Wednesday, August 31, 2005

I and the Bird #5

Welcome to the fifth edition of I and the Bird, the blog carnival for bird lovers.

As many of you know, last week the American Ornithologists’ Union held its conference for 2005 in California. Among other topics, researchers presented additional evidence for the continued existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker, evidence that included sound recordings made during the search. Though some evidence is still in dispute, it looks increasingly likely that ivory-billed woodpeckers still live in the Big Woods of Arkansas. So, in honor of the AOU and the probable survival of a species once thought extinct, this week’s carnival will be held conference-style, in a conference center somewhere in downtown Washington.

Without further ado, onto the birds!

(Shade-grown) Coffee and Doughnuts (7:45-8:00)

Birder Behavior (8:00-9:00)

Bill at Crows Really Are Wise sends us his post on the Bird Lists birders keep and a list of birds seen while driving to work.

YC Wee of the Bird Ecology Study Group in Singapore uses his blog to argue that birders ought to pay more attention to the behavior of common birds, and posts observations of bird behavior. A recent post, Twitchers, Photographers, and Digiscopers, discusses different approaches to birding.

Break (9:00-9:15)

Sightings of Individual Birds (9:15-10:45)

Duncan of the Ben Cruachan Blog describes his encounters with the spotted pardalotes, a burrowing species, in his Jewels of the Bush.

Christy narrates an evening encounter with a barred owl – and a curious neighbor - in her Bird Watching.

Clare at The House and Other Arctic Musings tells of two sightings of a gyrfalcon on a day with miserable weather in A Gyrfalcon Kind of Day.

Break (10:45-11:00)

Birds and the End of Summer (11:00-12:00)

Dave of the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Alaska reflects on the end of summer and gives us the latest news from his bird rehabilitation center in Where Did the Summer Go?

Tony G., from the eclectic milkriverblog, reflects on the end of summer and reports on some unusual bird observations in a multiple-day post, In Praise of Quiet-Not Quiet. (Note that the post is in reverse chronological order.)

Lunch (12:00-1:00)

Birds and their Nests (1:00-2:00)

Sharon, the BirdChick, investigates three nests left behind in a bluebird nesting box at the end of the breeding season in Nest Box Intrigue.

The newly-revived Nature Writers of Texas blog has a piece by Ro Wauer on chimney swifts nesting in her chimney, in Chimney Swifts, A Real-Life Drama.

Bird Rehabilitation and Species Recovery (2:00-2:30)

Gwyn of Bird brained stories! recently had the privilege of watching the flight training of young whooping cranes on a special tour of a protected refuge. Here is her account: part 1, part 2, part 3.

Break (2:30-2:45)

Backyard Birds (2:45-4:15)

Shari at Birdwatchin Buzz describes how western scrub-jays behave at her feeders, and how they remind her of her late brother in My Brother and Western Scrub-jays.

T. Beth at Firefly Forest Blog has an account (and a great picture) of two unlikely species sitting in her birdbath at the same time in Sharing.

Summer at Bird Watchers Notebook reports on the territorial behavior of hummingbirds at feeders in Hummingbird Wars.

Break (4:15-4:30)

Field Trip Reports (4:30-7:00)

Jason of The Big Bird Blog describes a great field trip on a very hot day in southern California in his Sultry Salton Sea. Make sure to enlarge his wood stork photographs.

Mike at 10,000 Birds reports on a trip to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, which doubles as a bird sanctuary, in Feathers Over Fermilab.

Rexroth’s Daughter at Dharma Bums presents a series of eagle and heron photographs from her Low-Tide Walk.

Charlie of Charlie’s Bird Blog takes us on a tour of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens, in Down Under and It’s a Bit Like Birding at Home.

The Wandering Birders present the results of birding trips to Norfolk and Suffolk, with plenty of photographs, in Norfolk 17/8-19/8.

Dinner will be at the Hawk and Dove on Capitol Hill.

Finally, there is an optional field trip on the following morning to Rock Creek Park, led by your host.

Thanks to all our contributors for sending in their posts. Putting this together has been great fun. The sixth I and the Bird will be hosted by the BirdChick on September 15. Make sure to send your submissions to Sharon or to Mike by September 13.

Listed at the TTLB übercarnival.

I and the Bird

I still have room for another couple submissions for tomorrow's carnival, so if you can get one to me by early this evening I may be able to include it. (Email address is below.)

Monday, August 29, 2005

I and the Bird: Last Reminder

The fifth I and the Bird will be hosted here on Thursday, September 1. If you have any posts that you would like to submit, please send them to me by Tuesday evening so I have time to write up the presentation. I already have about a dozen posts, but there is always room for more.

Please keep in mind Mike's guidelines.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Moving on Up

Sometime this evening my blog had its 1,000th post since Site Meter began tracking for me. Thanks to all the readers who have checked out my site and come back for more.

