Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Keystone Species...

Brants fly in with the Rockaways in the background.
     On Sunday, May 26th, my husband and I went to Jamaica bay in hopes of seeing a keystone species to the Jamaica Bay ecosystem. Jamaica Bay is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, and is a part of the Atlantic Flyway Zone - this means many migrating birds pass through there each spring and fall. Birds use Jamaica Bay as either a final destination in their migration or as a place to stop, fuel up, and continue on their journey. We were hoping to see one of these species, the red knot, a shore bird known for its dependence on the spawning of the horseshoe crabs.
     The horseshoe crab is what we call a keystone species, especially in this instance, the red knot among many shorebirds, relies on a feast of those little green eggs to put on some weight, enough to get them up into the Arctic where they breed and nest for the summer. I don't think we saw any red knots... most go to Delaware Bay, but a few do show up in Jamaica Bay. The ones that do come to Jamaica Bay, according to our guide, fly non-stop from Brazil - pretty amazing. Red knots have been declining in population, probably due to the over collection of horseshoe crabs which are caught and used as bait by fishermen. With less eggs to eat, if red knots cannot put on enough weight - they have to double their body weight - they cannot make it to the Arctic to breed. The horseshoe crab and its yearly spawning ritual is vital to the survival of many shorebirds in their journey to the North. This phenomenon makes the horseshoe crab a keystone species, its yearly ritual of coming ashore to spawn is vital to birds, fish, and turtles that rely on those millions and billions of eggs for nutrition. If the horseshoe crab disappears, it can be severely detrimental to the ecosystem. Think of a game of "Jenga," you can remove a bunch of pieces and it can stand, it will wobble but it still stands, but when you remove that one piece that doesn't budge, the one that when you "test tap" it, that is like your keystone species; you remove that piece and the many other species that are supported by it all fall apart.
     Enjoy what we saw down at Jamaica bay! And, if you are a shorebird nerd, please, help me try to ID some of these guys. Shorebirds are not my forte.

If you can figure out what these are, I can label them... I couldn't get a picture of them on the beach because the group I went with was never really kept together and people didn't really stay clear of the birds. After just having a talk with the guide about how these birds need to eat as much as they can, people didn't give them the space they needed to feel comfortable. Some serious birders looked highly upset, and I was fairly upset too. On the other hand though, I understand that this is a good opportunity for people to get out and discover nature, but I feel like there should have been more instruction by our guide on maintaining a respectful distance. So the only good photos I have are in-flight.
A male is lucky to have a female all to himself!
I guess being covered in sand is the equivalent to privacy... you had to be careful of where you stepped, crabs were all over.
Usually horseshoe crab mating is more like this, the larger female is surrounded by 3 smaller male crabs all trying to get on or around her, so they can hopefully be a dad. Horseshoe crabs have been around for 300 million years, and in that time, their body plan (the way they look) hasn't really changed. It is kind of cool to imagine this scenario happening 300 million years ago. And, remember, horseshoe crabs are not crabs, they are in the same group as spider, arachnids - crabs, like the ones we eat are crustaceans. All, though, are arthropods, that also includes insects, and myriapods (centipedes and millipedes).
I love skulls, this belongs to the sea robin, a fish that looks like it walks over the floor of the ocean. They are often caught by fishermen, either these fish get caught in the tide and are eaten by birds or they are caught by fishermen, used for bait and discarded.
A horseshoe crab does not have a poisonous stinger. The tail, or telson, as it is properly called is important to the crab especially in helping the crab right itself when flipped over. But, if trying to handle a horseshoe crab, grabbing it by the telson can cause it to break, which is no fun for the crab itself. 

Here is another stumper for me, personally... no. Not the brant, but the one making the fly-by. Unfortunately, it's blurry.
The Laughing Gulls are back for the summer!

One ruddy turnstone waits for the beach to clear, this bird also feeds on the horseshoe crab's eggs. 
A red-wing blackbird photobombs a perfect Manhattan skyline.
More fish skulls. This is the part where my husband yells at me for touching dead things.... 
Fairly sure this is a least sandpiper...

