Monday, May 31, 2010

Birds Spread Heavy Metals to Arctic Ponds

A recent study found that coastal seafood-eating birds can carry toxins inland.
The team collected sediment cores from two ponds on a small island in the Canadian Arctic that is home to the nests of two kinds of seabirds: Arctic terns, which feed primarily on fish, and common eider ducks which feed mainly on mollusks. The researchers analyzed the pond sediment for metals and other indicators of the birds' activity.

They found significant differences between the samples that aligned with the birds' diets. There were higher concentrations of metals such as mercury and cadmium in the sites inhabited by terns, while the nearby eider site recorded higher amounts of lead, manganese, and aluminum. The patterns of metals in the sediment cores matched those recorded in the different bird species' tissues....

"The seabirds are obviously not directly to blame for the elevated metal concentrations in the ponds," says team member Jules Blais, a biology professor from the University of Ottawa. "They are simply carrying out their natural behaviours and lifecycles, but have become unwitting vectors of pollutants in an increasingly industrial age."
An earlier study found a similar pattern in Northern Fulmars, so this result is not at all surprising.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Top Kill Fails; What's Next?

NASA image acquired May 24, 2010

Yesterday, I was unsure whether the "top kill" was making progress. As it turns out, the "top kill" failed because of the extreme pressure at the bottom of the Gulf. The remaining options are not very reassuring.
In its next effort to halt what its officials have called an "environmental catastrophe," BP will cut off the leaking riser at the top of the five-story blowout preventer atop the wellhead to get an even surface on the broken pipe.

Then the company will install what's called a lower marine riser package, a cap containment system that would be connected to a new riser from the drillship Discoverer Enterprise 5,000 feet above on the surface. The aim is to minimize the amount of oil reaching the shore until BP can drill relief wells, Suttles said.

He estimated that the procedure would take about four days to complete, but if it also fails, it could be several months before BP can finish drilling two relief wells to intersect the runaway well so concrete can be poured into it.

As much as 73 million more gallons of oil could contaminate the Gulf of Mexico if the flow continues unabated until August — the soonest that officials estimate the relief wells can be drilled — poisoning wildlife, destroying fragile marshlands, closing more fishing grounds and depriving fisherman, resort workers and many others of their livelihoods.
 In the process of attempting the "top kill," BP pumped over 30,000 gallons of drilling mud into the wellhead, but most of that escaped through the riser. Adding junk like golf balls to the mix did not solve the problem. The idea of this spill continuing throughout the storm is particularly disturbing in light of the coming hurricane season, due to begin on Tuesday. This year is predicted to be more active than average, and any storms that pass through the Gulf could push the oil towards land. How severely this would affect the coastline remains to be seen, but it would be much better if we did not have to find out.

Missteps by BP prior to the drilling rig's explosion likely contributed to the spill.
BP, for instance, cut short a procedure involving drilling fluid that is designed to detect gas in the well and remove it before it becomes a problem, according to documents belonging to BP and to the drilling rig's owner and operator, Transocean Ltd.

BP also skipped a quality test of the cement around the pipe—another buffer against gas—despite what BP now says were signs of problems with the cement job and despite a warning from cement contractor Halliburton Co.

Once gas was rising, the design and procedures BP had chosen for the well likely gave this perilous gas an easier path up and out, say well-control experts. There was little keeping the gas from rushing up to the surface after workers, pushing to finish the job, removed a critical safeguard, the heavy drilling fluid known as "mud." BP has admitted a possible "fundamental mistake" in concluding that it was safe to proceed with mud removal, according to a memo from two Congressmen released Tuesday night.

Finally, a BP manager overseeing final well tests apparently had scant experience in deep-water drilling. He told investigators he was on the rig to "learn about deep water," according to notes of an interview with him seen by the Journal.
At least one of their choices was apt in hindsight:
BP was drilling to tap an oil reservoir it had identified called Macondo, the same name as the cursed town in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude."
Meanwhile, it is worth remembering that terrible oil spills are chronic problems elsewhere on the planet.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Killing an Oil Spill

Handlers cleaning an oiled Brown Pelican / Tami A. Heilemann-DOI 

Yesterday BP continued its effort to plug the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. News reports about the procedure's outcome were contradictory, with some indicating that oil had stopped leaking, while others reported that the effort was unsuccessful. It seems that some of the confusion derives for BP's news releases.
Despite an apparent lack of progress, officials said they would continue with the process for another 48 hours, into Sunday, before giving up and considering other options, including another containment dome to try to capture the oil....

Nor were there perfect answers Friday about the status of the top kill effort. For the second day, public statements early in the day from BP and government officials seemed to suggest progress. Later in the day, they acknowledged that the effort was no closer to succeeding than when they started....

The technician said that engineers had come up with a variety of theories about why efforts have failed so far, and they were trying different sizes of objects. He said the process required trial and error — and sifting through various theories among engineers in the operation’s control room — about the best way to clog the “internal geometry” of the damaged equipment.

BP said pumping operations resumed around 3:45 p.m. Friday.

The technician said that despite all the injections, at various pressure levels, engineers had been able to keep less than 10 percent of the injection fluids inside the stack of pipes above the well. He said that was barely an improvement on the results Wednesday, when the operation began and was suspended after about 10 hours.
There should be some more definite news on this operation in the next day or two. I am still holding out hope that it will work. Until something does work, the spilling oil continues to threaten underwater ecosystems.
At risk are such endangered species as Kemp's ridley sea turtles and the Atlantic bluefin tuna, as well as the Gulf of Mexico's 8,300 other creatures from plankton to birds. The contamination, some say, is likely to undo years of work that brought some wildlife, such as the brown pelican, back from the brink of extinction.

"It's probably going to be one of the worst disasters we've ever seen," said Paul Montagna, a professor of ecology at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi.

"Instead of creating a typical spill, where the oil goes to the surface and you can scoop it up, this stuff has been distributed throughout the water column, and that means everything, absolutely everything, is being affected," he said.

