Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Feathers as Decoration

The oldest known feathered dinosaur precursor to birds, the newly-discovered Epidexipteryx hui, may have used its feathers principally for ornamentation rather than flight.

The remains date back 152 million to 168 million years ago, making the newfound creature slightly older than Archaeopteryx, the most primitive known bird....

Researchers think the pigeon-size Epidexipteryx might have used its plumes as flashy ornaments, since it was mostly covered in short feathers that lack the structure necessary for flight.

"For example, [the feathers] could potentially have played a role in displays intended to attract a mate, scare off a rival, or send a warning signal to other individuals of the same species," said study co-author Fucheng Zhang, a paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing....

"It shows that the use of feathers for visual communication—as opposed to other functions such as insulation and flight—was a very early development."
The fossil (pictured above) was discovered in Inner Mongolia in 2007. It shows long tail feathers on the left and what appears to be a ridge of feathers along its back.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Hawk Watching in Delaware

Delaware has two hawk watching stations, at Ashland Nature Center and Cape Henlopen State Park. The two sites are both operated by the Delmarva Ornithological Society but record different sets of species.

Hawk Watch Hill is one of two Delaware hawk sites staffed by a full-time coordinator; the other is Cape Henlopen State Park. Both programs are funded by the Delmarva Ornithological Society, with additional support from other nature organizations.

Matt Sileo is the coordinator at Ashland, and Forrest Rowland holds that role at Cape Henlopen. Rowland is quick to opine that the views from Cape Henlopen's Hawk Watch platform rival those at Ashland's Hawk Watch Hill.

"The platform is situated near Cape Henlopen's point, and it's quite a commanding view, what with all the raptors overhead and the ocean as a backdrop," says Rowland.

Due to its location on the coast, Cape Henlopen's migration is different from Ashland's.

"We get lots of ospreys and falcons," says Rowland. "And we don't tend to have peak days the way Ashland does. Instead, it's a pretty consistent stream of birds now through the third week of October. We do see raptors after that, though, so we stay open through Nov. 20."
I have been watching the reports from Cape Henlopen with interest over the past several weeks since Cape Henlopen lies just across the Delaware Bay from Cape May. (A ferry makes multiple daily trips between the two capes.) On several occasions, the number of raptors counted there has exceeded those passing over Cape May, sometimes by a good margin. While I know what leads to a good flight in Cape May (NW winds, 8-15 mph), I have not quite figured out what conditions make for a poor flight in Cape May but a good flight in Cape Henlopen. I imagine wind direction has a lot to do with it, but clouds and humidity are other possible factors.

In other raptor news, I have updated the totals on the raptor banding website. Twenty-seven peregrines last week!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Goose Ancestor Discovered in England

Fifty million years ago, a giant goose-like bird with a toothy bill patrolled the waters covering the modern-day British Isles.

With a five metre wingspan, these huge birds were similar to albatross in their way of life. Albatross have the largest wingspan of any living bird, but that of Dasornis was over a meter and half greater. Despite these similarities, the latest research suggests that the closest living relatives of Dasornis and its fossil kin are ducks and geese.

“Imagine a bird like an ocean-going goose, almost the size of a small plane! By today’s standards these were pretty bizarre animals, but perhaps the strangest thing about them is that they had sharp, tooth-like projections along the cutting edges of the beak” explains Gerald Mayr, expert palaeornithologist at the German Senckenberg Research Institute and author of the report.

Like all living birds Dasornis had a beak made of keratin, the same substance as our hair and fingernails, but it also had these bony ‘pseudo-teeth’ “No living birds have true teeth - which are made of enamel and dentine - because their distant ancestors did away with them more than 100 million years ago, probably to save weight and make flying easier. But the bony-toothed birds, like Dasornis, are unique among birds in that they reinvented tooth-like structures by evolving these bony spikes.”

So why did Dasornis have these pseudo-teeth? “Its linked to diet” says Mayr, “these birds probably skimmed across the surface of the sea, snapping up fish and squid on the wing. With only an ordinary beak these would have been difficult to keep hold of, and the pseudo-teeth evolved to prevent meals slipping away.”
I am not sure what precisely links Dasornis with geese and ducks rather than albatrosses; the article does not explain.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Urban Sites Are Important for Birds, Too

BirdLife has just announced an urban nature reserve in Argentina as an Important Bird Area.

The reserve comprises 350 hectares of lagoons and pampas vegetation and is home to over 300 species of birds. It was founded in 1985 and one million visitors each year enjoy walking its paths and watching the wildlife.

“Urban nature reserves provide an essential link between birds and people. They are the only contact that many people get with the natural world and for cities such as Buenos Aires, this is especially true”, said Andrés Bosso, CEO of Aves Argentinas (BirdLife in Argentina). “Many of these reserves are also designated IBAs for their importance for birds and biodiversity.”

