Historical data – shorebirds and a sea turtle on the Virginia Coast Reserve

Long ago my life was quite different.

I spent a lot more time outside and I traveled to some pretty wild places. I did not, however, carry a camera with me. Back in those days, you might have a compact on you with some utility, but it was useless for anything more than a few feet or less than a few inches away. It was really only serious photographers with great equipment who could capture their work in the field. In addition to all the important humanitarian stuff I might be able to accomplish if I had access to a TARDIS, I’d spend a lot of my time eBird-ing and iNaturalist-ing if I had the chance to go back.


I’m totally going birding with this thing.

As a result, I’ve got a far better record of places and dates of my more recent exploits than I do of my historical ones – and the latter were much cooler than anything I’ve done recently. My profiles on eBird and iNat look like I’ve barely spent any time in Virginia or West Virginia or California or Pennsylvania or Maryland or Florida – and don’t get me started on my native home in central New York. Heck I spent a week in Mexico and only have about 10 photos to show for it.


But I do have something pretty valuable nonetheless – my museum-quality field notebooks. Drummed into us as undergrads was the preparation of detailed notes of everywhere we went and everything we found, using a standardized format, scientific names, acid-free ink, and 50% cotton “ornithology” paper. I was awful at this, with my leaky pens, chicken-scratch handwriting, and inability to capture nearly enough detail. There are some gems in my collection though, and I’ve been slowly revisiting them to find historical data for citizen science databases.

I’ve been able to piece together information from my notes with some of those rare photographs to make citizen science contributions of historical data, and it is gratifying to see those data live on somewhere other than a box in my office.

Today I submitted an eBird checklist and iNaturalist observation from a survey in which I took part back on May 15, 1990. With colleagues Steve Rottenborn, Barry Truitt, Ruth Beck, Joe Mersereau, Mary Mersereau, Caren Caljouw, and Kurt Buhlmann, I trudged along several miles of sandy beach on Hog Island in The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve, Northampton County, Virginia, USA. Back in those days, Barry was with the VCR, Ruth, Steve, and I were with the Department of Biology at the College of William and Mary, Joe and Mary were volunteers with Earthwatch, and Caren and Kurt were biologists with the Division of Natural Heritage in the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation.  We went to Hog Island that day to conduct surveys for migrating shorebirds and breeding beach-nesting birds, especially Piping Plover.

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Piping Plover, an obligate beach-nester. Who wouldn’t want to spend a day looking for nests of a creature as adorable as this?

We did find some plovers, but a good bit of excitement that day was furnished by a dead Leatherback Sea Turtle we found mostly buried in the wet sand. Steve and I spent about 90 minutes digging it out so we could take some measurements. We couldn’t see any obvious injury, other than a long-since-healed hole in the right front flipper that looked like it might have at one time held some kind of tag. When we returned to civilization, we reported the observation to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and the last I heard they were planning to come collect the carcass for necropsy.

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Steve Rottenborn channeling St. Thomas in his examination of the old wound.

Now that photo is really cool, and it vividly recalls for me the events that day. But it was the ability to match it with my field notes that confirmed for me the date and location and who we were with that gave me something meaningful I could contribute to iNaturalist today. Had I not put in the time to record those details back then, it would just be a cool photo today and of limited value as any kind of historical record.

Of course, we were really there to survey birds on the beach, and it was my delight today to upload this list into eBird. Check out those shorebirds! I knew this was a special opportunity back then, but I didn’t realize how special until I left those wild islands in 1991.

Hog Island, Northampton, Virginia, US
May 15, 1990 9:30 AM – 6:30 PM
Protocol: Historical
Comments: Seaside whole-island survey with Barry Truitt, Steve Rottenborn, Ruth Beck, Joe Mersereau, Mary Mersereau, Caren Caljouw, and Kurt Buhlmann.
33 species (+1 other taxa)

Gadwall 2
American Black Duck 15
Surf Scoter 1
White-winged Scoter 1 Sorry, no details.
Northern Gannet 9
Brown Pelican 1
Great Egret 2
Snowy Egret 6
Osprey 2
Northern Harrier 1 Sorry, no details. Presumably seen over the dunes working the Spartina patens.
American Oystercatcher 74
Black-bellied Plover 75
Wilson’s Plover 1 Did not nest on Hog Island in 1990, but did nest just south on Cobb that year.
Semipalmated Plover 645
Piping Plover 13
Ruddy Turnstone 28
Red Knot 521
Sanderling 1133
Dunlin 618
Semipalmated Sandpiper 68
Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitcher 7
Willet 35
Laughing Gull 16
Herring Gull 137
Great Black-backed Gull 23
Least Tern 56
Gull-billed Tern 15
Common Tern 111
Forster’s Tern 4
Royal Tern 2
Black Skimmer 253
Peregrine Falcon 1 At that time, nesting on old fire/Nazi submarine watch tower.
Bank Swallow 1
Boat-tailed Grackle 4

View this checklist online at https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S46639059

This report was generated automatically by eBird v3 (http://ebird.org)

What about you?  Have you some hidden gems in your archives?  Why not look around and see what historical data you could contribute to citizen science today?

