Saturday, May 30, 2009

Red Knots Gaining More Weight in 2009

Red Knot, originally uploaded by Birdfreak

This report from the APP suggests that the Red Knot situation may be stabilizing.
At less than a quarter-pound, each sanderling could easily fit in a coffee cup. But for these shorebirds, it's good to be overweight; their May feast on Delaware Bay gave them enough fuel for the last leg of their annual, hemispheric flight.

"Hitting over 100 grams is very good. Some of these birds can barely fly. So they're in great condition," scientist Larry Niles told Rutgers University students Wednesday, after they helped weigh and tag one of the biggest captures this spring by the Delaware Bay Shorebird Project.

For the first time in a decade, red knots and other migrating shorebirds appear to be finding enough horseshoe crab eggs in Delaware to achieve critical weight gain, Niles said.

"We're extraordinarily pleased with what's happened," said Larry Niles, a biologist with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey and the former chief of New Jersey's endangered species program. "We've had unusually settled weather the last couple of weeks, low onshore winds. So it was a soup of crabs."

The birds have gained weight so fast that researchers anticipate they will lift off this week to head for their summer breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic, said Amanda Dey, who heads the shorebird effort for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Weight gain is critical for shorebirds since they will need to excess fat for a nonstop flight to their Arctic breeding grounds. Without that fat, they may not be able to complete the journey or they may arrive too exhausted and famished to breed. The brevity of Arctic summer means that shorebirds must follow an even stricter schedule than other bird species. Those that cannot breed right away may not breed at all.

So this is very good news:
The birds have had a good time on their Delaware Bay stopover, according to weighing data compiled by the team. In past years many birds failed to reach what researchers considered minimum safe weights to survive the flight north.

But graphs showing this year's weights show many more birds hitting the optimums. Observers have seen much less activity at Stone Harbor on the ocean side of Cape May County, where large numbers of shorebirds congregated in recent springs, and researchers believed they were feeding on mussels to make up for shortfalls in crab eggs.
Of course, Red Knots are not out of the woods yet. One good spring eating season just gives them a better chance at preventing further losses. There is certainly a long way to go to recovery. But given the dire outlook for these birds just a few years ago, it is a hopeful sign that conservation measures are starting to have effect.

Reported any banded or color-tagged shorebirds to The banding studies help scientists to understand more about the birds' movements and habitat needs.

Blue Whales in New York

blue whaleNormally I post about birds here, but this is pretty cool. Blue whales have been heard singing in New York's coastal waters, apparently for the first time. A blue whale was recorded singing about 70 miles off Long Island on January 10-11 of this year, with a second responding farther away.

During 2008-2009, ten of Cornell’s acoustic recorders were deployed about 13 miles from the New York Harbor entrance and off the shores of Fire Island to study the acoustic environment of New York waters and examine whether noises, including shipping traffic, are affecting the whales. By knowing the whales’ seasonal presence, New York state policymakers can make critical conservation decisions to help protect blue whales by developing management plans to avoid ship collisions with whales and reduce noises that interfere with their communications.

The acoustic monitoring was initiated from March through mid-May of 2008 to record the northward migration of right whales from their calving grounds off the Florida eastern coast to their feeding grounds off Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Cornell scientists and DEC are able to monitor and provide specific data on the species that are detected, including when and where they occur in New York waters throughout the year.
Apparently the Natural History Whale has some real baleen-and-blubber company in the area.

It is not entirely clear from the link whether this represents a first state record or simply the first acoustic contact. I suspect the latter. It would surprise me if 19th-century whalers had not caught up with one at some point. Still, it is a reminder that a lot more things may lurk off the coasts about which we are only vaguely aware.

Speaking of things lurking off the coast, see this article on what lies at the bottom of New York Bay.

Back to birds in a bit...

Friday, May 29, 2009

Loose Feathers #189

Willow Ptarmigan / Photo by Tim Bowman (USFWS)

Birds and birding news
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Thursday, May 28, 2009

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #101 is now online at Living the Scientific Life.

Hawaiian Honeycreepers Losing Ground to Climate Change

honeycreeperThe Hawaiian Islands are a fairly typical example of island biodiversity. Isolated from contact with mainland species, the islands' organisms evolved into unusual forms found nowhere else, and many species found elsewhere were not present. The rare organisms thrived, at least until humans arrived, making changes in the landscape and bringing invasive species. Many of Hawaii's endemic species are now endangered as a result.

For some of Hawaii's most iconic birds, the honeycreepers, there is a more insidious threat. Mosquitos – and mosquito-borne illnesses – are expanding their range on the islands thanks to climate change.

At one time, the Hawaiian Islands had no mosquitoes – and no mosquito-borne diseases. But, by the late 1800s, mosquitoes had set up permanent housekeeping, setting the stage for epidemic transmission of avian malaria and pox. Honeycreepers – just like people faced with novel viruses such as swine flu – had no natural resistance against these diseases.

Before long, Hawaii’s native honeycreepers significantly declined in numbers and geographic range. It was likely that malaria swept rapidly across all of the lower Hawaiian Islands after the disease was introduced, leaving few survivors. Today, native Hawaiian birds face one of the highest rates of extinction in the world. Of 41 honeycreeper species and subspecies known since historic times, 17 are probably extinct, 14 are endangered, and only 3 are in decent shape.
Since malaria transmission depends on a warmer climate, honeycreepers so far have been able to find refuge in high altitude regions. These offer suitable habitat for the birds but are inhospitably cool for mosquitos. But that may change:
Although most disease transmission now occurs in these mid-elevation forests, this will change if the projected 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Centigrade) raise in temperature occurs.

