Thursday, November 30, 2006

I and the Bird #37

It is time for another edition of I and the Bird, postponed a week for Thanksgiving festivities. Visit Five Wells for I and the Bird #37.

I and the Bird is a biweekly compendium of the best blogging about birds and birders, with self-submitted posts. To learn how to participate, visit here.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Species on the Move and Carbon Increase

Two stories appeared this week with more bad news on climate change. First, a review of 866 papers found that animal and plant species are shifting their ranges northward, while polar species are dying out.

"Wild species don't care who is in the White House," Parmesan said. "It is very obvious they are desperately trying to move to respond to the changing climate. Some are succeeding. But for the ones that are already at the mountaintop or at the poles, there is no place for them to go. They are the ones that are going extinct."

Among the most affected species, Parmesan said, are highland amphibians in the tropics. She said more than two-thirds of 110 species of harlequin frogs, which occupy mountain cloud forests in Central America, have become extinct in the past 35 years.

Meanwhile, many pest species -- including roaches, fleas, ticks and tree-killing beetles -- are surviving warming winters in increasing numbers. "We are seeing throughout the Northern Hemisphere that pests are able to have more generations per year, which allows them to increase their numbers without being killed off by cold winter temperatures," said Parmesan.

The linked article from the Post included several paragraphs on the economic implications, in this case ski resorts and power companies. I imagine that they are not the only industries facing challenges.

Meanwhile, the rate of increase of carbon emissions has risen since 2000. Around that year , the annual rate of increase rose from about 1% to 2.5%. The Global Carbon Project, which established those figures, identified two causes.
"There has been a change in the trend regarding fossil fuel intensity, which is basically the amount of carbon you need to burn for a given unit of wealth," explained Corinne Le Quere, a Global Carbon Project member who holds posts at the University of East Anglia and the British Antarctic Survey.

"From about 1970 the intensity decreased - we became more efficient at using energy - but we've been getting slightly worse since the year 2000," she told the BBC News website.

"The other trend is that as oil becomes more expensive, we're seeing a switch from oil burning to charcoal which is more polluting in terms of carbon."

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Review: Letters from Eden

Last week I reviewed Club George, a book that narrates one season of watching birds in Central Park. This week the seasonal theme continues with Letters from Eden: A Year at Home, in the Woods, by Julie Zickefoose. Unlike Club George, this book is not a birding journal. Letters from Eden consists of 31 essays that were published in Bird Watcher's Digest over an eight-year period in a feature called "Watcher at the Window." Each essay is illustrated with paintings and sketches by the author.

Zickefoose arranged the essays by season, rather than by date of composition. The essays are not equally grouped among the seasons; a third fall under spring. (Spring seems to bring out the best in nature writers.) The arrangment by season causes a bit of dissonance when her children appear to oscillate in age from one essay to the next. Zickefoose's lively writing and attractive illustrations make the distraction minimal.

Reviewing a collection like this is tricky because each chapter was written as a free-standing essay. Each has its own theme or flows from a particular event. As such they defy easy summary. However, several common themes and subjects run through the book, so I discuss them below in loose groupings based on theme.

Essays are set in the context of the property surrounding Zickefoose's residence. Zickefoose and her husband, Bill Thompson III, own an eighty-acre rural property that they manage for wildlife. From what I gather from the essays, part is wooded and part is meadow. Many of essays describe how the changing seasons affect the author's daily walks in the woods and meadows around her home. These essays describe the author's observations, with plenty of detail about what different animal species are doing and why.

A second large group of essays are about individual species. Many are species that the author holds dear and attempts to attract to her property: Eastern Phoebe, American Robin, Brown Thrasher, Tree Swallow, and Carolina Wren. One is a disliked species: European Starling. Essays on individual species combine the author's personal observations with details about the bird's behavior. The breeding process - from mating displays to nest building to raising chicks - has a prominent place in these essays. These species nest around the author's home.

The author's daily walks on the family property inspire most of the essays in the groups mentioned above. A few essays use the walks as a gateway to discuss issues in managing land specifically for wildlife. Two deal with specifically with management: balancing mowing with the nesting needs of species like woodcock and gardening methods that benefit birds. Two others identify species that become harmful in the wrong context: the invasive multiflora rose that is difficult to control and the bullfrogs that started eating birds around the family's pond. Another warns of the dangers of spreading disease through bird feeders.

Respect for animals and concern for their welfare runs through most of the essays, but a few deal specifically with these issues. In the spectrum of opinion on how much humans should intervene in the lives of animals, Zickefoose would probably fall more towards the interventionist end. She stops her car for turtles and helps baby bird back into their nests, has guarded piping plover nests, smashes animal traps, and once caught a sparrow in a food store to let it loose in the wild. One particularly good essay describes the dangers facing box turtles and what she does to help. Another very good essay discusses birds' intelligence.

The author's family features prominently throughout the essays. Many were written when her children were very young, so they frequently appear as actors. A few essays deal with the challenges of balancing parental responsibilities with her activities as a naturalist. One of the best essays associates evening grosbeaks with memories of her late father.

