Thursday, July 29, 2010

Other Stratford Point updates...

Things have been a bit busy lately so I am a little behind on my blog posts. Scott has been keeping you updated on the bird sightings and avian activity on Stratford Point, but there are other things happening there as well that are noteworthy. Most importantly, two developments concerning the wildlife habitat of the site are worth a closer look.

For those of you who are not familiar with the site, Stratford Point is essentially a peninsula that juts out into the Long Island Sound just west of the mouth of the Housatonic River. The site comprises 28 acres, much of which we manage as a coastal grassland. Grasslands, if left to their own devises, will eventually turn into scrub land and vegetational succession will ultimately cause the area to become forest. Grassland can only remain grassland if it is intensely managed. Grazing or mowing are the most commonly applied management practices, but both have drawbacks. Historically there were fairly extensive grassland areas along the Connecticut coast and most likely these areas remained grassy because of periodic fires, triggered by lightning.

Grassland management through controlled burns is a preferred management strategy that allows for the removal of all aboveground vegetation without soil compression from mowers or grazers, it does not result in the accumulation of downed vegetation on the ground (which can cause problems because it creates habitat for unwanted mammals and may hinder the regrowth of new shoots in spring) and it does not leave the site with excessive nutrients from all the biomass that is left to rot. Most sensitive plant species in the state require nutrient poor soils - which are hard to come by nowadays with the massive amounts of fertilizers used everywhere.

We are looking into the possibility of having a series of small controlled burns carried out at Stratford Point to manage the unique habitat that the site sustains. Obviously, these kinds of practices require a ton of permits and oversight and we are a long way from actually doing anything, but last week we convened representatives from the Department of Environmental Protection (who authorizes and oversees controlled burns in CT), the state's Forest Fire Service, and the Town of Stratford to join us on a site walk and take a first look at the feasibility of this plan.

Everyone is excited about the concept and wheels were set in motion. We are now in the process of officially applying for state authorization to carry out the burns and will go from there. I will definitely keep you posted on developments on this front.

Other habitat management-related news can be seen on the shore of Stratford Point. I am in the midst of carrying out a feasibility study to determine whether it will be possible to bring back Saltmarsh vegetation (Spartina alterniflora) to the intertidal zone of the site. Years of remedial activities on-site have led to the disappearance of all shoreline vegetation and the fauna that depends on these plants. To my great surprise I noticed this week that one of the recent storm events had altered our beach enough to create conditions suitable for Spartina to grow and in the last three weeks several plants have grown in! I counted no fewer than 79 individual plants spread over a substantial sections of the beach -- hopefully future habitat management work will allow us to bring back the original vegetation to Stratford Point.
Several small Spartina plants have recently sprouted around this newly formed tide pool

If you are visiting the site, please tread lightly around these plants to allow them to recolonize the beach and form a solid foothold for next year's growing season.
Yes, as you all know, the shorebirds are back in town again. However, I wanted to briefly introduce you to two other inhabitants of Stratford Point which I encountered this week.
Semipalmated Plovers are now regular visitors to our shoreline again
As I was surveying the new Spartina growth on the beach earlier this week, I came across another Lion's Mane Jellyfish like the one Scott reported from the Warehouse pools on Long Beach Boulevard last week. Nick Bonomo commented that he has seen many of these animals in the New Haven area recently. I have no idea why they are suddenly this common on our beaches, but it sure is interesting to see these sudden appearances of rarely-encountered species. Any suggestions are certainly welcomed!
Lion's Mane Jellyfish on Stratford Point beach
Another visitor actually dragged me away from my computer (which is easily done) as I watched it run around on my office window, trying to snag one of the many yellowjackets that had taken up residence in my AC unit.
Believe it or not, this Chinese Praying Mantis is actually Connecticut's state insect! An exotic species introduced for pest control! Even though these guys are not necessarily very rare, they are not frequently seen. And although I do encounter them fairly regularly, I have never had the pleasure of watching one walk on the sky like this one!
Chinese Praying Mantis (Tenodera sinensis) poised to snag a passing insect
All photographs by Twan Leenders

Many hands & many eyes make light work

During the summer months CAS Science & Conservation staff spends much time in the field doing survey work. Whenever possible we try to share our experience with young people from around the state. In the past two weeks I was accompanied by a group of volunteers from the Beardsley Zoo's Conservation Discovery Corps who helped me survey our Pratt Valley Preserve in Bridgewater.
A dramatic hemlock gorge bisects this 150-acre sanctuary and we surveyed this area for the presence of state-listed species of animals and plants, as well as any conservation priority species. It was a scorching hot day with some severe thunderstorms in the area, so everything kept quiet and mostly hidden from view.
Nevertheless, our search revealed several species of amphibians and a substantial list of birds. Unfortunately, the only bird we detected inside the gorge was a Northern Waterthrush. Although this species breeds here, the bird we saw may have already been an early migrant.
Sections of the Pratt Valley Preserve are still actively farmed, while other sections are managed for early successional habitat. Prairie Warblers, Indigo Buntings, Eastern Towhees and Gray Catbirds are common breeders here. Even though the heat kept animal activity down, it did not stop us from doing a thorough inventory of the non-native plant species that occur in the sanctuary. Hopefully targeted habitat maintenance work will help to keep these invasives in check!

A few days later a group of energetic summer campers from our Coastal Center in Milford bravely followed their leader, Frank Gallo, and joined me at our Croft Preserve in Goshen. You can see them in the above photograph, enjoying a well-deserved lunch break in one of our early successional habitat mangement areas after a long and strenuous hike into the middle of this 700-acre forest.

These guys did a fantastic job spotting critters big and small and we ended up with a good list of species by the end of the day! Luckily not many invasive plants here.

Some of the proud volunteers show off a Redback Salamander we found. However, the most exciting thing for this group was undoubtedly that they had a three mega-mammal day, managing to see a Black Bear on the roadside before arriving at the preserve, finding numerous Moose signs around the preserve and getting amazing looks at an American Porcupine in a tree during our lunchbreak. I don't think that there are many people in Connecticut who can boast such a trifecta in one day!

