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Saturday, July 27, 2013

This week in birds - #75

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

Photo by Peter LaTourrette courtesy of American Bird Conservancy.

Scripps's Murrelet is a small robin-sized seabird that nests on the Channel Islands off the California coast and several islands off Baja California. It was only recognized as a separate species in 2012 when it was split from the population of Xantus's Murrelet once known as the "northern" race. Xantus's Murrelet was split into Scripps’s and Guadalupe Murrelets based on a lack of evidence of interbreeding, differences in facial pattern and bill shape, and differences in vocalizations and genetics. This little bird is the American Bird Conservancy's bird of the week.

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It turns out that the rise of the environmental movement is closely linked to the popularization of bird watching. And my reaction to that headline was, "Well, duh!" Birds are everywhere and are one of the most easily accessible parts of Nature. All that was needed was for there to be some way to make people really see the birds and learn to identify them and appreciate their differences. And for that, again, we owe an eternal debt of gratitude to the godfather of bird watching, Roger Tory Peterson, who died in 1996. 

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The University of Michigan has a research program involving the Gray Catbird. They are attempting to identify the bird's migration routes with the use of geolocators.

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Birders from around the country are flocking to Bosque del Apache in New Mexico, hoping to see a rare visitor from the tropics, a Rufous-necked Wood Rail

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Luna moths are large beautiful lime-green moths that you might encounter clinging to your door frame when you walk outside in the morning. Audubon Guides is featuring them in their species spotlight.

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Migratory birds trying to cross the Mediterranean area from Europe to Africa (or back in the spring) face daunting hazards created by the humans who live there. They are trapped or shot in the millions each year. The very worst place on Earth for them, says author Jonathan Franzen a devoted birder, is Egypt.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to kill more than 3,000 Barred Owls that have expanded their range into the Pacific Northwest and are overrunning the territory of the embattled Northern Spotted Owl. I understand that this is deemed necessary to help save the endangered owl, but it just hurts my heart.

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The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East is suing dozens of energy companies, hoping that the courts will force them to pay for decades of damage to fragile coastal wetlands that help buffer the effects of hurricanes on the region. The suit was denounced by Louisiana governor, Bobby Jindal. Wait a minute - isn't he supposed to be protecting those wetlands from exploitation and destruction?

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Female Heliconius butterflies, of which the common Gulf Fritillary of our area is one, have taste sensors in their feet which help them to recognize the appropriate host plant (passionvine) on which to lay their eggs.

Gulf Fritillary on jatropha blossom in my backyard.

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In some parts of the world, collecting the eggs of wild birds is still considered a "hobby" even when it is illegal. Some of these people are truly obsessed and some of the most obsessed seem to live in the UK, where conservation groups are trying hard to control the practice.

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The severe drought in Queensland, Australia, has caused many birds of the forests and grasslands to enter towns. Thousands of them perching on power lines have actually caused blackouts in some areas. 

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Scientists struggling to understand the causes of the massive honeybee die off have discovered that exposure to fungicides makes the bees more susceptible to attack from a particular parasite.

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Climate scientist Michael Mann has been the target of incessant and vituperative attacks from climate deniers, including members of Congress, over the years. Now he is fighting back in the courts with a defamation suit against some of his chief detractors. This week a DC Superior Court found that indeed there was "actual malice" in the attackers' statements and it allowed the suit to proceed. 

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Around the backyard:

Things have definitely slowed down here in the last couple of weeks but the bird feeders continue to be emptied on a regular basis. I filled them all again yesterday. And still the most popular food that I'm offering is the melt-proof suet cakes. I swear the birds seem to be inhaling them!

Still lots of young Northern Cardinals like this one photographed late one afternoon this week. The cardinals, both juvenile and adult, love to visit the feeders late in the day. They are usually the last ones to leave as darkness falls. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Threatened wildlife

(Cross-posted from Gardening With Nature.)

