Monday, September 28, 2009

Bald Ibis Shot

The Northern Bald Ibis is one of the most endangered bird species in the world, with two small wild populations in Morocco and the Middle East. The Middle Eastern flock constitutes of only a handful of birds. One of them was recently shot by a hunter in Saudi Arabia.

Formerly, the range of this species extended across parts of southern and central Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. It even features in the hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt. Following a huge population and range decline, the bulk of the wild population of 210 birds now occurs in Morocco, but a tiny population was rediscovered in 2002, in Syria.

A satellite-tracking project led by BirdLife International and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), in collaboration with the Desert Commission of the Syrian Government, established that the Syrian adults migrate to the Ethiopian highlands each winter, but the wintering area of younger birds remains a mystery. This migration across the deserts of the Middle East to north-east Africa puts these birds under threat from the region’s many hunters.

Researchers from BirdLife, the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) and IUCN, trying to find out more about the movements of the young birds, fitted two birds with satellite tags, and it is one of these birds – a female – which was shot.
And of course, with a species this threatened, hunting is hardly the only threat.
Three birds from a semi-captive population in Turkey were released last year to see if they would migrate. They flew south as far as Jordan, but subsequently were found dead. Initially, it was feared they had been poisoned, but later it was realised that the birds had been electrocuted, emphasising that other threats can have a devastating impact on the future of the Northern Bald Ibis in the Middle East.

More satellite-tagged birds released from Turkey this year, flew south as far as Saudi Arabia but they too disappeared not much more than 100 km from where the Syrian bird was shot. Although their fate has not been established, researchers believe these birds too may have succumbed to hunters.
Hunting of bald ibises is banned in Saudi Arabia, but clearly the ban does not stop it.

Blog Note: This week I will be in Cape May to assist with raptor banding. Blogging might be light at times, but I will post as often as possible.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Large Milkweed Bugs

Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) on milkweed at Griggstown Grasslands Preserve.

I am so used to seeing these and other milkweed insects on milkweed in early and midsummer that I was somewhat surprised to find them yesterday. This plant, like most of the milkweed plants at Griggstown, has already started to die back and release its seeds. One thing that struck me as I was looking at these bugs is how much they resemble the milkweed seeds, in shape if not in color. When I first glanced at the plant I dismissed these two as stray seeds, at least before I took a closer look.

There was much fewer birds around than I had hoped. Crews were mowing the fields, which may have suppressed some activity. I had also hoped for some mid-morning hawk migration, but overcast skies shut down most movement during the morning. However, there were a variety hawks present – not just the resident Red-tailed Hawk, but also a few Cooper's Hawks, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, and a Northern Harrier. There latter three species were not apparent at the grasslands during my walks there over the summer, so it seems that these are recent arrivals.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Mating Crane Flies

More Giant Crane Flies, this time two mating.

Photo taken at the Griggstown Grasslands Preserve.


Found via Kolibrix.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Loose Feathers #206

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

Thursday, September 24, 2009

SkyWatch: Sunset on the Equinox

Sunset on Tuesday over the Raritan River.

Review: The Sibley Guide to Trees

Those of us who have been birding for a while often find our interests moving to other parts of the natural world. Birds are relatively easy to find an identify, with a diverse array of shapes, plumages, vocalizations, and behaviors, which make them a natural entry point. Field guides seem to follow a similar pattern. The famous Peterson series started as a single bird guide before branching out to cover almost everything; more recently Kaufman's bird guide has been joined by guides butterflies, mammals, and insects. Now David Sibley is expanding his successful series to include The Sibley Guide to Trees.

In recent interviews, Sibley has stated that he created this guide with birders in mind and hopes that it will help birders to identify trees at a distance. This skill is particularly useful for people who bird in groups since it is easier to get people on a bird if you can say that it is in a walnut tree rather than "that tree over there." However, knowing more about trees should also interest birders because many birds are closely tied to particular tree species. Kirtland's Warblers may be the most prominent example, as they are entirely dependent on Jack Pines of a certain age.

This guide's organization will look familiar to those who have used The Sibley Guide to Birds. A lengthy introduction instructs the reader on what features of a tree are the most important for identifying it. This section also introduces common botanical terms and variations in the shapes of leaves and fruit. The subsequent species accounts are ordered by family. Common tree species receive a full page or more, while less common species or nonnative cultivars are treated in half a page or less. It is similar to Sibley's bird guide in concept as well as organization. Rather than make users start with a botanical key, Sibley wants readers to flip through the guide until they find the right tree species.