All essays are fully illustrated with paintings and sketches relevant to each essay's themes. The illustrations were not originally published with her column. Many were selected from the author's archive of paintings and sketch books and bear a note with the date of composition. Others were original illustrations painted for this publication. Full color paintings depict scenes from the essays, such as the fighting starlings shown below. Many of the pencil sketches illustrate a variety of postures and behaviors. Zickefoose depicts birds as birders see them in the field: feeding, gathering nesting materials, incubating and guarding chicks, and keeping watch for threats.

Letters from Eden was a fun read made better by the lovely illustrations. While the book is clearly not a nature journal, the chapters have the feel of journal entries, and the book as a whole has the feel of a yearly journey. The anecdotal style makes the serious themes raised in several essays approachable.

Images published here are from Letters from Eden: A Year at Home, in the Woods by Julie Zickefoose. Copyright (c) 2006 by Julie Zickefoose. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Full citation:

Julie Zickefoose, Letters from Eden: A Year at Home, in the Woods. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Pp. xvi, 224; color illustrations and index. $26.00 cloth. ISBN: 0618573089.

To purchase:

Author's website:
Julie Zickefoose has her own blog. On a few occasions, she has taken readers through her painting process. Here, for example, she completes a commissioned painting of a Carolina Parakeet. She also painted an ivory-billed woodpecker, which was blogged in five parts: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Turkey at the Battery

A wild turkey has been hanging around Battery Park in New York City. Now Battery Park is not the ideal place for a turkey to roam. Green space in the park is rather cramped, and there is not much place to hide. However, like the local pigeons, it can get by based on food offerings from humans. The bird has been named "Zelda" by the local birders.

Under usual circumstances, Ms. Hobel frowns on anyone feeding wild animals. Even the most well-intentioned offering can do a bird like Zelda harm. People have tossed peanuts, which are bad for a turkey’s digestion, or — horror of horrors — bread. “It’s like feeding somebody Styrofoam,” Ms. Hobel said.

But yesterday found two seasoned bird men in Battery Park, both well aware of Zelda’s gastronomical needs. One, Phil Lombardi, a park supervisor, supplies Zelda with chicken feed just about every day. The other, Peter May, said he was tossing seeds to other park birds one day when Zelda muscled in, driving her lesser competitors away. He has been feeding her since.

I saw this turkey last year and again yesterday.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Northern Shrike at the Great Swamp

Photo by Marek Szczepanek (via Wikipedia)

For the past few days I have been in New Jersey visiting family. This afternoon I went with them to the Great Swamp, a National Wildlife Refuge a bit south of Morristown. We all have a love for the outdoors, though not all are equally interested in birds.

At our last stop, the heronry overlook on Pleasant Plains Road, we spotted the northern shrike that has been hanging around there recently. It was in the field across the road from the overlook, closer to the manmade pond than to the overlook itself. We were able to watch it for some time, as it perched out in the open on top of some small shrubs.

Northern shrikes have a color pattern similar to mockingbirds, with the exception of a black mask and black flight feathers. The tail is proportionately shorter than a mockingbird's, and the bill is short, thick, and hooked. This shrike sat upright - almost like a flycatcher - and swooped frequently to the ground in pursuit of prey. I am not sure if any of its sallies were successful; if they were, the prey must have been small because I could not see anything in its bill. It is much easier to recognize a shrike than I originally thought it would be.

Shrikes have a reputation for cruelty, which is not entirely deserved. (The genus name Lanius means "butcher.") Partly the reputation stems from shrikes' habit of impaling prey on thorns or barbed wire fences, as in the photograph above. They do this in some cases to hold larger prey in place while they eat it, and at other times to save food for later in case of scarcity. Though they are small birds, shrikes will kill small rodents and small birds for food. I imagine that such catches are ugly scenes, since a shrike's feet and bill are not powerful enough to render a swift blow.

In any case, this was my first sighting of this unusual species. Apparently there have been shrike sightings at this location for the past few years, and the local birders seemed to be well aware of its presence. Despite that, northern shrikes are somewhat rare for New Jersey, and even rarer around D.C. Most breed in Alaska and northern Canada, and few make it this far south for the winter. It was a great bird and a great day to be out.

Update: A photo of the Great Swamp bird is available here.

