Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Go With the Wind; A Swallow-tailed Kite gets the best migration conditions

WOW! Apopka, the rehabilitated Swallow-tailed Kite with the GPS/GSM-transmitter, made it safely to Central America. Was Apopka lucky, or did it know a change in the weather loomed? We believe it was the latter. Birds detect variation in barometric pressure and other subtle weather characteristics, sensing change well before us humans. We believe Apopka was more ready than ever to begin migrating to South America, and the strong northern winds on the west side of Hurricane Irma came just at the right time.

Since 5 August, Apopka had been feeding, fattening, and preparing for 5,000 miles of migration in a remote portion of Brevard County, Florida. On 6 September, just three days before the brunt of Hurricane Irma ravaged the area, Apopka headed south. Hurricanes are low-pressure weather systems that circulate in a counter-clockwise direction. The immense size of this storm resulted in favorable winds over a large portion of Florida, and Apopka took advantage of the opportunity. 

On the first night after leaving its roosting/foraging area in Brevard County, Apopka stayed in St. Lucia County, continuing to Big Cypress National Preserve for last day and night in the United States before leaving the Everglades and heading out to sea from Florida’s southwestern shore on 8 September. The winds were definitely picking up in advance of Hurricane Irma as Apopka crossed the Straits of Florida. It only took four hours, at an average speed of 30 miles per hour, to reach the northern coast of Cuba, near Veradaro. By this time, Hurricane Irma was a Category 5 Hurricane and just 200 miles away. 

The sustained southbound winds carried Apopka across the width of Cuba to the southwestern part of the Zapata Peninsula, which is a large, protected natural area where swamp forests and wetlands meet coastal marshes. Twenty-four hours later, the eye of Irma passed over Veradero with sustained winds of  125 mph while Apopka, only 80 miles away, held tight through maximum winds of 50 mph.  Apopka stayed on the Zapata Peninsula through more stormy weather for seven days, then spent two nights on the Isle of Youth (Isla de Juventud) off the southwestern coast gaining strength and fat reserves to complete the ocean crossing to the Yucat├ín Peninsula. 

Apopka made that final ocean crossing on 17 September with a safe landfall in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico, 18 hours later. Having since followed tracks similar to all the Swallow-tailed Kites before it, it is already in Honduras.

The hard part is over for Apopka, the remaining migration is all over land. This rehabilitated bird’s survival is a true success story with or without a major hurricane (see our blog posted on 1 September 2017). We are so happy that Apopka is doing well, and grateful to the rehabilitators at Avian Reconditioning Center for investing their time, resources, and practiced care in this once-injured Swallow-tailed Kite. We particularly thank Carol McCorkle and Paula Ashby. 

Generous donations towards the cost of the tagging operation, transmitter, and data acquisition came from:

The City of Apopka - Mayor Joe Kilsheimer
Halifax Audubon - David Hartgrove
Oklawaha Audubon - Stacy Kelly
Seminole County Audubon - Lewis Gray, Margaret Terwilliger, Sarah Donlan
Tampa Bay Raptor Rescue - Barbara Walker
Clearwater Audubon - matching the challenge issued by Tampa Bay Raptor Rescue
West Volusia Audubon - Stephen Kintner
Deborah Green from Orange Audubon (personal donation)
Janet Marks from West Volusia Audubon (personal donation)
Eileen Tramontana, Director of Trout Lake Nature Center (personal donation)
Sandie Selman from West Volusia Audubon (personal donation)
Disney Volunteers from ARC, Rebecca Grimm and Alyssa Karnitz

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Who stayed, who left? Where our birds are after Hurricane Irma

Were you able to catch ARCI’s Executive Director, Dr. Ken Meyer, on a panel of researchers talking about how Hurricane Irma could have affected Florida’s imperiled species? Ken was interviewed on National Public Radio’s Science Friday on 15 September.  Here’s a link to the segment, in case you missed it:

We would like to share some great news about our remotely-tracked birds that were in the path of Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, the Florida Keys, and throughout the Florida Peninsula.   We are getting normal-looking movement data on all but a few of the birds!  Those we have not heard from include one White-crowned Pigeon on Grand Bahama and another that had just migrated to Cuba ahead of the storm.  We will keep watching for signals from these birds.

