Monday, July 31, 2006

Loose Feathers #59

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment.

  • Refuge managers in Minnesota say that occasional drought periods like the current one are good for the long-term health of wetland areas. It encourages growth of certain aquatic plants and kills some invasive fish, thus improving water quality.
  • A SEED article warns against analogies between fossil discoveries and modern creatures, as the analogies are often strained and misleading. (It gives the Demon Duck of Doom as an example.)
  • Someone in Pleasantville, NJ, lured gulls in a parking lot with french fries and then ran them over with his car. Gulls in the attached video clip are laughing gulls, but the gull species in the incident were not identified.
  • The Northern California Coastal Wild Heritage Act, which has been passed by the House and is going to the Senate, would protect several hundred thousand acres as wilderness areas in California.
  • One global-warming skeptic has raised $150,000 for himself from the energy industry but sees nothing improper about it.
  • Judith Toups looks at two old field guides and finds many terminology changes.
  • Four California condor chicks died of the West Nile Virus. In other condor news, about 20 are now flying in the Grand Canyon area.
  • Idaho's state quarter will feature a peregrine falcon.
  • Part of the beach at Gordon's Pond near Cape Henlopen in Delaware is reopening after being closed for piping plover nesting. Thirteen chicks fledged in 2006, one of Delaware's most productive summers for piping plovers in recent years.
  • Sandy Hook, NJ, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area and a migration stopover for many birds, may be leased for private redevelopment of its historic buildings.
  • The Post has a story on the Washington Biologists' Field Club and its surveys of fauna and flora on Plummers Island in the Potomac River south of the American Legion Bridge.
A few recent carnivals featured my posts.
And don't forget to send your posts to Leigh at Alis Volat Propiis for the next I and the Bird by Tuesday night!

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Summer Lull

I have not been birding much in the last few weeks, partly because of time but mainly because of the heat and humidity. DC birding tends not to be all that exciting this time of year anyway since the birds do not like this any more than we do. Not having any atlasing responsibilities I am free to take time off from birding now and then. Today I did venture out for a morning walk at the National Arboretum, where I had not walked in quite some time.

The birds were mostly quiet, and then ones I saw were all pretty common at this location. However I did have some close encounters with common species that made up for the lack of variety. I came close to ruby-throated hummingbirds twice, once in the herb garden and once at the entrance to fern valley. In the first case I turned the corner on a path and the hummer buzzed right past me. At the same spot, I saw a gray catbird drinking from a water fountain at close range. A picture of the scene is below. American robin fledglings were out en masse; the speckled white breasts can make them look like other thrushes to the naked eye (until binoculars correct the mistake). A few indigo buntings (like the one above) are still singing.

Catbirds need to drink, too

Today the dragonflies were more apparent than the birds. I found some black saddlebags flying around in the columns area. The field near the hollies and magnolias had ruby meadowhawks, which were a first for me. The most active spot was Heart Pond, which had several species along its edges. Here I found the great blue skimmer, slaty skimmer, blue dasher, and common green darner.

All told, it was a typical midsummer outing. Despite the relative birding lull, I would rather be out walking and watching than sitting inside.


Canada Goose
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Carolina Wren
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher
American Robin
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Fish Crow
European Starling
House Sparrow
American Goldfinch
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Common Grackle


Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Clouded Sulphur


Common Green Darner
Eastern Pondhawk
Slaty Skimmer
Common Whitetail
Great Blue Skimmer
Blue Dasher
Ruby Meadowhawk
Black Saddlebags

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Avian Influenza and Smuggled Poultry

With the outbreak of H5N1 in the domestic and wild bird populations, much of the media attention has focused on the disease in wild birds. We have been given nightmare scenarios of wild birds migrating and spreading H5N1 from one continent to the next. This picture gets spread around even as reports of actual outbreaks As this article shows, the illegal poultry trade has foiled attempts by government officials to contain the virus.

The smugglers first appeared on the distant ridgeline and then, like ants, streamed down a dirt track carved from the lush, sculpted mountains that separate Vietnam from China. As the figures grew closer, their stooped posture became visible, backs heaving under bamboo cages crammed with live chickens....

These traffickers haul more than 1,000 contraband chickens a day into Lang Son, one of six Vietnamese provinces along the Chinese border, flouting a chicken import ban. In doing so, heath experts say, they have also repeatedly smuggled the highly lethal bird flu virus from its source in southern China into Vietnam, where the disease has taken a devastating toll on farm birds and killed at least 42 people since 2003.
Stopping smugglers that move by foot and motorbike is very difficult since they present a low profile and can disappear easily. But illegal poultry smuggling is not a problem for Asian countries alone.
This business includes large-scale, commercial shipments of uninspected meat, often from China, to destinations as diverse as Europe, Africa and the United States. Last month, for instance, U.S. inspectors discovered 2,000 pounds of frozen chicken, duck and geese smuggled from China in a Detroit-area warehouse that supplies Chinese restaurants and Asian groceries in southeastern Michigan.

Last year, Taiwanese officials reported their first case of the deadly bird flu virus among more than 1,000 birds that were being smuggled by ship from China. A pair of eagles confiscated two years ago at Brussels International Airport from the hand luggage of a Thai passenger were found to be carrying the disease.
If H5N1 appears in this country, it will probably arrive in the cargo of a ship docking in Seattle or Los Angeles or Newark, not in ducks flying over the Bering Sea.

