Saturday, June 30, 2007

Insects That Run the Planet

Speaking of insects, Edward O. Wilson was in town to give a lecture in honor of National Pollinator Week. His talk focused on human dependence on invertebrates, particularly the ones that pollinate our food sources and fertilize the soil where they grow. His talk focused on what life would be like without insects, which does not sound far-fetched in the light of colony collapse disorder among honey bees.

Wilson was focused on putting self-absorbed Homo sapiens in some ecological context. If humans were to disappear -- he doesn't advocate this, for the record -- the effects on the insect world would be minimal. "It's unlikely a single insect species would go extinct except three forms of body and head lice," he said. Close relatives of the parasites could still live on gorillas. The primal, complex web of life would continue "minus all the species we have pushed into extinction." Ouch.

But reverse the tables, remove the insects, and what would happen? Wilson paints a Mad Max scenario, in which not only do the bees, flies, beetles, moths and butterflies disappear, but all the plants that rely on them to set fruit, nuts and seed vanish as well. No worries, you say, because two-thirds of the crops we eat are wind-pollinated. But insects, not earthworms, are the principal tillers of the soil, and without them this secret microbial universe in the soil would decline, too. Dwindling food sources and plunging human populations would bring out the beast in people, who would do what humans always do -- kill each other. Wilson speaks of "an ecological dark age" where "the survivors would offer prayers for the return of weeds and bugs."
Read the rest.

Review: Lang Elliott on the Songs of Insects and Birds

One evening early last week I heard a cicada sing for the first time this summer. For several weeks already, the sounds of insects have been emanating - quietly - from the fields where I usually walk for my birding. These songs will intensify as the weeks roll on.

Like birds, insects produce distinctive sounds. I am not sure that the many insect species are as easily identifiable by song as birds. Insects do not have as great a range in quality; most songs are buzzy trills or chirps since insects detect intensity and rhythm better than pitch. Many insect songs are at a much higher pitch than bird songs; most range from 4 kHz to 20 kHz and are harder for humans to hear. One aid towards learning to identify different insects is The Songs of Insects, a new book by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger.

The Songs of Insects introduces the songs of seventy-seven species, from four insect families. It includes many examples of crickets (Gryllidae and Gryllotalpidae) and katydids (Tettigoniidae). Two grasshoppers (Acrididae) are represented. Several cicadas (Cicadidae) round out the book. While some species may be found across the continent, most insects described in the book are from the eastern and central United States. A compact disk with multiple examples of each song accompanies the text.

Each species on the compact disk is given an entry in the book. The text describes identification points for each insect, including a description of the song. Most entries include notes on the species's preferred habitat and how to find them. I wish the text gave more detail about what time of year each species emerges and sings (e.g., late summer vs. early summer). Each entry includes a range map, a sonagram, and high-quality photographs of the species.

The species accounts comprise the bulk of the book. In addition, The Songs of Insects includes introductory material on the production and structure of insect songs. The authors also give advice for appreciating insect songs and collecting insects. Additional supporting materials are provided at the website

The Songs of Insects is a companion to The Songs of Wild Birds, also by Lang Elliott. Like The Songs of Insects, The Songs of Wild Birds combines a lively text with high-quality color photographs and a compact disk. In the course of fifty short essays, Elliott introduces the vocalizations of fifty-nine bird species. As with The Songs of Insects, bird species are selected from the eastern and central United States.

The compact disk for The Songs of Wild Birds has a more didactic tone than that of The Songs of Insects. While the latter's compact disk simply introduces each species by name, the narration for The Songs of Wild Birds introduces each species and describes the songs and their functions. I was gratified to hear Elliott clarify the difference between the calls of red-tailed hawks and bald eagles - a common mistake. The disk includes some unusual sounds, such as the nocturnal flight calls of a flock of migrating hermit and Swainson's thrushes.

While I enjoyed reading The Songs of Wild Birds and listening to the compact disk, I am not sure that it fills a unique niche among books about bird songs. (I prefer the Birding by Ear series for learning to identify songs and The Singing Life of Birds for how bird songs function.) The Songs of Insects does fill a real need, since the resources for identifying insect songs are few. It is especially unusual to find insect song resources that are aimed at the general public. The Songs of Insects might not be appealing to someone who is squeamish about the sight of larger-than-life photographs of insects. Anyone else, though, should enjoy this book and learn from it.

Full citations:

Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger, The Songs of Insects. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Pp. 228; sonagrams, color photographs, index, and compact disk. $19.95 paper. ISBN: 0618663975 (


Lang Elliott, The Songs of Wild Birds. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Pp. 128; sonagrams, color photographs, index, and compact disk. $19.95 paper. ISBN: 0618663983


Other reviews:

Question from a Reader

A reader, Laura in NWDC, left the following question in an earlier comment thread:

I bought a double compartment tube feeder and filled one side with nyger and one side with safflower. I had read that a lot of songbirds like safflower, finches and chickadees like thistle, and house sparrows and starlings don't like either one. That is true.

But the house sparrows have overrun the feeder, PULLING OUT every seed and throwing it on the ground trying to find something they like. In two days they've emptied it, dumping all that expensive seed on the ground to rot, uneaten.

I want to keep feeding the other birds, and I don't want to buy a feeder that limits feeding to JUST finches. Is there anything I can do to deter the house sparrows from trashing the place while making other birds feel welcome?
I am not sure how to answer this myself since I do not have much experience with bird feeders. (I live downtown and lack a backyard.) Could any reader suggest a solution?