Six Gulf Coast Reddish Egrets (five in Lee County on J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and well north in Dixie County) stayed in place for the storm and, based on their movements compared with pre-hurricane days, appear to be doing well.  The single Magnificent Frigatebird we are tracking at this time, an adult from the only U. S. breeding colony in the Dry Tortugas that spends this part of the year off the Gulf coast of Citrus County, Florida, rode out the storm over the Gulf. He headed west and then south on the cyclonic flow that eventually carried this bird along a 600-mile loop that brought it right back to its favorite near-shore roosting island.

The four satellite-tracked Snail Kites sat tight in south Florida wetlands. The same is true for the Short-tailed Hawk we recently tagged in St. Petersburg, Florida, which promptly returned to its nesting forest at Sawgrass Lake Park.

The GSM/GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kite Apopka had the best migratory conditions on the north winds carried in with Irma.  She covered ground fast and got to the south coast of Cuba the night before the storm hit Cuba’s north coast.  She remains in Cuba still today.

Location of 37 remotely-tracked birds after Hurricane Irma had passed. The two yellow "Missing" markers refer to two White-crowned Pigeons from whom we have not yet received data.

We will be flying this week and again soon after to check on our VHF radio-tagged Southeastern American Kestrels, Snail Kites, and 12 more White-crowned Pigeons.  This also will be our best opportunity to assess habitat impacts on all our study populations.  We’ll also be elaborating on each species’ immediate responses to Hurricane Irma in the upcoming blog stories.  We are amazed at their resilience!  More soon.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

No where to go. How will our birds cope with Hurricane Irma?

In preparation for Hurricane Irma, we evacuated field sites in the Florida Keys and coastal south Florida, moved boats and field crew to northern latitudes, and fortified our homes. We know that many of our supporters and those who will read this blog have been affected by this massive storm and we hope that you stayed as safe as possible.

Of course, something we cannot personally protect from a hurricane are wild birds, including the ones we tag and study. Severe weather such as this presents us with interesting, unplanned opportunities.  With satellite, cell-phone, and old-fashioned radio tracking, ARCI is following 37 individual birds of seven species, a rare and valuable chance to learn how they weather this hurricane and respond to its profound impacts on the many habitats, special places, and landscapes that support their day-to-day lives. Some birds will perish in the extreme conditions. Some will lose resources essential in the near term, or suffer higher risks of mortality or impaired reproduction, long after the storm passes. Others may begin their seasonal migrations only to be forced to take up novel routes that prove threatening or take them to unsuitable wintering destinations.  Others may accomplish the impossible, against all odds, and survive in spite of the enormous scale of the damage, giving us some hope that wild birds will be resilient enough to cope with nature, and with all we do to jeopardize their continued existence.

The 37 birds telling us these stories are the ones we’ve carefully captured, tagged, and tracked with the support many of you have generously provided, including Swallow-tailed Kites, Snail Kites, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Reddish Egrets, Southeastern American Kestrels, White-crowned Pigeons, and a Short-tailed Hawk.

Most of our Swallow-tailed Kites are in Central and South America now, but there are some lingering in Florida, including “Apopka”, a cell phone/GPS-tracked bird that we featured in our last blog.  We hope Apopka was encouraged to begin migrating by the strong northern tailwinds on the leading edge of the advancing hurricane. We are watching closely and hope to have more for you soon.

Four of the seven species we are tracking in the Florida peninsula will not migrate: eight Snail Kites tagged in south-central Florida (satellite and VHF radio transmitters), a single Short-tailed Hawk fitted with a cell-phone/GPS device in St. Petersburg, six Reddish Egrets from coastal Lee and Dixie counties tracked with satellite/GPS technology, and four young Southeastern American Kestrels tagged with tiny VHF transmitters in Hillsborough County. We can only hope they will find a good perch and hang on, or take to the air and evade - or endure - the most extreme conditions. Although we do not know what strategies they employ, or which work best, we have learned from past experiences to expect some surprises when tracking birds that encounter exceptionally severe weather. For instance, we watched in 2016 as one of our tagged Magnificent Frigatebirds in the northern Gulf of Mexico off Citrus County, Florida, traveled very rapidly on winds generated by Hurricane Hermine to take refuge well inland in southern Georgia. We are eager to see how this same bird responded to Hurricane Irma.

