Sunday, December 30, 2007

Raritan Estuary CBC - 2007

For the fourth consecutive year, my mother, sister, and I participated in the Raritan Estuary Christmas Bird Count. The winter solstice is technically the darkest day of the year. However, the day of the Raritan Estuary CBC, usually the last Sunday of the year, seems to best the solstice for dreariness. Today was no different, with the sky blanketed by increasingly thick clouds from morning till night, and then a rainstorm moving in after dark.

As usual, we began the count at the west end of our sector in Johnson Park. This is a good starting point, since it gives us a chance to count a large Canada goose flock before it disperses for the day. This section of the river tends to be good for waterfowl, including common goldeneye, and many hawks use nearby the snags for early morning hunting. The park's small zoo is usually a popular place with songbirds, especially the house sparrows that like to pilfer the food left out for the caged animals. This morning, the house sparrows were joined by a merlin, which caught and ate one. Close by the zoo, we each saw a brilliantly-colored male golden-crowned kinglet. For the rest of the morning we worked our way eastward through the park. The sightings were mostly mundance - lots of dark-eyed juncos, a smattering of woodpeckers, and the typical winter mixed songbird flocks.

After lunch, we birded the other part of our sector, Donaldson Park and some adjacent areas. There were surprisingly few Canada geese and gulls (of any sort) today. Usually we find at least a few hundred of each. There was a great cormorant perched on a marker in the river; this is about as far inland as that species can be found. I had a few American tree sparrows at the east end of the park, as well as a trio of black vultures and a flyby harrier. The last new species for the afternoon was a peregrine falcon, seen only by Belinda.

We closed out the day with an owling trip after dark. I had hoped that we could find great horned owls, since we have encountered them before on this route, and perhaps eastern screech owls. Unfortunately none responded to the playback calls. The steady cold drizzle probably had something to do with that. After a fourth unsuccessful stop, we packed it in for the night.

Here is a table with the full results from our sector. Canada geese account for almost half the total birds!

Species Number
Canada Goose 2145
Mallard 164
American Black Duck 4
Common Goldeneye 16
Hooded Merganser 2
Common Merganser 20
Double-crested Cormorant 5
Great Cormorant 1
Great Blue Heron 6
Black Vulture 3
Turkey Vulture 1
Northern Harrier 1
Sharp-shinned Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 5
Merlin 3
Peregrine Falcon 1
Killdeer 1
Ring-billed Gull 184
Herring Gull 18
Great Black-backed Gull 24
Gull-sp. 73
Rock Pigeon 105
Mourning Dove 143
Belted Kingfisher 4
Red-bellied Woodpecker 25
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1
Downy Woodpecker 24
Hairy Woodpecker 1
Northern Flicker 9
Blue Jay 107
American Crow 29
Fish Crow 4
Carolina Chickadee 1
Black-capped Chickadee 7
Tufted Titmouse 55
White-breasted Nuthatch 24
Brown Creeper 10
Carolina Wren 10
Golden-crowned Kinglet 1
American Robin 51
Northern Mockingbird 10
European Starling 386
American Tree Sparrow 3
Song Sparrow 48
White-throated Sparrow 132
Dark-eyed Junco 147
Northern Cardinal 50
Red-winged Blackbird 1
Common Grackle 2
House Finch 83
American Goldfinch 31
House Sparrow 150
Total Species 51
Total Individuals 4332

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Recovery Program for Andean Condors

Like the California condors of North America, Andean condors have long been in decline. A recovery program based at the Buenos Aires Zoo is trying to make sure that Andean condors do not reach as critical a state as their northern cousins. The program incubates eggs in captivity and then releases the young condors in areas where they had previously disappeared.

Condor populations declined for decades throughout South America mainly because of hunting by farmers, many of whom mistakenly believed the condor to be a predatory bird. They would see condors swooping down toward their livestock and then notice that one of their animals was dead, Jacome said. But the birds, which feed solely on carrion, were attracted to the farms because an animal had already died....

In 1965, the condor was declared extinct in Venezuela, and it was believed to be on track for the same fate in Ecuador and Colombia, Jacome said. On the coast of Argentina -- the country that historically had the largest condor population-- the bird had also disappeared.

But today, about a dozen condors live in Venezuela, and a total of perhaps 100 soar in the skies of Colombia and Ecuador. Quite a few nest near Argentina's coast, where the project has released several condors in recent years. Chile and Argentina probably have the most condors, though no precise population estimates exist, Jacome said.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Loose Feathers #130

Harlequin DuckHarlequin Duck / Photo by Laura Whitehouse

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

Thursday, December 27, 2007

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #65 is now available at Wildbird on the Fly.

The biweekly carnival of blogging about birds will be back on its regular submission schedule for its next edition at Born Again Bird Watcher.

Cooper's Hawk Goes Shopping

A Cooper's hawk chased another bird into a local Home Depot and then could not find its way out.

The store's management opened all the doors hoping the hawk would fly out, but that didn't work.

"It wasn't bothering anybody, preferring to sit up on the rafters at the back of the building," said Bob Mairs, assistant store manager.

