Friday, November 30, 2007

Loose Feathers #126

Sandhill Crane / Photo by USFWS

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #63 is ready at The Greenbelt.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Watch These Endangered Birds

The National Audubon Society and American Bird Conservancy have issued an updated Watchlist of species at risk of extinction. The list contains 178 species in the continental United States and 39 from Hawaii.

“We call this a ‘WatchList’ but it is really a call to action, because the alternative is to watch these species slip ever closer to oblivion”, said Audubon Bird Conservation Director and co-author of the new list, Greg Butcher. “Agreeing on which species are at the greatest risk is the first step in building the public policies, funding support, innovative conservation initiatives and public commitment needed to save them.” ...

“Adoption of this list as the ‘industry standard’ will help to ensure that conservation resources are allocated to the most important conservation needs”, said David Pashley, American Bird Conservancy’s Director of Conservation Programs and co-author of the new list. “How quickly and effectively we act to protect and support the species on this list will determine their future; where we’ve taken aggressive action, we’ve seen improvement.”
You can read more about the Watchlist here. The list is divided into a red list designation - species whose global status is threatened - and a yellow list - species of conservation concern only within the United States. Below is the full list of red-listed species. To see the yellow-listed species as well, browse the full list.

  • Mottled Duck
  • Steller's Eider
  • Spectacled Eider
  • Hawaiian Duck
  • Hawaiian Goose
  • Laysan Duck
Gallinaceous Birds
  • Gunnison Sage-Grouse
  • Sooty Grouse
  • Greater Prairie-Chicken
  • Lesser Prairie-Chicken
  • Laysan Albatross
  • Black-footed Albatross
  • Short-tailed Albatross
Shearwaters and Petrels
  • Bermuda Petrel
  • Black-capped Petrel
  • Hawaiian Petrel
  • Pink-footed Shearwater
  • Newell's Shearwater
  • Black-vented Shearwater
  • Ashy Storm-Petrel
  • Band-rumped Storm-Petrel
  • Black Storm-Petrel
  • Tristram's Storm-Petrel
  • Least Storm-Petrel
  • Magnificent Frigatebird
  • Reddish Egret
  • California Condor
  • Hawaiian Hawk
  • Yellow Rail
  • Black Rail
  • Hawaiian Coot
  • Whooping Crane
  • Piping Plover
  • Mountain Plover
  • Eskimo Curlew
  • Rock Sandpiper
  • Buff-breasted Sandpiper
Gulls and Terns
  • Ivory Gull
  • Least Tern
  • Kittlitz's Murrelet
  • Xantus's Murrelet
  • Craveri's Murrelet
  • White-crowned Pigeon
  • Green Parakeet
  • Thick-billed Parrot
  • Red-crowned Parrot
  • Spotted Owl
  • Lewis's Woodpecker
  • Red-cockaded Woodpecker
  • Gilded Flicker
  • Ivory-billed Woodpecker
  • Bell's Vireo
  • Black-capped Vireo
  • Florida Scrub-Jay
  • Hawaiian Crow
  • Elepaio
  • Millerbird
  • Kamao
  • Olomao
  • Omao
  • Puaiohi
  • Bicknell's Thrush
  • Bendire's Thrasher
  • Bachman's Warbler
  • Golden-winged Warbler
  • Golden-cheeked Warbler
  • Kirtland's Warbler
  • Bachman's Sparrow
  • Black-chinned Sparrow
  • Baird's Sparrow
  • Henslow's Sparrow
  • Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow
  • Seaside Sparrow
  • Tricolored Blackbird
  • Laysan Finch
  • Nihoa Finch
  • Ou
  • Palila
  • Maui Parrotbill
  • Oahu Amakihi
  • Kauai Amakihi
  • Anianiau
  • Nukupuu
  • Akiapolaau
  • Akikiki
  • Hawaii Creeper
  • Oahu Alauahio
  • Maui Alauahio
  • Akekee
  • Akepa
  • Iiwi
  • Akohekohe
  • Poo-uli

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Undoing the Damage

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced changes to seven decisions that had been subject to political interference from the Interior Department. The Service will reconsider endangered species listing for the white-tailed prairie dog and Preble's meadow jumping mouse, both of which were denied. Critical habitat decisions for the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, Canada lynx, Hawaiian picture-wing fly, Arroyo toad, and California red-legged frog will also be examined.

The one bird among the species decisions - the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher - will not get a new hearing.

Today's announcement concerned decisions influenced by Julie MacDonald, whom I have discussed previously.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Ridgewood Reservoir

The NY Times interviewed Rob Jett, a.k.a. The City Birder, on the subject of development plans for Ridgewood Reservoir:

But the reservoir, which is nestled within Highland Park, is also one of eight areas designated for conversion to parkland under Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to have a park within 10 minutes of every New York residence by 2030.

Mr. Jett does not approve. He is part of a group of more than 50 birders and others who object to the parts of the city plan under which two of the water basins will be preserved but the third, and largest, will be transformed into an “active recreation center,” as the plan puts it. Instead, they want to preserve all the reservoir’s natural habitats and to develop a nature educational facility.

