Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Top 8 Nature Moments of 2008

This meme seems to be making the rounds again (see here, here, also here), so here are my top nature moments of 2008.

  1. Working with raptors in Cape May – not really a "moment" but still the top nature-related experience of the past year.
  2. Seeing a Golden Eagle for the first time (up really close).
  3. Seeing a Scott's Oriole in Union Square – my 300th life bird!
  4. Watching a flock of redpolls.
  5. Participating in the 10th C&O Canal Count.
  6. Waiting for Short-eared Owls in Franklin Twp.
  7. Watching Peregrines slicing through wind and rain.
  8. Participating in the Lower Hudson and Raritan Estuary CBCs.
It is not really a "nature moment," but this event got the year off to a good start.

See also my top nature moments of 2007.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The State of the Chesapeake

Over the weekend, the Washington Post published a series of articles on the poor health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Cleaning up the bay, which has been in serious trouble since the early 1980s is especially complicated since its tributaries pass through multiple jurisdictions; New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Virginia, and West Virginia all contain part of the watershed, which is fed by two major rivers (the Potomac and Susquehanna) and numerous smaller tributaries. That means that cleanup strategies have to be coordinated among the various stakeholders, which then have to fight their own internal battles over funding and enforcement priorities.

In the meantime, work is being left undone.

Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania all pledged that their farmers would put up fences along streambanks to keep cows out. But they didn't make it a legal requirement: Officials feared this kind of regulation would be a burden on farmers and would be difficult to enforce....

But in Virginia, many farmers simply didn't want the hassle. And reimbursement funding, which came out of state budget surpluses, was often short. From July 2006 to June 2007, Virginia turned away 144 farmers who wanted to fence off 84 miles of streambank.

Now, Virginia has reached only about 20 percent of its goal for fencing off streams. Across the Chesapeake watershed, the figure is 27 percent.
The problem with cow manure is that it contains nitrogen that feeds algae blooms, which in turn cause dead zones throughout much of the bay. Cow manure is just one of many nitrogen or phosphorus sources within the watershed. Sources include fertilizers, sewage, detergents, and septic tanks, among others. While the cleanup has effected some reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus, and stabilized some underwater life, it has fallen far short of its goals.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Raritan Estuary CBC 2008

Yesterday my mother, sister, and I participated in the 2008 Raritan Estuary Christmas Bird Count. As we have for the past several years (see previous accounts from 2005, 2006, and 2007), we covered a section along the Raritan River in Highland Park and Piscataway. One additional birder joined us this year, so we were able to split into two equal parties to cover our territory more thoroughly.

Despite our best efforts, the numbers of many species seemed down this year. Whether it was the balmy temperatures, the general gloominess of the day, or some other combination of factors, birds were not active or vocalizing in the morning. We had record lows among Song Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos. Songbirds generally seemed scarcer than usual in both numbers and species.

All was not gloom, however. We had two new species for our section: Green-winged Teal, found by my sister in a Johnson Park pond, and Brown-headed Cowbird. Raptors included a Peregrine Falcon and eight Red-tailed Hawks. One of the latter, a local nester, was almost all white, matching what Brian Wheeler describes as "incomplete albinism." We flushed another (normal) Red-tailed Hawk, which flew off clutching a squirrel. Aside from that, the many flocks of geese, gulls, and starlings kept us busy counting.

We ended the count day by watching an adult Bald Eagle harass gulls in Donaldson Park.

Canada Goose1795
American Black Duck3
Green-winged Teal2
Common Goldeneye10
Hooded Merganser2
Common Merganser19
Double-crested Cormorant5
Great Cormorant2
Great Blue Heron2
Black Vulture2
Turkey Vulture6
Bald Eagle1
Red-tailed Hawk8
Peregrine Falcon1
Ring-billed Gull163
Herring Gull315
Great Black-backed Gull396
Rock Pigeon37
Mourning Dove69
Belted Kingfisher4
Red-bellied Woodpecker2
Downy Woodpecker3
Hairy Woodpecker1
Northern Flicker7
American Crow7
Fish Crow12
Black-capped Chickadee2
Tufted Titmouse5
Brown Creeper2
Carolina Wren10
American Robin17
Northern Mockingbird1
European Starling474
Song Sparrow17
White-throated Sparrow60
Dark-eyed Junco20
Northern Cardinal10
Red-winged Blackbird12
Brown-headed Cowbird6
House Finch65
American Goldfinch18
House Sparrow35
Total Species44
Total Individuals3931

Sunday, December 28, 2008

More on the Tennessee Coal Ash Disaster

The flood of water and coal ash from a TVA plant is much larger than the original reports announced – over 1 billion gallons of sludge.

