Friday, April 30, 2010

Loose Feathers #236

Bluethroat / Photo by Brian McCaffery (USFWS)

Birds and birding news
Birds in the blogosphere
Environment and biodiversity
Blog carnivals

Thursday, April 29, 2010

I and the Bird

I and the Bird #124 is online at Laura Kammermeier's Birds, Words, and Websites.

Since my posts this week have included a lot of doom and gloom, I'm including a photo of a fire pink to improve the mood.

New British Moth Species

Amateur naturalists found a new species of moth in the U.K.

The 3mm-long micro moth, which lives in Hembury Woods in Devon, was recognised as a new species this year.

This week, the biologist who discovered it is presenting the Natural History Museum of London with one of the first known specimens.

The receipt of this "type" specimen will mark the official acceptance of the moth's existence in the country.

The tiny micro moth, which has a wingspan of just 6mm, was first spotted in 2004.

At that time, amateur naturalist Bob Heckford sighted the unusual bright green caterpillars of this tiny leaf-mining moth on oak saplings within Hembury Woods, a site managed by the National Trust.

In January this year, the moth was officially recognised in the journal Zookeys as a new species, named Ectoedemia heckfordi after its discoverer.

It is not known to live outside of the UK.
This must have been a very exciting find for Heckford. Zookeys is an open access journal, and the issue describing this species (and a few others) is available as a pdf download. Its host plants are Sessile Oak and English Oak.

Oil Spill Worse Than First Reported

NASA image courtesy the MODIS Rapid Response Team.

When two leaks were first reported in the damaged oil wellhead, reports estimated that the leaks were discharging about 1,000 barrels (42,000 gallons) of oil per day. That figure has been quoted consistently since then. Apparently the wellhead has a third leak, so the leakage is actually much greater: about 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) per day.

The inability of the Coast Guard and BP to shut off the leaks makes it more likely the oil slick will hit the coast when the winds shift.
Meanwhile, an air of inevitability has settled in — a sense that the question about the oil reaching marshes and beaches is no longer if, but when. Experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the oil is likely to hit Louisiana on Friday night.

Gulf winds have pushed the slick farther from Florida's coastline, said Mike Sole, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. On Tuesday it was 89 miles from Pensacola, and by Wednesday it was 127 miles. But that's no reason to celebrate, he said.

"If the winds shift again, Florida could easily be the target," Sole said.

Worried Louisiana officials have already begun lining passes with boom lines to contain oil.

But some parts of the swampy coastline will be impossible to protect, said NOAA ecologist Tom Minello. Once it hits those mangroves, he said, "it'll just kill all the vegetation. It's years before it will recover. The stuff's pretty toxic, and it will kill all the growth that supports the shrimp and crabs," hurting a seafood industry that's still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

While noting he wouldn't want oil to hit any of Florida's coast, Sole said it would be easier cleaning it off of a beach than scrubbing sensitive estuaries. The only way to get oil out of a contaminated marsh, he said, "is to burn the marsh."
Audubon has a good listing of which bird species might be at risk from an oil slick in Louisiana. Most of them are waterbirds that use coastal wetlands for nesting, but migrating birds are at risk as well.

Meanwhile a controlled burn is going ahead:
On Wednesday, two vessels dispatched by the Coast Guard and the British oil company BP - which had hired the sunken rig - swept the thickest concentrations of oil on the surface into a 500ft (150m) fire-resistant boom.

They then towed it to a five-mile "burn zone" set up inside the slick, where it was set alight shortly before nightfall. It will be allowed to burn for an hour.

If the test is deemed successful, BP is expected to continue the controlled burns as long as the weather conditions are favourable.

The decision to start the test burn came after the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warned that winds in the area were about to shift and possibly push the oil onto the coast by Friday night.
Hopefully this will work until a better solution can be implemented.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Louisiana Oil Spill to be Burned?

The oil slick as seen by the European Space Agency's Envisat

So far efforts to shut off the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico have been unsuccessful. The next step to control the leak would be to build an underwater dome, a process that could take up to a month. A more permanent solution would be to drill a relief well and block the wellhead that is currently leaking. That process would take several months to complete.

In the meantime, the wellhead is spilling 42,000 gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico. Officials are considering a controlled burn to prevent the slick from reaching the coastal wetlands once the winds shift.
In a controlled burn, towing boats and fire-resistant booms are arranged in a U shape to contain spilled oil before it is ignited, according to a description of the oil-containment measure (PDF) on the Web site of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is aiding in the spill response. The process may be repeated multiple times.

Indeed, Landry said that burning would remain a tool under consideration as long as oil was still leaking.

Authorities are drawing heavily on a 1993 experiment conducted off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, which showed that this type of controlled burn can eliminate 50 to 99 percent of the oil collected.