Of all the birds we are presently tracking, we are most concerned about seven White-crowned Pigeons we tagged with satellite transmitters on their breeding ranges over the last three years for a range-wide study of this species of conservation concern. Two confronted Irma’s 180 mile per hour winds in Puerto Rico, two from Florida encountered the hurricane in northern Cuba, and two more had similar challenges in Jamaica and the Bahamas. The last remained in Florida. We will know soon how these birds have fared.

Just as Hurricane Irma began developing last week, we were in the process of placing small VHF transmitters (tracked by hand in real time) on 12 White-crowned Pigeons in South Florida and Keys. One purpose of this study is to link the most significant mangrove-island breeding colonies of these birds with their specific hardwood-hammock foraging destinations, thereby enabling wildlife managers to prioritize protection of the most important patches of this rapidly disappearing hardwood forest. Because these transmitters cannot be tracked remotely, the fates of these birds could remain a mystery for some time after Irma’s passage.

We hope you and yours safely endured Hurricane Irma, and that you will join us in hoping that as many birds as possible have done the same.

Finally, we are very grateful for all the generous support we have received from organizations, foundations, private individuals, and government agencies to make ARCI’s challenging and important telemetry research possible. They include: Sanibel-Captive Audubon Society; International Osprey Foundation; Felburn Foundation; St. Petersburg Audubon Society; Venice Audubon Society; The Florida Aquarium; West Volusia Audubon Society; Seminole County Audubon Society; Sarasota County Audubon Society; Bailey Wildlife Foundation; Quest Ecology, Inc., Tortuga Foundation; U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), including the Southeast Region’s Division of Migratory Birds, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge; Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge Complex; Ding Darling Wildlife Society; Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; Microwave Telemetry, Inc.; Friends of the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy (South Carolina); Palmetto Bluff Conservancy; Friends of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge; Friends and Volunteers of the Florida Keys Refuges; U. S. Geological Survey; North Port Friends of Wildlife; Subaru of Gainesville; Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund; Avian Reconditioning Center; National Fish and Wildlife Foundation; Gulf of Mexico Institute; City of Apopka; Halifax Audubon Society; Oklawaha Audubon Society; Clearwater Audubon Society; Orange Audubon Society; Tampa Bay Raptor Rescue;  and individuals including Judy Samelson, Bill Schwabel, Jim Griffith, Margo McKnight, David Hartgrove, Deborah Green, Janet Marks, Eileen Tramontana, Barbara Walker, Joni Ellis, Tom and Laura Hansen, Barbara Brown, Paula Powell, Bill Todman Jr., Bev and Al Hansen, Fred Lohrer, Gary and Susie Zimmerman, Kathryn Palmore, Joyce King, Gary and Joanne Grunau, Tom Staley, Lucille, Lane, Deb Levine, Tim Harrell, Sandy Selman, Rebecca Grimm, and Alyssa Karnitz.

Friday, September 1, 2017

A Swallow-tailed Kite’s second chance gives back to science

In mid-July, an adult Swallow-tailed Kite was admitted to Audubon’s Center for Birds of Prey with trauma injuries after being hit by a vehicle.  With some quiet rest, this kite improved quickly and was transported to the Avian Reconditioning Center (ARC) in Apopka.  Here the Kite joined two other Swallow-tailed Kites in a 100-ft flight cage to exercise and prepare for release.

Carol McCorkle, ARC’s Director, connected with us at ARCI to say this healthy Swallow-tailed Kite would be released the following weekend. Carol wondered if we might want to put a cell-phone/GPS transmitter on the kite prior to release.  Although this was an exciting offer, and we had just received a few of these amazing devices from the manufacturer, we told Carol we had not yet raised enough funds to pay for transmitters and to deploy them.  We try to keep a few transmitters on hand for when land managers or conservation groups have an interest in seeing a bird tagged and the funds to cover purchase of the transmitter and the costs for capturing, tagging, and tracking a bird.