“With this kind of temperature change, about 60 to 96 percent of the high-elevation disease refuges would disappear,” said Atkinson. For example, available high-elevation forest habitat in the low-risk disease zone would likely decline by nearly 60 percent at Hanawi Natural Area Reserve on Maui to as much as 96 percent at Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge on Hawaii Island. On other islands, such as Kauai, with lower elevations and no low-risk zones even now, predicted temperature changes would likely be catastrophic for remaining honeycreeper species.
The extinction (or even decimation) or more honeycreepers would be a tremendous biodiversity loss for the world and perhaps an economic loss for Hawaii. Endemic species are a major draw, and for me at least, honeycreepers would be near the top of the list of species to see if I ever visit the state. I imagine other birders would feel likewise. So it is likely in the state's interest to manage habitats in such a way as to give these unique birds the best shot possible at survival. In the long run, however, only slowing or stopping climate change will put these and other rare species back into safe territory.

Local Parrots

As mentioned in a previous post here, Monk Parakeets recently became a recognized species in New Jersey. While the state's best-known colony is in Edgewater, there is also one in Carteret, here in Middlesex County. David Wheeler at has some photographs of Carteret's Monk Parakeet colony.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sotomayor and the Environment

Yesterday President Obama nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor to replace retiring Justice David Souter* on the U.S. Supreme Court. The choice was significant for several reasons, not least of which is that she will help to fill some demographic gaps on the current court. While other sites will cover those aspects in more detail, I would like to focus on how the choice might affect environmental policy.

During the past eight years, the federal court system frequently served as the last bastion to reverse environmentally harmful Bush administration policies. Federal lawsuits covered topics from endangered species protection to air and water pollution to punitive damages in the Exxon Valdez case. Perhaps the most significant recent case was Massachusetts v. EPA, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA has authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act and that it must do so if greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health and welfare. Last month, the EPA found that such emissions do endanger public health, thus triggering future regulations. Whether reduction of greenhouse gases comes via EPA regulations or a legislated cap-and-trade program, the specifics are likely to wind up in federal courts, perhaps even at the Supreme Court. Likewise, the new administration's wildlife protection policies may well trigger lawsuits.

Thus Souter's replacement is likely to have a significant impact on environmental policy. Given what I have read so far, Sotomayor has faced relatively few environmental cases. One of her opinions in a case reviewed by SCOTUSblog gives some reason for optimism:

Sotomayor’s most notable environmental-law opinion is Riverkeeper v. EPA, 475 F.3d 83 (2d Cir. 2007), a challenge to an EPA rule regulating cooling-water intake structures at power plants. To minimize the adverse impact on aquatic life (which could otherwise be trapped against the intake structure or, if small enough, sucked into the pipes themselves), the Clean Water Act requires the intake structures to use the “best technology available,” without specifying what factors the EPA should consider in determining what constitutes the “best technology available.” Sotomayor wrote and opinion holding that the EPA was not permitted to engage in a cost-benefit analysis to determine “best technology available”; instead, it could consider cost only to determine “what technology can be ‘reasonably borne’ by the industry” and whether the proposed technology was “cost-effective” - which, she concluded, requires the EPA in turn to determine whether the technology at issue is “a less expensive technology that achieves essentially the same results” as the best technology that the industry could reasonably bear. Thus, she explained, “assuming the EPA has determined that power plants governed by the Phase II Rule can reasonably bear the price of technology that saves between 100-105 fish, the EPA, given a choice between a technology that costs $100 to save 99-101 fish and one that costs $150 to save 100-103 fish . . . could appropriately choose the cheaper technology on cost-effectiveness grounds.” On this issue, Sotomayor remanded to the EPA, finding it “unclear” how the EPA had arrived at its conclusions and, in particular, whether the EPA had improperly weighed costs and benefits.
Sotomayor also wrote that restocking fish would not fulfill the Clean Water Act's requirements. Unfortunately her decision was subsequently overturned by a Supreme Court decision written by Justice Scalia. In this opinion, she takes a firm stand in favor of strong federal regulation to protect wildlife. Presumably this would extend to other environmental policy questions as well.

I would not want to put too much emphasis on a single opinion, especially since other cases before the Second Circuit have not fared as well. Sotomayor would also not shift the Supreme Court's current balance on environmental issues. As noted by SCOTUSblog, Justice Souter was one of the three dissenters when Sotomayor's ruling was overturned, suggesting that they have similar views. At the very least, she should prevent the court from becoming worse, and she ought to continue Souter's strong environmental voting record.

Given what we know, I think Sotomayor is a good pick.

* Speaking of Souter, I would be remiss not to mention this Onion report.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Will Waxman-Markey Stop Climate Change?

An article in the Washington Post discusses the various uncertainties surrounding the Waxman-Markey climate bill, from what it will look like in its final form to how some provisions will work in practice. The plan has already been substantially compromised as a result of its narrow passage through the House Energy and Commerce Committee. There will be further modification, for better or worse, as the bill passes through the House and (hopefully) the Senate.

The big question is how effective the bill's cap-and-trade system will be.

The United States already has a working cap-and-trade system, used since 1995 to cut back the gases blamed for acid rain. The Environmental Protection Agency says the trading system has reduced the overall cost of cutting acid-rain-causing pollutants to one-third of what was projected.

But comparing the two problems is like comparing a horn section and an orchestra.

Acid-rain pollutants can be sucked out of a smokestack by adding "scrubbers." But nothing like that is commercially available for carbon dioxide -- polluters might have to replace the coal they burn with a different fuel, or replace the coal-burning plants with solar "farms" and windmills.

Also, greenhouse gases come from far more sources: power plants, factories, car tailpipes, and both ends of a well-fed dairy cow (though the bill doesn't tackle that one: cows could still burp free of charge).
While a declining cap ought to force reductions, how effective a cap-and-trade system will be depends on who has to abide by its limits and how much allowances cost. The system is already being set up for ineffectiveness by giving away most of the permits for free and creating a dubious offset program. Many industries are lobbying heavily for exemptions from emissions rules, and many will no doubt succeed. Others are trying to get dirty or toxic fuel sources classified as "clean energy."