The heat generated by the burning oil—a temperature of 1,800°F (982°C) was measured at the top of the boom at the Newfoundland burn—will cause the smoke to rise several hundred to several thousand feet and at the same time be carried away by the prevailing winds, NOAA's report said.
According to the National Geographic article, the effects of a controlled burn of the oil slick would be similar to a forest fire. The fire would generate smoke containing carbon dioxide, water vapor, and particulate matter. I would be concerned about birds migrating over the Gulf, but the Coast Guard seems to think the risk is minimal.
The prospect alarmed fisherman and ecologists along the Louisiana coast. Gov. Bobby Jindal requested that the Coast Guard set up protective booms around several wildlife refuges in the Delta.

Those delicate coastal rookeries and estuaries factor into the consideration for the surface burn. Such a burn would most likely ease the impact on wildlife.

The oceanic agency issued a guide to the burn that advised as follows:

“Based on our limited experience, birds and mammals are more capable of handling the risk of a local fire and temporary smoke plume than of handling the risk posed by a spreading oil slick. Birds flying in the plume can become disoriented, and could suffer toxic effects. This risk, however, is minimal when compared to oil coating and ingestion.”
Meanwhile, the spill is leading to questions about the Obama administration's plans to open more of the coast to offshore drilling and about plans to expand drilling as part of the proposed energy and climate legislation. Some previous supporters of offshore drilling, such as Charlie Crist, are rethinking their positions.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Oil Spill Continues off Louisiana

The Coast Guard and BP are attempting to stop the leak that resulted from last week's drilling rig explosion. As of last night, their efforts were still unsuccessful, and oil continued to leak out of the pipes at a rate of 42,000 gallons per day. For now, they are trying to use robots to shut off a valve at the wellhead. If that fails, it may be possible to build an underwater dome to collect the oil or drill a relief well to take pressure off the original wellhead.
Plans are moving forward to design a dome that could be submerged over the leaks, which are coming from a 5,000-foot pipeline called a riser that ran between the wellhead and the rig. The riser is now snaking along the ocean bottom.

The dome would corral the oil and route it up to vessels to be collected. But Doug Suttles, the chief operating officer for exploration and production at BP, which was leasing the rig from Transocean and is required by law to pay for the cleanup, continued to emphasize the engineering challenges of such an operation at a news conference on Monday.

“I must stress that this is state of the art,” Mr. Suttles said, adding that the method had never been done at such depths. It would take at least two weeks to put into place, he said.

More than 1,000 people are working on the spill, including officials from the Coast Guard, the federal government and BP. BP is also mobilizing rigs that would drill one or more deep wells nearby to push mud and concrete into the gushing cavity, an operation made all the more expensive and complex in the deep waters. That would take two to three months.
Here are good diagrams of the leak and what might be done about it. So far the oil slick is not threatening the coastal wetlands because winds have pushed it eastward. If the wind direction changes before the leak is stopped, the slick could reach the coast relatively quickly. Even if the coast is not affected, the oil spill can still harm marine life.
Charlie Henry, the lead science coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that three sperm whales were seen swimming near the spill but that they appeared unaffected.

But other environmentalists warned of damage. "Oil spills are extremely harmful to marine life when they occur and often for years or even decades later," said Jacqueline Savitz, a marine scientist and climate campaign director at Oceana, an environmental group. She said spills could coat sea birds and limit their flying ability and damage fisheries by injuring marine organism's systems related to respiration, vision and reproduction.

Savitz said that the Gulf of Mexico is host to four species of endangered sea turtles and bluefin tuna, snapper and grouper. "Each of these can be affected," she said. "Turtles have to come to the surface to breathe and can be coated with oil or may swallow it." And, she added, the Gulf is one of only two nurseries for bluefin tuna, more than 90 percent of which return to their place of birth to spawn.
The event will raise questions about the Obama administration's plans to open more of the coast to offshore drilling. One accident does not necessarily mean that the policy is wrong. However, accidents like this one have human costs, environmental costs, and monetary costs for cleaning up the mess. Those costs need to be accounted in any decisions regarding increased drilling.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Happy Birthday to John James Audubon

As Jochen reminds us, today is the 225th birthday of John James Audubon, the American naturalist and wildlife painter. The National Audubon Society has the complete contents of his most famous work, Birds of America.

Sunken Drilling Rig Leaking Oil

As most of you probably know, last week an oil drilling rig exploded, burned, and collapsed just off the coast of Louisiana. The rig was performing exploratory drilling at the time of the explosion. Most workers escaped, but 11 are still missing and presumed dead. The initial word was that leakage from the wreck had stopped after the rig sank and that environmental damage would be minimal.

It turns out that confidence was premature. Oil has been leaking from the damaged rig pipes at a rate of 1,000 barrels per day. (At that rate, it would take three days to classify as a major spill.) BP is trying to shut off the leak, but the likelihood of success is uncertain.
The best hope is that the remote-operated submarines—at least four are deployed at the scene--would be able to activate a huge device on the sea floor called a “blow-out protector,” a series of valves meant to control pressure in the well. “This is a highly complex operation,” said Doug Suttles, chief operating officer for BP’s exploration and production division. “And it may not be successful.”

If that operation fails, the next option is to drill a relief well—a process that would take at least two to three months, said Suttles. A BP rig equipped for this task is to arrive at the scene by Monday.

