Friday, July 31, 2009

Loose Feathers #198

Whimbrel / Photo by Steve Maslowski (USFWS)

Birds and birding news
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Note: Corey needs your submissions for the next I and the Bird by Sunday night (two days early).

Thursday, July 30, 2009

SkyWatch Friday

Weird Heron from Brigantine

This heron was standing far out in the marsh grasses at Brigantine yesterday afternoon. At such a distance, identification proved to be a challenge, especially since its appearance was a bit nonstandard. Great Blue Heron seems like the best bet because of the bird's grim expression and the strip of white feathers extending down the bird's neck from its chin to its abdomen. Nothing clearly contradicts that identification. so I guess I will chalk it up to a common bird at a weird viewing angle.

Assorted Recent Moths

These are a few moths that I found recently. I see many moths, but rarely get the opportunity to photograph them, either because I do not have my camera at the time or because they flutter away too quickly. The first was easy to photograph because it was dead. This is an Indian Meal Moth (Plodia interpunctella), which I found in my bathroom.

You might notice a bit of distortion in the image. That is a result of shooting with my point & shoot through a Gepe slide viewing loupe. (I guess that would be digilouping.) This moth is less than 10mm long, so my camera's zoom and macro function were not up to the job on their own. The loupe basically acted as a substitute macro lens.

The second is a Dot-lined Wave (Idaea tacturata). I found this about a month ago, on the same day I took these milkweed photos. It was flying among the vegetation along the Raritan River's bank.

Unlike the last two, the last is not an adult but a caterpillar. This is a Sycamore Tussock Moth (Halysidota harrisii), which I photographed under the shade of a London Plane.

It seems that most people encounter this species as a caterpillar rather than an adult moth because BugGuide lacks any photos of adults.

Special thanks to the marvelous Seabrooke Leckie for her assistance in identifying the first two species.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The D&R Canal and Sourland Mountain

A couple of local nature preserves were featured in local media this week. First, the Star-Ledger included a long article about the Delaware & Raritan Canal's history and current status in its Sunday edition. The canal was built in the 1830s as a shortcut between Pennsylvania and New York. At its peak in the late 19th century, the D&R Canal transported more cargo than many other canals, including the much more famous Erie Canal. In the 1970s it became a state historical park. Since the park preserves a great deal of habitat and connects with other natural areas, such as Six Mile Run and the Princeton Institute woods, it has become a haven for wildlife.
The main canal path now stretches 36 miles from just east of New Brunswick to northwest Trenton. The feeder canal route runs 22 miles along the Delaware River to just north of Frenchtown. A section of the canal was paved over in Trenton, but Chirco said there are plans to eventually make the paths contiguous.

The park combines lush stretches full of wildlife with sections that pass through historic towns such as Lambertville and Stockton. Some sections border shopping districts and restaurants. Others pass by abandoned mills and farmhouses, through Washington's Crossing and along waterfalls.

There are an 625 species of plants found along the D&R Canal and 230 species of birds, including herons and bald eagles, naturalists said. Wildlife includes beaver, mink, fox and muskrat. The canal supports catfish, perch and bass and is stocked with trout.
The D&R Canal is an attractive spot for birdwatching, especially during spring and fall migration when anything might drop in. While it does not quite measure up to the state's major hotspots, it also does not involve a 1-2 hour drive (or an hour's train ride into New York City). I have seen at least a dozen warbler species along the towpath at the right times of year, plus Common Nighthawks, Green Herons, Cedar Waxwings, and numerous other species. For local birders, it is definitely worth checking out.

Second, the writers at had some complimentary things to say about Sourland Mountain:
From the access point on East Mountain Road in Hillsborough, Sara and her fellow hiker spotted white-tailed deer, pickerel frogs, and many birds including wrens and chickadees along the 5-mile Ridge Trail. This diverse trail, with terrain including rock, mixed oak forest, and the Roaring Brook, peaks in a unique area full of large, exposed boulders, perfect for resting for lunch and getting a birds-eye-view of the preserve.
When I have visited Sourland Mountain's various access points, my impression was that the area was not that birdy. While there were certainly small flocks of common species here and there, I would also go for long stretches without seeing or hearing any birds. But I have not been there for a year or more, so perhaps things have improved since then.

