Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Feeder Birds, Halloween Edition

One of the little-advertised aspects of BirdCam is its ability to photograph not only birds, but also ghosts and phantoms.

Phantom birds can stand on their tails!

This poor mourning dove is clearly haunted by some nefarious presence.

This could be a great asset for paranormal investigators.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Exxon Valdez Case Goes to the Supreme Court

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound. The wrecked tanker emptied more than 11 million gallons of crude oil, a slick that coated 1200 miles of coastline and killed hundreds of thousands of birds and fish. In 1994, a jury awarded $5 billion in punitive damages to 33,000 Alaskan fishermen, small business owners, and landowners harmed by the spill.

Exxon has spent the last dozen years fighting against the jury award and using their vast financial resources to launch appeal after appeal in the court system. Last year, they persuaded a federal appeals court to reduce the award by half. Subsequently they appealed even that decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Exxon's case.

The court will be addressing one of the most basic issues of maritime law: whether a ship owner can be punished for the actions of its agents at sea.

Current case law, dating back to an 1818 case, says that ship owners can't be punished for the actions of their crew unless they "directed," "countenanced" or "participated" in them.

But such laws come from a different era, when captains ventured from their home port for years, argued David Oesting, the lead attorney for the more than 30,000 plaintiffs in the case.
It is not encouraging to read the following:
Justice Samuel Alito, who owns between $100,000 and $250,000 in Exxon stock, did not take part in the decision to accept the appeal.

The court's last ruling on punitive damages, in February, set aside a nearly $80 million judgment against Altria Group Inc.'s Philip Morris USA. The money was awarded to the widow of a smoker in Oregon.
I hope that the Supreme Court will do the right thing and ensure that the people affected by the spill receive the proper recompense for damaged health and injured livelihoods.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Birds in the California Fires

One-third of San Diego's Wild Animal Park burned during last week's wildfires. The park houses a captive breeding facility for endangered California condors. The facility was damaged in the blaze, but the condors are safe.

Park staff worked feverishly Sunday night and Monday morning to move 118 birds to safety, even as some employees were getting phone calls that their homes were in danger and they were being evacuated....

At the sprawling park, “we moved 33 species of birds, of which 13 were endangered,” said Michael Mace, the curator of birds.

Park workers chased, captured, crated and carried the birds to the Paul Harter Veterinary Clinic on the south side of the park, away from the flames.

The only significant park damage was to an outlying condor breeding facility and to storage units and lights for the park's annual holiday season display.

Among the endangered species threatened by the fire were five California and two Andean condors housed in the breeding facility.

They were also the hardest to capture, Mace said. The birds have 10-foot wingspans and a bad attitude.

Mace said the birds were anxious because of the fire and disliked being chased around their enclosure by pesky humans.

“The condors go all the way to the top (of the enclosure) to get away from the staff, so you have to go up in the wire to try to capture them to take them to safety, and they don't know why you're doing that,” Mace said.

He said park workers also hustled 10 Micronesian kingfishers – one-tenth of the world's population of the rare bird – to safety.
Meanwhile, the Center for Biological Diversity reports that the fires have reduced habitat for several endangered species, such as the California gnatcatcher, California spotted owl, and Coastal cactus wren.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


Something in yesterday's overcast and damp conditions made the color blue really stand out. This grackle appeared to be very colorful.

Blue jays seemed a bit brighter than usual, too.

Adding Google Gadgets

Bird bloggers who use Blogger as their platform might be interested in this news. Blogger in Draft has announced the integration of Google Gadgets with Blogger blogs. Currently the feature is available only in draft; it will be promoted to all blogs sometime in the future. For more details, see the announcement.

The feature might be useful for bird bloggers, since it will be easier to add things like the eBird gadget (or other features that might become available).

Friday, October 26, 2007

Loose Feathers #121

White-crowned Sparrow / Photo by Gary Kramer (USFWS)

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment
Birds in the blogosphere
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, October 25, 2007

White-throats in Town

White-throated Sparrows have been in the area for a while now, but up until today I had not seen them in great numbers. There were several foraging in the yard this morning, like in the BirdCam photographs above and below.

I heard their weak winter songs as I walked in Donaldson Park this afternoon. More impressive was the number of kinglets - mainly ruby-crowned but also a few golden-crowned. I have rarely seen so many gathered in one place. Also present were a few swamp and field sparrows, a couple eastern phoebes, and a hermit thrush. The river held a large flock of laughing gulls (unusual in the borough), a wood duck, and a few black ducks. The numbers of commoner gulls are building, but not yet at their winter levels.

Burning Chaparral

Chaparral is one of the primary plant fuels for the continuing wildfires in southern California. The Wall Street Journal interviewed an advocate for low-impact fire prevention in chaparral areas.

The founding director of the California Chaparral Institute, Mr. Halsey has spent four years defending the existence of chaparral, the term given to the wide varieties of shrubby plants, trees and bushes that dot the region's hilly landscape. His Web site,, celebrates its diverse plant life, seasonal ponds that gleam like "liquid sapphires" and birdlife that includes bushtits and towhees.