The concentrations of ducks, swans and other waterbirds at the reserve are world-famous. For most birdwatchers visiting Argentina, Costanera Sur is their first taste of the country´s wonderful birdlife.
Important Bird Areas (IBAs) are sites that provide habitat for globally significant numbers of birds, for breeding, migration, or wintering. Urban IBAs are relatively rare, but those that exist are a testament to the remarkable biodiversity that can exist within a city if its natural resources are maintained.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Wind and Rain

Cape May Point has been subject to 30 mph winds over the past three days, and driving rain for much of yesterday and today. Much of the Point has seemed abnormally quiet in terms of bird activity. Even the common ones that I usually see or hear around the banding sites are staying low. Those birds that did venture out in the open quickly returned to cover or were tossed about by the winds.

In this weather, the only birds that seem unaffected are the peregrine falcons. Where other birds struggle, these birds slice through the wind as if it were nothing. Perhaps that is why these gray and blustery days are so good for finding peregrines here. In my limited time at a blind yesterday morning, we banded three birds, all of which were peregrines.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Colorado's Oil and Gas Commission issued regulations to prevent oil and gas drilling from harming sensitive wildlife habitat at the request of the governor and state legislature.

The rules adopted Tuesday call for drillers to check state maps to determine whether their operations are within sensitive wildlife habitat. If they are, they must consult with the Division of Wildlife on a plan to limit the adverse impact of drilling.

Among the steps an operator could take are consolidating facilities, limiting movement of drilling rigs, using appropriate fencing and conducting vegetative screening.

The rule also identifies "restricted surface occupancy areas" — primarily sage-grouse habitat — where operators should limit drilling to "the maximum extent technically and economically feasible."
This sounds like a step in the right direction, though closure of some sites during lekking season was taken off the table as a mitigation measure. How these will work in practice remains to be seen. It seems that much of the enforcement responsibility lies with the individual companies, which may not be eager to put much effort into protecting wildlife.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

More on Palin and the Environment

The Minnesota Independent recently covered some aspects of Sarah Palin's environmental record, including her opposition to the listing of polar bears under the Endangered Species Act.

More recently, and to great national derision, the state of Alaska filed a suit in federal court challenging the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation of polar bears as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Issued this past May, the federal polar bear listing drew on a large body of peer-reviewed scientific data demonstrating that Arctic sea ice coverage during the summer months had declined rapidly in recent years. The data also strongly suggested population declines in the South Beaufort Sea — located off Alaska’s North Slope — and the Western Hudson Bay in Canada. Additional studies have observed declining cub survival rates, as well as declining skull size and overall weight for cubs and adult males, all of which strongly suggest that nutritional and other environmental stresses are affecting the polar bear population....

Governor Palin, as promised, rejected the listing, arguing that it had not relied on “the best scientific and commercial data available.” In a New York Times op-ed piece that appeared in January, Palin deceptively wrote that “state biologists are studying the health of polar bear populations and their habitat” — implying that Alaskan biologists disagreed with the science behind the ESA listing. The state of Alaska, in fact, has not employed a polar bear expert for well over three decades. And as Steiner discovered recently through a federal FOIA request, the state’s marine mammal experts in the Department of Fish and Game actually endorsed the science behind the polar bear ruling as well as with nine US Geological Survey studies that provided additional support to the reigning consensus.
Via Nuthatch, I also learned of this op-ed by a University of Alaska professor along similar lines.
Endangered species. Earlier this year, Palin approved a $2 million state appropriation for a conference on the "economic impacts" of the Endangered Species Act, designed to persuade the public that ESA listings were too costly and unwarranted. Recently she agreed to use the money instead to fund the state's lawsuit against the Bush administration over the polar bear listing -- a likely violation of the state constitutional provisions on appropriation. She opposes additional species listings and other protections in Alaska, where many species are at risk because of climate change and other threats....

Pebble mine. Palin aggressively opposed the "clean water initiative" on the August ballot in Alaska (which then failed), favoring instead foreign mining company desires for fewer government regulations controlling their toxic effluent into salmon streams. She has supported virtually any and all mining proposals that have come her way, even likely the enormous Pebble gold and copper mine proposed in the Bristol Bay watershed. That plan put at risk the largest runs of sockeye salmon in the world, where this summer fishermen caught more than 27 million salmon.
To me, the selection of Palin as a running mate undermines McCain's credibility on environmental issues. Prior to his nomination, he had positioned himself as somewhat more likely to take climate change seriously, and he had used his maverick image to imply that he would take a more moderate course and this and other issues than other members of his party. The selection of Palin suggests that his environmental policy would look fairly similar to that of the current administration.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


We banded our first peregrines of the season yesterday, at two separate blinds. They are really impressive up close – much larger and more powerful than the kestrels and merlins we have been banding for the past several weeks. This bird was quite large, even for a female peregrine.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Birds and Biodiversity

Many of the world's bird species are in serious decline.

The report highlights worldwide losses among widespread and once-familiar birds. A staggering 45% of common European birds are declining [1]: the familiar European Turtle-dove Streptopelia turtur, for example, has lost 62% of its population in the last 25 years. On the other side of the globe, resident Australian wading birds have seen population losses of 81% in just quarter of a century [2].

Twenty North American common birds have more than halved in number in the last four decades [3]. Northern Bobwhite Colinus virginianus fell most dramatically, by 82%. In Latin America, the Yellow Cardinal Gubernatrix cristata - once common in Argentina - is now classified as globally Endangered [4].

