Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Egyptian Geese in New Jersey

The Atlantic City Press noticed that there is a population of feral Egyptian Geese roaming the state of New Jersey. This species is a native of Africa, with introduced populations in Europe. So how did a free-flying population end up here? It may be by accident.

Egyptian geese did cause the birding community to wonder what was going on when they began turning up regularly across the state more than a decade ago. Could a flock somehow have been blown here from Africa by a storm?

Then one day, in September 1996, a bird watcher at Great Adventure amusement park in Jackson Township, Monmouth County, noticed a flock of more than 50 Egyptian geese there - without identifying leg bands. More important, they were flying, which meant their flight feathers weren't trimmed to keep them captive at the park.

Now it is assumed that the Egyptian geese in the state, wherever they turn up, probably came from the large, uncontrolled flock at Great Adventure.
California and Pennsylvania also have free-roaming Egyptian Geese. As the article mentions, Egyptian Geese have bred several times over the past several years in central New Jersey along the Raritan River. I have seen them several times at my local park, including the pair in the picture above, taken in November 2007. In summer the adults have been accompanied by goslings. I am not sure what their survival rate may be, or where the young birds go once (if?) they reach maturity.

Egyptian Geese always look a little out of place along the Raritan, as they are not closely related to our native geese. Instead, they are the only extant representatives of the genus, Alopochen, ranked among the shelduck subfamily rather than among the typical geese.

Will the Egyptian Goose become the next Monk Parakeet and secure a place on New Jersey's state list? Time will tell.

Upcoming Blog Carnivals

Three upcoming blog carnivals that may be of interest to readers of this blog have imminent deadlines.

First, I and the Bird submissions are due by the end of today, at Great Auk or Greatest Auk. Any blog posts related to wild birds or birding are welcome.

Second, GrrlScientist has been trying to revive the long-dormant Circus of the Spineless for several months, and recently announced a new edition to appear at her blog on April 6. Submissions for this carnival are due within the next week. Topics may include photos or essays on any type of invertebrate.

Third, the same blogger is starting a new carnival, Scientia, as a replacement to the equally dormant Tangled Bank, the oldest science and nature blogging carnival. The new carnival will appear on the first and third Mondays of each month, starting on April 6.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Mike Now Digiscoping at a New Location

Last week the server hosting Mike's Birding & Digiscoping Blog crashed during an upgrade, leaving the site inaccessible. After waiting several days for eHostSource to resolve the situation, Mike Dowell moved his blog to a new server and a new domain. Since the change occurred while the server is hosed, he is unable to post the new location on his old blog to alert his own readers, so I am posting an alert here.

The new address is: http://www.birddigiscoper.com/blog.html
New RSS feed: http://www.birddigiscoper.com/rss.xml

Mike runs a great bird blog, one of my long-time favorites. If you have not read his blog before, do take a look.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cormorants on the Move

This afternoon I walked through my local park to see if any new birds had arrived in the past few days. Robins are still massing in the park, such that their songs and chuckles were echoing from all directions. The other birds present in large numbers were black birds. Many of the grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds that dominated the flocks several weeks ago seem to have moved on, and the larger flocks are now mostly European Starlings and Brown-headed Cowbirds. Well over 300 starlings were present this afternoon. Canada Geese and all gull species were well below their winter numbers.

As I walked along the river, eight Double-crested Cormorants flew downstream and landed in the river. These were among a dozen or so present, in addition to the usual single Great Cormorant, which has been sitting on the channel marker since late December. Lately this bird has been decked out in breeding plumage. These were the first Double-crested Cormorants I have seen on the river for several months, possibly since last year. I expect that fairly soon the Great Cormorant will move to a more suitable location for nesting.

Central Park Birding

Yesterday morning I went into New York with my non-birding sister who had some research to do. While she was busy with that, I went birding in Central Park, and then rejoined her later for some time at the Met. I ended up walking through about two-thirds of the park in the morning and the rest of it in the late afternoon.

I started off by scanning the buildings along 5th Avenue for Red-tailed Hawks. None were apparent at that time, but I saw several during the course of the walk. There were a few lone red-tails, but also one group of three and another obvious pair. Moving on, I encountered a small Swamp Sparrow flock in the lower lobe of the lake. This is one of my favorite sparrow species, so I sat and watched them forage in the muck. In the same area I also saw a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and heard a few snatches of a Winter Wren's song.

Song was very noticeable, not just from the wren, but also from White-throated Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Northern Cardinals, and Dark-eyed Juncos. A lot of the white-throats were rather mangy-looking, especially around their heads. It seems that these birds were probably molting from basic to alternate plumage, which the Birds of North America describes as a partial molt of head and breast feathers. At least one white-throat appeared to have a almost bare head.

As I made my way north through the park, I checked out the reservoir, which had collections of Northern Shovelers, Buffleheads, and other water birds, all of which were too far to appreciate fully. Moving on, I encountered a Merlin around 95th St; the falcon flew out of the park and onto the top of a building across Central Park West. At the far north end, I spotted a beautiful pair of Wood Ducks and a small group of Ruddy Ducks on the Harlem Meer, and a Cooper's Hawk circling the hill above it.

I was a pleasant way to spend a morning, especially once the clouds lifted and the sun came out.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Habitat, Owl Ethics, and a Hybrid Tit

Blue TitBlue Tit / Photo uploaded to Flickr by Ben Fredericson

Normally I try to confine lists of links to my Friday Loose Feathers series, but yesterday other bird bloggers published some good material that I would like to highlight.

First off, Nate of The Drinking Bird discussed the recently-released federal State of the Birds report. That report has been on my blogging to-do list for a while, but has not quite made it onto the blog until now. In his post yesterday, Nate focused on the need for birders to find a way to fund habitat conservation that distinguishes birder contributions from hunting contributions. Lately there has been a movement to encourage birders to purchase Duck Stamps, since almost all of their price goes towards habitat conservation. The trouble, as Nate writes, is that Duck Stamp funds primarily support habitat for game animals, since hunters are assumed to be the primary constituency for conservation. While it is important, game bird habitat is not necessarily helpful for other birds, such as interior forest specialists.