Update: A reader wrote to suggest something like a Magic Halo. It looks like you could make it yourself.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Loose Feathers #105

Common Yellowthroat / Photo by Dave Menke (USFWS)

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment
  • A biologist in Canada is using museum specimens to study changes in the marbled murrelet's diet. By analyzing the carbon and nitrogen isotopes in birds' feathers, he determined that they are mostly fish around 1900, but now mostly eat marine invertebrates.
  • Kirtland's warbler has been found breeding in Wisconsin.
  • Wildlife officials in Florida are still investigating the deaths of hundreds of seabirds on its Atlantic coast. Starvation seems the most likely culprit at present.
  • The bald eagle has been removed from the Endangered Species List. Eagles have rebounded since reaching a low of 417 breeding pairs in 1963. Officials in Arizona have petitioned the federal government to maintain a local population of desert-breeding eagles on the list due to their special needs. The news was announced at a special ceremony on Thursday in front of the Jefferson Memorial.
  • Giant penguin fossils have been found in Peru.
  • While bald eagles have recovered, northern spotted owls are still in decline. The Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing a new recovery plan for the species.
  • The photo to the right is not a photoshopped crow. It is a recurve-billed bushbird, a rare bird found in northeastern Colombia and Venezuela. (Click the photo at right for a larger image.)
  • The fairy pitta is threatened by the Hushan Dam Project in Taiwan, which threatens to destroy much of its habitat on that island.
  • Seabirds face a continuing threat from abandoned fishing gear, which ensnares the birds.
  • Osprey and trumpeter swans are both in decline in Yellowstone National Park. Osprey have suffered from a reduction in cutthroat trout.
  • The Nature Conservancy will transfer its 1,500-acre preserve on South Padre Island (Texas) to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • Piping plovers are making a slow recovery, but remain endangered because of their specialized habitat requirements.
  • A new set of postal stamps honoring natural pollinators features a calliope hummingbird. The stamps are for sale here.
  • Residents of Jamestown, Rhode Island, are paying farmers to mow hay later in the summer to protect nesting grassland birds. The project is testing the performance of ecological investment markets.
  • The EU Court of Justice ruled that Spain has not designated sufficient conservation areas to comply with the EU's Birds Directive.
  • The Galápagos Islands have been added to the UN's list of World Heritage sites and faces threats from tourism and invasive species.
  • A company called "Planktos, Inc." wants to dump fine iron dust in the Pacific Ocean near the Galápagos Islands to spur a carbon-dioxide-eating phytoplankton bloom. Conservationists are dubious about the value and consequences of this plan.
  • Alaska can expect a 20% increase in infrastructure costs due to climate change since roads and other systems will wear out more quickly.
  • Invasive plants have choked out native species in many areas, but education and eradication campaigns are starting to deal with the problems they cause.
  • Birders should be aware that cases of Lyme disease have doubled since 1991. Reports are concentrated in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and North Central regions.
Birds in the blogosphere
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Northern Spotted Owl Still In Decline

The northern spotted owl was first designated as a threatened species in 1990, during the first Bush administration. At the time, the owl became a symbol of a conflict between people and wild animals and between the economy and the environment. Almost two decades later, the timber wars have quieted, but the owl is still in decline.

Currently there are between 3,000 and 5,000 northern spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest, and the population continues to fall about 3.7 percent each year. The owls face threats from various sources, mostly connected with habitat destruction. They prefer old growth forests, which were logged extensively in the 1980s and 1990s. A secondary threat comes from the westward spread of the barred owl. Barred owls are larger and can thrive in a broader array of habitats.

The timber industry has seized upon evidence that the northern spotted owl may not always need old growth forest to push for a less restrictive recovery plan that emphasizes competition with the barred owl.

Timber industry officials say this is a good first step. They also applaud new elements in the proposed plan: emphasizing that the barred owl, not habitat loss from logging, is the prime threat to the spotted owl, and giving local and regional US Forest Service and US Bureau of Land Management officials more say about where habitat should be protected.
Because of lingering concerns over political interference from the White House, conservationists outside the government remain skeptical of the new approach.
"This plan misses the mark in many respects, and it needs to be redone," Dr. DellaSala writes in his critique of the proposed recovery options. "Implementation of the plan is likely to increase extinction risks for the owl."

DellaSala, who was on the team developing a recovery plan, recently told Congress that "what was supposed to be a science-based plan was derailed by a pattern of political interference" by political appointees in the Bush administration.

"The unfortunate part of this thing is that this administration has chosen to reignite the timber wars, and the next administration that comes in is going to be inheriting a train wreck," he says in an interview. "In a nutshell, this is the key domino for toppling the protections in the Northwest Forest Plan, the old-growth protections."
A new recovery plan and a new designation of critical habitat have been proposed, but so far have not been approved. Among other things, the administration seeks to reduce the amount of critical habitat from 6.9 million acres to 5.3 million acres, reduce restrictions on logging and other activities, and introduce methods for managing the threat posed by barred owls. A draft of the plan is available for comment online.

Where are they now? - Richard Pombo Edition

Checking up on old friends:

Now Pombo is back again, pushing his anti-environmental agenda as a senior partner for Pac/West Communications, a government affairs firm. Tim Wigley, Pac/West's Executive Vice President, told the Prospect that they were impressed with Pombo's leadership in the House on environmental issues. "We've known and watched Congressman Pombo for years," Wigley said, "and he's going to broaden our knowledge and expertise on natural resources."

According to Wigley, Pombo joined Pac/West this spring, and he has been touring the country, speaking publicly on the state of natural resources in our current Congress. When asked whether Pombo's poor ratings among environmental advocates factored into Pac/West's decision to hire him, Wigley maintained, "He only has a 'poor rating' among people who don't like him." Environmental record aside, Pombo also accepted $35,000 from clients of Jack Abramoff and paid his own wife and brother a total of $357,000 for "campaign services." Those ethical violations didn't faze Wigley, however, who said, "The enviros used whatever they could as a way to take him out of office."
I do not expect he will make anyone's short list of green politicians.

