Friday, October 31, 2008

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #87 is available for browsing at Ecobirder. Bring your (birdy) Halloween costumes.

Also, I will probably not be posting over the weekend, but I will resume regular updates on Monday or Tuesday.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Second-Year Sharpies

Most of the adult hawks banded at Cape May cannot be assigned a precise age. Instead, they get the designation "after hatch year" or (more rarely) "after second year." In a few cases, there is sufficient evidence to determine that a hawk is in its second year. In sharp-shinned hawks, a second-year bird will have mostly adult feathers with some hatch-year feathers remaining.

The sharp-shinned hawk below, banded last week, has some of its hatch-year feathers among its wing coverts.

This sharp-shinned hawk, banded yesterday, has several hatch-year feathers in its tail. In addition, it had a few older feathers in its secondaries.

Yesterday's sharpie also had the reddest eye and most orange neck I have seen so far.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Phillies Win!

Congratulations to the Phillies! I was alive for their first World Series win, but too young to remember it.

(Bird posts to return in the morning.)

Mute Swans Declining in New Jersey?

Apparently there are fewer mute swans in New Jersey this year.

Now, there is evidence mute swan populations in New Jersey may be on the decline for the first time since feral colonies took hold after captive birds were released on Long Island around 1912. Air and ground surveys from July to September revealed 34 percent fewer mute swans where previous surveys since 1986 showed large population increases.

Summer molting locations where 1,890 birds were counted in 2005, showed 1,253 birds this year. Deliberate eradication efforts to the south may be the reason.

"It's a lot easier to control something you don't see a lot and that is not as attractive," Nichols said. "But if you're interested in having an ecologically balanced community of waterfowl ... having fewer mute swans would be an ultimate goal."

Dozens of mute swans are killed in New Jersey annually to test for avian influenza, particularly the highly pathogenic, H5N1 strain linked to human illnesses abroad. But experts contend the swan's local decline is more likely linked to eradication efforts across the Delaware Bay in Maryland, specifically the ecologically sensitive Chesapeake Bay region.
While I can appreciate mute swans' beauty, we could stand to have fewer of them. The swans eat too much aquatic vegetation that native waterfowl need to survive. Many native species, such as black ducks and canvasbacks, have been in decline in their mid-Atlantic wintering areas for years due to a reduction in food sources. While there are clearly other factors at work as well, mute swans are a large part of the problem.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Cape May Notes

Today we were hit by a surprise storm, part of the same system that produced the fifth measurable October snowstorm since 1894 in central New Jersey. The heavy wind and rain shut down banding for the day. If anything, the wind today was stronger than on Saturday, with gusts up to 50 mph. Occasionally the house shakes and sways in the wind.

Out of curiosity, I walked outside once the rain had died down. The state park was deserted – counting both people and birds. (I hope that the counters did not have to go out there at all today.) Few birds were out on the beach, either. I saw two savannah sparrows sheltered in the dune line, a ring-billed gull that flew past sideways, and about thirty surf and black scoters huddled against the leeward side of a jetty. The sea was as roiled as I have seen it, with a high chop, globs of foam shooting over the jetty, and clouds of sand blowing down the beach. Since I was having trouble holding my binoculars steady, and sometimes even standing, I did not stay outside for long.

Song Sparrows Learning Songs

Most oscine passerines – that is, songbirds other than tyrant flycatchers – have to learn how to communicate with other members of their own species. Call notes, the collection of chips and seets used during flight or foraging, are instinctive. Songs, on the other hand, must be learned. While some of the process is understood, the learning process is still an active area for research.

Tutor choice intrigues Michael Beecher, who leads the research on song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) at the University of Washington. Males grow up to sing between six and 12 distinct songs. Beecher has tested various combinations of young song sparrows and possible mentors....

Young song sparrows move around more than he had expected, Templeton reported at the annual meeting of the Animal Behavior Society, held in August in Snowbird, Utah. Among the 15 young males he could track, each showed up in the territories of at least 20 adult males, making for exposure to some 200 songs.

For the young, eavesdropping is easy, Beecher says. He and his students used stuffed birds of various ages to mimic feathered bystanders hanging around adult male territories. Another grown-up male, albeit stuffed, elicited protests and attacks. But residents tolerated a (stuffed) teenager without a lot of fuss, sometimes flying off to do something more urgent before the researchers had clocked a full observation session.

Young males thus get a chance to watch territorial battles and check out neighborhoods where they could soon compete for their piece of real estate. The youngsters even seem attracted to the noisy conflicts of territorial grown-ups and fly closer as if eager to catch all the details.

