Friday, February 1, 2019

Lesser Scaup


A Lesser Scaup drake, or male Bluebill. In addition to the bill color, notice the peaked head.

     Lesser Scaup (Athya affinis) are the most common of our freshwater diving or bay ducks, referred to as pochards in other parts of the globe. Though often just called divers, pochards around the world (there are 16 species in 2 different Genera worldwide) share some similar traits. First of all, most do not inhabit oceans and swim using only their feet (which like other diving birds are placed well back on their bodies). Sea ducks use their wings as well as their feet when swimming. Most male freshwater diving ducks also have similar plumage patterns, of dark patches with light colors (but no colorful patches on their wings), bright colored eyes, and very similar voices due to having the same voice box apparatus (called fenestrated bullae). They all share a common ancestor.
     All Scaup are often called "Bluebills" by hunters and others due to the color of their beaks, which are also tipped in black. Lesser Scaup (sometimes referred to as Little Bluebills) are medium sized ducks, males averaging 1.8lbs, females 1.6lbs. They were first described by an English naturalist named Thomas Campbell Eytan in 1838. The Genus name Athya is Greek for "sea bird". The other members of the Genus, all winter visitors here in the DC region are: Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, and the very similar Greater Scaup. Greater Scaup are larger, have wider beaks (sometimes they're called Broadbills), longer white wing stripes, and rounded heads. Lesser Scaup are smaller, with thinner bills, shorter white wing stripes, and a peaked appearance to their heads. While some claim that Greater Scaup have a greenish look to their heads as compared to the purplish gloss of the Lesser, this is for all practical purposes useless in the field. As a general rule Lesser Scaup do prefer smaller bodies of water and freshwater, while the much less numerous Greater Scaup prefer open and often brackish or saltwater. There is tremendous overlap however and mixed flocks of both can be found, especially the closer you get to the coast. Occasionally both scaup may hybridize or do so with ring-necked ducks as well.
     The word "scaup" some say is a corruption of the Scottish term "scalp" referring to clams, oysters, and mussels that are favored prey items. Others think it's due to a corruption of Dutch or French wording for scallops. Others think it's due to the sound made by the hen.
     Although they feed quite a bit on mollusks as mentioned, either diving or just tipping up to grab them, scaup also feed on plants, seeds and other invertebrates. They seem to really like amphipods such as scuds. Unlike most diving ducks, they may feed at night.
     Since scaup feed on a fair amount of plant material, they do not have the extreme fishy taste of some other diving ducks and are thus considered mild tasting table fare. They are considered much less wary than other divers, and are said to decoy and be lured in fairly well. As they are also the most numerous of all diving ducks, they are often hunted.
     But their numbers are historically down, dropping 59% since 1966. The reasons are not well understood as to why, as they nest in the upper Northwest and in many areas in fairly undisturbed land. Conservation efforts and stricter game laws have not seemed to make any difference. Many think that the declines may be due to climate change, though their numbers are still considered to be secure. Estimates are that there some 3.8 million Lesser Scaup, though their similarity to Greater Scaup (who do nest somewhat more Northwards) makes accurate counts difficult.
     Scaup nest in the pothole areas of the upper Northwest of Canada and Alaska. They are among the last birds to start migration, often waiting until the waters are frozen, forcing them to begin their journeys to wintering grounds. Their migration is often a very drawn out affair. Interestingly, their migration patterns have changed historically, with now many wintering over in the Great Lakes area, many think to take advantage of eating the now numerous numbers of the invasive introduced Zebra Mussels. As these mollusks filter out quite a bit of pollutants and contaminates, some think this may be unhealthy for the ducks. They are also among the last waterfowl to return in the spring, some still migrating in mid May. They are considered the most southerly of our migrating diving ducks, some reaching South America, the Caribbean, and occasionally straying into the Pacific and Europe.
     But when they arrive at their wintering grounds, they do so in a splendid manner. Rafts (flocks of ducks on the water) of hundreds and even thousands of birds are not rare. While they prefer the company of their own kind, they will sometimes have mixed flocks, particularly with other freshwater divers like Greater Scaup or Ring-necked Ducks.

A drake (male) Lesser Scaup mixed in with a small group of Ring-neck drakes.
 
