Archive for the ‘Birding’ Category

Bird Irruptions

January 8, 2014

By The Fat Finch

When I first heard this term I had a vision of little birds spewing out of a volcano. But we’re not talking about that kind of eruption.

In the avian world, a bird irruption is a term scientists use to describe unusually large numbers of non-migratory northern birds that move out of their nesting range, typically in North America’s boreal forest. The birds leave the vast, wild expanse of forest, tundra and wetlands that span the width of Canada and Alaska to spend the winter farther south than normal. The irruption occurs because of changes in food supply.

The species that most commonly engage in irruption behavior are northern owls, such as the Great Gray Owl and Snowy Owl and certain grosbeaks including evening grosbeaks. In irruptive years, large numbers of these species may move down into the United States.

This  winter there is an irruption of snowy owls coming down into the United States as far down as Kansas and northern Colorado. And this event is causing another kind of eruption—photographers and birders are swarming into these areas to photograph and view these magnificent birds.

Several springs ago a very large number of western tanagers migrated through my area of the world (New Mexico) and stayed for approximately three weeks before heading to their normal summer homes. Was it an irruption? No, it was simply a normal migration of birds who occasionally stay in larger numbers for a longer period of time before moving on. It was a lucky and enjoyable event—I didn’t get much work done because I was staring out the window constantly looking at these gorgeous birds. They also ate 20 lbs of grape jelly off my oriole feeders during those three weeks.

Bird migration is a familiar and predictable seasonal movement of birds. Species that migrate do so every year at approximately the same time, traveling in a predetermined pattern, often to exactly the same destination time after time. Migrations are closely related to the breeding season and the arrival of spring in the breeding range. In contrast, irruptions are unpredictable. It’s all part of the wonderful and amazing world of birds.

In a Bird’s Nest, an Animal Behavior Puzzle

December 11, 2013

From The New York Times

Sometimes the scientists who study animal behavior solve puzzles and other times they uncover new ones. The war between mockingbirds and cowbirds is a case in point.

Cowbirds are brood parasites, meaning they lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species, thus unloading the messy and demanding business of chick-rearing. They also peck holes in the eggs of the host birds, destroying as many as they can.

Mockingbirds are a favorite target of this plan, and it seems to make perfect sense for them to viciously attack cowbirds when they catch them in the nest.

But when Ros Gloag, then a doctoral student at Oxford, and her colleagues in Argentina looked closely at the war between chalk-browed mockingbirds and shiny cowbirds, they found something unexpected, as they reported in the November issue of Animal Behaviour.

They stationed small video cameras near the nests of 40 pairs of chalk-browed mockingbirds. Over two breeding seasons they recorded more than 200 attacks on intruding cowbirds.

They were surprised to find that these attacks, which their videos show to be quite vicious, did not stop the cowbirds from laying eggs. The cowbirds would hunker down and let the much large mockingbirds deliver hammer blows to the head, but in matter of seconds they would lay an egg and flee.

How could such a failed strategy persist in evolution?

The answer, according to Dr. Gloag, now a postdoctoral researcher at Australian National University, was that the attacks did prevent the cowbirds from carrying out the second prong of their plan, destroying the mockingbird eggs already in the nest.

So the mockingbirds managed to save some of their offspring. They still end up raising unwanted baby cowbird guests. But, said Dr. Gloag, once the eggs hatch, the larger mockingbird chicks compete very well with the smaller cowbirds.

PERMALINK + VIDEO: The New York Times

10 Ways to Help Migratory Birds

December 2, 2013

From the National Wildlife Federation

ImageFrom the American Bird Conservancy: top 10 things you can do in your home or yard to help declining migratory birds

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) often gets asked how people can help birds during this time of year. Toward that end, ABC has identified the top ten things people can do to aid or protect migratory birds in their homes and yards.

1.  Keep your cat indoors—this is best for your cat as well as the birds, as indoor cats live an average of three to seven times longer. Even well fed cats kill birds, and bells on cats don’t effectively warn birds of cat strikes. For more information, go to http://www.abcbirds.org/cats.