     After being sad about not seeing red-knots and the birds being chased away, my husband said we could go to Jamaica Bay Refuge. This made me feel better. Here is what we saw.... Warning: Extreme cuteness ahead...

You don't need to like geese, but if you don't find this cute, well, then, we shouldn't talk...
Me: "You hear that??"
My Husband: "No."
Me: "It is singing, 'drink your tea!'"
My Husband: "No. I don't hear something saying 'drink your tea...'"
An Eastern towee. Listen here
A blurry little blue heron, a first for me, and I suppose my husband too.
Those are Eastern tent caterpillars, which have constructed a silk nest in between the branches of this tree.
An Osprey sits on its nest. The osprey at Jamaica Bay has his own blog too.

They were paddling so hard against the outgoing tide. Tough little guys! And cute too!
My husband spotted this yellow warbler.
Song Sparrow.
The parents were being protective of their baby. Good job, mom and dad!
Baby learns the goose attitude from mom and dad. His little hiss though seems incredibly non-threatening....
A tree swallow claims a nest box.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Happy World Turtle Day

     I am ashamed as a lover of ALL THINGS TURTLE, that it took me half a day to realize it is World Turtle Day today! I love turtles. A lot.

     To celebrate world turtle day, here are some of my favorite turtle encounters... it's like a little walk down memory lane...

My husband... when this was taken, still boyfriend, at the time, and I visited his sister and her family down in Raleigh, NC. This snapper's head was so big, it was totally eating baby ducks, no problem. Look at that devilish smile.
I was a zookeeper and we get a call from someone in the park who found a HUGE turtle. This common snapping turtle was probably a female in search of a suitable place for making a nest. Most people in Brooklyn do not realize that a) we have snapping turtles, b) they belong here, and c) how big they can actually get! We helped her back to a less trafficked area and let her be on her way.
This is the result of the above photo. Found this little guy at work. Baby snappers are incredibly cute. At least I think so.
I was feeding the ducks at work, when I was a keeper. And I noticed that this was not our usual red eared sliders that we have on the pond. It looked like a diamondback terrapin....and was. 
So we are on our honeymoon, and we go to Panama. We travel by dingy to Isla Iguana, which for this reptile girl, is paradise, an island overrun with iguanas. Perfect. And then we snorkeled and this happened... 
Legend has it, according to my husband, I squealed SO LOUD underwater, he heard me from quite a distance away because it has been my dream to see a wild sea turtle....in the wild (I have cared for injured sea turtles before, so that just didn't cut it), and this green sea turtle was it. We swam about with him for so long, we lost track of time and where we were, since we had no guide, swimming around a reef in the Pacific Ocean, that the tide was going out and swimming back was a challenge as you didn't want to damage the coral or scrape yourself on it. We had a few inches clearance from the coral swimming back to shore. But this was like the best thing ever.... I suppose, after getting married. 
And I have to end with this. Meet Yoda. She is my pet 3-toed box turtle. Now why is she in this post? Well, she was an encounter out there in the world. She was brought to the zoo when I was a keeper by a visitor who found her in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  These turtles are native to the mid-west, not so much the east coast. She was clearly a throw away, and no longer wanted by who ever had her. She had scrapes along her plastron hinge (that's the bottom part of the shell) and was incredibly shy and scared. With a visit to the vet, daily injections of antibiotics- which is really hard to do on a turtle that can pull in its extremities AND close its shell, she got better. She, with time... came out of her shell, personality-wise - turtles cannot come out of their shell. The reason I put here here is because 1: wild animals are meant to be wild, if you want a pet, adopt one or buy one that was bread in captivity. Collecting animals from the wild causes decline in population, especially when everyone wants one. 2: Turtles live a long time. I do not know how old Yoda is, but I do know she came to us as an adult, fully grown. She may be with us for another 50 years, and we plan to keep her for how ever long she chooses to crawl this earth. Remember, pets are a commitment and cannot be dumped because chances are they will not survive. Please make good decisions when it comes to wildlife encounters.
 A very happy World Turtle Day to you all, from Yoda and myself!

