Thursday, April 30, 2009

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #99 is online at the Migrations blog.

A Bathing White-throat

Now that April is drawing to a close, we will not have our winter visitors, the White-throated Sparrows, with us for much longer. So to honor their impending departure, here is a series of scenes from a sparrow taking a bath.

All photos taken with the Birdcam. More at Flickr.

Bringing the Bush Administration to New Jersey

In New Jersey this year we have a race for governor. Like New York City, the state of Virginia, and a few other jurisdictions, we do our local races in odd-numbered years. The current incumbent has been uninspiring but about as effective as one might expect under the economic and fiscal circumstances. Arrayed against him are several Republican challengers.

Apparently one of the challengers decided to distinguish himself from the pack by launching an attack on the Department of Environmental Protection. Now there are various reasons why one might criticize that agency. Many environmentalists in the state feel that it has been ineffective in fulfilling its duties, especially in protecting waterways and cleaning up toxic waste sites. Staff at the DEP has dropped by 12% over the past four years, reducing its ability to enforce environmental regulations. A plan to reduce costs and speed remediation by privatizing toxic waste cleanup has also sparked controversy.

But no, our candidate objects to none of those things. He objects to the DEP doing its job.

Layoffs of state workers, beginning with those in the Department of Environmental Protection, would be among the first cost-saving measures to reduce government's size, Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie said Tuesday.

Christie said the DEP takes too long to process permits and levies indiscriminate fines only to negotiate them down, a strong-arm tactic he said one business owner he spoke with likened to dealing with organized crime.

"We have people at the DEP who have forgotten the basic tenet of public service, and that is they work for the public, not the other way around. They're too big, and they're too unfriendly, and they're killing business in this state," Christie said, following a State House news conference where he criticized Gov. Jon S. Corzine's record on taxes.
Thank goodness we do not need the DEP for anything, like cleaning up the state! After all, we already have clean air, right?
New Jersey's air was given failing grades for a 10th consecutive year by the American Lung Association in its annual "State of the Air" report, which again found that people in rural corners of the state suffer as badly as they do in the grittiest urban areas....

South Jersey was ranked 16th with the Philadelphia region in general on a list of "25 Most Ozone-Polluted" cities, and North Jersey was ranked 17th on the same list with the New York City area.

North Jersey was additionally grouped with the New York City area to rank 22nd among the "25 U.S. Cities Most Polluted by Year-Round Particle Pollution."

On the list of "25 U.S. Cities Most Polluted by Short-term Particle Pollution," North Jersey was again lumped with the New York City area for a 16th ranking, and South Jersey was linked with Philadelphia for a 20th ranking on the same list....

The lung association also issued an F grade to every county measured for the health hazard called "ozone" pollution, which involves oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds being heated up by sunlight.
Alright, maybe we do need a functional DEP for something.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

House Sparrows Don't Like Thistle

Or so I have heard...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Endangered Species Protections Restored

Last year, the outgoing Bush administration pushed through a regulation removing the need for federal agencies to consult with biologists on environmental reviews. This afternoon, the Interior and Commerce Departments jointly announced that they would restore the old rule under special authority granted by Congress.

President Obama called for a review of the rule last month. Today, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Kempthorne's successor, and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said in a joint statement that scientific evidence justified restoring the independent reviews that Fish and Wildlife and NOAA had conducted for decades.

"By rolling back this 11th hour regulation, we are ensuring that threatened and endangered species continue to receive the full protection of the law," Salazar said. "Because science must serve as the foundation for decisions we make, federal agencies proposing to take actions that might affect threatened and endangered species will once again have to consult with biologists at the two departments."
This is obviously good news for threatened species, though how good depends on how strictly the new administration enforces the Endangered Species Act. It would help if the Interior Department could start to work through the long backlog of species needing protection.

Here is the joint press release (pdf).

New Jersey Water Worries

New Jersey residents get water from several sources. Here in Highland Park, we get our water from the Delaware and Raritan Canal. Some communities get water from reservoirs or from the Delaware River. Shore communities depend on desalinization. Still others, particularly in the more rural areas of the state, get their water from wells.

A federal study has found excessive levels of contamination in well water in northwestern New Jersey and northeastern Pennsylvania.

The study released last month by the U.S. Geological Survey turned up potentially harmful signs of arsenic and radon in the aquifer going through Hunterdon County, as well as radon and nitrate in the aquifers of Warren and Northampton counties, according to Leslie DeSimone, the lead scientist working on the study.

