Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Legless Lizard, a Dwarf Woodpecker, and Climate Change

Yesterday, several news agencies reported a story about new species being discovered in Brazil. The highlight was a legless lizard of the Bachia genus (pictured left); the 13 other possible new species included a small woodpecker of the genus Picumnus. (I would love to see a picture of the new woodpecker!) Other significant finds included hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus), Brazilian merganser (Mergus octosetaceus), and dwarf tinamou (Taoniscus nanus), all of which are threatened species.

As the linked article mentions, the new species were discovered in Brazil's Cerrado, a wooded grassland area. The region, like many in the tropics, is a biodiversity hotspot with globally significant populations of many species. New species are constantly being discovered in such regions; I am sure that there are many more waiting to be found.

It sounds like an exciting area for research and conservation. The fly in the ointment is that, like many places in the tropics, the Cerrado is under constant threat. The region is being turned into cropland and ranchland at twice the rate of Brazil's rainforests. Why not leave it alone?

Well, the answer is that Brazilian cropland is in great demand. Brazil's Agriculture Ministry has projected record biofuel production for 2008, up to 27,400 million liters. About 4,200 million liters of that will be exported; the rest is used internally. At the same time, there is a food crisis. Part of the reason is that biofuel mandates cause cropland to be used for fuel instead of food. (Other factors include transportation costs, fertilizer shortages, and severe droughts in Australia.)

The president of Brazil denies that the current food crisis is due in any way to growing biofuel production. Other powerful people have a ready-made solution: expand agricultural land:

Blairo Maggi, the governor of Mato Grosso state and Brazil's largest soy producer, was quoted in the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper as defending deforestation.

"With the worsening of the global food crisis, the time is coming when it will be inevitable to discuss whether we preserve the environment or produce more food. There is no way to produce more food without occupying more land and taking down more trees," said Maggi, a farming pioneer in the vast western state who is widely known as the "King of Soy."

"In this moment of crisis, the world needs to understand that the country has space to raise its production."
Last year the Amazonian rain forest lost about 2,700 square miles, the first increase in deforestation in about three years. Other natural habitats face similar threats. As I have noted before on this blog, conversion of natural habitat for grain production is happening in the United States, as many farmers are taking their land out of the federal Conservation Reserve Program. When it happens here, it reduces the breeding populations of known species. When it happens in the tropics, it threatens to wipe out species with small ranges, perhaps even ones that have yet to be discovered.

Expanding cropland into Amazonian rainforest or the Cerrado is not just a threat to biodiversity; it is also a major cause of climate change. Clearing a forest releases the carbon that had been stored in the trees. Subsequent land use absorbs airborne carbon dioxide at a far lower rate than natural habitats. Reducing the impact of climate change and protecting biodiversity go hand. Existing arable land ought to be used for food rather than fuel, and existing natural habitats should be left alone as carbon sinks.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Sniffing Out Ferrets

When we think of animals with a good sense of smell, we typically think of the Class Mammalia. Dogs, for example, are well-known for their ability to pick up and follow scents over long distances. With the exception of some vultures, birds generally are not known for this ability. The conventional understanding is that birds have only a weak sense of smell.

Some new research may change that understanding. Smell could provide a useful tool to lower the risk of predation, if birds could use it. Such a smell would be especially helpful during breeding season to warn of potential nest predators. To find out whether birds use a sense of smell, researchers studied a colony of blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) in Spain.

Blue TitThe researchers carried out an experiment with a population of blue tits that raise their young in nest boxes in Miraflores de la Sierra in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains, in Madrid province. The researchers placed the scent of mustelids (ferrets) inside the nest boxes when the chicks were eight days old, and “the parents took longer to enter the boxes to feed their chicks, and they approached the boxes more often without going inside,” Ms. Amo de Paz told SINC.

Thanks to the images captured by a video camera located several metres from the nest box, the scientists were able to work out the number of times the chicks were fed, and deduced that the birds did not feed their chicks on fewer occasions, although “they spent less time inside the nest while feeding their babies,” according to the biologist. By spending less time in the nest box, the parents lessened the risk of predator attack while still feeding their chicks.
As a control, the researches also added a quail scent to some nest boxes and water to other boxes. The quail scent and water did not deter the parent tits to the same extent as the ferret scent. The researchers later checked all the nestlings again to see if the presence of a "predator" had impaired their physical development. The ones in the ferret-scented boxes were just as healthy as the ones in other boxes, so their development did not suffer as a result.

So does this new information have implications for helping baby birds? There is a common concern that picking up a baby bird or handling its nest might cause the bird's parents to abandon their young. Typical advice reassures people that this is not the case, sometimes with a comment that birds will not smell their touch.

In light of this study, the latter part seems mistaken; at least some birds use their sense of smell to avoid predators. However, the basic advice is correct. Even though the tits in the study sensed the presence of potential predators and were more cautious around the nest, their urge to care for their young was stronger, and they still fed the baby birds. The brief handling necessary to place a nest back into a tree or move a fledgling out of harm's way is unlikely to discourage parent birds from returning.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Cuts for the National Arboretum

Longtime readers will know that the National Arboretum was one of my favorite birding spots when I lived in D.C. and that I visited very frequently. It has the highest number of posts of any birding site with its own label. Over the weekend, I read some sad news about it. The National Arboretum faces severe cuts in its already underfunded budget.

