Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Climate Change and Conspiracy Theories

Yesterday Grist disseminated the graphic at right to mock assertions that anthropogenic climate change is just a hoax. Who calls climate change a hoax? Republican politicians do.
  • James Inhofe, currently the ranking Republican member (and former chair) of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, had this to say in 2003: "With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phony science, could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it." This was not an off-hand or out-of-context remark, as he continues to stand by his statement and has written a recent book with the same title to promote his conspiracy theory.
  • Rick Santorum, a Republican presidential candidate and former Senator, also believes that anthropogenic climate change is a hoax: "“I for one never bought the hoax. I for one understand just from science that there are one hundred factors that influence the climate. To suggest that one minor factor of which man’s contribution is a minor factor in the minor factor is the determining ingredient in the sauce that affects the entire global warming and cooling is just absurd on its face." 
  • Ron Paul, another Republican presidential candidate with a loyal following, has also endorsed the conspiracy theory view: "You know, the greatest hoax I think that has been around in many, many years if not hundreds of years has been this hoax on the environment and global warming."
  • Rick Perry, Republican governor of Texas and former presidential candidate, on climate change: “I do believe that the issue of global warming has been politicized.... I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects."
These aren't just obscure crackpots with websites; this is the current Republican mainstream. It's not hard to find many more like them, either among politicians or among the conservative punditry. It is unfortunate and a little scary that people who reject climate science have such influence over one of our two major parties. When such people hold positions of power, it has negative ramifications not only for climate research and regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, but also for energy policy and wildlife conservation.

At the same time, it is not at all surprising that many opponents of reducing greenhouse gas emissions have turned towards a conspiracy theory to support their cause. When almost all climate scientists have concluded that the earth is warming due to man-made greenhouse gas emissions, people who want to reject that conclusion have two possible explanations. Either (a) most of the experts in the field don't know what they're talking about, or (b) the experts are covering up the truth with the help of NGOs, government agencies, and even some corporations. Option (a) is easily refuted and has the problem of asserting that non-experts and pundits know more than the experts. Option (b) is a conspiracy theory, and not even a particularly believable one.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


The warm winter means that a lot of flowers are ahead of their normal schedule for sprouting and (presumably) blooming. Daffodil shoots started appearing during the first week of January, and already some flower buds seem ready to open. They might not get far, though, if they keep getting chomped like this one was. I suspect this was the work of a squirrel. Daffodils have a reputation for toxicity, so they ought to be safe from this sort of damage.

Monday, February 27, 2012

American Wigeons

The Eurasian Wigeon was not the only wigeon in Perth Amboy on Saturday. It was in the company of about a dozen American Wigeons, which acted in their normal endearing fashion. In older bird books, the American Wigeon is often called a "Baldpate," a reference to the white stripe on its crown. Here are a few photos of them.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Eurasian Wigeon at Perth Amboy

A few weeks ago I went to see a drake Eurasian Wigeon that was spending time with American Wigeons near the docks for the Cornucopia Princess cruise lines. It was originally found near the NJ Transit train railroad bridge between Perth Amboy and South Amboy during the Raritan Estuary CBC on December 26, and then it moved slightly upstream to the Cornucopia Princess docks. Since then, the bird has stuck around and recently moved again, this time to the Arthur Kill side of the Perth Amboy waterfront promenade.

It is associating with about a dozen American Wigeons in a small cove just south of the yacht club. This area is much favored by waterfowl as it provides a certain degree of protection from the elements. A short breakwater keeps the ducks from having to brave waves coming from the bay, and the houses along Water Street break up westerly winds. Even on a blustery day like yesterday, the area around the cove is relatively calm. I cannot speak to the foraging opportunities, but it seems that the dabbling ducks find plenty to eat at the location.

I liked the wigeon's change of scenery since it meant I could watch and photograph it at much closer range than I was able to back in January. Here are a few more photos of the bird. While I was photographing it, a sudden squall dropped snow flurries, visible in the image above.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


A couple days ago I saw my first Killdeer of the year at Donaldson Park. Killdeer are reliably present at the location for much of the year, but generally abandon it during the very coldest months. Even so, it is not uncommon for them to appear on the Christmas Bird Count.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Loose Feathers #331

Sandhill Cranes at Muleshoe NWR / Photo by Wyman Meinzer (USFWS)
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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Climate Change and Tropical Birds

A major concern for conservationists is how well animal and plant species will adapt to climate change. A particular problem are animals with isolated populations or specialist habits. Many such creatures can be found in the tropics, and a recent study looked into how tropical birds might fare. The results are not good:

There may be less birds for birders to see in the world as the planet warms. Climate change, in combination with deforestation, could send between 100 and 2,500 tropical birds to extinction before the end of century, according to new research published in Biological Conservation. The wide range depends on the extent of climate and how much habitat is lost, but researchers say the most likely range of extinctions is between 600 and 900 species, meaning about 10-14 percent of tropical birds, excluding migratory species.

