Friday, February 29, 2008

Loose Feathers #139

White-crowned Sparrow / Photo by Lee Karney (USFWS)

News about birds
Birds in the blogosphere
Climate change, environment, and the like
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Carnival of the Spineless

Twelve-spotted SkimmerTwelve-spotted skimmer, originally uploaded by Mean and Pinchy.

Welcome of the 30th edition of Circus of the Spineless!

As a bird blogger I write about invertebrates only infrequently, and usually only in relation to the birds I love - usually as food. However, I find that I have become drawn to some of the more colorful insects. Butterflies and dragonflies in particular hold my attention during the dog days of summer when few birds are to be seen or heard. (The photo above is one of my favorites.) Hosting Circus of the Spineless gives me a chance to learn more about invertebrates that I see frequently in warmer months.


The Urban Dragon Hunters take a break from their city haunts to search for dry season odonates in Panama.

Tim's Backyard Arthropod Project includes a visit from a Snow Fly (Chionea valga), which breeds only when snow is on the ground. (I sometimes wonder what insectivorous birds find to eat during the coldest parts of winter; perhaps here is an answer.)

Bug Girl writes how sex pheromones can control insects and why using sex pheromones is safe.

For my own contribution, I discovered that the USDA has a weevil plan to eradicate garlic mustard.


Duncan at Ben Cruachan Blog watches a Quicksilver Spider eating insects caught in a web built by a Leaf-curling Spider and observes that "you never stop learning."

Patrick at The Hawk Owl's Nest found a venomous spider lurking in his bathroom.

The annotated budak brings us photographs of a beautiful elegant jumping spider and a crab spider.

Catalogue of Organisms offers a post on tarantulas, the well-known family of spiders, and another on psocids, a group of tiny insects related to lice.


Henry's Webiocosm Blog has photos of Triops longicaudatus, a small crustacean whose appearance has not changed since the Triassic.

GrrlScientist announced that the Oxford Museum of Natural History recently released digital photographs of the crustaceans Charles Darwin collected in South America. She also photographed adult and larval Monarch butterflies (in mosaic versions) on the walls of a New York subway station, which is enjoyable for me since invertebrates can be difficult to find in the northeasten U.S. in the middle of winter.

Deep Sea News jumps on the "I Can Haz Cheezburger" bandwagon with LOLRhizocephalans, strange creatures that take over over animals' reproductive systems.


Aydin at Snail's Tales presents some Valentine's Day slug sex, courtesy of a pair of Limax maximus.

A Snail's Eye View shows many colorful shell patterns and discusses why they have so much variation.


At The Other 95%, you can find a CNN story on using earthworms to clean up toxic waste in India and invertebrate drawings created from Dreamlines software.


Wanderin' Weeta introduces us to springtails, including a springtail fight video.

That brings this edition of Circus of the Spineless to a close. Thanks to everyone who contributed! The next edition will be at Archaea to Zeaxanthol. Please submit posts to jim.lemire AT gmail DOT com by March 30th.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Solution for Garlic Mustard?

Univoltine Root Mining Weevil (Ceutorhynchus scrobicollis)
Credit: Hariet Hinz & Ester Gerber, CABI Biosciences,

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is an invasive plant that is widespread in forests of the eastern United States. When it gains a foothold, it rapidly spreads to cover much of the forest floor and crowds out native plants and the animals that depend on them. It is especially common in disturbed areas or forests with a high deer population. Because the plant reproduces rapidly and its infestations are so widespread, effective controls are difficult to apply.

The tiny insect pictured above, the univoltine root mining weevil (Ceutorhynchus scrobicollis), may provide a solution. The USDA's Invasive Weed Management Unit has been investigating biological controls that could be applied to reverse the plant's spread. The team considered several parasites that attack garlic mustard in various stages of development. The trick was to find a parasite that could keep garlic mustard in check without becoming invasive itself.
The computer simulation was used to select a tiny weevil, about the size of an "o" in 12 point type. "There are actually several weevils that feed on garlic mustard back home in Europe, where it comes from," said Davis. "This particular weevil that we're looking at (Ceutorhynchus scrobicollis) feeds on the plant at several stages in its life cycle so it's a much more effective agent than some of the other ones."

What happens if the control agent also becomes an invasive species?

"A stringent battery of tests is performed on each biocontrol agent in quarantine before it is ever released. For example, garlic mustard is in the same family (Brassicaceae) as cabbage, so one test might be to only feed the weevil cabbage and see if it survives on it or can reproduce on it. If it does, then the possibility exists that it could move from the garlic mustard and threaten cabbage plants, which we don't want to happen. But, this particular weevil has passed that test for a wide variety of plants."

Davis said that there are different strategies for biological control. One strategy is inundative in which the control agent eats its way through the garlic mustard and then dies out itself because there isn't anything left to support it. The other strategy is to introduce a natural enemy that will just bring the population down to a lower level and the plants and pests just continue to coexist. "The idea is that you reunite plants with a natural enemy from back home -- which in garlic mustard's case is Europe. In Switzerland garlic mustard and the weevil coexist and neither one is invasive."
If this control method is approved by the USDA, the univoltine root mining weevils could be introduced into American forests later this year. They will have a lot of eating to do.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Biofuel Airlines

The news on Sunday was full of references to Virgin Atlantic's first biofuel-powered flight from Heathrow to Amsterdam. The fuel combined 20% biofuel, which powered one engine, and 80% traditional jet fuel, which powered the Boeing 747's other three engines. The biofuel for this flight was a mixture of coconut palm and Brazilian babassu nut oil.

