Thursday, August 31, 2006

I Probably Shouldn't Be Laughing About This...

... but apparently I am looming over Mexico:

John is a Category 3 hurricane, packing sustained winds of 125 mph (205 kph) and stronger gusts.
We are getting one of our own soon, as well.

Carnivals

Some new carnivals are up and ready for reading.

Louisiana's Wetlands

As a followup to my post on the environmental damage Katrina wrought last summer, I have found some more news from Louisiana. As I noted on Monday, one of the major challenges in rebuilding New Orleans and other damaged communities on the Gulf Coast is that the coastal wetlands that protect those cities have been disappearing. There are a variety of reasons for this phenonmenon. Subsidence from lack of sediment replenishment, erosion from tides from tides and storms, and death of freshwater plants due to saltwater intrusion are a few of the major causes. This article explains the problems nicely.

As early as the mid-1960s, the US Army Corps of Engineers tested the notion that wetlands could provide a buffer against storm surges. It concluded that a storm surge would shrink one foot for every 2.75 miles of wetlands it crossed. The number represented an average taken from several storms. But over the years, it took on a life of its own as the expected return on investments in wetlands, researchers say.

After hurricanes Katrina and Rita plowed into the region, LSU researchers Hassan Mashriqui and G. Paul Kemp took a new set of measurements and used them in modeling experiments. They found that when a surge encountered coastal wetlands at least 100 miles long and 25 miles deep, the surge indeed dropped one foot for each three miles inland it traveled. Where dredged channels were present, however, the storm surge traveled up to six miles before it dropped a foot. They also found that when the surge encountered a 100-yard-long phalanx of trees, the waves riding atop the surge lost 95 percent of their energy.
The Army Corps of Engineers has proposed a series of measures that they believe will protect the cities better than the current reliance on levees. Rebuilding these vital coastal wetlands is one stage of the project. The goal of such restoration would be encouraging natural replenishment as much as possible to reduce the need for human intervention. Other measures include rebuilding barrier islands and building tall (30-60 ft) armored levees.

One of the main problems, subsidence, has been blamed on human interventions that prevent the delta from being replenished from sediment in the waters of the Mississippi. The levee system prevents the flood that traditionally dropped sediment into the wetlands. Now that sediment washes into the Gulf of Mexico. An illustration can be seen in the photo at right; the disk at the top of the rod used to be at ground level. Before major restoration work can begin, two questions that need to be answered are how fast the land is sinking and the extent to which human activities contribute.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

I and the Bird #31

This week, I and the Bird comes a day early! Go to migrateblog, where Mariya has summarized each submission in haiku form. Even though we are now up to #31, I still keep finding submissions from blogs that I have not seen before. It makes for some fine reading, and it is good to see the circle of bird bloggers continuing to expand.

Carnival of the Vanities #206 has also been posted today.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Birds of the Mid-Atlantic #21: Young Birds

Late summer is a time of change for birds. By now, the breeding season has ended for most species, and the young birds are out of the nest. Fledglings are rapidly maturing. Adults are molting their old feathers for fresh ones. Many species have already begun their journey south to their wintering grounds, such as the yellowlegs I covered last week. All this poses special challenges for birdwatchers. In some ways, this may be the most challenging times of the year.

Fledglings

Fledgling plumage may or may not be covered by field guides. Even the big Sibley Guide, for example, shows the fledgling plumage for American Robins, but it illustrates fledgling plumage less frequently for less common species. Fledgling robins themselves are sometimes a cause of confusion because of their spots. Adult robins do not have spots, but sport a solid orange breast. Fledglings, on the other hand, do have spotted breasts, much like other members of the thrush family. See below for an example.

Baby American Robin / Photo by Sean Varner (USFWS)

Another example of juvenile plumage is the Black-crowned Night-Heron, pictured below. As with the robin, the juvenile plumage seems designed to make the night-heron less visible to predators while it is still maturing. Adult night-herons are much more conspicuous. Juvenile night-herons are not too difficult to identify, but the cryptic plumage could be confused with that of a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron or adult American Bittern.

Juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron / Photo by Lee Karney (USFWS)

The key to identifying juveniles, especially recent fledglings, is to remember that they are fledglings, and look for the species that they most resemble in structure. Bill length and shape, tail and wing size, and overall posture will be helpful here. Look for an answer among the common species first, before considering other, rarer possibilities.

Molt

Juvenile Eastern Bluebird / Photo by Wendell Long (Texas Bluebird Society)

A different kind of challenge is posed by molting birds. Some birds keep more or less the same plumage year-round. Even if they do, they need to molt each feather at least once per year to make up for normal wear and tear and retain the feathers' usefulness for insulation, flight, and waterproofing. Birds that retain the same plumage patterns throughout the year will simply look a little scruffier while they undergo their yearly molt. You might observe feathers missing; this is most obvious in the flight feathers of the wings and tail.

In many cases, birds have more than one plumage. Most birds with multiple plumages have one for winter (basic) and one for the breeding season (alternate). The differences between them may be quite stark. While the plumage for the breeding season is bright and colorful, for the winter these species take on a plainer appearance to make themselves less conspicuous.

Differences between basic and alternate plumage can be hard enough to remember, but this time of year adds another dimension to the puzzle. Birds molt their feathers gradually; they lose just enough to replace the whole set in a relatively short time, but keep enough to remain fully functional. Therefore, in late summer one will often encounter birds that are in between their alternate and basic plumages, such as the Scarlet Tanager pictured below.

Scarlet Tanager / Photo by Bill Dyer (CLO)

With some birds, the molt may be so extreme that the bird will become bald for a short period of time. This seems to affect cardinals and blue jays most often, but other species will become bald occasionally. As with juveniles, the key is to focus on structural points and to consider the familiar possibilities first. Most of the time, a guess based on those criteria will be the correct one.

The following link is to a hunting website, but it has several waterfowl quizzes that might be of interest to you, including one on molting ducks. The photographs are worth a look.

