Saturday, March 31, 2007

Flicker Fallout

This morning I birded at the National Arboretum. I was looking for some specific early-spring migrants, so I started out in the state tree grove. This is an area with lots of pines, and so it frequently has a pine warbler or two in March and April. Sure enough, there was one singing, but it would not show itself.

While the pine warbler made itself invisible, other birds let themselves be seen. In particular, there were a lot of northern flickers hanging around the state tree grove and picnic area. When I say "a lot," I mean something like two dozen. There were flickers on the ground, there were flickers in the trees, there were flickers in flight, there were flickers everywhere I looked. These must have arrived in a major wave last night.

There was a native plant symposium today, so the grounds were more crowded than usual, mainly around the visitor center where there was a plant sale. Fortunately, the Arboretum is large enough that I can bird in relative peace despite the presence of a busy symposium. The species count is a little low today because I focused my attention on a few less birdy areas to look for specific birds.


Canada Goose
Turkey Vulture
Red-tailed Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Northern Mockingbird
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Blue Jay
European Starling
Pine Warbler
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird

Friday, March 30, 2007

For Cherry Blossom Searchers

Over the past few days, I have been getting a lot of visits from people looking for information about blooming cherry trees, particularly from people looking for webcams of the blossoms. Generally those searches have led to this post from last year. Unfortunately some of the links in that are broken, and I could not find a blossom webcam for 2007. If you come here looking for information on cherry trees, try the NPS website and the Washington Post.

Loose Feathers #92

Yellow-headed Blackbird (USFWS)

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment.
  • A study of great tits and pied flycatchers near Chernobyl found that the birds preferred nest sites with low background radioactivity. While lower radioactivity is clearly an advantage, the study did not establish how birds are able to tell the difference.
  • The European Union has set aside € 785 million to preserve Europe's most vulnerable species, such as gyrfalcon and lammergeier, and their habitats.
  • California Fish and Game will hold a public hearing on banning lead shot on April 13. Lead shot is believed to poison endangered California condors, which ingest the shot via animal carcasses. The ban would apply within the condors' range.
  • Sunflower growers in North Dakota are considering the use of poisoned baits to kill blackbirds that feed on sunflower seeds. The need for higher production of sunflower seeds is a result of the decision of some companies to use sunflower oil as a replacement for oils high in saturated fat or trans-fats.
  • Workers are attempting to retrieve eggs laid by a pair of peregrine falcons on San Francisco's Bay Bridge. The eggs will be placed with captive foster parents. Fledglings in bridge nests are vulnerable to falling into the water or onto the busy roadway.
  • The planned Navy Outlying Landing Field (OLF) on the Outer Banks continues to stir controversy. North Carolina Governor Mike Easley and U.S. Representative David Price both registered their opposition this week, with the latter threatening to block funding for the project. The proposed OLF site is close to Pocosin Lakes NWR, a major wintering site for waterfowl. The navy has managed to unite National Audubon and the National Rifle Association in opposition to the project.
  • Predation at parrot nests can be reduced by trimming vines and the outer branches of nest trees.
  • With the political changes in the last election, Annapolis has become a much friendlier place for environmental legislation and regulation. Part of the change is also due to new alliances among previously antagonistic factions.
  • The inspector general of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service reports that the deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks frequently overrode the recommendations of the agency's scientists and shared internal documents with industry representatives. (Update: There are some eye-popping examples of the interference here and here.)
  • Wondering about collective names for various bird species? You can find some here, along with a report of sighting a convocation of eagles.
  • Forsythe NWR in New Jersey will purchase an extra 85 acres.
  • New York readers may be interested in an exhibition of John James Audubon's paintings of North American mammals at the American Museum of Natural History. The New York Historical Society has its own Audubon exhibit underway; the exhibition website includes bird song recordings. (The NY Times has reviewed them.)
  • Stephen Colbert has some ideas for taking advantage of global warming. (I believe he refers to this article.)
Birds in the blogosphere.
Carnivals and links.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Review: Seeking the Sacred Raven

The 'alala, or Hawaiian crow, occupies a special place in the culture and mythology of the indigenous inhabitants of Hawaii. The word itself means the cry of a child. An expanded definition includes a highly-skilled style of chanting used to deliver particularly important messages. The 'alala is also a species at the brink of extinction. In Seeking the Sacred Raven, Mark Jerome Walters describes the decline of this endemic corvid and the attempts to restore its population.

The causes of the 'alala's decline should be familiar from other critically endangered species. Its preferred forest habitat has steadily been destroyed by logging and land clearing for agriculture and development. What is left has been degraded by feral pigs and cattle, which trample and uproot the understory. Introduced species such as rats, mongoose, and feral cats prey on fledglings and even adult birds. At various times, farmers (and others) have hunted the 'alala as a pest. As the population decreased, it became more vulnerable to inbreeding and to predation by the endangered 'io, or Hawaiian hawk.

What is less familiar, and more maddening, is the way that politics and missteps foiled recovery efforts. The need for an active protection and restoration program was first noted in 1970, when about two dozen 'alala existed in the wild. In succeeding years, the situation was allowed to deteriorate. A developer leasing state land destroyed valuable 'alala habitat at Hualalai. State agencies wrested control of 'alala restoration from federal officials, but then they left the captive breeding program in the hands of amateurs. Later attempts to revive a captive breeding program became embroiled in personal conflicts with the owner of McCandless Ranch, the site of the last wild 'alala flock. All through these missteps, time was passing and the wild flock was slowly shrinking. In fact, it took until 1992 for a rational preservation plan to be developed (i.e., Scientific Bases, linked below). In the mid-1990s, with the wild population under a dozen birds, the recovery team finally succeeded in producing young 'alala for release into the wild. Unfortunately these 'alala proved too vulnerable to predation from 'io, and the recovery team recaptured all of the captive-bred birds to re-evaluate the program.