"Birds are perfect canaries in the coal mine—it's hard to avoid that metaphor—for showing the effects of global change on the world's ecosystems and the people who depend on those ecosystems," says lead author and notable ornithologist Çağan Şekercioğlu with the University of Utah. "Compared to temperate species that often experience a wide range of temperature on a yearly basis, tropical species, especially those limited to tropical forests with stable climates, are less likely to keep up with rapid climate change."

Şekercioğlu and colleagues scoured 200 scientific studies related to tropical birds and climate change to develop their estimate, which is in line with previous estimates of bird declines linked to a warming planet.

Those birds most susceptible to climate change impacts include high-elevation species which could quite literally run out of habitat, and those already restricted to small ranges. An increase in extreme weather events, such as droughts and storms, may also imperil some species. The increasing intensity of hurricanes, even if frequency diminishes, may threaten coastal birds, while long droughts could hurt birds' ability to find food during breeding season. Already, the Amazon has suffered two record droughts in the last 7 years, leading many scientists to fear for the ecosystem's resiliency in the face of climate change.

Disease may also pose a problem. Malaria is expected to spread to higher altitudes and latitudes, possibly imperiling some tropical bird species. Rising sea levels may also pose a problem for coastal and island birds.
It is important to remember that birds do not just depend on a patch of habitat at a certain temperature but on the complex of plants and invertebrate and vertebrate animals that live there. Many species may be able to shift their ranges, but others will run into significant trouble if their favored habitats are not able to move along with them.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

My #GBBC Summary

Usually when the Great Backyard Bird Count comes around, I submit checklists for my backyard each day and augment them by visiting some of the local parks and submitting separate checklists to document the birds there. I was all set to participate as usual this year, but at the start of the weekend, I came down with a nasty toothache. To avoid stressing it more than necessary before I could get to a dentist, I stuck to backyard birding this year.

As one might expect, the number of species per checklist was rather small from my short counts, but I feel they were a representative sample of what is normally present at this time of year. One highlight was watching a small flock of robins work their way through the trees around the yard yesterday afternoon. At the same time, two cardinals were singing (on either side), and some of the male House Finches were singing as well. Combined with the mild temperature, it felt very much like spring already.

Even without much participation from me, my town (Highland Park) is eighteenth in species observed and tied for third in the number of checklists submitted among New Jersey localities as of the time I am writing this post. A total of 151 species have been reported from my state, with Common Grackle being the most numerous (followed closely by Snow Goose and Canada Goose) and Mourning Dove the most frequently reported (followed closely by Northern Cardinal). Those numbers will probably change a bit as more species are reported, but they are in line with past years. By the way, if you recorded birds this weekend but have not reported them yet, now is the time to do it. Checklist submissions will be accepted until March 5.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Loose Feathers #330

Sharp-tailed Grouse / Photo by Andy Jewett (USFWS)
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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Great Backyard Bird Count Coming Soon #GBBC

Tomorrow, February 17, is the start of this year's Great Backyard Bird Count. This four-day, continent-wide bird survey is traditionally held on President's Day weekend to give as many birders as possible a chance to participate. As in past years, this year's count aims to account for every species present in North America during the winter. Everyone with an interest in birds is invited to participate, regardless of skill level.

If you are new to the GBBC and plan to do it this year, check out the how to participate page to learn how to record birds and report your observations. The basic idea is that you watch and count birds in one location for at least 15 minutes and then enter the sightings through a form on the GBBC website. The location can be your backyard, out of the window at work (if your office has a window), in a local park, in a nature preserve, or in some other location where birds might show up. Counts can be conducted as a stationary count (like out a window) or a traveling count (like a walk through a park). Each count should be recorded on a separate checklist.

The GBBC website has some useful resources. First, there is a page to learn more about identifying birds. Here are some highlights from the 2011 GBBC. You can download or print a checklist for your zip code, based on what birders there reported in past years.

