Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Birds in 2009

It is a time for year-end lists, and I have already compiled one list of my favorite bird encounters of the period from 2000-2009. This is a topic that may interest only me, since it is my life list under discussion. But, as a follow-up to the previous post, here are the eleven species I added to my life list in 2009.

316. Iceland Gull at Donaldson Park (05 Jan 2009). This is probably my favorite of the new life birds, not because of its rarity, but because I found it myself on my local patch. I am hoping I might see one there again this winter.

317. White-winged Crossbill at Hughes Hollow (MD) (25 Jan 2009). I saw these with my friend Bob while we were doing a winter raptor survey in Montgomery County. If you have been to Hughes Hollow, you are probably familiar with the grove of spruces where we saw them.

318. Glaucous Gull at Jones Beach Coast Guard Station (NY) (14 Mar 2009). This is the first of two life birds I saw with Patrick, Corey, and Carrie on our blogger birding tour of western Long Island. Two life birds in one day? Maybe I ought to bird more with other bloggers...

319. Ross's Goose at Cammanns Pond (NY) (14 Mar 2009). This is the second of my two life birds from that day. It is such a cute bird, especially in contrast to a pond full of Canada Geese.

320. Green-tailed Towhee at Collingswood, NJ (22 Mar 2009). This seems like the most unusual of the species on this list. The bird showed up in someone's backyard, and then it stayed for months.

321. Whimbrel at Brigantine, Forsythe NWR (15 May 2009). It seems strange that it took me five years of visiting salt marshes to see this species.

322. White Ibis at Great Swamp NWR (20 May 2009). The good news is that I have a photo of this bird, unlike the other life birds on this list. The bad news is that it looks like this.

323. Black Rail at Cape May Meadows (27 Jun 2009). I spent an hour standing and waiting for this bird before it finally vocalized, and then I stood and listened to it vocalize for another hour. It never emerged from the bushes, even though it was quite close, but otherwise it was a satisfying experience. The photo at the top of the image was taken (on a different day) near where I heard the rail.

324. Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow at Cape May, NJ (28 Jun 2009). If you are in Cape May between May and October, it is worth finding some time to take a trip aboard The Osprey, a pontoon boat that offers birding tours of Cape May Harbor and nearby inlets. I saw this sparrow from the boat on one of the harbor's islands.

325. Roseate Spoonbill at Brigantine, Forsythe NWR (26 Aug 2009). While Iceland Gull is my favorite, this one was easily the most spectacular sight. It took three tries to see it, but this bird was well worth it.

326. Marbled Godwit at Stone Harbor Point (04 Oct 2009). As with the Whimbrel, it took me longer to see this species than it should have, given the number of times I have visited salt marshes and other coastal habitat.

Both "any crossbill" and "any godwit" appeared on my desired life bird post from last December, so that list may need revising.

I am hoping to see more in 2010! So what new birds did you see this year?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ice Patterns

In his last few posts on Point and Shoot Landscape, Steve Ingraham has been writing about the importance of patterns in photography. Patterns, of course, are vital to creating interesting images. It is not necessarily a matter of abstract patterns as thinking about how the various elements in an image relate to one another. Shapes and lines can be arranged in ways that enhance or distract from an image's subejct. What works well is something one learns from a lot of trial and error.

During winter, one easy place to find interesting abstract patterns is ice. While the weekend's thaw removed all but a few piles of snow, a subsequent cold snap refroze many of the puddles. The thin crusts of ice now coating these puddles show a wide variety of shapes. The photo at the top is my favorite of this batch since the pattern is so intricate. It looks at once delicate and solid, like a landform at the edge of an ocean.

I am not sure what causes such a wide diversity. All of these photos were taken within a radius of ten feet or so, and yet there are so many patterns. Where the crystals at the top looked delicate and solid, the ones in the second photo look more liquid and blob-like.

In yet another pattern, this part of the ice shows strong, solid straight lines. The photo below also shows straight lines but in a more delicate pattern. The ice in the center of this image was very thin.

It is important to look up to see birds, but some interesting sights are at your feet, too.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Waterlogged Christmas Bird Count

After not being able to participate in the Lower Hudson Christmas Bird Count due to snow, I was really hoping for good weather for our local count, the Raritan Estuary CBC. We could not have asked for better weather on the day of the count – it was sunny and mild with only a light breeze. However, the day before the count, it rained all day. That rain, combined with the melting of eleven inches of snow, created two problems for us. One was a rapidly moving river that swept waterbirds out of our count area. The second was that much of Johnson Park was flooded, with some areas inaccessible even on foot. You can get a sense of the flooding in the image above.

As a result we had to adjust our plans. Flooding, for example, made it impossible to count waterfowl along the river bank, something my sister has done for the past few counts. It also meant that I could not venture into some areas that are typically good for songbirds. Flooding also dispersed the Canada Geese so that they were not concentrated around a few large ponds.

Despite the mess, we still managed to get good results. We recorded 46 species, which is higher than last year but below our high of 51 in 2007. The local Canada Goose population has been much greater than in past winters, and that is reflected in our count of 3420. The difference this year seems to be a lack of persecution from the county. Over the past weeks, there have been consistently 600-800 geese present at Donaldson Park, with many more supported in the much larger Johnson Park. Mallards also were present in good numbers, and there were much smaller numbers of a few other waterfowl species.

We did not see any true rarities in our area, but we had a few nice birds. My sister located a Gray Catbird near the railroad bridge in Johnson Park. This bird has been present at the location since about Thanksgiving. It was good to see that it survived last week's snow and cold snap. My gull counting at Donaldson Park was interrupted when a Bald Eagle put all the gulls to flight. Other raptors were also present in good numbers, even though our Red-tailed Hawk count was down from last year. In addition, we saw a variety of winter migrants that are common but not guaranteed, such as Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Brown Creeper.