Listening and learning songs from a variety of future neighbors could be good preparation for the rough-and-tumble music of the adult world. Seattle’s song sparrows don’t migrate, and males in the sedentary population have plenty of chances to get to know their rivals.

Males face off in territorial disputes by singing to each other, and Beecher has found that repeating a rival’s song back to him counts as a strong move. Learning a variety of the neighborhood songs could mean that a young male has his sassy comeback ready.
There is plenty more in that article, so read the rest.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Autumn Weekend Notes

This weekend was CMBO's Autumn Weekend, when birders from all over the country converge on Cape May for field trips, workshops, and talks from authors of bird books. Among the attendees for this year's conference were several bloggers – Laura, Susan, Delia, Sharon, Lynne, and Kathi, plus a blog reader and Jay from BirdJam. (Apologies to anyone I left out.) On Saturday night, I met the bloggers who attended the weekend activities over at the C-View (note: view of the sea not included) for dinner. I had a great time meeting people whose blogs I have been reading for years.

Unfortunately, my raptor demo had to be canceled on Saturday morning because of a lack of birds, and I only had one hawk (an AHY male Cooper's) for my Sunday demo, the last public demo that I will do this fall. So these demos may have been disappointing for Autumn Weekend participants. Anyone who stuck around the hawk watch a little longer on Sunday, however, got a special treat. Shortly after my regular demo ended, we banded a hatch year red-shouldered hawk, an uncommon species in Cape May, and I did an impromptu demo with that bird a little before noon.

After I released the red-shouldered hawk, a black-headed gull flew past the hawk watch platform, giving me a life bird.

This week looks like it ought to be very good for banding (and hawk watching). The forecast calls for strong northwest winds, chilly temperatures, and mostly sunny skies. Plus word is that there will be snow in New York and Pennsylvania. Maybe that will finally get the red-tails and goshawks moving.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Early Feathers for Display?

A recent fossil discovery indicates that the earliest dinosaur feathers, worn by Epidexipteryx hui of the Jurassic period, were for show rather than flight.

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

Like other avialans—birds and their closest dinosaur relatives—Epidexipteryx is a theropod, a group of two-legged animals that includes Tyrannosaurus rex.

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.

"This is very exciting indeed, since it gives us a window into a stage of avialan history just preceding the appearance of the classic 'first bird,'" Zhang said.

"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."
Unfortunately the article spends too much time playing up the "bizarre" nature of this dinosaur's anatomy, which does not sound bizarre at all. (Wow, a theropod with teeth?!? Who would have guessed?!?) It does quote at least one palaeontologist who thinks that feathers served to help Epidexipteryx run faster. I do not see these functions as necessarily being in opposition to each other, since feathers on modern birds often serve both functions. (Consider the case of a northern cardinal. Are its feathers for show, for flight, or for insulation?) In any case, it is an interesting find.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Report Rusty Blackbird Sightings

EBird wants to know if you see rusty blackbirds during their fall migration.

To address this information gap, eBird and the Rusty Blackbird Working Group are calling on birders for help. This fall, look for Rusty Blackbirds on their southward migration. The data collected will help identify important migration stopover locations and habitats for conservation and will help researchers examine whether long-term changes to key migration habitats are responsible for the species' decline.

If you find Rusty Blackbirds, please collect the following information, then submit your data to eBird, taking note of the following:

1. Date, time, location of the observations. Area, traveling and stationary counts are preferred. Be as precise as possible when mapping your location.

2. Rusty Blackbird flock size, including an estimate of number of males vs. females. Answer 'yes' to the question 'do you want to report age/sex or add species comments' at the top of the eBird checklist page.

3. General behavior: flying, feeding, loafing (day), roosting (dawn, dusk, night). Put these in the species comments field.

4. Habitat: agricultural field, scrub-shrub wetland, forested wetland, shores of rivers or creeks, shores of lakes or ponds. Put these in general checklist comments field.

5. If possible please submit a complete checklist of the birds you identified on your outing, and answer 'yes' to the 'are you reporting all the species you saw/heard' question on the eBird checklist page. This will give us an idea of what other birds were in the area, as well as whether or not Rusty Blackbirds were associating with other blackbirds species during migration.
Rusty blackbirds are in steep decline, the causes of which are unclear.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Continuing Endangered Species Farce

The Bush administration plans to read and address all 200,000 public comments on their Endangered Species Act revision in just 32 hours.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has called a team of 15 people to Washington this week to pore through letters and online comments about a proposal to exclude greenhouse gases and the advice of federal biologists from decisions about whether dams, power plants and other federal projects could harm species. That would be the biggest change in endangered species rules since 1986.