Bald Eagles No Longer Endangered

As expected, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to remove the bald eagle from the Endangered Species List. The announcement caps a four-decade recovery effort. The bald eagle population - like that of other raptors - crashed in the 1950s and 1960s. The main culprit turned out to widespread agricultural use of DDT, which thinned egg shells and caused nesting attempts to fail. (Eagles also suffered from lead poisoning and were persecuted as pests until the mid-twentieth century.) After the general use of DDT was banned in 1972, the bald eagle population gradually recovered through an active program of habitat conservation and introduction of captive-bred birds into the wild. The bald eagle's designation was changed from "endangered" to "threatened" in 1995, and federal biologists determined that the species had recovered by 1999.

Twenty other species have been removed from the list after completing recovery programs. The bald eagle's recovery has been most prominent and most dramatic. Only 417 pairs existed in the lower 48 states in 1963; now there may be over 11,000 breeding pairs in the continental United States. Each of the lower 48 states and the District of Columbia now have at least one breeding pair.

Though no longer endangered, the bald eagle will still be protected under older federal laws, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act on 1918 and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940. In preparation for delisting the bald eagle, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued new regulations under the Eagle Protection Act to protect eagle nesting sites. The rules define "disturb" as any action that is likely to injure an eagle or interfere with its nesting or feeding. The Service will also begin a permit program to allow limited incidental takes of eagles. While the Eagle Protection Act and the revised regulations do not explicitly protect habitat, they provide a way for federal biologists to work with landowners to minimize any harmful effects of land use on bald eagles. Federal biologists will continue to monitor the bald eagle population for the next five years to evaluate its stability without the protections of the Endangered Species Act.

The conservative legal group and landowner that sued to force a decision on the bald eagle's status is already threatening an additional lawsuit to challenge the Fish and Wildlife Service's definition of "disturb." The landowner, Edmund Contoski of Minnesota, seems determined to develop a seven-acre property and is spoiling for additional fights. (Contoski is an ideological libertarian who refuses to wear a seatbelt simply because a law requires it.) Given the promised challenge, and the likelihood of other challenges, perhaps Congress should amend the Eagle Protection Act to include the new definition.

Given adequate resources and active conservation, an endangered species can recover and thrive, as bald eagles have. Unfortunately, many less prominent (or less sexy) species remain on the Endangered Species List. Many listed species lack recovery plans or critical habitat designations. Of the 1314 species on the list, only 1078 have recovery plans and 468 have designated critical habitat. In addition, there are species like the cerulean warbler and red knot that have not been listed though they are in critical need of assistance. The Audubon Society recently reminded us that many other bird species, though not under threat of extinction, are declining rapidly. Active conservation and proper funding are necessary to ensure that these species, too, have the opportunity to make a full recovery.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Leaving No Tracks

"Leaving No Tracks" is the title of the fourth of a series of articles on Dick Cheney's unprecedented influence. Many observers of the Bush administration have long suspected that the vice president was the driving force behind the administration's controversial actions. This series has largely confirmed that impression. Today's installment covers Cheney's influence on environmental policies regarding endangered species protection, use of public lands, and air pollution.

The most dramatic intervention came in relation to the Klamath River incident in 2002. Farmers, suffering from a drought, wanted irrigation water from dams and canals along the river. Federal officials refused to provide additional water on the basis of the Endangered Species Act. Their scientific studies indicated that letting water levels drop below a certain level would harm endangered species of suckerfish and coho salmon. Under the law, their findings compelled them to protect the fish.

So Cheney went out and got his own science. When brow-beating lower-ranking officials in the Interior Department failed to garner his desired results, Cheney appealed to the National Academy of Sciences to review the plan.
It was Norton who announced the review, and it was Bush and his political adviser Karl Rove who traveled to Oregon in February 2002 to assure farmers that they had the administration's support. A month later, Cheney got what he wanted when the science academy delivered a preliminary report finding "no substantial scientific foundation" to justify withholding water from the farmers.

There was not enough clear evidence that proposed higher lake levels would benefit suckerfish, the report found. And it hypothesized that the practice of releasing warm lake water into the river during spawning season might do more harm than good to the coho, which thrive in lower temperatures.
The new plan was issued over the objection of administration biologists.
When the lead biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service team critiqued the science academy's report in a draft opinion objecting to the plan, the critique was edited out by superiors and his objections were overruled, he said. The biologist, Michael Kelly, who has since quit the federal agency, said in a whistle-blower claim that it was clear to him that "someone at a higher level" had ordered his agency to endorse the proposal regardless of the consequences to the fish.
The evidence came in the form of a massive fish kill after the farmers got their water.
Months later, the first of an estimated 77,000 dead salmon began washing up on the banks of the warm, slow-moving river. Not only were threatened coho dying -- so were chinook salmon, the staple of commercial fishing in Oregon and Northern California. State and federal biologists soon concluded that the diversion of water to farms was at least partly responsible.

Fishermen filed lawsuits and courts ruled that the new irrigation plan violated the Endangered Species Act. Echoing Kelly's objections, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit observed that the 10-year plan wouldn't provide enough water for the fish until year nine. By then, the 2005 opinion said, "all the water in the world" could not save the fish, "for there will be none to protect." In March 2006, a federal judge prohibited the government from diverting water for agricultural use whenever water levels dropped beneath a certain point.