None of the identification challenges presented here are insurmountable. Most birds that you see at this time of year can still be identified despite changing plumage and shifting populations. However, birding does require some more concentration and attention to detail now than at other times of year.

Crossposted at Blue Ridge Gazette.

Monday, August 28, 2006

One Year Later: Katrina and the Environment

On August 29, 2005, Katrina struck New Orleans and the U.S. Gulf Coast. The result was an unbelievable - though foreseeable - disaster for the humans living there, with a death toll over 1700 and tens of thousands of refugees. The images of protracted human suffering were unforgettable. The storm was also a disaster for the environment. How bad was it, and what is the likely road ahead? This post looks at some of the problems.

The destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina came in two forms: the wind and tidal action of the hurricane itself, and the flooding of New Orleans and its suburbs when levees failed along the city's canals. When Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, it was a Category 3 hurricane; it had been as high as Category 5 as it moved through the Gulf of Mexico. The hurricane was also massive, which meant that these intense winds were spread over a wide area.

Toxins

Initial news reports described the waters that engulfed New Orleans as a "toxic gumbo" because of the mix of toxic waste released into the waters in the wake of the hurricane. Since petroleum is one of the main industries of the Gulf Coast, it should be no surprise that petroleum spills were a major contributor. At least 44 spills have been recorded. The largest spill released 3.78 million gallons, and another released 1.05 million gallons. The rest were smaller but significant enough for the total to surpass 7 million gallons.

Besides petroleum, other toxic chemicals were released into the waters and sediments in and around New Orleans. Chemicals in the waters included lead, arsenic, chromium, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene. (For more on these hazards, see ToxTown.) Reuters reported at the time that over 500 sewage facilities were disrupted by the storm, so that raw sewage was spilled into the mix as well. People who returned to their homes after the storm found them infested with toxic mold. The waters laden with chemicals were pumped into Lake Pontchartrain after the storm.

The waters may have been less toxic than originally feared. The levels of most harmful chemicals and bacteria, while high, turned out to be on par with those in normal stormwater runoff. Tests conducted by the EPA indicate that the sediments left in their wake are generally not harmful. Even so it suggests caution in handling them.

Local and federal officials have insisted that New Orleans is safe, but there remains widespread skepticism in the public. Partly this is because independent organizations, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, have come to different conclusions than government agencies about the human health risks present in New Orleans's battered neighborhoods. Other groups found high levels of heavy metals in the neighborhoods around the Murphy's Oil spill. In addition, while the levels of toxins may not be harmful to humans, they are harmful to fish in Liake Pontchartrain.

Wetland and Habitat Destruction

The same forces that wrecked New Orleans damaged or destroyed wetlands along the Gulf Coast. Barrier islands took the brunt of the damage. For example, large chunks of the Chandeleur Islands were obliterated. Wetlands suffered less from wind damage than from flood waters that dumped salt water, trash, and toxic chemicals into the fragile ecosystems. When salt water is introduced into a fresh water refuge it kills the vegetation. Sabine NWR took a heavy hit from Hurricane Rita, which dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic waste into the refuge. Bayou Sauvage NWR (pictured at right) received tons of trash.

The destruction of wetlands and coastal habitat occurred in a sensitive area for birds. The northern Gulf Coast is a stopping point for birds crossing the Gulf of Mexico in migration; it also serves as nesting ground for many species of terns and other waterbirds. Damage to the barrier islands was particularly bad for the nesting species; nests this year are way down for several species. Threatened birds in the area include a rare Sandhill Crane subspecies. Twelve Important Bird Areas lay in Katrina's path: 2 in Florida and 10 on the northern Gulf Coast. The hardest hit were Breton NWR and the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Dauphin Island, a spring migrant trap, moved northward after the repeated blows of Ivan and Katrina. Other significant areas were also heavily damaged. A full accounting of the effects of the storm on birds will probably not be known until results from this year and next year's Breeding Bird Surveys and Christmas Bird Counts are tabulated.

Restoration

Solutions to the problem of land loss are difficult. Coastal Louisiana faces two causes of land loss: erosion and subsidence. Erosion causes the state to lose about 25-30 square miles of land per year, enough for over 1,500 square miles to have been lost since 1930. Katrina and Rita subtracted an extra 100 square miles in successive blows. (LACoast.gov has highly detailed images of erosion damage in the affected areas. Do not use that site unless you have a fast connection and a fast computer.) Subsidence is a natural process aggravated by the flood control projects of the early twentieth century. The system of levees and floodgates forces the Mississippi River to bypass the delta and dump its sediments into the Gulf of Mexico. Without levees, these waters would spread across the delta and distribute their sediments to build up the land. The image below (via Restore or Retreat) shows the effects of these two factors over the past 150 years.

Coastal erosion and subsidence are not simply aesthetic problems, and wetland damage does not only harm wildlife. Coastal wetlands serve as buffer zones that absorb much of the energy and flooding associated with hurricanes and other large storms. They protect inland cities like New Orleans from the worst effects. Removal of this buffer allows high winds and flooding to penetrate farther inland towards population centers. Thus any rebuilding project for New Orleans must involve some answer to the land loss problem.

Restoration of the wetlands will require substantial investment from the government. The cost may total $14 billion over 20 years. While some funding has been directed to restore existing refuges, the sum does not approach what it would take to do a thorough rebuilding of the coastal marshes. In addition to being expensive, it is also an extraordinarily complex process requiring trial and error because of the many variables at work in any given wetland.

The situation in Louisiana is a good illustration of a point that often is lost in reporting about environmental issues. Such reporting, especially about endangered species, pits human interests against conservation. However, humans are part of the environment, and are just as affected by natural forces as wildlife. In this case, restoration of wetlands and cleanup of toxic wastes will serve both interests. What is good for the animals is necessary for the people, too.