I found two disturbing reports in my inbox this morning. The first is from Journey North, the latest status report on this year's Monarch butterflies. The second was an announcement of the release of a new report from the American Bird Conservancy regarding the threat to wildlife from the world's most widely used pesticides, nicotine-like chemicals called neonicotininoids. Both are bad news for backyard wildlife.

First, the Monarchs. We've known for a while that the numbers are disastrously down this year. This is primarily a result of weather conditions in the past year that were unfriendly to the production of new butterflies. The drought and excessive heat last summer meant fewer butterflies produced, meaning there were fewer of them to overwinter in Mexico. The area of forest covered with Monarchs last winter was only 3 acres, compared to an average in the past of 17 acres. Obviously, that meant fewer of the colorful fliers heading north this spring.

But then the spring turned out to be unusually cool, even cold in the Midwest, which delayed the butterflies' migration northward. Some areas in the northern part of the butterflies' range are only now seeing their first migrants.

All of this, of course, has a domino effect. Fewer butterflies will be produced this summer. It is likely that the overwintering numbers again will be quite low. And next summer...?

The main enemy of the Monarch in all of this seems to have been unfavorable weather, but the role of pesticides cannot be overlooked.

The ABC's new report makes clear that the neonicotinoids have the potential to affect entire food chains. One of the co-authors of the report, Cynthia Palmer, emphasized that "the environmental persistence of the neonicotinoids, their propensity for runoff and for groundwater infiltration, and their cumulative and largely irreversible (my emphasis) mode of action in invertebrates raise significant environmental concerns." 

These pesticides' toxicity to bees and other insects, including butterflies, has been well-documented and has received the most concern and attention from regulatory institutions worldwide. But the new report makes clear that this toxicity extends to birds and terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates as well as other wildlife. For example, a single kernel of corn coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird. Even a tiny grain of wheat or canola treated with a neonicotinoid can fatally poison a bird.

Moreover, the report concludes that neonicotinoid contamination levels in both surface- and groundwater in the United States and around the world are already beyond the threshold found to kill many aquatic invertebrates. The report goes on to assert that part of the problem is that EPA assessments have greatly underestimated this risk, using scientifically unsound, outdated methodology that has more to do with "a game of chance than with rigorous scientific process."   (You can read the entire report here.)

The ABC is urging its members and other interested parties to contact their congressional representatives and ask them to support the Save America's Pollinators Act of 2013 as a first step in beginning to address this problem. Even if the act is passed and becomes law and neonicotinoids are better regulated, the persistence of these chemicals already in the environment does not bode well for the future of threatened wildlife like the Monarch butterfly. But we have to start somewhere.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

This week in birds - #74

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


Photo by Tom Grey, courtesy of the American Bird Conservancy. 

Most of us are familiar with the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a bird of the eastern two-thirds of North America. It's fairly common in our area in winter. But along the Pacific coast of the United States and Canada another sapsucker makes its home. It is the Red-breasted Sapsucker and it is the American Bird Conservancy's Bird of the Week. Its favored habitat is moist mixed and coniferous forests, of which the Pacific coast has plenty. The species population is considered stable at present.

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Just in time for National Moth Week, July 20 - 28, it has been announced that two new species of moths have been found and identified - one in China and one in Iran.

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Feral rodents have posed a lethal problem for native wildlife on South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic, near Antarctica. Now a team of conservationists have managed to successfully eliminate the problem. The non-native rodents have been exterminated. 

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A recent study indicates that bird brains and human brains are wired in essentially the same way. So, does that make us birdbrains? 

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Western bumblebees have been scarce to nonexistent in Washington state since the 1990s, but recently some of the critters have been seen in Seattle and conservationists are rejoicing. 

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Every new technology seems to come with its price for the environment. The latest problem is related to an industrial solar project in a remote area of California desert. It seems that birds are crashing into the solar panels, apparently mistaking them for bodies of water glistening in the sun. The dead birds includes several species of ducks, herons, cormorants, pelicans, even Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

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Meanwhile, Mexican officials in Veracruz, are investigating the cause of death of some 300 large stingrays that recently washed up on a beach there.