There are various ways that birders could support non-game species. One would be the imposition of a tax on optics, field guides, and the like that would be dedicated for habitat conservation. This would parallel similar hunting fees. Large birding organizations like ABA or NAS could also manage such a fund as part of their normal membership renewals. Or, birders could simply look for organizations that directly protect non-game habitat in their area and support those, either instead of or in addition to the major birding organizations. (I have not quite figured out the best of these in my area, but Nature Conservancy seems like a strong contender.) In any case, read and comment on Nate's post.

Second, Bruce at the excellent Urban Hawks blog has proposed ethical standards for use of audio playback to attract birds, particularly owls. His post comes in response to an incident involving a locally well-known tour leader in Central Park, who used recordings to call out a screech owl before its normal rising time, to provide his tour group a chance to view the owl. I do not have a strong opinion about the particulars of his argument, but I do think that birders, and especially group leaders, ought to err on the side of caution during breeding season, especially in heavily-birded areas.

Third, Birdchick highlighted a discussion on the ID-Frontiers list about a hybrid Blue Tit found in New Hampshire. This is a highly unusual sighting since birds of that genus are not normally found on this continent. As you can see from the photos, this is clearly not a "pure bred" Blue Tit (see the photo above). Figuring out the rest of its ancestry, though, depends on where one thinks the hybridization occurred. If it happened in Europe, the obvious candidate, in my opinion, would be a Willow Tit, since that has the combination of buffy flanks, white-edged secondaries, and overall plainness that Blue Tits lack. If the hybrid is American in origin, then chickadees would appear more likely candidates. Based on range, Black-capped Chickadee would be most probable. I am sure more experienced birders come produce other possibilities, or even settle on one candidate above others. However, there really is only one way to settle this: catch the bird, band it, and test its DNA.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Loose Feathers #180

Harlequin Duck / Photo by Laura L. Whitehouse (USFWS)

Bird and birding news
Birds in the blogospere
Environment and biodiversity news
Carnivals and newsletters
In other blog carnival news, GrrlScientist is trying to revive the dormant Circus of the Spineless and Tangled Bank carnivals. The latter may appear under a new name.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Public Lands Act: Wilderness and Historic Sites

Yesterday the U.S. House passed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (HR 146) by a vote of 285-140. This is a composite of many separate bills on a wide variety of topics, on everything from designating wilderness to firefighter safety to underseas research to historical trails. Probably the most significant administrative change in the bill is a legislative framework for the National Landscape Conservation System, an agency created by the Clinton administration to oversee the Bureau of Land Management's most significant landmarks. The bill also protects two million acres from further development.

Unfortunately the bill also authorizes a controversial land exchange to build a road through Izembek NWR. More on that here and here.

While most of the newly-protected acreage is in western states, the bill protects or designates sites across the country. The bill's text is here; you can scan it to see what it does in your area. Locally, the bill designates Patterson's Great Falls as one of three new national parks. (The others are Bill Clinton's birthplace and River Raisin National Battlefield.) The 35-acre Great Falls site is significant primarily for its history. Patterson was one of New Jersey's early industrial cities, with numerous factories generating power from the Passaic River's current. That industrial history is still visible around the falls, for good or ill. Hemmed in by factories and bridges, the falls are still a natural wonder.

Patterson Falls / Photographed by Den Spiess

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Monk Parakeets in New Jersey

Monk Parakeets / Uploaded to Flickr by David Reeves

As Patrick mentioned yesterday, New Jersey's records committee decided to add Monk Parakeet, an exotic species native to Argentina, to the state checklist of birds. What that means is that the committee regards the species as having an established population in the state. New Jersey's birders are now free to count the species on any of their state lists that they submit to birding organizations, such as for the World Series of Birding. No doubt this will be cause for celebration among parrot fans.

The longest established population in the state is in Edgewater at Veteran's Memorial Park, a park so small that it appears not to be in Google's location database. The records committee has posted an older article about the Edgewater parrots that first appeared in New Jersey Birds. Monk Parakeets have had an active colony there since at least the early 1970s and possibly earlier. New Jersey's wild population descends from birds released, either deliberately or accidently, in New York in the 1960s, who then decided to move out to the suburbs. As of the date of the article, that colony was estimated to contain about 50 birds.

According to the announcement on JerseyBirds, there is also an established population in Middlesex County. At this point I do not know its location, nor has the location been reported on JerseyBirds or eBird.

Growing colonies in both states have been persecuted by utility companies because of the parrots' preference for building massive stick nests on telephone poles. Apparently transformers provide warmth to help parrots survive the cold winter months. Utility companies fear that the nests could result in blown transformers or other problems. The growth of the parrot population also inspires concern in the agricultural sector in the agricultural sector, as the species is considered a pest in Argentina. So far Monk Parakeets in New York and New Jersey have only colonized urban locations, so that has not occurred here. Whether the species will become invasive or be confined to a few scattered colonies remains to be seen.

An End to Mountaintop Removal?

While the case of the Exxon Valdez, and oil production generally, is significant for its harm to the environment, I do not want to give the impression that petroleum is the only harmful energy source. Coal is just as harmful, and in some cases may be even worse than petroleum (or bitumen, for that matter). On the latter issue, we have some hopeful signs. This week, the EPA sent letters to the Army Corps of Engineers, which issues permits for surface mining, on pending permits for mountaintop removal mining operations in the Appalachians. The letters express the new administration's reservations regarding this method and suggest that environmental reviews will be more rigorous than in the past.

EPA’s letters, sent to the Corps office in Huntington, W.Va., stated that the coal mines would likely cause water quality problems in streams below the mines, would cause significant degradation to streams buried by mining activities, and that proposed steps to offset these impacts are inadequate. EPA has recommended specific actions be taken to further avoid and reduce these harmful impacts and to improve mitigation....