Millions of White-rumped Vultures Gyps bengalensis recently flew in Asian skies. In just sixteen years populations have crashed by 99.9% - the species is now classified as Critically Endangered [5]. Widespread birds like the Eurasian Eagle Owl are believed to be vanishing from Middle Eastern forests [6]. Seabirds - including Critically Endangered Chatham Albatross Thalassarche eremita - are disappearing from the world’s oceans [7].
While in some cases these declines may simply indicate a problem with a single species, in many cases they signal larger problems with their ecosystems. It could be population crashes among prey species (e.g., due to overfishing), habitat changes (e.g., loss of farmland), or some other problem. So some conservationists suggest that the reductions in many bird populations indicate a wider biodiversity crisis.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Cape May Shorebirds Now Threatened by Coyotes

Despite better protections against feral cats, the nesting shorebirds around Cape May are still threatened by other predators such as skunks and raccoons. The latest predators to enter the mix are coyotes.

During her ten-week internship at the Jersey shore’s Wetlands Institute near Stone Harbor, Delaware Valley College Senior Liz Dancer was charged with monitoring a least tern colony in Cape May Point State Park. While there, she found tracks that look an awful lot like those of a coyote.

“The tracks around the Cape May nest site most likely belong to coyotes,” said Dancer, who matched the imprints left behind against her hand. “The park guards told me they’ve heard coyotes from time to time.” The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection estimate that roughly 3,000 coyotes inhabit the state, some in Cape May County.

Dancer thinks the birds nesting in Cape May have a poorer chance of hatching their eggs because more predators are on the prowl there. To learn more about it, she is planting electronic temperature recording devices called iButtons against eggs in nests in Cape May, as well as Sea View Marina in Longport, NJ.

“iButtons can detect temperature fluctuations when a bird is incubating or when it leaves the nest to escape predators. This new technology allows wildlife managers to understand how frequently predators are interrupting incubation” said Ilene Eberly, Coordinator of Research and Conservation.
Coyotes are definitely in the area. From one of the raptor banding sites I have heard them howling in response to the fire sirens at Cape May Point and several other towns on the island. It sounds like there are a lot of them, too.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Winter Finch Forecast, 2008-2009

Ron Pittaway has published his annual winter finch forecast, for "winter finches" and other irruptive species. The forecast gives an idea of what birders can expect to encounter, mainly in Ontario but also further south. Here are some highlights:

Purple Finch: This finch stays in the north only when most tree species have heavy seed crops. This fall most Purple Finches will migrate south out of the province because overall tree seed crops are too low. A very few may winter in southern Ontario.

Red Crossbill: This crossbill comprises nine ecotypes in North America; each has cone(s) preferences related to bill size and shape. The Types are difficult to identify in the field. Types 2 and 3 and probably 4 occur in Ontario. The white pine Type 2 is apparently the most frequently encountered Red Crossbill in the province (Simard 2007 in Atlas of Breeding Birds of Ontario). Since white pine has abundant crops in most areas, expect Type 2s to be widespread in small numbers. Hemlock Type 3 (subspecies sitkensis of AOU Check-list 1957) prefers the small cones of hemlock and white spruce when bumper in Ontario. Type 3s should be absent from the province this winter because the hemlock crop is poor and the white spruce crop is average. Other Types are possible this winter given the bumper white pine cone crop and good crop on red pine. The Red Crossbill complex very much needs further study.

White-winged Crossbill: This crossbill wandered widely this past summer searching for extensive spruce cone crops. Reports came from Alaska, Yukon, Hudson Bay Lowlands, Ontario, Quebec and many northern states such as Michigan and New York. Most kept moving but some stopped and their singing suggested nesting but spruce cone crops are generally not large enough in most areas to support major nestings. The White-winged Crossbill specializes on the small soft cones of black and white spruces and hemlock when bumper in Ontario. This winter they should be widespread in small numbers in traditional areas such as Algonquin Park. However, spruce cone crops are generally low in most of Canada and as seed supplies are exhausted this fall and winter so a moderate southward irruption is probable, perhaps extending south into the central United States. Watch for them on ornamental spruces and European larch.

Pine Siskin: A conifer seed specialist in winter, most siskins should leave the province this fall because the spruce cone crop is poor in the boreal forest. It is uncertain whether the huge white pine seed crop will keep some siskins in central and northern Ontario this winter.

Boreal Owl: Small mammal populations have crashed across northern and central Ontario. In Quebec, Pascal Cote of Observatoire d'oiseaux de Tadoussac expects a flight of Boreal Owls this fall and winter following their 4 year cycle linked to red-backed voles. Southern Ontario may get Boreal Owls and other northern forest owls this winter.
There is lots more at the link.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Skywatch Friday

More Skywatch Friday posts.


Unlike Cooper's hawks, which maintain a fierce look, merlins strike me as sporting a very worried expression. This expression is due more to their plumage characteristics than anything else. However, the worried look does seem to match their high-strung disposition. This merlin was one of the few that did not start screaming the moment I brought it outside the blind and let me take a few photos before releasing it.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ike and Oil Spills

Hurricane Ike caused some oil spills in Texas, in this case not from drilling platforms or ships but from stationary tanks.

