February 2008


As alert readers of this blog may have noticed, I have a slight affinity for the alcids. So when I stumbled on Maria Mudd Ruth’s Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet, I naturally had to have it. I was already vaguely aware of Marbled Murrelets, their peculiar nesting habits, and the fact that they were under threat; I couldn’t imagine a book about them being bad.

Sometimes high expectations like that lead to disappointment. But not this time!

Maria Mudd Ruth understands what it is to be crazy about an auk. In the course of writing this book, she moved her family across the continent, almost died while hiking up a mountain, and got up at four in the morning for experiences a lot like those that Laura recounts here. Yet she never veers into letting the account become more about her than her subject.

Her subject is, of course, the Marbled Murrelet; but it’s also the biologists, conservationists, and other folks who first struggled to understand Brachyramphus marmoratus and now struggle to save it in the face of threats on all sides; loss of their nest sites in old growth forests on the one hand, and oil slicks and gillnets at sea on the other. The Marbled Murrelet’s tale is one that centers in large part on the importance of citizen science; since the idea of a forest-nesting seabird is deeply weird, the Murrelet’s nests went undiscovered until people in the woods for unrelated reasons tripped over evidence, sometimes literally, in the form of fallen chicks and eggs. When an actual nest turned up, in 1974(!), it was a tree surgeon who was first to lay eyes on it.

The story ends on a wistful note, as it has to; in 2004, as this book was heading to the presses, the Bush administration attempted to delist the Marbled Murrelet at the behest of the timber industry. This decision has thus far been warded off by the courts. But even under political protection, Murrelet populations continue to decline, perhaps due to increased corvid predation at nests (associated with human disturbance and forest fragmentation) or the oil and gillnet threats from the sea, or both. Rudd does a good job of bringing across the concept that a species can be abundant and still endangered. That this is something that should still be lost on people after the Passenger Pigeon fiasco is mind-boggling, but true.

In short, this is a great book about a great bird, and highly recommended by yours truly.

“You mean fog larks?… Those are just stupid little birds you environmentalists put on the property so we can’t log it.”

From Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet by Maria Mudd Ruth. More on this remarkable book later.

Oh, and I got new binoculars today! It had nothing at all to do with my tireless efforts at planting endangered species in front of developers…

A while ago, you may remember, I posted about the American Woodcock, and mentioned how I’ve been waiting almost fifteen years to see another.  Saw the first one because I was looking for dead things.

Today I wasn’t looking for dead things.  Guess what I found?

Yes, the good news is that the Woodcock are migrating.  The bad news is that this one isn’t, not any more.  From the scene, it looks like it hit one of the ostentatious plate glass windows of one of the ostentatious luxury condominiums that are springing up like mushrooms in Jersey City.  For some reason, condo designers have decided that entire walls made of glass, regardless of environmental impact, are the fashionable thing of the now; the migration of birds is not of the now, but of the ages, and doesn’t alter quickly in response to clever monkeys and their penchant for decorating with fatal invisible force fields.
When I picked the Woodcock up, it was cool but not stiff.  Blood had run from one nostril down the long, flexible bill, and the eyes were still glossy.  Those big eyes always make Woodcock look surprised, but zie probably didn’t have time to be surprised.  I’d never touched a Woodcock before.  They are very soft.

Daniel Klem estimates that more than 1 billion birds are killed by window strikes every year.  New York City (in which I am including “sixth borough” Jersey City for the nonce), sitting right where birds want to fly and well-stocked with buildings that are basically big glass boxes, undoubtedly contributes a good bit to that number.  And, as this article notes, the impact is disproportionately felt by migratory birds – in a hurry, in unfamiliar territory, and lacking the street smarts of Rock Pigeons.

Sometimes the frivolous ways that humans find to destroy our fellow beings simply stun me.  Why live in a glass house?

Humorous Pictures

Today, instead of going outside and looking at birds, I wrote a horror story.

In my defense, it has Starlings in it! And they are vulgaris indeed.

I was hoping to bring you some really neat-o keen pictures of something rare and exciting – namely, a Scott’s Oriole in the snow. But after dropping off the map earlier this month, the Scott’s Oriole has developed the same bad habits as other celebrity birds like last summer’s Western Reef Heron, teasing observers with now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t antics for maximum frustration (granted, at least you don’t have to hang out by the homeless camp behind the Home Depot for Scotty.)   So after soaking my socks and spending too much on mediocre diner food that gave me heartburn, I ended up with a morning list of four species, the most exciting of which was White-Throated Sparrow.