2.  Prevent birds from hitting your windows by using a variety of treatments to the glass on your home—check out ABC’s tips at http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/collisions/glass.html

3.  Eliminate pesticides from your yard—even those pesticides that are not directly toxic to birds can pollute waterways and reduce insects that birds rely on for food.

4.  Create backyard habitat—if you have a larger yard, create a diverse landscape by planting native grasses, flowers, and shrubs that attract native birds. You will be rewarded by their beauty and song, and will have fewer insect pests as a result.

5.  Donate old birdwatching equipment such as binoculars or spotting scopes to local birdwatching groups—they can get them to schools or biologists in other countries who may not have the resources they need.

6.  Reduce your carbon footprint—use a hand-pushed or electric lawnmower, carpool, use low energy bulbs and Energy Star appliances. Contact your energy supplier and ask them about purchasing your energy from renewable sources.

7.  Buy organic food and drink shade-grown coffee—increasing the market for produce grown without the use of pesticides, which can be toxic to birds and other animals, will reduce the use of these hazardous chemicals in the U.S. and overseas. Shade coffee plantations maintain large trees that provide essential habitat for wintering songbirds.

8.  Keep feeders and bird baths clean to avoid disease and prevent mosquitoes from breeding.

9.  Support bird friendly legislation both locally and in the U.S. Congress.

10.  Join a bird conservation group—learn more about birds and support important conservation work.

According to ABC, birds need our help now more than ever.  In addition to the ongoing threat of loss of habitat that is becoming magnified by global warming, millions of birds are directly killed due to a number of different human-related causes.
Scientists estimate that 300 million to 1 billion birds die each year from collisions with buildings. Up to 50 million die from encounters with communication towers.  At least 11 million die from car strikes.  Another 1 million may die each day from attacks by cats left outdoors.

Some of these deaths occur year-round but many occur during the peak spring and fall migrations. Some studies suggest that perhaps as many as half of all migrating birds do not make it back to spring and summer grounds, succumbing to various threats on either end of the journey.

“Protecting and helping birds is not only the right thing to do, it is also good for the economy and the future of our environment. Birds are invaluable as controllers of insect pests and as pollinators of crops, and also generate tremendous economic revenues through the pastimes of bird feeding and birdwatching,” says ABC President George Fenwick.

A recent federal government study reports that over 20 percent of the U.S. population – 48 million people – participates in birdwatching.  Of that total, about 42 percent (20 million people) actually travel to see birds. Birders spend about $36 billion annually in pursuit of their pastime.  The top five birdwatching states by percentage of total population are: Montana (40%); Maine (39%); Vermont (38%); Minnesota (33%); and Iowa (33%).

Photo of Scarlet Tanager by Brian Tang

PERMALINK: National Wildlife Federation

An Earlier Exodus Amid Climate Change

December 2, 2013

From The New York Times

godwit-NYTimesBirds are migrating earlier and earlier each year, and scientists have long suspected that climate change is responsible. A new study by researchers at the University of East Anglia in England shows that individual birds migrate like clockwork, but nesting and hatching are happening earlier as a result of warmer temperatures, and this appears to be linked to the advancing of overall migration patterns.

PERMALINK: The New York Times

Bird Photo Booth: Take pics as birds feast on seeds

December 2, 2013

From Gadget.com

Image

Homeowners love the sound of birds chirping during the day. Some of them attract these winged creatures onto their front yards by putting up bird feeders. As much as you want to observe these birds up close, you know they just fly away if you get too near.

Let Bird Photo Booth solve that problem and even save those moments forever. It is a bird feeder with a slot inside where you put your old iPhone or GoPro camera. The camera is connected to a device inside the house via Bluetooth or WiFi, enabling you to snap photos of feeding birds yourself without disturbing them.

This weather-resistant contraption is made of sustainably harvested white oak hardwood and comes with a macro lens and circular polarizing lens that zooms in the birds automatically while providing finer details. It also has a lens cap protector, stainless steel perch and bowl for the seeds, and foam inserts for both iPhone and GoPro.

The iPhone foam insert also works with 4th and 5th-gen iPod Touch, while the GoPro protective foam insert fits all models, including the new GoPro Hero 3 editions. Android device owners will have to wait a bit, as usual.