In this environment, it is hard to see a strong bill getting passed. Whatever emerges from the legislative meatgrinder is likely to have serious flaws and may not meet the timetable for avoiding catastrophic climate change suggested by scientific research. Some reduction is better than no reduction, but some reduction may not be enough.

Hummingbirds at High Speed

An article on the uses of contemporary high-speed cameras had an interesting tidbit about hummingbirds:

The show, which averages 1.1 million viewers, is not meant to do original science. The team members do not do controlled, repeatable experiments. But they have made some observations that they think are original, which could always spur some real research.

In a segment about how a hummingbird feeds itself, Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Kearney saw something that they think helps the bird to remain balanced while moving at rapid speeds. Using X-ray fluoroscopy, they could see nectar inside the crop on the bird’s neck, sloshing back and forth, acting as a fluid damping system. It was “taking the vibrational energy out of the body system and not letting it transfer up to the head,” Mr. Lieberman said.

“It was very easy to see on video,” he said. “But without seeing inside the bird as it flies, you would never even think about it.”

Monday, May 25, 2009

Twitter Birding in Central Park

One of the great aspects of the blogosphere is that it can connect people who have similar interests but are separated by many miles. So it is in the world of nature blogging, where I can regularly read posts from people scattered all over the country, and some even as far away as the Arctic or Australia. The same is true for real-time applications like Twitter. Much as I enjoy reading all these blogs, tweets, and chirps, sometimes it is nice to put together some names and faces. So it was that yesterday I took a train into New York to meet two other Twittering birders, Dawn (@DawnFine) and Matt (@mattbango), and their partners and family members. Matt is the founder and designer, along with his brother, of Chirptracker, a Twitter-like web application built specifically for birders. That site is still in beta, but invitations are available for any birders who want to join. Dawn happened to be staying in Jersey City this week in the course of her peregrinations around the country (chronicled at her blog), so it seemed like a good opportunity for a meet-up.

The seven of us met near Strawberry Fields and proceeded to work our way north around the Lake and through the Ramble. From the start of the walk, it was clear that we were watching the late stages of spring migration. Everywhere we went there were Blackpoll Warblers of various ages and sexes, some noticeable only as a faint high-pitched tink-tink-tink-tink, others visible right in front of us. Blackpolls are among the last warblers to migrate and peak in late May, after many other species have already moved on. Another sign that migration is winding down is that many birds were building or tending nests. We saw at least three probable robin nests, orioles carrying nesting materials, and a Wood Thrush nest. The latter was only a yard or two away from the path in a well-trafficked location. (Given all of the problems that urban birds face, I have to wonder how likely this nest is to be successful. Even if the foot traffic does not bother this pair, the nest seems like a good candidate to be parasitized by cowbirds or robbed by Blue Jays.) Aside from the visible nests, we could hear Warbling Vireos singing all around any body of water; at least some of these must be on territory.

Of course, plenty of migrants are still on the move. Shortly after arriving, we watched a Swainson's Thrush and a White-throated Sparrow bathing in the shallows of the Lake's Lower Lobe. Moving into the Ramble, we began to find more species. Our best luck was in the area around the Azalea Pond, where many birds come down from the canopy to drink or bathe. There we had a long look at a Northern Waterthrush, as well as glimpses of a handful of Northern Parulas, Chestnut-sided Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, and the aforementioned Blackpolls. A kind passerby pointed out a bathing Black-throated Green Warbler; though not a birder, she recognized it as something unusual and was delighted to see it. In addition, many Magnolia Warblers, American Redstarts, and Red-eyed Vireos were scattered around the park.

Occasionally we got reminders of the urbanness of our birding location. There were a few large troops of tourists – and at least one large troop of birders – making their way around the park, in addition to the normal weekend crowds. Resident birds, used to the bustle, acted quite tame. Some Gray Catbirds approached to check us out, and female Northern Cardinals came even closer. The cardinals looked like they might have been expecting us to give them food. Some birders will hand-feed wild birds in the park. (One breeding season featuring hand-feeding is chronicled in Bob Levy's Club George.)

The best sighting of the day came near the end of our walk. We stopped at Tanner's Spring, a small pond (barely more than a puddle) close to the Delacorte Theater that can often attract birds to drink and bathe. At first we just saw more of the same species we saw in the Ramble, along with House Sparrows, Common Grackles, and an Eastern Wood-Pewee. Then a couple of us briefly spotted a Canada Warbler in the understory near the spring. Unfortunately not everyone got a good look at this bird, which of course did not make a second appearance while we were waiting for it. At least the sighting gave Dawn a new life bird.

We wandered a bit farther north from there, finding a Yellow Warbler along the way, before we decided to end our birding for the day. By my count we had seen 38 species in a few hours of birding. I greatly enjoyed seeing those birds and meeting two of my Twitter and Chirptracker friends, Dawn and Matt. In the recent past I have also had the chance to meet blogging friends, through the Four Bloggers adventure in March and the Cape May meetup last October. I hope to meet some more blogging or twittering birders in the future.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Condor Investigation Going Public

California Condor / Photo by Scott Frier (USFWS)

Shortly after two condors were found shot in California, the Center for Biological Diversity put together a $40,500 reward for evidence and hired a private investigator (Bruce Robertson) to find who did it. Since that time, one condor has been released, and the other has died from lead poisoning. To this point, the Center for Biological Diversity's investigator has worked undercover, but he is now making his investigation more public.
This weekend Mr. Robertson plans to shed his undercover guise and begin distributing wanted posters on doorsteps, telephone poles and in mailboxes and gun shops across the Central Coast. The posters highlight the cash reward and ask anyone with information to call an 800 number or send an e-mail message.

“People will start talking when they find out about the money,” he said.

