Thursday, July 31, 2008

Negotiating Development and Conservation

Five environmental organizations negotiated with a developer to build luxury homes on part of the Tejon Ranch while preserving the rest.

Tejon Ranch dates to a land grant in 1843. Subsequent owners expanded the holdings to 270,000 acres of mountains, lakes, valleys and canyons. Parts of the property are used for cattle, farming, vineyards, mining and oil production. Most of it is untouched. The California condor — nearly extinct 25 years ago — flies over the ranch. Only 150 condors — whose 9-foot wingspan is the largest of any North American bird — survive in the wild. Tejon Ranch is one of the giant bird's prime habitats.

The carnivorous vulture symbolized the environmental problems the Tejon Ranch Co. faced in developing the land in a state that has some of the USA's toughest conservation laws. After years of tug-of-war with environmental groups, Stine decided it was time to try for a mega-deal that settled all top issues with leading environmental groups....

The culture clash was challenging, both sides say. As a veteran developer and hard-nosed CEO, Stine had authority to make decisions. By contrast, the six environmental groups worked by consensus. For the Sierra Club and Audubon, public access to the ranch was a top priority. To the Center for Biological Diversity, species preservation and habitat protection were paramount. The result was a break in the united environmental front during the talks.
Apparently 90% will be preserved, and 26,000 homes will be built on the 10% of development land.*

The linked article, and another in the same newspaper, present conservationist-corporate compromise as a growing trend in the environmental movement. I am all for compromises if they result in better outcomes for wildlife conservation. Federal, state, and local governments cannot protect every parcel that merits protection, and private conservation groups have limited funds for land purchase, especially in areas with high property values. So in many cases it is up to the landowner to act in an ecologically-sensitive manner.

I am not familiar enough with the Tejon Ranch parcel to comment on that specific deal. It is notable, however, that one of the organizations involved, the Center for Biological Diversity, pulled out of negotiations. Meanwhile the praise for the trend in the second article comes from a representative of the American Enterprise Institute. While compromise can be constructive, environmental groups must be careful not to support greenwashing or deceptive marketing. Such campaigns will do more harm than good because they obscure the choices that companies and consumers are really making.

* Of course, given the current state of the housing market (especially in California) even that number seems extraordinarily ambitious for the developer.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Conserved Farmland Safe for Now

Earlier this month, there was some talk that the USDA might lift penalties for farmers taking land out of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The CRP subsidizes farm owners who leave portions of their land fallow to serve as wildlife habitat. This conserved habitat provides breeding ground for waterfowl and many other bird species. Many business interests put pressure on the government to lift penalties in the wake of the flooding earlier this year. That, food crises elsewhere in the world, and ethanol mandates raised the price of grain. Instead, the USDA just announced that it would not lift penalties because the crop forecasts had improved.

The ruling was a major victory for conservationists and hunting groups, who had argued that lifting the penalties would have gutted the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers not to cultivate marginal land. Currently, 34.7 million acres are enrolled in the program, much of it in the Great Plains.

Under the terms of the program, farmers sign contracts for up to a decade or more. Farmers who terminate the contract must reimburse the government, with interest and a 25 percent penalty on the total rent payments they received.

“The Conservation Reserve Program is the holy grail of conservation, and we are pleased that the U.S.D.A. will maintain the program and the benefits that it has had,” said Barton James, director of agriculture conservation policy for Ducks Unlimited, an advocacy group.
If demand for ethanol continues to increase in coming years, the issue of the CRP lands is going to keep coming back. Even in the face of today's ruling, so far 288,726 acres have been removed from the program this year. Another 1.1 million acres will need to be renewed in September, which would give many farmers to remove land from the program without penalty. This trend bears watching. It may be time for the government to rethink its renewable energy strategy.

Birds and the Louisiana Oil Spill

Following up on the Mississippi River oil spill, so far I have seen very few reports of bird deaths or injuries, which is a relief. The US Fish and Wildlife service is setting up propane cannons and other bird-scaring devices to keep waterfowl out of the fouled areas.

Installation of some 100 propane cannons that emit loud blasts started in marshy areas of the West Bank on Sunday and all should be in place by Tuesday, said Peter Tuttle, an environmental contaminant specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He said the first of the cannons were set up between Belle Chasse and Pointe a la Hache.

The cannons ignite propane gas to produce loud explosions at timed or random intervals. They will target areas frequented by water birds like egrets, herons and ducks, and the canons will be moved every few days, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The cannons will be supplemented with modified flare guns and starter pistols that fire special bird-scaring shells, officials said.

The wildlife agency said the noise-making operation is expected to continue until the swamp areas are cleared of oil contaminants.
While the bird casualties have been low for a spill of this size, the oil is no doubt having effects on other types of organisms – perhaps fish, and certainly crustaceans and other invertebrates. What long-term impact that will have remains to be seen.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Climate change and habitat loss are changing the distributions and population size of many bird species. Many species require urgent conservation actions. The trouble is, how do we know what species are in decline and where they are currently located? In North America, this need is met partly by volunteer projects like the Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Survey. Even with large-scale projects such as these, however, areas with high (human) population density are going to be covered much more thoroughly than low-density areas. Other volunteer projects such as eBird suffer from the same problem.

Some German computer scientists are exploring a possible technical solution for covering the gaps: a recording device with software that can identify bird songs. Microphones would be left in the field for some period of time, and then the many hours of recordings would be analyzed by computer back at a laboratory.

In his project Daniel Wolff of the Institute of Computer Science at the University of Bonn initially concentrated on the bio-acoustic recognition of the Savi’s warbler and the chaffinch. He listened carefully to the various types of birdsong, scrutinised them in a spectrogram and transferred the characteristics to algorithms. As soon as specific parameters are met, the programme kicks in. ‘For example, the signal of the Savi’s warbler has a mean frequency of 4 kHz, which is very typical. If, in addition, individual elements of the signal are repeated at a frequency of 50 Hz, this is detected as the call of a Savi’s warbler,’ Daniel explains. The chaffinch detector also analyses periodic repetitions of elements like these. In doing so it reveals more of a typical verse structure than the pitch of the chaffinch’s song.

