Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Taking Requests

I am working on planning out a few new writing themes for this year. Since I have not worked out the details yet, I am not going to unveil them at this time. I am thinking that some series on local birds and local birding opportunities might be in order. What I would like to know is whether there are any topics that my readers would like to covered. Is there anything that I am already doing that you would like to see extended? Are there any topics that I am not covering that you would like me to take up? Should I do more of the technical or metablogging posts like last night's post on RSS?

I will probably retire the Birds of the Mid-Atlantic Series, which has gone about as far as I want to take it. By the end of last year, I found that my posts for that series had started to become somewhat repetitive - if not in subject matter then certainly in structure. Once that happened, I felt it was time to move on to something else. (I may still make an occasional post for that series, if something strikes me.)

So if there are any themes you would like me to cover here, please let me know, either by adding a note to the comments for this post, or sending an email to

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

What Is RSS?

Regular readers of this blog may notice links in the navigation bar labeled "RSS Feed" and "Atom Feed." You may also notice a small orange square in the browser's location box. Recently, I was asked a few questions about those, so I thought it would make a good topic for a blog post. This post will explain what those are, and how to use them.

RSS stands for "Really Simple Syndication" (or "Rich Site Summary," or "RDF Site Summary"). An RSS feed is an XML file that contains an excerpt from each new post. An Atom feed has a different format but serves the same function. RSS provides a way for websites with regularly-updated content to let readers know that new content is available. Site feeds are popular with both blog writers and blog readers. Many newspapers and other websites also provide site feeds.

Site feeds have many uses. Some websites are devoted, in whole or in part, to aggregating feeds from other sites. Technorati, for example, links to each new post on any blog in their database. DCblogs has a page that uses site feeds to link to individual posts from many local blogs. Such websites are great if you like the subjects they follow. Chances are, though, that you follow sites from multiple subject areas. In that case, it makes more sense to subscribe to feeds via a newsreader service.


Why use RSS for reading blogs? Many blogs publish frequently, but not on a strict schedule. When you visit, you cannot be sure whether a new post or article will be available. Likewise, if you do not visit for a few days, you may miss some posts. An RSS feed notifies you when a new post is available on a site to which you subscribe. If you like a lot of different sites, it may be difficult to remember or time-consuming to visit each of them. RSS subscriptions are one way to organize and speed up blog reading. You can subscribe to RSS feeds by one of the following methods.

1. Browser-based newsreader. Browser-based newsreaders sit inside the browser and allow coordination between reading feeds and normal browsing activities. Such newsreaders are generally extensions or add-ons, like Firefox's Sage newsreader. (Sage is my primary newsreader.) It is fast and easy to use. Some browsers include a "Live Bookmarks" folder. Bookmarks saved in that folder will be marked when new content is available.

2. Desktop newsreader. These are stand-alone programs that are separate from the web browser and that manage and display site feeds. Some examples are listed here. (I do not use any desktop clients myself, so I cannot vouch for their quality.) Some email clients will also handle site feeds.

3. Web-based newsreader. Web-based newsreaders offer individual password-protected accounts where you can organize your feed subscriptions. The main advantage is that you can view your subscriptions away from your main computer. If you read blogs from several different computers, a web-based reader is probably the best solution. The disadvantage is that they tend to work a little more slowly than desktop or browser readers. Some examples are Bloglines, Newsgator, My Yahoo!, and Google Reader. (I have used Google Reader and found that the software is easy to use.) If you have an account at Technorati, you can follow your favorite blogs through that account via their favorites function. Those are only a few; several more readers are compared here.

4. Receive new posts by email. Some weblogs, including this one, give readers the option to receive posts by email. This service is coordinated by Feedblitz and uses the site feed to send messages. To receive this blog's feed in email format, add your email via the box at the top of the right-hand column.

There are more detailed tutorials on using RSS feeds here and here.


Why publish a site feed? The one thing that unites all bloggers is a desire for people to read what we have to say. Site feeds make it easier for busy people to follow and read our postings. It is especially good for small and low-readership blogs. You might not get readers to visit every day, but if a reader subscribes to your feed, you know that your writings are getting read, or at least viewed, regularly.

There is a small downside to having people read posts via a newsreader. RSS readers will not see any notes or links on the sidebar, and will not notice any improvements to the page structure. RSS readers tend not to be counted in your sitemeter statistics, so you may see a small dip there. However, I believe that the good accomplished by building an audience more than makes up for the small dent in traffic.

So, here are a few options available if you publish a site feed.

1. Most bloggers publish feeds through their blog platform. This is the easiest route, especially since many platforms, including Blogger, make publishing a feed the default setting. In Blogger's case, the default feed is an Atom rather than RSS feed, but RSS is available as well. Here is a tutorial for how to enable or modify a site feed in Blogger.

2. Some bloggers choose to publish their feeds through a service like Feedburner. This is somewhat more complicated process than publishing through your blog platform. The main advantage is that Feedburner and similar services give detailed statistics about how many people subscribe and read the site feed.

3. Whichever publishing method you use, the site feed can be used as a proxy for an email list. One service that will do this is Feedblitz, which sends out notifications as new posts become available.

