Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Fireflies and Mating Behavior

Carl Zimmer has an interesting article on a firefly researcher, Sara Lewis, in today's NY Times. She has been studying firefly mating behaviors for the past 25 years. Fireflies, also known as "lightning bugs," communicate with potential partners using the light displays we know so well.

The more Dr. Lewis watched firefly courtship, the clearer it became that the females were carefully choosing mates. They start dialogues with up to 10 males in a single evening and can keep several conversations going at once. But a female mates with only one male, typically the one she has responded to the most....

If females preferred some flashes over others, Dr. Lewis wondered why those preferences had evolved in the first place. One possible explanation was that the signals gave female fireflies a valuable clue about the males. Somehow, mating with males with certain flash patterns allowed females to produce more offspring, which would inherit their preference.

It is possible that females use flashes to figure out which males can offer the best gifts. In many invertebrate species, the males provide females with food to help nourish their eggs. Dr. Lewis and her colleagues discovered that fireflies also made these so-called nuptial gifts — packages of protein they inject with their sperm....

Receiving nuptial gifts, Dr. Lewis and her colleagues have shown, can make a huge difference in the reproductive success of a female firefly. “It just about doubles the number of eggs a female can lay in her lifetime,” she said. One reason the effect is so big is that fireflies do not eat during their two-week adulthood. A slowly starving female can use a nuptial gift to build more eggs.
There is much more about Lewis's research and firefly behavior at the link. One of the more interesting details is that there is at least one species of firefly that preys on other firefly species. It tracks potential prey by their flashes, and the types of flashes most attractive to females are also most likely to draw the predator's attention.

I have become more interested in fireflies since enrolling in the Firefly Watch sponsored by the Museum of Science in Boston. Firefly Watch is a citizen science program that asks participants to spend ten minutes once a week recording the flashing behavior of fireflies in their yard or other habitat. So far I have only noted one flash pattern among the fireflies in my neighborhood – a single, yellow-green flash repeated at regular intervals. Based on the appearance of the fireflies I see in daylight, I think these probably belong to the Photinus genus.

Monday, June 29, 2009

More on the Frozen Shorebirds

Since I posted on this once already, I would like to post an update on the breeding conditions in northern Canada. First, the BSI blog has posted some additional photographs from frozen areas. Most come from the Northwest Territories, but there are also a few from northern Quebec. Secondly (again via the BSI blog), some Ontarian ornithologists emailed a summary of breeding conditions via a birding listserve. Conditions are not uniformly bad. Spring across the Arctic was 2-3 weeks late, so that breeding will likely be reduced, but not a total washout. The worst conditions appear to be in Manitoba and the Northwest Territories.

I am reproducing the location summaries below:

Ontario: Ken Abraham reports that conditions in the Hudson Bay Lowlands were about 10 days late from Attawapiskat south on James Bay, including Akimiski Island, with Canada Geese and Snow Geese hatching in mid June, more like the 1990s average than the 2000s average and within the overall norms. Other species on Akimiski Island were correspondingly late. His guess is that for those species that require shorter time there will be some reduction but not huge. Perhaps the predation effect will be somewhat greater if alternate species are less available. Because coastal snow, ice and water inundation conditions were similar from Cape Henrietta Maria to the Manitoba border, Ken expects that for Canada Geese nesting within 40-60 km from the coast, a much reduced effort and productivity will be the norm. Snow Geese at Cape Henrietta Maria were greatly down and the suggestion of a 90% reduction seems to fit what they saw on their survey. However, beyond 40-60 km inland, he thinks conditions will be different. Mark Peck said that species nesting away from the Hudson Bay Coast in boreal bogs and fens such as yellowlegs should not be severely impacted because much of the freeze took place near the coast.

Manitoba: The situation is worse in northern Manitoba at Churchill where temperatures were well below normal until recently and the snow cover melted late. However, Erica Nol reports that birds have started to nest, just very late, and it won’t be a complete bust for shorebirds if there are enough bare spots. Whimbrels and Hudsonian Godwits are nesting, but overall nesting success should be below average for most shorebirds in northern Manitoba.

Nunavut: Snow melt was up to three weeks late in mainland Nunavut north of Manitoba. Recent temperatures have been close to normal. Much of Baffin Island is now snow free and conditions there and on Bylot Island are about normal. High Arctic breeders should have a good breeding year.

Northwest Territories: Vicky Johnston suspects it will be a poor breeding year in parts of the Western Arctic. Spring was roughly three weeks late in Yellowknife on Great Slave Lake based on leaf-out. The Mackenzie Valley and Delta warmed early but then cooled off again. The Delta flooded slowly and the water receded slowly, so some prime shorebird breeding areas were subject to heavy predation.

Yukon: Cameron Eckert reports a late spring, but once the heat came, everything shifted into high gear.