Next year's proposed budget for the federally funded institution has been cut by $2 million, targeted at the arboretum's public face. The amount is small in the scheme of things, but it would reduce funding by 60 percent for the arboretum's public programming and the care of its rich garden displays and pioneering plant collections.

This comes after almost a decade of funding erosion: The operating budget has shrunk 20 percent in five years. A master plan to fix crumbling infrastructure and forge a future has remained essentially unfunded for eight years. Even if next year's money is restored, the arboretum will continue to suffer from years of chronic underfunding and the absence of capital investment.

Members of the Friends of the National Arboretum, a largely volunteer support group, say the reductions would force closure on weekends, when 70 percent of the visitors come; curtail classes, tours and exhibits; close part of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, with its world-class display of miniature trees; and abandon important plant collections cultivated for decades.
I have trouble believing that the Arboretum would be closed on weekends; one or two weekdays seem more likely candidates for closure if it came to that. The fact that this is a topic of conversation, though, is disturbing. As the article mentions, many of the road surfaces and pathways could use better maintenance or resurfacing. Trails in the Asian Gardens are in particularly bad shape. This did not bother me, but it did prompt the staff to close several trails. Potentially it makes visits more uncomfortable for people who have difficulty walking.

Some of the Arboretum's supporters believe that the underfunded budget creates cosmetic problems that discourage potential visitors from coming.
"I don't know that many cities that have 450 acres of pristine land," said Eric Price, senior vice president of Abdo Development, which is building Arbor Place. "One of the reasons we wanted to build this neighborhood is to make that connection to the arboretum . . . D.C.'s Central Park, if you will."
Compared with other major botanical gardens, the National Arboretum has a smaller staff and less funding. It also draws fewer visitors, and FONA members say that if it were fully funded and polished, it would attract larger crowds. The U.S. Botanic Garden at the foot of the Capitol, reopened in 2001 after major renovation, now attracts nearly a million visitors, up from 750,000.
There is something to that, since tourists are more likely to make a point of visiting something that looks inviting. But it is not the end of the story. One of the major differences between the Arboretum and both the U.S. Botanical Garden and Central Park is access. Central Park and, to a lesser degree, the U.S. Botanical Gardens are located in close proximity to multiple subway stations, as well as numerous bus routes. The National Arboretum, on the other hand, is served by exactly one bus route (the B2), ever since Metro cut another route (the x6) that connected the Arboretum directly to Union Station. Ease of access is more comparable to the New York Botanical Garden, which lies far from the city center, but even that is served by both subway stations and commuter rail. Even with cosmetic improvements, the Arboretum would likely still fall short of other major gardens' visitation rates without improvements to its accessibility.

Both the Arboretum's budget cuts and its inaccessibility fall into a more serious pattern. There is a disregard for infrastructure at all levels of government. (I use the term "infrastructure" broadly – for both physical infrastructure like transportation systems, and public institutions like research centers.) This manifests in some cases as a failure to maintain existing infrastructure, including recreation and research institutions like the National Arboretum. Governments consistently fall to the temptation of kicking the maintenance can down the road for a few more years, and we all suffer as a result.

It also includes as a reluctance to build new infrastructure or expand what already exists. In this case, D.C.'s Metro system could serve more people and expand economic growth outside the downtown if new lines were built. If this plan were implemented, for example, it would improve accessibility to the National Arboretum and other parts of NE Washington. However, this is unlikely to happen when even maintenance funding for existing services gets sabotaged in the U.S. Senate, and the system's three jurisdictions squabble over funding priorities.

It is understandable that governments might cut back in times of economic trouble, like we have now. The trend of cutting or shortchanging infrastructure, though, stretches back over several decades, through both good times and bad. This reluctance to fund public works and institutions needs to change, and soon. As we have seen from recent incidents, neglect of infrastructure creates unnecessary hazards and wastes resources. It also hampers our ability to respond to new challenges like climate change. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require investment in new public works: e.g., cleaner power generation and more mass transit to reduce reliance on automobiles. Likewise, coping with rising sea level and other hazards will require careful planning and major changes to some existing infrastructure, especially around major coastal population centers. These things will not happen unless infrastructure funding becomes a priority.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Drinking Doves

These three doves were among the many birds that visited the birdbath recently.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Windy Day at Negri-Nepote

Today I visited the Negri-Nepote Grasslands in Franklin Township with my mother and sister. This morning reminded me of birding in March - high winds, overcast sky, and chilly temperatures. Of those, the wind was the most distracting because it made it difficult to hear the soft spring songs of many birds and forced them to lie low in the vegetation. Despite the adverse conditions, there were plenty of birds, including some firsts of the year.

Newly-returned grasshopper sparrows were singing all over the preserve. That song is one that I might have missed prior to seeing my first grasshopper sparrow last spring as it sounds more insect-like than bird-like. The same goes for other Ammodramus songs, which I find to be one of the more challenging song-types to hear and identify.

Several other sparrows were present, including singing chipping and field sparrows. Savannah sparrows are still moving through in great numbers. I do not know if any stay to breed in Franklin Township. That will be something to watch over the summer. One sparrow that flew past me seemed to have a short, square tail with white outer feathers. This is one field mark of a vesper sparrow, but I would not make such a call based on a single field mark.

One highlight was seeing a wild turkey run across an open field in the back area.

A few warblers have returned in the last week. Yellow warblers were busy setting up territories along the hedgerows in the back area. Common yellowthroats were also singing at several points. One northern parula was singing in the cedar grove.

