Archive for the ‘Bird Migration’ Category

New Godwit Migration Record

October 28, 2008
Map of Godwit Migration 2008

Map of Godwit Migration 2008

We wrote in this space last year about Bar-tailed Godwit number E-7, a female godwit who, according to the satellite tracking the transponder fitted to one of her legs, had just completed a 7,155 non-stop migration from Alaska to New Zealand, but she outdid herself this year, beating her own world record for non-stop distance flying; this year, as you can see from the map, she flew 7,242miles in eight days, garnering not only the distance record but her own Washington Post editorial plus more updates on the USGS site which tracks E-7and 22 other godwits on their semi-annual migrations; migrations which average about 18,000 miles of flying a year and upwards of 250,000 miles over an average Godwit life span which is more mind-boggling than the fact that we just told you about her eight-day trip this year in a single sentence the reading of which may put you in mind of how tired she must have been at the end of the trip.

Nobody knows for sure where the name “Godwit” came from.  It may be theological in origin or it may derive from the anglo-Saxon word for “good” and “animal” or “bird” because it was once considered a delicacy.  Ben Johnson could buy one for supper for a half a crown.  Two centuries before Johnson a Godwit cost twice as much in London as a Snipe, so don’t say you never learn anything useless reading our blog.

Sandhill Crane Migration

October 12, 2008

We live beneath a Sandhill Crane flyway and have been waiting for their trumpets to sound this year.  So far, we haven’t heard any although some may have flown over while we were asleep or otherwise engaged.  But it may be a little early.  We didn’t hear the first until October 27th last year.

But they are on their way.  The USGS has satellite transmitters on at least three this year.  They left Alaska and are at least as far south as the state of Washington.  You can follow their progress on the USGS crane migration page and other birds on the main page.

You can also follow their migration here.  We’ll report when we hear the first.  It is one of the autumn rites of passage that make up for the absence of Hummingbirds and the coming of winter.


Sally King was the photographer.

Morning Coffee

April 6, 2008

I’m not worth a damn until after my second cup of coffee in the morning. Even the dogs know how useless and cranky I am; they stay away from me. When I first wake up I am grouchy and stupid. After the coffee, I am amicable and brilliant. Just ask me — right after that second cup of coffee. Don’t talk to me before then. I think it’s the caffeine which turns me into a human being. (And why is that an “e” after the “f” in caffeine instead of an “I”? Don’t coffee drinkers follow the rules?)

There is good news for us coffee drinkers at the BBC. Coffee is good for us. It may well help delay or even prevent the onset of many dementias. Mammals have a “blood-brain barrier” which protects our brains from many of the substances carried by the blood. It is a membrane between the capillaries and the brain itself. Composed of densely packed endothelial cells, the membrane prevents most substances from reaching the brain. All the body’s capillaries have this membrane but it is much more tightly packed in the head. Only substances the brain needs, like oxygen, carbon dioxide, some sugars and amino acids are allowed in. As is ethanol, which explains why booze is literally a mind altering substance. It may also explain why caffeine may not protect against alcoholic dementias even while protecting against others such as Alzheimer’s. (But red wine lowers cholesterol so my glass or two of red wine in the evening is also good for me. I love science!)

But high levels of cholesterol in the blood make the blood-brain barrier leak. Nobody knows why but cholesterol softens up the blood-brain barrier which contributes to dementia. But — bring up the trumpets — caffeine disrupts the ability of the cholesterol to attack the blood-brain barrier. Just a cup of coffee a day helps and, if one cup is good, four is better.

That’s the good news. From the New York Times comes a fly in the caffeine. Our grocery shopping, especially in the winter and spring is killing songbirds and raptors. The beautiful and justly famous Bobolink, Swainson’s Hawks, Barn Swallows and Eastern Kingbirds are a few of the victims of North Americans’ desire for fresh fruit and fresh vegetables year-round. The Latin American countries from whom we get these fruits and vegetables are spraying huge amounts of pesticides long outlawed in the U.S. on those crops and the pesticides are killing birds which migrate to those Latin American fields in the winter. The birds are being poisoned to keep us in fresh fruit. In one study half of the Bobolinks tested had, “drastically reduced levels of cholinesterase, an enzyme that affects brain and nerve cells — a sign of exposure to toxic chemicals.” Caffeine doesn’t help that.