The posters rankle federal Fish and Wildlife Service officials. “It would be much better if people with information contacted law enforcement officials trained to handle such information in the proper way,” said Alex Pitts, an agency spokeswoman.

Law enforcement officials from the agency and from the California Department of Fish and Game and local sheriff’s offices are conducting their own investigation into the condor shootings. “I hope if he finds information he gives it to our investigators,” Ms. Pitts said of Mr. Robertson.
I hope that whatever Robertson is doing does not interfere with the investigations being conducted by the wildlife agencies. At the same time, these agencies, including their enforcement divisions, tend to be underfunded so having extra help is probably a benefit. Hopefully publicizing the reward will lead to better information.

This entire episode is very sobering, as it emphasizes how vulnerable many species are to our thoughtless (or malicious) actions. Despite many years of captive breeding and reintroduction, California Condors remain very much on the brink of extinction. In large part this is thanks to the lead that humans have left scattered throughout the western landscape; released condors regularly need to be recaptured for lead testing. Habituation to people and loss of wild upbringing have left the released birds with bad habits. Without substantial ongoing intervention and precautions such as California's lead bullet ban, condors could well disappear. The same is true for Whooping Cranes, which have struggled mightily when released into the wild. Red Knots and other birds could be in that position in the near future. It is distressing to see wildlife in such precarious condition.

Counting Knots

According to a post on the Delaware birding list (from May 22), recent counts have estimated that there are about 12,000 Red Knots around Delaware Bay.

I've been spending a lot of time down with the shorebird research team and thought everyone might like to know how things are going. The birds really started coming in about May 14, which is a bit later than usual. They have been building rapidly since then. The last bay-wide aerial survey was yesterday and the count was roughly 12,000 Knot and 16,000 Turnstones. This week and next week should be the peak weeks for the shorebirds. After about the 30th I would anticipate that some would start leaving and almost all should be gone by June 6 or so (keep in mind each year is different and this is my best educated guess). For those of you following the knot closely, 12,000 is not necessarily the high number for the year. A mathematical model is typically used to calculate the population size since all of the knot are probably not in the bay at any one time.
She further suggests that Mispillion Harbor is currently the best place for viewing Red Knots; last week the harbor featured 3,000-7,000 knots daily. Of course, there are plenty of other reliable spots, in both Delaware and New Jersey.

A count of 12,000 seems to be more or less in line with counts from the past few years (e.g.). Whether or not that is a sign of stabilization remains to be seen. There is probably more that can be gleaned this year's banding studies. If you find a color-marked shorebird, make sure to report it through

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Mockingbirds Sing Better in Harsher Climates

Northern Mockingbird / Photo by Ryan Hagerty (USFWS)

Earlier this week, we learned of one aspect of mockingbirds' cognition, the ability to distinguish among individual humans. Another study released later in the week found that male mockingbirds in more variable climates tend to become better singers. The study used over 100 tracks from 29 mockingbird species as a basis for comparison.
"As environments become more variable or unpredictable, song displays become more elaborate," said Carlos Botero, a postdoctoral researcher at NESCent.

"Survival and reproduction become more complicated when weather patterns are unpredictable because you don't know when food will be available or how long it will be around."

And for female birds, "the consequences of picking a mediocre mate are magnified in harsher climes," he said.

Male mockingbirds sing mainly to impress mates, so superior singing skills suggest that a male is a good catch, according to Botero. But males that sing more complex songs also "tend to carry fewer parasites, and have offspring that are more likely to survive," Botero said.

Songbirds are not born knowing how to sing, and have to learn their songs over time. Botero and colleagues believe that this song-learning ability is a sign of broader learning ability.
Abstract and article available here.

My one complaint is that the AFP article does not specify what it means for a mockingbird song to be "better," or how the scientists measured quality. One could potentially look at different aspects of a song; its clarity, pitch accuracy, volume, and complexity could all legitimate bases for comparison. Since the discussion focuses on a bird's learning abilities, my guess is that the scientists were looking for complexity. Since mockingbirds learn not only from other males, but also sounds in their environment, song complexity probably is a good proxy for cognitive abilities. Still, I would have liked this aspect to be a bit more clear.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Loose Feathers #188

White-crowned Sparrow / Photo by Dave Menke (USFWS)

Bird and birding news
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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Blister Beetle in Cape May

The following are photos of an interesting beetle that I found in one of the fields at Higbee Beach in Cape May. This beetle belongs to the family Meloidae, commonly called blister beetles. When squeezed, these beetles release a chemical called Cantharidin, an irritant that can blister skin or cause urinary tract damage. The chemical will also kill horses if ingested in hay bales.

This individual appears to belong to genus Meloe, most likely a Short-winged Blister Beetle (Meloe angusticollis). For comparison, here is an example of a Short-winged Blister Beetle from Gloucester County, NJ.

The insect depicted below was quite large for a beetle. Its exterior appeared variably black and metallic green. It appeared to prefer lurking in the shade of grass clumps.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Humans and Extinction in the Past and Present

One of the mysteries of prehistoric North America is why many large mammals suddenly became extinct around 11,000 years ago. At least some hypotheses put the blame on the arrival of humans on the continent.

For decades, the dominant theory, proposed by Paul Martin, a geoscientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who's now retired, was a rampage of hunting by humans who'd just arrived across a land bridge from Asia. Within a few hundred years, Martin theorized, a "blitzkrieg'' of killing wiped out more than half of all the mammals that weighed more than 100 pounds.

As a result, "Americans live in a land of ghosts,'' Martin wrote in his 2005 book, "Twilight of the Mammoths."

MacPhee, however, thinks that it wasn't over-hunting but the diseases people brought with them that ravaged animal populations in North America. As a parallel example, he noted how microbes introduced by European conquerors destroyed Central and South American civilizations 500 years ago.