Darcey explained that there was probably little in the tanks for Ike to pillage, which is partly why they were wrecked. Full tanks are less likely to take the kind of beating these tanks took, having greater stability.

However, there was at least enough Texas crude in the tanks to make a mess on the water and plantlife around the operation. At this site, Darcey and Shuler saw evidence of about 10-15 gallons of the stuff.

There likely was more spilled than that, but they can only report what they see.

The response teams attempt to trace the spills to their source, so they can have owners shut off the pressure to those pipelines to stanch the bleeding.
A few miles away, across the Intercoastal Waterway, they found another site with evidence of as much as 150 gallons of crude....

Darcey explained that the salt water incursion will likely kill marsh plant life, but the oil makes it even harder for the area to recover, because once the water level drops the crude to ground level, it will sterilize the soil. The time it will take to recover will depend on the amount spilled and how long it takes to biodegrade.

The oil can also harm fish and waterfowl in the area, which is one of the more sensitive ecosystems in the region.
The damage reported in that article occurred around McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast.

I frequently hear or read the claim that offshore or coastal drilling is environmentally safe, even when hurricanes pass through. That claim simply is not true. Even well-designed and well-built human structures have trouble surviving strong storms intact.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

New Life Bird

In happier news, yesterday was a great day for finding migrants around Cape May. Well, it was not so great for seeing hawks, but there was a huge influx of everything else. Apparently some of the sites were packed with warblers. I visited the state park after work and found that quite a few warblers were still active. While I did not get the numbers that some people found (and missed a chance at a Cape May warbler), what I lacked in numbers I made up for in quality. I found a new life bird: a Connecticut warbler!

So now, the only eastern warblers that I have not seen are Kirtland's, Swainson's, and golden-winged. Of those, golden-winged is the only bothersome one, since the other two are really localized specialties.

At one of the banding sites, kestrels have been putting on quite a show, with up to a dozen in the field at once. However, they seem more interested in eating crickets and chasing each other around than flying into the nets, so we have only banded one so far.

Roadkill Sora

This immature sora would have been a life bird, had it been alive.

Of course, if it had been alive, I would not have seen it.

I found that sora on Sunset Boulevard in Cape May Point yesterday morning. There are marshes on either side of the road, and my guess is that it tried to walk or fly from one to the other when it got hit by a car. About 60 million birds are killed by automobiles per year. That is more than hunting or wind turbines, but less than window strikes.

One thing that impressed me about the sora, aside from the rich brown coloring of its back and wings, was the size of the bird. No wonder I have trouble finding a bird so small!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Yellow Garden Spider

This yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia) has been guarding its web next to the banding blind.

Top side

Bottom side

Monday, September 15, 2008

Common Green Darner

Yesterday few raptors were active around the banding site, so I spent some time looking at the invertebrates. This Common Green Darner (Anax junius) sat in the grass around the blind and let me approach close enough to take some photographs.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

About BirdPost

There have been a number of posts recently on other birding blogs about a new web service called BirdPost. It bills itself as a way for birders to keep track of their own sightings and find other people's sightings within a given area. It also provides social networking tools.

As a listkeeping application, it leaves a lot to be desired. It appears that sightings have to be added one by one via the web interface, with no checklist option. That means that if you see 50 species at a single location, each one needs to be entered individually. (A file upload option remedies some of those problems.) Sightings are also apparently not reviewed, meaning that the service's potential as a citizen science application is limited. It is also not clear whether one can keep any kind of list other than a lifelist (no year list? no state list?).

As a social networking application, it may have some potential. There does not seem to be much competition for social networking specifically geared towards birders. However, here too, Birdpost offers little more than the basic functions of creating profiles and "friends." It seems to lack many of the communication tools that make other social neworking sites so successful.

A word of warning: read the Terms of Service carefully before depending too much on Birdpost:


BirdPost™ reserves the right at any time and from time to time to modify or discontinue, temporarily or permanently, the Service (or any part thereof) with or without notice. You agree that BirdPost™ shall not be liable to you or to any third party for any modification, suspension or discontinuance of the Service. BirdPost™ reserves the right to convert its service or website or any portion of its service or website to a fee-based or subscription model, at any time, and without prior notice. BirdPost™ reserves the right to amend its pricing structure, at any time and without prior notice, as it sees fit.
That should give some reason for caution, especially as the site's owners apparently want to move to a $50/year subscription once there are enough users. (The reference is to a video on Techcrunch, which I cannot watch at present as my speakers are not connected.) Language in the TOS is also unclear about the ownership of user-generated content, and what Birdpost might choose to do with it. (Sell it to advertisers?)