bobolink photo

What does this have to do with our pleasant morning ritual of coffee drinking? We need to buy organic coffee. Here is what Dr. Stutchbury suggests:

What should you put on your bird-friendly grocery list? Organic coffee, for one thing. Most mass-produced coffee is grown in open fields heavily treated with fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. In contrast, traditional small coffee farmers grow their beans under a canopy of tropical trees, which provide shade and essential nitrogen, and fertilize their soil naturally with leaf litter. Their organic, fair-trade coffee is now available in many coffee shops and supermarkets, and it is recommended by the Audubon Society, the American Bird Conservancy and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

Done. Only organic coffee will be served in our home from this point forward. You’re welcome to stop by for some. But not until I’ve had my second cup.

Deer, Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese

November 11, 2007


Yesterday, instead of writing some long, thoughtful blog entry to entertain you, we went birding at the Bosque.  The Bosque del Apache in New Mexico.  We did get some nice photos and here are two.  It isn’t every day that you see deer and Sandhills dining together.  And, as you can see, the Snow Geese are back in force for another winter.


Migration, Part II

September 22, 2007

In the first post of this series on bird migrations we discussed some of the astounding feats of avian migration. In this post we’ll examine the question of why most birds migrate. After that, we’ll move on to the question of how they migrate.

After my son acquired his undergraduate degree, he moved back to our hometown to pursue his Master’s Degree at the local university. This he did primarily due to financial constraints. He rented an apartment less than one block from his Mother’s house which did surprise me a little. When I asked him why his response was simple, “Dad, mammals have to live close to their food sources.”

The same is true for birds, of course, which is why they migrate.

Imagine that you make your living eating insects. Imagine that you are a wood warbler or a vireo or a thrush or a flycatcher. You love to eat insects. You also know, even though you think without words, that the farther north you go in the summer the more and bigger insects you’ll find. For instance, moving north along the western spine of North America, the insects are smaller and fewer in the southern Rocky Mountains. By the time you get to Montana they are larger, more numerous and much more irritating to the humans you share the planet with than they are back toward Mexico. But even Montana is nothing compared to Alaska where they joke that their state bird is the mosquito. There is even a murder mystery, the name and author of which I disremember right now, where the victim is left outside and naked as a summer Alaskan night comes on and is killed by the mosquitoes.

But if you are a bird, you like mosquitoes; big juicy fat ones in staggering numbers and you’ll find them in the Arctic every summer. You may even find some with nectar clinging to it like this one. Another bonus of the Arctic summer, billions of flowers, full of nectar. And it is beautiful as well and you appreciate beauty.

You’ll also find many more hours of daylight to eat bugs and nectar. If you can get far enough north, you’ll have sunlight almost 24 hours a day. Which is why you’ll go there every June and July. Not only will you have all those calories to eat and all those daylight hours in which to eat them; you’ll also have more energy to reproduce and raise your new offspring. More than 160 species of birds migrate to and from just the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. You can find the entire list here.

But you certainly won’t want to be there in December when the sun barely makes it above the horizon for a couple of hours each day and the temperature never reaches freezing and all the bugs are long since dead. You have to maintain your body temperature, which is somewhere between 104 to 111 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on which species of bird you belong to. This higher body temperature means that your nerve impulses travel faster and your muscle strength is greater. Unless you hibernate, and only one species is known to do that, you better not be in the Arctic after mid-September.

To maintain your body temperature you need to be somewhere where the sun shines and somewhere you can find lots of bug calories to eat. You aren’t stupid and neither were your ancient ancestors, some of which started living on the planet 150,000,000 years ago. So, you fly south for the winter.

Godwit Migration Record

September 11, 2007

We have to start with distance. The distance from northern Alaska to New Zealand. Give or take, it is about 11,500 km or 7,144 miles. One way. Mostly over water. The Pacific Ocean, the largest ocean on the planet. Now, let us tell you about Bar-tailed Godwit number E7. And aren’t bird names wonderful?bar-tailed-godwit.jpg

E7 is a full grown female Bar-tailed Godwit which means she is about 37 cm or 14 inches long, from beak tip to tail, with a wing span of about 25cm(10 inches). A week ago she weighed about 700 grams(About a pound and a half). Today she probably weighs about 200 grams(Under half a pound). She lost two-thirds of her body weight in a week. She has a satellite transponder which is why we know that this year alone she flew 26,500 km. That is 16,500 miles. This last week she flew – non-stop – 11,500 km. which is 7,144 miles. Did we say she did it non-stop? She did. She flew for a week, night and day, day and night without stopping once and she flew more than 7000 miles. In a week. Without stopping once.

