I am about to leave town for few days to visit my brother on the West Coast. During that time, I will be posting here very little, if at all. Unfortunately Blogger does not allow me to schedule posts in advance.
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In the meantime, read some of the blogs listed in my right sidebar for a dose of bird-blogging. (This may appear at the bottom of the page for some IE users with an 800x600 or smaller monitor resolution.)
I expect to resume posting here next Wednesday.
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
I am about to leave town for few days to visit my brother on the West Coast. During that time, I will be posting here very little, if at all. Unfortunately Blogger does not allow me to schedule posts in advance.
Monday, May 29, 2006
Many people who visit this site come here via Google and other searches. Sometimes the keywords are simple terms like "birding," some are more specific, and others are just plain strange. Certain search terms are phrased in the form of a question. In this post, I will highlight a few of those and try to answer them.
A lot of searches looking for the identity of red birds in the Mid-Atlantic bring people here. I assume these are in response to birds that people have seen. Without seeing the birds in question, I cannot identify these. However, I can offer a few possibilities:
- Northern Cardinals are among the most common birds of the area. Males are almost all red, with a red crest and black face. Females are mostly brown, with some red feathers in the wings and tail. Both sexes have a red bill.
- Spring migration has brought us Scarlet Tanagers. The adult male of this species is all bright red except for its wings, which are black.
- Summer Tanagers also breed in the Mid-Atlantic and southern states.
Like other birds, kingfishers reproduce in the spring and early, when food sources are the most plentiful. According to the Maryland "Yellow Book," belted kingfishers in this area lay their eggs sometime between April 11 and June 4.
a graph of the decline in population for the red-shouldered hawk
This is not really a question, but I will provide some information anyway. Christmas Bird Count data can be used to show trends in population over time; the data can be arranged as tables or graphs. Here is a graph of the red-shouldered hawk population in the United States over the past 50 years.
CBC data actually shows an increase over this time period because the population crashed in the 1960s and then rebounded with the banning of DDT. However, their future stability remains a concern due to habitat destruction. See also my profile of red-shouldered hawks.
Acadian flycatcher: what's it eat?
Acadian flycatchers, like other members of the family Tyrannidae, are insectivores. They primarily eat true flies, but will take other insects as well, and even seeds or berries on occasion.
What does the Cape May Warbler eat?
As I noted in my profile of the species, cape may warblers primarily eat spruce budworms, and occasionally will feed on nectar or fresh catkins during migration.
What does yellow finch look like in Virginia area?
I assume this question refers to the American goldfinch, which is the most common yellow-colored finch in this region. In winter, the pine siskin, which has patches of yellow in its wings, may appear at feeders. Many warblers also have yellow coloration.
Cerulean warbler song
See my post on cerulean warblers, here, for links to sound files.
Sunday, May 28, 2006
Skepticism about global warming has come to the pages of the Washington Post Magazine. When I first saw the headline and teaser, I was afraid that the skeptics would be airbrushed and thrown softball questions. Then I saw that the author was Joel Achenbach, and I was confident that the position would get the treatment it deserves. (I have to say, sending Gene Weingarten after them might have been more appropriate.)
On Bill Gray:
Achenbach spends relatively little time on the evidence for warming trends and the possible results of climate change. It is really not his strength - which he acknowledges. Rather he looks at the ways skeptics, heavily funded by energy industries and backed by powerful politicians, make their case. They rely in part, on journalists' dependence on expertise to cover their own lack of knowledge. Consulting experts and looking for alternative interpretations can lead to confusing results.
"I am of the opinion that this is one of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated on the American people," he says when I visit him in his office on a sunny spring afternoon.
He has testified about this to the United States Senate. He has written magazine articles, given speeches, done everything he could to get the message out. His scientific position relies heavily on what is known as the Argument From Authority. He's the authority.
The article is long, but worth a look. Achenbach introduces a lot of characters and gives their background information. He also has some useful comments on the state of discourse, specifically with regard to climate change, but with broader application. On important questions there is a tendency to divide into bitterly opposed camps with inflamed rhetoric, such as the Hitler and Nazi comparisons that get thrown around without consideration. Such rhetoric makes evaluation of the facts and progress towards a solution more difficult. In the end that harms everyone, believers and skeptics alike.
Climate change is generating headlines almost daily -- (e.g., "Peril to Walrus Young Seen As Result of Melting Ice Shelf") -- but it is also abstruse in its specifics, so journalists rely on "experts" to tell them where the truth lies. Someone like Bill Gray seems to be a fully credentialed authority figure. But when you press him on his theory of how thermohaline circulation has caused recent warming of the planet and will soon cause cooling, he concedes that he hasn't published the idea in any peer-reviewed journal. He's working on it, he says.
The Web site Real Climate, run by a loose group of climate scientists, recently published a detailed refutation of Gray's theory, saying his claims about the ocean circulation lack evidence. The Web site criticized Gray for not adapting to the modern era of meteorology, "which demands hypotheses soundly grounded in quantitative and consistent physical formulations, not seat-of-the-pants flying."
Saturday, May 27, 2006
This morning I walked in the National Arboretum, which I had not visited in several weeks because of various other weekend birding activities. Migration is winding down now, which was certainly evident from the birds I was seeing (or rather, not seeing). I only encountered six species of warblers. As I noted in posts earlier this week, very few birds are singing now, as many have moved on, and others are busy with the work of settling down and raising this year's brood.
Winding down does not necessarily mean becoming dull. As birders know, migrants do not move in one steady stream but in clumps, each of which is dominted by certain groups of species. The late part of spring migration - the last two weeks of May - is frequently the best time to look for thrushes and Oporornis warblers.
Today certainly bore that out. When I first arrived in the Azalea Gardens, I could hear wood thrushes and red-eyed vireos, the usual warm-weather denizens of the hill. I stopped and talked for a short time to two birders, who then alerted me to the presence of a gray-cheeked thrush. I soon caught up with it a little farther down the trail. In the same area, a Swainson's thrush was singing its ascending song - like a backwards veery.