Bird News Links

The Hudson Reporter has a story about a survey of migrating birds currently underway in the New Jersey Meadowlands. The surveyors follow a route and count every bird at each stop. Right now there are 113 stops at 27 locations. 183 species have been recorded so far, including several not recorded in the Meadowlands before the surveys began: common raven, Eurasian wigeon, great cormorant, and wild turkey.

Pete Dunne wrote a piece on Cape May in the fall for the latest issue of Birder's World. (Actually several of the articles from their current issue are available online.) I have not experienced fall migration at Cape May yet, and I probably will not this year either, but I hope to make a fall trip there sometime soon.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Eastern Towhees

Bay Weekly, a local online paper for the Chesapeake Bay area, has a short column this week on the eastern towhee, one of the area's characteristic birds:

As with many songbirds, the vocalizations of towhees break down into two categories: songs and calls. Songs are used by males to establish territory and to attract a mate. (Though the females of some other species, such as cardinals, are also known to sing.) Calls are used by both sexes for a variety of purposes such as alarm and communication between adults and young.

The name towhee comes from the sounds of the birds’ two-syllable call, with the accent on the second syllable. But what may sound like towhee to you, might sound like chewink to a New Englander, and in some regions chewink is the bird’s colloquial name.
For more of this column by Gary Pendleton, see Onomatopoeia in the Blackberry Bush.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

I and the Bird Reminder

Next Thursday, September 1, will be the fifth edition of I and the Bird, the blog carnival for birders. If you have a post you would like to submit, please send it to me by next Tuesday, August 30. Rules for submissions can be found here. Note that you do not have to be a birder or have a blog that is principally about birds; all that is necessary is a post that shows some enthusiasm for birds or birding or that describes an encounter with birds or birders. (Entries can be submitted to me or to Mike at 10,000 Birds.)

I will post one more reminder next week.

Evening Walk

What a beautiful evening! The air was cool and the sky was a mix of blues and pinks as the sun set. After dinner I took a short walk over as far as the National Museum of the American Indian. Its gardens were a sea of green with reds and purples and yellows mixed in. The cardinal flowers seem to be peaking now. There were not too many birds at the museum, though. I did see an eastern kingbird catching insects over the Capitol's reflecting pool. It dove down so that it almost touched the water before stopping suddenly and pulling up. Lately the cicadas have been buzzing loudly, almost as loudly as last year's periodical cicadas.


Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Eastern Kingbird
Northern Mockingbird
American Robin
European Starling
House Sparrow
Common Grackle

Trip Report: Rock Creek Park

All this week we have had much better weather than has been typical for the last two months in Washington. The same weather pattern that brought us cooler temperatures has also made possible a wave of fall migration. With winds out of the northwest this week I have been trying to get out and do some birding when I can. Yesterday there was a very good report from Rock Creek Park on the local birding listserve, so I headed over there this morning. Yesterday birders there had seen a golden-winged warbler and a yellow-bellied flycatcher.

Well, this morning the birding was much slower. Neither of the reported species was there, or at least if they were I did not see them. I went to the Maintenance Yard first. I was greeted immediately by a series of ruby-throated hummingbirds, all of which appeared to be immatures since they lacked the distinctive red throat of the adults. I searched around the public areas of the yard and turned up some gray catbirds and American goldfinches, as well as quite a lot of blue-gray gnatcatchers. It was not until I was about to leave that I finally saw a chestnut-sided warbler, the best bird for today.

I walked over to the picnic areas on the other side of the ridge, but I did not turn up much more. On the way there and back the local pileated woodpeckers were calling in the woods. When I returned to the Nature Center parking lot, I found what was probably the most active area this morning. Even this was mostly common species, but it included a Baltimore oriole. This week I have had small taste of this year's fall migration, but in a couple weeks the trickle will turn into a flood.


Mourning Dove
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Carolina Wren
House Wren
Gray Catbird
American Robin
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
European Starling
House Sparrow
Red-eyed Vireo
American Goldfinch
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Common Grackle
Baltimore Oriole

A few notes on Rock Creek Park: During migration the best area for finding migrants is the ridge south of the Nature Center. There are two main hotspots: picnic areas 17/18 and the Maintenance Yard. I generally find the latter location best because the birds are closer to eye level. (The yard also has piles of marble left over from the old façade of the Capitol.) The picnic areas have a large walnut tree that serves as the center of bird activity; one local birder referred to it as a 7-Eleven. To reach this area without a car, one can take the Red Line to either Fort Totten or Friendship Heights, and then transfer to either the E2 or E4, getting off at the intersection of Military Road and Glover Road.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Sounds

The researchers who documented the continued existence of ivory-billed woodpeckers in the Cache River NWR presented more evidence to back up their findings at the AOU conference today. The new evidence included audio recordings, which have now been made available on the internet at Cornell's website. (The site is rather slow right now.) The audio evidence, which helped persuaded skeptics, had not been available in April because the research team had not finished analyzing the recordings.