Identification notes and illustrations are placed together, so there is no need to flip back and forth between plates and text. (I much prefer this layout, as I noted in a previous review!) Most accounts show painted images of the bark, leaves (both upper- and undersides), fruit, and twigs. Many show the shape of a fully-grown tree, and some of the more common species show both summer and fall leaf colors. Each species account also includes a range map and notes on favorable habitats. It is interesting to note that the species and family accounts in this guide seem to have much more text than the accounts in The Sibley Guide to Birds. While it never bothered me, I frequently have heard complaints from other birders that species accounts in Sibley's bird guide are too laconic.

I gave this guide a test run in my backyard. I was able to identify most of the trees whose leaves I could reach, and I suspect that those I could not identify were either less common cultivars or nonnative species. (Some trees, such as crabapples, are bred in hundreds of cultivars, some of which can look quite different from their wild forms.) Even in those cases where I could not identify a species conclusively, I was at least able to identify the family or narrow it even further.

Even if I was not entirely successful, my trial run convinced me that this is the best of the tree guides that I have used so far. The illustrations are helpful for identifying unfamiliar trees, and they are of the high quality that I have come to expect from David Sibley's work. The text is helpful not just for identifying trees but also for learning about their natural history and conservation. I think that The Sibley Guide to Trees will be a very useful guide for birders and other naturalists.

David Allen Sibley, The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York, Knopf, 2009. Pp. xxxviii, 426; color illustrations, maps, checklist, index. $39.95 paper.

Birder's World recently interviewed David Sibley about his new tree guide: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3. David Sibley is asking readers who find errors to let him know.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Moth of the Equinox

At least some bloggers will be posting compilations of birds seen during yesterday's autumnal equinox. I did see some birds during my evening walk yesterday, but not that many. A handful of Least Sandpipers was probably the most noteworthy sighting. Dusk has been coming earlier in recent weeks, and with that bird activity slows down earlier as well.

So instead, I am posting a moth I saw during my walk at the park. This Chickweed Geometer was flitting around in the grass. It stayed still long enough for two pictures, but then flew off.

As you might guess, the larvae of Chickweed Geometers feed primarily on chickweed. I do not recall seeing any chickweed in the area where I found the moth, but according to BugGuide, they also feed on smartweed, knotweed, and clover. Smartweed and clover were definitely present in that corner of the park.

These moths are really small, less than an inch wide with their wings full extended. So it is easy to miss them when they fly past. Their tininess also makes it hard to see them when they do stop. But that bright pink pattern makes it worth taking a closer look.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Black-headed Gull on the Anacostia River

My friend Peter Vankevich went canoeing on the Anacostia River this past Sunday and found a Black-headed Gull. It was standing on a dock at the Anacostia boathouse, across from Anacostia Park. The red legs made it stand out from the others since Laughing Gulls do not have red legs except in full adult breeding plumage.

This is clearly a hooded gull in winter plumage because a remnant of the hood is still visible behind the eye. It also appears to be an adult since there are no visible dark markings on the bird's tertials or upperwing coverts. The red legs and the dainty red bill with a dusky tip fit Black-headed Gull the best. The upperwing and underwing patterns seem to fit that identification as well.

This is a rare sighting for Washington, DC, where even Bonaparte's Gulls are pretty unusual. The only previous record of Black-headed Gull in eBird's database for DC is from 2004. The MD/DC Records Committee also has records of three previous sightings in the two decades before that.

Peter's Black-headed Gull was among thousands of Laughing Gulls, so it may be hard to find again. In my experience, flocks of gulls tend to wander around the Anacostia River corridor. If it is not present at the Anacostia boathouse, it may be at Hains Point or some other place nearby.

All photos are courtesy of Peter Vankevich.

Crane Fly

This large insect was sitting near the top of a picnic table umbrella at my uncle's house. It sat without budging for a long time allowing many pictures, which was good because it was perched well above my head. This is one of the largest insects I have seen in the area, measuring a little over two inches long if you include the legs. It is also very pretty, with an intricate pattern on its wings and an interesting black and gray coloration of its thorax.

It looks a bit like a water strider or giant mosquito, or even a harvestman (a.k.a. daddy-long-legs), but it is not any of those. Instead it is crane fly, a member of the family Tipulidae. There are so many genera and species in this family that it is difficult an individual beyond the family level. Based on the Kaufman guide, I think this insect belongs to the genus Tipula, which itself has about 480 species. shows a very similar-looking species called the Giant Crane Fly (Tipula abdominalis). This species is found in eastern North America and usually has an early season brood (May/June) and a late season brood (September/October), which makes it a good candidate for the season and range.

If you look closely at its head, you can see the long mouthparts and short antennae typical of flies generally and crane flies specifically. The tapered abdomen (visible in the first photo) suggests that this is a female.