This American Porcupine gets a little testy and retreats with all quils at the ready!
It is such a treat to be able to spend time in the woods with kids and hopefully many of them will be back with all their friends. These kinds of experiences certainly stay with you for a lifetime! And I have to admit that all those extra hands and eyes really make a my work seem like a walk in the park....

All photographs by Twan Leenders

Upcoming special events

The following is a short list of Connecticut Audubon Society special events in the next couple months. Your participation would be greatly appreciated. If you click on the links at the end of each bullet point you can find more information on the main CAS website.

• Aug. 5 at 8 PM, "Bird Songs": Concert of Choral Music “For the Birds” at Christ Church in New Haven to Benefit Connecticut Audubon Society. Features debut of 16-member “Earthly Sound” Vocal Ensemble. Donations collected at the door. More information.

• Sept. 17 "Harvest Dinner Under The Stars” Celebrates CT-Grown Foods and Benefits our Center at Glastonbury, starting at 5 PM with a wagon tour of 100-acre Rose’s Berry Farm. More information.

• Sept. 20, our 2010 "Let the Birdies Fly" Golf Tournament and Fundraiser at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, CT. Get player and sponsor information.

• Oct. 1-3, Inaugural "Birds In Their Habitat" Juried Artists’ Preview Party, Exhibit & Sale at our Center at Fairfield, featuring 2010 Artist of the Year James Prosek and Works by 22 Select Artists. More information.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Common Terns

Below is a short video of juvenile Common Terns close to the shore at Stratford Point. One is fed a fish by an adult while others, not young of the adult, nevertheless beg for food. It makes short work of its meal and is begging for more the second the fish is handed off. The video was shot with only the optical zoom of my camera - imagine the great looks you get from a scope!

Common Terns from Connecticut Audubon Society.

Video © Scott Kruitbosch

Monday, July 26, 2010

Double Rainbow

No, this is not an attempt to further propagate the very popular viral video. I saw a "double rainbow", or a rainbow with a secondary bow, last Monday. On that day Stratford had four different thunderstorms - two severe, one strong, one relatively small. As a very defined severe supercell moved to the east approximately two hours before sunset it allowed the sun to shine. It was as if the sky was perfectly clear even though it was still raining and very cloudy overhead and to the east.

It produced the strongest rainbow I have ever seen, and appeared much brighter than even the photos can convey. These pictures are completely untouched and unedited apart from being scaled down. What do you notice about them?

So what stands out? For one, and most obviously, the sky is the brightest underneath the primary rainbow. In a similar vein, the sky between the two rainbows is darker than any other part of the sky, even if just by a bit against the backdrop of the thunderstorm. Lastly, look at the order of colors in the rainbows. The primary rainbow is in the typical light sequence we learn in elementary school, Roy G. Biv - red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. However, the secondary rainbow reverses this order. Mere seconds after taking these photos the rainbows started to fade, all but disappearing in a couple minutes.

Photos © Scott Kruitbosch

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Stratford Point 7/18-7/24

Here we go! The fall migrants are becoming more and more frequent at Stratford Point as the days go on. Some of the early arriving and common warblers, such as Yellow and Common Yellowthroat, are moving already. Both were seen off and on this week when conditions were conducive for movement. The four common swallow species are still moving, and Purple Martins are even stopping by. I observed several of them going in and out of our new gourd tree, perhaps exploring it for colonization next spring. With the number of birds that have gone by I would be surprised if we did not have a bunch of breeding pairs. You can see them hawking insects all over the place right now. As I always suggest to visitors if you cannot find them or other swallows flying about check all of the power lines. They may be inconspicuously sitting there watching you.

Bobolink continue to show up in small groups of around two to five individuals. There was even an adult male here this week. Bobolink migration through Stratford Point is still two to three weeks earlier this year than last. Shorebirds are also becoming common once again. Least and Semipalmated Sandpiper are now usually found on the beach or in front of the lighthouse. Semipalmated Plover have returned as well. I saw a the first returning Sanderling all alone in with a group of the three previously mentioned species on the beach during high tide on July 21. The highlight of the week, in my opinion, was coming to the Point early in the morning on July 22 and finding two American Kestrel. They were hunting and being harassed by the locals. Raptor migration will soon be fully underway, though a few have definitely begun to move.

Photo © Scott Kruitbosch

Friday, July 23, 2010

Four Tornado Day

On Wednesday, July 21, we had not one, or two, nor three, but four tornadoes confirmed in Connecticut. This puts us much further over the average of 1.3 tornadoes per year in the state. I have gone on about the increased threat of severe weather in this and future years at great lengths in previous entries. This day only proved the point. August is the most active month for Connecticut. With constant above-average temperatures seemingly without end we may very well end up with a good chance for more. Just today Fairfield county was part of a tornado watch, though fortunately no storms came to fruition. Here is the National Weather Service information for the July 21 tornadoes:

627 PM EDT THU JUL 22 2010




DATE...JULY 21 2010

DATE...JULY 21 2010

DATE...JULY 21 2010

855 PM EDT THU JUL 22 2010


DATE...JULY 21 2010
BEGINNING LAT/LON...41.67N / 72.96W
ENDING LAT/LON...41.67N / 72.93W


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Kids help investigate frog killing disease in Connecticut

Before Joining CAS I spent almost 15 years studying critically endangered amphibian species in the tropics and trying to protect them from their biggest threat: a sudden outbreak of a pathogen, the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (often abbreviated as Bd or called "chytrid fungus") that causes a deadly disease in frogs and some salamanders. This disease, chytridiomycosis, has run unchecked throughout our planet over the last 25 years, wiping out or decimating amphibian populations everywhere. Cloud forest regions and other highland habitats in the tropics are particularly hit hard by this water-borne fungus, due to the pathogen's preference for relatively cool and moist habitats. The devastating loss of biodiversity caused by this disease led to the proclamation of the international Year of the Frog last year, to draw attention to the plight of amphibians worldwide. More bad news regarding new outbreaks is reported almost weekly still (see this sobering article that was released in yesterday's Scientific American, for example).

