Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Hawk Ridge Update

Hawk Ridge totals today
Hawk Ridge totals at 2 pm. When I left the numbers were higher.

I found my way to Hawk Ridge for a little while Wednesday afternoon. We’ve been having a good migration there, and September is the peak of migration. I wasn’t expecting to see much, but like I always say, birding is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s certain to be sweet.

And as it turned out, the day was wonderfully sweet. Broad-winged Hawks were kettling and streaming by at 3 pm, so high up that they looked like tiny pepper specks, but there were a few lovely kettles so high up that they cut over the lake rather than clearing it first. Hawks are reluctant to fly over open bodies of water, but when they see the other side and are up so high they know they can get across even if they lose their thermals or encounter a sudden downdraft, they can take advantage of the shortcut.

Broad-winged Hawks "kettling"
A "kettle" of Broad-wings. The birds are circling on a thermal or updraft,
so appear to be going every which way. 
Broad-winged Hawks "streaming"
A "stream" of Broad-winged Hawks. Once they "top out" where the thermal
or updraft dies out, they set their wings back and head forward, all going
in the same direction, slowly losing altitude until they find the next thermal. 
It was fun listening to Hawk Ridge’s naturalist, Clint Nienhaus, trying to get people’s eyes on the birds—when birds are that high up, they sort of disappear into the sky and clouds, so usually the best strategy for finding them is to scan the sky in the right area. This grows easier and easier as you get older and have seen so many more hawks, but harder and harder as you get older and have more and more floaters in your eyes to confuse the issue. I’ve discovered that as I get older, it gets increasingly important to keep my binocular lenses pristine to find very distant birds in the sky. Clint did a great job of getting people focused on the right patch of blue or dark gray cloud or band of bright white clouds, so most of them saw the birds. 

Somehow it’s not so satisfying to see raptors from such a great distance as it is up close and personal, when you can see the gleam of their eyes, but for me there’s something magical in witnessing the birds having ideal conditions for their needs, not ours. Broad-wings need to cover a lot of ground between here and South America, and that’s exactly what is happening when they’re so high up. 

The official counters ended the day with 6,128 Broad-wings—a splendid total for so late in the month, bringing the season’s total to 36,739. The biggest day of the season, September 17, which happened to be the Sunday of Hawk Ridge Weekend, counters tallied 26,279 Broad-wings.

I saw three Sharp-shinned Hawks during my brief time at the Ridge. This has been a big year for them—this past Sunday, September 24, fully 2,515 Sharp-shinned Hawks were counted, setting a new all-time high for a single day by a big margin—nearly 500 birds more than the previous record set on October 8, 2003. This week’s hugest day came the day after they’d counted 1,753.

Double-crested Cormorants
Double-crested Cormorants migrate in a line or "V" formation. 
A nice wedge of cormorants flew over while I was at Hawk Ridge, and a smattering of Turkey Vultures, but I cut away from the crowds for a little while, finding a cozy corner where I spent time with a young White-crowned Sparrow and a chickadee flock.
White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Black-capped Chickadee

This week people have been spotting Yellow-headed Blackbirds here and there. According to the Duluth Birding Report compiled by Jim Lind, “John Richardson saw three YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS on the 26th at Agate Bay in Two Harbors, and he saw one on the 25th at Hawk Ridge.  Peg Robertson saw one in Tofte on the 25th at the Holiday gas station.” That one particularly intrigues me, because the gas station owner in my neighborhood told me a Yellow-headed Blackbird had spent the entire next day feeding on bugs on the windows at our gas station.

Parked on the side of the road, I saw definite proof that people gravitate to Hawk Ridge from all over, north to south and west to east.