Loose Feathers #75

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

  • A study of red-legged partridges has established a relationship between high levels of testosterone and bright colors in male birds. Male partridges were given extra testosterone, and in response the birds showed a 20% increase in the carotenoids that cause bright reds and yellows. Future work will explore what causes the relationship between testosterone and carotenoid levels.
  • Research in Canada has found that the population of red-winged blackbirds correlates with the North Atlantic Oscillation. This suggests that blackbirds will decline in the face of global climate change.
  • The Madagascar pochard was recently rediscovered in northern Madagascar. There were nine adults and four juveniles. This species was previously considered extinct.
  • The Mercury News reports that wild turkeys are thriving in urban environments in California.
  • A related story explores the conflicts that can arise when wild turkeys move into the suburbs. Some turkeys may be aggressive once they become accustomed to humans. (via Birds Etcetera)
  • Two men were arrested in Myanmar for the possession of over 800 red-whiskered bulbuls, an endangered species.
  • The New Hamburg Independent has some notes on local bird feeding.
  • Female budgerigars prefer to pair with males that sound like them, apparently because such males are more reliable to help with raising chicks.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

Wild Turkey / Photo by Gary M. Stolz (USFWS)

I hope that you all are enjoying your Thanksgiving, whether you are eating a turkey dinner or something else.

If you are curious to learn more about this interesting bird, here is a post that I wrote on turkeys last November.

And here's a funny picture from New Jersey involving wild turkeys and a train. (via GrrlScientist)

From the article:

"For a moment, it looked like the turkeys were waiting for the next outbound train," said Dan Stessel, a spokesman for NJ Transit. "Clearly, they're trying to catch a train and escape their fate."

Transit workers followed the bird's movements on surveillance cameras. "I have no idea how they got there," Stessel said....

"From time to time, I've heard calls that there are turkeys on the loose," said Erik Endress, president of the Ramsey Rescue Squad, a volunteer group. "Maybe they're trying to make a break."

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Horseshoe Crab Moratorium in Delaware

Red Knots / Photo by the Philadelphia Inquirer

Delaware has joined New Jersey in imposing a two-year moratorium on the capture of horseshoe crabs. Horseshoe crabs are used as bait in whelk fishing. The moratorium is designed to help horseshoe crabs recover to their numbers in the 1980s and 1990s, before horseshoe crab fishing became popular.

Their eggs are essential food for migrating shorebirds, particularly red knots. Thousands of red knots stop along the Delaware Bay each May to rest and refuel before completing the last leg of their annual migration from their winter home in South America to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. Red knot migration is timed to coincide with the spawning of horseshoe crabs, which come ashore to mate and lay their eggs. Red knots have declined in recent years thanks to overfishing of their main food source at this critical migration stop. The rate of decline suggests that they could be extinct by 2010 without intervention.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Review: Club George

Central Park in New York City has a unique mix of human use and avian diversity. Located in the middle of Manhattan, within easy reach of public transportation, it is heavily trafficked by residents and tourists alike. A portion of these visitors are active birdwatchers who monitor the park's bird population and report their sightings on sites like NYC Bird Report. The park is considered among the best places to observe migration on the east coast. Its popularity as a birding spot has led to unusual encounters between birds and their human admirers, some of which are recounted in Bob Levy's Club George. During a period of unemployment, Levy became acquainted with a self-confident red-winged blackbird, named George. This blackbird supplements his natural diet by begging and taking food from the humans that visit his pond. Levy's initial interaction with George led him to explore the world of birds and take up birdwatching. His journals of observations from his first year of birding are the basis for this book.

Club George chronicles a full breeding season in Central Park, from the time that red-winged blackbirds begin to establish territories in April to their departure in late July. Along with the author, we watch as George establishes his territory, courts his mates, and then raises his chicks. The process repeats itself several times during the season, as George has at least two mates and raises at least three broods. (Early on, Levy makes a point of not giving the location of George's Pond, but people familiar with the park should be able to figure it out.) In addition to following the events of the breeding season, the book traces Bob Levy's development as a birder, from a beginner just learning to distinguish one species from another, to a skilled observer who records the nuances of bird behavior.

While George and his breeding attempts are the center of the narrative, chapters of the book follow the feeding and nesting of other species as well. Some of the nests are successful while others are not. Green herons raise broods of chicks on the Lake. Robins and cardinals nest near heavily-trafficked footpaths and manage to raise chicks. Meanwhile, a waxwing nest met a particularly violent end.

The book is full of details about bird behavior, principally the behavior of red-winged blackbirds. The author's personal observations of George and his neighbors are supplemented by references to ornithological studies. Some of these come via personal communication with a scientist; others are citations of important studies and reference works. As a result, even an experienced birder can probably learn something from this book.

At the same time, Club George is not intended to be an ornithological work, and the focus stays on the author's interactions with the birds of Central Park. Levy takes a special interest in the behavior of individual birds. One might wonder, as I initially did, how he manages to distinguish one individual from another when members of a species look so similar. In most cases, this is done by recognizing territorial boundaries. For some birds, individuals are recognized by certain physical characteristics, like a drooping wing or injured bill. Watching birds as individuals helps one appreciate the resourcefulness of these creatures. It also leads the author and other birdwatchers portrayed in the book to become invested in the success or failure of certain birds' nests.