Crane fly larvae are aquatic and feed on decomposing vegetation. Since larvae are sensitive to pollution, the EPA uses their presence as one of the indicators of a clean waterway. Adults are slow fliers and tend to be more active at dawn and dusk. Since their adult life span is very short, mating and egg-laying are the main priorities. Crane flies are harmless to humans.

For more information on crane flies in eastern North America, see The Crane Flies of Pennsylvania.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Old Railroad Bridge Becoming a Trail Across the Hudson

This seems like a great idea. An abandoned railroad trestle across the Hudson River is going to become a hiker-biker trail.

When it opens on Oct. 3, the bridge connecting the town of Highland on the western side with Poughkeepsie on the east will have biking and walking paths, kiosks for snacks and other visitor amenities, as well as benches for simply setting a spell to gaze, from this 212-foot-high aerie, upon the river, the towns and hulking mountains through which it meanders, and the sky up above.

It’s a project folks in these parts have been talking about for years. Decades, actually. About as long as Schaeffer has been coming up here to take photos of the river he loves, since back in the early ’70s. Schaeffer, a lawyer and longtime Poughkeepsie resident, recalls the time in 1993 when he first walked along the bridge, one of the two highest across the Hudson. And as he crossed the old span, abandoned by the railroad after a fire in 1974, he looked out over the river and felt the quiet and the wind, the majesty and the
At 1.25 miles, it would be the longest pedestrian bridge in the world, and it is tied with the George Washington Bridge for the title of highest bridge over the Hudson River. See the link above for photos of the bridge and its surroundings. It will be accessible by public transportation via the Metro-North station in Poughkeepsie.

Could this possibly become a birding hotspot in the near future? The Hudson provides as a corridor for raptor migration in the fall, and the wide-open space of a 200-foot bridge would provide an unobstructed view in all directions. The river also attracts many wintering Bald Eagles and waterfowl, some of which could be viewable from the trail.

Moth Night Links and a Recipe

In case you are not already tired of reading posts about East Brunswick's Moth Night, here is one more. The Sentinel, a local newspaper decided to cover the event.
Sugaring is at least an age-old tradition for moth hunters. It was started in New England as a way of capturing different species that were then put in jars containing ether, and pinned to boards for study. Fortunately for moths in East Brunswick, the goal of Moth Night is observation, not capture.

In addition to sugaring, the environmental group brought a bright light and a generator to keep it on. They hung a broad white sheet between two trees, placed the light behind it and created the perfect backdrop for observing moths and any other flying insects.

As the darkness deepened, more people arrived and Moskowitz set off down the trail, leading everyone in a single file to inspect the sugared trees. There were retired couples, college students, and parents with children, who were frequently reminded to stay on the trail and watch out for the poison ivy.
David Moskowitz, one of the event's coordinators, shares his recipe for attracting moths. I can vouch that the recipe was effective in drawing moths and very aromatic, in a sickly sweet sort of way.

Finally, here is a moth that I found this weekend, rather than at Moth Night. It is not fully in focus, which makes identification a bit of a challenge. The forewing markings seem similar to an Isabella Tiger Moth, though its posture and the color of the hindwing do not seem to fit quite as well. I will post an update here if I figure out its identity. Seabrooke suggests that it may be a Gold-striped Leaftier Moth, which does seem like a better fit than Isabella Tiger Moth.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Winter Finch Forecast for 2009-2010

Ron Pittaway has released via email his annual forecast for irruptions of winter finches and other boreal species. (An irruption is a mass movement of birds in response to food shortages or other temporary conditions. Read more about irruptive birds at Seabrooke's blog.) The upshot is that he expects very few finches (or other birds) to come south this year. Instead, many finches will either stay north or head west. The reason is that key food crops (the seeds of spruces, birches, mountain-ashes, and other trees) are excellent this year across Canada.

There are a few possible highlights, though. Note that the forecasts are written from the perspective of someone living in Ontario.
Purple Finch: Most Purple Finches should migrate south out of the province this fall because many seed crops are poor in the north. This finch has declined significantly in recent decades.

Common and Hoary Redpolls: Redpolls are a birch seed specialist in winter. Since the birch crop is poor in northeastern Ontario and Quebec, a few Common Redpolls should move south into southern Ontario and farther east and south. However, most redpolls may be drawn to good birch crops in northwestern Ontario and westward in the boreal forest into Saskatchewan.

Northern Goshawk: A good flight is very possible this fall or next. Goshawks in the boreal forest in winter prey on hares, grouse and red squirrels. Snowshoe Hares have been abundant in parts of northern Ontario the past few years and they should crash soon. Also, Ruffed Grouse likely had a poor breeding season due to a cool, wet spring and summer, which lowered chick survival.