Of roughly 2,100 private wells sampled in 48 states between 1991 and 2004, the geological survey tested seven wells in Northampton County, two in Warren County and 14 in Hunterdon County, DeSimone said.

"The only way you can really be sure is to have your water tested," DeSimone said. Residents "might not be aware there's potential contaminants."
New Jersey residences were subject to further testing:
Out of 286 samples last year, only four exceeded allowable standards for arsenic, or 1.4 percent, department spokesman Lawrence Hajna said. In Hunterdon County, 127 out of 747 samples surpassed standards, or 17 percent, Hajna said. The samples came from wells involved in real estate transactions.

Between September 2002 and April 2007, private wells in Warren and Hunterdon counties tested positive for fecal waste, nitrates and contaminants known as volatile organic compounds, such as degreasers and components of gasoline, according to a DEP report. Arsenic was tested for in Hunterdon County, but arsenic testing was not required in Warren County until March 2008.
None of these substances belong in drinking water, but their sources are not always known. Substances like arsenic probably have natural sources, while gasoline components would have human sources. Nitrates most likely derive from fertilizers, used either for farming or growing grass.

Contaminants are not the only problem affecting well water at the moment. Natural gas extraction is making some wells rather unstable.
Norma Fiorentino’s drinking water well was a time bomb. For weeks, workers in her small northeastern Pennsylvania town had been plumbing natural gas deposits from a drilling rig a few hundred yards away. They cracked the earth and pumped in fluids to force the gas out. Somehow, stray gas worked into tiny crevasses in the rock, leaking upward into the aquifer and slipping quietly into Fiorentino’s well. Then, according to the state’s working theory, a motorized pump turned on in her well house, flicked a spark and caused a New Year’s morning blast that tossed aside a concrete slab weighing several thousand pounds.
These two concurrent issues reveal the problems associated with energy production and the very real vulnerabilities of our water supply.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Boreal Birds Petition

The Boreal Songbird Institute is looking for signatures to its petition to protect more of the boreal forest before it closes and presents the petition on May 12. Both Canadians and Non-Canadians are welcomed to sign in support of the following principles:

I ask that your government adopt the principles of the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework. The Framework calls for protecting at least 50% of the Boreal and supporting sustainable development practices in the remaining areas. Implementing this vision will necessitate:

1. Initiating conservation-based land use planning in consultation with aboriginal communities prior to approving any future development in the Boreal Forest.

2. Instituting planning that protects large areas of intact Boreal Forest, including critical habitat for bird species and wildlife as well as carbon-rich lands, recognizing that protecting these areas is critical in Canada’s fight against global warming.

3. Requiring that future logging, mining, hydro, and oil and gas development that proceeds after land use planning meets the highest sustainable development standards, including Forest Stewardship Council certification and other best management practices.

Greenhouse Gases Still Increasing

The atmospheric concentrations of two greenhouse gases continued to increase in 2008.

Researchers measured an additional 16.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) — a byproduct of fossil fuel burning — and 12.2 million tons of methane in the atmosphere at the end of December 2008. This increase is despite the global economic downturn, with its decrease in a wide range of activities that depend on fossil fuel use....

Viewed another way, for every million molecules of air, another 2.1 molecules of carbon dioxide entered the atmosphere last year and stayed there — slightly less than the 2.2 parts per million (ppm) increase in 2007. Total global concentrations topped 386 ppm, compared to 280 ppm before the industrial revolution began in the 1800s.
Methane is the worse of the two gases, but both fuel the greenhouse effect. While the amount of increase was slightly down from 2007, it matches the long-term trend of continual increase.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Biofuels and Biodiversity

On Thursday I submitted a post on biodiversity and climate change, important ecological trends that compete for the attention of environmentalists. In at least some cases the two topics are linked, either through the potential effects of climate change or various proposed solutions. An example of the latter is biofuel production, which shares many of the ecological problems of industrial agriculture.

A recent paper by Eggers et al. presents a new method of assessing biodiversity impacts resulting from changing land use due to the production of biofuel crops in Europe, distinguishing between arable (first generation) and woody (second-generation) crop types. In particular, Eggers et al. focus on two questions: (1) what might happen if we doubled the current EU biofuel target of 5.75%, and (2) what might happen if we abolished the current biofuel target. While biodiversity as such includes all forms of life, their impact assessment was restricted to a set of 313 species pertaining to four taxonomical groups.