"I awaken each morning to a view of old-growth chaparral coating a nearby mountain like a carpet of green velvet," he writes. "The first sound I usually hear is that of the wrentit, a secretive, little bird with a descending whistle that mimics the beat of a bouncing Ping-Pong ball."

On Tuesday, Mr. Halsey found himself standing on the roof of his century-old home, garden hoses at the ready, as wildfire spread across the chaparral and torched houses a quarter-mile away. The Witch Fire, as the conflagration was named, was bearing down on his town of Escondido, Calif., just northeast of San Diego, feeding off the bushes Mr. Halsey has fought to save.
The whole article is worth a read, as a look at the issues in fire prevention in California's natural areas.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Birdcam Photos

Like Patrick, I recently received a Birdcam from Wingscapes. A Birdcam is a motion-sensitive camera that takes photographs automatically when it is triggered by something crossing its infrared sensor. It is designed to monitor feeders or other places that birds gather. Since birds are not bothered by its presence, it can be placed very close to feeders.

It took a few tries to get the lighting right. The first two times I tried setting up the camera, it rained one day and photos were backlit the other day. Yesterday the camera got better results at a bird bath. Here's a sampling.

A mourning dove came from a drink first.

A house sparrow took a drink...

... then more house sparrows took a bath.

Some goldfinches investigated.

A couple of house finches stopped by also, but were obscured by other birds or looking away from the camera. No weird birds yet.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Book Note: Chasing the Ghost Birds

Chasing the Ghost Birds coverRecently I had a chance to read Chasing the Ghost Birds, a new book by David Sakrison. Part environmental essay and part adventure tale, the book follows reintroduction programs for three species: trumpeter swans, Siberian cranes, and whooping cranes. The species are linked by their appearance (all being large white birds) and by some key people and organizations who were involved with two or more of the projects.

Trumpeter swans thrived in Alaska, but had mostly disappeared from their historical range in the lower 48 states by the early twentieth century. The one exception was a small population centered around Yellowstone National Park. In the 1980s, biologists in the midwest began programs to reintroduce breeding trumpeter swans - first in Wisconsin, and subsequently in Michigan, Iowa, and elsewhere. Eggs were taken from nests in Alaska and flown to the midwest to be incubated and raised in captivity, and then released in local wildlife refuges. The program has been successful in establishing a self-sustaining breeding population.

With Siberian cranes, the goal was to create a stable captive flock that can serve as a genetic base if reintroduction becomes necessary. Wild flocks are large enough that extinction is not an imminent threat, but small enough that the population is vulnerable. Siberian cranes posed some unique challenges, compared to the other species profiled. Many of the breeding grounds are inaccessible, migration routes are not well known, and conservation requires cooperation across sometimes-hostile borders. In addition, cooperation between the U.S.-based International Crane Foundation (ICF) and Russian scientists required special permissions from both the Russian and American governments to transport crane eggs from Russian breeding sites to the ICF headquarters in Wisconsin.

The whooping crane faced a true crisis. By the mid-twentieth century, its population was reduced to a small migratory flock that wintered in Texas and bred in Canada. At that point there was a real issue of declining genetic diversity. With the numbers so small, one catastrophic event could push the species to extinction. Conservation plans focused on the protection of the existing flock and the establishment of migratory and non-migratory flocks in the East. After some trial and error, the whooping crane team settled on a program of releasing hatch-year captive-bred whooping cranes in Wisconsin and then leading them south to Florida with an ultralight aircraft. (The annual journeys are chronicled at Operation Migration.) Whether the project will ultimately be successful in creating a stable migratory flock remains to be seen, but the results so far look promising.

All three of the species profiled in Chasing the Ghost Birds benefited tremendously from the willingness of volunteers to donate time and resources towards long-term projects. The biggest contributions came from Terry and Mary Kohler, who provided private plane transportation to shuttle wildlife biologists between various egg-collecting sites and captive breeding centers in Wisconsin and Maryland. Efforts on behalf of the whooping crane also received a boost from experiments initiated by private pilots who devised the method of leading cranes by ultralight. In a time of tight budgets for wildlife agencies and increasing numbers of species at risk, this type of private initiative - working in conjunction with qualified biologists - may be necessary to complete important conservation work.

David Sakrison, Chasing the Ghost Birds: Saving Swans and Cranes from Extinction. Ripon, Wisconsin: Watson Street Press, 2007. Pp. xvi, 283; maps and photographs. $16.50. ISBN: 0979279909


Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sparrows in Abundance

Sandy Hook Plum Island poison ivySumac and Poison Ivy at Plum Island

Like yesterday at the grasslands, sparrows provided the birding highlights for today's trip to Sandy Hook. Song sparrows predominated; they were joined by several flocks of white-throated sparrows. The sparrow mix included a few field and swamp sparrows, along with single chipping and savannah sparrows. There has been some discussion among local birders about the abundance of white-crowned sparrows in the Mid-Atlantic this fall. I had not personally seen much evidence of that until today. There were small groups of white-crowned sparrows scattered all around the Hook, maybe a dozen total.