Officials at the authority initially said that about 1.7 million cubic yards of wet coal ash had spilled when the earthen retaining wall of an ash pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant, about 40 miles west of Knoxville, gave way on Monday. But on Thursday they released the results of an aerial survey that showed the actual amount was 5.4 million cubic yards, or enough to flood more than 3,000 acres one foot deep.

The amount now said to have been spilled is larger than the amount the authority initially said was in the pond, 2.6 million cubic yards.
This material is highly toxic. So far TVA officials have announced positive tests for lead and thallium, at levels that cause health problems for humans. The water also contains high levels of iron and manganese, which apparently affects taste but not safety. In addition, federal studies have reported high levels of heavy metals and carcinogens in some coal ash, but so far it is not clear if that is true of the ash at the spill site.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Loose Feathers #167

Red Crossbill / Photo by Dave Menke (USFWS)

Bird and birding news
  • EBird has a useful overview of how to identify crossbill species by ear, with linked audio samples.
  • Cape May NWR acquired an additional 437 acres last week. There seem to be two tracts involved – a saltmarsh along Bidwell Creek in Middle Township and a 371-acre grassland in Lower Township. At least some of the land acquired will be open for hiking and birding.
  • In addition, Pennsylvania is getting its third National Wildlife Refuge. The new refuge comprises 20,466 acres in Cherry Valley in the Poconos. Land within the refuge will be protected with a combination of purchases and conservation easements. People with existing property will continue to live within the refuge boundaries. Cherry Valley is the first NWR designated in the Northeast in a decade and the first in Pennsylvania since Tinicum in 1972.
  • Hen harriers face extirpation in England due to persecution, primarily from game wardens.
  • Shade coffee not only benefits birds, but also preserves local plant diversity.
Birds in the blogosphere
General environmental news

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Review: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

Nicholas Drayson's A Guide to the Birds of East Africa is not actually a field guide (such as this one), but a novel. This book is set in Kenya, a country blessed with one of the most diverse bird populations in the world. (Its principal competitors for that title are in northern South America.) The rich bird diversity makes it a natural setting for the birding competition that comprises most of the narrative.

The premise is as follows. Two old acquaintances (but not exactly friends) find out that they both want to invite the same woman, Rose Mbikwa, to one of Nairobi's premier social events. One, Mr. Malik, has lived in Nairobi for years. The other, Harry Khan, has roots in Kenya but lived most of his life abroad. The two, with the instigation of members of Malik's social club, decide that the proper thing to do is to compete for the right to ask first; whoever sees the most species of birds in one week wins. While the premise has obvious problems, the subsequent plot is executed fairly well with some unexpected twists and turns, and the ending resolves some of the tensions satisfactorily.

So what to make of that title? The author states in an interview that he borrowed the title based on an actual field guide written by a friend. As one might expect in a tale of competitive birding, a great many bird species are mentioned, and in some cases elements of their natural history are discussed. The title makes sense on that level, but I suspect one other meaning. One of the central characters, Rose Mbikwa, is literally "a guide to the birds of East Africa," as she leads weekly bird walks and trains young tour guides to serve the booming ecotourism industry.

There is a good deal of commentary in this Guide regarding Kenya's political and social climate. Rose Mbikwa is the widow of a former government official, and Malik writes pseudonymous political fables for a popular newspaper. Unfortunately I am not in a position to evaluate this commentary since I know little of the Kenyan context. It would be interesting to hear from someone who does know whether Drayson's portrayal is accurate.

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa is a fast and exciting read. It held my attention sufficiently to distract somewhat from my virus-induced misery for a few hours over the weekend. This book is definitely worth a look for anyone who is interested in birding-related fiction.

Nicholas Drayson, A Guide to the Birds of East Africa. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. Pp. 208; illustrations. $22.00 cloth.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Penguin Listing

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed listing seven penguin species as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Contemporary penguins face a variety of threats, from climate change altering their habitat to prey declines from overfishing to mortality from longline fishing and predation. Oil spills have also harmed some penguin populations.

Here are the proposed listings.


Threatened in part of its range
Considered but not listed
If you would like to comment on the proposal, you can visit and search for "penguin." There are three separate dockets for this proposal.

Listing penguins is relatively controversy-free for the government. Since penguins do not occur naturally within the boundaries of the United States, the decision will not impinge significantly on American business or landowner interests. Instead, the main effects of the listing would be that importing or exporting penguin specimens would be illegal without a permit and that Bush's Interior Department would get to increase its paltry list of newly-protected species by a few more birds. While I am pleased to see the Interior Department moving ahead with species protection, I would much prefer to see that movement among those candidate species where U.S. governmental action could do the most good.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Loose Feathers #166

Common Loon / Photo by William Troyer (USFWS)

Bird and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
General environmental news

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Circus of the Spineless

... is looking for a new host. Contact Tony G. if you are interested.