On the other side of the hill, down near the brick enclosure, I ran into one of the six warblers I saw today As I came down the trail for the top of the hill I saw some motion out of the corner of my eye and heard a couple of scolding chip notes. I raised my binoculars expecting a common yellowthroat or something like that, but instead I saw a life mourning warbler! It was bigger and more brightly colored than I expected. Because mourning warblers are hard to see, I thought the colors would be dull. But no, the yellow is very bright, the olive-green is very vivid, and the hood is very obviously gray, with some bold black speckling at the hood's base. It is a very beautiful bird indeed.
When the mourning warbler finally skulked out of sight, I amused myself watching a trio of pileated woodpeckers that were disputing which woodpecker should peck on which tree. (Surely there are enough trees on that hill for all of them to peck in peace!) One of them is pictured above. Another one is shown in flight in the the photograph at right. It took off just as I was taking the shot, so all you see is the blur left by white patches on the tops of the wings.
SPECIES SEEN: 44
Great Crested Flycatcher
Black-throated Blue Warbler
There was an attempted assault in Rock Creek Park on Wednesday night:
P Street is pretty far south, where the park is just wide enough on both sides of the stream to accomodate a bicycle trail and roadway. This is not a real birding area, but it is a reminder to birders to be aware of their surroundings.
In the Rock Creek Park incident, the woman was attacked from behind as she jogged in the densely wooded area just north of P Street. Fear said nothing similar had happened in more than two years.
The assailant tried to drag the woman into the woods, but she bit his finger, jumped into the creek and reached the parkway.
Police said the man was described as a thin, round-faced black man, about 35, between 5 foot 10 and 6 feet tall. He wore blue jeans and a long-sleeved pullover shirt with horizontal blue and black stripes.
Police asked those with information to call 202-610-8737.
Friday, May 26, 2006
Early on this muggy morning I set off for the two Kenilworths - the Park and the Aquatic Gardens to see if any new migrants had moved in since my last visit there on the Birdathon. I was also curious to see if the birds reported earlier in the week were still around. The short answer is no. The rest of this post is the longer explanation.
I checked the "back area" of Kenilworth Park first. As I approached, a large raptor-type bird flushed from the treeline near the barrier. Unfortunately I did not see where it landed so I could not get a positive identification. But the manner of flight and overall shape of the bird make me think that this was an owl, probably a barred owl. Its tail was very short - shorter than one would expect for a hawk - while its wings were relatively long and its body appeared kind of chunky. The feathers of the tail appeared to be flecked with white. I did not get a look at the head since it flushed away from me.
Elsewhere in the back area, a killdeer was doing a distraction display; I did not see a nest, but presume there was one nearby. Two blue grosbeaks were singing, and I got a look at both of them. In addition to the grosbeaks, several indigo buntings chased each other around. It was a visual feast of blue. A field sparrow sang near the barriers.
The no-mow area held more buntings and grosbeaks. It also turned up some large flocks of starlings. Sadly, no bobolinks appeared today. However, there was one eastern meadowlark, which has persisted at the park. I saw it as it was chased by a red-winged blackbird. It was a flash of brown and yellow before disappearing into a convenient bush.
At the Aquatic Gardens, most birds were quiet, even if they were there. The most persistent singers today were the prothonotary warblers - two on the river trail and one in the ponds area. They sang loudly and repetitively. I got a look at two of them, one of which appeared to be carrying food (to a nest?). These birds really are a wonder with their bright yellow heads and bodies.
The tide was high so few shorebirds were around. I am not sure there are even many passing through this year, because very few sightings have been reported. Their normal high tide hangouts like Kenilworth Park and Anacostia Park have been very dry because of the lack of rain. Perhaps that is keeping them away.
Does anyone know of a good online guide for identifying wetland vegetation? I found this useful site, but it is limited in scope. Most online sources that I know about split between wildflowers and trees, with little else. If you know of something please leave a comment.
SPECIES SEEN: 54
Great Blue Heron
Barred Owl ?
Great Crested Flycatcher
Thursday, May 25, 2006
A few stories linked at Little Birdie this afternoon have mixed news for those of us who are interested in the current status of the red knot. Aerial surveys showed that the red knot flocks along the Delaware Bay are now down to 12,000, from 17,000 last year. Such a sharp drop in one year is worrying because it shows that numbers have not yet stabilized. The drop in numbers has been tied to a boom in horseshoe crab harvests that began in the 1990s; red knot numbers dropped precipitously shortly after the harvests increased. See this FWS page for more information about North American red knots.
Two articles covered preservation work underway at Mispillion Inlet in Delaware, one of the major concentration points for red knot on the south side of the Delaware Bay. The Conservation Fund has purchased a 73-acre plot of private land at that site. The land will be managed as a nature reserve and no horseshoe crab harvesting will be permitted at that location. Because the Mispillion Harbor is sheltered, it is easier for crabs to spawn there. As a result, red knot numbers have been much higher there than at other locations in recent years.
In the meantime, an effort is underway to repair the Mispillion Inlet jetty, which shelters the harbor.
This afternoon the House passed a bill authorizing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The vote was 225-201. Go here to see how your representative voted. Proponents claim that the oil there would lower gas prices and increase energy security. However, since the first barrels of oil would not be available for another 10 years at the earliest, and since there is disagreement over exactly how much oil is there, it is unlikely to make a difference any time soon. What the drilling will do is disrupt the breeding grounds of many species of birds and mammals. Some birds that breed there migrate into our area for the winter.
As with last summer's unsuccessful bill, the principal backer for this year's attempt at drilling has been Congressman Richard Pombo. People, of CA-11, please vote him out!
Last year's bill went on to die in the Senate, where it was the subject of a filibuster. I assume it will this year as well, but we should not take that for granted.
Carel Brest van Kempen, the artist and blogger behind the Rigor Vitae, has prepared an excellent edition of I and the Bird in comic book form. Go visit his I and the Bird #24 for the best posts from recent bird blogging. Make sure to enlarge the images while you are reading it, too.
Van Kempen was interviewed recently by DarkSyde at Daily Kos about his book.
The next edition will be hosted at Rob's Idaho Perspective on June 6.
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
I noted in my post yesterday that I saw many Swainson's thrushes in Rock Creek Park. There were several in the maintenance yard, as well as in the woods around the nature center. Well, this afternoon, I heard one singing in a small park near Union Station, hardly ideal thrush habitat! Apparently there was quite an influx at Rock Creek Park this morning as well. One report estimated that there were 40 just in the small area birders normally cover.