At night, the raptor repeatedly set off the store's alarms but it didn't do any damage, he said.

On Wednesday morning, Mairs called the Raptor Trust, a Millington-based nonprofit organization that runs a wildlife rehabilitation center for birds.

"It's amazing to see how quickly they responded," Mairs said. "Within an hour they had captured the bird."
Initially I thought that the hawk would be just as happy to have stayed and hunted the store's house sparrows, but the bird was hungry and dehydrated when it was captured. I guess the store's garden section must be sufficient to support a small prey population but not the predator. The Raptor Trust plans to release the hawk into the Great Swamp NWR after its rehabilitation.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Ducks

Shortly after I took this picture, I saw a male harlequin duck in Newark Bay in Bayonne. It was visible from a promenade along the bay behind a new housing development and Holy Family Academy. The harlequin flew in and landed about a hundred yards out, and proceeded to dive several times off one of the jetties.

Also present were a great cormorant (on the old railroad bridge pilings), a northern harrier, and small flocks of American wigeons, gadwall, buffleheads, and red-breasted mergansers.

Monday, December 24, 2007

EPA Overstating Chesapeake's Progress

An independent review of the EPA's computer models of the Chesapeake Bay found that they overstated the impact of various improvements on the bay's health.

Simpson and other researchers were asked by the bay program to review some of the calculations plugged into its computer model. These equations described the impact of certain save-the-bay tactics: plant X amount of cover crops to hold fertilizer on farm fields, thus achieving a decline of Y in fertilizer-polluted runoff.

But Simpson said his review found that many of the equations were based on small-scale experiments that might not predict what would happen on a large farm. Others were based on the educated guesses of experts.

"A lot of them, there was very little data" when the calculations were devised about 10 years ago, Simpson said. "So a lot of it was just professional opinion."

And, as it turned out, a lot of the assumptions were off target, Simpson said. He and a team of university researchers with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Water Program reviewed new research that documented how much good each of these practices did in the real world.

According to the bay program, they found that 18 of the 36 measures actually had less of an effect than they had been credited for.

For instance, a practice called conservation tillage, in which farmers try to plant crops with minimal disturbance of the soil, was supposed to deliver an 18 percent reduction in nitrogen pollution. But the real number was more like 8 percent, Simpson's team found.

Another tactic was using fencing and water troughs to keep livestock from drinking and standing in streams. This keeps cows from polluting bay tributaries with their waste, and it was believed to deliver a 60 percent drop in nitrogen. But Simpson's team found the number was more like 25 percent.
Similar problems have been noted by previous reviews, as in a report from the GAO in 2005. It is hard to be optimistic about the bay's health under the best of circumstances. (See Jeremy's explanation of the ecology of the blue crab for a few of the reasons why.) Today's report suggests that even the good news needs to be tempered.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sparrows at Griggstown

This morning was overcast and chilly - in other words, perfect weather for a winter solstice. Unfortunately it is not perfect for identifying birds. When all colors dissolve into gray, shapes and sounds become vital for bird identification.

Birding can still be productive under such circumstances, as it was this morning at the Griggstown Grasslands Preserve. Large flocks of Canada geese and various ducks flew noisily overhead all day; perhaps they were disturbed by the hunters combing through nearby farm fields. One highlight came during an overflight - two tight vees of common mergansers.

The fields contained the usual sparrows, plus about a dozen American tree sparrows. As I noted in a previous post, I am really amazed at the number of tree sparrows I have seen so far this fall and winter. I have also come to appreciate the tinkling calls and warm coloration of these "sweet little creatures" (as some might call them). It is a relief amidst the stark gray colors taken by their surroundings. More relief came from the small flocks of eastern bluebirds that inhabit the hedgerows at Griggstown.

A few purple finches were present at Griggstown today. The birds in this group were mostly males, purplish with no sign of brown streaking. One female was with them. Usually females of this species are a bit easier for me to identify, but today it seemed to work in reverse.

Oddly enough, there were no harriers present today, at least none that I saw. It was the first time in at least a month that I did not record one there.

Grackles Dying

As a commenter noted yesterday, a neighborhood in Staten Island experienced a scary situation when birds started dropping from the sky and dying.

More than 50 birds plummeted to the pavement in Bay Terrace about 3 p.m., causing frightened residents to scramble indoors.

"It was like Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds,'" said Donna Toti, 50. "Birds were just falling out of the sky. They would land, lie on the ground, flap and die."

The birds - all believed to be Purple Martins - landed within the Port Regalle development near the intersection of Wiman Ave. and Tennyson Drive. Some appeared to die in the air; others expired in the moments after they hit the pavement, authorities said.

"When we pulled in, most of the birds were on the ground, floundering and foaming at the mouth," said FDNY Battalion Chief John Giacella.

Giacella suggested that because all the birds were the same species they likely got ill from something they ate. But he noted that he was far from certain.

Health department officials collected the birds last night and were sending them to a lab for testing.
I have seen other stories with birds mysteriously dropping from the sky. In those cases the cause turned out to be poison, like a recent case somewhere in Texas. Last year in Australia, dead birds started appearing around a town because of lead poisoning.