In the opinion of Mr. Jett, the plan seems “counterintuitive” for a city that also intends to plant a million trees over the next decade....

For his part, the parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, said that although the city has allocated $50 million to improve Highland Park and incorporate the Ridgewood Reservoir into it, construction and design plans are not final. “The bulldozers aren’t warming up,” he said.

But Mr. Benepe did say that “some small portion” of the Ridgewood Reservoir area, probably about 30 percent, will be used for recreation. “Any time you build a park, especially in an area that is overgrown, you have to remove some trees,” he said.
Thirty percent hardly seems like a small portion. Benepe justifies the change in land use based on the need for kids to get more exercise. I wonder how much ballfields really contribute to that goal. Facilities like ballfields serve organized recreation, often restricted to leagues that reserve the site. They get used for short periods of time by relatively few kids, and then sit empty - except for the Canada geese that come and poop on them. Parkland development that is sensitive to habitat preservation may end up benefiting more kids in the long run by encouraging exercise outside of organized recreation and by providing an educational resource for local schools.

More information on the site is available at Save Ridgewood Reservoir.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Plastic Bag Ban Proposed for New Jersey

Two Assemblymen have introduced a bill to ban plastic bags for large retailers in New Jersey.

They want to ban the use of plastic bags in stores larger than 10,000 square feet, such as supermarkets and big-box retail stores, by the end of 2010.

Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr., D-Burlington, who introduced the measure with Assemblyman Jack Conners, D-Camden, said he and his wife have switched to canvas reusable bags and doubts the rest of the public will mind switching in the name of helping the environment.

"It really is not going to cause anybody to change anything they ordinarily do. You're going to have to take your groceries and your purchases home from the store, and you're going to need a sack of some sort to do that," Conaway said. "But by not using plastic bags, you're keeping toxins out of the streams, you're therefore keeping those toxins out of the food chain, and you're not only protecting yourself, in some small way, but also the world."
The article gives no indication of a timetable for consideration of the bill or of how much support the measure may have in the state assembly. The bill is opposed by an industry group that styles itself the "Progressive Bag Alliance." The same group was instrumental in defeating a proposed ban in Annapolis, Maryland, last week.

Meanwhile, my friends at DC Audubon are trying to build support for banning plastic bags within the District of Columbia. Several other organizations have endorsed the proposal, but some of the big environmental organizations have stayed on the sidelines so far. If you are a DC resident and support the effort, consider signing the online petition.

So why should grocery bags concern birders? First of all there is an aesthetic issue. I am sure that all of us have seen tattered bags hanging off trees or floating in the water in our local birding spots. More importantly, the choice of grocery bags has consequences beyond trips to the supermarket. Plastic bags are made from fossil fuels, and their production causes the emission of greenhouse gases. Over one trillion plastic bags are produced worldwide each year, and most of them end up as trash - either in landfills or blowing free around the landscape. Unlike paper or food waste, plastic is not biodegradable. Instead it fragments into tiny pieces that persist for centuries while releasing toxins.

The proliferation of plastic waste in the environment has a direct impact on the birds we watch. For example, one Laysan Albatross (pictured right) was found dead with a pound of plastic in its abdomen. This is hardly an isolated case. A study comparing albatrosses that died of "natural causes" with those killed by motor vehicles found that the former had ingested excessive amounts of plastic.
Ninety-five dead and 39 injured Laysan Albatross chicks were necropsied in 1994 and 76 dead and 41 injured Laysan Albatross chicks were necropsied in 1995. Of these 251 chicks, only six (2.4%) did not contain plastic. Plastic items comprised chips and shards of unidentified plastic, Styrofoam, beads, fishing line, buttons, chequers, disposable cigarette lighters, toys, PVC pipe and other PVC fragments, golf tees, dish-washing gloves, magic markers and caylume light sticks.
When ingested, plastic does not usually kill a bird outright but instead hampers its ability to care for itself, either by blocking important food passages or reducing its appetite. Other seabird species, such as Northern Fulmars, also ingest plastic. To a bird, large pieces of plastic can appear to be jellyfish and small pieces can look like fish eggs or algae. Since plastic floats it seems like an easy meal. Marine mammals and reptiles face similar problems.

Industry advocates rightly point out that paper is not much better. While it is biodegradable and easier to recycle, it uses more energy to produce and transport a paper bag than a plastic bag. In addition, much of our paper is produced from trees in sensitive areas, such as the boreal forest. Similar considerations impede adoption of biodegradable or vegetable-based plastics. Ultimately the best solution is to replace disposable bags with reusable bags as much as possible. It is not just a matter of replacing one disposable with another. Any measure that pushes in that direction is worth supporting.

Birds Appear

From xkcd.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Hits and Misses

Earlier this week, sandhill cranes were reported from a field in Somerset County, close to the D&R Canal. On Thanksgiving morning, a few of us went out to look for them. We drove up and down the roads around the reported location to no avail. A subsequent stop at Negri-Nepote turned up a ring-necked pheasant - my first in the state. The bird lacked most of its normally long tail; perhaps a fox got a hold of it. Several northern harriers were also present.

