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Saturday, September 29, 2012

This week in birds - #39

A roundup of this week's news of birds and the environment:

Ring-billed Gull in flight over Galveston Bay.


40,000 cubic yards of dredge spoils from Rincon Channel will be spread over Causeway Island in Nueces Bay off Corpus Christi, thus raising the elevation of the island. This island is an important breeding area for several terns and for Black Skimmers. The rise in elevation should help provide more suitable nesting habitat for the birds.


The thrush-sized Spotted Antbirds of Barro Colorado Island off Panama seem to have changed their foraging habits. Whereas in the past, they pursued an eclectic approach, using different methods of hunting, now they appear to be relying almost exclusively on following large squads of army ants to scare up prey for them.


International Bird Rescue is an organization which has highly trained specialists that travel around the world to provide emergency services in rescuing birds, as well as doing research and providing educational services. They are world leaders in the art and science of rescuing birds that have been oiled by spills. Their philosophy is that "Every bird counts."


There are 18 living species of penguins in the world today. Over half of them are threatened or endangered. The Global Penguin Society is working with governments, scientists, and local communities to try to ensure the survival of all of them.


A six-year study of 236 coyotes in the Chicago area found no evidence of sexual straying among mated pairs. Indeed, they seemed to be thoroughly monogamous. 


Eurasian Jays use flexible tactics in their hunt for food. Depending on the circumstances, they will quest for food on their own, or, if the opportunity arises, they will steal food from a neighbor. Jays the world over are nothing if not adaptable!  


It's migration time for many North American raptors and the knowledgeable birder will keep an eye on the sky watching for "kettles." These are large groups of birds that gather in updrafts and circle as they follow the air stream. Broad-winged Hawks are particularly known for this practice.


The International Union for the Conservation of Nation is creating a "green list" to go along with its "red list" of endangered species. The green list will be about optimism and success for it will list species that are completely protected.


A study of bullfinches in the Caribbean reveals that two very different developmental pathways may produce the same shape of beak to deal with similar foods. Form follows function.


Salt marshes help to sequester and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thus playing a valuable role in slowing global warming. However, they are in danger of being overrun by fast-rising seas which could destroy their carbon storage capacity and further deteriorate the earth's ability to regulate its temperature.


Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published fifty years ago this month. Its far-reaching influence on the nascent environmental movement is still being felt today.


Around the backyard:

Migration continues. Molting continues. And the birds are hungry. They are hitting the feeders hard. 

And speaking of feeders, it is time to sign up for Project Feederwatch once again. The project begins in early November and runs through early April, the busiest period of the year for backyard birdfeeders. You will have a chance to observe, count, and report the birds that you see in your yard. If you've never participated before, I can assure you that you will have fun and that you will get to know the birds in your yard a lot better. Give it a try!  

Friday, September 28, 2012

Feeder birds this week

The feeders have been very, very busy this week, as birds take advantage of an easy meal. Unfortunately, for the songbirds, a large Cooper's Hawk has also taken advantage of the feeders to try to cadge an easy meal. I haven't actually seen her (I think it is a female because of her size) catch a bird yet, but I have seen her try on a couple of occasions and I suspect she has been successful at times when I wasn't watching.

I've been trying to document some of the birds at the feeders this week. Here are just a few that I've seen and been able to photograph.

For years, I never saw Downy Woodpeckers at my feeders, but this year they have taken to them in a big way. Here is the male of my backyard pair.

And here is the little female of the pair.

The noisy Blue Jays are always around and always on the alert for that pesky hawk.

I have a large flock of House Sparrows that visit my yard each day. I really wish I didn't, but, oh, well, here they are.

On Wednesday I showed you the female Rufous Hummingbird that assiduously guards a large chunk of my backyard, but I have plenty of Ruby-throats as well. Here is a female visiting one of the feeders.

Here is an immature male Ruby-throat visiting the same feeder.

Of course, a week at the feeders would not be complete without several visits from the perky, inquisitive Carolina Wren.

