Wednesday, July 28, 2010

PostHeaderIcon Young WEGUs excitedly perform "I can fly!" dance!

This particular gull is known to us as Beezel Jr., named in honor of one of BourbonHawk's ex boyfriends. Beezel Sr. scored a 1500 on his SATs, dropped out of school and has gone on to imbibe copiously and manage a RadioShack. That's a true story and it's one reason why I love this city. We have much higher hopes for this young gull, but I digress...

For a brief moment, before these animals fledge and become violent, desirous and trife, they are little balls of fuzz and optimism. Earlier this year, I took this footage of a much younger western gull, apparently beginning to exercise the tiny wing muscles that will eventually power it into the air:

The seemingly drunken twirl and tumble is the signature dance of the baby gull and it's one of the cutest animal behaviors that I've ever seen.

At this late date, most young gulls on Alcatraz are very deep in the process of losing their fluffy down and as the first video shows, a few of the older and braver birds are actually starting to grow the hardware necessary to contemplate life in the sky.

While these young gulls are poised to gain a measure of independence from their parents, less fortunate others are only now entering the world of the living:

And this story begins much earlier in the year on the island's western slopes. In 2010, this was the very first gull nest we observed on Alcatraz:

As far as we can tell, this nest was the first to bear gull chicks, though they would have done just as well to stay in the shell as this was the sad result:

Their entire brood died within a day of hatching. We began to refer to them as 'the worst parents on Alcatraz'.

And they may be, though they aren't through yet as we recently caught them incubating a new egg:

And before long...

As it turns out, this pair was incubating not one but two eggs... and equally apparently, this pair, challenged in the ways of parenting, has stretched its tally of dead young ones to four on the season. The new baby gull in front and to the right is not sleeping. The casualties of nesting season always seem to run unacceptably high.

Baby gulls die all the time:

We at Maganrord have no idea what allows one pair of gulls to successfully rear four young ones while another pair suffers two total brood failures in a single season. Perhaps they've just had a bad year. Maybe they're simply bad at this. We can't say for sure.

Another gull pair on Alcatraz is rearing a second brood after the failure of its first:

First we saw this:

One had hatched and a second egg was clearly visible.

Although I don't have a picture of it here, the second egg has hatched and both chicks are doing just fine.

In contrast to the aforementioned pair on the west side of the island, this pair is always feeding its young or yelling at a human being that ventures too close. As parents, these gulls seem far more attentive and competent. I can't say why these gulls lost out on their first brood, but I suspect they'll do much better this time around.

Meanwhile, our more advanced juvenile gulls will soon be learning the value of their flight feathers. In nesting seasons past, I've learned that in contrast to our skilled adult gulls, newly airborne WEGUs are terrible pilots. They don't know how to ascend, descend, change direction or land.

Up next, the sad conclusion of our cowbird series. Spoiler: Please don't tame a bird in a national park. Bad things will happen.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010

PostHeaderIcon Our secret identities

have been revealed! As well as so many other things.
Here we are, doing our best to sound interesting on Crosscurrents. It's a short piece, maybe 5 minutes tops, so please check it out if you've got the time. Thanks!
Monday, July 26, 2010

PostHeaderIcon Radio Maganrord!

Earlier in the year, the Maganrord team was interviewed on Alcatraz for Crosscurrents, an award winning local news program heard on KALW 91.7 FM.

Listen for us on today's edition between 4:30 and 5.

For those of you scoping us out for the very first time, I'd like to give you a dose of classic Maganrord:

In early February, we were given special permission to trod through the remains of our dormant cormorant colony, which collapsed dramatically in 2009 due to lack of food.

This is what we saw.

Our world famous female peregrine falcon has left us, perhaps for good, but we'll always remember the good times.
Here, she takes an unknown alcid, perhaps a common murre.

Here, she takes one final bloody meal before spreading her wings and taking to the air. We haven't seen her since.

Read here about the feel good story of the season: Alcatraz's unlikely miracle of a goose.

And finally, in case you were ever curious about it,
this is what it looks and sounds like when gulls slow things down and get a little romantic.

Stay tuned over the next couple of days. We're cooking up a report on the progress of the island's young western gulls and the conclusion of the cowbird series. Here's a partial spoiler: it ends very badly.
Sunday, July 18, 2010

PostHeaderIcon Cowbirds III: Media deluge, appearance by a female adult and a bonus new GBH fishing video!

Today was a better day for snagging photos of the juvenile cowbird than we'd had prior. Here's what we've got:

The little guy has become somewhat... tame.

Above, a visitor gets a little too close and had to be reminded of the rules that govern the treatment of wild birds in a national park.