Alaska: Declan Troy reports from the North Slope that the snow on the tundra is long gone. It was much warmer earlier in the month and his guess is that the breeding season has been early there.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Rails and Odonates

Yesterday evening I had the privilege of hearing a Black Rail at South Cape May Meadows. It vocalized regularly for about an hour starting around 7pm. Unfortunately it did not emerge from the brush, though it had done so on previous occasions for other birders. This was a life bird for me. I also heard a King Rail doing its "kek-burrr" call while I was waiting for the Black Rail, and later on a Black-billed Cuckoo emerged from the shrubbery. Sometimes waiting and watching in a single location pays off.

As the weather heats up and birds quiet down, I generally start paying more attention to large flying insects than to birds. Today I saw good numbers of odonates at both the state park and the meadows. I have included a few images of them below.

What I think is a female Orange Bluet:

Eastern Forktail:

A Familiar Bluet:

Two images of a very cooperative Halloween Pennant:

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Climate Bill Passes the House

Yesterday the House of Representatives passed the Waxman-Markey bill, its version of cap-and-trade legislation to fight climate change. There are good reasons for both supporting and opposing it. The bill will not reduce carbon emissions far enough to prevent catastrophic climate change, and contains more industry handouts than I would like. That said, its passage marks a step forward, especially if it makes it through the Senate – better to have an inadequate bill than no bill, in my opinion.

The heart of the bill is a "cap" that would lower greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and to 83 percent below those levels by 2050. It would enforce the cap by requiring many sources of such pollution, including power plants, factories and oil refineries, to amass buyable, sellable credits equal to their emissions.

The bill's co-sponsors, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Markey, rejected Obama's proposal to auction all emission allowances and use most of the revenues for tax cuts. Instead the measure would give away 85 percent of the annual emission allowances to consumers, coal-intensive manufacturers and utilities, as well as a variety of clean-energy interests, such as biofuel developers and superconductor makers. Most of those free allowances would be phased out in 10 to 20 years.

That set off a lobbying feeding frenzy, with 880 business and interest groups registered to lobby on the bill.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) won concessions giving the Agriculture Department, instead of the Environmental Protection Agency, the authority to run a program that would give offsets to farmers who use tilling techniques that would keep carbon dioxide trapped in the soil.
You can find out how your representative voted here. The bill passed by a tight margin, 219-212.

On the same day, we got a reminder that high carbon levels cause more harm than a simple temperature increase. High carbon levels have been linked with excessive ear bone growth in fish.
A brief paper published in the June 26 issue of the journal Science describes experiments in which fish that were exposed to high levels of carbon dioxide experienced abnormally large growth in their otoliths, or ear bones. Otoliths serve a vital function in fish by helping them sense orientation and acceleration.

The researchers had hypothesized that otoliths in young white seabass growing in waters with elevated carbon dioxide would grow more slowly than a comparable group growing in seawater with normal CO2 levels. They were surprised to discover the reverse, finding "significantly larger" otoliths in fish developing in high-CO2 water.
So far it is not known what effects this might have on fish.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Loose Feathers #193

Tree Swallow / Photo by Thomas G. Barnes

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Cap and Trade up for a Vote?

Reports indicate that the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act will come up for a vote on the floor of the House tomorrow.

Cap and trade is a signature issue for President Obama and the Democratic congressional leadership, and it is the centerpiece of the 1,201-page climate bill co-sponsored by Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hopes to bring the measure to the House floor for a vote tomorrow -- before a week-long recess for the Fourth of July holiday -- but a dispute with Republicans over annual spending bills could delay that plan....

A cap-and-trade system sets a limit on the nation's emissions of greenhouse gases, then issues or auctions emission allowances that can be bought or sold by individuals, funds and companies. Over time, the cap is lowered to reduce the nation's emissions. Making emitters pay for carbon dioxide, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, would provide incentives for developing renewable energy sources and new technologies to limit emissions from coal plants.
In the past few days I have received a high volume of correspondence from environmental organizations in preparation for the vote. Most support it, but a few, such as Friends of the Earth, oppose it.* While I sympathize with their concerns, I think that it is better to get something passed now, and fix any problems later, than wait for a bill that may not have a chance of passing through the Senate. Despite its problems, the bill would at least start us moving in the right direction, movement that has been sorely lacking for the past ten years. This summer there is popular support and political leadership in place to get something done. It would be terrible to squander the opportunity and emerge with nothing.

The reporters at Grist have examined the bill's agribusiness compromises and protections for tropical forests.

* If you want to contact your Congresscritter to support the bill, you can do so through the NWF website.

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #103 is online at the Birdfreak blog.

Cold Time for Birds

According to recent news reports, northern Canada is unusually cold this year.