There are already two good internet listkeeping services: eBird and Birdstack. EBird provides birders with a simple portal to contribute their sightings for bird conservation via the Avian Knowledge Network and Global Biodiversity Information Facility. It is a true citizen science service, and its developers are constantly improving the site's listkeeping tools. Birdstack is a flexible listkeeping service with a worldwide scope. It allows users to define their own lists and share them with other users. It also provides gadgets for adding those lists to other websites, such as blogs. While Birdstack is not itself a citizen science application, data entered there can be exported into spreadsheets that one can upload to eBird, without further modification. Like Mike McDowell, I am not sure that Birdpost offers anything significantly better than those two services. My hope is that one of those services would eventually add the social media aspects of Birdpost, while maintaining their already-superior listkeeping applications.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Lighthouse and Moon

A Coop and a Sharpie

One of the many field marks that one can use to differentiate immature sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks is the pattern of breast streaking. Cooper's hawks generally have crisp, teardrop-shaped streaks, with a clear differentiation between dark and light areas, so that the overall effect is of a light-colored underside. Sharp-shinned hawks tend to be more mottled with less distinct streaks, so that the overall effect is of brownish underside.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Cooper's Hawk

Of course, this characteristic should not be used in isolation since individuals vary a good deal. Still, it is a useful identification point in combination with tail shape, wing shape, flight pattern, head shape, or leg size.

How dare you put a band on me!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Another Oil Slick and More Dead Ducks

A leaking oil well killed 300-500 ducks and songbirds in Alberta this week. The oil well was no longer being used for production but had not been dismantled. The oil leaked into a field and created a slick that probably appeared like a pond to some of the birds.

The oil slowly leaked out of the well-site, over a period of "days or weeks," Zahary said.

It's unclear how the "extremely unusual" leak occurred, though it's thought to be caused by the plug shifting out of place....

In the past several years, the Canadian Forces have expressed concern about the oil and gas industry's practices at Suffield.

Internal documents that surfaced last year found the military had a long list of worries including soil contamination, abandoned and spilled materials, significant disturbances of lease sites and disregard for at-risk species.

Tuesday a military spokeswoman would not comment on the issue.

But Cliff Wallis, vice-president of the Alberta Wilderness Association, agrees that neither the federal nor provincial governments are taking responsibility for weak regulatory and inspection regimes at Suffield.

"They expect industry to look after themselves," Wallis said. "This is a particularly bad example.

"It just shows industrial development does have impacts."

At the Alberta government, Sheremata said there are 10,500 operated, abandoned and suspended oil and gas wells at Suffield. The leak has not interrupted any base operations, he said.
This is at least the second such incident in Alberta this year; in April hundreds of ducks died in a Syncrude tailings pond.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


To get the blog's theme back to birds, here is an American kestrel that we caught and banded yesterday. It is a hatch year male. It's age is evident from the back barring that runs all the way up its back and the black streaking on its white breast (not visible in this photo).

There were quite a lot of kestrels passing through yesterday.

No Way to Run a Government

It has long been apparent that many members of the Bush administration have been figuratively in bed with the oil industry. The administration has long resisted acknowledging the threat of climate change. They have tried to open the Arctic NWR to drilling repeatedly. Most recently, Dick Cheney's potential successor is trying to reverse the polar bear's listing as an endangered species in order to drill as much as possible. In addition, there has been widespread interference with government scientific findings and corruption in the Interior Department.

What we did not know is that some members are literally in bed with the oil industry.

In one of the new reports, investigators conclude that a key supervisor at the agency’s minerals revenue management office worked together with two aides to steer a lucrative consulting contract to one of the aides after he retired, violating competitive procurement rules.

Two other reports focus on “a culture of substance abuse and promiscuity” and unethical behavior in the service’s royalty-in-kind program. That part of the agency collects about $4 billion a year in the form of oil and gas rather than cash royalties.

Modeled on a private-sector energy company, the decade-old royalty-in-kind program transports, processes and resells the oil and gas on the open market. But while its officials interact with energy company executives, they are subject to government ethics rules, such as restrictions on taking gifts from sources with whom they conduct official business.

One of the reports says that the officials viewed themselves as exempt from those limits, indulging themselves in the expense-account-fueled world of oil and gas executives.

In addition, the report alleges that eight royalty-program officials accepted gifts from energy companies whose value exceeded limits set by ethics rules — including golf, ski and paintball outings; meals and drinks; and tickets to a Toby Keith concert, a Houston Texans football game and a Colorado Rockies baseball game.

The investigation also concluded that several of the officials “frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.”

The investigation separately found that the program’s manager mixed official and personal business, and took money from a technical services firm in exchange for urging oil companies to hire the firm. In sometimes lurid detail, the report accuses him of having intimate relations with two subordinates, one of whom regularly sold him cocaine.
With officials behaving in this manner, it is no wonder that the administration has acted so favorably towards oil and gas interests.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Fees for Birding

In an unusual move, Arizona is now charging more to visit state lands for hiking, birding, or other forms of passive recreation than for hunting or fishing. Annual permits for passive recreation now cost $50 for an individual or $75 for a family. For hunting or fishing, one need only pay the cost of a state license ($32.25 for hunting or $23.50 for fishing). The fee increases came in response to steep budget cuts from the state legislature. The justification for the disparity seems rather odd.

Hogue acknowledged that the new fee structure does, in fact, make it cheaper to hunt on state land than it does to simply take a hike. But she said it made no sense to make those who already have bought a license from the state Game and Fish Department to purchase a separate permit to use state lands.