Update: Laura Erickson of BirderBlog is reporting on the ivory-bill issue from the AOU conference here and here.

High Temperatures at Lake Erie

Lake Erie has been 3-4 degrees above normal for the last three weeks. In the past, high temperatures have been associated with high mortality rates among migratory birds that stop at the lake to feed:

Warm water is one of the factors in the development of type E botulism, a form of food poisoning that has killed tens of thousands of fish and migratory birds along Lake Erie since 2000.

While Biss said there have been no reports of bird deaths along Lake Erie so far this year, a number of dead birds have turned up on the eastern end of Lake Ontario. The DEC has confirmed the presence of type E botulism in those birds.

Although scientists still don't fully understand the process, they believe the birds get the botulism from eating fish who get it from decaying organic material on the lake bottom. Heated water speeds that decay.

Since 2000, tens of thousands of migratory birds such as loons and mergansers have been found dead on the Lake Erie shoreline, victims of botulism poisoning.

The worst year was 2002, when, based on DEC counts of bird carcasses retrieved from geographic grids along the shoreline, 17,000 birds are estimated to have died.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Possible Ocean Extinctions

The Washington Post has an article regarding possible new extinctions in our oceans. Many marine biologists believe that the world is about to witness a major wave of extinctions among fish, marine mammals, pelagic birds, and other creatures. Several factors are involved, from a rise in ocean temperatures to loss of coastal habitat:

But nothing has pushed marine life to the edge of extinction more than aggressive fishing. Aided by technology -- industrial trawlers and factory ships deploy radar and sonar to scour the seas with precision and drag nets the size of jumbo jets along the sea floor -- ocean fish catches tripled between 1950 and 1992.

In some cases, fishermen have intentionally exploited species until they died out, such as the New Zealand grayling fish and the Caribbean monk seal; other species have been accidental victims of long lines or nets intended for other catches. Over the past two decades, accidental bycatch alone accounted for an 89 percent decline in hammerhead sharks in the Northeast Atlantic.

The loss of fish, of course, affects the rest of the underwater ecosystem as well. Sharks also are in major, again in part because of overhunting. But it seems unlikely that the threatened species will receive protection anytime soon:

Despite scientists' warnings, American and international authorities have been slow to protect marine species. The only U.S. saltwater fish to make the protected list is a ray, the smalltooth sawfish, which was added in 2003.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service is charged with protecting 61 threatened or endangered marine species. Director Bill Hogarth said his agency focuses on protecting vulnerable populations so they will not have to be listed.

"That's our job -- to make sure species don't wind up on the endangered species list," he said.

But conservationists said NOAA officials are reluctant to classify fish as endangered because doing so conflicts with the agency's mission of promoting commercial fishing.

Michael Hirshfield, chief scientist at the advocacy group Oceana, said he has repeatedly seen government officials provide shifting estimates of how many threatened or endangered sea turtles can acceptably die each year in eastern scallop fisheries.

"You never get an answer to the question how many turtles would have to be killed before you would say, 'That's not okay,' " he said.

The prediction of a new wave of extinctions may not come to fruition, and I hope that it does not. But even if it does not, I fear that we may be headed towards a situation in which populations have dwindled to such an extent that species cannot support themselves without aggressive protection. And that type of situation would not be good for either the animals or for humans.

Two New Species

BirdLife International reports that two new species of birds have been discovered in Colombia. Both are tapaculos, small brown birds of the forest understory. The Stiles's Tapaculo was discovered in the Cordillera Central mountains. It was separated from its closest relatives by song and by genetic studies. The other, the Upper Magdalena Tapaculo, was discovered in the Finca Marenberg mountains. Like the other species, it is best identified by voice. Its presence could not be confirmed until very recently because of political strife:

"It was frustrating, waiting for years knowing there were new species to be discovered and protected", says Paul Salaman of Fundación ProAves, one of the expedition members.... "Then we learned it was safe to visit the Finca Merenberg mountains and soon found the new species in dense understorey of primary forest...."
Given the ongoing civil war in Colombia, it is amazing that any type of research is accomplished. Yet new species are continually discovered in its remote forests. Here's to the intrepid scientists.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Birding on the Mall

I took advantage of the cooler weather to take an evening bird walk on the Mall, and to see if last night's northwest winds had brought any early migrants. Taking the Metro to the Smithsonian stop, I started out down by the Washington Monument. My initial objective was Constitution Gardens, a lake bordered by trees wedged between the World War II and Vietnam memorials.

No migrants were to be seen, but there were plenty of signs of the end of summer. One northern mockingbird was clearly a fledgling, but its feathers had grown enough for it to fly. A young brown-headed cowbird foraged amid a small flock of European starlings, which presumably had raised it. Male mallards were in various stages of molt, some close to basic plumage and some closer to alternate. I spotted two wood ducks in basic plumage among the mallards only because the wood ducks are so much smaller. One red-winged blackbird had begun to disguise his red epaulettes, as his species is wont to do during the winter months.