Businessman Discovers Central Park

The New York Times today has an article on the business of birding and the varied avifauna of Central Park.

According to Mr. Mott, Central Park ranks as a premier bird-watching site since it stands as a verdant oasis of food and water in a desert of concrete and asphalt. Although birds can be observed year-round, the best and most prolific bird-watching is during the spring and fall migratory seasons. Of the estimated 700 different species of birds that regularly can be found in the United States, over 275 species have been observed in the park, and 32 species breed there annually.

As Mr. Mott proceeded to lead me across the Ramble, the man-made wilderness conceived by the park architect Frederick Law Olmstead, he introduced me to an avian universe I had never seen before, even though it had literally passed right in front of my eyes thousands of times. Along with pigeons, Central Park’s plumage includes cardinals, catbirds, wrens, robins, sparrows, starlings, grackles, mourning doves, woodpeckers, red-wing blackbirds, ducks, geese, swans, warblers, osprey, peregrine falcons and bald eagles.
Central Park is a highly-celebrated location for urban birding because of its location in Manhattan, but it is hardly the only one worth the attention. Even in New York City, the outer boroughs have parks that are just as good for birding, if not better.

Just a Flesh Wound

Via Birdchaser comes this story about a red-tailed hawk that was shot with an arrow. Though the arrow is lodged through the bird's torso, it seems to have missed vital organs. The hawk is still flying around and eluding the attempts of rehabilitators to capture it and remove the arrow.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Audubon Mailing

There has been a discussion over at Wildbird on the Fly about whether a recent membership mailing from the National Audubon Society is misleading. Here is the mailing in question, for anyone who has not seen it.

Amy argues that it is misleading because bald eagles have actually largely recovered from their midcentury losses. I also found this mailing strange when I first received it. Christmas Bird Counts show a steady growth in the bald eagle population over the past fifty years. In the DC area, at least, it seems that some breeding eagles are running out of elbow room because of competition from others. So it is hard to claim that eagles are running out of time.

At the same time, there are plenty of other birds that are in serious danger. As one commenter at Amy's blog noted, Audubon just published a list of the Top Ten Endangered Birds in the Continental United States, none of which was a bald eagle. Two other birds not on that list, red knot and cerulean warbler, are also in more serious trouble than eagles. So it does seem that there could have been a better choice of images.

Better Know DC

DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton appeared on the Colbert Report for the "Better Know a District" series. (Found via Metroblogging DC.)

Addendum: As our delegate notes in the Colbert video, DC has no vote in the House or Senate and thus only an indirect voice in national legislation. (She can sponsor bills and vote in committee.) The U.N.'s human rights committee has been pushing to change this.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Pigeon on an Asphalt Roof

There other day, a rock pigeon landed and rested on the small roof outside of my window. It does not have the standard plumage of a rock pigeon, but it is a rock pigeon nonetheless.

Notice how this individual has a plump dove-shaped body with a small head and arched neck. It also has the short curved bill and red eye typical of pigeons. It retains the greenish iridescent plumage on its neck, but the rest of its plumage departs from the standard. Its feathers are much darker than normal rock pigeons and white flight feathers.

Why is there such variation among rock pigeons? Most likely these are descendents of domesticated pigeons that were bred for different colors and shapes and later became feral. Over time, such variants integrated into the wild population. See some of the range of variation in photographs. (Cornell's Project PigeonWatch is looking for patterns in variation distribution.) The bird shown here is probably a pied of some sort.

Visit Friday Ark #97 for more animal pictures.

Loose Feathers #58

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment.

  • Kirtland Warblers continue to be fruitful and multiply in Michigan, with 1,478 singing males counted during this year's surveys, compared to 1,415 in summer 2005.
  • Meanwhile, Prince Edward Island is reporting an increase in piping plovers.
  • Semipalmated plovers bulk up on Corophium shrimp, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, before beginning their southward migration. They feast around the Bay of Fundy before beginning a 4,500 km nonstop flight to South America. They double their weight in preparation for the flight and lose all the extra pounds by the time they reach their destination.
  • In Syria, there is an effort to save the remaining population of northern bald ibis, a species that appears in ancient iconography. There are 13 individual northern bald ibis left in Syria and about 100 breeding pairs in Morocco. See the BirdLife fact sheet.
  • Starting in September 2007, hunters and other collectors in certain states will be able to purchase an electronic Federal Duck Stamp online. Paper stamps will still be available. Money raised through the sale of Duck Stamps helps fund the National Wildlife Refuge system.
  • The Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network has created a new website to coordinate conservation of shorebirds and their habitats in North and South America. The network includes 64 sites in 8 countries; currently 8 are participating in the website. See their Google Map for all the sites in the network. (I was surprised to see that Bombay Hook is not included.) The new site will eventually include a full Spanish version.
  • In Indiana, work crews demolishing an old school building will leave the chimney standing so that chimney swifts may continue to nest there.
  • Here is a report on the birding opportunities in Vietnam, where over 900 species have been recorded. The article celebrates the founding of the new Hanoi Birdwatching Club.
  • A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council predicts future losses at 12 major western national parks in the wake of global warming.
  • Meanwhile, Senator Inhofe is comparing people who take climate change seriously to the Third Reich. More insane rantings.
  • The Anglican Bishop of London argued in a recent interview that environmental decisions have a moral dimension and that some choices may be sinful in the light of global warming. The Church of England has a website on this issue called Shrinking the Footprint.
  • Several climate scientists are calling for less coastal building to reduce hurricane damage.
  • Bluefin tuna may be in danger of extinction due to overfishing.
  • Here is a tale of two hikers covering the 41-mile stretch of the Appalachian trail in Maryland in one day. Birders are not the only people crazy enough to do all-day challenges like this!