Anyway, she said, her agency doesn't see hunters and anglers as costing the state any money. "It's assumed that the hunting and fishing activity is incidental use," Hogue said. "In other words, they're coming onto the land only for one specific propose which is hunting and fishing which would not impact or necessarily mean the same as other, more intense uses."


"While you're hiking in it, you may be there for more hours," Hogue responded. And she said officers from Game and Fish are the ones responsible for monitoring the hunting and fishing activities.

Hogue said would-be hikers, birders and photographers can't escape the more-expensive recreational permits fees simply by purchasing one of the less-expensive hunting or fishing licenses. She said those who rely on the Game and Fish Department licenses actually have to be hunting or fishing.
I am not sure what conditions exist in Arizona. In New Jersey at least, supporting hunting and fishing activities requires fairly active management – keeping deer herds healthy, monitoring gamebird populations, rescuing trapped or injured hunters, breeding fish and stocking streams – and so those are more than just incidental activities. Perhaps in Arizona they require less support. Even so, it is hard to imagine an activity like hiking or bird watching costing significantly more to support than hunting and fishing. (Mountain biking and ORVs are a different story.)

There is something to be said for birders contributing to land conservation, either through purchase of duck stamps (or an equivalent) or paying use fees. However, those should be in line with existing licenses for hunting or fishing, and not so steep as to discourage lower-income participants. Birders and hikers should not be responsible for solving a state's budget problems.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Recent Sightings

Yesterday proved to be an excellent migration day. I saw several species that were new for the fall, including palm warbler and pine warbler. At our banding blind, we caught ten raptors, which was the highest daily total at a single blind so far. Meanwhile the CMBO's Morning Flight project counted over 4,000 birds flying past their lookout. It actually started to feel like fall migration was really on.

A few people saw and photographed a magnificent frigatebird in Cape May Point yesterday. This appears to have been a straggler from TS Hanna. Unfortunately I did not find out about it until it was too late to look for it.

Today things were much slower. I saw very few migrants, and we only caught two raptors. Even the resident bird activity seemed a bit slow.

Flightless Birds Not Closely Related

According to a new study, large flightless birds (ratites) are not closely related but instead evolved independently of each other. This study grew out of the large scale Tree of Life project to understand bird evolution through DNA. The sequenced genetic material for that project indicated that many flightless species seemed more closely related to flighted species than to each other. The current study delves into those relationships in more detail.

Scientists assumed that a single flightless common ancestor of the ratites lived on the supercontinent of Gondwana, which slowly broke up into Africa, South America, Australia and New Zealand; once divided, the ancestor species evolved slightly in each new location to produce the differences among the present-day ratites, Braun said.

But in light of this new information, he said it's more likely that the ratites' ancestors distributed themselves among the southern continents after the breakup of Gondwana, which began about 167 million years ago, in a much more obvious way.

They flew.
The current study does not answer why these birds each evolved flightless features.

Monday, September 08, 2008

An Unusual Bird

On Saturday night before nightfall I ventured out one last time to look for any storm birds. I stood on an observation platform atop a dune and scanned the sky while the wind made my binoculars dance. As I watched, I saw a strange avian form drift sideways past me. It was about the size of a medium tern or small gull, with pointed wings and forked tail, and (as far as I could tell) an all-dark upperside. I did not get a look at its underside, and the bird disappeared into the gloom very quickly. The only bird I can find that fits that description is a juvenile sooty tern, a species spotted elsewhere around the Cape yesterday and this morning.

It looks like sooty tern is my second life bird of the fall.

I mentioned in another email that I would be working with raptors while here in Cape May. Yesterday as part of my training, I got to hold and release a few raptors - a kestrel, a Cooper's hawk, and a red-tailed hawk. Once raptor migration picks up I will be doing raptor banding demos and releases near the hawk watch. I will post more details on that in a week or two.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Meal Meme

I picked this up from Snail's Eye View via Hawk Owl's Nest. As you can see, my cuisine is not all that adventurous. I am sure there are some more things on this list that I would not touch, but that I do not recognize.

Nettle tea
Huevos rancheros
Steak tartare
Black pudding
Cheese fondue
Baba ghanoush
PB&J sandwich
Aloo gobi (well, probably)
Hot dog from a street cart
Black truffle
Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
Steamed pork buns
Pistachio ice cream
Heirloom tomatoes
Fresh wild berries (yum, fresh wild blueberries and beach plums - typical Jersey fruits)
Foie gras (for good reason)
Rice and beans (a key part of the Oliver Twist Diet)
Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
Dulce de leche
Bagna cauda
Wasabi peas
Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
Salted lassi (I have only tried sweet and mango lassi)
Root beer float
Cognac with a fat cigar
Clotted cream tea
Vodka jelly/Jell-O
Curried goat
Whole insects
Goat's milk (only as cheese)
Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
Chicken tikka masala
Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
Sea urchin
Prickly pear
Paneer (yum)
McDonald's Big Mac Meal
Dirty gin martini
Beer above 8% (not sure; possibly)
Carob chips
Frogs' legs
Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
Fried plantain
Chitterlings or andouillette
Caviar and blini
Louche absinthe
Gjetost or brunost
Hostess Fruit Pie
Lapsang souchong
Tom yum
Eggs Benedict
Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant
Kobe beef
Flowers (only as tea)
Criollo chocolate
Soft shell crab
Rose harissa
Mole poblano
Bagel and lox
Lobster Thermidor
Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Storm Birds: Not Here Yet

This morning the rain stopped for a few hours, so I ventured out to see if Tropical Storm Hanna had blown ashore any unusual birds. Sadly the answer was no. The terns and shorebirds at Bunker Pond and along the beachfront were the same as the last few days. I did get some very nice looks at royal terns, however. 