You can find Pittaway's full forecast at the Ontario Field Ornithologists website.

Highlights from past forecasts are available on this blog: 2008-09, 2007-08, 2006-07, 2005-06

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Unknown Observer Is a Very Proficient Birder

Source: The eBird Top 100

Friday, September 18, 2009

Loose Feathers #205

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

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Moth and Me

The Moth and Me #6 is now online. A few of my moth posts from last week are included among the many great moth posts in this edition.

The Moth and Me is becoming a traveling carnival and needs volunteer hosts. If you would be interested in hosting a future edition of this moth carnival, click through to the current edition and contact Seabrooke.

Charges Filed in Syncrude Duck Deaths Case

Here is a brief update on the Syncrude incident from May 2008. If you remember, 1,603 wild ducks landed in a retention pond holding the toxic oil tailings that result from Syncrude's oil sands operation. The company faces charges of violating both the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act and provincial environmental laws. It just pleaded not guilty and plans to fight the case.

Robert White, Syncrude’s lawyer, later told reporters the oil company has already expressed “deep regret” and “spent a tremendous amount of money to ensure it didn’t happen again.”

“To now charge us and bring us to court is not going to bring back 1,603 ducks,” he added.

Mr. White rejected a reporter’s question about whether Syncrude thought it was above the law.

“Of course not,” he said. “However, the law has recognized for a long time that when people do their best to avoid something, then that isn’t a matter for charges. That’s a matter for fix-up.”
I am glad that the company has acknowledged the problem and apologized. The trouble for Syncrude is that this is not a single isolated incident. It has a long record of migratory bird deaths, with hundreds of bird dying in its tailings ponds annually. The company clearly needs to do more to prevent these deaths from happening, and it is right for the Canadian government to enforce its laws.

Now if only the government had a good solution for the other environmental problems with the oil sands industry.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Man-eating Bird?

Haast's Eagle attacking New Zealand moas / Artwork: John Megahan

A recent examination of fossils from the extinct Haast's Eagle (Harpagornis moorei) found that this massive raptor could hunt large animals rather than just scavenging.
It was at first thought to be a scavenger because its bill was similar to a vulture's with hoods over its nostrils to stop flesh blocking its air passages as it rooted around inside carcasses.

But a re-examination of skeletons using modern technology, including CAT scans, by researchers at Canterbury Museum in Christchurch and the University of New South Wales in Australia showed it had a strong enough pelvis to support a killing blow as it dived at speeds of up to 80kph.

With a wingspan of up to three metres and weighing 18kg, the female was twice as big as the largest living eagle, the Steller's sea eagle.

And the bird's talons were as big as a tiger's claws.
That sounds scary. But did it actually eat humans? The answer is maybe. Haast's Eagle most likely evolved to prey on moas, as depicted in the artist's conception above. Large flightless moas inhabited New Zealand prior to the arrival of humans and became extinct soon afterward. If a Haast's Eagle could kill a moa, most likely it had the ability to kill humans as well. That would seem to confirm an ancient Maori legend about a large raptor that could eat humans. However, I find it doubtful that Haast's Eagles ate humans very frequently as it failed to outlast its main source of prey. Even if the eagles killed some humans, they did not kill enough to maintain the species.

As an aside, the image at the top of the article comes from an article in PLoS Biology (summary) several years ago that explored the genetic relationships among the Haast's Eagle and other raptors. This giant raptor is most closely related to Australia's Little Eagle (Aquila morphnoides), a species slightly smaller than a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). (Take a look at this image comparing the feet of a Haast's Eagle and a Little Eagle.) The Haast's Eagle is more distantly related to other members of the Aquila genus, including North America's Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). This puts Haast's Eagle among the true eagles rather than the fish eagles.

Thanks to Chris Clarke for the links.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Companies Polluting Drinking Water With Little Punishment

This Sunday's New York Times offered a horrifying front page article on the routine violation of water quality laws and the neglect of federal and state agencies to enforce them. According to the Times, 10% of Americans have drinking water that fails to meet federal standards, resulting in 19.5 million water-related illnesses per year. In the last year alone, 40% of drinking water systems violated some aspect of federal regulations at least once. Federal data records 506,000 violations of the Clean Water Act since 2004. According to this article, the violations may well be far worse because many companies try to evade enforcement by not reporting emission of pollutants. Meanwhile, only 3% of these reported violations resulted in punishment.