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Atlantic Puffins on the Farne Islands in the North Sea off Northumberland have experienced a bit of a population boom. That's good news because the population had crashed a few years ago. 

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In more good news, Spain's endangered Iberian lynx has been brought back from the brink of extinction through conservation efforts there. Scientists believe there is now reason to hope for the species' survival.

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And still more good news! Arctic Loons, or as they are known in the UK Black-throated Divers, are being aided by the construction of artificial rafts covered in vegetation that mimic the birds' natural nesting sites. This is allowing the birds to successfully breed on Scotland's lochs and has raised the number of breeding pairs in the area.

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The political imbroglio over the farm bill has impacted more than hungry people. It is also affecting hungry birds. The Conservation Reserve Program, which recently accounted for 7 percent of farm bill funding, essentially pays farmers to produce wildlife, instead of producing crops. Since there’s no market that rewards farmers for preserving biodiversity, or enriching the world with birdsong, it’s the sort of thing that government is uniquely equipped to do. This program has been a lifesaver for many grassland and prairie species. Refusing to fund it would be a huge setback for those vulnerable birds.

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American chestnut trees were wiped out by the millions in the early 20th century by a deadly fungus. Since then, scientists have attempted to recreate the species in an improved form that can withstand the fungus. At last, they believe they have succeeded. If they are right, some day in the future, American landscapes may again be graced by the iconic chestnut tree.

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Around the backyard:  

We finally got some rain this week which provided relief both for the birds and the birder. But in fact I didn't do much birding this week, because I was a bit under the weather. 

I did manage to go out yesterday to refill all the bird feeders and I can't help noticing that traffic around the feeders seems down this week. The White-winged Doves are most noticeable. Previously, I would have seen flocks of ten to fifteen of the birds at the feeders. Now it is more like four or five. Even the number of cardinals is down from previous weeks. 

This may be a reflection of the fact that there is more wild food available now, but that's just speculation. We go through these periods from time to time throughout the year. If there is one thing that I'm sure of it is that the birds will return when they are hungry.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Mystery hawk

Identifying hawks in flight is always difficult for me, even with the aid of Jerry Ligouri's information-packed book, Hawks at a Distance, which I reviewed at my blog The Nature of Things a couple of years ago. I can easily identify the ones that I see most often - Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, Cooper's, Sharp-shinned, and the kites that visit here. But others give me more trouble. I'm never sure of my identification and there's been one circling over my yard this week that has me a bit flummoxed.

The bird is a Buteo, no doubt about that - broad wings and short tail. It is very light underneath, but then many hawks are. The wings and the tail have dark tips. I'm not really able to identify other field marks.

The bird flies very high as he slowly circles over the yard and he calls constantly as he goes. The call is not that of a Red-tailed or Red-shouldered. I'm very familiar with their sounds. This bird has a piercing one-note (to my ears) cry that is most like that of the Red-tailed, but isn't quite the keee-yar of that hawk, and the pitch is slightly different.

Since I haven't been able to see any marks that would absolutely identify the bird, I have concentrated on its call. I've been listening to hawk voices from Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the closest that I can find is the call of the Broad-winged Hawk.  (Click on the link to listen to the sound.)

Broad-winged Hawks do summer just to the east of us, but we are a little beyond their normal range as shown on the maps in my field guides. As I've noted before though, birds don't read maps and they have these wonderful things called wings that frequently take them into areas where they are not "supposed" to be.

I'll keep looking to try to see more field marks and maybe even get a picture, but my best guess at this point is that my mystery hawk is a Broad-winged who is exploring new territory. Perhaps this is just another bird that is expanding its range.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

This week in birds - #73

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

Photo by Greg Homel, courtesy of American Bird Conservancy.