A subsequent visit to the beach and state park during an afternoon lull turned up nothing new.

I have updated the full year and BIGBY lists as of this morning. I am including my fall sightings from Cape May in the latter since I am getting around entirely by foot and bicycle while here, even though I moved here by car.

Rival Duets

A study of rufous-and-white wrens (Thryophilus rufalbus) in Costa Rica has shown that male and female duets function as a way of warding off rivals that might encroach on their territory. The wrens were recorded with eight recording microphones hooked to a single laptop, so that the computer could track the birds' relative positions to each other while they sang.

"Your first impression after you hear the duet of a pair of tropical birds is one of great harmony and cooperation," said Daniel Mennill of the University of Windsor. "Their duets require coordination and synchronization, and my multi-microphone recordings confirm that birds do coordinate their activities by performing duets. But there is a darker side to duetting; tropical birds also perform duets in very aggressive contexts, and respond with special aggression to rival individuals of the same sex. Their voices are beautiful harmonies, but they're also aggressive audio warfare."

The researchers found that male and female wrens approach each other following duets and use them to play a version of the children's game Marco Polo. "One bird sings, listens for the song of its partner, and moves towards their partner after hearing a response," Mennill said.

In another set of experiments, Mennill used two loudspeakers to simulate the voices of a pair of duetting wrens and found that birds fight duets with more duets. As soon as the birds heard the duets of a rival pair, their singing rate "shot through the roof," he said, evidence that the melodies play an important role in aggressive territory defense.
This particular finding does not surprise me at all. When I listen to Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) performing, I often hear a male singing and a female trilling in one position while a male sings (and sometimes a female trills) from another direction. It has often struck me that they are probably cooperating in their territorial defense, so it is neat to see that type of behavior confirmed in other wrens by more sophisticated methods.

You may have heard the name of the lead researcher before; he is part of the team looking for ivory-billed woodpeckers in the Florida panhandle. Birder's World posted an interview with him about his research in Costa Rica and Florida on their blog.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Canada Creates New Arctic Wilderness Preserves

Canada is setting aside three parts of Baffin Island as National Wildlife Areas. The areas include two Important Bird Areas at Qaqulluit (Cape Searle) and Akpait (Reid Bay), and another site at Niginganiq (Isabella Bay).

The Niginganiq (nee geen ga nik) National Wildlife Area protects key bowhead whale habitat, and the Akpait (ak pa eet) and Qaqulluit (ka koo loo eet) National Wildlife Areas near Broughton Island are inhabited by seabirds including one of Canada's largest colonies of thick-billed murres and Canada's largest colony of northern fulmars.

These areas also are inhabited by walruses, seals and polar bears.
This sounds like very good news for breeding seabirds.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

New Lifer

This evening as I walked around the state park I saw a juvenile Baird's sandpiper in Bunker Pond. It was fairly close to the hawk watch, in easy binocular viewing range. In the evening sunlight, the brown of its head and neck seemed especially warm. It was my first life bird since moving to Cape May.

The Baird's sandpiper was surrounded by least sandpipers, so it was easy to judge the relative sizes. Other birds in the pond included many lesser yellowlegs, one of which I tried (unsuccessfully) to turn into a stilt sandpiper, and the large flocks of black skimmers and black terns that have been loafing on the sandbars for the last few days.

Elsewhere in the park I saw a Philadelphia vireo, a bird I see very rarely. There have also been good numbers of prairie warblers at the state park the last two days.

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #83 is online at Wrenaissance Reflections.

The Strange Genitals of Waterfowl

I originally wrote this in May 2007. Since mallard necrophilia is a recurring theme in the blogosphere, partly due to the paper's citation as improbable research, there seems to be sufficient interest in mallard sexuality to bring this post back.

Just in time for avian breeding season, PLoS ONE published an interesting article on the evolution of avian genitals. While the males of most bird species lack phalluses, some waterfowl have extremely complex organs. The most complex genitals are owned by members of the genera Anas, Clangula, and Oxytura. Some males have an extraordinarily long phallus (up to 40 cm), which twists counterclockwise and sometimes has spines along its length.

The research team led by Patricia Brennan found that female duck genitals varied to match those of males. When the male of waterfowl species has a long and complex phallus, the female of the species will have a long and complex vagina, but when males have short and simple genitals, females will also. However, unlike phalluses, vaginas spiral clockwise rather than counterclockwise. Some vaginas have pouches that form dead ends for sperm.