Further complicating the toxic effects of the oil, the chemical dispersants — used as never before a mile below the surface — have changed the crude in ways that will keep it from breaking down.
The presence of such large amounts of crude oil suspended below the surface in the water column is one of the more disturbing aspects of the current spill. It has as much potential to damage ecosystems underwater as on the surface or on land, but underwater it is out of sight and more difficult to clean up.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Loose Feathers #240

Least Tern / Photo by Steve Maslowski (USFWS)

Birds and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Cape May Notes

Last week I was in Cape May for a few days to see the late stages of spring migration and to track down some potential life birds. Even without potential lifers as bait, mid-May is a great time to visit Cape May because of the abundance of northbound migrants and vocal breeding birds. As usual I traveled with my mother and sister, both of whom are also birders.

For several days, Brigantine hosted a Bar-tailed Godwit and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher had been reported, both of which would have been life birds for me. However, neither were visible from the wildlife drive on the day I was there. So I had to make do with looking at thousands of other shorebirds, and herons, and the handful of breeding Osprey pairs, and the breeding Peregrine pair, and the occasional moth. A few Bank Swallows joined the more common Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows at the Gull Pond.

A Scissor-tailed Flycatcher had also been reported in the South Cape May Meadows, but it was not present there on Thursday night. By the next morning, it had relocated to the second plover pond in Cape May Point State Park. We watched it there as it swooped for insects in all its glory. In addition to the flycatcher, the state park produced a nice crop of warblers, including a Canada Warbler and many Blackpolls.

In the evening we visited Turkey Point in Cumberland County to listen for night birds. When we arrived, Clapper Rails and Virginia Rails were already vocalizing. They were joined by a chorus of Marsh Wrens and Seaside Sparrows. Night Herons were already active; most were Black-crowned, but a Yellow-crowned flew past as well. As the sun set, a Great Horned Owl started hooting somewhere in the distance. Shortly after that, we could hear a Whippoorwill repeating its three-note song. The Whippoorwill was my second life bird of the trip. Even better than the life bird, however, was the experience of standing and listening in a place that is about as dark and quiet as one can find in New Jersey.

A birding by boat trip on The Osprey produced many more shorebirds. (This is a great tour if you are in Cape May during the summer months.) We saw at least a thousand Dunlin, and many Whimbrels, Willets, Ruddy Turnstones, Short-billed Dowitchers, and other species. The tour runs past a heron rookery, which featured a lone Cattle Egret in addition to the expected Snowy and Great Egrets. The boat's captain also spotted an otter near one of the fishing docks. I only got a brief glimpse of its head before the otter disappeared. Terrapins were active near one of the islands.

Reed's Beach, as one might expect, was packed with shorebirds, gulls, and birdwatchers. Red Knots were the prime attractions. I estimated a flock of 500 when we were present, but there may have been more. Several waves of a hundred or more knots and Ruddy Turnstones flew over our heads as we watched the birds from the jetty. An evening visit to Stipson Island Road in western Cape May County produced more of the rails and songbirds we had heard at Turkey Point the night before. As we were leaving, my sister spotted a White-faced Ibis among a small group of Glossy Ibises. This was my third life bird of the trip. Jakes Landing had the same set of birds we had observed at Turkey Point, but without the owl or nightjars.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Oak Leaftier Moth

This appears to be an Oak Leaftier Moth (Acleris semipurpurana). The species can vary greatly in appearance from one individual to the next. Some are yellow with a large brown blotch in the middle of the dorsal surface, while others are mostly yellow. There is one very similar species, Blueberry Leaftier (Acleris curvalana). According to the account on BugGuide, the best way to distinguish the two in the field is proximity to potential host plants. This moth was resting directly underneath a Pin Oak, with no blueberry plants nearby.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Leafroller Moth

I found and photographed this moth at E.B. Forsythe NWR (a.k.a. Brigantine) last week. I think it is most likely a Broken-banded Leafroller (Choristoneura fractivittana). A few days after I took my photos, I happened to see a very similar moth photographed by one of my Flickr contacts. That led me to this identification.

This moth's larval foodplants include apple, beech, birch, elm, oak, and raspberry. Many leafrollers can become agricultural pests. The Choristoneura genus includes spruce budworms, which are known to defoliate large tracts of forest during major outbreaks. Despite being a headache for the timber industry and land managers, budworms can be good for birds. Eastern Spruce Budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana) is an important food source during the breeding season for several species of warbler, including Tennessee, Cape May, and Bay-breasted.

I have posted some additional views of this individual at Flickr.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Bush Katydid

This nymphal insect was on a Deutzia shrub in the garden. At first I thought it was one of the assassin bugs, but according to a response to my photo on BugGuide, it actually a Scudder's Bush Katydid (Scudderia sp.). Members of the Scudderia genus are apparently not identifiable to species in their nymphal stage.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Secret Life of Puffins

Hawks have their nestcams, and now puffins do too. Two webcams are monitoring the progress of an Atlantic Puffin nest in the U.K., and the live feed is being streamed online.

Two cameras have been put around a puffin burrow at Sumburgh Head on Shetland, and images are being beamed to the nation via the RSPB website.

The puffincam is part of the wildlife charity’s ‘Date With Nature’ at Sumburgh Head, one of many UK-wide projects aimed at giving people up close and personal experiences with nature.

Newton Harper, Date with Nature Assistant, says: “We hope that by seeing these incredible images, people will feel even more passionate about Shetland’s seabirds, especially puffins, or ‘Tammy Nories’ as they are known in the islands.

“Sumburgh Head is one of the most accessible places in Shetland to see puffins and now with our puffincam people can also watch them from the comfort of their own home.