Last summer, the federal government declared a "commercial fishery failure" on the West Coast after several years of poor chinook returns virtually shut down the industry, opening the way for Congress to approve more than $60 million in disaster aid to help fishermen recover their losses. That came on top of the $15 million that the government has paid Klamath farmers since 2002 not to farm, in order to reduce demand.
What the incident shows is that environmental decisions are not a simple conflict of wildlife versus people or conservationists versus business. The decision to irrigate in 2002 severely damaged one of the Pacific Northwest's most important industries. It harmed the livelihoods of the region's fishermen (including native fishermen), and it hurt the rest of us with the resulting disaster aid payments, expensive litigation, and lingering damage to regional ecosystems.

The Klamath incident is only one of several interventions mentioned in the article. In each case, Cheney pushed for the interests of a favored industry or political supporters over the objections of career officials and scientists in federal agencies. Read the rest of the article for details on the other incidents.

More: Marcy Wheeler digs into the details here and here.

Also: One of the "lower-ranking officials" I mentioned was Sue Ellen Wooldridge, wife of J. Steven Griles, who will be going to jail for his dealings with Italia Federici (his former girlfriend) and Jack Abramoff.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

New Developments and the Supreme Court

Cartoon by Signe Wilkinson

Two weeks ago, the National Audubon Society reported that many common birds are in steep decline. (I discussed the report here; more discussion at 10000Birds.) The report cited several causes for species decline, one of which was the transformation of former habitat into suburban developments. This presents a difficult problem for conservationists. Development tends to happen in little chunks - a hundred acres here, a thousand acres there. Most individual projects are too small to present a serious harm in themselves, and so their impact escapes serious scrutiny. Taken together over a few decades, the many individual projects contribute to a radical transformation of the landscape. Environmental regulations at least provide a way to mitigate or stop entirely certain egregious cases, like the Blackwater development.

The task may now be more difficult thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision, National Association of Home Builders v. Defenders of Wildlife. The ruling was released on Monday but seems to have been lost in the media and blogosphere discussion over BONG HiTS 4 JESUS and several other First Amendment cases. According to SCOTUSblog, the decision centered on how to resolve an apparent conflict between the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Under CWA, the EPA may issue permits that allow discharge of identified pollutants into waterways. This program, known as the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), represents the most important administrative implementation of the CWA’s standards for water safety and quality. Under the statute, states are free to adopt their own equivalents of NPDES, and indeed most have already done so. CWA provides that the EPA “shall” transfer permit-issuing authority to a state if it meets nine statutory criteria which, taken together, establish that the state has authority under its own laws to administer an NPDES-type system. Unfortunately for Arizona, whose application for permit authority gave rise to this litigation, Section 7(a)(2) of another landmark environmental statute, the ESA, mandates that each federal agency “shall,” through consultation with the Secretary of the Interior, “insure that any action authorized, funded or carried out by such agency…is not likely to jeopardize” an endangered or threatened species, or the species’ habitat. Accordingly, EPA checked with the Fish and Wildlife Service, which raised concerns about possible harm to endangered species following permit authority transfer to Arizona. EPA then took the position that it could use only the nine CWA criteria to decide whether to transfer permitting authority. On this view, if EPA finds that all nine criteria are satisfied, authority transfer becomes entirely non-discretionary. EPA reasoned (and the FWS eventually agreed) that, following an authority transfer that it had no discretion to deny, it could not be found a legally relevant cause of any harm to endangered species.


Depending on how you read the statutes, their two “shalls” may well conflict, and the EPA and Defenders of Wildlife have taken different positions on how the conflict should be resolved. In its brief and at oral argument, EPA asserted that the ESA’s so-called “no-jeopardy” provision only applies to discretionary actions. The agency reads CWA to mandate approval of a state’s application if the state has met only CWA’s nine criteria – without regard to any further restrictions imposed by the ESA, including the “no-jeopardy” requirement. At this point, consultation with the relevant Interior agency either becomes a formality or simply isn’t required. EPA took the latter position in its brief and conceded the former at oral argument, agreeing with Chief Justice Roberts that the agency has characterized ESA consultation as, in the Chief’s words, “a waste of time.”

That’s one way to avoid a conflict between these two federal statutes. But according to Defenders of Wildlife – and, more importantly, to the Ninth Circuit – it’s not the correct way. The Ninth Circuit held that EPA’s need to “authorize” Arizona’s application was, by itself, sufficient to trigger the no-jeopardy requirement from the ESA. As the Ninth Circuit put it, “compliance with a ‘complementary’ statute cannot relieve the EPA of its obligations” under the ESA. In its brief and at oral argument, Defenders of Wildlife brought out a more forceful version of this same point, characterizing the ESA provision at issue as a “flat ban” on agency action that could harm endangered species or their habitats and noting that the ESA creates a process for resolving conflicts between this ban and agency action under other statutes.
The Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the NAHB and the EPA's interpretation, and against that of Defenders of Wildlife. (It is sad that the EPA and the Defenders of Wildlife would stand as adversaries before the Supreme Court, but such is life in the early 21st century.) This ruling seems to open a loophole for other federal agencies to assert that they, too, need not adhere to section 7 of the Endangered Species Act. The section applies to many aspects of the federal government - transportation, public lands, and military bases, to name a few. If an agency could make a case that its actions were non-discretionary, then it will probably find a sympathetic ear in the federal court system even if the actions conflict with the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

As you might guess from decision's title, this specific case applies to development. The state wanted to issue water discharge permits for building projects.
At the center of the fight is the decision of the EPA to let DEQ issue permits for water discharge. That mainly affects the more than 20,000 general permits issued every year every time a developer wants to bulldoze property in any way that it will affect storm water runoff.

The Defenders of Wildlife sued, noting that federal laws and rules require the EPA to get input from other federal agencies, like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, about potential harm to species before issuing permits. But when EPA transferred its authority to DEQ, the federal agency imposed no such requirement on the state.