Suttles also said that the company was putting in place a plan to mitigate the potential damage by capturing the oil beneath the water surface. It’s an operation that involves lowering a large dome to trap the oil and pipe it to a holding vessel at the surface.

Although such a system was deployed successfully after Hurricane Katrina, Suttles said it has never been attempted at this depth. “We have the world’s best experts working to see if we can make that possible,” he said.
The oil slick is not expected to reach the coastal wetlands and beaches in the near term. However, changes in the wind or weather could move it towards land more quickly. The short term goal is to contain and disperse the slick.
The size of the oil spill appeared to be 600 square miles (1,500 square kilometers) as of Sunday, located 30 miles (48 kilometers) offshore, said Charlie Henry, scientist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a member of the response team.

Landry said that chemical dispersant also has been applied to the oil spill, and that the team was ready to apply more. She said a third of the world’s oil dispersant supply was available in the Gulf region.

According to the U.S. National Research Council, oil spill dispersants do not actually reduce the total amount of oil entering the environment. Rather they change the chemical and physical properties of the oil, making it more likely to mix into the water column than to contaminate the shoreline. “Dispersant application thus represents a conscious decision to increase the hydrocarbon load … on one component of the ecosystem… while reducing the load on another,” a 2006 NRC report said.
One of the worst drilling rig leaks in the Gulf Coast took nine months to fix in 1979. A drilling rig in the East Timor Sea leaked for months without a successful fix despite numerous attempts. So I hope the submersibles are successful in shutting off the pipes before this spill gets worse.

Map of the spill's extent and location as of April 25 (click through for a larger version)

Update: NASA's Aqua satellite captured an image of the oil slick, which appears as a silvery sheen in the image above.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Jamaica Bay as it Used to Be

During the 1970s, the new Environmental Protection Agency hired freelance photographers to travel the country and document environmental problems and everyday life. The Documerica project produced over 15,000 images. Thanks to the National Archives, many of those images are available in high-resolution scans in the Flickr Commons.

One of the sets, by photographer Arthur Tress, covers the waterways of Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens, with an emphasis on the area around Jamaica Bay. Many scenes look familiar. Broad Channel, in particular, retains much of its character.

However, many of the communities, including Broad Channel, still lacked a sewage system, so wastes flowed freely into the bay. I assume this problem has since been corrected. Update: One community on the edge of Jamaica Bay just got sewers this year.

The lands around the bay were also loaded with trash, such as the rusting car at the top of this post, an auto chassis, tires strewn around on the beach, rusty oil drums, construction debris, and the abandoned ice cream truck pictured below. The Spring Creek landfill was still in operation on part of the bay's marshes.

While much of the trash and pollution have since been cleaned up, it would not surprise me if remnants persisted under the wildlife refuge's ponds and just offshore.

When Tress documented Jamaica Bay, the wildlife refuge had only recently been acquired by the National Park Service. (Previously the land was owned by the city.) Tress captured some scenes of birds and birdwatchers using the refuge.

Two other sets in the Documerica collection cover parts of the New York City area. One, with photographs by Wil Blanche, covers Lower Manhattan and landfills. Another includes photographs by Danny Lyon from Brooklyn and Paterson, NJ, among other urban areas. Photos in this post link through to the original images.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Being Heard in a Noisy Place

Song Sparrow / USFWS Photo

When I hear urban Song Sparrows singing, I often feel that their songs are missing something. It turns out that there is a very good reason for that. The lower pitches in their songs may be drowned out by ambient noise. In fact, some urban birds have mostly abandoned the lower pitches to expend more effort on the higher ones.
While at Reed College in Oregon, Yezerinac and student William E. Wood examined the effects of urban noise on the song sparrow songs of Portland. They recorded 28 birds in areas with various levels of background noise, carefully measuring frequency (pitch) and amplitude (volume; the amount of energy invested in making a sound).

Birds in the noisiest spots were more likely to cede some of their lower frequencies to background noise, while their songs' higher-frequency notes remained constant.
The link has an audio sample and spectrographs that illustrate the Song Sparrows' challenge quite well.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Loose Feathers #235

Wilson's Warbler / USFWS

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

Thursday, April 22, 2010

SkyWatch: Earth Day

Above are some trees leafing out against the sky on Earth Day 2010. Below are some sky blue flowers, Forget-me-nots.

A Recount of Oil Spills from Hurricane Katrina

New analysis of U.S. government data reveals that Hurricane Katrina caused over 200 oil spills:
According to comprehensive research using government incident databases, about 8 million gallons of petroleum releases were reported as a result of Katrina hitting the U.S. Gulf coast in 2005, nearly 75 percent of the total volume of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. The releases were largely due to storage tank failure and the shut down and restart of production processes. Storm surge floods were the primary cause, but some incidents occurred as a result of hurricane and tropical storm strength winds where no surge was present, according to the authors.

The study appears in the April issue of the journal Risk Analysis.