Yesterday was spent at Sandy Hook, which may not have been a good decision since it was extremely windy. The 30 mph winds kept bird activity to a minimum except in the few sheltered places. The highlight of the trip was a very close look at two American tree sparrows on Plum Island.

As I was walking around the salt pond by myself, a songbird flew overhead. I put up my binoculars as it passed and noted a swallow-like wing shape, a squarish tail, and a somewhat buffy coloration on the undersides. While entering my sightings in the nature center log later, I noticed an entry for two cave swallows from the previous day at that location. That is probably what my unidentified bird was, but since I did not get enough to identify it, I have to leave it aside.

Today we found out that the cranes had been sighted again, in the same location as before. So once again we went out to search the fields. This time the cranes were there, just visible beyond a small rise. There were three sandhill cranes present. At first only their backs were visible, but eventually they walked out and gave a clearer view. This was a life bird for me. (You can see photos of the cranes taken by other birders here, here, and here.)

Following the successful stop for sandhill cranes, we headed north to visit the Willowwood Arboretum. This lovely garden is part of the Morris County parks system. A central area holds a formal Asian garden and some historic buildings. The surrounding acres are managed as meadow habitat. The gardens had a surprising number of yellow-bellied sapsuckers - at least five, by my count. There was also a large flock of American tree sparrows along the edge of one of the fields. Having done most of my birding farther south, I am not used to seeing so many at once - perching in a multiflora rose thicket, pecking on the path, clinging to the heads of thin grass stems. They are beautiful little birds, and I am glad I am finally getting to see them on a regular basis.

At the nearby Bamboo Brook, there was a lot of activity in the shrubs across the road from the maintenance buildings. In a short stop, we spotted a fox sparrow, a few field sparrows, and more American tree sparrows. Some fruit trees around the buildings held a large flock of cedar waxwings and a purple finch.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Loose Feathers #125

Wild Turkey / Photo by Gary Stolz (USFWS)

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Cost-effective Outbreak Detection

A student project at Carnegie Mellon University tried to answer the question of how information disseminates through the blogosphere. The study tracked 45,000 blogs and then ranked them based on the flow of information. The idea is that if you read certain key nodes in the blogosphere, you can have a pretty good idea of what is under discussion on other blogs. A few weeks ago, the first tier was announced with some fanfare. It appears that the rest of the data was published this week. A DC Birding Blog placed near the top of the second tier.

So if you want to know what is happening on the internet, you are better off reading A DC Birding Blog than Reason, The New Yorker, or the website of the Republican National Committee. Somehow, though, it does not seem right that this blog would be 200 places ahead of Pharyngula.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Pardon the Droppings

White House intern Nick Butterfield, who was assigned to watch May, the National Thanksgiving Turkey, follows the bird sprinkling wood shavings over his droppings, prior to a ceremony where President Bush pardoned the bird in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2007. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

10 Birds to See

DC-area birder Gail Mackiernan started this thread on BirdChat a week ago. She asked members each to list ten birds that one should see in one's lifetime, with the goal of building up a list of 100 must-see species. It is difficult to choose just ten species out of the nearly 10,000 species that exist worldwide, or even out of the 900-odd species that have been seen in the ABA area. That said, I will give it a try. I decided to divide the ten into five birds that I have seen and five that I have not seen.

First, five birds that I have seen:

  1. Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) - a truly world-wide species that is emblematic of birds' fragility and resilience
  2. Red Knot (Calidris canutus) - a beautiful species on the brink
  3. Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger) - a bizarre-looking bird that demonstrates nature's variety of adaptations
  4. Blackburnian Warbler (Dendroica fusca) - one of the most beautiful of the eastern warblers
  5. Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) - my favorite avian singer
Next, five that I would like to see:
  1. Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica) - has the longest recorded migration
  2. Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus) - a beautiful bird with unusual nesting behavior
  3. Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita) - a rare bird with mythological significance
  4. Cuban Tody (Todus multicolor) - a cute bird with a funny nickname
  5. Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus) - one of many impressive old world vultures

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Orb Weaver

This spider was hanging outside the house one morning two weeks ago.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Book Meme

Via Patrick and others, I learned of a silly book meme. The idea is to go to Amazon's Advanced Book Search and put your own name in the Title field to see what appears.

I did that, and this was the first result:

Uncle John's Triumphant 20th Anniversary Bathroom Reader (Uncle Johns Bathroom Reader) by Bathroom Readers' Institute
I never knew that such a book or such an institute existed.

World Bird Names - A New Taxonomy Website

About a year ago, Frank Gill and Minturn Wright published Birds of the World: Recommended English Names. The book, the result of a fifteen-year project, proposes a standardized set of names in English for all of the world's bird species.

While standard scientific names have long existed in Neo-Latin, the loss of Latin as a commonly-taught language have made such names difficult to remember. Meanwhile, English common names have remained a confusing mess. Gavia immer, for example, is a "Common Loon" in New Jersey but a "Great Northern Diver" in Jersey. "Robin" can signify a type of thrush in one Plymouth, or an Old World flycatcher in another Plymouth. Gill and Wright attempted to address this in Birds of the World.

