Friday, November 30, 2012

Loose Feathers #369

Chestnut-collared Longspur / WCS Photo
Birds and birding
  • Birds in areas that are brightly lit by artificial lights are able to forage longer into the evening, which may be an advantage for overwintering birds. (Of course, artificial lights have well-known detriments for birds in the process of migrating.)
  • A student at Berkeley replicated bird surveys that were done a century ago and turned up similar numbers of species.
  • Injuries to swans' hips may be more common than thought and probably result from landing on hard surfaces.
  • A dead carrier pigeon from World War I was found in a British chimney. It had a coded message attached to one leg, which has proven resistant to interpretation.
  • A rat eradication program is continuing on South Georgia Island to rid the island of invasive rats that threaten the island's breeding birds.
  • The American Bird Conservancy wants Congress to ban five species of constrictor snakes from importation. The release of constrictor snakes in Florida is having significant effects on its native wildlife.
  • The Manumea still exists in Samoa but faces threats from habitat destruction and hunting.
Nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity
  • Sea levels are rising 60% faster than the IPCC predicted. Along with temperature data, this suggests that climate change is likely to be worse than the consensus forecasts. Here are some interactive maps showing what portions of major metropolitan areas could flood under several sea level forecasts. Meanwhile, Arctic sea ice melted over an area larger than the continental United States in 2012 and set a record 20% lower than the previous record.
  • A newly-approved natural gas pipeline will go through the New York portion of Gateway National Recreation Area, particularly Jacob Riis Park and Floyd Bennett Field.
  • Recent studies suggest that the animals and especially plants of US urban areas are homogenizing, to the extent that there are now large differences between the fauna and flora of cities and the surrounding rural areas. (I am not sure why they chose to put a Blue Tit on the Empire State Building, though.)
  • Eastern wolves (formely Canis lupus lycaon) are now considered a separate species from gray wolves.
  • Also in wolf news, hunting caused the deaths of seven tagged research wolves from Yellowstone. The deaths of those wolves pose a significant setback for the research program.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Loose Feathers #368

Birds and birding
Nature and science blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How Soon Can Refuges Recover from Sandy?

Damage at Forsythe NWR / USFWS Photo
The Washington Post covers some of the damage that Sandy wrought at national wildlife refuges in the Mid-Atlantic region:
The wreckage at Forsythe and other Northeast coastal refuges was yet another testament to the destructive power of Sandy, the superstorm that ripped up the New Jersey shore and flooded Manhattan. And it drew attention to the costly plans being considered by the federal agency to protect wildlife refuges from the impact of climate change and sea-level rise.

Sandy’s winds rammed a dirt and gravel dike at Forsythe with seawater, causing it to burst. Bay salt water rushed into a shallow freshwater pond created for birds such as the American black duck and Atlantic brant. The usual foot of water in which the birds dip their heads got saltier, rose to five feet and washed out vegetation, so the birds could no longer reach underwater seeds or pick bugs from leaves.

Dozens of refuges between Maine and Virginia were pummeled. Four were damaged severely, including Forsythe, where about 130 boats in the Atlantic City area were blown into marshes, Kahan said.

At Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, part of the public beach and two parking lots were washed away on Assateague Island. At Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware, a 1,500-foot breach in a dune sent salt water from the Delaware Bay into a freshwater pond where waterfowl eat, nest and give birth, and flooded homes on an island near the refuge. And at the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex in New York, fallen trees blocked the entrance.

Sandy created sea surge powerful enough to reshape portions of the coasts of North Carolina, Delaware and Maryland, and Virginia’s portion of the Delmarva Peninsula, which includes Chincoteague, said the U.S. Geological Survey.

Thirty-five of the region’s 72 refuges were closed after the storm. Six million people per year — many from the District, Virginia and Maryland — visit the refuges, which cover 535,000 acres, and managers acted to protect visitors from “widow-makers,” damaged trees that crash down after storms, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman said.

Forsythe still has not reopened. In addition to the busted dike and ruined pond, the wrecked boats appear to be leaking fuel, Kahan said.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

White-throated Sparrows in Autumn

White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) breed in northern forests and migrate south to the eastern and southern United States during the fall. In New Jersey, they stay through the winter, often in large flocks. I usually hear White-throated Sparrows before I see them. They call constantly to each other and kick up leaves with their feet to uncover food. Even though they are so noisy, it can be hard to see them under shrubs and thick tangles of branches.

I took all of these photos in my backyard over the past few days. There have been at least six, maybe more, hanging around. The challenge with photographing them is to catch them when they hop onto an exposed perch where they might only sit for a few second before going back down into the fallen leaves.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Loose Feathers #367