The real highlight, though, was a lifer - a Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow at Plum Island. Unfortunately, the bird was backlit as it perched near the top of a reed, so we did not get the full effect of its bright buffy plumage. Still, it sat long enough for us to get a good look and identify it, not always a given with Ammodramus sparrows. It perched near a much-darker seaside sparrow, allowing comparison between the two closely-related species.

A few butterflies were still flying at Sandy Hook today. Highlights were a red admiral at Plum Island and a few common buckeyes on the edge of K-lot. Monarchs were all over, though not as abundant as a few weeks ago. Several sulphurs - both clouded and orange - rounded out my observations.

The diminishing number of butterflies signifies that autumn migrations are winding down. Hawks are still on the move, and it will be a month of more before waterfowl reach their usual winter numbers. Even many songbirds have yet to reach their winter homes. But the signs of fall migration's end are becoming unmistakable. Probably the most abundant species at Sandy Hook today was the yellow-rumped warbler, with few other warbler species to be seen. Hermit thrushes are appearing with increasing frequency, and songbird flocks have strong representation from ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets and brown creepers. Songs of white-throated sparrows rise weakly from the underbrush. Brant, too, have taken possession of the coves they will occupy until April. While I enjoy all of these birds greatly, it is always sad knowing that their arrival means the end of hunting for migrant songbirds for another six months.

Spermaceti Cove Sandy HookSpermaceti Cove


Common Loon
Pied-billed Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Canada Goose
American Black Duck
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Peregrine Falcon
Greater Yellowlegs
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
American Herring Gull
Laughing Gull
Royal Tern
Mourning Dove
Downy Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Carolina Wren
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Hermit Thrush
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
American Crow
Fish Crow
European Starling
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Palm Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Seaside Sparrow
Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Savannah Sparrows in Griggstown

With last night's heavy rain storm, and generally unfavorable winds for migration the last few days, it was hard to predict how good the birding would be this morning. We headed down to the Griggstown Grasslands to see what would be in the meadows there. As it happens, two groups of birds stood out for their abundance.

The first group were the sparrows, and principally savannah sparrows. There must have been about fifty of these tiny spritely birds clustered into a few fields right around the parking lot. At times there seemed to be one on every dried mullein stalk. These were not the only sparrows. They were accompanied in the meadow by several richly-colored swamp sparrows and many song sparrows. A few field sparrows and a single chipping sparrow rounded out the mix. Other areas of the preserve held more song and white-throated sparrows. Several palm warblers were scattered around the grasslands.

The second large group were the diurnal raptors. These were notable both for diversity and for numbers of individuals. First-year harriers were new arrivals at the grasslands this month. A Cooper's and several sharp-shinned hawks made brief appearances. At one point a group of four red-tailed hawks circled overhead; there may have been more than that, as red-tails were visible at several points on the walk. Kestrel flybys included one male that circled and gave great looks. Several large kettles of vultures - including one of about twenty black vultures - passed through.

Fall foliage season is well underway, though it has not reached its peak yet. The trees along the canal were especially beautiful where they reflected on the water in the morning light.

Update (10/21): After seeing a lot of white-crowned sparrows at Sandy Hook, I think that two of the sparrows we saw yesterday were actually immature white-crowned sparrows.


Canada Goose
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Carolina Wren
Northern Mockingbird
Eastern Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Tufted Titmouse
Blue Jay
American Crow
European Starling
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Palm Warbler
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Common Grackle
American Goldfinch

Friday, October 19, 2007

Loose Feathers #120

Red-tailed Hawk on the Bronx Victory Memorial / Photo by D. Bruce Yolton (Urban Hawks)