State Conservation Plans

Via Wildbird, I learned that the Fish and Wildlife Service has approved comprehensive conservation plans for 56 states and territories in the United States, including the District of Columbia. The plans are required by the federal government to identify declining species within each state or territory and determine what actions should be taken to prevent further decline. Completing the planning process makes each state eligible for conservation funding from the federal government.

The conservation plans for individual states are available at this website. The plan for D.C. is available here.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Rarities on the Loose

New York and New Jersey birders are excited about the appearance of an adult ivory gull in Piermont, N.Y. Ivory gulls are birds of the Arctic, and are rarely seen on the east coast south of Newfoundland. There are good accounts of the sighting at Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Hawk Owl's Nest; and City Birder. The sighting even has Maryland birders excited.

Closer to D.C., but still out of my reach, unfortunately, a thick-billed murre has been spotted at the Ocean City Inlet. See the details here and here.

Update: The ivory gull is now gone.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Snow Day

It snowed today in Washington. I expect most of the white stuff will disappear very quickly, so I went out for some pictures while I had the opportunity.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Non-Bird Notes from the Eastern Shore

Trapping is still practiced near the Blackwater NWR. A local hunter traps muskrats on the refuge during the winter season. Their fur goes to the garment industry, musk glands are sold for perfumes, and the meat is sold by local grocery stores. The practice may sound cruel to modern ears, but it does play a role in refuge management. Trapping helps keep the muskrat population in check and prevents muskrats from overrunning the refuge and destroying the aquatic vegetation that migrant waterfowl need. Blackwater only recently eradicated its population of invasive nutria, which had stripped much of the marshes bare of their grasses.

Historic Highways

Many Washington-area birders travel to Delaware Refuges such as Bombay Hook and Prime Hook to view their concentrations of waterbirds and shorebirds in fall and spring. Many of the rural roads we travel to reach these refuges are also rich in history. Northern Delaware was an important corridor for the Underground Railroad. A portion of that network may be designated as a scenic and historic highway.

Travelers who make the journey from the Choptank River in Maryland to the Pennsylvania border will follow routes 10, 15, 9 and 299, passing more than 20 sites connected to the Underground Railroad. The landmarks include houses, churches, fields and vacant lots.

"We are not pointing out one particular Underground Railroad route, but using contemporary roadways to touch on as many sites as we can to give people a sense of the passage from west to north and from the south to the north," said Debra Martin, preservation planner for the city of Wilmington.

One of my sisters has been working on this project and researching some of the sites for the past year.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Loose Feathers #87

Greater Scaup / Photo by Donna Dewhurst (USFWS)

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment.
  • An experiment with scrub jays showed that some birds can plan for the future by storing food.
  • A European team found the wintering grounds of the aquatic warbler, which apparently was a mystery until that discovery.
  • Last weekend's cold snap killed 50,000 perch along the Potomac in St. Mary's County.
  • A robot is being used to watch for ivory-billed woodpeckers in the Arkansas swamps. It is fitted with video cameras programmed to detect and record birds in flight. (When I first saw this headline, I imagined some kind of robobirder that looks like this, with binoculars in hand.)
  • Occasionally I receive queries regarding types of birdhouses or birdfeeders that are best to attract birds. In some ways, the best first step to attract birds is to adapt gardening and landscaping to be bird-friendly.
  • Of course, feeders are great, too. Here is a good article with tips on feeding birds. (This is quite detailed, and even better than some I have linked in past "Loose Feathers" editions.)
  • The Invasive Species Weblog has a cautionary tale about controlling feral cats. On Macquarie Island, feral cats were eradicated to protect native bird species from excessive predation. The trouble is that once the cats were eliminated, populations of invasive rodents boomed.
  • The Washington Post has an article on ecotourism, specifically for birding, in Panama.
  • Finally, the birds are singing in Texas. If they have started singing there, spring here cannot be far away, either.
Counting birds

Thursday, February 22, 2007

DNA Reveals Possible Bird List Changes

Genetic barcoding of North American bird species suggests that fifteen current species may need to be split into two or more species, while forty-two current species may actually represent seventeen species. The barcoding of North American birds was done in support of a project to create a database of the DNA of all living creatures. So far, 643 out of 690 North American breeding species have been analyzed.

The project analyzed a small strand of mitochondrial DNA from each species sampled and compared the results against current taxonomy lists. It found that the vast majority (94%) of recognized bird species in North America correspond closely with distinct genetic clusters. Four percent are closely-related species represented by a single distinct cluster. Two percent of current species show two distinct clusters, suggesting the need for a split. (An academic paper describing the genetic barcoding project is available for free. The article describing the avian research is published in Molecular Ecology Notes, Comprehensive DNA barcode coverage of North American birds. If you cannot access the bird paper via the Blackwell link, try this pdf link. The project's website is here.)


In birding terminology, dividing a species into two or more is called a split and combining two or more species into one is called a lump. Species with a genetic variation over 2.5% were recommended for splits. The differences ranged from 3.1% in Northern Fulmar and Western Screech Owl to 7.9% in Marsh Wren. Potential splits are listed below. The genetic variation cited by the article corresponds to recognized subspecies with distinct geographic ranges. The Sibley Guide illustrates recognizable differences among different populations for most of these species. However, the differences are usually subtle, so field identification of new species will remain a challenge unless their range boundaries are clearly demarcated.

