Sunday, February 7, 2016

Squandering energy and boasting about it

"Bridled" Common Murre
Common Murre, photographed from Machias Seal Island off the coast of Maine in 2013. These seabirds are indeed suffering from a huge array of issues in the ocean, including climate change.

I just got a heartfelt if rather personal criticism from a KAXE listener in an email titled “Bragging about excessive, unnecessary travel harms birds.” Aaron wrote:

Hearing your show on 2/3/16 on KAXE in Grand Rapids MN, I was sickened to hear you boasting of all your jet traveling, just to add to your life list. You talk and write of doing one’s part to help, or at least not harm birds, on your website and radio shows, yet you choose to boast of very harmful behavioral choices.  
You have heard of climate change and how it's harmful to lots of bird species right? This winter in Alaska there are tens to hundreds of thousands of common murres washing up on shore dead; likely from a very warm region of the Pacific and the biological changes that came with the excessive heat. You must also realize that jets burn kerosene and massive volumes of it right? Your trip to Africa alone will emit more transportation based carbon pollution than most Americans will put on in a year of driving around living a normal, local life.
I would have hoped that boasting of unnecessary pollution creation would have been something you'd put aside long ago. We need media icon birders like yourself to start questioning and criticizing the travel/ airline/ fossil fuel industry, not bragging of gluttonous usage.  
I was really saddened to hear this installment of your show, and hope that in the future if you can't find the rationale to not be a monstrous fossil fuel consumer/addict, that at least you'll have the common sense to not brag about it, thus encouraging others to do behave in the same harmful ways.  
The thing I asked myself 15 yrs ago when I was a travel/ airline industry sucker is "is this really necessary to support these industries that are very harmful to so many creatures worldwide, and increase my carbon footprint dramatically from where it is already as a wealthy (especially when considered globally) person, and is this the kind of behavior I want to boast of for ego kicks?" I've only been on a jet once since then and it was to be with my wife while she was working in Europe for two months. Life is as rich as ever, and we now see ourselves as cultural creatives, modeling an airline/ kerosene free lifestyle and encouraging others to stay grounded (literally). 
As Aaron points out, I can’t defend my energy usage. My speaking and writing about birds and photographing them are my only means of income, so like Aaron’s wife traveling to Europe for her work, I travel when my job calls for it, and  I provide free use of the many photographs I’ve taken on all my travels to all kinds of environmental and educational non-profits, which they use in publicizing disasters such as the deaths of those murres in Alaska.

The words "boasting" and “bragging” are loaded ones, but they make me feel defensive because Aaron is right: any time we step into a jet we are indeed contributing to climate change. Any time I type on my computer or switch on my digital recorder to record a radio program, I’m doing the same thing, and though not at the same order of magnitude, every bit hurts. Russ and I have spent the 35 years we’ve lived in Duluth trying very hard to shrink our carbon footprint in every way we can, but it’s always sobering to realize that no matter how hard we try, we can always do better.

I’m not going to apologize to Aaron—I don’t see his choice to travel to Europe to be with his wife, or her traveling there for work, as being somehow superior to my own reasons for travel. But he is right that I should be mindful of my energy use. I’m not sure how I can write and talk about the beautiful birds of this planet without sounding like I’m boasting when I get to see them. I guess all any of us can do is try our best.

Nasal Leeches

(This is the transcript of a For the Birds program from 2010. Oh, my!)

Green-winged Teal
Green-winged Teal

Now that I’m well entrenched in middle age and have been studying birds since I was very young, I thought that there was little left I could learn that would leave me utterly stunned. That was until last week, when I was reading Kevin Johnson’s account of Green-winged Teal in The Birds of North America. He wrote that this is the only duck species known to scratch itself in flight. That was unexpected and cool, but even though I’d always assumed such a tiny, swift duck needed to focus on where it was headed, not personal grooming, while 100 feet off the ground, it wasn’t really so very shocking.

