Sunday, December 31, 2006

Birding Year in Review

Last January, I listed ten bird species that I hoped to see for the first time in 2006. In the end, I saw five of those species. I figure that five from that list is a good return, since I saw twenty-seven other life birds during 2006. A large portion of my life birds this year came from the trip to Seattle in June. My life list ends the year at 283. My year list was 254 species.

Here are the new species.

  1. Snowy Owl
  2. White-winged Scoter
  3. Razorbill
  4. Broad-winged Hawk
  5. Yellow-throated Warbler
  6. Cape May Warbler
  7. Sedge Wren
  8. Cerulean Warbler
  9. Bobolink
  10. Clapper Rail
  11. Mourning Warbler
  12. Western Gull
  13. Glaucous-winged Gull
  14. Northwestern Crow
  15. California Gull
  16. Chestnut-backed Chickadee
  17. Bushtit
  18. Steller's Jay
  19. Brewer's Blackbird
  20. Anna's Hummingbird
  21. Spotted Towhee
  22. Black-headed Grosbeak
  23. Pigeon Guillemot
  24. Rhinoceros Auklet
  25. Violet-green Swallow
  26. Vaux's Swift
  27. Cinnamon Teal
  28. Western Kingbird
  29. Black-throated Gray Warbler
  30. Pacific-slope Flycatcher
  31. Townsend's Warbler
  32. Northern Shrike

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Birding Year in Review - DC

At the beginning of the year, I enumerated some new DC birds that I hoped to see in 2006. I also set myself a goal of reaching 200 species on my DC life list. I did not reach 200, but I came close, ending with 196 total species. There's always 2007 to add the others.

Here are the 18 new DC birds that I saw this year.

  1. Greater Scaup
  2. American Bittern
  3. Canvasback
  4. Broad-winged Hawk
  5. Louisiana Waterthrush
  6. Vesper Sparrow
  7. Blue Grosbeak
  8. Eastern Meadowlark
  9. Northern Shoveler
  10. Northern Waterthrush
  11. Cape May Warbler
  12. Sedge Wren
  13. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
  14. Cerulean Warbler
  15. Bobolink
  16. American Woodcock
  17. Mourning Warbler
  18. Great Horned Owl
Links go to the post describing the first sighting; many are bunched together during spring migration. The largest gap between new species is between the mourning warbler at the end of May and the great horned owl during the Washington CBC.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Loose Feathers #80

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

  • Red kites in Scotland are under threat from deliberate human persecution. Grouse keepers believe that the kites harm livestock, and so they kill the birds by leaving out poisoned meat.
  • Brown pelicans in Florida are being poisoned by red tide.
  • Monk parakeets, having established themselves in Brooklyn, are now spreading small colonies around New York City and its surroundings.
  • A tropical kingbird has been hanging around in Somerset County, Maryland. The initial report is here, and the identification reported here; follow reports in the MDOsprey archives for more details and the latest information.
There are several Christmas Bird Count stories this week.
  • Vermont observers have found decreasing numbers of winter finches such as evening grosbeak, and new species from the south such as Carolina wren and tufted titmouse.
  • This winter, counters near Albany have been seeing birds that should have migrated south long before, as well as new species like red-bellied woodpecker.
  • The Boston Globe also reports on the trend of more southerly species being found further north during Christmas Bird Counts. The trend does seem to indicate that our winters are becoming less harsh.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Barnegat Harlequins

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been visiting family in New Jersey for the holidays. Today several of us were down at Barnegat Light, a nineteenth-century lighthouse and state park. Barnegat Light is an important historic site for its longtime role in ship navigation along the New Jersey coast, and it is a beautifully scenic location. Visitors may climb the steps to the top of the lighthouse for a view with a thirty-mile radius on a clear day. The site is also a great birding spot, particularly for seabirds and waterfowl.

Harlequin ducks have visited the lighthouse regularly for the past several years. They and a large flock of common eiders can be found at the far end of the jetty, either on the inlet side or the ocean side. I must say that today I had my best-ever looks at harlequin ducks, up close and in full sunlight. This was much better than picking out a single bird in the snow, as was the case last February. On the jetty itself, there were several purple sandpipers, a ruddy turnstone, and a snow bunting. All were seen at close range. Many of these birds were life birds for my mother and sister, though I had seen them before at one time or another.

On the walk back to the lighthouse for lunch, we spotted a peregrine falcon land on the lighthouse roof. Later, another birder reported seeing this falcon plucking the feathers from some hapless bird for its lunch. After our own lunch, our dad joined us for a climb to the top of the lighthouse tower for views of Barnegat Bay and its barrier islands. The image at left shows the jetties along Barnegat Inlet; the harlequin ducks stick close to the inlet side of the south jetty, near where the sand ends and the ocean begins. Today the common eiders were on the ocean side of the south jetty, though sometimes they can be found in the inlet. The image below is looking north towards Island Beach State Park, on the southern end of the long peninsula that extends north to the top of Barnegat Bay and Point Pleasant. Island Beach State Park is another good birding spot in all seasons.

