Monday, March 31, 2008

Did Your Meal Kill Songbirds?

Yesterday's New York Times Op-Ed page carried an important warning. Food you eat may be killing migratory birds in Latin America.

In this case, the victims are North American songbirds. Bobolinks, called skunk blackbirds in some places, were once a common sight in the Eastern United States. In mating season, the male in his handsome tuxedo-like suit sings deliriously as he whirrs madly over the hayfields. Bobolink numbers have plummeted almost 50 percent in the last four decades, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

The birds are being poisoned on their wintering grounds by highly toxic pesticides. Rosalind Renfrew, a biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, captured bobolinks feeding in rice fields in Bolivia and took samples of their blood to test for pesticide exposure. She found that about half of the birds had drastically reduced levels of cholinesterase, an enzyme that affects brain and nerve cells — a sign of exposure to toxic chemicals.

Since the 1980s, pesticide use has increased fivefold in Latin America as countries have expanded their production of nontraditional crops to fuel the demand for fresh produce during winter in North America and Europe. Rice farmers in the region use monocrotophos, methamidophos and carbofuran, all agricultural chemicals that are rated Class I toxins by the World Health Organization, are highly toxic to birds, and are either restricted or banned in the United States. In countries like Guatemala, Honduras and Ecuador, researchers have found that farmers spray their crops heavily and repeatedly with a chemical cocktail of dangerous pesticides.
Read the whole editorial for more examples of agricultural pesticides killing birds and for recommendations to avoid contributing to the problem. One of the suggestions is to buy organic or shade-grown coffee instead of sun coffee. Shade coffee leaves habitat intact and is less likely to require heavy use of pesticides. To learn more about shade coffee, visit Coffee and Conservation, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, or Audubon at Home.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Wandering Tanager

When I left Jamaica Bay yesterday, I boarded the 'A' train for Manhattan. Instead of stopping at Penn Station and going home - as I would normally do, I transferred to the 'C' train to head uptown to Central Park. An unusual bird had been reported last week from the Winterdale Arch near West 81st Street.

As I approached the arch I saw it, a beautiful Western Tanager perched right at the top of a viburnum bush (where it was reported). It then flew across the roadway and foraged in a flowering tree (perhaps a magnolia?). A photo gallery of the Central Park tanager is available, as well as notes from Marie Winn, Greatest Auk, and Urban Hawks. The key identification points are the yellow and white wingbars and the pinkish decurved bill. These points distinguish it from an adult female Scarlet Tanager, which is superficially similar.

One of the remarkable things about rarities in New York is that they seem to have little trouble adjusting to the noise and bustle around them. As I observed when I saw the Scott's Oriole in Union Square Park, the oriole seemed to tolerate the fake peregrine antics across the street, streams of passersby, and a squadron of prowling birders armed with binoculars and high-end camera equipment. This Western Tanager in Central Park faced a similar mass of birders as it foraged in a tree right next to a busy bicycle speedway. A hoard of screaming kids marched past. All the while, the tanager went about its business without flushing.

After seeing my second life bird for the day, I walked up to the reservoir. A small group of waterbirds near the southwest corner included Northern Shoveler, Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck, and American Coot. The Pinetum had a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, as well as flocks of Golden-crowned Kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers. I checked out the Turtle Pond and Shakespeare garden as well, but there were no unusual birds. With that, I ended my birding for the day and headed home.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Life Birds by Subway, Reprise

This morning I woke up really early and took a train into New York City for a day of birding. While the city is not exactly a pristine wilderness, it has several great birding spots located close to subway. Normally this makes urban birding very convenient. Today, though, the 'A' and 'C' lines were plagued by construction-related delays, so everything took longer than it should have.

In any case, I headed out to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is a one-seat ride on the 'A' train from Penn Station. Starting out from the nature center, I followed the loop trail around the West Pond. The pond was covered with large flocks of waterfowl, including a huge raft of scaup - mostly Greater Scaup, as far as I could see. Between the flocks in the West Pond and East Pond, the scaup at the refuge must number in the thousands right now. A somewhat smaller (though still large) flock of Snow Geese loafed around the shores of the pond. Occasionally a few would get upset and take off honking. A few "Blue Geese" were among their number. The pond held a variety of other waterfowl, including Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, and Ruddy Duck.

Signs of spring were all around, starting with buds that were starting to open on many trees. An Osprey pair has started nesting on a platform on the south of the pond. Several flocks of Tree Swallows were present. Strong winds caused most of them to huddle close to the shrubs and paths rather than engage in aerial acrobatics. The swallows did not flush as I approached, so I was able to view them perched at exceptionally close range. In this morning's bright sunlight, their metallic blue plumage was dazzling.

Other birds around the West Pond included Great Egret, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, American Oystercatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and American Tree Sparrow. The warblers seemed especially numerous today. I'm not sure if that is the result of a spring push or if such numbers are present at Jamaica Bay all winter.

After a quick lunch, I crossed Cross Bay Boulevard to walk the trails on the other side of the refuge. Almost immediately, I spotted my first butterfly of 2008 - a Mourning Cloak that fluttered to the ground like a falling leaf. I could hear Spring Peepers chorusing as I approached Big John's Pond. A lone male Rusty Blackbird in its beautiful breeding plumage wandered through a small pool to the left of the blind. On the pond, there were a few Northern Shovelers and an Eastern Painted Turtle.

The East Pond held the same species of waterfowl as the West Pond. I had a great close-up view of a pair of Mute Swans. As they dipped their heads in and out of the pond to eat submerged aquatic vegetation, I could see drops of water beading on their feathers. The droplets gleamed like little jewels in the sunlight. Invasive (and harmful) as they are, mute swans can still appear beautiful under great lighting like today's.