The Corps is responsible for issuing Clean Water Act permits for proposed surface coal mining operations that impact streams, wetlands, and other waters. EPA is required by the act to review proposed permits and provides comments to the Corps where necessary to ensure that proposed permits fully protect water quality.

Because of active litigation in the 4th Circuit challenging the issuance of Corps permits for coal mining, the Corps has been issuing far fewer permits in West Virginia since the litigation began in 2007. As a result, there is a significant backlog of permits under review by the Corps. EPA expects to be actively involved in the review of these permits following issuance of the 4th Circuit decision last month.
Mining coal via the mountaintop removal method is tremendously destructive to water quality and bird habitat. When rock is blasted from the tops of mountains to reach coal deposits, it is dumped into valleys – basically streambeds. Any chemicals present in the rock can then leach into streams and any river systems to which they connect. There is then potential for these chemicals to travel far downstream and affect drinking water and aquatic life. Coal deposits are associated with multiple toxins, including mercury. So far over 1200 streams have been affected by this mining process, according to the EPA.

Declines of some bird species, especially this blog's mascot, have been linked to the loss of Appalachian habitat. A large portion of the blame for habitat loss can be assigned to coal mining, which clears or fragments any forests covering the mountains before blasting rock. In the course of removing 470 mountains, the mining operations have deforested over 1.5 million acres. Even when the mines are "reclaimed," the resulting habitat is not a suitable replacement for the interior forest species displaced by the mine.

Because of these impacts, the EPA's announcement is welcome indeed. Regulatory agencies have long downplayed or ignored the effects of valley fills and habitat destruction when issuing permits for mining operations. Whether this announcement will result in substantive change, however, remains to be seen.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Final NY Blogger Birding Posts

Carrie and Corey have posted the conclusions to their accounts of the joint bird blogger trip on Long Island. Corey's post includes photos of all the life birds that Carrie and I saw.

Below are links to all of the posts written about that trip.

Exxon Valdez

Today is the 20th anniversary of the grounding of the Exxon Valdez and the subsequent oil spill. This was one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, and its effects are still apparent in Prince William Sound. Since oil was absorbed into the sand, animals still have access to it.

In its first toxic sweep, the oil spill killed about 250,000 seabirds, 4,000 sea otters, 250 bald eagles, and more than 20 orca whales, according to WWF.

Today, one of the orca pods that lost family members has not recovered.

Sea otters and harlequin ducks continue to die by digging into the sand for food and releasing buried oil.

At the bottom of the food chain, pink salmon eggs and small invertebrates such as mussels and clams are not yet back to their original population levels.

And local fishers, who lost more than U.S. $286 million after the herring fishery collapsed in 1989, are still waiting for the fishery to rebound.
To my knowledge, the fishers are also still waiting to receive compensation for those damages from Exxon.

Despite the example of the Exxon Valdez disaster, coastlines and fisheries are still vulnerable to oil slicks.
Since 1993, U.S. offshore drilling has sent an average of 47,800 barrels of oil a year into the sea, according to data from the Minerals Management Service. Offshore drilling platforms are particularly vulnerable to storms: The Coast Guard estimates that roughly 9 million gallons of oil were spilled during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita alone.

Contrary to what the oil industry would like us to believe, there is no effective method for cleaning up an oil spill. And where there are tankers and offshore drilling, there always will be spills.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Webapp for Butterflies

In addition to the birds mentioned in a previous post, yesterday I also saw my first butterflies of the season: two Mourning Cloaks in the Glades and a Cabbage White in Collingswood. I can take or leave Cabbage Whites, but I never tire of seeing Mourning Cloaks' rich colors.

I have long been wishing for an online listing program that would allow me to track my butterfly and dragonfly sightings. My hope had been that eBird or Birdstack would add butterfly listing to their already-great bird listing capabilities. So far that has not happened, but it appears that there is a worthy competitor for butterfly-watchers. The North American Butterfly Association has produced a webapp called Butterflies I've Seen.

Like the two birdwatching sites, Butterflies I've Seen allows users to create checklists of the birds they have seen on field trips, which are defined by a date and location. Users can choose from among predefined locations drawn from a USGS database or add new locations. Any new locations are saved for a user to access for future field trips. Once the trip information is entered, a user can choose species from a checklist and add counts and field notes.

The Butterflies I've Seen interface is a little less user-friendly than eBird, especially when it comes to plotting locations. (To supply latitude and longitude for a location, try this site.) The life list also leaves a lot to be desired; instead of just listing species I have seen, the list shows every species in North America, with the ones I have seen marked with a location and date. (On the plus side, I can mark species I have seen but without a recorded date and place, something not possible in eBird.) Still, the site is a good start and fills one of my listing gaps.

If you know of any other interesting listing webapps, please leave a comment.

Towhee and Other South Jersey Birds

Yesterday morning we started out at Bivalve. The shell piles smelled even worse than the last time. This time there were many raptors: two Bald Eagles, three Northern Harriers, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk. The latter suddenly popped out of the phragmites; perhaps we disturbed it from a meal. Many Green-winged Teal were visible from the embankment. Other waterfowl included Snow Geese and Black Ducks.

A brief stop at Fortescue yielded more or less the same birds. An eagle was scaring up waterfowl on the marsh, while vultures turned in the distance. No birds were visible on the bay, except for a collection of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls standing on the beach.

Our target stop, however, was the Glades Wildlife Refuge, a preserve owned by the Natural Lands Trust. The entrance is not easy to find, as it is marked only with a generic "coastal heritage site" sign and not the name of the refuge. (This is one element of the Birding Cumberland guide that could use improvement.) The refuge itself is gorgeous. After passing through a woodland dominated by oaks and hollies, a visitor comes out into the middle of a vast salt marsh. A short boardwalk leads to an observation tower. From the tower one can see for miles across spartina and phragmites grasses interrupted only by distant treelines and an occasional house.

