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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Nature's soundscape

Do you ever listen - really listen - to the soundscape in your yard? Perhaps you've never really thought about what a soundscape is. Well, it is made up of three elements.

First there is something called the geophony which includes all the non-biological but natural sounds. In my yard, that might include the sound of the breeze rustling the leaves or the sound of water splashing in my little fountain.

Next there is the biophony, which is just what it sounds like - all the biological sounds in Nature. Again, in my yard these would be things like birdsong, the sound of a woodpecker drumming, the chattering of squirrels, the sound of cicadas and other insects, or the sounds of frogs.

Lastly, there is the anthrophony, man-made sounds. For me, these include the background noise of traffic on the highway a couple of blocks away, the intermittent sounds of neighbors' lawn mowers or other power tools, the sounds of airplanes or helicopters passing over, even the sounds of children's voices and laughter as they play.

What brought all of this to the forefront of my mind was an opinion piece in The New York Times over the weekend. The writer had recorded the sounds of an area called Lincoln Meadow in California in the summer of 1988. It was just before the start of logging in the area. He found a rich medley of sound that included many species of birds as well as squirrels, frogs, and many insects.

He returned a year later to record the soundscape once again, and although the area did not look that much different - the logging had been done with care not to disturb the appearance of the environment more than necessary - the sounds recorded were strikingly different. There was "a muted hush, broken only by the sound of an occasional sparrow, raptor, raven, or sapsucker." He has returned regularly for fifteen years to record the sounds and still that hush remains. The rich mix of sounds that were present in 1988 is gone, perhaps forever.

This is what happens whenever and wherever we disturb Nature to build our roads, our houses, our shopping malls. We moved to our house, in an established neighborhood, in 1988. Much of the area around us was still undeveloped and there was a rich mix of bird life here, including Brown-headed Nuthatches, Pileated Woodpeckers, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, and, in the spring, Indigo Buntings.  Those birds are mostly missing from my soundscape now, although I do occasionally hear the little nuthatches and Pileated Woodpeckers. But the Red-headed Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers have been gone for years and although some Indigo Buntings still pass through here, they are not in anything like the numbers that I used to see.

We continue to change the land. We can hardly help it. But as we do, we need to be aware of what we are doing and make an effort to do whatever we can to ameliorate the damage that we do and to set aside areas that are left natural for the birds and other animals. It is little enough, but it is the least that we can do to try and preserve Nature's soundscape.  

Saturday, July 28, 2012

This week in birds - #30

This week's news of birds and the environment:

All of a sudden this week I have grackles in my yard - Common Grackles. All last winter I looked for them to show up here and I never saw a one. Now, in the middle of summer, here they are! There's a flock of 50 to 100 birds that has been visiting my feeders and birdbaths this week. Many of them are obviously young birds and many of the adult birds have the scraggly look of birds that are going through a molt. It is that time of year - molting time.


It's Olympics time once again. Did you know that the pigeon shoot used to be an event in the Olympics? Not clay pigeons - they used real, live pigeons. Fortunately for pigeons, the "sport" did not gain great popularity and was dropped.


Did you ever wonder how tiny hummingbirds are able to fly in heavy rain, in drops that may weigh a substantial portion of their body weight? An article in The Times this week detailed how they are able to change gears and adjust their angle of flight to compensate.


The Anacostia River near Washington, D.C. is extremely polluted and toxic and warnings are posted everywhere about fishing the river and consuming fish from it, and yet people do still fish there and they do still eat the fish. 


A Common Murre colony in Oregon is under attack by some juvenile delinquent Brown Pelicans which catch the chicks and shake them forcing them to regurgitate their food. The pelicans have also been seen to eat the chicks. Moreover, while the parent murres are distracted by trying to protect their chicks from the pelicans, other marauders swoop in and take more chicks.


A study of Wood Thrushes shows that they are very precise and predictable in their migratory routes, arriving at the same stops at the same times year after year. It is uncertain how the warming climate may affect their closely timed migration.


The Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world, has shrunk drastically over the last forty years. A series of Landsat photos shows the sad progression. It is now down to 10% of its original size. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called its shrinkage one of the planet's most shocking environmental disasters.


Studies indicate that active forest management to prevent fires in areas of Northern Spotted Owl habitat could benefit the endangered owls.


The Piping Plover, another threatened species, is benefiting from extra protection along beaches in the Northeast. Its numbers are increasing along the Cape Cod National Seashore


Greenland is melting! At least, its ice sheet surface is melting and at an alarming rate, too. 