“Puffins are perhaps the nation’s favourite seabirds and I have heard that people are watching the camera from dawn to dusk.”
You can find the live feed on the RSPB website.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Oil Spill: New Calculations on the Way

As I have mentioned before on this blog, there has been some controversy regarding just how much oil is spilling out of the Deepwater Horizon's broken riser pipe. Independent experts have estimated a much greater leak than BP has. Now the US government has convened an independent panel to settle the question.

The task force is being chaired by David Moore, a petroleum engineer who is coordinator of the national outer continental shelf oil spill program at the Minerals Management Service, and Catherine Cesnik, who leads the sustainable building policy for the Department of the Interior.

Among its members are Steve Wereley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., who told Congress that, based on recent videos, he estimated that 95,000 barrels of oil per day were pouring from two different leaks.

In addition to Wereley, the panel will include other university researchers and representatives of the Coast Guard, the Minerals Management Service, the Department of Energy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Geological Survey.
One notable party that will not be on the panel is BP since the Obama administration seems worried about the estimate's credibility. The panel will try to take independent measurements:
Mike Lutz, a Coast Guard spokesman, said the team would study videos of the oil gushing from the leaks, as well as information about pressure and the ruined equipment on the sea floor. He said he didn’t have information about whether they’d use other equipment, such as sonar, to measure the flow.

Adm. Thad Allen, the commandant of the Coast Guard and the Obama's point man on the cleanup, said in an interview earlier in the week that government scientists might put sensors near the leak to get a better understanding of the amount of oil entering the water.
Having an accurate estimate of the size of the spill is important for deciding where and how much cleanup resources are needed. It may also have some bearing on compensation for losses as a result of the spill.

Meanwhile, the effect on wildlife is difficult to measure.
Repeatedly the officials said they were very concerned about gulf wildlife; that they could not predict how birds and fish and the like would be affected; and that they had no idea when they would know.

Yet the scientists at the news conference did seem to suggest that while the visible harm done is not too bad so far, we should not stop paying attention:

“The extent of the impacts are not known, but they are certainly significant,” said Ralph Morgenweck of the Fish and Wildlife Service, a senior science adviser and liaison officer at the Unified Area Command. “And we know they are certainly going to get worse.”

“No one should believe that because we have not recovered thousands of oiled wildlife,” the results are not very serious, he said.
Rescuers continue to find more oiled birds, only some of which they can rescue.

See also Nate's rant on the pathetic spectacle of the Interior Department's performance before and during the spill.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Loose Feathers #239

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher / Photo by Gary Kramer (USFWS)

Birds and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environment and biodiversity
Blog carnivals

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Oil Spill: Possibly 95,000 Barrels Per Day

According to congressional testimony, the Deepwater Horizon spill may be 19 times larger than official estimates:

Steve Wereley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., earlier this month made simple calculations from a single video BP released on May 12 and calculated a flow of 70,000 barrels a day, NPR reported last week.

On Wednesday, Wereley told a House of Representatives Energy and Commerce subcommittee that his calculations of two leaks that are on videos BP released on Tuesday showed 70,000 barrels from one leak and 25,000 from the other.

He said the margin of error was about 20 percent, making the spill between 76,000 and 104,000 barrels a day. However, Wereley said he'd need to see videos that showed the flow over a longer period to get a better calculation of the mix of oil and gas from the wellhead.
The Coast Guard plans to put a sensor near the source of the leak to get a better sense of how much is leaking.

The tar balls found in Florida earlier this week did not come from the Deepwater Horizon spill.
Lab results released Wednesday, after the U.S. Coast Guard used a Falcon jet to whisk the samples from Miami to a lab in Groton, Conn., revealed the 50 or so three- to eight-inch tar balls did not come from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The Coast Guard lab's findings were conclusive, a statement said, even as the source of the spill that spawned the tar balls was still not known.
Meanwhile, the Minerals Management Service will be split into three parts to avoid having the regulatory and revenue-collecting functions housed in the same agency.
The reorganization, which has a 30-day timetable, will create the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to develop energy resources, including offshore renewable resources, and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which will police offshore operations and protect the environment.

Most importantly, Salazar said, the existing division of the agency that oversees $13 billion in annual revenue collection will evolve into the Office of Natural Resources Revenue, move to the Interior Department's budget and management division, and be entirely separate from Interior's land and minerals division.

About 700 of the agency's 1,700 employees will move to the revenue collection division. Another 300 will be devoted to environmental safety and enforcement, and the remaining 700 will work on offshore energy leasing plans.
Hopefully this move will lead to more effective health and environmental regulation of drilling operations.

Exploring the Passaic

The Passaic River in Lord Stirling Park, near Basking Ridge, NJ

Yesterday's Grist featured the first installment of a two-part essay on the Passaic, New Jersey's longest river, written by someone who grew up on the river's banks. Here is a taste:
The Passaic is many rivers: swift and clear in its upper stretch, sluggish and swampy in mid-section, a thundering cascade at Great Falls, brackish below the Dundee Dam, and so industrial in its final miles that New Jersey poet laureate William Carlos Williams declared it "the vilest swill hole."

The river rises in Mendham, an historic township in north central Jersey. It heads almost due south at first, then veers sharply north, then northeast, then due east and then south again, making two final northward loops before emptying into Newark Bay. This erratic path traces a sloppy, upside-down U that winds through, over, under, and around seven New Jersey counties, 45 of its cities and towns, three swamps, three dams, four meadows, four waterfalls, a pond, a lake, 49 bridges and seven highways, and past countless homes, parks, playing fields, parking lots, diners, junkyards, office buildings, shopping centers, gas stations, warehouses, and factories. The drive from Mendham to Newark is about 30 miles. The Passaic takes the long way around.

The Passaic's 90-mile journey can be divided into three long stretches. The Upper Passaic is a largely downhill romp through meadows and forest and along the southeastern edge of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The Central Basin is the long, flat, flood-prone mid-section that flows north through an ancient lakebed. The Lower Valley, where I grew up, is a 35-mile-long corridor with sides that curl like plumped pillows as it sweeps down from the cliffs of Paterson to the sea level marshes of Newark.

