Elkhorn Slough: 2015 Burrowing Owl Workshop

BUOW WorkshopThe Elkhorn Slough Coastal Training Program is once again sponsoring the Burrowing Owl Workshop 2015 for the second year running with presenter Dr. Lynne Trulio (Department Chair, Environmental Studies, San Jose State). The workshop, slated for Friday, August 14, 2015 at Michaels At Shoreline (the Shoreline Golf Links clubhouse) in Mountain View, CA, will provide a comprehensive review of the species’ biology and conservation efforts with both classroom lecture and field training. Among the topics covered in the classroom are natural history, species identification, distribution/movement, habitat requirements, threats, survey methods, methods for assessing potential project impacts and approaches for avoidance and minimization, and management and regulatory requirements. In the field, participants will learn to survey for active burrowing owl burrows; identify and distinguish burrowing owl burrows; identify and sex adults; identify and age chicks; determine appropriate human disturbance buffer distances; and view examples of burrowing owl nesting and foraging habitat enhancement measures. Space is limited, so act now! This year’s registration deadline is July 21st. One of the pluses the Elkhorn Slough Coastal Training Program provides is free online access to workshop materials and related peer-reviewed papers. Make sure to check it out here!

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Cornell’s All About Birds Lab: Merlin

Since 2012, when the Cornell Lab of Ornithology first reported the development of Merlin™, an online bird identification tool, Cornell’s All About Birds Labs has been hard at work adding bells and whistles to Merlin’s know-how. Through collaboration with Visipedia, this summer The Cornell Lab of Ornithology announced the debut of their new computer vision technology app, Merlin Bird Photo ID. And wouldn’t you know it, the app does exactly what its name suggests – identifies birds in photographs.

Using the online Merlin Bird Photo ID tool is simple. Just drag and drop an image of any one of 400 North American bird species, identify when and where the photo was taken, drag a box identifying the bird from any background noise, and then click on the bill tip, eye, and tail tip to give Merlin a hint.

Digging through some crummy bird photos I have taken over the years, I decided to put Merlin (and my photography) to the test to see how well it performed.

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Photo #1
Location: Concord, CA
Date: 7, March, 2015

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Discussion: Having seen these fellows in my yard all spring, I knew beforehand that this neighborhood regular was a western bluebird (Sialia mexicana), but because I maxed out the zoom feature on my old cell phone, the photo was left with a watercolor-esque dappling that I thought might confuse the computer vision algorithm’s at work here.

I was right.

Merlin’s best matches led with a male hooded merganser (breeding male) and an adult American robin. Hopefully, anyone with any sense would know enough to dismiss those outright and click through to “More Results.” Still, even after fiddling with the settings several times (knowing that the first time I attempted to identify this bird a week ago, I remember western bluebird falling within the first ten suggestions, this time around western bluebird was Merlin’se 23rd choice.

Clearly, the caveat that “high quality images of birds in typical poses work best” holds true here.

Photo #2
Location: Bakersfield, CA
Date: 4 November, 2011

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Discussion: When I first caught a glimpse of this bird in flight at a distance in the Wind Wolves Preserve north of the Grapevine, for a moment I thought I might have seen something a little more exotic like a prairie or peregrine falcon; but deep down, I’ve always known this was an American kestrel (Falco sparverius). Merlin confirms it.

Buzzkill.

Photo #3
Location: Clearlake, CA
Date: 20 June, 2010

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Discussion: If you look closely, you’ll see this photo isn’t exactly fair – there aren’t one, but two birds awkwardly posed against the tree in this pine-oak woodland. When I first saw this pair of woodpeckers, what was most remarkable about them – second only to the outlandish ruckus they and their fledglings were raising at the time – was their remarkable size. Seeing as how pileated woodpeckers (Hylatomus pileatus) are the largest woodpecker in the United States (second only to the presumed extinct ivory-billed woodpecker), their size is one of the primary traits that makes them so easy to identify in the field.

But, Merlin doesn’t know how big the bird in my photo was. Nevertheless, pileated woodpecker is Merlin’s first and only suggestion.

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So despite my clumsy attempts at wildlife photography, Merlin Bird Photo ID pulls through in a pinch, even if it needs hand-holding when tricky photographs are at issue. In truth, that’s no different than catching a fleeting glimpse of a hooded sparrow and trying to narrow down your choices between a dark-eyed junco and a spotted towhee. Whether you are flipping between bird IDs suggested by Merlin or flipping between pages in your field guide, in the end it comes down to the birder to make the final call.

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LAST CALL – USFWS Announces 90-Day Finding on Petition to List the Western Pond Turtle

In recent years, the western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) has shown signs of decline along the Pacific Coast, especially at either end of its range in Washington and Oregon to the north, and in southern California. Among the threats currently facing the species today include upland nesting and aquatic habitat loss/conversion; water diversion; drought; disease transmission and competition from invasive species like the red-eared slider; and predation from non-native species like the American bullfrog and large-mouth bass.