From that platform we could see many waterfowl. The birds at close range were mostly Green-winged Teal – about 750 by my count. There were also Black Ducks, Buffleheads, and Northern Pintails. On the horizon we could also see distant skeins of Snow Geese – perhaps a thousand, perhaps more. I doubt that the flocks we saw come anywhere near the total birds in the marsh. As the waterfowl are massing for the journey to their breeding grounds, shorebirds are starting to arrive. A couple hundred Dunlin competed for space on the mudflats with a few dozen yellowlegs. Most of the yellowlegs appeared to be of the Greater variety, but there were a few Lessers in the mix. I enjoyed hearing the yellowleg calls again. As we headed back along the entrance road to the car, we heard a bird calling from near a vernal pool in the woods. The combination of grunts and squeaks sounded characteristic of a Virginia Rail.

On the way back, we stopped at Collingswood to see the Green-tailed Towhee that has been present in a yard there since January 1. It required about a twenty-minute wait before the towhee appeared, but we had plenty of other birds to watch in the meantime. The well-stocked feeders attract many common backyard species, as well as less common ones like Fox Sparrow. Suddenly the towhee emerged near the back fence and started foraged under the bushes. The bird moved plenty of dirt around in that time. Each kick was digging fairly deep into the soil for a bird of that size; it seemed to dig as deep as an inch in a single location before moving on to the next spot. Once we had all had plenty of time to watch, the towhee disappeared, and we departed. I did not take photos, but other birders have. Here is a photo study of the Collingswood Green-tailed Towhee from another New Jersey birder.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Few Cape May Birds

This morning my mother and sister and I visited several locations around Cape May to see the lingering winter residents and the first of the spring birds. The state park held a rather diminished set of waterfowl compared to the last time I was there in November. A few small flocks of American Wigeon and handfuls of Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, Ring-necked Ducks, and American Black Ducks were present. Carolina Wrens were singing everywhere in the park. As we reached the far end of Lighthouse Pond, a Merlin zipped past us and landed in a tree. The sight gave me a flashback to the last Merlin I saw in Cape May – a bird that was biting me as I attempted to remove it from a mist net.

The tree nursery portion of the state park had an interesting mix of songbirds. A Pine Warbler landed in the pines from time to time, but mostly it foraged on the ground. A few Eastern Phoebes were around baby trees, as well as a pair of Eastern Bluebirds. On the path through the marshes at the far end of the park, we flushed up a Wilson's Snipe.

Since we were in Cape May Point, we checked out St. Mary's Jetty and St. Peter's Jetty. Beach access in this section is currently closed due to the annual beach replenishment, without which Cape May Point would probably go the way of South Cape May. While the beach is closed, we could still watch birds from the platforms at the dune crossovers. Both jetties had a large number of loafing gulls and a smattering of Purple Sandpipers and Ruddy Turnstones. A large flock of Black Scoters is spread out along beach. I only saw one definite Surf Scoter in the mix. A few Red-throated Loons were close to shore, and a couple dozen Northern Gannets were flying back and forth farther out. A handful of Bonaparte's Gulls flew past; I checked but did not see any definite Black-headed Gulls. At one point a Bald Eagle flew overhead and sent the gulls scurrying.

Our last stop in the early afternoon was at the Beanery. The fields had a surprising numnber of Eastern Phoebes – at least eight by my count. There were also a few dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers and a few flocks of Eastern Bluebirds, whose blue looks especially gorgeous in contrast to the grayish browns of late winter vegetation. Some raptors moving about overhead included two Red-tailed Hawks, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, and a Northern Harrier. I am not sure whether they were locals or spring migrants. The pond had a pair of Blue-winged Teal, a species I always enjoy.

In the evening, having been joined by one of my mother's (non-birding) cousins, we visited Jakes Landing to see the Short-eared Owl show. Sure enough, at least the owls are still present there. Yesterday there were at least two, a male and a female, coursing over the meadows beyond the creek. For the most part they hunted separately, but occasionally they would converge and circle each other. Several harriers were also hunting, including an adult male and an adult female. As the light is fading, male harriers really do look ghostly at a distance. Now and then one of the harriers would get too close to one of the owls, and there would be a short confrontation. A returning Osprey was checking out the nesting platforms, and a Red-tailed Hawk was also present. Non-raptors included two Wilson's Snipes.

Beware of Jetties

A New Jersey birder recently visited the Barnegat Lighthouse and, while he was walking out to see the Harlequin Ducks, fell head-first into the jetty. The tide was coming in, but fortunately he was able to summon help by calling 911. You can read more and see pictures of the incident at his website.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Birds of the Spring Equinox

I am in the Cape May area this weekend, so I did my first spring birding down here. It was a very strange day in South Jersey yesterday. While some portions were pleasant, the nicer bits were interspersed with a selection of snow, sleet, hail, and rain. Plus it was very cold. So that made birding a bit difficult, especially in any exposed areas, like the Avalon Jetty.

Birds of note included Horned Lark and Piping Plover at Stone Harbor Point, a flyover Osprey at Cape May NWR's Songbird Trail (i.e., off Kimbles Beach Rd.), plus a few dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers and a FOY Pine Warbler at the same location. FOY Eastern Phoebes were also around, at Cape May NWR's Songbird Trail and Woodcock Trail.

I added my list for today to Birdstack in addition to eBird since they are running a "Birds of the Equinox" project. The list should appear below; if not, you can follow the link.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Loose Feathers #179

Bird and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environmental news
Bird-related Podcasts
Blog carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Now Reading: Tar Sands

Birders in the United States probably first heard of the oil extraction projects in northern Alberta last spring, when hundreds of ducks – mostly Buffleheads – were killed by landing in a bitumen tailings retention pond. While the company that built the pond may not have intended to kill the birds, the deaths were no accident. They were a predictable result of one of the worst ongoing environmental disasters in North America.

