Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Every cog and wheel

Diamondback Rattlesnake
Charles Schulz’s Peanuts was at the epitome of popularity when I was in high school and college, and I was a major fan. One of the posters I hung on my dorm room wall showed Linus calling out, “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand!” Most of us are at least a little that way about wildlife. I love it all in principle, and do a pretty good job in my everyday life of protecting habitat and defending the right of all species to exist as sustainable populations. I also defend the rights of individual animals to exist as fellow travelers on this little planet. Since early childhood, I’ve carried spiders and most insects outside rather than killing them. Spider
This wasn’t some sudden transformation I underwent as an adult. When I was a little girl, I went through a phase that lasted several years during which I’d absolutely never walk in the grass—I’d stay on roads, sidewalks, or trails no matter what when outside. I wouldn’t even cross our back lawn to reach the swingset until my big brother made me a path of rocks. I wasn’t the least bit scared of any animals that might be lurking down there, but I was absolutely terrified of the thought of squishing tiny creatures, being responsible for their deaths without even knowing they existed. Even today I avoid walking off trail as much as is humanly possible. Vesper Sparrow nest
But, inconsistently, I’ve always made exceptions, even regarding my most deeply-held convictions. In the case of mosquitoes and ticks, I learned as a very little child that they carry diseases from one animal or human to another, which especially scared me when I had chicken pox—what if mosquitoes carried the germs from me to a bird or mouse or other innocent creature? My daughter has a rare but extreme allergy to mosquitoes that made me even less patient with them. Non-targeted insecticides applied environmentally haven’t made any difference in reducing mosquitoes, but I don’t mind in the least smacking them. Garter Snake
I grew up in a blue-collar suburb of Chicago, and my house harbored a garter snake hibernaculum under our front porch. One day every spring until my dad plugged up the porch, the snakes would suddenly emerge, and our yard would seem to come alive, writhing with them. My big brother would try to frighten me by holding snakes in my face. He told me their double-pointed tongues were needle sharp, but I picked one up and put my finger near the tongue, and it was soft and delicate. My big brother couldn’t scare me! Garter Snake
When I was on a birding walk in my early 20s, I heard children yelling, “Look! Its blood is red!” and came upon two boys beating a small garter snake with sticks. The poor thing had coiled its body up tightly to protect its head, but was already dead. I lit into them with a fury I’d never suspected I had, yelling that of course its blood was red—it was a vertebrate animal just like them and had not been hurting them in any way, shape, or form. And I gave them a lecture about bullies and cruelty. At the time, I was a little surprised that they stuck around listening to me and seemed repentant, but in retrospect I realized that this was during the period after the movie Star Wars came out. I was skinny and in the habit of wearing my long, very dark brown hair in Princess Leia bagels. The poor kids probably thought Obi-Wan Kenobi wasn’t far behind with his light saber.

I may not have been the least bit afraid of snakes, and was clearly willing to defend their right to exist, but something about them seemed cold and forbidding even before I learned that bird eggs and chicks are a major staple in their diets. I’ve taken some good photos of snakes, from ribbon snakes to diamondback rattlers, but I must admit that I don’t particularly like them. Despite that, I’d still intervene today if I came upon people clubbing one to death.

Whether or not a particular species strikes us as adorable or creepy, beautiful or ugly, or even beneficial or harmful, we’re each an essential part of this world’s ecosystem. Hard as it is to face when it comes to snakes, armyworms, and even mosquitoes and ticks, every species has a role in keeping the earth’s biosystems functioning properly. Aldo Leopold was right: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” Even when some of those cogs and wheels are snakes.
Diamondback Rattlesnake

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Declining Numbers of Birds

Late spring in Port Wing, Wisconsin--taken on June 3!

 This spring has been exceptionally cold in my neck of the woods. As of June 3, a great many trees and shrubs hadn’t even started to bud out in Port Wing, Wisconsin, and there are far fewer Neotropical migrants on territory than I can ever remember. We lost a lot of birds during migration this year due to exceptional cold, both up here and down in Texas and the central states during migration, and I’m concerned about how successful the survivors will be at nesting. Studies have shown that for many species, nesting success is much lower when they arrive on their nesting grounds later than average.   

Whooping Crane carrying blue crab to edge of water

 There have always been bird losses on migration and bad years for songbird breeding, but these harsh cycles are growing increasingly dire, because for many birds, I suspect that there simply is no longer a “surplus population” that can take up the slack. What troubles me is that we have no tools for getting exact population numbers for bird species. The one exception used to be Whooping Cranes. Tom Stehn, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, conducted aerial surveys over the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding areas a few times each winter to get an exact count of wintering Whooping Cranes, but since his retirement last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service decided to stop conducting those precise censuses and use a simpler but far less accurate survey method.

  Breeding Bird Survey

 Most species aren’t as big and conspicuous as Whooping Cranes, and for most songbirds, the only consistent method for assessing numbers is the Breeding Bird Survey. This is an exceptionally invaluable tool, in use since 1966, so providing almost half a century of data now. But the Breeding Bird Survey has two serious limitations. First, it’s a roadside survey, and as traffic increases, a great many surveys have been re-routed away from dangerous traffic areas. This makes sense because it’s harder to hear bird songs as cars pass by, and traffic puts the people conducting the surveys in jeopardy, but little by little, what were originally randomly-situated routes are being moved away from developing areas, skewing results to make it seem as if birds requiring wilder habitat are more abundant than they are. I conducted one of these Surveys for 20 years, and my own survey route was re-routed twice during that time due to development.

  Indigo Bunting

The second limitation for the Breeding Bird Survey is that it counts only males successfully defending a territory, so doesn’t include any “floaters”—that is, birds quietly waiting in the wings for a suitable territory to open up. We have no idea how many of these are out there for any species, but there is strong reason to believe that there used to be far more than there are today.

In a 1945 experiment, a scientist studied what seemed to be an isolated pair of Indigo Buntings. To learn if the female could finish incubating and raise chicks on her own, the scientist shot the male. When he returned the next day, she had a new mate, which he also shot. Day after day, the scientist shot a new male until he’d killed nine male Indigo Buntings on that territory, finally leaving the tenth in peace to help raise the young. The Breeding Bird Survey would have shown exactly one Indigo Bunting on that territory throughout, until every male was gone.