The Savi’s warbler detector, particularly, which was subjected to long-term monitoring at Brandenburg’s Parsteiner Weiher, is characterised by what researchers call ‘robust recognition’, i.e. a high degree of reliability. Despite interference from rain, wind and amphibians the programme recognised, with a 92% detection accuracy, the song of a species of bird which is still found on the shores of the Baltic but which has become rare elsewhere in Europe.

The birdsong detectors are as yet only calibrated for the birdsong of individual species. However, in the near future, Daniel Wulff thinks, it will be possible to link them up to a kind of superdetector which can recognise as many species as possible and, in combination with GPS coordinates, will make the mapping of bird populations simpler and more efficient.
If this works, it could provide an easier way to monitor areas that are not already covered by population surveys. It seems, though, that the project still has some ground to cover before it can do full population monitoring. In the meantime, keep birding and reporting your sightings!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Birding by Metro Guide

When I lived in D.C., I did almost all of my birding by public transportation. Though initially I was dubious and somewhat intimidated by the D.C.'s complex rail and bus system, I found that I could visit almost all of the city's prime birding spots and see many bird species by Metro. In May 2004, I did a big day by Metro and observed 77 species. Each year I saw anywhere from 140 to 170 species within the District, using mostly public transportation for getting around. D.C. contains amazing biodiversity within its borders, and one does not a car to see it!

A few years ago, I began gathering and editing information to create a comprehensive guide to birding by public transportation in D.C. Some of that information was incorporated into the Birding Around DC guide for the DC Audubon website, and some of it became a series of posts on this blog. The final version is now complete.

You can find the web version of the birding by Metro guide here:

Inside the guide you will find detailed information about how to get to the city's birding sites and what birds you can expect to see there. The sites are grouped by Metro line and city quadrant. I also created a brochure version, funded through a grant by Audubon MD-DC, which will be distributed at future chapter events and local bird festivals.

If you have any suggestions about the guide, please email them to

Sunday, July 27, 2008

EPA Bans Carbofuran

Back in 2006, the EPA decided against renewing the registration of carbofuran as a permitted pesticide for sale in the United States, on the grounds that its application threatened the health of farm workers and killed millions of wild birds. This week, the agency announced that it would no longer allow food to contain carbofuran residues, this time because it poses undue risk to the health of small children. The regulation applies to both domestic and imported produce. Since the chemical is already being phased out in U.S. agriculture, it will probably have a greater effect on imported food, especially rice, coffee, bananas, and sugar cane.

An EPA fact sheet includes the following among the ecological effects of carbofuran:

  • Carbofuran is very highly toxic to birds on an acute basis, and highly toxic on a sub-acute basis. A chronic effect level could not be established due to the fact that all concentrations tested caused mortality in the test subjects.
  • Carbofuran is highly toxic to mammals on an acute basis. Chronic toxicity testing on laboratory rats showed reduced offspring survival and body weight reductions.
  • Carbofuran is very highly toxic to freshwater and estuarine/marine fish on an acute basis. The available chronic test showed larval survival as the most sensitive endpoint for freshwater fish and embryo hatching as the most sensitive endpoint for estuarine/marine fish.
  • Carbofuran is considered to be very highly toxic to freshwater and estuarine/marine invertebrates on an acute basis. Chronic tests showed reproductive effects.
The new regulation was posted in the Federal Register on July 23 and will be subject to a 60-day comment period, starting July 30. I will post a link to the comment form if I find one; in the meantime, you can find out more about the process here. It is likely that the new regulation will be contested by its manufacturers, who are already challenging the 2006 decision in court.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Miscellany: Neotropical Birds, Climate Change, an Oil Spill, and a Blog Carnival

First, the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA) is up for reauthorization this year. The current bill (H.R. 5756), introduced by Ron Kind (D-WI) and Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD), renews the conservation funds at significantly higher levels than in years past. The NMBCA has helped to fund 244 bird conservation projects in 44 states and 34 other countries. Three grants, for example, have gone to fund cerulean warbler conservation projects in Colombia.

Please ask your representative to cosponsor the Kind-Gilchrest renewal bill. Very few representatives have signed on as cosponsors so far.

Second, New Jersey readers may be interested in this interview with Senator Bob Menendez on the Lieberman-Warner Act and the future of climate change legislation. I like the way he talks about international assistance dealing with the effects of climate change.

Grist: You were also one of the most vocal on the international issues involved in the climate legislation: advocating for a forest-protection amendment and for international-adaptation funding. What should be the role of these international programs in the climate bill?

Menendez: I think we need a well-funded effort to protect rainforests. My amendment that I would have offered would have increased funding for forest protection from what existed in the bill. I think [we need] a program to help vulnerable nations adapt to the effects of climate change, and we would have increased that funding. Also, [we need] a mechanism to deploy clean technologies in the developing world, including technology transfer -- something I was working with Sens. [Joe] Biden [D-Del.] and [Dick] Lugar [R-Ind.] on.

These are important because at the end of the day, global warming is just that -- it is a global challenge. We [need to bring] others along who can provide some of the greatest carbon sinks that we have in the world. [We should help] nations that through no actions of their own are going to receive the greatest effects of climate change, [and] at the same time, mitigate some of the security challenges as a result thereof.
I also like the fact that he included better public transportation among his environmental priorities for the next term, even if it came at the very end. I find it strange that transit gets such short shrift in national discourse on climate and energy when boosting its availability could relieve some of the burden of energy prices and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Third, refuge managers at Delta NWR are preparing for the Mississippi River oil spill to reach the refuge.
As the front end of a massive fuel oil spill continues its crawl toward the Gulf of Mexico, biologists at the wildlife refuge are seeing firsthand the challenges in containing the enormous plume that is only just arriving at this haven of marshland....