Richard Branson, the flamboyant president of Virgin Atlantic, presents the flight as the first step towards environmentally friendly air travel. As he says in the article linked above: "This pioneering flight will enable those of us who are serious about reducing our carbon emissions to go on developing the fuels of the future." However, there is reason to be skeptical of this sort of flight as a solution to the emissions problems associated with air travel.

First, there are problems inherent to biofuel. For some time now there has been evidence that the most common types of biofuel currently in use - ethanol and biodiesel - are net energy losers. Presumably the production process could be made more efficient in the future, but both have a long way to go before they can become sustainable from an energy perspective.

Even without the energy loss, it would take a massive amount of agricultural land to produce sufficient biofuel to replace current petroleum use. To get that land, one could either convert current agricultural land to biofuel production rather than food production, or convert other types of land into agricultural land. Taking land away from food production would result in higher prices for corn and other grains, and higher prices for food overall. Since we all need to eat, and since conversion of suburban subdivisions into cornfields is unlikely, the most likely source of production would be "unused" land - basically the forests, fields, and marshes that have not yet been paved over.

The biggest areas of agricultural expansion have been in the tropics, especially southeast Asia, Kenya, and Brazil. Tropical rainforest is being cleared for biofuel production or for other economic purposes displaced by biofuel production. A recent study concluded that conversion of native ecosystems into cropland causes more greenhouse gas emissions than are saved by the use of biofuel over petroleum. Clearing tropical rainforests exacerbates the problem, since rainforests act as a global carbon sink. Deforestation in the tropics also brings terrible results for biodiversity. The Virgin Atlantic flight used fuels derived from tropical plants, including over 150,000 coconuts.

All of these problems have led me to believe that biofuels are not sustainable as energy sources. I would be glad to change my mind if evidence were presented to the contrary, but I am afraid that the current options are not a solution to climate change.

Second, air travel would be wasteful even if biofuel could be made environmentally friendly. Powered flight requires significantly greater amounts of fuel than automobile or rail travel, and emits significantly greater amounts of pollution. While we may eventually have more efficient aircraft, we should not expect significant improvement compared to other transportation modes.

This is not to say that no one should fly, or that research into alternative fuels should cease. Research should certainly continue into any promising alternatives. As for air travel, in some cases it is the easiest way to get from one location to another, and for now it is hard to see a suitable alternative.

In the long term, the best way to reduce the environmental impact of air travel is the development of high speed rail networks for short and medium distance trips, so that airlines are reserved for long-range travel. Of course, corporations like Virgin Atlantic would not favor diverting their customers to other transportation modes, but serious reformers should not be swayed by such parochial interests.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Reminder: Circus of the Spineless

With the end of the month rapidly approaching, it is time once again for Circus of the Spineless! No, it's not a group of Senate Democrats. It's the monthly collection of blog posts on all invertebrate animals: insects, spiders, mollusks, and anything else outside of the Phylum Chordata.

This month's edition will be here at A DC Birding Blog on Thursday, February 28. If you wish to have a post included, please send it to me by the evening of Wednesday, February 27.

If you are not sure what types of posts are suitable, check out the submission guidelines.

Birding in Rwanda - A Guest Post

Ed note - The following appeal came to me from Jeremy Kahn of the OTF Group, which specializes in Third-World economic development. The text he sent me is presented here, unaltered.

Close your eyes, and think about Rwanda. What do you see?

Sadly, for many people the first images that come to mind are those of the 1994 genocide. However, today, Rwanda presents a stark contrast to the country we saw on TV fourteen years ago. Today, with its blossoming and lush jungle forests, mountain gorillas, endemic bird species, beautiful lakes and a stable and growing economy, Rwanda is on the rise – but few people know about it.

Those who do come to Rwanda, however, benefit from the efforts of the Rwandan tourism board (ORTPN), which has dedicated itself to the development and promotion of sustainable eco-tourism and conservation. Rwanda has quite a bit to protect beyond our well-known distant cousins, the mountain gorillas. In particular, Rwanda boasts the highest concentration of different bird species in Africa with high levels of endemism, hosting champions such as the much sought after Shoebill Stork and Albertine Rift endemics. The opportunities to add to a life list are very attractive.

In late 2007, ORTPN committed itself to the development of its birding product so that travelers worldwide could benefit from Rwanda’s birds. As Rwanda continues to fine-tune its avitourism offering, it seeks to get feedback from experienced travelers and birders. Given the country’s small size, understanding the needs of birders such as yourself will allow Rwanda to best leverage its limited resources as it builds its avitourism product.

If you have 15-20 minutes, please consider filling out the Rwanda Avitourism Survey, as the results of this research will help Rwanda better understand the needs of birders, and to build the specific products and services that will exceed your expectations.

If you do agree to fill out this survey, please be assured that we will not try to sell you anything or ask for personally identifying information. Any information you provide will be treated with strict confidentiality and will only be represented in the aggregate.