We finished the day by striking out on the Peregrine Falcon that sometimes roosts at the Route 1 bridge.

Oddly enough, Bald Eagles are considered rare enough birds for this count to require a rare bird form. (Speaking of which, why does Audubon's rare bird form (pdf) use MS Comic Sans, of all fonts?) Writing rare bird documentation for a Bald Eagle feels a bit like writing documentation for a Blue Jay or Northern Cardinal. It is a bird that is easily identifiable with unmistakable field marks, yet I tend not to note an individual bird's characteristics because they are so familiar. Luckily, my sister took a photo so we have visual documentation if that is deemed necessary.

In addition to the eagle form, I submitted rare bird forms for two exotic waterfowl. As discussed on BIRDCHAT over the past few weeks, exotic birds are countable on Christmas Bird Counts, something that many birders do not know (partly because Audubon does not make this clear). This year, I am submitting observations of two Egyptian Geese (a species I have written about before) and the bird below.

My first thought on seeing the bird in the photo above was Snow Goose, perhaps a mix of white and blue morphs. However, on closer inspection of the photograph, this is clearly not the case. First, size makes this doubtful, as the average Snow Goose is smaller than the average Canada Goose. (Size also makes several other native goose species unlikely.) Second, this goose's bill lacks the sneer patch typical of a Snow Goose's bill. Third, “Blue” Snow Goose flight feathers usually have a dark center surrounded by a white edge; this goose has all gray flight feathers with no white edge; in addition, the wing tips appear to be dark gray rather than black.

So what is it? The closest match for the features listed above appears to be a feral domesticated Greylag Goose (a.k.a. barnyard goose). I have no illusions about this being a wild bird even though it is free-ranging. Most likely it escaped from Johnson Park's small zoo, which holds a variety of exotic waterfowl; since the enclosures are fenced but not capped, local and exotic waterfowl can intermingle, and some of the latter escape. Occasionally other free-ranging Greylags have produced hybrids with Canada Geese. I am submitting both this and the Egyptian Geese because I think it is important to document the phenomenon of exotics mixing with our local waterfowl and the possible establishment of new populations.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Higher Pitches Show Genetic Diversity

A recent study found that higher pitched notes in a male bird's song signal better genetic diversity in at least one species, the Ocellated Antbird (Phaenostictus mcleannani).
DeWoody and former Purdue graduate student Johel Chaves-Campos studied ocellated antbirds in the tropical forests of Central America. The antbirds survive by tracking army ants, which hunt in large swarms and are capable of killing just about anything in their paths. The birds flit ahead of the swarms and collect arthropods that flee for their lives....

The antbirds have several calls, some to let fellow antbirds know where the army ants are heading, others to attract mates and still others that are defensive or aggressive to protect turf. DeWoody's research involved recording those calls and matching them to DNA samples of the birds. The results suggest that genetic diversity in antbirds affects their physical abilities to produce certain sounds.

"Our results are consistent with the idea that some sound frequencies are biomechanically difficult to produce. Males that are genetically diverse, and therefore expected to be in better physical condition, are able to produce sound frequencies that males with less genetic variation are unable to reach," Chaves-Campos said.

DeWoody said females can pick up on the pitch of the males' songs to decide which birds will make the best mates.
You can read the full study online at PLoS ONE.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Book Note: Field Guides to Borneo and Jamaica

Occasionally I receive books for review from publishers. Some of them I have reviewed, and others are still waiting on my shelf to be reviewed. This post describes two books that I received for review recently, both field guides to islands outside the United States: Birds of Borneo: Brunei, Sabah, Sarawak, and Kalimantan by Susan Myers and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Jamaica by Ann Haynes-Sutton, Audrey Downer, Robert Sutton, and Yves-Jacques Rey-Millet. I am posting short notices about these books since some readers may be interested, but I do not have a good basis for evaluating them properly.

First will be Birds of Borneo. The island of Borneo lies on the Equator close to Southeast Asia and is divided among three countries, Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Borneo is home to 430 resident bird species, 50 of which are endemic, making this island potentially of interest for ecotourism. (Most of the endemic species are found in the Malaysian portion of the island.) This guide includes those resident and endemic birds, plus some others for a total of 633. The resulting guide is thin and light enough to be carried easily in a coat pocket or backpack.

Birds are depicted with painted illustrations. Where necessary, there are multiple illustrations to show differences in age, sex, or color morphs. Very few species are shown in flight. Illustrations are accompanied by a range map (limited to a bird's range within Borneo) and a short species account, which includes descriptions of the bird's plumage, habitat, behavior, and range. Endemic species are listed in the introduction and noted in the species accounts. My review copy included an insert showing corrected illustrations for two species, Temminck's Babbler (Pellorneum pyrrogenys longstaffi) and the endemic Bornean Barbet (Megalaima eximia).

As an aside, I believe this is the first field guide I have seen that does not illustrate the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) or European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), so I have finally learned of at least one landmass where these species do not occur. The only member of the genus Passer that occurs on the island is European Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus). The Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) is present, however.

The taxonomy in Birds of Borneo follows Robson's A Field Guide to the Birds of Southeast Asia, which includes Borneo in its coverage. Perhaps by coincidence, a competing guide, the Phillipps' Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, is due for release next month.

The second book, A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Jamica, replaces an older field guide with a similar title. I do not usually see Jamaica listed among prime birding or ecotourism attractions, yet the island has 307 species, 30 of which are endemic. (All of the birds depicted on the cover are endemics.) An additional three species are endemic to the Caribbean. This is the highest total of endemics for any island in the West Indies is impressive for any small island. Despite the high proportion of endemics, only a few of the island's bird species are endangered.