Perversely, this feels a lot more like “real” birding that walking out of a subway exit and immediately spotting a state first bird.  However, I reject such impulses as masochistic at best and elitist at worst, goddammit.  Vagrants should sit where I can find them!

Species List:

House Sparrow Passer domesticus
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
American Robin Turdus migratorius
Rock Pigeon Columba livia

Now that’s a hell of a name for a bird.  Seriously.  Smew.  Work it around in your mouth a little; taste it.  Say it five times in a row.  Even extremely prosiac words like “gasket” get a bit surreal when you do that; “Smew” becomes music.  It becomes the cry of a bird flying out of sight in the clouds over the water, which is the ultimate music.

Conveniently for my romantic imaginings, the Smew is a bird of the water.  In fact, it is a sort of duck, generally held to be the not-at-all-missing link between the mergansers and the goldeneyes*.   Like the merganser, the Smew has a bill with serrations to make up for the teeth that birds lost long ago.

Adult male Smews in their glory are stark black and white; the females and young ones have a gray-and-rust color scheme a bit reminiscent of an eclipse Ruddy Duck.

I’ve never seen a Smew.  Any Smew seen on the east coast of the United States is regarded with great suspicion on the grounds of maybe being an escapee from captivity.

John James Audubon made the Smew the occasion of both a painting and a smack-down:

The Smew is a bird of extremely rare occurrence in the United States, insomuch that it must be considered merely as a transient or accidental visiter. Indeed I have felt strong misgivings on reading WILSON’S article on this species, and cannot but think that he is mistaken when he states that it “is much more common on the coast of New England than farther south;” and again “in the ponds of New England, and some of the lakes in the State of New York, where the Smew is frequently observed–.” Now, although I have made diligent inquiry, not only in New England, but in every part of our country where I thought it likely that the Smew might occur, I have not met with any person well acquainted with birds of this family, who has seen it. WILSON, in short, was in all probability misinformed, and it is my opinion that his figure was made from a stuffed European specimen which was then in Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia, and that he had taken the Buffel-headed Duck, seen at a distance, for this species, as I am aware has been the case with other individuals.”

Of course Audubon got his Smew in New Orleans, which also seems weird.

*James Bond was named after a bird guide author, you know.

Waaaaaay last Sunday ago, I posted a picture of one of these bad boys:

Redbird train car

Redbird, by the Inimitable Todd

Redbird is the name given to NYC MTA subway cars built between 1959 and 1961 and painted a distinctive bright red to discourage graffiti.   They reached the end of their useful lives as subway cars between 2001 and 2003.

What do you do with almost 1500 retired subway cars?

Well , as I mentioned before, some became workhorses, and some went to museums.  But 1,208 of them were sunk in the ocean to serve as artificial reefs.

The Redbirds are sunk off of Delaware, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and New Jersey. Of particular interest to birders, 50 cars were sunk off of Cape May in 2003 as an addition to an existing artificial reef composed of retired Army tanks and construction scrap.  The reefs provide habitat to mussels, barnacles, and vegetation that in turn support fish like tuna and sea bass.

The Redbird sinkings provoked controversy because the cars contained asbestos, but the program eventually gained the support of Clean Ocean Action, one of its foremost opponents, when the asbestos was proved to be safely contained by its epoxy matrix.  Other potentially harmful subtances like oily undercarriages were removed before the cars were sunk.

The visuals of sunken subway cars are slightly surreal, especially to habitual New York subway commuters.  Pictures of fish and anemones where you’re used to seeing the anxious marketing chick and the un-deoderanted guy with the Post can really blow your mind!

Photos from the New Jersey Scuba Diver Site (highly partisan!)

An article from National Geographic (typical NatGeo; totally gee-whiz*.)

*Not that there’s anything wrong with gee-whiz.  In fact, gee-whiz is my reaction to a lot of things, including glow in the dark rabbits.

I assume that most of my readers don’t have any trouble with this, but just in case:

How to Tell the Birds from the Flowers: A Manual of Flornithology for Beginners by Robert Williams Wood

The Parrot and the Carrot we may easily confound
They’re very much alike in looks and similar in sound
We recognize the Parrot by his clear articulation
For Carrots are unable to engage in conversation.