If you would like to fill out the survey, please click here. Thank you for helping make Rwanda the world’s next “must visit” birding destination!

Jeremy H. Kahn

OTF Group – Creating prosperity in developing countries

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Scott's Oriole in the NY Times

Jonathan Rosen wrote an essay on seeing the Scott's Oriole in Union Square:

Alongside my excitement, I felt a qualm of embarrassment as I exited the busy subway with my binoculars. It was like taking a taxi to hunt big game: “Let me off near the wildebeest, driver.” In Central Park, I can at least conjure the illusion of wildness if I focus on the trees. But when your marker is a metal statue of a man in a loincloth, standing on what is essentially a traffic island, you cannot pretend you are in the middle of nature.

Then again, that’s the point of bird-watching. “Nature” isn’t necessarily elsewhere. It is the person holding the binoculars, as much as the bird in the tree, and it is the intersection of these two creatures, with technology bringing us closer than we have ever been to the very thing technology has driven from our midst. And, anyway, there are still wild elements in the center of a city. The morning I arrived, the bird had made itself scarce, perhaps because a red-tailed hawk, a Cooper’s hawk and a kestrel were all patrolling the park.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Local Birding

This afternoon I walked my usual route in the park a few blocks from home. While the route was usual, the birds were not. Earlier in the day, my sister had spotted five American Pipits. When I visited the pipits were still feeding where yesterday's sledders had exposed grass under the snow. Joining them in the bare patches were American Robins and Dark-eyed Juncos.

Along the river I spotted three Hooded Mergansers. It was the first time I have seen them in this town and only the second time in this county. There was also a juvenile Bald Eagle being chased by one of the local Red-tailed Hawks. The two-raptor chase scared up hundreds of gulls from the river and playing fields. As with the hoodies, it was the first time I have seen this species in Highland Park. The regular Great Cormorants and Common Mergansers were also present.

Before leaving the park, I heard a commotion of birds. As I looked up to find the source, a Peregrine Falcon rocketed out from behind the treeline with a Rock Pigeon firmly grasped in its talons. Close behind were two American Crows, which took turns diving at the falcon from behind. One of the birds was screaming; I assume it was the Peregrine, but the sound was lower pitched than I expect for that species.

When I got back home, there was another predation scene underway. A Sharp-shinned Hawk had something very tiny in its talons. The prey did not look all that much like a bird, but it is possible that it was already de-feathered by the time I saw it.

I have updated the 2008 year list and BIGBY list to reflect sightings from February.

Snow Day

Friday, February 22, 2008

Loose Feathers #138

Snow Bunting / USFWS

Bird News
Bird Podcasts
Birds in the blogosphere
Climate change and the environment
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, February 21, 2008

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #69 is available for reading. And there is a quiz on this one.

Lunar Eclipse

Last night, approximately 10 pm.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

New Communications Towers Must Account for Risks to Birds

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC must consider the risk that communication towers pose for birds when they approve new construction projects.

The Federal Communications Commission must study the effect of rapidly sprouting communications towers on migratory birds and give the public a chance to request environmental reviews on new tower applications, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that millions of warblers, thrushes and other birds die each year because continuously burning lights atop those towers can disorient them in bad weather.

The 2-1 decision affects only towers along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida, a major route for migrating birds.

But environmentalists hope the ruling will spur the FCC to approve proposed rules that would mandate white strobe lights on new towers nationwide. Studies have shown that those lights aren't as disorienting to birds and could cut deaths by 70%....

Communications towers taller than 200 feet require lights so that airplane pilots can see them at night. But during bad weather migratory birds can mistake the lights for the stars they use to navigate. The disoriented birds circle the towers endlessly. Some crash into the towers, their guy wires or other birds. Others fall to the ground from exhaustion....

The court ruled that the FCC was justified in not taking steps to reduce bird deaths specifically on the Gulf Coast because it had already started studying the issue nationwide. In November 2006, FCC staff proposed requiring more bird-friendly tower lights. The agency is still considering that proposal.

But the court found that the FCC had erred when it decided it didn't have to do an environmental assessment or consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service. It sent those issues back to the FCC on Tuesday.

It also said the FCC must determine how to give the public notice of new tower applications. The FCC now publicizes applications only after they have been approved.
This ruling is a major victory for environmental groups, but it is unfortunate that it took a lawsuit to force the FCC to act on this issue. The threat that towers pose to birds has been well-known and documented for some time. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife estimates that towers kill about 4.5 million migratory birds per year. With the number of towers increasing about 6 to 8 percent per year, that number is sure to rise without changes in tower design. Birds killed at towers include 90 threatened or endangered species and 124 species of conservation concern. On at least one occasion, three towers in Wichita killed several thousand Lapland Longspurs in a single night. Other tower kills have ranged from a handful to several hundred per night.

In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued guidelines for the siting and construction of new communications towers. Currently the guidelines are voluntary, but the FCC could act to give the guidelines more teeth. Following the guidelines would reduce the need for new towers and make new towers less deadly. Among the rules are the following:
2. If collocation is not feasible and a new tower or towers are to be constructed, communications service providers should be strongly encouraged to construct towers no more than 199 feet above ground level (AGL), using construction techniques which do not require guy wires (e.g., use a lattice structure, monopole, etc.). Such towers should be unlighted if Federal Aviation Administration regulations permit.