As conventional sources of petroleum are gradually being exhausted, oil companies have turned to other ways of extracting this valuable liquid. Among the new sources of fuel is tar sand oil, or bitumen. The largest bitumen deposits are in Northern Alberta, and major oil companies have been mining it as quickly as they can. Andrew Nikiforuk documents the environmental degradation that results from tar sand mining in his new book, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent.

Unlike conventional petroleum, bitumen cannot be pumped out of the ground; it must be mined instead. The easiest way to mine bitumen is to strip all the trees and soil that covers a bitumen deposit and then dig it out with massive earth movers. The operation resembles the mountaintop removal process for mining coal in the Appalachians. The extracted tar is then boiled to separate the heavy oil from sand and clay. Deeper bitumen deposits must be extracted by pumping steam into an underground cavern and then pumping out the melted bitumen (a process called in situ mining).

For the first method, each barrel of bitumen requires two tons of earth and three barrels of fresh water. The water used to boil tar is too toxic to dump in a river (or anywhere else, really), so it is pumped into massive retaining ponds, which are themselves disasters waiting to happen if any of the dams fail. The hapless Buffleheads landed in one of these. The second method requires even more water and likewise produces toxic waste. Both methods have had a drastic impact on the local water supply. The summer flow of the Athabasca River has fallen by 30% since the 1970s because mining operations have used so much of its water. Meanwhile, in situ mining operations threaten the groundwater supply. In neither case has there been any long-term planning for drought or climate change, and Alberta's regulatory agencies have consistently overlooked the projects' environmental impacts.

Both methods contribute far more greenhouse gases than conventional oil extraction as bitumen mining is highly energy intensive.

Nikiforuk suggests some remedies for the ongoing tar sands abuses. Unfortunately almost all of them rely on either the Canadian or American government to provide adequate regulation and energy planning to reduce the environmental impacts of tar sands mining and shift to sustainable energy. Given that both governments are captive to oil interests (as Nikiforuk demonstrates), I have trouble seeing this happening.

For this week only, Tar Sands is available as a free download at its publisher's website. Bloggers who link to the download site can receive a free hard copy of the book in addition to the pdf.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I and the Bird

Rob Fergus takes an unconventional approach to linking the posts submitted for I and the Bird #96.

Maryland Announces New Horseshoe Crab Policy

Some conservation groups are praising Maryland's new horseshoe crab policy. Maryland, like other mid-Atlantic states, has been trying to rebuild the populations of horseshoe crabs and the shorebirds that depend on their eggs while maintaining a profitable commercial fishing industry. Horseshoe crabs come ashore along the Atlantic coast to spawn in late spring, and many shorebird species time their migrations to arrive in our area when fresh horseshoe crab eggs are most abundant. Red Knots were hit particularly hard by the sudden spike in horseshoe crab harvests in the 1990s and remain on the brink of extinction as a result. Other shorebirds like Semipalmated Sandpipers are also threatened by the reduced food supply.

It is not clear to me that this new policy is significantly better than the default option offered by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Committee. The ASMFC has set a harvest quota of 170,000 crabs in Maryland for the past two years. All the Maryland policy appears to add to the commission's policy is a 2:1 male-to-female harvest ratio. So crabs will continue to be removed from beaches at the same rate as last year, but there may be more females to lay eggs.

By most accounts, it will take some time before the Red Knot population can recover. First, horseshoe crabs need to recover sufficiently to provide a large mass of eggs on Atlantic coast beaches. Since horseshoe crabs take nine years to mature and spawn, that could take a decade or more. Red Knots presumably will need even more time for their population to reach stable levels. So over all that time, there will be a continual need to have harvest restrictions in place.

If government agencies continue to push male-only harvests or 2:1 male-to-female ratios in order to sidestep the issue of whether the overall limit is low enough, then over time we may see the development of an unnatural imbalance in the numbers of male and female horseshoe crabs. For the present that may not be too much of a concern, since the sex ratio is presumably close enough to natural. In the future, it could have unintended effects if pushed too far, such as making it more difficult for females to find enough mates or reducing genetic diversity among younger crabs. It is an issue that bears watching, and I hope that our regulatory agencies have taken it into account in their planning.

Dispersing an Oil Spill Harms Fish

According to a recent study, using chemicals such as detergents to disperse an oil spill helps surface animals but increases the harm to fish:

"The detergents may be the best way to treat spills in the long term because the dispersed oil is diluted and degraded," says Biology professor Peter Hodson. "But in the short term, they increase the bioavailability and toxicity of the fuel to rainbow trout by 100-fold."

The detergents are oil dispersants that decrease the surface tension between oil and water, allowing floating oil to mix with water as tiny droplets. Dr. Hodson and his team found that dispersion reduces the potential impacts of oil on surface-dwelling animals, While this should enhance biodegradation, it also creates a larger reservoir of oil in the water column.

This increases the transfer of hydrocarbons from oil to water, Dr. Hodson explains. The hydrocarbons pass easily from water into tissues and are deadly to fish in the early stages of life. "This could seriously impair the health of fish populations, resulting in long-term reductions in economic returns to fisheries," he says.
This should probably not dissuade recovery teams from doing what they can to remove surface oil. However, the deadly effects on young fish may explain why it takes so long for ecosystems to recover from oil spills. This really emphasizes the need to prevent oil spills from happening in the first place.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Hybrid Duck: A Wood Shoveler?

My sisters (Sarah and Belinda) visited the Brandywine Zoo in Wilmington over the weekend and found a very strange duck in one of the enclosures. This does not resemble any known species of duck, or at least not any depicted in my field guides. Instead, it is most likely a hybrid between two species. So the question is, which species are involved?