In its convoluted journey from pristine headwaters to the superfund site at its mouth, the Passaic mirrors the triumphant and tragic relationship between nature and industry in America. The wildness and beauty that awed the first settlers some 400 years ago turned America into an industrial titan. Rivers like the Passaic powered the mills, farms, and factories that produced clothes, food, steel and electricity, a robust international trade, and a large and solid middle class. But along the way, the mighty frontier that helped forge American enterprise and character fell victim to an industrial fervor that seemed, at every turn, to sacrifice natural resources for financial gain.
Read the rest.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Oil Spill: Worse Than Government or BP Can Handle

Tanker recovering oil from the leaking riser pipe / U.S. Coast Guard photo

Yesterday one of my questions about BP's siphon was answered: the siphon and tanker are capturing about 2,000 barrels of oil per day from the leaking Deepwater Horizon wellhead. However, since the size of the leak is disputed, we do not know for certain how much is still leaking. Even with the siphon, the remaining leak is taxing the abilities of the government to control the growing oil slick.
The Coast Guard commandant, Adm. Thad Allen, said that despite the siphoning, the spilled oil is spreading and now stretches from western Louisiana to Florida's Key West. The extent of the spill was straining even the substantial resources deployed for one of the worst ecological disasters in recent history, he said.

Allen said the approximately 20,000 people now working to prevent the spill from reaching land were struggling to deal with an environmental threat that he called "omni-directional and almost indeterminate" in size. He said federal disaster plans had been formulated to deal with far more localized spills.

"We're dealing with something that's more complicated than any spill I've ever dealt with," Allen told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. "The national system did not contemplate that we would have to do all of this at once."

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration widened its no-fishing zone to cover 19 percent of the Gulf, or 45,728 square miles, and its head, Jane Lubchenco, told a news conference that "a light tendril of oil" is spreading eastward and approaching the loop current, a powerful warm-water current that could drag the oil around Florida and into the Gulf Stream that flows up the Atlantic coast.
There are still unanswered questions (at least in public) about the spill and its effects.
BP, the company in charge of the rig that exploded last month in the Gulf of Mexico, hasn't publicly divulged the results of tests on the extent of workers' exposure to evaporating oil or from the burning of crude over the gulf, even though researchers say that data is crucial in determining whether the conditions are safe.

Moreover, the company isn't monitoring the extent of the spill and only reluctantly released videos of the spill site that could give scientists a clue to the amount of the oil in gulf....

The company also hasn't publicly released air sampling for oil spill workers although Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the agency in charge of monitoring compliance with worker safety regulations, is relying on the information and has urged it to do so.

"It is not ours to publish," said Dean Wingo, OSHA's assistant regional administrator who oversees Louisiana. "We are working with (BP) and encouraging them to post the data so that it is publicly available." ...

Unlike the response to other past national disasters such as Hurricane Katrina where the government was in charge, BP has been designated as the "responsible party" under federal law and is overseeing much of the response to the spill. The government is acting more as an adviser.

So far, the government has been slow to press BP to release its data and permit others to evaluate the extent of the crisis.
Meanwhile, 156 sea turtles have now washed up dead on beaches around the Gulf of Mexico. A link to the oil spill is still unproven, since the turtles show no signs of oil, but the event is remarkably unusual.

Finally here is a list of the oiled birds treated by the International Bird Rescue Research Center.

New Video of the Deepwater Horizon Leak

BP released new video of the leaking well in response to pressure from Senator Bill Nelson.

The video shows a stream of oil coming out of the riser pipe even after the insertion of a tube to siphon some of the leaking oil to a tanker ship at the surface.

(via Kate Sheppard)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Oil Slick Enters the Loop Current

MODIS/Terra satellite image taken May 17, 2010

According to BP, it succeeded in intubating the riser pipe from the leaking Deepwater Horizon well.
At the oil-leak site, a tube five-feet long and four inches in diameter was pushed into a leaking riser that’s 21 inches in diameter _ the source of most of the spill. The inserted tube has three large flexible rubber diaphragms to keep it in the riser and block oil and water from mixing; however, BP officials said the riser is still leaking some oil.

The pipe is full of nitrogen, which is slowly being pulled back to let oil and gas flow in while keeping water from entering. Methanol, a kind of antifreeze, is also being pumped into the riser to stop crystals from forming that could block gas and oil from flowing to the ship. Crystals got in the way of a previous attempt to lower a 78-ton containment cap over the leak site.

The surface tanker will separate the oil, gas and water mixture for storage and eventual offloading. Overnight some of the collected gas was burned through a flare system on the tanker. BP officials weren't able to specify Sunday how much the tanker can hold.
The company says it is capturing about one fifth of the oil leaking though the pipe and hopes to raise that amount to three quarters. Meanwhile a significant amount of oil is still leaking into the gulf. It is not clear from reports exactly how many gallons are being captured and how many are still leaking. It is also not clear whether the proportions are the same whether the spill rate is closer to BP's estimate or that of independent experts. The next attempt to stop the spill will be a "top kill," which entails jamming mud and cement into the top of the well until the leak stops. That would be at best a temporary patch until a relief well is ready in August.