Two ethical issues arise during the course of the book. One is where birdwatching shifts from interaction into intervention. The issue first arises in regard to the ethics of hand feeding. Does allowing birds to take food from your hands expose them to danger from other humans who might try to capture them? Should a birder rescue nestlings or fledglings? Does birdwatching itself put inappropriate stress on birds? The second concerns anthropomorphosis. Levy's observations of individual birds makes them appear almost as characters in a novel, each with its own intentions and personality. The danger, which this book largely avoids, is attributing human characteristics to birds or assuming that they (should) operate according to human moral codes. While Levy raises the questions, and clearly has his own opinions on these subjects, he leaves it up to the reader to determine where the proper boundaries lie.

Experienced birders may find some sections of the book to be too didactic since Levy covers basic information about birds and birdwatching, such as identification and choosing binoculars. However, for the intended audience - beginning birders and nonbirders - these discussions ought to be useful. Such details reflect the enthusiasm of someone who is new to birding. I think that this book would make excellent reading for beginning birders. When I was starting out, I had the pleasure of reading Louis Halle's classic, Spring in Washington, which taught me a way of looking at the natural world over the course of a migration season. I think that Club George could serve as a similar introduction for others.

Full citation:

Bob Levy, Club George: The Diary of a Central Park Birdwatcher. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006. Pp. xiv, 370; black and white photographs. $24.95 cloth. ISBN: 0312341679.

To purchase:

Author's website:

Interview with the author:
March 28, 2006, on WNYC

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Sea Ducks and the Bay

Biologists from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center are studying the sea ducks that spend the winter in the Chesapeake Bay. The current project requires capturing ducks on the Bay with nets to check their health. Researchers want to know whether the decline in food availability in the Bay places a limit on the numbers of scoters and long-tailed ducks.

He points to the canvasback and redhead ducks as a parallel. Before water pollution killed most of the bay's underwater grass beds in the 1950s and 1960s, as many as 1 million canvasbacks and redheads migrated to the bay. Now, with bay-grass acreage only a fraction of earlier levels, the number of canvasbacks found on the bay is about 50,000. Redhead numbers have dropped to a couple of thousand.

As for sea ducks, no one knows how many winter on the estuary. Perry estimates there might be 50,000 surf scoters, as many as 20,000 black scoters and probably 50,000 long-tailed ducks.

A biologist who flew a series of parallel flights up and down the length of the bay in 1994 in a search for sea ducks estimated from his findings that the number is more than 400,000.

Sea ducks depend on mussels and clams for food. Unfortunately the crash of the oyster population appears to affect the supply of other shellfish as well, since they thrive in the same oyster beds.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Visit to Blackwater

Today I went out to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge with DC Audubon. Blackwater is a large tract of land that encompasses the marshes of the Little Blackwater River just south of Cambridge, Maryland. In addition to marshes and freshwater impoundments, the refuge includes managed agricultural fields and some of the largest stands of loblolly pine on the Eastern Shore. The Fish and Wildlife Service maintains a five-mile Wildlife Drive that winds through most of the habitat types that the refuge offers. Recently two new hiking trails opened, and roads around the outside of the refuge include good birding spots as well.

The chief attractions for birders in the fall are the waterfowl that gather at Blackwater in large numbers. Canada geese, of course, were well represented, as were snow geese. A few tundra and mute swans were present as well. The first impoundment, pictured above, had about a dozen of my favorite duck - northern shoveler. Several impoundments had northern pintails, including one at close enough range for us to study the pattern of white and brown on the back of its head. Other waterfowl species were seen more sporadically today, mostly on Shorters Wharf road east and south of the refuge. There, a nice mixed group included blue-winged and green-winged teal, plus American wigeons.

Bald eagles, which breed at the refuge, are also a major attraction. Several times we had groups of up to 4 eagles circling overhead. It was about as good of a view of eagles as one could ask for. While the eagles kept our attention up high, northern harriers searched low over the fields for small rodents.

The large stands of loblolly pines offer an Eastern Shore specialty. The Eastern Shore is the northern limit of brown-headed nuthatches, which are residents of the southeastern U.S. These nuthatches are smaller cousins of the white-breasted nuthatch, have brown caps instead of black, and emit a call that sounds a bit like a squeaky toy. We caught up with about a dozen brown-headed nuthatches along the road near the Marsh Edge Trail. They flit around quickly near the tops of the pines to gather seeds from the cones, then break the seeds open against the bark of the trees. Other birds were using the same stand of pines: ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, a yellow-bellied sapsucker, and a blue-headed vireo.

We saw too many other birds for me to go into detail on all of them. Then, since we were traveling in several cars, each carload of birders had a slightly different experience. Our little group saw a juvenile black-crowned night-heron. Others saw birds that I missed, including American white pelicans.

More images from the trip are available at the DC Audubon website. The species list appended to this post is my personal list for the day.


Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Mute Swan
Tundra Swan
Snow Goose
Canada Goose
American Wigeon
Green-winged Teal
American Black Duck
Northern Pintail
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Turkey Vulture
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Coot
Greater Yellowlegs
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
American Herring Gull
Laughing Gull
Forster's Tern
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Cedar Waxwing
Carolina Wren
Northern Mockingbird
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Carolina Chickadee
Brown-headed Nuthatch
Fish Crow
European Starling
House Sparrow
Blue-headed Vireo
House Finch
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle

Friday, November 17, 2006

Week in Review

Saturday: Counting Birds

Sunday: Towers and Birds

Sunday: Gloomy Grant

Sunday: What American accent do you have?