We don’t have any way of counting these “extra” birds, but there’s powerful evidence that their overall numbers have dwindled. Sydney Gauthreaux, the first scientist to look at bird migration via NEXRAD radar data, found that movements of migrating birds over the Gulf of Mexico had dropped by almost 50 percent between the 1960s and 1980s, and by another 50 percent in the following two decades. Many conservationists disputed his findings because their Breeding Bird Survey data didn’t show a corresponding decline, but the simple truth is that you need to lose an awful lot of individuals of a healthy population of birds before you can detect any loss at all on a Breeding Bird Survey, if the health of the habitat remains the same. Those of us who have been birding many decades have seen fall-outs before, and watched species recover after setbacks. But we’ve also seen a definite decline in birds, during migration and on territory, over these decades.

  Canada Goose

 Unless someone knows and values individual species of birds, it’s hard to wrap our heads around bird population losses. Here in the North Woods, there are more Canada Geese, Wild Turkeys, and American Robins than ever, and naturally people with little knowledge about birds conclude from how conspicuous these birds are that birds in general are doing fine. But a great many species are not, and unless we’re willing to face the problem head-on, we’re not going to be able to find solutions in time.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The "Resurrection Project"

Boat-tailed Grackle--male fledgling begging from mother

 Every year starting about now, I get emails and phone calls from well-meaning people who took in a baby bird—often without even knowing what species it is—who fed it for a few weeks and now want to release it. It ever surprises me how many people seem to ascribe to the outdated, long-ago-disproven idea that baby birds are instinctive robots needing nothing but food and protection for the first month or two of their lives, and that as soon as they can fly, they will perfectly capable of leading rich and full lives on their own even if raised in an artificial environment without any of the vital training their parents would have given them. In the real world, parent birds of most species provide an in-depth education to their young, teaching them a variety of subjects that may include their species’ vocalizations and when to use each call and song, how to get along with their own and other species, how to recognize all kinds of different dangers and deal with each, which habitats are appropriate and how to find food in each one, what are the best places for roosting and hiding out in the event that a predator appears, and all kinds of other topics, depending on species. Whenever possible, modern professional rehabbers do their best to place nestlings in a nest of their own species with young at the same stage of development. When I was a licensed rehabber who had to raise baby birds on my own, I gave them “gentle releases” in my own yard or, where the species warranted it, at my mother-in-law’s place in Port Wing, Wisconsin. The bird could return to me for food whenever it wanted as it learned, slowly on its own, how to deal with life. This was obviously not a perfect system, but at least gave the birds their best chance, though it involved a lot more time and effort on my part than normal people without training are willing to invest.


 Today there was a story in the news about some scientists, experts in the specialized discipline of DNA cloning, who are trying to bring extinct animals back to life via what they call the Resurrection Project. Like people who think baby birds need nothing but attention to their bodily needs, these DNA experts are well-meaning, but obviously know little about living, breathing, creatures except what can be inferred from their genetic code. News reports suggest they are trying to bring back to life the Passenger Pigeon using DNA from specimens killed in the 1800s. I’m sure they are developing the techniques necessary to one day bring to life some bodies of extinct animals, but like those who raise baby birds without understanding what they need to survive in the real world, these scientists restrict their focus to bodies alone. Passenger Pigeons are tinier and more innocuous than Frankenstein’s monster, but animals resurrected from extinction via DNA will be mere shells of what were before their species’ vital chain of existence was severed by extinction. The behaviors and mental processes unique to each individual of each species can’t be restored simply by replicating a genetic code.

  Whooping Crane family

 Scientists, like anyone else, do learn from their mistakes. Back in the 1970s, well-meaning scientists tried to save Whooping Cranes by putting whooper eggs in the nests of Sandhill Cranes. The Sandhill Cranes raised the chicks to be healthy, but without the basic education and socialization Whooping Crane parents would have given them, the chicks had no clue how to select a proper mate. Of the scores of Whooping Cranes raised by Sandhill Cranes in this project, only one ever found a mate at all, and that one mated with a Sandhill Crane. The pair raised one hybrid chick before the entire family was lost in a storm.

  Operation Migration!

 The current project of raising Whooping Cranes in captivity and training them to learn their migration route by following an Ultralight airplane their first autumn is still very much an experiment. This is the 13th year of the project, which is being conducted by a wide array of specialists, including scientists recording behaviors and vocalizations of wild Whooping Cranes on their breeding grounds in Canada, veterinarians, people who have bred cranes in captivity, habitat management experts, and DNA specialists to ensure that there is as much genetic mixing as possible.

Many of the cranes raised in the program have reached breeding age. Of the 20 nests offspring of this program started in Wisconsin this spring of 2013, 17 failed within a three-day period in May, due to black flies. Scientists have studied Whooping Cranes in the wild for over a century, but we have yet to comprehend all the things successful cranes do in the wild to rear their chicks. Operation Migration scientists rearing them use crane puppets and have the technology to play an assortment of vocalizations in what we believe are the right contexts to give these chicks some of the education wild parents would give them, and the young birds spend time socializing with captive adults.

Clearly we are doing everything possible, based on what we understand today, to help these young birds grow as naturally wild as possible as we try to bring this population to sustainable numbers, but after 13 years, we haven’t had enough pairs successfully reproducing to know whether we’re still missing key information to raise these chicks anywhere nearly as well as wild parents would. I don’t know how we could possibly presume to know what Passenger Pigeon parents did in raising their young, when none have been observed in the wild in over a century, when we have no recordings of their calls or observations of parents interacting with their chicks, or any other information essential for giving a chick anything close to a natural upbringing.

 It’s only human that people yearn to bring back what was lost, and it’s only human to be arrogant enough to think some understanding of DNA is all we need to accomplish it. Scientists are going to experiment, and if they succeed in bringing back anything genetically resembling a Passenger Pigeon, the poor bird will most certainly be stuck in captivity. But I sure hope people don’t start thinking the Resurrection Project has anything to do with conservation, anymore than Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments had anything to do with medicine.