Other scientists, such as Russell Graham, a museum director at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, think that climate change was "the major driving force that caused the extinctions.'' It destroyed animals' native habitats and reduced their geographic range so much that they could no longer survive.
We probably cannot know for certain what was the most important factor in that wave of extinctions. The fossil record gives an incomplete picture at best, and we do not have eyewitness accounts, unlike with more recent extinctions. This is not an idle question, as our planet is currently undergoing radical changes due to anthropogenic climate change and habitat destruction. The upshot may be another mass extinction event in the near future. Already 12% of the world's birds are threatened, and 1 in 10 odonates face extinction. Knowing how past extinctions occurred could give some insight into how we might prevent the current one.

Human contribution to prehistoric extinctions becomes more believable each time I read of something like this.
Asia Pulp & Paper and Sinar Mas Group have acquired a license to clear hundreds of hectares of unprotected rainforest near Bukit Tigapuluh National Park on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, report environmental groups who say the activity threatens a population of critically endangered orangutans that have been re-introduced into the wild.

"It took scientists decades to discover how to successfully reintroduce critically endangered orangutans from captivity into the wild. It could take APP just months to destroy an important part of their new habitat," said Peter Pratje of the Frankfurt Zoological Society. "These lowland forests are excellent habitat for orangutans, which is why we got government permission to release them here beginning in 2002. The apes are thriving now, breeding and establishing new family groups."

Asia Pulp & Paper and Sinar Mas intend to log the concession for timber and plant it for industrial timber and oil palm plantations. The companies say they plan to follow all legal procedures according to Reuters, but environmental groups are nonetheless concerned about the fate of orangutans and other endangered species, including Sumatran tigers and elephants. Bukit Tigapuluh is home to perhaps a quarter of the world's remaining wild Sumatran tigers.
When Walmart declines to buy your products because of environmental concerns, it is a pretty good indicator that your practices are out of line. In this case, APP is threatening the survival of two large mammal species, and presumably hundreds of endemic birds, herps, and invertebrates. And this is just one company in one tract of land.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mockingbirds Can Recognize Individual Humans

Here comes another example of birds being smarter than popular culture recognizes. Northern Mockingbirds are able to distinguish whether an individual human is a likely threat based on its memory of that person's past behavior.

Mockingbirds are among the most common birds on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville, where they nest in trees and shrubs close to the ground. For the research, student volunteers walked up to the nests, reached through the foliage and gently touched the nests' edges, then walked away. The same volunteers repeated the same visits again the next day, and again for two more days. On the fifth day, however, different volunteers approached the nests. All told, 10 volunteers tested 24 nests at least five times last spring and summer, during the mockingbird nesting season....

On the third and fourth days, the birds flushed from their nests more rapidly each time the increasingly familiar students appeared -- even though the students took different paths toward the nests on successive days and wore different clothes. The birds also gave more alarm calls and flew more and aggressively each succeeding day, with some especially defensive birds even grazing intruders' heads -- not exactly deadly, but annoying, because the birds tend to hit the same spot repeatedly, Levey said.

And yet when different students approached the nests on the fifth day, the birds hardly ruffled their feathers, waiting to flush until last moment. They also gave fewer alarm calls and attacked much less than on the previous day with the familiar intruder.

On a campus of 51,000-plus students, paths are filled with students walking back and forth from class all day every weekday -- so it's no stretch to say that thousands of different people come within a few feet of mockingbird nests during the breeding season.

And yet, the mockingbirds in the study were clearly able to recognize and remember a single individual, based on just two brief negative encounters at their nest.
The authors suggest that the ability to remember and recognize specific individuals helps explain why mockingbirds are so successful at adapting to urban environments, like a major university campus. This certainly would give mockingbirds an edge over less perceptive species. The same would probably apply to other urban species as well. Starlings, for example, seem to be pretty smart, and corvids have proven themselves adept at using tools and trickery to obtain food.

However, I find myself less interested in the discovery's implications for urban ecology and more in what it says about our relationship with birds. According to the Florida study, this very common and familiar bird has intellectual capacities that no one seems to have noticed until now. Already this week, I have seen other cases of abilities going unnoticed, such as Pine Siskins mimicking other species and House Sparrows hawking insects. It makes me wonder what else we do not know.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Old Bird Recordings

All About Birds has posted some early recordings of songbirds, made 80 years ago today. These were among the very first bird recordings, a joint project of Fox-Case Movietone and Cornell's Arthur Allen. Since sound technology was still fairly new in 1929, the recordings are less sophisticated than ones made today. The link mentions the issue of microphones:

"Early microphones were not very sensitive," Budney explains. "You had to put the microphone right next to the bird. Today we can selectively record an individual with parabolas that amplify sound and directional microphones. In these ground-breaking recordings one also hears clicks, pops, and hissing, noise that was inherent in early recording systems. Even so, the Stewart Park recordings are remarkable for their time."
At the link there are 80-year-old recordings of a Song Sparrow and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I find the Song Sparrow recording clearly recognizable but the grosbeak a bit more muddled.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

In the Wind

While the fast-disappearing Red Knots were the stars of a visit to Reed's Beach last week, they were not the only birds present. There were the other expected shorebirds like Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstones, as well as some lingering Brant. And, of course, there were gulls, mostly Laughing Gulls, but also Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls.

What was interesting about the gulls is not that they were present, but that they, like the shorebirds, all faced in the same direction. This turns out to be a fairly common tactic among birds in windy conditions. Indeed the beach was very windy last Thursday; local weather reported 25-35 mph, and several gusts felt a good bit stronger than that. Since birds are built for flight, they are used to dealing with a headwind. Their feathers are sleeked back to provide maximum protection when the wind is in front; a wind from behind would ruffle the feathers and defeat their insulating capabilities. Presumably facing the wind also gives them somewhat better control in the event that they need to take off suddenly, as birds on a beach often do.