1Northern fulmarFulmaris glacialis
2Solitary sandpiperTringa solitaria
3Western screech owlMegascops kennicottii
4Warbling vireoVireo gilvus
5Mexican jayAphelocoma ultramarina
6Western scrub-jayAphelocoma californica
7Common ravenCorvus corax
8Mountain chickadeePoecile gambeli
9BushtitPsaltriparus minimus
10Winter wrenTroglodytes troglodytes
11Marsh wrenCistothorus palustris
12Bewick's wrenThyromanes bewickii
13Hermit thrushCatharus guttatus
14Curve-billed thrasherToxostoma curvirostre
15Eastern meadowlark
Sturnella magna


The species that share close genetic characteristics are shown in the table below. Some of these are easily separable in the field, such as Black Duck vs. Mallard, the two teals, or the two eiders in breeding plumage. Others present real identification challenges, even though some individual species may be easily identifiable. Many birders may be relieved to see eight species of gulls lumped together, except for those who already have gone to the trouble of finding and identifying all of those species.

1Snow gooseChen caerulescens
Ross's gooseChen rossii
2American Black duckAnas rubripes
MallardAnas platyrhynchos
Mottled duckAnas fulvigula
3Blue-winged tealAnas discors
Cinnamon tealAnas cyanoptera
4King eiderSomateria spectabilis
Common eiderScomateria mollissima
5Sharp-tailed grouseTympanuchus phasianellus
Greater prairie-chickenTympanuchus cupido
Lesser prairie-chickenTympanuchus pallidicinctus
6Western grebeAechmophorus occidentalis
Clark's grebeAechmophorus clarkii
7Laughing gullLarus atricilla
Franklin's gullLarus pipixcan
8California gullLarus californicus
Herring gullLarus argentatus
Thayer's gullLarus thayeri
Iceland gullLarus glaucoides
Lesser black-backed gullLarus fuscus
Western gullLarus occidentalis
Glaucous-winged gullLarus glaucescens
Glaucous gullLarus hyperboreus
9Red-naped sapsuckerSphyrapicus nuchalis
Red-breasted sapsuckerSphyrapicus ruber
10Black-billed magpiePica hudsonia
Yellow-billed magpiePica nuttalli
11American crowCorvus brachyrhynchos
Northwestern crowCorvus caurinus
12Townsend's warblerDendroica townsendi
Hermit warblerDendroica occidentalis
13Golden-crowned sparrowZonotrichia leucophrys
White-crowned sparrowZonotrichia atricapilla
14Dark-eyed juncoJunco hyemalis
Yellow-eyed juncoJunco phaeonotus
15Snow buntingPlectrophenax nivalis
McKay's buntingPlectrophenax hyperboreus
16Great-tailed grackleQuiscalis mexicanus
Boat-tailed grackleQuiscalis major
17Common redpollCarduelis flammea
Hoary redpollCarduelis hornemanni

(For the full tables and analysis, see the article, Comprehensive DNA barcode coverage of North American birds. The tables shown here reproduce only a portion of the information in the article.)

So how does this affect birders? Probably not much, at least initially. Headlines for this story excitedly proclaim the discovery of potential new species. In fact, the North American bird list may see a net reduction if all of the proposed changes are accepted by the appropriate committees. Coverage has also suggested that the results, extrapolated to the whole world, may imply an additional 1,000 species to add to the 10,000 already recognized. Again, extrapolating results suggests that some species groups will also be condensed, so it is too soon to predict reaching the 11,000 mark.

This study is was designed as a test of the barcoding methodology, as the authors mention several times. As such, the DNA samples are too small to be used for distinguishing species based on genetics alone. The authors suggest that further DNA analysis will be necessary before any of the recommended splits or lumps are implemented. Even then, genetic analysis is only one factor among many in distinguishing separate species. Interbreeding, behavior, range, and physical appearance are among the other factors considered. There also seems to be some skepticism about the results in the wider birding and ornithological communities, so records committees are likely to move very slowly in acting on the recommendations.

Several other blogs have covered this story, including Search and Serendipity, Hawk Owl's Nest, and Nemesis Bird. There has been extensive discussion of the issue on the ID-Frontiers list. Snail's Tales has an unrelated post on defining species.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I and the Bird #43

This week's I and the Bird is online now at Earth, Wind, and Water. This blog, by the way, features some wonderful photography, and many of those photographs are of underwater creatures, a rare find on birding blogs. This week I and the Bird features a box office theme, IATB at the Movies. Alas, I forgot to submit a post for this week's issue.

Monday, February 19, 2007

GBBC Day 4: National Zoo

This afternoon I visited the National Zoo to see if I could round up any additional species for the Great Backyard Bird Count. I was successful in finding a red-shouldered hawk, a species that had gone unreported in D.C until today. It was perched high above the the bird house. Overall, it was a good afternoon for raptors. Aside from the red-shouldered, I also saw two red-tailed hawks and two Cooper's hawks, both species down by the creek. Separating Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks is always tricky; this afternoon one of the hawks assisted the identification by calling repeatedly. (Cooper's hawks have a deeper and wheezier call.)

