16 Years of Project Safe Flight Data

Research Assistant Kaitlyn Parkins reports on the poster she created and presented at this November’s New York Birders Conference:

 

Common Yellowthroat © Steve Nanz

Common Yellowthroats Are Among the Most Frequent Collision Victims. Photo © Steve Nanz

Last month, NYC Audubon presented a poster at the New York Birders Conference, summarizing 16 years’ worth of Project Safe Flight bird collision data. In total, between 1997 and the spring of 2013, volunteers collected over 6,000 birds of 126 different species. The top two species, the white-throated sparrow and common yellowthroat, make up 23% of all collisions. The ten species with the highest number of collisions were consistent across the years, and migratory birds made up the vast majority of collisions. As expected, the fall migration had a higher average number of collisions than spring, most likely due to the addition of “young of the year” birds to the population. We also examined the location of the majority of bird collisions and presented successful mitigation projects such as the retrofit of the Morgan Processing and Distribution Center and the Javits Center.

 

Also described in the poster are the results of a persistence study that investigated the likelihood of a collision victim being found by a Project Safe Flight monitor. Because birds may be picked up by scavengers or cleaned up by maintenance staff and street sweepers, it is important to have an estimate of how many collision victims are never even recorded. We discovered that two-thirds of birds are never found, meaning that we may have severely underestimated the number of birds killed by collisions each year. The results of these analyses provided insights into bird collisions that will guide Project Safe Flight monitoring and other projects into the future.

 

To view the entire poster in PDF form, click here.

 

- Kaitlyn Parkins

 

Piping Plover: Potential Beneficiaries of Sandy’s Wrath

Piping Plovers © Francois Portmann

Piping Plovers © Francois Portmann

Amid all the destruction and havoc caused by Hurricane Sandy last October, there is potentially good news for the federally threatened piping plover and other shorebirds that area beaches. The National Park Service (NPS) has found a nearly twofold increase in suitable shorebird nesting habitat at NPS’s Rockaway Beaches since Sandy impacted the area.

 

On that October night, Sandy wiped out and pushed back beach grass and other vegetation at the Rockaway beaches. The result: increased areas of dry, sandy beach habitat that shorebirds such as the piping plover need for productive nesting, according to NPS biologist Hanem Abouelezz. Looking at aerial satellite images of the area before and after the storm, Hanem found a 94.7% increase in potentially suitable shorebird nesting habitat within NPS-maintained beach areas such as Fort Tilden, Breezy Point, and Jacob Riis Park.

 

Breezy Point Tip Pre Sandy © National Park Service

Breezy Point Tip Pre Sandy © National Park Service

For years, intruding vegetation at Rockaway beaches forced piping plovers and other shorebirds to nest closer to the shore, leading to eggs being lost due to tidal flooding. New data collected by Hanem and her team suggests piping plover nesting may already be benefitting from the post-Sandy habitat changes. Whereas last year 54% of piping plover eggs monitored were lost due to tidal flooding, this year none were lost. The bird is even finding success nesting in formerly inhospitable areas. Piping plovers successful fledged at Fort Tilden this year for the first time since NPS started monitoring the area.

 

Breezy Point Tip, Post Sandy © National Park Service

Breezy Point Tip, Post Sandy © National Park Service

In addition to aiding the piping plover, post-Sandy habitat could also benefit nesting populations of least terns, common terns, American oystercatchers, and other shorebirds that similarly prefer flat, sandy beaches for nesting. However exciting the news is, it is too early to tell whether the change in habitat alone will lead to increased shorebird breeding productivity in the area. A variety of factors are involved in shorebird breeding success, including predation, interspecific competition, weather patterns, and human interference.

Special Analysis, Tribute in Light: 11-12 September 2013

 

This past Wednesday night, 9/11/13, NYC Audubon staff and volunteers once again monitored the Tribute in Light to ensure that migrating birds were not harmed. Working with the event’s producers, the lights were dimmed four times to allow congregations of birds to disperse on their southbound migration. Here’s an excellent analysis of the migration event that occurred, contrary to expectations, courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Andrew Farnsworth:

 

With forecast conditions looking rather gloomy for observers watching at the Tribute in Light but rosy for avoiding any potential for hazardous conditions for migrating birds, [Cornell Lab of Ornithology's] Team BirdCast predicted local, light movements and perhaps tens of birds in the beams of light during the memorial during the night of 11-12 September 2013. The first migrating bird appeared in the beam at 8:11pm EDT, with a scattering of birds thereafter for the first two hours after sunset. Then something changed, and what seemed like a reasonably good prediction playing itself out started to look as if it missed the mark slightly before missing the board completely! Between 10:30-11 pm EDT numbers of birds in the beam began to grow, and suddenly the forecast for tens of birds in the beams was off by two orders of magnitude!