In an e-mail last week to Fish and Wildlife managers across the country, Bryan Arroyo, the head of the agency's endangered species program, said the team would work eight hours a day starting Tuesday to the close of business on Friday to sort through the comments. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's office, according to the e-mail, will be responsible for analyzing and responding to them....

At that rate, according to a committee aide's calculation, 6,250 comments would have to be reviewed every hour. That means that each member of the team would be reviewing at least seven comments each minute.

It usually takes months to review public comments on a proposed rule, and by law the government must respond before a rule becomes final....

How fast the rule is finished could determine how hard it is to undo.

A new administration could freeze any pending rules. But if the regulation is final before the next president takes office, reversing it would require going through the entire review and public comment period again -- a process that could take months and that sometimes has taken years.
I do not see how this could be considered a real review of the public comments.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A 7,000-Mile Journey

I have written before about the impressive migratory flights of bar-tailed godwits, which fly nonstop across the Pacific on their way south from Alaska to New Zealand. The results of that telemetry study have now been formally published. An interesting point is why they choose a nonstop overwater flight instead of following the coast of Asia.

As astounding as the feat is the fact that it represents a highly evolved solution to a problem, not a fluke or one-time occurrence.

The nonstop, over-water route is free of predators and substantially shorter than a hopscotching route down the eastern coast of Asia, which is the alternative. Landing and eating -- literally, refueling -- would expose the birds to disease and parasites when they are probably somewhat immune-suppressed. Refueling also would add weeks to the trip and itself take energy.

All in all, flying nonstop across most of the north-south span of the Pacific Ocean is the safest thing to do.

The death rate during the migration is unknown but presumably low, as the population of bar-tailed godwits, estimated at 100,000, has been stable and long-lasting.

"This system would not have perpetuated itself if mortality were a big problem," said Gill, whose study is being published today in Proceedings B, a journal of The Royal Society, in England.
A full report on the project will appear in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. More on the project, including maps and photos, is available from the USGS shorebird research page.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

End of Whooping Crane Reintroduction in Florida

The Fish and Wildlife Service will stop releasing new whooping cranes into a nonmigratory flock in Florida because the flock is unable to sustain itself.

The conclusion that Florida's introduced whooping crane flock probably wasn't going to make it was not a total surprise.

"The odds were never good," Stehn said, explaining there are inherent problems with introducing captive-reared birds into the wild.

"They're naive birds, raised in a very different environment than the one in which they find themselves," he said.

In the early days of the experiment, scientists quickly discovered the cranes didn't recognize predators such as bobcats as threats.

As a result, bobcats killed nine of the first 14 birds released in Florida, forcing biologists to come up with a method to teach the cranes to flee when bobcats approached.
For now, support for the migratory flocks in Texas and Florida will continue.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

No to King Eider, Yes to Turnstones

On Sunday afternoon someone reported a king eider in the vicinity of St. Peter's jetty in Cape May Point. Since that would be a life bird I ventured down to the beach yesterday evening to take a look. What I found were several large flocks of scoters. Unfortunately, a king eider was not among them.

On the bright side, I got some nice looks at ruddy turnstones, a bird I have not seen for several weeks, if not months. Turnstones and sanderling braved the crashing waves to forage among the rocks of the jetties between St. Peter's and St. Mary's. Many gulls lined the beach, including some late season laughing gulls. One may have been a lesser black-backed gull, but not all of its characteristics fit very well.

Elsewhere, I heard a red-breasted nuthatch yesterday.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Cape May Birds

Since my mother was in town for the weekend, I spent Sunday afternoon birding with her around Cape Island, once my banding duties were done for the morning. Higbee's Beach was fairly quiet in the afternoon. Many hawks passed overhead – mostly sharp-shinned but also a few Cooper's and a red-tailed. Songbirds were mostly sparse, but one of the big tower fields had loads of sparrows. I saw swamp sparrows most frequently, but a few song and white-throated sparrows were in the mix as well. And, of course, a fall bird walk like today's would not be complete without many yellow-rumped warblers.

After leaving Higbee's, we stopped at the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge (a.k.a., the South Cape May Meadows). As at Higbee's, the refuge was fairly quiet. The main attraction was the gathering of freshwater waterfowl near the lookout platform. Many species were represented, including green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, northern shoveler, black duck, gadwall, and the ubiquitous mallard. The bushes along Sunset Boulevard held a nice collection of sparrows. While swamp sparrows were still the dominant species, there was a bit more diversity here than at Higbee's. The flocks included song, savannah, white-throated, and white-crowned sparrows. There may have been more represented, but they were all moving too quickly to be certain. Raptors at the Meadows included a merlin and an adult female northern harrier.