This is not some abstract problem. It has real consequences for real people. In some places, the pollution of the water supply has become so bad that residents cannot even safely use it for bathing, much less drink it. In one town near Charleston, West Virginia, the bath water causes blisters and rashes:

In fact, her entire family tries to avoid any contact with the water. Her youngest son has scabs on his arms, legs and chest where the bathwater — polluted with lead, nickel and other heavy metals — caused painful rashes. Many of his brother’s teeth were capped to replace enamel that was eaten away.

Neighbors apply special lotions after showering because their skin burns. Tests show that their tap water contains arsenic, barium, lead, manganese and other chemicals at concentrations federal regulators say could contribute to cancer and damage the kidneys and nervous system.

“How can we get digital cable and Internet in our homes, but not clean water?” said Mrs. Hall-Massey, a senior accountant at one of the state’s largest banks.
Skin rashes were hardly the only health problems connected to toxic drinking water in that town. There have also been spikes in miscarriages, diseases, and tooth problems. In the case of that town, the cause is that coal companies have been pumping toxic waste left over from coal mining into the ground for about a decade:
Mining companies often wash their coal to remove impurities. The leftover liquid — a black fluid containing dissolved minerals and chemicals, known as sludge or slurry — is often disposed of in vast lagoons or through injection into abandoned mines. The liquid in those lagoons and shafts can flow through cracks in the earth into water supplies. Companies must regularly send samples of the injected liquid to labs, which provide reports that are forwarded to state regulators.

In the eight miles surrounding Mrs. Hall-Massey’s home, coal companies have injected more than 1.9 billion gallons of coal slurry and sludge into the ground since 2004, according to a review of thousands of state records. Millions more gallons have been dumped into lagoons.
Even though this toxic slurry has been seeping into drinking water, none of the companies involved has been punished or warned by either the state or federal government. Why not? Part of the problem is that the enforcement divisions of state agencies tend to be understaffed. State and local officials play a major role in enforcing state and federal water quality laws. Yet departments of environmental protection are always easy targets for job cuts or hiring freezes when it comes time to balance state budgets. Reducing the size of government means, in part, getting rid of the people that keep your drinking water safe.

However, maintaining an adequate enforcement staff is not the only problem. In some cases, the existing staff are prevented from doing their jobs by heavy lobbying or political machinations. One West Virginia environmental lawyer who enforced clean water laws against mining companies was eventually fired for doing just that. Others in the state agency faced pressure:
Since then, hundreds of workplaces in West Virginia have violated pollution laws without paying fines. A half-dozen current and former employees, in interviews, said their enforcement efforts had been undermined by bureaucratic disorganization, a departmental preference to let polluters escape punishment if they promise to try harder, and a revolving door of regulators who leave for higher-paying jobs at the companies they once policed.

“We are outmanned and overwhelmed, and that’s exactly how industry wants us,” said one employee who requested anonymity for fear of being fired. “It’s been obvious for decades that we’re not on top of things, and coal companies have earned billions relying on that.”
The new head of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, promises to strengthen enforcement of clean water laws and hold polluters more accountable. However, I fear that without major cultural changes in state and federal governments, sickening amounts of toxins will continued to be dumped into streams and well water. As long as it is acceptable – indeed, preferred – for agencies to let big contributors get away with violations, those violations will go unpunished, or at most incur a slap on the wrist.

In any case, you should read the full article. It is eye-opening and well worth the time. It includes interactive sections so you can learn about violations and enforcement records in your area.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Insects at Willowwood

On Labor Day I was at Willowwood Arboretum early in the morning. Lots of birds were active, especially goldfinches, phoebes, and bluebirds. However, I ended up taking more notice of insects (as has happened often this summer). I have already posted a few photos of moths from that walk. Now here are some from other orders.

Being that it was rather early, the insects took some time to start moving. The bumblebees above were clinging motionlessly to goldenrod stems. I think they must sleep (or fall into torpor) that way over night and wait for the sun to warm them up in the morning. Once the bees warmed up, they started nectaring at many flower species.

Bumblebees were not the only insects interested in goldenrod. Above are two beetles on a goldenrod plant. The orange and black beetle near the top is a Pennsylvania Leatherwing (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus), a beetle I have written about before. The completely black beetle on the bottom left is a Black Blister Beetle (Epicauta pennsylvanica), also a member of a family I have written about before. Both species are common on goldenrod in the fall.

Locust Borers (Megacyllene robiniae), like the one above, are another common autumn denizen of goldenrod plants. This beetle's striking plumage caught my eye. It reminds me of the Razzle Dazzle camouflage used by many ships during World War I (and to some extent in World War II). The idea of the camouflage pattern was to prevent submarine crews from identifying the outline of a ship accurately and thus evade torpedo attacks. I imagine the pattern on this beetle could serve a similar purpose, but I am not certain about that.

