October 2008


I’ve been having a busy, non-birdy week (woe!)

Now, I understand that blog readers are fickle heartbreakers. I know that if you can’t get what you need here, you’ll find it somewhere else.

So let me commend to you this post from Scott Whittle at Year of the Bird, who had his own encounter with a remarkable bird recently…

So where do people get their weird ideas? The notion that some secret cabal of environmentalists might be turning Owls loose in Long Island to stymie an indoor ski mountain, or punting Murrelets over the mountains in the Pacific Northwest to cause woe to foresters, or even airdropping pumas into Michigan to frustrate deer hunters… how do you walk around thinking this? Are our hinterlands populated by papier-mache people built from pages of The Paranoid Style in American Politics? Is it mass hypnosis?

Nah. Just tinfoil hattery, fear-mongering, and a little good old fashioned lying. As usual.

Travel with me to the hazy days of the early aughts. In December 2001, the Washington Times breaks a wild story – biologists, they claim, have planted fur from captive lynx in the forests of Washington State in a bid to get those forests closed to human use. It was scientific fraud of the worst order; deplorable, dispiriting, and damning….

Or it would have been, if it had actually, you know, happened. In fact, while the captive lynx samples were a violation of study protocol, they were never part of any claim about lynx habitat or land use; they were introduced (in a thoroughly documented manner) into the testing procedure as a gotcha trap for a DNA lab that was returning results that the biologists found shady. Undesirably ad hoc methodology, to be sure, but nothing like an attempt to defraud the American public. And in fact, even had the biologists in question produced a whole hairball of fake lynx in the disputed areas, it still wouldn’t have meant closing the area to humans without a whole lot more study, if at all.

Still, this story of hippy tree-huggers crossbred with jack-booted government thugs was so entrancing to the Times that they ultimately ran ten articles on the subject. Their coverage sparked interest at the Associated Press, and while the truth was still getting its boots on indignant editorials appeared from coast to coast condemning the biofrauds who were unfairly putting a finger on the scales to the benefit of those already oh-so-privileged endangered species. A good account of the whole fiasco can be found here.

Eventually, refutations began to circulate and the matter faded from view. I myself had never heard of it until I spotted an uncritical mention in the otherwise interesting Beast of Never, Cat of God: The Search for the Eastern Puma – a book that puts the hunt for the extinct/”extinct” Eastern mountain lion in Michigan into a rich context of personality clashes, political maneuvering, and wildlife management decision-making that is beholden to the interests of “sportsmen” to the exclusion of other aims.

But even if the specifics are gone, it’s easy to see why the urban (rural?) legend lives on. It aligns the triggers of the timber industry, kneejerk Libertarians, and the religious-right fringe that believes their enemies to be literal Gaia-worshipers. It also has that heady “can’t trust the scientists” smell that the Republicans are breathing out yet again this election cycle.

The species will change. The rumors will evolve. But I don’t think that we should expect the meme of the Audubon Mafia to go away any time soon.

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Ten Yellow-crested Abbott’s Cockatoos (Cacatua sulphurea abbotti) – four pairs of adults and two juveniles – have been discovered on the Masalembu archipelago off Java in Indonesia. This subspecies was believed to be extinct in the wild, with the last previous sighting occurring in 1999.

Once in a while, it’s actually worth reading Cryptomundo.

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In the comments to a recent post, I mentioned to John of A DC Birding Blog that there seem to be a lot of Clay-colored Sparrows kicking around Long Island this fall (literally, given their foraging habits) but that I had no way to say for sure. The bulk of all Clay-colored Sparrows live, love, and migrate in the center of the continent, and though a few turn up in New York every fall, they’re sought-after anomalies. Since they draw attention, they’re subject to confirmation bias; you remember hearing about them and connect dots in your brain that may not require a line. Are there more Clay-colored Sparrows this year, or am I just paying more attention to them?

And then I thought, hey… isn’t that what the good people of Cornell gave us eBird* for?

And eBird seems to suggest that my inklings are correct. Going back to 2005 (the year I moved to the city), 2008 shows the highest spikes in Clay-colored Sparrow frequency, abundance, and total count over September and October in Kings, Queens, New York, and Nassau counties. This year, for instance, there were 5 Clay-colored Sparrows reported the first week of October, compared to none in 2007 and only one in 2006

It’s hard to say what this means, if anything. 5 and 1 are not numbers of which statistical significance are made, when you’re talking about Clay-Colored Sparrows and not, say, Whooping Cranes or California Condors. And not every bird is sighted, of course, and not all sightings are reported to eBird. Could be that there are more confused young birds this year , more errant winds, or both, or something else. Or it could be just a fluke.

I’m not complaining about the fluke, though! And I’m glad that something like eBird exists now to indulge my curiosity like this.