In the evening, a stop at St. Peter's in Cape May Point turned up large flocks of black scoters and sanderling around the jetty. I also caught sight of a few dozen black skimmers rounding the point and heading up the bay. So skimmers are still here, even if I have not seen them in Bunker Pond for a month or more.

This weekend I had some of my best banding demos yet. For the Sunday morning demo, I had four Cooper's hawks - adult male and female, plus hatch year male and female - in addition to a sharp-shinned hawk and a red-tailed hawk. Saturday's demo had a similar variety. I am hoping that we have some good sets of birds for next weekend's demos.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Some Recent Hawk Photos

Cape May Morning

"The Rips"

The bird below is a hatch year Northern Harrier. You can see the rich colors of the bird's breast, which look even vivid in the hand than in the field. The facial discs, which aid the harrier's hearing, are also apparent.

Lately we have been banding more adult accipiters. The Cooper's Hawk below is mostly in adult plumage but appears to have a few hatch year feathers on its back. An adult's plumage is much more colorful than a juvenile's.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Many Migrants in Town

Thursday night was the first ideal night for migration in at least week, and migrants poured through. Yesterday morning, I spent about 20-30 minutes on the beach at Cape May Point to watch what was passing. Sharp-shinned hawks were already plentiful, flying just above the dune line. Yellow-rumped warblers were all over the bushes. (Up at Higbee's they counted over 11,000.) Several eastern meadowlarks passed overhead, along with various other songbirds that I failed to identify. Farther out near the mouth of the bay, there was a large gathering of northern gannets.

Oddly enough, we banded relatively few raptors despite the large overnight and early morning flight - only seven at the station where I was working. Starting around mid-morning, a heavy cloud cover seemed to shut off whatever movement had started. The strong wave of migration was still evident, however, in a first fall Baltimore oriole and a flock of blackpoll warblers that passed through the station, as well as greater than usual numbers of eastern phoebes and brown thrashers.

Friday, October 17, 2008

I and the Bird

Nate the Drinking Birder has this week's edition of I and the Bird.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Roads As Migratory Barriers

A few days ago, the New York Times covered some of the issues surrounding roads and animal migration.

There are some four million miles of roads affecting 20 percent of the country, and in the last 10 years the new field of road ecology has emerged to study the many impacts of roads, and how to mitigate the damage....

One of the first projects in this country to ameliorate the effect of roads was on Florida’s Alligator Alley on I-75. A series of 24 underpasses restored water flow to the Everglades and allowed wildlife to safely migrate. The changes reduced the mortality of Florida panthers — of which there were only around 50 — from 4 per year to 1.5.

Now, the number of ecologically sensitive road designs built or under way in the country is in the hundreds. In Amherst, Mass., salamanders emerge from hibernation in the mud on the first rainy night of April. “They come up and go screaming across the street to their breeding pond and have an orgy,” Dr. Forman said.

So many were being killed that locals stopped traffic on the night they emerged to let them cross safely. In 1987 engineers placed a tunnel under the road, with two fences to funnel the amphibians to the crossing.

The gold standard for wildlife-friendly roads is in Banff National Park in the mountains of western Canada. The country’s major highway, Trans-Canada 1, passes through the park, and with 25,000 vehicles per day, wildlife vehicle collisions were very frequent.

There are 24 crossings (all but two underpasses) and they have reduced collisions with ungulates by 96 percent and all large mammals by 80 percent.
The U.S. government is trying to integrate migration mitigation into road design, but there are so many miles of roads that it will take a long time to solve all of the issues. Apparently one problem is that once populations of a species are separated by a barrier like a road, they are less likely to intermix if the barrier is removed. For endangered or threatened species, that leads to potential long term problems with genetic diversity. For more common species, the problems are more mundane, as with this sora.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Protection for Mexican Wild Parrots

Mexico is banning the capture and trade of its wild parrots.

President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa has signed into law a bill to ban the capture and export of Mexican wild parrots. The bill, introduced one year ago by the Environment Commission of the Deputy Chamber, was passed in the Mexican Senate on 22 April, 2008 with near unanimous support (66 votes in favor, 0 votes against, and 1 abstention).

The bill was originally drafted after a presentation of the 2007 report "The Illegal Parrot Trade in Mexico: A Comprehensive Assessment" by Defenders of Wildlife and Teyeliz, A.C. The report revealed for the first time the volume of the illegal trade of parrots within Mexico. An estimated 65,000 -78,500 wild parrots and macaws are captured illegally each year, with more than 75 percent of the birds dying before ever reaching a purchaser. Approximately 50,000 to 60,000 parrots die this way each year in Mexico alone....