The dead birds that the story refers to as "purple martins" are clearly common grackles. (Note the curved bill, yellow eye, and wedge-shaped tail). Grackles, like other blackbirds, tend to gather in large flocks for roosting and foraging during the winter. Because the flocks are so large, often numbering into the thousands, they are sometimes seen as pests and are targeted by pest control. Also, blackbirds feed on the ground like starlings and pigeons, two other species sometimes baited with poisoned food. Whether deliberate poison was the cause of this mass death remains to be seen.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Loose Feathers #129

Horned Lark / Photo by Tim Bowman (USFWS)

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment
  • A study in Conservation Biology predicts 450-550 landbird extinctions due to climate change by 2100, with another 2150 threatened with extinction by that time. Of the predicted extinctions, only 21% are currently considered to be threatened. Climate change can cause extinctions by forcing birds to change their range to cope with higher temperatures. Arctic birds and alpine specialists would run out of places to move.
  • The Foja forest of western New Guinea has been dubbed a "lost world" for its rarely-studied species. A recent research trip there filmed displays by a golden-fronted bowerbird and black sicklebill and gathered information on a still-unpublished honeyeater species (pictured right).
  • A study of 124 common European bird species showed that 56 have declined in the last 26 years. Among the hardest-hit: Crested Lark, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Grey Partridge, European Wryneck, and Northern Wheatear. Some of the other species increased in population, including Hawfinch, Collared Flycatcher, and Common Raven.
  • Christmas Bird Counts in the news: Michigan (no specific circle); Central Park; Powell River (Canada); Matagorda (TX); Athol (MA).
  • Virginia approved a 20-turbine wind farm in Highland County, with the condition that the business will have to pay fines of $500 to $1500 per carcass if any raptors are killed.
  • Colorado State University is conducting research on potential effects of a proposed Colorado wind farm on birds before the site is developed.
  • Colorado is working on regulations to ensure that energy development makes minimal impact on wildlife.
  • The recent federal spending bill included $513,000 for blackbird control.
  • The Western Area Power Administration is experimenting with new ways to prevent birds from flying into power lines.
  • The European Court ruled that Ireland has failed to provide the required Special Protection Areas for the country's most threatened birds such as the kingfisher, chough, corncrake, and sandwich tern.
Birds in the blogosphere
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Oil Spill in DC

About 500 gallons of diesel fuel #2 leaked into DC's Washington Channel today:

The spill of diesel fuel No. 2, which was found in the 1200 bock of Water Street SW at about noon, was contained by emergency workers and should be cleaned up by a contractor, said Alan Etter, spokesman for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

"We expect minimal impact to the environment," Etter said.

The fuel escaped from the U.S. General Services Administration's central heating and refrigeration plant at 13 and C streets SW, Etter said. The fuel got into several storm drains, and emptied into the channel, he said.

Early IATB Deadline

In case anyone misses this on other blogs, submissions for next Thursday's I and the Bird are due today since Tuesday, the normal deadline, is Christmas. Next Thursday's edition will be at Wildbird on the Fly.

Update: The IATB deadline has been extended to Sunday, December 23.

Circus of the Spineless has an early deadline also - Saturday, December 22.

Dueling Headlines

These headlines appeared on consecutive articles in the RSS feed for the Earth Times Online Newspaper:

ANALYSIS: Expert says German carmakers cannot afford CO2 cuts
Stuttgart - Luxury automakers cannot afford to use emissions-cutting technology because their powerful cars would become impossibly expensive, an industry expert warned Wednesday. The European Union's executive arm, the Commission, put itself on a collision course with the German automobile industry on Wednesday by approving strict limits on average carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions of cars.
Wed, Dec 19, 2007 11:21 AM

Experts discount German outcry at CO2 cuts - Feature
Frankfurt - Germany's premium carmakers worked themselves into a rage this week over coming EU limits on carbon-dioxide emissions, suggesting they face punitive fines and must slash jobs. But many experts disagree, saying the 748,000 Germans working in the automotive industry can rest easy.
Wed, Dec 19, 2007 9:12 PM

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

One Step Forward, One Step Back

Using the new federal fuel efficiency standards as a pretext, EPA administrator Steven Johnson rejected California's request for a waiver to establish its own greenhouse gas regulations for automobiles.

The tailpipe standards California adopted in 2004 would have forced automakers to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in new cars and light trucks by 2016, with the cutbacks beginning in the 2009 model year.

Under the Clean Air Act, the state needed a federal waiver to implement the rules....

In explaining his decision, Johnson cited energy legislation approved by Congress and signed into law Wednesday by President Bush. The law requires automakers to achieve an industrywide average fuel efficiency for cars, SUVs and small trucks of 35 miles per gallon by 2020 _ the first increase in the federal requirement in 32 years.

By 2016, California's law would require passenger cars and some small sport utility vehicles and trucks to reach 43.7 miles per gallon. Most pickups, SUVs and larger vehicles would need to achieve 26.9 mpg by 2016.

