Friday, February 27, 2009

Blog Note: Comments

Unfortunately, it appears that the Haloscan commenting system is down. the problem started in the afternoon, and there has been no sign of a return this evening. If you wish to comment on a post, you can email me or leave a comment on FriendFeed.

If the problem persists I may switch to a different comment system.

Update (Sat. evening): The problem appears to be resolved.

Loose Feathers #176

Heerman's Gull / Photo by Lee Karney (USFWS)

Bird and birding news
  • A willet and a sanderling are setting lifespan records at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The willet was taken into captivity as an adult 21 years ago, and the sanderling is at least 22.
  • A report from Birds Australia found that native Australian bird populations are in decline due to recent severe droughts and habitat modification. Waterbirds and shorebirds have been hit especially hard. Full report here.
  • BirdScope explains why drinking shade rather than sun coffee is important, and how to tell if a coffee is sustainable.
  • Research suggests that carotenoids not only make birds brighter but also improve their color vision.
  • Fish and Wildlife officials destroyed an eagle nest at Martin State Airport in Maryland because it was deemed a hazard to aircraft. One egg was lost as a result of the nest removal; the egg will be tested for thickness and contaminants.
  • Climate change seems to be the leading culprit for the wave of deaths and injuries among brown pelicans in California.
  • One of the challenges facing conservationists is the "shifting baseline syndrome," in which people they are trying to persuade do not realize that the environment is changing around them.
Birds in the blogosphere
Environmental news
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Media Needs to Take Climate Change More Seriously

British climate scientists are faulting the media for inadequate climate change coverage:

Researchers found that the total number of articles on climate change printed over three years was fewer than one month’s worth of articles featuring health issues. The articles offered mixed messages about the seriousness and imminence of problems facing the environment.

Dr Gavin explains: “Our research suggests that the media is not treating these issues with the seriousness that scientists would say they deserve. The research company lpsos-MORI found that 50% of people think the jury is still out on the causes of global warming. The limited amount of media coverage - which tends to be restricted to the broadsheets - means that this statistic is unlikely to alter in the short-term.

“Climate change, therefore, may not be high enough on the media agenda to stimulate the sort of public concern that prompts concerted political action. The media may well continue to focus its attention on health, the economy or crime, thereby drawing public attention away from the issue of climate change."
That problem of inadequate coverage is compounded when relatively good climate change reporting has to share space with denialist or obstructionist tracts, such as John Tierney's nonsense in the NY Times Science section. I suppose it is fair to include multiple points of view regarding political solutions on an opinion page, but in its current placement – treated as a science column – it undermines the credibility of the paper's science reporting. (I do not mean to pick exclusively on the Times here; I have seen other papers do the similar things.) Treating the existence of climate change as a matter of opinion and failing to connect the dots between rising temperatures and natural disasters makes the worst-case scenarios far more likely.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Obama's Speech and the Environment

At least one point from last night's presidential address should be of interest to environmentalists. Obama called for climate change legislation that includes. The exact timing was not specified, but by "this Congress" he presumably means within the next two years, and probably this year given the difficulty in passing major legislation in an election year.

Thanks to our recovery plan, we will double this nation’s supply of renewable energy in the next three years. We have also made the largest investment in basic research funding in American history – an investment that will spur not only new discoveries in energy, but breakthroughs in medicine, science, and technology.

We will soon lay down thousands of miles of power lines that can carry new energy to cities and towns across this country. And we will put Americans to work making our homes and buildings more efficient so that we can save billions of dollars on our energy bills.

But to truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy. So I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America. And to support that innovation, we will invest fifteen billion dollars a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power; advanced biofuels, clean coal, and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America.
Unfortunately this includes support for "clean coal," which so far at least appears to be more of a marketing ploy than an actual energy source. (Not to mention that coal mining has all sorts of other deleterious effects.) If we are going to reduce our energy-related emissions, it is more likely to come from the other sources that Obama named – solar, wind, and energy efficiency. A strong climate bill could encourage a shift to cleaner energy and lower energy use.

One element of reducing greenhouse gas emissions that I felt was missing was any mention of a role for public transportation, particularly rail. (The latter was mentioned only in reference to the building of the first transcontinental railroad during the Civil War.) Since public transit generally uses less energy per passenger than automobiles to move the same number of people, expanding transit networks in appropriate areas could go a long way to meeting our climate goals.

I felt that overall the speech laid out a very ambitious agenda. If we get both a climate bill and universal healthcare this spring, this may well be the most efficient first year from a president and Congress in several decades.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Resting Gulls Watch Their Neighbors' Behavior

Gulls are so common that it can be easy to overlook them, except in the case of the occasional rarity. Yet they are fascinating creatures with complex social behaviors. A recent paper documents how groups of gulls watch for potential predators.

Within any given flock of gulls, we may see some birds standing with their eyes open, some eating, some sleeping, and others preening. The last three activities, of course, reduce any individual gull's ability to watch for potential danger. To remedy this, it appears that gulls engaged in one of those activities monitor what their neighbors are doing for cues.

The paper's author watched groups of Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed Gulls to observe how they changed their rest states in response to nearby gulls. While gulls slept, they opened an eye from time to time to see what their neighbors were doing. If the two nearest gulls were asleep, a gull would spend more time sleeping. On the other hand, having nearby gulls engaged in active scanning would lead a gull to scan for danger as well. The farther a gull was from its closest neighbors, the less likely it was to step and the more likely it was to scan. Gulls also spent less time sleeping when they were in larger flocks.

This may explain why flocks of gulls are so quick to depart once a few of their members depart. For a birder, this can be a frustrating behavior; possibly rare gulls are just as likely to leave as the common ones once a few spooked birds take flight. For the gulls it helps them avoid becoming a meal for potential predators.