With winter ending last week, it appeared that my chances of seeing any new irruptive boreal birds had become rather slim. I had already missed chances to see Bohemian Waxwings (twice) and Common Redpolls (also twice). Today that changed. As I made my way back from the East Pond I encountered about a dozen Common Redpolls feeding in a small stand of birches. I had as many as six or seven in my binocular view at one time. Some were clinging, goldfinch-like, on branches to feed from the birch catkins. Others foraged on the ground. As I watched them, it occurred to me that they have a bit of an urban hipster look with their jaunty red caps and black goatees. Perhaps they really belong in the city?

With that sighting I ended my trip to Jamaica Bay. However, the day's birding was not yet done. More to come tomorrow...

Friday, March 28, 2008

Loose Feathers #143

Black Phoebe / Photo by Gary Kramer (USFWS)

Bird and birding newsBirds in the blogosphere
Climate change and environment
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Conservation Project: Count Rusty Blackbirds in April

Rusty Blackbird / Photo by Carla Stanley (USFWS)

The Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) has suffered a severe population crash in the past four decades. An estimate from 2004 put its population at two million birds. This represents a decline of 85%-98% from its population in the 1960s, and the species continues to decrease at a rate of 10% per year.

The causes of this decline are still not well understood. Even less is known about the Rusty Blackbird's habitat requirements and potential threats during spring migration. To that end, eBird is asking birders to gather and submit Rusty Blackbird sightings during the week of April 1 to April 7.
To address this information gap, eBird is calling on bird watchers for help. April 1-7, look for Rusty Blackbirds on their northward migration. The data collected will help identify important migration stopover locations and habitats for conservation and will help researchers examine whether long-term changes to key migration habitats are responsible for the species' decline. If you are interested in participating, please collect the following information, then submit your data to eBird, taking note of the following:

1. Date, time, location of the observations. Area, traveling and stationary counts are preferred. Be as precise as possible when mapping your location.

2. Rusty Blackbird flock size, including an estimate of number of males vs. females. Answer 'yes' to the question 'do you want to report age/sex or add species comments' at the top of the eBird checklist page.

3. General behavior: flying, feeding, loafing (day), roosting (dawn, dusk, night). Put these in the species comments field.

4. Habitat: agricultural field, scrub-shrub wetland, forested wetland, shores of rivers or creeks, shores of lakes or ponds. Put these in general checklist comments field.

5. Comments: Please include "Rusty Blackbird Survey" in the general checklist comments section so we can determine whether you were specifically looking for Rusty Blackbirds during your birding expedition.

6. If possible please submit a complete checklist of the birds you identified on your outing, and answer 'yes' to the 'are you reporting all the species you saw/heard' question on the eBird checklist page. This will give us an idea of what other birds were in the area, as well as whether or not Rusty Blackbirds were associating with other blackbirds species during migration.
Additional information, including identification tips, are available on the Rusty Blackbird project page. If you want to search specifically for Rusty Blackbirds, look in the same types of habitat you might expect to find other blackbird species, such as Red-winged Blackbirds. Check agricultural fields and wetlands, especially wooded swamps. Boyle's Guide to Bird Finding in New Jersey suggests Allaire State Park, Great Swamp NWR, Princeton Institute Woods, Scherman-Hoffman Sanctuary, Troy Meadows, and Whittingham WMA as reliable sites. Other locations may also be fruitful; I have seen a Rusty Blackbird at Trenton Marsh, for example.

More information on Rusty Blackbirds is available from the National Audubon Society Watchlist and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, which has research project devoted to the species.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Ice Shelf Collapse

A massive chunk of Antarctica's Wilkins Ice Shelf has collapsed into the ocean.

The collapse of a substantial section of the shelf was triggered February 28 when an iceberg measuring 41 by 2.4 kilometers (25.5 by 1.5 miles) broke off its southwestern front.

That movement led to disintegration of the shelf's interior, of which 414 square kilometers (160 square miles) have already disappeared, scientists say.

The Wilkins Ice Shelf is a broad plate of permanent floating ice 1,609 kilometers (1,000 miles) south of South America, on the southwest Antarctic Peninsula.

Now, as a result of recent losses, a large part of the 12,950-square-kilometer (5,000-square-mile) shelf is supported by a narrow 5.6-kilometer (3.5-mile) strip of ice between two islands, scientists said.

"If there is a little bit more retreat, this last 'ice buttress' could collapse and we'd likely lose about half the total ice shelf area in the next few years," NSIDC lead scientist Ted Scambos said in a statement.
The chunk that collapsed was about seven times the size of Manhattan. Even though it was so large, it will not affect sea levels because the ice shelf was already floating on the water. However, it portends further disintegration of ice on the Antarctic Peninsula, whose temperature is rising 0.9°F per year. Here are some photos of the ice shelf collapse, captured by a satellite.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Corzine Signs the Horseshoe Crab Moratorium

Today Governor Corzine signed the moratorium bill passed by the New Jersey Senate and Assembly. It bans the harvest of horseshoe crabs except a small number for medical and scientific purposes. The goal is to allow the breeding horseshoe crab population to recover from two decades of overfishing. Their eggs support the journeys of migratory red knots, which are on the verge of extinction.

“The effects of human behavior often have widespread, unintended consequences that reverberate across the animal kingdom for generations, like the ripple effect in a pond that started out as one small disturbance,” Governor Corzine said. “It is with that in mind that we are here today to extend the moratorium on horseshoe crab harvesting, so as to reverse the endangerment and prevent the extinction of the red knot species and other shorebirds.”

“This moratorium will be held in place until the populations of both horseshoe crabs and red knots have returned to a level where they will be self sustaining as determined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service,” the Governor added.
Thanks to the state senators and assemblymen who sponsored and passed the legislation and to NJ Audubon for pushing the issue. Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia should follow their example.