Connecticut frogs, such as this Green Frogs (Rana clamitans) may be carrying a deadly disease

Bd has been detected almost anywhere on the planet by now, but one of the few places from which we still have no data is -surprisingly - right here in New England! In addition, recent molecular studies have hinted at the fact that the fungus and the disease it causes may have actually originated here a long time ago and spread across the globe in recent years. Obviously, it is important to investigate the potential occurrence of this dangerous pathogen here in CT and the implications it may have for our local fauna. A Ph.D. student from Yale University, Kathryn Richards-Hrdlicka, is currently investigating the question of whether Bd indeed is native to New England and I have teamed up with her, with the Wildlife Division of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and with biologists from White Memorial Foundation in Litchfield to see if the fungus is present here and if so, what that means for our amphibian populations.

It is impossible to assess whether a frog or salamander is infected with the fungus simply by looking at it. Only once it develops the disease chytridiomycosis does it become symptomatic, but amphibians tend to die so quickly once they develop the disease that sick animals are rarely found. In order to check whether our local frogs are infected, skin swabs are taken by gently scraping a toothpick over the skin of the animal and subsequently analyzing the few skin cells that stick to the toothpick in the lab to see whether DNA of the Bd fungus is present. This is a highly complex and sensitive analytical technique that depends on a much less sophisticated technique for its success: that of jumping in a swamp and catching lots of frogs to obtain a large enough sample size.

Camp kids and counsellors were equally poised to get more frogs...
After many years of fieldwork doing this type of research I have become a pretty good frog catcher. However, anyone who has little kids knows that my skills are likely put to shame by any 6 year old with a healthy outdoor spirit. That's why last week I teamed up with a group of summer camp participants and their counsellors at our Larssen Sanctuary in Fairfield to do some screening of the local amphibian populations. Within the span of about an hour and a half of frantic splashing, diving and netting we ended up with over 50 amphibians representing 8 species and we all had a blast. As far as I'm concerned, there are few things more enjoyable than spending a really hot summer day mucking around in a pond with a bunch of friends!

Of course everyone got appropriately mucky in the process!

Once our catch was in, we set up shop in a shaded spot and I swabbed many frogs, salamanders and tadpoles to collect a good number of samples for analysis.

A Bullfrog gets a tummy rub with a toothpick to collect some skin cells for analysis

The swabbing procedure is entirely non-invasive and no animals are hurt in the process. Samples will go into the lab this week and hopefully we'll have results soon. Preliminary results of some of our pilot samples indicate that the fungus may indeed be present in Connecticut, but so far it seems that local amphibian populations are still healthy. The fact that we can catch more than 50 indiviudals in such a small area and in such a short time is encouraging!

Field work for this project is just getting underway and we'll need to get much larger sample sizes before we can form a clearer picture of whether our amphibians are at risk. I'll certainly keep you posted on our progress. In the meantime, keep your fingers crossed!

All group photos by Bernard Daraz, Green Frog photo by Twan Leenders

Monday, July 19, 2010

Lion's Mane Jellyfish

Yesterday at low tide, I quickly checked a couple spots in the Stratford Great Meadows Important Bird Area for shorebirds. One of these stops was at the marsh restoration area behind the warehouses on Long Beach Blvd. The marsh grasses have grown quite a bit since the restoration was completed, and it can be difficult to see if anything is in them. I decided, despite the heat, to walk into a bit to get a better vantage point of the pools there. I have permission from U.S. Fish and Wildlife to access these areas off established trails for surveying, and even during these quick stops I record all of the life I find. I did not see a single shorebird, as is unfortunately frequent. The spot is simply not as attractive to them as it was even a couple years ago. I did see this…

It was an odd sighting for a salt marsh. It was clearly a jellyfish, though I was not positive on the species. It is not an area of expertise for me. After I came home and did a few minutes of research, I was relatively sure it was cyanea capillata, or Lion's Mane Jellyfish. Twan confirmed this and said it is the only jellyfish in our region with its tentacles arranged in eight bundles, which is reflected in the eight double rays on the top of the disk. I do not know why it was in a salt marsh, but I can imagine it coming up Lewis Gut then into this area relatively easily. It is not a good place to be when the tide drops. Twan surmised that the very high tides we had in the last week might have helped it find its way in.

Photo © Scott Kruitbosch

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Stratford Point 7/11-7/17

As I mentioned last Sunday, the migrants are pouring into Connecticut already. Stratford Point has seen Bobolinks coming in, one, two, up to five. These are about 2-3 weeks ahead of schedule. We have seen multiple Indigo Buntings, including adult males who have been singing profusely from the tops of the few trees the coastal grasslands management area has. Yellow Warblers are popping up in our bushes and shrubs. Twan saw migrant Orchard Orioles, and droves of Baltimore cannot be far behind. Large groups of the common four swallow species are moving through. I even found a Cliff Swallow amongst them in the middle of the week.

Indigo Bunting

Shorebirds are back and on the move! Last year, after a very disappointing breeding season for most species because of the snow and cold that persisted throughout a good portion of Canada, we did not have many shorebirds. Those that came were a bit off schedule. This year they are right on target. Spotted Sandpiper, a local breeder, has been a constant presence. Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers have returned to Stratford Point. I am sure we will record Semipalmated Plover and Ruddy Turnstone during the upcoming week. Short-billed Dowitchers have been in the nearby Stratford Great Meadows IBA, but small numbers will be making a visit soon, possibly with Long-billed Dowitchers. The highlight of my week was seeing a Whimbrel fly by. It came from the area of Short Beach, flew over our beach, and continued over land right in front of the main building. It continued to the west past the lighthouse. It was probably the closest I have ever been to one, standing right alongside the building.

