Saturday, March 23, 2013

Spring has Sprung in Laramie

Over the past week, birds have started showing up to the Laramie area. On the Plains Lakes, hundreds of Redheads (Aythya americana), Lesser Scaup, and many other waterfowl are filling in the recently thawed ponds and lakes.

Redhead (Aythya americana) with Canvasback (Aythya valisineria) - Lake Hattie, WY
Redhead (Aythya americana) - Lake Hattie, WY

Along with waterfowl, gulls are also returning to the Laramie Plains, with California Gulls (Larus californicus) making up the bulk of the diversity. The star of the past weekend, however, was a young Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) that James Maley found at Sevenmile Lake. This sighting represents the first time that this species has ever been found in Wyoming! 

Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) - First state record for Wyoming
Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) - First state record for Wyoming
California Gull (Larus californicus) - Meeboer Lake, WY

Not to be outdone, on Monday, Don Jones discovered an adult Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) on Meeboer Lakes, part of the Plains Lakes, which represents only the third time this species has been found in Wyoming.  Associating with the Great Black-backed Gull was also a Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus), a rare visitor from Europe.

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) - Meeboer Lake, WY
Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) (left) with a
Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) (right) - Meeboer Lake, WY
Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) with other gulls - Lake Hattie, WY

In addition to the waterfowl and other early spring migrants, the area is still hosting good numbers of winter finches, including all 3 of the rosy-finch species (Leucosticte sp.) and continuing numbers of Common Redpolls (Acanthis flammea).

Gray-crowned Rosy-finch (Leucosticte tephrocotis) - Buford, WY

In the coming weeks, waterfowl will continue to come into the area, as well as more blackbirds and McCown's Longspurs (Rhychophanes mccownii) among many others.

Note: all photos in this post are © Shawn Billerman

Thursday, March 21, 2013

NY Times: Winter of the Monarch

The New York Times ran an interesting, albeit disturbing, piece on the threats to the wintering range of the monarch butterfly. The piece came out last week, but with spring in the air (gulls and blackbirds have returned!) I thought others may be interested.

Winter of the Monarch

To track the northward migration of monarchs, visit Journey North.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Bright nights speed birds' lives

Exposure to low levels of artificial light at night can cause birds to become ready for reproduction earlier than those that experience dark nights.
Davide Dominoni and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, Germany, attached miniature devices to wild European blackbirds (Turdus merula) to record the light levels that the birds experience in city and forest environments. On the basis of these data, the authors exposed adult male blackbirds captured from both settings to either dark or low-light conditions at night. Birds kept in the brighter-night environment developed reproductive physiology nearly a month earlier and moulted sooner than their dark-dwelling counterparts.
The light level the authors used was 20 times lower than that produced by a streetlight, showing that even small changes can have an impact on animal development.

Abstract: Nature v494, pp 284–285 (21 February 2013). <doi:10.1038/494284d>

Original article: Dominoni, D, M Quetting, and J Partecke. 2013. Artificial light at night advances avian reproductive physiology. Proceedings Royal Society B v280, n1756, pp20123017. <doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.3017>

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Winter Finch Extravaganza!

Across southern Canada and much of the United States, a variety of winter finch species have irrupted south of their typical winter range to the delight of many birders. While this pattern is most pronounced in the east, with huge numbers of both Red (Loxia curvirostra) and White-winged Crossbills (Loxia leucoptera), as well as Common (Acanthis flammea) and Hoary Redpolls (Acanthis hornemanni), we here in Laramie are also seeing good numbers of Red Crossbills and Common Redpolls, which are usually very rare in southern Wyoming. In addition to the winter finches, irruptions such as these also see large flights of Red-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) and Bohemian Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus), both of which are showing up in parts of Wyoming.

White-winged Crossbill (Loxia leucoptera) - Long Island, NY
Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) - Laramie, WY
While finch irruptions are fairly typical on a cyclical basis, the one that birders are seeing this winter is unusually large, due to widespread seed crop failure, including those of various coniferous trees, birches (Betula), alders (Alnus), and Mountain Ash (Sorbus sp) (Erskine and McManus 2003, Howe et al. 2012). As finches in the north wander in search of good seed crops, they move southwards in huge numbers (Pittaway 1998).

In addition to the irruptive species that only visit Wyoming on occasion, winters in Wyoming also host a number of other great finch species, including Pine Grosbeaks (Pinicola enucleator), Evening Grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus), and all three rosy-finch species (Leucosticte sp). Recently around Laramie, we have seen good numbers of Gray-crowned Rosy-finches (Leucosticte tephrocotis) and Red Crossbills, as well as smaller numbers of Pine Grosbeaks and Common Redpolls. 

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (Leucosticte tephrocotis) - Buford, WY
Pine Grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator) - Albany, WY
Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea) - Albany, WY
As winter turns slowly into spring here in Wyoming, we can expect to continue to see many of these irruptive species well into April before heading back northward.

For more information on patterns of winter finch irruptions, see this very informative and interesting write up on eBird by Ron Pittaway.

Note: all photos in this post are © Shawn Billerman


Erskine, AJ and R McManus. 2003. Supposed periodicity of redpoll, Carduelis sp., winter visitations in Atlantic Canada. Canadian Field-Naturalist. 117(4), 611-620 

Howe, EJ, ME Obbard, and J Bowman. 2012. Prior reproduction and weather affect berry crops in central Ontario, Canada. Population Ecology. 54, 347-356

Pittaway, R. 1998. Winter Finches. Ontario Field Ornithologists News