     Scaup form new pair bonds yearly while overwintering. They are among the last ducks to pair up. Males make up 70% or so of the population, so finding a hen to pair up with is not always easy. Scaup are usually at least two years old before mating. Interestingly, the males also do not stay with the hen for very long after she starts nesting.     Hens choose dry areas within 200' of water to nest in, which is different from other diving ducks who often nest precariously near water. Scaup actually lay their eggs while still building their nests, 8-14 olive buff eggs. Older hens lay more eggs and have a better success rate than younger birds. Hens have been known to dump their eggs into the nests of other scaup.The eggs hatch between 21-28 days later. As soon as the fluffy down on the young dries, they can dive underwater to escape danger. Adults have been known to play dead when grabbed by predators, though this has not been noted in ducklings. Often hens form creches, where 1-3 hens tend to the young of multiple nests. Young are abandoned early, often before the 49 or so days it takes them to learn how to fly. With a lot of luck, they can live up to 18 years.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

City Nature Challenge DC 2019!

 
     "Citizen Science" is scientific research and data gathering that is conducted or assisted using public participation, often amateurs and nonprofessionals. Such public interest and wishing to contribute to science is a growing trend, providing many chances to tap into volunteers and collect data. All these extra eyes and ears (and photos) the public can provide can greatly expand how much certain forms of data can be collected. This is what citizen science is all about, with regular people providing useful data, but it also can provide great opportunities for education and public events.    
     Bioblitzes are probably the best known natural history citizen science events. These are typically periods of biological surveying in an attempt to record all the living species within a designated area. Groups of scientists, naturalists and public volunteers conduct intensive field study over a continuous time period (usually 24 hours) and record what they find. A Bioblitz provides a snap shot in time. While it is certainly not a complete record of what lives in the location, if you take enough snap shots over different times and seasons, you can get a good picture of what is going on there. 


     The free iNaturalist app is now more-or-less the standard way for bioblitzes and other citizen science projects to record natural history observations. The beauty of the app is that with a simple uploaded photo, crowd sourcing can then help identify the organism and the observation is recorded so that worldwide any researchers can data mine the info they need. You never know what piece of data you could be providing some researcher somewhere in the world. Here’s a link to various tutorials on how to use the free app: https://www.inaturalist.org/pages/video+tutorials.
     You don't even need to know what you're reporting (though the iNaturalist app has a neat suggested identification feature to provide likely ID possibilities as well). Thanks to crowd sourcing, other, perhaps more knowledgeable, people can provide their ID skills. The suggested ID feature also means that you can basically have a virtual field guide of sorts to use, though it is much better at some taxa than others. The iNaturalist platform can also help users setup different projects to provide ongoing check lists and biotic inventories of parks and other surveyed locations, large and small.  For a great summary of iNaturalist and its use in a bioblitz, setting, please check out this article and video by Steve Baragona of "Voice of America" which features a bioblitz we ran: https://www.voanews.com/a/forget-butterfly-nets-today-naturalists-capture-specimens-on-their-phones/3888031.html.

     The City Nature Challenge is another citizen science event, a friendly global citizen science competition to see which city can have the most people observe the most species of wildlife and plants and record them over a 4-day span of time. Last year 68 cities world-wide competed with many more planning to participate this year from April 26-29. These cities tallied 441,888 observations by 17,329 people. Think of it as a 4 day bioblitz in multiple cities across the globe which is planned to be repeated yearly.
     The next big opportunity, and it is repeated yearly, is the global City Nature Challenge April 26-29, 2019. So mark your calendars and give it a shot, either personally, as part of one of the many planned events, or perhaps to run an event yourself. More information can be found here: http://citynaturechallenge.org/ though there are many cities with their own individual websites as (here’s the Washington, DC one I’m taking part in again for example: https://citynaturechallengedc.org/).
     The DC Metro Area did very well indeed in this global event last year, hosting over 40 events. Its 22,809 observations was 5th place overall among all participating cities, behind San Francisco who originally started the competition 3 years ago (41,737 observations), Dallas/Fort Worth (34,218 observations), San Diego (33,448 observations), and Klang Valley/Greater Kuala Lumpur (25,287 observations). Just behind DC were Houston and then New York. Interesting to note was last place Palmer Station, which is perfectly understandable given its in Antarctica (!) with only 3 people posting 36 observations of 27 species. Just ahead of them was Buenos Aires (170 observations of 96 species by 18 people) and San Salvador (220 observations of 52 species using only 6 people). Worldwide, 124 new species were added the iNaturalist data base that had been present before, with Hong Kong providing 57 of them.