Monday, February 23, 2009

More Maps

In response to my previous post on a new carbon emissions map, I received an email about another mapping site called Show USA. It has maps on a wide variety of subjects; states are scaled proportionately to how they rank on that topic. For example, here is the map of carbon dioxide emissions. Rolling a mouse over each state brings up a balloon showing its contribution to global warming.

The map below shows the numbers of bald eagle pairs in each state.

US Carbon Emissions Map

Purdue University has made available a map of carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels in the United States. The statistics are broken down by region (both state-level or county-level) and by emissions source. Data can also be viewed by absolute or per-capita emissions.

Here is some background on the map:

A science team led by researchers at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., integrated seven primary data sets, including imagery of Earth’s surface captured by the NASA-built Landsat 5 satellite, fossil-fuel carbon dioxide emissions data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy, and population data from the U.S. Census Bureau....

The new Vulcan maps assimilate fossil-fuel carbon dioxide emissions data that was previously available from disparate sources and in different formats into one comprehensive data product. The fine level of detail offers more accuracy for estimating the fossil fuel contribution to the global carbon budget, the balance of carbon absorbed by Earth and released into the atmosphere. The Vulcan data product provides new scientific opportunities to assess the relationship between fossil fuel emissions and climate in the atmosphere and to see what future variability and extremes may bring.
Displaying the map requires a Google Earth browser plugin, which is downloadable from the emissions website.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Binocular Bands

Via birdchaser comes this initiative in Maine:

For years bird bands have helped biologists understand migratory bird population trends and habitat needs. Now the Maine Birder Band is available as a tool for wildlife watchers of all stripes to support the non-game and endangered species conservation efforts of your Wildlife Department.

The Maine Birder Band can be proudly worn on your binocular strap to show your support for bird conservation. The number on each band will be registered to the buyer, and bands include a phone number where lost and recovered optics can be reported allowing us to notify the registered owner.

Just $20/year contribution supports Maine birds, bird habitat and birding access and earns you a Maine Birders Band.
There is no indication of how many birders have signed up for one, or might be likely to. However, it sounds like a creative way to raise additional money for underfunded refuges. I wonder if other states or organizations will follow their example.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


More feeder birds here.

Raptors at Griggstown

At Griggstown this morning the red-tailed hawks were putting on quite a show. The first time I saw one was shortly after arriving; it flew along the edge of a field just under a far treeline. Another was perched on another treeline, and yet one more was soaring on a thermal. Several more appeared during the two-hour walk, including at least one apparent pair. I had a difficult time figuring out how many were around. The most I saw at any one time was four, but there seemed to be others around, and at least one red-tail was a migrant, very high up.

The most active songbird flock was in the grove of spruces on the portion of the preserve closest to Canal Road. Several Carolina chickadees and a house finch were singing. Tufted titmice and white-breasted nuthatches flitted from tree to tree while chattering. They were joined briefly by a lone pine siskin. As much as I looked for them, no white-winged crossbills made an appearance. The spruces there have a moderate cone crop, so they may be worth checking again.

In addition to the other birds there was a flock of eastern bluebirds patrolling the parking lot.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Loose Feathers #175

Evermann's Rock Ptarmigan, Attu / Photo by Steve Ebbert (USFWS)

Bird and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environmental news
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Rare Species Sold As Food

This rare bird, a Worcester's buttonquail, was photographed at a poultry market in the Philippines before being sold as food. Prior to the photograph being taken, the species had not been seen for several decades and was presumed to be extinct.

Photograph by Arnel B. Telesforo

The incident is reminiscent of tales of American endangered and extinct species, such as this great moment in American conservation:
I had been spending the winter of I885-1886 in Florida, and during the month of March had made my Headquarters at the home of my friend, Mr. E.G. Smith, on Big Lake George. One of my favorite trips was up Juniper Creek, a small stream emptying into the head of the lake one mile west of the famous Volusia bar; the country through which it passes is one of those wild, semi-tropical swamps, so common throughout the Gulf States. Anhingas (Anhinga anhinga), Little Blue Herons (Ardea cœrulea), Egrets (A. egretta) and Limpkins (Aramus giganteus) were by no means uncommon, and it was in search of these that Mr. Smith and I took a boat on March 26 and started for this locality. We took with us as oarsman 'Jim' (one of the help on the place), who had done considerable collecting for me, and in whose accuracy as a marksman I had some confidence. We had gone perhaps a mile up the stream when a new and peculiar note sounded from the forest, which I can only liken as do other writers to the false high note of a clarionet; hastily landing I immediately went in search of its author (as I had not the faintest idea from what source it proceeded), but owing to the thickness of the underbrush it was next to impossible to penetrate farther than a few yards and, the noise ceasing entirely, I returned and we continued up the stream. Noon found us eating our lunch on a small knoll some four miles from the lake in the very thickest of the swamp. Around us stood gigantic cypress trees whose trunks and branches were adorned with thousands of air plants, and from which the myriads of vines which twined and twisted, and the gray Spanish moss hanging in long festoons, cast a gloom and solemnity hard to realize by one who has never seen it, yet lending a certain grandeur that the student of nature is not slow to appreciate. Scattered through the swamp and giving a tropical air to the whole were countless palmettoes (Sabal palmetto) towering to a height of seventy-five or a hundred feet, and it was in a little clump of these that we were taking our nooning. Suddenly that strange note sounded once, twice, three times,—approaching nearer with each repetition. It sounded exactly like the note of the White-bellied Nuthatch, only much louder and stronger, and grasping my gun, I remarked that I was going to kill the biggest Nuthatch on record. Hardly had the words left my lips when, with a bound and a cackle, a magnificent male Ivory-bill alighted in the trees directly over our heads; for a moment I was too astonished to speak, but in that moment it was joined by its mate, and the two began hammering away at the palmetto trunks. It was impossible for me to shoot without changing my position, while to move would be to alarm the birds; Jim saw my dilemma and whispered that he could kill them from where he sat, so passing him the gun I watched him take aim. He fired but missed, and the Woodpeckers bounded away into the thickest part of the swamp; hastily snatching the gun I started in pursuit, but failed to find them. Day after day I returned to the same locality in hope of securing them, but without success, and on April 7 I was obliged to leave for home without adding this much coveted species to my collection.
The author, Edwin M. Hasbrouck was writing in The Auk in April 1891, when the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was already known to be in serious decline. In fact, the author acknowledges this. His article survey evidence for the species's range at the time, in response to fears that it and the Carolina Parakeet might follow the Labrador Duck and Great Auk into oblivion. While some of the reports are strictly visual observations, most seem to be from specimen collecting activity, by people who probably should have known better.