While dark-eyed juncos have departed, some winter species are still around. Yellow-rumped warblers are still at the grasslands. I saw a few white-throated sparrow in the hedgerows at Negri-Nepote, and they are still coming to the feeders at home as well.

A crew from the county was mowing the field close to the parking lot, and another crew was cutting trees along the wooded patch near the cedar grove. I was wondering whether the timing of these actions was appropriate, given the proximity to the nesting season. A few Field Sparrows were already carrying nest materials, and Kestrels and Eastern Bluebirds were setting up in the boxes. I imagine other species are doing the same. I understand that this is necessary to maintain the habitat, but it would seem better to do it earlier in the spring.

Fringilla Melodia

This is the fourth posting in a series of bird related poems in honor of National Poetry Month. Birds have been a common poetic subject. This poem honors one of the most common North American birds, the Song Sparrow.

290. The Fringilla Melodia

By Henry Beck Hirst

HAPPY Song-sparrow, that on woodland side
Or by the meadow sits, and ceaseless sings
His mellow roundelay in russet pride,
Owning no care between his wings.

He has no tax to pay, nor work to do:
His round of life is ever a pleasant one;
For they are merry that may naught but woo
From yellow dawn till set of sun.

The verdant fields, the riverside, the road,
The cottage garden, and the orchard green,
When Spring with breezy footstep stirs abroad,
His modest mottled form have seen.

The cedar at the cottage door contains
His nest; the lilac by the walk as well,
From whence arise his silver-swelling strains,
That echo loudly down the dell.

And when at dewy eve the farmer lies
Before his door, his children all around,
From twig to twig the simple sparrow flies,
Frightened to hear their laughter’s sound.

Or when the farm-boy with his shining spade,
Freshening the mould around the garden flowers,
Disturbs him, timid but not yet afraid,
He chirps about him there for hours.

And when, his labor o’er, the urchin leaves
The haunted spot, he seeks some lofty spray,
And there with ruffled throat, delighted, weaves,
Gushing with joy, his lovely lay.

Perchance, his nest discovered, children come,
And peer, with curious eyes, where lie the young
And callow brood, and then, with ceaseless hum,
He, shrew-like, scolds with double tongue.

A little while, and on the gravelled walk
The nestlings hop, or peer between the grass,
While he sits watching on some blossom stalk,
Lest danger might toward them pass.

He sees the cat with stealthy step, and form
Pressed closely to the ground, come creeping through
The whitewashed fence, and with a loud alarm
He flies; and they—they swift pursue.

So passes Summer; and when Autumn treads
With sober step the yellowing woods and vales,
A mellower song the gentle sparrow sheds
From orchard tree or garden pales.

And, as the nights grow cold and woodlands dim,
He seeks, with many a kin, a warmer clime,
And perching there, along some river’s rim,
Fills up with song the solemn time.

But, with the sun of March, his little soul,
Warm with the love of home, impels him where,
In bygone hours, he owned love’s sweet control;
And soon he breathes his native air.

And then again his merry song rings out,
And meadow, orchard, valley, wood, and plain
Ring with his bridal notes, that seem to flout
Dull echo with their silver strain.

And so his round of life runs ever on:
Happy, contented, in his humble sphere
He lives, loves, sings, and, when the day is gone,
Slumbers and dreams, devoid of fear.
Song Sparrow / USFWS

Song Sparrows are no longer named Fringilla melodia, but Melospiza melodia. Originally they were classified as finches, first named by Alexander Wilson.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Loose Feathers #147

White-crowned Sparrow / Photo by Gary Kramer (USFWS)

News and links about birds and birding
Birds in the blogosphere
Environment news and bloggingCarnivals and newsletters

Thursday, April 24, 2008


One of the mourning doves hanging around the yard has a strange growth on the top of its head. It is visible in the Birdcam image below. At first I thought that it was just a few misaligned feathers, but the bump appeared to keep its shape as the bird moved around. The cere seems a bit misshapen also. Any ideas about what it is?


... is the number of scientists who personally experienced political interference at the Environmental Protection Agency. Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists mailed questionnaires to 5,5oo scientists who work at the E.P.A. Of the 1,586 who responsed, more than half had witnessed interference during the past five years. In some cases the interference came from the Office of Management and Budget, and at other times from lobbyists.

Survey participants included employees with training in geology, engineering, life science, toxicology and chemistry, although not necessarily at the graduate level. More than 6 in 10 respondents have been at the agency for a decade or longer. Respondents worked at headquarters, 10 regional offices and 12 EPA laboratories. Those most likely to report political interference work in offices involved in writing regulations or conducting risk assessments of potentially harmful agents, the advocacy group said.

Conducted between June and September of last year, the survey was not based on a random sample and its findings are not scientific. But Grifo contended that it represents the first attempt to more broadly assess a problem that has frequently surfaced in anecdotal reports alleging the pollution of science by political considerations at the nation's premier environmental agency.

For instance, a congressional committee recently reported that EPA staff members had determined in December that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health, but the regulatory process stalled after the EPA forwarded the findings to the White House.

The EPA also drew fire last month for weakening its new limits on smog-forming ozone after a last-minute intervention by President Bush. And Johnson was criticized for his decision in December to deny California's petition to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks, overruling the unanimous recommendation of the agency's legal and technical staffs.
Whereas at one time I might have been surprised by this report, reports of political interference within government agencies have become far too common. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is still sorting out decisions inappropriately influenced by Interior appointees. Independent reviewers castigated the Service for reducing the critical habitat designated for northern spotted owls in deference to logging interests, a finding confirmed by a second set of reviewers. The Vice President personally intervened in several cases involving endangered species. Recently we learned that the administration had deliberately made it more difficult to list species under the Endangered Species Act; as a result, two unique animal populations have become extinct. Meanwhile, environmental protections are being tossed aside wholesale to build a wall across the southern border.