*yes, I’m using Birdstack. Because it has better mapping, what with using Googlemaps. But you can export your sightings from Birdstack and donate them to science through eBird.
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Scientists in Great Britain have discovered several new species of earthworms living at abandoned mine sites. What makes them special? They’ve adapted to live in soils that contain high concentrations of arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals. The worms are able to bind the metals in proteins to protect their wormy insides from the worst toxic effects; thus they are able to survive in places that would kill normal worms.

A few thoughts come to mind:

1. Yes, so basically the worms got superpowers, just like in Spiderman, only with many generations of worm sex and worm death instead of a single spider.

2. Creationists: you’ve been pwned. I’ll be here taking apologies if you don’t want to go to England and deliver flowers, fruit baskets and kettlecorn to Richard Dawkins in person.

3. The article speculates on the possibility of moving the worms to other heavy-metal-contaminated sites and letting them digest the crud out of the world one tailing dump at a time. The protein-bound metals are excreted in a form that’s easily absorbed by plants; the plants, in theory, could then be harvested and, I guess, sequestered somehow. But how would the worms themselves be contained? It strikes me that in the event that a worm gets a good gutfull of arsenic or whatever and then goes for a nice long crawl, it could excrete the contaminants outside the edges of the original contaminated zone and spread the problem around. Or, should they be eaten by birds, shrews, etc…. well, proteins digest, and then you’ve got moved the heavy metals up the food chain where they could bioaccumulate. For that matter, what is eating them now and how are those species being affected? Or is hiding down in old mines keeping them isolated? Google is not giving up the goods. More study is required.

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After my dramatic encounter with the Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow, I figured that the rest of my weekend would be… anticlimactic. Not boring, because if birding is boring ur doin it rong, but possibly not possessing the same level of excitement as seeing and hearing dozens of Brant flying low over your head or holding a life bird in your hands.

But the day was beautiful, the birds still migrating, and the bikes were fixed courtesy of the Inimitable Todd and the fine folks at Dixon’s bike shop, so get out and ride we must. We took the A-train to its farthest stop in the Rockaways, got a delicious bagel at a quaint deli, and biked out to the ends of the earth… that is, to Breezy Point.

My first “life list” item was not a bird. It was something much, much less pleasant. Yes, I have finally seen McCain/Palin lawn signs in the wild… and in the great city of New York. Oh the humanity.

Out at Breezy Point proper, things were better. The dune-breeding specialties that I know and love Breezy Point for – the Terns and Skimmers, the Oystercatchers, and most especially the adorable, endangered Piping Plovers – were of course long gone, but migrants were abundant. As I walked down the narrow, sandy route used by truck-driving fishermen and picnickers, a Sparrow popped out of the shrubbery and started picking around on the embankment. It stayed happily in full view while I locked onto it and took in the gray collar, striped crown, and mustaches that told me I had my life Clay-Colored Sparrow. And I didn’t even have to give it a concussion to get a good look! Go me.

Further down the trail, Yellow-rumped Warblers continued to dominate the news cycle, but I also picked up a single Field Sparrow and my first-of-season Juncos. A couple of Northern Flickers were also in circulation, along with a few Mockingbirds and a single, lonely Catbird. And as I reached the end of the trail, I looked back and spotted a single female Northern Harrier, my first of the year, coursing over the low vegetation in the approved Harrier manner.

Back where the bikes were parked, I picked up a Monk Parakeet and got to watch a couple of guys trying to dig their SUV out of the sand before we headed for Fort Tilden. The beach was fairly human-covered, given the season, but a few birds were in evidence besides the inevitable smug Great Black-backed Gulls; several dozen Sanderling wibbling about in the waves and, in a moment of high drama, two Merlin who came dog-fighting down the sky, screaming at each other.

All in all, a glorious day. There was only one small ray of doubt, one nagging grain of discontent; in choosing to go out to the Rockaways, I’d forsaken the chance to chase the Connecticut Warbler that had been showing off for over a week in Central Park. I tried for the bird before work on Thursday morning, and not seeing it, presumed that it had moved on, only to have it pop back up on the mailing lists and taunt me as I went about other business. So traveling away from rather than towards the heart of the city had been a calculated risk; one that had paid off, but not without some opportunity cost. For surely, a bird that needed to be on the banks of the Amazon before the weather turned nippy couldn’t be expected to just keep hanging around…

Nevertheless, I popped my binoculars into my work bag on Monday, just in case.

And so, when someone helpfully reported the Connecticut as still there, I was able to run up to the park on my lunch hour.