Those of you who followed the story of the Wilson Bridge eagles might remember that the female eagle, Martha, was injured in a territorial battle with another female at the beginning of April. While she was taken to a clinic in Delaware for rehabilitation, the male, George, was left to care for the nest. The eggs hatched, but the chicks died from either cold or inadequate nourishment, and George eventually abandoned the nest.
Now Martha's rehabilitation has ended, and she is back at the bridge. She was released from the Tri-State Center on May 6, and made her way back to her own nesting territory on her own. Photographs of an eagle consorting with George recently show that it is indeed Martha, because injuries to the eagle's bill match those incurred in the April fight.
In other bald eagle news, two eagle chicks from Prince William County, VA, were taken to a wildlife rehabilitation center after their nest was blown down in a storm.
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
A flock of small dark birds suddenly rises out of a field with a chirping, bubbling call. Just as quickly, the flock settles back down in a different part of the field. What were they?
In my city of Washington, DC, a flock matching this description is most likely to be starlings, or perhaps one of the common species from the blackbird family. At this time of year, however, it is good to check such a flock for bobolinks. This species now occurs in DC only during migration. In the ridge and valley province of western Maryland and Virginia, bobolinks breed in hay fields.
Bobolinks are members of the icterids, the diverse family that includes blackbirds and grackles, meadowlarks, and orioles. A male bobolink is mostly black, but has a cream-colored patch on the back of its head, a large white rump, and broad white stripes where its wings meet its body (i.e., white scapulars). Females are sparrow-like in coloration, with dark brown wings, buffy bodies, and dark brown cap and eyestripe.
The distinctive appearance of this species has given rise to colorful nicknames. "Butter-bird" and "skunk blackbird" came about because of the white and cream-colored patches on its back and head. The appellation "ricebird" notes bobolinks' affection for grassy meadows and wild rice patches.
Since bobolinks spend much of their time foraging on the ground, one needs to be ready to spot them in flight. Luckily, several factors make this easier, if you know to look for them. Bobolinks are a highly social species, and travel in flocks, like cedar waxwings and some blackbirds. Such a flock is itself a clue that bobolinks may be present. In flight, the contrast in coloration between males and females is quite striking; look for flocks that include both black and light brown birds. The white patches on the otherwise black makes stand out quite readily if you see the birds from the side or rear. In addition, the song of the bobolink, frequently is helpful if you recognize it. Unfortunately I do not, but you can listen to samples here and here, as well as at the CLO site.
Like other grassland species, bobolinks have declined due to loss of habitat. This can be attributed to changes in agricultural practices, development of former farmland into suburban housing, and former fields being overtaken by woody vegetation. One solution that individual farmers can implement is to delay summer mowing from June until late July, after most nestlings have fledged. Such action would benefit not only bobolinks, but also other grassland species such as grasshopper sparrows and eastern meadowlarks. Grasslands managed for bobolinks should be mowed or burned at least every two years to reduce woody plants.
This morning I spent a couple hours in Rock Creek Park in the hope of catching some late spring migration action. I had hoped to see the mourning warbler and olive-sided flycatcher that had been seen around the maintenance yard for the past few days. Unfortunately, neither made an appearance while I was there. The mourning warbler was seen today, but before I arrived. I did see plenty of birds, though.
The vine tangle in back of the maintenance yard had its share of warblers this morning. When I arrived I was greeted by a singing chestnut-sided warbler while I heard a yellow-throated vireo. After some looking I found a male blackburnian warbler - the first I have actually seen rather than heard this spring; two females were also in the yard. Northern parulas and black-throated blue warblers sang somewhere in the trees, while magnolia warblers popped in and out of the foliage. A female Canada warbler appeared just before I left the yard. Blackpolls, of course, have become ubiquitous.
The "best" bird in the yard that I saw was a Lincoln's sparrow. I got very good looks at it several times. It is a handsome bird, with crisp dark streaking on its buffy breast, clean gray eyebrow, and narrow bill. Unlike its nervous cousin, the song sparrow, Lincoln's sparrows will calmly sit out in the open. This one sat on top of the rusting beam of an abandoned cart.
Before I left, I checked back behind the nature center to see if any other birds were there. I saw a wood thrush, and heard black-throated geen and hooded warblers. There were yet more Swainson's thrushes in that area - after I had already seen a lot of them in the maintenance yard. I do not think I have ever seen that many on a single day before. Overall, there seemed to be less singing than on previous visits, but there are still many birds around.
SPECIES SEEN: 52
Great Blue Heron
Great Crested Flycatcher
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Monday, May 22, 2006
Hurricane season begins in less than two weeks, and the NOAA has its predictions ready. We should expect another above-average hurricane season. It is unlikely to reach last year's proportions, but you never know what will happen.
The current active cycle is expected to last for at least another decade. The worst impact could again be along the Gulf Coast since many people are still living in FEMA trailers after being relocated in the wake of Katrina. The coastal marshes of Louisiana and southern Mississippi and Alabama are also probably ill-prepared for another beating. Each marsh faces unrelenting pressure from two directions - human development and natural erosion. Hurricanes just make the situation worse.
Although hurricane activity this year is not expected to reach last year's record level, it is predicted to be greater than the 40-year average, said retired Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., the NOAA administrator. The hurricane season begins June 1 and runs through Nov. 30.
"For the 2006 north Atlantic hurricane season, NOAA is predicting 13 to 16 named storms, with eight to 10 becoming hurricanes, of which four to six could become 'major' hurricanes of Category 3 strength or higher," Lautenbacher said. "Although NOAA is not forecasting a repeat of last year's season, the potential for hurricanes striking the U.S. is high," he said.
On average, he said, the hurricane season produces 11 named storms, of which six become hurricanes, two of them major ones. But in 2005, there were a record 28 storms, including 15 hurricanes. Seven of these were considered "major," and a record four of them hit the United States.
An aspect of migration that has come under increasing scrutiny is the flight call given by each species. Combined with radar study, it can help determine the identity and density of birds passing over a particular location late at night. Now some birders are finding ways to study the phenomenon of nocturnal flight calls themselves.