Goose Eggs on the Menu for Polar Bears

Snow Goose on Nest / Photo by Matthew Perry (USFWS)

Polar bears may switch to eating snow goose eggs in early spring if accelerated melting pushes them off the pack ice before other prey is available.
"Over 40 years, six subadult male bears were seen among snow goose nests, and four of them were sighted after the year 2000," says Robert Rockwell, a research associate in Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History and a Professor of Biology at City College at City University of New York. "I've seen a subadult male eat eider duck eggs whole or press its nose against the shell, break it, and eat the contents. This is similar to a different research group's observations of polar bears eating Barnacle Goose eggs on Svalbard, an island near Norway."

Polar bears, Ursus maritimus, are listed as a threatened species under the United States' Endangered Species Act and are classified as "vulnerable with declining populations" under IUCN's Red List. Polar bears' habitat rings the Arctic south of 88˚ latitude. Most of this area is sea ice from which bears hunt seals, although the breakup of sea ice over the summer forces some bears to move north, to pack ice, or onto land. More often, it is subadult males that are pushed to these less ideal conditions, where they live, in part, off stored fat reserves.

When bears switch to the tundra in some areas, they may enter the nesting grounds of snow geese. Goose eggs and developing embryos are a highly nutritious source of food to opportunistic foragers. Although geese populations were in decline in the early 1900s, the population rebounded and expanded. There are now too many geese for the Arctic to support in the summer, mainly because their over-wintering habitat has increased to cover the northern plains, where they eat waste corn and forage in rice fields.

Polar bear and snow geese populations come into contact in the Hudson Bay. Here, some bears routinely live on land for 4-5 months of the year, subsisting on fat reserves. The new research shows that the effects of climate change will bring additional sources of food as the movement of both populations begins earlier each spring. Rockwell and his graduate student, Linda Gormezano, calculated that the rate of change in ice breakup is, on average, 0.72 days earlier each year, and that hatching time is also moving forward by 0.16 days each year. Current trends indicate that the arrival of polar bears will overlap the mean hatching period in 3.6 years, and egg consumption could become a routine, reliable option. At this point, a bear would need to consume the eggs of 43 nests to replace the energy gained from the average day of hunting seals. But within a decade, because timing changes would put bears in contact with even more nests with younger embryos (younger embryos are more nutritious), a bear would only need to consume the eggs of 34 nests to get the same amount of energy.
I wonder if this would have a substantial impact on the snow goose population. Only time will tell.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Counting Birds for the Lower Hudson CBC

As I mentioned in a previous post, on Sunday I participated in the Lower Hudson Christmas Bird Count. I traveled up with my mother and sister. We joined three other birders early in the morning to cover the Liberty State Park portion of the count.

The Lower Hudson CBC is somewhat unusual in that it crosses state boundaries, with observers covering sites on both sides of the Hudson River. In New Jersey, the count covers the Meadowlands, Jersey City, the Palisades, and parts of towns along the western edge of the Hudson. In New York, there are observers in Central Park, the Battery, Riverside Park, and elsewhere. Lower Hudson has a link to one of the oldest counts, as the first Christmas Bird Count was conducted in Central Park.

Despite our smaller numbers, New Jersey birders found 100 species of birds on the western side of the Hudson, plus two more count week species. The total included some species that can be difficult to find in urban landscapes, such as Rough-legged Hawk, American Kestrel, Virginia Rail, and Short-eared Owl. It also included some late lingering species, like Great Egret, Greater Yellowlegs, Gray Catbird, and Marsh Wren. Plus there were a few westerners like Orange-crowned Warbler. I have not seen any full results from the New York portion of the count, but I understand that they found an immature Red-headed Woodpecker, among other birds.

Liberty State Park is so named because only a little over 600 yards of water separate it from the Statue of Liberty, while only about 400 yards separate it from Ellis Island. The park consists mainly of grassy lawns, which are great for finding open-country birds, but not much else. The park also has a restored marsh and a shrubby (but toxic) back area, which both provide opportunities for finding a more diverse set of birds.

We started out searching for waterfowl on the southeastern corner of the park, which looks out over Upper New York Bay. In addition to the flocks of 650 Brant and 400+ Canada Geese, we found a Canvasback, some Common Goldeneye, and many Bufflehead. That corner of the park also had a flock of about two dozen Horned Larks in the grass. Our next stop at the restoration area produced a selection of dabbling ducks: Gadwall, American Black Duck, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, and Green-winged Teal, as well as a solitary American Coot. A Common Loon tried to sneak past behind us, but since I had gotten separated from the rest of the group I caught sight of it as it flew overhead. Brush around the nature center also had a smattering of sparrows – mostly Song, but also a Field and several Swamp Sparrows.