4. If at all possible, new towers should be sited within existing “antenna farms” (clusters of towers). Towers should not be sited in or near wetlands, other known bird concentration areas (e.g., state or Federal refuges, staging areas, rookeries), in known migratory or daily movement flyways, or in habitat of threatened or endangered species. Towers should not be sited in areas with a high incidence of fog, mist, and low ceilings.

5. If taller (>199 feet AGL) towers requiring lights for aviation safety must be constructed, the minimum amount of pilot warning and obstruction avoidance lighting required by the FAA should be used. Unless otherwise required by the FAA, only white (preferable) or red strobe lights should be used at night, and these should be the minimum number, minimum intensity, and minimum number of flashes per minute (longest duration between flashes) allowable by the FAA. The use of solid red or pulsating red warning lights at night should be avoided. Current research indicates that solid or pulsating (beacon) red lights attract night-migrating birds at a much higher rate than white strobe lights. Red strobe lights have not yet been studied.

8. If significant numbers of breeding, feeding, or roosting birds are known to habitually use the proposed tower construction area, relocation to an alternate site should be recommended. If this is not an option, seasonal restrictions on construction may be advisable in order to avoid disturbance during periods of high bird activity.
More information is available from the American Bird Conservancy and Tower Kill.

Recent Cartoons

Regular readers of this blog will know that I love cartoons by Tom Toles (the Post's editorial cartoonist) and Randall Munroe (creator of xkcd). Here are a couple recent offerings.



Surprise for a Mourning Dove

This morning, while getting my Bird RDA, I came across a Cooper's Hawk. It was hidden well enough that I would not have seen it had the birds not found it for me. There was a cat stalking nearby and a Mourning Dove flushed to get away from it. When it tried to land on a fallen tree, it found that its desired perch was actually a Cooper's Hawk rather than a branch. I think the hawk was too surprised by the aborted landing to take advantage of the situation.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Red-winged Blackbird / USFWS

Over the past week or so, there has been a huge influx of blackbirds. Several large, mixed flocks have been roaming around the neighborhood, flooding feeding stations and congregating in large evening roosts. This evening during supper I could hear the creaking and croaking sounds typical of a blackbird flock. When I looked out the back door, there were hundreds of blackbirds in the trees at the back of the yard, and even more in the trees on the next block over. The birds I could see and identify were all common grackles and red-winged blackbirds; there were probably cowbirds in the mix as well.

The return of blackbirds is usually one of the earliest signs of spring. Phoebes and swallows can't be far behind!

Possible Solution to Cape May's Feral Cat Problem

A possible compromise solution to Cape May's feral cat problem will be up for a vote soon. As noted previously, Cape May keeps a colony of feral cats in close proximity to colonies of endangered beach nesting birds such as piping plover and least tern. The federal government is trying to force the town to protect the nesting areas more effectively.

The federal Endangered Species Act prohibits killing, harming or even bothering endangered birds like piping plovers and least terns, both of which nest in the shallow sandy ruts of Cape May's popular beach during the summer.

Because they nest on the ground, they are like sitting ducks for predators including wild cats, foxes and other animals.

Violations of the act can result in fines as high as $50,000 per incident, and 1-year jail terms.

The federal government, though, has an even bigger threat it can wield: the loss of desperately needed beach replenishment money to keep Cape May's beaches wide and sandy for the tourists that are this area's lifeblood....

The government originally wanted feral cat colonies moved back a mile from the beach _ something that cat lovers say would have mandated eliminating all wild cats from Cape May. They dug their heels in and resisted, leading to a compromise proposal to move the cat colonies at least 1,000 feet from the beach, and a half-mile from areas already identified as nesting grounds.

"One of the requirements for (the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) doing replenishment is that the city have a beach management plan in place, and that plan must be approved by us," Cramer said. "That is definitely our stick here.

"We're reluctant about these buffers because we're worried they're not going to work," he said. "On the other hand, the city is taking pains to do things like patrol the beaches and make sure there are no feral cats there, so we're willing to work with them and view this as an experiment."
Most of the Cape May residents interviewed for the article seemed to support relocating the cats. As I wrote in my last post on the subject, I am not sure whether a 1,000 foot buffer will be sufficient; it really depends on how far the feral cats will wander during the course of the day. There is also a secondary problem: beach nesters are not the only birds that visit Cape May. During spring and fall migration, songbirds - including some threatened species - can be found throughout the peninsula, not just on the beaches.

If done correctly, the solution could be effective. The town needs to take care that fixing one problem does not create another problem somewhere else.

Update: The Cape May Council decided to put off voting on the proposal because they want state and federal biologists to explain the problem with feral cats again. Many Council members argued that feral cats are not a threat to shorebirds, and the meeting was flooded with testimony from cat lovers - both in-person and by email. The town needs to pass an acceptable beach management plan by March 15 or there will be no federal or state money for beach replenishment.