That list only covers one agency in one department. Similar depth and breadth of political interference has been documented across many other regulatory agencies as well. The constant stream of such reports is numbing and undermines confidence in the government. We need our federal agencies to function well so that we have clean air and water, protected natural resources, healthy food, and safe medications. January 20, 2009, cannot come soon enough!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

New Spring Birds

I found two new birds for the year on my walk in the local park this morning. A house wren was singing high in a tree at the start of my walk. A treetop is not exactly where I would expect to find a house wren, but that is what it was. I also saw my first gray catbird. Other than that, I just found the usual resident birds. The number of geese, ducks, and gulls has decreased dramatically in the course of the past few weeks. Recently I have just seen a handful of Canada geese, compared to the hundreds I would see in March.

There park also has a small patch of trout lilies – maybe about a dozen flowers in all. I find this flower difficult to photograph because of its shape and closeness to the ground. The name comes from the speckled leaves, which resemble trout skin.

This patch of skunk cabbage was much easier.

Parks Update

New Jersey's DEP seems to be back to cutting services instead of closing parks to reduce their budget gap.

The state's environmental commissioner told senators today that while state parks might remain open it could be difficult to keep the most popular activities — camping and swimming — available.

Lisa Jackson, the Department of Environmental Protection commissioner, told the Senate budget committee they're working to keep as many state park services as possible, but cautioned camping and swimming are the most expensive.

Swimming, for instance, requires life guards, while camping necessitates garbage collection, she said.

"Those will be our biggest challenges over our next days and weeks," Jackson said.

She said parks may remain open for activities such as trail hiking.

"I think most, if not all, of our parks will be open for passive recreation," Jackson said.
This really should not be an issue in one of the richest states in the country.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Earth Day for Birders

Bush environment cartoonToday is Earth Day, the occasion of special events in honor of the environment. Many websites will have suggestions for things to do. Companies will seek to advertise their environmental bona fides through partnerships with conservations organizations or new lines of "green" products.

David Fahrenthold has a great article on the contemporary contrast between environmental goodwill and real-world results in today's Post.

Since the first Earth Day, in 1970, environmental laws have helped clean up rivers across the country, including the once-abysmal Potomac. The banning of the pesticide DDT in the 1970s helped bring back the bald eagle, which has now re-colonized Washington's urban core.

But even with "green" becoming nearly as common as "lite" on supermarket labels, some environmental historians say they wonder what it is all adding up to. They worry that the activity will give the illusion that major environmental problems are being solved -- when, in fact, many remain intractable....

Here, the dynamic has played out with the region's best-known environmental cause: the Chesapeake Bay. The nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation had 5,700 members in 1978. Today, it has more than 190,000, most of them gaining membership either through donations or volunteer work.

But still, the bay is not much better.
Part of the problem is that too much emphasis is put on conservation as a personal virtue. Our most intractable environmental problems are caused by systemic practices, so what we need is systemic change. Small numbers of individuals cannot do this by themselves. You cannot take the subway to work or school if there is no subway. Individuals do not award billion-dollar subsidies for destructive agricultural practices. Individuals do not regulate the power industry or set fuel efficiency standards. Real systemic change will not happen until we have political and business leaders who are willing (or feel compelled) to effect it. This may happen in the near future, but a lot of forces stand in the way of change. There is a role for concerned individuals here, to put pressure on governments and businesses and choose leaders wisely.

In the meantime, individual conservation efforts certainly have their place. Birders can do plenty of things to help the birds we love and reduce our contribution to global warming. Here are a few.
  1. If you own property, convert as much as you can to wildlife habitat, following the suggestions of Audubon at Home and the National Wildlife Federation. At the very least, do not use artificial fertilizers and pesticides (or hire landscapers who do). Runoff from these chemicals harms our bays and estuaries such as the Chesapeake Bay or Long Island Sound.
  2. Drink shade coffee instead mass-market coffee to preserve winter habitat for migratory birds. (See the informative Coffee and Conservation blog for more about this.)
  3. Become politically active. Birder's World suggests contacting legislators about some current issues, including the destructive border wall. Get involved in local environmental issues as well.
  4. Reduce electric power consumption. Much of our electricity comes from burning coal, the extraction of which destroys habitat.
  5. Bird locally and use public transportation where possible.
If you are looking for other options, see this sustainability primer or the newly revised 50 Simple Things.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Dismal Swamp, Dismal News

One of our local papers reported yesterday on a plan affecting a local wetland. Dismal Swamp is a 660-acre wetland, one of the largest extant freshwater wetlands in Middlesex County. Somehow it managed to avoid being developed during the post-WWII housing boom in Central Jersey. As it is, the tract is already fragmented, with cul-de-sacs and industrial parks carved out and a freight train and gas pipeline running through.

Despite its fragmentation, the swamp retains much of its biodiversity. I was there one evening during breeding season last year and observed 33 species, including willow flycatcher and other characteristic wetland birds. The Edison Wetlands Association estimates a bird list of 175 species, as well as significant numbers of reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. (I am not sure if formal lists exist since their website is difficult to navigate.)