For more links to news articles about Hurricane Katrina from last fall, see the roundup at Birderblog. For more blog commentary about the storm, see the links at Shakespeare's Sister.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Loose Feathers #64

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment.

  • Lilian Stokes has some further thoughts about the identification of the Western Reef-Heron that has been wandering through New England. It seems that the species identification may be both right and wrong.
  • A review of 125,000 studies done over 30 years and involving 571 species of plants and animals concludes that spring in Europe is 6-8 days earlier than before and autumn is about 3 days later.
  • Elliott Kennerson, a film student in Montana, has produced a short film about a group of snowy owls wintering in Montana. It has some great shots of snowy owls in flight. Watch it here.
  • The wetland restoration project along the Anacostia River was one of several regional projects to receive federal grants this week.
  • Birds, Etcetera has a collection of links on taking good field notes.
  • I would be happy to have a great blue heron visiting my yard, but not everyone feels that way.
  • In California, the Bolsa Chica wetlands have been reconnected with the Pacific Ocean after a two-year project to break down the dams that had separated the two for over 100 years.
  • Ducks in Bucks County, PA, have been getting shot with blowdarts, as in the photograph below.
Carnivals
Sorry about the lack of posting yesterday. Blogger was clunky for much of the morning and afternoon.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Woodpecker Poll

Via BINAC, there is a poll on people's opinions of the ivory-billed woodpecker evidence. It seeks answers only from people who have seen the Luneau video and the video stills offered at the Fishcrow website. Offer your opinion if you have one. I have to say, as I mentioned at the BINAC site, that I found the questions about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster rather irrelevant. With the ivory-billed woodpecker, the question is whether a species that definitely once existed still persists in southern bottomland swamps. The other creatures are mythical beasts.

Speaking of ivory-billed woodpeckers, there seem to be some interesting rumors floating around the blogosphere, but until definite information is actually released, I am not going to speculate about their accuracy.

Also, Notes from Soggy Bottom has some thoughts on the Luneau video in a series of interlinked posts.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Some Climate News

More people seem to be aware of the problem of climate change these days. Via RealClimate, I found a poll from Zogby showing that the vast majority of Americans are aware of the problem and believe that global warming is real. The numbers are quite striking:

Nearly three of every four – 74% – are more convinced today that global warming is a reality than they were two years ago, the survey shows. Dramatically, it is a sentiment shared by a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and political independents. While many more Democrats believe in global warming (87%), 56% of Republicans concur. Among independents, 82% think we are experiencing the effects of global warming. These numbers indicate a shift in the momentum of global warming believers.
Whether this will transfer into action at the ballot box and action in Congress remains to be seen. Many other issues, particularly the war in Iraq, will come into play. However, there does seem to be a consensus in favor of requiring action from industries to clean up emissions. 72% of likely voters wanted to see such action, including 61% of Republicans.

A majority of voters cited recent weather events as influencing their opinions. Most agreed that intense heat waves, such as the one this summer, and more powerful hurricanes are influenced by warmer average temperatures. Of course, the major event that called the public's attention to the connection between global warming and violent weather was Hurricane Katrina.

Katrina left a mess in its wake, and much of the recovery work remains to be accomplished. This is as true of natural habitats as it is of New Orleans. The ecological disaster caused by the storm was at least partly manmade. Canals allowed the storm surge to penetrate further inland, and the destruction of wetlands removed a natural buffer. One major problem has been the penetration of salt water via canals into the wetlands; this has depressed rice productivity and destroyed cypress swamps.

Unfortunately, long term solutions to these problems are hampered by the prospect of more powerful hurricanes in the future. Piping sediment to eroded coastlines is one possible solution, but it could get washed away before it has time to set. Rebuilding wetlands around New Orleans needs to be a priority both for the protection of the city and people living there, and for the wildlife that depends on those ecosystems.

WASA Gets Scolded

The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority has been cited and fined by the EPA for the dangerously high lead levels found in residences two years ago. The unsafe levels violated the Safe Drinking Water Act.

In the administrative complaint announced today, EPA seeks a $27,500 penalty for WASA’s noncompliance with data management and reporting requirements of the 2004 consent order. WASA’s noncompliance delayed EPA’s ability to confirm WASA’s report that the district’s drinking water was below EPA’s action level for lead. EPA is filing the administrative complaint to ensure the integrity of the reporting and data management for future compliance reports.

The 2004 order required WASA to sample drinking water from 100 homes that are at higher risk of lead-contaminated drinking water due to lead service lines or pipes with lead solder. According to EPA, for the July to December 2005 monitoring period, 12 of the 103 drinking water samples submitted were not taken from high-risk residences. These 12 samples were either taken from homes that never had lead service lines or homes where the lead service lines had already been replaced. Today’s penalty order notes that WASA submitted these samples despite having additional information that indicated these were not high risk residences. The order also notes other occasions when WASA reported inconsistent information to EPA regarding lead service line replacements.

EPA invalidated the 12 samples, and required WASA to obtain replacement samples. Most recent sampling data continues to show that lead levels in tap water have declined to a level at or below the EPA’s action level for lead (15 parts per billion).
The EPA has more on the lead situation here. The most recent testing period cited on that page (July to December 2005) showed that water in the District again met federal standards for safety.


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Birds of the World

World birders will be happy to hear about this:

More than 10,000 birds are described in Birds of the World, a new book by Frank Gill and Minturn Wright, both trustees of The Academy of Natural Sciences. This 272-page book provides the first standardized English-language nomenclature for all living birds of the world. Previous checklists, including those by Sibley and Monroe, Clements, and Howard and Moore, were primarily taxonomic works that used different names for the same species. Birds of the World recommends one universal English-language name for each species based on the rules and principles developed by leading ornithologists worldwide and endorsed by members of the preeminent International Ornithological Congress....