Part of the process of protecting birds on the Endangered Species List is the declaring of an area as critical habitat for the birds, but some studies show that the areas designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are often too small to meet the species' needs.


Monarch butterflies that have darker wings have been shown in scientific tests to have better flight performance.


Around the backyard: My backyard is still a nursery for young birds.

There seems to have been a population explosion of Northern Cardinals. Young ones are everywhere I look.

Here's a young House Finch who has learned to feed himself at the feeder.

And here's a young Blue Jay sitting in the platform feeder that has a fruit and nut mix in it, but he's oblivious to that. He's begging food from his parent who is sitting nearby!

I hope your week and your yard have been filled with interesting birds.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bird photography fail!

Photographing birds is hard. They do not tend to like to sit for their portraits. In fact they don't tend to sit - period! - for very long. They are constantly on the move. The only real exceptions that I've found to this are shorebirds and big water birds like geese, egrets, and herons, and I really enjoy it when I have an opportunity to take pictures of these more compliant subjects.

But backyard bird photography is something else altogether. Small birds are flighty, constantly on the lookout for predators. Even harder, for me at least, is catching birds in flight. And not just small birds but big raptors as well.

For example, there are a pair of Mississippi Kites in my neighborhood. I see one or both of them in flight over my yard almost every afternoon. All summer long I have been trying to get a usable picture of the birds. Shall I show you what I've got?

Looking at this, you might be able to figure out that the bird is a raptor of some kind, but that's probably about all you could determine. You can sort of tell that the head is gray which would be one clue.

On this day, the bird actually landed in a tree in the distance and sat there for a few seconds, long enough for me to snap this shot, but my lens was not adequate for the distance involved.  Again, all you can really tell is that it a big gray bird and maybe you can tell it is a raptor.

This is actually probably the best picture I've been able to get of the bird all summer. What a sad admission that is! But I'm still trying and before the birds leave for the winter I hope I will be able to get an image that you can actually recognize. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The summer scourge: West Nile virus

West Nile virus is called that because it was first identified in the West Nile Valley of Uganda. It is a virus that affects birds and can be deadly to them, but it can also affect humans, who can contract the illness through the bites of mosquitoes which have previously bitten infected birds. The summer, of course, is mosquito season, and this, too, is the season when West Nile virus is most likely to be seen.

In our area, a woman from northeast Houston recently became the first identified case of the disease this year. Mosquitoes carrying the virus have been found in 38 zip codes of Harris County and public health officials in adjoining counties are trapping mosquitoes to check for the virus. It has also been found in the county where I live, Montgomery County.

Since West Nile virus was first found to have migrated to this country, more than 200 species of birds have been found dead of the virus. Periodically, there have been big die-offs of birds in some areas. Members of the Corvid family, crows and jays, for some reason seem to be particularly susceptible to the disease.

Birds that have the disease do not normally show any symptoms until the final stages when they may appear drowsy and drunk and unable to fly. Birders sometimes ask if there is any way they can help to prevent the disease and wonder if having a bird feeding station in their yard helps to spread it. The answer to both concerns is essentially "no" since the disease is spread by mosquitoes. You may help to inhibit it by seeing that there is no still standing water in your yard where mosquitoes can easily reproduce, but beyond that, there is little that an individual can do.

But what should you do if you find a dead bird? You can contact your local health department for instructions. In some areas, they collect birds for testing, especially during the summer months. It is a wise practice to avoid touching any animal dead from unknown causes. You should use plastic disposable gloves or a plastic bag to pick the bird up to dispose of it. has more helpful information about the disease and about how to respond if you find a sick or dead bird.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

This week in birds - #29

News of birds and the environment this week:

(Picture by Greg Lavaty courtesy of American Bird Conservancy.)
The American Bird Conservancy's Bird of the Week is the pretty little Black-capped Vireo. This bird is considered vulnerable and its status is of highest concern. It breeds in low deciduous shrubs and at the edges of woods in the Hill Country of Central Texas up to Oklahoma and down to northern Mexico. It winters in western Mexico.


Researchers at the University of North Carolina have discovered that female Lincoln's Sparrows find the songs of males sexier if they hear them in the cold. They theorize that this may be one reason for the frenzy of song in the cool early morning before the sun comes up, known as the "Dawn Chorus."


It's been a pretty dismal summer in the U.K. so far but some rare British Ospreys have managed to beat the odds and thrive in spite of the weather.


What is the world's biggest insect? Well, it depends on whether you are referring to the longest or the heaviest. Insect Museum has pictures of them both. 


