Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Migration in the News

Bird migration makes it to the NY Times today:

BOMBAY HOOK NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Del. — You can learn a lot by bird-watching with an ornithologist, and not just about birds. As Russell Greenberg, head of the migratory bird center at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, gazed through powerful binoculars at a nondescript fence, a raspy chack-chack-chack sound like that of a cheap wind-up toy clattered off to the left.

Dr. Greenberg, 54, a tall, bearded, wryly reserved man with a lifelong passion for birds, instantly identified the caller as a clapper rail, and though the bird remained stubbornly out of view, Dr. Greenberg seized the opportunity to share the surprising back story for a beloved cliché.

“You know the old saying that so-and-so is ‘as thin as a rail?’ ” he asked. “Well, that comes from a reference to the bird.” The body of a rail, he explained, is “laterally compressed,” and looks from some angles to be almost two-dimensional.

And you know the saying, “This place is for the birds,’’ as in, “What a dump”? We spent the day whizzing past dappled lakes and lush grasses in the refuge here in Smyrna, Del., stopping instead at the bleakest, barest, beige-brownest scratchpads of land we could find. As Dr. Greenberg had predicted, it was around drying mudholes and plowed-up sod farms that we would see a rich variety of migratory shorebirds: plovers with slick, licorice-jelly-bean bellies; greater yellowlegs sandpipers tottering daintily on their cracked-pencil limbs; avocets with their dusky rouge heads and their absurdly elongated, upcurling bills; and killdeer, named for the sound of their call and famed for the way they can fake a broken wing to lure would-be predators away from their nests.

The birds were all down in the dumps poking and swishing for prey of their own — insects, worms, crustaceans, anything to help replenish their fat stores for the next leg of their long, possibly transequatorial flight.
Read the rest.