Circus of the Spineless
The first edition of Circus of the Spineless is up today at Milkriverblog. This is a new carnival started by Tony G. for blogging about invertebrates. If future issues follow the first one's precedent this should be quite a popular carnival: the first edition lists over fifty posts.
Friday, September 30, 2005
Circus of the Spineless
Endangered Species Act Gutted
The House of Representatives has passed a bill that weaken the Endangered Species Act substantially. Among other things, it would require payments by the federal government when endangered species stop intended development. It also would place political appointees instead of scientists in charge of determining when a species is endangered. I expect that both of these measures will basically stop further species from being listed as endangered or threatened. Given what happened with the sage grouse earlier this year, I think we know what to expect from political appointees. The bill now goes to the Senate where the committee overseeing the legislation is chaired by Lincoln Chafee (R-RI). Chafee has a reputation as a liberal, but when push comes to shove he usually gets shoved, so I am not too hopeful about what the results will be.
Thursday, September 29, 2005
Thursday, September 22, 2005
Today was the autumnal equinox, even if it did not feel like fall in Washington, D.C. We have been in the midst of a prolonged heat and dry spell. Really we have not had all that much rain since early to mid August, when I complained several times on my blog of being caught in the rain. Since that time, every predicted chance of rain has fizzled, with most of the storms passing either to our north or to our south. Recently a heavy thunderstorm hit Fairfax County, but just missed the district. (Our dry spell just was classified as a drought by the U.S. Drought Monitor.)
The temperatures have not changed much either. While we are no longer cracking ninety, we are still getting into the mid and upper eighties regularly. Even last weekend, which was predicted to have highs in the seventies, reached the mid eighties on both Saturday and Sunday. The expected cold front never really brought much relief.
At least the birds have begun moving through in good numbers, as attested by our good results last weekend, and other good reports in the area. Yet we still have not had the strong cold fronts that one typically associates with large movements of migrants. Perhaps that is just as well since strong tropical cyclones have been churning across typical migration paths to our south.
Katrina and the Environment
Speaking of tropical cyclones, I still have not made the post on Katrina and the environment that I had hoped to make. That may not ever get finished. However, another blogger has been on the case. Take a look at the New Orleans Environment Watch for the latest news on the environmental situation in New Orleans (via Daily Kos).
Twenty-third Post Meme
Via Pharyngula and Thomasburg Walks:
1. Go into your archive.
2. Find your 23rd post (or closest to).
3. Find the fifth sentence (or closest to).
4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions.
Well, my twenty-third post has only two sentences in it, so I will cheat a bit and post from my twenty-fourth post, Evening Mall Birds:
I watched a few parents [birds] feeding their young in the garden behind the Smithsonian Castle.
Posted by John Beetham at 9/22/2005
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Environmental groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation may be joining forces with farmers in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania to improve the health of the bay. The groups are seeking a redistribution of agricultural subsidies that would strengthen local farms and allow for technology that would reduce pollution and erosion. Agriculture has been a major source of bay pollution in the past because of runoff from fertilizer and pesticides. But suburban sprawl may pose an even greater threat of pollution.
Lights Out New York
In New York City, the Parks Department and NYC Audubon are encouraging building owners to turn off nonessential lighting at night during peak migration periods. The program is meant to reduce the deaths caused when migrating birds become disoriented due to skyscraper lights and either crash into buildings or fly in circles to the point of exhaustion. The program appears to be voluntary, but cooperation is expected. Chicago has a similar program in place.
Update: There is more information about lights and migratory birds at the Fatal Lights Awareness Program website.
Tangled Bank #37 is now up at milkriverblog.
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Here is another of my irregular series of posts linking to bird-related articles.
Hawk-watching is a popular topic this week as hawk migration is approaching its peak. The Toledo Blade has article on hawk migration that includes an explanation - via graphics - of how hawks use thermals on their way south. Hawk Mountain, one of the most famous raptor-counting sites on the east coast, is the subject of a profile by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Like Cape May, the mountain had been a favorite spot for hunting raptors until the land was purchased by a conservation organization to stop the killing. The Washington Post has also profiled Hawk Mountain.
