What? No bird-related stuff? I know this is mostly a birding, bird conservation, ornithology blog, but occasionally I like to discuss other science topics as they relate to birds. Since Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom will be released a month from today, I've decided to write a blog post on one of its most blatant inaccuracies: featherless dinosaurs. Yup, I'm going to mantle the big question of which dinosaurs had feathers. This will be the first in a series on the connection between birds and non-avian dinosaurs: this one on feathers, several on the evolution of avialans throughout the Jurassic, Cretaceous (including on how they survived the mass extinction), Paleogene, and Neogene periods; one on lesser-known bird families that are now extinct, one on my thoughts on Fallen Kingdom if I ever see it (this most likely will happen), and possibly more. I'm not sure what I will call this mini-series, but I'm pretty sure I might go with "Paleobirding." This wasn't an easy decision to make, as I felt I've had to write this because unlike with most fictional creatures depicted in movies, dinosaurs are real and the general public often accepts inaccurate movie versions as fact without looking at the evidence. I'm writing this to stop those misconceptions from spreading and give an accurate view of how dinosaurs lived.
Before starting, I have one simple request: PLEASE keep discussions in the comments sections civil, I don't want to have to constantly deal with fanboys who don't like to see their childhood movie monsters ruined by science. If the comments get out of hand, I will have to shut this down. Science does not care about your opinions, so just admire the beauty of it. If you don't want to learn about the possibility of all dinosaurs having feathers, then don't read this blog post, or much of this series on dinosaurs in general. For those who don't think feathered dinosaurs are scary, I know many people who vehemently disagree, especially those who have seen cassowaries
Let's start with the big question: what are feathers?
In short, "feathers" are filament-like projections that first evolved from scales. C.M. Kosemen thinks feathers first evolved as sensory organs like whiskers and then diversified. It's unknown when feathers first evolved, but they may have been present in the earliest dinosauriformes. To appease the diehard Jurassic Park fanboys lurking on the internet, I will mention that feathers are actually a highly derived type of scale. The scutes on crocodylians, feathers in dinosaurs, and pycnofibres (the hairlike filaments in pterosaurs) all evolved from the same skin covering. It was originally thought that feathers and scales were made of two different forms of keratin, however, it is now known that the keratin that forms feathers is present in crocodilian embryos. The evolution of feathers is depicted in five stages, based on an analysis of feather evolution in a 1999 paper by Richard Prum. Each of these stages in feather evolution has been found on dinosaur fossils except for stage 3, which is known from cretaceous amber.
Feathers can be broken down into seven different structures:
Numerous speculative theories have been proposed on the purpose of feathers: The first one is that down and semiplume feathers (the feathers present in ratites) were used to regulate temperature (feathers are more efficient at trapping and shedding heat than hair is, according to a study on Red Kangaroos and Emus); which would most benefit dinosaurs living polar and alpine regions (see figure 2) or in deserts (Madagascar, Negmet). Wing and tail feathers were then likely used for courtship displays similar to ratites, pheasants, and birds of paradise, although most evidence of sexual dimorphism in non-avian dinosaurs is not conclusive (see the clip from Dinosaur Revolution featuring a pair of courting Gigantoraptor I attached as a speculative example). Pennaceous feathers would have been used on avialans and small dromaeosaurs like Microraptor and Sinornithosaurus to glide from branches, but this was not powered flight as they could not flap their wings. Powered flight would later evolve in enatiornith birds with the appearance of a breastbone or keel for flight muscles to attach to and give birds more lift when flying.
Now, let's talk about the direct evidence of feathers in each of the dinosaur groups, but before we dig in, it's worth mentioning that the traditional phylogeny of dinosaurs lists two branches: Saurischia (sauropodomorphs, herrerasaurids, and theropods) meaning "lizard-hipped" and Ornithischia (ornithopods) or "bird-hipped." However, in 2017, Matthew Baron, David Norman and Paul Barrett proposed that theropods were more closely related to ornithischans than to sauropods and herrerasaurs, leading to the formation of a new clade called Ornithoscelida.
Lastly, despite what many clickbait articles and videos on dinosaurs would say, pterosaurs are NOT dinosaurs. I will devote a full section of Paleobirding to the differences between birds and pterosaurs.
Part of the rationale of Baron et al for transferring theropods out of Saurischia and into the new Ornithoscelida is that herrerasaurids and sauropodomorphs noticably lacked any preservation of feathers at all. Quite the opposite was found on sauropods, in fact, since many scale impressions have been found that have been attributed to sauropod species. In other words: no feathers on sauropods
While most of the dinosaur groups (aside from sauropods) will be handled individually, I will address Ornithischia as a whole. The first ornithischian to be found with feathers was Psittacosaurus in 2002 (the genus has been known since 1923, for anyone who was wondering), which preserved bristle-like filaments on the tail. Then in 2009, a heterodontosaurid called Tianyulong which had long filaments on the back, tail, and neck of the animal. Originally, these two species led scientists to think feathers evolved in the (at the time of this discovery) two dinosaur groups independently. Then, in 2014, the discovery of a basal neornithischian found in Siberia was announced. Kulindadromeus, as the dinosaur would be called, suggested that the common ancestor of dinosaurs was feathered (except for sauropods and herrerasaurs, which may not be dinosaurs if you define a dinosaur by the presence of feathers).