Saving animals here and now, from Whooping Cranes to California Condors, we’re little by little starting to understand just how complex each species is. The time to protect species is before they disappear. Regardless of DNA, extinction of living, breathing, wild creatures really is forever.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A very hard spring for birds

Black-and-white Warbler

This year’s exceptionally cold spring is exacting a toll on many birds. Warblers, flycatchers, and other insectivores that winter in the tropics time their return for when trees should be leafing out, fueling their migration on the caterpillars that emerge right then. Migrants of species that normally would have passed through northern Wisconsin and Minnesota weeks ago are still lingering well south of here, and many migrants that passed through at the normal time have died or are still in big trouble.

American Redstart

This year’s late leaf-out meant there was no food for many migrants that arrived at the usual time. On May 19, Duluth experienced a huge “fallout” as migrants flooded through Park Point exactly on time—if this were a normal year. I was out of town, but read reports of the amazing spectacle via the Minnesota birding listserv.

  Least Flycatcher

 On May 22, Karl Bardon, one of Minnesota’s finest birders, posted on the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union listserv:
The fallout of warblers, which occurred on Sunday, May 19th, continued for four straight days! I have never known this to happen, but the strong Northeast winds, rain, and fog, which grounded the birds on the 19th, continued until Wednesday afternoon, giving the birds no option to leave. Even more amazing was that all these hundreds of warblers fed mostly on the ground, giving unparalleled views. Of the 25 species I saw the last four days, all of them were seen at close range within just a few feet. I had numerous warblers try to land on my tripod while taking photos and a Black-and-white Warbler even landed on our legs! On Tuesday May 21st I counted all warblers seen in a 3 mile stretch of Park Point and had a state high count of 452 Palm Warblers, with smaller numbers (nothing record breaking) of 22 other species, including 3 Connecticuts.
Sadly, these birds arrived exhausted and hungry. In their desperate condition, many of them resorted to picking through debris along the shoreline of Lake Superior or trying to find food in other inappropriate places, as Karl noted. And some succumbed to hypothermia and starvation.
Had the cold weather been part of a brief weather pattern, those birds that made it through the first night or two would have been able to move on once it was over, but the cold, wet weather didn’t let up. I arrived two days after the big fall-out to beaches still teeming with hungry warblers. I’ve never had so many opportunities for close-up warbler photography, but there was no pleasure in snapping pictures of such cold, wet creatures.

Blackburnian Warbler

I found one Black-and-white Warbler that had apparently dropped dead from a pine tree on Park Point. Merlins, Sharp-shinned Hawks, and Cooper’s Hawks time their own migration to coincide with songbird migration, so many weakened birds were eaten.

Many songbirds, of course, did survive the harsh migration and have already made it to their breeding territories, and more are still arriving, but I suspect our north woods will not resound with as much bird song as usual this year. Right now, as the cold continues, finding food is a far more urgent matter than establishing a territory. And if Neotropical migrants are in shorter supply, the ones that do make it back won’t have to work as hard to defend territories, so there won’t be as great a need to sing often. Oddly enough, the robins in my neighborhood are not singing much at all this year, though they have a much easier time finding food than warblers.

Magnolia Warbler

We can never blame any particular weather event, or any individual seasonal weather pattern, on climate change, but ironically, this freakishly cold spring is consistent with predictions for a steadily warming planet. Insurance companies are being squeezed by the huge upsurge in weather-related claims, but overall, people seem to feel either complacent or impotent to do anything about how much carbon we continue to squander. Some people have told me they’re just not going to worry about this sort of thing anymore because there’s nothing we can do about it anyway. But in the 70s, we got the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts passed, lowered the speed limit, started the EPA, and set emissions and fuel efficiency standards for automobiles all within a few short years during a conservative Republican administration not by being apathetic or feeling helpless but by being certain that we COULD effect change. That kind of optimistic empowerment is the only way we're going to get back on track now. Every distressed warbler I see reaffirms my commitment to protect these plucky little wanderers and the world we share.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A "retched" solution to a conservation conundrum

Steller's Jay
Steller's Jay
One of my more vivid memories from college was learning how monarch butterflies protect themselves from predation. Their diet is high on the bitter-tasting toxins in milkweed. The moment a bird bites into a monarch, it is repulsed by the bitter taste, and if it actually swallows a monarch, the toxins quickly induce vomiting.

 Birds are intelligent creatures that learn from experiences, and link that horrible reaction to the bright orange and black colors of a monarch, so if a bird does eat one, it never does it again. Another butterfly, the viceroy, is safe from predation because it looks so very much like a monarch, even though viceroys aren’t toxic or bitter tasting at all.

 The classic textbook example that made such a profound impression on me involved an experiment on Blue Jays, and two black-and-white photos of a Blue jay eating a monarch and then vomiting left a vivid impression.

That memory instantly came to mind as I was reading an article about a new approach to saving the endangered Marbled Murrelet, a plump seabird little bigger than a robin who nests in old-growth coniferous forests.

Marbled Murrelet
Marbled Murrelet

The species declined by more than 90 percent since the 1800s, due to over-logging in its nesting areas, over-fishing in its feeding waters, and pollution. Populations are more robust in the northwest, but those nesting in California’s redwood forests are in dire straits. Those forests now get some protection, but the murrelets continue to disappear. Researchers discovered an important contributing cause: egg predation. Marbled Murrelets lay only a single egg per year on a mossy flat branch of a giant redwood, and the worst predation comes from a handsome and intelligent little culprit, Steller’s Jay. Once a jay develops a search pattern for murrelet nests, it becomes a repeat customer, and Steller’s Jay longevity, combined with their intelligence, means that they grow ever more effective, year after year, at finding nests.