The results indicate that more species might suffer from habitat losses rather than benefit from a doubled biofuel target, while abolishing the biofuel target would mainly have positive effects. However, the possible impacts vary spatially and depend on the choice of biofuel crop, with woody crops being less detrimental than arable crops. The results give an indication for policy and decision makers of what might happen to biodiversity under a changed biofuel policy in the European Union. The presented approach is considered to be innovative as to date no comparable policy impact assessment has been applied to such a large set of key species at the European scale.
Currently biofuel production uses mostly sugar, corn, or other cereals. Multiple studies have shown that biofuel production using these ingredients produces more greenhouse gases per unit of energy than ordinary petroleum, largely because of the high carbon costs of agriculture. Cellulosic ethanol – fuel produced from wood and grass – may be have less lifecycle impact on the climate, and if this study is correct, will destroy less biodiversity as well. The only trouble is that an efficient process for producing these second-generation biofuels awaits invention.

So for now we face an apparent choice between preventing catastrophic climate change and preserving biodiversity. However, given the problems with the current generation of biofuels, this may not be much of a choice at all. It seems to me that both goals warrant slowing the pace of biofuel production until such time as we have a process with less impact on climate and biodiversity.

As an aside, Nate from The Drinking Bird wrote a thoughtful response to the previous article on climate change and biodiversity, particularly the use of palm oil and desert solar arrays.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tree Planting at Kenilworth

Planting Trees / White House PhotoIn honor of Earth Day, the Obamas, Bidens, and Bill Clinton visited Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, D.C., to plant trees.

President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden planted trees with the Student Conservation Association in a muddy marsh beside the Anacostia River at Kenilworth....

The SCA leader, Amtchat Edwards, said they were planting trees to protect the river and, by extension, the entire watershed as a service project.

Clinton had a fundraiser to get to, but ended up staying to plant two trees, saying that service is important to him. "That's why I got into politics," he said.

The First Lady picked out the biggest tree to plant. "Look how big our tree is, honey," she called out. President Obama chose to plant a smaller tree with purple flowers.
There is a bit more on the event at the Post.

Kenilworth is one of my favorite birding spots in D.C. (perhaps second to the Arboretum), so I am pleased to see it getting some positive attention. The gardens tend to receive the most visitors in midsummer, the peak blooming season for its many waterlilies and lotuses. Founder's Day in July tends to be especially crowded. Now is actually an excellent time to visit, as crowds will be smaller and spring bird migration is underway. Plenty of shorebirds and herons ought to be passing through right about now, and at least some waterlilies will be blooming.

White House Photo by Pete Souza

Finch Photos

Since I do not get tired of Carduelis finches, here are a few that visited the feeders on Thursday. All are cropped from Birdcam images.

Thistle Trio

Siskin & Goldfinch

Molt in progressAs always, more are available on Flickr.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Loose Feathers #184

Crested Auklet / Photo by Donna Dewhurst (USFWS)

Bird and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environment and biodiversity
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Must We Choose Between Climate Change and Habitat Preservation?

An Earth Day article in Slate argues that the focus on preventing climate change is harming the more important goal of preserving endangered species and their habitats.

Even if we consider the impact of environmental degradation on humanity, deforestation has a more significant and immediate impact on local weather, water availability, water quality, and soil erosion than does global climate change from greenhouse gases. The roots of trees and native brush hold loose, nutrient-rich topsoils together, slowing erosion and absorbing precipitation. You can see the impact of habitat loss on local climate by poking a stick into the parched soils of the Brazilian cerrado or wandering along the boundary of the expanding Sahel Desert in Africa. Then there's Cherrapunjee, India, once considered the wettest place on Earth—and now facing climbing temperatures and water shortages as the once lush landscape has been denuded.

Only recently have conservationists begun to grasp what a debacle it was to enact climate change legislation in Europe without first putting in place global deforestation treaties. EU policies promoting a market for biofuels triggered the destruction of Indonesian rain forests in favor of palm plantations. Meanwhile, the forestry industry has argued that their monoculture plantations in Asia, Africa, and South America deserve credit as carbon sinks, but the data show that these biological deserts are actually spewing out carbon dioxide. We don't have federal climate change legislation in place in the United States, but the Obama administration is pushing for a carbon tax in the new budget. Conservationists now have an apparent ally in the White House, so let's tell him to slow down and get those forest protections in place before the carbon-conscious spill any more blood.