Here is a way for contacting Cape May officials.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Last Call for the GBBC

Today is the final day for the Great Backyard Bird Count. Birders may continue to submit sightings online through the end of the month, but the observations must have been made no later than today. Here is how to participate.

There are some interesting photos turning up in the GBBC photo galleries, like this white-headed northern cardinal or this unusual feeder visitor.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

GBBC Notes

Yesterday I was up in Hunterdon County and saw a Barnacle Goose at Califon. This goose had previously been reported on JerseyBirds. The species is a major rarity for North America. It breeds in the European Arctic and normally winters in northern Europe. Bird guides state that most individuals of this species roaming in North America are of captive origin, but that some are wild birds. I am not sure how one would distinguish between the two except for obvious things like clipped flight feathers or bands around the neck or legs. The individual in Califon showed none of those things. Assuming that it is a wild bird, this Barnacle Goose is a life bird - the fifth for 2008 (or fourth, depending on who is counting).

The Barnacle Goose is a really beautiful bird, so it is worth seeing even if the NJ Records Committee does not accept the sighting.

Also, since Rob asked for it, I added the sighting to the Great Backyard Bird Count for 2008.

I have further comments up on the GBBC blog.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Oekologie #14

Amateur naturalists like myself can be a parochial bunch. Many of us write mostly about birds. Some prefer invertebrates. Others admire trees. The one constant that unites all of our preferred taxa is that all exist and interact together in their natural ecosystems. The scientific study of these interactions is ecology, or oekologie in the original German.

I find that the more I read and write about birds, the more I become interested in ecology. For example, who would have guessed that shorebirds could have become so dependent on a single species for food that they could go extinct without it? And yet, such an outcome is possible. Interactions like these are fascinating, even though they are sometimes poignant as well.

Luckily for us amateur naturalists, we have a year-old blog carnival to read about ecology. After reading and submitting to several editions, I am finally hosting the fourteenth Oekologie. Let's get to the submissions.


Grrlscientist describes conflicting evidence for the origin of modern birds from the fossil record and molecular biology in Rocks vs Clocks: When Did Modern Birds Really Appear?

Climate Change

Greg Laden explores the climate of the Miocene Period in The Evolution of the Modern Climate: New Evidence from Plant Remains.


Coffee and Conservation contrasts different conditions for growing coffee along with their impact on biodiversity - specifically their effect on birds - in What shade coffee looks like.

Mike from 10,000 Birds celebrates the species from urban habitats in Most Beloved Backyard Birds of 2008.

Species Interaction

Ian from Further Thoughts describes how Seed-eating mammals increase tree species diversity by reducing seed survival and density.

Kevin from The Other 95% finds a new way to serve leftovers when he describes how Assassin Bugs Use Corpses to Avoid Predators.

Ed Young explains how the Loss of big mammals breaks alliance between ants and trees and why this is important.

Rachel Walden at Women's Health News shows how humans propagate mercury through fish and ultimately back to humans in On Sushi, Mercury, and Women’s Health: Can’t See the Pollution for the Fish.


GrrlScientist reports on a new subspecies of bird discovered in Nepal, the Nepal Rufous-vented Prinia (Prinia burnesii nipalensis).

Luigi at Agricultural Diversity Weblog has a modest proposal for tracking whether a species is still at a particular location.

Greg Laden introduces us to the early parts of Darwin and the Voyage.

Threatened Species

For my own contribution, I asked that readers write letters to stop the horseshoe crab harvest in New Jersey to protect a rare shorebird that may disappear.

This concludes the February 2008 edition of Oekologie. Thanks to all who contributed posts. The next edition will appear at The Other 95% on March 15.

Finally, in case you haven't heard, there's a bird count this weekend!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Loose Feathers #137

Photo by Ardith Bondi (NY)
Great Backyard Bird Count
2007 Photo Contest Behavioral Winner

This weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Count. Get out and count some birds!

News about birds and birding
  • At least 84 spoon-billed sandpipers are wintering at coastal wetlands in Myanmar, which were previously unknown as winter spots for the species. The spoon-billed sandpiper is on the verge of extinction without swift intervention. Finding the new wintering site will help guide conservation plans.
  • Fishing bycatch that is left out for seabirds reduces their breeding success, since the bycatch does not have sufficient fat content to nourish growing chicks.
  • A wetland in Kenya may be turned into a sugarcane plantation for biofuel production. The development would threaten several rare bird species and may adversely affect the livelihoods of local communities.
  • Birds in tropical rainforests use two types of song features - "public" ones that identify their species identity and can be heard clearly at a distance, and "private" ones that communicate individual identity to nearby birds.
  • The US Fish and Wildlife Service is backing out of an agreement to reconsider ESA listing for the greater sage grouse because they agreed to the timeline "inadvertently."
  • A British study found that birds fare better in richer neighborhoods than poorer ones.
  • If you are looking for a spotting scope, see Living Bird for a review of 36 current models.
Birds in the Blogosphere
Environment and Climate Change
Carnivals and Newsletters
Note for Oekologie fans: The carnival will be up later in the day.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Letter On the Horseshoe Crab Harvest

As many of you already know, the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council discontinued the state's moratorium on harvesting horseshoe crabs. The NJMFC will allow a harvest of up to 150,000 male horseshoe crabs despite the advice of the state's Department of Environmental Protection and despite overwhelming support for the moratorium from residents who submitted public comments on the issue. Commercial representatives who control the council killed the moratorium:

The five votes to veto the ban all came from members of council that represent the commercial fishing industry, including Erling Berg, Barney Hollinger, John Maxwell, Frances Puskas, and Joe Rizzo. The four votes to keep the ban came from members who represent the recreational fishing industry, including Patrick Donnelly, Ed Goldman, Dick Herb and Chairman Gil Ewing. The two public-at-large positions on council are vacant and could have made a difference in the vote.
There is still a chance to stop horseshoe crab harvests. The legislature can override the NJMFC, or the governor could impose an emergency moratorium. This will only happen if there is pressure from birders and environmental organizations.