     As far as participation, the DC region again did wonderfully! It came in 4th place overall with 876 participants who recorded observations. This was behind San Francisco (1,532 observers), San Diego County (1,211 observers), and Boston (992 observers), while being ahead of Los Angeles, one of the original cities starting the competition with San Francisco, with 855 observers. With over 40 planned organized events, these group events really paid off.
     The DC Metro area also did remarkably well with its species counts, considering some of the tropical places have so much more potential biodiversity. The DC region came in 8th overall with 1,855 species observed.
     So join the fun this year! There are over 100 cities currently planning to participate during the April 26-29, 2019 Challenge. So save the dates as there will be many chances to participate, either on your own or with one of the myriad of events planned.  Learn more at https://citynaturechallengedc.org./
     Arlington events include a Barcroft Park Mini BioBlitz on Friday April 26 10am-1pm. More event info and to register, contact NaturalResources@arlingtonva.us or call 703-228-7742. And a City Nature Challenge at Gulf Branch nature Center Saturday April 27, from 10am-11:30am, for more info call 703-228-3403. 
     There will be several other events that the Capital Naturalist will be involved with, including a repeat of the fun trip I will lead to Thompson Wildlife Management Area in Linden, VA on Saturday, April 27 featuring the wonderful botanical discoveries and so much more that location has to offer. More to come on that later.
     On a personal note, the Capital Naturalist was proud to be a City Nature Challenge partner (and to be one again this year!) and to have led multiple events in the DC Metro Area. I’m even prouder to have had a good showing overall, with my 533 observations putting me in 5th place on the DC area leaderboard overall, and my 282 species identified placing me in first place in that category for the region. Better yet, it allowed me ample time outdoors with like-minded people making nature discoveries. What's not to like about that? So here's to the City Nature Challenge again this year, hoping to make even more observations, conducting some citizen science and showing the great diversity of the DC region! So save the dates (April 26-29) and plan on participating! if everyone makes just a few observations, we will surely win this friendly global competition, while having fun, contributing to citizen science, making some wonderful discoveries along the way, and showing the that the DC area has great diversity and interest in citizen science!

  

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Citizen Science as Interpretive Events: Of Bioblitzes and City Nature Challenges

 
     "Citizen Science" is scientific research and data gathering that is conducted or assisted with public participation, often by amateurs and nonprofessionals. Such public interest and wishing to contribute to science is a growing trend, providing many chances to tap into volunteers and collect data. All these extra eyes and ears (and photos) the public can provide can greatly expand how much certain forms of data can be collected. This is what citizen science is all about, with regular people providing useful data, but it also can provide great opportunities for interpretation and public events. 
     Bioblitzes are probably the best known natural history citizen science events. These are typically periods of biological surveying in an attempt to record all the living species within a designated area. Groups of scientists, naturalists and public volunteers conduct intensive field study over a continuous time period (usually 24 hours) and record what they find. A Bioblitz provides a snap shot in time. While it is certainly not a complete record of what lives in the location, if you take enough snap shots over different times and seasons, you can get a good picture of what is going on there.



     The free iNaturalist app is now more-or-less the standard way for bioblitzes and other citizen science projects to record natural history observations. The beauty of the app is that with a simple uploaded photo, crowd sourcing can then help identify the organism and the observation is recorded so that worldwide any researchers can data mine the info they need. You never know what piece of data you could be providing some researcher somewhere in the world. Here’s a link to various tutorials on how to use the free app: https://www.inaturalist.org/pages/video+tutorials .
 


This Great Pondhawk Dragonfly was photographed by Arlington Regional Master Naturalist volunteer David Howell during the Arlington, Virginia 2018 Bioblitz. It was identified later by several people and led to quite a bit of discussion in dragonfly circles. as it turns out it was a state record and has never been seen this far North in the East before.
  