The authors include consultant Nicholas Santella, Laura Steinberg of Syracuse University, and Hatice Sengul of the Turkish Scientific and Technological Research Council. Ten onshore releases of petroleum products were greater than 10,000 gallons each, primarily made up of crude oil that leaked from storage tanks. Fewer and smaller releases were reported from chemical and manufacturing industries handling hazardous materials. Of the releases from onshore facilities and storage tanks, 76 percent were petroleum, 18 percent were chemicals and six percent were natural gas. Many refineries and other facilities shut down in anticipation of large storms to minimize damage and prevent process upsets and are required to do so for safety purposes. However, shutdowns and restarts have the disadvantage of leading to potentially large emissions of volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and other chemicals.
Storms as powerful as Hurricane Katrina are rare, but less intense hurricanes are common in the southeastern U.S. This is why I think states along the Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic seaboard will take a large risk if they permit offshore oil drilling.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Group Building Nest Boxes Around Gowanus

A group of young architects has been installing yellow nest boxes for birds around the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn.

With growth has come sophistication. At first their boxes were built with the rough idea of attracting a common songbird, the Eastern Bluebird, but since working with John Rowden, this changed. Rowden, an ornithologist with the New York City chapter of the National Audubon Society, suggested a more targeted approach.

“Most of my work is in areas a bit more natural than Gowanus,” Rowden joked. He advised the team against attracting bluebirds, which are not typically found so close to water, and to focus instead on birds such as chimney swifts, known for their insect-eating abilities, and on a small falcon called the kestrel.

A dramatically patterned bird with contrasting gray wings and a copper-colored back, the kestrel doesn’t build its own nest, but instead uses natural crevices or manmade boxes it finds. It’s a predator that hunts rats, patrolling its domain by hovering in place on outstretched wings.

“If people know wildlife is in the area, they’d appreciate it more,” Rowden said. “If people see wildlife, they’d know industrial areas are not as dead as everyone thinks.”

Since the spring of 2009, the Nest Colony group joined the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, and their members started participating in the Conservancy’s monthly volunteer cleanup events on the canal. There, they demonstrate their birdhouse-building techniques while encouraging the public to think of other ways to benefit the canal. Also, with the Conservancy’s support, they were able to secure grants that allowed them to build more birdhouses over the course of last summer.
So far the group has installed 21 nest boxes; their next goal is to build five 12-foot nesting chimneys for Chimney Swifts. They also hope that Tree Swallows will use some of the smaller boxes.

I am glad to see that the group is taking advice from some ornithologists, as that should make it more likely that their efforts will be useful to birds. The target species seem appropriate for an urban setting. The American Kestrel is declining in much of the northeastern U.S. and might benefit from some assistance. Likewise, Chimney Swifts have been in decline because changes in chimney design have reduced nesting sites.

The choice of color for the nest boxes seems a bit odd. While bright yellow does look cheerful against the decaying industrial buildings, most advice I have read suggests using plain, untreated wood for nest box construction. I am not sure if painting the boxes will discourage birds from using them or increase nest predation in an unnatural setting like the Gowanus Canal. It still seems inadvisable.

The article mentions that American Kestrels will eat rats. Perhaps some New York City kestrels have been observed eating rats, but I would expect kestrels to pursue smaller prey. According to Birds of North America, an average kestrel's diet is composed of 74% invertebrates, 16% mammals, 9% birds, and 1% reptiles and amphibians. Major prey animals include grasshoppers, cicadas, beetles, dragonflies, spiders, butterflies, moths, voles, mice, shrews, bats, and small songbirds. I did not see any mention of rats, either in Birds of North America or in my raptor books.

Two Hawks Hatch at the Franklin Institute

Yesterday two chicks hatched in the Red-tailed Hawk nest at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute. A third egg had not hatched as of the last time I checked. The chicks seem to be doing well so far.

Below is a video of the chicks in the nest, courtesy of CamFan, who has a collection of short videos captured from the live webcam.

For more updates, including photos and video of the nest, check the Hawkwatch blog or the live webcam.

Update (4/22): And the third egg hatched.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Volcano Causing Problems for Wildlife?

Ash plume from Eyjafjallajokull Volcano / NASA/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team

Much of the coverage I have seen of the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano's eruption has focused on the problems caused by flight cancellations, its possible effects on Europe's weather, or the spectacular images documenting the eruption. So far there has not been much (or at least not much that I could find) on whether the volcano might affect wildlife generally or birds specifically. The information I have seen is rather fragmentary. One story, from Iceland Review, mentions a possible impact for wildlife: birds flying into the ash plume.
One of the most terrible consequences of an eruption like this is the effect on animals. Most domestic animals are still in house, but the birds have no shelter. They fly into the dark cloud, flap their wings like they have lost their bearings and then fall down and die. Our reporters saw a flock of geese fly straight into the deadly ash. Farmers have told of the desparate [sic] sound coming from the birds battling death. This is the season when birds are migrating back to Iceland.
Unfortunately this is rather vague and does not elaborate on why the ash kills birds (presumably suffocation) or how much of a threat the ash plume represents. Like North America, Europe is in the midst of its spring migration season. Birds will be flying the same skies deemed too dangerous for airplanes. At least one Whooper Swan carrying a satellite tracking device passed near or through the plume successfully. However, the current eruption is still a concern for migrating birds.
On Iceland itself, the volcanic eruption is causing concern for the returning waterfowl. A report from WWT’s colleague Dr Olafur Einarsson in Reykjavik confirms that that there is dense ash and total darkness to the southeast of the volcano, near the area dubbed “Whooper Airport” because it is where most of the birds land after their migration.