Birds of the Mid-Atlantic #17: Ovenbird

When we think of warblers, we tend to think of small, brightly-colored birds like the Yellow Warbler or American Redstart. Even most of the drab warblers have some sign of bright yellow or green about them. Yet there are some warblers that are almost all brown, almost looking like thrushes. Several of these are in the genus Seiurus: Louisiana Waterthrush, Northern Waterthrush, and Ovenbird. For today's post, by subject will be the last of these.

I saw my first ovenbird a little more than two years ago, during my first real spring migration. I was walking the trail from the Nature Center down to the picnic areas when I heard a loud, two-syllable song coming from the left side of the trail - teacher! teacher! teacher!. At the time I was just starting to learn bird songs, and I recognized this as a possible ovenbird song. Knowing that ovenbirds tend to forage on the ground, I searched for it there. Well, my search of the ground turned up no ovenbird. As I was going to leave in frustration, some movement caught my eye, and I spotted a small, brown bird perched on a bare branch at about eye-level.

Ovenbird / Photo by Steve Maslowski (USFWS)

Sure enough, it matched my ovenbird illustrations: brown back, white breast spotted with brown, big white eye-ring, and orange crown. (This last is the "aurocapillus" of its species name.) The eye-ring and lack of white eyebrows will distinguish an ovenbird from both waterthrushes. Having played hard-to-get, it then obliged with several renditions of its song while I watched through my binoculars at reasonably close range. (Slow movement and standing perfectly still has its benefits.)

Ovenbirds are fairly common in the Mid-Atlantic from the middle of spring through early fall. In Maryland they have been found breeding in all counties and geological provinces. Their nest is a small "oven" of twigs and leaves built on the ground. (See nest illustrations here and here.) While widespread, the ovenbird is confined to forests with sufficient understory to hide a nest. Forest size is important as well, since ovenbirds prefer larger tracts where they are less likely to fall victim to brown-headed cowbirds and various nest predators.

I will leave with the thoughts of Robert Frost, who wrote a poem on The Oven Bird:

THERE is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten. 5
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all. 10
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

(Thanks to NY State Bird Songs for the link.)

Note: Ovenbirds in North America are wood warblers. They are not related to the ovenbird family of Central and South America.

Crossposted at A DC Birding Blog and Blue Ridge Gazette.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Technical Glitch

My blog mispublished this afternoon so that most of the front page was loading incorrectly. Somehow the code kept getting broken at the bottom of the post on sparrow crashes. I republished and the problems appear to have been solved now. If you have not seen it yet, take a look at my review of Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion, below. This review and the posts below it were unavailable for a couple hours due to the malfunction.

Bird Crash

As reader jimbo commented, there is a flight accident investigation underway:

PIERRE, SD—Sparrow Aviation Administration officials are calling the Monday collision of an westbound sparrow with the window of a Mitchell, SD home a clear case of "controlled flight into glass," after the bird failed to detect a transparent windowpane directly in his flight path.

Howard R. Trojanowski, a Pierre-bound, 2-year-old field sparrow who had been licensed to fly since two weeks after he was hatched and had logged over 60,000 flying hours, departed from a ledge near Sioux Falls Regional Airport at 11:04 a.m. CST. Trojanowski never reached his intended tree branch, instead striking a tempered-glass picture window 2.5 miles northwest of Mitchell 74 minutes after takeoff at an estimated speed of 39 mph.

There were no survivors.

Though the above article is obviously a joke, collisions with windows are a major bird killer, especially at large reflective windows. FLAP offers solutions for reducing kills, most of which involve covering the window surface to make it visible to birds. Audubon at Home rates several options for practicality. Turning off lights at night can help during migration. Unfortunately the hawk silhouettes are not all that effective if used alone.

Review: Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion

Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide CompanionThe growth of birding in the United States has opened a market for books that supplement traditional field guides. One expanding genre has specialized in a family or habitat group. There are plenty of fine books in that genre, with more published every year. A second type has covered the natural history of some or all North American bird species. The door was open for a field guide supplement devoted to identification, and that gap has now been filled with Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion.

The present book grew out of Dunne's work revising the most recent edition of the Peterson Guide. Species descriptions in a field guide must be short to make the book portable and easy to use, and Dunne found that he wanted to write much more about how to identify birds. So he embarked on a four-year project to study every bird species regularly found in North America and to write his impressions into a guide to identification. The result is over 700 pages of fresh advice from Pete Dunne.

Instead of finer plumage and structural details, Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion is based on GISS, or "General Impression of Size and Shape." This method of bird identification had its start with Roger Tory Peterson but was developed into an art form by birders who worked in and around Cape May, NJ, in the late twentieth century. GISS emphasizes size, shape, and behavior as the easiest route to field identification. The language of GISS is inherently subjective, and thus difficult to render in field guide form. "Robust" to one birder might be "chunky" to another, and a tern or swallow species that one birder finds more graceful than the rest may not appear so to another birder. At the same time, the differences are real, and through careful study a birder can learn to separate many species on the basis of these impressions without ticking off every field mark.