We spent the rest of the morning tramping around the park's back area looking for woodland species. While we did not find our target birds – Wild Turkey, American Woodcock, and Long-eared Owl – we did find some pretty cool birds. For example, there was a flock of around eight (!) Hermit Thrushes all of whom were very talkative. Then there were Fox Sparrows, always a treat. Plus, we flushed a Wilson's Snipe – a species we did not expect, and the only one seen in the New Jersey portion of the count.

For the afternoon we visited a housing development for a different angle on the bay, and a different look at some mudflats. That stop produced our only Yellow-rumped Warblers and Northern Shovelers of the day. It also gave us killer looks at a lingering Dunlin. The rest of the day we spent mopping up – back to the marsh to find Killdeer and a Black-crowned Night Heron, to a nearby field to look (unsuccessfully) for Snow Buntings. Our last birds for the day were two American Tree Sparrows.

Our group finished with 61 species in about ten hours of birding. Not bad at all for an area as heavily urbanized as Jersey City in the middle of December.

For more on a different section of the count, see the Meadowlands Blog.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Rock Creek Park CBC

Washington-area readers who are interested in participating in a Christmas Bird Count might consider joining the Rock Creek Park sector this weekend. Possible birds include wild turkey, northern harrier, and great horned owl, in addition to the park's more common winter residents. Follow the link to learn more.

Political Meddling Undermines ESA Enforcement

When Obama's administration takes power in January, they will have a real mess to clean up. This week the Interior Department released a 141-page report on political interference by Bush's appointees. The investigation focused on the actions of Julie MacDonald, an Interior official who frequently forced the Fish and Wildlife Service to alter endangered species or critical habitat designations.

In one case, the Fish and Wildlife Service was trying to identify which counties should be included in the critical habitat designed as important for the survival of the vernal pool species. These are plants and animals that rely on the seasonal wetlands once common throughout the Central Valley.

MacDonald directed that "huge chunks of critical habitat" be excluded, based on the apparent economic impact.

"MacDonald made math errors of an order of magnitude that led to the exclusion of critical habitat based on the erroneous calculations," one Fish and Wildlife Service official told investigators.

The vernal pool critical habitat errors led to the Fish and Wildlife Service being sued. The agency lost, was forced to pay attorneys fees and had to spend several hundred thousand dollars doing the work all over again, investigators noted.

"MacDonald's zeal to foster her agenda caused significant harm to the integrity of the Endangered Species Act decision-making process," investigators concluded. "Moreover, her actions resulted in the untold waste of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in unnecessary litigation."
While MacDonald has received most of the negative attention surrounding the Bush administration's endangered species policies, it seems to me that she was implementing the preferences of people higher up in the administration. It is notable that, even after she left the department in May 2007, the US Fish and Wildlife Service still has not designated any more species under the Endangered Species Act, despite ample evidence of species needing protection. The last year has also seen the publication of rules weakening the Endangered Species Act. Of course, the king meddler in endangered species decisions is Dick Cheney himself. MacDonald is simply one aspect of a blighted administration.

Environmental Nominees

Obama announced most of his energy and environment appointees yesterday evening. They are:

  • Steven Chu for Department of Energy
  • Lisa Jackson for Environmental Protection Agency
  • Nancy Sutley for White House Council on Environmental Quality
  • Carol Browner for assistant to the president for energy and climate change
Chu looks like an inspired choice. It will be a major change to have someone with his depth of knowledge about energy running the department. It is encouraging that he is concerned with climate change and wants to improve energy efficiency. Lisa Jackson has inspired some controversy but seems to be far better than the last New Jerseyan picked for the job. In addition to her experience in the Clinton White House, Carol Browner chairs Audubon's board of directors. Nancy Sutley also has an interesting background. All told, the next four years ought to be a lot better than the previous eight.

The nominee to head the Interior Department has not been announced, but it appears to be Ken Salazar. From what I had read about him, Salazar seems an improvement over some of the other picks being floated, but not nearly as exciting as Raúl Grijalva would have been. The good news is that he opposes oil drilling in Arctic NWR (no more annual battles!) and oil shale development. The latter practice is a major killer of birds in the boreal forest and would probably have similar results if introduced to western states. He also has a good voting record.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Counting Day

Today marks the beginning of the Christmas Bird Count season, which runs from December 14 to January 5. I will be participating in at least two this year: today's Lower Hudson CBC and the Raritan Estuary CBC on December 28. Each count works slightly differently. Some (like Washington, DC) have loads of volunteers. Others have rather small teams covering large amounts of territory (such as Raritan Estuary). This will be my first time participating in the Lower Hudson CBC, which covers parts of Hudson and Bergen Counties, such as the Meadowlands, Liberty State Park, and the cemeteries of Jersey City.