I took a look at the oldbird site myself. The microphone rig looks a bit like something off the Red Green Show (complete with duct tape and bungee cords), but presumably works.
A high-powered microphone can be set up at home, even in the city.
"Cities are often best, because there are a lot of lights, and they're near the coast," Dr. Wells said. Birds can get confused by bright lights, which makes them call to each other more frequently.
At the Web site www.oldbird.org, instructions show how to build a microphone on a plastic-wrapped dinner plate, kept inside a flower pot, for about $10 (look toward the bottom of the listing on microphone design). It also offers free software that sifts through the various calls overnight, producing spectrograms and keys to identifying what bird produced them.
"I warn any of you to be careful: You won't sleep at night," Dr. Wells said. "And in the morning, you'll have to run right to your computer to find out what went over your house all night."
On Saturday I went with DC Audubon out to Bombay Hook on the Delaware coast. Bombay Hook, part of the National Wildlife Refuge system, is the best birding spot that I have visited in the mid-Atlantic. The refuge consists of a series of fresh water impoundments, surrounded by woods, fields in various stages of growth, and tidal salt marshes and mudflats.
The diversity and quality of habitats in around Bombay Hook attracts many birds - and birders. Claudia Wilds, in her classic Finding Birds in the National Capital Area, states that "there must be few avid birders in these parts whose life lists have not been substantially lengthened by happily remembered expeditions" there. My own experiences would bear her comment out; in four trips I have seen sixteen life birds. These include beautiful American avocets and black-necked stilts, as well as the rare and declining red knots. On Saturday my one life bird was a clapper rail, which I identified not by sight but by its "clappering" call shortly after a few others saw two swim across a creek. (Yes, I do count heard birds for species that are hard to see.) Our Audubon group as a whole found over 100 species, remarkable for one of our field trips, and possibly a record for recent years.
As one might guess from the timing of our trip, the best reason to make a two-hour trip from Washington to the refuge is to see shorebirds. That mission was accomplished on Saturday as we saw sixteen species of shorebirds, from the tiniest semipalmated plovers to the chunky short-billed dowitchers and graceful willets. The mudflats were enlivened with colorful dunlin and ruddy turnstones; these two species put to lie their family's reputation for being dull and difficult to identify. I spotted one pectoral sandpiper among the other peeps at Shearness Pool; this bird stood out from the others by its more heavily streaked breast and prominent white stripes above the eye and along the back.
The woods and fields were full of songbirds. Blackpoll warblers sang everywhere, a sure sign of late May. A prothonotary warbler greeted us at the entrance to the boardwalk trail; a northern waterthrush skulked in the reeds of Bear Swamp. Graceful purple martins and barn swallows hawked insects around the visitors center. (I think that purple martins are among my favorite swallows, though they are also one that I see very rarely.) Finally, two characteristic birds of coastal salt marshes were present in good numbers: marsh wrens and seaside sparrows added their bubbling and hissing songs from among the reeds.
Port Mahon Road is the follow-up to Bombay Hook on the traditional spring birders' route. This is a good spot to pick up red knots, and sure enough, we saw two standing on a chunk of concrete with about thirty ruddy turnstones. More experienced birders with our group recalled years ago when numbers of red knot at the site equalled that of the turnstones and sanderlings that crowded the beach.
A few of us went on from Port Mahon Road to Little Creek and Pickering Beach. The birds there were pretty much the same as at the previous stops, with two exceptions. One was a northern harrier coursing over an old field. The second was a white-crowned sparrow that flew up from the side of a path and perched in full view, my first for the year.
I would highly recommend a visit to this refuge for anyone in the Mid-Atlantic or for any birder visiting the area. For directions to the refuge, see the FAQ on the refuge website. To learn what birds have been seen there recently, check the de-birds listserve (also available at Birdingonthe.net).
Sunday, May 21, 2006
News and links about birds, birding, and the environment.
- Scientists are montoring birds passing through Alaska for bird flu. Two shorebird species have been selected for testing: long-billed dowitchers and pectoral sandpipers. The birds will be given anal swabs, which will be analyzed for H5N1.
- The Smithsonian is studying a subspecies of swamp sparrow unique to Delaware.
- Cowbird-trapping will continue in Michigan this year as part of the program to reduce nest parasitism among endangered Kirtland's warblers.
- Mute swan cygnets from a brood near Annapolis disappeared after some kayakers were seen in the creek near the nest. The disappearance was not related to the Maryland DNR control program.
- The owner of a rival hatchery is surprised at the arrests of workers at the Mohawk Trout Hatchery for killing herons.
- Scrub jays will hide their food a second time if they think that a dominant bird watched them hide it the first time.
- If you liked the Great Backyard Bird Count, you might be interested in My Yard Counts. This is a new Cornell program to gather data about what birds are in people's yards during the spring and summer. See the link for how to participate.
- Someone thinks rabbits are really weird.
A week ago, the photograph at right was taken by a birder on Capitol Hill. Since that time, many of us have been trying to figure out exactly what bird is in the photograph. To see the full photograph, and try to figure this out for yourself, click this link. Like with the ivory-billed woodpecker videos, there is a right answer, but no one seems to know for certain what it is.
Saturday, May 20, 2006
The Blue Plains sewage treatment plant in far southeast DC released 17 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Potomac River overnight on Saturday. The release was due to a power failure at the plant. Apparently both the main generators failed, while the backups were out of service for maintenance.
An EPA spokesperson got out right away to claim that any damage from the release would be minimal because sewage also leaks during major rainstorms. However, I have to wonder about the EPA's credibility at this point. We saw similar reactions after 9/11 and Katrina. Someone makes assurances to the public that everything is safe before any testing is done. Then a few months later we find out that the disaster released major toxins.
In this case, release of sewage has been a continuing problem along the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers because the Districts sewers and storm drains use the same lines. This release is in a particularly concentrated form, which may result in fish kills.
The Anacostia River has long suffered from neglect and pollution. Just recently it was branded as one of the most polluted rivers in America, after up to 68% of brown bullhead catfish from the river were discovered to have liver tumors. In the last few years, the District government has focused on ways to clean up the river and "revitalize" the waterfront.
