Archive for January, 2010

I came across this website while reading one of my magazines, OnEarth, recently and it seems really interesting.  The website is called Encyclopedia of Life and was first conceived in 2003 by E.O. Wilson, arguable one of the greatest naturalists of our time.

The goal of the site is to “grant each of the documented 1.8 million species on earth a page featuring a detailed summary of everything known about it: it’s scientific name, habitat and geographic range and distribution, what it eats and is eaten by, and where it is found in the evolutionary tree of life.” So far there are around 170,000 pages set up so it’s coming along.

One of the neatest things about this site (besides great information that we can get on our local Loudoun species) is how it pulls together the pages. There isn’t some poor webmaster sitting there typing all these different pages. Instead, it uses automated indexing similar to how Google functions, to pull in web pages into a standardized format, enabling standalone databases around the world to talk to each other and extract the data. Pretty cool.

Anyway, I wanted to share this with you in case you hadn’t come across it yet since it’s such a good resource as we learn about our local Loudoun wildlife and their habitats.

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I know I posted this in the January email announcement but that was weeks ago! :) So, I thought it’d be good to send out a quick reminder. Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy is a member of the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition and we’ll have a table set up to meet and greet people. This will be a great event for the whole family.

In Our Backyards: A Celebration of Loudoun’s Historic and Environmental Heritage

Sunday, January 31, 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Loudoun Water in Ashburn.Sponsored by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition, a group of local organizations dedicated to the preservation, enhancement, and celebration of Loudoun’s unique historic and environmental assets.

Come and enjoy multiple exhibits highlighting each organization’s activities. Learn how you can get involved in preservation and conservation projects in Loudoun. Visit Loudoun Water’s Aquiary. Enjoy light refreshments. Attend a short talk by Rich Gillespie, a well known authority on Loudoun’s heritage.

The event is free and open to the public. Location: Loudoun Water, 44865 Loudoun Water Way, Ashburn, VA (off of Loudoun County Parkway). You can get directions at: www.LoudounWater.org.

Exhibitors: Loudoun Preservation Society, Piedmont Environmental Council, Audubon Naturalist Society, Banshee Reeks Chapter of the Archeological Society of Virginia, Loudoun County Civil War Roundtable , Friends of Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve, Friends of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Goose Creek Association, Lincoln Preservation Foundation, Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, Mount Zion Church Preservation Association, Morven Park, Mosby Heritage Area Association,Sustainable Loudoun, Unison Preservation Society, Waterford Foundation

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Everything in nature contains all the power of nature
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Calling all birders and bird enthusiasts!  Have you ever seen a Rusty Blackbird? I haven’t, which is why there’s no photo in this post, but we have them in Loudoun!  When they’re here, we see them in the late fall and later in late winter but it’d sure be great to find some during this winter blitz!  We’re thinking that the most likely areas for them would be around Horsepen Preserve and Algonkian due to the habitat found there.

Anyway, if you can get out and bird during the Blitz, let us know if you find any! The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a great identifaction page on Rusty Blackbirds (complete with photos and sounds of their calls).

Following the success of the 2009 Blitz, the 2010 Rusty Blackbird Winter Blitz will take place from January 30th through February 15th across multiple states in the bird’s wintering range.

Coordinated by the International Rusty Blackbird Technical Working Group out of the Smithsonian, the Rusty Blackbird Blitz is a citizen science-based effort to document Rusty Blackbird (RUBL) locations across their wintering range in a centralized database, thus providing groundwork for researchers to conduct their work in the future. This work is indeed vital as the declining Rusty Blackbird is considered Vulnerable by the IUCN and is currently listed by the National Audubon Society as an A1 Species of Conservation Concern at the Global Level.

In Virginia, the Rusty Blackbird Winter Blitz is being brought to you by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Society of Ornithology and the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory. Essentially, we need all available birders to go birding as much as possible during the Blitz period and record their results (including habitat information and the presence or absence of RUBLs) through the Virginia eBird portal at http://ebird.org/content/ebird/va in addition to sending the sightings in to our Bird Atlas Coordinator, Spring Ligi: sligi@loudounwildlife.org.

Important Blitz protocol information and more can be found at http://nationalzoo.si.edu/ConservationAndScience/MigratoryBirds/Research/Rusty_Blackbird/protocol.cfm.

Also, please visit http://www.vabci.org/rusty-blackbird.asp to find more information on the Blitz and on the status, distribution and ecology of the Rusty Blackbird in Virginia.