The ultimate fate of the 'alala remains unanswered. The last two wild 'alala disappeared in June 2002. Prospects for restoration to the wild seem dim at this time; young captive-bred crows seem too vulnerable to predation, and released birds will not have the opportunity to learn foraging skills from older wild 'alala. Now that 'alala are gone from the wild, there is finally a wildlife refuge specifically for them.

Seeking the Sacred Raven provides a compelling, if depressing, primer on a conservation program gone awry. If the bald eagle and peregrine falcon stand as symbols of the successes of the Endangered Species Act, then the 'alala may be a symbol of where it has failed.

Related reading:

Full citation:

Mark Jerome Walters, Seeking the Sacred Raven: Politics and Extinction on a Hawaiian Island. Washington, Covelo, and London: Island Press, 2006. Pp. 294; illustrations; notes; and index. $24.95 cloth. ISBN: 1559630906.

To purchase:


Updates on the ESA Revision

The NY Times picked up yesterday's story from Salon on proposed changes in enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. Today's coverage emphasizes that the new regulations are still subject to revision:

H. Dale Hall, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the Endangered Species Act, said Tuesday that the draft proposal detailing the changes was “really a beginning of a process.”

“It had all options on the table,” Mr. Hall said. “It really doesn’t represent anything that we support or don’t support.”
This statement was interesting:
The Endangered Species Act has long been attacked by property-rights groups, cattlemen, timber interests, developers, and mining and drilling companies, mostly in the West. Some environmentalists agree that its provisions can be unnecessarily cumbersome.
I wonder who those environmentalists are, and what their reasoning is. (And why are none of them cited?)

Coverage from Reuters has federal officials claiming that the leaked document is obsolete and does not represent current thinking. Whether the current thinking is better or worse remains unstated. Several sources quoted in the article not that the document cannot be that obsolete since it has changes from February 2007. Here are some potential implications:
The proposed rewrite to the landmark law that protects American wildlife would weaken the act so much that about 80 percent of the 1,300 species now on the endangered list would lose protection, said Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity.

"Efforts to restore the California condor into new states would be stopped under these regulations," Suckling said in a telephone interview from Tucson, Arizona. "Efforts to reintroduce grizzly bears to new areas would be stopped ... This suite of regulations rewrites the Endangered Species Act from top to bottom." reports that Congressional Democrats may use the 2008 appropriations bill to prevent the new regulations from being implemented.

The Center for Biological Diversity has also commented on the issue.

Here are the USFWS Endangered Species homepage, database of endangered species, and list of endangered birds.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Endangered Species Act in Trouble, Again is reporting a new attempt to weaken the Endangered Species Act. This time, the attempt is coming from inside the Interior Department rather than from former Representative Pombo. The report is based on an anonymously leaked document that proposes a series of regulatory changes that would accomplish the changes to the act sought by Republican legislators.

Written in terse, dry legal language, the proposed draft doesn't make for easy reading. However, the changes, often seemingly subtle, generally serve to strip the Fish and Wildlife Service of the power to do its stated job: to protect wildlife....

One change would significantly limit the number of species eligible for endangered status. Currently, if a species is likely to become extinct in "the foreseeable future" -- a species-specific timeframe that can stretch up to 300 years -- it's a candidate for act protections. However, the new rules scale back that timeline to mean either 20 years or 10 generations (the agency can choose which timeline). For certain species with long life spans, such as killer whales, grizzly bears or wolves, two decades isn't even one generation. So even if they might be in danger of extinction, they would not make the endangered species list because they'd be unlikely to die out in two decades....

Perhaps the most significant proposed change gives state governors the opportunity and funding to take over virtually every aspect of the act from the federal government. This includes not only the right to create species-recovery plans and the power to veto the reintroduction of endangered species within state boundaries, but even the authority to determine what plants and animals get protection. For plants and animals in Western states, that's bad news: State politicians throughout the region howled in opposition to the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf into Arizona and the Northern Rockies wolf into Yellowstone National Park....

Additional tweaks in the law would have a major impact. For instance, the proposal would narrow the definition of a species' geographic range from the landscape it inhabited historically to the land it currently occupies. Since the main reason most plants and animals head toward extinction is due to limited habitat, the change would strongly hamper the government's ability to protect chunks of land and allow for a healthy recovery in the wild.

The proposal would also allow both ongoing and planned projects by such federal agencies as the Army Corps of Engineers and the Forest Service to go forward, even when scientific evidence indicates that the projects may drive a species to extinction. Under the new regulations, as long as the dam or logging isn't hastening the previous rate of extinction, it's approved.
The full document is posted here.

(Via nuthatch.)

Monday, March 26, 2007

Birding by Metro: Introduction

Many Washington residents are carless, some because of the hassle or expense of finding parking, others out of necessity. Some residents own cars but choose to limit their driving because of high gas prices, the annoyance of sitting in traffic, or concern over greenhouse gas emissions. Some DC-area birders fall into these categories. How can birding fit into a car-free lifestyle?