Cleanup crews farther upriver are redirecting oil to shorelines fortified by the levee system, where the muck can then be scrubbed, absorbed and trucked away. But preventing seepage into the innumerable channels and passes of the Mississippi Delta is another story....

That water will flow into adjacent marshes and eventually the Gulf.

In the shallower and narrower waterways near Delta National Wildlife Refuge, crews are setting up hundreds of feet of barriers to prevent oil from killing marsh plants that provide food to nearly 100,000 migratory birds every fall.

"This is a major wintering area for waterfowl," said James Harris, a senior wildlife biologist at the refuge who motored toward one of the shallow inlets to inspect the cleanup. "The marshes outside of the delta are not near as productive. They would have to work a lot harder to get that food."
So far there have been only a handful of reports of oiled wildlife. That will probably change as the slick reaches the delta marshes.

Finally, my post about wind power in Appalachia was included in the inaugural edition of Cirque du Vert, a blog carnival focusing on environmental impacts. Check out the other posts from the carnival, too.

Update: A belated Tangled Bank #110 is now up at Pharyngula.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Loose Feathers #159

Northern Saw-whet Owl / Photo by Gary M. Stolz (USFWS)

Bird news
  • Cuckoos are nest parasites, meaning that they lay their own eggs in the nests of other birds. At least one bird species is able to tell the difference between cuckoo eggs and their eggs by the wavelengths of ultraviolet light reflected by the eggs. (UV rays are invisible to humans but visible to birds.)
  • Raptors may be harmed by exposure to lead and cadmium, two common industrial materials. Since they accumulate such toxins, raptors serve as an early warning system for possible dangers to humans.
  • Hundreds of young Magellanic penguins have been washing ashore in Brazil this summer. Most have been dead or dying from starvation. The lack of fish to eat may be due to an oil spill off Uruguay, or it may have been caused by climate change or overfishing.
  • The number of raptors killed at the Altamont Pass wind farm increased by 27% from October 2005 to October 2007, according to a study carried out by Alameda County. Golden eagles kills decreased, however. The farm needs more monitoring because most of the mitigation measures were not fully implemented until early 2007; Alameda County approved another study period this fall.
  • A resident of Arkansas found a pair of conjoined baby barn swallows. Unfortunately, both died.
  • Galapagos finches have changed in subtle ways over the past 35 years. The average bill size has increased and decreased several times in response to food availability.
  • About 200 gulls have been found dead near Perth, Australia. So far the cause is unknown.
  • In Minnesota, 687 cormorants and 37 pelicans have been found dead at Pigeon Lake and Minnesota Lake. The cause seems to be a disease, but what disease remains undetermined.
  • Red kites are now flying in Ireland again for the first time in 200 years.
  • The populations of white-faced ibis and Swainson's hawk are recovering in California's Central Valley thanks to habitat restoration.
  • Finally, the CLO is looking for help reorganizing their webpages. They have offered a few inducements to participate.
Birds in the blogosphere
Environmental news
  • Air pollution is degrading natural ecosystems in the eastern United States. The main culprits are airborne toxins like sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury that contaminate and acidify waterways. The problem is worse on this coast than the west coast because of prevailing winds that carry industrial emissions from further west.
  • Los Angeles became the second U.S. city to ban plastic grocery bags; the ban will go into effect in 2010 if California fails to pass a tax on the bags. (More on the story here.)
  • Warmer temperatures due to climate change are drying wetlands in many places. The phenomenon could have a feedback effect as drier wetlands release more of the greenhouse gases that had been sequestered there.
  • Biofuels can contribute to climate change if forests (especially tropical forests) are razed to grow them.
  • Oil companies are looking to get their drill bits and pipes into the floor of the Arctic Sea. The USGS just reported that the Arctic Sea may hold 90 billion barrels of oil 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
  • Federal prosecutors have brought charges of negligence and hiding evidence against the company involved in the San Francisco Bay oil spill.
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, July 24, 2008

EPA Email Contained Greenhouse Gas Warning

Remember the email from the EPA that the White House refused to open? In it, the EPA administrator reported that greenhouse gases caused significant global warming, and he advised the administration to set limits on carbon dioxide emissions in accordance with a Supreme Court ruling.

The 38-page document says EPA Administator Stephen Johnson believes there is "compelling and robust" evidence that the increasing average global temperature that has been observed in recent years is due to manmade greenhouse gas emissions.

Greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere and remain there for many decades. There is strong agreement among U.S. government scientists, academics and researchers worldwide that the gases are producing warming and that the Earth could warm enough to cause unstoppable changes — such as oceans engulfing coastal regions where millions live — if emissions are left unchecked.

The EPA's document said the EPA chief "is proposing to find that elevated levels of GHG (greenhouse gas) concentrations may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public welfare."
As I wrote in my first post about the email, the shamelessness of the current administration never ceases to astonish me. Here are their own political appointees, who were likely picked as safe choices who would not rock the boat, telling them that urgent action is needed. And yet the officials at the top still find ways to deny the mounting evidence and delay action.

Update: Kate Sheppard at Gristmill has more on the contents of the email and why its findings have not been released to the public.

I and the Bird

Patrick of The Hawk Owl's Nest has posted the latest edition of I and the Bird. Check it out!

Andean Condors in Decline

As I have written before on this blog, California condors are not the only condors of the Western Hemisphere that are in trouble. The Andean condors of South America are also in decline. Though they are still common in Chile and Argentina, they are endangered in the northern part of their range – Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela. The population in the latter three countries is 150 condors combined.

One aspect of the decline seems to be the expansion of American-style industrial agriculture.

In nature, Andean condors survive off the remains of deer, guanaco — a llama-like mammal — and other animals that predators such as pumas leave behind.