Cars from all over come to Hawk Ridge
Cars from all over come to Hawk Ridge

Migration for most species is peaking or even beyond the peak now, but some northern species are just revving up, and October’s migration of goshawks, eagles, and other northern specialties promises to be a good one. Head on up to Hawk Ridge to enjoy the spectacle.
Black-capped Chickadee

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Woodson Art Museum's Birds in Art, 2017

In 1976, Russ’s and my first year living in Madison, Wisconsin, the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Museum in Wausau started putting together an annual exhibit every fall titled “Birds in Art." This is a juried art exhibit with extremely high standards. Each year, one “Master Wildlife Artist” is invited to display a body of work showing birds in art. Owen Gromme was the first Master Wildlife Artist; in subsequent years he was followed by such luminaries as George Miksch Sutton, Roger Tory Peterson, Don Eckelberry, Arthur Singer, Robert Bateman, Andrea Rich, and J. Fenwick Lansdowne. After selection as a master artist, these artists receive an ongoing invitation to submit new work to subsequent Birds in Art shows, but the vast majority of pieces shown at the exhibit are selected by the jury.  

Two artists, Guy Coheleach and Maynard Reese, have had a painting in every single Birds in Art exhibition from 1976 on. This year, Reese, who is now 97 years old, submitted a new painting of Mallards flying into a lake; Coheleach’s striking work shows the massive roaring Yellowstone Upper Falls, with a Black-billed Magpie in the foreground. 

I fell in love with one painting of Guy Coheleach’s a long time ago—perhaps when he was the Master Wildlife Artist in 1983. The painting showed six baby Black-capped Chickadees, just fledged, clinging to a branch just outside their nest cavity. Five were huddled together in that clueless, sweet way new fledglings have, their wide gapes giving their mouths a downturned, confused look as they waited for a parent to zip in for a feeding; the sixth was scrambling up toward them, having a harder time hanging on than the others. 

Guy Coheleach's Black-capped Chickadees!
Frances Walinsky and her mother gave it to me just last week!
The moment I saw that painting, it became my favorite piece of wildlife art of my entire lifetime. When we discovered it, we were paying 15% interest on our mortgage, I was pregnant, and Joey was a toddler, so no way could we have afforded a print, but I never forgot it. Unexpectedly, last week, out of the clear blue sky, what should arrive in my mailbox but a 4x5-inch print of that very painting—a kind gift from Frances Walinsky and her mother. Fran had been corresponding with me since August with some bird questions, and knew of my love for chickadees and that very art print; her mother gave her blessing to give her own copy to me. It’s just the right size for my desk, and every time I look at it I smile. 

The thrill of getting that lovely print may have been part of the reason I suddenly had a strong hankering to get to the Birds in Art exhibit this year, but another big reason is that one of my own friends had a work accepted for the show this year. Kenn Kaufman, famous for his conservation and education work and several books, including one of my favorite field guides, painted a stunning Bateleur Eagle after a recent trip to Kruger National Park in South Africa with his wife Kimberly, and I knew this painting had been selected for the exhibit. 

Laura standing next to Kenn Kaufman's painting.

So this past weekend Russ and I decided to make a day trip to Wausau—the first time I’ve been there since 2013. We have trouble getting away together now that his 98-year-old mom lives with us. We couldn’t leave until 9:30, after she’d finished her breakfast and we’d set out her lunch, and we had to be back to make dinner. Wausau is more than a 4 hour trip each way from here, so that didn’t leave much time for walking around the museum, but we had a lovely time, fully justifying the long drive time.

This also gave me a chance to catch up on my collection of Birds in Art Catalogues—my set goes back to 1992, missing only 1993. The catalogues are splendid, showing every work in that year’s exhibit. 

My new catalogue acquisitions

This year’s Master Wildlife Artist, Don Rambadt, is a metalworker, and his sculptures were simply stunning. 
Wisconsin sculptor Don Rambadt is the 2017 “Birds in Art” Master Artist. His work has been featured 16 times since 1998 in the Woodson Art Museum’s annual exhibition in Wausau, Wisconsin.

This year's Birds in Art catalogue cover shows Don Rambadt's
Magnificent Bird of Paradise sculpture.
Kenn Kaufman’s painting was even more magical in person than in the small digital pictures I’d seen online. And besides the juried exhibit, there was a room displaying some of the museum’s permanent pieces depicting birds in flight—that included some stunning works going back to Louis Agassiz Fuertes. 