What shocked me was the reason why Green-winged Teal scratch in flight. It turns out that there’s a group of leeches that crawl into the eyes and nostrils of water birds to feed—a whole chapter of the U.S. Geological Survey book, Field Manual of Wildlife Diseases: Birds is even titled “Nasal Leeches.” Nasal leeches belong to the genus Thermyzon and the scientific name of the one most associated with ducks, called the duck leech, is quite fittingly Thermyzon rude. These leeches are not known to attack humans at all.

I mustered my courage and read more about them than I necessarily wanted to know. In North America, they’re by far most common in the north, especially in Alaska, the western half of Canada, and Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. They’re listed as common in Minnesota and occasional in Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan, but as rare or not reported in Wisconsin, leaving me to wonder whether the state really is an island of safety or whether Wisconsin hunters and waterfowl managers avert their eyes.

As leeches grow engorged, they can obstruct a bird’s nasal passages, pharynx, and trachea, eventually leading to suffocation, especially in ducklings and baby swans. And the tissue damage leeches cause can contribute to secondary bacterial infections. Nasal leeches are not solitary parasites. One researcher found as many as 57 in a single 4-week old Trumpeter Swan; another found 72 of them in one swan—their studies were conducted at Red Rock Lakes from the 1950s through the 70s, when Trumpeter Swans were endangered, and many researchers consider these leeches to have prevented the species from expanding even with protection and good management until the reintroduction program brought them to areas where the leeches are much less abundant.

Leeches cannot survive in salt water, and unattach themselves if exposed to it. This may explain why nasal leeches are least often found in mergansers, diving ducks, and loons, and most prevalent in dabbling ducks and swans. I’m not sure how geese protect themselves, but leeches are far rarer in geese than in other waterfowl.  Infestations can be fatal, especially in cygnets and ducklings. When they are not feeding on birds from the inside out, nasal leeches occur as free-living organisms in aquatic environments, and in a bizarre symbiotic relationship, up until they grab onto a bird’s nostrils, they may instead provide food for waterbirds.

In all my years of waxing euphoric about the balance of nature, I never once considered that this balance included nasal leeches. Walt Whitman once wrote, “You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds.” I’m sorry to say he may have been right.

Trumpeter Swan
Trumpeter Swan

Dirty Socks

(This was a For the Birds transcript from 2010, but I never wrote a blog post about it.)

These are the socks I wore on my hike to see the Horned Guan in Guatemala in 2007. Photo was taken in 2016, so the stains have faded.
Ten years ago [now over 15 years ago], I bought ten pairs of plain white Cool Max socks before my first trip to Costa Rica. Eighteen of these socks are interchangeable. None of them are pure white anymore, but they’re in pretty good shape. The other two bear orangey brown stains covering the toe and sides and sole. A few times friends have noticed how discolored they are and suggested it was time to retire them. But these are the socks I wore on the biggest birding adventure of my life. Every time I put them on, or even just notice them in my drawer, memories flood back.

This pair of socks earned their colors in February 2007 on a hike to one of the most remote spots on the planet to see one of the rarest birds in the world—the Horned Guan. I was with three professional tour leaders staying at a lovely coffee plantation in Guatemala—a plantation that was literally at the end of the road. Two local guides, one experienced and with excellent English, one a teenager just starting to learn English, woke us up at 2 a.m. so we could reach the highlands at dawn—the best time to view the guan munching its leafy breakfast in the treetops. We started out in a jeep that took us up and up the volcano, along a bumpy trail far too narrow to accommodate a truck—branches whipped our faces as we rattled along in the dark. After an hour, the trail ended and out we hopped, flashlights in hand, to hike a narrow path hacked by hand through the forest. It was 3:30 am, too early for even a slight grayness on the eastern horizon, and we had a long way to go before we reached the area where the guan was supposed to be—they said it would be at least a three hour hike from here.

The other three birders were gung ho guys in their thirties, antsy to charge forward and get that guan. None of them brought a camera or spotting scope—one even forgot his flashlight. I tend to be pretty laid back and methodical even when I’m excited—I figured I was either going to see the guan or I wasn’t, and if I did, I wanted a photo. And I wanted to bird along the way. I was twenty years older than they, and didn’t want to slow them down. So the older guide took them ahead while the younger moseyed back with me, carrying my scope. Every now and then we tripped on stumps of saplings jutting out of the ground in the pitch darkness. Our boots kept sinking into the coarse, loose volcanic ash, making the footing more treacherous. And with every step, my feet seemed to be getting heavier—which they actually were, since so much ash was seeping into them.