Monday: State of Our Waterways

Wednesday: CLO Makes Sound Archive Available

Thursday: Woodpecker Spam

Friday: C&O Canal Count Results

Friday: DC to Gain Federal Land in Land Transfer

DC to Gain Federal Land in Land Transfer

Washington, DC, will gain about 200 acres of land from the federal government if President Bush signs a recent piece of legislation. The land lies mostly in two parcels sited on either side of the Anacostia River.

The biggest parcel is Poplar Point, a 100-acre site on the eastern side of the Anacostia that is intended as the location of a stadium for the D.C. United soccer team. Also transferred to city control would be Reservation 13, a 66-acre site on the western edge of the river that houses the former D.C. General Hospital campus and is slated for mixed-use development and health-related facilities.
The parcels are intended for development to add land into the District's tax base. Development will probably according to the plans of the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, which expects big things along the river. At least one parcel will become a sports facility.
Plans for the Poplar Point site include a mix of high- and low-rise housing and retail, as well the eventual site of the soccer stadium. According to the land swap, 30 acres of the site would be developed, and the rest would be preserved as parkland.
A large portion of Poplar Point is already parkland, or at least undeveloped enough to be treated as such. While it is not great bird habitat, several species do use it in all seasons. It has some large (for DC) overgrown fields, as well as some edge/riverine habitat. Hopefully at least some of this will be left in place or at least allowed to regenerate elsewhere.

One issue that is sure to arise is the condition of the land. Much of the land on both sides of the Anacostia River is fill, since the river was originally lined with freshwater marshes. Because the dredging and filling was done in the days before environmental regulations, no one really knows what was dumped there. One fill site north of RFK is known to have highly toxic substances just underneath the surface. If the same holds true for the Reservation 13 and Poplar Point sites, substantial remediation may need to be done before anything can be built there.


C&O Canal Count Results

Each January the DC Audubon Society coordinates a one-day bird survey along the length of the C&O Canal, which runs 184.5 miles from Washington, DC, to Cumberland, MD. Last winter, I counted birds along a small section in western Maryland. My post about that section is here.

Results from last winter's count are now available at the DC Audubon website. Data from the count is presented in an Excel spreadsheet. My written report on the results from 2006 is here.


There will not be a "Loose Feathers" post this week because there were not enough interesting news stories to make it worthwhile.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Woodpecker Spam

Two posts below received comments from one "bobby harrison" about an upcoming event. The comment was posted by someone using an AOL account at an unknown location. It seems that other bloggers have been receiving the same message, because both Birdchick and BINAC posted on this earlier today. I have no idea if this is the real person or not. Sharon seems to think it's real. It is just funny to be seeing comment spam about ivory-billed woodpeckers instead of mortgages and prescriptions.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

CLO Makes Sound Archive Available

The Macaulay Library is making its prodigious collection of wildlife recordings available to the public. The archive includes 65,000 audio recordings and 18,000 video clips. Birds are not the only animals in the archive, but they are very well-represented. The archives are searchable by English or Latin species name, and results can be restricted to a particular subspecies.

The recordings can be found at

One great advantage of these recordings, in contrast to CDs and online bird guides, is that they make it possible to hear the wide variation in bird vocalizations. Several recordings listed for Cerulean Warbler, for example, are of an odd individual that sings with the voice of a Cerulean, but with the cadence of a Black-throated Green Warbler. It looks like a great tool if you want to study the vocalizations of a particular species.


Monday, November 13, 2006

State of Our Waterways

Chesapeake Bay Wetland / USFWS

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has released its annual report on the health of the Bay. The result is better this year than previous years: 29 instead of 27 out of a possible 100. This comes out to a D- on the CBF scale. The score is based on a variety of factors, including levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, health of aquatic vegetation, and presence of dead zones. Here is some interpretation:
"Maybe, just maybe, 2006 will be remembered as the turning point of the bay," said foundation president William C. Baker. "But this report isn't good news. Clearly a great deal more needs to be done. It's time to get serious about saving the bay."

Baker said weather made the biggest difference in the bay's slight improvement; rain washes pollutants into the bay, so the dry weather helped.

Despite the generally gloomy assessment, Baker praised Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania for beginning to address the bay's two biggest pollutants, nitrogen and phosphorus, which come primarily from farm runoff and sewage treatment plants. In the past decade, the states have encouraged the planting of cover crops, restoring forest buffers and managing farm waste.
Here is the full State of the Bay report.