The mountain is notable for two things from an ornithological perspective. First, it sits near the dividing line between the ranges of Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees. Black-capped Chickadees live north of the line and Carolina Chickadees live south of it. This means that both species, plus intermediate forms, can be found there, making chickadee identification more of a challenge than elsewhere in the state. (Since the line runs all the way across New Jersey, Sourland Mountain is hardly unique in that regard.) Second, the mountain is just about the southernmost extent of the Ruffed Grouse's range in New Jersey. Sadly, the grouse's range has been shrinking in recent decades, with the population shifting northward. I have not encountered Ruffed Grouse at Sourland (or anywhere else, for that matter), but I know people who have.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Cerulean Warblers Return to the Same Winter Habitat

Since I adopted the Cerulean Warbler as my blog's mascot, I try to keep abreast of news regarding the species. The tiny warbler has been rapidly declining in recent years thanks partly to the loss of mature forest breeding habitat to mountaintop removal mining and other developments and partly to the loss of 64% of its winter habitat. While the decline has not been sufficient to get it listed under the Endangered Species Act, this warbler has been the focus of intense research on this continent and in its winter range in South America.

Through the Nature Conservancy's blog, I learned of an interesting finding from a research station in Colombia's Andes Mountains: some Cerulean Warblers return to the same wintering grounds year after year.

This research is so exciting that every time I read the reports, I immediately want to head to the field to help out. Gabriel and his team have, since 2003, captured 49 individual Cerulean Warblers. They have used an innovative technique with aerial mist nets suspended on bamboo poles high in the canopy, which is what you have to do to capture this species. Most incredible, the team has recaptured 4 of these birds in different wintering seasons.

This has demonstrated, I believe for the first time, that some individual Cerulean Warblers return to the same wintering area in succeeding years — something we’ve always suspected, but have never proven. So you can meet some of the characters, on the left is a photo of a female Cerulean named Aleja, who was caught and banded in March, 2009. You can see some of the color bands that were placed on her, so she could be followed to study her behavior and diet.
The implications of this finding for conservation will be up to the researchers in the field to determine. However, I would like to suggest a few areas where it might be relevant. First, if individual birds return reliably to the same winter locations, it makes preserving the habitat at those locations all the more important. This is something where U.S. nonprofits can be of some assistance. Second, maintaining (and possibly expanding) these wintering areas will be easier if there is some incentive to keep them forested. One way to do that is through encouraging shade coffee production, which benefits Cerulean Warblers and other species. U.S. consumers (especially birders) can play a role here by providing a market for it. Finally, if warblers return consistently to the same breeding grounds and the same wintering grounds, chances are that they do the same for at least some migration stops. In that light, keeping migrationg stop-overs – even small ones – intact ought to be a major benefit.

(Photos: Top photo by Flickr user Petroglyph; second photo included in the linked blog post.)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Climate Change News: Sea Ice and Feedbacks

Over the weekend, several articles appeared with disturbing information about how far climate change has come and what we might be facing. Last week the Obama administrations declassified over 1,000 photos from military satellites that depict the extent of ice cover in the Arctic over the past several years. The image above juxtaposes photos of the Chukchi Sea near Barrow, Alaska, in consecutive years. (The sea ice has had a similar extent to July 2007 in subsequent summers.) While the disappearance of sea ice in many areas might seem a boon to navigators, it has severe consequences for wildlife and for our climate.

Disappearing summer sea ice poses considerable dangers, scientists have warned. Ice shelves are used by animals such as polar bears as platforms for hunting seals and other sea creatures. Without them, they could starve. In addition, ice reflects solar radiation. Without that process, the Arctic sea could warm up even more. The phenomenon threatens to set off runaway heating of the planet, say climatologists.
Images from military satellites are especially valuable since many environmental satellites are nearing the end of their useful lifespan. Many replacement satellites have been cut, and one planned climate satellite failed to reach orbit.
In February, a Nasa satellite carrying instruments to produce the first map of the Earth's carbon emissions crashed near Antarctica only three minutes after lift-off.