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment
  • dark-eyed junco nestA study of dark-eyed juncos found that some males with increased testosterone levels became more aggressive and more interested in finding extra mates. The extra testosterone also made male juncos less interested in feeding their nestlings.
  • This summer's drought may reduce the number of migratory waterfowl that stop on Maryland's Eastern Shore during the winter.
  • Wildlife experts gathered at Cape May to call for $1 billion in additional funding for the state Wildlife Action Plans mandated by Congress seven years ago. So far the federal government has provided under $300 million to implement the plans.
  • Wetlands in Turkey have come under increasing pressure from pollution and development, leading to population losses among the migratory birds that need them. Turkey sits at the junction of two migratory flyways, one leading through the Balkans and the other between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.
  • sociable lapwing turkeyAlso in Turkey, a satellite tag helped discover the largest flock of sociable lapwings seen for 100 years. The flock numbers 3,200 birds. Previously, the world population of sociable lapwings was thought to be about 400. The tagged lapwing flew 2,000 miles, from north of the Caspian Sea to Ceylanpınar in southeastern Turkey.
  • The United States will give Costa Rica $26 million in debt relief in exchange for conservation of tropical forests.
  • Lesser FlamingosConservationists from 23 African nations have signed a petition opposing a planned chemical plant at Lake Natron. The lake is home to three-quarters of the world population of lesser flamingos. A chemical plant would disrupt nesting sites and waste from the plant would change the chemical composition of the waters, possibly reducing the availability of food.
  • A cemetery in California is trying to get rid of a flock of about three dozen wild turkeys that have been feeding within the cemetery. (I guess turkeys are not part of a beautiful environment.)
  • Some tropical birds depend entirely on army ants to find their food. Birds catch insects and other animals as they flee the approaching horde. Many birds attend to ant hordes as they pass through their territories, others follow the ants but also find other sources of food, while a small number of specialists concentrate only on creatures flushed by the ants.
  • While the bird population overall is holding steady, farm birds in the U.K. have declined by half over the past forty years.
  • In Georgia, a prolonged drought has reduced the number of wood stork nests by almost half.
  • Birding offers a natural diversion for city dwellers, as many species can be found within the confines of urban parks over the course of a year.
  • barred owlSuburban Charlotte, North Carolina, is home to a large and thriving population of barred owls. The owls like the area because it provides old, large trees with holes for roosting and yards with plenty of prey species and clear lanes for hunting.
  • Malaysia may lose 45 bird species to extinction in the near term without the protection of vital habitat.
  • A storm reconnected South Monomoy Island to the mainland in November 2006, and since then the former island has been flooded with predators. Newly arrived opossums, raccoons, foxes and coyotes have taken a heavy toll on the threatened species that nest there.
Birds in the blogosphere
Blog carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, October 18, 2007

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #60 is now available at Search and Serendipity. This week's edition is highlighted by several new contributors, including this beautiful photo of a winter wren (käblik) from a blogger in Estonia.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Pintails on 2008 Duck Stamp

The Fish and Wildlife Service selected pintails for the 2008-2009 Migratory Bird Conservation and Hunting Stamp. Carrying the stamp is required for waterfowl hunters over 16 years old. It is also popular with stamp collectors and birders, who use the stamp as a pass for the National Wildlife Refuge system. According to the government, sales of the Duck Stamp currently account for about $25 million towards wetland habitat purchases per year.

I have to disagree with one statement for Secretary Kempthorne:

"It was a privilege for me to congratulate Joe Hautman when the judges chose his art to grace the 75th Duck Stamp," said Secretary Kempthorne. 'The Duck Stamp program is unique in the realm between art and conservation. This art will be transformed into an equally beautiful stamp and help protect wetlands by generating funding through the sale of that stamp to hunters, stamp-collectors and conservationists. People talk about how art can change the world, and the Duck Stamp is an excellent example. You just need to look at the more than five million acres of waterfowl habitat protected by their purchase using funds from the stamp for proof of the power of this art."
I am sure a few people buy the stamp primarily because they love the artwork. Since the stamp is required of hunters and provides a tangible benefit for birders, presumably most funds are generated because people have to buy the stamp. So what it actually shows is the power of federal regulation. (But don't expect a loyal Bushie to say that!)

(Via Wildbird.)

Cape May and Cats (Again)

The Cape May city council decided to keep its trap-neuter-release policy for feral cats. The council was required to create a wildlife management plan for its beaches to protect ground-nesting birds.

Amendments to the plan were:
  • Continue TNR program under control of registered caregivers monitored by the city’s Animal Control Officer.
  • A phasing in of microchipping animals.
  • Establishment of a 1,000-foot buffer zone between cat colonies and beach nesting areas of endangered birds.
  • Eliminate requirement of licensing cats.
  • Establish a census of cats to be conducted every five years.
  • Enact stiff fines for animal abandonment.
According to its backers, the TNR policy so far has shown some success in reducing the feral cat population:
City Animal Control Officer John Queenan said the TNR program was successful in the city and had lowered the feral cat population from close to 400 cats in 1995, when it began, to about 100 cats currently. Since all cats returned to the outdoors are neutered, he said cat colonies were decreasing in size and would continue to do so as cats died off due to old age.
piping ploverStill, the town had been warned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the policy may violate federal law protecting several species of birds. Piping plovers, least terns, and black skimmers nest on Cape May beaches and thus are especially vulnerable to predation and disturbance. Federal agencies recommended a buffer zone of one mile, which would force Cape May to remove feral cat colonies entirely.