Birds of the World, published by Princeton University Press, starts with a discussion of the authors' rationale for naming conventions. A list of more than 10,000 names follows, in taxonomic order, with relevant scientific names and a brief description of the birds' breeding range. An accompanying CD contains full text and additional information on species distribution.
This should help sort out some of the confusion. Of course, it will only help if people adopt the recommended names. I suspect that there will continue to be at least some degree of variability in the general birding public. In the meantime, Avibase still helps sort out some of the nomenclature issues.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Loose Feathers #63

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

11 Reasons To Take Up (Or Continue) Birding

Lest anyone get the wrong idea from my post last week, I am putting up a list of reasons why I enjoy birding. Every birder is driven by different motivations, but usually several themes repeat themselves. I am sure some of the following will be familiar to other birders.

  1. Birds are diverse. Just consider the warbler family, with its array of differences in appearance, voice, and behavior, then apply that to the other 9500 or so birds on the planet. You will never run out of new birds to see.
  2. Birds are challenging. Sure, it's easy to tell a robin from a cardinal or a blue jay, but distinguishing gulls by sight or warblers by sound takes practice. There are always new identification tricks to learn.
  3. Spring migration. There are few natural phenomena quite like spring migration, when millions of birds move thousands of miles from their wintering to their breeding grounds, all in a compressed period of time. The sudden diversity is enough to make one's head spin.
  4. Birds are beautiful. As attested in this meme, we admire birds for their beauty. One never tires of seeing scarlet tanagers, blackburnian warblers, or indigo buntings.
  5. Birds sing. Birding is about learning and appreciating not just visual beauty and diversity, but also the many varied vocalizations that birds use. And many songs are quite beautiful. (Here are a few of my favorites.)
  6. Birds are everywhere. Since birds have adapted to fill almost every location on earth, you do not have to go far to find some to watch.
  7. Birds are unpredictable. Some bird species will always be there, day after day. Others wander unpredictably, so that you never can be sure what birds you will see on any given excursion. And sometimes, you will see something totally unexpected.
  8. Building community. Like other activities, birding can be done alone or with groups. Birding alone gives you the time to study birds carefully and work out identification problems. Birding with groups gives the opportunity to compare notes and learn from others. Networks of birders communicate through email lists, newsletters, and birding hotlines.
  9. Connection with the natural world. Unlike many other animals, birds are easily visible and audible. Watching birds is an easy window into the workings of the ecosystems around us.
  10. Birders contribute to our understanding of bird population trends. Christmas Bird Counts help establish the numbers of birds that winter throughout the United States and Canada. Spring and fall migration counts serve a similar purpose. Birding organizations in many states have undertaken breeding surveys, resulting in breeding bird atlases. The data includes not only how which birds are breeding in each atlas block, but also the nest type and location.
  11. Responsibility. Through birding, many of us come to a greater appreciation of nature and our place in it. This should lead us to support conservation efforts and attempt to reduce our individual impact on the environment. Many birders do.
Feel free to add your own reasons in the comments.

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Carnivals

The 41st Carnival of the Green is up at Frugal for Life. Carnival of the Green is a weekly roundup of posts that report on ways to reduce individual and societal impact on the environment. My post on the Economics of Climate Change was included. Welcome to readers coming from that link.

Also, this week's Best of Me Symphony is available.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Bachman's Warbler in Cuba?

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has posted a video on its website of a possible female Bachman's Warbler that was found in Cuba in January 2002. The video was shot by Manfred Sievert, and the identification was made with field guides afterwards. After reviewing the video, Cornell's ornithologists decided that the evidence was inclusive but intriguing enough to post on their website. They are asking for comments from observers with experience in Cuba. Go take a look for yourself. (Be warned, though, that the video files take time to download.)

Since I do not know Cuban birds at all, it is hard for me to say whether this is really a Bachman's Warbler. The quality of the video makes some field marks, such as the decurved bill, difficult to make out. However, I do not see anything that would contradict that claim. Overall, wings and tail are solid gray, the head and back are olive, and the breast and belly are yellow. There appears to be a darker area around the base of the neck, which is one Bachman's field mark. There also may be a lighter area around the front of the forehead, though this may be a video artifact. The overall drabness of this bird means that it could be other species as well. Without a clearer look at the bird I would not try to call the species myself.

Bachman's Warblers were once common through the Southeast United States but gradually diminished due to habitat destruction. They nested in dense bamboo canebrakes in bottomland swamps, many of which were destroyed through the clear-cutting of forests and draining of swamps. According to Warblers of the Americas: An Identification Guide, the last report of a Bachman's Warbler in the U.S. was in 1988 in Louisiana; Dunn and Garrett's Warblers cites 1962 as the last confirmed sighting. Because of the lack of sightings, this species has been considered extinct.

For more on the status of this species, see BirdLife and the USFWS. For images of the species, see the paintings by Audubon (pictured above) and Louis Agassiz Fuentes, and this stock photo of a museum specimen.

A Bachman's Warbler was featured in Doonesbury in 1986 when the birdwatcher Dick Davenport died after finally seeing one.

(Hat tip to BINAC.)

More on Bombay Hook

Last Sunday I wrote a post about DC Audubon's field trip to Bombay Hook on the previous Saturday. Trips to Bombay Hook that include stops at Port Mahon Road, like our trip in the spring, always recall for me Peter Cashwell's description of the site in The Verb "To Bird": Sightings of an Avid Birdwatcher. When I first read that book, I had not yet visited the Delaware coast, so I was unaware of how apt the description is.

In Bombay Hook, nature had been treasured and carefully set aside; near Port Mahon, nature had been invaded, found unprofitable, and left to its own devices. The marsh grass was high enough to mask a lot of the area, but the road itself tangibly displayed neglect by whacking us on the backside every few seconds. Potholes were plentiful enough to make the defacto level of the road a good six inches lower than it pretended to be. Tom eventually piloted us to the end of the marsh road and brought us to the edge of the Delaware River itself, where we were treated to the sight of human endeavor being all but abandoned. Broken pilings jutted from the water at irregular intervals. Near the beach stood unpainted and mysterious wooden buildings which listed dangerously toward the waves, while across the road a few off-kilter telephone poles struggled pointlessly to hold aloft their lines. I rolled down the car window to take in this scene of decay and laughed heartily....