The company even suggests you could also communicate with the birds using FaceTime, but that might just scare the birds away. They also recommend to turn off the device’s auto-lock functionality so you won’t miss a moment.

The Bird Photo Booth is available online for $150, plus shipping.

PERMALINK: gadget.com

Negative Effects of Road Noises on Migratory Birds

December 2, 2013

From Science Daily

A first-of-its-kind study by Boise State University researchers shows that the negative effects of roads on wildlife are largely because of traffic noise.

Biologists have known that bird populations decline near roads. But pinpointing noise as a cause has been a problem because past studies of the effects of road noise on wildlife were conducted in the presence of the other confounding effects of roads. These include visual disturbances, collisions and chemical pollution, among others.

“We present the first study to experimentally apply traffic noise to a roadless area at a landscape scale, thus avoiding the other confounding aspects of roads present in past studies,” said Christopher J. W. McClure, post-doctoral research associate in the Department of Biological Sciences.

“Understanding the effects of road noise can help wildlife managers in the selection, conservation and management of habitat for birds,” said Jesse R. Barber, assistant professor of biological sciences and one of McClure’s fellow researchers.

Beside McClure and Barber, researchers in the study include Heidi E. Ware, graduate student; Jay Carlisle, assistant research professor and research director of the Idaho Bird Observatory; and Gregory Kaltenecker, executive director of the Idaho Bird Observatory.

Researchers created a phantom road on a ridge southeast from Lucky Peak, near the Idaho Bird Observatory’s field site. Putting speakers in trees, they played roadway sounds at intervals, alternating four days of noise on with four days off during the autumn migratory period. The researchers conducted daily bird surveys along their phantom road and at a nearby control site.

“We documented more than a one-quarter decline in bird abundance and almost complete avoidance by some species between noise-on and noise-off periods along the phantom road,” Barber said. “There were no such effects at control sites. This suggests that traffic noise is a major driver of the effects of roads on populations of animals.”

PERMALINK: Science Daily

Five Rare South American Bird Species Given U.S. Endangered Status

December 2, 2013

From The Center for Biological Diversity | biologicaldiversity.org

SAN FRANCISCO— In response to decades-old listing petitions and a series of lawsuits by the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today designated four rare bird species from Colombia (the blue-billed curassow, brown-banded antpitta, Cauca guan and gorgeted wood-quail) and one Ecuadorian hummingbird species (Esmeraldas woodstar) as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

“Protecting these vulnerable tropical birds under the Endangered Species Act will give them a better shot at survival and attract attention to the urgent need to protect their remaining forest homes,” said Jeff Miller, a Center conservation advocate. “Tropical deforestation is threatening to drive so many of the planet’s most amazing birds extinct.”

A campaign to protect scores of the world’s most imperiled bird species began in the 1980s, when worried ornithologists began submitting Endangered Species Act petitions to protect more than 70 international bird species. Although the Fish and Wildlife Service had determined by 1994 that most of the species warranted protection, the agency never responded to the listing petitions. After a quarter-century, legal protection had been provided for only a handful of the species, and at least five of the 73 had gone extinct.

The Center filed lawsuits in 2004 and 2006 that jump-started the foreign-species listing program. The Service then determined that more than 50 of the bird species warranted listing. So far 36 of the bird species have been protected as endangered or threatened.
Listing international species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act restricts buying and selling of the imperiled animals, increases conservation funding and attention, and can add scrutiny to development projects proposed by U.S. government and multilateral lending agencies — such as the World Bank — that would destroy or alter habitat.

Background

The blue-billed curassow (Crax alberti) is the world’s most threatened species of cracid, a family of beautiful crested game birds found primarily in Latin America. This large, mainly black bird is the only curassow with distinctive blue bill ornaments, earning the species its common name. Very little is known about this bird in the wild due to its rarity; while at one time its range stretched 41,000 square miles, it’s now restricted to only a fragmented, 806-square-mile forest area in northern Colombia. It has been severely hurt by a rapid increase in deforestation over the past decade through agriculture and other industries. About 98 percent to 99 percent of this amazing bird’s habitat has been lost, and there are thought to be fewer than 2,000 individuals left.