Russ hasn’t been to the exhibit for quite a few years now, and thoroughly enjoyed it. We both love how different artists see birds, many in the context of people: Michael Budden's oil on canvas of urban pigeons and sparrows at the feet of people sitting on a bench eating lunch; Robert Caldwell's oil painting of a Mourning Dove perched on heavy farm machinery; Janis Mattson's haunting graphite work depicting an American Crow sitting on a decrepit barn under an ominous sky as other crows fly in; John C. Pitcher's sad acrylic titled "A Murder of Crows," showing a pile of murdered birds—crows, a Blue Jay, and a Barred Owl—a shotgun shell telling the story; Suzie Seerey-Lester's gorgeous acrylic of a Barn Owl "Asleep in the Saddle"; Rose Tanner's oil on linen depicting birders in Queensland, Australia, looking out at a rare bird as a fairy wren perches atop one of their hats.

I love when artists play with pure white birds; Laurence Saunois's White Peacock Pigeon oil on canvas took my breath away. Some of the carvings are shockingly realistic—Larry Barth's American Bittern, Patrick Godin's pair of Barrow's Goldeneyes, and Thomas Jay Horn's Violet Sabrewing, all done with acrylics on tupelo, could have been mistaken for living birds. And the realistic works contrast so beautifully with some of the more whimsical pieces. Some metal carvings are exquisitely minimal, and Mark Eberhard's wonderful, blocky Hooded Merganser pair seemed a three-dimensional version of the best of Charlie Harper.  There was too much extraordinary art to describe in mere words, so the best I can do is encourage you to head out to Wausau.

The Birds in Art exhibit will be on display through November 26, when it will go on tour in five cities from New York to New Mexico.  I can’t recommend this unique exhibit highly enough.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Adopt-a-Barn-Cat Followup

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Every spring and fall during migration fallouts, a great many warblers end up grounded for a few days.
Last week I talked about an Adopt a Barn Cat program from Animal Allies, the humane society here in Duluth. I’ve long been a supporter of Animal Allies, which works tirelessly to find homes for dogs and cats in Duluth. I was floored to discover that they've been adopting out feral cats that cannot be socialized to people with a protected barn or shed. Apparently the program has been going on for years, though I wasn’t aware of it until several people called my attention to a local Fox TV station’s news report about it last week.  The news report said nothing about the program being illegal in Duluth because of our cat leash ordinance, but after raising the issue in calls to Animal Allies, I’ve been assured by the organization that they do not, in fact, adopt out feral cats within city limits. I’ve also been assured that only a few cats per year are adopted out through this program.

To anyone who cares about birds and the natural environment, that is still too many. One Animal Allies worker commented on my blog, “You are making the argument that I see more value in the life of cats over the birds, yet your suggestion is that we euthanize these cats - so clearly you see more value in the life of the birds than the cats.”

But that doesn't compute. Each cat allowed to run free kills far more than one animal. A recent study found that every single free-roaming cat kills 23 to 46 birds and 129 to 338 small mammals every year. And these are just national averages. During migration fallouts, something our area has virtually every spring and fall, there can be thousands of grounded warblers flitting about all along the North Shore and several miles inland, so our unique location as an internationally recognized migration magnet exacerbates the potential bird kill for every single outdoor cat. And most of the barns I'm aware of in the outskirts of Duluth are in habitat where meadowlarks and bobolinks breed. These declining ground nesters and their young are especially vulnerable to cat predation.

Eastern Meadowlark
Eastern Meadowlarks and other ground-nesting birds found in pastures are especially vulnerable to barn cats.
If we’re going to look at cats as unique and valuable individuals, we have the same obligation to look at each prey animal as a unique and valuable individual, too. If we prefer to look at populations rather than individuals, it’s certainly true that mouse numbers usually stay high even with outdoor cats, because mice, at the very bottom of food chains that include many predators, have exceptionally high reproduction rates. That said, several studies have found that in fields where barn cats prowl, the rodent prey base is often reduced enough to have a harmful effect on native predators such as American Kestrels.