I encourage all readers to submit at least one checklist during this year's count.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Lunch for a Gull

Always opportunists, gulls will take advantage of any available food source, no matter how gross you or I might find it. This Ring-billed Gull grabbed something and valued it enough to keep it away from the other gulls, which naturally chased after this one to steal its lunch. I am not sure exactly what it has. In fact, it does not even look like something edible, but what looks inedible to me may not look the same way to a scavenger.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Review: Birds of India

Northern South America is known among North American birders as a hotspot of avian diversity, and for good reason. Four of the world's birdiest countries – Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador – are located there, each of which harbors numerous endemics of its own. However, South America is not the world's only major avifauna hotspot. Another such hotspot is the Indian subcontinent. The most densely-populated country in the world – soon likely to be the most populous – is also one of the most biodiverse. India and the six other countries of the subcontinent have a range of habitats from desert to tropical rainforests to the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. Within those habitats, 1,313 bird species have been documented, and more species keep being discovered there.

To help birders learn and identify the birds of the subcontinent, Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp, and Tim Inskipp present a newly revised Birds of India: Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives, published by Christopher Helm Publishers in the U.K. and Princeton University Press in the U.S. This book is a major revision of an earlier field guide, Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, published in 1999. The guide is compact enough to be carried in a bag, comparable in size and weight to Birds of Europe and the most recent edition of the National Geographic guide.

I have not seen previous versions of this guide, so I cannot evaluate the changes myself. According to the introduction, the major changes were the addition of over 100 species documented since the last edition and substantial reformatting of the plates. The latter included both reducing the number of species per plate and putting the species accounts on the page facing the plate where a species is depicted. This is the way a field guide should be organized, as opposed to the older style of putting plates in one section and text in another (and perhaps range maps in a third). The birds depicted include an additional 62 identifiable populations that could be split from existing species, which brings the total number of illustrated forms up to 1,375.

The illustrations were of the high quality that I have come to expect from a Helm/Princeton field guide. As I paged through the many plates, I am struck by the degree of diversity. I am also struck by the species we in North America share in common with the subcontinent – not just the expected urban species like Mallard or Rock Pigeon but also more specialized birds like Black-crowned Night-Heron or Buff-bellied (i.e., American) Pipit. In the species that I do recognize, the illustrations look true to life, so I trust that the same is true of the many more species that I am not familiar with. Unfortunately not all distinct plumages are shown for each species; for many species only one plumage is shown. Apparently this was a concession to save space.

I would recommend Birds of India: Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives for any birders who live in or will be traveling to visit India or one of its neighbors. It may also prove useful for anyone who is interested in learning more about the region's birds.

This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Kaaterskill Creek

Over the weekend I processed and posted some photos from last year's backlog. In the course of my photo-a-day project, I often took far more photos than I could process in a single day. Since I was continually taking more photos, it was easy to get behind, and some things just never got posted. (I currently have two or three nights' worth of moth photos waiting for identification and posting.) On Saturday I posted a bunch of photos from a hike in the Catskills last March. You can see all of them in my Catskill Mountains set on Flickr. One of the nest is the photo above of Kaaterskill Creek. This photo is looking downstream and gives a good sense of both the natural setting and the amount of ice still left that day.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Goldfinches and Climate Change

The U.S. Forest Service has released two new portals for exploring their climate change database: the Climate Change Bird Atlas and the Climate Change Tree Atlas. These portals give some idea of how species might react to climate change under different warming scenarios. These are should be taken as estimates; some species will adapt better than predicted to changing conditions while others will probably have a harder time. I saw the tree atlas first in a blog post at Weather Underground, which feared the potential for buckeyes to invade Ann Arbor. I learned of the bird atlas through a post by Julia Whitty at the Blue Marble blog at Mother Jones.

Her blog post highlighted the changes that would occur in the range of the American Goldfinch, currently a very common species in the northern United States. Under high warming and emissions scenarios, its range would change drastically from the present one and become more common in southern Canada than in the northern U.S. In her words, "the 'Canadian goldfinch' could be set to become the iconic provincial bird of Quebec, New Brunswick, and Ontario." New Jersey's state bird would go from being very common to relatively uncommon and perhaps only a seasonal visitor in some parts of the state. The potential change is eye-opening, to say the least. If goldfinches could decline here so readily, how many other species would we lose entirely in the state?

Some bird species will no doubt become more common at the same time. One species that might become common here is Painted Bunting, which is now an occasional visitor to the state (maybe one or two sightings a year). The Painted Bunting maps are shown below. Other species that could arrive here under the Forest Service models include Loggerhead Shrike and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.