According to Environment Canada, the spring of 2009 is record-late in the eastern Arctic with virtually 100 per cent snow cover from James Bay north as of June 11.

May temperatures in northern Manitoba were almost four degrees C below the long-term average of -0.7, and in early June, temperatures averaged three degrees below normal.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration images confirm snow and ice blanket all of northern Manitoba, part of northern Ontario and almost all of the eastern Arctic as of June 12. U.S. arieal flight surveys confirm the eastern Arctic has no sign of spring so far.

"I have lived in Churchill since the 1950s, and this the latest spring I have ever seen here," said local resident Pat Penwarden. "The spring of 1962 was almost this bad."
The persistent cold has placed this year's breeding season in doubt for many shorebirds and other species. Arctic breeders only have a short window of time in which to mate, incubate their eggs, and rear their chicks. The longer the cold persists, the less likely they are to complete the process successfully.
According to Cornell University researchers, currently at Churchill, shorebird nesting is already three-weeks late, and has yet to start.

The first Canada goose nests were initiated on June 7, more than one month later than normal, and probably not early enough to allow goslings to mature before the fall migration flight. Canada geese are the first birds to nest in northern Manitoba. Many northern birds require more than 100 days to nest, incubate young and rear offspring to a condition suitable for fall migration.

According to Robert Rockwell of The City University of New York, who studies geese in northern Manitoba, if the geese have not begun incubating clutches of eggs before June 11, there is almost no chance that their offspring will be strong enough to endure the long southbound fall flight.
As a result, we may start seeing some southbound migrants early this year in the lower 48. Many birds simply will not nest. In 2004, many birds started heading south in late June, well ahead of the normal schedule.

Under normal circumstances, a lost breeding season would not be a disaster. Evolution has equipped most species with the ability to survive a bad year here or there without significant risk of extinction. But these are not normal circumstances. First, as the linked article notes, this is the fifth delayed spring in the past thirteen years, which seems to be unusually high. Second, some of the species that breed around the Hudson Bay are already in trouble for unrelated reasons. I hope that this would not prove to be a tipping point of sorts for them.

See aerial views and video of the still-frozen north at the Boreal Songbird Blog.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Raritan River Flickr Group

Yesterday when I searched for a Raritan River group on Flickr, I found that there was no such group, even though there were a few vaguely related groups. So, I created one. This is a public group, so any Flickr users are welcome to join and post photos. Subjects may include the river itself, associated structures and parks, or life along the river. Photos from the North Branch or South Branch are also welcome.

My interest in finding such a group was sparked by a walk I took on Sunday afternoon along the Highland Park side of the river. I took a lot of pictures, some of which I added to the group. I also saw a lot of birds. Most of them were the expected local breeders – Gray Catbirds, American Robins, Northern Cardinals, and the like. Then there were swarms of swallows all along the river. Most were Northern Rough-winged Swallows, as far as I could tell, with a few Tree Swallows mixed in. Best of all, there was at least one pair of Cliff Swallows, a rare breeder in New Jersey and even rarer this far east of the Delaware. My county can still turn up a good bird from time to time.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Local Pollinators

In continuing observance of National Pollinators Week, I would like to share some of my recent photographs of pollinators. These were clustered around a patch of common milkweed plants along the Raritan River. First, there was base group of ants and flies crawling around the flowers. The flies are most likely members of the Syrphidae or Bombyliidae, two families of bee mimics that also pollinate flowers. You can read more about those families here and here.

In the second photo, the ants and flies are joined by a Cabbage White, a very common but introduced butterfly species.

Finally, a honeybee, another common but introduced pollinator, joined the fray.

Pollinator Week 2009

This week, June 22-28, is National Pollinator Week. Pollinators have been in the news recently due to concerns about colony collapse disorder among honeybees. Other pollinating insects may also struggle in the face of indiscriminate pesticide use and loss of key host plants and habitats. This really should not be. There are many areas in which wildlife conservation and human interests conflict; preserving threatened species may mean sacrificing some economic benefit or real estate development. Pollination is not one of them. This is one area in which insects, birds, and humans can work together for mutual benefit.

First off, what is a pollinator? A pollinator is any animal that transfers pollen from the male to the female parts of a flower. Most famous, of course, are bees. In addition to bees, there are a large number of other insects, such as flies and butterflies that accomplish the same task. Birds, such as hummingbirds and honeyeaters, and mammals such as bats may also assist. Pollination benefits the pollinators because they usually receive some reward, such as nectar, in exchange for unconsciously spreading pollen. The plants benefit by being able to produce seeds for future summers. We benefit by eating the fruit of their fertilization or having pretty flowers to admire.