Connecticut Warblers are funny birds; ground-feeders, they are typically shy and skulking, but every so often one turns up in Central Park and starts doing the avian equivalent of dancing on the bar at Coyote Ugly, just making a gigantic spectacle of itself and practically begging for attention. Well, insofar as a 15-cm long bird that’s sort of greenish-brownish-yellow can make a gigantic spectacle. Mostly this one was just pecking around in the grass, actually, and occasionally strolling out onto the path and making all the photographers very, very happy.

I returned to work feeling quite satisfied with myself. Three days. Three birding trips. Three life birds, and a great deal of other lovely stuff besides. Not too shabby.

The Rockaway Bike Trip list.

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I had planned to bicycle down to Fort Tildon and Breezy Point with the Inimitable Todd today. Unfortunately, the Inimitable Todd’s bicycle had other ideas. So, needing to salvage the day, I jumped on the train to Jamaica Bay. On the way, I flipped through the field guide and tried to prep myself. I knew it was far too late in the day for Rails, and word on the street was that the high water level at the East Pond was depressing shorebird numbers, but maybe, I thought, I could finally pick up an Ammodramus sparrow.

From the train, as usual, I was able to spot a few Egrets and Gulls, and I picked up House Sparrow, Starling and Mallard on my walk to the refuge. But the first bird I saw in the refuge itself was a Sparrow.

As I came around the side of the Visitors’ Center, it flushed before I could get my binos on it, making for the trees. From the trail through the trees, a mom with two small children emerged. The bird banked sharply and ran smack into the window.

The kids were traumatized and exclaiming (not shrieking, fortunately.) The mom seemed confused. When I ran up, I found that the bird was not dead, but badly stunned, so I scooped it up and assured the family that if we took it inside to the park staff, they’d know what to do. Then I took a good look at the gasping creature in my hands.

Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Life bird.

“This is not what I wanted to see today,” the mom said.

The woman at the desk found a small box to let the bird rest in, and I turned it over, and went on my way feeling like a grade-A turd. I was especially dispirited to see that most of the windows on the Visitors’ Center had netting for just such an emergency… but not the small one on the side where my path and the bird’s had crossed.

The day improved from there, as it could hardly have gotten worse. New flocks of Brant came whistling and squeaking in by the minute, and there were good numbers of both Northern Shovelers and Ruddy Ducks – a few of the latter still showing their handsome summer plumage. A raft of Scaup stayed mostly too far out for me to accurately pick out Lessers from Greaters (though I did find one pair of Lessers consorting with the Canada Geese further in) and someone said there were Pintails but I never picked them out. Great and Snowy Egrets were still fairly numerous, and I spotted a single immature Yellow-crowned Night Heron, but the Tricolored and Little Blues seem to have taken a hike.

Also hiked were all Terns, the Tree Swallows, and the vast majority of the Brown Thrashers. These handsome Catbird cousins were ubiquitous last time I was at the refuge; today I saw one, and a sad, dull one at that. A few Mockingbirds were still around, though not the numbers that I’d had previously; Red-winged Blackbirds were still showing strongly, starting to flock up for their own inevitable departure. Oddly and probably not migration-related, I had no Cardinals at all.

The big story in the passerine world, though, was Yellow-rumped Warblers. Everywhere. In huge numbers. Flycatching in trees, flitting from shrub to shrub, skimming over the recently-moved grasses. Other warblers were present only as one-offs; one female Black-throated Blue, one Pine Warbler, one Common Yellowthroat, and one Bay-breasted that had retained enough of reddish wash on its flanks to be id-able, along with a couple of hopelessly confusing fall “baypolls”.

Shorebirds were a total washout. There were none to be seen on the West Pond, not even down the terrapin trail, and a small flock on the East Pond was separated from the trail outlet by so much water that only Jesus or Aquaman could have IDed them. I did spot a few American Oystercatchers on the way home, in singles and pairs along the spit of sand where the train leaves the island and to cross the channel.

By that time, I was feeling a bit more right with the world. But I can’t quite shake that moment when I looked down and saw the yellow-ocher face and gray cheeks of the bird that was almost weightless in my hand…

I’m trying something new here… view my trip list on Birdstack.

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Jones Beach is a place of contradiction. A barrier island just off Long Island, in the summer, it’s saturated with humanity at its sun-burnt, fake-coconut-smelling, sand-encrusted worst. But when the days get shorter and the world turns colder, it becomes a haven for wildlife; sandpipers and sparrows, diving ducks and falcons. Where the sea meets the land, it’s the last stop for terrestrial migrants bound eastward and the beginning of the world for birds of deep water, besides being a great place for those chronic edge-dwellers the shorebirds. It owes its existence to Robert Moses. Robert Moses is the reason I have never been there.

Let me drop a little history on you. Robert Moses, the subject of the highly-regarded biographical doorstop The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York and the gonzo time-travel novel The Sacrificial Circumcision of the Bronx, was one of the most influential urban planners of the 20th century. He had a deep and abiding love of roads and road-centric landscapes – big, skyline-altering expressways, bridges, and especially parkways.