My strangest sighting of the day was a great blue heron. It was not particularly close to a body of water - either the creek or a good fishing spot. Instead, it was perched in a tree about fifty feet above the eagle enclosure.

Wood ducks and mallards were present in good numbers. A very large flock of mallards was feeding in the flamingo pond. I estimated about 120, though it was hard to count them because they were so densely packed together and moving around quickly. Almost all of the wood ducks were along the creek. The path by the creek, by the way, is still covered with snow and ice, though it is not as treacherous as the ice around Hains Point or the Arboretum.

I do not have photographs from this afternoon because I forgot to bring my camera with me.

Here is the checklist I submitted:

Wood Duck45
Great Blue Heron1
Cooper's Hawk2
Red-shouldered Hawk1
Red-tailed Hawk2
Ring-billed Gull2
Red-bellied Woodpecker4
Downy Woodpecker3
Hairy Woodpecker1
Pileated Woodpecker2
Blue Jay1
American Crow3
Fish Crow4
Carolina Chickadee2
Tufted Titmouse4
White-breasted Nuthatch1
American Robin60
Northern Mockingbird2
European Starling200
Song Sparrow1
White-throated Sparrow13
Northern Cardinal4
House Sparrow120

As of 8:55 pm, Washington is up to 63 species and 7,847 individuals for the count. So far 50 checklists have been submitted; this is just one short of the D.C. record. You can follow the D.C. results here. Data entry will be open until February 28, so you still have time to submit a report from this weekend if you have not done so already. I will post the final total at that time.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

GBBC Day 3: Potomac Waterfront

Today I ventured down to the Tidal Basin and Hains Point to look for birds. The Tidal Basin was almost completely frozen over, with only a few ring-billed gulls standing on the ice. The Washington Channel was also mostly frozen. It was frozen across in some places, open in others, and partly open with chunks of floating ice in other places. The areas around the boat docks on the far side of the channel were mostly open; these patches held small groups of mallards and coots. Hundreds of the three local gulls huddled in large flocks on the ice. Other waterbirds included a red-breasted merganser on the channel and a dozen lesser scaup on the Potomac. I was surprised to find seven great-blue herons during my walk; they must have fled from other areas in D.C. to find open water. About half way to the point, I saw a merlin perched in a tree. It was quite close to the road and did not flush when I approached. A juvenile bald eagle was perched on the large snag at the end of the golf course, while crows mobbed around it. Not too many songbirds were visible around the park. Most of the songbirds I saw were clustered in a few areas sheltered from the wind.

In the late afternoon I walked over to the Indian Museum to see what was around. Mostly the birds were the same as on Friday, but I did find a couple swamp sparrows in the museum's wetlands area. As I stood to watch them, a snow shower suddenly arrived. The flakes fell so densely that I could not see the Capitol from the Museum. The snow fell furiously, but the shower did not leave much behind.

Checklist from Hains Point and the Tidal Basin:

Canada Goose1,400
Lesser Scaup12
Red-breasted Merganser1
Great Blue Heron7
Bald Eagle1
Red-tailed Hawk1
American Coot6
Ring-billed Gull440
Herring Gull285
Great Black-backed Gull90
Rock Pigeon22
Mourning Dove1
Downy Woodpecker2
Blue Jay4
American Crow25
Fish Crow20
Tufted Titmouse6
Golden-crowned Kinglet1
American Robin40
Northern Mockingbird1
European Starling40
Cedar Waxwing11
Song Sparrow1
White-throated Sparrow4
Dark-eyed Junco3
Northern Cardinal2
House Sparrow35

Checklist from the Indian Museum and Capitol grounds:

Ring-billed Gull40
Downy Woodpecker1
White-breasted Nuthatch1
American Robin25
European Starling65
Swamp Sparrow2
White-throated Sparrow7
House Sparrow12

Birders in Washington, D.C., have now broken the record for species reported for the GBBC in this city. As of 8:30 pm, the count for D.C. stood at 60 species; the record had been 59, set in 2005. That year also set a record for the number of submitted checklists with 51. So far this year, 32 checklists have been submitted, so we are unlikely to reach that record. However, this year will have the highest number of individual birds reported, with 6,216 so far. Below is the distribution map as of Sunday night.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

GBBC Day 2: National Arboretum

Today I counted birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count at the National Arboretum. One may object that the Arboretum is not my backyard, but the name of the count is not meant to be restrictive. I got a late start, but still managed to cover most of my usual areas.

The snow that fell on Tuesday and Wednesday is still present, but now it is covered with impenetrable ice. The icy conditions made it difficult to venture off the roadways, so I was not able to cover some birdy areas as thoroughly as I would have liked. For example, I did not venture into the Azalea Garden or Fern Valley, and I did not risk the steep trails of the Asian Gardens. Most water was frozen over, except for a few fast-running streams. The frozen water includes the Anacostia River, which was frozen across.

One of my goals today was to find the great horned owls that I had seen there before. Unfortunately, their roost was one of the areas made most inaccessible by ice. After slipping a couple times and then falling flat on my face, I decided to move on and look for other birds. A kestrel, seen near the columns, made up for missing the owls. Other good sightings included a brown thrasher and a yellow-bellied sapsucker near the Asian Gardens, cedar waxwings near Heart Pond, and field sparrows near the columns. Somehow, two belted kingfishers have managed to survive several weeks of freezing temperatures. This was the first visit to the Arboretum this year when I have not seen any eastern phoebes. I hope that they moved south rather than perishing. Robins, of course, were in their usual large winter flocks.