Some of the birds that were present that I didn't photograph this time around were the House Finches, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Mourning Doves, and the omnipresent Northern Cardinals and White-winged Doves. There's not a dull moment at the feeders these days!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

New yard bird

I was outside about an hour ago, relaxing under a tree in my backyard, when I noticed a small bird flitting around a yellow cestrum shrub, apparently picking off small insects. I had my binoculars with me, as I usually do when I'm outside, so I trained them on the bird and saw what was obviously a warbler.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the eye ring. It had a very noticeable white ring that completely encircled the eye. It was a drab little bird, yellowish underneath, with no other outstanding field marks. I noted that it did have a short, rather stubby tail and that it was small, even for a warbler. It was bigger than a Ruby-crowned Kinglet but considerably smaller than a Yellow-rumped Warbler.

I thought I knew what it was but I wanted to consult my field guides to be sure, because it's not a bird that I know well. I continued to watch it as it flitted about the yard, looking for insects among the leaves. When it flew into the next yard out of my view, I went inside and pulled my Sibley guide and turned to the warblers. It didn't take long to find a bird that looked a great deal like mine. I opened the Crossley guide to look at his pictures of the bird and that confirmed it for me. I had a Nashville Warbler in my yard!  

It's a first. I've never had a Nashville Warbler here before. (Well, I've never seen a Nashville Warbler here. It's likely they've been here when I wasn't looking.) This is a bird that nests in the far northeastern and northwestern tier of the United States and well up into southern to mid-Canada. It winters in southern Mexico, the Yucatan, and Central America. It is only present here as it passes through on migration.

I would love to get a picture of it, of course, so I took my camera back outside with me, hoping that it might turn up again. But it is a forlorn hope. This is a bird on a mission to reach its wintering grounds, so I'll be very lucky to catch a glimpse of it again. But birders are eternal optimists, so I'll keep the camera close, just in case.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

This week in birds - #38

News of this week from the world of birds and the environment:

Photo courtesy of American Bird Conservancy
Another member of the large wren family, the Antioquia Wren is the American Bird Conservancy's Bird of the Week. This wren lives in the tropical dry forest of the central Andes in Colombia. It was first seen in 2010 and was listed as a new species in the 2012 issue of The Auk. Its status has not yet been fully assessed but it is likely that its numbers are declining.


What does America have more of than almost anybody else? Trash! So why don't we utilize that resource by burning it to create energy? Well, it turns out that we are doing that in at least 20 states mostly along the east and west coast of the county. In 2011, some 14 million megawatt hours of electricity were created by burning trash at 75 sites in those states.


Horseshoe crabs, whose eggs are an important part of the diet of some migrating shorebirds, are sometimes referred to as "living fossils" because of their primitive appearance. In fact, they are truly living examples of evolution and why it works.


The Brazilian state of Acre, deep in the Amazonian rainforest, is home to numerous rare species of birds, but it gets little attention from birders or ornithologists. An effort is under way to remedy that. It is hoped that a survey of the area will help to bring it to the attention of those interested in ecotourism. This could benefit the human inhabitants as well as the birds and other animals of the region.


It turns out that there is a surprising amount of diversity in corals in the western Indian Ocean, especially around the island nation of Madagascar. It rivals the diversity found in the Great Barrier Reef off Australia.


The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia is the most urbanized wildlife refuge in the country and it contains the largest wetland of its kind in Pennsylvania.


DNA extracted from the bodies of specimens of the extinct Carolina Parakeet is helping to establish the relationships of new world parrots and to map their evolution.


White-nose syndrome has killed as many as 6.7 millions bats in the U.S. since it was first identified in 2006. Now scientists in Tennessee are hoping to help the little critters by constructing a man-made bat cave which they hope will be less conducive to incubating and spreading the deadly fungal disease.


Avian malaria is being driven farther and farther north by the phenomenon of global warming. It has now been found in birds in Alaska. Scientists fear it could be devastating to birds in the Arctic because they have developed no natural immunity to the disease.


The mountain yellow-legged frog is a seriously endangered species in the mountains of California. Efforts are under way to help the little hoppers. One of the most effective means of assisting them seems to be the creation of trout-free zones in some remote mountain streams. There is also a captive breeding program which has had some limited success.


A tiny, critically endangered Nevada fish, the Moapa dace, has recently experienced a population explosion. However, loss of habitat still threatens to drive it to extinction.