Unfortunately I do not have photos of the Red Knots; they were too far out on the jetty for my camera. But here are some photos of Laughing Gulls instead to illustrate the point. The wind in these photos is blowing from left to right.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Birds for Endangered Species Day

Egrets: once hunted nearly to extinction, now thriving

Yesterday, May 15, was Endangered Species Day, an occasion to celebrate conservation successes and learn more about local species that remain vulnerable. A good starting point to learn which species are endangered is the federal Endangered Species List. States also maintain their own listings; here is New Jersey's. The most comprehensive list of the world's known endangered species is the IUCN Red List.

A few days spent birding in the Cape May area gave plenty of opportunity to observe current and former endangered species. Since this is a birding blog, I will stick to the birds. Bald Eagles are perhaps the best known species to join and then leave the federal endangered species list, and they are still on New Jersey's list as a breeding species. Three Bald Eagles (the Pond Creek residents) wheeled in the air above Hidden Valley on Wednesday. From the current endangered list, there were Piping Plovers and Least Terns setting up breeding territories around the dunes of Cape May Point State Park and the South Cape May Meadows. (The latter appears on the federal but not state list.) Piping Plovers receive special treatment at the Meadows, where cages are erected around their nests. The cages allow the tiny plovers to pass through, but not predators like feral cats or raccoons.

Black Skimmers, though not on the federal list, appear on New Jersey's endangered list as a breeding species, due to the paucity of suitable nesting habitat. A large flock of skimmers was present at Heislerville WMA on Thursday, and a smaller number were present at Brigantine on Friday. Another bird that appears on the state but not federal list (even though it should) is the Red Knot. Flocks of these shorebirds were present at Reed's Beach and Kimble's Beach as they braved heavy winds to fatten themselves on horseshoe crab eggs. Red Knots have declined sharply due not to a lack of breeding habitat but because of overharvesting of horseshoe crabs, their primary food source during spring migration. I hate to think of these beautiful sandpipers disappearing.

At Brigantine on Friday, the refuge was full of various herons (such as the Great Egrets pictured above), which were hunted nearly to extinction a century ago for their beautiful feathers. A more recent success story, the Peregrine Falcon, is also present as a breeder in the refuge. New Jersey still counts this falcon as an endangered species, even though it recovered sufficiently to be delisted on the federal level. One pair occupies a tower in the center of the refuge impoundments. Northern Harrier also appears on the state list as a breeder; at least two were present on Friday. Black-crowned Night Herons and Osprey are listed as threatened breeders in New Jersey. One of the former and several of the latter were present at Brigantine. Osprey in particular have made productive use of man-made nesting platforms distributed throughout the refuge.

All of these species, and all of the vulnerable ones yet to be listed, deserve our respect and support.

The stop at Brigantine was exciting for more than the endangered species. For starters, I saw my life Whimbrel. While Whimbrel numbers seemed down from the reports of last weekend, at least this one remained. Also there were six White-rumped Sandpipers on the north side of the refuge, and eleven warbler species on a woodland trail. It was a great time to go, except for the flies.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Loose Feathers #187

Ruddy Turnstone / Photo by Tim Bowman (USFWS)

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #100 is online at the Nature Blog Network.

Wounded Condor Dies

One of the California Condors that were wounded by shotgun in March died of lead poisoning.

The bad news: California condor #286, who was found suffering from lead poisoning by Ventana Wildlife Society biologists in early March, has died.

A statement released by the Wildlife Society said the condor "will be remembered as key contributor to our elite group of free-flying condors. This flock wouldn't be where they are today without condors like 286...he will be sorely missed."

#286 (condors are identified by their studbook numbers) was affectionately called "Pinns" because he was among the first six California condors to be released at Pinnacles National Monument. He'd lived in the wild until biologists noticed him ailing and captured him so he could receive treatment.
The strange part of the story is that it appears the shooting did not cause the lead poisoning. Instead, it consumed lead fragments in the course of scavenging. Rehabilitators were not able remove the lead from the bird's bloodstream to save it.

Even More Endangered Birds

BirdLife has announced its annual Red List for 2009. There are now 1,227 bird species that match at least the criteria for Globally Threatened, so that 12% of the world's birds are at risk of extinction. This is the highest ever number.

Here is a bit on the additions:

BirdLife International's annual Red List update, on behalf of the IUCN, now lists 192 species of bird as Critically Endangered, the highest threat category, a total of two more than in the 2008 update.

A recently discovered species from Colombia - Gorgeted Puffleg Eriocnemis isabellae - appears for the first time on the BirdLife/IUCN Red List, being listed as Critically Endangered. The puffleg, a flamboyantly coloured hummingbird, only has 1,200 hectares of habitat remaining in the cloud forests of the Pinche mountain range in south-west Colombia and 8% of this is being damaged every year to grow coca.

Sidamo Lark Heteromirafra sidamoensis from the Liben Plain of Ethiopia has also been uplisted to this category due to changes in land use, and is in danger of becoming mainland Africa’s first bird extinction. And coinciding with the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, one of the Galapagos finches, Medium Tree-finch Camarhynchus pauper also becomes Critically Endangered, partly as a result of an introduced parasitic fly.
The full list of the world threatened species, of all taxa, is here. You can search for the status of world bird species here. Audubon monitors the status of North American species; here are their most recent State of the Birds reports.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Final Carbofuran Ban

This week the EPA announced its final ban on carbofuran residue in foods, to take effect by December.

The Environmental Protection Agency has revoked regulations that permitted small residues of the pesticide carbofuran in food. Carbofuran is a toxic insecticide that does not meet current U.S. food safety standards. EPA’s action will eliminate residues of carbofuran in food, including all imports, in a move to protect people, especially children, from dietary risk. Ultimately, EPA will remove this pesticide from the market.