Individual species accounts, which comprise the bulk of the Field Guide Companion, are structured to guide readers through not just the information, but the process of identification. Thus one starts by narrowing down the list of possibilities by range, time of year, and habitat, and then one moves on to specific field marks and vocalizations. In the field, it does not work quite so neatly; sights and sounds are sometimes so fleeting that one does not have time to work through a list of considerations. But the process is still the same: narrow down to a handful of likely suspects, then look for specific details that clinch the identification.

All species accounts are divided into a standard set of sections, making them easy to compare with each other. The first part of each entry covers factors important for the process of elimination: status, distribution, habitat, cohabitants, and movement.

  • Status refers to how common a species is.
  • Distribution gives a list of places where a species is found, and could have been much more easily handled with range maps, which are now standard in most field guides.
  • Habitat is useful for ruling out species that are specialists in a different habitat type. Dunne notes when a species is found in different habitats in winter and summer.
  • Cohabitants could be more useful if it were more consistent. In some cases it seems to mean species found in the same environment and in others it seems to mean species that flock together.
  • Movement/Migration includes both migration routes and whether a bird tends to wander far from its normal range.
The second part of each species account provides the details needed for species identification. These include a physical description, behavioral notes, flight, vocalizations, and "pertinent particulars."
  • Description covers the basic points of identification. While these are more easy to comprehend from drawings or photographs than words, Dunne adds to the understanding of the images by pointing out key subjective impressions, like blue grosbeak being "burly" while indigo bunting is "less angular" and "more finely proportioned."
  • Behavior is very helpful with certain groups of birds like the Calidris sandpipers. As Dunne points out, these species will frequently be found on different parts of the mudflats; sanderlings chasing the receding waves is only one example of this tendency.
  • Flight focuses on wing shape and wingbeat pattern. Identifying birds on the wing is a difficult skill that takes much practice to master since the traditional field marks can be hard to spot.
  • Vocalizations include songs, contact calls, and flight calls. Recordings are a better way of learning avian voices, but Dunne's descriptions are still helpful. At the very least, he provides alternate mnemonics and comments of the quality of songs and calls.
  • Pertinent Particulars deals with distinguishing similar species from each other or with points not addressed in the categories above. This last category is not given for all species.
The species accounts provide the reader with a wealth of information, too much to absorb in one sitting. This book is not meant to be carried in the field. Aside from not being pocket-sized, it is too heavy for convenient backpacking. Rather, this book is for home reference. It may be best used to read up on bird families one expects to see ahead of a field trip. Alternately, one can consult on the nuances of a tricky identification after being out birding. Either way, the book is a valuable resource to have when the field guide illustrations do not give quite enough information. As with all of Dunne's works, this book is written with a sense of humor and includes a few jokes in the text.

This book is probably best suited for beginning and intermediate birders, who have the most to gain from Dunne's GISS descriptions. Beginning birders in particular would do well to learn the GISS methods, even if the species accounts are a little overwhelming at first. Starting from structure and habits can save many misidentifications. More advanced birders will have their own subjective ways to tell birds apart, but may still benefit from Dunne's commentary. Since Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion has no illustrations at all, someone using this book will need to have a standard field guide like the excellent Sibley Guide to Birds or other more portable guides for use in the field.

Full citation:

Pete Dunne, Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Pp. xiv, 710; index. $29.95 cloth. ISBN: 0618236481.

To purchase:

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Wood Thrush and Mercury

A study of netted songbirds in upstate New York has revealed alarmingly high rates of mercury poisoning. Mercury was found in the blood of 178 bird species, with the highest being in wood thrushes. Until the recent studies on landbirds, most of the concern about mercury pollution was focused on fish and their predators. Now we need to worry about land-based sources of the toxin also.

Dr. Evers’s work suggests that when mercury falls on land, it is absorbed by soil and by fallen leaves that are consumed by worms and insects. Songbirds then feed on the bugs, absorbing the mercury.

While all the birds he tested last year had mercury in their blood, wood thrushes had the most, Dr. Evers said, an average of 0.1 parts per million. That is below the federal safe standard for fish (0.3 p.p.m.) but high enough to affect the birds’ reproductive cycle.

With fewer songbirds to eat potentially harmful insects, the state’s forests would be at greater risk for damage by gypsy moths and other pests, Dr. Evers said.

As the article notes, wood thrushes have been in steep decline, up to 45 percent since the 1960s. Habitat fragmentation has been blamed in the past as the primary culprit. Results from this study suggest that mercury pollution is part of the problem as well.

I am not quite sure how this differs from a story produced last year on the same research. It seems that the National Wildlife Federation may be raising the story's profile again. Another study published last year found high levels of mercury and methymercury in Bicknell's Thrushes and Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Cerulean Warbler to Gain Protection in Georgia

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources is in the process of revising its lists of protected plants and animals. Among the changes is the addition of the Cerulean Warbler, which has undergone sharp declines in recent decades due to habitat loss. In Georgia, cerulean warblers are primarily found in the mountainous northwest corner of the state, including at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park.