Songbirds are not at the very bottom of food chains, and because they have far fewer types of predators than mice do, their reproduction rate is much lower. Many of the warblers that breed up here nest only once per season, producing only four young per pair each year; the annual mortality for their populations is caused by all the dangers they face on their arduous migration as well as by predation. And thanks to so many human-caused disruptions, including domestic cats, many of our Neotropical migrants are declining. Those of us concerned about balanced ecosystems and declining species of course have a far greater obligation to protect rare and declining native wildlife than overpopulated domestic cats that are not part of the natural landscape of North America.

Right now there is a huge and well-funded national movement promoting what is called TNR, for “trap, neuter, and release,” setting neutered feral cats loose where they can get food and shelter. The Humane Society of the United States supports TNR, as well as Alley Cat Allies and other national groups with deep pockets. Voices speaking out against these programs are far fewer and far less well funded. This blog and my radio program are entirely paid for out of my own pocket with absolutely no funding from anyone anywhere. But someone has to speak for the birds, to remind people that birds too have intrinsic value and as much right to exist as cats do, and that we have a moral obligation to protect our native wildlife in its native habitat from the depredations of domestic animals.

Pepper Green, an employee with Animal Allies who happens to be one of my daughter's close friends reminded me:
The combination of your work towards introducing leash laws for cats within city limits and Animal Allies' work to reduce the feral cat population and educate pet owners has made Duluth a safer place for cats and for wild birds. I, for one, am very proud to be a part of this accomplishment.
I'm proud of that too. Animal Allies promised to clear up misinformation about their Barn Cat project on their website, and will be reevaluating the whole project soon. I hope that they can find a better solution for the feral cat situation that doesn't make birds pay with their very lives for what is fundamentally a human-caused problem.  

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Duluth's Animal Allies' Misguided Adopt a Barn Cat Project

Sasha was a stray cat who killed dozens of redpolls in my
yard before we solved the problem by taking her in. 
Back in the 1990s when several of us fought tirelessly to get Duluth to enact a cat leash ordinance, requiring any cat off its owner’s property to be leashed, some of our city councilors told me that they couldn’t vote for it, because that would mean they were “favoring one group of animal lovers over another.” It was only when our county health department testified about the serious danger of disease transmission to humans that the council passed the leash ordinance.

Outdoor cats are the number one carrier of rabies among domestic animals. And every cat that feeds on, or even just toys with, rodents or birds can spread toxoplasmosis, which is exceptionally dangerous for pregnant women and their unborn babies and newborns, and also extremely dangerous for toddlers and the elderly. Outdoor cats tend to use flowerbeds and children’s sandboxes as their own personal litter boxes, putting gardeners and tiny children at risk. The St. Louis County Health Department’s testimony about these and other disease issues were enough to persuade the Duluth City Council to pass the leash law.

In the years since 2000, when the ordinance was enacted, we’ve learned even more about the risks of human diseases from outdoor cats. To quote a 2013 article in USA Today:
Approximately 300 rabid cats are reported each year in the United States, says Jesse Blanton, a CDC epidemiologist. The CDC estimates that 16% of people in the United States who undergo rabies treatment are exposed to the deadly virus from cats. They must be treated with a series of shots.  
People running trap-neuter-release programs say that the cats they release have been vaccinated, but this summer a vaccinated cat from a trap-neuter-release program in Florida attacked a person in Hillsborough County, and the cat tested positive for rabies. The victim had to undergo a painful series of rabies shots. (News report here.)