Johnson said Congress' approach of reaching a fleetwide average of 35 mpg would be better than a "partial state-by-state approach" that would achieve 33.8 mpg.

But environmental groups questioned Johnson's reasoning, noting that California's standards would be higher a full four years ahead of the congressional action and the federal 35 mpg was minimum requirement that future administrations could exceed.
This was the first time in 40 years that the EPA denied a waiver for California to adopt its own standards. Sixteen other states also planned to adopt the emissions standards had California received its waiver. Instead they, like California, will have to wait before the stricter standards can be implemented. Governor Schwarzenegger has promised another lawsuit to force the EPA to grant the waiver. Maryland plans to join California's suit, and New Jersey is furious about the denial.

See Gristmill for answers to some of Johnson's arguments.

New Emissions Standards

Today President Bush signed the federal energy bill. The bill contained several provisions aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, such as subsidies for ethanol, efficiency standards for federal buildings, and the replacement of incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent and LED bulbs. One of the highlights was a long-overdue increase in fuel efficiency standards.

The bill's centerpiece is the boost in the minimum fuel-efficiency standard for passenger vehicles, the first to be passed by Congress since 1975. It requires new auto fleets to average 35 miles a gallon by 2020, a 40 percent increase from today's 25-mile average. By 2020, the measure could reduce U.S. oil use by 1.1 million barrels a day, more than half the oil exported by Kuwait or Venezuela and equivalent of taking 28 million of today's vehicles off the road.
Overall, this bill seems like a mixed bag. Better energy efficiency for buildings and home appliances represents a clear step forward. Whether corn-based ethanol improves on gasoline is questionable, given its lower energy output, impact on food prices, and contribution to watershed pollution. Ethanol based on other sources is still not on the market. The bill could have been better had Bush not blocked several provisions, particularly one that would have cut subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and provided them for wind and solar energy production instead.

While the mileage standards improve on the current situation, they also seem somewhat timid. Gasoline produces about 8.87 kg of carbon dioxide per gallon. If my conversion calculations are correct, a 35 mpg standard would work out to 157 g/km of carbon dioxide emissions. So in 13 years, the bill would bring American cars to be more or less on par with current European standards.

Meanwhile, the European Union is pushing ahead with more aggressive cuts in emissions.
The European Commission today proposed new legislation to reduce the average C02 emissions of new cars by nearly 20% to 120g per kilometre by 2012.

The proposal will make car manufacturers legally responsible for reducing the average emissions of their fleet from around 160g/km to 130g/km (18.75%) by 2012 through improved technology to improve fuel consumption. The other 10g of savings will come from other technological improvements such as better tyres and more efficient air conditioning systems.

Cars account for 12% of the European Union's carbon emissions. The EU environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, said the aim of the legislation was to reduce C02 emissions from cars in order to "help fight climate change".
What is notable here is not only how deep the proposed cuts would be, but also the speed with which they would be implemented. The legislation would impose fairly stiff penalties on manufacturers for emissions above the threshold, starting in 2012 and rising 3 years later. The U.S. would do well to emulate the European model if American cars are to remain competitive as gas prices rise.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Another Spill, Another IBA

A crude oil spill in South Korea threatens two Important Bird Areas:

Tens of thousands of volunteers and soldiers have battled for 10 days to attempt to clean up thousands tons of crude oil, some of which is now threatening to enter Cheonsu Bay, about 95 miles southwest of the capital Seoul. The bay is a vital for wintering birds and large numbers of birds also use it as a stopover site during migration. If it were to become contaminated it could lead to a wildlife catastrophe.

Oil has already coated (and been largely/partly cleaned up from) several kilometres of coast, with much of the thickest oil having been washed up on c.30 km of beaches. At sea, the broken slick now apparently extends up to c.130 km south from the spill centre, with oil washing up on beaches and tidal-flats as far south as the Geum Estuary.

The Geum Estuary-Seocheon coastline alone holds many thousands of wintering birds including Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus, Shelduck Tadorna tadorna and the Vulnerable Saunders’s Gull Larus saundersi.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Book Note: Rare Birds Yearbook 2008

I recently received a new publication on threatened bird species, Rare Birds Yearbook 2008, edited by Erik Hirschfeld. The yearbook is the first edition of what is intended as an annual guide to the most endangered birds in the world. Currently BirdLife designates 189 species as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Future editions will include more or (hopefully) fewer species as their status changes.

About 80 pages of introductory chapters describe some of the issues and research relevant to extremely rare birds. Short essays profile working ornithologists, highlight a few individual species, and provide information on ecotourism. An essay on migration is particularly interesting as it discusses current research methods, from simple banding studies to satellite telemetry and analysis of isotopes.

The bulk of the Yearbook is comprised of species accounts for each of the 189 Critically Endangered Species. Each account provides as much information as possible about the species's range, threats to its survival, and past and future conservation actions. Many well-studied species, such as the California Condor, receive lengthy accounts of their conservation status. Other accounts, like those for the Negros Fruit-dove and Siau Scops-owl, are very short, reflecting a lack of information. One thing that becomes clear from leafing through the Yearbook is just how much is unknown about many threatened species. Sometimes even the continued existence of a species is in question. One of the most commonly noted "conservation actions required" is to conduct surveys that will establish what population may remain.