The answer is that birding is still a viable pursuit in the District, even without driving, through the use of public transportation. While the use of public transportation imposes some limitations, most major sites are indeed accessible. This series will discuss the birding sites that fall along the various Metro routes, along both rail and bus lines. Since this post will serve as an introduction, here are a few general principles to birding by Metro.

  • Know the fares and schedules in advance. Timetables and fare information for rail and bus routes are available on the WMATA website. Buses require either exact change or a SmarTrip card.
  • Map locations in advance. Use mapping resources to plan a route from the birding site to the nearest rail station or bus stop. This is especially important if the birding site is in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Google Maps and Google Earth offer sharp satellite images of the District.
  • Be safe. All of the sites and routes that I will cover in this series are generally well-patrolled, and I have not had any uncomfortable or dangerous incidents. Still, use common sense: take a friend for birding in isolated or unfamiliar areas, and watch out for traffic at busy intersections.
  • Be aware of limitations. Not all of the best birding areas are easily accessible by Metro, and some require a substantial walk from the station or bus stop. Factor for these when you plan for time and distance. For some locations, travel by Metro may take longer than travel by car, so plan accordingly.
As I have mentioned before, I do not own car, so I have to use the Metro system if I want to bird within the District. I learned the best routes by trial and error over the first year that I spent birding. The downside of getting to sites by Metro instead of by car is that it restricts which sites I can visit easily; there are some places that I rarely or never visit. There is an upside, though, and that is getting to know some places very well. In particular, I have explored most of the nooks and crannies of the National Arboretum in my search for new birds.

Posts from this series will eventually be compiled into an article for the DC Audubon website.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Morning at Hughes Hollow

Today DC Audubon made its annual spring trip to Hughes Hollow in Maryland. The choice of dates turned out of be fortuitous, as the day was absolutely gorgeous. We finally got a break from the yo-yo temperatures mixed with rainy days. The early dense fog lifted to reveal blue skies and a mild morning.

Hughes Hollow is part of the McKee-Beshers WMA, a mixed-use conservation area managed for hunters, hikers, and birders. The portion we covered today comprises only about one-sixth of the WMA; in the distance we could hear dog trials in another part of the WMA and shots at a nearby gun club. Because of the hunting pressure, waterfowl in the impoundments tend to be very jumpy. Nevertheless, the refuge offers diverse habitats that attract many species of birds.

This field trip is timed to coincide with the return of tree swallows to the area, and sure enough, swarms of tree swallows were flying over the impoundments when we arrived. A large raft of ring-necked ducks was in the left impoundment. The ring-necked ducks were joined by a pied-billed grebe and a few chicken-like American coots. Songbirds were also plentiful. Flocks of red-winged blackbirds croaked their song, while eastern bluebirds and yellow-rumped warblers foraged in the trees along the sides of the dike. Towards the end of the dike, a few of us saw a red-headed woodpecker, the first of several. I think that in total we saw four, so most attendees got a good look at this striking species by the end of the day.

After leaving the impoundments, the main trail winds its way through fields, hedgerows, and wooded swamps. These areas are full of the characteristic wetland species. We got many good looks at all seven woodpeckers, noisily displaying red-shouldered hawks, eastern phoebes, and swamp sparrows. Some people saw rusty blackbirds, which I missed. Waterbirds, as I noted, were a little harder to see; most sightings of wood ducks, black ducks, hooded mergansers, and northern pintail were brief, at a distance, or partially obscured by brush and trees. I and a few others had great looks at green-winged and blue-winged teal when we turned down a side path.

A later (unofficial) stop at Seneca Lock turned up a singing pine warbler (not seen), a bufflehead, and a few horned grebes, which are my first for the year. (Somehow I kept missing them despite ample opportunities.) Seneca also yielded a swarm of box elder bugs.


Pied-billed Grebe
Horned Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Green-winged Teal
American Black Duck
Northern Pintail
Blue-winged Teal
Ring-necked Duck
Red-breasted Merganser
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
American Coot
Mourning Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Tree Swallow
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Northern Mockingbird
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Blue Jay
American Crow
Fish Crow
European Starling
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Pine Warbler
Eastern Towhee
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird

* These are my sightings only. The full trip list will be posted on the DC Audubon website.

Random Notes

Just a few gleanings from the weekend that did not make it into my last edition of Loose Feathers....

  • Coffee and Conservation reviewed the shade-grown coffee that is a component of the American Bird Conservancy's Save the Cerulean Warbler campaign. The upshot is that the coffee sampled seems under par for the gourmet/specialty niche for which it is marketed. That is unfortunate since shade coffee plantations in Colombia form an important part of the warbler's winter habitat.
  • A search for ivory-billed woodpeckers has been underway in the Big Thicket area of Texas. So far, no substantial evidence has materialized there. (Thanks, L.!)
  • Some really unusual waterbirds were spotted around the vicinity of Hains Point on Saturday. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to look for them, but enterprising birders may still be able to find some. Check the reports on MDOsprey, here and here.
  • Birds have differentiated sex chromosomes, but the dosage compensation between them is less effective than in mammals. (Paper here.)
  • Here is a photograph of a really odd mallard. Hybrid? Domestic? Mutant? Who knows!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

More on the Eagles

Last week, I noted that a pair of bald eagles is nesting in Philadelphia for the first time in two centuries. Apparently the nest is on some highly-coveted land near the Navy Yard.