Tom eventually moved upwind and joined me in an examination of the beach, which was narrow, rocky, and brushed by waves whose heavy foam was about the same color as the tailpipe of a '71 Volkswagon Beetle. In places there was a corrugated iron seawall, but in others it was either seriously bent or entirely absent. What beach there was, however, gave us a lesson in appreciating nature's handiwork, even when that handiwork seems silly at first.
The beach at Port Mahon Road is not quite as bad now as what Cashwell described. The road seems to have been improved to allow passage by cars hauling boats to a launch at the end of the road. However, the road still gives the same sense of precariousness, as if it could wash into the bay at any time. And the bay itself is littered with corroded pilings and chunks of concrete. It is a strange place to look for birds, but since horseshoe crabs can spawn there, the birds will be there also.

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Hurricanes and Global Warming

Last year's active hurricane season, which included several very powerful storms, provided a vivid foretaste of what a significantly warmer world could look like: flooded cities, high death tolls, and massive property destruction. Just as last year's active season encouraged much talk of global warming causing hurricanes, this year's relatively quiet season (so far) has brought out the skeptics. This morning's Washington Post looks at the connection between global warming and hurricane formation, and some areas of disagreement.

Scientists who doubt a link with global warming say this year's average Atlantic hurricane season simply shows how variable weather can be. Christopher Landsea, who works in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hurricane Research Division, published an opinion piece in the journal Science late last month in which he argued that data indicating that recent hurricanes have been more intense than those in the 1970s and '80s may be based on flawed information. Measurement technologies were less sophisticated then and may have underestimated the strength of earlier storms, he said.
The Post notes that the Pacific is more active than normal this year, unlike the Atlantic. The focus on Atlantic cycles is understandable since that affects us the most, but limited in the information it provides about global change.
Studies supporting a link between global warming and storm intensity keep coming. The latest will be published this week by Florida State University geography professor James B. Elsner in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. Elsner found that average air temperatures during hurricane season predict the Atlantic Ocean's surface temperatures, not vice versa, which he said means it is "much more likely the atmosphere is warming the ocean" and helping create more severe storms.

And Judith A. Curry, of Georgia Tech's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, who co-authored a paper last year suggesting that rising sea temperatures have been accompanied by more intense hurricanes, has challenged Landsea's critique. She said Landsea and like-minded researchers have not "done the hard work" to reanalyze the entire historic hurricane database to determine whether it really is skewed. She does not go as far as Elsner, however, saying his paper identifies "an interesting statistical relationship" but does not physically explain how warmer air might be heating the Atlantic.

Curry's work, in turn, has been challenged by Phil Klotzbach, a research associate at Colorado State University, who published a paper in May suggesting that, since 1986, there has been no global trend in hurricane intensity. Klotzbach's paper, in Geophysical Research Letters, looked at a 20-year period rather than the 35-year period Curry and others examined, which explains how he reached different conclusions.
There probably will be disagreement about how to interpret these data for quite some time. The hurricane question involves both short term cycles and long term trends. The first is important for forecasting, but the latter is important for the question of what role global warming has to play. The idea of global warming causing individual storms or events, in particular, is at best unprovable, and at worst distorts the real problems we face. Activists would be best served not to go far out on a limb in the meantime; making claims that current research cannot support adequately may end up undermining serious efforts in the long run.

Blog Stuff

If you look down at my site meter, you will see that A DC Birding Blog had its 25,000th visitor early this morning. Hello to Sweden! In honor of the occasion I decided to do a word cloud for my site.

If you are looking for hacks to improve your Blogger template, one repository of such things is the Bloggerhacks wiki. There you can find information about various tagging and social bookmarking methods, how to implement categories, and so forth. Some of the material may be made irrelevant with the new Blogger upgrade, but a lot will still be usable once the new HTML editor is put in place.

Since I am involved with a group blog at Blue Ridge Gazette, I still have not seen the upgrade that happened last week. (Blogger is allowing upgrades incrementally, and group bloggers are being saved for last.) I am looking forward to seeing what the new system can do. Having a real, native categories system should be a major improvement.

Finally, I have been making a number of template changes over the past few days. One is the addition of a new search box in the left sidebar, which can be restricted to this site. If you notice specific elements causing problems, please let me know.

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Kestrels and Butterflies

This morning I did a bird walk at the National Arboretum as it had been a few weeks since my last walk there. Though the forecast was for a warm and sunny day, the sky was overcast and the temperature was mild. It was a relief, but at times the birds were hard to see as a result.

Blue grosbeaks are relatively uncommon in DC because of habitat considerations. But I have already seen several around the city this year, including twice at the Arboretum. The blue grosbeaks I saw this morning appeared to be hatch-year birds, because their breasts were a really rich cinnamon, as one might expect from fresh plumage. These two birds were in a pine behind the Capitol columns.

The busiest area of activity this morning was the stretch before and after the river trail gate closest to the golf course. The hemlocks held a northern parula that was still singing; admittedly the song was a weak one, but it was clearly a parula. Just past the gate, there was a flurry of flycatchers. Three species were represented here: acadian flycatcher, eastern phoebe, and eastern wood-pewee. (Later I saw a very yellow juvenile eastern phoebe in the hemlocks.)

In the same area I finally got a look at one of the bald cardinals that I have been reading about lately. Its head was almost completely bare except for a tuft of red feathers on the forehead. It is pretty funny to see.

An American kestrel flew in and perched on a snag right outside the gate. The heavy streaking on its breast indicated that it was probably a female. Unfortunately the light and angle made it difficult to see the normally bright orange of the back and tail. Kestrels are easy to tell in flight because they have the standard falcon shape but are smaller and more delicate. Like blue grosbeaks, kestrels are fairly unusual to see in the District.