In Ireland this summer, scientists tagged 25 Atlantic Puffins, those clownish-looking black-and-white birds with the big colorful beaks,  in order to monitor their migration and find out where they spend their winters.


Around the backyard:

It's been an extremely pleasant week in the backyard and I've spent as much time as I could out there watching the birds and enjoying the weather. I've been trying to document with my camera the birds that visit the feeders. A great many of them are Northern Cardinals.

Most of the birds still exhibit some signs of molt, although this female seems to be further along than many.

A majority of the birds that I see are juveniles, as can be seen by their dark bills.

This one is a juvenile, too, but his bill has already started to turn, although it hasn't reached the bright color of the adults yet.

 And yet another youngster at a different stage in his molt.

Give him just a few more weeks and he will be drop dead gorgeous!

He's almost there - just a few feathers still to grow.

Around 6:00 P.M. yesterday, I watched the cardinals coming into the feeders for their late day snacks. This is the time of day when these birds like to feed. I counted fifteen of them at the backyard feeders and I'm confident there was a similar number at the front yard feeders at that time, along with the Mourning Doves who like to feed there late in the day.  It's certainly evident that this is one bird that is doing very well and is in no wise endangered!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Another generation of woodpeckers

As I was watching the birds in my backyard yesterday, I noticed that there was a new baby making his debut. It was a young Red-bellied Woodpecker.

He was being escorted around the yard, as fledgling birds usually are, by Papa RBW.

Wherever Papa went, Junior was sure to be close by.

Junior seemed to have mastered the art of clinging to the trunk of the tree and making his way up and down. He hadn't quite figured out the "looking under bark for insects" part of the program yet.

But not to worry - I'm sure he'll be a quick study.

And in the meantime, Papa's always close by with a tasty tidbit.

I've really lost track but I think this is the third time this year that I've seen these birds with one or more fledglings. I know it's at least the second time. Like many other birds in my yard, they have obviously had a very successful nesting season.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

This week in birds - #37

News of birds and the environment from this week:

Great Blue Heron with wings spread, enjoying the late summer sun.


The International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Zoological Society of London have published a list of the 100 most endangered species on earth. The list ranges from fungi to frogs to flowers.


And speaking of endangered species, while the banking system of the Cayman Islands may be doing well, the parrots and iguanas are not. Many of them are endangered and they need more space in protected habitats in order to survive and thrive.


Although summer in my area has actually been rather mild compared to last year, for the country as a whole it has been the third hottest summer on record.


Audubon Guides has an online series of tips on identifying hawks. There have been entries on accipiters (such as Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks) and falcons (Peregrines, Kestrels, etc.) and the latest post deals with the big hawks - buteos (Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, Swainson's, etc.).


An ancient plant, Borderea chouardii, one of the world's rarest, lives only on two cliffs of the Spanish Pyrenees and it has a symbiotic relationship with ants which helps it to survive.


You may have heard of the outbreak of hantavirus among visitors who have stayed in cabins at Yosemite National Park. This week a ninth victim was identified. The virus is carried by rodents and is usually transmitted to people when they breathe dust that contains feces or urine matter from those animals. The virus causes a pulmonary disease which can be fatal.  


Crows are able to remember and recognize human faces and distinguish those who have been mean to them from those who have treated them well. Scientists have determined that they use the same parts of the brain as humans do to accomplish this feat.


The big new species discovery of the week is a monkey called the lesula which was discovered in the central part of the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa.


A rare Alaskan seabird called the Kittlitz Murrelet is being evaluated to determine if it should be added to the Endangered Species List. This is the fifth year of the study that is expected to make that determination.


The destruction of one species often leads to the expansion of another. In Guam, the highly invasive brown treesnake has laid waste to much of the island's native bird population. The reduction in the number of birds has resulted in an increase in the number of spiders.


Last year the USDA redid its plant hardiness zone map and, in January, released a new map to reflect warming temperatures. That map took my garden from zone 8B to zone 9A. But now it looks like the climate is warming so fast that that map may already be out of date.