State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo and Gov. Rendell back a plan to build a $150 million regional produce market, with more than a thousand trucks rumbling up every day. And the port wants to build a massive maritime terminal.

For now, the birds have the federal Endangered Species Act on their side, so any development may have to be changed, delayed or even halted.

But all bets are off come June, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to delist the eagle because it has rebounded so significantly.

So here in one of the most populous cities in the country, the new resident eagles could well wind up being a test case for how to protect the species into the future....

Carole Copeyon, supervisor of the Endangered Species Program at the Pennsylvania field office of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said yesterday that she had recommended halting next month's planned demolition of some abandoned homes at the Navy Yard site. She also has recommended delaying any construction....

Copeyon said that, for now, the only way the project could continue is if the development received a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service, a process that could take two years if approved at all.

It would involve preparing a "habitat conservation plan" that would demonstrate how the developers planned to avoid, minimize or compensate for any impacts to the eagles.

As the article notes, the construction of the new Capital Beltway bridge required a conservation plan since an eagle nest was right next to the old bridge. As it turned out, that nest kept functioning until the female died from unrelated causes. So traffic and heavy construction work would not necessarily drive the eagles away. One element that may have helped in the Beltway bridge case is that the those eagles had been nesting next to the busy highway for years, and so they were probably used to a lot of noise and activity already. I am not sure if the same dynamics would be in place in this case.

There is more on the rival plans for the Navy Yard site here.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Loose Feathers #91

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment

  • Fewer waterfowl than usual visited the Chesapeake Bay region this winter. Canvasback numbers were especially low.
  • The Post profiled Huntley Meadows, a birding hotspot in Fairfax County, Virginia.
  • Researchers have identified a population of crossbills that became reproductively isolated due to ecological factors in its range. The South Hills crossbill, part of the red crossbill complex, specializes in foraging among lodgepole pines.
  • Research suggests that nuthatches can understand chickadees.
  • A fight between two peregrines in Pittsburgh was captured by a webcam. The twenty-minute fight occurred when a younger male tried to invade the nesting territory of an older male. Which bird won is not entirely certain. A sequence of photos from the webcam is here.
  • Human land use contributes to the decline of grassland and seashore species.
  • Ecologists in the U.K. are worried about the flourishing population of feral rose-ringed parakeets.
  • Deforestation continues at a rapid pace, but has slowed recently. The article states that 18 percent of carbon dioxide production comes as a result of deforestation since trees soak up carbon. The worst deforestation rates are in South America and Africa, though those continents are not alone.
  • The Twin Cities have started a voluntary program to reduce migratory bird deaths by dimming or shutting off lights in tall buildings at night.
  • The News Journal profiles the role of Delaware's marshes and beaches during migration.
  • Rules affecting livestock grazing and energy production have been enacted in Wyoming to protect sage grouse.
  • Grist has an interview with Rep. Ed Markey, chair of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.
  • The long-whiskered owlet, a small rare species from Peru, was sighted in the wild for the first time. Previous encounters had all been facilitated by mist nets.
Birds in the blogosphere
Carnivals and link posts

Thursday, March 22, 2007


Magnolias at the National Gallery

Daffodils at the Capitol

I saw two raptors this afternoon. As I was waiting to cross a street downtown, I saw a peregrine fly past. It circled twice overhead and then flew off. Later in the evening, I spotted a Cooper's hawk perched at the top of a tree on the Capitol's west lawn. It took off and went into a glide, scattering the grackles in nearby trees.

Gore on the Hill

Yesterday Al Gore was in town to testify before Senate and House committees on climate change. His testimony defined the seriousness of the problem and presented some possible solutions. His proposed solutions are fairly ambitious:

Gore's solutions were as sweeping as his metaphors. His recommendations began with the immediate national freeze on new emissions of carbon dioxide -- which could affect everything from cars to lawn mowers to coal-fired power plants -- and included an overhaul of the tax code. Payroll taxes should go down, Gore said, and taxes on polluters, especially those who emit carbon dioxide, should go up.

Beyond that, Gore recommended a ban on incandescent light bulbs, which activists say are far less energy-efficient than new compact fluorescent bulbs; raising the fuel-efficiency standards for cars; and a "carbon-neutral mortgage association." The last would allow homeowners to more easily finance renovations to improve energy efficiency, he said.
Whether any of this will be enacted remains to be seen. Serious action will probably have to wait until the political balance in Washington changes further. In the meantime, it is important to give the problem a high profile in the news, as the former vice president is doing.

You can find video clips of Gore's testimony at PoliticsTV: opening statement and highlights. Also, from Youtube, Senator Boxer scolds Senator Inhofe for rudeness.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

I and the Bird #45

It is time again for I and the Bird, the biweekly carnival that presents the best of bird blogging. This week it is hosted by Journey Through Grace, written by a blogger who is not an avid birder, but a bird lover nonetheless. Go there for I and the Bird #45, the 45th birthday party.

If you blog regularly about birds and have not done so already, please consider contributing to future editions. (Your blog need not be strictly about birds to contribute a post.) The next edition will be hosted at lovely, dark, and deep. Beyond the next edition, the carnival needs more hosts, preferably people who have not hosted before. If you would like to give hosting a try, visit here and here to get an idea of what is involved. Hosting, by the way, is a great way to let other bird bloggers know about your blog and to learn about blogs that you did not know existed.