Update: An opinion piece in today's Star-Ledger asserts that the significance of the moratorium law is the standard it sets for future interventions:
Little recognized was the fact that for the first time in NJ environmental law, the Legislature embraced a true precautionary principle. The scientific standard in the law should serve as a model and precedent. Driven by the steeply declining populations of the red knot, the new law shifts the scientific and legal burden from DEP to show that the species is harmed, to the fishing industry to show that any horseshoe crab harvest will not harm the recovery of the red knot and several other migratory birds. This is an important policy shift and thus far ignored aspect of what is otherwise a band aid on a dire situation.
This law is suited to the specific needs of the red knot, so it has limited applicability to other situations. Shifting the balance or power between wildlife protection and other interests would require further legislation that may not be as easy to enact.

Bermuda Petrel Reclaims Historic Breeding Grounds

Three Bermuda Petrels (Pterodroma cahow) have returned to Nonsuch Island. The species was last recorded breeding there 400 years ago. Most recently birds of this species were breeding on small islets in Castle Harbor, Bermuda. The new pairs were translocated to Nonsuch Island as chicks to prevent the breeding population from being wiped out by a hurricane. While nesting has not yet been recorded, the petrels have engaged in courtship and nest-preparation behaviors.

Under the direction of Dr. David Wingate, Bermuda’s former Conservation Officer, Nonsuch Island has undergone ecological restoration over the last 45 years, with the replanting of native and endemic trees and plants. “This has now formed a young closed-canopy forest, similar to what the first settlers on the island in the early 1600s described the bird as nesting under”, said Jeremy Madeiros of Bermuda’s Department of Conservation Services, who has managed the Cahow Recovery Programme since David Wingate’s retirement.

During February this year, Jeremy Madeiros and Andrew Dobson, President of the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds, visited Nonsuch Island at night to check for evidence of Bermuda Petrel breeding activity.

“One bird landed next to us so we could check its band [ring], weigh and measure it,” said Andrew Dobson. “It then spent at least two hours in the burrow.”

Jeremy Madeiros says the recapture of translocated birds back on Nonsuch and the courtship and nest prospecting activity are important milestones. But the project will not be considered a success until nesting occurs. “If this activity follows the pattern already observed at the original breeding islets, this could happen as early as 2009–2010.”
The following video shows footage of a Bermuda Petrel (a.k.a. "Chahow" nest site).

Monday, March 24, 2008

Six Word Memoir Meme

John, the Born Again Bird Watcher, asked me to do the six word memoir meme that has been floating around the nature blogs. I am far too young to be thinking of memoirs. In keeping with the bloggy nature of the meme, I decided to do a blog memoir instead.

I finally saw a cerulean warbler.

Long-time readers will know what that means.

I think most of my regular readers have done this meme already, so I will not tag anyone new. If you have not done it, consider yourself tagged.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Bush Administration Prevents New Listings Under the Endangered Species Act

One thing I have learned from watching the Bush administration is that no matter how bad you think it is, the reality is likely to be worse. We all have noticed the lack of endangered species designations despite the fact that many species are decreasing and need protection. Over the past seven years, 59 species have been listed under the Endangered Species Act; that matches the annual average under the previous two presidents. I have long suspected that political interference played a role in this, and the MacDonald case seemed to confirm that. This morning I learned that not only was there political meddling, but that the administration had set policies to make it more difficult to list species as endangered.

The director of the Fish and Wildlife Service claims that the listing process is bogged down by constant lawsuits. Granted, lawsuits related to the Endangered Species Act have doubled under the Bush administration, but lawsuits have not caused listings to decrease. Lawsuits and FOIA requests have uncovered some of the policy shifts brought by the Bush administration. These are the real cause for so few species being protected.

  • Status is evaluated based on worldwide population rather than U.S. population.
  • Range is evaluated based on current range rather than historic range.
  • If the agency identifies a species as a candidate for listing, citizens may not petition for its listing, so there is no legal deadline to follow through.
  • Files on proposed listings should include only evidence that refutes a petition rather than evidence that supports it.
At least two species, the Lake Sammamish kokanee and the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit, have become extinct as a result of administration policies. Officials acknowledge that about 280 species should be on the list; WildEarth Guardians just filed a lawsuit to list 681 western species at once. The lack of recent listings should concern birders. One bird species that is in dire need of protection but has been stuck in candidate limbo is the red knot. The Fish and Wildlife Service has also refused requests to list other declining bird species such as the cerulean warbler.

Lawsuits can rectify some of the worst cases, but what good they can accomplish is limited. Legal action frequently takes months or years as cases wind through the court system and decisions are appealed. Moreover each case deals with a limited group of species - usually only one - when far more are in need of help. What we really need is a new administration that will reject policies designed to prevent new listings and follow the evidence to protect threatened species instead.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Restoring Dyke Marsh

Dyke Marsh, just south of Alexandria (VA), provides valuable habitat in a vulnerable location. Marsh wrens and least bitterns nest there during the summer; both species are rare that close to D.C. Because it is so small, the marsh is constantly threatened by human activity and natural forces. In 2003, it took a beating from Hurricane Isabel, which destroyed the boardwalk and dumped its remnants at various places around the marsh. According to a Post article today, the National Park Service is working on restoring the marsh's habitat.

The National Park Service is beginning a $500,000 environmental impact study of how to restore and preserve the 485-acre marsh just off the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Virginia. The wetlands, prized by birders, naturalists and bicyclists who pass by on the Mount Vernon Trail, are home to painted turtles, water snakes, orioles and tundra swans.

