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Friday, April 28, 2006

Pale Male

I was at the Conserving Birds in Human-Dominated Landscapes conference at the American Museum of Natural History in New York all day, and cruised across the street to Central Park for some birding during the lunch break. Still a bit early for warblers, but had Ovenbird, Black-throated Green, Yellow-rumped, Black-and-white, and Louisiana Waterthrush. While we were birding the Ramble, Pale Male flew over and circled twice. Central Park is a really great birding spot--if you're ever in New York during migration, don't miss it.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Its springtime...time to save some birds!

Spring is the perfect time to get outside, see some wonderful birds, and think about some easy steps you can take to protect the migrants as they move through your yard and neighborhood, as well as the birds returning to nest near your home.

Many of the activities you do around your home have a direct impact on birds. Pesticides and fertilizers kill many species in yards, as well as in waterways after rains wash them into streams and rivers (remember the dead grebes from Silent Spring). Pet waste and car fluids also poison birds when they impair water quality. And all that water that we sprinkle on our lawns might be better used by birds if we didn't use it at all. In our yards, many exotic plants can send their seeds out into the neighborhood, where they may displace native plants and make the habitat less inviting to local birds, while planting native plants helps provide the habitat that wild birds are looking for. Almost 10% of the nearly 20 billion birds that live in North America are killed each year near settlements when they collide with windows, cars, wires, and towers...or get picked off by outdoor housecats. We can all take efforts to protect birds by changing some of our habits and landscaping.

Audubon challenges everyone to begin protecting wild birds (and the environmental health of their yards and families) by taking the Healthy Yard Pledge. Click here to pledge to
* Reduce pesticide use
* Improve water quality
* Conserve water
* Remove invasive exotic plants
* Plant native species
* Support birds and other wildlife on your property

More information on how to take these actions are available from Audubon here.

For other ideas on how to help birds, you might want to pick up the brand new book 101 Ways to Help Birds by Laura Erickson. I used the initial 101 list from Laura for an urban bird conservation class I taught at the University of Texas two years ago, and will post a full review here after my own copy arrives. Meanwhile, I've got some exotic plants to pull out of my backyard and new migrants to look for in the trees behind the house!

They're Baaack!

This morning I arrived at work to the singing of a Wood Thrush across the road in the woods. An hour later, a Baltimore Oriole was singing in the trees out behind the office, and two Warbling Vireos were hoping around up there as well. For me, Spring has officially arrived when these migratory birds start showing up just as the leaves start popping out on the trees. Its hard to believe that these little birds have flown thousands of miles across the Gulf of Mexico and the southern states to spend the next five months in our yards and neighborhoods. Others are just passing through on their way north, so now is the time to get out and see as many of these little guys as you can! Turn off the computer and go outside now!

Monday, April 24, 2006

Turkeys in the Rain

Just before a line of thunderstorms moved through this morning, six turkeys were feeding in the field behind my office. I'm glad I live in a world where these birds are doing well, after they declined to less than 30,000 birds by the 1930s. Hats off to hunters who have worked hard to restore these birds, and to our friends at the National Wild Turkey Federation. For something a little different, check out their Energy for Wildlife program.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Associated Press quotes Birdchaser about bird flu

I was quoted today in an AP story about migratory birds and bird flu. Again, not the best quote (you gotta go all the way to the end of the story to see my line), but what the heck.

This article references today's Science magazine story reviewing "Global Patterns of Influenza A Virus in Wild Birds". Its a great article with lots of details on just how many birds are carrying various bird flu viruses. By most accounts, the H5N1 virus is even more rare than these other strains of bird flu, so the article re-emphasizes just how rare that virus probably is in most bird populations.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Birds At Work

Spring is slowly arriving...a few trees starting to leaf out, though most are still bare. I walked down by the creek to look for migrating waterthrushes or some early warblers. Still not many migrants, but a singing Ruby-crowned Kinglet was new for the season. Just to give a taste of what's around this time of year, here's what I saw on my half hour break:

Canada Goose (6)
Mallard (2)
Wild Turkey (2)
Turkey Vulture (1)
Red-tailed Hawk (1)
Rock Pigeon (2)
Mourning Dove (3)
Red-bellied Woodpecker (2)
Downy Woodpecker (1)
Northern Flicker (1)
Eastern Phoebe (1)
Blue Jay (2)
American Crow (3)
Fish Crow (1)
Northern Rough-winged Swallow (2)
Carolina Chickadee (3)
Tufted Titmouse (2)
Carolina Wren (2)
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (1)
American Robin (4)
European Starling (2)
Cedar Waxwing (3)
Chipping Sparrow (1)
Song Sparrow (5)
White-throated Sparrow (8)
Dark-eyed Junco (2)
Northern Cardinal (5)
Red-winged Blackbird (6)
Common Grackle (2)
Brown-headed Cowbird (1)
House Finch (2)

The wild turkeys were underneath the birdfeeder behind the office this morning before I started my walk. They have to be one of my favorite birds--I love to see their prehistoric gait as they run. The swallows are building nests under the bridge over the creek. As is the phoebe.