Meanwhile, satellite imagery shows that oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill has already entered the Loop Current, which circulates clockwise around the northern Gulf of Mexico. (See the image at the top of the post.) Within a few days, the Loop Current could carry oil to the Florida Keys:
This study implies that the greatest risk of land impacts by surface oil caught in the Loop Current is along the ocean side of the Florida Keys, and along the coast of Southeast Florida from Miami to West Palm Beach. Eddies breaking away from the Gulf Stream would also likely bring oil to northwest Cuba, the western Bahamas, and the U.S. East Coast as far north as Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, though at lesser concentrations. Southwest Florida cannot rest entirely, though--the "forbidden zone" is only true for surface waters, and there is onshore flow below the surface. Since recent ship measurements have detected substantial plumes of oil beneath the surface, southwest Florida might be at risk if one of these plumes gets entrained into the Loop Current. ... There are plans for the Hurricane Hunters to go out again tomorrow and drop more probes into the spill to attempt to get a better handle on where the oil is and where the currents are taking it.
It is possible that some of that oil has already arrived, and a major barrier reef could be at risk. The risk to the reef is magnified if you consider that there is far more oil present underwater than is visible on the surface. BP has used massive amounts of dispersants to break up the oil leaking from the riser pipe. As a result, most of the oil is not reaching the surface.
Scientists are finding enormous oil plumes in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, including one as large as 10 miles long, 3 miles wide and 300 feet thick in spots. The discovery is fresh evidence that the leak from the broken undersea well could be substantially worse than estimates that the government and BP have given.

“There’s a shocking amount of oil in the deep water, relative to what you see in the surface water,” said Samantha Joye, a researcher at the University of Georgia who is involved in one of the first scientific missions to gather details about what is happening in the gulf. “There’s a tremendous amount of oil in multiple layers, three or four or five layers deep in the water column.”

The plumes are depleting the oxygen dissolved in the gulf, worrying scientists, who fear that the oxygen level could eventually fall so low as to kill off much of the sea life near the plumes.

Dr. Joye said the oxygen had already dropped 30 percent near some of the plumes in the month that the broken oil well had been flowing. “If you keep those kinds of rates up, you could draw the oxygen down to very low levels that are dangerous to animals in a couple of months,” she said Saturday. “That is alarming.”
What this means is that underwater ecosystems are probably at far greater risk than bird nesting colonies, in either Louisiana or the Florida Keys.

Monday, May 17, 2010

In Search of the Golden-winged Warbler

Yesterday I took a train to Ramsey to meet Bev since she knows of a good spot for Golden-winged Warblers and generously offered to take me there. The place is just over the New York border and is as nondescript as a birding spot can be. Along the side of a road there is a small, unmarked pull-off, and beyond that is a powerline cut running alongside a stream. It is the sort of place one might pass by without even noticing its presence. The great thing is that Golden-winged Warblers breed there, so they are reliable from one year to the next.

Our morning began auspiciously with a repeated bee-buzz, the standard call of a Blue-winged Warbler, sounding from the trees. This was not actually a Blue-winged Warbler but a Brewster's Warbler, one of the hybrid forms of Blue-winged Warbler and Golden-winged Warbler. This bird had white undersides, a gray nape and back, white wingbars, a golden crown, and a black eyeline. The Brewster's was not shy and sang from prominent perches near the trail.

As we continued along the power cut, we saw many other birds. Northern and Louisiana Waterthrushes called from the wooded area on the left side of the trail. Baltimore Orioles were very prominent, singing and chasing each other in the treetops. Indigo Buntings were also darting back and forth across the trail. Close to the pull-off I saw a female American Redstart add material to a nest; several other warblers were also gathering nest material nearby. Blue-winged Warblers sounded from a few places but did not show themselves. Yellow Warblers sang all along the trail and were actively gathering nest material or chasing rivals.

Finally Bev heard a Golden-winged Warbler calling from a swampy area about half a mile down the trail. Unfortunately it was difficult to locate the sound over the racket put up by a Great-crested Flycatcher, but I heard it clearly enough to identify it. Just as we thought we had figured out where the Golden-winged Warbler was, a Broad-winged Hawk landed on a snag above the bushes. This silenced all of the birds (well, except for the flycatcher). Once the hawk went away, some activity resumed. A couple of Eastern Bluebirds appeared in the snags above the swamp; one appeared to be carrying an insect, presumably to feed to nestlings. A Wilson's Warbler landed just below eye level and paused briefly before disappearing. A few other warblers such as Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Green, and Magnolia were active in nearby trees.

After waiting a little longer by the swampy area, we decided to head back and bird the other side of the pull-off. The other side was more open with small beaver lake, making for a slightly different set of species. A lot of Red-winged Blackbirds were patrolling their territories; meanwhile a few Common Grackles were foraging, and a Brown-headed Cowbirds sang on top of a telephone pole. Several Tree Swallows darted back and forth over the lake. Eastern Kingbirds hawked insects from dead snags near the lake's edges. In addition to the usual waterfowl, there was a pair of Wood Ducks. The shrubs along the path had more Baltimore Orioles and Yellow Warblers. At one point I thought I heard a Golden-winged Warbler, but a flock of motorcycles roared past, and it did not call again. We still got one good bird, though. Bev saw, and I heard, a Kentucky Warbler low in the bushes near the edge of the lake.

Since I had gone up specifically for Golden-winged Warbler, we decided to try once more to see one. So we walked back down the trail past the pull-off to the swampy area. Once again Bev heard them singing. This time I saw one perched out in the open at the side of a large tree. It was cooperative and sang in the open for several minutes while a nearby rival answered. Once I was satisfied, we left and headed to Doodletown.

Doodletown is an abandoned village near Bear Mountain. It is more surprising that it was once inhabited than that it was abandoned because it is necessary to climb a steep hill to reach the former village's site. The reason for a birder to visit is that many warblers stop on the hill during migration and some stay to breed. Our best bird there was Cerulean Warbler, of which we may have heard a half dozen (only one of them seen). There were just as many orioles here as at the pull-off spot, including one Orchard Oriole near the trailhead. We also saw blackpoll and heard a singing first-year male American Redstart. We also got nice looks at a Blackpoll Warbler and a Blue-winged Warbler. A few other warblers, like Hooded Warbler and Magnolia Warbler, sang along the trail, but were difficult to find.

Once we had found what we could at Doodletown, we called it a day. We ended the day with 16 species of warblers and over 50 species overall. Both of the places we birded are great locations, and Bev is a great guide.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Green Frog

This Green Frog was in a pond at Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve.