Fall migration may not be evident in your backyard or local haunt, but it is here! Stop by and have a look this week.

Photo © Scott Kruitbosch

Thursday, July 15, 2010

NASA Study Finds Amazon Storm Killed Half a Billion Trees

Most readers already know about the supercell thunderstorm that spawned a tornado in Bridgeport on June 24 and caused severe damage in Stratford. I surveyed damage in the Stratford Great Meadows Important Bird Area the following morning. Photos can be seen in the post I linked to above. Putting aside the enormous toll it took on residents, threatening life and devastating property, my primary concern was tree loss. The Stratford GM IBA habitat is composed primarily of salt marsh, with trees lining much of the perimeter, and a concentration of deciduous trees in one upland parcel. Losing any trees from these areas would hurt the IBA's attractiveness to migrants. It also meant the loss of valuable habitat for numerous breeding species.

The view from my car as a devastatingly powerful squall line entered the Stratford GM IBA on July 31, 2009 during the Stratford Bioblitz. It largely spared the IBA while producing a tornado and microburst with 95-105 MPH winds further north.

This NASA study, as you can read below, showed how a single squall line, 620 miles long and 124 miles wide, killed half a billion trees in the Amazon forest in one shot. The wind speeds were comparable to our June 24 storm, which was a small-scale reproduction. I often feel that some of the work on habitat and species conservation overlooks weather events such as this. While scientists definitely need to look at the "big picture" of climate change (see the discussion in yesterday's entry), weather plays an unbelievably overlooked role in a local environment. Years of detailed habitat planning and conservation efforts can go out the window in literally five minutes if the right storm hits. Working to stop pollutants or creating ways to protect an area from rising sea levels will not matter if a storm destroys the habitat. I would love to be able to look at various localities in Connecticut to study how thunderstorms, snowstorms, flooding rain, and other weather events fundamentally alter the environment. An important aspect of this is that climate change will continue to create more frequent and more powerful storms of all types. For now, I will have to hope we have the resources to conduct these studies to improve conservation planning sometime in the future.

In each of the past three years the Stratford/Bridgeport/Trumbull/Shelton area has been hammered by a tornado or microburst with 100+ MPH winds. Other areas of the state have certainly been hit hard as well. Studying how they alter habitat is critically important right now. I hope this last storm shows everyone that time is of the essence.


A single, huge, violent storm that swept across the whole Amazon forest in 2005 killed half a billion trees, according to a new study funded by NASA and Tulane University, New Orleans.

While storms have long been recognized as a cause of Amazon tree loss, this study is the first to actually quantify losses from a storm. And the losses are much greater than previously suspected, say the study's authors, which include research scientist Sassan Saatchi of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. The work suggests that storms may play a larger role in the dynamics of Amazon forests than previously recognized, they add.

Previous research had attributed a peak in tree mortality in 2005 solely to a severe drought that affected parts of the forest. The new study says that a single squall line (a long line of severe thunderstorms, the kind associated with lightning and heavy rainfall) had an important role in the tree demise. Research suggests this type of storm might become more frequent in the future in the Amazon due to climate change, killing a higher number of trees and releasing more carbon to the atmosphere.

Tropical thunderstorms have long been suspected of wreaking havoc in the Amazon, but this is the first time researchers have calculated how many trees a single thunderstorm can kill, says Jeffrey Chambers, a forest ecologist at Tulane University and one of the authors of the paper. The paper has been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Previous studies by a coauthor of this new paper, Niro Higuchi of Brazil's National Institute for Amazon Research (INPA), showed the 2005 tree mortality spike was the second largest recorded since 1989 for the Manaus region in the Central Amazon. Also in 2005, large parts of the Amazon forest experienced one of the harshest droughts of the last century. A study published in the journal Science in 2009 pointed to the drought as the single agent for a basin-wide increase in tree mortality. But a very large area with major tree loss (the region near Manaus) was not affected by the drought.

"We can't attribute [the increased] mortality to just drought in certain parts of the basin--we have solid evidence that there was a strong storm that killed a lot of trees over a large part of the Amazon," Chambers says.

From Jan. 16 to 18, 2005, a squall line 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) long and 200 kilometers (124 miles) wide crossed the whole Amazon basin from southwest to northeast, causing several human deaths in the cities of Manaus, Manacaparu, and Santarem. The strong vertical winds associated with the storm, blowing up to 145 kilometers per hour (90 miles per hour), uprooted or snapped in half trees that were in their path. In many cases, the stricken trees took down some of their neighbors when they fell.

The researchers used a combination of Landsat satellite images, field-measured tree mortality, and modeling to determine the number of trees killed by the storm. By linking satellite data to observations on the ground, the researchers were able to take into account smaller tree blowdowns (less than 10 trees) that otherwise cannot be detected through satellite images.

Looking at satellite images for the area of Manaus from before and after the storm, the researchers detected changes in the reflectivity of the forest, which they suspected were indicative of tree losses. Undisturbed forest patches appeared as closed, green canopy in satellite images. When trees die and fall, a clearing opens, exposing wood, dead vegetation, and surface litter. This so-called "woody signal" only lasts for about a year in the Amazon. In a year, vegetation re-grows and covers the exposed wood and soil. This means the signal is a good indicator of recent tree deaths.

After seeing disturbances in the satellite images, the researchers established five field sites in one of the blowdown areas, and counted the number of trees that had been killed by the storm; researchers can usually tell what killed a tree from looking at it.

"If a tree dies from a drought, it generally dies standing. It looks very different from trees that die snapped by a storm," Chambers says.

In the most affected plots, near the centers of large blowdowns, up to 80 percent of the trees had been killed by the storm.

By comparing their field data and the satellite observations, the researchers determined that the satellite images were accurately pinpointing areas of tree death, and they calculated that the storm had killed between 300,000 and 500,000 trees in the area of Manaus. The number of trees killed by the 2005 storm is equivalent to 30 percent of the annual deforestation in that same year for the Manaus region, which experiences relatively low rates of deforestation.