 

 

Team BirdCast likes to be the first to point out its forecasting missteps, so here is some interpretation of where things went wrong in the forecast! A substantial line of thunderstorms from central southern Pennsylvania to central and eastern New York and western New England slowly was drifting North and East across the region, winds were primarily southerly and southwesterly, and the warm and moist air mass presiding over the region felt more like summer than fall. What we did not consider was the presence of a gust front, visible in the movie above in the first few frames; watch for a thin gray line stretching from eastern Pennsylvania North and East into eastern Massachusetts and slowly moving Southeast toward the coast. As this gust front moves Southeast, a noticeable change in targets aloft occurs, particularly along the Connecticut coast. These targets are birds taking flight, reaching moderate levels along the immediate coast, and quickly eclipsing the forecast densities! It seems that as the gust front passed, conditions changed sufficiently to cue birds to fly, albeit a couple of hours after typical post-sunset exodus. Gust fronts are also known as outflow boundaries, separating cool air flowing out of thunderstorms from the surrounding air mass. In this case the gust front had some effects similar to those of a passing cold front, with a slight wind shift and presumably a slight dip in temperature and increase in pressure. Numbers of birds, appearing as light to moderate movements along a corridor from New Jersey North and East to eastern Massachusetts in the movie, clearly interpreted these changes as signifying the time to take flight. While numbers of birds increased in these areas in the hours after the passage of the gust front, most of the remainder of the region, particularly to the West of the line of storms, saw whatever light and scattered movements diminish.

 

After the initial scattering of birds in the early hours of the evening, the arrival of hundreds and then thousands of migrants in the beams that had taken off with the passage of the gust front was a surprise to say the least. Here is a short clip of the nocturnal migrant activity in the beam at approximately 2 AM EDT 12 September 2013. Almost all of the white “snowflake”-like objects in this video are warblers, flying around the beams from 100-1,500 m above the ground.

 

 

Special thanks to the Municipal Arts Society for allowing NYC Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to monitor at the Tribute in Light. Moreover, Team BirdCast would also like to acknowledge that, as in past years when numerous birds were attracted to the beams, the organizers of the Tribute turned off the beams on four separate occasions during the night to avoid potentially hazardous situations for birds attracted to the lights!

 

Central Park BioBlitz

Glenn Phillips leads a group of students during the Central Park BioBlitz. Photo © Kaitlyn Parkins

Intern Kaitlyn Parkins, a graduate student in urban ecology at Fordham University specializing in bat ecology, reports:

 

More than 500 students and expert scientists from around the world descended on Central Park last Monday, August 26. Their goal: to identify as many living things as possible in 24 hours, to gauge the diversity of the Park’s plants and wildlife. The first such study of the Park in a decade, this year’s Central Park Bioblitz was coordinated by Macaulay Honors College at CUNY and the Central Park Conservancy with the help of experts from all over the globe. Students and researchers broke into teams and fanned out over the Park’s 843 acres to identify arthropods, lichens, plants, reptiles, fish, birds, bats, and more.

 

NYC Audubon supplied the bird buffs, including Executive Director Glenn Phillips, Board President Harry Maas, and interns Darren Klein and myself (although I got to help with the bats, too). We also had the gracious help of volunteers Bruce Yolton, James Buckler, Richard Lieberman, and Phil Cusimano. Between all of us, we took over 40 students out to survey birds, focusing on the North Woods and the Ramble for highest diversity.

 

The forecasted major thunderstorms held off, and despite the drizzly weather, we saw a great array of species. The students were excitedly documenting the plants, chipmunks, and butterflies they saw while on the lookout for birds. One group that went out Monday afternoon spotted a Wilson’s warbler among the blue jays and starlings, and the Tuesday morning groups listed a blue-gray gnatcatcher and a black-and-white warbler among their findings. Even the bat team got to document a bird species when we accidentally caught a northern waterthrush in our mist net. Of course, he was safely removed and sent on his way.

 

Along with the census, experts took the opportunity to engage the students in discussions about bird biology, conservation, and the importance of the biodiversity that can be found right in our own backyards. It was an opportunity for college students of all majors and interests to get some hands- on experience in biology, and not the kind that happens in a lab. One highlight: Students who at first could only recognize pigeons were able to point out American redstarts by the end of their session. That just can’t be taught in a classroom.

 

But the students aren’t the only winners here; the Park will benefit, too. Once all the data from the BioBlitz are compiled, it will be compared to the first Central Park BioBlitz, held in 2003. The Central Park Conservancy plans to analyze how Park wildlife has fared this last decade, and use their findings to inform management practices. Keep a lookout for the final tally and species list, expected this fall.