Yellow Lady's-slipper

I photographed this Large Yellow Lady's-slipper yesterday at Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve in Pennsylvania. Most of the ladyslippers had bloomed a week or two before and are now wilted, and this is the last one remaining in bloom.

Lady's-slippers are popular with collectors, and as a result they are threatened or vulnerable throughout their range in North America. The best chance to see one is a place where flowers are protected like a wildflower preserve or an arboretum.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Changing the Politics of Offshore Drilling?

Yesterday, Obama talked about ending the cozy relationship between oil companies and the agencies that regulate them.

"It seems as if permits were too often issued based on little more than assurances of safety from the oil companies," Obama said. "That cannot and will not happen anymore. To borrow an old phrase, we will trust, but we will verify."

Obama labeled "a ridiculous spectacle." the congressional testimony this week by executives from BP, the owner of the runaway well; Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that exploded in flames on April 20; and Halliburton, the company that poured cement around the well on the day it exploded. In their testimony, the executives blamed one another for the events that led to the disaster....

He said that the government has ordered immediate inspections of all deepwater operations in the Gulf and won't approve any permits for new drilling pending a review that's due to him on May 28.

He promised a new examination of environmental procedures for oil and gas exploration, but he also said that "domestic oil drilling continues to be one part of an overall energy strategy" that he supports.
One step has already been announced: the Interior Department plans to split the regulatory and royalty duties of the Minerals Management Service. This seems to be a step in the right direction. That move will not mean much, however, if leases continue to be approved without proper environmental reviews or if objections from wildlife agencies are ignored.

It is still not clear how soon the leak can be stopped. The linked articles diagrams for how the "junk shot" and "top hat" might work. Neither method, nor intubation, have been attempted at such depth.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Loose Feathers #238

Brown pelican perches on Pelican Island refuge boundary sign / USFWS Photo

Birds and birding news
  • A new fossil analysis concludes that the earliest birds probably glided rather than flew because their feathers were too weak for powered flight.
  • "Vulture restaurants" may prevent smaller scavengers from getting their meals.
  • The prosecution and defense wrapped up their arguments this week in the Syncrude trial, in which the company is accused of violating environmental laws by allowing 1600 birds to die in its oil tailings ponds. A verdict is expected on June 25. 
  • A New York artist sculpts the skeletons of extinct birds from chicken bones.
  • Increased deer browsing can drive nightingales out of a wooded area.
  • The U.K. is known for having a lot of enthusiastic bird watchers, and birding is more prominent there than in the U.S. Unfortunately, egg collecting remains a popular hobby, too, even though it is illegal.
  • Swedish scientists have tried to protect declining wader populations by surrounding their nests with cages and laying out fake eggs that will make predators feel sick. The goal of the fake eggs was to make predators think that the waders' eggs are inedible.
  • A study tagged lambs to see if sea eagles preyed on them, but 60% of the tags fell off. Results from the other lambs suggest that less than 2% of lamb deaths could be attributed to sea eagles.
  • Partners in Flight published a conservation assessment for 1,150 bird species in Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
  • New York City is mapping its potential for solar power, areas vulnerable to flooding, and neighborhoods in need of more trees. The maps, created by airplane flyovers, will help the city meet its environmental goals.
Birds in the blogosphere
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, May 13, 2010

SkyWatch: Pyramidian

by Mark di Suvero, at the Storm King Art Center.

Oil Spill: Investigations into its Causes and Video of a Leaking Pipe

There have been a few new developments regarding the oil spill. Unfortunately, a stop to the spill is not one of them, at least not yet. The latest proposal to reduce the spill is to position a "top hat" over the leaking riser pipe. The "top hat" is smaller than the containment chamber that failed last week. As with the containment chamber, no one can be sure that this will work until the "top hat" is actually in place. An image of the device is below. Another possible solution is an insertion tube.

More dead marine animals have washed up on beaches. As the BBC link mentions, six dead dolphins have appeared on shore. Tissue samples have been sent to a laboratory for testing; pending the results, the National Marine Fisheries Service is treating them as likely victims of the spill. In addition, hundreds of dead fish showed up on a beach in Alabama. As with the dolphins, the cause of death is so far unknown, but the mass fish kill is unusual enough that it may be connected with the spill. Some of the dead fish are very large.

The House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations has been holding hearings this week to investigate the cause of the explosion and the attempts to stop the leak. The various companies involved have each tried to blame the others, so it may be some time before we have an accurate idea of what happened. For now, the House panel is blaming the blowout preventer, a device that regulates the flow of oil to the riser pipe. In case of an accident, the blowout preventer is supposed to cut through the pipe and stop the flow of oil. The company that placed the device provided BP with incorrect diagrams of the blowout preventer; this may explain why the undersea robots were unable to activate it. The well had also failed a pressure test on the day of the explosion:
It passed one set of so-called positive pressure tests in which fluids were injected into the well to increase pressure to monitor whether the well remains stable.

It failed, however, a negative pressure test, in which fluid inside the well is reduced to see whether gas leaks into the well through the cement or casing....

Another test showed high pressure in the main well pipe but zero pressure in two other connecting lines, a sign, Waxman said, that gas was leaking into pipe.

What happened next, Waxman said, is "murky." BP attorneys say the well passed subsequent tests and at 8 p.m. the company resumed removing heavy and costly drilling lubricants known as mud from the well.

The well blew about an hour and a half later when a huge mass of methane gas burst up the pipe, engulfed the rig and exploded into flames.
There is some possibility that the explosion and spill will result in criminal charges for one or more of the companies involved. Criminal charges, if they result in a conviction, would help the government recoup more of the cost of the damage and cleanup from the companies involved. Currently civil liability is capped at $75 million, but criminal charges have no such penalty cap. Laws that could have been violated include the Clean Air and Water Acts and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Various other laws could also apply.

BP finally released a portion of its video of the oil leak after much pressure from the government and media. Here is a short snippet, which I found via Treehugger.