Unlike Birds of Borneo, this guide illustrates all bird species with photographs. Most species are represented by more than one photograph to show additional postures or plumages. While the photographs are of high quality, the selection is not always fully representative of the range of a bird's appearances. Migrant shorebirds, for example, are generally only shown in winter plumage. This may be a reasonable for wintering species but could cause confusion about birds seen out of season. Illustrations for each species are accompanied by a short text explaining how to identify the bird and where to find it, along with a range map showing its range within Jamaica. Taxonomy follows The Clements Checklist of Birds of the World.

Most visitors to the Caribbean will probably prefer Herbert Raffaele's Birds of the West Indies over A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Jamica, as the former covers a broader range (making it useful for more than one island) and uses painted illustrations. The main advantage I can see in using Birds of Jamaica is that it includes notes on where to find birds in Jamaica and what species are endemic on the island. It may also prove attractive for birders who prefer using photographic guides or who want supplemental views of the species depicted by Raffaele. An additional resource for birders visiting the island is Bird Songs in Jamaica by George Reynard and Robert Sutton.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

New Spill in Prince William Sound

Photo credit: Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News

On Wednesday night, there was another oil spill in Prince William Sound in Alaska. This time it was not a tanker like the Exxon Valdez, but a tugboat whose fuel tanks ruptured when it ran aground on Bligh Reef. As a result this spill will be a lot smaller, but the amount of oil spilled is still unknown.

The 136-foot tug had been scouting the Valdez shipping lanes for ice Wednesday when it struck one of the most infamous maritime hazards in the world, 20 years and nine months after the Exxon Valdez came up hard aground on the same charted rock.

The six-member Pathfinder crew reported running aground on Bligh Reef at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday, though the Coast Guard didn't make the incident public until about 3:30 a.m. Thursday.
None of the fuel was recovered, but the Coast Guard says that it should disperse quickly.
The Valdez Star with its skimmers was sent out in early afternoon to try to recover the fuel, but the effort came up empty-handed.

"There's no recoverable sheen," said Jim Butler, a spokesman for Crowley. "That was based on overflight and equipment operating in the area."

While diesel fuel is toxic, it gets diluted relatively quickly through dispersion and evaporation, Butler said. Though it doesn't just "go away," it doesn't persist like crude oil, which globs up on beaches and tidal pools and can continue to pollute for years. The Exxon Valdez spilled an estimated 11 million gallons of North Slope crude, and its effects are still being felt in the Sound.

The Coast Guard reported that marine forecasters didn't believe the fuel sheen would touch Glacier Island, at least for the next 24 to 36 hours, and they expected it to dissipate rapidly.
The tanks that ruptured held 33,500 gallons of fuel. The remaining fuel is currently being pumped out of the tugboat, and an estimate of the size of the spill will be available once that is finished. In the meantime, it is not clear why the accident happened. 

In the meantime, the aerial photos of the scene are gorgeous, except for the fuel sheen.

Update (12/28): The IBRRC reports that the fuel has dispersed since the spill.

Friday, December 25, 2009

SkyWatch: Snow Day

This photo is from Sunday, when the last few snowflakes were still drifting down and branches were covered with snow. The tree on the left is a cedar; the ones on the right are maples. No snow is left on the branches now, but we still have plenty on the ground since the temperature has not risen enough to melt all of it. Perhaps that will happen this weekend.

Loose Feathers #218

Snowy Owl / Photo by mikkime

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Finally, Merry Christmas to everyone!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Twisting Genitals and Forced Copulation: The Strange Sex Lives of Ducks

A few years ago, a study explored the strange genitals of waterfowl and found that females typically had complex vaginas if males of the same species had complex phalluses. Waterbirds are among the few bird species that have phalluses at all. Duck species in the Anas, Clangula, and Oxytura genera take this to an extreme, with very long, twisting genitals, sometimes equipped with spines. Phalluses twist counterclockwise, and vaginas twist clockwise. (You can see some examples at the post linked above.) Other duck species have shorter and simpler reproductive organs.

Adding such complexity into the reproductive tract seems odd at first glance, since it would seem to impede fertilization. The research team, led by Patricia Brennan, hypothesized that female ducks evolved complex vaginas to counteract forced copulation, a behavior that is well-documented in waterfowl. (See here and this infamous case.) A twisting vagina could give females more control over which males fertilized their eggs.

The same research team is back with more evidence that female ducks evolved vaginas to deter forced insemination. To test their hypothesis, the researchers studied domesticated muscovy ducks at a farm in California. They placed male ducks in a cage to mate with a female but made the males ejaculate into a glass tube instead. A total of 56 males were videotaped in the process of erection and ejaculation. The male ducks at the farm had been trained to provide semen for commercial breeding and were thus amenable to the testing procedure.

Duck genitalia and mechanical barriers. (a) Male and female genitalia in a Pekin duck (Anas sp.). The male phallus (right) spirals in a counterclockwise direction and the female oviduct (left) spirals in a clockwise direction. The female vagina has blind pouches (b.p.) proximal to the cloacal entrance, followed by a series of spirals (sp.). s.s., sulcus spermaticus; a. ph., tip of the penis; cl, cloaca. Scale bar, 2 cm. (b) Diameter glass tubes (10 mm) of different shapes used to test male penis eversion; from left to right, straight, anticlockwise (male-like), clockwise and 135° bend (female-like).

Male ducks are unusual not only in having phalluses but also in erecting them very quickly only after mounting a female. (The authors refer to this as "explosive eversion.") A phallus then curves as it erects to match the shape of the receiving vagina or, in the case of this study, the glass tubes. The researchers tested three different types of tubes. The first type, as a control, was a straight glass tube; the second type had a counterclockwise twist, just like a phallus. Neither of these presented an obstacle to erection. The third type imitated the shapes of vaginas, with either a clockwise twist or a 135° bend. The latter tubes either blocked phalluses at the entrance or caused them to erect in the wrong direction. You can see video of erections into the various tube shapes as a data supplement to the paper.