When it comes to feather preservation, non-coelorusaurian theropods, which include coelophysids, allosaurs, megalosauroids, and ceratosaurs, are not as well studied. The arms of the carnosaur Concavenator had structures resembling quill knobs, but these may be attachment points for ligaments and not related to feathers at all. Sciurumimus is another interesting species, as the classification is not decided on. If it is a megalosauroid, that would support the hypothesis that this group of dinosaurs had feathers.
Tyrannosaurs were a family of theropods that first appeared in the Jurassic as medium-sized carnivores, and later evolved into the apex predators of Asian and North American formations during the late Cretaceous. Big tyrannosaurs like Tyrannosaurus and Tarbosaurus don't need an introduction, but some of their earlier relatives do. Two tyrannosaurids have been discovered with direct evidence of feathers: Dilong and Yutyrannus, both of which lived in China during the lower Cretaceous. These two species are important because Dilong provided evidence that tyrannosaurs had feathers in the first place, and Yutyrannus confirmed that even large tyrannosaurs likely had feathers. Another thing to note about Yutyrannus is that the Yixian formation, where it and many other feathered dinosaurs lived, would have been very cold during the Early Cretaceous when these animals lived
What about Tyrannosaurus rex? Once the discovery of Yutyrannus was announced in 2012, many people were scared that not even T. rex was safe from getting the feather treatment, leading to the "science ruined dinosaurs" movement. These fears were alleviated when a paper examining several tiny (the largest is 30 square centimeters across) scale impressions on the back of the neck, pelvic region, and tail of the well-preserved BHI 6230 specimen or Wyrex, claimed to have found conflicting patterns between gigantism in dinosaurs and feather integument and concluding that Tyrannosaurus was mostly scaly. When popular media outlets reported about the paper, they sensationalized the study by claiming it marks a return to the T. rex of Jurassic Park and that they were "still lizards" after people had "gotten used to the idea of giant fluffy killer birds." While it is true that rex would have been mostly scaly, these scales would give the animal a leathery appearance because of how small the scales are. Bell et al interpreted this find by suggesting more derived tyrannosaurs likely lost or did not have the filaments of their basal Asian relatives. The distribution of these scales lends support to the position that these animals were mostly scaly or featherless as adults, but does not mean they were featherless at all growth stages. The paper suggests that they might have possessed a feather cape or mohawk on the upper part of their body. These scales might actually be feathers, as the paper notes the scaly feet of modern birds are actually feathers that secondarily evolved back into scales. The authors suggest that this might have been the case with Tyrannosaurus, and as Mark Witton notes, everyone wins the scaly vs feathered debate. This opens up a variety of possibilities: Witton notes that avian skin is more dynamic than reptilian skin, and allows for tons of variations based on the animals life stages and time of year, changing between feathers and scales with the seasons. This could mean T. rex was born with feathers but lost them as it got older, or it could have grown a coat of feathers as an adult in fall and molted this coat in spring. In conclusion, the Bell paper concludes that T. rex would have been largely filamentless in life and would have possessed a leathery or smooth appearance, and does not disprove that it was completely featherless in all stages in life.
Before you accuse me in the comments of ruining your childhood hero (which I will probably delete), I will add that in the unlikely event of T. rex and Spinosaurus meeting, T. rex would likely win in a fight, either crushing Spino's neck with those bone-crushing jaws that deliver the highest bite force of any known animal or scaring the fish eater back into the water.
Sometimes known as "ostrich dinosaurs" for their resemblance to modern ratites, ornithomimids are a group of omnivorous theropods that lived during the Cretaceous and were prey for many large predators. To add to their resemblance to modern ostriches, we have found two ornithomimids with preservation of feathers: Ornithomimus and a pygostyle on the extremely large and unusual Deinocheirus.
Compsognathids, or "compies" as they are sometimes known, are small theropods that lived from the late Jurassic to the early Cretaceous and were small predators of insects, lizards, and early mammals. One species of compy, Sinosauropteryx, had preserved feathers so well, we even know what color it was! Microscopic pigment cells called melanosomes on the fossil of Sinosauropteryx was analyzed to find it had a reddish brown coloration like a fox or Red Panda, as well as a banded tail like many procyonids (raccoons, coatis, ringtail) or a Ring-tailed Lemur. To add to the resemblance to raccoons, analysis of the fossil found that Sinosauropteryx had a bandit mask over its eyes.
Therizinosaurs were large theropods that were most likely herbivorous, and used their long claws to hold branches closer to their mouths like pandas or sloths rather than to disembowel prey with. We know from many therizinosaur species that they had filamentous intigument covering their entire bodies, even the biggest ones. One of these, Beipiaosaurus, is one of the largest dinosaurs with direct evidence of feathers second only to Yutyrannus.
Oviraptorosaurs (or "chickenparrots" as paleontology fans sometimes call them) are dinosaurs that take the bird-like appearance of the ornithomimids a step further; looking like a chimera of a parrot, a galliform, and a non-avian dinosaur. Many species of oviraptorids have been found with direct evidence of feathers preserved such as wings and pygostyles. This means that all oviraptorids definitely had feathers, even the biggest ones like Gigantoraptor, although it can be argued from Bell 2017 that like Therizinosaurus, Gigantoraptor would have considerably reduced feathers, but not completely lost them.