Each species account includes at least one accompanying illustration - a photograph when available or a painted illustration otherwise. (The photographs resulted from an online competition.) This in itself is a useful contribution since it can be difficult to find illustrations of rare or newly-discovered species. Full page photographs of threatened species are interspersed throughout the book. These serve to enhance the book's visual appeal, which is considerable.

Appendices list species known to be extinct, world tour guides, and lists of endangered species categorized by country and type of threat. Perusing the latter is interesting in itself. From that list it becomes clear that the major threats to rare birds come from land use decisions. Logging, livestock farming, and crop cultivation contribute the most to species extinctions. After land use, the next most common threat comes from invasive non-native species (like the rats and cats of New Zealand).

A portion of the proceeds from yearbook sales benefit BirdLife's conservation initiatives.

Statehood and the Metro

Why does DC need statehood?

Because senators from other parts of the country like to use the city as their plaything.

Metro board members from Virginia and the District are skeptical of Maryland's move, while officials in Annapolis insist that the state's commitment is ironclad. But those jitters are overshadowed by graver doubts about the federal half of the funding formula, which at the moment is being held up by a single senator -- Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) -- despite its apparent overwhelming support in Congress.
With proper representation, there would at least be some deterrence against this sort of thing.

Shame on Harry Reid for letting him get away with it.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Liberty Larks

Most people would not choose to visit Liberty State Park on a windy day when the temperature is below freezing. Staying out of the wind, though, would mean missing out on some good birds. Liberty State Park in Jersey City covers 1,212 acres along the New Jersey side of upper New York Harbor. The main attractions for most visitors are the ferries that run to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, as well as panoramic views of the upper harbor and Manhattan skyline. The south end of the park features a small marsh with a nature center and trails.

Starting from the nature center, we scanned the cove for waterfowl. The majority of ducks were gadwall, with a few brant and a single ring-necked duck. Moving further along the trail, we encountered a handful of American tree sparrows. (One difference in the avifauna between here and DC is that New Jersey seems to get a lot more tree sparrows in the winter.)

As the trail passed closer to the industrial buildings on the south end of the park, I spotted a small flock of birds rise out of a field, circle, and land again. Crossing the road, I saw that the majority were snow buntings, but that some were different. After I had moved again to get a better angle, their identity was clear - my first ever horned larks! I was surprised by how large the larks looked in comparison to the snow buntings. Their killdeer-like posture may contribute to that. The buntings and larks were in a field adjacent to the Daily News building. It later occurred to me that there may have been a longspur among the buntings, but I could not have confirmed it without my field guide, even if I had thought to check for one.

Out on the bay, there were several large rafts of waterfowl. Brant had the highest representation today, followed by greater scaup. Other water birds included buffleheads, red-breasted mergansers, ruddy ducks, horned grebes, and more gadwall. Several orange and white feral cats roamed the jetties. That may explain the complete absence of sandpipers from the rocks.

The marsh along the promenade featured more waterfowl such as American wigeon and black ducks. A northern harrier zoomed up from the marsh and zipped out over the bay. (I am not sure where it was headed.) Try as I might, I could not spot a short-eared owl, a species sometimes found in that area. A second check of the marsh revealed a great blue heron and black-crowned night-heron, hunched up in close proximity to each other.

Today's horned larks were species #297 on my life list. It feels good to be so close to 300. I am not sure if I will reach it before the end of the year, but it should come soon.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Loose Feathers #128

Greater Sage Grouse / Photo by Dave Menke (USFWS)

News and links about birds, birding, and the environment
  • Range maps for threatened species may overestimate their geographic ranges, especially for those species with specialized habitat needs. The finding implies that some species may be more vulnerable to extinction than commonly thought.
  • In the 1980s, New Zealand eliminated cats from Little Barrier Island to protect the breeding population of Cook's petrels. Unfortunately, the loss of the cat population allowed the rat population to soar and caused a further decline in the Cook's petrel population. Recently biologists managed to wipe out the rat population as well. The petrel population has been recovering since then. The story shows the importance of understanding an ecological system completely before attempting major modifications.
  • A leaky pipe at an transfer station in the North Sea dumped 25,000 barrels of crude oil into the ocean. The oil slick, now covering eight square kilometers, threatens thousands of seabirds that winter in the area. (These seabirds already had enough trouble without the oil.)
  • Law enforcement in Bolivia is failing to stop the trade in vulnerable wild birds. Recent visits to a pet market in Bolivia turned up 31 species of wild parrot species; four of them were threatened species such as Lear's Macaw and Hyacinth Macaw.
  • The News-Press in SW Florida pictures the 66 "birds of Christmas."
  • Some westerners are coordinating voluntary conservation efforts to forestall federal listing of the greater sage grouse.
  • Piping plover pairs in New Jersey produced fewer chicks than expected, thanks in part to increased flooding along the coast. Pairs raised 0.67 chicks per nest, rather than the 1.25 necessary to maintain the population.
  • Proper landscaping is as important as providing bird feeders to attract birds to your property.
  • Interesting local sightings have included a lesser nighthawk in Cape May and Townsend's solitaire at Sandy Hook. The birds have been carried to New Jersey by prevailing southwest winds over the past several weeks.
  • The eleven warmest years on record have all occurred in the last thirteen years, and 1998-2007 is the warmest decade on record.
Birds in the blogosphere
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Review: Of a Feather

Scott Weidensaul will be well-known to most readers for writing on conservation, especially Living on the Wind and The Ghost with Trembling Wings. His latest book, Of a Feather, tells the history of birding in the United States.