Bird Flu and Poultry Smuggling

A good article on the possible role of poultry smuggling in the spread of H5N1 avian influenza is (here) in the April 15 New York Times. Waterfowl are on the move, so if wild birds are commonly carrying this, we might expect to see it spreading. But so far we aren't.

That would seem to be good news for wild birds, but maybe there is a catch. How good is our monitoring of bird flu in wild birds? Check out this latest New Scientist article (here). According to the article, improper procedures have been used for testing for H5N1 in wild birds in the UK,

The problem may have been DEFRA's method of collecting samples. Crommie says DEFRA told WWT samplers to moisten a sterile swab on a stick with saline, take a faecal sample from the bird, then put the swab back in its dry plastic tube. The tubes were then kept at refrigerator temperature and taken to the testing laboratories the next day.

Both Nolting and Olsen are adamant that swabs must be immediately immersed in a saline or preservative solution, and also frozen quickly. "If you left a swab in the refrigerator in its sheath like that, it would dry out and you'd lose all your virus," says Olsen. He says whoever planned the tests "should have talked to us". DEFRA has not done large-scale flu surveys before.

"If you just want to identify the viruses present you could put it in a nutrient solution or in ethanol, but you need a transport medium," says Nolting. "We never take dry swabs." Both groups also quickly freeze samples.
Now the question good is the testing of wild birds in other areas of the world? Are we missing the virus in wild bird populations elsewhere due to faulty testing techniques?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Ivory-billed Field of Dreams?

Just read an interesting quote from an article (here) in the latest issue of The Auk:
An underlying assumption in avian habitat management is that if the manager can provide habitat with appropriate structure at all relevant scales, the target bird species will find and use it. Many of us call this the "Field of Dreams" hypothesis, referring to the movie of that name in which the character played by Kevin Costner hears a voice saying, "if you build it, they will come." Costner's character builds his baseball field and long-dead ballplayers show up, though it takes a while, and not all humans can see the ballplayers, which perhaps has parallels with current Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) management.

Wait a minute...did they just equate trying to save Ivorybills with chasing ghosts?

Monday, April 17, 2006

New Yard Birds

Saturday I spent an hour on the back porch and counted 21 bird species--not bad for an early spring count in an urban setting. Highlights were five Cedar Waxwings, which I hadn't seen since the holly tree next door was fruiting in December, and a Northern Flicker calling from the top of the baseball field lights in the park behind the house. Was hoping for some raptors to fly through, but no dice.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Latest I and the Birds

The blog carnival I and the Birds #21 is up now, with another great selection of the best in recent bird blog posts. It includes an interview with Tom DeLay inspired by my own submission to the carnival. Take in the posts, buy a book, and enjoy!

Bird Smuggling and Bird Flu

Fantastic news story (here) about this from the International Herald Tribune. Good to see that bird smuggling is being more closely looked at as a major way for H5N1 avian influenza virus to be transmitted around the world.

What are the Feds thinking?!?

Just saw the news that the USFWS has denied the petition to list the Gunnison Sage Grouse as an endangered species. With less than 5,000 of the birds left on a tiny portion of western Colorado and eastern Utah, this bird is one of the most endangered birds in North America (see the Audubon report here). The agency claims that the birds aren't endangered because their numbers may have increased in the last two years. Hello! California Condor numbers have increased too. So have Whooping Crane numbers. But when you have birds with a very limited range, and only a small population--that's the definition of endangered! Hopefully state regulations and efforts will be able to protect these birds, but its just another example of how the Endangered Species Act is not effective because the agency that is supposed to administer it is, for whatever reason, failing to actually use it to protect many species that need the most protection. Ladies and Gentleman, welcome to the world of conservation politics. What a load of crock!

Woodpeckers at Cornell

I visited Sapsucker Woods and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology yesterday for some meetings. Tree Swallows over the pond near the lab were a sign of spring, otherwise, mostly just resident birds--a few Canada Goose and Mallards, a Sharp-shinned Hawk soaring over the pond during one of my meetings, and a small handfull of songbirds.