In its 2005 ruling, the appellate court said the requirement of the EPA to consult with other agencies -- something not required of DEQ -- is critical. Appellate Judge Marsha Berzon this [sic] has led to measures protecting various endangered species, including the Pima pineapple cactus, the razorback sucker and the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl.
Arizona's Department of Environmental Quality still needs to consider the environmental impacts of the permits it issues. However, state regulations are less stringent than the Endangered Species Act, and state law limits what the state agency can consider when granting permits. The net result is that it will be harder to protect Arizona's endangered species, as well as other species that share the same habitat. When that happens, we all lose.


Evolution Is...

"Everybody is interested in pigeons. The book would be reviewed in every journal in the kingdom and would soon be on every library table."- An adviser to Darwin's publisher explaining why Darwin should publish a book on pigeons instead of "The Origin of Species"
The quote accompanies a series of articles in today's New York Times about evolution.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Kirtland's Warbler Discovered Nesting in Wisconsin

Three nests of endangered Kirtland's warblers have been discovered in Wisconsin.

The bird, one of the rarest members of the wood warbler family, typically makes its home in the northern part of lower Michigan, nesting in stands of young jack pines.

Officials say this marks the first time nests have been found outside Michigan since the 1940s, when nests were discovered in Ontario.

Females have been observed near the nests, which confirms the birds as a breeding species in the state, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

Matteson said surveys were done as far back as 30 years ago until the 1980s and males were found in western and northwestern Wisconsin. But Matteson said there had not been any documented females until this year.
Kirtland's warblers have been the subject of intensive recovery efforts in northern Michigan. The warbler has very specialized requirements for its breeding habitat. It typically nests in relatively jack pine forests when the trees are about 16 to 20 feet tall. Forest fire suppression limits the young trees available for the warblers, so the state has been planting jack pine seedlings to maintain a steady supply. As a result of conservation efforts, the population has grown from a low of 201 singing males in 1971 to 1,486 in 2006.

I am glad to have some encouraging news to go along with the bad.

Giant Penguins in Peru

Fossil remains of two extinct species of penguin have been discovered on the Peruvian coast. The larger of the two, Icadyptes salasi, was about five feet tall and lived about 36 million years ago. The smaller, Perudyptes devriesi, was about three feet tall and lived about 42 million years ago.

Unlike living penguin species, the ancient, oversized birds had long, narrow beaks, with Perudyptes having an exceptionally long and spear-like beak, which Clarke said likely helped the animal gulp down large prey and attain its towering stature.

Perudyptes had features indicating a transition from wing to paddle. For instance, the giant penguin’s wing muscles were reduced compared with flight-able birds, “which basically are part of the changes to get to a paddle-like structure--you reduce these intrinsic wing muscles,” Clarke said.

To find out how the penguins landed in low-latitude regions, the scientists examined the geographic distribution and evolutionary relationships of other extinct penguins.

The results suggest the two Peruvian species result from separate dispersals, with the ancestors of Perudyptes dwelling in Antarctica before their equator-bound trek and Icadyptes originating near New Zealand.
One of the interesting findings is that penguins were in equatorial regions much earlier than expected.
“We tend to think of penguins as being cold-adapted species,” said lead study author Julia Clarke, a paleontologist at North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. “But the new fossils date back to one of the warmest periods in the last 65 million years of Earth’s history. The evidence indicates that penguins reached low-latitude regions more than 30 million years prior to our previous estimates.”
The two new, extinct species, the giant penguin Icadyptes salasi (right) and Perudyptes devriesi (left) are shown to scale with the only extant penguin inhabiting Peru, Spheniscus humbolti (center). Credit: Kristin Lamm, via LiveScience

Decline of Common Birds Forum

Recently the National Audubon Society reported that many common or widespread species are in decline due to development, changes in agriculture, and climate change. If you have questions about the report, there is now a place to ask them. McClatchy's Washington Bureau is holding a question and answer forum about the report. Answering questions will be:

Dr. Ken Rosenberg, Director of Bird Conservation Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, will answer your questions about the study, the science behind it and ornithology generally.

Warren P. Strobel, the foreign affairs correspondent for McClatchy's Washington Bureau and an avid birder, can answer questions about media coverage of birds, recreation birding and other natural/environmental issues.
The forum accompanies an article on the Audubon Society's findings.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


Read all about a daring peregrine rescue at the Severn River bridge near Annapolis.

End of the Line

Yesterday was the last day of service for the X6, the shuttle bus route from Union Station to the National Arboretum.

X6 National Arboretum Line
Service will be discontinued due to low ridership.
The only public transportation to the Arboretum is now the B2, which connects to the Blue and Orange Lines at the Stadium-Armory station, and to other bus routes.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Birding at the Arboretum

This morning I met Niko, a DC Birding Blog reader, for a few hours of birding at the National Arboretum. We covered most of my usual route, from the visitor center to the Anacostia and back. Many birds are still singing, including chipping sparrows, common yellowthroats and northern parulas, both of which we saw or heard in multiple locations. A belted kingfisher dove for fish in the small pool in front of the columns, and a killdeer was in the small muddy patch nearby.

There was an indigo bunting singing at the end of the Asian Gardens path to the river. We found it perched on top of one of the taller bamboo stalks. I chased after a brown and yellow bird that I suspected might be a chat, but it eluded us. My view was not good enough to be sure that it was not a yellowthroat, but it seemed larger. As we walked down the river trail, we saw two osprey and a great egret in flight.

I should note that the red-tailed hawk we saw from the Asian Gardens is the first red-tailed hawk that I have seen in D.C. in the period between the beginning of May and the end of July. That helps answer my question about their breeding season status in the District.

