Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Survived accident

photo taken 30 minutes after the accident
Last Friday, a little after 6 AM, I was driving a pickup truck in Montecristo national park, situated in the mountains of northern El Salvador, at about 2000 m altitude, when I felt the ground under the front right wheel of the car giving way, causing the car to tilt over into a tumble downslope. In the car at that moment were my girlfriend Roselvy, and Luis, a biologist from the ministry of Environmental Affairs. Riding in the back of the pickup were two local boys helping us with bird banding in the cloud forest of Montecristo. We had started banding the day before, and were on our way to open the mist nets for a second day of bird monitoring.

As the car went into a sideways tumble and I lost control of the wheel, I thought "this is it, we are crashing, we're going to die". I don't remember much more, because I lost consciousness. When I regained consciousness, I found myself lying curled up in a ball on the door of the driver's side. Luis had already climbed out of the vehicle, and Roselvy was climbing out. I asked if everyone was OK, switched off the still running engine, grabbed a few belongings, and also climbed out of the vehicle.

luckily, the car did not tumble very far
Once outside, I saw that one of the boys, Mauricio, was stuck under the rear end of the car, and that the other boy was busy removing rocks to create an exit. Roselvy had left in search of help. Luis, still recovering from another accident he was in about a year ago, could not do much, but when the kid digging out his friend asked me to help lift the car, I did so. I felt some pain in my right eye, and wondered if perhaps some broken glass had entered it. Standing between the car above me and a 30 m slope beneath me, on what later turned out to be a little stone wall that broke the car's fall, I was very afraid and very conscious of the fact that the car, once lifted, could very well continue its fall. This did not happen, however, and Mauricio was able to crawl out. There was no blood, and when we pinched his legs, he was able to feel it.

Roselvy went with him and his family to the hospital, while Luis and I waited at the boy's house. It was difficult for me to wait and do nothing, so when I was asked to go to the scene of the accident and wait there for the insurance people to show up, I set off on foot. I then ran into some park rangers who said it would still take at least three hours for the insurance people to get there. (In the end, they never came.) I decided to walk up to the bird monitoring station and take down the nets - about an hour's walk.

Taking down 16 nets took me another hour. As I walked down the mountain carrying the mist nets, at this time in the pouring rain, it was a little after noon when I got back to the scene of the accident. There I found the police, who approached me, saying "we understand you speak Spanish?" "Yes," I said. "And you were the driver?" "Yes." "Well, I want you to know that nobody is pressing any charges against you, and that none of the persons immediately involved in the accident believe it was your fault."

Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that it could have been my fault. Later, I learned that the knee-jerk reaction of the police had been "where is the driver, we need to arrest him". Which is understandable. I guess when they learned more about the particulars of the accident, they abandoned the idea of arresting me. Jaime, the main officer, was friendly, courteous and efficient.

It turned out that none of us - not even Mauricio, who was hurt most - sustained any serious injuries. As I write this, Mauricio is already with his family, after having spent one night in the hospital for observation. This I think is a miracle.

A towing car showed up late afternoon, only to find that the road was too narrow and the wooden bridge too weak to support it. Another solution for towing the car had to be found. Although Roselvy and I were obviously worn out from a very taxing day, SalvaNATURA understandably wanted us to remain on the scene to document the salvage of the vehicle. Around nightfall, the towing company started their operation with tackles attached to trees, and several hours later, the car was retrieved. I noticed only the police had flashlights, while the guys from the towing company were practically working in the dark. I offered them my head lamp, which unfortunately later, when they were done, disappeared. Even the police did not help me get back my head lamp, the only light Roselvy and I had with us.  

With the car back on the road, the next obstacle was a lack of oil: all motor oil had leaked out of the engine, leaving the engine inoperable. The towing company offered to go down the mountain and get oil, for $40. Besides a few singles I had only a $50 bill on me, which I reluctantly handed over, thinking I would probably not see it again, nor receive any change, or a receipt. (Which indeed I didn't.)

When they came back with the motor oil, it was well past midnight. Roselvy and I had tried to sleep a little in the salvaged vehicle, but with one smashed window open, a constant cloud of mosquitoes made that impossible. Inside there was still broken glass everywhere, and we no longer had any light.

The motor oil was put in. We now found the car wouldn't start because the battery was practically empty. I should have taken the car keys out when I switched the engine off, directly after the accident, but somehow I failed to do that. With the keys in the ignition, the automatic door lock had sapped nearly all the battery's juice.

Now, in such cases I would use a jumper cable and start the car off the battery of another car. Frankly, I was a bit surprised that they did not do that, but instead went down again to get another battery. I assume it was because they didn't have a jumper cable, odd as that may sound for a towing company.