For a final stop, we walked the beach along High Bar, a spit of land that is part of the Edwin B. Forsythe NWR. Along the beach we spotted American oystercatchers (always a favorite), dunlin, red-breasted mergansers, and brant. A northern harrier was working the dunes. The real treat was a chorus of vocalizing long-tailed ducks. Each bird gave a call that sounded a bit like an oboe or clarinet. I enjoy hearing birds as much as seeing them, and I was not aware of how beautiful these birds sound.

Species List: 30 species seen

Canada Goose
American Black Duck
Common Eider
Harlequin Duck
Long-tailed Duck
Red-breasted Merganser
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Turkey Vulture
Northern Harrier
Peregrine Falcon
American Oystercatcher
Ruddy Turnstone
Purple Sandpiper
American Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Fish Crow
Northern Mockingbird
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Snow Bunting
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

I and the Bird #39

Since Thursday, I have been out of town and celebrating the holidays, so I forgot to send a post link to this week's I and the Bird. Luckily, not everyone forgot to send links; the result is another wonderful edition, hosted by the NaturalVisions blog. Go there for I and the Bird #39: A Visit from Sandy Claws.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Birds of the Mid-Atlantic #27: Great Horned Owl

Two weekends ago I was lucky enough to have great looks at three great horned owls in two different locations. Two involved flying birds, but one was a close-up, unobstructed view of an awake, perched owl. Owl sightings always leave an impression with me because such sightings are so unusual during the day and because owls' faces are so compelling.

Great Horned Owl / Photo by Carla Stanley (USFWS)

Unlike other birds, owls have forward-facing eyes and stereoscopic vision, which presumably gives them some advantage in low light conditions. That adaptation leaves them with very human-looking faces. As a result, owls may be the most easily anthropomorphized of bird families. They are also among the most mysterious of birds because of their nocturnal habits. Thus all sorts of magical traits - for good or ill - are associated with them.

In reality, there is very little magic involved in a great horned owl's habits. They are among the most adaptable of hunters, and will take game from the very small (mice , voles, and the like) to animals as large as raccoons and domestic cats. Depending on the location, great horned owls may take mammals, birds, or reptiles of many different species. They are habitat generalists, and can survive in suburban areas, though they prefer open woodland and meadows.

Winter is a good time to look for owls, whether great horned or other species. Fewer leaves on the trees means that there are fewer places for owls to hide, thus narrowing the search area to conifers and tangles of vines. Local owls start to set up their breeding territories as early as January. Great horned owls, in particular, are more vocal at this time of year than later in the spring or summer, and some pairs may already be on nest. An additional benefit is that many northern species will winter in the mid-latitudes, so if you want to see a long-eared or northern saw-whet owl, this is the time of year to look.

Great Horned Owl Chicks in Nest / Photo by USFWS

During the day, check for owls in stands of conifers, especially spruce and fir. Regular roosts will be marked by cakes of whitewash. Look for trees with obvious whitewash and check the upper branches carefully for owls. Since great horned owls use nests built and abandoned by other species, it is worth checking old hawk and squirrel nests for a nesting owl. Night owling can be aided by playing taped calls, though that may not be advisable (or legal) in all areas. Be sure to check local regulations and consider your own safety before looking for owls at night.

If you want to look for owls yourself, some of the following may be helpful:
If you are lucky enough to see an owl or find a nest site, take precautions to avoid disturbing the bird. Keep a respectful distance and avoid visiting the same spot repeatedly. Do not publish a nest location on internet sites or email lists. These guidelines should hold for all owl species, except perhaps for extreme rarities or for species that can be observed from a distance, like short-eared and snowy owls.

When I wrote my last post in this series in October, I did not think it would take six weeks for me to write another one. I do plan to keep this series going, and I have a few more installments planned for the coming weeks.

Crossposted at Blue Ridge Gazette.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas

Snow Goose / Photo by Dave Menke (USFWS)

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Exxon Valdez Damages Reduced

Seventeen years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Exxon Mobil still has not paid damages from a 1994 jury award. On Friday, a federal appeals court reduced the damages from $5 billion to $2.5 billion.

The disaster was caused when a tanker ran aground on a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The spill caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of birds and other marine animals. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recorded long-term effects (pdf) in the following species.

Biological resources were considered injured by the Exxon Valdez oil spill only if scientific research demonstrated a population-level injury or continuing chronic effects. Such injured biological resources included bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), black oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani), common loons (Gavia immer), clams, common murres (Uria aalge), cormorants (Phalacrocorax, three species), cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii), Dolly Varden trout (Salvelinus malma), harlequin ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus), harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), Kittlitz’s murrelets (Brachyramphus brevirostris), marbled murrelets (Brachyramphus marmoratus marmoratus), killer whales (Orcinus orca), mussels (Mytilus edulis), Pacific herring (Clupea harengus), river otters (Lutra canadensis), pigeon guillemots (Cepphus columba), pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha), rockfish (Sebastes sp.), sea otters (Enhydra lutris), and sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka).

Friday, December 22, 2006

Week in Review

Posts from 12/16 through 12/22.

Saturday: Washington CBC

Monday: Birthday Blogging

Monday: A Weekend for Owls

Tuesday: More on Waterfowl

Wednesday: Two Warming Stories

Wednesday: New Template

Friday: Loose Feathers #79

Loose Feathers #79

News and links about birds, birding, and the natural world.