Mexico is home to 22 species of parrots and macaws, of which six are found nowhere else in the world. Approximately 90 percent of all parrots and macaws found in Mexico are in some category of risk. The latest Mexican classification (yet to be published) lists 11 species as endangered, five as threatened, four as requiring special protection, and two as unclassified.

Of course, a lot will depend on enforcement, but it is good news nonetheless.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Identifying Sources of Mercury

A group of researchers is working on a way to identify sources of environmental mercury, particularly methylmercury, by analyzing isotopes.

Mercury is a naturally occurring element, but some 2000 tons of it enter the environment each year from human-generated sources such as incinerators, chlorine-producing plants and coal-burning power plants. Mercury is deposited onto land or into water, where microorganisms convert some of it to methylmercury, a highly toxic form that builds up in fish and the animals that eat them. In wildlife, exposure to methylmercury can interfere with reproduction, growth, development and behavior and may even cause death....

For the past eight years, Blum and co-workers have been trying to develop a way of reading mercury fingerprints in coal and other sources of mercury. The hope was that they could then find those same fingerprints in soil and water bodies, much as a detective matches a suspect's fingerprints to those found at a crime scene, and use them to figure out exactly what the sources of mercury pollution are in certain areas....

The fingerprinting technique relies on a natural phenomenon called isotopic fractionation, in which different isotopes (atoms with different numbers of neutrons) of mercury react to form new compounds at slightly different rates. In one type of isotopic fractionation, mass-dependent fractionation (MDF), the differing rates depend on the masses of the isotopes. In mass-independent fractionation (MIF), the behavior of the isotopes depends not on their absolute masses but on whether their masses are odd or even. Combining mass-dependent and mass-independent isotope signals, the researchers created a powerful fingerprinting tool.

Previously, Blum and coworkers investigated the possibility of using the method to identify sources of mercury contamination in fish. The coal project was more challenging because of the difficulty of extracting and concentrating mercury from coal. The researchers developed a system that slowly burns the coal under controlled conditions in a series of furnaces and then traps the mercury that is released.
If those sources could be identified, then perhaps some contamination could be reduced. Environmental mercury is a pressing issue, primarily because of its threat to humans (who ingest it while eating fish). It also is a conservation issue for many bird species, especially wood thrushes, that absorb high levels of mercury and methylmercury through their diets.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Penguins Threatened by Climate Change

Even a global temperature increase of 2°C is likely to cause sharp declines in penguin colonies.

A new WWF report – 2°C is Too Much – shows that the colonies of 50 per cent of the iconic emperor penguins and 75 per cent of the Adélie penguins are under threat.

Climate change models forecast that a 2°C temperature rise above pre-industrial level could be a reality in less than 40 years, producing a strong reduction in the sea ice cover of the Southern Ocean which is an essential nesting and feeding ground for Emperor and Adélie penguins.

A reduction in the sea ice is also likely to have a knock-on effect on the abundance of krill, which is a vital food source for penguins....

A rise in global average temperatures of 2°C is widely regarded as a threshold level for unacceptable risks of dangerous climate change. Many recent climate models forecast likely temperatures rises in excess of this.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is pushing for a new international agreement to reduce greenhouse gases, to replace the Kyoto Protocol. That may well happen. I am afraid, though, that without a full commitment from the major greenhouse gas producing countries we will see many of these dire predictions happen.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Shade Coffee and Climate Change

Many environmentalists have been promoting shade-grown coffee as a way to protect important migratory bird habitat in Latin America. (Shade plantations, with their layered vegetative structure, have much higher bird diversity than sun plantations.) This growing arrangement, which is actually the traditional way of farming coffee, may also benefit coffee producers. Shade coffee plants appear to survive extreme weather events in much better condition than their sun-grown counterparts.

In the October edition of the journal BioScience, three U-M researchers say shade-growing also shields coffee plants during extreme weather events, such as droughts and severe storms. Climate models predict that extreme weather events will become increasingly common in the coming decades, as the levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide gas continue to mount.

The U-M scientists warn Latin American farmers of the risks tied to "coffee-intensification programs"---a package of technologies that includes the thinning of canopies and the use of high-yield coffee strains that grow best in direct sunlight---and urge them to consider the greener alternative: shade-grown coffee....

The livelihoods of more than 100 million people worldwide are tied to coffee production. In Latin America, most coffee farms lack irrigation---relying solely on rainwater---which makes them especially vulnerable to drought and heat waves.