Posted in animal behavior, birding, birds/nature, Endangered Species Act, environment, evolution, history, IUCN, life, Links, migrants, Partners in Flight, population estimates, population monitoring, sea turtle, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yellow-breasted Chat display

The Waterthrush Blog

Growing up in New York, I longed to see and hear the Yellow-breasted Chat, a beautiful bird of southern thickets known more for its unusual song as its brilliant yellow-orange breast. While some chats can be found in New York, and even points farther north, their real stronghold is in the southeastern US. That’s where one can stand in one spot and be serenaded by several chats simultaneously.

I first got my chance with chats in the summer of 1990, when I found them near the southern tip of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Chats on the Eastern Shore use woodland edge, old fields, and shrubby wax myrtle thickets for breeding, sometimes right up to the edge of the salt marsh. My first chat I only heard: these birds are usually very difficult to see despite their bright colors. Their song, however, is distinctive. It starts like the call of a Fish…

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tuliptree in flower

The Waterthrush Blog

You may be familiar with Liriodendron tulipifera, the “tulip-bearing lily tree” commonly called tuliptree, tulip poplar, yellow poplar, or canoetree. I never knew this tree from the beech-maple-hemlock forests of my upstate NY youth, but came to appreciate it years later as a spectacular member of humid forests in the Southeast and the central Appalachians. Why spectacular? Tuliptrees, for one, can get huge: in mature forests, specimens over 100 feet tall are common, and they might make 200 feet if left alone for long enough. The trunks on these big trees are massive as well, and they tend to be branchless for a good distance up. Their shiny green leaves are also vaguely shaped like a tulip, so the tree is easy to recognize during the growing season. They have persistent, big fruiting bodies that adorn the tree in winter, making it easy to recognize then as well. But…

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weekly haiku – the kids’ first one

The Waterthrush Blog

Katie likes kitties.

They wrote this haiku themselves.

James is a doggie.

(Not particularly inspired we know, but they were both dressed as these respective pets when they wrote it.)

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Audubon’s The Birds of America at the University of Michigan

Since touring the natural history collections at the University of Michigan a few years ago, I have included an abridged version of this tale in my classes when trying to impress upon them the significance of John James Audubon and his The Birds of America. Here is a far more intricate re-telling by James Tobin writing for The Heritage Project at the University of Michigan.

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John Syme’s 1826 portrait of John James Audubon.

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Detail from Plate No. 25, “Black and Yellow Warbler”, i.e., Magnolia Warbler.

Posted in academics, animal behavior, birding, birds/nature, editorial, environment, history, National Audubon Society, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Where we wouldn’t put wind turbines

Speaking of turbines (and again, nine years ago), where *wouldn’t* we put them?

The Waterthrush Blog

Let’s just say for the sake of argument that wind power actually was as “green” as developers and lobbyists would have us believe – a big stretch, but bear with me. It would make good energy sense to erect towers and transmission lines anywhere we had favorable winds, right? But I suspect there would be some examples of places that – again for the sake of argument – were windy enough for development to make sense, but were otherwise so important to us that we wouldn’t actually want the spot developed for wind power. Here are a few examples:

Ellis Island?

Fenway Park?

The Rose Bowl?

Arlington National Cemetery?

Gettysburg National Park?

Colonial Williamsburg?


Old Faithful?

Mount Rushmore?

Yosemite National Park?

The Hollywood sign?

Surely it’s only the truly deluded (or simply the biggest jerks) who would ever consider drastically altering the character and quality of these special places…

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The dark side of wind power

I was already fed up with wind farms in 2009.

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We can talk about numbers – more birds are killed by windows than anything else – so the number of birds killed by wind turbines is generally thought to be an acceptable amount of “collateral damage.” But what about seeing it as it happens? Is watching a majestic, soaring bird violently ripped from the air by the sweep of a wind turbine’s rotor blade enough to steer our national conversation on wind power toward greater attention in sustainability and the identification of absolute “no build” areas? See for yourself here.
Much credit is due billionaire T. Boone Pickens for his effort to promote wind power as an alternative energy strategy, but the simple fact is that the most productive areas for development frequently overlap areas of great importance to native wildlife. Michael Fry‘s opinion piece in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times points out the problem well.

It’s time we started…

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