Males encountering a clockwise or bent tube shape could still ejaculate. However, if they were copulating with an unreceptive female duck, their sperm would be left near the entrance of the reproductive tract where they would be less likely to cause fertilization. Willing females, on the other hand, may increase the chances of fertilization by adopting a receptive posture and contracting and relaxing their cloacal muscles to allow easier erection. In that way, a female duck could still produce offspring with the male of her choice, not just whichever male happened to be the most aggressive.

ResearchBlogging.orgNew study:
Brennan, P., Clark, C., & Prum, R. (2009). Explosive eversion and functional morphology of the duck penis supports sexual conflict in waterfowl genitalia Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.2139

Older study:
Brennan, P., Prum, R., McCracken, K., Sorenson, M., Wilson, R., & Birkhead, T. (2007). Coevolution of Male and Female Genital Morphology in Waterfowl PLoS ONE, 2 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0000418

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Review: National Geographic Illustrated Birds of North America Folio Edition

Since 1983, National Geographic's Birds of North America has offered a compelling alternative for birders who want to use an illustrated field guide. This fall, National Geographic published a new version of its popular guide. Unlike previous editions, this one is not designed to be carried in the field (except perhaps by very strong birders with unusually large pockets). Instead, this is a folio edition designed as a home or library reference.

The National Geographic Illustrated Birds of North America Folio Edition presents illustrations and descriptions for 967 North American bird species. The main text includes both native and accidental species, with some extremely rare (or extinct) species in an appendix. Illustrations are largely the same as in previous editions of the guide but are enlarged to show more detail. I cannot compare these illustrations to the 5th edition of the field guide, but they appear very similar to those in my 1st edition. Range maps have been revised and enlarged.

This edition updates the taxonomy to reflect recent changes made by the American Ornithologists' Union. Thus the Saltmarsh Sparrow and Nelson's Sparrow have "Sharp-tailed" deleted from their names. Cackling Goose is presented as a separate species. Tanagers are not grouped together with cardinals and grosbeaks, but the introduction makes note of their reclassification. Scientific names, such as the genera of gulls and terns, are also updated.

National Geographic's Birds of North America stands with the Sibley Guide to Birds and the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America as one of the best choices for birders who prefer that their field guide have painted illustrations rather than photographs. Unlike the Sibley and Peterson guides, the National Geographic guide eschews static illustrations that show all related birds in the same pose for more naturalistic illustrations. Birds are shown in a variety of poses, often with hints of their native habitats or food sources. National Geographic's illustrations show more detail than Peterson's and have more subtle colors than Sibley's.

When I am using a guide in the field, I much prefer that the illustrations show consistent poses. This makes it much easier to find points of comparison quickly. However, National Geographic's naturalistic illustrations come into their own in this folio edition. The larger size makes it easier to appreciate Dunn and Alderfer's work to put the birds into context. The implied action in many of the poses and inclusion of habitat details recall the work of John James Audubon, even though Dunn and Alderfer's work is technically superior (and more scientifically accurate). In the case of the Peregrine Falcon, the illustration in the National Geographic guide seems like a direct reference to one of Audubon's engravings, as each book shows a falcon clutching a dead Green-winged Teal.

The National Geographic Illustrated Birds of North America Folio Edition is a high-quality book with excellent illustrations. I will leave it to readers to decide if the correspondingly high price is worth paying; my guess is that for owners of the field guide's 5th edition, the answer is probably no. However, it could be a complementary reference for owners of other field guides.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Legislation to Create New National Monuments

Yesterday Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced a bill that would change the protected status of millions of acres of federal land. Some areas would become more protected while others would lose some protections. You can see a rundown of the changes and involved sites at Coyote Crossing.

The act seems to be at least partly directed at the solar and wind industries, as it would block controversial energy developments in some parts of the Mojave Desert.

The debate over the monument encapsulates a rising tension between two goals held by environmental groups: preservation of wild lands and ambitious efforts to combat global warming.

Not only is the desert land some of the sunniest in the country, and thus suitable for large-scale power production, it is also some of the most scenic territory in the West. The Mojave lands have sweeping vistas of an ancient landscape that is home to desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, fringe-toed lizards and other rare animals and plants.
Feinstein wants to push the solar and wind projects off sensitive wilderness areas and into already disturbed land.
On Thursday, Mrs. Feinstein introduced legislation to provide a 30 percent tax credit to developers that consolidate degraded private land for solar projects. She followed that on Monday with the legislation to create the 941,00-acre Mojave Trails National Monument and the 134,00-acre Sand to Snow National Monument.

“I strongly believe that conservation, renewable energy development and recreation can and must co-exist in the California desert,” Mrs. Feinstein said in a statement. “This legislation strikes a careful balance between these sometimes competing concerns.”

Developers and environmentalists say Mrs. Feinstein has modified the monument legislation to address some of their issues. The 2.5 million acres set aside in a draft version of the monument act has been shrunk to around one million acres, allowing at least two projects to proceed. The bill also includes provisions designed to accelerate approval of renewable energy projects on federal land.
You can read more about the problems with placing solar developments in wild areas of the Mojave at the Clade, here and here.

Update: Here is more detail on the two proposed new national monuments, including a map with their locations.
The biggest component is the 941,000-acre Mojave Trails National Monument encompassing dry lakes, mountain ranges and other terrain on both sides of Interstate 40 south of Mojave National Preserve.

It also would create the 134,000-acre Sand to Snow National Monument from the desert north of Palm Springs to San Gorgonio Peak. It would include Big Morongo and Whitewater canyons and nature preserves in Pipes Canyon and along Mission Creek on the eastern flanks of the San Bernardino Mountains.
The Sand to Snow monument would help to fill in gaps between existing wildlife areas in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, providing a path for animals to move between the San Jacinto and San Bernardino mountain ranges. It would include existing wilderness around 11,499-foot San Gorgonio, Southern California's highest peak.