I am sending the following letter to Senator Bob Smith, Assemblymen Upendra Chivukula and Joseph Egan, and (with modifications) Governor Jon Corzine. I suggest that other New Jersey residents send letters as well. You can contact your legislators here and the governor here. Readers may use this letter as a template. (Or, better yet, compose your own letters.)

Web Resources
Since this is a state government issue, letters will be most effective coming from New Jersey residents. Birdchick has a suggestion for people outside New Jersey.

Update: According to Jim Wright, a reprieve may be on the way. It is still a good idea to let public officials know that this is an important issue for a lot of New Jersey residents.

Further update: The state government is considering ways to extend the harvest moratorium. The governor is considering an executive order, and there should be a bill for a permanent moratorium in the legislature. Continuing to write letters on the subject could help ensure that one or the other happens.


On Monday, February 11, the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council (NJMFC) voted against continuing the state's moratorium on the harvest of horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus). By a 5-4 vote, the Council decided instead to allow harvesting of up to 150,000 male horseshoe crabs. I am writing to ask that you override the decision of the NJMFC and reimpose the moratorium by legislative action.

As you may be aware, horseshoe crabs are a key link in one of New Jersey's great natural spectacles. Each year, small birds called red knots (Calidris canutus rufa) make a 9,300-mile journey from their winter territory in Tierra del Fuego to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. In May and June, they stop along the shore of the Delaware Bay to feast on the newly-laid eggs of horseshoe crabs. Without this vital food, red knots may not have sufficient energy to breed or even complete their journey.

Red knots have lost approximately 80% of their population since 1990 due to overharvesting of horseshoe crabs. Biologists estimate that red knots require about 50,000 eggs per square meter of beach. Currently, egg density is only 2,000 per square meter, and less than half of red knots are reaching the proper weight for migration and breeding. Computer models predict extinction as soon as 2010. The red knot is a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act, and New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) has already named the bird as a state endangered species.

The harvest limit imposed by the NJMFC is inadequate for conserving red knots. Its limit of 150,000 in New Jersey exceeds that suggested the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which instructed states to limit harvests to 100,000 males. There is little indication of how this limit would be enforced, or whether watermen would be prevented from harvesting males during copulation. Moreover, the NJMFC's action rejects the NJDEP's proposal - based on the best science available - to extend the moratorium.

The red knot's condition is clearly dire, and immediate action is needed to prevent the species from becoming extinct. New Jersey should continue its moratorium on horseshoe crab harvests until there is clear evidence that red knot populations have stabilized and begun to recover. Since the NJMFC will not do this, the state government must intervene.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Book Note: Audubon Backyard Birdwatch

Audubon Backyard Birdwatch by Stephen Kress introduces readers to the world of backyard birds. The text is divided into three main sections. The first covers basic information about birds and their behavior - singing, reproduction, how and why birds migrate, and seasonal distribution patterns. The second part describes the role of backyard habitat. Most of the section deals with bird feeders, but there is also some information on providing bird-friendly plantings for food and shelter. The third section gives tips for learning to identify birds, including attention to structure and range.

The back of the booklet contains a foldout sheet with illustrations of many common species that frequent backyard feeders and plantings. Identification tips accompany the illustrations. The species selection is biased towards the eastern half of the continent, and the Northeast and Midwest in particular. The only exceptions are eastern species with western analogues (e.g., Blue Jay and Steller's Jay). For that reason, the identification materials will be most useful to a birder in the northeastern quadrant of the U.S.

Backyard birdwatching plays a larger role in conservation than you might think. Government studies consistently show that a far greater number of people watch birds in their own backyards than travel to see birds. Unfortunately both groups have diminished since their peak in 1991, even as scientific research confirms the importance of backyard habitat. Audubon Backyard Birdwatch would be a good starting point for someone who wants to help birds but does not know much about them.

Monday, February 11, 2008


I saw last night's PBS program on Horseshoe Crabs and Red Knots. It seemed to be a fairly thorough treatment of the issues and treated all sides evenly (more evenly than I would have). Most of the information was familiar to me, though I was not aware that some crabs were returned after having blood drawn for medical purposes.

One of the most striking images in the film was a side-by-side comparison between a red knot that had spent time eating horseshoe crab eggs at the Delaware Bay and another that had arrived only recently. There was a visible size difference; the recent arrival was at least a third smaller, partly because it had metabolized muscle in addition to its fat reserves. The image emphasized how important egg deposits are for migrating shorebirds. Without a sufficient food supply, there was a real question whether the leaner bird would complete the journey to its Arctic breeding grounds.