The satellite would have measured carbon emissions at 100,000 points around the planet every day, providing a wealth of data compared to the 100 or so fixed towers currently in operation in a land-based network.
Year-to-year changes, as in the image above, are not all that significant, but they form part of a larger trend of rapidly receding sea ice. A second article points out places where climate scientists might be wrong – not because anthropogenic global warming is not real, but because it is actually worse than predicted. One such area is the loss of Arctic sea ice, which has outpaced the IPCC report. A second area is sea-level rise.
The IPCC may also have been too cautious on Greenland, assuming that the melting of its glaciers would contribute little to sea-level rise. Some studies found that Greenland's glacial streams were surging and surface ice was morphing into liquid lakes, but others made a strong case that those surges and melts were aberrations, not long-term trends. It seemed to be a standoff. More reliable data, however, such as satellite measurements of Greenland's mass, show that it is losing about 52 cubic miles per year and that the melting is accelerating. So while the IPCC projected that sea level would rise 16 inches this century, "now a more likely figure is one meter [39 inches] at the least," says Carlson. "Chest high instead of knee high, with half to two thirds of that due to Greenland." Hence the "no idea how bad it was."
Another recently published study claims to find confirmation for the IPCC estimates of sea-level rise, so I am not ready to rely on the higher numbers just yet. However, the IPCC report is a consensus of climate scientists, which means that it is likely to represent a more conservative view than the latest research. The potential for a faster and higher sea-level rise has always been there and will remain as long as we continue pumping excess greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Speaking of gases, one potential source of climate change feedback is the vast reserve of frozen methane in the tundra's permafrost. If the permafrost starts to melt, it will release its methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide.
The frozen north had another surprise in store. Scientists have long known that permafrost, if it melted, would release carbon, exacerbating global warming, which would melt more permafrost, which would add more to global warming, on and on in a feedback loop. But estimates of how much carbon is locked into Arctic permafrost were, it turns out, woefully off. "It's about three times as much as was thought, about 1.6 trillion metric tons, which has surprised a lot of people," says Edward Schuur of the University of Florida. "It means the potential for positive feedbacks is greatly increased." That 1.6 trillion tons is about twice the amount now in the atmosphere. And Schuur's measurements of how quickly CO2 can come out of permafrost, reported in May, were also a surprise: 1 billion to 2 billion tons per year. Cars and light trucks in the U.S. emit about 300 million tons per year.
All of this makes makes it all the more important to start reducing greenhouse gas output and reduce it rapidly in future years. The longer we wait, the worse the consequences will be.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Green Frogs

There were several Green Frogs (Rana clamitans) clustered around the vernal pool at the Scherman-Hoffman sanctuary yesterday afternoon. All of them were very cooperative while I was taking photographs; they let me approach quite closely without moving. They may have trusted that their camouflage would prevent me from seeing them, or perhaps they are just used to photographers, which appear to be quite common around the site.

The first frog sat on a rock as I maneuvered myself into a few different positions to photograph it. It barely twitched a muscle.

The second frog I saw was lurking in the duckweed.

I fear my photo of the third frog ended up being too green.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Woodpecker's Birthday

Click through and roll over the image to read the alt text.

A Birding TV Series

Readers of this blog might be interested in a new TV series about birding called Birding Adventures. It premiered last weekend on the Fox Sports Network and is also available through the new Untamed Sports channel. The show follows James Currie, a South African birder, as he travels around the world to find unusual and rare bird species.

The Fox Sports Network has chosen an unfortunate time to air it. On Saturday morning at 7:30-8:00 am, most birders are likely to be out birding or getting ready to leave. On Untamed Sports, the show airs Mondays at 3:30 and 11 pm and Thursdays at 11:30 am and 7:30 pm. Those times seem more likely to attract birders, at least if that station is available.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Loose Feathers #197

Bird or birding news
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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Skywatch Friday on Thursday

As a Skywatch offering, I have this photo that I took last Saturday at the Griggstown Grasslands in New Jersey. This is one of my favorite photos to come out of that walk. I took it at the widest angle my camera offers, and I found myself wishing for an even wider view to capture more of the sky and field. But I like the resulting image all the same.

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #105 is now online at Picus Blog.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

More on the St. Elizabeth's Bald Eagle Nest

Regular readers may remember a story I linked a few weeks back about DC's only Bald Eagle nest, which is located on a property slated to become the new DHS headquarters. That story, reported in the LA Times, discussed concerns that one element of the project – a new entrance road – may cause the eagles to abandon the site. At the time I wondered, and one commenter asked, why the story did not seem to get coverage in the DC press. The Post has now covered the story with some more information on the site (including a map) and decision process.

Officials from the National Park Service and DC Fisheries and Wildlife seem the most concerned about possible harm from the road construction project. Eagles that would choose to settle in such an urban location obviously have some tolerance for disturbance. The question is how much is too much.