Alvarezasaurs are small insect-eating theropods that due to their close relationship to other maniraptorans, we know definitely had feathers.
Scansoriopterygids are a testament to the amazing ability non-avian dinosaurs had to evolve and fill every niche imaginable, as many members of this group had a long finger used to probe trees for insects like that of an Aye-aye or the tongue of a woodpecker. All scansoriopterygids had four long feathers on the tail, composed of a central rachis and vanes. However, unlike in modern-style tail feathers, the vanes were not branched into individual filaments but made up of a single ribbon-like sheet. They also had simple feathers covering the body like many dinosaurs.
More famously known as "raptors," dromaeosaurids are birdlike theropods that lived during the Cretaceous period. Numerous species of dromaeosaur have been found with direct evidence of feathers, including complete feather preservation in Microraptor, Zhenyuanlong, and Sinornithosaurus, as well as quill knobs on Velociraptor, Rahonavis, and Dakotaraptor. In short, all dromaeosaurs regardless of how big they are had feathers preserved
What about Velociraptor, the antagonist of the first three films and semi protagonist of Jurassic World? Things are not looking good for this "walking medieval torture machine," as the JPlegacy website called the movie versions of this species, which are closer in size to Utahraptor and Achillobator than an actual Velociraptor, which was the length of a mountain lion and weighed as much as a turkey (in Michael Crichton's defense, he followed Gregory S. Paul's dromaeosaur taxonomy, which lumped Deinonychus, Saurornitholestes, and others into Velociraptor). Basically the fossils of many dromaeosaurs, as well as quill knobs on Velociraptor itself, mean this genus was undeniably feathered. As Brian Switek says, "A Velociraptor without feathers isn't a Velociraptor."
Troodontids are more closely related to birds than their cousins the dromaeosaurs. We know from the remains of Jinfengopteryx that troodontids had filamentous feathers covering their body and pennaceous feathers on the wings and tail
Lastly, we get to modern birds, which all are undisputedly feathered.
To summarize, heterodontosaurids, basal neornithischians, ceratopsians, and most ceolorusaurian theropods likely had feathers, while ceratosaurs (a group of theropods), sauropods, ornithopods, thyreophorans, and pachycephalosaurs did not. Coelophysids and carnosaurs are uncertain in their feather preservation, but would most likely have had quill knobs. Basal ceratopsians like Psittacosaurus most likely had elongate cylindrical integument analagous to feathers, which larger ceratopsians would have lost. Heterodontosaurids, basal neornithischians, early tyrannosaurs, comsognathids, and early tyrannosaurs had filamentous integument covering their entire bodies. Oviraptorosaurs and scansoriopterygids had complex feathers of multiple stages following the Prum model. Lastly, deinonychosaurs and avialans all had multiple stages of feathers including asymetrical flight feathers.
This post was inspired by a presentation given by Garret Van Gelder at the NYSYBC 2018 Kickoff Meeting, as well as the work of Nick Turinetti and Tom Parker for Saurian, a open-world video game where you play as a dinosaur and try to survive, and Trey the Explainer's "Which Dinosaurs Had Feathers?" and "Did T. rex have feathers?"
All copyrighted images belong to their respected owners. Please notify me if I neglected to credit your work. All copyrighted images in this post are protected under FAIR USE for reasons of Commentary, Education, Criticism, Parody, and Social Satire.
All About Feathers, academy.allaboutbirds.org/features/all-about-feathers/.
Bell, Phil R., et al. “Tyrannosauroid Integument Reveals Conflicting Patterns of Gigantism and Feather Evolution.” Biology Letters, vol. 13, no. 6, 2017, p. 20170092., doi:10.1098/rsbl.2017.0092.
Caspermeyer, Joseph. “Finding Their Inner Bird: Using Modern Genomics to Turn Alligator Scales into Birdlike Feathers.” Molecular Biology and Evolution, vol. 35, no. 2, Nov. 2018, pp. 523–524., doi:10.1093/molbev/msx330.
“Everything You Need To Know About Feathers.” Bird Academy • The Cornell Lab, academy.allaboutbirds.org/feathers-article/.
“FAQ.” Saurian, sauriangame.squarespace.com/2/.
“Kulindadromeus Zabaikalicus: Feathered Herbivorous Dinosaur Discovered | Paleontology.” Breaking Science News | Sci-News.com, www.sci-news.com/paleontology/science-kulindadromeus-zabaikalicus-feathered-herbivorous-dinosaur-02079.html.
“List of Dinosaur Species Preserved with Evidence of Feathers.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 Mar. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dinosaur_species_preserved_with_evidence_of_feathers.
Naish, Darren. “Ornithoscelida Rises: A New Family Tree for Dinosaurs.” Scientific American Blog Network, 22 Mar. 2017, blogs.scientificamerican.com/tetrapod-zoology/ornithoscelida-rises-a-new-family-tree-for-dinosaurs/.
Panciroli, Elsa. “Scientists Reveal Most Accurate Depiction of a Dinosaur Ever Created | Elsa Panciroli.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 14 Sept. 2016, www.theguardian.com/science/2016/sep/14/scientists-reveal-most-accurate-depiction-of-a-dinosaur-ever-created.