Hasbrouck's prognosis for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker seems hopelessly optimistic, given the benefit of hindsight:
It will be seen from the foregoing, that in many instances the accounts are modified with the statement that the species is extremely rare as compared with past years, or else has disappeared from the localities entirely. Probably this is not altogether owing to the actual decrease in the numbers of the birds, but to its extreme wildness and desire for seclusion.... There are thousands of square miles of swamp throughout the Mississippi Valley and Gulf States that never will or can be reclaimed or settled, country that is admirably suited to this bird, and in which, as I have shown, it is much more common today than elsewhere; and here, it is safe to say, it will be found indefinitely; for, into those swampy fastnesses in which it most delights, few care to penetrate, at certain seasons none dare; and as but few are killed, and each pair in existence today will presumably raise its brood the coming spring and together with them repeat the multiplication each successive year,—it is reasonable to assume that the species will be found there many years hence.
The cavalier attitude that leads to killing to extremely rare species is not unique to the Philippines.

Update: See also this post on the buttonquail incident from Beginning to Bird.

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #94 is now available at The Birder's Report.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Conan Goes Birding

This video aired on Late Night last evening, though apparently it is several years old. Pretty funny, though the producers mismatched woodpecker species. Somehow they ended up with a more appropriate image in the process.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

GBBC Wrap-Up

I just submitted my final checklist, containing observations from yesterday, to the Great Backyard Bird Count. The submission form will remain public through the end of the month, so if any readers have bird counts they would like to submit, there is still time to add them.

It looks like my town will finish with 52 species. That's pretty diverse for a 1.8-square-mile town in the middle of winter. The number also excludes some obvious misses. (Where were the Double-crested Cormorants and Belted Kingfishers that we saw on the Christmas Bird Count?)

As for my reviewing assignment, DC finished the weekend with 72 species, including one that I have not seen in the District, White-winged Scoter. As of now, 47 checklists have been submitted, bringing participation in line with previous years.

Monday, February 16, 2009

GBBC Day 3

Yesterday I continued birding around my town to see if I could find any additional species for the Great Backyard Bird Count. The feeders at home had mostly the same species as the past two days, with the highlight being a trio of Pine Siskins on the thistle feeder in the morning.

In the early afternoon I walked around the local park to see what was there. I saw very few Canada Geese, but the local Mallards were still around, including one very manky-looking one that must have some domesticated ancestry. As I was combing through a large flock of House Finches and I happened to look up and saw two very high adult Red-tailed Hawks, both with the wings set and heading due NW. They passed over so high and so quickly that I have to think that these were migrants rather than a local pair. For the rest of my walk, I scoured up some more passerines – nothing unusual, just the standard local ones. The very last species of the walk was a Peregrine Falcon, presumably the local one that hangs out at the bridge.

In the evening, I took a stroll around my neighborhood to see if I could hear any owls, especially the local Great Horned pair. Owls tend to be undercounted on citizen science surveys; this year in New Jersey, Eastern Screech Owl appears on only four checklists and Great Horned Owl on only seven, with one Long-eared and one Short-eared. There must be more findable owls than that in the state. Unfortunately last night I heard no owls along my walking route.

If you have time today, watch some birds and submit a checklist – especially if you have not yet submitted one for this year's count. It's easy, and a great excuse to do some birding for a good cause.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

GBBC Update

We are now about halfway through the 2009 Great Backyard Bird Count. Rob says that submissions now match last year's, after there was some worry that this year's count was falling behind last year's pace. (He also presents some dubious evidence for Obama being a birder.) We will not really know until the weekend is over, of course.

It looks like DC is going give me more review work than in previous years, even though submissions seem to be down a bit. So far DC's birders have reported 68 species on 15 checklists. The species count exceeds any previous year for the GBBC in DC.

For my own counts, I have focused on places close to home. I have submitted a few counts from the bird feeders. I felt lucky to record a Pine Siskin on the first day of the count (but look at how many Bev got!). On an afternoon walk around Donaldson Park on Friday, I recorded a Snow Goose, two Cackling Geese, and hundreds of Canada Geese and gulls. Two Egyptian Geese added an exotic flavor. From the nearby "Meadows" preserve, I spotted a Peregrine Falcon fly up to its customary roost underneath the Route 1 bridge. When I arrived back at home, there was a flock of several hundred blackbirds, of all three locally common varieties, waiting for me. If I remember correctly, the first large flocks of blackbirds of 2008 appeared during the Great Backyard Bird Count as well. I like having them back, as it is a sign the rest of the spring migrants will be here soon.