The brown-banded antpitta (Grallaria milleri), like other antpittas, is a secretive bird with a low population density and high habitat specificity — a nearly flightless, ground-dwelling species found only in the Neotropics. This antpitta, endemic to the central Andes of Colombia, has been severely harmed by a rapid increase in deforestation due to agriculture and human encroachment. In 1992 researchers considered it locally extinct, if not extinct throughout its range. Although it was rediscovered in 1994, there are thought to be only a few hundred brown-banded antpittas remaining in four isolated populations.

The Cauca guan (Penelope perspicax) is a rare forest bird found only on the west slopes of the west and central Andes of Colombia. This large, mainly brown-gray bird is similar in appearance to a turkey, thanks to its thin neck and small head with a dewlap — a flap of skin that hangs beneath the lower jaw or neck. The Cauca guan requires large territories for foraging, but today it’s relegated mainly to small patches of forest, since most of its preferred dry-forest habitat has been eliminated and is highly fragmented. The species’ range has been reduced by 95 percent since the 1950s as a result of agriculture production and human settlement. Historically, this magnificent bird was considered common; now it is thought that only 250 to 1,000 Cauca guans are in existence.

The gorgeted wood-quail (Odontophorus strophium) is a small, secretive, ground-dwelling bird endemic to montane subtropical forests on the west slope of the eastern Andes, in the Magdalena Valley of Colombia. The species has declined due to deforestation from logging, conversion of forests to agriculture, coca growing and drug eradication efforts using herbicides. Fewer than 500 of these ‘‘forest partridges’’ are now believed to remain, in fragmented habitats.

The Esmeraldas woodstar (Chaetocercus berlepschi) is a tiny, mysterious hummingbird with striking violet, green and white plumage, endemic to Ecuador. Little is known about this range-restricted, forest species, as it seems to disappear from known locations during nonbreeding months. Its preferred evergreen forest environment is one of the most threatened forest habitats in the Neotropics. The remaining habitat for the species has been reduced by 99 percent and is severely fragmented due to rapid deforestation as a result of logging and agriculture clearance. The Esmeraldas woodstar was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1990 — after not being sighted since 1912.

Read about the Center’s International Birds Initiative.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 625,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

PERMALINK: biologicaldiversity.org

Juncos — Not So Ordinary After All

November 16, 2013

Sharon McInnis, October 28 | Excerpted from BIRD CANADA | bird canada.com

Posted on Fat Finch, November 16, 2013

When we moved to Gabriola seven years ago, the first bird I saw in the overgrown, untended garden we inherited with our ‘new’ house was a junco. Although it seems amazing to me now, I’d never noticed this bird in the city. With its black hood and unusual metallic chipping ‘song’, I figured it must be very rare indeed. Then I discovered there are about 630 million Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) in North America. So not very rare after all.

In fact, the junco is one of the most abundant backyard birds on the continent. A ‘rock star study organism’, it’s also one of the most thoroughly studied bird species on the planet. For over forty years Ellen Ketterson, a pioneer in the field of animal behavior from the University of Indiana, has been studying juncos. She explains the fascination: the junco “really lets you study it. … They build their nests on the ground, so you can find them. They thrive in captivity, so you can provide them with seeds, or put them in different social configurations. And they’re content. They actually reveal their biology to you.” Ketterson is one of the scientists whose work is described in “The Ordinary Extraordinary Junco”, an 88-minute video series produced by biologists and filmmakers from Indiana University.

Dark-Eyed Junco by Garry Davey

This fascinating free program explores how juncos behave, especially in terms of evolution. Until seeing this series, the word ‘evolution’ conjured up images of dinosaurs to me. But apparently “Evolution doesn’t just happen over huge numbers of generations or millions of years. It can happen to you or me, or any animal, within our own lifetimes. Amazingly, epigenetic changes to our DNA mean that the genes we pass on to our children can differ from the ones we inherited.” (Zoobiquity, Posted on October 28, 2013 by Sharon McInnes, Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers)

One example of such rapid evolutionary change began in the early 1980s when a small flock of junco migrants remained on the campus of the University of California (UCal) instead of returning to the nearby mountains in winter. When scientists began to study the campus birds, they discovered that this urban population was a new isolated breeding population of Oregon Dark-eyed Juncos. The Ordinary Extraordinary Junco tells the fascinating tale. But let me give you a sneak preview.