The pretty but threatened Mountain Plover is the Bird of the Week for the American Bird Conservancy. The bird breeds in southwest Canada, Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado, with smaller numbers in New Mexico and the Oklahoma panhandle. The population stands at about 9,000 birds but it is decreasing and the species has been given "red" status on the U.S. Watchlist. That designates a species of "highest concern."

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'Tis the season for West Nile Virus, although we haven't heard much about it in our area this year. One of the "benefits" of a drought is that there are fewer mosquitos around. I'm able to sit in my backyard at twilight without first slathering myself in bug spray. But West Nile Virus is still out there and it is deadly for birds. Researchers have been working to develop a vaccine which will protect birds and/or humans against the virus and they think they have one that just might work.

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Soot from forest fires is just one more factor that is a part of the feedback loop that contributes to the greenhouse effect that is at the root of human-caused global warming.

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The Powdermill Avian Research Center, part of Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Powdermill Nature Reserve, is the longest-continuously running bird banding station in the United States, and has assembled one of North America's largest census data sets on migratory songbird populations.

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As the climate warms up, snakes become more active, and the more active they become, the more birds they eat.

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Gardeners and butterfly afficianados around the country are reporting fewer than normal butterflies this summer, but there is one critter that doesn't seem to have been held back by the weird weather. It's been a boom time for dragonflies.

I photographed this one, one of several I've seen around the yard this week, at my little goldfish pond a couple of days ago. I'm not entirely sure of his identify but I believe he is a Blue Dasher.

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Interesting piece in The New York Times this week about the native prickly pear cactus.  The flowers of the plant are a bee's dream, loaded with pollen and easy to locate and access.

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The Great Indian Bustard is a critically endangered bird of the Indian subcontinent. A panel of conservationists has been established to study ways to save the bird and to come up with a plan for its conservation.

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Here's a heads-up: National Moth Week is coming up - July 20-28. Moths are some of our most important and most beautiful pollinators, although they generally play second fiddle to their gaudy cousins, the butterflies. Get ready to show the moths in your area some love during their week!

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One of the UK's most threatened bird species is experiencing a resurgence this breeding season and ornithologists who have been monitoring the Ring Ouzel are thrilled.

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A new study suggests that small, short-lived birds may be better able to adapt to changes in climate than larger, long-lived birds.

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If you are a reader and you enjoy science books, the Scientific American has a suggested list for your summer reading pleasure. One of the books on the list is titled Zombie Tits, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals, and if that doesn't pique your interest, I don't know what would!

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Around the backyard:

There's actually not much I can add to the summary I gave you yesterday in "Random bits." It's hot and the birds are hungry and molting.

I hope you are managing to stay cool and keep the birds in your yard fed and, even more importantly, watered. Happy birding! 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Random bits

Tragedy:

I've been keeping you up to date throughout the summer on my nesting pair of Eastern Bluebirds. This week, I'm sorry to report, tragedy struck.

The female had been brooding their latest clutch of four eggs for more than a couple of weeks and it was past time for them to hatch. Early in the week, I noticed the pair was acting strangely, i.e., they were not following their normal routine. Birds are creatures of habit so I knew something was wrong.

I started watching the box more carefully. Obviously, the female was still brooding, but she would leave the nest often and, when she did, frequently the male would fly to the box and look in. At first I thought maybe the eggs had hatched and he was delivering food, but I noticed he wasn't actually going into the box as he would have had to to deliver food to newly hatched nestlings. He was just perching at the hole and looking in and then flying to the nearby fence. Then, on Tuesday, I noticed the birds were not going to the box. In fact, they had disappeared from the yard. Later, I checked the box and found that the eggs had not hatched.