So what threats do they face, and what can we do help pollinators? As with most vulnerable wildlife, a key factor is habitat loss. As more natural habitat is replaced by subdivisions and economic development, key host plants for larvae and adults can disappear, to be replaced by asphalt or a grass-based monoculture. A solution to this problem is to increase plant diversity by planting pollinator gardens, with native plants appropriate for your area. State-based native plant societies are a good source of information on appropriate plantings, as are the NAPPC's regional guides.

A second problem is pesticide use, which can sometimes kill off beneficial or neutral insects in addition to the relatively few target species. To prevent harm to pollinators (or insect predators of pest insects), use pesticides only as a last resort. Instead, try the methods outlined by the US Fish & Wildlife Service as integrated pest management.

Some individuals have also taken to bee-keeping, but not all towns permit this. In fact, many places ban bee-keeping (or did until very recently). That may change as bee-keeping becomes more popular and local governments start to feel pressure from residents. Until then, it is best to check local regulations before building a beehive.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Urban vs. Rural Geese

Urban Canada Geese

As a follow-up to yesterday's post on the local resident Canada Geese, I came across an interesting study of the rural and urban Canada Goose populations in Washington state (via Twitter). It seems that the rural populations of Canada Geese in eastern Washington have been decreasing, to the point that the state canceled the goose hunting season last September. Meanwhile, the urban populations have held steady or increased. The state has launched a goose banding study to find out why.
For the second year, Mikal Moore, a waterfowl specialist for the department, and other biologists brought nets June 19 to the Tri-Cities to trap, band and collar Canada geese as part of a five-year research program into the lifestyles of urban and rural geese.

Biologists and volunteers caught nearly 300 geese at Columbia Park in Kennewick and at Wade Park in Pasco, noting the age and sex of each captured bird before attaching a leg band.

Adult geese also were fitted with white neck collars with visible numbers and codes, which will allow biologists and bird watchers to track them by sight year-round. The banding was timed to occur while geese were molting and thus unable to fly.

Moore said biologists and volunteers had hoped to recapture some of the 309 geese that were banded in 2008 in the Tri-Cities to help in determining annual survival and hunter harvest.

Up to 500 Canada geese will be captured and banded this year in the Tri-Cities, Grant County, Sprague Lake, the Pend Oreille River in northern Washington, and locations in Spokane, Wenatchee, Chelan and Yakima, Moore said.

Biologists will compare migration, reproduction and hunter harvest of urban and rural geese through returns of bands and collar-sighting reports.
It seems unclear how much hunting has affected the goose populations. One goal of the study is to set proper bag limits for future hunting seasons. It would be interesting to know if this trend holds true elsewhere in the country, or if it is just limited to Washington.

As with all banded birds, recovered bands or band sightings should be reported to the Bird Banding Laboratory.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Canada Geese at Donaldson Park

As I mentioned in yesterday's Loose Feathers, the USDA is planning to capture and kill resident Canada Geese at 20 locations around New Jersey's airports. The article does not state how many geese will be killed under the plan. There are currently around 80,000 resident Canada Geese in the state. The goal of the program is to prevent airplanes from striking birds. How successful this project will be is uncertain. As in New York, resident geese are hardly the only birds a plane might strike, and lethal control presents more problems for other species. Geese also reproduce at a very high rate, with multiple clutches of a dozen or so eggs each breeding season.

Just how daunting a task it will be to reduce the state's Canada Goose population was apparent during a walk in my local park this afternoon. Even in this small park, during breeding season when goose numbers should be at their lowest, there was a flock totaling a little over 200 geese. Multiple ages were present, from adults to early-season goslings to more recent goslings. I am including a few images below.

The last two photos show some of the older goslings. These birds are molting out of their fuzzy juvenile plumage into mature plumage but still retain the fuzzballs on the tops of their heads.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Loose Feathers #192

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Fourth Blogiversary

Uploaded to Flickr by tifotter

It was four years ago today, June 18, 2005, that I published my first post here at A DC Birding Blog. Since then I have published over 1,740 posts on numerous topics from bird sightings to how climate change will affect the birds we love to technology that might be useful for birding. The blog has gone through several stages. While I originally intended it as a place for me to post my bird sightings, it is now more of a bird news blog.

The blogosphere has also changed considerably since my first post. At that time it was still possible to keep track of most, if not all, bird blogs; in 2009 that is close to impossible. Some old friends have stopped blogging, while I continue to find interesting new blogs. I am sure that there are more changes in store as this blog enters its fifth year (and beyond).

Thank you to everyone who has read or commented over the past year. Your participation makes maintaining the site very rewarding.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Climate Change Already Affecting Us

Yesterday the government released a report on the effects of climate change on public welfare.

Some of the effects being seen today and cited in the report are familiar, like more powerful tropical storms and erosion of ocean coastlines caused by melting Arctic ice. The study also cites an increase in drought in the Southwest and more intense heat waves in the Northeast as a result of growing concentrations of carbon dioxide and other climate-altering gases in the atmosphere.