The CBF also recently released a report on water quality in the Anacostia River. The report showed some improvement but not enough to move the river above its failing grade.
Improvements were seen in fecal coliform bacteria, suspended solids, dissolved oxygen, wetlands, and government action. The rising score is linked to early efforts to reduce sewage leaks and overflows and stream restoration efforts. Trash, toxics, and nitrogen pollution, largely a result of stormwater runoff, showed no improvement this year.
Obviously the river still has a long way to go.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

What American accent do you have?

I saw this thing floating around on other blogs, so I thought I would give it a try.

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: Philadelphia

Your accent is as Philadelphian as a cheesesteak! If you're not from Philadelphia, then you're from someplace near there like south Jersey, Baltimore, or Wilmington. if you've ever journeyed to some far off place where people don't know that Philly has an accent, someone may have thought you talked a little weird even though they didn't have a clue what accent it was they heard.

The Northeast
The Midland
The Inland North
The South
The West
North Central
What American accent do you have?
Take More Quizzes

Not bad, but I actually grew up in New Jersey.


Gloomy Grant

Very few birds were in the vicinity of the reflecting pool this afternoon. No ring-billed gulls at all were present. They must have been taking cover from the wind and rain somewhere else.


Towers and Birds

For some time, it has been known that communications towers pose a hazard for many species of birds. The problem is exacerbated when towers are placed in centers of migratory activity. Bird kills at towers tend to come from two causes. Sometimes birds will not see a portion of the tower, such as a guy wire or antenna. In other cases, birds are disoriented by a tower's lights and crash into the tower or the ground. The latter is a particular problem for nocturnal migrants.

Exact numbers of birds killed each year are difficult to determine because few towers are monitored. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates 4-5 million on the basis of bodies recovered at a small sample of towers, but the number could well be much larger. At least 230 species are affected. Migrant songbirds are the primary victims of communication towers. This document (pdf) gives the top ten species killed.

  1. Ovenbird
  2. Red-eyed Vireo
  3. Tennessee Warbler
  4. Common Yellowthroat
  5. Bay-breasted Warbler
  6. American Redstart
  7. Blackpoll Warbler
  8. Black-and-White Warbler
  9. Philadelphia Vireo
  10. Swainson's Thrush
The Fish and Wildlife Service has been working with NGOs, industry representatives, and the Federal Communications Commission to develop regulations to reduce the problem. The FCC announced last week that a formal proposal is on the way. The proposed rules may follow existing guidelines from the FWS. These include:
  • Placement of new antennas on existing towers where possible rather than building new structures.
  • Keeping tower height under 200 feet, to avoid the need for lighting, and using self-supported structures rather guy wires.
  • Restricting towers within areas of major migratory activity.
  • Limiting lighting to the FAA minimum and using white strobe lights instead of red lights.
Unfortunately, it took a lawsuit from conservation groups to spur the FCC to act, but at least progress is being made on this issue. I will post a link to the proposed rules when they are published.

For more information

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Counting Birds

Here is something to practice counting large groups of flying birds. It is called the Irania Bird Counting Game, and I found it linked at Words and Pictures. It uses a Java applet to project a flock across the screen, then you enter a number and it tells whether you are correct. I found that some of my counts were way off, but almost 50% in some cases. I tended to undercount more than overcount. I need some practice before CBC season starts.


Friday, November 10, 2006

Week in Review

Sunday: Meadowlands Guide Available

Monday: Maryland Will Buy Blackwater Property

Tuesday: Maryland Ballot Question

Wednesday: Conservation Foe Defeated

Wednesday: Project Feeder Watch Nov 11 to Apr 6

Thursday: I and the Bird #36

Friday: Loose Feathers #74

Loose Feathers #74

Northern Goshawk / USFWS

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment.
  • The United Kingdom has a tradition of egg collectors, to a degree that does not seem to be present in the United States. The latest incident is the arrest of a man who kept between 5,000 and 10,000 wild bird eggs in his home.
  • Cambodia is working to preserve habitat for the endangered Bengal Florican, a type of bustard (pictured right).
  • Budget cuts have stretched National Wildlife Refuges to the point that staff in many places are being cut or not replaced. Two refuges in New Jersey have closed their offices as a result. Eastern Neck in Maryland may face a similar fate.
  • Here's a piece in admiration of white-throated sparrows. (I have to disagree that sparrows are least lovely; that title rightfully belongs to starlings.)
  • John at Birds Etcetera has some thoughts on bird blogs (also here).
  • Robert Winkler describes the relationship between driving safely and the difference in flicker fusion frequency between birds and humans. (via Pharyngula)
  • A ballot proposition to allow dove hunting in Michigan failed this Tuesday.
  • Hawaii is having trouble with feral dogs preying on shearwater chicks.
  • Christmas Bird Count season is coming up in a little more than a month. Here is a list of counts in New Jersey. I will post more dates and such as they become available to me.
DC Events

Thursday, November 09, 2006

I and the Bird #36

The latest installment of I and the Bird can be found at Words and Pictures. I and the Bird is a long-running and popular carnival about birds and birding. Words and Pictures is a thoughtful British blog on nature. True to the blog's name, I and the Bird #36 is offered in words and pictures.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Project Feeder Watch Nov 11 to Apr 6

Cornell's Project Feeder Watch is starting up again.