I think I know what happened. The first week after all the eggs were laid was our hottest week of the summer. Several days had temperatures of more than 100 degrees. The bluebird box is in full sun all day and the temperature inside the box must have been like an oven. I noticed the female was often sitting with her head sticking out the door, beak open, trying to get some air. I even trained my sprinkler so that it would spray the back of the box on a couple of occasions to try to give her some relief. But I'm sure the high heat must have killed the tiny embryos inside the eggs. (No, I didn't have the heart to open one up and examine it. I'm just not that good a scientist, I guess.)

I take comfort in the knowledge that this pair had already successfully raised and fledged two broods of five chicks each this year. They did their best for the third brood, but the weather defeated them. Maybe Mother Nature decided they needed a rest.

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Surprise guest:

I thought I had just the one female Ruby-throated Hummingbird in my yard. This week I found out there were two. I discovered the second one when I saw the two of them tussling over the flame acanthus blossoms that are such a favorite with hummers.

Then, another surprise. There was an adult male here, too! He seemed to prefer the cannas and the hamelia blossoms like the ones in the picture I showed you on Wordless Wednesday.

All three of the birds visit the blossoms around the yard, but I haven't seen any of them at the one feeder I've left up for them this week. Obviously, they prefer natural nectar to my homemade kind.

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Predator alert:    

The Cooper's Hawk has continued to be active around the yard this summer. Just about every week I see him at least a couple of times chasing the birds from the feeder, but I've never seen him catch one. Until this week. Well, actually, I still can't really say that I saw him catch that dove. It happened so fast...

I was watching the birds at the backyard feeders late one afternoon when this brown bullet crossed my field of vision and about fifty or so birds, most of them White-winged Doves, exploded into the air in panic. The bullet, which turned out to be the hawk, made a seemingly impossible hard right turn to chase several of the birds into my neighbor's yard. It was all a blur - I couldn't really tell what was happening. Then I saw a puff of pale feathers floating toward the ground and I knew the hawk had made a strike.

I peered over the fence at the neighbor's yard to try to see where the hawk had gone with his prize, but I never located him. Nevertheless, I'm pretty sure he ate well that night.

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Molting time:

It's that time of year when all of the birds start looking raggedy and threadbare. It's molting time again. The adults have mostly finished their nesting duties and now they are dropping their feathers to get ready for shiny new ones. Over the next several weeks, we'll be seeing birds in various stages of undress as they begin to grow new feathers to get ready for the coming seasons, and, as a side benefit, as they drop some of their insulation, they'll be able to handle the heat better.

This Tufted Titmouse taking a sip from my little backyard fountain shows the typically disheveled appearance of the molting songbird.

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Birds love sprinklers and no birds love them more than Blue Jays. Late this afternoon I started a sprinkler on a section of my side yard and as I was adjusting it I heard a noise to my right and looked to find a Blue Jay there, practically sitting on my shoulder, with his beak open and his beady eye on me! "Hurry up!" he seemed to be saying. "It's hot out here!"

It is, indeed, hot out there and there's not much relief for the birds, but I'm happy to turn on those sprinklers when I can, as well as keeping the birdbaths and the fountain filled. It's the least I can do to repay them for all the entertainment they provide.  

Monday, July 8, 2013

The invasion of the decimators

There are many challenges facing the environment around the country, indeed around the world, these days, but among the most deadly and seemingly intractable of these are the invasives.

Invasives are plants or animals from someplace else in the world that have been brought to our shores, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident, and released or escaped here. Often these plants or animals find a hospitable habitat with none of the natural enemies or controls which they encountered in their native land. The predictable result is that their population explodes. They compete with native species and sometimes overcome them, even wiping them out.

In the island nation of New Zealand, for example, where non-native rats and stoats have become entrenched, they have exterminated at least 19 bird species.    

In the United States, one of the most famous invasives is the House Sparrow, which was deliberately introduced in New York in the 19th century. It quickly spread and began to compete with native hole-nesting birds like Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Sparrows, contributing to a decline in these as well as other species before human intervention began to give the natives a fighting chance.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, with the globalization of the economy and the ease of tourism between countries, the rate of introduction of invasives exploded. No state in the country has suffered more from this phenomenon than Florida.