Finally, if you have any questions please feel free to contact Sergio Harding, Virginia’s Blitz Coordinator, at sergio.harding@dgif.virginia.gov.

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I came across a very well done video on bats and the white nose syndrome. It talks about not only bats and the fungi but also what is being done to try to address the problem before it’s too late. It also talks about the role that bats have in our ecosystem and the impact of losing bats and other species that may die as a result of the loss of bats. It’s really an interesting video.

This disease has presented itself in Virginia, so this is definitely relevant to our Loudoun bats. Here’s the link where you can find the video: The Battle for Bats.

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On January 23rd, sixteen of us ventured out along the back roads of Loudoun in search of raptors! And we found quite a few – 49 in fact, not including the vultures (at least 50)!

We consolidated ourselves into just four cars and had our walkie talkies ready so we could call out our sightings along the way. The day was great for this – a slight chill in the air but overall sunny and calm.

Here’s our list of Raptors from the trip and a few notes from our encounters:

Bald Eagles (3): At first, we saw just a lone juvenile sitting in a tree. Then an adult came flying in and usurped the position (it must have been a good look out spot). The adult stayed in the spot for a good while as we got our spotting scopes out to get even better looks. For the whole time we were at this spot, we kept scanning the big Bald Eagle nest for activity. The pair had been seen recently tending to the nest, making preparations for nesting. As we were about to go (yea, we had the scopes all put away and started to drive off), the pair flew into the nest! So, we backed up and got our scopes back out so we could spy on them a bit. It was great to see the male and female in there, fixing things up and getting ready for the egg laying. This pair of Bald Eagles seems to lay eggs a little later than others in the area but have been very successful with their fledglings. We look forward to watching them raise their 2010 brood.

Northern Harriers (4) and Red-tailed Hawks (29): At one of the fields we stopped at we had at least 8 Red-tailed Hawks hunting mice over a field.  They liked to perch on posts in and along the field which gave us great opportunities to focus in on them. As we watched, two Harriers came in, coursing low over the grass, looking and listening for field mice (really voles). Their white rump patch was a give away as we saw them flying. The ones we saw were either females or juveniles, as we didn’t see any of the Grey Ghosts (males).

American Kestrels (3): One of the kestrels we found was in a tree on a road where we could pull out the spotting scopes for a good look. It was a male in full fabulous color.

Red-Shouldered Hawks (6), Coopers Hawks (2), Sharp-Shinned Hawk (1):The other raptors we saw were mostly while driving but we got some great views. Driving slow along the back roads, we were able to watch a Red-Shoulder sitting on a dead tree, maybe 30 feet away from us. We also watched a Red-tailed hawk feed on a deer carcass (see the fun we have! :) ) The Coopers Hawks and Sharpie were pretty much seen in flight but one sat out on a wire giving us good views as we slowly drove by.

All in all, an excellent day. Owls were missing but we know they were out there watching us. We did hear one Barred owl calling at the wetlands….”who cooks for you?”

We also had a large kettle of about 50 Black Vultures soaring near Evergreen Mills Rd.

I posted a few photos to our Loudoun Wildlife Facebook page so you can check them out there.

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There’s a terrific new project being started in Loudoun Valley High School through environmental sciences teacher, Liam McGranaghan, and I thought it’d be great to share information on it with you now as well as post updates later as the students get rolling. With the many farms still active throughout Loudoun, we have a great opportunity here to not only learn more about these wonderful birds but also help them survive into the future.

Barn Owls are a species of concern in Virginia and many areas of the United States.  Wildlife biologists believe one of the principle factors for their decline is the lack of adequate nesting places. Barn owls are well adapted to human structures and many use old barns and particularly old silos to nest and raise young. 

Unfortunately, old silos are not always safe structures to raise owlets, especially if the silo allows access by nest predators such as raccoons. By locating silos in Loudoun County that may serve as possible nest sites for barn owls, researchers can visit those silos to determine their potential for breeding owls. 

For silos that have potential, but may be unsafe for nesting owls, it may be possible to modify the silo to make them usable.  This can be done by sealing open doors on the silo and/or placing nest boxes strategically in the silo to deter nest predators.

The goal of LVHS environmental students is three fold.  First, is to locate potential Barn owl nesting silos in Loudoun County using Google Earth.  Secondly, once silos sites have been located, the students will visit these silos to determine their potential for nesting.