Merlin / Photo by Bill Thompson (USFWS)
Birds and birding
  • A census of Island Scrub Jays on Santa Cruz Island in California documented fewer of these endemic jays than expected. With only 2,500 individuals, this is one of the rarest bird species in the U.S.
  • A survey estimated that 22 million birds die from window strikes in Canada each year. The number is likely higher than that in the United States, which is more densely populated. For more about human-caused bird mortality, see this fact sheet (pdf) from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. David Sibley puts the same numbers into graphical form.
  • Thousands of Lesser Flamingos have arrived at Tanzania's Lake Natron for their breeding season, which may be the largest breeding event since 2007. The habitat around Lake Natron is currently threatened by low water levels due to drought and proposed industrial development.
  • The NY Times took a look at how hurricanes affect birds.
  • Whooping Cranes are returning to Aransas NWR in eastern Texas to spend the winter. Meanwhile, there are lingering legal issues left over from the deaths of 23 cranes last winter. Environmental groups want the state to create a water management plan for the Guadelupe River that will provide adequate water for the refuge.
  • A project is photographically documenting all 39 species of birds-of-paradise in their natural habitats. There are a few videos of bird-of-paradise courtship dances embedded in the article, and you can watch more here.
  • A recent study found that New Caledonian Crows are able to infer hidden causes. 
  • The National Post has an article on Canada's quest to collect and retire all of its $1,000 bills, which are mostly in the hands of criminal enterprises. The main reason I am linking that article is that the Canadian $1,000 bill has a lovely image of Pine Grosbeaks on it.
  • A bee-eater found in Scotland is very rare for that area. Bohemian Waxwings are also irrupting into the UK this winter. Also in the UK, a new wetland reserve opened in the Trent Valley.
Nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Friday, November 09, 2012

Loose Feathers #366

Western Grebe and chicks / Photo by Dan Nelson (USFWS)
Birds and birding
Nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity
  • President Obama's re-election this week means that his EPA will be able to proceed with regulations on greenhouse gas emissions if it chooses. However, what the administration will be able to accomplish on this front will be limited by Congressional opposition and the administration's embrace of an "all of the above" energy policy.
  • Hurricane Sandy has entered the climate change conversation; whether it will spur significant action remains to be seen.
  • One thing that may result from Sandy is the erection of barriers to protect New York Harbor from storm surges. There are various proposals floating around; one is to ring Manhattan and Brooklyn with artificial wetlands that would serve as parks most of the time but absorb some of the energy of storm surges that enter the harbor. Floodgates are another option.
  • Monsoon failures may become more common in India thanks to climate change.
  • Deforestation can be detected from space via a NASA satellite. Recent data shows extensive deforestation in South American and West Africa.
  • A 2001-2002 drought in the Rocky Mountains made the mountain pine beetle infestation much worse.
  • An extremely rare whale, the spade-toothed beaked whale, was found beached in New Zealand. It was the first time the species was recorded as a complete specimen, and it was only identified by DNA testing.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Brigantine after Sandy

It looks unlikely that birders will be driving around the wildlife drive at Brigantine in the near future.

Those cormorants are swimming through what used to by the road along the south dike. Other parts of the road are eroded as well.

It looks like the refuge will be closed indefinitely, but the status will be updated on the Forsythe NWR website.

Update: Some aerial views of the south dike:

All photos are courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Loose Feathers #365

A new avian family tree / Credit: University of Sheffield
Birds and birding
Nature blogging
Environment and biodiversity

Thursday, November 01, 2012

My Sandy Experience

Hurricane Sandy / Image credit: NASA GOES Project
Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey around 8 pm on October 29. Up until that point, things had been going as well as could be expected, with a lot of rain and wind, but not much damage. Around the time Sandy made landfall, trouble started with the electricity. First the lights started flickering, and then there were two or three momentary power drops — the lights would go off, my desk fan (to cool my laptop) would stop, and I'd lose my internet connection. Each time, the power was restored after about a minute. Then around 8:30 pm, the power went off for good. It was off until about 6 pm last night. A lot of nearby towns are still without power.

The good news is that I survived the storm with no injuries. So did my parents and sisters and everyone else I know that I've been able to contact so far. My house is still intact, and the water never got cut off. It also isn't 90°F, so life without electricity was a lot more bearable. I am so glad that the stove and hot water heater are both powered by natural gas and not electricity. There was surprisingly little flooding for a storm of this magnitude, at least in Central New Jersey. Low-lying areas were wet, and a few roads were flooded, but the main roads seemed to be open. The flooding was nothing like that during Irene and Floyd.

While there was little flooding, the wind was ferocious on October 29. It was the worst wind storm I can remember. Many trees and branches are down. I saw at least one car with a Silver Maple on top of it. Bradford Pears were massacred. One Gingko had its top ripped off and tossed on the ground beside it. Other trees took power lines with them, and some crashed through houses. Many trees in my birding patch were uprooted. The Norway Maples along the back fence of my yard lost a lot of limbs, including a big one that crushed the fence.

I feel very lucky because this could easily have been a lot worse, and there are still a lot of people that have no power or water or even homes in some cases.

I did a little bit of post-hurricane birding on Tuesday morning, once I had an idea of what the storm had caused. There was nothing rare at Donaldson Park, my one stop. The Chipping Sparrows I had seen on October 28 were still there, though reduced in number. There were hundreds of gulls, including 119 Laughing Gulls. These are almost certainly storm-blown birds since they rarely visit the site except during unusual weather patterns. I also saw a Peregrine Falcon and a Northern Harrier. The latter might be a storm-displaced bird, though it is hard to be certain. I have only seen one other harrier at the site as far as I can remember, and that was several years ago. The Peregrine, of course, is a local breeder.