Paula Ashby of ARC sprang into fund raising action! Within 48 hours, she was able to raise the necessary interest and financial support from the surrounding community to make the GPS-tagging possible. Thank you so much, Paula!  For their confidence and generosity, ARCI and ARC are grateful to:

The City of Apopka - Mayor Joe Kilsheimer
Halifax Audubon - David Hartgrove
Oklawaha Audubon - Stacy Kelly
Seminole County Audubon - Lewis Gray, Margaret Terwilliger, Sarah Donlan
Tampa Bay Raptor Rescue - Barbara Walker
Clearwater Audubon - matching the challenge issued by Tampa Bay Raptor Rescue
West Volusia Audubon - Stephen Kintner
Deborah Green from Orange Audubon (personal donation)
Janet Marks from West Volusia Audubon (personal donation)
Eileen Tramontana, Director of Trout Lake Nature Center (personal donation)
Sandie Selman from West Volusia Audubon (personal donation)
Disney Volunteers from ARC - $100 each - Rebecca Grimm and Alyssa Karnitz

You all know that this work can be very difficult and often demoralizing. No doubt you also can imagine how gratifying it is to see birds reconditioned and released by ARC knowing that they will contribute to ARCI’s long term studies of movement ecology and conservation biology. We hope you also know how gratifying it is to have your confidence and generosity in pursuing this mission we all share. Thank you all very much!

We had a great crowd of supporters at the release of this now famous Swallow-tailed Kite and the other two kites.  We name Swallow-tailed Kites after a location they are associated with, and since we were releasing the Kite at the Lake Apopka North Shore Restoration Area it was fitting to name it “Apopka”. We took a feather sample from Apopka and will send to a lab to learn whether it is a male or female, so stay tuned for that information (place names honor the locations that are so important to birds, but they also are conveniently gender-neutral!)

The release went very well! All three reconditioned birds took to the sky and drifted east out of sight beyond the trees.  The Lake Apopka North Shore Restoration Area is famous for Swallow-tailed Kites at this time of year, providing ample insect prey for these birds to prepare for their exceptionally long migration.  Hundreds of kites at a time can be seen swooping and diving on prey that they catch and eat in the air.

As expected, Apopka is taking the time now to gather fat and strength before it migrates across the Gulf of Mexico on its way to south-central South America for our winter. Already, Apopka has visited some of the most common roost and foraging sites for Swallow-tailed Kites.  After traveling over 200 miles, this Swallow-tailed Kite is now in a remote portion of Brevard County. We wish Apopka the best of foraging and resting opportunities as it prepares for its long journey. 

Our hearty thanks to all who made this opportunity possible, and to all who enjoy these amazing stories and spread the word about the wonders of bird migration.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Three cheers for Sawgrass, Palmetto, and Lacombe

After 18 days of radio silence, Sawgrass reappeared – in Honduras! Her previous fixes were in Brazil, where she was slowly edging her way north through areas with little or no cell phone coverage. Sawgrass recently moved through the city of Los Leones, Honduras and, like most kites, will skip Guatemala in favor of a quick over-water flight to Belize. She will be the last of our tracked Swallow-tailed Kites to cross the Gulf of Mexico.
Locations of our GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites as of 1 April 2017. 
MIA and Panther are both safely back home in South Florida. MIA has already found a mate and started nesting. We suspect Panther is doing the same. Here's how MIA crossed the gulf.

After losing Bullfrog in an arduous flight over the Gulf of Mexico, we worried over each next kite that followed. We were glad to see Panther make it despite ever-changing winds that zig-zagged her course and prolonged her crossing. The strong northerly winds that prevailed for Bullfrog, and probably countless other migrating Swallow-tailed Kites and birds, finally relented. On 22 March, Palmetto became the fourth of our six tagged kites to start the journey across the Gulf. She flew due north with ease thanks to widespread southerly winds, reaching Mississippi on 25 March. She then worked her way east, weaving through Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina to settle within meters of her 2016 nesting area.

Lacombe reached the northeast coast of the Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on 24 March, just two days behind Palmetto. The winds pushed him swiftly across to Louisiana in one day. After reaching land south of Morgan City, he wasted no time heading back to the east shore of Lake Pontchartrain near his namesake city of Lacombe, Louisiana.

Lacombe (green) and Palmetto (white) crossed the Gulf of Mexico with favorable winds. They returned home to their nesting areas in Louisiana and South Carolina, respectively. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

At the liberty of the winds

On 13 March, Panther had flown as far north as she could before crossing the Gulf of Mexico. She hovered on the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, faced with strong headwinds produced by the same unseasonably late cold front the late Bullfrog encountered. We hoped she would wait for the winds to calm, as we are all too aware how profoundly weather can affect a migrating Swallow-tailed Kite’s journey across the Gulf. Panther crept east out over the sea, skirting the north coast of Cuba before briefly seeking refuge on a barrier island north of Corralillo, Cuba. After a day of rest, she resumed her journey and made what appears to be an attempt at reaching Florida, just 100 miles north of her. Thwarted by winds from yet another cold front, she careened northwest until stalling over open water on 18 March. Finally, able to direct her path towards land, Panther reached Bradenton, Florida on 19 March. Despite having spent nearly 5 days over the Gulf, she wasted no time, settling back on her nesting grounds on the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge on 20 March. 