Other avian changes to the list include the addition of the Henslow's Sparrow, Red Knot, Southeastern American Kestrel, Black Skimmer, and Golden-winged Warbler; the deletion of the Bachman's Warbler; and the changes in status of the Bald Eagle (endangered to threatened), Peregrine Falcon (endangered to rare), and Wilson's Plover (rare to threatened).

The Georgia DNR is seeking public comment on the proposed changes, which must be in writing by July 31, 2006. The full list of proposed changes is here (pdf). The current lists of protected species in Georgia may be found here.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Loose Feathers #57

Marsh Wetlands Blackwater NWR / Photo by Earl Cunningham (USFWS)

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Dead Crow

This evening I found a dead crow while I was walking in my neighborhood. It lay in the middle of the sidewalk that runs along a small neighborhood park.

To see if I ought to do anything, I consulted the District government's page on the West Nile Virus. According to an FAQ, the District is no longer collecting dead birds for testing since the virus's presence in the area has been well-established. The Department of Health recommends disposing of dead birds yourself.

Dead birds act as a sentinel and dead bird surveillance is one of the components of the West Nile virus program in the District. The Department of Health has collected and tested sufficient numbers of dead birds to know that West Nile virus is endemic. The Department of Health is no longer studying dead birds. If you find a dead bird, please dispose of the bird yourself. To properly dispose of the bird, please follow this procedure:
* Wear protective gloves or use a plastic bag as a glove
* Place or wrap the dead bird in a plastic bag and tie the bag securely
* Dispose of the bag in an outdoor trash receptacle
* Wash your hands with soap and water
Remember, the West Nile virus is not transmitted directly from birds to humans.
Now I did not have the proper material to dispose of this creature myself, so I left it where it was. I imagine it will get flagged and disposed fairly soon anyway, since it is on a regular police patrol route.

When the West Nile Virus first appeared in the DC area several years ago, it appeared that crows were the main avian host for the disease. (The local crow population has declined significantly since the outbreak of the disease.) Recent studies, though, have suggested that the virus is more widespread, and that robins may be the most susceptible birds.

Related posts:

Friday, July 21, 2006

Loose Feathers #56

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment.

  • In Arkansas, a dam project has been halted due to its possible effect on ivory-billed woodpecker habitat. The judge in the case argued that he needed to work under the assumption that the woodpecker still exists in that area. (Via Birdchick, who fears an ugly fight is on the way)
  • Kenilworth Park is getting refurbished recreation facilities, including a track and football-soccer field with bleachers and lighting. What effect this will have on the park's bird habitat remains to be seen. Up until now, at least, this has been one of the best places in the District to find open-country birds.
  • A Washington Post writer ponders how to navigate the ethical and nutritional quandaries of grocery shopping.
  • Here are some suggestions for birding in the heat. The article is specific to Wyoming, but similar dynamics are at work both there and here.
  • PBS's Now has some suggestions for how to improve your impact on the environment.
  • Birdchaser covers the slings and arrows of urban bird habitats.
  • birdDC has the dirt on Americans for American Energy, an industry front-group trying to open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge for drilling.
  • Birders and other park users in New York City are trying to force the Parks Department to enforce its dog leash rules in public parks. See the Prospect Park Advocate blog for details. There is an online petition in the works as well.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

I and the Bird #28

This week I and the Bird returns to its regularly-scheduled programming with a collection of great posts on various bird-related themes. You can read about birds from all over the world, from my own familiar indigo buntings to powerful owls and kakapos of the southern Pacific. To read the rest, visit I and the Bird #28 hosted by Katie at bogbumper, a photoblog on birds and nature from the U.K. Stop by and take a look!

In two weeks, I and the Bird will be hosted by Leigh at Alis Volat Propriis.

Invertebrates at the Arboretum

As I have noted before, midsummer is a good time for insect watching. Birds quiet down as they spend more time tending fledglings and less defending territory. At the same time, many insects, especially colorful butterflies and dragonflies, are at their most prominent. (This is also a good time to start looking for cicadas.) During my last walk at the National Arboretum, I took a number of photographs of insects. I had meant to get these up last week, but did not get the image editing done. So here are a few now.

Common wood-nymphs are, in fact, pretty common in the woods of the Arboretum. This individual was in the section known as Fern Valley. I have also spotted this species in and around the Azalea Gardens. Despite their overall brown coloration, common wood-nymphs are fairly easy to pick out because the yellow patches at the tips of their wings are quite noticeable in flight.

I think this is an ebony jewelwing. While this damselfly's body appears blue in this photograph, it also appeared green when the sunlight struck it from a different angle. Unfortunately, it did not sit still long enough for an additional photograph at that angle.

Below is a photograph of a female common whitetail. Males are easier to spot and identify since they have whitish bodies and bold black patches on their wings. Females are more dully colored but retain a similar body shape.

Also playing in the mud was a Horace's Duskywing. This is one of the spread-wing skippers (subfamily Pyrginae of the family Hesperiidae). Look at the subtle variations in browns and oranges in this butterfly's wings. They seem to change tone with the angle of the light.

Finally, here is a moth whose identity I do not know. I have to say, though, that I love the intricate pattern of the upper-wings. The blotches at the center of the body look a bit like a face.

If you think any of my identifications are off, please make a note in the comments. My skill identifying insects is not as great as with birds.

For identifying butterflies, I use Ken Kaufman's Butterflies of North America. My favorite site for identifying the odonates is one that specializes in Maryland Dragonflies and Damselflies. (I do not have a book at the moment.) If you have interest in books on this topic, see Hawk Owl's combined review of several titles.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Loose Feathers #55

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment.