Great Egret
Canada Goose
Turkey Vulture
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Mourning Dove
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Chimney Swift
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Barn Swallow
Carolina Wren
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher
Eastern Bluebird
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Blue Jay
Fish Crow
European Starling
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Northern Parula
Common Yellowthroat
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

11,000 Pairs of Bald Eagles

The Center for Biological Diversity released a report on the status of bald eagles in the lower 48 contiguous states. The report estimates that there are 11,000 breeding pairs of bald eagles, up from 9,789 pairs last year and 417 pairs in 1963. From the report:

Half a million bald eagles inhabited the United States when the pilgrims arrived. Though the bird was made the U.S. national symbol on June 20, 1782, it suffered terrible abuses due to the mistaken belief that it was a dangerous predator. It was fed to hogs in Maine, shot from airplanes in California, poisoned in South Dakota, and hunted under a 50-cent bounty in Alaska. One hundred thousand eagles were killed in Alaska alone between 1917 and 1950. The state of Georgia declared that eagles, like the "hawk, owl, crow, sparrow, and meadow-lark, are considered to do more harm than good and may be shot at any time.”

These impacts declined somewhat with the passage of the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, but everywhere eagle habitat continued to be logged, grazed, bulldozed and converted to farmland and housing. Eagles declined throughout the lower 48 and were extirpated from many states long before DDT became prevalent. The small populations that survived to the 1950s and 60s suffered catastrophic reproductive failure due to the thinning of their eggshells by DDT. All this began to change when the bald eagle was placed on the first national endangered species list in 1967. The listing (and that of the brown pelican and peregrine falcon) was a major factor in convincing Congress to ban most outdoor uses of DDT in 1972.
The report includes state by state graphs of the bald eagle population over the past 40 years. The graphs for local states are shown below, along the with description of the DC population. (Click to enlarge images.)

District of Columbia
The last bald eagle in Washington, D.C. deserted its Kingman Island nest on the Anacostia River in 1946 (134). From 1995 to 1998, urban youth volunteers with the Earth Conservation Corps released four Wisconsin-born eaglets per year in the U.S. National Arboretum on the west bank of the Anacostia River. Several Corps members were killed in gang-related violence during the project (149). Three of the released eagles-Tink, Bennie, and Darrell-are named after them. In 2000, eagles nested again D.C. on National Park Service land near the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers (135). From their perch 80 feet high in an oak tree, they can see the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral. The nest was active in all years through 2007 (89), but did not produce chicks in 2005 or 2006 (111).
I do not know the exact nest location (and I would not give it here if I did), but I have probably seen these birds along the Anacostia and Potomac. Sometimes eagles will hang around the south end of the Hains Point golf course. If you are birding down there, keep an eye on the tall trees.

The strong population numbers for Maryland and Virginia are no surprise given the ideal eagle habitat around the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River watershed.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Evening on the Mall and Two Years of Blogging

After a week of hot and sticky weather, today was actually fairly comfortable. This evening I walked over to the Capitol to enjoy the change.

As usual, there is a contingent of mallards on the Capitol's reflecting pool. Some were guarding ducklings. Most of the males were molting, as in the photograph below. One hooded merganser was swimming by itself in the middle of the pool.

Red-winged blackbirds take advantage of the lush foliage of the Indian Museum's wetland pond. I am pretty sure they breed here, but I have yet to spot a nest.

All around the Mall, I could hear the begging calls of young birds. The mockingbirds below were in the midst of an exchange in a tree on the Capitol's west lawn.

I missed my blogiversary earlier this week. I started this blog two years ago on Monday. Now, over 900 posts later, I cannot believe the time has passed so quickly.

Loose Feathers #104

Black Skimmer / Photo by Gary Kramer (USFWS)

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment
  • Climate change may threaten the breeding success of northern gannets. With dwindling fish stocks, parents may need to leave their nests unguarded for longer periods of time, leaving the chicks vulnerable to attacks from other gannets.
  • A British study considered reasons why female superb starlings mate with multiple males. Results suggest that the primary reasons are obtaining extra food for their hatchlings and increasing genetic diversity.
  • An international conference on raptors will be held at Hawk Mountain this September. A special session will focus on kestrel conservation.
  • Hundreds of dead seabirds are washing ashore on the east coast of Florida. Biologists suspect that the cause is starvation, but are testing the birds to check for other possible causes. (More from the Orlando Sentinel.)
  • Dead birds are also turning up on beaches in the Bahamas.
  • Crane handlers with the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership are considering alternate wintering sites for the eastern population of whooping cranes because of last winter's disaster.
  • Cirl buntings are breeding again in Cornwall as a result of a captive breeding program. This is part of the comeback of cirl buntings in the U.K., whose population had decreased to 118 pairs in the 1980s.
  • "Trap, neuter, adopt" may resolve feral cat problems in Cape May.
  • Biologists from the Pennsylvania Game Commission are banding resident Canada geese to study their movements and the impact of hunting on their population.
  • New York City's Jamaica Bay has a new visitor center. The refuge (in Queens) is a year-round hotspot for various species of waterbirds.
  • The fledgling red-tailed hawk mentioned in last week's edition has been set free in Central Park. (More at Urban Hawks and Palemaleirregulars.)
  • Birders in Central Jersey are excited about a black skimmer sighting 20 miles inland from Sandy Hook.
  • Fledgling songbirds are already making their appearance. If you see one, let its parents take care of it rather than attempting to care for it yourself.
  • A new study considered the effects of climate change on public health in developing countries.
  • The British government launched a new carbon footprint calculator.
  • A panel from the National Academy of Science reports that the supply of coal in the United States may be less than advertised - 100 years rather than 250 years at current consumption rates.
  • The Senate passed an energy bill to raise CAFE standards for American auto companies to 35 miles per gallon.
Birds in the blogosphere
Carnivals and newsletters

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Injured Swift

Occasionally I receive a question by email about what to do with injured birds. Field of View, a blog maintained by the magazine Birder's World, offers one way to deal with the situation:

I decided to take it to the Wisconsin Humane Society. (Last month, Chuck, Ernie, Jessica, and I participated in the society's Avian Odyssey to support its Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.) Thanks to the center, I knew what to do.