Project FeederWatch is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales in North America. FeederWatchers periodically count the highest numbers of each species they see at their feeders from November through early April. FeederWatch helps scientists track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.
This winter, the project runs from November 11 (this Saturday) through April 6, 2007. Participants may join at any time of year and set their own level of commitment.

For more information, see the link above; to sign up, go here.

Conservation Foe Defeated

Among the 28 pickups that allowed Democrats to retake a majority in the House of Representatives was a victory in the 11th Congressional District of California. This district has been represented by Richard Pombo, a Republican who has repeatedly tried to undermine the Endangered Species Act and give away mineral rights to corporations. In Washington, DC, he tried to sell off Roosevelt Island - a National Park - to real estate developers to build luxury homes. He was defeated by Democrat Jerry McNerney, 53% to 47%.

In significant local races, Adrian Fenty won the DC mayoral election, Ben Cardin defeated Michael Steele for Senate in Maryland, Michael O'Malley unseated Bob Ehrlich as Governor of Maryland, and the Virginia Senate race will require a recount, though Jim Webb is leading George Allen. Maryland approved the ballot question to restrict sales of public lands.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Maryland Ballot Question

If you are voting in Maryland today, make sure to vote "YES" on Ballot Question 1.

The Board of Public Works may not approve the sale, transfer, exchange, grant or other permanent disposition of any state-owned outdoor recreation, open space, conservation, preservation, forest, or park land without the express approval of the General Assembly or of a committee that the General Assembly designates by statute, resolution or rule.
This amendment is intended to prevent sales of public lands without oversight, as was attempted in 2004.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Maryland Will Buy Blackwater Property

Waterfowl at Blackwater (USFWS)

For the past year, environmental groups on the Eastern Shore have been fighting a proposed development near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The development would have occupied 1,080 acres in the watershed of the Little Blackwater River. The site would have held a golf course, hotel and conference center, and 2700 homes. (See here and here for background.) Today Maryland announced that it will use conservation funds to purchase most of the land upon which the development would have been built.
The state will spend up to $10.4 million to buy 754 acres of about 1,080 acres of what is now mostly farmland. A developer, Duane Zentgraf, originally planned to build thousands of new homes plus a golf course and hotel on the land.

Today's agreement, subject to an appraisal and final state approval, leaves room for 675 homes, most of them for older adults only. A golf course, hotel and conference center originally planned have been scrapped.
The announcement represents a victory for conservation and smart growth advocates, and for the wildlife that depends upon the refuge and its surroundings for habitat.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Meadowlands Guide Available

If you live or watch birds in New Jersey, you might be interested in a new guide to the New Jersey Meadowlands. The guide was published in August by the NJ Audubon Society, Hackensack Riverkeeper, and Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce, and it is available for free. Most people experience the Meadowlands while passing through on the Turnpike or the Northeast Corridor trains. Dedicated birders know that there are many bird watching possibilities among its marshes.

The goal of the guide was to highlight the wildlife viewing possibilities in a heavily-urbanized portion of the state.

"The northeast corner of the state gets such short shrift. These places are gems of nature and quiet and solitude and habitat," said Hugh Carola, a conservationist with Hackensack Riverkeeper Inc., which helped write sections of the guide.

"But close to home there are these tremendous places of good woods and wetlands and older parks. You'll find what you wouldn't expect," Carola said.

To obtain a copy, visit or email

Friday, November 03, 2006

Week in Review

Posts from the last week.

Saturday: More Pelicans

Saturday: Fall on the Mall

Sunday: Sparrows and Hawks at the Arboretum

Sunday: A New Birder's World

Monday: Meddling

Monday: Burdock and Kinglets

Tuesday: Birds of the Mid-Atlantic #26: Crows and Ravens

Wednesday: The Birder Survey

Wednesday: Rethinking the Mall

Thursday: Pigeons As Bloggers

Thursday: The New Mall

Friday: Loose Feathers #73

Loose Feathers #73

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

  • Dover Air Force Base is testing a new radar system to reduce collisions between birds and aircraft. A similar system in North Carolina has eliminated most strikes.
  • Tool use by crows may be learned from other crows. A study showed that all crows have some ability to use tools, but crows that had been taught tool-using skills were faster to make use of them.
  • Large, flightless birds are being studied to understand how bipedal dinosaurs walked.
  • Global fisheries are in the midst of a steep decline, which could wipe out most populations of seafood species by 2048. Needless to say, this would be a disaster for both humans and seabirds.
  • Farmers producing ethanol have been slow to sell their plants to major investors despite the high prices; in many places ownership remains local for now.
  • John at Birds Etcetera has a follow-up to my post on crows and ravens. It turns out that, in contrast to the decline among the DC-MD-VA corvids that I charted, American Crows in West Virginia have actually increased in recent years. It would be interesting to know the cause for this.
  • A California woman was caught with two spotted owls in her freezer, as well as a red-tailed hawk hanging from the ceiling.
  • Maryland has approved a wind-power project along Backbone Mountain in Garrett County, after barring construction in sections of the site that would affect mourning warblers, among other species.
  • This Week at Hilton Pond notes that rufous hummingbirds have already been spotted in South Carolina this fall. It is time to start looking out for these migrants from the northwest along the eastern seaboard.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The New Mall

Following up on yesterday's story, here is a cynical view of what a redesigned National Mall may look like.