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In July 2012 the Center for Biological Diversity filed an Endangered Species Act petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, appropriately called the Petition to List 53 Amphibians and Reptiles in the United States as Threatened or Endangered Species Under the Endangered Species Act, including the western pond turtle as one of the 53 candidate species. After review as part of an (extended) 90-day Findings process to determine if there is enough information to warrant further review, on April 9, 2015 the USFWS announced in a proposed rule that there is sufficient evidence to suggest the western pond turtle’s situation warrants a formal status review, and will undergo the subsequent 12-month Findings process for consideration as a federally Threatened or Endangered species in all or portions of its range (see also the CBD’s press release, here).

Those individuals with scientific and commercial data or other information pertinent to the potential listing of the western pond turtle should submit all information before TOMORROW, June 9, 2015 in accordance with the instructions provided in the proposed rule.

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Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle: Captive Breeding Program 2015 Update

The annals and magazine of natural history : zoology, botany, anWith news coverage of this year’s attempts to breed Swinhoe’s soft-shell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei), the world’s rarest freshwater turtle, hitting the pages of the New York Times this month, it would appear scientists aren’t the only ones tuning in to see what fate his in store for a species for which there are only four individuals known to exist in the wild or captivity today.

Swinhoe’s softshell turtle has long been famous for it role in Vietnamese legend as the fabled Sword Lake Turtle, which inhabits Hoàn Kiếm Lake (“The Lake of the Returned Sword”) in Hanoi, Vietnam. But of the handful of Swinhoe’s softshell turtles known to scientists to exist in the wild or captivity in recent years, five have died since the 1990s, leaving only four remaining: one in Hoàn Kiếm Lake, one in the wild in Đồng Mỏ Lake west of Hanoi, and two in captivity, the latter now both part of the Suzhou Zoo’s captive breeding program.

Since 2008, when the Changsha Zoo’s female, “China Girl,” was relocated to Suzhou, scientists at Suzhou Zoo have undertaken a captive breeding program with their older male turtle. But despite repeated bouts of courtship displays and mating between the pair in the years since, the resulting eggs have failed to hatch. Remediative actions to date, including steps to improve their diet by constructing a glass wall to prevent visitors from tossing junk food into their inclosure, provisioning the pair with a more natural diet (e.g. whole shrimp, freshwater crayfish, fishes, freshwater snails, frogs, quail, pigeons), and redesigning their enclosure to allow the pair more time together, have proven unsuccessful.

After the Suzhou Zoo’s captive breeding program reported last fall that their male may be infertile, the future of the program and the species were both at risk. In a move that lets slip their growing concern for the species’ survival, researchers this spring attempted what had until recently been considered by stakeholders too controversial – artificial insemination.

On May 6th, herpetologists Gerald Kuchling with the Turtle Survival Alliance and Lu Shunqing with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s China branch, together with a team of specialists, anesthetized the Suzhou male and – with a stack of car tires as an examination table – used an electrical probe to extract sperm. In doing so, the team was also able to closely examine the male’s penis and found that it had been mangled, possibly during an ill-fated encounter with a second captive male several years ago.

Although the sperm showed low motility, they were otherwise deemed viable and were deposited in the sedated female’s oviducts. However, with so little known about the reproductive physiology of turtles and tortoises, much less the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, only time will tell whether this year’s attempt proves successful.

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Western Pond Turtle Brochure – Revised

It has been a while since I last updated the How You Can Help Western Pond Turtles brochure I developed several years ago in response to an inquiry from a San Francisco Bay Area resident who stumbled across a western pond turtle at her front door.  But with this year’s drought, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and wildlife rescue centers has been flooded by well-meaning citizens who don’t know what to do when they see a turtle out of water. So in response to CDFW’s timely outreach campaign to, “If you care, leave them there!” and redirecting viewers to the educational brochure, it seems like now is as good a time as ever to update and recirculate this public outreach tool.

Click here to download brochure (15 MB .pdf)

This full-color, tri-fold brochure describes our local turtle, describes what to do if you find a turtle, and provides guidance to private landowners and public land managers alike on the best ways to protect and conserve western pond turtles through proactive land stewardship. My goal with this project is to distribute a tool to the public that provides consistent guidance: protect and conserve suitable aquatic and nesting habitat, curb invasive species, and leave healthy turtles in the wild where they belong.

And it’s free! So download the revised .pdf, print, and distribute.

I encourage wildlife rescue/rehabilitation centers, state and federal agencies, parks and refuges, land trusts, and wildlife biologists to share this resource with the public. If readers drop me a Comment (below) with their organization’s name to let me know they wish to print and distribute this brochure, I’ll create a register with links to the participating parties’ websites.

As the list of western pond turtle educational resources evolves, I’ll continue to post them on the new Educational Material section of (bio)accumulation‘s pages dedicated to the western pond turtle. There, you’ll also find the Field Guide to the Western Pond Turtle, a diagnostic poster that illustrates the western pond turtle’s general field markings and the traits that distinguish males and females.

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