Parkway wasn’t just a fancy word for highway with a grass shoulder to Moses, oh no. He saw them literally as parks for driving through – places where the newly-enautomobilulated middle class could enjoy wholesome recreation by getting out of the city and cruising around looking at greenery. Nowadays, in the throes of global warming, surrounded by air pollution and roadkill tragedies, this seems more than a bit stupid. But for Moses, formed in a world where cars were more toy than tool, it was a logical extension of taking the family coach-and-four out for a spin on a Sunday afternoon.

So, for all his venality, I give Moses credit for sincerely wanting his parkways to be beautiful. This meant preserving greenery (although with no understanding of edge effects and the impact of exhaust.) It meant taking landscape architecture principals at least semi-seriously. It meant setting aside places like Jones Beach for public use. It also, for Robert Moses, meant going to tremendous pains to ensure that the “public” using his marvelous works didn’t include the unsightly urban poor. So Moses starved, strangled, and blocked public transit wherever he could. He ran expressways through city neighborhoods without regard for either the homes demolished or pedestrian access to the surviving bits of community.

And, specifically, when the Long Island Railroad proposed running a service to Jones Beach, Moses fought them, and won.

So, today, more than a quarter-century after Moses’ death, if you want to go to Jones Beach, you must take a car. Or, if you are crazy and suicidal ambitious, you can try to bike, which the IT and I did, only to find out (after several hours of riding and very few birds, several of which, including a Glossy Ibis*, were dead along the roads) that the one and only bike path was closed for repairs just where it crossed the water. The only option for reaching Jones Beach, from that point, was the parkway, covered, as its creator intended, in speeding cars.

I wanted to see the Dunlin and the Clay-colored Sparrow and the American Golden Plover, all of which had been reported this week from the west end of Jones Beach, real bad. But not bad enough to die trying. We turned back**.

Oddly enough, Robert Moses and I have one thing in common. He never learned to drive, either.

*or for all I know it could have been a White-faced. Sort of hard to tell without the head.

**The IT, in a desperate attempt to salvage the day, tried to find a car rental place so we could partake of the parkway properly, but they were all closed.

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This one was inspired by Corey at 1000birds.com and his quick action under pressure.

They may not know it, but I suspect that a lot of non-birders have decent life lists. Take a non-birder living in suburban anytown, New York. Certainly they have Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow, and Starlings (though they may call them Blackbirds.) Most have Mallard and Canada Goose. If they feed birds or live with someone who does, they know Cardinal, Blue Jay, Chickadee and maybe Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and are at least generally aware of Woodpeckers.

Most non-birders also know of some “special” birds. They would recognize an adult Bald Eagle if they saw one, or a Brown or White Pelican. They may have a story about such a bird – like the Barred Owl that fell down the chimney, the Scarlet Tanager they saw in the park and identified online, or the Cooper’s Hawk that grabbed a Mourning Dove off their driveway.

But non-birders don’t know much about Rails. It isn’t surprising. Rails are birds of darkness and damp; they’re lucky they’re not a little bigger, or the Puritans would probably have decided that they were Satanic and needed to be exterminated. As it is, habitat loss has been hard on them; until recently, draining swamps was considered a work of virtue.

Even when in-the-know birders go looking for them, Rails are more often heard than seen and more often glimpsed than savored. Many birder-Rail encounters have a touch of the serendipitous, by which I mean they involve instances when the Rail fucked up. Look at Corey’s recent Virginia Rail in Manhattan, or my own one and only encounter with the same species, when an immature bird landed on a rain-shined street in Bed-Stuy, or the recent Sora that had to be extracted from the ice-skating rink at Prospect Park, or in the worst-case scenario, this Sora. And these are the rails that are described as “fairly widespread” and “common” in Kenn Kaufman’s Lives of North American Birds; consider the difficulty of getting your eyes on the Black Rail, no bigger than a sparrow and “extremely secretive”; or the Yellow Rail, “almost never seen in normal conditions”.

It’s one thing when a bird’s elusive nature makes for an annoying gap in the life list; but the Rails are not only difficult to tick, but difficult to monitor and conserve. People rarely get worked up over the local extirpation of a bird that they have no idea was there to begin with. Species status accounts are filled with generalities; more study of these birds is needed almost everywhere.

Tell a non-birder about a Rail; about their wild cries and cunning camouflages, their precocious young, the way that they migrate long distances despite looking like they have the aerodynamics and stamina of a barnyard hen. Look for a Rail, and when you find it, look out for it.

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My short story “A New Heaven and a New Earth” has been posted over at Postcards From….

It has birds in.

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