Reduced mountain snowpack means earlier melt-offs and reduced stream volumes across the West and Northwest, affecting residential and agricultural water supplies, habitats for spawning fish and reduced hydroelectric power generation, the study found.

But the speed and severity of these effects in the future are expressed with less certainty in the report and will depend to some extent on how quickly the United States and other nations move to reduce emissions.

“What we would want to have people take away is that climate change is happening now, and it’s actually beginning to affect our lives,” said Thomas R. Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a principal author of the report. “It’s not just happening in the Arctic regions, but it’s beginning to show up in our own backyards.”
The full report is available at www.globalchange.gov.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Exxon Ordered to Pay Up

The Ninth Circuit ordered Exxon to pay the $507.5 million it owes to Alaskans for the Exxon Valdez spill.

The ruling by the ninth US Court of Appeals in Pasadena, California was consistent with the figure suggested by the Supreme Court last year. It also awarded plaintiffs 5.9 percent interest starting from the date of the original trial judgment in September 1996.

The cumulative amount of the interest payments could nearly double the 507.5-million-dollar fine.

But the figure is still a small fraction of the five billion dollars in damages Alaska natives, fishermen, business owners and others had originally been awarded by a jury in 1996. That amount was later reduced following appeals by Exxon, which is based in Irving, Texas.
Here it is more than 20 years after the disaster, and Exxon still has not paid restitution for the economic harm caused by the spill. I hope that this decision finally brings the case to a close.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Culling Canada Geese

New York City plans to cull 2,000 Canada Geese from around the city's airports to prevent further collisions between birds and aircraft.

The immediate culling effort — in which the birds will be euthanized — will cost as much as $100,000, Mr. Skyler said, to be shared by the city and the authority. The 40 parks in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx will include Fort Totten and Flushing Meadows-Corona; culling will also take place at city properties like wastewater-treatment plants.

Subsequently, the city will assume the entire cost — $250,000 — of filling in a large land depression on Rikers Island that has attracted geese, Mr. Skyler said. In addition, the city will install signs prohibiting the feeding of geese and other animals in wildlife habitats. The authority will also expand shotgun training for its field wildlife supervisors, for cases where captures are not feasible.
The state estimates that there are 20,000-25,000 Canada Geese within a five mile radius of the city's two airports. As a New York Audubon spokesman points out, removing 2,000 of that population is not going to make a huge difference, especially considering how rapidly geese reproduce. Pairs of Canada Geese will produce several broods over the course of a spring, each of which may have a dozen eggs. Even with normal attrition, that 2,000 should be replaced relatively rapidly.

A second issue is that this action is directed against the resident goose population, but the geese that collided with Flight 1549 were migratory geese from Labrador. While hunting of migratory geese is legal (with proper permits), culling large numbers of them is far more fraught since migratory flocks may include individuals from rare or even threatened subspecies. Because of these factors, culling the resident geese around the airports is only a short-term solution to the problem of bird strikes. Luckily, it looks like they will be testing a bird radar as well.

Update: The plan inspired a protest by Friends of Animals:
Just a few blocks north of Union Square, a crowd gathered outside the headquarters of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on Tuesday afternoon to protest New York City’s plan to kill at least 2,000 geese during their molting season, a time when the geese cannot fly. The protesters accused the mayor’s office of planning the action in secret, in conjunction with the federal Agriculture Department and the Port Authority.

The Port Authority brushed off the protest, insisting that the culling was necessary to prevent bird strikes — and adding a rhyme for good measure. “Our responsibility is to think about safety for people before peace for geese,” a Port Authority spokesman, Stephen Sigmund, said.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Loose Feathers #191

Black-bellied Plover / USFWS

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #102 is online at Birder's Lounge.

Inbreeding a Problem for Spotted Owls

A new study reveals that maintaining genetic diversity is becoming difficult for Spotted Owl populations:

Now, a new study in Conservation Genetics points to the limited DNA pool of the remaining birds as a previously unrecognized reason for their continued decline. Because of this genetic “bottlenecking,” spotted owl populations may be more likely to inbreed and also less resilient to environmental variability, the researchers write. They found the problem was worst in Washington’s Cascade Mountains, an area that has also seen larger population declines.