**Added 9/15: Frederick Minshall wrote me:
per the CDC the worst incidence of human rabies exposure in US history was caused by a TNR [trap-neuter-release feral cat] colony in Concord, NH in 1994. 665 people had to receive PEP [rabies shots]--at a cost of $2 million to the town. A rabid raccoon, attracted to the kibble left out by the idiot caretakers, infected four kittens (TNR kittens???), and THEN [the program] "adopted" (or sold) them to a local pet shop! They claimed they were "vetted", but of course being kittens they had no immunity and they all died. 
Another in 2012 in Carlsbad, NM--this feral colony was courtesy of the imbeciles at "Animal Ark". 12 people got PEP, hundreds of pets and livestock destroyed--along with the cats themselves. **
Cats are also the main vector for toxoplasmosis in humans—there is no vaccination for this, and cats that toy with or eat rodents and birds are the ones who carry this potentially deadly disease. One scientific paper published this month implicates toxoplasma in human epilepsy, neuro-degeneration and cancer.

Since 2000, we’ve also grown increasingly aware of the danger outdoor cats pose to wildlife populations, especially to birds. Outdoor cats are now known to be the worst outright killer of wild birds, and are known to have decimated and even extirpated whole populations of vulnerable bird species.

Domestic cats are natural killers. But they are not part of any natural food chain in America. On top of not being native to North America, people subsidize domestic cats with supplemental food, veterinary care, and shelter. Of all the predators in the world, only domestic cats can maintain high numbers in an area even after decimating and even extirpating natural prey.

Since Duluth’s cat leash ordinance was passed, we’ve also grown increasingly aware of the importance of Duluth, Minnesota, as a migratory passageway for birds. We’ve had 17 years more data collection at Hawk Ridge, and our current counters have been keeping track of our songbird migration, too. The species composition of the flood of migrants through here includes some abundant species, such as geese and robins, but also many, many declining and even endangered species, such as Piping Plovers, Bobolinks, and Eastern Meadowlarks.

The migration doesn't start and end in Duluth, of course. These birds are funneling down the shore in a wide swath. All of northeastern Minnesota is host to exceptional numbers of migrants in spring and fall, and large numbers of birds breed up here, too, vulnerable to cats (especially their young) from spring through fall. Many winter finches up here are drawn to road salt, and I've seen cats lurking in ditches in winter waiting for just such an opportunity.

Now Duluth's own Animal Allies is promoting an “Adopt a Barn Cat” project, in which people can bring home a barn cat for $25. (Right now their website is advertising a 2-for-1 sale!) They acknowledge that these cats are feral, stating, "these independent-minded felines are not suitable indoor companions."

They want people to keep the cats in a protected barn or shed for 2-4 weeks so they will get used to being fed there, but that’s just a suggestion, not a requirement; once the barn door is open, the cats can roam wherever they want.

I called Animal Allies on September 14 and asked if I could adopt one if I live in Duluth. The woman who answered the phone said sure, as long as I had a heated shed or garage. When I mentioned Duluth’s cat leash law, she was confused and asked me to call later in the morning when I could talk to one of the adoption staff. So I called later, and asked an adoption specialist if I could adopt a barn cat if I lived in Duluth. This person also said sure, as long as I had a heated garage or shed. Again I pointed out that Duluth has a cat leash law, and again she hadn’t considered that. She asked that I call back when the manager was there, but this was their day off.

My friend Lisa Johnson, an Animal Allies volunteer, called them on September 15 and reports on Facebook:
I touched base with Animal Allies Humane Society's operations director. Barn cats are not placed within city limits, and adopters are encouraged to keep companion cats indoors. Also, there will be additional instruction for the new work-study students learning the ropes and answering the phones. 
I'm glad to know they're not adopting them out right within Duluth city limits, but nevertheless, this misguided program puts human beings and many native species of birds and other animals in our area at risk. The fact that two people who answered the phone didn't seem very aware of Duluth's cat leash law, combined with their assurances to Lisa that people adopting companion cats are encouraged, not required, to keep those cats indoors seems very disturbing, too. The staff at Animal Allies needs to be more informed both about the existence of local ordinances and the important reasons those laws exist—reasons that are important outside city boundaries as well.