Finally, The Boston Globe has a gallery of large images from the spill and its aftermath. You can keep up with news about oiled birds at the International Bird Rescue Research Center's blog.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Defending Climate Science (and Scientists)

A group of scientists has published a letter in the journal Science defending climate science and, in particular, the evidence for climate change, from recent attacks and harassment. The entire letter is worth reading, but here is the key part to keep in mind:

But there is nothing remotely identified in the recent events that changes the fundamental conclusions about climate change:

(i) The planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. A snowy winter in Washington does not alter this fact.

(ii) Most of the increase in the concentration of these gases over the last century is due to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

(iii) Natural causes always play a role in changing Earth's climate, but are now being overwhelmed by human-induced changes.

(iv) Warming the planet will cause many other climatic patterns to change at speeds unprecedented in modern times, including increasing rates of sea-level rise and alterations in the hydrologic cycle. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide are making the oceans more acidic.

(v) The combination of these complex climate changes threatens coastal communities and cities, our food and water supplies, marine and freshwater ecosystems, forests, high mountain environments, and far more.

Much more can be, and has been, said by the world's scientific societies, national academies, and individuals, but these conclusions should be enough to indicate why scientists are concerned about what future generations will face from business-as-usual practices. We urge our policy-makers and the public to move forward immediately to address the causes of climate change, including the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels.
The scientists do not offer specifics on each of those points, but plenty of websites do. I would suggest the lists answering common contrarian arguments at Skeptical Science and New Scientist if you are interested in more detail.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Archaeopteryx Shows Its Feathers

A scan of an Archaeopteryx fossil showed that the fossil still contains bits of feather in addition to feather imprints and skeleton.

The details were obtained by firing intense X-rays at the sample generated by a so-called synchrotron radiation source at the Stanford Linear Accelerator in California, US.

Dr Uwe Bergmann, who led the X-ray scanning experiment at SLAC, said: "People have never used a technique this sensitive on Archaeopteryx before....

Another member of the team, Dr Phil Manning, from Manchester University, believes that the study shows there's now a new way to study long-extinct creatures....

As well as identifying the feathers the research team also found that the creature's bones have a chemical composition similar to those of birds lving today.

"To me that's quite exciting," said Dr Wogelius. "It establishes a nutrient link between a and modern birds. If you have a pet bird such as a budgie or a paraquet the key nutrients to get right for your pet's health are copper and zinc."
Unfortunately some feathers and tissue were probably chipped or washed off in the process of preparing the specimen for display. The authors argue for changing preparation techniques to preserve more of the soft tissue remains.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Nuclear Water in South Jersey

Tritium, a radioactive chemical present in nuclear waste, has been detected in a major aquifer in southern New Jersey. The problem stems from a leak discovered last year at the Oyster Creek Generating Station:

The agency said 180,000 gallons of tritium-tainted water gushed from two leaks at the plant on April 9, 2009.

Tritium, a low-level nuclear material, was found in the groundwater of Ocean County in the Cohansey aquifer at 50 times higher concentrations than DEP safety standards for drinking water.

DEP Commissioner Bob Martin on Friday said in a statement there was no imminent public health threat. The tainted water is believed to be 2 miles from the nearest residential wells, he said.
Since tritium was detected in the aquifer, the DEP has taken over management of the cleanup under the Spill Act.
The DEP said polluting the aquifer is a violation of the law. They ordered the company to install deeper monitoring wells into the aquifer to track the pollution.

The plume is migrating about three feet per day, according to the state. At that rate it would take about 15 years for the contaminated water to reach the wells. Tritium has a relatively short half-life of 12.3 years, further reducing the potential risk to human health.

The radioactive water tested at 1 million picocuries. The federal safe-drinking-water standard is 20,000 picocuries.

Cleaning up tritium leaks is difficult. PSEG is still cleaning up a 2002 spill that measured at 15 million picocuries, the highest radiation level ever recorded in any tritium spill nationwide.
The Oyster Creek Generating Station is the oldest nuclear power plant operating in the United States.

Some Oil Spill Updates

Due to the failure of the containment chamber, BP and the Coast Guard are talking about injecting debris into the blowout preventer to stop the flow of oil.

It was Allen who raised the possibility of using shredded tires and golf balls and other debris to help plug the gusher. He called the strategy a "junk shot," designed to plug the blowout preventer — the safety mechanism that should have sealed off the well after the April 20 explosion.

"They're actually going to take a bunch of debris, shredded up tires, golf balls and things like that and under very high pressure shoot it into the preventer itself and see if they can clog it up and stop the leak," Allen said.

"I think I hear an experiment," said Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley and oil pipeline expert who spent 18 years with Shell Oil. "They are pulling every trick known to bring this thing under control."

On Saturday, BP's chief operating officer, Doug Suttles, said the process of injecting junk into the blowout preventer had "certain issues and challenges and risks with it."

On Sunday, Proegler said only that the strategy was "another back up option. Subsea, we're continuing to evaluate ways to overcome the challenges we encountered."
So far they are looking for better solutions because an operation like that would risk making the leak even worse than it is now. However, it may be a possibility if the containment chamber cannot be used.

From the same article, oil is washing up on some beaches:
Aerial surveys showed that the oil was still at least 20 miles from Mississippi's barrier islands, but that it had arrived at Louisiana's Chandeleur Islands, where officials on Friday closed the Breton National Wildlife Refuge so that cleanup and rescue operations for nesting seabirds could go forward.

Linda St. Martin, who is helping the Sierra Club coordinate its oil spill responders task force, said she was in the Chandeleur Islands to survey the oil spill there and the stench was hard to handle.

"It's ugly and it stinks," she said.

Tar balls started washing up Saturday along Dauphin Island in Alabama.
Treehugger has photos of oil on the beach at Eads Point in Louisiana. The amount is relatively small right now, but there is much more in the Gulf. The longer it takes to stop the leak, the more likely it becomes that a change in weather conditions could push more of it onto the beaches and nesting areas.