 

- Kaitlyn Parkins

 

 

A Quick Look at Spring Migration Bird Collision Figures

Summer intern Kaitlyn Parkins presents data on spring migration bird collisions collected by Project Safe Flight volunteers

 

Every year, more than 100 species of migratory birds pass through New York City on their way between South and Central America and their northern breeding grounds   along the Atlantic Flyway. The trek through the City can be perilous for these birds because of the maze of tall buildings, bright lights, and reflective glass.

 

Since 1997, NYC Audubon has sponsored Project Safe Flight (PSF), an endeavor to study and mitigate urban bird collisions. Working with a devoted group of volunteers who patrol high-risk locations during migrations, Project Safe Flight counts and collects birds that have been injured or died in building collisions. To date, over 6,000 birds of 126 different species have been found and documented in PSF’s database.

 

PSF spring migration bird collisions chart

A breakdown of spring migration bird collisions by species. Click to enlarge

This spring, eight sites were monitored, and a total of 39 dead and five injured birds were found by volunteers. Of those, 29 were identified to the species. Just like previous years, common yellowthroats and ovenbirds were found more frequently than any other species; they were followed by white-throated sparrows, American woodcocks, and black-and-white warblers. The majority of collisions occurred at Bryant Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

We will include this year’s data with our records from 1997–2012 and analyze it to help us better understand why bird collisions occur, and what can be done to reduce their frequency. Soon, volunteers will be gearing up for the fall migration. If you’re interested in volunteering for this important project please contact our outreach manager at apalmer@nycaudubon.org.

 

-Kaitlyn Parkins

 

 

Field Notes: Horseshoe Crab Monitoring at Plumb Beach

Summer intern Debra Kriensky reports on a recent field expedition

 

Molted shells from young horseshoe crabs (approximately two-to-three years old). Photo © Susan Elbin

Molted shells from young horseshoe crabs (approximately two-to-three years old). Photo © Susan Elbin

On July 23, NYC Audubon staff and interns went out to Plumb Beach in Brooklyn to help horseshoe crab researcher Mark Botton search for baby crabs. Though we couldn’t help but stop to look at the birds—we saw several oystercatchers, plenty of gulls and terns, and a flock of juvenile barn swallows—the tiny, newly hatched horseshoe crabs stole the show.

 

Though the horseshoe crab hatchlings we were looking for were in the same shape as the adult crabs we count and tag during the spawning season, they were considerably more difficult to find. Smaller than a ladybug and the same color as the sand, the crab larvae were practically invisible in the shallow waters of the low tide. Fortunately, we were able to find a few of the baby crabs, which were promptly measured and released. During our search, we also stumbled upon the molted shells of several older horseshoe crabs that likely hatched two or three years ago.

 

In addition to searching for hatchlings, Botton’s team was also there to measure

A newly hatched horseshoe crab © Debra Kriensky

A newly hatched horseshoe crab found in the shallows being held in a shell until it could be measured. Photo © Debra Kriensky

the density of eggs at different depths of sand at several points along the shoreline. Using five-cm and 20-cm cores, the group collected a total of 120 samples of sand to analyze back at the lab. This data can be used to determine where crabs are laying their eggs on the beach, among other things. For example, since birds can only reach eggs close to the surface of the sand, looking at the egg densities in the five-cm core sample can help clarify just how much of this important food resource is available for shorebirds on Plumb Beach.

 

-Debra Kriensky

Natural Strength: Thoughts on the Mayor’s plan to increase the resiliency of New York City’s coastline

Summer intern Darren Klein reports.

 

In 2007, Mayor Bloomberg released PlaNYC, a broad initiative intended to strengthen the economy of New York City, address climate change, prepare for increasing population size, and generally enhance quality of life for New Yorkers. After Hurricane Sandy battered the City last year, PlaNYC was updated to include an outline for improving the resilience of the City as it faces a future in which powerful storms and other extreme weather events are likely to occur with greater frequency. A major component of the latest version of PlaNYC is called the Comprehensive Coastal Protection Plan, which has been designed to strengthen the coastline of the City and prevent the kind of storm surge and flood damage that crippled the City after Sandy.

 

The Comprehensive Coastal Protection Plan calls for the combined use of “hard” and “natural” infrastructural elements. NYC Audubon is strongly supportive of the planned use of natural elements including wetlands, oyster reefs, living shorelines (a combination of reefs, maritime forests, and tidal wetlands), sand dunes, and beach nourishment. In addition to making effective contributions to wave and floodwater attenuation and to shoreline stability, the use of these elements will also provide valuable ecosystem services and create new habitat for the birds and other wildlife of New York City.

 

There are situations, however, where the use of “hard” elements such as sea walls, tide gates, groins, and offshore breakwaters may be more appropriate than natural solutions. It is the view of NYC Audubon that these tools should only be used in coastal areas that are already highly developed. In less-developed areas, hardened elements contribute to the more rapid erosion of sand; as waves strike these relatively smooth, hard surfaces, their energy is reflected back out to sea, pulling sand away from the shore. This can lead to the destabilization of coastal areas, and puts inland areas at greater risk from storm surge and flooding. The Comprehensive Coastal Protection Plan states that solutions will be tailored to match existing patterns of geomorphology and land use, and so it seems that the inappropriate application of hard infrastructure is unlikely.