I also can't help but wonder how Animal Allies has enough unsocialized, admittedly feral cats to adopt out on a 2-for-1 sale, when they acknowledge that feral cats without heated outbuildings have a low chance of survival up here. I trust they're not actually bringing feral cats from other communities to our area. **Update: one employee who has added a comment to this post assures us that they don't bring cats from other communities to adopt out here.**

The top line of the Animal Allies webpage about the barn cat program reads, “Got mice? Adopt a Barn Cat!” Yet lower down on the exact same page there's an FAQ:
Will the cats eat birds and other wildlife on my property? 
Cats are opportunistic feeders. Providing them with a steady food source will reduce the effect they have on traditional prey.
Essentially they’re saying that if you want a cat to eat mice, get one of these, but if you don’t want the cat to kill mice, birds, and other traditional prey, don’t worry—it won’t.

I only wish well fed outdoor cats didn’t kill traditional prey. I don’t know how many farmers have bemoaned the tragic fact that they hardly ever hear Bobolinks or meadowlarks anymore, when their own well-fed barn cats were one significant factor in those species' declines.

Duluth's amazing migration exists because of our location at the very tip of Lake Superior. The internationally important migration corridor extends all the way to the top of the lake, and several miles inland. During cold weather events, most of us have experienced the heartbreak of a migration fallout in our area, when suddenly the ground is covered with Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers flitting about. In recent falls during some of these events, warblers have been killed by the thousands in car collisions along Highway 61 and other roads. During one such event, lasting a couple of weeks in the fall of 1991, when I was walking my son to kindergarten each morning, we'd find dozens and even scores of dead warblers littering the sidewalks every day. But these ones hadn't died in unavoidable auto collisions. When I figured out which cat was doing the killing, I gathered an armload of dead warblers and piled them on the owner's porch with a note warning that if I ever saw their cat outdoors again, I’d bring it to the animal shelter.

That well-fed house cat was proof that a steady food source does not reduce the effect a cat can have on "traditional prey"—indeed, because that cat was well cared for, it was in top condition to keep killing even though it wasn’t even eating those poor birds. When well-fed cats strew carcasses about like a toddler’s discarded toys, how can anyone call them natural predators?

The problem of free-roaming cats matches the problem we once had with free-roaming dogs, for the same two reasons: they pose dangers to human beings and to wildlife. Cats are domestic animals, so it is up to humans to prevent and solve the problems they cause. In no case has any trap-neuter-release program caused a dent in local cat numbers, despite the misleading hype by feral cat advocates.

Kasey loves riding in cars! She was a TNR cat before they were clipping ears. 
During my adult life, I’ve taken in 6 stray cats that had each been eating birds. I’ve given them the best life I could. I still have two. Kasey, about 12 years old, came from a trap-neuter-release program in Ohio, and was eating birds in my daughter’s yard. I enticed her into my car with food and drove 800 miles home with her. Fortunately, she loved the car ride, and so she’s the cat I brought along on my drives back and forth to Ithaca when I was working at Cornell. The other, Kitty, is at least 20 years old now (I took her in in 1998 as an adult), and has thrived indoors, too, though she hates riding in cars—when I was in Ithaca, she stayed home with Russ.

Miss Kitty is 20 now, but healthy and happy. And INDOORS. 
If it’s horrible to contemplate euthanizing a cat, why isn’t it equally horrible to contemplate each of the animals that each individual cat kills?  When I was a wildlife rehabber, I held far too many birds as the light in their eyes ebbed out after a cat attack. And I’ve necropsied far too many birds killed by cats, examining the wounds beneath those feathers, the crushed bones and the grievous internal injuries, to imagine that they died quickly or without suffering.

If we look at outdoor cats as individuals, why don’t we look at birds and other cat victims as individuals? Does their suffering and death have no meaning? And when we look at vulnerable bird populations versus dangerously overpopulated cats, how can we consider outdoor cats anything but an ecological scourge?