Somewhat disappointed with the pickings at Constitution Gardens, I moved on to the Tidal Basin and East Potomac Park (known to birders as Haines Point). I did not see many more birds down along the river, but I did have a nice long walk on a pleasant evening. Many people were sitting or lying along the riverfront to view tonight's spectacular sunset. Thin bands of clouds stretched across the sky from north to south, and these clouds became colored with a series of golds, reds, and purples as the sun sank further into the horizon. Later, after the sun finally set, I caught a glimpse of a black-crowned night-heron flying south along Washington Channel.

Before heading back to the Metro, I stopped one last time to train my binoculars at the Washington Monument, which is illuminated at night by giant floodlights. Sure enough, I found a small number of common nighthawks fluttering in and out of the beams of light. I assume that this represents the first trickle of migrants; as far as I can tell, no nighthawks were found breeding in Washington this summer. These were the first nighthawks I have seen in Washington this year.


Black-crowned Night-Heron
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Common Nighthawk
Chimney Swift
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Eastern Kingbird
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
American Crow
European Starling
House Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird

Piping Plover News

Finally we get to have some good news about the endangered piping plover. The Great Lakes region appears to be seeing an increase in the population of piping plovers despite continued development. As on the east coast, plover nesting has become a cause for controversy between wildlife officials who want to protect the nests and would-be beachgoers. At one site in Ontario, the conflict centers on a former bombing range where piping plovers have begun to nest; in addition to the plovers, there may be unexploded ordnance on the beaches. Closer to Washington, the piping plovers at Cape Henlopen in Delaware managed to fledge twelve chicks despite continual interruptions, including plane crashes and the filming of surfing scenes for a movie (this one?).

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Some Bird Articles

The Sunday Times has a review of a new book on Britain's avifauna, Birds Britannica by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey. The former has previously published Birders: Tales of a Tribe, which sits on my bookshelf but has yet to be read. (One of these days I will get around to it.) Birds Britannica is not a field guide but a collection of species accounts for Britain's birds; it combines ornithological discoveries with personal observations and folklore.

Closer to home, there is a neat column on the experience of birding at Jamaica Bay NWR in the Times Herald-Record (registration/bugmenot required) of Middletown, NY.

In Washington, D.C., restoration plans for the West Colonnade of the White House were altered due to swallows nesting on top of one of the columns. The article claims that this was a family of cliff swallows, but local birders feel that these are more likely barn swallows; cliff swallows would be an extraordinary find in Washington. But unless a birder gets a security clearance, we will not know for sure.

Virginia has listed 925 species in need of conservation within its borders. This includes animals that are or have been on the endangered species list, as well as others that are not yet endangered but have undergone steady population declines. The list (pdf) is not only of birds, but of animals from all orders, including invertebrates. In most cases habitat loss is the main cause of decline. It is hoped that the list will draw attention to the problem and generate action to preserve habitat.

Meanwhile, New Jersey is using digital mapping of the habitat of rare species to guide development and preservation plans.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

More on Introducing African Mammals

For a favorable view of the proposed introduction of large African mammals into the North American Great Plains, see "Lions and Cheetahs and Elephants, Oh My!" in Thursday's Slate.

"Rewilding"—bringing elephants, cheetahs, and lions out of captivity to run free in parts of North America—could help save these megafauna from global extinction. More important, it would restore to the continent biological functions lost millenniums ago. The big guys would help stop the march of the pests and weeds—rats and dandelions—that will otherwise take over the landscape. And they would promote the natural processes that generate biodiversity. For example, for more than 4 million years before its extinction, the American cheetah preyed on the deerlike pronghorn, a relationship that helped engender the pronghorn's astonishing speed....
It is an interesting argument. I still believe that it would be a bad idea, for the reasons I have already mentioned. If restoration and conservation are the goals, I would much rather see the African and Asian species conserved in their native habitats, and the North American species preserved here. This proposal looks like an attempt to play God with species that may or may not be suited for their new environments.

Friday, August 19, 2005


This evening, while on a walk around the neighborhood, I saw my first ovenbird of the fall. It was foraging underneath some shrubs in a park near my apartment and then flew up into a tree as I approached. I see ovenbirds, and some other warblers as well, fairly regularly in this park during migration. It is only a small square in the heart of the district, but because of the mix of azalea bushes and small trees, it provides good cover for migrants to spend a day or two.