Previous eruptions

Dr Einarsson reports that bird deaths have occurred during previous eruptions of other volcanoes in Iceland, when the feeding areas were covered with ash, causing major problems for farmers and birds. Fortunately at the moment the main area affected, between Vik (in the west) and Kirkjubaejarklaustur (in the east), is primarily an area of sand and gravel, leaving internationally important whooper swan staging or breeding sites still suitable for swans.
The BBC reports that farmers have had to keep their domestic animals indoors to prevent them from being poisoned by the falling ash.
The fluoride in the ash creates acid in the animals' stomachs, corroding the intestines and causing haemorrhages.

It also binds with calcium in the blood stream and after heavy exposure over a period of days makes bones frail, even causing teeth to crumble.
If this poses a threat to domestic animals, it probably applies to wildlife too. In fact, wildlife may be at greater danger because they rely on the outdoors for food. It is possible that they could relocate temporarily, but I am not sure if they would know to do that. The BBC article does not mention much about wildlife, but it does mention that some geese had difficulty flying because their wings were caked with ash.

Since volcanic ash reduces sunlight passing through the atmosphere, volcanic eruptions in the past have been followed by colder winters. Earlier this year, parts of Europe experienced a historically cold winter, and that caused noticeable changes in local bird life. If Eyjafjallajökull does cause a harsh winter this year, I would expect to see some effect on birds.

Update: Grrlscientist also wrote about how ash clouds might affect birds's lungs.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Webcams Provide a Window on Bird Nests

In the last few years, more and more refuges have set up webcams so that birdwatchers can monitor daily nesting activities online. Most of the webcams are placed over established raptor nests, but there are some for other types of birds as well. (For a full listing, go to Little Birdie Home and scroll about half way down the page.) I just read an article about the Bald Eagle webcam operated by the Hancock Wildlife Foundation and what makes it so appealing. Their webcam has been accessed by people in 43 countries and maintains a steady viewership.
Hancock thinks the eagle cams reach an audience jaded by the highly produced footage typical of nature programming. "We always know it's canned and edited," he says. The nest footage, transmitted 24/7 from a grainy webcam being blown about in the wind is the antithesis of Discovery Channel fodder. "It's the real wildlife," he says.

"It may be that the bloody animal will sleep for four hours," Hancock says. Those moments of sheer boredom add to the connection the viewers have with the birds. Like human life, it's rarely glamourous. Most of the time, it's just sitting on a couple of eggs. But Hancock says he's learned more from watching the nest cams than he did over 40 years standing on the ground looking up at nests.


Brian Starzomski, a community ecologist at the University of Victoria, admits he's no expert on wildlife voyeurism, but he can't see any harm in the nest cams. "It's certainly nice when people are engaged with nature," he says.

He points out that viewing wildlife on computers opens doors for people who couldn't, or wouldn't, otherwise access a nest site. Having millions of viewers online also means less traffic into sensitive areas and disruption of the nesting birds.
Parts of this article are weirdly written, as if the reporter felt there was something wrong with wildlife webcams or was trying to apologize for it. However, I think it captures why people watch. Webcams provide an intimate view of nesting activities that would be difficult to replicate, even with hours spent in the field near a nest site. Much of the footage is rather mundane, with just a parent sitting on eggs or the nestlings waiting patiently for their parents to return from hunting. But then there are also bursts of activity when the male and female switch incubation duties or one of the parents returns with food.

The image at the top of the post comes from the Bald Eagle webcam at Blackwater NWR in Maryland. It shows the mother eagle with both chicks in view at the same time. The Friends of Blackwater have been running live webcams on an Osprey and a Bald Eagle nest there for several years and have an excellent blog on the eagle nest and YouTube channel.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Spring Birding at Manasquan Reservoir

Oak leaflets

Yesterday I did some birding at Manasquan Reservoir. The woods along the south side of the reservoir were very birdy, with large numbers of common species Tree Swallows and Red-winged Blackbirds. I saw about seven or eight red-winged males sitting close together in the same tree, something I would not normally expect at this time of year, as the males become more territorial and aggressive. The only explanation I could think of was that they had a momentary truce as they gathered around the bird feeders. Males elsewhere in the park were singing and displaying their red epaulettes flamboyantly.

Probably my best sighting for the day was a pair of singing male Palm Warblers moving together through the woods by the nature center. I am not sure I had ever noted their song before in the field. In instructional recordings they tend to be paired with Yellow-rumped Warblers, but I thought their songs bore a closer resemblance those of the Pine Warblers and Chipping Sparrows I encountered in the same area. In any case, my first sighting of the species for this year.