Identifying the problem is essential for solving it. Researchers clearly couldn’t get rid of the Steller’s Jays—if they did remove them from one area, others would move in, and it seemed like an unfortunate solution in every way, especially because Steller’s Jays have always shared habitat with Marbled Murrelets. But fortunately, those scientists working on the problem, perhaps remembering those Blue Jay vomiting experiments, came up with a scathingly brilliant idea.  They are training the jays to avoid eggs patterned like Marbled Murrelet eggs by setting out small chicken eggs dyed blue-green and speckled with brown paint, that had been laced with carbachol. Moments after piercing one of these eggs to eat the contents, a jay vomits. And voila—that jay is done with Marbled Murrelet eggs forever. It’s obviously impossible to train every Steller’s Jay to avoid these eggs, but in 2010 and 2011, after researchers zip-tied hundreds of these fake eggs on redwood branches in several California parks, egg-snatching dropped by from 37 percent to more than 70 percent.  Jays are territorial and many remain on their territories for a decade or more, so this learned behavior is likely to reap long-term benefits to the Marbled Murrelets. Who would have guessed that saving a tiny sea-faring bird would involve vomiting jays? 

Conservation Big Year Update from May 13

Piping Plover

For three and a half weeks of the past month, I was away from home, missing much of our late wintry weather and our wonderful spring migration as I birded in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Delaware. And I spent much of January moseying down to Florida. Except while attending or leading field trips connected with birding festivals, most of this birding has been done at my usual pokey speed. Much as I love to find new birds, I even more love enjoying the birds where I happen to be, so throughout my adventures, I’ve spent as much time watching and photographing common birds as rarer ones.

European Starling

In February and April, I went on Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union-sponsored week-long trips, one to Texas and one to Colorado, led by Minnesota’s premier birder, Kim Eckert.  Kim’s trips were thrillingly high-powered. We started each day birding before breakfast and continued until dark—by the end of each nine-day adventure, I was exhausted but joyful. 

Crimson-collared Grosbeak

In Texas, I got one lifer—a Crimson-collared Grosbeak, a northeastern Mexican species that occasionally wanders into the Rio Grande Valley. I’m focusing primarily on birds of conservation concern here in the Lower-48, and the Crimson-collared Grosbeak is too common to be of concern—its rarity is entirely due to its being a vagrant. But a lifer is a lifer, and I was thrilled.

Clay-colored Thrush

In Texas, I also saw two species that were on my world life list, because I’d seen them in the tropics, but which I’d never before seen in the US—the Clay-colored Thrush and Aplomado Falcon. The thrush is shaped like an American Robin, but is solid brown. People often wonder why such a drab bird was chosen the national bird of Costa Rica when they have such brilliantly colored toucans, hummingbirds, trogons, and quetzals, but it’s the homey little thrush who breaks out in its robin-like song as soon as it’s time for farmers to start planting. Clay-colored Thrushes are abundant in the tropics, and appear to be expanding their range northward, so promise to become increasingly common birds in Texas. 

Aplomado Falcon

The Aplomado Falcon is a pretty bird of prey, the size of a small male Peregrine but weighing just half as much. It used to be a regular breeding bird in south Texas and New Mexico as well as much of Mexico, but it disappeared from the US and large swaths of Mexico due to a lethal combination of pesticides and habitat loss. The species has been reintroduced to Texas, where it’s now breeding successfully without intervention, and more recently to New Mexico. Sadly, it’s classified as part of an experimental reintroduced population and so does not get protection under the Endangered Species Act, and there is no legal mandate to restore or preserve its habitat. That makes the Aplomado Falcon truly a species of conservation concern.

Gunnison Sage-Grouse

In Colorado I added two lifers, one big and one small—the critically endangered Gunnison Sage-Grouse, and the Black Rosy-Finch—a mountaintop bird that in winter sometimes works its way down a bit to visit feeders.
Black Rosy-Finch

And on a field trip associated with the Red Slough Birding Convention in Idabel, Oklahoma, I saw another bird I’d seen for only two seconds before, in Guatemala—Swainson’s Warbler. We kept to a moseying pace on that field trip to the Little River National Wildlife Refuge, so got to enjoy that secretive little bird for many minutes. I got some good photos and even made a good sound recording with my cell phone!
Swainson's Warbler

The Bird Savorer

Black-capped Chickadee

When I started birding in 1975, I thought of myself as a bird watcher, but quickly got the sense that people who took birds very seriously, trying to amass long lists and being careful about identification and observant about behaviors, called themselves birders. I'm sort of a laid-back person, but I took my birding very seriously from the start, so right away that first year, I started calling myself a birder.

From the very start, I couldn't help but notice that a few people who called themselves birders were high on the arrogance spectrum, yet some of the very most serious, high-level birders were very approachable and helpful. So for me, the term birder never seemed to mean someone who was arrogant or unwilling to help beginners. I always did associate the term birder with people who keep serious records of the birds they see, but not necessarily in life list form. One of my friends who is extraordinarily skilled and has birded all over the world keeps track of the birds she sees on each trip, but has never put it all together into a life list. So even in the area of listing, there are no single criteria to separate birders from bird watchers. Now there's a certain backlash against the competitive and acquisitive elements of the sport of birding, such that more and more people serious about finding and studying birds are calling themselves bird watchers again. But for me, the term watcher implies visual observations, and I'm as focused on listening as on watching birds. I’m also extremely fond of keeping those lists. This year I'm trying to see as many species as I can during my "Conservation Big Year," but even as I'm hoping against hope to get 600 this year, I’m finding that more than ever, when I'm on my own and not needing to race on with the group to get the next bird, I enjoy stopping to savor individual birds that I encounter.

 Black-capped Vireo

In the Wichita Mountains, I spent a whole day following just one Black-capped Vireo around. When I was in southeastern Oklahoma, I spent a couple of days exploring just one national wildlife refuge, going over the same loop four different times so I could see the same individual Kentucky Warblers, Summer Tanagers, and Eastern Phoebes over and over, getting to know their day-to-day routines. And whenever I saw a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher while I was on a road where it was safe to stop, I stopped.

 Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Scissor-tails don't usually fly away--maybe they've grown accustomed to people gawking at their beauty. When I stop, they often looked me right in the eye, but quickly went back to scrutinizing the ground for insects. It was lovely to see my first Scissor-tailed Flycatcher of the year, and to see my first each for my Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas year-lists, but those first-of-year birds were seen from interstate highways where I couldn't stop. The ones I most thoroughly enjoyed were the ones I could savor.

Tailless Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

One of the Scissor-tails I saw in Kansas was missing her entire tail. The feathers may have frozen to a fence during an ice storm, or may have been plucked in a close call with a predator. I felt sorry for her, but relieved to see just 30 feet or so further down on the power line another one, most assuredly her mate. They may have been a pair from last year, or they may have paired up before she lost her tail, or her mate may just not be that concerned about appearances--this was a mystery for me to ponder.

Spending time with individual birds that I've already seen hundreds of times turns out to be as lovely for me as getting new species. I ended up with hundreds of photos of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, and memories to last a lifetime.

I'm hardly unique in the birding world for my savoring birds. But as I consider how neither the term "birder" or "bird watcher" is precise in identifying my approach, which includes amassing plenty of lists but also thoroughly enjoying the birds I watch and listen to, it strikes me that maybe we're ready for a new term. So from now on, I'm going to identify myself not primarily as a birder OR a bird watcher, but rather, a bird savorer.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Mayday on May Day!

Spring 2013 isn’t halfway over, and already it’s one for the record books. We Northlanders will never forget the many snowfall records shattered already this month. I’m down in Oklahoma, and while snow was falling up north, the wind down here was as fierce and relentless as I’ve ever experienced. When I tried to get out of my car in the Wichita Mountains, I could not open the door against the powerful wind until I moved it to face the opposite direction. It was hard for me to walk, and during a 2-hour search of the refuge, I saw only a single bird in flight—one Red-winged Blackbird flew across the road against the wind. I felt locked in a surreal movie, the poor bird moving in literal slow motion. I stared in such amazement that I didn’t think to time it, but I bet it took at least 30 seconds to cross a two-lane road. Even the huge, hulking bison huddled on the ground on the lee side of rocky mounds or stands of trees. I naturally worried about all the other birds, especially the Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, who weigh less than 1 ½ ounces but have so much surface area due to those long tails.

Team Sapsucker

On Wednesday, April 24, a team of 6 birders representing the Cornell Lab of Ornithology did a “Big Day” in Texas. The most birds ever seen in a single day on one of these Big Days was 264, seen by this very team in both 2011 and 2012. This year, perfect migration conditions from the Yucatan Peninsula sent literally millions of birds north, right as a cold front over Texas stopped them cold as they reached the shore. Photos of masses of birds went zooming through the Internet. So many birds were concentrated at High Island that the team demolished their own record by 30, tallying an amazing 294 species. This was cause for celebration of course—not only was it thrilling for the team to see so many birds in such a short period, but they were doing it to raise money for bird conservation projects at the Lab.

But for me the celebration was bittersweet—so many birds arriving to cold temperatures when they were exhausted and hungry meant many ended up dying. And many of the survivors made it up to Wisconsin and Minnesota just before our record snowstorms—again, weather will take a toll.

Weather of course has always taken a toll on birds and other wildlife. On March 13, 1904, over 750,000 dead Lapland Longspurs were tallied on two small lakes in Worthington, MN, following a heavy, wet snowfall during heavy migration, and it was estimated that millions died that night in southeastern MN and northeastern Iowa. Many birds wash ashore on the Great Lakes and ocean shorelines following extended foggy periods during migration, and that doesn’t count the drowned birds that are eaten by fish or gulls.

There isn’t anything we can do about the weather or its effects on wildlife other than long-term stuff that Al Gore has been begging us to do for lo these many years, and even without the climate change induced by our own shortsighted squandering of energy, there have always been bad weather events. But we can help those individual birds who gravitate to our own backyards. Setting out birdseed in reasonably sheltered areas of our yard is important. Black sunflower is the most nutritious for most birds. White millet scattered on the ground under some sheltering trees is valuable for the many Fox Sparrows, juncos, and other migrant sparrows passing through right now. Some early warblers have taken to visiting suet feeders right now. Setting out dishes of live mealworms will be appreciated by any insectivores who figure out such a novel source of food. And the first orioles and hummingbirds are starting to arrive not far south of us, so it’s not too early to set out grape jelly and sugar water. During cold weather, it’s okay to make the sugar water more concentrated—about 1/3 cup of sugar per cup of water. It may be a week or more before any hummers arrive, but just in case, I wouldn’t want the first ones passing through my yard to leave hungry.

Chestnut-sided Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler desperate for food in Spring 2004.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Conservation Big Year

White-tailed Ptarmigan
Can you see the TWO White-tailed Ptarmigans?

I'm up to 336 species on my Conservation Big Year, and I've been posting photos and content on that blog. So if you want to keep up with current information, check out my Conservation Big Year blog.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Snow Goose "Overpopulation"

Snow Goose
White and blue forms of the Snow Goose
During my second spring of birdwatching, in 1976, I searched wetlands all around East Lansing, Michigan, trying to see as many kinds of waterfowl as possible. I was thrilled to add Snow Geese and Blue Geese to my lifelist. Then in 1983, the American Ornithologists’ Union snatched one of those species right off my list, deciding that the white and blue forms of these birds were subspecies of a single species. Because the white form was named first, they kept that name for the whole species, even though some Snow Geese were blue.

Geese are clannish birds, and young usually choose their mates within the large circle of distant relatives and acquaintances that their family hangs out with during fall and winter. This leads to limited breeding isolation, causing the many subspecies found in some goose species. But because different circles of geese do descend on the same wetlands in fall and winter, some young geese do choose their mates from other groups and breed successfully, so the groups aren’t genetically isolated enough to be considered separate species.

 For being so abundant, Snow Geese keep a lot of secrets from ornithologists. The blue-type birds have a much more restricted breeding range than the white-type, and nesting colonies of the blue-morphs were not discovered until less than 90 years ago, in 1929, after a direct and intentional search that lasted 6 years and covered over 30,000 miles.