Here are two photos of the bird:

When I first saw those two pictures I thought it was a hybrid Mallard, possibly crossed with a Green-winged Teal. The green head and chestnut breast suggested Mallard, while the fine barring on the flanks and blue-green speculum suggested the Teal. However, the following picture suggests another answer.

Sarah told me that the Northern Shoveler in that photo, left alone with no female shovelers to woo, instead was seeking the company of the female Wood Ducks in the same pond. His amorous advances were agressively resisted by the male Wood Ducks, who clearly saw the shoveler as a competitor. If the male shoveler's courtship had been successful in a previous breeding season, this hybrid duck could be a Northern Shoveler X Wood Duck.

That answer does not satisfy me entirely, since it fails to explain the presence of fine gray barring along the bird's flanks, a feature present in neither Wood Ducks nor Northern Shovelers. However, it seems the most likely solution given the observed behaviors. Any thoughts?

All photos by Sarah Beetham.

Monday, March 16, 2009

DC Snowy Owl Update

A Snowy Owl is still being seen in Washington, D.C., according to an Americablog contributor:

I saw what appeared to be a white owl on the building across the street from me late this afternoon. My upstairs neighbor, Rick Bloom, is a professional photographer and he got a great picture of the bird for me. I'm pretty sure it is a snowy owl, which I had seen once in awhile when I lived in Maine, but never expected to see here in D.C.
According to a post on MDOsprey, the location is in the Kalorama neighborhood. Watch that listserv for further updates.

There is a photo of the owl at the Americablog link. In my opinion, the owls pictured at Americablog and in last week's Post article look different enough that there may be two birds involved. Note that the Post owl has a clean white breast and light barring on the flanks and belly, while the Americablog owl has brown streaking on its breast and a heavily barred belly. Some of the difference could be due to the angle, quality of light, or other photographic conditions, but I do not think those would make that much of a difference. In any case, it is something for DC birders to consider.

Bird Bloggers Tour Long Island, Part 2

After spending the early part of the day at Jamaica Bay, the four of us set off in Patrick's car for Jones Beach State Park. Upon arriving at the Coast Guard Station on the western end of the park, we scanned the bay and saw many of the same waterbird species as at Jamaica Bay, with the addition of two distant Long-tailed Ducks in flight and a few Common Loons. Near the parking lot, we also saw a Northern Harrier, the only raptor at any of our birding stops.

I was eager to visit the area around the nature center, a short walk away, since Lapland Longspurs, a potential life bird, sometimes hang around the dunes there. No longspurs were evident yesterday, but Horned Larks supported the spring theme by singing their tinkly songs from all directions. A flock of Snow Buntings flew overhead and an Ipswich Savannah Sparrow was also present. It was evident from the many tracks in the sand that songbirds had been very busy in the dunes.

We could see from the entrance drive that a wintering Snowy Owl was still present, with its head just visible above the dune. It gave itself away by turning its head and blinking, something no lingering pile of snow or plastic bag would do. Moving around to the boardwalk gave us a full-body view of the owl. This was my fourth Snowy Owl sighting this year, something extraordinary considering that, prior to this winter, I had only seen one in my entire life, and that was three years ago.

Unfortunately we also saw two people walk out across the dunes on a route with no marked path. They did this despite signage advising visitors to keep off the dunes and fencing to emphasize the point. It was especially disturbing considering that they set out over the dunes fairly close to where the owl was roosting. Horned Lark, too, is a species of special concern in New York. Plants and animals in urban settings have enough trouble surviving without additional stress caused by people trampling through habitats.

When we walked back to the Coast Guard Station, we scanned the bay a second time. Six American Oystercatchers were standing on a distant sandbar. On a closer sandbar, Corey spotted a Glaucous Gull preening itself amid a crowd of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. As we stood and watched the gull, a life bird for me, other birders walked up for a look at it. One of them spotted a trio of Piping Plovers land farther back on the same sandbar. These endangered plovers are just beginning to return from their wintering grounds.

Leaving Jones Beach, we made our third stop at Point Lookout. A rumored Eared Grebe failed to materialize; though several grebes were present, all were obstinately Horned. Shorebirds, too, were notable mainly by their absence, with the exception of a single Sanderling and a handful of oystercatchers. (By the way, oystercatchers are fine birds to watch, but I had hoped for a Purple Sandpiper or two on the jetties.) We had better luck finding the Harlequin Ducks at the jetty on the inlet between Point Lookout and Jones Beach. These beautiful birds stayed close to shore so we had as good of views of them as one could ask. Two of them appeared to be males in eclipse plumage; they were not nearly as colorful as the one in breeding plumage.

After a short lunch break, we made our final birding stop at Cammanns Pond. This site is a body of water with a small island in the middle, and a narrow strip of park along one side. We visited in the hopes of finding a reported Ross's Goose, a potential life bird for Carrie and me and a good bird for the East Coast. Given the location, the pond had a surprisingly diverse waterbird congregation, with the expected Brant and Canada Geese being joined by Northern Shovelers, Hooded Mergansers, Gadwall, American Black Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, and a couple of Black-crowned Night-Herons. In some ways the most interesting of the more common species was an odd Mallard, which was almost all dark brown, with the exception of its head and nape, which looked deep violet.

Sure enough, the Ross's Goose was present, tucked into a cove on the far side of the island. When it was done preening, it swam across the pond and came very close to where we were standing. (Watch 10,000 Birds and Hawk Owl's Nest for photos.) This was a much better way to see a life bird than trying to pick it out of a flock of Snow Geese hundreds of feet away. As an aside, one Ring-billed Gull kept screaming and dive-bombing other gulls, geese, and sometimes bare patches of water. What inspired the attacks was unclear.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Patrick again and meeting Corey and Carrie, and I hope to get together for birding again soon! Thanks especially to Patrick, who picked me up at my home and did all of the driving. Watch Hawk Owl's Nest, Great Auk or Greatest Auk, and 10,000 Birds for more posts on the weekend.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Bird-blogging Tour of Long Island

Yesterday morning I joined Patrick, Corey, and Carrie for a day of birding in Queens and Nassau County. I had met Patrick once before, when we went looking for shorebirds together in the Meadowlands, but I was meeting Corey and Carrie for the first time. We met at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge for our first stop.