Birds were pairing and starting to set up nests along the trails. I saw at least two pairs of Tufted Titmice entering nestboxes with nesting material, and at least one courting display between a pair. Some of the Carolina Chickadees and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers also seemed to be acting as pairs, though in their cases the behavior was less obvious. One Osprey was sitting on a nest, with its mate keeping watch close by.

The reservoir is probably best known among birders for a pair of Bald Eagles that have nested there for the past several years. They returned to the nest again this winter and hatched one chick. There a remote camera set up so that visitors can watch the activities at the nest on a monitor at the nature center. I saw the eaglet on the nature center's monitor and then later saw the two adults near the nest.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Splits, Splits, Splits

Winter Wren / Photo by ~Shanth

Yesterday David Sibley posted a list of the bird species that he thought were most likely to be split into multiple species. You can read his comments for each of the splits at his site, but here are the ten:
  1. Willet
  2. Whippoorwill
  3. Winter Wren
  4. Xantus's Murrelet
  5. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  6. White-breasted Nuthatch
  7. Marsh Wren
  8. Fox Sparrow
  9. Spruce Grouse
  10. Western Scrub-Jay

As far as I know, most of these are still being researched and debated, so the AOU may not take action on them for some time. 

The only one of these potential splits that would give me an armchair life bird is the split of Winter Wren into its western and eastern populations (currently Troglodytes troglodytes pacificus and Troglodytes troglodytes hiemalis). I still remember listening to the western subspecies when I was in Washington a few years ago. Their songs and those of Hermit Thrushes form part of my memory of the Cascades.

According to Nathan Pipelow, the AOU's Checklist Committee has already voted on the split of Eastern and Western Winter Wrens, and it will become official with the publication of the next supplement to the AOU Checklist in the summer. The only remaining question is whether to split the hiemalis subspecies from the Eurasian populations. If you would like to read more about the reasons for splitting, I would suggest this post by Nick Sly. Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) has a Holarctic distribution; however, it has up to 44 subspecies, some of which may be species in their own right. The North American populations are being split because ornithologists found a contact zone where the eastern and western subspecies did not interbreed. In addition, these populations have subtle differences in appearance and sing different songs, and genetic studies found scant evidence of hybridization.

In addition to Nick's post, I would recommend Nathan's posts on differentiating eastern and western Winter Wrens by call and by song.

Western Willets are often reported along the New Jersey coast in the winter, so I could probably add that pretty easily if I took the time to separate the subspecies. Among the others, I still have not seen the western populations. In some cases, such as Whippoorwill, I have yet to encounter the species at all.

So what armchair life birds would you get out of this list? Are there any that would be easy for you to add?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Loose Feathers #234

Prairie Warbler / USFWS Photo

Birds and birding news
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Environment and biodiversity
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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Grounded Freighter Scars the Great Barrier Reef

Stern scrape from the Shen Neng 1 / photograph courtesy of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

About a week ago, the Shen Neng 1, a Chinese-owned freighter, ran aground on Australia's Great Barrier Reef and started leaking fuel. The four tons of oil that spilled from the ship created a two-mile slick over the reef. Australian officials were successful in refloating the ship, and the good news is that they were able to do it without spilling any additional oil. Unfortunately, the ship left behind a two-mile scar in the reef.
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) chief scientist David Wachenfeld fears it could take 20 years for the reef to recover.

"This is by far the largest ship grounding scar we have seen on the Great Barrier Reef to date," he said.

"This vessel did not make an impact in one place and rest there and then was pulled off.

"This scar is more in the region of 3km long and up to 250 metres wide."
The recovery time could be longer because the hull's anti-fouling paint, meant to discourage marine organisms from growing on ships, scraped off onto the reef.
"An optimistic estimate would be, if there were no chemical contamination at this site, that it would take (the reef) 10 to 20 years to recover," Dr Wachenfeld said.

"That paint is quite likely to have heavy metals in it.

"That would really put a much longer timeframe on recovery because that paint would be stopping any plants and animals from recolonising."
The image at the top of the post shows a portion of the scarring; you can see more images of it here. Marine scientists are still exploring the damage, and its full extent may not be known for some time. Effects of oil spills can linger in an ecosystem long after the ship and its visible oil slick is removed. For example, residual petrochemicals are still detectable in the Harlequin Ducks of Prince William Sound, more than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez disaster. That is why it is so disturbing to see an incident like this happen in such a globally important biodiversity hotspot.

As if the scar were not enough, some of the spilled oil is washing up on a nature sanctuary.
Conservationists describe North West Island as a globally important nesting site for seabirds and green and loggerhead turtles, which are currently hatching and travelling down the beach.

Darren Kindleysides, director of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said even small amounts of oil can affect wildlife.

"We're not talking about a supertanker going aground and releasing tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of oil," he said.

"But we are talking about oil reaching a coral cay which is globally important for seabird breeding and the nesting of green and loggerhead turtles.