Right now, numbers of Snow Geese are surging, and a lot of wildlife managers are in panic mode, crying “overpopulation,” and that they’re destroying the tundra. I’ve read a lot about this, and keep hearing that these high numbers are “unprecedented,” but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. One of my friends on the national Bird Chat listserv, Barry Kent MacKay, this year’s featured artist for the Smithsonian’s International Migratory Bird Day and the Canadian representative of Born Free USA, a wildlife organization, notes that there were records of huge numbers of Snow Geese in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Obviously, this was before aerial surveys, so all the accounts by researchers earlier than the past few decades are dismissed as anecdotal, but that discounts a lot of professional eyewitness data to the contrary, and also discounts the huge toll on game birds made by unregulated hunting, for market and for sport, in the 19th and early 20th century. Birds of many species were barely recovering from that when I started birding, and no wildlife managers living today have any memory of how many birds there were before the slaughter.

 Wildlife managers are right that tundra habitat is in jeopardy, right when goose numbers are peaking, but that hardly implies a cause-and-effect relationship. Barry Kent MacKay notes that the critical problems facing the tundra stem from global climate change leading to the loss of permafrost, and from the oil and mining industries, and points out that the human, not goose, population explosion is the root of the real problems facing the tundra. 

Canada Goose numbers have increased due to adaptations individuals have made to urban and suburban habitats, opening up a whole new set of habitats that they can exploit successfully. There is no evidence that Snow Geese are exploiting new habitats, and frankly, very little evidence that their high numbers right now are greater than their numbers before they were overhunted. I’m thrilled that they’re rebounding, and hope that in a world where so many birds are declining, Snow Geese can stay abundant.

Snow Goose
Snow Geese during migration at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge
  Here is Barry Kent MacKay's post on BirdChat (reprinted with his permission.)
Here in southern Ontario birders tend to report their Ross's Goose sightings. But if the federal government has its way, that will stop. Canada wants to kill off as many as 9 out of every 10 Ross's Geese. At best I hold wildlife managers in low esteem but this is a new level of absurdity even for them. In 1999 the federal governments of both the U.S.and Canada amended regulations to let them kill huge numbers of migratory waterfowl species deemed "overabundant" as defined by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP). The U.S. was able to include the Ross's Goose, but we successfully challenged Canada, and here the courts ruled that "overabundance", as defined under NAWMP, had not been demonstrated by the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) for Ross's Goose. 
It still hasn't, but no matter; the idea is now to PREVENT those pesky Ross's Geese from becoming overabundant. And while we don't know how many there are (they have an annoying habit of looking like Snow Geese when being counted from the air) the estimate is up to a million, and growing. The objective is to reduce the number to 100,000. That's up to a 90 percent reduction in a native bird species, in the name of, get this, "conservation". NAWMP's goal is "Abundant and resilient waterfowl populations to support hunting and other uses without imperiling habitat." The kicker is in those last three words, although I think the first part fuels motive. Waterfowl hunting is in decline, and therefore so is licensing revenue that pays wildlife managers salaries and keeps them employed. But the "imperiling" comes, as it does from Snow Geese, from the fact that these birds "grub", meaning they dig with blunt beaks for the roots and rhizomes of arctic plants, creating mudflats. They've been doing this since the glaciers freed the land, and long ere that in other regions - tens of thousands of years - but now it's wrong. 
I confess that when NAWMP first set population goals I assumed that they were for minimum populations, not that they didn't want populations to increase beyond the goals they set; that there had to be the number they decided on, not less, but not more, either. Their argument is the increase is of concern by "imperiling habitat". And so they decided how many of each population of Snow Goose there should be, and "managed" to achieve that goal. For example, for the "greater" Snow Goose, which nests in the eastern arctic and winters along the Atlantic coast, the goal was 500,000 birds. Oops. Didn't work. They figure there are about 923,800. For the mid-continent population of "lesser" Snows the goal was 1,500.000. Oops.the real number is estimated to be 2,628,400. For the western central flyaway the goal was 110,000, but the estimate is for 170,300. For the Wrangle Island Snows they are only about 20,000 birds over their objective, but for the Snows nesting in the western Arctic the goal was 200,00, instead of the current 608,000. In business that would all be considered a spectacular failure and abandoned, but for government the plan is to take something that doesn't work and apply it to the Ross's Goose. Kill nine for every ten. 
The concern might well be valid if three conditions existed: 
One: wildlife populations are static 
Two: current and projected numbers are unprecedented 
Three: the arctic is unchanging. 
None is true, a fact that is, well, ignored. Of particular value to the pro-cull argument is the idea that these birds are out of control. This is easily proved by ignoring all evidence to the contrary. When I pointed this out regarding Snow Geese years ago I was told that yeah, okay, there were records of huge numbers of Snow Geese in the late nineteenth and even early twentieth century, but they were anecdotal, thus don't count. Of course they were anecdotal; the means to make more objective counts using aircraft flying in grids and analyzing photographs didn't exist. That should not negate them, but in the small minds of wildlife managers, it doesn't count. 
I believe their panic derives from remembering arctic habitat as they first saw it as students, when the "white geese" were at their lowest numbers. 
The fact is the arctic was largely unknown up to and even after 1938, when the nest of the Ross's Goose was finally discovered (it's amazing to realize that I shook the hand of the man who discovered the nest of the subarctic-breeding Harris's Sparrow, in Churchill!). About all that Arthur Cleveland Bent could say about the population of Ross's Goose in his "Life Histories of North American Wild Fowl", published 1923, was that it was "quite common". He added, "many are shot for market". 
The enormity of the killing of birds in the 19th and early 20th century has largely been forgotten, as has the paucity of ornithological documentation of much of the continent, especially the far north. Bent also points out that Ross's were a lot "tamer" and less cautious than Snows, so would have been preferentially selected by market gunners. 
Ethical hunters really don't want to kill the numbers of Snows expected of them, since they can't eat that many birds and many have told me they won't kill what they don't need to eat. Our governments have done all they can to demonize these birds in the interest of "conservation" while, ironically, global climate change and loss of permafrost; the subsequent opening of the Northwest Passage and shipping of oil; the discovery of gold and diamonds and subsequent mining and the human population growth are real problems of our creation. 
Canada's response? According to The Toronto Star, January 2, 2013, one bill, C-38, "included more than $160 M in cuts to environmental spending, significantly impairing our ability to measure or mitigate our impact on Canada's wilderness and wildlife." We are the first country to withdraw from the Kyoto Accord and our greenhouse gas emissions are increasing. So what do we propose doing? Let's blame the Ross's Goose for "imperiling" the arctic, and kill 9 out of every ten.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Bridget Stutchbury's book, "The Private Lives of Birds"