Such food supplies fell sharply throughout the 20th century in countries such as Chile when people settled farther out into wild lands and replaced the native fauna with cattle, sheep and other livestock.

The Andean condors adapted by eating wounded or dead livestock left out in the open, usually by accident. Some condors flew hundreds of miles from their mountain homes to feed on dead seals on the Pacific coast, often making the round trip in a single day.

But that domesticated food source began dwindling as more ranchers raised livestock in feed lots, which cut back on the number of wounded or dead animals left in the open. On top of that, many ranchers have hunted down condors, mistaking them for predators capable of carrying off livestock.
So far the techniques used to regrow the California condor population have not worked for rebuilding the northern population of Andean condors. Captive-bred Andean condors failed to reproduce after being released in Colombia. Further south, where the decline has been less severe, conservationists in Chile and Argentina have been rehabilitating sick and injured condors and releasing them back into the wild.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Oil Spill in Louisiana

In oil is environmentally-friendly news, a chemical tanker crashed into a fuel barge, the fuel barge split in half, and 420,000 gallons of #6 fuel oil gushed into the Mississippi River. The crash occurred just upstream from New Orleans.

About 420,000 gallons of thick, slow-to-evaporate fuel spilled from the barge, but nothing leaked from the Tintomara, officials said.

A sheen at least 12 miles long spread down river, and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality said efforts were being made to minimize the impact on air and water quality and wildlife.
I have not seen any reports yet on the wildlife situation. Given that this is the tail end of the breeding season, I would expect that there would be a lot of young birds on the river and in any surrounding wetlands.

Decline of the Rusty Blackbird

The current issue of ZooGoer, the member magazine of the Smithsonian's National Zoo, features an article on the current population of the rusty blackbird (Euphagus carolinus). It has been trending downward, to put it mildly.

More than 40 years ago, visionary ornithologist Chandler Robbins and his colleagues at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center (now part of the U.S. Geological Survey or USGS) established the continent-wide Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), which organizes volunteers to survey birds along some 3,000 miles of secondary roads each summer. Because there are few roads and even fewer birders in much of the rusty blackbird’s summer range, the BBS data on this species are spotty and meager. Population trend estimates are based on fewer than 100 routes scattered from Maine to Alaska. Still, USGS and Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) statisticians show a robust decline in rusty numbers that surpasses almost all other North American birds in the steepness of its descent. The 40-year trend for the species is phenomenally depressing: 12 percent per year, or a whopping total decline of more than 97 percent over four decades.

The wintering ground, located largely in the southeastern United States, is mostly accessible, making annual winter counts there much more complete, thanks in part to one of the greatest events on the birdwatching calendar for the past 50 years—the Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Birders participating in a CBC record all the feathered creatures they encounter in one day within a 15-mile-diameter circle. The rusty blackbird’s winter range is dotted with more than 1,600 “count circles” within which the birds’ relative abundance has been reported over the past 40 years. National Audubon Society ornithologist Daniel Niven, working with John Sauer at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, has kept tabs on the CBC numbers for the rusty blackbird. The story is clear: The estimated annual decline is 4.5 percent per year, or an 85 percent decline over the past four decades.
The trends present in BBS and CBC data have been confirmed by more detailed breeding surveys in northern Canada. Surveys there have also shown that rusty blackbirds are disappearing from portions of their former breeding range.

There is a lot more at the linked article, including descriptions of rusty blackbirds' former abundance, the work being done to stop their slide, and possible reasons for the decline, so I recommend reading it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Upcoming: Linnaeus' Legacy

I will be hosting Linnaeus' Legacy in two weeks on August 5. Submissions can cover all aspects of biodiversity: taxonomy, identification, species names, newly-discovered species, etc.

For an idea of what what types of posts are appropriate, see the first edition and the most recent edition of the carnival.

Please send submissions to me at I'll post another reminder closer to the carnival date.

By the way, Linnaeus' Legacy is in need of future hosts. If you have an interest in the subject, please consider hosting a future edition.

Monday, July 21, 2008

McCain a Bird Watcher?

So says the New York Times in the middle of a long profile of John McCain:

Entertaining guests at his property in Sedona, Ariz., he invariably drags them for long walks to indulge his passion for bird watching. “If you took all the people at Gitmo, put them in the cabin for a weekend and made them listen to John talk about the birds, they would all spill their guts,” Mr. Graham said.
Obviously I disagree with Lindsey Graham.

(Note: Posting this is not an endorsement of McCain's policies.)

No Wildlife?

Apparently the Congressional leaders who visited the Arctic NWR over the weekend have announced their predetermined conclusion: no wildlife exists in the proposed drilling area. (Never mind that their airplane was flying too high to see anything.) John at Born Again Bird Watcher has the grim details.

The area in the photos looks like potential shorebird and waterfowl habitat to me.

Some Birds Have a Sense of Smell

Turkey vultures are known for finding meals by smell. Other birds, however, have a poor reputation when it comes to their olfactory abilities. That reputation may not be warranted, as recent research indicates that at least some birds can use a sense of smell (abstract).

A genetic study compared chickens, whose full genome has been sequenced, with eight other species from various orders. The study focused on olfactory receptor genes. The number of olfactory receptor genes is thought to correspond with how many distinct scents an animal can smell. The authors found a wide range in the number of olfactory receptor genes present in the eight species (from 107 to 667 genes) and also wide variation in the size of the olfactory bulb relative to the rest of the brain. However, a high proportion of the olfactory receptor genes were potentially functional for all species, suggesting that all birds make at least some use of the sense.

Below is a table of the eight species in the study, ordered by the relative size of the olfactory bulb. (The number of genes is the estimated total number of olfactory receptor genes for the species.)