A revived truck route plan may further fragment Dismal Swamp. South Plainfield wants to extend Helen Road to Metuchen Road (see map below) so that trailer trucks can take a shortcut through the swamp instead of driving around it on mostly residential roads. The road would be elevated to contact as little wetland as possible, but it would cut through the wettest area of the swamp. The plan was first proposed two decades ago, but failed to win approval from the state DEP. Earlier this year, the borough council decided to reconsider the Helen Road route rather than look for an alternative.

Dismal Swamp (click to enlarge)

If the state DEP turned down the proposal once, it would probably do so again, with good reason. Even an elevated road would have negative effects on a protected ecosystem. Displacement of habitat by the roadbed – in this case just its supports – are not the only problems. Pollution from runoff and exhaust, traffic noise, and possible introduction of invasive species are some likely problems. There is also a problem that new roads tend to bring new development. Not all of the undeveloped land around the swamp is formally protected, and a shorter route to I-287 could tempt developers to build new housing or industrial buildings on the other side of the extension, which would further increase traffic on already-crowded roads.

I hope that South Plainfield can find a solution for existing traffic problems, whether that means a new route along the edge of the swamp or better use of existing roads. The solution should not be a new road through the middle of the swamp.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Early News and The Oven Bird

This is the third in a continuing series of bird-related poem postings (in honor of National Poetry Month). I think this poem captures the chaotic eruption of bird song characteristic of spring mornings during the peak of migration.

1203. Early News By Anna M. Pratt

THE SPARROW told it to the robin,
The robin told it to the wren,
Who passed it on, with sweet remark,
To thrush, and bobolink, and lark,
The news that dawn had come again.
Since Early News is relatively short, I am posting a second poem that I had posted once before.
Robert Frost (1874–1963). Mountain Interval. 1920.

9. The Oven Bird

THERE is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Wildlife on the Border

OcelotOcelot / Photo by Tom Smylie (USFWS)

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post on the potential impact of the border wall in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Yesterday's Post had an article on the habitats to be traversed by the new wall.
The legal and scientific battle over the fence -- which will continue despite the administration's waivers -- highlights the reality that prized wildlife species are not respecters of international borders.

While popularly perceived as a barren desert, the landscape that straddles the border includes some of the world's most diverse terrain, such as Arizona's Sky Island area, which features isolated mountains surrounded by grassland or desert. Dotted with evergreen trees at higher altitudes, the region attracts jaguars as well as the Sonoran pronghorn and bighorn sheep that regularly crisscross between the United States and Mexico.

Farther to the east, the Lower Rio Grande Valley is home to one of the last free-flowing rivers in the United States, as well as more than 300 butterfly species, more than 500 bird species and the ocelot, an endangered wild cat. Even though 95 percent of the brush habitat in the four counties encompassing the Lower Rio Grande Valley refuge has been eroded, it still boasts 17 federally endangered or threatened species -- more than the entire state of Louisiana....

One of the most vulnerable species in the valley is the ocelot, a small hunter whose fur resembles that of a jaguar. Between 80 and 100 ocelots remain in South Texas, but their survival depends on access to water and getting to Mexico to breed with ocelots there, because the Texas population lacks genetic diversity.

"They're perilously close to going extinct," said Nancy Brown, a Fish and Wildlife public outreach specialist for the refuge. "You think of that irony, we need our cats to get into Mexico. Genetically, they're all starting to look like the same cat."
The Department of Homeland Security keeps insisting that plans for the wall take account of vulnerable species and have provisions for protecting them. The department also claims to have completed either an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement for all areas along the wall's route. However, their process for making those assessments is questionable.
"The significance of this area, biologically, is extraordinary," said Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. He said the administration completed a draft environmental impact statement about the fence in three months, a process that would normally take two to three years.

Ken Merritt, who served as project manager for the Lower Rio Grande Valley and two other wildlife refuges in South Texas before retiring in January, called Homeland Security's environmental assessment "a totally inadequate job. They just threw it together." One planned project on the west side of the Lower Rio Grande Valley refuge "basically cuts off wildlife from water," he added.
The haste of the wall construction project has been unsettling. Immigrants, documented or not, have been crossing the border for a long time and will continue doing so long after the wall is built. Meanwhile, the project will leave us with long-term costs – a permanent wall, millions of dollars of national debt, damaged ecosystems, and possibly extinct species. The federal government should slow down this process and consider whether the wall's projected benefits really outweigh the costs.

My Birding Binoculars

Patrick recently asked his readers to describe their first pairs of binoculars. I could give several possible answers to this question.

Like Laura, I started birding – in the sense of going out to look for birds and keeping lists – in my mid 20s. However, I was interested in wildlife and the natural world for a long time before that, so I had binoculars before I really started birding. My first pair was a Tasco 7×35 that I received as a gift when I was fairly young. I forget the model name, and I cannot find them to look it up. I do remember that they were quite basic, with plastic lenses and no diopter.

In my early 20s I bought another pair, a previously-owned Meade 8×40, so that I could bring them along on hikes in case anything looked interesting. Again, I cannot remember the exact model, and I no longer have them. These were my primary binoculars at the time I started to become more interested in birds. They served me well for several years, until I accidentally dropped them on my apartment floor. The impact misaligned the internal mirrors, and repair would have cost about $80, more than I had paid for them. So I looked for another pair to replace them.