  • Seventeen first-year whooping cranes finally reached their wintering grounds at the Halpata Tastanaki Preserve in central Florida this week. This flock of cranes was led south by Operation Migration, the group that is attempting to restore wild flocks of whooping cranes through a captive breeding program. Now that they know the route, these cranes will be able to follow it on future migrations.
  • There are many articles this week about Christmas Bird Counts. Here is a note about one of the oldest, the CBC in Central Park. This one explains the century-old tradition. I have reports from last weekend's counts in and near DC here and here.
  • Recent budget cuts and stagnant budgets in the National Wildlife Refuge system have put many refuges in danger. Low budgets have meant cutting or re-assigning personnel, so that many refuges cannot be maintained except through active volunteer organizations. Several refuges have no staff at all.
  • Some moths in Madagascar suck the tears from under the eyelids of sleeping birds.
  • Here is a profile of a bird rehabilitation center called the Raptor Trust near the Great Swamp NWR in New Jersey. The trust deals with a variety of bird injuries; some birds are released after treatment and some need to be kept for educational activities.
  • Here is a tribute to a bird of spring and summer in southern swamps, the prothonotary warbler. As warm as it has been, one could almost imagine one turning up on a CBC.
  • Florida has had major problems with imported pythons threatening birds and other wildlife. Officials are trying to restrict sales to smaller pythons and embed the snakes with computer chips that would identify the owner in case the python escaped into the wild.
  • European birdwatchers are finding that migration is occurring much more slowly, or not at all, due to mild weather. This matches the experience of many here in North America.
  • Fishermen are appealing Delaware's moratorium on harvesting horseshoe crabs.
  • Cindy of the wonderful Woodsong blog recently lost all of her archives. That is a good warning for all of us to keep our work backed up. I have been using a free program called HTTrack to do this. It is worth the download.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

New Template

I have finally finished my move to Blogger Beta. The final step was moving from the old template format, which could be edited only be editing the code, to the new layout system. The new system retains an option to edit the code, but also provides a WYSIWYG layout editor that allows dragging and dropping elements of the template, and adding new elements using built-in widgets. Theoretically, this should make it easier to keep the sidebar links up to date. In practice, the widgets seem to have trouble with my long blogroll and stall every time I add or delete a link. The really neat thing is that I now have a real categories system for my older posts.

The template is based on the three-column version of the standard Minima template provided at Hackosphere. I further customized the base template for the color schemes and various functions. Nonstop Nonsens has instructions on creating a menubar. Testing Blogger Beta provides tips on using an image for the header. My header is a transparent image with the text and warbler floating over a background tiled image. I found the header background here. The warbler image is in the public domain.

I expect to have the Haloscan comment system reinstalled soon. The problem is that Haloscan does not support Blogger Beta at the moment, so I need to figure it out myself, with the help of advice on other blogs.

Let me know what you think. I am still in the process of tweaking some aspects of the template.

Two Warming Stories

The Post today has two articles on warmth and what it means for the people, animals, and plants in certain communities. The first concerns a shift in the tree species that will thrive in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Apparently, the District of Columbia is now classified in the same hardiness zone as North Carolina and parts of Texas.

The foundation's findings provide a window into the local effects of climate change, scaled down to lawn level. Colorado blue spruce and hemlock, at home in the cold, might have a harder time. Crape myrtles and camellias will have it easier.

The findings also help give an unexpected answer to one of the region's oldest questions. If Washington wasn't the South before, then now -- at least from a gardener's perspective -- the South seems to be coming to Washington.

Camellias are certainly doing well at the National Arboretum. Here is one reaction:

But at the Botanic Garden, McLaughlin had mixed feelings. He was glad to find that such species as the needle palm or the yaupon, a holly native to areas farther south, could be raised more easily. But then, he said, he thought of the impact on the species that belong here: native plants that might find their growing seasons shifted, their life cycles out of sync with pollinating insects, if warming trends continued to affect them.

"It's exciting, in a way," he said. "It's alarming, when you look at native plant communities."

The new map can be found here, with an illustration of the changes here. The official USDA page on the subject is here, with the 1990 map. Note that the two organizations appear to use slightly different color schemes to illustrate the zones.

The second article is about a warm spell in Europe. Apparently residents of Moscow are still waiting for snow.

Scattered flurries teased Moscow on Tuesday afternoon with the promise of a real winter, the birthright of a city whose people take pride in trudging through snow and in ice fishing and cross-country skiing in white countryside beyond the outer beltway.

The winter of 2006 has yet to arrive, however, and Muscovites are deeply discombobulated. "I want snow. I want the New Year's feeling," said Viktoria Makhovskaya, a street vendor who sells gloves and mittens. "This is a disgusting winter. I don't like it at all."

The Swiss Alps also are in the midst of a snowless winter. It is difficult to tell where short-term fluctuations end and long-term changes begin, but it is hard to shake the feeling that deep climate changes are in the works.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

More on Waterfowl

After some more thought on last night's post, and the relative lack of waterfowl on Sunday's count, I decided to check into the results from past Christmas Bird Counts from Lower Kent County. The historical results section of Audubon's CBC website provides an easy way to do this. I generated a few graphs of species that seemed to be out of line with previous counts. The numbers are interesting.

For starters, here is the tundra swan graph.

This one charts scaup and canvasbacks.

