Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Spectacle of Swallows

When you hear the phrase “wildlife spectacle,” what comes to mind? Many people would think of wildebeest on the Serengeti, Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska, or raptor migration in Mexico. The spectacle of Tree Swallow migration has been known to science for many years, but this event is not familiar to most wildlife enthusiasts.

On the lower Colorado River (LCR) where GBBO runs its Riparian Birds Survey project, our crews have been enjoying the sight of Tree Swallow migration for years. Even the sight of thousands of birds streaming over a survey site on their way north can be amazing to see, but the real spectacle happens when the birds go to their roost for the night. On their chosen lakes, sites with suitable extensive marsh to roost in, swallows stream over the water, swirl over the marsh, and gather in flocks high over the lake. Eventually, all the swallows gain elevation and stream into masses high in the sky. The ball of swallows moves through the sky with the liquidity of smoke, merging and splitting, climbing and shifting as the light dims.  Eventually, just before dark, a few hundred birds break off from the flock, diving almost straight down toward the marsh before breaking at the last moment and settling into the cattails, preparing to roost for the night.  As more and more birds join in the plummet to the marsh, they appear as whirling vortices to the naked eye, like twisting pillars of smoke or small tornadoes.

LCR Crew members checking out an earlier swallow swarm in Lake Havasu City
In the past few days, part of the LCR crew (Lauren Harter, Dawn Fletcher, Bob Baez, and Andrew Eberly) had the opportunity to experience the full effect of the swallow vortex. We were camping at Picacho State Recreation Area north of Yuma, and when we arrived at the campground, we immediately noticed a steady stream of swallows flying in from the desert to the south of us. They had left the green lowlands of the Colorado River valley to cruise low over the desert for about 20 miles, apparently with no doubt that a marshy oasis was waiting for them. Soon the masses began to form overhead, and we joyfully realized that a vortex was going to form just across the river from us! Binoculars and spotting scope in hand, we stood by the river and watched as breathtaking clouds of swallows began to form in the sky. 

Swallows swarmed over the river, continued to stream in over the trees, and darkened the sky over the nearby marshes and mountains. The swarm just across the river from us was nearly as impressive as any we had seen, but we were in awe when we realized that another swarm, several times larger, swirled across the horizon to the west. The birds gathered into tighter groups and flew higher, until that critical moment when thousands suddenly plunged together in a continuous stream into the marsh. The whooshing of tens of thousands of wings was audible from across the river, though the birds didn’t utter a peep. After about six minutes of funneling, followed by the last stragglers circling again and again before following the rest into the marsh, the skies were once again calm.
In all, we estimated 1.2 million Tree Swallows in the swarms visible from our vantage point. This ties the high count for the lower Colorado River!

The following evening, we didn’t expect another big show, as there surely couldn’t be many birds left to swarm up. The world population of Tree Swallow is estimated at 17 million (Partners in Flight 2012. Species Assessment Database), and huge numbers of this species had already been reported migrating north for at least a month. The birds we had seen the night before were clearly not sticking around, either: we had seen them streaming in from the south, and in the morning watched them head north, with very few around during the day. However, to our amazement, when evening rolled around the birds streamed in and formed huge congregations as they had before. Though the numbers were about half what they had been the previous evening, it was still a spectacle!
Both mornings before dawn, we saw the last few thousand birds leaving their roosts and heading north. The dawn flyout is very different, with the birds forming dense murmurations of smoke cruising relatively low and flying steadily upstream. They also call during this time, which causes quite a cacophony of twitters with a thousand birds overhead! The dawn flyouts we witnessed were nowhere near as spectacular as this one in Florida, or as the evening concentrations, but still were amazing to see.

The LCR Crew looking for swallows on Lake Havasu
Below is a video taken of the closer, smaller swarm we witnessed on our first night at Picacho. This was taken through a spotting scope so doesn’t show the full scale of the cloud, but it does give an idea of the spectacle! At about 2:30, the birds start to funnel into their roost for the night. Enjoy! 

- Lauren

Monday, April 20, 2015

Searching for Black Rail Records in Nevada

The official checklist for Nevada is maintained by the Nevada Bird Records Committee (NBRC), which also maintains a list of species considered rare enough in the state to require documentation, called the "review list". There are still a handful of "review species" on the checklist for which there are no NBRC-endorsed records. One of those species is the Black Rail, and that's where GBBO and its contacts might be able to help.

There have been several reports of Black Rails encountered during surveys in southern Nevada. However, there has been no reviewable documentation for this species provided to the NBRC. Of course, seeing, and especially photographing, a Black Rail is no easy task.  But modern technology has provided a relatively straightforward way for someone encountering a Black Rail to document it satisfactorily using video available on most cameras and cell phones to record diagnostic vocalizations. And HEARING a Black Rail is a heck of a lot easier than seeing one!

So this is a plea to all of you who are out there in Black Rail habitat.  Should you encounter one, vocalizing on its own or in response to playback used in surveying, please try to record the diagnostic vocalizations.  Submission of such recordings to the NBRC, along with location, date, circumstances of observation, and names and contact information of the observer(s), would very likely permit an endorsement by the committee, assuring that Black Rail remains on the state checklist.

Martin Meyers
Secretary, NBRC
email: NevadaBirdRecords --at-- GBBO.ORG