Cartoon by Tom Toles of the Washington Post.

Pigeons As Bloggers

Ordinary Rock Pigeons in California are being used to monitor that state's notoriously smoggy skies. Pigeons are equipped with special lightweight backpacks that monitor the levels of certain smog gases such as carbon monoxide. As the pigeons fly, their backpacks relay the gas levels to central computers, which post the results on a blog.

Each bundle contains gas sensors along with a global positioning system (GPS) for tracking the birds and a stripped-down cell phone that automatically transmits the data they collect.

The parts for each pack cost about $250 (U.S.) and weigh just 1.3 ounces (37 grams), about a tenth of a pigeon's weight.

Then da Costa had to enlist some birds. Rather than plucking random pigeons off the street, she got in touch with pigeon fanciers who owned homing pigeons....

The volunteers strapped the packs onto their pigeons, then took the birds up to 20 miles (32 kilometers) away from their homes and released them.

As the birds flew home, the backpacks sampled the air. The data, combined with GPS coordinates for each reading, were sent to PigeonBlog, which then automatically generated a pollution map (click here and then on the "map" tab to see an example).
The researchers working with these pigeons hope to create cheaper versions of the sensors that can be used more widely, including in homes and in Third World countries. Cheaper sensors could conceivably be carried by people as well as pigeons. More information about the project is available at PigeonBlog.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Rethinking the Mall

The National Park Service is undertaking a major planning process to improve the National Mall. The goal is to create a new plan for the Mall on the scale of the century-old McMillan Plan. It will guide future building projects for museums and monuments, addition of amenities for tourists, and general improvement of the grounds. The Park Service is seeking comments from individuals around the country - both experts and visitors - to inform the process.

In addition to attracting millions of tourists and demonstrators, the Mall is also the preferred address for dozens of monuments, memorials and museums. Federal officials have tried to encourage pocket parks and intersections throughout the city as future sites for dozens of projects waiting in the wings, but the quandary is that everyone wants to be on the Mall.

Architects, planners, historians and tourists will be among those asked to suggest a future look and feel for the Mall: Should it be about formal gardens and fountains, or baseball games, gift shops and hot dog stands?

The Mall serves many purposes: It is the equivalent of Paris's fabled gardens of the Tuileries, the political gathering space of Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the open space of London's Hyde Park, the sports haven of New York's Central Park and the museum row of any international city.

Trying to meet all these demands in one space can create a park that is frayed, unable to handle the crowds and not true to its iconic nature.

Some movement has already been made in this direction. Parts of the Mall are fenced during the winter to allow grass to recover. Congress has passed a Reserve Act to prevent further building in certain sections of the Mall to prevent them from being overcrowded. (Of course, it has not stopped several building projects since the law was passed.) The image below, from the Post article, shows the reserve area in yellow.

To comment on the Mall's future, you can visit the NPS website devoted to the project. Not all pages on that site are ready yet, so be patient with it.

The Birder Survey

Patrick of Hawk Owl's Nest has started this survey on his blog. Here are my answers.

What state (or country) do you live in? DC, USA
How long have you been birding? 3 years
Are you a "lister"? Yes
ABA Life List: 284
Overall Life List: 284
3 Favorite Birding Spots: National Arboretum, DC; Blackwater, MD; Bombay Hook, DE
Favorite birding spot outside your home country: n/a
Farthest you've traveled to chase a rare bird: 1.5 hours for a Snowy Owl
Nemesis bird: Horned Lark
"Best" bird sighting: Cape May Warbler in Constitution Gardens, DC
Most wanted trip: Colombia
Most wanted bird: Horned Lark
What model and brand of bins do you use?: Swift Audubon 8.5 x 44
What model and brand of scope do you use?: n/a
What was the last lifer you added to your list?: Pacific-slope Flycatcher
Where did you see your last lifer?: Cascades, WA
What's the last bird you saw today?: European Starling
Best bird song you've heard ever: Winter Wren (and others)
Favorite birding moment: Seeing a Cerulean Warbler for the first time
Least favorite thing about birding: Finding transportation to good spots
Favorite thing about birding: Listening to birds
Favorite field guide for the US: Sibley
Favorite non-field guide bird book: Kingbird Highway
Who is your birder icon?: Pete Dunne
Do you have a bird feeder(s)? No
Favorite feeder bird? n/a

I am following Patrick's lead in not tagging anyone, but feel free to pass it along.