As evidence, the author cites a paper from PLoS Biology from 2007 that compared climate change and habitat conversion as causes for loss of biodiversity. (I discussed what the results meant for birds at the time.) That paper found that habitat loss alone would cause at least as many extinctions as climate change, and it is likely to contribute to most climate-related extinctions. In the high latitudes, habitat changes are being wrought primarily by warming, but in the temperate zones and tropics, economic development and deforestation drive habitat changes.

Those two trends, deforestation and climate change, can combine in particularly nasty ways so that what appears to be "green" may actually be harmful. When trees are viewed solely as carbon sinks, then any tree will do, regardless of how appropriate it is for the local landscape. The same may well hold true for fantastic schemes such as genetically-modified carbon-eating trees if such things existed. In most cases it is preferable to preserve existing forests than to convert wild lands into tree farms for carbon offsets. Numerous studies have shown that natural habitats fix more carbon than even the best artificial ones.

Yet preserving natural habitats is not what dominates the climate change discourse. Instead we have various carbon offset schemes and alternative energy, which can consist of a bewildering array of options depending on the speaker. By far the worst manifestation of this thoughtless approach appears in alternative energy proposals, especially biofuels. Currently biofuels derive from one of three main sources: corn, sugarcane, or palm oil. All of them are grown in monoculture with substantial chemical inputs, and all of them are replacing more and more natural habitat. Fuel from all such sources requires more energy to produce than it releases in burning. As of this writing cellulosic ethanol remains largely theoretical. Despite the negative energy cycle and its consequences for natural habitats, these biofuels are presented as the answer to climate change and insecure oil supplies.

The goal of saving endangered species need not be set aside to prevent climate change. However, we need to abandon many of the "solutions" offered thus far and adopt ones that preserve and expand natural landscapes.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Photos for Earth Day

Mongabay has 100 photos of unique organisms and ecosystems from around the world in honor of Earth Day, such as this Shoebill from Uganda.

Monday, April 20, 2009


The second edition of Scientia Pro Publica is online at Living the Scientific Life.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hawks at the Franklin Institute

Red-tailed Hawks nesting on top of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia have new chicks.

Midday, the male brought a dead rat or mouse - the staff couldn't tell - and much later the female ripped off some shreds and fed the first chick.

About that time, the third chick began to hatch....

Months ago, the whole thing seemed so improbable.

That was when the hawks began building a nest, but several times it blew down. Then a building crew fastened a board in place to widen the ledge, and the nest stayed.

It just happened to be in front of a window, which made it possible to mount a webcam with live streaming.

By mid-March, three eggs had been laid. The staff anticipated they might hatch as early as April 6. But the days went by, and nothing happened.

Finally, yesterday morning, a hole appeared in one of the eggs, and online chat took off.
A live webcam of the Franklin Institute nest is available at The site has many archived video clips from previous days, in addition to the live feed. The Franklin Institute has more information about the nest, included photos from two of the three hatches.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Yesterday the EPA finally determined that carbon dioxide is a threat to human health due to the threat of catastrophic climate change. Their determination was forced by a Supreme Court decision that asserted a mandate to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. That decision was announced two years ago, yet the Bush administration found ways to kick the endangerment can down the road long enough to avoid having to take any decisive action. The White House actually refused to accept an EPA endangerment finding in late 2007.

So far, this is just an acknowledgment of the problem with no new regulations:

The Administrator signed a proposal with two distinct findings regarding greenhouse gases under section 202(a) of the Clean Air Act:
  • The Administrator is proposing to find that the current and projected concentrations of the mix of six key greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6)—in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations. This is referred to as the endangerment finding.
  • The Administrator is further proposing to find that the combined emissions of CO2, CH4, N2O, and HFCs from new motor vehicles and motor vehicle engines contribute to the atmospheric concentrations of these key greenhouse gases and hence to the threat of climate change. This is referred to as the cause or contribute finding.
Today’s proposed action, as well as any final action in the future, would not itself impose any requirements on industry or other entities. An endangerment finding under one provision of the Clean Air Act would not by itself automatically trigger regulation under the entire Act.
Now that the EPA has officially acknowledged anthropogenic climate change, what will happen next? The Obama administration has stated its preference that climate change be addressed via legislation rather than agency regulations. A dedicated climate bill might have the benefit of bypassing some legal challenges and making the regulations more difficult for future administrations to undo. Such a bill is still working its way through Congress and may not be passed for several months, if ever. The endangerment finding clearly puts some pressure on recalcitrant senators to produce a bill they can tolerate rather than risk a harsher regulations from the EPA.