The team then extrapolated the results to the whole Amazon basin.

"We know that the storm was intense and went across the basin," Chambers says. "To quantify the potential basin-wide impact, we assumed that the whole area impacted by the storm had a similar level of tree mortality as the mortality observed in Manaus."

The researchers estimate that between 441 and 663 million trees were destroyed across the whole basin. This represents a loss equivalent to 23 percent of the estimated mean annual carbon accumulation of the Amazon forest.

Squall lines that move from southwest to northeast of the forest, like the one in January 2005, are relatively rare and poorly studied, says Robinson Negron-Juarez, an atmospheric scientist at Tulane University, and lead author of the study. Storms that are similarly destructive but advance in the opposite direction (from the northeast coast of South America to the interior of the continent) occur up to four times per month. They can also generate large forest blowdowns (contiguous patches of wind-toppled trees), although it's infrequent that either of these two types of storms crosses the whole Amazon.

"We need to start measuring the forest perturbation caused by both types of squall lines, not only by the ones coming from the south," Negron-Juarez says. "We need that data to estimate total biomass loss from these natural events, which has never been quantified."

Chambers says that authors of previous studies on tree mortality in the Amazon have diligently collected dead-tree tolls, but information on exactly what killed the trees is often lacking, or not reported.

"It's very important that when we collect data in the field, we do forensics on tree mortality," says Chambers, who has been studying forest ecology and carbon cycling in the Amazon since 1993. "Under a changing climate, some forecasts say that storms will increase in intensity. If we start seeing increases in tree mortality, we need to be able to say what's killing the trees."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Hottest year ever!?

As I mentioned last week, the heat has been the talk of the summer. No, I am not talking about the Miami Heat of the NBA and LeBron James, but the scorching temperatures in the eastern United States. Connecticut has been sweltering nearly every day. Could this be the hottest year ever officially recorded...on Earth? The first six months of 2010 had the warmest average temperature on a global scale dating back to 1880, so to answer that question - yes! NASA recently released this study concerning global surface temperature change.

It not only mentions 2010 as the record-setting year (thus far), it goes to great lengths to demonstrate that climate change is very real. It is definitely worth at least a glance. NASA even delves into the politicization of climate science, urging people to take the time to understand the data and accept what is occurring around them. Whether it is various media entities or a person's own perceptions a large percentage of the population, if not the majority, doubts climate change. Even leaving out the seemingly obvious causes there can be no argument that the world is changing. The science is not lying.

I frequently find myself explaining difference between weather and climate. Snow in January does not mean climate change is nonexistent, and as ridiculous as that sounds, some media outlets claimed just that during this year's repeated snowstorms in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington DC. They believed that copious amounts of snow in the middle of the winter meant the Earth was the same as it always was – or colder! Similarly, the mere fact it is 99 degrees in July does not mean the planet is warming, either. Those are examples of weather events, meaning the atmospheric conditions at a specific time and place. Climate is the long-term average of the weather.

If LeBron James misses one shot, or even five in a row, does that mean he is a terrible basketball player? Of course not! One has to look at a player’s entire season or career to judge them, just as scientists must look at a prolonged period to understand climate. There will always be good or bad “games” just as there will be times of drought, flood, heat waves, and record snows. The bottom line is that the climate tells us the Earth is warming over time.

A study released on July 8 by Stanford University looks at heat waves and extremely high temperatures that could be commonplace in the United States by 2039. The short article mentions the heat wave we have been suffering through, saying that we could see an increase of just this sort of event in the next 30 years.

For a basic idea of how warm it has been here I gleaned a bit of data from KBDR, the weather station at Bridgeport’s airport in Stratford. I used the average monthly temperature, which is defined exactly as it reads. Here are the measured 2010 averages (in Fahrenheit) for each month with the departure from normal in parentheses:

January: 29.7 (-0.2)
February: 32.5 (+0.6)
March: 45.0 (+5.5)
April: 53.9 (+5.0)
May: 62.1 (+3.1)
June: 71.8 (+3.8)
Through July 13th: 78.3 (+5.3)

As you can see, we have been way above average since March. You do not need to be a scientist to know this. It has felt unseasonably warm simply walking out of the door on most days since then, from our early spring flowers to this summer heat wave. Does this year alone in Connecticut tell us the Earth is warming? No way. However, when the whole planet has been increasing in temperature for decades, and this year is the hottest yet…that means we have a problem.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

CAS' very own Outdoor Hero: Alex Burdo

As we reported earlier on this blog, Alex Burdo was recently awarded the 2010 L.L. Bean Outdoor Hero Award for his dedication to the Connecticut Audubon Society and to our work to protect Connecticut's birds and their habitats. You can now watch a great interview with Alex on the LL Bean site here or in the video viewer below. I highly recommend that you check it out -- Alex is a remarkable young man!

For those of you who don't know him, Alex has a passion for birds and birding that infected many people around him - including his own grandfather with whom he now travels extensively in search of rare birds. Alex is a citizen scientist in the truest sense of the word, helping the bird banding crew at Birdcraft Museum whenever possible to collect data on Connecticut migrants and he hopes to some day be an ornithologist who works to protect endangered species. Alex's love for birds, nature and life in general is quite touching.

All of this would be plenty impressive in itself but Alex is only 13, making him the youngest recipient of the LL Bean Outdoor Hero Award ever! In addition, Alex manages to practice his hobby and dedicate time and energy to CAS while battling cancer. On behalf of the Connecticut Audubon Society I would like to congratulate Alex again for receiving this well-deserved award and for all that you do for us and for our environment! Read his award write-up, watch his video interview and be inspired...

Alex with his award

Click below to watch Alex's interview, or visit his travel and birding blog here.

Photograph and video courtesy of LL Bean

Monday, July 12, 2010

Rescued Osprey update - good news!