(A) Harlequin duck (Histrionicus histrionicus) and (B) African goose (Anser cygnoides), two species with a short phallus and no forced copulations, in which females have simple vaginas as in Fig 1a. (C) Long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis), and (D) Mallard Anas platyrhynchos two species with a long phallus and high levels of forced copulations, in which females have very elaborate vaginas (size bars = 2 cm). ] = Phallus, * = Testis, ★ = Muscular base of the male phallus, ▹ = upper and lower limits of the vagina. [Source; click for larger image]
Mating among waterfowl sometimes becomes violent. Mallards especially are known for incidents of forced copulation (see here and here). Some have even been known to engage in necrophilia. Forced copulation threatens to negate the careful mate selection that a female has made in the process of pair bonding. The authors of this paper suggest that waterfowl vaginas evolved to become more complex to give a female greater control over which male fertilizes her eggs. By catching the sperm of an aggressor in a pouch and later expelling it, a female can ensure fertilization only by her chosen mate.

As Carl Zimmer notes, apparently no one who observed the genitals of male waterfowl had thought to examine the corresponding female structure. This paper suggests that the evolution of complex genitals may be spurred by a female's defenses and not by competition among males.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

FCC Creating New Cell Tower Rules

The cell phone industry is trying to influence how the FCC handles environmental assessments for new cell phone towers.

Crown argues that, since the court stipulated that these transmitters may have had a "significant environmental impact," the FCC should ask for an environment assessment only on those towers that might pose a "significant" problem. The Commission therefore should confer with the Fish and Wildlife Service, antenna operators, and environmental groups to set up a "nationwide programming agreement establishing by consensus the criteria that must be present" to trigger an environmental assessment.

This proposal will probably meet with at least some sympathy from environmentalists, more so than Crown's second recommendation, which suggests that environmentally related notices of proposed new towers should be published in a local newspaper rather than on the FCC's web site....

Finally, Crown wants a shorter period of review for these assessments: no more than 21 days for the FCC to conclude that a new tower application will need an assessment, and no more than 30 days for public comment on the Commission's assessment of the tower.
The last suggestion ought to be out of the question; the public needs adequate time to comment on these decisions, and local organizations need time to decide whether to comment and what to say. The first, also, should not be part of the final procedure, since the point of doing an assessment is to determine the risk level. Apart from consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service's biologists, I am not sure how the FCC could determine whether to do an assessment. I could see arguments for the second, but on the whole, it is better to stick with whatever procedure the FCC uses for other public announcements.

Of course, whatever procedure the FCC produces might be moot if the new NEPA and ESA regulations become established practice.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Hawk Watch

Yesterday I spent the morning over at the CMBO's hawk watch, which officially started this weekend. Relatively few raptors were moving. The most numerous migrants were kestrels and sharp-shinned hawks. A single Cooper's hawk appeared far away. A few osprey were headed south, in addition to the local ones. A third-year bald eagle made its way around the point from the bay side to the ocean side. More dramatic was a merlin that appeared near eye level from behind the platform and dove after the flocks of shorebirds in the pond. (It missed, several times.)

Raptor appearances, however, were few and far between, so most of the people on the platform spent more time looking at the pond than at the sky. (The one exception, of course, was the official counter.) There were many herons, mostly great and snowy egrets. The more common ones were joined by immature little blue herons, glossy ibises, and a tricolored heron. A sandbar held a large flock of terns, including about 30 black skimmers, many Forster's terns, and several black terns. A lot of shorebirds were present as well. I noted great and lesser yellowlegs and a lot of peeps that were too distant for me. One person called out a white-rumped sandpiper, but I did not get an identifiable look at it.

My job is about to get a lot busier, so I am not sure how much more time I can spend birding – at the hawk watch or otherwise. When I do, I will post it here.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Palin and the Polar Bears

Kate Sheppard at Grist has a lengthy (and link-laden) summary of Sarah Palin's environmental record. The upshot is that Palin is to the right of McCain on drilling and climate change, and she has the potential to drag the ticket to the right. Or, perhaps her nomination is a signal to conservatives that he is willing to reconsider his more moderate public stances.

I am skeptical of claims that she is a maverick on oil issues. Those claims seem to be based on three particular incidents, in one of which her family's fishing business could have been threatened by oil industry actions. In the other two, she seems to have been simply raising state revenues. Other than those incidents, she seems to be an industry promoter. She even denies anthropogenic climate change while acknowledging that climate change is occurring to protect the industry in the short term.

Her record on wildlife protection is not good, either. One incident that Sheppard mentions concerned the federal listing of polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The state's wildlife biologists disagreed with one of Palin's public claims about polar bears:

The state's in-house dispute seems to refute later statements by Gov. Sarah Palin that a "comprehensive review" of the federal science by state wildlife officials found no reason to support an endangered-species listing for the northern bears. The governor invoked the state's own scientific work both in a cover letter to the state's official polar bear comments, and in an opinion piece published in the New York Times....

But the state did release, among nondescript cover- e-mails discussing deadlines and the state's scientific credibility, an Oct. 9 e-mail from Robert Small, head of the marine mammals program for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Small named two other marine mammal biologists on staff and said the three of them had reviewed the nine new polar bear studies that the federal government was citing to justify a threatened-species listing for the bears.

"Overall, we believe that the methods and analytical approaches used to examine the currently available information supports the primary conclusions and inferences stated in these 9 reports," Small wrote.
It sounds a bit like another administration that we know well.