EPA is proceeding to cancel the remaining carbofuran registrations, or licenses, which will address risks to pesticide applicators and birds in treated fields. In 2006, EPA identified significant dietary, ecological and worker risks from the use of carbofuran and concluded that all uses must be cancelled. While FMC Corporation voluntarily withdrew 22 uses of this pesticide, it was insufficient for the agency to conclude that dietary exposures to carbofuran are safe.

The final carbofuran tolerance rule becomes effective in December. EPA is encouraging growers to switch to safer pesticides or other environmentally preferable pest control strategies.
Carbofuran is a highly-toxic pesticide that has been implicated in deaths of many songbirds as well as human health problems. There is background information on the issue here, here, here, and here.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Monitoring Plovers

Piping plover nesting season is once again upon us, and New Jersey is preparing to monitor nesting sites.

For the past two decades, the Division of Fish and Wildlife has directed a plover monitoring system that partly relies on a hardy and loyal band of volunteers to try to create a safe environment for breeding pairs of the endangered piping plovers.

Despite their efforts, however, New Jersey’s plover population is at best holding steady, even though the bird’s numbers have increased in other states. A 1991 count by the United States Geological Survey found 280 birds in New Jersey; last year, the Division of Fish and Wildlife found 111 nesting pairs in four coastal counties: Monmouth, Ocean, Atlantic and Cape May. By contrast, New York’s plover population went to 852 birds in 2006 from 334 birds in 1991. New Jersey ranks fourth in East Coast plover population, behind Massachusetts, New York and Virginia, according to the survey.

Predators and habitat loss to development have taken their toll on the state’s plovers, according to Todd Pover of the nonprofit Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey. Last year disaster struck when a strong storm on Mother’s Day flooded beaches and destroyed many plover nests.
The lack of improvement is disturbing, but I cannot say I am surprised. The article mentions predation; while that is a problem for plovers, it is not unique to New Jersey. Other states also have gulls, foxes, and cats on their beaches. New Jersey, though, has relatively little natural beach remaining with what remains concentrated into a few state and federal parks. Most of the rest has been developed for housing or boardwalks, leaving plovers with few real breeding areas. Even those natural areas that do remain are very crowded during breeding season. Given those circumstances, holding steady might be an accomplishment in itself.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Blue Tits Lay Extra-Pair Eggs Earlier

Blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) mating systems are a point of interest for ornithologists because they combine exclusive-seeming pair bonds with extra-pair mating. Thus their social systems have been the focus of ongoing research. A recent paper found that the chicks resulting from extra-pair mates may actually have an advantage over their siblings.

But the new findings in blue tits suggest that the superiority of extra-pair offspring might have little to do with their genes. They found that eggs fertilized by males other than the mating partner tend to be laid and to hatch earlier. Indeed, they report, nearly 75 percent of extra-pair offspring were produced in the first half of the clutch.
Hatching first helps these chicks compete against the other nestlings for food, making it more likely that they will survive to fledge and reach adulthood.

The team offers some hypotheses for why extra-pair offspring would occur early in the laying process:
And plenty of ideas have been put forth. Females may elect to mate with extra-pair males to guard against the possibility that their social partner is infertile. They might also engage in sex with other males primarily to avoid being harassed by them. In other words, it might simply be easier and less risky just to give in.

Although the new findings don't rule out any of the possibilities, the researchers said they are "perhaps most consistent with the fertility insurance hypothesis," which predicts that females should seek extra-pair copulations before laying starts so that all eggs could still be fertilized in the event of pair-male infertility....

Alternatively, he added, if extra-pair young are indeed genetically superior, placing them early in the laying order may be the mother's strategy to promote their chances of survival through the most risky period of their life.
It is not immediately clear whether any of these possibilities have been tested.

Poor Regulation of Wildlife Imports

Hearings on H.R. 669, the Nonnative Wildlife Invasion Prevention Act, have publicized some weaknesses in how the U.S. handles wild animals brought into the country.

The global wildlife trade generates hundreds of billions of dollars annually. The team analyzed Law Enforcement Management Information System (LEMIS) data gathered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 2000 through 2006 and found the United States imported upward of 1.5 billion live wildlife animals. The vast majority of the imports were from wild populations in more than 190 countries around the world and were intended for commercial sale in the United States — primarily in the pet trade....

The team also found that more than 86 percent of the shipments were not classified to the level of species, despite federal guidelines that mandate species-level labeling. The lack of accurate reporting makes it impossible to fully assess the diversity of animals imported or calculate the risk of nonnative species or the diseases they may carry, the team wrote.

“Shipments are coming in labeled ‘live vertebrate’ or ‘fish,’” Daszak said. “If we don’t know what animals are coming in, how do we know which are going to become invasive species or carry diseases that could affect livestock, wildlife or ourselves?”
Most of the linked article concerns the potential effects this lack of regulation has on the spread of disease. Such focus is understandable in light of ongoing concerns over swine flu. However, the uncontrolled importation of wildlife creates problems for ecosystems here and abroad. In the U.S., nonnative species may be introduced into local ecosystems and crowd out native species that fill similar niches. (Many of these native species are already vulnerable due to habitat loss and degradation.) Unrestrained trade deprives other countries of their native wildlife. If the imported animals belong to a threatened species – which border inspectors may or may not be able to recognize – then permitting such trade could hasten the species's slide towards oblivion or hamper its recovery.

H.R. 669 may not be the correct instrument to deal with these problems. It certainly has attracted some very vocal opposition from both scientists and the pet industry. Whether or not this particular bill passes, there ought to be better oversight of what wildlife is brought into the country.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Bill to Protect Migratory Birds

Last week, Rep. Pete DeFazio (OR) introduced a bill to increase penalties for harming migratory birds, particularly in cases where birds are killed deliberately. I have reproduced the text of H.R. 2062 below.

To amend the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to provide for penalties and enforcement for intentionally taking protected avian species, and for other purposes.

    Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,


    This Act may be cited as the `Migratory Bird Treaty Act Penalty and Enforcement Act of 2009'.