I ended up seeing just a few species short of what we saw on the Christmas Bird Count in the Arboretum. Here is my report from today:

Turkey Vulture1
Cooper's Hawk1
Red-tailed Hawk1
American Kestrel1
Ring-billed Gull20
Rock Pigeon50
Belted Kingfisher2
Red-bellied Woodpecker5
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker1
Downy Woodpecker2
Northern Flicker3
Pileated Woodpecker3
Blue Jay20
American Crow35
Fish Crow3
Carolina Chickadee4
Tufted Titmouse8
White-breasted Nuthatch9
Carolina Wren10
Eastern Bluebird9
American Robin350
Northern Mockingbird9
Brown Thrasher1
European Starling25
Cedar Waxwing7
Eastern Towhee6
Field Sparrow4
Song Sparrow2
White-throated Sparrow90
Dark-eyed Junco90
Northern Cardinal21
American Goldfinch18

As of now, D.C. is up to 45 species and 2,598 individuals on 21 checklists for the GBBC. Track updated results here. A map with the distribution of reports is below. It is still rather northwest-heavy.

Friday, February 16, 2007

GBBC Day 1: Birds of Downtown D.C.

Bird Habitat?

In the late afternoon I counted birds around the east end of the Mall and then around my apartment. The reflecting pool was mostly frozen with a few open patches, one of which had a small group of gulls, while the other had a few mallards. Over at the Indian Museum, there was a very large flock of mallards (over 30), plus several song sparrows and white-throated sparrows. Oddly enough, I did not see any house sparrows while I was out walking. Usually there are at least a few at the Indian Museum.

Here is the sum of the two checklists I submitted for the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Ring-billed Gull51
Rock Pigeon25
Downy Woodpecker2
American Robin25
Northern Mockingbird1
European Starling68
Song Sparrow3
White-throated Sparrow10
House Finch1
House Sparrow6

As of the time of this post, 24 species have been reported in DC on 6 checklists. That is not too bad for the first day, though it is not anywhere near the leaders.

Loose Feathers #86

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

  • This weekend, starting today, is the Great Backyard Bird Count. See my posts on the subject here and here. The count has received newspaper coverage from the Asheville Citizen-Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Orangeburg Times and Democrat, and the Fort Mill Times.
  • A recent study suggests that wind farms at sea may be safe for seabirds. Land-based wind farms still face safety questions. A wind farm has been proposed for Virginia's Highland County.
  • Following Nature Canada filing a lawsuit to protect piping plovers, the Canadian government has agreed to create new protection plans for piping plovers and other endangered species. The point in contention was that the old plans did not identify critical habitat, as required by law.
  • The RSPB is pushing back against blaming wild birds for H5N1 outbreaks on poultry farms. In the recent case of an outbreak at a sealed turkey pen in Sussex, officials speculated that a wild bird somehow flew through a ventilation shaft to spread the virus. More background here. Meanwhile, tests on over 74,000 wild birds in North America have shown no trace of the disease.
  • Some large Mediterranean bats may prey on birds that migrate at night.
  • The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a letter to members of Congress to urge action on climate change. (Via Treehugger.)
  • A study found that people aged 50-64 have the largest "carbon footprint," but also feel the most strongly that government needs to take action to limit carbon emissions.
  • Warming in the Antarctic is reducing krill populations and forcing penguins to move farther south.
  • Birds Etcetera has a PSA about sign posts and raptors.
  • A proposed development is threatening important habitat for the endangered Grenada dove. The government of Grenada proposes to sell national park land to the Four Seasons hotel chain for a new resort.
  • Two red-tailed hawks in Wisconsin temporarily lost the ability to fly after they fell into a stream and ice formed on their wings. The birds are flying again now that the local humane society warmed them overnight.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

GBBC This Weekend

The Great Backyard Bird Count starts tomorrow, Friday the 16th, and runs through Monday the 19th. The GBBC is an annual survey that covers all of the United States and Canada. The goal of the event is to determine the mid-winter distribution of each bird species.

For such a large project to succeed, the GBBC needs the help of as many birders as possible. All birders, at any skill level, are invited to participate. You can spend as much or as little time counting as you wish. Watch birds in your backyard, a local park, or another favorite birding location. Keep a list of what you see and enter the data at the GBBC website. Detailed instructions are available here. (If you have not done the GBBC before, I recommend reading the instructions on the site before going out.) Note that you need not count birds at the same location every day, or even participate every day of the count period.

Reports from individual birders are gathered into a large database, which can be used for many projects. You can see some examples of how the data can be used in the results section of the website. One thing that the site can do is produce range maps for each species that has been reported in a given year. For example, here is last year's range map for black vultures.

Last year, birders in Washington, D.C., submitted a total of 39 checklists, identified 55 species, and counted 2,766 individuals. The reports from last year's count included peregrine falcon, gray catbird, fox sparrow, and purple finch. As you can see from the distribution map below, reports were concentrated in the northwest quadrant of the District.