"The assumption is that there's already so much going on that a little more won't hurt. And I don't think that we can make that assumption," said Bryan King, head of fisheries and wildlife for the D.C. Department of the Environment. "It's a definite possibility" that the eagles will abandon the nest, King said.
"You get the sense, yeah, these guys know what they're doing," said Stephen Syphax, chief of the resource management division at National Capital Parks East, a group of parks on the city's east side. On one recent morning, he was in a muggy, overgrown ravine, peering with binoculars through the tree canopy, looking for the nest. Finally, Syphax gave up: it was too well hidden to be seen from the ground. "I've lost this guy. But good for the eagles."

Syphax said the planned road would not require removal of the tree with the nest. But, he said, it could take away other trees that the birds use when they are eating, looking for food or loafing. That could drive them out, he said.
According to the DHS, an environmental impact statement was completed before the project was approved.
A DHS spokesman said the road was purposefully laid out a few hundred yards from the birds' nest. The plan for the road was approved this year, after an environmental impact statement determined that there would be a "negligible increase in noise" around the nest.

Craig Koppie, a Fish and Wildlife scientist who is a preeminent authority on Washington area eagles, said he agreed. Eagles might roam widely from their nests, but they return each December to begin the breeding season. They normally use the same nest for seven or eight years before building another nearby.

"I actually don't see [the road] as being a problem," Koppie said. "Clearly, the birds have seen the human infrastructure that's in place," he said, and they don't mind it enough to leave.
The fact that an EIS has been completed is somewhat reassuring. Eagles near the Wilson Bridge remained at that site through years of construction activity as a new bridge was built, so it may well be possible for the eagles at the St. Elizabeth's site to remain there as well. Still, building a road so close to a nest site is a definite risk, one that I hope will not end badly. One question that I did not see addressed in the article was why the DHS could not renovate an existing entrance to meet their needs instead of building a new one. I think that ought to be the preferred alternative in a case such as this.

Note: The image at the top is a photo I took on 2/10/06 of a pair of Bald Eagles at Hains Point in DC. I do not whether it is the same pair that nests at St. Elizabeth's, but it may be since eagles can cover large territories and the nesting season was just beginning.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bird Conservation Bill Passes the House

The House of Representatives recently passed the Joint Ventures for Bird Habitat Conservation Act of 2009, which funds projects to protect and restore bird habitat.

Joint ventures are regional partnerships involving federal, state, and local government agencies, corporations, tribes, individuals, and conservation organizations which advance conservation efforts and help identify local land use priorities. There are currently 21 JVs in the United States that provide coordination for conservation planning, and implementing projects to benefit birds and other species. JVs develop science-based goals and strategies, and a non-regulatory approach for achieving conservation.

Maryland is primarily part of the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture (ACJV) which is focused on the conservation of habitat for native birds in the Atlantic Flyway of the United States from Maine south to Puerto Rico. The ACJV partnership has protected 158,000 acres in Maryland, and restored another 98,000 acres. The ACJV helps direct funding for the restoration of Chesapeake Bay such as land acquisition and supports projects to plant aquatic vegetation in the Bay benefitting birds and other wildlife.

The western end of Maryland is part of the recently-created Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture which is working to conserve species such as the Kentucky, Worm-eating, Prairie, and Golden-winged Warblers, Wood Thrush, American Woodcock, and American Black Duck. Nationally, Joint Ventures have directed $4.5 billion in conservation spending from Federal grants and programs, state conservation dollars, and private donations and have protected, restored, or enhanced more than 13 million acres of important habitat for migratory bird species.
The American Bird Conservancy's press release only mentions projects in Maryland, possibly because a congressman from Maryland introduced the bill, but it clearly has a national scope. Hopefully the Senate will follow the House's lead.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Scientia Pro Publica #8

Image: wemidji (Jacques Marcoux).

Welcome to the eighth edition of Scientia Pro Publica!

Scientia Pro Publica
is a blog carnival devoted to celebrating the best science, nature, and medical writing in the blogosphere. Submissions may discuss any science-related topic, as long as they are written for a general audience (the Pro Publica part of the title), were published within the past two months, and do not promote the many forms of pseudoscience. The previous edition is at Greg Laden's Blog. Lists of previous editions and the hosts of future ones are available at the Scientia website.

Please help to spread the word about this carnival by linking, Tweeting, Stumbling, or Digging it, and do the same for any submissions that you particularly like.

And now, on to the posts...


