Wednesday, September 21, 2016

BLAST FROM THE PAST: Dinosaur mural going back up on oil storage tank at New Haven Harbor

Finally, an accurate “PUBLIC” portrayal of a theropod dinosaur, a species that shared a common ancestor with today’s birds. Thank you Peabody Museum!!!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Neo-Tropical Birds Jekyll and Hyde Behavior

Costa Rica has always been a favorite birding destination of mine. Toucans, parrots, foliage-gleaners, cotingas and spadebills are just some of the distinctive species that make tropical birdwatching so appealing and fun.

Also fascinating are the tropical rainforests, a welcome change of scenery from the temperate forests of home. Here you will find tangles of vines, palms, epiphytes and numerous fruiting trees and shrubs.

Unlike our own woodlands, rainforests offer year-round food in the form of fruits, nectar and insects. That is the main reason why so many breeding birds, like our warblers and tanagers, migrate to Central America and South America for our winter months.

Known more specifically as neo-tropical migrants, these birds must cope not only with their summer neighbors in the forests of North America, but also with the resident songbirds that live in the Central and South American habitats.  

Once on their wintering grounds, birds such as the Kentucky Warbler will have to take on a peripheral role among the resident species. These roles may be as simple as a slight change in elevational foraging, or more complex like the establishment of larger feeding flocks. If the Kentucky Warbler did not adapt to a peripheral winter niche in the tropical forests it would not survive as a species.

My first experience with this type of bird behavior was some years ago on the Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica. Here I was able to spend my mornings in peace, wandering the grounds of a lazy fishing resort while my wife attended a medical conference.

Among the noisiest birds on the peninsula that day were the stunning Scarlet Macaws. Feeding exclusively on fruits and nuts, I found it hard to pull myself away from these garrulous creatures.

My walk also included the discovery of a Boat-billed Heron and a Common Potoo.

But the most surprising observation of the morning was provided by that of the Eastern Kingbird. A species typically associated with catching insects, kingbirds in Costa Rica formed sizeable feeding flocks in search of small fruit. Circling in unison among the treetops, this uncharacteristic behavior completely threw me for a loop.

Eastern Kingbird
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione

Also unusual was the sight of twenty-five ground-feeding Baltimore Orioles. A private nester in our Connecticut yard, this species does a behavioral shift on their Costa Rican wintering grounds. As crazy as this may sound, I initially mistook the group of birds for a bushel of fallen oranges along a footpath! That’s how unexpected of a sighting it was for me!

So why do these migrant birds behave so differently on their Central and South America wintering grounds? Was it for sole purpose of survival like that of the Kentucky Warbler? Did the onset of spring migration (mid-March) force birds into large feeding flocks?

Steven Hilty, author of Birds of Tropical America, A watcher’s introduction to behavior, breeding and diversity, offers an insightful explanation of the Eastern Kingbirds tropical behavior below;

The Eastern Kingbird is a highly territorial and pugnacious and feeds only on insects during the months when it breeds in North America. But during the other half of the year, it does a behavioral about-face that would do justice to Jekyll and Hyde. Its pugnacity is traded for docile subordination to virtually all of its tropical relatives, and its territoriality is traded for a period of nomadic wandering. Gathering in large, nervously acting waxwing-like flocks that wheel and turn on a dime and plunge into giant fruiting trees, Eastern Kingbirds roam the floodplain and river-edge rainforests of southwestern Amazonia in search of ripening fruit.

Why do Eastern Kingbirds have split personalities? If the Eastern Kingbird’s off-breeding-season behavior of gathering in flocks seems peculiar, consider that in western Amazonia, where most of them spend the northern winter, there are at least eight other species of large-bodied flycatchers, all of them potential competitors, that also consume fruit. They include Great Kiskadees, Social and Gray-capped Flycatchers and Tropical Kingbirds, which have well-deserved reputations for pugnacity.

Tropical Kingbird
Costa Rica
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione

Social Flycatcher
Costa Rica
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione

Archbold Biological Station scientist John Fitzpatrick, who studied flycatchers in Peru, noted that these species persistently chased Eastern Kingbirds as well as other birds in fruiting trees, but the kingbirds overwhelm them by their sheer numbers. When a flock of Eastern Kingbirds descends on a fruit tree, they may outnumber the resident species ten to one. A few kingbirds are forced to flee the attacks of dominant resident flycatchers, but these individuals return as soon as their attackers turn their attention to other individuals. In this way, each kingbird, playing a game of averages, is likely to be harassed only occasionally by resident flycatchers, and flock members as a whole are able to feed.