But what's that weird growth his nose? He'd better get that looked at.

When it talks and moves:

The little guy is cute, bold, interactive and embarrassingly tame. For reasons I can't go into on this blog, I think it a fitting name for it would be Gil Jr.

Walking around the island today, scoping out small birds, I found several other probable cowbird juveniles as well, including two positive IDs on the west side of the island. There may be a cowbird breeding racket on Alcatraz and it makes sense. Cowbirds range here and we have the songbirds they like to victimize.

In our previous cowbird posts, I mentioned that egg laying cowbirds are known to sometimes linger around the nests they've visited to guarantee that their eggs are well treated by the forced adoptive parents.

Well, today I encountered what I believe to be a female cowbird:

I know these pictures are far from clear and the resemblance to the juvenile form is definitely strong, but the light trim around the flight feathers is much more subtle than that of the juvenile. The barring on the breast is more subtle and uniform.

The entire bird is darker, featuring much less yellow.

Her shape and gait are different. She looks more like a tall, confident blackbird than a pot bellied beggar and she pursued her business unaccompanied by any adoptive parents.

Great blue heron!

As the video closes, one of Alcatraz's bright and intrepid law enforcement rangers begins to raise the interesting question of how a great blue heron can hunt as it does when its eyes are located not on the front of its head but rather on the sides, which presumably hurts its ability to perceive depth and distance.

But you can't argue with the results, I guess.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

PostHeaderIcon Cowbirds part two: Concrete ID and links both amusing and thought provoking

I found this awesome capture of a brown headed cowbird juvenile on Flickr.

And again, here is the bird I observed associating with the white crowned sparrow pair.

Finch like beak? Check.
Said finch-beak displaying bicoloring with darker upper mandible and yellow lower? Check.
Brown primaries with yellow trim? Check.
Black eyes, mottled yellow brown breast bars? Check and check.
Fat little pot-belly? I don't think that one 'check' will do.


This rad NOVA Science Now video explores the cowbird way of life with sufficient mafia metaphors and kitch to show how overdone the gangster analogy was before I got a chance to have any fun with it. *Sigh* Also, Neil deGrasse Tyson does a mean cowbird themed Marlon Brando.

This equally rad post by BirdChick examines the ethical and legal issues surrounding the removal of cowbird eggs.

In this video, also posted by BirdChick, you can see a roadrunner nab a cowbird about 2 minutes and 45 seconds in.

Friday, July 16, 2010

PostHeaderIcon Bird census: Brown headed cowbird?!

Br00dal parasitism on Alcatraz! This is seemingly benign young sparrow is no sparrow at all.

Though its adopted parents are sparrows, this little guy is actually a black bird, and it's thematic to discover that he or she is being reared on Alcatraz because this is truly the mafioso racketeer of the bird world.

They are known as brood or nest parasites. Around 40 times each breeding season, the female will lay a single egg inside the nest of another bird. If the nest contains eggs or young, the cowbird will eject or destroy some or all of them to ensure that proper effort and attention is paid by the adoptive parents to the young cowbird and not the young of their own species.

The brown headed cowbird is such a gangster that if the nesting bird recognizes and ejects the foreign presence in its nest, the cowbird will often return to demolish the nest and everything inside it.

This is what happens if a sparrow or finch forgets to look after the package left for them by their caring and magnanimous neighbor, the brown headed cowbird. These generous creatures would be positively grief-stricken if anything were to happen to your gorgeous nest.

If the victimized bird simply builds a new nest, the cowbird will return and lay another egg in it. They take notes and they are thorough.

I spotted the seemingly harmless little guy, hopping around with two white crowned sparrows, presumably the adoptive/host parents. It would hop near to one or the other, place its beak near the side of the smaller sparrow's head and shriek for food.

Interestingly, We've never seen a cowbird on Alcatraz. I hope I've got the ID right. At this point, I'm pretty sure.

Recognition as a nuisance species:

American song bird populations are declining and one contributing factor may be the change in land use patterns towards agricultural purposes. The cowbird is now better able to feed and thus better able to breed and terrorize its host species. As such, it has been designated a pest or nuisance species in parts of the United States.

There are even active trapping programs designed to give the songbirds a leg up on the mob.


I found this video from earlier in the year. It's a bird digging for insects or perhaps seeds in the undergrowth of the snowy egret thicket.