"Unfortunately this is the time of year we have turtle hatchlings going down the beach... so that is a real concern."
Australian leaders have expressed outrage at the incident since the ship first ran aground. Yesterday, police arrested two of the crew members.
The Australian Federal Police said they had arrested the ship's master and chief officer-on-watch and that the two Chinese men will appear in court in Queensland state on Thursday.

"Investigations showed that the Shen Neng 1 failed to turn at a waypoint required by the intended course of the ship. A waypoint is a location at which a ship is to alter course," the federal police said in a statement.

The 44-year-old crewman in charge of the watch faces a maximum three years jail and/or a A$220,000 ($205,000) fine. The 47-year-old master faces a A$55,000 fine.
The company that owns the ship, Shenzhen Energy Group, could face additional fines and will have to pay for cleanup costs.

In other ocean news, DNA testing found that whale meat caught by Japanese whalers was served in restaurants in South Korea and the United States. Japan permits whaling under the guise of scientific research and allows the meat to be sold as food. However, sale of whale meat is illegal in both the United States and South Korea. Sei whale meat sold in a Los Angeles restaurant and fin whale meat sold in a Seoul restaurant both matched similar products sold in Japan. Minke whales caught in Japanese hunts have also been linked to international trade. The findings may increase international pressure to tighten restrictions on hunting protected whale species.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Possible Way for Wild Birds to Spread Influenza

Northern Pintail fitted with a transmitter / USGS

One of the great questions during the outbreak of the H5N1 influenza virus a few years ago was how the virus spread so quickly. The virus outbreak was most severe in the domestic poultry industry, but it was also detected among waterfowl and spread to humans, many of whom died. New research from the USGS suggests a possible route the virus could have spread via wild birds.
In the study, scientists from the USGS Alaska Science Center and the University of Tokyo attached satellite transmitters to 92 northern pintail ducks several months before the H5N1 virus was discovered in dead and dying whooper swans at wetlands in Japan.

They found that 12 percent of marked pintails used the same wetlands as infected swans and that pintails were present at those sites on dates the virus was discovered in swans. During the first week after they become infected with H5N1, ducks such as pintails can shed the virus orally or in their feces, potentially contributing to the virus’ spread.

Researchers found that some of the marked pintails migrated 700 miles within four days of leaving the outbreak sites; marked pintails ultimately migrated more than 2,000 miles to nesting areas in eastern Russia.  The study’s discovery that northern pintails made long-distance migrations during the period when an infected duck would likely shed the virus offers insight on how H5N1 could be spread by wild birds across large areas.

The research, published in the journal Ibis, does not prove the marked pintails were actually infected with the H5N1 virus or that they definitively contributed to its spread.  However, it does demonstrate that pintails satisfied two requirements necessary for migratory birds to spread the virus: they used outbreak sites at times when the virus was present and some birds migrated long distances within a week of using the sites.

Jerry Hupp, Ph.D., a U. S. Geological Survey scientist and one of the lead authors of the study, noted that the H5N1 virus has been found in wild birds, including northern pintails, which show no visible signs of illness. Also, laboratory studies have shown that pintails and some other wild birds remain healthy when infected with H5N1.
While the study does not prove that wild birds spread H5N1, it does show that they are at least a possible vector. Because waterfowl migrate between Asia and North America and birds have carried less pathogenic viruses from Asia to Alaska in the past, infected Northern Pintails might spread H5N1 into North America. However, this highly pathogenic strain still has not been detected in North America despite its rapid spread in Eurasia and Africa several years ago. Whether this will happen in the future remains to be seen. 

Northern Pintails wintering in Japan / USGS

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mapping Ecosystems and Biodiversity

The Nature Conservancy is creating an atlas to depict worldwide ecosystems and the threats they face.
The atlas is the work of eight scientists at the Nature Conservancy who three years ago set out to chart everything from the mangroves in Borneo where proboscis monkeys live to the extent of grasslands on Mongolia's steppes, in order to produce 80 detailed maps.

"The atlas is telling us what's where, what state it's in, what people are doing to it now -- the big threats, and what we can do to turn it around," said senior marine scientist Mark Spalding of the Conservancy.

The maps -- all done on the same scale -- depict a dizzying array of ecosystems, plants and animals across the globe in different stages of depletion. One shows how the human demand for water outstrips the natural supply in dry and crowded regions such as the American West and the Mediterranean basin; another shows how large areas of intact forests cover 10 percent of the earth's land surface, while they once spread over nearly half of it.

"The sobering message shouldn't be glossed over," said Boucher. He added that since maps showing where animals are threatened also show that some are surging back to health, "It's a case of sorrow, but also a case of hope."
The project is going to be released as a book on April 22, but you can already view the maps online at the Nature Conservancy's website. A screenshot for one of them, the map of bird diversity, is at the top of this post. Clicking on portions of the map will bring up a box showing more details for that area.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Tracking the Impressive Migration of Ruddy Turnstones

Using geolocators, Australian scientists have tracked the complete migration cycle of Ruddy Turnstones, one of my favorite shorebird species. The birds in question spend their winters in southeast Australia and breed in the Aleutian Islands.
"We have been amazed at the feats of Bar-tailed Godwit tracked by satellite from Australia and New Zealand to their breeding grounds in the high Arctic and back", said Dr Clive Minton from the Australasian Wader Studies Group. "Unfortunately the size of the satellite transmitters, and the batteries required to power them, precluded their use on smaller shorebirds like Ruddy Turnstone".