The Osprey that Twan and I rescued from Pleasure Beach in Bridgeport, that I checked in on here, has been diagnosed with a dislocated shoulder. She went through tests for toxins and x-rays, but it turns out our initial feelings were relatively correct. Twan and I thought she had an injury from initial observations. She was unable fully lift one of her wings to take flight. She definitely seemed healthy enough once she was out of the intense heat and sun. The fact she was even alive a few days later seemed very hopeful for a possible recovery.

She has now been treated and is currently bandaged up and healing. The best news of all is that she should be able to make a full recovery. If she does we plan on releasing her right where we rescued her in the Stratford Great Meadows Important Bird Area. We may be able to band her as well. I would love to see her return to the same nesting location next spring. We will keep everyone up to date on this situation and any dates for her release! I am sure she would enjoy having visitors to see her off.

Speaking of Osprey, below is a photo of the family at Milford Point from our friend Kevin Doyle. He notes that the chicks are now nearly as big as their mother, who is on the right.

Photo © Kevin Doyle

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Birds on the move!

I mentioned some of the early movement of various bird species only yesterday, but I saw more evidence of it in the last 24 hours. All four typical swallow species - Tree, Barn, Northern Rough-winged, and Bank - have young seemingly everywhere. Cliff will be on the way soon. Some of the local and early nesting warblers, specifically Yellow today, have juveniles now feeding on their own separate from the family. This was also the case for a young House Wren I saw at Stratford Point. The species does not nest on the property. However, some do only a short distance away around residential homes. The individual I saw was far into the property around the Stratford Point buildings. This is where we often find migrants or wanderers, as they fly all the way to the water of the Sound only to backtrack a couple hundred meters to the shrubs surrounding the buildings.

The photo above is of a Bobolink. I found it around the edge of Stratford Point today. It is the first of many migrants that will use the coastal grasslands management area as a stopover site. We often find impressive numbers in both the back field and grasses in front of our main building. This is an early sighting for a returning bird. The beginning is typically about two weeks from now, with most found here in August. Last year we had over 60 on some days. All of these juveniles and wanderers seem ahead of schedule because of the early breeding season. Just as in spring migration, the sun and hormonal changes in birds dictate much of their fall migration. For example, their body has to begin storing fat for the journey south. Nevertheless, it seems likely that at least a percentage of most species, from shorebirds to passerines to (I hope!) raptors, will be traveling early this summer.

There is always a distinct lack of observations in July and August. Please go outside and record your sightings to eBird. You never know what you may find. At the very least keep an eye out for early migrants or the beginning of the hawk movement.

Photo © Scott Kruitbosch

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A gourd thank you

While long overdue, I wanted to specifically thank the Connecticut Ornithological Association and individual donors for the generous financial aid they provided the Connecticut Audubon Society in order to purchase new Purple Martin gourd trees. Twan and I have posted about them before, including when we first installed them.

Gourd tree at sunset.

I also highlighted the gourd tree at Stratford Point as the concrete base was literally ripped from the ground during the Bridgeport tornado thunderstorm. We will be digging an even deeper hole and pouring even more concrete sometime soon.

With the Stratford Lighthouse in the background.

We have had Purple Martin scouts checking them out at Stratford Point. The gourd tree at Milford Point was installed next to the currently populated box-style house. I have to think both will be populated next spring.

Under threatening skies.

Thank you to all who contributed! We have many, many, many more wonderful projects to help out the birds at our sanctuaries like this on our minds and always appreciate the aid. I will post about them soon.

Photos 1, 3 © Scott Kruitbosch; photo 2 © Twan Leenders

Stratford Point 7/4-7/10

The scorching and record-setting heat of the past week has kept nearly everyone indoors. Some of the surveys here this week were conducted in the evening. Even during the hottest moments, I have seen plenty of Spotted Sandpiper flying about, often foraging on the shores during low tide. They seem to be all over the place this year. On Independence Day, I heard a Forster's Tern flying close to shore with some of the Common, the same circumstances as the last sighting of one here. They have such a distinctive call. I also saw a few Least Tern flying around. None of the terns has been least yet. I hope that we will be seeing some at the end of the month at the latest. Another period of very high tides is coming up. Whatever beach they are nesting on the eggs will hopefully have hatched and the young mobile enough to seek higher ground. Speaking of the tides, here are a few photos from high tide this morning.

Storms and rain falling over Milford, Orange, and points beyond. See the rain?

Somehow this does not produce rain on Stratford Point.

A few rumbles of thunder over Long Island Sound.

Another fly by bird we saw this week is the Laughing Gull. When I say bird I mean it - every sighting I have had this year at Stratford Point has been of one individual. Most of the time they simply fly by, but I did see one feeding on the water with Herring and Ring-billed Gulls, possibly on plankton. Sadly, I have not been able to spot any Wilson's Storm-petrel here, a species that is most often found from land in the extreme heat of the summer. The dispersing swallow continue to show up. There were repeated sightings of young and fledgling Barn Swallow all week. Overall, the birds are definitely on the move. The shorebirds are starting to trickle in, and even the common birds are beginning to flock up before migration. I saw well over 2,000 Starling in Stratford Great Meadows IBA on Wednesday. It might not feel like it but autumn is on the way...

Photos © Scott Kruitbosch

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Larsen BBS

In late June Frank, Twan, and I lead a breeding bird survey training session on CAS' 155-acre Roy and Margot Larsen Wildlife Sanctuary adjacent to our Fairfield center located on 2325 Burr Street, Fairfield. Described here in the 2010 Connecticut State of the Birds report, there is a growing need for volunteers trained to systematically collect the information necessary to best protect our birds and their habitats. We wanted to impart the protocols, techniques, and tips for how to discover and categorize a species as a possible, probable, or confirmed breeder.

Our group started things off right. As we gathered in the parking lot, we had a fledgling Tufted Titmouse in the tree over our heads. It was fed by an adult who was taking seed from the CAS center's feeders. This was a quick breeding confirmation. Listening for begging calls or the voices of young is one of the easier ways to confirm a species as breeding. Fledgling Black-capped Chickadee sing or call with half the effort of an adult, putting out a scratchy and shortened version that can be identified from a far distance.