There were many butterflies around the gardens this morning. Most seemed to be either eastern tiger swallowtails or monarchs. If other species were around, I must have missed them. A few photographs are presented below (click to enlarge). I find that monarchs tend to feed with their wings closed so that spread wing pictures are hard to capture, or at least harder than with the swallowtails. The last photograph is a wasp that joined me on the bench while I was waiting for the X6 bus.

BIRD SPECIES SEEN: 31

Double-crested Cormorant
Canada Goose
American Kestrel
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Acadian Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Kingbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher
Eastern Bluebird
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
European Starling
House Sparrow
American Goldfinch
Northern Parula
Chipping Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Blue Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird

BUTTERFLY SPECIES SEEN: 3

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Cabbage White
Monarch

Friday, August 18, 2006

Economics of Climate Change

In an opinion piece in today's Washington Post, Cass Sunstein poses the question of why industrial nations have failed to act despite the compelling evidence for global warming. Her answer is that the biggest polluters, the United States and China, have little incentive to do so. Together the U.S. and China account for about 36 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and their contribution is increasing rapidly. Under most projections, the two countries would suffer far less from climate change than those nearer to the equator.

By contrast, the biggest losers from greenhouse gas pollution are likely to be India and Africa. Some of the most detailed, careful and influential projections have been made by Yale University's William Nordhaus and Joseph Boyer. Nordhaus and Boyer show that in terms of human health and agricultural loss, India and Africa are by far the most vulnerable regions on Earth. Because of an anticipated increase in malaria, Africa will probably be hit especially hard, and India is expected to suffer a large increase in premature deaths as well....

[The United States and China] are expected to suffer some losses in terms of human health, but compared with projections for other countries those losses will be disproportionately small. A key reason is that the United States and China are not expected to be highly vulnerable to increases in malaria and other climate-related diseases.

In terms of percentage reductions in gross domestic product, India and Africa together are expected to lose about 10 times more from climate change than the United States -- and about 20 times more than China.
Her solution to the problem boils down to a form of moral persuasion.
First, they might find a way to convince the United States and China that they have a moral obligation to protect the planet's most vulnerable people. The United States has long benefited from technologies that, while promoting its economic growth, are imposing serious risks on disadvantaged people in India, Africa and elsewhere.

Second, the world's nations might try to convince these two countries that emissions reductions are less expensive, and more beneficial for their own citizens, than the recent projections suggest. Environmentally friendly innovations have often turned out to be far less costly than anticipated. (And if persuasive evidence is found that indicates greater losses for both nations from global warming, there will be a stronger incentive to try to innovate.)
Unfortunately moral persuasion has not worked well in the past when it comes to encouraging action from our business and political leaders. Major change in the United States is not likely to happen without a substantial groundswell from the electorate. Even with one, there are still political obstacles, particularly key committee chairs who deny the evidence for climate change projections. (I suppose these are not among Sunstein's "sensible people.")

China represents its own set of problems, with a growing industrial economy and a poltical system not particularly responsive to public opinion.

While the United States could go it alone and unilaterally enact reforms, these two countries will need to reach a mutual agreement for substantial greenhouse gas reductions to occur. There is too much economic competition for one to risk sacrificing profits while the other blithely goes ahead as usual. Such an agreement will require serious diplomacy based on mutual respect, without the usual macho posturing. This, too, is an obstacle in the way of near-term change.


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Loose Feathers #62

Osprey / Photo by NASA

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment.
  • Over the past two decades, the population of Atlantic menhaden has declined. The menhaden may be taking ospreys along with them, as researchers have found an increasing number of starving or malnourished chicks in osprey nests in the Chesapeake Bay area. To counter this, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is limiting the number of menhaden that can be caught in a year until the cause of the problem is ascertained.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is making it easier for airports, landowners, and state and local wildlife agencies to kill Canada geese and destroy their eggs without a permit. The purpose is to facillitate a substantial reduction in the numbers of resident population of Canada geese. The maesures are aimed mainly at the Atlantic, Central, and Mississippi Flyways, with more restrictions in other areas. The full regulations are here.
  • Israeli bombing in Lebanon caused an oil spill along the Mediterranean coast. The 15,000 tons released from a bombed power station have created an 87-mile slick. The extent of environmental damage is largely unknown because experts were unable to access the coast until the ceasefire. The spill may endanger humans as well because the oil contained carcinogens.
  • Ruffed grouse are decling in Pennsylvania due to reduction in second-growth forests.
  • Bicknell's thrush may be threatened by planned expansion of the Whiteface Mountain ski resort, but so far the development company is promising not to invade their habitats.
  • Some recent papers have asked to what extent evolution and global warming need to be considered when it comes to species conservation programs. Nuthatch considers this in the context of the Kirtland's Warbler.
  • Speaking of Kirtland's Warblers, two have been spotted on a military base near Ottawa, but birdwatchers are not allowed to visit.
  • As the fall migration season is getting into swing, Coturnix republished tutorials that explain Seasonality and Photoperiodism.
  • John L. Bull, a prominent New York birder and author, died last Friday.
  • There was a report earlier in the week that geese in Michigan had H5N1, but this was a low pathogenicity strain previously documented in North America.
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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Urban Birdwatching

On my walk around the neighborhood this morning, I came across some birds gathered around some bread that someone had left behind. I do not know if this was left specifically for the birds, or whether they had pulled it from a nearby trash can.

This flock was mostly rock pigeons.

The pictures of individual birds do not give a sense of what a scrum this was. Here is a larger portion of the flock of pigeons gathered around. There were several slices of bread, though it was hard for all the birds to get to it at once. The picture below shows a few examples of rock pigeon plumages.

A few house sparrows tried to get in on the action, too. They had a harder time because the larger-bodied pigeons were able to push them around. But the sparrows still got an occasional nibble.

For more birds and other critters, see the Friday Ark, which turns 100 today.

I and the Bird #30

I and the Bird turns 30 today. A new I and the Bird is ready for reading at Burning Silo. There are plenty of good essays linked, so take some time to read through them all.