Congress authorized the study last year in an effort to halt erosion from natural and man-made causes. Details on the study's scope are still being determined, but it could look at the effect of heavier water taxi traffic and other activities such as boating, fishing and kayaking.
For more on the marsh and its habitat, visit the Friends of Dyke Marsh website.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Loose Feathers #142

Dicksissel / Photo by Steve Maslowski (USFWS)

Birds news and links
  • What causes birds to start singing in spring? The answer seems to be an increase in photoperiod. In Japanese Quail (Coturnix japonica), longer days activate genes on the surface of the brain. The genes release a hormone associated with growth and metabolism, which trigger the release of gonadotrophins. These, in turn, stimulate the bird's testes and cause it to sing.
  • Dupont's Lark (Chersophilus duponti), a threatened songbird, occurs only in Spain. A recent study found that as its population has declined, male larks' vocal performance has declined as well. With fewer other singing males to learn from (and compete with), male larks are losing the upper portions of their singing range.
  • Male Zebra Finches (Taeniopygia guttata) sing a slightly different song when actively courting a female than when singing alone. Female finches can detect the small differences and prefer the directed song to an undirected one. The effect is particularly strong when the singer is familiar to the listener.
  • Urban Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus) in England use artificial light for nocturnal hunting. Prey remains at urban peregrine sites include snipe, rails, and grebes - all rather shy species that stay under cover by day but sometimes migrate through cities at night. Scientists suspect that the falcons catch these species at night. (I have observed behavior this in DC, where peregrines will sometimes hunt in the lights around the Washington Memorial.)
  • A federal judge ordered the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Bald Eagle as endangered within Arizona. Conservationists had argued that the desert eagles are a distinct population and need protection.
  • Governor Corzine plans to sign the horseshoe crab moratorium bill on Tuesday.
  • As we produce and use more biodiesel, we can expect to see more biodiesel spills, which kill any birds or fish that encounter it.
  • Scientific American has a podcast interview with Jeffrey Wells of the Boreal Birdsong Initiative.
  • Audubon and National Geographic have a live crane cam set up to track migration at Rowe Sanctuary in Nebraska.
Birds in the blogosphere
Carnivals and Newsletters

Thursday, March 20, 2008

First Day of Spring

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #71 is now online at The House and Other Arctic Musings.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Carnival of the Cities

Welcome to the fifty-sixth Carnival of Cities! This is a carnival of locality blogging. Rather than limiting to a specific theme, it gathers posts on all the various aspects of the places where we live and travel.


Corey of 10,000 Birds describes a classic urban birding trip - taking several subway trains to look for birds in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.

The Bird Ecology Study Group reports on a recent trip to Bali. One village they visited has a heron roost where about 20,000 cattle egrets gather each evening in a remarkable spectacle.

In two weeks of "absolute birding," Amila from Gallicissa found Sri Lanka's 33 endemic bird species.

For my own contribution, I offer this post on some special bird sightings near my home in central New Jersey.

Locations to visit

Dave from Around Anchorage describes Fort Richardson National Cemetery, the last stop for many soldiers from World War II and subsequent conflicts.

Escape from New York suggests a visit to Jama Masjid in Old Delhi.

The Perceptive Travel Blog reports on a group that recreates old painted advertisements on small town buildings, including these examples from Atlanta, Illinois on Route 66.

Mexican Pop Spot describes finding tissue paper flowers in Mazatlan, Mexico.

Gavin of The world according to GRP suggests a way to fund infrastructure improvements in Perth.

Things to do

The DC Traveler reports that the Magna Carta is back on permanent display in the National Archives after its sale at Sotheby's.

Uptake suggests some family activities for St. Patrick's Day in Austin.

Living Abroad

Christine of Me, My Kid and Life describes the adjustments that Americans need to make while living in France - and how out-of-place they can look.

Entry Level Living has advice for those who want to move to NYC.

Living in London chronicles a short trip to Bruges.

What I See Out My Window presents Julie's view of the Eiffel Tower.

An American in Oslo has a list of gyms in Norway.


The Costa Rica HQ has recommendations for (non-alcoholic) drinks to try if you visit there.

Bleeding Espresso recounts a trip to Messina in Sicily and describes the city.

The Traveling Mamas have recommendations for family-friendly vacations in Los Angeles.

Less Than a Shoestring has some "no-budget" tips for visiting Stockholm and Nyköping.

That brings this edition of Carnival of the Cities to a close. Thanks to all who submitted links! Next Wednesday, the carnival will appear at the Family Travel blog. You may submit posts through the carnival submission page.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Red Knot Update

Yesterday the Senate approved a moratorium on the horseshoe crab harvest, 39-0. The bill awaits Governor Corzine's signature.

Conservation Survey

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation funds various projects dealing with nature and environmental issues. Locally the foundation operates Duke Farms in Somerset County. Recently they gave a grant to the Keystone Center to conduct a "listening project" on biodiversity conservation and climate change.

Members of the public are invited to participate by filling out a survey. Some questions are open-ended so the survey may take extra time if you want to give detailed answers. The listening project will continue through April 2008.

(Via Bug Girl.)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Economics of Climate Change Legislation

Gristmill pointed out a new document released by the EPA last Friday afternoon. The document analyzes the potential economic impact of the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act (S.2191). The EPA found that the GDP would grow by 81% by 2030 without the legislation; with the legislation, the GDP would grow 80%. The findings vindicate arguments that reductions in greenhouse gases would not harm economy. Even emission reductions forced changes in some sectors, any losses would be offset by growth elsewhere.