Persons, Walter S., and Philip J. Currie. “Bristles before down: A New Perspective on the Functional Origin of Feathers.” Evolution, vol. 69, no. 4, 2015, pp. 857–862., doi:10.1111/evo.12634.
Swenton, Trey. “Did T.rex Have Feathers?” YouTube, YouTube, 12 Mar. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=uM5JN__15-g
Swenton, Trey. “Which Dinosaurs Had Feathers?” YouTube, YouTube, 15 June 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGAixpQcqdU.
Switek, Brian. “Tianyulong: An Unexpectedly Fuzzy Dinosaur.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 20 Mar. 2009, www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/tianyulong-an-unexpectedly-fuzzy-dinosaur-41045210/.
“They Had Feathers: Is the World Ready to See Dinosaurs as They Really Were?” All About Birds, 22 Nov. 2017, www.allaboutbirds.org/they-had-feathers-is-the-world-ready-to-see-dinosaurs-as-they-really-were-2/.
Witton, Mark. “Revenge of the Scaly Tyrannosaurus.” Mark Witton.com Blog, markwitton-com.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/revenge-of-scaly-tyrannosaurus.html.
Xu, Xing, et al. “A Gigantic Feathered Dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of China.” Nature, vol. 484, no. 7392, Apr. 2012, pp. 92–95., doi:10.1038/nature10906.
“Yutyrannus, a Giant Tyrannosaur with Feathers.” Not Exactly Rocket Science, 4 Apr. 2012, blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2012/04/04/yutyrannus-a-giant-tyrannosaur-with-feathers
In the interest of replicating the rapid style of birding on a big day, I will be giving a brief overview of the birding at each spot I birded on the NYSYBC big day. I don't have any photos, unfortunately, so this might be my shortest chapter yet
Time spent here: 48 minutes
Distance covered: 1.34 miles
Highlights: Blackpoll Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Nashville Warbler, Veery
Time spent here: 44 minutes
Distance covered: 1.15 miles
Highlights: Breeding adult Black-bellied Plovers, Clapper Rail, Saltmarsh Sparrow, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Time spent here: 18 minutes
Distance covered: 0.62 miles
Highlights: Large numbers of Brant
Time spent here: about 20 minutes
Distance covered: 12(?) miles
Highlights: 3 Common Loons, Piping Plover, Black Skimmers, Ruddy Turnstone
Time spent here: 23 minutes
Distance covered: 1.19 miles
Highlights: White-crowned Sparrow, flyover Common Loon
Time spent here: 31 minutes
Distance covered: 1.24 miles
Highlights: Chestnut-sided Warbler
Time spent here: 6 minutes
Distance covered: NA
Highlights: Breeding plumage Dunlins
En route to the next spot after a break at home, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo flew right over our car!
Time spent here: 19 minutes
Distance covered: .5 miles
Highlights: Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Yellow-throated Warbler
Time spent here: 2 minutes
Distance covered: N/A
Highlights: Bald Eagle nest
Time spent here: 3 minutes
Distance covered: N/A
Highlights: Spotted Sandpiper, Bank Swallow
Global Big Day fell right in the middle of finals for me at school, so I couldn't go birding for too long or travel too far from my apartment. Otherwise, I saw nothing really notable.
The first spot my mom and I went to was the Wildlife Drive at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. A Ruff had been seen there a few days earlier and I wanted to see if it would still be around. Unfortunately, it was not there (not like a male in breeding plumage would be mistaken for anything. There was a good number of shorebirds there, however, as I was able to identify both species of Yellowlegs, Pectoral, Spotted, Least, and Solitary Sandpipers in good numbers. Other good birds were Eastern Kingbird and both Red-eyed and Warbling Vireos
The next spot we tried was at Armitage Road on the border of Seneca and Wayne counties. This is a known spot for Prothonotary Warblers, and I was hoping to get them here instead of tracking down ones that stray into southern NY every spring. First we walked along the road, which yielded Pileated Woodpecker, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Wood Ducks, a Lincoln's sparrow, and many warblers (including Cerulean), but no Prothonotary. We drove further up to the exact location of a nest box set up to attract Prothonotaries (Prothonotary and Lucy's Warblers are the only species of wood-warbler to nest in cavities). I first heard the "sweet, sweet, sweet" song and then after it repeated a few times, a male Prothonotary Warbler flew over our car before disappearing, not without me getting a photo first. On to the net spot...
The last spot we went to was the Martens tract, where we heard Virginia Rails and American Bitterns calling as the sun set.
On the way home, we stopped at Shawangunk Grasslands NWR, where several Bobolinks had arrived and were displaying
The next day, my mom and I went to Upland Farm on what wasn't supposed to be for birding, but I still got Blue-winged and Chestnut-sided Warblers for the year
To be continued...
Hello everyone, while I mostly blog about my adventures and science topics I find interesting, I'm writing this because I need YOUR help. I have done a big day for the New York State Young Birders club for the past two years, but unlike last year, we are asking donors to send money directly to the club. First, a little bckground information
NYSYBC members have done big days as a fundraiser for the NYSYBC Scholarship program, which provides young birders the opportunity to participate in many young birder events such as those hosted by the ABA and Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
This year, I'm doing a team big day with two other young birders: NYSYBC Vice President Avery Scott and club secretary Jordan Spindel. Jordan will bird Manhattan, Avery in Queens and Brooklyn, and I will cover Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Last year, we saw a combined 174 species.