I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Bridget Stutchbury, The Private Lives of Birds: A Scientist Reveals the Intricacies of Avian Social Life. The book came out in 2010, but I didn’t read it until recently. Bridget Stutchbury is a well-known researcher at York University in Toronto. She specializes in the behavioral ecology of migratory songbirds, and achieved international fame when she placed geolocators—tiny tracking devices—on Purple Martins and Wood Thrushes during one breeding season and retrapped the birds the following spring.

Geolocators are very tiny—one device and the harness used to hold it just above a bird’s rump weigh less than one gram. All a geolocator does is to record light levels and the time of day, and scientists must retrap a bird and remove the geolocator to retrieve any data, so the technology is useful only for species with high site fidelity, likely to be caught again the following year. Day-length varies with latitude and the time of solar noon varies with longitude. Data from a geolocator can reveal a bird’s entire migratory path and where it spent the winter accurately to about 125 miles for latitude. They provide much better resolution for longitude. Satellite tracking devices, used on loons, osprey, and other large birds, are significantly more precise but much too heavy for songbirds. Scientists don’t put any device weighing more than 4 percent of a bird’s body weight on it. Geolocators are tiny enough to weigh more like 2 percent of the weight of medium-sized songbirds such as thrushes and martins, and for now provide the best information we have for working out migration and wintering locations for Neotropical songbirds.

  This information is extremely useful not just for learning cool stuff about various birds, but also because in many species, local breeding populations may winter in different locations from other breeding populations of the same species. Some birds of conservation importance have robust populations in one state but may be declining dangerously in another. The problems causing a decline may be due to factors on the breeding grounds, but may also arise along the migration route or on the wintering grounds. Without knowing the migration pathways and wintering areas for different populations, we have no way of figuring out what is going wrong in one case but not the other, and have no chance to try to correct it.

 Bridget Stutchbury’s seminal research led to her 2007 book, The Silence of the Songbirds, subtitled "How we are losing the world’s songbirds and what we can do to save them," a wonderful book I devoured as soon as it came out. She also is co-author of a fantastic textbook, Behavioral Ecology of Tropical Birds, published in 2001. So her Private Lives of Birds is based on a vast body of research put together by her and her students through her career, using state-of-the-art technology and good old fashioned field work.

It’s a fun read, because she elegantly explains how she and other researchers figure out each piece of information even as she’s keeping her focus on exactly what the title says, the private lives of birds. For example, scientists banding nesting birds have long known that most songbirds are monogamous. So they were mystified when DNA analysis in more and more species established that a single brood of nestlings raised by supposedly monogamous birds all were likely to have the same mother but one or more of the chicks may have been fathered by one or more males other than the one raising them. Stutchbury explains the advantages to birds of this “extra-pair paternity,” and explains what male birds do to try to keep their own mates faithful even as they try to mate with other females.

Her writing is fun and accessible as well as authoritative. Here and there she or her editors made minor errors: one does not see large numbers of crocodiles on a Texas island. And sometimes I squirmed thinking about the individual birds that were experimented upon for her to make many of her discoveries. It sounds like she didn't "sacrifice" any birds, but trapping one of a mated pair and keeping it off territory for hours or days to see whether it could get the territory back was probably pretty unpleasant for both that bird and the one trying to take over the territory. Fortunately, she has a track record of using the valuable information from these experiments to promote bird conservation that ultimately can benefit those individual birds as well as larger populations.

The book is chock full of valuable facts and insights, and is well worth reading for anyone who wants to understand more about the private lives of birds.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Mark Dayton, Then and Now

Common Loon
Loon and human adults and babies require clean water and air. 

In the fall of 1982, during Minnesota’s Congress and Senate races, I wrote to each candidate asking what his stand was on several issues that would affect my new baby’s future. The one of highest importance to me then and now was the environment. All but one of the politicians responded with a form letter. The exception was Mark Dayton, who sent me not just one but two letters.

1982 Letter from Mark Dayton
My scanner isn't working, so these are photographs of Dayton's letters.

1982 Letter from Mark Dayton

1982 Letter from Mark Dayton

Both letters addressed each of my concerns, and Dayton’s positions were stated forthrightly.

 He wrote, “Like you, I am very concerned about the quality of our country’s natural environment. Clean air and water are the foundation for the Minnesota way of life. We must make sure to protect it.” In one letter, he expressed concern about “cuts in the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget,” noting “We need senators and congressmen representing this state who will commit themselves to strong enforcement efforts by the EPA."

In the other letter, he wrote, “I support immediate reauthorization of the clean air and water acts. The Environmental Protection Agency’s budget must be increased.”

How things have changed! Two weeks ago, when speaking to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce regarding PolyMet Mining Corporation’s proposed copper-nickel mining project in northeastern Minnesota, Mark Dayton said he wished he could abolish the EPA. And when speaking at a town hall meeting in Duluth on March 20, he affirmed his statement, griping that the permit process was too slow.

Dayton now wants to streamline the process so permits can be issued within 150 days of a proposal. This would be fine for simple projects not likely to have serious environmental impacts, but the permitting process is designed so objective reviewers can evaluate complex projects and deny permits or require modifications when a proposed project’s potential dangers are greater than its potential advantages.

Heavy metal mining is fraught with environmental dangers—some projects have devastated major waterways and groundwater supplies, leading to major bird die-offs and soil and water too toxic for human use. The permitting process isn’t supposed to be like getting a new drivers license or passport—the EPA isn’t supposed to rubber stamp each and every proposal on a simple timeline. PolyMet’s original environmental impact statement was rejected because it contained insufficient data to establish that impacts from the proposed mine would be less harmful than impacts from similar mines have been. Should this project be approved before PolyMet submits an acceptable environmental impact statement and the EPA has time to review it?