In the above photo, the group is watching and recording both House Wren and Tree Swallow going in and out of nest boxes carrying food. Nest boxes not only provide a safe home for the birds, but they can make monitoring breeding even easier, and provide many enjoyable moments. If you have never erected one in your yard, come to one of our centers to purchase some for next season. Our staff can help you decide on what breeding species your yard habitat could support.

Below the group was listening to a Great Crested Flycatcher that we would soon see flying in and out of a nest cavity about 25 feet up in a tree. These can be difficult to locate. When I took the photo Twan was instructing the group that if you can find a male singing at a location more than a week apart the species would be classified as a probable breeder. This is particularly useful in dense forest where you may not be able to see or locate a nest. Ovenbird, a species we heard repeatedly during our walk, have an inconspicuous nest but an easy song to hear and identify that they sing frequently all spring and summer.

On the way out, we stopped at farm pond near the entrance to the 155-acre sanctuary. The turtle on the left is an eastern painted turtle. Twan explained to the group that the turtle on the right was a red-eared slider, an invasive species. They are often released as former pets. If you look closely, you can see the "red ear" that gives the species its name.

Releasing former pets into the wild is exceptionally damaging to the local ecosystem. We will have to trap and remove this turtle, placing it in captivity again.

Breeding bird survey work is sorely needed across the entire state, especially in Important Bird Areas or other bird sanctuaries. As you may have seen in previous entries, Twan and I have tried to conduct a breeding bird survey at every CAS property or sanctuary this summer. We are about 80% done. Even though we are experienced in the protocol, there is still simply not enough time among all our other work for us to complete it by ourselves, let alone monitor the IBAs or other vital habitat. Please consider volunteering in the future.

Photos © Scott Kruitbosch

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Oh the heat!

My goodness, the heat. The temperature during the past and upcoming few days has been nearly all that anyone is talking about. It is impossible to avoid if one wishes to leave an air-conditioned home if they are fortunate enough to have one. Today was the worst, with record high temperatures were tied or broken all across New England and the Mid-Atlantic. Fortunately, it should be the worst day this week, and likely this year. At around 2PM I got a reading of 101.4 in Stratford. The heat index was well into the 112-116 range. Getting to 100 on the coast takes a lot of work.

Days like this humans and birds share the same feeling - that of not wanting to do much of anything. During the brief times I have been outside in the past few days there have not been many birds to hear or see. It was notably quiet (to the ears) today. Very few birds were singing or calling. I heard an American Goldfinch call as it flew over, while a Great Crested Flycatcher yelled out "creeeeeep!" in the woods. The local House Wrens were a bit chatty, likely only because of me. Most of the sightings I had were of birds taking a short, slow, flight to the birdbaths. I did not see any that bathed. They only drank, and quite a bit. A Gray Catbird took an exceptionally long drink before darting back into the shade.

House Wren bringing food to nestlings - the young are very vulnerable in extreme heat on days such as this.

Some birds are suffering a bit more than others are. Yesterday I saw a group of Fish Crow at the airport in Stratford that were panting in the hot sunlight. At first, from a distance, I thought I had spotted some fledglings. When I came up to them it was obvious they were overheated adults. Even at one of the coolest locations, Stratford Point, the male Red-winged Blackbirds were panting in between calls and short songs. Most species are lucky enough to have fledglings right now due to the early start to the breeding season in the unseasonably warm spring. Any young still in a nest are at mortal risk due to the extreme heat. Nearly all of the birds will do just fine staying out of the sun and lessening their activity levels. The best way to help them, and indirectly your local mammals, would be to put out some water. Make sure whatever you use is clean and free of chemicals, toxins, or pollutants. Otherwise, it is best to leave nature to its own way.

Photo © Scott Kruitbosch

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Stratford Point 6/27-7/3

This week continued much of last week's bird species at Stratford Point. Common Tern continue passing by, sometimes with fish in mouth. Least Tern have made a couple appearances as well. I have yet to see any young tern. However, juvenile swallow of a few species seem to be cycling around the general area, dispersing from nearby nesting locations. Laughing Gulls can be seen now and then flying by. Speaking of birds flying by, I saw a Piping Plover this evening going from west to east, towards Short Beach. It called as it flew and went towards a very busy beach that was full of people for the Stratford fireworks a couple hours later. I took the photo to the left from Stratford Point facing Short Beach at sunset today. The only birds in the water were Mallard and Double-crested Cormorant. One Great Egret and one Snowy Egret were grazing along the beach and shoreline. Gadwall are typically in the water in this area as well, though none were today. Soon there will be many southbound shorebirds feeding along these beaches. We will likely see the first ones during this upcoming week.

The Purple Martin gourds have been somewhat least for the time being. Twan was able to hammer it back into place, but we will need to re-cement the
entire structure in place. If you did not see the entry, it was pulled up by the hurricane force winds from the tornadic supercell thunderstorm that swept through on June 24. I will make another post about them soon. To the right you can see the view from in front of the main building at Stratford Point. The building is on the right, with the Stratford lighthouse in the distance. It really is Purple Martin paradise. I also wanted to give everyone a rescued Osprey update. On Thursday night, the female was brought from Wildlife in Crisis to the veterinarian for x-rays and heavy metal toxicology screenings. We should know more on her condition and exactly what happened to render her flightless after the holiday weekend. Once again, the mere fact she is alive and relatively functional bodes well for her future. I frequently see healthy Osprey flying around Stratford Point now, sometimes multiple birds. I am sure this is some of the population that lost their nests during the storm, as there are more birds flying about for longer periods than one would expect if they were tending to young.

Photos © Scott Kruitbosch

Friday, July 2, 2010

Alex Burdo - L.L. Bean Hero

The following is a CAS press release about a wonderful event that took place at Birdcraft on June 21.