Early March is an interesting time to be birding because many winter birds still linger while spring migrants are arriving. Yesterday morning there was a definite feeling of spring in the air despite a low temperature in the 30s. Tree Swallows have returned to Jamaica Bay and were already laying claim to nesting boxes. It was my first time seeing them since late November. Red-winged Blackbirds were singing and proudly displaying their red epaulets. Many blackbirds performed slow, attention-seeking flights to drive off potential competitors. Aside from the blackbirds and swallows, many other birds were singing.

As we walked around the West Pond we spotted an assortment of waterfowl. There was a large raft of Greater Scaup and slightly smaller flocks of Ruddy Ducks, Northern Shovelers, Buffleheads, and Red-breasted Mergansers. Scattered about were an American Coot, Green-winged Teal, Hooded Mergansers, and Northern Pintails. A few hundred (or maybe a few thousand) Snow Geese were visible from the refuge, but most were on islands far out on the bay. A few dozen approached and landed in the West Pond while we were at the far end of the trail, allowing for some close-up looks at geese in flight. Common Goldeneye were also visible out on the bay but kept their distance.

Some Dark-eyed Juncos and Field Sparrows near the gardens helped push my Queens list up to an even 100. Aside from those species, Common Goldeneye and Common Grackle were also new Queens birds for me. That shows just how good of a birding spot Jamaica Bay can be, as my Queens list is the result of just a handful of visits.

Our adventures in Nassau County will follow later in part 2. Watch 10,000 Birds, Hawk Owl's Nest, and Great Auk or Greatest Auk for their comments on the field trip and anything that I missed.

The Moth and Me

This morning marks the very first edition of The Moth and Me, a new blog carnival about the neglected and sometimes despised members of the order Lepidoptera.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

New EBird Portal for Backyards

EBird has released a new portal specifically for people who watch birds primarily in their backyards. The new My Yard eBird provides birdwatchers who enjoyed the Great Backyard Bird Count with an easy way to track the birds in their backyard and make their sightings available to scientists.

Check out birdchaser for more information.

Some Thoughts on Twitter and Birding

Over the past week, Gunnar Engblom posted two primers on how Twitter can be used by birders. I recommend both of them, especially for readers who are not familiar with microblogging. You can read them at his blog: An introduction and Twitter, hashtags and RSS feeds.

Twitter is a webapp that enables users to post short updates ("tweets") about where they are or what they are doing. Updates are limited to 140 characters but may include links to more information or hashtags to make related posts easier to find. For example, #birds links to a page listing recent tweets about birds. (Gunnar explains how to use hashtags in more detail.) A user can choose to follow other users and in turn can attract followers. At its best, it is a tool for users in disparate locations to participate in conversations about shared interests or current events.

Once per week Rare Bird Alerts (RBAs), while still useful, are usually "old news" by the time they hit the hotlines. Currently they act as a summary of the sightings posted on local email lists and reports from refuges that maintain sightings logs. Email lists have already replaced RBAs as a primary source for rare bird information. Meanwhile, eBird is challenging the primacy of email-based notifications with its rare bird gadget and rarity map.

So how does Twitter relate to RBAs? As with mailing lists, birders can tweet their rare bird sightings in time for other birders to visit the location and see the bird. One can even provide real-time updates (possibly with photos!) by posting via cell phone. Because of this, Twitter has real potential as a rare bird alert system, especially in areas with a significant number of birders who use the webapp. As Gunnar argues, birders in a state or region can mark their tweets with relevant hashtags (e.g., "#njbrd") to make it easier for others to track rare bird tweets.

However, Twitter is not able to replace email-based networks just yet. While Twitter activity has soared in the past few months, especially with the recent media boost, there are still relatively few people using it, both among the population generally and birders specifically. Even among social media enthusiasts, there are a lot more people on Facebook or MySpace. Twitter also must compete with an array of similar microblogging services like Identi.ca. There are some social networks that cater specifically to birders, the best of which is ChirpTracker (currently in invitation-only beta). So far, we do not have a good way to collate the activity streams coming from all these various services, which makes it difficult to rely on them for rare bird information.

That said, I think that Twitter is a great service and has a lot of potential for birders to communicate with each other. ChirpTracker may turn out to be more useful for rare bird posts, since it features built-in mapping functions and will make it easier to find other local users in the near future. I could see either or them, or perhaps a webapp yet to be unveiled, supplanting email lists once they build up a large enough user base.

If you are on Twitter, or join in the future, you can follow my tweets at twitter.com/dendroica. Find other birders via the Twitter birdwatchers' group. If you would like to try ChirpTracker, you can request an invitation at the website or by joining Twitter and sending a message to @chirptracker.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Loose Feathers #178

Wilson's Snipe / Photo by W.F. Kubichek

Birding and ornithology news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environmental news
Carnivals and newsletters

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Oil Spill on the Australian Coast

There has been another oil spill, this time near Moreton Island on Australia's eastern coast. There is, of course, a wildlife refuge close enough to be affected. Like all Australian habitats, it is rich in unique species. According to news reports, 31 tanks containing ammonium nitrate broke loose from the Pacific Adventure during a cyclone, and one of the tanks damaged the ship's hull sufficiently to cause an oil leak. How much oil leaked varies in news reports between 20 and 30 tonnes.

At least three oil-coated pelicans will be evacuated to Brisbane from Moreton Island for emergency medical treatment by the Environmental Protection Agency today, with dozens more casualties expected.

Trevor Hassard, of the Tangalooma Dolphin Education Centre, said the slick had covered the northern tip of Moreton Island, from Blue Lagoon to Yellow Cape, and had stretched as far south as Eagers Creek, in the Moreton Bay National Park.