Skipping Through the Sand

The fog soon burnt off for a warm and sunny day down here in Mill Basin, Brooklyn.
     I love habitats that occur near water, whether fresh or salty. When you are near the water, there is just so much wildlife gathering there for what ever reasons they may have. I decided to go back to the salt marsh down in Mill Basin, where I last saw my lovestruck osprey pair.
     We just ended a few days of rain and after a long foggy morning, the sun came out. All the moisture and plant life made the area humid and with the sun, it was fairly warm. The sun shined strong enough to give me a little color, which for this fair skinned lady is red.
     I started my walk down the western side of the basin. I walked along the beach finding many stranded moon jellies who just couldn't escape low tide. I also accidentally disrupted a horseshoe crab. I thought he was dead, and being the person that loves to touch things, I went to pick what I thought was a dead horseshoe crab, but instead it was a rather lively male horseshoe crab. I did my best to return him back to how I originally found him... half buried in the sand. After encountering swans and brant geese along the shore, I wandered down further where I found terns, sandpipers, and plovers. Beyond the beach, a trail heads through a patchy forest with open specs of grasses. I found it so peaceful to be surrounded by green with no signs of the city except for the occasional siren that was muted well by all the leaves around me. I saw some birds and even more exciting lots of insects, including dragonflies, which don't fly much except for on warm sunny days.
Obligatory pretty preening swan picture.
Mourning Doves feed on the algae at low tide.
Did you know horseshoe crabs are actually closer relatives to spiders and arachnids instead of crabs?

I think the best match would be semipalmated plovers. Shore birds confuse me. Any better ideas? Let me know!
A moon jelly and my foot, for size comparison.
This female yellow warbler cracked me up, I love the middle picture. 

A little blue butterfly on a clover flower. If you know how not big this flower is in real life, you can appreciate the little-ness of the little blue. I have found out from a friend, that this butterfly is actually an Eastern long-tailed blue. Pretty cute, right? 
I love the tiny tail coming off the rear half of the wings.
Yellow throated warblers were everywhere.
A brown headed cowbird. These birds are parasitic nesters. They lay their eggs in other birds' nests. Their babies hatch and are stronger than the host parent's young or hatch before them. The baby cowbird outcompetes its "siblings" and is reared by another bird species.
An indian skipper, a small butterfly. He sat super still, which skippers usually don't do.
My stumper of the day.... I think it is a willow flycatcher. That was my best match.
A mocking bird was acting funny, holding its wings out wide, exposing the white patches that hide under their closed wings. After some inter web research, I learned that mockingbirds are flashers. Not in the creeper in the dark alley way, but behaviorally this communicates something to other mockers or potential predators. Who or what it is communicating to though, is still debated. Learn more about mockingbird flashing here.
     Upon returning to the basin from my walk along the trail, I noticed that a few Diamondback terrapins were sunning themselves on some old pilings. I couldn't help but laugh at one of the turtles that was trying so hard to get a good basking spot but just kept falling backwards into the water. These turtles are protected and regulated in New York state as they were for a while over collected, because they were and are popular as a food source. The terrapins are the only turtle in North America that can inhabit brackish water and in the area, they are found in the space we call the Gateway National Recreation Area.

Diamondback terrapins are reptiles, they cannot control their internal temperatures - they don't metabolize and get their energy the way mammals and birds can. They get their energy and warmth from the outside, the sun, they are ectothermic -- just like I do with the kids, ecto=outside, thermic=temperature, put it together now! 
     The osprey pair looked like they had a lot of work cut out for them. One of them was sitting on the nest and vocalizing from time to time. The other was not seen. I sat and ate my granola bar and tried to wait and see if anyone would return, but the sun was beating down on me and I had no sunscreen on (poor planning). I did see an osprey flying around earlier, the other mate could have possibly been off fishing. Looks like I'll need to visit again to hopefully see some chicks if all goes well for them!

One very patient parent.... 
      And... a few other fun things I saw:
While Osprey watching, I noticed this blurry guy-- common loon? Looks like he was a bit late on the migration memo...
Fiddler crab watching is always quality entertainment, these guys are hilarious, with the males waving their large claws in the air, but scattering when you walk by into the nearest burrow. Not so tough, are you now?
On my way out this red-tail flew and took a perch. Look, it's a youngster who is just growing in the first feathers of it's red tail! Congrats, dude.