On Saturday, I was down at Cheesequake State Park. There were no unusual birds but overall the diversity was good. I had hoped that perhaps the many conifers around the park would harbor some unusual winter migrants – perhaps some winter finches, or perhaps a Red-breasted Nuthatch. But that was not the case. Instead, there were some Hooded Mergansers, a couple Red-tailed Hawks, a Northern Harrier, and a lot of Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice.

In the afternoon I did some birding around home again, covering some territory I had not covered on Friday. My afternoon walk was mainly notable for large flocks of juncos – I counted 29 in a single flock, and 15 more in a separate flock. I also saw about a dozen American Robins and more large flocks of blackbirds. It feels good to go out and find birds locally.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Repost: Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent

In honor of Charles Darwin's 200th birthday, I am reposting this review of Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent, an examination of how birds shaped Darwin's thought during his travels in South America.

Lately the theory of evolution by natural selection has been in the news. There have been attempts in Kansas, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere to have biology curricula diluted or altered to remove evolution or teach it alongside "alternative" theories, usually some form of creationism. Such attempts have mostly been quixotic wastes of taxpayer money, but in the meantime have generated heated arguments. One thing that tends to get drowned out in the attacks on "Darwinism" is the man himself: who was Charles Darwin, and how did he come to the conclusions he put forth in Origin of Species?

One new book to fill that void is Lyanda Lynn Haupt's Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The Importance of Everything and Other Lessons from Darwin's Lost Notebooks. As the author states at the outset, this book is not a true biography or a explanation of the theory of evolution. Rather, it is a sympathetic look at how Darwin grew from an "enthusiastic amateur" to a "professional scientist" during the course of his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle from 1831 to 1836. To do this Haupt relies on Darwin's Diary from the voyage, as well as a collection of records published as the Ornithological Notes, to trace the young Darwin's reaction to the birds he encountered and how they shaped his thinking.

When Darwin sailed from England, he had little background in the study of birds. Soon, though, he found himself captivated by birds, and this is reflected in the pages of his journals. As he traveled along the east coast of South America, he recorded a greater amount of detail on birds, eventually including notes on voice and behavior. It is no wonder that he would fall in love with birds on a voyage to South America, the continent that can claim the most recorded bird species. One species that particularly impressed Darwin was the Andean Condor both for its graceful soaring and for the ability of large flocks of condors to converge suddenly on a fresh corpse. For other species Darwin's close observations led him to see elements of human personality, something that modern-day birdwatchers can appreciate.

Birds play an important role in Darwin's argument in the Origin of Species due to their diversity. The Greater and Lesser Rheas are a prime example of two closely-related species that developed in different geographical areas. The fourteen species of finch that Darwin found on the Galapagos Islands are an exemplar of diversity in a limited area to take advantage of different food sources. These finches have come to play a greater role in retrospect than Darwin originally realized at the time. His diaries from that visit show more interest in mockingbirds and tortoises. In fact, the finches look so dissimilar that Darwin did not realize that all belonged to the same genus until he had time to study the specimens in England.

Ultimately, Haupt did not intend this book to focus solely on Darwin. The account of Darwin's voyage serves as a springboard for reflecting on questions faced by those of us interested in the natural world. A central principle of the theory of evolution by natural selection is that humans and other organisms exist on a continuum and evolved by the same means. This implies first that a human-centered view of the universe is incorrect, and second that God is not an active interventionist. For the nineteenth century, both implications were shocking; even now they cause great resistance from religious groups and others. (This, by the way, is a problem mainly for biblical literalists, and not so much for other religious approaches.) From an ethical standpoint, common descent suggests that we humans need to ensure that our actions do not upset the delicate ecological balance.

Darwin's journals are presented as a model for modern naturalists. (What Haupt means by a naturalist is open to question; she suggests that Darwin's experience on the voyage may be more akin to amateurs than professional scientists today.) The first is to pay attention to detail. Darwin followed a principle that nothing is beneath notice. In his work it was reflected in the careful and exhaustive studies that he made of barnacles and pigeons to support his conclusions. In his journals it appears in his careful recording of minute details about a bird's appearance. A second is that individual organisms are valuable as individuals, but each should be studied in the context of its environment. Finally, study of nature should lead to reflection on the human role within the ecosystem - and to better choices in how we live.

As much as I enjoyed reading this book, I have some reservations about Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent. The first is her tendency to insert narratives from her own life, some of which seem to add little to the story. Each chapter of this book contains at least one lengthy passage in which Haupt narrates a story from her own life. In some cases this helps to move the narrative forward. When she describes her first sighting of a black-necked stilt, for instance, it helps the reader understand Darwin's reaction to South American representatives of the genus Himantopus. In other cases the purpose of these narratives is less clear, and they serve as more of a distraction. A related problem is the tendency to engage in long philosophic digressions, such as her application of Buddhist philosophy to Darwin's study of vultures and condors. Like the personal narratives, these are less help than hindrance.

My second main reservation is that Haupt frequently appears to indulge in historical fiction. At the very outset she announces her intention to use imagination "as a bridge across the spaces," and she makes good on this promise. For example, we read passages like this: "Darwin liked what he wrote. But then, no, he hated it. He wrote again the next day. The fact that he did not indulge in tracing of his own interior 'process' in the diary itself does not make his struggle with that process any less real, or even less present on the page." (p. 46) Haupt rarely signals where her portrait of Darwin is firmly based on his writings and where her imagination takes hold; passages like the above do not inspire confidence.

A final issue of concern is that Haupt appears to have a chip on her shoulder when it comes to modern biology. She seems to be most upset with the use of mathematical models instead of field observation. The accuracy of her portrayal of modern biology is something that I cannot judge myself. I would be interested to hear what professional scientists think about this.

Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent is a fun read and at the same time raises some compelling questions. It made me want to travel to see some of the sights Darwin described in his journals. I would recommend this book to people who are interested in understanding what made Darwin tick, who wish to read about the questions that Haupt raises, or who simply enjoy travel narratives. Readers looking for a full account of the voyage or an explanation of the theory of evolution would do better with a different book.

Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The Importance of Everything and Other Lessons from Darwin's Lost Notebooks. New York and Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2006. Pp. 276; map and illustrations. $24.95 cloth. ISBN: 0316836648.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Loose Feathers #174

purple martinPurple Martin, originally uploaded by tbtalbottjr.

Bird and birding news
  • Scientists are using miniature geolocators to track the migration of Wood Thrushes and Purple Martins. (A video at the article link shows how the unit sits on a songbird.) Some birds fly very fast; individuals would cover up to 311 miles in a day, while a Purple Martin travelled 4,650 miles in 13 days. One goal of the research is to see whether population declines match with habitat degradation along the migration route and in wintering grounds. (The research was led by Bridget Stutchbury, author of Silence of the Songbirds.)
  • A paper in the current issue of The Auk argues for a third species of meadowlark (Lilian's Meadowlark) based on mitochondrial DNA. Lilian's Meadowlarks are found in the U.S. southwest and Mexico. Apparently the best way to identify them is by examining their third rectrix.
  • Habitat fragmentation may cause inadequate pollination; Green Hermit Hummingbirds in Costa Rica will only travel within remaining habitat corridors, without crossing cleared areas.
  • Some of the stimulus money will go towards renovating the Patuxent Research Refuge and Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. Patuxent houses many projects, including the Bird Banding Laboratory and endangered species recovery programs.
  • Deteriorating water quality in Lake Junín in Peru threatens the survival of the flightless Junín Grebe and the Junín Rail.
  • The California Condor Recovery Program is considering sites in Oregon for future releases.
  • An important migration stopover site in the Philippines has shrunk from 32,000 hectares to 72 hectares in just 30 years. The loss of wetland habitat threatens many Arctic migrants, in addition to local species.
  • Syncrude faces criminal charges as a result of the deaths of 500 ducks in one of its tailings ponds.
  • Recently two starlings and a Cooper's hawk were in the Metro (in different stations).
  • A bird that was previously the world's oldest Mute Swan just died at the age of 40.
  • The Arizona Field Ornithologists found a partially leucistic kestrel in the Santa Rita Mountains.
  • A female cardinal visiting someone's feeder has a white head, a red bill, a black eye, and a brown body.
  • Cornwall is getting a hotel that caters specifically to birdwatchers; each room comes with its own binoculars and spotting scope.
  • It's a mockingbird! And it's blue!
Birds in the blogosphere
Environment and biodiversity news
  • Southern Australia is in the midst of an ecological disaster, with extraordinary drought, heat, and wildfires causing tremendous loss of life among people and wildlife.
  • The head of the AAAS wants President Obama to act on climate change right away.
  • Crop diversity reduces the amount of fertilizer that runs into lakes and rivers. It is possible that the difference arises from diverse farms having smaller fields and more buffering vegetation around them.
  • The new energy secretary expects developments in technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and has floated the possibility of a carbon tax rather than a cap-and-trade program.
  • Fossils in Bermuda reveal that the sea level there was 21 meters higher 400,000 years ago than it is now. The evidence is consistent with a gradual rise from melting ice sheets.
  • The oil industry proclaims itself ready to fight against global warming.
  • Meanwhile, it appears that ethanol companies are falling on hard times.
  • PSE&G plans to install 200,000 solar panels on utility poles and public buildings within the next five years. Power generated by the panels would feed directly into the electric grid.
Carnivals and newsletters
Finally, don't forget to count birds this weekend!


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin's Birds

Today marks the 200th birthday of two of the most important people from the 19th century: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. The latter, known primarily for his ground-breaking On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, took a great interest in birds. During his voyage of discovery, he found a diverse group of ground finches that later became a key piece of evidence for the theory of evolution. Later in life he bred pigeons as part of his research on how natural selection could produce the diversity he observed in nature.

Here is a list of the birds named for Darwin:

I do not know if the list is complete; if you know of others, please list them in the comments.

Birds and Climate Change: What to Do

Now that we know that birds are already moving their ranges due to climate change, what can we do to prevent the worst effects of climate change, both on birds and on ourselves?

Audubon's recommendation is basically the same as most other environmental organizations: we must reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Each year in which the U.S. Congress fails to pass significant climate legislation deepens my pessimism regarding the likelihood of timely action. However, if you want to make climate action more likely, join me and others in signing Audubon's petition based on the study.

Birds that move north will also need available habitat. Protecting boreal forest habitat remains an important goal. This petition asks the Canadian government to set aside at least 50% of the boreal forest from development.

While action by national governments is likely to make the biggest difference, we can all reduce our own contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Audubon lists some good steps at the link. I would add that tropical deforestation is a contributor to climate change, since it releases carbon that was previously sequestered and reduces the ability of tropical forests to absorb more carbon. Drinking shade coffee not only preserves habitat for bird species, but also helps to mitigate the effects of deforestation, or in some cases even prevent it.

In addition, it is likely no accident that Audubon released its report this week. The data used as the basis for this climate change report was gathered by volunteers – birdwatchers like you and me – over several decades through Christmas Bird Counts. You can help conservationists track future climate-related shifts in bird populations by participating in citizen science projects, such as:

Better yet, submit your bird sightings year-round through eBird.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Climate Change and Winter Birds

Boreal ChickadeeYesterday the National Audubon Society released a new "State of the Birds" report on Birds and Climate Change. The results are sobering. During the past four decades (1966-2005), the winter ranges of the 305 bird species observed during Christmas Bird Counts have shifted northward by an average of 35 miles. Over 60 species have moved more than 100 miles north.