Blogging for Birders

Over at 10,000 Birds, Mike initiated a discussion about the purposes and techniques of blogging. Meta discussions are endemic to the blogosphere, sometimes arising from introspective moments but often in response to the pie fights that plague the more competitive niches like political blogging and technology blogging. (For better or worse, the closest the bird blogs have had to a pie fight is the ivory-billed woodpecker story, which is really something different.)

A frequent lament around the blog world is that not enough people are reading. Sometimes these laments get turned into attacks on other bloggers who are perceived to be more successful. The post that Mike cites arose from such a situation. It comes from Webomatica, and proposes some ways to improve your own blog (and thus draw more readers). Here are his suggestions:

  1. Blog often.
  2. Figure out a niche and stick to it.
  3. Learn the technical stuff.
  4. Read other people’s blogs regularly.
  5. Comment on other blogs.
  6. Read up on how to write.
  7. Write posts that you want to read.
  8. Figure out why you’re blogging.
  9. Set some goals for yourself.
(Read the original post for an explanation of what he means.)

These are all good ideas, and common to most "how to blog" lists. In addition to those, make sure that your site is reader-friendly. That is, avoid light text on dark backgrounds, give links if you are writing about another website or news article, enable site feeds, etc.

From my perspective, the most important element is to present good content. This means good writing, but it does not have to mean that each post should be a novella. Sometimes effective presentation requires short and direct writing. What it does mean is that thoughts should be expressed clearly, with proper English, and with attention to headlines and interesting topics so that readers will want to read the rest of the post. Figuring out your niche will guide writing, because it allows you to improve your presentation within a certain topic or style. The other elements listed above simply let other people know about your good content.

Even among bird blogs there are many possible niches. Most bird bloggers present trip reports, some of which are narrative-heavy while others are photo-heavy. Some choose to focus on news, others on publishing, others on avian ecology, others on behavior, others on meta stories (in birding and blogging). Some have a narrow focus on local raptor populations. Each city or region presents a possible niche in itself. Different writing styles and voices also present opportunities to form distinctive blogging niches.

As Mike points out, blogging well requires a certain degree of introspection. I regularly re-evaluate what I do here and where the blog is going. I want to make sure that my writing does not becoming stale and that blogging is still fun. It is not really worth blogging about birds if it becomes a chore.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Climate Crisis Rally

This morning and afternoon there was a climate crisis rally on the west lawn of the Capitol. The rally was attended by several hundred people, three bipedal polar bears, and one six-foot-tall bipedal raccoon. I attended and stayed for most of it.

The rally was organized by a coalition of organizations to encourage passage of legislation on two issues: preserving the Arctic NWR as wilderness and reducing carbon emissions. The chief sponsors of the bills introduced to address those issues were present at the rally to speak. Rep. Edward Markey is sponsoring legislation to address the ANWR issue (H.R. 39). Senators Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders were there to talk about their emissions bill, the Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act of 2007 (S. 309). Rep. Henry Waxman, sponsor of its House equivalent (Safe Climate Act), spoke in support of stricter emissions limits. John Kerry and a few other politicians also spoke, and they were joined by several scientists, schoolchildren, and members of the native Gwich'in people. The various speakers were very well received. Barbara Boxer, in particular, was the subject of loud ovations when she took the stage and when she began to speak.

The Post has more coverage of the event.

There are pictures from the rally here and here.

Addendum (3/21): Al Gore was in town today to testify on climate change.

Climate change has been a big topic of discussion among local birders because of fears of what it might entail for the bird species we love to watch. The topic comes up in discussions of dwindling waterfowl in the Chesapeake watershed; it also appears when fall migration seems to be behind schedule. While some of those phenomena may not be completely due to long-term climate change, we can expect changes to the local animal populations in the next few decades. Sometimes I see the problem dismissed as only a change of a few degrees, but it is worth keeping in mind that those few degrees can make a big difference:

"We certainly know that we've been experiencing climate change impacts," said Bill Dennison, a vice president at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. He added that even a seemingly slight warming trend can be significant in the interdependent world of nature.

"What's a degree? Well, think about if you ran a couple degrees' temperature," Dennison said. "We're already a couple degrees elevated. That's affecting our health."

"All it takes is a couple of degrees to lose those fish," said Don Cosden, a state fisheries official.

The local trout prefer water colder than 68 degrees, he said. Already, streams such as this one can get that hot on summer days. State officials estimate that the fish might be gone from central Maryland in less than a century -- although they would probably survive in the cooler western mountains and in states farther north.
Given that many birds are as sensitive to temperature changes as the fish, we can probably expect some species to disappear from the area. The Post article cites brown pelicans and Baltimore orioles in particular, but range changes may go well beyond that.

Cited article.

Nuthatches Can Understand Chickadees

Nuthatches and chickadees - along with several other bird species - frequently move in mixed species flocks. The mixed species flocks allow a few individuals of each species to take advantage of different foraging opportunities in a small area. They also serve as a form of mutual protection. A paper published this week shows that the nuthatches in those flocks are able to understand the chickadees' alarm calls.

Earlier research had established that black-capped chickadees use different calls to indicate the degree of danger. Chickadees give longer calls for more dangerous predators - typically smaller raptors that are more likely to prey on chickadees. Less dangerous raptors merit shorter calls.

The researchers played chickadee calls of different lengths in areas inhabited by red-breasted nuthatches but not by chickadees. When the longer call was played, nuthatches mobbed the speakers. When the shorter call was played, nuthatches reacted with less vigor. This suggests that nuthatches not only recognize the call as an alarm call, but also understand its meaning.