The Lieberman-Warner bill would reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2030 and 56% by 2050 via a cap-and-trade system. Most climate change analysis indicates that deeper emissions cuts are needed, something more along the lines of 80% by 2050. For that reason the bill has split environmental activists. The National Wildlife Foundation supports the bill; Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club have withheld support without significant changes.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

First of Spring

"First of Spring" is a phrase you can expect to hear from me more often over the next few weeks, as spring migrants arrive in increasing numbers. This afternoon I saw two "first of spring"* birds at Manasquan Reservoir: an eastern phoebe near the maintenance yard and an osprey flying over the eastern dam. Other than that, the birds today were the usual late winter mixed flocks; yellow-rumped warblers, brown creepers, and golden-crowned kinglets were the highlights.

Manasquan Reservoir is better known among birders for an active bald eagle nest on the north side of the lake. The pair has nested at that site for several years now. This year, they have already hatched chicks. If you visit, the best way to view the nest is via a video screen in the park's nature center.

If you would like to watch a nest cam online, you can view happenings at a bald eagle nest and an osprey nest at Blackwater NWR in Maryland.

* I know astronomical spring starts next Thursday, but meteorological spring began March 1.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Loose Feathers #141

Belted Kingfisher / Photo by C. Schlawe (USFWS)

Bird and birding news
  • The NJ Assembly passed the horseshoe crab ban, 70-6. The state Senate votes on Monday.
  • Among Lincoln's sparrows, the first laid egg is the least likely to hatch, possibly because eggs are laid over several days and the mother sparrow does not start incubating right away. However, the first hatchling typically has an advantage over its siblings. The full article is available here.
  • Wandering albatrosses use their sense of smell to find food. These seabirds can detect potential food sources from several miles away.
  • New radar technology can differentiate between birds and flocks of insects. The new technology should help air traffic controllers direct aircraft away from potential bird strikes and provide biologists with better data for studying bird migration.
  • A lumber company is challenging the constitutionality of Canada's Migratory Bird Convention Act.
  • New Jersey Audubon conducted a two-year bird survey in the Meadowlands to gauge the potential effects of massive developments underway in the area. The survey recorded 200 bird species, including 29 listed as endangered, threatened, or of special concern.
  • A new study found that bird vocalizations are governed by the same brain region that controls physical movement.
  • The Post followed up on the Great Backyard Bird Count results.
  • A North Island Brown Kiwi hatched at the National Zoo.
  • Navajo Nation is seeking better power pole designs to prevent golden eagle electrocutions.
Birds in the blogosphere
General environment news
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Carnival of the Cities Next Week

Next Wednesday I will be hosting the Carnival of Cities. Submissions are welcome on any aspect of a city, town, or region. For a sample of recent topics, please see the February 27 and March 12 editions.

Email me with submissions by next Tuesday.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Today in Water News

The past two days have not been good for news about the environment. Many commonly-used chemicals are dispersing through our waterways and finding their way into the food chain. Yesterday, the federal government released the results of research into the prevalence of pharmaceuticals in our drinking water.

Pharmaceuticals, along with trace amounts of caffeine, were found in the drinking water supplies of 24 of 28 U.S. metropolitan areas tested. The findings were revealed as part of the first federal research on pharmaceuticals in water supplies, and those results are detailed in an investigative report by the Associated Press set to be published today.

In addition to caffeine, the drugs found in water treated by the Washington Aqueduct include the well-known pain medications ibuprofen and naproxen, commonly found in Aleve. But there were also some lesser-known drugs: carbamazepine, an anti-convulsive to reduce epileptic seizures and a mood stabilizer for treating bipolar disorders; sulfamethoxazole, an antibiotic that can be used for humans and animals in treating urinary tract and other infections; and monensin, an antibiotic typically given to cattle. In addition, the study uncovered traces of triclocarban, a disinfectant used in antibacterial soaps.

That the drugs were found so commonly nationwide highlights an emerging water dilemma that the public rarely considers. The drugs we use for ourselves and animals are being flushed directly into wastewater, which then becomes a drinking water source downstream. However, most wastewater and drinking water treatment systems, including Washington's, are incapable of removing those drugs.
Researchers found more drugs in other cities:
_Officials in Philadelphia said testing there discovered 56 pharmaceuticals or byproducts in treated drinking water, including medicines for pain, infection, high cholesterol, asthma, epilepsy, mental illness and heart problems. Sixty-three pharmaceuticals or byproducts were found in the city's watersheds.

_Anti-epileptic and anti-anxiety medications were detected in a portion of the treated drinking water for 18.5 million people in Southern California.

_Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey analyzed a Passaic Valley Water Commission drinking water treatment plant, which serves 850,000 people in Northern New Jersey, and found a metabolized angina medicine and the mood-stabilizing carbamazepine in drinking water.

_A sex hormone was detected in San Francisco's drinking water.
Pharmaceuticals get into drinking water in several ways. The most obvious way is that people excrete some of any medications they take. Another major source is the livestock industry. Cattle in concentrated animal feeding operations receive large doses of steroids, antibiotics, and other drugs, some of which are then passed into waterways. Pets now frequently receive medications as well.

The federal government does not regulate the presence of pharmaceuticals in drinking water and wastewater, though it may do so in the near future. Unfortunately the safety of drinking water does not seem to be the primary motivation.
"We recognize it is a growing concern and we're taking it very seriously," said Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency....

To the degree that the EPA is focused on the issue, it appears to be looking at detection. Grumbles acknowledged that just late last year the agency developed three new methods to "detect and quantify pharmaceuticals" in wastewater. "We realize that we have a limited amount of data on the concentrations," he said. "We're going to be able to learn a lot more."

While Grumbles said the EPA had analyzed 287 pharmaceuticals for possible inclusion on a draft list of candidates for regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, he said only one, nitroglycerin, was on the list. Nitroglycerin can be used as a drug for heart problems, but the key reason it's being considered is its widespread use in making explosives.
Meanwhile, a report to the Maine legislature indicates that bird egg shells in the state contain traces of 100 industrial and environmental chemicals.
According to research to be presented to the Maine Legislature, all 60 eggs tested by biologists and chemists - taken from 23 wild species, inhabiting every major ecosystem in the state, from Kittery to Calais - carried at least trace amounts of the 100 chemicals, occasionally at levels believed to be harmful to the birds.