The next edition will be in two weeks at migrateblog.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

8 Reasons Not to Start Birding

This week, Darren Rowse has been running one of his group writing projects; this time the subject is list posts. After I saw Mike's list of 12 reasons to become a bird watcher, I decided to add a list of my own. Just to be contrarian, I tried to come up with a few reasons not to start birding.

  1. It's addicting. First you see a house sparrow, then a starling, then a rock pigeon, and then suddenly something you have never seen before. And you think: "Wow! I never thought I would see something so colorful/large/exotic around here!" And the next thing you know, you'll be arranging day trips specifically to see lots of birds.
  2. The early birder gets the birds. If you're anything like me, you're not a morning person, and you can't imagine getting up at a quarter to four in the morning for anything, let alone birdwatching. But early morning is the best time for see birds. Before you know it, you'll be dragging yourself out of bed super early to catch flights of migrants as they come in.
  3. Birding requires patience. Learning the birds in your area takes time to appreciate the subtle differences that differentiate one species from another. When going out to bird, you have to be prepared not to see anything unusual; this is not a hobby of instant gratification.
  4. Some bird families are a pain. While some species are easy to identify, others are not, which frequently becomes a source of frustration. Want an example? Try identifying silent Empidonax flycatchers.
  5. Local limitations. While over 900 species have been recorded in North America and around 9500 in the world, one is not likely to see anywhere near that many in one's local area. This, too, can be a source of frustration, especially in some areas with very small local lists.
  6. Ecological impact. While birding has been an impetus for conservation, birders may also leave a heavy footprint in pursuing their hobby, whether in trampling through fragile environments or in consuming large amounts of fossils fuels to travel to exotic locations.
  7. Competition. Like many pursuits, birding has taken on a competitive aspect, whether in comparing the lengths of life lists or in seeing who can see the most birds in a single 24-hour day. For some people this is thrilling, but it turns other people off.
  8. Expense. Birding can be done at different levels. It is often said that all you need are binoculars and a field guide, and this axiom is true to a certain extent. But to go beyond a basic level usually requires some investment, in other books to fill in the details, in better optics (even spotting scopes), and in travel. Many of these can be had reasonably, but cumulatively are not cheap.
I do not mean to discourage anyone from taking up bird watching. In fact, it is an exciting and fulfilling activity. Obviously, since I am writing this on my personal birding blog, I have not heeded my own advice.

Carnivals

There are some new blog carnivals out this week. Here are a few that featured my posts, with the most recent first.

Since the first is hosted by Frinktank, you can expect something a little unconventional.

Oil Pipelines and Regulation

It turns out that the recent oil spill along BP's Prudhoe Bay pipeline may have been due in part to insufficient government oversight.

BP's 22 miles of transit pipelines carried 8 percent of the nation's crude oil, but they were not subject to the same Transportation Department requirements as other pipelines, experts say. Those requirements exempt pipelines that operate at low pressure in rural areas and far from commercially navigable waters.

Although BP has admitted that it let as much as 14 years lapse without using cleaning and diagnostic devices known as "pigs" in key transit pipelines, it is not clear that the company violated any federal regulations.

That has not mollified Thomas Barrett, head of the Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In an interview yesterday, he said that the maintenance of the BP pipelines was "well below the standard of care I would expect from a company like BP -- regulations or not." He said his agency would soon propose new rules to cover low-pressure lines like these near sensitive areas.

State regulators failed to fill the oversight gap that's existed until now. Kurt Fredriksson, commissioner of Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation, said that his agency knew that BP had not used the pigs on its 30- to 34-inch transit lines since 1992 in one case and 1998 in another, but that it accepted the company's reasoning about why that was not necessary and why the company could rely on more narrow ultrasound examinations.

There is talk of making low-pressure lines subject to the same regulations as the high-pressure lines. Let's hope the government will do that, and enforce the regulations.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Birds of the Mid-Atlantic #20: Yellowlegs

Fall migration is already upon us. In fact, it has been upon us for about a month now. Like spring migration, fall migration proceeds in a series of stages, with certain species or families dominating each stage. In contrast to spring migration, fall migration is less compressed, occurring over a period of about five months, as opposed to the three months of spring migration.

August is the time for shorebirds to move through the Mid-Atlantic region. The best way to experience shorebird migration is to visit one of the many large refuges along the Atlantic coast, as I did on Saturday. If you are stuck inland, there are still opportunities to see shorebirds as they pass through the area. (See, for example, this list of Maryland shorebird sites.) While species diversity is more limited, inland sites often provide an opportunity to study birds up close, without the need for a spotting scope. Shorebirds that commonly occur inland include the subjects of today's essay, greater and lesser yellowlegs.

Yellowlegs are the graceful counterparts to the many squat or chunky members of the sandpiper family. Unlike most other shorebirds, they have long yellow legs and elegantly-shaped head and neck. Their long legs allow them to wade out into deeper water where other shorebirds cannot go. There they hunt for insects and crustaceans, as well as an occasional small fish.

Greater Yellowlegs / Photo by USFWS

Greater and lesser yellowlegs have almost identical plumage, so a birder needs to pay attention to structural characteristics to make an identification. When the two species are next to each other, the size difference is apparent. On average, the greater yellowlegs is 3-4 inches larger than the lesser. With a single bird, or single-species flock, this is not so useful. Luckily, the bill can help answer the question. A lesser yellowlegs has a bill that is slightly longer than the head (minus the bill). Greater yellowlegs have bills that are 1.5-2 times longer than the head; their bills are also thicker and slightly upturned. Calls are another clue; the greater yellowlegs tends to give three-note calls (dew-dew-dew) while lesser yellowlegs whistle once or twice (tu-tu).

Lesser Yellowlegs / Photo by USFWS

Both yellowlegs species winter primarily in Central and South America. However, at least a few of each species winter in the southern United States and along the Atlantic coast.