Essentially, the UCal juncos demonstrated rapid evolution driven by urbanization. In this case, campus life, with its constant barrage of stimuli, changed the very nature of the juncos. They became, for example, more flexible when foraging and nesting, and bolder than their rural counterparts. They explored more food opportunities, allowed humans to get three times closer than rural juncos (in half the time), and sang at a higher frequency in order to be heard in a noisy urban environment. Ultimately, on the bustling campus, with cars and feral cats and construction noise and artificial lighting at all hours, natural selection favored assertive, flexible, bold juncos. Juncos with spunk.

It turned out these more enterprising juncos were also more attentive, involved parents. As the breeding season of the braver urban birds shifted, for example, the males became more interested in parenting (helping to find food for the nestlings) and less aggressive. (Scientists found they had less testosterone at this time.) These ‘brave’ juncos that were also ‘better’ parents were more likely to survive, breed, and pass on their genes. Soon (in evolutionary terms) these new traits became the norm for this newly-evolved isolated population.

I understand behaviour changing in a new environment; that happens all the time – with birds and people. What surprised me is that the birds’ appearance changed so quickly (they had less white in their tails and less black in their heads within thirty years) and that their genetic makeup, their actual DNA, changed. But apparently this kind of rapid evolution is happening with other populations of urban birds around the world now, just as it did with Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos Islands and cichlid fish in Africa.

If I haven’t whet your appetite quite enough to inspire you to drop everything and go watch the 8-video series, check out the trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kvJTMvaKUg. Then, for the whole amazing story, just google The Ordinary Extraordinary Junco. And enjoy!

This article was first published in The Flying Shingle on October 7 2013.
PERMALINK

Shapeshifting and the New Crossley ID Guide to Raptors

March 12, 2013

“Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound! Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. No, it’s a plane. No, it’s Superman!”

Image

Well, no. Actually it is a bird.

In fact, it’s the fastest animal on earth. While the cheetah plods along at 70 mph this bird can zoom through the sky up to 240 mph. Plummeting from the heavens and enduring G forces that would kill a person, this paragon of flight and vision, with eyes that see shapes and patterns humans can’t, entered mythology long before Richard Crossley wrote his marvelous new Princeton Crossley ID Guide to Raptors. Another Englishman, J.A. Baker wrote, “Evanescent as flame peregrines sear across the cold sky and are gone, leaving no sign in the blue haze above.” They are, these peregrines, the little brothers and little sisters of Eagle.

“What do they see?” wondered Anaximander of Miletus about these birds two thousand five hundred years ago. About the same time, the Native Americans of North America knew what they saw. Shapeshifting was easier then and many people, not just the shamans, could do it. Later, ordinary people lost the power of flight and only shamans could do it. Soon human flight became metaphorical flight and the idea of the soul as a bird was born. Then flight and intelligence joined. In the Hindu Rig Veda we read, “Among all things that fly, the mind is the swiftest.” Another ancient text proclaims, “Those who know have wings.” Calling someone a “bird brain” is a high compliment indeed.

crossleyraptorsA fine new book is on the way about peregrines and all the other raptors of the world. Princeton’s Crossley ID Guide to Raptors will soon be available and promises to be every bit as useful and as beautiful as the other guides in the series. You can pre-order from our store, The Fat Finch.

Long before people and animals lost the ability to shapeshift, the Apache Black Hactcin held out his hand and a drop of rain fell into his palm. He mixed it with earth and fashioned the first bird from the resulting mud. The bird flew and the Hactcin saw that that the bird needed companions so he grabbed the mud-bird and whirled it around his head, faster and faster. The mud-bird grew very dizzy and began to see many images as it whirled around. He saw hawks and eagles, other raptors, and song birds too. Then the Hactcin stopped whirling the mud-bird and those images became real birds. To this day the raptors created in that Apache’s whirl live in the air and seldom land on the ground because the rain that helped create them fell from the sky.