A large part of the publicity has focused on economic development, which is being overseen by the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, a semi-public entity. The economic development includes the new baseball and soccer stadiums being built at the mouth of the Anacostia, as well as other initiatives. Somewhat less publicity has been given to efforts to restore the Anacostia wetlands that formerly provided habitats for many animals and would improve the water quality dramatically by removing excess nutrients.
Over a decade ago, the wetlands of Kenilworth Marsh were rebuilt into a healthy ecosystem. Now, the focus is on Kingman Lake. Since 2000, there has been a major effort to replace the wetlands south of Benning Road that were destroyed by an Army Corps of Engineering project in the early twentieth century. Initially the restoration program was successful; the ground was built up, native marsh grasses were planted in fenced areas, and the plants thrived. But this did not last last when fences were removed.
This week's Washington City Paper has profiled one of the major challenges in restoring the former wetlands on the Anacostia: resident Canada Geese. Whenever fencing around replanted grasses came down, either because it was removed or because it fell down, geese would enter the replanted areas and eat down the grasses. In the second year of the project, geese ate 80% of the area that had been replanted the year before. What is worse, the resident geese eat the grasses all year, including in the summer when the same plants could be used by bitterns, rails, and other migratory marsh birds. The resident Canada Geese are a midwestern subspecies imported for hunting in the 1950s; it is the largest subspecies, Branta canadensis maxima, and it is extremely sedentary.
One measure of the success of marsh restoration is the success of wild rice, a dietary staple for both songbirds and gamebirds. Unfortunately, the Canada Geese love wild rice as well, and will eat the plants down - grains, leaves, stems, and all. Planting unpalatable species might discourage the geese, but would likely have the same effect on the animals the restoration is supposed to attract.
The options to solve the population issue all have problems. The current situation - spending millions on replanting only to have the plants mowed down - is clearly not tenable. Scaring away geese with dogs and various noisemakers only works temporarily; geese come right back as soon as the show is over. Egg addling will keep the population in check, but will not lead to a significant decrease for some time; this option has been in use for several years already. Lethal control, an option now under consideration, would reduce or eliminate most resident geese, has its own ethical questions and would certainly face public opposition and lawsuits.
What will happen with the marsh restoration project remains to be seen. Rebuilding the Anacostia wetlands is a key part of restoring a healthy river. Because the river is part of the Chesapeake watershed, improving water quality here has a regional impact as well. Unfortunately the project cannot make significant progress with the current balance.
Friday, May 19, 2006
The 2005-2006 search season has ended with no new sightings of an ivory-billed woodpecker in the Big Woods of Arkansas. This winter and spring witnessed the most thorough search for an ivory-billed woodpecker yet, with hundreds of volunteers covering a carefully planned grid through the swampy woods. If this search failed to produce any new evidence, chances are that the bird is not there. Whether the original sightings were misidentified or whether the bird has left the area is an open question.
The CLO still has thousands of hours of audio recordings that have not been properly analyzed. Several observers reported hearing kent calls and double-knocks. Spectrographic analysis will be more reliable than field observation for determining if those were really produced by ivory-billed woodpeckers. But even those without solid field sightings will not be definitive.
Some will argue that the whole project was a waste of money. I have sympathy for that position because of recent draconian cuts in NPS and FWS budgets. However, if the lands around the Big Woods are permanently preserved, and if the search teams gathered data on more than the ivory-billed woodpeckers, the searches will have done some good, even if they failed in their ultimate objective. A few million dollars for the ivory-billed search is piddling compared with the billions being wasted in other areas of the federal budget, and it is those billions combined with an anti-public ideology that are the real cause of the crunch at the NPS and FWS.
Thursday, May 18, 2006
Spring migration brings many beautiful birds into our region, but none are as emblematic of the changing seasons as the wood warblers. Among the wood warblers there are few as boldly colored and as striking as the Prothonotary Warbler.
A prothonotary warbler is bright yellow, with the yellow appearing to intensify around its head almost to the point of becoming orange. It is a bird of contrasts. Its jet black eye and bill appear ready to pop off as if they do not belong on such a bright head. Their song is also distinctive in its simplicity: a loud single note repeated about five or six times per phrase. Sweet! Sweet! Sweet! Sweet! Sweet! Sweet! (Examples: here and here) Prothonotary warblers are not subtle, either by sight or sound.
Unlike most other warblers, prothonotaries build their nests in cavities rather than hanging a small cup nest from a branch. They may use natural cavities or nest boxes; many times they take over cavities previously used by chickadees since the two species have similar space needs. Prothonotaries show a strong preference for cavities directly over water. The two requirements limit these warblers to flooded bottomland forests. Despite the habitat limitations, their population appears to be stable, and may even be expanding northward.
This warbler's name derives from a title for papal officials in the Roman Catholic Church, protonotarius apostolicus. Like the name for the Northern Cardinal, also derived from an ecclesiastical title, this name was probably first applied by French settlers in Louisiana. A protonotarius is responsible for registering official acts and canonizations. The connection with the warbler is that protonotarii may wear golden yellow ceremonial vestments. (A sixteenth-century portrait of a protonotarius is here; I cannot quite tell whether he is dressed in yellow or red.) Some U.S. states, such as Pennsylvania, retain the title "prothonotary" to designate clerks in the civil court system.
Crossposted at the Blue Ridge Gazette.
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
David Luneau's video from the Arkansas swamp has caused much controversy regarding whether it shows an ivory-billed woodpecker or a pileated woodpecker. Birders and ornithologists have divided into two camps - "believers" and "skeptics." What we need is an objective way to determine which is right. Well, what better way to settle a digital dispute than Google? (Ivory-billed in blue, pileated in red)
Hmm, looks like a tie. I guess the argument will have to continue.
Monday, May 15, 2006
News and links about birds, birding, and the environment.
- Many birdwatchers expand their interests into butterfly and even dragonfly watching. It turns out that some dragonflies share a trait in common with birds other than flight - migration. Researchers using radio transmitters have found that dragonflies follow a southward migration route along the same migratory pathways that birds use. In this case, green darner dragonflies were tracked from Cape May, NJ, as far south as Florida. Their end destination is so far unknown.