The good folks at the center coordinate a program in Milwaukee each spring and fall that rescues birds that hit windows. They call it WIngs: Wisconsin Night Guardians for Song Birds. At a training session for volunteers, wildlife manager Scott Diehl described how to transport an injured bird: Put a cloth towel in the bottom of a paper grocery bag, put the bird inside, and close the top of the bag. (The towel gives the bird something to cling to.) And on the drive to the rehab center, turn the radio off to avoid further stressing the bird.
Read the rest.

Conservation in the Adirondacks

While we are on the subject of birds in New York, I would like to highlight a story from the Adirondacks. Yesterday, the Nature Conservancy announced a purchase of 161,000 acres from a private timber company. The land is spread over several tracts, pictured in the map at right, most of which lie within the larger boundaries of the six-million-acre Adirondack Park.

In the near term, the Nature Conservancy will provide access to provide access to private groups that have used the land in the past. For the next 20 years, it will allow selective timber cutting to a local paper mill. It will also renew the permits of local hunting and outdoors clubs. The tracts have not been open for public use, though that may be considered in the future.

The significance of the purchase is that it prevents valuable habitat from being destroyed through development, clear-cutting, or other uses. The Adirondacks are at the southern edge of the breeding range for boreal species, many of which are under pressure. According to a Nature Conservancy fact sheet on the property:

Biological inventories conducted by TNC in 2001 revealed 95 significant species, 37 of which are rare in New York, about 20 uncommon in the state, and 30 rare or uncommon in the Adirondacks. Also recorded were a rich variety of birds: 91 species, 12 of which are boreal specialists. Of the many vascular plants on the property, the Steller’s cliffbrake, a small limestone fern, is one of the rarest.
Unfortunately, the fact sheet does not provide a list of the birds and other species found on the property. Some of the birds that can be found within the larger boundaries of the Adirondacks include black-backed woodpecker, gray jay, the rare Bicknell's thrush, and the declining rusty blackbird.

For more on birds in the Adirondacks, see:
See also the Nature Conservancy's website for more information on the purchase.

Pale Male Symposium

As some of you may know, Pale Male and Lola, the famous red-tailed hawks who nest near Central Park in New York, had their third consecutive unsuccessful nesting attempt this spring. The troubles began when the owners of the building where Pale Male had raised hawk broods for years removed the original nest to drive the hawks away. After public outcry, a new nesting structure was put in place, and the red-tailed hawks rebuilt the nest. Since then, the pair has been laying eggs but incubating without the egs hatching.

Hawk watchers in New York are concerned and wondering if the new structure might be the cause of the problems. Donegal Browne of Palemaleirregulars is looking for input on possible causes and solutions. Visit her forum to leave suggestions if you have any.

Coal to Liquid

From the Washington Post's Tom Toles.

Update: One reason to oppose coal-to-liquid proposals is that coal contains more mercury than crude oil, making it a dubious alternative energy choice. Other reasons are listed in this editorial. The Senate today rejected two amendments that would have added subsidies for liquid coal to the energy bill.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Wood Thrushes in Decline

The wood thrush has lost 43 percent of its population over the past 40 years, making it a species of conservation concern. As with other species in decline, the main culprit seems to be the loss and fragmentation of woodland habitats, largely due to development. Ongoing research at the University of Delaware compares the breeding success of wood thrushes at a university woodland preserve and in a nearby neighborhood.

Roth discovered that loss of habitat hasn't deterred the remaining wood thrushes from summering in Delaware. However, many must try to breed in less than desirable conditions; in the 1980s, Roth studied a sizable population of wood thrushes in the wooded Newark neighborhood of Arbour Park. These birds had the usual two to three nests with three to four eggs per year, but raised significantly fewer young than wood thrushes breeding in the UD Woods, located just two miles away. And, unlike the thrushes at the UD Woods, few of the banded adults in Arbour Park returned there the next year, which was more likely an indication of bird dissatisfaction than mortality.

"UD Woods' leaf litter fosters excellent food resources, such as larval and adult insects, earthworms and millipedes. And on the edge of the woods, the birds can forage for berries from spicebush, elderberry and other shrubs," notes Roth. "A suburban neighborhood often doesn't provide such an abundant food supply, much less native trees and shrubs for nesting and shade."

While many nests were lost to predation at Arbour Park, the nests there also were more frequently parasitized by the brown-headed cowbird. It lays its eggs in the nests of wood thrushes and some other song birds, often removing a host's egg for each one laid. The unwitting host incubates the cowbird eggs and feeds the cowbird chicks along with her own. The negative effect on wood thrushes is the loss of eggs.

"Cowbirds are more apt to parasitize nests in small forest fragments, wooded neighborhoods and other edge habitats created by humans than in deep deciduous forests, where the wood thrush thrives," says Roth. "Don't blame the cowbirds; we created the favorable conditions for them."

Earlier Spring in the Arctic

Over ten years, climate change has caused spring to arrive in the Arctic increasingly earlier than normal. A study in Greenland found that Arctic organisms had adjusted their breeding cycles to match the earlier snowmelt caused by warmer temperatures.

In some cases, flowers are emerging from buds and chicks are hatching a full 30 days sooner than they did in the mid-1990s in response to sharply increased temperatures burning off the winter's snow layer.