The area is important for reptiles, bighorn sheep and migratory birds that rely on habitats where desert transitions into forest.

The bill would expand Death Valley National Park by 41,000 acres, Joshua Tree National Park by 2,900 acres, and the Mojave National Preserve by 30,000 acres. It would protect 76 miles of waterways, including the Whitewater River and Deep Creek in the San Bernardino Mountains, and the Amargosa River and Surprise Canyon, in the Death Valley area.
The bill seems to emphasize expanding and connecting existing protected areas. However, the bill also makes significant concessions to off-road vehicle users and withdraws protections from some areas, so see the full list of changes here.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Scenes from the Snowpocalypse

Over the weekend the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States was blanketed by an unusually heavy snowfall, for a date so early in the season and in some places for a winter overall. Forecasts sounded so dire that snarky Twitter users started referring to it with hastags like #snOMG and #snowpocalypse.

Unlike many snowstorms, this one lived up to its hype. Washington's airport received 16.4 inches, the largest one-day storm in 70 years; it shut down parts of the Metro system and the federal government (with the exception of the Senate). Suffolk County, NY, received 26.3 inches, and Winchester, VA, received 30 inches. Where it did not set records, this storm was unusual in its ferocity this early in the season, even if it might seem tame to readers in the northern tier of the United States or Canada.

I took several measurements outside my house yesterday morning. They ranged between 7 inches (on pavement) and 13 inches (in snow drifts). Most measurements on grass clustered around 10 or 11 inches. This accords with the Rutgers weather station's measurement of 11.1 inches in New Brunswick, NJ.

I love walking around just after the snow has stopped falling. At this time melting has not yet begun, and branches are still covered with a delicate coating of snow. The cedar above still had snow on its branches, and many deciduous trees had a similar coating.

I walked to my local park with a camera in my pocket but no binoculars. Birds were barely active yet anyway, though a red-tailed hawk perched in a tree and gulls huddled on the frozen pond. The river was also partially frozen, meaning that the several hundred geese that were present in the park last week were confined to much smaller spaces for a time.

Many Christmas Bird Counts in New Jersey this weekend canceled or postponed their counts because of the blizzard. My mother and I had been planning to participate in one yesterday, the Lower Hudson CBC, which we did last year. This count was not canceled (and recorded a Grasshopper Sparrow), but we decided to err on the side of safety and stay at home. In my opinion, the Lower Hudson count should have been postponed. Even deep snow probably posed little problem for volunteers in New York, as they can rely on the city's excellent subway system to reach their assignments. Most volunteers in New Jersey, however, have to drive, and road clearing can be uneven, especially in the early morning.

While I am disappointed about that result, I am looking forward to future counts this winter.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Canada Geese at Donaldson Park

I took these photos of geese along the river bank on Friday morning. Unlike my last post on local geese, these birds are all Canada Geese. The air was cold that morning, and each time a goose honked, its breath was visible.

I tried photographing some geese through my binoculars. The results were not great, but at least in this case it provided a more intimate view of the geese.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Best Birds of 2000-2009

Some other bloggers are doing lists of their favorite bird sightings from the past ten years, so I suppose I might as well make one too. Since I have been birding for less than a full decade, this list is compressed towards the latter half of the last ten years.

  1. Rufous Hummingbird (7 Dec 2003) – The first time I followed a sighting from a rare bird alert was for this Rufous, one of a succession of western hummingbirds that wintered at the Smithsonian in December 2003.
  2. Scott's Oriole (28 Jan 2008) – I saw my 300th life bird in a square in downtown Manhattan.
  3. Green-tailed Towhee (22 Mar 2009) – One of the few New Jersey rare birds to stick around long enough for me to see it.
  4. Golden Eagle (9 Nov 2008) – My first sighting of a wild Golden Eagle was not of a bird soaring overhead but one cradled in the arms of another raptor bander. After its release (above), it stayed around for another day and hunted in the marsh near the banding blind.
  5. Black Rail (27 Jun 2009) – A rare bird to hear and a rarer bird to see, even though it is widespread on the Atlantic coast.
  6. Roseate Spoonbill (26 Aug 2009) –A big, pink, weirdly-shaped life bird out of its normal range.
  7. Purple Gallinule (6 Jun 2004) – Another ostentatious bird outside of its normal range, but this time at Hughes Hollow rather than Brigantine.
  8. Iceland Gull (5 Jan 2009) – I had long wondered if I could pick a white-winged gull out of a crowd of more common gulls, until the day I did.
  9. Horned Lark (15 Dec 2007) – This bird is not uncommon but difficult to find in the places I normally go birding.
  10. Cerulean Warbler (7 May 2006) – Needless to say, I was quite pleased when I finally saw the bird species I had chosen as an emblem for my blog.
You can see other lists at The Birdchaser and The Hawk Owl's Nest.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Loose Feathers #217

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

New I and the Bird

I and the Bird #115 has been posted at Xenogere.

Local Cackling Goose

Over the past few weeks, large numbers of Canada Geese have been accumulating in Donaldson Park, my local patch. I have consistently seen over 500 at a time; yesterday the number was close to 800. The geese are attracted to the park's large athletic fields, especially to the newly-landscaped soccer fields on the east side of the park. The county laid out a banquet of fresh turf, and the geese have come to enjoy it.

Flocks that large are bound to attract other visitors. Occasionally a Snow Goose will drop in. Brant, too, have appeared at times. Yesterday a Cackling Goose joined the flock.

Here is a portion of the flock, with crows in the background. The Cackling Goose is on the right side of this image. It appears much smaller than the neighboring Canada Geese, even the ones behind it.