Around the backyard:

The Chimney Swifts are still with us. I was out in the yard today and heard their twittering overhead. I looked up to see about a dozen of the swift-flying little cigar-shaped birds circling over my yard. At least some of them are still spending nights in our chimney. When I am up late, I hear them chittering away up there. They are actually one of the last of the summer birds to leave us and move on to their wintering grounds. It is not unusual to see them here well into October or even November.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The wandering caracara

I have written here quite frequently about how birds are changing their ranges presumably because of a changing climate. As the earth gets warmer, birds that have normally lived in more tropical climes are moving farther and farther north. I've seen many examples of this in my own yard.

Prior to the summer of 2006, there were no White-winged Doves in my yard. They just didn't exist in this neighborhood. The only ones I had seen were on the grounds around the Houston Museum of Natural Science. But in July of that year, a single bird showed up at my front yard feeder. The next year, 2007, there were a few of the birds around my yard. In 2008, my White-wing population exploded and since then it has been the dominant dove in my yard.

It has been much the same story with the Crested Caracara. Five years ago, they were not often seen in this area. Today, you are likely to see one at the sight of any road kill right along with the Black and Turkey Vultures. They have become fairly common and recognizable to even casual birders.

I photographed this caracara on a winter trip to the Katy Prairie last year. Today it would be unusual to drive around the prairie and not see one or more of these big birds.

So we know that this formerly mostly Mexican bird, the Crested Caracara, is expanding its range. But to  New Jersey??? It seems so!

John of A DC Birding Blog reported yesterday that a caracara has been reported on a farm in New Jersey and it has been seen and photographed by several birders. Surprisingly, this was not the first of the birds to be seen in the state. At least two others had been sighted there in the past but they had not been accepted by the state authority as official sightings because there was doubt as to whether they were truly wild birds and just how they had come to be there. There seem to be no such doubts about this bird's origins. There is speculation that the bird might have been pushed northward by hurricane activity, especially Hurricane Isaac, but it seems likely that this bird will be accepted as the first official state sighting of a wild caracara. In New Jersey!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Hummingbird wars, phase 3

The backyard hummingbird wars have heated up again as a new wave of the cantankerous little birds has swept in with the latest cool front. Working in the garden this morning, I was constantly buzzed by the combatants as they chased each other around. I couldn't tell you how many were involved in the battles, but I know for sure there were Ruby-throated adult males and females and at least one juvenile male and there were at least a couple of Rufous females. I went and grabbed my camera and tried to document some of the visitors.

 An adult Ruby-throated female held sway at one of the feeders. She guarded it against visits by any of the other birds. Of course, occasionally when she was chasing one bird off, another would slip in for a sip!

Meanwhile, at one of the other feeders, an adult male was guarding his prize.

A juvenile male RTH, identifiable by the spot on his throat sat on a bare twig over a hamelia bush the blossoms of which he considered his personal feeding ground.

I didn't see any male Rufous hummers today but there seemed to be several of the females - and maybe a juvenile - around. I was able to capture images of two of the females.

This bird often chose the same perches and vantage points as one of the birds which spent last winter with me, which made me think perhaps it was the same bird. Or maybe not - who knows? They don't wear name tags.

This female showed a preference for crape myrtles and often perched in the tangle of branches of a couple of neighboring trees.

The cast of characters changes almost daily now and I don't know if any of these birds will still be here tomorrow, but so far it has been a very active migration season. It started early and now it is in full swing and the show - and the war - goes on.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

This week in birds - #36

A roundup of news of the week from the world of birds and the environment:

A bird of open fields and shores - the ubiquitous Killdeer.


The political conventions are over and now it's onward to the election in less than two months. The two major candidates recently answered fourteen questions on science and technology policy from the magazine Scientific American. You can read their answers here.


Western Scrub Jays have been observed to gather around the body of one of their comrades who has died and to vocalize in a way that has led observers to compare it to human funerals. We know that some animals, such as elephants, do seem to mourn a death in their group, but, in truth, we know very little about animal emotions and just how cognizant they may be regarding death.


The autumn raptor migration has begun. Stokes Birding Blog this week had some information about the migration and tips on how to identify some of the common hawks that may be seen in flight. 