From walking catfish, Asian swamp eels, Cuban tree frogs, monkeys, iguanas, and, most famously, Burmese pythons, the state's ecology  is overrun by invasives. Indeed, the pythons have been so successful in the Everglades that they have virtually wiped out the small mammal population there. This, of course, has disastrous and long-term effects on the other predators in the area that normally depend on these mammals for food.

Even the alligators there have had trouble holding their own against the pythons. Bodies of the native reptiles have been found in the stomachs of big pythons that have been captured and killed.

As if all of this were not enough, Florida is now battling another invasive - giant African land snails, sometimes called GALS. These snails can get up to 8 inches long. Each snail contains both male and female reproductive organs and every mated snail lays about 1200 eggs a year. As of June 22, Florida state officials reported that they had captured and killed more than 124,000 of the snails in the area around Miami.

These snails pose a major threat to gardens and to farmers' crops because they will feed on and destroy at least 500 different types of plants. But it's not just plants that they gobble. They will also chew on plaster and stucco, thus causing damage to homes. And, one other thing: They also carry a parasitic nematode that can lead to meningitis in humans. Unbelievably, these critters were deliberately smuggled into the country by a religious cult which uses them in their "healing ritual."

Florida is battling its invasives with all available resources, but in all too many instances it seems to be losing the battle. There is always the chance that many of these species will be able to spread to other hospitable habitats, especially in adjoining states along the Gulf of Mexico. As the climate changes, becoming warmer, the possibility of some of the species being able to move into even more areas of  the country only increases, all of which could prove to be devastating for our native plants and animals. The decimation of species which Florida has experienced could become more widespread.

It is a nightmare scenario, one that desperately needs a solution but for which no real workable solution seems in sight.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

This week in birds - #72

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

After the bath, a Northern Mockingbird ruffles its feathers in the late afternoon breeze.

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Hummingbird wings are one of the marvels of Nature that are able flex and bend, allowing the little critters to hover as they feed from blossoms.

My resident female Ruby-throated Hummingbird demonstrated that bending and flexing yesterday as she sipped from a flame acanthus blossom in my backyard.

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I realize this is considered unpatriotic but I confess I hate fireworks! My reaction may have something to do with my empathy for animals, including birds. Did you ever wonder how these creatures react to fireworks? There have actually been studies of that

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The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in New York is in the flight path of busy area airports, consequently, every year the National Park Service oversees the removal of several hundred Canada Geese from the refuge as a safety measure for human flight. Remember the plane that Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger successfully landed on the Hudson River a few years ago after striking a flock of birds? Those were Canada Geese from the refuge. Some of the birds that are removed are relocated by Friends of Animals. They are able to be relocated successfully at this time of year because they are molting and cannot fly. The less fortunate ones are slaughtered.    

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The great periodical cicada invasion in the eastern United States is winding down for 2013, and it will not be back for another 17 years. Meantime, our local cicadas that are with us every summer are just getting tuned up.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released its annual report called "State of the Birds." This year's report emphasizes the importance of private lands to bird conservation. At least 100 species have more than 50% of their breeding areas located on private lands. 

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A Japanese racing pigeon made an unscheduled trans-Pacific flight from the island of Hokkaido to  British Columbia's Vancouver Island last week.

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I love photographing butterflies, or at least trying to photograph them. In fact, I've been trying to photograph and document the butterflies in my garden this week. I should have read this post listing seven tips for photographing the flighty critters before I made my attempt. 

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A rare nocturnal parrot in Australia has been seen and photographed by a naturalist. The species had not been seen live in over 100 years. In order to protect the bird, the naturalist refuses to disclose publicly where he saw it.

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Some 50,000 bumblebees were recently killed by a pesticide in an Oregon parking lot. About 60 people later showed up to mourn the slaughter of the bees and to draw attention to the misuse and abuse of pesticides. 