Species# GenesOB Size
Snow PetrelPagodroma nivea21237
Brown KiwiApteryx australis60034
KakapoStrigops habroptilus66730.2
Black CoucalCentropus grillii
MallardAnas platyrhynchos43019.4
ChickenGallus gallus63814.2
Blue TitCyanistes caeruleus2189.7
GalahEolophus roseicapillus1078
CanarySerinus canaria1666

The snow petrel, a bird that spends most of its time at sea and may need to travel miles to find food, has the largest olfactory bulb. The next two birds, brown kiwi and kakapo, are nocturnal forest birds, so it makes sense that they would have a good sense of smell. Unlike owls, which can use their ears to listen for prey in the dark, kiwis and kakapos eat insects and fruit, respectively. Songbirds, meanwhile, make a relatively poor showing.

There are some caveats here. Since the full genomes for most of the species in this study have not been sequenced, the results are expressed in probabilities. Even the chicken genome, the only one to be fully sequenced, is still undergoing revision. So it seems that the questions of how well birds can smell and how they use that sense still have to be answered.

That said, the conclusions of this genetic study fit with the results of a behavioral study of blue tits. The tits in that study were able to detect a predator's scent around their nesting box and distinguish it from other common scents, such as water and quail. If tits are near the low end of avian olfactory ability and they can do that, imagine how much the birds at the high end of the spectrum can smell.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


This evening I found this ladybug on my windowsill. I think this is a Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle (Harmonia axyridis). As you might guess from the name, this is not a native species (unlike this native Spotted Lady Beetle from Iowa). This beetle was introduced as a agricultural pest control at several points in the 20th century and became widespread in the 1980s and 1990s.

Human Life: Worth Less Than It Used to Be

Last week, word got out that the EPA had reduced its estimate of the value of a human life. The EPA maintains such estimates so that it can perform a cost-benefit analysis of new regulations. (Other regulatory agencies calculate their own estimates.) With this update, the value of a human life slipped from $8.04 million to $7.22 million.

The linked article does not make the reasons for the change clear; instead it offers an explanation for how the number is calculated:

But how do you put a dollar value on a life, even in a generic sense?

It wouldn't work for researchers to survey Americans at gunpoint and ask how much they would pay not to die. Instead, an unlikely academic field has grown up to extrapolate life's value from the everyday decisions of average Americans.

Researchers try to figure out how much money it takes for people to accept slightly bigger risks, such as a more dangerous job. They also look at how much people will pay to make their daily risks smaller -- such as buying a bike helmet or a safer car.

"How much are you willing to pay for a small reduction . . . in the probability that you will die?" asked Joe Aldy, a fellow at the D.C.-based think tank Resources for the Future.

The rest is more or less multiplication: If someone will accept a 1-in-10,000 chance of death for $500, then the value of life must be 10,000 times $500, or $5 million.
Whether the change came about as a result of suggestions from supervisors remains to be seen. (There definitely has been a record of political interference at the EPA.) Several environmentalists cited in the article thought that it would result in weaker air and water quality regulations. The good news is that there is not much time left to make trouble, and any regulatory changes in the next few months can be overturned in January.

Here is Stephen Colbert's inimitable commentary on the reduction.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

One Field Guide

On BIRDCHAT this week, someone asked the following question about field guides.

If you could only have one field guide (whether due to economics, strange legislation, storage space, personal conviction or other unusual circumstance), which would you own?

Remember, only one! No hedging.
If I could only have one guide, it would be The Sibley Guide to Birds. What I like about the guide is that it includes illustrations of a range of plumage variations for every species. Both sexes are depicted if a bird is sexually dimorphic, and breeding, non-breeding, juvenile, and subadult plumages are shown, if applicable. Geographic variation is also illustrated for widespread species. In addition, I feel that its illustrations are generally more true-to-life than those in other guides.

There are some downsides to The Sibley Guide. The major one is that the complete guide is large and heavy compared to other guides, and it will not fit into even the largest pockets. (I get around that by carrying the eastern edition when birding.) A second disadvantage is that Sibley chose not to illustrate most subspecies – or at least not to label them as such. (He explained his reasoning here.) In most cases, that does not present a problem, but if the AOU splits a species (as happened with Canada Goose / Cackling Goose a few years ago), it may be difficult to tell which forms match up with which new species.

A plurality of BIRDCHAT posters agree with my choice; however, there were many votes for National Geographic's Field Guide to the Birds of North America. That guide has some advantages, especially since it is easier to carry around. Peterson and Kaufman also received significant support.

So which guide would you choose if you could only have one?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Loose Feathers #158

DickcisselDickcissel / Photo by Steve Maslowski (USFWS)

Bird news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environmental news
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Good News from the Boreal Forest

A recent study compared breeding populations of 14 songbird species in natural clearings versus recent clearcuts in Canada's boreal forest. The study, published in Avian Conservation and Ecology - Écologie et conservation des oiseaux, found that most of the species were resilient enough to survive and breed in both types of landscapes. A few, however, had significantly lower survival rates or had higher rates of site abandonment in clearcut habitats. Yellow-rumped warbler and ruby-crowned kinglet were particularly sensitive to landscape changes. Despite the resiliency of many species, it is still important to maintain landscapes in as natural a state as possible, especially prime wilderness areas such as the boreal forest.

That is why it is so exciting to see the recent news from Ontario. The provincial government of Ontario just announced that it would preserve half of its Northern Boreal region – 225,000 square kilometers (roughly 87,000 square miles or 56 million acres)! Over the next 10-15 years, government officials will work with scientists and local communities to identify which areas of its boreal forest are in greatest need of preservation and which are most appropriate for mining and logging. The government will also reform its mining law so that future mines will need the approval of local First Nations and will need to share profits with them.

One neat thing about the announcement is that it was inspired in part by a petition sent to the Canadian government on behalf of 1500 scientists. Activism does bring results!