DIGITAL CAMERAHigh on the mountain in New Mexico known as Shiprock lived the bird-monsters that were eating all the people on the earth. This was before modern raptors. It is said that one of the Navajo Hero Twins, Monster Slayer climbed the huge rock and killed both of the bird monsters. Two fledglings in the nest were terrified, but Monster Slayer decided not to kill them. To the eldest he said, “You will give us plumes for our rites and bones we will use to make whistles.” Whirling the fledgling around his head four times he flung it high in the air and it became First Eagle. To the younger monster bird he said, “You will be an oracle to my people and foretell the future. Sometimes you will tell the truth and other times you will lie.” He whirled that bird around his head four times and, as he did so, the bird’s head became large and round and its eyes grew larger and larger until the bird became First Owl.

Once a water monster made war on the people and flooded the earth. Only one person survived, a young woman. As she was about to drown a great eagle — perhaps the one made by the Apache or maybe the Navajo one — flew over the young woman, allowing her to grab his talons. He flew with her to the top of a spire in the Black Hills where he lived in his aerie. It was the only dry place on earth. There they lived as man and wife and they had two children, a boy and a girl. When the waters finally receded these two children of an eagle and a human returned to the earth and founded the Lakota Nation.

From the Crossley Guide, used with permission

From the Crossley Guide, used with permission

Some scoff at these creation stories from other and older cultures, but doubters may remember that physicists have just found the Higgs Boson, the last remaining particle necessary to confirm the family of elementary particles predicted by the Standard Model of physics. That means one single electron can be in two places at the same time. In fact, it can be everywhere at the same time. It’s sister electron can be at the far end of the universe but it can communicate with her instantaneously, never mind the speed of light. Superposition is real. Nothing is certain. Matter is nothing but highly concentrated energy that shapeshifted into the mass that blurs in the sky above you as Eagle’s little brother, the peregrine, hunts.

The universe is a strange place and we all should remember Niels Bohr’s injunction to no less a person than Albert Einstein. “Albert”, he said, “perhaps your idea of reality is too limited.”

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This post is part of Princeton’s Blog Tour and we’re supposed to send you on to the next stop at The Flying Mullet. As they say in Spanish, que le vaya bien. (Travel well.) Thanks to Jessica Pellien of Princeton for organizing the tour. She has done good work.

The Elegance of Vultures

December 3, 2012

TV -1We had our first “up close and personal” meeting with a Turkey Vulture this weekend. She is a rescued bird who cannot be released into the wild and so is kept by our local wildlife rescue facility as an educational bird. We had a special shopping/fund-raising event at The Fat Finch over the weekend and the wildlife rescue folks brought several birds for our shoppers to see.

As is my custom when photographing portraits, I spent a little time getting to know her before hauling out my camera. (Knowing something about your subjects is critical if you are do them justice in a portrait.) Surprisingly, after watching her for a little while I realized that the word that kept arising in my mind to describe her was “elegant”.

Somehow most of us don’t associate vultures with elegance. But the grace with which she moves, the gentle brilliance of her eyes, and her centered calmness all add up to elegance. Think Cary Grant or Grace Kelly in feathers.

Of course, I’m not the first to note fine qualities in Turkey Vultures. Here is Edward Abbey,

Let us praise the noble turkey vulture: No one envies him; he harms nobody; and he contemplates our little world from a most serene and noble height.

TV 2-1And I shouldn’t have been at all surprised with her down-to-earth elegance. I’ve spent many happy hours in my life watching vultures soar on thermals high with hardly a feather stirring as they ride on outstretched wings. Elegantly.

But they are the eaters of death and I suppose that is why we don’t usually associate them with elegance. We have a New Yorker cartoon refrigerator magnet in the store that shows two vultures sitting on a tree talking to one another. One vulture says to the other, “Of course dead is important but taste matters too.”

And I must say that after meeting her I agree entirely with Abbey who, before dying, made arrangements to feed his death to the vultures. He wrote,

If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture–that is immortality enough for me.


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