- The recent oil spill in Delaware Bay may cause less damage than originally feared. However, a fragile species like the red knot may be sensitive to any fluctuation in its environment, so the long-term effects are still unknown.
- Last summer's record heat appears to have decimated the eelgrass in the Chesapeake Bay. While not directly a bird story, the loss of eelgrass reflects the overall poor health of the bay, and will have ramifications on any organisms that require aquatic vegetation.
- Visitors to South Jersey beaches should be aware that several beaches on the Delaware Bay will be closed through June 7 to protect migrating shorebirds.
- Two men who own a fish hatchery in Massachusetts have been arrested for killing over 250 great blue herons, plus several osprey and a bald eagle. The birds were apparently feeding at the hatchery's trout pools.
- Some birds will nest just about anywhere. In England, a pair of blue tits have taken up temporary residence in an outdoor used cigarette bin.
- Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity are suing the federal government to prevent the USFWS from removing the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl from the endangered species list. The USFWS is taking this action on the grounds that it is not a distinct subspecies of the ferruginous pygmy-owl. Removal from the list would lift any federal habitat protections for the owl. (Thanks, squeakysoul)
- May is birdathon season for many active birders. DC Audubon sponsored a Washington-only event on Saturday. My account is here; if you wish to donate based on our results, see here for further information.
- Several bloggers participated in New Jersey's World Series of Birding, which also was held on Saturday. See Hawk Owl's Nest, Somewhere in NJ, Wildbird 2 3 4, and woodcreeper for blog coverage of that event. Cornell's "Sapsuckers" won with 229 species.
- The Birdchaser did a birdathon on Friday. Mokka mit Schlag and the City Birder participated in birdathons in New York.
Sunday, May 14, 2006
On Saturday the DC Audubon "City Flickers" toured DC birding sites to see as many birds as possible within a single day. I am still a little worn out from the full day of birding. We were lucky to have cooperative weather. Though the sky threatened ominously at several points, we never did get rain. Our goal was to see 100 species, an achievable but challenging number.
The City Flickers - Mike, Denise, and I - gathered at the nature center in Rock Creek Park at 5:30 am. Though it was still dark, many birds were already singing. From the parking lot, we heard american robin, wood thrush, eastern towhee, northern cardinal, and others. We heard an eastern phoebe calling near the horse center. In the maintenance yard, bats were still winging after insects as we began looking for birds. A lingering blue-headed vireo (my first for the year) perched out in the open. Red-eyed vireo, ovenbird, black-throated blue warbler, northern parula, and indigo bunting sang in the yard. Common yellowthroats and swamp sparrows darted in and out of the knotweed.
Back at the nature center, we found our other thrushes for the day. Veery and Swainson's patrolled the underbrush of the median strip. Eastern bluebirds flew to and from a nestbox. The loop trail produced blackpoll, blackburnian, and yellow-rumped warblers. An unusual buzzy song from deeper in the woods caused some disagreement - was it black-throated blue or black-throated green? After consulting some recordings, we decided it was neither; in reality it was a cerulean warbler song, sounding somewhat like a speeded-up black-throated blue song.
The "dog run" at Military Road was good for more warblers: magnolia, black-and-white, and redstart, as well as a baltimore oriole. Our mascot bird, a northern flicker, flew across the field with its golden underwings gleaming in the sunlight. A quick stop at Picnic Areas 17/18 revealed a chestnut-sided warbler and a fine-looking scarlet tanager. A mourning warbler reported last week failed to appear in its usual spot. Other warblers that were reported late last week failed to show themselves as well. It seems that many species in the early May wave of migrants have now moved on.
When we left Rock Creek Park around 9:30 am, we had already recorded 54 species. On the drive to our next stop, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, we picked up three more: great blue heron, canada goose, and rock pigeon. Kenilworth was mostly devoid of human visitors when we arrived, leaving us alone with the birds. Taking the river trail first, we quickly heard prothonotary warbler, white-eyed, and yellow-throated vireos. In fact, we would hear several prothonotary warblers singing along our route. As we rounded a bend in the trail, a small heron flushed from the ground and landed on a branch - yellow-crowned night-heron! Legions of cedar waxwings buzzed from a mulberry tree.
Several shorebirds walked the dikes between the impoundments. Most were spotted sandpipers but at least one solitary was among them. A greater yellowlegs flushed from a pond, but unfortunately it left to quickly for all of us to identify it, so it could not count for the list. The same went for a killdeer. A green heron flushed from one of them. We finally saw our first hawk for the day around noon, a red-shouldered hawk under constant harassment from crows and other birds.
Refreshed by a quick lunch, we looked for grassland species at Kenilworth Park. The back area yielded field sparrow, killdeer, and blue grosbeak. It also yielded a powerful stench in an area close to the Pepco plant. One osprey flew overhead, bringing our diurnal raptor total to 2. When we stopped at the other parking lot to check out the no-mow area, a large flock of dark birds flew in and settled in the tall grass. As we approached, the flock rose from the field and flew towards the aquatic gardens, but not before giving identifiable looks. They were males with creamy heads and white rumps, and warm orange brown females - bobolinks! The no-mow area also yielded a savannah sparrow and an eastern meadowlark.
After Kenilworth Park, our species count stood at 86. From there on, our big day was a mop-up operation to find specific species that we missed earlier. Kingman Island produced a double-crested cormorant and ring-billed gull - common birds, but to that point unseen. Poplar Point at the south end of Anacostia Park yielded laughing gull and a very late american black duck, as well as an orchard oriole and house wren. From Anacostia Park we headed west across town. A drive by MacMillan Reservoir produced nothing. Stops along the C&O Canal were more productive. The sycamores at Fletcher's Boathouse yielded warbling vireo, ruby-throated hummingbird, and (finally) a house finch. A couple black-crowned night-herons worked a nearby stream. At the Chain Bridge, we failed to find any new species, but we had the pleasure of seeing a flyover yellow-crowned night-heron.