Here are a few examples of birds from the report:

  • Purple Finches have not traveled as far south during winter irruptions and are spending winters 433 miles north of their previous range.
  • Marbled Murrelet faces the dual threat of climate change and loss of old-growth habitat in the Pacific Northwest.
  • Red-breasted Mergansers now winter in the Great Lakes and upper Midwest in increasing numbers, representing a northward shift of 317 miles.
  • Pine Siskins are wintering 288 miles farther north despite the thistle offerings of hopeful backyard birdwatchers.
  • Boreal Chickadees (pictured), having moved 279 miles north, are becoming less common along the northern border of the United States.
  • Eastern and Western Meadowlarks have not moved north; the population of Eastern Meadowlarks has fallen 72% during the past four decades.
These range shifts indicate that major changes are taking place in North American ecosystems. While we should not dismiss other potential influences like habitat destruction in the lower 48 states or wider availability of bird feeding stations in northern latitudes, there is one major transition at work. During the past four decades, the average January temperature in the lower 48 states has risen about 5°F, from a little over 28°F to about 34°F.

Warmer winter temperatures can mean many things. Water in lakes and rivers is less likely to be frozen, meaning more opportunity for waterfowl, herons, and kingfishers to forage. Reduced snow cover makes it easier for ground-foraging birds to find food, even without handouts from humans. For insectivores, warmer temperatures mean that insects and other invertebrates will be available for more days per year. All of those things give birds the ability to survive winter farther north.

Some species may see population increases, at least in the short term, as a result of warming. However, many bird species face a dismal future. Arctic species – birds of the tundra and of northern ice floes – will gradually see their breeding habitats disappear. (Goodbye, Ivory Gull!) Coastal birds may see their habitats disappear under rising seas, and even if replacement habitats are created, their reliance on food from the ocean makes their future status uncertain. Grassland birds in the United States, unlike the woodland counterparts, may be unable to shift their ranges to cope with warming. Much of the former grassland habitat in the United States has either been replaced by subdivisions or hopelessly degraded by industrial agriculture.

As the report (pdf) states, "failure to prevent the worst impacts of global warming would undermine much of the conservation work that Audubon has accomplished for more than a century." The same could be said of other environmental organizations, federal and state governments, and any individuals who have worked on behalf of bird populations. We need action on climate change, and we need it now.

Audubon California and Audubon Washington have issued reports on birds and climate change within their own states.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Not a Rough-legged

A current discussion thread on BIRDCHAT centers around a photograph of a raptor from a physics textbook. The textbook presents the photograph as part of a physics problem, namely finding the difference in voltage between the bird's feet. The online copy of the photograph identifies it as a Rough-legged Hawk, but that appears to be wrong.

I say that it is an immature dark or intermediate morph Swainson's Hawk. What does everyone else think?

Coastal Cumberland

The second part of my South Jersey weekend took me through coastal Cumberland County, a New Jersey county that I had never visited before, at least to my knowledge. Now, there are some New Jersey counties that I have passed through via the New Jersey Turnpike, but never set foot in. (That would be Camden, Gloucester, and Salem.) Cumberland, on the other hand, I had never previously visited, and never had occasion to pass through, either. So this was entirely new ground for me.

Our first stop was at East Point, near Heislerville. At this stop, there were not many birds to see, and we spent more time looking at the old lighthouse, built in 1849, decommissioned in 1941, and placed back into service in 1980. To me, the building appears older than the 1840s – almost like 18th-century architecture. Perhaps this part of the state was slower to adopt new styles.

Our second stop, or perhaps auto tour would be a better descriptor, was the series of waterfowl impoundments along Matt's Landing Road, part of Heislerville WMA. Thanks to the warm weekend weather, most of the water was open, allowing decent numbers of waterfowl, especially Buffleheads. The biggest surprise – and my favorite sighting of the day – was a brief glimpse of a Clapper Rail swimming before it disappeared into some reeds. Try as I might, I could not spot the rail once it reached the reeds, even though I was standing directly over the place the rail was hiding, and even though the reed bank was only about two feet wide. These are amazingly elusive creatures.

The third stop was at Bivalve, so-called due to its primary industry, catching and processing mollusks. This industry is pungently apparent on Bivalve's High Street, where a large pile of shells attracts a large number of gulls – as well as a few birders looking for unusual gulls. I am sad to report that we found no rare gulls of any kind, just the usual Ring-billed and Herring varieties. That said, a stop was still worthwhile, as we continued to see waterfowl on all sides. Most were Black Ducks or Buffleheads. Now and then a distant flock of Snow Geese would rise out of the saltmarsh and shift locations. Two Common Goldeneye, both apparently female, were on the Maurice River close to the Bivalve shore.

Following a short drive through the nearby town of Shell Pile, we stopped at the restoration area at the end of Strawberry Lane to eat lunch and follow a trail through nearby fields. From the platform we were able to see many more waterfowl, which included decent looks at a dozen Green-winged Teal, one of my favorite dabbling ducks, and a flock of Northern Pintail. The fields as the boardwalk had a small flock of Eastern Bluebirds and lots of sparrows. One of my favorite sparrows, a Swamp Sparrow was present, and a White-crowned Sparrow also put in an appearance. I also got a taste for why NJ Audubon chose Cumberland County for its winter eagle festival. In the brief time we were at the restoration area, we saw at least one pair of Red-tailed Hawks and a third-year Bald Eagle. As we were leaving, a Sharp-shinned Hawk flushed from the treeline and flew across the field. Not bad for a raptor show.