This one shows buffleheads.

This shows long-tailed ducks (known previously as oldsquaw).

This one shows black ducks.

The breaks in the tables may indicate years in which counting was canceled due to bad weather. Eastern Neck NWR is the main spot for waterfowl within the count circle. The refuge is only accessible by a bridge, and when weather conditions are hazardous, the bridge is closed. I chose the 59th CBC as a starting point because it appears to be the earliest Lower Kent CBC in the database.

A few things are apparent in these graphs. One is that tundra swans really have declined over the past ten or fifteen years, at least in the upper Chesapeake Bay area. During the eighties, tundra swans seemed to have a base winter population around 5,000 to 7,000; that number has shrunk to about 1,000. Perhaps this is due to mute swan competition or worsening conditions in the bay's underwater vegetation.

The second is that the sample species I picked out have 2006 numbers largely in line with those of the past decade. Numbers fluctuate from one year to the next, but seem to be relatively stable. Canvasbacks are probably the most out of line with recent years, but there does appear to be some precedent for this.

My third observation is that each of these species have had major spikes in recent years: tundra swans and black ducks in the early and mid-eighties, scaup and long-tailed ducks after 2000, buffleheads and canvasbacks in the nineties. The peak years for tundra swans and scaup must have been particularly spectacular. Perhaps some of the impression that 2006 has been a poor year for waterfowl is due to local memories of these peak years.

Monday, December 18, 2006

A Weekend for Owls

For the second year in a row, I joined a team of birders on a trip to the Eastern Neck NWR for a Christmas Bird Count. The Lower Kent County CBC is a difficult one for DC birders, so relatively few make the trip. Participation is a full day commitment: leaving town around 5 am and returning after 7 pm. (The early start is a real challenge for night-owls like me.) This count also comes a day after the Washington CBC, in which most local birders participate. Yet Eastern Neck is worth the two-hour trip for its diversity of habitats and avifauna.

Yesterday our team started out on the bridge at the north end of the refuge and worked our way south. On the way we counted 81 bird species and 10,601 individual birds in the island's wetlands, meadows, agricultural fields, and pine forests. The action was a little slow at first, but bird activity really started to pick up around 9 am, once the sun had had time to warm the fields. Many sparrow species were represented. White-throated and song sparrows were the dominant ones, of course, but they included fox and American tree sparrows, both uncommon in this area. Chipping, field, savannah, and swamp sparrows also sent representatives, as did towhees and juncos. It became so warm that even the hermit thrushes started singing! A red-headed woodpecker rounded out a seven-woodpecker day.

The big surprise was the lack of waterbirds. Usually the bay waters around Eastern Neck teem with migrant waterfowl. Normally swans number in the thousands; yesterday we only recorded a little over 500. Normally there are great flocks of canvasbacks; this year only 15 were present. Most other waterfowl species were similarly underrepresented. I hope that waterfowl are simply slower to migrate this year, and that their absence does not signal deepening problems with the Chesapeake Bay's underwater ecosystem.

Near the end of the day, a couple of us had a long look at a great horned owl flying through an open grove of loblolly pines. Shortly after, another owl flushed and disappeared behind the tree line. It really turned out to be a great weekend for seeing owls.

Canada Goose3800
Cackling Goose2
Mute Swan8
Tundra Swan530
American Wigeon1
American Black Duck300
Northern Pintail23
Scaup, sp.1500 (includes both Greater and Lesser)
Common Goldeneye25
Hooded Merganser6
Common Merganser20
Red-breasted Merganser21
Ruddy Duck312
Red-throated Loon1
Common Loon5
Pied-billed Grebe1
Double-crested Cormorant18
Great Blue Heron11
Black Vulture7
Turkey Vulture10
Bald Eagle6
Northern Harrier2
Sharp-shinned Hawk2
Red-shouldered Hawk1
Red-tailed Hawk4
Virginia Rail5
American Woodcock2
Ring-billed Gull50
Herring Gull350
Great Black-backed Gull65
Mourning Dove50
Eastern Screech-Owl1
Great Horned Owl6
Belted Kingfisher4
Red-headed Woodpecker1
Red-bellied Woodpecker35
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker1
Downy Woodpecker15
Hairy Woodpecker6
Northern Flicker10
Pileated Woodpecker3
Blue Jay100
American Crow7
Horned Lark15
Carolina Chickadee40
Tufted Titmouse14
White-breasted Nuthatch3
Brown-headed Nuthatch1
Carolina Wren35
Golden-crowned Kinglet1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet10
Eastern Bluebird20
Hermit Thrush5
American Robin97
Gray Catbird1
Northern Mockingbird15
Brown Thrasher1
European Starling300
Cedar Waxwing25
Yellow-rumped Warbler9
Eastern Towhee12
American Tree Sparrow1
Chipping Sparrow7
Field Sparrow15
Savannah Sparrow8
Fox Sparrow6
Song Sparrow240
Swamp Sparrow50
White-throated Sparrow450
Dark-eyed Junco40
Northern Cardinal65
Red-winged Blackbird780
Common Grackle335
Brown-headed Cowbird1
House Finch14
American Goldfinch15
Total Species81
Total Individuals10,601

Birthday Blogging

Today is my birthday. I cannot believe that another year has passed.