Because of the short notice, we are asking people to donate directly to the NYSYBC this year instead of creating a GoFundMe page like the previous year. To donate, follow these instructions:
1 - Click Donate below.
2 - On the secure PayPal screen, enter the amount of your donation, click Update Total, and enter your other information.
3 - Before you click the Donate $... Now button, enter special instructions by clicking the Add instructions for NYSOA/NYSYBC link to the left of the Total.
If you are donating as a Big Day sponsor, please do the following once you are on the PayPal screen:
Click the Add instructions link on the "please review your donation" screen and type in: Big Day followed by the name(s) of the specific young birder(s) you are sponsoring, if applicable. You will then receive a receipt via email
If I've thoroughly convinced you to donate, you can do so at nybirds.org/membership/NYSYBC/donation.html. Normally, we'd have a Gofundme link, but since we're pressed for time, we're asking friends to donate directly to
Lifers indicated in bold
When I went back to Syracuse following the Central Park Barn Owl chase turned wander The Ramble, I felt pretty confident that I would get to 300 by the end of the week. I was wrong. After a falling out I had on a field trip with my school's birding club that I've named "The incident on Derby Hill" later that week, which I came close to 300, but fell one bird short, I was doubting if I would get to 300 by the end of the month. I would be lucky if I could get there by the end of finals. That all changed when I got a notification about a Boreal Owl at the well-named Owl Woods tract of the Braddock Bay Wildlife Area. When Zac Babbit and Kim Badger invited me to look for it with them, I naturally jumped at the chance. The Boreal was a one-day thing like a Wood Sandpiper reported the previous week, but we decided to go anyway. I had checked eBird, and found out there was a Northern Saw-whet Owl at the same spot that day. After a short hike on a muddy trail, we saw the Northern Saw-whet in a cedar abou eye-level. I declared tht was #300 for the year! (according to Bridget Spencer, NSWO was "better than a Bank Swallow")
We continued onward to find a Long-eared Owl, but along the way got to see the release of a banded Sharp-shinned Hawk, two Gartersnakes, and got covered in mud up to our ankles. After a concentrated search, we finally found a Long-eared Owl high up in a tree before it flushed.
After that, we birded at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge on the way back to ESF. I got a few more yearbirds, including Bank Swallow, Wilson's Snipe, and Trumpeter Swan. Now that my fears of not reaching 300 had been alleviated, I could try my hardest to focus on school.
To be continued...
I am proud to announce that I finally updated the cover for my blog and website after the old, painfully inaccurate design was lost, and compared to the more comprehensive, but unfortunately poorly made, “Complete birds of North America” poster by Pop Chart Lab that most birders do not like. While it does not contain every species in North America, it is more up to date with its taxonomy (including some proposed splits in this year’s AOS check-list supplement) and has some species not on the ABA Checklist or on Pop Chart’s poster for that matter. The complete species list following the taxonomy of the AOS Check-list of North and Middle American Birds can be found here:
I leave it up to you to figure out the identity of each species 😜. This took over a month to complete, so I hope you enjoy it. All illustrations were traced over photos from the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Drexel Academy of Natural Science’s VIREO site, as well as illustrations from Whatbird and The Sibley Guide to Birds.
Lifers indicated in bold* (more on this later)
You might look at this old screenshot and be thinking “oh no! What happened?” My answer is that a couple of things have happened. To start, I've been extremely busy with schoolwork and studying for exams, which cuts down on my birding time as many young birders know the hard way. I also have been sick on and off lately, also cutting into my birding time. On the very few occasions I left Syracuse between chapter 9 and now, they haven't been for birding, although I submitted checklists on both of them. The first one I should note is my ichthyology class's trip to the National Aquarium, where I got a little obsessive with taking pictures, my best pics are attached below
The second trip outside of Syracuse was for Principles of Evolution to a Devonian fossil quarry in Tully and the Museum of the Earth, which (among other cool things) houses the most complete specimen of an American Mastodon found in New York that was recovered from a backyard pond in Hyde Park (if you've seen enough Uhaul trucks on the road, the ones for New York with a mammoth/mastodon are a reference to this find, that's a story for another time). Unfortunately, my phone died, so I don't have any pictures of it, although I cleaned off the fossils I found and took pictures with ID
The Black-tailed Godwit in New Jersey reported minutes after I booked a surprise flight home that I wanted to chase had unfortunately left the spot it was seen at before I had a chance to return, so I needed a backup rarity. I had heard about a reliable spot for Black-headed Gulls in northern New Jersey on eBird, but since the spot was directly under private property, I lost out when my parents suggested going to a park along the waterfront but I wanted to stay in the area (ugh). As you can tell by my reaction, scanning the Bonaparte's Gulls on the beach revealed no Black-headed Gulls, and I was approached by a dog off leash (I do NOT like dogs, just a warning)
When I announced my plans to look for the Barn Owl in Central Park, Ryan Zucker asked what time I would be there. Not suspecting anything, I told him I would be there around 1:30. My mom's original plan was to get the owl, eat lunch at the Boathouse, and then go home, all while trying to avoid running into anyone they knew, but I could tell Ryan had other things in mind. When we got to the park I went ahead to the spot the owl was seen at while my dad tried to find a parking spot. Several birders were at the roost site by the time I got there, including one I recognized. I figured Ryan would want to meet me there! With a little help help from Ryan, I spotted the Barn Owl very high up.