"We found mercury, flame-retardants, industrial repellents, transformer coolants, and pesticides in [the eggs of] birds that live on Maine's oceans, salt marshes, rivers, lakes, and uplands," said Wing Goodale, senior biologist with the BioDiversity Research Institute in Gorham, the center for environmental science that carried out the research....

The study, the largest ever documenting historical and emerging contaminants in Maine birds, points to the pervasiveness of a new breed of pollutants: chemicals integral to products that barely existed a few decades ago, whether personal computers or stain-resistant clothing....

"What's surprising is, a lot of this stuff doesn't come from big production plants; it's just everyday material that's become a part of our lives," said Barry Mower, a contaminant specialist with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which was not involved in the research. "It's also surprising - and worrisome - that these contaminants were found in such a wide variety of species."
The species with the highest levels of contaminants tended to be those with a close connection to waterways, such as bald eagle, peregrine falcon, great black-backed gull, belted kingfisher, and piping plover. While the study did not show harm to the birds tested, some may emerge as the levels of contaminants build in subsequent generations.

At least some states are taking action to reduce the flow of contaminants into our waterways. Virginia has joined Maryland in banning dish detergents that include phosphates. The ban will take effect in 2010 to give manufacturers and retailers time to develop alternate products.
Nutrients such as phosphorus, Skowronski found in her research, encourage the growth of algae, which is harmful in large quantities because it clouds the water and sucks out the oxygen that underwater plants and animals need to survive.

The result, ecologists say, is large areas where few creatures can live. A 2003 study by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation found that a dead zone of hundreds of square miles appears in the bay every summer, spurred by a rush of spring rains that washes nutrients into waterways....

Phosphorus is one of the three main pollutants in the bay, the others being nitrogen and sediment. A nationwide ban on phosphates in laundry detergent went into effect in the late 1980s.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Red Knot Update: S1331 Reported Out of Committee

The NJ Senate Environment Committee approved legislation to impose an indefinite moratorium on harvesting horseshoe crabs. The moratorium would continue until the red knot population has fully recovered, or until the state DEP determines that there is a sufficient density of horseshoe crab eggs to sustain both the red knot and the horseshoe crab populations.

The bill faced some opposition within the committee because some members felt that the fines were too high.

After hearing fishermen warn that a $10,000 fine for taking horseshoe crabs could have ruinous consequence for watermen who catch crabs by accident, committee members agreed they will follow up bill S-1331 with a measure to reduce the prescribed fine. But committee chairman Sen. Robert Smith, D-Gloucester, said he would not delay the bill further so it can be passed by the full Senate this month.
The Asbury Park Press misidentified the committee chair's home county. (Gloucester, Middlesex, same thing....)
"Normally I wouldn't even allow a bill to go forward'' with such a level of concern over
penalties, Smith said. But environmental activists have mounted an intense campaign in support of the state Department of Environmental Protection, which wants to maintain the two-year-old crabbing moratorium....

"I know where the popularity is. I know where the numbers are,'' said committee vice chair Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, who voted grudingly to release the bill but called for an amendment to lower the fines, which could reach $25,000 for repeat offenders....

Maya K. van Rossum of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network argued the legislation is worded so that "possession and use'' are the criteria for finding someone in violation, but Van Drew said that wording is unclear in the Senate version. He and Sen. Christoper "Kip' Bateman, R-Somerset, said they would seek a follow-on amendment to lower the penalties.
A $10,000 fine does seem rather steep, so the concern may be legitimate. A fisherman who testified at the hearing claimed that sometimes horseshoe crabs turn up as bycatch in fishing nets. I am not sure how often that happens or how likely it would be to be prosecuted. The scenario sounds plausible, so the law should be written to exclude it.

S1331 and its companion A2260 now need to be approved by the full Senate and Assembly.

Counting Bears

John McCain is mocking wildlife research as part of his campaign.

If you've heard Sen. John McCain's stump speech, you've surely heard him talk about grizzly bears. The federal government, he declares with horror and astonishment, has spent $3 million to study grizzly bear DNA. "I don't know if it was a paternity issue or criminal," he jokes, "but it was a waste of money."

A McCain campaign commercial also tweaks the bear research: "Three million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Unbelievable." ...

"Approach a bear: 'That bear cub over there claims you are his father, and we need to take your DNA.' Approach another bear: 'Two hikers had their food stolen by a bear, and we think it is you. We have to get the DNA.' The DNA doesn't fit, you got to acquit, if I might."
The DNA study was part of a five-year census project to estimate the number of grizzly bears in Montana. USGS biologists collected grizzly hair from trees and baited hair traps. Testing the hair for DNA established that there were at least 563 individual bears in the study area, which was more than anticipated. The census could eventually provide evidence for removing the Montana grizzlies from the Endangered Species List.

Apparently McCain has been mocking plant and animal research for a long time.
He has criticized the $2 million spent on Oregon's Groundfish Disaster Outreach Program, the $280,000 spent on asparagus technology in Washington state, the $600,000 for peanut research in Alabama.

"One of our all-time favorites, made famous a number of years ago, is money that was spent to study the effect on the ozone layer of flatulence in cows," McCain said in 2003. "One always wondered about the testing procedures used to determine those effects on the ozone layer."
Funding for the grizzly census came through an earmark added to several successive budgets by former Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT). Somehow the presence of this earmark did not prompt McCain to propose an amendment to remove it from the bill, or to vote against the legislation. It also did not stop him from bringing on Burns as the chair of his Montana presidential campaign.