We ended the day in the place where we began it, Rock Creek Park. A stop along Broad Branch Road produced a louisiana waterthrush, which we watched as it worked its way from one rock to the next. Elsewhere in the park, we caught sight of a barred owl. It sat and looked around as the songbirds in the area went crazy. When it departed into the deepening gloom, the chattering quieted down considerably. An evening stop at the maintenance yard brought us common nighthawks. At that point we were at 99 species. To break 100 would require some night birding. A stop in one open field produced displaying american woodcocks, who displayed in response to a great-horned owl recording. At another location, three or four eastern screech owls responded to a taped call, with all calling back and forth at the same time. Clearly the screech owl population appears to be thriving.
With that, we packed it in for the night. In sixteen hours of almost non-stop birding, we found 101 species of birds. With better luck at Rock Creek in the morning and more convenient tide times we could have seen even more than that. If you notice from the list below, we somehow missed red-tailed hawk and all other diurnal raptors, as well as black vulture, both yellowlegs, all terns, rose-breasted grosbeak, and several warbler species that are usually easy to find. Despite the misses, this was an event to celebrate Washington's avian diversity and varied habitats. As you can see from the list below, our team met that goal handily.
|Species||Location First Seen|
|Ducks, Geese, and Cormorants|
|Canada Goose||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|Wood Duck||Rock Creek Park|
|Mallard||Rock Creek Park|
|American Black Duck||Anacostia Park|
|Double-crested Cormorant||Kingman Island|
|Great Blue Heron||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|Green Heron||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|Black-crowned Night-heron||Fletcher's Boathouse|
|Yellow-crowned Night-heron||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|Vultures and Hawks|
|Turkey Vulture||Kenilworth Park|
|Red-shouldered Hawk||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|Solitary Sandpiper||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|Spotted Sandpiper||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|American Woodcock||Rock Creek Park|
|Ring-billed Gull||Kingman Island|
|Laughing Gull||Anacostia Park|
|Doves and Cuckoos|
|Rock Pigeon||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|Mourning Dove||Rock Creek Park|
|Yellow-billed Cuckoo||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|Eastern Screech-owl||Rock Creek Park|
|Barred Owl||Rock Creek Park|
|Nightjars and Swifts|
|Common Nighthawk||Rock Creek Park|
|Chimney Swift||Rock Creek Park|
|Hummingbirds and Kingfishers|
|Ruby-throated Hummingbird||Fletcher's Boathouse|
|Belted Kingfisher||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|Red-bellied Woodpecker||Rock Creek Park|
|Downy Woodpecker||Rock Creek Park|
|Hairy Woodpecker||Kenilworth Park|
|Northern Flicker||Rock Creek Park|
|Pileated Woodpecker||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|Eastern Wood-pewee||Rock Creek Park|
|Acadian Flycatcher||Rock Creek Park|
|Eastern Phoebe||Rock Creek Park|
|Great Crested Flycatcher||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|Eastern Kingbird||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|White-eyed Vireo||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|Yellow-throated Vireo||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|Blue-headed Vireo||Rock Creek Park|
|Warbling Vireo||Fletcher's Boathouse|
|Red-eyed Vireo||Rock Creek Park|
|Crows and Jays|
|Blue Jay||Rock Creek Park|
|American Crow||Rock Creek Park|
|Fish Crow||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|Tree Swallow||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|Northern Rough-winged Swallow||Kenilworth Park|
|Barn Swallow||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|Chickadees and Nuthatches|
|Carolina Chickadee||Rock Creek Park|
|Tufted Titmouse||Rock Creek Park|
|White-breasted Nuthatch||Rock Creek Park|
|Wrens and Gnatcatchers|
|Carolina Wren||Rock Creek Park|
|House Wren||Anacostia Park|
|Blue-gray Gnatcatcher||Rock Creek Park|
|Eastern Bluebird||Rock Creek Park|
|Veery||Rock Creek Park|
|Swainson's Thrush||Rock Creek Park|
|Wood Thrush||Rock Creek Park|
|American Robin||Rock Creek Park|
|Gray Catbird||Rock Creek Park|
|Northern Mockingbird||Rock Creek Park|
|Brown Thrasher||Rock Creek Park|
|Starlings and Waxwings|
|European Starling||Rock Creek Park|
|Cedar Waxwing||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|Northern Parula||Rock Creek Park|
|Yellow Warbler||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|Chestnut-sided Warbler||Rock Creek Park|
|Magnolia Warbler||Rock Creek Park|
|Black-throated Blue Warbler||Rock Creek Park|
|Yellow-rumped Warbler||Rock Creek Park|
|Blackburnian Warbler||Rock Creek Park|
|Blackpoll Warbler||Rock Creek Park|
|Cerulean Warbler||Rock Creek Park|
|Black-and-white Warbler||Rock Creek Park|
|American Redstart||Rock Creek Park|
|Prothonotary Warbler||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|Ovenbird||Rock Creek Park|
|Louisiana Waterthrush||Rock Creek Park|
|Common Yellowthroat||Rock Creek Park|
|Hooded Warbler||Rock Creek Park|
|Scarlet Tanager||Rock Creek Park|
|Eastern Towhee||Rock Creek Park|
|Chipping Sparrow||Rock Creek Park|
|Field Sparrow||Kenilworth Park|
|Savannah Sparrow||Kenilworth Park|
|Song Sparrow||Rock Creek Park|
|Swamp Sparrow||Rock Creek Park|
|White-throated Sparrow||Rock Creek Park|
|Cardinals and Buntings|
|Northern Cardinal||Rock Creek Park|
|Blue Grosbeak||Kenilworth Park|
|Indigo Bunting||Rock Creek Park|
|Blackbirds and Orioles|
|Red-winged Blackbird||Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens|
|Eastern Meadowlark||Kenilworth Park|
|Common Grackle||Rock Creek Park|
|Brown-headed Cowbird||Rock Creek Park|
|Baltimore Oriole||Rock Creek Park|
|Orchard Oriole||Anacostia Park|
|House Finch||Fletcher's Boathouse|
|American Goldfinch||Rock Creek Park|
|Old World Sparrows|
|House Sparrow||Rock Creek Park|
|Total Species Identified||101|
Friday, May 12, 2006
Tomorrow, May 13, is the 14th International Migratory Bird Day. The event was begun in 1993 to celebrate the millions of birds that travel from southern wintering grounds to their northern breeding grounds every May and to raise awareness of the ecological threats they face.