The recent passage of Hurricane Isaac through the Gulf stirred up old oil and tar balls from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. Several miles of beach along the Louisiana coast had to be closed until the mess could be cleaned up. Also, oil-coated pelicans are again being found along the coast.


Wind energy is certainly one of the most promising sources of  a sustainable and renewable supply of energy needed by modern society, but the turbines continue to be a concern to conservationists because of the potential harm they can do to birds and bats. Engineers continue to try to build turbines that will pose less danger to the critters and they seem to be making significant progress


A plant that had been thought to be extinct in the wild, Franciscan manzanita, has been found growing in the middle of a busy traffic island in California. The plant was moved to a safer place and has now been placed on the endangered species list. This one plant is the only one known to exist in the wild, but surely there must be others.


The huge Wandering Albatross can soar over the ocean for unbelievably long distances without ever having to flap its wings. Researchers are trying to learn how the bird is able to do that with the use of tiny GPS transmitters which they have taped between the wings of some of the birds in a breeding colony in the southern Indian Ocean. They are now receiving data and attempting to analyze it.


Gardeners and birders in the UK are being asked by the British Trust for Ornithology to observe and report what kinds of berries the birds eat in their yard. It would be easy to answer that question for my yard: (1.) Elderberries, (2.) Pokeweed berries, (3.) Beautyberries.


Wildlife advocates and employees of government agencies that are trying to protect shorebirds in the Outer Banks of North Carolina are being threatened, intimidated and sometimes even assaulted by private property rights types who resent their trying to control the use of off-road vehicles on the beaches. These vehicles do incalculable damage to nests of shorebirds and to the actual birds themselves, some of them endangered or threatened species.   


In another environmental battleground, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has authorized the clear-cutting of a section of Bull Island along the Delaware River. Some local conservationists are up in arms about the plan because they feel it will do irreparable harm to the sensitive ecological balance of the area.


I've written often here about the perilous state of many native Hawaiian birds. Recently, scientists have attempted to reintroduce the rare Millerbird to a northwestern island in the chain, Laysan, from which it had been extirpated. This week twenty-eight birds were successfully released on the island. 


Around the backyard:

Well, that didn't take long. I told you last week about installing new bird and squirrel feeders in my front yard. Now, birds are notoriously leery of any change in their surroundings. Such skittishness is important to their survival. For the first couple of days, they wouldn't go near the new feeder, but in the late afternoon of the second day, I noticed one brave Northern Cardinal was actually eating sunflower seeds from the feeder. The next day, all the usual suspects were back and were feeding normally.

Doves always feel more comfortable when they travel in groups and these two White-wings landed in unison on top of the feeder. You can see that the one on the right is still in the middle of his molt and looks pretty disheveled. One of the nice things about this new feeder is that the feeding trays are narrower than the old feeder and are just about too narrow for big birds like the doves to feed there. Of course, there is still plenty of fallen seed on the ground for them to eat.

As I've noted before, the House Finches - a female here - much prefer to feed in the front yard rather than out back. They seem especially happy with the new feeder.

Meanwhile, a male cardinal decided to try out the new squirrel feeder. Well, turn about is fair play after all. The squirrels have been eating from his feeder for years.

That looked so good to the House Finch that she decided to try it, too!

There are still lots of juvenile cardinals, identified by their dark rather than red bills, in the yard. I caught this one as she (I think) landed on the front yard bird bath. You can see that this bird, too, is still in the middle of its molt and is having an especially bad hair day!

 One of the big Eurasian Collared-doves joins three White-wings under the feeder for a late afternoon snack.   

So, things are back to normal in the front yard with one big change: The squirrels can no longer access the bird feeder with the result that I have not had to refill it all week. Ah, progress!

Friday, September 7, 2012

"Everybody likes chicken."

There was an interesting article on the front page of the Houston Chronicle yesterday about the last-ditch efforts to save the Attwater Prairie Chicken from extinction. The football-sized bird has been in serious trouble for years. Though it once numbered in the hundreds of thousands along vast regions of the Texas and Louisiana coasts, by 1919 the bird had completely vanished from Louisiana and in 1937 Texas could count only 8,700 of them. Its population has been on a downward trajectory since then, but the devastating drought which afflicted its primary remaining range over the last couple of years may have rung the final death knell for the bird. This year, the wild population stood at a minuscule 46 birds.