More Global Warming

Officials from two dozen countries met yesterday in Greenland to discuss the problems presented by global warming. The meeting place was at the foot of a glacier that has receded seven miles since 1960. Though the officials agreed that something needed to be done, no specific measures were adopted; the meeting included representatives from both pro- and anti-Kyoto treaty nations. From the article:

The United States, which accounts for one-quarter of the world's greenhouse gases, has refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, saying it would harm their economies by raising energy prices, and cost five million jobs in the U.S. alone.
I have doubts about the accuracy of that claim, as it seems highly unlikely to me that Bill Clinton and Al Gore would endorse a treaty with such dire effects. Sure, it would cost money in the short term, and maybe even cost jobs in some sectors, but surely conversion to new technologies would open new job opportunities as well. (I think energy companies just do not want to make the initial investment.) Meanwhile, John McCain and Hillary Clinton are crossing party lines to call for action on the global warming front while they toured parts of Alaska and Canada's Yukon Territory. McCain is pushing bipartisan legislation to cap greenhouse emissions at 2000 levels (which is still pretty high).
"We are convinced that the overwhelming scientific evidence indicated that climate change is taking place and human activities play a very large role," McCain said....
"I don't think there is any doubt left for anyone who actually looks at the science," Clinton said. "There are still some holdouts, but they are fighting a losing battle. The science is overwhelming, but what is deeply concerning is that climate change is accelerating."
At the same time, doubters continue to bet against the idea of global warming.

Cleaner Air?

An EPA study indicates that new pollution controls may be doing some good in the northeast. The controls demand reductions of nitrogen oxide emissions during the summer months, to reduce smog and prevent unhealthy air days. Another new pollution control adopted this year will require permanent cuts in both nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide.

Osprey Cam

Blackwater NWR in Maryland is a wonderful refuge to visit, especially in the autumn when thousands of migrant waterfowl reside there. When I first visited the refuge, I was amazed at the number of bald eagles roosting there; it seemed like every snag had an eagle on top of it. (This refuge was also the first place I saw the cute brown-headed nuthatch.) Right now, the Friends of Blackwater are running a webcam on one of the osprey nesting platforms so that everyone can watch the adults and fledglings in the nest. Right now, the webcam is out, but highlights have been posted on the webcam blog.

Global Warming Follow-up

As a follow-up to my earlier post, here is a National Geographic article on global warming and bird populations:

Then there are tree swallows, which are showing up to their U.S. breeding grounds about 12 days earlier than they were 30 years ago, according to Hector Galbraith at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"The result in and of itself would be interesting but hardly worrying," Galbraith said. "But when you look at other [bird] species and see this 10-to-12-day change crop up in tons of those, it is [worrying]."

And this is not just coming from tree swallows:

In 2003 Stanford's Terry Root found many examples of global-warming-spurred behavioral shifts in a review of 143 scientific studies covering 1,473 species of plants and animals.

"If you look at all the studies that have been done on species and climate change and find the same signature for species all around the globe by many, many individuals instead of just one or two, it gives circumstantial evidence" that global warming is driving the changes, she said....

Galbraith, who co-authored a 2004 report for the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said the behavioral shifts are anticipated, but they are coming about 15 years earlier than he expected.

"One important message from the Pew report is we're already seeing these effects, and they're widespread … the effect is way ahead of when many people in the field would have predicted," he said.

Ultimately, we are probably going to be looking at extinctions, though how many depends on how much and how quickly the earth warms.

Friday Bird Notes

On this rainy day, I have no sightings to report. I am glad to see a good, drenching rain, though. The trees on my block could certainly use it, and the sugar maples on the next block over are in an even more dire condition at the moment. As of last night, their leaves were already a crispy brown.

Laura at Birder Blog reports that the American Bird Conservancy is entering into a partnership with the Colombian Fundacion ProAves to preserve wintering habitat for migratory birds. One of the avian beneficiaries will be the cerulean warbler, this blog's mascot. (So maybe there is hope of seeing one yet.) The preserve, if properly maintained, should benefit rare birds endemic to Colombia as well.

The American Bird Conservancy has also produced a Birdwatcher's Guide to Global Warming. It gives state-by-state accounts of how global warming might affect birds and birders. A likely change is that as the climate warms, bird breeding ranges will shift northward; to some extent this process is already being measured. One species that may leave this area altogether is the Baltimore oriole.

One more thing: Anthony Williams, mayor of Washington, D.C., and avid birder, started a blog for the mayor's office this week. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Pleistocene Park?

Some ecologists are proposing relocating large mammals that are endangered on other continents to create new herds on the North American Great Plains:

Lions stalking deer in the stubble of a Nebraska corn field. Elephants trumpeting across Colorado's high plains. Cheetah slouching through the West Texas scrub. Prominent ecologists are floating an audacious plan that sounds like a "Jumanji" sequel _ transplant African wildlife to the Great Plains of North America....

The authors contend it could help save Africa's poster species from extinction, where protection is spotty and habitat is vanishing.

They also believe the relocated animals could restore biodiversity on this continent to a condition closer to what nature was like before humans overran the landscape.