CBCs are a lot of fun, so considering signing up for one in your area. If there is not one in your area, you can always start one.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Review: Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson

Roger Tory Peterson is probably the most famous birdwatcher of the 20th century. I recently had the pleasure of reading a new biography of Peterson by Elizabeth Rosenthal, Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson. The book is based on interviews with many people who knew Peterson, as well as Peterson's own writings. Birdwatcher is the most thorough account of Peterson's life that I have read so far. It covers his entire his, from childhood to death.

Peterson's career spanned several generations and multiple decades. When Peterson was coming of age as a naturalist, market hunting, including hunting of raptors at migratory concentration points, was still common; field guides were unsuitable for easy field identification; and bird watching was still in its infancy. More than anyone else, Peterson influenced the transformation of bird study from a pursuit of specialists to a popular pastime. His field guide, first published in 1934, simplified the identification process such that each bird could be identified by noting a few key field marks. Peterson's field mark system, illustrated with schematic drawings, set the standard for future field guides. In future years, the expansion of his field guide series opened better understanding of not just birds, but also insects, flowers, trees, and many other taxa to the general public. He influenced the growing environmental movement not just through his field guides, but also through his writings in popular publications such as Audubon magazine and Bird Watcher's Digest, as well as through direct contact with naturalists in younger generations.

While many of the events were familiar to me – his childhood in Jamestown, his naturalist publications, his wartime service – many were not. In particular, I was pleased to learn that Peterson increasingly used his fame in later life to promote conservation. His travels abroad were designed to raise awareness of the places he visited, and many of them resulted in specific conservation actions or helped raise funds to purchase critical habitat. In this country, he helped arrange funding for some of the research that connected raptor declines in Connecticut with DDT.

To her credit, Rosenthal does not shy away from less attractive aspects of Peterson's biography. For example, his family life was extremely strained. His second wife, Barbara, seems to have left him out of frustration with her role as his unpaid secretary and social manager, even years after Roger achieved fame and fortune. His third wife, Virginia, seemed to shut out his children from his second marriage; how much Roger attempted to fix the problem is unclear.

The book would be stronger without the discussion of whether Peterson's paintings should be considered art. Answering that question would require a better explanation of the categories of "art" and "illustration," and why they should be considered distinct (if at all). The discussion is further muddled by the reliance on art dealers and other wildlife painters rather than art critics or historians who might be able to compare Peterson to his artistic contemporaries. I am not entirely sure what is at stake in that argument anyway since Peterson's reputation will ultimately rise or fall on the basis of his contributions to ornithology and conservation rather than his artistic efforts.

Some portions could stand to be more concise. In particular, chapters dealing with Peterson's middle and later years could probably have left out some material without losing much substance. Since the source material included many interviews, the narrative style occasionally becomes chatty; this may or may not bother a prospective reader.

Overall, Birdwatcher is a strong and thorough biography of Roger Tory Peterson. Even those familiar with Peterson ought to learn something from it. This book's publication is particularly timely given that this August marked the 100th anniversary of Peterson's birth. It is a good time to reflect on how far we have come since August 28, 1908, and where birding and the environmental movement might be going.

Elizabeth Rosenthal, Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson. Guilford, Connecticut: Lyons Press, 2008. Pp. vi, 437; photographs, bibliography, notes, index. $29.95 cloth.

Kindle version

Friday, December 12, 2008

Loose Feathers #165

Snowy Owl on a Fence Post / USFWS Photo

Bird and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
General environmental news
  • New regulations end the requirement for federal agencies to submit environmental assessments to the US Fish and Wildlife Service for review and bar federal agencies from considering the impact of climate change on endangered species. The new rules were finalized yesterday and will take effect before Bush leaves office.
  • The Interior Department released a list of 251 candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act.
  • Excellent EPA series: Johnson profile; court follies; Performance Track; clean air.
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, December 11, 2008

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #90 is now online.

Bluebird of Happiness?

This LOLcat-inspired image has been going around the birding blogs. (via)

Not bluebird of happinessmore animals

Government-sponsored Greenwashing

The third article of the Philadelphia Inquirer series on the EPA under the Bush administration deals with a program called Performance Track. This program, begun under the Clinton administration, was designed to encourage companies to improve their environmental impact voluntarily. If a company meets a series of goals, it gets positive publicity and recognition from the EPA, along with other benefits. In theory, this should give companies enough incentives to behave well (beyond the threat of enforcement) . Under the Bush administration, the program has been so poorly administered that it is difficult to determine whether member corporations are actually meeting their goals.