You thought this would be a lifer? Well, not exactly; I first saw a wild Barn Owl on a trip to Australia long before I was a birder, but haven't seen any since then. Additionally, one of the proposals in this year's AOS Check-list Supplement is to split Barn Owl into three species: American, Western, and Eastern. If the proposal passes, I will have added one lifer in this chapter.
Leaving the Barn Owl, we decided to look for the Yellow-throated Warbler in the Ramble and possibly a Louisiana Waterthrush, and ran into my parents, who had run into people they knew as well (my mom wanted to avoid this). I told my parents that Ryan and I were going to look for more birds, and that I would hopefully be back within an hour. The first place we stopped was at the feeders, where interestingly enough, a Chipping Sparrow was perched on a pinecone feeder. When we got to the Yellow-throated Warbler spot, a large group of people was waiting. Several warblers and sparrows hopped around the water's edge, and one of my targets perched on a log across from us: a Louisiana Waterthrush. After an hour of waiting, the Yellow-throated Warbler made an appearance! Moving on, we looked for other county yearbirds. We also discussed a ot of things from birding trips to things happening with our fellow young birders, and I also gave Ryan some advice on the biology SAT II exams. We were going back to the Barn Owl spot to get photos when my dad called asking where we were. I knew that Ryan and I were going to have to wrap it up after successfully getting three yearbirds and birding for just over two hours and walking a little over two miles. My parents had already eaten lunch by the time we got back to the Boathouse (I wasn't hungry anyway). As we were leaving, Ryan informed me that this was only a sampling of what was to come in May, when I come home from college and can bird whenever I can.
To be continued...
One of the many species I missed in the last chapter was Red-necked Grebe, a species that is not predictable in any location on Long Island. I checked the spot where one was recently reported, but unfortunately, no grebes.
After a failed search for Eared Grebe, my grandmother and I went to Alley Pond Park to get the Red-necked Grebe that has been at the restoration pond since November (it's not easy to find, we had to climb over a fallen tree before I realized we were going the wrong way). Finding the grebe was easy, getting a picture was not, as my phone died shortly after. The photo I used for the grebe was taken on my grandmother's phone, which I edited and sent back to her. Three more grebes to go until I've seen all the ABA Area grebes this year (still need Eared, Western, and Clark's).
Late in the afternoon, my mom and I set out for the Black Dirt region and Shawangunk Grasslands NWR in upstate New York. When we got to the Black Dirt region, the roads were barely accessible and as narrow as they could possibly get. We were more worried about getting stuck than birding, so I did not get any new birds there. The drive to Shawangunk was fortunately much safer. We got there around sunset, and just in time for the action to happen, as 6 Short-eared Owls were circling the meadow hunting for voles. I also heard a male Ring-necked Pheasant and the flight call of a Lapland Longspur.
The next morning, we set out for the Red-headed Woodpeckers on Van Nostrand Road. This was one of the easiest of my targets, as it didn't take long for us to find one.
After the woodpecker, the next species I set out for is Golden Eagle, an old nemesis of mine, on Berkshire Road in Dutchess county. Like with Black Dirt region, the roads here were not the best (at least they were paved). We drove down the road looking for eagles until we got to the bottom, where we eventually had a Golden Eagle flyover with one of the many Red-tailed Hawks in the area. Nemesis no more!
On the way back home, we went to Floyd Bennett Field to follow up on a Mew Gull reported from their the day before. When we got there, it was extremely windy, and I had to fight really hard to stand up. Fortunately, I saw the Mew Gull fly past me then land under a bridge. Unfortunately I couldn't get pictures, and had to leave quickly.
I returned to Syracuse tantalizingly close to 300 for my ABA yearlist. It's going to be an uphill battle from now until May, but I'll keep at it, one bird at a time...
To be continued...
Lifers indicated in bold
My flight from Syracuse touched down in La Guardia with just enough time to look for American Woodcocks, which I heard the twittering of a male just before it got too dark. The original plan I had in mind for the New Jersey road trip was to get an early start in the northwest for Gyrfalcon, work my way south toward Atlantic City where I would bird at Forsythe the next morning, then stop at Barnegat Light, Assunpink Lake, and in Brooklyn on the way back home. Unfortunately, this would not be the case because my mom had a real estate listing event until 1:00, which means I would have to cut some places out and change the entire route so that instead of birding a counter-clockwise route, I would be birding a clockwise route (this doesn't account for the frequent stops we had to make to charge my dad's car).