Great Kiskadee at nest
Costa Rica
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione
Eastern Kingbirds, by muscling in on resources used by large, pugnacious resident species, may have been forced to gather in flocks in order to compete. Other northern migrant tyrannids may not have adopted a similar strategy because most of those that winter in South America tend to fill peripheral areas within the much larger resident tyrannid community, where they simply avoid direct confrontation with dominant resident species (Olive-sided Flycatcher seems to fill that peripheral role in Central America, P.Cianfaglione pers. obs.).

Birdwatching in the tropics can be rewarding experience. The incredible diversity of species in the tropics is, more than anything else, what draws people back time and again. For me, it’s the magic of migration. The idea that an Eastern Kingbird feeding in a Costa Rican rainforest, might be the same bird nesting in my yard three-thousand miles away, is simply remarkable. How they evolved to survive in a totally different environment, whether dietary or behavioral, is even more.

So the next time you find yourself birding in Central or South America, and spot a familiar warbler or flycatcher, take a moment and observe its “tropical” behavior and feeding habits. You may be surprised by what you have just witnessed!

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Bird related Cigarette and Trading Cards from the Late 1800’s and early 1900’s. What they say about today’s society.

As a youngster, baseball card collecting was a big time hobby. Complete sets, rookie cards and cards with grammatical errors on them promised collectors like myself with a high monetary return as the years went by. It was proclaimed that rookie cards alone would someday buy us our first new car! But suddenly the baseball card industry went south.

The late 1980’s and 1990’s saw an explosion of production, with many new companies coming onto the scene. This mass supply of cards quickly exceeded their demand, rendering the value of baseball cards to almost nothing. A lack of interest in baseball card collecting soon followed.

It was at about that same time that I too lost interest in collecting and sold my entire card collection. Despite my loss of interest in collecting, I still have a great appreciation for baseball cards. In fact, I still to this day stop by sports card stores to see how baseball cards are being designed and packaged during these dark-days of collecting.

To learn how much the hobby has shrunk, one has to only visit the online auction site Ebay. It is here where you will find rookie cards of legendary players like Cal Ripken Jr. and Derek Jeter’s selling for a mere $9.99. If you were to tell me back then that Cal Ripken’s card was only going to be worth $9.99 in 2016, I would have been floored. 

Twenty-seven years has passed since I purchased my last trading card. Birdwatching is now my hobby of choice. Instead of cards, I now collect year birds, life birds and field guides from every part of the world.

But as important as Ebay is to rekindling childhood memories, it is equally important at educating us about past collecting habits and interests from the last hundred years.   

For example, as a lover of everything birds, I had no idea that certain companies took part in the production and release of bird related trading card sets. From the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, companies such as Church & Dwight, Allen and Ginter, Ogdens, Players, Godfrey Phillips and Wills (to name a few), all used trading cards as an incentive to buy their products.

Great Northern Diver (Loon)
Allen & Ginter
Photo: Paul Cianfaglione

Church & Dwight
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Photo: Paul Cianfaglione

Cigarette cards sets were initially produced in the 1870’s as a means to stiffen delicate cigarette packs. These card giveaways provided a good way to build customer loyalty since many people felt compelled to complete their sets (Source: 

Were wild bird cards really that popular back in those days? Yes! Not only were they very popular, they were considered by most bird enthusiasts as an early form of the field guide. By 1938, Church & Dwight alone had already issued twenty-four sets of bird trading cards (1896 to 1938). Don’t forget, Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds, the first edition, was not published until 1934.

Prior to that, books such as The Birds of New England by Edward A. Samuels (1870) were the standard bearer for people learning about bird identification. However those books were mostly text and had a select number of color plates and very few black-and-white drawings.

The Birds of New England
Edward A. Samuels
Photo: Paul Cianfaglione

The Birds of New England
Edward A. Samuels
Photo: Paul Cianfaglione

The popularity of bird cards were further advanced by the wonderful artists commissioned to do the work. Many of them were well known like Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Mary Emily Eaton, Chester Albert Reed and Ernest Thompson Seton.

The backside of the cards often offered tidbits about a species preferred habitat, favorite food and most distinguishing field mark.