Some time ago, John Trapp carefully picked through the differences between the Birds of the World recommendations and the AOU checklist.

To help speed the discussion and adoption of their recommendations, they have now placed the results of their work online. The book's website is It contains the list of recommended English and scientific names in several different formats, including a helpful comparison of their names against those presented in the Clements checklist. Future revisions are promised to account for recent splits and discoveries of new species.

As I have noted before, the usefulness of this project will depend on how much it is adopted by local ornithological and birding associations for their checklists. As the reactions page shows, the response from such organizations so far has been mixed. Even where there is institutional support for a name change, adoption of new names can be slow. Many older birders I have met continue to refer to local Yellow-rumped Warblers as Myrtle Warblers, even though that subspecies was merged with the western "Audubon" subspecies about thirty years ago. Without such institutional support, and a thorough revision of both checklists and field guides, adoption of the new names is unlikely to penetrate deeply, except perhaps among a small cadre of elite world birders.

Note: If you are trying to match an archaic or foreign language name against a current or scientific name, one of the best sources is Avibase.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Protecting Raptors from Pigeon Racers

A U.S. representative from Oregon, Peter DeFazio, introduced a bill in the House to make killing raptors a felony. The bill comes in response to an incident in which two pigeon racing enthusiasts trapped and killed numerous birds of prey for eating their pigeons. Killing (or otherwise taking) any native bird is already illegal under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, but currently it is a misdemeanor.

Citing public anger about the crimes, prosecutors sought fines of $10,000 against two of the men. But U.S. District Judge Ancer Haggerty in Portland sentenced each to pay $4,000 -- a $2,000 fine and another $2,000 to a fund at the Oregon Zoo that helps pay for wildlife projects.

DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, said the fines were far too light, especially considering that Oregon takes animal abuse crimes seriously. "I was absolutely outraged about what these people were doing, and they're just getting a slap on the wrist," DeFazio said today in a telephone interview.

In a letter to colleagues seeking support for his bill, DeFazio said Congress should take action against the killing of raptors just as it moved to restrict dog fighting after a high-profile case involving National Football League quarterback Michael Vick. ...

He described the Oregon cases and estimates by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that roller pigeon hobbyists in Oregon and California joined in the illegal killing of up to 3,000 birds of prey a year.
I think that this bill is probably a long shot to become law. Many bills are proposed by individual lawmakers and never come up for a vote because they are either tabled or die in committee. (See Dennis Kucinich's impeachment resolutions.) Unless Congressional leaders want the bill to pass, it is going to fall by the wayside. Protecting birds has been even less of a priority in the executive branch, despite occasional claims to the contrary.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Autumn Colors at Griggstown

This morning we returned to the Griggstown Grasslands Preserve in Somerset County. I saw mostly the same bird species as last weekend. One exception was that I do not remember seeing any savannah sparrows this morning, unlike last week when there were dozens. The other exception was a bird I did see - my first American tree sparrow for the year.

Trees and plants occupied my attention more than the birds did this morning. Many of the trees have already lost their leaves, but some are just hitting their autumn peak. Oaks looked particularly vibrant this morning. Many maples are still brightly colored.

Unfortunately invasive species are still prolific in the hedgerows here, such as this dense tangle of bittersweet and multiflora rose.

I noticed that some of the taller grasses had some form of gall in the middle of the stem.

Then there was this curiosity. The small yellow fruit (less than a half inch wide) grew on some short stems in the middle of a field. Does anyone recognize it? It appears to be a nightshade, probably Horse Nettle (Solanum carolinense). Thanks to Dave and Jeff for suggestions. I probably would have recognized some other members of that genus, such as S. dulcamara, S. tuberosum, or S. melongena.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Loose Feathers #124

House Finch / Photo by Dave Menke

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Saw-whets on the Eastern Shore

Saw-whet Owl BandingOwl banders at Assateague Island, Maryland, have recorded the highest number of northern saw-whet owls since 1999.

It seems that every four years, banding stations in Maryland get an increase in the number of saw-whets passing through and wintering over. The only glitch in that trend was in 2003, and Brinker believes West Nile virus may have had a big impact on the northern saw-whet population in Canada. Birds there, with little resistance to the virus, died.

But this year, the birds are back and then some.

Brinker said it appears there is a food web link in the four-year cycles.

The coniferous forests in Canada produce lots of seeds some years, which attracts lots of mice and other small rodents. Saw-whets feed on these small rodents.

If a food supply is available, the saw-whet owls simply stay put. But when there is little seed and few mice, the saw-whets move south to find a food supply, like this year.

Through last week, the team at Assateague had captured, banded and released 152 saw-whet owls. Similar numbers are being found at other Maryland field stations, particularly two locations in western Maryland.