Shade trees help dampen the effects of drought and heat waves by maintaining a cool, moist microclimate beneath the canopy. The optimal temperature range for growing common Arabica coffee is 64 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Shade trees also act as windbreaks during storms and help reduce runoff and erosion.
Another benefit is that shade coffee plants often have higher yields because more pollinators are available for fertilization.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

More Signs of Winter Bird Life

When I walked in the state park yesterday evening, I saw more evidence that the local bird population is shifting from summer to winter avifauna. A few days ago, I saw my first yellow-rumped warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, and golden-crowned kinglets of the season. Yesterday I added white-throated sparrow and dark-eyed junco to the winter bird tally. Shorebirds, terns, and egrets are mostly gone from Bunker Pond, and in their place are small flocks of dabbling ducks. Last night, there were green-winged teal, northern shovelers, American wigeon, and gadwall. In addition, the hawk watch reported a rough-legged hawk.

However, I also saw a house wren and a lingering blackpoll warbler, so the transition is not complete.

My sightings included swamp sparrows, a Lincoln's sparrow, and a white-crowned sparrow.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Biodiversity Loss Still on the Rise

The recently-published State of the World's Birds reports that biodiversity loss is increasing as quickly as ever.

State of the Worlds Birds highlights several indicators that help to measure progress towards the 2010 target. The Red List Index for birds, based on the number and status of threatened species, shows that bird species are slipping faster than ever towards extinction. Other measures, including the Wild Bird Index for Europe, highlight rapid erosion around the world in the populations of more common and widespread birds, including songbirds, birds of prey, waterbirds and many migrant species. Initial results from monitoring of key sites, the Important Bird Areas, shows that their condition continues to deteriorate, though, encouragingly, more conservation responses are being put in place.

“Overall, the rate of deterioration has been speeding up since our last global assessment in 2004,” says Alison Stattersfield. “The accelerating decline in relatively common and widespread birds is especially alarming and can be linked to ever-increasing pressures on natural habitats. Our data suggest that recent policy changes such as the drive towards producing biofuels are damaging biodiversity and seriously undermining efforts to meet the 2010 target.”
Birds are relatively easy to census and monitor over the long term. They also tend to sit near the tops of their respective food webs. That makes them good indicators for the overall health of the ecosystems they inhabit. If we are still losing birds at such an alarming rate, then presumably we are losing an even larger number of other species.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Miscellany: Carnivals and a Project

This afternoon I saw my first yellow-rumped warbler, golden-crowned kinglet, and ruby-crowned kinglet of the season. For me, the appearance of those species signals a shift towards the winter flocks that will be with us through April. Creepers and juncos cannot be far behind.

The Boneyard #24 is now up at The Other 95%.

Linnaeus' Legacy #12 is now up at Podblack Cat.

Project FeederWatch will be starting on November 8 and is looking for volunteers. FeederWatch participants watch their feeders for a period of time at least once a week and report the sightings back to CLO. The collective data from many participants is used to monitor winter migration and distribution of songbirds, as well as long-term population trends.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Bird Diversity and the West Nile Virus, Part 2

A few months ago, I wrote about a study that found that greater bird diversity reduces the chances of human infection with the West Nile Virus. Now a second article has reported the same finding with some of the same data (e.g., the Breeding Bird Survey) as well as some field work of their own.

Allan and numerous graduate students began the research five years ago as they just entered graduate school and the topic of West Nile Virus was just beginning to receive lots of attention and the ecology of the organism hadn't been studied much. They identified a variety of field sites, both urban and rural, with their base of operations at Washington University's Tyson Research Center, a facility 22 miles west of St. Louis comprised of 2,000 acres of woods, glades and prairie.

They performed bird surveys at the sites, put up a variety of mosquito traps and studied different mosquito species and their ability to transmit the virus. Using kits provided by the Center for Disease Control, they tested the mosquitoes and found three positive pools.

"The infection rates are actually remarkably low, with maybe one in 1,000 carrying WNV," Allan said....
According to the researchers, they found that diversity is important both in the number of species and their proportions to each other. It does little good to have ten species in an area if two or three predominate. The ones most likely to predominate, like grackles and robins, are also the most likely to carry West Nile Virus and spread it to humans via mosquitos.

Protection from disease is yet another reason to protect wildlife diversity.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Sparrow Influx

As I walked into one of the blind sites yesterday morning, I was met by flocks of sparrows. All around me there were dozens of swamp sparrows. They were joined by smaller numbers of savannah sparrows, song sparrows, and even a possible Lincoln's sparrow. Oddly enough, Morning Flight did not pick up a sparrow movement at all, which makes me wonder if these sparrows were new overnight arrivals, or ones that have been hanging around a few days longer. Whenever they arrived, I am glad they are here because I love sparrows, especially swamp sparrows. While cycling towards the site, I thought I heard a kinglet calling from the side of the road, but I passed too quickly for a sure ID.