Photo by Cody Duty for the Houston Chronicle

The Attwater Prairie Chicken was designated as an endangered species in 1967, a billing it shares with the Houston toad, as the Chronicle's article points out, as a "local species driven from its home range and to the brink of extinction by urban sprawl." The concerted effort under way to try to rescue the chicken has included an intensive captive breeding program, much of which has been undertaken by zoos like the Houston Zoo. Every year, eggs are hatched and chicks raised in captivity until they are ready to be released into the wild. On Wednesday, 20 of the birds raised at the Houston Zoo were released at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge.

Unfortunately, the problems for the Prairie Chicken do not end when they are released. In fact, you could say they only begin, because as the manager of the wildlife refuge told the Chronicle reporter, "Everybody likes chicken."  They face predation from hawks, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, snakes, raccoons, even fire ants. Truly, everybody, it seems, does like to snack on chicken, and that makes survival extremely iffy for them. In the wild, the luckiest of the birds might live for four years.

In order to have a sustainable population of Prairie Chickens, there needs to be a statewide population of at least 3,000 birds that is stable over a five year period, according to wildlife experts. Obviously, we are a long, long way from achieving that, but dedicated scientists and wildlife conservationists doggedly carry on, hatching the eggs, raising the chicks, releasing them, and hoping for the best.  

If they need encouragement, they might look to the west where a long-term captive-breeding program has managed to bring the California Condor back from the brink of extinction.  Although the huge vultures still face many dangers in the wild, mostly from human activities related to hunting (e.g., lead shot left in animals killed by hunters that the birds then feed on and occasionally being shot by hunters themselves), they do seem on the road to recovery. Let us hope that, within our lifetime, we will be able to say the same for the little Prairie Chicken.    

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Vladimir Putin, bird conservationist?

I've written here many times about the project to help save the endangered Whooping Crane by developing an eastern migratory flock that flies between Wisconsin and Florida twice each year. Young birds are taught the route by training them to fly with an ultralight aircraft. The project has had some success - and some tragedies - and the flock is slowly growing.

Of course, Whooping Cranes are not the only members of that long-legged family that are endangered. In fact, many cranes right around the world are seriously endangered. Our own Sandhill Crane is a notable exception, probably because of that bird's adaptability and willingness to utilize a variety of foods in its diet.

Another critically endangered bird is the Siberian Crane, part of whose range extends into Russia, and it turns out that Russian conservationists also have a program based on use of the ultralight to escort the young birds on their first flight. Recently, that program got a big boost in publicity around the world when they had a celebrity pilot for a portion of the ultralight's flight. President Vladimir Putin donned the crane costume and took the helm to lead the birds on their way.

Photo by Alexey Druzhinin courtesy of The New York Times

Vladimir Putin, alpha bird in crane costume, leads his flock. 

Mr. Putin is famous for his efforts to present himself as a formidable athlete, a caring outdoorsman, and "macho man of adventure," not unlike a certain blue-eyed, chisel-framed candidate for vice-president in this country.  As The New York Times points out in its article about his flight:
Mr. Putin on past expeditions has tranquilized a tiger, used a crossbow to extract tissue from a whale and put a tracking collar on a polar bear. News of his latest plan rippled over the Internet all day Wednesday, to great merriment. Some wondered just how far he would go. Would he try to imitate the gasping-shrieking cry of the cranes, to instill more faith in his leadership?
He has also appeared shirtless riding a horse in Siberia and flown on a fighter jet, a bomber and an amphibious firefighting airplane. Last summer, he dived into the Kerch Strait in the Black Sea and, remarkably, quickly discovered fragments of two ancient Greek urns. 
So it seems that Mr. Putin's exploits are sometimes prone to exaggeration, not unlike Mr. Ryan's. But really, if he wants to be involved in "The Flight of Hope," which is what the Russian conservationists call their  crane project, then I say "good on him." If Vladimir Putin has a stake in seeing that the Siberian Crane survives as a species, then that probably increases their chances of avoiding extinction in a very substantial way. These days, cranes need all the friends they can get.