I picked up this birthday meme from Nuthatch, whose birthday was yesterday. The instructions are to go to Wikipedia and look up the birth month and day (without the year), and select three events, three births, and three deaths from the list of events.



Saturday, December 16, 2006

Washington CBC

Today was the Christmas Bird Count for Washington, DC. Like last year, I joined the group surveying the National Arboretum on the Anacostia Sector. The day started with an assembly in the parking lot at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens at 7 am, before splitting up to cover the different parts of the Anacostia Sector. While there, we witnessed a rocket launch that took place on the Eastern Shore (pictured above).

At the Arboretum we split further into teams of 2-4 to cover the ground more efficiently. The team I was with, which included two other DC Audubon members, focused on the Asian Gardens, River Trail, and the Holly and Magnolia area. These areas have a high concentration of robins during the winter; we counted at least 400 this morning.

It turned out to be a great day for raptors. We recorded six diurnal raptors, including a peregrine falcon that cruised low over Mount Olivet Cemetery, and a bald eagle high over the Arboretum. A great horned owl in the Arboretum was a personal highlight, as it was the first I have seen in DC. It perched almost motionless at the top of a tall pine and allowed great looks while it gazed back at us.

A few birds were in short supply. Sparrows were noticeable mainly by their absence. Even the juncos seemed fewer than normal. Goldfinches, too, were barely represented on our final tally.

The list below is my personal list for the day and does not include all birds seen in the Arboretum.


Canada Goose
Common Merganser
Turkey Vulture
Bald Eagle
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Peregrine Falcon
Ring-billed Gull
American Herring Gull
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Cedar Waxwing
Carolina Wren
Northern Mockingbird
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Blue Jay
American Crow
Fish Crow
European Starling
House Sparrow
House Finch
American Goldfinch
Eastern Towhee
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal

Friday, December 15, 2006

Week in Review

Posts from the past week.

Saturday: Arboretum Report

Sunday: Christmas Bird Counts Coming Soon

Monday: Bronze Heron

Tuesday: A Bit of Egypt in New Jersey

Wednesday: Pine Warblers in December

Wednesday: I and the Bird #38

Thursday: Dead Ducks

Friday: Loose Feathers #78

Loose Feathers #78

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

  • Recreational activities - even ones that seem to make nature more accessible - sometimes come into conflict with the needs of wild creatures, as in this case of a heron colony in Indiana.
  • In the weird story of the week, three chickens, three pigeons, and a fish were found beheaded and left in a bag on a beach in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.
  • Speaking of pigeons, the mayor of London is involved in a fight to restrict pigeon-feeding in Trafalgar Square.
  • See here for criticism of the coverage of a scuffle between a boy and a red-tailed hawk. (And see here for the reporter's response.)
  • Not a bird, but here is a Mesozoic flying mammal.
  • Here is an interview with David Pimentel, a biofuels skeptic. Whether or not his assessment is correct, there are good reasons to question whether ethanol and similar products are adequate to supply U.S. energy needs.
  • Meanwhile, estimates of sea-level rise due to climate change may be too low.
  • Also on the carbon front, the ability of forests to sequester carbon dioxide depends heavily on the quality of the soil and the leaf cover on the forest floor. Deficient nutrients prevents trees from taking advantage of increased carbon levels.
  • Update on the mallard story: The cause turned out to be moldy grain, and now over 2,000 ducks have died.
DC News
  • Yesterday was the start of the Christmas Bird Count season for 2006-2007. Check the linked Audubon website for the bird counts in your area to participate.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Dead Ducks

A creek near Boise, Idaho, has been the scene for a bizarre cluster of mallard deaths. Over 1,000 mallards have died there recently. So far, the cause of the deaths is unknown.

The symptoms — lesions in the lungs and hemorrhaging in the heart wall — likely point to a bacterial infection, not avian flu, said Dave Parrish, regional supervisor for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game....

Migrating mallards from Canada and their local cousins were still perishing at Land Springs Creek near Oakley, about 180 miles southeast of Boise. Birds stagger and struggle to breathe before collapsing, said Parrish.

"There were dead mallards everywhere — in the water and on the banks. It was odd, they were in a very small area," Parrish said.

The outbreak puzzles scientists because only mallard ducks are dying. Golden eagles, geese, magpies, crows and other birds in the area all remain healthy, Parrish said.

Tissue samples from the ducks and water samples from the creek were sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service national laboratory in Wisconsin, the University of Idaho and Washington State University. Results were expected Thursday.
(Link via Little Birdie, a great source for bird news)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

I and the Bird #38

I and the Bird is up a day early this week (from a North American perspective), courtesy of Duncan at the Ben Cruachan Blog. Head down to this Australian birding blog for I and the Bird (s) #38.

Pine Warblers in December

On Sunday, December 3, I located a pine warbler in the state trees grove of the National Arboretum. (My post on the sighting is here.) This past Sunday, another birder relocated the bird in the same location.

Pine warblers are exceptional here in December. Over the past thirty years, only ten pine warblers have been recorded on the Washington CBC. The high count was three on last year's count.