Abstract here.

The contemplative nuthatch comments as well.

Monday, March 19, 2007

New North American Crossbill

A new crossbill species has been reported from Idaho:

Julie Smith, now at Pacific Lutheran University, and her former graduate advisor, Craig Benkman at the University of Wyoming, have uncovered strong evidence that coevolution has led to the formation of a species of bird new to science in the continental United States. Benkman discovered in 1996 what appears to be a new species restricted to two small mountain ranges in southern Idaho (the South Hills and Albion Mountains). This species is a morphologically and vocally distinct "call type" of red crossbill (Loxia curvirostra complex), which is a group of seed-eating finches specialized for extracting seeds from conifer cones.

Fieldwork by Smith has revealed some of the mechanisms that have contributed to the nearly complete cessation of interbreeding between this crossbill and other call types that move into the South Hills every year. Perhaps most remarkable is that this new crossbill evolved because of a coevolutionary arms race between crossbills and lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) in the last five to seven thousands years.

As South Hills crossbills exerted selection on lodgepole pine for increased seed defenses, lodgepole pine in turn exerted selection on crossbills for larger bills to deal with these increased seed defenses. This coevolution has caused these crossbills to diverge substantially in bill morphology from other crossbills. Because the South Hills crossbill is adapted to remove seeds from the well-defended cones there, it is a superior competitor and thereby limits the less well adapted and nomadic call types to breeding at very low frequencies in the South Hills.

Such ecological differences lead to premating (i.e., before mating) reproductive isolation, which is nearly completed by strong assortative pairing among the different call types (>99% of South Hills crossbills pair with another South Hills crossbill). "This indicates that levels of reproductive isolation characteristic of recognized species can evolve rapidly even in the continued face of potential gene flow" says Benkman. It also shows that coevolution can be a potent force for rapidly generating biodiversity.

It is not often that new species are discovered in a region explored as well as North America. The red crossbill complex, however, has been considered ripe for splits, so it is not surprising to see a new species come out of it.

Article here.

(Via coturnix)

Update: As John points out, the press release and ScienceDaily article oversold the claims advanced in the paper, which dealt primarily with ecological speciation, and not with formally naming a new species. So it's too early to claim this as a new species.

Low Canvasback Numbers on the Chesapeake

The Baltimore Sun reports on this winter's exceptionally small flocks of canvasbacks around Chesapeake Bay:

Department of Natural Resources officials counted 13,700 canvasbacks during their annual midwinter waterfowl survey, which tracks about 20 species of ducks and geese that fly south each winter. That marked a precipitous drop from the four previous years, when canvasback numbers hovered between 30,000 and 40,000 during the annual count.

The survey found declines in other species of ducks as well, and recorded the lowest numbers of waterfowl in Maryland's portion of the Chesapeake Bay in five years.


Waterfowl specialist Larry Hindman, who conducts the department's surveys, said an unseasonably warm winter is to blame for the lack of canvasbacks, which decided to spend much of the season in the Great Lakes area. Federal data show that the russet-necked, white-feathered birds are breeding at a stable rate nationwide and that the continental population is relatively high.

In the 1950s, nearly 250,000 canvasbacks - about half the North American winter population - wintered in the Chesapeake Bay, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Thousands of those birds flocked to the Susquehanna Flats near Havre de Grace, where they dined on the plentiful wild celery grasses and helped drive a hunting industry. The number of ducks in Maryland has fallen in part because much of the grasses that were their food source have been destroyed.
The DNR survey confirms our impressions from the Eastern Neck Christmas Count. In terms of recent numbers, it may be a one-year blip, but the fifty-year decline is more serious.

New Luneau Video Criticism

The identity of the bird in the Luneau video has been challenged in previous publications (e.g., Sibley and Jackson (pdf)). Now we have another paper that concludes that the bird in the video is a pileated rather than an ivory-billed woodpecker. This paper, by J. Martin Collinson, compared the Luneau video to similar poor quality videos of pileated woodpeckers in similar flight angles. You can read the abstract or the full open-access article (pdf). (Note that the pdf file is provisional.)

The Collinson paper undermines two key claims advanced in the Science paper that announced the rediscovery. One is that the bird in the Luneau video beats its wings too quickly to be a pileated woodpecker. The second is that the plumage patterns visible on the bird's wings are consistent with an ivory-billed woodpecker, but not with a pileated.

The Luneau video shows a woodpecker beating its wings at a frequency of 8.6 beats per second over eight wingbeats. This matches the frequency from an archived sound recording of an ivory-billed woodpecker in flight. The original paper claimed that this is too fast for a pileated woodpecker. However, videos reported in the Collinson paper recorded initial escape flights with frequencies of 7.1, 6.7, 8.0, and 8.6 beats per second, suggesting that wingbeat frequency from the Luneau video does not rule out a pileated woodpecker.

While both ivory-billed and pileated woodpeckers have black and white wings, they differ significantly in plumage pattern. Ivory-billed woodpeckers have white on the trailing edges of the dorsal and ventral surfaces, plus on the ventral covert feathers. Pileated woodpeckers have white only on the dorsal and ventral coverts. In flight, pileated woodpeckers have a very black appearance. (See this illustration for plumage differences.) The argument for the Luneau bird being an ivory-billed woodpecker boils down to the appearance of large white surfaces on both the dorsal and ventral surfaces of the wing. These white areas seem to extend to the wing's trailing edge. The Collinson paper shows that, in a low-quality video such as the Luneau video, a pileated woodpecker can take on characteristics that are superficially similar to an ivory-billed woodpecker. Further, the new pileated woodpecker videos resemble the Luneau video in several important respects. (A comparison of frames from the Luneau video with flying pileated woodpeckers can be found on pp. 29-31 of the provisional pdf, or in a jpg image here.)