An investigation has found the Solomon Islands to be a hub for the illegal trade in wild-caught birds, some of them endangered, for the cage bird trade.


Most birds have little if any sense of smell, but scientists have shown that European Storm-petrels are able to discern from the bird's scent whether or not that bird is a suitable mate. The birds avoid close relatives.


Giant Swallowtail butterflies, like the one shown here feeding in my backyard, are common in Southeast Texas, but this summer the beautiful insects have been found breeding in Quebec, far north of their normal range.  


Another unusual visitor in the north this summer has been the Dickcissel which has been found across the northern tier of states and even into Manitoba, Ontario, and western New York. Again, this is far north of the bird's normal range.


In recent weeks, 512 dead Magellanic Penguins have washed up on the shores of the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul.  The cause of the deaths is still under investigation.


An iceberg twice the size of Manhattan has broken off from the Petermann glacier in Greenland and has moved into the waters of the northern Atlantic.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has doubled the size of critical habitat in California, Oregon, and Washington for the endangered Western Snowy Plover.


Around the backyard:

Around my backyard this week, the hummingbird activity has picked up a lot, including visits by some male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds like the one above. It seems a bit early for fall migrants to be coming through, but it has been a tough, dry summer in the Midwest and this may have caused the movement south to have started earlier than usual. For whatever reason, it has certainly added entertainment value to my yard! 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Baby bluebirds!

One of the consequences of our recent spell of wet weather with showers coming almost every day has been that I have not been checking the bluebird box on a regular basis. I had checked it about three weeks ago and found four blue eggs in the nest, but I hadn't really looked at it since then.

Today I saw the male bluebird carrying an insect to the nest. After he left, I went to open the box and see what was there. I opened the box part way, very carefully, and saw two nestlings with open beaks and open eyes and even the beginnings of feathers!  They had obviously been there for a few days. 

There may well have been - and probably were - other nestlings behind the two that were up front, but I didn't dare open the door wider for fear that the little ones might get agitated and jump out. I'm just delighted to know that there is a new family of these wonderful birds, however many there may be, growing up in the box. 

I was really concerned when the eggs were first laid because the temperatures were over 100 degrees at the time, but very soon the temperatures moderated, the rains came, and the danger of overheating passed. And now, once again, we have baby bluebirds!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Central Park Effect

Did you happen to see HBO's latest documentary, Birding: The Central Park Effect? It premiered last night, but, if you care to see it, I believe it will be showing a few times later in the week or you can watch it on HBO On Demand, if you have that feature. It's worth a look if you are interested in birding or birds or even if you just have a concern about the environment and what is happening to it.

I didn't see the show last night because I was watching the Astros game (Finally won one! Yay!) but I watched it today with my two cats. The bird photography and sounds were so realistic that it kept the cats' attention. In fact, it even had them jumping at the screen on occasion!

The film follows a group of regular birders in New York's Central Park through a year of watching the birds there. Some of them are fairly famous (at least in some circles) - people like authors Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Rosen - but most of them are just regular people, New Yorkers with typically busy lives who are also obsessed by birds.

One of the most interesting of the lot for me was a woman with terminal breast cancer who leads bird walks through the park and has done for many years. She explained what the park means to her, basically that it takes her out of herself and out of her pain and reminds her that she's still here. She's still alive. And there are still birds to see and to share with others.

Another featured birder was a young African-American man who said that his friends know that he is going to disappear in the spring and that they will not see him again until spring migration is over. He was particularly interesting to me, because, so often, especially in this area, birding is perceived as a very white activity. It's heartening to see that this is not true everywhere.

This man, Chris Cooper, had formulated seven reasons why birding is interesting and important. Basically, his reasons had to do with the beauty of the birds, the connection they give us to Nature, studying birds and bird behavior as an entry to the world of science, etc. His last reason was "the unicorn effect." Essentially, this means that you come to know birds through studying them in field guides. You memorize them long before you ever see them. And then one day you finally see that picture that you've been studying come to life in the field and it's like the sensation of watching a unicorn emerge from among a stand of trees. Any birder will know what he's talking about.

Those are some of the birders, but what of "The Central Park Effect"? This refers to the fact that migrating birds are funneled into this green oasis in the middle of a highly urbanized area, so that at the height of the migration seasons, you can get millions and millions of birds coming into the park to feed and rest. Because they have nowhere else to go! This is a boon for the birders, of course, and it's certainly a boon for the birds that there is such a place. It is also sad for the birds that it is one of the few such places left.  