As Seabrooke mentioned a few weeks ago, late summer is grasshopper season. Grasshoppers were very active all around Willowwood's meadows. I found this pair mating, and unlike other grasshoppers, they stayed in place long enough for a photograph. They seem to be Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum), members of a genus noteworthy for the black chevrons that adorn its thighs.However, several members of the Melanoplus genus look very similar, so it could be something else.

I was surprised to find the remains of a cicada in the middle of a path. Usually I either find the exuviae of cicada nymphs or hear the varied buzzing of cicada songs. This may be a Swamp Cicada (Tibicen chloromera), a common insect in New Jersey, especially around swamps and upland meadows, but it is hard to be certain without the insect's head. Along with the head, most of this cicada's insides have been eaten away. This suggests the work of a Cicada Killer wasp (Sphecius sp.), wasps that suck out the insides of cicadas, or, worse yet, plants their eggs on living but paralyzed cicadas, so that their larvae can eat the cicadas alive.

On a happier note, I finally got a shot of a Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos). I had tried to photograph members of this species on numerous previous occasions, but each time the butterflies were too fast for me. Just as I would get into position to take a good photograph, they would fly away. This individual, though, sat still long enough for me to reel off a dozen or so shots. As you can see, its wings are very worn and have some pieces torn out, probably from narrow escapes. As Birdchick said in a prior post, one has to have a certain respect for butterflies that can survive multiple attacks from birds and other predators.

More insect photos from Willowwood Arboretum are available on my Flickr account.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Australian Oil Spill Threatening Wildlife

An oil rig in the Timor Sea has been spilling 400 gallons of oil a day into the ocean for the past three weeks. It will take at least another two weeks before the damage is repaired and the leak stopped. In the meantime, despite efforts to break up the slick, the oil has been drifting south towards the Australian coast.

Environmental groups believe the contamination poses a significant threat to wildlife and is heading towards land.

Piers Verstegen, from the Conservation Council of Western Australia, says the spill - off the north coast of the Kimberley region where whales congregate - is an ecological disaster.

"Humpback whales, an endangered species, go to that area and that region to calf and give birth and this oil spill is happening just off the Kimberley coast," Mr Verstegen said.

"The oil, as far as we are aware, is travelling towards the Kimberley coastline but it is definitely affecting areas that are used by these whales and dolphins."

Fishermen have reported seeing endangered flatback turtles covered in oil.

There have also been claims that fish and sea-snakes have been poisoned.
Incidents like this are exactly why oil drilling in sensitive ecological areas should be avoided as much as possible.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

New Regulations Allow Incidental Killings of Eagles

Golden Eagle / Photo by George Gentry (USFWS)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is issuing a new rule to regulate killing or disturbance of Bald and Golden Eagles in the course of legal activities. The agency explains its decision as follows:
When the bald eagle was listed under the Endangered Species Act, a permit was available to take eagles incidental to an otherwise lawful activity. But when the eagle was removed from Endangered Species Act protection in 2007, there were no provisions for issuing permits under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act for activities that could disturb or otherwise incidentally take either species of eagle. The growing population of bald eagles, in particular, could significantly curtail legal human activities if such permits were not available. ...

The first new permit type may be issued only where the “take” – in this case referring to the disturbing, or harming of eagles – is associated with, but not the purpose of an activity, such as commercial or residential real estate development.

The second new type of permit governs removal of bald or golden eagle nests under limited circumstances, including removal of nests that create safety concerns on or near airports. Deliberate killing of eagles will not be allowed under either of these new permits.
The full text of the final rule is available here (pdf), and it will take effect in November. The full text explains the reasoning behind the rule and the conditions for permits in more detail.

If this simply replaces a permitting process that existed under the Endangered Species Act, then I do not see a cause for alarm in the new regulations. However, it all depends on how the rules are implemented and enforced. As we have seen in recent years, regulatory decisions can be subject to heavy political pressure, even though in an ideal world they would be based on evidence. I would hope that this would not be the case with the eagle permits.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Loose Feathers #204

Red-necked Phalarope / Photo by Lee Karney (USFWS)

Bird and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environment and biodiversity
Finally, check out the posts from Vulture Awareness Day if you missed it last weekend.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Review: Shorebirds of North America, Europe, and Asia

Shorebirds are one of the most fascinating bird groups, but also one of the most difficult to learn. Birds in this group undertake some of the longest known bird migrations, with the Bar-tailed Godwit perhaps being the longest. In spring and fall, migration hotspots teem with dense flocks of shorebirds numbering in the thousands. These spectacular flocks can make it hard to pick out and identify individual birds. In addition, while some shorebirds are quite colorful, most have cryptic plumage with subtle variations from one species to another.