At the same time, the EPA is obligated to regulate greenhouse gas emissions once it determines that they are a threat to public health. That will come 60 days from now after the public comment period has passed. Kate Sheppard at Grist has more information about what those regulations might entail.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Loose Feathers #183

Sandhill Cranes / Photo by John and Karen Hollingsworth (USFWS)

Bird and birding news
New online bird guides
Birds in the blogosphere
Environment and biodiversity
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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Some Favorites from the DCPL Collection

The DC Public Library has put some of its extensive photograph archive onto Flickr, following in the footsteps of the Library of Congress and other institutions. There are currently 154 photographs in the DCPL photostream with a promise of more to come. The collection has historical images of DC streets and buildings, as well as some portraits. Photos in the collection have no known copyright restrictions.

For D.C. residents or visitors, there is a photo contest to accompany the launch of the Flickr collection.

Here are a few of my favorite images so far.

Pauline the Presidential Cow

Planning map of the National Arboretum (1929)

Street market at 7th and B NW (c. 1880)

Great Falls of the Potomac

Old Center Market at Pennsylvania and 7th NW (c. 1910)

As with the Library of Congress collection, users are invited to add tags that make images easier to find. Clicking the images above leads to their Flickr pages, which have more information about the images.

The Moth and Me

The second edition of The Moth and Me is now online.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Investigating the Condor Shootings

The Center for Biological Diversity hired a private investigator to find who shot two endangered California Condors in California. Environmental groups have also increased the reward for information about the shootings to $40,500.

Robertson was hired this week by the Center for Biological Diversity to help crack the case, which has spawned one of the largest rewards ever offered in connection with an injured endangered species.

By Thursday afternoon, the reward established by a coalition of environmental groups and wildlife advocates had grown to $40,500.

In an interview in his office, Robertson, who is a member of the Center for Biological Diversity, said, "I believe that the reward will loosen tongues in rural areas where times are tough right now."

Robertson declined to reveal his approach to the case on grounds it might tip off the shooter. However, he said he plans to travel to Monterey County next week to "begin organizing a team of investigators who will leverage their connections in the area to cast a wide net."
USFWS investigators do not seem pleased about the involvement of a private investigator. However, the agency does tend to be short-staffed, so perhaps this will lead to a faster resolution of the case. Both condors are still alive and being treated at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Deconstructing Flight

An article in yesterday's Washington Post highlights some interesting research into the mechanics of flight. It compares the flight styles of both insects and birds, primarily ones that can hover like hummingbirds and hawk moths. One project used 1,000 fps video to break down a turning motion while in flight.

The answer turned out to be surprisingly simple. First, the animal initiates the turn with asymmetrical flapping.

Then, rather than stopping the turn with a reverse asymmetrical flapping, the animal switches to regular symmetrical flapping. At that point, natural aerodynamics kick in.

"There's a simple rule for slowing back down: It's going back to being symmetric. You don't have to try anything special," said Hedrick. "What we have here is a shortcut rule for stability."

Hedrick and his colleagues universalized the principle when they noticed similarity between the flapping motions of hummingbirds and fruit flies. They studied nine types of creatures, including a hummingbird, a cockatoo, a bat and four species of insects, and all used FCT.
FCT is the acronym for "flapping counter-torque."

I think that the flight mechanics are interesting on their own, but there is some backing for this research coming from military sources:
The military, Willis said, "would love it if they could robotically control a moth and have it fly into a window with a camera on its back."
Apparently there may be some other applications for rescue operations, perhaps involving some other kinds of sensors rather than cameras. All that is a long way off, however, because of the difficulty in engineering structures that are as strong and flexible as animal wings. So for the moment we just have some interesting research.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Two amaryllis plants have been blooming at my home over the past few weeks. As one flower wilts, others take its place. The blooms are quite large and translucent with the light at the right angle.

More amaryllis photos at my Flickr account.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Eagle with a Camera

A friend of mine found this video on YouTube. It shows the perspective of a Golden Eagle with a video camera mounted on its back. The eagle seems to be in the care of a falconer, who launches it three times during the course of the video.