There, volunteers banded and released nearly 500 owls as of last week. A fourth study area, in Maryland west of Bridgeville, has had 106 owls pass through the banding station. The numbered leg bands include instructions on how to report an owl found dead or alive.
The banding station at Assateague is part of Project Owl-Net, which links banding stations across North America to increase our understanding of owl migration. The influx of saw-whet owls seems to be part of the same general movement of boreal birds that is bringing more winter finches than usual.

I and the Bird

Greg Laden has posted I and the Bird #62, the biweekly digest of blogging about birds.

After you read through Greg Laden's post, you can visit Oekologie #11 - the ecology carnival - at 10,000 Birds.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

DC Waterways

A report from the Potomac Conservancy suggests that water quality in the Potomac River may be deteriorating.

The report comes as federal scientists say that more "intersex" fish, showing elements of both genders, are being found in the river. Previous studies had shown that male bass in District waters were growing eggs; new data show that female fish also seem to be developing abnormally, one researcher said yesterday.

The Potomac Conservancy's report cites the intersex problem -- along with high levels of dirt, sewage and other pollutants -- to show that the Potomac might be in danger of backsliding after a decades-long rehabilitation.

"We've plateaued," said Hedrick Belin, president of the conservancy, which has pushed for cleaner water and the protection of land along the Potomac's banks. "The improvements that we've made, the progress, has stalled out."
Growing suburbanization in the Potomac watershed means more hard surfaces for stormwater runoff, which typically carries pollution from roadways and pesticides and fertilizer from lawns. Some of the fish problems have been associated with the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant at the southern tip of DC. It is possible that agricultural or industrial sources of endocrine disruptors also contribute to that problem.

You can read the full report from the Conservancy and some commentary from the Baltimore Sun Bay & Environment Blog.

Also, following up on the CSX derailment into the Anacostia, the railroad reports that the coal cars rolled into the river by themselves:
On Friday afternoon, a CSX operator failed to secure the brakes properly while moving the cars around the Benning rail yard in Anacostia, CSX Transportation officials have said. Eighty-nine cars coasted more than a quarter-mile before rolling onto a closed span of bridge near the Sousa Bridge that then collapsed. Ten cars derailed, and six tumbled into the river. The bridge span was closed in November 2006 after an inspection revealed structural problems. The cars, which have a capacity of 100 tons of coal, were full when the accident occurred.

"When you mix coal dust with water, there's a chemical reaction that occurs," said Jim Connolly, executive director of the Anacostia Watershed Society. "We're very concerned that the coal be removed as quickly as possible."
If there are two spans crossing the Anacostia at this location, presumably there are multiple crossover points between the tracks leading up to the spans. Aside from the failure to set the brakes, what I wonder is why crossover switches were open to the closed span.

Stupid Spammer Tricks

As spam prevention has become more sophisticated, spammers have changed tactics to match. Among other tools, comment systems use filters that can separate legitimate comments from spam. One tactic against filtering seems to be copying the text of a previous comment and posting it along with a spam url.

Commenter "Dicky" did just this on my previous feeder bird post. "Dicky" copied two paragraphs from BG's comment, made a nonsensical statement, and then added the address of a spam site into the body of the comment and the url box. "Dicky's" IP address tracks to Indonesia; my guess is that this is an infected PC that was hacked remotely and turned into a spambot.

It seems that CAPTCHA and word verification are not completely safe either.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Another Oil Spill

As Brandon pointed out in the comments on the previous post, there was another spill that also involved heavy fuel oil:

The scale of the environmental disaster in the Black and Azov seas became apparent yesterday when hundreds of dying birds, covered in oil, were washed up close to where a Russian tanker broke up on Sunday in heavy seas. Mile-long oil slicks were spotted in the narrow Kerch Strait, where the tanker carrying 4,000 tonnes of fuel oil split apart. At least four other ships sank in the storm, with other battered vessels stranded on the shoreline.

Birds seeking shelter on the coast between Ukraine and Russia were covered in a treacly mixture of oil and seaweed - the first evidence of what one Russian official called an "environmental disaster". Hundreds of dead fish were washed up.
News reports give two separate figures for the amount of oil released: 1,300 tons (government sources) and 2,000 tons (Greenpeace). Depending on density, 1,000 tons of fuel oil converts to about 270,000 to 300,000 gallons. So the effects of the Kerch Strait spill may be far worse than that in California.

BirdLife has more on the birds affected by the spill:
Thousands of birds and fish have been killed as oil spills from a stricken tanker in the northern Black Sea. At least 30,000 birds have died, and thousands more are covered in oil and face death in the coming days. The main species reported to be affected are Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo, Common Coot Fulica atra, Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus and Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis. So far, 50km of Russian coastline is affected by the oil spills. ...

Two Important Bird Areas (IBAs), nearby, the Kiziltash Bay and the Tamanski and Dinskiy Bays, are under threat. Both are designated primarily for migrating and wintering birds. Up to 50,000 migratory waterfowl and other birds are known to use the sites during migration. Among these are Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus, listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla.

Oil Spill Roundup

Western Grebe at Fort Baker

There has been more coverage of the oil spill in San Francisco Bay and its impact on birds. So far, workers have recovered 465 live and 196 dead birds. No doubt the number of birds affected is far higher than that. Many dead birds probably will not be found or recovered.