It appears that the bird in the Luneau video is not necessarily an ivory-billed woodpecker rather than a pileated. Removing the Luneau video leaves sight reports and audio recordings as the remaining evidence for the woodpecker's survival. Neither would likely be accepted as sufficient evidence by a state or national records committee; the sightings are generally of poor quality, even though most reporters seem reliable, and the audio recordings do not eliminate other species completely. As Collinson points out, the video analysis does not mean that ivory-billed woodpeckers are extinct, but it does remove a key piece of evidence for their persistence.

Related materials:

The paper has also been covered by Nuthatch, Rob, GrrlScientist, BirdCouple, Bill, and Birder's World. The CLO posted its own detailed video analysis.

Earlier this week, I write about some ivory-billed woodpecker articles in the latest issue of Birding. See also my previous posts about ivory-billed woodpeckers.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

A Day for LBJs

Birders have adopted a term "little brown jobs" (abbreviated "LBJs") as shorthand for any of the small brown bird species. "LBJ" refers principally to sparrows, but may include female finches, female buntings, pipits and larks, some warblers, some icterids, and even some thrushes, depending on one's perspective. The term expresses the mix of frustration and endearment that birders feel towards small brown birds. Perhaps the frustration of trying to differentiate cryptic birds is more prevalent. But even the most frustrated birder can find something to like among the small brown birds. These are, after all, among the most common birds that we encounter out in the field. Even in the city, it is hard not to see a few on any given walk. Today I saw more than my usual share of LBJs.

I started out at Constitution Gardens, and immediately I saw an adult bald eagle circling the Washington Monument. The lake at the gardens held basically the same group of waterbirds as the last time I visited: American wigeons, ring-necked ducks, lesser scaup, American coots, and superb redheads. A new waterbird species for this week was pied-billed grebe. The number of common grackles on the Mall has been building, and today I saw my first red-winged blackbird of the year. A few song sparrows and many robins worked the grassy areas around the lake.

From there I walked over to the DC WWI Memorial. As usual, the area around the memorial was quiet, but the azalea bushes held a trio of fox sparrows. All three let me approach closely for better looks at their rich rufous plumage.

The Tidal Basin and river held numerous double-crested cormorants. Cormorants are clearly making a push northward, but I am not sure that their numbers have peaked yet. Lesser scaup are also on the move. There were several large flocks on the Tidal Basin, river, and Washington Channel. Red-breasted mergansers are also passing through. A sure sign of spring is the return of the railroad bridge ospreys. One was arranging the nest on top of the trestle, and a second was perched on the piling below.

As I made my way south to the point, strong winds made it difficult to see what might be on the river. So I stayed close to the golf course fence instead. As a result, I got a decent look at a swamp sparrow. Near the point I deviated from my original plan and approached the river walk again. As a result of that chance decision, I saw two American pipits on the concrete path. This was a chance sighting in a second way as well; since the first bird I saw on the path was a song sparrow, I assumed the others would be as well, but took a second look anyway. (It is always a good idea to take a second look!) It was only then that I noticed the thrush-like posture, ungainly strut, and bobbing tail that are characteristic of American pipits. This was an exciting sighting since I have only seen pipits once before. There was a third pipit on the other side of the point. At the tip of Hains Point, I spotted three Bonaparte's gulls among the fleet of ring-billed gulls.

On the way from Hains Point, I encountered yet another odd LBJ. After checking through the various field marks - notched tail with white outer feathers, white eye ring, white supercilium with hatching, striped breast, etc. - I determined that the bird was a vesper sparrow. Like today's fox sparrows, this vesper sparrow was very cooperative and stayed in the grass about five feet away while I examined it in detail. It is not every day that one gets such a good look at an unusual bird.

Before calling it a day, I stopped by the Indian Museum to check the wetland display. Oddly enough, that was where I saw my first white-throated sparrows of the day. I am not sure how I went almost a whole day without seeing them. A final treat was a Cooper's hawk circling the Capitol's reflecting pool.


Pied-billed Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Canada Goose
American Wigeon
Ring-necked Duck
Lesser Scaup
Red-breasted Merganser
Bald Eagle
Cooper's Hawk
American Coot
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
American Herring Gull
Bonaparte's Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Northern Mockingbird
American Robin
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Blue Jay
Fish Crow
European Starling
House Sparrow
House Finch
American Goldfinch
Vesper Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle

Roll mouse over images for attribution and species name.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Eagles Nesting in Philadelphia

Bald eagles have begun nesting again in Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania Game Commission officials today announced that they have confirmed the first known bald eagle nest in Philadelphia County in more than 200 years. Game Commission Wildlife Conservation Officer (WCO) Jerry Czech, who serves Philadelphia County, reported a bald eagle nest has been located in the City of Brotherly Love, and that Game Commission personnel and volunteers have been monitoring the nest and documenting activity.