Unfortunately my Cape May roadkill list has gotten longer in the last few days. Yesterday I added swamp sparrow, and the day before I found a northern parula.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Penguins Washing Ashore in Brazil

In the past year, Brazil has seen an unprecedented invasion of Magellanic penguins. The penguins have been washing up on the beaches by the thousands. When they arrive, they are starving and exhausted.

So far, the cause is unknown. The most obvious candidate is climate change, which can affect the circulation of ocean currents. Unfortunately, the effects of climate change on the oceans is not well understood.

"This is extreme, but we don't have statistics on the number of penguins and the ocean temperatures," said José Marengo, a climatologist at Brazil's National Institute for Space Research and a member of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Some of the most important uncertainties we have are on the oceanic currents."

There have been other unusual changes in the oceans off Brazil. In 2004, scientists recorded Catarina, the first-ever hurricane generated in the South Atlantic. But only in the last 10 to 15 years have satellites been gathering information on the eddies moving across the Atlantic, and there is not a firm scientific grasp of where and why currents such as the Falkland end, said Antonio Busalacchi, an oceanography and climate expert at the University of Maryland.

"Clearly we've been seeing changes in the ocean circulation in the Southern Hemisphere," he said. "The question for the future, and we don't have an answer yet, is how is that going to shift against the backdrop of climate change?"
For now, zoos and veterinarians are rehabilitating what penguins they can. Once penguins have recovered, they will be shipped south and sent back out to sea, so that they can find their way back to their normal territories. As long as the cause remains a mystery, however, there is a danger that this phenomenon could cease being an anomaly and become a trend.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Offshore Wind Power Comes to New Jersey

New Jersey has approved its first offshore wind farm, following the lead of similar projects in Delaware and Rhode Island.

The proposal by Garden State Offshore Energy includes the installation of 96 turbines to produce as much as 346 megawatts of electricity, enough to power tens of thousands of houses, starting in 2013. The turbines would be arranged in a rectangle about a half-mile long by one-third of a mile wide and would be placed 16 to 20 miles off the coast of New Jersey’s Atlantic and Ocean Counties, much farther out and in much deeper water than other proposed wind farms. Deepwater Wind, which will work with P.S.E.G. to build the wind farm, said it could affordably build turbines in 100 feet of water with the same technology used to build oil and gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and other places.

Because the wind blows more reliably during the day farther offshore, the company expects to be able to more readily tap into the higher prices available on the power market at peak times. And by putting the turbines so far out, the company hopes to blunt opposition from environmentalists and residents who say that turbines diminish ocean views and damage wildlife.

“People don’t have to choose between clean energy and a clear view,” said Nelson Garcez, a vice president of P.S.E.G. Global. Mr. Garcez said the deep-water turbines would produce enough power to help the company break even in about seven years.

The next step is for Garden State Offshore Energy to seek permits from state and federal agencies to build offshore. The company will also have to get commitments from manufacturers to build the turbines, which would be assembled in New Jersey and could potentially create hundreds of new jobs.
Here is a map with the planned wind farm site.

Offshore wind has a lot of potential for easing some of our electric supply and replacing dirtier forms of power generation. On the U.S. East Coast wind resources are far better off shore than on shore, even on mountain ridges. That means that future eastern wind projects are likely to gravitate towards the coast, assuming that this project succeeds and further permits are forthcoming.

A big concern for birders is how much this and other proposed wind farms will affect wildlife, principally birds but also marine mammals and other aquatic creatures. Little research is available to answer that question, but at least one study suggests that waterbirds can avoid the turbines. For migrating birds, it remains an open question. There is an ongoing project here in Cape May that conducts regular ship-based visual surveys of birds offshore. I hope that the data they collect will influence the precise siting of the farm and turbines.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Otters and Eagles

It turns out that changes in the Alaskan sea otter population are affecting the bald eagles that nest along the coasts. Otters, like eagles, are top predators and help maintain the ecosystems in which they reside.

In nearshore marine communities, towering kelp can reach heights of 250 feet and function much like trees in a forest, providing food, homes and protection for fish and invertebrates. The most important enemies of these giant algae are tiny sea urchins, only inches in diameter, which live on the kelp's holdfasts and eat its tissue. When urchin populations become too large, they can defoliate entire kelp forests, leaving only barren remains.

