue-winged head pattern.  The even rarer Lawrences’s Warbler is a Blue-winged x Golden-winged hybrid that has a Golden-winged head pattern.

Blue-winged Warlber.

Blue-winged Warbler.


Golden-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler


Brewster's Warbler

Brewster’s Warbler

Hybird Chestnut-sided Warbler x Magnolia Warbler photograph by Ken Burrell.

Other warbler images © Greg Lavaty.

Two of the largest and most influential ornithologist organizations are the American Ornithologists’ Union (The AOU) and the Cooper Ornithological Society (COS).

Among other things, the AOU is the keeper of the official bird list of North America, including the official common and scientific names and the placement of birds in specific families.

Since its inception, the COS has worked to disseminate ornithological knowledge, mentor young professionals, and promote the conservation of birds and wildlife in general.

In August the two societies agreed to merge.  A news release announced the agreement.

” At the historic NAOC VI meeting last week in Washington D.C., where more ornithologists—representing 41 countries—were brought together than ever before, the American Ornithologists’ Union and the Cooper Ornithological Society proudly announced their decision to bring their membership together as the American Ornithological Society, or AOS, in the very near future. In recent years we have actively collaborated as separate organizations: meeting together, publishing our journals jointly, and working together to benefit the conservation of birds. After a year of fact-finding and due diligence, and in response to the tremendous positive feedback of our membership, our two societies have voted overwhelmingly to merge.

When the societies announced the news during NAOC’s opening plenary session, more than 2000 participants—ornithologists and bird specialists from academia, government, nonprofits, and industry, along with students and citizen scientists—cheered! Our message was clear: a single merged society will better serve ornithologists and advance ornithology by combining our assets—human, financial, and intellectual.

We wish to thank all of our members who responded to queries and contributed valuable viewpoints, and also to recognize the many individuals who worked tirelessly and objectively on the effort. Onward!

With the decision made, the important next steps include the legally required actions to complete the merger, and implementing a new communications and marketing plan for AOS. We anticipate announcing the new AOS in late October to broad audiences—this will be the “effective date of merger.” At the same time, we’ll launch our redesigned websites and social media platforms. The 2017 membership renewal cycle will quickly follow, introducing AOS memberships along with a variety of new services and benefits to members.

Next July, when we come together at the 2017 annual meeting in East Lansing, Michigan, we look forward to opening the 135th stated meeting of American Ornithology and the first meeting of the AOS. Please join us!”