All this added a couple more hours to what was now a very long day indeed for Roselvy and myself - nearly 22 hours awake. Eventually, the car started, and we were finally free to leave the site, at 3 AM. We then had to walk 20 minutes to our cabin - no-one was willing or able to take us there.

Yesterday, Roselvy and I went to Santa Ana, where the car was held in storage. An insurance worker took us over to the site, and had us fill out paper work, while he took pictures of the vehicle.

Oscar the insurance guy taking pictures of the vehicle
Tomorrow, we're going back there to retrieve the vehicle. Although more or less operational, it will be transported back to San Salvador. We don't know exactly the full extent of the damage yet, and driving a damaged car can be dangerous.

In the days since the accident, there has been some discussion about safety of the road up to the cloud forest. This road is closed to the general public, and basically open only to biologists from SalvaNATURA, i.e. us, and a family that lives further up the mountain. Tourists are allowed to walk, but not drive that road.

accident scene; note stone wall on left that broke our fall
I think some of the pictures speak for themselves, as far as safety of that road is concerned. The police told us Friday night they almost slipped off the road themselves there. An inspection of the wooden bridge right next to where the accident occurred, revealed serious deferred maintenance issues. This bridge is supported by rocks, but the water has dragged rocks away in places, leaving support unstable.

It seems likely that the days of SalvaNATURA's bird monitoring program up in the cloud forest at Montecristo are over, at least for the time being. Next month we will probably only do bird monitoring in the pine-oak forest section of the park, where the other bird banding station is located and the roads are safe. Still, we think that maintenance of the cloud forest road is necessary, because it is the only access road to the higher parts. What if something happens to a local or a tourist and they need help or rapid transportation to parts below?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Hummingbirds in Monte Uyuca

Azure-crowned Hummingbird
After two months of hawk counting on Sandy Hook, NJ, I'm back in Central America, really now my home away from home. I was very happy, obviously, to be reunited with my girlfriend Roselvy, and also to see my good friend Oliver again. They picked me up from the airport in Tegucigalpa Wednesday around noon, and a couple of hours later Roselvy and I were already putting up mist nets in Reserva Biológica Monte Uyuca, not far from Tegucigalpa. This is a biological reserve where we have banded together many times before since Roselvy set up the banding station here in January 2010. Since then, we've carried out monthly banding pulses consisting of 400 net hours each month, most of which I have worked on as a volunteer bird bander.

The station is located in pine-oak forest with a well-developed shrub layer, and is home to many hummingbirds. Five species are found here more or less year-round, although their numbers fluctuate seasonally, in some cases dramatically so.

In May of 2010, we caught more birds (the majority hummingbirds) than in any other month of that year, and we were of curious to see if this surge would repeat itself in 2011. The previous record number of captures during one banding pulse there stood at 202 birds, caught in May 2010.

This May, we caught 217 birds - no fewer than 156 of them hummingbirds!

Besides the expected species, we caught three new hummingbird species for the station!

Many Central American hummingbirds are considered non-migratory, resident species. However, a lot of these resident species opportunistically undertake small-scale movements in search of flowers, which may be locally available at different altitudes during the year. Local altitudinal migration may account for the seasonal patterns we've found for various hummingbirds at Uyuca (Juárez & Komar, 2011).

Azure-crowned Hummingbird

In Uyuca, no species exhibits this seasonal variation more than Azure-crowned Hummingbird. We typically catch a handful of this species throughout the year, but their numbers increase in April and then explode in May. This week, we had 93 captures of this species, with only a few recaptures. We suspect that during the rest of the year, these birds are found a few hundred meters downslope, when the shrubs there are in flower. An afternoon walk in that area, just outside the reserve, seemed to support our conjecture, for we found few hummingbirds and few flowers where both can be very common at other times of the year.

hummingbird's eye view of Palicourea padifolia

Right now, a shrub with yellow flowers (Palicourea padifolia) is blooming abundantly in the area where the net lanes are situated. This plant depends on hummingbirds for its pollination, and provides food for many hummingbirds. It is found in middle-elevation cloud forests from southern Mexico to Panama (Taylor 1989).

Azure-crowned Hummingbird probably breeds in modest numbers right where the banding station is located, but moves into that area - possibly from downslope - in larger numbers a few months after the breeding season. Many adults we caught were either molting or had just finished their prebasic molt. This molt usually takes place after breeding.

White-eared Hummingbird

Another species that shows the same pattern, albeit less pronounced, is White-eared Hummingbird, also a pine-oak specialist. This pulse we caught 37, against only a few during each month the rest of the year.

immature female Green-breasted Mountain-gem

The Green-breasted Mountain-gem shows a different pattern. This species is a common breeder at the bird monitoring station, and we typically catch most of them right after the breeding season, in January and February, when their numbers are augmented with recently fledged individuals. They are present in good numbers most of the year, with a dip in July and August (Juárez & Komar 2011). Possibly this species does something similar to what the Azure-crowned and White-eared Hummingbirds do: it may visit their principal breeding area further downslope in the middle of the rainy season, when flowers in that drier part of the mountain are abundant. Obviously, this is all still speculation at this point, and could be an excellent topic for further study.