  • The medium ground finch of the Galápagos Islands has evolved a smaller bill in response to competition from the large ground finch, introduced to Daphne Island in 1982. Most of the change occurred over a single generation, which is very short on the evolutionary time scale.
  • Duck populations on the western prairies appear to be up 14 percent this year, due to a warm winter and above-average precipitation. While most species had improved, a few lagged; American wigeon, both scaup, and northern pintail were all below their long-term averages. The USFWS estimates a total prairie waterfowl population of 36 million. To read the USFWS report, see here.
  • Not everyone is happy about increasing numbers of water birds. Canada geese, in particular, continue to present problems for local refuge and park managers. Greenwich, Connecticut, has hired a company to harrass geese with border collies. Such programs seem to be of limited usefulness in reducing goose populations; usually dogs and noisemakers just move the birds around. (And they do come back once the show is over.)
  • A proposed wind farm in Vermont was denied a permit due to a lack of data concerning what effect it would have on migratory birds.
  • The American Bird Conservancy has funded a conservation easement in northern Peru for the marvelous spatuletail.
  • In hot weather like this week's, remember to keep water in bird baths and hummingbird feeders fresh. Birds get stressed in this weather, too.
  • Several studies appeared recently on coming species extinctions, across many phyla. See bootstrap analysis for summaries and links.

Ice and Snow

With the temperatures in Washington, D.C., approaching 100°F, it is time to think cooler thoughts.

Wind River / Photo by Jo Goldmann (USFWS)

The Wind River, part of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, is designated as a national Wild and Scenic River.

Birds of the Mid-Atlantic #16: Indigo Bunting

As the summer enters its peak season, bird-watching becomes a matter of endurance. The temperatures are high (close to 100°F in Washington this week), humidity is high, and cool breezes are rare events. Biting insects and ticks are a constant nuisance. Most birds have reduced their singing and hunker down out of the heat. It is enough to make a birder want to stay indoors and long for late September.

Even so, there are a few birds that stay active through the middle of summer. These species help keep our parks lively and our birding interesting during the typical midsummer lull. One such bird is the lovely indigo bunting.

Indigo Bunting / Photo by Dave Menke (USFWS)

To find your own indigo bunting, listen around meadows and field edges for a prominent song with doubled phrases, like this. (The song is sometimes represented by a mnemonic as follows: Fire, fire! Where, where? Here, Here! Put-it-out, put-it-out!) Typically the singer will be perched on top of a tall shrub. The blue feathers will shine boldly in direct sunlight, but may appear subdued when backlit or on cloudy days.

Indigo buntings are intensely blue and black. The blue is so bright and so intense as look almost artificial, as if the bunting were a midsummer Christmas ornament. The only bird that one might mistake for a male indigo bunting is a male blue grosbeak. The latter tends to be a darker, richer blue and has chestnut-brown epaulettes. In bad lighting, the heavier bill of the grosbeak should distinguish the two.

Blue Grosbeaks (top) and Indigo Buntings (bottom) / Painting by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (via WikiMedia)

Blue grosbeaks share similar habitat preferences with indigo buntings. Both birds prefer fields in the early stages of succession. In Maryland, blue grosbeaks are somewhat more likely to be found on the coastal plain or piedmont; blue finch-like birds in the western mountains are more likely to be indigo buntings.

If you plan to be out birding this week, make sure to bring along an extra supply of water and protect your skin from the sun. Heat exhaustion is a real threat during weather like this, even during light and moderate exercise. See the CDC's tips on preventing heat illness.

Crossposted at Blue Ridge Gazette.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Lyme and Birding

I have been following with some concern a thread on MDOsprey about Lyme Disease. It began last weekend when one birder announced she had contracted Lyme Disease. Then each day throughout the week produced more postings from other birders with stories from bouts with the disease. (One particularly bad case is here.) Lyme Disease is caused by a spirochete bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, which is transmitted to humans via deer ticks that have been attached for over 36 hours.

I have been lucky in not catching this so far. For the most part I stay out of tall grass and thick undergrowth, so I do not get many tick bites. Still, I could probably stand to be more careful about using repellent and checking for deer ticks. The deer tick nymphs are especially difficult to spot since they are about the size of poppy seeds.

Anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors, especially in the northeast and midwest, needs to know the symptoms for Lyme Disease; see the American Lyme Disease Foundation for more on the condition. Watch for the distinctive bull's-eye rash and get treatment right away. A course of antibiotics early can prevent many problems down the road.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Field Trip: Kenilworth

On Saturday, July 15, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in northeast Washington celebrated its annual Waterlily Festival and Founders Day. The festival included traditional Asian music and dance, food, a photography exhibit, and displays by local conservation organizations, including the DC Audubon Society. Today I led a short bird walk for the society to contribute to the occasion.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens / image via Google Earth

Three birders joined me this afternoon to look for birds around the gardens. Since it was already midday, our prospects were limited, but we set off eagerly to find what we could. Common Yellowthroats, which breed throughout the gardens, sang constantly, but stayed tucked out of sight in the shade. An Indigo Bunting sang boisterously near the boardwalk. Unlike the yellowthroats, the bunting perched out in the open and allowed all of us to have a good look at it. One Great Egret watched the marsh from the top of a snag. Tree and Barn Swallows coursed over the waters in search of insects. On the way back towards the entrance, we could hear a White-eyed Vireo singing. Two Eastern Kingbirds engaged in a territorial melee.