Can we improve on those results this year? Let's try to get some reports from the eastern and southern parts of the city. Places like the National Arboretum, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, and Kingman Island are all fair game. How about the flocks of waterbirds down by Hains Point and the Tidal Basin?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Snow Day

You may have heard that the Washington area had a snow and ice storm last night. At various times yesterday, we had snow, sleet, and freezing rain falling; this morning it seemed that the storm ended with another round of snow. Here are a few pictures from this afternoon.

Squirrels around here are unbelievably tame.

St. Valentine's Day

A few St. Valentine's Day links:

Monday, February 12, 2007

Wind Turbines and Seabirds

A report out of Denmark suggests that wind turbines may not threaten seabirds as much as we feared. The report was based on a study using infrared cameras to monitor seabird movements around a Danish wind farm.

TADS [Thermal Animal Detection System] was developed to solve a problem specific to monitoring bird collisions at offshore wind farms, in this case the 80-turbine Horns Rev wind farm off Denmark's North Sea coast and the 72-turbine Nysted wind farm in the Baltic. The Danish researchers at Horns Rev and Nysted used visual monitoring and radar tracking, which showed that most birds avoided the farms altogether or flew down the half-kilometer-wide gaps between the wind farms' orderly rows of turbines. But the researchers still could not rule out the possibility that some birds were flying close enough to strike the turbine blades, which spin as fast as 80 meters per second at the tip. Of particular concern were larger seabirds, especially the common eiders that migrate through the area. "We were concerned that these large, rather clumsy birds might not be able to maneuver around the turbines," says Danish environmental institute researcher Mark Desholm, who designed TADS. ...

TADS was mounted on a Nysted wind-farm turbine that was situated in the most common flight path, and during more than 2,400 hours of monitoring that concluded last fall, it spotted only fifteen birds and bats and one moth flying near the turbine, and it recorded one collision involving a small bird or bat. Furness says that this provides confidence in estimations by Danish researchers that the Nysted wind farm would kill few common eiders.
The results will make it easier for energy companies and local governments to argue that wind power is safe, and should ease the consciences of conservationists. However, two things were not addressed, at least in the article. One, why are the results so different from some inland sites, like California's Altamont Pass, where birds are killed regularly? Perhaps the birds had more room to maneuver or the site had less of a choke point effect. Second, does the farm's presence have long-term effects beyond simply killing birds? It may be that the change in flight path is so slight that it does not make a difference, but if the shift involves hundreds of miles, it will mean extra energy expended between feeding stops.

Read the rest.

Accepting Climate Change

Sunday's Times had an essay on the recent IPCC report and the changes that the author has observed in reactions to climate change since he first began covering the subject. For one thing, the climate science supporting warming has grown in certainty:

  • In 1990, in its first report, the panel found evidence of global warming but said its cause could be natural as easily as human.
  • In a landmark 1995 report, the panel altered its judgment, saying that “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.”
  • In 2001, it placed the probability that human activity caused most of the warming of the previous half century at 66 percent to 90 percent — a “likely” rating.

The author also points out the diverse types of evidence cited by the review: rising temperatures, more droughts, more violent precipitation events, and fewer frosts, for example. We also now have a much longer climate record for comparison. The endpoint for warming is sobering.

Some experts believe that no matter what humans do to try to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, a doubling is all but inevitable by 2100. In this view, the urgent task ahead is to keep them from rising even higher.

If the concentrations were to triple, and even if they just double, there is no telling at this point what the world will really be like as a result, except to speculate that on balance, most of its inhabitants probably won’t like it much. If James E. Hansen, one of the bolder climate scientists of the last two decades, is right, they will be living on a different planet.

I will probably have some more to say about the report in a future post when I have a chance to review it thoroughly. In the mean time, take a look at the linked essay.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Loose Feathers #85

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

  • The American Bird Conservancy has released a list of the top twenty most threatened bird habitats in the United States. The only one present in D.C. is #19, early successional habitat in eastern forests; coastal beaches and marshes (#7) occur close by. More details are available in this pdf link. (via Wildbird on the Fly)
  • Birder's World has an update on the Florida whooping crane and future plans for the breeding program.
  • The Bush administration is considering removing the marbled murrelet population from the threatened species list. A review of population surveys by the USGS found that the population in Alaska and Canada had dropped 70% in the last 25 years.
  • A German man that beat a golden eagle for attacking his dog has been fined $23,000. The court found that he was at fault because he had approached the eagle with his dog despite being warned of its presence.
  • A great-tailed grackle has been documented in Wisconsin for the first time.
  • The Maine Department of Environmental Protection plans to reduce buffers around shorebird areas from 250 feet to 75 feet. The buffers are designed to prevent human activities such as construction or tree clearing that could affect birds negatively. (Here's an opinion piece on the subject.)
  • Paleontologists have linked a mass extinction 33.5 million years ago to a severe drop in temperature, of about 15 degrees. The climate estimate was based on an analysis of oxygen and carbon isotopes in the teeth of fossilized mammals.
  • The U.N. Environment Programme has uploaded an atlas of environmental changes - including climate change hotspots - to Google Earth.
  • California's Ocean Protection Council proposes to add plastics to the state's Redemption Value program because of the effects of plastics on seabirds.
  • Here is a great photo of a European starling in sunlight. (Starlings tend to be a bit under-appreciated because of their ubiquity and effect on native birds, but they can be beautiful in the right conditions.)
  • A Harris's sparrow has appeared in Ohio. Harris's sparrow is a central prairie species that rarely appears that far east.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

I and the Bird #42

I and the Bird, the carnival that celebrates birds and birding, is usually hosted by one of the many birding blogs. From time to time, it appears at a blog devoted to other subjects, as it does this week. Neurophilosophy has many posts on the subjects of neuroscience and the philosophy of the mind, with an occasional bird post, such as a recent post on bird brains. Go there for the voyage of IatBeagle.