The other two species that we catch most banding pulses but do not seem to show any distinct seasonal variation are Magnificent Hummingbird and Green Violetear. While we did catch a violetear, we didn't have the mag this time.

That said, no fewer than three new hummingbird species for the station were found this banding pulse! After more than 6,000 net hours since January 2010, I'd say that is quite remarkable.

adult male Slender Sheartail

One of them was this stunning Slender Sheartail, a species found in southeastern Mexico (Chiapas), Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. In Uyuca, we are at the southeastern edge of its range.

adult male Slender Sheartail

Holding this bird in the hand was a first for me.

adult male Blue-tailed Hummingbird

Another was this equally gorgeous Blue-tailed Hummingbird, found in southern Chiapas and in the three countries around the Gulf of Fonseca: eastern El Salvador, southern Honduras and western Nicaragua. This species is usually found at lower elevations, and was certainly a surprise at Monte Uyuca, located between 1600 and 1700 masl.

adult male Blue-tailed Hummingbird

This bird also was in fresh plumage.

Cinnamon Hummingbird

Also more a lowland species - very common even in disturbed habitats like major cities - is Cinnamon Hummingbird. We had never caught this species before in Uyuca, but this pulse caught no fewer than three individuals. The above individual is molting its primaries.

Thanks to José Linares for help with the identification of Palicourea padifolia.

Cited literature:
Juárez, R. & Komar, O. 2011. Monitoreo Permanente de Aves en Reserva Biológica Monte Uyuca, Honduras, durante 2010, primer informe anual. SalvaNATURA, Zamorano, ICF.
Taylor CM. 1989. Revision of Palicourea (Rubiaceae) in Mexico and Central America. Systematic Botanical Monographs 26: 1–102.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

More gullage

Almost two months ago, when I had just started the migration watch on Sandy Hook, NJ, I wrote a little bit about the gull flock on the False Hook ("Gullage"), which at that point had grown to 1000+ individuals. Now, having just finished the count on Sandy Hook, I can look back on a pretty good gull flight this spring, which at the end gets the more interesting species. I missed out on Black-headed Gull this year, but where I'm from that is by far the most common gull, so no great loss for me. Did get Little Gull, lots of Bonaparte's Gulls, and throughout the count several individuals of both 'white-winged' species, Iceland and Glaucous. And of course there was that hybrid gull, Herring x Glaucous.

I want to share some images of an Iceland Gull I photographed last week, some Little Gull shots also, and some images of what I think is probably an aberrant American Herring Gull, but may be something more exciting?

Here's that first-cycle Iceland, in with Herrings and Great Black-backeds. Incidentally, what is the bird on the right? Is that just a bleached first cycle Herring Gull? Or something else? Shame I didn't get the entire bill on that bird, but I was going for the Iceland.

An open-wing shot reveals a tail band stronger than on most immature Kumlien's Icelands, but still within the wide range of variation.

Little Gull is rare but regular in northeastern New Jersey, and the bird found by Tom Boyle last week - I stood next to him when he called it out - stuck around for at least a few days. Saturday, it was joined by a second, more heavily marked individual.

The Little Gull below is less heavily marked, but still separable from the slightly larger Bonaparte's Gull next to it by its shorter legs, more pronounced carpal bar, dark tertials, and zig-zag pattern on the folded primaries.

Also on the False Hook Saturday was this oddball. What is this? At first, you might think Glaucous Gull: a fairly large white-headed gull with white wingtips. But the outer primaries have too much white in them.

The bill has unusual patterning, with a dark line along the edge of the maxilla and mandible.

Take a look at a few open-wing shots. This was the best I could do under poor lighting conditions, in the company of birders that I didn't want to deprive of great birding to be had on the False Hook right then (drake King Eider sitting on the beach, two Little Gulls around, immature Lesser Black-backed Gull, etc). Had I walked up to the bird, I probably would have scattered it and everything else that was there.

I think these open-wing shots show most clearly that this is not one of the more regular 'white-winged' gulls (Glaucous or Iceland).

Note the dark tail band, expected on a third cycle Herring Gull, not on a third cycle Glaucous.

Finally a shot of the bird next to a normal third cycle American Herring Gull. In this shot, there's a subtle yet appreciable difference in mantle color between the 'white-winged' and the normal Herring Gull. The mantle color may be good for Glaucous, but there's other disqualifying marks. So… what is this bird? I don't have access to the Howell & Dunn gull book, so I can't delve any deeper than my admittedly limited knowledge of large white-headed gulls permits. If anyone wants to shine their light on this one, comments always welcome!