Enter the sea otter. Otters can eat the spiky urchins whole, making them the major urchin predator. The otters' presence keeps urchin populations in check and maintains the balance of the ecosystem.
So what happens when the otters disappear?
"All of the available data point to increased numbers of killer whales as the direct cause of the sea otter decline in southwest Alaska," says coauthor Jim Estes of the U.S.G.S. and the University of California at Santa Cruz. "The otter decline has caused a phase shift in the coastal ecosystem from a kelp dominated phase state to a deforested phase state."

This shift means many fewer kelp forest fish for the eagles to eat. In response, the eagles have adjusted their foraging tactics. Anthony and his colleagues surveyed remains of bald eagle prey in their nests during 1993 and 1994, when otters were abundant and the kelp forests were healthy, and in 2000, 2001 and 2002, when otters were scarce and the kelp forests had collapsed. They found that when otters were abundant, eagle prey consisted of predominantly kelp-forest fish and sea otter pups. When the otters were rare, however, the proportion of marine birds in the eagles' diet was much higher.
It would be interesting to know how much this change affects marine birds, all of which have their own sets of ecosystem interactions.

Friday, October 03, 2008

A Second Look for Marbled Murrelets

The Bush administration has announced that it will reconsider its previous decisions about protections for marbled murrelets in response to a timber industry lawsuit.

In a Federal Register filing obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity and scheduled for publication Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it will consider "the rangewide status of the species, and if necessary, the configuration and status of any distinct population segments."

Much of the previous maneuvering had to do with whether the birds in California, Oregon and Washington are a "distinct population segment," unlike murrelets in British Columbia and Alaska. The law protects such a distinct segment of an animal's population.

The Bush administration's previous finding said the Lower 48's birds did not qualify. But Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity noted that the Federal Register notice itself concludes the decision was "flawed."
It is hard to predict what decisions this review will produce, but since most of the work will be done after Bush leaves office, there may actually be an evidence-based decision instead of an ideological one. If so, it would be a change for the better, regardless of the outcome.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

I and the Bird

Go read I and the Bird #85 at 10,000 Birds.

Wind Farms and Open-Country Birds

According to a British study, wind farms do not pose a serious risk for open-country passerines.

"The message on farmland specifically is that, so far, the evidence we have gathered shows that there is little effect on farmland birds," explained co-author Mark Whittingham, from Newcastle University's School of Biology.

The team carried out surveys around two wind farms located in the East Anglian fens, recording almost 3,000 birds from 23 different species.

Their data showed that the presence of the turbines did not affect the distribution of seed-eating birds, corvids or skylarks.

"This is the first evidence suggesting that the present and future location of large numbers of wind turbines on European farmland is unlikely to have detrimental effects on farmland birds," said Dr Whittingham.
Unfortunately this study does not address the potential risks for raptors and possibly waterfowl. It also found some changes in the distribution of pheasants, suggesting that related species may also be affected. Another limitation is that the surveys were conducted during the winter months. Breeding surveys may show a different picture.

That said, surveys like this are still helpful since they help narrow down the list of species we need to worry about, especially if the result holds at other times of year.

For more about wind power in a different environment, see Nick's discussion and excerpts from the DEIS for the Cape Wind project between Cape Cod and Nantucket.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Kirtland's Warbler Population Continues to Grow

A census of breeding Kirtland's warblers turned up the highest count since 1951, with 1,791 singing males. It is not clear from the article whether that number includes the pairs in Wisconsin and Ontario, or just counts birds in Michigan. Despite the high numbers, the warbler species remains vulnerable because of its specialized habitat needs.

The singing male population has exceeded 1,000 for seven consecutive years. Scientists previously established five years as a key threshold for declaring the Kirtland's warbler recovered.

Even so, it's widely agreed the warbler cannot be removed from the federal endangered list for the foreseeable future because its peculiar habitat requirements make it unable to survive without human assistance.

It nests and breeds almost entirely in young jack pine stands of the type found in Michigan's northeastern Lower Peninsula, while spending winters in the Bahamas.

State and federal agencies use clearcutting and burning to remove older trees in the Michigan habitat zone. They plant or seed about 3,000 acres of jack pines each year on state and federal lands.
Habitat specialists like Kirtland's warbler are increasingly vulnerable as our landscape becomes more homogenized and humans encroach on formerly wild areas. Kirtland's warblers depend on jack pine trees between 16 and 20 years old for nesting. The trouble is that jack pine cones will only release seeds after fires, which also kill the older trees. Under wild conditions, fires will occur often enough (thanks to lightning strikes and the like) to maintain sufficient habitat for breeding warblers. However, when fire suppression is common, to protect either houses or potential lumber, available habitat will shrink rapidly, as it did in the 20th century. Thus we need constant intervention, in order to mitigate the side effects of other forms of intervention.