Bumblebees, like this one that I photographed yesterday, are always welcome in my garden. They are among the most useful of all the many species of North American native bees.

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The Common Nightingale is declining in the UK. Researchers have attached geolocaters to some of the birds in order to track their migration and try to determine what is contributing to their decline.

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The Tricolored Blackbird was once one of the most common birds in California but now it is disappearing from the state. The entire population dropped from an estimated 400,000 birds in 2008 to roughly 258,000 in 2011. Scientists are attempting to find a solution to the problem.

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Hawkmoths have a unique way of disrupting the echolocation signals of bats which hunt the night-flying critters. They emit sonic pulses from their genitals! This apparently works to jam the bats' sensors.

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Around the backyard:

Still no rain here and things are very, very parched. The birds are hitting the birdbaths and enjoying the sprinklers when I run them. They are also still hitting the feeders very hard. I don't know if it is a lack of food in the wild or if it is simply a matter of not wanting to expend the energy to look for such food in this heat. If it is the latter, I can't say that I blame them.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Downy Woodpeckers visit the feeders many times during the day, usually to take suet as this female RBW is doing.

Her mate was exploring a utility pole at the back of the yard, but he soon joined her at the feeders.

The bluebird watch continues. The new brood of Eastern Bluebirds should be hatching any day now.

I witnessed an interesting bit of behavior by the bluebird pair this week. Every day, late in the afternoon  just after sunset they fly to the utility wire that runs along the back of our yard and they sit there and preen and "chat" in the dying light. They usually sit a few feet apart.  One afternoon this week, as I was watching them, a female Brown-headed Cowbird perched on the wire between the two. The male became quite agitated and started to sing loudly - well, loud for a bluebird. When the cowbird continued to sit there, he attacked her and drove her away!

Did he perceive this nest parasite as a threat to his family, even though the eggs are already laid and almost ready to hatch? Or was he just irritated that she was interrupting his "family time" with his mate? Who knows what a bluebird thinks!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Young cardinals

My garden is full of juvenile Northern Cardinals just now and most of them show up at the feeders late in the day to have a snack before settling down for the night. I sat and watched my backyard feeders just after the sun went down today and I counted at least six juveniles among the several cardinals that gathered there.

Although the light was fading fast, I decided to try to record some of them with the camera.

Several of the birds gathered on the ground under the feeders to look for fallen seeds, but this little lady chose to take an easier route and settled on one the feeders.

Meanwhile, a young male perched on top of the feeder.

This young male surveyed the scene from a perch in a nearby crape myrtle tree.

In a few weeks, all of these birds will have completed their first molt and will be sleek and beautiful in the colors of their adulthood. I look forward to watching them make that transition.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Crested Caracaras in nesting season

Headed into Houston today, I glanced at an open field off of Telge Road near Tomball and sitting in the middle of that field, enjoying a meal of something, was a Crested Caracara. We're well into the nesting season and so the clear implication is that the Caracaras are nesting here.

We never used to see these large, strikingly patterned relatives of falcons in this area, but in the last five or six years they have become more and more common. I still see them most frequently in winter, but apparently they are here all year round. Indeed, the adults are considered permanent residents on their territories, although young birds may wander considerable distances.

"Caracara" is a South American Indian name that is based on the bird's call. These birds generally feed on carrion and they can be aggressive at a kill, chasing Turkey and Black Vultures away. But they are not just carrion feeders. They are also known to hunt small animals, often flying low and taking the animals by surprise. They also scratch on the ground for insects or sometimes dig up turtle eggs. However, their main source of food is probably carrion, of which much is road kills. They can often be seen early in the morning at such kills.

This interesting bird has been under pressure and seems to have declined in some parts of its range possibly due to shooting and habitat loss. But here in this part of Texas, it seems stable and increasing and appears to be expanding its range.

 Crested Caracara photographed on Katy Prairie in winter.