Banding is being supplemented by new technologies for tracking bird migration. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources is using satellite transmitters to track the path of two osprey that nest in central Ohio. A map showing their progress is online. Other scientists are using deuterium isotopes to establish the relationship between summer breeding grounds and winter residences for songbirds.
The plain-tailed wren of Ecuador and Peru sings in small groups of both males and females to produce a single song, with diffferent birds singing different parts. In other words, the species forms avian choruses. It is thought that the purpose of this activity is either to time reproduction or defend against intruders.
Alabama recently opened a birding trail along the Tennessee River in the northern portion of the state. The local communities are banking on the trail bringing in lots of tourist money from birders. Advocates of the trail are pushing it as a way to combine economic development with conservation. Meanwhile, Louisiana is trying to bring birders back to the refuges in the state's southwestern corner, which is now itself subject to a hurricane threat.
Posted by John Beetham at 9/20/2005
Monday, September 19, 2005
Field Trip: National Arboretum
This morning I took a short walk in the National Arboretum to try to find some of the birds that were on the move last night. Since I was most successful on the hill near the entrance on my last trip to the arboretum, I started out on the hill this morning.
Near the pond at the bottom of the hill I ran into a mixed flock of thrushes, containing mostly robins, but also a veery and a Swainson's thrush. A black-and-white warbler and a scarlet tanager were also in the mix. One rose-breasted grosbeak still had a bright red and white breast, but its head had turned to the drab fall colors. Unfortunately that party ended when a sharp-shinned hawk flew in and landed on a prominent perch. It did not stay there long, but no more songbirds were to be seen in that area.
On the way up the hill I came across another area of activity. When I pished a little, Carolina and house wrens appeared and started scolding. These were followed by a magnolia warbler and red-eyed vireo.
At the top I stood and waited for a bit while I watched some eastern wood-pewees hunt from their perches. Eventually some warblers started to appear. A northern parula and magnolia warbler showed themselves quickly; a few blackpoll warblers required an extra look for proper identification. When I pished to draw out more birds, another birder appeared.
After the activity at the top appeared to have ended, I started down the southern slope of the hill. Almost immediately I ran into another birdy patch. Nashville and chestnut-sided warblers were there along with more blackpolls. One warbler was similar in most respects to the blackpolls, but had stronger streaking on its breast and a more apparent eye-ring; this leads me to the conclusion that it was a pine warbler.
The prize of the day was a Philadelphia vireo. It was among the jumble of warblers just below the top of the hill. I decided that it was a vireo from the shape of its bill, which was too heavy and curved for a warbler. It had a gray cap and white supercilium like the red-eyed vireo, but unlike the red-eyed vireo, its eye-line was more gray than black and a yellow wash ran all the way from its neck down across its belly. I usually see about one of these per year, and today was the day for it.
Fern Valley and both ponds were fairly quiet. One belted kingfisher flew back and forth across Heart Pond. In the same pond there was also a rather large koi whose dorsal fin was sticking out of the water. It appeared to be in water too shallow for its size.
One non-bird note: I saw several Monarch butterflies cruising southwest well above the tree line. I assume these were migrants relying on winds and updraft on their way south.
SPECIES SEEN - 40
Saturday, September 17, 2005
A proposal has been made to build a wind farm in Garrett County, Maryland. The plan would place a little under 20 turbines along Backbone Mountain. An earlier plan had run into difficulties because it threatened migrant and nesting birds; it is not clear if the new version has addressed these issues.
Newsday has a piece on the Great Swamp of New Jersey, a large watershed that covers portions of Somerset and Morris Counties. Having grown up in New Jersey, I can attest that the Great Swamp is a wonderful place to visit, for birding or just for walking in the woods. Others may disagree, but I think that the Great Swamp is one of the two best places for birding in Central New Jersey. (Sandy Hook would be the other.)
The New York Times has a short report with satellite pictures that show the flooding of Louisiana's bayous in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Washington Post carries an AP report, which seems to be based on a press release, about the killing of nuisance animals in 2004. Some 2.7 million were killed, including about 2.3 million starlings, according to the figures in the article. Overall the figures given in the article appear to be a small percentage of the total populations, and unlikely to cause lasting damage. I do think there needs to be a balance between human needs and the needs of wild animals.