My Spanish was rusty, but my guide and I managed to carry on a conversation. With the endearing tactlessness of a teenager, my asked how old I was, and when I said 55, he gasped with surprise, blurting out that I was older than his grandmother. He said I might be the oldest woman ever to have made that trip.

The others hiked at a rapid clip, and found a guan around 7:30—their guide called mine on his cell phone. We still had a long way to go—it took us over an hour to catch up. But they kept the guan in sight the whole time to make sure I saw it too. 

Horned Guan

The bird was worth every moment of the hike, every grain of volcanic ash scraping against my feet inside my boots. Horned Guans are as big and plump as turkeys, with iridescent black and white plumage. A brilliant red horn juts out of their forehead as if they were unicorns. I gazed at it for half an hour, but never saw the entire bird at once—wherever it moved in the canopy, leaves always managed to obscure parts of it. I snapped dozens of photos, lovely mementos of this splendid bird. 

Horned Guan

Horned Guan

My stained socks serve as a more visceral reminder of the long climb up, and the longer, more treacherous trip back down through the gritty ash. I was exhausted when we finally made it back to the lodge after a five-hour descent and another hour in the jeep. The first thing others said when we arrived was that we’d want to throw out our socks. I just smiled and tucked them safely in a bag for the journey home.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Clay Taylor's banded Common Tern

Clay Taylor digiscoping. He and my good friend Sharon Stiteler produced an excellent (and fun!) series about birding and digiscoping that you can watch on YouTune. Photo by Bruce Webb

Whenever I go to birding festivals, I look forward to running into  Clay Taylor. As a representative for Swarovski Optik, he takes photos and videos of birds by digiscoping them, using Swarovski equipment, and then displays his work on a high definition screen at the Swarovski booth. Birders are drawn to various optics company booths both to enjoy the great looks at wonderful birds and to check out the equipment that produced them, and Clay’s are always top notch.

I particularly appreciate Clay's promotion of digiscoping—that is, photographing through a spotting scope, which allows us to get close-up photos from a safe distance to avoid disturbing the bird. It is a great way to promote ethical nature photography.

Banded Common Terns, digiscoped by Clayton Taylor using a Swarovski Optik STX 95 spotting scope with a Panasonic LUMIX GH4 camera and the Swarovski TLS APO adapter

Back in September, when Clay was at Cape May Point in New Jersey, he came upon a Common Tern resting on the beach, and noticed that it was wearing a leg band. He walked around it from about 50 feet away, shooting images of the band in order to get all sides of it.

Above photos all digiscoped by Clayton Taylor using a Swarovski Optik STX 95 spotting scope with a Panasonic LUMIX GH4 camera and the Swarovski TLS APO adapter

Clay took about a hundred photos, and it took 5 to determine the band sequence: 9822-05514. He sent that number to the Bird Banding Laboratory and waited to find out more about this individual bird.

The Common Tern, which breeds over Europe and Asia as well as North America, is doing fairly well overall, though for a while it was in steep decline everywhere. Egg collecting and then the millinery trade both took a huge toll, and numbers were barely recovering before pesticides caused another decline. As specialists on fish, Common Terns bioaccumulate quite a load, leading especially to reproductive problems.

Terns have been declining on many of their historical breeding areas. When Russ and I brought our children to Machias Seal Island off the coast of Maine in 1993, everyone had to carry a tall pole to be safe from nesting Common and Arctic Terns--they divebombed people, going straight for the highest part, which was the pole unless you put it down for a moment. Sure enough, when Russ put his pole down momentarily to photograph the kids, a tern bonked him on the head hard enough to draw blood.

The kids on Machias Seal Island
Russ took this photo of the kids with their poles on Machias Seal Island in 1993. Terns were everywhere!