Eagle Decision Delayed

The deadline for removing bald eagles from the endangered species list has been extended to June 29. A court allowed the Interior Department the extra time to decide what protections should remain in place.

But even before the widespread use of pesticides in the 1940s and 1950s caused the drop in the population, the eagle had been a target for people coveting its feathers, so Congress passed a law preventing the “taking” of any eagle. This word was broadly defined to include everything from hunting the bird to simply disturbing it.

Now, the department has proposed regulatory language narrowing that definition and making it harder to prove that human actions disturbed the bird. Under the new language, landowners and developers could cut down trees, build and engage in other activities in the vicinity of the bird and its nest as long as eagles were not killed or injured and did not abandon their nests.

Wildlife biologists within the department have proposed an alternate definition of "taking" that would include harassment short of injury or nest abandonment.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Shooting a Cardinal

In the "My Turn" section of this week's Newsweek, a woman describes the experience of shooting a cardinal. The column is presented as a conversion story from a gun-hater to a hunter. The reason for the shooting was that the cardinal was banging into the house's windows.

After 14 months of incessant attacks, Cardinalis held our family hostage. We tried everything to win our freedom and a little sleep. My husband and I wrapped sticky tape around tree branches and along window frames; we wove webs of fishing line across our five-foot windows, wired plaster cardinals to peripheral tree branches, propped mirrors in the gardens, placed plastic owls and stuffed toys in windows and baited a Hav-A-Heart trap with sunflower seeds. We threw stones at our tormentor and sprayed him with the garden hose, all to no avail.

After living for 36 months under the siege of Cardinalis, I cracked. My sleep patterns had altered, my ability to concentrate (already declining with age) was spiraling down to about 30-second intervals. My hands were shaky, my head ached, my vision blurred. I had morphed from a cookie-baking granny to a crazed zombie. I turned away from my bleeding-heart pals toward those who enjoy a more pragmatic turn of mind—those who honor the way of the warrior.

Birdchick suggests lodging a complaint with the NY Department of Environmental Conservation since the shooting violates the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. I myself wondered if the author had considered the possibility of subsequent legal action, since proclaiming the tale on the pages of a prominent national magazine would bring it to the attention of multiple conservation organizations and law enforcement officials. Perhaps penalties are subject to a statute of limitations.

Update: Birderblog has comments here, here, and here. Birds etcetera suggests that the incident may have been fabricated. Birdchaser warns against intemperate responses.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Two News Items

The National Wildlife Refuge system has been hurting for several years now due to decreasing budgets and increasing costs. An article from the News Journal details some of the problems at two NWRs in Delaware, Bombay Hook and Prime Hook. The latter has had four staff members cut, and the two refuges will be combined into one management structure to save costs. Buildings are not being repaired and necessary equipment is not being replaced. Outside of Delaware, the situation is worse at some refuges that have been destaffed.

Unfortunately the situation is not likely to improve in the near term as large chunks of the federal budget have been devoted to other expensive projects. As birders, we can help by supporting the local "friends" associations. The linked article lists the ones for Bombay Hook and Prime Hook. There are similar organizations for Eastern Neck and Blackwater in Maryland. The organizations provide volunteers and find funding for projects that the refuges could not do on their own. The federal duck stamp program provides funding for land acquisition, but, to my knowledge, not for management.

Pedestrian Plan

My second item is not related to birds, but to life in the District. The DC government is putting together a pedestrian master plan, with the goals of encouraging more people to walk and reducing fatal pedestrian accidents. The website for the project is here; it includes a short survey on the walking conditions in the city. If you know of any dangerous intersections, take the survey and report them.

Update: Speaking of pedestrian hazards... A pedestrian was hit and killed by a bicyclist - a fairly unusual incident.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Cranes Killed

The young whooping cranes that were wintering in Florida have been wiped out by the recent violent storms that swept the state.

Eighteen endangered young whooping cranes that were led from Wisconsin to Florida last fall to create a second migratory flock of the birds were killed in Friday's violent storms, a spokesman said yesterday.

The cranes were being kept in an enclosure at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge near Crystal River, Fla., said Joe Duff, co-founder of Operation Migration, the organization coordinating the project.
One crane, apparently, is still missing. Whether that means that it survived remains to be seen.

The Birdchaser has more thoughts on the subject.