Mantell's Kiwi
Curious Beaks
Photo: Paul Cianfaglione
It was also an era in which the bird conservation movement was born. On July 3, 1918, the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed, providing protection to birds as well as their nest, feathers and eggs. The production of ten sets of cards called “Useful Birds of America” by Church & Dwight appears to be a direct response to this conservation effort and to the forthcoming loss of species like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Carolina Parakeet and Passenger Pigeon.  

Eastern Kingbird
Church & Dwight
Useful Birds Of America
Photo: Paul Cianfaglione
Eastern Kingbird
Church & Dwight
Useful Birds Of America
Photo: Paul Cianfaglione
So how would a pack of bird related trading cards sell on a store shelf today? Among the American populace; I suspect not very well. The last thirty-years of cable TV, internet service, cell phones and video games has all but cut off society away from the natural world.

How do today’s collecting interests compare with interests from the early 1900’s? A peek into the back pages of American Bird Magazine (1904) finds classified ads for bird egg collectors, taxidermy supplies (fine glass eyes a specialty!), a Naturalist Supply Depot, new cameras for bird photography, mineralogy, coins and stamps.

American Bird Magazine
Photo: Paul Cianfaglione
Compare those interests with the current Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Go game craze, and you can see for yourself why there is such a societal disconnect. Cell phone and video game addiction has become so bad that our government is now forced to purchase billboard ads encouraging parents and kids to “Find Your National Park” and “Get Outdoors”. I think it’s quite sad.

People in the 19th and early part of the 20th century spent a great deal of time outdoors. They were farmers, naturalists, amateur taxidermists, hunters, fishermen, egg collectors and woodworkers. Despite the damage that some of these activities may have caused, many people actually had a sincere interest in birds and nature. That is why so many companies featured birds on their promotional material. Bird cards became a nice compliment to any existing collection of eggs, nests or bird skins. 

The production and enjoyment of bird cards didn’t end in the 1930’s, like this article may have implied. Fine-looking European and tropical bird card sets were still being produced up until the 1960’s. You can still find mint condition sets on Ebay for around $30.00! This is where I typically purchase mine.

The King Bird of Paradise
Wilcocks Tropical Bird Series
Photo: Paul Cianfaglione
That’s right, I said purchase mine! After a long absence, I am once again a trading card collector. However this time, rather than collecting cards for their monetary value, I only collect bird cards for their splendor and historical perspective.

If these bird cards could talk, what would they say? They would provide an insight into a human society that was much more in tune with nature. A slower time when families spent their entire weekends exploring forests, fields and ponds. People who loved birds were excellent naturalists, who learned everything they could about a bird’s life. One hundred year old collector cards continue to remind us of the great appreciation we once had for nature and the birds themselves.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

ARBIMON: A Global Network For Monitoring the Sounds of Nature

Please consider supporting this global conservation project!

The Automated Remote Biodiversity Monitoring Network, along with partners

from around the world, are launching a Kickstarter campaign to establish

a global network of acoustic biodiversity monitoring stations

No one questions the importance of the global network of weather stations that help us track climate patterns and predict future change or daily satellite images that help us monitor the extent of the world’s forests, but we have virtually ignored the status of the fauna inside the forests.  By monitoring the sounds of birds, frogs, mammals, and insects we can learn a lot about which species are there and how their populations are changing through time.  This invaluable information will help to develop conservation strategies to protect and maintain biodiversity in the world’s most unique ecosystems.

During the last 10 years, we have developed hardware and software to monitor the fauna acoustically.  Using only an Android phone in a waterproof case, a small solar panel, a microphone, and a cellular data plan, we can monitor the acoustic activity (e.g. birds calling, frogs chirping, and planes passing by) at sites around the world in real-time.  This information is stored and analyzed in our cloud-based ARBIMON II platform.

Our long-term goal is to establish thousands of these biodiversity monitoring stations.  On September 1st, we will launch a Kickstarter campaign to add three new stations to the global network in Costa Rica, Peru, and Madagascar.  Occasionally, Kickstarter campaigns “go viral” and receive more funds than are requested.  If this happens, we will include additional partners who are excited about participating in the ARBIMON network.

The information generated by these stations will be invaluable for science and conservation, and at the same time the project will provide students, birdwatchers, naturalists, and citizen scientists an opportunity to listen to the sounds of nature from sites around the world.

We hope we can count on your support!  If you believe this initiative is as crucial as we do, please spread the word through your networks and social media using the hashtag #arbimonWebpage:

Click here to access the most recent recording from our monitoring station in Sabana Seca, Puerto Rico

Twitter:        @sieveAnalytics