I returned to Machias Seal Island exactly 20 years later, for my Conservation Big Year in 2013, and the tern nesting colony had completely collapsed. We spotted one Arctic Tern carrying a fish, but I'm not sure where it was headed--it didn't alight on the island, and we didn't see a single Common Tern.

On the Great Lakes, Common Tern numbers dropped especially precipitously when Ring-billed Gull populations here burgeoned, and they haven’t recovered. The species is listed as Threatened in Minnesota and Endangered in Wisconsin. If Common Terns no longer live up to the first part of their name, they're not in critical danger--the International Union for the Conservation of Nature ranks it as a species of least concern worldwide.

It's hard to approach close to terns here on the Great Lakes, where they are shy and skittish, so my only photos are from a distance. Terns along the coasts are a bit more acclimated to humans on beaches than those here, which is why Clay’s bird didn’t take off as Clay circled it. That wonderful digiscoping technique allowed him to keep a comfortable distance while still getting good pictures. What he learned from the US Geological Survey’s Patuxent Bird Banding Laboratory is this: it was originally captured and banded as an adult on Great Gull Island, NY, on August 16, 1994, which would put the bird's hatching year at 1992 or earlier. This means the bird was at least 23 years old when Clay captured the photos.

Twenty-three years old isn't quite the record, but it's close. The Bird Banding Lab's Longevity page provides longevity records for various species based on banding return records when banded birds are recaught or found later. Most longevity data used to come from banding stations recapturing banded birds, from hunters harvesting banded birds, and from anybody finding a dead bird with a band. Now more and more records are coming from people like Clay who photograph a living banded bird and report the number. This is trickier than it sounds, because the number wraps around the band; that's why Clay had to take photos from all angles to work out the complete number.

The oldest Common Tern based on Bird Banding Lab records was originally banded in New York and recaptured, alive, when it was 25 years 1 month old. I don't know why, but the webpage doesn't give the dates for that one. A second one banded in New York in July 1970 was recovered, alive, in Massachusetts, in June 1995, making it 25 years old.

The closely related Arctic Tern has a significantly older record holder: one  banded in Maine in July 1936 was recaptured, alive, in Maine in June 1970, making it a minimum of 34 years old. But the oldest Forster's Tern was found dead when only 15 years 10 months—I'm not sure why that one doesn't seem to survive as long as the other two species.

Recaptures and getting band numbers from living or dead birds is not easy--only a tiny fraction of banded birds are ever reported again. This is one of the reasons I strongly support bird banding stations--the information they gather gives us a far greater understanding of all kinds of challenges birds face. Now, with DNA and radio isotope information from feathers and cloacal swabs, we can gather even more detailed information during the banding process, often using just a small feather or two that fell off the bird anyway. And the more we know, the better our chances of helping declining bird populations.

Even if Clay's tern was not a record-breaker, it’s wonderful to know that plucky little bird has survived on this planet for at least 23 years, and counting. As Clay asked on Facebook, “How cool is that?”

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Winter warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler
This Yellow-rumped Warbler in Port Wing, Wisconsin, wasn't visiting a feeder in October 2014--I was smacking cluster flies in the window and tossing them out for her. 

On January 16, the day I flew to San Diego for a week of birding and relatively balmy temperatures in Southern California, I got an email from Maxene Linehan of Hovland, just north of Grand Marais. She wrote:
For the past weeks we have had consistent daily sightings of a yellow-rumped
warbler at our suet feeders, so I have been offering a variety of suet and
was able to obtain dried mealworms, putting them in our platform feeder.

With our LOOOONG autumn lasting into the end of November I wondered if  warblers would have a second late brood under those conditions, and maybe this one got left behind.

She has been extra feisty, guarding "her" platform feeder from the chickadees, and trying to engage them in aerial combat, much to their chagrin. Each day she is still with us, as it gets colder, it amazes me and I wonder where she sleeps in the cold. I do have some small-bird houses out that I altered for winter (hole at bottom, upper perch inside, Styrofoam added atop roof and sides) but haven't been able to track her. She is very shy and flies to the woods when we come out.