Most recently, the blame for the spotted owls’ woes has largely fallen on the larger and more aggressive barred owl, an invasive species that has rapidly encroached on its endangered neighbors’ turf. But the authors write that genetic declines are what could potentially funnel the northern spotted owl into an “extinction vortex,” although their data does not reach a verdict one way or another.
The study concludes that whatever new recovery plan the Obama administration proposes will need to account for this problem.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Red-tails Nesting on Capitol Hill

In the midst of a bird breeding season several years ago, I noted a disparity between the New York and Washington birding scenes. New York has multiple pairs of Red-tailed Hawks nesting in prominent locations – most notably Pale Male and Lola on Fifth Avenue. Their nests are ably monitored by local blogs such as City Birder, Urban Hawks, Pale Male Irregulars, and Origin of Species. At the time I knew of no red-tail nests in DC and no blogs devoted to following the nests of red-tails (or other urban raptors, for that matter). Whether that was due to a lack of such nests or cultural differences between birders in the two cities was unclear to me. Now at least one part of that needs to be revised.

A pair of Red-tailed Hawks has taken up residence at the House Rayburn Office Building and built a nest on one of its ledges. My friend Peter Vankevich heard about and photographed the hawks at their nest site in April. This morning the Washington Post featured an interview with Peter at the nest site.

Peter Vankevich heard about the birds a few weeks ago, a pair of red-tailed hawks that had made their nest in the pediment above the entrance to the Rayburn House Office Building, right under the watchful eye of a carved stone eagle. As the author of a monthly bird-watching column in the Hill Rag, he hustled over to see them.

On this particular weekday morning, Peter has his bazooka-like camera lens trained on the nest, only the edge of which is visible from Independence Avenue. He's not sure we'll see the hawks today.

"It's a bit like fishing," he says of birding. The fish aren't biting.
Peter also wrote about the hawk nest in the June 2009 edition of the Hill Rag. This appears to be a late breeding attempt since the hawks were observed carrying sticks to the nest in May; most red-tails commence breeding in March or early April. No chicks or eggs are visible from street level, so it is difficult to tell the status of the nest. Red-tails usually incubate their eggs for 30-35 days, and chicks remain in the nest for about 45 days before fledging.

As far as I know, this is the first time Red-tailed Hawks have attempted nesting near the Capitol. I hope that the nest is successful and that the pair returns for future nesting seasons.

I have included a few of Peter's photographs of the hawks in this post. Click through to see larger versions.

Chesapeake Photo Gallery

This Sunday's Washington Post has a marvelous photo gallery of aerial views of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The photos were made over the course of several decades by Cameron Davidson. The photos show the watershed in all different seasons and weather conditions. They also show the various human impacts – cities, suburbs, farms, and fishing operations. These are interspersed with photos of habitats, such as Blackwater NWR. One photo even shows a Great Blue Heron in flight, from above.

So, go take a look.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

US Airways Flight 1549 Collided with Migratory Geese

The Smithsonian Institute's Feather Identification Laboratory has determined that US Airways Flight 1549 struck a flock of migratory Canada Geese before its crash landing in the Hudson River.

Researchers in the Feather Identification Laboratory at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History used molecular genetic techniques and feather samples from museum collections to determine that the birds involved were Canada geese (Branta canadensis). This is one of the largest species of birds in North America, and the individual birds involved are estimated to have weighed about 8 pounds....

The team took their research to a molecular level at the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute labs in Suitland, Md., where they examined stable-hydrogen isotopes from the feathers to confirm whether the geese were from resident or migratory populations. Stable-hydrogen isotope values in feathers can serve as geographic markers since they reflect the types of vegetation in the bird's diet at the time it grew new feathers after molting. Using a mass spectrometer, which measures the masses and relative concentrations of atoms and molecules at high precision, the scientists compared the bird-strike feather samples with samples from migratory Canada geese and from resident geese close to LaGuardia Airport. Analysis revealed that the isotope values of the geese involved in the crash of Flight 1549 were most similar to migratory Canada geese from the Labrador region and significantly different from resident feathers collected in New York City.
To be clear, this finding does not necessarily mean that the geese in question were migrating at the time of the incident. Instead it means that the geese had bred somewhere north of here – possibly Labrador, possibly someplace else – and migrated to the New York area to spend the winter. This is a normal phenomenon; each winter our resident breeding flocks of Canada Geese are augmented by migratory flocks of Canada and Cackling Geese.

I had thought that if Canada Geese were the culprits, the birds in question would be resident geese, simply because they are so ubiquitous. But in a way, this finding is not surprising. Resident geese are more likely to know the landscape well and have a better sense of the activity and flight paths around area airports. They are thus in a better position to know what areas to avoid so that they do not run into airplanes. Migratory geese, meanwhile, have to learn the area from scratch (or recall it from previous visits), so they may be less aware of potential dangers. I do not know how well geese can apply such knowledge, but it would not surprise me if it were operative in some form.

The Smithsonian scientists hope that their research will help wildlife managers and aviation officials decide how best to prevent such collisions in the future. This type of isotype analysis may also have applications for studying bird strikes on other objects such as communications towers and wind turbines.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Images from the Great Swamp

These are a few more images from Saturday at the Great Swamp. I took all of these along the boardwalk trail on Long Hill Road. Regular swamp visitors may recognize some of the locations.