To find shorebirds away from the coast, look for wet fields, pond and lake edges, and mudflats. Other common shorebirds that may occur at inland sites include killdeer, semipalmated plover, spotted sandpiper, solitary sandpiper, least sandpiper, semipalmated sandpiper, and western sandpiper. In Washington, DC, the best shorebird sites are the parks along the Anacostia River; nearby, there are good spots at Hunting Creek and Cameron Run in Virginia.

Crossposted at Blue Ridge Gazette.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Shorebirds at Kenilworth

Since low tide was early this morning, I headed over to Kenilworth to check for shorebirds. I got there when it opened, and very few other people were around aside from the garden staff. The aquatic plants are still in bloom, but most lotuses have already lost their petals.

The best perspective on the marsh for shorebirding is from the end of the river trail. For whatever reason, shorebirds seem to prefer the mudflats over there to the ones near the boardwalk trail. This morning I saw greater and lesser yellowlegs, spotted sandpipers, and lots of killdeer. That is not bad for D.C., but I had been hoping to spot another species or two.

There were many green herons in the gardens this morning. Most seemed to be hatch year birds. They gave a higher-pitched call than the adults when they flushed. As I walked through the impoundments, at least five flew up into the trees. Even more were out in the marsh.

SPECIES SEEN: 36

Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Green Heron
Canada Goose
Mallard
Red-tailed Hawk
Killdeer
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Spotted Sandpiper
Ring-billed Gull
Laughing Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Downy Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Kingbird
Barn Swallow
Cedar Waxwing
Carolina Wren
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
American Robin
Carolina Chickadee
American Crow
European Starling
House Sparrow
Red-eyed Vireo
American Goldfinch
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Bombay Hook

Tricolored Heron / Photo by USFWS

Yesterday I led a trip for D.C. Audubon to Bombay Hook NWR. You can find my report for the trip here. It was my second time leading a bird walk, but it was the first time I had to do any advance coordination for one. Luckily it was a small group so that this was not too difficult.

I added a few year birds yesterday: Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, American Avocet, and Long-billed Dowitcher. There were no life birds for me, though. Life birds are becoming harder for me to come by in the mid-Atlantic region.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Mall Robbers Arrested

Here is some good news.

The five robbers who frightened and assaulted tourists on the Mall in recent months were a group of young neighborhood friends who rode the Metro to a site they thought was a "sweet spot," officials said yesterday.

U.S. Park Police have charged the District residents, ages 16 to 22, with crimes related to five incidents on the Mall in which 12 tourists were attacked, some of them viciously, in May and July. Officials said the suspects were traced through credit cards and a stolen cellphone.
I would not advise walking on the Mall alone at night now, but it is good to know that this particular group is off the streets.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Loose Feathers #61

Savannah Sparrow / Photo by Dave Menke (USFWS)

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment.
  • New research suggests that migratory songbirds use polarized light from the sun to calibrate various other directional cues, including the Earth's magnetic field. Researchers placed captured Savannah Sparrows in funnel cages and reversed the apparent magnetic field. Those sparrows that had a view of the horizon were able to recalibrate their internal compass, while those whose view was blocked were not. Use of polarized light makes sense since songbirds migrate mainly at night, and the bands of polarized light are most intense at dusk and dawn.
  • A new study indicates that the Greenland ice sheet is melting three times as fast as previously measured. This suggests that the corresponding rise in sea level may become a problem sooner than thought. Cold fresh water entering the ocean could affect the North Atlantic Current as well. A second paper questions predictions of increased snowfall in Antarctica.
  • Illinois has its first pair of trumpeter swans breeding in the wild since the nineteenth century. At least one member of the pair was hatched at the Lincoln Park Zoo and released as part of a captive breeding program.
  • An oil spill in British Columbia has fouled at least 100 Canada Geese, but cleanup crews have been unable to catch them so far.
  • This article describes a turf war between a great blue heron and some gulls.
  • Here is an article on a night heron sighting.
  • Cormorants may not have the harmful effect on fish populations that some anglers have claimed.
  • Here is a piece on hummingbird clearwing moths.
  • A brown booby has been sighting near Virginia Beach; this species is very rare in the Mid-Atlantic.
  • The ABA has a new president and board chair: Richard Payne and Bettie Harriman.
Carnivals
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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Local Action and Federal Inaction

Because of the lack of action from the Bush administration and Congress on environmental issues, many cities and states are taking the initiative on matters of global warming and energy consumption. As my last post noted, Chicago is one of these cities. The initiatives include requiring development of alternative energy sources and cutbacks in carbon dioxide emissions.

Recently, 22 states and the District of Columbia have set standards demanding that utilities generate a specific amount of energy -- in some cases, as high as 33 percent -- from renewable sources by 2020. And 11 states have set goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

California also has passed legislation mandating that automakers reduce their vehicles' carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2016, and 10 other states have committed to adopt the same standards if the law survives a court challenge.

In addition, as many as 10 states in the Northeast are working to establish state-by-state ceilings for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and allow industries such as power plants to trade pollution credits for carbon emissions while cutting greenhouse gas emissions 10 percent by 2019. California, Oregon and Washington are negotiating a similar pact.
Such moves are necessary in the light of increasing evidence that our planet is about to undergo radical changes in climate. (And some changes appear to be underway already.) Unfortunately there is much grumbling.
Margo Thorning, senior vice president of the American Council for Capital Formation, said this array of state regulations could harm the U.S. economy.

"I don't think it's terribly helpful to have the industry wondering what are the car standards in California vis-a-vis the standards in Arizona," said Thorning, whose think tank is funded in part by Exxon Mobil Corp. "It adds a lot of uncertainty and slows the kind of investment we'd like to see in the U.S."
In a sense this is correct; state and local regulations can only accomplish so much in the face of a nationwide problem. The trouble is that industry lobbyists who complain about patchwork policies are likely the same who have stood in the way of a national comprehensive plan to address global warming for years now.