The grizzly project cost over $5 million, of which $4.8 million was provided through congressional earmarks. That sounds like a lot of money, but compared to the federal budget as a while it is actually quite small. Compared to other ways the federal government has used money, the grizzly project is money well spent.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Caterpillar Memories

It turns out that insects can remember lessons they learned as caterpillars through metamorphosis.
The researchers investigated close relatives of the caterpillars called tobacco hornworms, which pester tomato growers. Blackiston, Weiss and their colleague developmental biologist Elena Casey trained tobacco hornworm caterpillars to avoid a specific odor - ethyl acetate, the smell of nail polish remover - when they got a whiff at the same time as a mild electric shock.

The scientists found caterpillars that learned to avoid an odor when they were younger than three weeks did not retain this response as adult moths. However, older caterpillars remembered to avoid the odor after their metamorphoses. In other words, the more mature a caterpillar's brain was, the more memories carried over.

"It doesn't make sense to throw away a perfectly good brain, and even if a caterpillar's brain isn't quite right for a butterfly's or moth's body, it makes sense there are components in the brain that are worth preserving," Weiss told LiveScience.

Although vertebrates such as humans and invertebrates such as caterpillars are quite different, "it might be possible to look at metamorphosis, which involves an extensive reorganization of the nervous system, and maybe use those results to look at brain reorganization in vertebrates after damage such as a stroke," Weiss added. "That's going out on a limb a bit, but not beyond the realm of possibility."

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Red Knot Update: A Horseshoe Crab Harvest of Zero

Banded Red Knot / Photo by Peter Doherty

After rejecting the New Jersey DEP's proposal for an indefinite moratorium on horseshoe crab harvests last month, the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council (NJMFC) reversed course and set the allowable harvest of horseshoe crabs at 0. How did this happen? The council needed to reconvene because the state was not in compliance with regional fisheries limits.

The opportunity for another vote may seem odd, but there was a reason. The ASMFC sets the quota for the East Coast states. It set New Jersey's quota at 100,000 crabs the past two years. They could only be male crabs, since red knots migrating from South America to Canada stop on the Delaware Bay crab-mating grounds to feast on the eggs.

The rub is New Jersey never adopted the 100,000-crab limit because it had a moratorium in place in 2006 and 2007. When the moratorium ended at the February meeting, it automatically reverted New Jersey to the last harvest level it had on the books from 2005, which was 150,000 crabs, both male and female. That immediately made New Jersey out of compliance with the ASMFC.

The penalty for noncompliance: Go figure, it's usually it's a moratorium on fishing.

This is where it gets interesting. Rizzo made a motion first to allow 100,000 male crabs, to put the state in compliance. This passed unanimously. Hollinger made the second motion to set the harvest at 0 crabs. This also passed unanimously.

The good news is that there will be no horseshoe crab harvest in New Jersey this spring. This will give the horseshoe crab population an extra year to recover and perhaps will mean more fertilized eggs on the beaches for red knots to eat.

It appears that the NJMFC was motivated by the attempt to reimpose the moratorium by law. Such legislation would permanently remove horseshoe crabs from the NJMFC's oversight, placing the decision in the hands of the state DEP instead. The fate of a state endangered species should not rest with a body composed largely of commercial fishing representatives. This legislation is still needed, so we should continue to encourage the state legislature to enact it.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Loose Feathers #140

Roseate Spoonbill / Photo by Ryan Hagerty

News about birds and birding
Birds in the blogosphere
Climate, environment, and the like
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, March 06, 2008

State Cuts for Park Funding

The Star Ledger reported this morning that the proposed state budget cuts include a 20% cut in funding for parks and forests.

Some New Jersey parks and historic sites may shut down if Gov. Jon Corzine's proposed budget cuts at the state Department of Environmental Protection are formalized. At the very least, authorities said, camping, swimming and other fun will stop at some parks.

"While there are cuts in general areas, the proposed cut to the park and forestry areas is 20 percent," DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson said yesterday. "We can't absorb a cut of that size and not cut some services."

Jackson called park and historic site closures a "drastic" action. While it cannot be ruled out, she said, the DEP will look first toward slashing activities that she called "people-intense." That means anything like swimming, camping and historic tours that require guides, lifeguards, policing and overall management by staff.
As several conservationists point out, parks and other recreation areas are money-makers for the state. Permits and other fees bring in cash directly. Ecotourism generates tolls and sales taxes. If parks and historic sites are closed, those sources of revenue will disappear. Besides that, funding for natural areas has been cut consistently for the past two decades. Continued cuts will threaten any habitat management or species monitoring programs administered by the DEP.

Unfortunately the same can be said for almost any other state program, from infrastructure maintenance to higher education. New Jersey has been in the grip of insane fiscal ideology for at least two decades, and it does not appear to be ending anytime soon.

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #70 is now playing at Earth, Wind and Water.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Cape May's Feral Cats (Again)

Last night the Cape May City Council approved a proposal for relocating feral cats to colonies that are at least 1,000 yards from its beaches. Some of these colonies will be fenced. The city will also have to implement a cat registration program so that all cats in the city - feral or not - have unique identification tags. This ought to include RFID tags for the free-roaming cats to establish their movements and range; it would settle the question of which cats are preying on beach-nesting birds.

The article refers to this as a "compromise." Since a 1,000-foot buffer was the city's original proposal for preventing cat predation on the beaches, it is not clear what the compromise was. It appears to me that federal and state officials backed down in the face of opposition from the city.

Part of the reason for that opposition was that city officials were subject to a well-organized national campaign against taking stronger measures. Groups like Alley Cat Allies mounted petition drives against a previous proposal. Cape May's mayor reported receiving 600 emails in a single day from cat supporters, and 40 protesters attended last night's council meeting. No similar effort existed on behalf of endangered birds.