One of the challenges in writing a history of birding is to decide how to define birding. As readers of this blog know well, there are many ways that people interact with birds, from casual observation to bird feeding, from bird chasing to academic ornithology. (That assumes interaction through observation; people also interact with birds as pests, quarry, or dinner.) Weidensaul defines the term broadly to include the American ornithologists of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the hobbyists that we think of now as birdwatchers or birders.

The first few chapters cover the early American ornithology. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ornithology was practiced less as an academic profession than a pursuit of adventurers. Naturalists like Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon had little training in the sciences but sufficient curiosity and energy to travel in search of new birds to study. Knowledge about western bird species was advanced mainly by military expeditions, starting with Lewis and Clark's journey through the Louisiana Territory. As the nineteenth century progressed, Spencer Fullerton Baird of the Smithsonian Institution organized a network of cavalry officers like Charles Bendire and medical staff like Elliott Coues to collect specimens and record behavioral observations while at their frontier outposts.

In the late nineteenth century, ornithology began to turn from specimen collecting to organizing knowledge about birds. A fundamental question at the time was just how the continent's several hundred bird species related to one another. The American Ornithologists' Union was founded in 1883 for this purpose. Bird watching as a hobby first appeared around the same time that ornithology became steadily more academic. A prototypical field guide, Florence Merriam's Birds Through An Opera Glass, was published in 1889 and instructed readers about how to identify seventy species in the field.

Before the early twentieth century, visual identification and observation of birds was difficult, limited by the lack of good optics and optimal field guides. Following World War I, an influx of imported military-grade binoculars solved the first problem, and the growing popularity of bird study opened a market for field guides. This demand was finally filled in 1934 by the publication of Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds.

If I have a criticism of the book it is that it feels overly weighted towards the late twentieth century. The narrative for first few chapters on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is tightly-written and fast-paced. Once the book the reaches the mid-twentieth century, the pace of narration slows noticeably. Granted, it is somewhat difficult to avoid this since birding as a hobby boomed and diversified after World War II. Birding's post-war growth spurt was fueled in part by better optics and in part by the rapid expansion of the middle class (in a way not seen before or since). This period saw the founding of many publications devoted to birdwatching and developments in communications technology to support bird chasing on local, national, and world levels.

True to his conservationist roots, Weidensaul devotes the last chapter of his new book to an impassioned plea for birders to devote more effort to bird conservation. The image of listers who care little for birds' welfare is something of a caricature in my opinion. Most devoted listers that I know participate in bird census and atlas projects, contribute to conservation organizations, or lobby for habitat protection. Still, birdwatchers represent a large and enthusiastic constituency whose energy has probably not been tapped to its full potential.

Throughout the book, Weidensaul contextualizes developments in bird study within the larger patterns of American society, from the eighteenth century through the present. Extensive reading in primary source material allows him to put a human face on the trends he cites. Of a Feather is one of the best bird books that I have read this year. I highly recommend it for those who would like to know more about the history of American bird study.

Scott Weidensaul, Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt, 2007. Pp. 358; illustrations, notes and bibliography, and index. $25.00. ISBN: 0151012473.

Kindle version

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #64 has been posted at Iowa Voice.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Seabirds Dying in the North Sea

This fall there have been several instances of mass deaths of seabirds in the North Sea. Their mortality has come to light when corpses washed ashore in Scandinavia and elsewhere. Most affected birds have been alcids.

The discovery of thousands of dead and dying auks, mainly razorbills, around the coasts of Denmark, southern Norway and Sweden, in September and October, didn't arouse widespread UK attention because there was comparatively little evidence of problems on this side of the North Sea.

But alarm bells rang after the latest British Trust for Ornithology BirdTrack Update referred to "a large wreck of auks seen along the north and east coasts, and as far afield as the Oslo fjord … All of these appear to have starved - and most were adults."

This disaster was of UK significance because, after the breeding season's end, Scotland's razorbills head for Scandinavian waters. This was underlined by numbered rings on several corpses: one started life on the Shiant isles off Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in 1982; another on the Isle of May off Fife on the mainland's east coast in 2000.
In addition to the razorbills, large numbers of guillemots and puffins have been found dead. Similar incidents have occurred elsewhere in the North Atlantic over the past several years. The cause of death in all cases appears to be starvation.
What caused particular concern, however, was that the birds were in an emaciated state - indicating failure to catch sufficient small fish to fuel their life on the open sea - and almost all were adults....