13-year-old Connecticut Audubon Society Volunteer Alex Burdo Wins L.L. Bean “Outdoor Heroes Award” – 1st Youngster Ever To Win!

June 24, 2010 -- Alexander (Alex) Burdo, a 13-year-old resident of Fairfield, an avid birder and an active volunteer with Connecticut Audubon Society, has been named an L.L. Bean “Outdoor Hero.” The announcement was made on Monday, June 21 at Connecticut Audubon Society’s Birdcraft Museum and Sanctuary in Fairfield. Alex received the award from Barbara Noe, Manager of L.L. Bean’s South Windsor store, and J.P. Fischer, L.L. Bean’s Active Department Outdoor Discovery School Manager.

Alex, who is a resident of Fairfield, is the first youngster ever to win the L.L. Bean “Outdoor Heroes” Award. Introduced in 2007, the award is given each year to a select number of individuals who are helping to preserve outdoor spaces and activities for all to enjoy and are encouraging others to do so as well. Nominations are open to any individual who has made a significant contribution to creating, maintaining, teaching about or encouraging the use of recreational space and the species that inhabit it. “This year L.L. Bean received well over 100 nominations,” said Barbara Noe. “And one name rose to the top of the list: Alexander Burdo.”

Alex had no idea that he was receiving an award when he came to Birdcraft on Monday at 10 a.m. with his grandfather, Jim Orrico. Alex thought he was joining Judy Richardson and other CAS volunteers in doing a nesting bird survey in the 6-acre Birdcraft Sanctuary. Instead, and in the presence of his family and CAS staff and volunteers, L.L. Bean’s Barbara Noe and J.P. Fischer presented Alex with an engraved lantern, a $500 L.L. Bean gift card, and a $5,000 check to Connecticut Audubon Society in his honor. “Alexander has set a fabulous example not only for his peers but also for all the adults who have been touched by his commitment to birds and the environment,” said J.P. Fischer. “As the person who nominated you wrote, you are truly extraordinary. You are a hero.”

“Alex Burdo is the kind of young person who inspires us all to do more and to do better,” said Robert Martinez, President of Connecticut Audubon Society. “Our organization is so fortunate to have Alex as a member and a dedicated volunteer. He is such an incredible role model for everyone who meets him.”

J.P. Fischer of L.L. Bean explained that through Alex’s nomination, a wonderful story unfolded, and she read excerpts from the nomination: “In the 19th century Mabel Osgood Wright engaged the talents of her friends with a commitment to social action to establish the Connecticut Audubon Society. Her efforts were a defining example of citizen science: the collaborative effort of people volunteering together as advocates for birds, wildlife and environmental conservation to realize a shared vision. A century later, Alexander Burdo exemplifies Mrs. Wright’s underlying message that every motivated person can make a difference in how the greater community perceives and protects nature.”

Fischer continued, “Alex is a perfect example for other students and novices of how citizen science can be accomplished by anyone of any age.” At the age of 10, Alex had a 3rd grade project about birds. He brought in field guides and binoculars to help his classmates learn about the birds around them. Alex’s journey of engaging others in citizen science had begun! When Alex’s school, Unquowa School, set up the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project Feeder Watch, Alex served as a ‘consultant’ to the faculty coordinating the project. Alex designed posters, created the calendar, posted pictures and assisted with tallying data. He helped younger students identify and count birds and served as a mentor to children new to birding. And Alex’s birding blog enables him to document bird species, their habitats and the conservation concerns they face, and then share this information with others with the tap of a finger.”

“I have had many children come in to help with bird banding in the 20 years that I have been involved,” said Judy Richardson, Chairman of CAS’s Fairfield Regional Board of Governors and a master bird bander. “But Alex is different. Not only does he want to pursue a future in birding, he has already started! His passion bubbles out of him when he reports all the birds he has seen. And he doesn't stop there. He has taken the time to teach anyone who will listen, by helping to establish Cornell’s citizen science Project Feeder Watch at his school, and by sharing his joy of the outdoors with his family and friends. Alex has become a respected young birder and he has the best attribute of good birders, which is a willingness to share. When bird migration is in full flight, I can rely on Alex to give me an enthusiastic report of all the birds that have flown in the previous night. He's a great kid with a great love of birds. Connecticut Audubon Society, and ornithology in general, is lucky to have him.”

Alex, who has been birding since the age of six, also “hooked” his grandfather, Jim Orrico and together they have driven all over the country to go birding. But Alex considers Connecticut Audubon Society’s 6-acre Birdcraft Sanctuary as his favorite sanctuary, and Alex and his grandfather are often here birding or helping the bird banders.

“I was surprised and truly honored to receive such a prestigious award,” Alex said. “But my biggest thrill about the whole thing was being able to give the Connecticut Audubon Society $5,000 from L.L. Bean, money that could really make a difference for the wonderful birds we’re lucky enough to share this terrific state with.”

“Our organization is based on the belief that every person, young and old, can make a difference in how the greater community perceives and protects our natural environment,” said Nelson North, Connecticut Audubon Society’s Director of Fairfield Operations. “Alex Burdo is a wonderful example of Connecticut Audubon Society’s mission in action.”

Barbara Noe explained L.L.’s Bean strong commitment to the outdoors. “It’s our heritage and our business, and we believe we have a strong responsibility to be good stewards of that resource. We share our customers’ belief in the value of the outdoor experience -- of the physical and spiritual rewards that come from participating in outdoor activities. And we share Connecticut Audubon Society’s commitment to encouraging young people to embrace the outdoors.”

Noe noted that L.L. Bean has contributed more than $6 million in the last three years to conservation organizations, and that the company promotes stewardship and responsible recreation through all of its channels -- on the Internet and in its stores and catalogue. Website:

Contacts: Nelson North, CAS, 203-259-0416,
Janet Wyper, L.L. Bean Community Relations Manager, 207-552-6038,

You can follow Alex's birding adventures on his blog at