If readers have any other thoughts, please leave them in the comments.

For more on the subject, see the USFWS Red Knot page (as well as NJDEP's). There are also blogs called The Shorebird Project and Tierra del Fuego Expedition that are written by shorebird researchers.


Click to enlarge.

(via xkcd)

Friday, February 08, 2008

Loose Feathers #136

Green-winged Teal / Photo by Tim Bowman (USFWS)

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

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Floating in Plastic Waste

The Pacific Ocean is home to a vast expanse of floating plastic trash.

The vast expanse of debris – in effect the world's largest rubbish dump – is held in place by swirling underwater currents. This drifting "soup" stretches from about 500 nautical miles off the Californian coast, across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii and almost as far as Japan.

Charles Moore, an American oceanographer who discovered the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" or "trash vortex", believes that about 100 million tons of flotsam are circulating in the region. Marcus Eriksen, a research director of the US-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which Mr Moore founded, said yesterday: "The original idea that people had was that it was an island of plastic garbage that you could almost walk on. It is not quite like that. It is almost like a plastic soup. It is endless for an area that is maybe twice the size as continental United States."

Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer and leading authority on flotsam, has tracked the build-up of plastics in the seas for more than 15 years and compares the trash vortex to a living entity: "It moves around like a big animal without a leash." When that animal comes close to land, as it does at the Hawaiian archipelago, the results are dramatic. "The garbage patch barfs, and you get a beach covered with this confetti of plastic," he added.

The "soup" is actually two linked areas, either side of the islands of Hawaii, known as the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches. About one-fifth of the junk – which includes everything from footballs and kayaks to Lego blocks and carrier bags – is thrown off ships or oil platforms. The rest comes from land....

Plastic is believed to constitute 90 per cent of all rubbish floating in the oceans. The UN Environment Programme estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastic,

Dr Eriksen said the slowly rotating mass of rubbish-laden water poses a risk to human health, too. Hundreds of millions of tiny plastic pellets, or nurdles – the raw materials for the plastic industry – are lost or spilled every year, working their way into the sea. These pollutants act as chemical sponges attracting man-made chemicals such as hydrocarbons and the pesticide DDT. They then enter the food chain. "What goes into the ocean goes into these animals and onto your dinner plate. It's that simple," said Dr Eriksen.
Plastics in the ocean have terrible effects on seabirds and other organisms in all corners of ocean food webs.
Dutch scientists have found that more than nine out of 10 European fulmars – seabirds that eat at sea – die with plastic rubbish in their stomachs. A study of 560 fulmars from eight countries revealed they had ingested an average of 44 plastic items. The stomach of one fulmar that died in Belgium contained 1,603 separate scraps of plastic.

Birds are not the only ones to suffer. Turtles, whales, seals and sea lions have all eaten plastic. But the most sinister problem may be a hidden one at the other end of the food chain.

Small sand-hoppers, barnacles and lugworms have also been found to have ingested tiny fragments of plastic, some of which are thinner than a human hair. Apart from the physical damage these particles cause, they may also transfer toxic chemicals to creatures at the base of the marine food web.
The amount of plastic waste that collects in oceans (and on land) suggests an urgent need to reduce plastic consumption. Some localities have tried to attack the problem by reducing the use of disposable plastic shopping bags. San Francisco, for example, banned plastic bags (an example that Annapolis tried to follow). Other places, such as New York City, require that plastic bags be recycled by stores that provide them. Ireland has had success by imposing a steep tax on plastic grocery bags. Since imposition of the tax, plastic bag use declined by 94%. Some retailers, like Whole Foods, have tried to reduce or eliminate their own contribution to the pile. Unfortunately, reducing plastic consumption is easier said than done given the ubiquity of plastic products within our contemporary economy. Bags are a start, but larger changes will be necessary in the ways that plastic is used and disposed.

I and the Bird

Visit Biological Ramblings for the 68th I and the Bird.

Speaking of blog carnivals, I will be hosting this month's Oekologie. Since the scheduled date falls on a Friday, I will post the carnival on Saturday the 16th instead, so you have an extra day to send submissions. To learn what types of posts are appropriate, please see the submission guidelines.

Further down the road, I will be hosting Circus of the Spineless at the end of the month.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Horseshoe Crab Moratorium in Question

Speaking of red knots, New Jersey's Marine Fisheries Commission will decide next week whether to extend the two-year moratorium on harvesting horseshoe crabs. In the meantime, crabbers have appealed the existing ban.

A state appellate panel is considering an appeal by Delaware Bay commercial fishermen to overturn the state ban on harvesting horseshoe crabs for bait, and could issue a ruling any time after the state Marine Fisheries Commission decides Monday whether to extend the prohibition....

A lower court upheld New Jersey's 2006-07 harvest moratorium, which the state Department of Environmental Protection says was needed to maximize the egg numbers when red knots arrive in May, en route to their nesting grounds in arctic Canada....

One shorebird expert, Allan Baker of the Royal Ontario Museum, has plotted an "extinction curve" that shows the western Atlantic red knot rufa subspecies going extinct around 2010 if its current population trend continues.