So my question is: will a 1,000-foot buffer zone be enough to protect beach-nesting birds? To me it does not sound like much of a barrier. The American Bird Conservancy gives some reason for doubt that the plan will be effective for protecting birds, as does the Fish and Wildlife Service. ABC conducted a review of policies in five states, including New Jersey, and concluded that the success of TNR is probably overstated:
TNR has been promoted by national and local groups as the only humane way to manage stray and feral cats. Unfortunately, managed cat colonies are known to persist for 15 or more years, and well-fed cats still prey on birds and other wildlife. The ability of TNR programs to reduce a local population of stray and feral cats, i.e. in a neighborhood, depends on a number of variables, including original size of the colony, the location, the commitment and skill of the volunteers, their financial resources, whether there are local cat control ordinances in place and enforced, and whether there are low-cost spay/neuter services readily available. It is also important to note that spayed or neutered cats that have a regular food source are likely to live longer than feral cats without human assistance.
Birdchaser suggests that birders boycott Cape May until a better policy is enacted, or at least raise complaints. One organization with a major presence at the cape is NJ Audubon. So far they have been fairly quiet on this issue and appear to be avoiding public comment. (Most TNR-related content on their website is a year or more old.) I do not know whether they are trying to influence the outcome behind the scenes. I would be interested in reading their perspective on this, in any case.

Update: Rob pointed out in comments that the results of the TNR program in Cape May have been overstated:
Feral cat colony caretakers have often not helped their cause by maintaining colonies near sensitive wildlife habitats, and by not sterilizing enough cats, fast enough, to reduce the visible population to none within the three-to-five-year average lifespan of a feral cat who survives kittenhood.

Cape May, New Jersey, for example, has had an active neuter/return network since 1992, encouraged by animal control chief John Queenan. ANIMAL PEOPLE mentioned the Cape May project as a model for other communities in 1993. But Cape May is perhaps the most frequented resting and feeding area for migratory birds along the entire Atlantic flyway. Many visiting species are in decline, including the tiny red knot, which flies each year all the way from the Antarctic to the Arctic and back. Cape May is also among the nesting habitats of the endangered piping plover.

The Cape May economy is driven by birders' visits. When Cape May still had an estimated 500 feral cats in 2003, ten years into the neuter/return program, the city allowed neuter/return advocates to maintain 10 cat feeding stations and weather shelters, but the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service began demanding that feral cat feeding be ended.

Many cats were removed from sensitive areas and housed in two trailers, one belonging to Cape May Animal Control and the other to Animal Outreach of Cape May County, the primary local cat rescue group since 1995. On May 19, 2007, however, the trailers caught fire, killing 37 cats. Cape May is currently considering withdrawing support for neuter/return and prohibiting feeding cats outdoors.
If there were 500 feral cats in 2003 (i.e., 100 more than in 1995), then any subsequent reductions are probably a result of something other than the program.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Lead Bullet Ban in California

Governor Schwarzenegger apparently changed his mind and signed a bill to protect California condors from lead poisoning.

Assembly Bill 821, the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act, written by Assemblyman Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara, requires the use of nonlead centerfire rifle and pistol ammunition when shooting big game or coyotes within specific areas of the state identified as the condor's range.

Those involved in restoring wild condors to California hailed the bill as a necessary step to ensure the success of the giant scavenger's reintroduction.

"This is a great day for the California condor and the state of California," said Glenn Olson, executive director of Audubon California. "I would like to commend Governor Schwarzenegger for signing the Ridley-Tree Condor Conservation Act and again putting our state at the forefront on wildlife protection."

"The Condor Preservation Act will significantly reduce lead poisoning of condors in California and is an important first step in getting lead out of the food chain," said Adam Keats of the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco.

The center, Keats said, hopes to see the Legislature or the Fish and Game Commission extend the ban on lead to include pistol and .22 caliber rimfire cartridges, and shotgun pellets or slugs used for big game, as suitable alternative ammunition of those types of weapons becomes available.
In the last few years, many condors have died or become sick due to lead poisoning from ingesting spent ammunition left in big game carcasses. Seven of the fourteen birds released last year as part of the captive breeding program succumbed. Deaths from lead poisoning have hampered attempts to restore a self-sustaining condor population in the wild.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Loose Feathers #119

Ruby-crowned Kinglet / Photo by Donna Dewhurst

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment
  • The spoon-billed sandpiper is close to extinction, with only 200 to 300 breeding pairs left. Causes of the Asian shorebird's decline include habitat loss for breeding and migration, particularly through coastal reclamation projects.
  • Attention birders: ticks can survive a trip through the laundry. Most Lone Star and deer ticks can survive the washing machine. You can increase your chances of killing them by running clothes through a dryer at high heat.
  • The BOU has released a report on taxonomic recommendations for British birds. It contains a lengthy discussion of reworking gull taxonomy. (Via George Bristow's Secret Freezer)
  • Countries in Europe, western Asia, and Africa are working on an agreement to protect migratory raptors that use flyways through the three continents. Fifty percent of migratory raptors along those flyways have had population declines in recent years. One reason for the agreement is to prevent incidents like the recent shooting of 52 red-footed falcons in Cyprus.
  • A judge delayed construction of a section of border fence in Arizona due to an inadequate environmental assessment of its impact.
  • Researchers in San Francisco are tracking hawk migration to look for changes due to climate change. For example, rough-legged hawks now arrive five days later than 25 years ago.
  • In Australia, scientists have found spring migrants arriving several days earlier than previously. The helmeted honeyeater, a critically endangered bird, has shifted its egg-laying to take advantage of its preferred food sources.
  • California's lead ammunition ban still awaits Arnold Schwarzenegger's signature or veto. In the meantime, biologists with the condor recovery program leave fresh, clean carcasses within view of hungry condors. Seven of the fourteen condors released last year died of lead poisoning.
  • A birder got lost at Higbee Beach and had to be rescued after a series of bad decisions.
  • Several agencies and nonprofits are coordinating a conservation program for Maryland's coastal bays. The program includes wildlife monitoring (especially birds) and habitat protection.
  • The IPCC and Al Gore won this year's Nobel Peace Prize for their work on climate change.
Birds in the blogosphere
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, October 11, 2007