Heartbreaking as euthanizing cats is, and vital as adoption programs are for saving individual cat lives, cats belong indoors. Those that cannot adapt to indoor life and cannot be prevented from killing birds must be dealt with in the way we once had to deal with stray dogs. This is heartbreaking, but it's the only responsible solution to this human-caused problem.

Animal Allies' Adopt a Barn Cat project exposes humans and pets to diseases, and kills orders of magnitude more birds and other living creatures than the number of individual cats adopted out. I used to support Animal Allies, but as long as they promote and continue this misguided program, they are not allies to the vast majority of animals in our community. "Adopt a Barn Cat" could fairly be called their "Adopt a Subsidized Killer."

Feral cat
This menacing feral cat, which reached out in an attempt to scratch us although we maintained
as much distance as we could on the narrow boardwalk to the beach, was seen again later that
day carrying a dying but still struggling shorebird. 

I will not approve comments that are personal attacks or do not forward the debate in a polite way. Links to TNR studies that have been proven false will not be permitted.  

Monday, September 11, 2017

Climate Change: NOW is the time to talk and to act

Much of Canada and the American West is afire right this moment, and the air that humans and wildlife are breathing is horrible over an enormous swath of North America because of smoke and particulates. This has of course been in the national news, but Western wildfires have been happening with such frequency every summer that the drama of hurricanes, at least before and during, makes more exciting news stories. As we focus on Irma, the largest, most powerful hurricane ever documented and the unprecedented second Category 4 hurricane to hit the US mainland in a single season, Hurricane Harvey has also receded from front page news far more quickly than the toxins in its receding floodwaters are. USA Today reported on September 5:
Hurricane Harvey didn’t just dump torrential floods on the Gulf Coast, it also muddied the region’s water and air with toxic chemicals, smog-forming pollution and raw sewage, creating the potential for serious health risks.   
At least 80 spills from inundated sewage and wastewater systems were reported across Texas as of this week, according to the state’s Commission on Environmental Quality. About 36 industrial facilities reported toxic chemical spills as of late last week, according to an analysis by Environment Texas, an advocacy group. And oil refineries and chemical plants had released nearly 1 million pounds of deadly air pollutants, the Center for Biological Diversity, another advocacy group, said over the weekend. Especially concerning are the high levels of smog-forming pollutants released by the nine oil refineries and hundreds of chemical plants in the Houston area, said Elena Craft, an Austin-based health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. An air-quality monitor in Houston measured 201 parts per billion of ozone pollution, also known as smog, the region’s highest concentration in a decade, she said.   
The Environmental Protection Agency considers ozone levels above 200 parts per billion to be extremely unhealthy, meaning “anybody is at risk for adverse health effects … basically everybody breathing,” Craft said.  
Front page news across the country of course focuses on our primary concern: the human beings in immediate danger as a storm hits. My son Joe lives in Orlando, and his welfare has certainly been my primary concern all weekend. But the time for the national conversation about climate change is NOW—during this huge crisis, even as Irma continues her relentless and destructive onslaught northward into northern Florida, Georgia, and beyond, even as the fires rage, even as Houston tries to clean up.

Climate change deniers—both the political figures who have raked in financial rewards from their fossil fuel friends and the scientifically ignorant sheep on social media—are now saying that it is insensitive to talk about climate change during this crisis. Scott Pruitt, Director of the Environmental Protection Agency, said “To discuss the cause and effect of these storms, there’s the… place (and time) to do that, it’s not now.” But his own agency has excised the very words “climate change” from all their online documents. In this Administration’s view, the time to talk about climate change is never. On September 4 the Washington Post reported that the EPA put:
…a political operative in charge of vetting the hundreds of millions of dollars in grants the EPA distributes annually, assigning final funding decisions to a former Trump campaign aide with little environmental policy experience.   
In this role, John Konkus reviews every award the agency gives out, along with every grant solicitation before it is issued. According to both career and political employees, Konkus has told staff that he is on the lookout for “the double C-word” — climate change — and repeatedly has instructed grant officers to eliminate references to the subject in solicitations.
This means that the only agency charged with oversight over major pollution events after hurricanes and fires is intentionally tying its hands even as the extreme weather events predicted by Al Gore are reaching such violent levels. We know government can do a great job cleaning our air and water—it sure did in the 1970s when the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were first implemented. But major industries such as the Koch and Mercer empires have been working behind the scenes for decades, trying to “shrink government” and hamstring its agencies from doing their job so the billionaires can continue to hoard the only thing they care about.