Bora Zivcovic of A Blog Around the Clock discusses an exceptionally well-preserved fossil of a Southern Mammoth found recently in a Serbian coal mine. The post discusses the fossil's significance and includes Bora's pictures from a trip to see it.

AK's Rambling Thoughts has two posts in which AK challenges current ideas about the nervous system's origin. In the first, he discusses Cnidarian reproduction and suggests an alternate model for their evolution. The second discusses the development of a central nervous system in light of recent research into Cnidarian evolution.

Eric Kuha of Scientists and Society ponders the ethical implications of future limb replacement technology, which has the potential to be as good or better than natural limbs, and how that relates to human evolution.


Kelsey Abbott of Mauka to Makai reviews the evidence for same-sex coupling in numerous animal species – not just penguins, which get the most attention. Same-sex behavior has been documented in over 450 animal species.

Steven Handel of The Emotion Machine tries to clear up some misunderstandings about hypnosis.


Songbirds that live in urban landscapes face a major challenge when it comes time to find mates: background noise. In the process we lose some of the richness of natural sounds and biodiversity, as discussed by Madhusudan Katti at Reconciliation Ecology.

This summer the American Ornithologists' Union released another supplement to their checklist of North American birds. David Ringer of Search and Serendipity runs down the changes in taxonomy and nomenclature, which include moving some tanagers (including the genus Piranga familiar to American and Canadian birders) from the Thraupidae to the Cardinalidae. Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds wonders whether the taxonomic change should be reflected by changing the English names of the species involved.

Rick Wright of Aimophila Adventures observes the interactions of House Finches and Purple Martins and wonders why the finches mob the Purple Martins.

Famous Scientists

Arj of Science on Tap recommends two books by Martin Gardner, a science writer and philosopher.


Michael Scott Long of Synthetic Biology reports that researchers have induced aqueous phase separation of proteins within living cells. The discovery is expected to have further applications in studying cellular structure.


Finally, I offer my own post on some of the many species that find a home on milkweed plants. The post includes picture of a Small Milkweed Bug, Oleander Aphids, and a Red Milkweed Beetle.

That is all for this week's edition. The next edition in two weeks will be hosted by Kris at Pro-Science Bjørn at Pleiotropy. You can send submissions through the Blog Carnival website.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Submissions Deadline for Scientia Pro Publica

Image: wemidji (Jacques Marcoux).

This is a reminder that tomorrow I will be hosting Scientia Pro Publica, a blog carnival that gathers the best recent science, nature, and medical writing in the blogosphere. Submissions should be blog posts published within the past 60 days and written for a general audience. Scientia Pro Publica serves as a replacement for the long-running but sadly defunct Tangled Bank carnival.

To see past editions, go to the Scientia website.

Please submit your entries by 9 pm tonight.

Submissions can be sent to me at

Milkweed Critters

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is an attractive host plant for insect species. The species most associated with milkweed is probably the Monarch butterfly, which can be found in all stages of its lifecycle around milkweed plants. However, many other insects seek the nectar of milkweed flowers or chew on its leaves and pods. Below are a few insects that I found on milkweed plants at the Griggstown Grassland Preserve. While I saw a few Monarchs fluttering about at the preserve, I did not get a chance to photograph any.

First is a Small Milkweed Bug (Lygaeus kalmii). It bears close resemblance to the Large Milkweed Bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) and Box Elder Bug (Boisea trivittata). All three species are very common with a wide distribution. Small Milkweed Bugs have a distinctive red 'X' on their backs and other more subtle differences with the other two bugs. I only saw a few Small Milkweed Bugs yesterday.

Second, we have a swarm of aphids on a milkweed pod. I think that these are Oleander Aphids (Aphis nerii), which are very common on milkweed plants. According to the Kaufman Guide, these aphids extract toxins from milkweed as they feed to defend against predators.

Finally, the most numerous insect I saw around milkweed plants yesterday was the Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus). The Red Milkweed Beetle is a member of a genus that contains 13 species that specialize in milkweeds. This is the common eastern form.

Apparently love was in the air for milkweed beetles, as I saw several pairs mating.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Leaf-footed Bug

This bug belongs to the family of leaf-footed bugs, so called because of the leaf-like projections on their hind legs. I believe this individual is a Western Conifer Seed Bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis). This is a western species that is spreading its range and has been found along the east coast from the Carolinas as far north as New Brunswick.