Our final stops were in the Dividing Creek area. The impoundments along Maple Street had more or less the same set of waterfowl we saw at other stops, with similarly good numbers of waterfowl. Turkey Point was a good point to get an idea of the extent of the saltmarshes along our southern Delaware bayshore. It is disheartening to imagine that much of New Jersey's Atlantic coast was probably covered by similar marshes years ago, only to have them disappear in the face of summer tourism. Even this relatively isolated spot attracted many visitors in the short time we were present; it is not clear to me how many were birders. (Really, the number of cars present at Turkey Point really surprised me, after seeing hardly any birders all day.) On a more cheerful note, our stop at Turkey Point was also an occasion for observing large flocks of Snow Geese flying overhead and in the distance.

Following this stop, we head back to Central Jersey.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Brigantine and Villas

Yesterday was the first day of a South Jersey weekend. The trip was originally supposed to involve a few more people who could not make it. So it ended up just being my mother and I taking a tour of South Jersey birding spots.

We began around mid-morning at Brigantine, the main attraction in Forsythe NWR. A trail near the entrance turned up a few songbirds. There was a nice flock of sparrows along the entrance drive, including a brilliant Eastern Towhee. Where the drive crosses a lake, an immature Bald Eagle flushed a flock of Mallards and a pair of Hooded Mergansers.

At the first observation tower (on Gull Pond Road), we could see several large flocks of Canada Geese, numbering in the thousands. In the distance were also a few dozen swans, which turned out to be Tundra Swans when we got closer to them later in the day. Several small flocks of waterfowl included more Mallards, Hooded Mergansers, and Northern Pintails. Those three species, along with Black Ducks, would be the dominant waterfowl species along Wildlife Drive. Just before we moved on, a Peregrine Falcon shot past the tower in pursuit of some pintails. Unfortunately for the falcon (but fortunately for the ducks), it missed.

Wildlife Drive winds around the refuge for about eight miles or so. Today we saw pretty much the same species all the way around. The main exception is that there were some collections of American Wigeon, Bufflehead, and Brant along the section of the drive closest to the bay. A few hundred Dunlin were scattered in several flocks, mostly at the outer part of the drive. I tried to find other shorebird species among them, but I was unsuccessful. Near the end of wildlife drive, once we got back into the meadow and forest parts of the refuge, there were a few trails that looked like they had some potential for early morning birding. Today the birds were mostly common species, but we got some good looks at Hermit Thrushes.

After returning back to the entrance, we started down to Cape May. My main interest on the peninsula this weekend is Villas WMA, site of a series of intriguing sightings in the past few weeks. Most of the rarities were uncooperative. I did my best to pick out a hen Eurasian Wigeon among the dozens of American Wigeons, but I am still not sure if I actually saw one. (A drake would be so much more convenient!) White-winged Crossbills were nowhere to be found, though apparently they were present earlier in the day, and the (resident?) Red-headed Woodpecker was trying not to be seen (and succeeding). We did get some very good looks at waterfowl, including a brace of beautiful drake Redheads, a Canvasback, a Ruddy Duck, and several dozen Ring-necked Ducks. There was also a small flock of Chipping Sparrows between the parking lot and the lake. Best of all, we encounter six of my species of interest, Rusty Blackbird.

Villas is an interesting location, a former golf course being restored to a natural state. As a result, the habitat is quite varied, and the WMA supports diverse breeding and wintering bird populations. It is also seems to get less attention from birders than other spots around the Cape, so if you are looking for a good quiet birding spot on the peninsula, this seems to be the place to be.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Saturday Post: Travel and Bird Surveys

I will be out of town for the weekend (Cape May), so posting may be spotty. If posting on the blog proves impossible I will try to update my Twitter feed occasionally. Regular updates should appear in the right sidebar for those who do not use that service.

Meanwhile, this weekend is the start of the week-long Rusty Blackbird Blitz. This species is in serious trouble, but conservationists need more information about their winter habitats and behaviors to protect these formerly-common birds. I am going to try to make at least one stop in good Rusty Blackbird territory, and I encourage readers to do so as well. See the link for details about the survey protocol.

Also, the Great Backyard Bird Count is coming up in just one week. Whether you choose to travel during the long weekend or stay at home, try to participate.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Loose Feathers #173

Hawaiian Moorhen at Hanalei NWR / Photo by John and Karen Hollingswood (USFWS)

Bird and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environmental and biodiversity news
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, February 05, 2009

I and the Bird

Vicki Henderson has the 93rd edition of I and the Bird up at her blog.

Semipalmated Sandpiper in Decline

Semipalmated Sandpiper / Photo by Tim Bowman (USFWS)

Birders and conservationists have known of a link between declining numbers of Red Knots and overharvesting of horseshoe crabs in the Delaware Bay region for at least a decade. Now it appears that Semipalmated Sandpipers are having similar troubles, according to surveys conducted on the species's wintering grounds.
In the 1980s, about 2 million semipalmated were counted by researchers on the 4,000-mile coastline of Suriname and neighboring French Guiana, where scientists say 85 percent of the world's population of the bird winters annually. Last month, only 400,000 of the birds were found in aerial surveys by the New Jersey Audubon expedition.

"We had already found a 50 percent decline over 15 years by 2006. Now, this is a 70 to 80 percent decline since the survey in the 1980s. I think it's alarming," said David Mizrahi, the team leader....

"About 80 percent of the world's population of red knots go through the Delaware Bay on their return north. About 60 percent of the world's population of semipalmated sandpipers come through at the same time," Mizrahi said.