Part of the justification for this transplantation is that North America once had large mammals whose ecological roles could be replicated by African mammals. At the end of the last Ice Age, the plains were populated by mastodons and saber-toothed cats, among others. Yet if the point of the exercise is returning the Great Plains to its condition at some point in the past, a better approach would be to reintroduce or support the large mammals that are native to this continent - wolves, deer, bison, etc. We have a much better sense of how these native creatures functioned in their ecosystem and in what proportions they existed than we do for the extinct mammals that roamed North America tens of thousands of years ago.

We also do not know what harmful effects introduction of large mammals would have. Some ranchers in the plains have already expressed concern for their livestock and agricultural fields. Native wild animal populations would almost certainly feel the impact as well. We know from the introduction of the European starling and house sparrow that new species can wreak havoc in their new ecosystem by pushing native species out of niches they might otherwise occupy. The spread of new diseases - such as the West Nile Virus from Africa or the strains of bird flu from Asia - should also be a cause for restraint when it comes to moving animals around. Any substantial population is going to carry its own diseases along with it; even if these do not jump to humans they very well might jump to native species. We learned this lesson once in the Americas; I do not think we need to try it again.

I hope this does not go beyond speculation.

I and the Bird #4

The fourth edition of I and the Bird is now online and ready for browsing at milkriverblog. This week, Tony G. has assembled nineteen great posts by bird bloggers. As in the past, the carnival has continued to grow with new submissions from new bloggers. Give it a look! My own submission for this issue is here.

The next I and the Bird will appear right here on A DC Birding Blog on September 1. Submissions can be sent to me, or to Mike at 10,000 Birds. Please send me your posts by August 30. Submission guidelines and notes about the carnival can be found here. I will put up a reminder post when the deadline grows closer.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Drink Your Tea With A Good Book

The eastern towhee, formerly known as the rufous-sided towhee until split from its western cousin the spotted towhee, is a characteristic bird of Washington's wooded parks. I associate it mainly with a wooded hill in the National Arboretum where one can see it at pretty much any time of year. I always hear it before I see it, rustling or calling and then emerging briefly from the azaleas before going back to their business. At times I have even seen towhees foraging among the house sparrows around the edges of parking lots on Capitol Hill.

Annie Dillard, in her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, describes the towhee quite well:

I heard a clamor in the underbrush beside me, a rustle of an animal's approach. It sounded as though the animal was about the size of a bobcat, a small bear, or a large snake. The commotion stopped and started, coming ever nearer. The agent of all this ruckus proved to be, of course, a towhee.

The more I see of there bright birds - with black backs, white tail bars, and rufous patches on either side of their white breasts - the more I like them. They are not even faintly shy. They are everywhere, in treetops and on the ground. Their song reminds me of a child's neighborhood rallying cry - ee-ock-ee - with a heartfelt warble at the end. But it is their call that is especially endearing. The towhee has the brass and grace to call, simply and clearly, "tweet." I know of no other bird that stoops to literal tweeting.

The towhee never saw me. It crossed the path and kicked its way back into the woods, cutting a wide swath in the leaf litter like a bulldozer, and splashing the air with clods.
I recently started reading this book, and I am fairly close to finishing it. About ten years ago I had originally picked it up since I had heard it was a classic of nature writing, but I only got about halfway through it. This time around I am enjoying Pilgrim at Tinker Creek much more, probably because I have a better sense of what Dillard is doing.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a series of reflections based upon personal experiences, centered around a farm in rural Virginia. The narrative follows the course of a year and the changing seasons. Dillard's commentary is wide-ranging, shifting from delightful descriptions of organisms that she finds along the creek to meditations on life and death. The book is highly subjective, as the focus remains on the interaction between the natural world and Dillard's observations. It is certainly an interesting book, and one well worth reading.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Global Warming

One of the arguments frequently used against global warming was that weather balloon data showed slight cooling in the troposphere (the lowest level of the atmosphere), especially in the tropics. Three new studies, appearing in Science, show that when errors in the data and calculations are taken into account, the weather balloon data actually shows a warming trend, in conformity with computer models.

“These papers should lay to rest once and for all the claims by John Christy and other global warming skeptics that a disagreement between tropospheric and surface temperature trends means that there are problems with surface temperature records or with climate models,” said Alan Robock, a meteorologist at Rutgers University.

The findings will be featured in a report on temperature trends in the lower atmosphere that is the first product to emerge from the Bush administration's 10-year program intended to resolve uncertainties in climate science.

While this vindicates global warming research, it remains unclear what practical effects it will have. The current administration seems as stubbornly committed as ever to ignoring the evidence of global warming, which has been public for more than a decade. Just this summer, aCongressional committee began harrassing some reasearchers, a move cheered by right-wing sycophants. As long as the political climate remains in its current state, I see little hope for any large-scale change on the global warming front.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Barred Owl

Much of the time, birding consists of looking over familiar species in familiar circumstances. But there are a few moments that make one say “Wow!” These moments are the reason why we bird. Coming face-to-face with a barred owl is one of those moments.

