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Monday, October 31, 2011

An eBird Milestone for NBNC

In addition to costumes and candy, there is other cause for celebration this Halloween. The North Branch Nature Center now has data in eBird for all 52 week-periods of the year! eBird is a massive online bird sightings database, and the missing info from the third week in October was a gap as obvious as a missing front tooth, which has now been filled. Beyond personal interest, eBird has tons of practical implications for avian conservation, allowing scientists to use observations from thousands of bird watchers to study bird distribution and abundance.

While in reality this is not a major milestone, it represents an increased effort by bird watchers everywhere to record what they see and share those observations with scientists and the general public. The current year (2011) marked a particularly deliberate uptick in eBird activity. The Vermont County Quest enlisted birdwatchers from throughout the state in a competition to see which county had “the most birds”, using eBird as a platform for measuring success. The results have been self-evident. Here in Washington County, eBird users have submitted 1642 checklists, a 58% increase from last year at this time.

As an example of the tremendous power of eBird, check out the links below, and the animation of the annual Chestnut-sided Warbler migration, generated using advanced computer models and eBird data:

Vermont eBird homepage
eBird tutorial
eBird bar chart for the North Branch Nature Center
eBird bar chart for all of Washington County, VT
Washington County Birding Challenge

Click here for more info and an interpretation of this computer-generated animation based on eBird data.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Discovering Rarity

Last week’s blog post featured the second Vermont record for caterpillars of the Giant Swallowtail caterpillars, and the northernmost sighting of this species in the state. Abby Colihan found them while working in the garden in her backyard. But how did Abby ever know to think they might be rare? How many rarities like this are overlooked? And how might you, too, discover a rare critter in your own backyard?

Whether it be bird, butterfly, or anything else, a few simple tricks can help reduce the chances that some scarce critter wanders across your gaze undetected.

1) Get outside and look! Pay attention to what’s around you. The more you are out observing nature, the better a feel you will get for what is common and what is not. It doesn’t take studying the names of critters to recognize them… or to recognize that they are unfamiliar.

2) Expect the unexpected. Rare creatures show up every year in Vermont, and chances are, most go unnoticed. David Sibley has blogged about this phenomenon, and has even put a percentage to the rare birds that go unseen. You can’t find what you’re not looking for!

3) Document what you see. If something looks unfamiliar, take a picture! Digital photography has revolutionized the way we can record the natural world, and as a result, many more rare critters are being not only seen, but confirmed.

4) Share your observation! So many times, a rare bird is discovered to the delight of some ecstatic birder, only for them to hear from a neighbor that “it’s been there for weeks!” Call or stop by your local Nature Center, seek out an email list or discussion forum, or swing by your local extension office. You’re likely to find plenty of amateur and professional naturalists who are happy to help you identify your discovery.

The above steps will certainly not guarantee that you find a rare critter. Most people don’t (that’s what makes them rare). But, chances are, when a vagrant bird shows up at your feeder, you'll be more likely to take note. So get outside, observe the wild things around you, pay attention, and you just might discover the next Giant Swallowtail.

As a final primer for your search for rarity, enjoy the following awareness test:

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A “Giant” Backyard Discovery

It was a day just like any other. Except that when Abby Colihan glanced out the window of her home into her garden, she noticed something different. It looked like a very large pile of bird guano, but upon closer inspection, Abby discovered it to be a caterpillar like none she had ever seen before.

The caterpillar was that of a Giant Swallowtail, a species that before July 30, 2010 had never before been seen in Vermont! This distinctive butterfly is similar in size to our Tiger Swallowtail butterfly with a striking mixture of black and yellow, with dashes of blue and red. Larvae feed on plants in the citrus family (Rutaceae) and resemble bird droppings from above (see picture above). Get up close to one, and it will try to fool you into thinking it is a snake (see picture below). If you still dare mess with this caterpillar, it will reveal its large antennae-like osmeterium that can give off harsh-smelling chemicals.

For some time it was suspected that Giant Swallowtail may arrive in Vermont. This species is known to move north some summers, establishing itself where it finds suitable food plants. In 2008, butterfly expert Bryan Pfeiffer noted that the Giant Swallowtail had been seen near Lake George in late August... it was already on its way. This Montpelier record constitutes only the second documentation of larvae in Vermont, and the farthest north this species has been documented in the state. So why didn’t anybody see this Giant Swallowtail before it laid eggs in Abby’s garden as it flew down the streets of Montpelier? And how did Abby know these caterpillars were special?

Stay tuned to our next blog update to learn how you too can discover a rare creature in your own backyard.