Preservation of the boreal forest is crucial for two major reasons. First, it is one of the largest undeveloped forest and wetland tracts on earth. As such, it gives prime habitat to many animal species, including over 300 species of birds. Many of those birds spend the winter in our area, such as dark-eyed junco and the rapidly-disappearing rusty blackbird, or migrate through like Swainson's thrush. Other bird species, such as gray jay and boreal chickadee, live year-round in the boreal. New York shares 89 species with the boreal forest, and DC has 86 species that breed there.

The second reason is that preservation of the boreal contributes towards a climate change solution. Ontario's Northern Boreal region absorbs 12.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year – roughly 2% of Canada's total emissions. Intensive development in that region would release the carbon that is currently sequestered and reduce the ability of the boreal forest to absorb emissions.

This looks like a win for boreal birds and a win for the planet. I hope that other provinces will follow Ontario's example.

Update (7/21): Ontario continued its environmentalist streak over the weekend by joining the Western Climate Initiative.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Horseshoe Crab Limits on the Atlantic Seaboard

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is in the process of deciding whether to adopt a limit or moratorium on horseshoe crab harvests in along the Atlantic Seaboard. The last time they took up this issue, they decided to issue a harvest limit of 100,000 male crabs per state. New Jersey decided to go a step further and place a moratorium on horseshoe crab harvests within state borders, but other critical states, such as Delaware, have stuck to the ASMFC standard.

Red knots depend for food on these ancient creatures during migration; in recent years, they have not been able to get enough to survive as a species. A moratorium is the surest way to regrow the horseshoe crab population sufficiently for red knots to survive. Encourage ASMFC to approve a moratorium.

Migratory Bird Treaty Act Turns 90

As Susan noted, Sunday was the 90th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA). The MBTA is the primary legislation protecting native birds in the United States and one of this country's earliest environmental laws. It bans "taking" any native birds; "taking" can mean killing a wild bird or possessing parts of a wild bird, including feathers, nests, or eggs. Exceptions are allowed for hunting game birds and for research purposes, both of which require permits.

This act has its roots in late nineteenth-century opposition to the millinery trade. The fashions of the 1880s and 1890s favored hats adorned with real feathers and stuffed wild birds. The most popular feathers were the long plumes of egrets and herons. The trade in feathers took a tremendous toll – 200 million wild birds per year by some estimates. Populations of the most hunted species declined precipitously.

In response to the killing, George Grinnell founded the first Audubon Society in 1886 to organize opposition. Among Grinnell's proposals were laws to protect wild birds. His organization quickly collapsed, however, largely due to financial difficulties, and it failed to have any effect on the slaughter.

In 1896, Harriet Lawrence Hemenway took up the cause of stopping the trade in bird parts. She persuaded influential friends to pledge to stop wearing bird feathers and to promote the cause among other high society women in Boston. She and her associates founded the Massachusetts Audubon Society to advocate on behalf of wild birds. Bird watching was just then becoming a popular pastime, so she found many willing to help her cause.

The example of Massachusetts Audubon inspired similar efforts elsewhere in the country; various chapters joined in 1905 to become the National Association of Audubon Societies (later renamed National Audubon Society). The organizations followed a two-pronged strategy of persuading individuals to stop wearing feathered hats through the society's publications and pushing state and federal governments to regulate market hunting. The cause took on added urgency with the sharp decline and then extinction of the once-abundant passenger pigeon (last wild bird reported in 1900; extinct in 1914) and Carolina parakeet (last wild bird killed in 1904; extinct by 1939).

Eventually activism on the part of bird watchers and ornithologists led to legislation. Several states passed laws based on Grinnell's model; however, enforcement remained spotty. The Lacey Act, in 1900, banned killing birds illegally in one state and then selling them in another. In 1913, Congress followed it with the Weeks-McLean Migratory Bird Law, which placed migratory birds under federal jurisdiction and prohibited their killing without authorization from the federal government.

Several state and federal courts struck down the 1913 law as a 10th Amendment violation. (Such a law would probably pass review today, due to changes in constitutional interpretation in the wake of the New Deal.) The Wilson administration found a way around the rulings by negotiating a treaty with the British Empire (on behalf of Canada). The 1916 treaty contained all of the protections sought under the Weeks-McLean Law and had the additional benefit of protecting birds on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border. Congress enacted the treaty as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in July 1918. Later revisions to the law extended its protections to include similar treaties with Mexico, Japan, and the Soviet Union (now Russia).

The MBTA still protects wild birds, even though its original target is long gone. Recent applications of the MBTA have included projects like Operation High Roller, which is directed against pigeon racing clubs that kill raptors. Corporations can be liable under the MBTA for negligently killing birds by dumping petroleum sludge or highly saline wastewater in places where birds gather. The MBTA was among the laws waived by Michael Chertoff to construct the border wall.

A list of protected birds is available here. Introduced bird species (like house sparrows and mute swans) and captive-bred game birds (like domestic mallards) are not protected by federal law.

The background history of the MBTA is included in chapter 5 of Scott Weidensaul's Of a Feather, which I reviewed in December.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Posturing on Offshore Drilling

Bush rescinded a long-standing executive order banning offshore oil drilling.

There have been two prohibitions to drilling, one imposed by Congress in 1981 and another signed by Bush's father in 1990 and renewed in 1998 by President Clinton.

Bush said last month that he wanted to end the drilling ban, but wanted Congress to go first. He's signaled in the past that he'd allow individual states to maintain their own bans, and did so again Monday.

Experts agree that it would take at least seven and probably 10 years before any benefits from overturning the ban would become evident. Annual American oil production is about 1.8 billion barrels, and the Interior Department estimates that as much as 19 billion barrels remain untapped in coastal areas that now are off limits to drillers.
This is the really annoying part:
Monday, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said Bush no longer could wait.

"It has been nearly a month since the president urged the Congress to act to expand environmentally friendly and responsible exploration for American energy," she said. "Congress has not moved forward, despite calls from constituents and the continued pressure of record high energy prices."
There is nothing environmentally friendly about oil production, onshore or offshore. The main reason we have a ban on offshore drilling is spills like the one in 1969 in Santa Barbara, California. Many political leaders from California are angry about the move, with good reason. (Update: Apparently this talking point is based on the claim that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita did not cause any spills, which is false. I wrote more on Katrina and oil spills two years ago.)