Rescue and treatment involves a stressful procedure.
Volunteer Devin Dombrowski held an angry loon, No. 239, who washed up at the Berkeley Marina. He carefully inserted a rectal thermometer, took a blood sample and then snipped off a small feather from under the wing. Data will be saved for use in future legal proceedings. Then he pried open its long beak and peered inside. ...

From there, the loon joined others in a warm and quiet nursery. He was placed in a wooden crib, draped with a bedsheet. Fans helped cleanse the room's heavy petroleum-scented air.

After a rest, he and other birds were fed and hydrated through a slender plastic feeding tube. They received nutrient-rich Ensure broth and electrolytes six to eight times each day.

Then each creature was sprayed off, dunked in a series of 12 baths of Dawn dishwashing solution and rinsed clean. One volunteer held the bird, stroking bubbles off its face. Another agitated the water around its small body, so not to break feathers.

Finally they were re-heated and fluffed with hair dryers, and returned to their cribs to rest.

After several days, when their strength returns, they will be moved to outdoor holding pools.
Residents mounted a volunteer effort to keep oil out of Bolinas Lagoon (on the Pacific Coast):
Bolinas Lagoon is a major winter migration destination, where birds flying south from Alaska and northern Canada reside during the rainy season. More than 100 species of birds and a colony of some 200 seals use the lagoon. The avian culture is so rich in the area that Audubon Canyon Ranch, a world-famous bird observatory, is next to the lagoon.

"It would be disastrous if oil got in here," said Janice Tweedy, a 57-year-old bird watcher from Bolinas, who stood on a road watching the workers. "We're all just amazed that we don't have more people out here."
Birding Sonoma County writes about the importance of the lagoon to migratory birds.

Regarding the crash itself, investigators have ruled out mechanical problems and consider the cause of the crash to be human error:
"One of the things we are looking at, as with any investigation with the weather conditions we saw specifically heavy fog would be what speed was the ship traveling and was that appropriate given the visibility at the time," Coast Guard Cmdr. Brendan McPherson said Sunday.

The Cosco Busan's collision with the bridge Wednesday left a gash nearly 100 feet long on the side of the 926-foot vessel and ruptured two of the vessel's fuel tanks, causing about 58,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel to leak into the bay. The spill has killed dozens of sea birds and spurred the closure of nearly two dozen beaches and piers.

Investigators were focusing on possible communication problems between the ship's crew, the pilot guiding the vessel and the Vessel Traffic Service, the Coast Guard station that monitors the bay's shipping traffic.
The captain piloting the Cosco Busan has a history of accidents:
Cota, 59, has been a bar pilot, guiding ships in and out of San Francisco Bay and its tributaries, for more than 25 years. Many mariners consider him an excellent ship handler.

But he has had four "incidents" involving an investigation by the Board of Pilot Commissioners in the past 14 years and has been "counseled" by pilot commission executives on several other occasions, documents show.
Ever since the Exxon Valdez disaster, oil tankers have been required to have double hulls to prevent spills like this. The article linked above points out that Cosco Busan was a single-hull ship since it was classified as a freighter. Perhaps the double-hull requirement should be extended to all oil-bearing ships.

A columnist for the Mercury News reviews potential dangers for ships entering and leaving the harbor and suggests areas where regulations could improve safety.

The Chronicle has set up a Google Map marked with the locations of closed beaches and cleanup efforts around the Bay Area.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Recent Yard Birds

Here are some recent visitors captured on the BirdCam. All of these birds came to the feeders between November 4 and November 9. This week I aimed the camera at the suet feeder on most days, and it recorded an interesting mix of birds.

The suet feeder attracts a predictable set of birds - primarily nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, and woodpeckers.
This nuthatch appears to be yawning.

Then there are some less expected customers, like this house sparrow that thinks it's a chickadee.

Patrick wrote a lengthy review of the Wingscapes BirdCam at his blog. He covers all the bases, so I don't have much to add to it. I have gotten the best results in the 24"-37" range. Aiming for much closer tends to obscure more distant birds, while setting it for farther away results in a lot of birds being too close to the lens. It helps to have a single point where birds gather - like a feeder or birdbath - that is entirely within the focus range.


This afternoon my mother and sister and I visited the Griggstown Grasslands Preserve in Franklin Township. As with a previous trip, the fields were full of savannah sparrows. The area immediately around the parking lot continues to be a hotspot for this cryptic species. I have noticed that savannah sparrows will flush as I approach, but if I stand still in a place and pish a little, they will pop up and sit at the top of a mullein stalk or other tall plant. Unlike song sparrows, which react similarly, savannah sparrows tend to sit still without much nervous twitching.

Aside from savannah sparrows, the preserve today was notable for the hawks patrolling the fields. A harrier wheeled continuously over the fields. A young sharp-shinned hawk and an adult Cooper's hawk made passes at the flocks of savannah sparrows in the parking lot area. Several red-tailed hawks circled in a kettle for a short time before moving on. My sister was the lone spotter of a juvenile bald eagle. The most interesting to watch were the resident kestrels. These birds could be observed at fairly close range as they used trail sign posts and mullein stalks as hunting perches.