Palmetto from South Carolina, our longest-tracked kite, covered a significant amount of ground since we saw her enter Nicaragua on 14 March. She has passed Lacombe and will be the next kite to make the Gulf crossing. Southeasterly winds will be increasing in strength over the next two days, but should calm by Sunday morning. We wish Palmetto the best of luck.

The last time we heard from Sawgrass, she was still in South America in a region where there are few cell-phone towers to which her transmitter can download her accumulated GPS data. We aren’t worried yet. We experienced the same lapse in communication when Panther went through this entire area, not receiving data from her until she came online in Panama after 38 days of radio silence.

Not far behind Palmetto is Lacombe, a male Swallow-tailed Kite tagged in 2015 by our colleague Jennifer Coulson in Louisiana. Last year, he, like most of our satellite-tracked birds, migrated through the Gulf earlier in March and caught a lucky break that took him straight north to familiar grounds of Louisiana (see his path in "Sublime Creatures of the Wind"). What will his route look like this year?

MIA is already paired up and working on a nest in the Miami area.  We are hopeful that all the northbound Swallow-tailed Kites, tagged and un-tagged, will be back soon on the breeding grounds and beginning another annual nesting cycle

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

When no news is bad news

We’ve come to grips with the fact that we are no longer getting satellite data from Bullfrog, a female Swallow-tailed Kite tagged in June 2015 in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.
On 8 March 2017, Bullfrog leapt out over the Gulf of Mexico from the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula just north of Cancun. At first, she traveled northward with a good tailwind, but a late-season cold front created forceful headwinds that quickly stalled any forward movement. On 10 March, west winds developed and Bullfrog quickly took up a downwind course toward Florida. She made rapid progress until the winds changed again, now from the north, while she was still 200 miles from Florida.  She flew at high speed for nearly another 200 miles – but southward! This leg took her almost to Cuba before she took the ever-changing winds westward to the tip of the Yucatan, from which she had departed 3 days before. We were relieved, at least, that Bullfrog was now within 25 miles of land, where she could rest before making another attempt to reach Florida.

However, our relief was short-lived.  Rather than going ashore, Bullfrog’s drive to reach home took her northwest, riding the wind back out into the Gulf of Mexico, until she was once again struggling with headwinds. At that point, over water more than 4 full days and nights, not even a strong tailwind could carry her to shore in time. Bullfrog’s last location was in the Gulf of Mexico, 270 miles from the closest land. Undoubtedly, many other Swallow-tailed Kites, and many thousands of birds of many other species – untagged and unnamed – met the same fate during this period.

Bullfrog’s situation was, unfortunately, not unique. As we have learned from the similar scenarios that have played out for other Swallow-tailed Kites we were tracking, these birds cannot stay aloft more than 4 days without drinking or eating. In every case, large, unseasonable cold fronts resulted in persistent strong northerly winds, keeping these trans-Gulf migrants from reaching land in time. In 2013, three of the 11 Swallow-tailed Kites we were tracking died while laboring northward over the Gulf of Mexico in a similar weather pattern.

We celebrate Bullfrog today and the wealth of knowledge she provided over the last two years. She fledged two broods of two chicks each – the most any female kite ever accomplishes – during this time, and showed us her unique pre-migration route and communal roost sites through south Florida, her travel routes and winter destination, and all the places, from disturbed and degraded habitats to well-managed protected areas, that posed threats or served as refuges to her along her way.  We are grateful to the Florida Aquarium and its friends and supporters, especially Glory Moore and the St. Petersburg Audubon Society, for providing the necessary funding for Bullfrog’s transmitter and tracking data; and to Microwave Telemetry and CLS America for the technology to “see” into the lives of these amazing birds as they annually traverse the western hemisphere. 

We also thank all of you who are reading this story for your enthusiastic interest, and for being concerned about the well-being of our planet and its wild inhabitants. We appreciate all you are doing, and all we hope you will consider doing, to ensure that our choices and actions do not further imperil the natural world.