By midsummer, most birds have ceased or reduced their singing, so that they become much harder to find. Luckily for naturalists, butterflies and dragonflies become more apparent at this time of year. We saw Monarchs and Viceroys, a possible Mourning Cloak, and a large Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Dragonflies were also plentiful; these included Eastern Amberwings, Eastern Pondhawks, Common Whitetails, and Slaty Skimmers.

Birds observed:

Great Egret
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Kingbird
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Carolina Wren
Northern Mockingbird
Fish Crow
White-eyed Vireo
Common Yellowthroat
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Chickadees, Titmice and DNA

The current issue of Birding magazine has some interesting notes about recent research on chickadees, titmice, and other members of the Paridae family. (The report in Birding summarizes a study published last year in The Auk.) Researchers determined that the genus Parus, which used to contain all chickadees, titmice, and related species, should in fact be broken into multiple genera. The suggested division includes Poecile (chickadees) and Baeolophus (titmice) in North America. Eurasian and African tits are now divided into Parus, Lophanes, Periparus, and Cyanistes. The split of New World chickadees and titmice into the Poecile and Baeolophus genera is not new; the AOU recognized the split in 1998.

For North American birders, the results regarding chickadees are intriguing. Though the black-capped chickadee and carolina chickadee interbreed and are similar enough in appearance to make identification difficult, they are not as closely related as one might think. Instead, black-capped is more closely related to the mountain chickadee. Among carolina chickadees, there are significant genetic differences between the two subspecies, the eastern extimus and the carolinensis subspecies in Louisiana. Whether that would be enough to call for a species split is not addressed in the Birding summary.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Birds of the Ninth

Summer birding in DC can sometimes be kind of slow. While listserve reports indicate that some birds are already making their way south, autumn migrats have not yet reached the District in significant numbers. Just two months ago, the woods and fields rang with song from many colorful birds. Now, a hungry listener hears only an occasional song; even most local birds have quieted down.

What we have left are the local breeders, which were in evidence at the National Arboretum this morning. The meadows around the columns held American goldfinches and indigo buntings, both of which were still singing. I imagine these species are holding down territories for second broods. Inside Fern Valley, I found a young brown-headed cowbird begging for food from a stressed-looking Carolina wren. I did not see the wren feed the cowbird, but this appeared to be a "family" group. Several acadian flycatchers called in the woods, while wood thrushes sang faintly.

From the valley, I walked down to the start of the river trail, where there were northern parulas singing. The meadow at the south end of the trail had a singing blue grosbeak. It was a accompanied a female (possibly a hatch year bird). Blue grosbeaks and indigo buntings both are beautifully blue. Indigo buntings have a blue so intense and bright it appears they do not belong in the wild; blue grosbeaks have a wonderfully rich blue, darker than the bunting. Nearby three young eastern phoebes perched on the Arboretum's security fence. As I walked the river trail, I was a little worried that the gate on the other end would be locked. As it turned out, I need not have worried. The gate was locked, but unhinged due to some unknown agent.

I just missed the bus at the visitor center, so I took a quick turn through the Azalea Gardens. On the far side their was a brown thrasher skulking in the shrubs. Somewhere a yellow-billed cuckoo yowlped. I am not good at digging these birds out of the foliage, so I let it pass. The barn swallows that had nested at the visitor center appear to be finished there for the season.

Later in the afternoon I checked out the birds at Anacostia Park. Here there were two clear autumn migrants: ring-billed gull and laughing gull. (Maybe autumn migration is not quite right; post-breeding dispersal might be more accurate.) Both were using the mud flats left by the river at low tide. There were about 10-15 laughing gulls and about twice as many ring-billed gulls. The gulls are mostly adults at this point. Several killdeer were also using the southernmost mudflat, near Poplar Point. No terns have appeared yet, but they should be along shortly. One surprise gadwall was in the river. That is an unusual bird for DC. There were few songbirds of interest here, aside from a yellow orchard oriole that flew across the road in front of me.


Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Canada Goose
Red-shouldered Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Laughing Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Chimney Swift
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Acadian Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Kingbird
Barn Swallow
Carolina Wren
House Wren
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher
Eastern Bluebird
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Carolina Chickadee
Blue Jay
American Crow
Fish Crow
European Starling
House Sparrow
Red-eyed Vireo
House Finch
American Goldfinch
Northern Parula
Common Yellowthroat
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Blue Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Orchard Oriole


Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Cabbage White
Clouded Sulphur
Common Wood-Nymph
Horace's Duskywing


Ebony Jewelwing
Common Whitetail
Eastern Amberwing

Word to the Wise

If you are going to build a gated security fence, make sure the gate's hinges are metal, not plastic.

As if it makes any difference, the gate was still locked when I found it.


A Green President?

Newsweek is highlighting George W. Bush's use of green building techniques on his ranch.

Before moving into the White House, George W. Bush built the kind of vacation home that Al Gore might have designed. His Texas ranch captures rain and wastewater for landscaping. Solar panels line the roof and an underground geothermal system provides heating and air conditioning. There's even a protected forest that is home to the rare golden-cheeked warbler....