This digibinned photo shows the Cackling Goose in close comparison with two Canada Geese. Its back seems grayer, and it has a much shorter neck. As in the other shot, it appears much smaller than the birds behind it. I have photos of the goose with its head raised here and here. Its bill is not as stubby as I would like, but it appears to be within the accepted range for this species. It also has a relatively blocky head.

As for the subspecies, I think the most likely is Richardson's Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii hutchinsii). This is the most common one on the East Coast, and I see nothing here to rule that out. Richardson's Cackling Geese breed in Arctic Canada, primarily Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, and winter in the central and eastern United States.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Review: The Bird Watching Answer Book

Laura Erickson has devoted much of her writing to helping new birders and nonbirders understand and protect birds better. Her previous books include 101 Ways to Help Birds, which has a variety of recommendations that anyone can follow to support bird conservation, a theme that continues on her blog. Her latest work, The Bird Watching Answer Book, follows in the same vein but answers a broader array of questions.

New birders and people with a general interest in birds often have very basic questions about birds. They do not necessarily need explanations of the latest research, just clear and accurate answers. The Bird Watching Answer Book does this quite well. Despite its small size (slightly smaller than most of my Peterson and Kaufman guides), it packs a great deal of information inside its covers.

The Bird Watching Answer Book is written in a question-and-answer format, with the questions grouped by topic. Many of the questions derive from real questions asked of Laura Erickson or from questions sent to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Topic range from basic questions such as  how to feed birds or what to do with a baby bird to more complex subjects such as breeding and migratory behavior. The book also stresses reducing hazards for birds and protecting endangered bird species.

Potential buyers should note that The Bird Watching Answer Book does not teach how to identify birds. It may work best if paired with a field guide plus a book that does teach identification skills, like Sibley's Birding Basics or the National Geographic Birding Essentials. I do not mean this as criticism, but readers should approach the book with proper expectations.

In addition to helping beginning birders, it should be a useful resource for people who work in nature preserves or birders who interact with the general public in other ways. Even those of us who blog about birds frequently receive basic queries about birds. It helps to have a book like this to use as a reference when answering them.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

New Leaf Warbler from Vietnam

A new warbler species, the Limestone Leaf Warbler (Phylloscopus calciatilis), has been discovered in Vietnam and Laos. This is not one of the wood warblers (family Parulidae) we are familiar with in North America. Instead the new warbler belongs to the leaf warbler family (Phylloscopidae), whose members are found mainly in Europe and Asia. Though it was first discovered in 1994, it was not identified as a separate species until now.
The plumage of the Limestone leaf warbler (Phylloscopus calciatilis) is almost identical to that of the Sulphur-breasted warbler (Phylloscopus ricketti), though the new species appears to have a colder yellow chest and more grey topside and stripped crown.

But the new species is smaller, with shorter wings, rounder wing tips and a proportionately larger bill.

"Its vocalisations, both song and contact call, are markedly different from those of the Sulphur-breasted warbler," says Professor Alstrom.

DNA analyses also suggest that it is more closely related to the Yellow-vented warbler (Phylloscopus cantator) from eastern Himalayas, northern Laos and adjacent part of China, which is quite different in plumage.
Alstrom explains the divergence by the timing of their evolution:
"The most likely explanation [for this]," he says, "is that the plumages have not diverged much in the Sulphur-breasted and Limestone warblers since they separated from a common ancestor."

Surprisingly, the Yellow-vented warbler and the Limestone leaf warbler separated from a common ancestor much later, but have diverged much more in plumage.

Unlike many new species discoveries that I read about, the Limestone Leaf Warbler is apparently quite numerous within its range. However, it is restricted to limestone karst habitats, which are difficult to access. This may explain why it went undiscovered for so long.

The article announcing the Limestone Leaf Warbler's discovery is available from the journal Ibis.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Hawk Trapped in the Metro

According to the Washington Post, a hawk got trapped in an escalator at the Benning Road Metro station. The article speculates that the hawk was chasing after a pigeon, which seems like a reasonable explanation. It does not identify the hawk, but Red-tailed Hawk (pictured at right) would be a good candidate to be chasing a pigeon in an urban area. Other potential pigeon-chasers would include Peregrine Falcon and possibly Cooper's Hawk. There are other common hawks in DC, such as the Red-shouldered Hawk, but if it were one of those, the explanation for what the hawk was doing in the station might need adjustment.

The good news is that rescue crews responded quickly and freed the hawk by partially dismantling the escalator. Apparently it was released on the station.

There is a joke about Metro's escalators in here somewhere.

More Species to Be Affected by Climate Change

The Wildlife Conservation Society last week issued a report on animal species that could be harmed by climate change (opens as pdf). They wanted to publicize some lesser known species that have a lot to lose even if polar bears get more attention (not always for good reasons). The biggest worries tend to be about species with limited ranges or that cannot move much closer to the poles.

There are a few birds on the WCS list. Here are the explanations for their inclusion:

  • Bicknell's Thrush: "Scientists have found that a mean temperature increase of just 1 degree Celsius would reduce by more than half the critical mountaintop breeding habitat for the Bicknell’s thrush, a songbird that breeds only in eastern North America. Given the limited availability of this habitat, WCS is developing management practices to inform the conservation of these high elevation areas."
  • Magellanic Penguin: "Climate-induced changes, including shifts in ocean temperatures and prey availability, are making reproduction difficult for Magellanic penguins. WCS research indicates that in the last decade, the penguins have been laying their eggs later in the season and swimming farther away from their nests in search of food when they have eggs and chicks. The largest breeding colony of this species in Patagonia has declined more than 20 percent in the last 20 years."
  • Buff-breasted Sandpiper and other migratory birds that breed in the Arctic: "Shorebirds migrate from all over the world to breed on the coastal plain of Arctic Alaska, where WCS scientists have observed a variety of impacts from climate change. Buff-breasted sandpipers are nesting more than 10 days earlier than they did 25 years ago—a change that may reflect an earlier emergence of their insect prey. How this timing shift affects this species’ migratory movements throughout their range is unknown."
  • Flamingo: "Flamingos breed and feed in shallow wetlands, where water depth and quality impact their access to food and their ability to breed successfully. At WCS project sites in the Caribbean, South America, Asia, and Africa, climate change could threaten flamingos through changing weather patterns that influence water quality and availability—and potentially a wetland’s suitability to support flamingos."
Unfortunately they punt a bit and just name broad categories for a few taxa, such as "Various Primate Species,"  "Coral," and "Numerous Amphibian Species." Even the last bird, "Flamingo," is not really a species but a group. If they have evidence of these groups being threatened, they ought to be able to name a few examples.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Some New Very Old Birds

The British Trust for Ornithology is announcing new age records for several bird species. The new records are based on recoveries of previously banded birds. Some are world records and others are European records.
The most impressive is the bar-tailed godwit, a medium-sized wading bird, one of which was caught in Norfolk almost 34 years after it was tagged in the same county. The oldest bird previously found was 32.

A red-necked phalarope, a small wader, was found at nearly twice the previous maximum age: 11 years and 10 months, compared with six years.
To be clear, the Bar-tailed Godwit pictured above is not, to my knowledge, the one that set the age record. Here are a few more old birds:
Many of the 16 new record-breakers are water birds. A turnstone was found dead in Co Louth in Ireland 22 years after it was ringed in Clywd, north Wales. It beats the previous record by two years. A common gull ringed in Ireland was found aged 25, breaking the previous record of 22 years.

One lesser whitethroat was found with a tag showing it was nine years old, two years more than the previous record. The bird typically travels 5,000 miles each year between Britain and east Africa or the Middle East.

The record-breakers are not the oldest known bird species, however. The Manx shearwater, a water bird that migrates between Britain and the coast of South America, holds the British record at 49 years.
The full list of recent records does not appear to be on the BTO website just yet. (I will add a link if I find out otherwise.) Old birds do not just live in Europe, of course. The Bird Banding Laboratory keeps lists of longevity records for every banded species. Here are the ten oldest birds in the BBL database:
  1. Laysan Albatross - 50 years and 8 months
  2. Black-footed Albatross - 40 years 8 months
  3. Great Frigatebird - 38 years 2 months
  4. White Tern - 35 years 11 months
  5. Sooty Tern - 35 years 10 months
  6. Wandering Albatross - 34 years 7 months
  7. Arctic Tern - 34 years
  8. Red-tailed Tropicbird - 32 years 8 months
  9. Black-browed Albatross - 32 years 5 months
  10. Atlantic Puffin - 31 years 11 months
As with the British list, this list is dominated by waterbirds, specifically pelagic species. Some bird banding sites such as Rouge River Bird Observatory may post their own age records.

Peregrines for Falconers?

Speaking of migratory raptors, the state of Florida plans to allow falconers to capture Peregrine Falcons and use them for hunting.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) approved a rule allowing falconers to take peregrine falcons for the sport of falconry at its meeting in Clewiston on Wednesday.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determines the number of falcons that may be taken over a broad range of states. It is estimated fewer than five falcons will be allocated to Florida in 2010. Under the new rule, falconers must receive a permit for the take of peregrine falcons for falconry. The FWC will randomly select applications and issue permits annually based on the number allotted to the state. Priority for receiving a permit will be given to Florida residents.
Needless to say, the state's falconers are pleased with the decision. Apparently Audubon of Florida and Defenders of Wildlife both testified at the meeting, but neither have posted any statement on their websites about it. The FWC's press release only quotes this from Audubon:
"Audubon views the peregrine as an iconic species, and we have concerns regarding lack of monitoring in Florida to help ensure no future decline in this species," said Julie Wraithmell of Audubon of Florida. "We hope the Commission will help promote conservation of the species by funding monitoring projects."
There is precedent for taking wild raptors for use in falconry, which is regulated under U.S. and state laws. I would prefer more caution, though, in using such a recently-recovered species.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Blog Note

Two days ago I was asked to join the staff for BirdsEye. I was happy to accept because I think it represents one of the best attempts to combine current internet technologies with birding. Plus it integrates with eBird, which I have been using heavily for several years now. I will be with them on a temporary basis to help with customer support.

I had no idea that I would be joining BirdsEye at the time I wrote my post on the application.

Some Good News for Migratory Raptors

Earlier this week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 2062, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act Penalty and Enforcement Act, by a voice vote. (Search for the bill number if the link does not work.) The bill increases penalties for killing birds protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Particularly egregious killings would be treated as felonies with a fine of up to $50,000 and/or imprisonment for up to two years.

A version of this bill has first introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) two years ago in response to high-profile arrests of several roller pigeon racers. Roller pigeons have an unusual trait that leads them to tumble in midair; this in turn attracts the attention of raptors who see them as an easy meal. These particular individuals were caught because they admitted systematically killing raptors to undercover agents. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife estimates that roller pigeon clubs were responsible for the deaths of up to 3,000 raptors annually on the West Coast.

The bill still needs to pass the Senate, but since the terms do not seem particularly controversial, it ought to pass.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Loose Feathers #216

Bird and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environment and biodiversity
Carnivals and newsletters
Also, there is a new blog carnival devoted to reptiles and amphibians, the House of Herps. Submit links by December 15 for inclusion in the first edition.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

New Trouble for Asian Vultures

During the past decade, several Asian vulture species lost most of their populations due to the harmful effects of diclofenac, a veterinary drug. Some species declined by as much as 90%. That drug has since been removed from the market. Unfortunately, one replacement, ketoprofen, is not an improvement since it causes birds to die of kidney failure.
The research, published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, shows that ketoprofen is lethal to the birds in the dosages that would be administered to livestock to reduce pain and swelling of those animals suffering from rheumatism or arthritis. Worryingly, researchers have already recorded the drug in one in 200 carcasses in southern Asia, with 70% of those occurring in potentially lethal concentrations.