We don’t make this stuff up. You can read about Bar-tailed Godwit E7 at today’s BBC web site. We’ll have more to say about E7 in our migration series which began yesterday. You can track Ms. E7 for yourself at this web site. It is a USGS bird satellite tracking website which we are adding to the blogroll at the right.

Did we mention that she flew 7,000 miles in a week, non-stop?

She did.

Bird Migration, Part One

September 10, 2007

It is that time of the year when billions of birds are on the move. No one knows for sure how many birds are alive on and above the planet at any given time and isn’t it wonderful that science doesn’t know all the answers to all the questions? The estimates range from 200 billion to 400 billion birds. No matter. We live amidst a lot of birds and it is a privilege.

Science doesn’t even know for sure how many species of birds exist and now that genetic testing has begun, the number will no doubt increase over the next decade. We know that at least 10,000 species exist now. In North America alone, more than 900 species spend some or all of their lives. About 75% of those species migrate each year.

Some species lead comparatively sedentary lives and don’t migrate. Mockingbirds, Woodpeckers, Chickadees and Titmice are a few. But the numbers of those who do migrate are immense. In the billions. As we shall see, many fly at night and in flocks so large that they appear on military and weather radars as huge moving radar echoes. nov0206.jpg Because it is September, if you live in the Northern Hemisphere; it is likely that thousands are flying over your home every night. If you go out at night next month when the moon is full or almost full and train a pair of binoculars at the moon you won’t have long to wait until you see birds flying south for the winter.

Why they migrate and how are questions that will occupy us for several posts on this blog. We will start with why they migrate. In the next post we’ll look at current scientific understanding of that question.

But, of course, there are other ways to explain bird migration. In what is currently known as New Mexico, live the Acoma Indians. acomapueblo.jpg The first governor of Acoma had a daughter named Co-chin-ne-na-ko. She, as young people do sometimes, chose her first spouse poorly. He was Shakok, the Spirit of Winter. When they married he came to live at Acoma and it got colder and colder. Snow and ice stayed longer each year and the corn no longer had time to mature. The people had to subsist on cactus leaves and other hardy wild plants. One day Co-chin-ne-na-ko was out collecting cactus leaves when she was approached by a handsome young man named Miochin, the Spirit of Summer. He was, to put into the modern language of my daughter, a stud muffin and he carried an ear of corn. He gave her the ear of corn to eat and then fetched a whole bundle of corn for her to take back to her family to eat.

She asked him where he had found such wonderful corn. He told her he brought it from the south where he lived and where the corn grew year round and the flowers bloomed all the time. She asked him to show her that country but he declined saying that her husband would be angry with her. So she took the corn home after he promised to meet her again the next day with yet more corn for the people of Acoma. When she got home her mother instructed her to bring Miochin back with her the next day which she did. That evening Shakok returned home from the north, enraged to find Miochin there. They agreed to a fight for Co-chin-ne-na-ko’s hand in marriage. The fight was scheduled for four days later.

During that time, both returned to their homes to gird themselves and their allies for battle. Miochin sent an eagle out as a messenger and collected all the birds, insects and mammals that live in the south to help him. His friend Yat-Moot built a big fire to blow on Shakok. In the meantime, Shakok collected his allies and marched back to Acoma with Magpies in the lead. Magpies live in the winter lands and do not migrate.

The day of the great battle dawned and Miochin, with the aid of the hot wind created by Yat-Moot’s fire melted Shakok’s protective coating and Shakok called for a truce. He said that Miochin could have Co-chin-ne-na-ko as his bride but they agreed that each would rule for one-half a year at a time which is why there is a summer and a winter. All the birds in the battle could fly back and forth, following Miochin all year long so they would be where it was warm and there was much for them to eat.


The photograph of Acoma was made by Ansel Adams. The Acomas have Katsina masks for both Miochin and Shakok. Because we are uncertain whether Acomas allow representations of the masks to be published, we did not post any. However, someone else has and you can find them via Google Images if you are interested. The radar image is from a Pennsylvania NOAA weather radar from the night of November 2, 2006. That echo is so intense that if that had been a storm, it would have been like the storm in King Lear and people would have been running for underground shelter.

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