It's not only New York that has a Central Park effect. Cities all over the country, with their urban parks, have the same effect, albeit perhaps to a lesser degree. Houston, with its many parks and nature preserves, has many such oases to sustain the birds on migration or even during nesting. It's one of the reasons that ours is one of the birdiest places in the country. But most, if not all, cities have some such "natural" areas, even if, like Central Park, their "Nature" is completely planned and landscaped by humans. These areas are absolutely essential to the survival of birds and much other wildlife in our urban society.

One's own garden can play a similar role. Even a postage-stamp-sized plot that is planned and planted for the benefit of wildlife can be a haven and a life-saver for hungry birds and other animals. That is why the growing popularity of habitat gardening has been one of the more heartening trends in gardening over the last few years.   

While birding probably will never be considered by the general population as a "cool" activity, for reasons that Jonathan Franzen explains in the film, even those who are not bird-addicted may gain a better understanding of their relatives and friends who are by watching this interesting documentary.

(Cross-posted from The Nature of Things.)

Saturday, July 14, 2012

This week in birds - #28

The week's news of birds and the environment:

It's been good weather for ducks here this week! This Blue-winged Teal pair would have felt right at home in my yard for much of the week, as we received more than ten inches of rain over a period of three days.


In spite of the rain that we have received this week, the USDA still considers us to be in a drought. This week they declared the largest drought disaster area ever. It includes most of the southern tier of states and the Mid-West. Here is their map showing the drought areas in red, with the gray indicating contiguous areas that are affected to a lesser degree.


Urban noise can stress sparrows to the extent that it can make them less attentive and successful as parents.


Chemical companies that make pesticides can be pretty cavalier about their products killing the good guys along with the bad, but a California man waged a determined campaign to make Ortho recognize that Monarch butterfly caterpillars are not "bad" and do not need to be killed. Ortho is changing its advertising to reflect this startling (to them) revelation. Never underestimate the power of a really persistent individual!


Some 700 hectares of an old-growth forest have been discovered in the mountains of Angola. Moreover, the area has been found to be very rich in bird life, including several species that are threatened or endangered. 


The Black-capped Petrel, a rare seabird, may soon receive protection under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently studying the status of the bird to determine if it needs protection. 


At the end of June, the previous 12-month period in the United States had been the warmest ever recorded. Also, the first six months of this year set records for the warmest months in our history.


Federal agents are rounding up and gassing Canada Geese in the area of John F. Kennedy Airport in New York in order to protect aircraft from collisions with the big birds. But there may be a less lethal way to protect aircraft. A new study shows that geese react quicker and get out of the way of aircraft with lights on. That would seem to suggest a very simple solution.


The Natural Resources Defense Council's publication onearth, has an article this week by a firefighter who is fighting the wildfires in Colorado, something that he has done in years past as well. He argues that global climate change is exacerbating the situation and that we can probably expect more and even worse fires in the future.


Tourists who insist on walking right up to King Penguins, interacting with them and taking their pictures, are stressing the birds. Officials are recommending that the tourists only be able to view the birds through binoculars.  


The blog, life on six legs, tells about photographing butterflies with a 30-year-old lens. My lens isn't quite thirty years old, but I did manage to use it to photograph some butterflies today.

A Tiger Swallowtail butterfly feeds on a duranta bloom.

A rather battered (probably by the weather) Giant Swallowtail feeds on the same bush. This duranta shrub was very popular with butterflies today. It was literally alive with them.

As for birds in the yard this week, I don't have much news because I haven't been able to spend much time observing. I have noted that there seems to be a lot of hummingbird activity, but haven't been able to tell exactly how many birds I have. I know there are at least two because I've seen them chasing each other around. Weather permitting, I hope to be able to spend more time in the yard with the birds next week.

Happy weekend!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Rain birds

It's been a soggy, soggy week here so far. My yard has gotten over ten inches of rain and the ground is well saturated.

The few times that I've been outside during this weather, the birds have been quiet, mostly sticking to the cover of the leaves. Late this afternoon after the rains stopped - at least for awhile - and the sun came out briefly, I saw American Robins running around the front yard, probably searching for earthworms. The heavy rains often flush them to the top of the ground and sometimes drown them, creating an easy meal for the birds.

A little later, as I was working in my study, I looked out the window to see a Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding on the shrimp plant blooms there. A bird's gotta eat, come rain or come shine!

A year ago during our terrible drought, the birds and I would have welcomed a spell of weather like this, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Now, I think both the rain birds and I are ready for some sunshine.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

This week in birds - #27

This week's news from the world of birds and the environment:

Brown Pelicans off the coast of Galveston.