The fossil fuel industries, shoreline real estate developers, manufacturing, and other industries that build their facilities where flooding is most likely have invested billions of dollars into misrepresenting climate science. These dark financial empires have succeeded in making climate change suspect in the minds of an increasingly skeptical and cynical populace—a populace not nearly skeptical enough of the money hoarders who have brought our country backwards in science and in the quality of the air and water every one of us needs.

Scott Pruitt is dead wrong. Right this very moment is the time to talk, and the time to act.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Hurricane Harvey and wildlife


(To keep up with hurricane news as it relates to birds, see BirdWatching magazine's website.)

When the worst hurricanes descend upon us, while thousands of people’s homes are still underwater and the death toll of human beings continues to climb, it can seem inappropriate to consider the impact of the hurricane on birds and other wildlife, but environmental damage is part of the tragedy.

Harvey made a direct hit on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, causing catastrophic damage. This is where the entire natural population of Whooping Cranes spend the winter. And the International Crane Foundation’s field office in Rockport was destroyed. None of their staff or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel was injured. The cranes haven’t returned for the season yet, and we can’t predict how badly habitat damage and polluted waters will affect them this winter. Ironically, a record 63 Whooping Crane chicks fledged at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada this summer: the previous record was 49 chicks in 2006.

Just as we depend on Canada to protect Whooping Crane nesting habitat, Canadians depend on us to protect this critically endangered species’ wintering habitat. Hurricanes have always been part of the natural history of the Texas coast, but the increasing pollution in the aftermath of storms and flooding is not.

The Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge suffered extensive damage. This remnant coastal population of the Greater Prairie-Chicken once ranged over six million acres of coastal prairie from the Nueces River in Texas to Bayou Teche in Louisiana; now it can be found only in two small areas in Galveston and Colorado Counties where the remaining 12,000 acres of habitat is 0.2 percent of its historic home; the population is now only about 100 birds, which is only 0.01 percent of its former numbers. One of the most serious problems facing it is from invasive fire ants destroying eggs, chicks, and brooding females; birds that survive the polluted floodwaters will face yet another horrible problem. It’s terrifying to realize Harvey may bring this splendid bird over the edge of extinction.

Oklahoma birder Jerry Davis wrote on the Oklahoma birding listserv that “hundreds of thousands of trees are likely to be lost due to storm surge of saltwater inland and flood waters on trees longer than trees can stand. This loss of habitat will not be replaced in our lifetime.” And Ron Huebner added, “hummingbirds are frantically searching for flowers along the Gulf Coast of Texas and finding none where Hurricane Harvey destroyed most flowers and flowering plants. I assume hummingbirds are more affected than insectivores as the havoc of Harvey might actually temporarily increase some insect populations and has exposed others that were previously unavailable in rotting trees, etc. The hummers need the energy to fatten up for the jump across the Gulf. I have heard from friends who can’t keep their feeders full due to the high drive-thru demand.”

We tend to tally the costs of these disasters in dollars, and in human lives. These are both important metrics, to be sure, but they minimize the importance of habitat loss and contamination even though, ironically, the more natural habitat we protect along coasts, the less damage hurricanes inflict. Had we protected more natural habitat along the Texas coast, we’d have saved billions of dollars as well as human lives. We see this over and over and over during hurricane season. But the only species on the planet that includes within its numbers actual rocket scientists doesn’t seem quite smart enough to understand that simple truth.