Update: As it turns out, one bird did survive.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Winter Birding at the Beach

Today I went out to Ocean City on a DC Audubon Society field trip. We began the morning at the Ocean City inlet, where we quickly found common and red-throated loons, surf scoters, red-breasted mergansers, and lots of the usual gulls. The jetty on the far side was crowded with American oystercatchers, which occasionally took off as a flock to resettle on another part of the jetty. The near jetty had sanderlings, ruddy turnstones, purple sandpipers, and at least one dunlin. As we stood to watch these birds, a flock of Bonaparte's gulls flew past. Careful looking revealed two northern gannets cruising over the ocean. The stop at Ocean City included the traditional break for fries at Thrasher's.

On the drive to the next stop, we could see thousands of snow geese floating on one of the many coves to the west of the road. At Indian River Inlet we were greeted by the sight of a great cormorant flying out towards the ocean. Following the pattern from Ocean City, there was less waterfowl diversity than last year, with fewer numbers of the species that we did see. A small flock of long-tailed ducks patrolled the entrance to the inlet. Other than that we saw the same scoters, loons, and shorebirds as before.

Silver Lake in Rehobeth, the third stop, had its usual raft of canvasbacks. Alongside the canvasbacks was a large flock of ruddy ducks. Smaller numbers of black ducks, northern shovelers, and coots were also on the water here. A great blue heron worked the edges. This pond, nestled in the midst of housing developments, is a rather unremarkable location at first glance. Somehow it manages to be a waterfowl magnet year after year.

We capped off the day with two stops at Cape Henlopen State Park. Gordon's Pond, on the south side of the park, had more waterfowl, including tundra swans and northern pintail. A great egret and a half-dozen greater yellowlegs braved the winter cold. Two adult bald eagles were sitting on a log in the middle of the marsh. Bushes along the side of the trail held a hermit thrush and some yellow-rumped warblers.

From there we went to the north side of the park, the point of Cape Henlopen. The nature center feeders were sparsely populated by the time we arrived, with only chickadees, titmice, and juncos, plus a red-breasted nuthatch that I missed. Venturing out to the point, we found that the day had grown much colder and windier, made more obvious by the lack of protection from the northwest winds. Going out onto the beach was worth braving the wind chill, however, because we were rewarded with a flock of snow buntings that flew in and out of the dunes.

The list below reports the species I saw today. More images from today's trip are available here.


Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Northern Gannet
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Mute Swan
Tundra Swan
Snow Goose
Canada Goose
American Black Duck
Northern Pintail
Northern Shoveler
Long-tailed Duck
Surf Scoter
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
American Coot
American Oystercatcher
Greater Yellowlegs
Ruddy Turnstone
Purple Sandpiper
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
American Herring Gull
Bonaparte's Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Eastern Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Fish Crow
European Starling
House Sparrow
American Goldfinch
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Song Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Snow Bunting
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Boat-tailed Grackle

Friday, February 02, 2007

Loose Feathers #84

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

  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released a report that finds stronger evidence of anthropogenic warming. Temperature increases have occurred on the high end of the ranges given by their models. At least the White House has found a solution for global warming. (via RealClimate)
  • Prince William Sound continues to feel effects from the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. Oil lingers just beneath the surface of the shore, as it has dissipated at a rate of only 3-4% per year. Several species have not recovered their populations completely.
  • Meanwhile, volunteers are doing their best to clean oiled birds from last week's slick near Devon in the U.K. The Devon County Council had discussed the effects of a potential spill only two days before the container ship ran aground.
  • A team of researchers from New Jersey traveled to Tierra del Fuego to monitor red knot flocks on their wintering grounds. You can follow their progress on their blog, The Shorebird Project. See also The Red Knot Expedition (which may be a separate group).
  • Recently there has been some movement on preserving more of the wintering territory of cerulean warblers. See Coffee and Conservation for details.
  • Birders in North Carolina are upset about a naval airfield that will be built within four miles of the Pocosin Lakes NWR, a major wintering spot for waterfowl. Go here to read more about it.
  • A man was recently arrested in Guyana for attempting to smuggle 11 birds to the United States aboard an airplane. It is unfortunate that there is a market here for protected species to encourage such smuggling.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Great Backyard Bird Count Coming Soon

It is time once again for the Great Backyard Bird Count. This year's count period is February 16-19, or the weekend of President's Day. This count aims to determine the mid-winter distribution of birds across the United States and Canada.

Here are some specific questions that the reports help to answer:

* How will this winter's snow and cold temperatures influence bird populations?

* Where are winter finches and other “irruptive” species that appear in large numbers during some years but not others?

* How will the timing of birds’ migrations compare with past years?

* How are bird diseases, such as West Nile virus, affecting birds in different regions?

* What kinds of differences in bird diversity are apparent in cities versus suburban, rural, and natural areas?

* Are any birds undergoing worrisome declines that point to the need for conservation attention?

To participate, set aside at least 15 minutes sometime during the weekend of February 16-19. Count all the birds that you see during that period, and report the results on the GBBC website. Many report birds coming to their feeders, but the "backyard" in the title is not meant to be restrictive. If, like me, you live downtown in an urban area, you can also participate by counting birds in a park or natural area. The organizers of the count want to gather information on as many species as possible, many of which are not found in a typical backyard.

Last year, birders in DC reported 55 species and 2,766 individuals within the District. Can we improve on those this year?

Update: Several other bloggers have written about the coming count. See the links at Birdchaser and bootstrap analysis for more commentary on the subject.