If the video fails to embed, you can find it here.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Loose Feathers #182

American Bittern / Photo by Gary Kramer (USFWS)

Bird and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environmental news
  • While Arctic sea ice has a greater area than in 2008, most of it is very thin; only 10% has formed over more than two years, compared to 30%-40% during the 1980s. Even with the slight increase in area, Arctic sea ice now covers a much smaller area than it did 30 years ago.
  • Commercial flame retardants are present in all U.S. coastal waterways, with the highest concentrations in the sediments and shellfish of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary. Anaheim Bay also had high concentrations in shellfish. These chemicals are known to cause developmental problems.
  • The EPA has a list of its most wanted environmental fugitives. Sadly, there are no Exxon executives.
  • The Gowanus Canal is slated to become a Superfund site.
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Review: The Princeton Encyclopedia of Birds

Spring is marvelous for many reasons. The most obvious, perhaps, is the sudden blooming of a multitude of flowers of different species that have lain dormant all winter. Even non-birders notice the first daffodils poking through the ground, or the annual spectacle of cherry blossoms. A more keen-eared observer might notice the proliferation of bird song – a growing chorus of robins, cardinals, juncos, mockingbirds, wrens, blackbirds, warblers, etc. This is the time when the diversity of bird species is most apparent, whether one watches warblers in wooded parks or scans shorebirds on distant mudflats.

Several publishers have attempted to produce reference guides to the birds of the world, most notably the popular Bird. Condensing the diversity of the class Aves into a single field guide or encyclopedia is not an easy task. First, experts disagree about how many species exist, and new species are constantly being discovered, either through expeditions to remote areas or by closer examination of known populations. Second, with over 9,000 known species, class Aves is the most diverse vertebrate class; by contrast, there are about 5,400 mammal species. Any editor attempting to fit the breadth and depth of this class into a single volume will be faced with difficult choices.

A new guide to birds of the world, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Birds, edited by Christopher Perrin, attempts to meet that challenge by focusing on bird families rather than individual species or genera. North American birders may recognize this approach; David Sibley used it in his Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. This new book from Princeton shares that guide's strengths and weaknesses.

A short introduction attempts to answer the question "What is a bird?" The account describes evolution from dinosaurs, and how modern and ancestral birds differ from their more reptilian kin. This question has become more difficult to answer, as recent discoveries have shown that many dinosaurs shared characteristic traits with birds, including feathers, hollow bones, and perhaps endothermic systems. The introduction discusses many of the characteristics birds share in common, such as flight (or in some cases, vestigial flight structures), lung structure, nest-building, and egg-laying. Within each of these broad characteristics, however, are many variations caused by adaptations to specific environmental constraints. The introduction tries to show what some of these are, but leaves most variations for the family chapters.

Most of the book consists of accounts for each of the 172 bird families on the Sibley and Monroe checklist. Basic information – number of species, distribution, habitats, and the like – is condensed into a "factfile" (see left). The accompanying text discusses the family's characteristic traits in more detail. Each account begins some discussion of when and where the family evolved and how it relates to other families; if it includes subfamilies, these are discussed individually. The accounts moves on to adaptations that help them forage or survive in difficult habitats. Breeding behavior is given its own subheading, and in some cases, is lengthened into a sidebar or two-page "photo story." The shorebird account, for example, includes a two-page spread of photographs illustrating the courtship and copulation of Ruffs, and the bowerbird account has examples of bowers from several different species.

Conservation of vulnerable species is a running theme. Each family "factfile" includes a header on the family's conservation status and lists any threatened or extinct species. Occasionally extinct species merit their own sidebar, as is the case with the Dodo. Other "special features" highlight conservation problems for For example, the falcon account includes a lengthy sidebar discussion of the effect of DDT on falcons and other raptors, and the chapter on cranes describes the work of Operation Migration.

While the text is informative, the best aspect of this book is the abundance of illustrations. Unlike many bird references, it combines both photographs and paintings to take full advantage of each medium. Painted illustrations, as in the image from the tern account, show the range of forms within each family. Photographs accompanying the text show additional species and typical behaviors such as feeding nestlings or communal roosting. Additional line drawings depict courtship flights or dances. Both photographs and illustrations are extremely attractive; the paintings are particularly well-executed. I am sure that perusing these illustrations will provide plenty of fodder for personal most-wanted bird lists.