After some research – and reading a lot of reviews – I bought a Swift Audubon 8.5×44 (porro prism). This was the cheapest pair that matched my requirements and was designed specifically for birding. What I liked most was the wide field of view – great for watching fast-moving songbirds – and the relatively close focus. As long as I kept the lenses clean, it produced a clear image with enough detail to make most identifications. What I did not like was the weight, which I felt especially on long walks. Since this was the first pair I acquired specifically for birding, one could say that it was my first birding binoculars.

That pair served me well for about four years, including two big days, several bird counts, and about 120 life birds. It survived a few falls, including once when I fell face-down on top of them with the binoculars around my neck.

I would still be using that pair, except that a few months ago, I received a much better one, a Zeiss Conquest 8×30. The improvement in image quality has been remarkable. The most surprising part to me has been how bright of an image the Zeiss Conquest produces even in low-light conditions. It seems to be brighter than the Swift Audubon, despite the latter's larger objective lenses and exit pupil. Since it is a roof prism, it is also very light, so I do not have to worry about back and neck pain as much. Now I no longer use the Swift Audubon pair much at all, though I still keep them ready as a backup.

So what were your first birding binoculars? Are you still using the same pair? Please post to your own blog or leave a comment.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Loose Feathers #146

Chipping Sparrow / Photo by Dave Menke (USFWS)

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

I and the Bird

A Snail's Eye View hosts I and the Bird #73.

Goldfinches on a Bag

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

NJ Parks to Stay Open?

According to the Asbury Park Press, the nine state parks slated for closure will probably stay open:

"It's pretty obvious," the governor said, when asked if cuts to municipal aid and the Agriculture Department, and the closing of nine state parks, were likely to be reversed in the horse trading over the budget with the Legislature between now and July 1.

All three of those cuts have met with howls of protest. The governor reiterated that any spending cuts restored by the Legislature must be replaced by reductions elsewhere.
This seems to be good news for NJ naturalists. What remains to be seen is how those cuts will be replaced. As I have written previously, there are programs where cuts would be worse, so we should not be completely relieved until we know what those are.

One New Jersey union suggests laying off political appointees first since park closings hurt low-income employees more than anyone else.

Crab Count Volunteers

Birders in Delaware and South Jersey can help monitor the horseshoe crab population this summer:

On Thursday, the Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve, or DNERR, will host a training session for people wanting to volunteer for this year's crab count. The session will begin at 6 p.m. at the St. Jones Reserve in Dover.

The Delaware Nature Society, one of several other groups involved in the crab count, will offer a separate training session at 4 p.m. Saturday on Slaughter Beach.

The crab count, which began in 1990, covers 13 beaches in Delaware and 11 in New Jersey. The initial count was a single event done at the highest of the lunar tides during the spawning season. The methodology was refined in 1999 to cover high tides encompassing three full moons and three new moons during the months of May and June. This year's count will be done on 12 different dates, beginning May 3 and running through June 20....

The survey involves walking up and down the high-tide line of a beach with one-square-meter rectangles. The rectangles are placed on the ground at intervals of 20 meters on beaches at least 1,000 meters long, and at intervals of 8 meters on shorter beaches. The crabs within the rectangles are then recorded by number and gender, a process that can be more challenging at peak periods when crabs are stacked atop one another.
Volunteers are needed, especially for midweek counts.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Bush to Support Climate Change Legislation?

There has been some debate within the environmental community about whether to try to pass climate change legislation this year. On the one hand, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible; that will require federal regulation to achieve anything meaningful. On the other hand, passing a weak bill this year could forestall more serious legislation next year, when the political climate in Washington should be much more favorable to reform. (That assumes, of course, that Democrats win the White House and pick up seats in the Senate. While both seem likely, neither is guaranteed.)

Bush has done nothing to ease those concerns. Today his administration started hinting that it might support climate change legislation. In fact, White House officials met with several denialist Republican Congressmen over the weekend to discuss some climate-related legislative proposals. But it's not because he is concerned about the environment.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been told by the Supreme Court that carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, is a pollutant and must be regulated if the EPA determines it is a danger to health and welfare.

At the same time, the Interior Department is under pressure to give polar bears special protection under the Endangered Species Act because of disappearing Arctic sea ice. A lawsuit also has been filed under the same law for more protection for arctic seals.

Together these cases would pull the enforcement of the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act into the debate over climate change. This is a "regulatory trajectory ... we think is fraught with peril and that will ultimately end up in a train wreck," said Perino.
Yes, the Bush administration wants a weak bill now to avoid a stronger regulations in the near future. Apparently the meeting did not go very well, even though the administration's proposals seem geared to weakening the Lieberman-Warner bill.
The Bush administration has been a staunch opponent of a mandatory so-called "cap-and-trade" approach to reducing greenhouse gases, preferring largely voluntary measures to broadly address global warming.

"We aren't necessarily against cap-and-trade proposals," Perino said Monday, but she added quickly, "What we've seen so far from Congress is not something that we can support."

The Senate is expected in June to begin debate on legislation, co-sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and John Warner, R-Va., that would cap greenhouse gas emissions from most sources and allow polluters to purchase emission permits instead of making actual reductions. It is designed to cut emissions 70 percent by mid-century. The House also is planning to draft climate legislation soon.

Among the proposals floated by the administration at the meeting last week was one that would limit the emissions cap to electric power plants, while also allowing a "safety valve" if the cost is found to be too high. The Senate bill has no such escape valve and covers emissions almost across the economy.
Whether anything will end up passing this year remains to be seen. Adding those exceptions to the current bill would probably kill it since there is a substantial block of legislators who want no regulation at all. Another block would want something much stronger than this. A weak bill will please neither (see update) and punt reform to 2009.