 

In the coming weeks, NYC Audubon, in collaboration with Audubon New York, will be sending a statement to Mayor Bloomberg, thanking him and expressing support for the incorporation of natural infrastructure in this vision for the future of New York City.

 

You can read more about PlaNYC here.

 

- Darren Klein

 

Field Reports: Yankee, Lima, and Tango

A common tern chick being banded. Photo © Annie Barry

A common tern chick being banded. Photo © Annie Barry

Director of Conservation and Science Susan Elbin reports on exciting work on Governor’s Island:

 

Yankee, Lima, and Tango: Regular visitors to Governor’s Island may know that these are names of three piers on the southern shore of Governor’s Island, each named for the letter that represents their shape: Y, L, and T.  Regular visitors may notknow, however, that these piers are now the sites of three nesting areas (colonies) for common terns!

 

This just hatched common tern chick is well camouflaged in its nest of shells, rocks, wood, and bones. Photo © Annie Barry

This just hatched common tern chick is well camouflaged in its nest of shells, rocks, wood, and bones. Photo © Annie Barry

The nesting population has been growing for the past several years, and this year our team from NYC Audubon, the National Park Service, the Trust for Governors Island, Earth Matter, the Harbor School, and the LiRo/Turner group counted 152 nests at the end of June: 80 on Yankee, 62 on Tango, and 10 on Lima. To help the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and NYC Audubon learn more about the terns, which are listed as a threatened species in New York State, we banded 100 chicks and 10 adults.  We look forward to continued work monitoring this new colony.

 

Treading Lightly to Protect Horseshoe Crabs on Plumb Beach

Hatching horseshoe crab larvae are just a fraction of the size of this tiny shell, most likely from a crab about one year old. Photo © braindamaged217*

Summer intern Debra Kriensky reports on current efforts to protect developing horseshoe crabs on Plumb Beach:


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is set to start Phase II of their work on Brooklyn’s Plumb Beach, and NYC Audubon is advising the Corps on how to tread lightly around something they might not even be able to see: baby horseshoe crabs!

 

Right before Hurricane Sandy hit, the Army Corps completed Phase I of the project, during which they added new sand to the eroding beach in an effort to protect the adjacent Belt Parkway. Phase II, set to begin in July once the majority of horseshoe crab spawning is complete, will involve building permanent stone groins and a breakwater to mitigate future beach erosion. New vegetation being planted on the dunes and a fence will also help protect the Belt Parkway and a popular bike path from drifting sand.

 

While the Army Corps has been preparing for Phase II, the parking lot to the beach has been closed to the public. However, NYC Audubon had been granted access to the beach throughout May and June to monitor the horseshoe crabs that come to Plumb Beach in large numbers during the full and new moon to spawn.

 

And though they arrived a bit behind schedule, horseshoe crabs have indeed returned to Plumb Beach in strong numbers this year, despite the changes made by Sandy and the Army Corps (close to 1,800 crabs counted over 12 nights, compared to around 1,300 in 2012). While numbers of spawning crabs are winding down at this point, heavy machinery and construction on the beach could mean bad news for the hatching larvae. NYC Audubon and partners at Fordham University and the National Park Service are working with the Corps of Engineers to minimize disturbance to hatchlings while respecting the deadlines that have been contracted for the work.
-Debra Kriensky

 

Field Notes: Cormorant Banding on Swinburne Island

Cormorant Chicks © Don Riepe

Summer intern Darren Klein reports on a recent field expedition:

 

On June 20th, a team of NYC Audubon staff, interns, and volunteers traveled to Swinburne Island to band young double-crested cormorants. This long-abandoned island, at various times home to a quarantine hospital and a Merchant Marine training station, has in recent decades become a popular nesting site for a variety of sea birds, including the double-crested cormorant. Once an imperiled species, the double-crested cormorant has made a tremendously successful comeback in recent years. In order to gain a better understanding of this recovery, NYC Audubon has been banding cormorants on Swinburne Island since 2006.

 

After arriving on the island, the team scouted the various cormorant nesting sites–the birds had built a large cluster of nests on the ground, but many more were up in the island’s few remaining trees, and all were full of young birds. The largest chicks were removed from the nests and brought to a holding pen in a nearby clearing, where they waited their turn to be banded. The birds were carefully wrapped in towels and held while each of their legs received a different identification band. The numbers on the bands were recorded, and then each bird was returned to their nest. In total, the team was able to band 85 birds during their three-hour visit.

 

-Darren Klein