Will it stick around for this Saturday's count?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Bit of Egypt in New Jersey

Pair of Egyptian Geese / Photo by Andrew Easton (via Wikipedia)

When I was in New Jersey over Thanksgiving weekend, I birded a park near my parents' home and saw some Egyptian Geese. Their dramatically-marked faces and warm brown bodies made them stand out from the local mob of Canada Geese. Their call is also markedly different: more of a bark than a honk. This was not a new sighting for me, or for the town. Egyptian Geese have persisted at this park for several years since their first appearance in the winter of 2002-2003. I have seen them on and off since then on occasional visits.

Egyptian geese are the only living members of the genus Alopochen, which is part of the shelduck subfamily of Anatidae. The homeland for this species is Africa, where Egyptian geese are widely distributed, from Egypt to South Africa. They were introduced to England and became established there. Individuals may also be found in zoos and private waterfowl collections all over the world. BirdLife considers them a species of Least Concern.

The birds I saw did not migrate by themselves from Africa. The local New Jersey population of Egyptian geese are escapees (or offspring of escapees) from private waterfowl collections. Birders in Central Jersey believe these geese come from free-flying flocks observed at Great Adventure in Jackson. There are probably other local owners of Egyptian Geese as well. While not a common domestic species, they are available for sale on the web (e.g., here and here) and probably from catalogues and local sellers.

Since these birds were free, alive, and unrestrained, and positively identified, the question arises of whether they are countable. Officially, the answer is no, as the species appears on neither the ABA checklist (pdf) nor the New Jersey state list. For an introduced exotic species to be accepted on ABA and local checklists, it must establish a stable self-sustaining breeding population that does not rely on human assistance. While the Egyptian Geese in parks along the Raritan River have been seen with goslings, they hardly qualify as a self-sustaining population because their numbers are so small.

Whatever their status, the geese add an exotic quirk to the local waterfowl population.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Bronze Heron

On a walk downtown this weekend, I encountered this bronze heron.

The bird stands atop the Temperance Fountain (pictured right) at the corner of Indiana Avenue and 7th Street, NW. A temperance advocate gave the fountain to the city in 1882 to encourage the consumption of water instead of alcohol. Temperance advocates of the late nineteenth century saw the elimination of alcohol as the solution to a host of health and societal problems. They sought to promote temperance by a variety of means, from publicity campaigns to legal maneuvers, and eventually prohibition. Henry Cogswell's contribution was building and donating water fountains. When it was first built, Washington's Temperance Fountain dispensed cooled drinking water to passersby. Once the fountain had outlived its original purposes, the city stopped supplying water. Apparently the Washington fountain's influence did not extend very far, since for years it stood adjacent to a liquor store.

The stone canopy originally covered a drinking fountain. Water from the fountain was distributed from the mouths of two fanciful dolphins (pictured left) underneath the canopy. No, they do not look like real dolphins, but conform to traditional depictions of dolphins. (The monument in the background honors the Grand Army of the Republic.) The connection of herons and dolphins to temperance is pretty slim, as far as I can tell. Rather, their use on the fountain is probably due to their association with water.

Note: The same philanthropist who donated the Temperance Fountain to Washington also donated a different design to New York (see here for a picture).

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Christmas Bird Counts Coming Soon

Christmas is two weeks away, and that means one thing for birders - it is time for Christmas Bird Counts. The count season is due to begin this Thursday, December 14, 2006, to January 5, 2007.

Each count aims to record every individual bird heard or seen within a defined count circle. Count circles are divided into sectors, each of which is covered by a small team. Of course, results can vary a great deal from year to year, depending on the number of participants, time spent in the field, and the weather. However, the counts can present valuable data about bird population trends over a long period of time.

Christmas Bird Counts are the longest running "citizen science" project. The first took place in New York City and 24 other places in 1900. As the Audubon page explains:

Prior to the turn of the century, people engaged in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas "Side Hunt": They would choose sides and go afield with their guns; whoever brought in the biggest pile of feathered (and furred) quarry won. Conservation was in its beginning stages around the turn of the 20th century, and many observers and scientists were becoming concerned about declining bird populations. Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the then budding Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition-a "Christmas Bird Census"-that would count birds in the holidays rather than hunt them. So began the Christmas Bird Count.
Since that time, CBCs have proliferated to cover almost all of North America and many places outside our continent.

The Washington, DC, count will be next Saturday, December 16. Call ANS at 301-652-9188 x10 for details on how to participate.

A full list of Christmas Bird Counts in the Maryland/DC area is available at the MOS website.

Once CBCs are complete, there are a few midwinter counts in January and February. The most ambitious is one along the length of the C&O Canal.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Arboretum Report

This morning went for my regular walk in the National Arboretum. The past two mornings have been the coldest in DC since February. I think that the cold may have caused the birds to hunker down, because there was very little activity for the first hour or so that I spent in the gardens. There was very little movement and even less vocalization.

The one spot that was really birdy was the holly and magnolia collection. There was a flock of at least 50 robins feasting on the berries of the hollies and crabapples. They were joined by a few mockingbirds and flickers, plus a small contingent of Carolina chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches. A red-tailed hawk that cruised past did not put a damper on the festivities.


Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Northern Flicker
Carolina Wren
Northern Mockingbird
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Blue Jay
American Crow
Fish Crow
European Starling
House Finch
American Goldfinch
Eastern Towhee
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal

Friday, December 08, 2006

Week in Review

Saturday: Saturday Feeder Animals

Sunday: Looking for Nuthatches, Finding Warblers

Monday: Hormone Interference

Monday: Border Security and Wildlife Migration

Thursday: No Listing for Cerulean Warbler

Thursday: Eyed Elator

Friday: Loose Feathers #77

Friday: Blog Migration

Blog Migration

This afternoon I moved my blogs from old Blogger to Blogger Beta. Apparently bloggers who participate in group blogs are finally being allowed to make the transfer. Since my archives are large and my template is complex, there will be no visible changes just yet. I do hope that the move will mean fewer posting problems and server outages.

(Of course, the first time I tried to post this message, there was a server problem.)

Loose Feathers #77

Mallards at Roosevelt Island

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment.
  • This week, the US Fish and Wildlife Service decided against listing the tricolored blackbird under the Endangered Species Act. The decision was based on the existence of a conservation effort as well as a recent increase in the population of tricolored blackbirds. The FWS also declined to list the cerulean warbler this week.
  • Urban birds sing more loudly than their rural counterparts, according to a new study. The study was based on recordings of great tits from 10 European cities. Urban birds need to adjust their songs to be heard above the ambient noise from traffic and other sources.
  • Most recent news out of Iraq has been distressing, but here is one piece of good news. The marshes along the southern portions of the Tigris and Euphrates have rebounded thanks to restoration efforts since the American invasion. The marshes had been dammed and drained by Saddam Hussein, but are now being restored under a joint effort by local residents and the U.N.
  • Summer surveys of California gnatcatchers indicate that the species may be recovering faster than expected.
  • Virulent strains of avian influenza may have a better chance of entering the United States via Latin America than Alaska, suggesting that testing efforts may be better aimed at Neotropical migrants than Alaskan waterfowl.
  • The Bush administration is considering relaxing regulations on lead emissions.
  • Pigeons refuse to budge from their perch atop a military recruitment center in New York City, despite the army's attempt to drive them off with a sound system that plays pigeon distress calls.
  • Two finches have been foraging inside a food store in Minnesota, and so far they have evaded capture.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Eyed Elator

And now for some non-bird blogging...

This insect is an Eyed Elator, also known as Wide-Eyed Elator and Eyed Click Beetle (Alaus oculatus). It belongs to the family Elateridae, the click beetles. Eyed Elators are common through much of the eastern United States and can be found almost year-round in the south, though they are most common in spring. Its larvae are hosted by rotting wood.

This individual was on the boardwalk trail on Roosevelt Island earlier this week. It was already dead, so photographing it was easy. As measured by the grip patches on my glove, it is about 40 mm or a little over 1.5 inches in length. The false eye spots are very distinctive.

I was able to identify this insect by browsing through the responses and photographs on What's That Bug?

No Listing for Cerulean Warbler

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has declined to list the cerulean warbler under the Endangered Species Act. Conservation groups had asked the government to list cerulean warblers in 2000; the FWS began a status review in 2002. The decision announced this week was based on a review of data and petitions submitted as part of a public comment period.

Although there is no precise estimate of the current abundance of the cerulean warbler, the Service used a 1995 population estimate of 560,000 warblers during its review of the species’ status. Based on 40 years of data obtained through the Breeding Bird Survey which indicates the population is declining at about 3 percent each year, the estimated population in 2006 would be approximately 400,000. At this rate of decline, the Service estimates the cerulean warbler population would number in the tens of thousands 100 years from now.
The FWS does plan to maintain some involvement in conservation efforts, as is noted in the press release linked above. The decision not to list removes some of the legal muscle that would assist conservation efforts. I can understand the decision to focus on species in greater trouble, but I have to wonder whether assuming a steady rate of decline is valid. The response by the Southern Environment Law Center notes that recent estimates of rate of decline have indicated an increase to a 6% decline each year.
The Fish and Wildlife Service failed repeatedly to meet federally mandated deadlines under the Endangered Species Act for responding to the petition. In the intervening years, scientists believe the bird's annual rate of decline increased from 4% to 6%, and threats to its habitat have worsened. ...

The Cerulean population has dropped almost 82% throughout its U.S. range over the last 40 years, making it the fastest declining warbler in the country. ... Once common, it has grown increasingly rare as forest habitat in both hemispheres has been destroyed and fragmented by logging, surface mining and development. In the U.S., the worst of the Cerulean's decline has been in the core of its range - 80% in the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, and 65% in the Ohio Hills in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
I have some comments about cerulean warblers in an older post.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Border Security and Wildlife Migration

During the past year, concerns over illegal immigration led Congress to pass a bill authorizing a 700-mile double-layer security fence along the border between the United States and Mexico. The idea was to create an impenetrable barrier that would prevent people from crossing the border on foot or by vehicle except at authorized passage points. Unfortunately the wall may well obstruct migration for many animals, especially land-bound species. Our southwest border sits astride a major migration route for animals that winter in Mexico and farther south.

The linked article cites a few sites that may be affected by the border fence.