As such, birders can benefit studying detailed books devoted to shorebird species. Fortunately there are now several quality guides available. This spring, Princeton University Press added a new field guide for shorebirds: Shorebirds of North America, Europe, and Asia: A Photographic Guide, by Richard Chandler. This new guide expands and updates an older guide by the same author, North Atlantic Shorebirds.

The Chandler guide presents all shorebird species that have been recorded in the northern hemisphere. For the purposes of this guide, "northern hemisphere" excludes all of South America and Australia, as well as most of Africa and Oceania. A short introduction contains tips for studying and identifying shorebirds and notes on their behavior. Molt patterns, aberrant plumages, and typical shorebird behaviors are all well-illustrated with photographs. One thing that I learned from the introduction (though I should have guessed it previously) is that shorebirds often cough up pellets of bits of shells and other indigestible debris.

Each of the 134 species has its own 2-5 page account, with most species receiving 3 pages of text and photos. The photographs depict most significant plumage types for each species and include at least one photo of each species either in flight or with its wings stretched out. The text includes detailed notes for identifying juvenile, non-breeding, and breeding plumages, with attention to how first winter and first spring birds might differ from adults. If a species has identifiable subspecies, its account includes a comparison table of relevant field marks for each population. Each account also provides information about seasonal distribution and conservation status, as well as a range map.

I have two minor complaints about the Chandler guide. One is that the species accounts include few, if any, comparison shots of similar species. The text does include tips for separating similar species, but visual comparison is often more helpful for learning differences in shape and size. The second is that the binding on my examination copy became heavily creased after only light use. While the photographs and printing are of high quality, the cover ought to be more durable for field use.

North American birders will want to know how Shorebirds of North America, Europe, and Asia compares to another recently-published book, The Shorebird Guide by Michael O'Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson. On average, Chandler presents fewer photographs per species, with one exception being Dunlin. However, the Chandler guide has better coverage for species that are common on other continents but occur as vagrants in North America. One area in which the Chandler guide improves on O'Brien et al. is in its organization. I much prefer field guides that, like the Chandler guide, place the plates and species accounts together rather than in separate sections. O'Brien et al. place some text on the plates with full species accounts in the back of the book. Finally, this is a subjective impression, but I feel that the photography in the O'Brien guide is more dynamic in that it depicts both field marks and typical behaviors and includes more photos of mixed-species groups of shorebirds.

If your birding takes you to multiple continents in the northern hemisphere, Richard Chandler's Shorebirds of North America, Europe, and Asia will be quite useful. This guide combines excellent photography and a descriptive text to assist the reader in identifying shorebirds in all plumages. North American birders, especially those in coastal areas, should find it helpful for identifying vagrant species, especially ones that are rarely depicted in standard field guides. More than that, it provides the opportunity to study closely related species from across the hemisphere in a single guide. I would recommend this for any birder with a strong interest in shorebirds.

Richard Chandler, Shorebirds of North America, Europe, and Asia: A Photographic Guide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. Pp. 448; color photographs, maps, tables, index. $35.00 paper.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

More Moths: A Webworm and a Looper

Since I have been on a moth kick for the past few days, I'll add one more post on moths. These are not connected with moth night. Instead these are ones found at home or on walks.

The first is a Celery Looper Moth (Autographa or Anagrapha falcifera) from Willowwood Arboretum. I found this moth because it was fluttering around the edge of the meadow. I knew where it landed, but I had trouble finding it at first. I looked above, below, and behind the dead leaf, but I could not see it. Then I realized that the moth was one with the dead leaf.

From above:

This last image is not so good, but it shows the moth with its wings somewhat outstretched.

The second looks like it might be a firefly or wasp, but in fact it is a moth, probably a Virginia Ctenucha (Ctenucha virginica). I found it visiting goldenrod flowers at Willowwood. In this image the feathery antennae characteristic of moths are clearly visible.

The third moth is an Ailanthus Webworm Moth (Atteva punctella), found at home. According to the Kaufman guide, the larvae of this species gather on Ailanthus trees. I am happy to learn that something feeds on Ailanthus, as this plant has become an invasive pest in many areas. This adult, however, was on a lobelia plant.

I used my slide loupe to get some closer shots. Getting proper focus was a bit of a challenge.

The moth was surprisingly tolerant, but eventually it tired of my antics and flew away. I think I have some more caterpillar photos stashed somewhere on my hard drive, but those will make for a separate post.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Moth Night: Other Moths

Yesterday I posted a few pictures of zales from East Brunswick's Moth Night. Zales, of course, were not the only moths that we saw. Plenty of moths came to the light and sugar traps, including various underwings, webworms, and other types.