Perhaps it's the same individual. Or perhaps there are a number of these little gangsters on Alcatraz.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010

PostHeaderIcon Brief updates from the elusive BourbonHawk

  • -- The Great Blue Heron has become a regular at our dock in the early evening. I went a couple of years only seeing him a handful of times and now it seems like every day when we come down to board the last boat around 6, he's there hanging out. One of our GSRs tells me she sees him fishing there quite often, and lately he's been steadily harassed by the gulls.
  • -- Common Murres are definitely on the island now. Several NPS staff members have told us they've seen them below the laundry building and today we confirmed this with a few of our biologist interns. They apparently are also seen pretty often flying by the west side of the island. We're going to have to keep a lookout. While not uncommon in the bay, I've certainly never seen one on the island, so this is rather exciting. It also lends a little more credibility to our guess at what our female peregrine was eating here.
  • -- The WeGu pair that relaid, seen at the end of this post, have had their new clutch hatch! When we came upon them yesterday, one of the chicks was already dead, one was alive and moving about, and one egg had yet to hatch. With my binoculars I spotted another newly hatched clutch on the Parade Ground, and today our biologist interns Laura and Rachel showed us another more easily-viewable nest with a newly hatched chick. We thought the cuteness was gone for the year. We were WRONG.
  • -- Tiercel our tiercel hasn't been seen in a while. All I have to say about that is: Buddy, you're gonna be sorry if our lovely lady falcon from last year shows up again and you've already flown off for greener pastures.
Monday, July 12, 2010

PostHeaderIcon Update goodie bag!

Sorry for the hiatus. I've been working feverishly on various different posts on the island's common ravens and often I've found myself getting precisely nowhere. In the next day or two, however, I expect that to change.

In the interim, here's a brief island update:

PIGUs (Pigeon guillemots) !!

In the above video, they show their considerable cuteness, vocalizing to one another at a frequency which threatens to break glass. Watch the video to the end and convince yourself that those birds could possibly be making those sounds. They seem less like real birds than bathtub squeaky toys.

Breeding brandt's cormorants! Sorry for the fuzzy picture. This nest is far away from my camera lens, but you can still see the mottled white plumage displayed by the young hopeful.

The bird of note on Alcatraz this season may very well be the holiest gull to the Mormon faith. Really.

The California gull's favored breeding habitat in the south San Francisco bay is being destroyed in a process intended to restore tidal salt marshes in the interior bay. The refugee gulls, robbed of their year-to-year territories have fled. Many have settled on Alcatraz. The number of California gull nests on Alcatraz in 2010 is significantly higher than in 2009.

Future summers may see a decline in their numbers and they will certainly never know parity with our larger, dominant western gulls and with that in mind, let's designate 2010, The Year of the California Gull!

Break out your yellow leggings and paint a black ring around your nose! 'Tis the season!

The snowy egrets? If only there were any news. They continue to grow and continue to tickle us with their elegant plumage and bizarre vocalizations.

And let's not forget our WEGUs.

It's amazing how little time it takes to go from all of this cuteness:

To all of this:

And it only gets worse from here. Here I have to plagiarize or at least paraphrase from the unbelievably awesome Los Farallones blog. The gulls are cute for three weeks out of the year before they arc sharply towards a stocky, ugly form housing a violent and desperate personality. Each of the cutest baby WEGUs is a bid to become such an objectionable animal. Take it for what it's worth.

But it's hard not to feel triumphant for them when they finally flap their wings.

The ravens are next. Stay tuned.
Sunday, July 4, 2010

PostHeaderIcon "This is a big honking deal, Mr. President!"

Okay, so Vice President Joe Biden didn't really say that about the surprise fledging of Ryan T. Gosling. But if he was familiar with the circumstances and the course of events surrounding the miraculous rise of the little guy, I'm sure he'd have a profane bit of glib sarcasm just for us.

In the following video, Ryan's learning to fly!


Odds, ends:

Cormorant chicks are about. Here's a photo from what is, to my knowledge, our only visible chick bearing nest.

Don't tell me that the word "dinosaur" doesn't occur to you when you see these images.

In the Alcatraz nesting season, sometimes an early failure can lead to a late success. In our last post, we speculated wildly and without credibility that the ravens might be double brooding. Take our suggestions there with a grain of salt.

With the following gull pair, we're on much safer ground.

Theirs was the very first gull nest we noticed this year and perhaps not coincidentally, it was also the first to bear young. Unfortunately, this was the best they could do:

It's not clear why, but none of their hatchlings survived for longer than a day or two. But mom and dad haven't given up. Here's a picture of Ryan T. Gosling and parents walking by their renewed efforts:

And this last week, we finally managed to photograph an egg:

It's a bit difficult to see, but if you focus your attention on the area between the parent gull's two pink legs, you should be able to pick it out.

And finally, as we boarded the boat home the other day, this guy, Mr. elusive great blue heron was waiting for us on the rocks near the dock, scanning the water for easy prey:

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