As early as 2005, internal records show, EPA enforcement officials discovered violations by Performance Track companies, and began to ask questions about compliance and corporate promises.

In 2006, these EPA enforcement officials prepared a confidential and comprehensive analysis of the program. The Inquirer obtained a copy.

"The data in this analysis clearly show that there is considerable non-compliance among [Performance Track] facilities and that many members who are widely touted as meeting or exceeding regulatory requirements actually do not," the analysis said.

At the time, a check of enforcement records showed six Performance Track companies with serious environmental violations and 43 with other pending formal enforcement actions....

Last year, an EPA inspector general's audit confirmed some of the enforcement division's findings. "EPA had hoped to achieve ambitious goals through Performance Track, but EPA cannot show how its program can lead to the desired outcomes," auditors wrote.

Only two of the 30 companies sampled by the inspector general met all four of the anti-pollution goals they set.

Coglianese's extensive research, some of it EPA-funded, said the EPA's claims that Performance Track is beneficial to the environment are simply rhetoric. There are no data to prove this, the Penn dean said.

In fact, said Coglianese, data show that there's little difference between the environmental records of companies that join and companies that don't.

The difference: "Companies who join Performance Track seem to do so because they seek attention," he said. They want that green EPA seal of approval....

Another critic, the advocacy group Environmental Integrity Project, studied Performance Track members' public toxic release reports. It found that seven large factories increased emissions after they joined the program - by a total of two million pounds between 2000 and 2004.

EPA officials said the study contained errors - though they have since decided to review such data to prevent this from happening again, they say.

But an Inquirer review shows that some of the same Performance Track companies that Environmental Integrity raised questions about two years ago continue to increase toxic emissions. According to EPA's latest Toxic Release Inventory data, emissions at the Verso Paper factory in Jay, Maine, have increased 160 percent since 2001, to 1.9 million pounds.

Performance Track relies on states, which enforce most federal environmental laws, to ease regulatory oversight of its members. At least 19 states partner with the program, but others remain wary - including Lisa Jackson, New Jersey's former Department of Environmental Protection chief and now chief of staff to Gov. Corzine.

"For a long time, they tried to pressure us to partner and we said no," Jackson said in October, before she became an Obama transition adviser. "I think it's just one of those window-dressing programs that has little value."

Francine Carlini, regional director for air quality in Southeastern Pennsylvania, said EPA had asked the state to dispense with some of its usual regulatory duties.

"It all sounds good . . . but you can't give away the store to get that done," she said. "Imagine if we went to a landfill and they said, 'We're in Performance Track,' and we said we wouldn't inspect them. There is kind of a disconnect here. That's the problem."
The article cites several egregious examples of Performance Track members that soiled their environment. One was a chlorine plant that emits 420 pounds of mercury each year. In another case, DuPont facilities remained in the program even after the parent corporation paid a $10.25 million fine for hiding evidence of the harmful health effects of perfluorooctanoic acid (released by many of its plants and used to manufacture Teflon) for two decades. Monsanto has also been lauded under the program despite serious violations.

Instead being used to ensure compliance, the program's $4.7 million budget seems to go towards providing government-sponsored P.R. for the member companies.
Over the last four years, Performance Track has paid two outside consulting firms more than $4.2 million.

Last year alone, records show, EPA paid ICF Consulting of Fairfax, Va., nearly $700,000, including $249,875 for member recruitment and $311,287 for "branding, outreach and communications."

The other consultant, Industrial Economics Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., has received $2.7 million to help run the program and operate its hotline, records show. Spokesmen for ICF and Industrial Economics declined to comment for this story.

In 2007, EPA placed public service announcements touting its corporate members' accomplishments in Forbes, Fortune and Business Week.

One full-page ad claimed that Performance Track members cut water use by 3.5 billion gallons: "That's a big drop in the bucket," the ad said.
There should be higher priorities for the Obama administration to reform at the EPA – with implementing climate change solutions at the top of the list. However, this program seems like it could be valuable with higher standards for membership and compliance (and perhaps some assistance for companies to meet their goals) – more substance and less hype. At the very least, it is encouraging that one leading candidate to head the EPA for the next four years is already well aware of Performance Track's flaws.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Desired Life Bird Meme

Corey at 10,000 Birds asks for everyone's top five desired life birds. This is a question I have answered before, but since I have seen some of those, and since some priorities have changed, the list could use some updating. Given that my life list is relatively short (I only passed 300 earlier this year), it is hard to narrow a wish list down to just five, but here is a try (subject, of course, to future revision).