The first two photos appear to be the same species, possibly Armyworm (Mythimna unipuncta). 

You can see how the syrupy lure fills the groves in the tree trunk.


I think this may be a geometer moth (family Geometridae).

I took fewer photos than I would have liked at the sheet, partly because space in front of the sheet was crowded and partly because my camera and batteries were not cooperating at times. Moths from several families were attracted to the sheet. Micromoths included an Ailanthus Webworm and Sod Webworm. Some underwing and geometer moths were present as well.

The moth below looks like one of the arches species, perhaps Explicit Arches (Lacinipolia explicata).

The moth below also appears to be a geometer moth, as in the third photo above.

The moth below is an underwing moth, possibly a Mouse Moth (Amphipyra tragopoginis). When closed, the forewings have a greenish metallic sheen.

If you know the identities of any of these moths, please do leave a comment. In the course of preparing this post and yesterday's, I found myself wishing for a moth guide. is a great resource, but a book with plates makes it much easier to compare species and figure out what markings are most important.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Moth Night: Zales

Last Wednesday I went with Patrick to Moth Night at East Brunswick's Butterfly Park. The event was well attended, with a core set of moth enthusiasts joined by families with children. The arrangement was fairly simple. Near the edge of the meadow and woods, the organizers had set up a white sheet with a halogen bulb shining on one side. Moths attracted to the light would land on the sheet, where they would be easy to see and photograph. A trail would through the woods, and trees on either side of the trail were painted with an addicting mix of beer, bananas, rum, and other sugary substances.

Moths were already flying at dusk when Patrick and I arrived, and more gathered at the lamp as the evening grew darker. Participants had the option of staying at the sheet or walking the trail. The first group to walk the trail was huge; the second one was much smaller as most of the families left as soon as the first one was done. The two types of lures attracted different sets of species, so it was best to check both at least once to get the most out of the event. Patrick and I walked the trail at least twice and spent plenty of time at the sheet. In the course of the evening, I saw several moth types I had not seen (or at least identified) previously.

Below are three pictures of zales. All three seem to be the same species, Lunate Zale. One of the organizers mentioned it as a possibility, and after reviewing what is most likely to be flying in early September, I think it is the best fit.

One thing that I found interesting was how different the moths' wing patterns appear under different lighting conditions. In the photo above, the colors appear very muted. With different lighting (and different exposure settings on my camera), the dark colors appear much darker and parts of the moth's wing appear metallic green.

One benefit of using a sugary substance as a lure was that we got to watch the zale stick out its probiscis.

I am very new to moths, so if you have any other ideas about their identification, please leave a comment. There will be underwings and other moths in a future post.

Oops! I thought I had scheduled this to publish this morning, but I guess I accidentally clicked "save now" instead of "publish post" when I scheduled it.

Click through for Moth Night Part 2: Other Moths.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Tasty Morsels

Since the weekend's blogging so far has been devoted to dead things and the birds that eat them, I decided to carry on the theme for another day. Someone on another site described me as morbid on Friday simply because I posted links to a leopard seal catching a pintail and this strange creation. To me, those are not morbid at all. Predation is an important part of the natural world, and the remains of dead animals can be interesting for a variety of reasons. Occasionally I find dead animals on my walks, and when I do, I usually try to figure out what they were and how they might have died.

Here a few images from dead things that I found recently. The first is a dragonfly at Buck Gardens in Far Hills, NJ. I am not sure how it ended up in the water, or why it stayed there for so long without something eating it. (The ponds are well-stocked with frogs and other potential dragonfly predators.) I am not entirely sure of the species, either. The best match I have found so far is Autumn Meadowhawk.

The thriving mosquito population in Lord Stirling Park made it very difficult to concentrate on warblers flitting in the treetops. One bird, at least, made itself easier to watch by lying in pieces on the ground.

It may not be entirely evident from this photo, but in the field I could recognize this as the wing of a Blue Jay. There does not seem to be much meat left on this wing; it has been picked clean except for bones and feathers. Of the predators likely to be in the park, Cooper's Hawk seems the most likely to have killed and plucked this jay. Sharp-shinned Hawks prefer smaller birds, and the other possible hawks prefer mammals, reptiles, or amphibians. Owls tend to swallow their prey whole rather than leave a mess like this. A mammalian predator is possible, but the spatial distribution of body parts suggested that they were torn off and dropped from high in a tree over the boardwalk.

There were other leftover body parts. Feathers were scattered here and there, and next to the boardwalk was the jay's head. Feathers were still stuck to the face and crown, but they had been ripped off the back of the head, so that the skull and spinal cord were visible.

Sadly, there seemed to be little left for a vulture to snack on.