But following his green-tinted State of the Union address in January, Bush now travels the country promoting both hybrid vehicles and solar power. Just last month he created a huge national monument around the remote northwestern islands of Hawaii.

I am glad to read that Bush is preserving some habitat for golden-cheeked warblers, and the creation of the marine reserve in the Pacific was a step forward. But for a president, public policy is a more important measure than private virtue. By the measure of public policy, Bush's presidency has certainly not been "green."

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Friday, July 07, 2006

Loose Feathers #54

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment.

  • In the last Loose Feathers, I noted that a portion of a colony of terns in Long Beach, California, had been cleared from the barges they were using for nesting. Since then, the rest of the colony has disappeared. It is hard to see a natural explanation for this.
  • The Maryland Department of Natural Resources will be testing migratory geese along the Chesapeake Bay for H5N1. The article does not specify which species are being tested.
  • The bald eagle population around the lower Chesapeake is up to 485 pairs with 705 chicks.
  • This op-ed piece warns of two challenges to habitat conservation that have been passed by the House and are headed to the Senate. One guts the Endangered Species Act, and the other expedites logging of recently-burned tracts of forest.
  • Green roofs may help solve some urban heat island and storm runoff problems.
  • I am not sure what to make of this. It looks like a parody, but the rest of the site seems legit.
  • Friday Ark #94 is up, with plenty of pictures of cats, dogs, birds, and other creatures.
As an aside, I have some filters set up to deliver news about birds to my email to make writing these posts easier. From the start, I have had to be careful to set them to catch news about these kinds of Eagles, and not these ones. Lately I have been getting a lot of articles about this type of Sparrow instead of this type.

New North American Species

The AOU has announced a series of changes in their 47th Supplement to the Checklist of North American Birds. The biggest news for North American birders is the split of Blue Grouse into Dusky Grouse and Sooty Grouse. The two species occur in separate geographic ranges, with the former in the interior and the latter on the coast. The Sibley Guide to Birds depicts both forms, so separating the two will not require a new field guide.

Here are the new species accounts for Dusky Grouse and Sooty Grouse from the Supplement:

Dendragapus obscurus (Say). Dusky Grouse.

The citation remains as it is. Habitat is as for the obscurus group. Distribution is as for obscurus group with the deletion of “from southeastern Alaska (except coastal areas),” and comma following Yukon. Change Notes to: Previously included D. fuliginosus and called Blue Grouse, but now separated on the basis of genetic evidence (Barrowclough et al. 2004) and differences in voice (hooting), behavior, and plumage (Brooks 1929). Barrowclough et al. (2004) also found a lesser genetic difference between northern and southern populations of D. obscurus that does not correspond to currently recognized subspecific boundaries....

Dendragapus fuliginosus (Ridgway). Sooty Grouse.

Canace obscura var. fuligniosa [sic] Ridgeway [sic], 1873, Forest and Stream 1(19):289. (Cascade Mountains, at foot of Mount Hood, Oregon, and Chiloweyuck Depot, Washington = beneath Mount Hood, Hood River County, Oregon.) See Banks and Browning (1979) for citation and Deignan (1961) and Browning (1979) for type locality.

Habitat and Distribution as for fuliginosus group in AOU (1998) account for D. obscurus.

Notes.—Formerly merged with D. obscurus as Blue Grouse, but separated on the basis of genetic evidence (Barrowclough et al. 2004) and differences in voice (hooting), behavior, and plumage (Brooks 1929).
Two other species added because of splits were the Cape Verde Shearwater (split from Cory's Shearwater) and Barbados Bullfinch (split from Lesser Antillean Bullfinch). The Black-bellied Storm-petrel has been added to the checklist due to a sighting off the North Carolina coast.

Other changes on the list mostly concern the ordering and arrangement of family groupings. The tern genus Sterna has been split into five genera: Onychoprion, Sternula, Gelochelidon, Hydroprogne, Thalasseus, and Sterna. Another change for the larids is that Skuas and Jaegers have been given their own family, Stercorariidae, separate from Laridae (Gulls). Among shorebirds, sandpipers in the Catoptrophorus and Heteroscelus genera have been merged into Tringa.

The changes bring the checklist for the AOU area to 2,041 species. Note that unlike the ABA area, the AOU area covers all of North America, from the North Pole to the border of Panama and Colombia, and also includes Hawaii. Presumably many of these changes will be reflected in the next version of the ABA checklist. Read the rest of the Supplement for further details on the changes.

Link via xenospiza.

The study that led to the split of Sooty and Dusky Grouse is here. (Link via Grrlscientist.)

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Bird Poop in Space

It appears that bird droppings managed to survive the launch of the shuttle Discovery.

NASA's rocket scientists have a new appreciation for the out-of-this-world power of bird droppings. The orbiting space shuttle Discovery sported some whitish splotches on its black right wing edge that NASA officials said appeared to be bird droppings.

Shuttle lead flight director Tony Ceccacci said he saw the same splotches on the identical part of the shuttle about three weeks ago when Discovery was on the launch pad and laughed when pictures beamed back from space Wednesday showed they were still there.

That means these bird droppings withstood regular Florida thunderstorms, a mighty Fourth of July launch during which 300,000 gallons of water is sprayed at the shuttle's main engines, and a burst upward through Earth's atmosphere. During that launch Discovery went from zero to 17,500 mph in just under 9 minutes.

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