According to the BugGuide account, Western Conifer Seed Bugs normally feed on the sap of coniferous trees, especially from the cones and seed pulp. This bug, however, was hanging out at a bird feeder.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Loose Feathers #196

Tricolored Heron / Photo by Gary Stolz (USFWS)

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Birders an Economic Force

Yesterday the US Fish and Wildlife Service released its annual report on wildlife watching in the United States. As in the past, the USFWS finds that birders make a significant contribution to the economy. According to the press release, birdwatchers represent a fifth of the population, and wildlife watching generates $36 billion per year. Birding is most popular among residents of Montana, Maine, Vermont, Minnesota, and Iowa.

The report is based on data collected through a survey of anglers, hunters, and wildlife watchers in 2006. Potential participants are identified by the Census Bureau and then interviewed in more detail by the USFWS. Data collected through the survey informs decision-making by federal and state wildlife agencies and national conservation organizations.

So what can we learn about birdwatchers from the report (pdf)? First, there are a lot of us; the USFWS estimates that 48 million Americans watch birds. The report splits self-identified birdwatchers into two groups: people who observe and identify birds around home and people who travel at least a mile from home to see birds. Not surprisingly, the number who travel is much smaller than the total; only 20 million travel to see birds. Second, birdwatching is most popular among older age brackets. People in my age bracket are only half as likely to pick up binoculars are people in the older two. If most birdwatchers are watching birds around their homes, this age split makes sense; older people are more likely to own homes and have control over things like birdfeeders and plantings that make backyard birding easier.

Birders are also likely to have better-than-average income and a college education. 54% of birdwatchers are women, and 88% are white. None of those are likely to be surprises. The chart that breaks down birders by residence shows that almost half of birders live in major metropolitan areas, but rural areas have far higher participation rates.

The report also breaks down participation by state; the top states have participation rates between 35% and 40%. My state, by contrast, has a below-average participation rate of 14%. This may reflect the urban bias against birding as chunks of New Jersey belong to two of the top six metropolitan areas. (You can find your own state's statistics on page 7 of the report. Feel free to leave comments about birding in your own state.)

The survey also probed what types of birds that birders are watching and how often they do it. Waterfowl are the most likely to be watched on trips away from home and draw interest from 77% of birders. Raptors and songbirds draw less (but still significant) interest.

Finally the report attempts to estimate how much birdwatching contributes to the economy. In 2006, birdwatchers spent an estimated $12 billion on birding trips; most of that consisted of money for food and transportation. In addition, birdwatchers spent almost $24 on equipment, such as optics, cameras, birdfeeders and food, camping equipment, birding publications, and membership dues. Needless to say, this economic output represents a valuable revenue source for the businesses and states that choose to cater to it.

Every time the USFWS releases one of its reports on wildlife-related recreation, it generates a certain amount of controversy in email lists and the blogosphere regarding how the USFWS classifies birders. The usual argument runs along the lines that the true number of birders is much smaller because the USFWS employs such a broad definition of what constitutes bird watching. Traveling a mile from home at least once in the past year is not really the same thing as hitting the refuges every week and chasing state and continental rarities. Some also raise the question of how many birds these self-identified birdwatchers can actually identify or whether they know what they're looking at. Finally, the membership in conservation organizations and participation in the Christmas Bird Counts is usually a good bit less than the USFWS estimates.

To a certain extent, I see the point of these critiques. There are certainly gradations of skill and commitment among active birders. The USFWS could probably do a better job of delineating these differences. However, I believe that on the whole the critiques are misguided. The point of these surveys is not to settle internal debates among avid birders or provide marketing data for the birding industry. Instead, the primary goal is to provide federal and state wildlife agencies with data about who is visiting refuges and why they are there, so that agency staff can better serve the public. To that end, a broad definition is useful, as it shows that people with an interest in birds are the largest single constituency for wildlife-related recreation. Bird and conservation organizations ought to embrace this definition and use it to provide maximum leverage in their dealings with wildlife agencies and politicians.

The demographic breakdowns should also be useful for conservation organizations. It shows both where birding has been successful and where it has opportunities for growth (young people, urban areas, minorities). I see little reason think that the demographics reported by the USFWS are inaccurate, even for much stricter definitions of "birder."

Note: Charts are screenshots from the USFWS report.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Seeking Submissions for Scientia Pro Publica

Image: wemidji (Jacques Marcoux).

On Monday I will be hosting the next edition of Scientia Pro Publica, a blog carnival that gathers the best recent science, nature, and medical writing in the blogosphere. Submissions should be published within the past 60 days and written for a general audience. Scientia Pro Publica serves as a replacement for the long-running but sadly defunct Tangled Bank carnival.