A new study suggests that unmowed power line cuts may help preserve bee populations. A comparison of unmowed cuts with nearby mowed areas in Maryland found greater diversity of species in the unmowed areas. Leaving such strips unmowed would of course benefit birds as well, especially grassland and meadow species that have been under increasing pressure.
Finally, the Post has recommendations of places to see penguins, wild or otherwise. None appear to be in Washington, though there are a few at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.
Friday, September 16, 2005
Opportunities for Washington Birders
There are two upcoming events for Washington-area birders.
The first is a field trip to Rock Creek Park led by the D.C. Audubon Society. It will be this Sunday, September 18, at 7 am. See their website for more details.
The second will be next Saturday, September 24, at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. It is part of National Public Lands Day, and as such, it will require doing some clean-up work after the walk. There are two walks: one a pre-dawn walk at 6 am to look for owls, rails, and other nocturnal animals, and the other a walk at 8 am to look for migrants. Contact the Aquatic Gardens for more information.
Both require an RSVP.
Thursday, September 15, 2005
The Onion reports that Souter Hopes Roberts Is Into Birds
WASHINGTON, DC—Anticipating the confirmation of federal appeals court Judge John Roberts to the Supreme Court, Justice David Souter expressed hope Tuesday that his new colleague will be into birds. "For 15 years, I have found no one on the court who would so much as look at my sighting books or field guides," Souter said. "Perhaps one day after adjournment, [Roberts] and I could go to Kenilworth Park and look for red-necked stints." Souter added that it would also be nice if Roberts shared his feelings on abortion, states' rights, and the Cebu flowerpecker.Not that red-necked stints are likely to be seen in Kenilworth Park...
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
According to a recent article in the New York Times, March of the Penguins has proven popular among conservatives. It is not surprising is not that conservatives enjoy it; as I have written before on this blog, it is a delightful film. What is surprising is that some conservative groups have latched onto the movie as support for moral values or a political agenda. For example:
Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, told the young conservatives' gathering last month: "You have to check out 'March of the Penguins.' It is an amazing movie. And I have to say, penguins are the really ideal example of monogamy. These things - the dedication of these birds is just amazing."And again:
"March of the Penguins," the conservative film critic and radio host Michael Medved said in an interview, is "the motion picture this summer that most passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing."Sacrifice and child-rearing are indeed a major aspect of the film. Monogamy, though, is another story. Penguins, like many other birds, are actually serial monogamists. That is, they mate with a single partner for the entirety of one breeding season, but commitments do not last into the following year. Each bird has to win a new partner. This is clearly stated in the film.
And once more:
Richard A. Blake, co-director of the film studies program at Boston College and the author of "The Lutheran Milieu of the Films of Ingmar Bergman" said that like many films, "March of the Penguins" was open to a religious interpretation.Use of penguins as fodder against gay marriage also runs into difficulties, given examples like this pair.
"You get a sense of these animals - following their natural instincts - are really exercising virtue that for humans would be quite admirable," he said. "I could see it as a statement on monogamy or condemnation of gay marriage or whatever the current agenda is."
Some are also using the film to push intelligent design:
To Andrew Coffin, writing in the widely circulated Christian publication World Magazine, that is a winning argument for the theory that life is too complex to have arisen through random selection.Ultimately, I think it is a bad idea to try to use the animal world as a morality play. We like to see reflections of our own emotions and motivations - dogs are loyal, cats are mischievous, and Antarctic penguins fall in love. There is a grain of truth in all such characterizations. As fellow members of the animal kingdom, and especially as higher-level members, we share much in common with other mammals and with birds. But there will always be a gap between humans and other animals, and trying to pretend it does not exist is fair neither to humans nor to other creatures, which ought to be understood on their own terms.
"That any one of these eggs survives is a remarkable feat - and, some might suppose, a strong case for intelligent design," he wrote. "It's sad that acknowledgment of a creator is absent in the examination of such strange and wonderful animals. But it's also a gap easily filled by family discussion after the film."