The USFWS has many suggestions for ways to celebrate the occasion. Some organizations have festivals and other activities dedicated to the event. This year, the New Jersey Audubon Society's World Series of Birding will coincide with International Migratory Bird Day. (Good luck to everyone
In Washington, the DC Audubon Society will be sponsoring its first Birdathon to raise money for the organization. The money we raise through pledges will help us maintain our website, communicate with our members, and support our main local conservation project, the C&O Canal Survey. The object of a birdathon - or "big day" - is this: identify as many species as possible within 24 hours. For this we will limit ourselves to Washington, DC, to highlight the avian diversity that can be found within our urban setting. I will be on one team, along with two other DCAS members. We have invited other birders to challenge us for local bragging rights. If you would like to pledge or donate, email me or see the Birdathon link for details.
Thursday, May 11, 2006
News and links about birds, birding, and the environment.
- Researchers are looking for reports about golden-winged warbler sightings - especially from outside the United States and Canada - so that conservationists can better monitor its status. Golden-winged warblers are declining due to habitat loss and hybridization with blue-winged warblers.
- The horseshoe crab harvest will be reduced but not banned after a decision announced by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The harvest will be limited to 100,000 crabs, and only males may be taken. New Jersey will maintain its complete moratorium on horseshoe crab fishing.
- Birders near Pittsburgh, PA, have found an odd wader that some believe is a great blue heron X great egret hybrid. It has been returning to this spot for several years. Such a find would be extraordinary since such a cross has previously not be documented. More likely it is a leucistic great blue or a great blue X "great white" cross known as Würdemann's heron. Either way, it is an interesting-looking bird; photos can be found here. I found one error in the article: great blue heron and great egret are not in separate genera; they are both in the genus Ardea.
- National Geographic reports on the role of poultry smuggling in the spread of H5N1 influenza. Spring testing of migratory birds along the Europe-Africa flyway has come up negative for a migratory bird role in spreading this strain of avian influenza.
- I have been asked to pass on this action alert about a sports facility being built next to a wetland on the campus of Malaspina University-College in British Columbia. I really know little about this situation aside from the presentation linked above, but Canadian readers may wish to look into it.
- Various projects to redesign the Potomac waterfront in Georgetown may be moving forward. One sticking point in the plans for the Georgetown waterfront has been public concern over the desire of Georgetown University to construct a very large private boathouse on land that is currently part of the C&O Canal National Historical Park.
- DC may also finally get a vote in Congress, courtesy of a compromise between Del. Eleanor Norton Holmes (D-DC) and Rep. Thomas Davis (R-VA). The measure, if it passes, would allow the delegate from DC to vote both in committee and on the House floor, and would add an at-large representative to Utah's Congressional delegation, bringing the total House voting population to 437 instead of the current 435. Update: The bill has been introduced.
- Riders on Metro this weekend need to be aware of station closings due to track work on the Blue and Yellow lines. Metro birders might want to take this into consideration when planning their outings.
- If you have not done so already, take a look at some of the responses to the Most Beautiful Birds meme. Some have excellent photography and explanations for their picks.
Birds are on the move right now, and so is our favorite blog carnival, I and the Bird. This time, it has migrated over to birdDC, a blog that - like this one - covers the DC birding beat. So wander over there and check out the 23rd edition of I and the Bird.
And what would be a carnival without games and door prizes? Nick has challenged his readers with a contest. Whoever can correctly identify all the photographs placed between the entries will receive a free Peterson guide. Be careful - some photos are pretty easy, but others are challenging. I am not sure that I can guess them all!
Today, May 11, has been designated by the U.S. Senate as Endangered Species Day (pdf). The day comes at a time when the Endangered Species Act and the protections they afford may themselves be endangered by Congressional legislation weakening its provisions and by non-enforcement of its regulations in the executive branch. (Oddly enough, one co-sponsor of the Senate resolution has led efforts to weaken the ESA.) The National Audubon Society has some suggestions for activities to honor the occasion.
This is a day to celebrate the successes of endangered species recovery. Since this is a birding blog, I will highlight two bird species that have had tremendous success under the ESA. Bald eagles were down to 417 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states by 1963; now there are 7,066 known nesting pairs in the lower 48. The species was downgraded to "threatened" status in 1995, and may soon be removed from the list entirely. Peregrine falcons had an even more severe population crash in eastern states in the mid twentieth century and likewise have rebounded to the point that they are no longer on the endangered list. In both cases, the recovery was assisted by a combination of habitat preservation, captive breeding programs and nesting site monitoring, and addressing environmental causes for decline - in this case the widespread use of DDT.
While these two species have recovered well, other endangered species have not been so lucky. According to the USFWS "boxscore," there are 567 animal species listed in the United States; only 434 have recovery plans, let alone plans that are implemented. The same story can be seen among endangered plants; 745 are listed and 630 have recovery plans. With the continuing cuts in funding for environmental agencies, one has to wonder about the outlook for the recovery programs. Will many of these be implemented?
In addition, many severely declining species have been denied listing under the endangered species act, and therefore denied protection. Of the birds undergoing the most rapid declines (according to Audubon), none is on the endangered species list (pdf), and therefore none is subject to the protections that might halt the decline. One such bird is the cerulean warbler, which I discussed on Tuesday. Other birds on the brink not listed under the ESA are the red knot and gunnison sage-grouse.
The USFWS breaks down the federally endangered and threatened species by state. I encourage you all to check out this resource and see what endangered species occur in your area. For the District of Columbia, the government lists seven animals and one plant:
- Amphipod, Hay's Spring (Stygobromus hayi)
- Beetle, American burying (Nicrophorus americanus)
- Curlew, Eskimo (Numenius borealis)
- Eagle, bald lower 48 States (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
- Puma (=cougar), eastern (Puma (=Felis) concolor couguar)
- Wedgemussel, dwarf (Alasmidonta heterodon)
- Wolf, gray lower 48 States, except MN and where XN; Mexico (Canis lupus)
- Pogonia, small whorled (Isotria medeoloides)
As birdwatchers and bird bloggers, we know that many of the species that we know and love are endangered or declining. We therefore should enjoy them while we have them and support measures to keep them around.