Reactions in the blogosphere have ranged from the skeptical to the incredulous.

U[pdate(4/16): Gristmill has the rundown on Bush's climate change speech. It's the same as usual - a mix of delaying tactics.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Chippies and Junco

Chipping Sparrows have returned in a big way the past few days. Today there were several in the yard, and many were singing. Dark-eyed Juncos have also been singing and acting very aggressively towards each other.

There are only a few weeks each year when these two species might occupy the same photograph.

At least that is the case in Central Jersey. In the DC area, some Chipping Sparrows will stay all winter.

How Migratory Birds Get Lost

About a month ago, NickL (the Birdist) interviewed me on the subject of extralimital birds. We speculated about the number of extralimital species that arrive in North America and how they arrive off-course. Last week an article shed more light on why birds get lost. Scientists in Europe studied the physical dimensions and migratory patterns of 38 species of songbirds. Their goal was to test two competing potential causes for vagrancy. Do extralimital birds have faulty navigational instincts or are they blown off-course by the weather?

Eight species from the leaf-warbler family and six from the thrush family caught the scientists' attention as vagrants. One species that was spotted particularly often was the Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus), which was reported by voluntary ornithologists* in Central Europe around a thousand times between 1836 and 1991. This species breeds in the Siberian taiga south of the Arctic Circle and overwinters in the subtropics and tropics of South-East Asia. The other Asian leaf-warbler species were observed much less frequently, if at all, in Central Europe.

By contrast, five thrush species were reported nearly 100 times. If vagrants were brought by the weather, smaller birds should be blown off course more frequently than larger ones. However, using statistical analyses, the researchers were unable to find any correlation between the frequency of vagrants and their body size. In addition, the Yellow-browed Warbler occurs far too regularly for every sighting in Central Europe to be explained by 'unusual' weather conditions during migration.
While vagrancy failed to correlate with weather patterns or body mass, it did correlate with population size. Birds with the largest breeding populations or ranges in Asia were the most likely to turn up in Central Europe. Thus it seems more likely that extralimital birds simply have faulty direction-finding abilities, which would be caused by genetic mutations.

One interesting result is that, despite their navigational disabilities, vagrant birds retain their instinct for how far they should fly. Birds that mistakenly wintered in Central Europe were typically about as far from their breeding grounds as they would have been in Southeast Asia.

Unfortunately we do not know what happens to these vagrant birds. No banded birds have been recovered subsequent to vagrancy, so the researchers believe that the birds fail to return to their proper breeding grounds. Given the low rate of band recovery overall, I am not sure we can conclude this with any certainty. However, it does stand to reason that a bird with faulty directional instincts would also have trouble finding its way back.

* I love the term "voluntary ornithologist." Birders should use it more often, especially those of us who contribute to bird databases regularly.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Molting Goldfinches

Spring brings a dramatic burst of song and color. With migratory songbirds the change is dramatic. Birds that we last saw in the drab olive and brown of fall suddenly return in a dazzling palette of red, orange, yellow, and blue.

For resident birds that stayed through the winter, such as American goldfinches, the change is more gradual. Birds molt only a few feathers at once, so it takes some time to shift plumages. In the meantime, we see birds in all stages of molt. Some, like the male below, appear to be mostly in breeding plumage.

This male (on the left) is a bit more patchy.

The bird on the right in the image above appears to be a female in the midst of transition. The female below (also on the right) seems to be mostly in winter plumage.

The male in this photograph also appears to retain some of his winter plumage. The changing plumages make for a great deal of variety, especially if you try to figure out each bird's sex. The return of the goldfinches' bright yellow is a promise of more bright colors to come when warblers and orioles arrive.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Windhover

Like last Saturday, this morning's post is a poem that features a bird. This one comes recommended by Greg (in last week's comments): The Windhover, by G.M. Hopkins.

12. The Windhover

To Christ our Lord

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Loose Feathers #145

Canvasback on Nest / Photo by Donna Dewhurst (USFWS)

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Help Stop Mountaintop Removal Mining

A bill in the House of Representatives, introduced by Frank Pallone and Christopher Shays, would end some of the worst damage from mountaintop removal mining. It already has 129 co-sponsors. Check the list and contact your representative if your representative is not already on it.

Mountaintop removal mining is an environmentally devastating way of extracting fuel for electric power plants. The practice should concern birders because it removes habitat along with the mountains.

Mountaintop removal mining is a type of surface mining found in the Appalachian portions of Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee. As its name suggests, mountaintop removal mining involves removing the top of a mountain in order to uncover the coal seams contained near the mountain's surface. Explosives are used to break the mountain's rock, and massive earth-moving equipment (such as "draglines") removes the spoil - the dirt and rock that formerly composed the mountaintop. Federal law normally calls for excess spoil to be placed back in the mined areas, returning the lands to their approximate original contours. However, in mountaintop removal mining, vast quantities of spoil are carried to surrounding valleys and dumped, hence the term mountaintop removal/valley fill. Why not simply replace the fill at the mine site and return the mountain to its former state? The answer is because broken rock occupies more volume than the original mountain, and so there is always spoil left over. Also there are concerns with spoil stability in steep terrain....