Since the legal ban remains in place (for now), my understanding is that this action will not allow any drilling, and it is mostly symbolic. However, Democratic lawmakers may feel pressured by this, or use this as an excuse, to repeal the legislative ban. Given their record over the past two years, I would put the chance of a repeal at about 50%. It might be worth contacting members of Congress to warn them against that course of action.

Further update: The Natural Resources Defense Council has gotten wind of an effort in Congress to repeal the ban. Take action to stop it before it gains too much momentum.

Monday, July 14, 2008


I conducted my first successful Firefly Watch earlier tonight. By "successful," I mean that my watch was accompanied by fireflies, and not just by mosquitos. There were a lot of fireflies, too. In the 10-second interval, I counted about 20 flashes. An hour makes a big difference.

This is a fairly easy project to carry out, as it requires only ten minutes of observation time per week, plus a minimal amount of time to enter the data. So, give it a try.

Bridge Demolition

Birders planning to visit Sandy Hook should be aware that half of the Route 36 bridge will be nonexistent.

The state Department of Transportation is replacing the 75-year-old 35-foot tall
drawbridge with a 65-foot tall fixed span bridge. The J. H. Reid Construction Company of South Plainfield was awarded the $1.24 million project in December. The company began the three-year project in February.

The demolition of the southbound side of the bridge will take about two weeks, Bruce Hilling, the borough administrator said on Friday.

As of 6 a.m. today, motorist traveling across the Shrewsbury River via the bridge
were diverted to the northbound lanes. For the next 2• years, there will be one lane in each direction on the bridge.
This bridge was "structurally deficient," as the Department of Transportation would put it, and needed replacement. In the meantime, it will become much harder to visit Sandy Hook. I think summer beach traffic would rule out birding visits, at least from the west.

Evolution of the Wood Warblers

Ever since I started birding, I have especially delighted in the birds of the family Parulidae, the North American wood warblers. So it should not be surprising that this blog has one of its genera as its domain namesake, or that I write about them frequently, or that I use one species as my mascot. It is with good reason: these jewels of North American woodlands provide a prime example of avian diversity. The genus Dendroica, in particular, includes (at least) twenty-seven species with a multitude of plumages and specialized adaptations.

This remarkable diversity evolved in a short burst soon after the genus Dendroica split from its ancestral lineage. Most species in the genus emerged within its first million years, and then the rate of diversification slowed down considerably. One explanation for this is that rapid diversification occurs when new ecological opportunities open. As the available niches fill, increased competition from existing species makes it harder for new species to appear.

The authors of the linked paper devised a mathematical model to test that explanation against other possible causes for a decline in speciation rates. An extensive DNA analysis for all continental members of the genus established both the order in which new species appeared and how quickly they did so. (See their new phylogenetic tree below.) The timeline established via DNA analysis supported the idea that the diversification rate for Dendroica warblers spiked quickly and then dropped due to niches being filled.

Phylogenetic tree of Dendroica wood warblersFigure 1: Maximum clade credibility (MCC) tree from Bayesian analysis of all continental North American Dendroica wood warbler species. Nodes marked with asterisks are supported by posterior probabilities of more than 0.95. Tree is based on more than 9kb of mtDNA and nuclear intron sequence. Branch lengths are proportional to absolute time. (Source: Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0630)

This paper builds on an earlier finding that the Dendroica lineage arose in the late Miocene or early Pliocene, roughly five million years ago. That transition was accompanied by climate change. As the North American climate became hotter and drier, extensive woodlands fragmented into smaller patches. This change in the landscape may have given wood warblers their opportunity to diversify. Later in the Pliocene, the climate and landscape became more like the present, and those changes may have sparked the secondary burst of speciation.

As an aside, it is interesting that the oldest species in Dendroica – Kirtland's warbler (D. kirtlandii) – is also one of the most endangered species in the genus. (It is probably just a coincidence, since the genus's other endangered species – golden-cheeked warbler (D. chrysoparia) – is among the newest.) Modern humans, by contrast, appeared relatively recently and first entered North America even more recently. Millions of years before humans ever set foot on this continent, these tiny birds were winging their way between their summer and winter territories. That is an amazing thought to keep in mind when fall migration comes again.

Source: Daniel L. Rabosky and Irby J. Lovette, "Density-dependent diversification in North American wood warblers," Proceedings of the Royal Society B, published online (July 8, 2008). doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0630

Sunday, July 13, 2008

DC News: Planning a New Downtown

Last week, the National Capital Planning Commission released a plan for improving the downtown areas surrounding the National Mall. It focuses on four sections. They are the Federal Triangle (bounded by Pennsylvania Ave, Constitution Ave, and 15th Street NW), the Northwest Rectangle (the area between the White House and the Kennedy Center), the Southwest Rectangle (south of the Mall, between the Capitol and the Tidal Basin), and East Potomac Park (a good winter birding spot).

All of these areas are crying out for revitalization. Many of the downtown areas can feel cold and desolate outside of business hours, when the massive federal government buildings stand empty. When I first moved there ten years ago, it took a lot of trial and error to learn to avoid certain parts of the Federal Triangle – especially anything in the vicinity of the Reagan Building – because there are frequently long stretches without any public space. Here is how the NCPC characterizes the area (pdf):

The north side of Pennsylvania Avenue now enjoys a lively mix of commercial, retail, residential, and cultural activities, while the south side appears lifeless. The connecting streets between Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues are typically deserted outside of office hours and are dominated by government buildings that are closed to the public. Attractive interior courtyards are used for parking and loading operations or closed off for security reasons.