I like this family-based approach, as it encourages the reader to step away from the minutiae of bird identification and enjoy the broader picture of bird diversity. However, I have met birders who disagree with this approach, in some cases vigorously. My recommendation is that if you liked Bird or Sibley's Guide to Bird Life & Behavior, you will probably appreciate this book even more, as it places North American birds into a worldwide context. Readers who want a guide to all of the species might be happier with a series of illustrated checklists or the monumental Handbook of the Birds of the World.

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Birds. Edited by Christopher Perrins. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009. Pp. 654; photographs and illustrations, maps, glossary, index. $35.00 paper.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Bayonne Selling a Bird Preserve

Shooter's Island on Google Earth

The city of Bayonne is trying to sell its 15.4-acre share of Shooter's Island, a bird sanctuary west of the Bayonne Bridge. The island is jointly-owned by Bayonne, Elizabeth, and Staten Island, and the sanctuary is managed by New York City's Department of Environmental Protection. Bayonne's government wants the sale to help close its deficit and is pushing forward against the advice of its environmental advisers.
But James Monkowski, the city's environmental adviser, isn't sure the property can be sold.

"I don't know if they can (sell the island)," Monkowski said. "The last I heard, the island was declared a nature preserve. It's listed as a harbor heron sanctuary."

Area nature experts tended to agree yesterday.

Hugh Carola, program director for the Hackensack Riverkeeper, characterized the island - which sits where the Arthur Kill, Kill Van Kull and Newark Bay meet - as a "protected nesting area" for certain types of migratory birds.

After some squatters moved onto the island several years ago, the birds that were breeding there scattered, Carola said. Recently, though, two pairs of ospreys were spotted nesting on the island and several cormorants were also seen in and around the island, he said.

"I can't imagine who'd want to buy it and, if they did, what they'd do with it," Carola said.

Glenn Phillips, executive director of the New York City Audubon Society, said bird colonies found among the small islands in the Arthur Kill region shift nesting areas, so they could return to Shooter's Island.

"The island has a clear public use as a sanctuary for such birds as gulls, cormorants and ospreys," Phillips said.
The auction was scheduled for today but had to be postponed at the last minute because of legal problems with other city properties also up for the sale.

I have trouble imagining that someone would want to buy the Shooter's Island property since it would be difficult to use it as anything other than a bird sanctuary. Access is only by boat, and reaching the Bayonne portion would involve crossing a busy shipping lane. Plus, as one can see from the satellite photo, the island and its nearby waters are filled with detritus left over from its past as a ship-building center. The island's conservation status would likely complicate any attempt to develop it. Still, the attempted auction is disturbing, both for the future of this particular island and for other preserves around the area.

Bill to Fund Migratory Bird Conservation

Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland introduced a bill to increase funding under the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act. A similar bill was introduced in the House and Senate last year but failed to pass. Maybe Cardin's bill will fare better in the new Congress, much like the public lands bill did. It really depends on how quickly the relevant committees want to move it.

Here is some background on the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act:

NMBCA supports partnership programs to conserve birds in the United States, Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean, where approximately five billion birds of over 500 species, including some of the most endangered birds in North America, spend their winters. Projects include activities that benefit bird populations such as habitat restoration, research and monitoring, law enforcement, and outreach and education. Between 2002 and 2007, the program supported 225 projects, coordinated by partners in 44 U.S. states/territories and 34 countries. Projects involving land conservation have affected about 3 million acres of bird habitat.

Staff of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service report that they receive many more requests for high quality conservation projects than they can provide grants for. NMBCA currently provides a maximum authorization of $6 million per year; this year Congress is recommending an appropriation of $4.75 million, a $250 thousand increase from the previous year. Under the new law, that amount would increase to $20 million by 2015. Grants require matching funds from other non-federal sources. Thus far, more than $21 million from NMBCA grants has leveraged over $95 million in partner contributions. FWS lists 341 migratory bird species that can benefit from the program:
Finally, here is the text of the bill.

Birds of the Spring Equinox

Birds of the EquinoxBirdstack has posted a compilation of the birds reported during this year's spring equinox.

My contribution is posted here.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Wilkins Ice Shelf Almost Detached

The ice bridge that connects the Wilkins Ice Shelf to Antarctica is in the process of collapsing. Over the past week, a large section of sea ice (the size of Jamaica) broke from the bridge and floated away. Once the rest of the ice bridge is gone, the formerly-stable Wilkins Ice Shelf will be more vulnerable to collapse.