"There just doesn't seem to be a major change down in the wintering areas of either the red knot or the semipalmated sandpiper to explain a decline in either species. The Arctic breeding grounds of the red knot also have not changed ... But what we do know is that there have been changes in the stopover area both birds share in North America," he said.
The research team sees the decline in Semipalmated Sandpipers as further confirmation that overharvesting of horseshoe crabs is at fault in the Red Knot population crash.
"The semipalmated sandpipers cement the underpinning that something more is in play here than just a problem isolated to the red knots," said Eric Stiles of the New Jersey Audubon expedition. "The semipalmated sandpipers don't winter in the same area as the red knot or breed in the same areas. They only share this one stopover area, the Delaware Bay, and they, too, are in decline."

The research team spent three weeks capturing 2,500 semipalmated sandpipers, taking blood and tissue samples and fitting them with identifying legbands. The data will be used in monitoring the semipalmated this spring as they return to the Delaware Bay.

"But in order to nail this all down, we must ultimately get to the breeding grounds as well to confirm that the problem is in the North American stopover," Mizrahi said. "We're following the model our colleagues in Canada and the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife have already used on the red knots."
I am not at all surprised that a bird species other than Red Knot has been affected by the horseshoe crab situation in the Delaware Bay and elsewhere. In fact, it would not surprise me if other species like Ruddy Turnstone were having some trouble as well. The good news is that New Jersey's moratorium and restrictions in other states are in place before the reduction in horseshoe crab numbers became an existential threat to Semipalmated Sandpipers. Provided that those restrictions stay in place, the horseshoe crab population should rebound and the sandpiper population should stabilize.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Red Knot, whose status is much more dire and will probably remain that way for at least the near future.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Salmonella and Bird Food

I am sure most readers of this blog are aware of the salmonella contamination at a peanut processing plant in Georgia. Apparently the plant knew about the contamination, too, but sold contaminated food anyway. The salmonella outbreak may have health implications for birds as well, since many commercial suet cakes and seed mixes contain processed peanuts or peanut butter.

CLO's Round Robin blog has a useful summary of what they know about the peanut situation. The post includes a reminder from Project FeederWatch to clean feeders regularly and other advice on preventing disease outbreaks among feeder birds. Cleaning feeders is something that ought to be done on a regular basis regardless of known disease outbreaks.

Birdchick has been asking bird food companies whether any of their products contain peanuts processed at the Peanut Corporation of America. Here is a list of the companies that have said that their bird food is safe.

Worst Three Buildings in New York for Bird Strikes

The New York City Audubon Society named the worst three buildings in New York City for bird collisions:

  • Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Jacob K. Javits Convention Center
  • Bellevue Hospital Center
The Met's presence on that list is somewhat surprising since it is not one of the ultra-modern all-glass buildings. My guess is that the Egyptian wing, which has a glass wall jutting into Central Park, is the main source of collisions. I am not as familiar with the other two sites.
Until 2007, the most lethal building by far used to be the Morgan Processing and Distribution Center, a United States Postal Service site that spans from West 28th to West 30th Street between Ninth and 10th Avenues. The building’s 440 decorative reflective panels on the south side mirrored the trees in Chelsea Park, fooling the birds into believing it was a welcoming hospitable habitat....

An architect recommended that black vinyl be placed over each of the panels at the center, and now things are immeasurably improved.

It has not been as easy a problem to remedy with the Met, the Javits Center and Bellevue, because of a combination of aesthetics and technology. Mr. Phillips said they are in discussions with the buildings to reduce bird collision mortality.

But arguably, bird glass hazards in New York City are getting worse, not better. Glass is “in” because it is a common feature of green architecture, which means that more avian-unfriendly structures are popping up. They are particularly a hazard when they are near parks or other areas with foliage....

For example, the new diaphanous glass condominium building designed by Richard Meier in Brookyn’s Grand Army Plaza has raised the concern of the Audubon Society, as The New York Post noted this week.

“We’ve been planning on monitoring that building starting in the spring,” Mr. Phillips said.
Estimates for overall bird mortality from collisions with buildings range from 100 million to 1 billions per year.

Irreversibility of Climate Change

In the last Loose Feathers, I linked to an article stating that warming and its effects would linger for 1,000 years even if carbon emissions stopped today. The authors of the study reported in the article described current climate changes as irreversible. This week, the always-informative RealClimate explains that irreversibility does not imply that climate change is unstoppable.

As a result of the long tail, any climate impact from more CO2 in the air will be essentially irreversible. Then the question is, what are the climate impacts of CO2? It gets warmer, that’s pretty clear, and sea level rises. Sea level rise is a profound consequence of the long tail of global warming because the response in the past, over geologic time scales, is tens of meters per °C change in global mean temperature, about 100 times stronger than the IPCC forecast for 2100 (about 0.2 meters per °C). The third impact which gains immortality from the long tail is precipitation. Here the conventional story has been that climate models are not very consistent in the regional precipitation changes they predict in response to rising CO2. Apparently this is changing with the AR4 suite of model runs, as Solomon et al demonstrated in their Figure 3. Also, there is a consistent picture of drought impact with warming in some places, for example the American Southwest, both over the past few decades and in medieval time. The specifics of a global warming drought forecast are beginning to come into focus.

Perhaps the despair we heard in our interviewers’ questions arose from the observation in the paper that the temperature will continue to rise, even if CO2 emissions are stopped today. But you have to remember that the climate changes so far, both observed and committed to, are minor compared with the business-as-usual forecast for the end of the century. It’s further emissions we need to worry about. Climate change is like a ratchet, which we wind up by releasing CO2. Once we turn the crank, there's no easy turning back to the natural climate. But we can still decide to stop turning the crank, and the sooner the better.