The images are not in chronological order. And yes, I do seem to have a liking for leaning trees.

The expected breeding birds for the Great Swamp were present, and there was little sign of migration. This meant a lot of veeries and wood thrushes, and smaller number of various flycatchers, vireos, and warblers, plus a few cedar waxwings. There was at least one pair of scarlet tanagers, both of which were gracious enough to make an appearance. The avian highlight for me was a wood thrush that seemed to lack a tail. It must have had a narrow escape at some point. The tail will grow back the next time the bird molts.

Reptiles and amphibians were very active as well, but only the gray treefrog was in a good position for me to photograph it. Other herps included bullfrog, green frog, northern water snake, and black racer. There was also a spotted turtle (pointed out by other birders); I believe that was the first time I have seen one.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

No Longer Pristine

Sea Otter / Photo by Dave Menke (USFWS)

At the time of the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, Prince William Sound and its surroundings were described as pristine (or perhaps formerly pristine). This is something I remember well because it was a new word for me at the time. I find a sad irony in learning a word to describe something unsullied or primeval via one of the worst recorded environmental disasters. That aside, pristine is hardly useful to describe the sound today. Despite the massive cleanup, there is still oil lurking beneath the ground.
Here, on Death Marsh, Mandy Lindberg, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Alaska's Auke Bay, turns over a shovel of sand and broken rock to reveal a glistening pool of brackish oil. The crude can be chemically typed to the Exxon Valdez, and more oil can be found beneath the beach at Death Marsh and at a number of islands around the Sound. "I wouldn't have possibly believed the oil would last this long," says Lindberg. "Studying the spill has been a great learning experience, but if we had known in the years after the spill what we know now, we would have been looking for oil much earlier."

What scientists like Lindberg know now is that the legacy of the Exxon Valdez is still visible — physically, on the beaches of Prince William Sound and in the animal populations in these sensitive waters that have yet to rebound fully. Using funds from the original spill settlement between Exxon and the state of Alaska, scientists from NOAA have carried out major studies that show oil still remains just beneath the surface in many parts of the Sound — close enough for animals to be affected by it. "The oil may not leak out in quantities that are immediately visible, but that doesn't mean it's not there," says Jeep Rice, a NOAA scientist who has led the studies. "We thought the cleanup would be a one-shot deal — but it's still lingering."

Rice and his colleagues picked a sample of 90 random sites at beaches around the Sound and dug about 100 small pits at each site — more than 9,000 in all. They found oil in over half the places they sampled, despite the fact that only 20% of the beaches that had been hit hardest by the spill, like Death Marsh, were included in the study. Altogether, the NOAA scientists estimated that about 20,000 gallons of oil still remained around the Sound, usually buried between 5 in. and 1 ft. below the surface.
The main danger is to creatures that dig in the mud like sea otters, which have regular exposure to a variety of toxins as a result of the spill.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Gray Treefrog

This Gray Treefrog was perched on a railing near one of the blinds at Great Swamp NWR.

Front view:

Friday, June 05, 2009

Loose Feathers #190

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

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Bird Poop in Space, Part 2

Emperor penguin colony at Halley Research StationAs we all know, bird poop is a powerful substance. Splotches of it are easily visible on pretty much any surface. Once it has dried, it is hard to clean off without a good deal of scrubbing. If left to accumulate, it can corrode a surface or become a health hazard. On at least one occasion, bird poop arrived in space when several splotches of it were stuck to the right wing of the space shuttle Discovery. In places where birds congregate, guano can accumulate in very large quantities.

These qualities make bird poop very useful for anyone seeking out bird colonies in remote areas. And, in fact, some scientists have started looking for penguin poop from space. While orbiting satellites are unable to track individual emperor penguins, they can detect the poop-stained ice that marks a breeding site.

"We were mapping one of our bases on an ice shelf, and we knew there was a penguin colony close to there," said Peter Fretwell, a geographer at the British Antarctic Survey.

"I was using a satellite image as a backdrop for the map and it happened to have a reddish-brown stain on one of the creeks that was a possible location for the emperor penguin colony."

"It was quite a lucky find because just a few months beforehand, we had made a mosaic of these satellite images of the whole of Antarctica, so we could go round and track all the colonies."
By studying satellite imagery, the team found 10 unknown colonies and 6 colonies that changed locations, while showing that another 6 that had disappeared. The research, while perhaps ignoble, provides needed information to track how climate change and other threats are affecting emperor penguins.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

DC Council Approves Tax on Single-Use Shopping Bags

Yesterday the DC Council unanimously approved a 5¢ tax on disposable shopping bags distributed at grocery stores and pharmacies. This was a preliminary vote, and the council will take a final vote on the legislation in a few weeks.