The image was captured by the European Union's ENVISAT satellite. More images here.

Circus of the Spineless

The Circus of the Spineless is back with a new edition at Living the Scientific Life.

This blog carnival celebrates all forms of invertebrate life. The next edition will appear on the first Monday in May at Birder's Lounge.

Update: The first edition of Scientia Pro Publica, a blog carnival to replace the apparently defunct Tangled Bank, also appeared at Living the Scientific Life today.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Sabal Palm Sanctuary to Close

The Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary in Brownsville, Texas, will close to the public from at least May 15 to June 15 due to poor economic conditions and uncertainty caused by the border wall.

The sanctuary's original mission of preserving one of the nation's last oases of healthy sabal palm habitat had been augmented in recent years by nature education efforts that expanded its role to that of a community nature center. Regrettably, donors buffeted by the recession have significantly cut back support and there is uncertainty about the Homeland Security border fence that threatens to cut off the facility from the community, effectively decimating the sanctuary's operating budget....

The 557-acre property, owned by The National Audubon Society, is home to the last remaining largest stand of native sabal palms in the nation; and is among the most biologically diverse regions in the Lone Star state. Aside from being a birder's paradise, rare plants and animals are seen here in this unique sub-tropical habitat.

Audubon will focus its resources on protecting and managing the sanctuary through a new schedule that includes months with limited access to the public. The following schedule will be in effect until further notice:


Oct. 15 – Dec. 15 OPEN WEEKENDS ONLY (Saturday & Sunday)

Dec. 15 – May 15 OPEN Tues – Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The center will offer private tours while the center is closed if arranged in advance.

It is unfortunate that such a unique and valuable habitat might be shut off from the rest of the United States due to hostility to immigration. This possibility (perhaps probability) is no doubt hampering the sanctuary's efforts to raise funds to continue serving the public. The heavy-handed tactics of the border wall builders, at least in this case, may end up hurting wildlife and American citizens much more than preventing illegal immigration.

Skywatch Saturday: After the Rain

Since Skywatch Friday conflicts with other scheduled posts on this blog, I usually do not participate. Today, though, I have some sky photos left from a walk after yesterday's rain storm. When I looked at radar maps in the late afternoon, the storm seemed to be ending, so I walked down to the nearby park to do a little birdwatching. Apparently I misread the radar because shortly after I arrived, the clouds opened and rain started pouring down. I had worn my rain-proof shell, so I did not get too wet, but the downpour dampened my birding prospects.

Soon enough, the rain stopped, and instead of birds, I started watching the light. When the rain clouds parted, the sky became a mix of grays, whites, and blues – in some cases dramatic and in others subtle. There were, of course, birds at the park; robins and juncos were singing all around me when there was no rain. The usual Canada Geese and Mallards patrolled the waterways, and I saw a Tree Swallow zip past along the river. There were no rainbows that I could see. but I heard of them appearing elsewhere.

Below are a few sky photos from the walk.

Clouds breaking over the river

Dramatic clouds

Sky over willowsThere are more park photos at my Flickr account.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Loose Feathers #181

Steller's Eiders / Photo by Laura L. Whitehouse (USFWS)

Bird and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environmental news
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, April 02, 2009

I and the Bird

The 97th I and the Bird is now online at Great Auk or Greatest Auk.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

New Boreal Forest Preserves

Photo credit: Innu Nation

Quebec's premier recently announced that the province would set aside another 4.5 million acres distributed over 14 new national parks.
The Quebec government has added 18,000 square kilometres of land to the amount already protected in the province, bringing the total to 135,326 square kilometres - the size of new Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island combined.

The increase, announced yesterday by Premier Jean Charest and Line Beauchamp, minister of sustainable development, environment and parks, brings the percentage of protected land in the province to 8.12 - just over the eight-per-cent goal the government set in 2003.

The latest protected swaths comprise half of Quebec's Boreal Forest in the northern part of the province, including more land around George River and eight sites in Nunavik.
The new preserves in Quebec's boreal forest are especially important given the sizable bird populations that call it home. According to the Boreal Songbird Initiative, the province plans to preserve more land within the next few years. This move, combined with Obama's signing of the major public lands bill, makes for a very encouraging week for land preservation.