One consequence of mountaintop removal mining is that streams flowing through the valleys are buried. Large mines may be surrounded by several valley fills because of the sheer volume of broken rock and spoil created. Depending on the local topography and the profile of those valleys, a single fill may be over 1,000 feet wide and over a mile long. Until recent years, excess spoil from coal mining was generally placed in the extreme headwaters of streams, affecting primarily ephemeral streams that flow intermittently only in direct response to precipitation in the immediate watershed. Because smaller upstream disposal sites are exhausted and because of the increase in mountaintop mining activity, today the volumes of a single stream fill can be as much as 250 million cubic yards. As a result, streams are eliminated, stream chemistry is harmed by pollutants in the mining overburden, and downstream aquatic life is impaired. From 1985 to 2001, an estimated 724 stream miles in West Virginia, Kentucky, and parts of Virginia and Tennessee were covered by valley fills, and 1,200 miles of headwater streams were directly impacted by mountaintop mining activities.
Many of the Appalachian ridges are covered with mature forests; any bird that depends on this type of habitat will be displaced. One of the birds threatened by mountaintop removal mining is this blog's mascot, the Cerulean Warbler, which has declined precipitously in the last 40 years. Old-growth Appalachian forests are prime breeding territory for this warbler. The central Appalachians also provide the southernmost breeding range for several northern birds, such as Golden-winged Warbler, Dark-eyed Junco, and Purple Finch. Some groups are working to convert abandoned mining sites back to forest, but in the short-term substitute it is better to leave habitats intact.

H.R. 2169, the Clean Water Protection Act, would stop some of the worst abuses by banning mining companies from dumping spoil material into streams. This bill's prime effect would be to protect water from further pollution, both in the headwaters and downstream. It could also slow the rate of mountaintop removal since companies would have to find new places to dump their waste.

Again, check the list and tell your representative to support the bill.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Refuge Threatened by the Fence

In my last Loose Feathers, I linked to an article reporting that Michael Chertoff used his authority as head of Homeland Security to waive any laws impeding speedy construction of a border fence - an expensive project of questionable usefulness. Chertoff frames his decision as simply obeying the will of Congress. In reality he has this authority because of exceptions inserted into the bill for ideological reasons. Plans for the fence have generated opposition from land owners, local businesses, and environmentalists - all of whom stand to lose because of its construction. Such an alliance might have seemed unlikely ten years ago. I suppose it is an outgrowth of Bush's promise to be a uniter.

Monday's NY Times featured one of the people worried about what the fence will mean: the manager of the Sabal Palm Audubon Center. Sabal Palm owns the largest remaining tract of a palm forest that used to cover the Rio Grande delta but now is largely destroyed. It maintains habitat for birds and other animals that are rare north of Mexican border. The sanctuary's bird checklist (pdf) includes specialties like Least Grebe, Plain Chachalaca, Groove-billed Ani, Ringed and Green Kingfishers, Green Jay, Long-billed Thrasher, Tropical Parula, Olive Sparrow, and Altamira Oriole. Together with adjacent refuges, it attracts numerous tourists to the area and helps support the local economy.

Mr. Paz, a native of not just Brownsville but “beautiful Brownsville,” knows the area and its rhythms. He says the Fence would create a twilight zone out of a swath of distinctive American soil, disrupt and damage wildlife and have the opposite of the intended effect: it will be the birders and other tourists — not the illegal immigrants — who stop coming. It may also put him out of a job....

Mr. Paz remembers cycling as a boy to the “palm jungle” along the Rio to re-enact scenes from the Tarzan movies he had just seen at the Queen Theatre in downtown beautiful Brownsville. After a decade in the Army, he returned to hold a series of jobs, including police officer and windshield repairman, while the Audubon Society acquired parcels of that jungle to create a sanctuary to be called Sabal Palm, after the stocky palm trees of the Rio Grande valley.

Ten years ago he became manager of the very property where he once imitated Johnny Weissmuller — property that sits roughly between a bio-diverse preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy of Texas and a swath of land restored by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Combined, Eden....

Yes, until recently life was peaceful at Sabal Palm. The schoolchildren and birders would come in. Mr. Paz and his assistant, Cecilia Farrell, would collect the small fee, sell handbooks, maintain the grounds. Come 5 o’clock, they would leave the sanctuary in the care of a wiry night watchman who has lived on the property for nearly a half-century. His name is Ernie Ortiz, he is 82, and he packs a .38.

What’s more, the relationship between the Border Patrol and Sabal Palm was quite friendly. Border Patrol sensors are in the sanctuary’s soil, in its mesquite trees, everywhere. And when Sabal Palm staged a hawk watch, the Border Patrol provided a portable tower for spotting nothing more than birds.
Current plans put the center in a no man's land between the fence and Mexico. Whether the center would be able to stay open under such circumstances remains unclear. If refuges like this along the Lower Rio Grande Valley are forced to close or if the fence substantially degrades the river's habitats, the region's economy will suffer negative consequences. Tourists who now go there to experience the rare ecosystem (and the birds it supported) will likely choose to go elsewhere. If the refuges cannot manage the habitat, that habitat may disappear.

These sorts of ecological and economic impacts would normally be addressed as part of an environmental review process, which would have opportunities for public comment at all stages. The process of planning and building the border fence, by contrast, has lacked transparency. Homeland Security officials claim that ecological consequences will be mitigated but refuse to say what issues they will address or how they will do it. By circumventing environmental and land management regulations, Chertoff guaranteed that the public would have no opportunity to influence how or whether the fence is built. The result is both anti-environmental and anti-democratic.

Several other bloggers have already commented on this issue. I encourage you to read John's thoughts on the fence and birding the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Sibley's call to action.