I have had the good fortune to have this happen twice during the last summer. Now before this summer I had never seen a barred owl before. On a couple field trips other people had seen or heard one, but it was always a matter of not recognizing the call before it stopped, or a bird flushing and then disappearing into the woods. Owls are among the most difficult birds to find; perhaps only rails are more elusive.

Those frustrating experiences changed this summer. When I was in Tennessee earlier in the summer, I had the opportunity to bird a small park near Nashville. Another birder headed in the opposite direction mentioned that there was an owl further up the trail. I expected to have to search carefully for this bird, but instead I saw a barred owl sitting out in the open a stone’s throw from the path. Now this park has very heavy foot traffic, and many people passed by the owl and stopped to look. Despite all the attention, the owl just sat there quietly, occasionally turning its head to look coolly at its admirers.

Last week’s sighting was a similar experience. I was at the Great Swamp in New Jersey with some family members when one found a barred owl sitting in a tree. It was trying to ignore the scolding robins that pestered it.We all stood very still while watching it at close range; it may have been closer than the bird in Tennessee. No binoculars were necessary at this range! When it finally flew to a more obscure perch, we left it alone.

The barred owl, which is native to eastern North America, occurs primarily in wooded swamps and river bottoms with dense thickets. It nests in hollow trees or on nests already built by other birds. It preys primarily on small mammals, and it may hunt either at night or during the day. It is common, if uncommonly seen, and it has been increasing its range in recent years.

The barred owl’s success has brought it into conflict with the endangered spotted owl, its close relative. Barred owls have expanded their breeding territory into western states, where they outcompete spotted owls. This has led some officials in California to consider shooting barred owls where the two species come into contact.

Barred owls have personality. Their call, which may be heard during night or day, is distinctive (“who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all?”). Their eye disks make them appear alternately somewhat clownish, somewhat friendy, or somewhat sleepy. The neck ruff looks like a scarf wound about the bird’s shoulders. The streaks on their belly give the appearance of a pinstriped suit. (See Owl Pages for pictures and a recording.) What really stands out, though, are the eyes. Unlike most birds, owls have both eyes facing forward, an adaptation to help it find prey. This facial feature makes it much easier to anthropomorphize owls than other birds. Looking into a barred owl's deep brown eyes, one can imagine seeing a person looking back.

It is easy to forget when looking at the barred owl that it is a carefully tuned killing machine. The feathers on the leading edge of its wings are adapted to make no sound in flight so that its prey will be caught unaware. Like all owls, it has asymmetrical ear openings to pinpoint the location of any sound. Its talons and bill are sharp and merciless. But in the presence of a barred owl, these adaptations are not on my mind. Perched on a branch a stone’s throw away, it stares back like one of us.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Mercury and the Wood Thrush

Biologists in New York state are netting wood thrushes in the Catskill Mountains and testing them for mercury levels. The study is meant to assess the future health of the New York City water supply. Mercury is already present to some degree within the reservoirs due to pollution drifting from coal-fired power plants in the midwest. (Thus the state warns against fish consumption from lakes and streams even in the Catskills.) There is danger that levels of mercury and other contaminants could increase if birds like the wood thrush decrease due to mercury poison. Thrushes are one of many species that keep the insect population under control; barring that control, the ability of forests to filter pollutants out of the watershed could be greatly reduced.

Some Washington Notes

* Last week, the Washington Post had an article on attempts to quantify the benefits of urban trees in monetary terms. The effect is most noticeable in weather as hot as we have had for the last few weeks; shade can lower air conditioning costs and reduce street-level temperatures. Trees also help filter pollutants out of the air. Currently 28.6 percent of Washington is shaded by trees, a decline from the 37 percent canopy measured in 1973.

* The Casey Trees Endowment Fund, one of the local groups publicizing such cost-benefit analysis, maintains a tree map that allows you to see how the trees on your block are faring. According to this map, my block has 7 healthy trees, 11 unhealthy trees, and 3 dead trees. Looking at the gingkos that line my street, I would agree with their assessment. Somehow they missed the tiny ailanthus growing out of the rooftop next to my window.

* The DC Sierra Club has notes on ten trees not to plant. If I could add an eleventh tree to that list it would be the gingko, which provides little shade, does not hold up well during storms, and drops foul fruit in autumn. Unfortunately quite a lot of our street trees in D.C. are gingkos, including most of the trees on my block; my hope is that as these die, they are replaced with better options.

* I found a page (with photographs) about Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, one of my favorite birding spots in D.C. The page is part of the Birding America website, which includes trip reports from many other sites across the United States.

* Finally, one blogger is trying to emphasize the positive (and quirky) aspects of living in Washington with his DC-Streets blog.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Beginning Birding

Sophia Dembling outlines some of the frustrations that can beset a beginning birder in a Chicago Tribune article. Learning to see detail, catching good looks at fleeting shapes, and distinguishing among similar species are all difficult. But the important thing to remember is that birding should be fun, and if that means watching unnamed birds rather than identifying, there is no shame in that.