PolyMet, with corporate headquarters in Canada and wealthy shareholders around the world, plans to extract Minnesota’s valuable minerals for profit, without paying the state or its people any royalties. That is an exceptional privilege, which should come with reasonable responsibilities to ensure that we the people of Minnesota are not losing more than just our state’s geologic treasure.

Our people up here certainly need jobs, and any of us who use electricity depend on copper mining. But those of us who live right here have a right to ensure that any mining is done in an environmentally responsible way.

Dayton said it was wrong to “expect some group of people who work down in Chicago to have any real motivation to make the changes necessary to allow us to move forward and create jobs here in Minnesota.” But the scientists and regulators working at the EPA offices in Chicago are far more likely to be both knowledgeable and objective about potential environmental hazards of a mining project than politicians and state agencies that are being strong-armed by multi-national corporations with an agenda. The EPA process is only supposed to approve any project after being given all the information they need to be sure it will not irreparably harm our air and water.

Right now we’re watching the climate change before our very eyes. Monarch butterfly numbers are in a tailspin because of lax enforcement of pesticide laws here and habitat destruction in Mexico. Do we need to kill our rivers and lakes before people will once again understand that the EPA exists to protect us, the people and wildlife of America, not to rubberstamp every project that comes down the pike?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Book Review: The Unfeathered Bird by Katrina van Grouw

The saying, “There’s nothing new under the sun” is as applicable in the world of bird books as anywhere else. Innovations are always been preceded by something that inspired them. The Golden field guide, published in 1966, was the first to include sonagrams—spectrographs of bird songs. Yet in 1904, F. Schuyler Mathews’s Fieldbook of Wild Birds and Their Music included musical notations that were an early attempt to show pretty much the same thing—sound frequencies vs. time. 

Roger Tory Peterson has always been credited for what is called the “Peterson system” of using patternistic drawings with little lines or arrows pointing to important field marks, which Peterson first used in his 1934 field guide. 

But Ernest Thompson Seton’s book, Two Little Savages, published in 1917, included drawings almost identical to some of Peterson’s, and Seton used letters the way Peterson used arrows to point out important features. 

Peterson did credit Seton’s inspiration in his foreword, but readers virtually always give credit not to the person who first came up with an innovation but with the first person to make it famous. As with everything, the best bird books are built on the firm foundation of earlier works. Isaac Newton famously said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” but even this wasn’t a new thought. A good 500 years earlier, in 1159, John of Salisbury wrote of an even earlier person, “Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.” There is nothing new under the sun.

When my kids were little, Russ and I got a series of wonderful magazine-style publications called Zoo Books. My favorite feature of the bird Zoo Books was a brightly colored, accurate drawing showing what that species looked like under its feathers, under its skin, and under its muscles. I have always been fascinated by the “inside story” of how bird bodies work. The Zoo Books drawings were based on specimens and scientific drawings, bringing what could have read in prose as dry anatomy to vivid life.

So I was delighted when Princeton University Press sent me a copy of Katrina van Grouw’s new book, The Unfeathered Bird. As I said, the concept of depicting birds beneath their feathers is hardly new, but van Grouw’s execution is not just fresh—it’s hauntingly, astonishingly beautiful as well as an incalculably valuable contribution to science, education, and art. 

Far more comprehensively, in breadth and in depth, than Zoo Books, she has produced 585 drawings of 200 bird species. Van Grouw may be uniquely qualified to produce such a work. She’s former curator of the ornithological collections at London’s Natural History Museum and a taxidermist, giving her a first hand knowledge of the insides of bird bodies. As a bird bander, she has held in her hands living, breathing birds as well, watching and even feeling their bodies unfold into flight as she released them from her own hands. And she’s trained as a fine artist as well. 

Her illustrations of musculature and details of eyes, orbits, bills, ears, feet, skulls, wings, tongues, and bones are exquisitely rendered, but hardly dry anatomical renderings. In her hands, these specimens come to life, sometimes depicted with wickedly lovely humor. Her Red-and-green Macaw stares straight at the reader, stripped of its feathers and skin to show its musculature as it bites a pencil held to its beak with a beautifully detailed foot. Her Budgie is a skeleton perched on a birdcage dowel, its empty eye sockets staring into a mirror.

She poses most of her birds in vivid action—her depiction of a Northern Gannet is an articulated skeleton in arrow-like diving posture. Her European Nightjar holds its capacious mouth wide open. When I was rehabbing, I specialized on a close relative, the Common Nighthawk, and for a time worked on a Ph.D. research project on nighthawk bodies. I was going to be Gary Duke’s first avian physiology Ph.D. candidate to complete my research without sacrificing a single bird, but I did dissect already-dead nighthawks, and even prepared a few articulated skeletons. The first time I did this, I was astonished at how scrawny a nighthawk’s body was beneath the feathers. Most of us readers will be astonished by a great many of the avian features revealed in this wonderful book. And the elegant prose puts each body in full evolutionary context. She writes, “The bugling call of a flock of cranes is among the most evocative sounds in all nature and is audible at a great distance. The comparison with the stirring fanfare of a bugle is no accident. The far-reaching cries of cranes are produced with a wind instrument of their own—an elongated windpipe or trachea—which coils in the same way as man-made musical instruments.” Her lovingly rendered Whooping Crane drawing shows the trachea coiled within the breastbone like a beautiful brass instrument.

It’s only March, but I’ll be shocked as well as delighted if another book comes out that competes with The Unfeathered Bird as the top bird book of 2013. Interestingly, Katrina van Grauw also illustrated my favorite bird of 2012—the extraordinary Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird, by Tim Birkhead. Bestselling bird books tend to be field guides to identification, but I am far more enamored with books that give real insights to how birds live and perceive their worlds. The Unfeathered Bird perfectly fits the bill.

Here's an interesting interview with Katrina van Grouw for the Smithsonian.