A surprising number of grasshoppers were jumping along the paths. We have had several frosts already, including one last night that froze the water in the bird baths. I wonder how much longer the grasshoppers can stay active.

There were also two red foxes present.


Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Northern Mockingbird
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Tufted Titmouse
Blue Jay
American Crow
European Starling
House Finch
American Goldfinch
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Common Grackle

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Coal Cars Overboard

Photo by James M. Thresher / Washington Post

In other fossil fuel news, a CSX train derailed while crossing the Anacostia River. Several coal fell off the bridge and dumped their contents into the river. Part of the span collapsed. Investigators are trying to determine whether the collapse caused the derailment or the derailment caused the collapse. The bridge had a poor safety record and had been shut down awaiting repair. The bridge's structural problems are hampering efforts to clean up the wreckage.

There are more photos of the incident on Flickr.

If I'm not mistaken, this is the bridge visible from Anacostia Park, a little below Kingman Island. I am not sure why the superstructure would look different in the two photographs.

Oil Spill in California

Oiled Surf Scoter at Rodeo Beach

This morning there is more news on the oil spill I referenced yesterday in Loose Feathers. The discharged fuel oil is not confined to San Francisco Bay, but has oozed out along the Pacific coast. The extent of the spill may be partly due to the slow response of the Coast Guard.

Rescuers are trying to help injured birds before they succumb to poisoning or hypothermia.
The biologist was one of dozens of volunteers who fanned out Friday to try to protect sensitive wetlands threatened by a creeping mass of fuel oil that poured out of the container ship Cosco Busan when it hit the Bay Bridge on Wednesday.

A giant, luminescent plume moved north along the coast all day, depositing foul-smelling sludge on beaches from Fort Baker in the Marin Headlands to Stinson Beach. The coastal inlets along the headlands were a disaster area, with ooze staining the rocks and sand. Dozens of birds were covered with the stuff, including a red-tailed hawk found in the hills above Sausalito that apparently had attacked an oiled seabird. ...

Rodeo Beach, a popular surfing spot and a favorite location during the winter for a duck known as the surf scoter, was particularly hard hit by the spill. But the plume did not stop there. The slick washed what National Park Service officials called "bowling-ball-size globules" onto Muir Beach, and oil was reported as far north as Red Rock Beach, next to Stinson Beach.

Chris Powell, the spokeswoman for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, said the Coast Guard and National Park Service staff were determining what areas are in the most danger and which sensitive habitat is in need of protection.

"The lagoons at Rodeo and Muir beaches are considered highly sensitive areas," Powell said. The Coast Guard labeled Rodeo Beach in particular as a "high-priority area."
The Oiled Wildlife Care Network put out a call for birders to check less-traveled parts of the Bay Area and report oiled birds. See Creek Running North and Born Again Bird Watcher for details.

Surf Scoter Being Cleaned / REUTERS/The Chronicle/Pool

Friday, November 09, 2007

Loose Feathers #123

Brant / Photo by Tim Bowman (USFWS)

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment
  • According to a new study, birds' sense of direction is instinctual, but recovering after being blown off course requires experience. Adult and juvenile white-crowned sparrows were released farther east from their normal migration routes and tracked by satellite. Adults traveled southwest to correct for their displacement; juveniles headed straight south. This may explain why vagrant birds tend to be juveniles.
  • About 3,000 lesser scaup in Minnesota have died from eating snails. The snails carry a parasitic trematode that poisons the ducks.
  • A fuel oil spill in San Francisco Bay threatens hundreds of thousands of birds. The area covered by the 58,000-gallon slick includes a colony of 200,000 common murres, as well as wintering grounds for tens of thousands of scoters and scaup. (See commentary from Creek Running North.)
  • The House and Senate voted to override Bush's veto of the Water Resources Development Act. Among other things, the bill contained provisions to finance Everglades restoration and pollution reduction and habitat restoration in the Chesapeake Bay.
  • Cambodia has set aside over 20,000 acres of vital habitat as a preserve for Sarus Cranes. The Southeast Asian subspecies has been declining rapidly.
  • blue titsA cold and wet summer in the U.K. led to the worst breeding season on record for blue tits, great tits, reed warblers, whitethroats, willow warblers, treecreepers, and willow tits. British ornithologists believe that the wet weather made it more difficult to find caterpillars for food and easier for chicks to succumb to the cold.
  • A birder in the U.K. got stuck in the mud.
  • Maryland's state parks are hurting due to funding cuts.
  • New York City is turning a 55-acre wetland on the northern end of Staten Island into a nature preserve.
  • The green-breasted mango that had appeared at a feeder in Wisconsin was captured and taken to the Wisconsin Humane Society Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Milwaukee, where it will stay a few weeks before being taken to the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago for permanent housing. For commentary, see Mike McDowell (in comments) and The Drinking Bird.
Birds in the blogosphere
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, November 08, 2007


David pointed out this message from Bird Chat on winter finches:

We are experiencing the biggest winter finch irruption since the "superflight" of 1997-1998, when many boreal finches went well beyond their normal ranges. The cause is the largest tree seed crop failure in a decade across more than 3200 km (2000 mi) of boreal forest from Saskatchewan into Quebec. Today in Toronto, I had a Pine Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins and Purple Finches migrating along the shoreline of Lake Ontario. Boreal winter finches are being reported in many areas of southern Ontario and the United States, where some species such as Pine and Evening Grosbeaks haven't been seen in years. There is no telling how far south this "superflight" will go.
Watch those feeders!