eBird Data Import

About a month ago, eBird announced the release of a data import tool. Normally, contributors to eBird submit sightings through a checklist form with a web browser interface. The data import tool allows users to upload spreadsheet files (in csv format) instead. The advantage is that one can submit many records at once, instead of filling out one checklist at a time. It will help individuals (and organizations) that maintain their own datasets to share their sightings with other birders and scientists.

Data import is currently in beta-testing. If you would like to try it, contact eBird at the link above for directions. I signed up as a beta tester and found that the process works well. Proper formatting of the data does take some time. Spreadsheets need to have the columns and rows in a standard order for importation, and species names and other terminology need to be consistent. It helps if you provide coordinates for a location the first time it appears in the dataset. (Here is a site to find latitude and longitude.)

I like this tool because it provides an easier way to coordinate my records on Avisys and eBird. Some features are promised to make importation from birding software easier. I find that the process works fairly well for Avisys records as it is.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

New Antwren

new antwren BrazilBrazil may have a new antwren species:

A possible new species of antwren from Bahia, Brazil has recently been described in the journal Zootaxa. Sincorá Antwren Formicivora grantsaui is found only in the campo rupestre vegetation of the Serra do Sincorá between 850 m and 1,100 m in the Chapada Diamantina region. This is an important area that holds other restricted range species such as Grey-backed Tachuri Polystictus superciliaris and Pale-throated Pampa-finch Embernagra longicauda. First observed in 1997, it is closely related to Rusty-backed Antwren Formicivora rufa, with which it sometimes occurs sympatrically. It differs slightly in some plumage characters but more importantly it has quite distinctive vocalisations and each species utilises different habitats. Formicivora grantsaui occurs on rocky outcrops in the campo rupestre and F. rufa in the adjacent savannas. If confirmed, this discovery highlights the importance of researchers using vocalisations and habitat preference in identifying distinct species.
The article notes that the AOU's South American Classification Committee has yet to recognize the bird for its checklist.

DDT and Breast Cancer

Occasionally proponents of renewed DDT use will claim that the pesticide, banned in the United States as an ecological hazard, has no harmful effect on humans. That is actually not true, as there is already evidence of a connection with reproductive problems. In addition to early miscarriages, it may also cause premature birth or decrease men's sperm quality.

A new study links exposure to DDT in early life with an increased chance of breast cancer.

The results are something of a surprise, researchers said, because several previous studies have found no link between cancer and the insecticide, which was widely used during the 1950s and '60s but was banned in the United States in 1972.

The new work differs from all other studies, however, by focusing on the age at which women were exposed. Echoing the situation with some other breast cancer risks, such as radiation, it finds that DDT increases the risk of breast cancer in adulthood only if the exposure occurred at a young age, before the breasts were fully developed.

All told, girls who had the highest levels of the chemical in their blood during that crucial developmental period were five times more likely to get breast cancer years later than were girls who had the lowest levels. That fivefold increase is a bigger boost in risk than is now attributed to hormone replacement therapy or having a close relative with breast cancer.
There is some discussion of the report at Effect Measure.

It is too late for the study to be of much benefit to women who were exposed in this country. However, it ought to give pause to attempts to restart or expand its usage elsewhere. A pesticide that has long been known to have deleterious ecological effects and that may be harmful to humans should not be the first choice if better options are available.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Threats to Northeastern Forests

Speaking of invasive species, the Times profiled some of the threats facing the widespread forests of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. While the acreage covered by forests has increased over the past century, the composition of forests is changing. Many forests occur in smaller plots, many are losing their understory, and invasive plants are replacing native ones in many locations.

From state to state and forest to forest, the situation is variable and dynamic. “There is a lot of healthy forest left,” said Dr. Joan Gardner Ehrenfeld, an expert on invasive species who is a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources at Rutgers University.

But in some areas, multiple threats “are coming together as a sort of a perfect storm,” she said. “There are too many different problems all converging at the same time in the same place, and the multiple effect makes the situation all the more serious.”