The area is home to a mass bird rookery, as well as diverse fish and turtle populations.

"It just makes you want to cry," Mr Hassard, who is assisting with the clean up, told brisbanetimes.com.au this afternoon....

"We've had three pelicans come in already and we've tried to clean them but the EPA is going to evacuate them because they need chemical treatment to stop them ingesting any of the oil.

"It is really sad what is happening here ...and the reality is, it is probably going to get worse."

Mr Hassard said birds on the island, including sandpipers, turns, seagulls and curlews, would freeze to death because the oil nullified the insulating effect of their feathers.
Apparently the ammonium nitrate containers could work additional mischief if any of them started to leak, as the chemical fertilizer could cause an algae bloom.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

How the Great Swamp Became a Wildlife Refuge

Great Swamp NWR is currently one of the top birding destinations in central New Jersey. Its borders contain the marshes, swamps, woodland, and meadows that the Passaic River as it winds its way through Morris and Somerset counties. I personally have seen 119 species of birds there; the refuge list stands at 244.

But the Great Swamp could have been an airport rather than a wildlife refuge, if the Port Authority had not met with resistance from the residents of surrounding towns.

The postwar years were an era of unprecedented ground travel, too. The Federal Highway Act of Dwight Eisenhower was finally funding plans for interstate highways that had been on the drawing boards for years.

Two of these in New Jersey were Routes 78 and 287.

They would intersect not far from the Great Swamp, making the new airport convenient for New Yorkers and Jerseyans, as well as people from eastern Pennsylvania. The Port Authority thought the swamp was perfect for other reasons, too.

It already was flat -- and sparsely populated. The small towns around it -- the Chathams, Bernards Township, Madison, Harding -- probably couldn't raise much political opposition and would welcome the influx of jobs and industry....

The late Helen Fenske, a self-described Green Village housewife, began to put together a coalition of fundraising volunteers to buy up the land and deed it to the U.S. Department of the Interior for a nature preserve. This was 1960, decades before the discovery that a rare salamander could stop a huge development in its tracks....

They enlisted the help of Marcellus Hartley Dodge and his wife, Geraldine, a legend among animal lovers. With Dodge startup money, wealth built from Remington firearms, the group began to purchase tracts of Great Swamp land. But they also raised money in small donations from regular people.

By 1960, they had 1,000 acres. By 1964, they had more than 3,000, which met federal requirements to create a wildlife refuge.

On May 29, 1964, the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge became the first federally designated wilderness area east of the Mississippi.
It is now difficult to picture that area with an airport in the middle of the swamp. I am certainly glad that plan did not come to fruition.

(link via)

Snowy Owl in DC?

Today's Washington Post has a photograph of a Snowy Owl seen at 17th and L Streets NW.

The bird may move around, so keep an eye on MD Osprey for the latest information.

Coal Ash in Western Maryland

Four thousand gallons of toxic coal ash almost landed in the Potomac River. The ash came from a plant run by NewPage near Luke, Maryland.

Stoltzfus said the bulk of the sludge spilled onto the West Virginia river bank across from NewPage's mill in Luke, about 210 miles upstream from Washington. Workers were expected to finish cleaning the stream bank Tuesday, Stoltzfus said.

She said a minor amount of sludge caused discoloration in the river about 30 feet downstream, with no sign of harm to any fish. The spill also was not expected to taint any drinking water supplies.

Both Stoltzfus and Koontz said the dime-sized hole in the 8-inch diameter, carbon-steel pipe probably was created by the abrasive mixture of ash and water moving through it.

The ash comes from coal the company burns to power the mill. Three 800-foot pipelines carry the ash to a 1.2 million gallon storage lagoon across the river....

Koontz said the company reported a smaller leak of about 20 gallons from one of the ash pipelines in November.
The image below shows the plant in Maryland, the pipeline, and the lagoons across the Potomac River in West Virginia.

This was a narrow escape, and the incident underlines the need for better regulations and oversight of how coal waste is treated. Our water resources are too important to have them threatened by a leaky pipeline or a weakened impoundment dam.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Guilty Plea in San Francisco Bay Oil Spill

The legal case against the pilot of the Cosco Busan, the source of an oil spill in San Francisco Bay two years ago, has resulted in a plea bargain:

Capt. John Cota, 61, admitted in a San Francisco courtroom that he acted negligently in piloting the 901-foot-long Cosco Busan in a heavy morning fog Nov. 7, 2007, without using the ship's radar or discussing his plans with the captain and crew. He also admitted failing to disclose all the prescription drugs he was taking when he renewed his federal and state pilot's licenses in 2006 and 2007....

Besides imprisonment, the plea agreement includes a fine of between $3,000 and $30,000. Cota, a vessel pilot for 26 years, has surrendered his license and said in his plea agreement that he would not reapply until January 2010.

Cota and the ship's owners and operators are also defendants in civil damage suits by state and federal agencies and by fishers and crabbers seeking reimbursement for their losses....

The Cosco Busan hit the second tower of the bridge west of Yerba Buena Island. Oil pouring from a gash on the ship's port side killed more than 2,000 birds and reached the bay shoreline and ocean beaches in Marin and San Mateo counties. Government agencies have estimated the cost of the damage and the cleanup at $60 million.

Last month the National Transportation Safety Board found that Cota had made numerous errors and had been impaired by his prescription drugs.

The board also faulted the ship's captain for failing to plot a navigation plan or communicate with Cota. It criticized state and federal regulators for continuing to license Cota despite his sleep disorder, his use of medications known to affect judgment, and what investigators described as his history of accidents.

The ship's operating company, Fleet Management Ltd. of Hong Kong, still faces six felony charges for allegedly falsifying documents to interfere with the federal investigation. Illston granted the company's request to postpone its trial from April to Sept. 14.
In this case, Cota admitted to violating the Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Here is some background on the charges against the company.