I post these maps because they show the potential changes in species abundance rather dramatically. While I would certainly enjoy seeing Painted Buntings and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers on a regular basis, these sorts of changes will no doubt be stressful for many species and possibly put some of the rarer ones at risk of extinction. For that reason, I would prefer that these scenarios not come to pass.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Loose Feathers #329

Northern Pintails in flight / Photo by J. Kelly (USFWS)
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Thursday, February 09, 2012

Crows in a Tree

Before yesterday's snowstorm, a large group of crows – both American and Fish Crows, with the latter in greater numbers – were cavorting in one of the fields in Donaldson Park. Eventually they all flew up into the trees, perched there for a few minutes, and then departed.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Moon over a Locust Tree

The moon was full last night. At this time of year a full moon is sometimes referred to as a "Snow Moon," though this year snow has not been plentiful so far. A few days ago I photographed a nearly-full moon rising over one of the black locust trees on my local birding patch. For more on black locusts and how to identify them, see this recent post in Outside My Window.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

First Insect

Last week I found my first outdoor insect of the year. This Tarnished Plant Bug (Lygus lineolaris) was crawling on the foundation of my home. It was active on a day when the temperature was in the low 40s, which surprised me since I had not seen insects out on the days when it was substantially warmer than that. This species is a plant bug (family Miridae), a type of true bug that feeds on plants. This species overwinters as an adult, and the data for this species on BugGuide suggests that it is active for most of the year, though somewhat less so in the winter.

Monday, February 06, 2012

White-breasted Nuthatch

This White-breasted Nuthatch was scooting back and forth along the trees near Lord Stirling Park's west observation tower on Saturday. It was one of several that I could hear honking and hammering on nuts and seeds.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Eastern Bluebirds at Lord Stirling Park

As I stood on the west observation tower at Lord Stirling Park yesterday morning, I was surrounded by birds – White-throated and Song Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and White-breasted Nuthatches, among others. The ones that really caught my attention were a few Eastern Bluebirds that alternated between foraging in the field and perching in the trees and shrubs near the tower. The male above was perched in front of a bat box.

One of the trees had a limb broken off with a deep groove in what was left of it. I think that water must have collected inside the groove because the bluebirds kept disappearing into the groove and coming back out after a pause long enough to take a drink.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Protection for Piping Plovers at Cape Hatteras

Piping Plover chick / USFWS Photo
A long and bitter process has resulted in a new regulation governing off-road vehicle (ORV) use at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina. The purpose of the regulation is to protect the nests and young of Piping Plovers and other beach-nesting birds like terns and shorebirds.
The Park Service’s new rules allow ORV use on the majority of the seashore, with 28 of the seashore’s 67 miles of shoreline set aside as year-round ORV routes, and 13 miles seasonally open to ORVs. Only 26 of shoreline are designated as year-round vehicle-free areas for pedestrians, families, and wildlife. The plan also proposes new parking facilities, ORV ramps, and water shuttles to increase visitor access to beaches....

Beach-nesting birds and sea turtles reached alarming lows within the National Seashore under the old unmanaged beach-driving scenario, but showed signs of recovery after temporary rules were implemented in April 2008. No piping plover chicks survived to fledge (learn to fly) in 2002 and 2004, but 15 chicks fledged in 2010 and ten fledged in 2011. Only 44 sea turtle nests were recorded in 2004, but a record-breaking 153 sea turtle nests were recorded in 2010 and 147 in 2011.

The new rule was published in the Federal Register on January 20 and can be found at It designates ORV routes at the Seashore, establishing requirements to obtain a permit, and imposing date and time and other restrictions related to operation of ORVs, including vehicle and equipment standards.

New rules ordinarily go into effect no less than 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, however, the Park Service has found that good cause exists to truncate this period, and has brought the date forward to February 15. By this date, the public will have had 415 days’ notice of the decision (the Record of Decision was made available on December 28, 2010) that forms the basis of this rule, so further waiting would not appear to be necessary. Further, the shorebird breeding season at the Seashore begins in early March. The Park Service determined that implementation of the rule would be most effective if the designated ORV routes and ORV permit and education requirements were implemented, and signs reflecting the new requirements were installed, prior to the start of this year’s breeding season.