My most interesting sighting was of a Pileated Woodpecker that flew over the road in front of the car as we approached the lab. While I've seen a fair number of Pileateds over the years, I don't see them all the time, and I've been paying closer attention to them since the possible Ivory-billed Woodpecker sightings and video came to light last year. Due to all the debate in identifying the Big Woods woodpecker on Luneau video, it was interesting to note the underwings of the bird that we saw yesterday. The underwing coverts were white, but the flight feathers were much more prominent and all black--looking almost twice as wide as the white. There wasn't really much white visible from below at the angle we were looking, from almost directly below. No matter what you think of the identity of the Luneau video, and I don't know how much variation there is in Pileateds, from the bird I saw yesterday, it would be easy to understand how researchers at Cornell might think that the Luneau video shows a bird with way more white in the wings than they are used to seeing on their resident Pileated Woodpeckers.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Fish Crows

For most people, crows are crows are crows. In fact, most people may have a hard time distinguishing between a crow and a blackbird. So it may come as news to some folks that there are many different kinds of crows around the world. Most of them look pretty similar to each other. In fact, as I've been watching the crows flying around downtown DC for the last couple days, I haven't known which species I was seeing--since there are two kinds of crows in this part of the country. Last night I finally heard the crows calling as I walked back to my hotel, and could tell that they are Fish Crows.

Unlike the common American Crow that is found across most of the United States, Fish Crows are pretty much restricted to waterways and coastal areas along the East and Gulf Coasts from Beaumont, TX to southern Maine. They are called Fish Crows because of their habitat mostly along rivers and waterways. But if you were to call it by its voice, you might call it a Frog Crow...since their caw notes (listen here) sound lower and more like a frog than the caw notes of the common American Crows.

Other than by voice, American and Fish Crows can be hard to tell apart as they look pretty much the same. But when they open their beaks, you can tell the difference. So, next time you think there is something fishy going on in Washington, DC--as long as you're thinking about crows, you may well be right!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

DC Crows

I'm down in Washington DC for meetings at the National Geographic this week. Not a lot of birds in this part of NW DC. Mostly starlings and House Sparrows, but several times today I did see crows flying over, and on my way back to my hotel, a lone male Mallard flew by between buildings. True urban birding is low on diversity--but it is kind of fun to see the common birds in rather uncommon settings.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Charles Darwin has a Posse

I recently finished reading Lyanda Haupt's Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent. I'm going to be writing a full review for Birder's World magazine, but for now I just wanted to say that this book has really given me a lot to think about. Haupt follows Darwin as he spends five years chasing birds and other creatures around South America and beyond, and shows exactly how these experiences transformed him from an eager young naturalist into a careful observer and serious scientist.

Haupt shows just how important it was for Darwin to spend quality time closely observing birds and other animals. This has helped me rethink some of my own birding. I'm often way too busy with work saving birds and creating bird conservation programs to spend the hours necessary to closely watch and more fully understand the lives of the birds I care about. I miss the time when I could spend hours on a Saturday just wandering around Hornsby Bend or the woods near my house growing up in Oregon, and I've vowed to find the time I need to really live in close fellowship with birds and other creatures. Haupt characterizes this type of relationship as respectful and reverential, and key to Darwin's transformation into a revolutionary thinker with deep insights into the processes of nature.

So, follow Darwin. Watch closely. Think Deeply. As another hero of mine once said, the mysteries of nature "are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out". Take time to smell the roses, watch the birds, and to ponder the mysteries of the world around you. Join Darwin's posse, and treat yourself to a marvelous ride.

New Yard Bird--Osprey

In the never not birding category--while having dinner yesterday, I saw an Osprey fly up Perkiomen Creek behind our house.

Robins have been singing for over a week now. Last night, I was working late and heard the first bird start singing at 3:30am! A week ago, that would have been 2:30am--these birds are really jacked up on horomones right now. Driving in to work today, I saw several robins chasing each other low across the road. Its a dangerous time of year for these birds, as they get so focused on chasing each other that they often fly out onto busy roadways and get killed.