The authors add that ketoprofen could already be contributing to further declines of the remaining vulture populations caused by diclofenac, and this is a trend likely to increase if ketoprofen replaces diclofenac. In addition to ketoprofen and diclofenac, other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs sold by veterinary pharmacies for treating livestock include meloxicam, phenylbutazone, analgin, nimesulide, flunixin and ibuprofen. Just three of these have been tested to determine their effects on vultures. Diclofenac and ketoprofen cause lethal kidney failure and only meloxicam is known to be safe.
Meloxicam is known to be safe for vultures and is not covered by a patent, so it ought to be the top choice as an alternative to diclofenac. As one of the biologists said, it would be helpful to have more medication options available, but they really need to be tested in advance. With several species in such a precarious state, there is little room for error.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Wordy Wedesnday: Woolly Bear?

During the Thanksgiving weekend, I found this furry thing on the bark of a Shagbark Hickory. At the time it struck me as possibly being a caterpillar of some sort. However, it did not move at all, even when I touched it gently and did not seem to have visible legs. After I posted it on my Flickr account, one of my contacts there suggested that it might be a hibernating Woolly Bear, a.k.a. Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). This makes sense to me as I have seen Woolly Bears remain active pretty late into the fall, and this photo is similar to one example at BugGuide. Such an exposed position does not seem like the best place to be hibernating, though.

Any other thoughts on this creature's identity?

Warmest Decade on Record

Cartoon by Pat Bagley of the Salt Lake Tribune

Occasionally I see arguments that climate change has slowed down or reversed course. Such arguments usually cite 1998 as the warmest year on record and insist that the (slightly) cooler years since then mean that we have nothing to worry about. However, if you look at a longer trend, the present decade looks less like a reprieve than a plateau on a continuing trend. The years 2000-2009 are the warmest decade on record, and 2009 is on track to be the fifth-warmest year.
While 1998 is still considered the warmest year on record, researchers say that preliminary data shows 2009 will likely be the fifth warmest. The analysis also shows that while the US and Canada experienced cooler than average temperature this year, temperatures in Southeast Asia and Africa could be the warmest yet.

Warmer temperature exacerbated drought conditions across the world. According to WMO, China experienced its worst drought in five decades. Drought in East Africa killed tens of thousands of livestock, while a poor monsoon season hit India's agriculture hard. A crippling drought in Australia also continued unabated this year.

Temperature data is collected from climate and weather stations around the world, ships and buoys on the sea, and satellites.
The record achieved is, of course, the modern record as established by instrumental data since the middle of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately we do not have instrumental records going beyond that. However, analysis of physical records such as tree rings and ice cores, both of which are sensitive to changes in temperature, suggests that current temperatures are higher than they have been in the past millennium. Atmospheric carbon levels are also at all-time highs, according to physical evidence.

A second point worth noting in this recent report is that lower temperature or cooler weather in one region or even continent is not a sign that the global warming trend has stopped. The study of climate change is based on long-term averages of much larger areas.

IPCC graph of the average global temperature for the past 140 years and Northern Hemisphere temperature for the past 1000 years

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Copenhagen and Wildlife

BirdLife is requesting five things from the negotiators at the climate conference in Copenhagen.

1. Cut global emissions by the amount needed to limit global average temperature rises to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Developed countries should take the lead in cutting emissions, but rapidly industrialising developing nations must act too. Global emissions must peak and decline well before 2020, and go to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Industrialised countries must take on targets of 40% reductions below 1990 levels by 2020.

2. Recognise the vital importance of safeguarding biodiversity, ecosystems and the essential services they provide in climate change mitigation, in particular, reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD). Tropical deforestation accounts for 15-20% of all human-induced emissions, and must be reduced to zero by 2020. REDD should prioritise conservation of natural tropical forests because they are the most carbon dense, and must exclude conversion of natural forests to industrial forests or plantations. REDD must include provisions which ensure conservation of biodiversity because it is the plants and animals in natural forests that help create their carbon density. REDD must respect, support and promote the rights of local and indigenous peoples.

3. Recognise the vital importance of safeguarding biodiversity, ecosystems and the essential services they provide in climate change adaptation. Healthy bio-diverse environments play a vital role in maintaining and increasing resilience to climate change. Copenhagen outcomes should encompass taking an ecosystem approach to all adaptation, should refer to the direct use of ecosystems as part of a strategy to help people adapt to the adverse effects of climate change, and should recognise vulnerable ecosystems as a priority concern.

4. Provide funding for developing countries to reduce emissions from deforestation, enable adaptation to climate change, and support low-carbon development. At least $200 billion will be needed annually by 2020, including $35 billion for REDD, and $100 billion to enable developing countries to adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change.

5. Ensure that when developed countries account for their land-use sectors they account fully for carbon emissions to, and removals from, the atmosphere. Current rules enable countries to hide emissions whilst claiming credit for carbon storage, and the rules proposed in Copenhagen are shaping up to be even worse than the old ones.
The link provides a bit more about their reasoning. I think this is a reasonable list, though I doubt this conference will meet the first goal based on reports in the last few weeks. I hope that the other items will be included in some form. Natural habitats are important carbon sinks, and land use changes (especially moving from natural to developed landscapes) are a major source of emissions. That applies as much to landscape development for "green" projects – from LEED-certified buildings to renewable energy sites – as it does to other types of development.