On a different note, I want to thank all you Jersey / NYC metro area birders who came to the platform this spring and made my time there more enjoyable. I had a great time, and you made it worth it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Piping Plover predation attempt?

Piping Plovers eyeballing Red-winged Blackbirds sitting on their predator exclosure
Today I witnessed what seemed like an (unsuccessful) predation attempt on a Piping Plover nest by three Red-winged Blackbirds at Sandy Hook's North Beach. As it was happening in front of my eyes, I tried to grab some video of it.

Just prior to this, I had been observing shorebirds feeding on the sand spit at the 'False Hook'. Nearby, I noticed three adult male Red-winged Blackbirds scavenging the flood line for sand flies, but didn't pay them any further attention.

That is, until I saw them land on one of the Piping Plover predator exclosures and even go inside! The nest owners started calling and tried to scare off the blackbirds with threatening postures and wing spreading. Some of this can be seen in the video (although, regrettably, very little of it remains visible after down-sizing it for online posting). The plovers did not feign injury, as they will do when faced with bigger predators, but simply stood their ground and defended their nest. The blackbirds quickly gave up and left. One of the plovers resumed incubation while the other stood nearby.

Piping Plover incubating inside predator exclosure
The Piping Plover is a federally endangered beach-nesting shorebird, increasingly dependent on management. Conservation efforts toward Piping Plover populations include predator exclosures, sometimes electrified as the ones used on Sandy Hook. A recent paper in Avian Conservation and Ecology reports that predator exclosures enhance reproductive success but increase adult mortality of Piping Plovers (Barber et al. 2010). The exclosure is meant to keep out foxes, gulls and other predators.

The Red-winged Blackbird, one of North America's best studied birds, is primarily granivorous, although animal matter (insects) take up a major percentage of its food intake during the breeding season. It is not known to predate on eggs of other birds, and perhaps what I witnessed was nothing more than three blackbirds being curious about a Piping Plover predator exclosure. I was astounded, however, to see one of them go inside, as I'm sure the plovers were too!

Cited literature:
Barber, C., A. Nowak, K. Tulk, and L. Thomas (2010) Predator exclosures enhance reproductive success but increase adult mortality of Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus). Avian Conservation and Ecology 5 (2): 6.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Spring season nearing its end

juvenile Bald Eagle
The Sandy Hook Migration Watch began its last week of the spring 2011 season today, with a sum total of zero raptors. Clear skies and calm weather this late in the season usually translate into minimal raptor migration; only a weather event (i.e. a front passage) may trigger some concentrated movement at this point in time.

Looking at the weather forecast for the rest of the week, a major hawk flight seems rather unlikely, and a surprise appearance in the form of a kite is really the best that can be hoped for.

It's not too premature then to look at the Sandy Hook spring 2011 season and see how it measures up against previous years.

Some species did exceptionally well, like Bald Eagle and American Kestrel. Other species, like Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk and (especially) Cooper's Hawk had lower than average numbers this year.

Bald Eagle numbers are increasing everywhere, so no surprises there. But high numbers for a regionally decreasing species (American Kestrel) and low numbers for an increasing species (Cooper's Hawk) highlight the fact that isolated count results from just one year and just one site are of limited value. Weather is always a key factor that determines how many migrants are seen at a monitoring site, and some years the migration of certain species happens to be more coastal, while in other years inland routes are chosen. Or, on light winds or tail winds, the flight can be extremely high and over a broad front, beyond the vision of the observer on the ground. All these things are into play, and produce annual fluctuations.

With longer data sets, however, population trends become measurable. See HMANA's* Raptor Population Index program for an analysis of such trends.

* HMANA = Hawk Migration Association of North America

Sunday, May 8, 2011

How I got into birding

This beautiful, almost full breeding plumage drake King Eider was found on the beach at the 'false hook' on Sandy Hook today. When word reached me about this bird on the hawk platform, I didn't have to think long about packing up my stuff and going out there. As I reached the end of Fisherman's Trail, the sight of a group of birders with their scopes all pointed in the same direction was a hopeful sign and sure enough, there it was. This is likely the same bird that was found more than a week ago in Horseshoe Cove, elsewhere on the Hook.

King Eider is probably a little less rare here than it is in western Europe, but when I started birding, King Eider was the first true rarity that I saw. I must have been 14 or 15 years old. For a long time, it remained for me the emblematic rare bird, an arctic visitor so beautiful it looked out of place in the industrialized Dutch seaport's harbor of IJmuiden. Since that memorable first bird - also a drake in near-breeding plumage - I have seen a few others, in duller plumages.

Eventually, a juvenile Bald Eagle spooked it; the King Eider flew off toward the ocean, and for all we know may now finally be on its way to the high arctic.