    Section 6 of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (16 U.S.C. 707) is amended by redesignating subsections (c) and (d) as subsections (d) and (e), respectively, and by inserting after subsection (b) the following:
    `(c)(1) Except in the case of hunting and other activity allowed under section 3, whoever, in violation of this Act, intentionally and maliciously takes by any manner any migratory bird shall be guilty of a felony and, upon conviction, shall be fined not more than $50,000 or imprisoned for not more than two years, or both, for each violation.
    `(2) Any person who intentionally and maliciously commits any other act or omission in violation of this Act or any regulations issued under this Act shall be guilty of a felony and, upon conviction, shall be fined not more than $50,000 or imprisoned for not more than two years, or both, for each violation.
    `(3) The Secretary or the Secretary of the Treasury shall pay, from sums received as fines under this subsection and subject to the availability of appropriations, a reward to any person who furnishes information that leads to an arrest or a criminal conviction for any violation of this Act. The amount of the reward, if any, shall be designated by the Secretary or the Secretary of the Treasury, as appropriate. Any officer or employee of the United States or any State or local government who furnishes information or renders service in the performance of his or her official duties is ineligible for payment under this paragraph.'.
    Currently the bill has 11 cosponsors, but its prospects are uncertain.

    As a bit of background, the same bill was introduced last year but was not passed. It was written in response to Operation High Roller, a federal investigation that targeted roller pigeon clubs. Some clubs deliberately trapped and killed raptors, thousands per year, to prevent the birds of prey from taking racing pigeons. Cooper's hawks, peregrine falcons, and red-tailed hawks – all urban birds – were particularly targeted.

    Salazar Keeps the Polar Bear Rule

    Last fall, among a set of regulations designed to weaken the Endangered Species Act, the Bush administration promulgated a rule stipulating that the Endangered Species Act could not be used to fight global warming. This regulation was spurred by the polar bear's listing since the primary threat to polar bears is loss of habitat due to melting Arctic ice. This year, Congress gave the Obama administration the authority to overturn all of these last-minute regulations. Last week, the administration did just that and restored review by federal biologists. However, they plan to leave the polar bear rule in place.

    Polar bears were listed as threatened last year, the first time any species had been given protection primarily because of climate change. Scientists say that warming temperatures erode the bears' sea-ice habitat. If current trends continue, three of the world's four major populations may be extinct by 2075.

    Environmental groups said this ought to trigger federal action against the source of the problem, greenhouse-gas emissions.

    But yesterday, federal officials said that was impractical. They said the law requires a causal connection between a particular polar bear and a particular polluter's emissions -- an impossible task, they said, given that greenhouse gases come from factories, power plants and automobiles, many of them thousands of miles away.

    "We have to have the smoking gun and the dead animal," said Valerie Fellows, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    In this case, Fellows said, agency scientists cannot prove that sort of link: "You can't link the power plant in Florida with a dead bear in Alaska." Officials from several industry associations used this same logic yesterday in applauding the decision.
    In general I agree with the need for a comprehensive framework to address the climate change issue. A comprehensive framework stands a better chance of working, for one thing, and by allowing more stakeholders to contribute to the policy, it may give more people an eagerness to see it work. However, it seems that the administration is prematurely giving up the use of a tool that could become a fallback in case of legislative failure. It is especially disappointing considering that there are a whole series of other species also threatened by climate change; the linked article named mountain pika and some Caribbean corals. Beyond that, there are many birds that are sensitive to small changes in their habitat and climate. Yesterday's decision makes passage of a climate change bill all the more important.

    Friday, May 08, 2009

    Loose Feathers #186

    Sage Thrasher / Photo by Dave Menke

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    Thursday, May 07, 2009

    Book Note: Birds of Pakistan

    Recently I received Birds of Pakistan, a new edition to the growing line of Helm Field Guides. This latest field guide is the first devoted strictly to Pakistan. Prior to the publication of Birds of Pakistan, the country was served by regional guides, such as Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent and Birds of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.

    Despite its diverse avian populations (669 species), Pakistan has yet to draw much interest from birdwatchers, either residents or tourists. One goal of this guide is to stimulate interest in Pakistan's birds among both its citizens and travelers. In this country, Pakistan is known far better for its political troubles than its birds, which no doubt contributes to the lack of birding interest. (I must confess that it feels rather strange writing about birds in Pakistan, since residents of that country were at one time blocked from reading my blog and all other Blogspot sites.) To raise awareness of birding opportunities, the book's introduction contains a section on ecoregions and top birding sites within the country. The Ornithological Society of Pakistan produced a companion edition in Urdu to serve local birders.

    As with any field guide, the bulk of the book consists of identification plates. Up to nine bird species in various forms are placed on the right-hand plate, with descriptive text and range maps on the left. The range maps show each species's winter, summer, and migration ranges within Pakistan. Plates show the most common plumages for each species. Some species are depicted in flight where this might aid identification.

    Images are jumbled together on the plates, with the forms from different species placed very close enough to each other. While this has the advantage of reducing the guide's overall size, it may be a potential source of confusion or missed identifications. One must watch the numbered labels carefully to make sure of which image matches which species.

    Being unfamiliar with the birds of South Asia, I am not in position to evaluate the accuracy of the plates or illustrations or field-test it. However, those birds I do recognize seem to be portrayed accurately and are recognizable from their illustrations. The guide is definitely suitable for carrying in the field. While slightly taller than Sibley-East, it is about half as thick. Were I to visit Pakistan, I would gladly take Birds of Pakistan with me, as the reference information and range maps would be helpful. The identification plates in Birds of Pakistan might also prove useful in nearby countries; however, travelers planning stops beyond Pakistan would probably be better matched with one of the regional guides.

    Richard Grimmett, Tom Roberts, and Tim Inskipp. Birds of Pakistan. London: Christopher Helm; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. $40 paper.