Furthermore, nature is harsh, and animals act in ways that are often disturbing. Anyone who has kept rodents knows that parents will kill their babies if there are too many in the tank. (I had this experience with gerbils when I accidently ended up with both males and females and they started breeding.) Males of some animal species will kill off the cubs sired by other males. Brown-headed cowbirds lay their eggs in other species' nests; often their chicks will push the other chicks out of the nest to get more attention. And chimpanzees will engage in warfare.
March of the Penguins actually did a fairly good job handling the harshness of the penguins' breeding cycle, from the long and difficult march, to the temperatures far below freezing, to predation. However, it also surrounded the penguins with a romantic aura that may have partially obscured this.
I and the Bird #6
The sixth I and the Bird has now been posted by Sharon at the BirdChick Blog. Once again, the carnival is full of entertaining and informative postings from bird bloggers across the world. So wander over and take a look.
The seventh will be hosted in two weeks by Dave at Bird TLC.
I have added a new commenting system and trackback, via a free account with Haloscan. After seeing how it worked on other blogs, I decided I like that system better than Blogger's built-in commenting. The one downside is that older comments have disappeared, but I am going to see about getting those restored. (They still exist; they just cannot be viewed with the current system at the moment.)
Posted by John Beetham at 9/14/2005
Monday, September 12, 2005
Powerful storms, especially hurricanes, wreak havoc on anything in their path. But they can also be a boon to birders. Birds in the path of a storm are swept along by its winds and left behind in its wake. This is especially true of seabirds, which frequently are deposited inland, far from their normal range. Washington, D.C., for example, has records of the following coastal and pelagic birds on its checklist: Leach's and Band-rumped Storm-petrels; Parasitic Jaeger; Bridled, Sooty, and Black Terns; Black Skimmer; and a Frigatebird-species. Since Washington lies about 100 miles inland, it seems safe to assume that most of these records were the result of storms. Unfortunately the checklist does not provide details on these sightings to confirm my assumption.
During migration, storms can have another effect. Heavy winds and rain force birds to land and find cover. Over open water, this can devastate a migrating flock because there is essentially no place to land. Inland, however, this can cause large fallouts as migrants hit the path of the storm and land in the nearest patch of trees.
At the same time as Hurricane Katrina was devastating refuges along the coast (see here, here, and here), it brought birds to birders inland. Most significant sightings occurred in Tennessee and Kentucky. One birder has put up a gallery of storm birds seen in Tennessee. In Ohio, no ocean-going birds materialized, but the storm caused a fallout of shorebirds.
The most recent hurricane to bring unusual birds into Washington, D.C., was Hurricane Isabel in September 2003. (See here for information on Isabel.) At the time I knew to look around the waterfront area, but I was not experienced enough to know what I was looking for. All I turned up was a Palm Warbler, which was a life bird for me at the time, but hardly out of place. More experienced observers in Washington found a Black Skimmer, some Wilson's Storm-petrels, and a Band-rumped Storm-petrel. Other locations in the area, especially in Virginia, had a variety of terns, jaegers, and other sea-going birds.
Around the middle of this week, Ophelia is expected to bring rain and wind close to the Washington area. Will it also bring birds? I am not expecting much. The storm's projected path takes it over the Outer Banks and then out to sea, so Washington should only see the outer bands of the storm, if any. That it is weak and meandering also makes it less likely to bring seabirds inland. By contrast, Isabel in 2003 came up through central Virginia and was still at hurricane-strength when it reached our area.
For more information about storm birds, see:
Sunday, September 11, 2005
A Few More Sunday Sightings
Taking advantage of the beautiful weather, I took another walk tonight, this time around the neighborhood of Capitol Hill. There appears to be a roost of chimney swifts somewhere around the corner of Massachusetts Ave and 3rd St, NE. I have been seeing large flocks of swifts there, but I have not located which building houses their roost yet. Later on, just around sunset, I saw about a dozen common nighthawks hunting over Lincoln Park. Both species are migrating through our area at present. Nighthawks are probably at the end of their peak movement, but swifts should stick around for another month or so.