On the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, the FBI’s operation and security requirements have prevented street-level public uses along the entire block. Security installations and the building’s unornamented International Style architecture exacerbate a fortress-like presence. Across the street, revitalization of the Old Post Office (OPO) building and adjacent glass pavilion has not achieved its potential.

Throughout the precinct, poorly landscaped building yards and the absence of a clear way-finding system, create a monotonous public realm. The parks, plazas, and commemorative spaces along Pennsylvania Avenue are showing their age, and the precinct's nationally significant art and architecture are inadequately showcased.
It is good that the planners recognize such problems and are suggesting steps to remedy them. Their solutions emphasize making a more pedestrian-friendly environment by breaking up some barriers to circulation and improving public spaces like the Freedom Plaza. They also suggest adding more museums and sidewalk cafes along Pennsylvania Avenue and 10th Street NW to give more people a reason to go there, even on weekends.

The plan also offers some interesting ideas for East Potomac Park (pdf). Among other things, it suggests cutting a canal through the northern end of the park and building several vehicle and pedestrian bridges across Washington Channel south of the dock area to increase access to the park. It also would add a Metro stop on the Yellow Line near Jefferson Memorial. It is not clear how the proposals for East Potomac Park would affect it as a birding spot. Birds like loons and grebes might be less likely to come up Washington Channel, but other than that I do not think it would make much difference, except that it would be more accessible.

I like where the NCPC seems to be going with their framework plan. How successful it is will depend on implementation. There are a lot of obstacles such as security concerns at federal offices and whether there will be funding to redesign all of the spaces. I hope that at least some of these proposals will be implemented. It would improve the downtown for both residents and visitors.

On a sour note, a country club has formed a "grassroots" campaign to oppose the Purple Line. (For those not familiar with the DC area, the Purple Line is a proposed light rail route that would connect Bethesda with New Carrollton, thus reducing strain on Metro's Red Line and traffic in the Maryland suburbs.) Their main complaint so far seems to be that the line would run through the country club, though they gripe about taxes too.

At least the streetcar plan seems to be trundling along.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Are Hummingbirds in Decline This Year?

Airborne originally uploaded by c-eight

A couple days ago, Birdchick posted an email she received that asked about the status of ruby-throated hummingbirds. Apparently a lot of people have noticed declines in the number of ruby-throated hummingbirds coming to their feeders. I have received queries about this myself, both last year and this year, and it has been a frequent topic on discussion boards and email lists that deal with hummingbirds. The discussion that I have seen so far, though, has been mostly anecdotal; I would prefer to see it backed up with some data.

One easily-accessible source of distribution information is eBird, which allows users to break down sightings for a species by year. I downloaded the line graph data for ruby-throated hummingbirds during breeding seasons from 2004-2008 and created my own line graphs with Google Docs. The data covers the entire United States. (I would have liked to use a smaller area, but I could either pick the whole country or an individual state.)

The first graph is for frequency, the percentage of checklists from the breeding season (i.e., June-July) on which ruby-throated hummingbirds were reported. Each point on the graph represents a single week. Ignore the flatline near the end of line for 2008; those weeks have not happened yet.

The second graph is for abundance, the average number of birds reported on all checklists from the breeding season, including checklists that do not report the species. Again, ignore the dip at the very end of the line for 2008.

My read of the eBird statistics is that ruby-throated hummingbirds are being reported about as frequently but that birders have been seeing fewer individuals during 2007 and 2008. That might indicate a population decline. Conceivably it could result instead from a range shift or delayed start to the breeding season. In any case, the effect seems to be a small one, and the species does not appear to be undergoing a sudden population crash or catastrophic decline.

With a volunteer source like eBird, there may be some inconsistency in reporting at work in the results. It would be interesting to see whether the same result holds in data sources with more standarized protocols, like the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) or banding stations. However, as one commenter on Birdchick's post noted, even some of these sources might underreport hummingbirds. BBS picks up mostly singing birds during short point counts, and not all bird banders are trained to band hummingbirds.

Any ideas for a better source on the hummingbird population?

Related posts:
Stokes Birding Blog also has a roundup of recent information on the hummingbird population.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Loose Feathers #157

Green-winged Teal / Photo by Dave Menke (USFWS)

Bird news
  • Birds that migrate at night tend to do so in loose flocks. This was the conclusion of a radar study that tracked pairs of migrating birds simultaneously and compared their flight paths and speed. Some pairs of birds were as much as 200 meters apart. (Apparently biologists can track migrating birds with a sousaphone.)
  • In Washington state, the timber industry and conservationists have formed a working group to preserve spotted owl habitat on private lands.
  • The mid-continent breeding duck population has declined 9% from 2007 to 2008. The steepest decline was among canvasback. Possible reasons include loss of habitat and drought. On a positive note, both redheads and green-winged teal have increased their numbers from last year and are above their long-term average.
  • Unfortunately, it seems that the USDA will lift penalties for taking land out of the Conservation Reserve Program.
  • Biologists at Plum Island are conducting a breeding study of saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrows to track the effect of mercury contamination on the wetlands there. Typically the mercury levels in the sparrows' bloodstream rises during the summers at Plum Island and falls while the birds winter elsewhere. (via Plover Warden Diaries)
  • Neurons that control singing in songbirds are programmed to die back at the end of each breeding season.
  • A conservation worker in New Zealand accidentally killed a rare takahe while shooting at a flock of the more common pukeko. The latter species was being culled to protect other endangered birds.
  • The Everglades snail kite is rapidly disappearing from the Everglades; the current population is one-third what it was in 200. Their decline stems from a crash in the apple snail population.
  • Ornithologists in Britain have recorded some very long-lived birds, some living and some recently deceased, due to the recovery of banded birds. They include a 41-year-old razorbill, a 13-year-old barn owl, a 31-year-old curlew, a 20-year-old turnstone, a 27-year-old black-headed gull, a 27-year-old Canada goose, and a 27-year-old knot.
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