Kjell Isaksen, the Oslo municipality's biologist and wildlife manager, said "massive" number of dead and dying razorbills were washed ashore in his area. "Razorbills and guillemots were also seen on lakes far inland or found grounded on fields."

He had examined externally 60 per cent of 500 dead razorbills picked up locally and noted they were "only skin and bone", so emaciated he was surprised that birds originating in Scotland had been able to reach Norway. The conclusion in every case was "death by starvation."
The immediate cause of the food shortage has not yet been determined; the answer depends in part on where the birds died. Factors like overfishing and climate change would probably be immediate suspects; pollutants, disease, or perhaps invasive species could also play a role. In any case, the mass bird deaths are a sign that something is seriously wrong and needs to be corrected.

Science Debate?

A coalition of scientists, bloggers, and politicians (including NJ Rep. Rush Holt and MD Rep. Wayne Gilchrest) is calling for a presidential science debate for the 2008 election. Candidates' approaches to several policy areas - e.g., health care, the environment, energy policy, and education - are shaped by their attitudes towards scientific research and technology. Among other subjects, the proposed debate would cover some issues that should be of interest to birders:

The Environment
  • Climate Change
  • Conservation and Species Loss
  • The Future of The Oceans
  • Fresh Water: Drought, Pollution, Ownership
  • Population Growth and Its Effect on Environment
  • Renewable Energy Research
If such a debate happens, it will be most useful if the questions are asked by people who know something about these subjects. Having a panel composed of science journalists and not TV talking heads would be a good start. That way, maybe we can avoid some of the misleading questions, kindergarten exercises, inane commentary, and undisclosed conflicts of interest that pervade corporate media coverage of the campaign.

The debate is probably a long shot, so the organizers are asking the public to get involved.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Gore Gets His Nobel

The full video and text of the speech are available from Al Gore's site.

An excerpt:

Fifteen years ago, I made that case at the “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro. Ten years ago, I presented it in Kyoto. This week, I will urge the delegates in Bali to adopt a bold mandate for a treaty that establishes a universal global cap on emissions and uses the market in emissions trading to efficiently allocate resources to the most effective opportunities for speedy reductions.

This treaty should be ratified and brought into effect everywhere in the world by the beginning of 2010 – two years sooner than presently contemplated. The pace of our response must be accelerated to match the accelerating pace of the crisis itself.

Heads of state should meet early next year to review what was accomplished in Bali and take personal responsibility for addressing this crisis. It is not unreasonable to ask, given the gravity of our circumstances, that these heads of state meet every three months until the treaty is completed.

We also need a moratorium on the construction of any new generating facility that burns coal without the capacity to safely trap and store carbon dioxide.

And most important of all, we need to put a price on carbon -- with a CO2 tax that is then rebated back to the people, progressively, according to the laws of each nation, in ways that shift the burden of taxation from employment to pollution. This is by far the most effective and simplest way to accelerate solutions to this crisis.

The world needs an alliance – especially of those nations that weigh heaviest in the scales where earth is in the balance. I salute Europe and Japan for the steps they’ve taken in recent years to meet the challenge, and the new government in Australia, which has made solving the climate crisis its first priority.

But the outcome will be decisively influenced by two nations that are now failing to do enough: the United States and China. While India is also growing fast in importance, it should be absolutely clear that it is the two largest CO2 emitters — most of all, my own country –– that will need to make the boldest moves, or stand accountable before history for their failure to act.

Both countries should stop using the other’s behavior as an excuse for stalemate and instead develop an agenda for mutual survival in a shared global environment.

These are the last few years of decision, but they can be the first years of a bright and hopeful future if we do what we must. No one should believe a solution will be found without effort, without cost, without change. Let us acknowledge that if we wish to redeem squandered time and speak again with moral authority, then these are the hard truths:

The way ahead is difficult. The outer boundary of what we currently believe is feasible is still far short of what we actually must do. Moreover, between here and there, across the unknown, falls the shadow.
In other global warming news:

Greenland's glaciers melted at a record pace this year.

Also, hunters are noticing changes in waterfowl migration patterns in the Midwest. Warmer temperatures have led to later arrivals and departures of migratory ducks.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Wren at the Feeder

Carolina wrens eat mostly arthropods, but this week one was coming to the sunflower feeder for a supplement.

A junco tried the sunflower feeder, too.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Loose Feathers #127

Brant in Defensive Posture / Photo by Tim Bowman (USFWS)

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

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Feeder Birds

After a long absence, birds were back at the bird feeders today. The light snow must have covered other food sources and driven them to the feeder. Most of the activity today was from black-capped chickadees, though a few house sparrows and a blue jay (not shown) made appearances also.

Photos taken with the Wingscapes BirdCam.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

New Jersey's Bag Proposal

A couple weeks ago, I noted proposed legislation to phase out plastic bags in New Jersey's supermarkets and big box retailers. This weekend, the NY Times took up the issue on its editorial page.