These threats, experts say, include suburban sprawl, the impact of marauding invasive plants and insects, climate change and not only acid rain but also, contrarily, lack of rainfall. But in many locales, the implacable browsing of deer on young trees is killing replacement saplings, depleting shade and promoting the growth of invasive plants that smother native species.
The various threats are interwoven. Sprawl leads to forest fragmentation, which in turn encourages invasive plants to proliferate. The overpopulation of white-tailed deer also makes it harder for native plants to survive and easier for invasives to take over. Some invasive plants are distasteful to deer, while the native plants are not.
In some areas the impact is so profound “that it looks like someone took a brown crayon and used a ruler to draw in a brown line and a green line,” Dr. Ehrenfeld said. “The green above stops at a steady line at the height that deer can reach.” Increasingly, “suburbia is uniquely designed to grow and harbor deer,” Ms. Sauer said, “because lawns and flower gardens are high-quality deer delis, and the deer are safe from hunters.” She added, “We have created a physical environment where there is no limit to their growth.”

Forests can heal themselves when they have a population of 5 to 10 deer per square mile, “but now 35 per square mile is common, it’s well over 50 in some places, and in a few places in New Jersey it can be 250 or even more,” Dr. DeVito said. “One overabundant species is sacrificing thousands of other species. We have to recognize that, and deal with it.”


And newer invasives are perennially joined by older stalkers. This year some 320,000 acres of New Jersey trees were defoliated by gypsy moth caterpillars, the most since 1990, when more than 431,000 acres of trees experienced leaf loss. A growing concern is the appearance of kudzu, a climbing perennial vine that can reach heights of close to 100 feet and has caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to Southern woodlands.
The disappearance of forest's understory and the proliferation of invasives changes the types of animals that can survive there.
Still, some forest managers fear a future of “boring forests” or “trash forests,” with fewer hardwoods and more species like ailanthus and cottonwoods that may transform the region’s wildlife population.

In the worst case, “we are looking forward to forests that look like the landscapes of vacant lots,” Ms. Sauer said. “Alien species, and no complexity. And that level of simplification will affect birds, mammals, butterflies, everything.”
So what types of birds might be affected? The primary impact would be felt by birds that depend on a rich understory for nesting or foraging. These include most thrushes, many warblers (including ovenbirds, black-throated blue warblers, and Kentucky warblers), and fox sparrows, among others. Even some canopy-dwellers, such as cerulean warblers, start to disappear when the understory is lost or degraded. Studies have shown that deer exclosure plots and forests with lower deer density have higher plant and bird diversity.

Most forests profiled in the article will continue to exist for the foreseeable future. They occur on large tracts protected as federal or state public lands for conservation and recreation. What they look like in the future will depend on how well the current threats can be managed.


Birders can help with the problem to some extent. One way is to volunteer for invasive species control efforts, if they are available locally. Another is to be careful to use native or noninvasive species for plantings around the home. Here is an invasive plant identification key, and here are tips for control and removal. Local native plant societies can provide recommendations for what to plant and where to find them. Here are lists of sources for native plants for New Jersey and Maryland, for example.


One nonnative invasive tree highlighted by the Times is the norway maple. These tall shade trees have a wide and dense canopy that blocks out most sunlight and rainfall from reaching the ground. As a result, it is difficult for any other plants to grow underneath them. Like a true invasive, norway maples are prodigious breeders. The trees produce seeds (pictured left) twice annually; the lightweight seed packets spread easily.

Norway maples are widespread in Central Jersey. When I was growing up, they seemed to be our characteristic maple. Since then I have learned better and look on them quite differently.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Amateur Field Notes Shed Light on Rare Bird

From time to time, birders are reminded to take good field notes, especially when we view unusual birds. A recent reminder in the bird blogs came with posts by Corey at 10,000 Birds and David Sibley. Discussion of the practice crops up occasionally elsewhere, too. I don't normally take good notes myself, but perhaps I should.

Rediscovered notebooks from an amateur ornithologist have provided new information about the Javan Lapwing. This rare species, which formerly roamed the marshes of Indonesian Java, was last confirmed in 1940.

In 2000, the Zoological Museum Amsterdam received a number of unpublished and previously unknown notes and manuscripts written by August Spennemann. Spennemann lived on Java from c.1915 to 1940 and among his notes was a detailed typed account of his observations of the Javan Lapwing in the late 1920s near Pamanukan, West Java province.

"Spennemann's notes contain descriptions of the calls and behaviour of these birds, things we knew almost nothing of before. This discovery provides us with an amazing window onto their lives,” says Bas van Balen, one of the authors of the paper.

These records come from areas with no previous reports of Javan Lapwings and suggest that these birds may have wider habitat preferences than was previously thought.

"If it still exists the population of Javan Lapwings must be tiny and work needs to be carried out immediately to survey all potential areas,” Bas adds.
A translation of the notes is available in the latest issue of Bird Conservation International.