For background see my previous post on Ron Pittaway's predictions of a large finch flight this winter.

Update: I have not seen any boreal birds yet myself this fall, but apparently upstate New York is flooded with them - bohemian waxwings and northern shrikes!

The Brooklyn Paper covers invaders from across the border.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Bird Claws and Evolution

One of the interesting questions in bird evolution is whether early bird ancestors were primarily ground-based or tree-based. That is, did birds start on the ground and move up, or start in trees and move down?

A new paper in Current Biology proposes to answer the question by looking at the shape of birds' feet. The researchers first classed 249 bird species from seven orders according to their feeding behavior. Birds in group GB - such as herons, rails, and pheasants - feed on the ground and fly only to roost or escape predators. The other extreme, group V, contains vertical climbers like woodpeckers that forage only in trees. The middle groups - comprised of pigeons and cuckoos - have species that show both behaviors.

They then measured the claw angle on each bird's middle toe. The shape of a bird claw conforms to a circular arc. "Claw angle" refers to the angle between the radii extending from the center of this arc to the base and tip of the claw. What they found was that birds with a greater claw angle spent more of their time in trees than on the ground. This was true even within the pigeons and cuckoos.

The study suggests that claw angle can be a predictor of behavior in early birds and bird-like dinosaurs in addition to modern birds. Measuring the claw angle for extinct species presents challenges because of incomplete preservation. In those species where it can be measured or estimated from fossil remains, ancestral birds show greater similarity to modern ground-dwelling birds.

According to this indicator, early bird ancestors probably spent most of their time on the ground. Specializations for life in trees would have come later.

(Via Evolving Thoughts)

Election Day

The open space ballot issue that I mentioned on Monday passed, 536,581 to 457,237, along with an amendment to remove the phrase "idiot or insane person" from the state constitution.

Two other ballot issues failed - one on property tax relief and the other a bond issue for stem cell research. Both were targeted by anti-tax activists. The Asbury Park Press attributes the two defeats to "a cranky electorate." Apparently this is the first time in 17 years that a ballot issue was defeated in New Jersey.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Open Space Ballot Issue

Tomorrow is Election Day, and one of New Jersey's ballot issues for 2007 concerns funding for open space programs (pdf):

Shall the “Green Acres, Farmland, Blue Acres, and Historic Preservation Bond Act of 2007,” which authorizes the State to issue bonds in the amount of $200 million to provide moneys for (1) the acquisition and development of lands for recreation and conservation purposes, (2) the preservation of farmland for agricultural or horticultural use and production, (3) the acquisition, for recreation and conservation purposes, of properties in the floodways of the Delaware River, Passaic River, and Raritan River, and their tributaries, that are prone to or have incurred flood or storm damage, and (4) funding historic preservation projects; and providing the ways and means to pay the interest on the debt and also to pay and discharge the principal thereof, be approved?

Approval of this act would authorize $200 million in funding for Green Acres, farmland, Blue Acres, and historic preservation projects through the sale of State general obligation bonds. The Green Acres program preserves open space, including parks, fish and wildlife habitat, flood prone or affected areas, and lands that protect water supplies. It also funds park improvements and facilities. Of the total sum authorized: (1) $109 million will be used for Green Acres; (2) $73 million will be used for farmland preservation purposes; (3) $12 million will be used to fund a new “Blue Acres” program by which the State may purchase from willing sellers, for open space preservation purposes, properties in the Delaware River, Passaic River, and Raritan River basin floodways that are prone to or have incurred flood or storm damage; and (4) $6 million will be used for historic preservation purposes.
Along other benefits, the Green Acres program helps to preserve bird habitat. With so much former agricultural land being turned over to suburban development, the state needs to maintain open space where it continues to exist.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Local Birds

The pictures above and below come from Donaldson Park, which is close to my home. The brant have been sighted sporadically for about a week. The snow goose was new today. Both species are unusual at the site. On most days a few hundred Canada geese are the only anserines to be seen.

Goose Control

Border collies scare geese.

Wooden cutouts - not so much.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Recent Feeder Visitors

There were new visitors to the feeders this week. Well, the first ones were not actually new to the feeders, but they were recorded on the BirdCam's memory card for the first time. First, a bright red cardinal posed conveniently in a beam of sunlight.

Red-winged blackbirds made an appearance as well. The image is my first record of them at the feeders this fall.

In addition to the birds, there were some red-backed salamanders here.

Both the red and dark ("lead-backed") morphs were present.