"We don't know if the nest will result in the pair successfully breeding and laying eggs yet, but we are very hopeful," said Dan Brauning, Game Commission Wildlife Diversity Supervisor, and a native of Philadelphia. "Each year, about 20 percent of Pennsylvania's eagle nests fail for reasons such as disturbances, predators and harsh weather. However, our confirmation of an eagle nest within the Philadelphia City limits demonstrates the resilience of this species and its apparent growing tolerance to human activity. This find is an historic moment that returns some of Pennsylvania's native wildlife to the doorstep of its largest city."

Brauning said that Game Commission officials will not reveal the exact location of the nest site to avoid drawing unnecessary attention and possible disturbance to the nest.
In 2006, 116 bald eagle nests were recorded in the state of Pennsylvania.

Addendum: More coverage from the Inquirer.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Voting Rights for D.C.?

A proposal to grant Washington, D.C., full representation in the House of Representatives has now cleared the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the House Judiciary Committee. Currently the District has one delegate who can vote in committee but not on the final passage of a bill. This bill would grant one full representative to the District, and add an at-large representative for Utah, to maintain the partisan balance.

The bill must pass a vote by the full House next week, before moving to the Senate for consideration. Prospects in the Senate are murkier, as the bill could fall prey to parliamentary maneuvers. The conventional wisdom is that President Bush will veto the legislation if it passes both houses of Congress. Whether there is enough support to override a veto remains to be seen.

For more on the issue, see D.C. Vote.

Loose Feathers #90

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment

  • Birds may use grains of iron in their bills to guide long-distance flight. The iron, present in skin cells at the base of the bill, may act as a compass that helps the birds read the Earth's magnetic field.
  • Lumber interests are suing to remove protections for endangered marbled murrelets in the Pacific Northwest.
  • Rare northern bald ibises have returned to their breeding grounds in Syria.
  • Male lance-tailed manakins pair up for aerial courtship dances, but only the dominant male gets to mate.
  • Texas biologists are relocating captured wild turkeys across the state to study why turkeys do well in some areas but not others.
  • A Canadian birder had the bad luck to watch two bald eagles shot with a rifle.
  • Another bird shot with an arrow: this time a pelican.
  • This past winter (December to February) was the warmest on record. A moderate El Nino effect was a major contributor.
  • Liverpool is installing robotic falcons to drive away pigeons.
Birds in the blog world
Carnivals and link posts

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Climate Crisis Action Day

On next Tuesday, March 20, there will be a Climate Crisis Action Day outside the U.S. Capitol. The event is intended to induce Congress to pass the Arctic Wilderness Act and legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Action day will begin at 11 AM with an inspiring lineup of speakers including celebrities, well known US representatives and senators, and leaders from faith organizations, labor groups, sporting and business organizations, and conservation groups. Alaska Natives and members of the Gwich’in Nation will also share their firsthand experiences about the challenges of global warming and the threat of oil drilling in the arctic. Following this inspirational two hour program, attendees will have the opportunity to meet with their members of Congress and urge them to support the Arctic Wilderness Act and legislation that will combat global warming and support clean energy.
The organizers of the event are asking participants to register in advance. The linked site gives transportation options and directions.

Follow-up: My impression of the rally.


Last night my site meter turned past 50,000 when someone visited from New Jersey. That is fewer visits in close to two years than many sites have in a day, but it is a nice milestone all the same. Thanks to all my readers.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Waterbirds in Trouble

BirdLife just released a report on the state on the world's waterbirds:

“Waterbirds are highly susceptible to man-made change because the wetlands they inhabit are often densely populated and intensely utilised. Many of these species are long-distance migrants meaning that their protection requires coordinated action by international networks of conservationists," said Birdlife International’s Mike Crosby, who co-authored the paper, Threatened waterbird species in eastern and southern Asia and actions needed for their conservation, one of over 200 papers in Waterbirds around the world.

“The book contains a wealth of information and case studies about waterbirds and wetlands and the conservation actions needed to ensure they can be afforded protection,” said Crosby.

Further information on the book is available here. That site has the report in pdf format, if anyone wants to dig into it more deeply. It covers the conservation problems on most major flyways, in the Americas, in Eurasia, and in Africa.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Coverage

There is some interesting coverage of the ivory-billed woodpecker question in the latest issue of Birding, the ABA's bimonthly magazine. Among them is an historical look at the end of the Singer Tract population, the last ivory-billed woodpeckers to be reported and photographed without controversy. The article has interviews with some of the last living people to see the birds in that forest and old photographs from the area. It is available free online, here. The logging of the Singer Tract occurred about three decades short of the passage of the Endangered Species Act. One would hope that with the protection of that law, similar situations would not arise again.

Also, see The Great Debate, the results of a survey on perceptions of the evidence for ivory-billed woodpeckers. I participated in the survey, as did many others. The survey was probably not representative of birders as a whole. It suffers from the usual online survey problems of self selection. In addition, the survey was announced mainly through birding email lists and blogs. In the survey group, 83% were male, 58% had at least attended graduate school, and 97% considered themselves to have moderate or high level identification skills. Here are the results for whether the ivory-billed woodpecker exists:

Definitely does not exist: 4%
Probably does not exist: 27%
Possibly exists: 27%
Probably exists: 23%
Definitely exists: 21%
I forget how I answered the survey in September. My answer now would waver somewhere between a possibly and a probably exists. I am surprised that the "definitely does not exist" option received the fewest votes by far since the skeptical voices in the bird blogosphere have been quite loud, and the survey got a lot of promotion from them.