To see past editions, go to the Scientia website.

Submissions can be sent to me at

Some Recent Feeder Visitors

House Wrens and Carolina Wrens have both been singing madly around my home for the past few days. The House Wrens appear to be using two nestboxes on the property. One male controls both boxes, and I have seen him with another silent wren at each. It is not clear to me whether he has one partner (with the other box a dummy nest) or two (with nests in both). I suppose it is also possible that he does not have a mate yet. In any case, I am hoping that there will be baby House Wrens in the near future.

The last two days I set up my BirdCam at water dishes. Below are some of the better results. Using a motion-sensitive camera makes it easy to get the lens close to the birds, but difficult to control lighting or a bird's position at the time of exposure.

Some Common Grackles:

An American Robin:

A Blue Jay:

A Gray Catbird:

A bathing House Sparrow:

The last is a House Sparrow with a very short tail. It is either an adult who lost all its tail feathers (either to a predator or molt) or a young bird whose feathers have not fully grown in. I think the former more likely because the other feather groups seem normal.

More BirdCam photos are available at my Flickr account.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

New Bat Species from a 150-year-old Specimen

A new bat species was found among the many specimens sitting in jars in the archives of Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences.

Academy records show the bat was collected in 1856 by Henry Clay Caldwell of the Navy on the Samoan island of Upolu. It came into the possession of William S. W. Ruschenberger, a surgeon who at various times was president of the College of Physicians and of the academy. He donated it in 1857.

Yesterday, Ned Gilmore, manager of the academy's vertebrate zoology collection, brought out the animal's remains for a closer look.

He gingerly lifted the creature from its jar, unfolded its wings, and laid it on a white tray. The bat's skull has not yet been returned from the Smithsonian, but the furry skin of its head is here, with prominent dark eyes.

Those eyes worked in the 1850s. Unlike blind, insect-eating bats, the fruit-eating kind can't navigate by bouncing sound waves off objects.

Because it is believed to be the only one of its kind, the new Philadelphia bat will now serve as a "type" specimen - the official scientific example of that species. Gilmore tied a red ribbon on the jar to indicate the bat's new status.

The mammal is kept in a windowless room with eight rows of metal shelves, laden with 15,000 other specimens stored in jars of alcohol....

The creature had a wingspan of at least two feet, and it weighed a half-pound when alive. In the paper, published in the journal American Museum Novitates, Helgen identified a second, even larger bat species in the collection of the Smithsonian.

Helgen, whose coauthors include his wife, Lauren, and Smithsonian bat specialist Don Wilson, dubbed the academy's specimen Pteropus allenorum. They took the name in part from Allen Drew, an old friend who hosted them here.
The specimen was originally identified as a different species and kept that identification until some of the Academy's scientists looked at it more closely. The researchers think that the species is probably extinct, though their reasoning is not mentioned by the Inquirer. It seems like it would be hard to miss a creature with a two-foot wingspan, but if no one has known to look for it, it is possible that the bat has gone unidentified in the wild as well as in the jar.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Insects and Flowers

Here are a few more local insects. After looking at so many flies that mimic bees, I have started to assume that the bee-like creatures that I do not recognize are flies rather than bees. So when I found an interesting green-colored bee-like insect, I turned first to the fly section of my guide. But as it turns out, this one is probably an actual bee, probably of the Agapostemon genus.

I find the green coloration very interesting. I had not noticed bees like this before this summer when I started looking at them more closely.

Of course, there are still plenty of Syrphid flies around, such as this one facing off with a leafhopper.

I am still participating in the Firefly Watch. This week I had my best week so far, with about 25 fireflies signaling in the 10 second count period. This one did not look so good.

There are more recent images on my Flickr account.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Loose Feathers #195

Ruby-throated Hummingbird / Uploaded to Flickr by hart_curt

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

Thursday, July 09, 2009

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #104 is online at Kolibri Expeditions. The link goes to Part 1, Part 2 will appear later.

Update (Friday night): Part 2 is now available (with lots of beautiful pictures!).

EPW Passes Revised Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act

The Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee has passed a bill to reauthorize the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act at higher funding levels.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has passed S. 690, which reauthorizes the existing Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA) at significantly higher levels to meet the growing needs of our migrant birds, many of which are in rapid decline. Senate Environment and Public Works Ranking Member, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), a frequent critic of providing more government funding for conservation programs raised an objection to the higher authorization levels in the bill. The bipartisan bill, sponsored by Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Michael Crapo (R-ID), now moves to debate in the full Senate. Representative Ron Kind (D-WI) has introduced similar legislation in the House of Representatives....