Radio Expedition--Searching for Bird Flu

Good NPR story (here) on the search for H5N1 avian influenza in Alaska this year.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Wild Bird Surveillance for Bird Flu

If you need some heavy reading, check out An Early Detection System for Highly Pathogenic H5N1 Avian Influenza in Wild Migratory Birds U.S. Interagency Strategic Plan. Here's an overview:
The goal of this plan is to describe the essential components of a unified national system for the early detection of HPAI, specifically highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza, in migratory birds. While the immediate concern is a potential introduction of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza into the U.S., the development of a system that is capable of detecting the introduction of all HPAI viruses through migratory birds would significantly improve the biosecurity of the Nation. This document provides guidance to Federal, State, university, and non-governmental organizations for conducting HPAI monitoring and surveillance of migratory birds in the U.S. It is expected that this document will be used by agencies and organizations to develop regional and/or state-specific implementation plans for HPAI surveillance.

The plan is the source for recent list of birds considered to be the most likely carriers of H5N1. Some of the top candidates, according to this plan are: Steller's Eider, Northern Pintail, Dunlin (despite no evidence for Dunlin ever having carried the virus), Arctic Warbler (another species that admittedly winters in Asia, but never shown to carry the virus). This is a strange list, and seems to be based more on the geographic range of each species (Alaskan birds spending some time in Asia), rather than any epidemiological study showing liklihood of these species actually contracting and carrying the virus.

We still don't really know very much about how H5N1 or other avian influenza viruses are transmitted and which species are carrying which strains of bird flu. Its possible that this plan to test all these species this summer and fall will help us better understand how this all works, though if these species really aren't main carriers of H5N1, then it may take a long time to actually find evidence of that virus in Alaskan birds. I'm all in favor of more research to determine where the various bird flu strains are in wild bird populations--but it should be seen more as a long term research and biosecurity program, rather than just a one-time search for H5N1, which despite media reports to the contrary, probably has only a small chance of arriving in Alaska via wild birds anyway.

Birding with Tom DeLay

News that Tom DeLay is to resign takes me back to the Spring of 2004, when I was teaching a course on urban bird conservation at the University of Texas at Austin. Every Tuesday and Thursday, I would walk down to the Texas state capitol building to look for migratory birds with my students. Twice I ran into Tom DeLay while walking to the capitol with my binoculars and Audubon Texas baseball cap on. The first time, since I had just seen the movie Adaptation on DVD, I thought it was the actor Chris Cooper. But then I figured out who it was. One time he was getting into an SUV with a bunch of guys, the other time he was standing in a group with other men outside a building just north of the state capitol grounds. We made eye contact as I walked by, and though I thought he gave me a sour look, maybe he was just having a bad day. At the time, I wondered what he was doing in Austin. Now we all know he was there to redistrict Texas and solidify his power base. We're still waiting to see how much legal vs. illegal action that involved.

So, while I technically didn't bird with The Hammer, I did bird in his shadow. While he was making major power moves, I was just off stage, with my students, trying to get them to better appreciate birds and the landscapes we share with them. Several students from that class have gone on to undertake more bird studies, and to find employment doing bird conservation work. I still get emails from some of them, and its fun to know that this class had even a small impact in the lives of young people who want to make the world a better place. Not exactly a major power play, but then again, its only birdwatching. Tom, if you manage to beat the rap in Austin and want a more peaceful way to try and change the world, you're welcome to bird with me anytime!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Turkeys Gone Wild

Another sign of spring is the strutting of Tom turkeys. This morning I saw males strutting at two places on my way to work. I saw the first one when a hawk flew quickly across the road in front of me. When I got to where it had crossed, I saw it dive on the male turkey in a field. The second group a few miles down the road had three Toms strutting around with four hen turkeys crouching in front of them. They were in the back behind a house on a rural road, and I watched them from a few minutes from the driveway before pulling out to avoid making the human residents nervous. Nothing like turkeys gone wild to start out the day in a frisky way!

Birdchaser at Home

Spent most of the weekend with my kids at home. On Saturday night, I was in the parking lot of the grocery store down the street and saw a Great Blue Heron flying down the creek towards my house at dusk. Hoping to add it to the new yard list, I sat out on the porch Sunday evening with my (almost) two-year-old. She seemed to enjoy hearing the robins and cardinals singing all around the neighborhood, and we saw a few birds flying off to roosts, but no sign of the heron. I was hoping that flying along the creek to roost was part of its normal routine, but apparently it had other things to do on Sunday.

This morning, I had breakfast out on the back porch and heard an American Goldfinch singing in the neighborhood. Eventually, it flew into our small little yard, and then hopped down to visit the bird feeder in the neighbor's yard. While these birds have started to sing, they haven't obtained their full breeding plumage, and this male was still mostly drab yellow on the back, with only a hint of black on the head. Spring is coming, but slowly!
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