By Mr. Merritt's estimate, some 275 river miles – 150 aerial miles – of habitat now run through and between federal, state and private refuge tracts in South Texas. Among the tracts:

•The Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge totals some 90,000 acres across 125 tracts from Falcon Reservoir to the Gulf of Mexico. Its goal is a 132,500-acre continuous corridor along the Rio Grande, complementing city, county and privately owned greenbelts. The refuge is host to 484 species of birds and more than 300 species of butterflies.

•The federal government returns some 800 acres of South Texas refuge land each year to native brush. Just two days after Mr. Bush signed the fence bill, 800 schoolkids, Boy Scouts and other volunteers planted more than 14,000 seedlings along the river in Hidalgo County as part of this year's Rio Reforestation effort.

•The 2,000-acre Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge near Mission, considered a hot spot for rare species seen nowhere else in the United States.

•Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park near Mission, home of the World Birding Center and NABA's International Butterfly Park, are two other refuges that have collected millions of dollars in government and private grants to expand territory near the border.

The managers of these federal and state refuges are working together to ensure that their concerns are part of the planning process. Whether they will be given much weight remains to be seen.

Hormone Interference

It has been known for several years now that pollution in local waterways, particularly the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, has interfered with the hormone systems of the fish population. Male fish have been found bearing eggs, for example. There is finally some research being done to explore whether these pollutants are linked to human problems, mainly diabetes, birth defects, and infertility. Here are a few pollutants under scrutiny:

· Phthalates, a family of additives used to make vinyl plastic flexible and prevent perfume from evaporating, have been linked to lower sperm counts and other sexual problems in male rats, as well as to heightened allergic reactions in the animals. Chemical industry officials have said that these tests used unrealistically high doses and that the results are not likely to translate to humans.

· Bisphenol A, used as a building block for hard plastic goods like bottles and as a resin to line food cans, has been connected in some experiments to abnormal sexual development in male lab rodents, as well as a predilection for obesity. Officials from the chemical and pesticide industries have vigorously criticized these results, saying that other studies have shown the chemical to be harmless.

· Treated sewage, which carries human estrogen and birth-control pill components excreted in waste, has been linked to "feminized" male fish in waters around the world. In the St. Lawrence River in Canada, a recent study found that a third of male minnows had female characteristics. Another example might be the Potomac, though the cause of its problems has not been officially pinpointed. The EPA and sewage-plant officials have said they are working on ways to better clean the wastewater.
The linked article goes on to explain that proving the link with rigorous studies is difficult because of the ethical limitations involved in human research. However, the studies that have been done do show connections between the chemicals and human problems. Even if a link could be proven, decreasing exposure to these chemicals would be difficult because of their current ubiquity.

This echoes something I have noted before on this blog. There is a tendency sometimes to equate environmentalism with "nature" or animal rights - in other words, a peripheral concern. In reality, we humans are part of the environment ourselves, and changes - whether large-scale or subtle - ultimately affect us as well.

You'll know things have gotten worse in the river if you catch a fish with legs.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Looking for Nuthatches, Finding Warblers

Late this morning I returned to the Arboretum for a walk and some birdwatching. I picked the meadows around the Capitol columns and the state tree grove as my area of focus, to see if I could find anything unusual there. As I passed along the south side of the meadow, I heard a nuthatch yanking in a nearby stand of pine trees. I went over to see what species was calling; it turned out to be a white-breasted nuthatch. As I was about to move on, a small yellow bird darted into view. I ran through the field marks quickly - yellow eye-ring, olive back, yellow breast with olive streaking - it was a pine warbler! I watched it for a while before losing it in another stand of pines a few yards away. The same tree where I spotted the nuthatch and pine warbler also held a male red-winged blackbird, in full regalia.

In the meadows I turned up lots of sparrows - few fields, a few songs, a few white-throats, and large flocks of juncos. A small flock of eastern bluebirds flew past the columns. I also spotted two eastern phoebes in the same meadows. Elsewhere, there was a red-shouldered hawk in Fern Valley and a pair of hooded mergansers in the large pond. There were also some large sparrow flocks in the boxwood area along Bladensburg Road. They were mostly the same species as before, plus a few towhees.


Hooded Merganser
Red-shouldered Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Carolina Wren
Northern Mockingbird
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Blue Jay
American Crow
Fish Crow
European Starling
American Goldfinch
Pine Warbler
Eastern Towhee
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Saturday Feeder Animals

These pictures are from last Friday's visit to the Great Swamp in New Jersey. One of the bird blinds has a feeder next to it within easy camera range. It was getting some pretty heavy traffic from titmice and nuthatches, plus one other visitor.

Squirrels like sunflower seeds, too.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Loose Feathers #76

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

  • The results of the 2006 Potomac Gorge Bioblitz have been published in the Nature Conservancy Magazine. (link via Snail's Tales)
  • Research indicates that hummingbirds can hover in place thanks to an enlarged brain nucleus that detects movement.
  • The Idaho Fish and Game department is examining sage grouse wings to understand the causes of their decline.
  • Researchers in Delaware hope to find a replacement for horseshoe crabs as bait. Their use as bait in conch and eel fishing helped cause their recent sharp decline.
  • National Geographic prematurely identified a site in South Carolina as a location of recent ivory-billed woodpecker sightings. Park officials there did not want an announcement until they had proof.
  • This article reports on the harm federal budget cuts are doing to wildlife refuges on the Outer Banks. Similar cuts have affected refuges in Maryland.