Herb Conaway Jr. of Burlington County and Jack Connors of Camden County, both Democrats who were re-elected last month, say that if the bill is not passed in the current lame duck legislative session they will bring it back next year. It would require big retailers like supermarkets and big-box stores to reduce their use of plastic bags by half by the end of 2009 and to eliminate them entirely by Dec. 31, 2010.

The plastic bag lobbyists are screaming. People like the convenience of plastic bags and would not react favorably if the Legislature banned them, says the New Jersey Food Council. Maybe so, although a lot of New Jerseyans simply find it hard to push back when the man or woman at a busy checkout counter automatically puts the groceries in a plastic bag. And a lot of Americans resisted the idea of giving up smoking until they realized the dangers involved.

Here are some facts: Unlike paper bags, which can be easily recycled, relatively few plastic bags (about 7 percent) are ever used a second time. They last what seems an eternity, probably longer than most of the people using them. They put toxins in the soil, water and food chain. They are made of oil, something we should be saving rather than using when we do not need it. (It takes millions of barrels of oil to make the 100 billion plastic bags that Americans use in a year.)
The entire editorial is worth a read, as it covers most of the important points on the bag issue.

One point that was muffled (or perhaps overlooked) is that neither paper nor plastic are particularly good alternatives. While plastic bags probably require fewer resources to produce and transport, paper bags are biodegradable and easier to recycle. The best option is to carry reusable bags as much as possible. Most supermarkets now sell or distribute their own, and there are some available from specialty retailers. Really, any large, sturdy bag for the purpose.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

New Feed Links

I added links to the right sidebar to make it easier to subscribe to this blog's RSS and Atom feeds. This page element was recently added as part of Blogger in Draft, where Google tests out new services for Blogger. To add a similar link to your own Blogger blog, log in at that site instead of the regular Blogger page.

The comments feed will display the most recent comments since those have been managed by Haloscan since last January. Unfortunately I do not have an option to remove that link at this time.

To learn more about RSS, see my previous post on the subject.

New Jersey Plans to Extend Horseshoe Crab Moratorium

The Inquirer reports that New Jersey is seeking to extend its moratorium on the harvest of horseshoe crabs around Delaware Bay. The proposal is as follows:

Take notice that the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Fish and Wildlife is proposing an amendment to N.J.A.C. 7:25-18.16 to continue the moratorium on the horseshoe crab commercial bait fishery. A moratorium was previously implemented on the harvest of horseshoe crabs, effective May 15, 2006 through December 31, 2007, for the purpose of improving conditions immediately for the threatened red knot (Calidris canutus rufa), as well as other migratory shorebirds whose survival depends upon an abundant supply of horseshoe crab eggs in Delaware Bay. The red knot population is in jeopardy, as data and modeling show high risk of species extinction within five years. Recent analysis of the effect of the 2006-2007 moratorium of crab harvest has shown conditions have not yet improved for the red knot and other migrant shorebirds that depend on horseshoe crab eggs. However, given a decade of intensive harvest focused exclusively on large, breeding-age crabs, two years is not long enough to assess the success of a moratorium on recruitment of new crabs into the population. It is, therefore, necessary to continue a moratorium until crab egg densities and shorebird abundances begin to respond to the increase in the number of younger-aged crabs coming into the breeding population.
Before implementation, the proposed extension of the horseshoe crab moratorium is subject to a public comment period, which ends February 1, 2008. The linked site has directions for submitting comments. Birders who support the moratorium should comment, since there will probably be organized opposition to it.

For more information about red knots and threats to their survival, see the NJDEP, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Audubon WatchList.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Crazy Blog Analysis

A few months ago, I read a post on ProBlogger that highlighted CrazyEgg - a web statistical service. When enabled, CrazyEgg tracks what links readers follow, and generates a heatmap based on those tracking statistics. There is a paid full service and a free trial. I signed up for the latter, and then promptly forgot about it until recently, when I received an email informing me that the trial was over.

The results are basically what you would expect. Links near the top and left sides of the page receive more attention than links elsewhere. One interesting thing that I found was that links to other blogs on the Loose Feathers posts are popular (see image below) and seem to receive more attention than links to news stories.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Christmas Bird Counts

Christmas Bird Count season is coming up quickly. These counts began as bird-friendly alternatives to the side hunts that would accompany holidays in the late nineteenth century. From small beginnings, they grew in popularity once binoculars made it possible to identify most birds without killing them. Today, the counts provide data for numerous bird studies. Among other things, CBCs provide part of the statistical basis for the Audubon Watchlist.

Unlike continent-wide events like the Great Backyard Bird Count, CBCs are organized locally. Each local count must cover a 15-mile diameter circle and be conducted within a single day. Teams of birders cover different parts of that, count all the bird species and individuals, and then report results to the count compiler.

If you would like to get involved, contact the compiler of a local count to find out where help is needed. Most count sectors are done by the same people from one year to the next, but there are always openings for more birders.

Here are complete lists of CBCs for New Jersey and Maryland/DC.

As usual, I will be helping with the Raritan Estuary CBC, which includes various habitats along the Raritan River corridor.