By the time we got to Barnegat Lighthouse State Park (and a little argument against birding at a nearby wildlife management area that I rejected a suggestion to go to), the parking lot was closed, which didn't really slow me down as I was still able to walk in through the entrance gate. On the jetty I had seen several shorebirds, a few loons, lots of Red-breasted Mergansers and Brants, and my main target: a trio of Harlequin Ducks. I also got several White-crowned Sparrows and Pine Warblers in the surrounding conifers. Back at the parking lot, my mom has seen a Red Fox and while looking at the photos she took, I found a Peregrine Falcon on top of the lighthouse
To find a Tundra Swan at Forsythe, we had to check the bill color on every swan we saw, which was not easy at all. A huge flock of Snow Geese came in to feed in the marshes alongside the dikes. I had seen Snow Geese usually alone or with Canada Geese, but this large flock was awe-inspiring!
Then we saw a large white lump on the ground that ended up being a Snowy Owl, then we saw another one. Two Snowy Owls in one day! If only my luck with the Tundra Swans was this good. Little did I know my prediction would come true. I had seen two swans in the distance, but one of them had a black bill instead of orange. Since Trumpeter Swans don't usually occur this far south (except those that winter at Assunpink Lake in Monmouth County), I concluded it was a Tundra Swan. Finally!
The next spot we went to was a spot farther north called Mercer Meadows. My main target for this location were owls, which I had no luck finding. The only consolation is that I got Rusty Blackbird for the year and saw two male Northern Harriers (or "Gray Ghosts"), where I had only seen females this year before now.
Moving on, my final target for New Jersey was the Gyrfalcon at Alpha Grasslands. The sun was setting by the time we got there, so we had to make it quick. After two laps around the preserve, a large dark shape flew across Oberly Road. I had my suspicions as to what it was, but I'll leave it up to you to figure out what I saw...
To be continued...
I was going to write about my birding trip in the Adirondacks from last weekend, and then this happened.
You may or may not of heard, but yesterday (or two days ago, depending on when I post this), the National Audubon Society published a blog post about eBird's decision to add a sensitive species filter in order to protect 325 threatened or sensitive species. This filter has actually been in place since October, and was implemented for birders to report certain birds such as owls, grouse, etc at accurate locations without fear that the birds will be harassed or disturbed in ways that place them at risk. Bird lovers across the internet went nuts as soon as the article was posted to Facebook, saying it confirmed their fears that publishing locations for species will only bring harm to birds. I feel like it's my obligation as an ambassador for birding to do some damage control on the behalf of both the birds and birders and break down what the sensitive species filter actually means without any biased comments.
When eBird first introduced the sensitive species filter, it explained that site-level data can "put certain species at incredible risk. Fine-scale site information can be used by hunters and trappers to target certain species. eBird has a responsibility to protect the specific locations of these species so that the data are not used to exploit these birds, and the Sensitive Species initiative provides this protection. In general, species with very small populations or showing significant population declines are treated as Sensitive Species if there is clear evidence that targeted hunting, trapping, or disturbance places those species at risk. Species declining due to other non-targeted human activities—including threats from habitat destruction, introduced species, or even subsistence hunting—are not included as Sensitive Species since site-specific eBird data does not place these species at risk." Sensitive Species may be set in eBird at a global level, regional level , or at a seasonal level (e.g., only in breeding season). This list will evolve over time and species may be added or removed as new threats are highlighted or as populations recover.
Broad scale information on Sensitive Species is generally available (e.g., reports at the county level or above), but hotspot or other site-specific output is not. When viewing a checklist in eBird, Sensitive Species are not shown in the public view of the checklist and the species total is recalculated to remove Sensitive Species from the total. If you are the observer (this includes anyone with whom the checklist is shared) then you will see the species, with a clearly marked “Sensitive” icon.
Sensitive Species are also excluded from eBird alerts, hotspot outputs, first/last/high count data, and eBird profile, top 100, and yard/patch data (for the last example, your data is edited accordingly but your totals will stay the same). However, Sensitive Species will appear on personal lists, national/state/county level output (albeit restricted), media search at the county level, target species lists, and is available to researchers and reviewers. Now let me explain what the criteria of sensitive species status for individual groups are and some examples for the ABA Area
Certain falcon species are rare and highly valued in falconry, especially in Europe and the Middle East. Three species; Saker, Orange-breasted, and Gyrfalcon are treated as Sensitive to protect them from the falconry trade. While many falconry birds are bred in captivity to be used for hunting, many are still taken out of the wild to be raised for this purpose. Of these, only the Gyrfalcon occurs in the ABA Area and state and federal laws set tight regulations on falcon trapping. Since a Gyr can sell for upward at $10,000 and are easily bred in captivity, most falconers don't go out of their way to look for a reported falcon and try to locate their own for personal use as wild caught birds can't be sold in the US, only captive ones. Still, better safe than sorry.
There is a large and active trade in parrots and parakeets (Psittaciformes) around the world. While some species are bred in captivity, capture of wild birds has drastically reduced many populations and driven several species to extinction in the wild, as discussed in a 2016 Birdlife International study published in Biodiversity and Conservation that highlights the extreme extinction risk for this group of birds. Most species are treated as Sensitive in their native range only, since some introduced populations are worth tracking and may represent important populations for conservation with wild birds so close to extinction. Species that are treated as Globally Sensitive (not just in their native range) include: Olive-shouldered Parrot, Derbyan Parakeet, Great-billed Parrot, Glaucous Macaw, Sun Parakeet, and Great Green Macaw. Night Parrot is an Australian species that is not particularly prized for trade, but extremely rare and poorly known and subject to disturbance. Excluding the Critically Endangered Puerto Rican Parrot, all native parrots in the ABA Area are either extinct or extirpated, and it doesn't seem like PR will be added any time soon.