Birds such as the Sanderling and the Ruddy Turnstone had moved their springtime rituals forward by an average of two weeks by 2005, compared to 1996.


And while not unexpected, the rate of change is surprising, even in light of the fact that Arctic temperatures are increasing at twice the global average.

Similar studies have noted much more modest changes with respect to plants in Europe (an advancement of 2.5 days per decade) and globally (5.1 days per decade).

"We were particularly surprised to see that the trends were so strong when considering that the entire summer is very short in the High Arctic -- with just three to four months from snowmelt to freeze up at our Zackenberg study site in northeast Greenland," said Hoye, a co-author of the study.
The results pose some cause for concern, since the variation in adaptation to the new climate conditions may disrupt existing interdependent ecological links.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

An Appeal for Carbon Ranching

Two of the major factors in climate change are the emission of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, and deforestation in the tropics. The latter is a major concern because tropical forests help absorb carbon dioxide, release their own carbon when burned, and provide important habitat for many bird species. Two authors of an op-ed in today's New York Times argue in favor of a forest preservation program that they call carbon ranching.

Reversing tropical deforestation could be surprisingly cheap and easy because it can be driven by simple economics. Right now, it’s worth more to a logging company or a peasant to convert the rainforest to stumps or soybeans than it is to leave that rainforest intact. One hectare (about 2.5 acres) of forest cleared and converted to ranchland or crops produces a piece of land worth, on average, $200 to $500. But that’s nothing compared to the value of preserving the rainforest as a sponge for carbon dioxide.

On European markets, the right to emit one ton of carbon dioxide trades today at more than $20. With each hectare of intact rainforest storing around 500 tons of carbon dioxide, that means that each hectare has a value of $10,000 as carbon dioxide storage, far more than the value of even the most productive tea or soy plantation.

As a recent World Bank report put it, “Farmers are destroying a $10,000 asset to create one worth $200.” To the farmer or agribusiness corporation, of course, that makes perfect sense, because that $10,000 is all theoretical. It can’t put food on the table or deliver dividends to shareholders.
Carbon offsets have limitations, of course. There is a limit to the amount of carbon that a tree can hold, and forest preservation would be a way of holding steady rather than true reduction of emissions or warming rates. For a program like this to work, it would need to be part of an overall frame work that would include cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Still, it is an interesting proposal, and one that could have positive effects regardless its contribution to slowing climate change.

Blue Grosbeaks Under Blue Skies

This morning I returned to the National Arboretum to look for breeding birds. I decided to focus my attention on some of the fields and scrubby areas, since I had been neglecting them during the past month. I had some particular target birds in mind. One of them, the blue grosbeak, made its presence known right away. Several males were singing in the small fields behind the columns. I finally caught a look at one as it sang high in one of the oak trees. I love seeing this species at the Arboretum, not only for its bright blue plumage, but also because blue grosbeaks are relatively rare breeders in the District. In the same general area, I could hear the songs of common yellowthroats and indigo buntings.

On my way past the lilac area, I found an acadian flycatcher constructing a nest about ten feet over the road. It seemed a little late for a migrant bird to be starting its breeding, so perhaps this is a second brood. According to The Birder's Handbook, acadian flycatchers will produce two broods; the 1983 edition of the Maryland breeding bird atlas states that they will lay eggs until August 3. This nest was in the early stages, with only an outline made with catkins.

Proceeding to Beech Spring Pond (the larger of the two ponds), I sat down in the grass to see what birds might present themselves. A small flock of cedar waxwings contested the top of a baldcypress on the far side of the pond. I could hear an eastern kingbird in the tree above me while a small group of tufted titmice and carolina chickadees chattered in a tree nearby.

I only walk about a third of the river trail since I was not thrilled about the idea of spending long periods in the sun. The meadow near the south end hosted at least one pair of nesting indigo buntings. They must have a nest very close to the path because the male on one side of the path and the female on the other side - the latter holding a small caterpillar - were both scolding me as I passed. When I moved on from there, I was treated to a pair of great crested flycatchers. These colorful birds are more often heard than seen since their gray backs and ruddy tails blend into the forest environment, and their lemon colored breasts become countershading. In this case, the two birds sat out in the open at eye level for a long time, so it easily made up for all the times I have had only a simply wheeeeep! to mark their presence.

Dragonflies and butterflies have been out and about. As bird songs start to wind down, I will start paying more attention to them. The best areas for both large insects are in the unmown meadows, particularly around the columns and along the river trail. In the lilac area, I saw a little wood-satyr and had my best look ever at an eastern tailed blue. These tiny butterflies are quite common; they are the bluish-grayish butterflies that flutter at your feet as you walk through a grassy meadow. I missed my favorite dragonfly, the twelve spotted skimmer, but had nice looks at both black and red saddlebags near the columns, as well as several other odonates throughout the Arboretum.

As Reya noted, today was a gorgeous day in Washington; it was sunny and not too hot yet. From a birding perspective, the day was even better. Most birds were still singing, and beautiful birds were plentiful in all corners of the Arboretum.

Canada Goose
Red-shouldered Hawk
Mourning Dove
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Acadian Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Barn Swallow
Cedar Waxwing
Carolina Wren
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Blue Jay
American Crow
Fish Crow
European Starling
Red-eyed Vireo
Northern Parula
Common Yellowthroat
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Blue Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
American Goldfinch

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Cabbage White
Clouded Sulphur
Eastern Tailed-Blue
Variegated Fritillary
Great Spangled Fritillary
Red Admiral
Little Wood-Satyr

Ebony Jewelwing
Spangled Skimmer
Widow Skimmer
Common Whitetail
Blue Dasher
Eastern Amberwing
Black Saddlebags
Red Saddlebags