The researchers therefore decided to use new 1 gram light-sensor geolocators - supplied by British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, England - and fitted them to eight Ruddy Turnstone spending their non-breeding season in south-east Australia in April 2009. Four geolocators were eventually retrieved from birds between 20 October 2009 and 8 January 2010.

"All four birds flew 7,600 km non-stop to Taiwan in just over six days, with three apparently travelling together", said Dr Clive Minton. They then flew on to northern Siberia, following separate paths and stopping over at different sites. "By early August, two had moved to Korea and south-eastern Siberia, respectively, but another bird returned to Australia via the Central Pacific!"

The Pacific bird spent 26 July -15 October on the Aleutian Islands before flying 6,200 km across the Pacific in four days to Kiribati, and then it made another four-day, 5,000-km flight to eastern Australia. "Five days later it was back in south-east Australia having completed a 27,000-km round trip", added Ken Gosbell - Chairman of the Australasian Wader Studies Group.
The turnstones were estimated to fly at about 50-55 km per hour (or about 30-35 mph). During their southbound flights, they averaged about 65 km per hour (or 40 mph), which suggests they may have had a tailwind at times. Because the pilot project was so successful, the research team is tagging an additional 60 turnstones with geolocators and extend the project to 30 Greater Sand Plovers and 4 Sharp-tailed Sandpipers. Shorebird migrations have long been known to be among the most impressive performed by any bird species. Thanks to contemporary technology we are getting a better picture of just how impressive shorebird flights can be!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Spring Flowers

Yesterday I was at Buck Garden in Somerset County. Many spring flowers were in bloom. Here are a few that I photographed. Above is Marsh Marigold, which was growing in a large mass near one of the ponds. You can see an individual flower here.

This is a dark-leaved Jack-in-the-pulpit.

Troutlilies were growing and blooming along several trails. This plant was larger than the wild troutlilies that I am used to seeing, and its leaves were not very mottled. Otherwise, it has the same basic structure as the wild version.

Virginia Bluebells are not an easy flower to photograph since the stems bend so much under the weight of the flowers. But they are a pretty shade of blue.

I saw one bloodroot plant, this Double Bloodroot, whose leaves were beautifully lit by the late morning sun. The plant is named for its reddish rhizome that contains a toxic sap.

Visit my Flickr account for larger versions of these images and a few more flowers that I did not include here.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Documenting Rare Birds

 A rare bird

Nate wrote an interesting post yesterday about rare bird reports.
Birding, like many activities that require developing specific skills, has an obvious hierarchy.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be disconcerting and intimidating for those who are new to the hobby.  Because if you’re in the field enough you’re probably going to find something fairly unusual eventually, and if you’re interested in contributing to the greater birding community as well as to scientific study of vagrants (and you should be) you’re going to come up against a rare bird committee or an eBird reviewer at some point.  While it’s easy to get the impression that there’s some sort of secretive birding cabal standing between you and your rare bird sighting, that’s not true.  What these individuals are looking for is fairly straight-forward.  They want to know how well you saw the bird in question and how you made the identification.
Nate reviews unusual bird reports in the Carolinas for eBird, so he has had plenty of interaction with birders who submit unusual sightings. His post at the link provides some advice for writing a persuasive report and communicating with eBird's reviewers. A good report should include a clear and detailed description of the bird and discuss what details eliminate other similar species. Not all reports will require the same level of detail. A sighting out of season will not need the same level of documentation as a first state or county record.

I doubt that I have reviewed as many sightings as Nate has, but I have reviewed some, for both the Great Backyard Bird Count and the C&O Canal Midwinter Bird Survey. In my experience, as both a reviewer and as a contributor of sightings, being prepared to document a sighting is key to submitting a persuasive report. I think that contributors would feel less frustrated by the review process if they knew what to do ahead of time. This is especially a problem for the Great Backyard Bird Count, when many birders are participating for the first time.

Good preparation starts with a basic familiarity with what species are expected in a given area at a given time of year. If a bird seems out of place or out of season, there is a good chance that it is unusual enough to be reviewed. I find that it is difficult to remember details of a sighting hours or days later, when my memory has been diluted by subsequent sightings. The best thing is to take notes right away, while the bird is still visible, and to record as many details of the bird's shape, appearance, and behavior as possible. Photographs may help but are not always necessary, and even with a photo it helps to have a good description of the bird and what it was doing. Those notes will provide a basis for communicating with eBird reviewers or anyone else who wants details on the sighting. Even if it turns out to be unnecessary, note-taking is a good exercise for looking at birds more closely, so the effort will not be wasted.