The phrase "invasive species" calls to mind a plant or animal being imported from Europe or Asia and running wild in North American habitats. The likes of starlings and garlic mustard cause major problems for our native wildlife and for wildlife managers. Sometimes the invasion works in reverse. One example is the gray squirrel, which was brought to England over a century ago. In this country, they are an occasional pest for homeowners and bird feeders but otherwise harmless; in the United Kingdom, they threaten the native squirrel population.

The Lake District, in the north of England, is on the front lines of a new Hundred Years’ War. It is a war between rodents. Since the 19th century, gray squirrels, an American import, have been overtaking Britain’s native red squirrels and claiming their territory. The grays have moved up from the south of England, thinning out the reds along the way. The reds now survive mostly in Scotland and the English counties, like Northumberland, that border it. The grays are larger and tougher and meaner than the reds. They can eat newly fallen acorns, and the reds cannot. They cross open lands that the reds are scared of. They are more sociable than reds, allowing for higher population densities. Although gray males cannot mate with red females, they often intimidate red males out of doing so....

The situation has now reached a crisis point: there are only an estimated 160,000 red squirrels left in Britain, whereas there are more than 2 million grays. Without human intervention, reds could be gone from England in 10 years. The red squirrel is a national icon, and the British government is trying hard to save it. Deliberately killing a red squirrel or disturbing its nest, called a drey, is a crime. Last year the government set up more than a dozen refuges for red squirrels in the north of England.
Read the rest.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Loose Feathers #118

Song Sparrow / Photo by Lee Karney (USFWS)

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment
Birds in the blogosphere
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, October 04, 2007

I and the Bird #59

The latest I and the Bird is now up at Naturalist Notebook.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Peer Review Faults Spotted Owl Recovery Plan

An independent peer review conducted by the Society of Conservation Biology and the American Ornithologists’ Union describes severe flaws in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's new draft recovery plan for the northern spotted owl. This species dwells in old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. Such habitat has shrunken rapidly in recent decades.

The review found that the plan ignored twenty years of evidence regarding the owl's habitat needs and the causes of its decline. In particular, the plan's analysis shifts blame from logging in old growth forests to competition with barred owls.

By some estimates, between 80 percent and 90 percent of the region’s old-growth has already been cut.

In 1994, the Clinton administration released its Northwest Forest Plan, which restricted logging on roughly 7 million acres of federal lands. Though Clinton administration officials estimated that their plan would allow for the logging of about 1 billion board-feet of timber a year in Washington and Oregon, only about 300 million board-feet a year has been harvested.

Meanwhile, the population of the spotted owl, especially in its northern range, has continued to decline.

The draft recovery plan identified competition from the barred owl as the primary threat facing the spotted owl, not the loss of habitat as previously thought. The barred owl isn't native to the Northwest, but has moved west from the eastern United States as the forests have been logged. The barred owl is less selective in its habitat than the spotted owl and more aggressive than its cousin in competing for habitat and food.

But the unidentified scientists who conducted the peer review said basing the recovery plan on eliminating barred owls was unsupported by scientific studies.

“Habitat loss from timber harvest remains the sole threat for which there is extensive supporting scientific information,” wrote one scientist. “In contrast, little scientific information on potential adverse effects of barred owl range expansion is currently available. Primary emphasis on the barred owl is misplaced at this time because of a lack of supporting evidence.”
The report concludes that political meddling, especially from Julie MacDonald, a former high-ranking Interior official, may have skewed this draft of the recovery plan. Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter asking Secretary Dick Kempthorne to withdraw the current plan and write a new one based on the best available science.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Weird Feeder Bird

BirdCouple - Warren and Lisa - recently set up a camera to photograph activity at their birdfeeders while they were away from home during the day. Within a week, it caught a photo of one very strange-looking feeder bird. It most closely resembles a common redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus). But then, how would a common redstart end up in Annapolis? A summer resident of northern Europe, the common redstart migrates to Africa, not Maryland, for the winter. If this identification is correct, the bird probably escaped from captivity, though it is possible that it made it on its own.

My original guess was that the bird was an abnormal chickadee, perhaps one of the local Carolina chickadees or a wayward boreal chickadee. Alternately, it could be a trick of lighting and contrast, though that seems less likely. What do you think? Leave a comment over at the BirdCouple blog if you have any ideas about its identity or provenance.

Common Redstart

For more images, see the common redstart account at

Arthropods at the Grasslands

Sunday's visit to grasslands sites turned up more than birds. The seed pods of milkweed plants at Griggstown hosted swarms of Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus). The bugs on the pod pictured below all appear to be nymphs.

Along one trail at Negri-Nepote, there were about a dozen webs within a few square yards. All were constructed by the same large spider species, pictured below. This spider is a Banded Argiope (Argiope trifasciata). It is in the same genus as the Yellow Garden Spider I posted about a month ago.

Finally, there was this grasshopper hiding behind a stem at Negri-Nepote. I am not sure this image shows enough for identification, or at least it does not show enough for me to identify it. There were thousands of grasshoppers in the fields at both locations. This one was larger than most.