A permit will be required for each vehicle, with permit holders required to watch an instructional video. Permit fees have not been announced, but are expected to be set between $30 and $150 depending on the length of the permit.
It remains to be seen if this was what the plover population needed, but the early results look promising. Hopefully it will at least consolidate the gains made over the past few years while the temporary rules were in place.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Loose Feathers #328

Surf Scoter / Photo by Rinus Baak (USFWS)
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Thursday, February 02, 2012

Review: Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America

The bird blogosphere has been buzzing with the release of another new field guide. One blog has already proclaimed it a strong contender for the best bird book of the year; other blogs have also been strong in their praise for the guide. This is a guide to the tubenose order, Procellariformes. This order includes storm-petrels, albatrosses, fulmars, petrels, shearwaters, and diving-petrels (the latter not covered as they occur outside the book's geographic range). Tubenoses as a group are named for the horny tubes that encase their nostrils. Since tubenoses live at sea for most of the year, they must drink saltwater to survive, and they excrete the excess salt through their nostrils.

The new field guide, Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide, by Steve N. G. Howell, is a hefty tome. In fact, it is far larger and heavier than I expected and competes with The Crossley ID Guide as the heaviest field guide in my collection. It is so large and heavy that it is an unlikely candidate for field use. Instead, this is clearly a book best used as study guide at home in preparation for pelagic trips and a reference for identifying seabirds from notes or photographs following sightings.

While the hefty size will discourage field use, it accommodates a wealth of information. The heart of the book are the species accounts. These are grouped by family (petrels, albatrosses, and storm-petrels) and further divided into groups of similar species. (For example, petrels are grouped into shearwaters, gadfly petrels, and other petrels, each of which are subdivided further.) Each of the groups and subgroups is prefaced with an introduction laying out which features are most useful for identification and warning about identification pitfalls. The species accounts themselves are lengthy, with an emphasis on distribution and separating the species from similar species. Each account is accompanied by a range map showing the breeding and nonbreeding ranges (with arrows showing movements and numbers for what months they appear) and photographic plates. The plates are a major strength of the guide, with numerous, beautiful photographs for each species, showing a full range of variation. It must have taken a substantial effort to gather so much visual documentation.

When examining a new field guide, it is tempting to skip the introduction and turn straight to the plates. With this new tubenose guide, it is definitely worth reading the introduction unless you are already an expert at seabird identification. The introduction includes notes on the taxonomy and life histories of tubenoses, as one would expect. The book does not strictly follow the AOU Checklist, which Howell describes as "particularly anachronistic," but instead tries to present current taxonomy as represented in scientific papers. Since tubenose classification is currently in flux, the number of ordering of species in the future seems likely to differ from both the current AOU Checklist and Howell's presentation. Howell notes which taxa are the most uncertain. Advice on tubenose identification, and how it is affected by conditions at sea and molt patterns, follows the discussion of taxonomy.

The introduction also includes a primer on ocean habitats and how those affect the life histories and distribution of seabirds. This may not be obvious to the landbound birder – it was not obvious to me, anyway – but the seemingly uniform surface of the ocean conceals a variety of habitat types underneath. These habitats are affected by currents, temperature gradients, and other factors, and some are far more abundant in food sources than others. Where the best food sources are can shift from day to day, and along with them, where the most seabird diversity can be found.

Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide, by Steve N. G. Howell is a must-have for birders with a strong interest in pelagic birding and desirable for birders living near the coast, as some tubenose species may be seen from land on occasion. Land-locked birders will probably find the guide less useful, but it will still be of interest for learning about the birds that make their living on the ocean.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Lesser Black-backed Gulls at Donaldson Park

Yesterday as I made my usual route around Donaldson Park, I encountered a sizable gathering of gulls spread over the artificial pond and the nearby baseball field. In the midst of the flock on the baseball field, I spotted a Lesser Black-backed Gull, which sat down on the ground as I watched it, but before I took a photo. You can see its small size and dainty features in comparison to the burly Herring Gull seated just behind it. There is some streaking on its head, but it was very light streaking, and hard to see in the photo above.

When I moved over to check out the gulls on the pond, I was surprised to see yet another Lesser Black-backed Gull, first in the water and then preening on the shore. This individual had much heavier streaking on its head than the other bird and shows a dark gray mantle and yellow legs. Again, it appears small and dainty compared to the Herring Gulls around it.

Finally, as I was finishing my route, I noticed this Lesser Black-backed Gull standing in one of the soccer fields. The gulls had reshuffled a bit in the meantime, and I suspect that this was the same bird as the first individual I saw rather than a third individual. As with the first bird, the head streaking is barely noticeable, and the red dot at the gonys is roughly the same size and shape as on the first bird. So when I entered my checklist into eBird, I entered two rather than three Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

My walk yesterday was also significant as it was the first time I heard House Finches singing this year. For me, the first House Finch song is a leading indicator of the coming spring. Yesterday was indeed a spring-like day, with a high of at least 60°F and an overall feeling of warmth.