Finally, IBRRC is ready to release two rescued birds, a Northern Gannet and a Brown Pelican. The birds will be released at Pelican Island NWR. This site was chosen because it has populations of both species and is far from the current spill area.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Containment Dome Has Not Stopped the Oil Spill Yet

Yesterday BP's engineers lowered a containment dome over the worst of the leaks from the sunken oil rig. It was hoped that the dome could corral around 85% of the leaking oil. Unfortunately, a buildup of hydrates prevented the dome from working properly.

The crystals, which are called hydrates and resemble slush, obstructed the flow of the oil, Suttles said. They also made the dome too buoyant, which prevented it from settling deeply into the seabed to form a water-tight seal.

Hydrates form when gas and water mix at low temperature and high pressure, as occurs at the bottom of the sea. The water temperature at the wellhead is about 42 degrees, with pressures in excess of 2,300 pounds per square inch. Pressure on the surface of the water is about 14 pounds per square inch.

Suttles said experts will spend the next few days looking at possible solutions, while other efforts continue to control the spill. A relief well intended to intercept the leaking one and seal it won't be completed for three more weeks.
This is not good at all. I hope that they can find a way to make this work since the alternative is oil continuing to spill for another month or more until the completion of a relief well. Meanwhile, tar balls are appearing on some beaches:
Meanwhile, a Coast Guard official reported tar balls believed to be from the spill were washing up on an Alabama barrier island.

About half a dozen of the balls had been collected by Saturday afternoon at Dauphin Island, though the substance of the balls still needs to be tested.
If the containment chamber does not work, another short-term solution is to attempt plugging the wellhead from above, which has its own set of risks.
The other option is what Mr. Suttles called a “junk shot,” which he likened to stopping up a toilet. The procedure would involve reconfiguring the blowout preventer and injecting heavy material like rubber into it, then pumping heavy drilling mud down into the well to overcome the pressure of the oil from below. That might stop the leak.

But the mud would have to be pumped through new pipes from the surface, as existing pipes that might have been used for such an operation collapsed along with the riser when the drilling rig sank April 22.

As with all the work being performed at the seabed, the preparations would have to be done by robotic vehicles in extremely challenging conditions. At a depth of 5,000 feet, the pressure is about 2,300 pounds per square inch, or more than 150 times atmospheric pressure.

Both procedures could make the problem much worse by opening the leak further. On Monday, a senior BP official told members of Congress that the well could conceivably spill as much as 60,000 barrels of oil a day, more than 10 times the estimate of the current flow.
Among the maddening aspects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster is that the Interior Department allowed the operation to go forward without an environmental review. Despite the current mess, the federal government has continued waiving environmental reviews since the rig's explosion.
Since the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded on April 20, the Obama administration has granted oil and gas companies at least 27 exemptions from doing in-depth environmental studies of oil exploration and production in the Gulf of Mexico.

The waivers were granted despite President Barack Obama’s vow that his administration would launch a “relentless response effort” to stop the leak and prevent more damage to the gulf. One of them was dated Friday — the day after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he was temporarily halting offshore drilling

The exemptions, known as “categorical exclusions,” were granted by the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) and included waiving detailed environmental studies for a BP exploration plan to be conducted at a depth of more than 4,000 feet and an Anadarko Petroleum Corp. exploration plan at more 9,000 feet.
MMS justifies the waivers on the grounds that these operations are not using new technology. However, as we have seen in the Deepwater case, such deep drilling operations are inherently risky, and federal regulators ought to consider the environmental impacts if something goes wrong.

Finally, here is a graphic illustrating some of the spill's costs.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

How Far Can a Bird Fly Nonstop During Migration?

Bar-tailed Godwits / Image: Phil Battley

Recent studies using satellite telemetry or geolocators have shown that some bird species are capable of very long nonstop flight during migration, far longer than previously thought. Some of the longest belong to Bar-tailed Godwits, which have been tracked performing nonstop flights of over 11,000 km (or about 7,000 miles). Ruddy Turnstones perform similarly impressive flights. A new study in PLoS Biology tries to measure whether there are any limits to nonstop flights.

How long a bird is able to fly depends on a few factors. First, it needs to be able to use fuel efficiently. Bar-tailed Godwits do this very well, burning only 0.42% of their body mass per hour of flight. Ruddy Turnstones, Greater Knots, and Blackpoll Warblers have slightly lower efficiency. Flight speed is also important. Bar-tailed Godwits and Blackpoll Warblers have similar fuel efficiency, but a Bar-tailed Godwit can fly twice as far without stopping because it flies more quickly (see graph below). A faster bird will not only fly farther on the same fuel supply but also will be less likely to be blown off course by turbulence.

Potential flight range for the bar-tailed godwit (blue curve) and the blackpoll warbler (red curve).

Other factors that may influence long-distance flight include body shape and energy consumption. A long-distance migrant must be able to carry sufficient fuel supplies for the flight but do so in a very streamlined body. One way that godwits achieve this is by eliminating unnecessary organ mass and burning muscle mass in the latter stages of a migration flight. Other shorebirds share this trait.

A few other species like Sharp-tailed Sandpiper might attempt similar flights, but the Earth imposes its own limit on how far a bird might need to migrate. There are relatively few combinations of wintering grounds and breeding grounds that would require such a long nonstop flight. Some Pectoral Sandpipers breed in Central Asia and winter in South America, but they break up their migration into two stages. Arctic Terns have a longer trip (24,000 km!) but can feed along the way. It seems that the Bar-tailed Godwit's 11,000 km is about as far as a bird is likely to fly without stopping to feed.

ResearchBlogging.orgHedenström, A. (2010). Extreme Endurance Migration: What Is the Limit to Non-Stop Flight? PLoS Biology, 8 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000362

Friday, May 07, 2010

Loose Feathers #237

Piping Plover Chick / USFWS Photo

Birds and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environment and biodiversity