Because owl roosting and nesting is very sensitive, the students will be given full instruction on how to approach a silo and care that must be taken in order to not disturb any owls using the structures that they investigate. The greatest concern and priority is for the welfare of the owls and this will be emphasized to the students in their training.

Students will determine the quality of the site by using a rating rubric. Finally, students will bolster barn owl populations through community outreach (Educating local landowners) and by obtaining permission, correct deficiencies in potential barn owl nesting silos that allow access by nest predators. 

All Barn owls chicks born in these silos will be banded with a USFWS band.  Data gathered during the study will also be supplied to the Virginia Department of Game and Fisheries and to Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy for the Loudoun County Bird Atlas.

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I thought it would be interesting to do a monthly posting on Monarch butterflies: where they are and how they’re doing throughout the year. I’ll apologize in advance for the news in this post because it’s a bit of a downer but hopefully the news of the Monarch populations will improve as we move through the year.

For those who attended my program on Monarchs this past year, you know that they have a pretty interesting lifecycle that takes them through 4 generations of butterflies over the course of the year with the fall generation being the one that makes the epic journey all the way to Mexico! They rely on habitat here and in Mexico and both are under threats of different sorts. That, combined with the usual challenges of weather that they face make the great Monarch migration an endangered phenomenon.

But let’s kick off with catching up with our Monarch friends - those Monarch butterflies that you saw in late August, September and into October flew 2,000 miles to a very special mountain area near the town of Angangueo, Mexico. That is where they are right now: in a tiny mountain forest area outside of Mexico City, at an altitude of around 8,000 – 10,000 feet, clinging to branches of Oyamel pine trees, resting and awaiting the change in season so they can breed and begin the migration back.

Unfortunately, the numbers this year are at an all-time low. The World Wildlife Fund’s Mexico staff have been monitoring the number of monarchs and I saw this report from them posted by Monarch Watch. The places I visited last February and showed in my program were the three colony sanctuaries mentioned in the report below:

“The news is not good. The total area occupied by monarchs at the overwintering sites in December was 1.92 hectares. Only 7 colonies were found. The three largest colonies El Capulin (Cerro Pelon) 0.53ha, El Rosario 0.50ha, and Cerro Prieto (Chincua) 0.47ha constitute 78% of the total area. The totals for both hectares and numbers of colonies are at an all time low.

Good records of the numbers of colonies and area occupied go back to 1992 and there is less complete data for most years going back to the late 1970s and numbers this year appear to be lower than observed for any year since the overwintering colonies became known to science in 1975. The lowest previous total, 2.19 hectares, was reported in 2004.

This decline continues a trend that started in the late 1990s. In the decade of the 90s the mean area occupied by monarch colonies was close to 9 hectares. The mean for the last 10 years, through the 09 migration, is now below 5 hectares per year and the three lowest monarch overwintering populations were reported in this decade.”

Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch offers explanations for the low numbers:

“Without going into great detail and wishing not to repeat the October report, here is a brief summary of the reasons for the low overwintering numbers.

1.) High temperatures in Texas in March and early April limited production of first generation monarchs. It is these monarchs that recolonize the northern breeding range and fewer monarchs moving north/northeast out of Texas from late April to June impacts the rest of the breeding season.

2.) Conditions were less than ideal for the first generation monarchs as they moved north in May and early June.

3.) Upon arrival in Minnesota monarchs encountered drought conditions that limited reproductive success of first generation in that area.

4.) As the summer progressed, cool and cool, rainy conditions prevailed in many areas, limiting reproduction and slowing development of larvae.

5.) Colder than normal condition prevailed for most of the western two thirds of the northern breeding area from mid June into early September.

In many respects the conditions during the monarch breeding season in 2009 were a repeat of the conditions seen in 2004 that contributed to the previous low overwintering population number of 2.19 hectares.

In spite of the recent cold snap that reached into Mexico, there have been no indications of weather related mortality at the overwintering sites. Let’s hope that normal winter conditions prevail during the next 7-8  weeks. Even if there should be some mortality, our experience with the disaster of 2002, in which an estimated 80% of the population died as the result of a January storm, showed that, if at least 1 hectare of monarchs survives to move north and, IF they encounter normal conditions as they move north through Mexico and in Texas, the population can recover.”

Ok, so the news isn’t great this month but there’s the glimmer of hope that Chip offers that the population can recover if they don’t encounter further setbacks. Let’s hope there aren’t any bad cold snaps in Mexico over the next few weeks.

If there is enough interest, I’d be happy to do my program on Monarchs and their lifecycle again this Spring – just let me know.