It is widely recognized (Lee et al. 2016 and Root et al. 2006, links at bottom of page) that commercial trade in wild birds in parts of Southeast Asia (especially Indonesia) is a major conservation concern. Surprisingly, this is not limited to songbirds, as this category protects several species of owls, frogmouths, kingfishers, doves, at least one hornbill, and even the Great Philippine Eagle. Other than that, I'm not going to go into too much detail on this category because none of the protected species occur in North America
Owls are particularly sensitive to disturbance. As predators, they are naturally uncommon to rare. Disturbance at their day roosts or use of playback can repeatedly disturb individuals, pairs, or small populations. Large crowds surrounding and following certain owls in winter (sometimes engaging in unethical baiting practices) disrupts natural hunting and exposes owls to great risk from vehicle collisions or habituation to humans. In North America, only three species of owl are covered as Sensitive: Great Gray, Spotted, and Northern Hawk. “A lot of the time I was just listing owls to the county level to protect them from harassment,” says Alex Sundvall, which is generally a good measure. Not only is flushing owls to get flight shots a problem, but some photographers release pet store mice to get their desired photos.
Certain species with small populations or habits that cannot tolerate significant targeted disturbance are treated as Sensitive. In North America, those are Gunnison Sage-Grouse, Lesser Prairie-Chicken, and Puaiohi. Both grouse and prairie-chickens are notoriously susceptible to disturbance on lek sites, and the Puaiohi is only found in one part of the Alakai Swamp Trail in Kauai
Certain regions of South America have active bird trade and this has led to severe declines in certain species. Like with Asian species, I won't go into much detail because they don't occur in North America other than that most of these are passerines unlike in Asia.
Some species are under particular pressure from hunting, either for food or for use of the bird's body parts (e.g., Helmeted Hornbill), and hunters may specifically target individuals or concentrations of birds. While hunting of migratory birds is strictly regulated in the United States, it unfortunately is not in many places, as I discussed in my post on Champions of the Flyway.
Certain species, which are now Extinct in the Wild but persist in captivity, are protected as Sensitive Species to ensure that reintroduction efforts have the best chance at success. Of the five listed, only the Hawaiian Crow occurs/has occured in the ABA Area, and I suggest following The 'Alala Project to learn more about reintroduction efforts for this species. Fun fact: one of the Sensitive Species, the Guam Rail, had two chicks hatch at the Smithsonian Zoo at the end of November that are candidates for reintroduction next year (warning if you click on the rail link: CUTENESS OVERLOAD)
In addition, a subset of species Sensitive in their native range or in subsets of their range are also included. For some of these (e.g., Java Sparrow, White-rumped Shama) the species is Sensitive throughout all (Java Sparrow) or most (White-rumped Shama) of its native range, but has introduced populations in certain places (e.g., Hawaii) where site-level records are still displayed. For polytypic species (ones with various subspecies groups), all subspecies are set to sensitive in the region where the parent species is sensitive, even if that form is not known from the region. This prevents erroneous entries of subspecies from exposing sites for Sensitive Species. Only three species in North America are listed as locally Sensitive: Painted Buntings in Florida and Whooping Cranes and Kirtland's Warblers in Wisconsin. The bunting's location is sensitive is to prevent illegal trapping of these birds and the cranes are supressed to protect a small reintroduced population in northern Wisconsin
As Sundvall has pointed out, is that the protocol doesn’t protect all major birds of concern. For example, the Boreal Owl isn’t included on the Sensitive Species List. “[We] do need to expand our hiding tools to users and reviewers who feel that a particular sighting on a checklist puts a bird or group of birds at risk,” Marshall Iliff says, “This will be developed in the near term.” Ultimately, this update reinforces that Team eBird and the birding community are about protecting species, not exposing them. “The birds come first,” says Johanna Beam, “I’m proud to support an organization that believes this.”
In terms of my Young Birder Odyssey big year, Sensitive Species is only a minor inconvenience for solo birders like myself as Sensitive Species will not show up in rare bird or needs alert emails, but I can still get information on Sensitive Species from state listservs and local birders (depending on how willing they are to open up to outsiders). Also, I may go on a guided birding tour at some point this year, which will make adding a sensitive species easier for me. Clifford Hawley has said that "putting information on lockdown makes local knowledge that much more valuable if you want to see desirable species." And he's right, although you don't need to pay a guide to show you these species according to Ann Nightingale, who says it's easier to get the info out of eBird, but surely conservation of at-risk species is a worthy reason to have to do a little extra work. One birder has said "I don't think having their locations hidden from a completely public database (and really only adding a couple extra steps for well-meaning birders) is too much to ask."
The biggest problem with the Sensitive Species filter is how birders are responding to the story. We have another case of a well meaning story gone wrong which is common in environmental journlism, with readers that are so desperate to have their fears about reporting rare birds confirmed, that they are willing to get up on their soapboxes and preach their thoughts without actually reading the article. In final, my opinion on the Sensitive Species filter is that it will ultimately have more positive benefits for the birding community than negative ones.
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