Field Trip: National Arboretum
I have not written a post in over a week. Partly this was because I wanted to keep the last I and the Bird entry at the top of my page. It was also a result of being busy and not having much that I wanted to write about. Earlier last week I had a few walks in the woods that produced some common wood warblers and other birds - common nighthawks at RFK Stadium, a northern parula at the Arboretum, and some black-throated green warblers and American redstarts in other places outside D.C. But none of my little walks were quite productive enough to inspire a blog post. There are also some current issues that I considered writing about, primarily the H5N1 flu spreading in Asia and the environmental impact of Katrina, but I am not sure I could add much to what already has been written in various blogs (e.g., here, here, and here). I still may write something about those issues, though. Having said all that, let's move on to my latest sightings.
This morning I took the bus up to the National Arboretum in the hopes of finding some of the migrants passing through the area. The day warmed quickly, but there was still a hint of fall in the air, in the very cool conditions when I left my apartment, and in the trees that are starting to turn. Most still had green leaves, but the birches have already turned mostly golden, while some leaves on the mighty tulip poplars are beginning to turn yellow. I have noticed trees in my neighborhood, as well as in the Arboretum, turning straight from green to brown; I think this may be a result of the persistant drought in the area. Washington does not seem to have it as bad as northern New Jersey and New York City, but it is still very dry here.
Initially I was disappointed with the passerine turnout. American redstarts and common yellowthroats - both very common in this area during migration - were the only warblers I saw for the first couple hours of my walk. Added to these was a rose-breasted grosbeak. The latter was in a hemlock near the Asian Garden. It had some kind of fruit - about the size of the fruits that gingkos produce - that it was banging on a tree limb as it ate. It appeared to be a male, but in fall plumage, so that the rose breast was only faintly visible. One eye-level red-eyed vireo greeted me at the entrance to Fern Valley; inside that patch of woods I saw several more redstarts.
Meanwhile, a good selection of hawks made up for the slow passerine day. The usual red-shouldered hawk was watching over Heart Pond. Oddly enough, it did not scream at all when I flushed it. As I walked up the road in the direction of the Asian Garden, one young Cooper's hawk flew into a patch of trees in pursuit of some robins; I do not know if it was successful. Completing the accipiter day, a sharp-shinned hawk was waiting for me down by the river. Finally, an American kestrel flew out of some hemlocks and passed over Hickey Hill. Kestrels are not that common of a sight in Washington because of the lack of appropriate habitat. The Arboretum is one of the few places I have seen them in this city.
Passing along the side of the state trees area, I spotted a few eastern bluebirds that seem to be regulars around there. There was also an empidonax flycatcher in one of the pines. I think it was a least flycatcher because it was too small and too gray for an Acadian or yellow-bellied and in the wrong habitat for either of the Traill's-type flycatchers. That identification has to remain somewhat tentative, however. (Later on, I did hear an Acadian flycatcher calling in a different part of the Arboretum.)
As my walk wound down, I debated whether or not to go all the way up the hill near the entrance. I almost did not, but then I changed my mind, partly to get the extra exercise from climbing the hill. Most of the time I do not see that many birds on the hill. But today I hit the jackpot. At the top of the hill, my attention was drawn first by a worm-eating warbler picking through some dead leaves. Then, in quick succession, I started seeing lots of other warblers: first more redstarts, then a northern parula, then Nashville and black-and-white warblers. Turning around, I found black-throated green and magnolia warblers at the top of one of the shorter oaks. One parula was still singing its buzzy song.
On the way down the hill, I ran into yet more migrants. An ovenbird picked its way through the brush on one side of the trail. Further down, I had a scarlet tanager and a Swainson's thrush, the latter a year bird since I missed it in the spring. I caught a glimpse of one partially-concealed great-crested flycatcher; the tree where it was perched was already turning yellow so that it was even better camouflaged than usual. To top off the morning, I saw a young chestnut-sided warbler, showing off its distinctive lime-green back.
The walk up that hill provided me with my first real migrant fallout of the fall, with ten warbler species and several other birds. So today's birding lesson is: stay persistant, and cover the area you have not covered, even if it does not look promising. (Actually I sort of knew that already, but I tend to forget it when I am tired.)
Now that migration is picking up, I plan to make some more birding trips out to the local hotspots, so there should be some more sightings reported here. In any case, there should not be another week-and-a-half gap in posts for a while.
SPECIES SEEN AND HEARD: 52
Great Blue Heron
Least Flycatcher (probably)
Great Crested Flycatcher
Black-throated Green Warbler