  1. Northern Goshawk – I had a few possible/probable goshawk sightings in Cape May, but what I would really like is one I can confirm with my own eyes.
  2. Golden-winged Warbler – This is the last of the widespread eastern warblers (i.e., excepting Kirtland's) that I have not seen.
  3. Any Crossbill – I have long been fascinated by the idea that a bird's mandibles could cross without the cause being a genetic defect. (Perhaps this winter?)
  4. Any Godwit – These are pretty cool looking birds and have impressive migrations.
  5. Painted Bunting – Like the crossbills, it looks like something that should not exist in nature (more like a color scheme I would have concocted when I was five).
I am not tagging anyone, but if you want to pick up the meme, go right ahead.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Stephen Johnson and the Misuse of the EPA

Via Thoughts from Kansas, I learned of a major new series of articles at the Philadelphia Inquirer on the state of the EPA. The first article of the series is a profile of Stephen Johnson, the current EPA administrator. Johnson's tenure has been noteworthy for controversy over a multitude of issues, from political interference with scientific research to denial of California's emission standards to foot-dragging on climate change. The Inquirer article has a behind-the-scenes look at one of the more egregious incidents involving Johnson, in which he was initially set to rule that greenhouse gases were causing climate change, that climate change endangered public health, and that the United States was a major contributor of greenhouse gases.

At 2:10 p.m., Associate Deputy Administrator Jason Burnett e-mailed the climate-change draft to the White House as an attachment.

What happened next became Johnson's defining moment and cemented President Bush's environmental legacy, serving as the low-water mark of a tumultuous era that has left the EPA badly wounded, largely demoralized and, in many ways, emasculated.

White House aides - who had long resisted mandatory regulations as a way to address climate change - knew the gist of what Johnson's finding would be, Burnett said. They also knew that once they opened the attachment, it would become a public record, making it too controversial to rescind. So they didn't open it.

They called Johnson and asked him to take it back.

The law clearly stated that the final decision was the EPA administrator's, not Bush's. Johnson initially resisted - something Burnett admired - but ultimately did as he was told.

Outraged, Burnett resigned.

In July, Johnson issued a new, censored version, a pale imitation of the original climate-change document.

The old muscular language - including key sentences about U.S. car emissions and the irrelevance of any lingering doubt - was gone. Most of all, the new document no longer declared global warming a danger to public welfare. The move effectively postponed any strong action on climate change well into the next administration.
Aside from his support for deregulation, Johnson shares at least one other trait with White House officials – public professions of faith (Johnson is an outspoken evangelical Christian who praises "the moral compass, that Taylor [University] offered") exist side by side with questionable ethics.
Clearly, Johnson has been eager to execute the Bush agenda. John D. Graham, who was the regulatory guru of the White House Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2006, said one of Johnson's biggest accomplishments as assistant administrator was the repeal of a Clinton-era ban on human pesticide testing....

The human testing studies were not perfect; some did not meet modern ethical standards, Graham said. But advocates were pushing for a ban regardless of their scientific value....

One of the new human tests was the Children's Health Environmental Exposure Research Study (CHEERS). Funded with $2 million from the chemical industry, CHEERS proposed to record the effects of household pesticides on low-income children in Florida. EPA gave participating families $970, a video camera to record exposure, and a CHEERS T-shirt, calendar and baby bib. EPA scientists would collect urine samples and the children would wear a watch-size sensor one week each month.

Several Democrats were aghast. Boxer and other Democrats put a public hold on his nomination.

"Ethics 101: Testing pesticides on small children and infants is wrong," Boxer said. "This is sick. It's a sick, sick thing."

EPA officials said that the senators were overreacting, that CHEERS merely paid families already using pesticides to monitor their children. Johnson, who began his EPA career in the pesticide office, said that although EPA had no improper ethical intent, it could no longer overcome such an appearance.

He canceled CHEERS - though not other human testing programs - and the senators removed the hold on his confirmation.
There is plenty more in this article about Johnson's background in private industry, his rise to prominence under the Bush administration, and coverage of his other controversial decisions as administrator. Even other Republican EPA administrators believe that Johnson's conduct has been overly political and insufficiently independent. The EPA, like other government agencies, is mandated to follow the best available science when it comes to issues like climate change and public health. It is fairly clear that Johnson used his position to stall for time and punt major decisions to the next administration, rather than obey his legal mandate.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Christmas Presents

The outgoing administration is working overtime to finalize ideologically-driven regulatory changes. To wit:

  • Appalachian drinking water will come with extra heavy metals now that coal companies need no longer meet clean-water requirements when they fill valleys with surface mining detritus. (via)
    Under the changes in the final rule, EPA would consider mining valley fills incompliance [sic] with water quality standards if mining operators obtained "dredge-and-fill" permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But, the standard for obtaining such a permit allows a greater level of damage than would be permitted under OSM's previous version of the buffer zone rule....