Back in Washington

This afternoon I arrived back in Washington, D.C., after a lovely trip to New Jersey and New York to visit family and have a bit of fun. While I was away, both weekends were relatively cool and dry. Even the hotter days during the last week were not as bad as the weather in Washington had been during the last few weeks. So that was a relief. I had ample opportunity for birding in a few of the better spots in central New Jersey, particularly Sandy Hook and the Great Swamp. The first trip brought me a life bird, the piping plover. (The latter link is to an USFWS page with interesting information and links, plus a slide show.) The walks also brought me some lifers for my growing interest in the lepidoptera and odonata orders. I recorded eight new butterflies and eleven new odonates, including my first damselflies. I can see why someone can become so intrigued by damselflies; all of them are dainty and the ebony jewelwing is particularly beautiful. There will be more posts about the trip later in the week.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

I and the Bird #3

The current issue of I and the Bird has been posted today over at B and B. Take a look to read the best posts by the best bird bloggers. My own submission is here.

Eastern Oysters in the Chesapeake

Eastern oysters have been proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act because of their declining population in the Chesapeake Bay.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Review: March of the Penguins

Last Friday while I was in New York, I finally saw March of the Penguins with my girlfriend at the Angelika on Houston Street. There is probably not much more that I can add to what has already been said in numerous reviews and blog entries.

In short, the March of the Penguins depicts the breeding cycle of the emperor penguins, who travel from the sea at the edge of Antarctica to their breeding grounds inland. At the height of the summer, the distance is only a few hundred yards; during the depths of the winter, the
distance may be seventy miles. The penguins travel and then find a mate on the breeding grounds. Once an egg is laid, the males incubate while the females return to the sea. When the eggs hatch, the females return to the breeding grounds while the males walk to the sea. This
alternation of feeding and care of the chicks continues until the chicks are ready to survive on their own.

The film was visually stunning. Viewers are presented with the stark landscape of Antarctica in all of its variable aspects. The ice formations can be blue and harsh during the long dark nights of winter. Or it can be pink and red with the magical morning light of early spring, casting a deceptively warm glow on an otherwise bitterly cold continent. We see, too, the violent blizzards that sweep the interior, as the cluster of penguins huddle together for warmth. Long lines of
penguins can be seen making the march to and from the breeding grounds. Some of the most impressive footage comes from the shots of the penguins hunting (and being hunted) underwater.

The emperor penguins are presented in the most endearing light possible. From the very start Morgan Freeman, the narrator, announces that the film is about a love story. Parents and chicks are shown doing cute things like sliding on their bellies. The courtship of males and females, which includes bill-touching and arching of the heads and necks in a heart-shaped
pattern, is given much emphasis. The sight of a chick peering out from under its father's or mother's belly drew many oohs and ahhs from the theater-goers.

At the same time, it is not all fun and games. The filmmakers made sure to include examples of predation - from a leopard seal and from a seabird that I presume is an albatross. (Perhaps someone can identify it for me.) The bitter cold is emphasized repeatedly with the sight of cold
and fractured eggs, frozen chicks, and males who die from cold and starvation during the bitter storms. One mother who lost a chick in a storm attempted to steal one from another mother, only to be beaten back by other penguins.

It appeared that the filmmakers wanted to make the penguins look as human as possible in both love and sorrow. (Some reviewers have quibbled with this, but I am not going to right now.)

This movie and another from a couple years ago, Winged Migration, appear to be the start of a trend towards using the breeding cycles of animals, birds in particular, as characters in dramas about life and the natural world. For as long as I can remember, there have been programs about the lives of animals on television; PBS's Nature is one example. But these two movies represent a jump from television to the movie theater. So far March of the Penguins appears to be a success; last weekend it was tenth at the box office, and Technorati has counted 3,336 blog posts on the movie.

I think this is good on several levels. One is that the possibility that the popularity of such films may drive home for public policy makers the power of the birding community. We number some sixty million strong, and could have important effects on elections and the economy. Politicians would do well to keep this in mind when considering legislation affecting the natural world. The second is that the portrayal of such charismatic animals as the emperor penguins may breed a love or appreciation of nature in people who do not normally consider themselves birders or naturalists. Birds with dramatic breeding cycles such as the emperor penguin make for natural film stars; I imagine others such as the red knot or arctic tern could fit as well. And filmmakers do not need to make an animated movie to use these animals for dramatic purposes because the events are real.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Ivory-bill Developments

The New York Times reports that skeptics have withdrawn their objections to the report of ivory-billed woodpeckers in the Arkansas Big Woods. Drs. Prum and Robbins changed their minds after hearing audio recordings made by Cornell researchers of the woodpeckers' calls and double-knocking.