Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Black flies and falcon deaths at GSB

As watchers of Great Spirit Bluff know, we lost two falcons to black flies/buffalo gnats. The young falcons died from blood loss and a blood pathogen carried by black flies. The immune systems of adults can handle the pathogen, but young birds often can't. Although none of us believe that the flies came from within the box, we'll take a sample of gravel for examination as well.

We've had black fly problems here in the past. In 2013 and 2014, young falcons were stampeded from the box in mid-June, when they were roughly 30 days of age. But that we know, we've never had a serious problem this early. Why are black flies swarming the box now? It is a more complicated answer than you might think.

Which black fly is this? There are 30 species of black flies in Minnesota, but not all of them are good candidates for this location. For example, it probably isn't Simulium johannseni (develops primarily in the Crow River) or Simulium meridionale (develops primarily in the Minnesota and Crow rivers), but ruling out those two still leaves 28 possibilities. Although black flies as a whole are grouped into one family (Simuliidae), black fly species have very different life styles.  It would be helpful to know which species we are dealing with.

What does its life cycle look like? From Purdue: "The length of time it takes an egg to hatch varies greatly from species to species. Eggs of most species hatch in 4-30 days, but those of certain species may not hatch for a period of several months or longer.  The number of larval stages ranges from 4-9, with 7 being the usual number.  The duration of larval development ranges from 1-6 months, depending in part on water temperature and food supply. The life cycle stage that passes though winter is the last stage larva attached underwater to rocks, driftwood, and concrete surfaces such as dams and sides of man-made channels."  In short, the eggs for the 2017 hatch were most likely laid in 2016. The larvae emerged somewhere between one month ago or six months ago. When I compared average April temperature and precipitation for the area for every year between 2013 and 2017, I found that April 2017 was the warmest, if not by much.

Average Temp (F) Average Precip (inches)
 April 2017 53 4.87
 April 2016 50 1.08
 April 2015 51 4.16
 April 2014 45 7.03
 April 2013 43 6.11

The complicated structure of black fly life means that we also need to look at the conditions last fall and winter, which were unusually warm and dry. Did more eggs and larva stay local given the lower river current? Did more larva survive given the unusually mild conditions? Did the slightly warmer April weather lead to an earlier season? Did sun and warm temperatures following days of cold and rain lead to an explosive hatch? John noted that the swarm seemed to blow up and fade very quickly. This video shows 'those dreaded flies': https://youtu.be/Rua_nnLF6TE

Can we control them?
We are looking into it, but we don't have an easy answer yet. We need something that doesn't volatilize since we can't descend to the box every day to spray it. It has to be strong enough to kill flies but not strong enough to harm hatchling and nestling falcons. It can't destroy the integrity of the box or let too much precipitation or wind in through the side. We are contacting the University of Minnesota's insect extension team to pick their brains and have also emailed Dr. Laura Johnson about safe possibilities. John and Susan had an intriguing idea about soaking mesh scrubbies in some known organic repellents and securing them in a safe location inside the nest box, so we may try that as well.

I wish we had more answers for everyone now. We'll do what we can and post more information when we have it.


Nora H said...

Always sad, hopefully an idea can be found. This spring seems different. Normally we have June Bugs in May and I haven't seen any yet this year, a first for me. Thank you for all the info and the job you guys do.

Okeyd57 said...

No doubt those flies are hatching in the river across the highway. Here in West Virginia, we have to spray the New River every spring to control them, otherwise you can't even go fishing for those pesky things.

I'm not sure if some deet spray would help, or not. Probably wouldn't be good for the birds anyway. Mother Nature sure can be rough.

Mary Ahmad said...

What are the black flies natural predators?

Jessy Lytle said...

This is just so very sad. In the video you can see just how hard mom is trying to protect the babies from the flies. Its just very sad. it does show is just how hard their lives can be.

Jm said...

I'm very curious, and I can't tell from watching the nest, what happened to the dead chick? Is it still in the nest attracting even more flies? Are the other two surviving?

Nora H said...

The dead chicks were removed by RRP (Raptor Resource Project) and they will be examined.

Mindy Meacham said...

I understand you feel as bad or worse about the chicks. I would like to offer the comment that placing further ventilation in the box might allow insects to be blown away naturally. Other cams seem to have less problems and the wind is moving thru the nest.