The commercial fishermen from Cape May County are among license holders who were allowed a limited horseshoe crab harvest until New Jersey and Delaware imposed total moratoriums two years ago. Delaware watermen won a court challenge last June that allowed them a season of 100,000 male crabs.

That decision is being appealed to Delaware's state Supreme Court by environmental groups, said Maya K. van Rossum of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.
For background on red knots, see here.

Red Knots on PBS

PBS will air a documentary film on the ecology of horseshoe crabs and red knots:

With its armored shell, ancient anatomy, and 350-million-year lineage, the horseshoe crab almost seems too inconspicuous to stir up controversy. Yet this humble creature is at the very center of a collision between three completely different species.

For many decades, humans have harvested the horseshoe crab for use as fishing bait. Since the 1970s, we have even used horseshoe crab blood for medical purposes. But now we may have gone too far. Horseshoe crab numbers have declined significantly in the past few years. And, naturally, so have their egg numbers.

This is especially important to a small shorebird that is a global traveler of the most impressive kind. The red knot makes one of the longest migrations of any animal -- a journey that takes it from one end of the earth to the other. To accomplish this feat, it relies on the eggs of the horseshoe crab. Without these eggs, the red knot is in danger.

In the film "Crash: A Tale of Two Species," filmmaker Alison Argo tells the story of nature's amazing ability to create fragile connections among the most unexpected creatures, and of our potential as humans to destroy those connections -- or restore them.

WNET will broadcast Crash on Sunday, February 10, at 8:00 pm.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Franklin Parker

A New Jersey conservationist died last week:

Parker chaired the 15-member Pinelands board from 1979 to 1988, a period when the regional land-use and environmental commission was often on the defensive. In 1978, Congress designated 1.1 million acres in southern New Jersey as the Pinelands National Reserve, setting the stage for a hybrid preservation plan that enabled some national park-like protections over a landscape that was largely in private ownership.

In the following year, Byrne imposed a building moratorium to block large development plans for the forest and spur the state Legislature into passing the Pinelands Protection Act of 1979. The Byrne administration recruited Parker, a Mendham lawyer who in the 1960s helped neighbors battle plans for a new metropolitan jetport on what later became the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

In its early years, the Pinelands Commission met with a parade of angry landowners, farmers, business and political leaders who were furious at what they saw as an usurpation of private property rights. Beginning in 1981, Parker and then-executive director Terence D. Moore administered a regional management plan that strictly limited new construction and created regional zoning, with a core "preservation area" of forest and remote cranberry and blueberry farms.
Several years ago the New Jersey Conservation Foundation named its new preserve near Chatsworth in honor of Parker.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Hunting for Buffleheads on the Jersey Shore

Witmer Stone compiled extensive notes on species recorded at Cape May and elsewhere along the New Jersey coast. These notes were published as Bird Studies at Old Cape May: An Ornithology of Coastal New Jersey in 1937. Perusing the notes reveals the different conditions under which ornithologists worked a century ago.

One difference is the prominence of hunting. The difference is especially noticeable is the accounts about waterfowl. Many of the records that Stone cites involve birds that had been shot by hunters and catalogued by one of the ornithologists at Cape May. He also notes the appeal of certain species such as Buffleheads.

The "Butter-ball," as it is locally called, is a rare duck at Cape May today but according to Raymond Otter was quite common twenty years ago when it came in November and remained regularly until March, frequenting the sounds and to a less extent the interior ponds. He tells me that it decoys very easily and being a fine duck for the table its numbers were depleted until it is today threatened with extermination unless given the absolute protection that it requires.
Stone notes further that Buffleheads had to be placed on a protected list in 1932. It is hard to believe that one of our most common diving ducks had almost disappeared along the Jersey shore. Currently hunting is practiced more as a recreational activity than an economic one. If this USFWS report (pdf) is accurate, more of us interact with wild birds as subjects to be watched and admired rather than things to be eaten. In Stone's day the situation was reversed. He even shows a certain defensiveness when discussing people (like himself) "who prefer the study of ducks in life to mastering the technique of killing them."

Some time ago, Laura wondered why decoys of Long-tailed Ducks are difficult to find. Stone offers a clue in his entry for this species.
The "South-southerly," as the Old-squaw is called at the Cape and elsewhere along the New Jersey coast, is strictly a bird of the sounds and the sea although many of them round the Point and may be found regularly in Delaware Bay. Walker Hand has told me that they have decreased very greatly in numbers since his earliest recollections and John Mecray says the same thing. Hand stated that these ducks are accustomed to winter on the thoroughfares and that they persisted in flying against and wind and would go deliberately past a gunner rather than leave a waterway and cross the meadows. The result was that they were easily killed by anyone who persistently pursued them and large numbers of them were shot even though they are not generally regarded as edible. This practice has apparently been abandoned for the most part today as Raymond Otter tells me that they are still here in numbers.
Stone's comment suggests economic and behavioral reasons for the lack of long-tailed duck decoys. Large-scale use of decoys was probably associated mainly with market hunting. If a particular bird were unappetizing, there would be less of a market for its meat and less need for decoys to capture it. Recreational hunters would not need decoys either, since a long-tailed duck's flight path was apparently very predictable.