Scientists have discovered that diving birds that survive their first year can generally expect a relatively long and healthy life. Guillemots, which look like penguins but can fly, can live well into their 30s and then seem to die rather suddenly without experiencing long illness.


The Dragonfly Pond Watch is a citizen science project of the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership. The Dragonfly Woman wrote in her blog this week about her participation in the project


Scientists have been working on sequencing the DNA of parrots and they believe that they have isolated the gene which allows that family of birds to mimic sounds.


An Arizona mining company is being fined more than $6 million for its role in the deaths of many migratory birds. The birds drank acidic water that had been allowed to collect on waste rock as a result of the company's mining practices.


It is generally not a good idea to "rescue" young birds unless they are in eminent danger from a predator. In almost every case, the parent birds will be nearby and are taking care of their progeny.


Many endangered Hawaiian birds are being found at lower elevations than where they traditionally ranged and it is believed that this is a sign that they have developed immunity to some diseases and that it may bode well for their chances for survival. 


The record-breaking wildfires in the West over the last couple of years are almost certainly being exacerbated by global warming. Since we do not seem to possess the political will to do anything to reverse the phenomenon, we had better get ready for more such fires in the future.


Why would a scientist force a Rock Ptarmigan to run on a treadmill? Well, they were trying to assess the bird's fitness. What they found was that the bird that fattens itself to face the winter is just as fit as the svelte bird of summer. 


White-nose syndrome, the fungal disease that is decimating bat colonies in the Northeast, is more deadly among those species that are more social and that tend to hibernate in close proximity to each other.


Bar-headed Geese are some of the highest-flying birds in the world. They fly over the Himalayas on their migration. Scientists are using a wind-tunnel to mimic the conditions of their flight and try to figure out how the birds are able to accomplish that extraordinary feat.


Around the backyard: There are at least two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in the backyard now. One of them may be a juvenile but I've only had fleeting glances as the birds zip by and haven't really been able to confirm that.
A female Ruby-throat sits on the hook that holds the sugar-water feeder, guarding her treasure.

The Tufted Titmice have been shepherding their family of youngsters around the backyard this week. In addition to those fledglings, I've seen young (and very noisy!) Blue Jays, Northern Mockingbirds, Downy Woodpeckers, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers

Almost every afternoon, I see one or two Mississippi Kites circling over my yard. The sight of them has reminded me that I have not seen any Swallow-tailed Kites over the yard this summer, nor did I see any last summer. Prior to that, they had been present every summer for several years. And, of course, that's not to say that they might not be here this year, too, but I haven't seen them. Although it may seem like I'm out watching the skies for birds every waking hour, I'm really not! Just most of them. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Phriday Photo: Blue Jay

("This week in birds" will appear tomorrow.)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Controlling avian pox

A recent comment from a reader reminded me of how important it is that those of us who choose to provide food and water for birds practice good sanitation and hygiene in the areas where the birds come to eat or drink. A bird feeder or birdbath can become a vector for transmitting disease unless we are scrupulous about  cleaning and disinfecting them on a regular basis. It is easy to become complacent in the absence of disease and to become careless about performing these essential tasks. I admit I am a habitual offender in this regard.

One of the more virulent diseases which can be transmitted in such places is avian pox. It is a slow developing disease that can be caused by one of several viruses.  There are two types of the disease: cutaneous, or "dry," pox which is the most common and diphtheritic ("wet") pox. Both forms can cause wart-like growths around the eyes and beak and any non-feathered parts of the skin. In the wet form, lesions also occur internally in the mouth, throat, trachea, and lungs, making it hard for the bird to breathe or swallow.

A bird with pox looks miserable and often becomes emaciated, but, in fact, birds often do recover. However, it can be a significant factor in mortality especially where birds are crowded together.

Some birds seem especially susceptible to pox. Among the songbirds that we usually see in our backyards, members of the finch family are the ones that we most often see with the symptoms of the disease. American Goldfinches and House Finches seem to be particularly prone it.

It is very distressing to see one of these beautiful birds suffering from this awful disease and the distress is compounded when we feel guilty because we have not been as diligent as we should be about keeping birdbaths and bird feeders clean. The preventative measures that we can take are fairly simple. It involves washing the baths and feeders regularly with a 10% bleach solution. That is enough to kill any viruses which may be hanging around there. If we do this on a regular schedule we can feel pretty confident that we have done our part to protect the birds with whom we share our yards.  

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to go outside and disinfect my feeders and birdbaths before I let another day pass.