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Yup, there’s a new identification book out by David Sibley but it’s not a bird book…this time it’s on Trees! As far as I know, this is the first non-bird book that David has written and indeed, I think it will be really useful. Sure, there are pros and cons to the guide, as there with every one out there, but overall I like it.

He starts the book with general terminology for tree identification, has drawings of the different types of leaves, flowers and bark we will encounter, and then gets right into the families and species of trees themselves.

Each section starts with an overview of the family and then the pages that follow go into the details of each species, including range maps, drawings of the leaves (in different seasons), flowers and fruit. He also includes drawings of the bark and trunks and shapes of the trees and includes general characteristics on the species that aid with identification.

I also really like that for each species he indicates if it’s native to the US and if not, where it came from. In many cases,  he shares interesting information such as survival tactics used by specific trees or information on how people have used the tree in years gone by.

One thing that would have been nice with this book is an identification key - the way David intended this book was for you to flip through it looking at the drawings to narrow down the identification. This is ok if you already know the family but trickier if it’s a completely unknown tree.

Definitely a neat tree book to have on-hand though as we try to identify them through the seasons! Oh, and in good naturalist form, he includes a full checklist of the different species at the back of the book so we can check off our sightings :)

Amazon has a short video clip with David talking about this book and how it can best be used in the field. Click on the link here to see it: The Sibley Guide to Trees.

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We got some very sad news the other day about Liam McGranaghan’s wonderful Red-tailed hawk being killed by a cat. And while Banjo is gone now, we wanted to send a note about this story so that it can be learned from. We love cats. I have 4 myself, 3 of which were feral cats that were coming to my bird feeders so I adopted them (or they adopted me, or something like that) and brought them indoors. They’re very happy inside. But, there are many many more out there.

As a community, it’s our responsibility to address this issue. Cats are not wildlife and should not be made to suffer outside, getting diseases and parisites. This example of a Red-tailed Hawk being killed is just one of thousands that plays out every day across our county yet it’s something tha goes virtually unnoticed. We can help address the problem through supporting our local Loudoun County Humane Society, the Loudoun County Animal Care and Control and other local animal rescue organizations as well as through keeping our own cats indoors.

A Tragic and Untimely Death
by Karen Coleman

January 11, 2010:  Banjo died today.  Her death was sudden, tragic, violent and unnatural.  A feral cat killed her.

Banjo was a beautiful, elegant young Red-tailed Hawk belonging to master falconer Liam McGranaghan.  Liam had raised her from a chick, spending countless hours over the last three years feeding her, tending her, and training her to hunt.  Along the way they bonded in that unique way that happens when a human is fortunate enough to develop mutual respect and love with another species and have it returned in kind.

Liam is a good friend, and I encouraged him to bring Banjo over to hunt our woods.  He agreed and gave Banjo a trial flight before Christmas.  Banjo’s flying went well but no food was caught.  Perhaps the heavy snow on the ground was just too strange for her.

We decided to try again on January 11.  Everything was going well, as Banjo flew and began to hunt.  From a tree branch, she tracked a squirrel on the ground, and, as Liam watched, flew towards it.  Unfortunately, also on the ground nearby was a feral cat leaving its den in the woods.  Cat and hawk clashed, and Banjo was killed instantly.  Liam ran to his hawk, but it was too late.

We had no idea there was a feral cat living in the vicinity.  If we had, Banjo would never have flown here.  I don’t blame the cat; it was defending itself.  But, it should not have been here in the first place.  Free-roaming cats, whether feral or domesticated, do not belong in nature.  They are often victims of abandonment, accidental loss, or failure by owners to keep their domesticated pets indoors and neutered or spayed.  They are also voracious predators of birds. 

Don’t misunderstand me, I love cats.  I have a Calico named Emma who is loved by my husband and me and is a big part of our family.  However, I also know that she is a dangerous predator, and given the chance would take any bird she could find.  She stays indoors and is very active, content and healthy.

The day after Banjo was killed, I was driving to Fairfax and listening to the news on the radio.  A report came on about the work of the Wildlife Center of Virginia and the animals they had rescued and treated over the past year.  During 2009, 222 animals were brought to the center after free-roaming cats attacked them.  

According to the center’s website, www.wildlifecenter.org, “birds and other animals that survive an initial cat attack are still in danger; unless treated, infections from the toxic bacteria found in a cat’s mouth kill a significant number of animals.”

Banjo never had a chance.

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