So, if you can believe this, any info you can give, food wise or for shelter would be MUCH appreciated. She seems to favor the suet cakes home-made by the proprietor  of our local store and I shred them into smaller insect size pieces with a spoon instead of putting the cake out in solid form that gets frozen hard.

I was out of range to check my email much on my trip, so I didn’t have time to respond before she wrote back telling me she'd found information that indicated Yellow-rumped Warblers are pretty hardy:

I learned that they are found as far north as Labrador in winter (granted, we may have harsher winters, don't know for sure), and that they turn to berries and such when insects aren't available.  The source said they will accept sunflower seeds (we put out hearts in mid winter) and even peanut butter. So I put out raisins and dried blueberries with the seeds, suet and dried mealworms. Quite the buffet... the chickadees like it too.

She soon wrote back adding:

I think she must have hatched late in the season. As she eats the shredded suet cake I put in "her" tray feeder, she flutters her wings like a begging nestling! (Maybe, too, that keeps her warm when perched?)

Maxene ended with, “Each day I see her is closer to spring.”

It's possible but highly unlikely that the warbler represented a late hatching. There's no way that a pair of adults could have brought off a nest in August or September—there's barely any anecdotal evidence that this species ever nests twice in the same season. I'm intrigued with the behaviors she described. The bird was assertive enough to take over one feeder from the chickadees, and so my guess is that it was opening its wings aggressively, possibly towards those chickadees or other birds. I've seen chickadees during their first fall holding their wings out to claim dominance over young flock mates.

Preening Black-capped Chickadee
This young chickadee, in September 2014, was fluffed out and spreading its wings to assert itself over the chickadees in its new fall flock. (The adults just seemed to roll their eyes.)
This behavior of Maxene's warbler would have been a fascinating behavior to observe, photograph, and even make a video of. If I hadn't been in California, it would have been worth the drive to Hovland just for that. 

I'm not surprised it found her feeder. In the first 20 years we lived here, we had none ever at the feeder until one showed up on a cold, drizzly day in April 2001.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
My feeder April 2001

I went more than a decade without seeing another at the feeders, though they have always been common migrants in my trees. But they do seem to pay attention to chickadees and other feeder birds, and in Spring 2013, one showed up at one of my feeders again.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
My yard, April 2013
In 2014, fairly large flocks turned up in both spring and fall. 

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Taken in my yard May 2014

Yellow-rumped Warbler
My yard May 2014

Yellow-rumped Warblers at my suet and peanut butter feeders.
October 2014
Yellow-rumped Warblers at my suet and peanut butter feeders.
October 2014

I thought I was seeing a sea change in Yellow-rumped Warbler behavior, but didn't have them at my feeders at all in 2015, though in the spring I did have Cape May Warblers visiting them for a few days--the last time that happened was in 2004. They put on quite a show this year, when I had the camera equipment to take advantage.

Cape May Warbler out my window

We can't help but be curious about whether climate change was involved in Maxene's bird remaining so very late, but Yellow-rumped Warblers have been considered rare winter visitors in Minnesota for many decades. Even so, Maxene's bird was obviously quite exceptional. 

She said the warbler was most active in the low light of dawn and dusk and was skittish, making photography difficult at best, but she did get distant photos on January 22. 

Maxene's warbler wasn't as cooperative as mine--under harsh winter conditions, who could blame it?
Sadly, that ended up being the last day she saw the little thing. It had survived that week of nights with double-digits below zero, and the 22nd happened to be right when the temperatures were rising again, so there’s a good chance that after getting through the worst of it, it decided to take advantage of the milder conditions to head south. 

But we’ll never know for sure. The little Indigo Bunting in my own neighborhood disappeared weeks ago, but like the warbler, there was no particular indication that the bird was in distress, so nowhere near the certainty that it had succumbed like our Duluth Ivory Gull did. Fruit-eating birds such as robins and waxwings, and yellow-rumps, which specialize on wax myrtle berries, tend to be more flexible in their winter movement patterns than most birds, so it’s quite likely that this little mite wandered south, and may right now be basking with other yellow-rumps in Texas or Florida. Without evidence either way, that’s the picture I’m keeping in my mind’s eye. After all, hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon

Photo by Lisa Johnson, Pupparazzi Companion Animal Photography
At some point tomorrow, the racers in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon will reach the finish line. The Beargrease, the longest running sled-dog race in the Lower 48, started in 1980, the year before Russ and I moved to Duluth. It’s one of the qualifying races for mushers who want to enter Alaska’s famous Iditarod. The route used to be fairly standard, from Duluth pretty much to the Canadian Border and back again. Thanks to unpredictable weather and poor snow conditions due to the increasing number of winter thaws in recent years, sometimes the route has been shortened, and occasionally the race has been cancelled, which is why although the marathon started 36 years ago, this is only the 32nd running of it.

Considering how long the Beargrease has been a tradition up here, and how it runs its course entirely outdoors where great winter birds can be seen, it’s a little odd that I’ve never done a For the Birds program about the race or about dogsledding in general, except a parody program for April Fools Day, 1988, called “The John Chickenfat Bird Race. My friend Sparky Stensaas, one of the best birders I know, provided the expertise and even served as stunt double for the main character of the Disney film about a dogsled race, Iron Will. And I myself got to taste dog sledding a bit during a weekend with my friend Kathleen Anderson in Brimson. I first met Kathleen when she was producing radio segments about the Beargrease for KUMD back in the 80s. So again, you’d think I’d have mentioned the race here and there.

The problem is, there’s not a whole lot of bird action in the Beargrease—indeed, birds would never get the point of such a thing. Most songbirds could easily fly the 400 miles in a day and a half at most, even while taking time out to sleep from dusk to dawn. Being subservient enough to lug a musher and sled is simply not within the scope of any bird’s imagination.

But like sled dogs, birds that are fully acclimated to winter can get overheated when winter conditions get too mild. 

Common Redpoll detail
Common Redpoll
Birds of course set their own pace, unlike sled dogs who have to obey the musher, so bird problems during winter thaws have nothing to do with getting overheated. But the same bad snow conditions that make running in snow difficult for sled dogs also can be hard on birds. Grouse and even many songbirds such as redpolls burrow into soft deep snow on subzero nights—the temperature in these burrows can be as much as 36 Fahrenheit degrees warmer than the air temperature, with no wind. When repeated daytime thaws make the snow icier, it becomes increasingly difficult for even birds as large as grouse to make these tunnels, and tiny redpolls don’t have a chance.

It’s been our warming winters that have caused delays, rerouting, and even cancellations of some past Beargrease marathons. These same situations have been hard on Gray Jays, which start nesting in February. 
Gray Jay
Gray Jay
You'd think milder conditions when they have eggs and nestlings would be good, but Gray Jays depend on the stores of meat they cached through the fall and early winter for insuring a steady supply of food for the nesting female and the nestlings once they hatch. Unfortunately, those thaws do to the food stores exactly what a power outage do to food in our freezer. If you can imagine coming back from a trip and everything seems fine until you thaw out a chicken and it’s rancid because the electricity had gone out for several days—that’s what these poor birds deal with at nesting time after a few winter thaws.

But who wants to think about those hardships when you’re watching a Gray Jay, or teams of dogs and mushers running through the snow? The one time I was on a dog sled, I was struck with how quiet it was, and how magical. I could see ravens and Blue Jays, and a flock of finches. When I flock of Bohemian Waxwings flew by, I could even hear their chattering. I’m sure the mushers in the marathon are more focused on their dogs and the terrain, if they actually want to win. But that lovely hour on a dog sled stuck in my memory as a joyful experience, and for me that joy included the birds I could notice.

Photo by Lisa Johnson, Pupparazzi Companion Animal Photography

I’m glad our wonderful sled dog tradition, with its rich history based on the original John Beargrease, is honored with this wonderful event. Beargrease, the son of an Anishinabe chief, was an avid hunter and trapper in the late 1800s who on his regular runs between Two Harbors and Grand Marais started carrying mail as well.  I don’t know how much he paid attention to birds, and I don’t know how much the mushers do today, but somehow there is a bond between all of us who love the natural wonders of the northwoods in winter, however we enjoy them.

Bohemian Waxwing
Bohemian Waxwing