NMBCA supports partnership programs to conserve 341 species of migratory 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 habitat restoration, research and monitoring, law enforcement, and outreach and education. Between 2002 and 2008, the program supported 260 projects coordinated by partners in 48 U.S. states/territories and 36 countries. Projects involving land conservation have affected approximately three million acres of bird habitat.
This bill would increase funding for the program from $6 million to $20 million. Projects receiving federal money must raise $3 in private money for every federal dollar they receive. In the past, many qualifying projects have gone unfunded because the federal matching grants program had run out of funds.

If you have not done so already, please consider contacting your representatives (here or here) and ask that they support this worthy program.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

US Border Wall Threatens Pygmy Owls and Bighorn Sheep

A new paper in Conservation Biology warns of the potential dangers that the southwestern border wall poses for already threatened wildlife.

"The biggest concern is that this barrier will break small populations of animals into even smaller pieces that will result in fewer animals interacting," said Clinton Epps, a wildlife biologist at Oregon State University and co-author on the study. "A major barrier such as this could lead to significant degradation of connectivity for many different species, ultimately threatening their populations."

In their study, the authors looked at the potential effects of the security wall on two species – the pygmy owl and bighorn sheep – primarily because they already had studied those animals in that region. They found that the low-flying pygmy owl made three-fourths of its flights below the height of the security wall, which is approximately four meters high, and that juvenile owls had lower colonization in areas of disturbance or areas with less vegetation.
"Connectivity" is important for keeping wildlife populations healthy. Many species migrate from one part of their range to another to take advantage of seasonal foraging opportunities, and some move from day to day. Connectivity is also important for maintaining genetic diversity. If two parts of a population are separated by a physical barrier, they will no longer be able to interbreed. For small populations, this could risk inbreeding.

The authors suggest alterations to the wall to reduce the risk to wildlife.
"Some of the potential damage to pygmy owls could be mitigated with a few tweaks to the system," Epps added. "Putting in poles near the fence could allow the owls to swoop down from a perch, and planting brush to provide better cover could help them avoid predation by larger avian species and improve their chances for colonization."

Maintaining or augmenting trees that are taller than the fence, and that are associated with patches of dense, low vegetation should not only promote permeability, agreed lead author Aaron D. Flesch, a biologist from the University of Arizona – they may be critical. "Movement of pygmy owls from Mexico to Arizona may be necessary for the persistence of the Arizona population," Flesch pointed out.
There is also a possible solution for bighorn sheep, which are linked genetically across the Arizona-Mexico border.
"The key is to have gaps in the fence that are sufficient to allow passage of animals, while at the same time meeting security needs," Epps said. "A 'virtual' fence could be an alternative to a solid wall in some places, especially in steep terrain that is ideally suited for bighorn sheep. The use of cameras, radar, satellite monitoring and vehicle barriers could provide security and be great alternatives for wildlife."
Bighorn sheep and pygmy owls are the only species covered by the study, but they are not the only species of concern on the US-Mexican border. All of them have their own habitat and connectivity needs, so each will require varying degrees of mitigation. There is also a separate issue of urban-centered walls pushing immigrants (and their pursuers) into wilderness areas, which has its own effects on the wildlife that lives there. Of course, all of these could have been addressed at the outset if a proper environmental review had been done.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Tropics Expanding

The Earth's tropical zone is expanding thanks to climate change.

Researchers at James Cook University concluded the tropics had widened by up to 500 kilometres (310 miles) in the past 25 years after examining 70 peer-reviewed scientific articles.

They looked at findings from long-term satellite measurements, weather balloon data, climate models and sea temperature studies to determine how global warming was impacting on the tropical zone.

The findings showed it now extended well beyond the traditional definition of the tropics, the equatorial band circling the Earth between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.
As usual, I am less concerned about what will happen in the subtropics than what will happen at the other ends, the Arctic and Antarctic. Organisms in zones towards the middle of the planet should have an easier time adjusting or shifting their ranges than ones at the extremes, where there is really no place to go. However, an expanded tropical zone does come with severe consequences, such as more virulent diseases (such as malaria and dengue fever) and more extreme weather patterns. So this trend is definitely disturbing.