Under the plastic bag legislation, called the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act, businesses would keep a penny for each bag sold, and the other four cents would go into a fund to clean up the Anacostia. If businesses offer a discount to consumers who bring reusable bags, they would get to keep two cents for each bag sold.

The legislation, sponsored by council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), was fast-tracked even as some cities rethink proposed plastic bag taxes because of the recession.

The Seattle City Council tried to impose a 20-cent fee on plastic and paper, but the proposal must go before voters in August. In New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) had inserted a similar 5-cent fee on plastic bags in his budget proposal, but the City Council blocked the measure last month over concerns that it would hurt consumers in tight times.

San Francisco is the only large U.S. city that has banned plastic bags.
Unlike most other cities that have passed (or attempted to pass) legislation on this issue, the DC tax will apply to both plastic and paper bags. Paper is sometimes seen as an improvement over plastic as it is more biodegradable and contains fewer toxins. However, it is not significantly more friendly to the environment as its production contributes to habitat destruction (through tree harvesting) and uses a great deal of energy for a product that will be used once and then discarded.

Making the tax apply to both plastic and paper bags removes at least one objection that opponents of bag taxes from the plastic industry are fond of advancing. It also pushes residents towards using reusable bags rather single-use disposable bags. Many stores now sell cheap reusable shopping bags, and similar bags are available through mail order. These are not the only options, however. Pretty much any cloth bag will do, as long as the size and strength are appropriate for the purchases. While obtaining reusable bags may add some up-front cost, reusable bags generally pay for themselves if grocery stores offer a per-bag discount for customers who use them. (At my local food store, the discount is 5¢ per bag, so the cost of a standard-issue reusable bag is refunded after only 20 uses.) The cost may end up being less than advertised, too, as bags are often distributed for free at special events.

Taxing single-use shopping bags is one step towards cleaning towards reducing the volume of waste and cleaning up trash-strewn waterways. Dedicating the revenue raised through this legislation towards Anacostia River clean-ups should bring some needed attention to a beautiful but neglected river. My hope, though, is that few residents pay the tax in the long run, and most bring their own bags.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Birds Dying in Western Australia

Over the weekend, there was a rash of bird deaths in Western Australia, at a landfill site south of Perth. The description of the symptoms sounds horrible:
DEC Pollution Response Unit environmental hazards manager Ken Raine said birds were seen frothing at the mouth and staggering around at the tip yesterday before scores of dead birds were discovered within a kilometre radius of the landfill site.

By today the body count had climbed to more than 200 with ibis, silver gulls, pacific black ducks, a raven and a pelican among the dead....

Some seriously ill birds have also been found among the bodies and are being monitored in a bid to determine the cause of the mass deaths.
The DEC's investigators are now blaming the deaths on a pesticide, Fenthion, but have not determined who dumped it at the landfill or why.
DEC pollution response manager Ken Raine said samples had been taken from waterways to check for contamination and the rubbish tip had been covered with sand while investigations were continuing.

Fenthion is a broad-spectrum organophosphorus insecticide used to control horticultural pests such as fruit fly and aphids as well as mosquitoes and other insects.

It is an active ingredient in a number of products sold at hardware stores, including fly baits and fruit fly sprays. It was not known yesterday how much poison would have been needed to cause so many deaths.

A DEC spokeswoman said if the birds were deliberately poisoned it was an offence under the Wildlife Conservation Act, with fines of up to $4000 for each bird species affected. Illegal dumping of pesticides was covered by the Environmental Protection Act.
A year ago, about 200 gulls died near the same location from an unknown cause. In 2007, lead poisoning killed about 4,000 birds in Esperance on Australia's southern coast.

Fenthion is currently legal in Australia but under review by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. Australia's Northern Territory advises disposing Fenthion away from waterways, which seems not to have been done in this case. Fenthion has been found to be highly toxic to several native Australian bird species.

For those who are curious, Fenthion has been used in the United States to control mosquitos, especially in the aftermath of initial West Nile Virus outbreaks, and in dog shampoos. While it is primarily an insecticide, it is also highly toxic to birds and sometimes used as an avicide (the "Rid-A-Bird perch"). Even when used as an insecticide, its application can result in bird deaths; the American Bird Conservancy lists several incidents of mass bird killings. Due to concerns over its toxicity to humans, it was withdrawn from the U.S. market in 2004 and the EPA canceled its registration.

Monday, June 01, 2009


Two new blog carnivals were posted this morning. Circus of the Spineless #39 is online at Bug Girl's Blog. Meanwhile, Festival of the Trees #36 is at Roundrock Journal.

Update: Scientia Pro Publica #5 is also online today.