Piping plovers and other birds that nest on beaches are extremely vulnerable to predation and other forms of harassment. Since their populations are so small, even a few nest failures have a major impact on the species. Feral cats have been implicated in piping plover nest failures (pdf) all along the East Coast, including around Cape May. Groups like Alley Cat Allies promote TNR (Trap-Neuter-Release) as a cure for this problem, but TNR is only somewhat effective (pdf) as a population check, and feral cat colony management does nothing to prevent predation on wild birds. Removing cats from beaches and restricting feral cat colonies may seem distasteful, especially if (like me) you like cats. Unfortunately these measures are necessary when endangered species are involved.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Short-eared Owls on Long Island

Current and former airfields are among the few places in our densely-built metropolitan area that offer sufficient grassland habitat to support populations of open-country birds. One such airfield, a former Grumman factory for naval aircraft on Long Island, was recently turned over to local officials for development. Those development plans may need to be put on hold, since the site provides winter habitat for short-eared owls.

For months, environmental advocates have urged that grassland birds here get special consideration as the Town of Riverhead moves to develop the 2,900-acre property. Plans include a resort with a 350-foot indoor ski mountain and a 90-acre artificial lake where the western runway now sits. Recent documentation of the short-eared owls' presence by the state Department of Environmental Conservation could slow the projects.

Groups such as the Nature Conservancy on Long Island say Riverhead should preserve the grasslands and keep at least 60 percent of the property as open space to conserve rare species such as the owls and the endangered Eastern Tiger salamander. Riverhead Supervisor Phil Cardinale says that land has been set aside for open space at each of the three projects in the works for the property, and separate environmental reviews for each project will address concerns about rare species. The environmental groups are critical of that approach, saying the site should be evaluated as a whole because the species move from place to place.

The grasslands make up about 800 acres, or 27 percent, of the property, said Trish Pelkowski, the group's Pine Barrens site director. Decades of mowing to keep the Grumman runways clear of obstructions held shrubs and trees at bay. The grass has grown taller since the plant shut. Now birds of prey comb the meadows for voles and shrews; bobolinks nest in the grass while horned larks nibble on wild grass seeds.

"It's just about the only spot on Long Island that has sufficient grass and acreage to support the birds we're concerned about -- owls, the Eastern meadowlark and the grasshopper sparrow," said Mike Morgan, Audubon New York wildlife ecologist.

Most of Long Island's biggest historical grassland, the 60,000-acre Hempstead Plains, was long since paved over in the suburban building boom. Today, 30 to 80 acres of that prairie remain as patches of often severely degraded land scattered across central Nassau County, various agencies and experts have estimated.

Loss of agricultural land here and across New York State has further diminished the open foraging and breeding areas available to short-eared owls and other grassland birds. "These birds really depend on the hayfields and pasturelands that characterized New York State in the last few hundred years," Morgan said. "But we've lost more than half of the agricultural land."
As in New Jersey, short-eared owls are a state-endangered species in New York. As such, they are deserving of the same protections that cover other endangered species. That should include protection of breeding, migration, and wintering habitats. Presence of a second endangered species, the eastern tiger salamander, should make habitat preservation even more imperative. The response from local officials and developers so far has been obtuse. An artificial lake is not a replacement for a grassland, and a promise to provide "open space" says little about whether it would provide suitable habitat for the endangered species that use the site.

The first linked article includes video footage of a short-eared owl in flight.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Richmond Waxwing Update

A couple weeks ago, I linked a story from Richmond, Virginia, in which a large flock of cedar waxwings became stuck in pigeon repellent. Many of them died on the scene; others died at a rehabilitation center. Recently, two more waxwings died, bringing the total deaths to about 60. (It is difficult to find an exact body count.) The remaining survivors are still in rehabilitation.

According to the Virginia state government, the repellent was "an EPA registered product ... used in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions." That does not mean that its use was wise or even legal. The repellent is not named in the news stories, but it is usually described as "a sticky substance." Sticky repellents have been known to cause problems in the past. (See the cases from Arizona and New York.) The Humane Society recommends that such repellents not be used for pigeon control:

Sticky substances (polybutenes) are sold to discourage pigeons and other birds from landing on treated surfaces and are often marketed as "humane." However, The HSUS does not recommend these products because they can adhere to and foul the feathers of pigeons who comes into contact with them, and are even more harmful to smaller species and various "non-target" birds.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology also warns against use of sticky repellents (in this case against woodpeckers):
Although some people recommend applying sticky repellents such as Tanglefoot Pest Control, Roost-No-More, and Bird Stop to areas where damage is occurring, we are against using them. These products can get on a bird’s plumage, impairing its ability to fly and stay warm.
The incident may also be a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Rock pigeons, of course, are not protected by the law because they are a nonnative species introduced by humans. However, cedar waxwings are protected; killing several dozen of them is an unauthorized take.

Presumably the state workers involved in the decision-making or application of the repellent did not intend to harm other wild birds. I have some sympathy for their desire to discourage pigeons from roosting around the Capitol. Pigeons are messy creatures, and many visitors and workers probably find their repulsive.

However, wildlife control measures should not be implemented willy-nilly and should affect only animals that are causing a problem. Building managers should not take the word of "control experts" that their methods are humane. Likewise, EPA registration is not a guarantee that a chemical is safe. (See, for example, the case of carbofuran, which was "an EPA registered product" until its registration was canceled in 2006.) The products to be used should be researched thoroughly prior to implementation. At the very least, this should involve some internet searches (beyond the first page of results). In the case of a state government, ideally the research should involve consultation on potential risks with the state's own wildlife agencies. Wild birds face many threats to their survival; careless use of pigeon control should not be one of them.