     You don't even need to know what you're reporting (though the iNaturalist app has a neat suggested identification feature to provide likely ID possibilities as well). Thanks to crowd sourcing, other, perhaps more knowledgeable, people can provide their ID skills. The suggested ID feature also means that you can basically have a virtual field guide of sorts to use, though it is much better at some taxa than others. The iNaturalist platform can also help users setup different projects to provide ongoing check lists and biotic inventories of parks and other surveyed locations, large and small.  For a great summary of iNaturalist and its use in a bioblitz, setting, please check out this article and video by Steve Baragona of "Voice of America" which features a bioblitz we ran: https://www.voanews.com/a/forget-butterfly-nets-today-naturalists-capture-specimens-on-their-phones/3888031.html.
     The City Nature Challenge is another citizen science event, a friendly global citizen science competition to see which city can have the most people observe the most species of wildlife and plants and record them over a 4-day span of time. Last year 68 cities world-wide competed with many more planning to participate this year from April 26-29. These cities tallied 441,888 observations by 17,329 people. Think of it as a 4 day bioblitz in multiple cities across the globe which is planned to be repeated yearly.
     Bioblitzes and similar citizen science events such as the City Nature Challenge offer a lot of interpretive opportunities. To begin with, different teams and their leaders can serve as natural history walks and short programs. Indeed, by getting well-known experts and naturalists to lead groups, you can attract a nice group of interested people, some of which you may discover have great skill or knowledge in certain areas and thus might be recruited as potential long term volunteers.
     The central meeting location which many bioblitzes use can also be places for environmental groups to man booths, activity tables, conduct short presentations, games, and distribute information. Some activities can be geared for younger audiences and the novice or general audience who may just want to see some potential program or show. But the area can also serve to show people unique activities or to have unusual specimens brought back for ID and to show others. Indeed, having people bring back invertebrates for an expert to ID can prove to provide neat discoveries for the public to make. If you stagger teams and activities, people may show up interested in one thing, but be introduced into others they may not have thought they were interested in but are willing to try out. Many people my want to take advantage of an opportunity to be part of expert teams and learn from them in the field. Take for example this short look at a fungi ID team during a bioblitz and the process they used which fascinated many people who had no idea about this wonderful group of organisms: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLrn51pBzus. Many expressed interest in learning more about these organisms and were fascinated by the myriad of fungi they were introduced to in their local parks.
     In preparation for some the bioblitzes I’ve organized and some of the biotic inventory events I’ve been lucky enough to participate in, we made several preparations that were also good permanent or temporary habitat improvements. This included not only placing of strategic habitat logs and creating stream caves for wildlife, but we also often place "snake boards ". The boards form artificial cover (and can house much more than just snakes!) and are setup in areas we then continue to use to record findings and as part of nature observation programs and walks. We’ve also used bee cup traps, a Malaise flying insect trap, live box traps, nets, seines, black lights, and different baits in the past as well, depending on what taxa we were surveying. Each offered their own program and interpretive opportunities.


Artificial cover, such as these "snake boards" can be placed in advance of a bioblitz or as part of any biotic inventory, and can be left permanently or moved about as places to check during walks or providing additional habitat features.

         The power of people making these “discoveries” themselves cannot be overestimated. Good interpreters understand the importance of the “wow” or “teachable moment” when something comes up and makes an important impression with the individual(s) who found it. Well, when people are out with a leader or on their own and make these discoveries themselves, it can make a real impact and offer a unique interpretive moment. Every outing can have the potential for such impactful “finds”. These discovery moments also help people become aware of what lives in their parks, which hopefully leads to appreciation, wanting to understand more, and wanting to take care of the places where they’ve made these discoveries, what some will note are the social continuum steps towards stewardship. That people make these discoveries themselves and in their neighborhood parks makes the stewardship experience even more powerful.
 

An electro fish shocking team of colleagues from Fairfax were of great interest to people during the 2017 Arlington Bioblitz.


     These type of biotic survey events can also offer great networking and public relations possibilities. Staff from neighboring jurisdictions and environmental groups have often assisted and provided their expertise for events. I myself have also assisted many other jurisdictions and groups in their bioblitzes, City Nature Challenge, or other events. This allows for good networking opportunities, sharing of knowledge, good will, and unofficially "talking shop." Media often take great interest in these of public events, as shown in the Voice of American video linked above and much coverage of ongoing citizen science events. 
     So citizen science special events have great potential as interpretive and media events. They are rewarding to participants while providing potential data for researchers.  The next big opportunity, and it is repeated yearly, is the global City Nature Challenge April 26-29, 2019. So mark your calendars and give it a shot, either personally, as part of one of the many planned events, or perhaps to run an event yourself. More information can be found here: http://citynaturechallenge.org/ though there are many cities with their own individual websites as (here’s the Washington, DC one I’m taking part in again for example: https://citynaturechallengedc.org/) Your own interpretive moments may help to provide valuable data to researchers while helping you and the public discover the wonders of the natural world all around their parks.

 Alonso Abugattas
The Capital Naturalist on social media (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, & Blogspot) CapitalNaturalist@gmail.com            Cell: 571-274-7403