    Coal operators already can obtain variances to mine within the 100-foot buffer. To do so, though, companies must show that their operations will not cause water quality violations or "adversely affect the water quantity and quality, or other environmental resources of the stream."

    For years, the OSM and various state mining agencies have interpreted the buffer zone rule to not apply to valley-fill waste piles that bury streams.

    In 1999, then-U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II concluded that the rule did apply to valley fills. That decision was overturned on appeal, but federal regulators and the coal industry still moved to rewrite the rule.
  • If you have a loaded firearm, you can take it to your favorite national park!
    As expected, the Interior Department decided to scrap its longtime ban on loaded weapons. Under the new regulation, individuals will be allowed to carry loaded, concealed weapons in parks or wildlife refuges if they have state permits to carry concealed weapons in the state in which the national park or refuge is located.

    Under current regulations, firearms in the national parks must be unloaded and inoperable. That means they must have trigger locks or be stored in a car trunk or in a special case....

    National parks range from Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon to the family home of the wife of Ulysses S. Grant in eastern Missouri and New York's Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

    Bill Wade, the president of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, said the new regulation would allow concealed, loaded firearms at 388 of 391 park sites. Only the three national parks in Wisconsin and Illinois, which don't issue concealed carry permits, are excluded, he said.
  • There is still the issue of the revisions to the Endangered Species Act, which were recently finalized.
    The latest version of the rule goes further than the language Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne issued in August by explicitly excluding climate change from the factors that would trigger an interagency consultation. The move is significant because the administration has listed polar bears as a threatened species under the act on the grounds that their sea-ice habitat is shrinking, but Kempthorne has repeatedly argued that this move should not trigger a federal curb on greenhouse gas emissions linked to the melting of sea ice.

    The rule states: "Federal agencies are not required to consult on an action when . . . the effects of such action are manifested only through global processes and (i) cannot be reliably predicted or measured at the local scale, or (ii) would result at most in an extremely small, insignificant local impact, or (iii) are such that the potential risk of harm to species or habitat are remote."
Meanwhile, Bush also pardoned someone convicted of poisoning bald eagles. He has been very busy, and he still has a month and a half to work mischief.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Loose Feathers #164

Northern Saw-whet Owl / Photo by Gary M. Stolz (USFWS)

Bird news
Birds in the blogosphere

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Bird Surveys and Background Noise

I recently came across an article (originally noted here) with some discouraging news about bird surveys. One of the key datasets used to measure North American bird population trends is the Breeding Bird Survey, in which observers conduct routine point counts along standardized routes. These point counts involve some visual observation, but most identifications are made by ear. A study found that even experienced observers tended to underestimate when identifying birds in the presence of background noise.

In order to explore these questions, Simons and others worked to develop "Bird Radio:" a series of remotely controlled playback devices that can be used to accurately mimic a population of singing birds. Researchers could then control variables, such as background noise, to see whether it affected birdwatchers' ability to estimate bird populations.

The study found that even small amounts of background noise, from rustling leaves or automobile traffic, led to a 40 percent decrease in the ability of observers to detect singing birds. What's more, said Simons, "we also learned that misidentification rates increased with the number of individuals and species encountered by observers at a census point." In other words, the researchers found that traditional means of estimating the abundance and diversity of bird species are flawed due to complications such as background noise and the accuracy of the data observers collect on surveys of breeding birds.

But the Bird Radio research also points the way toward possible solutions. Simons explains that the Bird Radio findings are helping researchers develop better sampling methods and statistical models that will provide more accurate bird population estimates. For example, researchers are attempting to identify data collection methods that will help account for background noise or other outside factors in estimating bird populations.
The result may call into question the numbers undergirding some recent State of the Birds reports, which rely heavily on data from the Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Counts. Those surveys are used for other reports and management decisions as well, so it is important that they be as accurate as possible, so that conservation money is going to the right place. I hope that the study authors find a better way of sampling, and that they share it with the rest of us who participate in such surveys.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

End of the Season

The end of the raptor banding season came over the weekend. We closed the last station a day early due to the threat of rain – rain that did materialize. Over the course of the season, banders recorded 2,155 raptors. Of that total, I probably handled around 500 of them in the course of retrieving hawks from nets and doing public demos. The season totals are on the project's weekly updates page. In the course of the season, I learned how to capture raptors, how to handle them (mostly without getting footed), and how to process and band them. I am hoping to learn songbirds as well in the near future.

My season in Cape May has come to an end as well. During the three months I spent at the Cape, I saw 173, including nine life birds. My stay there was extremely productive from a birding perspective, even though I had very little time to explore the Cape's hotspots.

Normal blogging will resume slowly this week. In particular, I hope to restart the Loose Feathers series this Friday.