Fair warning – no pictures today, as the Inimitable Todd is training to run a marathon, and was busy running in circles while I was bird-finding.

I started today’s birding with what I have come to think of as the traditional Prospect Park Hawk Taunt. As we rode along the lake looking for a likely place to lock up our bikes, a big hawk swooped through and scattered the Rock Pigeons and assorted gulls who were assembled for bread handouts along the shore. By the time we pulled over and regrouped, zie was gone. Still, this marks over three months that I’ve seen a raptor of one sort or another in that vicinity, like clockwork, every time I’ve been to the park. Obviously, the trees and sky along the south end of the lake and anywhere that ducks are being fed are worthy of birder attention.

And while you’re down there, take a close look at the American Coots. When I was down that way with Mike Bergin and Corey Finger, we encountered a one-legged Coot. Today, I saw another bird limping, one foot obviously inflamed, especially the rear toe. Coincidence – or incipient epidemic? Probably the former, but I’m awfully fond of the little devil chickens and if something is nipping at their toes I’d like to suss it out.

The Northern Pintail duck persists among the Mallards, throwing herself into the scrum for tossed carby bits – it seems like a bit of a come-down for such an elegant bird, but obviously it’s working for her.

Other highlights of the day included Swamp Sparrows and a Song Sparrow trying desperately to get a piece of the bread-crumb action — they must be very hard up at this point in the winter — a single Ring-necked Duck and two Pied-billed Grebes on the lake, and no less than three Red-tailed Hawks. Among those last, I was particularly grabbed by one that I found by following the calls of a very agitated squirrel. The squirrel sat on one side of a tree-trunk, frozen stiff, and on the other side the immature Red-tail perched in apparent unconcern. Staying very still, out of sight of the hawk? Good squirrel strategy. But why, in the name of Darwin, was the squirrel emitting low but very audible cries every few seconds? Are the park squirrels all so closely related that warning the others of the hawk’s presence, even at the risk of reminding hir that hey, there’s a squirrel in this tree, is a net benefit? Or do we just have a dumb squirrel on our hands here? On the third hand, Red-tailed Hawks are Buteos, and maneuvering close to trees is not their forte. Would the squirrel be doing the same thing if it were a Cooper’s Hawk on the other side of the trunk?

Last but hardly least, I was rewarded handsomely for my support of the Red-breasted Nuthatch when one landed on a bole a few feet from me. Still a treat to see!

Species List:

House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
American Crow Corvus brachyrhynchos
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
American Coot Fulica atra
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Northern Pintail Anas acuta
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
Swamp Sparrow Melospiza georgiana
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
American Goldfinch Carduelis tristic
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris
Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis
Tufted Titmous Baeolophus bicolor
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus
Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Red-breasted Nuthatch Sitta canadensis
Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis

A candy-red House Finch was singing lustily in the tree outside my office building this morning.

He doesn’t know what a martyr OR a greeting card is. And he wouldn’t care if you told him.

He’s singing in New Jersey because, in 1940, a pet store (or stores) in Long Island (or Manhattan, or both,) facing charges for illegally selling wild-caught “Hollywood Finches”, turned them out to fend for themselves. Which they did. With gusto.

I can well imagine a swain of 1938, wanting to impress his lady friend, looking in the windows of stores. He’s not yet convinced by DeBeers that a shiny chunk of carbon is forever and probably not about to spend six month’s salary on anything, with the immediate past full of bread lines and the immediate future full of the rumblings of war. But a pretty little bird, with a sweet and enthusiastic song, to brighten up the corner of her apartment? Sure, he can go that. And it’s got a touch of glamor, that Hollywood moniker. So I can see why there would be enough of the males in stores to make up a pretty good flock a couple of years later when the law declared selling wild-caught native birds verboten and the shop owners gave them the boot.

But what about the female finches? After all, you can sing all day, but with no female finches you’ve got no baby finches and no invasion. Female House Finches are about as plain as it’s possible to imagine (the males will fade if they don’t get enough beta carotene, but our window-shopper need not know that; let the buyer beware!) and they don’t sing. Perhaps they were the cheap option, the supermarket bouquet of the day? Or perhaps there were hopes of captive breeding. Either way, obviously there were enough females, and the rest is history. (You often have to find women in history this way, by teasing out implications, by really thinking.)

A. V. Christie wrote a poem about this.

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